Any film that covers thirty years in the life of its subject will inevitably contain an generous amount of incident, especially if that person is as industrious and well-travelled as Jacques Cousteau. Despite Jérôme Salle’s biopic The Odyssey providing a breathless and thorough account of the oceanographer’s technical innovations, canny harnessing of global celebrity and difficult familial relationships, however, the most significant event it depicts is a simple change in perspective.
“No no no no no, you did not understand, no”, Cousteau (Lambert Wilson) says to a row of American TV executives. “I am not making animal documentaries. I am going to tell the story of men who are going to explore a new world.” The disdain in his voice might seem surprising given his reputation as a director of nature films – his feature debut The Silent World (1956) was the first documentary to win the Palme d’or, and he made over 120 documentaries for television – but Salle returns often to the idea that Cousteau is more enamoured with the romance of exploration than with anything that actually lives in the deep. The line between adventurer and colonialist exploiter is shown to be perilously thin, as early boasts about “the sea’s fabulous resources, waiting for us” are supplanted by the sight of offshore oil rigs whose existence Cousteau is personally responsible for.
With his indifference to natural life and willingness to stage scenes, Cousteau’s approach had its roots in early ethnographic features like Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), which presented recreations of the Inuit tribe’s earlier way of life as contemporary fact. Such laissez faire attitudes have been superseded by nature documentaries that take pains to use hidden cameras and non-invasive techniques, as well as filmed polemics like An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and this year’s follow-up An Inconvenient Sequel that explicitly aim to warn against the destruction of the environment. Instead of the emphasis being comradely adventure and the journey of man – “it’s not stories about fish that interest people, it’s stories about people”, Cousteau argues – this is now seen a fundamentally selfish dereliction of responsibility.
In The Odyssey, it takes Cousteau a few decades to come to this conclusion himself. Interestingly, Salle suggests that his ecological blindness comes from the same essential place as his philandering and his hubris: a fame-assisted self-absorption that corrodes almost every part of him. Salvation and insight must come from the younger generation, represented by his brooding son Philippe (Pierre Niney), whose concern about the crew’s oblivious actions mirrors his growing disillusionment in the father he once worshiped.
Cousteau’s subsequent evangelical conversion to environmentalism both reflected and led the shift in how the world saw the planet and its finite resources. While it’s easy for a modern audience to judge the man harshly on several fronts (without even getting into his secret second family), scuba diving technology was so new that he literally invented it. Ultimately Cousteau came to symbolise the possibility of change: where once he was happy to capture wild sea lions if it would make a good scene in a movie, by the end of The Odyssey he is telling his men to wipe their boots as they set foot onto Antarctica, lest they spread any germs.
Originally published in Curzon Magazine Issue 63
The prolific French filmmaker François Ozon has tackled a multitude of genres over the course of his 20-year career. With Frantz, he travels to the past for an alluring and enigmatic post-First World War mystery.
A version of the story has been both a play and a film. How did you come to it?
A friend of mine told me about this play L’homme que j’ai tué by Maurice Rostand, the son of Edmond Rostand, who wrote Cyrano de Bergerac. I loved the pitch, the idea of this young French soldier who goes to Germany to put some roses on the grave of a German soldier. It was very strong. However, after beginning to adapt the play I realised that Ernst Lubitsch had already done an adaptation (1932’s Broken Lullaby). I was very disappointed and depressed, because how can I shoot a story after Lubitsch? I then watched the film, really enjoyed it, but saw that his adaptation was also from the point of view of the Frenchman, and my idea was to tell it from the perspective of the war’s loser, the German girl Anna. I felt that the film would be like an answer to Lubitsch. He was Austrian and made a film about the French character, and as a Frenchman I would make a film about the German character.
What does think the shift in perspective bring to the film?
There’s a suspense because of it. In the play and the Lubitsch film you know from the start what happened, with a scene where a character goes and tells a secret to a priest. I knew it would be more interesting from Anna’s point of view, so the audience, like her, wouldn’t know exactly what is coming next. For me, it’s Hitchcock’s thoughts about cinema. I want to play with the audience. They have some expectations, some desire, and you play with that. I like when the audience can project some ideas on my images and sometimes it’s not exactly the right story, but the interactions between the audience and the story is compelling.
The idea of shifting identities runs through much of your work, but what’s striking about it in this film is that you encompass national identity too: there’s the suggestion that both the French and Germans have gone through the same thing and there isn’t truly a winner. Was that a part of the appeal for you?
It wasn’t the first idea I had, but I wanted to develop it in the film because I had the feeling that there were a lot of resonances with today, with nationalism and the return to borders, with Brexit. I didn’t know Brexit would happen but the film is about that too. I had the feeling all this context was useful for us today, to take some lessons from the past because we know what happened after the story, that they were heading for a second world war. I wanted to build the story like a mirror construction between the two countries, the two languages, so there are lots of scenes that happen in both France and German. It was a way to show that the people suffering are they same from each side of the border.
Were you directly thinking about the current rise of European nationalism, or did it just arise naturally from the historical context?
It comes from the story. For me, my first desire was to make a film about lies and secrets and to show that sometimes in very difficult periods they can help you to survive, to accept the difficulty of life and to mourn situations. I don’t have a moral position about lies but it was interesting for me to show that beyond the lie there is a desire for fiction, like our desire for movies. It was a way to speak about cinema. We need art and fiction to survive. I wasn’t particularly interested in the time period but working on it, doing some research, I became fascinated. I was curious to learn what happened in Germany, especially after the first war with the humiliation of defeat, the fact that they lost the war and there was a desire for revenge. It’s the roots of the Nazis so it was very interesting for me as a French person to learn about the other side, especially in comparison with the Lubitsch movie which was made in the 30s. If you see his film there’s a happy ending, which is ironic for us today because Lubitsch doesn’t know that another war is around the corner, so he believes in the French-German relationship. Ultimately France and Germany couldn’t come together properly until after the war.
The film is mostly shot in black and white. What were trying to evoke?
I was supposed to shoot in colour, but two weeks before the shooting I decided to put everything in black and white. I had the feeling that I could be more realistic with the period, because all our memories, all the documents we’ve got of this period are in black and white, and we have the feeling in our unconscious that during the war colour didn’t exist. I wanted to be very realistic about this small German town: it’s still a period of mourning, as so many people died during the war.
You do however use colour at certain points in the film; even the opening shot is simultaneously in black and white and in colour, as if suggesting that life is slowly returning to the world. What were your intentions behind that?
I didn’t want to make something rational. It was a problem for my producers, who were afraid of the idea. I wanted to have more emotional feeling about colour. Sometimes I use it for a flashback, sometimes it’s for reality in the present, sometimes it’s in happy moments, but often it’s in strong moments, where people are living. It’s like life suddenly starts again, and blood irrigates the veins of the characters.
Originally published in Curzon Magazine Issue 62.
Sometimes if you want something to exist you have to make it yourself. In the midst of a busy, burgeoning theatrical career, playwright Alice Birch put this saying into practice by writing her first screenplay, Lady Macbeth. Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, with the story transplanted from Russia to 19th century Northumberland, it is a disturbing study of Katherine (Florence Pugh), a teenager sold into marriage to a cold, cruel and impotent middle-aged industrialist. After Katherine throws herself fervently into an affair, her actions turn murderous as the household is engulfed by violent events. Although a viewer can sympathise with Katherine’s circumstances, she’s capable of abhorrent behaviour and is frequently callous to those who are similarly disadvantaged. The appeal of such a difficult figure, Alice explains, was simple: “I hadn’t seen a woman like that on the screen before.”
While representation is hugely important, it is not enough to have more female protagonists if they are just saintly props. Through all of her work, Alice revels in writing complicated women. “I think that’s the most interesting part of my job”, she says, “finding people who are difficult to love and making myself fall in love with them, and then trying to recreate that experience for an audience.” This is evident with Katherine, a compelling, contradictory woman who resists simplistic interpretations. “She’s ruthless and manipulative but she’s also incredibly young and has been through appalling things, living in a claustrophobic, patriarchal environment. It’s tough for anyone to break out of that”. Despite this nuanced comprehension of the character, Alice doesn’t come to the easy conclusion that Katherine becomes an oppressor as a result of being a victim: “You can absolutely understand the things she does, but that gets harder as you progress through the film. I talked a lot with the director Will Oldroyd about how violence breeds violence, yet a different woman wouldn’t behave in the same way.”
It’s here that Alice departs from her source material. One of the benefits of adapting a 151-year-old book is that you have a bit of room to manoeuvre: the author – fingers crossed – is long dead, and the world portrayed is sufficiently different from our own that few will mind if liberties are taken. Indeed, there’s an implicit understanding that the screenwriter will use the shift in context as a way of commenting both upon the book itself and the times we inhabit. While Alice takes advantage of this latitude, changing the novel’s final act entirely, she believes the key difference is the depiction of Katherine. “Although the book is about poverty and a certain class system in Russia that didn’t feel far from what we were concerned with, I’d say I was more interested in gender than Leskov was”, she says. “Katherine’s a remarkable character in the original text, but I don’t know that he’s writing her with much empathy. She’s straightforwardly nasty and he’s pretty cold about her from the off. That felt like the biggest challenge.”
With an increased emphasis on the lived experience of its characters, Lady Macbeth nods towards the complicated history of fictional women, whose desire for some manner of freedom expresses itself as a violent or sexual challenge to the established order. “It’s a character trait we’re familiar with in literature of that period”, she reflects, “these kinds of wants and needs and passions lie dormant for years and then are suddenly triggered, opened wide.” While she’s a fan of period dramas, she admits that she often finds such elements absent in more sanitised productions. “Some period films feel quite distant to me. You put a lot of crinoline on women and suddenly they’re talking in a way I don’t recognise. We consciously tried to avoid that as much as possible, to create characters who still felt close to us now. I hate all of that politeness. It doesn’t feel realistic. Those domestic structures were a different kind of violence.”
The story of a woman responding brutally to societal restrictions had stayed with Alice since she picked the book up at university, but she was also drawn to the challenges of a different medium. “I’m very happy writing plays – I could write them forever – but I was excited by the idea of testing new muscles”, she says. Happily, she describes the experience as being a uniformly positive one, but is frank about the difficulties of being a writer: “There’s no way to say this without sounding like a massive idiot, but it’s all quite painful. I don’t have an easy relationship with writing. I don’t enjoy it.” She maintains, however, that this fraught process is crucial to creating meaningful work. “I don’t trust it when it comes out quickly. Maybe this is just what I tell myself to justify all the angst, but I believe that when you look at someone’s work, whether that’s a play or or a piece of art, anything, you can feel what it has cost its maker in some way.”
Without even factoring in the complications that arise from concurrently raising a two-year-old son (“It’s really important to talk about because it’s so much harder than people think it is”), it is refreshing to hear Alice – one of the most talented young playwrights working today – talk openly about the fundamental struggle of her job. Like a character in her work, a creative profession is not straightforward. It can be both a labour and a joy, and this is okay. Alice, undaunted, is inspired by the prospect of new tests. “I feel a bit like I want to do everything. I’m up for all of it.”
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Six. Portrait by Lauren Maccabee.
Among other creative pursuits, Mike Mills has worked successfully as an artist, music video director, film-maker and album cover designer, but the key raw materials have always been essentially the same: his own life. With conscious effort Mike’s work is sculpted out of the clay of his memories: his second feature, Beginners, dealt with the experience of his father coming out at the age of 75, while his latest, 20th Century Women, is a tribute to his mother, as played by Annette Bening in a career-best performance. It doesn’t take long in Mike’s company to realise that the film – soulful, searching and tender – shares its best qualities with its director.
20th Century Women is a portrait of three women in 1979, but it’s also about the roles they play in the development of a teenage boy. Why that framing story?
That was my real life. Dorothea is based on my mother, Abbie is based on my sister, and Julie is an amalgamation of first girlfriends. I was raised by a very strong, out-of-time mom. It was weird to have a Depression-era parent in the 1970s in America. She didn’t look or act like anyone else, and she was a proto-feminist in her own way – she wanted to be a pilot in World War II. Amelia Earhart/Humphrey Bogart was my mother, and then my sister was this punk and artist, trying to figure out her life, and I was the kind of kid who had girls who were friends, not lovers, and they would tell me about their troubles. I was very much brought up in a matriarchy. My dad was around but I never talked to him about anything, he wasn’t present. I do hope the film has a feminism in it but obviously it’s the perspective of a heterosexual, cis-gendered male. It’s from the outside. For example, I was lost in how to speak Julie’s voice, so I interviewed women who were that age at that time. Julie’s first period is one of my friend’s first period and her first sexual experience is another friend’s. I tried to have real women’s voices interject into my writing.
What you’re describing is an adaptation of memory. So there’s who your mother actually was, and then your perception of her, and then your memory of that perception years later, and then there’s a screenplay based on that memory, and then an actress performs the character you’ve written, bringing her own thoughts and experiences. How much of Dorothea remains your mother?
It’s a thing I’m still figuring out. That sounds like a cute answer but it’s true. There are so many details in the film that are absolutely real: my mother was a draftsperson at the Container Corporation of America, the wood rabbit you see from Watership Down is the wood rabbit she carved, Annette Bening is wearing my mom’s actual jewellery, she’s laying on my mom’s actual bedspread, on the walls are the actual paintings I grew up with. The film’s very enchanted with my real childhood, but any portrait of a person is a construct, your version of them, and people are way too paradoxical and non-fixed to ever be captured accurately in a film. You can salvage parts, little views of them, but people aren’t films. Even if I’d made a documentary with her there in the room, my mom was 78 years and films are 110 minutes. It’s impossible to get right, but there’s something bolstering and worthwhile about making your best attempt at this thing that’s inevitably going to fail. It’s concreteizing your effort to understand a person. That was the essence of the project.
Did you struggle to understand your parents when they were alive? They’re clearly both fascinating people, but in both this film and Beginners you depict a wall between you.
That’s probably what made me do both movies. I feel that wall very much. It’s my main complaint: I didn’t get to know either of them as much as I wanted to. I don’t know if you know any people born in the 1920s, but they’re a different species. They don’t talk about their interior lives. I grew up in Santa Barbara in the 1970s, which was a very therapised, talking-about-everything atmosphere. I just wanted more. With this movie I struggled a lot because I’m interwoven with my mom. I love her but I don’t know her. Everything clicked for me only when I realised, oh, that is the film. I could put in that yearning to understand, those glimpses of understanding. Moments of grace, of connection, but ultimately, as I say in the movie, maybe that was as close as it ever got. I was always trying to have a 1970s-tinged conversation about our feelings and what I perceived to be her depression, although I wouldn’t have used that word back then. Her loneliness or whatever it was. She would really bristle at that. She didn’t want to be analysed in that way.
If your mother was resistant to analysis, how would she feel now you’ve made a film about her?
She’s pissed! I was definitely conflicted over that. My dad was a grand creature, especially when he came out. He was a super ambassadorial showboat and would have loved to have a film made about him. He would have loved a film made about an older gay man, too – he really felt alone in that, and non-represented. So that was easy; my mom was a much trickier beast. I tried to do things with her while she was alive and she always resisted. When she got angry it’d scare me and I’d stop. Even though she’s just a ghost now in my head, at times I could sense her anger. It confused me about my intentions, but I finally reached a conclusion: obviously this is filled with so much love for her. It’s an attempt to understand her. I felt, well, come on mom, it’s obvious that I’m loving you here. Deal with it. Also, I’m sorry, but you’ve been dead for a long time. She died in 1999 and I was 33. I was 46 when I started working on the film. I get to do this.
Having made two films about your relationship with your parents, do you feel that in some sense you’ve laid that part of your life to rest?
Is it done? It’d be really weird to make other movies about my parents, but one could. Wes Anderson is just making movies about a boy’s strange relationship with his father over and over again. Supposedly that’s what everyone does. I do like working from memory and things you’ve observed, real events which are remembered events. They’re very untidy for what dramaturgy wants, and for that reason I love them. When people connect to this movie they’re connecting in a different way because it smells real. I like the process, so maybe I can do it with other people. I don’t know if American cinema needs more movies about white people though. Here’s the other contradictory answer: I could make either movie again and show another side of my parents. I don’t want to, but I could. It would be a trip to see how different I could make it and have it still be true. I attended art school and that’s often how artists work their careers. One theme is good for 50 years.
Historical context always affects your characters – even this film’s title suggests that a 20th century woman is going to be different from one raised this century. How particular do you feel these women are to that period?
It’s funny because I’ve heard Elle Fanning say that she didn’t think of Julie as a woman from the past. She was reminded of her own friends, so maybe some things don’t change. I’m really interested by people in time, how we are shaped by the moment we are in and how cultural context makes certain narratives of ourselves. Being born in 1966, the 20th century always meant the latest, the greatest, so I called it 20th Century Women because I found it bittersweet and poignant that the 20th century is now the past. The name had a funerary, elegiac quality which surprised me. I think the fact of one’s ageing, one’s future and society’s future always surprises.
Is the idyllic portrayal of 1970s California nostalgia for your own youth or do you feel there was something different about that era?
Well it’s true to that time and place. Santa Barbara is incredibly sun-dappled. It’s not like I honeyed it up, the actual place is honeyed. I find predigital life honeyed also. It was a nicer time, I have to say. I’ve become a luddite. I didn’t try to make that statement, but my characters are all trying to love and understand each other, and there’s something barbiturate-like about that. It makes warm feelings. It’s like some scotch. I suffer from chronic mild depression and if I made a Michael Haneke film I’d just shoot myself. I need to make movies that remind me of positivity. Hopefully I do it without becoming kitsch or sentimental.
There’s something fundamentally romantic about your depiction of human connection. Why do you think that is?
As a sort of lonely, slightly depressed person, film-making gives me this opportunity to practice another side of myself where I reach out with the excuse of a camera and the job. I am very hungry for love and connection and that weirdly gets imbued in everything I make. Sometimes I find it too gentle, but that’s just my personality. I have a four-year-old boy now and he’s that way too. I realised I was just like him. When I see those qualities in him I think they’re really nice, so maybe I’m being hard on myself. I try to show heartbreak, and things that don’t work, but it’s in an overall context that’s humane. I’m distinctly lacking malevolence.
The film is filled with incidents but in terms of narrative not a huge amount happens. What do you prefer about that approach?
Plot just doesn’t do it for me. There’s the idea of people addressing external obstacles and it reveals their character, right? That’s scriptwriting formula, but I don’t believe it. It doesn’t respond to me. It doesn’t turn on my creativity to think in stories. My wife (fellow film-maker Miranda July) can think of a novel in one minute. Her scripts come to her as whole stories. I’m more interested in a meditation on identity, how we think about who we are and how that’s done in relation to others. That’s the stuff I like. In America I’m getting slightly dinged for it. People will say “great performances but not much story”. Well, yeah! I intended that. Isn’t that the high road?
After several years as a comic actress and writer, Alice Lowe was ready to take the next step and direct a film. The process, however, was a long one. “When you’re trying to get your first film funded, the difficult thing is you might be a complete idiot and they just don’t know,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t a complete idiot, but I needed a way to show it.”
Alice then became pregnant for the first time. This didn’t slow her down: six months into her pregnancy, she had an idea for a film about a woman taking murderous revenge on seemingly unrelated people. “It wasn’t my plan to make my directorial debut while pregnant,” she recalls, “but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up”. Two months later she had written and shot Prevenge, which is as dark, weird and funny as you’d hope for from the co-writer of Sightseers. “I had a very powerful deadline!” she says. “It was weird to do it all so quickly, but that helped me express the story clearly instead of overcomplicating everything. I didn’t have time to think too much.” We spoke to Alice about making the film.
Does Prevenge reflect how you were feeling when you were pregnant? There are references to pregnancy being a hostile takeover or a human sacrifice.
I had a lot of fears about pregnancy which I put into the script, but I think it exorcised them. People have asked I had a horrible pregnancy because it’s very nihilistic in some ways, but I had a brilliant pregnancy: I was making a film! I was having loads of fun. At the same time, when I became pregnant I was worried. Am I ever going to direct? Am I going to get any more work, or will I fall out of acting because people assume that you’ve died when you have a baby? All of that stuff went in. Also it was about being an outsider, because I felt that when you’re a freelancer and an artist of whatever type, you have your own rules. You don’t work by the same routines that others do, and so when you have a baby you’re locked into those routines. I don’t even have a boss and suddenly a midwife is telling me I can’t do this, I can’t do that. There’s the peculiarity of being with a bunch of women in a prenatal yoga class that you feel you have nothing in common with, but you’re supposed to feel affiliation with them because you’re all pregnant.
Society expects pregnant women to be a certain way, but your character Ruth spurns this notion at every turn. What was your thinking behind that choice?
I wanted to create the opposite of a stereotypical pregnant women. It’s not based on a psychological reality. It was metaphorical: this character who comes along and slashes through that stereotype. It’s about freedom, that this woman is allowed to be who she wants to be. There’s something cathartic and satisfying about it. There are things that are tragic about Ruth and she’s damaged as a person, but also, wow, she’s pregnant and she’s getting to do whatever she wants. It’s a bit of wish fulfilment. Ruth takes on different fake identities during the film, and the first one is quite a sweet, mumsy character. Afterwards I thought that what I’ve done is write myself a character that I would normally get cast as – once you’re over 35 you’re mostly offered these boring mum characters who wear floral dresses and are very caring – and then completely exploded her. I literally burn her clothes. I was thinking a lot about how women are portrayed in films, how other people control how you’re seen. Once you actually take control yourself, you think: that’s nothing to do with me, why would I be interested in it?
I can’t actually think of a feature film written, directed by and starring a pregnant woman before.
Someone said to me recently that I was “allowed” to make the film because I was pregnant. I thought that was very interesting, the idea that it gave me permission to say what I want. If I hadn’t been pregnant there might have been people asking why would I think a pregnant woman could feel this way. I think it’s really important for women to be able to tell whatever story they want, and this inevitable moral judgement shouldn’t be an element. I shouldn’t have only been able to write this because I was pregnant, I should be able to write what I want. When you’re a female director or writer, people lay everything at your door. You’re expected to speak for all women. “Are you trying to say all pregnant women are violent?” Nobody ever says anything like this to male writers. They understand it’s an individual character who is making individual choices.
Did you give much thought to how we should perceive her, about how sympathetic we should be towards her killings?
It was an experiment in reaction to being an actress: I’m always asked if a female character is “likeable” enough. Isn’t it interesting that we worry about that with female characters and judge them more? My theory is that if you put a likeable enough performer in a role – myself, haha! – you can sell anything to anyone. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, you’re going to go along with them. I deliberately wanted to make Ruth an unremitting, cold character that you maybe come to like and empathise with. I know it’s not the traditional revenge structure, where 15 minutes in you know exactly why the person is doing what they’re doing and it enables you to have empathy with them: you see that Liam Neeson’s daughter has been kidnapped so you can enjoy the horrific violence he perpetrates on everyone around him. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to say: so what? Why should you care what this woman’s doing? She’s doing it anyway.
What do you think is driving Ruth, then? Is it grief? Fear? Prepartum depression?
I wanted the audience to wonder whether she’d always been like this. One of the things I was trying to investigate was whether people are really changed by pregnancy. That’s the fear you have when you’re going to have a baby, that you’re going to come out some Stepford Wife at the end of it, saying “I love babies and I only talk about babies now and my previous identity has been erased!” Just because you’re a mother it doesn’t mean that your instincts or your personality completely change. I’m still me.
After the austere brilliance of Beyond the Hills, leading Romanian director Cristian Mungiu returns to Bucharest with a tale of compromised morality. Unlike his Palme d’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, Graduation unfolds in the present, but the attitudes of the past linger and threaten to upturn the lives of a decent doctor and his family.
What was the origin of the film for you?
It started with the fact that I’m a father and spend a lot of time thinking about my children and what’s best to tell them. I really wanted to make a film about corruption but more about compromise, and not only about Romania: I don’t see this film as being so local as people imagine. Compromise isn’t localised. It’s a way of behaving, a way of being in life. I hope the film speaks about human nature, about parenting, about the necessity of getting out the truth of your life. The intention is that you can watch the story of these people but think about your own experience.
Romeo’s choice to do unethical things on behalf of his daughter is understandable, but obviously if everyone does that then the system doesn’t work. Is there a solution?
You make a film, you tell a story about something that you think is important, but I’m not sure that I know the way out. This was going on for so long that it became a habit of people. The only way out is to step outside of the circle and imagine that there’s a chance if you don’t give your children the same education that you had, but you have to start by acknowledging things about yourself. Maybe you’re not such a nice person as you want people to believe you are. We’re always optimistic about the future based on the younger generation, saying that they will save us, they will be different, but how will they be different if they’re the result of our education? It needs a very conscious effort to stop this.
Do you think it’s a specific struggle or is it always the case between an older and a younger generation? Romeo is quite exhausted, he’s come out of a communist world, while Eliza has a different perspective.
I’m not sure that it’s too related to communism. There’s always this difference in views, especially about ethical things in society, from the older to the younger generation. The only thing which is connected to communism is the habit of using compromise as a surviving tool. Thirty years ago, fifty years ago, in all those countries it wasn’t about having ethical principles, it was about surviving, so you would do whatever it takes. It was important to find whatever solution solved the problem. Things have evolved. If you’re displeased with the society that you see around you then you should start by doing something yourself. I hope Romeo isn’t cynical. I think he’s tired, and he got to this moment in his life where he’s disappointed. You become disappointed because you start with high hopes when you’re young and eventually you reach this moment where things are so different from what you imagined and you still have to live on. The film is a portrait of that difficult moment.
Romeo wants Eliza to leave Romania for Britain, even though he stayed and became a successful doctor. Do you think if he had left he would feel differently?
I often talk to people of my generation who left in the 1990s; people who emigrated still believe that if they stayed maybe their life would be more meaningful, while those who stayed imagined they would have been happier if they’d left. It’s human nature. Romeo doesn’t want Eliza to emigrate, he wants his child to be happy. We all want this. He imagines that it’s easier somewhere else, not necessarily because it is easier, but because he doesn’t have all the details, so places all his hopes on a place he doesn’t know very well. It’s a romantic view of western society that’s the result of fantasising for a very long period during the communist era, when people were not only imagining that the world here is wealthier, but that there was a lot more correctness.
Particularly with your early films, your work has been described as part of a Romanian New Wave. With some distance now, can you look back and see thematic and aesthetic similarities with other Romanian films made at the same time?
Even this film is considered part of a movement, but it’s not based on a statement of any kind, it’s just a way of finding a name for what’s happened with Romanian films in the last fifteen years. There are some similarities, but mostly about the way of doing things, the principle of avoiding big subjects and getting inspiration from reality rather than from cinema, and creating stories which take place over a short period. If you go a little deeper you see that there are many differences between these directors. I think it’s good that they’re not respecting a formal or aesthetic manifesto, it’s just that they feel they belong to this group of people that started working more or less at the same age at the same time. It’s a new generation of Romanian directors who didn’t make films before the revolution. We probably made this kind of cinema as a reaction to what was happening before: all of a sudden there was this group which emerged.
Originally published in Curzon Magazine Issue 61.
Having made six films in seven years, 27-year-old Xavier Dolan has established himself as one of the most industrious contemporary filmmakers. His first film outside Canada draws together an impressive ensemble cast for a powerful story of a dying writer’s return home, confronting ghosts from his and their past.
It’s Only the End of the World is based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce. What made you want to adapt it?
The characters were very flawed somehow. They were loud and aggressive but underneath the layers of verbal violence and the horrible things they said was palpable pain. They’re not easy to love but they conceal many wounds and that seemed like a beautiful challenge. I thought it would be rewarding to explore these flaws and imperfections with actors of this calibre.
How did you approach translating it from stage to film?
The one thing I decided from the beginning was that I didn’t want to lose the vernacular of the playwright, which is very theatrical, precise and sophisticated. I didn’t want to change that because his cultural legacy are these words and that style. One thing we couldn’t keep however was the second half of the play, which was almost entirely abstract in its construction. It’s just the characters all on stage talking to you don’t know who. That couldn’t possibly work cinematically so I took bits and pieces and moved them around and built a new latter half almost from scratch.
We never get a specific explanation for why Louis decided to leave years ago. Did you intentionally want that period to be opaque?
Apparently that’s been frustrating to a lot of people, not knowing what he’s dying from or why he left home. The actors also had lots of questions, and I didn’t always have the answers. It’s not that we didn’t want to look for them, or we didn’t want to make the effort to provide the audience with answers, it’s that what matters is that afternoon they spend together, trying in the very little time they have to reconnect, which they clearly cannot achieve because they don’t really listen to each other. They talk but they don’t listen. Why did Louis leave? Is because he was drawn to the city? It seems radical to leave for 12 years without coming back, and you wonder what can motivate such a selfish act of isolation. How can you leave behind everything, including your loved ones, even if something terrible happened? But it’s actually not the point. By the time the movie is over, the questions you had should be answered by the fact that these people consume each other. You cannot possibly imagine living with these characters. As much as I find them endearing, they don’t know how to love each other or live together. It’s clear that someone who has the sensibility that Louis has couldn’t live in an environment like that and would want to escape.
Their collective failure to communicate is one of the film’s central themes. Why does the family clash so much?
They’re entirely incapable of listening to each other and from that comes constant misunderstandings. We’ve lived it with various members of our own families. Sometimes you’re born in a place with people with whom you have very little in common, and it doesn’t mean that they’re bad people, it’s just that you need to escape or you’re going to kill yourself.
Much of the film is told through tight close-ups, and it’s rare for characters to appear in the same frame together except for some key moments. What was your thinking behind that decision?
When we began shooting we did medium and establishing shots, and in the space where we were shooting it was hard to frame wide shots. Very few would be relevant or aesthetically pleasing. That was the most important reason to focus on tight shots. When we had that distance from the characters it appeared like we were filming theatre on a stage. It felt like a filmed play. Because the dialogue was so theatrical we wanted to compensate by being close to the characters so at least we could provide the audience with a sense of what is going on underneath all that loquacious dialogue. This intimacy showed the subtleties going on in the faces of the actors, which is crucial in the end because none of those words actually matter. What does matter is what happens in the silences and their smiles and how they breathe and look at each other. That’s where the money was.
When a director is six films into their career their visual style has usually ossified – you look at one shot and can tell who made it. By contrast, you show a willingness to explore new things, whether it’s the square aspect ratio in Mommy or shooting an Adele music video with IMAX cameras. What interests you about experimenting visually?
I guess the sense of discovery. When you say explore it seems daunting and challenging, but the whole answer is right there. I’ve been talking about the same sort of dynamics since the beginning, not telling the same story over and over again, although the characters do have the same identity problems. They’re looking for themselves, for a place in society. They’re misfits trying to fit in. They often love someone who doesn’t love them back. It’s often the same problems and themes, so one of the ways to feel that you’re not stagnating is to explore things formally. It’s always interesting to me to try new formats or new ratios. These are subtle choices sometimes, they’re not very apparent to some people, but if you shoot close-ups with a 35mm lens close to someone’s face it’s an entirely different aesthetic than if you use a 50 or an 80mm one from further away. These little choices correspond to the story you’re telling and you try to instinctively make decisions that give the film what it needs.
Originally published in Curzon Magazine issue 60.
Toni Erdmann doesn’t quite exist. Maren Ade’s third feature isn’t named after either of its main characters but rather a mid-film persona adopted by Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a shambling, melancholic music teacher and inveterate jester who elbows his way into the life of daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). By transforming himself into a stranger with joke teeth and a ridiculous wig, Winfried is able to falteringly reconnect with Ines despite bringing chaos to her personal and professional life.
“It’s only funny for us”, Maren observes, “For them it’s a nightmare. That’s why we like it.” The writer-director touches upon a range of themes in the film, from the shifting boundaries of parent-child relationships to the ethics of foreign-based management consultancy, and yet also includes a scene in which Winfried dresses up in a full-body Bulgarian ritual goat-pelt and and gatecrashes his daughter’s birthday brunch. Despite combatting jet lag, in person Maren proved as thoughtful and clear-eyed as her film.
It’d be possible to make a concise version of this story that just depicts the relationship between Ines and Winfried, but the film also deals with several broader topics. What attracted you to that approach?
There was this relationship with Ines’ father but I was equally interested in her, in her job, in the business world. I come from realism and believe it’s important that each character has their own problems that maybe have nothing to do with each other. If it’s character-driven instead of plot-driven then people take actions you don’t expect, and that’s when interesting things happen. It’s right for the situation for Ines to struggle with certain emotions, even if they make the film fuzzy or don’t fit so well into the plot. I like to make little excursions with characters and follow what interests me most, so over the whole story you get a more complicated picture of a person.
You illustrate their relationship using lots of small-but-telling details, like Winfried giving Ines a cheese grater for her birthday. Why that gift?
A cheese grater is a desperate present to give to a daughter who’s an international businesswoman, but on the other hand it’s very practical. I thought it was something that showed how Winfried really knows himself. He’s aware that it’s not a good present but does it anyway. At least he bought a designer cheese grater, but you understand why it’s annoying. I wanted him to give her something from the kitchen. It’s an accident, something she doesn’t need at all.
What effect does “becoming” Toni Erdmann have on Winfried? Does it liberate him?
What’s good for him is that although he’s hiding behind the wig and the teeth, it’s possible to be more honest with her. He’s open with his critiques. As Winfried he suppresses all his suspicions about what she’s doing in her life and job and whether they’re the right things. It’s a radical approach but they come to see each other at eye level. He starts speaking an aggressive language she understands. It was important though that you could always see through to Winfried so you don’t forget about him. It’s him that’s doing Toni and it’s out of desperation, so it’s an interesting conflict.
Ines works in a male-dominated environment which the film explores indirectly: for example, she’s asked to take a client’s wife shopping, something you can’t imagine happening if she was a man. How does she fit into that world?
It’s too simple to say there’s sexism going on among her male colleagues. For me it’s more interesting to ask why is Ines participating. She’s not forced to go shopping. She could have found a way out if she really didn’t want to. It’s something that perhaps she’s too used to, and during the film that she starts realising that. Ten times it’s funny, eleven times it’s annoying. I didn’t feel it was such a big topic. It’s only present because I took a woman and put her in that situation. It was there from the beginning so I had to decide how I showed it.
Is there a moral element to how you portrayed Ines’ job, which facilitates the downsizing of other companies?
I talked to a lot of consultants before writing because I had to understand what they’re doing. The argument they’d make was that restructuring is sometimes necessary to save a company. If you change things maybe you can make the company more profitable and save other jobs, and that’s always the dead end in the discussion. How I see Ines is that she’s not a cold person, but she protects herself. It doesn’t make sense for her to think too much about people working on the oil field. Employees become a number. Her father, who judges her for this, is in the luxury position. The enemy for his post-war German generation was really clear: it was the generation before. For Ines life became too complex, too complicated. It’s difficult for her to have a clear position. She sees Winfried’s system of values as too romantic for her, a sinking island. What takes some time in the film is that I tried to get both perspectives, to always have both angles on a situation.
It’s been seven years since previous last film, Everyone Else. Was the gap helpful?
For two years I did different things, but for the other five it was only this. It’s a long film! It’s almost three hours, so it was always like making two films. Every step took more work. I was constantly working on it, but also I participated in every bit of the project so I never left the film alone. I don’t mind that it took a while, though. It’s a luxury to never be really under pressure to leave the world of film-making before you’re happy. After three films you realise that you have something like handwriting, a way you work. Although I might want to change I don’t think I will, and that’s okay.
Compassion drives all of the Dardennes’ work, from their international breakthrough The Promise (1996) and Palme d’Or winners Rosetta (1999) and The Child (2005) to Two Days, One Night (2014) and their latest The Unknown Girl. Jason Ward spoke with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne about their riveting new film, detailing the life of a small-town doctor (the superb Adèle Haenel), the responsibility she feels towards the community and the doubts she experiences after she decides not to respond to a caller out of hours.
The interactions between Jenny and her patients effectively capture the experience of being treated by a doctor, which is something that’s simultaneously intimate and clinical, professional and compassionate. Why were you interested in portraying that accurately?
Luc Dardenne: What’s important through the scenes of the film is the rhythm, and that rhythm is provided by the medical acts that are performed. When you take somebody’s pulse or their blood pressure you don’t talk, so those moments of silence are telling.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Doctor Jenny is someone who listens, and you can’t be listening to a person if you’re talking all the time. She provokes silence and in turn this brings her patients to speak and reveal something of themselves.
As a character Jenny is tough, diligent and calm, rarely smiling. She cares about her patients but has a professional remove from them. How much of that is her job, and how much is her personality?
LD: Jenny has the seriousness of her youth in her work. She’s attentive to others because she has empathy but doesn’t invade their space, which is why she’s able to get people to tell her pieces of what they know. She brings their stories to life.
JPD: That’s why I think she is a good doctor. She’s very strong internally.
Even if Jenny is quite lonely herself, she’s a lifeline to those she cares for – she might be the only person that some of her patients see that day, which is why they’re always trying to give her things like waffles, coffee and even a panettone. Do you feel she plays that role in her community?
JPD: It’s exactly that. Our film is a sort of hymn to life, an anthem to life, and our Doctor Jenny communicates that. She touches people and they share things. She has a need to heal. We didn’t want to show a bad doctor becoming a good doctor, to caricature it. She’s a doctor who loves her patients. She knows that she can have a better career and earn more money and at one point she says no, this is fine for me.
One of the ideas that The Unknown Girl deals with is a doctor’s duty of care and how much they owes to their patients. Jenny doesn’t open the door once after working hours and is tortured by it, even though she’s operating within her job’s official boundaries. Do you think we hold medical professionals to a higher moral standard than we hold ourselves, expecting them to always go above and beyond?
LD: Jenny didn’t kill the woman but she should have opened the door. A character mentions that any court of law would find her not guilty, but that’s not the point. Everyone in that situation should open the door, but a doctor should over and above everyone else because of the vocation that they have chosen. They protect life and keeps death at bay. That’s why they chose their profession, so they should have an even greater possible responsibility.
JPD: The sense of duty that each and every one of us should have towards other people, it seemed to us as though a doctor would have even more so. If they don’t open their door then who will?
The film straddles two worlds in that it’s a social realist drama but also has a murder mystery at its centre. Why did you decide to make it in that way and how you decided how to bring in those elements?
JPD: We didn’t think about it in those terms. From the very beginning we felt that the doctor needs to remain the doctor. She might be investigating a possible murder but is still a caregiver. If you consider the story to be a whodunit solely from that angle then you risk being disappointed. We can suspect who is linked to this dead girl, but the question isn’t whether they did it but whether they will manage to talk, and will they tell the truth when they do. We tried not to spill the beans straight away, but we wanted the truth to come out in a natural manner because the person who reveals the name also feels guilty. It’s a film where everyone feels to blame for what happened, and everyone is somewhat complicit.
LD: What we were interested in from the beginning was her name. She had no name, so the mission that Jenny gives herself is not to find the culprit but to find the identity of this girl in order to re-establish her within humanity, so that she won’t just disappear, faceless, nameless. To make her known again.
Originally published in Curzon Magazine issue 59.
Nathalie’s husband has bought her flowers out of guilt, as husbands often do. After 25 years of marriage he has left his philosophy-teaching wife for another woman, and so on a visit to their former home he delivers a bouquet in a vase. Incensed by his nerve, Nathalie puts the flowers in a blue IKEA bag and tosses the whole thing in her building’s skip. A few moments later, she returns for the bag. She is nothing if not a pragmatist, after all.
The above scene from Things to Come is quietly its most definitive moment. Mia Hansen-Løve’s fifth film is a character study of Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) as she weathers the storm of job troubles, an infirm mother and the unexpected end of her marriage. She has good days and bad days, but crucially she possesses the emotional grounding to realise that her life isn’t over. Even when it feels like her world is falling apart, she understands, it’s still sensible to save a good carrier bag.
“She’s not a victim so she doesn’t behave like a victim,” Isabelle says. “That doesn’t mean that she’s not hurt by what happens to her, but she guides her situation into something positive. Nathalie loses a lot of things which were important to her and sees that she’s never been so free. Maybe because she’s a philosophy teacher, she knows how to turn herself towards life.”
It’s understandable that Mia – who first met Isabelle when she played her daughter in a film 16 years ago – created the role specially for her, as both she and the character share the same searching intellect and robust nature. The actress is known for being protective of her personal life, but much about her is illuminated by the qualities she brings out in her most memorable performances. I ask what sustains Nathalie as the pillars of her life drop away. “I think it’s her intelligence,” she replies. “I’m not saying that being unhappy means being stupid, but I believe in the virtues of knowledge and education.” Throughout the film Nathalie is never seen without a book on the go, and Isabelle feels that this outlet provides her with succour. “I believe that you can find strength in books. I’ve found answers in books, in going to museums, in watching films. It’s about appreciating beauty, too, and that’s certainly something that helps her. It doesn’t solve everything, of course, but it’s good to believe in. Otherwise what can you believe in?”
Isabelle’s faith in the enriching power of film is unsurprising. After 45 years and roles in over 130 features, her career is a road map of modern European cinema. One of her country’s most accomplished actors and perhaps its most fearless, her films vary dramatically in content and tone, but her characters often boast an unsentimental fortitude that enables them to endure tremendous hardships. Nodding to the approach of her frequent collaborator Michael Haneke, she argues that avoiding mawkishness is pivotal. “Michael always says no sentimentality, which I perfectly understand. It doesn’t mean no emotion, but sentimentality reduces the chances of being genuinely emotional and of being true. It also reduces the chances of being good! For example, in Things to Come, there is no sentimentality and yet there is a huge amount of emotion. You can feel everything, but there is also a dignity in Nathalie’s behaviour and a sense of irony. It’s essential to have a certain distance that makes you consider all the parameters of the situation.”
