Thursday, January 28, 2010
When I was asked by The Huffington Post to comment on New York movies premiering in Sundance, the first film that popped into my mind was Josh and Bennie Safdie's Daddy Longlegs. Now, as you may know, I'm a big fan of the Safdie brothers, selecting Josh for our 25 New Faces for the film he directed, The Pleasure of Being Robbed in 2008. That picture is a delightfully freewheeling romance of sorts involving a young woman, played with depth and originality by Eleonore Hendricks, who casually steals, not out of maliciousness or for greed but simply because of a worldview that sees the world as hers.
This second film, Daddy Longlegs, directed with his brother Bennie, extends the Safdies' emotional range further. It's the story of Lenny, a projectionist and divorced dad, and it's set during the summertime two weeks he has custody of his two young sons. Lenny's lifestyle is both perpetually frazzled and compulsively bohemian, and his take on parenthood is somewhere between unaffected love and a call to child services. Lenny is based on the Safdies' own dad, and their ability to weave their complicated emotions about him into a work that is alternately shocking, free-spirited and joyful is testament to their extraordinary emotional intelligence as directors. Much credit goes to Frownland director Ronnie Bronstein, who plays Lenny in his acting debut. There's some of Bronstein's naturally searching loquaciousness in Lenny, but there's also the keen intelligence of an actor firmly aware of the implications of his choices.
Daddy Longlegs (previously titled Go Get Some Rosemary when it world premiered at the Cannes Film Festival's Director's Fortnight) screens tonight, January 28, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of Sundance USA. Whereas other films from the festival are headed out to cities around the country, Sundance has appropriately sent the Safdies back to their hometown. Kids and irresponsible dads exist everywhere, but there's a particularly Gotham flavor to the brothers' filmmaking, a capturing of the people and textures of this city that will thrill all of its cineastes. If you miss tonight's screening, you can catch the movie on VOD through Sundance Selects for a limited time before its theatrical launch later this year.
Filmmaker: Let’s start by talking about how you wound up casting Ronnie Bronstein, the director of Frownland, as a character based on your dad.
Josh Safdie: It started with registration at SXSW. I didn’t know he was a filmmaker. I genuinely thought he was a lost silent film actor, like a celebrity from the 1920s. I was totally intimidated by him. The night he won the [Special Jury] award, the programmer who selected both our short, We’re Going to the Zoo, and Frownland, came up to me and said I should meet him. I missed Frownland because I had left my key in the car running overnight. I had this crazy experience — the windshield wipers rubberized my windshield because it was running all night and it was raining. When I was introduced to Ronnie, I said, “Something must be important about you because when I was trying to make your screening I left my keys in my car overnight….” He was weirded out by that introduction, but he and [d.p.] Sean Williams still went to see our short the next day, and they liked it.
Benny: I had been trying to make a short, and that night Josh sent me a photo that had Ronnie in the background. He said, “This guy has got to be in something. Email him about the short you want to make.” So, I sent him this really formal email out of the blue, which to this day, every month, he’ll send back to me. There’s something really weird about seeing yourself so distant from someone you are now really close to.
Filmmaker: What happened next?
Josh: Ronnie was showing Models, the Frederick Wiseman movie, at AMMI, and invited us. I loved the film, and that’s when I asked him, “This is going to seem very weird, and I know my brother contacted you about playing this silent comedy actor, but I think you’d be really great in this story I wrote with my brother. It’s about a dad.”
Benny: [His casting] was a confluence of things. One time he was showing Frownland in Boston and had nowhere to stay. He gets my number, calls me and says, “Can I stay in your place in Boston?” I was like, okay, but we didn’t really know each other, and suddenly we’re staying in the same apartment. We watched Reflections of Evil and then walked all over Boston together. That’s how we got to know each other.
Filmmaker: So how did you merge what you discovered in Ronnie with your vision of your dad?
Josh: I remembered Ronnie’s demeanor based on the speech he gave at SXSW [when he won the award]. He said something like, “This is not a careerist opportunity for me” — there was something goofy to it. Then I saw Frownland a bunch of times, and then we hung out with him. We worked together on [Mary Bronstein’s film] Yeast. We got to see both his ugly side and his slapstick side – he’s a really silly guy. We knew the character we were writing wasn’t Ronnie, and we knew that he didn’t want to play himself, so we came up with this character Lenny, and that’s when the movie took its second form. [Ronnie, Bennie and I] sat down in a diner, three days in a row, eight-hour sessions, and we talked about the movie so much that he knew it. We had written Go Get Some Rosemary as a 44-page story but, in fact, he never read it until after we were done shooting. It was in that diner that the real casting [took place]. We knew exactly what he was capable of and not capable of.
Benny: All just from the looks on his face. If we told him about a scene and it didn’t hit anything with him, we realized that scene wasn’t going to work. We had to tailor this weird version of our father into Ronnie.
Filmmaker: But what was it specifically about Ronnie that prompted you to think of him as a character based on your dad?
Josh: I think it’s the silliness mixed at the same time with the seriousness. We see our dad in that. When I think of our dad, I think of this lonely guy who was delivering jewelry in midtown in the late ‘70s, and I could really see Ronnie [playing that kind of character]. The big difference is that our dad was not an American. He fancied himself as an American, but he became an American in 1982. English is his fourth language.
Benny: He is not as verbose as [Lenny].
Filmmaker: Tell me about the balance between comedy and critique in the film, about constructing the complicated nature of Lenny’s character.
Josh: The movie is a weird meditation on perspectives. It’s very much from the perspective of the kids, but at the same time it’s from the perspective of this man. Ronnie was kind of our soldier in the field — he was our tool to express ourselves as we are as adults. I’m very grateful to him for that. That’s where the movie started to become more complicated, when we realized that he had become a very good, contemporary friend of ours, and we were going to express ourselves through him. That’s where the complicated perspective of the movie comes from — in that initial sit down we realized that his [character] wasn’t just a father figure, it was also us.
Filmmaker: What about the process of directing him on set? What was that like?
Josh: Ronnie in the preproduction process was very cerebral about it, and in the production he became very emotional.
Benny: There were certain times we would sit down with a scene, and he’d come at it one way, in one frame of mind, but [Josh and I] would have sat down the night before, reconciled our differences, and put together a unified vision. And we would know, “Ronnie is really going to pull [the scene] this way, and we have to do something that throws him off it in the opposite direction!”
Josh: It was like chess. Ronnie loved that aspect of it.
Benny: And even while we were filming, Ronnie would know that I’d be more open to certain things than Josh —
Josh: So he’d go to him for those things!
Benny: It was almost like a war, or a battle, but we always knew it wasn’t an ego thing. It was always about ideas.
Josh: That’s why [Ronnie’s] was the biggest casting decision. A really good actor will question the ideas of a scene and the validity of its emotions.
Filmmaker: Did the filmmaking process change for you on this second film?
Josh: Absolutely. The first movie was —
Benny: — way more organic.
Josh: I have a lot of respect for that movie because it was very much like a jazz improvisation. We knew the melodies, and then we kind of went into our own solos. I’m very respectful of that, and I think it’s a triumph, personally, but we had no idea what we were getting into when we started. I had a lot of mangled, gutteral feelings when I thought of Eleonore as her character, who turns out to have been very much a character. I’ve been with her now two and half years, and it’s weird, we did this interview for French television and they shot it on the Staten Island ferry, and she popped this question: “Do you ever think we could work together again like we worked together on Pleasure of Being Robbed?” And I said, “No, I don’t think so.” We saw each other as such caricatures, and those caricatures we were able to write. Now we know each other and we know all these things about each other so the caricatures are negated.
Benny: There’s less mystery.
Josh: But the difference [in the making of the two films] is that we knew what we were getting into when we embarked on Daddy Longlegs.
Benny: There was a beginning and a definite ending.
Josh: And we knew the complications. We knew there were two direct perspectives of the movie. There was a harsh perspective, where you are super-critical of this person, and then there was also an extremely loving, compassionate perspective. And we knew we wanted them both at the same time. That’s, to me, the biggest success of the movie, that its perspective completely dances — you don’t know if you love [Lenny], you don’t know if you hate him.
Benny: It’s subjective too. You can watch the movie and be veered down one path, where you just see the hate, and not even know the other loving side exists. Each subjective [position] exists separately, and that they don’t make an objective movie is strange. We wanted [the audience] to feel this weird duality of how we feel towards our dad.
Josh: And how we feel towards ourselves too.
Benny: Writing about somebody’s criticisms to point out the reason you love them is really difficult.
Filmmaker: What was it like as brothers directing together?
Josh: The most appropriate fighting happened. We would hash out our ideas even before rehearsals so we knew that if we were arguing we’d know that the only thing was wrong was not our relationship but that an idea was wrong. If we were having an argument we knew that something wasn’t right, and that was a very comforting thing to know. If we’re arguing about something, it would turn into a stupid personal fight but then we’d know that something wasn’t right in a scene or on a page.
Benny: We’ve always had ourselves as constant companions, so we have similar ways of looking at things, but there is a slight difference. I’m more critical, or more analytical —
Josh: And I can romanticize things.
Benny: And that crunching together produces a deeper perspective than what we would have done individually.
Josh: Because there’s complication.
Benny: I learned so much more about him and myself.
Josh: And on a technical level, I shot 50% of the movie, and Benny did 50% of the sound, so a lot of times in these intimate scenes there was me with a camera, and there was an unspoken dynamic.
Benny: This seems really cheesey, but I guess it made sense that you were looking at it and I was listening to it so we had to trust each other.
Josh: We were shooting really long-lens stuff, so a lot of times I couldn’t hear the dialogue. When we were shooting out in the streets, we never wanted unsuspecting strangers to look and see a film crew. We wanted them to see this guy manically running into his apartment with his two kids. We wanted them to tell their friends and have the movie live on in their dinner conversations.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the editing — what the process was like, and what kind of decisions you had to make.
Josh: Ronnie helped us edit, and then we shot four extra days to fill holes – logical holes, continuity holes, and emotional holes.
Benny: The reshoots on this [film] were so strange. They felt like pure business. “We’re trying to go from here to here and it’s not working. We need to write a scene to fill that hole.” It was about filling these holes.
Filmmaker: How were you guided? Was it just yourselves, or did you do feedback screenings?
Benny: We don’t do that. It was mainly the two of us, and Brett and Ronnie sitting down watching. If something didn’t fit right, you, Josh, would say, “I don’t know what I think of this scene,” and that would start this enormous discussion. We’d go from the highs and the lows and we’d eventually cut out something we loved.
Filmmaker: When was the first time you saw it with an audience?
Josh: We showed it to the six-person crew, and there were two extra people in the studio at the time, so there were eight of us. It was an assembly, but we had already cut 40 minutes. We did some sound design, but emotionally it was a rough cut. That was probably the closest thing we’ve done to [a small group screening]. The biggest thing people said to us was, “That’s a monster of a movie.” It was so long! We took it as a compliment: “We deflated our audience!” But the most important feedback we got from those eight people was that there was so much emotion [in the film]. It was playing flat towards the end. Everybody said, “It has to be an hour shorter.” And that’s when the movie kind of went into a spiral. We started cutting things really randomly, totally in the moment. We had to stop, and we moved the editing to Benny’s bedroom, and then Ronnie really started becoming part of the conversation. He’d come over and we’d have these massive conversations and then we’d do an edit.
Benny: Those were crazy 18-hour days.
Josh: We were trying to make that Directors Fortnight deadline, which was good, because I really believe in deadlines.
Filmmaker: How do you see yourselves in relation to the independent film industry right now? Where do you see yourselves as fitting in?
Benny: I don’t know what it’s like on set for other films. I don’t know if it’s in any way like what we are doing. In some way it does feel like we’re a little separate, like we are at this other table. But I don’t really want to know that.
Josh: We were hanging out in Stockholm with that director, Adam Bhala Lough, who made Weapons and that Lee Scratch Perry doc. He said, “You guys don’t realize but there are no middle movies anymore, no $6 million movies. There are $80 million movies and under $250,000 movies. So we are grateful that we could be so free in the shooting process. We were allowed to emotionally experiment and do whatever we wanted. We could just keep shooting and shooting. I don’t even know what the final budget was on this movie, but if this is the biggest budget I’ll ever see, I’m fine with that. The budget was never a limitation on the movie, except for the paper tornado scene. A friend said, “I wish somebody would give you $2.5 million dollars just so that paper tornado scene could have been four stories high.” And yeah, I would have loved to have closed the block and had massive blowers and much more paper. The one shot I wish we had is a piece of paper traveling through the sky. And I wish we could have had steadicam sometime.
Benny: But at the same time, we did have a rented apartment on 35th Street that we completely had free range to transform into a museum of our childhood emotional ideas, and that was our set. For months we could go there and do rehearsals.
Filmmaker: So even though you are working with six and not seven-figure budgets, budget hasn’t felt like a limitation?
Josh: The interesting thing about wherever independent film is going — I’m perfectly okay if producers are standing behind directors doing these highly personal movies. Not narcissistic, self-involved movies, but highly personal movies you can have free reign with. The idea of a production based on feeling and intuition, I really like that. I’m hearing of people making movies for $80,000, $1000,000 and sometimes shooting film, and if those are the big budgets of this new free filmmaking movement, I’m totally okay with that. I think that’s interesting. Most of the stuff I’m seeing, however, is not taking the risks that I want to see. I want to be so emotionally mixed-up about a movie that I can’t turn away from it.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like you know your audience and have a relationship with them?
Josh: We’re starting to, at least a little bit. Changing the title, that’s something we are doing in conjunction with an audience. We understood that Go Get some Rosemary was a title for us, and it wasn’t translating. We learned that at Cannes. It was kind of alienating and too esoteric. It was playing like a “gotcha” title, and our movies aren’t heady like that. Daddy Longlegs was Ronnie’s suggestion, I think it has a jazzy silliness but at the same time it has a sadness to it. The idea of having long legs is a weird optimistic phrase.
Benny: It’s clumsy. There’s something funny about being clumsy, but you can always fall over.
Josh: We just got our first sketches of the French poster, and they’re naming it Lenny and Les Enfants: “Lenny and the Kids.” Nobody can name this movie! This Greek festival named it something they wouldn’t translate for us. Not being able to name something is the biggest compliment — it’s a sign of uniqueness. But going back to audiences, when we were in Cannes, this young French guy, like 20, comes up to us. He had seen The Pleasure of Being Robbed, and he said, “When I heard you made a movie about a dad and his two kids, I thought, this isn’t underground.” I hate that expression! What does that mean? It’s not underground because it’s about a family! What does “underground” mean — that it has to involve young distraught people? And then I realized that people judge movies based on the demographic they see on paper. They see a father and kids and think it’s for families. But I do think this movie has a really weird reach. The people I’m most interested in hearing reactions from are middle-aged parents who are totally affected by the movie. And people who think, wow, I’m so disheveled I could never imagine having a kid. That’s where I come at the movie from. My dad was my age when he had kids. Jesus, that seems like a project. I think of that every time I walk down the steps of my apartment, like, wow, I could have a kid upstairs!
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Ken Waldrop’s His & Hers is a documentary focusing on 70 women from the Irish Midlands, arranged chronologically from age 0 to 90, telling small stories about their lives. Irish Midlands women, being funny, sarcastic, charming and warm, are good subjects; Waldrop knew that because he grew up the son of one of very funny and sarcastic Irish Midlands mother. He constructed the film to mirror his own mother’s life; the women speak of their marriages in their twenties, their sons, and, finally, their husbands and these men's deaths. Some of the interviews are about tiny things (who controls the remote control), and some are directly about the big issues (how you never stop feeling the loss of your husband); some are hilarious, some are heartbreaking. All of them are about love, to some degree. One of the central goals of independent filmmaking is to construct a series of small moments that add up to a much larger truth. The tiny moments we get with the adorable ladies of His & Hers add up to a small miracle of a film — a deep, emotional meditation on the universality of human experience.
Filmmaker: Your movie made me cry and cry.
Waldrop: OK, that’s a good sign! You know, we all have mothers, we all have grandmothers, we all have younger people in our lives, so I think there’s something in there for everyone. But I didn’t go out to make such a universal kind of thing (laughs). Making these choices, I was so worried, and my producer Andrew Freedman was just like, “Ken, this film is so low budget, if we fail, we should fail while doing something that is a little bit more dangerous.” But at the time I was so apprehensive.
