Friday, January 30, 2009
In connection with the Film Society of Lincoln Center's new series "Mavericks and Outsiders: Positif Celebrates American Cinema," Jamie Stuart spoke recently with Positif's editor, the noted French film critic and author Michel Ciment.
FILMMAKER: I probably know you best from your Kubrick book. What was that like, having the ability to interview him over the years?
CIMENT: Well, it came very naturally. I don't know why. I think he had a piece of mine translated from 1968 -- a long essay I did on the work of Kubrick. It was probably the first essay in France to try to show the strands of Kubrick's work and the connections between all the films. People were always skeptical about the unity of his work; he was changing all the time, his style and form and so on. I was on the list of people he would approve to do interviews with on A Clockwork Orange. He liked what I did. He liked the interview. He liked the conversation. He would call me regularly for information on various things he wanted to know: Distribution in France, exhibition, technical things, people who could help him and so on. And then, I met him regularly -- I was not a friend of his, I don't think anybody was really friends with Kubrick -- but he was not at all aloof, he was extremely charming. I found him one of the best people to interview, though of course it was a little intimidating because you'd have such a short time. But he was very professional. We'd talk quite a lot on the phone, that's true. And then, I wrote this book in 1980. My wife said Kubrick called, he'd got the book. He called me back at 9 in the evening and said, "I received your book. It is the most beautiful book I have seen on a film director. I would like to order 400 copies, if you could get me a price." There's not much else to say, except of my fascination with Kubrick's work. But it went on quite easily. I think he knew my book on Kazan; he was a great admirer of Kazan. I did a book with Joseph Losey; he knew Losey too, and Losey was a great fan of Kubrick. I think the fact that I was a professor -- I was teaching at the university -- I think he appreciated that. I think he was a little suspicious of the press in general. He'd had bad experiences: Interviews that had been published without his approval, or they'd say things that he didn't really say. So I think the fact that I was a scholar, for him, it made him more respectful.
FILMMAKER: What makes Positif different from other film magazines?
CIMENT: Well, I think, first of all, it's part of history now. It started in '52, like Cahiers du Cinéma, in '51 -- two magazines with more than half a century of life. I think it's also a magazine which has established a very strong relationship with directors, because I think they felt that we were not conditioned by ideology or by clannishness, and so on. It's a magazine that is fueled by a love of cinema. We are not poseurs trying to be Maoist or structuralist. We really react with a passion for film. After that, of course, we exercise our intellectual curiosities to analyze the films. But before that, our first reaction is not to wonder how we'll look if we like a certain film: Can we like American films while the Vietnam war is going on? Can we like this film which is telling a story when it is the end of the story in films? As Godard said, "We can't tell stories anymore." We have never been into this thing which makes magazines very popular among intellectual circles, because it's always flattering to say, I am intolerant, or, I believe in this. We have never been -- even if we are accused of eclecticism -- we don't care. What fuels us, again, is this love of cinema, curiosity, openness toward foreign cultures. The magazine was known in the '50s for looking for new directors from Czechoslovakia, Poland, and later, in Brazil. The next issue is about new Belgian cinema. It is open to new forms and styles, and at the same time to study the past -- to make connections between the past and present, commercial cinema and sometimes very peculiar types of cinema. As you can see in these selections ("Mavericks and Outsiders: Positif Celebrates American Cinema"), we have David Holzman's Diary. We're difficult to pigeonhole -- it's the freedom of the magazine that makes it difficult to pigeonhole. But I think on the whole, when you look back on 55 years of issues and articles, I think it has an image -- an image due to the fact that several generations of critics live together at Positif; we don't have one generation which kicks out the previous one. Young people come to Positif when they have read the magazine for 5 or 10 years, and they decide they want to write for this particular magazine because it has this kind of spirit, this kind of freedom. So, therefore, there is a sort of unity, due to...in spite of the 70 year-old critics and the 25 year-old critics -- they belong to the same culture, though they are different, of course. The young people have their own ideas, a new vision of things, as do the older ones. It creates a rather unique experience.
FILMMAKER: It's impartial.
CIMENT: I don't know. We are pretty partial. We are partial on our own criteria. We are partial to our own individualism. We are not partial because of the trends. It's true that we are, perhaps, unfair with some films while praising other films. But the case of Kubrick is a very interesting case. Truffaut was established immediately as a great director. But, I think he is not as great a director as Kubrick. However, Kubrick was despised and neglected by a lot of critics even in America -- remember Sarris and Pauline Kael, how they reacted to 2001. So Positif was always a fan of Kubrick, as soon as Paths of Glory -- which was dismissed by Godard. So Kubrick or John Boorman -- I also wrote a book on Boorman -- they are very much what we try to be as critics: They have not decided to be this type of filmmaker, a filmmaker with a signature that you can immediately recognize. It was much more difficult for Kubrick to be accepted as an artist than for Truffaut or Jacques Demy. Everybody loved Demy immediately -- The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was immediately hailed. But The Shining or Full Metal Jacket or even till the end of his life -- Eyes Wide Shut was dismissed. So that's what we liked. We liked the freedom that he had. We try to, in our modest way, to behave the same, as critics.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Opening this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival is Michael Imperioli’s directorial debut, The Hungry Ghosts, a gripping look at five New Yorkers all struggling to satisfy their physical and spiritual needs while facing down their own – and society’s – flaws.
Best known for his Emmy-winning portrayal of Christopher on The Sopranos, Imperioli has over the course of his 20-year career worked with such top directors as Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. He’s also built a sub-career as a screenwriter, having penned numerous episodes of The Sopranos and Lee’s Summer of Sam, which originally Imperioli was going to direct. For The Hungry Ghosts, the title of which comes from a Buddhist metaphor for people futilely attempting to fulfill their insatiable appetites, he makes a film small in stature (shot on HD Cam and budgeted at $600,000) but large in ideas about life and the human condition. There’s also a strong ensemble of talent that Imperioli brought to the production from family, actors of Studio Dante (Imperioli and his wife’s Lower Manhattan theater group) and friends, particularly Steve Schirripa (best known as Bobby Bacala on The Sopranos), who gives a remarkable performance as a gambling, drug addicted overnight DJ and lousy father who attempts to reconnect with his son after a life-changing event. The Hungry Ghost is an impressive debut film that offers an uncompromising look at the complexities of life and the redemptive qualities we need to get through it.
Imperioli talked to Filmmaker over the phone hours before catching a flight for Holland for the film’s premiere.
TOP OF PAGE: STEVE SCHIRRIPA AND EMORY COHEN IN THE HUNGRY GHOSTS. ABOVE: THE HUNGRY GHOSTS' WRITER-DIRECTOR MICHAEL IMPERIOLI. PHOTOS COURTESY OF CICALA FILMWORKS.
FILMMAKER: Have you always been interested in Eastern thinking?
IMPERIOLI: It is something that has interested me for a long time. Their philosophy is something that I’ve been reading about for a number of years, and you start to examine your own life in terms of those ideas. The title didn’t come until the first draft was almost done, I wasn’t even totally sure that that was the direction it was going to go in, I was just writing from a sketch of the Frank and Nadia characters and it just kind of blossomed from there.
FILMMAKER: In our Summer ’08 In Focus column you told Mary Glucksman that you’d been playing around with two characters for a couple of years. These were the characters?
IMPERIOLI: Yeah. I had the Frank character as the host of a children’s TV show for another script that didn’t really go anywhere, and there was something about the character that I liked and something about Steve playing the character that I liked. I started writing the script using that character and then I had this idea of Nadia, played by Aunjanue Ellis, and the two of them together on a train. That was the initial seed of the script for The Hungry Ghosts.
FILMMAKER: Had you always had Steve in mind to play the part?
IMPERIOLI: Well, Steve and I are good friends. We met on The Sopranos but we became very, very close and one of the episodes that I wrote for The Sopranos was when his wife dies in a car accident. He did some stuff in that episode that really showed a lot more depth than he was allowed to show before. Then just knowing him as a person, knowing the depth of him as a person I thought it would be great to give him something really meaty like this. I knew he would be great but he really surpassed my hopes. His instincts were amazing.
FILMMAKER: Are you interested in seeing how audiences will react to that character? He’s a jerk for most of the movie and at the end people may want to see him get what’s coming to him, but you didn’t go that route.
IMPERIOLI: Well, what I’m hoping is that people give him an opportunity to maybe now change, because where he ends up in the movie is very different than where he begins. Obviously the step in the right direction is that he hears his kid tried to kill himself, and he gets on a train to try to be with him. I’m not saying he’s going to become a guy who meditates all the time or starts to head towards Eastern spirituality, but at the end of the movie he is at a different place. What I would hope people get is that there is always hope no matter how ingrained you think your habits, addictions, ignorances and selfish behaviors are, that there is an opportunity to change. Hopefully it’s not at a point where it is too late.
FILMMAKER: How did the multiple character structure come together?
IMPERIOLI: I did a movie, I shot it about two years ago and it came out last year in Europe. It’s called The Lovebirds, and a guy named Bruno De Almeida, someone I’d worked with before, directed it. It was about six separate stories but there was something in the way that he told those stories that I really loved. We did a screening in New York right before I sat down to write The Hungry Ghosts, and I liked the way he told the story. I thought it could work for these characters.
FILMMAKER: How did you work with the actors, especially the ones from your Studio Dante theater?
IMPERIOLI: I think 18 or 19 of those actors in the film worked in the theater either in main stage productions or as acting students in our classes there. So I knew them and worked with most of them. Nick Sandow, Sharon [Angela] and Steve I’d worked with a lot before on many different things so that already gave me kind of a leg up. We did a pretty extensive rehearsal process — about two weeks every day we worked on the big scenes, and there were some [script] revisions that came out of that. It saved us a lot of time because when you’re shooting independently time is of the essence. They had already found their groove when they got to the set.
FILMMAKER: I’ve read that a big influence on you has been John Cassavetes.
IMPERIOLI: He’s been an influence on me, I really love his writing — I find him really underrated as a writer. A lot of people thought his movies were improvisations. I know people who worked with him — actually Zohra Lampert, who plays the Guru in my film, played Ben Gazzara’s wife in Opening Night. His stuff was scripted tightly, they rehearsed and maybe tweaked stuff in rehearsal but he was able to write in ways that he didn’t give everything away. He let the audience work and let them think. There’s something very organic about his writing that really inspires me. It definitely inspired me, but I don’t know if that’s evident when watching it.
FILMMAKER: There is a lot of deep thinking in the film about the human condition. Was it therapeutic for you to get these thoughts on paper?
IMPERIOLI: Yeah. I would say it was. And more so in actually filming it, not just the writing, but also the filming and working on it [with the actors].
FILMMAKER: I know you wrote Summer of Sam and had the opportunity to direct that, and you’ve written episodes of The Sopranos, so how did you directing not come sooner?
IMPERIOLI: I wanted to direct Summer of Sam and Spike originally came on as an executive producer to help me direct it, but I never had the opportunity because we couldn’t raise the money to do it, which is probably a really good thing because I think it was beyond me at the time. We didn’t have the money so we kept rewriting it and then the scope of the movie kept getting bigger and it kind of encompassed more of the city and the riots and all of the stuff that’s going on. I kind of backed away because I really felt it was biting off more than I could chew. Then it kind of died for a while and Spike [came back to it]. And then I co-wrote a script for Peter Falk and he wanted to do it but we never got the money for that, so that’s just sitting in a drawer. That one I wanted to direct. I’ve been offered independents to direct over the years but I always felt that if I was going to direct something I wanted it to be something that I wrote.
FILMMAKER: And they never offered you to direct episodes of The Sopranos?
IMPERIOLI: No, for the same reasons. Directing television you really have to do what’s been laid out. There’s a template for that show and then you can add your own style, but I just didn’t have the chops to do that. That’s why I wanted to wait [until I had] my material and could make my own style on my own terms or mess up my own thing.
FILMMAKER: Did you ever have to consider starring in The Hungry Ghosts to find the money you’d need to make it?
IMPERIOLI: I got the money really, really easily. There were three investors, and the two major investors were my two biggest donors to my theater so they had been with us for five years. They really love what we do there and said if we were going to do a film to ask them. I wrote the script and asked them and they both wrote big checks.
FILMMAKER: And you never thought of starring in it?
IMPERIOLI: No. I didn’t want to direct my first movie and star in it.
FILMMAKER: Where are you in your career now? Do you want to produce plays and direct films more than act?
IMPERIOLI: I want to do all of the above. I’m shooting [ABC’s] Life on Mars so I work a lot right now, but as soon as I’m done with that in March I’m going to start writing again. It’s really hard to write unless you have the discipline that everyday you’re going to do it and get into that rhythm. So the next free time I have I’m going to work on another script.
Read our coverage of this year's Rotterdam Film Festival on the blog.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
For Terrence Davies, his youth -- his early years in Liverpool, his relationship with his mother, and his feelings about being gay in that working-class town -- have always provided the raw material for his filmmaking. His celebrated “Terrence Davies Trilogy,” a collection of shorts, and later features like Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes summon up for the viewer an interior life with a rare combination of lyricism and heartache.
These films cemented Davies’s international reputation, but after two more, non-autobiographical features (The House of Mirth and The Neon Bible), he became less active, a development that had more to due with shifting trends in British film financing than his own creativity. But now, almost ten years after his last feature, Davies is premiering an unexpected success, his first documentary about – what else? – his early years in Liverpool. Of Time and the City is a lushly realized memory piece, a symphony of images, archival footage, narration and classical music that transforms grey old Liverpool into a digitally-realized reverie that is beautiful, sometimes acerbic, and always tinged with melancholy.
Of Time and the City opens January 21 at New York’s Film Forum from Strand Releasing. I spoke with Davies this past fall at the Toronto Film Festival.
TOP OF PAGE: TERENCE DAVIES'S OF TIME AND THE CITY. PHOTO BY: BERNARD FALLON. ABOVE: OF TIME AND THE CITY'S DIRECTOR TERENCE DAVIES. PHOTO BY: SOLON PAPADOPOULOS. COURTESY OF STRAND RELEASING.
FILMMAKER: I’ve read a number of interviews you’ve done for this film, and I’ve also read the reviews. They’re all fantastic. What’s it like talking so much about a film that is itself a revisiting of your childhood?
TERENCE DAVIES: Well, I mean, it’s lovely because I’ve known what it’s like when people weren’t interested. After Neon Bible, no one was interested or wanted to talk to me. I’m as vain as anybody else, so it’s nice to have your ego massaged. I’m quite happy to do it because I never thought it would have this kind of reaction, I can assure you. It was made with the most modest of budgets, and the most modest of intentions.
FILMMAKER: Tell me a little bit about how this specific project came to be.
DAVIES: Well, it was by accident. Sol Papadopoulos, who was one of the producers, rang me up and said, “Do you remember me?” And I said, “Yes. You took some pictures of my mother about 20 years ago and they’re very beautiful. And I’ve still got them.” He said, “Well, I’m a producer now, and something called Digital Departures is coming to Liverpool, because it’s the European city of culture of this year. And they want to produce films for 250,000 pounds each, would you be interested?” And I said, “No. I don’t want to make any more fiction films about Liverpool. I’ve done that.” But then I said, “What might be interesting is to do a documentary about the Liverpool I grew up in, from 1945 onwards, and then contrast it with the new Liverpool, which is an alien city for me.” My template would be Humphrey Jennings’ [film] Listen to Britain, 1941, which is a great poem. It’s greater than a documentary -- it’s a poem. He was trying to capture the nature of being British when we were about to be invaded, and it’s glorious. I just wanted to capture what it was to be Liverpudlian – something much more modest. And he said, “Yes, we’d like to do that.”
FILMMAKER: Was there any wrestling either on their part or your part with this notion of you, a fiction filmmaker, making a documentary?
DAVIES: No, because I’d written a sketch of what I wanted to do and we produced a six-minute trailer. I said, “Look, it is a personal essay. So if it’s not what you want, you better give the money to someone else, because it’s not going to be a straight documentary: this happened, that happened. I’m not interested in that.”
FILMMAKER: Once you went through that process was this a hard film in any way to make?
DAVIES: Well, the hardest thing was actually what to leave out, because there was so much of it and some of it was ravishingly beautiful. We said, “Oh, I wish I could put that sequence in but I can’t.” It had to reach its natural length. You can’t force it. I’d written a sort of story, and, of course, that went out of the window very early because all this material brought back other memories of other things which had happened and which made me say, “Look, can you find footage from that or from this?” Or, “Can you find footage that’s in color?” All sorts of things. Memory is like smell. As soon as it’s pricked, it begins to work, and things that have lain dormant in you start to emerge. And memory, of course, is nonlinear. It’s completely cyclical and it’s completely disparate and elliptical. What you remember most intensely can be the tiniest things but they’re powerful for you because they have a whole emotional meaning beyond their surface meaning. And so it was quite hard to actually disregard some of that material.
FILMMAKER: Well, that’s one of my questions. What was the ordering process for this movie? Not necessarily in the shaping, but in terms of finding the through lines and assembling all of these disparate things into a feature film.
DAVIES: It was a mixture of finding material and then writing the through line. But you very rarely get to the through line fast. That is discovered while you put [the film] together. It’s like the through line of a script, of a fiction script. You find that eventually. I usually get it by the second draft, and then I do a polish. But here the script was being written daily. There were times when I couldn’t see the line, and that was very worrying. It’s not like sitting in your own flat with a piece of paper and a script and saying, “No, this doesn’t work. Why doesn’t it work?” You can walk around and shout at the walls, but you can’t do that in the cutting room. You just say, “Okay, it doesn’t feel right, does it?” And Liza [Ryan-Carter], who is a wonderful editor, says, “No.” But when something is right, you think, [snaps] “Yeah.” Or you say, in a sequence, “No. If we take that out and reverse those shots and begin there, it will work.” And it does. Sometimes you get it that easily, and sometimes it takes three, four days. But I did say to her, “We’ve got to cut it like fiction.” When there was music, we’d cut it mute and then put the music on and see where the cuts fall. And then you’d sort of say, “Tweak it.” You’d say, “No, this cut here really has to come on the beat.” Or on that word. But others fell beautifully. The through line emerges subconsciously, and when it does, then [the film] begins to sing. But it takes a long time sometimes to get to that.
FILMMAKER: Was one particular element – the music, the narration, the archival footage, or simply your memories – more central than the others to the way you organized the material?
DAVIES: Well, I was writing the narration as I was cutting it. But we saw two films: one by Nick Broomfield, called Who Cares, and another called Morning in the Streets, the director of whom I’ve forgotten, ad I extracted things from them. I wanted to build up this idea of the street coming to life. Gradually the day begins. The children go to school. They play in the schoolyard. Their parents work hard. The school day ends. They come home. And again, I’ve no idea where it came from. I had heard on the BBC Radio 3, which is the classical music station in England, Angela Gheorghiu singing this Romanian folk song called “Watch and Pray.” As soon as I [heard it], I said, “That’s what we’ve got to have underneath it.” Don’t know where it came from. I have no idea. But that prompted all the reminiscing about Christmas, about going to war, Korea. (My eldest brother was in the army and had an accident and couldn’t go because he was injured very badly.) And then that led into the coronation -- I had to get the coronation and have a go at the monarchy because they’re such parasites. [laughs] All that comes by searching – searching your own memory and looking at the material.
FILMMAKER: How resonant was it for you when you first saw the archival footage? Because it’s not your archival footage -- it’s material that somebody else shot with an eye towards capturing history as opposed to personal moments. When you looked at this material did it take you back in time? Or did you have to work to allow your own memories to be triggered by it?
DAVIES: Well, [the archival footage worked] in different ways, really. I mean, I remember vaguely the elevated railway, which was the first elevated electric railway in the world. It ran the whole length of the docks, which is between eight and 10 miles. I remembered it and I said, “You can find me some footage.” And the footage that we found was like outtakes from Metropolis -- they looked wonderful. But I was shocked at how awful the slums were, and I grew up in them! I never, never remembered them being as grim as they were. The sheer hard work just to keep them clean – just to keep your house clean, yourself clean, your children. That was a shock. It also brought memories back when the women used to go to the washhouse. My mother used to go on a Thursday. We only had one set of curtains, and they were washed every Thursday. And the house looked so bare without them. I hated Thursday, because I’d come home from school and there’d be no curtains on the windows and it looked so bleak.
FILMMAKER: Have you seen Guy Maddin’s film My Winnipeg?
DAVIES: No. I believe it’s very good, though.
FILMMAKER: Yeah, it’s very good. It’s about him cinematically remembering his hometown on the occasion of his move to Toronto. It’s a mixture of history and fiction, and a lot of the history feels like fiction. What was your take on historical truth versus the truth of memory in the film?
DAVIES: [pause] Well, I think I would rely more on memory truth, because that’s more emotional, and that’s something that I’m more concerned with. That, too, in its own way, is real.
FILMMAKER: There’s a lot of talk in the American independent world right now about the need for new ways to make, distribute and even view films. What are your thoughts on where cinema is now?
DAVIES: Well, I’m not sure. I haven’t worked since 2000, when I finished The House of Mirth, because The Neon Bible was before that. But the climate seems to be improving in England. The people at the U.K. Film Council now – like Lenny Crooks, especially – want to do films and they actually care about them. The previous regime did not do that. But what was wrong [previously] in England was the destruction of the production board of the BFI. It was an act of cultural vandalism to have actually got rid of it because it gave people their first chance to make a film, without any of this nonsense about, you know, “Well, it’s got a climax on page three,” or everyone’s got a back story, or all that nonsense – utter nonsense – that Robert McKee spouts. You had 25-year-olds telling you how to write a script. And when you said, “Well, how many have you written?” it all goes quiet. “Well, how many have you written?” “None.” “Oh, I see. So, you’ve written no scripts and you’re telling me how to write them and I’ve been writing them for 30 years? I think that’s a bit arrogant, don’t you?” And you shut the door. I hope, with things like Hunger – which I’ve not seen, but it was a very courageous film to be funded by Channel 4 – the climate has changed. There’s hope there. I’m glad that my film got funded, and I hope that provides some hope for other people. But once you get into the position that Britain is in – being a client nation of America, with all the indignity that goes with that – you’re in trouble. Because now, culturally, we look to America for validation when we should be looking either to ourselves or to Europe. Our future does not lie with America, and neither does our culture. Now, in England, if you want to celebrate anything about our culture, you’re dismissed as elitist, or middle class. It’s almost fascist now. It’s exactly like it was after the civil war, when you had to be politically and religiously correct. Hopefully that will go. It’s far too early, but I am cautiously optimistic.
