Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes has the distinction of winning the prestigious Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year with his debut feature Saul fia (Son of Saul). The film was met with wide critical acclaim after its world premiere — including ours — and has subsequently been submitted as Hungary’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. I had the chance to talk to Mr. Nemes during the 23rd Filmfest Hamburg, where the harrowing Holocaust drama celebrated its German premiere. Check out our full conversation below.
Is it true that the film was turned down by the Berlinale?
That is true. They didn’t want us in competition at least. I had thought, for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it would be a good film for Berlin, but…
On the other hand, the movie didn’t only make Cannes competition, which is rare enough for a debut feature, it went on to win the Grand Prix as well. Can you talk about the whole Cannes experience?
Well we knew pretty early on that we’d be in Cannes but we didn’t know in which section – we thought, maybe Un certain regard. And then came the news right before the official announcement that we’d be in competition, which was really quite a shock. To be honest it was scary, too. But we knew of course that this would give our film the kind of exposure it wouldn’t get otherwise. I also think the slot the festival chose to put us in – early on in the fest, low-profile – was suitable for the film.
Before going there, I had thought it’s going to be just superficial excitement, but when we actually presented the film, it was an almost spiritual experience. You feel a connection to the film, to the festival, to the audience. When I was walking into the theater, it felt like everything was in slow motion. And it was the first time that the cast and crew reunited after the shoot wrapped almost a year ago, so it was very special.
Most debut films would be impressive if they show ambition or have a brilliant idea. Yours is – on top of that – also technically accomplished. Where did you learn to do that?
I was an assistant director for years. I was an assistant to Béla Tarr in Hungary for two years, which taught me the basics of not just filmmaking, but high-level filmmaking – in terms of how to choreograph a scene, how to stage complicated shots, how to work with a professional crew etc. Also I had made three short films before this. And I had built a relationship to some key creative crew members over the years: the DP, the production designer, the sound designer. On such a foundation I can communicate with them effectively. It’s like we’ve been doing rehearsals all this time.
Talk about the technical achievement of the film, can you share how the astonishing cinematography came to be?
My cinematographer (Mátyás Erdély) is my age but he’s much more experienced – he’s shot like 15 features films. I think to shoot this film did require that kind of experience too, because this is a film where the cinematographer must be not just very good, but also someone who could resist the temptation to shoot a beautiful movie. The images needed to have a raw quality, not a pretty one. So I think it was important that he has had all that experience, for he’s past the stage of his career where he was just concentrating on pretty lighting, framing, and compositions. He understood the fact that visually, we needed something low-key, simple and raw. With that understanding we were able to speak the same language throughout the shoot. Before this we had made three short films together and he’s a cinematographer who’s involved even on the screenplay level. He asked me all the time about the story. For him it’s always story first. In fact we established a set of codes for this movie which we actually wrote down. Rules like: this is not a beautiful film. No beautiful shots. There would be no aestheticizing the suffering of the people. Or that the camera should be trained at eye level, making it a very subjective experience. Also, to use more or less only one 40mm lens because we wanted something that’s close to the human perception. And we didn’t want anything iconographic that would distract people’s attention. The movie should look a little messy, with an uncertain, unfinished quality.
And why this aspect ratio?
We were deciding between widescreen and the narrow academy aspect ratio. In the end we found that widescreen – although it would have looked very nice – would have been too… cinematic, it would have made a spectacle out of the background, made the background so stylistically important that we would lose the portrait-like focus we wanted for the film.
So you wanted the film to feel like a portrait.
Yes, we wanted it to be like a portrait because it’s about one man’s experience in hell. We’re all companion to the main character, he guides us through hell.
Can you talk about making the main character as non-verbal as he is?
These men are dead. This is something very central to how we approached the characters. These are special people. They’re so beyond traumatized they don’t function as normal human beings anymore. So our main character, like the others, is sort of a robot. He’s like someone who’s already dead but comes back alive or suddenly finds some life inside. So it had to be approached in a very low-key manner. The way these people are confronted with sufferings and the constant presence of death, why would they even be talking? As closed up as they must have been, it couldn’t have been natural for them to communicate their inner feelings. So that is a basic trait of our main character.
In fact we can’t even be sure if it’s really his son at all, can we?
Yeah it’s something that keeps coming back. And I think it’s essential to the story to try to discover who, what this boy is, and also to contemplate the implications of both possibilities. The viewer must consider both scenarios. In the end, I think the question we can ask ourselves is: does it matter if it’s his son or not?
The implications might be even more powerful if it’s not.
Yes, absolutely. A lot of people in the crew – I’m not going to say who here – think the boy is not his son.
Have you noticed different reactions from different audiences with this film?
I haven’t travelled enough to assess that. But overall I feel a strong engagement on the part of the audience every time, whether in Europe or North America.
What do you think is the relevance of a Holocaust film like this today?
I think people never had a direct, visceral understanding of what it might have been like to be inside a concentration camp, to be caught in the middle of an extermination machine. There have been attempts to approach it in a more intellectual manner, but not viscerally – to put you in the shoes of someone in that situation. It’s something that cinema can achieve, this kind of direct, intuitive relationship between the individual audience members and the character. We lack empathy in the sense that there’s a distance when we think about the camps in abstract terms. So I hope this movie can help make people really feel what it’s like to be oppressed and destroyed in our human experience. Also, if we consider Holocaust as a myth and not as something that took place in this world – I mean, Auschwitz was a factory, built by people and not by martians – if, as a civilization, we don’t address the genocidal tendency in our nature, how can we prevent such atrocities from happening again? So – maybe I’m being optimistic here – I think that’s something that cinema can do, to speak to the human in the audience. From there we can draw our own conclusions and the message becomes universal.
So it’s not just anti-Semitism that you’re trying to address with the film.
Absolutely. Of course, Jewish people have been subject to so much hatred for a long time so it’s specific in this sense obviously.
Son of Saul screened at the 2015 Filmfest Hamburg and will open on December 18th.
The word on the street about Victoria is that it’s a must-see for one reason: its entire two-plus hour runtime was captured in a single, pulse-pounding continuous take. While that aspect is definitely paramount, don’t think the film has nothing else to offer. As my review notes, this thing gets your blood pumping as much from the authentic performances of regular people in over their heads as it does the technical artistry. And the man leading the way to orchestrate both these halves is Sebastian Schipper.
We talked with the co-writer/director about his trust in cast and crew as well as what he believes is crucially important—embracing imperfections to better portray his characters’ universal humanity. The main quartet must be relatable in this way in order for us to invest the time necessary to follow them on their escalating adventures around Berlin. We empathize with his local crew of misfits caught in the clutches of a gangster and vicariously breath along with Victoria as she willingly thrives within the danger her as-yet life on the straight and narrow never allowed.
The Film Stage: You have this insane idea for a film to capture an adrenaline rush of action, drama, romance, and comedy all in one take. Does that pitch get financiers and producers excited or does it make it hard to find collaborators willing to take the plunge?
Sebastian Schipper: I think if you want to get people excited you have to be excited yourself. I think a lot of people underestimate that. A lot of people who go into film or want to become directors underestimate how much they have to get involved themselves to get other people involved.
Having said that, I don’t think I could have pulled it off had this been my first film. I did three other films before in Germany and I pretty much called the people I worked with [on those projects] and they appreciated my work and took the chance. Also, I had a fallback scenario where I was telling them that if I can’t pull off the one-take I’m going to throw together a wild jump-cut version of it.
Did you actually play with that idea or were you happy with how the single takes were progressing?
We did try it out and it didn’t work to be honest. It didn’t come together at all. So we had to do it in the one take and we were only able to do that on the last try.
Did your history as an actor help your preparation behind the camera? Did it give you pause logistically knowing how far actors will go for so long a session or perhaps push you to push them even further?
I think that’s my job as a director: to push people far. And I also know having been an actor that if there is purpose you don’t mind it. That’s why we do what we’re doing—because we want to experience something.
There’s this quote from A Brave New World. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book, but this one guy says, “We have comfort for you.” And another guy says, “I don’t want comfort. I want pain, sin, God, poetry.” I think deep down of course there’s a superficial aspect in us that wants to be comfortable, but at the same time we’re longing to do something that really has meaning.
I believe actors do that and the moment you can convince them that what we’re doing is meaningful, they’re really willing to go very far. But you have to come with them. You can’t count on them to go far while I watch. I think within this project they knew I was willing to take a huge risk because if this doesn’t work it’s me who didn’t pull it off. Not them.
It was a great playground and for me. I produced it myself. I don’t think anyone else would have reproduced it the way we produced it.
What was the cast process like considering you really needed to find actors you could completely trust? There wasn’t room to yell, “Cut!” and rework their performance on the fly.
Yeah. I met people and worked with them. I tried out how we would get along and how well they were at improvisation. And I was lucky enough to find these great people.
With most of the dialogue being improvised—
Yeah, all of it.
I thought there was a great moment when Frederick Lau (Sonne) slips and says “hotel” instead of “café” at the beginning because it works so well on two levels. It’s a testament to the technical process of being able to push through the mistake and a perfect bit of storytelling displaying mankind’s nervousness in romantic situations.
Yeah. I agree one hundred percent.
What were you thinking when you heard him?
I don’t know if that was a—I wasn’t able to watch every little second and I don’t know. Honestly I can’t even tell you what I was thinking at that moment. [laughter]
Probably what I was thinking was that I had a feeling this take was going well. I don’t think I was thinking about his line at that very moment.
There are a lot of people comparing it to Birdman for the one-take aspect, but Birdman isn’t in real time and can still use jump-cuts. You don’t have that luxury. Could you talk about location scouting and trying to condense the playing field so there aren’t story lulls of characters traveling far?
