“The treacherous landscape of the west has been captured in numerous entries in the genre, but rarely with the distinctive vibrancy cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank) brings to it in Slow West,” I said in my Sundance review, “John Maclean – who has had a long relationship with his star Michael Fassbender in a handful of shorter form projects — makes his directorial debut here, clearly reveling in providing his twist on the genre, while still holding true to its roots.”
With the film now arriving in theaters this weekend, I had the chance to talk with Maclean about his debut. We discussed his influences, the casting of Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn, the execution of violence, his biggest challenges, the most exciting sequence in film history, the cinematography, and much more. Check out the conversation below.
The Film Stage: You’ve known Michael Fassbender for at least a few years now. Can you talk about the formation of this project and if you had to wait until he had more attention?
John Maclean: Yeah, I think it was [during] Inglorious Basterds when I first got to work with him on my first short film [Man on a Motorcycle]. I just wanted to make sure it was enjoyable for him to make. We worked quite well together so there was discussions of doing another short. So maybe a year or two later we did Pitch Black Heist, which is three days I had with Michael. Again, it was just a positive experience and I think that was the first thing to be run through his production he set up with him and his agent. I guess I knew then that a future would follow with the production company. So after Pitch Black Heist I started writing very much with him in mind, both of us wanting to do a western and he was up for it. So he was in from the beginning.
One of the first things that caught my eye when I saw it at Sundance was cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s credit in the opening. I knew it would be beautiful, and I wasn’t let down. Can you talk about working with him and how you found him?
Yeah, it was again, Pitch Black Heist. I was looking for a director of photography to shoot that and my producer at the time was a friend of Robbie’s and I think there was some favors owed. So she managed to get him to shoot my short and hadn’t seen any of his work. But I just met him and liked him and I told him I wanted to shoot on a tripod, deep focus, and I think he was used to being requested for being the master of handheld and shallow focus. [Laughs] So it was a case of just liking him as a person first of all, then when we shot Pitch Black Heist, he shot it so amazingly and obviously he turned his hand to deep focus and not handheld amazingly. It was the same thing with Slow West. I wanted a certain fixed camera look and deep focus look. As well as not having to double check the composition, he’s certainly the master of light as well. Yeah, it was a great collaboration.
The movie definitely has the elements you might expect in a western, but there’s also a fantastical feel, which has to do with his cinematography — his vibrancy and brightness. I’ve never seen a western quite like this. Can you talk about those discussions?
Yeah, I had that discussion with everyone, from the lighting department to costumes because I think I said to everyone, “I don’t want a brown western.” [Laughs] The more modern the western, the browner they’ve become in the grading, in the costume, and in the look. I didn’t want to go back. For the color, I gave a lot of references that were more The Wild Bunch and some of these late 60′s westerns that had super saturated blues and so that was definitely discussed beforehand. Then the light from the weather when we were shooting did the rest. And, of course we made sure we got Robbie’s usual lighting man over as well. They’re a strong team. It was very much in the planning, for sure.
The way you handle the violence — it’s a bit different in the finale — but leading up to it, it’s these bursts. It almost reminded me of another Fassbender film, Inglourious Basterds, where violence is used very effectively in the build-up.
When it comes to violence in movies today, do you find this method to be more effective?
Yeah, when you look at noir cinema of the 50′s and when there was censorship involved, violence had to be shot a certain way, but it benefited from it. When I was writing [Slow West], it was very much a big build-up, tiny little bit of action, and then all the repercussions endlessly explored. That’s sort of what you see in the classic how-to books, but that’s the way I think it should be and when I see films that even have come out this year — I won’t name names — that glorify [violence] because we’re sort of enjoying the violence. It seems a bit much more me, actually. I’m more old-fashioned in that respect. The only problem is — I think Tarantino has this as well — but when you don’t show the violence on screen, sometimes it’s worse for people, because their imagination runs wild. So I maybe I have a little bit of that as well because some people have said there’s some violent scenes and then I’m saying, well you don’t see anyone get shot.
Yeah, in general the rule was to keep it like that.
Kind of to your point about that, I read an interview where one of your influences is Robert Bresson and the way he uses insert shorts to add so much texture to his movies. You kind of have that too.
Yeah, that almost started in the writing. With Bresson as well, he would write that kind of set-up that would involve the hand on the door or the bit of bread getting picked up or whatever. For me, some of the most exciting action sequences in cinema history are in Pickpocket. This sort of fluid editing and the way it’s shot. For me, it’s such a bigger kick than seeing something explode.
Absolutely with Slow West. In the writing, I started writing, the hand goes to the butter, the hand goes to the cup. Then in the storyboarding it was very much done like that. It becomes a bit of a problem when people see the amount of shots you have to shoot in a day. There’s like 50 set-ups and the AD starts panicking and you say, “It’s just a hand! It’s just a hand picking up a cup and we move on. We just do it once.” You do have to shoot a different way to do that. You’re almost in-camera editing with collage-style filmmaking, which to me is just more interesting than handheld covering a scene and following actors and making the story up in the edit, which I didn’t really want to do.
With this being your first feature and going to Sundance, you don’t really see films like this with this much control and structure. For something seemingly so planned, was there any big challenges?
Yeah, just the usual working with horses. [Laughs] And working with actors that told me they can ride horses in rehearsals and then they turn up and maybe they can’t. Mainly, just practical things. We were so lucky with the weather. There was no sort of wet weather cover so we really were risking a whole outdoor shoot. It was amazing. Even when it was supposed to be windy in the script it became windy. It was freaky. That made the shoot incredibly enjoyable. Yeah, the shoot’s a blast. I think just maybe the editing, because I’ve only ever edited short films. It was a massive learning curve, the whole thing.
The way the structure is, there’s a build-up to this explosion in the third act, but was there any resistance to the pacing of the first two acts?
Not really. The tough thing about the edit — which was really just between me and the editor — was balancing if I tried to speed everything up, up to the point of the shoot-out, the shoot-out would become less dramatic for a start. But, secondly you’d lose the sense of the slow west and the vast journey, how long it takes to get to these places and the fact that they’ve been together for awhile traveling. So it was a balance of that and not actually having too much of that so it didn’t become lots of shots of landscapes and men on horses. I think that was a really fine line to sort of get the real balance of how much traveling and how much action, leading up the end siege, which was so choreographed it ended up editing itself, in a way.
That’s great. I wanted to talk about the casting of Ben Mendelsohn, who has just kind of exploded the last few years. He’s such a great presence. What was the first thing you saw him in?
It’s Animal Kingdom. Yeah, I loved it.
Can you talk about his presence on set and what he brought to the movie?
Yeah, I think I was still writing Slow West when I watched Animal Kingdom so I think he seeped into it, the character of it. When I talked to Ben about it, I think we talked a little bit about Blood Meridian and one or two of the characters and Cormac McCarthy and maybe the baddie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which is another big influence. More than any other character — because I think none of the other characters I really referenced films for — I saw Ben more of an archetypal, sort of someone from a western. So I did sort of give him a bit more touchstones then the rest that he just brings with his talent and personality.
You wrote it, directed it, and everything. What was the biggest surprise for you from scripting and then seeing the final cut?
Nothing hugely. I sort of write by kind of watching the film in my head and then I storyboard the pictures I imagined and then shoot the storyboard. So it’s not quite as simple as that. Probably in the next film I have to leave more room for other stuff to happen that brings it away from that because that’s just another style of filmmaking I’m interested in. So that’d be a nice new thing to do, but for this I felt that’s the way I wanted to shoot it and that’s the way the story was going to be told. It felt very much like I was keeping the essence of the script. I think the flashbacks was always a difficult thing as well because you shoot more and it was a very fine line between flashback and dream sequence so they had to solve things that had to be reworked and didn’t work until they worked and then worked. See what I mean?
Yeah. After doing a western, which is an ambitious feat for a first project, what sort of genres would you like to explore next?
Well, I’m a big fan of noir and I my short film was a heist. The whole heist-noir-crime genre is interesting to me. Especially maybe a contemporary take on it. I still like the idea, with Slow West, having magic realism and having that very different take on the genre. So I’d like to do that with something maybe contemporary.
Lastly, speaking of your shorts, I’ve tried to watch them for awhile and they are hard to track down in the U.S. Is there any distribution coming?
Yeah, we’re working on it. There absolutely will be, yeah. It’s amazing that my first short film, Man on a Motorcycle, hasn’t actually managed to get on the internet at all, which is quite incredible in this day and age. Yeah, I need to get it out there. Possibly DVD or possibly a package.
Great, I’ll look forward to it then. Congrats on the film.
Thanks so much, nice to chat.
Slow West hits limited theaters on May 15th and will expand throughout the summer.
Arriving between Tribeca and Cannes, the Montclair Film Festival, now in its fourth year, is carving out a unique niche offering a chance to see festival favorites from Sundance, SXSW and Toronto in advance of their release in Northern New Jersey. The festival includes several East Coast premieres, notably Sundance winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and its opening night picture, the SXSW hit Hello, My Name is Doris, as well as Time Out of Mind, the Richard Gere-led fall premiere that’s awaiting a release.. Also of note is another chance to see one of Robin Williams‘ final performances in Dito Montiel’s Boulevard, which was recently acquired for distribution this summer after premiering at Tribeca in 2014.
Situated 25 minutes by bus from Manhattan, Montclair, NJ’s Clairidge Cinema regularly houses New Jersey exclusive engagements, a role all the more vital as Montclair’s art screens have been reduced from eleven to six as shrinking windows, video on demand, and the town’s popularity forced changes at other venues. The town’s former cinemas continue to play a role in the festival in their altered forms. The Wellmont Theatre several years ago was converted back to its 1,700 seat former glory, while the former Screening Zone hosts several festival events, including talks and parties.
The festival’s executive director Tom Hall takes the reigns this year spearheading a screening schedule of over 150 films across six venues in Montclair and Upper Montclair along with live performances by Yo La Tengo, conversations with Richard Gere, Jonathan Deme, Barbara Kopple, Mavis Staples, Jonathan Alter, Patrick Wilson, Michael Ian Black and more. Kicking off today, we talked with Hall about Montclair’s 2015 line-up as well as the festival’s year round mission and future. Check out the conversation below.
The Film Stage: Thanks so much for talking with us. The festival is only a few years old with an impressive set of screenings and events. Can you walk me through its history?
Tom Hall: This is actually the fourth year of the festival. It began four years ago when Bob Feinberg, who is the chairman of our board of directors and is the chief council at WNET in New York City, and a colleague were driving around town. This guy was trying to decide if he was going to move to Montclair and the friend said, “Do you guys have a film festival? I think you guys should have a film festival.” It’s literally because a huge number of TV and media professionals live here. As someone who does not live here it’s a bit staggering when you look at the median per capita media footprint of the town. Stephen Colbert lives here along with the executive producer and writers for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report along with Jonathan Alter, who produced Alpha House and is a contributor on MSNBC, two studio heads live here, Patrick Wilson, the actor. So all of these folks got together with other folks in town, community leaders, and they decided they wanted to put together a film festival and they gave it a shot. They started small and it continues to grow exponentially every year. Thom Powers (TIFF Docs, Miami Film Festival) and Raphaela Neihausen, who runs Stranger Than Fiction and is the executive director of Doc NYC, live in town and they ran the festival for the first three years. The needs of the festival grew beyond their busy schedule and they’re still involved, however they brought me on board this summer to try to create a year-round presence. In year four we’ve expanded again. We’ve added an opening weekend. We open on Friday and now we’re ten days long. We added a competition we’re going to have audience awards and we added a jury. We’re having juries come and having an awards ceremony. And we continue to expand — we’ve already beat last year’s box office totals and we’re a few days away and we seem to be in good shape for the future — I hope.
