Over the course of more than thirty years, Abel Ferrara’s films have shocked and challenged audiences with their uncompromisingly personal vision of death, family, evil, and faith. On the occasion of the theatrical and VOD re-release of one of his earliest films, the female revenge picture Ms. 45, he joined us over the phone from Rome, where he’s working on his biopic of controversial Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Detailing the aforementioned projects, as well as his experiences with ‘R Xmas, The Addiction, Body Snatchers, his long-gestating potential take on Jekyll and Hyde, and much more, check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Is being in the middle of one film while doing promotion for the other force you to see the similarities between each?
Abel Ferrara: Between 45 and Pasolini? What would you say? What you think?
That’s why I’m asking you, man.
Well, that’s a tough question. But I just did make a film about Straus-Kahn, which is about a rape so looking back on 45, I think those are kind of similar. But, the similarity between Pasolini is that one time in the 90’s, we were going to try to do Pasolini’s story but only with Zoe [Lund, star of Ms. 45] as Pasolini; a female director living the life that Pasolini lived. It would’ve been an interesting movie but unfortunately Zoe’s dead, so that ended that idea.
Well, it was written by Nicholas St. John and it was basically that film which he wrote. I got the script, and I didn’t even know if he was writing for me, but it was just a beautiful piece of writing, and we just kind of stuck to it, it was really word for word off the page, you dig? But you needed the girl — she’s in every shot of the film — but the creative input of an actress, it’s 100% in the film. The film is really her understanding of what Nicky was writing; it was like a real marriage of character and material.
Three of the films of yours that are most outwardly genre — Ms. 45, Body Snatchers, and The Addiction — all have female leads. How important was the female perspective in tackling genre?
Well, that’s interesting with a woman in lead, especially now when you never see women; I mean, the female side of filmmaking is just a nightmare now. That’s the thing, though, that made it different, the approach to genre — it’s like going into the negative of it, you know, not “woman as victim” but “woman as victimizer.” It put a very interesting spin. Funny thing in The Addiction though: the two characters that were played by Annabella [Sciorra] and Chris Walken — well, when Chris read the script he was reading a female character, when I went to rehearse with him the first time, he thought the female character was a male character, that was just the character he wanted to play. It was written for a female but he played it, so we gave the other character to Annabella, which was a male character. It’s interesting: obviously the balance between the female and male side of anything, but in the end the actor got his wish.
As evidenced in Ms. 45, your films depict a very scary New York, which later was seen on the verge of change due to Guiliani’s election with ‘R Xmas. How much more has it changed in the years since?
It’s changing constantly. Now it’s become the millionaire’s playground. I mean post-9/11 it became a.. you know, it’s just such a dynamic place that’s it’s attracted every single person in the world, and when that happens, well, just the natural flow of supply and demand. But once you get out of an end, New York gets funky quick. You know what I’m saying?
You said before, in regards to the relation between King of New York and ‘R Xmas, that the former depicted a more blatantly exaggerated view of drug dealing, while the latter an intimate one. Do you feel that this duality of sorts extends throughout your entire filmography? That one film addresses a theme in a more make-believe way, the other a more realistic one?
Well, yeah. When you start living a life, I mean when you make something like King of New York, where there’s drug dealing and this and that, it’s kind of a part of your imagination. But when you start looking at the reality of these movies, the film doesn’t reflect that. So that’s why we started enacting the style of — well, I don’t quite know how to say it — but pursuing the reality of the acting in the kind of style you love, or that I really love; you start getting into an almost documentary-filmmaking way. So the fact that we started making documentary films was an obvious direction to go in — not a place to end up in, but pass through. And I think ‘R Xmas kind of was like a first documentary film, because the characters in that film… I mean, that story happened, and those were people that we knew, and we tried to keep it real.
How much have you felt your films have changed since Nicholas St. John stopped writing them?
Nicky was a dynamic, brilliant writer, and dynamic thinker, and an incredible person, but he just didn’t want to do it anymore. You know, he just had enough. In this business you’re part of a team, but at the same time I am me, man, I’m a filmmaker — I’ve got to keep making films. It wasn’t in my deck of cards to stop, at least not then, and not now. It was a big thing to achieve, but, at the same time, as they say, “next man up.”
After Ms. 45 you did a lot of work in television, such as episodes of Michael Mann-produced shows like Miami Vice and Crime Story. Do you feel there was anything personal about that work, or were they simply jobs?
I don’t know how personal you could shoot Miami Vice in a week, but Crime Story was different. But it’s your art, it’s your work, you’re the director and you deliver. It’s Michael’s Crime Story, it was Chuck who wrote it — it was true, it was real. I went in there and I did what I needed to do. Crime Story I kind of like a lot. I certainly reached through when making it then. I was to, for better or worse, comprehend that vision, and deliver a vision. You know what I’m saying? Ya dig? It was a collaborative effort where the producer was a major collaborator, because it was his take on it. Ya dig? Almost 90% of the time we’re the ones put in that position.
I recently saw Body Snatchers and loved it, then found out that it was completely buried by the studio. What happened, and did that scare you away from studio filmmaking?
It was one of these corporate in-fighting things, and it’s a long and boring story, but if we meet each other and you got a couple hours, I’m sure you’d find it interesting. But it was a corporate deal, and the people involved with it fell out of favor with the studio, and it’s one these films where they run it through a bunch of high school kids who grade it, and if you get less than a fucking 80, they don’t give a shit. But, again, the film exists and it’s there, and you thought it was great. We put a lot into it, but the plus side was an unlimited budget to do certain things. There were just certain things we did in that film that you really can’t do unless you have that kind of money.
I worked with studio guys, but it’s a film I’m very proud of, and it is what it is. And I certainly didn’t make any more there, and I wasn’t asked to make any more, so I could’ve turned down a big Hollywood career, but we weren’t exactly pursuing it. Film’s about personal freedom, man, and you can’t be compromised even a little bit. With filmmaking, it’s all or nothing, and it’s as simple as that; if you’re not making films from a place of total artistic freedom, don’t even bother.
I know that you’d been working on a Jekyll and Hyde adaptation at a big studio that ended up falling apart. Do you think it’s still something you could do with budget and resources more in line with your recent films?
I mean, it’s been around for 150 years, so I don’t think it matters whether we do it last month or nine years ago or three years ago. I wanted to do it with Forest [Whitaker] and 50 Cent, and it’s still a story I really want to do, because it’s never really been done, or at least not the way it was really conceived by the author; it’s two separate individuals, not as one actor playing both of them. Ya dig? He was talking about the total physical transformation of separation, ya dig? When one guy plays both roles, that’s the werewolf — that’s not Jekyll and Hyde. Jekyll and Hyde’s never been made, and it never was. I don’t care how many Academy Awards they gave people, or how many times they did it. But this Pasolini thing is a little Jekyll and Hyde-ish, so the project is definitely still on, but it needs to be done by somebody and done right — not this bullshit make-up on the same guy thing.
Ms. 45 returns to theaters in New York and Austin on December 13th and Los Angeles on December 20th. It will be released on VOD on March 25th, and one can see the full roll-out schedule here.
After months of behind-the-scenes efforts, this weekend will bring the start of Jamieson McGonigle‘s Jesse James Revival, a fan-led initiative to bring Andrew Dominik‘s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford back to the big screen — as it was always meant to be seen, and, too, in the most pristine conditions available. Although sites such as this have been working to bring further notice to what, hopefully, will become a nation-wide series of theatrical presentations, some of the most valuable encouragement has come from none other than the film’s writer and director, Andrew Dominik.
Yours truly had already spoken with him in March for entirely different reasons, but so ubiquitous is his 2007 western that it nevertheless had to come up at the time — little did we realize, however, that minor talk of revisiting the film would become the basis of our next conversation. Below, one can also read his thoughts on the whole enterprise, different cuts of Jesse James, and what seeing it on a large canvas really brings.
So, what’s your daily working process looking like? What’s happening with you at this moment?
Well, I’m putting together the next movie, which is called Blonde and it’s about Marilyn Monroe.
Are you allowed to talk about that in any regard?
Well, we’re going to shoot it in August, and it’s scripted. We’re budgeting it; we’re planning it.
Good news. I was curious when that had been announced, so the occasional delays were the slightest bit discouraging.
Yeah, I’m very excited about this. I think this one’s going to be good.
We had spoken back in March — on the occasion of Killing Them Softly’s Blu-ray release — and, at the time, you told me you’d seen Jesse James about a year prior. After all this revival business was announced, have you revisited the film? Even just to look at the DCP?
No. I mean, I’ll probably have a look at the DCP just before the screening, but the thing I’m most looking forward to about the whole thing is just seeing the movie projected again.
When had you last seen it projected?
At the Venice Film Festival.
Would you say the concept of this revival and its positive reaction has provided any sort of creative boost to your daily process? Does knowing of this interest in your work do anything?
It’s nice. [Laughs] You know? It’s nice. It doesn’t really give me a creative boost, because I was chucking away, doing my thing anyway. I’m really glad people like the movie, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again. But, yeah, I wasn’t sitting around the house — like, wildly depressed, pajamas pulled up, and then I read about this thing in New York and got inspired to act, you know? [Laughs] That would be kind of silly.