FILMMAKER: What about new ways of viewing films, whether that be through the internet on your computer, or on a handheld device?
DAVIES: I’m a technophobe. I don’t understand all this new technology. I just simply don’t understand it. If we’ve got to make things on digital, I will do it, because I enjoyed it. I think digital will probably replace film, because it’s quicker and all the rest of it. But all that downloading things, I have no idea what it is. At the end of the day, if you’re going to make a film, in whatever format, the only real way to see it is on a large screen in a darkened room with other people. There’s no other experience like it. Watching it on DVD or an iPod is not the same. Watching it on television is not the same. It’s not like sitting in a full theater with a huge screen. Everyone responds to it collectively, yet everyone feels that the secret is only being told to them. Nothing replaces that.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Monday, January 19, 2009
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Nick Dawson interviewed Waltz With Bashir writer-director Ari Folman for our Fall '08 issue. Waltz With Bashir is nominated for Best Foreign Film.
It’s been said that the job of the filmmaker is to put on screen things that have never been seen before. And while cinema is essentially an infant art form, these days there are still relatively few films that move into genuinely new territory. Waltz with Bashir, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is one of those films.
In this unique documentary, Israeli director Ari Folman attempts to reconstruct the missing memories from his time as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War. His main goal is to discover where he was during the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp, a revenge killing of hundereds of Palestinian civilians by Phalangists in response to the murder of newly appointed Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. To piece together his past, Folman visits old friends and interviews soldiers he fought alongside, and this journey of discovery is as compelling a narrative as any piece of fiction.
While the unflinching, personal detective story aspect of Waltz with Bashir already makes it unusual, what makes it even more so is that Folman’s documentary is animated. Though on paper this seems like an impossible collision of genres, Folman uses the freedoms that animation gives him to take the film to places another documentary could not go. What’s more, Folman plays with our preconceptions of cartoons always belonging to the realm of narrative filmmaking, and in the process asks exactly where the line between documentary and fiction lies. And while Yoni Goodman’s vivid animation, hand-drawn and in a variety of styles, looks stunning, it always complements rather than distracts from Folman’s compelling and ultimately moving tale.
Sony Pictures will release Waltz with Bashir this December.
TOP OF PAGE: A SCENE FROM WALTZ WITH BASHIR. PHOTO BY: ARI FOLMAN AND DAVID POLONSKY. ABOVE: WALTZ WITH BASHIR WRITER-DIRECTOR ARI FOLMAN. PHOTO BY HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.
I thought it was very interesting that the film starts not from your perspective but from that of your friend Boaz. That seemed like a very conscious decision. It was a very conscious decision. You can imagine that I got a lot of criticism — even for the screenplay — that I’m not there in the first frame and that it might confuse the audience about who the protagonist is in the film. But, I mean, how narrow-minded can we get?
It’s true. I think we do usually assume that the first character whose perspective we see from will be the protagonist. You’re right. It was a deliberate decision and I insisted on it. I saw this other film here [at the Toronto International Film Festival] called Hunger. The main character appears after 14 minutes, and the film is amazing. You don’t need to be hooked on conventions.
Did this film start out as a personal attempt to recover your past? Well, I’ll tell you how it started and you decide. Five years ago, I turned 40. In Israel, I served a few years in the army and between two weeks and a month [of every year] you’re a reservist. I was a screenwriter in the reserves doing shorts and commercials [on topics] like how to defend yourself in a chemical attack, and I got really tired of it although I hardly did anything. I asked for a release a few years earlier than usual and they said, “You know what, we can give you the release but there is this experiment the army is working on. You will have to see our therapist for a few sessions and tell him everything you went through during your service.” So I went to 10 meetings, and when they ended I realized that it was the first time I ever told my story to anyone — even myself. The content of the story was not that amazing, but the fact that I never dealt with it for more than 20 years was amazing, for me. So I went to my inner circle of friends and family and I tried to see if people felt the same, and they did. Then I thought, “Okay, there’s something going on here.” At the time, I was working on this documentary series called The Material That Love Is Made Of and it was the first try I made with animated documentary. I started imagining this journey because I had these black holes in my memory when I was at those sessions with the therapist. I started imagining this animated journey where I go to pick up all those pieces that I’m missing. So this is how it all started.
Did you do historical research about the events depicted before going into the personal aspects of this journey? I advertised on the Internet that I was looking for stories from the first Lebanon War. I got a response from something like 100 men, and we heard all those stories, which were quite extreme. Afterward I wrote the screenplay. Most of the research, of course, is out [of the movie] because we had to keep a very narrow storyline. Then we shot everything on a sound studio, because I thought that the human ear is totally non-tolerant to location [sound] in terms of animation. We cut it as a video documentary film and then we made storyboards out of the video because it’s not a rotoscope film. We moved the storyboard really basically. We picked something like 3,000 key frames and then we would move them.
So the journey that you take in the film is one that you took yourself in real life prior to filming? Yes. I met all those people, and then at the studio we tried to dramatize everything, like if I was interviewing someone in a car we would sit one beside each other with plastic wheels and pretend it was a car.
And when you were shooting it in the studio, you got the real people you had interviewed to recreate their conversations with you? I did, but we had two actors in the film too because the guy from Holland had cold feet a few days before shooting. He didn’t mind [being in] the story so we took his monologue and we gave it to an actor and we invented a new face. It’s one of the things you can do when you have the freedom of animation. Basically, we were having the same discussion as he had twice before, first with the researcher and the second time with me.
What was it like to recreate these conversations on a sound stage, acting almost as if they were fiction? First, it depends who you are. For example, the journalist [Ron Ben-Yishai] has told his story probably at least a thousand times — he wrote a book about it and you can see in the way that he’s talking. But the swimmer, for example — it was the first time he had told his story after so many years. He had so much to get out of his thoughts and the third time was better than the first. It’s something really personal. With someone like Frenkel — the karate guy, the dancer — the first time was the best by far. When we met at my studio after so many years, he couldn’t do it again. It was not as good. So, one is for the better, one is for the worse… I still don’t know if I have the best version… but, you know, that is the price you sometimes pay when you make a film like this.
Why did you specifically conceive this as an animated documentary? It seems that almost anybody else would not have tackled the story in this way. Well, frankly, it isn’t important to me. I’m kind of tired of film formats and if I would have declared this film five years ago as a fiction film, I would have raised the money much easier and I’d be more secure and I would have completed it a year ago, at least. I don’t know why I declared it an animated documentary, but I did. I mean, who decides? Is there a committee who decides when a specific film starts off being a documentary and turns into fiction, or the other way around? I wouldn’t know. I just don’t know what to say, and I don’t care. I mean, this is the film, okay? You’re the journalist — you decide. If you decide that for you it’s a fiction film, I’m happy for you. If, for you, it is in the structure of documentary or what you define as documentary, I’ll go with you as well. I think it’s great that you can choose. Why should I choose?
When I was scribbling notes on the film, I called it a “recalled documentary.” I mean, would it feel more convenient for you if it were a fiction film based on true stories? I don’t think so.
I don’t feel there’s one easy way to categorize this film, and I think that’s a real strength. This was obviously the way that you felt you needed to handle the material, so the label that other people put on it is not important to you. Totally.
Because of the ambiguous genre the film sits in, was it difficult to pitch? I was at Hot Docs three-and-a-half years ago; I had a three-minute scene and I pitched [the film]. There were 40 coordinators from documentary funds and [television] stations there. You had to declare that you had 40 percent of your budget — of course, I didn’t even have 5 percent, so I had to lie but I was selected anyhow. Thirty-eight out of the 40 took their microphones and said, “Why animation? It’s a documentary, we’re at a documentary film festival. Why can’t you film the real people?” It is weird for me to explain, “why animation,” even now. It’s the most frequently asked question since Cannes, and it’s still the one question I can’t understand. I mean, of course it’s an animation ‑ how else could it have been done? It’s absurd to me.
When you realized the film should be animated, did you have a clear picture of how it should look, and the particular style of animation? I had a clear vision, but it was more than a clear vision: I was obsessed with a few things. First of all, that the audience would still be emotionally attached to the characters, and that meant for me that we would draw them as realistic as the illustrators could. Meaning, we should put as much detail as we can: more contours and shapes; and, of course, the more detail you have in a face or in a body, the more complicated it is to animate it, to move it, especially in cut-out animation, which is the main thing. And then we had the dream sequences, which are more freehand, open in terms of color and shape, and then we had the last part of the film, which is more of a hardcore documentary. When you go to the massacre, it is monochrome and a little more depressing. You know, in this kind of animation, the style dictates the animation and not the other way around.
As the animation process took so long and you were working on Israeli TV shows at the same time, how involved were you in the day-to-day postproduction process? Believe me, I was working on the film. I was involved in every frame. It is about giving the film cinematic taste, trying every little thing that will work as a feature film. Because it takes time, we were screening the materials every two days and reworking them, every shot, every single angle, every aspect of the film. A frame here, a frame there. But Yoni’s main role was that he created the technique of this specific animation, which is an incredible thing.
And what is that technique? This is his invention, a combination of cut-out animation, flash-based [animation], classic Disney frame-by-frame animation and 3-D animation. And then he had to instruct the team because no one was qualified like him to do what he had invented. We only had eight animators. And when we needed two more, we couldn’t find them.
The film has a great score by Max Richter, and I was wondering how early on you had a clear sense of what the music and the sound design of the film would be? I started to work with the guy on the video-board stage already. First I went to Edinburgh [where Richter used to live]. We met and I screened the video board to him so he could see the color of the thing. I told him what I believed should be in every scene, and gave him guide [tracks]. I put in guides in every scene — I always do that. I put in music for my mind, but I don’t understand how [composers] can compete with the guides that film directors give them. There was Brian Eno stuff in there, and Sigur Rós — good things to match. High challenge. But he did it. The guy is absolutely brilliant.
What was the personal impact of making this film and succeeding in uncovering that lost portion of your past? Was it cathartic? It was kind of a therapeutic journey, but any filmmaking is. I would say that five years ago if I had looked at a photo of myself from when I was 19, I would have recognized the guy but felt totally disconnected. And now I live in peace with everything. This is the major change I went through.
The end of the film has a huge impact as we move from animation to news footage. Was the feeling of that shift similar to what you felt when you regained your memory of the massacre? Yes, it is as if you regain your memory and in a symbolic way as if you regain the real footage. In the end, we were not on the beach when the massacre took place, we were outside the camps. Basically, the ending was done just to prevent the situation where anyone anywhere would walk out of the theater and think that it was a really cool animated film with really cool drawings. I wanted to let people know that it really happened. Real people, they died. Thousands of them. On the other hand, if the film is like this bad acid trip like war is, in the end you wake up and this is what you see. So it works both ways.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Jason Guerrasio interviewed Vicky Cristina Barcelona star Penélope Cruz for our Gotham Independent Film Awards special section in the Fall '08 issue. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is nominated for Best Actress (Penélope Cruz).
Talking over the phone from London where she’s rehearsing her role in Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical, Nine, Penélope Cruz sounds humbled when congratulated for being named one of this year’s Gotham Award Tributes, but she admits there hasn’t been much time to think about the honor. Before filming Nine, Cruz wrapped production on her next project with Pedro Almodóvar, Los Abrazos rotos, a modern-day noir where she says she plays “a very different character from anything that I have done for Pedro before.” This comes off the two distinctly different roles she performed on screens this year — Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Isabel Coixet’s Elegy — where she has received some of the best reviews of her career.
In Vicky Cristina, Cruz plays Maria Elena, a fiery Spaniard who is the ex-wife of Javier Bardem’s Juan Antonio, a playboy painter who woos two American girls to Barcelona during their summer vacation. But when Maria Elena reenters Juan Antonio’s life she takes over the film: Her heated exchanges with Bardem, spoken in her native tongue, are one of the film’s highlights. In Elegy, based on the Philip Roth novel The Human Stain, Cruz is more subdued. The obsession of an aging bachelor played by Ben Kingsley, her character, Consuela, is more than a mere sex object. In full control of the situation, Consuela wants to take the relationship further than the occasional romp, and when she doesn’t get it she breaks it off with a voice message that is itself a heartrending minimonologue.
In her mid-thirties, Cruz has been nominated for an Oscar and is an international star, but as Filmmaker learns, both of her performances this year are examples of her continued drive to challenge herself by playing women who fascinate her.
Most times Woody Allen has an actor already in mind when he casts his films. Is that what happened with you for Vicky Christina Barcelona? No. I think my agent found out that he was going to shoot in Spain so he called and got a meeting. I had never met Woody before and the meeting was 40 seconds long. [laughs] He said he was writing but the script wasn’t finished and that he would let me know because he thought there was a character that could be right for me. Then a month later they called me and said Woody wanted me to do the movie. It’s been a great experience. I would love to work with him again because he shoots very fast — I did my whole character in three-and-a-half weeks but I wanted more time with him.
How would you compare his style to Pedro Almodóvar’s? I think the only thing they have in common is they are both geniuses with an amazing sense of humor. Most of the time their characters can laugh about pain and human confusion in a way that almost makes you feel guilty when you are working in those characters. You suffer as part of the audience sometimes. I love that feeling because they challenge you. And their systems could not be more different; it’s like day and night. Pedro rehearses for months and months and Woody doesn’t rehearse. But I didn’t miss rehearsal time working with Woody because he gave me a script many months before so that is his way to make sure that you have the time to feel ready [for the role]. It’s good to jump into that adventure.
How did Elegy come about? I was attached to the project for about five years with producers Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi. We finally put it together when Ben Kingsley and Isabel Coixet came on. I think they are the perfect people to do that movie; I can’t imagine another actor doing that character than Ben and I think Isabel is the perfect director to bring Philip Roth’s world to a movie because there’s just something that she has, her eye and her sensibility.
Many have called this your best English language-speaking performance to date. Is it still a challenge for you to do English-speaking roles? It will always be a little difficult because it’s my third language. I learned English when I was 18 and I knew French before so it’s always hardest to learn it that late. But I feel much more comfortable now because I have lived in New York and L.A. and had to use it in real life. When I started my career in America I really didn’t speak it, I only knew my dialogue so I’ve been working very hard all these years, and I’m still working on it. I want to keep working on the accent. But I feel more freedom and I can understand what’s going on because in the beginning I couldn’t.
You do a healthy mix of Hollywood movies, indies and Spanish-language films; is there a preference? I think every movie is a new adventure, a new goal, a new challenge and I see it like that, one at a time. My home is in Spain, sometimes I live in L.A. and I don’t want to stop working in Europe. If good, interesting projects keep coming from America I’m so happy to be part of them too. I don’t make a plan of every year going to work more there or here, it’s just more of what comes up. Now I’m making an American movie and I couldn’t be happier, but I don’t know, maybe later I’ll do three Spanish movies in a row.
What was it about the characters you play in Vicky Cristina and Elegy that interested you? Those characters are very different, very complex women, women that I would like to know and explore and understand. When I read about them I felt fascinated by them. That was what made me want to do them, and I’m just happy that I’m receiving these offers of characters like this. When I say this I don’t want to make it sound less about the projects that I’ve done in the past, because I don’t measure the success of a project by how well they do at the box office or how good the reviews are, I measure it from how much I learned when I was making those movies.
And what does a role need to spark your fascination? The ones that are going to make you feel like this is the first time you’re on a movie set, that make you feel new. There’s an insecurity that comes from acting that is natural because you can never control everything. That is a beautiful insecurity, and you have to feel like that to enjoy making a movie. I’m interested in the characters that are going to make me feel frightened. The farther they are from you the farther they are from each other, like these two movies where they are so different. But I think we all look for that with this job. It’s just great when you get the opportunity, and right now I feel very grateful with the opportunities that I’m being given. I cannot complain right now to tell you the truth.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Scott Macaulay interviewed Frozen River writer-director Courtney Hunt for our Summer '08 issue. The film's lead, Melissa Leo, was also interviewed in a sidebar to the piece by Jason Guerrasio. Frozen River is nominated for Best Actress (Melissa Leo) and Best Screenplay (Courtney Hunt).
At Sundance this past year, two films in the Dramatic Competition especially stood out: Lance Hammer’s Ballast and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River. It’s easy to mention the films in the same breath, because both are examples of regional American independent cinema attuned to the economic realities of life in this country today. They each feature characters mainstream Hollywood films rarely notice: single parents hovering just at or most often below the poverty line. People struggling to contain a justified depression in order to help a neighbor or keep food on their family’s plates.
But beyond these similarities, these two excellent films could not be more different. Ballast is loosely structured and its story points are small and indicative of the randomness of life. A subplot in which an armed child is threatened by local teen thugs is allowed to gently dissipate while the film’s emotional climax occurs when one character learns to use a credit card machine. Clearly influenced by the Dardenne Brothers, Ballast finds truth in the people and the moments movies often ignore.
Frozen River also begins by introducing us to the kind of working class character Hollywood has largely forsaken, but rather than remain intimate in its ambitions, the film steadily becomes a tersely executed, plot-driven thriller; it’s got the kind of classic Hollywood storytelling that even the studios rarely pull off anymore. And in addition to its indelible portrait of a blue-collar mom, the film makes complicated and resonant points about this country’s current debate around immigration and the nature of the American character.
Set in upstate New York near the border of Canada, Frozen River introduces us to Ray (Melissa Leo), a single mother who works at a local retailer and tries to save enough of her minimum wage to feed her young son and daughter. When her economic situation becomes dire — and she’s about to lose the sizable down payment she’s put down on a new prefab home — Ray joins a Mohawk Indian woman, Lila (Misty Upham), in her illegal immigrant smuggling operation, ferrying in the trunk of her car poor Chinese workers over the icy border to Canada. The smuggling trips go well for a short while but soon, of course, things spin out of control…. Frozen River, which will be released by Sony Classics this summer, is the winner of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize.
TOP OF PAGE: MISTY UPHAM (LEFT) AND MELISSA LEO IN FROZEN RIVER. PHOTO BY: JORY SUTTON. ABOVE: FROZEN RIVER WRITER-DIRECTOR COURTNEY HUNT. PHOTO BY HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.
I love that your film is a thriller. The movie works like a thriller, even though it doesn’t initially seem like it’s going to be one. It’s funny, because Tarantino said that too. I never thought of it that way. I just think if a story is good enough to compel people to watch it, then it’s a good movie. And so when I’m writing, I work on structuring things so that you have got to keep turning the page, or you’ve got to keep sitting there and seeing what happens. You have to get invested. But I didn’t think of it as a thriller.
You have all these thriller elements. There’s danger throughout, and you have a car chase. And the great thing about the car chase is that because it’s on ice, it’s a slow speed car chase, which is a fantastic twist on the way car chases are usually handled. Well, I hate car chases in movies deeply, and I wouldn’t have been any part of one if it hadn’t grown right out of that story. But that clumsiness of how they aren’t moving very fast made it okay.
When did you begin the first incarnation of Frozen River? I had an idea when I was graduating from Columbia Film School — I wanted to do a story where women were really active, where they were doing stuff. Not relationship stuff, just stuff in the world. Acting. My husband is from extreme North Country, which is north of Albany. I learned from him about this Indian tribe, the Mohawks, and that this [smuggling] went on. I met some women smugglers who were at that time smuggling cigarettes across the river. It was simply a business to them. They told me about some of their adventures, and I thought, why would [these women] do this? I talked to a few [producers and executives] about it right after Columbia. I was like, “I’ve got this smuggling story.” And they were like, “What are they smuggling?” “Cigarettes.” And they were so not into it. Then I wrote this other script but it didn’t really work. Remember how after 9/11 there was this whole year of [questioning whether] art can happen anymore. Well, I learned that [the Mohawk women] were then actually smuggling immigrants, and I thought, “Hmm, this really is relevant.” So those characters, especially Ray, who I tried to kill off and to put in a drawer, just kind of came back up. I was writing something one day and I just started writing her point of view, and that became the short [film of Frozen River]. After [the short] went to the New York Film Festival, I thought, “Okay, this thing has some legs, let’s fill it out.”
The short was a success on the festival circuit? Well, it made a big splash, but it was kind of an iffy short in my opinion. I mean, it played by most of the rules.
How helpful was the short in fund-raising for your feature? Being in the New York Film Festival made people pay attention, but my husband and I still couldn’t get anywhere with [the feature script]. I shopped it all over the place. Melissa [Leo] and Misty [Upham] were on board from the beginning, and any big place we went to immediately wanted us to get bigger names, but that was just not what this story needed. I’d say, “You help me find somebody who is better and I’ll lose them, but there’s nobody better than these two.” Finally my husband said, “How hard can it be to write a prospectus?” So we did and took it to these investors, people we knew or knew of, and we found four people. And obviously [because of the short] they knew that I knew what to do behind the camera, could tell a story and that the characters were engaging.
These were not film investors? No.
And then in terms of deciding what scale to make the film, I don’t know the budget… Teeny.
But there’s probably very different ranges it could have been made for depending on who you were making it with. Exactly.
So how much of what you said you were going to do did you actually do? In other words, how much did your production match the prospectus? Pretty much exactly what we said we were going to do we did. We got it in the can pretty much exactly [on budget], and then there have been more post expenses. They’re a drag. They’re still going on. But yeah, we did it for what we said we could do it for, which was impossible, but we could get away with it with this story and setting. It’s gritty — it didn’t have to be beautiful — and the weather was forgiven when it wouldn’t cooperate. We shot in HD, which was a savings, and we had some people who were not as experienced but they worked very, very hard. We went to a place that wasn’t at all film savvy and [the locals] were into it. It was a story about their region and everybody knew this kind of stuff goes on, so everyone had a story of their own to tell. It was fun — the whole town was involved, and that’s what you want. It was great. I mean, it was miserable, but it was great.
How did you find your crew? They all came from a little place called Brooklyn. [laughs] My d.p. lives in Brooklyn, one of my producers is in Brooklyn. It was a New York crew, all the grips and gaffers. They were very good, and very young. For some of them it was just their fourth or fifth film.