For an upstart you’re in a great position. How you’ve been able to attract that interest from these guests?
There are a few assets we have — being 25 minutes outside of Manhattan does not hurt. For people coming in to present a movie it’s not a big ask and we’ve got a lot of New York-based film and acting talent that we can attract. It would be a lot harder if we were further away or difficult to get to. We also do a few events a year with Stephen Colbert that he works with us on, so having that is a very big help and a lot of people appreciate him and want to be associated with him. We also have other media professionals that live here. Our narrative centerpiece film is the Sundance movie Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which won the audience and jury award there. The executive producer of the film Nora Skinner lives here; she’s a member of our artistic committee and she worked very closely with us to bring the film here. Our opening night film, Hello, My Name is Doris, screened at SXSW and having seen it prior, we invited the film and they accepted. Immediately after it screened it got picked up and Roadside Attractions is holding it until 2016. However they graciously honored our invitation and Michael Showalter will present the film. So we’re fortunate due to our timing. Ww have a lot of positive assets which are helpful as a programer to bring these films here.
Can you discuss the curatorial process for Montclair? There are a few films have screened at other festivals – Sundance, SXSW, and a three that were at Tribeca this year, along with New Jersey-based films. Are you hosting any world premieres this year?
Yeah, we have a couple world premiers including Tears of God which is kind of a Claire Denis-style horror movie with Kate Lyn Sheil and Lindsay Burge, along with a few local films that are having their world premiere. Others like Hello, My Name is Doris only played at South By. We’ve got a few that played at Tribeca — I feel like we’re in good shape. We’re in year four and I don’t think we’re going to become a market festival where people are coming to sell their movies. It’s really a smaller community and we’re focused on our local and regional audience. It’s not every festival’s ambition to become a South By or a Sundance or a Tribeca. We’re more interested in bringing the best films we can and creating a really great environment for audiences and filmmakers to connect. With collapsing windows between festivals, VOD and theatrical and everything just going much faster than it used to, it’s becoming more and more challenging to get every movie we love or see everything we want. We are fighting the good fight on that front and we’re going to try grow in the right way with quality movies and become a place where artists feel its mandatory for them as they take their movies out. I think that’s a great place to be.
Last year at the festival I attended a panel on New Jersey filmmaking and unfortunately the news was grim on the tax incentive front. Is there a role that the festival can play in advocating and encouraging Jersey filmmaking either in an advocacy or development role?
I know that panel reflected current tax incentive front and New Jersey is not a competitive climate on that front. We found in going out, a lot of New Jersey talent maybe aren’t working in New Jersey. They are maybe telling New Jersey stories and living here but making their work around the world or in a different part of the country, so we take a broad view of what constitutes New Jersey filmmaking. There are films that were made here like Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven which I think is a great film. We also have some great local films that were made about Montclair and Montclair-area issues that are very good. They may not appeal on a national level or they may end up appealing to audiences on a national level. They did an excellent job with those projects. Long-term our goal is to launch an educational program for young people, the generation watching content on cellphones and iPads, who maybe download the copy and don’t pay for it. We’re trying to inspire an appreciation of film and filmmaking with them so we can continue to grow and give people an opportunity to work on their own projects. It’s a multi-pronged approach. One thing festivals can do is create a reverent environment for film going which I think creates an overall impression that New Jersey is a great place for filmmaking and it encourages New Jersey filmmakers uncover interesting stories and provides a platform to make great work.
As a life-long Montclair movie-goer I understand how vital the festival is. At one point we had 11 art screens, now we just have six at the Clairidge. Many of these films may not get a theatrical run in Montclair or New York City. With that said, what films should I see and what events should I attend?
We open with Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name is Doris, followed by our opening night party at the single screen 1,700-seat Wellmont Theatre and we’re going to pack it out – it’s going to be a great night. I’m also excited to have Richard Gere here in conversation with Stephen Colbert. We have Richard’s new film Time Out of Mind which will be coming out this fall with an awards season push. The film is terrific. A lot of films that deal with an issue like homelessness seem to be cloying or someone stands up and gives a big speech at the end that solves all the problem, but Oren Moverman, who is the writer-director, is way too smart to do something like that, so it is a very powerful movie. I would also highly recommend the Yo La Tengo and Sam Green live documentary which is taking place Thursday May 7th at the Wellmont. It’s a Yo La Tengo performance live along with Sam Green’s performance of a documentary live. So we’ll have the screen playing documentary footage along with Sam Green’s performance. He stops it, he starts it, he tells stories, he narratives the film live with the band performing the score. I’m very excited about that. We also have Mavis Staples here presenting her film Mavis. She’s incredible. The movie is unbelievably good. It’s got that 20 Feet From Stardom vibe to it, with a lot of great music and you’ll walk away with a smile on your face. She’ll be doing a live event with Stephen Colbert. They’re old friends from the Colbert Report days where she was one his favorite guests and we’re excited to bring them back together. And Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a terrific movie, big film, multiple award winner at Sundance. The director and screenwriter will be here. And then we close on Mother’s Day, May 10th, with Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected, a beautiful movie about a teacher and student who go on a path of maternity together as they both get pregnant unexpectedly. It’s a really wonderful, positive story. I loved it. If people want to bring their moms they’ll leave with a grin on their face and feel good about your experience. It’s kind of the perfect button on the festival. In between we’ve got another 150 films and I could talk all day about those, but these are the highlights for sure.
Great. Anything else you want to tell us about Montclair?
The most important thing is it’s easy to get here. It’s a very simple process to get here and get around. We hope folks will come give it a try. Our ticket prices are relatively reasonably priced compared to other festivals and we’ve got something for everybody. As we grow and offer year-round programs we’re looking to make new friends and reach new audiences, so we hope everyone will join us.
Thanks so much for talking with us. I’m looking forward to the festival this year.
The Montclair Film Festival runs May 1st through 10th. Tickets and information are available at the official site.
Genre film fans are likely familiar with writer Alex Garland‘s output over the last decade and a half. He made his name with a splash when his novel was adapted into the backpacking adventure thriller The Beach in 2000 and struck again with screenplay for 28 Days Later which some credit as the fire that helped reignite the zombie resurgence we are experiencing now. Whether it is films since then like Never Let Me Go, or personal favorite Dredd, Garland’s writing has been behind some of the most interesting genre cinema around and now, with his directorial debutEx Machina going wide in theaters this weekend, he is finally announcing that he can be more than just a strong writer.
If it was up to Garland, though, he’d share equal credit with his cast and crew. Garland rejects the deification of directors in modern cinema and he’s expressed as much in numerous interviews and even during the Q&A of the film after the U.S. premiere at SXSW in March. The film follows the brilliant if juvenile billionaire programmer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who invites one of his most promising employees, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to his secluded home/compound. There, Nathan hopes that Caleb will perform the Turing test—a test given to a computer in a scenario where the person interacting with it has to be convinced it is talking to a human—on Ava (Alicia Vikander), who is an android. The catch here is that Ava is very obviously an android but Nathan is convinced that his creation is brilliant enough to convince Caleb that she has a genuine mind of her own.
What follows is a twisted mind-game with three players involved where they continually try to best each other. The film, as I mentioned in my review, revolving around a robot “isn’t the normal place to find a rich and thoughtful exploration of patriarchal society, gender identity, seclusion and nature versus nurture. Yet Garland and his ensemble have managed to deliver all of this within the realm of a resonant science-fiction narrative that is as brutal and honest in its observations as it is entertaining.”
So it was with obvious excitement that I got to spend some time with Garland on the phone to talk about his film, how he named it, some oddities that I noticed in the way that Ava appears on screen, and whether collaboration slows down a production which he had an interesting perspective on. Speaking to Garland’s independent spirit, he’s the one who actually called me directly when the press day for Ex Machina ran late as he was on his way to a meeting with Warner Brothers. Check out the entire conversation below.
The Film Stage: I saw the film back at the Paramount at SXSW. There was a great reaction there.
Alex Garland: That was a really good night. We had no idea how that film was going to go. There was quite a few people attached to the film that were there that hadn’t really seen in on the big screen. They came to Austin specifically — three of the producers, the guy that shot it, and even some other people. So it was a really good time.
That’s great to hear. It was definitely a highlight out of SXSW for me. Let’s start with the basics. I’ve read quite a few interviews with you about this film but I’ve yet to really see anyone ask you about the title itself. Ex Machina. Taken from Deus Ex Machina, so all it means is The Machine?
Yes, precisely. If you take the prefix, the Deus Ex, it implies the god out of the machine.
I think a title is incredibly important.
I agree, yeah.
Did you get any pushback on the title?
We did indeed. There were some people that felt the title was a bad idea. It’s not well known. People don’t know how to pronounce it. I really liked this title but I don’t have the power to fight for it that hard. A couple of people involved in the film, with Scott Rudin in particular and one of the financiers, just decided that it was the right thing to do and to support the title. The evidence that was used that finally managed to convince people to go with the title was the movie Prometheus. They figured if they could make Prometheus work, people would buy into Ex Machina. But in truth, if I’m being totally candid, the fact is that this is a really low-budget film and probably they just didn’t care that much.
[Laughs] You’ve mentioned that in several interviews. If you have a low budget, people don’t mess with you as much.
It’s true. And it is a fact that you learn after a while of working on films. You start to think that way unconsciously and you write with that awareness in mind. This was a tricky movie in all sorts of different ways. It’s got difficult subject matter. It’s quite adult in some of the themes and images. It has long sections of dialogue and also, actually, long periods of silence — just music and images and stuff. Creative freedom was vital. If we had started compromising it we would have been in big trouble. The only way to execute it was to go for it 100 percent.
One thing I noticed is that Ava doesn’t blink a whole lot in the film. You’ve mentioned that Alicia Vikander’s mindset was to make her movements more perfect than a normal human. Or, rather, ideal at all times. She sits completely straight, never slouches. She is standing perfectly. These are things that without going into the uncanny valley bring forth that emotion and reaction from audiences that she is otherworldly. Alien. Machine. But I was curious about the arm length of her character, Ava. I know that you’ve shot everything on screen and then converted it digitally on the back end. For whatever reason, her arms look abnormally long.
It’s quite interesting you say that. Do you know why that is? They’re not lengthened in any way at all. That is just simply Alicia’s exact silhouette. What happens is that when you separate the hands and you have the skeletal structure visible and not the flesh that creates the contours, your sense of how the body is proportioned is very strange. If you just took a normal person and you revealed their bones and went the length of their arms and stopped it at the wrist, you’d have the same effect. It’s only that we’re clad in muscle and skin that it changes the way that looks.
Wow. That is interesting. And I’m sure things like that came up in the edit bay or wherever you were getting dailies of the finished effects and wondering why it looked weird.
Yeah. There were various surprises that would appear like that. The thing that we noticed was not so much that the arms looked long but that the hands looked big. But having a sort of strangeness is an asset for Ava. It’s good that she doesn’t feel just like us because she’s not just like us.
Exactly. You’ve spoken up against the deification of directors in cinema today and are pushing the mentality that making a film is a collaboration. There are a ton of people responsible for what ends up working or not working on the screen, and it’s rarely just the director. But at the same time you basically had a budget where you could do three or four takes per scene and then had to move on. Collaboration is this wonderful thing; it’s brilliant and invigorating but it also pumps the brakes. Do you think it slows things down?
No, I don’t think so. It depends who is doing it. We were a really tight cast and crew. We all got along. There was a lot of laughter. And we were also all in agreement on what we were trying to do. The stuff that can go wrong on films is when you have different groups, who may both be powerful groups, who are trying to make different films. That happens on a lot of movies, it really does. It can get very splintered very quickly and you can have lots of different agendas and lots of politics. And one thing that ends up happening, from my point of view, is that a lot of your time and creativity energy is not spent on the film making but is instead spent on the politics. If everyone is in sync and they get along making the same movie, you are collaborating, but you can work really quickly and efficiently. It’s a pleasure when that happens. It’s really nice. But just to let you know, I’ve arrived so I have time for one more question.
