Monday, November 24, 2008
The Talented Mr. Ripley by way of Somerset Maugham, Henry May Long is a drama about two men, Henry May and Henry Long, set in the upper crust and under belly of 1887 New York City. Long is obsessed with the golden child May, and via constant surveillance has come to know his secret debt and drug addiction. He convinces May to care for him for three months, as an illness takes his toll, in exchange for money to repay May’s debts. Hiding out, along together, their friendship expands and May begins to find meaning in his own limited life of guaranteed success and leisure. Long intends to set sail on a whaling ship at the end of the term, and May comes with to see him off, only to be confronted with Long’s own web of lies and sordid secrets.
Randall Sharp, the film’s writer and director, had been directing theater for 26 years when she decided to make the film. She runs, along with the co-star and producer of the film Brian Barnhart, the Axis Theatre company in New York’s West Village. Most of Axis’ company members appear in the film, which is playing for a brief run this week at the Sunshine Landmark theater.
Filmmaker: How did the film come together?
Sharp: I made up the story on a car ride to Woodstock one day. I thought, what would happen if someone was willing to do anything to get someone else to pay attention to them? What if that decision led to the other person learning to value their life as if every day was their last? I’ve been running an experimental theatre company, Axis, for about twelve years, and I took it to them. We developed the script almost the same way as our plays – writing parts for certain actors in the company, reading it through together, seeing what worked and what didn’t. I was friends with [executive producer] Wren Arthur who was working for Robert Altman at the time, and slowly it all got pulled together. We shot it in 20 days with a little over $1 million dollars.
Filmmaker: Did people laugh you out of the room when you said you wanted to make a low-budget period piece? How did you accomplish it?
Sharp: It all worked out as sort of a miracle. I’m a first time director with zero film experience, and I’m also like a 19th-century period freak. I wanted it to be as perfectly accurate as it could be. As we started crewing up, people started materializing who were just really interested in reproducing that period on a shoestring. Everyone involved, from the producers to the AD to the DP, everybody – was was so excited by this immense challenge and just pulling for the movie. Especially when these [production and costume] designers who I didn’t even know arrived with this flame of passion to recreate this period for me – that was an incredible gift. They became as obsessive as me.
We shot most of our interiors in the Lockwood Mansion in Connecticut, where they shot Stepford Wives. Some of it we left untouched; some stuff we had to dress, like we turned an old bowling alley into a bar; we dressed some rooms entirely from scratch. We shot the seaside scenes in Mystic, Connecticut – they have a recreated 19th-century whaling town with real buildings, which was convenient. The boat scenes we shot on the last wooden whaling ship in existence – that was a real honor.
The actors came very well versed in that period. We’d done a play about Hawthorne and Melville’s relationship. I think once you put on those clothes it’s pretty easy to get into those mannerisms.
Filmmaker: How did you work with your cinematographer to keep it historically accurate?
Sharp: I knew a fair amount about actual lighting sources from the period – believe me, there’s a book about everything. Some houses were starting to have light bulbs and electric light; a richer family like the Mays would definitely have had some form of electric. Other houses would have only had candles. Some of those scenes Ben [Wolf] actually lit with nothing but candles, which was terrifying but came out beautifully.
I started watching historical movies and paying attention. Like a room set in 1860’s that’s brilliantly illuminated -- where is this light coming from? We wanted to be very careful that all the light was accurate and motivated. We talked at length about light for every scene, some ad nauseum, like our night street scene for instance. It turns out that there was actually incandescent gas lights on the streets of New York back then. So we did our gas lighting look and flicker effects.
Filmmaker: What were some other challenges of filming this on location?
Sharp: Airplanes and cars. Airplanes and cars. So many shots were ruined by planes. Brooklyn is, of course, on the flight path to JFK. We were locking up traffic and staring at the sky simultaneously, telling cars to stop and watching for airplanes. Also it was freezing, freezing cold. Our mansion wasn’t heated, we’re out on these docks with parkas thrown over the costumes… People were in pain.
Filmmaker: In terms of the story, why did you choose this period?