Filmmaker: How did you come up with the idea?
Waldrop: You know, the film started with my thinking about my mother, because she had such a happy marriage, and she became a widow in her sixties. I thought, “It might be interesting to try to create a life’s journey in the same sort of way I’d been making my short films — with vignettes, [in a documentary style.] I used my mum’s life as a kind of structure. I wanted to make a film that was devoid of divorce and big bad things. I wanted to explore the ordinary, to try find this extraordinary journey that we all take if we’re lucky enough to find people to fall in love with. And of course there are ups and downs. There’s no doubt about that, but in general, I wanted to give a kind of positive thing.
Filmmaker: Can you describe the structure of the film a bit more?
Waldrop: Well, [since we’re using my mum’s life as a structure,] the story of the film was going to be the lifespan of a woman who was going to lose the love of her life when she got to her sixties. So the girl was going to be a baby, with her father as the most important man in her life, she was going to grow up, meet a boy, fall in love, get married. The husband passes away when she’s in her sixties, and they were going to have a son, who then was going to come out and look out for her, later in life. So it was always going to be, a girl grows up, the most important male in her life is her father, and growing up-
Filmmaker: You know the fact that the facts of these different women's lives are all so similar didn’t even occur to me when I was watching it. It seems so obvious in retrospect.
Waldrop: Yeah, I mean obviously, all the women had someone in their lives, but they had would have different variations. They all had big families, so they might have had four girls and two sons, which wasn’t the case if they were all single-parent families with just boys, but they all had a male child, [and that’s what they discuss in the film.] I wanted it to mirror my mum’s story.
Filmmaker: Can you speak more about wanting it to be positive? The women truly don’t speak about any terrible things, except for death. All the conversations seem to be about love.
Waldrop: I knew that it would be dangerous. Irish women, they’re always sarcastic about their husbands, but inside that, inside their little bickering and their problems, you can tell there’s genuine love behind their stories. I decided to limit again to Irish women, and Irish Midland women. Obviously there’s all sorts of ladies in Ireland, and all cultures and creeds, and I started to worry that the film wouldn’t represent all North Irish people. And then I thought, “That’s crazy, I’m just going to make the film, and these women are just going to remind me of my own mother." And in fact, they all live no further than about 60 miles away from each other. This was because we cut the budget and didn’t have enough money for petrol, so we put our base down in a village and looked for women there.
Filmmaker: What other budget limitations did you have?
Waldrop: Well, I really, really wanted to shoot on 16mm, I wanted to work with the constraints that that would impose. So I only had ten minutes for everybody’s interview.
Filmmaker: Oh my goodness. One roll of film per lady.
Waldrop: Yes, including all the cutaway shots and all else. So you can imagine how stressful that was. And we were doing two people per day, so we only had four hours with each character, because we’d have to move on in the afternoon. So it became a bit of a military organization, because there were only four of us. For that reason, we decided, “Okay, we’re going to shoot during the day, indoors, because if it rains we won’t be in trouble.” It was a real team effort. We went home every night and cooked our dinners, and we’d look over the rushes from our little monitor, we’d discuss what we got that day, and consider the next two days’ characters. Because we weren’t shooting in sequence, we’d have to kind of go back and forth in the story, and work out what we talked about. In a way, it was a mundane, trivial life, and I’d half complain, you know, “That lady is talking about her car,” but I knew that we needed to talk about the car, just in case, because that was a way into the next story. I needed those little kind of clever edits that would keep the audience engaged, to make sure the film kept a kind of flow. After four or five characters, we started to make choices that we thought could lend itself to kind of creating this overall face of the film that exists in it. Of course there were ups and downs in the process, and some characters didn’t work out, but we really had a good success rate. I think, as we filmed new characters, we only lost twelve, and kept 70. So good extras for the DVD.
Filmmaker: One thing all the women share is a way of communicating that’s very funny, and very sarcastic, and they all seem to know how to tell stories about themselves in a way that I feel is particularly Irish — I don’t know if that would have worked for a group of U.S. women.
Waldrop: I think you’re right. I’m from the Irish Midlands. My mum’s a Midland woman, I know all her friends, and I knew that especially when they talk about the men in their lives, there is this innate sarcasm, and these kind of weird games that Irish men and women have with each other. I knew if I could get through to that that there’d be something to have. But it was a question: I have four hours with these people, how do I get through to that and makes sure they’re not talking in their telephone accents, you know? It’s the first time these people are on camera ever in their lives, and they’re all very nervous, and they don’t know me. I sent them my DVD of my shorts, so they had some idea of where I was coming from. And of course, I made a film called Undressing my Mother, which had my mum naked in it.
Filmmaker: Oh goodness.
Waldrop: That did shock a lot of them. (laughs)
Filmmaker: So how did you get past their "telephone accent?" Did you ask them all the same question?
Waldrop: I said, “I want to talk about the simple things in life that connect you, to your son, husband, or father." So that was easy for people, because they thought I was talking about [the things that you use to control one another], whereas if I was like “I want to talk about your relationship to your husband,” they’d be like, “Oh God, no.” You know, I’d have to kind of meander my way into their lives. I would start my banter, would discuss my own life, and it just became a chat, as opposed to an interview. So I hope that’s what comes across.
Galt Niederhoffer is no stranger to Sundance, having produced films that won awards there beginning in 1997, when Morgan J. Freeman’s Hurricane Streets won the Audience Award. As a founding member of Plum Pictures, one of New York’s most active independent film production companies, she has produced over a dozen films, including Grace is Gone, Dedication, Prozac Nation, Lonesome Jim, The Winning Season, The Baxter and After.Life. Niederhoffer grew up in New York, one of six daughters of a squash champion-turned-hedge fund maverick, in a rambling, eccentrically decorated house. In her first novel, A Taxonomy of Barnacles, Niederhoffer may have used her vivid and unique family dynamic for raw material; in her second, The Romantics (on which the film is based), she explores the family you make after you leave home: your friends.
Lila (Anna Paquin) is marrying Tom (Josh Duhamel), and Tom used to date Laura (Katie Holmes), and Laura and Tom may or may not still be in love with each other – dramas that the remaining five of their best friends from college arrive to witness. The group gathers for the rehearsal dinner and spends one long night reliving their college memories and testing the boundaries of their new adult lives. Comparisons to The Big Chill are inevitable, but this is a film that’s less about reliving the past than it is about reckoning with the future. As the seven friends come together, fall apart and come together again, all in the course of one night, they repeat their favorite toast — “to our glittering future!” — and each time its meaning is different.
Filmmaker: What were some of the pitfalls of the Romance Movie genre that you had to work through or fight against?
Niederhoffer: I don’t think anyone with any sense of movies and books could write a romantic story without an awareness of its tradition. It’s hard not to allude to various hallmarks of the genre, so I find those references unavoidable but sometimes really interesting. But you always want to avoid cliché — so, [I was] fighting cliché, and when appropriate embracing it. There are moments [in literature and cinema] that can never be done better than they have been. All you can do is embrace it and acknowledge the debt. I really wanted to make a sweet, emotional, romantic movie — something that moves you and swells your heart, that makes you weepy at times [and makes you] walk out of the theatre feeling happy and like you want to go make out with your honey.
Filmmaker: Just like a wedding.
Niederhoffer: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. I mean these things have a purpose — they make us feel good, and they remind us of the universal fact that we all are pitting this enormity of emotion against the question of that emotion’s validity in real life. I’m still most interested in stories with a love story at the center. [A wedding] seemed like the best setting in which to explore a love story of heightened proportions, the proportions of love when it seems to be the only thing that matters – which is a quality of love that it loses once you grow up.
Filmmaker: What was happening in your life when you wrote the book?
Niederhoffer: I was just turning thirty, and I was pregnant with my second child — actually, I finished the manuscript the week before he was born. I was really settling into this new phase of my life, being a mom and an adult, I suppose, and maybe looking back on the period before that phase with some nostalgia and some romance. Things change so completely when you become a parent; all that stuff like Love and Heartache kind of leave the picture for a little while. I was in that new phase of being a responsible human being who had lost the luxury of all of that drama and, in a sense, frivolity. So I guess I was interested in reliving them, through this idea of retelling the old story of a rich girl and a poor boy and someone else caught in between. I also wanted to do something that just had more sincerity and more heart [than my first book]. Sincerity goes very easily to the point of sentimentality, and I wanted to ride that line, which is a hard thing to do. Emotions are as tricky in stories as they are in the real world. They’re big and unruly and often the very unattractive sign of absurd and compulsive narcissism, you know? That quality is so true of young people and their emotions that you really have to navigate it with some care. The question kind of becomes: are young people fools, or are young people honest?
Filmmaker: Jane Austen territory.
Niederhoffer: It’s interesting that you would mention her because my first book was a real homage to Pride & Prejudice — but that’s why I think the Romantic period was so interesting to me, and why I had an epiphany moment when I figured out the title, and the central metaphor of it; two of the characters keep going back to this poem from the Romantic period. The Romantic poets were so interested in emotion — the importance of emotion, the placement of emotion, and the objects of it. They were reclaiming emotional intensity back from the Church, back from organized, institutional notions of love, and putting it into all sort of different things: nature, death, inspiration, the act of writing, and romantic love.
Filmmaker: Do you agree that the story is one of six people all trying to decide how to deal with their emotions, or whether they want to deal with them at all?
Niederhoffer: Yeah, that’s an interesting way of thinking of it… The movie, at its best, is looking at the various ways in which we handle emotions in our lives, and how that serves us and serves an individual. Another weird thing that happened in the mid-19th century is that emotion became defined in such a way that you could almost say it was invented. You have the Victorian era, and Freud, and suddenly there’s this totally new definition of the human heart and the human head and a narrative put in place about the fight going on between them. That’s a dramatic construction; that’s a story we tell ourselves about how people work and how our bodies work. If you accept that definition, which is pretty absurd, it becomes a way of understanding people and dramatizing the choices they have to make. Each of these characters is fighting their way through the choice they have to make.
Filmmaker: How did being a producer prepare you for directing?
Niederhoffer: Being a producer made me incredibly grateful for the opportunity, because I know how hard producers work — and all of our producers just worked their asses off, especially because it’s such a hard time to get a movie made. Like all movies, it was a little rocky getting it going, and I was so scared it wasn’t going to happen. So when it finally did, when everyone pulled through and worked so hard, I just was crazy with gratitude and understood that I had to carefully assess the battles that could not be won versus the battles that needed to be fought. It made me a little more humble and a lot more practical.
Filmmaker: The thing I least envy about directors is the pressure on them to think creatively in the midst of this overpowering, relentless production machine.
Niederhoffer: I think that’s the hardest thing. People are right to say that the best director is the decisive director, but I realized something about that. Sometimes being decisive means saying, “Hold on one second, I need to think about that.” Sometimes it’s not best to just shout out an answer; your gut sometimes does need a good 30 seconds to hear itself out. Everything is so accelerated and rushed, and that’s also part of the thrill of filmmaking — you add to this incredible mixture of people and limits and opportunities this crazy time thing, where every second costs thousands of dollars. That adds this “game” quality to the whole thing, like you’re playing this game of Tetris, trying to solve a new problem every minute.
Filmmaker: How did you come up for the aesthetic plan of the film?
Niederhoffer: That was the result of an incredible, really joyful collaboration between me and the core creative members of the movie – Sam Levy [the DP], Tim Grimes [the Production Designer], Danielle Kays [Costumes], and now Jacob Craycroft the Editor. We had one of those awesome experiences that you dream about, that I had seen other filmmakers have. It was a weird kind of echo of the story, the way we came together as strangers and were thrust together as a group of friends, and suddenly we had to listen and share and argue and disagree and concede, and it was all the things that the movie was about; being inspired, being moved, and becoming emotional because of a person or idea that takes you out of the mundane existence of daily life.
Filmmaker: What was it like working with this ensemble cast?
Niederhoffer: The magical, transporting, very intense thing that happened with the key creative crew happened again when the actors arrived. It was so intense, the exchange that happened between myself and all of these people, so much so that I would sometimes forget… I would think, “OK, I have to do the democratic thing and find out what everyone agrees on here,” and then I would remember that it was my right and responsibility to the movie that a clear vision be upheld and described. You hear about directors who are totally open and kind of defer to the actor, and others who are completely rigid and ignore the actor in favor of their original vision. I found early on that while it is essential to maintain a clear sense of your gut — I think that’s what vision means; what is your gut, after you take that second to ask yourself, “What is the best idea here?” — that right before that, you absolutely must listen to the best idea. Because if not, you might miss it. And often actors do have the best idea about blocking or a line or a scene, and it’s absolutely critical to pay attention. I found that whole interchange, first with my creative collaborators and then with the actors, really thrilling, quite emotional and utterly taxing, but ultimately very awesome.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Tasked with “celebrating experimentation and the convergence of art and film,” the New Frontier section at Sundance has been exhibiting feature films and installations for the last four years. Shari Frilot is the programmer, and spent the entire year reviewing work from new artists, figuring out which part of the ground being broken she wants to put in front of the Sundance audience.
How to show film art in an art film context? Frilot tries to make sure that the artists all “speak the same language” as cinema. This year, the spotlight artist is Pipilotti Rist, who creates video work of massive proportions, having recently filled most of the ground floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City with a multi-screen project that invited you to lie on a couch and let envelop you. Rist is showing her feature Pepperminta, as well as using the same project for a live installation. Another trend: two films — Oddsac and All My Friends are Funeral Singers — seem to be representing the future of music videos: whole features built like albums, that will tour with the bands (Animal Collective and Califone respectively) and replace the short-form promotions they used to do. There are live documentaries, interactive Google map shows, art that you need night vision goggles to see, festival-long experiments in remixed cellphone video… there are more differences between this work than there are similarities, but collectively, this is the work at the festival asking all the questions.
Filmmaker: How is this year’s programming different from the years before?
Shari Frilot: We definitely charged ourselves to make something very different from the years before. The theme this year is "breaking out." Breaking out of old forms, old infrastructures, breaking out completely from the screen of presentation — that is, breaking off of the esteemed cinematic presentation and integrating into the realm of walking and talking. Where is the cinematic image as you walk through your everyday life? The shows this year are much more sculptural, [the exhibition] overtly engages the body, in really intense and physical and sensual ways. Pippiloti Rist’s installation is an entire red room, with beds in it (pictured above: Frilot, on left, and Rist).
Filmmaker: She’s a great artist to showcase in this environment, her [video] work is so enveloping…
Frilot: She’s our Artist Spotlight this year, she’s our example of an artist and a filmmaker who’s coming to the festival and platforming her project in a way that I’ve never really seen anywhere. She’s showing her first feature film, Pepperminta, and we’re showing it in the normal Sundance theaters in the more traditional way, and she is also constructing a fully immersive installation that is directly related to the film in the New Frontier space. So there is a visual world that you can enter in two ways with her project: one through a narrative arc in a [traditional theatrical environment], and one where your body is explicitly engaged with a kind of sensual, luscious, red lounge with beds, and the images from the film completely surrounding your body. I had hoped that [these ideas] would resonate with people who are looking for answers in this new, rewired landscape that we’re dealing with in the industry.
Filmmaker: One reason that I love your programming is that it’s not literal, you know, like, "This is the kind of iPhone movie that people are making."
Frilot: Oh gosh, I take that as a huge compliment!
Filmmaker: Well I imagine it’s very hard to contend with a film industry and the art world and merge them in a way that resonates with the Sundance audience.
Frilot: Well, honestly, I’m following the artists, and I’m following the filmmakers, and they’re the ones presenting sophisticated visions. I can’t take that credit. My job is not to build an art exhibit, my job is to build an alternative universe at Sundance, a kind of festival within a festival, with the support of the community and dialogue and discussion and the artistic inspiration around the evolving cinematic cultures. It’s about creating a [space] where people can get ready for thinking about a different way about the cinematic, to kind of disengage to reengage. But [the artists] have to be speaking the same language that filmgoing audiences have, in a way. It really is about experimentation. How do you present the cinematic image with an independent vision to film festival audiences, how do you do it? And how do you do it in a way that it doesn’t turn audiences off, but turns them on to something new?
