Monday, January 28, 2008
The following essay by Ray Carney on Aaron Katz’s Quiet City accompanies a 2-disc DVD release from Benten Films out this week of Quiet City and Katz's first film, Dance Party, USA.
Mainstream film is so much an art of the maximum – the biggest, the flashiest, the fastest, the most exaggerated – that it is easy to forget that the great films all go in the opposite direction. They are, almost without exception, triumphs of minimalism. They rely on subtlety, understatement, indirection, and simplification. In Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law, and Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch sets long sections of each work in almost empty rooms. In Femme Douce and L’Argent, Robert Bresson silences his characters to such an extent that room tone and traffic noises become more important than what the characters say to each other. In Joan of Arc and Gertrud, Carl Dreyer immobilizes his actors and actually prevents them from “acting” by insisting that they talk in conversational tones even at moments of high drama. But the effect of these acts of reduction is the opposite of a feeling of emptiness or depletion. As is so often the case in art, less is more. When physical distractions, editorial razzle dazzle, and actorly scenery chewing are removed, the smallest sounds, gestures, and tones of voice become of colossal importance. When everything that is non–essential is pared away, anything that remains is deepened and enriched.
The patron saint of Aaron Katz’s Quiet City is another practitioner of cinematic minimalism, Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. As Ozu did, Katz organizes his film around shots of trains, stations, and platforms, and inserts repeated “pause points” between his short scenes – moments in which the narrative simply is switched off, and the viewer is left contemplating shots of city skylines, trees, buildings, and light posts.
Katz’s insertion of these static shots may seem like a trivial stylistic device, but it has enormous consequences. The periodic rest stops change everything. They drain away narrative impetus and energy. The dragster accelerations of American narrative are sent crashing into visual brick walls. Viewer psychology is reversed. The viewer stops wondering what will happen, where a scene will go, where the film will end, and starts watching what is actually taking place. The appetitiveness, suspensefulness, and rhetorical pressure of mainstream narrative embodies the capitalist imaginative project of inducing endless speculation about the future while fostering a headlong rush into it; Katz’s pause–points induce a Zen-like present-mindedness. Katz holds us in the here and now. When we (and the characters) free ourselves from our druggie addiction to the stimulations of eventfulness and onwardness, our hell-bent–for–leather obsession with consequences, results, and dramatic (and human) “payoffs,” we (and they) become free to enjoy the goofy pleasures of noodling on a keyboard, drinking wine out of absurdly gigantic mugs, shivering on the roof and saying nothing that really matters, trying on silly hats, unstacking and stacking books, and running a zany race that gets nowhere.
One of the major ways mainstream film allows viewers and characters to leave the present behind is by using various forms of imaginative and rhetorical heightening to pressure moments into meaning more than they do on the surface. Quiet City, like so many of its slacker compatriots, is willfully superficial. It avoids, to the last shot, the standard studio techniques of imaginative deepening, enrichment, and enhancement. A freighted romantic glance, an evocative mood-music orchestration, a key-lighted close-up would free us (and the two main characters, Jamie and Charlie) from the claims of reality, would let us (and them) float above the here and now. While Hollywood is devoted to using visual and acoustic forms of heightening to raise the stakes everywhere it can, Katz keeps the narrative pressure and visual temperature, the dramatic tendentiousness, the personal energy, as low as possible in order to hold viewers and characters in the details of the present.
The apparent haphazardness or randomness of Jamie and Charlie’s dialogue is essential to that project. Conversations between the characters are not organized to make “points” or to “get somewhere.” It’s worth noting that although Katz gave his lead actors — Erin Fisher (Jamie), Cris Lankenau (Charlie), Sarah Hellman (Robin), and Tucker Stone (Kyle) — detailed instructions about the kinds of conversations he wanted them to have in each scene, most of the actual words they speak in the film were improvised. (As a practical matter, this was the only way Katz could realistically have proceeded — given the modesty of his schedule, his methods, and his players. It would have taken a genius-level screenwriter and weeks of rehearsals to have written and rehearsed interactions that played this easily and naturally, this apparently haphazardly and randomly.) The verbal effect is to create a monumentally laid-back relation to life. What happens, happens. What doesn’t, doesn’t. No one is pushing the river. No one is making anything happen.
That doesn’t mean that nothing happens, but rather that it appears to originate without personal or imaginative pressure being applied by the characters or by the filmmaker. The relationship of Charlie and Jamie does get somewhere, but Katz’s goal is to present the progress of a relationship that is not rhetorically inflated or narratively pressured, a relationship that is not presented as a series of heightened, dramatic “points” in the stupid movie way. The “slacker” sensibility is at the heart of the project. Hollywood uses the character’s (that is the actor’s) ego as a generator of narrative impetus and movement. Actors (and the characters they play) “make scenes” that “make the movie go.” Tom Cruise and Robert DeNiro strut and fret, and Jack Nicholson and Nicholas Cage shout and showboat their way through their movies, flattering viewers with macho visions of how powerful and powerfully expressive someone can be. Quiet City quiets, stills, and almost stops the acting. The actor becomes a reactor. The film shifts the shaping process away from the character and onto the movie’s structure as the creator of meaning. This is harder to do than it may sound, and Ozu’s work again can stand as an illustration of how complex the effect can be. Jamie and Charlie’s coming together emerges from the subtle comparisons and contrasts Katz creates, rather than from Jamie and Charlie’s personal pressurings of reality (or of each other). It is another way in which Katz jettisons the capitalist understanding of life. The American cinematic world of pushy people, assertive plans and goals, and powerful, personal “agency” is replaced by the quietism and passivity of what takes place in Tokyo Story, Autumn Afternoon, or Late Spring — films whose characters (or actors) would never presume to “take over” their stories, films where the sequence of scenes and the comparisons and contrasts Ozu makes between the characters create connections, relationships, and meanings that the films’ characters not only do not force into existence, but which they are generally not even aware are being created around them.
One of the Ozu-like organizational devices Katz employs to bring Charlie and Jamie together is to move them into ever more complex settings. Jamie and Charlie are ever-so-gradually pulled together by being circulated through, and sharing imaginative experiences within, alien environments. They begin as two souls stranded alone on the desert island of a deserted train station, an empty restaurant, and in Charlie’s apartment, but Katz moves them into ever larger and more complex settings in the course of the film. They first go into a deserted apartment that has all the trappings of a medieval castle — not only do they have to scale walls and cross a drawbridge to get into it, but once inside, they encounter comically antique costumes and must attempt to decode the meaning of a mysterious shrine in the center of its main room. Then Katz has them eat coleslaw with the slightly spacey Adam (comically played by indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg). Then they must negotiate the crowds at Robin’s gallery opening. They are then plunged into a sprawling birthday party. Charlie may seem to have little to recommend him in the film’s initial scenes, but in the process of being implicitly compared to and contrasted with the other young men in each of these scenes — most memorably, in being contrasted with the comically clueless Kyle — Charlie almost becomes a Gen–Z Cary Grant. The comparison process makes his quietness, shyness, and unassertiveness seem like strengths.