Whether it’s due to her disposition or her long acting life, Isabelle is able to maintain a similar distance from her own body of work. “I’m not obsessed with films I did fifteen or twenty years ago,” she says. “It’s not really my problem to think about that. And anyway, history works differently as you leave it behind. Films which are very much of their time can appear like masterpieces when they’re done and then you see them decades later and they haven’t passed the years easily.” Without the “burden of inspiration” that a director has, Isabelle concludes that it’s healthier for her to just let go. “You expect from the director that in the end your character comes out as full as possible, as close to your own vision. That’s the case most of the time, but your final view is always a frustration in a way. As you act you build up your own imaginary film in your head, and at some point you have to face the fact that it’s not your film, it’s the director’s film.”
The actress ventures relentlessly forward with this in mind, as the five films she has coming out in the next year demonstrate. “I’m lucky enough because I constantly find good material to do and still have pleasure doing it,” she reflects. With an invigorating absence of false modesty, Isabelle admits that little daunts her, except perhaps a bad working relationship with a director. “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I act quite easily. I don’t want to diminish the myth, but it’s more pleasure than effort for me, so it’s nice. I find it’s easier than anything else.”
Indeed, Isabelle is capable of enormous intensity in her performances, but her great skill has always been her comprehension of the power of small gestures. “You are aware of it without being aware of it,” she says. “It’s something that concerns you and doesn’t really concern the rest of the people on set. It’s your tool, your face.” Another non-shrug. “Being an actress is very pragmatic. It’s just work. There are challenges but they’re more about finding good things to do. Difficulties are part of the excitement – how to cope with what you can expect, how to cope with what you don’t expect – it’s such a texture of things that you can control and things that you can’t control. It’s difficult, perhaps, but acting is a very pleasant life.”
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three. To read the original article click here.
“It was wonderful. It was terrifying.” Bebe Cave’s description of filming Tale of Tales could be a blanket statement for her current state of mind. As a princess who rescues herself she gives the standout performance in Matteo Garrone’s dizzying fairy tale, an impressive feat considering that her co-stars include Salma Hayek, Toby Jones and Vincent Cassel. At only 18 years of age, when we meet she finds herself at the precise moment where a childhood of occasional acting roles has become a full-blown occupation, and her excitement is indistinguishable from panic. If she seems poised for a healthy career, it is merited: Bebe’s undoubted precociousness is ultimately winning because of her evident passion for her work. Even if she is afraid, she likes to dive in head first.
You’ve been acting since you were 11. How did you get into it?
I’m the youngest of five, so all of us are competitive for the spotlight, and also I’ve got two older siblings who are actors. It was a very dramatic household! I never went to a particular drama school, I just did it alongside my studies. Now I’m out of school for the first time and life is scary because I don’t have a safety net anymore, but I’m fortunate to have known for such a long time what I want to do. A huge part of it is that it’s something hugely imaginative. I never had many friends. I had a lot of imaginary characters to interact with and I suppose I never quite let go.
Did you ever consider anything else?
I really loved school and was massive classics enthusiast. I was one of those people that’s a bit of a teacher’s pet because I was always more used to adults. I used to chat to the teachers. I was not popular as you can probably imagine. I wanted to do all these different things but it never even occurred to me that there would come a point where I’d need to decide. Last year was very stressful, choosing whether I wanted to go to university, but the decision I came to was that this is the thing I want to do more than anything else, and it’s so competitive that if you don’t give your heart to it you might be left behind. You can’t ever predict anything really, so it’s quite exciting that I don’t know what’s going to happen. As I tell my father: it’s the life I’ve chosen. University isn’t the only form of education. I can self-edify, that’s what I’m trying to convince him. He still thinks I should be a doctor.
You appeared in Great Expectations and have acted on television and the stage, but Tale of Tales is your first major film role. What was it like to work on something on a much larger scale?
The thing I loved about Tale of Tales was that it was just such a whirlwind. I had no idea what to expect and every day was a new challenge. It was a completely different way of working, because Italian cinema, or at least this is my experience of it, was that they’d take a very liberal, artistic approach to things: I wouldn’t be wearing the proper safety harness but I’d be on top of a castle.
Princess Violet goes through a very physical journey. Was it taxing?
Oh, I’ve got scars. Actual scars. There was no mucking about with prosthetic rocks. They were genuine boulders that I was being slammed into. That’s what made it so exciting and intense. The dirt was real dirt. Insects were crawling all over me. They wouldn’t let me wash my hair. That was the worst part. We filmed it in sequence so I gradually got more and more dirty and beaten-up and exhausted. By the time I’d got to the climax of the film, which has to be this strong emotional reaction to all of these things that have happened to her, it felt real.
What did you enjoy most about the experience?
I’ve never worked in a foreign country before so that was another challenge to add onto it, but everyone was so friendly and it felt like a big family. Also because I loved Latin so much at school I understood some of the Italian – it’s very similar and has roots in Latin. It became an incentive for me to be able to try to learn the language because my plan is to go back there one day and marry an Italian! I think it’s going pretty well. I did a course a couple of months ago and I’m still working on it now. I’m not anywhere in the region of being confident because they speak so fast, but as long as I listen to them talk, I’ll be in a good place. I just need to smile and nod and it’ll be fine.
You must find that your Italian veers towards the fantastical.
Exactly. I can say flea, I can say prince, I can say ogre. All of the important things you need in life.
The film is based on early Italian fairy tales. As they’re broader and wilder than contemporary dramas, was it important to find the emotional truth in your scenes?
You don’t want to play up to the archetypes of the character: the princess who’s a damsel-in-distress. With such exquisite surroundings and costumes, it could be easy to fall into the trap of making the way that you act overly magnificent. What Matteo wanted was to get all of that out of the picture and create something earthier. Even though I was tackling an ogre and there were magical old ladies and amazing transformations and dragons, what he wanted to bring out was that these are human struggles. At first Violet is looking for a dashing prince to come along, but she learns that there doesn’t have to be someone else to define her as a person. She doesn’t need a husband that is handsome and brave, she just needs herself.
For his second feature as director, Matt Ross reinvents the family drama with Viggo Mortensen as a father determined not to bow to conventions. It’s fresh, smart and rewarding.
What was the initial impulse behind making the film?
For me it was entirely about parenting. I have two kids and I was grappling with it a lot. Being a parent can be terrifying and confusing, and I was thinking about the fact that our children are in our homes for a very brief time. My daughter is 13, so that’s only another five years. I was questioning what was important to me and what I wanted to pass to her, and I tried to put all those thoughts on being present and conscious parenting into the script.
Viggo Mortensen’s character Ben has a distaste for many aspects of contemporary life, especially the constant distraction of phones and screens. How much do you relate to that idea?
I don’t think you can live in the modern world and not feel that way. I’m addicted to my phone as much as anyone else, and it’s an incredible tool, but it’s just that – a tool. We don’t need to build our lives around them. When you go off into the woods and there’s no signal and you can’t get on the internet, you’re reminded of how tied we are to these devices. For Ben, living in the middle of nowhere means he’s not confronted with some of the parenting issues that come up. All of my children’s friends play video games and have phones and tablets. What are you going to do about that? Are you going to say they can’t join in the world? I chose to allow my 9-year-old to play video games because I believe that it can be a fun medium that offers him imaginative worlds and beautiful images. He also does martial arts and is a voracious reader and rides his bike all the time. It’s a balancing act. We’re teaching our kids essentially how to navigate their lives, and if there is any secret sauce it’s about moderation.
A lot of telling character details come through in the production design: at one point Ben wears an old “Jesse Jackson ’88” tee-shirt, which seems like exactly the presidential campaign he might have supported when he was younger. How much of that was in the script and how much came together during the production process?
It was a bit of both. There were a lot of references to what characters were wearing and what was on the set, but then you hire really talented people and they’ll have better suggestions. The shirt you mentioned was actually Viggo’s idea, for instance. Film-making is a collaborative art and you bring in all these people, whether it’s the actors, the production designer or the costume designer and they look at this document and reflect on it. My job in many ways is simply to be open to ideas and try and parse whether an idea is superior and either reject or accept it.
What do you think those details add to the film?
They’re storytelling devices. The production manager Russell Barnes built the compound that the family live in, and I wanted to portray that world as accurately as possible. Even if we didn’t directly explain it, there had to be concrete answers for what their shelter was, where they got water from, how they prepared food, what their sanitation was like. They have an outhouse which is in the movie but in the background, so we talked a lot about outhouse technology: the old way of building one was that you dug a pit, and now there are all sorts of systems that use chemicals or don’t use chemicals. We went through all these options and made choices that seemed right for the characters. There’s no scene where any of that is discussed, but it’s there.
Do you think the family’s existence needs to be believable to the audience, even if only on an unconscious level?
That’s right. It was very important to Viggo too. He actually planted the entire garden that you see in the film. He arrived early and did that himself. We talked a lot about what would grow in the state of Washington during these months and what stage they would be at. For me it’s important to do that so it’s a credible world, and for him it’s important because he wants to make it real to him, so he was active in the creation of it.
Does being open to that sort of approach come from your experience as an actor? In addition to directing you’ve acted for 25 years – is it helpful to have that perspective on what performers need?
I think so. I’ve worked with many excellent directors who aren’t actors so it’s certainly no prerequisite. Being an actor helps because actors trust that I understand their process, and also I can communicate about the mechanics of their job. A lot of directors look at actors as a necessary and aggravating evil that gets in the way of what they want to do, and actors can probably sense that I don’t feel that way. I made short films from the age of 12 so I’m a camera geek and love the technical aspects of film-making, but I’ve come to the conclusion that most if not all iconic film moments are acting moments. I don’t say that as an actor, I say that as an audience member. We show up in these dark theatres not to watch spectacle: the things that we remember tend to be human beings revealing themselves. It can be something very simple that moves us on some deep level, and I love working with actors to bring that out.
The story is told from the perspective of Ben and his six children. How did your directing methods differ when working with young actors?
The answer is that there are as many different kinds of actors as there are people, so every actor has their own process. As a director it is your job to identify what every actor needs and create an environment where their needs can be met. Some actors like to talk about things a lot before they do a scene, other actors just want to do it. With regard to children, the biggest difference is that some of them are not even professional actors, meaning they have no prior experience. They don’t have a process that they can identify or skills they’re aware of, so sometimes you have to break film-making down for them into chunks. What I do is convince them that they don’t have to say the lines in the way they think I want them to. They can play around with it. I tell them that there’s no right way to act, and there’s no wrong way either: let’s just explore.
Originally published in Curzon Magazine issue 58. To read the original article click here.
Kelly Macdonald’s talent has been evident since her fiery debut in Trainspotting, but the most striking thing about meeting her is her sense of perspective. Two decades into a diverse career that has seen roles in everything from Gosford Park to No Country for Old Men to the upcoming adaptation of classic children’s book Swallows and Amazons, Kelly is sanguine about the complexities of being a film actor. Hearteningly, she is determined to enjoy her work rather than worry about it. When she explains her lack of desire to act on stage again, I mention that some actors like the opportunity to hone a performance over months. Her good-natured shrug of a response is typical of her attitude: “Nah. That’s what I say to that. Nah.”
What was it like to go from playing a character over five years and 56 episodes in Boardwalk Empire back to playing one over the course of a single film in Swallows and Amazons?
Actually one of the joys about Mrs Walker in Swallows and Amazons was that she wasn’t Margaret Thompson. I hadn’t played anybody but her for a while and it felt so freeing. I had a bounce in my step. Not that I didn’t love the experience, but it’s nice to play people who talk and behave in a different way. I never went to drama school but Margaret was very changeable from season to season so it did feel like she evolved. I learned so much, it was like my drama school.
Have you found that not going to drama school was useful because you didn’t pick up bad habits? Do you ever think about it?
Oh, no. I used to, but I’m too old to worry about that now. I’ve done too much for it to be a concern. If you get to go to drama school that’s fantastic, and if you get to do this without going that’s also good. There’s a certain amount that you can only learn as you go along.
Over the past 20 years you’ve worked consistently in great projects. Has it ever been difficult?
There have been lots of long periods of unemployment. I suppose I could be called picky but even when I was struggling and something came up that I didn’t feel right for, I would probably not go in for it. I’ve always been just about okay so I haven’t had to do anything to pay the mortgage. I would coast for a while until the right thing came along.
Maybe that’s better in the long run, instead of having films you can’t stand behind you?
I don’t think it matters, honestly. As I get older I think: “fuck it”. If you do something which your heart isn’t into, nobody cares. And if it doesn’t work out then no-one will really see it anyway. A film is just there and gone. It’s all about the experience, not what happens after the shooting finishes. Obviously it’s nice if people go to see it and like it, but for me the enjoyment is in actually doing the work and being there on set.
When you’re choosing roles are you looking for a mix, then?
I don’t deliberately seek out anything. It’s just what appeals and what I respond to. I don’t have any rules. I’ve not done any horror films, that’s a missing thing that would be fun at some point.
Would you appear in a massive blockbuster?
I would love to, it’s just not been my area. It’d be great to have fun on something big and shiny but I’m not an ‘action’-type of person. Playing Princess Merida in Brave was probably the most like that but it was just my voice. My voice got very energetic.
What was it like to act purely with your voice?
It was definitely challenging – far more work than you’d expect. You have to do the lines over and over again, on your own. When you watch an animated film you take a lot for granted. There are so many sounds! It’s real brain work because you have to make noises, like making a noise as if you’re getting off a horse, and it’s very specific.
How do you make a noise like you’re getting off a horse?
Well exactly! You have to do it a lot, whatever it is. There are tons of sounds that as a cinema-goer you don’t even know you’re hearing, but if they weren’t there it would be a lesser experience.
Merida must be a role that stays with you – do you have to reprise it?
For games and things, yes. I took my kids to Disneyland in California and we were asked if we would like to meet the girl who plays her there. They got very coy around her. I was watching her being Merida and I thought, oh thank god I just had to do the voice, because this girl really embodied the character. She was so exuberant and chatted to all the families and was totally Merida the whole time. I couldn’t do that. Even if I’m doing an accent I don’t really do it on set until we’re filming. A lot of actors just stick with one for the entire period they’re working. That makes sense, but a part of my brain gets embarrassed, and if I’m making friends on set I’d feel I wasn’t being honest.
Are accents fun to learn?
It’s often weirdly helpful. Swallows and Amazons is about an English family who live in Portsmouth in 1935, so I was asked to do RP (Received Pronunciation). We did the read-through and afterwards Philippa Lowthorpe the director called me, saying she thought it’d be fun to make Mrs Walker Scottish instead. That was great because I could be freed up a little and I wasn’t just playing Period Mum, giving some kids a row. She could be more vibrant. But I’d hardly ever work if I could only use my own accent.
As a modern viewer the part of Swallows and Amazons I found most surprising was that your character Mrs Walker lets her children leave on an adventure for days, completely unsupervised. I can’t imagine anyone being able to do that now.
It’s definitely different with kids today. It’s funny seeing this mum wave her kids off in a boat to go to a strange island.
“Please don’t die.”
I know! “Don’t drown.” Things have changed. Even when I was little we were sent out during the summer and didn’t see grown-ups all day, but then we’d always seem to know when it was right to go back home.
Children can sense teatime.
For my kids everything has to be a bit more structured which is a shame. I’ve realised that I keep saying: “Be careful.” My eldest is at an age when he says “What do you mean? With what?” and I’ll realise that I’ve said it for no reason. He’s not doing anything, he’s barely moved and I’m telling him to be careful. We’re not that adventurous, but they get great opportunities. I’m so glad my son will have memories of scooting down the street to school in New York. That’s an adventure too.
The protagonists of debut films sometimes resemble their creators, but in keeping with Rachel Tunnard’s impassioned advocacy of collaboration, the editor-turned-director states that her lead character Anna in Adult Life Skills is a combination of herself and two of her actors, Jodie Whittaker and Rachael Deering. The inspiration for the film – a sensitive comedy-drama about a bereaved twin living in her mum’s shed – came from a holiday the three friends took together in 2009, where they commiserated over how rarely they saw women like them believably represented on screen. While Rachel herself has never suffered such a loss, at 29 she found herself in a similar morass of late twenties confusion, moving back into her parents’ house “like a bloody teenager.” The experience was one of many to feed into the screenplay: “There’s lots of stuff in there that I’ve taken from different areas of my life,” she explains. “You patch them together until it feels like a cohesive world.” Ahead of its release in cinemas, we spoke to Rachel about making the film.
Do you think Anna would be experiencing the same existential panic if she hadn’t lost her twin? How much is her lack of direction tied to her grief?
I think if you’re somebody who’s creative you can have a little bit of a crisis around the end of your twenties. You might have done an artsy degree and you imagine that you’re going to work in the arts and get an Oscar or whatever, and then suddenly you’re 30 and it hasn’t quite worked out the way you thought it was going to. Your parents are looking at you wondering is this ever really going to work out. Potentially Anna would have had an early mid-life crisis anyway, but I was interested in twin loss because it manifests itself differently to normal grief. It provokes an identity crisis and in my work I like to explore big existential ideas in a really lowbrow way.
Film production notes are usually very staid and formulaic, but the ones for Adult Life Skills are covered in irreverent annotations by you. They have the same handmade quality as Anna’s various projects in the film. Where does that impulse come from?
It’s how I present everything really, mainly because I can’t use Photoshop. I draw stuff and then I take a photo and that’s how I’ve always done it. As an editor you get sent statements by directors and I always find them really dry. But the main reason it came about is because the credits says “A film by Rachel Tunnard” and I completely hate it. All the way through the production I said I didn’t want that credit, and in the end my agent pointed out that it was something her male clients actually ask for. It seemed really arrogant. Even though I’ve done loads of jobs on this it’s a collaboration between so many different people. It’s our film, so I wanted a chance to add the words “and everyone else.”
Are small creative endeavours a useful outlet when you’re working on one large project like this film?
I just do all of that stuff without thinking about it. My husband and I write pep talks to each other which are nonsense, and I started doing this thing called Tunnard Tasks, where I made my mum, dad and brother do a task every month, like write a limerick. My parents begrudgingly do them when I ask but it’s really interesting to see what my 68-year-old dad writes in a limerick about our house growing up. I can’t stop it. The film is one part of that continual amalgamation of crap.
Before making Adult Life Skills you directed a short called Emotional Fusebox that you’ve described as being a “pilot” version of the film. How did it come about?
The Adult Life Skills script was getting some attention from the BFI and Creative England but I hadn’t directed anything. They asked if I wanted to direct it and I said no, so they suggested all these other people and I kept saying I don’t know, I don’t know. Somebody told me if I didn’t direct it then I had no right to complain about the fact that there are so few female film-makers, and they were right. But before we received the money to do the film I had to prove I was going to be able to direct it, so I wrote a short film based on the characters.
Was it a good exercise?
Absolutely, because I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to do it. I knew that I liked editing and writing, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy directing. I’d never considered it before. Rachael Deering who plays Fiona in the film said it was like when we were at uni and used to make projects together, and I saw it a bit like that too. We were just going to make something and it could be shit or it could be alright, but we were going to have a go regardless.
So did you enjoy directing in the end?
Yes! I loved it. I felt very secure with the cast and the crew. I’d worked with a lot of them before and we were careful in trying to put a crew together that would all get on with each other. I was adamant that people had to be positive and friendly and have a good sense of humour, because low budget film-making is like going into battle. It’s tough and you need to be surrounded by people who really care about it and want to do it. When we were making the selections for heads of department there was a pressure to choose the most experienced person we could possibly get, whereas I felt it was much more important to get the one who cared the most.
Did you find that making a low-budget film gave you more creative freedom? Was it important to have that sort of autonomy?
It depends on what you want to do. I’m in a relatively privileged position to have written, directed and edited a film, and what that means is that whether you like it or not it’s got a distinctive style and feel. I’m not particularly interested in taking the big money and having no control – I’d much rather have less money and more creative freedom. But then I’d also really like a massive house with a water slide from my bedroom into a swimming pool.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
The montage is foreign to real life. Off screens, we fill out forms and wait for buses and generally get on with the slow, narratively unexciting business of living. This stands in notable contrast to visual mediums, which hold elision as one of their most important tools. To better serve the story and for the avoidance of confusion, superfluous details in films and TV programmes are often changed or omitted entirely: a supporting character in a biopic will be a composite of several actual people, an inessential sub-plot will be dropped from an adaptation, and years will pass over the course of a pop song or even a single jump cut. No-one uses the toilet or does laundry or defrosts a fridge, unless something of narrative worth is going to happen when they do.
A certain amount of abridgement is to be expected in a finite story, but things become interesting when looking at how the process affects the presentation of physical geography. In a 2012 interview, writer-director Martin McDonagh discussed the footchase at the climax of his black comedy In Bruges:
“The chase can be done in real time. From point A to point B to point C. They weren’t the most pretty bits of Bruges but it was a straight one-minute run. I’ve read online of people going there after the film and seeing how logical and truthful it actually was.”
For the majority of his audience who don’t live in Bruges or intend to travel there to test it out, McDonagh’s decision to make the sequence spatially accurate may seem perverse rather than admirable, but I’d argue that it’s admirably perverse instead. By choosing verisimilitude over aesthetic considerations, the film – shot entirely within half an hour’s walk of the director’s hotel – has an internal logic. The story may be outlandish but is grounded in a place that feels like the real Bruges, boring and beautiful in equal measure.
McDonagh’s strict approach is relatively uncommon. Films and TV shows set in real locales often have an elastic sense of distance, invent fictional areas, or choose disparate locations in order to find somewhere better looking or more convenient to film in. Some of these deviations are stylistic, while others are pragmatic, hence Vancouver, nicknamed ‘Hollywood North’, frequently stands in for various American cities due to its generous tax incentives.
By exploring how different productions use geographical logic when depicting the same city – in the following examples, television programmes set in contemporary London – it is possible to reflect on our own relationship with urban spaces. Our experience of city life is similar to a film-maker’s: while we live in a real, ever-evolving place, we self-construct it through the areas we frequent. Everyone in a city lives in their own particular version of that city, but given its size and the socio-economic and cultural variety, this is more true of London than of most places.
While Sherlock is among television’s most intricately plotted shows, the London it depicts is made of silly putty and string. The most egregious example of its fickle geography was during the 2014 episode The Empty Hearse: Dr John Watson’s journey sees his Jubilee line train transform into a District line train, before he jumps out at Euston Square – a station served by neither line – after which the episode’s portrayal of the Tube network only becomes more inaccurate and haphazard. The complicated logistics of shooting on the Underground necessitates some fudging (hence Watson and Holmes eventually heading to disused station/ubiquitous filming location Aldwych), but as most Londoners have specific sections of the Tube map tattooed onto their brain, the experience of seeing Watson bounce around an ephemeral Underground is disorientating.
Fassett Square in Hackney bears an conspicuous likeness to Eastenders‘ benches-and-crying-filled Albert Square, which is unsurprising as the garden space was used to film the show’s pilot. That the producers ultimately decided to eschew the actual square for a set was one of their most significant decisions: the fictional borough of Walford exists in its own bubble, able to emulate the identity of the East End without being tied to any specific part of it. The hermetically sealed environment contributes a dramatic component essential for any soap: the sense that the characters are part of a community but also somehow trapped, able to leave only through death or in the back of a taxi. Its portrayal of life in an imaginary part of a real city has always inspired an odd dissonance, which has only grown more pronounced as Albert Square has struggled to keep up with the brutal rate of gentrification. Walford may have its own postal district and a stop on the Hammersmith & City and District lines, replacing Bromley-by-Bow on the programme’s tube maps, but it doesn’t boast a single crêperie.
The return of Doctor Who to television screens after 16 years away was accompanied by many changes, but perhaps the two biggest were the shift in narrative focus towards the Doctor’s companion Rose Tyler and the movement of production from London to South Wales. As Rose was from modern London these would seem to be at odds with each other, but the solution employed was a mixture of London-based location shooting and Cardiff-based fakery. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the new incarnation’s first episode, where Queen’s Arcade in Cardiff was half-heartedly disguised with an outdated tube roundel and an old Routemaster. But if, on occasion, London in Doctor Who looks suspiciously like Cardiff then this is only following in a charmingly lo-fi tradition, where the interiors of spaceships look suspiciously like darkened corridors at the BBC and alien planets look suspiciously like quarries in Surrey or Kent. The slightly ridiculous, cheap-and-cheerful aesthetic is essential to the programme, so it would be stranger if its depiction of London wasn’t also uncanny.
Aside from the time its eponymous detective got grumpy with his job and threw his coat off Southwark Bridge, or the other time he got grumpy with his job and fled to the seaside, Luther is set almost entirely in east London. While the show makes good use of interesting, rarely filmed locations, however, the relatively confined setting means that most of the time Idris Elba is hunting down serial killers who are a couple of stops away on the 55 bus, and who he could probably find if he just yelled loudly enough. The vivid sense of place means that the programme avoids the could-be-anywhere quality of sleek London rival Sherlock, but also means that it’s essentially an urban Midsomer Murders: characters drive towards and away from the Shoreditch Central junction so often it’s remarkable that it’s never been the victim of an intricate satanic murder. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, DCI John Luther works in a living, breathing London, it’s just a shame that it’s a London so small you’re liable to run into your murder suspect at the local newsagents.
Originally published on White Noise. To read the original article click here.
“You’ll hate digital effects, it’s full of anoraks and nerds,” the man was telling Sara Bennett. “You won’t like it at all.” Hooked on cinema at a young age by watching Hammer Horror films with her father, she knew she wanted to work in film production but was unsure where her passion could lead her. “As I loved horror, I was interested in prosthetics and make-up, so I went to college and trained in that,” she explains. “I tried to start a career and found it very difficult.” She ended up as a receptionist at an effects company, where a colleague would pass the time by describing the nascent field of digital effects to her. “He was trying to dissuade me but it just piqued my interest. I wanted to find out what it was all about. I think it’s because I’m stubborn.”
The journey from that day to where Sara finds herself now – the second woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects (for her work on Ex Machina), and the first in 23 years – has been one of diligent, steady progress. Without a background in computing or mathematics, she started as a runner and worked her way up, becoming a compositor and later a visual effects supervisor. “I just fell in love with computers. It was really good because I got to see how all of the departments work, and it gave me a grounding in every area of post-production,” she says. “I was lucky. I had a lot of helpful people above me who spent the time teaching me. It means I can say to someone: ‘I know it’s painful and it’s taking ages and you’ve been drawing around someone’s arm all day long, but I’ve been there and it’ll be okay.’”
Sara’s career has coincided with the growth of the British VFX industry, which after years of domination by American companies has become pre-eminent. The unsurprising catalyst for this, she relates, was Harry Potter – like seemingly most visual effects artists in the country, she worked on a number of films in the series. The result was invaluable: “That’s what grew our industry. Before then it was small but steady and it just exploded. We had ten years of Harry Potter films. It trained up so many people, kept them employed and the level of skills just grew and grew.”
After nearly a decade working at another effects house with a close knot of collaborators, Sara and the group decided to found their own studio, Milk. If it wasn’t for the non-disclosure agreement, the shelf of awards and the Doctor Who Slitheen alien head that greet you as you enter their offices, it might be difficult to guess what it is the company actually does. The bank of computers and their well turned-out operators could easily belong to an architect or an ambitious internet startup, while the Society of Petroleum Engineers sits just a few floors below, further confusing matters.
It’s fitting that Milk’s office is so unassuming, however: given the prevalence of digital effects, they are decidedly under appreciated. Over the 18 years that Sara has been working in the industry, she has seen their use grow beyond Hollywood blockbusters to become an indispensable tool in modern film and television production. She gives an example: Milk’s work on the recent period episode of Sherlock didn’t just involve recreating Victorian London through digital mattes and CG crowds, but also removing dolly tracks, contemporary road markings, and even crew members checking their texts in the background. “A lot of the shots we work on aren’t necessarily sexy,” she says. “Maybe we’re getting rid of some cables or adding a new sky because it was overcast on the day they were filming and you want to liven up the scene. You can do hundreds of shots like that which no-one would even notice, but they’re still important.”
These effects work precisely because you aren’t aware of them, which also means they’re taken for granted. For Sara, though, that’s part of the job’s attraction. “I love doing big fantasy stuff and creatures and spaceships, but it’s also really fulfilling to add to the story. On a show recently we did a lot of matt paintings that look photoreal. It’d be a tiny 100 metre yard and we were building it out into this epic space. You wouldn’t know that 30 of those extras were actually just five people on different green screens. It’s as satisfying as the big effects. You’re building a world. The visual effects are not just spectacle, but storytelling.”
Like a headmaster who doesn’t get to teach any more, Sara’s fear is that having wider responsibilities will take her away from the work that first enthralled her. “I always said I’d never walk around with a clipboard, it’d make me miserable. I have to be hands-on,” she says. “The hardest thing has been letting a lot of compositing go. I haven’t been able to do as much as I used to, but I’m relieved that so far I’ve managed to keep a hand in while still doing management roles and supervising.” She concedes that ultimately it all adds up to the same goal: to instil in others the same delight that she felt, years ago, staying up late with her dad. “The job is often really hard, especially when there’s a quick turnaround or a stressful delivery. But what’s great about doing a film is that months later you can go to a screening, and when you’re sat in the cinema you can finally switch off and watch it all properly. It’s the best feeling because you see your work up there and the audience is utterly engaged with it, with this thing you made. You remember why you do it.”
It would be an understatement to say that Adult Life Skills is personal for Jodie Whittaker. The actress’ latest film – a sharp, good-natured comedy about a bereaved twin living in her mum’s shed – was shot in her hometown, written and directed by her best friend Rachel Tunnard, and sees her character Anna’s best friend Fiona played by her other best friend Rachael Deering. The inspiration, meanwhile, came from a holiday the trio took together in 2009, where they commiserated over how rarely they saw women like them believably represented on screen. Jodie’s enthusiasm for their passion project is evident, but perhaps most telling is her description of what happened when she learned she was pregnant, six weeks before the start of shooting. The idea of postponing for eighteen months was raised, then promptly dismissed: “Fuck it,” she concluded, “put me in a baggy tee-shirt and let’s go.”
The film takes Anna’s grief seriously but she isn’t consumed by it at all times. What was appealing about that approach?
Anywhere else this story would probably be a kitchen sink drama, but instead it’s a heightened, bizarre comedy. That’s important because if something terrible happens you’re not a different person. It changes you but you’re not fundamentally different. Even in the darkest times you still laugh, you still find things funny. There’s humour in the process of mourning – it doesn’t go away forever. You’re still you.
A consequence of that is she’s often terrible to those around her.
The thing I love about Anna is sometimes she’s a pain in the arse, particularly with her mum, but no-one gives up on her. The people that get you through these things are your friends and your family, so it was lovely that it was about that rather than her being saved by some huge love story. The sisterhood between her and Fiona was particularly great to play. I can’t think of another film I’ve been in where my character has even had a best friend. In other things I have scenes with girls where we’re talking about boys. We don’t get to just prat about.
What was it like filming in the area of Yorkshire where you grew up?
It was strange and funny. I’ve known Rachael Deering since we were five and it was the first time since 18 that we were living back at home. There was one night when it was really cold so I went to hers, sat in front of the fire, ate a chocolate orange and watched Frozen. We’d been to the shop to buy matching pyjamas because we didn’t have any and I slept over. We just reverted back. On one occasion an old mate walked past the end of the drive of the house we were shooting in, and we asked her to come back the next day to be an extra. That was her day off – she’s a solicitor, she’s got a proper job – but she dressed as a paramedic for us. We roped in everyone we knew. If you keep watching the credits at least three Whittakers show up. People couldn’t say it was too far to travel: “No it isn’t, we’re at the bottom of your road.”
Is making a low-budget independent film liberating or challenging?
Within those constraints it was an incredibly free environment. There was a huge learning curve for everyone because it was Rachel’s first feature as director, Rachael Deering’s first feature, my first time as an executive producer, but that meant it was a baby for all of us. We had lots of obstacles – losing the light, child hours, horrific weather, I was starting to show, and there wasn’t even a heater in the shed – and we overcame them together. By the end I was coming up to five months pregnant, so it was a precarious time. It felt like the start of a new part in my life. I was cold and tired and excited.
At this point you’ve been a working actress for eleven years. What has been the most important thing you’ve learned?
You’ve got to move forward. It’s all about pushing yourself and discovering new things and not putting up any guards. I would be devastated if I suddenly relied on a tried-and-tested performance. But then I’m lucky because I get to work a lot with totally different material. I could name five jobs I’ve done which are the polar opposite of each other. You’ve got to throw yourself in and trust the director. That in itself is exciting! To put your fate in someone’s hands. It’s quite scary, and can be frustrating, but it’s so rewarding because someone sees you in a way you can’t see yourself. You need to be aware enough to give yourself over to the process. I think I’ve got a good instinct. I’ve said yes to the right things. There’s loads of stuff that I’m sure in hindsight I’d say I’m a dickhead for not going in for, but then I wouldn’t have got those jobs anyway because they wouldn’t have seen what they needed to see.
Is that because ultimately your job has to start with you being passionate about something?
Yes, but that’s only because I’m in a fortunate position. It’d be very different if I hadn’t worked for a couple of years. At this stage if I get sent something and I don’t want to do it I don’t have to, and that might not always be the case. I’m very aware of my age, I’m very aware of my sex. I understand that the industry in its limited, frustrating way means that I will get to a point where I’m too old and have the wrong genitals to be in things, which is ridiculous. That’s a part of it sadly, but at this moment in time I feel properly in my skin, and I’m playing parts that I can really care about.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-One.
Like a thunderous punk song that’s over before it’s really begun, Green Room can be surmised in a single slight phrase: neo-Nazis versus punks. Jeremy Saulnier’s siege horror concerns a struggling band who find themselves trapped in a far-right dive bar, trying to fend off a murderous gang led by an against-type Patrick Stewart. While Green Room is an unabashed, whippet-thin genre exercise, it has been patently crafted with a great deal of care: ahead of its release, we spoke to its thoughtful writer-director about making the film.
Punk has been a part of youth subculture for decades but it’s rare to actually see punks as the heroes of a film. Have they had a raw deal cinematically?
Maybe they have. It’s definitely a danger when you get mired in punk rock. I grew up in that scene, but the whole premise for this film was to use that as a world and make it as authentic as possible, then let it shift to the background. Lot of things are taken from my personal experience and high school friends that were in touring bands. My band never actually toured the country so I don’t have those stories, but I’ve played in Mexican restaurants to seven people. I’ve yelled into microphones. I think if you make your film about punks and for punks you lose a lot of the audience. The sneaky, subversive way to get punks on screens to not oversell that element. It’s more about the characters. Green Room is about a war with professionals on one side of the door and amateurs on the other.
How much research did you do into far-right organisations? There are lots of details like the hierarchical use of red bootlaces that seemed very specific.
Everything was researched and true in some way or another, but I took from different organisations and filtered it. I didn’t model them after any one existing group, not just because I don’t want to start any fights. I certainly used neo-Nazis as a background layer, but the film is more about highlighting the power structure in the current American rightwing mainstream. The wealthy few use misinformation and certain techniques to channel real problems and anger downward, so they get to keep their hands clean and protect their interests as carnage goes back and forth.
It seems that the obvious route would be to make Patrick Stewart’s Darcy violent and mercurial, but he’s scarier because he acts in a businesslike fashion. How did you envision the character?
I saw his motivation as being practical self-preservation. He’s not a sinister villain who’s sadistic. You can call him evil but it’s because of his indifference, protecting his own assets above the lives of others. What’s scary is that he’s calm, professional and not emotional as far as the brutal violence in the film. He’s not having fun torturing these kids, murdering people, but he’ll do it if he thinks has to. Patrick told me that it was the most quiet performance he’d ever given on stage or screen. He was worried that we wouldn’t be able to get the sound.
You waited six years to make your previous film Blue Ruin, and it was funded in part with a successful Kickstarter campaign but also by refinancing your house and putting in your own money. After its success, is making a film still life or death when you’re in more favourable circumstances?
The stakes seemed even higher because Green Room was a much bigger movie. I wanted to hurry up and capitalise off the momentum of Blue Ruin and not take the bait of developing projects in Hollywood, where I might spend three years to not make a movie. It was another risk, and because it was with other people’s money it was actually more discomforting.
Do you think steady career accumulation is important? The current trend is for massive tentpole movies to be directed by emerging independent directors who aren’t given a great deal of control. Did you ever feel the temptation to not do your own work but to pitch for a Star Wars spin-off or something?
I’ve definitely always wanted to do a big studio project, but I think the practical way for me to do that would be to incrementally make bigger movies and earn the faith of people so that the time I hit a high budget I’m trusted. What I don’t want to do is come on as a director for hire and get tossed around and make a piece of garbage. A lot of younger directors get brought up through the system too soon and they produce a watered-down disaster that no-one likes and they get blamed for it. I’m very cautious about who I partner up with because I want to make sure that when I make a movie it’s mine. I want to earn that place so people will give over control. It’s dangerous when you do anything by committee. A film has to have a voice and there has to be someone to preserve that voice.
You once described Blue Ruin as “bridging the gap between cerebral cinema and gut-punching exploitation,” which could also fit Green Room. What’s interesting to you about that space?
There was just a void. It’s about making entertaining movies that elicit an emotional, physical response as much as an intellectual one. I’ve been to so many films that are smart yet just don’t move me. Much of the audience has shifted to TV, but what you can’t do in a season of television is create a singular experience – a crazy wild ride, a night of madness and mayhem. It’s about the collective shared theatrical experience. My approach is from the audience perspective. Let’s make a traditional genre film that’s got exploitation elements and all that fun gritty stuff, but not underestimate viewers and treat them like imbeciles. Often in genre films audiences roll their eyes at the protagonists because they’re doing things to satisfy the story and not themselves, so I wanted have real people doing what real people might do in that situation. A lot of the notes you get when you’re trying to sell a screenplay will just nudge a film back to standard tropes. It’s boring and when you have the opportunity to make something original, all you’ve got to do is veer off course suddenly and then you open up this whole new horizon of possibilities. I believe that audiences love to be freed from conventions and they respond to it.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
For those lucky to have seen Lucile Hadžihalilović’s directorial debut, Innocence, the past dozen years have felt unjustly long. What seemed in 2004 like the emergence of a strange, exciting new cinematic voice was followed by silence, which has only now been broken with the release of her second feature, Evolution. Giving a satisfactory description of the film is a distinct challenge, one that feels like when you try to convey a dream that slips from your mind just as you grasp for it. There is a nameless, nearly deserted island, a hospital, a ten-year-old boy, his mother, bizarre medical trials, and starfish, all existing within a discrete, hermetically-sealed world. “It’s about a different way—of living, of dying, of reproducing,” the director offers. “Here, the human being is not in the centre.”
Beyond that, you’re on your own, and this can only be a good thing: Evolution’s pleasures lie in its beautiful, horrifying murk. As Lucile explains, however, achieving the freedom to make the film her way was its own struggle.
Why was there such a gap between Innocence and Evolution?
I would have never thought it would be so long. Mainly the problem was getting it financed. I’ve been very surprised at the film’s good reactions because when we wrote the script it was so hard to make people understand what it could be. Most of the time they’d say they didn’t get it.
With a film where so much is intentionally unclear, what was it like to get through the funding process, where people wanted answers you didn’t want to give?
It was a big strain because the ambiguity and the mystery are part of the thing. We tried to make it more understandable and a bit more obvious, to give vague answers so they could get it, even if we took them out afterwards. But making it more explicit was also a dangerous process—sometimes when you explain something you break it.
My initial questions after watching Evolution were about the meaning of certain things, but I concluded that I didn’t actually need to know your explanations. What do you think is the value of ambiguity in cinema?
I think that people can understand this film even if they don’t understand, let’s say, the story itself. The story for me is a superficial thing. It’s not the important element. When I watch a film as an audience member, I like to have to get involved in it and make it mine, to find my own way to understand it. I’m not saying that a film should be an empty space that you have to fill, but it’s about being a bit more active. You keep it longer in your head. For instance, I don’t understand everything in David Lynch’s Eraserhead and—at the same time—I believe I understand what it’s about. It’s stayed with me because there are mysteries and places where I can work.
Evolution and Innocence feel like they’re in conversation with each other—both deal with the idea of pre-pubescent children being groomed for something potentially sinister. What do you like about returning to the same themes?
It’s not intentional. I have one project I want to make at the moment, which is my own story, but it also has many elements that are very linked to this film. And there’s also a book I’d like to adapt. It’s interesting because it’s like being outside of yourself, but that choice is probably because there are things in the book that resonate with me too. Even if you try to go some other way, I guess it’s hard to escape from yourself.
Over your career you’ve tackled many production roles from editing to writing. How is film-making different when you’re the director?
When it’s my own film, it’s really difficult because it’s as if I have my whole house on my shoulders. Each decision is like cutting a hand. When it’s other people’s projects, I feel more freedom. It’s sometimes more playful as I don’t feel as involved. I do it very seriously, but it’s not my life. I get a lot of ideas; it gives me oxygen. I enjoy working for other people because it’s a chance to take a holiday from my own head.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty. To read the original article click here.