Filmmaker: How has your thinking abot it changed in the last few years?
Frilot: I’ve always approached the question by referring to Audre Lorde, she’s a black feminist poet and theorist, and she speaks a lot about the power of the erotic, and erotic knowledge. And erotic is not about porn; she’s talking about the information that you have, that we all have, in our sensual selves. A lot of the artists this year are dealing with the sensual, and the pleasure principal — how do our bodies engage with the moving image? The site of our cinematic culture is around the body, it’s around the moving body, it’s changing our body. There is a tremendous physicality to the work this year, and that resonates so strongly with that viewpoint. It will be interesting to see how people are going to respond (laughs).
Filmmaker: Which of the pieces are good examples of those ideas?
Frilot: Well, when I say sensuality I’m using as a very broad way of describing how you use your body to touch and feel the work. So a great example is the Post-Global Warming Survival Kit by Petko Dourmana When you enter the installation you walk into a completely black room, but there’s a tent in the room. It’s pitch black, unless you take the night vision goggles that were given to you at the entrance and put them to your eyes, and then you can see an entire landscape — essentially this seascape. The tent is the residence of a worker from the future whose monitoring the rising sea levels and taking notes and keeping a diary, and you can’t see any of this unless you have the night vision goggles because in the future. So, in the vision of the artist, we had to create a nuclear winter to keep the planet cool. So this is something that directly implicates the body — you have to touch him and walk around and go around somebody, and their residence, and where they live, and what they are thinking, and what they are doing, and getting into the interiors of the character, this would-be character.
Frilot: Another great example is a piece by Matthew Moore, he’s a farmer from Phoenix, Arizona. He grows lettuce and carrots and grapefruits, and his piece Lifecycles is actually something that will be installed at the Fresh Market Grocery. With his work, he strived to connect consumer activity, to connect the lifecycle of the produce to the object you are buying. So we’re planting a number of screens in the produce section of the market, so for example, if you wanted to go and buy some lettuce, above the lettuce there’s a video that he’s shot of his own crops, from seeding to packaging. You find yourself in what has become a rather cold experience in buying and shopping, and developing a more physical and connected relationship with the thing that you’re buying.
Filmmaker: You could make a kind of reductivist comparison between that and Food Inc., which is a documentary about Where Our Food Comes from…. But, how do you think the New Frontier work relates to the other features? Or, as a programming section, how does it relate to NEXT?
Frilot: The films in NEXT are pretty traditional indie films. They’re really creative, they’re straightforward storytelling pieces of work, and they’re made for really really cheap. They kind of remind us that a lot can be had with a little, and that actually plugs into the new financial landscape of what our business is, and that’s why it’s called Next. It’s really called Less Equals More, but we call it NEXT because it’s more media-friendly.
Filmmaker: Like the "Next" distribution model.
Frilot: Exactly, like the next distribution model, whereas New Frontier is where filmmakers are really taking risks in terms of the storytelling itself. A film that has to do with all of this [distribution, new forms of media] is All My Friends are Funeral Singers. It’s interesting, because it was conceived to have the form of an album, and it’s by the band Califone. Oddsac, which is by Animal Collective, is another example. All My Friends… was made to promote the new album, and they’ve been taking it on the road, doing concerts and showing the film, doing a live score, so that’s a model coming up out of the music world. This is a trend that you will probably end up seeing in other festivals.
Filmmaker: It’s so true, and I’ve never thought about it. Rather than make a video, because the music videos is such a dying form, unfortunately, or a changing one.
Frilot: It is a changing form, and I guess this is where it is evolving to, kind of full-scale, feature-length work, some more experimental than others. Then there are films like Double Take and Memories of Overdevelopment. Double Take is just a really super-solid essay film, about thinking of killing his doppelganger, and also thinking about the rise of television in society during the Cold War….. It takes all these different elements and puts them together and it’s very poetic. And Memories of Overdevelopment is about a Cuban revolutionary who is now negotiating his creative freedom and a sense of viability, as the world evolves past an age of revolution, that kind of militaristic terrain. And this guy is such a talent, Miguel Coyula. First-time filmmaker, and really just one of these films that was just born out of the head of Zeus, like fully formed. One thing I feel really obligated to talk to you about, that really warrants attention because it’s so fresh and so significant is Utopia in Four Parts. It’s a documentary that is essentially a performance of a live documentary. He presents the piece live, he does all of the narration live, and the musical score is done live, so it’s all within one room, and he’s there, so the film itself is a rumination all about utopia. it’s really about him tinking about the utopian dream as it has evolved during the twentieth century, of how he believes that today we don’t have great ideas anymore, and we don’t have this shiny optimism that we used to have for the future. The future now scares the hell out of us.
Photo by Jill Orschel
Sunday, January 24, 2010
This piece was originally printed in our 2009 Fall issue.
As a filmmaker, British writer-director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, In This World, A Mighty Heart) doesn’t linger long in one place. Just consider the globe-hopping locations he shoots in (Scotland, Pakistan, Iran, Shanghai), the hyperkinetic pace at which he works (there have been 18 features since 1995), and the versatility of his films, which cover every conceivable genre from sultry neo-noir and dolorous period drama to near-future sci-fi and Gold Rush-era Western. But the restlessness extends to his personality as well. In conversation, Winterbottom is so voluble that he can be hard to decipher, the words spilling out miles ahead of his own thought process. He is, to be sure, an artist in perpetual motion.
It’s late August, and Winterbottom has just completed principal photography in Guthrie, Okla., on The Killer Inside Me, adapted from the 1952 cult crime thriller by American pulp writer Jim Thompson (The Grifters, The Getaway). The novel tells the story of a seemingly mild-mannered deputy sheriff in West Texas, Lou Ford (played in the film by Casey Affleck), who is gradually revealed to be a deranged personality bent on sexual violence and murder. Thompson’s key innovation in the book was his clever, insidious use of first-person narration, through which we come to understand Lou’s grotesque logic and self-estranged state of mind. Jessica Alba is Joyce Lakeland, the prostitute who willingly succumbs to the young peace officer’s kinky, sadistic charms, and Kate Hudson appears as Amy Stanton, Lou’s adoring, well-bred girlfriend. Like the townsfolk in Central City, she remains clueless about his homicidal proclivities — “the sickness,” Lou calls it — until, of course, it’s too late.
“There’s something about the way Lou narrates his own story that makes you feel sort of close to him,” says Winterbottom, on the phone from the London offices of Revolution Films, where he has just begun editing footage with longtime producing partner Andrew Eaton. “You feel as well that’s something going to happen to redeem him. And what’s brilliant about the way Jim Thompson tells the story is you’re constantly feeling that you’re going to come to this moment of knowledge — and then the book ends. [laughs]” Many, of course, regard Killer as Thompson’s masterpiece, both for its tawdry Oedipal twist on psychopathology — repressed memories of sexual abuse figure prominently in Lou’s confessional monologue — and its cunning inversion of oafish, country-bumpkin mannerisms. Even Stanley Kubrick, for whom Thompson penned The Killing and Paths of Glory (largely uncredited), called it “probably the most chilling and believeable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.”
But for Winterbottom, there’s a Shakespearean dimension to the story too, and he was keen to draw out the tragic human subtext of Ford’s wicked impulses. “There are stories about people who seem to live normal lives, love their children and wives, and then they decide to destroy everything, to tear everything up,” he says. “Lou is that sort of character. The people who he kills are quite close to him; people love him despite the fact that he’s been violent towards them. There are psychological explanations in the book, but it’s more the sense of the pointlessness and waste that violence creates, and the tenderness of the situation that attracted me.” In that sense, he agrees, the film echoes Butterfly Kiss, Winterbottom’s 1995 road movie about itinerant lesbian lovers whose serial-killing spree, while horrific, never eclipses our sympathy for them: “There are many elements of a love story we’re trying to make with The Killer Inside Me.”
Winterbottom has a reputation for unorthodox adaptations of classic novels. He has twice interpreted Thomas Hardy for the big screen (Jude, The Claim), and his ultracontemporary tweak on Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, considered to be an unfilmable book, earned high praise from scholars and critics alike. For The Killer Inside Me, Winterbottom says he was attracted to the pace of the narrative (“Thompson is a brilliant dialogue writer and plotter… the story unfolds incredibly fast”) and decided he wanted to honor the verbal spirit and lean structure of the source text. “In terms of individual scenes, [John Curran’s screenplay] was very close to the book anyway, but the order had been changed. So my approach was to go back to the original story and really keep the film as accurate and as faithful to the text as possible.”
Eaton and Winterbottom teamed up with producer Bradford L. Schlei for Killer, their first U.S. production, and originally intended to shoot in West Texas. But financial incentives led them to relocate to Oklahoma, Thompson’s birthplace, where they found well-preserved turn-of-the-century architecture that evoked the post oil-boom ’50s. “Obviously you respond to the landscape you’re filming, the places you’re filming in. Looking at archival material from the ’50s and going to visit the arid landscape in Texas where it’s set — and looking at the towns, the much more lush town squares in Oklahoma and Texas — we were trying to find some kind of palette to make sense of that.” Although Winterbottom has ventured into noir territory before with I Want You, he’s not wedded to maintaining rigid genre codes for the film’s visual scheme. “It’s not a particularly noir-looking film,” he says, adding that he used bold colors to outfit the actors, which he plans to desaturate in post. “It was very bright and hot when we were filming, so you have these bright, kind of flat, washed-out exteriors. And then the much more gloomy, dark interiors. But all of these things come from the natural way the story is and the locations, as opposed to being necessarily imposed.”
Asked if he’s seen Burt Kennedy’s 1976 version of The Killer Inside Me, Winterbottom says, “To be honest, I didn’t realize there was a version when I read the book. I chased down the producers who have the rights and they said there was one. And by that point, because I was already hoping to make the film, I said I didn’t want to be doing a remake. So I haven’t seen it yet. In fact, I think I’ll wait till I’ve finished this and then watch it.” In the meantime, he has his work cut out for him, editing rushes, correcting color and choosing music (a mix of classical and Western swing from old radio broadcasts). But one thing is certain: By the time we lay eyes on Winterbottom’s Killer, he’ll have vanished like quicksilver into the next shoot.
The Killer Inside Me is due in early 2010, with France’s Wild Bunch handling worldwide sales.
Playing in competition this year is Austin filmmaker Bryan Poyser’s Lovers of Hate, starring Alex Karpovsky and Chris Doubek as brothers, Paul and Rudy, vying for the attention of Rudys’ soon-to-be ex-wife, Heather (Heather Kafka.) Paul is enjoying wild success as the author of a Harry Potter-like series of children’s books, which are based on stories that Rudy used to make up for Paul when they were children. Rudy, who calls himself a writer but who seems never to have written a page, seethes with rage and resentment; in fact, his wife is leaving him because of his bitterness.
The brothers spend the film lying to each other, stealing each others’ property, and sleeping with each others’ wives, grasping at some way to finally feel that they’ve got the other beat. But it’s never clear what the point of the game is, and by the end, all they’ve done is gotten hurt and destroyed the playing field.
Sundance viewers will recognize the sprawling Park City ski lodge where much of the movie takes place; the 7-11 shuttle stop even makes an appearance. This is Poyser’s second feature as a director; his first, Dear Pillow, played Slamdance in 2004 and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
Filmmaker: Have you had vengeful impulses in your own life?
Poyser: I have had my share of relationships that ended poorly, and I’ve asked myself, if I could be a fly on the wall when my ex first slept with another person, would I run away or would I stay and take the torture? Rudy doesn’t react in a healthy way, at all, but that’s the part that I find really funny. He fails and fails and fails to try to break them apart, and then he finally succeeds, and then he realizes what a toll it has taken on the person that he was trying to get back in the first place.
Filmmaker: How would you classify this film — as a drama, a thriller?
Poyser: Unfortunately none the films I’ve made so far fall neatly into any genre classification — they’re all dramas, they all deal with human emotion. I’m interested in dark, serious subject matter but I want people to watch the films and enjoy them. Dark, funny films are what I’ve tried to make. Humor is a very useful tool to get people on board with you — it can deflate tension, it can get the viewer on the side of the character, it can prime them for some of the more serious stuff that you want to bring to the story. With Lovers of Hate, I wanted to make the first five minutes kind of broad. I wanted to make a movie that’s surprising and goes to unexpected places, which of course is always a challenge when you’re trying to get people interested in the movie, because what do you call it? My hope is that if people stick around and watch the whole thing, they’ll be surprised by the turns the film takes.
Filmmaker: Was it hard to keep that tone consistent through the rehearsals and shooting?
Poyser: Early on, a lot of people were pushing for the story to take a very violent turn, but I never wanted to do that — as soon as somebody does something deliberately violent or hurtful, they become a movie character, and not someone relatable. I was more interested in emotional violence, the psychological torture that [Rudy] tries to put them through and that they are inadvertently putting him through.
Filmmaker: You’re very entrenched in the Austin indie film scene, which usually means working with very little money and a very small crew. Do you feel hindered by small budgets?
Poyser: I do have the experience of working on a bigger film — The Cassidy Kids, which I didn’t direct but was very involved with in the writing and producing, was a crew of 50, with 35 speaking parts. Sets were built; it was a “real” movie. It was a huge challenge and an amazing education of how the hierarchy of a movie set works. It’s really there for the director to not have to do anything but direct. But it’s also a giant machine that’s very hard to stop if it’s going in the wrong direction. If you change your mind on a tiny movie set with five people, it’s a hell of a lot easier than if you want to turn around a crew of 100 people who have all been working for one goal. In a way, making it with a more realistic and humble attitude made the work a lot better, because I wasn’t so focused on where the film was going to go when it was done, but on the work itself.
Filmmaker: Can you think of any lessons you took away from that production that you used on this?
Poyser: Rehearsals, for one. We had no rehearsals on Cassidy Kids, and it really made things difficult. The characters in Lovers of Hate are supposed to have known each other for years — we did about a month of rehearsals, meeting two or three times a week for a few hours every time. It wasn’t about working on the script, it was just about getting to know each other. We played theater games, hide-and-go-seek, relaxation exercises, silly stuff, to just make us feel comfortable with each other and build this family bond in a month and a half. When we were in the house I made Alex and Chris share a room, like brothers, hoping that they would get pissed off at each other.
Filmmaker: For me, the film was less about sibling rivalry than it is about male competition.
Poyser: I don’t have a brother, I have a sister, and though we did have a similar creative childhood in the way that Paul and Rudy did — but yeah, I think that as closely knit and collaborative the independent film world is, we’re all competing for the same very limited amount of attention and resources. In a way, writing the movie was a process of me examining jealousy, a feeling that everyone has but not many people quite know what to do with.
Filmmaker: The film made me think about one aspect of success, which is that if you do become successful, even if you believe you were very lucky, you still believe that you were rewarded for good work and capability. And it’s very easy to judge those who are less successful than you, or feel that you can see clearly the reasons for another person’s lack of success.
Poyser: Yeah, I mean one part of my job at the Austin Film Society is to administer a grant for state funds for filmmakers, which has gotten very competitive. I have been fortunate enough to get grants from this group early on, but there was a time where I felt like I was just not included. I felt like I was not getting the recognition I deserved. When you’re young, you think you can upset the apple cart so easily. One thing I definitely learned from my mom, who was an illustrator, is that rejection is a part of life as an artist. Your job is to go out and try to get what you want and be rejected over and over again. You have to take those rejections and turn them into fuel to keep you going.
The rewards are so paltry, and they end up costing so much — for instance, I am dropping a lot of money to come to Sundance and have this experience. I’m thrilled to death, don’t get me wrong. But before making this particular film, it did take a while to get over the experience of making The Cassidy Kids, which was disappointing for a variety of reasons. But eventually I thought, if I don’t make another feature, I will kick myself forever. In a very simple way, making this film was a way to tell myself to shut up, and be working on something, rather than sitting around and feeling worthless for not working on something.
Filmmaker: Neither brother in the film, either the unsuccessful writer or the successful one, are made happy by writing. And neither of them, even though one is a complete failure and the other is a huge success, seem to ever have been humbled by failure. They’re both terrified of failing.