Sharp: I felt like setting it in that period would wake up the story again. Otherwise it’s just another guy shooting heroin, another gay guy who loved a straight guy. Also it’s a way to say, have we really come that far? These people are suffering back in this period, and there are people suffering in exactly the same way, today. Some guy messed up and spent his father’s money, accidentally started taking Laudanum, I mean have you not heard that story last week? Problems with your social position, with not being rich… these are universal, timeless problems. I thought that maybe people could look at the story with a new eye, because it was set in another world. We wanted to set it in that period to show that people back then are exactly the same as they are now. Death walked next to them more than it does now, but basically people are the same, bumbling through their lives trying to get love.
To me, the 19th-century is the tipping point of the modern world. It’s like the last time we had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. 1887 is only a few years before World War 1, and then only a few years after that until the atomic bomb. Some people’s lives spanned that entire period, from what could really be the pre-industrial past to what was the modern future.
Filmmaker: What was different about directing film than directing theatre?
Sharp: Actually shooting the movie is easier than directing a play, because you only have to make it correct once, in one tiny small square. It’s like being a machinist in a way; you’re pointing this precise machine at something to make it capture the perfect moment.
What’s harder than directing a play is editing a movie. That’s more similar to directing a play. You’re looking at it from every angle at once. You have to keep taking out stuff that you don’t want to and putting in stuff that you don’t think is perfect, and then realizing after the fact that maybe you didn’t get the right shot. That struggle feels like watching an actor during a performance. An actor onstage is a loose cannon, and you’re sitting in the control booth going ‘why aren’t they doing what I told them to do?”
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about women in the movie, who all seem desperately dependent on the men. Was that a period comment or was it just part of the narrative?
Sharp: I suppose there’s really only a few women in the film, and the two central ones, they both have their own money. There are some women who, even if they are supposedly independent, will never be independent because they’re always gonna look to a guy. I sometimes wonder, what would have happened to me back then? When women who were not working class were literally supposed to sit in the house all day. If you didn’t do that you were hysterical, you were dosed up with something and sent away.
Filmmaker: I thought the ending was quite tragic – Henry May tries to admit his mistakes and own up to his problems, and his family won’t let him talk about it.
Sharp: Exactly. And in his hand he holds his prison, [a figurine model of his house that Henry Long made for him.] I wanted to look at the frivolity of a life of extreme leisure. When Henry May comes back and he’s had this awakening, they’re still talking about the same thing – ‘let’s go to this party.’ It’s a life of dissipation.
Filmmaker: That was really affecting, to realize that he’d wanted to get in trouble all along, that May had wanted that freedom as much as Henry Long.
Sharp: Yeah, that was a question during shooting, of that happy ending – ‘maybe he gets out later on…’ For the people who live in the May Mansion, every day is just another wisp, another veil over nothingness. When he was living with someone he thought was going to die, he started to live a life where that wasn’t the case, where every day mattered. The probable ending would be that he marries that girl, and they throw fabulous parties and become the most fashionable couple in town, and he becomes more and more dead.... But you can always hope that maybe he decides to leave, after the movie ends.
Filmmaker: Have audiences reacted to the story in any surprising ways?
Sharp: We did a lot of test screenings and workshops, so now people seem to respond to the film the way we intended, yeah. My favorite Q & A question though was, after a test screening, the lights come up, everyone’s silent for a moment, and someone says, “So they’re both named Henry?”
Labels: Web Exclusives
Friday, November 21, 2008
All of Catherine Hardwicke’s four feature films –- Thirteen, The Lords of Dogtown, The Nativity Story and now Twilight –- have been about teenagers. They have also all been about real people, and all but Thirteen cover stories and characters already known to the public. Twilight is a teen vampire love story based faithfully on the Stephanie Meyer’s book trilogy, starring Kristen Stewart as the human Bella and Robert Pattison as the "vegetarian" vampire Edward Cullen who loves her too much to bite her. The books are coveted and obsessed over by young girls across this country, who are assembling in screaming, fainting mobs to see the film.
Twilight opens alongside other recent entries to the star-crossed vampire love genre, notably HBO’s True Blood and the Norwegian film Let The Right One In. The metaphor is popular because it makes a medical case out of sexual tension, turning everyday adolescent longing into superpowers beyond anyone’s control. Hardwicke knows why her audience is freaking out -- they want to lose themselves in something as big as their feelings.