I think comparing Victoria to Birdman is out of some kind of helplessness because people need to put things into boxes. If you look at Russian Ark, Birdman, and Victoria—they have nothing in common.
Nothing at all.
No. It’s completely—one film is in a museum. You know? [laughter] Maybe for some people going to a museum and robbing a bank is the same kind of thing to be doing. [laughter]
There’s also—if that’s what you want to call it—a “rivalry” effect with Birdman and Victoria. That’s also I think fabricated. Of course it kind of comes around as a compliment to me, but at the same time Birdman is also a crazy film that took a huge risk. I can’t imagine—from what I heard—casting Michael Keaton for the lead. That was a true challenge for this project. It was a really ballsy project whether it was an entire one-take or not. And I love that aspect of Birdman. I also admire that in Russian Ark on some level, but that film is not as close to me.
So what I think all these films have most in common is that there’s a spirit to do something different. I like that a lot. Whether [the one-take is] really accomplished or whether it’s in a museum or not, that’s why I have a feeling these films maybe are connected. But not on the level of someone pulled it off and someone didn’t. We have to do something different. We have to be daring in what we’re doing.
What about finding those locations and keeping everything so close? There are a couple of silent stretches where the score takes over to add intrigue to the otherwise uneventful travel interludes that I thought were great as segues to mask it too.
I really like this place in Berlin—this street called the Friedrichstrasse. It’s this big shopping street. Later when they’re at the hotel is the really rich end of this street, but where the film starts is the kind of poor projects style.
Normally if you want to shoot a scene in a garage, what you do as a director is look at twenty garages or thirty or something. And here I had only one. You know? There was also like a parking deck kind of thing that was open to the side where I thought, “Ah, I’m not sure we can use that for them to rehearse to rob a bank.” And then the garage came around.
The thing with the bank—I wanted to use a different location. It was a little too expensive and so we had to settle for [the location we used].
It was great because I lost so much power as a director within shooting Victoria. At the same time so much was reinforced. We went to the core of so many things. The core for me is not making the movie precious with the best looking direction and the best lines, but to get at the core of what’s really going on. What’s the inside? What’s the fear and the joy and the hope; the pain within these people; the dirt under their fingernails? That’s what I like.
Even though [the question seems to be], “How did you find the locations?” I think that again gets back to the core. It’s a little like—somebody told me it’s a little like The Princess and the Wolves. And I like that because I like classic stories. For me it’s almost like in music, in Soul. Soul is perfect compositions, wonderful songs. But if they’re not being delivered with pain and dirt and street, [they miss being the] most powerful music there is. Clean Soul is the worst music there is and real Soul is the shit.
I think now looking at the film, that’s somewhere I wanted to go. And even though it’s sometimes meant, [sometimes it isn’t]. You know, the elevator is not there when they arrive. Freddy—Sonne—puts the bottle of beer on the piano with the label facing our camera, which I hated at the time.
But it’s not about perfection and that’s also sometimes the difference between a true musician and a session musician. A session musician makes no mistakes. They know everything. They play the first couple of tunes and they know, “Oh, this is the Blues? Okay this is how we play it.” You feel that.
You need a musician to come in who doesn’t have the perfect voice and makes mistakes. But the right mistakes—all of the pain and different necessities to make music. Not, “Oh, I love music! I love singing.” You need to really love it—love it because you need it. Because you’d go crazy if you couldn’t sing. That is something I tried to get by bringing my actors and myself as close to it as possible.
And I’m telling you man, there were many moments when I thought, “Aw man, I want it perfect.” Now they’re sitting in this car forever to get to the garage. I like the garage, but they just have to go there forever. [laughter] I was in pain at times because of course I’m a director; I want to make everything perfect. That is one of the super crazy aspects of directing and making films.
Nobody leaves the cinema and says, “Oh I love this film because they made no mistakes.” You want something. When you go to a concert or play a record or whatever—play a song, watch a videotape—you want this feeling that they really gave their guts to what they’re doing. It can also be a comedy or something light, but you have to have this feeling that this really meant something beyond the point of, “We would love to sell you this product.”
So, yes, sometimes I felt like I was in the wild when it’s raining and you’re camping and you hate everything and you want to be back home with your shower. I knew we were out in the wilderness, but at the same time I knew what we were doing was really extraordinary. Looking back—being back with my shower and all my comfort—I look back on that trip and it was tremendous.
And whoever is going to do that—I know one day someone is going shoot another great one-take movie and some people are going to like it and other people aren’t. But I know one thing: whoever is going to do that, they’re going to bleed. They’re going to cry and they’re going to sweat, and they’re going to wet their pants, man. They will have to pay in heavy currency for this experience and that’s also going to be great for them. Hopefully.
That’s the best answer I can give you concerning locations. [laughter]
No that’s great. And I think a lot of that comes through because there are so many emotional and tonal shifts throughout Victoria’s adventure. Her trying to start the car in front of the bank—that’s just such a tense scene because we’re not seeing the robbery. For all we know they are getting caught. Watching her chaos instead is perfect.
Yeah, I like that you say that. I understand when people say, “Hey, it’s about a bank robbery. Why don’t we see the bank robbery?” I understand that. But even if there would have been a bank behind those windows—there wasn’t—I still would say for me the most interesting thing is to stay with her. Even if I could have gone anywhere, in this kind of movie I stay with her.
And she goes just crazy because she doesn’t know what’s going on and maybe she’s going to run away. Maybe she’s getting out of there. Maybe she isn’t. Is she going to stay? Are they going to make it? What the fuck’s going on? That was for me more interesting than the gun waving and the yelling that we’ve seen before in the garage.
There’s some of that with the guys too. I feel like Hollywood would have made them all ex-cons who’ve done this before. But even Boxer [Franz Rogowski] who is an ex-con—he doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s unprepared. Does that sense of everyone being unprepared help the audience enter more comfortably?
I hope it does. I do what I believe in and what I find interesting. And what I like about Boxer—I really appreciate you mentioning him because sometimes the tent poles of this project are the one-take, then Laia Costa‘s amazing performance, and then it’s Frederick Lau. I think sometimes Boxer is a little [overlooked].
He looks like a skinhead, is super aggressive, and fights all the time. It’s super easy to see him always getting in trouble all his life. But at the same time I think he’s touching. You can see that he’s not just a bully. He’s really overwhelmed with life. I can see him having a big brother that was always beating him up. And that was kind of a story we had with Boxer because I believe that these guys have to be touching. They are wolves, but they’re puppies. They’re not jaded assholes that don’t give a fuck. They just kind of ended up on the outside. They ended up on the dark side of town. They’re like outside the Green Zone, you know? [laughter] But that doesn’t mean they’re assholes. There’s a lot of solidarity going on between them.
And for Victoria, being the “princess” maybe—she’s a princess that just got kicked out of the palace. Somebody told her one morning, “You’re not a princess anymore, by the way. You can go now.” And maybe she was scared in this moment because she doesn’t have the palace anymore or the little crown and all that. Maybe the moment where she runs into the boys she thinks, “What the fuck? Maybe there’s an upside to not being a princess anymore. Maybe now I can finally do some stuff that I never did. I can dance by myself. I can drink a shot. I can try in a shy way to hit on the barkeeper.” So when the guys come around—”I’m just going to have a beer with them. What’s going to happen?”
I know some people are—and I think it’s a cultural thing a little bit, but maybe also what people are afraid of [themselves]—they are scared for her. I can understand that in a way, but I can also understand her going with them.
It’s liberating for her.
Did you have a feeling towards that?
Yeah. It’s liberating for her. She wants everything that’s happening—that sense of adventure and danger. She goes headfirst.
I think you’re right one hundred percent and I believe some stuff you only know looking back—in life, but it also in movies. If I look back now on Victoria—and I’m not going to say that this was a conscious choice, but maybe intuition. The only person that truly needs this bank robbery is Victoria.
Andi the gangster [André Hennicke] wants his money; Boxer wants to pay his debt; the boys don’t want to let Boxer down—nobody really needs this bank robbery if you really look at the core of it. The only person that sees a chance—and [Victoria] says, “I’m with you. I’ll come with you. I’ll drive you.” In that moment, again [unconsciously], she says, “If I do that, I will never be the same again.” She knows she’s going to pull the plug on the whole princess scenario.
Maybe she doesn’t know in that moment as there’s also more things coming into play, but I agree. She needs that. She’s also becoming a little like a dark angel at that moment. If you look back on it, if she wouldn’t have said, “I’ll come with you” maybe no one would have died. There’s a good chance of that. So it’s really twisted. I like that.
I like that too. That’s really great. I also wanted to touch on your cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen being a character himself in his absence. What type of preparation was taken to ensure we don’t see the crew in frame or him through reflections?
It was more about finding the spirit than to really coordinate in detail or even, of course, block anything. There were two important things that Sturla and I had to discover. The first one was: can I anticipate? He has to go with it and not be afraid of mistakes. We found something like you’d call a war photographer—he’s caught in this situation and he hangs on and he’s not going to let go. And the next step was to always have Victoria on your mind. We don’t have to film her all the time, but we always have to return to her and make her the center of whatever is going on. If she’s looking at stuff—that’s cool. But we always got to return to her and really build this film—also from a camera aspect—around her.
From that sprang all the decisions for detail. And I had to let Sturla go and make those himself. We did rehearse those and we shot the one-take three times, so I was able to look at it and was always able to give him feedback.
What can we expect next from you?
There’s a book that I read in 2011 that I just bought the rights to called Denial [A Memoir of Terror]. It’s the autobiographical story of Jessica Stern—she’s an expert on terror, very renowned. She [also] was with the Clinton administration and taught at Harvard School of Law.
