Perhaps it’s premature to call The Duke of Burgundy the best film of 2015 — it is, after all, only January — but tell that to anyone who has seen the film, and they’ll likely nod in agreement. Director Peter Strickland’s visually sumptuous, aesthetically sublime study of role-playing and sadomasochism (but funny!) is a true stunner, and has mesmerized audiences at festivals in Toronto and London.
For Strickland, it is another utterly unique success. His first two features, 2009’s Katalin Varga and 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, showed him to be a winking master of elevated genre fare. Burgundy, however, is something else entirely. Infused with the spirit of ’70s sexploitation and influenced by everyone from Fassbinder to Brakhage, it is an experience like no other in recent memory. It also features two perfect performances from co-leads Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cynthia) and Chiara D’Anna (Evelyn) as lovers immersed in a relationship of role-playing and elaborate (controlled) deception.
Strickland spoke with us about audience reaction, his lack of interest in psychoanalyzing his characters, and why The Duke of Burgundy is a “party-pooper film.” Check out the full conversation below.
If a viewer reads a plot summary of this film, they might walk into it expecting something very different, perhaps far more serious. Yet there is so much humor here. How did you walk that fine line between highlighting the inherent humor of the situation and not going overboard?
I think humor just comes naturally in what I write, although perhaps not as much in my first film [Katalin Varga]. How do you tackle sadomasochism? If you’re too serious, you can fall flat on your face, and then it really does become a comedy — in a bad sense. If you’re too joke-y, then it’s too disrespectful and just doesn’t work. For me, it’s knowing when to laugh. It’s not my right to laugh at the characters — I wanted to give them some dignity. But I want to laugh at the situations. I’m not making a realistic film, but I am making one that’s pragmatic, which involves an element of things going wrong: The dominant woman misses her queue; there’s a mosquito in the room; the fear of being this dominant, cold ice queen, but also making sure you’re not hurting your lover. You can’t inquire how they are, or the fantasy is broken. So that whole trick is a conundrum. There’s a paradox, in that Evelyn wants to control how much she is controlled by Cynthia, but both of them are caught up in these paradoxes.
Something Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna capture so well is the monotony and occasional boredom of the dominant/submissive relationship. This is such a smart and very human approach to the material. Was capturing that element of the relationship one of your goals?
I think it is an element of puncturing that ideal that comes out in some films that explore sadomasochism. A lot of them want to prop up or live out the fantasy. This one wants to puncture the balloon — this is a party-pooper film. [For example, we] see a dominant woman miss her queue, and sleep in her pajamas. She doesn’t sleep in corsets or something; she’s going to sleep in baggy pajamas like anyone else would. It’s peeling away those masks, and showing the layers beneath. There are so many things you can cinematically explore the power dynamics in any relationship. But you can also explore the parallels between the character directing the action and the director directing the actors — Evelyn’s script, her mark tape on the floor, Evelyn looking through the keyhole, Evelyn directing Cynthia when she’s masturbating. [Then there is] Cynthia’s fear of performing, a fear that anyone would have. I’d hate to be an actor!
When the film starts, the audience finds it hard to tell who is actually in control — who is the dominant and who is the submissive. Were you trying to keep these details mysterious when we first meet Cynthia and Evelyn?
Absolutely. I was hoping that audience members who are not familiar with exploitation films would believe Cynthia is just this horrible boss. Another element of the audience, that is familiar with this type of genre film would think, “Okay, this is the classic set up for [1977’s] Ilsa, the Wicked Warden.” That kind of film is playing with this ideal of the masochist. Here, the paradigm hasn’t shifted, but your knowledge has shifted. It shifts later on because Cynthia gets a lot of mileage out of doing these things to Evelyn, but then it runs out, and she’s no longer into it. That’s the crux of the film, really. Had they both been into these games it would be quite boring. I wanted it to be that one of them doesn’t get off on it. The activity she has to do is not of any relevance; it could be any sexual activity she finds distasteful, or repellent. But what happens then, when you have two lovers who have very different ways of expressing themselves sexually and emotionally? How does that work? Can that work? I’m not one to answer that, but I am showing them struggling to find that common ground.
You avoid presenting any type of back story for these characters — no flashbacks to their pasts, or psychoanalyzing. Did you develop any kind of histories for these characters?
I really did not want to do that. I didn’t have any discussions with the actors, although I think Chiara wrote a whole essay on her character. But that was self-motivated. I didn’t want to make any links to childhood — [issues like] self-harming, I did not want to go there. Who knows why Rambo is heterosexual? That’s the way they are and that’s that. What’s interesting for me is the dynamic of how to navigate this relationship. This is who these people are. Right! Let’s get on to it. What happens? How do they resolve these things? If it is something outside of the border of consent, of course one looks into the childhood to find out why. Here, no matter how unusual it might be to some people, [the acts are] consensual. These are sane human beings, and they have a lot of trust.
So for me, I didn’t feel the need to look into their childhoods. Had one of them been an axe-wielding murderer, [we might] have a little peak into her past. I think sometimes you don’t know the “why.” With some killers, you find out about their childhood and it was absolutely fine. So it’s a roll of the dice. That’s a really scary, abstract thing to deal with. Not enough has been done on that, really. This is why I think We Need to Talk About Kevin could have been a better film. It was a good film, but had they shown the mother being full of love for the son, and then him going off the rails, it would have been far more shocking. If you give a reason for something it can be too simple. Real life isn’t like that. It’s far more abstract.
The chemistry between Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna is so strong; we feel as if these two characters have known each other for years. How did you develop that chemistry and believability?
With great difficulty. We didn’t have much time together. They landed in Hungary, and off we went. We had a social meeting the first time they met, but they were really thrown straight in. I didn’t want to have the intimate scenes at first; I saved those for the second week. I felt we should do the heavy, emotional, dramatic scenes first, where they’re arguing and bickering. That worked out quite well, because they were kind of finding their bearings. By the time we got to the second week they were quite relaxed. That is down to Sidse and Chiara, and their expertise as actors. I left a lot to them. Occasionally, rarely, if it was off-key, then I would mention it and say, “We need to go a different way.” But usually I just respected the fact that they read the script, we had a discussion, and off they go. My influence is on casting, and making sure I can have actors who have the ability to just get on with it. There’s no point talking for the sake of it. With Sidse, she has a whole inner world in her face — so expressive without it being too much. Really understated.
The time and setting here is very mysterious. Did you have a particular time or place in mind, or want to create something that was ambiguous? How does the all-female cast tie in here?
I wanted it to be ambiguous, like a fairy tale, or a fable. You’re not sure how the hell they got their money to have this ludicrously expensive mansion. Are they outside a village? Does a village not exist? I wanted a preposterous feel, so preposterous that hopefully you would stop questioning it. I think part of it was I also wanted to avoid the trappings of the subject. One thinks of a film that has sadomasochism and it usually involves leather whips, rubber, and so on, and I just thought that was too predictable. Why don’t we just go for something more gothic-fairy tale, and not use anything contemporary? Make it timeless in a tasteful way. I just love fairy tales, basically, and that’s the bottom line. I love that feeling of seeing things like Willy Wonka or Pinocchio and you don’t know where it is exactly. It’s somewhere middle Europe, roughly within a 50-year span.
What was interesting about having all females is that it stopped being a gay film. I have no issue with [that type of film] whatsoever; it’s purely that I didn’t want to go down the road of anything that’s been done before with the ideas of acceptance or redemption. I wanted there to be no counterpoint. Gender and sexuality doesn’t come into it in that sense. In my mind, it is this kind of Utopian world we all wish could be there in terms of acceptance. I thought about other options — a woman and a man, men only — but [I thought of the films] of Radley Metzger, which usually had female lovers. I was using the genre as a starting point.
The music by Cat’s Eyes, featuring Faris Badwan from the Horrors and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira, could not be more perfect.
I’m a massive fan. I bought their first album when it came out in 2011, and it was one of the best things I’d heard in years. The combination of Rachel’s classical background and Faris’s experimental rock’n’roll background [seemed to fit], so I asked if they would do it. I trusted them immensely. [At one point], Rachel wrote a requiem quickly. We had Mozart’s Requiem in there originally, and she said, “Oh, I’ll write something,” and wrote a whole requiem. They really elevated the film for me. I listen to the soundtrack a lot, which is quite rare. Usually, when you do a soundtrack of a film, no matter how much you like it, you’ve heard it to death. But I still listen to it.
Lastly, the film drew major raves after premiering at TIFF. Can you discuss the audience response? Has it surprised you at all?
No matter what you make or who you are, deep down, you have no idea how it’s going to turn out, so there’s extreme apprehension. Some people call [the subject matter] unusual, but for me, I think it’s a very straightforward drama. But even knowing it’s a drama, and fairly straight, I still felt apprehension. So I was relieved when people responded to it.
The Duke of Burgundy arrives in theaters and VOD on January 23rd. See the opening credits above.
Kevin Macdonald‘s Black Sea, which hits U.S. theaters this week, features top-notch acting and, like the submarine, is air-tight, but music is also another highly effective component to the thrilling story. In addition to pulse-pounding sounds and pensive themes, British composer Ilan Eshkeri also adds a thick layer of humanity to the story about about greed, hard metals and icy depths.
Best known for his film scores to Stardust, The Young Victoria and Kick-Ass, as well as his collaborations with recording artists and his concert work Eshkeri’s career is notable for its diversity; recently Eshkeri scored Still Alice starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart, 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves, and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa starring Steve Coogan.
Eshkeri has collaborated with recording artists, including Tim Wheeler from Ash, Smith & Burrows, Emmy the Great, Tom Odell, Coldplay, David Gilmour and Annie Lennox. He has worked with Amon Tobin on a live orchestral performance of his work, wrote The Young Victoria song, Only You, for Sinead O’Connor, worked with Take That on the film Stardust and has been commissioned to write for the world-renowned pianist Lang Lang.
We hit on many high points in his career, so enjoy our session with the amazingly diverse Ilan Eshkeri.
The Film Stage: Black Sea is thrilling to say the least. I honestly haven’t felt that tense and claustrophobic in a film in a long time, and your music went a long way in achieving that.
Ilan Eshkeri: That’s great! [laughs] Well then, that was job well done by Kevin, me, and the rest of the crew. [laughs]
One of the standout themes is right at the very beginning with “Leaving Sebastapol” and your string work is just sensational, even before the guys ever get in the boat. Kevin Macdonald, in our recent interview, talked about not wasting any time getting them on the submarine. Can you talk to us about the differentiation between the orchestral themes and the more makeshift and ethereal instruments when the characters are underwater?
Actually it was the makeshift instruments where things got started. Kevin didn’t want a very traditional score. When we come to the end of the film, we get a little more orchestral but I started trying to find sounds that were related to the world that they were in.
So I looked at banging bits of metal and making creaking sounds, and things that made you feel like you were underwater. So I got an old beaten up steel drum, then I got some other pieces of metal that we banged and put in a sampler, then later I played a lot of sounds on a violin.
I was a violinist many, many years ago, and not a very good one, [laughs] but I made a lot of scratching sounds on the violin one night then put them in Pro Tools and changed the pitch and the timing to be these real low sounds. Sometimes, some of those sounds with the strings were things I made up using layers and multi-tracks. That was kind of fun because I was a doing a mad scientist kind of thing – using these random instruments and me scraping the bow across the violin.
So that was the initial sound world we came up with. Also, rhythmically, there’s a lot of stuff that’s in 5/4 which is, instead of four beats to a bar, it’s five beats to a bar which makes it kind of uncomfortable. For example, telephones ring in 5/4 and it’s an alarming sound with an uncomfortable feel to it. So I thought of all these ways that we could make it feel uncomfortable.