In a similar vein, Katz subtly organizes the sequence of conversations in the film to raise romantic possibilities connected with Jamie and Charlie’s relationship (at the same time – and it is critical to the “unpressured” and “non–point–making” effect of the film – without them losing their appearance of being random and haphazard): Jamie’s cell phone conversation — with a friend or some adult in her life — the morning after she has stayed over in Charlie’s apartment; Jamie and Charlie’s conversation in the apartment they break into about their respective difficulties maintaining (or ending) romantic relationships; Adam’s conversation with Charlie and Jamie about how long it took him to decide to marry his girlfriend; and Kyle’s typically tactless and clueless speculations about what is going on between Jamie and Charlie. The structural climax of Katz’s raising of romantic issues and bringing Jamie and Charlie together occurs in a brilliantly interwoven three–step sequence of scenes during the party at Robin’s apartment near the end of the film. The first scene in the sequence is the moment where Jamie and Charlie dance together to one of the few instances of non-diegetic music in the film, a moment that concludes with Jamie ever-so-briefly glancing at Charlie with a look we have not seen before. The second step in the sequence occurs in a monologue — the dramatic high-point of the film — in which Robin talks to Jamie about her need for intimacy and the difficulty of what Robin calls “crossing the line” — moving from being a friend to a lover in a relationship. The third step in the sequence occurs a minute or two later in a scene in which Jamie and Charlie physically touch for the first time (in the veiled form of the two characters trading high-fives and then having Charlie adjust part of Jamie’s dress for her). A few minutes later, when they exchange a common cigarette in front of the fruit stand, the magic has been worked, without a word of love being spoken between the two of them. (Given the modesty of the production, Andrew Reed’s yellow-tinged lighting in several of these scenes may have been a mere accident, but the golden cast of the light wonderfully links the moments together and lends just the right glow to everything, without pressuring the emotional content.)
As another equally important organizational device, Katz beautifully modulates and shifts his film’s tone from moment to moment, glissading from clumsy tenderness (e.g. in Jamie and Charlie’s meeting), to comedy (e.g. in the scenes featuring Adam and then Kyle), to romantic meditativeness (e.g. in the scene where Robin talks to Jamie about her need for intimacy). Katz also knows enough to interrupt the romantic trajectory near the end of the film with tonal counter-marches and digressions: the birthday party celebration and its zany presents (where director Katz has a cameo as the “million dollar birthday boy”), the complaints of a roommate about the noise, and Kyle’s comical nattering (first to Charlie about making a fortune in carpet remnants and, subsequently, to Robin as the guest who doesn’t know when it’s time to go home).
Kyle might be called the anti-Katz in that Quiet City shows that Katz understands exactly what Kyle can’t. Quiet City shows that life comes down to issues of tone, tact, and touch, and that gentleness and delicacy, understatement and restraint are everything. Just a hair one way or another — inserting a more obviously romantic musical track during the dance party sequence; holding the look Jamie gives Charlie at the end of it just a beat or two longer to make it more needy or more evocative; having Jamie deliver the speech that Robin delivers in the film about loneliness and her need for love; making Charlie romantically more assertive, or more of a charmer and a smoothie; having either Jamie or Charlie actually talk about their desire for each other; or any of a thousand other missteps another filmmaker might have made with the same characters and the same story — would have destroyed everything that makes Quiet City so quietly elegant and beautiful. With any of the preceding changes, it would have become a Hollywood movie. It would have become Kyle’s understanding of the story.
There are places that Quiet City does not go. The gossamer structure of Jamie and Charlie’s relationship would shiver into tatters if the movie continued beyond its ending — if the young couple were shown making love, feeling empty and lonely afterward, or having hurt feelings and getting into an argument the next morning; or probably even if they had to talk more in the final five minutes. The suppression of dialogue in the final sequence is a revealing fact about what Katz is and is not able to do, is and is not able to show. As a second limitation, there is something adolescent, or at least not fully mature, in Katz’s vision of life. The film limits its depictions of pain to characters’ feelings of loneliness, embarrassment, and awkwardness; it does not present anything approaching anguish, desperation, despair, or deep internal conflict. In other words, Quiet City is set in the realm of comedy, in the classic sense of the term; tragedy, a much greater but much more demanding and complex vision of life, is beyond Katz’s scope. Katz also doesn’t deeply analyze his characters’ personalities. He doesn’t probe and explore the twisted way emotions and psychological states express themselves. In his film, to have good intentions, to try hard, to mean well, is to be a good person. It’s not an extremely deep view of human character and expression, and the similarity between Katz's work and Ozu's breaks down in this respect. A more complex film would have asked questions about and grappled more seriously with Charlie’s slacker passivity and Jamie’s ontological weightlessness. As a final limitation, there are flickers, slides, shades, and layerings of consciousness and emotion that Katz simply cannot go into because his actors are too limited. But I don’t want to be unfair. To note these issues is to ask Katz to have made a different movie than the one he has chosen to make – and what he has done is enough. In fact, it is more than enough. Quiet City is one of the small, brilliant gems of recent American filmmaking.
Ray Carney is professor of film and American studies at Boston University. He is the author of more than ten books on film and other art, and manages the largest non–commercial web site in the world devoted to independent film at: http://www.cassavetes.com.
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Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Ray Pride interviewed Once writer-director John Carney and lead Glen Hansard for the Spring '07 issue. Once is nominated for Best Original Song for "Falling Slowly" (Music and Lyric by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova).
When Baz Luhrmann was promoting his musical phantasmagoria Moulin Rouge, I asked him how far you could go in the other direction — could a film musical consist simply of a couple coming together and moving apart? His advice was this: “It’s the song, and the song is a dance.” In John Carney’s limber long-player Once, several songs suggest a life, a small, wonderful world consisting of a few Dublin haunts where an unnamed street corner performer, or busker (Glen Hansard), and an unnamed younger Czech woman (Markéta Irglová), who has a winsomely resourceful command of English, meet, tease, learn but mostly, with eyes wide open, develop a mature relationship deepened by the dance of several songs, including the gorgeous “Falling Slowly,” which the extremely affable and charming pair convincingly “compose” in front of us.
In traditional narrative terms, Once is the slightest of artifacts, and yet it possesses a quiet integrity and charm, with undercurrents about all manner of human boundaries, offering lessons in how simply a tale can be told. Shot in two weeks in unprepossessingly fuzzy high definition for only $100,000 (which looks only Mini DV grade, truth be told), Once is a grand, effortless Irish musical povera, written and directed by Carney, who was for several years in the fine band The Frames, along with star-composer Glen Hansard. Carney works some very sophisticated insights about the representation of music on film and also how one walks, talks, lives, breathes, stumbles, fumbles, and triumphs while trying to fashion any form of art. Layers peel away, their preconceptions of each other (and ours of them) fall away, and Hansard’s music, as urgent and lovely as ever, grows in collaboration with someone who turns out not only to be a classical pianist, but a good lyricist and a fine singer. (In the real world, Hansard and Irglová had already written and performed together.)