She goes back to her hometown to maybe for the first time really explore the time when she was raped at fourteen because the police believe that the guy that did it is still at-large. She’s coming back home as a strong and successful woman with a lot of self-esteem. Being an expert on terror—and most terrorists are men—she’s going back to face this ultimate trauma in her life.
For me it’s very touching, but there’s also on some level in exploring it a tremendous part for a woman in her forties. It’s tremendous—it transcends the, “Oh, this is a story about a woman.” I’m very touched by this idea that you return to the core and that there’s something, once you’ve grown up and become strong enough, that needs you to go back and explore maybe the first sin that has been done upon you—or whatever you want to call that.
I think it has a wonderful ending and it’s very strong. I’m looking forward to having the chance—because in 2011 I wasn’t able to pull it off. And now I’m talking to you and people here in LA and they’re asking, “What are you doing next?” and I can say [Denial]. It feels really great.
Victoria hits limited release on Friday, October 9th.
Being provided with the opportunity to talk to Takashi Miike, on the occasion of his latest film — the “crazy”-if-somewhat-languid vampire gangster blow-out Yakuza Apocalypse — is a tricky proposition. For someone with that kind of prolificacy, how can you keep it to just one film? However, we tried to talk to him about ostensibly everything surrounding his fascinating career, and one can check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: You’re noted for how many films you make — usually two or three a year. Do you still find it easy to make that many?
Takashi Miike: There was a time when I made five or six movies a year, but those were really low-budget ones — the shoots would only take 2 weeks or so. But now I take about two months to make one film, and next year it should be the same pace.
Recently there was an interview with the director Kiyoshi Kurosawa where he remarked that the Japanese film industry had changed and come to resemble the American one, in that the studios only wanted to greenlight basically sequels and manga adaptations. Have you found this with the Japanese film industry, or has it changed in any other ways you could note?
For me, the audience — the people who watch the movies — are the ones who determine what movies are going to be made. I’m not really a scholar myself, so I’m okay to agree with Kurosawa’s analysis, and, if he says it, it must be correct. However, personally, I’m the type that goes with the flow.
I know at one point you’d been planning to make a film in America. What happened with that film and are there any other countries you’ve considered making films in?
I can’t change myself. If I work in a different environment with a different staff it’ll bring something new out of me. I have a strong desire to make movies in a different country. But, to get back to your question about the American project: I did have one and to tell you how difficult it is to bring these things to reality; I had two or three opportunities to make movies in the U.S., but they didn’t really become a reality. One of them went as far as being one month from the beginning of shooting. We had done the casting in Japan and all that but it became cancelled. And why? Well, I’m not really sure what the reason was, but there’s an actor called Tom Hardy — he starred in Mad Max — and, at the last minute, he pulled out. Those are things that happen, and it’s very difficult to make those kinds of international collaborations a reality.
Speaking in regards to Yakuza Apocalypse, I see this as a film that’s challenging — or rather making fun of — masculinity and masculine rituals. Do you see masculinity as a running theme in your films?
Masculinity, symbolizing strength, and no matter what the reason — the reasons might be many — the fact that they do not back off from anything and do not run away from anything. Those are things that I don’t necessarily have myself, so I feel a strong yearning for those kinds of things, and that’s why I have it in my movies.
There’s a few films in your career that you’ve written. I think the most recent was Lesson of the Evil. What inspires you to occasionally write some of your own films, and do you want to do it more?
With the movie you just mentioned, Lesson of the Evil, I really loved the original book, so when a script was made out of it, and I read that script, it had become something completely different from the original. There was a love story in it and it was really concerned about making the film more accessible or more easy to watch. I thought that was a huge sign of disrespect towards the original work, so that’s why I decided I had to realize the script myself. So, to get back to your original question: if it was an easy process I would do it more often, but it’s really, really hard. So unless I’m really compelled, or I have to do it, it doesn’t happen.
When Yakuza Apocalypse premiered at Cannes, I know you did a video introduction dressed as a geisha. What was the impetus behind that?
In Cannes, there is this Director’s Week [Director’s Fortnight] that’s kind of like Midnight Madness, where people come and really expect the presence of the director, and I couldn’t go. I felt really bad about not supporting my fans, so I thought I should do something that’s not just a video message. I want to entertain them; I want them to have a good time watching it. It wasn’t really supposed to be aired on the Internet and the producer said could we put that as a special feature on the DVD and I was like no, no — that wasn’t really the idea. It was for the people who would come to that Cannes premiere.
I know you were taught in film school by the great Shohei Imamura. How did he shape your work?
It wasn’t really the work that taught me, it was more following him as his assistant that he taught me a lot. I can’t really say it’s directly reflected in my work per se; it’s more how I approach filmmaking and my relationship with the filmmaking. He taught me that there is a unique relationship between the director and the film and that there are no set rules. You have to develop your connection, your own interaction with the film, and even if I wanted to make a movie like Black Rain, I couldn’t because I’m not him. He taught me that I had to be myself when I was making films.
Yakuza Apocalypse hits theaters and VOD on Friday, October 9.
No film in recent memory leaps off the screen like The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson‘s omnibus-like homage to numerous forms of cinematic storytelling. From the first splotchy, out-of-sync seconds, it’s clear that they’re attempting to play with the medium’s properties in a very direct, sometimes assaultive way, but this is no endurance test — in all its stories, threads, angles, and suggestions, it may also be the most consistently funny thing to hit theaters this year. (Imagine if Tim & Eric were aesthetic-obsessed cinephiles and you’ll start to get the idea.)
Because the film has no decisive start or end point — and their Internet companion piece, Seances, only further reinforces this quality — our conversation could have gone anywhere, perhaps at the concession of coherence. But, as you’ll see, they’re far too familiar with their work and far too certain of their intentions to lose sight of the project. Just as no one but Guy Maddin could have made The Forbidden Room, no one but he and Johnson would be able to talk through it with such eloquence.
Having seen the film a few days ago, with your Q & A, and having given it some days to sit… this still feels like a movie you could talk about for days on end. The endless, Möbius strip-like quality means I can’t exactly pin anything down.
Guy Maddin: No one has invoked the Möbius strip, but it’s a metaphor I invoke often.
Did you invoke it here?
GM: I didn’t, but I often invoke it to describe the nightmare that is my life. It’s a very stubby Möbius strip; it doesn’t really shake things up much. No, but I’m pleased, because I do like the suggestion, because the Internet companion piece to this desires to tap into an infinite — an endless — motherlode of narrative, and reconfigure them with the same elements. “A Möbius strip of Kuleshov experiments.”
That’ll sell it to the masses.
GM: Yeah, that’s right! [Laughs] That’s right. “A little bit of Möbius.” No, and then this film just purports to be, I guess, one seance with lost cinema.
Have you thought of the Internet as a distribution format for a long time? I feel like it’s well-suited for you, so you doing this, here, wasn’t surprising. It seemed like something you would keep in mind for a while.
GM: Yeah, it was, because I just knew, before I started working with Evan, that to get these Guy Maddin movies out into the world, it took a lot of grassroots work — the kind of work that the Internet can do in its sleep. It can find whoever might like this stuff very quickly. And so it struck me that maybe the Internet… instead of complaining about distributors sliding my movie on the shelf or not getting the poster design right — or something like that — just put it on the Internet already. There’s ways of manipulating that, to bring it to people better, but it just seemed like the place to try to work.
Then it turned out to be such a big project, and a couple of things made us want to make a companion piece to the Internet project that was a feature film. One, we were big fans of the feature film, wanted to make a feature film, and didn’t want to spend five years working on an Internet project and then think of a feature film. It also really helped finance the Internet project, to make a feature film, because you can access more money to make a feature film. They fed each other perfectly; the vast amount of narrative material we sourced for our Internet project fit into our feature. And then the feature kicked back some money, and they just sort of exist as companion pieces that I hope, some day, enrich each other. There’s a tendency for people to think of websites as just working in service of a movie, but that’s not the case here.
You guys must be proponents of the big-screen experience, though.
I had a chance to see this on a DVD, but when I knew there would be a New York Film Festival screening, I thought I should see it theatrically. By the opening credits, I knew I’d made the right choice.
GM: I think so. I’m going to have to be thrilled people are watching it on whatever-sized screen in the long haul, but it’s the first movie I’ve been involved with where I really feel it’s really much better on the big screen.
GM: A lot of it is the work Evan did in post. We captured HD, raw color footage, and then he and his brother, the production designer Galen, went to work, and I love the way it looks.
Have you fully embraced home video, though? I feel like this is a particularly interesting test case.
Not that your work is necessarily imprecise, but this feels so precise in its cinematographic character that, to see it on Blu-ray… are you guys excited by the HD format?
Evan Johnson: I do. I live in Winnipeg and I don’t have many big-screen options.
GM: Me either.
EJ: I can watch, like, Mission: Impossible. I’m not going to be able to see Cemetery of Splendour on a big screen, and I find that really, really, really irritating, because small screens, I’m just easily distracted. If I’m watching a screen that’s this size [makes rectangle with hands] and there’s a whiteboard over there —
GM: Luckily, we have a projector.
EJ: I feel like you need the immersion, and that’s why I object to the home-viewing experience — more because my own brain works in a certain way. Not because I don’t think it works for a lot of people. So I do like Blu-ray. It’s just slightly more immersive.
GM: I do, too. The earlier movies I made were all inspired by my earliest viewing obsessions, which were all VHS experiences. So I was happy with very little detail; I couldn’t afford detail in the screen, anyway. Usually I just used lack of light to suggest in the shadows of the film’s world, and so there was really nothing to miss by watching it on a small screen. But this is a big-screen movie, so a Blu-ray on a nice-sized television, luckily a lot of cineastes have that or will have that in the near-future, so we’ll probably be okay. I think it needs a good, high-resolution, nice sound — nice, loud volume. It drives me nuts when the volume’s turned down. It’s turned up to ear-bleeding levels for every movie except ours half the time, so, with this one, we always put in a special request for the volume to be up.