Then we added a brass section, a pretty large one actually, that plays up these more epic moments when the submarine is under the water. They had these big weighty chords, and then, inevitably, we had the strings. They are the most common element in the language of film music and the audience accepts strings in every scenario to help carry the film. But we recorded the strings and the brass separately because, obviously, the brass would have been too overpowering to record together with the strings.
It seems, to me anyway, that the earmarks of a great composers are how well they use strings. There’s great work here and you also got a lot out of your players on 47 Ronin which is another one that’s really well done.
Thank you. I guess I have a bit of a head start because, as I said, I was a violinist so I know a lot about how strings work. [laughs] But in just the last couple of years I’ve been working with string players and have been learning a lot of things I didn’t know, and that’s what’s fun about the orchestra and all of music really. There are infinite combinations of rhythm in music and harmony, and that’s really inspiring to me. So when you get to a film like Black Sea with a director who is encouraging you to find new things, that’s great because they’re giving you the opportunity to be creative.
One thing Kevin Macdonald and I talked about was the pace. In a film like this, things can only happen at a certain speed. When the characters are on the seabed – which is the most excruciating part of the film – you just know something bad is going to happen. How does the pacing of the film affect the music, especially when you have to score that kind of slow-motion terror?
I think that is one of the things that is difficult about a film like this. You don’t want the film to get slow, or boring, but at the same time you can’t put push too hard because it would seem incongruous. In modern filmmaking, people are very concerned about pushing the audience through the film as fast as possible. With Black Sea, we tried to find the right moments, where we could push and give it extra if needed.
In all art forms there’s a lot of trickery, or magic, where things feel a certain way. But actually they only feel that way because of what came before them, and what came after it.
With the seabed stuff, when the characters first step off the submarine, it’s incredibly still and I wanted to have the sense of sound design, like stepping onto an alien planet. I like this idea that the weight of sound is felt through all the speakers around you in the theater and that you feel the pressure of the water.
That, I feel, is very nerve-racking and then the music picks up quite soon after. Once they start walking it can pick up. It has the illusion of wading through something thick, but if you listen to the music in isolation I think you’ll see that we push quite hard through there. There are various tempo changes and we start moving faster.
One other thing about that area of the film, sorry if this is a little nerdy [laughs], but there’s this piece of music called La Mer, which means “the sea” in French, by Debussy and it has this kind of stormy feeling to it with the cellos and the bass which I quoted a couple of times in the score. It’s this slightly uncomfortable rhythm but it has this feeling of something lurking, it captured the weight and the power of the sea and I really wanted to use that.
But in that bit where they go underwater, I created these notes that were comprised of the nooks in that motif. I played them all on the violin, layered them up, put them at different pitches so that you had this seven note chord that just permeates that whole scene all the way through. I liked that it was rooted in another sort of classical piece about the sea.
[laughs] That’s not nerdy at all. That’s why I love talking to composers, hearing those behind-the-scenes stories and decisions that makes themes and cues so compelling and indelible.
You’re developing a story and a character with music that adds to the film, and I like to go into the movie knowing that in advance. In fact, what I do, and this is probably considered equally nerdy, I actually listen to a film score four or five times before I even get into the theater because it makes the movie feel a little more full once I know the auditory story you’re trying to tell.
Well you should listen to it. I’m about 90% certain it’s the fourth movement of “La Mer” and you’ll hear this little rest and you’ll see that I quoted it. For me, it’s very important at the start of the film, and it was with this film as well, that I create a rule, or set of rules that I can work with. You know, sometimes you can get blank canvas syndrome and you’re like, “well I could do anything,” and it’s terrifying when you don’t know where to start. But if you make up guidelines and tell yourself “okay, I’m going to do this,” like if you were an artist who was only going to paint on miniature canvases, then suddenly you have a rule and a way to go and something to push against.
It’s like that expression, ‘there’s no art without resistance from the medium’ and I believe that. So with Black Sea, I made myself a set of rules about the metallic stuff and the uncomfortable rhythm and so I used this thing called the optotronic scale which is whole tone/semi-tone/whole tone/semi-tone. It’s symmetrical, and it almost sounds like it’s diatonic but it isn’t, it’s just a little bit uncomfortable. So it was about finding these tools I could use to make it feel unnerving.
Once you have all those rules in place, you can break them and then do whatever you want because ultimately you’re just trying to make good music and tell a story. But like I say, it’s nice to have something to push against. I like that it gave a very mathematical and machine-like feel to it which made sense in the submarine, but you couldn’t use that all the way through. I needed something a little more emotive because I had to play up Jude Law’s character. That’s what we call the family theme, and was something a little more emotive. It happens at the beginning and then at the end because, really, he is driven by love for his child and trying to make a better life for his family.
Exactly right, that’s actually what I was glad to talk to Kevin about – this is a heist film, but it’s not greed driven. The impetus for Jude Law’s character is to make up for him not being there for his family. You do need that heartbeat among all the clanging metal.
Yeah, it is nice to have those contrasts and I hope it comes through as well. Another big contrast was the theme for Fraser, the crazy guy played by Ben Mendelsohn. His music was something I wanted to make it feel like a ticking bomb, like he’s just going to explode at any moment. His music starts slow and gets faster and faster until it gets so fast it becomes this big bit of noise. That happens the first time he kills one of the characters and happens again later on.
Macdonald has a history of making films and documentaries, but let’s jump quickly to Coriolanus which is Ralph Finnes’ directorial debut. Working with someone whose career has been in front of the camera, what kind of conversations did you have with him now that he was being immersed in actual filmmaking? Was there anything that maybe you taught him about how the process works from your perspective?
I think we learned a lot from each other. Ralph was very nervous about music. He didn’t want much in the film, and I think that because he’s such a powerful actor, and such a brilliant performer, that he felt like it’s all in the performance and that the film didn’t need music to tell people how to feel. We had some funny times listening to loads of music and he didn’t like anything. It was difficult. So I think he was nervous, he would say to me “what’s wrong, it’s all fine as it is.”
I remember one time he suggested “okay, maybe we have a drum”. He had this idea that everything had to be real and part of what’s on the screen so he would say, “okay, in this scene I walk in, and I say this thing, and maybe there could be this drum that goes ‘bwoof’. Then I say this speech, and then I leave, and everyone is left standing there, and another drum can go ‘bwoof’” and I was like, “yeah, yeah, we could do that.”
But then I had this idea and I said “you know Ralph, because the character of Coriolanus is a soldier, what if we use the trumpet?,” and as I said the word trumpet I could see pain in his face, and I quickly said, very explicitly, “No, not a melody! No, not at all. Don’t worry, just the one single note, like quintessence of trumpet, just the concept of trumpet. One lone note, that’s it!”
And that was a crazy enough idea for him to say “okay, I could see that.” And we had trumpets in the score, but literally, only playing one note at a time here and there. I think I counted once, just for Ralph’s amusement. In the entire score there’s 20 notes of trumpet and that’s it. But it ended up being really quite effective because it was exactly that, just quintessence of trumpet and it never became more than just one piercing note. It was very minimalist, but also very powerful.
Not to say minimalist, but rather it’s similar to what Hans Zimmer did with the Joker’s theme in The Dark Knight. That one unending string note makes such a statement that the score doesn’t need a 12 minute suite for the character. It can be indelible with so much less.
Yeah, that was so great. I think it was made up of a few things, but that one kind of rising sound for the Joker was something that really set you on edge. It was a really brilliant idea that. Also it was one of those things where the performance was so powerful and so insanely brilliant that it didn’t need much music. I think Hans really found the exact right bit of music that supported the performance in the perfect way. It was so simple and brilliant as all the best ideas are. I love that as well.
Let’s briefly hit on Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond. I guess many composers grow up saying “One day I want to do a James Bond movie, or a Star Wars movie.” What was it like working on something that was tied to the lineage, but not exactly a true James Bond film? I really, really liked that by the way, both the narrative and the music.
Honestly, it was not as you described it, that opportunity to write a great James Bond or Star Wars film theme. It was more understated than that because it was about Ian Fleming and his experiences that led him to write James Bond and I wasn’t looking for the opportunity to do something completely huge and fantastic. It was, however, extremely fun to do something that I wrote with my good friend Tim Wheeler, who is a rock and roll artist, and we collaborated with another mutual friend of ours Mat Whitecross, the director.
On a personal level, it was super good fun for us to work on this together, and musically, of course, we took a lot of inspiration from John Barry and it was very nice to explore that style of music and bring in elements like that.
But with the other stuff, like string quartets for instance, it felt like we brought some really interesting music to the project and we got a lot of great guitar performances from Tim as well. [laughs] It’s funny, no one’s ever asked me about that, so I’m glad that you watched and enjoyed it. I almost forgot I did that. [laughs]
Picking up on what you said about collaboration, Kick-Ass is your third time working with Matthew Vaughn right? It’s confusing when you see that more than one composer worked on a film. So what was it like with four of you? I got to speak to Henry Jackman recently, but we didn’t have a chance to touch on the film.
Oh man, Kick-Ass was so complicated. Originally, the concept behind the music was to not have any score at all. At the beginning, when the guy jumps off the building, the whole point of it was to have the Superman theme there and later, when the character of Chris (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) shows up, it was supposed to be to the Batman theme. These two characters were trying to be like characters they read about in the comics.
Matthew and I spoke at length as far back as when he had the initial ideas for the film. Originally, he had planned for Marius De Vries, who was famous for doing Romeo + Juliet with Baz Luhrmann and who is very good at adapting songs, to come and adapt those songs to the point where there was no score at all in the film.
But as it developed, ideas changed for all the millions of reasons that things change during the creative process. So Matthew brought me on board and it was great because I started working with Marius who was a pal of mine, and it was great that we’d get to work together.
But there was other stuff that was up John Murphy’s street, and Matthew had worked with John before so we decided to bring him in to help. Now the schedule was really difficult so Henry Jackman came in towards the end of it and he did some really brilliant work. He’s a great composer, and I feel like he was just breaking into the scene then, and has done such amazing work since. The four of us just got on like a halcyon fire; we were at each other’s recording sessions, helping each other out, sharing themes, and it was fun times really. It was unconventional but it worked and we made a great movie. Really, it was a good experience.
You guys have gone on to do such great work individually since then. But tell me, that brass in the main theme, was that you?
[laughs] Oh you can’t ask me that, that’s giving the game away. [laughs] I think the only fair thing to say is that it was a collaboration between all of us.
So you guys were like a band?
Yes, I think so. I don’t know what the other guys would say if you asked them, and I would never want to take credit for anyone else’s work, but the way I feel about it is that we all did it together. So it’s best that we are perceived as a band, rather than any one person trying to take credit for stuff. [laughs]
Got it. Now there’s something else I’ve always been curious about. When composers start the spotting sessions, do you ever plan to put a little more emphasis on the theme when you know your name is going to come up in the credits?
Maybe it’s just coincidence and timing, but I’ve seen more than a few instances where it seems that the music rises just a bit when the composer’s name is on screen at the beginning of the film.
[laughs] You know, if I had the opportunity to do it, I probably would. [laughs ] So often, it doesn’t work that way. But to be honest, for me, the arc of the film is important whether it’s the titles at the beginning or the end of the film. It’s much more about making a piece of music that really works that takes the audience into the film.
Of course, we make jokes all the time like, “I thought there was going to be gold around the letters of my name! That’s it, I’m going to put a really bad tuba note when it comes to your name!”[laughs]
This is been really great chatting with you Ilan, thanks very much for your time. Before I head out, I have one more question.
Howard Blake. How do you even attempt to follow up The Snowman?
Oh my God. How do you even know about that? That’s a British thing!