The music under the final scenes reprises “Falling Slowly,” a song we’ve watched the pair compose and record; it’s heartbreaking on several levels: “I don’t know you/ but I want you/ all the more for that; words fall through me/ ’n always fool me / and I can’t react; Games that never amount/ to more than they’re meant/ will play themselves out…/ Raise your hopeful voice / you had the choice / you made it mine.” The third, climactic iteration packs an immense wallop: this is how pop works, this is how songs happen in our lives.
Filmmaker spoke to Carney and Hansard at Sundance, right after the film’s debut but a few weeks before its acquisition by Fox Searchlight for release later this spring.
Filmmaker: The project of making a movie about a musician who has no live gigs is a terrific notion, considering the fact that live gigs simply don’t work on film.
Carney: They do not. No.
Filmmaker: Movies make the mistake so many times of reflecting the Dionysian aspect of the musician up onstage, which you certainly don’t do here. The pair are walking, talking, breathing music as they take the measure of each other. How’d you arrive at this scheme?
Carney: I have some experience of making stuff off the cuff, you know. My first girlfriend wanted to be an actress. My current girlfriend is an actress. We do lots of stuff on camcorders. Not quite films, but just sketches, or, if we come up with an idea, you know, just try and kind of block it out on camera and work stuff out. So I guess when Mar and Glen decided to do the film, we all agreed that we would keep it very naturalistic. You have overlapping dialogue, and if a thought came into your mind, you could express it. And you didn’t have to stick rigidly to the script. But in terms of the naturalistic style, I’m just like… if you’re going to make a modern-day musical, there’s just been so many attempts to do that, but in a very self-conscious kind of way. Right through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, musicals weren’t very good. They were very deferential and self-conscious in terms of the older, classic musicals. I guess I didn’t want to do something where there was too much of a contrivance for the people to be able to sing to each other. Or too self-conscious or knowing, or too sycophantic about Singin’ in the Rain and Guys and Dolls. I really wanted to just make a little art film on DV with my friends in which it was okay that people sang to each other. And you wouldn’t even notice, really. The wool would be kind of pulled over your eyes, in a way. You said that at the first edit —
Hansard: I was like, “Eight songs!”
Carney: The song in the studio, “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” the conventional plot point is, if you go into a studio, it’s “Are you ready? Let’s go.” And you begin, you dissolve to the next scene, and the song is finished. But hang on; we’re not going anywhere here! That was very much the idea of the film: that you stay with it right to the end, and you experience that song as a whole entity on its own, and it’s not a big deal that you’ve watched the whole song because it’s been integrated and sewn into the fabric of the film.
Hansard: I remember, when we were shooting the scene [when the pair compose] “Falling Slowly” in the piano shop, John was like, “I want you to work out the chorus, take your time with it, really, hang back and play the whole song.” I was just going, “There’s no way this is going to work on film! That’s like a three, four, five-minute scene, rolling, rolling, and with no “Oh, we’ll go to this side or the other side.” It always felt to me like he was being really ambitious and it would never work. There are eight songs in the film, and out of those eight, there are —
Carney: Six or seven [played] in their entirety.
Hansard: I kind of thought that John was pushing it, you know. But it seems to go by fast, and people [are responding] to it really well, so….
Filmmaker: The straightforwardness is what makes the entire movie work for me, the directness and the lack of ungainly backstory. You introduce the couple in the second scene of the movie with a simple, uninflected shot that’s breathtakingly right: we are watching Glen play for a bit and then the camera pulls back, revealing Markéta’s shoulder. Our point of view becomes hers. It gave me a chill.
Carney: I’m really grateful that you mentioned that shot. I thought it was great and nobody mentioned it, yeah. It changes perspective immediately to a subjective shot that becomes her…. Yeah, I was happy with that. I’ll tell you the two shots I’m really happy with: that shot and the one out the window [of an apartment] at the end. I thought, I’m actually doing something with the camera here that’s kind of subtle or interesting. The rest of it is really just following.
Filmmaker: That second shot is sweet because it’s onto nothing special; it’s just Dublin.
Carney: Just buses going by, kids in the park.
Filmmaker: Talk about the underlying element of new émigrés coming to Ireland. After the Czech Republic and Poland came into the EU, there was an influx of people from those countries to take the kinds of jobs the Irish might have taken in other countries in disadvantaged decades past. The couple’s trust evolves slowly, and at first she’s just this Czech girl pestering him while he’s busking.
Carney: You mean like a political kind of statement?
Filmmaker: Not a statement, but an awareness that —
Carney: I think it’s an attempt to treat Mar’s character like an Italian or a Spanish woman. A lot of films — Before Sunset, a lot of American films — [suggest] that Western European women are sexy. If you’re Italian, you’re beautiful, or if you’re French, but if you’re Polish or from the Czech Republic —
Hansard: I have to say I was really, really impressed with the whole approach. One of the big attractions to me about doing the film was that he had taken a snapshot of modern Dublin. You’ve got the house where Mar lives where a bunch of Polish guys come in and watch television. It’s unfair in a way, because the Poles are actually hardworking. They really have their shit together, and they’ve got really nice televisions. What we had before is we had a wave of Bosnians, a wave of Latvians before the Polish came in.
Carney: There are very poor Polish people in Ireland.
Hansard: Of course, of course. But I do know that just from my experience of Czechs and the Poles, they’re definitely a lot more —
Carney: Proud —
Hansard: Savvy, more hardworking, they just fucking work their ass off and they get what they want. I just thought it was a really good snapshot.
Filmmaker: I know a musician who plays mostly one guitar, a very odd one, and Glen’s character has that too, the acoustic with the busted front. Even without an explanation, the guitar’s presence is very talismanic. It has significance to the character, and likely to you, but you don’t waste time on any bullshit exposition.
Hansard: Never explain, yeah. If he was more proud, he’d be playing something a little bit cleaner. That’s just my own guitar. I’ve just had it for a long, long time, and when John asked me to do it —
Carney: Yes, there are things in the film like that. That’s yours, that’s your hat! You want to keep it real. There’s nothing worse than an actor feeling uncomfortable in his shirts.
Hansard: They’re my own clothes; Mar did her own clothes.
Carney: I like the scene in the shop where we see her choose her clothes: “I don’t shop at TJ Maxx for secondhand Calvin Klein jeans, I’ve got my own thing” — this little old Dublin shop. In a way, you know, funny thing about the female character in our film is that she’s the biggest Dubliner in our film, the most authentic Dubliner. There’s no such thing as authentic Dubliners anymore. If I go into town now, I sit in the café, I would meet no one, you know what I mean? Where’s everyone, where are my friends? They’re all in the suburbs. I just don’t meet people. All I see are really young people who are really Americanized girls with an incredible amount of makeup.