One thing I wanted to ask about before you go is that Nathan and Caleb both quote texts at various points. Nathan paraphrases and it catches Caleb’s attention as incorrect. “You’re not saying it correctly.”
It shows the dynamics between the two of them very specifically. One is free and flowing and the other is very rigid and structured.
Right, thank you. That’s great.
Where did that come from and was that in the script or did it come from collaboration?
That was in the script. There was a bunch of games being played, but if I’m saying it was in the script, I wouldn’t want that to undermine the creative and collaborative aspect. Really, what happens is that I see myself as a writer. So I write a script and then you find the people you want to work with and all these people elevate it. They make it better than you were hoping or planning. That includes the acting. They continually add nuance and find meaning in lines you never expected or never knew was there. So that sort of stuff might have been in the script but it was not as fully developed as when you put it in the actor’s hands. I often feel that one of the strongest bonds in film is between writers and actors. They’re the two groups that understand how to get into characters the most. They really internalize the characters. The writers because they wrote them and the actors because they have to perform them. So often everyone is speaking the same language in some way.
Well, I will let you go and wish you good luck in the meeting with Warner Brothers.
[Laughs] Oh, it’s not very glamorous, just so you know. [Laughs] I’m not about to be offered Batman or anything like that.
It’s more of a general, hand shaking kind of thing. But listen, thanks man and take it easy.
Ex Machina is now in limited release and expands wide on Friday, April 24th. For more from Garland, watch a 40-minute interview below:
Director Michael Thelin’s Emelie had been my most-anticipated picture of the Tribeca Film Festival for reasons that are purely unique to any feature at the festival this year. In the interest of full disclosure, I had a front row seat for much of filmmaking with two credits on the picture — Assistant Editor and Second Assistant Camera — and thus, sitting down with Thelin we had the opportunity to reflect on a process we both had witnessed from our different vantage points.
While my baggage makes me ineligible to provide a formal review of Emilie for the sake of my ethics, the film delivers true psychological terror from the slow burn of its first act to its tense third act. A sudden abduction of young women in the film’s restrained opening scene hints at the menace to come. Sarah Bolger’s Emelie is called at the last minute to replace the Thompson family’s usual sitter and as the night continuities her carefree games evolve towards the psychologically destructive.
With strong performances by Bolger as well as Joshua Rush, Carly Adams, and Thomas Bair as the Thompson kids and a script with several bizarre and disturbing moments (by Richard Raymond Harry Herbeck – yes, he’s one person), Emelie is one to seek out. We sat down with the director to discuss his process and the quick turn around; having shot Emelie last October, Thelin is premiering his picture at Tribeca.
Congratulations again on the picture – how did it come about?
Well, I hired the writer [Richard Raymond Harry Herback] for some other projects and he showed me a short story he had and immediately the idea of someone showing up who wasn’t the real babysitter just floored me and I’m like, “We have to run with this.” So he and I put our heads together and we went crazy. We just started jotting things down – we could do this and we can go here. We fleshed out an entire beat sheet for everything we had had along with a treatment and character analysis and he went away and made it happen – put pen to page. And here we are.
How did it evolve during that process, was it always contained?
No, it was always self-contained. We thought it would make no sense to drag it out – that they’d stake out the house for several weeks and they stake out Anna. It’s all the moment – boom, they do it and we see the whole repercussions of the events that take place in the house. To me that was way scarier to keep it contained to just one night.
What was the casting process like? As you mentioned at last night’s Q&A there was a last minute change that had an effect on your process.
Sarah [Bolger] being cast we the biggest godsend. She’s amazing. We call her one-take Sara and she’d always give us something different if we needed it. The kids. we had a dilemma. 72 hours before we started shooting, we ran into some permit issues and we recast them. I had 24 hours with the kids before we started shooting, which maybe is even unheard of, but again I think there’s a lot of things that were unheard of. We ran with it. I had amazing help from Sabrina [Stoll, the director’s assistant] who was on set really wrangling these kids and coaching them. She was just amazing too. So making sure I surround myself with the best people possible to make these kids feel comfortable to give those performances is what you see on screen. We were blessed.
I imagine it was a challenge with the prep time lost and you had to just run with it.
Yeah, I did a lot of prep time on my own before even casting. Dealing with kids, directing kids – I’ve directed kids in the past so that was an advantage but again, not this extent, not for 20 days or a feature film, an entire story arc. Really understanding how kids think and getting in their minds and their attention span, we worked so hard with the kids we initially had, so when we had recast, iit could have been demoralizing but instead I looked at it with my team and said, “This is what’s supposed to happen.” With having 48 hours to cast and 24 hours to work with the cast, what we were essentially shooting were the rehearsals. The large amount of catastrophe of getting robotic, stiff performances, it just wasn’t there. We had to let the kids be kids and we adjusted accordingly including the script.
How did you prep with Sarah Bolger? It’s certainly a deeper character study than its premise suggests. The character development works because you don’t immediately spell it out for us.
Right. Michael Myers – he’s a great bad guy, he’s got the mask. Jason Voorhees, he shows up – yeah, he’s going to kill you. But I feel like she brought these three dimensions to a character that could have easily been one-dimensional and she could have easily just been bad. But I don’t see Emelie is a strictly a bad person. Yes, she does bad things but I really think she’s a tortured sole, and Sarah embodied that beyond the genre – she took it to another level and took it to another level and not because it was easy. We had a lot of talks, especially when she came into town and really diving deep into whom this character is and what she’s going to be doing because she doesn’t have kids, she’s never lost a kid. She’s never gone though any of this stuff and she nails it. One-take Sarah and she nails everything and gives me something different every time if we need it.
I know we talked about influences before. I feel perhaps Michael Haneke is one in terms of the framing and use of longer takes, and I think there’s a way Luca Del Puppo composes a shot where certain information is just slightly off and it adds tension to the frame. How did you prepare with him, what were some of your references?
Luca and I talked a lot about how to shoot this. We wanted to keep it simple, nothing over stylized but yet the film has a lot of style when you look it frame by frame. Luca has the most impeccable composition skills of anyone I ever worked with. It’s almost like still photography every frame, but we talked about stuff happening outside of the frame and using the frame to our advantage, along with cutting people off at the neck sometimes. It’s kind of morose and adds to the tone of what we wanted to set. Yes, Haneke is definitely an influence, like Funny Games, but also Let the Right One In and Halloween and Goonies. There’s so many random movies channeled through one voice, which is mine, to make sure it was the right tone so we didn’t have 15 tones. That’s where we’d go wrong, if we had 2 or 3 different tones. So visually everything was calculated. We didn’t have a lot of prep time but yet it was still amazingly calculated. I boarded out of a lot of things for inspiration but at the same time boards only go so far because there may not be a wall there when you’re scouting a location. So the fact Luca and I spoke so much before hand, there was a second hand, so he knew this is where we want to frame this and I was like “Yup, that’s perfect.” There was a lot of premeditation that went into every frame.
Let’s talk about editing. Full confession, I’ve seen the raw dailies of course and last night I was really blown away by how well the first act works to slowly set up the tone, can you talk about that rhythm in the editing process?
The first act is a slow burn so you get nervous if people will stay with it, but that bathroom scene [where Emelie asks the eldest son to get her a tampon] is just so iconic that Sara just speaks to him in such a nonchalant way. I can go on and on about how good she is. But the editing process: our first cut was only 94 minutes. The takes were a little more drawn out, they were a little more Haneke-esque, but the fat started to melt away once we laid into it. We shot this in October, we’re talking in April. This is insane, that’s really really fast. In less than six months this whole thing was done. We’re talking soup to nuts.
How long did you work with Rich Herback on the screenplay?
That was two years ago. It came out and went through a few incarnations but it wasn’t anything fundamentally different, but there are always little things that changed here and there.
You shot the film in Buffalo, the hometown of your writer Rich Herback. It’s a city that really love its filmmakers tremendously. What was it like working there?
The Buffalo people were so cool. They do their own thing at their own pace, but it’s cool, it fine. It’s not a New York pace, it’s not an LA pace — it’s a Buffalo pace, and the sooner you embrace the better. And people like to poke fun a little bit that there’s nothing to do, but I disagree. I had a really great time there. The production itself was so stressful that Buffalo was kind of nice because Buffalo is not a stressful place. And I think that added to my sanity – because you know how production was! You take that and I was really happy we shot in Buffalo. I think we shot it anywhere else it might have been really toxic because there might have been more distractions versus the everyday distractions you get on a production. I’ve recommended Buffalo to a lot of a lot people looking to shoot films.
Thanks so much for sitting down with us. Good luck with the film and I’ll see you around the festival.
Emelie is currently screened at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
The Immigrant was less than two weeks away from entering its theatrical release when I last spoke to James Gray, and he seemed relieved that his most ambitious project was even hitting U.S. shores. After a premiere at Cannes in May of 2013, the film was continually held off by The Weinstein Company for reasons no one could properly explain — or not explain in public without burning some bridges — at one point even being rumored for the direct-to-video treatment. Although its eventual opening was no grand occasion — the company barely bothered to promote it on their website, press screenings were difficult for many critics to secure, and to catch a showing outside of any major market took a bit of luck — most who saw the film found themselves deeply moved, aware that Gray had made something of real significance — distributor support or not.
Almost another year later, The Immigrant is coming to Blu-ray with a feature-length commentary track recorded by Gray. This was an opportunity for us to once again speak with one another, now some time after I’d really let the film sit and not so long since I decided to crown it as my favorite of 2014. This discussion is a bit quicker and doesn’t have the benefit of being composed in-person, but that’s not such a huge trouble; it’s hard to screw up this sort of thing when your interviewee is so intelligent and honest.
The Film Stage: The Immigrant only grew for me in the time since our prior discussion. What was then a film I held in great estimation eventually rose to being my favorite of 2014.
James Gray: That’s very sweet of you to say. Thank you.
When we last spoke, you expressed curiosity about how the gap between its premiere and theatrical release might affect an audience’s perception of it. I was hoping that you could now talk about the way it was taken by general critics and audiences.
Well, of course I was very grateful for the wonderful support the film it got. It got many, many excellent reviews and many people seemed to respond to the picture, and that was very fulfilling to me. Of course, the film was released the way that it was released, and there was nothing, really, that I could do about that, but given the context of the release, I feel that the picture did okay — certainly given what it was up against. I have no regrets, personally, about what I did on the film, and I feel very proud of the movie.
It’s very hard to distance myself and answer your question intelligently, because it’s sort of like commenting on one of your children or something. You don’t have any objectivity at all. I would say that… you know, in the end, the initial release of the film matters little. I mean, it matters for people who are focused on the bottom line, I guess, but even there it matters less than you would think. For example, what were the box-office grosses of Chinatown? I don’t really know anybody that can answer that question. What was the initial New York Times review of Chinatown? I mean, we don’t know.
So, in other words, it doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless or that you don’t care — you do care, of course; you want the film to get out there and be seen as a beautiful thing — but what matters is really the long term in cinema: how it affects people emotionally, how it lingers in the mind, and if it matters at all, it’ll matter in that way. If it moves people two, three, five, ten years hence — they catch it on TV — that’s really all you can hope for. Because, like I said, it’s incredibly memorable. You’re never able to predict, and the only thing you can do is be kind of zen about it. I know I haven’t really answered your question.
No, it’s fine. That’s a good answer, truly.