I grew up with it actually, and first saw it when I was maybe 12. My dad worked for Sony and, I guess, during format testing, he brought home one of the early camcorders. With it, he brought home some titles like Beetlejuice and The Snowman on those little Video8 tapes and I just fell in love with the story. Now I know of the David Bowie intro, but I grew up with the version where the guy, the grown up kid actually, walks through a field and says, “I remember that Winter, it brought the heaviest snows I had ever seen”.
Anyway, when I was looking to buy The Snowman on vinyl, I kept seeing listings for The Snowman and The Snowdog and I’d never heard about it until about November of last year.
Have you seen the sequel?
No, not yet. That’s why I was hoping to get a little bit of info from you.
If you don’t mind, I don’t have a short answer to your question because it is something very close to my heart and really important to me. But I’d still love to tell you about it.
Sure, we can follow up later this year, turn it into a whole conversation maybe closer to Christmas. But please, if you’ve got a minute, go for it.
Well they started making the sequel, and they called me in because they knew I collaborated a lot with rock and roll artists and I had worked with Coldplay and people like that. We had this big conversation about updating The Snowman. The sequel takes place 30 years later. They thought that if it was a more modern world that they need a classic score but also that the song needs to be more contemporary.
And so we talked about different artists and so I said “look, if we have a huge artist, it becomes more about them than it should be, and it needs to be about The Snowman.” So I played them a few up-and-coming British artists that I loved. One of them was a friend of mine named Andy Burrows who used to be with the band Razorlight. He’s a brilliant songwriter. We brought him on board and that was the team. Andy and I decided that we’d collaborate the whole way through. Obviously, I have my strengths and he has his, but we wanted it to be a collaboration and we worked on the song together and the score together.
But your question, how do you follow Howard Blake? I grew up watching The Snowman every single Christmas my whole life, and so did Andy. So it was terrifying thinking about touching that. We said, “we can’t be be better than The Snowman, we just need to approach this with honesty and the love that we have for the original, and put that into the sequel and then hope to God that people take to it.” When you watch something every Christmas of your whole life, you kind of take ownership over it at some point. My real fear was that people would feel like we ruined The Snowman. I remember that when talking about it. We had the idea that as long as people don’t think that what we’ve done is completely shit, then that was okay. That was our motto – Do your best, just not shit! But that element of it was terrifying. It was really scary.
I’m really proud of what we did. It’s been a success and it was even released on vinyl which is the first time that’s happened in my career. We’ve also played that live to picture at Christmas concerts where we have loads of friends perform all of our favorite Christmas songs at the interval - Muse’s Dom Howard, Ash’s Tim Wheeler, Tom Odell, Mel C from The Spice Girls and all of our friends. I hope we continue to do it. It’s definitely one of the things I’m most proud of.
Still Alice is now in theaters and Black Sea arrives on January 23rd. For more information, and to listen to samples of his work, head to Ilan’s official website and follow him on Twitter at @ilaneshkeri.
Whether it be acclaimed dramas such as The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void or documentaries like Life in a Day and Marley, Kevin Macdonald is one of our most quietly prolific directors. His latest film, Black Sea, is a gripping submarine drama that features the likes of Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, and Scoot McNairy, following a group of down-and-out men who attempt to retrieve buried Nazi treasure from the depths of the ocean.
We got a chance to sit down with the director discuss jumping from narrative to documentary, the range of influences on his latest film, where he first saw Mendelsohn and McNairy, his relationship with his grandfather, the legendary Emeric Pressburger, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: I’ve enjoyed following your career over the years. You’re a director where it’s kind of hard to predict what you might do next. Do you enjoy that?
Kevin Macdonald: I try to be hard to predict. [Both laugh]
Even though they might be across different genres or even different forms of storytelling, is there something that you see is related?
I think the only thing that probably relates them all together is just there is deep curiosity that makes me feel excited and passionate and want to get out of bed in the morning. I guess I’m the kind of person that gets easily bored. I don’t want to repeat myself, and I feel you only live once and I would like to try everything. And sometimes things work out well and sometimes they don’t work out so well, but you learn something. I do like to deliberately kind of move from documentary to fiction in the last few years. I’ve done that every year, alternating, and documentary, keeps you engaged with the real world in a way. And you satisfy your curiosity in a way that fiction film you don’t, or the pleasures of making fiction films is very different.
There’s so many fascinating stories that you’ve captured, but when you’re on the set shooting, do you ever perhaps take something from a documentary that you would then implement in the feature film? It could be a style, a feeling, or just an emotion.
Well, yeah. I mean, I think documentaries have taught me a lot about performance, especially when you look at the way someone in real life responds to an emotional situation — something very upsetting or something where they are feeling very joyful or whatever the strong emotion is. And having sat in a cutting room and watch those kind of emotions happen in real life and then you go to the fiction film, and you see what the actors do, you very quickly begin to feel things really real — usually too much. I think that influences the way that I’ll work with the actors and try to get them to be as naturalistic as possible. There are incidences, like in The Last King of Scotland, where there’s a documentary made about Idi Amin by Barbet Schroeder called Idi Amin Dada and I watched that a lot. That definitely influenced a whole host of things about design, about character, and all sorts of ways.
That’s great. Getting to the characters of your new film, Jude Law is great, but also the supporting cast. When did Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy pop up on your radar? It’s been great to see their careers kind of take off in the last few years.
Yeah, they’re fantastic. I think that I saw Ben first in Animal Kingdom. I had probably seen him in Australian movies without really knowing who he was, but that was the movie where he sort of came into focus again. And then of course I saw him and Scoot together in Killing Them Softly. Is it Killing Them Softly or Killing Me Softly? I can’t remember what it’s called.
Killing Them Softly, yeah.
Yeah, and they were so great. I wasn’t the hugest fan of the movie as a whole, but I thought that they brought such life and Ben’s so interesting in it. I was aware of Scoot for having seen him in Monsters as well. So when I was looking for an American actor, he was one of the first people that came to my head and fortunately he was interested. He’s seen a couple of my movies that he’d liked and he came over and he was a bit shocked to find that Ben was there too. [Both laugh]
That’s a nice surprise. Getting into the production of the movie, we’ve seen a lot of great submarine movies before and I’m always interested how they actually captured that environment. Can you discuss if you filmed partially in a real submarine?
The main thing I like about submarine films it’s this man vs. nature kind of situation where man are somewhere they shouldn’t be. They are in an environment that is not conducive to human life. They can only exist because of this machine and if there’s a thing wrong with the machine, the submarine, then they’re caput. And so there’s a tension inherent in that in the same way that films in space, you know, Interstellar or whatever. I wanted it to be claustrophobic because that’s what gives you the sense of really being there and the sense of you can’t get out of this machine that you’re inside. As a character says it’s only cold dark death out there. I felt like if we could retain that sense of claustrophobia by never going outside the confines of our set, keeping the set the right size of a real submarine, that would be great. But also of course we did film partially on a real submarine. We filmed for a couple of weeks in a real submarine right at the beginning, a Russian diesel sub that we found and coincidentally and bizarrely was owned by a private individual who bought it in the early 90′s and was floating in a river outside London. So that was the submarine we see the exterior in the movie. And we shot also interior for a couple of weeks, but it was just so amazingly detailed and wonderful, the set, the interior. I mean, it was beautiful. Russian writing, the paint work, the numerous pipes and wires, the gauges and valves and it just goes all over; the detail is so authentic. There’s no way we could have done that at all for a whole set. So, because we filmed on there for a couple of weeks we were then able just to do the stuff in the central rooms, the control room and the main engine room, and the corridor. That was then built on a set. The actors experienced the real submarine first so they brought some sense of what it was really like on a metal and underwater object with them when they came onto the stage.
You’ve mentioned Jude Law did some intense research. What exactly did he do?
Well, he did all sorts of stuff. He obviously did a lot of work on his character in terms of adopting a Scottish accent, a very difficult, specific Scottish accent – the Aberdeen accent. He wanted to go on a real submarine and we managed to get in touch with the Royal Navy and send him off on a real diesel submarine. He spent a few days sleeping in a room with 18 other men and being a part of a work party doing odd jobs for the submarine, cleaning up, so he really learned what it was like to be on a submarine and I think he learned an awful lot about the psychology of submariners, as well. How the submarine is like their family and how they find it hard to adjust when they get on to dry land again. That’s the idea that we really adopted in the script.
There’s obviously touchstones like Das Boot and Treasure of Sierra Madre mixed in there. Is there any other inspirations you had when making the film?
Well, I think it was also influenced by space films like Alien. The idea of being in an alien world, being in a world where you can’t tell what’s in front of you and the beginning of Alien where it’s all kind of murky and smoky and windy. I think it’s a little bit like that, at the bottom of the ocean, and that same feeling of dread. But a specific film that was influential was William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, which is a remake of a French film called The Wages of Fear. That film is about a bunch of desperate men in South America who’ve been given this mission to drive some trucks full of gelignite across some mountains. Sort of similar in a way, it’s the psychology of the men, who kind of feel like they’ve been put on the scrap heap, that they feel like they don’t have any future, and they take on this impossibly dangerous mission.
Yeah, those are fantastic movies. My last question, today would’ve been Emeric Pressburger’s birthday, actually, and…
That’s very astute of you. Yeah, it’s true.
I know you’re related to him, and you wrote a book about him. Can you briefly talk about what you learned from him and how he’s inspired you?
Well, I don’t think learned anything as a filmmaker at all. I think they made very different kind of films. My films are often based in reality and naturalistic in a way. But they made films that were full of fantasy and magic. I love those films. I think they’re some of the greatest ever made, but they’re very different from what I’m doing. When my grandfather died I was only twenty-one or something, so I didn’t really get a chance to sort of be directly involved in films with him or anything. But I think I was inspired by his storytelling ability. I think he was just a great storyteller and he told great stories and he wrote great stories. And I suppose he inspired you to think that that’s something you can do as well. Then I wrote a book about him and that in a way is the thing that got me interested in movies. Prior to that I wanted to be a writer and be a journalist and I started writing this book about him and watching lots of movies and learning about movie history. And in a way, weirdly, indirectly, that’s what lead me to creating these movies. So in a way I have to thank him for it, but not in a direct way.
Black Sea opens in limited release on Friday, January 23rd.
With only four feature films under his belt — including one of 2014’s most acclaimed films, Force Majeure, newly available to stream – Sweden’s Ruben Östlund is already the subject of a retrospective entitled “In Case of No Emergency” that’s currently starting its run through North America (details here). He recently took the time to talk with us about his willingness to be a provocateur, his beginnings in ski films and the controversy of his 2011 film Play, and more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Your first feature The Guitar Mongoloid was shot over a course of years?
Ruben Östlund: Yes.
Did you feel your ideas gradually changing over the course of production?
It was my first feature film that I made after film school. I started it immediately when I graduated. You know when you’re a young filmmaker and you want to get attention, well someone told me that when you’re making a film it’s like a duel; someone is pointing a gun towards the audience. I think that it was Nietzsche who said this from the beginning, and that’s the approach that I wanted with The Guitar Mongoloid. I wanted to make a film where the audience would have a problem; they should feel insecure with my intentions with the film, they should feel insecure if it’s a fiction or if it’s a documentary. I think that I had been tired of the way they had been portraying people that are a little bit odd when it comes to film history; like if someone had down syndrome then Sean Penn or something should play that character, like we always put a filter between us and the screen when we watched a depiction. I wanted to give people we didn’t often see onscreen get access to that room. It was a bit of a provocation.
But I guess when I was making The Guitar Mongoloid, I also realized that I was very interested in human behavior from a sociological aspect, and it led me straight to making Involuntary, that I think is a very thematic film about individuals versus the group or herd, and trying to highlight different aspects of that.
Your ski films Free Radicals (view here) are included in the New York part of the retrospective. Do you look back at them fondly or do you feel they’re not really representational of you as a filmmaker?