Hansard: The youth culture has hit Dublin.
Carney: When we were growing up in Dublin, when I was 15, we used to do a thing — a friend of mine, we’d get the buses into town on Saturday, which is a big day in Dublin, the city center. At five, six o’clock, when the shops closed, because this was a Catholic country, shops closed at six, that was it. It was dead. Town was dead. The only people around town were the schizophrenics and the alcoholics and the drug addicts. And the buskers! You had this witching hour between six and eight or nine before the pubs started to fill up. It was just a ghost town. And now shops are open until nine o’clock, shops are open all day Sunday, it’s like just a retail fucking zoo. And Grafton Street, our main street, is more expensive to rent than it is on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Hansard: It’s just fuckin’ insane, like every other city in the world.
Filmmaker: You don’t see so many brands or logos in the frames of the movie.
Carney: Yeah, but we put it on a long lens, so even if they were there, they just kind of fall away.
Filmmaker: What was the back-and-forth of exchanging bits of scenes and songs like? Was that easier than or different from being in a band?
Hansard: We were in a band together. What was interesting is that John was in my band, I guess a lot of it was me directing him and this time it was almost like I surrendered to John’s vision of the film. But having said that, really, the three of us sat down and I felt so good about it by the time we started shooting. We never argued, we never really got crazy. It was an awful lot of good thinking on the go and then also during the filmmaking; we’d just do it. The crew was so small, and it was just Dublin. We’re gonna go around the corner; the whole film was shot within a block. The cops would ask about permits, then we’d just move.
Carney: Just like busking!
Filmmaker: Were there specific things you were reacting against that other people had done in depicting the life of a musician, the day of a musician?
Carney: Most musicals are about fame and the rise to fame. Winners and losers. I’m a loser if I’m not making money, and I’m a winner if I make it. When we decided “Falling Slowly” was going to be in the film we asked the [band] if it was cool, and it was fine. The Frames are Glen’s band. Then we went to a Frames gig at the Point Depot, a big, huge venue, right? And they do a version of “Falling Slowly,” but it’s a big rock version of it. We’d shot the film already, “Falling Slowly” came on, our [producer] Martina Niland joked, “What if you actually ended the film like after he’s [made a certain choice] and you fade up and you see Glen onstage and he’s got a rocking band behind him — they’re doing “Falling Slowly,” and we cut to a shot of Markéta outside, just thinking, Yeah. We just cracked up laughing how bad an idea that was! And how much better it was that you don’t know. He’s probably on the subway in London, playing guitar, and he’s with his girlfriend, and he’s really happy. He’s doing some gigs, he’s writing prolifically, and he’s much happier.
Hansard: One of the things that made me uncomfortable in the script, when we were talking, was the idea that I go in and make a demo. There was originally a little bit more to that, as in we make a demo and I go to London and maybe get a record deal.
Carney: It’s still there.
Hansard: It’s only mentioned once by Mar. “I’m sure he could secure a lucrative deal,” she says.
Carney: She says, “Go, go to London, get a record deal, become famous” — the audience is definitely aware of that. London now is not the mecca it was for Irish people; Dublin is now a kicking city.
Hansard: I much prefer he’s going back for the girl.
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RYAN GOSLING DINES WITH PAUL SCHNEIDER, EMILY MORTIMER AND "BIANCA" IN CRAIG GILLESPIE'S LARS AND THE REAL GIRL. COURTESY MGM.
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Nick Dawson interviewed Lars and the Real Girl director Craig Gillespie for our Director Interviews section of the Website. Lars and the Real Girl is nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Nancy Oliver).
In one of the more unusual coincidences on this year's movie release schedule, Craig Gillespie has seen his first two movies, Mr Woodcock and Lars and the Real Girl, released within a month of each other. Gillespie, an Australian who came to the U.S. to study at Manhattan's School of Visual Arts and never left, worked at an ad agency for eight years, then moved on to directing commercials. After twelve years as one of the most successful directors in his field, Gillespie helmed his first feature, Mr Woodcock, a broad comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton, Susan Sarandon and Seann William Scott about the titular gym teacher from hell who returns to torment an old student. Gillespie, however, was not ideally suited to the film and failed to nail the tone the studio wanted, so Wedding Crashers' director David Dobkin was called in to take charge of (uncredited) reshoots.
Gillespie, though, says his second movie, Lars and the Real Girl, is exactly his kind of movie, and there is a restraint and quiet poise inherent in proceedings that suggest that he was much more in his element. click here to read full story
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Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Lisa Y. Garibay interviewed Juno director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody for the Fall '07 issue. Juno is nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing (Jason Reitman), Best Lead Actress (Ellen Page) and Best Original Screenplay (Diablo Cody).
The pairing of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman was one of complete chance, like one of those cop-buddy movies where the grizzled vet is set up with a renegade newbie and against all odds the two wind up catching the bad guy with everybody rooting for them in the end. Although Juno is only Reitman’s second feature, he was born into the film business; as the son of Ivan Reitman, he’s been involved in the making of movies all his life. Reitman’s award-winning short films played the likes of Sundance, Seattle and the Los Angeles Film Festival; his feature debut Thank You for Smoking was lauded by the National Board of Review and Independent Spirit Awards.
Cody, on the other hand, arrived on the film scene out of seeming obscurity with a ready-made notoriety. Her blog Pussy Ranch, which detailed Cody’s exploits as a stripper and phone sex operator, attracted the attention of a bored ’net surfer who turned out to be manager Mason Novick. In 2004, Novick got Cody a book deal for her memoir Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper. On the heels of the book’s success, Novick suggested that Cody try to write a screenplay just to see what would happen. Cody (whose real name is Brook Busey-Hunt) hit a home run with her first shot at bat: Juno became the hot script around town and was first handed to Brad Siberling before ending in Reitman’s lap.
Reitman gathered a stellar cast that included Hard Candy’s Ellen Page as the pregnant teen who steals your heart and is as much a cheerleader to her family, friends and audience as they are for her throughout her trials and tribulations. Supporting Page are Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Michael Cera, Olivia Thirlby, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner; together, they form a circle of love and laughs that has enveloped cheering crowds at Telluride and Toronto. In the midst of year-end awards hopefuls, Juno has come up from its unlikely roots to prove itself a strong contender.
None of Juno’s successes is as coincidental or far-fetched as it may appear. Reitman champions Cody as a born storyteller; he was so taken by her work that he put aside a script of his own in order to go after the chance to direct Juno. For her part, Cody took advantage of her perspective outside the industry to think about the kind of people she’d like to see on the big screen and came up with a story that reflected the complexities, strengths and smarts she wasn’t witnessing in women’s roles these days. Here, Reitman and Cody — who are still as much a team in the film’s promotional process as they were during its production — talk about how much Juno meant to them and how they worked to make sure viewers would appreciate the potential they believe it always had. Fox Searchlight opens the film in mid-December.
