Friday, February 8, 2008
Last spring we took an exclusive look inside the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs as filmmaker Braden King posted weekly stories about his experience with his project, Here, co-written by himself and Dani Valent. Now, he's graciously given us an insight into what he took away from the Institute, including attending this year's Festival, where he was involved in the New Frontier's Multimedia Performance Events with The Story Is Still Asleep and Here was selected as the U.S. recipient of the 2008 Sundance / NHK International Filmmakers Award.
“I haven’t fought much with the past, but I’ve fought plenty with the future.”
- Patti Smith at the Sundance Main Street Music Café, January 21, 2008.
Just before the Sundance Film Festival last month, Emily Brunt from the Institute asked me if I’d be willing to put together some reflections on my experiences over the past year with the Sundance Writers and Directors Labs and, more specifically, what comes after. I was completely overwhelmed with preparations for a multi-media and live music piece entitled The Story Is Still Asleep that would soon be presented in the New Frontiers section of the Festival and I had just been informed that my lab project, Here, had been selected as the U.S. recipient of the 2008 Sundance / NHK International Filmmakers Award. It was an incredibly busy time, as was the Festival itself. (I saw one film in seven days, Man On Wire, about Philippe Petit’s infamous, unauthorized high-wire walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 1974. It couldn’t have been more appropriate. If you don’t know the story, stop reading now, get on Google and don’t come back. This real-life, true myth contains more essential lessons about the world, life and filmmaking than anything that I could possibly write.)
At any rate, the blur of the Festival has begun to recede, the dust (snow?) has begun to settle and I’ve managed to collect a few impressionistic thoughts.
The NHK Award at Sundance capped off what was, for me, a life-changing year spent with the Sundance Institute - first at the January Writers lab and then at the June Directors Lab. People often ask what the Labs were like and I often say things like, “They were an overwhelming gift.” But that doesn’t really do the experience justice. The totality of it is difficult to articulate. At some point the Labs begin to transcend being solely about filmmaking. They really do. They end up being about something much larger, something that revolves around getting to the deepest and most resonant places that you can find within yourself and those around you.
And then you come out. And it’s kind of sadistic – after the January Writers Lab, which takes place at the Sundance Resort, high in the idyllic Wasatch Mountains, they take you over to the Marriott in Park City and kind of kick you out of the van, out of their warm, perfect womb and into the cold, hard, hassle-filled reality of the Sundance Film Festival’s first weekend, which is a madhouse. I went from a luxurious and cozy mountain cabin with its own fireplace and kitchenette to a cold, ratty, basement motel room with a shower that barely worked. Which mirrors the metaphoric journey you undertake coming out of the Lab - from a warm place of pure creativity toward a direct confrontation what can feel like a very frigid business landscape for independent film.
Because once you come down from the mountain and survive that initial splash of cold, hard reality, you start to go about the actual making of your film and you start to hear a lot about what a difficult climate it is out there and “how are we going to market this?” and “who is your audience?” and “it would be great if all we had to care about was the art but that’s not the world we’re living in and and, and, and, and...
Well, we live in the world we accept.
So rather than writing about how crazy it is to begin to try to orient yourself in the “industry,” I wanted to write about a few ideas that have been forming as I’ve begun to slowly wade into these (most definitely shark-infested) waters.
Jack Kerouac, when asked to give a talk on the question, “Is There a Beat Generation,” began with the following introduction: “What we really should be wondering about tonight is ‘Is there a world?’ And I could go and talk for five, ten, twenty minutes about ‘Is there a world?’ because there really is no world. Sometimes I’m walking on the ground and I see right through the ground. And there is no world. And you’ll find out!”
My current project, Here, is a landscape-obsessed road movie about a brief but intensely affecting journey that is undertaken by satellite mapping engineer and an art and landscape photographer who impulsively decide to travel together into uncharted foreign territory – literally and metaphorically.
It has been an attempt to make a film that felt personally essential; an attempt to confront an unavoidable place and to find my way into something that I simply could not NOT do. And I recently realized that it is, at least in part, a film about whether we choose to live in a world we accept or in a world that we create.
While I was trying to navigate Sundance this year, a series of questions kept recurring inside my head: “Is this Festival (love it or hate it) - is the Institute – is the NHK Award, given with so much hope and so much trust to projects that are not yet realized – is any of this result of people who lived in a world they accepted?” The answer, obviously, is no. These are people who live in a world they created. They are people who live in a world that they are constantly creating. And that realization was an incredible source of strength and inspiration as I ran around the festival trying to figure out if there was anyone out there in the “film world” with whom I might share a compatible vision.
What I finally came to see is that the “reality of the market” does not exist. The “reality of the market” is what we allow it to be, what we, as creators, choose to accept. If my time with Sundance has taught me anything, it’s that we have to create our own realities; that we have to create the world that we want to live, work in and create in. As filmmakers, we have a responsibility to be as creative with the lives and the business of our films as we are with the films themselves. We have to fight for what we believe in and for the world we want our films to live in. Period.
Listen to John Cassavetes (from the completely essential Cassavetes on Cassavetes): “The main thing is to support art. If we, the artists, kill our own avenues of working – the theater, film, etc. – we ourselves suffer. The movies are not dead. And if somebody says to you. ‘Ah, I don’t know, this picture’s not going to make money,’ or ‘That play’s never gonna make it,’ you’ve got to attack them. You’ve got to attack them! Because they will only get away with that social custom if you don’t protect your art. And if you don’t, then next year you will come into a dead business and you’re going to suffer. Find the people that you want to emulate and support them. No matter where they are and what form of art – whether it’s music or anything. Support them because they are later on going to be your support – by keeping that pure thing alive.”
Looking back on the past year, I see this idea as the heart of what the Robert Redford and Sundance Institute’s vision is all about. As I move forward with Here, and get caught up in the “reality” of fundraising, logistics, casting, “marketing," etc., that sense of possibility feels like the most priceless gift of all the priceless gifts that came out of my experience with the Labs, and the one that I feel the most passionate about continuing to fight for and to help realize.
We all live in the world we create, if we are willing to create it.
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. Howard Feinstein interviewed I'm Not There co-writer-director Todd Hanyes for the Fall '07 issue. I'm Not There is nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett).
Todd Haynes’s first film, a 1985 student short called Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, focused in a manner both engaging and Brechtian on the anarchistic French poet who scandalized the bourgeoisie in 19th-century Paris and London. Haynes was studying semiotics and art at Brown, and it’s not by chance that he is one of the few directors working today whose gorgeous images are wrapped in real but sometimes indefinable meaning.
Now 22 years later in his magnificent film essay on Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, he casts the English actor Ben Whishaw as a Rimbaudesque incarnation of the chameleon-like composer-singer, a poète maudit whose oblique responses to an unseen interrogator intentionally sidestep direct discourse. Whishaw’s Arthur (the poet’s actual first name) is a rebel living outside the system, much as Dylan, in all his incarnations, has managed to do since the late 1950s. The musician also went through a phase (following his political activism period) of doling out tangential, sometimes nonsensical, responses to queries. You can read some of these in Nat Hentoff’s revealing interview with the usually guarded Dylan in the February 1966 issue of Playboy (http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/66-jan.htm), which Haynes kindly lead me to. A sample:
DYLAN: My older songs, to say the least, were about nothing. The newer ones are about the same nothing — only as seen inside a bigger thing, perhaps called the nowhere. But this is all very constipated. I do know what my songs are about.
PLAYBOY: And what’s that?
DYLAN: Oh, some are about four minutes, some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12.
PLAYBOY: Can’t you be a bit more informative?
But then, all of Haynes’s cinematic studies have been about people who fall outside the margins of general acceptability: young, future-gay Richie in Dottie Gets Spanked; the eponymous anorexic in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story; each of the protagonists in the three dark segments of Poison, Julianne Moore’s environmentally allergic housewife in Safe; Jonathan Rhys-Myers’s glam rocker in Velvet Goldmine; and Dennis Quaid’s closeted gay husband and father in Far From Heaven. He has addressed celebrity culture in Dottie, Superstar, and Goldmine — not to mention Assassins. Isn’t Dylan a logical subject for Haynes to tackle now at his most mature and accomplished?
Whishaw is one of six thesps portraying characters — an überAlienation Effect —who are all aspects of Dylan, a man who reinvented himself frequently and who drove fans desperate to pigeonhole him nuts and angry. I’m Not There, from a song recorded during the 1967 Basement Tapes sessions with The Band and circulated only in bootleg copies, is the perfect title for the film, as you can see in Hentoff’s interview:
PLAYBOY: Writing about “beard-wearing draft-card burners and pacifist income-tax evaders,” one columnist called such protesters “no less outside society than the junkie, the homosexual or the mass murderer.”
DYLAN: I don’t consider myself outside of anything. I just consider myself not around. Sometimes I have the feeling that other people want my soul.
Dylan’s different personas are embodied in Haynes’s film by a young black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin, the only actor who does his own singing, as Woody), a woman (Cate Blanchett as Jude), and several adult males (Christian Bale as Jack and Pastor John; Heath Ledger as Robbie; and Richard Gere as Billy). Each represents a relatively distinct period and/or aspect of Dylan the man: the folk singer, the activist, the electric guitarist, the misogynist and failed husband, the Pentecostal, and the country-and-western aficionado. Haynes attaches particular songs sung by both Dylan himself and various cover bands to each.
If the black-and-white and color I’m Not There (The Weinstein Company opens the film in limited release November 21) needs to be categorized, I would use the term “non-naturalistic collage,” though that is misleading. Naturalistic sequences do creep in next to those constructed from artifice and fantasy. Yet the film is more than mere collage: The complexity of its construction boggles the mind. Haynes and his team utilize distinct film genres, costumes, and set designs for each of the characters, with just the right Dylan song performed at just the right moment. This is less Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, where different actors portrayed one character, than the documentaries of Holland-based Heddy Honigmann, who frequently links particular objects or songs to the people she interviews in her films.
Fortunately for Haynes, Dylan’s son Jesse, who introduced the director’s work to his dad, served well as a gatekeeper. After watching Haynes’s earlier films, the elder Dylan gave him the music rights. (One condition was that Haynes also create a stage version, which was ultimately done by Twyla Tharp as The Time’s They Are A-Changin’). It’s not surprising that one artist recognized not only the talent but the similar life passages in another. It is appropriate, then, that we begin the interview, done during the Toronto Film Festival, by discussing a makeover in the director’s own life occurring after his 2000 move from New York to Oregon.
TOP OF PAGE: (CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) MARCUS CARL FRANKLIN, BEN WHISHAW, HEATH LEDGER, CATE BLANCHETT, RICHARD GERE AND CHRISTIAN BALE STAR AS BOB DYLAN IN I'M NOT THERE. PHOTOS BY JONATHAN WENK. ABOVE: I'M NOT THERE CO-WRITER-DIRECTOR TODD HAYNES. PHOTO BY HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.
Filmmaker: You moved to Portland from New York City in 2000. I’ve read about a connection between you and Dylan at that time — listening to his music, identifying with him. Is that true?
Haynes: It’s all really true. I don’t know what happened. I kind of crashed in New York. I was in Williamsburg the whole time I was there, for 15 years. I was basically having life disappointments and romantic disappointments at the end of the millennium. After Velvet Goldmine, I took a break from films. I read all of Proust over a year and a half. I was depressed and sick of New York. There I am recognized and can only be “Todd the filmmaker.” I thought, “Fuck it, I’m going to get out of New York.” I just didn’t know that I needed something else, really, until I saw it in a smaller city.
My sister lives in Portland, and she told me there was a place free for three months. I drove out there almost without stopping and stayed in this beautiful Victorian house. I felt good. I met fantastic people there. It’s just a fantastic place. I let go of that guarded thing I felt in New York. I took hikes, smoked pot. Then I found out I lost my Williamsburg apartment, so I stayed. More people in the world are living in second cities than ever before, apparently.