I’m the kind of person that loves all my films, even if they have errors and aren’t done 100% the way I would do them today, but I feel proud of them. The ski films were the starting point for me to become a filmmaker, because I’ve never been a cinephile. I’ve never been very interested in film history. I was interested in the video camera and what you could do with it. I was a really dedicated skier when I was between 20 and 25, and to film skiing was a way for me to be able to pay my rent and be away all the winters in different ski resorts. What I like about that period is that you are totally focused on what’s going on in front of the camera, and you’re really interested in what’s going on in front of the camera. A lot of people in the film industry can be — how do you say it — have romantic dreams of just being in the film industry and you’re more interested in being in the film industry than what you’re pointing the camera at. So I think that’s a good start when you are going to be a filmmaker; think of what are you really interested in filming and try to capture that in the best possible way, because we were working really really hard with those movies. I mean it took one year to make a ski film that was 30 minutes long, and I think we had a shooting period of 100 days. When I started in film school I got to know that when you shoot a feature film you have around only 30 days. But the kind of stamina that I have built up during the years of shooting skiing was something that I could use when I started to do feature films.
I actually kind of envision the ski films as something the family in Force Majeure would see.
For me when I left the ski world and I left all my friends. I was accepted for film school and I changed all my time for filmmaking, or a different kind of filmmaking. And since then I’ve been looking for a way to get back to the ski resort as an environment to use for a feature film, but it has been quite hard because the ski world is such a kitschy world; everybody’s dressed in neon colors, they’re well-to-do people, they have those lenses on their faces. It’s hard to find something existential about that kind of environment and raise questions about our life. But when the avalanche came up and just the set-up of the father abandoning his wife and his kids, it started to raise questions about gender expectations and so on. So suddenly I had the opportunity to use the ski resort as the set-up for a feature film.
At any point did you consider making another film like Guitar Mongoloid and Involuntary and have Force Majeure be one story within it?
Yes, in the beginning. In Sweden the name of the film is Turist, and in the beginning I thought of having three tourist situations, where the idea was to see rich Swedes lose their dignity [laughs] and have a kind of satiric attack on a certain kind of upper middle class lifestyle and the kind of mechanism those kinds of people have to confront when they were tourists. But when the part in the ski resort developed, and we found the idea about the avalanche, immediately I understood what this film should be about; it shouldn’t be a multiple-story film.
I know Play was massively controversial in Sweden. How different was the reaction when you took the film abroad on the festival circuit?
I can say that in Sweden and France it was quite controversial. In France these kind of topics are hard to approach because we want to push them aside and not talk about them at all. In Sweden there was this huge debate in the media where I was accused of being a racist. Questions I had to answer in France during the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 like, “Why do you hate black people so much?” You could tell there was something about that topic that they had a really hard time to handle. But when I was at the New York Film Festival for the screening of Play, the reaction was for the first time where an audience was comparable with my thoughts on the topic because I looked at it in the same way that I looked at Force Majeure or the other films: as a dark comedy or satire. People were laughing a lot; you could tell that there was dealing with stereotypes and class issues when it comes to black people. So yes, I definitely think the reaction for Play was best when it was at the New York Film Festival.
I interpreted the argument between the father and the witness at the end of Play as you can understand both sides of the argument but ultimately they both seem to be acting sanctimoniously; both taking moral high ground by making assumptions about the thieving kid. Is that how you intended it?
I think I tried to highlight it from a Scandinavian perspective. They are individuals who meet the problem and for me the father’s reaction is quite understandable. His son has been robbed by the robbers, and it caused quite a psychologically hard time for the victims; one didn’t want to go to school, another didn’t want to go to the city by themselves. But what I think is quite important about that scene is the woman who approaches the man afterwards, because she is standing for so many prejudices, and she is actually acting in the most racist way in the whole film. She’s making the black boy a victim just because of his skin color, and putting him into a context that she doesn’t know anything about. She thinks maybe he comes from a country where there’s a lot of war and blah blah blah, which is really the case for black people in Sweden more than in the U.S. of course. It was like a reverse-racism where you’re doing it because you want to do well, but you’re doing something where you’re not aware at all what your actions are causing.
Force Majeure takes your films out of an urban space; are you interested in returning to a city like Gothenburg or exploring other countries and landscapes?
It all has to do with the topic of the film. I guess. What I’m dealing with now is a project called The Square, which is about a change of attitude when it comes to European society, but also U.S. society. We are taking less and less responsibility for what we have in common; an example of that I think is to build gated communities. In Sweden, for example, they have started to build gated communities since 2008, and a gated community is an extreme example of saying we only care about what’s going on in the inside of the gates and we don’t take care of what goes on outside of the gates. There’s a change when it comes to the old social democratic society of Sweden where we put a lot of trust in the state, they should help us, have solidarity with each other when it comes to public spaces or society in general. Today you can tell that we tend to be more scared of each other. We are thinking more about how can I help myself rather than how can I help my fellow citizen. I’m looking for the best set-up for that kind of content. I’ve been thinking about Swedish society a lot of course but when I was in L.A. I thought that it had a kind of — how do you say it — integration is not very good. The set-up of that topic could be very interesting. So maybe if I’m doing an English-language film, the U.S. is definitely a possibility for me thinking of a set-up for the next topic.
Between the reception to your latest film and Roy Andersson’s newest winning the Golden Lion at Venice, Swedish cinema had a great year. Are you optimistic about the state of Swedish cinema or are you feeling more attracted to the idea of doing co-productions?
I feel very excited about Swedish cinema because I think there is a certain attitude when it comes to the films that we are making today. In previous years there was a film called The Reunion, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it was an artist that made a film that had a quite different approach to filmmaking. And I think there are a lot of filmmakers that are influenced by that way of making films today, so less conventional films I think there are quite many of them in Sweden, and I think they are trying to approach filmmaking from a more contemporary perspective. I mean I am very interested in YouTube, and when I make all my films I always look at YouTube and what kind of references can I find. I think the most interesting moving images of our time is not in the cinema anymore, and if we want to change that trend — to actually show the audience that we are capable or presenting very important moving images — then we have to adapt to adapt to more contemporary times and the digital era. And I think there is a movement in Sweden that is moving in that direction.
The films of Ruben Östlund are currently touring the country. See more details here.
First grabbing our attention with Pariah and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, this year marks the breakout of cinematographer Bradford Young. Having shot Selma and A Most Violent Year, the director of photography proves his hand at two vastly different films. With the former, he directly involves us in the incendiary protests that helped change the course of history (with much work still to go, as our current state proves), and lent gravitas and emotion with his framing of David Oyelowo‘s Martin Luther King, Jr.
After naming his work amongst the best of the year, I recently got a chance to speak with Young regarding his latest films. We discussed his preparation for the movie, why he doesn’t watch dailies, the MPAA rating for Selma, how he chooses which project he’ll do next, the freedom of A Most Violent Year, which film has his favorite cinematography of the year, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: First of all, congrats on both films this year and your work thus far. I love Pariah and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is incredible.
Bradford Young: Thank you man. I appreciate that.
So with Selma specifically did you look at any photography of MLK to prep for the movie?
Yeah, there’s obviously tons and tons of images of him you can find anywhere. No photographer specifically but, yeah, it was the obvious cadre of folks that were around at that time: you know, Elliott Erwitt, all those kinds of photographers that were there photographing the civil rights movement. It wasn’t specifically about MLK, but more about the era. So, yeah, and that landscape goes all the way from Gordon Parks to Elliott Erwitt to Howard Bingham, all the folks that sort of passed by, [Richard] Avedon, all these folks inspired us and inspired the look and feel of the film, for sure.
The speeches in particular, there’s such an immediacy and you really place us there. It feels like you might have storyboarded. Is that the case?
Nah, we didn’t storyboard those, but we did storyboard some pieces. That was just igniters for what we’d do on set. We storyboarded mainly the marching sequences, the conflict sequences. Ava came to me early on and said she definitely wanted to make the anti-biopic. We were discussing the sentimentality and the sort of only-objective perspective you find in a lot of American biopics, and we wanted to do something that was way more engaged and way more involved. So, yeah, photographs helped and photographers always helped perform that king of language. Photographers never operate from a distance. They always operate from within, at least the ones we liked. The ones we love and appreciate. So not really storyboarded, but there are tons of visual references that we had that we felt had an appealing connection to the time and the sort of story we wanted to tell visually.
I was surprised when I saw it, but liked the way it was handled, with the archival footage of the march. You obviously didn’t shoot that stuff, but did you have a hand in the feel of what those images convey or was that more in the editing room?
Yeah, that was all visualized and conceptualized between Spencer [Averick, the editor] and Ava [DuVernay] and that for sure is a collaboration that I hope all of us find a space to honor because their collaboration is magical. So, they are real students, real fantastic. They’re storytellers and they really know how to organize and bring feeling to the story that Ava wants to tell. A lot of those decisions were made later. It’s funny, I’m not involved in that process at all but I am just a big fan of watching their work. They do have a way of being able to take us on a journey and make us feel at the end. That sequence is all conceptualized. I saw some of that footage earlier on in pre-production, but I didn’t have any sort of say of what was used. I was as surprised as you the first time I saw it.
Speaking of your overall experience, you’re so involved with the minutia of every frame of the movie. I’m sure you the results of the dailies, but did you see a lot of rough cuts and the jump to the final product?
If Ava reads this, she’s going to laugh, because I generally stay away from the editing. Man, it’s a real scary place for me because I haven’t matured enough and grown within in myself as a filmmaker to know how to handle rough cuts. What they essentially are is us just looking at how images are organized. It’s not about the image. [Laughs] But I grew a lot on this movie, not because I went to see rough cuts, but because we’re very close friends she required that I be part of the conversation, so she wants feedback. She wants to see if it’s working or not working. Actually, I didn’t have a lot of say at all, but when I did see the film – it was right before we went to color correction – and I got a chance to watch it and she knows what I like to do, watch it on a very small device, maybe an iPad or a little flip-up and I watched it in the privacy of my own home, early in the morning. I like to experience it that way because it’s very close and personal and I can stop it and pause it and think about things. I do feel like when you have too many cooks in the kitchen, it could turn the steak bad. I try to stay out of that conversation because I know cinematographers can be very vocal in an unwanted way and so I stay out of the conversation. Especially with this collaboration, because Ava and the crew are excellent. They are just incredible, so, you know. I’m as much a fan as anybody else. [Laughs]
You’ve mentioned how you have a very personal connection to your work – obviously, you do after shooting everything – but a lot of your projects feel like you have a close connection with the filmmakers and/or the material beforehand. How much of that factors in your decision on your next project?
Yeah, that is a requirement overall, over the material itself. Sorry for having a long answer, but a script is just a blueprint. A great director, what I believe, is able to just take the words from the page and bring them to set and let them burn and dissipate and let the actors take hold of the material. It’s hard to gauge whether the film will be a great film just because of the script. It’s the skeleton. It’s the bones. But film is a living art form and it changes every second so a script can’t contain the inertia of the filmmaking process. That’s a nice chunk, but not the majority. The big chunk for me is when I meet this person, is this somebody I want in my life after we finish the process because film is a process. It’s arduous. It’s contentious. It’s a struggle. It’s beautiful. At the end it forges enemies and it forges friendships, so my requirement, top of the charts, top of the pyramid of requirements is that I can have a relationship with this person after I finish the process. I’ve been very fortunate not only to have the directors I’ve worked with in my life as friends and comrades but they’ve also become teachers. They’ve taught me a lot and these are people that I consider family now. Ava is family. Ava is beyond family. This is a person that I’ve had a connection to for ages. J.C. [Chandor] is my buddy. That’s a good friend. I can go across the board. Everybody has become a friend, a comrade, and a pal. That’s so important to me. If I can’t link with you on that level, I don’t know if I can do a good job for you.
