Often hitting the expected notes, coming home movies have become very familiar by this point. Writer-director Claudia Myers‘ Fort Bliss, however, stands apart in a few ways. Following a mother, played by Michelle Monaghan, the story tells of her return home as she has trouble picking up where she left off with her child.
It’s the kind of role Monaghan thrives in as the actress’ best work is generally seen in dramas such as Trucker, Gone Baby Gone, and North Country. Her charm and range is also put to great use in more of the audience-friendly features she’s appeared in, ranging from Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang to Source Code to Mission: Impossible III. Coming off True Detective and Fort Bliss, we recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Monaghan. Here’s what she had to say:
When it comes to the demands of a film and television series, are they wildly different jobs?
It really depends. True Detective was six months, so it was essentially shooting a long movie. With Fort Bliss we shot it in 21 days, which is a remarkable schedule. We were living it, eating it, and breathing it. It has benefits, but also not great benefits [Laughs]. With this kind of material, though, I think it served us.
As someone with an investigative journalism background, is it a highlight of the job researching the worlds of True Detective and Fort Bliss?
One of the great benefits of the job is putting myself in someone else’s shoes for a moment, to convey a perspective I would never have or other people don’t get to see. I consider that a privilege. This is a movie about a female vet, and their stories are almost absent from our cultures. It was something I took very seriously. I went down to Fort Bliss, in addition to a medic training course, and I had the privilege of spending time with some female vets. They were very candid with me about sharing their experiences and their stories. I appreciated that, because those experiences became invaluable with the character and what I wanted to convey on screen.
I imagine they just don’t open up to anyone, so it must’ve been gratifying.
I think so. I really wanted to share how much care I had in representing them. I wanted them to know it was something I took very seriously. When they understood I was sincere in asking the right questions, they became very forthcoming and honest.
If you don’t mind asking, what kind of questions did you ask?
I wanted to just understand what their challenges were as moms. A very simple question garnered a very profound answer, which was, “How has it been coming home?” One vet said it was harder than going to war. You know, that’s revelatory. It’s so defining for a character. If someone can say that, that’s a big statement to make. That immediately puts you in their shoes. This story may seem unique to civilians, but it’s a common experience for women in the military.
I know you didn’t produce this, but are stories like Fort Bliss and Trucker [executive-produced by Monaghan] the kind that get you interested in working behind-the-scenes?
Yes. I could never imagine myself directing, but I think producing is more up my alley. I’d have a lot to learn as a director. I am not a filmmaker. I enjoy my job as an actor and bringing people together. I don’t think I would be right behind the camera.
As a producer, is it tough finding material you get passionate about?
It is. It’s hard finding material that’s really good. In this respect, it’s a story where everyone makes sacrifices. I love that this film lives in a grey area. These are people who are doing the very best that they can in an imperfect world. I think that’s profound, grounded, and based in reality. I’m inspired by those stories, and it’s a testament to Claudia Myers’ writing and directing. Those are the roles I can sink my teeth into: complex, flawed, vulnerable, strong, nurturing, and all these different aspects. Sometimes those qualities are in movies made for between one to five million dollars, and those are the toughest movies to get made because they’re not tied up in a neat little bow. Sometimes that can be a struggle, but it’s something I’m passionate about.
Growing up, were those the kinds of films you were interested in making?
You know, it’s interesting, because I didn’t really grow up watching movies. I grew up in a very rural part of the midwest with 700 people. Movies weren’t really a big aspect of my life. I started dating when I was 17, so that’s when I started to go to the movies every now and then. There wasn’t independent films around [for me to see]. I think why I really like making movies that could be the family or woman next door is because that’s what my roots were.
Before you go, since it’s one of my favorite movies, I have to ask: if Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is on television, will you watch it?
You know what? If I caught it on TV I probably would watch it. I actually haven’t seen the movie since it premiered however many years ago. I keep telling myself I want to go back and rewatch it, but I never really rewatch movies I’m in. I don’t know why. Sometimes I’ll catch some of them on television. The only one I ever seem to catch on TV is Eagle Eye [laughs], so sometimes I’ll see a few minutes of that. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang really is one of the movies I’m most proud of. It was such an amazing experience. Without that role, I wouldn’t have the career that I have now.
Fort Bliss is now in limited release and available on VOD.