TOP OF PAGE: (L-R) ELLEN PAGE, OLIVIA THIRLBY AND ALLISON JANNEY IN JUNO. PHOTO BY DOANE GREGORY. ABOVE: JUNO SCREENWRITER DIABLO CODY. PHOTO BY HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.
Filmmaker: What are the most common reactions you’re getting from viewers or the media about Juno?
Cody: I’ve been repeatedly asked — and I do think this is a good question, it’s just difficult for me to answer every time — the sort of all-purpose “Where did the character of Juno come from?” Which is difficult because when you’re a writer, you just pull characters out of the ether that are mutant babies from your brain. So it’s hard to describe that process; every time, I feel like I’ve done it inadequately so I dread that question.
Filmmaker: That would not be a question that I’d ask because one of the reasons I liked the film so much was because Juno reminded me of myself and all my friends when we were adolescents. She was so familiar to me.
Cody: Great! Bless you — I think that’s so cool!
Filmmaker: Was the experience of making Juno anything remotely close to what you imagined making a movie was like?
Cody: I could never have imagined it would be this wonderful! I have enjoyed every single moment of it. There does not seem to be a downside to the process of making and promoting this movie. It’s just been awesome. Obviously I’m kind of green, so all of this is new to me, but this strikes me as great.
Filmmaker: Do you feel — and Jason, you could probably speak to this — that people were protecting you by going the extra mile to make it a good experience for you because you were so green, as you say?
Cody: I guess I would agree with that except I have a lot of friends who have also been first-time screenwriters and they have not been protected in the least. So maybe in this situation I have just been incredibly lucky.
Reitman: I’ve always felt very protective of Diablo, but as far as the experience on this film, the reason that I always wanted her on set was very selfish. I constantly wanted her input on Juno’s life and how she spoke and what she’d wear. On Thank You for Smoking, I thought I had a pretty good insight into who Nick Naylor was and I felt like I understood his voice. In a pinch, I could write something on set. On [Juno], I would never pretend like I could do that; it was always very valuable to be able to turn to Diablo and also Ellen, who understood what this character was going through.
Cody: How cool is that? You don’t hear that from a lot of directors!
Filmmaker: Jason, your script for Thank You for Smoking got a lot of positive attention and racked up a few awards. You obviously know what you’re doing, so based on your experience and judgment, what was it that Diablo did with the script for Juno that was absolutely right and made it a strong, shootable script?
Reitman: What excites me about a screenplay is [when it] takes on a tricky subject matter, has a very original point of view and basically makes original decisions throughout. I was actually writing another screenplay myself that I was going to direct when I was given Juno. I read it and I fell in love with it because it did exactly that. It took something like teenage pregnancy, which is a tricky topic that can easily get political, yet this movie doesn’t get political at all. It’s filled with human experience and human decision and original choices from top to bottom. It was one of those things where I started reading it and just a few pages in I thought, “Wow, this girl can really write!” Then, by the end of the first act I thought, “Wow, this is a really good screenplay!” and by the end of the screenplay I was thinking if I don’t get the opportunity to direct this I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.
Filmmaker: Diablo, how did you go about prepping yourself to write a screenplay given the fact that you had never done it before?
Cody: It was a modicum of preparation to say the least. I think I went into it as an experiment; I didn’t really have a whole lot invested in it. It was more something I just wanted to try. I had no idea throughout the process that this would ever wind up being a produced screenplay or that this would ever be cast with these amazing actors. There was absolutely no pressure on me because I was just sitting in Minnesota writing for my own edification. So I think that was freeing in a lot of ways.
I’ve written a couple of features since then and Juno was definitely the easiest even though it was the first because there wasn’t that sense of… I guess ignorance is bliss is the best way of putting it. [laughs] The only thing I did was I went to Barnes & Noble and bought the shooting script for a couple of movies that I liked so I could see how they looked on the page and that gave me a little structural guidance. But that was all I did.
Filmmaker: Did you do any work with your manager on the script before it was circulated to get it shipshape? One of those cardinal rules you hear in screenwriting classes or read about in screenwriting books is that your script should be absolutely flawless because you’re competing with thousands of others out there and if you have the wrong act structure or bad punctuation or any distraction in that regard, then you’ll get discarded immediately.
Cody: So I’ve heard! Which is so funny to me because when we sent that screenplay out, it was riddled with typos and formatting errors because I had no idea what I was doing. [laughs] My manager, I think, was so stunned that I had turned out something vaguely coherent that he just said, “Let’s throw it out there and see if anybody likes it.” We really didn’t obsess; I think it was just a case of expectations being so low that there was not a lot of polishing and spit-shining going on.
Reitman: I think the literary world and the screenplay world are very different when it comes to grammar, per se. Thank You for Smoking had grammar mistakes all over it.
Cody: You’d be surprised, though, Jason. After Juno I was hired to work on this pilot and I made the smallest, the most benign formatting error — like parenthesis were like a tick to the left — and the show runner called me and was like, “This is not acceptable! You cannot work if you are doing this sort of thing!” I was like, “I think I did that a hundred times in Juno, lady, so back off! I really don’t think the spacing in this particular case is very important to the story.” [laughs] I’m into great grammar, don’t get me wrong — I don’t want people to scrawl shit in a napkin in crayon, but tone down.
Filmmaker: Jason, did encountering somebody from outside the industry as you did with Diablo help give you perspective on not just this project but also your approach to filmmaking?
Reitman: To be perfectly honest, I never really thought of it that way. I grew up in the business and Diablo grew up outside of the business. In terms of perspective, when I was working with Diablo on Juno, all I felt was that I was working with a great storyteller and whether she’s industry-savvy or not really didn’t factor into anything. That was never part of our conversations, really; they were about how we can translate the story into the screen and how I saw things and how she saw things. Whether she had shown up in Hollywood the previous day or 20 years prior, I don’t think I would have noticed.
Filmmaker: Was there anything that you pioneered or learned about your own style of filmmaking in Juno? New things that you tried or things that you never thought you would do because it was such a different script? And how did you make decisions about what the visuals were going to be to complement such great dialogue?
Reitman: I think Juno’s a much more sophisticated film than Thank You for Smoking. As for my directing, I’m much more proud of it; the style’s more complicated, it’s more real, it’s more honest and the screenplay definitely offered the opportunity to do that.
On Thank You for Smoking, I was trying to be a little more cute. I was definitely doing more portraiture photography; it was a satire, so it lived in a heightened reality. Whereas for Juno, I was just constantly asking myself, “Is this real?” and “Is my camerawork getting in the way of telling the story? Is anything I’m doing as a director drawing attention to the fact that you’re watching a movie?” Because I didn’t want that — I wanted the story to speak for itself.
Filmmaker: Diablo, talk about how Jason involved you in the production and about tweaking the script during shooting.