Having sex with a lot of people at the same time is, inevitably, going to produce some complications. The teenage protagonists of Eva Husson’s debut feature discover this when they attempt to stave off ennui by playing Truth or Dare, an act that escalates into group sex and then into a series of regular orgies. Social media further exacerbates the understandable tensions that arise from their empathogen-fuelled swinging, as online documentation of their actions exposes them to classmates seeking to shame while also being titillated. Given the frankness of her film—and its provocative title Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)—it is not a surprise that Eva is equally forthright and unsparing in person.
What drew you to this story for your directorial debut?
I wanted something with subject matter that wouldn’t get lost in the sea of films. I understood that it was going to be quite important to have something that could grab people’s attention. That made me think about what kind of story could start a path for me in feature films. I had a pretty intense adolescence myself, not with collective sex but with drugs. I experimented a lot, as did people around me. We all turned out to be fine young adults with responsibilities and interesting jobs and I was keen on exploring what it’s like to go through something extremely intense that feels like the beginning of the end, but then you get through it, and you grow up and find your boundaries. In 1996, I came across a story similar to the film’s that stuck with me. I tried to find something else because I knew it was going to be so hard to finance, but I kept coming back to the idea.
The film is called Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story). What’s modern about it? Is it the way the teenagers use technology?
The part that’s modern is the context, which is what makes the story different from what it would have been twenty or forty years before. We live in the age of a revolution the same size as Gutenberg and printing, where the whole way we communicate has changed because of the tools we have. Everything teenagers learn is new and different now. They’re at the forefront of a wave, with tools that nobody has dealt with before. They don’t know how powerful, damaging or incredible they can be, so they’re making all the mistakes.
In your research did you speak to any teenagers about technology?
I observed them and how technology was affecting their way of communicating. I didn’t want to overblow a fad and make something bigger that it might be, but I realised that the principles of YouTube, Facebook and Instagram were going to affect a whole generation, even if the companies disappear tomorrow.
It must be difficult to balance depicting the film’s action without doing so in a sensationalistic way. How do you show a group of teenagers having multiple orgies and not make that look exploitative? It was a big question for myself. I tried to stick with what was important to the main character of that scene. At one point it’s the character Alex, for example—I stuck to what happens around him and how he feels about it. By sticking to the story, I tried to not be gratuitous about anything sex-wise because—honestly—I didn’t see the point. In 2016 you’ve seen everything you can see of human anatomy. In modern cinema, showing genitals is just useless; porn does that very well by itself.
How did you get all the actors comfortable with what they were doing? What sort of atmosphere did you create on set?
It’s not what you ask on set, it’s everything you do before. Casting was the essential thing. I worked on trust. The actors saw work that I’d directed and they knew that I wasn’t after shock value. I talked to every single actor beforehand so they would understand that I’d never make them do anything that would make them uncomfortable. If anyone wanted to stop it was their right, because my point was not to force anyone to go too far.
We rehearsed all those sex scenes with clothes on, choreographically, so that they would use their bodies like dancers. Where is your body in the space and how can you make the best use of that space? After that, once we were on set, being naked just added extra value to their performances.
The narrative of Bang Gang punishes the characters for having sex with whomever they want to: there’s one girl who contracts syphilis, is publicly shamed and then sent away to boarding school. Is it moralising for you to show teenage sex as ultimately having only negative consequences?
I think whether or not you think it’s moralising depends on how much you project onto the film. The majority of people tell me the opposite. They think that it’s not judgemental and that you follow what the characters go through factually, rather than in a moral sense. I would tend to go with that. If you sleep with twenty guys, statistically you’re going to get a STD. It’s a fact of life. There’s nothing wrong or good about it, it’s just there. Statistically, girls who have sex without condoms, a couple of them will get pregnant. For me there is nothing moralising about the film, it’s more about the difficulties you have to face in life and what you do with them.
You need understanding and sympathy because life is hard for everybody, whether you’re beautiful or fat or ugly. It’s fucking hard and everybody makes mistakes and everybody has a wall to hit. I wanted to see what walls they were hitting and how we could accompany them along the way. I chose characters who decided that it wasn’t the end of the world. They saw how much they could push their limits and now they’re on their way to becoming young adults. It’s heightened, but I think that’s the point of fiction: to heighten things so you can see better how life works. It’s another tool in navigating the complexity of human emotions, which are incredibly hard to understand.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty.
It seems fitting that talking to Hirokazu Kore-eda closely resembles the experience of watching his films. The august Japanese director and his work share the same quiet, gentle, contemplative qualities: our conversation was filled with long pauses as he carefully weighed his thoughts. There is something respectful in the act, which finds its match in his films’ humanism.
Kore-eda’s latest, Our Little Sister, is no exception. A drama about three house-sharing sisters who invite their teenage half-sister to move in after their father’s death, it delicately explores the inner lives of its characters and the complications and joys of sisterly relationships. Ahead of its release, we spoke to the director about making the film.
Our Little Sister is based on Akimi Yoshida’s manga Umimachi Diary. What about the story made you want to turn it into a film?
I’m a fan of Akimi Yoshida so I’ve read all of her work, not with the intention of adapting any of it at all. I normally write original scripts so it’s rare for me to adapt other people’s work. It’s not something I look for, but as I read this particular one I knew that it would make a great film and that other people would be trying to make it too. I really wanted to do it myself, which doesn’t happen often so I trusted it.
The film’s key dramatic action is the death of the estranged father, which takes place before the story even begins. Your work often look at the aftermath of a big event rather than at the event itself. What interests you about that approach?
You’re right that I’m attracted to the aftermath of events. I wonder why. It’s quite difficult to explain. Portraying people left behind and how they deal with that is interesting to me. I started as a documentary film-maker, and when I was 28 the first documentary I made was about a man who committed suicide. There was a big scandal in Japan about factory poisoning causing Minamata disease. He’d worked in the ministry of the environment, felt responsible and killed himself. The documentary was shot, of course, after his death, so while it was about him it was more about how his wife coped. That was my first proper film and I wrote a nonfiction book about it too, so maybe that’s how I became drawn to aftermath as an idea. Sadness and new hopes are always together. I’m moved by the duality of life, that losses come with gains too.
What I like most about your work is that it’s deeply humane. All of the characters in Our Little Sister naturally show kindness towards each other in both big and small ways. Why is the kindness between people important for you to depict?
“Why?” questions are the very hardest for me to answer. I was attracted to how the characters accept each other. The sisters are able to accept their late father’s weaknesses, and the younger sister who felt guilty about her existence eventually accepts that it’s okay for her to be alive. Kindness is reflected in acceptance. In Japanese society, maybe that is something that’s disappearing. Everybody just wants to fight each other. I want to show that it’s possible to accept others and therefore to be kind.
The film depends on the audience believing the relationship between the four sisters. How did you work with the actresses to make it feel authentic?
It’s a combination of a few factors. We shot over a ten-month period to capture the different seasons and in between the girls did a lot of things together, they went to see movies or went for meals. They bonded quite well away from the filming. What also contributed is that I interviewed a lot of real sisters about their relationships and incorporated the research into my depiction. What came out of those interviews was that, certainly in Japan, a lot of the quarrels between sisters were about clothes – who borrowed what and who’s wearing what.
At this point you’ve been making fiction films for twenty years. Do you think what you’re fundamentally interested in is the same or has it changed at all over that time? Are the things that excited you about film-making in 1995 the same things that excite you now?
I think it has evolved through the years. It’s not the same as it was originally. From a viewer’s point of view I can’t quite say how my work has changed, however. It may or may not be related to the way that cinema has changed over that period too. To bring in a baseball analogy, though: if you’re a young pitcher you’d just throw straight with speed, but as you get older, two decades later you might start to throw curveballs. The sheer power can’t continue over twenty years. So now I may try to do different tricks and throw some curveballs. That’s an analogy, but it reflects what’s changed within me. The more I make films the more confused I get, but it gets more fun, too.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
After four decades of abortive attempts, J.G. Ballard’s dystopic 1975 novel High-Rise has finally made it to cinemas. Set in a near future that happens to be the 1970s, the film depicts a luxury tower block as it becomes isolated and descends into savage factionalism. Amid a cast of morally ambiguous residents, the film’s nominal protagonist is Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a pragmatic survivor who is able to navigate intricate class loyalties and unafraid to eat dogs when he needs to.
One of the main reasons that Ballard has proved resistant to cinematic adaptation is that his formally inventive prose is so idiosyncratic that it requires an equally distinctive film-maker to successfully translate it. In the case of High-Rise, it required two: director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump, the husband and wife team behind Sightseers, Kill List and A Field in England, who are among Britain’s most promising and ambitiously imaginative film-makers. Ahead of High-Rise’s release, we spoke to Ben about his work on the film and having faith in his own voice.
High-Rise is often deliberately disorientating. How did you strive to get the tone?
It’s kind of a taste thing and it’s also intuition, how you make it all balance out. There was a lot of watching the movie again and again. During the six months that we cut the film, it was assembled within two months and the rest of the time we watched it every day, editing for thirteen, fourteen hours at a time. Every little change rippled up the whole movie, so we couldn’t really alter anything without watching it all. That’s a bastard on something that’s two hours long, but it was the only way. We created the tone frame by frame across the whole running time.
It must be difficult to get critical distance at that point. When you’ve been working on a movie for years and you’re watching it every day, how do you know what’s right for it?
Because that’s the job, you know? There are ways of working where you throw yourself at the mercy of groups of people and surrender your authorship, but I can’t imagine ever working like that. There’s two of us editing it, Amy and I, and she’s written it as well, so there’s enough oversight that that wouldn’t happened. Amy is particularly ferocious when it comes to cutting. She’ll strip it down and strip it down until it’s as hard as a diamond. And then when we’re happy with it ourselves, that’s when we stop.
On a film like High-Rise everyone can have an opinion on what they’d change, but that doesn’t necessarily make the film better, it just makes it different. We wanted to make sure that the translation of our taste and our decisions to the screen was as unfettered as possible. Where things go wrong is if you start taking on other people’s ideas: even if in the moment they might be right, by the time you get to the end your film is slightly fucked because it doesn’t have a proper viewpoint. It needs one voice, for better or for worse. We stand by ours, and it might not be to everybody’s taste but that’s just tough. If you feel too afraid and try to double guess what the audience are going to want then you’ve already lost. You’ve got to assume that the audience is within you. What you’re doing as a creator is producing stuff that you want to see and then making the assumption that others will feel the same way.
The residents of the tower block all have very different objectives, so are we supposed to identify with certain people and not others? How much sympathy do you wish for the audience to have for the characters?
I’d like to think that I’m even-handed. That’s important, as part of the emotional realism of a film is that the director isn’t short-changing the characters and setting them up to fail. Audiences can detect that really quickly, and life isn’t like that because everyone has shades of grey. One character commits an awful act later in the film, but at the same time he’s a human being and though he does despicable, terrible things it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything he’s ever done is despicable and terrible. It’s very safe to imagine that people who do bad things are evil, and I don’t think that’s true.
Other than the change in mediums, the most significant difference is perhaps that book takes place in the 1970s, while the film is set there. What interested you about that?
That’s true, but then the book is also a predictive fiction to the near future. It was written in about 1974, so it’s predicting somewhere between 1978 and 1983. We made the decision to not do the same and set it in our near future because too much of the technology would break the central core of the book. Social media totally destroys the idea of being able to hide away in a tower block somewhere going crazy because everyone would know about it.
We thought it was a look from our perspective of being born in the 1970s, knowing that our parents would have been like these characters, around the same age. At this point we’re in the far future ahead of the story looking back, so we have an insight into what happens after its events. It’s almost like we’re reaching back from the future to join the book, and from that position is where the film exists.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Victoria is Sebastian Schipper’s formally brilliant, logistically jaw-dropping fourth feature. Unfolding in one single take and shot when most of Berlin was sleeping, it is an audacious crime thriller.
Shots are the base unit of film-making: a movie is usually comprised of a number of shots of varying lengths, so when a film is all just one shot then it’s going to have a significantly different effect. What’s the value of shooting a whole film in one take without any cheating?
For me it’s not a technical thing. Cinema is something you watch with your nervous system. You don’t watch it with the brain, or even the heart. You’re sitting in your seat and you can’t avoid what you’re seeing. You can’t escape cinema. It’s a highly emotional, very direct experience regardless of whether it has a lot of cuts or none. I made a film without cuts but that doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day I don’t care. My film has to transcend the idea that there are no cuts, just like other films have to transcend the idea that they have cuts, that they’ve been shot over the course of two months in all kinds of places that do not belong with each other. It’s a huge challenge for a film to feel like it isn’t fake because every film is incredibly manufactured, mine included.
How does that approach relate to performance? Towards the end of the film there’s a moment of jubilation and release that might not have been as easy to capture without the actors having an hour and a half run-up to it.
I think actors are like charismatic wildlife with really colourful feathers, and then they’re discovered and the next thing they know they’re put in a cage, and that cage is called a trailer. So they wait in the trailer and then they’re led to set which is the circus, and they do their tricks and then they go back to the trailer again. Maybe it’s a bit of a dramatic statement but I opened their cages and said “Come on out, let’s do this together. I’m not going to bring you out every hour for ten minutes.” Whether they needed the ramp of a whole film I don’t know but what they needed was to be fully in charge. As their director I couldn’t own what they were doing, couldn’t tell them to smile a little more, smile a little less, talk a little louder, be a little funnier. What we call micromanagement they did by themselves. I was more like a coach and less like a director.
Is it difficult to give up that kind of control? Does it go against your instincts as a director?
There’s always a bargain between actors and directors. It’s a deal: “If I give you that you’ve got to give me this.” In the first two takes when it didn’t work I thought it was a really bad deal, but in the third one they pulled off scenes I couldn’t have written. When they did it right I loved it because I knew they were really flirting, really falling in love, really being bored, really showing who the characters were. I didn’t get to control every little bit but there was a large and wonderful harvest that was fantastic to see. I’m 47. Could I have written an entire script for this kind of film? Yes, I could have done that, but maybe I would have sugar-coated being young, or made it more harsh. Even the actors couldn’t have written it. The film wasn’t based on paper, it was based on me talking to them, them talking to me, all of us talking together.
How did things work logistically during the take? Were there people setting the next scene as you went along?
It was all ready to go from the beginning. The crew worked all night to prep everything and by the time we started at around 04:20 everybody was waiting. The ambulance that shows up one hour and forty minutes into the film – the ambulance that we only see come around one corner at one point – they were there when we started shooting, eating doughnuts, waiting for their moment.
Locations are chosen for more conventional films because they’re appropriate and look good, but presumably you had to find places that were within a short travelling distance of each other. How did that factor into your pre-production?
The body of the story was developed during the process. It wasn’t like everything was in a script and we had to find places to fit, but sometimes we were just trying to find anywhere that worked. There’s a bank in a key scene that I never really liked. I wanted one that was a little more bank-looking. Now I really love it. It’s a stupid little bank and that feeds into the believability of it. Too often when you direct you’re enlarging. At some point what that does is inform people that they’re watching a film. It all just feels like a movie: everything’s a little brighter and funnier and larger than life. But life has a pretty good momentum. It can have a pretty solid punch by itself without amplifying everything.
The dialogue is largely in English. It’s an interesting choice because it’s not the first language of any of the characters, so every conversation is a little imprecise and broken. What was your thinking behind that?
That’s how it is in Berlin. You could live there for five years without learning German. You don’t really have to because everybody knows English. It sums up travelling for me. Travelling in Europe is a big thing for a lot of people from all over the world, and on my travels as a German in my early twenties I would meet some guys from Belgium or some girls from Italy on a beach in France and we would speak English like that. There’s something very charming about it, very young.
Originally published in Curzon Magazine Issue 55.
Nina Forever is constructed around a single elegant metaphor. Depressed supermarket employee Rob (Cian Barry), still mourning the death of his girlfriend, begins an uncertain relationship with his co-worker Holly (Abigail Hardingham), but whenever they try to have sex Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) comes back to life to harangue the couple. The internal is made physical: Rob’s grief assumes physical form, and it’s that of the loved one he’s lost, appearing naked, bloody and sardonic at the symbolic event of him attempting to moving on
With its ambitious visual language and sensitive depiction of bereavement, Nina Forever is the striking feature debut of Chris and Ben Blaine. We spoke to the brothers about lost loves and the benefits of close collaboration.
Bereavement is a sad, dramatic topic, but the film is also funny with horrific elements. Was it difficult to balance that tonally?
Chris Blaine: Not really. Partly it’s a function of how we write, in a variety of different moods all at once, but I think it came out of our experience of grief. Often in films grief is the bit where you’re sad and you look at the dead leaves and you go for a walk by yourself, and we both found that it was incredibly sad but also weirdly funny and terrifying. You have this strange embarrassment and almost magnetic sense of feeling everything all at once.
Ben Blaine: You also feel incredibly horny because you’ve lost someone and there’s this big gap. So much of it is that presence of the person, their touch and their feel and their smell, so you’ve just got this desire and you kind of latch on to the next person that you see. I think Rob does that, where he’s not jumping into this thing because he’s thought about it, but because there’s something deep within that craves the attention of someone else. He’s lacking it from the person he really wants to still be there.
So many of Nina Forever’s most crucial scenes take place during sex scenes that are using lots of practical effects. There’s blood everywhere and the cast are all naked, and you’re trying to tell an emotional story. How did you accomplish that?
BB: It was a challenge but one we knew we were getting into, and I think it was one of the things that excited us about making the film. We liked the idea of these scenes where the characters are totally honest and everything is absolutely stripped away both physically and emotionally. It was very difficult, that mixture of sex scenes with naked actors and the technical challenge of it all, but the emotions gave us something to steer us through. We could focus in on that, so we knew where our priorities were in the scenes. We knew that what really mattered was that the audience understands how these people are feeling, and as long as we were getting that we were on the right course.
As a film-making team how do you divide your labour? Do you do tasks together or do they naturally separate?
CB: In terms of writing we used to try to do individual passes of scripts, but we found that the best thing for us was to be in the same room and to talk about it constantly, and that’s kind of how we do things all the way through to the edit. It’s really liquid and it’s not like there are assigned jobs. We slowly but surely we keep improving on each other’s ideas because we’re talking about the ideas rather than the words on the page.
BB: It’s easy to fall in love with the way you’ve written something, and easy therefore to forget that no-one’s going to see the script. The script is a blueprint and often not a particularly useful one, and so we find ways to talk about the ideas that we’re actually going to put to the audience. Similarly that fluidity extends to the actors and the crew. It becomes a creative space for everybody who works with us, and anyone can come up with ideas.
That makes a lot of sense: the creative process starts as a conversation rather than the choices of a single person, and so it can easily expand.
CB: We really enjoy that. It’s one of the things about film-making that’s so great, the fact that you’re working with loads of other people and it’s not just you on your own. You’ve got a full cast and crew around you and crew who are all coming up with magical stuff and it makes the work and the experience so much better.
Never one to repeat himself, Lenny Abrahamson (Adam & Paul, Garage, What Richard Did) follows his frequently hilarious dark comedy Frank with a stunning adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s bestselling thriller.
The premise of Room is bleak, but one of the reasons the viewing experience isn’t is because it’s presented from five-year old Jack’s perspective. Was that part of the book’s appeal?
Yes, that’s what hooked me into it. I just thought how clever it was to turn a miserable story of a crime into a meditation on universal aspects of experience like childhood and growing up and particularly the nature of parental love. My boy was not far off the age of Jack when I read the novel and that made a big impression. By putting a parent/child relationship under the kind of pressure that it’s under in the film, it shows you its contours in ways that are harder to discern in a more conventional setting. Ma’s sense of claustrophobia about having Jack, and her desire to not have that responsibility, that’s something that parents experience and don’t talk about very much. The story wasn’t afraid of the anger that parents can feel towards kids and kids can feel towards parents and the punishing intensity of that relationship.
It’s rare for an author to adapt their own work but you and Emma Donoghue worked together closely on the screenplay. What was the experience like?
People always expect the writer and the director to have fallen out by the time a film gets released, but we’ve become very good friends. I really enjoyed the process. Emma’s extremely generous: she was never protective over how she achieved what she achieved in the book, so she was open to finding different ways which took advantage of the native capacities of film. Quite often I was arguing for things from the book to go back into the screenplay.
Was there an element of the novel that you were keen to protect?
I wanted to capture those aspects of Jack’s point of view that are essential to the story, because that’s what gives it metaphorical power: you recognise that this is an analysis of what constitutes a childhood, and all childhoods involve an imperfect bubble of protection that a parent provides yet through which darker shadows still fall. But the two have always been linked for me because I was imagining a film right from the first moment I read the novel. I remember how excited I was reading it, but what I was seeing was a combination of what the novel was doing and at the same time a projection of a possible film.
With much of the film unfolding in one small location, getting that space right must have been essential.
It’s hard for people to imagine how small the room really was, and we didn’t cheat. We didn’t take the walls out or anything like that. We had panels that we could remove if we wanted to get the lens back to the wall, but still your eye is always inside. I initially thought that we wouldn’t be able to do it in a room of that size, that we would have to build a bigger room and then we could make it look smaller. We built a rough version with movable walls so we could try different sizes, and actually the bigger version didn’t work. You need that constraint. It forced us to meet the task head on, which was to show that even a small space can constitute a world for a child. If you suggest a world by cheating with a not-small space then you haven’t answered that challenge. It did lead to logistical difficulties and it was very hard to do – when you have a lot of people in a tiny space, it gets really hot – but aesthetically it wasn’t compromising. I found it quite liberating. That’s the situation they’re in and therefore that’s what you should be filming.
The entire film rests on its two central performances, one of which is from a child. Is directing someone that young fundamentally the same process or did have to approach it in a different way?
It’s very different. You’re constantly saying “no” or “take your hand away from your mouth”. It’s like being a parent. I had to keep things very calm, very easy, never lose my temper. Jacob was seven when we met and helping him get that performance was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve done as a filmmaker. I’ve never worked as intimately with any other actor. I was absolutely with him on every line. I feel that between the two of us, we pushed it pretty much as far as you can go performance-wise with a child of that age – that’s about as sophisticated as you can get.
That was a combination of his unbelievable talent and then finding ways of helping him because he’s still this distractable, sometimes shy boy with a limited understanding of what’s really happening, with the little tics that all kids have: he might have been very blinky one day or sniffy or the wig was annoying him, but we had to get past all of that. Sometimes I literally had to tell him to hold a position and keep his eyes open as wide as he could while I counted to ten, and then sometimes he would do a whole scene with superb choices and perfect timing and you go “this is it!”, like teaching your kid how to ride a bike and they’re wobbling all day and then suddenly they scoot off down the road.
Published in Curzon Issue 54. To read the original article click here.
For the past three decades Guy Maddin has operated on the farthest reaches of cinema, employing the film-making techniques of silent and early films in service of creating intoxicating, blissfully confusing works. The late Roger Ebert, as he often did, summed Guy up perfectly: ‘You have never seen a film like this before, unless you have seen other films by Guy Maddin.’
Guy’s latest work, The Forbidden Room, is his most ambitious to date: growing out of an online project to recreate lost films, it is a compendium of stories that travels deeper and deeper within itself.
A strange, sexy and comic sensorial assault, The Forbidden Room is almost certainly the only film ever to feature the dream of a murdered man’s moustache, or a story told by a character’s deceased ex-boyfriend who has transformed into a blackened banana. Ahead of its release today, we spoke to Guy about raising the dead.
What was the genesis of The Forbidden Room?
Back in late 2010 I had started this internet interactive project called Seances, without any notion that The Forbidden Room might ever exist. The plan was to shoot in public my own adaptations of about 100 lost movies or lost movie fragments, and I’d lined up a few museums where I’d do this. It would be financed through Telefilm Canada, this fantastically generous state-run film funding body, but it involved them bending their rules to go beyond their maximum allowable grants for new media projects. It was essentially as costly as a film, and after 36 days’ worth of shooting Telefilm became uncomfortable and told me the only way we could continue is if I produced a feature film too. In April next year I’ll break everything up into little bits and upload them into the Seances interactive, but meanwhile we figured out a way of fitting together all the pieces in a way that made some sense to me.
It might not make immediate sense to viewers though, who may feel they’re being presented with a welter, or being tossed into a storm of narrative after two hours of which they’re washed up on a shore having barely survived drowning, but that’s how it came about. There was a practical, bureaucratic ordaining of the feature. I think it might be the only case in peacetime where a film has been ordered into existence by the government.
Did being forced to make the film help or hinder the creative process?
I loved it. The directors of westerns – which only have about five moving parts – would often say that the restrictions were very liberating, and it’s true. When you’re faced with too much choice it’s paralysing, but it’s strangely freeing to have restrictions. And I had extreme restrictions: I had to take the footage I’d already shot and figure out a way for it to make one film. Luckily they were all written and directed by the same people with the same temperament, the same world view, the same sense of masculinity and gender politics.
No matter the genre of the lost film or the actors, the passive or active tenor of each one, each film seemed to be about the same things. Even though there was something like forty different protagonists they are also maybe playing the same man: gripped by the male gaze but a little vaginaphobic, trying to navigate through a fearsome world with bulging eyeballs.
I don’t know. I’m not going to analyse my own film, it’s just the way I felt while making it. In the writers’ room we gave free rein to our dreams, our fears, our autobiographical humiliations. So it was a simple matter of fitting thematic parts together so that the 17 fragments of lost movies, even if they are disparate, all seem to point in the same direction.
What was appealing about resurrecting lost films? Is there something interesting about early cinema or were you attracted to the idea of a film being lost?
At first I told myself I was haunted, that the complete works of Murnau and Hitchcock and Lang weren’t available and I was haunted by the missing pieces. I’ve always been intrigued to try to figure out time’s great flow through the twentieth century by the changing context of pop culture, film especially. However, I discovered that what really excited me was that there was a mother lode of fascinating narrative free for the taking. No-one else wanted it. No-one else was interested. I could have it, so I took it. I think it was greed mostly.
As a matter of fact when some lost films have been discovered I’ve actually felt disappointed, even angered in one case. In Paris I was going to shoot Hello Pop!, a lost Technicolor Three Stooges movie. I was really excited about shooting an all-female version with Elina Löwensohn as Moe and the film was discovered a couple of days before we shot. I was ghoulishly disappointed, so you could hardly say I’m haunted by the loss of cinema if I’m pissed off when some of it gets found. I came to recognise that it was some sort of mania, like a dream in which you find a pound note on the ground and then discover another and another and the next thing you know you’ve got all this free money. I felt like I was fiending for narrative, and I had this all to myself. I didn’t want anyone else to have it.
As I watched The Forbidden Room I felt like it could go on indefinitely – I don’t mean that as a criticism – rather it’s the result of its structure, the way it goes deeper and deeper within itself. How did you construct the film and how did you find your way back out again?
The structure is one of the things I love about the film but it’s also a problem. It’s got three acts and there’s a story within a story within a story: you go six stories deep in the first act, work your way down to the very centre and then back out again, then in act two you work your way down through nine narratives and back out again, and then in the third penetrating thrust you work your way down through another nine and pull out and climax. I may have gone too far this time. The trouble is I’m still introducing whole new stories with fifteen minutes to go! It gives the viewer no conventional indication of ending any time soon. I hope in the future people feel free to dip in and watch for a while here and there.
Had I known from the beginning that it was going to be a feature film that probably would have affected the writing so that we could have given an indication. But you’re right, it could have gone on forever. We shot so much footage that I could have easily made another five or six feature films.
The Forbidden Room is in a fixed state but Seances will create bespoke randomised short films that destroy themselves after viewing. Why create art deliberately to be lost? Cinema isn’t an ephemeral medium – do you like the idea of making it so?
I think there’s a growing, possibly falsely confident sense that everything will last forever now and everything will be kept. I wanted to reintroduce a sense of loss into cinema, and if someone watches one of these things and the programme in the randomness of matters produces something really enjoyable, it would create a sense of pleasure as that person watches the film slip off into oblivion. It might be giving something to the internet that it’s been missing. The missing has been missing! We’ll see. It’s just a big experiment. I feel for the first time in my life that I am experimenting. There are so many variables in this thing. No mathematician would take it on. I like the fact that there are so many ball bearings rolling around on the floor that no-one knows what they’re going to get.
Does that feeling of experimentation come because of the interaction of two different mediums?
Yes, because it’s both. The project has one foot planted firmly in the analogue realm, in a big roiling puddle of film emulsion – I picture that foot in a rubber boot – and then the other foot is in the digital realm. It’s the 21stcentury and Internetty but it’s also ghosts, it’s ectoplasmic goo, and it’s definitely made out of emulsion. I just like something that’s exactly both.
You mentioned autobiographical elements arising when writing. If you’re recreating lost films and then randomly altering them, do they still remain personal?
I’m the medium through which these things come. Evan Johnson too, the co-writer and co-director. We’re the medium so it comes out in our voices and inevitably autobiographical details get stuck on the ectoplasmic flypaper. They come out in the scripts and in the direction and even in the gestures of the actors, although I didn’t really direct the actors – I just put them in a trance and slapped them on the ass and let ’em go for a day. I was acting as a spirit photographer.
It seems that each generation of Hollywood leading men is a response to the one that came before. Between the conflicted everyman anti-heroes of the 1970s and the six-pack touting Adonises of the superheroic present came a wave of actors ill at ease with their preternatural good looks, determined to appear slipshod at every available opportunity. Out of this crop, the quintessential masquerading movie star is surely Johnny Depp, who has been hiding himself beneath costumes, outlandish props and layers of makeup since his brooding breakthrough performance as the eponymous topiarist in Edward Scissorhands (1990).
This predilection for production design grew in concert with his box-office success: in the years following his Oscar-nominated role in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), the sight of Depp unembellished all but disappeared from screens. Inevitably, this has produced diminishing returns: as daring independent features were replaced by distended-but-lucrative blockbusters, he has increasingly given the impression of someone playing dress-up rather than actually acting, each new role bringing another implausible accent and elaborate costume festooned with knick-knacks and gewgaws. (His Tonto in The Lone Ranger  was just the latest in a long line of OTT get-ups.)
At first glance, Scott Cooper’s true crime drama Black Mass, based on a screenplay by Mark Mallouk and British playwright Jez Butterworth, suggests more of the same. As the infamous mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Depp is once again recognisably unrecognisable: chill blue eyes and damaged teeth sit beneath a balding pate on a wan horror show of a face. Starting in the mid-70s and continuing over two decades, the film follows Bulger – ruthless head of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang – as he attempts to become the city’s leading crime boss. In an incredible real-life twist, he was substantially aided in this ambition by his relationship with two men: his younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), president of the Massachusetts Senate, and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who persuaded the bureau to recruit Bulger as a major informant. Bulger, unsurprisingly, exploited this position to brutally eliminate his rivals as law enforcement officials consciously looked the other way. With his fingers clasped around Boston’s throat, it’s notable that Bulger himself doesn’t change a significant amount in the film, but instead causes a deep spiritual rot to take hold in those close to him.
Although he has always been drawn to outsiders, narcissists and grotesques, before Black Mass Depp has never played anyone quite so visually repellent. Where his recent screen visages have felt like affectations, here his appearance is in service of the character. Bulger’s ghoulish presence causes tangible discomfort in the people he meets, which the character employs to excruciating effect as a way to assert control through intimation. In one of the film’s stand-out scenes, he has a conversation with Connolly’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) that manages to be both calculatedly innocuous and completely threatening at the same time: despite his amorality and utter lack of empathy, Depp’s Bulger understands human behaviour all too well, aware that touching someone’s face can be as distressing as a brutal act of violence.
Any sprawling American film about organised crime produced today, even a richly satisfying one, finds itself at the disadvantage of standing within a long cinematic shadow. Escape comes only with some distinguishing element; in this case it is Depp’s complicated, vampiric performance – one of his strongest in years. In recent interviews, the actor has downplayed the idea that he’s doing anything different in Black Mass, but that’s not quite true: he’s palpably trying. It’s certainly a better look for him than face paint and a dead crow strapped to his head.
Published in Curzon Issue 53.
There’s a moment early in our conversation—I haven’t even ordered a cup of tea yet—where Amanda Foster tells me that she likes hanging from the bottom of helicopters. The way she says this is so straightforward and so casual that my mind immediately does a blunderbuss review of every person I’ve ever met. The results of my unscientific audit return a moment later: no, I don’t know anyone who has ever hung from the
bottom of a helicopter. Nor, for that matter, have I ever met anyone who has hung from the bottom of a sufficient number of helicopters that they can reasonably mention it in passing as an activity they enjoy. This is new.
Among her many skills, which include precision driving, martial arts and motorcycle racing, Amanda is a master of the understatement. “There was just an opening, really,” she replies when I ask how she became a stuntwoman. It wasn’t so much an opening as a void: as a 21-year-old extra on the set of the Harrison Ford thriller Patriot Games, she learned that there wasn’t a single black stuntwoman in the UK. She decided to
start training, and for the past eighteen years has reigned as Britain’s only registered stuntwoman of colour: performing in some 250 productions including franchises like Harry Potter and The Fast and the Furious.
Becoming a stunt performer is long, expensive and demanding: to get fully registered requires perfecting six different disciplines and receiving qualifications in each. “You have to be an all-rounder because no two jobs are exactly the same,” she explains. “You work under all kinds of different conditions: you can be inside, outside, in water, in the air. It can be dark, light, freezing cold, boiling hot. You might be inside a car, outside a car, underneath a car…”
Six years of training is a task made even harder when you’re a single mother of three young children, as Amanda was at the time. When I ask how she juggled the process with everything else in her life, she shrugs off the query: “Well, that’s all I knew, so I cracked on. I didn’t think too much into it. You just have to do it, don’t you?”
Over the course of our time together, this type of response is a common one. It is easy to mistake this apparent nonchalance for guardedness, but her attitude reveals itself to be gritty positivity. The most striking thing about Amanda is her single-minded determination—surely a necessity when your job involves getting blown up regularly. “It’s something I have inside me,” she says. “I have such a drive to achieve. I
need to overcome challenges. I don’t know what it is. I just have this hunger.”
The obvious question is one of the first I ask: how dangerous is it? Amanda is firm: she prefers to talk about the successes rather than the injuries. But she acknowledges that it’s a tough, unforgiving line of work: “There’s an element of danger to every stunt you do. You take the knocks. I have colleagues in wheelchairs with titanium hips. I have colleagues that have lost their lives. A good job is anything you can walk away from.” When she describes her work as being “literally blood, sweat and tears”, she isn’t using the word ‘literally’ incorrectly: “If I get injured on a job and can still use the parts of my body that work to finish that job, then I will finish it.”
In a diverse career, Amanda has focused on doubling work, which involves doing most of the stunts for a film’s lead female actor. The challenge becomes not just how to crash down a flight of stairs, execute a 180-degree J-turn in a car, or rappel from a building, but how to believably embody the person she’s doubling for. In an odd way, it mirrors the work that the actor herself does to get into character. “I like to try to move
like them so I’ll study them a lot,” she says. “I’m very aware of the camera when I’m shooting so I try to keep my face directly out of frame. If you can do all of that, then there’s more footage for the director to play with in the editing. It’s always good to go above and beyond and deliver something better than what they expected.”
The same determination that brought her through the long struggles of training and nearly two decades of stunt work has now found a new outlet, as Amanda has decided to train to become a clay pigeon shooter with hopes of making it to the Olympics. While she’s always loved shooting, she explains that the thrill for her is the challenge and the chance to master something new. “It’s a different kind of skill and I’m excited to learn it, perfect it and conquer it. I need to be tested.”
Unsurprisingly, the prospect of relentless practice and dealing with completely unfamiliar associations doesn’t seem to phase Amanda in the slightest. “I’m like a baby in the world of shooting, and that’s fine,” she says. “I don’t mind starting from scratch again. Life’s a challenge. I’m bordering on obsession at the moment. I want it. I really want it. And I think that’s probably a good place to start.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Seven. Photographs by Carl Bigmore. To read the original article click here.
More than 20 years after the release of his debut film Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino remains one of American cinema’s most distinctive and influential voices. With the release of his next feature The Hateful Eight fast approaching – either his eighth or ninth film, depending on how you’re counting – we’ve created a guide to the life and movies of the ostentatious, fast-talking director.
A IS FOR ACCIDENTS
The key element that unites Tarantino’s movies isn’t any of his stylistic idiosyncrasies or his exuberant film-making techniques but the way he thrills at the transgressive narrative potential of accidents. Demonstrating little interest in the idea of a hero’s journey, and divorced from the need to sustain a straight line of character development, he’s happy to construct a film as a procession of sequences. Accordingly, his characters are surrendered to the consequences of bizarre chance: life or death can depend on holding three fingers up the wrong way, a bump in the road while pointing a gun, a misplaced shoe, or the inopportune popping of a toaster.
B IS FOR BANDE À PART
Tarantino’s earliest act of cinematic appropriation came with the naming of A Band Apart, the production company he founded with Lawrence Bender in 1991. Much like when he would later take Reservoir Dogs‘ title from a mangling of the Louis Malle film Au revoir les enfants , the company’s name was adapted from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part. Godard’s film would be raided by the director again a few years later, when its famed “Madison dance” scene would provide the inspiration for John Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing the twist in Pulp Fiction.
C IS FOR CHUNGKING EXPRESS
In addition to his magpie tendency to craft films from rock and roll, surf music, bits of old movies, soul and half-remembered television programmes, Tarantino is an advocate for world cinema that might otherwise struggle to find an audience. In 1994 he created Rolling Thunder, a distribution company dedicated to foreign and independent films. Unfortunately Rolling Thunder was unable to last for more than a few years before it folded, but in that time they secured the American release of films including Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express and Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine.
D IS FOR DEATH LIST FIVE
A deadly former assassin seeks murderous revenge against the group that betrayed her. Her first task: admin. In a typically sly touch, Kill Bill‘s The Bride uses a notepad to produce a tidy list of her five targets, as if she might somehow forget. The director’s penchant for numbered groupings is one of his most reliable tics: Kill Bill also features the the “Crazy 88” Yakuza gang, while Mia Wallace’s failed TV pilot in Pulp Fiction concerns the “Fox Force Five.” The cousin of his fondness for character nicknames, this predilection has since grown to encompass an entire film: The Hateful Eight. It’s better than the foot fetish, at least.
E IS FOR EROTICA
“Let me tell you what Like a Virgin’s about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song, it’s a metaphor for big dicks.” Given his talent for self-promotion – surely the equal of his film-making abilities – it’s fitting that the very first voice heard in a Quentin Tarantino film is the man himself. As Mr Brown in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino delivers an attention-grabbing, instantly notorious monologue on the meaning behind the Madonna song. After seeing the film in 1992, the singer asked to meet with the director. He unsurprisingly couldn’t resist asking if his theory was correct. Signing his copy of the Erotica album, she gave her answer: “To Quentin. It’s not about dick, it’s about love. Madonna.”
F IS FOR FRUIT BRUTE
If you think the idea of a cereal cafe is taking things a bit far, spare a thought for those dark days of the 1990s: from Seinfeld to nonlinear crime anthologies, the decade was wall-to-wall breakfast cereal references. With his glimpses of the ’70s era Fruit Brute in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino was no exception. The philosophy behind its inclusion, at least, was decent: a noted opponent of product placement, the director peppers his films with fake brands like Red Apple cigarettes and Big Kahuna burgers. Fruit Brute’s frosted fruit taste and lime-flavoured marshmallows made the cut because the product was discontinued in 1982.
G IS FOR THE GOLDEN GIRLS
Years before Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino made his screen debut as one of several Elvis impersonators on an episode of The Golden Girls. “I was the best of the bunch,” he’s claimed since, with admirably perverse pride. “The others were all the Vegas Elvis. I was the Sun Records Elvis, the hillbilly cat.” While his priority was film-making, performing was clearly always a competing interest: it’s notable that although he never went to film school, he did take acting classes. Early in his career there was a period where it seemed liked Tarantino might actually try to pursue acting seriously, but since his significant (self-written) part in From Dusk till Dawn his on-screen appearances have been mostly limited to small roles in his own movies and occasional cameos. These days it’s more likely for him to yell at Kermit in a Muppet TV movie than to co-star with George Clooney.
H IS FOR THE MAN FROM HOLLYWOOD
Beating Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG by several years, Tarantino adapted Roald Dahl’s work for the cinema way back in 1995. The results, however, were less than successful. An anthology comedy based around a bellhop played by Tim Roth, Four Rooms was a collaboration between Tarantino and fellow independent film-makers Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell. His directed segment was “The Man from Hollywood”, an adaptation of a Dahl short story boasting an uncredited turn from Bruce Willis. Coming a year after Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms was considered a significant disappointment, but ultimately it’s as patchy as any other portmanteau film.
I IS FOR INGLOURIOUS (SIC)
“You don’t need technology for poetry,” Tarantino replied in a recent interview when asked if he still writes by hand. During the process of pulling together his screenplay for Pulp Fiction, the film-maker enlisted the help of Linda Chen, a friend who happened to be a typist. She later described the process: “His handwriting is atrocious. He’s a functional illiterate. I was averaging about 9,000 grammatical errors per page. After I would correct them, he would try to put back the errors, because he liked them.” Tarantino’s enjoyment of poor spelling would reach its culmination years later when he decided to give his long-gestating WWII epic the spellcheck-baiting title of Inglourious Basterds.