How did you find Melissa Leo? I met her at this little film festival in Chatham, New York, called FilmColumbia. [Focus Features president] James Schamus will often show whatever he’s got upcoming, and he brought 21 Grams. And she came — she’s really good in that movie. I met her at the party afterwards. I’m not much of a schmoozer, but there she was with her big hair and I sort of cornered her. She was really nice, and then I sent her a short and another script. Then my husband said, “Courtney, what about the smuggling thing?” I was like, “Oh my God, you’re right!” So I sent her that short and that’s kind of how this happened.
Earlier you said you wanted to make a movie where women are active and out in the world. Is that how you’d pitch the movie to people, by referencing that desire? You hear these things at film school about how women’s movies tend to be talky, sort of like Fried Green Tomatoes. I so resented that. I mean, I was raised by a single mother, and she was not talking — she was doing stuff all the time just to get by, but somehow that stuff is not considered “action” or interesting. So to hear it called a thriller now is really gratifying because it just means that something happens in it that grips you which life often does for men and women.
Your screenplay is rock hard. There’s no flab, the beats are precise and there’s purposeful foreshadowing. You know when they drive past that police car two times and aren’t caught that they’re not going to sail past the third time. All the secondary characters have their very specific wants and needs. So what was your development process like? How did you arrive at such a classically structured screenplay? I went through three drafts. There were subplots and other things. I had to decide whether or not to see the husband. That was a big issue. In terms of the “threes,” rather than that being an invention, I think that’s a natural arc. Did I sit down and think, “Oh, they’ve got to go past this trooper three times?” No, but it naturally worked within the context of the story. You know what I did? I wrote everything I needed to write and then I took everything out. I just stripped the script down. I don’t like dialogue-y movies, and I didn’t think that witty, clever dialogue would really be believable. But I’m not sure how to really answer the question.
You just did. All I was really saying is that the movie seems precisely plotted and structured. One reason it seems that way is because we didn’t have any fucking money. And so it was like, get the story told and don’t waste time. There’s a lot of plot in a tiny movie. I didn’t have any throwaway scenes. You’ve got to understand what the hell is going on at the border, what the hell is going on with her husband, and who this other woman, the little kid and these random Mohawk characters floating around are. I didn’t have the luxury of going off in any kind of direction except what was happening with [Ray] and where she was going. And she’s kind of that way too, the character. She’s trying to get it done, and I was just trying to get it done.
And how about the ending? So much independent film explores concepts of the family. Breaking it apart and putting it back together again. I found your ending completely unexpected and realistic, while still being deeply satisfying on an emotional level. How long did it take you to find it — was that the ending from the beginning? Or was that the ending you found? I found that ending. I didn’t know [what the ending would be] for a long time so I just left it at bay. And when I got to that final hard character read for [Ray], that last one, it just bubbled right up. It sounds so ridiculous, but I really do listen to the characters’ voices, and the better I listen, the more they tell me. If I’m trying to control them, if I’m projecting myself onto them, you can tell because the writing stinks. But when I took this totally groovy approach and said, “Okay, what does Ray have to tell me today…?” If you really get in the habit as a writer of listening to what your characters say and honoring it even if it seems weird, then often the ending will grow right out of it. [The ending of Frozen River] was almost a surprise to me, but it was sort of right there [in the logic of the story]. I did just let it literally bubble up.
How late in the process was this? Late! When I got closer to shooting, I felt like the pressure was on. I had taken people’s money, I promised to do the best I could to pay it back, and that meant telling the story economically and effectively in the least amount of scenes possible. I felt I had one chance to tell the truth of this character and I’d better not screw it up. So I really devoted myself in those last few tinkering rewrites to just getting in there, and if it felt like a false note, out. I let scenes fall out. There was a huge opening scene that never got shot because it was too expensive.
What was that scene? It was the whole backstory of Lila and when her husband goes through the ice. She’s pregnant and he’s gone in the ice and she’s trying to pull him out. It was big Hollywood. People would read it and they would just burst out laughing, like, “You’re insane!” Some people said to me, “Cut it off, you don’t need it. Nobody cares.” And that’s why you have very little of her backstory.
How much was Melissa involved in the creation of her character aside from simply portraying her? She is really exacting in a great way. She holds your feet to the fire on every motivation, every choice. If she doesn’t believe it, she’ll tell you. Luckily on this one she and I were on the same page. The thing about Melissa is, she only challenges you when she’s right. And she’s pretty much always right. She picks her battles and she picks them to win. If she wasn’t so right all the time, she’d be a pain, but she’s great.
And what about Misty? Misty is a different kind of actress. She’s a very gifted actress, a “one-take” actress. She just nails it. It was really annoying to Melissa. They’re a total odd couple. There’s such a stoic thing about [the character of] Lila, but Misty is not really like that at all. She’s really funny, and she’s a baby — she’s like 22.
She has that great quality that makes you almost think she’s a non-actress. She totally plays her character. Everyone assumes that she’s this little Native American girl we pulled in. But no, she’s actually a well-trained, very gifted actress. Shows that you can cast off the Internet.
You cast her off the Internet? I went to a Native American actor Web site and I looked at all the pictures, and I was like, “Hmm, does anybody actually look like a Native American instead of Shania Twain or something?” And she did. She had a gorgeous look. She looks [from the] Mohawk tribe. So I just called her up and she came, got off the plane and started acting [in the short] the next day. There was no audition.
Were you inspired by any other films while making Frozen River? Oh, yeah. Everyone is talking about the ’70s movies now. I was brought up on them, my mom and I would scrape together money to go to the movies. She was really great at taking me to every thing. I was not that popular a teenager so I spent a good deal of time in the movie theater. I saw every Bergman film. I saw Lina Wertmüller, I saw Arthur Penn, Bonnie and Clyde. I love Paul Schrader. But in terms of this movie, I looked at Badlands. And of course I love The Searchers. [Frozen River] is set in a sort of border area, and I thought of it as a frontier, as, a little bit, the Wild West. I have a very traditional, Southern dad, and he really likes John Wayne. I told Melissa to watch John Wayne in Rio Grande, to watch how he does absolutely nothing but gives up everything. He’ll do nothing and you’ll be in tears. Melissa tends to be much more expressive, so I was like, “You’re John Wayne — give us less.” So, yes, John Ford and John Wayne were very inspirational.
In this post 9/11 world, immigration and the border security are big issues. When you listen to the anti-immigration folk, they seem not just concerned with national security but with protecting a certain kind of “American identity” from outside influence. Your ending takes these issues head-on, but, at the same time, it feels subtle and nuanced and originating from character. How conscious were you about your film’s potential political message? When [I wrote the ending] I had to accept that “this is what you have and this is what the characters told you.” So was I going to stick with them or get in there [and change it]? I didn’t want to touch it, and then I thought, “Who is this going to offend?” And I didn’t even care. I don’t think we’re clear about immigration as a nation. The discussion is going on, it’s developing and this is part of the discussion. Is it dangerous to have people streaming over the border? Yes it is. But on the other hand, the large majority of those people coming in are coming with a good intent. So it’s very much your typical American debate. I didn’t set out to say anything about immigration, I’m just calling it like those characters see it. There is no overall agenda. I took myself out of it, because I’m much more a screamer, but they aren’t.
Was shooting HD your choice from the beginning? I felt okay about it because I knew I probably couldn’t afford film. What I was shooting is not so sumptuous that beautiful scenery was being lost. The camera was good — it only clammed up once — and we played fast and loose with lighting a lot. We weren’t so constrained as we would have been on film. And a lot of it’s at night, so that’s really great for HD. We had no dailies…
But you were shooting on tape, couldn’t you have just watched what you shot? We could have, but we didn’t want to because that was our original. So we’d only watch the tiniest bit, and we only got to see dailies the second week of the four-week shoot.
By then you were making dubs? Right. We finally started getting them. We just didn’t have the money to kind of make that happen [in the beginning]. Someday I want to shoot a movie where I get to see the dailies, although there was something great about not seeing them. You are out there, and you’d better get it right.
With HD the exteriors can sometimes be harsh. And they are, but for this film, that’s okay. HD is so bright, it seems like there’s white in everything, even the blacks. When I saw the film out for the first time, I got all upset because it was moodier, and it made it sadder. It’s a hard movie to watch. Most people don’t live in that world, and asking someone to sit there for 97 minutes and live in a trailer is tough. The brightness of HD had kind of lightened it a little bit. So when I first saw [the transfer], I thought, “Something’s wrong, it’s way too dark, they’ve messed it up.” And then I was like, “No, that’s just what film looks like [laughs].” And as soon as I made that transition I was okay. It’s so rich, and black is black again, and it’s great.
Were there any surprises when you put the story together? I had a great editor, Kate Williams. We had no money for postproduction. I had pieces of the movie and the cassettes in my purse and just dumped it in her lap. We went to the Edit Center and that was unique because she got to see everything before we actually committed to each other. And I got to see that she was really good.
She was an instructor at the Edit Center? Yes.
So the students did your first cut at the Edit Center. How was that process? It’s interesting because you have people who are going to learn how to edit a movie, and they’re going to do it in six weeks. I spent five years on this project, my guts are all over the ring, and they want to play, as, of course, they should. But this was my heart and soul, and I was like, “You’re not dropping any scenes from my movie!” I think it was a good experience for them to see what really happens between a director and an editor, how that dynamic gets set up.
So what happened after you made that rough cut at the Edit Center? Kate came up to the country and brought her family. We set up the Final Cut Pro system in the garage, our kids played together, and we cut all of July and August. My friends have a little guesthouse, so she and [her husband] Matthew lived there with her boys.
It sounds kind of idyllic. It was pretty cool. Kate is incredibly dedicated. When she goes into [an edit], she goes all the way in and she does not come out until it is done. If the story is good and your actors are good, there’s a lot to work with and editing is really fun. I mean, there were a few things we had to finesse, but the basic dramatic structure was there to lay the film on. And she saw that, and so we just did it. It doesn’t really come through in the script as much as it actually comes through in the acting. The script is a little bit bare bones. I think when she read it at first she was kind of like, “Interesting, but what is this?” But when she saw the footage she was like, “Oh!”
Because of the performances? I think when you can see that river and how dangerous it is, it’s just much more powerful than it could ever have been written.
Melissa Leo Q&A
A veteran character actor with more than 20 years of experience on the stage, television and big screen, Melissa Leo isn’t the type to get giddy over recognition, though she admits the reception she’s gotten for her performance as Ray Eddy in this year’s Sundance Grand Prize-winning film Frozen River feels new. Having recently played scene-stealing roles opposite Benicio del Toro (21 Grams) and Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), there hasn’t been much work since her four-year stint as Kay Howard on Homicide: Life on the Street ended in 1997. But when Courtney Hunt approached her with the role of a struggling mom who takes drastic measures to give her kids a better life, Leo knew she had something special. Played with a tenacious desperation, Ray Eddy is a character audiences will not soon forget and whom Leo believes will never leave her.
Filmmaker sat down with Leo at the Sony Classics offices where she speaks candidly about her career and the role of the female actor in today’s moviemaking. — Jason Guerrasio
What attracted you to the Ray character? Let’s cut to the chase and make very, very clear that my entire career has been sort of taking whatever has been across the table. There was no picking or choosing. I remember after we shot the short Courtney asked me if I wanted to do a feature. I said, “Sure,” and for four years I would call that woman every seven, eight months and ask, “Are we making the movie?” There’s something I understood so deeply about Ray — the mothering and the desperation, which isn’t to say that I lived through Ray Eddy’s life myself but [I’ve been in] close enough proximity in different kinds of ways to feel that I had something no one else had to bring to the film — a willingness to be a person who has made some pretty bad judgments from time to time and makes no bones about it.
Courtney says in her interview that she wanted to make a film about women doing stuff, and that most films about women are talky relationship films. Do you think that’s true? Yeah — a lot of chatting with each other. Much more often we are “someones.” When I did Homicide it became quite clear that everyone thought of Kay Howard as Danny’s partner. Well, I’m sorry, but he was her partner! She was the better cop — more experienced, a better person — but they wouldn’t write it that way. But I don’t like to engage in the conversation of, “Oh, no parts for women!” From the beginning of time there have been parts for women… but they used to have men play them. [laughs] But women are a major part of the world so our stories are out there and every once in a while we get an opportunity to do something.
You played the character of Ray in Courtney’s previous short film. During the time you spent waiting for the feature, did you think about and work on the character? There have only been a couple of opportunities where the work is with me for some amount of time before I actually do it. More often it’s a remarkable handful of days and then we’re in and doing it. But with Frozen River I had the script for some time. It’s not like I would pull it out all the time and write little notes, but there is something about a character being with you through years. [The character of] Kay Howard had that. One day I was Kay Howard and four years later she and I had both grown and changed. As an actor, that’s a fascinating thing to me. I call it filtering down. My actor’s tool is myself — I go through molecular restructuring so when the molecules of Ray Eddy are with me for years in one way or another, yeah, that’s some delicious work. Like when the costume designer brought me one pair of jeans after another to the point that I finally went to K-Mart with her and when I had Ray’s jeans on I knew it.
How is it to be on a successful TV show for four years and then when it ends have to go back out to find work? I could not get hired, not for anything. I couldn’t get hired to play police because they didn’t want that same policewoman, I couldn’t get hired to play victims because Kay Howard couldn’t be a victim. [Homicide] really blocked me out of work, strangely enough. I loved the respect that I got from playing that part, but it didn’t help my career too much.
When Courtney looked for money for the feature she was often told that she needed bigger names to play the leads. Did that lurk at all in the back of your mind when you did this film? “I’m going to show these people what I can do." No, you carry a grudge like that and all it’s going to do is hurt yourself. [long pause] I think Frozen River aside, my industry is in pretty deep trouble because of that issue. There is something about “right casting” — not about how big the name is but about [an actor] being close to the character, or elevating it with [his or her] own experience and understanding. I can’t tell you the number of first-time filmmakers, people without a pot to piss in, saying, “Oh, no, we’re going to get ‘blah, blah, blah’ ” because then they can make their movie. Unfortunately “blah, blah, blah” is going to be a pain in the ass to work with, is going to bust their budget and make shooting more difficult because of their demands. And then there’s this really sweet independent filmmaking that is really about the project. Which isn’t to say that “blah, blah, blah” couldn’t play the part, but the necessity [of them playing it for financing reasons] is really dangerous for the industry.
How proud were you to see the attention that the film got at Sundance? Pride is not an easy emotion to come up in me, but yeah, I’m very, very proud of Frozen River and what I brought to it. I know I made it a better film. It’s not because of me it’s a great film; it’s because of every single one of us who where there, Courtney Hunt, first and foremost. And her husband Donald Harwood, who raised the money, and every single one of those kids who froze their asses off with us and stayed in that dreadful little motel. It’s all on the screen, and that’s delicious moviemaking.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. James Ponsoldt interviewed Happy-Go-Lucky writer-director Mike Leigh for our Web Exclusives section of the Website. Happy-Go-Lucky is nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Mike Leigh).
Picking a favorite Mike Leigh film can be a frustrating and exhilarating challenge. They’re all so uniformly excellent, so hilarious (Life Is Sweet), moving (Secrets & Lies), angry (Naked), honest (Meantime) and compassionate (Vera Drake) that the body of work begins to take on a holistic value -- each movie a nuanced iteration of one director’s worldview. Overseeing improv sessions with a group of consistently top-notch actors, Leigh develops the raw material of his screenplays during a period of months. What has resulted is a series of films —- dating back over thirty years -— that define collaborative cinema, highlighting the talents and fears and hopes of the actors who helped generate the film’s scripts. Leigh is always at the helm, but he has the confidence, generosity, and intelligence to allow his actors —- and the characters they play -— the freedom to truly reveal themselves on screen. Though Leigh has a unique and much admired working process which leaves the fingerprints of each actor all over the screen, his films are as unmistakable and personal as those of Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, and Francois Truffaut.
Having played smaller parts in Leigh’s All or Nothing and Vera Drake, actress Sally Hawkins now stars as the iconic, optimistic Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky. Since Hawkin’s performance won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival, Poppy has become something of a litmus test -- viewers seem to find her perpetual optimism inspiring, or they want to stuff a sock in her mouth. Most surprised by this response is Leigh himself, who, though often labeled a cynic, sees Poppy as well-balanced and perhaps even wise. Happy-Go-Lucky is a disarming film, which evolves from a seemingly structureless character-study into a subtly taut story about friendship, teaching, patience, love, and joy. The film slowly accumulates gravity and dimension, and by the ending it becomes clear that Poppy’s unflinching hopefulness is an active choice and a product of internal strength, not naiveté. In this way, Poppy resembles another one of cinema’s great heroines: Cabiria.
Miramx Films opens Happy-Go-Lucky this weekend.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about Poppy from Happy-Go-Lucky and Johnny from Naked, how they might be seen as two sides of the same coin, as it were.
Leigh: Yes, I mean I think it’s an interesting discussion. But I think it’s dangerous to make too much of it because aside from everything else it’s not something I’ve thought consciously about at all until after I’ve made this film.
You could say that Naked is the dark side, and more than any other of my films pretty much focuses on a single protagonist on a journey in a way. Although, it has to be said that dramatically and structurally, Happy-Go-Lucky focuses exclusively on Poppy much more than Naked does on Johnny because there’s quite a lot of parallel action in Naked which doesn’t involve Johnny whereas there are only two tiny moments in Happy-Go-Lucky where you see Zoe which are very minor. So you can talk about the differences but I think what’s interesting is what Poppy and Johnny have in common which is that they are both idealists. She is an optimistic idealist who is disposed to being positive and he is a frustrated idealist who is disappointed in the world. When we made the film someone described the film and Johnny as cynical, neither of which is true. He is lamenting. He laments the same things that Poppy would lament but he has actually become frustrated and embittered.
Filmmaker: Do you see there as being a certain rigidity to their optimism that sets them apart from the people in their lives?
Leigh: Certainly not. I think you certainly couldn’t say that about Poppy. Do you think you could say that about Poppy?
Filmmaker: No... but I think there’s a knee-jerk reaction people have when they first meet her.
Leigh: That’s a different matter. That may be true but that’s not what we’re talking about. That’s a whole different matter. Johnny, in a way, I don’t think rigidity is relevant to either of them, myself. I mean, when Johnny runs into Brad he’s up for a discussion. I really think too much can be made here. Some people have said that somehow Scott [from Happy-Go-Lucky] is an extension of Johnny. I think Johnny understands all the things kicking around in his head while Scott understands none of them at all. He’s all over the place. And also, Johnny is nothing if not sexually active and confident. A person beginning by being potentially irritated by Poppy is fair enough. You know, you forgive them. It depends on your own disposition. You can forgive them for thinking “Can I spend two hours with this person?” But, you know, in time you have the opportunity to start to access what she’s about and you see that she’s focused and responsible and successful and intelligent and she’s got a great sense of humor. But when she meets Scott, instantly you see he’s a person with no sense of humor, and people with no sense of humor bring out the worst in us basically. That’s what that’s about.
Filmmaker: I said a “certain rigidity,” but perhaps what I meant was that there’s deep core of loneliness in her and she’s actively trying to keep her focus on staying positive.
Leigh: What is it that makes you think she has a core of loneliness?
Filmmaker: It’s a gut feeling... she constantly wants to do better. For the kids she teaches, for everyone.
Leigh: I think it’s certainly important that at a certain point she finds a guy. I think she doesn’t shy away from him. You’re the first person to identify a core of loneliness in her. Loneliness is not a word that’s come up. I think she’s certainly... she’s spiritually centered in some way. She’s able to enjoy her space and meditate in a sense. I don’t see any evidence myself for her being lonely. I think she enjoys people and company, being part of things. I think the other characters in the film absolutely are lonely, not she. But, having said that, I make films that are for you to interpret however you like. There are people, not you obviously, who have said that this is the most irritating character in a film ever and they cannot stand her and they want to kill her by the end. Now I find that so incomprehensible that I cannot begin to negotiate.
Filmmaker: When I say lonely I don’t mean to suggest, counter to what other people say, that she tries to act so happy that she’s obviously sad. I think any person who is grounded in some code of personal morality/ethics, who lives by that code and is something of a mega-ethicist, feels like they’re not ever doing enough. And there’s guilt and an isolation that comes with that guilt.
Leigh: Maybe you don’t mean lonely. Perhaps you mean spiritually centered.
Filmmaker: Perhaps. Just a hope, a desire that things could be slightly better in the world.
Leigh: Yes, but that’s a different thing. That is not being lonely. Poppy’s absolutely sensitive to the woes of the world and passionate about those things. But that has nothing to do with being lonely. It has to do with caring and being motivated by concern and sensitivity.
Filmmaker: What do you think it is that compels Poppy to not share with Zoe the fact that she met the homeless man and was engaging with him?
Leigh: Well, some things are private. Some things you just kind of... for me, my thing is that Zoe’s got the idea that she’s out there with everything and on display and she just has some coolness and that’s just that really. I think it’s important not to decode such things. It’s very important to avoid the tendency that we all have to decode such things in the sort of measured plot terms as laid down by Hollywood. It becomes “Why is she not telling? Why is it at that moment she doesn’t reveal what she’s been doing?” That’s all rubbish really because that’s not the kind of story it is. It’s not the type of thing where you think, “Now there’s a really significant reason for this which will become apparent later.” That is completely in the wrong language.
Filmmaker: There’s a quote from Nietzsche which I’m going to mangle slightly: “That for which we can find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”
Leigh: Yeah! I think that’s possible.
Filmmaker: I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Poppy’s temperament. I haven’t heard that much about teaching and the different iterations of the role of teaching. And that’s actually for me what was most personally fascinating because it’s such a complex and integral part of society. I was wondering if you could just talk a little but about that.