Cody: That was actually a really fun process for me. Obviously, it was really righteous being on set; that was supercool. There were a few instances in which Jason needed something and, as a writer, that’s the most stimulating, fun exercise — being able to sort of write on the spot and create something right there. So having had the opportunity to do that a few times was really cool.
Filmmaker As a writer, those requests for changes never bugged you? You weren’t concerned with having your own vision of the story changed?
Cody: Oh, no! You don’t understand how much I trust Jason. He could’ve asked me to put in like a random competitive-eating scene and I would’ve done it. I’m not really precious about my writing.
Filmmaker: Did you guys go out to specific people that you had in mind for the cast?
Reitman: I did something a little different on this. I had a few people in mind right from the start, and I didn’t want to do a traditional audition process; I didn’t want to be going out to people and waiting. So right off the top, I took Ellen Page, Michael Cera, J.K. Simmons and Olivia Thirlby and I went over to a stage at Panavision and we shot something like 45 pages of the movie in one day, shooting scenes on 35mm with a black background. Then I edited the whole thing together and I presented it to Fox and said, “This is how I want to start the cast — these four actors.” It was really nice because instead of watching an audition, which doesn’t really say much, they were watching scenes that if you watch them, there was no way that you could think that these people were wrong for the film. So that became the initial cast and we went from there.
Filmmaker: Why do you think more filmmakers don’t get their projects started this way — put something like this together?
Reitman: I don’t know…this is how they used to do it! I mean, this is what they did in the ’40s — it’s a screen test! Nowadays, it’s two things: one thing is that many actors won’t come in for something like that, but on top of that I think the audition process opens, from a studio point of view… I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to talk bad because Fox is so supportive of me, I don’t think they would have ever pushed me in a direction I wouldn’t want to go. So it would’ve been wrong for me to say that.
But I think that’s just what the process has become, especially now with video — you just set up a video camera in a room and it’s a simple way to do it. I direct commercials and that’s how we do casting on the commercials. But this is a movie that’s all about relationships and the idea of auditioning people outside of each other, one-on-one with the casting director, didn’t make sense. I needed to see how Juno and her father were going to interact and how she and her best friend would interact and how her and the guy who got her pregnant would interact. So seeing them do the scenes was really important.
Filmmaker: Diablo, some writers entertain the notion of becoming a screenwriter and breaking into the business, but some are okay with never going in that direction. Since it was such an unexpected direction for you, would you be fine if you never made another movie again?
Cody: No, I absolutely would not be fine. I’m a complete junkie at this point. I’m like gearing up for my next fix! [laughs]
Reitman: Diablo and I had this conversation at one of the film festivals: We want to go to every screening because it’s such a rush to sit there and watch the audience laugh at the movie and be moved. Once the film festivals end, it’s like, “God, I need to go make another movie!”
Cody: I’ve been writing a lot since Telluride and Toronto and I feel like it’s motivated by the desire to do this again and again. I mean, I love writing in general, don’t get me wrong. It’s just when you write something and it becomes a film that people treasure — and I hope some people do — then the situation becomes epic. But I’m happy writing in any form.
Filmmaker: Jason, you talked about how Juno was a step up from Thank You for Smoking in certain ways. How has it changed you as a filmmaker?
Reitman: I’m very proud of Thank You for Smoking; it’s my first film, but this movie seems to move people in a way that Thank You for Smoking never had the opportunity to. It’s exciting to watch Juno and see myself growing as a storyteller and a filmmaker. Your hope always is that you haven’t reached the limit of your abilities and that you keep on improving yourself.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Nick Dawson interviewed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford director Andrew Dominik for our Web Exclusives section of the Website. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Casey Affleck) and Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins).
After making only two features, Andrew Dominik deserves to be recognized as one of the most exciting and talented writer-directors working today. Born in New Zealand, 39-year-old Dominik moved to Australia when he was two and studied at the respected Swinburne Film School in Melbourne, graduating in 1988. Rather than immediately pursuing a career in film, Dominik instead chose to ready himself by working in pop promos and commercials, fields in which he distinguished himself. In 2000, he made his feature debut, Chopper, a film about the famous Australian criminal, Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, which featured Eric Bana (then a stand-up comedian) in an incendiary debut performance. Compelling, darkly funny and eminently stylish, Chopper amply demonstrated Dominik's strong storytelling talent and visual flair and elevated him to international prominence. However, though there was talk of him adapting Alfred Bester's 1950s sci-fi novel The Demolished Man, seven years have passed without Dominik releasing a new movie.
The wait makes The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford all the more rewarding: it is the most beautiful film of 2007, with an inherent poetry both in the sumptuousness of its images and the lyricism of its language. It is not a western in the traditional sense, but instead examines the legend of the West by putting the story of one of its iconic figures, Jesse James (Brad Pitt), and his friend and nemesis, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), under the microscope. Epic both in look and length, The Assassination of Jesse James... recalls Terrence Malick's two masterpieces from the 70s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, and has at its core a good performance from Pitt and truly great, potentially career-defining one from Casey Affleck. Despite having had a troubled history — the film wrapped back in 2005, after which Warner Bros. had Dominik repeatedly test screen and recut the film — Jesse James deserves to be a major contender when the Academy Award nominations are announced this winter.
Due to Dominik’s schedule, I was not able to interview him until after the film’s opening weekend, during which it earned a highly respectable $150,000 across five screens. The jury still seems to be out on Jesse James, though: for every rapturous rave there has been a critic who has scornfully dismissed the film. When I spoke to Dominik on the phone in Los Angeles, there was a great awareness that the ultimate fate of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — whether it end up a seminal film, or simply a footnote in history — was still very much in the balance.
DIRECTOR ANDREW DOMINIK WITH CASEY AFFLECK ON THE SET OF THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. COURTESY WARNER BROTHERS.
Filmmaker: Chopper was a cult hit and a big success for you considering it was essentially a small Australian film. Why was there such a long gap between that and this movie?
Dominik: I wrote a number of screenplays after Chopper, and it was just difficult to finance them for one reason or another. I would work on one and write it for certain actors, but then people would not want to finance it with those actors and I wouldn't want to change the cast, so I would just move on to another thing. It's hard to get a movie financed unless you have a movie star, and it's hard to find parts that you can cast movie stars in, where their celebrity's not distracting. So Jesse James was the first one where you can put Brad Pitt in the part and the fact that he's really famous works for you.
Filmmaker: Did you write scripts for actors in collaboration with them?
Dominik: No, not at all. I adapted a Jim Thompson novel called Pop. 1280, and I always knew I wanted Woody Harrelson to play the part. And then the one that I came closest on was a Cormac McCarthy book called Cities of the Plain, which is the third part of the Border Trilogy, which had strikes against it for that reason. All the Pretty Horses was not a beloved movie [laughs], and making a sequel to a film that had flopped was not one that was hugely appealing. And then the fact that I did not want to cast any movie stars in the film just made it all fall apart.
Filmmaker: If the new Coen brothers movie, No Country for Old Men, which is also based on a McCarthy novel, does well, do you think that Cities of the Plain might be revived?