At what point did you realize this wasn’t just someone’s crazy dreams?
I didn’t know what was going on, man. I mean, it was just the sort of contact made because, you know, he wanted to screen Jesse James at his bachelor party, and I thought he was crazy, you know? Just get strippers and an eight-ball. And, then, he rang back, saying, “Well, the museum wants to do the screening, and would you come out to New York if we did it?” And I said, “Okay.” And it turned into this whole thing of, like, trying to get Jesse James to be a fixture on “the revival circuit,” if they do such a thing in America.
He’s got a screening it New York, it rolls out, and there are plans to do it elsewhere. He’s got to screen it somewhere else, and I think it’s kind of great. Jamieson’s very enthusiastic, he loves the picture, and I guess I kind of felt like… you know, I was amused and flattered by the whole thing, and I guess my idea was not to stand in his way. From my point-of-view, I don’t want to run around and talk about something we did seven years ago, you know? But I’m glad someone else could do it.
It’s interesting that a lot of people will now see this on the big screen for the first time, and with your preferred method of DCP presentation — as opposed to, say, just a projected DVD or Blu-ray. Does this matter to you?
Well, you know, it really is a “movie movie.” The images are bigger, and it’s a more immersive experience. Some films, I guess, it doesn’t really matter. I mean, speaking for myself, projection is so bad at so many places nowadays that I’d rather just watch a movie at home, because if I’m home at least I know it’s going to be in-focus. But we’re going to be screening the DCP from the DI [digital intermediate], which is the most consistent picture. It’s just a more immersive experience, you know? And that’s part of the design of the film — everything, down to the sound, is something that works better in a theater.
Have you spoken to Jesse James collaborators about this new movement?
You know, [Jesse James producer] Dede Gardner knows about it. Casey [Affleck] knows about it, and I don’t know if Brad [Pitt] knows — I don’t know what he’d say about it. I mean, most people are interested in moving forward. I mean, Brad loves that movie; it’s something he’s really proud of. I think it’s his favorite film that he’s been involved in, and it was the first Plan B movie he was actually in, so I think it holds a special place in his heart — and mine.
Do you like the idea of having this film still being “present” and something that can be taken notice of in this manner, even as you hope to launch new efforts?
No, I love Jesse James. I’m really proud of it. I really hope, at some point, I’ll be able to do, at some point, if it’d be possible to release a different cut — a longer cut of the picture. I’d love that. So, not at all, but, you know, nobody wants to do that yet, so there’s something to be done. I mean, the movie’s done. I finished the movie. At the point where the movie comes out into the public consciousness — or wherever it is — the movie’s released; it’s over, for me. Although it’s nice to see it occasionally, it’s… the movie is like the ashes of the experience of making it.
Have you looked for a home? I remember you saying it could be brought about in “half a day,” because the cuts do exist, despite any necessary transfer processes that are still required. Have you been talking to people?
No, I haven’t talked to anyone about it. As far as Warner Bros. are concerned, it’s not a title that makes a lot of money — so, I don’t think they give a shit. Or, I don’t know how the DVD sales were, or whether they believe there to be a market for them or anything. I always figured that, maybe someday in the future, that time would come: someone would be interested in doing this, and at that point it would be very easy to reconstitute because all the cuts do exist.
Although you’re on-record as being happy with what played in theaters, was it nevertheless strange to see praise lobbed toward a film that wasn’t 100% the version you’d prefer be seen?
You know, I should clarify: there is a longer version of Jesse James that’s about 20 minutes longer, and I think it’s a really good version. And, then, there’s another version that I like a lot, that I think is better than the “big” version. It’s maybe about 4% different, you know what I mean? It’s very, very minor. I like the version of the picture that’s been released; I think it’s great. There’s just a couple of things I’d change, maybe.
When watching the film now, do you go toward another iteration, or is it simply the theatrical version?
No, I watch the theatrical version. I mean, that’s the one that’s on Blu-ray, you know? And it looks really good.
Will it be strange to go back on a stage and talk about it in a public setting, since it seems to have been a while?
No, not really. I think that… you know what’s sad about it? When you meet a director, and you ask him a question about a film that you really love, and they pitch you the same story that’s told on the DVD commentary. It’s kind of like, you know, you work out your routine about the movie, and then fucking recycle it again and again. [Laughs] I hope I’m not like that, but it depends on the questions people ask.
Have people at the Museum of the Moving Image talked to you about this presentation?
I haven’t talked to anyone who’s at the Museum of the Moving Image. Have you been to the Museum of the Moving Image?
What is it?
Well, it is, indeed, a museum dedicated to items with an important place in cinematic history — old cameras, projectors, props from famous movies, etc. — and there’s also a theater that you see upon entering, where they’ll screen the film. But, yes, it’s mostly dedicated to film history.
I figured you were more familiar with it before all this, but it seems you’ll encounter it for the first time next month.
No, I’d never heard of it before.
Well, it’s wonderful. (I suppose I should say that, since they’re sponsoring the event.) I think it’ll be a good experience.
Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.
What would you say to people who get this rare theatrical experience with the film, specifically those seeing it for the first time in this environment?
Oh, man, I really don’t know what to say to that. I mean, all I’d say to a person before they see a film is absolutely nothing, you know?
Although few in recent years have skyrocketed into a mainstream spotlight as quickly as Sharlto Copley, one, when looking over his filmography, is likely to be most impressed by an ability to balance projects on either end of the budget and exposure spectrum. Following back-to-back roles in the Matt Damon-led Elysium (a reunion with District 9 helmer Neill Blomkamp) and Magnolia-released Europa Report, his next project might land somewhere in-between: Oldboy, in which an out-of-bounds actor goes into even stranger, darker territory for director Spike Lee‘s small, violent reworking of the well-known South Korean thriller.
The unusual turn is something we jumped into almost immediately, and how quickly it leads into a fuller discussion would, I think, speak to the uniformity of Copley’s performance. For both this and notices of his experience in every corner of the film industry, read on.
The Film Stage: You’re calling from South Africa. What’s happening there?
Sharlto Copley: I’m shooting Chappie, again with Neill — the robot movie that he’s doing here.
How far into that are you?
We’re about… a third of the way?
That’s nice to hear. Given the project we’re meant to discuss, I think it’s only appropriate that I’d talk to you through an iPhone speaker.
[Laughs] That’s awesome. Yes, it is very appropriate.
Hopefully this goes a little better than what occurs onscreen.
I hope it goes better. Be nice to me! Be nice to me, Nick! That’s all I can say, you know? I’m sensitive, man.
That’s actually a good place to start, because I’d like to talk about, first, how you developed this character through voice acting; your initial presence is only through a phone, and what we hear of you is this very strange, off-kilter voice. Could you talk about building this from the ground-up?
Yeah, the voice: it’s funny, because, for me, voice is the single most important thing in a character, and every aspect of the voice. Obviously the most important is the accent, because that informs a whole bunch of stuff, for me, that I would be drawing on — usually kinds of stereotypes, and things that are associated with an accent. Very specifically, there are all sorts of subtleties within the voice. It was quite bizarre that, in this particular case, the general inspiration for the voice came from a make-up artist that I’d worked with on a previous film. And I said to him, during the film, I was like, “Dude, do you mind if I use it?”
And it actually isn’t “him” — none of his friends would say “it sounds like you” — but it was a certain feeling: sort of the more quietly spoken guy, most of the time, and a certain energy to the voice. So I generally try and base the voices — and, actually a lot of the time, the characters — on real people, or these real stereotypes in society, and pick pieces of those stereotypes to sort of build on the character.
What was Spike Lee’s first reaction to that delivery?
He liked it; I think he said it was creepy. [Laughs] The idea of making him English came from Spike, and I thought, “Okay, that’ll be cool.” He was going to be upper-class, so you narrow it down to what kind of voice you could use; I opted to sort of make the character… I went for this option that he’s bisexual, which kind of maybe does and maybe doesn’t come across in the film, because of what had happened to him — that he had a lot of issues around love and sexuality. So, that was sort of an additional sort of element that I thought would make sense, given the story, that I brought.
When we finally do see you, the physical movements require a bit of adjustment — the way you’re moving around, or even handling individual objects. It’s graceful, which I found very entertaining. How did you match a physical performance with the voice?
Yeah, there was a lot… I mean, it was the most work I’d ever had to do on a character. I had my girlfriend, literally, at home, driving her crazy, but she would help me with certain things — every time I picked up a glass, or drank a cup of tea, she’d say, “No, no, your finger’s not out!” She was my sort of “coach” at home, and it was probably the most “method” I’d been, in the sense of having to be in the character quite a lot to repress my natural energy levels, for example, to really control the movement. The voice came very, very easily.
Eventually, because I did it enough, the movements started to actually stay with me for a little while afterwards. Little things, little mannerisms that I had developed and forced myself into kind of doing as a habit — so, it was a very interesting experience for me. It was a character that’s the darkest thing I’ve ever done; I don’t think I’ll ever do something like that again, in my life probably. But it’s an experience that, from a professional point-of-view, I’m glad I did.
Is that part of the attraction, too, playing something this dark? Between Oldboy and this summer’s Elysium, it feels as if you really did take on relatively “intense” things in your two biggest roles this year.