Leigh: Well, obviously it looks at teaching, the film, and you’ve got a very good teacher in Poppy and obviously Heather, the headmistress, is also on the case. And Zoe in her own way is a good teacher and we assume that her boyfriend is a good teacher. And we’ve got a Flamenco teacher who is a very good teacher I reckon but unfortunately forgets one of the first rules of teaching, which is that you’ve got to leave your own baggage outside the classroom. And then you’ve got this guy who actually has a great deal to say about education and thinks he’s a really good teacher and is actually the worst kind of teacher there is and actually doesn’t know anything about it and is in fact infused with ignorance on the subject, as is Scott. I don’t make films that are in any way polemical, I mean, I reflect the nature of things and respond it. And hopefully you’ll come away with stuff to reflect on yourself, make of it what you will. And this is a reflection on education. It’s not a diatribe. There are no conclusions. An important scene in many contexts, including this one of education, is the scene in which she goes to see her pregnant sister. Values are right on the line. I think that’s important in the context of teaching.
Filmmaker: Do you think in some context filmmakers, or directors, could be seen as teachers?
Leigh: Oh yes, but you could say that about all art. Yes, of course. I don’t want to make that much of that, because that devalues the specific subjects of education in this particular film.
Filmmaker: Do you think the best teachers work in a Socratic method?
Leigh: In principal, yeah. In the last twenty years in the United Kingdom they’ve issued a national curriculum. I’m totally opposed to a national curriculum. I think it’s dreadful. But also, they’ve introduced all kinds of gradings and testings at various stages. All kind of stuff that imposes uniformity and standard criteria and content and teaching methods on all teachers. I think that’s completely opposed to what education should be about, which is people teaching their strengths and their passions.
Filmmaker: With a national curriculum, how do you think Poppy would go about that? Would she be crushed?
Leigh: Oh, she’d deal with it. She’d get on with it and deal with it. I thought about that for the film and whether I should deal with it and then I decided that’s not really relevant to what the film was about. No, no. These guys get on with it. That’s what you do because what’s important to you is the kids. People like the Poppies of this world, and there are millions of them everywhere. I mean the reason I call it an anti-miserablist film is because it is about the fact that, although we have a great deal to lament and be gloomy about in the 21st century people out there, all kinds of people, including people like you and me, are getting out there and doing stuff and being positive and optimistic. And teachers, not least! In the end, apart from anything else, the Poppies of this world just deal with it. It’s what they do.
Filmmaker: Poppy asks Scott whether he was bullied in school. We also see the troubled student in Poppy’s class who’s obviously dealing with quite a bit at home. Do you that think the damage that’s done to us in pre-adolescence is baggage that forms us for the rest of our lives?
Leigh: There is a connection there between the two, yes. Scott is somebody who you could tell from all the evidence that you pick up there that he’s had a bad relationship with his family, and it’s complicated with his mother, but you can bet your bottom dollar that at school he did not have the kind of treatment most kids get, and the caring. It was neglect. Yeah, obviously those characters resonate with each other.
Filmmaker: Will Scott find some peace in his life?
Leigh: What do you think?
Filmmaker: I hope so.
Leigh: No, that’s different.
Filmmaker: Well... no. I don’t know if he will, unfortunately.
Leigh: The guy is fucked up. Basically he’s doomed. Though it’s probably in the grander scheme of things not his fault, he is his own worst enemy. He’s isolated and it’s an exploration of a guy who’s so isolated. He creates his own reality. It happens to all fantasizers who’ve lost the capacity, or ability, or opportunity to really interact. As to the whole question of what happens afterwards, that is really where I hand it over to you. And if you say well you hope he’ll be alright, great, sure. But if you say you think he’ll be alright then I think you’re being deeply optimistic. But I don’t know what’s going to happen to anybody—including you and me.
Filmmaker: I read an article several years ago about scientists who were trying to determine whether we’re essentially hard-wired to be happy or sad much in the way with our genetic makeup whether we’re going to be obese or skinny, diabetic or not, straight or gay, etc. Do you, in your experiences, think that some people are fundamentally happy or sad?
Leigh: Well, I don’t know about hard-wired. We are, apart from our genetic makeup, affected by our environment and the way we relate to it. I mean, I know that my makeup -- which manifests itself in what’s in my films -- does come from some stuff in my relationship with my father and the way I was brought up. There’s a running theme through my films that manifests itself particularly when Poppy goes to see her sister. All my films in one way or another are about the kind of battle between freedom and anarchy and repressive conservative suburban material values. That runs through all of my films, well, obviously is a function of my own suburban experience.
Filmmaker: Scott says that he’s never given up on a student the moment when he’s about to give up on Poppy. But in the film, you really feel that it’s Poppy who refuses to give up on him and that when she does it seems heartbreaking.
Leigh: The other thing about it in the end is that she obviously knows what he’s going through. She sees what’s happening. The great thing I think for me was that we know by the time we get to the climax that Poppy knows how to deal with kids. And Scott is one big kid, so Poppy can deal with him.
Originally posted 10/10/08
Labels: Web Exclusives
WERNER HERZOG AND D.P. PETER ZEITLINGER CAPTURE ANTARCTICA IN ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD. COURTESY THINKFILM.
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Nick Dawson interviewed Encounters at the End of the World director Werner Herzog for our Director Interviews section of the Website. Encounters at the End of the World is nominated for Best Documentary.
For more than 40 years, Werner Herzog has been redrawing the map, both cinematically and geographically. He started making short films in the mid-1960s, and made an impact internationally with Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), the tale of a mad conquistador's doomed jungle quest, the first of five collaborations with actor Klaus Kinski. Herzog and Kinski's relationship was often turbulent and violent, but the ambitious, outlandish and usually unhinged films they made together over the course of the 70s and 80s – Nosferatu (1978), Woyzeck (1978), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987) – would all become classics, as would other Herzog films of the period such as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977). Herzog's narrative features have boldly explored dark, uncharted areas of the psyche as well as the planet, and in his parallel, synergetic career as a documentary filmmaker he has tackled similar themes. His non-fiction films predominantly bear the mark of the fearless adventurer, from his early The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969) through to 1997's Little Dieter Needs to Fly (which he remade last year as Rescue Dawn) and the recent hit Grizzly Man (2005).
Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog's latest documentary, proves that at the age of 65 he is still undaunted by the world's least hospitable places. The film is a typically offbeat travelogue of his visit to Antarctica, a place which fascinates him not only because of its natural phenomena (the active volcano Mount Erebus, the strange world beneath the ice) but also because of its unusual collection of inhabitants, scientists, bohemians and nomads, who have found their way to the base of the planet. The film engages with Herzog's career-long preoccupation with man's relationship to savage nature and is ultimately an idiosyncratic vision of the planet's seventh continent, where the director finds a parade of people with buckets on their heads, disoriented penguins and a woman who transforms herself into human hand luggage.
Filmmaker spoke to Herzog about the genesis of his latest expedition, fainting at Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, and the need for documentaries in a world filled with video games, virtual realities, the internet, Photoshop, WrestleMania and breast implants.
DIRECTOR WERNER HERZOG WITH D.P. PETER ZEITLINGER DURING THE SHOOTING OF ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD. COURTESY THINKFILM.
Filmmaker: How are you?
Herzog: I'm a bit jet lagged. I've come from Europe, and a few days before I flew from Los Angeles to Europe – that's nine hours, and back six hours. It takes me some time to understand where I am, and who I am and why. [laughs]
Filmmaker: How long did it take you to get used to Antarctica, with the long flight and then constant daylight once you arrived?
Herzog: Well, jet lag doesn't occur there because it's on the same line of longitude as New Zealand, but it's a long flight, almost eight hours. It's quite a distance down there. And adapting to Antarctica, I think nobody ever will be able to fully adapt, you are only partially adapted. We are not made for understanding that there's five months of day and never night, and then some twilight zone, and then five months of night. We are clearly not really organized for that. When you're on the South Pole, you look in one direction and you look north. You turn around 180 degrees and you're still looking north. Any direction you're looking is north, and it's a strange notion.
Filmmaker: Did you ever consider shooting during the Antarctic winter?
Herzog: No, because you couldn't do much filming. It's always dark, you could only do interior stuff, and it's extremely cold. And then the population is very limited – you have the so-called “winter-overs,” but it's maybe only 20% of the regular population of scientists, and many of them are just in maintenance. There are some scientists who love the Antarctic night, for instance astronomers who can do long-time observations, and some others who love to be there at that time for good reasons.
Filmmaker: A major focus of the film seems to be to show the people who go to Antarctica, and the reasons they travel there, rather than concentrating entirely on the nature and landscape of the place.
Herzog: In a way it started out with landscape, but I say that with necessary caution because it was all underwater footage. [It's] a completely strange science fiction world, totally fascinating, and we have never seen anything like that on any screen, so that was what intrigued me to go there and I wanted to do diving and filming under the water. I got intrigued by the continent in a way and I wanted to go down there. I knew I would never have a chance until this diver and musician Henry Kaiser told me, “Watch out, there is an artists' and writers' program [run] by the National Science Program. Why don't you apply?” Even after I applied I thought I had no chance because there are Nobel Prize winners lining up to get the chance to go there and do science but all of a sudden I find myself invited. I didn't know if this was a good or a bad surprise because you couldn't do any scouting. You are flown down, and six weeks later you are flown back and you have to have a movie in the can.
Filmmaker: Given those restrictions, how clear an idea did you have of what you wanted the movie to be?
Herzog: Well, I had a couple of basic places that interested me, for example, this very high active volcano, Mount Erebus. I knew I would go to a diving camp and I knew roughly who I would meet there, for example the lead biologist at this camp was a great fan of early 1950s doomsday science fiction movies and I got fascinated by him showing them to his colleagues and divers. A few things I knew in advance; I knew I would probably do something about neutrino research, but it was quite vague and I had no idea who the people were doing this. I had to be quick and look out and find people, but I'm a filmmaker and I do find the real people.
Filmmaker: You mentioned diving and the science fiction elements of Antarctica. Did you do any diving yourself?
Herzog: No, I'm not a diver but I really wanted a crash course and [to] learn quickly [laughs] and I was immediately dissuaded from it. There's no way to do it because it's too dangerous and only the best of the best do it. Antarctica cannot afford to waste resources in a big rescue operation. In fact, they did have fatalities – it is dangerous and it's not to make any jokes about. I have no problem to delegate filming underwater to a really good diver.
Filmmaker: Was there any way that you could direct the divers who were filming for you?
Herzog: No, they are left alone down there. But Henry Kaiser, who shot almost all of the [underwater] footage understood that, for example, I wanted to have long takes not just five-second clips and he did it marvelously. I wanted him to go very close to certain strange creatures and he understood it and came back with fantastic footage. I owe him not only the footage under the water but lots of the music in the film. He did it together with David Lindley and it's just very, very beautiful.
Filmmaker: The choral music in the film seems to suggest the experience of being in Antarctica is almost religious.
Herzog: Yes and it's not only me, others understand it similarly. Some of the divers before they go under the ice speak jokingly of “going into the cathedral.” There is a strange sacrality about some of these landscapes underwater or outside. It's very, very odd, and through this Orthodox Russian Church choir music you all of a sudden understand it and start to see it. The music allows us to see it.
Filmmaker: Although you narrate the film, we don't really see you in Encounters.
Herzog: You do see me , but it's from behind when I'm crawling through some ice tunnels up in the volcano. But you do not see my face. It was better [that way]. We tried to do it without any person, but it's better to follow the curiosity of the human being. I did not want to be shown, but it was also good for the cinematographer, because I could whisper to him, “There's a bump – watch out.”
Filmmaker: The relationship between man and nature has been one of your preoccupations, so were there ways that you wanted to explore that specifically in this film?
Herzog: In a way yes, although of course I'm not out on huge expeditions like in the old days and of course I see many of the absurdities down there. McMurdo Station is like a noisy, ugly mining town with the noise of Caterpillars, and the first thing you run into is an ATM machine. You just do not expect that.
Filmmaker: How many places are there left that you want to go and film?
Herzog: There's enough - I've always been curious. In the film there's a very nice moment where a Caterpillar driver – who actually is a philosopher and has a degree in comparative literature – speaks about how his grandmother read The Odyssey to him, about the Argonauts. He says, “That's when I fell in love with the world,” and I thought, “That's exactly what I've done in many films, falling in love with the world.” This is clearly a film where I have fallen in love with Antarctica and it's actually my Antarctica, my love story with Antarctica. And hence there are many places I will never go. They are sending robots to Mars. It's far too expensive and risky to send human beings but sometimes I think instead of a robot they should send a poet up there. It would be me that would volunteer, I would be the first to apply. Of course I'll never be there, but so be it.
Filmmaker: How does Antarctica rank in terms of the most unforgiving places you've been to for films?
Herzog: We should be careful to avoid the clichés about Antarctica. Antarctica, the way human beings experience now in most cases is very easy. It's easy. You have the aerobics studio and yoga classes and an ATM machine and a warm bed like in a motel or a college dorm.
Filmmaker: Do you almost wish you had been there 100 years ago when it was untamed?
Herzog: Well, that's an interesting question. Not really, because there were very, very good films made at that time. Shackleton had 35mm film with him and they created phenomenal footage which in our spirit of today we probably could not achieve. It has a very strange beauty and I do not mind that I have not been down there 100 years ago. I'm never out to seek the difficulties in the world in any of my films, I'm a professional filmmaker. I avoid the difficulties as long as I can do that, but if they are in my path I'm not afraid to cope with it.
Filmmaker: There's a fascinating part of the film where you have a conversation with a scientist about penguins.
Herzog: I was interested in one basic question though I knew I wouldn't get a real full answer: “Is there such a thing as insanity or derangement among animals?” As we were in a penguin colony, [I asked] “Is there such a thing among penguins?” All of a sudden, I get very interesting answers. Not a full explanation – we'll probably never have it – but it's good to ask an unusual question once in a while.
Filmmaker: OK, well maybe I can ask a slightly unusual question myself now. With your direct association with the wilds of nature, isn't it paradoxical that you live in L.A., which I think you have called the most culturally rich city in the world?
Herzog: No, not in the world, in America. With the most cultural substance. Of course it sounds provocative now sitting in New York – New Yorkers will immediately contest it. But there's a serious side about Los Angeles beyond the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, and I've made a lot of films not out in wild nature. My next film is going to take place in New Orleans. I don't see myself pinned down to films about wild nature. It appears in some of the movies, yes. When I film in the jungle in Fitzcarraldo, the jungle is just another forest. Period. It's nothing so special.
Filmmaker: But what is it that L.A. gives you that you can't get elsewhere?
Herzog: It's complicated. I would need much more time than we have. There's something very vibrant, things get done there. Things get made here in New York; much of the culture is being consumed and not so much fabricated. Of course there are painters here, but some of [the culture] was borrowed from Europe, like the opera. Los Angeles is very essentially American. I moved to Los Angeles because I married an American. I'm happily married and I enjoy to be in Los Angeles and it's new horizons, new alliances, new subjects. I'd never have been in touch with Henry Kaiser if I hadn't been there, or the National Science Foundation, I never would have made Grizzly Man with the Discovery Channel and Creative Differences. So it's a very good time for me.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you cried in a film, and which film was it?
Herzog: I do not cry in movies, I laugh in movies. But I do faint. I keep fainting in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, the wonderful great silent film. There's a moment where they cut the elbow vein of Joan and blood is spurting out, and that's when I faint.
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Herzog: I would cast Humphrey Bogart, the young Marlon Brando. I don't know what film I would make – I wouldn't want to repeat any film that was already made. I would love to venture out with some of the finest: Lillian Gish, Edward G. Robinson. They are so great that I would find it the most exciting challenge to work with them and engage them. [And] Fred Astaire. [laughs]
Filmmaker: What's the worst (or weirdest) job you've ever had?
Herzog: A parking attendant at the Munich Oktoberfest where I had to deal with 3,000 drunk drivers each night.
Filmmaker: Finally, will the current interest in documentaries last, or is it just a fad?
Herzog: I believe it's a natural concomitant of a very massive shift in our understanding of reality because we have got video games, virtual realities, the internet, Photoshop, WrestleMania, breast implants, so it's an onslaught of new things. We as filmmakers have a huge, momentous task to redefine our sense of reality and that's why I do Fitzcarraldo, where I move a ship over a mountain. Although it looks like a fever dream, you know it's not a joke because it is a ship over a mountain and not a digital effect.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Peter Bowen interviewed Milk director Gus Van Sant for our Gotham Independent Film Awards special section in the Fall '08 issue. Milk is nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Gus Van Sant), Best Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black), Best Actor (Sean Penn), Best Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin), Best Original Score (Danny Elfman), Best Editing (Elliot Graham) and Best Costume Design (Danny Glicker).
In the early ’70s as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Gus Van Sant made a momentous decision. He changed his major from painting to film. But Van Sant didn’t leave painting behind. Rather he brought to film a painter’s concern for the materiality of the image. In his latest feature, Milk, a historical portrait of the slain gay San Francisco politician, Harvey Milk, Van Sant does not simply reconstruct a chronology of events but breathes life into a series of tableaux from another time. Milk lives in this strangely real world from the past as well as in our imaginations. He is a figure who still speaks to us.
As an artist, Van Sant makes moving pictures — moving both in the sense that he animates the frozen composition of photography and in the way he invests those images with emotion. In Milk, this becomes an almost literal practice as archival footage frequently dissolves into the film’s “real life” universe, and Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), his lovers Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack Lira (Diego Luna) and his band of political pranksters from Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) to Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) take over San Francisco. But Milk’s San Francisco belongs neither to the past or the present, and neither to history or fiction, but rather, as with so much of Van Sant’s work, it partakes of all these worlds. In shooting Milk, Harris Savides elegantly elides the difference between documentary and the dramatic. The sight comes from actual footage, gay photography, personal memory and dramatic transformation and the sounds from Puccini’s opera, disco-diva Sylvester and the actual noise of modern — and past — San Francisco.
From the start, Van Sant has unfolded his stories about sad-sack lovers and good-humored hustlers in the real world, like the wet, scraggily streets and suburbs of Portland in Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy, the immense sublimity of nature in Last Days and Gerry or the real back streets of Boston in Good Will Hunting. Even the Hollywood imagination can become a real world as, for example, in his faithful reconstruction of Psycho, he pays the fictional realm the same reverence he maintains for the archival footage in Milk. In Van Sant’s filmic world, the “real” and the fictional are not opposing forces, but collaborators and partners. In Milk and his other work, the photographic images present a tactile materiality that far exceeds the controlling needs of fiction, and his fictions bring to the natural realm an unexpected poetry and perspective.
TOP OF PAGE: JOSH BROLIN (LEFT) AND SEAN PENN IN MILK. ABOVE: MILK DIRECTOR GUS VAN SANT. PHOTO BY SCOTT GREEN.
When I starting thinking about your career, I originally thought this was your first reality-based historical film, but then I realized most of your films are based on some sort of real event, a piece of history refracted through your aesthetic lens. Yes, I guess the real difference between this film and my other ones is that we use the real characters’ names here. Although in Mala Noche, the characters of Walt and Pepper have the same names as the people they are based on.
What about your other films? Drugstore Cowboy was based on a novel written by James Fogle who had lived that life. There was a real Bob — whose name wasn’t actually Bob — and a real Dianne. James LeGros played Rick who was based on the real James Fogle. These were real people that we could meet and talk to. My Own Private Idaho was based on a guy I used to know. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was not based on real people. However, there was someone that Tom Robbins said inspired him, but I think she was a waitress he met at a bar in Vegas. And To Die For was based on the Pamela Smart case, which was one of the first real television media events. Good Will Hunting was loosely based on people that Ben and Matt knew. It was fashioned into a fictional film, but Tim Affleck, Ben’s father, was actually a janitor at Harvard who was very intellectual and could have probably answered those questions in the film.
In most of these films, the real elements are somewhat buried, but Milk appears to be a transparent look at an actual historical event. How was that different for you? It is mostly the same process of trying to learn from reality that we go through in the other films, of trying to understand the logic behind the things that happened. But using real people and their names in Milk was difficult because you can never really get it completely true. You are doing a play about real characters, but it doesn’t have a fictional base. So in a way it’s more like pantomime, the replication of something that happened in real life with the characters called by their real names. It’s like an opera about those people. You can never really get to the real place.
In talking about your “Death Trilogy,” you once said that each story was sparked by a news item that was also a mystery. Do you think that there is a mystery at the heart of Milk? There was a sort of mystery in those three films — Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. Gerry [based on an actual incident in New Mexico in 1999 where two men went into the desert and one killed the other] had a mystery because it only had one witness; only one person came out alive. And in Elephant [inspired by the Columbine massacre] the boys were dead and their diaries hadn’t been released. And in Last Days, Kurt Cobain was missing during his last days — no one knew where he had been and what he had done. In Milk, there are lots of little mysteries about what might have happened at different points, events that different people are always trying to clear up with different stories.
How did your story veer from the historical record? Mostly we tried to keep it very accurate. In some cases, where we had actual filmic record we just recreated the scene. But there is a scene when Harvey is meeting with Representative Phil Burton over Proposition 6. Cleve Jones, who was our advisor, had actually been at that meeting and explained that Harvey had put on a real show, running around the room and flailing the paper in the air. He was livid because they had left the word “gay” off the flyer fighting back against Prop 6 [the proposed bill to ban all gay teachers in California]. We were shooting in the exact room that the meeting took place, with the real costumes, even with the same furniture, which hadn’t even been reupholstered since then. We had Sean do an intense version, even wiping his ass with the flyer before throwing it in the fire. But it wasn’t keeping with the rest of the film. So we have a much more calm version in which Milk never gets out of his seat.
I remember being in San Francisco when Milk and Moscone were assassinated. It was a very strange time, because only a week before was the Jonestown massacre. And most of those people came from San Francisco. The entire city went into shock. Do you remember where you were when you learned of the event? I was in L.A. working in the film business, but I wasn’t really an out gay person at the time. I was driving a car to Portland when I heard it on the news. I knew he was gay, but I didn’t know much about him. I wasn’t really that aware of his contribution in defeating the Briggs initiative. At the time, I had this image in my head of all these supervisors in suits in City Hall. I’d heard that Dan White killed the Mayor first and then walked down the hall to kill Harvey. It seemed like it was one supervisor killing another supervisor, a sort of in-house murder — a bunch of executives killing each other.