Filmmaker: The romance is so powerful and the chemistry between Belle and Edward is so intense, how do you get scenes to that steamy place?
Hardwicke: Of course the first thing is the casting. We had five guys come in and read with Kristin one day, at my house. Kristen knew on the spot [that it would be Robert.] I sat down and watched the tapes, and she was right, it was so obvious -– they were like two magnets. You could just see that each one was fascinated with what the other one was doing. The other thing is to create an environment, amidst the crazy weather conditions and chaos of the set, where the actors feel comfortable enough to have that connection. They were both trying to work on a level where they were inside the scene, breathing with each other. We closed the set to as much crew as possible, tried to make those scenes as intimate as just me and Kristen and Rob hanging out, alone together. Then they figured out how to really focus and be there.
Filmmaker: Did you think while making the film about the metaphors that vampirism represents?
Hardwicke: We thought a lot about it as a metaphor for lust, uncontrollable lust. Edward is suffering from these urges to consume Belle, but he has to balance it with his deep caring for her. I think that’s a teenage thing -- suddenly you’ve got these urges, your brain saying one thing and your body saying another. But you might get arrested if you followed what your body told you to do, if [you] went and ripped someone’s clothes off. We all had those battles as teenagers, between desire and consequences. The vampire certainly has those battles, trying not to kill and wanting to so badly -- that’s where you get this incredibly intense sexual tension.
Filmmaker: Obviously this genre has been played out a lot on TV, and I thought this movie avoided many of its visual clichés in terms of how it was shot and its production design. What thoughts went into your visual design, and what did you consciously try to avoid?
Hardwicke: I’ve actually never seen one episode of those supernatural TV shows, like Heroes or Buffy, so I don’t know how it’s different. But we shot so much of this movie outside in nature, and I don’t think that’s too common in TV. We shot in Portland on location; there was never any discussion of shooting in LA on a stage. The book is all about the power of the Olympic Rainforest in the Pacific Northwest and this massive cloud cover [that protects the vampires from the sun.] Most of the movie is really out in that forest, up on that cliff, out in that river. Location scouting, I was literally on three mile hikes in snow shoes, running around like a maniac hiker trying to find the coolest spots.
Filmmaker: How does your background as a production designer inform your directing?
Hardwicke: Well, initially, it was hard to get the chance to direct –- most [producers and studio execs] would never trust you to direct from production design -- they just don’t get the connection. So you have to make your own chance. But in reality, it’s very helpful because as a production designer you’re on set sometimes before the director. You are physically out there pre-visualizing the entire movie and designing how and where you can shoot. For example on Three Kings, George Clooney was still doing ER, so we had to find Iraq an hour flight away from LA. So I’m going all around Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, figuring out where I could build a village, what palm trees or mountains do I have to add or subtract with CGI to make this Iraq, what can I build in this desert. A lot of it is learning how to present your ideas, to make a plan and communicate your ideas. That’s the same with directing. I’d come down from some forbidding mountain that nobody wanted to shoot on and say, "I need to film on this mountain, and here’s why – look at this picture and see how fabulous it will be." You have to be always selling and convincing and pitching people that it’s worth the effort to go do something you know will be amazing.
Filmmaker: Was this a transition from independent film to the studio world?
Hardwicke: I started as a designer in the Roger Corman world and eventually worked on big budgets like Vanilla Sky and Three Kings. Thirteen was $1.5 million and then the next one, Dogtown, was $25 million. Whatever the budget, you figure out the same thing -– "If this is all the money I have, how can I make it look as good, feel as good, give the actors the most time possible to make the scenes good." This is actually a smaller budget than The Nativity Story. Nativity we had to shoot in Morocco and all over the world, and that was $40 million. This budget was slightly less than that, and we couldn’t do everything we wanted; like, we had stunts I storyboarded that we had to cut for the budget.
Filmmaker: I read that you started on the project with a different script, a studio script, and did a complete rewrite.