Yeah, I think it’s more about what I was offered. It’s, “Well, these are the roles that are on the table for you — you want to be a working actor, and this is what Hollywood’s offering you.” I don’t know that I would say I’m particularly fascinated with the darker side of the world, or anything like that — I’m not, really, to be honest, as a person. I wouldn’t describe myself as the type of brooding, dark actor with a million issues that he wants to go into characters to explore; I just find it an interesting challenge, to entertain audiences. That’s my number-one thing, you know?
So, while I was sort of method-ing out on the mannerisms (or whatever) of this character, it didn’t mess me up psychologically, you know — because even something as dark as Oldboy, I wasn’t, like, “Oh, it’s a dark world.” It’s adapting, for me. I don’t allow it to mess with me too much.
I was struck by a number of the sequences that put you front and center, in particular. There’s a lengthy tracking shot where you’re walking with Josh Brolin, and it’s the sort of visual flourish you wouldn’t necessarily expect at that given moment. So, what is it about Spike Lee that distinguishes him from other filmmakers you’ve worked with? Moments such as that use of the camera?
I think it’s everything. Each director is different. It started, for me, with the fact that Spike has an enormous humanity to him, which I didn’t necessarily expect, from the perception I had gotten through the media, or whatever. He’s an amazing… I don’t know, there’s a humanness to the man, when you’re dealing with him one-on-on that I found amazing, and I feel really blessed to have just met him and worked with him and known him, just as a person.
And, then, as an artist, I mean he really is a true artist. You’re pointing out exactly the things like the shots on the Steadicam — I know the shot you’re talking about — or the sequences where he would very often do that, where it just goes, man; you just go right into the sequence and run the whole thing, and he runs it on-camera. He has a real “artistic” take on the medium — you definitely get the sense that he’s not trying to play to commercial tastes, or anything like that, that the man is a genuine artist. Like or don’t like it, he’s producing art, which is refreshing in the whole… you know. [Laughs] Which is why, I suppose, he doesn’t work in the whole Hollywood system, I guess, is he is a genuine artist.
Well, one of the things I’ve liked about your career thus far is how you volley between big-budget material and independent fare — just this past summer you had both Elysium and Europa Report, the latter of which was primarily seen on a format like VOD. How do you find a middle ground in getting material?
I mean, I think it’s really, for me, a combination of trying to develop a career based on doing some very different roles. So, I suppose the most important thing, for me, is, “What can I do with a character that I’m being offered?” It doesn’t really matter so much, to me, whether the forum is a bigger forum or indie forum; I’m just really trying to be a working actor, if that makes sense, so there’s only so many big films that I’ve made — there’s a lot of competition to get into those — and, on the smaller-scale stuff, there’s interesting material.
You know there’s this movie, Hardcore, that I just did in Russia; it’s probably the lowest-budget movie I’ve done, but it’s, without question, the most original film that, I think, has been made in a long time, in the sense that the entire movie is from the POV of a GoPro. It’s from this director who did the Bad Motherfucker shorts online, Ilya Naishuller — I don’t know if you saw that — and going to work in Russia… I enjoy that. I enjoy finding characters that are, maybe, a little different for me, something I haven’t done before — and, then, directors making something really different.
Europa, it was just a supporting role, but I think what they were trying to do was noble; with the amount of money they had, it was really sort of “true” science fiction in a more technically “true” sense. I wanted to try and support that. Something like the Open Grave movie was sort of a European art-house take on the horror genre, which is, again, just something very different — that’s an ensemble movie. So, yeah, I think mostly it’s about characters, for me, and getting the opportunity to play different ones.
Oldboy opens on Wednesday, November 27.
Whether it is the Five Minutes in Heaven‘s lesser-known subjects or Downfall‘s depiction of the final days of Adolf Hitler, director Oliver Hirschbiegel is experienced in the biopic field. His latest, Diana, currently in limited release, focuses on the late Princess Diana of Wales (Naomi Watts) and her secret love affair with an Indian immigrant surgeon, Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews of Lost fame).
I recently had a chance to speak with Hirschbiegel about the reaction all over the world, whether he sees the possibility of constructive criticism from reviews, what kind of ratio he was looking for in terms of an actress that could act versus how similar to Diana she looked, whether there were any animals left out of the film, physical locations, about approaching Hasnat Khan before making the film, and much, much more. Read on below for the full interview.
The Film Stage: It’s very nice to get to talk with you. I always am wondering how the day has been going for the interviewee. So, how has the day been for you?
Oliver Hirschbiegel: I’ve had very good interviews so far, I must say. Very good questions and I like the approach. The way people look at the film. Americans have a different reception to those things. It might be that an American’s relationship to the concept of romantics or emotion… the Germans are big on that and the Americans have it, too.
Right. Right. And the British, it always seems, like being aware of the fact that they aren’t very emotional. They’re self-deprecating along those lines, even. Emotions and feelings? That’s for everybody else. Not for them.
Yeah, it scares them a little. But then again that’s a source of some of the greatest sense of humor in the world, as well. The sarcasm and irony. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it gets in the way.
While I’m watching this movie, I’m keenly aware of the fact that it appears no one really has a pet. Did Diana ever have anything besides her boys? She never had a cat or dog?
No, no. They never had a pet. But it’s funny that you should mention that: if they had a pet, I certainly would have put it in. We know the Queen has lots of dogs.
Yeah. The corgis.
Charles, of course, has lots of dogs. For hunting. I think the whole family has lots of animals, actually. They’re mad about horses. But Diana was the complete opposite. She was scared of horses. She didn’t enjoy riding them. There were no pets. And of course, for Hasnat Khan, there was no room for pets. He was a doctor. He was working shifts. He would hardly find time to meet the woman that he loved. But that’s an interesting question, really. I haven’t had that one before.
Another thing that I’m sure you’ve been asked before is how you landed on your lead actress, Naomi Watts. But I’m very curious about the women that didn’t end up being cast. Did you go in with a ratio of how close you can get them to look like Diana versus how good of an actress she is?
Well, my first instinct was that I don’t want it to be a look-alike contest. I was even willing to go as far as having an actress that has dark eyes but be able to pull it off. The first name I ever wrote down was Naomi because I knew she would be the perfect choice. But of course you look at other actresses as well. Especially when I found out Naomi wasn’t available. As I suppose you’ve heard, I was talking to Jessica Chastain at the time. Who doesn’t look like Diana at all. But that didn’t go very far because she decided not to do this one nor the one with Tom Cruise [Oblivion] because she went to do the film with Kathryn Bigelow [Zero Dark Thirty].
So, at the same time that I got that news, and I was already thinking about others, Naomi got back to me and said that her project had fallen apart and that she could do my film. But she wasn’t sure. So I went to meet her and talk about it. Seeing her, I just knew she was perfect. But she doesn’t really look like Diana, either. She has the ability… she’s a chameleon. She becomes the character. She studies all the mannerisms. She’s like an athlete. She trains for these things. But what really makes it work is she takes it from inside. If you look at Downfall, Bruno [Ganz] doesn’t really look like Hitler. While we were doing it, he became Hitler. And she does the same thing, I think. She creates the same energy.
I think the more time you spend with someone on camera, being that persona, that’s what helps. After a while, you give in to the fact, “OK, she’s playing Diana whether I like it or not.”
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s an energy thing, really. What we do is energy work, at the end of the day. I mean, Chaplin showed us. He would never change his clothes in his early films. He would just take off his hat and put on a captain’s hat and before you knew it, you bought it. He was a captain of a ship, right? It’s sort of the same thing. It’s my preferred kind of acting, really. When the energy is just right, the actor makes me forget that I’m watching him pretending to be instead of being.
So, this story really is about the love affair between Hasnat Khan and Diana. He’s obviously a real person. So I’m curious if you reached out to him at all before making this film or did you just kind of approach it that it was true, it’s out there, and let’s just make a movie?
Well, the first draft of the script was developed in collaboration with Kate Snell, who had written a book. And she has been in touch with his family constantly, but he didn’t ever want to engage. He knew it was happening but he didn’t want to be a part of it. As for me, as a storyteller, like with Five Minutes in Heaven, which is based on these two real-life characters, I can’t meet the real people. It would make me feel emotionally involved on a personal level and would have stood in the way of my artistic interpretation or expression.
But you do as much research as possible. I met lots of people who knew him. People who had been close to Diana — like Simone Simmons, for instance, who Diana told a lot of details to, some of which are in the film. Then bit by bit, the more research you do, you get a better idea about these characters. Then you either recreate if you know or create if you don’t know, like very intimate scenes in the bedroom. You just try to hit the spirit of the characters and the spirit of the relationship.
It looks like you filmed on real locations. How much of it was the actual location and how much was dressed-up?
It’s all real places. Of course, the royals have never let anyone shoot within their palaces. So I had to find a grand house that inside and outside sort of met that architecture of the actual palace. But it’s a real house, really. We refurnished it and remodeled it. Same with the flat. It’s a real flat. It’s not really in the area of where the real flat was because it’s too posh now. But it meets the quality of what it was. It was this tiny little place. But it was very important to do as much on location as possible because I’m using the energy of the rooms. On stage, that’s a bit more difficult. You have to create that energy. But if you find the right room at an existing location, you already have an attitude you can work with.
