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?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Five. Portrait by Lauren Maccabee.
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.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Five. Photograph by Toby Coulson.
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.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Four. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
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.
“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.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
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.
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.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Two. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
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.
“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.”
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-One. Photograph by Clare Hewitt.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Five. Photographs by Liz Seabrook.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Four. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
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.
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.
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, Mr. Turner, the film-maker 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?”
Many biopics falter by attempting to cover the entirety of their subject’s life. Your film, in comparison, focuses just on Turner’s final 25 years. Why did you choose to cover that period and not his youth or earlier adulthood?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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”?
What did you think of it?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
“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.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-One. Photographs by Liz Seabrook.
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.
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.
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 film-maker 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 film-maker, 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 finer 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 film-making. 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.
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.
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.
Julie Delpy is highly unusual in the history of cinema. She is best known for the portrayal of two characters that each appear in multiple films over a long period of time. The first is Céline, whom Julie has played for seventeen years. 1995’s Before Sunrise captures Céline with whole life ahead of her. In Before Sunset in 2004, she remains the same engaged and passionate person, but her youthful exuberance has been supplanted by hesitancy and a wariness of human interaction. It’s a melancholic, beautiful transformation, made real by the actual decade that had passed. She has just finished filming a third film about Céline, Before Midnight. Julie has also returned more than once to Marion, the lead in 2 Days in Paris and its 2012 sequel 2 Days in New York, which she also wrote and directed.
The sheer diversity of her professional interests also makes Julie unique among her peers. She has been an actress, director, screenwriter, producer, editor, and singer-songwriter. Forthright, open and very intense, she gives the impression of someone with little interest in being euphemistic, unafraid to say exactly what she thinks. This, too, makes her a rarity.
The “2 Days” films aren’t about you, but do you see them as a snapshot in your own life? Do they capture where you were at a certain point? You know, there’s nothing to do with my life in them. They’re similar in one level, which is that I’m French and I live in the US, but everything else is not. There’s a tiny seed of truth and everything else is fiction. I probably should say Marion is me and it’s autobiographical because it sells, but it would be lying, and I don’t feel like lying today.
Marion has nothing to do with me, as a personality or what she does in her life. She’s funny, you know? I’m not funny. At all. My life is very unfunny. I’m the straightest person on the planet. I never go crazy, I never get angry. I’m not a very emotional person. She’s the opposite. She’s everything I’m not. She’s inspired by a lot of my friends who are in that emotional state, about to have a nervous breakdown. It’s funny that people assume it’s me. That means I’m good.
Does writing a character like that gives you a chance to express things that you don’t normally express? Yes. It’s fun to play someone who does the wrong thing at the wrong time and says the wrong thing to the wrong person, who acts without thinking, who does things that have repercussions in her life without really realising what she’s doing. She’s not aware of how crazy she is. Very normal people are not that funny. Neurotic people are good to watch.
It’s quite rare in cinema to return to a character a few years later What’s the appeal for you? I like studying characters through time. It’s something people don’t do, ever. There’s James Bond, but then they change the guy eventually, and it’s really the same movie over and over. There’s no progression in the character: still the bimbos, still the bad guys. Here we have some progression in emotions and people growing with time. It’s very unusual to do that, I think. It’s almost like an anthropological study.
Céline and Jesse seem different because they’ve aged. How do you make a movie about people in their forties, as opposed to people in their twenties? It’s very interesting. In your forties, you have kids, you have more baggage. I don’t know why people told me when I was a kid that life gets easier. Life doesn’t get easier. It gets more complicated. There’s more baggage, more complications. I think you’re better in your head eventually. I say that, but I’m now thinking of a million people who aren’t. I can’t make generalities about anything anymore because every time I’m proven wrong, every single day. I think people have themselves together and I find out they’re more messed up than anyone else. I don’t know what the fuck happens when you get older. As people age they’re less impulsive, less crazy. Yet they do go crazy sometimes. I’ve learned not to say anything because I know nothing. That’s what I’ve figured out lately. I know absolutely nothing. On relationships, on people, on humanity, on how people behave. People are driven by something and I don’t know what it is. It’s complex. Human beings are complex. What’s for sure is there are endless stories to be told about anyone.
Often there’s a willingness in mainstream cinema to reduce people to types that fit a narrative. They simplify people and make them into cardboard cut-outs. Whereas in fact if you dig a little everyone’s multidimensional and has all sorts of sides to their personality. You don’t know who you’re with, ever. Do you stay away from films that are simplistic? I’m naturally drawn to complex things, even in my comedies. I love some mainstream films, but I think a lot of those romantic comedies don’t work. I have the feeling I’ve seen the same one over and over. I find the women are either too cute or they go to the extreme opposite and they’re too trashy. They don’t have anything in between. In America, it’s either porno or puritanical; a caricature of a woman or a fantasy of a woman.
You’ve just finished filming Before Midnight. Did you feel the pressure of people’s affection for the first films, or were you excited to return to that world? No no no. It’s pressure, a lot of pressure. But it’s the sort that’s exciting. It’s a lot of fun to work with those guys. We’re like a bunch of kids when we’re all together. We play. Our writing sessions are extremely intense, though, and the work is too. It’s really hard because you have to learn twenty-page scenes overnight and be extremely precise in the dialogue. So it’s tough but it’s also a revealing, cathartic experience every time. We dig inside ourselves a lot, we go deep into our emotions and it’s really cool to be able to do that and get paid for it.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Thirteen. Photograph by Iñaki Pardo.
“I was thinking recently about the nationalisation of electricity, and how I grew to love pylons,” says Clio Barnard. Her fondness for transmission towers was stoked whilst writing her latest film, The Selfish Giant, as she discovered the ’Pylon Poets’ of the 1930s. Left-wing and modernist, the Pylon Poets believed that industry and technology could bring a form of emancipation to the common man. “Pylons are incredibly beautiful objects, but it’s more than that,” she explains. “For one brief period, before the railways and other resources were privatised, they belonged to everybody instead of to just a few.”
That time is, of course, long gone, and The Selfish Giant portrays that loss as devastating. Set in contemporary Bradford, the film focuses on Arbor, a troubled, desperately poor thirteen-year-old who scavenges copper to sell to a guileful scrap dealer. Whilst the pylons dotting the landscape serve as a reminder of Bradford’s post-industrial decline, it is Arbor’s heartbreakingly limited circumstances that epitomise The Selfish Giant’s indictment of Thatcherite policies. It was during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, long before Arbor was even born, that state-controlled companies like British Gas, British Airways and British Telecom were privatised, the commitment to providing full employment abandoned, and council houses sold off in their millions.
“Perhaps it’s a bit idealistic and naïve of me, and maybe people stole cable when the railways and electricity were nationalised, but I can’t help but see the effects,” Clio says. “There’s something about being so on the margin where even the idea of having a commute to work is completely meaningless, and so everything’s up for grabs.”
A social-realist drama in the tradition of child-centered classics like Kes and The 400 Blows, The Selfish Giant is one of the year’s most moving films. It is also one of the year’s most political films, but furthers its arguments in a beautifully understated fashion: even though it implies that everything that happens to Arbor is ultimately the result of government directives from decades before, Clio avoids proselytising, leaving the audience to connect the dots for themselves. “It was a conscious decision that the messages in the film would be unspoken. Sometimes I’d worry that it wouldn’t come across, that it needed to be more explicit, but from the responses I’ve had, it seems to have worked. It’s not absolutely down the line, there’s room for interpretation.”
Drawn to Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale The Selfish Giant, Clio wanted to make a fable about greed: “A fable appears to be a very simple story, but when you scratch away it becomes complex. It’s a really difficult thing to do.”
As an artist and a documentary filmmaker, Clio’s desire to create a fairly straightforward story was a departure. The Selfish Giant’s roots can be found in her debut feature, The Arbor, an audacious documentary about the tragic Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. Filmed on the street where the dramatist lived (Brafferton Arbor, with which The Selfish Giant’s protagonist shares his name), the documentary featured actors lip-syncing to recordings of Dunbar’s relatives and neighbours. “The Arbor was quite complicated structurally, and had this formal experimentation, whereas The Selfish Giant is relatively simple,” Clio says, “But if it’s simple, I hope it’s deceptively so.”
Whilst making The Arbor, Clio got to know the children who would hang around the estate as they filmed. “In a way, Wilde’s original story is about the dangers of excluding children. It seemed that a lot of the children I met while making The Arbor were excluded—literally, from school—but also by being pushed to the margins because of an increasing gap between wealth and poverty.” One of the boys she met, Matty, became the inspiration for Arbor. After briefly contemplating making a documentary about him, Clio decided to fictionalise his story instead.
“One of the peculiar things I found was that what was happening to him in real life was more extreme that what we did in the fictional version. A gunman came to his house and Matty managed to hold the door against him, but if you put that within a film it would be kind of clichéd. Sometimes when you’re telling a story you have to cut out the stuff that’s really happening because it’s too familiar on screen.”
Clio instead concentrated on the thriving horse and cart subculture that she had first discovered ten years earlier. “In Bradford it’s almost a craze for teenage boys to go out on a horse and cart collecting scrap,” she explains. “Part of what fascinated me is that there’s a timelessness about it. There’s something that connects back to Victorian England and Dickens.” It was in the re-appropriation of materials that Clio found a surprising postscript to British industry’s deterioration. “It reflects a shift in the global economy. Detroit has a massive scrap metal trade, like Bradford. All of these big post-industrial cities are gathering all of this copper and then it gets sent to China.” By using horses and carts to recycle the detritus of industry, the children are accidentally green in their methods, a practice born out of necessity.
Marginalised but resourceful, Arbor—like his real-life counterpart—is drawn into a difficult working life that a thirteen-year-old shouldn’t have to abide. Clio’s subtle, powerful argument is that the exploitation of the disadvantaged is the logical endpoint of a society that values revenue above people. Ultimately, the film’s selfish giant is not the scrap dealer who profits from the hardships of children, but the libertarian principles that allow him to prosper.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eighteen. Photograph by Carl Bigmore.
Anwar Congo is hanging his friend. Standing on his old killing floor, he pulls the wire tight around the man’s neck, trying to demonstrate the efficient, brutal way he used to do it. The former leader of a death squad that took part in the 1965-66 genocide in North Indonesia, Anwar estimates that he personally killed as many as a thousand men, women and children. Now an elderly man with a sad, kindly smile and plagued by nightmares he can’t quite douse with alcohol or drugs, he is the subject of Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary new documentary The Act of Killing, in which Anwar recreates his crimes against humanity in the form of the gangster movies, westerns and musicals he grew up loving.
Later in the film he returns again to the killing floor, situated on the roof of a shop that today sells knock-off designer handbags. Where earlier he was laughing, joking and doing the cha-cha-cha, now he looks stricken. Overwhelmed by the enormity of what he did, Anwar stumbles to the edge of the floor and promptly throws up, making a retching noise that would surely be familiar to him: it sounds like someone dying.
Joshua hadn’t intended to direct a film about mass murder. Sent to North Sumatra to produce a documentary about a community struggling to organise a union, he lived amongst plantation workers whose families had survived the genocide. “Their parents and grandparents had been accused of being Communist sympathisers, although they weren’t necessarily—they were just in a workers’ union,” Joshua says. “They were put in concentration camps and sent out to be killed.” Despite the passage of half a century and the recent end of the dictatorship, the survivors’ families were still under constant surveillance from the military. This was not only their main obstacle in organising the union, but also hampered Joshua’s efforts to film them. “As we started focusing on the genocide, we fell under their suspicion and the military police would stop us. It was frightening for everybody.”
It was around this time that Joshua interviewed his first perpetrator, who immediately started bragging about all the people he’d killed. “I realised this was an extraordinary situation. The perpetrator wasn’t a psychopath. He was boastful because he was in power and no one had ever forced him to admit that what he did was wrong. It was like if the Nazis had won.” He recognised the potency of speaking to the murderers rather than their victims, as well as the shocking ease of doing so.
Joshua redirected his efforts. “I filmed every perpetrator I could find, asking, ’Who else do you know? Are there any other members of your death squad still alive? How about the commanders?’ Within minutes of meeting them, they were all offering to take me to where they had killed, to show me how they’d done it. I worked my way across the region, realising that these men were talking about how tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people had been killed in this one area. And no one had ever documented it before.”
He understood by then how the killings had occurred, but Joshua wanted to grasp the nature of the boasting. “Why were they doing it? How did they want me to see them? How did they really see themselves?” To learn more, he started encouraging the perpetrators to take part in simple re-enactments of their killings. “I was saying, ’Look, you want to show me? You’ve participated in one of the biggest killings in history. Your whole society is based on it. If you’re so keen to tell me what you’ve done, go ahead and show me.”
Anwar was the 41st mass murderer that Joshua interviewed. “I lingered on him because of his pain and his trauma,” he says. “Anwar’s sense that what he did was wrong was not just there under the surface whilst he was boasting, it was motivating it. He was this outrageous allegory for impunity, but his attitude was this rather desperate, defensive effort to convince himself that what he did was okay.”
Joshua continued to film for another half a decade with Anwar, travelling to Indonesia for three or four months at a time. “I would come back with an enormous amount of footage. If it were the days of celluloid it would have taken up an aeroplane hanger.” The basic reenactments were replaced by more and more elaborate genre parodies, spurred on by Anwar’s dissatisfaction with the results. “When I would screen the footage back to him, he saw that there was something wrong with the picture. But he wouldn’t dare say what it was: that the whole thing was rotten.”
Joshua speaks in perfectly-constructed miniature essays, as you’d expect from a widely-published academic, but it becomes obvious that his emotional investment in the film is as deep as his intellectual engagement with its meaning. When re ecting upon his complex relationship with Anwar, he becomes uncharacteristically emotional. “Not for one second did I forget my moral judgement of what he did, of course, but the demand that I placed on myself is that I would always treat these people as human beings and let myself become as close as they would let me,” he says. “The thing about Anwar is, not only is he charming, but he’s nice. He was the most caring person on the set. When you become close to someone you let down your guard and you let them in, so when they show you something horrible it’s really painful. You’re vulnerable in a di erent way. To go with him on that journey into the horror of what he did—intimately, and not to inch—that was hard, and really painful. I had nightmares throughout the process.”