Filmmaker: So, did Dylan keep reinventing himself, or did we keep reinventing Dylan?
Haynes: That’s a good question considering how deeply Dylan’s followers invest and interpret him. But I think Dylan is the active party in the process of reinvention. Too many of his changes have been met with too much resistance or confusion over the years — plugging-in electric and converting to Christianity, to name two biggies — for me to see it any other way. I actually don’t think my concept is imposing some big interpretation on him once you really examine his life.
Filmmaker: Can you say a bit about the “Dylan” you see for each of the six main characters?
Haynes: Woody is the young, aspiring Dylan under the spell of Woody Guthrie’s music and character. Arthur is Dylan the poet, rebelling against coherent political intent and responding to his offscreen interrogators in Dylanisms from his famous ‘65 interviews.
Jack is clearly the early folk prophet of 1962-64, and Pastor John the born-again Dylan of 1979-81. Robbie is Dylan balancing fame and a private life, incorporating aspects of his early ’60s relationship with Suze Rotolo with that of his marriage to, and divorce from, Sarah Lowndes (1966-76). Jude is the electric Dylan, born at the famous Newport performance in ‘65 and dying with his motorcycle crash in 1966. Billy is Dylan in exile, which began in Woodstock following his crash, and his turning to roots-inspired music (The Basement Tapes), Bible-infused secular music (John Wesley Harding) and country (Nashville Skyline) — let alone his part in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. In many ways, Dylan’s retreat from the pulse of modern life that he experienced in the ’60s has never really ended.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me something about your deployment of artifice as a vehicle in your film? In Velvet Goldmine, the use of artifice was all upfront, but here it is kind of a mix.
Haynes: The whole question of America’s fixation on notions of authenticity is such a fascinating and delusional kind of infatuation. When you look at the pillars of this, people like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, you find at the root of it such performance, such adoption of the kind of gestures and emblems of what the grassroots experience is supposed to be. Woody Guthrie basically fathered it as a racket. You know, he was a very educated New Yorker, an intellectual guy, but he gets back on the road and he has to do the “aw, shucks” hick show for his fan base. He was aware of it and talked about it. And Dylan too, when he heard that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s real name was really Elliott Charles Adnopoz, some [Jewish] kid like himself, but from Brooklyn, and he was the first real spokesperson of the followers of the Woody Guthrie line, he just fell into hysterics, rolling on the floor in some bar in Greenwich Village. It was like, “Bob, what’s so funny?” and he just couldn’t answer.
Bowie was the one who said, “It’s the person who does it second that counts.” I love the way Greil Marcus looks at America’s folklore and its roots [in his books]. He basically looks at America as a place where reinventing yourself is primary. It was a new world where your past, your bloodline, your caste, your class were all the things that were the first to go. It was almost required to adopt a persona. So when Marcus talks about roots music and looks at the origins of American folklore, he sees it as a process of masks, of adopting guises and personas, not as the validation of some authentic core about “who we are.” I think Dylan is the subject of such a desire for authentic justification and validation in peoples’ deep identification with him. They want to find some stable truth in the guy. But his actual practice as an artist and his lived history as this ever-changing and elusive figure suggests exactly the opposite. But he keeps stoking that desire all the more because he doesn’t fulfill it.
Filmmaker: The occasional facial blowups behind characters remind me of the concept of the dream screen. They go well with the film. Probably not many people will think consciously about this, but I see them as larger-than-life projections of dreams.
Haynes: Definitely. I just wanted the sense of the projected image of a character to start to become this oppressive and sort of autonomous commenting source, sort of looming over these characters, like when Jude is starting to turn on his cohort.
Filmmaker: I thought it was about us too, as spectators — our projections.
Haynes: Absolutely. That’s what this whole thing is about. These artists, these characters are trying desperately to escape these projections that are coming from us.
Filmmaker: I read that you watched a bunch of films from the ’60s. One you mentioned was Fellini’s 8½. Are there other films or filmmakers that you thought about when you were doing this film?
Haynes: Oh yeah, totally. I wanted each story to have a distinct look. I felt that the palette of the film, the range of references, should all belong to the ’60s, At least, I limited myself to that. It’s the decade that produced Dylan and that he defined for so many people. 8½ was a pretty easy discovery and a film that’s been referenced many times, but it seems to get to the core of something that the Blonde on Blonde era was about, that Dylan was about, stylistically and definitely in the literal, biographical predicament that he was in: being hounded for his meaning and being questioned why he was not doing what he used to do.
Jean-Luc Godard is really the keynote for the Robbie story, the Heath Ledger story, those films from the mid-’60s like Masculin, Feminin, and the color ones I love like Two or Three Things I Know About Her. They are also curiously symptomatic of a kind of male prerogative view of women from the ’60s that I found to be a really useful vehicle for talking about Dylan and his checkered relationship with women, or at least an attitude toward women, depicting women in his songs in a way that has been questioned in some places. He’s written some of the most beautiful love songs, but, as with Godard, there are the more political and complex discussions they are kind of exempt from, you know, so that –
Filmmaker: Women become commodities.
Filmmaker: In the ’60s, they were the ones bringing in the coffee.
Haynes: Totally, exactly. And then a penny dropped, and you get women’s and gay lib following in the early ’70s.
Filmmaker: It’s nice that you round him out in this way.
Haynes: Oh, yeah. He’s too interesting to not do that. The amazing thing was that Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, who was sort of our link to everything, was open to all of this and let that coexist in the film with everything else.
Filmmaker: By the way, and I think I know the answer — which of your talking heads is closest to Joan Baez, Dylan’s ex-lover and friend?
Haynes: Julianne [Moore]. Yeah, she’s really kinda doing a Joan Baez, in her lingo.
Filmmaker: Yeah, but not a passive, victimized Joan Baez, which I like.
Haynes: Yeah, yeah. It’s probably one of the ballsiest roles Julianne has ever played in any of my movies. She’s kinda like a little resentful — she has a real ego, you know. We just cracked each other up. She had to send me out of the room when we did her scenes.
Filmmaker: When you would use a song or write a sequence in the script, which came first, or did it just depend?
Haynes: Rarely would just a song determine an entire scene. I was basically constructing the film based on the idea that it’s almost like the characters were these vials that I would be filling with references from Dylan’s work, from Dylan’s influences, from the political and literary backdrop of the ’60s, from films and visual references from the ’60s, and, of course, Dylan’s music — the starting point. But there are songs I would have preferred, for example, from his Christian period — some of his beautiful gospel songs that came out in the late ’70s, more than the one I chose, “Pressing On.” It is almost a throwaway song, but we made it something really special. It’s a song that he put on as a sort of encore during those Christian concerts. But it is a throwaway on the record that it appears on, and it was never one that I particularly knew or loved, but it made more sense – “pressing on” — as a kind of continuum for the narrative. You are kind of taking a huge chance in resurrecting [a lesser known song]. Or maybe you are taking a bigger chance when you try to cover extremely famous songs that are so well-known. In this case it was John Doe from the band X that did the cover of that particular song, and it ended up being this beautiful, really rousing cover. And what it does for Christian Bale, who walks on looking very much like the Dylan of that time in a way that people can laugh at and kind of dismiss, the song and its power somehow transcend that and take you into the emotional power of how Dylan must have been feeling about that time.
Filmmaker: How were you planning to do the stage version Dylan required as a prerequisite for making the film before Twyla Tharp eventually did it?
Haynes: We [Owen Moverman and Haynes] only got so far with the stage version, but it began as an exciting process of finding theatrical equivalents to do the various styles for each of the stories; Medicine Show carnival theater for Billy, ’60s Living Theater-style interventionism for Jude, and so on. But the stage concept allowed for all the characters and stories to coexist on stage in ways never quite possible through cinematic intercutting.
Filmmaker: How are you responding when people ask about the budget? What are you supposed to say?
Haynes: I forget what I’m supposed to say. It was really about $17 [million], under $20. It was between $17 and $20, and that’s amazing.
Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?
Haynes: Forty-nine days.
Filmmaker: Where did you shoot it?
Haynes: Everything in Montreal. Everything.
Filmmaker: How did you decide when to use archival footage and when to recreate it? It all looks so authentic that I was having déjà vu. Recreations usually look so fake.
Hanyes: Thank you. The train scene that’s in the credit sequence is one of two extended bits of archival footage, except for obvious stuff like the civil rights clips that you see halfway through. But that stuff was supposed to be scripted, it was supposed to be something we created for the film, but we couldn’t find the train station that we could use. Some things about matching New York City to Montreal were just absolutely impossible. And to find subway cars that were correct in [the Montreal subway] became absolutely undoable, so we hoped we could find something and then blend it with the street footage that we had done ourselves. It’s on 16mm so it has that extra grain.
I have to tell you that the faces of the Quebecer extras all across the film are so extraordinary. The faces that you get in the Billy section, the crazy, weird, rural stuff, and then the faces of the people at the banquet hall when Christian Bale is making his speech about [Lee Harvey] Oswald, they still blow me away — they look like they’re from archival footage. It’s also that our hair and makeup team was superb. Quebec is like a different world, it’s like nowhere else in Canada, nowhere else in North America. It’s really amazing. We lucked out with shooting there.
Filmmaker: Have you met Dylan? Has he seen the movie?
Haynes: I haven’t yet met or spoken to Dylan myself. Never felt the need to in order to make the film. The idea, in fact, seems stranger and more preposterous the more people ask me why I never did. What was I going to do, ask him, “How does it feeeel?” I look forward to meeting the guy at some point in the future. And no, he hasn’t yet seen the film. We just recently sent Jesse Dylan a finished DVD. I hope they’ll check it out together in the comfort of home.
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 Michael Clayton writer-director Tony Gilroy for our Director Interviews section of the Website. Michael Clayton is nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Tony Gilroy), Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Wilkinson), Best Supporting Actress (Tilda Swinton), Best Original Screenplay (Gilroy) and Best Original Score (James Newton Howard).
As a Hollywood screenwriter, Tony Gilroy has brought an insistent energy and intelligence to the projects he has worked on, so it was a totally logical step that he should progress to becoming a director. New York native Gilroy grew up with writing and the movies in his veins, as he is the son of Frank D. Gilroy, the Pulitzer prize-winning writer and filmmaker, possibly best known for writing The Only Game in Town (1970), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty. Gilroy Jr. debuted with the superior ice-skating romcom The Cutting Edge (1992) before embarking on a creative collaboration with director Taylor Hackford which produced Dolores Claiborne (1995), The Devil's Advocate (1997) and Proof of Life (2000). Gilroy is most famous as the architect of the Bourne trilogy, the superlative spy thrillers starring Matt Damon, which are ostensibly based on novels by the late Robert Ludlum, but are in fact almost entirely Gilroy's own creation.
Compared to the Bourne movies, Gilroy's debut film as director is a distinct change of pace: Michael Clayton is that most rare of movies, a smart, thoughtful thriller that takes its time. click here to read full story
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. Scott Macaulay interviewed No End in Sight director Charles Ferguson for the Summer '07 issue. No End in Sight is nominated for Best Documentary.
In the current debate over the Iraq war, Charles Ferguson’s debut documentary, No End in Sight, takes what is perhaps the most troubling position of all: the war could have gone right. Largely sidestepping questions about the justness of the war and focusing on the few months leading up to and immediately following the invasion, Ferguson pinpoints the mistakes that laid the groundwork for the current conflict. And while it’s commonplace to view Iraq’s violent civil strife as being just as inevitable as the discovery of WMDs was once believed to have been, Ferguson assembles a convincing group of talking heads — including General Jay Garner and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage — who assert otherwise and lay blame accordingly. click here to read full story
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 Beaufort co-writer-director Joseph Cedar for our Web Exclusives section of the Website. Beaufort is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
This was a particularly exceptional year for Israeli cinema. Dror Shaul's Sweet Mud won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret's Jellyfish took away two prizes, including the coveted Caméra d'Or, at Cannes; and Eytan Fox's The Bubble played to great acclaim at festivals worldwide before a U.S. theatrical run. But it was two other films, Beaufort and The Band's Visit, which dominated the headlines. This was initially because Beaufort, Joseph Cedar's third film as writer-director, won the Silver Bear (for Best Director) at Berlin, and then The Band's Visit, Eran Kolirin's feature debut, won the hearts of critics at Cannes and came away with a distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics. At the Ophirs, Israel's equivalent of the Oscars, Beaufort and The Band's Visit dominated the proceedings; they were nominated in 10 and 13 categories respectively. Kolirin's film won eight awards (including Best Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay and Film), leaving Beaufort to pick up four awards in the lesser categories.