Yesterday, the MPAA gave Selma a PG-13 rating. After seeing it, I think it fits, but the brutality, which is necessary, it comes across. Thinking back, you actually don’t see anything incredibly violent. It’s more the effect that your cinematography gives. There’s an effect you get without showing us violent images.
I didn’t even know it got rated yesterday. Thanks for putting me on. [Laughs] I’m not surprised, man. I won’t be surprised if it got an R rating, because that’s just the way things work. So back to the idea of violence in the film, hey man, Ava is off the hook bro. She’s an architect, bro. She gives the landscape and we hop on and try to make our contributions to it, but from day one, she was like, “I want to make this film about the brutality of the moment and what the black body or the activist body had to go through to attain the goal.” She wanted to come up with a device or devices that would allow us to witness the violence in a very visceral and cerebral way, but also not in a gratuitous way. It just was a big challenge. How do you do that? How do you approach violence without making it about the gore, but about the resilience and demise of the body? It was all part of Ava’s strategy, to get you in so that you see that and you never forget that was a violent, brutal moment and people paid a dear price for us to be here today. But not turn it into a conversation around the film. Make it about an experience. Make it repulsive but in the best way — in the most subtle, nuanced way. Which is what Ava’s all about. She’s about nuance and subtlety.
You really pulled that off. The bombing sequence and then when violence is inflicted on people you let the camera stay on them a little bit whereas other films might cut away quickly.
Oh, no. You’ve got to see it. The Annie Lee Cooper scene, when Oprah is thrown to the ground, we didn’t want you to be an observer of the violence. We wanted you to be a person that was also being violated. So, connected the camera to her body was very important in saying this is what it feels like when you’re lifted off your feet and thrown on the ground. This is what it’s like to be a mother watching your son be killed by the police. It’s all part of the strategy. Time stops. In that instance, time stops. Time slows down. It just feels so surreal and you’re not in real-time. That’s sort of why we slow time down. Shocking energy around those moments.
Getting a bit technical, this might have to do with shooting anamorphic, but the edges of the frame in many shots are vignetted and it gives it this kind of historic feel.
It’s great that you asked that, man. It was sort of an unconscious thing that was happening that nobody’s really asked me about, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I watch the film and, again, man, it’s just about the human eye sees the world in all of its glory from top to bottom from left to right. We see a lot. Our peripheral vision is massive and so I was very much interested in using wider angle lenses than I would usually on this film because I wanted the viewer involved, to feel invested. It’s not necessarily a distortion that I would embrace in most cases, but in this case, it didn’t bother me because it just felt like the film needed a little bit of tension in order for us to feel like we weren’t watching this film about somebody. We were watching a film about our uncle, about our grandfather, about our brother, about our sisters, about our grandmothers. I wanted our people to feel like they were there, like they were part of the struggle. Or not even people that were part of the struggle. People who were observers, people who were against the struggle. We felt like, and I felt, like, something was working in an unspoken way that we must really express this idea of us being involved, engaged. I think the wide angle, you see that in the frame. Those wide angle lenses, they distort the side. I think that just created a greater periphery. It just made the human peripheral vision.
Before I go, I just wanted to ask about your other project this year, A Most Violent Year. With Selma obviously based on true events and A Most Violent Year, it was inspired by certain things, but it wasn’t specific, do you feel more freedom with A Most Violent Year than you do with Selma?
Oooh, I’ve tried to tackle this in other interviews. I mean, it’s not freedom in a sense. I understand what you’re saying. It’s less weighty, you know what I mean? A Most Violent Year just doesn’t have the weight to it, for me personally. You know, that film is weighty. That film is heavy. It’s a slow, heavy burn. As a piece of art, it’s weighty. As a person there to help visualize it, the stakes aren’t as a high. Listen, the story about Martin Luther King is a story I connect with on a deep, spiritual, cultural, historical level. It’s my responsibility to tell this story that can communicate to not only people on the Earth now, but our ancestors who have been waiting to see this – not waiting to see this film, but waiting for this moment where we would pay homage to the sacrifice they made. The people that made sacrifices are my grandparents, my parents. So I have a connection to the material. I don’t feel free, because we’re not free. I’m really revisiting and reminding myself everyday that I’m still not free in America. That my people still have a long way to go in terms of being given the equal access to basic human rights that everybody else has. So it was just more weighty. I didn’t feel as free to just do as I wanted. I had to sort of make it something that people beyond ourselves can see and identify with on a deep, sort of real level, mature level. A Most Violent Year was freer because it’s really just telling stories. There’s a lot of weight to it because we’re dealing with the weight of capitalism and consumerism, etc., but I just felt freer in that space because of the social responsibility. The duty to be a custodian of the moment wasn’t on me.
J.C. Chandor’s first film took place in one building almost and his second film was in one boat. With this film there might have been more pressure because he’s capturing a bigger landscape with more locations. Did you feel that?
Nah, no pressure man. It’s kind of nice, because I felt a great freedom to be expressive in a way that he had expressed for me early on, that he wanted to raise the stakes, visually. Those two other films, Margin Call and All is Lost, are beautiful within their own right. Those are amazing-looking films and I love both of those films, but I think he just wanted to bring another lean to his films, his visual perspective as a filmmaker. Yeah, it was a great opportunity to be free and encouraged to stretch it.
Last question: is there any film this year, that you didn’t shoot, that you most appreciated the cinematography of?
Oh, yeah. Foxcatcher.
Foxcatcher? Nice. Why’d you like it so much?
I just felt like that film really achieved everything that I would have hoped to achieve as an image maker. And as an image maker creating images that are totally, 100% tethered to story. I just felt like Bennett Miller and Greg Fraser have this relationship that I’m only hoping I can create with J.C. and Ava. They did it. They did it, man. That film, personally, is the kind of film I’d always hoped I’d be part of and I’d make. Nothing would satisfy more than to have been part of that process — just witness that process. It’s just so evident that they were channeling real purpose into that film and it’s just beautiful, man. I really enjoyed that movie.
Well, thanks. I really love your work and I can’t wait to see everything you do next.
Thanks, man. Take care.
Selma is now in limited release and expands on January 9th, while A Most Violent Year enters limited release on December 31st.
Following the premiere of American Sniper (Clint Eastwood’s biographical film about Chris Kyle from the novel of the same name), we spoke with screenwriter Jason Hall about his efforts bringing this story to the big screen. However, because of Kyle’s untimely death during the writing process, that tragic event turned the production into an entirely different film.
There’s always the intention to do right by any subject in a film like this, and Hall views the entire process not only as an obligation, but a privilege. Having met Kyle before he ever wrote American Sniper, Jason got a first hand account of Kyle’s life from Kyle himself as well as his wife. The Eastwood directed film is an entirely honest account of the sacrifices in the Kyle family.
Yet the film is bigger than one man. It’s a statement about war, our nation, and how soldiers who are willing to die for their country don’t easily come back to what they left behind. It’s not just a re-adjustment process, their lives are altered forever, and some never really come back. Jason was entirely candid about the story, his process and the firsthand exchanges he had with Kyle about his experiences.
The Film Stage: The story is as gripping as it is emotional. It’s exceptional really, and even more so, as they say, because it’s true. This is a big undertaking, so what made you want to tell Chris’ story and how did you get involved with the film?
Jason Hall: I heard about Chris’ story back in 2010 – that he is the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history – and I heard about his 2,100 yard shot. It sounded phenomenal and almost unreal. I come from a military family and I knew their war stories and they weren’t quite like this one. So I called a guy who I had done some research with on a prior project. He’s a SEAL 6 member, and a NOC (non official cover) guy who was working at the CIA when I called. I asked about Chris, and about his famous shot. Well my guy tells me right up front that “Your buddy is a liar. There’s only five guys in the world that can make that shot, and he’s not one of them.” So I said, “OK, well could you look up his name?” He agreed and said “Yeah I’ll look it up right now, but I’m telling you, this guy is full of shit.”
So I’m waiting for this guy to call me, and when he did, he says “Here’s the deal, your guy is one of the five. I don’t know who this guy is, but whatever he did, he always seems to be at the right place, at the right time, to take the shot to save people’s lives and make the mission succeed.” He wasn’t at liberty to talk about all those things, but ultimately he said this guy is the real deal.
Let’s talk about your research. You got to meet with Chris before he had even written his book.
Oh yeah, I went to Texas to meet with Chris not knowing what I’d find. When I got there, I found a guy who looked like he had been through war and looked like he wasn’t totally back. You could look in his eyes and see there was a lot going on. There was a lot of turmoil and darkness, and this guy had paid dearly for the things he had accomplished and that had been done to him. I didn’t know what the story was until I saw his wife and kids walk in the room the next day. They were excited to see him, and he struggled to get down to hug them.
He’s 37 years old and he can barely get down to his knees. It seemed like you were watching a 50 year old man get down on his knees. He spread out his arms to open up to his kids and his eyes lit up in a way that I had not seen when I first met him in the previous 24 hours. I realized that this guy was somebody else before all this, and that there is somebody else here now.
I watched his wife standing there, and I watched the look between them, and I took it that their marriage was still kind of reeling from the effects of the war. But I realized that whatever this guy had been through, she had been there right alongside him while she raised these two kids.
What I found compelling about this war was that it was, for us, really far away, and there was a lot of judgement about it after a certain amount of time. You see the ticker on the news channels that give nothing but the fatalities. So it felt far away for me, and yet to these families, for the first time in history, it was not far away. They were closer to the war than ever before because of technology, especially these special forces guys who had sat phones. This war was in the palm of this woman’s hand because he’d call her all the time.
I found that absolutely compelling, the fact that she was exposed to the war. She heard gun fire, and so did a lot of these wives, and so that was a story I had never seen before.
Getting Chris’ story told with integrity must have been very important as opposed to blindly trying to translate material from the book to the screen. How open was he? Also, coming from a military family, were you more or less familiar with terms and the kind of stories Chris had lived through?
My grandfather served in World War II and he had since passed, my uncle went to Vietnam but didn’t talk about it much, and my brother, who lost a hip in the Gulf War, didn’t have a lot of options going in and he had fewer when he got back. I knew these war stories, but it’s another language that these guys speak and I had to learn that.
But I had the benefit of working with Chris and he was very receptive. I left after about three days of meeting with him and he told me that he was going to write a book, which he did pretty quickly and we managed to get the rights to it easily because, really, nobody else wanted it.
Really? Why was that?
Well, in the book, Chris sounds like a guy who has a chip on his shoulder, and I don’t think people knew what to make of that. I, of course, knew there was another guy there. They marketed to that voice in the book because they knew who was going to buy it, and they were right to do that and it flew off the shelves. But I wanted to tell the other side of the story about this guy who I met, and do my best to reveal the authenticity of this soldier’s life, and the soldier’s wife.
Chris and I had a lot of conversations – we would text, we would talk on the phone, I would harass him, and cajole him and do just about everything I possibly could to find out stuff about this guy – and I found out a lot of details but I never totally got the answer of “who he was” and, emotionally, what he sacrificed. I turned in the first draft and the next day he was murdered.
It was traumatic, and when I got the call I just started crying. I knew the family, spent time with the kids, and I have their voices floating around inside my head. I lost a friend, but I also understand what this family lost, and it was all so unreal. For all he had been through to, so suddenly, be taken that way by someone in his own backyard was wrong.
I went to the funeral and I gave his wife my number and she called me about a week later. She told me “Look, if we’re going to do this, you’re going to do this right, because, for better or worse, this is how my kids are going to remember their father.” It was a huge responsibility that turned into a privilege, but what do you say to a woman whose husband was just murdered? So the only thing I knew how to say was, “Tell me about your husband. Tell me everything in detail.” I had a lot of questions, and some of them were sensitive, but she revealed a lot of memories and the love story she had with this man in a very personal and courageous way.