The film purposefully mirrors Joshua’s ambivalence towards his subjects, walking, as he describes it, a tightrope between repulsion and sympathy. There are parts of The Act of Killing that are among the most harrowing footage you’re likely to see in a documentary. Yet it can be riotously funny as well. Throughout the film, Joshua uses comedy and Anwar’s affability to disarm the viewer. He describes a scene where Anwar and his co-stars try on different hats whilst making one of the re-enactments: “It’s very funny and lovely and they’re open and we like them in that moment. We warm to them as human beings and then in the next scene they do something horrible, violent, cruel.
“Normally in film you prepare the viewer by giving cues, but I tried to do the opposite. We enter the most terrible moments in the film with them, arm in arm, so we can see how it is that we human beings do these things to each other. What the film demands is that the viewer put themselves in Anwar’s shoes. If they identify even a small part of themselves for one moment, the whole edifice whereby we divide the world into good guys and bad guys collapses.”
As traumatic as The Act of Killing can be to watch, it’s nearly impossible to look away from. The film is so dense with powerful, unforgettable moments, sometimes nightmarish, sometimes funny, that it’s unsurprising to learn how many thousands of hours of footage it’s been distilled from. Beyond its striking imagery, however, there’s something utterly transfixing about the perpetrators’ apparent nonchalance towards the crimes, their brazenness inspiring a mixture of horror and fascination. It’s hard to believe that such evil could not only be unpunished but rewarded.
Due to the continued presence of the genocide’s perpetrators within Indonesian society, honest discussion of the killings has always been taboo, but after screening over 500 times in 95 cities, The Act of Killing’s release has triggered open national debate on the subject at last. A notunexpected side effect is that the killers don’t boast about their crimes any more, but Joshua thinks their newfound reticence is less to do with personal reflection than the result of fear of public reaction, whilst privately they hold on to the excuses they’ve employed for almost half a century. “If you or I had killed and had the opportunity to justify what we’d done, I’m quite sure we would, because otherwise you have to wake up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror and see a murderer,” Joshua says. “The irony is that the justification of genocide is not a symptom of the lack of remorse or humanity, it’s the opposite. It’s the sign of the fact that it shows that they know it’s wrong. That’s why they’re so stridently denying it. ”
The Act of Killing is a shocking exploration of how great wrongs can be tolerated by an entire society, but what’s most powerful about the film is its depiction of the devastating moral toll genocide takes upon its perpetrators themselves, and how that unexpressed guilt can be exploited to do further harm. “So, you’ve killed,” Joshua elaborates, “and then the government gives you an excuse in the form of anti-Communist propaganda to justify what you’ve done as something heroic. And you cling to that excuse for dear life.
“The tragedy is that once you’ve corrupted yourself by killing one person and justifying it that way, when the regime asks you to kill others for the same reason you have to, because if you don’t it’s tantamount to admitting that it was wrong the first time. It demands more and more and more evil, including oppressing your victims so they keep quiet and don’t challenge your version of events. The film shows that the very people who would be enjoying the fruits of their victory if they were genuine heroes are in fact somehow destroyed by what they’ve done.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eighteen. Photograph by Andy Lo Pò.
The phone rings off and on again. Outside Clare Stewart’s office, the BFI Southbank is thrumming with activity. With the London Film Festival and its 230 films steadily approaching, the commotion is understandable. As the festival’s director, Clare spends much of the autumn as the city’s busiest person; her life, she explains, is currently broken up into fifteen-minute intervals. Technically, the two she spends with me are her lunch break, but an ill-attended soup is the only real evidence of the fact.
Clare speaks with an intensity that’s almost overpowering, but one gets the impression that her keenness doesn’t spring from impatience or from the perpetually ringing telephone. Coiled and fervent on the sofa, she brims with manifest eagerness to talk about her ardor for film programming, soup be damned.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
Negotiating 230 films into the festival is a huge undertaking, but I love it. The exchange that goes on between the sales agents, the distributors, the filmmakers themselves. There are all sorts of considerations: will the film come into the festival, what position will we give it, where will it screen? There’s a great deal of responsibility but it’s also an exhilarating moment when you realise you’re introducing that film to a UK audience for the first time. The lights go down and you can feel this palpable sense of excitement, because the audience are seeing this film for the first time. I always get such a sense of professional satisfaction in that moment because of how much effort has gone into getting that work on that screen, but it all appears easy and effortless.
How were you first drawn to film programming?
I studied both production and film theory, and I couldn’t reconcile the two. I decided that I needed to see more films so I started volunteering for my local cinémathèque. I discovered that what I loved was connecting films with audiences. It reconciles the two because you’re thinking about the film critically in the way you might if you were working in an academic context, but you’re also thinking about what’s gone into the production and how you bring those two things together to engage an audience. It started as a bit of a compromise, but I stumbled into what I feel I have a real skill for.
You used to be the director of the Sydney Film Festival. I wonder how much your choices relate to the city itself. What challenges are specific to London?
London has a long heritage of film culture being really loved and protected and admired and looked after. We have a very loyal audience base, but that also meant that we have to think about, well, how do you expand the festival? How do you open it up for new audiences and make it feel accessible for someone who may find 230 films a daunting proposition if they’ve never been to a film festival before? London has many cultural hubs, not just one. While its moviegoing heartland is in Leicester Square and at the BFI, we understood the value in expanding out to venues in other boroughs.
How do you balance commercial instincts against the impulse to show more challenging works?
The whole process of programming is about the mix. You’re looking at it from all sorts of angles: some films have great integrity as works of cinema, some are popular and open the festival up to a wider audience, some are very hardcore experimental works, and there’s also everything on the scale in between. You look at that full spectrum to try and create a perfect mix on just about every matrix that you can, so there’s everything from very low budget independent works with great vision through to something that’s technically immaculate and intensive and grand scale.
Do you like going to other film festivals, or does it always feel like you’re at work?
I love the differences between festivals. For people who don’t travel to different festivals around the world, there’s a sense they’re all the same, but each one has a unique way of doing things and engaging their audience and the industry. Of course, when you’re seeing your first film at eight in the morning and then four or five more, meeting with sales agents in between, then you’re off to the reception circuit in the evening and crawling to bed past midnight and getting up and doing it all again, that can certainly feel like work. But I love the atmosphere of a film festival. I thrive on it.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eighteen. Photograph by Mathieu Ravier.
“We have a connection!” Josie Long says to the stranger on the bench. She gestures to their mutual friend: the books they’re reading, written by the same author. Nearly digging his face into the pages, the man pretends that she doesn’t exist.
The first of two short films written by and starring the comedian, Let’s Go Swimming follows its heroine as she moves to “indie theme park” Glasgow to make a new life after a soured relationship. The moment on the bench, which comes early in the film, is played for laughs but is as revealing as it is quietly heartbreaking. Lost and lonely, the protagonist finds herself in a world indifferent to what she’s trying to put into it. Whilst not quite autobiographical, Josie’s character shares her sincere desire to connect with other people, even if they rarely seem to reciprocate with the same warm enthusiasm.
At a time when most short films struggle to find non-online distribution outlets, Josie has taken the novel approach of embarking on a tour of U.K. cinemas with director Doug King to present the films directly to audiences. Battling the afternoon traffic whilst en-route to another screening, we spoke with Josie about her move into filmmaking.
What made you decide to take the films on the road?
I guess it just didn’t seem as fun to put them on the internet. We wanted to get actual responses from actual people. We also loved the idea of screening them in cinemas. Mostly with short films, if you’re incredibly lucky you might be able to get them on mainstream television, but probably you’re trying to enter them into festivals and that’s it. We are entering the films into festivals too, but we wanted them to have more of a life.
What sort of responses have you had from the audiences so far?
It’s been great–better than I’d hoped, actually. We’ve been delighted. I’m used to being on stage and you’re kind of in it. You can’t really assess anything as it’s going on, but when we’re sitting at the back and watching people watch the film, seeing them laughing in the right places and feeling the atmosphere in the room, it’s incredibly thrilling.
Is it strange for you to be on tour but not have to perform a full stand-up set?
Yeah, it’s really odd. Doing a stand-up tour is exhausting. When I perform, I tend to do twenty minutes in the first half before my support act and then 90 minutes in the second half, so I’m fucked at the end of it. With this I’m doing a little bit of stand-up in between the films, an intro at the start and a Q+A, but I’m only on stage for a total of about 40 minutes. And for half of that I’m not even the only one on the stage! It’s amazing because it’s so easygoing. It feels like cheating.
What made you decide to make two short films rather than fold the material into your stand-up?
The films are kind of sad comedies about people’s personal lives and it really didn’t fit in with the stand-up I’ve been doing recently–although some of the stand-up is personal, a lot of it is about other things. I wanted to do something that was more collaborative, and I met Doug and found we were on the same wavelength.
Also, while I’m never going to stop wanting to do stand-up–I love it and it’s a huge part of my life–I got frustrated with how ephemeral it is. You put everything into these shows and then when you record them it never quite captures what it was. I wanted to work in a medium that was a little more permanent and durable.
You’ve spent your career developing your comedic voice. Was it difficult to write scripts which contain other sorts of voices?
That was something that made me really grateful to have Doug there to collaborate with, especially on Romance and Adventure, the second film, because he gave me lot of advice about making the characters more distinct and real. It’s been a challenge. I’m currently writing a feature that we’re making next year, and it’s new for me to properly try to develop characters that are full and not just little ciphers for my stand-up.
I feel proud of my stand-up because I try my hardest to make the shows as textured as possible. My last one was about personal things but also about politics, my age, where I was in my life, and all sorts of really silly stuff. I like that you can have several threads in a stand-up show, and I’m trying to accomplish the same in my writing: to make something about all aspects of a person’s life, not just one specific element.
Do you think there’s something gained by screening the two films together?
I really do. I’m so glad that we can show them together, because I like to imagine that the second film is a continuation of the first one. There’s an 18-month gap between them and they almost feature the same characters–not totally but with enough artistic license to get by. And they were shot in the same locations and with the same actors and crew, so I feel they complement each other well. Even the stand-up I do in between is stuff that I wrote at the same time, so it’s all quite coherent.
What do you think you learned from Let’s Go Adventure that helped you to make Romance and Adventure?
The first film was all about Doug and me working out how we worked together, what our style was, finding a crew. By the second one it I felt like I’d come on so much and knew so much more, even just in terms of my performance. I’ve done bits and bobs for television and stuff but I’ve never really been so deeply involved in something like this. Also, it’s interesting for me because my personal life moved on quite a lot. Let’s Go Swimming did reflect that I felt really lost and confused at the time, but in writing the film and making all those friends whilst shooting it, things did get better. Romance and Adventure reflects that, I think. It shows how eager we were to make another film, how excited we were by the whole process.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
The inspiration for Sean Ellis’ newest film came whilst he was on holiday in Manila. As the writer/director watched two armoured truck drivers having an argument, he began to think about the circumstances that led them to that point. That germ of an idea became Metro Manila, just announced as Britain’s submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. Starting as a moving portrait of an impoverished rice farmer and his wife, the film shifts gears mid-way through to become a tense crime drama. We spoke to Sean about the film.
Metro Manila is entirely in Tagalog. You don’t speak the language, so how did you create the film? Well, the script was in English. There was talk of doing a translation but I felt that if someone translated the script then it was another interpretation of what I’d done. It’d be like having another author. Then in the casting sessions it became apparent that it was easy for the actors to speak about their lines in English and translate them into Tagalog in a way that they felt the characters would say. It slowed us down a little bit because they had to learn the lines in English and then translate them, and then there was discussion between the two main actors about the intonation of what was being said and how.
How did that process affect how you directed the actors? I think when you write a script you’ve got an idea of where everyone is emotionally. You’re there for the actors in that respect if they’re wondering how should they play a scene, whether the character is upset or angry. So once the translation had been done it was just dealing with acting. The great thing about acting is that most of it is non-verbal, so I could sit there and watch them speak Tagalog and know whether it was a performance I believed in or not.
The performances are very naturalistic. I really tried for that. I don’t think they were used to the sorts of silences that I was asking for, because in the Filipino school of acting they make a massive amount of stuff for TV. I kept saying things like, “That’s great but slow it way down. Make it more difficult for you to say, as if you’re searching for those words”. They would then do that for what they felt was a long time and then we’d look at it and maybe even say let’s do it more and see how far we could take it. It just felt right for the material. What this family has to go through is an emotional and difficult journey. I felt like some of those silences would say more than what their words could.
The crime elements in the film aren’t introduced until quite late on, about an hour in. Was that a conscious decision? In some respects it’s a cross-genre film. It starts off as a world cinema drama and moves slowly into a heist movie, and I thought that was an interesting combination because I love world cinema but at the same time I do like more commercial fare as well. I always said that it was a very commercial story in disguise. I feel like one thing compliments the other–it serves to reinforce the characters and the empathy you have for them so by the time the crime stuff kick in you’re going through that gauntlet with them.
Before film-making you had a long career as a photographer. Is that why you chose to be your own cinematographer on the film? Obviously I’ve got a photographic background so I’d like to think that visually I know what I’m talking about to a certain extent, but in many respects it was a budget call as much as a creative one. Being my own cinematographer had a massive impact: it enabled us to not have to buy five flights to Manila and put five people up in hotels for three months. When you’re talking about the budget that we made the picture for, that sort of thing makes a huge difference.
I suppose that by shooting it yourself it gives the film a lot of fluidity. There’s an emphasis on handheld shots. It looks almost like a documentary. I felt that style of film-making would help the audience to relate to the family, because you’re right there with them. Also, I wanted the story to be first and foremost. I think that the more that visuals lead storytelling, the more the audience falls off. So if there are any visual flourishes in the film it’s to back the story, to reinforce it. There are probably two big visual moments in the film, but they’re earned.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Noah Baumbach is an expert in disappointment. One of cinema’s most incisive voices on the subject of diminishing expectations, almost all of the writer-director’s wayward protagonists struggle with their station in life. From Jeff Daniels’ frustrated writer in The Squid and The Whale to Ben Stiller’s bitter musician in Greenberg, his characters make excuses for why they haven’t achieved what they wanted to, expressing their discontent through deluded self-regard or sourness.