It’s the only answer that I can give, really, because there’s no way to predict what will linger in the mind and in the heart. There’s no way.
This leads to another question I have. When you’re doing a commentary on something that many would consider you the “author” of, I have to wonder if it feels strange to speak directly to people about what they’re watching. Do you feel any sort of pressure about maintaining a certain tone and coming off a certain way, or do you just find it a natural speaking experience?
Well, I try to be as natural as I can. I do hate it. I do it because people tend to like it on DVDs, and people tend to like knowing what I tried to do. That’s great, but I hate it because I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain the movie — and, if I do, that means I failed. It also takes a little bit of the magic away, knowing all the answers. So, knowing that I hate it, I just never do more than have them turn on the microphone, I talk for two hours, and then I leave. It really comes down to that; I don’t make it a whole thing. Maybe I should. Maybe I should do a better job of it.
But I just feel like being as honest and as direct as possible about my feelings and impressions as I’m watching the film. It is strange, because I recorded the commentary on this way after I made the film. I recorded the commentary more than two years after I made the film, and almost a year after it came out — which is unusual. Usually, you’re recording the commentary right after you made it. I also had a little distance; I knew what all the reviews were going to be. I knew all that stuff. So, in a sense, it was almost like giving a commentary for a movie that you made 20 years ago and are revisiting.
When, before this recording, was the last time you’d seen The Immigrant from beginning to end?
From beginning to end? [Pause] That’s a very good question. The last time I had seen it from beginning to end… might have been the final day of mix fixes. I’m going to say the final day of mix fixes, which was April of 2013. Obviously, when it played in Cannes, I didn’t sit through it. When it played at the New York Film Festival, I certainly didn’t sit through it. Yeah, that sounds right: the final mix playback. And I didn’t watch it this time for the commentary, either. There was no sound. I wouldn’t consider that really “watching the movie.” They play the video and you see the image and you just talk. So i didn’t really see it this time either. But I see mistakes I made, and I also see things that I like. It’s a very mixed bag.
Is there a reason you don’t sit through it at, say, the Cannes premiere? Are you just tired of it after a certain point?
See, the pleasures of watching of your own movie are non-existent by that point. By now, you’ve seen it so many times, you see all of your mistakes, you see all of the patchwork that went into fixing that mistake, you hear things in the mix that you should’ve done better, you see things that you should’ve shot in a different way. I only see mistakes, so why would I subject myself to it? The movie starts, I’m in my tuxedo. As soon as it starts, I sort of walk out and go get a drink with my wife. Though, in that case, I think my wife sat through the movie; I did not.
I mean, it’s very painful, by the way, in Cannes. Steve Soderbergh once described it brilliantly to me. He said, “Watching a movie in Cannes is like having every frame of the movie last for 30 seconds.” It just seems like the movie… because you don’t know. You know, the movie could end and everyone would sort of hoot and boo. Especially in Cannes, that is a real possibility. So, while the film is playing, the only thing you can think of is, “When the lights come up, are they all going to boo me off the screen?” So why subject yourself to that during the movie? You might as well go outside and get a drink to relax or something.
But it (thankfully) earned many plaudits. When it was coming out, had you been paying attention to the groundswell of support it was receiving? Not just reviews, but people asking The Weinstein Company to release it in their area? I can’t imagine you were totally oblivious.
I was a little bit oblivious, but I was extremely appreciative when I started to catch wind of some of the support that I got. I mean, it was… certainly, if it weren’t for a couple of people in particular, the movie would be in mothballs for forever, and it’s impossible not to be eternally grateful to those people. It’s hard to talk about it, because people then think that you’re then, I don’t know, trying to curry favor or something. But I’m eternally grateful to at least two people that I know of in the critical establishment who were major, major, major supporters. There’s no amount of, how do I say this, comment that I could make that would suffice in explaining what that means to a filmmaker. I mean, it’s everything.
Because as much as you want to say, “You make the film and then that’s it — you’re done,” you don’t make the film in a vacuum. You make the film so that people can watch it and give feedback, and you can try to grow. How do you do that if you just make the film and nobody will ever see it? In candor, I felt that I had deserved the film to be seen. It wasn’t like I had failed completely and it was some disastrous thing. I mean, some people felt that it was; others did not.
I felt that the film deserved a release, certainly, so I was very grateful. And I did get a sense, after a while. People started to direct me to things to read — friends of mine. Because I’m not on Twitter and Facebook and all of that. I don’t really ever see that stuff, but friends of mine and my wife are, and I was very, very touched. I was very moved. I’ll put it to you this way: you don’t forget that kind of support. That’s something that lingers and that you’re grateful for for the rest of your life. Also, when you go to Cannes… please don’t misunderstand: I don’t want an award in Cannes. I don’t need that for my ego or for the shelf or whatever. But, in terms of how the film is perceived, it didn’t win anything when it was in competition. So I think there was the sense that it was not a good movie.
Before things wrap up here, very quick: Lost City of Z is as close as we’re hearing?
Z? Yes, absolutely. I’ve been on a scout. Pre-production should start sometime in the first week of June. I’m extremely excited about it. It’s very different from anything I’ve done — and yet, of course, the same. I have very, very high hopes for it. Principal photography, I believe, will start on August 8, although it depends on when Charlie Hunnam will finish King Arthur, which is what he’s doing now; if that finishes on schedule, that’s when I will begin. It shoots in the U.K. and Colombia, probably.
What feeling do you have when on the cusp of starting a production? Is there a lot of anxiety, or is it mostly pure anticipation?
Well, it’s almost exclusively terror. It’s funny: I don’t actually derive much pleasure from making a movie. I derive a lot of pleasure from having made a film. I’m very excited; it’s going to be a huge challenge. But I’m very scared, and I’m under no illusions that I’m going to go to the jungle and have a great time and it’s going to have a party. I mean, it’s going to be an epic struggle, and I’m going to try and do my very best. I have many, many ideas. The project’s been gestating for a long time, and, in some respects, that’s a challenge in and of itself, because you have many, many ideas, and you want to make sure the project has a unity and a singularity and a uniqueness and a consistency. So, if it’s gestating for a long time, you worry that you won’t have that.
Well, we’ll see. But, judging by your track record, I’m not too worried.
I’m glad you’re not.
Sometimes the festival experience has a way of making you overrate films. The excitement of seeing things early with like-minded individuals, listening to filmmakers talk before and after their screenings, and the general festival aura are hard to separate from the work itself. So I won’t lie and say I didn’t re-watch Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson‘s Spring—my favorite of TIFF 2014—with a little trepidation in case the memory proved grander than reality.
109 minutes later, however, I realized I might have actually underrated it. This supernatural, sci-fi, horror, romantic drama is the real deal and the latest example of how genre fare has taken the cinematic world by storm. Now with Drafthouse Films rolling it out in select theaters and FilmBuff pushing it on VOD platforms, audiences finally have a chance to see what’s quickly proving to be one of the best reviewed films of the year.
It was therefore my pleasure to talk with Moorhead and Benson about their sophomore effort, the current cinematic climate, and all the hard work necessary to get an independent production off the ground. The two are an entertaining pair that has really embraced social media to spark a dialogue with fans while also providing a unique level of transparency through the press to shed light on their process. Currently shooting a commercial as well as prepping both a new film and a television project, they’re graciously enjoying the ride as only artists with immense pride and faith in their work could.
**Warning for those who haven’t yet seen Spring, there are spoilers below.**
The Film Stage: How has it been working with Drafthouse Films?
Aaron Moorhead: They’ve been honestly everything you could ever hope for. It’s been amazing.
Did you see they released a Mondo poster today?
I did. Brandon Schaefer.
AM: It’s so, so, so beautiful. That’s kind of the dream, of course, as a filmmaker. And then they’ve kind of been taking all of our suggestions in a cool way and working really, really hard. But it’s still a very grassroots operation. We’re very, very heavily involved in it as well. It’s kind of this roughneck group—it’s really cool.
Justin Benson: Yeah. Publicity is me and Aaron and one publicist.
There’s been a sort of Renaissance of independent film lately—genre work especially. What is your impression being on the inside? Is it just a matter of synergy between creative filmmakers, a younger critical sphere embracing them, and social media connecting both to a willing audience?
JB: An example—I’ve kind of never thought of this. But an example of Spring, It Follows, and The Babadook being around the same time. I genuinely have no idea why that is. In terms of a business standpoint, of getting a movie made and financed, we found that offering original content is like running up against a wall over and over. You can do it, but it’s so much easier to make a zombie movie. From a business standpoint it’s a no-brainer.
We don’t know what other people went through, but it’s definitely not a good gauge of the business climate or of the path of least resistance by any means. But it is really cool to see how audiences are embracing these movies that somehow snuck through—these very original, unique genre films. It’s really cool.
Do you see an establishment like The Academy evolving to embrace them as theatregoers have? There’s talk about going back to five Best Picture nominations since the experiment of using ten as a way to showcase movies like The Dark Knight have failed. Besides District 9 in 2009 and maybe Black Swan in 2010, the selections have been the usual suspects.
AM: I don’t personally see The Academy changing very much. I’m not one of the—there are a lot of people that raise their eyebrows at The Academy, “Oh they only like a certain thing”. Or that it’s corrupt or, “Oh they would never give that award to that.” It’s not a group of twelve evil people gathered around in a boardroom making these decisions. It’s a gigantic amount of people who vote.
So it’s not that The Academy guys don’t have the balls to do it. I think they serve one audience and genre films aren’t necessarily that audience. I don’t know if expanding from five films allows for genre or not, honestly.
What I heard was that it felt like the Academy Awards were stagnating and putting more horses in the race made it more interesting. I think that’s still a good thing. I don’t see what the problem is really. I don’t know why they’re considering going back down to five.
I think it’s more tagging onto the last question where it’s just more people consuming more movies in more ways. So it’s not going to be so dependent on, “What does The Academy say?” It’s always good to have something like an awards show, but it’s pretty cool [audiences are finding work outside that space].
Both your films have had a refreshing subversion of expectations. In Resolution you have the character that should be unreliable as a junkie put in a position of trust by chaining him in place while the “sane” friend experiences unexplainable events. And with Spring you not only subvert supernatural horror for science fiction, but also the monster/human dynamic by shrouding someone like Angelo in a dark light with his many blades while Louise—who we should fear—has organic life blossoming in her wake. How do you approach storytelling to discover those avenues?
JB: I guess there’s always an interesting premise that could be almost like a Hollywood high-concept movie. You take that premise, but you make character first. You just embrace the fact that no matter how neat your concept is it has no impact without good characters. And you don’t have good characters without spending a lot of time with them being normal human beings and saying normal human being stuff. That’s a big part of the approach, I’d say. What about you Aaron?
AM: Yeah. Honestly, I completely agree.
In some ways subversion is the word, but subversion kind of implies an act. A thought of us kind of sitting down and being, “Alright, what are we tired of and let’s do something that uses that.” Our movies aren’t that reactionary. They are—often when we’re doing something that feels familiar we’ll just go the other way—but mostly it doesn’t stem from that. It stems from, “What story do we really want to tell and how’s the best way to tell it?”
The things you see in our movies are very instinctual to us. When we sit down to shot list or we sit down and script it out, everything makes perfect sense. It’s about how to get it across. Instinctual is the word I’m going to keep using, but it’s not quite the word I mean. It’s not something that would come to mind to everybody immediately.
JB: To add to that, something interesting too is the approach of following your instincts and following your gut and having that take precedence over traditional rules in writing and filmmaking. When I looked over, for example, the New York Times review for Spring—it’s a wonderful review, really positive. The thing they liked most about it was the sort of development ideology [the patience to wait an hour before revealing the big effect] that people wanted to change in Spring almost invariably. That’s the one reason they gave us a good review in the New York Times.