J IS FOR JAMES BOND
A common pastime for idle film fans is to speculate about the uncanny parallel universe where Tom Selleck was Indiana Jones, Edgar Wright directed Ant-Man and the conjoined twins in Stuck on You were played by Woody Allen and Jim Carrey. Of all of the ghostly alternate renditions of existing films, perhaps the most tantalising is the version of Casino Royale that Tarantino wanted to write and direct after finishing Kill Bill: a period black-and-white thriller starring Pierce Brosnan and adapted closely from Ian Fleming’s original novel. While the eventual Martin Campbell-directed Casino Royale became the creative apogee of the Bond series, the thought of what would have been remains alluring. “That wouldn’t have been just throwing my hat in the franchise ring,” Tarantino said recently, “that would have been subversion on a massive level, if I could have subverted Bond.”
K IS FOR KINJI FUKASAKU
When asked what was the best film that had been made since joining the film industry,
Tarantino had the answer ready to hand: Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku’s savage and provocative drama about a class of Japanese high school students forced to wage war on one another.“If there’s any movie that’s been made since I’ve been making movies that I wish I had made, it’s that one.” Of course, Tarantino said this in 2009, so there’s a chance that Battle Royale has since been usurped by Philomena. Or maybe not.
L IS FOR LISTS
The eclectic, often baffling choices that Tarantino includes in his annual best-of-year lists demonstrate that figuring out what movies you appreciate is a complicated business: his 2013 cohort included thoughtful gems like Frances Ha and Afternoon Delight alongside head-scratchers like Kick-Ass 2 and This Is the End. Given that he’s explicitly built a career out of having unconventional, out-there tastes, it seems strange to express judgement when he articulates some of them. Inevitably, your personal mileage for Tarantino’s work will vary also: if you once found him overrated, perhaps you now find him underrated, or maybe you think Jackie Brown is less ambitious but more rewarding, or that Death Proof is his most subversive, daring, meaningful film. If there’s any lesson to be found in the career of Quentin Tarantino, it’s that it’s okay to like what you like.
M IS FOR MEN IN BLACK
In a medium as collaborative as cinema it’s understandable that there aren’t a substantial number of film-makers who are both the director and sole writer of everything they make. Tarantino remains a notable exception: give or take the occasional Robert Rodriguez team-up, he’s employed the credit “Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino” for his entire career. The director discussed this stance in a recent interview: “Right away, I presented myself as not a director for hire. I’m not going to sit at home and read these scripts you send me. I’m going to write my own.” This desire for total control wasn’t immediately apparent to studios after the breakthrough success of Reservoir Dogs, however: among the projects offered to him were the soon-to-be-massive-hits Men in Black and Speed. Sticking to his guns, Tarantino turned them all down for a project of his own. It was called Pulp Fiction.
N IS FOR THE NEW BEVERLY CINEMA
The lingering cinema-set scenes of Inglourious Basterds and True Romance provide evidence where none was needed that the cinephilia that defines Tarantino’s work covers movie theatres as well as the films they screen. After nearly three decades of frequenting the New Beverly in Los Angeles, including several years of keeping the family-run cinema afloat with monthly donations, Tarantino bought the venue outright after it was threatened with closure. Describing the cinema as being his charity, his role as landlord mostly involves letting the family get on with things, occasional programming suggestions and being evangelical: “As long as I’m alive, and as long as I’m rich, the New Beverly will be there, showing double features in 35mm.”
O IS FOR THE OPEN ROAD
A little like the rumoured Ur-Hamlet play that was written and performed before Shakespeare’s version, The Open Road is an enigmatic document that’s possibly the basis for much of Tarantino’s early work. As it’s has never been read and the two key men involved in its creation have said different things about it at different times, it’s hard to ascertain its contents definitively. The general consensus is that Tarantino’s friend and video store colleague Roger Avary wrote an unfinished screenplay called The Open Road, which Tarantino then took on and expanded to mammoth proportions, before giving up and cannibalising parts of the story for his screenplays True Romance and Natural Born Killers. Elements may have also made their way into Pulp Fiction and Avary’s directorial debut Killing Zoe. Or perhaps they didn’t. Unless someone can persuade Tarantino to dig out several hundred pages of illegible notebook pages we remain in the dark, which is probably for the best.
P IS FOR PAM GRIER
Pam Grier is fantastic in Jackie Brown and it’s shameful that she hasn’t been cast in more things since. That’s all for P.
Q IS FOR QUINT ASPER
Considering the heady collision of influences that makes up every scene he’s ever written, it seems entirely appropriate that Tarantino’s name would also be culturally entangled. His mother Connie named him after two starkly different things at once: the blacksmith Quint Asper portrayed by Burt Reynolds in the TV western Gunsmoke, and two characters (Quentin Compson and his niece Miss Quentin) from William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury. It would be quite possible for someone reading far too much into the subject to view this mix of cultural sources as revealing.
R IS A FOR ROARING RAMPAGE OF REVENGE
Tarantino’s preoccupation with revenge narratives has borne unexpected fruit in the second part of his career, as his films have pursued bloody vengeance on behalf of historically oppressed groups. His main tool for this objective is his muse and primary subject: cinema. Even in his films which are less explicitly about its power to overcome oppress – lest we forget, Inglourious Basterds is about an alliance of film projectionists, critics and actors who destroy Hitler in a movie theatre – he employs apostatised genres and pop culture sampling to achieve the same ends. As The Bride in Kill Bill drives her car against a rear projection, she addresses the audience: “When I woke up, I went on what the movie advertisements referred to as a roaring rampage of revenge. I roared and I rampaged and I got bloody satisfaction.” Her words could have been uttered by the protagonists of every film that Tarantino has made since.
S IS FOR SALLY MENKE
Tarantino’s most important colleague was not one of his regular actors, nor a producer or cinematographer, but his long-time editor Sally Menke. Described by the film-maker as his “only truly genuine collaborator,” Menke’s contribution to his first seven features can’t be overstated: she was as crucial to Tarantino as Thema Schoonmaker is to Scorsese or Michael Kahn is to Spielberg. Their fond working relationship could be witnessed in the “Hello Sally” reels of Tarantino’s later films, where cast and crew members were sweetly encouraged by the director to share greetings in an attempt to make her smile. Tragically, Menke died in 2010 of heat-related causes while walking with her dog. While editing Django Unchained, the first film made after her death, Tarantino put a sign up on his Avid editing equipment: WWSD?
T IS FOR TOILETS
For the first half of his career at least, there’s a strong possibility that any major narrative event in a Tarantino movie will take place in a restaurant, car or bathroom. In the case of Pulp Fiction, it’s the latter that is the most interesting. While rapid internet conversation dwells needlessly on the mysterious contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase (it’s a light bulb), a far more potent question is why violent misfortune befalls Vincent Vega any time he enters a toilet. Without fail, he returns from each visit to find calamity: a robbery in progress, his boss’ wife overdosing on heroin, a boxer with a hunger for pop tarts and access to a machine pistol. What’s that about?
U IS FOR ULTRA PANAVISION 70MM
Tarantino stands among his peers as one of the final remaining holdouts against digital film-making. He fervently defends not just the idea of shooting movies on celluloid but projecting them that way as well: “By losing film projection we’ve already ceded too much ground to the barbarians,” he declared at the first screening of footage from The Hateful Eight. In his latest attempt to bolster celluloid, he’s announced that The Hateful Eight will only be shown in “glorious 70mm” for the opening fortnight of its American theatrical release. In addition, it is also the first film in almost fifty years to be shot in the super wide Ultra Panavision format, shot with the same camera lenses that were used on Ben-Hur. For those blessed few who get unreasonably excited by aspect ratios, this is rather exciting news.
V IS FOR VIDEO ARCHIVES
Before his film-making career took off, Tarantino’s longest, most significant job was at Video Archives, a video rental shop in a strip mall in Manhattan Beach. Customers from that era describe him as brimming with enthusiasm to share the weird and wonderful films he loved. It’s rare for a director to be defined by the job they had before they started making movies, but at his core Tarantino is still that video shop clerk, trying to turn on the world to his tastes. Describing Video Archives as his college experience, he now looks back gratefully, but after half a decade he’d become stifled: “22 is about the time when you should be working in a video store. Five years later is when I started feeling like a loser.” It was time to make a leap.
W IS FOR WARREN BEATTY
Films speeding towards production lose actors all the time, but the newsification of pop culture and the high-profile nature of the average Tarantino film means that his casting problems regularly make headlines. Scheduling problems stopped Adam Sandler and Simon Pegg from appearing in Inglourious Basterds and Sacha Baron Cohen, Jonah Hill and Joseph Gordon-Levit from appearing in Django Unchained (Hill made a cameo as “Bag Head #2”), while on the less logistical front creative issues meant Warren Beatty stepped away from the titular role in Kill Bill and Will Smith pulled out of playing the lead in Django Unchained, making the valid point that for some reason the role was smaller than Christoph Waltz’s Dr Schultz.
X IS FOR X-FILES
Tarantino’s side career as television director was over before it could really begin. Two years after helming a well-received episode of ER, he was barred by the Directors Guild of America from directing an instalment of The X-Files about a man being controlled by his possessive Jodie Foster-voiced tattoo. He wouldn’t return to the medium for a decade, when he devised the story for and directed a two-part episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Picking one of his previous ideas out of a (Kangol?) hat, the episodes concerns a member of the cast being buried alive.
Y IS FOR YAZOO
In the foreign country that is the past – specifically, the 1997 bit of the past – boy band North & South formed when its members replied to an advert on Teletext. Like a proto S Club 7, the group was created specifically to star in their own CBBC sitcom, No Sweat. After the minor hit of their debut single “I’m A Man Not A Boy”, they ran into trouble with their follow-up “Tarantino’s New Star,” which peaked at number 18 and promptly sank without trace. Through some dastardly fluke, the song somehow managed to simultaneously steal the tunes of both “Video Killed the Radio Star” and Yazoo’s “Only You.” 17 years later, it’s still impossible to figure out what exactly the lyrics have to do with the cinema of Quentin Tarantino. Weirdly, no interviewer has ever asked the film-maker for his opinion on the ill-conceived tribute.
Z IS FOR ZED
Unlike Pulp Fiction, this guide isn’t presented out of order. If it was then by rights these words would appear somewhere around the letter Q: out of the seven sequences that make up Pulp Fiction‘s narrative, the final one chronologically – “The Gold Watch” – shows up two thirds of the way into the movie. Jules, Winston Wolfe and a no-longer-dead Vincent Vega rumble on for another 38 minutes or so, but the audience has already seen the ending: Butch has had the single weirdest day of his life, somehow made it out alive, stolen a chopper from a sociopath called Zed and is ready to ride away with his girlfriend Fabienne. “Who’s Zed?”, she asks. “Zed’s dead baby, Zed’s dead.”
You know this story. Something bad is going to happen. A clock – maybe figurative, maybe literal – is ticking, and only one person can stop it. The hero’s sole option is to disregard protocol and do what they believe is necessary, rules be damned. Whole genres of cinema are based on this construct, populated with
unorthodox mavericks and rebels who know better than those in charge. While loose cannons make for exciting movies, in the real world it’s not so straightforward and can lead to abuses of power.
This notion lies at the heart of French- Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s seventh feature, Sicario, a tense, muscular thriller that explores the effects of unregulated law enforcement. Unfolding in Arizona and Mexico, where drugs, money and death flow liberally through a porous border, the film follows FBI agent Kate
Macer (Emily Blunt) as she is recruited to a special government unit tasked with challenging the powerful Sonora drug cartel. Led by the sandal-wearing, gumchewing Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), an operative of uncertain departmental origin, the team make illicit and bombastic trips across the border in an attempt to goad the cartel into a mistake. With objectives that start off opaque and only get murkier, their tactic is to “shake the tree and create chaos” instead of following official procedure. It is in the representation of these moments that Villeneuve, who previously directed the excellent Prisoners (2013), Incendies (2010) and Polytechnique (2009), demonstrates an aptitude for gripping set pieces. (A scene involving a convoy stuck in a traffic jam is one of the most suspenseful sequences of the year, despite being a car chase in which
cars don’t move.)
Attracted by the opportunity to affect major change in the increasingly violent drug war and yet against her better judgement, Kate sticks with the unit. She is compellingly played by Emily Blunt, who portrays her
as steely but vulnerable, self-assured but hesitant, and competent yet seemingly adrift in this moral vacuum. Tough enough to conduct her own medical treatment after being caught in an explosion, she is nevertheless realistically fearful in life-or-death situations. Brolin brings swagger to his role, while Benicio del Toro almost steals the film as a haunted, shadowy figure with a hidden agenda.
Villeneuve, aided by Taylor Sheridan’s whip-smart screenplay and Roger Deakins’ exceptional cinematography, takes us deep into this dark world of Black Ops whilst always maintaining enough distance to question the ideology of this enterprise, no matter its success. And for all its thrills, Sicario is wise not to offer any easy answers to a complex, ethically murky situation.
Published in Curzon Issue 53. To read the original article click here.
You might notice something familiar about the poster for Stephen Frears’s upcoming Lance Armstrong biopic The Program. To the left of Ben Foster’s face are the words “CHAMPION HERO LEGEND CHEAT,” and while this effectively articulates what makes the disgraced cyclist such a compelling figure, the inspiration for the tag line is instantly recognisable. Like so many other efforts from recent years, The Program arguably owes a debt to the most surprisingly influential movie poster of the past decade: Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was likewise represented on the poster for 2010’s The Social Network as “PUNK PROPHET GENIUS BILLIONAIRE TRAITOR.”
The Social Network poster was the work of Neil Kellerhouse, the go-to graphic designer for Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher, noted for his minimalist technique and unconventional use of type. Although The Social Network didn’t invent the GOOD THING GOOD THING BAD THING tag line format – examples can be seen in the promotional materials for Abel Ferrera’s original Bad Lieutenant (“GAMBLER THIEF JUNKIE KILLER COP”) or 24 Hour Party People (“GENIUS POET TWAT”) – Kellerhouse’s striking design rippled throughout the increasingly homogeneous world of movie posters. It is a world, incidentally, where the disembodied heads of movie stars float menacingly over landscapes for no particular reason.
As a consequence of its success, The Social Network’s once-impressive poster design is now as much of a cliche as blue and orange colour schemes or romantic leads standing back-to-back. It wearily joins other posters of dubious influence, from The Truman Show (photo mosaics) to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind(missing eyes) to For Your Eyes Only (splayed legs framing the protagonist, sexism).
This journey from marvel to bore in less than half a decade demonstrates that movie posters are ultimately little different from the features they’re trying so very hard to promote: someone comes up with an original, well-executed idea, others attempt to replicate the formula with diminishing returns, someone else decides to reject the idea in favour of trying something new, and we start all over again. As depressing patterns of behaviour go, it’s strangely encouraging.
David Gordon Green has made so many left turns as a film-maker that he’s found himself back where he started. After drawing repeated comparisons to Terrence Malick for his stunning debut George Washington and becoming a reliable source of underseen but critically admired dramas, David surprised many by directing the stoner action comedy Pineapple Express. A sizeable sleeper hit, the film heralded the unlikely second phase of his career. However, just as big, broad comedies like Your Highness seemed to define his work, the film-maker shifted direction again and moved into deliberately unassuming character studies. The latest of these is Manglehorn, a lovely, low-key story about a brooding locksmith with little time for anyone except his sickly pet cat. As the eponymous near-hermit Al Pacino gives his best performance in too many years, matching the understated charm that the film exudes. Ahead of its upcoming release, we spoke to David about his exploratory creative process.
You conceived of Manglehorn after meeting Al Pacino about another project. What quality did you want him to bring out of him with this film?
Al does a lot of larger than life characters and Manglehorn is smaller than life. I was really looking to do an intimate, very vulnerable character study, inspired by the meeting I’d had with him where he was laughing and soft spoken and had this wonderful modest quality. It was something that I hadn’t seen in a movie of his in a long time. I was thinking about his old films like The Panic in Needle Park and Scarecrow, early Pacino work that I’ve always admired. As a big fan I wanted to find a good reason to get in the ring with him. I thought one way might be generating a great character for him first.
I found it quite telling that both Manglehorn and your previous film Joe are named after their protagonists. What’s the value of focusing on just one character?
A couple of years ago I’d just had kids and wanted to live in a place and make movies in that place, so I moved to Austin, Texas and started thinking less conceptually about big budget explosive content and more intimately about the area I was walking around in. The locksmith shop in the film is just two blocks from my house. I could walk to the set every day. When you have kids you have this epic mindset – the universe around you explodes, in a way – and I wanted to focus on something that was less extraordinary and look at it through a microscope.
Do you think you’ll ever have the urge to make films again on a larger scale?
Actually just last week I finished a movie that’s like that. There’s a bus chase on a cliff and big name actors and set pieces and everything. It’s fun to have money and toys, and there are a lot of Hollywood things that appeal to me, but it’s nice to strip all the conversation away too. On the movie I just completed there were hundreds of people I needed to refer to in order to discuss visual effects and action sequences and safety and set design and construction. For a film like Manglehorn it’s just three or four people walking around looking at the light and moving some set dressing from one side of the room to the other. There’s something really calm and peacefully collaborative about that. It’s more meditative. I think I have the type of mentality that needs to bounce back and forth between things.
How did that calmer approach apply to your working relationship with Al Pacino?
For many months before we shot I would fly to California and sit in his back yard and eat strawberries and talk about the character. We’d invite friends over and just read the script aloud, start to hear it and evolve it. There were some characters in early drafts that we decided not to incorporate. We wanted it to be organic, so we shot mostly in order and I didn’t want to know how it ended necessarily. There was a screenplay, a roadmap for what we were doing financially and logistically but the film became very different because we found detours.
How did you come up with the name Manglehorn? It’s evocative of folk stories.
That was part of the goal, to make something that felt like a fairytale. In an early conversation we said that we wanted to make a children’s film. We got a little too melancholy for that, but still there’s no profanity or violence or drug use. We tried to refrain from anything objectionable as a subconscious reference to the idea of a magical craftsman. I’ve always seen the locksmith profession in that light, like woodcarvers or the toymaker Geppetto or other things that might exist in a fairytale.
Were you interested in the symbolic idea of a man who can unlock any door but can’t open up parts of himself?
Once you take anybody and start looking at what they do you invoke a world of metaphors. This was a situation where we weren’t resistant to that. None of it was conscious but we started smiling our way through when we realised the fable that was unfolding had that little nod to symbolism. It was a very casual production process. It wasn’t one of those calculated, storyboarded, pre-conceived type of movies. It was really just getting a creative, collaborative group of artists together and convincing Al Pacino to show up and then everybody felt their way through filming. That’s a fun way for me to work, to carve time to do some unique weird shit during the day.
Have you always been that way, or did you have to establish your own voice to be confident enough to explore and experiment?
I think any film-maker evolves in their enthusiasm and their process. For me it’s always changing and I wake up every morning with different interests. Sometimes that means to do a big movie or a little movie or a television show or a TV commercial. I try not to think about the end result too much but I follow things that appeal to me, narratives that appeal to me, people that appeal to me. I just go with my intuition and instinct and sometimes everybody’s happy and other times it takes me to strange and questionable places.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
As the real identity of ‘Amina’ was revealed to the world, Bagaria realised she’d been hoaxed, and her concern was replaced with humiliation and pain. Sophie Deraspe was her friend at the time. She explains the sense of unreality: “It really felt as if we were in a movie, like we were part of a thriller and my friend was at the centre of it. She was exposed to the media and her love affair was everywhere.” Deraspe understood that a great story was unfolding but also that her friend was particularly vulnerable. Several months later, it was Bagaria that approached her, wanting to share what had happened. Given total access to her computer, the director combed through months of communication. “We found it all, even the chats that people don’t realise is archived in their computers somewhere,” Deraspe recalls. “I knew that I had a lot of information, but I also knew right from the beginning that the themes that could be addressed were more important than how the hoax took place.”
Deraspe thought Bagaria should meet the other key people who had been taken in, from journalists to non-imaginary Syrian activists. She explains: “It was important for Sandra to know that she wasn’t alone. She was the only one hurt in such an intimate way but she wasn’t the only one fooled. All of them were very bright and educated, just like her. They weren’t naïve people caught in some stupid hoax.”
Beyond interviewing those who had been involved, both felt there was one more figure that Bagaria needed to speak to in order to reclaim agency: Tom MacMaster, the married American man who had spent five years pretending he was a gay Syrian woman called Amina. Deraspe reflects on the film’s most suspenseful scene: “Meeting with him was something Sandra had to do, not just so the viewer could form their own opinion of the guy, but for closure. It was therapeutic for her to meet him on her own terms and in her own way. It was something very satisfying: she was the one in power, at last.”
The defining image of Miranda July’s audacious debut Me and You and Everyone We Know isn’t July scrawling ‘FUCK’ on her windscreen or John Hawkes setting his hand ablaze but a piece of impromptu ASCII art created by a six year old. Four brackets and two greater-than signs illustrate his simple desire: “I’ll poop into her butthole and then she’ll poop it back into my butthole, and then we’ll just keep doing it back and forth with the same poop.” By attempting to approximate how a physical process can embody an emotional bond, he sums up the struggle to connect openly that is the theme not just of the film but most of July’s multidisciplinary work. Even when they can’t articulate it, all of her characters – like me, like you, like everyone we know – are ultimately just looking for someone to poop back and forth into their butthole, forever ))><((
Published as part of Little White Lies’ “100 great movies by female directors” feature. To read the original article click here.
The release of Desiree Akhavan’s debut feature Appropriate Behaviour earlier this year heralded an impressive new film-making talent. As well as being the film’s writer and director, Desiree plays its protagonist Shirin, a confident-but-floundering newly single woman attempting to move on from her former girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson).
Between flashbacks that trace Shirin and Maxine’s ill-fated romance, Desiree excels at detailing the minutiae of life after a relationship: the efforts to redefine one’s identity, the abortive attempts at online dating, the fleeting melancholy of realising that an ex is wearing clothes that you haven’t seen before, their life carrying on without you. In a film distinguished by its emotional honesty as well as its humour and wit, one of Appropriate Behaviour’s most perceptive observations is the idea that heartbreak exists as background radiation in modern dating: to varying degrees, everyone’s trying to get over somebody.
Ahead of its release on DVD, we spoke to Desiree about making the film.
Appropriate Behaviour starts and ends with Shirin on a train. In superficial terms not much has changed in her life but there’s a clear emotional shift. How did you approach the journey she goes through?
When you study screenwriting you’re given all these books that tell you there has to be an inciting incident, a villain, a hero, an act one. I remember reading them made me want to gouge my eyes out. It was incredibly boring. I thought if this is what screenwriting is then I’m not a screenwriter. I loved writing plays, and I loved writing scenes and building relationships through character, so that’s how I started: I wrote scenes between Shirin and Maxine. I built that relationship and the film was about examining it. Once I finished the first draft I shared it with my producer Cecilia Frugiuele and she said it was good but she wanted to know who this woman is, who is her family, what’s her job. She thought I should pull from my own life. That’s when it became a journey of how this girl changes without really changing. There are so many films that deal with coming of age and young people in Brooklyn, but I wanted to make something that was so specific to the way I see the world that no-one else would be able to lay claim to it. That’s all film is: telling the same story over and over again through a different lens.
Throughout the film there are flashbacks to Shirin and Maxine’s relationship but they’re non-chronological. Were you trying to replicate how Shirin’s mind works?
It was about following a train of thought and what triggers a memory. When you have a breakup it’s like being haunted by a ghost. You’re in a moment with someone new and just the way their hand moves or the song that comes on or the food you’re eating brings you back to a specific memory. You have this ex relationship on your shoulder, constantly reminding you: “Remember when you were happy? Remember when you were loved?”
Are the flashbacks subjective then? Even when they’re in love Maxine seems a little aggressive to Shirin. Is that just her personality?
I always thought they were accurate but also Shirin is inspired by me and I’m an asshole. Who knows? The whole film is a flashback of mine. I say it’s not autobiographical but at the same time I play the lead, so in a way it’s all indulgent to one point of view. I tried to be as diplomatic as possible and to make it feel like that was the truth of what had happened, but if you get the sense that Maxine is a one-sided character then I haven’t done my job well and we’ll just say Shirin’s bad memory at fault.
If the film isn’t strictly autobiographical, do you see it as a heightening of reality?
It is, because of a few factors. One is that my life isn’t interesting for a 90-minute narrative. It’s not convenient enough. I wanted to draw parallels between characters and shape scenes to create a little arc in each scenario. The elements of my life are there but then characters and details had to change to suit the narrative and the story I wanted to tell. Also I rely heavily on my collaborators. I get so much credit because it’s my face on screen, but my producer Cecilia is my work partner and had her hand in sculpting the script, while on set my cinematographer was a collaborator in how each scene played out and the same thing happened later with my editor. It’s not just mine, so it would be insanely self-indulgent and false for me to say that this is a diary entry, because then it would be their diary entry too. I think the only way to make very personal work that is also universal and speaks to people who don’t share your history is to rely heavily on others, because they add their perspective. They can tell you if you’re going off the deep end or to go further. It’s really necessary and it’s a great joy.
What’s it like to write, direct and star in a film all at the same time? Even with collaborators, that must be complicated logistically?
Well I’m a power hungry bitch so it works out really well that I get to wear all those pants. Also Cecilia had her eyes on the monitor the whole time. I didn’t have time to watch playback so we were just moving forward; with other people’s performances I knew exactly what I wanted, but there were a couple of instances when I looked at her and asked if I had it. One moment that sticks out in my head is the threesome scene. I watched one playback and it looked very graphic. I took her aside and said “This is too gratuitous, I’ve made a huge mistake, I’m going to pull back in the next take,” and she said to trust her and not pull back. I’m really glad I did because that’s how we got what we have.
Your depiction of sex is interesting: it’s not trying to titillate but it’s casually graphic in the way that real sex is casually graphic. People have brought up Annie Hall when discussing Appropriate Behaviour but it’s hard to imagine that sort of sexual honesty in comedic films of that era.
I think people are shooting sex differently now than they did before. There was a lot of dishonesty in the sex I saw when I was younger, but then films were very different in a pre-internet world. Now we have such a different dialogue – kids are coming out earlier, our relationship to porn is different – there’s a frankness now and that’s reflected in movies.
Sex in films never really got messy.
Or it was all awkward. The characters have a bad date and then bad sex and everything is terrible, but in reality sometimes things weave in and out of being pleasurable. That’s the worst: when you hold on to the nostalgia for a moment you had two hours ago, hoping that the person will go back to your first impression of them. That happens quite often and I don’t see it depicted in movies. Films lied to me about sex, and everything I learned about sex until a certain age I’d learned from watching a movie. It wasn’t a conversation I had with my parents or something I could find out on my own. When I finally started dating I realised I’d been fed fairytale lies about simultaneous orgasms and never-ending love.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
In 2006 the playwright Alecky Blythe was researching a new work set in a brothel when she heard news reports of an apparent serial killer murdering sex workers in Ipswich. One of the stage’s most notable practitioners of verbatim theatre – a technique in which plays are constructed from the exact words of interviewees, including every “um” and “ah” – Alecky headed to the area to speak to local people about the events. The material she collected didn’t make it into the play she’d been working on, but over the next few years she followed the story’s difficult aftermath, paying particular attention to the residents of the street where the killer had lived as they formed new bonds. Working in collaboration with the composer Adam Cork, Alecky turned her interviews into something genuinely new: a verbatim musical.
Inventive, funny, moving and unsettling, London Road received ecstatic notices upon its debut at the National Theatre in 2011. Four years later, the film version is an equally distinctive presence on screen. Ahead of its release in cinemas on 12th June, and the stage version’s NT Live premiere on 9th June, we sat down with Alecky to talk about verbatim theatre and the complicated process of adapting it for a new medium.
London Road is perhaps the first verbatim play to be adapted for film. Why do you think there’s been a lag?
One of the main reasons is that verbatim is by its nature quite wordy because it’s interview-based. A written play might naturally have more action, which film requires as a medium. One of the challenges in making verbatim theatre is finding dynamism. I’m always looking for situations that are active so that you don’t just have actors sitting on chairs talking, which is why I try to collect my interviews not after an event but as it’s going on. London Road the show had a lot of movement compared to some verbatim, so it became a matter of pushing that even further visually. It’s a big step for producers to realise verbatim can work for film and be a better approach than a documentary, which would be cheaper.
Has your relationship to the work changed over time? As you return to the text, does your increasing distance from it change how you see those events?
I think it probably does. It’s easier to take some creative, imaginative leaps with the material because it didn’t just happen last week. Things become a bit fuzzy. I have notes but you don’t remember everything, and that allows you to be more free with moving it on in another direction. It’s a good thing as long as you know the truth of what happened and the story you’re trying to tell and you never deviate from that too much. If you take it too far out of context it breaks it.
Do you feel a sense of obligation towards your interview subjects?
Yes, it’s a really big responsibility. I felt it even just in the very beginning telling them this was the first musical piece I’d worked on. It was difficult to explain because there wasn’t really a template. It’s not Mamma Mia!, it’s not an opera, it’s not atonal. By that point they knew me quite well and trusted that I would look after the work – I was taking it in an unusual direction but one that would help tell the story rather than get in the way of it. Later, the director Rufus Norris, Adam and I went to Ipswich before we made the film with pictures of the shooting locations, new cast members, all that kind of thing, to try to explain what we were doing. I thought it was important to do that to the people we were representing. I’m in touch with them a lot. If the work is active they need to be kept abreast of what’s happening. It’s their lives, which are ongoing and obviously the film will now have an impact on them. They’ve been brilliant, but I have sleepless nights about whether they’ll be happy.
What first drew you to the residents of London Road as your main interview subjects?
Although I know why journalism is sometimes mentioned – I work in quite a journalistic way – I just try to come to a subject that people think they already know and shed new light on it. When I discovered what the residents were doing after the murders, I felt this was something that hadn’t been talked about. We knew about the tragedies, which was a story that was clearly told in the media, but not the fallout. There were people who weren’t in the eye of the storm whose lives had been affected too. Obviously this was to a much lesser degree than the family members of the victims, but I saw there were wider repercussions in the community that seemed to resonate. I was compelled by this, and these people wanted to share their experiences with me. It seemed like a story that wasn’t being told.
Your subjects in London Road are the sort of people who usually only pop up in vox pops on the news to give a bit of colour.
That’s right, exactly. They’re never the centre of the story. It wasn’t that I heard about the murders and thought, “Oh yes, I’m going to go and make a piece about the people who were affected by it.” It was very much an organic journey in terms of working out what the story was. I was paired with Adam in a musical theatre workshop run by the National Theatre Studio and I took this material that I’d collected from Ipswich, just as clay for us to work with, to experiment with the form. What we found was that the music seemed to help create this mood of fear that I remembered from Ipswich at the time. I thought the subject and form seemed to work together, and then not long after the workshop it was announced that the trial was going to be in Ipswich rather than at the Old Bailey, which brought the story back to life in the town. As the real life events happened I started to shape my piece around that.
Are certain sorts of stories are better for this approach than others? Your play about the 2011 Hackney riots, Little Revolution, also uses different voices to explore a community in crisis. Do you think that’s something that verbatim is particularly suited for?
I think it is. Verbatim is very good at collecting shared voices and depicting different opinions. If there’s an event, like a protest for example, it gives you a setting to go into. You can find the story from there. You could maybe say that all of my plays are about communities of sorts, even though I’m not conscious of it at the time. So there isn’t really a protagonist in London Road; the community is the protagonist.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Among the reasons that many debut film-makers are drawn to coming-of-age stories is that adolescence is a defining, universal experience, the heightened emotions of which make it naturally suited to drama. In addition, such narratives provide the opportunity to create a work that is fiercely personal without necessarily being autobiographical. The danger, however, is that the path is already well-trodden
With that in mind, what distinguishes writer-director Guy Myhill’s first feature The Goob from other entries in this overfamiliar category is its strong sense of place. Shot with a mix of professional and non-professional actors in rural Norfolk, the film depicts a region that is both dreary and dreamy: a deprived fenland made up of lonely transport cafés, transient farm work and amateur stock car races. Although his subject is the wiry, guileless 16-year-old Goob (Liam Walpole), Guy is equally interested in Goob’s fraught mother (Sienna Guillory) and her bullying beet-farming boyfriend Gene Womack (Sean Harris). The film becomes a study of the three characters and their inevitable reckoning: as Goob is exposed to positive external influences he is brought into direct conflict with Womack, who represents everything he wants to leave behind. Ahead of its release we spoke to Guy about making the film.
You’ve been working in the industry for a long time. Why did you choose this story for your first feature?
The starting point was a documentary I did on the stock car scene in Norfolk. There’s something about that world that I really like: these old men and their cars, going around and around and around, stuck. I was also aware of migrant workers in the area. I know their habits and some people who work in that business. I felt there was a spectacle to be had from both of those different set-ups and then it was really a question of marrying into that some kind of drama.
Contemporary Norfolk is an area that is rarely depicted on screen. Was that part of the appeal of setting the film there?
Definitely. The project came through a film initiative called iFeatures who funded it with the BBC and the BFI, and they were looking for specific regional stories. This particular story seemed to chime with that. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the UK that looks like Norfolk. It’s really unique. There’s this flatness you don’t see anywhere else. It’s like filming the sea; you don’t really have to try. It’s just there, all consuming, all powerful. I liked the idea of setting an intimate drama against this huge great backdrop. I think it’s a land full of secrets. It’s got a lawless quality.
What are the biggest challenges of making a film on a relatively low budget?
Time is the priceless commodity. We shot it in about 24 days so everybody at the end was absolutely shattered, because there were days and nights going on too. It was the little things: a car battery would go down, so you’re in the middle of bloody nowhere waiting for a replacement, but that can take two hours. I guess you can’t control what you can’t control, though.
Liam Walpole who plays Goob was street cast. What had you been looking for when casting him?
Liam’s got this strange quality, and his movements are quite gangly. He looks like he’s part David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, part Mr Spock. He doesn’t entirely belong. He’s a very different man to Sean Harris, or to the actor who plays his brother who is much more of a macho sort of lad. Liam offered us this otherworldliness which is what I wanted. When we found him it was just brilliant.
While Goob is Liam’s first role, actors like Sean Harris and Sienna Guillory are well established in the field. Did you work with them differently as a director?
What was great about Sean and Sienna is that they knew I wanted to bring in people like Liam who had never performed before. They appreciated the authenticity we were bringing in – the Norfolk dialect is very hard to pull off if you’re not from there. What I got from both of them wasn’t just generosity of time but incredible support in working with people who hadn’t done anything like this before. What it generated was a real sense of togetherness. Sienna came up a week before we were due to shoot and we spent time with Liam, not doing scenes from the story exactly but improvising, trying to foster a bond.
The relationship between Goob’s mother and Womack is on the verge of being abusive. How did you envision Sienna’s character felt about the situation?
It’s hard for her. Is she trapped? Yes she is. I think she’d been single too long. None of this backstory we wanted to share directly. We wanted to be quite impressionistic with it but I think it’s a common experience in the sense that a lot of women or men with children who haven’t been in a relationship for a while will often neglect their kids for the sake of a new partner. In Sienna’s case, Mum, in my mind she’d been single for a long time, desperate to hang on to this bloke who’s not a good fit, who puts her kids’ lives in jeopardy but will ignore it for this need of a partner.
Do you think Womack is a bad man or an unhappy one?
Both. He’s trying to do the best he can but he’s coming from a bad place. Early in the film he humiliates a character when he could have killed him, so he’s holding back. He’s got that handbrake on. He’s not a good man but he’s trying. There’s an attempt to be a father figure but he can’t pull it off properly, and things spin out of control. I don’t think he is happy. He’s unfulfilled. There’s a scene when he’s outside the caff and he’s at the roadside and these cars are moving backwards and forwards. He turns and sees Goob by a window looking out, and I think it dawns on him that Goob is going to have a different life to his, which is one of repetition. He knows he’s stuck.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
From its electrifying opening sequence onward, in which two teams of teenage girls face off in an American football match, every moment of Girlhood pulses with life and colour and youth. Writer-director Céline Sciamma’s thoughtful yet boisterous film follows shy sixteen-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) as she joins a gang of girls in her economicallydisadvantaged Parisian banlieue. Neglected by school, parental figures and their community, the quartet rely upon each other to weather their oppressive, underprivileged circumstances. Céline spoke to us about making the film.
In France the film is called Bande de Filles. Why did you decide to change the title to Girlhood for the international release rather than directly translate it? Do the titles reflect different things about the story?
I liked that Girlhood was more generic. It asks, “Who is the French young girl today?” Well, maybe she’s like this, which is quite a political thing to say. By chance Boyhood was released last year. At first people were saying it was a shame, but I actually like the fact that you can put the two films together. Boyhood is about a middle-class, average American boy with average dreams, and the movie talks about that, and Girlhood is about a poor black girl in the Paris suburbs. It’s striking to have two different portraits.
You mentioned Boyhood being about a middle-class boy, and Girlhood is very much about a group of working-class girls who have been abandoned by the authorities and society in general, who find strength in each other.
I wanted to show the virtues of the group. You can’t properly translate ‘bande’, but it means gang, or perhaps bunch. Sometimes it’s seen as really negative, bringing corruptive influence or uniformity, and I wanted to portray the opposite. This collective allows the girls to express themselves and empower themselves and to make a team. They speak up because they are together. I think what happens in the suburbs of Paris or at the periphery isn’t too disconnected from what happens everywhere in society. It’s just that in those particular places certain things are overt, whereas elsewhere they are more hidden. The movie’s about girlhood. We look at a place that’s bigger than life, with more adversity, but in a way it talks about all girls.
The relationship between the foursome is central to the film. How did you work with the actors? Did they spend lots of time together?
They did. We picked the girls for the alchemy between them. We didn’t pick loners, we picked girls that wanted to share. Then we did a workshop for two weeks before shooting where we all met and built the path to the film. Friendship was born. They also lived together during the shoot and so they really became close. It was important; something is actually happening between them on screen.
Girlhood is strongly colour-coordinated, right down to the blue cleaning liquid in one scene. How did you decide to employ colour and how strict were you in using it?
It wasn’t that strict. It was intuition. I have a thing for blue. Each time I go for it as if it were the first time. I use the colour like it’s my favourite cake in the bakery. “Oh, I’m going to try this!” But I’ve already tasted it before and love it. I worked with the cinematographer and the set designer, and we had an appetite for colour. We wanted it to be colourful and we worked around the palette together. For the exteriors we picked a neighbourhood because it was red and I wanted it that way. All of the interiors of the flat were built in a studio, so we picked every curtain and the colour of every wall. I was the costume designer too. I like to think of an image as not just the light. It’s also the colour of a wall, the colour of a shirt and how you build contrast in between scenes. Colour is like a thread that takes you through the film.
Clouds of Sils Maria is a film 30 years in the making. Olivier Assayas and Juliette Binoche – its writer-director and star – first met while working on Rendez-Vous, Olivier’s earliest writing credit. Rendez-Vous was a breakthrough for both of them: the film turned Juliette into one of the biggest movie stars in Europe, while Olivier was able to transition from screenwriting into a successful directing career.
Three decades later, Juliette approached Olivier about working together again, pitching a loose idea about three women in different phases of their careers. A character study of someone reluctantly moving into a new chapter of their life, Clouds of Sils Maria draws on their shared history: the actress plays Maria Enders, a decidedly Juliette Binoche-like star who faces a crisis after agreeing to appear in a restaging of the two-hander play that made her famous, except now playing the older woman rather than the ingénue. Ahead of its release we spoke to Olivier about making the film.
Superficially at least, there are clear similarities between and the character she plays. Did you try to differentiate between the two, or was that tension interesting?
Juliette and I are friends but we’re not that familiar or intimate – I’ve never known what her everyday life is like. I know her but I also fantasise her. I imagine things about her. Some of them are true, some are totally off the mark. So when I’m writing a character like Maria Enders I know that I’m playing with my own assumptions as well as the assumptions of the audience, the way the audience imagines her. I’m playing on this border between fiction and reality. I’m also opening a space for Juliette because it’s something she had never really done before, playing someone who’s similar to her. She could have fun simultaneously being herself and the actress she might have been.
The film depicts the logistical side of being a movie star. Did you feel an obligation to show that world as you’ve experienced it or could you be speculative about that also?
I describe it more or less as it is, the business side of it. When you’re a movie star you become a cottage industry, selling yourself. You have to continually respond to offers to accept or turn them down. You have to attend functions, film festivals, for which they provide the hairdresser, the make-up, the Chanel dress, and you have to look glamorous. You’re a movie star for a few hours and then you go back to your everyday life, which is mostly about hard work. Maria is struggling with a role that questions her own essence and identity, but sometimes you could be in a plain bad film where you have to try to find a way of lifting it up, or at least surviving it.
Clouds of Sils Maria asserts the idea of the primacy of the actor, where a shining performance is almost something above the actual text. Did that come from a natural sympathy for the character, or is that that how you feel about acting?
What I wanted to express first is how tough it is to be an actor and the sympathy I have for them. Their job is ultimately about understanding fellow humans. They have to find within themselves the path to those emotions, to experience them if only to understand what’s going on. It’s not a path towards artificiality, it’s a path towards the very texture of human nature, and that’s something actors are left alone with. When you’re a writer you try to invent complex characters but you’re on both sides. You’re doing the questions and the answers. When you’re an actor you deal with the reality of specific emotions. You have to transform what the writer has devised into truth.
Throughout the film Maria debates modern film-making and superhero movies with her assistant Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart. Does either character represent your thoughts on the subject, or were you showing the viewpoints these characters might have?