EJ: I watched Rosemary’s Baby on a plane yesterday, and it didn’t matter. It even says at the beginning, “Formatted to fit your screen,” and then they cropped it to not fit the screen, which is a widescreen on the plane. The sun was glaring on the screen during the movie, and it didn’t matter. Wouldn’t it be nice to make a movie where it didn’t matter? [Laughs]
GM: Yeah, exactly. You’re probably just boning yourself by making a movie where it matters. You’re better off making something where it doesn’t matter.
EJ: With Rosemary’s Baby, it doesn’t.
GM: Yeah, and His Girl Friday, or something. You can be amazed by it on any format.
So do I. Watching it, I thought, “This must have taken a long time to get to its final state,” because it just appears in a way where you can see every inch of post-production work that was done. One thing I took note of in your Q & A was you saying you aren’t using digital technology, but “abusing” it.
GM: That’s the only way I can understand it, because that’s basically how Evan explained it to me. But maybe you want to…
EJ: Well, yeah. As you know all too well, when we were shooting the films, you saw the first rushes — these HD, digital video — you were horrified and really depressed at how ugly you thought it looked. I thought I could make it… [Laughs] I’d heard of post-production, that you could change color and do things in post-production, but I didn’t really know much about what it was, and I promised… I had a copy of Adobe Premiere and After Effects, and I thought, “I can learn to use it.” So I promised, “Oh, it’ll look great! Don’t worry.” I had to make good on that promise, but I did it sort of amateurly, so I was learning the programs as I went.
GM: I guess you learned those things the way I learned analog filmmaking: you just set off…
EJ: Right, which is why, in your analog films, there are mistakes that delighted you that you kept. As we were learning — because I didn’t know how to do things — I made mistakes, and often mistakes were producing very fruitful results. But it took a long time. Like, it was years in the post-production, I wasn’t working on it solidly the whole time, but as I was… I think it was probably that that effect comes from, like, if I’d taken a professional course, or something, then I would have never learned the mistakes. But how do you make mistakes properly?
GM: That’s a really important thing, when your modus operandi is to keep working quickly and to encourage accidents and encourage inspiration and panic.
EJ: So then the expertise I had to develop was just knowing what kind of mistakes were working, conceptually or visually, and which weren’t. But now I’m very adept at these things, technically, but at first I wasn’t, and so I think it was the learning that made it work. But that is how… I don’t know what I’ve learned about filmmaking from being on set with you. I’d never been on other film sets except yours, and then when I went on a real, professional film set, I was like, “Oh, this is weird. This is boring.” It wasn’t just chaos and madness, although it was that sometimes; all films are. Things made too much sense. There was too much order.
GM: There was someone to do every job.
EJ: So, anyway, post-production was, in short, all about reproducing disorder that you’d think digital technology was there to eliminate in the first place.
Do either of you know how long an average image — with all its splotches, blemishes, scratches — took, from raw footage to final form, to complete?
EJ: Of one frame, or…?
Let’s say there’s, say, a four-second shot. Can you just think of any shot and how long it might have taken? This might be a broad question.
EJ: Yeah, no, I get the question. I don’t know… a long time? A long time because we didn’t edit the movie first.
GM: You color-timed all the rushes!
EJ: Which meant toiling over… that four-second shot, would have actually been from, probably, a 45-second-long clip.
GM: The idea of color-timing all the rushes… even when I forgot to turn the camera off and went to the bathroom and stuff. That would give the editor those odd, gloopy, loopy moments to cut on, but rather than doing that after he’d done his cut.
EJ: We color-timed the slates. We’d make sure the slates look right.
GM: Can you imagine Disney animators back in 1939 or whatever carefully drawing the slates for Pinocchio? And the outtakes where Gepetto blows a line? Or he’s drinking a coffee and smoking a bud or something like that? It reminds me of that, somehow.
EJ: We felt a little guilty about digital technology, and have restored belief in it, somehow, by making it more difficult than it’s designed to be.
Reteaming for the first time in over a decade, Steven Spielberg‘s Bridge of Spies follows Tom Hanks the true story of James B. Donovan as an unblemished Brooklyn lawyer who becomes involved in defending a suspected KGB agent (Mark Rylance). The snappy, propulsive part-courtroom drama, part-international thriller held its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, but shortly before the director and his cast gathered to discuss the making of the project.
We’ve highlighted the most worthwhile discussion points, including an original iteration half-a-century ago that never went into production, the relevance of the film today, collaborating with Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote the script, Spielberg’s updated thoughts on the state of Hollywood, and much more. Check it out below.
Steven Spielberg on Finding the Story and Gregory Peck’s Original Iteration
Upon coming to the material, Spielberg said, “I knew nothing about this story two years ago. I knew about Gary Powers because that was big news and it was national news when he was shot down and taken prisoner in the Soviet Union. I knew nothing about how he got out of the Soviet Union. I knew nothing about Rudolf Abel. I knew nothing about James B. Donovan. That all came to me, as all I think all good stories come to us, in a surprise package. There was no brand preceding Bridge of Spies. It was simply a piece of history that was so compelling, personally for me, to know something like this — a man who stood on his principles and defied everybody hating him and his family for what he thought he needed to do — equal protection under the law even for an alien in this country, even for a Soviet accused to be a spy — that was to me a righteous reason to tell this story.”
In a fascinating tidbit, there was an early iteration of the project. Spielberg said, “I was meeting with the Donovan family. I was meeting with the two daughters and the son this morning and I found out something I had never knew before. In 1965, Gregory Peck came after the story and [he] got Alec Guinness to agree to play Abel. Gregory Peck was going to play Donovan and they got Stirling Silliphant to write the script. Then MGM said at the time, ‘No. I don’t think we’re going to tell this story.’ I didn’t even know that a couple of hours ago. So we weren’t the first. As to why the studio didn’t want to move forward, he answers, “It was 1965 and Bay of Pigs had happened and the Cuban Missile Crisis has been averted about a year and a half before and the tensions were too taut between the Soviets and the United States of America for MGM to get into the politics of the story.”
Mary Rylance on Meeting Steven Spielberg for Empire of the Sun
In my review, I noted that “it’s clear why Spielberg went on to cast Mark Rylance as the title character in his forthcoming adaptation of The BFG. His character, Rudolf Abel, primarily factors into the first half of the story and is shrouded in mystery. Yet Rylance brings forth physical ticks and gestures that keep one on edge, never outright stating his allegiance as he cheekily plays off Donovan, thus giving the character unexpected likability.”
While Rylance was coy about forming his character, he did talk about coming on board and an earlier meeting with Spielberg a few decades back. “I just heard a message that Steven was interested in me playing this part,” Rylance said. “We had met each other back in the ’80’s and I had not been able to take part in the wonderful film he made called Empire of the Sun so I was very delighted that he came to me again and asked me to take part in this and I could work with these people. It was a no brainer.”
Steven Spielberg on the Relevance of Bridge of Spies Today
After Lincoln was released around the presidential election back in 2012, Spielberg was asked about the relevance of his most recent film. “It’s interesting about the national conversation. It keeps changing everyday,” he said. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make the national conversation your priority. It just doesn’t work that way. You make a movie that is relevant to our times because it seems like the Cold War is coming back. I wouldn’t call what’s happening right now between Vladimir Putin and the Obama administration a Cold War, but there’s certainly a frost in the air. With the recent incursion into Crimea and ambitions further into Ukraina — and what’s happening right now in Syria — it seems like history is repeating itself. That was not the case when we first set out to tell this story. Those headlines hadn’t been written because those incursions hadn’t taken place yet.”
The director goes on to say, “There is so much relevance between the story in 1960 and the story today. The whole idea that spying has reached a technological apogee of almost an open season for anybody that knows how to operate an operating system and get into somebody else’s operating system. The cyber hacking that is going on today is just like the spying that went on then. A lot of cyber hacking is sport cyber hacking. It’s not even with any goal in sight. It’s just picking through a rubbish heap to see if there’s any actionable information or something that can be bartered with. There’s just so many eyes on all of us and we have eyes on all of them. What started then almost in a polite context — the Cold War was polite in terms of the way we were spying on each other — isn’t the way it is today. Today you just don’t know that when you’re watching television, is television actually watching you? You don’t know that.”
After crafting the scores for Blackhat, The Town, Kingdom of Heaven, The East, and more, composer Harry Gregson-Williams reteamed with Ridley Scott for The Martian, the film adaptation of Andy Weir‘s best-selling novel. It tells the story of Astronaut Mark Watney (played brilliantly and charismatically by Matt Damon — check out our review here) as he struggles to get off the Red Planet.
We had the chance to recently speak with him about his work and the composer was quite happy with the score and eager to hear of our fondness for both the film and the music. In his words, jokingly of course, if you were to like some of the films to which he provided music, you may be in the minority. This time however, we’re willing to bet that nearly everyone on the planet will be in the majority and love The Martian.
We truly enjoyed catching up with Harry, so we hope you enjoy the highlights of our session with him.
The Film Stage: Great to be speaking with you again Harry. I hate to throw praise around that calls something “the best,” but in this case, I really mean it. I’ve long been a fan of yours and Ridley’s work, but I believe that The Martian is the finest score of your career and Ridley’s best picture to date.