The success of Kolirin's crowd-pleasing film was hardly a surprise. Its plot centers on an Egyptian police band who arrive in Israel for a concert, but ends up stuck in a nowhere town with an almost identical name to their chosen destination. Language and culture barriers are overcome as the Arab visitors are taken in by hospitable Jews who run the local café, and Kolirin paints the brief collision of these two worlds with gentle humor and an irresistible, understated charm. Beaufort, on the other hand, grapples more seriously with its questions of political and national coexistence. It takes as its subject the real life story of the withdrawal of Israeli troops in 2000 from Beaufort, the ancient hill fort it captured from Lebanon 18 years previously. An antiwar film in the classic mold, it is an intense, claustrophobic experience that puts the audience in the place of the soldiers evacuating the outpost and makes a subtle but compelling case for the utter futility of war. Arguably more profound and complex, Cedar's film is simply a harder sell for audiences.
When The Band's Visit won Best Picture at the Ophirs, it automatically became Israel's submission for the Best Foreign Language Picture at the Academy Awards. However, it was disqualified by the Academy for having more than 60 precent English dialogue in it — because English is the only language the Israeli and Egyptian characters have in common. Its disqualification became a cause celebre among film journalists who decried the Academy's decision, but the story took on an even more dramatic angle after it was claimed that the producers of Beaufort, the runner-up at the Ophirs — and thus the replacement Israeli submission — had spoken to the Israeli Academy about the amount of English in Kolirin’s film prior to its disqualification. Though the controversy seemed more like a cooked-up publicity stunt, it did unfortunately cause bad blood between the makers of the two films. The falling out is sadly ironic given that both films concern the pointlessness of conflict, stress the similarities between people regardless of their background, and ultimately show optimism about Israel's future at a time when peace seems very distant in the Middle East.
As a joint interview with the directors of the two films was a logistical impossibility, Filmmaker sat down with Cedar during a visit to New York City and spoke with Kolirin on the phone in Los Angeles two days later and asked him the same set of questions in an attempt to draw out the similarities and differences between the directors and their works. Beaufort is released on Jan. 18 through Kino and The Band's Visit on Feb. 18 through Sony Pictures Classics.
TOP OF PAGE: JOSEPH CEDAR'S BEAUFORT AND ERAN KOLIRIN'S THE BAND'S VISIT. ABOVE (L-R): DIRECTORS CEDAR AND KOLIRIN. BEAUFORT PHOTOS BY KINO. THE BAND'S VISIT PHOTOS BY SONY PICTURES CLASSICS.
Filmmaker: To what extent is your film political?
Cedar: I think it's political for the audience. The way it's perceived has to do with the political context of the time when it came out, the place that it's from, but it's not political for me. There's nothing in the process of making the film that had a political flavor to it. There was never a consideration that overrides an attempt to understand the story and the characters. And if there is something political, it's mostly there without my awareness. You only realize what that political idea is when the film is finished.
Kolirin: It's a very political movie for me. I don't see any straight line that separates the political from the personal. In this way, it's very personal and also very political. I think the movie addresses political issues which are not the obvious ones that are usually being dealt with: the neglect of Arab culture in Israel, the urge of Israel to be immersed in the West and this urge that exists all over the region for getting itself in the West. It's about how the modernization process and capitalization process has influenced Israel and the region, partly making people lose their identity in favor of a blurred globalized identity. These are all political questions for me.
Filmmaker: How much has your cultural and ethnic identity affected the way that you make films?
Cedar: Deeply, I think. The only reason I feel authority on set is if I feel more familiar with the material than anyone else, and the only way for me to gain that authority is to really bring things that I'm intimately familiar with. Beaufort is probably the furthest away from my communal background in what I've done so far, but it is close to my experiences from the military.
Kolirin: Everything that makes you affects the film. A film, if it's good, is a kind of mirror of your own very personal and deep self. But it's not something I can describe to you very simply, like “Because I was born here, this is why... ” It obviously affects [things], but I don't have the names for the effects. The basis of film and art are very abstract things and they are there to take out things that are abstract. If you could analyze this way, then what is the point of making films?
Filmmaker: To what extent did your personal experiences influence your film?
Cedar: If I look back at my experiences as a young soldier, when I was 18 in Lebanon, I was a different person. I had less self-awareness and, practically, I wasn't afraid of anything. I was a child and a lot of my actions were not responsible. I made this film as a 38-year-old person who has become a parent in the meantime. Looking back at myself, it gives the film this hindsight that young soldiers don't have.
Kolirin: Everything I experience transfers into the film. Part of my character goes into the film — the characters are all resemblances of myself. The whole story of Simon who cannot finish his concerto is a reflection that went in the script after I got really stuck writing it for years. It was the same with me as it was with Simon: I accepted the fact that I need not push this story into high dramatic overwhelming peaks and I didn't have to make anything perfect and big — I should just make something that moves me.
Filmmaker: What were your goals with this movie?
Cedar: Like any film, you want people to see it. But the goals and the challenges are not always the same, I think. Any filmmaker's goal is to put a story on the screen that people will appreciate. At least while I'm making the film, the goal becomes just to figure out what the story is about and how to get to that. It doesn't always happen. Sometimes it happens in the editing room, sometimes it happens in an interview with a journalist where you suddenly find out, “Oh, that's what's on the screen.”
Kolirin: The goals are very simple and personal. I tried to be truthful when I was shooting. I tried to be truthful when I was writing the story. I tried to find a certain color or tone of the movie that will in some way convey a very vague feeling that I had. People think the creative process begins with a kind of goal that you have, and then you say, “Well, the best way to get this goal is to do a movie about an Egyptian band,” but it's completely the opposite way around. First you have an Egyptian band, and then you try to understand why [you are thinking about] an Egyptian band. You have some feeling towards this band but you're not too sure and you try to find it, and in the end of the day there's a movie and people come and see it. I'm not a politician, I don't have a goal. I try to make films.
Filmmaker: How important a role can cinema play in helping ease tensions in Israel?
Cedar: Zero. I don't think that films make a difference at all. I think you can learn a lot about a society by the films that are being made in a country or the films that audiences seem to catch on to but I don't think any film really has the power to change. It's more a reflection of what's going on anyway than something that manipulates reality. Sometimes if you look from a distance at a certain period, you might be able to see a trend or slight movement that has to do with culture in general, but it's something that you can evaluate only much further down the line.
Kolirin: You know, I was once reading an interview with Ken Loach, a director that I like very much, and they asked him, [because] his films are very socially aware, if he thinks cinema can change the way people think. He said, “Well, I hope it doesn't!” Because 99 percent of the movies being made are extremely right-wing American Hollywood movies. My movie is not a political act in this sense, and I don't think it can help do anything. But if it can just help one person who watched to have this elevating feeling that you have sometimes when you walk out of a cinema when you like something, then it's fine with me.
Filmmaker: Is it possible to make a film in Israel today without it being in some way political?
Cedar: That's a big question, because even the way Israeli films are perceived outside of Israel, even if they have no political angle to them and they could have taken place anywhere, that in itself turns into a political statement because you're asking the filmmaker, “How can you ignore the conflict around?” So it's hard to escape that. My films are connected to things that are going on around, but not all Israeli films [are], that's for sure.
Kolirin: It's an academic question because I don't know if there's a possibility of doing a movie anywhere in the world without being political. If you disregard the political, then you're political. If you do political, then you're political. Israel in the '90s was the time of the personal cinema that had nothing to do with politics. There were films being made about family, but this whole movement was political because it was saying, “Let's be personal for a moment.” Anything is political, in a way.
Filmmaker: What is the message of your film?
Cedar: You know, if there was one message that I could articulate in a sentence, then it wouldn't really have been worth the four or five years working on this film. It's about a change that happened to me, and other people, over the 18 years Israel spent in Lebanon. It has to do with acknowledging fear, with being willing to swallow your pride and let go of symbols of power — mountains, flags, lands — and somehow find an alternative meaning to yours that doesn't have to do with military control. That's a process that happens to the main character in the film, and I think it's a process that reflects something that Israelis have gone through. So if there is a message, it somehow relates to that idea.
Kolirin: I have no message. [laughs] If I have a message, I write an e-mail. Why would I spend so many years of my life in doing something that has a message that I can say in one word over the phone? It's ridiculous. It's about a lot of things for me. It consists of many thoughts and feelings that I have. Sometimes a viewer can go into a film and just take one sentence from it and think that this is the message. This is okay, anyone can do whatever he wants but from my side it consists of many, many things.
Filmmaker: How much of an attempt was made to draw parallels between different factions and to show the futility of conflict?
Cedar: The basic structure of the film, I think, has to do with that. One of the crucial choices that we took was that we were not showing the enemy, we were not showing the larger picture. There's something very random about the danger that they're confronted with, it's almost like a force of nature: it's inevitable, it's random, there's nothing you can do about it, and you definitely can't beat it. The best you can hope for is to survive it, and that's what the story is about. It's about survival, and how fear is a survival tool. Withdrawing from Lebanon was an act of fear, but it resulted in the survival of many people. It's a pretty good idea to try to just stop war and then wonder what will happen. Even if what happens turns out to be bad, it's still something that's worth arguing with. So the futility of any battle is in the genes of the movie.
Kolirin: It was very instinctive and very obvious for me that once you write a film then all your characters should be complete. It's my own very personal, deep belief that at the end of the day people, when you go to their basic, fundamental elements — and art and drama thrives for the basic, fundamental elements and not for the exterior nuances — they are the same. But it's not about this movie. There are a lot of differences between the characters, but you can share their pain, their happiness, their feeling of incompleteness. In some way, these feelings are universal, but again it's not the goal or the starting point of anything showing that this is it.
Filmmaker: Do you feel peace is achievable in Israel? Is the country moving in the right direction?
Cedar: I don't have an intelligent answer to that. I have a family and we're playing it by ear just like everybody else, just waiting to see what will happen. Hopefully things will be good, but I don't have an understanding of the political situation in the Middle East anymore than anyone else. I hope that everyone around me will be safe, and that's it. You hope that the leadership knows what it's doing, but as I'm reaching an age that is getting closer to the age of the leaders who are running the countries, I am beginning to understand that there's no chance that they know what they're doing. My generation will be running the country in about 15 years, and I think I know some of the people who will be in those positions, and why would they know better than anyone else? They're just young people who grew up and suddenly find themselves prime ministers and defense ministers and what gives them the knowledge that other people don't have? I'm not cynical about it, [but] I don't rely on leaders.
Kolirin: [laughs] No, I don't think peace is achievable. I think we're going to all drown holding each other's throats. [laughs] I think it's going to be bad, and then it's going to deteriorate. [laughs] I'm being totally honest — there's no irony. [laughs] This is the awful sad truth.
Filmmaker: Your film has been sufficiently successful for you to be able to make films elsewhere in the world. Do you feel it is important, however, to continue to making films in Israel?
Cedar: Not necessarily. It's important to keep making films that matter to me, or matter to someone. The more experience I'm getting, the less I'm feeling that there's such a thing as national cinema. Most filmmakers I know work in a certain national environment because they live somewhere, and they're a citizen of some country, but the work itself is detached from that. My next film is a very Jewish film, but it's not an Israeli film.