Although it’s nigh impossible to stand out against the force that is an on-point Christoph Waltz, a notable mark is left on The Zero Theorem by young actor Lucas Hedges. That his turn (playing the prodigious Bob) comes well after much has been established in the way of characters, narrative, world building, and director Terry Gilliam‘s idiosyncratic formalism makes his unique presence all the more welcome. The striking resemblance to Matt Damon‘s Management, whose son he portrays, doesn’t hurt matters.
Hedges’ career has been going longer than one might expect: along with a turn in Noah Baumbach‘s failed, likely-to-never-be-seen attempt at adapting The Corrections, he’s taken up roles in Wes Anderson‘s two most recent features and can soon be seen alongside Jeremy Renner in Kill the Messenger. Our focus is mostly on Theorem, which I admire a fair amount, but some interesting notes about his biggest collaborator can also be found herein, along with a good idea of what makes Waltz and Gilliam worthwhile collaborators.
The Film Stage: There’s really no better place to start than Gilliam himself. When you were handed this material and knew who’d be commanding the project, what did the name mean to you?
Lucas Hedges: Terry’s name meant Monty Python to me. I wasn’t familiar with anything other than Monty Python when I auditioned. When I got the movie, I watched all of them — I watched Brazil, Time Bandits, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Before, all I knew was Monty Python, and I absolutely love that.
There’s never any question of who’s directing when you’re watching a Terry Gilliam film, especially here. How does his on-set demeanor translate to the film? What makes Gilliam “Gilliam” when you’re working with him, and what separates him?
Terry’s films are just like manifestations of his mind. He’s sort of just existing in his mind while we’re filming, and he loves being on set. But what distinguishes Terry from working with other directors is the freedom he gives you. Terry’s only happy if you’re having fun and exploring the boundaries of the character and their circumstances — and that’s only wants. He wants to build a world around you and he wants you to get lost in it. That’s what makes him so special; it’s one of the things that make him who he is.
Did you feel the challenge of really diving in while working “outside” the material? I know Wes Anderson really prefers actors stick to every consonant and vowel of what’s on the page — which doesn’t preclude all freedom, but it certainly sounds different.
I mean, I don’t think I necessarily knew what to do with the freedom he gave me. I wasn’t a very experienced actor, and I’m still not a very experienced actor, and I was working with one of the more experienced actors there is in this business, who’s had a career in Germany for 30 years before he came to America. The both of them really helped me — and I was getting it towards the end — to make the crazy decision and not to hold back. But it was certainly hard, dealing with all that freedom and being thrown into such open-endedness — which is typically an actor’s dream, but it was also scary, when you’re not very experienced or very young.
Did you find great differences between what was on the page and what you were doing on the set every day? Did differences seem obvious, or was it a close adherence to material?
It was very similar to the material, but much more imaginative. That’s not saying that as, like, a “bash” to the writer [Pat Rushin], but just because that’s who Terry is, and he makes… he creates a world with whatever he’s given. He makes it interesting, even if it isn’t, and he has what he wants. I don’t… I don’t really remember the changes. It was a while ago; it was more than two years ago. But, yeah, I can’t really remember.
I was fascinated by your physical resemblance to Damon’s Management. Was it kind of strange to realize whose son you’d been pegged to play? I feel like it’d be sort of neat, as an actor.
Yeah. It was exciting to play Matt Damon’s son, but, at the same time, I’m not really playing Matt Damon’s son. There’s the whole thing about Management, and I think the backstory we sort of created for Management has Bob completely neglected; he doesn’t really have a relationship for his father and his father doesn’t really have time for him. He sort of discards… I mean, he doesn’t “discard” him, but he throws him into this crazy debacle with this crazy man and he doesn’t think about him. Bob has to think for himself, and he’s not really his son.
The trade-off is that you have extensive interactions with Christoph Waltz. As with Gilliam, can you share something unique about his process that those merely watching his films wouldn’t know? Perhaps how he helps you along a slightly difficult process.
Christoph was very helpful; he’s the most helpful actor I’ve ever worked with. He was almost looking out for me more than he’s looking out for himself, because I think he saw that I was struggling on the first day. He pulled me aside and started talking to me about music. One, because I wanted to get my head off the scene and, two, because the scene underneath it all was something I wasn’t realizing.
I was stuck in myself and saw myself as the most important thing, just because you’re so worried and think every eye is on you — everybody’s judging you, but, really, it’s not all about you. It’s about the music of the scene and the beauty of the scene, and I think it’s a beautiful way of helping me, sort of changing my perspective and looking at it a little differently. It was also just a genius thing to say.