Hardwicke: Another studio had been planning to make the film, and I got that script from Summit. Belle, who’s this clumsy, shy girl in the book, was a superstar track athlete; the script had Belle and Edward on Jetskis running from the FBI -- it just went off on its own wild thing. Maybe it would have been a cool teen vampire action movie, but it had nothing to do with the book. So I said, "Let’s make it for the people who love the books; let’s start over and make this for them."
Filmmaker: Is the scale and intensity of the fans' expecations on this one a new experience for you as a director?
Hardwicke: Dogtown was about real people, and even with Thirteen, that was about real people who were on the set every day. You know, with Nativity, everyone has their idea of what an angel should look like. Any time you make a movie, it’s coming from some existing place in the world, and people are going to be invested in what you’re doing. Obviously it’s scary, you want everybody to love everything, but you know you can’t please everybody. Especially on a movie like this with the fans and people who are so passionate about it -– you know there’s going to be lovers, haters, arguments, and I think that’s kind of cool. I mean, if someone’s gonna spend $38 million dollars on a film, it better not just be so I can watch it in my office.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Back in 2004, director Darren Lynn Bousman was taking his violent horror script The Desperate to a number of studios, only to be told it was too grisly for mainstream viewers. Enter Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who loved The Desperate and immediately contacted Bousman about reworking the script into a sequel to their Saw franchise. This began a partnership that saw Bousman direct three successful Saw films in a row.
Taking a break from the infamous horror series, Bousman returns with a long gestating labor of love: Repo! The Genetic Opera, a futuristic horror musical based on a play previously staged by Bousman in L.A. and New York. With a cast featuring Sarah Brightman, Paul Sorvino and Paris Hilton among others, Repo's bizarre hybrid of slasher, comic-book and gothic sensibilities must be seen (and heard) to be believed.
We spoke to Darren Lynn Bousman about the twists and turns of getting his quirky horror musical made and into theatres.
TOP OF PAGE: SARAH BRIGHTMAN IN REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA. PHOTO BY: STEVE WILKIE. ABOVE: REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA CO-WRITER-DIRECTOR DARREN LYNN BOUSMAN. PHOTO BY: STEVE WILKIE.
Filmmaker: So Repo is finally opening theatrically.
Bousman: It’s weird, I think it’s going to miss people’s radar because even thought it’s coming out theatrically no one knows about it! It’s fucked up that we’re coming out and the majority of the population has never heard of Repo. In fact, I’m introducing the film at NYU tonight and every college I’ve gone to I say, “Raise you’re hand if you’ve never heard of Repo,” and I would say 97 percent of the hands go up. It’s sad -- we have no marketing dollars.
Filmmaker: There is such a specific audience that would see this film if they knew about it. Are you trying to reach them through targeted grassroots promotional stuff?
Bousman: That’s all we’re doing! Basically it’s myself and two other people doing it. We run the website, we print out flyers every night. Every single day I’m online on chat rooms talking to people about the movie. This isn’t Lionsgate doing it; this is us. Here’s the deal. There are those who believe that there is no market for this movie. They’re completely wrong, there is a huge market for this movie and we’ve seen the market. We’ve done screenings all across the United States, and some in Europe, and every time not only are they sold out but there are lines wrapped around the block! We have kids dressing up as the characters of the movie singing the songs in the theater and I don’t think anyone ever expected that. The great thing about Repo, and I hope this continues to happen, is it upsets a lot of people. I read this morning people were giving it zero stars and saying it was the worst movie they’ve ever seen in their life. They said that there was not one redeeming value in the movie and that it’s horrible. But there are other people who are giving it a “10,” saying it’s the most innovative, original thing. I’d rather it polarize people than have it [split] people right down the middle line. If you think about it when Rocky Horror Picture Show first came out 35 years ago it failed, it was torn apart by critics, people thought it was ridiculous and then all of a sudden people started showing up in theaters dressed in costumes and singing the songs. Now here it is 35 years later and it’s still playing, it’s stilling playing midnight screenings everywhere. We’re not Rocky Horror, I wish we were, but I’m hoping that the community aspect of Rocky Horror comes with us.
Filmmaker: I found the film really overwhelming at first, but then later on the songs came back into my head and the movie really haunted me. It’s the kind of movie that you might not get the first time but that you might be lured to go see again.