Kolirin: It's a question I've been contemplating ever since The Band's Visit has been successful. I do feel that in some very deep way that I'm very connected, and understand some things in Israel more deeply and I do see the importance — not for the world, [laughs] but for my own soul — to do films in Israel. I don't have the big answer for this question, but I do think it's very much my place to do films in Israel.
Filmmaker: What is your opinion of the perceived Beaufort – The Band's Visit rivalry?
Cedar: There is no rivalry. I feel like we're the victim of a publicity campaign that has nothing to do with reality. I have nothing against them. If anything, I feel bad that they were disqualified. I really like The Band's Visit. The first time I saw it, I was really blown away by it. That's a perfect example of what I was talking about before, a film where you don't feel the effort [to be potentially successful internationally]: it's universal and very appealing to audiences outside of Israel, but it's not something where you can feel there was some kind of manipulative or exploitative intention in it. There is no rivalry. I'm mad at the producers who blamed me for something that I didn't do — and they should apologize to me — but I have nothing against the film itself.
Kolirin: I don't know. Whatever started this thing, I have never said anything about it and I have no idea of any kind of rivalry. Joseph Cedar and I are pretty [much] friends and I have no problem with Beaufort, and [I wish it] all the best in the world.
Filmmaker: Do you feel the image of Israeli filmmakers has been damaged by the controversy?
Cedar: I don't think so. The truth is, I don't think people really care about this. I hope not. It's completely artificial: there is no real fight. When I spoke to the producers of The Band's Visit about this whole thing, none of them really think that there is anyone to blame other than the rules of the Academy for this disqualification. The Israeli Academy is responsible for sending a film to the Oscars and if they send a film that's disqualified, they can't submit another one. What my producer did was ask the Israeli Academy to make sure that if a film they sent was disqualified they could send another one. That's it.
Kolirin: I don't know. I'm not the one to answer this. [laughs] You know, as a citizen of this world I know that this incident is no more than an anecdote which will be forgotten very, very quickly. [laughs]
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. Scott Macaulay interviewed Away From Her director Sarah Polley for the Spring '07 issue. Away From Her is nominated for Best Lead Actress (Julie Christie) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Sarah Polley).
Whether it is as the paralyzed survivor in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter or the zombie apocalypse heroine in Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, Sarah Polley brings something fascinating yet almost indescribable to all of her roles. A strange gravity, perhaps, or a keen sense of questioning — or maybe just the sense that something is going on inside. We could just call it old-fashioned mystery, that element of screen glamour that binds a performer and her audience, a transmission of barely perceptible signals sharing ideas and emotions only hinted at by the words in a screenplay. This ability to meaningfully “just be” is, of course, the stock in trade of any great actor, but Polley’s uniqueness is the way she so effortlessly inflects her performances with an extra quality that seems completely modern: an instinctive wariness of a world that doesn’t always behave as it should.
The sophisticated sensibility Polley brings to her work as an actress is every bit on display in her astonishing directorial debut, Away From Her. The film, adapted from Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” is sagacious about human relationships, and, in its cool, precise execution, seems free of the compromises and anxieties that simmer beneath the surface in so many first features. At the same time, it’s not afraid to be emotional, and it reaches its feelings with honesty and without manipulation.
Away From Her stars screen goddess Julie Christie and the Canadian star Gordon Pinsent as Fiona and Grant, a long-married couple whose settled life is torn apart when she identifies within herself the beginning signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Realizing that it will soon be impossible for Grant to take care of her, she checks herself into a long-term care facility that requires family members to refrain from visiting for one month so as to allow its residents time to settle into their new lives. When Grant returns to see Fiona, 30 days later, the disease has progressed. She no longer remembers him and has instead transferred her affections towards another patient, also married and lost in the fog of memory. Through the course of his daily visits, Grant struggles to hold on to his love for Fiona, and the lengths to which he goes transforms Away From Her from what initially seems like a methodical disease-of-the-week movie into a full-blown and deeply heartbreaking romance.
I spoke to Polley at New York’s Mercer Hotel about adapting Munro’s story, her own knowledge of Alzheimer’s, and, of course, working with the great Julie Christie.
TOP OF PAGE: JULIE CHRISTIE AND GORDON PINSENT IN AWAY FROM HER. ABOVE: AWAY FROM HER WRITER-DIRECTOR SARAH POLLEY. PHOTOS BY MICHAEL GIBSON.
Filmmaker: How did you come to make this particular movie? Was it an interest in the subject matter first and then the story, or did you read the story first?
Polley: It was a combination of things. I first read the story about five or six years ago, and it keyed into things that I had been thinking about a lot. I had just begun a really close relationship with my grandmother, and I was dealing with her going into a retirement home. I had also just met the guy who I ended up marrying, and my idea of what love is and what I thought was “romantic” really shifted. And so I think those two things combined. The idea of memory and how it plays into the trajectory of a relationship really fascinated me, and, I’d also just worked with Julie Christie as an actor in Hal Hartley’s film No Such Thing. I couldn’t stop seeing her face when I read the story, and as many reasons as there were for me to want to make this film, I think probably the main one was to see her play that role. I just couldn’t stop thinking about that side of her, how many interesting places there would be for her to go with that character and how much I would like to see it in a film.
Filmmaker: How did you come across Alice Munro’s short story?
Polley: I was sitting on a plane on my way home from working with [Christie] in Iceland. I was reading The New Yorker, and it was in that week’s issue. The story had all these echoes of Iceland, so it seemed sort of strange and fated. I didn’t immediately set out to adapt it because I felt like it wouldn’t be a great first feature to make. To adapt an Alice Munro short story — it felt really daunting. But it just kept growing in my head and it kept forming itself as a film until it sort of felt inevitable.
Filmmaker: How faithful were you to the story in your adaptation?
Polley: The structure is definitely different. The [film’s] sort of nonlinear fragmented structure — I kind of wanted to introduce that as an echo out of memory and also as a way to build tension throughout the film. And there are things that I added. In the story there would be sentences that would imply years and years — I would sort of flesh those out and make them more literal. But in tone and in spirit it’s really similar. I think it’s more faithful generally than a lot of adaptations are.
Filmmaker: How about the ending? Did you always intend to end the movie where you end it?
Polley: Yeah, because as a reader, when I read the short story, I didn’t know what would happen the moment after, and in a strange way I didn’t care. It was like that moment was all there was and what was important. What happened after that, no matter what it could be, would almost seem banal compared to this [final] moment of recognition, acknowledgment and realization. And I also really liked that, as a reader, [Munro’s ending] gave me permission to not imagine what happened afterwards if I didn’t want to. I could end with [the characters] existing in this one perfect moment as opposed to having to fall into the realization, which you do have in the back of your mind, that actually it’s momentary and she probably will forget him in the next scene.
Filmmaker: How much did you try to research and incorporate the medical realities of Alzheimer’s disease when making this film?
Polley: In a weird way, in terms of making the film and changing the story, I think that it’s almost equally a film based on research I did and books I read on Alzheimer’s. There are amazing books like The Forgetting by David Schenk written about the disease that ended up informing a lot of characters and scenes and trajectories in the film that didn’t exist in the story. It was important to me to be authentic, but at the same time, what is so strange about Alzheimer’s as a disease is that it’s so individualized. It’s so specific to the person who is afflicted. So in fact, this [film] could seem completely wrong to someone who is going through Alzheimer’s with somebody right now, and yet it would seem completely right to somebody else. It’s almost impossible to nail [this disease] down because it’s so much a reflection of the unraveling of the inner workings of an individual’s brain.
Filmmaker: In your film, it is Julie Christie’s character who recognizes her symptoms and decides to check in to a facility. It’s kind of an inversion of what people expect.
Polley: It’s rare. I know of one or two people whose family members have done that, have wanted to go in before [the disease progressed]. But it’s absolutely the minority. I think in almost 95 percent of the cases that I know about, it’s very, very hard to move [a family member] into a retirement home. It’s a difficult decision.
Filmmaker: What was the hardest adjustment you had to make in transitioning from actor to director?
Polley: It was so hard on so many levels it’s impossible to say.
Filmmaker: The film doesn’t make you think that. It felt like the perfect first film in terms of its scope and the decisions you made on it.
Polley: Oh, that’s good. Well, I’ve been an actor my whole life, and to all of a sudden have this much responsibility was a really huge transition. It was one that I loved and was really rewarded by, but it was giant. I don’t really understand, after making this film, how anyone can possibly sleep for even one hour while making a film! It’s just so overwhelming and you’re responsible for so much. But I had an amazing experience in that I felt like I had the right people to collaborate with. I worked with the right crew and the right team, and the producers were unbelievably supportive and helpful. I felt like everyone was making the same film. I didn’t have any of the nightmarish creative battles that I hear about people having on their first film. To have had the room and the freedom to begin to find my voice and not have to deal with a ton of stupid politics was amazing.
Filmmaker: What did you learn about directing from working with the different directors you’ve worked with?
Polley: Certainly Atom Egoyan has been a huge influence on me — I learned from him that making films could be important. He has been such a mentor. He has a great way of being on a set — his sets feel like incredibly happy places, and it was really important to me to try to create that environment. Michael Winterbottom was really influential for me too. He is somebody who doesn’t believe in projecting a kind of morality into his films. [He believes] that people in situations should speak for themselves and be interpreted through the moral compass of whoever is watching, as opposed to the filmmakers. I think that’s a really interesting way of approaching things. And I worked with Wim Wenders a couple of years ago, and that was a really formative experience for me as well. He has a really amazing sense of organization and structure and yet seems to be totally free within that. That was something that I tried to keep in mind a lot.
Filmmaker: What qualities do you think your style of acting and performance shares with your style of directing?
Polley: I feel like for me the most interesting thing to watch in a film is somebody’s face in stillness. So there’s a lot of attention to that in the film — what is said without words. And I guess that’s sort of what I get the most joy out of as an actor too, those moments when you are just experiencing or thinking through something and you can kind of be alone with that. It’s being recorded, but you can actually kind of forget that and just go through your own strange thought process or trajectory. I think that that is probably a bit of a bridge between what I love about acting and what I loved about making the film.
Filmmaker: I’m always interested in how actors who become directors decide to direct other actors. Did you have one approach, or did you tailor the types of direction you gave to the performers?
Polley: I definitely approached everyone individually. I’ve always found that idea of there being a way to talk to actors odd because, in a way, I feel it should be as individual and as varied as communication with human beings in general. The dynamics shift from person to person. I did my best to learn what each actor needed, and they needed totally different things. Or didn’t need them. The dynamic was really interesting because I’m making a film mostly about older people and I have not lived those years — I don’t have the experience of being in my 60s and 70s, so there was a lot for me to get from them in terms of forming that. It was a really nice kind of collaboration actually.
Filmmaker: Tell me a little bit about working with Julie Christie to develop the part.
Polley: It was really quite a long process. I never could imagine anybody else playing the part, and it took a long time to get her to do it. She has a really complicated relationship with acting generally — she doesn’t really want to do it — and it took a lot of convincing. It was so great to have her face in front of me when I was writing it, so it was also so impossible to imagine anybody else bringing what she brought to it, that kind of ethereal, magical, ironic quality that she has. It was terrifying for a while when I felt like she wasn’t going to do the film. I wondered if there was a point to making it.
Filmmaker: What were her own issues in trying to figure out whether to take the part?
Polley: I think it was complicated. In so many ways she is so much younger than this character. She looks a lot younger than she does in the film, and so we were aging her. It’s a bit of an odd thing to play somebody at a retirement home who is dying when you yourself are so vital and so young. And I think that acting in general for her is just not what she would almost ever choose to do with her time. So it just took a lot of convincing.
Filmmaker: What were some of the specific qualities, unique to her, she brought to the movie?