Harry Gregson-Williams: It was a thrill collaborating with Ridley because he’s one of the top directors working. I should be so lucky to be able to say that. I mean, who do we have? Scorsese, Cameron, Spielberg, and Ridley Scott. I’m a lucky devil for having come into contact with him and, as you know, the reason I began working with him is because of having worked with his brother for years and years and years. Back in 2005, Ridley booked me to do a score you and I are both fond of – Kingdom of Heaven. I know not every mortal liked or even saw it, but I can tell you as someone who got very close to it, I loved it.
One of the reasons is because of the way it looked and the way he shot it; it was so pristine and beautiful. I’m a great admirer of cinematography and the way things are cut because, as a composer, you spend a lot of time analyzing and studying a film. You really get to know it and get under the skin of it. When something is as tightly written as The Martian, and really well-played by the actors, you notice it. It actually becomes more of a challenge, because you want to do right by such great material, but it’s more of a pleasure while you’re working.
I think the film is a breath of fresh air because it’s unlike anything Ridley has ever done which must have given you great creative liberties. It seemed experimental, and allowed you to touch new ground. So what did Ridley want from you, what did you bring to him, and how did your ideas match?
Ridley is a great director because he leads from the front and does not leave you guessing. However he did not spell out, not in musical terms, where he wanted me to go. He made some suggestions of where I might start, and it was more along the lines of what I was thinking. But the great thing about Ridley is that he knows what he wants from his film. So if I were to write something that was a shade too dark, or let’s say too active, he would jump on that, and the terminology he would use is not too different from an artist or painter.
He talks in terms of tone, shade, color, light and dark – we share a terminology between art and music. For instance, one of the first ports of call was to discover what character the planet Mars was going to play. What was this bringer of war? Was there something wholly malevolent about it? And we discovered, quite early on, that we didn’t need a real darkness to Mars because that was counterproductive, and not quite accurate. It’s quite clear from Watney’s travails that if he puts a foot wrong it’ll kill him in an instant.
While Mars needs to be treated with care, the majesty and mystery of the planet are words that Ridley threw out to me. I responded to that, so instead of making Mars a monster or a bad guy, we tried to make it more mysterious and more awesome. Not to say that we didn’t make it austere in places, and certainly threatening, but those are the kind of adjectives he used to get me started.
The hope is that someone will write something, and the director or producer will come into the studio and go, “Great, thumbs up, next!” But that rarely happens, like a hole-in-one in golf. If you go through life expecting that to happen, you’re not going to last long as a film composer. It is a team sport after all, and very collaborative, especially with someone like Ridley. He has in mind what he wants from a scene, not necessarily musically, but what he wants you to bring to a scene.
He’ll offer suggestions of what I might do, or maybe what I shouldn’t be doing. Early on in the film, Watney is trying to make water and Ridley tells me “I like the way things are bubbling along underneath, but there’s a hint of darkness to what you’re doing and I don’t see why we should be doing that. Watney is such an optimistic and humorous kind of guy. He loves his science, is a bit of a tech head, so let’s make it a little bit more fun. Don’t be so serious. Not to say comedic, but not so many brush strokes of darkness.” So I altered what I had by a couple degrees to meet him at that place, and that’s how film scores are born really.
I like what you said about not painting Mars too dark, and I think one of the things I took away from it was that Watney’s there by himself yet it’s an epic, two and a half year struggle for him to get home. It’s incredibly dangerous, yes, but it’s also incredibly simple – it’s him, and his tools, and his talents. I think what I picked up on is your two note motif which is used in tracks like “Mars” very subtly, in “Emergency Launch” which is dramatic, and in something like “Pathfinder” is kind of spacey.
Absolutely. I’m glad you picked up on that, because that two note motif develops into a full blown theme as the film goes on, and it’s not a coincidence that those notes rise. One talks of positivity, and staying optimistic because that’s Watney’s character; he’s not going to lay down and give in. Very early on, when he’s on Mars he says to himself “I’m not going to die here.” That was the determination of this guy, so these were the seeds of determination I was able to sow very early on, and it didn’t seem like he earned the right for this to be symphonic.
As you said, this is a very simple story at its heart. It’s a very personal story about one man’s survival as well and we are helping glorify as well as enjoy his scientific abilities. So the music is quite small, not overplayed to begin with, and it grows as he grows in stature and gets closer to being rescued.
To use the analogy of a kid in a sandbox, well Watney is a big kid in a very big sandbox!
Absolutely! [Laughs] It also helps when the writing is so tight. Drew Goddard did an amazing job interpreting Andy Weir‘s book which is a great read from cover to cover. I went back and had a look at the book the other day and it’s quite astonishing what Drew did. Seeing the film, you think it couldn’t have been done any other way, but in the book, Watney is thinking a lot of these things, not talking to a camera.
So I thought that was a really smart and quite current aspect to the story. But I think a lot of it can be traced back to the way Drew Goddard painted this picture and how Matt Damon interpreted it. I thought you did such a fine job.
I think that the film solely rested on Damon’s shoulders, and it seemed like a vehicle just for him. But like you were saying, those internal thoughts where put into exposition for us each time Damon talked to the camera. It really made us part of the story as opposed to something like Cast Away or All Is Lost.
True. Then there are the intercuts of everyone on Earth, and so their theme is something much warmer and something that will come together towards the end of the film. I loved the casting as well. I thought it was surprising and successful because of the smaller parts. Mackenzie Davis, for instance, happens to steal every scene she’s in. With a small part, were you to read the lines on the page, you might not think it’s remarkable. But what she did with it was great, and how Ridley shot it resulted in another great element of the film.
Benedict Wong is another one. I love that line, “Thanks to my uncle in China, we’re going to get another shot at this.”
[Laughs] You know, I remember telling Tony Scott that I loved his casting in Spy Game. In particular, there’s an actor who plays a small part but it’s quite pivotal – he’s always stuffing his face with Chinese food, eating it out of a box which is what Tony used to do. And I love the casting of that, so yes, Benedict Wong put me in mind of one of these characters that on the page perhaps doesn’t read particularly humorous, but the way he delivered it was really quite cool I thought.
What’s great about the film is that there are a lot of peaks and troughs, but it doesn’t spend a lot of time on the downers. There’s a lot of positivity and hope flying around, and that’s something I had to underpin with the music which was enhancing Watney’s emotional arc throughout the film.
You had to cover a large range of emotions, but not only that, it seems like you had a lot of different tools in your palette. The score had more strings than I would have expected in a so-called “space” film, but “Hexadecimals” has a very Brian Eno, almost planetarium vibe to it, but then “Work the Problem” sounded like there was a didgeridoo in there. How did a varied palette help convey those emotions?
Getting the sonic spectrum together for a movie like this was very important. It took a lot of time before I even began writing music because I needed to find what sort of instrumentation would work. It seemed to myself and Ridley that a hybrid of synthesized and fully orchestrated music with some choir would work. But we would just have to pick our spots. One of the things I decided early on was to not use choir too often. When I did, I was careful and I wanted it to be like a Greek chorus – it almost represents mankind back on Earth wishing this guy well and hoping the best for him.
I had to find a text that would be suitable for the choir to be singing. What I found working on Kingdom of Heaven was that choirs sing well in Latin. A lot of Latin text has these religious overtones, so I went to a Roman philosopher, pre-Christ, who had written about the infinity of space and the larger question of who we are and where we stand in the universe. I was able to give the choir these moments in the score that blended in with the orchestra as they represented the goodwill of mankind concerned with Watney’s plight.
I imagine that’s got to be the fun part of the job – doing that research, even if no one in the theater will have any idea the thought that went into it. It just sounds cool. I talked to Steven Price about Fury (read our interview here) and he gave the choir very specific Germanic Bible verses to sing for those haunting WWII tank battles.
I know that it’s fairly subliminal, but these type of things make all the difference. We wanted to make sure that none of the music sounded necessarily holy, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be quite spiritual, if that makes sense. There is a distinct difference between the two and in a scene where Watney’s crops were wiped out, we used just one voice to enhance the scene.
I was in a similar situation with the first Narnia movie that I scored. I wanted to use some choral work, but I didn’t want them singing ohhs and ahhs, I can’t stand that. [Laughs] They were singing things from an actual Runic text, which is so ancient of course no one could possibly understand or get that if they heard it. But it at least gave the choir some point of view and something to really sing about.
Another new element in this which is lacking in past Ridley Scott films, aside from the humor, is the number of source music tracks. I know that composers don’t usually have anything to do with song placement, but how did you approach writing music when you had to work between so many sequences where Watney is listening to a song?
When I came to the film, quite early on, Ridley was already four weeks into his cut of the film – they were well into post-production. Most of the spots that you see now were already covered with a song, and actually it was already identified in the script. A joke of the film is that Watney was stranded on a planet with a bunch of music that he didn’t particularly like, but he grew to like it because he didn’t have any other choice. There is nothing else to listen to.
In the script, it didn’t specify that “this is a Donna Summer song and this is a David Bowie song.” But what was fascinating is that editor Pietro Scalia had some really good suggestions. We tested the film with two David Bowie songs, and we ended up with one, and the spot where we took it out actually became the biggest moment in the score.
Once Ridley decided he did not want to song there all eyes were on me to provide music because it’s a sequence without any dialogue. It’s when Watney leaves the relative safety of his HAB and crosses Mars. That was the cue called “Crossing Mars” which was a big moment for the score. It is played out in a different emotional way than had there been a song. But these are the choices that the director makes, and my job is to provide an option, and once I had written the piece for that I felt strongly it was the right thing and he did as soon as he heard it.
Last time we spoke was in 2013, and we discussed the work you did with Halli Cauthery on The East. At that time you had just had your fourth child. My wife and I just had our first child in April. You now have five kids, so while I have my hands full with one, how do you find the balance between your family and the demands of scoring Hollywood films?