Bousman: That’s what I hoped for. This is not a kind of movie that you walk out of the theater and say, “What did you think?” It’s more, “What the fuck did I just watch?”
Filmmaker: I think having a good score is really part of it. Also you’ve got Sarah Brightman in it.
Bousman: Sarah Brightman, she is goth.
Filmmaker: [laughs] Yeah, she is goth.
Bousman: I don’t think that people think of Sarah Brightman and immediately go to goth, but hanging out with Sarah for a year now, that’s who she is. She has a really dark side to her. I think the cast is extremely important because, again, we don’t have money behind the marketing. How do you sell a movie? You sell a movie with a poster. And when you look at that poster it’s, “What the fuck, Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton, that’s a movie that I’d want to see!” If I never saw anything else I’d want to see it from purely off the “what the fuck?” factor. I think that’s our best marketing tool is the cast names because they’re so weird. The movie appeals to the fringe, it appeals to the goth-y outside-the-box [crowd], the gay crowd, the theater crowd, and so we tried to target those markets that appeal to all of those people. If people show up and see it it’ll expand and that’s what I’m hoping right now.
Filmmaker: I get the feeling the DVD will explode.
Bousman: Well, I hope so. But having done three Saw movies, those are movies that are fun to watch in the theater but you don’t lose anything watching them on video. Repo is not a movie -- it’s an event. I’m not saying a cheesy tagline here. Imagine if someone watched Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time on a laptop computer. They would probably hate it. This is a movie that is like a concert. It’s all about the experience of listening to a rock opera.
Filmmaker: Repo has a really striking look, what did you shoot on?
Bousman: We shot on the Genesis HD by a d.p. named Joe White, a good friend of mine. We went to USC Film School and the budget of the movie was less than Saw III and Saw IV and those were both small budget movies. I think Saw III was $8 million, Saw IV was $9 million. What was great about [the Genesis] was we could do lookup tables, which I’ve never used before. I could dial the film’s look while shooting it so I’m looking at the movie on a video screen the way it’s going to look in the [theater]. And of course the production design had a lot to do with [the look]. David Hackell, who directed Saw V, did the production design on this and it looks cool. I mean these sets are like basically cardboard cutouts, they’re nothing, but he did such an amazing job on it with no money.
Filmmaker: Whatever looked fake kind of fits into the film’s comic book aesthetic.
Bousman: That’s why we went with the comic book look -- we knew that we were not gonna have the money to do things real so we embraced being crazy and weird. We embraced looking cheesy. In an example, one of our first ideas for the set design was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was just cardboard cutouts and you know they are cardboard cutouts but they put such great detail in those things. As long as you stay with that [aesthetic] the entire way it can work. There’s a scene in the movie where Anthony Head is cutting someone who’s strapped to a chair and all these people around him are singing. Well, that set is plastic. We ran out of money, we had this big song to shoot and so the production designer said, “All I got, Darren, is plastic.” But it works for the movie that we’re in a plastic room. It looks cool. I think as a filmmaker you have to embrace, those limitations. The worst thing to do is to strive for a “10” and reach a “4.”
Filmmaker: Did you have any difficulties attracting actors to such an unusual project?
Bousman: No. Every single one of those actors were my first choice except one, Sarah Brightman. She was never thought of because we thought she was out of our reach. We had another opera person cast but she became really diva-like and we lost her a week before the recording. Someone threw out Sarah Brightman’s name and I laughed but she read it and loved it and was on a plane two days later from South Africa. She said that she felt more comfortable doing this movie than she does in a lot of other things she’s ever done because this is the world that she lives in.
Filmmaker: Repo is pretty graphically violent. And just last week there were reports of violence at theaters playing the recent Saw release. Your thoughts?
Bousman: [Violence in storytelling] has been around since the beginning of time. The early written word talked about serial killers, murder, and violence. You look at any artwork back in the days and it was organs being ripped out. The difference now is just that there are more ways to promote it. It’s always been there and so when people say Saw causes violence, no that’s completely wrong. Saw doesn’t cause violence, violence has always been in art, and it’s never going away.
Labels: Web Exclusives