“It’s probably true everywhere, but success feels like such a particularly American marker,” Noah explains. “I’ve always been fascinated by how individuals define it for themselves. I think people write stories in their head that become impossible to live up to.”
Despite his own successes over the last decade—as well as his own films, Noah co-wrote two of Wes Anderson’s best pictures—his continued interest in dissatisfied characters can be partly traced back to what he calls his first career. Rejected from film school, Noah decided to go ahead and make a film anyway, writing and directing the comedy drama Kicking and Screaming. Its critical success established him as part of the great 1990s wave of American independent filmmakers, but after the underwhelming response to his sophomore effort Mr. Jealousy, the phone very suddenly stopped ringing.
The film that Noah spent the better part of a decade trying to get made—the semi-autobiographical bildungsroman The Squid and The Whale—reignited his career and found him nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, but he continued to be drawn to characters unable to make peace with their ambitions. Noah’s earlier struggles only added to the empathy he has for his characters’ circumstances. “When I wrote Greenberg, I was thinking about what would have happened if I hadn’t made The Squid and The Whale, if I had turned inward and become more frustrated, more rigid, less willing to live life as it was as opposed to how I wanted it to be. That film was the worst-case scenario of my life.”
At first glance, Noah’s latest offering appears to be little different. Starring co-writer Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is about a 27-year-old dancer struggling to find work in New York, making constant changes to her life and yet never seeming to make any progress. Bright, relatively privileged and unable to find a career footing, Frances’ plight is common to an entire generation, but her chronic inability to be honest with herself will be recognisable to anyone familiar with Noah’s work.
The film garners comic mileage out of Frances’ many wince-inducing tribulations, from having to dash out of a date to withdraw money from a cash machine, to enduring a mortifying dinner party with people far more settled than she is. Despite Noah’s customary clear-eyed depiction of the character, however, something is different: even as her situation becomes increasingly dire, there’s an admiration for Frances’ tenacity and spirit that soaks into every scene. The film plays out like a love letter.
Noah’s real-life relationship with Greta Gerwig is certainly a factor: made in the first flourish of their time together, Frances Ha is defined by an indefatigable optimism that is the mark of early romance, and for all the character’s foibles, she’s imbued with a grace that is unmistakably Greta’s. More than that, though, the film shows how Frances’ cheerful resolve leads her to a place where she can find contentment in her changing circumstances, even if they’re different from what she hoped for.
The realisation is its own sort of triumph: unencumbered by the resentments that blight Noah’s other characters, Frances is ultimately free to accept and enjoy her life rather than worrying about what she has yet to accomplish. “I was very clear early on that I wanted to give her a satisfying victory,” he says, “a victory that should feel true to the story and the character and the anthropology of the world, but a victory nonetheless.”
Far from his early work, made when he was the age of his latest title character, Noah is also comfortable with where he is. “The movies I’ve made in this ‘second career’ represent me as the filmmaker I am each time I make them. Whatever security I might feel or not feel as a filmmaker is in line with whatever security I feel as a human being. 43 feels more secure than I was at 27.”
The key to his hard-won self-assurance, Noah feels, was the decade he spent struggling: “Just trying to get a movie funded was impossible, but retrospectively that time was also me figuring myself out a little bit and working out how I wanted to write and make movies.”
The conclusion of Frances Ha finds its protagonist at a similar juncture, one that is hopeful yet inconclusive, right down to its title-explaining final shot. “My other films landed somewhere in the middle, but this time it felt that the right ending and the most satisfying one was actually an ending of incompleteness. It’s about an acceptance of that incompleteness,” Noah says. “At 27 you’re never going to feel complete. But that’s okay: if you did, you’d be insufferable.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seventeen.
Kier-La Janisse had a plan. A Medieval Studies PhD student living in Vancouver, she hoped to spend her life translating Latin texts. Then an acquaintance decided to create a neighbourhood zine and invited the members of her close-knit community to participate. “I really didn’t want to get involved,” Kier-La explains. “But by the next Thursday when we were supposed to hand in our work, I was the only person that actually came with something. After two issues I thought, ‘If I’m going to be the only one who cares about this, then I’m going to just make it about what I like. Forget all this neighbourhood poetry. Let’s make it about horror movies.’”
In the sixteen years that have passed since she changed the zine’s name to Cannibal Culture (later CineMuerte), Kier-La has become a leading author on the genre and a prolific film programmer, curating film festivals across North America. Horror films were her gateway to a broader interest in cinema, but she has retained her love for ‘trash‘ films, an inclusive genre encompassing countercultural cinema, exploitation films, and the kind of cult movies can only be seen on old, pink prints. “Their damage is part of the charm,” she notes.
Like her initial foray into publishing, many of the steps on Kier-La’s journey were unintended: a one-off horror movie workshop grew into a non-profit, community-based film curriculum that continues to this day, while her first festival arose out of a booking misunderstanding with a local cinema. “They thought I was running a horror film festival, so I decided, why not create one?”
Meeting Kier-La, it’s easy to see how festivals, magazines and organisations keep forming around her. Aside from her steely resolve, her zeal for films that most people dismiss is infectious. She doesn’t just talk about movies, she evangelises about them. You come away from her presence with a burning desire to find the nearest film retailer, and a shopping list to get you started.
Alongside championing the orphans of cult cinema, Kier-La’s work allows her to study the genre from a different critical perspective.
Often ghettoised for their violent content and dark excesses, Kier-La argues that horror and exploitation films are self-reflexive in a way that’s ignored by the wider critical community. “Academics don’t give horror fans the credit for knowing as much as they do or being as critical as they are,” she says. “You see these books of academic criticism come out, and we’ve already been putting these ideas together for years. I think it’s funny when academics say, ‘Oh, I’ve discovered this self-reflexivity in horror!’ It’s always been there, but whatever.”
Her most recent book, House of Psychotic Women, is a good example of her approach. Examining cinema’s persistent fascination with women driven to madness by obsession, paranoia and hysteria, Kier-La discusses respectable films like Black Swan and Antichrist alongside more left-field examples, from barely-released exploitation curios to gory rape revenge films.
Exploring the surprisingly pervasive trope of cinematic female neurosis through anecdotal and personal writing, Kier-La contrasts the experiences of the films’ characters with herself and the other women in her life. Intimately and often painfully, she details how her own complicated upbringing led to a strange sort of affinity with the tortured female protagonists of her favourite films.
In Kier-La’s estimation, writing about film in an autobiographical way allows her to explain horror’s appeal to those outside the community, especially considering its delicate relationship with gender issues. “I think the fact that I’m able to explain why I respond to these movies helps answer a lot of questions for people who might not understand what a woman would get out of horror films. Lots of people think of horror films as these single-faceted, misogynistic genre exercises. But even the ones that are that way—the one that are totally shallow and misogynistic—I tend to enjoy them too, just on another level. When I watch a film, I almost always look for discomfort.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seventeen. Photograph by Tess Roby.
A bawdy, relentlessly funny film with strong female leads, The Heat often calls to mind Bridesmaids, with which it shares not only its co-star (Melissa McCarthy) and director (Paul Feig), but a similar go-for-broke comedic style. The first film from screenwriter Katie Dippold (previously a writer and co-producer for superlative U.S. sitcom Parks and Recreation), The Heat eschews weddings for an affectionate riff on the 80s buddy cop movies that she grew up loving. Taking a break from working on the screenplay to its sequel, Katie chatted with us about the making of the film.
Apparently the word ‘Fuck’ is said in The Heat over 170 times. Is that something you feel strangely proud of?
I do, actually. I know some people would say that bad language cheapens things, but I just feel strongly that Melissa McCarthy’s character would swear all the time. So there are probably about 90 fucks in the script, and then Melissa added a bunch more and then Paul added even more on top of that. It was a real fuck spiral.
Did you have Melissa McCarthy in mind from the start?
I tried very hard not to get my heart set on anyone in particular when I was writing it because you just never know how it’s going to go – for all I knew they could have cast two men. But there were scenes I would write where Melissa would pop in my mind and I knew she’d be hilarious in them, because in Bridesmaids she was the funniest thing ever. I got very lucky that Melissa and Sandra Bullock wanted to do it. They’d wanted to make something together anyway so the timing was really fortunate.
The film was turned around very quickly, in about 20 months. What was that like?
Everything happened so fast that I didn’t get that much time to be excited about it, with rewrites and pre-production. The script was sold in late March, I sat down to meet with Paul Feig in late April, in May I was meeting with the actresses and getting their notes, we were in pre-production in early June and then we started shooting in July. It was crazy. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life.
Did you write it while working on Parks and Recreation?
I would work on the film at night and on weekends. It was hard because we were in the middle of shooting episodes so it was probably our busiest time. But I was writing it on spec, so my big fear was that I’d be halfway through and then see on a website that someone else was doing a female buddy cop movie. The more I’d work on it the more it motivated me to finish, because I didn’t want all that effort to be done for nothing.
Was it challenging to go from a writers’ room to doing something where it’s just you?
It’s different – with Parks and Rec you’re in this room full of hilarious people, and when you’re off on a script for a movie you’re kind of isolated, so it was a definitely a big transition.
I missed sitting there and hearing a bunch of funny people talk. It was always my dream to be in a writers’ room; when I first got to Parks and Rec I was blown away that there were all these writers from my favourite shows, like The Simpsons and Kids in the Hall, so it was really fun to be around a room of people spitting out jokes. It was a blast. Luckily when we were in production and doing the rewrites I at least had Paul Feig to talk to, who’s just incredibly smart and funny.
It’s so rare to see an action comedy starring two women. Were you very aware of that when you were writing it?
Definitely. That was sort of the whole thing, because I always loved buddy cop movies when I was young – they were so funny and badass and the cops would take down a drug lord but there’d be great banter back and forth. I always wanted to do that. I didn’t want to just date them, I wanted to do that job, you know? I actually wanted to be in the FBI growing up. This was wish fulfillment for me. So I wrote it thinking that other females would hopefully feel the same way.
What’s most refreshing is how hyper competent the characters are and how focused they are on their jobs – romance doesn’t even really come in to the film.
That was really important to me, for two reasons. It was important to me that they be great at their jobs, and the film not being about them struggling and being held back by men. I wanted them to be competent and tough. I wanted them to have some severe personality flaws that were holding back their lives, but I wanted their jobs to be the one thing that they were really great at.
And then with the romance stuff, it just feels like so many movies are about the woman finding a husband, or will she get this boyfriend, and she’s talking to her friends about this guy and they’re giving advice. That’s all well and good and I hope for everyone to have a romantic interest in life, but I just wanted it to not be the focus for a woman for this one thing.
Growing up, so much emphasis for girls is about getting a boyfriend. There are so many movies about male camaraderie and male bonding and there are not as many for females, especially big comedies. I just felt like it would be good for young females if there were more movies that explored camaraderie and that kind of friendship.
If girls grow up thinking that they have to get a husband or boyfriend because that’s the only thing that apparently matters when they watch movies, I think they’re just going to be competitive and meaner to each other.
Finally, is it true that you wrote and starred in a one woman murder mystery?
Yes! It was ridiculous. I basically wrote the most impossible, physically taxing show in the world. Every time I would do it I would be so exhausted and want to die throughout – just lay down on stage and die. But I feel like part of the fun was seeing me struggle. I’m really not good at doing characters either. It’s hard for me to get my voice to alter from my natural state, so of course I wrote a show where there were six different characters accusing each other of murder. One would accuse someone and then I’d take the costume off on stage, quickly run over to a chair and put on a different costume and say “How dare you!” There was a lot of stuff like: one character would throw a drink in another character’s face and then I’d run back and throw a drink in my own face.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
The second collaboration between filmmaker Drake Doremus and actress Felicity Jones, Breathe In is about a homesick foreign exchange student who moves in with an American family and finds herself getting too close to music teacher Keith (Guy Pearce). As with Felicity and Drake’s first film together – 2011’s Sundance-winning Like Crazy – Breathe In is entirely improvised, its naturalistic tone helping it avoid the clutches of melodrama.
Despite being only 29, Felicity is a veteran in the industry, having acted for almost two decades. Ahead of Breathe In’s release today, we chatted to her about the film and her long career in acting.
You’ve been an actress since you were a child. Has the way you approach it changed?
It’s changed constantly. When you’re acting as a child you don’t really know what you’re doing, you just sort of have an instinct. It was something I enjoyed doing and it came quite naturally, but in a way when you become an adult you have to forget that you ever acted before. You want to find a new way of working – as a child actor you’re just being told what to do, and then when you’re an adult you realise that the best actors don’t wait for instruction. If someone comes up with a better idea you’ll take it, but first you must have a strong idea of how you want to play something.
Did that happen naturally or was a certain production where you felt that you’d reached a new stage?
Well, I went to University for three years and that provided a natural break. I was doing the Archers on the radio throughout that, but in terms of filmmaking or television I wasn’t really appearing in anything. I suppose I grew up when I was at University and then when I finished I wanted to get back into acting. It felt like I was starting over again as an adult.
How do you keep it interesting for yourself when you’ve been acting for so long?
I think the key is making sure that you are being challenged, that you feel nervous. As soon as you don’t feel that way then you’re probably going to be doing something you’ve done before. You need to be pushed and that’s when you’re going to produce interesting work. I think people become complacent when they feel like they’re doing the same thing over and over again.
Is that why improvisation appeals to you? Do you find liberating, or is it scary?
Oh, I love it. It’s the opposite of scary. I feel like it’s such a good approach to take to other scripts, too. You’ve got to make sure that you’re not just saying the lines for the sake of saying them. It’s why I love working with Drake. We don’t give up until we get to the truth of something. We’re definitely very argumentative and we’ll fall out, but it’s all for the same end so it’s never lasting. It’s so collaborative and we both just want the best for the story.
Does ambition factor into the parts you choose? Do you ever think you should do a certain type of role in order to get another one?
For me, choosing roles is more about having an instinct towards the character, the story or the director. You’re looking for an affinity with something or for a script to captivate you in some way, because you have no control over how these things turn out. As an actor you’re just one element in the whole thing. You make things that strike you at that time and then the rest is up to the gods. I think that’s why it’s best not to watch your own work.