So there’s that too. I think a big part of our storytelling is that we know the rules, but we [also] know when to break them.
When you were at Cannes, riding your bikes around to pitch investors, did you only have a concept ready or the complete script?
AM: [We had] the whole script. We had the script and we had the success of Resolution. And that was roughly it. We kind of had this idea in our heads that Resolution did so well and a lot of people really liked it—it’s 100% on Rotten Tomatoes—all that. It should be relatively easy to get this next film off the ground. Man, it was not at all.
Our idea to go to Cannes wasn’t half-baked—it cost us a ton of money out of our personal bank accounts. It was definitely something where we were like, “Ok, this is how we’re going to do it to be worth it.” And it was.
The script was actually written while Resolution was being [completed]. And then at a certain point we decided—at the very beginning of 2014—I believe it was 2014 where we finally sat down and—oh, it was 2013. Wow. Yeah, it was the very beginning of 2013 when we said, “Alright, that’s the movie we’re making next.”
There’s nothing magical about it, but when Justin and I put all of our effort towards something and there’s two of us kind of pushing and pushing and pushing, it seems like—even against great resistance, which we had—we’re kind of able to find a way to get it done.
Were there any actual scientific theories serving as inspiration for what Louise is genetically or was it just a fun, intellectual way to get as many supernatural creatures onscreen as possible while still retaining an intimate dynamic between only two characters?
JB: Basically, Louise is possibly a skeleton key for all of the past movie monsters and mythology that we know from traditional horror films. So you see one part where you think she’s transforming into a werewolf, one where you think she’s a vampire, one where you’re, “Oh, she’s a Lovecraftian thing.”
It’s a soft touch, but as she suggests in the cathedral scene talking about her past, people have caught glimpses of her throughout the ages and she really is the single thing that was the inspiration behind our monster mythologies.
The thing I think that is more prominently explained is that all of those things can be linked to our evolutionary pasts. You could look at a diagram of us evolving from single-cell organisms to what we are now—it’s over-simplified and doesn’t make sense entirely, but that’s the idea behind her transformations.
When you see her growing big ol’ teeth and her facial structure changes, it’s not that she’s actually turning into a werewolf—though that’s the red herring. You find out later once you put it all together that, “Oh, no, no, no.” When she gets pregnant, which has already happened by that point of the story—her body goes haywire and turns into these creatures from our evolutionary past. And that part you’re seeing is something like a primate.
How was it to actually be able to show those effects? With Resolution, budget constraints and thematic reasons kept its entity off-screen completely. Was it fun to dig into that aspect here?
AM: The world of prosthetic creature effects is one we were pretty damn excited to jump into. It’s kind of a filmmaker’s dream. Every filmmaker has grown up with creature effects as part of their childhood movie diet. But that said, besides being an art it’s also an extraordinarily complicated craft. Luckily we had the opportunity to, more than a few times, start honing that. But of course with Spring being our first time, it wasn’t just one monster but many representations. We got to kind of get our hands into every single one of them. So we had lots of long conversations with Masters FX, our creature effects company, and we kind of developed something that appeared to be nature-based rather than off of a previous movie monster.
There were still a lot of—both for budgetary and story reasons—still a lot of keeping things close to the vest. Of suggesting rather than showing in the film. What’s kind of nice about that is that it has a similar effect to what everyone talks about with Jaws. The shark didn’t work, meaning we didn’t see very much of the shark, which actually gives it a better psychological impact. Our effects worked 100%, but we still decided on that same ethos. Show a little bit less until we have to show everything. And then we really only get to see everything everything [once] we understand everything everything at the same exact moment that our lead character does.
One of my favorite scenes is the long-take after Evan sees the “real” Louise and you track them walking through dark alleyways into an open square housing the payphone he uses to call home. Were you two kids in a candy store realizing the potential of these gorgeous Italian locales?
JB: That was a case of the scene preceding the candy a little bit. It was basically—we had written in the script that that would be the single-take scene for the story dynamic. But when we got there and saw all these alleyways that hit dead-ends, that’s when we decided immediately, “Oh, let’s have—if they hit dead-ends in their argument, let’s have them hit dead-ends literally.”
There were a couple different alleyways we could have done it in, but we went with that one because we could get—when you’re doing a shot like that you have the Steadicam, the sound guy, the director, the guy pulling focus. You have all these things and you have to figure out the best way to get it done. That was a nice discovery. That was fun.
What was the experience like being abroad?
AM: The location itself—the town kind of threw their doors open to us. Everywhere you point the camera in that town is pretty, so you get away with murder. Just aesthetically, you can’t lose.
We all stayed in that little town. We all walked to set everyday—every time we shot in the town. Which made everything extraordinarily easy, but also made it kind of feel like summer camp. Everybody was so cool and they were all kind of our friends at the end. Besides doing a lot of good, hard work and making the film happen, we got to eat together and drink together and go out to the one bar in the whole town together. The food is as good as you can ever hope and they shove so much of it down your throat that you come back feeling really fat.
Honestly, it was just as much fun as it looks. There are no real war stories. There’s a few, but you can’t complain. It would be weird to tell you a war story because everything was so wonderful.
You have numerous close-ups of creatures—dead and alive—in the transitions along the journey. Were they all things you saw in the wilderness or was a lot of it meticulously placed? Should I pay close attention the next time I watch to see parallels with Louise’s current form?
JB: There’s some visual connection sort of with what she’s turning into and those things, but there’s not much precision there. It all goes back to the film being nature-based. The insects in particular primarily serve two functions. Number One is to drive our theme of rebirth further along visually and Number Two is just to make people feel a little unnerved.
Also too, before you know what Louise is, it’s all sort of visual foreshadowing because it’s scary nature-based stuff. Worms are scary and animals decomposing are scary and scorpions are scary. That was basically it.
A lot of people are comparing Spring to Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy with good reason. Those were very collaborative projects between filmmaker and performers to find that authenticity onscreen. You accomplished it also. Was there a lot of collaboration with Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker or was everything pretty faithful to the script?
AM: Both actually. I think both is the answer.
The script is the words coming out of their mouths as you see them for the most part, even before we met them. But, when we met with Lou and Nadia, we just sat down with them individually and took an entire day—first to get to know each other—and also to page-by-page pour through the script and talk about what everything is and why and how. They both came back with some things that inspired some changes in the script.
And then we always spend a lot of time in rehearsal. And you find little magic moments in rehearsal or a joke or something that makes them seem even more human. We don’t say, “Say those words exactly.” They should say the words close, but they’ve got to make them their own. But there wasn’t anything really improvised or deliberately reworded or anything like that.
That’s patting both Justin’s script and the actors on the back for making it seem so fresh. But I think one of the biggest things besides having good dialogue in your script and having really talented performers is the time spent in rehearsals getting it dialed in. Then the time between the rehearsal and actually shooting it, there’s some cool-off time so it doesn’t feel like they’re just coming off of repeating those words.
How did you connect with the supporting cast like Angelo and the two friends Evan meets upon first arriving in Italy? Was it just casting calls?
JB: Thomas (Nick Nevern), the really chatty Englishman, he was one of the more difficult ones to find. We found him through our friend Matthias Hoene—who directed Cockneys vs Zombies—as a recommendation. He was exactly what we wanted for that role.
You have it in your head—you have this guy go to a really idyllic tourist place in Italy and all this stuff is happening and there’s something really fun about bringing in some grit from the other side of the Atlantic. Someone you don’t typically think about: the urban UK hooligan guy. It’s fun. It’s a fun voice to have in the movie. It’s unexpected and it makes it feel extremely real.
And then with Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti), that was the easiest casting in the world. They gave us like six choices and we were just looking at them and we’re like, “That guy.” We talked to him once on Skype from Rome. There weren’t even that many options on Angelo, but [Carnelutti] is someone who everyone universally admires his work.
AM: Yeah, he was perfect. It was pretty cool.
Is there anything you can tell us about what’s next? Any little hints?
AM: There aren’t any real hints, honestly. We can just tell you.
We’re pretty in-depth with a project about Aleister Crowley. We’re kind of telling a contained biopic story about him. About his transformation from kind of this guy who was very eccentric, very interesting kind of Tyler Durden meets Captain Jack Sparrow sort of guy—there are a lot of really great ideas and ideals—and what transformed him into what he’s remembered as, which is the press calling him the “wickedest man in the world”. That’s that movie.
And we’re also taking a TV show around. That’s just now getting going, but it seems pretty exciting. They’re both really, really exciting. The TV show in a nutshell is kind of like Almost Famous meets Lost.
I appreciate you taking the time after what was probably a long day with the commercial.
AM: No problem. It was pretty much us sitting in an office and saying “Yes” and “No” a lot.
JB: And as long as we get to end the day talking about ourselves and the things we’ve done—Aaron is totally okay with it.
It’s just when it’s like, “Hey, want to talk about something that will benefit the world?” And he’s like, “Ugh!”
AM: Yeah: “Talk about the problems we’re having in Africa.” [Jokingly] No, I’m not going to talk about that at all. I’ve never been there.
Well that’s good. You’ll sleep easy tonight then.
AM: Yeah, except for the nightmares about talking about something that’s not myself.
JB: He wakes up screaming when you’re traveling with him. We’ll be staying at the Holiday Inn and he’ll be, “Ahhhh!! I had it again!”
JB: Can we talk about ourselves some more with you?
I guess one more thing. Any plans with Spring from Drafthouse that we should be looking out for?
JB: We’ve heard the Blu-Ray is a work of—they may instead of having Bibles in hotel rooms, put the Blu-Ray of Spring. It’s profound I guess. It’s going to have so much good stuff on it. We jumped the gun a bit on the publicity, but it’s coming.
AM: The problems in Africa are actually caused by the lack of this Blu-Ray. It’s like a finite resource. Like water. And we’re working on fixing it. Don’t worry.
Spring is currently in limited release and now available on VOD.
After looking into one’s past with the profound animation It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Don Hertzfeldt headed to the future for his next project, a short film marking his work in three years. World of Tomorrow, now available on VOD, is an exceedingly brilliant odyssey into the outer reaches of a future universe that channels our inner anxieties of loneliness. The story concerns Emily (Winona Mae), a young girl, who meets her future self in the variety of an adult clone (Julie Pott), as the latter guides us through the bleak destiny that lies ahead. Bursting with creativity and hilarity, it’s at once a hilarious and deeply affecting piece of work, deserving of its top awards at both Sundance and SXSW.
I got the opportunity to speak with Hertzfeldt ahead of the release of the short and we discussed his first foray into digital animation and how it fit within his story, working on multiple projects at once, collaborating with his niece for voice acting, the current state of independent animation, a potential sequel, what’s in store next for the director, digital distribution, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Congrats on the movie. It was actually the last film I watched at Sundance and it was the best one there I saw.
Don Hertzfeldt: Oh, right on. Thanks. I didn’t know you saw it at the big theater in Park City.
Well, I actually got a screener of it, and so I watched it right before I was leaving. I turned off all the lights and a few other journalists watched it and we all loved it. So it was a great way to go out.
So, you’ve been animating for almost two decades now, but this is your first foray into digital animation. Did that feel like a new challenge, like you were almost animating for the first time?