Poyser: You could say that they don’t actually want what they say they want, but just that they want to get back at each other. I tried to make something about selfishness, which is something that all artists have to contend with in some way. At the end of the day, all three of them get a little bit of perspective on the way that their selfishness has hurt other people. Hopefully it leaves each of them in a space where they can rethink their actions.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
"It’s very flattering to be interviewed by a film magazine as opposed to an art publication," said Shirin Neshat. "I am very flattered anybody would think it’s worth talking to me." Widely-acknowledged as one of the most influential contemporary Middle-Eastern artists (and apparently one of the most modest), Neshat and her work are staples of museums and galleries around the world, while remaining relatively little-known in film circles. That changed this year when she burst onto the independent international film stage with her first feature film, Women Without Men. The narratives of four women in 1953 Iran are interwoven in the film, which was seven years in the making. Each character comes from a different background and social class; one by one they are drawn together in a mysterious, isolated garden outside of the city where they find solace, comfort, and family in one another, at least for a little while. Women Without Men won the Silver Lion for Neshat as Best Director at this year's Venice Film Festival, and will make its American debut at Sundance this January.
Forbidden to return to Iran, the country of her birth, Neshat studied at Berkeley and now lives in New York. Her multinational background is mirrored in the film: here, Casablanca stands in for Tehran (where she is not permitted to film); the producers hail from Europe, and, like the director, the actors are primarily Iranian emigrés. Dream logic and juxtaposition order Neshat's video installations and photography, and this is also true of Women Without Men. Based on a slim, brilliant 1989 novella of the same name, the film's tone differs from that of the book. They are companion pieces, like versions of the same song by different bands. Although both employ many of the same characters and surreal, magical story elements, the spare, unsentimental prose of the book, which is frequently interspersed with single lines of thought or dialogue, is very different from the serious, lush, and highly-stylized aesthetic that defines Neshat's film. The evolution of her intense, ritualistic imagery can be traced back through previous work. Women of Allah, an arresting series of photographic portraits of women in black chadors holding guns, swords, and flowers--including Neshat herself--featured detailed Persian calligraphy filling in positive and negative photographic spaces. In 1996, Neshat turned her attention to video. Shooting on 35mm film that was then transferred to video, she has created 18 single and two-channel digital installations, many using dual or opposing projection. The pieces have names like Rapture (1999), Passage (2001), and Turbulent (1998), the latter a split screen singing competition between a man and a woman that transgresses against Iranian custom that prohibits women from singing in front of an audience of mixed genders. The piece won the International Award at the Venice Biennale International Golden Lion.
Women Without Men began its public life as a series of individual video pieces named after its main characters: Mahdokht (2004), Zarin (2005), Munis (2008), Faezah (2008), and Farokh Legha (2008). The videos were shown in darkened gallery rooms that alternated with brightly-lit spaces displaying large-format photographic still images. Landscapes featuring oceans, cities, gardens, streets and homes were depicted vividly along with the gazing, searching, characters who are simultaneously archetypal, symbolic, and individual. The characters evoked questions of desire, beauty, history, and ambition with their staring eyes and detailed settings, props, and costumes. For the artist, the pieces are emotional touchstones, visual bridges between motifs from Neshat's homeland and America, her adoptive home. The perfect places to explore them are the movie theater and — of course — the film magazine.
Shirin Neshat: It’s so strange to finally wake up at your own house after much traveling—sometimes I wake up I don’t know what country I am in or what time it is. (Laughs) This morning I woke up and was in a state of zombie.
Filmmaker: Oh no!
Neshat: It’s so nice to wake up with your own apartment. I didn’t even leave much today. I’ve lived in so many horrible places that it feels good to finally be here. I think I paid my dues in New York. I’ve lived in every possible corner that was filthy or loud! [Laughs]
Filmmaker: Really? Your apartment here in Soho is just lovely... What was your worst New York apartment?
Neshat: I remember living in the East Village, several different locations, but once above a punk rock nightclub, and they were just always driving me crazy. That was on Avenue A and Second Street. Then I lived on Avenue B and 12th Street, where there were a lot of people up all night. Then I lived in Chinatown, on East Broadway. It was really—it’s dirty, like the hallway hadn’t been swept for like 10 years. And we had a methadone clinic next door. So getting out of the house with a baby and a stroller, and there were heroin addicts next door, and they were spitting—it was just disgusting. And then I lived in Brooklyn. And then I lived on Elizabeth Street and then in NoHo. Those were really nice, but temporary... And finally here.
Filmmaker: And now you’re home. Themes of home and family arise throughout the film; your female protagonists even seem to create a family of their own.
Neshat: Yes, a community. Their garden was meant to be a place of exile; a place that these women could escape to, away from their problems; a place to be temporarily at peace. A shelter, a place of security, a new beginning, a second chance — these ideas are very poignant for a lot of us who are displaced from Iran. When I was young, 17, I left my family and never completely had a family ever again. Every seven years or so I have moved to a whole new beginning, a whole new situation [where I] try to feel a sense of security. But I’ve been a nomad. I hope it doesn’t change again, but it seems I regularly move from place to place in a big way, make new relationships and communities, and then move on again. The idea of nomadic feeling, always looking for an idea of security, is very personal.
Filmmaker: Is it a surprise, if not a contradiction, to say that in exile, you have found a home?
Neshat: How can you go about creating a new safe, secure or comfortable environment? First thing that happens, you surround yourself by Iranian people. But I’m not really a typical Iranian either; I was so young when I left that I’m very international; so for me, it’s really about balancing inside and outside of the Iranian community. To this day, I feel disjointed going in and out of the Western community and the Iranian community. I try to belong to both, but I always feel slightly an outsider and I believe that for me, as for a lot of artists, subjects that are very important to them peek their way into their narratives, characters and concepts.
Filmmaker: How did you find the book that you adapted into this film? I look forward to reading it.
Neshat: It’s a very small one; you can read it in two, three hours. Though I don’t know if I should tell you to read the book. Which book have you ever read that has translated into film that you’ve liked? [Laughs] When I decided finally to think about making a feature film, I looked for the right story. It's actually just what I’m doing now, for another film, which is really exciting. I was recommended a lot of books — like I am now — and scripts and stories to get inspired, and having worked with women’s poetry and having a feminist edge, a lot of people gave me novels to read by women. Shahrnoush Parsipour is one of the most important woman writers of modern literature from Iran, and I knew her writing as a young kid, a long time ago.
Hamid Dabashi, a friend and scholar at Columbia University, handed me the Farsi version of Women Without Men and said, “You should really read this.” All Shahrnoush’s literature is surrealistic, magic realism. She has this incredible imagination, and her writing is unlike other literature that I’ve read. It’s really Iranian, rooted in Persian poetry, mysticism, religion, politics and historical events in Iran. Yet at the same time, she has one foot in universal, ephemeral, timeless, existential, and philosophical issues. I realized that it was the right story for me because in my work, I’ve asked deep personal, philosophical questions as a person and as a woman. I've also engaged with larger issues that are above and beyond me, too.
Shahrnoush invented these characters according to some of her own mad ideas, and then I took them and I shaped them according to mine. This novel is set in the city of Tehran in the 1950s. It begins with very important historical events in the city, and then we come to the orchard, a completely different space. In my other work, these paradoxical elements were also really strong. Of course, I knew how difficult it was going to be to re-adapt a story that involves five protagonists and much historical material. But these were my initial and fundamental attractions: the book’s political and poetic properties.
Filmmaker: What spoke to you about the four central women characters?
Neshat: I think that the writer did a great job of choosing very interesting, diverse characters — socio-economically diverse as well as diverse in the type of dilemmas they have as women. Shahrnoush and I talked a lot about what childhood is like and how deep psychological issues of the body can be. As a first time feature director, it was interesting to think about how to develop their characters and think of them cinematically.
For example, Munis is interested in activism, social justice, issues that are larger than her personal needs and her own narcissistic life. Like her, part of me always wants to be involved in activism; really, really wants to get very angry; and wants to do something for others.
With Zarin, it’s a question of her obsession with the body and her feelings of shame. [In response to external] stigmas, taboos, and judgments, the woman self-punishes. I’ve always had problems with my body and so in a way, I’ve always embodied this. I physically get ill at times when I feel a lot of pressure, and have faced issues of anorexia, thinness, and the need to be desirable.
Even Farrokhlagha, the middle-aged character in her 50s, is thinking still about vanity and wanting to be beautiful and desirable, wanting to start over again and be a pioneer. This is something that I think is common in most cultures, though perhaps it is particularly [powerful] in my culture. Women hit 50 — it’s over, you know? In some ways, I embody her dilemma. They’re narcissistic things, yet very human. It’s really undeniable that all of us want to beat aging and be desirable and admired forever…and that it’s just not possible. [Laughs]
With Faezeh, the part I like and identify with most is this question of the security of tradition and traditional life; the security of wanting a simple life that involves raising a family and having a husband. That’s something I’ve never really had, you know. Everything for me has been kind of bohemian.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot primarily on location, or did you also use sets?
Neshat: We shot everything on location, just a little bit of the green screen, where we had to do when she had to fall. In Berlin we did that. But everything was shot in Morocco. We really didn’t have any money to do any sets elsewhere.
Filmmaker: Your 2007 New Yorker profile mentioned that you didn’t own a camera. You had your videos shot on 35mm and then transferred to video.
Neshat: Yes; I never even studied photography. I’ve always worked with a still photographer, or here, a cinematographer. I did not make the film alone. [Art is often] about finding ways of collaborating with people who can help,and in all the areas that you’re weak, to build more meat. I think the most important thing to mention is the collaborative part of this process. Shoja [Azari, my collaborator] and I worked forever on all the video installations we have done. When I chose to make this film, we co-wrote the script. Shoja has spent as much time on this project as I have and has shaped so much in the scenes. From the directing to the post-production, he’s been involved in every part of it, and has also helped me make this move from arts to film. I want to see that Shoja take the credit as much as me, because very often people see me. Now, he himself is about to shoot. His turn is coming now. He’s just turning his script into a film that I think he’s hoping to shoot in February. I’m supposed to be not in the driver’s seat, but in the passenger’s seat, to help him.
For me, [photography and cinematography] are about framing. Everything is carefully framed. In the feature film, everything was carefully framed and discussed in advance, almost drawn. We worked with a great Austrian cinematographer, Martin Gschlacht, who was unbelievably involved in the process. The brains of this project were Shoja, me and Martin. Every single shot was dissected both in terms of the dramatic process of the acting and also in terms of the framing. Later, he was very involved in the color correction with me. For me, the lighting is very important, and he’s a master of lighting.
With the bathhouse, for instance I really, really wanted a shot in a space that was a very high ceiling, like a dome from which we could pan down. I wanted to capture the bigness of the space. But to light such a space is really difficult. One earlier cinematographer said it was impossible. It was going to be completely sad to lose the space if you couldn’t light it, you know. I explained to him what I want, and the relationship of Zarin to these people. Martin said, “I can do it.”
I think my very favorite shot of the film is when Zarin is on the ground, on the floor, and she’s completely nude and she’s just sitting like this, this naked body. Do you remember when the boy is looking at her? When we had these little boys there, it just seemed incredibly poignant to have this moment; it’s like a loss of innocence. She was so out of it. But for a little boy, to be confronted with a nude body in this condition is just devastating. I thought that was a very important shot.
Filmmaker: How would you describe her condition?
Neshat: She’s anorexic. I mean, there’s no doubt about it. And that’s the actress — the point was not just that she was bleeding, but she was just bones. She was no longer an object of desire but an object of pain. For this little boy to see a naked body — because the other women more or less were covered — but to see it in this condition, it’s pretty early to be exposed to such a torturous figure. When Zarin goes to the mosque and all the men are down, or when she’s floating in the water, these things were treated like still photographs. With Martin, we discussed the images very often like that.
But because of the script, we also had to think about how we were going to edit. We had a continuity person, which was new for me. Now I had to think about in relation to the other, next shot and next shot and next shot. In the art installations anything could go, and then later you’ll deal with it in the editing room. But here, no. You cannot go from A to C without going to B, and point of view is important, and this and that. This was an incredible lesson. We could approach it somewhat artistically, but we always had to keep in mind the story development.
Filmmaker: Was it a process that you enjoyed, being in a new place and learning so much so quickly, or was it frustrating?
Neshat: It’s always really exciting to learn a new language. You’re seduced by education, and ask yourself, “Could I be good at this? Could I really?” It tests your ability to tell the story using very different logic. It’s very flattering to be interviewed by a film magazine as opposed to an art publication, you know. Also, as an artist, I tend to repeat things, and when you get good at something, it really takes a lot to stop repeating yourself. I kept wanting to write on my photographs, for instance, and when I made videos I kept thinking of double projecting. Yet sometimes you just have to boldly go against your own patterns. It can be liberating to suddenly find you’ve reinvented yourself.
This is the most exciting part of cinema for me: I’m just a beginner, yet it’s such a complete form that I don’t have to drop all my tools. I don’t have to stop thinking photographically. I don’t have to stop thinking about a choreographic way of telling a story. I can keep all of it, it’s just that now I have to tell a story and I have to keep my audience for a very different time span. The attention span of a person in a movie theater for 90 minutes, it’s really different than a 10-minute video. It’s a challenge that I love.
Shoja was asking me yesterday if I would want to continue with magic realism [in film], and I thought, “No, I don’t think so.” Most of my past work has been surrealistic one way or another, but I think it’s the strangeness more than surrealism itself that I need to keep and maintain.
Filmmaker: Could you talk about the shot where characters go through the wall and follows the little stream that goes through the rushes? It’s beautiful, and haunts me in kind of an Alice in Wonderland way, the entrance to a secret land.
Neshat: It’s also very sexual, like you’re entering a hole. That hole became a bridge between reality and magic, between the world of the orchard and the external world of 1953. Time had stopped. When Farrokhlagha and Faezeh and Zarin came in, they felt foreboding but were attracted to the garden. Faezeh was terrified.
I found it poignant to think that beyond this wall there is a mysterious world that doesn’t belong to anywhere else, and that once you’re there you can be so safe. It’s a very allegorical idea. There’s no mist outside, but as soon as you go in, it’s full of mist. This is why we also made it silent with just natural sounds because we thought even the garden had a voice of its own. When each woman comes in, there’s a repetition of a certain type of birds or a certain type of sounds and you say, “Ah! This must be the same place.”
Also, the pacing of the film became slower once we got there, and the camera was much slower in panning around the trees. It was gentler, like the place had its own logic. It was haunting but also beautiful, and very different than when you were in the city and there was more action, it was more real, and it was faster. The other thing was that geographically, it was not consistent. There was a desert, and then there was this lush green. It was like the garden had no walls once they entered. So again, we were really playing with these paradoxical spaces; like heaven or like hell, but nothing that belonged to the earth. Maybe it was when Munis died, that was life after death; or maybe this is a place where all the women are dead. Until the army of guests comes in to the garden, which is like a rape. When Farrokhlagha decides to open it up to the people, things start crumbling down. The garden is betrayed by being opened to the outsiders, you know.
When the film was first shown, immediately some people accused me, saying, “She’s just making these images because they’re so controversial and sensational; she’s sensationalizing violence.” The Iranian people did this also; as much as they liked it, because it looked somehow interesting to them, they were always kind of endorsing but also criticizing. When I really think about this film — this is a very important thing to add to this interview — it’s really kind of a manifestation of classic Persian literature into visual imagery. A lot of metaphors that are really rooted in our mystical tradition of literature are very subversive, poetic, existential, and philosophical.
As Iranians, we think these things are understood by everyone, but they really are not, you know. For Iranian people, for instance, the garden is the most important metaphor; in Persian painting, literature, and poetry, it’s a place of spiritual transcendence, a place of freedom. A lot of information gets lost when even the style of the film, its poetic nature, can be so alien to the Westerners that it may be read as too melodramatic, or not contemporary enough. But at the same time, the conceptual approach of the film — because I have been educated here — could put off other people who are non-Western and don’t understand this kind of construction of stories.
Filmmaker: How did you approach the detailed re-creation of a specific time period?