I have very much changed my mode of operation really. Back in my busiest decade scoring films, between 2000 and 2010, I had a large studio space which I rented on Venice Beach. I had a lot of people working with in my building and it was growing. At the end of that time, around about 2013 when The East came along, I didn’t score the whole of The East because I decided to take a sabbatical.
I stopped scoring films because I wanted to do something else I valued which was teaching. That’s what I came from before – I taught music and sports in schools. So I thought a good way to recharge my batteries was to unleash myself from that rolling stone that was my studio. I took a year away and did not take on any films during that period. After a year, the first film I came back to was The Equalizer. When I came back, I felt renewed and energized.
Now I have my studio in the back of my house. I built a studio in my garden, so the balance between family and work now is much more healthy I think, and is the way I like it. Post-production for The Martian was not in L.A., it was in Europe, and fortunately I got to write the score in my studio at my home but then take off and record the music at Abbey Road which is a great pleasure, as always. [Laughs]
Well that’s better than taking your entire shop and moving it to London to score Kingdom of Heaven, right?
Those were really exciting times, and I would do the whole thing again if I were asked. The difference though being Kingdom of Heaven was the first time I’d worked with Rid and he needed his composer to be on hand. He didn’t want me to be sending him music, he wanted to meet me face-to-face every week, or two to three times a week for three or four months. So I did the writing over there.
You didn’t score of the whole of Prometheus, or Exodus: Gods and Kings, but you did some outstanding work composing additional music. In cases like those, how was that set of responsibilities established?
I was really glad to be asked, and quite happy to help. While I wasn’t the lead composer, Ridley came to me quite late in the day and asked if I would provide music for those films. Far be it for me to say no, but I had no reason to say no, I was only too pleased to help.
But there’s nothing quite like starting at the beginning and seeing the whole thing through. [Laughs] You would have to ask Ridley his criteria for selecting a composer, but as I came on towards the end of both projects, it wasn’t like he was throwing out other composers’ work, he was just augmenting it. So I don’t have a problem with that, it’s happened to me before. In those instances, it’s me showing up and saying “okay tell me what you’d like me to do, and I’ll do it. In both instances I didn’t come storming in and just trample over what was already there. I was careful to make it homogeneous, and make it feel like it was fitting in with everything else happening in the score.
Well, I ask because I thought the work you did for Prometheus really set the tone of the film. It was extraordinary, and I would have loved to hear more. So now that Ridley is planning not one, but three sequels to Prometheus, has he talked to you about that, or possibly Blade Runner?
I talked to him about Prometheus, but I don’t know anything about Blade Runner. But both things are in the future, and I can’t be certain of anything, so I’m just pleased that he had me do The Martian. We’ll see. If I didn’t screw it up too bad, perhaps he’ll ask me to do Prometheus. [Laughs] All will be revealed next year!
The Martian is now in wide release. Listen to the full score below.
Whether it’s Martha Marcy May Marlene or Sound of My Voice or this year’s The Wolfpack, we’ve seen a number of films at Sundance deal with communes and closed communities, but few bring the level of danger found in Partisan. The directorial debut of Ariel Kleiman (Sundance jury winner for the short Deeper Than Yesterday) is a patiently unfolding drama that displays the lengths one will go to provide shelter and community, and what happens if you step out of bounds, I remarked earlier this year.
I had the chance to speak with Kleiman over the phone this week to discuss his directorial debut. We talked about his point-of-view, improvisations, tone, the influx of recent cult movies, casting Vincent Cassel, the production design, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The point of the view is mostly with Jeremy Chabriel’s character. Can you talk about how early in the process you decided to come into the story though that character rather than Vincent Cassel?
You know, actually it wasn’t something we sought or discussed too much, but as soon as Sarah [Cyngler] and I started writing the script it just kind of always became the story from Alexander’s point of view. It was a very kind of instinctual thing for us and it was something we were quite passionate about keeping. We thought that was the way we wanted to tell this story.
The script is quite specific, but did you have room for finding new ideas on set?
Yeah, we put a lot of effort into the script. We wrote it for two or two and half years. But the thing about the script is that it’s just a piece of paper. It’s very fake, ultimately. I feel like you’re on set and actors need to deliver the dialogue for it to become a living, breathing thing. In that process you discover that maybe the kids are not going to be able to deliver the dialogue right way and you have to throw the pages out very quickly and just get the essence of what we wrote, but more in an improvisational way. That definitely happened quite a bit. Then again, there are scenes that are maybe beat by beat exactly the screenplay. It was a real mixture.
There’s a lot of tones that you capture that perhaps couldn’t possibly even be written in the script — almost a surreal nature to what’s going on. The karaoke scene is fantastic and you have a lot of breathing room to take in the environment. Can you talk about the balance of surreal, but still believable?
Yeah, well I guess tone is a thing I find it possible to articulate. I feel like a tone could only be filmed. It’s something that really drives me when I make my films, especially this film. It’s very tonally driven. The best I could describe is from the start I saw the film as a tragedy. The story of the film is a tragedy, so I knew the whole movie from the start had to be soaked in a sort of dread. On the other hand, it’s quite important to me it was filmed with warmth and love and kind of genuine emotions. It was also important to me that the film be set in an impressionistic world to let the audience know this is not a literal story and it’s not intended to be understood literally. On the other hand, I wanted the performances to be grounded within that and for the emotions to feel more human and truthful.
In recent years there has been an influx of cult-related films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, Faults, and The Sound of My Voice. What do you think about these relationships portrayed and community. All of these films it’s more about the tone than plot developments. What do you think about this attraction to the material that drives a filmmaker?
Yeah, it’s a great question. I’m not sure if I’m smart enough to answer it. The best way I could describe is that we live in a bit of a scary time at the moment. Everything feels a little scary and potentially people are looking for things to hold on to or to band together in certain ways, certain tribes. It gives people a certain comfort, but there’s certainly something going around in the air.
My experience at Sundance, I believe I saw this right after The Wolfpack, and there’s this strange link to the themes of both films. Did you see it at Sundance or catch up with it?
I saw it like two weeks ago actually — here in Melbourne.
It’s not a cult, strictly speaking, but it depicts a closed community with a patriarchal figure that can be quite demanding. I was curious what you thought of the film.
Well, I thought there were feelings and themes and emotions in that film that were kind of exactly what Sarah and I were discussing when we first sat down to write Partisan. For us, we were never interested in writing a movie that explores cults, really. We were more interested in writing a movie about a flawed group of parents who in their own way are trying to do their best to protect their kids, but are unfortunately raising them through their deepest insecurities and hatred and fears. Those feelings came across very strongly to me. I just felt a lot of sadness and empathy for the parents in that film, even though they had created that situation. That’s something that was important to me also in Partisan.
Vincent Cassel has such a commanding presence and I was reading you met him only initially on Skype and then right before shooting in person. Can you talk about his presence first meeting him in real-life and then how it evolved?
Yeah, initially we met just because geographical reasons — I was in Australia and he was in France — so we got to know each other initially on Skype. I think early on we clicked. We both like to joke around. We don’t take ourselves or filmmaking too seriously. We bonded on that level. When he got to Melbourne we had a week before the shoot so I just did my best to do all my preparation before he got to Melbourne. So in the week before the shoot I was just basically acting as his chauffeur. I just kind of drove him around Melbourne and we hung out. To me that’s of great importance in my previous films, just getting to know the actors as humans so that once we get on set and we start bringing it to life, we already have an understanding or trust or base to work from. So that week before we started shooting was really great. The thing about Vincent is that he’s very different from the roles he plays. He’s more lighthearted and cheeky. Once he gets on set you just feel the energy change and the whole crew are suddenly on and everyone’s on and it feels electric. It was quite special to watch.
Did he spend time with Jeremy beforehand as well or just you?
Yeah, in that week, Jeremy and Vincent hung out quite a bit. Again, they bonded very quickly. They are both French, which I think really helped. Vincent is just so good with kids. He’s so playful and fun that it did not take very long for the kids to bond with him at all.
The two production companies behind this movie, Animal Kingdom, who helped make It Follows and Short Term 12, and Warp Films, who did Snowtown, how did they come aboard?
Yeah, it all started with Warp Films Australia. At the time they were just in pre-production on Snowtown and I guess they connected with my films. Justin Kurzel, I loved his music videos. I thought he was one of the most exciting directors at the time coming out of Australia. So the fact that they worked with him, I was really excited by. We started to work together from the start and they commissioned the screenplay and then Animal Kingdom came on a bit later, a couple of years down the line when we needed a bit more financing to get the movie made. We sent them the script and they really, really connected with it. I went over to New York and met them and we all kind of got along great and they really backed the movie.
The production design in the film is great. It feels very lived-in and not spare. How did you come across the location and was any of the stuff in the environment there previously or was it all your creation?
Well, from the start one of the biggest credits of the design goes to my co-writer, Sarah, because she went on to co-design the production and the costumes. So we actually in writing together we started the preparation of visualizing the compound that Gregori creates. It was fun to write because it’s such a strange case where the lead character has essentially built this world from scratch. So a lot of detail on the look of the compound was actually in the screenplay then in the end, the way we brought it to life was we found an abandoned building in Melbourne. It wasn’t so much abandoned, actually. It was just unused. It used to be a an old boy’s home for delinquent boys that had recently been bought by a winery. It was a very odd property. This winery basically didn’t touch this building in the courtyard since back in the day. The only thing they used it for was the occasional wedding photography. If someone wanted their wedding photos to be against textured, distressed walls. They would just shoot photos in there, otherwise it was unused. It was a very rare building in Melbourne to find an enclosed courtyard like that. That was very important to us, obviously, that it would feel closed off from the outside world. We went about basically designing and bringing this compound to life. It was just a shell, so we designed it all. It was a lot of time designing it through Gregori’s eyes.