Yeah, I guess you can say that. You know, the best way I’ve been able to compare it is it was like trying to read a children’s book that’s in another language. It seems very basic, like you should know this stuff, but the vocabulary’s all changed and things are in different places. It was interesting; I have a lot of animator friends who can’t stand drawing on tablets. There’s a certain tension when you draw on a piece of paper. It’s not very smooth, like drawing on glass, and to them the tablet is just way too slick. But I never had that trouble for whatever reason. I really took to it quickly. And there was a learning curve for two frustrating weeks and then I kind of got used to it, and then I really appreciated the speed of it. Just being able to power through these shots much, much quicker than I’ve ever been able to do before and I really appreciated that because film is beautiful, but it takes time, and there’s processing, and the paper, and working with camera, it’s just I’m not that young anymore. [Laughs]
I appreciated being able to power through a shot a day. It got to the point where it was almost addictive and if I didn’t get through a shot a day, I would start to get sad, because I didn’t want to fuss over this film. I didn’t storyboard anything. Digital was my excuse to try everything differently and with this one it was going to be no fussing, no storyboards. Let’s just everyday look at the script. Okay, they’re on the moon. Okay, what’s that gonna look like? I just design everything from the ground up that way, and it was interesting,. It was different, it was fast. Primarily fast. [Laughs]
The story obviously takes place in the future. Do you think that the themes and plot of the film help with that digital transition? If it was a more standard Earth-set story, do you think you might not have used digital or were you going to use digital no matter what for your next project?
That’s a good point. I think it was necessary to the look for the film to go digital. It’s not something I could have done on film, just like It’s Such a Beautiful Day’s story would not have been told the same way digitally. There’s certain effects in that story that are impossible, or would have been impossible to do digitally. So, yeah, I kind of have to go with what format supports the story you’re selling and for this it just made perfect sense to do something about the future. Here’s a guy who’s been living with film and paper for so many years, the last person still shooting animation on film, to take the plunge into this future, as well. And the fact that it’s a satire I think I was able to get away with a lot more. And The Simpsons called the same time, like two weeks after I started World of Tomorrow and I just had the future on the brain, I think. It just made sense to share some of the same blood in those veins, as well.
You said it took about a day to do a shot, so I was curious how many days did it actually end up taking for the whole thing? And did The Simpsons set your course off?
I think World of Tomorrow took about nine months, but I was doing The Simpsons at the same time, which took three or four months. So, it’s hard to say exactly to a scientific point. It was really good for me to work on more than one thing at the same time and learning that as I get older it’s really the best way that I work with juggling more than one project. It’s easier to finish one and leap right onto the next one while your brain is still in that mode. If you finish a project and you allow the creative muscle or whatever it is in your head to relax, the engine slows down, and time goes by, it’s that much harder start a new project. You need to get revved up again and kind of get in the groove. For so many years now I’ve kinda just bounced from one to the next project and lately I’m doing more than one at a time. I think it’s actually enriching all of them. There was a second part of your question, I think I forgot it already.
Ah, you answered it — just the timeline of the two projects.
Yeah, they were pretty side by side. The recording obviously came first, recording my niece [Winona Mae, who voices Emily Prime] and recording Julia Pott‘s [voice of Emily] lines opposite that.
Is there a lot of stuff in the cutting room with your niece? Did you have any guidence for her or kinda just let her go?
I had to let her go. I was naive to think in the beginning that I could direct a four-year-old –
– which is really just not possible. It’s like trying to herd cats. So I eventually surrendered to just recording her, being herself, and I just got an app for my iPad that could record her quietly, so I didn’t want anything too intrusive. She was in Scotland and I don’t know if you can tell, she has a little Scottish accent, and I live in Austin, so we only get to see each other maybe once a year and our recording window is really, really limited. So that was the first step and I think the key to the whole movie because I knew I needed a little girl voice. I didn’t want to fake it and if I didn’t get anything out of each session, there was no point in trying to make this thing. So we just hung out and drew pictures and played with Play-Doh and talked about the world, and her being herself and from this little set of recordings I went through and said, ‘Okay, she’s reacting to something here. What is she looking at? What is she talking about here?’ And I rewrote the story to make it all fit and I rewrote Julia’s lines, the other half of the conversation, so it would all be more seamless.
There was quite a few lines on the cutting room floor, so to speak. Just dialogue, of course. I may still find a home for it, I don’t know. I realize now that she’s five what lightning in a bottle those recordings were. Because she’s totally changed now. And this film would have been impossible to make now because then at four it’s sort of this reactions period in development. She’s looking at things, she’s asking questions. When we would walk to the park, even though the park is only a few blocks away, it would take ages. Because she would stop every few steps and say, ‘Look, flower’, and, ‘Yeah, flower.’ And we keep going. ‘Look, a car.’ ‘Yeah, it’s a car.’ And you realize, yeah, this is all new to you. This is amazing, you’re taking it all in the first time. This is so beautiful, why can’t we all see the world like this? And now that she’s five, she’s directing me now. Now she’s like, ‘Okay, I’m a princess. You’re a gorilla. We live in this ice cave and we have to go save magical rabbits from the blah blah,’ and it’s completely changed. I’m really glad now I have that set of her in that period because I’m sure when she’s a teenager she’ll be mortified by this. [Laughs] Hopefully when’s she’s older she’ll appreciate that we did this and it’s kinda a neat little artifact.
There’s the old adage that filmmakers should never work with dogs or children. For Hungary’s Kornél Mundruczó, he’s boldly defying that claim with his latest feature, White God. Premiering at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year (where it won the Prize Un Certain Regard Award), it’s been touring the festival circuit and finally arrives on U.S. shores this week.
Hungary’s Oscar entry this year, it tells the story of a canine and its owner attempting to reunite, and we got to speak with the director during Sundance this year to discuss the ambitious project one-on-one We spoke about his inspirations, the tonal mix, self-criticism, leaving out character details, use of music, dog training (of which no CG was used), and much, much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: I saw the film last night and I thought it was amazing. What was your initial inspiration?
Kornél Mundruczó: I had two different inspirations. One was the South African [J.M.] Coetzee’s book Disgrace, and that was a huge inspiration for me. In that time, I read the book and I did a staging of it. In the book, there is a time that happens in a dog pound. With the ensemble we thought, “Okay, let’s go to a dog pound in Hungary and let’s watch the Hungarian situation.” We went to a dog pound, and what I found there really crushed my soul. It was really bad. The trip became all about my intolerance and my society, and I how I had never thought about this topic. I felt I would really like to do a movie about this subject. The second inspiration was I felt quite in trouble. Before then, I felt my reality was good for my cinematic language. About six or seven years ago, Eastern Europe was completely different, so I really tried to find a new cinematic language and theme that was good for that language. I couldn’t imagine myself doing a purely “arthouse” movie or purely “action” movie. I thought that just doesn’t exist anymore. With all these questions in my mind, I found that the answer was the dog pound. I thought, “Okay, with the story of just one dog and a little girl in Budapest, I can meld all those different genres together.” That would be my two different inspirations.
I definitely noticed all the different genres in the film. It felt part coming-of-age story mixed with horror. The audience last night seemed to really respond to all the horror towards the end of the movie. The pound that you went to, did that inspire the pound setting in White God?
Yes, but we dramatized it a little more. I really wanted it to have a kind of historical memory, so it’s like a camp in the second World War, which it was also inspired by. The set was constructed. It was not a real one because then they [the Hungarian pounds] would have to deal with people asking questions. The pound system was a prison. It was a ghetto. On one hand we have people working in them who are very human, they would like to do everything for the dogs. But the dogs just keep coming and coming and coming.
Almost overwhelmingly so?
I noticed with the silo in the pound setting and the lake that divided it from the entrance that it definitely had the feel of a WWII ghetto. So where did the title “White God” come from?
It’s also from the Coetzee book. It was his idea and the perspective that we are the white gods for the dogs. The idea that we are colonizing the whole world without taking on all the responsibilities. I felt it was a self-criticism as well. I stood there and I was also a part of the system.
The fact you decided to make mixed breed dogs the ones that were persecuted against in the story the movie made it very relevant to things going on in America, with all the current issues and discussions about race.
You know what’s funny? There is a party in Budapest that really gave that law to the Parliament. It was very surrealistic, to make that kind of separation in dogs. There is mixed bred, Hungarian bred, pure bred, and each have different taxes on them. It was amazing how close to reality we were. The movie is a fairy tale, which we shot in a very realistic way.
I also noticed that you didn’t give us a lot of background on Hagen or Lili and her family. I was wondering why you chose to leave out those details and jump right into the characters’ current situations?
Really, I needed a lot of secrets in the beginning. I think it’s good, as long as you are not frustrated and free enough emotionally, to use those secrets. You, the audience, have your own imaginations and your own families, so you have lots of space to be free inside the movie. If you’re always answering the small details, then it’s easy to become a TV drama. But, of course, if you have not satisfied [the audience] then it becomes very frustrating. So it’s always a hard balance between how much information you give and how less. For me, it was really important just to tell that Lili had one family, and that family is Hagen. And Hagen’s family is Lili. So their separation is the crashing of their family, because Lili has no mother or father in the beginning. She feels they are the ones who created me, but they don’t love each other or me.
Speaking of Hagen, what was it like finding the right dogs? I know there was Body and Luke, and they’re brothers. How did you go about looking for dogs and how did you know they were the right pair for the job?
It was a long process, but when I watched a small video of them for the first time, I immediately knew that they were the boys I was looking for. They looked very family friendly, like they have a playful spirit. They could create a Jekyll and Hyde affect when they transform into the wild Hagen. I’m more than satisfied with them. They gave it lots of emotion.
I was surprised by how much emotional range they had.
Yeah, exactly. You can see it in their eyes, and they are real actors. It was very strong for me to take a lot of risks. A movie like this does not exist, so there were no references. I also became very experimental with the dogs, and, unexpectedly, we were really given a lot from them. Also, the crowd of dogs was able to be very present. That’s the power of the movie. The close-up of Hagen at the end, that’s also the power of the movie. They are stars. You know it’s a movie about them, and they are the real heroes in a very classical way. They have a moral downfall. If I use a human hero like Hagen, you say as a critic, “Come on…come on…” These kind of guys do not exist anymore.
I think we tend to forgive Hagen for his actions because we see his journey and because he is a dog. If it was a human having their revenge story played out, I don’t think the audience would be able to love the character as much.
I think so too. The film is like Monte Cristo. It is a positive revenge, but with the contradiction of killing. Of course, you also know the topic of Cujo, but you know they [Hagen and the other dogs] are the good ones. They are not the unknown enemies. They are better than the humans. I quite liked that mixture.
The story did have a very Shakespearean “fall from grace.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Now Wagner seems to really have influenced the movie as well with the music from Tannhauser and then the name “Hagen” itself. Why did you choose Wagner specifically?
On one hand, it’s really a part of our culture; so many things are German based. And I also just really love it. Not only the music, but the stories of the Wagner operas. Hagen is one of my favorites of Wagner’s characters. He is the smurf who is kicked out and wants to return. And really, the family [in the movie] is an intellectual family, so they give the name of “Hagen” to the dog and not “puppy” or something like that. So those were the two reasons, and I’m also very happy if someone recognizes that this is Wagnerian.
The Wagnerian influence definitely lends itself to the feel of a more epic film, where Hagen encounters all kinds of characters who change and affect him.
What was it was like working on set with 200 dogs and how you and Teresa Ann Miller worked together? Where did her job as the trainer begin versus your job as the director?
Well, I quite enjoyed the action scenes, expectantly, because I was not sure if I would enjoy them before filming. It was interesting to find the small details where you could follow the character, but my “actor” was Teresa. I told everything to her; what I would like to feel from the boys, and she created those emotions. Actually, she creates them inside herself first as she is playing with the dogs. So it was very interesting for me. What was really beautiful was the first time Hagen kills the dogcatcher in the dog pound, he’s leaving, and he then watches the woman who is the pound’s owner. I really needed a close-up there where Hagen was saying “Sorry, I couldn’t do anything else but this.” I told Teresa this and she started to cry, to teach the dog to understand what I was looking for. The dog started watching her with concern like, “Why are you crying?” Then I had the shot. Their relationship would give me the situation I needed to film. So it was something like that. We would always rewrite the script to what they could do. I could not have a dog swimming in the Danube, but I could have a dogging waking up in a pond or create something like that. They were able to give me tons of creativity with the understanding of what the dogs could do.