I have to agree with both of them because their conflict is not really a conflict. It’s a difference of perspective. It’s the take on those movies from two women of different generations – one who is a curious viewer and one who is in touch with that culture because it’s her generation and she’s never really questioned it. The film doesn’t really embody my views on blockbuster film-making but instead my view on the passing of time. What happens when time passes is not that you lose touch with the world but that your experience it is different from someone twenty years younger than you. In terms of blockbusters I’m really on both sides too. I can enjoy watching them even if I’m usually slightly disappointed because they’re very repetitive. I certainly don’t look down on them. At the same time I can see that they are a manifestation of our obsession with teenage culture.
The relationship between real life and the film is also raised with your inclusion of Chloë Grace Moretz’s character Jo-Ann, a young movie star hounded by paparazzi. Did that enter into your consideration when casting Kristen Stewart, an actress who has lived that experience?
Kristen could have been either character and she by far preferred to be Valentine. It gave her this oblique angle on celebrity culture – there was this shift of perspective which freed her in a certain way. It’s a film where you never lose sight of who’s playing what. In most movies you try to forget that the actor is playing a character. Here that’s part of the film. You are constantly seeing Juliette, Kristen and Chloë in addition to seeing Maria, Valentine and Jo-Ann. It’s the opposite of when the Dardenne brothers made Two Days, One Night, where the whole point is about trying to forget that movie star Marion Cotillard is playing a factory worker in Belgium. What actors do is try to reinvent themselves, to make it feel like they’ve been always that character and nothing else, to become one. Here I didn’t want them to do that. I didn’t want them to become one. I was happy with them staying two.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Impressive facts about Caroll Spinney accumulate rather quickly. 95% of all Americans have seen him perform before they reach the age of three. He’s sung on dozens of albums. Five countries have featured him on postage stamps. In 1970 he appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine, while in 2012 he played an unlikely role in crystallising the U.S. presidential election. He’s been a regular television presence in over 160 countries for nearly half a century. He’s an 8′ 2” bird, a grouch who lives in a trash can, and the puppeteer star of America’s longest-running children’s programme, Sesame Street. In addition to all this, Caroll is also the subject of a new documentary on his life: I Am Big Bird. Ahead of its release this week we spoke to the veteran puppeteer about the film, his long career and working with Mr. Snuffleupagus.
How did I Am Big Bird come about?
The film-makers Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker had already produced one other documentary and were deciding what to do next. Somebody suggested Caroll Spinney, and they said who’s that? Eventually they approached Sesame Street, who said it was a good idea. I drove down to New York with my wife and chatted with them. We thought they were nice guys and told them to go ahead. A lot of people ask why now. Well, since I’m 81 I don’t know if I’ll be around when I’m 91. It’s a lovely tribute, because I’m starting my 46th year of making Sesame Street.
How does it feel to watch a documentary about yourself?
It’s been really nice because we’ve been to film festivals and have seen lots of people enjoying the film. We’ve been enjoying their comments. It’s a nostalgic job I have. When you’re a child there are all kinds of strains – I think it’s easier to be a grown-up. So the film reminds them of how much Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch meant to them at that age. It’s talking about the past but then I still have the job, so for me one of the joys of the film is that it ends with me still working and doing these characters.
What do you think is the appeal of Big Bird? Out of all of the Sesame Street Muppets he was the first to break out, and is still the heart of the show.
I decided about two months in that he should be a child. For the first few months he was just a goofy guy, a real yokel. He’d become fairly popular just as a novelty, but when I made him a kid he suddenly embodied something that a lot of children could identify with: the struggle to be a child in an adult world. I love the letters that I get from children. One of them said: “Big Bird you’re my best friend, please come and play with me. How about next Thursday?” I’ve always liked doing something that children could relate to even though I was in my 30s, or now in my 80s. Big Bird is still 6 years old, of course. He never really changes all that much. Oscar is very satisfying too because I wasn’t cool at school. I was pushed around, and nobody pushes Oscar around.
What’s Sesame Street like as a place to work?
It’s a world that seems almost real when you go in. It’s quite dramatic for people to walk into the studio. It looks very much like a real street, except for all the lights coming down instead of sky. I remember one time a child was on the set watching us perform and he asked “Where’s the real Sesame Street? Where’s the real Big Bird?” He thought that we were just grown-ups pretending to be the actual characters.
You’ve been Big Bird and Oscar since the very start of the programme. Will storylines ever remind you of things that happened to them decades earlier?
I don’t remember the day-to-day things. Some are simple little moments of life and so the details pass you by. I’ve done literally thousands of hours of the show, over 4,000 episodes. We used to make 130 shows every single year. We don’t make as many now. The budget cut it down and there are more repeats. I was talking to the head writer who’d been told by accounting that in the future we’d only be able to make 25 shows a year. He said that was impossible. They asked why and he said “Well, what letter of the alphabet are you not going to use?”
Do you have any personal highlights from those thousands of hours, or do you prefer to look forward instead?
There are a few that stand out in my mind because they were so emotional. One was the story where everyone thought Big Bird’s friend Snuffleupagus wasn’t real. I remember a scene way back in the 70s where Gordon told Big Bird he was tired of hearing stories about his imaginary friend. “There is no such thing as a Snuffleupagus, so forget about it!” Snuffy comes shuffling along and a dejected Big Bird tells him they can’t be friends: “You’re imaginary and I can’t be your friend any more” “I’m imaginary?” Snuffy asks for a hug to say goodbye and starts crying, and because Big Bird can feel the tears he realises that Snuffy is real and they can be friends forever. I remember doing that and being so moved. You get into the real feelings of the characters. I felt the sadness that Big Bird had. When we got out of our outfits, our faces were completely wet with tears. They were tears of joy because Big Bird and Snuffy had realised they could still be friends. That was one of the memories that stands out, but there are so many others that were just so sweet. Life on Sesame Street… it’s so nice and wonderful. I love the job I have and that’s why I don’t want to leave. To still bring these characters to life is just too much fun.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Force Majeure charts the slow-motion unravelling of an affluent model family. As Tomas (Johannes Kuknke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children dine during a skiing holiday, they become briefly convinced that an avalanche is approaching. Faced with a moment of reckoning, Tomas impulsively grabs his iPhone and abandons his loved ones to their fate.
In darkly comic, excruciating detail, writer-director Ruben Östlund explores the aftermath of this event as the family confronts Tomas’ failure to conform to his socially-ordained role. Ahead of the film’s release we spoke to Ruben about gender expectations and nuclear families.
Were there any real life events that inspired the story?
The starting point was that I’ve skied a lot and have made ski films and wanted to make something set in a ski resort, but hadn’t known how because it’s such a kitschy world. Then I saw an online clip of a group of tourists sitting at an outdoor restaurant, similar to how it’s visualised in the film. They see an avalanche and think it’s beautiful but seconds later they’re screaming in panic and fleeing, before realising their error. They become ashamed of themselves, of losing control and exposing something that is uncivilised.
I was talking about the incident to a friend. You could tell that he’s done a lot of things in his life that he’s ashamed of. I’d had the idea of putting a family in that situation, and he said “What if it’s only the father that runs away?” Immediately I realised this would expose expectations of gender. I started to talk with a lot of different people, and many had personally experienced women losing trust in men because of how they behaved when it came to a crisis situation.
As I was watching I kept thinking about what happened on the Costa Concordia.
I thought it was extremely interesting how the captain of that ship started this lie that he fell into a lifeboat to avoid losing face. At one point Tomas says “I am a victim of my instinct”, which is a direct quote from that captain.
Ultimately the worst thing that Tomas does isn’t momentarily running away but continuing to lie about it.
I agree with that, but it’s so painful to lose your identity. If you’re a man and a lot of your identity is this expectation of what a man is, then lying about it is a way of trying to avoid that moment. The outside perspective of who we’re supposed to be has such a strong influence over our behaviour. In our society a man is supposed to sacrifice himself when there’s a sudden outside threat.
As a man or a woman you’re adapting to the role of being a man or a woman, to the expectations that come from those cultural influences. For me Tomas and Ebba are just performing the characters of the woman and the man in a family, acting like what’s expected of them. It’s role-playing. When tested, that brings out silly behaviour.
Were you trying to deconstruct the idea of a family unit?
It’s not very often that we see the nuclear family from an economical and historical perspective. We think of it as a fundamental thing about being a human being, but the actual term “nuclear family” was invented in the 1950s. Before then we lived in large families, and the industrial movement made us move into towns and small flats so we had to cut the bands with an older generation.
To motivate ourselves in this new lifestyle we conceived the idea of a nuclear family, but it’s totally stupid to not have grandparents around. In the large family there were more adults taking care of the children that were being brought up. The nuclear family is so much more vulnerable. If the mother and the father are not functional then the children are much more exposed.
If we look at the kind of lifestyle we can see that we’re following a pattern: we’re going down to individuals, which is the most efficient consumer unit. Stockholm, for example, has the most single person households of any city in the world. If there is eventually only one person in every household then they have to buy all the equipment that they’d buy when there are four people. We’re going from nuclear families to living alone in our apartments, being more and more efficient consumers all the while.
Is Force Majeure offering a critique of that process? Does it argue for a different way?
No, that part is not the film criticising. I wanted to look at the kind of family that is upper middle class and has that kind of lifestyle. By our criteria Tomas and Ebba have succeeded. They’re a beautiful couple staying with their beautiful children in a five-star luxury hotel. But then actually the perspective of the film is we’re looking down at them. These poor people! Going out in the hallway to have arguments about a catastrophe that never happened.
You’re right that they’re not actually in real peril at any point. Do you think Tomas and Ebba are looking for things to be unhappy about?
We have a culture today where we’re allowed to put 99% of our time and concern into our relationships. There’s something about this lifestyle that creates existential crises. We feel like love should be a problem, and we hear it in pop music over and over again. In movies, on television, it’s all relationship challenges. As long as we have that kind of focus for our lives we won’t be able to look at society’s problems from a proper perspective. I wanted to question that.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
CHARLIZE THERON IN YOUNG ADULT (2011)
Charlize Theron is known as a former model largely because of a couple of years she spent in the profession as a teenager. While her successful two decades-long acting career might suggest it’s time to lay the former model tag to rest, it could be argued that the same criteria should just be applied to everyone else too, so Andrew Garfield would be known forever as “Former barista Andrew Garfield”, and Johnny Depp would be “Former ballpoint pen telemarketer Johnny Depp.” Regardless of the particulars of her teen job, Theron is absolutely brilliant in Young Adult – damaged, deluded and devastating – and we’ll get into a mortifying drunken argument at a baby’s naming ceremony with anyone who disagrees.
GEMMA WARD IN THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)
Constantin Stanislavski famously said that there are no small parts, only small actors, but this one might be a stretch: as “Languid Girl,” Gemma Ward is in The Great Gatsby for approximately four seconds of its 143-minute running time. It’s difficult to accurately rate four seconds of anything, but she does give her one line of dialogue some gusto. In reflection, perhaps she gives it a little too much gusto, considering the only information the screenplay provides on her character is that she’s languid. Still, at least she’s better than Tobey Maguire: given his woeful miscasting, it’s a shame he also wasn’t in the film for that long.
NATALIA VODIANOVA IN CQ (2001)
It’s never a great sign when your acting debut is in a film with Billy Zane. Such was the fate of Natalia Vodianova, who played a tiny role in CQ, Roman Coppola’s affectionate, underseen homage to 60s film-making. Fortunately for her, CQ, while below Orlando (1992) or Zoolander (2001) in the grand pantheon of Billy Zane movies, is several fathoms above The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption. With Vodianova’s part restricted to two small scenes, her spotlight was stolen by another model with a substantially bigger role, Angela Lindvall, much like Billy Zane’s spotlight in Titanic was stolen by that cad Leonardo DiCaprio.
MONICA BELLUCCI IN THE MATRIX RELOADED (2003)
To include Monica Bellucci in this list is to make it an unfair fight, so we’re handicapping her by going with The Matrix Reloaded rather than, say, Irréversible (2002) – also we never want to watch Irréversible ever again. The first of many mid-career follies from the Wachowskis, The Matrix Reloaded doesn’t lack ambition, but also doesn’t lack for endless raves scenes or confusing reams of exposition either. Bellucci is largely wasted as neglected wife Persephone, with little to do other than be cheated on and later reveal a passage hidden behind a bookcase like she’s in a cyberpunk Scooby Doo.
GISELE BÜNDCHEN IN THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)
Gisele only agreed to be in The Devil Wears Prada if she wouldn’t have to play a model, which is as if Mo Farah agreed to appear in a remake of Chariots of Fire on the condition that he didn’t play a distance runner. She turns up during the scene that takes place in most early Anne Hathaway-starring films – the “Anne-Hathaway-is-wearing-slightly-nicer-clothes-and-everyone-is-shocked-at-her-transformation-even-though-she-looked-like-Anne-Hathaway-this-whole-time” moment. Despite Gisele’s limited acting ability and negligible role it’s remarkable how well she holds the screen. If she took some acting lessons who knows what great films she might be able to not play a model in.
ABBEY LEE KERSHAW AND ROSIE HUNTINGTON-WHITELEY IN MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)
It’s long been assumed that the only things that might live through a global apocalypse are cockroaches. The upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road posits another possible group of survivors: models. For his first return to dystopian oil-starved Australia in 30 years, director George Miller has wisely eschewed Mel Gibson for the likes of Abbey Lee Kershaw, Rosie Huntington Whiteley, and “former model” Charlize Theron. This can only be an improvement, unless Huntington-Whiteley also turns out to be a horrible misogynist racist in a couple of years.
LILY COLE IN THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS (2009)
Tom Cruise is regularly teased for his diminutive stature, but movie stars are a decidedly tiny breed. It’s difficult to say why so many are shorter than average – perhaps their condensed features are good for close-ups? If this is the case then Lily Cole was born for the cinema, not so much for her height (average), but for her broad, expressive face. She puts it to good use in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, exerting much charm amongst the ill-disciplined excess that unfortunately characterises much of Terry Gilliam’s later work. Cast her in a kitchen sink drama set in a dying industrial town and she’ll really shine.
SASHA PIVOVAROVA IN IN TIME (2011)
Given that Angelina Jolie once played Colin Farrell’s mother, it might be sadly unsurprising to find Sasha Pivovarova cast in In Time as Vincent Kartheiser’s mother-in-law. Thankfully, the reason for this is not Hollywood’s appalling gender-based ageism, but the film’s time-as-currency premise, where everyone stops aging at 25. Pivovarova doesn’t get an opportunity to explore this potent idea, however: if you’ve seen In Time‘s trailer then you’ve witnessed the entirety of her performance. She stands there for a few moments, looks strangely uncomfortable for someone whose job involves being photographed a lot, and that’s it. It’s probably a good thing her role wasn’t any bigger or her unmistakeable nerves might have caused her to spontaneously combust.
CARA DELEVINGNE IN THE FACE OF AN ANGEL (2014)
Without cheating, answer this: who plays the main character in The Face of an Angel? A cursory glance at the film’s marketing materials would suggest Cara Delevingne, but her role as Daniel Brühl’s new barmaid friend is peripheral at best. Nevertheless, Delevingne is warm and engaging in Michael Winterbottom’s knotty film – a much-needed dash of humanity in a mostly cerebral exercise. Three films into her career she’s no Charlize Theron, but then Charlize Theron’s debut was Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995), so maybe she’s doing okay so far.
MILLA JOVOVICH IN THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)
Does The Fifth Element exceed the statute of limitations for this feature? Possibly, but Jovovich’s committed comic performance deserves appreciation: her portrayal of the eponymous Fifth Element is by far the best thing in Luc Besson’s obdurately Gallic sci-fi action-adventure. The only dampener is that she would later squander the promise she demonstrated here on workmanlike action movies. At last count Jovovich had appeared in 17,304 instalments of the Resident Evil (2002) franchise, all of them terrible.
It Follows unsettles from its first second on screen. As a young woman desperately scrambles to escape from some unseen threat, the film’s soundtrack buzzes and thrums in a manner that is disorientating, unbearable and thrilling in equal measure. “It’s an assault,” writer-director David Robert Mitchell says of his rumbling score. “I wanted to attack the audience.”
As with its arresting opening, It Follows is defined by the control Mitchell exerts over every scene – the filmmaker mentions that he spent months on the storyboards alone. The result is one of the most atmospheric and impressive horror movies of recent years, sanctuary from the genre’s regular glut of sequels and uninspired knock-offs. Its premise is elegantly simple. After having sex on a date, Jay (Maika Monroe) learns that she has what might be best described as a supernatural STD: a shape-shifting figure in constant pursuit, which will kill her unless she has sex with someone new to pass the infection along. Her problems don’t end there, though: the chain must be continued, so if the next person dies before having sex then the scourge will revert back to her.
Teeming with subtext and possible allegorical readings, It Follows plays out like the worst sort of bad dream, as Mitchell reshapes adolescent sexual anxiety into deathly manifestations of friends, family and hideous strangers. Below, the director explains how he brought his film to eerie life.
The Duke of Burgundy operates within its own discrete, sumptuous universe: an unspecific European state seemingly without men, populated by women whose interests are limited to sadomasochism and the study of butterflies.
A complex erotic drama influenced by 1970s sexploitation cinema, Peter Strickland’s third feature is ostensibly about the sexual relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), but through deliberate repetition reveals itself to be a tender and funny look at the everyday struggles of making a relationship work. Peter sat down with us ahead of the film’s release to talk about dodgy bookshops and imaginary perfumes.
Outside of the S&M window dressing, the central relationship in The Duke of Burgundy is fairly universal. What was the value of using one thing to bring out the other?
It’s something I really enjoy: through something that is unrecognisable for many people in the audience, you perhaps see something familiar. I’m assuming the film’s a spectacle and slightly sensational for a lot of people, but by normalising it you get into the meat of the story, which is the characters’ motivation within their dynamic. For me, the film is about consent and how that veers into compromise and eventually coercion. Everyone likes to think they don’t coerce their partner. Compromise is an issue within every element of a relationship, not just the sexual parts – if a couple decides to start a family, one person will possibly have to compromise on a job they might love. I’m not an agony aunt, but you can apply the film beyond the bedroom.
What appealed to you about taking a genre like sexploitation that’s generally viewed in low-standing and repurposing it?
I’m a bit of dumpster diver. I like going through things that people overlook and disregard, and I’m very aware that this genre is one of the few in cinema that’s never really been propped up or defended. Grindhouse had a light shone on it, and Italian giallo horror for sure, but not sexploitation. Anything to do with sex is just seen as a bit embarrassing. Even to to get a hold of these films you used to have to go into dirty bookshops on Charring Cross Road. There are some very bad ones of course, with no redeeming qualities, but there are also ones which are brilliant all the way through. I remember a film I saw at the Scala Cinema 24 years ago called Mano Destra, by Cleo Übelmann. It’s this bizarre black and white film, like Chris Marker doing a bondage film, almost a still life. So I’m not trying to look down on them. I think in general these films embodied a fantasy, like the stern prison warden and the poor prisoner being sexually humiliated and so on. What propelled me was the sleazier elements, not that female lovers are sleazy, but the intention was sleazy because it was made for a male heterosexual audience. The idea was to take some of the fantastical imagery and puncture it, or turn it inside out.
Your previous film Berberian Sound Studio was a film ostensibly about horror and violence that didn’t have either of those things, and this is a film ostensibly about a sexual relationship that doesn’t show the actual sexual component of it. Why did you choose to imply rather than depict?
I toyed with showing sex. The script was quite explicit, but I didn’t want to compete with other things. I knew Nymphomaniac was getting made at the time, and there was Blue is the Warmest Colour. Even if you don’t want to, it can end up as this kind of sexual one-upmanship. I thought the best approach was to just hold back. I was also very aware of being a man, and thought it was important to not be too directional with the way the camera was looking. I was really conscious of the pitfalls of that. If I’d made the film with two men I probably would have done it differently, and it would have been quite graphic. Ultimately I chose two women because that’s the genre staple.
The setting and era of the film is purposefully vague. What was your thinking behind that? It could be the 1970s, it could be now…
It could be the future! Sometimes it’s hard to say why you do things. I liked the idea of this middle Europe. Practically it makes sense when you have actors with different accents, so the mix doesn’t feel too disruptive. The first draft had men, the characters had jobs, they lived in the city. I thought let’s actually make this kind of preposterous: a world where they have a house no-one can afford, and there are no men, and everyone is doing the same activity. It’s not realistic at all. By that, perhaps, you focus on the dynamics of the relationship. For me the fact that there are no men makes it not a classic lesbian story because there is no other gender to have a counterpoint. There’s no other sexuality to have a counterpoint, because there aren’t even heterosexual women. I didn’t want to make it about that, because then you get into the idea of social acceptance, rather than the things I was interested in.
Listed among the opening credits is “Perfume by Je Suis Gizella”. Did you actually use perfume on set?
That perfume didn’t exist. It does now. We didn’t know we’d have such a strong reaction so we’ve actually produced a limited edition perfume. I stole the idea from an Audrey Hepburn film, Paris When It Sizzles, which lists her perfume as being by Givenchy. Nobody’s seen that film so I thought I could get away with it. My job is to get the audience in the world of the film as quickly as possible. Credits are not just functional, informational space – you can play with them to create mood, and perfume makes you think this is a heady, sensual, decadent world.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
This February, Tate Modern is launching a strand of monthly artists’ film premieres called Artist Cinema, starting with the U.K. premiere of Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air. Devised by artist, film-maker, and academic Phillip Warnell, Ming of Harlem looks at a 2003 incident in which a man called Antoine Yates was arrested for keeping a 425lb Bengal tiger and a seven-foot alligator for several years in his apartment in Harlem. As well as taking Antoine back to his former neighbourhood and showing news footage of his dramatic arrest, the film depicts an imagined version of his apartment built within a tiger enclosure at the Isle of Wight Zoo, with the footage set to a poem by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.
Ahead of its upcoming Tate screening, Phillip spoke with us about his work on the film.
How did you become interested in the story of Antoine Yates?
It goes back quite a way. I saw it on the news in 2003, and it was just a very extraordinary thing to witness: a policeman rappelling down the side of a building being attacked by a tiger that’s inside. It all seemed so improbable that it just stayed in my mind, but at the time there was no way I could do anything with it. I like thinking beyond the news story: about former news, forgotten news. Ten years later I realised that it was possible to make approaches to people like Antoine.
What was he like in person?
People who have unexpectedly been part of the news, they’re often haunted by the moment at which their story became public. In Antoine’s case, there was outcry and public disbelief. Even the mayor of New York commented on it. Meeting him a decade after that, his recollection was still caught up in when it all happened, in an almost post-traumatic way.
Was there any resistance on his part to talk about it, or was he quite willing to be the subject of your film?
To his credit he was only interested in participating in something that was non-commercial, if I can put it that way. I think he would have been much more reluctant if the film were a commercially-driven proposition, but I told him that it was an artists’ project. I wasn’t making something on behalf of someone, and he was very open to the idea because of that.
Where’s the boundary between an artists’ film and a documentary? You use archival footage to provide exposition and you follow Antoine around, but then the heart of the film is a long sequence showing a tiger move around a specially-built flat at a zoo.
I don’t think there’s much to distinguish an artist’s film from a documentary, but I don’t worry about those definitions. I try to avoid thinking in terms of genre. Perhaps if one were looking for something that distinguished one from the other it might be that a documentary would be looking at reconstruction whereas this film slips into another domain, so it’s not a replica of the flat. It bears no resemblance whatsoever apart from one window. The rest of the flat I avoided becoming knowledgeable about. I wanted to imagine it, which drew out something that has very little to do with documentary.
Did that make you feel like you had a free hand to let Antoine speak on camera, instead of feeling an impulse to challenge him on his point of view or what he did?
Well, my view is that it’s not the role of a documentarian to simply challenge anyway. Sometimes in the presumption of challenging someone we simply get the perspective of the film-maker, so it’s not that I was avoiding challenging him, but rather that it would have been problematic in the first instance. I’m very interested in ambiguity and things that you can’t prove, things that are forever unknown. Unverifiable things. When someone says they did something and you can’t disprove it, there’s a wonder to that. Actually it’s something we all do in our own ways. When we look back we emphasise things and exercise preference. I love that we do that.
The film includes a poem by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. How did that collaboration come about?
We’ve worked on several projects together. It’s our second film in terms of his involvement, but we’ve also collaborated on texts and some photo works. I’ve always been fascinated by Jean-Luc’s writing. It exists in the context of the reconfiguration of his own body. He’s a heart transplant recipient, and that has affected and contextualised his work. For this film I set him the challenge to write a poem about the bringing together of these rather at-odds species.
Had he seen any of the footage you’d shot?
No, he just knew the concept. If you show someone too much they can start illustrating it instead. I told him about the living circumstances of Antoine and the animals. I didn’t want him to write relative to the material, but relative to the idea of dangerous predators in limited space.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
A troika of street performers stand like bored statues by the roadside. Across from their gazeless vigil, Thomas and Simone meet for the first time outside a Rome café. Simone is a journalist covering the appeal case of an American student convicted of murdering her housemate with the help of her ex-boyfriend and another man. The grisly crime, tinged with lurid sexual intrigue, has captivated the world‘s press, and Thomas wishes to direct a film about it. Before they part ways for the day, Simone offers him some advice. “If you’re going to make the film, make it a fiction,” she says. “You can’t tell the truth unless you make it a fiction.”
If the case being discussed in the above scene, which opens Michael Winterbottom’s latest film The Face of an Angel, sounds familiar, then it may be because it is almost identical in detail to the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia—a crime for which Amanda Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison (before being exonerated and then convicted again.) Like his protagonist Thomas, Michael travelled to Italy during that time and met with a journalist, Barbie Latza Nadeau, on whose true-crime book Angel Face the film is nominally based and who originally said those words to him.
The reason Michael decided to follow Barbie’s advice, he explains, was two-fold: “With fiction you can include certain information that you can’t otherwise, because you have to prove it. But more than that, I felt that the important aspects of the story would get lost in all the details of the real case. If I made a film about the trial of Amanda Knox, then it becomes just that: a film about a trial. I wanted it to be about other things, about love and grief and Dante and family and storytelling.”
Despite the changes in specific details—Perugia becomes Siena, for example—the director asserts that he was still acutely aware of ethical considerations: “Even though we moved everything one step across, the film is as factually accurate as if it had been real. We don’t make up anything.”
The story’s appeal was not the murder itself, but the broader questions it raised about public and press interest in particular types of violent crime. “The idea was maybe we could look at why we all as consumers of the media want to hear about murder trials. There have been at least ten books written about this single case. Many TV documentaries. Endless amount of television and news coverage and articles. That obsession was a story in its own right. Why is a case like this so fascinating? Why has the media tacked on to this one specific story?”
There are salacious and compelling details in all sorts of crimes, but Michael felt that there was something about murder that attracts us. Murder stories, perhaps, fill a space left in society by shifting attitudes towards death. He elaborates: “It’s a weird paradox that we spend so much of our time watching crime and violence on TV, and yet in our own lives death has become almost invisible. All the ways in which people normally experienced death at an intimate, local level with friends and relatives, which was accepted as part of life, we’ve got rid of all that and turned it into drama.”
As he followed those covering the case, the filmmaker saw talented and driven journalists aware that they had to package the story in a way that would sell, to create a version of the trial that would appeal to their newspaper editors. The experience of this persuaded both Michael—and his cinematic proxy Thomas—to go in a different direction. Rather than dramatising Meredith‘s death or Amanda’s trial, The Face of an Angel instead follows Thomas’ creative journey as he debates with journalists and local residents, and struggles to persuade executives more interested in the film’s casting than its themes. Unbeknownst to Thomas, of course, the film that he wants to make is the one he is starring in. While Michael’s preemptive considerations were about the media, both he and Thomas ultimately arrive at the same place: a murdered girl. Where most of the coverage focussed on the young, attractive woman accused of murder, his focus shifts to the one who lost her life, whose family was irreparably damaged by the crime, regardless of who actually perpetrated it.
The Face of an Angel is far from the first of Michael’s films to take inspiration from real life. Out of the 24 features he has directed in his career, five are based on true stories. Even when not directly fact-based, however, his fictional work is similarly defined by an aspiration towards truthfulness. His film Everyday, about a family coping with the father’s prison sentence, was shot in real time over five years, while another effort, 9 Songs, became infamous for depicting a year-long relationship almost entirely through unsimulated sex scenes between its central couple. Michael’s aim is to make events on screen as natural as possible, using whatever techniques will help him do that. When I ask what’s the best sort of atmosphere to engender naturalistic performances, he replies immediately: a chaotic one. “I like people to feel relaxed, and I want to feel comfortable, but obviously I like a bit of chaos,” he says, finishing off his large glass of daytime wine.
Over the course of our fervent, breakneck conversation—he speaks at a rate swift enough to melt all but the hardiest of digital recorders—this comment is perhaps his most redundant. Of course Michael likes chaos. If his propensity for freewheeling impulsiveness wasn’t discernible from his charmingly erratic behaviour before and during our conversation, his wide, wild body of work would give the game away. Arguably the most exciting British filmmaker working today, Michael’s open mind and keen intellectual curiosity seeks restlessly for new ways to tell new stories, and lots of them, too: his 24 films were made over just nineteen years, and he always has a handful of others in varying stages of production.
Michael’s exploratory inclinations are buttressed by the frequent use of improvisation, which he employs for differing purposes, from the comic bickering in his popular series The Trip to recruiting non-professional actors to enact in real life the events of Afghan refugees for In This World. The director speaks with evident delight at the effect that mixing real and fictional elements has on a film. “I like the idea of taking characters and putting them in an environment that’s not controlled, where some people are actors and some aren’t. You know it’s a fiction, but you also know that there are other things going on. The characters aren’t on a set, they’re in the actual world. I remember seeing À Bout de Souffle for the first time, and as they’re walking down the Parisian streets you see someone look at the camera. I love that sort of stuff. It makes it real.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Four. Photograph by Toby Coulson. To read the original article click here.
The idiom ‘like herding cats’ could have been invented to describe the process of interviewing Ana Lily Amirpour. Even though our conversation took place on a sodden Wednesday afternoon in an overheated central London hotel, talking to her felt akin to being jammed on a sofa with an affable stranger towards the end of a rambunctious house party, paper cups of wine cradled in our hands.
Ostensibly we met to discuss Lily’s directorial debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Given that it is perhaps the world‘s first Iranian-American vampire western, there was much to talk about. Shot in stark black and white and set in a fictitious Iranian ghost town called Bad City, the film follows a 186-year-old vampire known only as The Girl as she makes the acquaintance of a troubled local man.
Beyond her love of music and stylish predilection for wearing a Breton top with her chador, we learn almost nothing about this complicated, aged creature other than she occasionally rides a skateboard and appears to target men who take advantage of women. She is as quiet and introspective as Lily is digressive and enthusiastic. But after many minutes conversing about raunchy band names, malfunctioning abdominal cavities, Twin Peaks and sinister casinos, Lily was finally ready to discuss the film. For the most part.
We should probably talk about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
It’s so much more fun to talk about hernias.
I understand. You must get the same ten questions over and over again. Everyone asking you, “Why vampires, Lily?”
Right! Well, we can do that. We can do whatever you want.
Why vampires, Lily?
I’ve been into vampires since very early. Anne Rice was my gateway drug. Honestly I just really don’t want to die, and I don’t want to get old, and vampires live forever. And they’re lonely.
You shot the film in California, but it’s set in Iran. Why did you choose to have America stand in for the country?
Did you think it was Iran?
I’d read that it wasn’t. But while I’ve never been there, it felt like neither one place nor the other. You could take it almost as being set in an imaginary Iran.
Exactly. That’s good, that’s how I would have answered. Put that. It’s not the real world. It’s an Iran of the mind.
Have you been to Iran much?
I’ve been there once. My film has nothing to do with Iran, though. It’s an avenue into something, and it’s Iranian because it’s an Iranian fairy tale with Iranian characters and I am Iranian, but I’m also a composite of many other things. Making a film is an opportunity to put together the things that you are and live inside a dream and not have the limits or rules of the real world defining it. If it was shot on a sound stage, I wonder if people would ask why it was set in Iran.
I’d argue that one of the interesting things about that choice is the marked differences between the shooting location and the setting. They inspire a creative tension.
People just want answers all the time. I think the questions are much more interesting than the answers.
Do you purposefully want the film to be open to interpretation then? There are definitely political readings of what happens but are you looking to create ambiguity?
I want whatever you get. Once I create a film it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s like a mirror, and each person brings what they are to it. You see things of yourself in a movie. My feeling and your feeling of the same exact film are going to be different and that’s what’s great about cinema. That’s why it’s more interesting to hear what you think than for me to tell you the stuff that I was thinking when I made it.
I wanted to ask you about Madonna because there’s a picture of her on The Girl’s wall.
Do you know who that is? It’s not Madonna. The face was changed because I couldn‘t get permission to use all those music posters she has on her wall. It’s actually the face of Margaret Atwood. I met her at San Diego Comic-Con before I made the film and she was super supportive of the idea of the film. Then when I was making it, I was told that to get the clearance for the posters we’d have to pay loads of money, so I just changed them. Margaret Atwood was Madonna, Elijah Wood and his two partners in his production company were the Bee Gees. I was Michael Jackson. It was so fun doing that.
Do you think that turns the film into even more of a side-step from reality?
Yes, it makes an alternate, Bizarro version of the real world. I think the little details are really important, like the character Arash’s watch is always at high noon.
That’s actually why I wanted to bring up Madonna. There’s a moment in the film where The Girl says she isn’t religious. In the Catholic faith people put the Madonna on their walls, and instead The Girl has a pop-culture Madonna on hers. I was wondering if that was an intentional allusion.
Wow, I never heard that. See, this is why I love movies. I recently realised why I hate E.T.
You hate E.T.? Why?
I shit my pants when I was a kid and saw it. I was terrified. And I was at a festival in Spain and met a filmmaker called Carlos Vermut. We had this big conversation about life and weirdness and madness and movies and everything, and I was talking about E.T. Did you like E.T.?
Very much so. But it’s okay for other people to not like it.
I didn’t hate the movie, I hated the alien. From the moment I first saw it, I felt wrong. I never thought, “You’re cute, let’s be friends.” It was always, “Run for the hills!” Carlos figured it out. He said,“You don’t like old people. E.T. is an old man, and you made a vampire movie and you want to live forever.” I thought, “Holy shit, dude, you just saved me ten years of therapy.”
Why don’t you like old people?
I’d like to be politically correct, but I can’t help but tell you what I think. I don’t dislike them. I don’t hate them. It’s not like that. I’m afraid of them and I think they’re gross and I don’t find them attractive. I find old people a looming, tangible sense of death. I feel like they’re an advertisement for death. Decaying, rotting inside your own body. And they smell bad. I mean, I like my grandma, but she’s gross, you know?
I’ve never been comfortable with that and I don’t know that I ever will, and I’ll become one unless a vampire comes along and rescues me from it. Or if they come up with a nano-shot where they can inject you with something cell-rejuvenating. I don’t want to die. Death is a part of everything, because everything dies, but fuck! I don’t care how many beautifully-lit photos you take of wrinkled faces, it’s just a photo. It’s not real. Go to a hospital and see what old age really smells and looks like. It’s not tasty or savoury.
You mentioned to me before that you’ve already seen fans dressed up as The Girl. What’s it like to have created a character and then have it develop a life of its own?
It’s crazy! I was talking to my dad about it a couple of days ago. It’s funny because I always say that I’m a very personal filmmaker. I’m interested in trying to figure out who I am. That’s all I’m really trying to do. So it’s cool to think that something that you do can affect someone in a weird way. In the film I’m not trying to be political or say something about women or Iran. Anything that’s happening is something I’m thinking in my own head about who I am as a weird human being on earth. Then my dad said I was changing the way people look at chadors on a massive scale, as people will associate this religious thing with something completely different now. It kind of freaked me out. Are you suffering?
What do you mean?
The heat. Are you?
It’s a bit sultry.
Humid. But it’s good. It puts us in a fever dream state. Would you do it, if a vampire came and gave you the choice of being a vampire? Have you ever thought about it?
I think you should take some time over your answer.
It’s a big question.
It is a big question. I’ve been thinking about it since I was nine, so I know.
I probably would.
Yes, me too.
The idea of murder and blood doesn’t particularly appeal, but I’d rather not die.
I’d rather not die too! And I imagine some part of me would be like a cheetah. I don’t think a cheetah feels bad when it kills an antelope. A vampire is part human so of course there’s the guilt, but it’s better than lots of other ways I can think of dying. Taking something’s life in a very meaningful way, versus having a stroke? There’s no contest. Dying at the hands of a vampire isn’t a bad way to die. It’s pretty magnificent.
It is not a coincidence that A Bigger Splash takes place on a volcanic island: the film is comprised of dormant passions, waiting to erupt.
David Kajganich’s adaptation of the sensual 1969 thriller La Piscine follows rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her recovering alcoholic boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) as their blissful holiday is soured by the unwelcome, sexually provocative intrusion of her ex Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his new-found daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).
As its foursome flirt and fight, the film throbs with intense, volatile emotion: it is also not a coincidence that in person its director Luca Guadagnino is similarly animated.
One of the central ideas of A Bigger Splash is the conflict between two ways of living: a traditional hedonistic rock and roll lifestyle, which is embodied by Harry, and a contemporary sort of clean living which Paul and Marianne are attempting to pursue. Why were you interested in exploring that divide? You put me in a place in which I feel uncomfortable because you’re asking me to give my own explanation of the film, which I am not very eager to do generally. I think the audience should make a judgement by themselves. I would say that the idea of nostalgia and wanting to get back what you’ve lost is something that I always think about, and in these characters you have that clash, a kind of battle between wills. It’s a very universal, powerful dynamic.
When you have characters who have opposing philosophies, as a director do you take a side or is it important to be sensitive to both points of view? A director should never judge their characters. It’s a disgrace if you do that. You should be as open as possible, as broad as possible and you should be able to invest in every act the characters make without judging them ever. If you judge your characters you’re putting yourself on top of them and it’s a disaster.
The characters are all driven by desire for each other–We all are. Aren’t you?
Yes, certainly. I thought it was notable however that there’s this struggle where each character wants someone else sexually, and is motivated by this. But this is exactly what we are bound to, so I wanted to make a movie about something that people can absolutely recognise in their own lives, even if they’re not rock stars.
Due to an operation on her throat, Marianne is almost entirely silent and has to express herself in other ways. Was that a challenge to depict? Not when you have a great performer like Tilda Swinton. In general, no, because I think that people behave and communicate not just with words, but with the position they take in physical space. You are communicating much more through the position of your feet right now than by anything you’re saying, in my opinion. A director is someone who has to be very attentive of behaviour and try to capture everything that comes as communication, whether in words or physically.
The original film La Piscine was set on the French Riviera which is warm but cool, while A Bigger Splash takes place on the island of Pantelleria, where there’s the intense Sirocco wind. Was shifting the location a key decision for you? It started everything. When I said I’m going to do this movie based on La Piscine, I had to move the action to an island. I needed the movie to be set adrift and for the environment to challenge the characters. I didn’t need a luxurious backdrop. That doesn’t interest me, I hate it.
What would you say is the biggest difference between the original version and yours? I haven’t seen that movie. I saw it only when I was 16, so I don’t know what to say.
Do you think it’s a better approach to adapt a film from a distant memory rather than looking at it closely? I was just working from the concept that there were two couples: one father and daughter and one new couple. That was my memory of what was in the movie. The writer may have seen it again but I didn’t. I remember there was a moment in La Piscine in which Alain Delon slashes Romy Schneider with a branch, but we don’t have any slashing in this movie.
You also altered the title to A Bigger Splash, which is the name of a David Hockney painting that depicts a splash of water as someone dives into a swimming pool. Why did you change the name from a location to the consequence of an action? The pool isn’t the important point, the point is the clash. I’d much rather focus on the action rather than the concept of the pool itself. I also wanted, in my megalomania, to buy that painting when I was young. Somehow I feel I now possess it in a way because it’s the title of my movie.
World leaders have been exploding a lot lately. In December North Korea brought Sony Pictures to its knees over their planned release of The Interview, a film that notoriously ends with Kim Jong-un’s head detonating when hit by a tank shell. Kingsman: The Secret Service concludes in similar fashion, but on this occasion the exploding head belongs not to a brutal dictator but the world’s most famous liberal politician. The scene, which takes place during a lavish montage of expiring dignitaries, acts as a grisly exclamation point at the end of one of the most sustained acts of right-wing film-making since its jingoistic 1980s action heyday.
Kingsman is the fifth feature-length effort from producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn, whose filmography also includes Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and a 2008 short film used as a party political broadcast for the Conservatives. Adapted from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic book series The Secret Service – although given its prevailing interests it could have conceivably been based on a couple of old copies of FHM found in the woods – the film follows the talented but unvarnished youth Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as he vies to join the titular covert organisation, while being mentored by the agency’s top spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth).
Despite stealing much of its plot wholesale from Men in Black, Kingsman is a James Bond pastiche in its bones, teeming with quips, easily dispatched henchmen and umbrella-derived weaponry. Most crucial to completing the 007 look is a megalomanic villain, who takes the form here of Samuel L Jackson’s Richmond Valentine. A genius tech entrepreneur with a fondness for McDonald’s and limbless sidekicks, Valentine plans to use malevolent SIM cards to force most of the world’s population to violently kill each other, leaving only a select few to inhabit the Earth. The problem with this, other than it being ridiculous and making absolutely no sense, is his motivation. Rather than pursuing money, power, or any other capitalist goal traditionally desired by supervillains, his monstrous strategy is an attempt to halt global warming.