We went on this journey of grief and recovery, so we talked everyday for about 3 or 4 hours. She would call me in the middle of the night, she’d call in the morning, it ended up being a relationship that she relied upon because it was useful to her to work these things out and find a way to express it. She was presenting the ultimate legacy, and it was this beautiful symmetry that is difficult to articulate. But we became really close friends and we were able to fashion this character with her words and her memories. Most things that she said in the movie were actually things she said in real life, and because of that, I think a certain truth resonates through the movie to the people watching it; that’s a direct result of someone’s courage.
So she had more influence on the story than you ever expected. It really changed the shape of the film you were trying to make in the first place.
What I learned is that if you want to know about a man, you ask his wife. Women understand us better than we understand ourselves because there’s a masculine and feminine side to every man. She shared a lot of intimate stories about what Chris tried to do while he was home. He, in a way, healed himself by helping save other soldiers who had come back and were having a real tough time at it.
When you’re dealing with the family, as you said, it’s a responsibility as much as it is a privilege. It’s interesting to go from dealing directly with Chris to only his wife. You were making the connection between their story, the words in the book and ultimately the screen. Yet there’s a big gap in between. You have Clint Eastwood, you have you have the producers, etc. so what was that middle ground like between all the parties?
Everyone who came on to the film became invested. I was there working at ground zero on this project, communicating with Chris and working to get his story out there. But right alongside was Bradley Cooper. He had such dedication to get this right. He’s obviously a producer, as well as the star of the movie, but he went above that because, as we all recognized, there was a great obligation here.
Not only to Chris and his family and those kids, but to every guy who went over there and lost something. Every guy, in every family, has paid a lot and some have paid even more dearly than Chris. So some of them will recognize sacrifices that Chris made when they hear his story. That was the story we wanted to tell. Everyone involved took that to heart and it shows up on the screen.
You said you were at the premiere on Monday. What was Chris’ wife’s reaction to it after seeing it completed?
You know, that’s a great question. I didn’t have the guts to watch it with her, but she stumbled out of the darkness after the credits rolled and she was crying. We have become really good friends, and I gave her a big hug and as she was on my shoulder she said, “I don’t know how you did it, but you brought Chris back to life. You all just gave me two hours with my husband.” It was a very powerful moment, and, for me, it was the pinnacle of the entire process. Whatever we have gone through, or what we will go through from here on in, I believe we reached the goal we set out to achieve. We did this for his wife, and his children, but the hope is that this story about one man resonates. We want it to become a story about all soldiers that expands our understanding of what they endure and sacrifice.
Unfortunately, we send these guys off and we train them to fight, but we don’t train them to come home and find peace. It’s a big problem with this country and something we have to work out because we send two million guys away to the war. 80% of them come home without a job, 40% of them come back without a place to live. 50% of the guys who need help don’t get it, and we don’t have a system for the guys who need it.
It’s a real issue, and I hope that Chris’ story resonates with these soldiers because we hear all about it from fathers and wives and uncles and cousins who come up and show the pictures of someone they know who is serving. They tell us that they understand this person better now because that person doesn’t talk about it, but they understand what they’re going through in a way that they didn’t before. To me, that’s such a huge blessing. If we can shine a light on this in any way, shape or form, these guys deserve to be understood and it’s a big deal what they sacrifice.
As a country, we are Chris Kyle, we feel the need to protect the sheep against evil, and be the sheepdog. We’ve been on the wall for a long time, and this is the thing we’re bringing home. This kind of torment and unrest is something we have to deal with collectively and we either need to come off the wall, or find a way to deal with it.
You just touched on one of the three key terms in the film, ones that were very important in Chris’ young life. In the film, his father tells him and his brother about the sheep, the wolf and the sheepdog. Chris’ story is told with interweaving flashbacks so how does the screenplay help set the pace and outline for what’s on screen in American Sniper?
We pretty much told it how it was on the page. That was my intention. In retrospect, as a country, we look at the war in Iraq as a head-scratcher, or something that pissed us off, or something we simply endured. It’s just not a pleasant thing. It was regarded by most as a mistake, and some consider it unjust, and so to make a movie about that war, to the person that was there making the decisions that were much more dramatic and changed their lives, I wanted to present as clearly as possible that Chris was in a moral dilemma.
While we think there is no way that we can watch a movie about a guy who shoots a kid, that was the decision that these guys were forced to make. That was the difficulty in the decisions these soldiers made which altered their lives forever. But before we force the audience to make that decision, we have to understand who this guy is and what put him there in the first place. We have to understand why he made the decision to enlist, what put him there, and what he has to sacrifice. So we jump back in time to see his upbringing and how he grew up and who he was as a person, both as a boy and a man, showing what he has to lose, and then get back to that moment and challenge the audience not to take the shot because now we have a new understanding of who Chris is. We know everything he’s done, so when he does take that shot it’s a culmination of all those things, and rather than watching, we are experiencing it.
That’s the hope anyway, that we are experiencing it with him and we lose a little something as well. Chris was on four tours of duty, and it was important for me to explore not just the war life, but the home life. The paramount accomplishment of this guy who went back 4 times, for better or worse, was something I had to put in the movie. So it was about finding a thread to unify those four tours and give the film a backbone. That’s what we found with Mustafa, the enemy sniper who is Chris’ doppelganger, his mirror, and, in many ways, it is Chris himself.
That really relates to what Chris’ father was saying about protecting the sheep, but not becoming the wolf.
Exactly. It’s all about going after the wolf and in Chris’ case, as a sheepdog, when you hunt long enough, in certain cases, you become the hunter. Chris did. He crossed over into becoming that wolf. That’s the shot he takes at the end, and that’s what he has to find his way back from. So it was a very thoughtful process, going back to what you said about the screenplay when making the film and for the most part, we think it worked.
It did work, and the film was highly effective. But to close this out, because Clint Eastwood is such a big influence, what was your relationship with him, and what kind of back and forth did you have with him as a director?
Clint is fantastic! He’s able to tell things with such a musical cinematic flair, and what I mean by that is he has this jazzy sensibility and he expresses so much in every frame. He taught me to write to that a little bit and it’s not something I would call economy, but I would call it filmic musicality. It helped me find a way to get through some of this material by breezing through it rather than stepping through it. The film has to present so much truth, and Clint is so upfront and honest – he’s just so present that you’re almost forced to be in the present with him.
There’s so much truth about him, but it’s funny, he doesn’t force it or his opinion on you. It’s something that you can sense and you can find it, or not, but he almost makes you come after it. He makes you want to be part of something, and I think that’s why people like working with him. Now this film for instance, people might think “oh yeah it’s a Clint Eastwood movie, and there’ll be a lot of flag waving” or “this is from the guy who talks to a chair” and knock it, before seeing it, as some kind of jingoistic war movie, but I think they’ll be surprised because that’s not the movie represents.
Due to Chris’ death you dealt more with putting Chris’ wife in the film and making this more about family. It’s about the woman behind the man while we find out who Chris is. Exactly right, this is not a ‘might makes right‘ picture.
Right, and how can you honestly portray a real life soldier and make it a ra!, ra! war movie? You can’t because the reality of war is hellish. We explored that, but in addition to that, the reality of war is also human and the toll is man. That’s the sacrifice we make when we commit to go to war. We sacrifice these men and women, as well as their lives and their families. Yesterday I was there with the widow and two children who were left behind, and it’s very real to the people who are in the middle of it. This is their movie, and I hope they embrace it.
American Sniper is now in limited release and expands on January 16th, 2015.
Collaborating with Andrew Dominik, Terrence Malick, Steve McQueen, and now Ava DuVernay, there are few more accomplished producers working in Hollywood than Dede Gardner. With a clear vision for excellence — and not simply what will initially generate the most revenue — it’s been exciting to track her work with Brad Pitt and their production company, Plan B. Following 12 Years a Slave, she once again returns with one of the year’s best films, Selma, and we got the chance to discuss bringing the project to life.
Sitting down for a one-on-one conversation during the film’s New York press junket we talked about see the components come together, the structure, casting David Oyelowo, as well as jumping to the legacy of her films — specifically The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — and an update on Andrew Dominik‘s Blonde, Terrence Malick‘s The Voyage of Time, and James Gray‘s Lost City of Z. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: So, with Selma, you’ve been developing this for awhile. When you found Ava, what was that moment like, and when you knew it would be the perfect fit?
Dede Gardner: Well, perfect fits tend to actually happen over time. They are not instantaneous. David [Oyelowo] suggested her and sent us Middle of Nowhere, which we thought was terrific and it seemed like a wise choice to start the process and see what happens. As evidenced by the film, she never let go and I’m really glad she didn’t.
There’s an emotional current running through this film like none I’ve seen this year. There never seems to be a false note. Was that a joy seeing that coming together as a producer and when did you first know it would click together?
Well, it always clicks. It just might not click to anyone else’s liking. Do you know what I mean?
The truth is that you embark on this, making movies, and you just watch it happen. Sometimes people lots of people see them and sometimes lots of people don’t, but if they don’t I don’t therefore [think it worked]. It’s just a different thing. She was so confident and so resolute in a very heartening and calming way about what she wanted to do with the film, what she wanted to do with the script, how she wanted to make this movie, what she wanted the movie to consist of. It all made a ton of sense. You knew from the minute go that she was committed to verisimilitude and authenticity, which is something we strive for in all of our films, so that was a good box checked. And then you just stand back and watch it and you watch it unfold.
Even though this is a Paramount release it has independent sensibilities. It may only take place over a short time, but the scope is large with the ensemble. How did you equip Ava DuVernay?
Yeah, she was ready. That’s just about building a great team. The team was kid of assembled by all of us. She obviously has a long-standing relationship with Bradford Young and Aisha Coley, her casting director, and everyone knows the great Ruth Carter, and Mark Friedberg, we actually met through Adam Stockhausen, whose our production designer on 12 Years a Slave. You just build your unit in a way.
When the dailies were coming back for the first time and seeing Bradford Young’s work, which is just….
…it’s so good.
Yeah, well he’s someone we wanted to work with. We were like, “Oh, I’m so happy!”
His framing is just beautiful and the speeches he captures, you feel like you are there. Also with the dailies, seeing David Oyelowo’s performance, what was your first reaction?
Just thrilled, just excited. I really did think David was always going to kill it, really truly. Yeah, when you see it come to life it’s always exciting when that happens.
I loved the decision to use the actual footage from the Selma march. Was that early on in the process, that decision?
No, it was part of the plan.
It has a very interesting structure, not what I expected going in.
What did you expect?
I thought we might see more [of the march] then I was very pleased when it was more about the build-up to it.
I thought that was fascinating and there’s aspects of the movie where you don’t shy away from difficult things in MLK’s life, which makes him more empathetic as a man, instead of just…
How was the balance of that? Was there anything left in the editing room floor?
That’s Ava. That’s her cut of the film. I think the film largely represents what her intention was. I don’t feel surprised by any of it. There was always a very specific intention to show King the man as opposed to Dr. King the myth and to show moments of fear and weariness and even dread alongside the moments of joy, enthusiasm and resistance. Because if you do that then being someone like that or aspiring to live a life like that becomes possible for everyone. Because they see a human being doing that as opposed to a superhero.
This is a film where you almost couldn’t predict the perfect timing of it coming out. With current events and it just seems as relatable now as it did back then. You walk out of this movie feeling fired up and you want change. My wife and I had a two-hour discussion after the film last night. Is that something you hope audiences will really take away from it?