And how did you find Teresa?
It was a long journey. Everybody was telling me “no” or that we could only use CG. In my last movie Tender Son, I shot the last part in Austria and I asked the Austrian production manger if she knew anybody good with dogs and she said, “There is only one person all over the Earth and that is Teresa Ann Miller. Nobody else can do it.”
She’s the only one.
Yes! And that was the truth. I called her and she was very positive, so she said, “Maybe.” [Laughs] So after a lot of no’s, that was really something.
So, one of my last questions was about the father/daughter relationship. The father begins the movie as a very dislikable character. With that being said, the longer Hagen is gone the better their relationship seemed to grow. At the end, it felt like you wanted us to root for the father instead of Hagen?
Yes, to me, as an adult, the closest character was the father. We forget our innocence. In the beginning, he cares about the order of things. “This is my order and if you deal with that, it’s good. If not, then you will.” That’s how he starts to build a relationship with his daughter, and later he’s more understanding of why he wasn’t a lovable person. And he tries to change. Of course, Lili doesn’t change much. She keeps her innocence, but he continues to change. So I felt his last line was very important. “Let’s give them time.” For me it was the idea that you can always get your innocence back if you want it and are open to it.
Definitely, and that showed very much show in his character. My last question for you is the film has received a lot of positive reviews in Europe and I was wondering what your perspective was on how differently American audiences are receiving it?
Actually quite differently from my perspective. I recognized here just how taboo it is working with animals. And that does not exist in Europe as much because nobody thinks we are abusing the animals. Nobody believes it is a film against abusers created by abusers. That is just a very strange logic for me. It’s a very strange film and it takes a lot of risks. Two days ago was the Salt Lake premiere for a normal audience and I was happy that they really got it. I felt it was very well received yesterday as well. But there will always be a very huge difference between cultures, and I often feel that we are living in different historical times. Hungary is going through a different historical time than France, which is going through a different time than the U.S. — just that questions and taboos vary across all different cultures in this movie. And it’s actually my most Hungarian movie. I really wanted to reflect and criticize my society, just my society.
White God hits theaters on Friday, March 27th.
It seems inconceivable that any film as influential as The Thin Blue Line would go this long without a proper home-video release. More than a precedent for today’s glut of procedural documentaries, the likes of which we’ve seen explode into the culture via Serial and The Jinx — and more than a watershed moment for reenactments, which have hardly been bested since — Errol Morris‘ picture changed people’s idea of what effect cinema could have on the outside world. Few films from their time are as worthy of the Criterion treatment, and the company has, as per usual, rendered a great service in placing it on Blu-ray.
With the releases of Line his first two features, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida (placed on a consumer-friendly double-bill), the director spoke to us about the way these films still speak to people, how it feels to revisit them years down the line, the process of getting a Criterion disc into shape, and a bit on his relationship with Joshua Oppenheimer. Those who’ve seen Morris’ work know what an engaging and revealing interviewer he can be, and it’s my hope that this quality is retained when he’s on the other side of things.
Errol Morris: Hello!
The Film Stage: Hello, sir. How are you?
What have I caught you doing?
Hmm… what am I doing? Just too many different things. I’m sending off copies of the ESPN films to Tom Luddy in Telluride. I was making phone calls related to this feature that now seems likely to happen — Holland, Michigan.
Have you been doing a lot of interviews for these Criterion releases?
Not that I know of. But everything is becoming a blur. There’s been a lot going on.
I ask because I was debating whether or not to throw in an “I don’t know where to start” or Interrotron joke — but, even if nobody’s made it, I’ll just hold off.
My favorite, now, is the answer to the guy in the ESPN series, Streaker. Have you seen those?
He says, “What’s your first question?” I say, “I don’t really have a first question.” So he says, “What’s your first answer?”
That’s much better than my joke, so we’re off to a good start, either way. And since I’d like to start at the beginning: when and how did you find out these three films were coming to Criterion?
Well, I had known that Criterion was interested in them for a while — for a good number of years now — but I did not have any clear idea as to exactly when it was going to happen, and I really am delighted that it finally has happened. I was talking with Owen Wilson recently. Owen Wilson, who I am going to cast in this feature film I’m working on, has always been a fan of these early films — in particular, Vernon, Florida. I remember, years ago, him calling the office trying to get copies of it, because it just wasn’t available anywhere. We sent him a copy, and he told me, very recently, that it was one of the influences on Bottle Rocket. It’s a film they watched again and again and again.
And Vernon, Florida, much to my surprise — and really! I’m not just saying this — is just loved by so many, many, many people. Owen said something, to me, very nice about the film — and my work in general — saying I don’t make fun of people, that the films are truly loving and kind portraits of the people in them. It’s a nice thing to say, and I was delighted to hear it.
Were you surprised that it would be the first three features? Did you see Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida as a natural pairing?
Well, they’re all my films. I struggled for so many years to make films, but it was always on my mind. It was very hard to make Gates of Heaven. It’s hard for anybody to make any film. Anybody who’s actually done it knows of where I speak. It’s a struggle, and if you knew more about it — if most people knew about it before they actually started to make one, they maybe wouldn’t; maybe they would stop in their tracks — but Gates of Heaven was hard to make, Vernon, Florida was hard to make, and then, for years, nobody would give me money to make movies. There’s a huge gap between Vernon, Florida and The Thin Blue Line. I thought my career as a filmmaker really was over after Vernon, Florida, and although I kept making, for years, proposals for one film or another, they were summarily rejected again and again and again and again.
And that might’ve been it. I mean, a very modest proposal for a film about a psychiatrist who had been nicknamed “Dr. Death” — Dr. James Grigson — and that was the project, just to film an interview with Dr. Death and be done with it. I had no knowledge that this project would become something more, and I didn’t know that until quite a while after I first met Grigson and put him on film. It’s a very strange story: a convoluted, circuitous story to do that one interview eventually transforms into an investigation of murder and, ultimately, The Thin Blue Line. I’ve had a very strange — at least, it seems to me — career; it certainly hasn’t been linear in the sense that one thing clearly follows something else.
But I’m really glad these three films are coming out. I think they’re all different; they’re all some of my best work. Roger Ebert put Gates of Heaven on his list of the ten best movies ever made. Vernon, Florida keeps popping up as a truly beloved movie. In a way, it’s one of the essences of me — the absurdity, the philosophical dimension, the metaphysical concerns, the quirky characters, and on and on and on. I’ve never really done anything quite like Vernon, Florida, except, now, the series for ESPN. I was making a story about electric football in Charlotte, a suburb of Rochester, New York; it’s the closest thing in years I’ve done to Vernon, Florida.
What you’re saying really interests me, because I was watching these and thinking that, since these were made so long ago — and you’ve done so much since The Thin Blue Line — and that you see elements of these having carried over into later works, is it strange to look back at these people you photographed decades ago and have them in HD, on a Blu-ray that people can just buy?
You know, it’s a good feeling. I like these films; a lot of other people like them. I’m delighted that they’re available on Blu-ray. To me it’s, quite simply, a good thing. I was horrified because, for years, A Brief History of Time was not available at all. It had never been transferred properly; in fact, it had been really badly transferred. You couldn’t find it anywhere, except bad copies on YouTube — really degraded YouTube copies of the movie.
And it was really beautifully shot. It was shot by John Bailey on 35[mm]. It was really horrifying to see it unavailable and to see it in such a degraded, miserable copy. So Criterion did me an enormous service by putting out a version of it on Blu-ray — a pristine version of it, on Blu-ray, color-corrected by John Bailey, etc. So I’m delighted! You kidding me?
How does the restoration process work? Are you in the offices every day, are they sending you things, or do you go back and forth? I ask because these are “director-approved” special editions, and I’m always curious about how approves a release.
Well, part of it is that I have not done a very good job of maintaining an archive. The job has always been trying to recover original elements, negatives, a soundtrack from what is many, many, many years ago. We had difficulty finding elements from A Brief History of Time; we had difficulty finding elements from all three of those films. The Thin Blue Line, Vernon, Florida, and Gates of Heaven. But fortunately we were able to cobble together enough material to make this possible.
Now, part of it is just an archival problem. Where is the stuff? Is it stored in laboratory X or laboratory Y? Do we have the elements? Do we have the original sound mix? If we have the original sound mix, in what form do we have the original sound mix? And on and on and on. But this represents the best job that we could do, and I, once again, have relief knowing that the stuff has been preserved. Yes, it’s nice it’s going out through Criterion — it’s terrific — it’s nice that it’s being color-corrected — terrific. But the idea that this material hasn’t been preserved, hasn’t been destroyed, hasn’t been lost — that, in and of itself, is an enormous satisfaction.
Getting these materials, going through them, making sure they’re functional, and then placing them onto a disc — does that prove exhausting for you? Can it be a bit trying, getting everything in?
No. Today, I have a lot of people helping me. It’s no more odorous than making a film itself. Part of making a film is attending to all of these issues. Sound mix, color correction, etc. etc. etc. We all know that, ultimately, everything is bound to be recorded on some form of digital media. One of the ironies is that digital media might be more perishable than actual 35mm film, but it’s all heading in that direction. [Laughs] The direction of “digital copy.” So you try to get the best that you can, and I think that we’ve done that. So it’s no more trying than anything else.
One of the things that amazes me most in filmmaking is how easy it is to destroy a film — how easy it is to fail to go through the various elements that you need to go through, whether it’s color correction or sound mix. Getting something the way you want it, it’s close to impossible. [Laughs] I’ve just gone through the process of making six short films for ESPN, and it turned out to be a lot of work. Those six short films represented about 100 minutes of screen time, so, essentially, we’ve made a feature in four or five months.
I really liked the work, but I’m reminded, endlessly, what a struggle it is — the struggle of editing, the struggle with shooting, the struggle with rights and releases, the struggle with sound mixing. The list is interminable. If you don’t do any one thing on that list right, the whole thing can fall apart like a house of cards. And film is perishable; film projects are perishable. A film project can be messed-up, mucked-over. So yeah, I’m just delighted by all of this. Why wouldn’t I be?
I read an extended interview that you recently did, and one thing I found fascinating was your claim that 99% of the story isn’t in the movie, because you’re discovering the story, then researching it, then doing much that doesn’t become visible in the final result. Do you see a release such as this as a way of getting more of that story out there, getting some of that 99% out into the world and more closely tied to the movie?
Well, I wasn’t writing in those days. I suppose writer’s block. I couldn’t really “write” the story of The Thin Blue Line; I could make the movie. But someday I should write the story. I have so much material, and it’s such an incredible story. It’s one of the amazing detective stories that really isn’t in the movie. The movie is a movie with interviews and some of the central characters in the story, but the actual process of doing the detective work day by day by day, and uncovering what really happened is not in the film, and is an amazing story in and of itself.
One thing I really like about these discs are the variety of special features. Were you asked what you might like to see, and then they were laid-out for your approval? How did that work?
Criterion has always just been incredibly kind to me. They asked if I’m willing to do commentary, and of course I’m willing to do commentary. I used to joke that I make movies so I can talk after them — that’s my deal. I can’t really remember hearing, “You’ll do this,” or, “You’ll do that.” It’s just been an opportunity to create a narrative around the film, to record it and kind of incorporate it into the DVD. But it’s all good. Criterion is good. Good, good, good. Thank God that it exists. They have rendered an important service to me, as a filmmaker, but they’ve rendered an important service in general to filmmaking.