And those tight quarters have that energy built in because they’re not meant to be movie sets. They’re not meant to have the lighting structures and everything else, so it becomes a bit more intense.
I know this is a tiny detail, but period films always seem to have fun with getting details correct. So, the cell phones in the film. Were they functional? Were they just props?
Ah, well, the funny thing is I think we used eight different models. Two of those would still be working. They wouldn’t really have reception, but they’d still be working. They would show the digits if you dialed them. The others were simply dead. [Laughs].
You’ve toured the world with this film. You seem to get a broad range of reactions. What has been the most surprising or most consistent reaction you’ve gotten from this film?
Well, there really hasn’t been a lot of consistency. As you might have heard, the UK press went into a hysteric frenzy it seems. They hit at the film as much as they could. The weirdest things happened. Right after the premiere, the Evening Standard wrote a very good review. Gave us four and a half stars or so. Only two weeks later, when the film actually released, they decided they had to slaughter it as well. So it seems there’s a weird collective thing going on there. I don’t want to say orchestrated [laughs], but there was a feeling that it was all in synch. Weird! Most of it being polemic. Which is not polite. As a filmmaker you like a good critic. It’s absolutely OK if a critic doesn’t like my film. But you want something written dealing with the way you staged things, or the way the film does or doesn’t work. But I hardly ever got that.
So that was the English response. Very mixed in France. About half and half. But the audience didn’t really respond that much. Then again, Denmark, number one for four weeks. Portugal? Hugely successful. And all of the East. Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia… all these countries, it really did great business. So it’s surprising. It seems from territory to territory, some audiences are more open to romance. This isn’t really about Diana. This is more of a universal love story. It has a pace, if you will, that isn’t what most of other films these days deliver. If you had asked me, I would have expected that in the East, they would be after more hard and fast, action-driven films. But it seems to be the opposite. It’s a first for me, really, because reactions are really different. [Laughs]
For my final question, I’m curious about your relationship with reviews. You spoke about it briefly just now, but can you expand on that? Do you see it with the possibility of it being constructive criticism or is it just part of the job?
Well, to be honest, the writing I learned the most from were smartly written reviews that did not really like the films that I’ve made. [Laughs]. It may sound strange but I’m learning from reviews, if they’re smart. And then, if I have a choice, of course often the ones that are ambivalent, shining the light on different aspects… good ones, bad ones. But that’s not only in regard to my own films. I like to read reviews about other films. It’s fascinating. Let’s take the Refn film…
Only God Forgives?
Yeah. Only God Forgives. The Guardian gave it five stars. It was a raving review. It was a hit. Then Time Out, who are really good. They have really good writers as well. They gave it one star. They were equally, smartly written articles. That’s fun. You go, “Oh, f-ck! This is interesting. Look, sounds interesting. I better get a ticket and then watch it.”
Diana is now in limited release.
With his latest feature, prolific documentary legend Frederick Wiseman continues his cycle of examining institutions, beginning in a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane (his first feature, 1967’s Titicut Follies) to a cabaret in Paris (2011’s stunning Crazy Horse), and smaller spaces like 2010′s Boxing Gym, filmed in Austin, TX. Wiseman’s 41st feature film, At Berkeley, is of one of the year’s best, an intimate, sweeping portrait of campus life.
Wiseman is a fly on the wall in classes, during administrative meetings, and during the film’s final hour, on both sides of a student protest, jumping between the students and administration formulating both a security and PR response. A stunning portrait of a great university in a transformative time, the film is a study in transparent governance, even if it offers no easy resolutions. We spoke with Wiseman by phone from Paris, where he’s in post-production on his latest documentary, in which he focuses his lens on London’s National Gallery.
The Film Stage: It’s an honor, thank you for speaking with us.
Federick Wiseman: Thanks for wanting to chat me with me.
Can you talk about the cast and crew process and how you captured what might be the largest institution you’ve studied?
For a place as large Berkeley, or any place I’ve done this, there is no way you can be representative. You have to follow your instinct and judgment, and I knew I wanted to follow the way the administration was dealing with the economic crisis. I knew I wanted to go to classes and extracurricular activities, and get a sense of student life and all of that. I was set about doing that — one of the ways I did that was I had a consultant who was the retired Vice Chancellor whom I could talk things over and acted as my liaison with the faculty and, particularly, the administration. So when I wanted to find out what meetings were going on over the course of a couple of days or a week my liaison would call over to the chancellor’s office and get that information for me. And that way I could decide what I wanted to do. Once I decided that this week I wanted to go to a few English courses, my liaison to the campus would give me a list of which classes were on, and I would call the professor and make the arrangements to come into the class.
How much of the material ended up on the cutting room floor?
I started out with 250 hours of rushes and the film is mere four hours, which means I used 1/60th of the material.
I’m curious about the student groups, were they a self-selected bunch?
I selected them. I knew there were coral groups, signing groups, and I knew that would be interesting for the film. I got in contact with a bunch of them, and there was one evening where they had a tryout for the freshmen. So most of the major signing groups appeared that night, so it was easy for me to make contact with them that night if I wanted to find out what they were doing. A lot of it was luck, some of it was chance, and some of it is using judgment to where you want to be at a particular time.
There are some very interesting choices. I don’t recall any instance where you were following student-produced media around.
There’s one, an interview with an instructor about the financial crisis conducted by a someone from the student media. But that’s the only one.
Can you talk about the financial crisis and your interest on its impact on higher education? I should mention this is near and dear to my heart as I just finished an MFA at a public university within the SUNY system facing a lot of the same financial challenges Berkeley is. What was it specifically about this that got you interested in this story?
As you know, I’ve been doing a series on institutions and I wanted to do a university, but I didn’t want to do a private university, like an Ivy League school. I wanted to a do a project about a public university and Berkeley is the great public university in the world. So I wrote a letter to the chancellor and asked for permission. Then I went out to see him and was very grateful he granted permission. That’s how that developed, and when I met him, I told him I wanted to do a movie that would have a look at the way the university was administered. It seemed to me following the economic crisis; it would be interesting to see how the university dealt with a major issue.
Was there an awareness of your presence on campus as far as campus media?
Yeah, there was an article in the Berkeley newspaper. I like the idea that people know about the film because that means you have to explain less to people you meet. In fact, it opens doors for you, because someone will say, “I read the article in the student newspaper that you’re filming here,” and it’s a conversation gambit. You talk them for a few minutes and they say, “I have a really great English class. It’d be interesting if you could come to my class one day,” and there is kind of a daisy chain like that.
How long were you on the project, from writing the initial letter to deciding to stop filming?
I wrote the letter in the spring and started filming in mid-August — the shooting took 12 weeks.
I’m really impressed by the level of intimacy, that you’re able to be a fly on the wall at the faculty meetings and administrative retreat. Were there every any moments where they asked you to turn off the camera?
Yes, there was. For example, I couldn’t quite understandably go to any meetings where they were discussing tenure issues; that’s very private and the person up for tenure’s academic career was being discussed privately. I accepted that, of course. Generally speaking, anyone that doesn’t want to be photographed, they just have to say no and I stop – I won’t argue with them.
I was really struck by the conversation with the public safety administrators and discussing the tactical approach of managing protests, bringing in assistance external assistance and what was available from the county and so on. Was there ever any concern about making a lot of those procedures known?
No, they were quite open about that. It was interesting because the chancellor, Robert Birgenau, his point of view is that Berkeley is a public university and what goes on there should be transparent. Which is great; that’s the way democracy is supposed to function, not that they always do. That was his point of view and there was absolutely no hesitation from him to shoot this.
Often in the last hour you’re cutting back and forth between the officials formulating a response and the protests. Were you using two crews?
No – that’s an example of documentary filmmaking being a sport! You have to run between the buildings; fortunately the library where the protestors were and the administrative building weren’t very far away, but we had to make a judgment, when to be in the library and when to be with the administrators. I basically lucked out because I think I was in both places at the right times.
I agree with you on that one. Was there any concern with the level of transparency and how it would represent Berkeley?
They had no absolutely no editorial control, and the administration did not see it until it was completely finished, until it was mixed and timed. I sent them a DVD and they saw it, and I was pleased that they liked it. I never make a film where anyone else has any editorial control, either the place or even public television. I have complete editorial control over the film.
Has there been any dream intuitions you’ve wanted to go into that it hasn’t worked?
I had trouble in one instance, but 99% of the films I’ve had no trouble at all.
What is the pipeline for you next?
I’m working on a film about an art museum, the National Gallery in London.
The past few films you have made, specifically La danse and Crazy Horse, had a little wider distribution in terms of finding their ways into art house cinemas. Can you comment on the impact digital distribution has had on having those works reach a wider theatrical audience?
For years I couldn’t get my films into movie theaters, even now. La danse had quite a good distribution theatrically; it played quite broadly in America and 22 countries theatrically. Crazy Horse had some distribution, but there’s not a lot of talk these days about documentaries being big theatrical successes. In my experience I would categorize them as having modest distribution. It’s extremely hard to get them shown theatrically and I have someone who books them for me. I don’t have a distributor in the traditional sense, and if I did I would have to give them all the ancillary rights, TV, VOD, etc. I won’t want to do that because I’d never see a cent on the movie beyond the paltry advance I might get. Many years ago I set up my own theatrical distribution company [Zipporah Films] and when a film has a chance at theatrical distribution I hire someone who is never good at booking them.