Of course I do. I think the notion of what protest is and what protest can do is sorely lacking from our daily dialogue. I wish that the events that we see being discussed and marched about now were one-offs, but they’re not. The truth is these things have been happening for years and years and years and years and years. Why they are getting the attention they are now as opposed to 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 years ago? I don’t know, except maybe, hopefully, it’s a point of intolerance reached. Simply, no more. It’s always interesting to me to see how art factors in these moments. I can’t quite understand it except to believe a little bit in energy.
I also wanted to ask, you know about Jesse James Revival?
I sure do.
Great. Our site, The Film Stage, was an integral part in getting that forward.
Honestly, that’s the movie I’ve watched the most. That and The Tree of Life, which you also produced.
When a movie like that [Jesse James] finds an audience, is that thrilling?
It’s so gratifying.
We’re still going to try and get in more screenings.
Looking back on your projects, that is one of your first.
Yeah, I have an enormous soft spot for the movie. I think the movie is amazing and I loved it then. It’s also the movie – and, also, I love Andrew [Dominik] very much – it’s the movie about which Brad [Pitt] said one of the greatest things anyone has ever said to be and something that I think about all the time. We finished that year and we released Jesse James and Mighty Heart and he said I genuinely couldn’t be prouder. He spoke with me about the shelf life of a movie and he said, “You know, you and I didn’t find Days of Heaven in a theater. We didn’t find Strangelove in a theater. We didn’t find 2001 in a theater. We found them later, so watch. Sit back. Watch.” I thought, “Oh my God. You are the greatest, most generous person-slash-boss, ever.” But it was one of the most valuable things anyone has ever taught me because if you really believe in the long-term chess game, then every decision you make is sort of slightly through that filter and it has helped me a lot.
It was fascinating to see when Andrew Dominik came for the Q&A here – because during press tours you kind of have to be positive about everything – but it was amazing to see him for 45 minutes or an hour talk candidly about every aspect of the production. He’s someone who says he’d rather see my cut in one theater than a botched cut in wide release. Is that the mentality you have producing these films and the directors that you work with?
Yeah, that’s why you do it.
You obviously reteamed with Andrew Dominik again and have plans for another. Is there any update on Blonde?
I’m trying so hard. We really hope we’re going to make the movie with Annapurna. I hope. I really hope. It would be so extraordinary. I know it. But it’s hard. They’re all hard. [Laughs] So say a prayer for us.
We will. As a last question, two of my favorites filmmakers you’ve worked with, James Gray and Terrence Malick, and I’ve heard updates on Lost City of Z. Is that a project still going forward?
I don’t know yet. I’m trying. It’s another one I’m trying. I really love James and really hope [this] summer.
Have you seen The Immigrant?
I really love how it’s getting a push now, a little bit.
I know! How about that?
I was screaming about it in May, but it’s like…
Scream some more. Keep screaming!
Then Voyage of Time…
Hard at work.
Still going strong.
Oh, yeah. That’ll be a couple of years, but yeah.
I actually had the opportunity to see The Better Angels, A.J. Edwards’ debut.
Oh, yeah! How was the movie?
I’m really dying to see it.
Selma is now in limited release and expands on January 9th. Watch conversations with DuVernay and the cast above.
Big Eyes marks a return for Tim Burton to the stranger-than-fiction bio film. 20 years after Burton’s greatest work, Ed Wood, he’s teamed up once again with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to tell Margaret Keane’s (Amy Adams) story. For around a decade back in the ’50s and 60s’, Margaret allowed her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), to take credit for her paintings. It’s a bizarre, funny and sad tale, and Burton’s most human and intimate picture in years.
Big Eyes features two wildly different performances from Waltz and Adams. While Margaret is introverted, Walter is a man with no filter and an unbelievable ego. Walter’s behavior in Big Eyes will have audiences questioning how true the film really is, but the screenwriters actually pulled back on some of the huckster’s wild antics. The failed artist may be somewhat of a cartoon, but Waltz helps make him human.
The very personable actor was kind enough to discuss the film with us recently at the film’s junket. In our 15-minute conversation with him, we discussed the kind of experience he hopes to have when he goes to a theater, the lack of immediate and emotional films, and the relevance of Big Eyes. Here’s what Big Eyes star Christoph Waltz had to say:
I saw the film at the Los Angeles Museum of Art premiere. That was a great crowd.
It really was. That was a wonderful evening and very encouraging.
It got a lot of laughs. I think what really works about the humor in the film is it never undercuts the drama of Margaret’s predicament — and that’s a tough balance.
Thank you very much. That’s well put. It’s mostly the director’s merit, really, to balance all these things that, as a sum total, it makes sense. You know, I’ve found that directors like to push themselves in front of the story lately and give their versions and visions, and that’s their main objective for the movie. I don’t really quite get why that’s the most important thing, because the story is still what we go to the movies for. We want to experience story. We want to feel the story, so we can make our own minds up.
Right. You often feel the hand of the filmmaker pushing you towards a certain idea or emotion.
Exactly. I want to be invited into the story. I want to be involved, not called upon as a critic. I want to be really thrown into the thick of it, and that’s what makes the experience of going to the movies so gratifying. You can like it or dislike it, but I don’t think our aesthetic sensitivities and knowledge should be the prime target, but story and emotional involvement.
Over the past few years you’ve been a part of movies that transport you in that way. Is it tough finding that kind of material?
Yes, in a way, it is, because there are trends, fashions, and culture goes this way and that way. I’m not saying other approaches are far worthless, but, for me, when I go to the movies, I’m happiest when I’m immersed in the story. There’s a lot of comment going around rather than the immediacy of an experience. A lot of fairly intelligent comment is going around — and I’m not saying they’re dumb or a waste of time — but I want to be immersed in story.
Have read some past interviews you’ve done, you seem to have a very workmanlike approach to acting. You don’t get all academic about your roles, you do the work. Have you always been that way?
I always have been. I try to not to maintain that, but develop it. It’s more or less the same story from the other side. We all, as a result of various academic fashions, try to comment on the things we do rather than doing them, and I think that’s counterproductive.
You want the work to speak for itself.
Yeah, yeah. It’s all opinion by now. The actors’ opinion is irrelevant. Just do what you have to do. The audience’s opinion is what this is about. Well, maybe not even that, but the audience’s experience. We all try to be smart, but I don’t know…it’s meddling with perspectives. If you go to the movies and you’re never invited in, then you’re just there to have an opinion. There are too many opinions. [Laughs]
[Laughs] How important do you find an audience’s opinion? Do they determine whether a film or performance is a success?
Well, that’s one of the beautiful aspects of working in movies. You have to take the risk, follow your convictions, and hope for the best. Again, it’s more or less the same topic, because I don’t think we can preempt success, nor do I think we should. In the end, it all comes down to market research and survey — and all of that is based on an average — and it’s why a lot of stories are really not that interesting and engaging, because they tread very carefully not to step on anybody’s toes, not to disagree with anybody’s taste, and not to infringe upon anybody’s negative opinions. Again, here we are, it’s all about opinions, calculating and predicting. You know, that’s not storytelling. I tell you a story, and you tell me whether it speaks to you — and that’s how it works.
So many people worry about likability, and you’ll hear screenwriters say how often they get a note about how unlikable a character is. I imagine, as an actor, it’s tough finding juicy roles within the studio system because of that sanitization.
That is correct. Do we walk on the street liking everybody? Do we feel frustrated or diminished by the fact we don’t like everybody?
[Laughs] Exactly. That’s what it’s all about. I understand, though, because there’s economical aspect to moviemaking. If you fork out several millions or hundreds of millions of dollars, you somehow fear that you might have lost your investment if you’re not extremely careful. All of this is very, very valid, but not for the actor.
It’s funny when you learn how toned down Walter was for the film, because he’s already such an unhinged character. When you were on set, would you give Mr. Burton various degrees of broadness, so he could play with the tone in editing?
A little bit. You can’t really plan these things, so, in the finest and final detail, you kind of have to venture out, and then [what comes next] is what makes for a good director. [Laughs] I know it’s still not even close to a tenth of what happened in reality, but within the believability and probability of the story as we tell it, there was, “Okay, [give] a little less, a little more.” Of course, that’s the fun in working with a great director.
Big Eyes is a surprisingly relevant film about the business of art and entertainment. When you look at Walter, he’s a salesman, and that alone, nowadays, can make someone famous. They may not have talent, but they can sell themselves.
You’re right, and it’s more or less the same thing, because the artist kind of gets pushed to the background and the business man takes over. It’s creating value out of something that might not have any. Market economy is eating up everything, anyway. There’s another relevance I find to the story beyond that, which is the relationship, and how, let’s say, market economy can infringe on a personal or intimate relationship, and warp or form or contort that relationship into something that doesn’t really have so much to do with the two people as such. The business takes over an intimate relationship.
You’ve worked with some great directors over the past few years, ones who really create their own — and uncompromised – worlds. Is that a part of the fun of the job, getting to step into these slightly different realities?
It is, it is. One of the best parts of the job is exactly what you’re describing. Where I’m a little easier than you are is that I don’t call what’s around us reality. I call it reality, of course, but not the only valid reality. A real artist will always create a reality, which is not any less or more real than what we experience when we cross 57th street [in New York]. Since I don’t believe in the superiority of any of those realities, anyway, it’s not that difficult for me to happily join a great artist.
I know what you mean. Sometimes the world may seem heightened, but it can still be real. Like, Dr. King Schultz’s death in Django Unchained, comes out of this very human motive of, “I can’t let someone like Calvin Candie win or keep going.”
Yes, yes. It’s interesting, because we’re going back to the beginning of our conversation, because this is really how you immerse yourself in a story, by joining the world that’s presented by someone else. I think that needs to be facilitated, not the overburdening of an opinion.
Big Eyes opens in theaters December 25th.
After helping relaunch the Planet of the Apes franchise, director Rupert Wyatt could have seemingly jumped to any number of major blockbusters, but for his follow-up he instead took on something of a smaller scale. While still staying in the studio system, he set his sights on a remake of the James Caan-led drama The Gambler, this time featuring Mark Wahlberg in the lead and a William Monahan script.
I recently got a chance to sit down with the director for a one-on-one interview during the junket in New York. We discussed his use of diegetic sound, what attracted him to the project, working with less CGI, his collaboration with Greg Fraser, casting Brie Larson and John Goodman, capturing a different side of LA, what movies he’s looking forward to, and much more. Check out the full conversation below, which has mild spoilers.
I first wanted to touch on the use of diegetic sound in the movie. Almost every music cue you make sure the characters are actually listening to it. For example, the “Creep” cover and you go past the choir. How did that come about?
Yeah, I like the abrupt nature of the cut-offs, in the sense that we were constantly disrupting Jim’s life, but also The Last Picture Show did it, actually, where a lot of seemingly source music plays out in the scene itself on the radio. I’ve just found that another way of getting the audience into the actual scene itself rather than playing out a soundtrack so they feel like they are actually part of a whole, if that makes sense.
Yes. That specific one, the cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” was one you knew you were going to use during production?
Yeah, I did. I shot the scene to it and it just tonally worked so well. It created this melancholy and this sense of sadness at the parting and what he was doing, which was actually, “I need to walk away from you right now. Hopefully one day I can come back to you.” Of course he can’t tell her why so we tried other things against it just to see. I actually found out the day we were shooting – Jacqueline West, our costume designer had designed The Social Network. When we were shooting she said, “Oh, that’s the piece of music that was used on the trailer!” I was like, “Oh, crap.” But then I figured it was the trailer, it wasn’t the movie. We couldn’t find anything better.
Watching the trailer, and then coming to see the movie you don’t expect the ten-minute monologue Wahlberg’s character gives, along with the scene after that. You don’t normally see that in a studio Hollywood movie. Is that something that attracted you early on?