It must be so easy to be disappointed.
It is, and that’s why you have to know why you did something. As long as you had a gut reaction to something and you felt it was going to interest you then you don’t get too disheartened when a project turns out differently to how you thought it would.
A lot of it depends on where you are in your life at that time. If I’ve been doing a lot of very serious dramas about relationships, say, then I find I want to do something else. I just went and worked on the new Spider-Man film and I wanted to do that because it was a new sort of challenge and not like anything I’d ever done before.
Spider-Man couldn’t be further from Breathe In really, could it?
Exactly! And that’s what’s great about being an actor. It’s always in flux, and you have the freedom to try different things. You’re not ultimately defining the product; you’re part of it but not the person that controls the edits, so you can flirt with different worlds. I think you have to give yourself up to the flux.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Aneurin Barnard is having a busy summer: as well as appearing as Richard III in BBC’s historical drama The White Queen, the Ogwr-born actor has a supporting role in Iain Softley’s amnesia thriller Trap for Cinderella and stars in Citadel, an intense horror film in which he plays an agoraphobic single father who has to confront the strange gang who killed his wife.
Speaking to us from Dublin – where he is shooting forthcoming miniseries Moonfleet opposite director Ray Winstone – Aneurin spoke to us about his many projects.
It must be strange for you to have three lots of things coming out at once?
Yeah, I never get my head around it really: you spend three years working on stuff and then they all decide to appear at the same time. It’s the way the business works, I suppose. I really like that it gives people a chance to see me playing different roles in different genres, though, hopefully in a convincing way.
Was Citadel difficult to film? It seems like it must have been a nightmare to stay at that level of panic all the time.
I’m a bit method sometimes if I need to be, and to stay in that tense place for the whole shoot was wearing and tiresome, but I enjoy exploring sides to me that I don’t necessarily touch upon in my normal life.
There’s one scene where you basically beat up a cupboard. Did that hurt? You’re really going for it.
Well, it wasn’t a fake cupboard or anything like that – I’m a big believer in doing things for real. That moment wasn’t scripted, it was just the reaction that came out of me. You don’t really think about it hurting at the time, you’re just concentrating on trying to make it truthful. I was trying to show the desperation and frustration of this young man. With the role I was living in the present because there was no other way of acting it. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Do you prefer being part of an ensemble, like Trap for Cinderella, or something like Citadel, where you’re in every scene?
I like being a part of an ensemble but if I had to choose I’d rather have all the weight on my shoulders. I enjoy being in a place where I have to do my job to the fullest of my capabilities – I can’t be lazy and have to be on top of everything. It brings out my best side, really. I’m happiest when I’m working hard. I think it’s a mentality I have from my parents. I love to be the first person in the door and the last one out.
You grew up in Wales. Do you prefer to use your natural accent? When you go for a role does that come into your mind at all?
It depends on the job itself and the character really. When I was playing David Bailey in We’ll Take Manhattan, for example, I was playing someone from South-East London, so I couldn’t really show up with my own Taffy voice. I don’t really have a preference, though: I like speaking the way I do but I’m also interested in how a voice can define a character.
When I was playing Richard III I changed my voice from the beginning of the series to the end – my pitch changes as the character gets older. From a technical point of view that’s what I enjoy.
Richard III in The White Queen is very different from the Shakespearean version. Did the comparison enter into how you portrayed him?
Absolutely. I wanted to go in the opposite direction, to play the historical Richard III rather than the Shakespearean great, bastardised version. Shakespeare wrote for the Tudor Household, which was the other side in essence, so they manipulated Richard in a way that wasn’t true to the man himself. Richard wasn’t as bad as everyone made him out to be – he was a man put in a very difficult position and was actually a great, loyal leader. It was important for me to try to portray him the way I thought he would have been. There are differences in The White Queen too, of course, to make it more exciting for the audience, but history tells us that he isn’t this hunchbacked demon that betrays everyone.
You’ve got a background in singing – you won an Olivier Award for the musical Spring Awakening and sang in the film Hunky Dory – do you wish you could do more of it?
For me it’s about the work, and what I think will stretch me and give me a chance to do something different. If that’s singing then great, but you won’t get an album out of me or anything like that, even though I write music and I still play for myself. It’s just another tool you have as an actor. If I’m performing in a role that requires me to sing then I can bring that to the table and enjoy it, because I really love doing it, but I’m an actor first and foremost.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Audrey Tautou was 24 when she became one of the most famous actresses in the world. Cast as the eponymous Parisian waitress in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, she found herself in the daunting position of becoming an instant cultural icon. “In the beginning it wasn’t something that pleased me,” she says. “I thought, ‘This doesn’t look like me.’”
In person, Audrey speaks slowly and carefully—English is not her first language. At times she appears frustrated at her inability to articulate what she wants to convey, but her body is wholly expressive: rolling her eyes, scrunching up her face, raising her slim shoulders towards her ears. A dozen years after Amélie, what’s most remarkable about her is how sane she appears. Such a stratospheric rise at a relatively young age is a recipe for vainglory, but Audrey remains carefully grounded.
As the face of Chanel and an actress who continues to give acclaimed performances, Audrey is still one of France’s most recognisable movie stars. However, aside from co-starring in The Da Vinci Code in 2006, she has purposefully avoided pursuing roles that would bring her to a wider audience. “The thing is that I don’t want to become more popular,” she says. “For me it’s something that’s very scary. I don’t want to live a parallel life, so it’s very important that I make choices that will lead me on this road, and not the superstar road.”
Based on The Da Vinci Code, Audrey can imagine how her career could have progressed, and the sort of relentless commitment it would demand. “If I do three movies in a year, I lose all my friends. My parents don’t recognise me. I just disappear from my life.” Instead, notoriously judicious, it’s rare to see Audrey act in more than one picture per year.
Having glimpsed what she would have to give up, Audrey instead put an emphasis on cherishing the life she’s built in Paris: “All of my family, all of my friends are in France. I wouldn’t be able to share all these moments in my life with them. A career in Hollywood doesn’t deserve that kind of sacrifice, especially when there’s such great work here.”
Despite her discernment in film choices, she is keen to dispel the notion that her reticence is due to indifference. Rather, the opposite is true: “The thing is I’m a very… entire person. When I choose a movie I have to fall in love with it. I always want to feel the same strong desire when I come on a set,” she says. “I need each experience to be unique and that’s why I don’t do too many. I want to keep this flame alive. Cinema can become a business, and it has to be something else. It has to be a human experience.”
Proving Audrey’s point is her latest film, Thérèse, which feels unlike anything she has starred in before. Based on François Mauriac’s 1927 novel Thérèse Desqueyroux, the film is a sharply-drawn character study about an intelligent woman ahead of her time, in Audrey’s word “trembling between her independent spirit and the pull of the bourgeoisie,” whose suffocating marriage leads her to a deleterious course of action.
Once again playing the title character, Audrey portrays her character’s rich, troubled inner life in a performance that is largely internal, and one of her strongest to date. “I wrote everything Thérèse was thinking on my script as if there were some other lines, some silent lines. I really wanted to be very precise, very clear in my head, so there’d be the sentence I was saying and the one I was thinking. I didn’t want to fake the fact that I was thinking something.”
Audrey is unmistakeably still infatuated with acting. “I love the playfulness of it, to extract myself from my life and just dream for three months. You’re in this protective bubble. And I love the fact that it’s a team project, this building of a movie, and you all participate in it.” When I ask if she’d ever consider focussing on other things, she looks shocked, as if the concept is unimaginable. “I just really love to act. I don’t know, it’s like a psychological laboratory and afterwards it’s a question of degrees and colours and it’s great because you are in a constant evolution.”
Admirably unconcerned about ageing, Audrey instead embraces the opportunities that it brings to her life as an actress. “Your work changes with the years, and the parts change with you. I can’t play the naive ingénue any more. I couldn’t play Amélie now. But you evolve: my desires are different from the ones I had when I was 24, not only concerning my acting parts but other areas of my life as well. That’s the reason why you can never get bored of this job.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Sixteen.
The Mississippi River flows at three miles an hour, and on its banks Jeff Nichols shot his latest film, Mud. Like the river, the film doesn’t flow fast but has an irresistible force, steadily building to grand emotional moments. Jeff’s work is defined by the compassion he has for his characters and the recognisable, difficult, honestly-depicted world they inhabit.
Scraping a living along the banks of the Mississippi River, the characters in Mud dive for mussel shells, live in houseboats and have names like Juniper, May Pearl, and Neckbone. The film is set in Arkansas, a state that’s frequent prey to stereotypes as a rural backwater.
But it’s the state where Jeff grew up, and he was especially wary of lapsing into caricature. “The people of the American South are a bit like the Irish,” he says. “They have colourful literature, and it’s an enjoyable culture, but as a result of that it’s often depicted in a very patronising way. Because it’s a classic sort of place, it can fall into cliché. I’ve spent my very short career working against that.”
Even though Mud is the third film Jeff has written and directed, he worked on it for over a decade. “Over that time I definitely remember worrying ‘God, is this even worth it? Is this melodramatic and terrible?’” As Mud gestated in his mind, life progressed: Jeff got married, had a son, and established himself as one of contemporary cinema’s most gifted and humane young filmmakers, fulfilling the promise of his debut Shotgun Stories with 2011’s extraordinary Take Shelter. Throughout it all, the contours of his oldest, newest picture were slowly filled in. “It didn’t change so much as I did. I carry things around in my head for a very long time. I’d been thinking about it for six years before I even put pen to paper.”
The finished film is an expansive, lyrical tale about two teenage boys. In their quest to defy childhood boredom and find adventure, they discover a strange man living in a boat that sits in a tree in the middle of an island, and gradually become more and more involved in his troubled life.
“I wanted it to feel like a classic American film, the kind that was on television every Saturday when I was young.” Jeff gave the film a timeless quality, eschewing outward signs of technology so it would feel as if it could have been made five years ago or five years from now.
In the quest for authenticity, the film was shot on location in a single month. Mud’s crew struggled with shooting on water, transporting equipment on four-wheeler bikes and party barges. “When you really get down there on the river, technology stops working. You can’t even get reception on your cellphone. You’re not connected to anything. You’re committing to a totally upside-down environment that isn’t conducive to filmmaking at all. You’re moving, your subject’s moving. We were shooting on film: focus and light matter! And then trying to get a performance out of fourteen-year-old kids. It was challenging.”
Jeff is from the suburbs of Little Rock, Arkansas’ capital, but his extended family lived in communities like those he recreated in the film. The connection made him comfortable directing the accent, but also instilled a sense of responsibility: “Movies are a total affectation. Everything about them is fake. So it’s important for me to make myself accountable to a place. I want to know I can go somewhere and make a movie about people and they’ll say I got it right. You owe it to these regions to tell your stories as honestly as you can.”
It’s not simply a question of truthfulness. “It’s hard to ask an audience to believe in characters if you’re serving them up clichés,” Jeff says. “There are a million reasons to do it wrong, but it’s at the heart of a good movie versus a bad movie: an honest portrayal of a place.” By creating characters who have lives beyond the conveniences of a script, Jeff ensures we’re emotionally invested enough to be vulnerable. “In my movies I always try and have a moment where I punch you in the gut.”
In Mud, that punch comes when a character has his heart broken for the first time. For Jeff, this was the scene that carried him through the long decade he spent working on Mud. He’s always wanted to make a film about young love: that experience so universal, so frequently dismissed. “A lot of the time we look down on our past selves and diminish the emotions that we felt when we were thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, because we were young. But those are some of the most painful, joyful, potent experiences and times in our lives. There’s a reason why Romeo and Juliet were the ages they were. At that age love is a really, really intense feeling. I didn’t want to dishonour any of that because my movie’s about a kid falling in love with a girl in a parking lot.”
If you were to make a list of your favourite episodes of The Simpsons, it’s likely that several of them would be directed by Rich Moore. Involved with the programme since its pilot, Rich was an integral part of the show’s glorious, peerless first decade. Rich followed The Simpsons by becoming the supervising director of Futurama – directing many of its best episodes too – and has now directed his first feature, Wreck-It Ralph.
Starring John C. Reilly as the eponymous Ralph, Wreck-It Ralph is about a villain from an arcade game who dreams of becoming a hero. Like his television work, the film is visually inventive, densely-layered, and as sweet as it is funny. To coincide with Wreck-It Ralph’s release, we spoke to Rich about making the film.
How did you first get involved with the project?
Disney had entertained the idea of a video game movie for about 15 years – there had been at least two other versions of the film that didn’t take off. When I joined Disney in 2008 John Lasseter said to me, “We’ve wanted to do this for a long time and no-one has cracked it. Do you think you’d like to take a shot?” I thought, well, yes!
I asked John if he wanted me to take what had been done before and make it work, and he said to start with the idea of the life of video game characters – what that means to me and what I wanted to do with it. I didn’t want to look at the work that had been done previously because I didn’t want to be influenced; if they never really got off the ground then I wanted to make a fresh start and build something from the ground up.
So many films based on video games are overly sombre, whereas what’s refreshing about Wreck-It Ralph is how fun it is. Was that a deliberate choice?
I always found that comedy was a big part of the culture of video games – I grew up playing them with my friends, laughing and joking. Video games movies always seem so grim, trying to tell these really heavy stories and taking themselves too seriously. They set stories in the world of a particular game like it’s any other setting, ignoring the nature of what games are. My approach to it was to own the fact that these are game worlds and that the characters within them know where they work.
What was it like to spend four years working on one film after a career of working in television?
On The Simpsons I’d do maybe four episodes a season, so over four years that’s about eight hours of animation, as opposed to a film’s 90 minutes. On a film you’re really concentrating on those 90 minutes and trying to make them the best they can be. But the longer schedule was great, actually. Television’s one of those worlds where you feel like you’re always behind, even before you’ve started. “You’ve really got to go fast because you’ve got time to make up.” “But this is the first day!” We were always sprinting, trying to get to the end of the line before the clock ran out. Wreck-It Ralph was more of a marathon. You have the luxury of letting things breathe and looking at them from a different angle and trying different things.