For many, especially in the gay community, Milk’s death is a powerful and significant historical date. What was your visual strategy in trying to capture the life and times of Harvey Milk? We started off with this one plan, but then quickly aborted it. We’d been working a lot with the styles of the Hungarian Bela Tarr and documentary maker Frederick Wiseman. And also Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, and 1080 Bruxelles was a big influence, especially in Last Days. Before we shot Gerry, we constantly watched Jeanne Dielman. For Milk, we were going into a Frederick Wiseman world, so we were going to hire documentary filmmakers, or people who has shot alongside some of the more famous documentary makers. But we weren’t shooting in black-and-white [like Wiseman), and that really changed how it was going to look. And then we screened what we’d shot, and it looked a lot like what other people were doing on TV. Shot on 35mm and in color, it didn’t really look like Wiseman. When we realized this, we quickly bailed out. We were like, “Holy shit, this doesn’t look any different than The Office.”
You start the film with all this great archival footage of gay life in the early ’60s, like an invasive camera trying to record all these people who don’t want to be seen, which then morphs into the real film. The look and feel of archival footage seems to really inform your visual sense here. That is one of the reasons we wanted to shoot in 16mm originally, so that the archival footage would be indistinguishable from our film.
It works great the way it is. I understand you used other photographical material, like Crawford Barton’s work, in the film. Yes, but the subjects of Crawford Barton were more interesting than his photographic style. Our style was more connected to someone like William Eggleston than to Barton.
I am often struck by how much your films are as much about the photographic image, as an image, as they are about the story those images tell. There often seems to be a palatable materiality in the image itself. I am not sure that isn’t Harris Savides and not me. Often when we are shooting, all that stuff — the depth of field, the grain, etc. — is controlled by Harris.
Yes, but in many of your films, the image takes on a lot of the work of telling the story, and sometimes even seems to tell a story all its own. I like to let the image take over from the story. You can have something down about what you are going to film, but the minute you start shooting, all this new stuff starts happening. There is a new reality to it all. Usually it is a character, and sometimes it is an environment, or, really, a character in an environment. It’s like you are photographing some sort of dance between the real world and the story, and I often let the real moment of the real environment and the real character sort of take over. The whole strength of the shot is that moment when you are beholding this character in this real environment.
Yes, I think that tension of a fictional story unfolding in a real world creates this very powerful sense of drama. That is something that I have learned watching lots of different films. The French New Wave use that a lot. And for the neorealists, that is what they were showing in The Bicycle Thief. It is a real boy and a real worker and you are watching them at the same time that you are watching the story.
In many of your films — I am thinking a lot of the desert in Gerry and the wind and the woods in Last Days — nature and natural landscapes seem to belong both to the real world and to the fictional world of the story. What was the natural landscape in Milk? Ever since Elephant we’ve been shooting with a stereo mic, which we used in Milk as well. So even if we built the sets, we are using the sound of the real space, which we did all the time in Milk. When you use a mono mic, you have to stop traffic and outside sounds so you can later add them back in at a level that is agreeable to you. With the stereo mic, we encourage stuff to go on as usual. We don’t turn off the refrigerator and we don’t stop the traffic. Unfortunately in Milk much of the traffic is modern-day traffic, not period traffic, so we had to throw in period traffic. But still we are using what is really there rather than trying to limit it.
Many writers have picked up on how many of your films revolve around self-created or improvisational families. In Milk, family takes on a whole new meaning. Milk’s big fight is against Briggs’s initiative, which would have fired out gay people from the school system, because, according to Briggs and Anita Bryant, the “gay lifestyle” was destroying the American family. The film seems to take on the very definition of family, as well as what’s American. Why is family so important to you? It’s true; the films that I have made are about newly created families. And that is what the Castro was in San Francisco, groups of people that created their own family. I guess it’s just a preoccupation of mine.
For the family of gay people, Harvey Milk is their saint. What sort of responsibility do you feel about getting this right? Or do you feel that your responsibility is to simply tell the story as a filmmaker? This is the first time that I have really made something that is a historical document. But it really is something else. When Henry Fonda plays young [Abraham] Lincoln, you are not supposed to be thinking that he is actually Lincoln. It is a pantomime or a political passion play. As a creator you want to be able to play with it and not be overburdened by the historical accuracy. But at the same time, you want to stay true to Milk. In some cases, it was easier since we had actual footage, so what we shot was exactly what happened.
Isn’t that also the problem with biopics? Since we all know what’s going to happen, it takes away the power of suspense. For Hitchcock, suspense was all about the audience knowing what would happen. We see a bomb under the seat, but the people on the train don’t know it’s there. That’s why we say upfront that Harvey and Moscone have been murdered. But we don’t say who did it, nor why.
The film is coming out in a very turbulent political time. What effect would you like it to have? By the time the film comes out, the election will be over, although we will be having screenings, including the big opening at the Castro, before the election. I hope that some of this will have some effect on California’s Proposition 8, which is the vote to take away the already confirmed right of gay people to get married in California. We thought about whether to release the film before the election, especially if it could affect Prop 8. The end decision was not to have the film speaking directly to the election, because if it was seen to be just about the election that might take away its chance of having a life after the election. We decided to straddle the election, to have the opening affect the election and the release be after the election.
That sort of fits Harvey Milk himself, who claimed that his election was about him but also about the larger movement of gay rights. You could look at it that way. But I think that if Harvey was the decisionmaker, he would want the film to affect the election.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Howard Feinstein interviewed Trouble The Water directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal for our Summer '08 issue as well as the film's subjects, Kim and Scott Rivers, in a sidebar to the piece. Trouble The Water is nominated for Best Documentary.
Brooklynites Tia Lessin and Carl Deal had the near-perfect recipe for what I consider the near-perfect documentary: a unique situation, inimitable subjects, a strong but non-didactic political thrust and that most elusive of ingredients, serendipity. Shocked at the government’s inaction and ineptitude after Katrina, the filmmaking couple went to New Orleans in 2005 to make a doc about the National Guard’s role, or lack of one, in all this. After losing their access, they met Kim and Scott Roberts in an Alexandria, La., shelter. Once they saw the crude footage Kim shot during the storm that flooded their low-lying neighborhood known as the Lower Ninth, they knew they were on to something. Kim’s newly purchased used camcorder chronicled not only the effects of the hurricane but also the role the government played in the suffering of so many even after the waters receded.
Wisely, the directors, who have produced much of Michael Moore’s TV and film work, did not tamper with Kim’s footage. Instead, they show it and then revisit many of the places and people she encountered during the crisis. Trouble the Water is a model of what documentaries should be and what they are, by definition, meant to reveal. To my mind, it is one of the great documentaries of all time. Yes, it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, has played many festivals, and has been written about glowingly, but all of those honors from the past year pale in comparison to the film’s important place in the history of documentary filmmaking. The film will open in August through Zeitgeist Films.
TOP OF PAGE: KIM AND SCOTT RIVERS IN TROUBLE THE WATER. ABOVE: TROUBLE THE WATER DIRECTORS CARL DEAN AND TIA LESSIN. PHOTO BY HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.
When you first went to do the story on the National Guard, can you sum up for me what happened, what didn’t happen and how much footage you got? Deal: We decided to go to Louisiana about a week after Hurricane Katrina because Tia had spotted a little blurb in the New York Times about the Louisiana National Guardsmen returning from Iraq to the devastation at home. Some were coming back homeless, and we saw this as an opportunity to explore.
This is a separate issue from Bush not wanting to bring the guard back to help? Lessin: [The Guard] were deployed in Baghdad instead of in Louisiana at the time of Katrina. And so they were returning to their homes a little late. Some of them were returning to help, some of them were returning because their homes were underwater — they were trying to sort things out. We thought it was a way to get into the story in a personal way and to make the connection between the Iraq war and what was happening in the States.
Deal: I don’t know how many billions of dollars now have been spent on the war in Iraq, but it’s well over the $100 million that it would have taken to construct a levy system in New Orleans that would not have failed during Katrina. So it’s interesting to look at the impact that this war on terror has had here at home.
Lessin: And the priorities of the Bush administration.
So you talked to a number of people and then you lost your access? Deal: Yeah, we spent about three or four days greeting planeload after planeload of soldiers coming back to very bittersweet homecomings. It was one of the saddest things that I’d ever seen. We spent several days with the soldiers and their families, and at a certain point the PR flack for the Louisiana National Guard cut off access.
Lessin: There were a couple of interviews where a guardsman said, “We had all the high-water vehicles in Iraq. We couldn’t bring them home with us. Sorry.” The PR people heard that and got quite concerned.
Where were you when they told you? Lessin: We were in Alexandria. The National Guard Army were these soldiers who were returning freshly right on the highway, and across the parking lot was the Red Cross shelter you see in the film. And so Carl took one of the crews and wandered over across the parking lot looking for National Guardsmen who were staying at the shelter because we were still trying to follow that story in this other venue. And he was ready to interview the guy who is running the shelter when Kimberly got in the frame. She got right in the middle of the interview, interrupted the interview, shot the interview and took over. So essentially she not only took over the interview, but took over our film.
When did you first see her footage? Lessin: It wasn’t immediate. It was several days later.
Was she by herself when you met her? Lessin: She was with Scott and some people they had saved and brought to the higher ground. The story that she described was extraordinary. Everybody had extraordinary stories, I know that. But what Kim and Scott described, and the odyssey that they went through to get out of town, was jaw-dropping. At the end she said, “And I have it on tape.” We were eager to see the tape, but we were also captivated by this woman, this natural-born storyteller.
Deal: [Kim and Scott] had their extraordinary story, but they also had an extraordinary ability to tell that story. Not just by the fact that they had videotaped some of their ordeal, but they just had a true gift for gab.
Lessin: Kim got to know us a little bit. We told her about who we were. We had a lot of frank conversations. She interviewed us, we talked to her. She wanted to build a trust with us because what she had was something she felt was very valuable.
And she was very open about, in a sense, hustling. It is her nature to hustle, no? Deal: She’s a survivor. She knows how to survive with whatever’s at her disposal.
Did she mention money at the beginning? Lessin: Well, let me first mention that she had never picked up a video camera a day in her life. It was serendipity that she had the camera, that she bought it a week earlier, but once she had it, she absolutely thought, well, as long as I’m stranded in my city, I might as well make a buck off of it. And really, her intent when she was filming in that moment was that she was going to have some footage she could sell. Sell it to some white folk, as she says in the film. But then it took on more than that. At a certain point she realized she was witnessing something incredibly historic, and she thought she was going to die. She told us she felt the camera was going to be the only thing left behind, that she and Scott weren’t going to be able to tell the story.
I like the way Scott guides us around. It’s low-key. He has a very clear way of narrating when he takes us back to all of his hangouts in New Orleans. Lessin: By the time Kim and Scott got to Alexandria, they were looking at images that the media were broadcasting about what they had just been through, and they realized [these images] were superficial and they had a different story they were determined to get out there. It wasn’t about the money then: It became their mission. I think a lot of documentary filmmakers have an idea in their head and they go and pursue that and make that film. I think it was a good lesson for us that it’s not really what’s in your head, it’s what’s in front of your camera — what’s beyond your camera lens — that counts.
After showing the horror of what Kim and Scott went through, the film ends with them at a rally, singing and hopeful. Did it just sort of happen that way, or did you deliberately decide to end the movie on a more positive note? Lessin: The challenge of making a film like this was that we couldn’t control the ending. It could have gone any number of different ways for Kimberly and Scott. We were well aware of that. So the answer to that question is we just documented what happened in their lives, and if it had gone a different way, it would have had a different ending. Because we didn’t know where the film was going, I think we tried to bring the audience on that journey, too. Sometimes documentaries telegraph where they’re going at the very beginning. We like the fact that the film ends on a positive note.
You chose a structure for the film that shifts backward and forward in time. Some find it confusing. Can you talk about why you made this decision? Lessin: Mostly, it was a practical matter. We used flashbacks and non-linear storytelling during the first half of the film because we had a problem of coverage: Kim’s camera battery died during the hurricane, and as they made their four-day journey out of the city, there were crucial scenes that she wasn’t able to document that we felt had to be in the film. So we decided to anchor the story in the present — Kimberly and Scott’s return to New Orleans with us two weeks after the storm where we revisited some of those scenes together. And then we dug deep for archival footage that matched Kim’s handheld POV; news reports to remind the audience what the rest of us were seeing; the horrifying 911 calls that, set against the footage of rising floodwaters, tell a bigger story. And ultimately, by moving back and forth in time, I think we created a rhythm that mirrors the way traumatic memory interrupts the present. So if some people find it disorienting, maybe that’s a good thing. Also, when we first met them Kimberly and Scott were going through posttraumatic stress. Part of what they were experiencing in that moment, in the present, were the nightmares. Their minds were going back. So that story structure was reflecting what was actually going on with them, and what we were experiencing with them.
Non-linear thinking. Deal: People going through posttraumatic stress whipsaw back and forth and get a certain feeling of chaos.
So what’s the Lower Ninth like now? How has it changed? Or maybe it hasn’t? Deal: A huge swath of the Lower Ninth Ward is now just wild swampland, essentially. The houses have been razed, the debris has been removed, and there’s block upon block upon block of nothing but tall grass and birds and insects. It’s gone back to the wild. That’s the part that’s very close to the canal. There are sections that are coming back.
Is that process or redevelopment really working? Lessin: The thing that was stunning to us as New Yorkers coming in from the outside was that every time we came to New Orleans — and we’ve been in New Orleans a dozen times in the past couple of years — we saw that things were changing very, very little. From visit to visit, we sort of expected, even as the cynics that we are, some significant rebuilding to be going on. And nothing really was happening. We tried to represent that in the film. Particularly as New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11, we saw how rapidly things changed in Tribeca, so it was a surprise to us and it continues to be a surprise.
What is the state of the broken levy now? Lessin: There are a lot of levies in New Orleans. The one in the Lower Ninth Ward, they repaired it.
Properly? Lessin: No. It will still not withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane. Those neighborhoods that were vulnerable during Katrina remain vulnerable.
I like that the film shows that Katrina, horrible as it was, was not just an isolated incident for residents of the Lower Ninth. Lessin: Kimberly and Scott have been through a lot of storms, not just hurricane storms but the storms of a lot of shit that has come their way in life. It’s all part of their lives. They’ve been up against tragedy from day one, and they always come out the other end. But New Orleans is still struggling, and they’re struggling too.
Kim and Scott Rivers Q&A
Few in New Orleans’ infamous Ninth Ward, or Lower Ninth, have the luxury of contradictions. It’s not just that the area is so poor and neglected, it is also a neighborhood in which the effects of racism toward African Americans is exceptionally palpable. Even under segregation, New Orleans was considered more polarized, more hateful, if you will, than other Southern cities. And the Lower Ninth was, and is, a negative symbol of its shame.
Kim and Scott Rivers are a remarkable couple who have defied the odds. They refuse to be among the no-hopers in a no-hope community. Yes, they have been through hell: drugs, both selling and using, and relatives lost to AIDS, for starters. Self-described “street hustlers,” they have used cunning and willpower to create constructive, self-actualized lives.
Kim is charismatic, to say the least, an extrovert who refuses to censor what she articulates, an open book who makes most of us seem false by comparison. She is religious. And, under the name Black Kold Madina, she is a gifted rapper with the moxie to go full throttle for career success. Her phenomenal performance in the film of her song “Amazing” is honestly autobiographical. (“I’ve been picked up and let down but I bounce right back/ Cut a fella’s fucking face with a razor blade…We got married as soon as I turned legal age.”) Kim’s insatiable curiosity led her to buy a used Camcorder for nearly nothing the day before Katrina hit; without her footage, there would be no Trouble the Water, much less a historical record of the tragedy.
Her husband, Scott, is calmer, more introverted. He is an observer. We see that when he and Kim revisit sites from the Katrina days and he tells us the back stories. Now, three years after Katrina, he has learned carpentry, with the stated goal of committing himself to rebuild a city that, despite its multiple drawbacks, is nevertheless his and Kim’s hometown — as it is of their baby daughter born earlier this year. — H.F.
I like that in the film Katrina doesn’t seem an isolated event in terms of the history of the Lower Ninth. Rather it is another awful event in the area, part of the continuum of life there. Does the strength shown by the people in the film following Katrina derive from the strength they’ve had to muster just to survive daily life in the Lower Ninth? Scott: Katrinalike things have been happening for years, we just didn’t have a name for it.
Kim: It’s the same in New Orleans as everywhere else. The politicians neglect their citizens. They vote them in, they look out for each other, help their friends and their families instead of putting money in the community. They build schools to educate their children. There’s a lot of neglect.
I get the feeling that Mayor Nagin did not do a good job, nor did Governor Blanco. Kim: Actually I feel like it’s all the folks, from Bush to Kathleen [Blanco] — all of them. They should have been ahead on this, instead of enjoying their money and enjoying their lives. They knew the condition of the city. They knew people weren’t going to be able to get out.
Scott: We knew there was going to be a disaster. We knew it.
How about Bush’s mother’s comment thatthe Superdome isn’t bad for these people? Scott: They really don’t care.
Kim: Right, right. It’s not their grandchildren. It should have been a wake-up call.
Tell me about the scene in the recovery center, where the guy refers to the camera’s presence while you are trying to get your check. Scott: We were all in despair.
Was it just incompetence at the center, or was the response of the workers there intentional? Scott: I’d say a mixture of both.
And the tourist bureau scene, in which the woman presents such a rosy picture of New Orleans? Kim: That’s the norm. They perform down there. It’s all about the French Quarter. The real issues are not in the forefront. The French quarter was on higher ground. It wasn’t flooded.
The text at the end of the film about prices doubling is especially troubling. Scott: They raised the rents so high.
Kim: People are getting like $900 a month income. They can’t afford $1,200 rent plus school costs.
Do you think they want to gentrify the Lower Ninth? Kim: Not just the Lower Ninth, the whole city — because of the crime. Everybody is going instead of coming back. You can see the people who are living under the Claiborne overpass in New Orleans, 200 people in tents, just lined up. It wasn’t like that before Katrina. Many of these people have mental-health problems. There’s nowhere for them to go.
What about shelters? Scott: They just opened one up, but they still have to get that right.
People don’t want to go to shelters. They feel more secure outside. Kim: Right, right. They get ripped off in the shelter. They’ve got to follow rules.
Kim, tell me about your rapping. Kim: We have our own label, Born Hustler Records. I’ve wanted to do it but haven’t had opportunities. Then Katrina gave me that opportunity. I could achieve my dream and get my music out there. Getting my own label means to own my own business, my own music rights. It’s my own independent label. Right now I’m working with my brother and this young lady named Norma Spencer. Both of them are on my album coming out now. Slowly but surely, I’ll try to get it out there.
Is it hard finding the time to do the music with your young baby there? Kim: Right now I’m doing everything from home. So my baby is right there. I’m on the computer doing my music thing.
So you find crevices of time. Kim: You’ve got to be a multitasker [laughs].
Are you glad you moved back to New Orleans after staying in Memphis? Kim: I’m glad.
Scott: I’m glad I moved back because I want to help make my city right. As long as I do my part, we get a movement going. I’m sticking to my words and doing what I have to do to get my city back.
The film ends on an optimistic note, with a band at the end. Are people bonding in solidarity at the demonstration, or was that just you guys? Kim: We were fighting in front of city hall to raise awareness about our conditions. We’re there for the people who couldn’t.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Brandon Harris interviewed The Class co-writer-director Laurent Cantet for our Fall '08 issue. The Class is nominated for Best Foreign Film.
Starting with 1999’s Human Resources, Laurent Cantet has quickly built an international reputation as France’s most socially engaged narrative filmmaker, crafting films that highlight the ever lingering issues of race and class in both France and, as in the case of his 2006 film Heading South, its former colony of Haiti. With his new film, The Class, Cantet has attained new levels of acclaim and is primed to reach significant worldwide audiences with a timely story of one teacher’s attempt to instruct his multicultural French-language class, many of whom see French identity as something that can never truly belong to them and who live in a culture and language they have little affinity for.
While the film is firmly rooted in the well-worn genre of the classroom drama, the authenticity and immediacy with which Cantet renders this tale allows it to transcend and ultimately redraw the limitations of this familiar setting. Blackboard Jungle, Dangerous Minds or even Half Nelson this is not; Cantet shows us with great specificity and common empathy the everyday challenges and failures of basic secondary education in a multicultural society.
Based on a book by French schoolteacher François Bégaudeau, who plays a version of himself in the film, The Class meditates on an adolescent French-language class in a public school in Paris. As Begaudeau’s teacher slowly loses the good faith and interest of his mostly black Caribbean class over the course of a full year, submitting in a battle of wills to a pair of unruly but sophisticated young girls and a proud, rebellious boy, Soyleymane, Cantet takes us to a place where the children of poorly educated immigrants are too often left behind. As teacher and students march through the complicated grammar and tenses of the French language, the kids’ own cultural roots are largely ignored by a man who has the best of intentions but whose methods may not prove sufficient.
A late edition to the Cannes lineup this year, Cantet walked away with this year’s Palme d’Or and in an unforgettable moment, invited his entire young cast onstage to revel in the honor with him. The film opened this year’s New York Film Festival and will be released by Sony Pictures Classic in December.
TOP OF PAGE: FRANÇOIS BÉGAUDEAU IN THE CLASS. ABOVE: THE CLASS CO-WRITER-DIRECTOR LAURENT CANTET (RIGHT). PHOTOS BY PIERRE MILON.
How did you stumble upon François Bégaudeau’s book and when did you decide you wanted to make it into a film? I already wrote the beginning of the script two years before reading François’s book. It was taking place in a school just like the book and it was telling the story of Souleymane that we kept in the final script. Then I forgot about the project while making my previous film, Heading South. The day Heading South was released in France, I went in a radio studio and François was there to present a book of his that was released on the same day. He talked about his book and read some parts of it and I realized that it was really connected to my next project, first because it was based within the walls of the school and that François could give me a lot of documentary material that I wouldn’t be able to get by myself even if I planned to stay in classes to see how they work. François had been a teacher for 10 years before writing this book so he could bring me into the classroom much better than I could have done without that. I also like his character, the way he is in front of his classroom, the way he talks to his children. The way he is also trying to stimulate their minds, to show them that their way of thinking is too short and trying to get them to go a little bit further — that really interested me. Also, the way he is not afraid of fighting with the students. He’s not just trying to make things smooth, he’s taking the risk to confront them and that’s something I like. I think it’s a way to show the children that he cares. He considers them.