That last point demands to be repeated: the world-threatening villain of Kingsman is a climate change activist.
In the film’s most mortifying attempt at being self-referential, Hart and Valentine have a tense dinner together, with Hart expressing his distaste for modern Bond films, declaring: “Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.” The depiction of Valentine’s plan as a throwback to a less serious era of spy movies is revealed as a feint, with the ulterior motive of undermining environmentalists: not only is the character amoral and dispassionate, but his methods are buffoonish, the doomed-to-fail scheme of a lisping, squeamish eccentric.
Everything about Kingsman exists to disguise the fact that it is solidly conservative – even the theme song is by Take That, presumably recorded as part of some elaborate tax-avoidance scheme. If the film is a throwback, then it’s a throwback in the worst manner: not a carefree romp, but James Bond shooing away a female masseuse with a smack on the bottom, telling her it’s time for “man talk”. It is an unpleasant, carelessly violent cartoon, in thrall to the establishment and utterly contemptuous of women and the working class.
The extent of Kingsman’s troubling moral viewpoint is matched only by the determination of reviewers to overlook it. “Just try not to think too much,” suggests Time Out. This curiously disengaged sentiment runs throughout a surprising number of the film’s overwhelmingly positive reviews. Call it the Blurred Lines defence, where the unsavoury message of a work of popular entertainment doesn’t matter so long as it’s catchy. And in filmic terms, Kingsman is catchy: the action is well staged and attractively shot, Firth is an engaging presence as ever, and the whole thing thrums along at a steady clip. Vaughn is an undeniably talented director, but he is also a deeply reactionary one, a fact mostly ignored in light of his enjoyable, seemingly flippant output.
Is it meaningful that Kingsman’s genocidal villain is an environmentalist, or that it features a leering, lengthy scene involving the brutal massacre of dozens of innocent people, or another scene in which Taron Egerton’s hero will rescue an imprisoned woman he doesn’t know only if she agrees to kiss him, or that most of the working-class people it depicts are violent layabouts, or that it ends by killing the most notable left-wing political figure in modern history, who is shown earlier to support the antagonist’s plan to decimate the Earth’s population? Yes. These things are very meaningful: just because a film acts as if it doesn’t take itself seriously isn’t an indication that this is the case. Kingsman is the cinematic equivalent of Nigel Farage, hiding its unpalatable political convictions beneath a studied affectation of cheerful irreverence. It may as well be holding a pint, in tweeds, grinning with just its mouth.
Agonisingly stitched together from the hundreds of teen movies that were made in a verdant period from 1995 to 2004, Beyond Clueless documents the topography of a lost world: a faded cinematic landscape of high school proms, illicit house parties, friendship cliques, fevered emotions, late-night swimming pool sex scenes and Ryan Phillippe.
Created by debut film-maker Charlie Lyne – a young journalist best known for creating the movie blog Ultra Culture – the documentary is an act of sustained film criticism as well a sensorial experience and heady blast of nostalgia, scored by the blissful indie-pop duo Summer Camp. We caught up with Charlie in the middle of a nationwide screening tour to talk about bringing the movies of his youth back to the screen.
How many films did you watch while researching and how many made it into the film?
In the end I looked at about 300 films and somewhere between 200 and 300 made it in. Early on I had ideas of cramming in every little thing but for various reasons a few couldn’t make the cut. We had no clue it was going to balloon so much. When I set out I drew up a list of about 100 films from memory, but then I’d spend five minutes on Freddie Prinze Jr.’s Wikipedia page and discover 25 more that I had to watch, or I’d go to a party and get talking to someone and come home with an Amazon shopping basket’s worth of stuff. Even now doing Q&As people bring films up – a guy last night asked why The Butterfly Effect wasn’t included and I couldn’t give a decent answer about how it slipped through the net. One of the good things about the genre at that time is that it was defined by hundreds of mid-level films rather than a small number of massive hits.
In that case did you feel you had to be rigorous with your criteria?
There were instances where we slightly broke our own rules, purely because there were some moments in those films that were perfect. We tried to be as broad as possible. I wasn’t worried about the strict ages of the characters – they didn’t have to be set in a high school or anything like that. We were just trying to make sure every film dealt in some way with adolescence, with characters who feel like they’re half way between childhood and adulthood.
Do you think that the teen movies from this period are distinct from the ones that came in the 80s or the YA-derived films that came later?
Obviously there are preoccupations which are perennial. I’m sure 50 years from now you’ll find exactly the same sorts of themes and ideas popping up, but I do think that the movies that we looked at, from the mid-90s to mid-00s, are a lot less monolithic than the ones from the previous generation. Despite certain tropes appearing again and again the sheer number of cinematic modes that film-makers were using makes it a much more fertile world to explore. There were just as many horror films as comedies and dramas.
Why did they die out?
Teen movies tend to come in waves so after nearly a decade of intense production I guess it was inevitable that it would reach saturation point. I also think Hollywood had become reliant on teenage characters. They wound up in the very centre of the mainstream and therefore teen movies were extraneous once every movie was a teen movie. It did end very suddenly. You look at 2004 which I would pinpoint as the dying days of that wave, and yet half the films we look at closely in Beyond Clueless seem to have come from that year. It feels appropriate that it ended with a bang. Also it’s like the span of an actual teenager. If you were just becoming a teenager when Clueless came out you’d be at the tail end of your adolescence when Mean Girls was released. Your bond with those movies would very suddenly come to an end.
Throughout Beyond Clueless the same actors appear again and again. It’s notable how lots of them didn’t really go on to adult stardom. Why do you think that was?
It does seem to be a difficult transition. One of the problems is that if you’re a child star you can disappear and come back a few years later and redefine yourself, but if you become known for playing characters in their late adolescence it’s more of an amorphous switch when you start playing adults, even when you’ve actually been one for years. It’s a shame, especially because so many of those actors were very talented and never got a chance to show what they could do.
Beyond Clueless is both a criticism of these films and a celebration of them. Do you think they had an unfair critical reception at the time – that because they were aimed at teenagers they were dismissed?
I’m glad you say Beyond Clueless is a celebration and a critique because I think critical snobbishness meant that neither was done well enough at the time. People weren’t giving these movies the time of day but equally they weren’t critiquing them either. The default with a lot of teen movies is a critical assumption that they’re inherently frivolous. I think it’s a missed opportunity: they’re hitting an audience at the most impressionable age it’s possible to be, and yet we don’t really stop and think about what they’re telling that audience or how they’re doing it.
During your research was there anything you fondly remembered that was absolutely terrible?
I recall being especially horrified by The Girl Next Door, which was a movie I took on board very unthinkingly as a teenager. Watching it with fresh eyes after a decade was quite terrifying, not that my affection for it has completely diminished. I still can’t help but feel a real affinity for it despite its massive flaws and problematic central plot. But then for every one of those there was another film that I was delighted to find was even better than I gave it credit for. To revisit them was a constantly alternating participatory experience.
It must become difficult to separate what’s good from what’s bad.
Hours into the process I realised that I’d lost all concept of quality. They just became this massive blob of movies that coexisted and seemed to dance around each other, an entire movement in a state of constant flux, so any idea of which were the better or worse ones just went out the window.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
“You can’t always be Hamlet; sometimes you have to play a talking refrigerator.” Alfred Molina graduated from drama school 39 years ago, but he tells the story as if it happened last week. “One of my acting teachers said that. Of course, it got a big laugh. He said that the important thing was to not look down on those moments and think they’re beneath you. I was very young at the time, in my late teens, and didn’t quite appreciate what he was trying to communicate. I realise now he was talking about self respect and taking pride in your work, applying your craft with the same dedication, effort and concentration to every job regardless of what it is. The trick is to be the best talking refrigerator you can be.”
Alfred emanates good advice. He can’t help himself. One gets the sense that he’s held on to every shred of wisdom he’s received. His conversation abounds with references to former teachers, acting colleagues and old friends who have had something useful to pass along. Over a tremendous four-decade career, in which the actor has played Hamlets, refrigerators and everything in between, it’s clear that the early lessons stuck. Alfred’s large body of work, which includes roles in everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to An Education to Boogie Nights, has been defined by the gusto he brings to each part. “I’m definitely a very different actor now than when I started, but what remains constant is that I still get excited by the job.”
Maintaining such enthusiasm over a long career is difficult, and Alfred has seen the fire go out for several of his peers. “There’s no judgement involved here: it happens for all kinds of reasons and it’s important to bear that in mind, because it’s not that actors become lazy necessarily,” he says. “It’s often that the job becomes hard. We all get older and our energy levels aren’t the same. It can be a very physical gig.”
He mentions his time on the TV drama Monday Mornings, in which he played a hospital’s chief of staff: “I was joking with the producers and said, ‘I’ve reached an age where you can just stick me behind a desk and I’ll do a lot of shouting and pointing. I’m really good at that now. All the youngsters, they can do the running and jumping. I’ll just shout and point.’ They kind of took me at my word, and I ended up with all these scenes where I had big long speeches haranguing one person after another. But it was okay. You develop different strengths. You eventually become the actor you were destined to be.”
Alfred has avoided languor by finding how to conserve his energy and be more efficient. “When I was young I would run in like a bull in a china shop. On the first day I’d be all pistons going, all engines firing, and then by the second I’d be exhausted with a ton of work still to do. You learn which battles to fight as well as how to fight them.”
Due perhaps to his dexterity with accents, marauding eyebrows and bearish carriage, Alfred has played his share of villains, but in person he laughs generously and conveys both warmth and gentleness. He’s the sort of figure you’d want to run into if you scraped a knee or lost your wallet. Manners are as important to him as the work he puts in. “Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the right way to do something and you find yourself struggling. I’ve been on lots of sets where actors will suddenly shout out because they’re so frustrated. What’s important is to not lose your rag at your inability to nail the performance and then turn around to someone and go, ‘You! It’s all your fault!'”
As frustrating as those difficult moments are, Alfred believes they’re the key to remaining enthusiastic. “About ten years ago I was talking to an actor friend who’s much older than me. I asked, ‘How do you stay fresh?’ and he said that when offers come in you should always try to take the least comfortable one.” If every job might have something more to offer, Alfred understood, then he wouldn’t get bored or stale. The stance is an admirable one, but he concedes that practical considerations have a bearing too. First and foremost he’s a working actor, which means popping up in all sorts of projects—sometimes it’s Magnolia, sometimes it’s The Pink Panther 2.
After dozens of roles in every medium it might be difficult to identify specific turning points in a career, but Alfred immediately brings up playing Doctor Octopus, the tragic yet diabolical villain of Spider-Man 2, who he played a full thirty years into his career. Yet the part introduced him to a whole new audience. He explains, “Before then I’d mostly done smart, high-end independent films that were well-regarded but didn’t make huge amounts of money.” In contrast, Spider-Man 2 had the highest-grossing opening day in history at the time of its release. “It was just a massive, massive undertaking; at one point we were occupying seven sound stages on the Sony lot. You soon realise the actors are a small cog in a much bigger machine, but once you’ve embraced that you can have a wonderful time.”
A decade on from Spider-Man, another turning point has presented itself with Ira Sachs’ family drama Love Is Strange, one of this year’s best and most affecting pictures. Alfred co-stars with John Lithgow as George and Ben, a couple who are forced to live apart when they lose their flat as a result of getting married. While their predicament is a consequence of discrimination, the film is more interested in depicting the nuances of the pair’s long relationship than underlining the injustice of their circumstances. For Alfred, who has been involved in gay rights activism for several years, the emphasis on the commonplace was part of the appeal. “Everything that happens to the characters are things that happen to all of us. Their crisis isn’t insurmountable, nor is it life-threatening. George and Ben are quite delightfully ordinary in a way that is reassuring and recognisable—these are people in the world. It would have been less of a film if they’d been special.”
Instead of Love Is Strange relying on unrealistic narrative convolutions to provide interest, Alfred feels that the film’s power comes from exploring what’s extraordinary about the ordinary love at its centre, and that this is what the title refers to. “I like to think of it in the Shakespearean sense. In Hamlet, Horatio says, ‘O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!’ where strange means something magical and mysterious and ultimately wonderful. You have no understanding of how it’s happened or why but it fills you with joy. That’s what I take from the title, and that’s what love is. It’s some indefinable thing that saves you, that protects you and gets you through life. And that’s the same for anybody.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Three. Photograph by Clare Hewitt. To read the original article click here.
Dissatisfaction has lingered around the adaptation of The Hobbit seemingly from the moment director Peter Jackson announced his plan to divide J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively slim children’s book into three separate features. Even during the excellent second instalment The Desolation Of Smaugit was difficult to escape the idea that the trilogy was somehow inessential. For all of its merits – most of which involve Martin Freeman’s performance as the titular halfling Bilbo Baggins – The Hobbit has always felt more like a retread of The Lord Of The Rings than a singular, vital work in its own right.
Now that we’re at the end – truly, definitively, finally at the end – it becomes reasonable to ask: what was the point of it all? Why does The Hobbit exist? These aren’t meant to be hostile questions. It’s generally unfair to demand the motivation for artistic endeavours, but some reflection in this instance might help to understand how best to comprehend the three films. What was Jackson trying to accomplish, and did he succeed on those terms?
Here’s one possible explanation. At the close of that other long trilogy directed by Jackson and set in Middle Earth, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) sits in the back of a wagon with his forgetful, rapidly-ageing uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm in this incarnation). Their adventures are over. “Frodo, any chance of seeing that old ring of mine again, the one I gave you?” Bilbo asks. His nephew apologises and says he lost it. A compassionate lie. Bilbo declares this a pity: “I should like to have held it one last time.”
If there’s a sentiment in either of the two trilogies that can best illuminate The Hobbit‘s genesis, perhaps it’s this one. While it’s possible that the director and his collaborators had things to say about Middle Earth that they hadn’t managed to during the 683-minute running time of The Lord of the Rings, the overwhelming impression is simply that they wanted to live those 683 minutes over again.
The biggest danger that follows massive success is the loss of artistic constraints, and this is to some degree responsible for Jackson’s tendency to bloat material whether it’s required or not. Who’s going to tell the person who made The Lord Of The Rings that it’s a bad idea to make a film as big as possible when that approach has worked so well for him before? The consequence of no limitations is that Jackson was less interested in what made the source novel unique than how it could be shaped into something else. Accordingly the structure of the three films is derived not from the book but the trilogy that was made before it, with characters, sequences and storylines added to inflate the narrative into an epic, and the focus broadened from one hobbit to a vast ensemble.
The decision to expand the cast is particularly troublesome in The Battle Of The Five Armies, the concluding chapter of the series. Martin Freeman, ostensibly the protagonist, is reduced to being the fourth or fifth main character. Endless time is spent instead on the travails of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and sulking elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who pointlessly hunts a secondary antagonist virtually identical to the main one. Even the tiresome servant Alfrid (Ryan Gage) gets more screen time, spending a portion of the film in ludicrous drag as if someone had told him they were remaking Monty Python’s Life Of Brian.
Bilbo has almost nothing to do in his own story: he calms a few people down, frets a little, and sneaks out of the Lonely Mountain a couple of times. That’s pretty much it. While this is in some respects due to the novel, in which the hobbit is unconscious for most of the battle, it is a shame considering how eager Jackson and his co-writers were to embellish the story elsewhere. If they could invent a baffling elf-dwarf-elf love triangle for Legolas, then surely they could have given Bilbo something other to do than repeatedly offer to head home and get out of everybody’s way. As with the previous two instalments, The Battle Of The Five Armies is wonderful whenever Freeman is around and a bit of a slog when he’s not.
If one were to be generous, it could be argued that Jackson made the films he thought audiences wanted to see. This would be understandable: after all, the first trilogy is one of the most beloved and commercially successful cinematic enterprises of all time. Unfortunately, the choice to dwell so readily on earlier successes both in its structure and inclusion of returning characters robs The Hobbit of any identity of its own. In all non-chronological respects it is a sequel to The Lord Of The Rings, and consequently suffers from the same problem that besets most sequels: by attempting to provide more of the same, it offers less.
Given that the three films were shot at the same time, the collapse in quality in its final chapter is unexpected and bitterly disappointing. The trouble is that The Battle Of The Five Armies finds the story at a juncture where almost all of the book’s good material has already been depicted. Focusing on just the final 47 or so pages, Jackson is left to kill time however best he can, scrambling around to the point where some extras apparently seem to have their own storylines. Inevitably, one day a person with an admirable disregard for copyright law will re-edit The Hobbit into the two films it was originally intended to be, and both of them will be terrific.
Without Gollum, Smaug, talking spiders or daring barrel-based escapes to distract, the trilogy’s issues become ever more apparent. Somehow the film looks more fake than the ones that were made over a decade before: special effects have been a cornerstone of Jackson’s Middle Earth efforts since Fellowship of the Ring, but they have overtaken the film-making to the extent where unless a character is shown in close-up it’s a good bet that it’s not actually them. It is essentially an animated film: where previous outings utilised New Zealand’s natural beauty, The Battle Of The Five Armies could have been made in any studio that owned enough green screen. None of this is helped by the story being restricted almost entirely to a single uninspiring location that has the grey-and-brown colour scheme of a shabby industrial park.
Despite all of these problems the film is generally successful in its opening half, exploring themes of greed, subjugation, malice and spite, and effectively building up to the climactic battle as several characters become driven by competing material desires. The depiction of Thorin is especially effective, as the dwarf leader succumbs to “dragon sickness” and builds literal and emotional walls around his party. Devoted to protecting the birthright that’s shredding his mind, he declares: “Life is cheap, but a treasure is worth all the blood we can spend.”
Throughout the first half, Jackson and his co-writers make beautiful and simple points about the true value of wealth and the importance of more meaningful priorities: unlike a world-threatening ring, the Arkenstone, emeralds of Girion, and Smaug’s gold are ultimately devoid of any power beyond the evil they inspire people to do, and thus they are inherently useless. In the film’s most moving scene, Bilbo describes his plans for an acorn he’s been carrying around, and it makes one ache to think of all the time wasted on endless, miserable battle scenes rather than this wise, duplicitous, funny, stout-hearted, ornery, strange little hobbit. Alas, Jackson ploughs on, and on: CG dwarves and CG elves and CG men fighting CG orcs and CG wargs and CG trolls, everyone toppling over constantly like a tub of army men being played with by a careless, rambunctious child, and none of it meaning a thing.
To read the original article at The Quietus, click here.
Larus Marinus. Pollachius Virens. Cleona Celata. Alongside the fishermen who appear in Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s documentary Leviathan, the film’s credits list the binomials of every species featured on screen: the fish the men catch, the crabs that end up in their nets, the gulls that swarm their boat. This concession to the importance of non-human life only hints at the complexity of Leviathan’s perspective.
A dialogue-free, sensorially overwhelming portrait of an 80-ft fishing trawler, the film depicts the experience of being at sea from ever-changing viewpoints. Utilising miniature cameras attached to fishermen, lowered below the water or even sluicing amidst piles of dying fish, Leviathan freely switches its point of view between humans, machinery and animals, creating a fragmentary representation of the sea, equally beautiful and horrific.
Members of the pioneering Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University (where they both lecture), Lucien and Véréna are intense, deeply meditative individuals, genuinely attempting to do something new. Ahead of Leviathan’s release, the pair sat down to discuss their inability to discuss the film.
You created the film to be open to interpretation, but do you have your own reading of it? And does that reading matter?
Lucien Castaing-Taylor: We’re human beings so we’re constantly interpreting. The problem is that most of the time when we’re interpreting ourselves and our actions and other people, trying to give some meaning to life, we’re doing it in a very inconclusive way.
An interpretation that we come to now would be different from one we come to in six months’ time. Interpretations mutate as we go through life and have different experiences, so the moment a filmmaker assigns one to a film it constrains the aesthetic potentialities that the film can put into play.
For me it’s not to give our own interpretation, nor is it even to give lots of interpretations and allow people to choose between them. We’re not stopping that – its open-endedness is part of it, something people can respond to. But the film itself exists before interpretation intervenes. Our purpose was to give people a very potent aesthetic experience, to give them a glimpse into a reality that they haven’t had first-hand–a protracted, painful, difficult, visceral, profound embodied experience.
If you were attempting to create an experience rather than make something didactic, then how did you put the film together? How did you decide which shot followed which, for example?
LCT: I’d say it’s both easier and harder to try to simply give shape, to give form to an amorphous mass of aesthetic experience. The idea of making a documentary that provides an interpretation of the world is a very peculiar notion if you think about it. It’s very odd if documentaries are claiming to have some privileged purchase on reality, on lived experience. Our desire was simply to give an experience of an experience.
Véréna Paravel: We were trying to come up with general, big concepts about humanity and having metaphysical discussions, but it was also a question of going back to the visceral feelings that we had.
LCT: It was dictated by the material. We had these debates but they ended up being less significant in the editing. The material transcended us and worked through us. I think it worked through us in ways we still haven’t come to terms with.
VP: And this is the problem. Every time we talk about the film we’re trying to make sense of it through our prose, but then when I’m at all these screenings, watching the first 20 minutes to check the sound, what I’m seeing has nothing to do with all the bullshit that comes out of our mouths. We’re trying desperately to put some words to it and we’re attached to this thing, but every time I’m sitting there I think this is absolutely bullshit. This film is way, way beyond our words. It sounds super pretentious to say that.
LCT: But it happens to be true.
Is there anything that can be gained from discussing the film, then?
LCT: Yes, I think there’s every point in talking about it. There’s so much to discuss and debate because it’s not trying to encapsulate one particular point of view, whether ethnological, political or argumentative. You could run a poll of 200 people watching it and get radically divergent responses based upon their own intellectual convictions, their political orientations and above all their lived experience.
VP: The format can create really interesting questions. The range of discussion can be biblical; can be about the cosmos, about the scientific conversation, about literature, about painting, about the filmmaking process, about technology, about belief, about capitalism. At the same time, whenever we talk about it, somehow at the end I feel those discussions ended up diminishing the film, reducing it to just a tiny part of what it could be or what it is.
LCT: Reality has a magnitude that will always exceed our representations of it and our capacity to understand it. The challenge when you make a work of art is to do the same thing: to come up with an aesthetic object or experience that people will argue over constantly, irreducible to something that can be summarised in a single representation. You watch a documentary and you know what it’s saying, what its point of view is. To me that’s an abdication of aesthetic, intellectual and political responsibility, because it’s reducing the world to something that the filmmaker is pretending to be able to give you certain pronouncements about, to edify the audience.
Even though you find yourselves unable to summarise the film now, what was its starting point?
LCT: I would say that we both know and don’t know. There are lots of different reasons, some of which we can remember, some of which we can’t remember. One of them was that we both have a childhood relationships to the sea that we were interested in revisiting. I didn’t know where it was going to take me, to do something that would be in dialogue with my experience of growing up with my father, who worked in shipping in Liverpool.
VP: We didn’t know what we were seeking, but we knew we wanted to find a new way of representing the sea. Not just the sea, but the idea of “the Deep”, and humanity’s relationship to it. We had a vague idea because you have imagery in your mind, but that was one of the challenges: to try to not reproduce any of that imagery that we knew, and find a fresh way of capturing the experience.
The film keeps shifting perspective. What were you hoping to accomplish through that technique? Were you trying to produce a holistic depiction of the sea?
VP: It’s a totalitarian approach but also one of fragmentation. The way we go from one point of view to the other is never systematic. It goes from one to the other and at the end there’s this unity. I see this wholeness, and I cannot distinguish one from the other. I cannot distinguish the fish from the man, the visible from the invisible, the boundary when you go from below to above. I cannot distinguish when it’s a gaze with intentionality, because suddenly its intentionality retracts, the camera is another embodiment and the status of the image is completely different.
LCT: All human cognition and consciousness consists of fragments–sensations, words, images, memories, sounds–jostling in different strands that come together into moments of clarity, or moments of meaning, and then they desegregate and come back together again. Films do that too because films are created by humans, who are sentient, meaning-making, moralising beings.
If you watch a film, it’s just these shards, these tiny fragments that are put there in a sequence–fragments of sounds and images that the viewer constructs a hypothetical universe out of. It’s a kind of domesticated totality, and in this film we’re just proceeding with these fragments but not trying to domesticate them into something that’s super-linear or something that could be expressed linguistically. Instead, it’s an 87-minute experience of being at sea, both metaphorically and literally.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Roger Ebert was perhaps the most prominent American film critic of all time, known not just for the 46 years he spent writing reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times but also for his popular and enduring television programme At the Movies. After complications from cancer treatment necessitated the removal of his lower jaw, Roger spent the final years of his life unable to eat or speak, and yet his writing diversified and flourished during this time. In Steve James’ absorbing new documentary Life Itself, based on Roger’s memoir, the film-maker explores his extraordinary story while filming him during what turned out to be the last few months of his life.
Ahead of its release in cinemas, Steve sat down with us to talk about the film’s complicated road to production.
When you’re making a documentary about a man who co-hosted a television show for decades, published scores of books and reviewed almost every film that came out over nearly half a century, where do you start in your research?
The memoir itself was the template. It was an incredible bible for the film, and inspired in so many ways. It helped to organise his life and tell me what was important to him, which guided me towards who to interview. He devotes chapters to significant film-makers like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog but also Bill Nack, his friend from college, and John McCue, his newspaper buddy. That said, he doesn’t really talk about his film criticism in the book. He excerpts some of his profile writing, but not a single review. He doesn’t talk about his show much either – there’s just a simple chapter devoted to it. So there were things that I wanted to do more on and in that regard it also led me to other sources. There was a lot to get my arms around.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Roger also had a storied life. How did you decide how best to weigh your coverage of it?
After I read the memoir I knew I wanted as much as reasonably possible for the film to be a comprehensive biography of Roger’s life, taking account of his critical place in cinema, his impact and what he contributed, as well as his remarkable personal life and journey. I wanted it all, but we weren’t going to make a three-hour film or a mini-series, either of which we could have easily done. Instead, I wanted it to be no longer than two hours and as comprehensive as it could be in that time. That meant picking and choosing. There were lots of things we could have dealt with that we didn’t, but I feel good about the choices we made. I think we hit most of the significant milestones in his life, but hopefully not in a scattershot way.
One of the most affecting things about Life Itself is how you show Roger handling the prospect of death with dignity and grace. Was that important for you to capture?
Absolutely. When we started the film we had no idea that he would pass away four months in. That just wasn’t in our thinking. His health was more unstable than it had been and he was growing increasingly fragile, but he was otherwise fine. The memoir is written from the perspective of someone late in life who has been through a lot and is reflecting, so I loved the idea of going back and forth between the present and the past and finding interesting ways to do that. I wanted to film Roger going to the cinema, writing, travelling, seeing friends – even though he could no longer speak he’d still throw dinner parties and sit at the head of the table. I was going to show what a vigorous life he continued to live despite all he’d been through, and in that we would get some sense of his perseverance, his courage, his good humour in the face of everything. All of that is in the movie, it’s just we didn’t get to film it. We ended up shooting him largely in a hospital and a rehab institute, but those earlier things became far more poignant because you know that he is dying.
There’s a moment in the documentary where Roger writes that it would be a major lapse if you didn’t depict the full reality of what he was going through, but was there anything you were personally worried about showing on film?
I was initially concerned when I first got to the hospital. If you look at any pictures of Roger in public after the start of his health problems he was either wearing a black turtleneck or a white scarf wrapped around his neck. He was always very stylish, but it was strategic as well. When I walked into the hospital room for the first day of actual filming he was asleep and his jaw was hanging down. There was nothing there. It was quite pronounced and I remember thinking, “I don’t know how people are going to handle this.” But I filmed it, he woke up, smiled, and his eyes lit up. I put that early in the movie to let people see what he was going through and allow them to feel that inevitable discomfort. My hope was that they’d have the same experience I had where it stops being shocking – you see past the illness and see him. You’re looking into his eyes, not down his throat. For a man who was dying, he made this easy. He was remarkably co-operative and engaged.
Memoirs are usually adapted for the screen as fictionalised accounts rather than as documentaries. What did you think a documentary could express about Roger’s life that might have eluded a scripted feature?
Biopics are particularly hard to do because there’s a tendency to want to tell everything, and trying to tell too much can work against the inherent drama of the storytelling. It can feel like a connect-the-dots presentation of a person’s life – you’re never in one place long enough to feel the deep significance of that moment in their life. You have the same potential hindrance in a documentary, but one of the advantages if the subject’s alive is you have them there in flesh and blood, so who they are is communicated as much by their presence as by their important milestones. For example, if we were making the scripted biography of Roger’s life, we probably wouldn’t spend as much time as we did on his daily travails and him coping with his condition. You’re not going to give up screen-time to illness when you could be showing him when he adapted Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, hanging out with Russ Meyer and big breasted women. But in a documentary you can get so much from observing simple moments in someone’s life: the way they answer a question, or how they look at their wife.You see how they live.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
It seems fitting that the biopic of one of Britain’s greatest and most prolific artists should be conceived by one of the country’s greatest and most prolific dramatists. In Mike Leigh’s latest film, the sublime Mr. Turner, the he depicts the later life of J.M.W. Turner, the landscape painter whose work prefigured both abstract art and Impressionism, and whose bequest to the nation of around 30,000 works of art remains unparalleled. Leigh is similarly tireless, having created over the course of nearly fifty years dozens of films and plays that have perlustrated the heart of British domesticity, exploring the intricacies of social interaction, family life and the particular national obsession with class through his distinct form of tragicomic humanism.
The director famously starts each project with a basic premise but no script, working with his actors to develop the characters and narrative through a rigorous process of research and rehearsal. In Mr. Turner, as with his earlier Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, Leigh applies the same developmental method to a real-life period story, creating an epic yet intimate portrait that avoids the sensation of dutiful box-ticking that blights several of its biographical peers.
Puckish, ruminative and verbally pugnacious, in person Leigh doesn’t disappoint. Having shaken my hand and parried an initiatory attempt at small talk, he straightens up in his chair, fixes his gaze upon me and says, “So, what do you wanna know?”
Mike Leigh: Apart from anything more serious, in this particular case you’d have had to find a small fat boy that looked like Tim Spall who could draw, and then show a pimply youth and trawl through all that stuff. It’s unnecessary. 25 years is a long enough time to deal with in one film anyway, and anything that I need you to know about his earlier back story is laid into the film and you pick up by reference. Specifically in terms of Turner and his life, that time covered the death of his father, the relationship with his Margate landlady Mrs Booth, and various key events. Most important is that it was the period where he became more radical and people thought he’d gone bonkers, although he was actually anticipating Impressionism and modern art. All of that is dealt with in the film to some degree. It just seemed enough to contend with, basically. The main goal was to evoke Turner and his world. I didn’t feel any sort of documentary need to log the details of his whole existence.
Did you learn about Turner’s life at the same time as his work, or did that happen separately?
ML: First of all I knew him just for his work, when I discovered him in the 60s. It wasn’t until after we’d made Topsy-Turvy that it occurred to me that we might be able to make a film about Turner. We’d established that we could do a period film, and then when I started to explore Turner the personality, the character, it seemed that the tension between this eccentric, conflicted, passionate, sometimes selfish, sometimes generous guy, and his art suggested a movie. This grubby fellow and his pure work. It demanded a film.
Other than being interested in Turner’s life and work, was there anything else that inspired you to make the film?
ML: You don’t always need to have an objective rationale for what you do. There is a cannon of films about artists, and there wasn’t a film about Turner. I wouldn’t randomly make a film about any old artist for the sake of doing so, but he did seem to have a very interesting life and personality to dramatise. In the end, apart from intellectual ideas there’s also what you might call the turn on factor. I think the turn on of seeing Turner’s work within a dramatic perspective, with Turner as a character brought to life, has its own potential really. And anyway, any film you produce is only a decision to make a film about this or that, as opposed to that or the other. At a certain level you could argue it’s random. The question is not what it is but how you do it, and whether it becomes interesting by that process.
I can’t imagine it would be possible to make the same sort of film about Constable.
ML: Well no, I think you’re right. Constable was less interesting altogether. I mean, that’s on one level. I don’t think he’s as extraordinarily interesting a person, but everybody is interesting, so if it was about Constable then you would focus about what was interesting about him.
Do you see Mr. Turner as an exploration of the same ideas that inform your other work, or does the film have different objectives due to its biographical nature?
ML: Now that’s a question. Look, what do I make films about? Life and death and parents and children and work and relationships and all those things. It’s all ticking on, it’s all going on in this film. Earlier somebody told me that I usually make films about ordinary people, but what is an ordinary person? Who is ordinary? I’m not, you’re not. Turner might have been a great genius of painting, that’s not in question, but he still had to have a shit every so often. That’s what I make films about: how we live. So the added bonus that this was somebody who did something extraordinary doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re grappling with the tough and complicated business of living.
Both Another Year and Mr. Turner focus on characters dealing with the ageing process. Do you find that as time passes the themes you’re interested in have changed?
ML: Is there a correlation between this film and the fact that I was born as long ago as 1943? Yeah, I guess there is. Of course. There was an appalling and scurrilous journalist from the Evening Standard a few years ago who interviewed me when I made Happy-Go-Lucky. He said, “I’ve got a question, and it’s not my question. The girls in the office asked me to say this.” When people say that it’s always bullshit. He asked, “Don’t you think it’s strange that a man of your age should make a film about young women?” A very offensive question. Very offensive. I should have just chucked him out of the room but then that’s what he would have written about and it would have become something else. Which is all to say that Happy-Go-Lucky seemed like a very natural thing to do at that time and I might yet make another film about young people and younger issues. I’m a parent, I’ve got sons who are in their 30s, so I’m tuned in to stuff that isn’t just about me. On the other hand,Another Year absolutely dealt with people of my own age from my generation and issues to do with that. But I don’t think it’s an issue really. One is here to take the temperature on all kinds of things.
You develop your films through a process of improvisation derived from research. Do actors relish that challenge or do some find it difficult?
ML: On the whole people don’t find it difficult once they get the hang of it, even though it’s challenging and quite hard work. There aren’t some of the ordinary securities they’re used to. But there are plenty of actors who I don’t use who would find it difficult. Curiously, they don’t find their way into my films in the first place. There are lots of sorts of actors and lots of sorts of acting. This is the stuff that involves character actors – people that are versatile and can play real people out there in the street, and are intelligent. Not all actors are intelligent, I would suggest.
Mr. Turner is a period film based on real lives and events – does that hinder your improvisational working process in any way?
ML: No, not if you’re embracing that that’s what you’re doing. The joy of it is bringing something to life. Obviously if I’m inventing characters and the whole premise that’s one thing, but I don’t go into a project like this and regret the fact that I’m not completely making it up. That’s not the name of the game, you know? It’s not inhibiting. It’s quite exciting to breathe life into something that you’ve just seen on a page.
Timothy Spall’s performance as Turner is very expressive vocally – there are a lot of grunts and guttural coughs. Did you work with him on that specific element of the role?
ML: That’s all part of the job, yeah. It also comes from the descriptions of Turner as well. At the same time Turner was – as indeed he is in the film – also capable of being extremely articulate and florid in his language in ways that were full of classical references. Tim and me both read all the biographies. You have to get into it. But then there’s always homework
Do you feel a responsibility to portray people according to how they appear in your research?
ML: Yes and no. Mostly yes, but in in the end you have to create a thing that stands up on its own terms. One is not making a documentary. It’s a subjective reflection, a distillation. It would be senseless however to disregard totally the world you’ve been reading about because then there’d be no point in doing it. We don’t sail that far away from the biography, but it’s about capturing the essence and the spirit.
Did you read the article that Philip Hoare wrote for The Guardian, claiming that your representation of the art critic John Ruskin in the film was “unconscionable”?
ML: I did.
What did you think of it?
ML: What, apart from the sense of humour deficit? That’s all really. It’s not an irresponsible depiction – it’s an imaginative dramatisation of John Ruskin. I have no doubt whatsoever that if you met the man he would not be like that, as with all of the characters, but it’s a perfectly legitimate dramatisation of a view of Ruskin and an idea of Ruskin, who was undoubtedly precocious and priggish and opinionated and all of that. I know quite a lot about Ruskin. It’s not as gratuitous as some people have suggested, I think.
At what point then are you free to create a scene out of whole cloth, or to depict something that historians disagree about?
ML: One thing that historians disagree about is whether Turner actually did have himself strapped to the mast of a ship to paint a storm. Some say he merely claimed that but it didn’t really happen. I regard that as being academic because we’re making a movie here. If you’re going to make a film about a man who iconically had himself strapped to the mast of a ship in a storm it would be eccentric not to include it. There are things that there’s no evidence for, but in a strict sense everything that happens is an invention. If you got into a time machine and went back to the actual events you can be completely sure they’d bear no resemblance. It’s all made under that license. The interesting thing is that all the Turner experts think the film’s great, even though when he goes to Margate we shot it in a small village west of Plymouth and it bears absolutely no resemblance to Margate whatever. It doesn’t seem to worry anybody, as indeed it shouldn’t.
Contemporary Margate doesn’t resemble Turner’s Margate any more, anyway.
ML: Well it resembles Margate more than the place we’ve got, that’s for sure. I’ve no doubt some of the gourmet burger vendors of Margate would object, but that’s their problem.
Was there anything you found in your research that you wish you could have shown?
ML: We wanted to see him in Venice, because Turner’s trips to Venice were very important in his life and in his work. We don’t because we couldn’t afford it. That was the main thing.
How did you choose to deal with the absence of those trips?
ML: Miss it out, is how we dealt with it.
Having made films about Gilbert and Sullivan and Turner, are there any other historical figures you’d like to make a film about?
ML: No. No. The next film that I do I’ll make ’em up.
Turner produced countless paintings over the course of his life, but do you have any particular favourites?
ML: It’s difficult really. I’ve got a few. I like Rain, Steam and Speed. I like a lot of them. There’s a wonderful one in the Tate, a much earlier painting of a winter, frosty morning which is worth a look. I prefer the landscape paintings; the classical, allegorical ones I’m less interested in. The real world is what excites me the most.
What truly defines Rio de Janeiro is not its tropical climate, famed beaches or windmilling Jesus but the strict class divisions that govern much of life in the city. In his confident debut feature, Casa Grande (2014), director Fellipe Barbosa explores Rio’s striking inequality through the emotional and political coming-of-age of Jean (Thales Cavalcanti), a brash yet insecure 17-year-old whose wealthy family tumbles into debt. Following on from its recent appearance at the BFI London Film Festival, the writer-director shares an exclusive clip from the film and spoke to us about its making.
Fellipe Barbosa: “This is the one scene that went totally wrong. The fall was a real accident. Jean’s father Hugo (Marcello Novaes) was supposed to lose his balance and Roberto, Jean’s friend, would run and save him while Jean remained paralysed. Marcello failed to grab the safety device and fell nearly five meters. It was a miracle nothing serious happened.
After a tense break Marcello recovered and we watched the take together. We knew we had to honour the fall, so we covered the rest of the scene from the moment the 1st AD ran into shot. The film deals with a family falling from the social ladder because of the father, so it becomes quite symbolic. Hugo falls right after a phone call from one of his lenders to whom he owes money. It also reflects the spirit of Jean’s journey, in which he transforms crisis into opportunity. The crisis was the real accident; the opportunity was the scene as it turned out.”
Diligently replicating the tropes employed by countless romantic comedies – from third act contrivances to thinly-drawn friends that exist only as sounding boards – They Came Together is both a merciless parody of the genre’s well-worn conventions and an affectionate homage to them. Starring Amy Poehler as Molly, the “cute, klutzy girl that sometimes will drive you a little bit crazy but you can’t help but fall in love with”, and Paul Rudd as Joel, who’s “handsome but in a non-threatening way” and “vaguely but not overtly Jewish”, the film shares its absurdist tone with the other work of director and co-writer David Wain, which includes Wet Hot American Summer and seminal sketch show The State. Ahead of its upcoming release in cinemas and on VOD we spoke to David about the film’s long gestation and why he thinks romantic comedies hold an enduring appeal.
You co-wrote They Came Together with Michael Showalter in 2002. What stopped it getting made a decade ago?
Originally we wrote it for a big studio as a more straightforward spoof that was in vogue at the time, more like Scary Movie, but the studio’s thinking was that the audience for those kinds of movies and the people who are interested in the romantic comedy genre don’t generally overlap. They were probably right: it wouldn’t have been a great studio project at that time. So I’m happier with the way we made it now, more in our own voice. It seems to makes sense in this configuration: it’s a smaller movie, and it’s come at a time when the audience is more caught up to the people involved and our sense of humour.
Is it freeing to make something for a lower budget, or does it bring other challenges?
I tend to err on the side of saying it’s more freeing because of the different stakes. For better or worse, Michael and I had the ability to make the movie we wanted to make, which I think is the only way it could have worked. Unless you happen to fall into a situation where a studio really understands your work and wants to protect it, the normal development and oversight process is creatively very hard on comedy that’s from a specific point of view. Also in the history of my work I’ve found that often the lower the budget is the more fun and satisfying the experience can be. Of course it’s challenging to shoot so fast and have such limited resources but necessity is the mother of invention too.
Do you find it difficult to translate your comedic voice to a film that’s larger or more mainstream?