The film is littered with nods to video games. How did you decide which games you wanted to reference?
It was all based on the characters that we loved. What were the ones we grew up with? Which ones were appropriate for jokes within the movie? There were definitely favourites of mine, since I really loved playing games as a kid and a teenager, but I didn’t want it to all be coming out of my head. I went to a lot of the crew at Disney and asked them. We even put up a board in our break area that said “Which characters do you feel need to be in a video game movie – who could you not live without?” We got a great cross-section of different people’s opinions. There were hundreds of different characters suggested.
Until now you’ve worked almost exclusively with traditional animation. Was it difficult to transition to CG?
It’s like working with another tool. The fundamentals of animation don’t change: the same language that I used on The Simpsons and Futurama, talking to animators in Korea, is the exact same language that I used talking to CG animators in Burbank. For me as a director, I would be communicating with animators the same way if I was directing claymation. The job of a director is conveying emotion and clarity in a scene, and to that end the Simpsons and Wreck It Ralph are not that different. You’re trying to tell a compelling story with characters that the audience invests in and cares about, and set that story in a world that feels like ours but is fantastic. That’s The Simpsons, that’s Futurama, and hopefully that’s Wreck-It Ralph too.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Warrick Brownlow-Pike is a famous television cactus. Before his current job as the puppeteer for CBBC’s Dodge the Dog, Warrick spent three years performing Oucho, a banana-loving, water-hating cactus who spoke his own language called Cactinian. “My interview for that was in a pub. We were sat there with our drinks and they said, ‘We’ve got this character: it’s a cactus. It can’t pick anything up, it can’t walk around because it’s in a pot, and it doesn’t speak any English.’ Where do you go from there? I didn’t know, so I just started gibbering on like a madman, going, ‘Aw, di di di, aw, losoli!’ ”
Oucho’s unique language developed a following. “After doing it a few times kids started picking it up and deciphering it, realising that losoli meant lovely and Flicky Herman was David Beckham and anananadi! meant banana. But then once you’ve said it on children’s TV you can’t change it the next day, because otherwise kids would write in. We had to keep a dictionary in the end. It got crazy.” Alongside human co-host Ed Petrie, the pair presented live continuity links and had two programmes of their own. “We did a lot in a short space of time, so I suppose we burned ourselves out. I remember asking myself a question and going ‘Di, di.’ ‘No! You don’t speak Cactinian on your own!’ ”
If you’re under the age of 12, it’s likely that you’re familiar with Warrick’s work. One of Britain’s most prolific puppeteers, he has worked for everyone from Cbeebies to The Jim Henson Company (assisting with the Muppets when they come to the U.K.) If his face was on television as much as his characters, he’d be famous. For Warrick, anonymity is part of the appeal: “That’s the brilliant thing about puppets. You get to do all these things and nobody knows who you are. You don’t want to be famous; you want the characters to be. It’s the best of both worlds because you can go shopping and not be noticed, but then you put the puppet on and everyone goes, ‘Oh, it’s you! Come in! Have cake!’”
While still only 27 years-old, it’s easy to see how Warrick has risen to the top of his field so quickly. It’s difficult to recall ever meeting anyone so singularly passionate. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s my only thing, you know? It was never an option that there would be anything else. I just wanted to do puppets, and had blind faith that it was going to happen. I didn’t go to college or university because there are no puppets in college or university.” As if to prove his point, every inch of Warrick’s workshop is covered with puppets, designs for puppets, and books on puppetry. “When I was young, I never consciously had to think ‘Oh, I must put in some time today’. When I was doing other things I wanted to go back to doing it. Anything else was a chore.” As he talks, Warrick still can’t help himself, picking up puppets again and again to demonstrate his points. Even when he’s not holding one, Warrick uses his gift for mimicry to leap into the voices of the people he’s talking about, from co-workers to the Queen (whom he once performed privately for).
Warrick was just two years old when he found his calling: “It sounds bizarre, but it’s true. I was sat in front of a repeat of the Muppet Show. The curtains opened and all the Muppets came out, singing and dancing to the music, and I was in heaven. In that moment I thought, ‘I don’t know what this is, but it’s what I need to do.’ I just knew.” As Warrick’s passion developed his mother supported him, winning competitions so he could go to the premieres of Muppet movies to meet the performers. “Maybe you wouldn’t be too happy if your kid said, ‘Oh, I’m going to play with puppets for the rest of my life’ But she never did.” Instead of discouraging him, Warrick’s mother instead used her “genius for sewing and making things” to help him make his first puppets. “We watched lots of programmes and tried to figure out the shape of things. We learned where the seams would go and how to do the hands. I had these big books with photographs of Muppets in them. I’d try and work out what someone was doing and realise that they were just leaning against the wall.”
The pair finished their first puppet when Warrick was 7. He points it out, sitting alongside other efforts. While his early puppets are clearly inspired by their Muppet forebears (his second one is essentially a yellow Kermit), they’re still impressive, with or without parental guidance. Now Warrick uses professional puppet-builders who realise his intricate designs for him. “If I do myself it takes me about a week, which is why I don’t very often.” Even sourcing materials is time-consuming: “You can’t go to one place. You have to get foam from somewhere, fur from somewhere else, fleece from another place, eyes made out of whatever you can find to make eyes out of…”
Working primarily for CBBC, Warrick now finds himself in a strange position where the performers he idolised as a child are his peers. “Ed the Duck was our boss. She’s gone from performing that character to being in charge of the whole department.” Puppetry is a small world, but an open one; Warrick’s met almost everyone in the industry at least twice; once as an awestruck child and again as a peer. On his first job (performing the hands of pop song-singing rats for a show called Space Pirates) he found himself working alongside the original performer of Otis the Aardvark, who had once called him as a child to offer encouragement. His heroes never seem more than a heartfelt letter away: during a chat about full-body puppet costumes, Warrick mentions that he once wrote to Carol Spinney, the man who has performed Big Bird for 43 years. Later he brings out Carol’s reply: the letter, written on paper the colour of a large avian, features a drawing of Big Bird hugging a puppet which Warrick designed himself. The spirit of the Muppets is an open-hearted one, and it’s been clearly absorbed by Warrick. It’s easy to imagine him writing the same sort of letter to a young fan.
In a world where children’s entertainment is increasingly computer-generated, puppets are endearingly old-fashioned. Even at the heights of the industry, puppets are still made of felt and string and foam. Whenever Warrick picks up one of his beautifully-designed puppets, it’s hard not to notice their stands – homemade devices which are basically teacup holders with the prongs removed and half a tennis ball stuck on top. “That’s what I love about puppets,” Warrick explains. “This little thing is just balls and fluff, but you can make a connection with it, between the puppet and the person.”
Puppeteering is an extreme form of method acting, in its own quiet way. When Warrick’s under the CBBC desk performing, it’s as if he stops existing. “The crew will say, “Dodge can you step left, Dodge can you step right, Dodge do you want a cup of tea?” People just talk to the puppet and I talk to them through it. I stop being me and go into a weird state. I love to see him live there, in that world, and to see the relationships he can have with people.”
“I remember the first time I met Kermit the Frog,” Warrick says, instantly giddy. “It was only a few years ago. He smiled and I started blushing. ‘Oh my God, Kermit’s smiling at me! What do I say to him?’ Then I thought to myself, ‘Oh don’t be stupid, it’s just a puppet.’ But it wasn’t. It was Kermit. That’s me as an adult, flustered by the fact that a puppet was smiling at me, and I’m surrounded by them every day. Even knowing how it all works, I can still watch the Muppets and love it, because I believe them. I believe that they’re real.”
Despite it becoming his profession, Warrick is still just as enthusiastic about puppeteering. “It’s a dream. If I wasn’t there being paid for this I’d be at home doing the same just to please myself. Today, yesterday and tomorrow, I’m still doing exactly what I did when I was six, except now there’s a TV camera and thousands of children are seeing it. It was only my Mum before, but it’s just the same, really.”
After a decade of running his own theatre company, Adam Brown makes his film debut in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Adam plays Ori, one of the thirteen dwarves travelling with hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to defeat the dragon Smaug. A shy, gentle soul who wields a slingshot and yearns for chips, Ori is one of the film’s comic highpoints, and one of the most memorable dwarves—an accomplishment considering how many there are of them.
Ahead of the release of An Unexpected Journey, we chatted with Adam about working in New Zealand and finding his inner dwarf.
You’ve been working on the film for so long. It must be great for it to actually be out in the world?
We were down in Wellington for about eighteen months, just playing around in our little costumes and now it’s finally being released. It doesn’t quite feel real. I’m excited to see what people think.
Ori is mentioned in some of Tolkien’s other works. Did you do much research about him, or just work from the script?
A bit of both really. Ori is one of the only dwarves who appears in four movies, because he’s in Lords of the Rings as a skeleton. I did a little bit of research about that, but mostly I went off the script. If you read the Hobbit, the dwarves aren’t mentioned a great deal—they’re not fleshed out. It was great having conversations with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens about their visions for the characters.
The dwarves are each very different and I’m lucky enough to be the little nerdy one, the child dwarf. I play the innocent fish out of water that really shouldn’t be on the journey at all—he’s far too timid. That came from my audition, I guess. I don’t know what I did but I must have brought a nervous quality.
What was Peter Jackson like as a director?
He’s just lovely. For somebody so rich and powerful, he was incredibly normal. There were times where we would offer our opinions and I think you knew straight away with Pete whether it was going to land or not. If you had to take a few moments to explain your idea it never really worked. He knew straight away what he wanted—he was always two steps ahead of all of us. We’d think that we’d come up with a great idea but he’d thought of it and considered if it would work.
Did you form a bond with your fellow dwarves?
We really, really did. It’s funny, I remember watching the Lord of the Rings DVDs and on all the documentaries they say how it’s like a family and I’d think “Come on, that’s just something you say to the press”, but it’s totally true. Pete and Fran and Philippa have got such a unique world down there. All of these actors, aside from the New Zealanders obviously, are miles away from home. So the only thing we could do is really bond as a team. We did lots of Dwarf boot camp training, learning how to walk as a dwarf and getting armour lessons. The process of finding our inner dwarf was ridiculous, but such fun.
How does a dwarf walk?
Our movement coach described the walk as if you’re ploughing a field and there’s a big crane on your back. The way a dwarf walks is completely different to the way an elf or a hobbit walks. Dwarves are very grounded and centred. They’re never light on their feet. It’s like a truck accelerating—it takes a while but as soon as they’ve got some power behind them dwarves can pick up some great speed.
What was the strangest moment when making the films?
I guess one of the oddest was being invited around to Pete’s hanger. He has a series of them in Wellington, and he’s really interested in World War One so he’s got lots of replica aeroplanes and guns in them. After filming all the dwarves were invited for pizza and beers and we were shooting guns in a hanger. It was one of those things you can’t really say no to. We ended the evening sitting in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the actual car from the film. That’s how random it got last year.
You’re also going to be an action figure. Have you thought about that?
I think my family are more excited about that than I am. I must admit on the last day of shooting when I received my Lego action figure I thought, well, this is it, I’ve reached the pinnacle of my career. I’m officially a piece of Lego: I can stop now.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
“He enjoys a well-crafted shoot-out.” Martin McDonagh is talking about the main character of Seven Psychopaths, his latest film. “He thinks… No, wait, that’s me. I enjoy a well-crafted shoot-out.”
It’s easy to see how Martin could get confused. Played by Colin Farrell, Seven Psychopaths’ main character is Marty, an Irish screenwriter making a film called Seven Psychopaths starring an Irish screenwriter called Marty. McDonagh is well aware of the danger of being so meta: “It’s something you can only really get away with once in your career, if at all.”
From his debut play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1996, through to his superlative 2008 film In Bruges, McDonagh has become famous for his black comedies that veer sharply between melancholy and violence. In Seven Psychopaths, the character Marty is tired of writing violent films, wanting to make something, “as much about Gandhi and peace and love” as it is about carnage, even while he’s drawn into a world of serial killers and dog-nappers.
It would be understandable to assume the character’s exhaustion is in some way a reflection on McDonagh’s own career, but he feels that’s where the similarities peter out. “I didn’t want to get away from violence, because I never felt like that was all there ever was in my work. Hopefully there’s always been a moral through-line in my writing. Seven Psychopaths isn’t so much about myself, but about questioning Hollywood’s fixation with violence. Does everything have to be about men with guns, and psychopaths? But I had my cake and ate it, because the film is violent. I didn’t want to run away from it, but to use it as a way to talk about more interesting things.”
Martin’s darkly hilarious plays—of which he penned seven before his film debut, In Bruges—were born out of a distaste for safe, conventional theatre. “When I started writing, the things I was seeing on stage were so undramatic. They were all about chatting and drinking tea and politics and nothing would ever happen. And I wanted it to.” Martin understood how violence could raise a play’s emotional stakes: “On stage, if someone hits someone out of the blue, or even just takes out a gun, things change. The appeal of those violent bits is that you can go anywhere after them. There’s something exciting for an audience member to see those things and be worried and scared for the characters. The idea, ‘Fuck, anything could happen.’”
Martin says he never set out to shock or be controversial. His violence and outrageous humour are always there to serve the story. He gives the example of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, his play about the terrorist group INLA. “If you’re dealing with men that violent you have to be truthful to that on stage. I guess doing a black comedy about that subject is going to be a bit controversial, but I’m probably always going to write black comedies about things. It’s just the way I think.”
As a consequence of his uncompromising writing, Martin’s well-observed characters and fine ear for dialogue were sometimes lost in the hysteria over his plays’ brutal lurches. “I definitely felt like an outsider at the time, having Irish heritage and writing these black comedies that had degrees of violence in them. The theatres that put on my work supported me, but around the milieu of theatrical people I always felt like we were the dirty outsiders.”
From a notorious incident where he swore at Sean Connery at an awards ceremony (“He started it!” Martin says, gleefully unrepentant fifteen years later) to his increasingly challenging plays, Martin learned the value of his outsider image. Belying the content of his plays and his reputation as a provocateur, he is warm and playful in person, “I liked playing up to the perception,” he admits. “I come from a punk rock background so it was cool to kick open those doors and shake things up a little bit.”