I saw La danse and Crazy Horse both in commercial art houses – one in Montclair, NJ the other in Austin, TX – I imagine its it’s been easier now shipping a DCP now verses making a print?
Yes, it’s much easier shipping a DCP.
What are the distribution plans for At Berkeley?
It’ll be showing in two theaters in New York and it’s booked in either 20 or 30 theaters around the country. I’m hoping if it gets good reviews it’ll get booked more. But because of the length of the film it’s not easy to book this film, because you can only get two shows a day in. I think if the reviews are good we’ll have more. Once it’s had its theatrical run it’ll go out on DVD and VOD.
I look forward to it. I wish it were in wide release on 3,000 screens.
I think our booker is trying, but it is a matter of convincing 3,000 movie theater owners to have two shows a day instead of five!
We certainly need it in cities like Buffalo with large public universities. Thank you so much.
At Berkeley is now playing in New York and expand in the coming weeks.
Released in limited theaters this past weekend, Jean-Marc Vallèe‘s Dallas Buyers Club tells the powerful true story of Ron Woodruff, a man diagnosed with HIV who not only fought to stay alive, but did so by providing underground medical treatment to other afflicted with the disease. Led by Matthew McConaughey we had a chance to sit down with the actor (here), as well as his supporters, Jared Leto (here) and Jennifer Garner (here), but today brings our final chat, with the director.
Sitting down for a roundtable conversation shortly after the premiere at Toronto International Film Festival this fall, he opened up about how he came on to the project, the influence of John Cassavetes on his shooting style, the lack of lighting and score, as well as what elements of the story are fictionalized. Check out the full conversation below and note that Vallèe’s native language is French, but the interview was conducted in English.
The Film Stage: So, this movie took 20 years or so from the time it was written until it was made. What did you know about it before it was offered to you?
Jean-Marc Vallèe: I read the script three years ago when Robbie Brenner came to me and I was working on something else with her. I went, “Why didn’t you bring this to me a year and a half ago? This is gold, this is golden material. How come this film hasn’t been made? That really happened?” I didn’t know anything about the [buyers] club. Then I went to try to make the film and she didn’t have the financing yet and financial structure. That’s how I heard and then I met with the screenwriters and then I found out that 20 years ago the writer met with the guy. I had access to 25 hours of audio tape that he did, an interview with Ron in 1992 before he passed. Here we are today.
Can you say why it took that long? What do you think it was that held it up?
I think it’s part subject matter and part the complication of how to finance and make a film in Hollywood today — I mean today and 20 years ago. Universal bought the rights and the script and they attached some actors. Brad Pitt was attached to it, then Ryan Gosling and Marc Forster as the director. I guess making an indie film, a character-driven film, in the States is a tough thing. It is easy to make blockbusters, $50 million films and more. So that film belonged to the studio and I guess they wanted to make a $40 million film or $50 million film and it didn’t happen and so we made it the indie way. We didn’t have a distributor — Focus bought it when the film was completed; well, not completed, but when when we did the editing. We did it for $4 [million] something in Louisiana, because they had some good tax incentives.
Can you talk about the casting of McConaughey and Leto? Also, any discussions with them on their physical transformations? Did you ever say “No, don’t lose that much weight?
I mean, they are adults and they did their homework and they wanted to go there. They are professionals and they were surrounded by a bunch of professionals too. As long as they weren’t feeling sick, I was trusting them. After 30 pounds I was okay with Matthew and went “great,” then he went down 48 or 47. I met him at 185 and during the film his weight was 137. That’s a lot, but it gave him…you know, when you change the clothes you wear, the way you move. When we started to shoot it was contagious, the other actors and the crew were looking at Matthew performing and looking like this. It gave us such a great spirit to be at that level, and try to be as at the service of this project as he was and as Jared was. When you see wet eyes and people being really emotional it’s a good sign. People were really devoted and dedicated to this project.
Can you talk about the influence of John Cassavetes with the shooting method of this movie?
This one and Cafè Flore is a direct influence when you know about it. I mean, I didn’t go to the team and say “Listen guys, we are going to do like Cassavetes was doing,” but that’s what we did and I knew that he was shooting this way at the time in film, with the lens they had. If you look at Cassavetes’ films there are a lot of out of focus moments and the shots are long. It’s really hard for a focus puller to shoot this way. I was asking the crew to get out of the set, for instance, if we were shooting. [We had] the DP hidden behind him, small viewfinder of the camera, focus puller next to him; often the boom mic wasn’t there and the actors had mics so they could move 360 degrees. There is no lighting, no cards, no flags, nothing. It creates another dynamic on the set. The actors don’t feel the heat of the spot they have to hit the mark to feel the heat; they feel very natural. We were shooting the rehearsals, and rehearsal one was take one and often I wasn’t saying, “You are going there, there, there.” “So where are we going Jean-Marc?” “Let’s find out. Put the camera over there and action.” Just knowing their dialogues and doing it, and sometimes it didn’t work — you went too far over there, it’s too dark, we don’t see you, or it’s the window, but sometimes it was magical. It was like bang, rehearsal one it was great.
What about making a Hollywood movie in 25 days?
Well, it’s making a film, whether or not it’s Hollywood. It’s Hollywood because there are some Hollywood stars attached to the project, so it looks like we are making a Hollywood film because it was bought by Focus, but we were just making a film, an indie film. We got to do it. We were in a mood where Matthew and I were like, “We are shooting this film in the fall.” He was ready. I was ready and we needed it that year, last year. We didn’t have the money we needed and we went, “Fuck it, we are doing it.” So, we went to New Orleans and also it’s not just because of that, but it helps shooting with no electrical crew, 100 percent handheld, no lighting.
It helped the budget, but even if I had a bigger budget — for instance, I am going to shoot Wild with Fox Searchlight this fall for $15 million and I’m shooting the same way and I have 35 days of shooting, so I’ll have this same kind of dynamic and freedom and approach but for this one it really helped. The days were the days we had, so we had to nail about four pages a day, which is a lot. Normally you try to do between two and three on a feature film. It’s not like television where they shoot 12-15 pages a day, but since there is no waiting for the light it was doable, and we didn’t suffer from it. We were always shooting, never waiting. We had material on the hard drive.
So how long did editing take?
I think we took between 18 to 20…I’d have to count. I don’t remember, but it was a nice time. I like to have time in the cutting room. The editors did an amazing job creating the rhythm of the film and I didn’t use a lot of music in this one — 24 minutes of music instead of 70 minutes of music.
Was that purely for budgetary reasons?
Because, again, budget. No money. You see I don’t use score, I don’t use composers. I didn’t have money to license songs, except the songs you hear in the film. We had to fight a lot and negotiate for the songs that are in the film. When I got in, I didn’t want to go cliche with some country musician, making a film in Dallas, TX. I gave this character a fixation on Marc Bolan. It was good for his look, too. Rayon wanted to look like Marc Bolan.
That was your idea?
Yeah. He wants to look like Bolan, he wants to be Bolan, he is in love with Bolan, hangs posters of Bolan everywhere, listens to Bolan fucking everywhere.
What’s real in the story and what’s not?
Ron’s story is real. All the facts around this guy, you know the film is inspired by this true story. These screenwriters created all the characters around it. Not one single character in the film besides Ron is real. It’s fiction. The challenge was to create a great emotional journey in fiction and also respect the facts of the period and of Ron’s life. Even Ron became something else, it’s not like Matthew created a character based on Ron. There weren’t any doctors in Mexico when he heard he had 30 days to live — it was somewhere on the east coast, different doctors. He said there is no way I’m going to take AZT and he was a stubborn son of a gun. At the same time he had this burning burning desire to live. That’s what happened with the AIDS activists, too, and patients.
So if he did not go to Mexico, was there no drug smuggling into the States?
Yeah, he smuggled drugs from Mexico, Canada, Europe, China, Japan. This is real, Ron’s story is real. The doctor wasn’t in Mexico. It’s the story of an underdog. It’s a great story, beautiful humanity.
There is great reviews after yesterday’s premiere and a great buzz. How does that make you feel?
I mean, now at my age — I’m 50 — I’ve done films before and I felt great when I presented Young Victoria, Cafè Flore and I didn’t have any good critic reviews. Before yesterday I felt great about this film and then suddenly today the reviews are there and they are great alright. But even if they weren’t, I’ve had reviews in the past and I felt great about my films and about the result. It’s about being happy with what you do and not just what people say about you. I’m so proud of what we have accomplished with this film. It’s something else. We were like Ron. I could relate to the guy trying to change the system, to do it differently. Let’s just do it for the love of cinema, because we believe in this story and we want to tell it to the world. We do something that can make a difference.
Dallas Buyers Club is now in limited release and expands this weekend.