Neshat: The novel takes place in the summer 1953, a very interesting time. What happened politically in Iran then is not discussed very often anymore, and is often overlooked now that we’re talking about Iranian and American tension. Most Westerners still think of Iran during post-Iranian Revolution era, when Iran had become a completely different type of society. I wanted to show Iran when it had a different look, and remind us Iranians what we were like as a community, as a society.
Politically speaking, the United States and the British had everything to do with the overthrow of the democratic government and Prime Minister Mossadegh. This paved the path for the Islamic Revolution. Had it not been for that coup, his overthrow, and the return of the Shah, we would not have had a slow breakdown. Antagonism toward the West, particularly America, developed during this time. When the Shah came back as a dictator and began to kill a lot of people, people hated him and eventually embraced Islam as the next authentic ideology, an anti-West. We often get categorized as this fanatic and barbaric people, but if you look at the history, actually the U.S. was quite barbaric in the way that they intervened in another country’s affairs.
In this film, as you saw, history is not really treated in a documentary or didactic way, but the film does try to point toward the feeling of betrayal and defeat that people felt — and this is something that happened again this year. We were not able to access Iran in any way, and we were limited to working in Morocco — this was a real issue. It was a very international project — sometimes this was an asset and sometimes a problem. Shoja and I have been going across the Atlantic god knows how often; physically and emotionally it was really a test of my endurance. Yet it was very interesting for us to look in that time and see how people looked, how people dressed, and how the Muslims and the Westernerized people coexisted. It was just like a very interesting tapestry, a complex and diverse society, though now it’s homogeneous because of this regime. We went out there researching the architecture, the costume, the hair, and the different political and cultural communities that existed. It was fascinating.
For example, when we looked at the images of Tehran in the 1950s, it’s all these Art Deco buildings and looked like the beginning of modernity. If you look at Russia, or Casablanca, as we did, we started to pinpoint some of the buildings that really [resemble those in] the books of old Tehran.
From Iran, we found books. Footage usually came from the BBC. The political images from the coup d’etat came from a documentary made, ironically, by BBC, which basically glorified the coup as if Mossadegh was an evil man and had been overthrown. But if you looked at an intellectual, artistic community, like the world of the older woman, Farrokhlagha, you see her friends and the café and all these artists. You see the kind of discussions they would have; they’re very well-read of both Western authors and local Iranian authors. You see that they’re well dressed, and they also talk about politics. Then, you also have the fanatics, backwards and oppressive and religious in their way of thinking. Then, you have pro-Shah people like Sadri, the husband of Farrokhlagha, who were not really intellectual but lovers of monarchy leadership. Then, you have the communists, the white-shirted people. In our research, we read a lot of books with historical explanations about the coup. You get a different explanation from each camp.
Shoja and I interviewed ex-communists who had fled Iran for Berlin after the Shah came back. We also talked to the people who were pro-Mossadegh and pro-Shah to get an idea of what that was like. It’s very, very interesting, the dynamics of that time. You might like the great book All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer; it’s like a thriller that describes the chain of events that led to the coup. We did our best to become informed about the historical, political, and cultural life of that time. Then, we had to fictionalize everything, to make sure we are close as possible to the truth but within fiction, not documentary.
We also had a limited budget. Really we worked under 4 million Euros, so we had that in mind. We had the street protests, with a massive amount of cast where we blocked off city streets. We had to go to the orchard and have a whole thing there. The four women each had a very different lifestyle—they had to dress a certain way; live in a certain kind of location. For example, since Zarin was a prostitute, we studied the brothels at that time. There was a city for prostitutes; all during the monarchy, people could actually go to that city.
Or, for another example, we also had to look at the traditional architecture of Iran where the middle class lived, like Faezeh and Munis. It’s Persian architecture the way that they each have a little pool.
Filmmaker: In the courtyard?
Neshat: Yes, so we actually built the little pools. It wasn’t like that. All the flowers, all the landscaping was by us. It was as close as we could get to Tehran in the ’50s. At locations like the bathhouse, which for me, is very important, we built all of that. It was actually a public bathhouse, but the pool you see was created by us. The dome was there, but the space was empty.
It was a public bathhouse in Marrakech. We dressed it to be like a Turkish-Iranian bath. I think we did a great job, but even if it doesn’t seem exactly like Iran, I think the fact that it was nomadically done added flavor. It’s the license of an artist who’s herself in a kind of exile. I could be making a film that it’s Iranian, but it looks Cuba and Morocco and In the Mood for Love. This is a very global time. I have often used of color that was not necessarily authentically Iranian, but as an artist I took the liberty. It is like symbolic of what the time was like.
Filmmaker: I recognized several scenes, images and costumes from your video installations and photography in the film.
Neshat: Yes, we basically used the same footage. To dress Farrokhlagha and Faezeh and Munis, for me, was really difficult. It was out of my element. I had to really think about their personalities, their time, and the actresses, and really dissected the characters. With the dress for Faezeh, it was about her innocence. When I saw that dress, it just radiated that kind of girlishness. With Munis, we were talking about a more boyish, nerdish girl; the kind who studies a lot, but is not really pretty to look at. She is always like proper, like a little doll with her haircut and those little shoes. [Laughs] It was intentionally designed for characterizing who she is. With Zarin, though beautiful, she was so skinny it was hard to make her really desirable.
We worked a lot with secondhand clothes, you know — except with Farrokhlagha, who was the most elegant. Our costume designer’s from Austria, and he did actually make the clothes for Farrokhlagha. But the worst thing happened was that we originally had an actress from Iran who was supposed to play the role. She came, he measured her, we made all the dresses, and then she couldn’t play in the film! Suddenly we had to make this dress work for the next actress. That person had gained some weight since I had last seen her, so it was like, “How are we going to fit?” Do you remember that gray dress with white polka dots? It was bursting, actually! Yet in a way, the fact that she was a little bit voluptuous and heavy, I really felt it was good.
Almost everything didn’t fit her. The costume designer had to leave and we still didn’t have a dress for the party in the orchard. They had brought a whole trunk of clothes to Morocco from Austria, and here I was with her going through all the dresses. We were panicking because the shot of the party was the next day and we still hadn’t found a dress for the main hostess of the party! Luckily we found that dress at last. A lot of it was well planned, a lot of it was improvised, you know.
Filmmaker: It’s a wonderful scene, and one in which clothing adds so much. How do you balance planning and improvisation in your artwork?
Neshat: Here, the planning and organization were intense. We started this project in 2003, and then the script wasn’t finalized until 2007. Then we shot the film in eight weeks, and edited for two years. We spent a lot of time of going back and forth about the script, preproduction, production, and postproduction. The video installations were also very well organized, but they were small projects. They were maximum 10 days of shooting and a much smaller crew. Here, we had like 60, 80 people in all different departments, plus a casting agent. I never have had a big costume department or hair and makeup; usually I have one person who is like all that. But this was kind of an epic period film. A producer was German, and the co-production office was French and Austrian and mainly German. The music and even the actual shooting of it — there were so many people involved. Shoja and I spent about four months in Morocco and broke down the script into a shot list. Everything was really organized.
Filmmaker: Has your previous work been more intuitive?
Neshat: This time we had a script that had to be approved by the producers, and they had to get funding based on that, which was different. Also, I’ve worked only a little with professional actors, so this was really very different. But in the past we always storyboarded everything. When you storyboard, and especially if there’s not so much dialogue and continuity, there is a lot of flexibility. You can come to the editing and put the puzzle together all different ways.
In the editing, we just threw away the script and completely restructured the film. All the main shots were there, but it wasn’t really working the way we had written it. This is why also it took us a long time: we gave ourselves the liberty of reorganizing the film in the editing room. It’s a plot-oriented film, and there was always this risk of being either overly conventional and narrative, or overly aesthetic and not narrative enough. We dissected the balance between the visual imagery and the story, and I tried to make the best balance in my judgment. Yet I knew that this story itself would never allow a completely conventional narrative. It is a strange story, and so it is a strange film — you cannot make it an un-strange film. It’s impossible. That’s exactly why I chose it.
When I think about all my past works, in photography and video, there’s always something strange about them, and that strangeness is what I like. That strangeness makes many people not like it because they don’t relate to it; while some people like it because of that quality. But then the question: how do you come in and out of the magic elements in the story? We were so afraid of making a film that was like Halloween or something — like when the woman comes out of the grave or the faceless thing. We didn’t have the Hollywood money to make these perfect special effects. From the beginning we decided that we’d do the Buñuel style: first you see it, then you don’t see it. When you come to magic, it’s not like you savor it and dwell on it. Instead, you’re telling a very realistic story and suddenly someone comes out of the grave. This balance between the art and cinema, narrative versus non-narrative, strange versus non-strange, and reality versus surrealism is fundamental to the way that this story tries to tell itself.
We knew this was a very difficult story to make, to sell... (Laughs) and to become popular because it really is a demanding film for people. We tried to put in beautiful music, beautiful images, beautiful colors, and humor, but what they get out of the film is just like an artwork. It’s a very conceptual art piece. It was an experiment, an experiment that has a lot of flaws because it was an ambitious experiment, you know. It tried to be philosophical, historical and political. It tried to be poetic, realistic, and magical. It dealt with individual women and the whole community of Iranians, all looking for freedom and change. The audience had to try to get layers of meaning and symbolism and metaphor. How to do fairness and follow four protagonists simultaneously, not making one more important than the other, and give the country of Iran almost like it’s another character, a fifth woman? Everybody said, “Are you sure for the first film you want to make you want to be this ambitious? Historical periods, four characters, magic realism—you’re aiming for disaster.” But I loved the story so much, you know. You give it the best, and you accept its own logic.
Filmmaker: I love the music, and wonder if you would discuss its place in the movie?
Neshat: The [Ryûichi] Sakamoto music and the Persian music that people were singing? I wish Sakamoto could hear you because, to be honest, we had a lot more music, but we at some point felt that that was a bit dangerous. You know how sometimes music can be kind of manipulative of the story, of your emotions? We felt that less is more; that the music should add to the emotions of the film but not really take total control. So we brought a lot of silence.
Ryûichi Sakamoto and I met a few years ago. We always wanted to work together, and we were looking for the right project. I’ve always loved his work; like when I heard the music for The Last Emperor (1987) and The Little Buddha (1993). He’s also so diverse in the way he does things, and I love the way he incorporates indigenous music of the countries where the films are shot with his own music. He has brought Indian music into his own music, and in The Sheltering Sky (1990) he brought Arabic music into his own. This film tries to be universal and timeless and Iranian, so he incorporated some of the Persian music into his. At the end credits, he incorporated the beautiful santour music from Persia with his own. I feel like the amount of music that’s there really works, and when it comes, it’s really powerful.
Filmmaker: You mentioned that you had a limited budget for what you wanted to do. Did that encourage you and your team to be creative in ways you wouldn’t otherwise have been?
Neshat: We struggled a lot financially. In many ways, this was a very humbling experience. We’ve never worked with huge budgets, but in this case it was very difficult to raise the money. This project was a labor of love for anyone who worked on it; everyone worked unbelievably hard and didn’t get paid enough. Many times, the project would have been at risk if it didn’t get enough money. But somehow we pulled it together. When I think about this project I think about struggle and I think about being a student. I think about how hard we worked and how grateful we are that we finished it and had some acknowledgment.
We've gotten rejected by funders; and once, when we were about to go into production and were already on location, a funder backed out — there were numerous times where there was very great risk and good enough reason for the project to dissolve, but we didn’t give up. It was also very hard for the producers, who had never worked on a period film like this or with Iranians like us — and in a language they don’t understand! It was challenging in every single dimension. There was nothing that didn’t not go wrong. [Laughs]
When you've devoted yourself, you make it work somehow. Yet when we went to Venice and we felt so irrelevant in this big festival. We were saying, “At least we were in competition. Goodbye!” We got in the airplane and came to [the] Toronto [International Film Festival] with Shahrnoush. We arrived at night, slept, had the screening at noon, and then as soon as we got out, like 2 o’clock, the phone rang from Venice, from Marco Müller, asking us to come back immediately [to accept the Silver Lion award for Best Director and the UNICEF Award]. [Laughs] We were actually there less than 24 hours! But it was so exciting.
Filmmaker: Speaking of producers, Barbara Gladstone has been your gallerist for many years, is that right?
Neshat: Yes. Barbara has basically been the producer of the video installations. She was in this one just for a small amount, because I made those video installations [with some overlapping material]. But for the feature film she was not really involved in any direct way. The difference, I think, between an art gallery dealer and a producer is that with Barbara, she doesn’t even usually ask, “What is your idea?” Of course, [the means for my video installations are] very limited. It’s not a huge amount of money — maybe $100,000 or $200,000 maximum. But I wouldn’t even write anything down. I would say, “I’m going to make a project,” and normally I would prepare a budget, and she would give me what I needed.
She trusted you and hoped that you would do something good — both artistically and that she could sell. I really admire that element of risk that came from the gallery as funder. The difference with the producers was that they absolutely needed a good script. No funder would fund it based on anybody’s name. It was also much more of a collaboration; producers had to contractually approve the script and the final edit. Maybe because it was also my first-time film, they were very careful about what’s going to come out of this. Although most of the money doesn’t come directly from them, they had to report to funders, and these are relationships that they have to maintain, so it just cannot be a disaster. At the same time, they are taking a risk by working with me, which I really respect, because I have no record of this.
When we worked on the script, we had to meet endlessly with the producers. I worked with a script consultant in Berlin — I literally moved to Berlin for part of this process —to really make sure that they were happy with what we were doing. When we shot the film, they did a lot of test screenings everywhere in Europe to get feedback and make sure that things were being addressed. But at some point toward the end, I felt that I really needed to have them back out a little. I mean, okay, it’s my first film, but at the same time there was a danger that there were too many cooks involved, and that this film would suffer from that. So I asked them to let me take the command of the way that I think it should be as a work by me. And so they backed out.
At the end, what is out there is really a projection of what I wanted as well as really listening to people and their criticisms. Shoja, of course, was a major, part of the construction of the story and this whole development in the editing process. We always had differences, but I think it was good. He tried to challenge me from the cinematic point of view. I also always tried not to forget the artistic point of view while still taking that leap. You’re much more free in the art world. But at the same time, you have a limited audience. The video becomes a commodity, so it cannot get distributed. You hope that it will have exhibitions, and the collectors — if anybody buys it — could share it with the public. But very often it’s almost impossible to even have it on the Internet.
With film, it’s an industry, but you’re not as free. You have to deal with the producers, distributors, festivals, and critics that are going to determine whether people should buy tickets or not. But at the same time, it’s not a commodity the way artwork is. It’s closer to the general public. This is one of the main reasons of my attraction to cinema. I love going to the movies, and I love the fact that I could make a film that could be visited by the average public as opposed to just exclusive art-world people. I respect them a lot, but I wanted to see if I could expand the audience.
On that note, I am still a strong believer that it’s possible to bring art closer to the people, and that you don’t always have to draw this line. Why can’t the general audience also see films layered and loaded with symbolism and meaning, that are beautiful, entertaining, have good music, and are a bit challenging? At the same time, there can be a narrative to follow and think about after they leave. Even Iranian people who are not really used to independent films could possibly relate to this film. They see their own history as well as the music and culture of their country, and they follow the story. I think this is the direction I want to go. How can you blur the boundary between visual art and the language of cinema, yet have it accessible to the general public?
Filmmaker: The film reminds me, in some ways, not only of Buñuel's films but also of Maya Deren’s work.
Neshat: Oh yes; I love her work. It’s like a dream, her work. I was thinking of her yesterday — that when she made those works at that time, it must have been so difficult for people to relate to. Shahrnoush Parsipour explains her interest in magic realism by saying that so many hours a day you are sleeping, and so many hours you are awake, so your dreams are just as valid as the time you are awake. Why are we in denial of our dreams? With Maya Deren — oh my God, it’s to die for.
Filmmaker: I love her circularity, which seems relevant to Women Without Men. Also, watching your film, I was reminded at times of the films of Matthew Barney (also represented by the Gladstone Gallery), which make and reinforce their own mythology. Places become significant through elements of repetition, and the art that is ultimately sold is an artifact of the production of its making. Is that related to what you are doing here?