You have Joshua Oppenheimer talk on the disc. I’d like to hear a bit more about your relationship — not only producing his films, but having him appear on the Thin Blue Line disc to speak of your work in such a laudatory manner.
On one very simple level, I’m a fan. I knew Josh when he was a student at Harvard years and years ago. He was a student of Dušan Makavejev, who was teaching at Harvard in the ‘90s, and I had seen Josh talk to him off and on during the interim period before The Act of Killing came out. He had asked my help at a certain point; he needed financing to finish The Act of Killing. Josh is actually — people say this, but I mean it in this instance — one of the nicest, kindest people I’ve ever met, and, oddly enough, he’s also a really, truly great filmmaker, and I had no idea how great a filmmaker until I started seeing his work.
The Act of Killing is extraordinary — there’s nothing like it — and The Look of Silence is, to me, even better than The Act of Killing. I think it’s a remarkable film. I’ve called him “the new Bresson,” and I mean it. There’s something quiet and powerful and simple about that movie. It’s one of the most elegant, one of the most emotionally powerful films I’ve ever seen. So I’m a fan!
One of the year’s most striking films, Lisandro Alonso‘s Jauja, arrives in theaters this week after premiering at Cannes Film Festival last year. Led by Viggo Mortensen as his character journeys through a 19th-century Patagonia, we said in our review that it “might be described as a quasi-Herzogian experience into the rocky terrain of the Argentinean desert, but Alonso has made this journey of madness his own thing, a film so possibly deceitful with its ultimate meaning that it’s best to buckle your seatbelts and enjoy the ride.”
I recently had a chance to speak to Mortensen about the project, which he also co-produced and co-wrote the score for, his childhood, how he chooses certain projects and what specifically attracts him to them, the current state of Hollywood (or if there even is one), what his job is as a producer, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Congrats on the film. It’s stunning. I’m curious with growing up in Argentina partially, what kind of memories returned for you when you were filming this project?
Viggo Mortensen: Well, I mean I’ve been back since I left there — I was eleven when I left — but I’ve been back since then, a long time after. From eleven to until I was in my early thirties or something like that, mid-thirties. But since then I’ve gone back a lot. The places we were in were more remote areas. I remembered them from when I would camp with my brothers and my parents. The landscapes, especially the grasslands, they were very familiar to me because I partially grew up there. There was a farm down there and that’s where I learned to ride. So it was lots of fun. It was interesting to revisit those memories, those smells, see those landscapes. Because I was playing someone who, like my father, is Danish with an accent, not unlike my father and his father, it made me think a lot about my dad as a little kid there.
My brothers and I, as kids, we thought our father was amusing because of his strong Danish accent when he spoke Spanish. We were raised there, so we spoke like any other kid there. And I thought it was funny and I also thought it was kind of amusing or I just dismissed it when my dad had trouble dealing with Argentineans’ punctuality, just a different mindset. Being down there just seemed so amusing to me as a kid, that was my memory of it. But playing a character like that, who also is having trouble connecting on a cultural level, it made me look at my father differently and realize, well, it wasn’t so easy. Sometimes movies can do that. They can teach you things about situations you thought you already knew everything about in your own life. I enjoyed that aspect of it.
Just trying to describe the film to people it feels wholly original but I’ve been saying to some it’s kind of like if Tarkovsky directed an existential western.
Yeah, it made me think of Tarkovsky a lot, just that unhurried pace. Sometimes things happen all of sudden, but generally they have their own particular rhythm that’s very true to the story which is unlike the way things are quote-unquote normally done. Lisandro, I don’t know if you’ve met him, but he’s not in anyway petulant about it or doing this for effect. It’s just what he’s comfortable doing. That’s his storytelling style, but there’s a lot of subtle things he did differently in this movie. I don’t know if you’ve seen his other movies, but he took a lot of chances in this; not just working with professional actors, but telling a real script using music, and probably the biggest risk for him or change was shot selection. There was a lot of trademark long-shots and [the] landscape is there. The humans enter, the humans leave, the landscape is there. It’s more permanent and so forth. But there are sequences, for example, when my characters gun is stolen and all that, there’s some flex. You suddenly feel like you’re watching a Howard Hawks western in some way. He’s more ambitious in terms of shot selection and cutting and it’s less straight-ahead visually then some of his other movies, I guess.
Yeah, I would say that approach and also mixed with the ending, I feel like it’s open to many interpretations. Do you prefer films that because of the mix of the photography, the long takes and also the ending, films that just have that lasting impact? Is that what you’re kinda going for when you seek out projects?
That end in that way?
It could be ending in that way or this is just a film I feel I won’t forget certainly all year and I’ll probably be thinking about for a long, long time.
Yeah, I do feel that way about this movie. First and foremost I look for stories that have the potential to be movies I’d like to go see. So of course that’s very subjective, because the kind of stories I like are the stories that have what you’re pointing out about this one: that they end and then leave you thinking. It’s open to interpretation, and you have something to discuss afterward, something to think about it. You know, I feel that about [David] Cronenberg’s movies, for example. The movies I’ve done with him and probably all of his movies, when they end you think, “Now what happens?”
What are they going to do or what does that mean, and so forth. I like movies that give you something to think about. I generally like artists not just filmmakers who ask a lot of questions or at least create a situation in which you are inspired to ask questions, but doesn’t give you answers, or they don’t give you the answers. I like that kind of filmmaking.
You said last year in an interview that 90% of films that are made are not really great and I have to agree with that notion. There’s just so much that just gets produced in Hollywood and elsewhere too that it’s almost mining for gold, finding projects that are worthwhile and, as a viewer, finding films that really connect with you.
Yeah, I think the overriding reason for that is commerce. But there is also the very real fact that it’s hard to write a story. Even if you have no commercial constraints and you have a producer that says, “I’ll produce whatever the hell you write. I don’t care what it is. I don’t care if it makes money or not.” I mean, that’s not very normal, but, I’ll say that happens. You still have to write the story that has to be captivating. It still has to have somethings singular, a rhythm, something memorable, depending on the viewer. It’s not easy to do, so it’s not purely, as far as commerce. Since I do work in Europe and South America, I mean I work outside of the “Hollywood system.” And when you ask someone, “What’s Hollywood?” You know, people keep throwing that around outside of the United States. “Well, it’s not like Hollywood, at least you’re doing movies that…” Well, I don’t know what you’re talking about, what is Hollywood? And they go, “Well you know, big productions and…” Well, there’s big productions out of England, most big boat Hollywood productions are there. You know, there’s money from Europe, China, from who knows where. There’s no such thing as Hollywood, really. Although I know what they mean; they mean big-budget movies that are constrained by their budget to reproduce formulaic stories that you’ve already seen with different window dressing and dialogue, but it’s basically unsurprising. But that happens all over the world. It’s not just there. It’s not a question of budget only. It happens a lot. It’s hard to tell an original story.
When people ask me about that outside the “Hollywood system,” I say, “I’m not willfully not doing movies like that.” A movie like Jauja or the French one coming out soon, Loin des hommes [Far From Men], or any other number of movies that I’ve done in recent years. In Two Faces of January, which on the face of it is an American movie, but it’s not. It’s an European movie, made by an English director. It’s an American story based on novel by an American writer but it’s still an unusual movie. All these movies, because they are somewhat original — some are very original like Jauja– they take time to get set up. And in the process of getting them set up sometimes offers do come in for an opportunity to do movies that are “Hollywood movies” or bigger budget movies that it’s tempting to say, “Well, yeah, that’s pretty much going be produced. It has a release date. It’s going to be distributed. There’s money to promote it.” But I’m sort of stubborn. Once I say “yes” to a story because it’s something I’d like to see made, I’d like to see in a movie theater, then I stay with it. These movies, including Jauja, generally take two or three years, sometimes more, to get made. So in that period I do miss out on some opportunities, but it’s not for lack of… it’s not because I’ve turned my back. A lot of people say, “Well, you obviously turned your back on Hollywood.” Well, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just controlling my nose and I don’t really think about the nationality or language or budget when I’m looking at the story. As I said, I’m looking for something that I’d like to go see.
Yeah, some actors might sit back and say, “It’s hard to find the money now for these kind of movies.” But I feel like with you — the last few movies you’ve actually had a hand in producing — you’re going out and tracking down this material and not letting them come to you, but rather trying to find the stories to be told. Is that a reason why you wanted to produce the last few films that you’ve done?
Well, in both cases they’re both things that came to me and I looked at them. I thought, well there’s different ways to do this properly, because there’s second-time directors — Lisandro’s not a first-time or second-time, it’s his fifth time, but first time where he’s doing a movie where he’s using actors and he’s making some leaps forward in terms of type of cinematography used, kind of lighting. It’s just an extension of what always I tried to do in whatever way I could, which is help the director get their vision on the screen. And as I’ve worked over the years in the business I’ve realized there’s a lot that goes into that. Not just, which I could do simply and that’d be fine, just do my best as an actor and be supportive of the other actors in the scene and try to help him that way. And then walk away.
But I’ve realized that a movie, as good as it might be made or shot, there’s a lot that can happen in what’s allowed to be done, what’s allowed to be shot, if the director is allowed or not to edit the movie the way he wants, and present the edit he wants finally to a film festival without interference, what the poster looks like, how it’s promoted. In the case of Jauja, what the title of it is, what’s it mean, how do we get it to people’s attention, all of these things. I just wanted to help. And as a producer, I obviously have. If I wanted to be, it is my business to help him with that and help the movie along. And with Jauja I also did invest in it. I didn’t do that with Loin des hommes, but I did help them in different ways as far as getting to the right film festival and other things. They’re very different situations. This was the third one that I’ve produced. I also did the first-time feature by Ana Piterbarg, an Argentine movie called Everybody Has a Plan, a pretty good story. The kind of story that I could see someone goes, “Oh, I’ll take that and make a Hollywood movie out of it” in English. Which you could do. I wouldn’t want to be part of it.
You co-composed the music and there’s a transcendent scene where it kicks in for the first time. Can you talk about coming up with that, when he reaches the top of the mountain. Was that your idea solely for the music there, or did you collaborate?
Lisandro plans and works really hard and sets up, tries to get the right elements to shoot a movie. We shot the script, but there’s a couple things that happened in the course of making the movie. And when you plan everything is mostly him and he remains open to suggestions, by the photographer, just the circumstances of the day. At one point during the shoot, he said to me, “You know, that’s an important transition at nighttime. I would like to put music there.” It surprised me. He never used music in that way in a movie before. If there was music in the movie, it was just coming out of the radio, but he never had a music soundtrack. I thought what kind of music and he started to describe something lyrical, and I said, “Well, you know we don’t really have any money.” There’s not a lot of time and it’s not like we can go ask Bob Dylan for a song or something. [Both laugh]
He said, “I don’t want it to be anything that you would know what it was.” It was just, in our conversations, I said, “Well, there’s this guitar player I know and I’ve worked with for many years. I sent him a whole bunch of stuff that we’ve recorded together. He liked one track a lot from one of our records and then there’s another one he said, “I’d like to put at the end credits.” It has kind of like a cyclical structure, it goes with the story. I would have never imagined in my life I’d be contributing music to a movie so that was interesting. He’s like that. He stuck to the script, very strictly, but it was the last day, in this one location, and he said there’s something I’m missing between the father and the daughter is why he’s so desperate to find her. Is there more affection between them even though he’s formal military guy and not like a country guy? He’s a single father who doesn’t really know how to deal with an adolescent daughter. We could come up with something and we came up with something, which is the first scene in the movie. Then we shot it as the light was fading and it was one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It was really nice. It sets up a lot of things and more layers.
Jauja will hit NYC’s Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center on Friday, March 20th and will expand in the coming weeks, courtesy of Cinema Guild.