When Keanu Reeves‘ directorial feature debut, Man of Tai Chi, was announced to be at Fantastic Fest I jumped at the chance to sit down with the helmer and his co-star Tiger Chen. The film enjoys Reeves’ embracing his goofy side, but it’s also a showcase for Chen’s immense talent for action. Among the topics we discussed were the film’s language barriers for a first-time director, what kind of physical training Chen underwent to transform with the film, whether Keanu would be on this path now were it not for The Matrix, what reference points they went for during pre-production, and much more. Enjoy the chat below and look for Man of Tai Chi (review) in theaters this weekend in limited release and on VOD.
The Film Stage: With having your premiere last night and attending the debates, how has your experience at Fantastic Fest been?
Keanu Reeves: Fantastic Fest is very famous. Tim League and everyone that works for the festival over the years has curated the festival in a very unique way and the word on the street is that it’s film-friendly. People want to see the films. There’s an appreciation for the films and you come in here and you get that. Then, of course, you get the debates and you get the pugilism, which is part of the flavor of it. It’s part of the experience and we were fortunate enough to enjoy that.
Can you talk about working with Yuen Woo-ping on choreographing this film?
Keanu: Well, working on the script, once we had the draft, Tiger and I talked about who could do it. And how long did you [Tiger] work with him before?
Tiger Chen: Twelve years, a little over twelve years. So we had nobody else to go with. [laughs]
Keanu: So, yeah, we sent him the script. He liked the script and was really looking forward to working with Tiger and so we just began the collaboration. The one thing about him is that he’s very story-oriented, telling the story in his fights and you can see that in his choreography. And it’s one thing we were trying to, not just make the scenes action sequences, but dramatic scenes for Tiger’s character as he’s going darker and changing. We had a lot of fights in the movie, so it was about what styles he would fight. We wanted Tai Chi to be absorbing different styles and seeing Tiger’s fighting style change. He came up with and put it together, then we would review it with the team and develop the style of the movie.
With this being your first directorial effort, how did you decide on using different languages? How much of it do you speak?
Keanu: Yeah, the film is in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. We filmed in Beijing and Hong Kong and, yeah, on paper it sounds kind of crazy. Like, this is your first time directing, so let’s go to China and direct people in a foreign tongue. But for me that was more of an opportunity and really just communicating, we had translators and I had Tiger to help; we collaborated on the script for over five years, so he knew it and was able to be a kind of missionary [both laugh] to go out and speak to the actors and come back. Then we’d come to a place with the script. But for me it was just an extraordinary opportunity and really I find all over the world that making movies is making movies and just getting to know the person, whoever the actors were or if it was technically, personality, what did they want to bring and what did I just collaborate. It just took more time, but it wasn’t an impediment.
When it comes to your physical preparation, it almost seems like your character gets bigger, muscular wise. Can you talk about the change?
Tiger: Yeah, we had done some weight training before the film, because usually the Tai Chi guy doesn’t do weight training. I think most of the Chinese Kung Fu doesn’t have weight training so we don’t want to get too much muscle. But for this particular movie, because Tiger has to be changed, from soft style and become harder and harder and stronger and stronger, it should not only be mental in change, but body in change too. So I work for more than two months on weight training and eat some protein. [both laugh]
Keanu: Yeah, the last scene when he fights the character, that death fight, he is transformed. He was this innocent delivery guy and now he’s ripped and so the internal has affected his external.
Can you talk about your collaboration? What are you each bringing to the film and did you have any reference points?
Keanu: Well, I think it starts at The Matrix. At The Matrix trilogy, I met Tiger there, he was part of Yuen Woo-ping’s action team. So that’s where we met and worked together. Tiger was helping me train and learning kung fu and the wire, and all of that. So we decided to try and work together over the years. So for me it was really Woo-ping’s work with The Matrix and, obviously, a love for Kung Fu movies and martial arts films. And then when we were filming, I had put together, with the cinematographer, a big library of martial arts films. I would say, “Alright Tiger, what else should I look at?” and so we would watch Kung Fu sequences and talk about what they looked like, what the style was and what we were going to do.
Tiger: What Keanu brings to the movie is that he wanted to do an old, traditional Hong Kong Kung Fu movie. He didn’t want to repeat, but he wanted to create one that had never been done before. That’s what we want.
Do you think you would ever have gone down this path if it wasn’t for The Matrix?
Keanu: No, I think without that experience this ship would have sailed in another direction, absolutely.
Coming together, making this film, does it give you confidence to make future films and collaborate together again? Where do you see that relationship going?
Keanu: I hope to. I would love to direct again. Obviously, I wanted to direct, but I had to have a story to tell and Man of Tai Chi became that story. So now I’m looking for another story to tell and in that search is definitely wanting to work with Tiger again.
Tiger: For me, I’d like to do comedy action.
Keanu: Comedy action romance. [laughs]
You have a little bit of that in this film.
Keanu. A little bit, a little taste.
Tiger: Next time it will be stronger. [both laugh]
Man of Tai Chi is now on VOD and in limited release.
How do you stretch having thirty days left to live into seven years? You put in the work. Ron Woodroff (Matthew McConaughey) didn’t journey towards opening up the Dallas Buyers Club in order to stage a revolution against the FDA — he simply sought to prolong his own life. Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s film depicts this evolution as Woodruff’s homophobic cowboy becomes a champion of the LGBT community and a leader in the fight against government AIDS profiteering. It’s a story twenty years in the making as screenwriter Craig Borten met with the real Woodruff a month before his death in 1992, enlisted Melisa Wallack’s help to rework his script in 2000, and finally saw its debut at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. And it proves much more than a vehicle for the headline grabbing weight loss of its stars, as we said in our review from the festival.
We got a chance to sit down for a roundtable interview with McConaughey following the TIFF premiere of the project, where we discussed how he had this project in his sights for some time. The actor, who is enjoying a career resurgence as of late and is currently in the middle of shooting Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar, also opened up about how he got into acting in the first place and how constructive negative reviews help his work and much more. Check out the complete conversation below.
Can you talk about how this project engaged you in the first place?
Well, I read it probably three years before we made it and I just remember writing down that this thing has fangs. I’ve written before about scripts I like. With True Detective I wrote, “oooh, the blood comes off the page.” So after I would finish a film I would always ask, “well, what about this one next?” But it never was really working out, but I would always keep it right there at the top of my desk. I thought it was an incredible original story. This guy and what he did: 7th grade education, big cowboy, bull-riding, electrician, hell-raising, womanizer, heterosexual gets HIV, 30 days to live and within 7 years becomes an absolute scientist of HIV. The guy from that education, from that background who goes on his own and does his own research and knows more about the disease and the cocktails of how to sustain a healthier life, longer, and did that on his own — that renegade, that outlaw who knows as much or more than most of the doctors; I thought that was a great story.
It looks like you are getting back to the size that we know you. Are you back on the way up in the weight gain?
I’ve been holding this weight, 175, for the past 3 months. I usually walk around at 182.
How difficult was it?
I got with a nutritionist and found out how many calories and what the meals were going to be. And once I controlled those and said, “No, I’m not going to meet you at the steak house” and had my plan and had a family that had those meals prepared for me. I didn’t want to go to a buffet and pick out things, no controlled meals. Once I had those set up and had my timeline those became pretty easy.
How much did you lose?
What exactly where you eating when you got down to the 135?
More than you think. I was eating pretty damn healthy, just small amounts. 5oz of fish with lunch with a cup of vegetables. I was having meals and by that time my body knew — it got the message that I wasn’t going to feed it anymore. Then it felt like it started losing weight on its own, because once I got to the weight that I wanted to get to and i didn’t want it to go any lower, I started to eat more to plateau out, but my body kept losing weight.
What would you do if you knew you only had 30 days to live?
[Laughs] I knew that question would come at some point. I don’t know right now, but I’m sure when you read that on the script that’s the first thing that comes to mind. I thought what would Ron think of that? The first thing that Ron did and how he approached it was absolute denial. Number one [was] “no, I don’t have it, I cant have it. You don’t know what the F you are talking about,” you know? That was where Ron was coming from and then it slowly creeps in. He goes the first night and parties hard, but something is nagging at his mind. Then he goes and does his research and says, “oooh, I think I know where I got it.” And the real desperation and fear doesn’t hit him until he is on that drive down to Mexico and I think that’s when it hits him — is this true? And then that great emotion that causes more activity than any other emotion; I think it’s the emotion which helps a lot more people live a lot longer-rage, absolute rage.
How difficult do you think it was for Ron, to be a man with full-blown aids, in Texas?
Well, at that time it wasn’t just Texas, it wasn’t just the south. A heterosexual with aids? There wasn’t many people believing, that maybe you weren’t heterosexual. Shoot, that suspicion is still there today. Doctors didn’t know what to do with it. There were all kinds of ideas and conspiracy theories about what is was and where it came from who had it, who could get it. So no one had the answers, nobody in any part of the county was completely sure. There was info being thrown around. I was 16, so I don’t remember it that clearly. Magic Johnson came out with it and there were players saying, “no I’m not going to play on the same court” — they had a legitimate beef, no one knew. They didn’t know if you could get it from a handshake. They’d say you can look that person in the eye and get it. There were all sorts of taboo and superstitions about it and nobody came out with research on it, like here is the doctrine, here’s what’s true, here’s what’s not true. It was all wish-washed. You can get it from saliva, you can get it from swapping sweat, you know you can get it from blood — if you got a cut and it flew through the air and got caught in your eye. No one could answer those and that wasn’t just in the south or Texas.