One of the things I’ve tried to do to varying degrees of success is layer the things I like about my own sensibility into different projects that have different overall goals. Role Models is probably the best example, where I came on board a very mainstream comedy movie at a big studio and attempted with my collaborators Ken Marino and Paul Rudd to create something that served what was needed for that – not to fight against what a big studio movie is but instead introduce things that we thought were funny and of a piece with our other work, so those two worlds would be married in a harmonious way rather than working against each other.
Is the actual production experience of making a studio film like Role Models significantly different?
Oh yes, of course. Role Models started as a work-for-hire, and I was thrown to the sharks. I’d done two movies before that which were very low budget and independent, and suddenly I was working with a far bigger budget and having producers and a studio and movie stars involved. With all that said, I learned in the first few days that it’s still the same game: how do we tell a story? How do we make it funny? How do we make it true to ourselves?
They Came Together picks apart romantic comedies but it seems that to make a film like this you’d have to have a genuine passion for the genre too. Do you?
I have a huge passion for them. Romantic comedies are among my favourite films. Michael Showalter and I have been friends since we were 18 years old and we bonded over talking about romantic comedies and the ones we love. Truthfully, even the ones that are not that great we love too. There’s just something that’s comforting and wonderful about the rom-com formula that we all grew up with and Mike and I have real nostalgia and love for it. Along with that comes having fun pointing out the tropes. My feeling about They Came Together is that it isn’t saying that romantic comedies are stupid, it’s saying the opposite. They’re worthy of being made fun of.
The formula works even as it’s being deconstructed: you can’t help being a little swept up in Molly and Joel’s romance.
Exactly. In a way if there’s any investment in these characters that’s a true testament to the genre formula. We are doing our best to undercut it at every single moment but still the chemistry and charisma of our two leads and the basic tent poles of the formula still overrides that to some degree.
What would you say is the most egregious romantic comedy trope for you?
Well there are so many. From top to bottom there are requisite situations in romantic comedies that don’t bear any resemblance to most people’s real lives. One of the most bizarre ones to me is the larger narrative structure of these comedies: more often than not the boy and girl are really in love and things fall apart based on a single event that is often very simplistic, and then the reason they make up is even more simplistic – one goes up to the other one and says the right thing at the right moment and all is forgiven. It grossly simplifies and romanticises the real nature of relationships, which I think is exactly why we love those movies. They avoid the complexity and frustration and messiness of actual relationships.
About midway through the film there’s a memorable scene where Paul Rudd and a bartender start repeating their dialogue, and it keeps going and going and going. How did you decide how long to let that last for?
It’s sort of like everything we do: you just follow your instinct. We definitely screened the movie a lot, in many ways to many differently sized audiences throughout a long editing process. Screenings can be misleading because every audience is different and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth of what’s going on in the movie, but over the course of the process we landed an idea of exactly how many repeats to have where the audience would laugh, stop laughing, be annoyed and then start laughing again.
Can test audiences be useful or do you find them a hindrance?
I think as long as you’re in control of how that information is used they can be very helpful. It’s important not to take them as read. You have to filter audience reactions through your own gut and your own gut has to veto where necessary. Certainly if the audience explodes with laughter every time then it’s probably something that’s working, but I’ve seen a million examples where an audience is as silent as crickets at a certain joke and I’ve known that it’s not the joke that’s the problem, it’s the set-up or just the fact that the movie was too boring for the ten minutes before. There are so many moving parts that the audience is not aware of, and so it becomes a problem when you start asking them questions and doing focus groups and taking their notes. It’s a dangerous thing to entrust the direction of your editorial process to random people that walked into a shopping mall.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Over three decades of a highly successful acting career Guy Pearce has avoided being typecast by enthusiastically pursuing an array of different roles, from bombastic drag queens to vengeful amnesiacs to self-righteous detectives. Ahead of the release of tense dystopian Australian drama The Rover, in which he plays a violent, taciturn ex-soldier opposite Robert Pattinson, we sat down with Guy to talk about his character in the film and his open-minded approach to career.
Was The Rover difficult to shoot? You spend a lot of it with flies all over your face.
I do! It wasn’t tough really. I love being in the Outback. It’s so fascinating and evocative and unusual. I get so much out of being there. Also we were making a very interesting movie. I think anything that is difficult, you either take it on or you try and forget about it. It felt like the flies and the heat just added to the experience and to the look of the film. It was probably tougher for Rob. It’s funny – every Aussie movie I do out in the desert there are always a couple of English actors going, “Fucking flies! My god!” Terrance Stamp or Ray Winstone or John Hurt or Rob Pattinson, all suffering.
Your character Eric doesn’t speak a great deal and there isn’t much detail given about his life. How did you approach playing him?
That was tricky in the beginning, and not because of the lack of dialogue. I really needed to understand who he used to be, where emotionally this character had gotten to by the time we meet him. I knew I was going to say yes to doing the film – I love David Michôd and his work, and was honoured to be asked to be the lead – but I nearly said no a few times. I couldn’t figure out who the guy was. So I forced David to ask some real questions about the character. I was trying to get a sense of the personality, because that’s what you play when you perform a character.
I remember talking to somebody on a job once and I said “I’m trying to understand the personality of this character”, and the guy said to me, “Well, he was very wealthy and he lost all his money and he had to steal…” But that wasn’t his personality, that was just what had happened to him. Is he nervous, is he anxious, is he confident? That’s the stuff that I’m interested in. That’s what you need to play a role. When we got close to shooting, David started to talk about the animal that Eric had become, this survivalist creature that he’d been stripped down to, and after that I felt like I was really able to get my claws into it.
There are very violent moments in the film, but it isn’t like Eric snaps: that violence is an underlying presence, always there in him.
He’s beyond the point of snapping. He’s already snapped. I think he’s given up on himself. He’s just left everything behind of who he was morally and ethically. So it was an interesting character to play because you’re looking at a ghost of somebody. It’s not until we start to see the subtle development of the relationship with Rob’s character that things start to bubble up to the surface again.
The film purposefully never fully articulates any of this, though, does it?
That’s right. It’s not very evident, and that’s why I went through that process with David to try and have these questions answered. But I feel as an audience member, what you haven’t been explicitly given in regards to motivation or plot or character development is all there in the tone. As long as there’s a logic behind it then it doesn’t need to all be explained. I think a lot of films go too far the other way. All the time they’re asking “Are you still with me? Are you still with me? Are you still with me?” Whereas what’s great about David is that he says “This is the story I’m telling and how I’m going to tell it. Keep up.” That’s a brave way for a film-maker to be.
It seems like you actively go for roles which are more complex, which often means characters who aren’t entirely sympathetic. What has been your thinking behind that?
I always just go for what’s interesting to me at the time. There’s no conscious decision about structuring it in any kind of way. You just take the best of what’s in front of you, and sometimes you might take something that you wouldn’t have a year ago, or ten years ago, depending on how you’re feeling about yourself and what you’re going through. I feel like I’m always changing. I always want to explore and open up to other things. The industry’s tough, though. It’s a tough machine to become part of and not feel like you’re being swept up in it. Standing your ground is tricky, but I’ve managed to do it, I think, much to the disappointment of my many agents.
You’ve been a professional actor for almost 30 years. Do you feel like there’s anything that you haven’t done yet but want to?
Absolutely! There are seven billion people in the world. That’s a lot of stories to tell. A lot of different characters to play and a lot of exploring to be had. I really like to respond to what the universe is offering up. It’s important for me to be surprised and to respond really spontaneously to something. Even if I have questions and have to go through a process of talking to the director, that initial “Oooh!” has still got to be there. If it’s not then there’s no point in doing it because then I’ll be two months into a film wondering why I’m there.
I imagine that’s especially the case with bigger films, where you work on them for ages and then have to spend months doing promotion.
Yes, of course, and sometimes films lose their steam. You might jump on board something because it takes your fancy and then half way through you feel like it’s not being realised the way you wanted. And that’s okay. That’s just the way it is. As long as I’m reacting to what I understand to be the fire in me then that’s all that I can do, really. I know I give my best performances when I do that.
It took a while to understand that about myself because I got into a situation where suddenly there were all these opportunities and I felt I had to make hay while the sun shines, and one agent was telling my to do one film and then another agent was telling me to do another. I know that’s a first-world problem, but it was overwhelming. I think, though, that in order to follow a path and carve out some sort of longevity you’ve got to understand why you’re doing things and what it is you’re getting out of them, as well as when you’re doing your best and what your limitations are. Luckily I feel like I’ve done a pretty decent job of understanding that over the years. I may not have as big of a career as other people might have but I’m pretty happy. It works for me.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
The plot of The Rover is as spare as the charred desert it takes place in: a decade after an unspecified economic collapse, broken ex-solider Eric (Guy Pearce) chases a group of desperate criminals across Southern Australia to try and retrieve his stolen car, meanwhile forming a capricious relationship with the leader’s dim brother Rey (Robert Pattinson). Notable both for the confidence of its direction and the unsettling, brutal tone, The Rover is only writer-director David Michôd’s second feature, coming after his excellent 2010 debut Animal Kingdom. Ahead of its release we spoke to David about his thoughts on the film.
Eric has an immediately negative impact on almost everyone he meets. Why do you think that is, and what were you trying to express through his effect on others?
It’s almost as if anyone who drifts into Eric’s orbit comes undone, and I think in part that’s because he has detached himself from community. The movie is actually full of people in pairs or small groups, people who are in very trying, challenging circumstances, and have found themselves clinging to other people for sustenance, even just emotional sustenance. Eric has cut himself adrift from that and as a consequence has become poisoned and embittered. This is precisely where his relationship with Rey becomes the meat of the movie.
The violent episodes in the film feel unnecessary – I don’t mean that they’re gratuitous, but rather that if Eric spoke to any of the characters he meets for more than a few minutes things wouldn’t have to end in bloodshed.
It’s also the electricity of anger as well. There’s a scene towards the end in a house where you can feel that it’s Eric’s presence that makes it feel lethally electric in a way that it wouldn’t if he hadn’t been there. It’s the contagious buzz of rage.
Aside from a few key moments you give very little information about Eric or his motivations and history. Why did you decide to do that?
I wanted Eric to be a very elemental and mysteriously unavailable shell of a man who you would come to discover over the course of the film in bits and pieces. I felt like there was a dangerous power in that kind of character, someone who keeps everything hidden and is wound very tight and pulsing with this electric anger. It gives you the opportunity to play with a character who is unpredictable, and unpredictable characters can be the most compelling ones.
Eric is contrasted against Rey, who is slow-witted and impressionable. There are so many problematic depictions of intellectually challenged characters in cinema – how did you navigate that?
In some ways I let the nature of that character’s relationship with Eric inform what he needed to be. One of the things I loved about Rob’s audition was that it was clear to me that he had read the script in a way that suggested he’d been thinking about the ways he needed to interact with Guy’s character. Rey couldn’t just be profoundly intellectually challenged: he needed to have the capacity for speaking a foreign language or to challenge Eric when necessary, or to concoct a plan or have a rich imaginative life.
I remember when I first started talking to Rob about playing the character. We were both aware that there was a very fine line we were treading and so instead of thinking about different forms of mental handicap I asked him to go away and watch a documentary called Bully that was made a few years ago, that’s about the ways in which badly bullied children react emotionally to the people around them. Quite often these kids are very bright but they’ve just had their social skills beaten out of them. They don’t know how to be in the world. I always imagined that Rey had grown up in a deprived, rural childhood, probably hadn’t gone to school, had never really had to fend for himself, and who has almost as a default setting this compulsion to cling on to more powerful people, such that he doesn’t recognise that that’s what he’s doing with the man who’s effectively taken him hostage.
Like the portrayal of Eric, not a lot of information is given as to what has happened to Australia, except for some pieces of production design here and there. How did you decide when and how to suggest what had taken place?
It was definitely a part of the writing process. Knowing that I would be writing a script that would be very lean, it became quite easy to take a step back from it and look at the screenplay as a whole, and identify just on a rhythmic level where certain pieces of the poetry or information about the world needed to be positioned. I never wanted any particular scene to feel too dense with world information – I wanted it to be sparsely dotted throughout. Then I judiciously positioned certain things.
For instance, there are bodies that have been strung up on poles at a particular point in the movie, when Eric and Rey in their very unlikely relationship are now out on the road together, and I wanted to make it very clear that this is an incredibly dangerous world of brutal recrimination. Or later in the movie Rey is in the car singing a song, and that was a little piece of information about the world: there are still radio stations, and that level of infrastructure is still there. It also functions on a character and emotional level because it’s there to remind the audience that Rey is just a kid who in different circumstances would be doing kid stuff.
That also has implications for Eric: in order for him to be dangerous he has to be outside of the social structure, which means a world that has at least a small amount of order.
Yes! That was why I felt it was so crucial that when his car is stolen at the start of the film the gang doesn’t kill him. I remember one person asking me once,“Surely they would have shot him?”, and for me it was absolutely imperative that they not do that, because that’s not what people do in the world today. That’s just a movie thing. It was important to me that the gang would do what I would if I was in their weird, desperate situation. If I didn’t have to kill him, I wouldn’t kill him. I’d drag him off the road and run away. It was important that that was the case because when Eric starts killing people you know how transgressive his actions are, that he exists outside the civility of the world.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
One of the most significant milestones in recent cinema history occurred in a film you’re probably still trying to forget. Towards the end of The Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowski’s infelicitous follow-up to their 1999 original, waistcoat aficionado and coloured pill dispenser Morpheus has a sword fight on top of a speeding lorry. Like most of the brawls in the film there’s little reason for its existence beyond it looking cool, but it’s tempting to imagine that producer Joel Silver had the superfluous scene in mind when he infamously boasted, “We’ve raised the bar so high, there is no bar.”
Just because something has been said in some mad fit of coked-up hyperbole doesn’t mean that it can’t also be true. The Matrix sequels mark the precise spot where the barrier of technology for live-action cinema was finally and irreversibly removed. Once it was possible to stage convincing sword fights on the roofs of heavy goods vehicles there were no limits to what could be depicted on-screen. Silver was right: the bar had been raised so high that it no longer existed. Providing that they had a large enough budget, film-makers were able to make whatever they wanted.
This wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
The concept of the modern blockbuster was born in 1975 when a film starring a malfunctioning shark and an insufficiently large boat became the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. In the nearly four decades that have passed since Jaws’ unprecedented box-office achievements (swiftly dwarfed by Star Wars two years later), blockbuster movies have become the “tent poles” around which major film studios construct their production schedules.
While an increasing emphasis on spectacle was inevitable – Jaws, after all, doesn’t even fully show its selachian villain until 81 minutes into the film – over the past fifteen years this has gone hand in hand with a systemic bloating of both content and running times. Where the average length of the top 10 highest grossing films of the 1990s was 132 minutes, the average for the 2000s was 154 minutes. A sea change has taken place: to get a project green-lit with the sort of budget demanded of a big summer blockbuster the film must now boast a running time that would have once required an intermission. Lean, efficient blockbusters like Men in Black (98 minutes) and the first X-Men(104 minutes) are almost unimaginable today.
The rapturous critical and commercial success of Titanic in 1997 can shoulder a little of the blame for blockbuster film-making’s descent into exorbitance, but the real catalyst was The Lord of the Rings. Formula-repeating, money-vacuuming sequels have always been a predilection for studios, but after Peter Jackson’s three-film opus grossed nearly $4 billion worldwide a movement towards monster-sized trilogies began.
Without rich source material like J.R.R. Tolkien’s twelve hundred pages of Middle Earth follies to draw upon, however, the power of satisfying one-offs like Pirates of the Caribbean were diluted by overlong sequels and bogged down by convoluted plotting and endless action sequences. Jackson himself fell prey to the temptation to expand unnecessarily when his adaptation of the 310-page children’s book The Hobbit unfathomably bloated into three enormous films in an attempt to emulate his earlier accomplishments.
As the films have become bigger, the possible forms they can take have narrowed. A blockbuster that can’t potentially birth a franchise has little value, irrespective of its other qualities. Not only is any picture with a budget over $200 million expected to be an epic in length, such films are now also required to anticipate at least two potential sequels, regardless of whether the story (inevitably pulpy and genre-based) can support this or not. While it’s understandable that a well-received and financially successful film might spawn a follow-up, the amount of effort many blockbusters put into world-building makes them feel like feature-length advertisements for their own sequels rather than distinctive pieces of popular entertainment in their own right.
This trend seems likely to burgeon further still as the major film studios – emboldened by the enviable profitability of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – look for ways to tie properties together in a similarly gargantuan, synergy-promoting manner. Even though there has been an undeniable pleasure in watching Marvel Studios skilfully weave the warp and weft of its epic superhero tapestry over multiple franchises, their use of intensive serialisation and rigid commitment to an enjoyable-yet-cautious house style (this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy proving a joyful exception to the rule) makes it very difficult for their films to be genuinely surprising. Creating nine motion pictures that are mostly good-to-excellent is commendable, but their consistency can’t disguise the creeping sensation of exhaustion.
The tendency to engorge blockbuster films beyond their natural size has only been exacerbated by the strides made in CGI over the past twenty years. Once genuinely astounding, sequences like the battle that opened The Fellowship of the Ring are now commonplace. A few of the Harry Potterfilms aside, it’s difficult to think of a major blockbuster from this millennium that hasn’t featured either a gigantic battle or a city being destroyed, often at the same time. Such sequences provide diminishing returns as the sight of computer generated figures waging war against each other rapidly loses its attraction. In trying to top each other with their bombast and magnitude, such films become less distinctive, their impact dulled by visual noisiness. Accordingly, the third acts of many modern blockbusters are largely interchangeable: does it really matter if the CG buildings are being destroyed by Superman or some Transformers; by a crashing starship or one of a dozen Marvel superheroes?
The troubled state of contemporary blockbusters doesn’t deprive them of value. There remains a number of incredibly talented film-makers who manage to create interesting work despite being unable to entirely break free from dominant conventions. Until its skirmish-heavy, building-destroying conclusion, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is bleak, thoughtful, intelligent and gripping, while Godzilla director Gareth Edwards’ lengthy withholding of the eponymous reptile’s first appearance overtly channels the work of Steven Spielberg.
Even 2012’s Avengers Assemble is a good example of a contemporary blockbuster that works despite being a colossal mess. Regardless of that film’s many positives, however, it could have undoubtedly been improved by a tighter narrative and less generic action. It’s not insignificant that the most memorable moments take place in the comic interactions between characters rather than any individual set pieces. An interesting thought experiment: aside from Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, what do the other enemies in Avengers Assemble look like? Would you be able to draw one from memory? What actually happens in any of the action scenes, beyond people flying or hitting each other?
Confronted by widespread piracy, the terminal decline of physical media sales and attendant rise of streaming options, ever more sophisticated home entertainment systems and a booming era of television, the appeal of supersized blockbusters for film studios is obvious. Keen to discourage the growing allure of home viewing, studios focus their efforts on producing films best experienced in a cinema, ideally by purchasing a more expensive 3D or IMAX cinema ticket. This means that the major film studios are making fewer films and the ones they are making are aimed at as broad of an audience as possible.
The problem with this strategy is that as the studios spend hundreds of millions of dollars making and marketing a handful of films, the risk increases exponentially: Disney’s underwhelming John Carter had a budget so gigantic that it had to become one of the highest grossing films of all time in order to make its money back. When a film has to earn over a billion dollars to avoid being considered a flop then something in the industry has gone wrong. This level of risk incites predictable caution, leading to the exclusion of original screenplays in favour of a near-talismanic dependence on pre-existing properties with any semblance of audience recognition, from sequels to reboots to the adaptations of board games.
The propensity for studios to place all of their financial eggs into a couple of cinematic baskets each year also has ramifications across all of film-making, as the diverse range of mid-priced pictures that studios used to make now struggle to secure funding. If such films are made at all they’re often stuffed into a vicious few months at the end of the year, doomed to be ignored and forgotten if they don’t pick up immediate Oscar buzz.
For all the damage that this endemic bloating has had on the film industry, it’s the blockbusters themselves that have suffered the most. It takes the viewing of another of Spielberg’s superlative blockbusters to see how things have gone awry, and to contemplate a possible road back.
Re-watching Jurassic Park twenty-one years later, a dozen of them filled with increasingly distended blockbusters, what’s most striking is how elegantly constructed and efficient the film’s narrative is. It’s easy to imagine that if the film had been made today it would be a shapeless, three-hour-long muddle, lousy with subplots and gratuitous destruction. Instead, Jurassic Park spends its first half patiently establishing its world and characters before the park’s security system shuts down and hell breaks loose. Even after that cataclysmic event, David Koepp’s screenplay takes efforts to space out the action scenes, interspersing them with moments of character development and reflection.
By exercising restraint, Jurassic Park avoids the sort of fatigue that besets anyone trying to make their way through a Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers film more than once. Aside from an unfortunate outdoor toilet no buildings are destroyed, there are no indistinct crowds, and each scene features only a handful of characters who spend much of the film in immediate danger. Populating its story with easily-injured humans rather than superheroes, Jurassic Park provides actual stakes: the world isn’t at risk, but the protagonists are.
Almost every aspect of Spielberg’s film seems to now stand as a rebuke to prevailing trends in blockbuster film-making. Despite being commonly seen as a turning point in the development of CGI, only 80 shots in Jurassic Park actually employ computer-generated effects – by contrast,Avengers Assemble features over 2,200 visual effects shots. In using the technology so sparingly, relying on animatronics, long shots and sequences set at night, the film’s effects hold up remarkably well. Even if technical limitations played a part in deciding how its threats were depicted, the austere usage of CGI enhances the audience’s sense of both wonder and fear: a single Tyrannosaurus Rex is scarier than hundreds of them.
Like its dinosaurs, each of Jurassic Park’s action sequences are memorable and distinct: the night-time T-Rex attack, the race to turn the security system back on, climbing the fence, the raptors in the kitchen. Excluding Hitchcock there has probably never been a director more gifted at staging set pieces than Steven Spielberg, and their impact throughout Jurassic Park serves as a reminder of how much more effective a blockbuster can be when it isn’t just lurching from one giant fight to the next.
After twenty-one years of unrelenting technological advances Jurassic Park has inevitably lost some of its capacity to astonish, but regardless of how far CGI develops the film will remain a fulfilling undertaking because it’s a good story, well told. Disappointing sequels were to follow but the film itself is completely self-contained: the heroes escape, the dinosaurs commandeer the island, and that’s it. There is no need for a post-credits tag.
The impetus for film studios to make blockbusters is – and has always been – to make a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean there can’t also be something beautiful about the idea of populist entertainment. Are there many cinematic enterprises more enjoyable than rounding up a group of friends to see an eagerly anticipated blockbuster, or cramming onto a sofa with your family at Christmas to watch that same film, out of your gourd on Quality Street? There’s a reason why blockbusters are often the first films people fall in love with. At their best, they provide a communal experience that combines spectacle with a satisfying narrative. As the spectacle overtakes the narrative, that unique joy is in danger of being lost.
To read the original article at The Quietus, click here.
“When you’re a kid no one fucking expects you to do anything. Nobody relies on you for anything. Whereas when I was nine, I was relied upon to be on set every day and know my lines and to be a part of keeping a whole huge machine running smoothly.” The nine-year-old in question was Daniel Radcliffe, and the huge machine was the Harry Potter franchise, still the most financially-successful film series in history. Coming from any other former child actor you might expect this to be the start of a tirade about their lost youth, but Daniel is trying to explain how the experience led to him being a happier adult. “I really enjoyed that responsibility. I enjoyed the fact that it was something I loved and I got to go to a place that I cared about.”
We’re generally unsurprised when child performers fly off the thread. In part this is because it’s a dispiritingly familiar narrative, and in part it’s because, well, why wouldn’t they? When a person becomes world famous before they’ve even started puberty, it’s no great wonder to see them end up turning to bitterness, religious fundamentalism or drugs to quell the peculiar hangover of their youth. With this in mind, the strangest thing about Daniel is that he doesn’t seem to be strange at all. From his eight cinematic appearances as the eponymous boy wizard through to his later pursuit of a diverse series of stage and screen roles, his life in the public eye has been almost entirely devoid of controversy. “I think a lot of people do wonder how we didn’t go off the rails when we were that young, how fame didn’t fuck us up,” he says. “My answer is that for a lot of the time we were working. I used to say this back then and it’s absolutely true: I only felt famous for about two weeks a year during Potter, when the film would actually come out and I’d go and promote it. The rest of the time it was all work.”
There’s a lot one could say when attempting to describe Daniel—that he’s articulate, engaged and energetic, that he peppers his conversation liberally with quotations and swearing, that he’s about the size of a hat—but the most immediately obvious thing is that he’s incredibly polite. My grandmother would love him. Labelling a person as polite sounds dismissive, insinuating a certain obsequiousness, but it’s his best quality. He’s polite in a way that suggests compassion and sensitivity. One gets the sense that the quality took early on and never left: he talks with conviction about formative experiences working with badly-behaved actors and resolving to avoid their example.
Whenever conversation turns to Harry Potter, which happens with understandable frequency, Daniel gives the impression that he was unhappy for much of the time. Obliquely negative references to his adolescent life creep around the edges of his sentences. The only refuge from a tumultuous youth, he explains, was acting. “I remember particularly in the early days when I was still really not enjoying school I would just sit in my school room on set and I’d know… I’d recognise the runner who was coming to get me. I’d recognise their footsteps and know that I was going to set, and I’d just be so excited.”
Daniel talks about the set in an almost talismanic manner. As he became increasingly well known the gap between him and his peers grew concordantly, which makes it understandable that he longed for an environment where he was viewed primarily as a co-worker. “Because I was an only child, I’d always been quite good at talking to adults. It was something I always relished, not being patronised. And as soon as I was about fourteen and people could swear in front of me they treated me like any other person on set,” he says. “At school the world is divided into who’s cool and who’s not, and on set everyone just got on with it. It was much more like the real world and I immediately liked that about it. Set was like a sanctuary for me, and whatever else was going on in my life as a teenager I could always forget about it when I was there.”
Perhaps it’s because he’s had so much of it, and for so long, but Daniel says he never felt seduced by fame. “The danger for people who become famous very young is that it becomes a part of their identity, and it’s a fleeting thing.“ I ask if it’s strange to move through a world where everyone knows your name, and he says yes before I can finish the question. “It makes you slightly uncomfortable because you feel like you should know them as well and you don’t. That said, you get used to seeing yourself on posters and buses. It’s an odd thing to say but you just do. It’s almost like you see a different person after a while. But even though you get used to certain aspects of it, there’s no part of it that stops being weird, and I think that’s right. You should always be finding it weird. You’ve got to acknowledge that this is not a normal way to live.”
Other than the discombobulation that arises from being one of the most recognisable figures in the country, another side-effect of having your own movie franchise from the age of nine is that everyone’s opinion of you has been settled for years, based largely upon the work you did as an unseasoned actor. Daniel is sanguine on the subject: “For a long time I was still obsessing over little bits and pieces that I didn’t like of those films, and I just had to accept at a certain point that basically my acting lessons, both good and bad, are all committed to film. That’s what I learned in front of people for ten years, and there will be some moments in it that I’m really proud of and some moments that I go, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing?’ But you learn and you improve. That’s the only way you can grow.”
Daniel thinks a lot about his development as an actor. It’s not that he’s insecure about his abilities, but rather that he’d like his best performance to be ahead of him. “That’s what I’m battling against really. Towards the end of Potter I used to get asked a lot if I felt like I’d peaked. ‘Fuck no!’ was my reaction. I don’t want to have peaked at 21, although in terms of commercial success I almost definitely have. But that’s not how I define it and it’s not what matters to me the most.” He concedes that it’s easy to not care about commercial success when you’ve already had an unprecedented amount of it. “I know so many people who are either looking for a franchise or are incredibly relieved because they’ve just got one,” he says. “It makes your career. It’s important to stress that the reason actors like to do franchises isn’t just because it makes them loads of money and really famous. 99.9% of actors have absolutely no control over what they do. If they get given a shitty script and someone’s paying them, they have to say ‘Great, thank you, I’ll do it.’ I’m in a very fortunate position where I’m able to do things that I’m passionate about. That’s the freedom that it gives you in a massive way and so I’m very relieved to have done mine early.”
He has used his freedom to good effect. The projects Daniel has chosen outside of Harry Potter are marked by their variety and idiosyncrasy, from playing a young Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings to his eleven months on Broadway starring in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. “Doing things that are a bit bolder is just part of my make-up, particularly at the moment,” he says. “What excites me is breaking new ground for myself, and I’m interested in following good stories and good material.”
This strategy has increasingly led Daniel to smaller independent films, but he claims that the experience is generally the same. “Every film shoot is chaos, whether you have $3 million or $300 million, and you’d better like that or you won’t enjoy the industry. The only differences are superficial things, like how long do you have the crane camera for. On Potter we had two cranes every day, just lying around whether we were using them or not, and it never struck me as odd. Then of course I get onto another film and I hear people talking about renting a crane for a day and realise that the budget of the film wouldn’t have covered the visual effects of one scene in Harry Potter.”
Of his upcoming, typically varied roles, which include Igor in a grisly retelling of Frankenstein and a murder suspect who wakes up with horns and paranormal abilities, his most surprising is also the most straightforward, co-starring in the romantic comedy What If. A sweet, witty, sharply-written film—albeit a rather conventional one—What If features Daniel as a medical school dropout trying to hide his feelings for his new friend Charity (Zoe Kazan). After playing several troubled characters, seeing him as a romantic lead is an unexpected pleasure. Rather than the physical challenges he’s faced in other recent performances, Daniel found himself pushed instead by the need to play a character that audiences would find actively appealing. “You definitely don’t think of it like that. Always the best thing to do if you’re trying to remove self-consciousness is to concentrate on the other person in the scene. So rather than thinking, ‘Am I being charming enough?’ I would just think, ‘I’m going to try and charm you. I’m going to try and make you laugh.’ That’s what most of the film was for me, going to work trying to figure out how I was going to make Zoe Kazan laugh that day. Which is a great job to have.”
More than the politeness, even, what comes across most clearly about Daniel is his passion for acting. Even as an adult, there remains a tangible sense of a boy who was unhappy at home and happy at work, who accordingly decided to treat the latter as a sort of gift. “I’m lucky that I have job I love and I know that if you want to succeed in this industry you have to work really, really hard. And I’m good at that. I like it. So I just throw myself in.”
But what does succeeding mean when you’ve already been the star of the biggest film series of all time? What’s a goal? How do you structure the rest of your life? Daniel pauses for a moment. “Obviously I’m not financially motivated any more. And commercial success isn’t the be all and end all, although you still want people to go and see your movies. Essentially I just want to keep getting better and better at my job, and I’ll do that by continuing to work with a wider group of people and on different projects and varying the things I do as much as I can. Success to me is if I can work for the rest of my life. That would be a good, successful life.”
The film is over, or near enough. The end credits song has started, the screen is fading to white. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, however, are caught in a loop. As the couple tear across a snow-straggled beach, stumbling and laughing, the image resets. They stumble and laugh again, and the image resets. They stumble and laugh again, and the image resets. When blankness finally engulfs the seafront and we lose sight of the pair, we can imagine them still out there, repeating the same actions over and over again. The scene appears to be non-literal but its insinuation is clear: they’re trapped, and they don’t even know it.
Of the 109 minutes that make up Michel Gondry’s sublime Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s these final 29 seconds that form its most curious part, recasting a seemingly optimistic ending as something decidedly more ambiguous. What’s additionally intriguing is that this slim, easily-overlooked sequence doesn’t actually appear in Ouroboros-aficionado Charlie Kaufman’s Oscar-winning screenplay. In a career marked by the use of elastic, dreamlike imagery and practical in-camera effects, it stands quietly as one of Michel’s most inventive moments: a canny visual metaphor for characters stuck in the same patterns of behaviour, doomed to repeat themselves with or without the aid of memory-erasing technology.
A first viewing of his latest film Mood Indigo suggests that Michel is stuck in a loop of his own. Based on Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours (Froth on the Daydream), it depicts a romance between quixotic Colin (Romain Duris) and unflappable Chloé (Audrey Tautou). On its surface— frequently the most compelling and pleasurable area of his work—the film bears an unmistakeable resemblance to Michel’s previous output: a dance sequence where the characters’ elongated limbs cavort wildly could have come from one of his many ground-breaking music videos, while a vehicular cloud that Chloé and Colin ride on their first date wouldn’t be out of place in his earlier feature The Science of Sleep. In aesthetic terms at least, the director is repeating himself. A game of Michel Gondry Visual Whimsy Bingo would be over by the end of the first act, somewhere around the time that Colin chases a pair of disobedient shoes around his apartment, heckled by a tiny man dressed as a rodent.
Considering the infectious energy of his work, one might expect Michel to be similarly excitable. In person, however, he is thoughtful and reflective, given to disarming bouts of emotional honesty. He remains surprisingly boyish even at fifty—a documentary about him featured on his first released collection of music videos was aptly titled I’ve Been Twelve Forever—but his disposition is that of a man who thinks carefully about what he makes. He acknowledges Mood Indigo’s aesthetic repetition but is keen to clarify the reasoning behind it. “I thought I had to bring something that was part of my visual world,” he says. “Boris Vian’s kind of surrealism really influenced my music videos, so I thought it made sense to use the same elements to recreate a story by him. It seemed only fair.”
He points to the film’s epigraph, a quote from Vian himself: “This story is completely true, for I imagined it from beginning to end.” To stay faithful to the book, Michel explains, he needed to produce something with its own distinct reality, a recreation of the sensation of dreaming. “In a dream all sorts of things happen that are completely impossible but you still believe them. I think it’s something that happens in your mind so you can have rest and you don’t wake up. The logical part of your brain gets disconnected. It’s not really functioning. And that’s what I’m doing when I make this sort of world.”
In light of this, the decision to adapt L’Écume des Jours seems less like creative stagnancy and more like an earnest attempt to pay tribute to one of his key inspirations. Looking at Mood Indigo through the prism of Boris Vian, the filmmaker’s efforts appear less self-derivative: at one point Colin plays a pianocktail—a musical instrument that concocts beverages based on the tone of the song being performed—a charming detail that feels like it could have been created by Michel and yet is a straight import from the book. It prompts the question, though: considering that he had already directed two decades’ worth of feature films, music videos and commercials influenced by Vian, what could he gain by going directly to the source? “It’s a book that every adolescent reads in France, and it’s a sort of life-changing experience,” Michel answers. “You believe that literature has to be something quite academic or proper, and suddenly you find this writer that speaks to you, no matter when you’re from. My son was born in 1991 and he loves the book too. It feels like every generation discovers this thing and it has the same liberating impact on them.”
The appeal of producing an adaptation, he argues, was not the aesthetic overlap, but rather the idea that his unique approach could bring the story’s emotional core to life. “It depends on your tastes. Sometimes people would feel it’s too much. I feel all that was part of the story. It’s a way for the two main characters to express the love they have for one another.” While Mood Indigo is reminiscent of his other efforts in that most of its budget seems to have gone on wool, cardboard and pipe cleaners, in its finer moments Michel uses the fanciful, lo-fi art direction to pinpoint the emotional state of his characters. The apogee of Colin and Chloé’s relationship finds the couple floating giddily through a chapel as if underwater, while later the colour drains steadily from the screen as the narrative veers towards despair. On these occasions, much like the repetition during Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s dying seconds, he finds a poetical, cinematic way to articulate the eddies and tides of the heart.
In a monologue at the beginning of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, his 2013 documentary that combined a feature-length Noam Chomsky interview with hand-drawn animation, Michel described that project as a way to focus his “often shattered creativity.” I wonder if he finds focus a struggle, given the way his ideas teem in many directions at once. While his gift for mise-en-scène is undeniable, the director admits that it can be difficult to reconcile his penchant for bold visual ideas—which find an ideal home in heightened, three-minute music videos—and the demands of a longer narrative. “It’s a struggle in the sense that I’m not sure what’s better for a movie, if it needs to be very narrow in the way it’s shot, or if you can go for a wider ranger of styles and elements and still keep the concentration on the main characters,” he says. “I like movies that explore and that go off in unpredictable directions.” When drawn on the subject, he confesses his uncertainty. “It’s something I wonder. I never know if I’m doing the right thing or not. Sometimes I think it would be better if I forget everything that I know how to do, to just shoot two people speaking. But I’m trying both.”
Michel mentions The We and the I, a terrific, largely unsung film that grew out of an after-school workshop he ran in the Bronx. Starring a group of young non-professional actors playing versions of themselves, the film followed the teenagers on a bus ride home from school. “There were no special effects, no tricks. It was just kids on a bus and their relationships, about how they start off shallow and mean but become deeper and more philosophical as the group becomes smaller.”
He makes the valid point that even if his current film shares its creative DNA with earlier projects, he has been increasingly experimental in recent years. “I think I try different things. I’ve done documentaries like Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, and the one with Noam Chomsky. The main thing that’s important about being a filmmaker is that you always have another project. I started making features thirteen years ago and I’ve made ten movies. I feel very lucky because I keep trying things that are new.”
As Michel has searched for subjects to interest him, he has homed in on projects whose narrower releases allow more emotional freedom. “When I do a movie that is smaller in budget I have less responsibility to be commercial and reach out to a bigger audience,” he says. “I can really express deep feelings, and those feelings are not necessarily shared by so many people.” While he’s made efforts to take his work in new directions, particularly through documentary, in his fiction work he finds himself returning to the same emotional territory again and again. This often takes the form of a profound romantic neuroticism, where a male protagonist frets over disenfranchising a woman to the extent that his worry sometimes ends up doing that very thing. There’s a conspicuous number of emotionally insecure leading men in his films, and they’re almost as much of a hallmark as the elaborate single takes or the portmanteau inventions.
Michel confesses that the trend deliberately reflects his own experiences. In life, as in his films, he appears preoccupied by the subject. “You go too far into your attachment with somebody that it’s nearly pathological and becomes scary. It’s like when you’re in a big relationship and the person leaves and you feel an extraordinary sense of love and missing; I feel that before the relationship even starts, and sometimes it makes the person go away. It’s something I’m trying to get control over but have never been able to, so I talk about it in my movies.”
His estimable forces of whimsy mean his work is occasionally dismissed as confection, but for all of their frivolity Michel’s films are honest about human behaviour in its most awkward, ill-advised forms, even when those forms are inspired by his own life. While he admits to being unsure about whether being so personal is the best strategy for a filmmaker, he says it’s given him perspective on his past actions. “I’m trying to use my brain more to make the right moves when I want to be involved with somebody, but it’s stronger when it comes from the heart or the guts. So my movies make me feel I’m really stupid to react like I do. I’m trying to change because I can see it even more clearly, but I’m not sure I’m really succeeding.” No matter how many of his films touch on the issue, though, Michel can’t help himself. “The emotion has stayed the same all my life. I’m fifty and it doesn’t change a bit. It has been exactly the same problem: you meet somebody you like, you’re in love, you’re really excited and you think your life will be changed forever. And then you start over again.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-One. To read the original article click here.
While Frank is ostensibly inspired by screenwriter Jon Ronson’s youthful experience of playing keyboards in the band of Frank Sidebottom (the comedy persona of the late Chris Sievey), the film eschews direct autobiography in order to explore ideas about outsider art, mental illness and ambition. Using the basic concept of a frontman who sports a papier-mâché head at all times, the film is an intense, weird, often very funny character study of two men: Frank (Michael Fassbender), an emotionally damaged yet brilliant musician who lives life “in the furthest corners”, and Jon (Domnhall Gleeson), whose crushing averageness makes him both attracted to and envious of his innately talented bandmate. Ahead of Frank’s release, we spoke to Domnhall about his work on the film and what it’s like acting opposite a papier-mâché head.
Jon is portrayed very sympathetically at the start of the film, but the depiction of him evolves throughout. Did that influence how you played him?
For me, when I read the script I had empathy with Jon until the end. I really delighted in him being a total dick sometimes. I always think that if somebody’s entertaining you’ll continue to want to watch them. Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood is a nightmare of a man, but there’s not a second you don’t want to watch him because his moral corruption is compelling. So I felt like as long as we could keep people laughing, and as long as Jon kept trying to do things with his life, then no matter how horrible those things were you would want to watch him. Being liked by the audience isn’t really here nor there.
He often makes the wrong decisions but you understand why.
Yeah, the others treat him horribly. And he’s not talented. At a certain point you just want to tell him “Look, you don’t have any talent!”, but he keeps trying. In a way, what else is he to do – just accept that he has no ability and give up? That’s not interesting. What you want to see is somebody struggle, and god help him he struggles hard.
How do you play mediocre?
You’ve got to be really careful how you phrase that question! It’s very easy. You make the character try as hard as he can and have what he does tell you that he’s not any good. The producers were really nice to give me songwriting credits for the terrible songs Jon sings at the start of the film, because I went in and made them up with the music guy. I knew they couldn’t be above a certain level and actually ended up revelling in how far I could push mediocre towards shit. Also, it helped that I’m not talented as a keyboardist: I learned keyboards specifically for this movie, so I was limited in that way too. My mediocrity was all there already, I just had to use it.
Your character is called Jon and the story is a fictionalised version of what happened when Jon Ronson joined Frank Sidebottom’s band. Did you bear the real Jon Ronson in mind at all?
Obviously there was the day when I considered if should I go down that route, but it was really clear that the film was inspired by the way Chris Sievey looked when he had the head on and by his spirit as opposed to his actual life or the songs he wrote. That’s why the film’s called Frank and why they have this character in the movie. You just leave everything else behind, I think. They wrote a character who isn’t anything like Jon Ronson, really, so I didn’t speak like him or behave like him. I just tried to do what would work for the script, and that was already difficult enough without throwing something else in on top of it.