Neshat: It is, and that is also the way I think of his work. It has its own sense of mythology that you may enter it or not, and just enjoy the sheer beauty and enigma of what he creates. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but that’s the degree that he chose to go to. I chose to go less than that. For me it was the question of being between Julian Schnabel, Steve McQueen, and Matthew Barney. Not as conventional as Julian Schnabel, which is pretty much a straight feature film, or Steve McQueen (as they both have made fantastic films). With Matthew Barney, it’s dense to the point where it’s difficult to follow the narrative and sometimes you make up your own narrative. I really didn’t want to be that enigmatic; that’s his choice, and this is my choice. As my first exercise, I also didn’t want to make a film that was not me, or that departed [from my work] to the degree that people won’t recognize my own signature. Could I transport my visual vocabulary, the way I use choreography, and the way I use the camera into a narrative film? It was about the fusion of cinematic language and my art. I was also worried about the question of making an extended video installation, and I didn’t want that.
Some of the other characters were very worldly and down-to-earth, yet each is a myth on their own. Munis, for instance, is this very magical person and becomes this symbol of the Iranian struggle for democracy. She becomes like Jeanne d’Arc; she becomes the notion of sacrifice. Zarin herself is a type of sacrifice; she’s very saintly, very sacred, and she in a way reminds us of Mary Magdalene with Jesus Christ at the garden. There are all these kind of things playing underneath — some people might get them, some people won’t, but they were in our minds. Whether it’s my photographs, or the videos, or this film, they’re asking for trouble, because of the blending of East and West languages and approaches.
Filmmaker: Do you see yourself as a troublemaker?
Neshat: I think that there’s no real hope for it to be completely understood by one or the other. There will be always loss in translation. I would call this an accented cinema; it’s accented for the Iranians and it’s accented for the Westerners. It’s the same as I am sitting here, I’m dressed with this from here, and this from there, and this from Laos... [Laughs] We are like this kind of multi-influenced pollution of all these influences that it’s not so easy to pinpoint. In a way I wish I was just Schnabel. [Laughs] I was just like from one culture. But it’s impossible, because I’m really caught in between the two, and sometimes they’re a mismatch. The central style of the film, the energy of the film, is this meeting of the ancient and new, the East and West.
Filmmaker: Well, I’m glad that you’re not Schnabel. One is probably enough. [Laughs]
Neshat: Although he makes really good films. Do you see this film, Women Without Men, with an audience in this country? We did pretty well in Europe, but the producer, who is European, thinks that in the U.S. there is no appreciation for this kind of work. I know some people also really hate it. This was the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done, but I have to say that I found it satisfying. We managed to finish it, but there were many, many times that I just wasn’t sure if it was really ever going to come out into the world. Now that it’s starting to get some reaction, I understand that the reaction is very mixed, and remind myself that that’s always been the case with anything I did. Every time you finish a project, there comes a time when you read criticism. You get really discouraged or you feel like a lot of insecurity, and then you realize that that’s exactly what has been happening all along, and you’re still there.
This piece was originally printed in our 2010 Winter issue.
Hell can be many things — being buried alive in the Iraqi desert, for example, or perhaps just watching your screenplay slowly disintegrate on the shelf during never-ending studio “development.” The opposite of most screenwriters, Chris Sparling knows the former but not the latter. He went directly from struggling indie director to successful Hollywood scribe when the screenplay for his horror thriller Buried was picked up, cast with a major up-and-coming star, and thrown before the cameras in just six months. And now it’s receiving its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
Sparling made his debut feature, An Uzi at the Alamo, in 2005. He wrote, directed, acted and produced the low-budget comedy about a failed writer pledging to kill himself on his 25th birthday. The film received only minimal distribution and after making a short, Balance, Sparling decided to come up with a high-concept idea that could be shot cheaply and quickly. He remembered news reports about U.S. contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan building bridges and houses. These aren’t the Blackwater types but “everyday folks, like truck drivers, carpenters, etc.,” Sparling says. “Over the years, many of them have been taken hostage and held for ransom. I considered the possibility of one of these individuals being buried alive and given only a very short amount of time to coordinate their own ransom. And if they’re not successful, they’re left to die right where they are.”
That ghoulish concept, echoing not only the popular Saw series but also George Sluizer’s classic psychological thriller The Vanishing, led to his script for Buried. Ryan Reynolds plays that American contractor working in Iraq and stuck in a coffin with only a cell phone and a lighter.
Although the film’s setting is a metaphorically rich one considering recent American foreign policy, Sparling says he was guided by more practical concerns. “Stealing a page from Hitchcock’s playbook,” he says, “I decided on writing a story that takes place entirely in one small location. In my case, this was inside an old, wooden coffin. From there, I needed a plausible reason why someone would be buried alive.”
To research his tale he interviewed actual contractors who worked in Iraq. “I didn’t want to tell a POV of their specific stories,” Sparlings says. “Rather, I wanted to get a sense of what it was really like over there for them. More than anything, I wanted to portray them, and the difficult job they did, accurately. I felt a certain responsibility to do this, probably the same way a documentary filmmaker would.”
After finishing the script, Sparling made a crucial decision: to step back from his previous role as a writer-director. “I decided to go out with the script as a spec,” he says. Buried was quickly picked up by producer Peter Safran, who attached Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés. “Rodrigo had an incredible vision for the film, and after watching [his Spanish film] The Contestant, I knew immediately that he was exactly the right person to direct the picture. And he was also the only director who wanted to shoot the film as it takes place in the script; that is, keeping the story inside the box for the duration of the film.”
A well-known actor had to be found to bring in investors and interest, and Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal) was quickly chosen as the hero stuck underground. “Ryan, Rodrigo and I are all repped by the same agency, so I imagine that made it a bit easier to get him the script,” says Sparling. Once he had the script, the movie happened the way movies are supposed to happen but rarely do. “We sat down at a restaurant one day in L.A. to discuss the project, and then literally, within weeks, the cameras were rolling.”
Buried was shot on a soundstage in Barcelona over a 21-day period last August. Sparling, who only knew his own no-budget productions, was surprised when he arrived in Spain to visit the shooting. “I was amazed at how big of a production it actually was in spite of the contained nature of the film,” he says. Buried’s charmed life continued when, barely four months after the start of principal photography, it was accepted to Sundance, where it will world premiere in the Midnight section.
Since Buried wrapped in September, Sparling’s been busy. He recently sold a script entitled Mercy to Gold Circle Films to be produced next year. He’ll reunite with Safran on an untitled thriller set to shoot next spring and is currently developing a script titled Falling Slowly, which will see his return to the director’s chair. And prepremiere, Buried saw its industry profile increase when its screenplay was selected in December for the prestigious “Black List” of Hollywood’s most-liked screenplays of 2009.
Of his whirlwind year, Sparling says, “I was really beginning to question if I’d ever catch my proverbial big break. I drifted away from film work and started applying for police jobs and even began the interview process with the A.T.F. It’s not that I intended on throwing in the towel, but I thought I was really going to have to restrategize my approach to... well, to life.” But Sparling is taking his current good fortune in stride. “All told, I guess I’m still waiting to see if this really is my big break,” he laughs. “But even if it turns out not to be, I’m very grateful to have a break of any kind, because, quite honestly, my hands were getting pretty damn tired from all that knocking.”
Friday, January 22, 2010
The filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman work together in New York as Supermarche, and are prolific producers of music videos, commercials and feature films (Opus Jazz: NY Export, premiering on PBS this Spring, is their latest.) They also share an office with Schulman’s younger brother, Yaniv. One day Yaniv got an email from an eight-year-old girl who wanted to paint a picture of one of his photographs (a production still from Opus Jazz that had run in the newspaper.) Egged on by his brother and Henry, Yaniv said yes, and instigated an intense correspondence not only with the girl but her entire family. Thousands of emails, Facebook messages, texts, letters and phone calls later, they still hadn’t met in person.
The story is told through screens — when Yaniv and company decide to hit the road, you see the entire route on Google maps via an animated sequence of street view frames; the camera is on the ‘You Are Here’ flag of their rental car’s GPS when they arrive; you read the text messages and click through the profile pictures of the people involved, vividly mirroring the experience of the filmmakers themselves. To say that the story behind Catfish is a crazy one would be a tragic understatement, but to give away the central mystery here would be worse. So suffice to say that this is a documentary about a correspondence that turned into a face-to-face relationship, and something that you have to see to believe. Catfish screens at Sundance in the Spotlight section beginning today.
Filmmaker: The film is definitely better the less you know about it… so what should we not talk about in this interview?
Henry Joost: The ideal viewer is always someone who doesn’t know anything about it going in. Then the experience they have watching the film is most like the experience we went through in making it. But of course that’s very hard to maintain. Were you surprised?
Ariel Schulman: You didn’t know the story at all?
Filmmaker: I knew random things – basically that Nev got involved with a Facebook romance. But nothing can really prepare you for what happens.
Schulman: People are like, “Oh I know what the movie’s about, I’m not gonna be surprised.” Then they’re like…. What? The truth is just stranger.
Filmmaker: So when did you decide to start making the film?
Schulman: Henry and I film our lives constantly. We use our cameras like little sketchbooks, we’re obsessive chroniclers. For me, it’s because of dependency on my visual memory — I have no sense of smell, I have a muted sense of taste, so I don’t want to forget anything I see. On top of that, there are just tiny moments of beauty every day, not to sound like the kid from American Beauty, but wonderful things are happening every day, and I don’t want to miss them. I think it’s generational. I film my brother all the time. His life is just full of crazy stories, and I get a little pang of guilt every time I don’t get one on film. So we just have stacks and stacks of hard drives of little things that have happened to us that haven’t gone anywhere. This one turned into something. If it hadn’t, it would be just another folder in my hard drive of 2008 video clips.
Joost: We have clips of every trip we’ve ever been on, hours of footage of us goofing around in the office, every party we’ve ever gone to, our friends, our families, little things we notice on the street, on the subway, and most of it we’ve never even watched.
Schulman: So last year, when technology had gotten to the point that I just had an HD camera in my pocket at all times, Nev turned to me and said “I just got an email from an 8-year-old girl in Michigan who wants to paint my paintings.’’ The minute the painting arrived I started filming. I didn’t know what the footage was for; I thought we’d make a short film about these two artists meeting on the Internet, maybe. And then he starts falling in love with her older sister Megan. She dances, she loves photography, she loves his photography, she thinks he’s a god, he thinks she’s so sexy, she’s sweet, open minded, and he’s his best self with her. I’ve never seen him talk on the phone with anyone like that, and with her he’d just sit down and talk on the phone with her for hours, for two hours – about nothing, about chickens. He’s not usually like that; he’s a very guarded person. But when he came into contact with this family, he suddenly started opening up. He’s my dear brother, and he says to me, “I’m thinking about moving to Michigan to live with Megan on her horse farm.”
Filmmaker: What was your reaction? What did you think of the relationship early on?
Schulman: Henry and I are too involved in our own lives to spend that much time in a virtual world with people in another part of the country. Nev was going through a time in his life when he wasn’t psyched with his job, he wasn’t 100% satisfied with his life in New York, and he was looking for escape and opportunity. A girl says, “Let’s talk every day and then go live on a horse farm.” He’s like, let me see where this will take me, because right now, it’s better than the alternative.
Joost: There was also a creative element, which is that he was getting beautiful paintings of his photos in the mail and giving her artistic feedback. He was mentoring this little girl who was learning how to paint, and she was opening his eyes and helping him become a better photographer. I think he found it creatively fulfilling that he was mentoring this young artist. She inspired him.
Filmmaker: So defining this strictly as an “online relationship” is a little misleading.
Joost: Yeah, we used to say that this was a movie about an internet relationship, but it really wasn’t just an internet relationship – it was about the paintings that Abby sent and the photos Nev made, and the phone calls and letters and postcards and presents. It was a relationship.
Filmmaker: The beginning of the film, especially, is filled with screens, and instant messages, texts, phone calls, voicemails and close ups of Facebook pages – but you don’t include any exposition about social networking itself. Have you ever faced any pressure to impose greater themes on the movie?
Joost: We considered it, but the larger themes are all there in the action, the story. Since the story is about two people meeting online, early on we knew that the computer, handheld devices, and technology would become a character in the story and needed to become part of the visual language of the movie. When Nev was thinking about moving to Michigan, the first thing he did was go to Google Maps and find out how many miles away it was. He’d search for flights on kayak.com. He’d look at new pictures of Megan on Facebook. Graphic information is all conveyed through computers in the film.
Filmmaker: So when did you know that this could be a feature film?
Schulman: Well at the point when Nev was thinking about moving to Michigan, there was no form: we were still just picking up all the footage we usually get. It was only after we got to Colorado and made a few discoveries that we knew what a journey it was becoming. That’s when we started rolling and didn’t stop.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about being a subject of your own film?
Joost: We didn’t have a choice. We were part of it. We spend almost every waking hour together.
Schulman: …and Nev is my brother, and one of Henry’s best friends, so what was happening to him was happening to us too. I thought he needed to go on this journey as much as we did as filmmakers.
Filmmaker: What’s the most common reaction you’ve had to the movie so far?
Joost: The first question is always, “How is Nev?”
This piece was originally printed in our 2010 Winter issue.
In a New York Times piece written last month on the commercial success in 2009 of films aimed at female audiences (Twilight: New Moon, Julie & Julia, The Proposal), critic Manohla Dargis also took note of the relative paucity of female directors in Hollywood. Sure, there’s Kathryn Bigelow, who won many critic’s Best Director awards with The Hurt Locker, and there are Nora Ephron, Ann Fletcher and a few others but, for the most part, wrote Dargis, “Only a handful of female directors picked up their paychecks from one of the six major Hollywood studios and their remaining divisions this year.” Noting that Bigelow took seven years between pictures, she wondered why female directors have had a hard time sustaining careers in this business while their male counterparts are given regular opportunities and are even forgiven for a flop or two.
One female director who has been able to make her films while not being dependent on the whims of studio development executives is Nicole Holofcener. Although Holofcener does Hollywood screenwriting work and directs television (Bored to Death, Sex and the City), as a director she has received little assistance from those major studios. Nonetheless she is returning in 2010, just three years after her Friends with Money, with Please Give, another semi-autobiographical story about modern women and the ways in which female identity is modulated by contemporary social convention. Like all her films, it is funny, but, as always, her humor is laced with a shot of pain, this time the lingering angst that comes from her 40-something character’s recognition of her mortality. And with this fourth film, Holofcener’s project — a series of movies that explore the different issues women face as they age — becomes clearly visible.
In her debut feature Walking and Talking, Holofcener explored female friendship between two very different women in their twenties. In 2001’s Lovely & Amazing she highlighted insecurity and body-image issues. In 2006’s Friends with Money she turned to midlife crisis. Now with Please Give, Holofcener considers, among other things, death as well as ethics. Set against the backdrop of New York City real estate, she asks why materialistic actions can make us feel better while selfless ones sometimes don’t. Catherine Keener stars as Kate, who along with her husband (Oliver Platt) wait patiently for their elderly neighbor to die so they can knock down her walls and expand their apartment. Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) plays Rebecca, the granddaughter of the elderly neighbor, who has shut down her social life to care for the ailing woman and who forms an unlikely bond with Kate. Gradually Rebecca comes to terms with her grandmother’s impending death while Kate, who also has a business with her husband selling high-end furniture of the deceased, displaces her guilt by giving money to the homeless — all the while ignoring the needs of her daughter (Spanglish’s Sarah Steele) and not realizing that her husband is having an affair with Rebecca’s sister (Amanda Peet).
Okay, it’s a far cry from The Proposal — even if Sandra Bullock was originally attached to star in Holofcener’s Walking and Talking. Perhaps controlling her own destiny in the independent sphere, continuing to pen her multilayered, tonally tricky ensemble stories, and not doing for-hire romantic comedies is why Holofcener is one of the few female writer-directors in America who has maintained a singular, unmistakable voice throughout her entire filmography.
Holofcener talked to Filmmaker the day Please Give was named to the Premiere section of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics opens the film in early April.
Filmmaker: Where did the idea for Please Give come from?