It was also in the time in the ’80s, when you might have decided you wanted to become an actor.
Well no, I didn’t decide to become an actor at that time. I was a sophomore. I had just got my driver’s license, that’s what I was happy about. I got my driver’s license and saved up enough money to get my first truck.
You wanted to be a lawyer first, right?
Yes. I had finished high school, moved to Australia for a year to become an exchange student because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I washed a few dishes, but I didn’t get paid for washing dishes. I had 11 jobs and that wasn’t one of them, I did that at the houses where I lived though. Like any kid at 18 I didn’t know what I wanted to do and my mom had this great idea about traveling. She knew I loved to travel, so I went to Australia for a year, came back, and went to the University of Texas. I was headed towards law school and it wasn’t until the end of my sophomore year, right about that time when your general credits are up and your new ones aren’t really going to transfer if you change your course schedule. I was a little nervous about this idea of being a lawyer.
At that time I was saying to myself, “I want to go into the storytelling business” and probably as I look back and I have looked back at my diaries from back then, I was more interested in acting than I was consciously saying to myself. It was not something that was even in the vernacular of my dreams, I didn’t think that it was tangible enough. I was coming from a place where you get a job, you work your way up in whatever structure that is, and so I went to film school, to study behind the camera. Even then I didn’t want to be an actor, but as I look back, even when I would direct I would get over there and show the person what I wanted them to do. So I was kind of performing then and I was enjoying it. It wasn’t until that summer, in ‘92 between my junior and senior year, that I was in the right bar at the right time. Well, that was the guy who brought me in to meet [Richard] Linklater for Dazed and Confused.
Who was that producer?
Don Phillips, the legendary Don Phillips. Don cast Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Melvin and Howard, and he cast that film.
So you’ve never stopped working, yet in the past few years something has happened. I’m going to say in my eyes it started with Tropic Thunder. What are you doing, if anything, differently?
I’m going for more experiences. My choice making, period. What’s the experience going to be for me, what sort of experience am I going to have? I’m sure you’ve heard me say this before but I say, “alright, I want something that’s going to scare me a little bit that I’m not sure what I want to do with it, but, boy I can’t get it out of my mind.” That’s one way to explain it, but also I’m going for more experiences.
Was Tropic Thunder something that was different for you?
Tropic Thunder was a different kind of comedic role. It was fun to play a character and not characterize it, but it’s a little of that. There’s a character there, it’s not me being funny. It’s a character and hopefully being funny and I really like comedy. I am really turned on by comedy. I think it’s really fun and I like the timing of comedy. And that was sort of a fictitious guy they said it was based on, but it was fun playing with the imagination.
I’m sure you like getting good reviews.
Well, sure. There’s constructive good reviews and there’s constructive bad reviews. There’s bad reviews where they wrote the bad review before they even saw it, they just didn’t like me. I’ve read all my bad reviews, and got them all out a few years ago. It’s a big file and I read them all.
Which one helped you?
Well, there was one, I remember particularly, about Edtv. Because Edtv came out and didn’t do so well in the box office, but that movie stands on its own and worked in a lot of ways. As you all know, if it doesn’t do well in the box office, people will say, “oh, well here is why.” If it does then they say, “oh, and here is why.” There were some reviews at the time where people would say, “this is where I think McConaughey was true and good and funny,” or “this is where he wasn’t,” and I would go back and compare. I would look at diaries and see what did I think I was doing, compared to what I actually did, compared to what got edited — there is always a gap between those things and the goal is to close those gaps. That’s why actors go into producing, because they want complete control. I’ve got some constructive criticism along the way where I’m like, “he’s right, good point.”
Dallas Buyers Club hits theaters on Friday, November 1st.
It’s Jared Leto “who provides the heart,” we said in our review of Dallas Buyers Club. “What could easily have become a caricatured stereotype of feminine sass to gradually whittle away at Woodruff’s machismo, Leto’s Rayon instead gives us truth. Yes, the character infuses a healthy portion of comic relief, but it’s never forced or insincere. We see her frustration instantly morph into compassion as she ignores Ron’s discriminatory nature to show kindness when no one else will, wedging herself into his life as a beacon trust and kinship despite his prejudices. Her own progression through the disease will tear your heart out and whether it’s seeing her purposefully don a suit or lay prone on the floor too weak to inject her protein, she’s the epitome of humble humanity still surviving after the world has given up.”
Following its Toronto International Film Festival premiere, we had the chance to sit down at a roundtable with the actor to discuss his involvement with the production. His first project in a number of years (although his ambitious sci-fi drama Mr. Nobody its finally getting a proper release this fall), Leto talks about how the break actually helped his performance, getting the part via a Skype audition, staying in character for the entire production, losing weight, working with Matthew McConaughey and much more. Check out our conversation below.
So, you were in character for the entirety of filming. Is that right?
Yes, I was. How could you not be? How could you leave that beautiful creature? Yeah, it was part of the process.
Do you always do that?
I’ve done it many times, but not on all films. I remember I worked with David Fincher on Panic Room and I certainly wasn’t in character for that. It was a very long shoot, and I didn’t feel it was a necessity. I try to stay as close as humanly possible, and in this film there were so many characteristics, so many attributes that were so far away from the way I live my daily life — even if you stop to talk about the voice, the mannerisms, every time the camera cut, I couldn’t just drop all that and every time he said action, pick it back up and remember. It didn’t work like that. I just chose to be there.
So how do you say goodbye to the character once its done?
That’s a good question. It’s kind of bittersweet a little bit, because you are saying goodbye to an enormous amount of work. You’re getting back to yourself. There was a story about the first woman who sailed around the world alone , a French woman, and they asked her the most difficult thing about the journey. She said the most difficult thing was when she returned to France and had to step foot on land again, because she had gotten so used to that and attached to that challenge, so there is a bit of that at times.
Can you tell us about your diet? You had to get down to 116 pounds in three weeks.
I got down to about 114 and then I stopped counting. I lost over 30 pounds, but it really didn’t matter at that point. I had lost weight before for Requiem for a Dream, I had gained 60 pounds for a movie called Chapter 27, so I have a whole 90 pound difference between them. But really, the weight is interesting because it affects the way you walk, talk, laugh, breath, your choices in a scene, your energy, so its a great asset to take tell you the truth. It’s also a commitment you can’t run away from, so it brings with it an incredible focus.
What do you like about Rayon?
Her sense of humor, her compassion… she’s kind of a hot mess.
Were you treated differently, considering you were in character during the shoot?
A. Sure. You know what I found interesting? The way people treated me different, especially because I was in character all the time. I always found it interesting because the most masculine, kind of the toughest guys, were the ones that treated me the most gentle. I mean, after just a couple of days, I think in their eyes I became a different person. There was a lot of “right this way ma’am” and holding my hand and people took good care of me and I think that was very sweet. It was very sweet to be a dainty little lady like that.
A producer suggested you for the part. How did that come about?
Because she’s a genius. I have no idea, but she told me that last night. I never knew that. It was great, its wonderful. Someone has to suggest you, you know? But I don’t think Jean-Marc was very aware of me at all and i think he was aware of Requiem, but I think it was really nice.
What were your initial thoughts?
Oh, I didn’t have time. I didn’t have any time. I was really busy. I didn’t make a film for five or six years because I was busy. It wasn’t because I hate films, it was because I didn’t have time.
What about when you saw the script?
I had heard of it, but I didn’t want to read the script, because I just didn’t have time in my life to squeeze something in. You know when you are busy in your life and you get a call and you are like, “that’s great, but no I don’t have room in my life for this.” Then I got a nudge and I read the script, then it was all over, really. I still had planned to meet Jean-Marc on a Skype and turn it down. Not to sound ungrateful, but it just wasn’t on my radar at that point.
I did an interesting thing at that point; I wanted to see if I was capable, if there was something there for me, so I got on Skype with him which was just really a meeting. I wish I had it on film. I got some lipstick beforehand and as I introduced myself, I said “hello” and said a couple more words then I reached over and got the lipstick and put it on and he was on Skype going [*makes questioning face*] and then I changed a little bit, my voice and I undid my jacket and I had a little pink sweater on underneath. I was a little flirty with him and he was just like “Uhhhh… [*makes another questioning face*]” I got the call the next day. I got the part.
So, were you busy with Thirty Seconds to Mars these last few years?
Yes, I’m in a band, and if you are old like me, then you probably don’t know about it. But, you know, a funny thing happened; I was an actor, I had always made music since I was a kid. I played music with my brother (he is in the band), but we had tons of success. We had more success then we could have ever dreamed, if I can say that without sounding like a jerk. You know when that happens, what do you say, “no?” We toured the world, we played from Africa to Asia to the Arctic and the biggest shows that we could ever imagine. We are still doing it. We played this summer in festivals in Europe, sometimes in front of 100,000 people. Do you say no to that when its happening? It’s easy when it’s been 5 years that goes by while you’re doing it.
You mentioned Chapter 27. I didn’t know you were in that movie while I was watching it and I didn’t know you were in this movie while I was watching it either. How do you feel when someone tells you that?