PolleyShe has this quality, and I don’t know any other actor who also has it — as a person, she’s so ephemeral, in a way. You fall in love with her instantly, she’s so engaging and engaged and curious and kind of wondrous. But she’s sort of with you one minute completely and then absolutely gone the next. So in a way, on a one-on-one personal level, you’re always chasing her. You’re always trailing her around like some broken lover. I think everyone has that experience of her whether they’re an audience member or a friend, and I felt like that’s sort of what this character needed, this sense of, is she with you now or gone? Is this a charade or is this real? And I think that’s absolutely Grant’s relationship with Fiona. I wanted to be with him through the film, to see it through his eyes, and I felt like if we could as an audience feel the same way about her that he does that would really help.
Filmmaker: How did you cast the actor who played Grant, the husband of Julie Christie’s character?
Polley: Gordon Pinsent is kind of like a Canadian icon. People don’t necessarily know him here [in America], but he’s someone I’ve known as an actor my whole life. I thought he’d be great because he is so sensitive, lovely and warm, and at the same time you kind of know he was a bit of a rogue just by looking at him. You know he’s not without flaws. There was never anybody else I could imagine in that part. I also feel like he is so Canadian, and that sense of place was really important to the film.
Filmmaker: Talk about that fascinating scene in the middle of the movie where Grant is sharply challenged about his relationship with his wife by the caregiver character, who up until that scene has been a very warm, comforting presence.
Polley: It was important to me not to judge Grant for how he may or may not have betrayed Fiona in their relationship, but I didn’t want to let him off too easily either. I felt like it would be hard for him to rise from the ashes if his [previous] behavior [in his marriage] hadn’t been acknowledged in a less than sympathetic light.
Filmmaker: Hers is a fascinating character because we’re used to seeing, both in films and in real life, these people as such giving, altruistic figures. But they must have their own anger and resentments, which erupt here so unexpectedly.
Polley: I think it’s a strange thing when Grant says [to her], “You go through life without too much going wrong, and now that we’re old we have to suffer.” There actually is so much grief and tragedy in ordinary life, even if you are middle class and have it easy. We’re always trying to contextualize that or dismiss it by saying, “Well, we’re really lucky.” There’s a kind of narcissism in that actually — there’s something that he’s doing in that scene that I agree with her being pissed off about. I don’t know how to describe it.
Filmmaker: The facility you shot in — was that a real facility?
Polley: It’s a rehabilitation hospital, so it’s used by some geriatrics, but it’s not a retirement home per se.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the process of casting the patients. Were they all actors, or did you use real people?
Polley: They were almost all actors. Some of them weren’t; some of them were actually patients in the hospital. The retirement home was based on my grandmother’s retirement home, and a lot of the minor characters were [based on] people that I met there.
Filmmaker: Like the sports announcer character?
Polley: The announcer is actually an homage to my uncle, who is the voice of the Buffalo Sabers. His name was Todd Darling, and he died of Pick’s disease, which is sort of a form of Alzheimer’s. [This character] was my little shout-out to him.
Filmmaker: Did you retain a medical adviser for the film or have doctors vet the script before shooting?
Polley: I had two or three doctors who read the script. And there are things in it that are odd, like that 30-day rule, which is something that used to happen very rarely in rural areas in Ontario, but it’s not a policy that anyone uses anymore. It was an odd thing to choose to keep in, but it was such an important device in the film. But basically yeah, I made sure that we had a lot of eyes on it, because I didn’t want it to ring really false or anything.
Filmmaker: What kind of contact did you have with Alice Munro?
Polley: Not a lot. She read the script and gave us her blessing. I’ve had two really long, very nice voice-mail messages from her, but I’ve never actually spoken to her. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Is the story as romantic as your film? Your film is interesting because it starts off with a coolness and stillness to it and a precision, and it really becomes quite a romance.
Polley: I’m so glad. That was the intention. I mean, I found the story unbearably romantic — I don’t know if others do. For me, after I finished reading it, I thought, This might actually be the only love story I’ve ever read. The only true love story.
Filmmaker: Which seems to be the point of view of the beautiful teenage girl who talks to Grant at the hospital.
Polley Oh yeah, Monica. That scene was something that I invented, and a lot of people told me to take it out in the script stage, but for me it was my explanation of why I was making the film. At her age, looking and seeing what devotion might look like at the end [of life] is the most moving thing in the world. So in a weird way, I sort of was writing a younger version of myself talking to Grant. An affirmation.
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. Scott Macaulay interviewed La Vie en rose star Marion Cotillard for the Spring '07 issue. La Vie en rose is nominated for Best Lead Actress (Marion Cotillard), Best Costume Design (Marit Allen) and Best Makeup (Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald).
In person, French actress and star Marion Cotillard is tall, confident and with a quicksilver responsiveness that skips from laughter and exuberance to moments of intense thought and introspection. Dressed casually in blue jeans and a blouse, taking interviews at New York’s Gramercy Hotel, she seems very far away from the character of Edith Piaf she plays in Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en rose, which just had its American premiere at New York’s “Rendezvous with French Cinema” series.
I am careful to say here “the character of Edith Piaf.” While Piaf fans will marvel at Cotillard’s ability to seemingly inhabit the diminutive body (Piaf was 4’8”) of the beloved French singer and icon, the actress is quite clear that her performance is a construct, a synthesis of what’s known of Piaf’s life story, Dahan’s dramatic interpretation of it, and elements of Cotillard herself. click here to read full story
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. Ray Pride interviewed The Savages writer-director Tamara Jenkins for the Fall '07 issue. The Savages is nominated for Best Lead Actress (Laura Linney) and Best Original Screenplay (Tamara Jenkins).
Note-perfect, Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages was one of Sundance 2007’s stellar surprises. Where another unlikely gem from the festival, Once, was bittersweet in its simple romance, Jenkins’s long-in-coming sophomore directorial entry (after 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills) is a complex mesh of tones and social observations. The film is witty about neurosis and unblinking about mortality and is filled with the sort of melancholy humanism we only get from European features these days. Yet it also is imbued with the observational precision and winning performances of the best American comedies.
Jenkins’s Savages are a scattered clan. Father Lenny (Philip Bosco) approaches his own sunset in Sun City, Arizona; semi-estranged daughter Wendy (Laura Linney) is a New York City playwright who, after many years, is surviving on temp jobs and her brother Jon, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an academic struggling with an epic book on Bertolt Brecht. The two siblings are brought together after their father acts out against his nurse in a scatological way and they have to find him a new home whether their own or one in assisted living. There are nicely nuanced side characters and witty bits, but The Savages belongs to these three actors, who are at the top of their game. The film boasts some of the most formidable comic dialogue of the year and Jenkins’s screenplay is lovingly structured. A sampling of her ear for dialogue: “We’re not in therapy right now, we’re in real life” and “I’m not leaving you alone, I’m hanging up.” Mostly though, what Jenkins gets down is behavior, and it’s exquisitely performed. We spoke in late summer at a café near her apartment in New York City’s East Village, which she shares with her husband, screenwriter Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt), and talked about casting, tone, finding ways around writer’s block and what it’s like to have so much time pass between features. Fox Searchlight opens the film in late November.
TOP OF PAGE: LAURA LINNEY AND PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN IN THE SAVAGES. PHOTO BY ANDREW SCHWARTZ. ABOVE: THE SAVAGES WRITER-DIRECTOR TAMARA JENKINS. PHOTO BY HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.
Filmmaker: At film festivals, I’m not one of those people who rushes to weigh in after premieres, but after the Sundance press screening of The Savages, I sat cross-legged in the Holiday Village and posted a few notes right away. I called it an unlikely mix of Annie Hall and…
Jenkins: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The [publicists] e-mailed it to me and I was like, that is fucking hilarious. Obviously you were responding to something about the dialogue…
Filmmaker: Where it’s witty but not necessarily a punch line. Where it’s character observation.
Jenkins: I appreciated that because, well, it’s been an interesting thermometer. Some people say [the movie] is so funny, and some people say it’s so sad or depressing. I was grateful you appreciated the language of it, and that these are sort of hyper-articulate people having to do something that being hyper-articulate doesn’t help you with.
Filmmaker: I always find it auspicious when a film like this can deal with essential human pain, mortification, embarrassment and humiliation, and then find a way to laugh at it without humiliating the characters. And one of the cruel things in your movie is the title. Was this family always going to be the Savages?
Jenkins: I can’t remember when that happened.
Filmmaker: It sets up that you’re going to deal with people reduced to elemental, primal things they don’t have defenses for. These Savages don’t know how to make nice.
Jenkins: Well, also there’s something about just taking old people and putting them in buildings and not dealing with them — the sort of savagery of old age and the way it ravages you and strips you of anything that would be perceived as civilized.
Filmmaker: The Savages opens and you have this geriatric dance number of sorts — it’s like the June Taylor Dancers from the old Jackie Gleason show — and we meet Mr. Savage, Philip Bosco. Within five minutes, what does he do to act out? He writes “shit” on the wall. This scene, like so many others, is very complicated tonally. Was the movie a tonal nightmare to edit?
Jenkins: Its scary tone is the trickiest thing in the world. So many ingredients have to accumulate to create tone. It could be music, it could be the tone of the comedy and the tragedy and how you let them live inside the same vessel and not undermine each other but instead support each other. I’m very attracted to holding funny and sad [together]. It’s an accumulation of all these little details that you are putting into the same stew, hoping that you can keep them within the same vocabulary and that [the result] is not jolting and melodramatic when it becomes serious. As long as the material is truly driven from character — if it truly is organically growing out of character — you can get away with it.
Filmmaker: Considering how wonderful Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are, it’s almost like after casting them as the two siblings, your work as a director was done.
Jenkins: I was done — I didn’t have to do anything! No, the process of casting in general was a long thing, but in terms of getting Laura and Phil and them just being so… [Jenkins smiles]. We had very little rehearsal, just a couple of days in my apartment. There is a certain truth about actors that when you find the right person for the part, and the dynamic between them is working… all three of them really, Bosco too, I just felt when they came over to my apartment, and we were just reading through the script, I was like, “Wow!”
As in, “Wow! Who wrote that?”
Filmmaker: It wasn’t that the material was so brilliant, but the dynamic it just felt like it would be believable, like I will believe this. You can always just throw three people together and put them around a table and call them family. I see movies where people are playing family members and something doesn’t feel right.
Jenkins: The larger feeling I took away from the movie is the evocation of two siblings approaching early middle age who are still unformed as people. They’re still incomplete. Do you think in these big terms when you write? Or do you just write the characters and let the larger themes emerge?
Filmmaker: It’s about how quickly you become conscious of what you are doing. I feel like the whole process of writing is sort of being unconscious and then becoming conscious. Unconscious, conscious. If you are too pre-determined at the beginning, then you are writing an essay [instead of just] letting it go and then interpreting the tea leaves of all this stuff that [bubbles] up.
Jenkins: You’re putting things on a clothesline, but you wouldn’t see any relationship unless they were all pinned there together.
Filmmaker: Yeah, filmmaking is so like that anyway because that’s all you’re doing, putting one shot next to another shot, one frame next to another frame. The form is structured like that. But there was a conscious moment at a certain point [in the writing] about those siblings being kind of like Hansel and Gretel. You know that book, that Bruno Bettelheim book….
Filmmaker: The Uses of Enchantment?
Jenkins: I’ve had it forever. There’s something brilliant about that book. I remember working on the script and there were many siblings — a whole crew of them. I was stripping it away and then I came up with the idea of just these two going on this journey, and then I was like, “Oh, like Hansel and Gretel!” I grabbed Bruno Bettelheim and wrote in my notebook something like, “their journey through old-age land.”
Filmmaker: So it’s a terrible fairy tale unfolding in front of them?