Holofcener: The idea of buying an apartment while someone is still living in it and then waiting for them to die was the jumping-off point for this story. A friend of mine had done that and actually became friends with the old woman and went to her funeral. We actually shot in the building that my friend lived in. I know someone else who did the same thing in New York and he’s waiting for the woman to die. I mean, that’s a weird way to say it — it’s not like he’s waiting, but the apartment will become his when she dies. It’s this phenomenon in New York, and it’s a strange relationship, like every time you see this person in the elevator you’re reminded of death. The Catherine Keener character is not a bad person. Amanda Peet’s character puts it best, “You don’t think she would die if she didn’t buy the apartment?”
Filmmaker: On a broader level, was the theme of mortality on your mind when starting the film?
Holofcener: More when the script was done. I didn’t sit down thinking, I want to write a movie about death or homeless people or infidelity or any of those things. I probably would have been paralyzed if I thought I was taking on such a big subject. The characters just slowly evolved and the issues erupted naturally.Whatever is important to me consciously or unconsciously ends up on the page, I guess. I mean I’m always thinking about death. I’m on the other side of half over, so [laughs] what else is there to think about?
Filmmaker: It’s almost like you’ve made one long movie across your whole career. You’re going through the progression of life through your movies.
Holofcener: Definitely, but completely unconsciously. I can’t imagine what I’ll come up with next — an old-age home or something. I’m not ready for that yet. But because what I write is autobiographical I suppose it’s inevitable. As long as I continue to mature in the right direction these things will come up.
Filmmaker: You’ve said in interviews that you don’t constantly write and stow away scripts, so when did you start thinking about this project?
Holofcener: After Friends with Money I got this idea about the apartment and started taking notes. And then at a certain point I don’t want to take notes anymore so it inspires me to start writing, which is a pretty quick [process]. I don’t think about the script; I just start writing and assume it’s going to be terrible, which is kind of a weight off my shoulders. I’m able to be free to have it be messy and bad. This particular script I threw away in the middle because I couldn’t find it. The characters just were not good and it wasn’t ending. It wasn’t falling into place. I kept trying and I finally just put it down. A couple of months later I picked it up and reread it and had some other ideas and finished it.
Filmmaker: Was it the voice of the characters, their interaction with each other or the story that was giving you trouble?
Holofcener: Sometimes you throw ideas at the wall and see if they stick. For some reason I felt someone should be cheating in this movie and I wrote versions where everyone was cheating. I had Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt working in a lotion store, like those stores in Chelsea where they sell four kinds of lotions. They were working there and she was having an affair. It was fun to write it for a while but it just wasn’t right. I just didn’t like it and the store wasn’t right. So I threw them in another store and then when I came up with the furniture store it kind of opened up a whole other world of buying things from dead people and “stuff” and the value of stuff. That added a layer to the script without really even trying. That’s why it’s good sometimes to just let your own unconscious play and not to be afraid of [the script] being really bad at first.
Filmmaker: Does feedback from your actors shape the characters, or do you direct them toward the way they are conceived on the page?
Holofcener: Certain characters I’m more in the dark about than others. Like in Friends with Money there were one or two characters that I didn’t know as well as the others. But I always want feedback from the actors as long as it’s within reason. If I start to wonder why they took the part, then it’s too much. Sometimes an actor will say, “Why am I saying this?” And I literally don’t know the answer — I just typed it out. [Laughs] Maybe there’s a reason and maybe there isn’t and usually at this point an actor will trust me and will say the words. But if it doesn’t work we’ll come up with something else.
Filmmaker: Keener’s character this time around seems a bit more sympathetic than in your previous films. Was that intentional?
Holofcener: Yes, she said, “Make me likable.” [Laughs] No, it was not conscious. You do sympathize with her character, but she’s kind of a boob. Really bumbling. I didn’t really think this was her chance to be lovable, but also I just don’t think like that.
Filmmaker: Were Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt and Rebecca Hall people you thought of while you were writing?
Holofcener: When I was writing it I pictured Oliver. I had him and a couple of actors in mind and he stuck in my head the most. Luckily he was available. And Rebecca, I didn’t know who she was, but Jeanne McCarthy, our casting director, said I should meet her, and she was lovely. Vicky Cristina Barcelona had just come out, and I rented Starter for Ten and she’s in that too, and I thought she was perfect. I thought she was a little too beautiful for the part, but hey, it’s a movie. [Laughs] I had to work hard to get her to look pretty plain. She didn’t read for it or anything, I think I ran into her on the street, in fact, and I said I want you to play the part and everyone was mad at me because I didn’t have permission to offer it to her yet. [Laughs] Amanda, I’ve wanted to work with her for a long time.
Filmmaker: You started your movies while living in New York, but now you live in L.A. Had you thought of setting this movie there instead?
Holofcener: New York was always the setting. It’s the only place I know in terms of this kind of real estate thing happening. As I was writing it I kept thinking, “I have to set this somewhere else because I didn’t want to leave my kids back in L.A.” But you just can’t set this kind of story anywhere else. I mean you couldn’t buy this story in somewhere like Long Beach. [Laughs] And there were so many creative elements, like the narrow elevator and their front doors right next to each other, that I couldn’t concoct anywhere else.
Filmmaker: So was it strange to come back and shoot in New York, which you hadn’t done since Walking and Talking in 1995?
Holofcener: It’s just life. Once you have kids you’re going to stick around where they are. I consciously wrote Lovely & Amazing and Friends with Money to take place in L.A. because I didn’t want to go anywhere. But now that my kids are older I think I want to have something take place in the Caribbean or some place real nice.
Filmmaker: Despite all the talk about how hard it is to get a movie made, you were lucky to have Sony Classics come in and finance the film.
Holofcener: Yeah. It was scary, though — I got in under the wire, right before the economy collapsed. I wasn’t sure if the movie was going to get made at all. They were kind of anxious about taking it on. I think they only saw its darkness.
Filmmaker: I would think that the kinds of films you make — character based, with complicated tones — would be the ones most affected by the industry’s current money woes. Do you think you’re going to be able to continue making these sorts of films?
Holofcener: I don’t know, but I am a little worried. Especially because it seems the only way to get a movie made, even a $3 to $5 million one, is you have to have more than one really big star, which is completely wrong for a small indie movie. So I’m definitely concerned. I hope that I can creatively go with the flow and make a living and continue directing. Believe me, I’m not trying to not make a really financially successful movie.
Filmmaker: What projects are upcoming?
Holofcener: I’ve adapted this book, Every Secret Thing [a novel by Laura Lippman], and we’re going to try to get money for that. It will be nothing like my other films. It’s a thriller, it has death, suspense, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy to make either. It’s kind of a Mystic River type of thing. The leads are female so that’s a whole different ballgame I guess, unless I get it to three big-name female stars who can get the movie financed but might not necessarily be right for the part. We’ll see.
Filmmaker: Have you made compromises to get your films made?
Holofcener: Absolutely. But I haven’t yet had to compromise in a way that I’ve lost sleep over. I haven’t felt like I’ve sold my soul. Making movies is so difficult that one is making compromises constantly, like casting someone who isn’t my ideal choice. But then that person turns out to be fantastic so you forget the compromise. Or choosing one location over another and then later you forget that you even had that other location. But I don’t think that I would, at least this point in my life, start compromising to the point where it feels really bad. Not yet.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika is a documentary that shows modern-day Russia from the inside out. Five Russian adults reveal their personal histories through interviews and home movies, talking us through their childhood in school together during the die-hard communist Brezhnev years of the 1970s, through Gorbachev, the collapse of the USSR, and, finally, the coups, oligarchs and wealth transfers that are shaping Russia today. Borya and Lyuba, a married couple, teach history at School #57, which their teenage son also attends, and the film begins in their modest apartment, the same one Borya grew up in. Olga, the prettiest girl in school, marvels when she finds out that the life she leads — with food on the table and a lake house to spend the summers — is technically below the poverty line. Andrei, the only one who has managed to move out of his parents house and into a luxury condo, opens his 17th luxury men’s clothing store during the course of the film. Lyuba hides her face remembering how she used to salute the television when the national anthem played; Ruslan shows us music videos from the punk band he formed in the 1980’s.
What is most remarkable about My Perestroika are not the poignant and surprising revelations about life in Russia, but the extreme level of intimacy that Hessman maintains in each interview. Though the majority of these are sit-down, single camera interviews, they have the candor and spontaneity of verite footage. Her insight into the subject (and fluent Russian) stemmed from a fascination with the Soviet Union since grade school and almost ten years living in the country. Hessman set out to make the film in three months and ended up filming for five years, but one thing she knew from the beginning is that no history has a single truth, and even a million voices couldn’t tell the whole story.
Filmmaker: How was the process of making this film different from how you imagined it would be?
Hessman: It definitely took longer than I expected — I look back at my early prospectus which has all these confident assertions about how we were going to shoot for three months, have a co-production at this time, and the we’ll be financed, and then we’ll premiere. Of course, I shot for five years, and was raising money through the whole process. We found most of our financing in Europe, whereas I thought it would all be U.S. investment.
Filmmaker: You can’t predict the future just by writing a prospectus, I guess.
Hessman: One of the greatest wisdoms I took away from living for so long in Russia had to do with exactly that, actually. Here’s the metaphor: if life is an ocean, the general American ethos is, we’re in our own little motorboat, and we decide where we’re going to go, and then we go there. That’s how I raised: pick a goal, and go for it, and don’t let anything take you off course. Russians on the other hand, they’re in a sailboat, so if life takes them left, they go left. Something you learn very quickly trying to do business there is that making plans in Russia involves a lot of conversations like, “Well I don’t know if I can make it next Tuesday, because who knows what’s going to happen in our lives tomorrow? Let’s talk on Tuesday if you want to do it on Tuesday.” Although even that is changing rapidly.
Filmmaker: One thing that really struck me was the stories in your film, and the way these people's conceptions of who they were and what they wanted changed so drastically as they grew older. Whereas a U.S. education is all about teaching kids to identify their own particular brand of specialness, your subjects were strict and passionate conformists as children, and they talk about it being a blissfully happy time.
Hessman: Right, one of the things about being a kid in the USSR was that you were not supposed to stick out; you had to conform. They told me stories of the class collectively admonishing one student because his tie wasn’t straight. But there are also really positive aspects of [socialist culture] that I think people miss in some ways. For example, the Meyerson’s students go to Greece every year. All of the parents and alumni pool their money to make sure every child can go – some give more money, some give less. Whereas I know that in the US, if a parent can’t afford a trip, that child just stays home. I do wonder if the next generation of Russian parents will be so comfortable thinking of their child’s class as a collective, because people have to work much harder and for much longer hours today to support their family and that will probably make them less inclined to give to the community. These contradictions and pluses and minuses are what I wanted to show with the film.
Filmmaker: Would you say that they’ve developed a different sense of themselves through their politics as well?
Hessman: When these people were growing up, there was a sense that the State and its politics existed on another level of life, so every day people just focused on their daily lives. You can’t affect the State, so why get involved in it or even think about it very much? So people focused on their friends, music, literature, family; everyone had extensive hobbies like mountain climbing and photography. Then under Gorbachev, the personal and the political began to intersect. There was a reason to get engaged, and a lot of people became very [politically active.] Today, I think people have swung back to feeling like there’s no use getting involved in politics, and everyone is again focused on their own life and their own family. The difference is that now it is a lot harder to make a living, and you have to spend a lot more time at work, so there isn’t any time for the friends and the literature and the music. You’re just trying to do the best you can, and feed your family.
Filmmaker: How did you arrive at the format of the film, which is interview-based and without narration? What were some of the challenges of that structure?
Hessman: Between these five people there are so many different experiences and opinions about what happened; having a narrator would make one point of view legitimate and not another. It would give the impression that there’s an objective truth about what happened and how people feel about it, and there just isn’t one. We also had the Soviet archival footage to get ideas across, the subject’s home movies, and of course the interviews themselves. The home movies to me are incredibly important, because they were made with no agenda other than to record daily life for future generations. I wanted to bring the viewer into the private visual world of the 1970’s and 80’s. One problem we had with the archival footage was that a lot of it is black and white, even from the 1990’s. American viewers thought it was from World War II so sometimes we had to put some identifying dates.
Filmmaker: How did you figure out how much exposition was needed, because I’m sure every viewer’s knowledge of the country is so different?
Hessman: It’s definitely a careful balance — enough information that people wouldn’t be lost, but to make sure the history didn’t overshadow the characters. The Sundance Lab helped a lot, helped identify what the individual story arcs of each of the characters were. And we also played a lot with the lower third of the screen, identifying footage. We’d have a clip of kids with gas masks on and it would say, “Teen Civil Defense Training, Early 1980s.” But as the film developed, I felt that all the editorial impositions wasn’t helping. You didn’t need to know that this was civil defense training, it’s more important to just see and hear what was going on around them at that point in their lives.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about your approach to interviewing?
Hessman: Very early on I realized that I wouldn’t be able to use another camera person. For one thing, the apartments we were shooting in were just too small to fit in more than one person. But much more than that, the atmosphere in the room completely changed when I wasn’t alone with [the subjects.] I spoke Russian, I had lived there, so there was a shared history and understanding that a journalist visiting for two weeks could never have. Because when I moved to Russia, all the friends I made were my age, college age, so I had heard so much about what their childhoods had been like that I knew the books, I could sing the songs, so we had a lot of mutual understanding. But the most important thing was time. I’m so happy that things didn’t go as quickly as my first prospectus said it would; I spent five years filming these people, and if I had only filmed them for three months, I can’t imagine the interviews would be as warm and as rich as they are. [Two of the subjects] were historians, so they were used to examining all of this, although maybe not from the perspective of personal anecdotes. Russians can sit in the kitchen and talk about the meaning of life until three in the morning, so I don’t think it was a difficult experience for them to talk about this stuff, but I don’t think anyone had ever asked them these questions.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
When filmmakers heard that the Sundance Film Festival’s longstanding Director, Geoffrey Gilmore, was leaving, they wondered if his departure would signify a major change in direction at an institution that more than any other has defined the world of American independent film. When, a couple of weeks later, John Cooper, Sundance’s Director of Programming, was elevated to the Director position, they breathed a sigh of relief. As Holly Willis wrote in Filmmaker in 2006 about the 20-year veteran of the festival, “Funny, self-deprecating and entirely approachable, Cooper is known to thousands of American filmmakers as the guy who calls with really excellent news. For the festival, he’s integral, the armature that supports everything.”
But Cooper’s (and he is always known by just his last name) ascension has not meant business as usual in Park City and at the festival’s offices in Santa Monica, California. As he discusses below, Cooper is eager to put his own stamp on the festival. “This is the renewed rebellion. This is Sundance reminded,” proclaims this year’s program book, and in our talk Cooper is eager to align the festival not just with the acquisitions departments of the mini-majors but directly with the hustling DIY filmmakers struggling to execute their own more modest distribution strategies. We talked by phone a few days before the premiere of this year’s festival.
Filmmaker: So, you’ve been at Sundance for 20 years, but now you are the Director. How does it feel? What’s different now?
Cooper: Well, I can move fast, and that feels good. When we thought about putting in the new section for low-and-no-budget films, I thought, I can just do this. I can just make this happen. Of course, I still had to check with the administrative staff to make sure we could get it done. You know, behind us programmers there is an army who sets up the theaters and does all of that stuff.
Filmmaker: How about in terms of individual film selections? You have a team of programmers, and I’m not sure how it worked before, but do you have a different relationship to the individual films?
Cooper: [In the past there have been] films that split both audiences and programming teams, like Old Joy. I remember arguing for it — I was not going to give up [on having it in the festival]. It didn’t make it into the Dramatic Competition, but it should have. I have the power now to fine tune the placement of those films. I have veto power and final decision power. So I have been looking back and rethinking decisions I would have made [if I had been in this position]. Most of it has been very fun.
Filmmaker: How has the day-to-day aspect of the job changed for you? And how did you prepare for it?
Cooper: I decided that stress in general was overrated, and that this should be a fun experience. But what I really had to do in terms of structure was, I had to listen more to my staff. My staff is seasoned, and I’m glad I didn’t lose any of them. I am sitting in a good position [because my staff and I] know each other well. I moved, though, from a position of being the most seasoned person in the room with a voice to the other side where I wanted to hear what they had to say. Where was their passion around a film? What films did they love? “It’s important” – those are key words that mean [the programmers] didn’t love it. There are enough films that we do love, so let’s find those first. We still have to find 120 films in the end, but I want them to be films that have true passion behind them. Films that also have an audience — there might be a smaller audience, but there is an audience.