I think it’s fun. I would much rather someone see the role.. I remember hearing a story about Harrison Ford; his first job, he played a bellman/bellboy. Afterwards, the studio brought him in and said, “I don’t see a movie star there, thats not a movie star,” and he goes, “That’s funny, I thought you were supposed to see a bellman.” I thought that was kind of great. I’m kind of that, you know, it might not be the path to movie stardom, but I think it’s the path to delivering a solid character.
What was the return to acting like?
I’ve been doing quite a bit of directing and was certainly in front of the camera all the time and on stage all the time, so I think that the break from acting actually was the best thing I have ever done for me as an actor. It’s almost like I started over, started again from the beginning in some ways, but with a greater sense of myself, a greater sense of confidence in my choices. I think that I became a much better actor.
Have your bandmates seen the film?
No, I haven’t even talked.. they don’t even know right now.
They haven’t met Rayon at all?
No, no.. one time I came home for Thanksgiving. Which is obviously a really fun meal to eat. I told myself, “Man, I am going to eat. I’m going to cheat one day and eat damn it.” I eat really healthy, so I was excited for my tofurkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing, I love that meal. So I get home to my mom, my brother, some family, and I go to eat and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I got too guilty. So I took one bite and put the rest away. What an experience, I’ll never forget it.
Was there a real life Rayon? Or someone who inspired the character?
I think mostly it was my imagination. I think a lot of it was me. If I had walked that path, that’s what you get. I met with people, I listened, talked, listened and then listened some more and worked and worked and worked some more. I knew everybody probably had the same feeling that they could do something special and tell a deep and meaningful story.
What’s the hardest part of going in there and finding that side of yourself?
There were little things, technical things, like finding your voice and walk and remembering not in a scene to say, “Hey, bro..” Little things, I think.. probably it’s the commitment over a long period of time — 5AM covered in sores, make-up chair for hours and hours and hours — it’s the commitment, concentration, and focus: that’s the hardest. Sometimes you just want to rip your wig off and run down the street.
Do you ever combine the worlds of acting and music?
I don’t think I really do, except for the music videos. We make elaborate music videos. We’ve had a lot of success with those.
Well, aren’t you an actor, in a way, on the stage?
No, the difference is there is no character building there, except for yourself. You’re you. I think on stage you are more of you, in a way, than you are sometimes having a one-on-one conversation. It’s very intimate. I feel more comfortable on stage. I’ve sat on stage — London 2002 sold out show, 20,000 people, me, and the acoustics standing in the middle of the crowd, a 360-degree view, spotlight on me — and I felt more comfortable in that moment than I do in most conversations at a party. I think it’s a common feeling for performers. Being on stage with a band is completely different than making a film. The nuance, the subtext, but being on stage can just be so obvert, bombastic, it comes from the same place, it’s just being creative. You want to be unbridled and never want to hit your mark.
Can you talk about working with Matthew McConaughey?
I think he may be the biggest reason I made the film. I thought that if he was willing to walk down this path, then it has to be something special, there has to be gold in them hills. He is obviously making really interesting choices and by design, there’s no mistake that he is reaching to a place that is really challenging and interesting. making smart films and smart choices. But he was a force to be reckoned with. It was like when you make these films, you are in a scene with another actor, it’s incredible what someone else can do for you. It’s absolutely incredible.
It’s kind of a cliche, but I don’t know if any of you have played tennis before. I’m not a great tennis player, but I could return a ball if you hit it to me. But if you got out there with Andre or those guys, if he was feeling gentle or gracious, he could lob that ball over to you and probably keep it going for hours. The greats like Matthew are like that, too. They have a lot of control. They can send that ball to you and make things really easy for you. He was great, so generous, so kind. He had been working on this project for a long time and he really opened the door for me and that was really wonderful. I hadn’t been on set for almost six years and he was great.
Dallas Buyers Club hits theaters on Friday, November 1st.
While Matthew McConaughey‘s central performance as Ron Woodroof, a Texan man stricken with HIV/AIDS, carries us through Dallas Buyers Club, Jennifer Garner‘s role as immunologist Dr. Eve Saks brings us into the medical world of the true story. As McConaughey’s character discovers loopholes to provide treatment to those in a similar situation, Dr. Saks begins to question the very institution she works for.
After its Toronto International Film Festival premiere, we sat down with Garner at a roundtable interview to discuss the film, directed Jean-Marc Vallée. She opened up about her initial hesitation to get involved (but the one factor that led her, and others, to join), her studious preparations for the film, playing alongside McConaughey and Jared Leto, and much more. Check out our conversation below.
How did you first get involved with this? What brought you in?
Well, I hadn’t worked for a couple years. I had a baby and had really just hunkered down at home and I was actually really comfortable with that notion. So I didn’t even want to open the script when I heard how good it was and I heard it was Matthew [McConaughey]. I just love Matthew and I don’t even want to know about it. But then, of course, I read it and I talked to Jean-Marc [Vallée] and I watched his movies and then I had to do it.
This is an ensemble piece, but Matthew is arguably front and center. Jared also told us one of the reasons he took his role was because of Matthew — what extent did Matthew set the tone for the rest of the production?
It was all about Matthew. We all took the role because of Matthew. I’ve worked with Matthew before, I was inspired by him and we worked on a fluffy romantic comedy. If you go back and look at interviews from then, I said that he had the best work ethic, he’s the most committed. He treated this like it was the most serious drama in the world, and he did. He is still that guy and there’s a reason why he is as successful as he has been for as long as he has been. His pages on Ghost of Girlfriends Past were covered with notes and ideas and thoughts and they look the same on this. There’s a through line there, it’s not like he’s settling. I was desperate to work with him and totally inspired by the work that he has been doing. I think the movie got made because of Matthew. I felt like I was there very much in a protective capacity and a supportive role to him in every possible way. I wanted to support him in this performance.
Was this a story you had been aware of before?
Nope. In no way.
How much did the topic influence your decision?
Well, I was fascinated by the topic and not that long ago I lost a very dear friend to AIDS, and so I am aware that it is still very much a disease that is in the world. I feel that this movie is part of putting it back in peoples’ conversations and putting education back in the forefront, which is where it needs to be. Because the numbers are on the rise, it’s not a disease that has gone away; people have a false sense of security about it. It is really important that we still talk about prevention, AIDS, and HIV. What I really loved was this arc that my character went through, from being very black and white and a very cognitive thinker and intellect to someone who reacts with her heart and is more of a healer than anything else.
Going into a project like this, how do you prepare?
I always kind of wish I had gone to med school, so I am a little bit of a frustrated geek in that way. I love medical journals. I read everything from ‘82 to ’88 that I could find on HIV and AIDS. I went and found the real copies of them — you can just Google stuff and buy it. I went back and read all the old magazines to see the puzzle pieces they had and how much we were ignorant about and what we know now. So I loved going back. I remember that Time magazine that was in the movie, on my parents’ coffee table. I remember reading every word of it.
Can you talk about the experience on set with Vallée and the rest of the crew?
I feel like, to me, when we were standing on the stage last night the D.P. and the camera operator and our focus puller should have been on the stage with us, and the script supervisor, because they were so part of the whole thing. It was just them and us. The camera was never on a stick or dolly — it was him just holding it the whole time filming this movie. You had to come in, not at a trot, but at a full on sprint. I loved it! I was jazzed by the challenge of it.
What was it like playing a lowkey character against Ron and Rayon?
Tough! It was hard. I talked to Jean-Marc a lot because it’s natural to want to play up to the fun stuff and that just wouldn’t have worked. It wasn’t my job to ask for eye-balls. It was my job to settle and be as simple as possible and let them do their thing or else it was too much. I just had to be quiet.
Did anything surprise you about working with Vallée?
There were a couple of things in the movie that everybody loved that were very movie-ish moments. You know, something is mentioned early on in the movie then comes back at the end and you have a tear. Well, Jean-Marc looked at those and went [*cuting noise*] “goodbye, we don’t need this, this isn’t our movie, this isn’t what we do.” Instead he would find something and say,” well that was real, that’s human.” He had a real nose for what he wanted, he had good taste. He had a nose for something small and funny, like Jared fixing his heel through the window of Matthew’s car as he was driving. The way he calibrated Matthew’s performance was so beautiful, he really gave Matthew the room to go where ever he wanted, but he always made sure got something really simple. He chose the moments to let him be emotional in the film and he did it so beautifully. He definitely could have gone for more is more in the film.
Dramas vs. comedy?
I mean, aren’t we so lucky that we get to do both? I mean, in every comedy there is a lot of drama. I’ve done comedies where I’ve cried more than in any drama and in every drama you’re looking for comedy. You are always trying to find a way to balance.
Is there a specific thing you look for in a film?
Well, schedule, I have to say, and location, but it’s not being able to say no. So I did Draft Day with Kevin Costner and I love it and I’m so excited for it to come out. I feel like I have gotten to watch a lot of these great performances lately, and Kevin delivers. I did Imagine with Al Pacino and I loved doing that movie, and you’ll be talking about Al Pacino again and again and again. Right now I’m doing Alexander and the Horrible Terrible No Good Very Bad Day with Steve Carell, and again I am just having the best, most fun time!
Dallas Buyers Club hits theaters on Friday, November 1st.