Jenkins: Yes. Bettelheim talks about how that story is about confronting mortality and that Hansel and Gretel are thrown out of the house into the woods and into the darkness. They lose their parents and have to make their own way. And I was like, “Oh, that’s what this is — they’re thrown into this surreal weird world of old-age land.” It became the way they became grownups, or truly whole people, complete people, which is sort of what Bettelheim talks about, individuating and stuff like that. It was an interesting little guiding principle, “Oh yeah, they’re like these neurotic modern Hansel and Gretel. Yeah!”
Filmmaker: So, where are the missing movies, Tamara, the last eight or nine years?
Jenkins: All those pictures?
Filmmaker: You have Slums of Beverly Hills, this one film largely about a teenager, and then you’ve got the one that’s about middle-age siblings and an old person. Where’s the twenty-something bohemian movie? Where’s your Laurel Canyon?
Jenkins: [laughs] Laurel Canyon, that’s funny. I know Lisa Cholodenko really well. But I don’t know what to say. I spent a lot of time writing, and I worked on a project for a long time that never happened.
Filmmaker: You’ve made a living, but a frustrating one?
Jenkins: In terms of trying to make motion pictures, I mean, I made a living in various ways. I wrote for hire, non-credited rewriting things. But I didn’t direct a feature as we know, because it would have been heard of! I worked on screenplays that I thought I would be able to make that didn’t happen for one reason or another. One in particular was a nightmare and many years of wasted time. I didn’t own the project; the producer had it. Then [The Savages] took a really long time. I know that that’s going to become a question — like what the hell have you been doing — and I guess I’ve been writing.
Filmmaker: Why did it take so long to make The Savages?
Jenkins: I feel like I know so many people who have made movies and then struggle so hard to get their next movie happening. This almost didn’t happen like 100 times. Just getting the financing…. [First] it was at Focus Features, and they really liked it, they financed the writing of the script, but then they were dissatisfied with the casting, which was crazy. And then we were out. They gave it [back] to us so we could shop it around, which took forever. We couldn’t get anyone to finance it, even with Laura and Phil. People were scared of the subject matter. I mean, try to get The Death of Mr. Lazarescu financed in the United States. Forget it! And there’s still a lot of anxiety about anything that’s dealing with…. People had primal-like reactions when we sent it around to all the various financiers. People would get very personal about it, like, “Well, my father died and it wasn’t like that” kind of thing. I guess it pushes buttons for people because there’s something about putting a parent in a nursing home and confronting that part of life that really flips people’s lids. Or people have done it in a different way, or people might say something like, “Well, why would Jon and Wendy help their father? He was such an asshole, I don’t believe it.” Anyway we had a really hard time getting it going, and it took me a long time to write it, too.
Filmmaker: You did performance art earlier in your career, which is an art form that provides immediate feedback. What sustained you as an artist during the process of developing this film and then trying to get it made?
Jenkins: I have a really good friend named Eric Mendelsohn who is a person who made a lovely movie many years ago called Judy Berlin and should also be making more movies. I guess I have a group of friends, and you know, I spend time at writer’s colonies and stuff like that. Yaddo was very helpful for this movie and for me. It’s a great place, and I was surrounded there by [other kinds of writers]. As a screenwriter you always feel like you’re not really a real writer, that real writers are novelists, especially when you’re in a place like that where John Cheever, Philip Roth and Sylvia Plath — real writers — come from. I spent six weeks there about four years ago. I had all of this stuff assembled [for The Savages], all these ideas and miscellaneous scenes and stuff that was also building toward whatever the screenplay is, and I went there for six weeks and kind of indexed my brain. That really was the beginning of figuring out what this movie was in a concrete way. It’s almost like accumulating scraps and not really ever having the [example to finish until] I was around real writers. When I got stuck I would pretend the screenplay was a novel, because screenplays are such haikus.
Filmmaker: Poetry and carpentry together.
Jenkins: Yeah, and you’ve sucked out all the descriptive juices because that’s what you’re going to see and that’s what people are going to do. It helped me when I got stuck to just pretend it was just a novel, to just keep going and write this stuff that I eventually would rip out, stuff that had to do with describing internal states — things that you would never really be able to have in a screenplay. And it was really long — the first draft of the script was 200 pages. In a weird way, I felt like I wrote a novel and then had to do an adaptation of the novel to turn it into a screenplay, which brought it down to 120 pages. I spent a year going from 200 pages to 120 pages, and it took me years to get to the 200 pages. So a year to kind of, what’s it called, reduction? When they do that to a sauce, the reduction sauce?
Filmmaker: What you’re saying about changing forms is interesting. You were tricking yourself.
Jenkins: It really helped me. It freed my friggin’ brain. A screenplay is a distillation of this other thing. It would be writing the essence of something before you know what the something is. If you don’t know what it is yet, let it just be fat and sloppy and not the distillation, and then find what you really [mean]. It’s a slow [process], though.
Filmmaker: Keith Gordon says he considers his job to be a fund-raiser and every five years he takes three months off to shoot a movie.
Jenkins: Yeah, it’s really hard to get them made. It’s demoralizing and exhausting. You’ve got to be a real lunatic. There are moments when it’s pretty bleak out there, especially when you really are committed to one [project]. The first person at the company likes it but then it has to go upstairs, and then it’s like, “Well, he didn’t like it,” and then you go to the next one. It’s just so much of that: “We sent it, we’re waiting, so and so really liked it, but the guy upstairs….” I don’t know if and when it gets easier. I guess you have to make something that really makes some dough or something. You have to be such a dog with a bone about it that you must be strange — I mean, I think filmmakers are pretty strange people. There’s something about when you’re tenacious and intrepid and probably bizarrely so. Like a normal person would take the hint that this isn’t happening, but no, you don’t. I mean, is it delusional to be running around and trying to get your screenplay made for a couple of years, or is it just that it’s so hard to get these things made? I live in the East Village, and I’ve lived here for a really long time, and I guess [the character of] Wendy was some sort of riff on people who come to New York City and have to do something to support themselves but [still] have these dreams of making it in the arts. How long can you sustain that double life when it’s not really happening?
Filmmaker: You worked on the script for a long time and then suddenly you are making the film. Tell me about your shooting schedule after all that waiting.
Jenkins: It was very short preproduction, six weeks. That’s all we could afford to pay people. Then we had 30 days to shoot. The irony is you work on a script forever and try to get it financed forever and then you have to do it NOW!!! We got the film financed in January and then we shot at the end of March. We needed to shoot quickly because it needed to look like winter in New York City and in Buffalo. We shot every exterior first to avoid foliage, green and [signs of spring]. We were very lucky — it snowed in April in front of the nursing home in Buffalo! So we managed to have a winter movie in April and it worked out okay. The 30-day aspect of it wasn’t fun. Five more days would have made life easier. But the adrenaline [needed for that shooting schedule] can be kind of great. Sometimes pricey Hollywood movies, they’re D.O.A. They are too prepared, and there’s no energy. As much as I can complain and wish I had more time… there’s something about that capturing of [real] life [on a quick shoot], and that’s the most important thing — that sort of lived-in feeling among these characters, a messy, imperfect aliveness. Just having it feel alive. When you see it in a movie, a flicker of life, it’s so startling. Oh my God! That’s life, actually life as it happens! They’ve captured something human! It’s not part of the repertoire of things that we think are real because we’ve seen them in movies.
Filmmaker: How did you talk about color and framing to your d.p. and production designer? Are you a look-book person?
Jenkins: A friend had given me a book by Larry Sultan, this great photographer, called Pictures from Home. It was for the Arizonaish part of the movie. And I also found that scouting and taking digital photographs myself was a huge aid in figuring out how the movie should look. I had gone scouting in Buffalo prior to meeting a d.p. and I had taken tons of pictures of branches against the sky, heavy clouds, traffic lights. They show up in the movie when Phil’s character is driving on Percocet --— there are these loping low wires and bare trees against the sky. I took pictures like that while we were in the location van driving around. Everything I saw out of the corner of my eye became a reference. Location photos are usually like a picture of a room, but these were like my periphery, this track that was running through my mind that I documented with this little cheap camera. I took pictures constantly of anything that was interesting. It could be an abandoned hospital where left on the bulletin board would be a Christmas ornament or a horn of plenty. These little details — leftover, found things.
Filmmaker: Were there any films that you looked to for inspiration?
Jenkins: There’s a movie, I don’t think we utterly achieved the look of it, The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Such a good film. It’s a very specific kind of handheld-looking movie. It’s available light, and it goes dark [at times]. There’s something about its organic [quality] and the way the camera [views] the bodies of the actors. We achieve [this quality] in certain places, I think. We had a really great camera operator, Peter Agliata, who handheld a lot of the movie. When he would swing from one head to the next [during panning singles] in a dialogue scene, he had this enormous intuition about the drama of the scenes and a great sense of when [the camera] should swing [to the other person]. It was like he was in the scene with them. He would sit there and read the scenes really closely, studying them so he knew where the dramatic points were, and he really paid attention during rehearsals. He was an enormous asset.
Filmmaker: The opening of the movie sets a tone that’s quickly belied, with all the elderly people doing what’s almost an old-fashioned TV variety-show number. I understand that a chunk of that scene resulted from necessity rather than planning.
Jenkins: We never found a location [for that scene]. There was this weird band shell in Sun City [that we wanted,] but they refused to let us use it. We were only in Sun City for a very short time and we madly tried to book these clubs [of senior citizens] — water aerobics people, golfers — and coordinate [their schedules with ours]. [While shooting] we had our trucks parked by a church we were using for a home base, and I turned around and there’s this crazy hedge! I thought, what if [the senior citizens] come out from behind it? I dragged my d.p. over and I hid behind the hedge and appeared, and [the scene is] now so much better than what it would have been. It looks like something you’d art direct, but everything was really found, as eccentric as that looks — the hedge, the women’s costumes, the 90-year-old woman tap-dancing on the asphalt. I guess that’s a big directing thing — you get something in your head, a location, and it just doesn’t work out. Sometimes something’s sitting right in front of your face and you don’t think about it until some limitation is placed.
Filmmaker: Orson Welles once said that a director doesn’t take advantage of accidents, a director presides over accidents.
Jenkins: There is something to that, something about the balance between aggression and passivity. Aggressively trying to get everything you need, and then being able to sit back and let things happen. Finding that balance — it’s like a Zen state. I think it’s an ideal state in life [laughs] and directing. And I think the more you direct, the better you are at that. My [student] short films are these tight, controlled little things. These perfect little frames. I like them very much, but they’re stylized tableaux. They’re very theatrical. They have a certain esthetic and whatever, but as you grow up, you start to figure a way of letting go while keeping your eyeballs open for things that crop up.
Filmmaker: You’re also keeping the writer locked up back in the writing room. It’s the director’s job once you’re on the floor.
Jenkins: It’s interesting where you let go and how much without losing control. Working with actors, [what is] the balance of bugging them and getting in there, and just seeing how something evolves and having the courage to shut up? It’s like, you’re called a director, I guess I should be telling people what to do all the time, but being okay with not talking is pretty important, too. The second time [the actors] do a scene, it might be twisting and changing and growing organically. If you just shut up and let it happen a couple of times, it will emerge. I’m not that great at it, but it’s something that I can see is important.
Filmmaker: Stephen Frears has said the key thing he learned on his first shoot was to make a choice, the blue shirt rather than the green one, say. Even if you make a choice and then change it later, it’s good for the crew to see that.
Jenkins: That exhibits confidence? I wish I’d had that anecdote under my belt! I don’t know if it’s a gender thing or not, but I do feel like being able to change your mind in front of a crew or be unsure until you’re sure [is important too]. I feel like a lot of stuff was very visible in terms of the making of our movie. I sat there, people could hear me talking to my d.p., changing my mind, and I wonder… maybe Stephen Frears was right, it makes you look weak...
Filmmaker: I think he was saying the air of decisiveness was the strength...