Other than the Souleymane story thread, were there other things you took from the book? Souleymane was not in the book. That’s what I wrote before. What we wanted was to chronicle the life of this class and then in this class we identify a few characters that will take the fiction on their shoulders. Souleymane was one of them. When we met with the children in the workshops the year before shooting we met Esmeralda. The first time I saw her I knew she would be a good [character] for us.
She’s a contrarian. Yes. So we created some characters like that which came out of the class and became important figures in the film, but we never tried to adapt the book. What was important for me was that François was playing the teacher and he knew exactly what I wanted from each scene. Before shooting I went to each student one by one, telling them “When François says that, you will say that. When he will say that, you will answer that. I want you to be like that or like that.” They had some landmarks in the scene. François was in front of them. The children were allowed to improvise in front of him except that I wanted them to include in the improvisation all the sentences I had asked them to say. So they said everything I wanted them to say, but within these improvisational parts that really brought life to the film. That’s why I say it’s not an adaptation because what we kept from the book, these elements, we placed in the structure of this class. That gives them another reality than they have in the book or would have had in another class. We never copied exactly from the book.
So we couldn’t call it an adaptation, but something else? Right, right. Except that we also guide them in the direction we were expecting to go. After the first take, which was very improvised like that, I was speaking with each of them, telling them I wanted them to keep one thing, not the rest. “This thing that you said was interesting — can you say it again?” And so they were replaying what they gave me in improvisation in the first take. They had the same energy in the seventh take and the first one. I could mix the first take and the last one. It’s exactly the same energy and just as natural.
How were you able to make these children and non-actors comfortable with this new circumstance of making a film? How do you create an environment where they can open up? We worked a lot before shooting. We had a workshop during the entire school year. Every Wednesday we used to meet for three or four hours, improvising on situations, just to confirm that what we were writing on our side was not too far from what they could do or think. Then we talked a lot; I listened to them very carefully. I think they really understood that the film was trying to respect them, and they trusted me. They were very involved in the creation of the film; they worked from the very beginning of the writing. They felt proud of being in the center of the process, proud of being listened to by me, and also they are not impressed at all by the camera, by the technical apparatus and all that. They are used to it. I never had to tell them not to watch the camera. The first day we were shooting, they came into the classroom, the lights are all over the ceiling, three cameras are in front of them, a boom operator standing there, but they just went to their tables and didn’t even take notice of all that stuff. They just improvised like the day before.
What are some of the differences between directing non-actors and someone who is formally trained, professional performer? I don’t think I directed them too much. They were the characters. We built each character with them during the preparation for the film. Even if it’s not them, they are close to what they could feel, and situations they know and have experimented with before. The inspiration comes directly from them. For example, the boy who was playing Souleymane, Franck Keita, is the opposite of Souleymane. He’s a very nice boy, very quiet, very discreet, but we worked a lot before that and he got used to that character and he could make it real. He just became the character whenever we were shooting.
What about Begaudeau? I didn’t direct him much. Except at the end of the film, when he’s losing control. In all the beginning of the film, I didn’t direct him. He was also the double of myself in the scenes. He could help me to drive the children to what we were expecting. He was more thinking, “So who is going to speak now? Is it her, or him?” He was more focused on the organization of a scene. He just behaved like he used to do when he was a teacher.
The film depicts a France that’s at a crossroads culturally. It asks what it means to be French in a multicultural, 21st-century France. Did you learn anything about what that meant to these young people while you were working with them? Do they view their Frenchness differently than you did when you were their age? When I was 15 years old, I was in a little province outside Paris and in our classrooms we were all white, middle-class children. My children are now in junior high school in the suburbs of Paris and I think they are much more open to all components of society just because they are spending time with people coming from everywhere, dealing with them and having the same recreations. I think it’s very important for them. It helps them to have an open mind. After that, it’s not a problem for the children, but it can be a problem for the adults. The adults create problems around them.
How? By being afraid of that diversity and by stigmatizing this group of young people. It’s not easy to be young in France, or all over the world, I think. Everybody is a little bit afraid of your reaction. Thinking that you are dangerous. Everybody is afraid of those children, especially if they are not white, if they are not speaking correct French. I think one of the reasons to make the film was to try and watch this multicultural, multiracial group from different social backgrounds and just show that they are not only thinking of burning cars and insulting adults, but that they are just children trying to understand the world, find a place in the world, find a place in our society. For example, when Esmeralda says once that she’s not proud to be French, I can understand her. If you want to be proud or to feel a part of a community, you have to be sure that this community desires for you to be a part of it, and I’m sure that she doesn’t feel that way.
So this film is then in ways informed by the unrest and riots of 2005? It was not that important. I was in the States at that time. I was watching TV in Los Angeles and I thought it was the revolution in France, and I came back and it was not that…
It was overblown? Yes, sure, but I think it’s important to take the question into account if you don’t want to have problems with those children.
How do you think a western country like France does that given the fact that they have classrooms like this, with people of all hues and colors, which is a direct result of their imperialist ambitions of centuries before? Not only that. The country is richer than a lot of others. A lot of people…
Gravitate toward those countries seeking opportunity and a better life. I’m not trying to say that colonialism is not part of it. But it’s not only that.
It’s much more complex than that. But I’m saying, given all those historical factors, how does a 21st-century France include these people in a way that makes them feel welcome? I don’t have any answer to that question, if I would have…
You would have run against Sarkozy. [laughs] I think what the film says is that it’s important to look at them, to take them into account, and that they feel themselves to be unconsidered and neglected.
One of the wonderful things about the film is that you empathize with these children and their teacher and the system in which they find themselves all entangled, which is clearly flawed, but which has good intentions. It seems that these kids find themselves ill prepared to accept some of the things François’s character is telling them. Even if he found a way to communicate these things to them, given their immigrant experience and that they aren’t inheriting French culture at home, how would they find a way to process it in the classroom? What the film says is that no one is guilty of the situation. I think teachers, some teachers, really try to work like François, to try to give that space to dialogue, and that for me is the only way to start to make them feel like they exist in this community. The only guilt is the scholarship system, which is built on selection. In France we have a very strong sense of what our culture is. Classical culture has the highest value in the eyes of most people, but it’s somewhat heavy for such young kids.
And yet a young woman like Esmeralda’s character in the film is ultimately revealed to be someone who is versed in that culture, even though her teacher is ignorant of that fact. The scene about her reading The Republic was not invented; it was something that one of the students told Begaudeau when he was a teacher. It was almost too perfect for the film. I was really hesitant about using it. So when I was still hesitating about it, I talked to Esmeralda and we gave her a few elements to explain to her who Plato was. The way she said it again in the scene afterwards proved that she not only had understood perfectly what we had explained to her but that she would have been able to read it and learn something from the book. In the film, the reason she read Plato was because it was something her sister showed her and not the teacher. But on the other hand, maybe she wouldn’t have been interested in that book if it wasn’t for the school context to contradict so it’s also something she can be grateful to the school for. It’s important to note here that the vision of school as a sanctuary where children would arrive and leave behind their preoccupations and their cultures just doesn’t work. If schools ignore [students’] experiences out of school, and everything that makes them specific and unique individuals, they will impose on them things the children will not accept. There are still a lot of people who consider school that way, as a place to go and ignore the world.
There are a lot of films that fit into this genre of the classroom drama. I think in many ways your film transcends them. Were any of those films of use to you, with similar themes and milieus, even if just to say, well this has been done I’m going to do it another way? Not really, the only thing I was trying to avoid was to make another Dead Poets Society. [laughs] That teacher was a sort of guru, he knows everything — we wanted to show a teacher with all his weaknesses, who doesn’t know everything, who sometimes makes big mistakes with the way he is talking. It’s the way things really happen in school. If you are a teacher you have to answer very fast, you take risks and you are not a model. There is a film I really like, [Jean Vigo’s] Zero for Conduct, and what helped me by watching this film was this energy in the way the children are speaking.
Your films often have a documentary-like quality to them, but yet also a lyricism. Do you design the films or are they shot complete off the cuff, in a vérité style? Do you have in your mind specific shots you have to get when you step on set? How do you work? I don’t have any storyboards or anything like that. The main part of the mise en scene for me is to find the best system to film the situation we want to show. Each film gives you a different way of building that before you begin shooting. Here it was working with non-professionals, working with children, listening to them. François was playing his own part, he was a teacher, he wrote a book, we adapt the book, he’s playing someone who’s not himself but is basically himself. The main thing I wanted to get was this energy of the discussion between them, so we decided to have three cameras. Since we started with that I was sure that we wouldn’t have to cut and do it again and get a reverse shot. You just film in continuity and they never know who is on camera. They’re playing the whole scene without waiting for the moment when they are going to be filmed. I think that’s what made the difference between this film and my previous film…
Heading South, which is much more controlled… Yes, much more. In fact, when I decided to make this film, it was to come back to the method I used when I made Human Resources and even before in my first short film, which was also a story between students who are preparing a strike in a school. The difference here is I’m shooting in HD video and it allows me to give them the opportunity to improvise even during the shooting. I worked with them on improvisation before the shooting and everything was a little bit more written when we arrived to set. This time it was possible even during the shooting to change everything. I don’t know what my next film will be, but I would like to be sure that I have the freedom to write a script knowing that it’s just a starting point and that it can change. For this script we managed to convince all the financiers for the film that it could change, that we were not sure that the film would be exactly what was written in the script. They accepted it, maybe because the film was not very expensive. I hope I can go on working like that with this freedom.
Would you ever consider making a film here in the States? Is it something you desire? Why not? A few years ago I almost did it. I met some young L.A.-based producers who proposed that I go to New Orleans and make a film about people who had gone through Katrina. The idea was to just go meet people in the streets of New Orleans. I had some stories that were intermingled and that I wanted to include with testimonies from them. In this case, that method was not accepted by the financiers for the project. They wanted something way more scripted. It’s in France with this film that I completely gained this freedom to choose how to work, so this is why I want to continue working there. But it’s true that I’m really interested in American literature and mythology. I’d love to make a film in New York. One day.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Damon Smith interviewed Man on Wire director James Marsh for our Summer '08 issue. Man on Wire is nominated for Best Documentary.
James Marsh has wrestled before with subjects — both fictional and real life — whose obsessions have fueled eccentric and, at times, even extreme behavior. In The Burger and the King (1996), based on David Adler‘s book, he chronicled Elvis Presley‘s lifelong habit of compulsive eating. Wisconsin Death Trip (2000), based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lesy, traced the origins of a bizarre strain of murders, suicides and odd happenstances in a small Wisconsin community of the 1890s. And in his debut feature, The King (2005), which Marsh scripted with Milo Addica, he dramatized a story of misguided faith and Oedipal revenge in a born-again Texas family. But Marsh improbably found the story of a lifetime in the person of Philippe Petit, a 24-year-old French wirewalker and street performer who stunned the world on August 7, 1974 when he danced along a cable illegally strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center.
In Man on Wire, which won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary competition at Sundance, Marsh brings to life this strangely dazzling and still enthralling episode in the annals of New York City history. Oddly enough, the passage of time has only made this tale more fascinating and emotionally engaging. Petit has told his story before in a detailed memoir, To Reach the Clouds, but in his film Marsh wisely chose to incorporate the recollections of Petite‘s friends and accomplices, some of whom saw their relationships with the daredevil combust after working for years to help him achieve his batty, single-minded, gravity-defying dream. As it cuts between interviews, old Super 8 footage of Petit‘s backyard training and previous feats at Notre Dame and in Australia and ethereal, blow-by-blow recreations of the difficulties his team faced in clambering to the top of the Twin Towers and stringing a wire without being detected, Man on Wire is constructed like a classic heist film on the order of Stanley Kubrick‘s The Killing.
As depicted by Marsh, Petit emerges as an impish and cunning figure, given to curious pronouncements and zesty bon mots, all of which add to his manic, circus-clown appeal. Marsh handles his story respectfully, but a few darker aspects of Petit‘s persona are also apparent. The film‘s showstopper, of course, is the early-morning funambulist “coup” Petit will always be remembered for, and the film‘s grippingly paced buildup to that gorgeously nimble and transcendent moment is part of the reason Man on Wire, which also won an Audience Award at Full Frame, has emerged as a surprise hit this season.
Recently I spoke with Marsh about nostalgia for a bygone era, the challenge of collaborating with Petit, and why some documentary devices drive him over the edge. Magnolia Pictures opens the film July 25.
I actually remember the day in 1974 when Philippe Petit crossed the Twin Towers. As a child in Texas, it suddenly seemed like the world had become a magical place where anything could happen. Isn‘t that amazing? It‘s part of the folklore of New York City, too. It imprinted itself because it‘s a magical transformation of these buildings, a visual transformation. How could someone have had the courage to do this? It lingers in the mind for that reason, I‘m sure.
Man on Wire is certainly about a person, Philippe Petit, but it‘s also about a certain attitude toward life. It is. It‘s about a different era as well. It has those three elements to it. It‘s about someone refusing to acknowledge limits and boundaries, and seeing possibilities as well. It‘s a positive thing: Philippe sees these buildings as a stage to perform on — that‘s all they are to him. They‘re not office buildings; there‘s lots of money-grubbing capitalism going on inside, but he doesn‘t care about that. So it‘s like a satire on the buildings‘ actual function, if you like. This is one reason I like the story so much: It has this subversive element to it. Imagine telling a policeman, “I‘m not coming in — come and get me.” That‘s what he was doing. It‘s incredible.
You‘ve returned to documentary after making your first narrative feature, The King. What was the chronology of this production? The King rendered me unemployable as a filmmaker in this country for one reason or another. The film wasn‘t spectacularly successful, financially, and it riled certain people and critics. It was a kind of cruel film. So there was no way I could make another feature here. That wasn‘t going to happen. I always made documentaries, and I knew about Philippe‘s story. There‘s a children‘s book [The Man Who Walked Between the Towers] that tells it as a fairy tale — which is what it is — that I bought and read to my children. Suddenly I thought, “This is an absolutely amazing story!” And it just happened that a producer I knew, Simon Chinn, was trying to option the rights to Philippe‘s memoir, To Reach the Clouds. I hooked up with Simon and we spent the next months trying to persuade Philippe that I was the right person to make the film. He wasn‘t just about to give it up to anybody. He needed to know that I could pass certain tests.
What do you think convinced him? I like mischievous things. Also I was very open to collaborating with him. I wanted to hear his views, get his input, and he liked that very much. He wanted to collaborate and offer ideas. We didn‘t always see eye to eye, and I‘m not sure he quite knew what I was up to at certain parts of the filmmaking. But nevertheless, our collaboration is at its best in the interview. He wanted to act out the story and run around the room and climb up the walls and hide behind curtains. Well that‘s fine with me! Somebody else wouldn‘t want that, but I thought, “What a great way of shooting an interview.” It gives the film a real energy it never would have had [if he had been] interviewed [the conventional] way. That act defines the film in a certain way. It expresses his personality and I think that‘s what he wanted, too — for it to be his story. But of course, his book is very subjective and idiosyncratic, and I think the film properly opens up other points of view — the conflict and human drama, which was monumental as well. You discover that other people were involved in this story and how passionate they were about doing this. And also how scared some of them were.
How did Petit feel about you interviewing his gang of accomplices and former friends? He wasn‘t that comfortable with some of the people who, as he would say, “betrayed” him. There was a little back-and-forth on that. I desperately wanted to interview the Americans, Alan and David [two helpers who abandoned the project]. Or “Albert” and “Donald.” I have no idea why he calls them that. He was resisting because he felt they didn‘t have any right to be in the film because they hadn‘t seen it through. But [I said] that‘s exactly why. They‘re part of the drama. They were there. David Foreman ends up being a wonderful interview, the musician who smoked pot every day for thirty-odd years and who owns up to being stoned the day he did it. And Alan Welner gives you this wonderful perspective of someone who didn‘t believe in [Petit]. He was a skeptic — a Judas, if you like. [These interviews give the film] another dimension that I think is really important. That‘s the big difference between his book and the film: You‘ve got other voices, you‘ve got these competing narratives, [including the] conflict between him and his best friend. The film could have been quite sentimental, but I like to see it as something more nostalgic. Nostalgia has an ache to it.
To me it was an elegy for a time when there were still real, honest-to-God spectacles to be had in the world and not manufactured, corporate-sponsored “events.” Exactly. Nike is not going to sponsor this. They might now, but it‘d be controlled. It‘s almost like nostalgia for a lost innocence, despite the fact that you get a glimpse of this ugly little scandal that‘s engulfed America with Nixon, who‘s about to resign. And he does resign, the day after Philippe does his walk. So it‘s hardly a less innocent [time]. In some respects, it‘s much more poisonous — the atmosphere — in the city as well. [New York City is] bankrupt, is falling apart, and there‘s a garbage strike. There are shit and rats everywhere. It‘s hardly innocent, but this kind of adventure is possible, probably, because of it.
Speaking of the difference between now and then, and between your film and Philippe‘s memoir, I was fascinated by the suspenseful build of the film. Obviously, the story today takes on darker overtones considering the fate of the Twin Towers. Did that shade your thinking at all when you were staging Man on Wire? It did, but there was a clear choice I made about the structure of the film and how it would tell the story. The story itself is very gripping. It has a kind of classic heist element to it. It‘s very difficult what they do: two teams, one on each tower, avoiding security, with equipment, hiding out until nighttime, going on the roof, all without being noticed. So it offered itself to me very explicitly as a heist film, as a kind of bank robbery without the stealing aspect. It‘s the opposite of that. But of course, I was aware there were analogies, but they were just there. Either you accept them or you don‘t. I‘m aware that these buildings were destroyed in a murderous act of terrorism. I‘m aware that having a bunch of foreigners lurking around the World Trade Center, creating false IDs, hanging out, with a plot against these buildings, has a clear [resonance]. But that‘s implicit in the story. What I decided to do was not make any of this explicit, because it happened in 1974. There are certain images in the film that I find, and that I think the audience will find, really quite ambivalent and chilling. There‘s a shot of Philippe on the wire with an airplane flying close by to him. The meaning of that image we‘re going to reinterpret to some extent, but what it‘s showing you is the scale of what he did and where he is. And why censor yourself? Why filter things? I think it was right not to burden the film with the ugly spectacle of 9/11, but of course I know everyone who sees the film is very aware of it. You kind of trust the audience to complete the film for themselves on that level.
In a way, I thought of Annie Allix, Philippe‘s girlfriend, as a proxy for the audience. That‘s a brilliant observation. I see her that way, too. She‘s introduced as someone who falls in love with Philippe.
She‘s “harpooned” by him. Yes. She‘s a wonderful, elegant, classy, smart French woman. But you‘re right, you enter your view of his character through someone who is very fond of him but is not in any way immune to his faults. She accepts them and she‘s very forgiving of them, but you also see that he rejects her at one point. He goes back to New York and leaves her behind and she‘s very upset about that. She‘s abandoned twice in the film. Emotionally, there‘s a love story in the film. It plays out subtly, but it‘s there.
It‘s also quite poignant in the case of Jean-Louis Blondeau. Yeah, his closest friend, his principal collaborator. And that‘s a distinction worth making. You could make this film in a very sentimental way, but real life isn‘t like that. It‘s ugly and messy, and it doesn‘t neatly resolve itself. Therefore, you have to deal with the consequences of human relationships, which for me are the most important elements of the story. The coda of the film is bittersweet if not, in fact, quite uncomfortable.
Especially since, at one point, Philippe says to Annie, “I need to be a castaway on the desert island of my dreams.” That‘s a classically narcissistic sentiment. [laughs] Yeah. Absolutely. Of course, his first celebration of his own achievement is to go and have wild sex with a woman who offers herself to him [while] his beautiful, loyal girlfriend is waiting to see him. Therein lies the end of the film, if you like. It kicks off from there.
A friend of mine worked on the set constructions for this film, building the rooftop of the World Trade Center, and he said it was a massive operation. Yeah, it was. It doesn‘t look like it onscreen.
What did that production design entail? Basically, we spent a lot of time going around to buildings in the city to see if we could find something that had parallel roofs and gave you a sense of height, and nothing really did. We were shooting at night anyway, so we were not going to see much. And then I [said], how do I do these reconstructions in a thoughtful and progressive way? I thought, “Okay, it‘s like they‘ve gone to the moon or something.” So the reconstructions get less and less realistic the more they go into forbidden territory. By the end, it‘s a very subjective environment, and I hope it works.
Speaking of such effects, a lot of documentary filmmakers, like Errol Morris and Michael Moore, have been criticized for the recreations in their films, though they obviously serve very different purposes. And they have different intentions, of course, too.
What are your thoughts on recreations? First, there is obviously a distinction between documentary and fiction. With documentary, you have to represent something that is truthful — dramatically truthful as well as literally truthful. And in this case, with Man on Wire, if you‘re dealing with a story that is virtually unbelievable, you have to show it, you have to see it to believe it. I don‘t have any big issues with using recreations or any filmmaking technique that can emotionally convey the story and show you what you‘re hearing. I do have one or two reservations about Errol Morris‘s most recent film [Standard Operating Procedure] on that level. In [Alex Gibney‘s] Taxi to the Dark Side, I accepted [recreations] as the best way of telling the story. I saw that they were necessary and I think they were handled very well. Whereas [with] Errol Morris‘s film, I thought the aesthetic choices were wrong, for me as a person who has read and endured a lot of this stuff already. I didn‘t learn anything — I unlearned something. I felt there was a barrier being created aesthetically between me and what I should understand. But generally speaking, I‘m not a purist. The arguments are so well-rehearsed now: Every film is edited, choices are being made, things are being left out and [put] in. [With Man on Wire] I wanted to make a big-screen kind of movie out of [the Petit] story using whatever resources I had, whether they were the big music of Michael Nyman or the reconstructions that are both playful and comedic. And the thing about the reconstructions in Man on Wire is they don‘t pretend to be archival. I don‘t think you‘re particularly confused as to what‘s what, and if you are, then that‘s kind of good. [laughs] Nonetheless, I think there‘s a blend of elements in the film and I‘m pushing each one of them as far as they can go to make what I think is a monumental story as big as it can be.