Dominik: I don't know. I'm curious to see where Jesse James is a month from now. I think that'll have a bearing on what I'm able to do.
Filmmaker: What happened with The Demolished Man?
Dominik: The Demolished Man was always a development situation. I never wrote a screenplay for that one, I supervised another writer to write the script. It didn't really come together the way I hoped it would, and Jesse James started happening so it went on the backburner.
Filmmaker: How did you first discover Ron Hansen's novel of Jesse James?
Dominik: I was in a second-hand bookstore with a friend of mine, a guy called Roland Howard; we would periodically go to the bookstore and look around for books. He pulled it off the shelf and started reading it. When Cities of the Plain fell apart, he said, “You know, this thing would be good.” I read it and it seemed really strange and interesting.
Filmmaker: What were the challenges in adapting the novel?
Dominik: I dunno, it's hard to say. You just go through it instinctively and try to work out the things that are important and the things that are going to create feelings, and then stitch those bits and pieces together. The book seemed to deal with one guy, Jesse James, who was really aware of his own mortality and suffering under the weight of his myth, and Robert Ford, who didn't own the spot that he stood on and felt that if he were like Jesse he would be protected from his bad feelings about himself. So I guess I homed in on aspects of the book that really dealt with that. At the same time, it's a really rambling, freewheeling messy story, and the other thing the book had was this sheer density of detail, which was something I found very appealing. It had this weird detached tone where you didn't feel like you were inside the people, this feeling of remove which was also appealing. It seemed like a fully-formed, hermetically-sealed world, and the more I thought about it, the more interested I got in it.
Filmmaker: At what stage did Brad Pitt come on board? Was this partly due to Eric Bana having co-starred with him in Troy?
Dominik: Brad was a fan of Chopper and I met him just after Chopper was released, one time when I came to L.A. We went back and forth on a number of things, and I think Brad pushed for Eric to be in Troy. [Jesse James] was a project I initially took to [producers] Jules Daly and Ridley Scott and we had no success getting it set up, so I said, “Oh, fuck, I better take it to Brad.” He read the novel, and was in within 48 hours, and then it became a lot easier from that point on. He went and negotiated with Warner Brothers, and away we went.
Filmmaker: When someone like him comes on board, things quickly change.
Dominik: At a certain price range, it's just a really good corporate decision. And when you're making a film, you essentially have to provide people with a bargain — or they're not going to do it! [laughs]
Filmmaker: You assembled a really great cast, with great underused actors like Casey Affleck, Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner in principal roles.
Dominik: You see everyone you can, basically, and you wait for the [right] person to walk in the door. For me, I always enjoy a film more if I don't know who the actors are because then I just accept them as their characters. I was aware of Jeremy because I'd seen him in Dahmer, but I hadn't seen much of guys like Paul, Garret [Dillahunt] and Casey. Obviously with Robert Ford, it's a huge advantage to cast an unknown, because of how Bob feels about himself. Not that Casey's unknown, but he's not really known.
Filmmaker: How did Casey feel about taking on a role like this, and opposite someone like Brad Pitt? Did he feel pressure going into that situation?
Dominik: I'm sure he did, mate, they all do. I think Brad felt pressured. They all really believed in the material and they really wanted it to be good, and it's natural for actors to feel some anxiety, at least for the first week or so. After that, it becomes a grind, and you're just kinda doing it. [laughs] But it's always that three weeks leading up to shooting that's a difficult time for actors.
Filmmaker: What was your shoot like? The scope and length of the movie must have made it very arduous.
Dominik: It was, and it was very much laying the tracks of the train while the train was running, and it was certainly daunting to think about when you thought about it as a whole thing. People were building houses and towns and shit like that. It was a very different situation from Chopper, where it was not as big. [laughs] But at a certain point, you just surrender to the process. The thing is, you start shooting, you start seeing dailies, it's looking good, you start to feel reassured. And you just don't think about it, and you're so exhausted at a certain point you can't really be anxious about it anymore, you just try and make it work each day.
Filmmaker: Did your shoot overrun, as happens so often on movies like this?
Dominik: Did we go over? Never. We came in under. You have to do that. You've got to be practical, and we didn't even shoot a pick-up for the movie.
Filmmaker: Does that mean that you lost certain scenes?
Dominik: There's some stuff we didn't shoot, but there's an awful lot more that we shot that isn't in the movie. The movie was a lot longer at a certain point. I kind of feel like it's part of the job to make the schedule. It's not a huge budget movie, it's not like your making a sequel for The Matrix or anything like that. Put it this way, it wouldn't have been allowed — so you've gotta deal with it.
Filmmaker: Terrence Malick seems an obvious reference point for the film, particularly his Days of Heaven.
Dominik: Visually, certainly, because it's just one of the most beautiful movies that's set at the turn of the century, and it was shot in the same area [as Jesse James]. I guess the film that we thought about in our heads a little more thematically was Barry Lyndon. Those were the two movies. I'm a huge fan of Terry Malick, and the writing of the book seemed to suggest that kind of treatment.
Filmmaker: Do you view this film as a western within the genre's canon, or is it just its own thing?
Dominik: I dunno, there's all kinds of westerns. There's revisionist westerns, and acid westerns, and those Nicholas Ray-type neurotic westerns. And then there's John Ford westerns, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I think we thought of it more like that kind of a movie, like Pat Garrett. When you think of the western, usually you think of more of a simple morality tale; this is more the western as a Greek curse.
Filmmaker: How much of an attempt was made to make the movie relevant to today, like in its commentary on the burden of power and people's obsession with celebrity?
Dominik: Well, I think humans have always been the same, and people haven't changed much since the beginning of recorded history. I guess the difference now is that everything's much more instantaneous. Primarily, the hook into this film is the way the characters feel about themselves, and if you're treating them as real people rather than as someone who lived in “ye olde times,” then they're going to be relevant, because they're just human beings. But the story also takes place at the beginning of the mass media and industrialized America, so it's got parallels. There are people who say that movies are always about the times that they were made in, but it wasn't a conscious “Oh, we've got to try and make this relevant,” it just was.
Filmmaker: From what I've read, the film had a pretty troubled history since wrapping, and spent a year being test screened and recut.
Dominik: The version that I liked was created before we started doing test screenings, and the final version bears considerable resemblance to that... I think previewing is a really good thing to go through, but the way that the data is analyzed is not necessarily helpful. It's a strange film, not a very well-behaved movie, and it prompts a real extremity of reactions. People that fucking hate it, and people that love it. To me, that's the sign that you're doing something right, but to a corporation whose agenda is to appeal to everyone, films like this are tricky for them to accept.
Filmmaker: How tough was it for you to go through that process?
Dominik: It was hard, it was really hard. There was a variety of people who came in and had a crack at cutting the movie, but nobody could do any better.
Filmmaker: How different was it to the version on release now?