Yeah, very much. Only because it does set out his agenda very clearly very early on. It does it in a context that’s quite challenging, both from the point of view from getting an audience to really engage with a scene that runs that long and is that dialogue-driven, and frankly that static. If you’re in a lecture scene there’s not that many places to go, certainly from the audience’s point of view. So I saw that as a great challenge. It’s a different set of rules making a film like this than a more action-driven film.
Getting to that point, going from The Escapist to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was it a relief to work with less CGI? I know you worked directly with the actors on mo-cap there, but how was getting back to more independent sensibilities?
Well, the only part of the CG work that became so intrinsic to the process for me on Apes was the post-production process. The actual making of the movie was no different. Our actors, as you say, playing the apes were there on set. The technology around that, WETA’s cameras and the stuff the WETA guys did, part of their strengths is that they keep that away from the filmmaking process. We don’t have to step on their toes and vice versa. They were very invisible, but obviously when you get into the post and you are transferring a human actor into an ape, there are so many stages to doing that, all of which are a little bit like making a movie over again. You have to rebuild the performance and the action, but retaining the honesty of what was on the screen, because Andy [Serkis], in the case of Caesar, if he picks up a glass of water, his arm is a human arm. If an ape does that, an ape is only going to be doing that [shortens his arm and picks up water bottle] and there’s only so much animation you can do with the length of his arm to actually make it sort of just physically work. So then obviously in post you have to then reengineer slightly the body form and that can change the performance. So you’re always working to keep it to Andy’s performance, so that was a challenge and very time-consuming, whereas a film like this it was nice to get back to kind of, this is theater.
Your collaboration with Greg Fraser – who is a fantastic DP, and his career is kind of now skyrocketing with Star Wars and Foxcatcher — how did that come about? Did you approach him specifically?
I did, yeah. I had seen his work in Killing Them Softly and Bright Star, the Jane Campion movie, and Zero Dark Thirty and Snow White [and the Huntsman]. He’s very diverse and his style is across all of those movies but he has a very clear eye. He’s funny because he’s an Aussie so he’s very pragmatic and down-to-Earth and doesn’t like to convolute anything whether it be conversation or the scene itself. But he’s a real poet, although he’ll never admit to it he has this amazing artistic eye which is wonderful to have on set.
The shot after Wahlberg’s character gets rid of the $260,000 again, you have the Goodfellas/Vertigo-esque short where you’re zooming and pushing out. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Ah, yes. By the window.
Was that something he brought up or did you want to do that shot?
That was me, actually, only because I wanted to convey – not dissimilar to Goodfellas – that the world is changing for him now. So, yeah. That said, he executed it well.
With Brie Larson, she really clicks with Mark Wahlberg. Had you seen Short Term 12?
Oh, yeah. That’s where I first saw her. I had seen Scott Pilgrim actually as well and 21 Jump Street and Rampart I had seen. But Short Term 12 is where I saw truly how extraordinary she is.
For her audition process, I remember it was extensive, just reporting on it for our site. Which scene did you have her try out first?
Well, I always knew I wanted her. I didn’t have anybody else in mind. But of course filmmaking is a collaborative process, so there were people we had to see, needed to see, the protocol was such that we should see. You can always get stuff from those meetings which is really good for the part, but from the get-go I wanted her. I admire Tarantino in the sense that when he writes something he has a very clear idea of who he wants. He writes a part for somebody and then goes after them. That just gets rid of all the bullshit. In terms of, there’s a lot of hustling that goes along with casting and you can find yourself ending up with the wrong person for all the wrong reasons. It just made so much sense to me to cast someone like Brie, who is such an old soul and pretty mature for her age. It made that relationship so much more understandable. It was less Lolita and much more about kindred spirits. There are not many actresses 24 or 25 in Hollywood that can bring that. Well, there may be, but I knew that with Brie I knew I was going to get that.
With John Goodman, how did his character’s design come about? Introducing him shaving his head is great.
Yeah. I asked him when we first met if he was up for it. He said normally no, because actor’s don’t like to shave their heads. You can’t work for six months. But he was going to take a break, so he said, “Yep, let’s do it.” He was very open to ideas and he is a terrific guy.
There’s a lot of little oddities in the film, like Mark Wahlberg twirling the umbrella at the tennis court.
That was actually Mark. It wonderful because he’s this fish out of water in so many different environments in this film. He’s always an outsider, so it was sort of great. I wanted to stick him up at the top of the umpire’s chair, but he took the umbrella up with him.
There’s also the great shot showing the collapse of his psyche with the house, the flood. Was that in the script?
No, that was something we added and my effects guys who I’ve worked with since my short film days actually, Atomic Arts, did all the effects on this film. They did some of the CG on Apes. Not the apes themselves, but some background work. We built that sequence from scratch. We did a Lidar shoot, which is this amazing invention where it sends out an infrared signal on a 360-degree basis so you can stick it in the middle of this room and in a couple of seconds it would map this entire room and then you feed it into a computer and it gives you the 3D model, in this case, this room. So we did that with a location outside Mark’s house and then we built digitally the flood. I liked the idea that it was representative of obviously not only the cleaning of the stables, but it leads us into the third act and Mark’s journey upwards, but also the idea this his world is essentially that vulnerable.
That also comes into play with the seven-day countdown. I loved the lettering and the style. Was that in the post-production process?
Yeah, it was, our title guys. I know I wanted to play with the seven-day, that was something, again, we added to structure the film a little bit more and chapter it like a book because with Jim being a novelist it seemed to make sense. The actual design of the day cards we decided to make them a little more integral into the frame.
When you were on set, did you know the actual shots that were going to be incorporated?
Yeah, most of them. Some of them fell by the wayside. Therefore we needed to put the day shots over frames we didn’t initially imagine. The girl dancing in the strip club, that was always going to be a day shot.
With the underground gambling area in Koreatown you make it quite an extensive journey. In some movies, it’s just a backdoor and someone says a password or phrase and goes in. With your film, it’s this actual descent and you never know what’s around the next corner.
Well, my main influence on that whole thing is the journey De Niro takes at the end of Deer Hunter where he’s seeking out Christopher Walken‘s character and he’s taken to the journey through hell to the Russian roulette scene, so that’s what I based it on. Of course with our case we’re going through the underworld of Koreatown and just what lies beneath these closed doors. I like this idea as he journeys he goes through the lower level aspect of the gambling, whether it be the poker machines, then gradually gets to more and more opulent surroundings, even though they are pretty hellish, right to the dragon room at the end, which is the high stakes room, which was all based on research.
This is a great LA movie, which is not in the sense of just showing the Hollywood sign. As you say, you see Koreatown but other areas not widely captured.
Yeah, Greg and I made this rule which is if we see a palm tree in the frame, we’ll move the camera. We just didn’t want to play to the preconceived notion of what LA was and that was because I wanted to give LA a heartbeat and make it a slightly warmer place. More often that not that kind of white light of Los Angeles and the valley lit up at night from Mulholland Drive, that sort of gridlock Less Than Zero shot is always peoples’ pre-conceived notion of what LA is. Of course it’s much more than that and it’s culturally very rich and architecturally incredibly diverse. The districts are so self-contained. They are all like multiple cities within one city. So, as a journey, to journey through that was great because it’s like the seven circles of hell. They are all very different and they were color-coded and that was my way into each of those locations, was through the characters.
There’s another LA movie coming out this week, actually, Inherent Vice. Have you seen it yet?
[Shakes head indicating no]
Ah, Michael K. Williams was in that film too and both movies have this LA, like you said, not how you expect LA.
Yeah, I’m really looking forward to seeing that. Also, Nightcrawler, which I haven’t see.
As a follow up to that, because Mark Wahlberg kind of broke out with Boogie Nights, PTA’s first movie, was that the first time you noticed him?
I’m trying to think, actually no. I think Basketball Diaries is where I first saw him. Was that before?
Yeah, a little bit.
Growing up not in the states I never knew Mark as Marky Mark or the underwear model or Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. That was before. I was elsewhere. That was not part of my pop culture. I’ve always known Mark as an actor first and foremost.
The Gambler is now in limited release and expands wide on Christmas Day.
By now, the buzz surrounding The Babadook is enough to start peppering expectations of the film which is in limited release and available on various VOD platforms. Instead of creating a film that seeks to scare and torment, first-time writer/director Jennifer Kent wants to explore mood and creating an experience. Sure, The Babadook has chills, but it’s the way it touches on reality that is more disturbing. The film follows a widowed mother and child that are threatened by an ethereal creature that invades their lives after reading a particularly disturbing children’s book.
Much of the film relies on the performances from six-year-old Noah Wiseman and veteran actress Essie Davis. I recently had a chance to speak to Kent about the film and we touched on everything from the sound design to the the production challenges of shooting with a child to the fact that Kent wanted to explore taboos. Check out the brief conversation below, including a holiday “treat.”
The Film Stage: Having much of the film rely on a six-year-old, it had to be hard to get that right. Can you talk about finding that balance and having these very powerful emotions?
Jennifer Kent: Absolutely. It was always on my mind. I knew that it would be difficult, but what we focused on was creating an environment for him that was loving. We didn’t want to scare him just to scare him. His mother was on set a lot. So we had moments where we had to get emotional and we talked through that.
I think it’s interesting to create a child, who is also a main character, who isn’t the most likable person.
Well, a lot of that reaction has actually come from the American screenings.
Yeah. I don’t know what that says about you.
[Laughs] Well, hopefully it’s not an indication of something underlying. Just the same, though, it’s very brave of you to make a character that people might not enjoy.
Right. But that’s all part of the story. I’m going for something real and kids can have that effect. This is taboo. Parenting is supposed to be this perfect thing and it rarely goes as smoothly as it is portrayed in fiction.
I’m curious about the sound that the Babadook makes, this screech. I’ve heard some say it sounds like a stock sound effect from their memory. I feel like I’ve heard it before as well. Can you talk about what went into creating it?
Well, it’s curious that anyone heard it before because we generated all the sounds ourselves.
Well, what was the development process of that?
Well, it’s like a magician giving away its tricks.
It’s a very intimate and ongoing personal process. The sound design. It kind of spoils the fun, I think, if we go into how everything was produced.
That’s totally fine. I’m actually glad you brought up the magician aspect because that definitely plays into the story. Especially with clips of Georges Méliès and such. One of the things I really enjoyed was how the Babadook is involved in a few clips of TV that she is watching.
Well, the background clips existed but we made them with the Babadook, yeah.
Did you shoot that yourself or did someone else create them?
Well, we didn’t have a second unit, so I had to do them all myself.
I’ve read a few interviews and you’ve mentioned you don’t want anything to do with a sequel.
You didn’t want a lot of merchandise and such as well.
But you are in the process of producing the book itself, right?
Yeah. I’m writing a book.
Great to hear. Not a lot of reviews I’ve read have touched on the key point of sleep deprivation.
I love the fact that you weave that throughout the film because you’ve mentioned in several interviews that you want this to be a film that people can relate to. Perhaps not specifically in terms of what Essie’s character is going through, but certainly the general feeling. I think sleep deprivation is a huge part because in my own experience you act odd, you’re hazy, and grouchy.
Well I think sleep deprivation is part of a bigger issue for her. It’s part of the denial of everything that’s going on. So, yeah, it’s definitely a big part of her experience. It’s causing her mind to shift. It’s definitely an important part of her grip coming unstuck.
Well, I’ve got to say thank you again for creating this film. It’s refreshing in this day and age. You didn’t go down the jump scare route and you manage to teeter between a lot of themes quite well.
I love that you seem to be after more than just scaring people but instead giving them an experience.
Yeah, it’s her story and that’s what I was always focused on.
The Babadook is now available on VOD and expanding in theaters.