In 2006, McDonagh made his most shocking declaration yet: fêted as one of Ireland’s best playwrights and aged only 35, he had said enough as a playwright. It was a declaration that later proved to be premature but, nonetheless, McDonagh feels that theatre isn’t the best place for him. “I always loved films more,” he says.
What held him back from making the leap earlier was a concern over control. “I would have found it impossible to just hand over a script to someone else. With a play not a single line can be cut if you don’t cut it yourself, and if you’re there the whole time there can’t be a line said in a way you don’t agree with. But with film, a screenwriter is the lowest form of life on most sets. Your opinion is lower than the tea ladies’.”
Martin decided to wait until he could both write and direct something, making his debut with the short film Six Shooter. Although he had never even directed a play before, the short won an Oscar, which now sits on his kitchen shelf. Six Shooter’s success gave Martin the confidence to make a feature film, In Bruges. The film has become a cult favourite but not the smash McDonagh might have hoped for. He shrugs it off. “I liked that it wasn’t very successful. I remember liking the early De Niro/ Scorsese films and almost all of them flopped when they first came out. You don’t care about that as a fan. You just love the film for the film. That’s all that really matters.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Thirteen . Photograph by Trent McMinn.
The story of Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a repressed sound engineer who travels to Italy in the 1970s to create the soundtrack for a violent Giallo horror movie, Berberian Sound Studio is the second film of writer/director Peter Strickland. A horror film without the horror, the film creates unease largely through its sound design, a few claustrophobic sets and Jones’ gripping performance. Ahead of its release this weekend, we spoke to Peter about the film.
Berberian Sound Studio is in large part about the feeling of being a foreigner. You’ve lived out of the country for much of the past ten years – did that experience influence the film at all?
When you’re writing something you have your main focal point but other parts of your life just creep in somehow. I have been away a lot. Also I’m half Greek and half English, so there’s always been that clash between two cultures which are worlds apart even though they’re on the same continent. But first of all it came from sound, that was the starting point, these Giallo soundtracks. A lot of their composers were highly regarded avant-garde composers who did exploitation soundtracks on the side, and I find that compelling.
I was also interested in extreme violence: this ridiculous pantomime element of smashing vegetables to make foley sound. Is it disturbing or funny? It’s fascinating to tread that line. I thought what if you saw that horror every day of your life, where would you be ten years down the line?
Did you make a deliberate choice not to show any of the violence that the sound engineers were viewing every day?
I was interested in how filmmakers represent violence, and the question of responsibility. How can you manage how an audience interprets an image? Once it’s out there the filmmaker has no control. I think if we’d shown the violence we would have failed—that satire would have fallen flat on its face. I didn’t want to be didactic, I wanted it to be entertainment so it doesn’t go further into moralising, but I think if we’d shown what actually happens we’d be as bad as the Giallo directors.
Also it’s an experience about how an audience responds to that, what goes on in your head. I hadn’t really seen it done in a film before, to completely strip away the visual side. It’s the inverse of a normal film. The film is hidden away: we only see the mechanical side of it. So it’s holding a mirror image to it.
Gilderoy is an amalgamation of actual English sound engineers. What fascinated you about their story?
Some of these people had devastating lives: some got into the occult, or they just became alcoholics. They were tragic characters. And Gilderoy comes from this whole tradition of the garden shed eccentric, which I guess is dying out now with digital technology. Sound engineering was an alchemical process. It was talismanic. You can understand how you could spend too many late nights working, after all that tape looping, everything’s like a spell.
You funded your first film, Katalin Varga. How did having investors change the filmmaking process?
It was very, very different. I don’t think I’ll ever have the freedom I had for my first film—I was on my own. But I didn’t like it. You need someone to bounce off of. Obviously if you’re being told what to do that’s a very different thing and I don’t like that. I think I was very lucky. I can’t imagine a film like this being made by the Establishment in 1998. It seems there’s a climate now where people are more receptive to personal filmmakers.
Do you think that freedom is related to the budget?
It’s all about working to scale. The lower the budget the more risks you can take. You need to be responsible. You can say you’re an artist, but it’s not your money. It’s about balancing that responsibility with doing something that will hopefully be exciting and original, and not second guessing what the audience wants, which I think is fatal.
You have to respect the fact that audiences don’t want to be respected. I love films where the director confounded me somehow. I don’t want to be pandered to. So much of a film is about what’s going on in the audience’s head, not what’s on the screen. I think if you allow the audience to open that side of themselves up it’s more enriching. If they give you a bit of space, there’s room for your imagination to run riot.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Roy Williams sits at his kitchen table, quietly ferocious. In front of him lies a neat black notebook which he is filling up with a new play, crowded with writing that looks distinctly like shorthand until you examine it closely. Quick to offer a handshake and a cup of tea, it would be difficult to tell from his cosy kitchen and polite, thoughtful demeanour that he has written some of the most emotionally devastating plays of the past few decades.
One of our finest playwrights, Roy’s work offers clear-eyed, occasionally brutal assessments of race, class, identity and aspiration in modern Britain. His writing, while fundamentally hopeful, is nonetheless acutely aware of the many contradictions and corruptions that make up society.
Roy has created close to a play a year since his 1996 debut The ‘No Boys’ Cricket Club, which may have something to do with his fearsome work ethic. Today, Roy has been writing since six in the morning, as he does every day, and yet is still alert and bright. “I’ve always been an early riser. I don’t know. It suits my character. You wake up and you’re feeling fresh and alive: you want to get your thoughts out of your head and on to a piece of paper. I like going to bed with a problem and waking up with a solution.”
Williams was raised in Notting Hill, and remains a staunch supporter of QPR football team. “I grew up in an area where football was a common thing you could talk about with your mates. It just sort of stayed with me, really. I love it. It’s a vibrant, passionate game.” His relationship with football reveals something of his approach to theatre. “A good game of football can be like a great night of theatre—it can be exhilarating and exciting and unpredictable. Last night’s game proved that: Arsenal lost three nil in the first leg and needed to score four in the second leg. People said it was impossible, but they came one goal from succeeding,” he says, recalling the team’s sensational exit from the Champions League the day before, despite trouncing AC Milan three-nil in their final match.
He continues, “No one could have predicted that, and that’s what you want from a good play. You want something that’s going to make you experience all of the emotions that human beings have in the course of two hours. It’s something that has stakes.”
>While Roy still continues to be in love with the theatre, he has become increasingly involved with film and television. He adapted his Olivierwinning play Fallout for television a few years ago, and has co-written the upcoming Fast Girls with Noel Clarke and Jay Basu, about a group of teenage girl athletes. “It’s a challenge. It’s such a different medium. In theatre you’re dependent on dialogue, but TV and film can do so much for you with the camera and editing. Those tools can tell the same story, so there’s not such a need for the characters to be talking. I’m relearning it all: how can I tell the story through the way the characters look at each other or act rather than what they’re saying.” Even so, theatre provides a perfect medium for his talents. “I think, for me, it’s still the best. It’s alive.”
After sixteen solid years of work, Roy is still writing as much as ever, his output slowed only by the long programming schedules for theatres and the glacial pace of producing film and television. “I don’t think I’m as prolific as I was. My time has been taken up. But I think it’s okay because you can write a play and disappear for two years and come back and deliver another piece. Playwrights come and go anyway. It’s not like actors, where you follow their career and go, ‘That last one wasn’t as good as his others, I think he’s going out of fashion’. We don’t have that star quality. I’m glad we don’t. You’ve just got to ignore all that stuff and keep plugging away.”
Drawn into theatre by playwrights like Barrie Keefe who wrote characters that sounded like him, Roy’s plays are likewise populated with characters, often young, poor and troubled, who speak like regular people, colloquially and in short sentences. The naturalism of their interactions is key to making you believe in them: you’ve met his characters before in your own life, which makes the sudden spirals into tragedy or violence so much more affecting.
As a result, there’s a disparity between the people the plays are about and the people who are seeing them. “I think audiences—let’s be honest here—are attended predominantly by white, middle-class people. And if I go to the Royal Court or the National, those are the faces I see. I’m not complaining about that, that’s just the way it is.”
This might be a shame considering how Roy first fell in love with theatre, that the people who might be similarly affected by his work don’t see it, but he’s philosophical about it. “My plays are about certain people, but they are for everybody. Ultimately, I’m writing for theatre, for a theatre-going audience. I honestly don’t care if the audience is black or white. Would I like to see more black faces? Of course I would, but not everybody likes theatre. They’ve got to have an interest first.” This might be a reason why television has started to increasingly appeal to Roy. “I suppose the real difference is that film and television are seen by a lot more people. I’ve had stuff on TV and in one night more people will see it than will see six weeks of a play I’ve had on at a theatre.”
The cups of tea finished, Roy has to get back to work. There’s a notebook that needs filling. He reflects on how he is able to keep it still interesting for himself, sixteen plays later: “You need to keep writing about what makes you laugh, what makes you pissed off. What makes you pissed off may be in complete contrast to what pissed you off ten years before, so you write about that—about that difference. You write about what matters to you now. So those are questions I’m always throwing at myself. I’m just trying to keep my wits about me.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eleven. Photograph by Fiona Essex.
Crispian Mills has been alright for a while. “I’ve been alright for a while,” he says, “I’m not fighting against myself.” Polite and thoughtful, if a little wary, he concedes that this wasn’t always the case. “I was pretty delinquent at fifteen, sixteen, and I spun out on a whole tangent. I was in love with music and that’s what drove me mad.”
We’re here to talk about Crispian’s directorial and script-writing debut, A Fantastic Fear of Everything. A funny, peculiar, very British film, it stars and is co-produced by Simon Pegg. The film tells the story of a paranoid children’s book author who is convinced that death lurks behind every corner. At nearly forty, this is Mills’ second high profile career.
After his teenage years had passed in an intoxicated fug, Crispian gathered some friends together and formed a band in 1993. It’s not an unusual story, but the difference from all of the other music-obsessed youths doing the same thing is that the band was called Kula Shaker and within three years of forming they’d become one of the biggest groups in the country, with their debut album K selling over a million copies and echoing the success of bands like Oasis and Blur. Crispian was 23 at the time and famous almost overnight.
“I didn’t enjoy being successful. I appreciated that I was lucky and that it was rare and all of that, but personally I didn’t enjoy it because I had a very idealistic relationship with music and being in a band. I wanted a band of brothers, an extended family.” In the face of sudden popularity, Crispian became instantly nostalgic. “The happiest times we had were during the struggle. We struggled together for about three years, which felt like thirty at that age. When we became successful it happened quite quickly—within a year of being signed—and the pressure interfered with the relationships, with the joy we had of just being in a band.”
Crispian describes the situation as if success had taken something away from them, turning what was a private joy into a business. Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who feels that their first record,“ was really a little film,” he particularly resents the music videos the band were pushed into making at top speed. “We made possibly the worst videos of any band at that time. They were the heart of the series of disappointments of being in a band. You want to have great videos and they’re terrible, and you suddenly feel like you’re losing a grip on your passion. It’s being presented by other people now, not by you.”
Suddenly the band were making money for people, and their record label had a vested interest in their future. Crispian explains, “As you fight to take control, you fight to break out of a certain straitjacket that you’ve allowed yourself to be put in unwittingly, or a straitjacket that you’ve woken up and found yourself in. Trying to wriggle out of that is very difficult, and you can end up self-destructing in the process. Which is what I did.”
Kula Shaker’s self-destruction came in the form of a front page exposé in the Independent on Sunday about comments that Crispian had made about wanting to have swastikas on stage. Mills later clarified that he’d been referring to them in the context of his long-standing love of Indian mysticism, of which they are an ancient symbol, and that he was totally opposed to Nazism. However, the damage was done. The spiralling result was that the band’s next album barely made the top ten. Crispian carried on producing music for a few years, but the moment had passed.
In a way, he feels that Kula Shaker’s demise happened at just the right time: “Somebody said to me once that becoming a man is really difficult, hard work. You don’t just suddenly grow hair on your chest and that’s it. It’s a long struggle. It was important to hear that because I was finding it really difficult. I was about to be thirty and it was like my own little secret that I still felt like a kid.”
He now has what seems like a wryly-amused detachment from his past, as if it all happened to someone else. Crispian is reflective about the dramatic rise and fall of Kula Shaker: “That’s the music business. You get young people, pump them up, chuck them out into the Colosseum and see what happens. It’s an invaluable life experience, if you survive it.”
As Crispian’s music career wound down and his options narrowed, he rediscovered a love of cinema: “It upset me when I realised I wanted to make films. I was conscious that there was a huge apprenticeship that I’d missed out on when I was doing music.” He spent the following decade writing scripts that were almost made or that never got close. It was a morale-sapping process, in which scripts would be quietly canned without the writers even being told.
Crispian says, “In hindsight it was a pretty good experience to get battered like that. What was comforting in the last year or so was realising that there’s an amazing amount of experience, knowledge and skill that you can apply from music into film, and that’s actually quite invaluable: tempo and pace and editing.”
Simon Pegg has a theory about Crispian’s first career. He posits that Crispian’s time in Kula Shaker was “a rebellion against what would inevitably be his calling”. Crispian doesn’t shoot the idea down: “I think it was an unconscious rebellion. Maybe I would have been more open to being honest about how much I loved films if I hadn’t associated it with the family.”
It’s understandable that Crispian’s family once cast a shadow over his youthful ambitions. The son of actress Hayley Mills and director Roy Boulting, as well as the grandson of John Mills and Mary Hayley Bell, filmmaking has been the family business for so long that it’s not surprising that Crispian would want to establish himself in his own right. “When you’re fifteen or sixteen you want to find out who you are, separate to them, don’t you? That’s the important thing. But as you get older you realise there’s so much more. You’re partly a product of that heritage. So you join up the dots.”