Dominik: It's very similar. It was a battle getting round, and there's a few differences but nothing that would... Honestly, [it's] not that different, I think I've done pretty well getting through that process with the movie sort of intact.
Filmmaker: And will all the footage that didn't make it into the final film be on the DVD?
Dominik: Not the first one, but I think they are going to let me do a cut of the picture which will be about five minutes longer, and there'll be a wealth of other stuff that will come out alongside that. Basically, there was a version of the picture that worked really well at three hours, and then we hacked at that and we got a two-and-a-half hour version that works really well. I'm not sure that the three hour version works any better, probably not, but it's a big beast of a film and if they allow me to do a cut I'll do something a little bit different. But not that much, and only to appease myself. Certainly those who hate the movie aren't going to see a cut that I would do and go, “Oh, wow, we get it now!”
Filmmaker: Although in the case of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, apparently the four hour director's cut on DVD works a lot better than the theater version.
Dominik: The problem with director's cuts is that no one really sees them. I'm not even sure if I believe in them per se, because you can't really give somebody back the first experience of seeing a movie. I don't know how I feel about them, really. I guess there's no doubt that the director's cut of Blade Runner is better than the version that was released in the theater, but I saw that version when it came out and it still had a big impact on me.
Filmmaker: So how do you feel about Ridley Scott putting out Blade Runner: The Final Cut?
Dominik: Well, I think that “final cut” is essentially Ridley's first cut, just the cut that he always thought was better. I think Ridley feels good about it. [laughs]
Filmmaker: It's interesting that you've made two movies that are strikingly different, yet they are both about folklore outlaws and killers who have missing bodyparts (Chopper an ear, and James a finger).
Dominik: I guess I actually never thought of that. With Chopper, that was one of the really appealing things for me, that for half the picture the guy's gonna have ears — and then he's gonna cut 'em off, and you have to live with him without ears. I think it's great for the main character to be deformed in some way halfway through the story, but with both characters it just happened to them [in real life]: Mark cut his own ears off, and Jesse was missing a finger. You're just bound by the historical events, but maybe it does appeal to me, the idea of somebody becoming deformed in some way.
Filmmaker: What was the film that you made you fall in love with cinema?
Dominik: The first movie I remember seeing is The Wizard of Oz, which had a big impact on me. It's a funny one, because The Wizard of Oz is like an authorless text, because there were four directors that worked on the picture, but it's a really amazing film, even to this day. I've been affected by many films: I think I liked Planet of the Apes movies when I was a kid, and then when I was around 14 I discovered art movies like Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman and 8 ½ and I thought that was all pretty cool, and then I got into Roman Polanski, and then it was Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, and then Terry Malick and — there's just so many of them, so many good movies. It wasn't like I saw 2001 and thought, “I have to be a filmmaker,” or anything like that. It took me six gos at 2002 until I suddenly realized it was a masterpiece — I always thought it was dull — and then I saw a 70mm print of it, and it was the most extraordinary experience.
Filmmaker: What's your tip for a movie masterpiece that the world has failed to recognize?
Dominik: Most movies that are really good find an audience, but the one that I really like is that Jane Campion movie, Portrait of a Lady, which I think is just a fantastic movie and has never really [got the credit it deserves]. I don't know what the perception of that film is now, but it was a big disappointment [to people when it was released]. But I love the film. I think it's her best movie, hands down, and it was one that didn't really go over and seems to have affected her confidence in some way. But I thought it was really good. Most of the movies I like are pretty uncontroversial. They might have been controversial when they came out, but they're not now. Most movies that are great have become sacred cows pretty quickly.
Filmmaker: In the case of Jesse James, are you managing to see that the initial critical reaction is not the final say on the movie?
Dominik: It's been a weird rollercoaster ride because last week we got a batch of reviews that came in: one was Andrew Sarris, and he was saying it was a masterpiece, and then we had People magazine saying the same thing. We thought, “Fuck, this is going to be great! We've got highbrow and lowbrow!” and it really looked good. And then the New York Times and L.A. Times came out and just slated it. So it's been really interesting, because I think the critical response to the movie has been really polarized. It's not universally liked, not by any stretch of the imagination, and those that dislike it really don't like it! [laughs] So I don't know if that's a good sign or a bad sign. I remember when Raging Bull came out, the Variety review was warning exhibitors not to book the picture, so when the Variety review for us came out and it was really good, part of me was like, “Fuck, maybe I've done something wrong...” But when do films really shake out, when do we really know if they're important or not? It's probably not in their initial release. But by the same token, the first time I saw Raging Bull, I knew it was one of the great, great films and I felt the same way about Barry Lyndon, which I saw when I was 12. I thought it was really strange and slow and so unusual, but it affected me hugely. But I think the critical weighing in on it has only come together very recently. I even went and saw a screening of it at the end of last year at the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences] here [in L.A.], and my feeling sitting there in the theater was that most people were sitting there feeling like it was good for them to be there.
Filmmaker: What's your dream project? Is there something in the wings that you're particularly looking forward to doing?
Dominik: Well, Jesse James was a big one. At the moment, I'm kind of just exhausted. It would be great to do something like [Cormac McCarthy's novel] Blood Meridian, something like that. It's a weird thing, in a way films choose you as much as you choose them. There's been films that I desperately wanted to do that just haven't come together, but I'm not really in a pick-and-choose type of situation. I guess what I need to do is work in a smaller price range.
Filmmaker: What was the budget of Jesse James?
Dominik: It was low thirties, something like that. I'm not sure what the final figure was, but we certainly drove our dollar.
Filmmaker: Today $30 million is not exactly a huge budget.
Dominik: It's not much, but it's in that weird spot: movies are generally over $70m or under $20m, and when you do something that's in this price range it's a hard one for the studio because they're not sure if it's an art film or... Well, I guess it's an art film because it's not a real commercial picture, it's not trying to deliver the things that those movies generally deliver.
Filmmaker: What are your hopes for the movie come Oscar nomination time?
Dominik: Of course I would hope that we would get all that stuff because it's good for the picture. I think the movie's maybe a little unusual... I don't know how it's going to go over with that stuff.
Filmmaker: I think Casey Affleck really merits a nomination, because he's incredible in the movie.
Dominik: Yeah, me too and that's a definite possibility, that one. And Roger [Deakins, the cinematographer], obviously.
Filmmaker: Finally, what's the strangest experience you've had as a director?
Dominik: I dunno, that's a hard one to answer. It's always kind of weird, you know? There's a lot of stuff that goes on, a lot of fair weather behavior that happens where the world is your oyster, and then it's kind of your ashtray. And I've been through that [laughs], but I'm not sure if that's very weird. It's pretty normal. It's a fear trigger industry: there's a lot of money at stake and there's a lot at stake for a lot of people in the making of a movie. America's a country where it's very important to be successful. People treat failure like it's some disease that they might catch, but you always have to risk failure to be really successful, at least artistically. You've got to be prepared to fall flat on your face, and that's kind of a scary place to be.
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