This film is very effective in the ways it uses violence. It never feels exploitative, all of it is very brief and for a reason. Do your sensibilities align more with that in your favorite films?
In this case, with the violence, it was very much inspired by the characters and inspired by their perspective and the fact that he is a young boy and doesn’t understand the ramifications of what he’s doing so it felt right to me that we portray it in non-sensationalist way too. We portray it in a very mundane, matter-of-fact way and I guess we only see glimpses of the violence and the ramifications of his acts because he only sees glimpses. It’s only at the end when he starts to comprehend or watch the results of his actions that we the audience do too. Otherwise, in general my favorite films growing up were what I felt were incredibly enigmatic and mysterious. The unsaid was way more powerful than anything that could be shown because it leaves the audience to kind of fill in the gaps in a much more profound way. That’s the kind of cinema I love.
Partisan opens in limited release and on VOD on Friday, October 2nd.
There are few — if any — cinematographers in Hollywood that create images as memorable as the ones Roger Deakins consistently produces. A longtime collaborator with the Coen brothers, as well as photographing such films as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Skyfall, and Kundun, he’s now found a new fruitful partnership with director Denis Villeneuve. After working on Prisoners — and before Blade Runner 2 — they’ve re-teamed for Sicario.
I got the chance to speak with Deakins this week about his latest feature, which is now in limited release and expands wide on October 2nd. We discussed conveying certain themes via the cinematography, his biggest inspiration, Villeneuve’s strengths on set and in the editing room, conveying tension without action, Enemy, his thoughts on a Sicario sequel, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: The film pretty much opens in broad daylight and then gets darker and darker as it proceeds. There’s almost a cross-over to complete darkness in that beautiful shot with the soldiers before they enter the tunnel. Can you talk about that gradual transition from light to darkness, if that was discussed?
Roger Deakins: Ah, I can’t remember. It was definitely in the script as such. Yeah, I would say that Taylor [Sheridan] builds into it, whether consciously or not. [Laughs]
You seem to shoot the characters in that way. Josh Brolin has a more comedic character and he’s often shot in bright lighting while Benicio del Toro’s character seems to be in the shadows.
Yeah, Benicio is at certain points, particularly the end scene in the kitchen. He’s not always in the dark, but yes, he’s more mysterious. He’s in the car, he’s usually darker than Emily [Blunt] is, for instance. Basically, the film is playing from Kate’s [Emily Blunt] point of view until the aftermath of the operation in the tunnel when it becomes Alejandro’s [Benicio del Toro] point of view. Yeah.
I was reading your forum — which is a great resource — and there was a comment a few weeks ago where this film was potentially going to be shot in all handheld. It seems just as visceral with this composed framing, but can you talk about those early discussions?
Yeah, it’s funny because we had a very similar discussion when I first worked with Denis on Prisoners. We talked about the look of the film and how naturalistic we wanted to make it and whether handheld added a certain sort immediacy and pseudo-reality to the piece, but somehow neither of us felt it was right. I’ve shot a couple of films totally handheld, but neither Prisoners nor Sicario felt like that was it. Then as we discussed it, I’ve mentioned the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, who I really love. He didn’t use handheld cameras and his films still feel very real. I thought there was a parallel with some of his films with Sicario.
Yeah, certainly. I was going to ask about that specifically. Denis said when he was editing he didn’t want to use temp music. He wanted to eek out the most tension just through the images first and foremost.
With your shots, you can tell if you are getting the maximum amount of tension out of each shot, but do you have discussions on set about editing? Or are you more focused on a shot-by-shot basis trying to get the most tension out of a certain set-up?
Yeah, we’re aware of it and we talk about it sometimes. We talk about how long you’re going to hold a shot and I don’t know if we specifically talked about the tension in that shot where they get out of the SUV before they go into the tunnel and all those soldiers and Emily and that are disappearing in to the darkness. I don’t think we had that conversation on set, but you obviously hold that shot until the characters have disappeared. I think one of Denis’ many strengths in editing is that he held a shot like that after everybody disappeared. So it just became a shot of twilight and everybody had gone and somehow that really increased the tension. It ratcheted up the tension.
I mean, we were certainly looking for shots that told the story without a lot of cutting. Again, going back to Jean-Pierre Melville. His action scenes were not really action scenes in the sense of a modern film where you cover a scene from a lot of objective angles and cut it together very fast. That’s kind of a device, really. I think the way, for instance, Denis had portrayed the action both in this film and in Prisoners was much more realistic in the sense that things happen very brutally fast — not always on screen, but when it happens, it’s there and gone. It’s like you’re left wondering, “Oh my God, what just happened? Did I see it? Did I miss it,” you know?
That’s so much more real than an extended sort of cutting of a piece of action.
Certainly, that’s great. Expanding on that a bit, there’s a shot after the border patrol shoot-out where they are returning to base and it’s Emily Blunt’s and Josh Brolin’s characters and they have a heated conversation.
As an audience member, you’re expecting to go in on a close-up, but I love how you keep it as a wide shot. Can you talk about that decision and not giving into expectations?
Well, you should ask Denis, but I did think that was a decision on set. We worked out those two shots of the convoy coming back to base. The two matching shots: there’s a tracking shot and then the next shot is the one where you’re talking about, where they kind of come right up to the camera and stop. We shot that shot and just played out the action and as far as I remember that dialogue of Josh and Emily just kind of happened in the frame as we let the shot run. So I suppose in a way it was as much a rehearsal as anything, but Denis just said, “Well, that works great. We don’t need to cover it.” Because I said, “Do we want to cover it? What should we do?” He said, “No, I don’t want to cover it. Why waste the time? We’ve got other things to do and I think that works really well.” So I think he’s really great at just making those on-the-spot decisions. I don’t think he had thought that prior to us shooting the scene. It was just something that he felt when he saw it, he knew it worked.
This Sunday, actress Diane Baker will appear at Film Forum in New York to discuss her 50-plus year career in film and television with film historian Foster Hirsch. On Monday at 8:00pm she will again be at Film Forum to introduce a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film Marnie.
Still just in her mid-twenties, actress Diane Baker found herself one morning in the unfamiliar surroundings of Alma and Alfred Hitchcock’s Brentwood kitchen. They ate peaches around the kitchen table and discussed director Hitchcock’s next picture – Marnie. “I was offered the part without reading the script,” Baker told me on the phone from an apparently sunny San Francisco. “I just happily accepted. Whatever it was, I was going to do it.” But looking back who can blame her? This was, of course, the director whose five previous films had been The Birds, Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo and The Wrong Man, but like all old Hollywood tales it wasn’t all just peaches (sorry). “I remember vividly Alma bringing out a magazine and showing me a picture of Grace Kelly. She looked at me and said you resemble her so much — the only difference is that she has light hair and you have dark.” With Hitchcock’s offer to tempt Kelly back into acting rebuffed by her husband, Prince Rainier of Monaco, and his relationship with Kelly’s original replacement Tippi Hedren growing colder by the minute (today Hedren claims that Hitchcock ruined her career), did Baker ever suspect that she was being groomed by the director of Rear Window to be his next long term leading lady? “Yes, I had a feeling for the first half of the film that that was what he was trying to do. I think he was trying to find a future actress he could turn too, but I was not interested in a personal contract, nor was I interested in continuing to do this type of film.”
In Marnie, Baker played the conflict-causing Lil Mainwaring, the sister-in-law to Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland. There’s a lot of sexual suggestion to her performance, especially towards Connery’s Rutland, but what goes on under the surface seems more important to both Baker and Hitchcock. It’s a performance that draws comparisons with her debut role in George Stevens’ 1959 film The Diary of Anne Frank, where, again, instead of showing her character’s feelings she subtlety suggested instead.
In interviews, Hitchcock would often remark that actors should be treated as if they were cattle, so what was he like with his actors on the set? Baker, who is now Executive Director of the Academy of Art University’s acting school, dismisses this cattle herding image and says she uses a lot of Hitchcock’s methods in teaching her 250 or so students, comparing Hitchcock with Elia Kazan. “If he wanted you to be angry he would sometimes provoke you to a state of anger. I remember one scene where I had to be strong and furious. He just stood there and wouldn’t look at me or wouldn’t talk to me before the take. He would look as if he was talking about me to someone else. He would then look over at me to make me feel nervous.” Was this effective? “Later on I realized it was all a tactic, but it added an extra element to the scene.”
Baker, who worked alongside Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (“Love your suit”) was not all too convinced with his portrayal of Hitchcock in Sacha Gervasi’s 2012 biopic, saying, “I know that Anthony is a brilliant actor and I really loved working with him but there wasn’t much in his performance that reminded me of Hitchcock — it wasn’t Hitchcock, Hitch was somebody else.” Who was the real Hitchcock? “I felt that he was a man in a lot of pain; he was often exhausted. There was another world going on inside him that Anthony didn’t quite find.”
As well as Hopkins, Baker, a two-time Golden Globe nominee, also acted alongside the likes of Gregory Peck, Paul Newman and Joan Crawford. But what about the current state of acting? “We don’t have stars today,” Baker says. Whereas the contract stars of the studio days “worked harder” and had a more “honest understanding of the craft,” today’s Hollywood bunch are too easily distracted. “It’s all about money now,” she says. “I’ve seen actors on sets physically run to call their agents when they read in the trades what other actors are earning.” Ego can also be a problem, as she adds, “I’ve known actresses to go out into the night measuring trailers to see how much longer the star’s trailer was compared to their own.”