Crispian has now come full circle: in the middle of shooting A Fantastic Fear of Everything, his mother visited him, and pointed out the soundstage they were using was the same one on which she’d met his father whilst making a film called The Family Way at the age of twenty. He seems to be at peace with the idea. “It’s all part of the same experience of being young and wanting to be your own person. You find your rebellion. You’re fighting against the man, and that can be your family, or it can be your record company
David Gyasi fell in love with acting during his first school play. “I was a landlord in Gypsy. This dude had maybe three lines, but I was so nervous. I came on stage and knocked on the door and yelled ‘Madam Rose! Madam Rose, will you open this door? Madam Rose!’ I walked out the door and this farce was going on, and I was chasing her around, and everyone just fell about laughing.” As he talks about the experience, banging on the table in front of him and affecting a perfect American accent, David’s eyes light up. “I thought, ‘Ooh, I like this. It feels nice, making people feel happy. Wouldn’t it be amazing to do that for forty years?’”
For the first eight years, David forged a steady career as an actor, popping up in everything from Holby City to Welsh-language soap Pobyl y Cwm. This was good until it wasn’t: British television provides solid employment for actors with bit-parts as doctors, patients, policemen and criminals, but moving past that stage is difficult. David hit a wall: “I felt like things were becoming stagnant. It’s not inspiring to come in and say a couple of lines. It felt like I’d done that consistently for about five years, and in any career you want to keep challenging yourself. The roles had just stopped doing that for me. I started to think, well, if this is it, then I want to get off the boat.”
Ready to walk away from acting entirely, David decided to give his career one last push, moving in with his in-laws, changing agents and heading to America. After years of trying, the challenging roles that he’d been seeking started to finally come, one after another. It’s heartening to see a genuinely talented performer receive the touch of fortuity that all actors need if they’re to make it big: this year alone he’ll be appearing in The Dark Knight Rises, Cloud Atlas and Doctor Who.
David’s biggest challenge to date has been as one of the leads in the sprawling BBC drama White Heat. He plays the role of Victor, an immigrant law student who quietly suffers racial abuse in 1960s London. Gyasi initially had doubts about even accepting the part. “Victor’s observant, but he’s very quiet,” he explains. “When I read that, I interpreted it as a weakness, and I thought, ‘I have nothing to say about this guy who is suffering this racism. I can’t get inspired about someone who doesn’t even speak up nor have a response.’ He’s an educated man, he’s intelligent. It really frustrated me, and I didn’t want to play him.” His attitude changed after discussing the role with his father, “He smiled, and said that you have to realise that this guy has an endgame; Victor is displaying dignity and focus, and in that there’s strength, because he’s aware that he’s heading to being a lawyer and a QC—that’s where he’s going. And if he gets involved in these little altercations, it’s an environment where he’d be the one to be arrested by the police, because of the racism ingrained in society. My dad said: you were away from home and you had to remember that.”
He remembers one scene that highlighted the tightrope walk of restrained emotion that the role demanded. Victor is leaving his chambers in a smart pinstriped suit, when the police decide to search him for no reason. Gyasi says, “In the script, he has to put his hands up against the wall while they search him. So afterwards he takes out his handkerchief, wipes his hands and puts it back in his wallet. I was so incensed by what had happened that I took out the handkerchief, threw it on the pavement and walked away. The director came up to me and said, ‘That’s good, we’ve got that, but try one with a bit more dignity.’ So we did another take, and there was something quite powerful about wiping my hands and folding that handkerchief and putting it back in my pocket, and walking on. They had no hold on him.”
For the upcoming film Cloud Atlas, the key to David’s character came directly from his research: in the role of Autua, a Moriori slave in 1850, he worked with dialect coaches to create an entirely new accent. “Because the Morioris became extinct in the early twentieth century, there’s no record of the way they spoke. The Maoris were the closest link, but they were integral in making the Morioris extinct, so in order to honour the Moriori tribe we couldn’t just use the Maori accent. But listening to old Maori accents, they sounded slightly African, so we built a bit of that into it, and then a bit of the modern day New Zealand accent into it as well.” He relished the challenge: “I love it! Love it. Anything I can get involved with to do with my character I just love.”
When talking about acting David Gyasi is at his most animated and articulate. For him, the act of performing is infused with frank enjoyment, and acute engagement. He describes how, during the filming of The Dark Knight Rises, he was never even given the pages for the scenes he was in. “Christopher Nolan just told me my lines, and then I had to do them. He’d say: ‘Okay, he’s going to come out and you’re going to say this, this and this. Action!’ And there are two hundred people waiting for me to do it. It was very scary, but it was freeing, because all of the work that you do in building a character, you’re given a license to ignore it, and just give your instinctive, initial reaction. Your interpretation—the part of your soul that you’re baring for everyone to see—that’s taken away, and what’s left is a pure performance. It’s weird. It’s as if I don’t know the film yet.”
The debut film of writer/director Alice Rohrwacher, Corpo Celeste is about 13-year-old Marta (Yle Vianello) as she adapts to life in a small Southern Italian town ahead of her confirmation. A reflective, cerebral, and patient film, it examines the effects of Catholicism on both a struggling community and on maturing youths, as well as exploring the personal journey of a girl dealing with her own burgeoning adolescence.
Corpo Celeste opens in selected cinemas this weekend, but we spoke to Rohrwacher when she visited for the UK premiere of the film at the London Film Festival.
What drew you to this story for your first film ?
I’ve never directed even a short film before, let alone a feature film, so the approach for myself and my producer Carlo Cresto-Dino was to start questioning how Italian society has changed. It has undergone a very deep transformation in the last 20 years. The research focused eventually on the idea of the parish church and catechism teaching of the scriptures, and those who teach this religious doctrine. When we had enough material we thought of narrating all we’d gathered through the experience of one person.
In the film Marta is very quiet – she observes everything but she doesn’t interact with much. Was that a conscious decision and what were you trying to accomplish through it?
Marta is at an age where you need to choose who you belong to. You look at others as models. You’re trying to figure out how to fit into a group of people. It’s a phase of life where you observe before you make a decision and then you take up a position. I wanted to tell a story about that age. She’s non-judgemental: she goes to the confirmation classes and looks at her peers with surprise. They’re mysterious to her. She isn’t rebellious. When she understands that she doesn’t fit in, she doesn’t enter into this group, she just leaves and goes away.
She rejects the church ultimately, but it’s not a thesis or a PhD. It’s a story of a few weeks in the life of a young girl becoming an adult. We didn’t want to be confined to the problems that exist within the church but use it as a ground, to ask questions more than to give answers.
You began your career making documentaries. Do you approach fiction differently and are there things that you’ve taken from documentary that you apply to the process?
From documentaries I learnt a lot because you have to do it all on your own. You have to do the research, shoot it, edit it, you have to even do the advertising. You really get fit: you get muscles from it. Also when you approach reality as a documentary filmmaker you absolutely need to understand what is your point of view in relation to that reality. So it’s a very good school.
However, I haven’t just learnt from documentaries, I have a background in theatre and music which is as important. In Italy you see a great divide between cinema and all the other arts. I was very lucky because I’ve worked in theatre, for the radio, in music and documentaries, so I learned to communicate in different fields. In music I learned you have to be able to work in a team – on your own you do not exist. From theatre I learned to trust the actor and their performance so that it’s integral and organic, and also about the value of rehearsing, which is something that you wouldn’t have in cinema.
Do you feel your relative youth helped you connect with the story?
I dislike talking in terms of gender, male and female, young and old. I think each experience has its own value. I am younger than the average Italian filmmaker, and this has negative and positive aspects. In terms of the positive, you have nothing to lose. You can really throw yourself in and take risks. You’re more free. But everything is a bit more black and white at this age, maybe.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
It’s the sort of story you find yourself repeating to friends. Phone conversations, chats at bus stops: “Did you read that thing in the paper about that woman?” The kind of story that lodges somewhere in your brain —unbelievable, horrific, depressing, and absolutely true.
A woman, Joyce Vincent, is found dead in her flat, surrounded by Christmas presents, the TV still on. Her body has been there for three years, and no one has noticed that she’d been missing, or the awful smell coming from the open window, or that she hadn’t paid a single bill. Neither a drug addict nor an alcoholic, Joyce was just 38 years old when she died. Once bubbly, vivacious and an aspiring singer, now the police can only confirm that the decomposed body is hers by comparing its teeth with a photograph of her smiling. It’s not the sort of story that one forgets.
If anything, the actual cause of Joyce’s death is the least compelling part about the quest to discover what happened to her. What about her friends? What about her neighbours? How can a person just be forgotten like that, for so long? It makes you wonder how it happened. More selfishly, it makes you wonder if it could ever happen to you.
It’s easy to see the case’s appeal for a documentary filmmaker: a tragic real-life mystery that raises questions about community and friendship in modern society, a society where communication has never been easier. The kind of documentary that might be made about the case can also be imagined: a retelling of events by a reassuring narrator, carefully laying out all the known facts. Interviews with the police, perhaps a few loved ones expressing shock. A generous smattering of photographs of Joyce from when she was alive.
Over the five years that it took Carol Morley to finance and make Dreams of a Life, her examination of Joyce Vincent’s lonely death, many funding organisations would push her to do this very thing. “They’d question who would want to see this story told the way I wanted to make it,” Carol says. “It might have been easier. But if you’re telling people what to think, don’t make a film—write a journalistic essay, or make factual television.”
A film without voiceover, captioning, or many of the other crutches employed by mainstream documentaries, Dreams of a Life instead relies on testimonies from the people that knew Joyce, with dramatic re-enactments of their stories featuring the actress Zawe Ashton. “I was really interested in the idea of constructing somebody,” Carol explains. “She’s not here to actually contribute herself, so you can only ever construct that identity through other people.”
These glimpses of her life through anecdotes and re-enactments show the many different sides of Joyce Vincent, while also being distorted by time and the slipperiness of memory. The interviewees’ stories are often contradictory, not just in the details of events in Joyce’s life, but in how they viewed her. “We’re trying to get close to somebody, but it was important to me imply that what you’re looking at is a reconstruction, that it didn’t feel like I’m presenting you with the ‘truth’.”
By being honest about the limitations of filmmaking, Carol illustrates how difficult it is to truly know a person, and without Joyce present to give her own version of events these fragments are all that anyone has. “I think that’s what film does so beautifully, better maybe than any other medium. You can push forward ideas of contradiction within a person.” It leads the viewer to contemplate the nature of identity, both in how someone presents themselves and how our own perceptions of people are coloured.
The theme is a familiar one in Carol’s work. Her first documentary, the Alcohol Years, also built up a picture of a woman’s life through the testimonies of the people who knew her. In that film, the person was Carol herself, exploring her libidinous, intoxicated youth in Manchester from the ages of 16 to 21. Aside from a shot of her tongue, Carol is absent from her own documentary too, refusing to confirm or deny any of the claims made about her.
You can imagine that a part of her wishes she could: the difference between the interviewees in the two films is striking. Where the recollections of Joyce’s friends are complimentary and rose-tinted, perhaps due to her death, Carol’s old friends and associates aren’t so forgiving, questioning the mythologising nature of the documentary and her own actions of the time. One interviewee claims that everyone hated her, a sentiment that isn’t unique. Did she recognise herself? “It’s weird. I saw it a couple of years ago, and it means different things, because I’m getting older. So now it’s also about the person who made that film. I recognised what was going on, but I’m not even sure if I do know who I am.”
The slander of the Alcohol Years is no more or less truthful than the eulogising of Dreams of a Life. The testimonies reveal as much about the interviewees as about the subjects themselves. Their interviews are fundamentally about themselves, too: in Dreams of a Life, again and again an interviewee will talk about the last time they saw Joyce alive, and imagine that if they’d done something differently then perhaps she might still alive. “They’re writing themselves into the narrative,” Carol agrees. “You’re going to look back at something and imbue it with a significance that you wouldn’t have. When somebody dies the tendency is to think, ‘What did I last say to them?’ or, ‘What did I last leave them with?’”
As much as that response is to do with ego and self-image, it also stems from friendship. The interviewees feel guilty because they fear they might have been able to do something to save Joyce, and they’re burdened by their awareness that they can never know for sure. Even after her body has been found, most of Joyce Vincent’s friends didn’t make the connection.
Carol thinks that these lapses in effort, tragically, may be the real reason it took so long for Joyce Vincent’s body to be discovered. “You don’t necessarily worry about these people, even though you think about them. You just assume that they’ve gone on to better friends, or someone more interesting than you.” The guilt of the interviewees is an extension of the guilt we all feel, as we let friendships drift, assuming that we’ll see our old friends again at some point. All the while, the years pass.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Nine. Photograph by Rosanna Durham.
Built on the shores of Califonia’s Salton Sea, Bombay Beach has somehow endured long past its 1950s heyday to become a shell of its former self. A ghost town in the poorest county in the State, its residents scratch out bleak existences amidst extreme poverty and unbearable temperatures. Music video director Alma Har’el has made her feature film debut documenting the lives of three of the people who linger in Bombay Beach, whose desperate stories are as oddly inspirational as they are depressing.
Buoyed by a soundtrack from Beirut and Bob Dylan as well as some beautiful dance sequences, Har’el’s film is undeniably powerful, if intellectually troublesome. To mark the film’s release, we spoke to Har’el.
What made you want to tell these people’s life stories?
I wanted to make a documentary that had dance sequences in it, but I put it in the back of my head because I couldn’t find people who I thought could really do it. Then I came and saw Bombay Beach for the first time in the middle of shooting a music video with Beirut. I thought the place itself was so haunting and had such a specific mood. I was really curious about who lives there. I thought they had to have interesting stories because they live off the grid. It’s so hard to survive there; it’s tragic on one hand and yet so freeing. It’s very post-apocalyptic. It’s like this place gave up on society, or society gave up on it. I’m not sure who did that first.
Considering how fragile the people you were documenting are, did you feel a responsibility to portray them in an accurate manner?
Oh, definitely. I felt a big responsibility to portray them in a way they would feel comfortable with, but at the same time I saw this project as a much more artistic endeavour than purely a documentary, even though it captures how they got pushed away by society into a trap. The town is a great case study of what happen to the weak in society, but it’s a complex situation and the film is more impressionistic than purely political.
I ended up calling it a documentary because it documents the lives of incredibly real people, but the purpose of it was to engage in something that was more artistic, to externalise thoughts that are internal and not necessarily factual. Like with the dance sequences, I was trying to say something that isn’t verbal and have the people in the film express feelings that maybe only dance can portray.
Do you think it expresses a truth about its subjects?