Nyman‘s score is such a crucial texture in the film, and his titles — “The Disposition of Linen” — are so odd. Did he write any specific music for you? The idea [of using Nyman] actually came from watching Philippe rehearsing on his wire in his backyard. He would rehearse to a whole load of musical textures, one of which was [Nyman‘s] memorial theme from Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, the Peter Greenaway movie. But we couldn‘t afford to pay a composer like Nyman the kind of money he would want to do an original score. Another [director] friend, Gina Kim, had just worked with Michael [on Never Forever], so she brokered a meeting between us in New York. He said, “I can‘t do a score because I don‘t have the time and we don‘t have the resources for it. But why don‘t you look at what I‘ve done in the past? Here‘s my whole back catalogue. Rummage around, I own all the rights to this — you can use what you want.” Then he came and had suggestions and we did some editing and he did a few versions for us. He became a collaborator. But you‘re right, it‘s a very distinctive musical choice, and I think it does give it an identity, even though some of the pieces are familiar to people from other films. But I think we own them for the purposes of Man on Wire.
I don‘t know how many hundreds of times I‘ve heard those two Eric Satie tunes, but my heart was in my throat when Philippe steps on the wire and that music comes up. It‘s beautiful music, but it has something of the flavor [of] a commercial because it‘s been so used. But again, that‘s Philippe — the music he heard in his head was Satie. He‘s French and Satie is French and is a wonderful, mischievous composer.
An eccentric. Yes. An eccentric. We used the “Gnossienne No. 1” as well as the “Gymnopédie,” which everyone knows, but I felt that Philippe‘s walk was big enough and grand enough to claim this music for itself. And if it‘s familiar, then so what? It‘s ours now. Philippe is equal to it.
The power of that sequence also, I realized in hindsight, was because you used the only source material available: still photos. Yet there was something more poetic and powerful about those stills than a moving image perhaps could have captured. Those are moments of time that have been caught. The whole thing is like a dream, if you think about it. There were film cameras up on the roof and the person who was supposed to shoot [the walk] was Jean-Louis, but he couldn‘t because he was so exhausted. So that was the reason why there was no film, even though there was quite organized footage ahead of that. But I went back to a film called La Jetée because, as you know, it tells this intellectually and morally rich science-fiction story by using what appears to be found stills, and they have enormous power. The trick is that [the director Chris] Marker lets you look at those stills for longer than he really should, and [this choice] brings something [new] to the still itself. I think that‘s what we tried to do with the still sequence in Man on Wire. We edited it in one late-night session, one short burst of energy, and pretty much left it as it was.
You‘d previously thought of Chris Marker when you were working on Wisconsin Death Trip. Exactly. La Jetée was such an unusual film. It was really important to the way stills are used in Wisconsin Death Trip. That film was built around images from the last decade of the 19th century, very striking long-exposure, glass-plate negatives. I used stills in that film to tell complicated stories, again allowing them to have unusually long times onscreen. Not that kind of Ken Burns approach, which I don‘t like at all, where you play fiddle music behind the stills, and you kind of revere them, worship them. That‘s something I find cloying and irritating. I had this big aversion to Ken Burns at the time [laughs]. I couldn‘t figure out why he‘d been so sanctified by the prevailing culture. But La Jetée and [Dziga Vertov‘s] The Man With a Movie Camera made Wisconsin Death Trip possible, because what I was trying to do was unusual, and both those films separately showed that you could be really expressive with imagery.
Philippe says at one point that he believed that the Twin Towers had been built for him to walk across. I don‘t doubt it! [laughs] I think he does believe that. And he‘s half right. He‘s a wirewalker, he‘s looking for high-up stages, and then they build the highest buildings in the world at the time, which are crying out for it.
In all your time together, did Philippe ever offer to teach you wirewalking? No, and I never asked him. That was the last thing I wanted to do. I suffer from vertigo and have absolutely no desire, although I have come to an appreciation of it as both a mental and physical discipline. But, you know, it‘s certainly not for me!
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THAVISOUK PHRASAVATH AND ORADY PHRASAVATH IN DIRECTOR ELLEN KURAS' THE BETRAYAL (NERAKHOON). COURTESY CINEMA GUILD.
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Nick Dawson interviewed The Betrayal director Ellen Kuras for our Director Interviews section of the Website. The Betrayal is nominated for Best Documentary.
Since she first came to prominence almost twenty years ago, Ellen Kuras has established herself as one of the most talented directors of photography working today. Film was not Kuras' primary focus when she was younger; the New Jersey native initially attended Brown to study anthropology but became interested in photography after taking a class at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design. Though she won a Fulbright Scholarship to go to the esteemed Lodz Film Academy, Kuras instead began working in film, taking numerous below the line jobs that taught her the nuts and bolts of the cinematic process. In 1987, she worked as D.P. on her first film, Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, and in 1992 she won the first of a record three Sundance Cinematography Awards for lensing Tom Kalin's Swoon. Since then, Kuras has been prolific as a D.P. and established ongoing collaborations with Rebecca Miller (including Personal Velocity, another Sundance winner for Kuras), Spike Lee (from 4 Little Girls through to The 25th Hour) and more recently Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Be Kind Rewind).
Ironically, Kuras' first film as director, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), predates her career as a cinematographer, as she began the movie 23 years ago when she was just starting out as a filmmaker. What began as an examination of the impact of cultural assimilation became a decades-long documentary about a family of Laotian refugees and their remarkable story, from the secret war the U.S. fought against their country during the 60s and 70s through to their troubled existence in New York in the 80s and beyond. Kuras set out to blur genre boundaries with the film and artfully mixes stylistic elements of fictional and experimental cinema as well as documentary. The relationship between filmmaker and subject is also blurred, as Thavisouk “Thavi” Phrasavath, the film's main character, became Kuras' co-director, co-writer and editor. The time and emotional investment which Kuras and Phrasavath put into The Betrayal make it not only a poetic and intricate hybrid documentary but also a resonant and dramatic real life family saga.
Filmmaker spoke to Kuras about her epic career-spanning project, bribing Laotian officials to get stock footage, and her childhood memories of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur.
Filmmaker: Initially, way back at the start of this project, I believe you were in contact with a different Laotian family who you were planning to film.
Kuras: I started filming this one particular family because I was interested in how they were picking up different elements of our culture. Coming from the East and being in a place, Rochester, New York, that was a completely different environment, what were they picking up and what were they thinking about American culture? The movie was about American culture as much as it was about them. I always knew that I wanted to make a film that was about their worldview and told pretty much from their perspective and their story, but it wasn't until I met Thavi, when I learned to speak Lao, that I realized that he understood what I was trying to get to because I was asking him so many questions about philosophy and worldview and mythology and how the Lao believed that the world began. It was a natural progression, after spending a year with him when he was giving me Lao lessons and I was constantly asking these questions and recording our conversations and then writing from them, that he would become part of the filmmaking process, and then eventually the subject of the film.
Filmmaker: This was before you were a D.P., so was this to be the first step of your directorial career?
Kuras: I was looking at myself as a filmmaker. Although I was very interested in political documentary, but I was thinking of this more as a film where I could look into or use elements of narrative and documentary. What happened was that I hired somebody to shoot for me and I told them what I was looking for, but I discovered that to be able to talk about putting meaning into the images is quite a challenge so I decided I would try it myself. And that's when I started shooting, because I started creating these stories in my mind while I was shooting and then eventually somebody saw my stuff on the Steenbeck and said “Would you come and shoot for me?” and that's how it all started.
Filmmaker: Did the scope of the project change once it was about Thavi's family?
Kuras: The scope changed in the sense that I was able to start realizing ideas that I had at the time, because I was writing a lot of poetry and this gave me material that I wanted to work with. It opened up the whole structure of what was possible and also all the stories in a poetic framework. People say to me, “What was it like doing a film over 23 years, and did you anticipate that it would take 23 years?” and I have to say, “No.” In the interim, I didn't have a firm deadline that I had to respond to and also the film represented to me many different things. In a way, it was my own personal notebook, it was a continuing dialogue with Thavi that we had about life and death and philosophy and everything that was happening in the community and the gangs. It was very enjoyable to be part of that process of making the film, of turning those ideas about themes of honor into the film.
Filmmaker: You're a very prolific D.P., so how did you approach making this film? Did you simply film whenever you weren't shooting for somebody else?
Kuras: Yeah, for the most part, whenever I had time, I would work on the film. Whenever I could, every moment I would. There was a period of three or four years where I didn't work on the film at all because I was really busy doing features back-to-back, but for the most part I did devote a lot of energy to the film on the side. But I've been so busy. Many people call me the busiest person they know because I have been really busy and I have shot a lot of things – I shoot commercials in between doing features. So, as I've said, it was part of that continuum, a way for me to get back into the space of my own mind and to be working on my own stuff, which enabled me to balance working on stuff for other people.
Filmmaker: What was the point at which you realized you should get the film finished and out into the world?
Kuras: Part of it was that someone came to me and said, “You know that film you're making, what's happening to it? I want to help you finish it.” That made all the difference in the world because I had been doing so much of it myself – the financing of it, the producing of it, putting it together – and so to have someone come on board to help me to carry the plan through was enormous and it really did help hugely to get to that next point.
Filmmaker: It seems like the film must have become this enormous life project for you, a little like the play in Synecdoche, New York.
Kuras: People would say, “So, what's going on with the film?” but eventually they would stop asking me. But my father nagged me incessantly about it: “When are you going to finish that film? When are you going to finish that film? When are you going to finish that film?” I always said, “I'll finish the film when I'm ready to finish the film.” To be honest, it was like an unfinished term paper and though I was encouraged by my father to move on, I didn't because I knew the story was way too important to tell to let it languish on shelves. I just knew, no matter how many years had passed, it was really important to get it out and that it was still timely. The fact that I had started it many years ago only lent to its power, because the time showed us how strong the example was and also enabled us to have this incredible [ability to] witness this family drama in a way that most people don't expect.
Filmmaker: How did things progress to Thavi not only being one of the subjects of the film but your co-director and essentially the main voice in the film?
Kuras: Thavi's a very incredible person: he's very insightful and philosophical and I recognized that about him early on, even though his command of English was spotty. I could see that he was literate in many ways, without being literate in English. Through the years, we spent so much time talking and I felt it was really important for him to be recognized as a co-director. There were times when I couldn't work on the film when he would continue in the editing room and try to carry it on and at least keep the process alive, it being his own story. But it was more than that: he really believed in what we had to say about what was happening in his community, about the gangs, about the more universal stories – the umbilical cord story, releasing the turtle and the themes of returning to nature – that affect us all. He understood that. But I felt it was really important for him to be recognized by his own people. The Lao don't have a voice, certainly not in the world of cinema and not in documentary, and I felt like it was important to give them a voice.
Filmmaker: Thavi edited the film as well, so were you aware of a struggle on his part to get enough objectivity on the material?
Kuras: There were a couple of moments when I would just take a step back and say, “Wow, this is wild! Here I am holding Thavi's infant daughter in the editing room while he's editing and the baby's great grandmother and grandmother are up on the screen and it's her story as much as it's his story.” That Thavi was the editor sometimes made me laugh because we would talk about the story and the characters and he would refer to himself in the third person and say, “Well, when Thavi does this...” and I would just laugh and say, “OK, Thav...” In a way, this could be a story about almost any family; it's family that goes through a crisis and comes out of it however damaged at the other end so it has very universal qualities. In that respect, it was interesting to have Thavi edit his own story. The biggest thing was, sometimes he wouldn't want to use a shot because he thought his teeth were too big and I was like, “Whoa, wait a minute... You don't get to decide that just like I don't get to decide if that looks like a bad shot or not.”
Filmmaker: I was struck by the amazing job you did with archive footage and b-roll, as every shot seemed very carefully chosen to resonate with whatever is being said at the time.
Kuras: Yeah, we really tried to put it together in terms of the beats of the frame and everything. The archival footage we chose because we felt like it was able to put you in the place of Thavi, the character, and in a way you were vicariously experiencing his memory of it. We found some archival footage of Laos and I managed to pay off the local Pathet Lao guy who was overseeing the archive so he would project for us a couple of Vietnamese propaganda films and it's from that material that I shot some of the more abstract images like, for example, the trucks going by. The whole story of the trucks, to me, was so important because even with those few abstract images of the trucks and the people going by in the night, it represented any culture where there's been a military dictatorship and people have been taken away by death squads in the middle of the night. It reminded me of Argentina, it reminded me of when I was in El Salvador and I would actually see them going by.
Filmmaker: You've worked for a lot of influential directors during your career but who would you say has taught you the most about directing?
Kuras: I have to say right off the bat, every director is very different in the way that they work and in their point of view. With Spike, it was very interesting because – particularly with films like Summer of Sam – he really encouraged me to follow my intuition and to explore and go for it in a way that was about ideas and the visual images. He presented a lot of challenges to me like the first time I would use two cameras all the time, how to light something where you're looking almost in every direction. Spike, in that way, was always kind of very encouraging of my muse, like “Follow your muse,” and Michel [Gondry] in an another way was very much about us being in the same world and me understanding what's in his head so that I could also contribute to that and add to that. Understanding Michel's way of working is very much like understanding a child who has a pile of colored construction papers with blunt scissors: they start cutting up all these pieces, “Oh, I can glue these three pieces together,” and then all of a sudden they have this incredible garden that they've made. I'm always in this process of discovery which I why I still say that being a D.P. is exciting to me and still fresh, because I learn and challenge myself with all the directors I work with.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Kuras: Aside from the cartoons that I used to watch as a kid, I'd say probably Ben-Hur. I very much remember all of the action scenes in the arena, the close-ups of the hub. I think about that every once in a while: “Isn't it interesting that they would use that and that it would remain in my visual memory all of these years.” I have these amazing shots of Charlton Heston very much stuck in my head.
Filmmaker: What's the strangest thing you've seen, or had to do yourself, during your time in the film industry?
Kuras: In Eternal Sunshine, being put in the scene. I have to say it was really bizarre being on the other side of the camera because I realized how incredibly difficult as actors to be in their mind's eye and to become the character in the film. I am so often looking around and being on the other side – if you will, the watchful eye over the actors in the scene – that for me to be on the other side of it, I just couldn't physically in my mind cross over the line.
Filmmaker: Finally, Should a director always take risks?
Kuras: Of course. Without risks you don't go anywhere, you don't learn anything and the movies that have been least enjoyable for me have been the ones that have kind of been by rote. Directors should always explore their boundaries – that's where really exciting things happen.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. James Ponsoldt interviewed Rachel Getting Married director Jonathan Demme, as well as other principals from the film, to dissect the creation of the title character for our Fall '08 issue. Rachel Getting Married is nominated for Best Actress (Anne Hathaway).
Jonathan Demme has made a career out of revealing the humanity in oddballs, eccentrics, zealots and rock stars. As a storyteller, Demme doesn’t judge. He trusts that if you listen to people and listen long enough — whether they’re a former President or a cannibal who enjoys “fava beans and a nice chianti” — they’ll say something interesting.
At the 2008 Venice Film Festival, Demme premiered his new fiction film, Rachel Getting Married. This exquisite, fluid, furious and forgiving film was shot by d.p. Declan Quinn, and the two aimed to create “the most beautiful home movie ever made.” The film succeeds, and is one of the few films depicting a wedding that actually feels like a wedding.
The family at the center of Rachel Getting Married is an amazing creation: Bill Irwin and Debra Winger play the parents, while Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt are their children (Kym and Rachel, respectively). Oh, yes: Tunde Adebimpe — of the sensational indie-rock band TV on the Radio — is the groom (this last bit of casting is a nice example of the hip streak that’s always run through Demme’s work, and his spot-on taste).
Rosemarie DeWitt has acted in film and television and is revered in New York City as one of the finest theater actresses of her generation. She’s spent the past year balancing her time between the Willamstown Theatre Festival, where she starred as Masha in Three Sisters, and top-tier television — on both Mad Men and The United States of Tara (the anticipated new show from writer Diablo Cody and producer Steven Spielberg). However it is her revelatory performance opposite Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married that will have most people asking: Who is that?!
I was fortunate enough to meet Rosemarie three years ago when I was casting my first feature film as a writer-director, Off the Black. I’d already gotten Nick Nolte, Trevor Morgan and Timothy Hutton to commit to the film. I was ecstatic at my good fortune, dizzy with disbelief. This was my first film! We still had a number of parts to cast, though, and I was most anxious about a very important supporting role. This is where my amazing casting director Avy Kaufman’s genius and vision for talent became clear to me. Avy introduced me to Rosemarie DeWitt, and I knew within 30 seconds of her audition that I wanted her to be in my film. Really, it was that easy. Avy told me I should act fast — Kenneth Lonergan had just cast Rosemarie opposite Mark Ruffalo in his new film, Margaret — and I didn’t hesitate.
Rosemarie was a director’s dream — she came prepared, did a tremendous amount of work, and she did what great actors do: She created a character in the moments between words. The face of an expressive, honest actor like Rosemarie can reveal so much more than any monologue written by a screenwriter. Rosemarie was remarkable in that while she had a supporting part in the film, she didn’t want more lines of dialogue — in fact, she was the first to suggest a line cut.
When I heard that Rosemarie had the title role in Jonathan Demme’s new film, I was thrilled — and interested to learn how he worked with an actress who I know well. Demme is famous for getting magnificent performances, especially from actresses. So, for the focus of this article, various people who worked on Rachel Getting Married have reflected on their work, and they were each asked about a common theme: the character of “Rachel,” and how they helped in her creation. Articles about film often focus on stars and directors, so it seemed appropriate and far overdue to focus on the contributions of all the people whose work allows audiences to fall in love with a character. Here are five of those people:
TOP OF PAGE: ANNE HATHAWAY (LEFT) AND ROSEMARIE DEWITT IN RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. PHOTO BY: BOB VERGARA. ABOVE: RACHEL GETTING MARRIED's DEWITT, DIRECTOR JONATHAN DEMME AND HATHAWAY. PHOTO BY HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.
JENNY LUMET, screenwriter
Can you talk about how you began the script for Rachel Getting Married? I had a particular scene, a visual, that wouldn’t leave my head for close to a year. That was a scene of a woman in her bridal chamber wearing her wedding dress, and then the door bursts open and it’s her sister. It was just a fly that lived in my brain. It gestated without my doing any writing for a bunch of months. The putting words to paper part was actually quite quick.
Can you talk about creating Rachel and Kym? I have a sister, but this movie is not an exposé. I think the sisterly dynamic is really powerful and interesting. And, hmmm, how do I say this? I’m a drama teacher. I teach 7th and 8th grade drama — or rather, I did until about a year and a half ago when this writing stuff took over. I try to make the kids read a lot of theater by dead people. I really like Greek tragedy, because no matter how bad your family is, their family is worse. Family members kill each other. I like the idea that passions as strong as life and death exist in a family — everyone on Earth who has a sibling knows that’s [true]. And I thought the stakes in relationships between sisters haven’t really been explored as much as they could be. I’m not comparing my life to Aeschylus, and I’m not Electra, but I’m just saying that there are powerful emotions between sisters. It’s not about shoes or getting the guy. Knowing that, I listened really hard to Rachel and Kym. If I were a braver person, perhaps I could’ve gone further.
Can you talk about how Rosemarie came to be in the film? I wasn’t at Rosemarie’s audition, but I saw a DVD of it, and she was so freaking honest. I smacked Jonathan on the shoulder! She was so willing and totally brave as an actress. She got it — the ferocity that is Rachel, and at the same time… all the weirdness. And she has those enormous blue-green eyes, and you believe her. Kym is a big character, and if Rachel isn’t there, Kym will wipe you off the screen. And Rosemarie kicked ass because she’s brave.
Once Rosemarie was cast, did you say much to her? Nope. I gave my phone number to the actors, and said, “If you have any questions, give me a call.”
When you first saw a cut of the film, was Rachel different than how you imagined her? Yeah, she was tougher. And more dignified. I’m thrilled that Rosemarie found that dignity in the character.
So, if Rachel was tougher, did that change the power dynamic you scripted? Yeah. And I think “dignified” is the best way to describe Rosemarie. I was thinking a lot about anger, but unless Rosemarie’s character had that essential dignity, it wouldn’t have worked. And I guess I’m just figuring that out now as I talk to you. It’s a great question because you write things, and sometimes you don’t realize what’s inside them, you know? Actors surprise you. They’ll find things in there that you didn’t know were there.
When I spoke with Rosemarie, we talked a bit about catharsis. Is Rachel’s arc through the film about forgiving, or is it not that simple? I think Rachel, more than anybody, wants to forgive Kym. But as everyone knows, if something is going to be a big deal in your life… it unfortunately doesn’t ever happen when you’re ready. It happens in waiting rooms. It happens in bus stations, restaurants, it happens when you’re not looking. There’s a part of the movie where Rachel says to Kym: “I wasn’t sure you were going to show up.” There’s a part of her that probably would have been fine if Kym didn’t show up for the wedding. But I think Rachel rises to the occasion and takes an opportunity — her wedding weekend — to deal with her relationship with her sister. And she kicks ass, and at the end of it all, she is lighter. She did it. She did what she needed to do.
NEDA ARMIAN, producer
When did you first begin working on Rachel Getting Married? I had read a couple drafts of the script in 2005, going into 2006, but in May, 2006, Jonathan and I met and he talked about wanting to direct it, and his vision, and that is when I officially came on board.
What were your first impressions of the screenplay? I thought it had so much heart, and I thought it was bold, and by bold I mean, I felt like, in the best sense of the words, the script was all over the place. It had heart, but it was also funny, and it was suddenly very sad and dramatic. I thought, “It doesn’t know what it wants to be and yet it has its path.” And then, it does know what it wants to be — it wants to be like what it’s like in real life. And at the end of the day, it’s a story about characters. In reading it, I thought, this is a perfect project for Jonathan, especially when he told me how he wanted to shoot it, like a documentary, and in a way that harkens back to work from earlier years in his career. He wanted to shoot from the hip, very quickly, with all New York actors and a New York crew.
What were your first impressions of the character of Rachel? In earlier versions of the script, it was a smaller part. But then Jonathan and Jenny worked together and the character became larger. I think something that’s interesting is that it could be easy to say that Rachel is the “nice” sister, that she doesn’t cause any “trouble.” But both sisters are nice, and they’re both troubled. And Rachel developed into a character that’s relentless and forgiving. And she was fierce, not someone to be underestimated.