In 1985, Baker received an Emmy nomination as executive producer of A Woman of Substance, a miniseries with a cast mainly made up of British actors, most notably Deborah Kerr. To Baker, actors from the U.K. are simply superior to their American counterparts, ‘There’s a certain level of concentration and focus that they bring. They break through because they are so dedicated to the art of acting. They’ve all gone through serious training.” Although in Baker’s eyes, no one still comes close to Meryl Streep, “She makes things look effortless and yet she’s still a normal human being. She lives a normal quiet life and she works.’
Streep seems to be working consistently, but as for the other female actresses out there, Baker seems more optimistic than most: “They’re happening, they’re finally happening.” But talent goes a long way, “If you’re really good you’ll make the roles for yourself.” Cinema, as everyone knows, is a director’s medium and directors need to start pulling their weight. “George Cukor was a woman’s director. He had the capacity to direct women beautifully and if those roles are on the verge of being there again for all of us then we need the directors who can make them brilliant. There used to be wonderful roles for women — look at Barbara Stanwyck’s career. Now we have a chance again. We’re starting it, we just have to keep moving it forward.”
See details on the forthcoming Diane Baker events at Film Forum.
One of the best films premiering at this year’s Venice Film Festival, I said in my review of Afternoon, “It’s always been easier to review Tsai Ming-liang’s films than to make sense of them. Characterized by an often impenetrable language of silence and immobility, the Malaysian-born, Taiwan-based filmmaker’s work triggers all kinds of intuitive response that writers crave, yet those same writers might be hard-pressed to explain what they’ve just seen on screen. In this sense, Afternoon poses the exact opposite dilemma, in that it’s by far the most verbal and straightforward project from Tsai – but how do you assess, evaluate, grade something so close to life you’re not even sure what to call it in cinematic terms?”
Featuring Tsai and his long-time actor-of-choice Kang-sheng Lee as themselves in an extended, unscripted conversation shot on static camera, Afternoon has no discernible narrative arc, resists somehow also the categorization of documentary. I had the chance to sit down with the director to discuss this project, and much more, during a roundtable while at the festival and one can read our full conversation below.
When I was watching the film, I almost felt like I was watching something too personal. What made you decide to open up like this?
I’ve always been very open about myself. And my movies have always made people uncomfortable. In Taiwan, this movie first appeared as a book. So journalists were excited about all the “scoop” they found in it. As far as I’m concerned, however, there’s no scoop here. It’s my life, I’ve never been secretive about it. Kang-sheng Lee and I, we just rarely talk about it. And I mean, what are movies supposed to be about if not private thoughts and emotions? The creative process is inevitably private. People might think it’s strange for artists to bring their private life into the films they make, but that’s exactly what we do and what we ought to do.
You also shared things about your creative process in the film, which many directors avoid doing.
This is not a film on filmmaking. The reason why I inquire about Kang-sheng Lee’s process in the film is that I almost never communicate with my actors. So when we had a chance to talk like this, I was genuinely curious to know what was going through his mind when we shot this scene or that. It was definitely not my intention to lecture on filmmaking or share my method through this film. Everyone approaches filmmaking differently anyway.
Many filmmakers also avoid the discussion of what cinema is, but you seem ready to engage in such discussions.
I remember when my fifth film Good Bye, Dragon Inn premiered here in Venice, every single one of the journalists – well, at least all the Occidental ones – asked me the same question: “What is cinema?” I was excited by that question because it hadn’t been discussed enough. Just now another journalist pointed out to me: “There’s never a script to your films.” I asked him in response: “Do you think a film must have a script?” He answered with some exasperation: “Yes, of course!” This serves to prove my point that cinema has been industrialized, commercialized nowadays. Within that structure, there’s not much room for creativity anymore. So we actually need to re-think what cinema is under such circumstances.
When this film was revealed as part of the official line-up, the initial festival designation was neither feature film nor documentary, but the curious term “non-fiction.”
People have often had trouble categorizing my films. The Marseille Festival of Documentary Film wanted to have the Walker series in competition, for example, to which I said: “It’s not a documentary though!” The programmers simply responded: “But we think it’s a documentary!” So film festivals all have their own criteria, and many of them are willing to be flexible when it comes to my work, which is often hard to categorize. This year, I purposefully submitted Afternoon to the Golden Horse Awards as a narrative feature, almost as a prank to see how they’d react – and sure enough, it got eliminated.
But did you set out to make a narrative feature or a documentary with Afternoon?
I didn’t think in those terms when I was making it. But after I saw the finished movie, I felt like I was playing myself in a way – like I was the co-lead of my own movie. We were getting filmed after all. So even if we weren’t “performing”, we were kind of playing ourselves. There was actually another film festival that wanted to have Afternoon in their competition as a narrative feature — they thought it’s a love story! But in the end I chose Venice to premiere the film.
People generally like easy labels though.
For me the product of a creative process doesn’t have to be categorized one way or another. But the world we live in works in very standardized ways. It demands you to put things in categories. A short film or a feature film must be how many minutes long etc. I never quite understood such rules. I’ve tried to break these restrictions with my work before.
In the movie you talked about selling tickets to your films on the streets of Taiwan, which seems quite a contrast to the kind of rock-star status you enjoy at A-list European film festivals.
Well, I started out doing theater and have always had a commoner’s perspective. I don’t think of art as something exclusive or elusive. Directors aren’t emperors. Whether I go on the streets to sell tickets or get treated differently at film festivals, I find it all very normal, because the circumstances are different. Lately I’ve been busy preparing for an exhibition in Guangzhou in connection with the museum screenings of Stray Dogs, where I also needed to do promotional work to sell tickets, giving speeches everywhere. People were surprised how low-maintenance I was but I thought it’s the most logical thing in the world. This is what the circumstances require. My goal is clear: I want as many people to see my work as possible. Whether they’ll like it or not is another question.
You seem to really enjoy challenging the conventions, the rules, even at such traditional, classic film festivals like Venice.
In Asia, especially in Taiwan, I rebel even more strongly again any form of establishment. I chose not to release my films in cinemas but in art museums. And even then I would change the usual practice of art museums. I made them extend their opening hours to nighttime and allow people watching my films to sleep in the museum. Art museums also have their share of established rules, which I think only makes them less approachable for the public. And when people see my films in a museum, they also tend to be more open-minded about them – the slowness doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore. So I do like to play with these rules about how things are supposed to be done. In Taiwan I’ve also shot a 23-minute film to be shown in cinemas. In the ad campaigns I asked the question: Must a movie be 90 minutes long?
Can you talk about the genesis of the project Afternoon?
After Stray Dogs became a prize-winner at the Golden Horse Awards and at the Venice Film Festival in 2013, people became really curious to see the movie. I insisted on showing it only in art museums, because otherwise it would have been the same small group of ticket buyers who’d see it in cinemas. This idea got the attention of some publishers, who contacted me to write a book as a companion piece. I thought it’d be boring to go the usual route and publish the script, attach some film stills and making-of materials. So I came up with the idea to have an in-depth discussion with Kang-sheng Lee, who’s the focus of Stray Dogs. After we shot the whole thing, I watched it back and thought it’s actually quite nice, visually in particular. Together with the images, it became something that’s more than just words. So I decided it should stand as a cinematic piece.
Your films, including Stray Dogs, have often raised the critique that they’re not films, but art pieces.
Well, film is art. That’s why I always go back to the essence of film when I make one. And for me that’s the image and not the story, not even the performances. So I spend most of my efforts on perfecting the images of my films. You can look at it the other way around too. In 2007 I was invited by the programmers of fine arts to do an exhibition at the Biennale, but my concept for the piece was still film.
Where did this refusal to stick to labels come from?
It is true that I’m wary of labels. I’ve never liked limitations since I was little. I think that has a lot to do with my childhood. I grew up in Malaysia in the 60’s. Back then things were fairly relaxed, free. The limitations came later. And they made me uncomfortable. After I left Malaysia and started working in Taiwan, I also encountered many limitations. A screenplay should be written in a certain way, for example. I always tried to rebel against such rules and was fortunate enough to meet many people along the way who supported me. After I started making films, my work quickly found its way into the European market. The European investors or distributors were much more open-minded.
You mentioned you rarely communicated with your actors. But, from Kang-sheng Lee to Shiang-chyi Chen (female lead of Stray Dogs), you coached such amazing performances out of them! How did you do that?
It’s different with individual actors. With Kang-sheng Lee, you don’t need to coach him. All you need to do is give him a scenario. Because of his age and living experiences, he can naturally give you the appropriate response. In the case of Shiang-chyi Chen, it’s more about getting rid of things because she, as a student and now a professor of performance arts, carries too much baggage with her. As a director, all I’m after can be simply described as authenticity.
The 15-minute dialogue-free penultimate scene of Stray Dogs is already legendary. How did you make that work?
My goal as a filmmaker is not to create drama, but to craft images. So scenery is of the utmost importance to me – the actors must become part of the scenery. When that happens, they’ll be able to express everything there is to express. The scene you mentioned we shot twice. The first time I quickly yelled cut because it was obviously not working. But we got it the second time. The thing is, filmmakers generally work under a lot of restrictions like running time, storyboard, plot etc. I don’t submit myself to such restrictions. Of course, I face a different kind of challenge as a result. The process I need in order to get to the result sometimes seems pointless. A scene of two people standing next to each other for an extended period of time, for example. At some point it also strikes me as empty. But should I accept this emptiness? Emptiness is a part of life after all. These are the questions I have to consider before making my decisions. So I allow imprecision in my work from time to time. I actually like this imprecise quality. It strikes me as true to life. The audience responds to this kind of film differently as when they watch conventional dramas, where they know when to laugh or cry. Instead, everyone would have their individual reaction. To me, that’s the proof of true creative work.
Afternoon premiered at Venice and screened at TIFF.