For me the whole concept of truth is something that is so bogus when it comes to film. Documentaries are obviously from the point of view of the filmmaker and they choose what moments to show and they use editing and music to emphasise things. Also, if you’ve ever had a camera directed at you, you end up “playing yourself”, and this is what my subjects were doing in this film. At the same time I think the film reflects how it feels to be around these people and how it feels to be in their lives.
Even though certain scenes were dramatised or you’d give them directions beforehand?
I didn’t script anything, but I created situations that I feel make the film more cinematic or that allowed them to improvise and explore the themes that I wanted to bring out. I also told them never to look into the camera which is a direction which immediately creates an awareness that you’re performing. It is a more controlled environment than the usual documentary but I feel that all of these ideas are more fascinating for film festival programmers than for actual viewers. I don’t know, I think it’s much more interesting to have something cinematic and interesting than just engaging in documenting something. That doesn’t leave a lot of space for me as a filmmaker. I have interests and fantasies and mythologies and tastes and a connection to people and experiences, and I want to explore that too. I’m not a documentarian.
What would you hope that people take away from the film?
I don’t want to impose anything on anyone, but I hope they get a certain insight into a side of America that they don’t know and meet characters that they otherwise wouldn’t meet and just have a cinematic experience that is different from what they usually see.
I think it depends on the person. When you see a film it’s how it echoes with your own history and tastes. It’s up to the chemistry you have. I have this one great fan who saw the film with his girlfriend and wrote to me. He said that after they saw it they separated because he realised they didn’t have real intimacy and that there was something he was missing. He was feeling so many things when he saw the film and didn’t feel like he could share them with her. So that’s something I could have never imagined happening. You never know how someone will experience a film. All you can do is make it. I tried to create this thing about how I feel about this place and these characters. And it has its own life now.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Paddy Considine doesn’t have the social filters that most people possess. His conversation leaves scorched earth in its wake, with none of the neutered reserve that one usually finds in a high-profile actor giving an interview. When he talks, his body tenses up with energy and frustration. It’s an electrifying, vaguely frightening experience. You feel he might just punch you in the face. A part of you almost wants him to, if only so he can relax a little.
It’s not that Paddy is incapable of being polite, it’s simply that he doesn’t have the time or patience to be anything other than his bracingly honest self. He’s desperate to be correctly understood. His speech repeats itself, trying to hone in on the best way to articulate his thoughts. Understandably this makes him a little wary. Paddy explains, “I have to be mindful when I’m interviewed. It comes over like a moan, like I’m this moaning bastard actor. But somebody’s got to care.”
Right from his breakthrough role in A Room for Romeo Brass, Considine’s performances were intense, aggressive and soulful, marked by a brooding intelligence. Paddy disagrees about their quality. “Some people are very good at acting,” he says. “I’m not. I’m not good at it.” This isn’t an attempt to be modest. Considine has appeared in major films, but he chafes at the world of commercial filmmaking, explaining, “It’s such a generic, turgid environment to be in. It doesn’t lend itself to a brilliant creative process. It’s like having a straitjacket on. And that’s all I’m fighting against, it’s the straitjacket.”
The problem is that while Paddy loves acting, he hates how restrictive the filmmaking process can be. He yearns to properly inhabit a role. “I call it ‘drop the glove’ acting. You know, Marlon Brando drops the glove in On The Waterfront, picks it up and starts stroking it. On some film sets, you drop the glove and someone goes, ‘Cut!’ If I’m on a set doing my lines and I forget to say a certain word, I’ve got someone coming up to me with a clipboard telling me off. That’s not making films. That’s not creative. It’s not being in the moment. It’s mechanics.”
Sadly the freedom Paddy seeks doesn’t come as often as he’d like. His working life has been a balancing act, he says. “I don’t have the choices that people think I have. The truth is that two out of three films I’ve made, I’ve done them to make a living or because I’ve no alternative. If you don’t act and say, ‘I’m going to wait for a really great role,’ and then you wait six months, people aren’t going, ‘Where’s Paddy Considine?’ You’re just forgotten.” The result is the feeling that he’s wasted his time. “You want it to be a perfect record, but it isn’t. I can’t live up to it.”
On one particularly bad shoot, matters came to a head and Paddy had finally had enough. “I thought, ‘Something’s got to come from this: I’m so frustrated that I’m either going to destroy this room or I’m going to have to use this somehow.’” He chose the latter, channelling his rage into writing and directing his first short film. “It wasn’t enough to rely on other people’s scripts, or rely on other people full stop. There were a lot of times that I thought, ‘I could do this job better than you, mate.’ I had a story of my own to tell. It was something I was compelled to do. I had no choice.”
The short won a BAFTA, and now Paddy has expanded the story into a heartbreaking first feature, Tyrannosaur. As a film, it is almost unbearably harrowing—it opens with its protagonist kicking a dog to death and goes downhill from there—but it’s also surprisingly gentle and sweet. A film of tremendous power, its greatest strength comes from the stunning performances it showcases. Frustrated by years of working with filmmakers he felt were more interested in costumes and art direction, Paddy focussed on the people who anchor the story. He was committed to protecting his actors from over-zealous production staff. “I’d say, ‘If you drop anything, you do not stop until I say cut. You’re in it. There are no mistakes. Unless something falls on your head, you do not stop.”
It’s when talking about the experience of making the film that aggravation finally loses its hold on Paddy. He looks genuinely happy, and no matter how good an actor he is you almost never want him to do it again. The intensity and passion which makes his acting so remarkable also colours his frustrations, and it’s saddening to watch. In writing and directing, however, Considine has found what truly satisfies him. The change in focus makes him seem like a different person, one more at peace, and less in danger of an aneurysm.
Considering his love-hate relationship with it, will he continue to take acting work? “Yeah, and I’ll continue to moan,” he says, laughing. Paddy feels he’s earned a grumble. “Some people are capable of just acting, of going and doing their job and coming home and running a bath and it’s no big deal. At least I’ve done something about it. I’ve put my money where my mouth is and made a film.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eight. Photograph by Ross Trevail.
Ever since his 1992 debut The Living End, director Gregg Araki has been responsible for some of the most transgressive, bold and just plain silly films to have come from the indie world. In 2004 he reached an unprecedented level of critical acclaim for Mysterious Skin, a mature, devastating adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel about a gay hustler dealing with the memories of his childhood sexual abuse. Araki follow-up was “the Citizen Kane of stoner movies” Smiley Face, underrated and unreleased in the UK, and is now back with Kaboom.
Candy-coloured and lurid, Kaboom is about impossibly good-looking college students who find themselves in embroiled in a convoluted conspiracy that just about distracts them from their revolving door sex lives. It’s like Araki wrote the film whilst snorting a bin liner full of sugar as Twin Peaks played on loop in the background. Maybe it’s awful, but somehow that’s okay. It’s bloody ridiculous but is about as fun as Mysterious Skin was soul-destroying.
You wrote Kaboom after making two films that came from other people’s source material. Would you say it’s a personal film to you?
Kaboom is so near and dear to my heart. Of all my movies it’s probably the most autobiographical one I’ve ever done, which sounds weird because it’s such a crazy movie, but it’s very much based on my own experience, stuff I did when I was 20 years old and an undergraduate in Film School. I went to USC Santa Barbara which the college in the film is based on and my best friend was an art student like Stella. That’s why there are so many scenes in coffee shops because during that period of my life there were always big adventures and afterwards you’d go to the coffee shop and talk about what just happened and how you felt about it.
Was it a conscious choice to make something that was more your own?
It’s not like I feel like Mysterious Skin or Smiley Face are any less mine than Kaboom, because when you’re working from other people’s material you’re dealing with what attracts you to that material. For Mysterious Skin my mindset and sensibility is so aligned to Scott Haim. We have a similar sense of the world and so it was a natural fit for me. I brought to that film everything I could bring to it from my own experience but ultimately everything about the story and those characters was his. It’s like an adopted child. I love Smiley Face and Mysterious Skin and I’m so proud of both of them, but there’s a difference between something that comes purely from your imagination and something that doesn’t. There’s more responsibility I think.
The events of Kaboom are very dark, but it never feels that way – it’s like a confection. I don’t mean that in a bad way.
No, I think that’s very appropriate. It’s interesting because I originally envisioned Kaboom as being this very dark apocalyptic epic but there’s a playfulness and a sort of joyfulness about it. Despite its darkness there’s a sense of fun. The world of Kaboom is so stylised and comic-book that you feel anything can happen. That was what we set out to make – the thing I dislike about 99.9% of movies is that I always know where they’re going to go before they get there.
It must have been freeing once you’d decided that the film wouldn’t be entirely grounded by what could happen in the real world.
I remember when we were shooting it the cast and the crew and everybody would be just like “Oh, we’re going to Kaboomworld now”. It was like its own little world and that’s certainly meant to be the experience of watching it. It takes you to another place that’s more stylised and colourful and everybody’s beautiful and everybody’s having sex. It’s a utopian, dystopian world.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
It was 2004 and Joe Cornish’s roof needed fixing. “This weird thing happened. The Adam and Joe Show got cancelled and then there was something that we didn’t really expect, which is that all the executives at the TV channels just suddenly swapped. Everyone from Channel 4 went to the BBC and loads of people from the BBC went to Channel 4. We didn’t know what was happening. And suddenly they just weren’t interested in us at all. I remember the new head of Channel 4 saying, ‘Look, Joe, whatever you get offered, just take it.’ He was trying to stop us from insisting on doing our own thing. He wanted us to get involved in panel shows and stuff like that. So I remember thinking, ‘Maybe he’s right, maybe we should have a go at that kind of thing.’”
Cornish was offered the role of team captain on a new game show called HeadJam, presented by Vernon Kay. “It was a lot of money for two days. I remember vividly thinking, ‘Ah, I need to get a new roof. That’s that solved.’” He took the money, and if you missed the show at the time, it’s exactly as you imagine it would be.
Today, Cornish’s first film, Attack the Block, is being released in cinemas amid a raft of positive reviews (and rightly so). He still works with Adam Buxton, finding themselves at home in a popular 6 Music slot on Saturday mornings. Also, as a lifelong fan of Tintin, he’s co-written the screenplay for a film version with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat that’s been produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Steven Spielberg. It’s a long way from slumming it with Vernon Kay. The question is, where did it all go so right for Joe Cornish?
Perhaps a more telling question is, why did it take so long for it all to go so right? Cornish had always wanted to be a director. “When I was a kid, I’d love making up movies. I would draw the posters. I’d write the title and come up with a tagline and the cover art and do a credit block. When I was a teenager the wall of my bedroom was papered with these made-up films.”
He met Adam Buxton as 13-year-olds at Westminster School, where they shared this love of filmmaking. “We made some pretty appalling Super 8 epics. I directed them and he would star in them.”
Joe went off to study film at Bournemouth University, and after that the pair reunited for their little-seen, much-loved late-night programme the Adam and Joe Show, where they assimilated their love of movies and pop culture into inventive parodies. Films were remade with stuffed toys, TV shows were spoofed with Star Wars figurines, and overly-serious arts programming was poked fun of by having Adam interview people like Pat Sharp and Handy Andy about their craft. They did anything they wanted, in other words. “We were amazingly lucky. We were, what, 25 or 26, and to get our own half-hour on Channel 4 was incredible. We were definitely spoiled.” The show reflected that, dizzy on its own potential.
The pair didn’t realise quite how lucky they were. Then the Adam and Joe Show was cancelled and for years they bounced from place to place, unsure of how to bring their cult success to a wider audience while staying independent. They kept facing the same problems. “It’s not something they teach you at film school. The ground is always shifting. Just when you think you’ve found your safe harbour, the flipping harbourmaster will change and they’ll pull down the pier.” Eventually they found their niche in radio, taking over Ricky Gervais’ XFM show and eventually moving to 6 Music, quickly becoming one of the fledgling station’s biggest draws.
Despite success, Cornish couldn’t help but think about filmmaking. Friends with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, he cameoed in Shaun of the Dead. It must have been hard to watch his friends suddenly hit so big. It wasn’t long before it affected him, though. “One of the nice things about getting older is that people who are your age rise up around you.” Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were developing a Tintin film with Stephen Moffat, who worked on the script until he left to run Doctor Who. “They needed to find someone to take over from him and do the last few passes. So Peter Jackson called Edgar Wright, and Edgar Wright called me.” After dreaming of filmmaking since childhood, it became as easy as that. “The thing for me was just the work. I absolutely love Tintin so I wanted to do it right. I wanted to please them and make it good and do good work.”
It’s that work ethic that led Cornish from the perils of the “professional funny person” circuit. As well as Tintin, he and Edgar Wright are adapting the comic book Ant Man for Universal. And then, of course, there’s Attack the Block. “When I was growing up I used to love low-budget, high-concept movies. You know: movies where directors are a bit too ambitious and they don’t quite have enough money, so they get over obstacles by being inventive and clever practically.” Ambitious is certainly the word. “We made a low budget film with eleven young actors who had never really been in front of the camera before, with creatures, with stunts, with chases, with explosions, with special effects, all shot at night. We definitely wanted to try and bite off more than we could chew.”
This desire to strive beyond himself is what defines Cornish. “On Attack the Block it was all day, every day for at least 18 months. Properly all day every day—weekends, Christmas, I couldn’t go to my brother’s wedding. And the quality of the film is directly, unambiguously related to the amount of time you spend on it. You could go and have a drink instead of editing, but if you stay editing for another two hours it will be better. When the equation is that simple, of quality to time put in, there’s not much of an excuse to slack off.”
The hard work has paid off. Funny, scary and thrilling, it’s surprising just how fantastic the film is, a sci-fi horror comedy that also happens to be a sensitive and insightful portrayal of contemporary poor urban Britain. It’s like the Wire meets Predator 2.
After a long run of non-stop work, Cornish has returned to his 6 Music show with Adam, but other than that, the future is open. “I’ve got an idea of the thing I want to do next, but I’m completely open in terms of any other writing assignments or DIY work or children’s party entertaining.” It must be odd to be at something of a loose end. “It feels a little bit exciting, a little bit scary, and a tiny bit boring. Like life.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Six. Photograph by Trent McMinn.