Jenkins: But the irony is, it might be perceived as a weakness from the outside if someone sees that Stephen Frears doesn’t know what color he wants, but the fact that he’s open to changing his mind is brave. I hate to say this, because it sounds so… but I’m a woman, I’m making a movie, most of the people who are making the movie, the crew, are men. There can be a difference in the way your authority is perceived if you [publicly] exhibit [your decision-making process]. It’s weird to be watched. It’s such a public job… to be thinking out loud in front of all of these people who are waiting for you. If you are writing, there are not 20 people waiting to take the next word and lug it across the room! You’re making decisions constantly when you’re writing, but no one’s watching.
Filmmaker: Film directors generally don’t have the chance, the leisure, to watch other directors at work, and like Mike Nichols...
Jenkins: Is he the one who said directing is like sex?
Filmmaker: Yeah, you’re always wondering how the other guy does it.
Jenkins: You never know how good you are because you never see anybody else do it! Exactly. Crew people and actors see [other directors], but unless you’re hanging out on sets, you really don’t. You have your own weird, idiosyncratic way of getting your way. Some people probably have a more strong-armed way, others have a more roundabout passive way of getting things.
[Jim Taylor enters; they say hellos before he goes to another table.]
Filmmaker: I guess we can talk about what it’s like living with another writer now, being married to another screenwriter?
Jenkins: Just don’t take pictures, the place is a mess! When you were asking about a community… it’s interesting living with a writer. He was a great ally on so many levels with the movie, and when I was going from the 200-page version of the script to the more presentable 120-page version, he read everything. [Screenwriting] is also such a lonely, grueling process, although he doesn’t have that because he writes with a writing partner. They have a great thing, but when you’re alone writing, it’s friggin’ lonely.
Filmmaker: So Jim was more like an editor?
Jenkins: Yeah, he was a great eye. And Alexander [Payne] too. They showed up at various stages of the editing process. And also just like the moral support of it all. When Jim and I met, I went to graduate film school at NYU, but I was leaving NYU when he was entering. His version of the story is that we met for 10 years. He’d introduce himself to me over and over again for 10 years, and I never remembered who he was. And eventually, whatever, we got married.
Filmmaker: Now that’s a montage.
Jenkins: His version of the story is that he’d seen my NYU student short, which had won prizes at school. When people were applying to school, they would give them examples of the work that students were doing, and he said based on that short that he saw, he decided to go to NYU Film School and he had a crush on me. It was a film crush, which is cute.
Filmmaker: That’s a rarefied love story.
Jenkins: It’s totally rarefied. I dunno, writing is weird and lonely and makes you grumpy and strange, and it’s nice when somebody understands that. I also have a dog. That helps. Makes you go out into the world. Then your dog’s like, “Okay, I have to walk you.” There’s something about moving and thinking. A treadmill, working out, and your brain just kind of makes connections. Moving — being in cars, trains, being on treadmills, they’re all really good for the writing brain. But I haven’t written in a long time; I have to start writing. To write you really should be writing every single day to keep the muscle going. But then if you write and make a movie, the year of working on the movie goes by and then you’re supposed to start writing again and you have kind of forgotten how. So I have to start writing. I have to buy a new journal; I have to get some nice pens.
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. Jason Guerrasio interviewed The Kite Runner director Marc Forster for our Web Exclusives section of the Website. The Kite Runner is nominated for Best Original Score (Alberto Iglesias).
When Khaled Hosseini sat down to write his first novel he imagined a story that would shed light on the culture, beauty and history of his home country and have people see it in a different light than its usual portrayal on the evening news. The book Hosseini wrote was The Kite Runner and the country is Afghanistan.
Since Riverhead Books published the novel in 2003 it’s become an international success, rated the third best-seller of 2003, and was published in 38 countries. With the book, Hosseini became the first best-selling Afghan-American author.
The novel's story is spilt in two parts. The first follows the friendship of two boys in 1970s Afghanistan – Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and his father’s servant’s son Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) – as they spend their days watching The Magnificent Seven at the cinema, reading under their favorite pomegranate tree and kite fighting (a popular sport played by kids where they try to cut each other’s kites down). But when Hassan is raped by a group of boys the friendship between the two deteriorates, leaving them to go separate paths once the exodus begins due to the Soviet invasion.
The second half of the story follows an adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla), now living in San Francisco with his father, who’s married and building a successful career as an author, though still living with the shame of losing his beloved friend. One day, however, he learns something about Hassan that forces him to return to Afghanistan to make things right again. Though after years of conflict (first the Soviets, now the Taliban) Amir's homeland has transformed into rubble.
A film adaptation was inevitable, and by the time the book made its highly successful move into paperback the producers signed on Marc Forster to direct. Never the one to pigeonhole himself into any type of genre – he’s made everything from low-budget arthouse drama (Monster’s Ball) to studio Oscar-bait (Finding Neverland), as well as the upcoming 22nd installment in the James Bond franchise – the eclectic Forster focused on not only continuing Hosseini’s mission of spotlighting a forgotten Afghanistan but telling the story in a manner that didn't spoon feed the audience. With the help of screenwriter David Benioff, Foster strays from narration and instead uses the book’s complex characters, drastically changing landscapes, Afghan traditions and a testy subject matter to tell the story. The latter has received most of the headlines leading up to the release.
The rape scene, which is hardly as graphic on screen as the book’s depiction, has caused threats to the child actors involved in the scene, and to err on the side of caution the film’s distributor, Paramount Vantage, pushed the release six weeks to December 14 so they would be able to relocate the boys after their school term ended (on Dec. 3 the New York Times reported that the boys were moved to an undisclosed city in the United Arab Emirates).
On a wet Saturday afternoon in the fall, Filmmaker met Forster at the Waldorf Astoria in New York for a brief conversation about the making of the film.
TOP OF PAGE: AHMAD KHAN MAHMOODZADA & ZEKIRIA EBRAHIMI IN THE KITE RUNNER. ABOVE: MAHMOODZADA, EBRAHIMI AND DIRECTOR MARC FORSTER. PHOTOS BY PHIL BAY.
FILMMAKER: What are your thoughts on the kids in the film being threatened and having to push the film's release date?
FORSTER: When I cast the film two years ago Afghanistan at that time was in a new democratic beginning. People supported the book and us doing the film because it felt like it finally lent a voice and a face to Afghanistan and shined a light on all this culture in a very humane way. I mean, this is the first story where you come across that part of the world which doesn’t deal with violence and terrorism. It deals with healing and forgiveness. So at that time it all seemed good. But lately the situation has become more dangerous and deteriorated so the studio, and I really applaud them for doing it, they basically took the measure to push the release until after the kid’s school year end of November. It’s just better to take these precautions.
FILMMAKER: While making the film were you and the studio aware that making a film about the Muslim culture, which includes a rape scene in it, would cause some controversy, or was this a surprise?
FORSTER: To be honest, the film was always intended to be PG-13 so the scene was always meant to be impressionistic. At the time when we were there and I met with Afghani filmmakers nobody ever put a red flag out to me that this is something that their culture will reject, especially if it was done in a impressionistic way. So it came a little bit out of left field for me.
FILMMAKER: How did you find out that the kids lives may potentially be in danger?
FORSTER: The first time I heard about it was literally when a reporter spoke to me for the London Times a while back. Because when we were in China everyone was happy, we didn’t have one bit of tension and it was just a very positive experience for everybody. Then after the London Times article the producers went out there and met with the kids but it seems they’re fine at the moment. It’s hard because many people don’t have phones or e-mail to communicate, but everything at this point seems okay.
FILMMAKER: When did you read the book and how did you get involved with the project?
FORSTER: I read the book in 2003, producer Rebecca Yeldham gave me the book. At that point it hadn’t sold eight million copies, it wasn’t in paperback yet, and I just loved it and thought, How are we going to get that financed? And I thought it was a crucial story to tell because every time you hear about this country you associate it with Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban. You really don’t associate with the people and the humanity; its always a negative association. Rebecca wanted me to commit to it but there was no script or financing. Then two years later she came back to me while I was doing Stranger Than Fiction in Chicago and she sent me the first draft of the script that David Benioff did and I thought he really captured the essence of it. I thought it was really an incredible opportunity to tell such a important story and, basically, I got involved with Khalid Hassani and David to work on the screenplay and that’s how we moved forward.
FILMMAKER: How involved was Hassani in the adaptation?
FORSTER: We sent him screenplays, he sent us notes. I wanted him to be very involved because it’s his baby, it’s his story, it originated with him, so I felt it was crucial to make him part of it and work very closely. And also in regard to authenticity to really understand the culture and get the nuances and details right.
FILMMAKER: In adapting a book that’s so widely known, do you make it on the assumption that people have read it and that you don’t have to put in as much backstory as you may have with something original or lesser known?
FORSTER: I went in with the assumption that most people will have read the book but that there will be some who haven’t. For people who love the book I wanted to stay true to it and capture its spirit and essence, while at the same time for people who haven’t read the book I wanted them to understand what’s going on.
FILMMAKER: The look of the film changes drastically half way through the film as the story goes from Afghanistan before the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1979, to the present under the Taliban rule. How did you find the look for the film?
FORSTER: Basically when we were looking for locations we were scouting all over the world -- Morocco, India, Turkey, Western China -- and when Khaled saw the pictures of Xinjiang in Western China, which is right across the border of Pakistan on the other side of the mountains, he said, “Oh my God, this is the architecture, this is how Kabul looked in the '70s," so we decided to shoot there. My idea was to make it really colorful because at that time Afghanistan had color. It was much greener, it had trees, and as the movie moves on obviously the color fades. When I was in Kabul [to do research] I noticed a lot of trees are gone. There are some parts of Afghanistan, like up in the north, where it’s still very green and beautiful, but in and around Kabul so much has been destroyed.
FILMMAKER: Seeing you shot in China, what relationship did you have with the Chinese government?
FORSTER: We had to submit a script and they looked at it and once they felt the script was at an approval stage they gave us a permit to go and shoot. But it was a little tricky because we shot in a province called Xinjiang, which is where the Uighurs live, the Muslims in China, and it’s like Tibet -- it's occupied territory in a sense, so the Chinese occupy it. You still have the Uighurs living there and there’s a lot of tension between the Uighurs and the Chinese, and we were in the middle trying to make a movie. We were the first Western production ever to shoot there, so it was pretty tricky.
FILMMAKER: So did you have to create relationships with both so you didn’t get on the bad side of one group?
FORSTER: You have the permit from Bejing, from the central government to shoot but then there’s the local government, and you have to get their approval, so it became very difficult to shoot in certain locations.
FILMMAKER: So in a way you had to become a diplomat to make the film?
FORSTER: In a way. It was a nightmare logistically.
FILMMAKER: One major difference I found in the movie from the book is that the book is told in te first person, but there is no narrator in the film. What was your reason behind this decision?
FORSTER: I never wanted narration. I feel like it’s the cheap way out and I thought it would be much better to have it through narrative storytelling. I felt it would by my job to capture the essence of the descriptions and images in the book and have them shown in the actors faces and in landscapes.
FILMMAKER: Can you talk about how you cast the film?
FORSTER: I worked with Kate Dowd, who I used for Finding Neverland, and she did such a good job finding the kids for that movie that I felt that I should work with her for this. We searched everywhere in the West, all the Afghan refugees were settling down; Frankfurt in Germany, Freemont, London, Holland, but we didn’t find the people I felt Khaled wrote about in the book. So we went to Kabul and Kate stayed there for two months before I arrived and she saw thousands of kids and other actors. When I got there we went to two schools and I saw two kids at each school and and that's how I found the kids. Out of the adults I found Amir first. I saw United 93 and he isn’t doing anything [in the movie], he’s just sitting in that chair and I thought his performance was so brilliant that I felt he’s really fascinating so I brought him in. But I told him, "I’m going to Kabul to see the kids and if I find the counterpart of the kid for you we can do this." And while in Kabul I found Zekeria Ebrahimi, he was very introverted and shy but I thought because of that he was right for the part as he plays a character that has a secret he carries around.