Can you talk about the casting process? Well, it’s worth saying this, because it’s complimentary to Rosemarie. Everybody wanted to play Rachel. And everyone wanted to play Kym, too. But Rachel was just as meaty and we had a lot of big-name actresses who were championing to play the part. Jonathan and I saw Rosemarie’s taped audition and we were wowed by it. So we had her come in mid-August to meet with Annie. At the end of that day, after people left, Jonathan said: “We’ve found our Rachel.”
JONATHAN DEMME, director
Can you tell your first impression of the character of Rachel when you read the script? I guess my first impression was of these two sisters. It’s interesting because it’s certainly a richly multicharactered screenplay and movie, but at the heart of the movie are the two sisters, Kym and Rachel. And they’re inseparable, as sisters can be. When Kym shows up at Rachel’s doorstep three quarters of the way through the script, all beat up, I expected Rachel to completely, justifiably lose it, once and for all. But instead, in a heartbeat, Rachel had Kym in the bathtub and was cleaning her up. And on my first reading of the script, I had tears coming down my face, which has never happened before. Until then, I’d found Rachel incredibly bright, fighting for her day, often selfish, yet I cared about her a lot and didn’t want to see her wedding day messed up. I thought she was being harsh and self-centered, but then at this key, pivotal moment in story, with this great act of human generosity I fell madly in love with her. Then I was with her the rest of the film. I wound up liking and loving Rachel much more than I ever could have anticipated on page 60 — as fascinated as I was by her. I think this is one of the great strengths of Jenny’s screenplay: she didn’t put a moment’s energy into that thing we do 90 percent of the time with screenplays, which is try to make the audience like the characters. Jenny made sure all the characters were incredibly bright and located in an intense, combustible situation, and then she followed the truth of these characters. I guess I found Rachel incredibly complicated. I was with her, I was against her. And then she broke my heart and I fell in love with her.
Can you talk about casting Rosemarie DeWitt? Once Anne Hathaway was cast as Kym, I told the casting directors we needed someone extraordinary for Rachel. Not just because you need someone extraordinary in every single part if you hope to make a terrific movie, but because we had Anne Hathaway as one of the sisters, and she was going to blow everyone’s mind. So the task for the casting directors was to bring in their favorite actresses. And I said not 20 people — more like 10, preferably five great actresses who you feel can hold their own with Anne Hathaway and be wonderful in the part. And to their credit, five extraordinary actresses came in to do “How do you do’s.” I don’t like to read people. First, I like to meet someone and get a general sense of how they view the script and then maybe meet them again to get a little deeper into things. Rosemarie was the fifth to come in, and I have to tell you, I was standing in the common area of this mixing studio where we were preparing our Jimmy Carter documentary, and the elevator doors open and out steps Rosemarie Dewitt. Which was a name on a sheet of paper with some really excellent theater credits and a couple great film and TV credits. She had a strong résumé, but I wasn’t familiar with her work. But as she walked up to me, I thought to myself, “If this young woman can act, this is Rachel.” I liked her before we shook hands. Rosemarie has a kind of radiance, an instant likeability. So Rosemarie and I sat and chatted and a week later we arranged for another meeting in my apartment in New York with the producer, the casting folks and Annie. When Rosemarie walked in, again, it was instant. The chemistry between the two actresses was instant — they were way ahead of the process, way ahead of me. They sat down for a relaxed reading and I had my little video camera. I couldn’t believe everything that happened in that room. It seemed so real, I thought I was watching something real happening, and I was thinking, “We should be filming this for real!” When Rosemarie left, all of us decided, let’s not see anyone else, let’s cast Rosemarie before she winds up doing something else.
Did you say anything specific to her at this point? The one thing I stressed, which I stressed with all the actors, is that you’ve got to be willing to bring a lot of yourself to this part, even as you’re creating an original character. I hope you draw on how you react to things that happen in the script so that you’ll personalize the part and personify the character. And ultimately, she did what I’d hoped she’d do: She brought all of her big heart and keen intelligence and spontaneity that she possesses as a person and channeled it into this very complicated character. The result was not a false beat in the whole performance.
How did you direct her and the other actors on set? Well, the way we shot the film was a different approach for me. We never rehearsed, we never blocked out a shot — the actors were free to be anywhere in the room they wanted to be. They could change what they were doing. There was never any worry about matching anything. In keeping with our desire to approach the film like a documentary, we strenuously avoided anything formal. I made a point to step back as much as I possibly could, and I was much more interested in seeing what Rosemarie and the others would do on a new fresh take from a new photographic perspective, armed with whatever they had discovered on a previous take. I was much more interested in seeing that than seeing their response to a note I might give them. I worked on the premise that this is an incredibly strong cast and everybody is fully responsible for their own character, and they’re feeling the relationships in a way that even Jenny and certainly I could never teach them or guide them towards, so I stayed out of the way. I spent 90 percent of the shoot sitting in my little chair staring, grinning at the monitor. I was just delighted with what everyone was doing.
I’m curious — when during your career did you develop the confidence to allow your actors this degree of freedom? I made a movie in 1977 called Citizen’s Band. I’d made three or four films before, and I was learning how to make movies on sets. To be suddenly told you can direct a movie — by Roger Corman — is really to conduct your education in public, even if you don’t have a clue how to do it. By the time I got to Citizen’s Band I was working with a very high-quality cast for the first time. And I hadn’t learned yet that it’s not the director’s job to tell everybody — actors and everyone else — what to do. I thought that’s what a director was supposed to do. But it was on that film, working with actors like Bruce McGill, that I learned you don’t take something out unless you first see if it works or not. The actors may very well have better ideas than you, so relax. After that, instead of sitting around and talking about the background of their characters, I only wanted to work with actors who took full responsibility for themselves. That’s when I completely learned the lesson to work only with great actors, to trust them and make sure they take full responsibility for their part and then create a set that lets them feel free to try everything they want to try. I’ve always had a spoken rule with actors, where I say, “Let’s get this straight up front: Anything you want to try on film, we’ll try.” But anything I want to try, you have to agree to try as well. We have to walk away from every scene feeling like we’ve gotten every idea we have out of our system. And that rule has served me well over the years.
One final question: there’s this lovely grace moment after Kym leaves where Rachel walks into the house, jumps up, and hits the ceiling with her hand. How did that gesture develop? That’s Rosemarie for you. We did a take, and it was going beautifully. She’d just said good-bye to Kym, then went up the steps, and when she did the gesture of leaping and tapping the ceiling, I got excited! I thought, on one level, that’s what Rachel has been doing her whole life, that’s the fun thing she’s done ever since she was tall enough to reach that thing. She must really be relaxed now. I asked Rosemarie about that, and she said, “Yeah, I just was feeling so relieved, and I thought I’d just up and hit it.” And that was it — that was the in-the-moment thing.
ROSEMARIE DEWITT, actress
What were your first impressions of Rachel and Kym when you read the script for the first time? It was good because initially I felt a lot of empathy for Rachel. I felt bad for her because this was happening to her the weekend of her wedding. And on my initial reading, I was like, “How do I make this woman not seem like she’s complaining about her sister all the time?” I understood why she was doing it but I was wondering if the audience would understand how difficult it is to be around Kym, who’s taking all the oxygen out of the room. For me the real turning point in the movie was when they got to the scene where we understood what happened to Ethan. I was just worried that the audience wouldn’t be able to bear our family until we get that information. But Annie has this innate goodness, this likeable quality so all that fear went out the window when I saw that first screening. You can root for her even before you find out what happened to her. When I watched the movie, I had so much compassion for her. I mean, did I feel like she was narcissistic, self-serving and doing lots of things that were hurtful? Sure, but it’s so hard for this character to survive. The thing that I loved about the script was that in any given scene, I thought each character in the movie was right, and I thought they were wrong, which felt a lot like life and family dynamics.
Did you want to rehearse? I don’t remember, but if you asked me a couple of years ago having done a lot of theater, I would have thought, “Yes, I love to rehearse,” but on this one I loved the spontaneity. You never knew where the camera was going to be, the camera movements tended to be different with every take, and in those huge group scenes, when sometimes there were five or six cameras, everybody was sort of electric and firing on all cylinders all the time.
The moment when Kym leaves, she gets in the car and drives away, and you walk into the house and you go up to the doorway and you jump and hit the ceiling — how did that little moment happen? When I was young I’d jump and hit the chain that pulls down the attic in the hallway. I must have had a reason the first time and then later it was probably like a superstition; every time I’d come in the house I would do it. When I did it on the film, Jonathan was like, “Oh, you can do that again if you want.”
It’s such a beautiful grace moment at the end. For me it’s the moment, even more than the wedding, when you actually feel like some weight has probably lifted from Rachel. Well, when I was in the wedding I very much had the notion that something could be released in the wedding. And for some reason that was one of the harder days of shooting. We had rain, and it was really cold in the tent. You know, you have an expectation of things, and I felt like Rachel was going to be really let go of something that she’s been carrying around for a long time. And, I mean, some great stuff happened at the wedding, but I didn’t feel [that release] until that scene [in the hallway]. You know, when you read the script you think you know where it’s going to happen and then on the day it happens in a totally unexpected place.
TIM SQUYRES, editor
What were your first impressions when you read Rachel Getting Married? When I first read the script, what was interesting to me was the dynamic of the family, and this speaks to what’s striking about Rosemarie’s performance. Oftentimes, when you have a conflict like this, one person is right and one person is wrong. But if you go through this script, there are long arguments, and everybody is right. That’s what’s so difficult about this conflict. You can’t really resolve it with words. You can’t talk through these things. Rachel goes back and forth between wanting to embrace her sister, and being pushed back by all the years of hard feelings and hurt that have built up. It’s a very hard thing to do as an actor, and I was interested to see how she would handle this.
Can you describe Jonathan’s style as a director? Deceptively casual. It was relaxed, which I think served the actors and the film very well. The actors then really had to rise to the occasion. There was no room in this film for an actor who was going to say, “Tell me what to do.” They really had to bring their own energy and intelligence and vitality to their performances. It was shot like a documentary. The actors were never really aware of where the camera was pointing, so they stopped doing the things that film actors do, which is have precise timing, hit marks, that sort of thing. They approached it, I believe, more like something on a stage, where you’re really always in the moment. It brings a life and vitality to the scene that not all film performances have — sometimes they feel constrained, aware of a frame line, and where the lights are. The performances in this film weren’t constrained in that way — they were full of life and reality. I think that’s what makes the film so extraordinary.
Do you like to visit the set during filming? If they start shooting on Monday, I start working on Tuesday. And if I’m on set I’m not working. So… I was on set the first day and I met some of the actors. But there’s no real value for me to be on set. If I’m on set, I learn too much about the actor’s lives, and none of that does me any good. The only thing I need to know is what’s on film.
As you got dailies, what were your impressions of Rosemarie’s take on Rachel? Was it how you imagined it in the script? Once the actors take over the roles, words and meaning begin to change, and good actors will find things that might not have occurred to you when you’re reading the script, and Rosemarie certainly did find those things. She brought much more humor to the role — physical humor — than I expected. She was very funny because of the things she did without speaking. Her presence, her way of carrying herself, brought a real life to the character that you couldn’t get from reading the script. That’s what a good actor can bring. An actor just simply shrugging will always be better than dialogue on a page. A good director will realize that on set and drop the lines and just have them do the shrug, or come up with a shortened version of the line.
In the scene where Kym shows up at Rachel’s doorstep after the car accident, how does the final version of filmed scene resemble the earliest versions? At the door or in the bathroom?
Well, I meant the bathtub, but I guess you could consider it a single sequence. It’s very similar to how it was initially assembled. That was a montage — a bunch of separate shots. The difference was that I had a piece of music I was using as score while I was cutting it. It was music from the movie — a jazzy version of “Rachel Loves Sydney,” the song that Donald Harrison did. Ultimately, though, in the actual film we didn’t use any score. But, as far as shots, I think we dropped one and added one. However, the scene at the door changed enormously. We dropped dialogue, we dropped an emotional blowup. What you see there is about a third of the scene. What we found is that keeping it simple was ultimately much, much more moving.
Labels: Web Exclusives
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Howard Feinstein interviewed the key principals of The Visitor for our Spring '08 issue. The Visitor is nominated for Best Actor (Richard Jenkins).
In 2005, Tom McCarthy, who has been acting for nearly 20 years, appeared in three films with strong political thrusts: Syriana; Good Night, and Good Luck; and Danny Leiner‘s underappreciated The Great New Wonderful. In The Station Agent (2003), his first feature as a director, however, McCarthy displayed the seeds of this social engagement. The Station Agent is not political in the issue sense so much as it is progressively anthropological in its observation of marginalized individuals attempting to function within the larger social order and with one another. Fin (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf whose size is less of a problem than the self-conscious, frequently hostile reactions he gets from others. Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) is a middle-class woman merely going through the motions of living, a result of the death of her young son. Joe (Bobby Cannavale) is a Puerto Rican food vendor whose high-energy, working-class personality is at odds with the languorous rhythms of the isolated, lily-white township where he spends his workday.
Although comparing McCarthy‘s paid thesping to personal projects he writes and directs may seem glib, one can make a case for his attraction to films whose ideological underpinnings echo his own predispositions. McCarthy‘s second film, The Visitor, stars 60-year-old Richard Jenkins as plain, unremarkable Walter Vale, a lonely suburbanite who teaches economics in Connecticut. Walter undergoes a profound transformation after meeting two illegal immigrants in desperate straits. Here the filmmaker leaps from The Station Agent‘s peripheral social involvement into full-fledged (but never boring or p.c.) political commitment. The Visitor incorporates technical and dramatic elements McCarthy gleaned from his work on innumerable features and television series into an enlightened take on contemporary America in crisis. The brilliantly unobtrusive depiction is so au courant that one might expect it to have been realized as a quickie television doc instead of as a feature narrative.
TOP OF PAGE: RICHARD JENKINS IN THE VISITOR. PHOTO BY: JOJO WHILDON. ABOVE: THE VISITOR WRITER-DIRECTOR TOM MCCARTHY. PHOTO BY HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.
The film focuses on immigration and, to a lesser extent, race. The immigrants are not from Latin America but from the Middle East and Africa. In the faux-angsty climate of America post-2001, these individuals are forced to fear brutal arrest, inhumane detention, and deportation in spite of possible retribution in their homelands for political activity. The racial issue in The Visitor is not the clichéd American whites versus American blacks but instead xenophobic American whites versus foreigners of color — here a black Senegalese woman, Zainab (Danai Gurira), and a brown man, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), from Syria, not just a Third World nation but an officially demonized “enemy.”
McCarthy‘s experience researching in the Middle East flies in the face of the negative stereotypes that he exposes. “I spent time in Beirut and Oman and realized just how wonderful and warm and open and communicative and funny the people are,” notes the 39-year-old filmmaker, a Manhattan resident who grew up in New Jersey. “I was struck by how little I knew about the region, about the people, about the culture, and also by the fact that I had never seen such people represented in film. With all the news and the headlines, we can forget that there are human beings on both sides of this. So the best thing I can do is to share my feelings with people who aren‘t going to get on a plane and go somewhere like Beirut. Working on The Visitor sure took me into a world I wasn‘t familiar with.”
After returning home from the Middle East, McCarthy began research in New York City‘s Arab community, where he heard a story about a young man in a government detention center on immigration charges. He began visiting detainees and learned that most had no legal representation.
That people, particularly Arabs, are subject to the horrors of a dehumanizing set of detention centers is anathema to McCarthy, and he refuses in his film to simplify the system to make it palatable for the viewer. Rather, he deconstructs it, bypassing abstraction and honing in on one typically windowless facility in a rundown section of Queens as an archetype of its excesses. “These are not just horrible detention offices policed by bogeymen,” he explains. “Instead what you see inside them is a faceless bureaucracy. Many of these institutions are privatized, run by a huge company. They hire people from the usually depressed surrounding community and pay them a low or minimum wage.” The workers inside are distant, nasty. “These employees are not the most equipped at dealing with prisoners.”
The detention center itself is the only location in the film built on a soundstage for the rapid-fire 28-day shoot (the budget was around $5 million), only because McCarthy was not allowed access to any existing ones. The fake building is the exception in a movie that otherwise uses real exteriors and the actual interiors that match them. His choice to shoot on location was mainly, but not only, philosophical. “I wanted to create a real environment, real neighborhoods, a real world for the actors to exist in so that they can reach a full sense of reality. I think it‘s more nuanced that way. You can feel the artifice when you shoot everything on a soundstage.”
“For example, the exterior of Walter‘s East Village pied-à-terre [where he discovers lovers Zainab and Tarek squatting] is the same as the interior we shot in,” McCarthy explains. “It creates consistency, yet it also helps practically. You‘re there; you can move quickly by shooting at that location and then moving on. It‘s a case of the budget dictating the aesthetic, which I fully believe in.”
The Visitor‘s music is as genuine as the sets. The djembe, a large drum played in the Middle East, is almost a character. Tarek teaches it to the arrhythmic, atonal Walter, who is initially reluctant, precipitating the alteration of his persona, his value system, his sense of outrage. The djembe even provides a plot point: Tarek is so slow carrying the cumbersome instrument through a subway turnstile that he is busted by the cops who think he is a fare beater. At the denouement, Walter is cradling it. “I took djembe lessons from a musician friend when I was researching this,” says McCarthy. “He kept telling me, ‘Get out of your head, just listen, feel it, don‘t think about it, just start being in the present.‘ That‘s what Walter needed to do and what happens to him during the course of the film.”
The other instrument, intentionally less appealing, is the living-room piano which his late wife played, and which Walter tries in vain to learn from a mortified neighbor. “Walter uses the piano to hold on to the past,” McCarthy explains. “It‘s like he‘s trying to escape from prison by scraping his way out with a spoon to find some sort of life. Unfortunately, he has chosen something he has no talent for.”
Walter, Tarek and Zainab form an unlikely triumvirate, not unlike the odd threesome in The Station Agent. Both films feature a misfit (extremely shy Walter, diminutive Fin), an appealing extrovert (vivacious Tarek, gregarious Joe), and a troubled, defensive woman (mistrusting Zainab, irrational Olivia). In The Visitor, the triangle is squared when gorgeous, middle-aged Mouna (the great Israeli actress Hiam Abbass), Tarek‘s mother and a political refugee in the States, arrives in Manhattan to find out why she has not heard from her son, by then in detention. She forges a bond with Walter that soon becomes romantic. “I wrote the part of Mouna with Hiam in mind,” notes McCarthy. “I went to Paris and sat down with her just as I was beginning to write the script.” The trajectory of Walter and Mouna‘s relationship supplies The Visitor with a rich personal drama that nicely complements the film‘s political conflict.
Jenkins, a prolific film vet known to many as the ghost of the family patriarch on the television series Six Feet Under, provides a human-scale credibility that makes The Visitor a great movie as opposed to a very good one. McCarthy, who has worked with nearly 40 different directors, recognizes what makes a fine actor. “I start to think, ‘this doesn‘t work; why?‘ ” he asks. “Actors know when they are working with actor-directors. It‘s a confidence question. The more confidence you build, the quicker you can work together in developing a shorthand. Richard is the perfect example. By the end, I would just use catchwords.”
“Tom‘s an actor,” says Jenkins. “There‘s a common language between the two of us. I‘m not usually crazy about rehearsing movies, but the three weeks of rehearsal was really productive. It helped me know him. In fact, it helped for everyone to know one another, not to mention changing the script. Tom didn‘t pretend there was a camera there, like most directors do. When the camera comes, everything changes.”
“As unlikely of a leading man as Richard might seem, he does have that confidence, vulnerability and openness which can translate into something sensual, if not sexual,” says McCarthy. “He is in some ways uncomfortable in his own skin. I saw him in a movie I didn‘t like, Shall We Dance, and the heat is with him and Susan Sarandon, not Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere. It‘s his confidence that makes it come out like that.” “I don‘t see myself that way,” counters Jenkins. “I act like I‘m confident. Actually I‘m more confident acting than doing anything else.” The affable thesp slides into joking mode. “I‘m just a sex bunny! I‘ve got women hanging all over me!”
“You could see the joy in Richard and Hiam‘s working together, and it comes through in the film,” says McCarthy. “There were moments doing two-shots when we just let them do their thing. We thought, we don‘t have to pop in. The camera trusts both of them.” Though the Galilee born, Paris-based Abbass is more than 12 years Jenkins‘s junior, she is just as fine a performer, if very different. “Hiam has endless resources of emotion to draw on, plus a great sense of pace,” notes McCarthy. “With Hiam, there‘s no filler,” adds Jenkins. “She would ask the question, ‘What does this mean?‘ It made me examine what we were doing in a scene. It would cut to the heart. And Tom or I would have to answer it.”
McCarthy believes that The Visitor has the feel of a European movie. “I have been heavily influenced by European films,” he says. “Foreign buyers in Toronto were over the moon about it.” Brit Bill Stephens, one of the partners in K5, the international sales agent that bought the film soon after the festival, agrees. “Tom‘s storytelling is very European, and in many ways akin to the likes of Ken Loach, who covers serious humanitarian issues like immigration or the plight of the underdog. I went to see The Visitor because I loved The Station Agent, but The Visitor rang many bells for me. It has a more universal theme and I think it will succeed with Europeans.”
The Visitor possesses an organic cohesion rare in American filmmaking (ensemble work is much more the norm in countries with a smaller movie pool). “The filmmaking process is delicate because the film is so collaborative between me, cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg and Tom McArdle, the editor,” says McCarthy. Bokelberg and McArdle had previously worked with the untested director on the $500,000 Station Agent and had far fewer resources. For The Visitor, Bokenberg labored in areas not traditionally delegated to a d.p. “My relationship with Olly goes deeper than the typical director/d.p. one,” says McCarthy. “For example, Olly has a great sense of story. He must have read 10 drafts of the script and made helpful notes along the way.” About McArdle, he says, “Tom and I sat down a number of times before we shot the movie to talk through all the things we would usually talk about after shooting. In general, I made sure that we were on the same page, beginning with his work on dailies. By the time we were in the editing room, there was a shorthand.”
That word again. It may just be the operative term to describe what differentiates The Visitor from most of what‘s out there.
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