It’s an obvious question to ask, but how difficult is it to act opposite someone when you can’t see their facial expressions? How did it affect your performance?
I guess that’s going to be the question, yes, and the problem is that the answer is probably slightly boring and unbelievable, which is that it didn’t feel weird except for when it was supposed to feel weird. The times when it’s supposed to feel strange in the film are when you really want to tell what Frank’s thinking and you just can’t because he chooses not to let you know. Michael was so expressive when he needed to be: he chose when to be exuberant or expressive and when not to be and in a way that’s the same as anybody else. We got into it really quickly, and he wore the head for quite a bit of the music rehearsals too so we got used to it before we arrived on set.
I’m guessing he wasn’t Method about it – he’d take the head off at the end of the day?
I think Michael is probably a bit mad but I don’t know if that was for the film or if that’s just him all the time. I guess I’ll find out the next time I meet him! I don’t know. But he took it off between takes, yeah. I just know that it was really fun because you don’t know what he’s going to do next, and I have a feeling that would be the case even if he wasn’t wearing a papier-mâché head.
What was the first thing that attracted you to the project?
Well, straight away when I read the script I thought it was really funny. I really like physical comedy and I hadn’t done much of it before on film. Mostly I liked the challenge of it. It’s one thing to write a story like this and another to actually put it in a film. How do you make all that madness into something which isn’t just a mess? I didn’t know how you do that, I really didn’t, but I felt if we managed it then it’d be the exact sort of film that I love, something strange and touching and big and odd.
It’s a film that’s unafraid of being weird, that doesn’t see weirdness as being a bad thing.
Yes, although I honestly don’t think that the film is trying to be weird; it’s just its sensibility. If you stay true to that sensibility it’ll become its own thing. It’ll have its own grammar, its own way of existing, and you’ll be able to have ridiculous sex in a hot tub or punch somebody full in the face or have some weird wrestling match, but also have scenes of full-on emotion. All that stuff is a gas, you know, playing dress up and putting on a holey costume and a big fake beard, it’s fucking great.
Jon is a departure from the other characters you’ve played in the past – is the opportunity to play different sorts of people part of the appeal of acting to you? You wouldn’t want to be on a soap opera for thirty years playing the same character.
I’m sure other people do, but I don’t. It’s fun purpose-building a character for a movie and then turning up with him, and knowing you can do whatever you want with him because it will fit, because he suits the movie. And then to let it go and move on to the next one. It’s always scary, which is good. You want to be scared. Look at Michael’s career choices or Maggie Gyllenhaal’s career choices: they’re people that challenge themselves all the time. People talk about longevity like it’s all about what other people will give you but I think it’s also about keeping yourself interested and hungry as well, because if you play the same part over and over surely you’ll just get bored and hate your job. Your interest will drop. Variety is as much for yourself as for other people, and hopefully I’ll get to continue doing this for a while. Of course, you never know. I could be unemployed next year. But we keep our fingers crossed.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
A pig is strolling along a beach in Tynemouth, thinking about the dead. Still weary after his lengthy flight from Japan, he decides to rest on a nearby bench for a moment. It’s here that he’s accosted by the ghost of the late author Robert Westall, who has taken the guise of a terrier. The pair discuss literature, aeroplanes and World War II, and before they go their separate ways they head to a nearby pub for a drink; they’re in Newcastle, after all.
The visitor’s name is Hayao Miyazaki, and when he not assuming porcine form he’s considered Japan’s greatest living filmmaker, beloved for co-founding Studio Ghibli as well as writing and directing many of its finest pictures, from My Neighbour Totoro to Spirited Away. For most, turning into a pig would be noteworthy, but Miyazaki has made a career out of extraordinary acts of transmogrification: in Ponyo, the eponymous goldfish starts to become human after eating an errant piece of ham, while the fighter pilot protagonist of Porco Rosso is changed into “The Crimson Pig” by a curse, and the Boar God Okkoto-Nushi in Princess Mononoke becomes a demon after a corrupting gunshot wound.
Miyazaki’s encounter with Westall takes place in his short manga, A Trip to Tynemouth. It is one of many such efforts in which the animator appears in his printed comics – known as manga, as opposed to the animated medium, anime – as a moustachioed swine with bottlecap spectacles, reflecting upon the influences and obsessions that have shaped his work.
Like an aging prizefighter, Miyazaki has had a tendency to erroneously retire from his chosen profession. Indefatigably hard working – he has typically drawn or redrawn by hand thousands of frames on each of his films – his assorted retirements have usually been greeted with a reasonable degree of scepticism. Recently, however, he announced that the forthcoming historical epic, The Wind Rises, would be his last film. At the age of 73 it’s probably wise to finally take him at his word. As his cinematic career draws to a close, then, it is worth contemplating, as Miyazaki himself often has through manga, not just his body of work, but how he became the filmmaker that created it.
With Studio Ghibli’s output widely admired and the tree-growing narcoleptic Totoro a burgeoning global icon, it can be easy to forget that the company’s cultural eminence is a relatively new development: not only did Miyazaki not form Studio Ghibli until 22 years into his professional life, but several years passed subsequently before any of the studio’s films were actually seen in the west, outside of the illicit, battered videotapes that circulated amongst communities of anime enthusiasts. Even today, when Studio Ghibli’s films are dubbed by Hollywood actors and aggressively distributed internationally by Disney, being a western admirer of Miyazaki means that one is still exposed only to a small segment of his work: his superlative Studio Ghibli films represent merely the part of the iceberg that we’re able to see.
What’s missing from our understanding is the underberg, comprising Miyazaki’s mangas and early television serials that have largely evaded English-language release. Momentarily putting aside their own merits as ragged, vibrant works of art in themselves, it is possible to trace the beginnings of ideas, motifs and characters that found fuller expression in his films. A panel in a 1969 manga anticipates an identical image that occurs a decade later in his theatrical debut, while a story Miyazaki struggled with in 1980 about a boy-turned-giant-mountain-lion was reconfigured into the very different historical fantasy Princess Mononoke seventeen years later.
It shouldn’t be expected that mangas like Air Meal (a comic rumination on the history of in-flight food) or For My Sister (a graphic poem about a boy taking his terminally ill twin sister on a flight around the world) will provide a Rosetta Stone to fully understanding Miyazaki any more than his cinematic efforts do. Like any complicated, prolific artist, his artistic identity is multi-faceted; a fact illustrated by the Japanese critical reaction to The Wind Rises. An embellished biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, chief engineer of the notorious A6M “Zero” fighters in World War II, Miyazaki was criticised by both the country’s left and right for his nuanced and contradictory portrayal of his protagonist as a brilliant, sensitive man whose exceptional talents nevertheless contributed to widespread destruction.
Miyazaki’s non-film work rebuffs reductive suppositions. Instead, it shows how despite his enduring interest in supernatural elements, Japanese folk tales and British children’s literature, everything he creates is deeply personal, regardless of scale or content. Daydream Data Notes, for instance, is a collection of illustrated essays on pre-WWII military vehicles contributed to the hobby magazine, Model Graphix. Miyazaki had grown up during World War II, when his father’s manufacturing company was producing rudders for Japanese fighter planes. The essays demonstrate how his childhood obsession with sketching such vehicles developed into the persistent reoccurrence of similar aircraft throughout his films. A thoughtful pacifist, his early passion for aircraft was counteracted by witnessing their devastating potential during the firebombing of Utsunomiya. From this perspective, the tension in his films between wonder and horror at what technology can do becomes more comprehensible.
The unique and specific combination of Miyazaki’s creative obsessions and personal history conspire to render his progressive values – feminism, environmentalism, pacifism – in ways that are visually exciting, original and moving. Miyazaki’s storytelling instincts, honed by the thousands upon thousands of images he has personally drawn in his lifetime, have always tended towards depicting complex ideas through vivid imagery – hence his early discovery that supernatural metamorphosis was an elegant way to portray on the outside what’s happening on the inside. While his narrative reliance on forms of transmutation can be partially attributed to its place within Japanese literary tradition, the process exists as a useful visual metaphor for man’s ruinous treatment of the environment, a theme he has been exploring for decades.
For all of the marauding demons, wood spirits and dust creatures that find their way into Miyazaki’s films, the key to their lasting appeal is the humanism imbued in them by their creator. Where most of America’s animated feature films, for example, are created in industrial parks in Southern California, Miyazaki has maintained a genuine connection with nature, spending much of his time in a remote mountain cabin. His emphasis on the importance of the natural world stands in stark contrast even to Pixar at their peak—a company whose films, perhaps by virtue of their use of computer animation as much as their environment can’t help but be relentlessly modern, even as they eschew the lazy pop culture references of their peers. While Studio Ghibli have also incorporated the use of computer animation into their filmmaking, their work is still mostly produced using traditional cel animation. Even if the paint is digital, their features are still largely drawn by artists, one image at a time. This increasingly anachronistic approach finds an affinity with the films themselves, which allow for moments of stillness and beauty largely absent from comparable animated films emerging from other studios.
Studio Ghibli’s reputation has been built almost entirely on the creative brilliance of two men: Miyazaki and Isao Takahata – the studio’s other co-founder and director of Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko and Only Yesterday. While the studio has released appealing films from other directors, increasingly so as Miyazaki and Takahata have slowed their work-rate, their imminent departure can’t fail to have an effect on its fortunes. Based on the principles instilled by Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli will doubtlessly endure, and continue to produce excellent work. Even so, the unavoidable fact remains that a significant era in the history of animation is ending.
In searching for an appropriate way to consider Miyazaki’s departure, it is perhaps best to look to the man himself. As a developing artist, he made a conscious decision to eschew the influence of seminal manga artist Osamu Tezuka in favour of developing his own style. Writing in his memoir Starting Point, he recalls: “When I was finally forced to admit that my drawings actually did look like Tezuka’s, I took out the sketches I had stored in the drawer of our dresser and burned them all. I burned them and resolved to start over from scratch.”
Miyazaki would inevitably be the first to argue that his retirement should herald the arrival of something new, rather than inspiring pale imitations of his own work. His career breakthrough came when he and Isao Takahata co-directed fourteen episodes of a popular television series about the master thief and scoundrel Lupin III. But after achieving enormous success with Lupin III on film and television, Miyazaki decided to leave him behind to pursue fresh ground. In his memoir, he bids farewell to the character, whose time had come: “I often think of Lupin fondly, for he was hungry in those days; he was a bit lecherous, fastidious, scattered, and headstrong, and he was crazy about mini-car races.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty
One of the most significant documentarians of his generation, Errol Morris has mostly spent the past 35 years making films about colourful eccentrics and outsiders. In 2003, however, the filmmaker shifted his focus from pet cemetery owners and delusional beauty queens to former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in his Oscar-winning documentary, The Fog of War.
While his latest film The Unknown Known is another feature-length interview with a former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, it is markedly different in tone. Where McNamara earnestly contemplated his legacy, Rumsfeld obfuscates and eludes. Shortly before The Unknown Known’s release, Errol reflected on why audiences shouldn’t be expecting a sequel to his earlier film.
Donald Rumsfeld has done countless interviews. How did you try to get him to open up in a different way?
It was tricky. The first day I met him I was invited to join him while he answered questions from reporters on speakerphone about his new memoir. We’re sitting there and he’s asked these completely expected questions that he’s been asked hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of times. “Did you really think there were WMDs in Iraq?” “Did you think the number of troops used in the invasion were sufficient?” “Do you believe adequate preparations had been made for the aftermath of the war?” It had the quality of a vending machine. Same questions, same answers.
I wondered, what is this about? It represents some kind of strange exchange. It’s not necessarily investigative at all. It’s a version of theatre. I promised myself: I’m not going to do this. I don’t want to ask these same questions. I wanted to tease out something different, without really knowing what that was. And in interviewing him I found that often the most interesting stuff wasn’t the answers, it was these moments of silence, or his smile, or weird unexpected responses that aren’t really responses at all. The film pushes back on him endlessly, but it’s a different kind of movie. It’s a movie about the smile, the vanity, the self-satisfaction, the cluelessness, the retreat into empty rules and principles and slogans.
The act of interviewing a politician is often romanticised as being akin to sparring. In David Frost’s Richard Nixon interviews, for example, there’s the search for a “gotcha” moment. By contrast, what you do in your films is let people talk. What’s the value in that approach?
Well, take the adversarial, Frost/Nixon approach. It’s interesting that the movie they made is very different from the interviews themselves. They had to re-imagine the so-called “gotcha” moment to make it far more dramatic than it was. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a certain audience satisfaction in it, particularly if you’re dealing with a character that is really disliked by a lot of people. They want to see him punished. They want to see him held to account and his feet held to the fire. There’s an audience satisfaction in that kind of thing, particularly in a world where we realise these people may never be held accountable.
Somehow it goes back to this idea people have that I should be a version of the International Criminal Court, that I should be doing the job of trying Donald Rumsfeld. It’s not that it doesn’t interest me; it does. But I’m less interested in whether or not adequate preparations were made for the aftermath of the war. To me, the fact that we went to war in Iraq is a war crime. I’m interested in who this guy is, in how he sees himself. I’m interested in a different set of questions. The Fog of War was very much a movie about how McNamara sees himself in history, his feelings about what he did and why he did it. It’s very powerful because you feel that here’s a man tortured by history. And maybe for some people the idea was that The Unknown Known was going to be the same movie. Well, it’s not.
Rumsfeld isn’t the same person.
Exactly. He’s about as different from McNamara as anyone could be. I’ve made a lot of movies about self-deception in one form or another, and I’ve done nothing better than this one. It’s not the ICC, it’s not Frost/Nixon, nor was it ever intended to be. It’s an Errol Morris film about a guy who was extraordinarily ambitious, probably still is, who wanted to conquer the world, came damn close to doing it, and somehow as the world devolves into chaos around him, he enters a Looney Tunes universe of nomenclature and vocabulary and principles that are seemingly profound but when subject to any level of scrutiny are quickly exposed as gobbledygook.
Have you spoken to him since? It’s clear that he doesn’t have a desire for self-reflection. Do you think seeing the film made him register what he was doing?
I don’t think anything registers with him. I’ve not talked to him since he saw the final version, and not directly about this, but I’ve said all these things in interviews. I have a guilty conscience. I think somehow my job is at least to like the people I’m interviewing. Rumsfeld was charming, forthcoming, he gave me all these memos, he read them on camera, he came to Boston four times. Eleven long days of interviews.
But in the end… I’m appalled by all of it. I don’t know how better to describe it. I could pretend I’m not appalled, but I am. It just makes me sad to think that this is my government. Is that the best you can come up with, sir? It’s a level of reflection that’s non-reflection. The smile. The smile is really horrific. It’s like a tell in a poker game, where suddenly you realise that your opponent has given you a clue to what kind of hand they’re holding. I don’t know if I can adequately characterise it. Sometimes I call it the cat that swallowed the canary. That look of supreme self-satisfaction.
People want their notion of evil to be simple and easy to grasp. They want to see the cloven hoof, like, “What’s in the sleeve, Errol?”, and out pops the hoof and people gasp. Shakespeare knew this well. They want Lady Macbeth, they want Iago, they want Richard III. They want to see some undeniable evidence of the monstrous, the “Oh my God!” But here the monstrous is not the kind that you would like to see. It’s not the cloven hoof, it’s a smile. It’s his desire to simply deny the world around him, to prattle on, to enjoy the performance. Is he a performer? Yes. But in calling him a performer, you somehow think of an actor aware that he’s playing a role. He’s not playing a role, though. It’s not a performance by a person, the person is a performance. There’s nothing else there.
Do you think that’s why the film might be ultimately unsatisfying for a viewer looking for something confrontational? You don’t show underneath Rumsfeld, you show that there is no underneath.
Unsatisfying? Maybe. To me it’s the difference between being an artist and pandering. My job is to depict something of the reality in front of my camera as I see it. I don’t see myself as the arbiter of absolute truth any more than the next guy, but I do hope I’ve captured something.
There’s a moment when I read the Schlesinger Report to him, which contradicts what he had just said, and he looks at me like a frog on a lily pad and says, “I’d agree with that.” You’d agree with that? You just said the exact opposite! Now, I could have intervened, but to me there’s this moment where you just sit there, and you the audience, as well as me the interviewer, are left with this strange feeling of dislocation. Did I hear what I just heard? Did he say what I just heard him say? Is he aware that he’s simply contradicting himself? Is he aware of anything?
To me you could go either way. Is it a total failure as a lmmaker, a failure to do justice to the error that he has made, the clear contradiction he’s just expressed? Or is it one of my ner moments, a way in to the reality of Donald Rumsfeld? Think of it not as a political documentary, but a fable of a man who gets lost inside of himself and lost inside of his own bullshit. In the end what’s revealed about Donald Rumsfeld is that he’s basically the equivalent of a Chinese fortune cookie.
I think the best moments come in weird places, like the part when he wins a semantic argument and says, “Chalk that one up.” To me, that’s filmmaking. It’s telling you so much. “Chalk that one up,” is him saying, “I got the better of you, buddy.” That’s how he sees it. But it’s not about getting the better of me. It’s about a very bad chapter in my country’s history. If you feel as I do that torture should not be part of the repertoire of a democracy, then this is a black stain. This was a horrible, horrible moment in American history. This is not a handball game, or table tennis. Often I’d feel that there was no moral dimension. So what do you do? Do you say, “Sir, where’s the moral dimension here?” How would he respond? “Ooh, you got me, there is none”? Or, do you let him prattle on and say, “Chalk this one up”? It’s all there. The movie is chock-a-block with revealing moments, contradictions, nonsense talk. It’s maybe the best I can do, and if people don’t like it… fuck ‘em.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty. To read the original article click here.
Noah Taylor is fishing in his coat pocket again. He doesn’t say anything, of course—he’s nothing if not unfailingly polite—but it’s clear that he doesn’t want to be here. Finding what he’s looking for, he pulls out his second cigarette and waits quietly for the next question. While the chill Brighton morning may have something to do with it, Noah acknowledges that he doesn’t relish talking about himself. Perched on a bench near his home, reticence enfolds him, much like the coat that is buttoned up against the wind.
The discomfort Noah is experiencing is similar to the one he struggled with earlier in life. After making his debut as the star of the coming-of age classic The Year My Voice Broke, he appeared as the lead in over a dozen films. Halfway through his 27-year acting career, however, Noah had become exhausted with his profession. “I felt like I needed a break from it, really,” he explains. “I got into acting when I was so young. It quickly became my job, and I’ve always looked at it in those terms: a job, rather than a driving passion. Maybe that’s my problem.”
A talented, engaging actor whose off-beat good looks were simultaneously boyish and weary, Noah’s professional doubts coincided with his growing stature, as his frazzled performance in the Oscar-winning Shine led to roles outside his native Australia. Having always been more enamoured with music and art than acting, Noah wanted the opportunity to enjoy his other interests and made a conscious choice to step away from leading roles. “The idea was to do smaller character parts. That way you can work and have a relatively normal life.” He takes a drag of his cigarette. “It was probably not a very smart step.”
Noah has a tell: whenever he’s disappointed by something, a slight, resigned smile breaks out across his face, more amused than regretful. “I’ve never really figured out the mechanics of career,” he says, looking back. “It actually became harder to get work, in a strange sort of way. What you really should do is a larger role every now and again that gives you a bit of leverage in other things.”
His voice sounds like you imagine a shrug might, but he’s being a little hard on himself. Even as he felt the broader effects caused by his decision, Noah was still in demand: flourishing as a character actor, he’s worked with a remarkable list of filmmakers, from Terrence Malick to Wes Anderson. To this day, seeing his name in fourth or fifth position on a movie poster is a watermark of quality.
As if to prove the point, his latest effort, The Double, is one of the strongest films of the year. In his second collaboration with Richard Ayoade after the director’s 2010 debut Submarine, Noah plays the only friend of the film’s lead, Jesse Eisenberg, a shy office drone who discovers he has a more popular doppelganger. Even by Noah’s standards, the role is a small one, but his presence never fails to brighten the film. As exceptional as it is, The Double is much like any project where Noah pops up and disappears again: you miss him when he’s not around.
On the rare occasions in recent years when Noah has been the lead he’s made bold choices, even if some of them didn’t work out. He gives another of his slight, resigned smiles when discussing Max, a problematic film that saw him playing a young, art-obsessed Adolf Hitler.
“Hitler’s very difficult,” Noah says. “He doesn’t have a moustache in the film, but it’s very easy to slip into Charlie Chaplin, and the last thing you want is to make it comedic.” Another pause, another drag of his cigarette. “But it seemed like a challenging thing to do at the time. I don’t know if it was the best idea in the world.”
Acting remains a job, but these days Noah conducts it on his terms. Studiously avoiding a move to America, despite the lift it could have given his career, he instead made a home in Brighton. As a place to live, Brighton is probably the equivalent of choosing character roles over leading ones: more pleasant, less starry. He says the city reminds him of St. Kilda, the seaside town in the suburbs of Melbourne where he grew up. “I think if you grew up near the ocean it’s in your blood to want to be near the sea.”
Ageing has been good for him: his face, which has become leaner and more grizzled, can convey despondency or malice. Where many of his early roles were the earnest protagonists of memoirs, he now plays more varied characters. “I’m actually enjoying acting a lot more than I did when I was young. The roles are more interesting,” he says. “I tend to play more villains. My plan is to mix villainous and comedy roles. That’s a happy, sane balance. Somehow they come from the same sort of place: you can be quite over the top with both.”
Noah is at his most effusive talking about the filmmakers he works with repeatedly, directors like Richard Ayoade and John Hillcoat with whom he’s built a strong partnership. “It’s much more fun to work with the same people. You know where their heads are at. In an ideal world I’d work with three or four people that I like.” Noah says he is willing to do anything for an interesting filmmaker. This approach is epitomised by his presence on a freezing cold bench in the dead of winter, ostensibly to talk about The Double: despite his minor role in the film, he’s enduring something he doesn’t really enjoy in order to do right by a director he believes in.
Striving for his happy balance, Noah now has a recurring part in Game of Thrones as Locke, a deliciously cruel man-hunter who’s overly handy with a machete. “It’s a behemoth, that thing,” he says. “Every set-up would probably be the biggest scene in a modestly-budgeted movie.” Noah enjoys the character of Locke, but compares the production’s rigours to that of playing a competitive sport. “Working on it is fun, but physically exhausting: being beaten up by Irish farmers at four in the morning, in the mud, in the rain. And this goes on for fifteen hours. Acting wears you down a bit.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty. Photograph by Toby Coulson. To read the original article click here.
Despite being only 19 years old, Dakota Blue Richards has already had a long and varied acting career – one which began when she memorably played the lead role in 2007’s cinematic adaptation of The Golden Compass. Whilst the remaining two parts of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy were unfortunately never made, Dakota has continued to work steadily in film and television – most notably joining the cast of Skins towards the end of its successful six-year run. In her latest film, The Fold, Dakota plays the daughter of an Anglican priest (Catherine McCormack) who is having a crisis of faith after the death of her other child. Ahead of The Fold’s release in cinemas and on VOD, we spoke to Dakota about her role in the film.
The Fold features both a first time director (John Jencks) and a first time writer (Poppy Cogan). What was it like to work on a project where you were a veteran on the set?
It’s always interesting working with people at the start of their career, because they have such an enthusiasm for what they’re doing, and that was really evident with John. It was clear that he really cared about the film, and that he wanted to make it as good as he possibly could. He just had this real excitement for the project, which is sometimes lost along the way when you’ve been doing it for a long time. It made everyone else excited as well.
What was great was that it made me think about my character and what I was bringing to the performance in a different way. John wouldn’t come in and say: “We’re going to do this, this and this”. He was always open to my ideas and Catherine’s ideas. Everybody could put what they thought out there and he’d take that, think about it, and come back with a properly formed way of going about that day’s scenes.
Has your approach to acting changed over the years you’ve been doing it?
I think you get into habits, which can be good and can be bad. Because everyone has their own method of working, it can become easy to approach everything in the same way. What’s nice is having the opportunity to think about things differently, and to be challenged by how other people approach things when they haven’t been doing it long enough to fall into patterns.
How did you build a believable mother-daughter relationship with Catherine McCormack? Did you have to get quite close?
Our relationship as a mother and daughter in the film is fairly distant. What I found hard was that I’ve never had that distance with my own mother. I’ve always been very close to her, so playing that level of discomfort was more challenging than building a relationship would have been. Catherine is lovely and brilliant at what she does, so it was great having her around. If anything, I found it difficult trying to act like I didn’t get on with her.
Your character Eloise exists primarily in relation to her mother’s journey. How do you make a supporting character compelling whilst serving the story?
It’s not so much about how big a role is or how many lines you have; rather it’s how interesting the character is in their own right and how they influence the plot. Quite often when you see things that are badly written there are major characters who don’t actually affect the story at all. What’s nice about The Fold is that even though it’s a smaller role, I see Eloise as being the light in the gloom of her mother’s depression and grief. She’s trying to be strong for her family and help them through it. She plays a strong role within the film regardless of how often you see her.
One of the film’s key scenes revolves around you playing the violin. Can you actually play one in real life?
I played when I was a child, very briefly, which possibly helped me a little bit. To be honest it was such a short shoot that we didn’t get a chance to learn the instruments that well. We had a couple of lessons but the violin is one of the most complicated instruments, especially if you’re not a musician. There was just no way that I was going to actually become good at it, so we had a double. Whenever you can’t see my face it’s not me. That’s a good thing because you definitely wouldn’t want to see me playing.
I was curious about your experience making The Golden Compass. With some distance from the film, what is it like looking back?
It doesn’t really feel like that long ago. It’s funny actually because if I think about college, which was a couple of years ago, that feels like ages, but The Golden Compass still seems fairly recent even though it wasn’t. It was really just the best experience I could have had as a 12 year old. It was perfect and fun and I loved every minute of it.
I guess a lot of people would have said it would be a dream come true, something they’d wanted for a really long time, but I just sort of fell into it. I’d never really wanted to act before then so I had no preconceptions, and that was a really nice way to start my career. I felt really looked after by the producers and the people I was working with, and the other actors were lovely and taught me so much. It was such a positive experience, and there was so much I could take away from it.
As an introduction to filmmaking it must have been quite overwhelming.
It was. But I think it was good that it was such a challenging job to do, with so much CGI and being produced on such a scale. It was a really long process – even though the official shoot was about six months we were still filming a month before it was released. Having that as a first experience meant that I jumped all sorts of barriers very early on, so now if I get a job that has a lot of green screen, say, I’m not going to freak out and get daunted because I’m very used to it.
It’s just a shame that you didn’t get a chance to make the second two. The books are terrific, and they only get better.
Yeah, it is a shame. It’s one of those things that I’ve come to terms with. I was very upset about it at the time. Like you say, the books are brilliant and I really wanted to see it through and do them justice, but then I can also completely understand the reasons why they didn’t make them. Looking at it positively, it means that I’ve been able to move on, and I did jobs at the time that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I’ve been able to move away from the character in the way that some of the people that have done big trilogies or long series haven’t. They get put in a box: the Harry Potter kids or the Narnia kids. To an extent I’ll always be the Golden Compass girl, which I don’t have a problem with, but people have been able to see me in other roles too. I feel more established in my own right than I might have done if we’d made all of them.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
In a competitive field, 20 Feet from Stardom surprised many by winning Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards. A film exploring the history of backup singers, 20 Feet from Stardom is a poignant, soulful tribute to the indispensible yet unheralded performers behind some of pop music’s most electrifying moments. Speaking to us shortly before his Oscar win, the documentary’s (very tired) director Morgan Neville told us about the making of the film and the power of music documentaries.
How did you first get involved in 20 Feet from Stardom?
I got a call from Gil Friesen who used to run A&M records and later became our producer. The first time I met him, he told me that he’d gone to see Leonard Cohen under the influence of marijuana and fixed upon the backup singers during the entire concert, wondering what their story was. The experience stayed with him and he thought there could be a documentary in it. I investigated and quickly discovered there was little about backup singers in terms of books or movies, or even websites and articles. So I spent three months interviewing backup singers just to figure out what their whole world was about. I did 50 oral histories to begin with and then ultimately interviewed about 80 singers.
I realised we’d stumbled across this amazing family of artists. They all know each other, they all look out for each other, and they’re incredibly talented. I had some misconceptions going into it: perhaps they weren’t as talented as lead singers and that’s why they were in the backup world, or maybe they didn’t have personalities or character to their voice. That was completely wrong, much to my delight.
Through the interviews in the film it becomes clear that their attitude towards being backup singers has changed over time.
To me that was the breakthrough in making the film. Initially I thought it was going to be a really depressing documentary, because they’re people with such undeniable talent who didn’t get the attention or accolades that they should have, and you feel bad for them. What I came to see was that they’ve come to terms with the lives they’ve had rather than the ones they’d dreamt of having. I think the backup world was the best place for a lot of them. If you truly care just about singing, it can be more soul-nourishing than trying to be a recording artist, where you have to deal with so much that has nothing to do with music. And it’s a much more sustainable way of living: when I spoke to The Waters, they told me that they sing behind artists who have one hit and a three year career and then are gone, while they’ve been getting paid to sing for fifty years. They’ve raised families and have houses and a great life and still get to sing.
How did you decide which performers to feature? Were you looking for diversity in their stories or an overriding arc?
When I was trying to figure everything out I interviewed singers from the entire spectrum of pop music, from Beyoncé’s backup singers to James Brown’s, and when I stood back I saw the story was that of African American voices, largely female, coming from churches into recording studios. And so I had a very specific criteria of the type of people I was looking for. I wanted singers who fit into that continuum but from slightly different generations, who had made different decisions, who were amazing singers and great personalities, and who had intersected with interesting songs and artists throughout their career. It was quite complicated to find the right group of women whose lives harmonised enough to demonstrate that they’re all living different versions of the same story.
A few of the film’s participants have seen their careers reignited by its success. What has that been like for you?
It’s amazing. Perhaps the most satisfying thing about making this film is that I wanted to shine a light on people who are unappreciated, whose brilliance and talent we should recognise. To have the film do that in such a powerful way was something I never expected. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say their lives have all been changed by this film. And mine, too. It’s just been fantastic to see the outpouring of love for them that’s come from it.
You’ve been making music documentaries for twenty years. What’s the appeal of using cinema to explore music? What do you gain by bringing those two mediums together?
I’m a music lover and grew up aspiring to be a music historian. My heroes were people like Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus. But what I realised is that music in film is a great way to tell all kinds of stories. You’re starting with an incredible toolbox. Obviously music documentaries should be about music, which means that songs should be an integral part of the storytelling and help reveal story and character – I work hard on that – but at the same time they can be about more. Most of my music films are really about some other idea, whether it’s civil rights or finding your muse, or any number of things.
In this case, the film is about the history of popular music told from a slightly different angle.
Exactly. One thing I’ve always loved is using documentary to make you hear the familiar in a new way. When you discover what went into the writing or recording of a song it can completely make you re-evaluate your relationship to that piece of music. It becomes new again.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Stranger by the Lake takes place in that late, languid stretch of summer where every day feels like every other day. Set entirely at a gay cruising spot in rural France, the film follows Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps), whose daily excursions to swim, sunbathe and have sex with strangers are complicated when he witnesses a murder and subsequently falls for the killer. A complex film that is by turns funny, sad, erotic and suspenseful, Stranger by the Lake is notable for its measured tempo and its unselfconscious and frank portrayal of sex. Ahead of the film’s unseasonable February release, we spoke to director Alain Guiraudie about the production.
The film has a murder at its centre and is peppered with casual sex, and yet it feels loving, affectionate even.
It has a softness, definitely. A gentleness. The other day I was talking with friends who worked on the project from the beginning and they said when they initially read the script they thought it was going to be much harsher.
Was it a deliberate intention to avoid a sensationalist tone?
Yes, it’s a film I made without any desire to be provocative or wanting to shock at all. I wanted things to happen quietly, for events to unfold in an obvious but gentle way.
Even the actual murder is shot from a distance. You don’t really see or hear it properly.
That’s the image of the film for me. I like the idea of the drowning scene because it starts quite playfully and then turns into tragedy. It was important that it took place at a distance from the eyes of Franck and his perspective, so that his point of view becomes our point of view and we can identify with him.
Franck is a passive, reactive character, and accordingly Pierre de Ladonchamps’ performance is very subtle. How did you bring that out?
I directed Pierre a fair bit but at the same time not that much. There’s something in him that’s very complex. He has a lot of layers. An interesting thing I noticed on set is that as an actor, if he does nothing he appears to be worried. There’s just something dark that’s in him at rest. And so I had to fight his natural appearance of anxiety.
The film’s pacing is quite deliberate. Events build slowly and steadily over time, and you repeatedly return to shots like the one of the car park, its number of cars rising and falling. What were your intentions in structuring the film the way you did?
Pacing is something you discover at the editing stage between the editor and the director. It comes quite intuitively. But what we knew we were working with was this laid back, lazy summer atmosphere. The lake is always the same but it’s not the same, because of what happened the day before. We also wanted the days to be structured by the light changing, and to arrange the film geographically: you have the parking lot, the pathway, and then the beach, and little by little things are simplified. You don’t see the parking lot any more, and then you don’t see the pathway, and then you only have the beach.
You shot the entire film outside. Was that difficult? How did you respond to the weather and the variable sunlight?
I really enjoy filming in the open air, and I thought that by going to that particular region I would have better weather than we did. In the end I think it worked well, though: the fact that we didn’t always have fabulous weather contributed to the images. The real challenge when you use natural daylight is to be absolutely ready for specific shots in that specific light. You have to shoot very quickly in a limited number of takes. Generally you want to be ready with your actors when the light is ready, but if you’re not ready with your actors you have to just go for it anyway.
The lake is essential to the film. What were you looking for in a location? How did you find it?
What determined the choice was simplicity: the size of the human side, a location where the other side of the lake wasn’t too far away. Actually, the first time we found the lake there wasn’t a beach at all, because the initial location scouting happened in the spring, in the rainy season, and we were filming at the end of August when it was completely different. Luckily we saw it again on the day when the lake’s water level went down sufficiently, and nature had changed it.
Stranger by the Lake is very sexually explicit, and the characters spend most of the film naked, but you don’t draw attention to this at all. Why was it important to you to depict sex and the human body in a natural, almost casual way?
I generally try to show things in movies without the aspect of fabrication. I don’t want to create the impression of doing things especially for the audience. Of course, when you’re dealing with scenes of intimacy such as sexual acts it’s difficult for the actors to perform whilst facing the eyes of others. And I also think you could fall very easily into cliché or outrageousness. But there was an interview I read with Bruce Dern where he said that someone who can’t be intimate in public can’t be an actor. It’s interesting because I was talking to the actors when we were working and they said that there’s not much difference between pretending to make love and actually making love, apart from the sexual organs and one thing going into another. Physically the mechanics are different, but it’s the same emotionally. It’s still sex.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
If An Unexpected Journey – the first entry in Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit – was disappointing, part of the reason may have been because of how long it spent in the Shire. The settlement serves the same function in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: an untroubled, bucolic ideal that its hobbit protagonists yearn for whilst travelling on their respective quests. With its absence of danger or surprise, the Shire is differentiated from the rest of Middle-earth, which makes it a problematic location to set more than a few opening or closing scenes – the very constancy that makes the naturally-unadventurous hobbits want to return to it is the antithesis of the drama Jackson wishes to depict. With so much space to fill, however, the filmmaker was in no hurry to leave, and his dawdling in the Shire and elsewhere contributed to An Unexpected Journey feeling like a three-hour-long first act.
Fortunately, The Desolation of Smaug finds Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf cohorts having left the serenity of Hobbiton far behind. Now solidly within the middle part of the story, Jackson doesn’t need to concern himself with beginnings or endings, and is free instead to focus on entertaining the audience.
While the film suffers from many of the same problems that afflicted An Unexpected Journey – Jackson has never met a CGI bridge that he hasn’t wanted lots of people to cross – it is still a notable improvement. The lack of a long-winded introduction plays to the book’s strengths: where The Lord of the Rings is an enormous, solemn epic, The Hobbit is an adventure story, typically introducing a new creature each chapter. The Desolation of Smaug accordingly bounds from encounter to encounter, with little need to linger on any of them.
Making a deliberate attempt to emulate the epic sweep of The Lord of the Rings, Jackson’s adaptation is far darker than its source material. But whilst he still strains towards the portentousness of his sequel trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug is nonetheless suffused with wit and energy: the scene in which Bilbo and the dwarves use barrels to escape down a river is amongst the most propulsive, purely exciting sequences in any of his Middle-earth films, shot with a fluidity reminiscent of the lengthy single-shot chase in the Jackson-produced The Adventures of Tintin. Similarly, Bilbo’s climactic parley with the dragon Smaug is wonderfully tense, the hobbit skittering evasively among cascading piles of gold, alternately attempting to flatter and manipulate his predator as coins landslide beneath him.
Even though The Desolation of Smaug contains many excellent set-pieces, their existence is further proof that the expansion of the story to three pictures was ill-advised. The film’s standout sequences all come directly from the book, whilst its least necessary ones all do not. The trilogy remains like a bloated double album that should have been squeezed onto a single CD, its filler tracks discarded. Whilst The Desolation of Smaug definitely fares better from inflation than An Unexpected Journey, which filled out its running time with dull, endless fights with orcs and wargs, it still runs into problems whenever it strays too far from Tolkien.
The series’ bright spot continues to be Martin Freeman’s depiction of Bilbo. A fine actor who found himself typecast in everyman roles following The Office, Freeman is so successful in the films precisely because of how innately relatable he is. It’s through Bilbo that we understand Middle-earth: a land that’s scary, wondrous and a little silly as well. Decent and courageous and yet with a natural aptitude for deceit, his inherent contradictions make him more compelling than the staidly noble protagonists of The Lord of the Rings. It’s telling that while the quest of his nephew Frodo was to dispose of a precious object, Bilbo’s is to steal one.
As the One Ring extends its sway over Bilbo, Freeman’s portrayal evolves subtly. In one of the film’s darkest moments, Bilbo fights a horde of giant arachnids trying to eat the dwarves. Battling heroically, he suddenly sees the spiders as a threat to the ring and loses sight of his initial objective, turning barbarous in an instant. Bilbo’s subsequent disgust at his own murderous potential is a fascinating depiction of the ring’s seductive power; by contrast, Frodo mostly responded to its burden by looking pallid and falling down a lot.
Where The Desolation of Smaug expands upon The Lord of the Rings is the notion that the One Ring’s insidious qualities aren’t unique, that greed and ruthlessness can be inspired by anything of particular value, from precious objects to power. Uneasy dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, who sets out on the quest in order to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and restore the standing of his people, is implicated by the notion that he is just as entranced by the mountain’s stockpiled riches as Smaug.
The Desolation of Smaug’s strong characterisation is only let down by its secondary antagonist, Azog, an orc chieftain already long dead in the book. For a literary universe where villainy derives from the corruption of good people as much as it does from ancient monsters, the omnipresence of such an uninteresting enemy is disappointing. Constantly chasing the dwarves to little effect, Azog exists only to give a sense of urgency to their quest, despatching yet another wave of easily-bested orcs at the group whenever the momentum sags.
Deep within Tolkien’s exhausting mythopoeia The Silmarillion, the author remarks that the elves of Middle-earth define the passing of their age as starting at the moment of its creation. The concept of something’s end being present within its beginning is a miserably beautiful one, and this melancholic perspective hangs heavily over both Tolkien’s writings and Jackson’s cinematic interpretations. Essentially functioning as Middle-earth travelogues, both trilogies find their protagonists journeying from one exotic location to another, and each new forest, mountain or kingdom is rarely encountered in full bloom. A disease of some description has often taken hold: in The Desolation of Smaug decay is present everywhere from the hallucinatory forest of Mirkwood to the corruptly-governed Lake-town.
Late in the film, the dwarves attempt to insult Smaug by accusing him of being “in his dotage”, but the same holds true for all of Middle-earth. Even when the characters ultimately triumph against evil, their actions are recognised as contributing to the end of the “Færie” age and the start of “the Dominion of Men”. More so than similarly outsized blockbusters or other fantasy adaptations, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are defined by a sense of waning glory, an ever-present autumn.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
By some distance, the best album cover of Bruce Springsteen’s long recording career is the one for his 1982 LP Nebraska. A stark black-and-white photograph taken from the window of a pick-up truck, the image depicts a flat, charnel landscape, divided only by a road that may as well be heading nowhere. As well as being a strong cover in itself, the photograph complements the spare acoustic recordings within–songs dealing with aimlessness and hardship amidst diminished expectations. It’s easy to imagine that if hadn’t already been used by Springsteen, the shot would have been ideal for the poster of Alexander Payne’s latest film, also called Nebraska.
Taking place in large part on the endless roads evoked by that image, the film follows aged, ornery recovering alcoholic Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) as he attempts to claim a million dollar prize promised in a piece of spurious junk mail. First seen lumbering along a stretch of highway trying to walk from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, Woody’s mind has flown off the thread, cast into a perpetual fug. After repeated unsuccessful interventions, his son David (Will Forte)–the definition of long-suffering – agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska himself.
Payne’s greatest strength as a filmmaker is the way he creates empathy for his characters not in spite of their flaws, but because of them. Finding the grace in banal lives, he retains a fundamental compassion for his characters, understanding their circumstances even as he casts a clear-eyed gaze upon their personal failings. His protagonists, all layered studies in d