FILMMAKER: I can’t let you leave without asking you about Bond 22. What’s the status and what interested you to get involved with the franchise?
FORSTER: Oh, that’s a whole separate interview. [laughs] We start shooting in mid-December. And I got involved because I think Daniel Craig is great and the last one paved a way to all these new options for Bond and that really excited me be a part of it.
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. Scott Macaulay interviewed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly director Julian Schnabel for the Fall '07 issue. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is nominated for Best Director (Julian Schnabel), Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood), Editing (Juliette Welfling) and Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski).
Most films draw us in with some promise of possibility. Buy a ticket, sit back and have your world expanded for a couple of hours. Be someone new and go places you’ll probably never see in your own life.
But there’s another sort of movie that derives its drama from the opposite journey. Movies as diverse as Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot and Gary Tarn’s recent doc Black Sun place the audience within a world that’s drastically — and painfully — smaller than their own. Through the strength of their storytelling, these films both dramatize their protagonists’ quests to conquer the challenges of their new worlds while confronting viewers with the existential questions posed by their dilemmas. Julian Schnabel’s third feature, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is a challenging, sagacious and unexpectedly sensuous addition to this genre. Adapted from the best-selling memoir, the film tells the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor at French Elle, who is one day stricken with locked-in syndrome. Although his mind functions perfectly, he is paralyzed except for the ability to move one eye. In a harrowing tour de force reel of filmmaking, Schnabel shoots the beginning of the film almost entirely from Bauby’s viewpoint, forcing us into the most extreme identification with his character.
As the film progresses, however, it opens up. The details of this world — the color of the columns in the hospital hallway, the hue of the linoleum on the floor — seduce us. Bauby develops relationships with a series of spectacular nurses who not only teach him to communicate but also enable him to write the book the film is based on. By the film’s end, we are living comfortably within Bauby’s world, like him no longer scared, and a simple change of season provides all the excitement and sense of accomplishment we need.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is Schnabel’s third film dealing with death and an artist, won him the Best Director award at Cannes this year (and will be released by Miramax in November). It caps a typically busy year for him that included not only his art direction of the newly reopened Gramercy Hotel in New York City but also his live theatrical staging of Lou Reed’s Berlin album in New York, Sydney and Los Angeles. In Toronto, he not only screened The Diving Bell and the Butterfly but also his film Berlin, which should also see a release sometime in the next year.
TOP OF PAGE: MAX VON SYDOW (LEFT) AND MATHIEU ALMARIC IN THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY. PHOTO BY ETIENNE GEORGE. ABOVE: THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY DIRECTOR JULIAN SCHNABEL. PHOTO BY HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.
Filmmaker: I read somewhere that you dubbed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a “treatise about dying.” As an artist making a movie about another artist confronting mortality, how did your own feelings about, and perhaps fears of death and dying, affect your approach?
Schnabel: Well fortunately or unfortunately, I think coming to grips with [the process of dying] is part of what it is to be alive. It takes up a good part of being alive, in fact. So I don’t really separate his experience from mine — or yours — and that’s probably what’s good about the movie. But I guess the notion of transgressing death by making art probably had something to do with the making of this movie too.
Filmmaker: You had a certain distance because it was someone else’s story?
Schnabel: I’ve never been able to separate intellect from feeling. People who can do that — I don’t trust them. Fred Hughes, who used to work for Andy Warhol, had MS and got progressively worse over the years. We were friends and when he was lying in his house and couldn’t speak anymore, I used to read to him. His nurse, Darin McCormick, gave me this book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, as a gift. One year my kids were out of school for Christmas, and we were going to Mexico. My father, who died on January 17, 2004, [was sick] and I couldn’t bring him with us. I thought of who could take care of him [when I was away] and Darin McCormick came to mind. He came to my studio one day in December, and it was the same day that the script of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly arrived. So I wasn’t analytical at all about it. [Making the movie] had very much to do with me trying to deal with my father’s death. The movie is really a self-help device.
Filmmaker: When you say “the script arrived,” what do you mean? Had you been developing it, or was it something offered to you by a producer?
Schnabel: They had asked Johnny Depp if he wanted to play this role and he wanted me to direct the movie so the script was sent to me. [That script] was written by Ron Harwood, and then I worked on it. Like I said, I had had the book for some years, but I didn’t plan on making the movie. I did think about making a movie about Fred, who I knew pretty well. I thought, here he is lying in this bed, and I know all the things that he did and what an active life he had. The idea of this person being still and the audience knowing what is going on in his head — that’s a structure I like. I had written a script for the book Perfume: The Story of a Murderer that was similar in a way because the main character had a sense of smell that was extraordinary. He could travel through his olfactory senses in the same way that Jean-Dominique Bauby could travel with his imagination and his memory. So I applied some of the [devices] I used in the script for Perfume to the script that I received that day from [producer] Kathy Kennedy.
Filmmaker: How much did you change it?
Schnabel: I made it into French — it was written in English. I couldn’t see having English and American people making believe they have French accents speaking in English and then watching a French audience watch the movie in English reading French subtitles. I also thought it was very important to go to France and be at the hospital where this [story] took place, where Jean-Do actually was. The author wrote it based on the book, but I went there and met his best friends and talked to them and found out a lot of things that made me change things or made things make more sense to me. For example when his wife says to him, “Do you want to see your kids?” and he says, “No” — in the script he originally says “Yes,” but the fact of the matter is that he didn’t want to see his kids. Anne-Marie Perrier, who was his best friend, picked him up in an ambulance one day and took him to see another man with locked-in syndrome who lived at home with his family. The two of them sat facing each other and then at the end of the day he was taken back to the hospital. After seeing how another man who had locked-in syndrome could still be a father, I think he realized that he was still a father. Even a shadow of a father is still a father, and I think he came to understand that later.
Filmmaker: How much of the characters of the nurses are like those real people? To some degree, the film almost has a quality like Fellini’s 8½ with this artist meditating all of these beautiful and interesting women.
Schnabel: The first lady you see is his real nurse, and his physiotherapist, this guy Daniel, the one who is holding him in the swimming pool — he was his nurses’ aide. All the medical details are probably about 95 percent accurate. We had people [in the film] doing what they really did with Jean-Do — they were the actual people who worked with him. [But referring to the principal nurses and the <8½ reference,] I think that’s true. It’s my version obviously of how I see these people. The [real] people are one thing and the people in the movie are something else. What I was more interested in was the bigger picture of what he achieved rather than how his girlfriend and the mother of his kids felt about each other. The movie ended up being about men and women and the way women were able to really be many things to him. He needed all of them in his life for different reasons. One was able to teach him the alphabet, one supplied him with some kind of connection to his kids, another one with a fantasy life. One helped him finish his book.
Filmmaker: Why was it important to shoot in that exact hospital? Your film feels, quite precisely, art-directed — it doesn’t have a doc-like feel at all.
Schnabel: I thought it was very important to go to the hospital where Jean-Do actually was. The tide goes in and out about 500 meters, back and forth, every day there. It looks like you’re on the moon. [Jean-Do] wrote that you’re on the far side of life when you’re out there, and that’s definitely part of this [story]. I think I saw a lot of Antonioni inside of the arch of the hospital and the landscape around there, so [his films] popped into my mind sometimes too. I also built the room that would work for me in the hospital.
Filmmaker: You sort of turned the hospital into a stage?
Schnabel: Yes. I made the floor with linoleum squares because I thought, okay, when people talk to you, well maybe you don’t want to look at them, even if they’re talking to you. You can look at the floor, or their hand, or their leg. Jean-Do could look up at the fluorescent lights and the ceiling, particularly if somebody was telling him something he didn’t want to hear.
Filmmaker: Your films have always mixed score music with very memorable source cues that seem to be drawn from all over. How do you select the music for your films and at what point do those selections occur?
Schanabel: I always listen to music, carry it around with me; I know [certain songs] are going to pop up [in my movies] some time or another. I always thought “Pale Blue Eyes” was going to play in that scene on that boat. Years ago I was going to meet my wife — I was in Cannes and rented this Mercedes convertible and drove 110 miles an hour to meet her listening to “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” by U2, and I knew that I was going to use that song with that girl’s hair flying around way before I shot this movie. Paul Cantelon [who composed the score] was a child prodigy and then was hit by a car and had total amnesia. Years later, he was playing the piano and said, “Hey Mom, listen to this,” and she said, “That’s Bach.” So he identified with this [Jean-Do’s] life and his problem. One day he came to me with these preludes he had written. One of them was perfect, so that was it. There’s some Nino Rota music [in the film] and also Nelson Riddle playing the theme to Lolita. Whenever I would watch the dailies I’d play music and see how things fit. You try to invent other kinds of music, but many times I’ll go back to something I thought of originally. In Before Night Falls I used the Popul Vuh music from Aguirre: the Wrath of God, and there was another bit of Ennio Morricone from The Battle of Algiers.
Filmmaker: You said you spoke to the real people who were involved in this story, but obviously the one person you could not speak to was Jean-Do himself. Did making this film reveal to you something you had not surmised about his character?
Schnabel: I didn’t realize that he probably felt he was selected instead of cursed. It was as if some, I don’t know, God or whoever, said: “You can be a great artist and have no body or you can be perfectly healthy and normal but you’ll be an ordinary person: Which one would you like to be?” I think he was an ordinary guy who was talented when he was a magazine editor but he became somebody else when he became the author of this work.
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. Howard Feinstein interviewed Sicko director Michael Moore for our Web Exclusives section of the Website. Sicko is nominated for Best Feature Documentary.
Timely is the release of Michael Moore’s long-gestating Sicko, an exposé of the U.S. health insurance industry, especially its efforts to withhold benefits to subscribers. Americans rank health insurance as their number two concern after the war in Iraq. Democratic presidential candidates are whipping up health care plans; so far all rely on the private carriers that Moore skewers. (He does a good job of pillorying Hillary, who shifted from advocacy to partnership with the big companies.)
Some of the best bits are the archival material chronicling the momentum toward HMOs, which outline the conflict of interest between politicos and pharmaceutical firms and HMOs, and testimony from whistleblowers like Dr. Linda Peeno, whom Humana employed to find loopholes to deny payment. Dr. Peeno is but a small piece of a pitiful, immoral systemic problem. We are the only industrialized western nation without universal care, and have a high infant mortality rate to boot. Moore, who believes health care should be in the hands of the people and not in the private sector, sticks to the topic of insured Americans, mostly middle-class. He claims the 50,000,000 uninsured would be another film.
Moore's gimmicks come off calculated, perhaps the result of collaborating with hands-on producers. The Dick-and-Jane-like voiceovers accompanying examples of individuals being absurdly screwed by the system feels imposed for cuteness, as does the Star Wars-ian scrolling of the litany of preexisting conditions that eliminate an applicant’s eligibility for coverage. What is most troubling is the presentation, for purposes of comparison, of health care in four other countries: the U.K., France, Cuba, and Canada. Granted, in each case every citizen is entitled to free treatment, and longevity in all these places is higher than in the U.S. Yet Moore glosses over kinks in their systems, so much so that for some it undermines his valid arguments about the state of affairs here. Many fed-up Brits choose the private sector, Canadians often come to the U.S. for surgery, and as for Cuba’s pharmacies being well-stocked, that is a myth that I can personally attest to (unless you are a member of the elite or a diplomat). Prescriptions si, medicine no. And though he should be saluted for paying attention to the Ground Zero rescuers who have been abandoned by our system even though they contracted horrid lung diseases on site, he knows full well that the government hounds anyone who goes to Cuba without official permission.
Nevertheless, Moore is passionate about the issue. Many of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies put up red flags to their employees warning them about Moore. With their grotesque profits and cynical attitude, they have good reason to be nervous. The Weinstein Company will open Sicko in limited release this weekend.
Labels: Web Exclusives
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THE JIGSAW MAN
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