Filmmaker: What were the thoughts and ideas that guided you in terms of the changes you have implemented?
Cooper: My own interpretation of what the film community needs. [When I got the job] — I talked to a lot of people and asked, “What do you want from us?” And not just filmmakers. I talked to a lot of press people, publicists, some friends, and even our own audiences. I asked people to email and tell me whatever they wanted to about the festival, and I got 200 emails, some of them long and passionate. The heart of all of them was: “Please remain pure; please stay the course. Don’t blow it.” You realize that people are invested in this [festival]. They want to believe that we are mission-driven and ethical in our selection process, which we are. Yes, we are fickle, but we are also ethical. People are watching, after that big wave of scared responsibility, I felt a really nice feeling of support. I also knew that I wanted to do one thing that would capture the imagination that would be bigger and flashier, and that’s how the Sundance Film Festival USA came about. We’re doing it very brick and mortar, going out to eight cities [with films following their Sundance premieres], working with art houses and having fun with it.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the filmmakers participating in the Sundance Film Festival USA program. Did they have to be convinced to hit the road with their films instead of staying in Park City?
Cooper: It took explaining, and the filmmakers had to think about what it would mean to their lives to be leaving Sundance on Thursday, the 28th, in the middle of winter, and going to Madison, Ann Arbor, or Chicago. But independent filmmakers are at their core so resilient. The first eight filmmakers we asked said they would do it. I didn’t expect to get as many premieres in the program. The program was conceived so that, in theory, a Competition film could leave and come back, but it’s hard to find three days when [Sundance filmmakers] are not doing anything at the festival. Our filmmakers work hard.
Filmmaker: Who are some of the filmmakers taking part in the program?
Cooper: A lot of these films are premiering the first half the festival. There are filmmakers doing it like Jay and Mark Duplasse [Cyrus], who are in it for the fun of it. There’s John Wells [The Company Man]. There’s HOWL and also Daddy Longlegs, which is now doing video-on-demand after the festival too. Daddy Longlegs is directed by the Safdies, and they are going home to Brooklyn [to screen their film at BAM]. Philip Seymour Hoffman happens to be starring in a play in Chicago, so he can’t stay at the festival anyway. [His film, Jack Goes Boating, will screen at the Music Box Theatre]. But we’re experimenting all over the place at this festival in terms of alternative distribution. Bass Ackwards and One Too Many Mornings are going [into distribution] right from the festival. I think back to [Ballast director] Lance Hammer and one thing he kept saying at Sundance — that he wished he could have capitalized more on the energy coming out of the festival.
Filmmaker: So there may be a different narrative coming out of this year’s festival than the usual story of the big first weekend sale?
Cooper: I hope some great new mythology comes out of this. We hope these things become a phenomenon. I want filmmakers to make their money back and to continue to make films, because that’s what sustains what I do.
Filmmaker: Do you think filmmakers traveling to Sundance have reconciled themselves with the different state of the industry today?
Cooper: I have noticed a shift. There are more filmmakers now who just want to sustain their careers. They are clear about not getting the big break. They want to make movies. It used to be, “Get the deal, get set up at a studio.”
Filmmaker: To be honest, I thought there would be more filmmakers using Sundance as a DIY launch platform this year.
Cooper: It’s hard. There is so much they have to learn, such a learning curve. It was the only films that were finished in time. I didn’t know if any of them would have the nerve to do it this year.
Filmmaker: Do you think this will be the beginning of a trend?
Cooper: I think Sundance could get almost half and half — half films going out to the marketplace and half bigger. I am not afraid to have that split. I told my staff, “We are not going to program for commercial possibility, even in alternative platforms. Just find the most creative and excellent filmmakers, and the rest will sort itself out.” Films that are really good land places, although they don’t always make money.
Filmmaker: What would you tell our readers specifically to look out for at this year’s festival?
Cooper: Make sure you check out the NEXT section. There’s a real passion and vitality there. Jack Goes Boating is such a wonderful occurrence. Philip Seymour Hoffman directed, and he’s in it, and it comes from a play he did. It has all the credentials but then it hits its mark. He did an amazing job. And I love The Company Man, directed by John Wells. I like when people who have another career [make features]. John is a TV producer, but he has real filmmaking passion, and his is not a flashy film. The new Spotlight section is for films we love. They are programmed for no other reason. I love I Am Love and 8: The Mormon Proposition, which I found so interesting that it came out so quickly. I expected it to be more hyped-out, flashy, and built around argument and passion, but the research that went into it is amazing. And then there is Blue Valentine, HOWL, and Hesher, which is a really wonderful film. Douchebag — that could have played in the NEXT section. It’s a nearly perfect film for its budget.
Filmmaker: You say Douchebag could have played in NEXT. Why establish a section devoted to low-to-no-budget films when those films could play in other sections and not be defined there by their budgets?
Cooper: We found in the past that films like these were being shoehorned into other programs, like New Frontier or Midnight even though they weren’t, for example, midnight films, or cult-y or genre films. There was a lot of play this year between films in the Competition and NEXT, but we felt we had to carve out a section this year [for these films specifically] and hold onto it. We wanted to find six to eight films in this no-to-low budget range. We had to give this part of our community the respect it deserves. So we held eight slots.
Filmmaker: So is what links these films their budgets, or do they represent some kind of specific aesthetic?
Cooper: I think it’s an aesthetic too. These films are being conceived of as low budget, but they have an energy that is addictive. I feel it, and when I meet the filmmakers, I like their energy. I want them at the festival. They feel a little renegade to me. I would hope that if a [future] John Waters walks into the door that I could recognize him and say, “You deserve a place here.”
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
One of the biggest premieres at Sundance this year doesn’t involve a star-studded premiere party or the unspooling of a glossy 35mm print: it’s an entirely new section of programming: <=>, pronounced “Next” by those not brave enough to type or say the symbol. Director of programming Trevor Groth has been involved with the festival for 25 years, and points out that the symbol actually means “Less Than Equals Greater Than,” which alludes to the fact that all Next films were made for very small budgets — at least under $500,000 but in most cases much, much less than that.
Based on description alone, the eight films in the section seem to be variations on the beloved themes of American independent film: a road movie, a sex comedy, an examination of a little-known subculture, an outcast boy gets unlikely girl. Films just like them, with equally small budgets, are programmed in Competition and Spotlight; films just like them with multi-million dollar budgets will have their days in the Park City sun as well. So what is a Next film?
Below, Groth explains all the reasoning behind the symbol, and says that the point isn’t exactly to create a special “low budget” section, but rather to highlight the complex achievements of filmmakers pursuing personal, human stories outside of what has, in the 25 years of the festival, become a new institutional film system, the one populated by movie stars and studios that still calls itself “Independent Film.” Advancements in digital format and a rising tide of new distribution possibilities make the delineation a timely new line in the Sundance sand.
Filmmaker: What’s the story behind the creation of this new section?
Groth: There were a lot of factors – it started with the submissions we received, which had grown so much not just in quantity but also in quality. Our decisions were getting much more difficult because the films being submitted were getting better and better. A lot of the films making it in were films that we loved, but that also tended to have a higher profile in terms of name talent and so on. We always kept some space for smaller films, but they tended not to get the attention they deserved when competing with these bigger names that got all the press. So we felt that by giving these films their own section, they might collectively get more attention than they would standing alone alongside the other features. We want to represent with this selection of films a spectrum of what’s happening in this part of the industry right now. There are certainly low-budget films in Competition that we considered for Next; for us, when a film went into the Next section, it wasn’t 2nd place – especially this first year, I think these films are going to get even more attention by being in Next than they would if they were in Competition.
Filmmaker: It’s a tricky thing, singling films out based on their budget, because the budget of a film dictates its casting, the coverage, the format — everything. It might be hard for these films to be judged alongside films that had much greater resources. But likewise I don’t feel like films should be excused for their faults because of their lack of money, or get a break from the audience because they didn’t have all the money they needed.
Groth: That’s right, [the film] has to work, and we truly feel that all these films work despite their limited resources to tell their stories. We found the films [for this section] that we thought really represent the ‘less than equals greater than’ spirit. We don’t want the audience to forgive these films for what they don’t have. We want people to react without thinking what the budget was.
Filmmaker: What do they share besides budget?
Groth: Along the budget lines, people have asked, you know, what’s the [cut-off budget] number, and we didn’t have a hard number. In general, we said that anything under $500,000 could be considered for this section. That being said however, I think the films making it into this section are much lower than that. They all come from very different places and very different voices, but I do think they share similar qualities. They are all focused on the writing, they are all sharply conceived and written, and they’re all capturing a specific aesthetic with what limited resources they have to work with.
Filmmaker: They do all seem to be narrative and character-driven, not playing rough with format or pushing formal boundaries in major ways.
Groth: The films that are pushing boundaries are what New Frontiers is all about. We’d noticed in that last few years that there were a lot of films going into New Frontiers that weren’t necessarily formally experimental or avant-garde in any specific way, but that had this spirit of utilizing minimal resources and being inventive and creative with storytelling. So that’s another reason that we wanted to create Next, to showcase films that weren’t necessarily breaking any rules about aesthetic and story but were just very well-executed and funny — character-driven films that we think work regardless of budget.
Filmmaker: In terms of the sales landscape, the prevailing wisdom is that filmmakers should not come into the festival expecting that magical six-figure deal that makes their dreams come true. How does this section fit into these new business realities?
Groth: Definitely, we wanted to reflect what was happening in the industry. The old track of, “OK we’re going to make this film, come to Sundance and sell it to a distributor,” that really only happens for a small percentage of films these days. The ones that it does happen to are ones that have more obviously marketable components to them. What I love about the films in the Next section is that they’re not coming in with that dream. If you look at Bass Ackwards and One Too Many Mornings, they’re coming in with a complete plan for distribution. They’re utilizing the attention that they’re going to get by being in Sundance to get out there as widely and as quickly as they can. I think that is going to happen more and more in the future, and this is the year it’s breaking out. People are shifting their agendas as to what the path of their film can be. We’re going to pay very close attention to those specific examples of what the new experience of taking a film to Sundance is going to be.
Filmmaker: I wonder how it’s going to play out, because some of these films don’t seem particularly internet-friendly, or have the obviously marketable elements you’re referring to.
Groth: One thing I’m hoping is that film festivals aren’t put off by a film that’s trying to distribute itself right away, via DVD’s and downloads and other platforms. Film Festivals are the film’s theatrical distribution in this model, and hopefully there’s going to be a shift [towards accepting that.] It’s like what happened with short films a few years ago, when the big festivals refused to show short films that had played online — Sundance was one of the first to break that rule. The same thing will happen with how people think about [films that are] accessible in VOD or online — they are still worth showing theatrically at a festival. We’re doing a thing this year with the Sundance channel where three films (Daddy Longlegs, 7 Days and Shock Doctrine) will be available for VOD during the festival. A film like 7 Days would have had some options to do other things [with its distribution] because it’s a genre film, but they’re willing to roll the dice by doing VOD right out of the gate, which is great. During the 10 days of the festival is when most of these films will have the most eyes on them, so why not utilize that momentum to reach as broad an audience as possible? Whatever we can do to connect films with audiences is a positive thing.
This is Anthony Kaufman's Industry Beat column from our 2010 Winter issue.
Old distribution models die hard.
Everyone knows about the passing of that once-established indie film paradigm: Make a movie, show it at a festival, sell it to a distributor, get it booked in theaters, watch it find a home on DVD and cable — and then somewhere down the line, after all the release expenses are recovered, maybe even rake in a few bucks.
And yet, when talking to filmmakers and sales reps heading into this year’s Sundance, it’s shocking how few are following new distribution strategies.
Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun says that a few of the filmmakers he’s repping have discussed some form of alternative path. “However,” he explains, “we are going on the Sundance ride to see how things unfold. Last year we had a bidding war and sold Humpday during Sundance, and I don’t think those days are gone yet. Certain movies will still trigger strong interest from distributors who don’t want to risk losing a great film.”
This might come as a surprise from Braun, who helped orchestrate the hugely successful DIY release for Valentino: The Last Emperor. After distribution offers were deemed inadequate following its Toronto fest ’08 premiere, the team eventually formed a partnership with Truly Indie and Vitagraph Films, and the self-styled release went onto become one of 2009’s highest-grossing docs. But Braun says that was a particular case of the filmmakers’ eagerness to experiment. “For certain films, it’s a great opportunity,” he says, further noting that films, particularly documentaries with a TV partner already in place, can take advantage of the theatrical window between a festival premiere and broadcast date.
Citing the “broken down” theatrical distribution market, Cinetic Media’s Digital Rights guru Matt Dentler believes there is a greater willingness now among filmmakers to embrace alternative distrib routes. “For the right film, which didn’t cost a ton of money and where there’s a specific audience, you can use the momentum of a festival and [with digital distribution] tap into people around the country who are hearing about the film and don’t have a way to see it,” he says. Dentler adds that Cinetic’s strategy to self-release Chris Smith’s Collapse on VOD and theaters shortly after its Toronto ’09 premiere was always the plan for the film. But it’s too soon to determine whether the strategy paid off. While the film attracted an impressive amount of publicity, by publication it has only grossed $50,000.
Regardless, the fact is most reps and filmmakers won’t go on record with non-conventional distribution plans because both still want to attract big buyers. Filmmakers want the distribution and marketing muscle a conventional distributor can provide, and most reps work off commissions, incentivizing them to aim first for large advances and quick sales. For all the talk of new models, few filmmakers want to give up on the old dream. As Dentler says, “When filmmakers get into Sundance, their distribution expectations skyrocket, even in this market.”
So when does reality set in?
For Michael Mohan, writer-director of One Too Many Mornings, playing in Sundance’s new low-budget Next section, the cruel truths of the sales climate hit home while he was making his movie. “We were looking at other films of similar scale; half were coming out, half weren’t, so we thought. ‘What’s the most responsible thing to do?’”
He and his team soon decided it made the most sense to make their indie comedy available for sale off their Web site (onetoomanymornings.com) through download and DVD immediately after the movie’s Sundance premiere. They enlisted the help of TopSpin Media, a technology and marketing firm that has previously helped music acts reach their audiences directly through the Web.
One Too Many Mornings (pictured right) producer Anthony Deptula acknowledges that the film’s low budget allowed them to try a more “hybrid” approach. “If you have a $400,000 or $600,000 movie, you can’t really mess around,” he admits. But with a low-budget, low-stakes production, Mohan and Deptula are motivated just as much by a financial incentive as a creative one. “Our goal is not to sell the film,” says Mohan, “but get it seen by as many people as possible.”
Likewise, Thomas Woodrow, producer of Sundance Next selection Bass Ackwards (pictured above), was fed up with the traditional distribution model — which he sardonically calls “stealing” (“a company taking a movie and then paying their bills by selling it and giving nothing back to the filmmaker,” he explains). Instead the Bass Ackwards filmmakers are planning “to treat Sundance itself as the theatrical campaign,” says Woodrow. Partnering with former New Line exec Marion Koltai-Levine’s Zipline Entertainment and indie distributor New Video, Woodrow hopes to get the film out “on every single platform as we can — DVD, iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, and maybe even in theaters. When someone asks, ‘How can I see your movie?’ The answer will be ‘anyway you want.’ When? February 1.”
While Mohan and Woodrow are embracing the future, diving headlong into post-Sundance digitally-driven launches, many filmmakers still want to emphasize a theatrical release as their first line of fire, with or without an established distributor. As Vanessa Hope, a producer of the Sundance competition picture The Imperialists are Still Alive!, states, “If we end up needing to go directly to the theater chains ourselves in order to get the film out there, we will do it.” She believes the Internet is key to the film’s promotion, but she feels that Imperialists is akin to indies from the ’60s and ’70s “that audiences above 25 years old will want to experience in theaters.”
Like many producers and filmmakers heading into Sundance, Hope is already strategizing for public consumption no matter what happens in Park City: getting that Facebook page polished, seeking out celebrity endorsements and cultivating fans online. But she sums up the aims of many by saying, “Plan A is a buyer.”
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