Is it strange to be talking about this project as long as two years since you shot it? It seems like a decent amount has happened in your career since then.
Oh, yeah. It’s weird, because it’s almost as if I’ve moved on with my life and everyone else is just coming around to it. It’s like, “Why are we talking about this? It happened two years ago.” There’s certainly a disconnect, but it’s nice to be reliving it all — it’s nice being able to think about what Christoph and Terry gave me, because they deserve to be thought about all the time. It’s nice to be thinking about them, because they’re such important figures in my life.
With that in mind, I’m fascinated by what might be a “relationship” with Wes Anderson. I didn’t even realize you were in Budapest before doing a bit of research prior to our discussion. I find it funny how he had you come back. Is there anything you could share about that?
I think I was one of the few kids on Moonrise Kingdom who Wes found tolerable among the scouts. We were a very annoying bunch and we messed around on set. I had a great relationship with Wes and I think he likes me. I wrote him a nice letter after Moonrise Kingdom, and Wes loves working with the same people. He loves working with people who make him happy, and I think I made him happy. I don’t think it was particularly because of my work; I think it’s because he likes being in relationships. Also, for the fans, maybe to link the two movies together, if they see me or they see Gabriel Rush in Moonrise Kingdom as well. Because all his worlds are connected.
The Zero Theorem is currently available through VOD services and will hit theaters on Friday, September 19th.
The Guest is sometimes goofy, sometimes dramatic, and an altogether fun time that has been described as Terminator meets Halloween. Indeed, those two film’s fingerprints can be felt all over this feature, which is currently in limited release with a wider expansion on October 3rd. But while the mash-up nature might suggest something faulty or less than endearing, frequent collaborators Simon Barrett (writer) and Adam Wingard (director) embrace the chaos and the tropes we all know and instead enjoy tweaking them in fun ways.
Rising from his role in period drama television is Dan Stevens, who has made a smooth transition from the pity party outsider to the dashing, handsome rogue that swoops in to the lives of a fallen comrade’s family and ingrains himself. He’s there to protect them, to make sure they’re happy. He made a promise, but he might not be able to keep it. It’s a fun thriller that shows Stevens range and features a host of solid performances and a stand-out one from fellow rising star Maika Monroe.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Stevens, Barrett, and Wingard to talk about Maika’s unique role in the film, how Stevens felt coming into an established collaborators haven, and I even got them to open up about what kinds of weaknesses they strive to improve on. It’s a fun conversation and I think Wingard in particular relishes the chance to talk about how, as they say, the sausage is made. Enjoy the full conversation below and keep an eye out for the film hitting theaters near you.
The Film Stage: So, this film is a lot of fun. But I got to say, Maika Monroe… she’s a professional kiteboarder. What the hell is that?
Simon Barrett: You know, the funny thing about that is that we have absolutely no idea. I kept trying to get Maika to explain it to me and so, like, “You’re riding a surfboard while you fly a kite?” And she was just like, “Yeah, yeah, something like that.” So, that’s my answer.
[Laughs]. Well, I think she is a key part that probably isn’t going to get mentioned much because of you, Dan. You’re great, and this is your first big role since Downton Abbey. But she has this tough position where she has to be the straight character throughout. She’s charmed a little bit, but she remains hesitant.
Adam Wingard: Yeah, her initial instinct is to be suspicious of David before everyone else is.
So how did you go about casting her? Did you know from the outset that she was going to be integral?
Wingard: Very much so. The casting process for that character was actually the most intense because we went through so many auditions on that. She was actually the only audition that I felt like right away, got the sense of humor of the character. There was many ways I think you could play it, and she really understood that deadpan aesthetic. There’s a sarcastic charm to her and sarcasm is one of those things which can be very unlikable in a character. It can feel like a cheap acting fallback. Or, in her case, she can actually utilize that in a way where it’s almost endearing and that’s a tough thing to do. She just kind of did that naturally.
Barrett: A lot of actors have a tendency when they read slightly sarcastic dialogue, and this is also true for audiobooks, and I’m always frustrated when a reader does dramatic interpretations of sarcastic dialogue. It’s often what you get at an audition. They think you want to see their range. Maika was very clever actually and she just played it fairly deadpan, which is exactly what we were looking for. But that character that she plays is always, to me, the least interesting character in a horror film. Whether it’s the supposed final girl or just the straight, suspicious girl who is reacting to everything around her so it was not only a challenge to try to write someone who is smarter, and funnier, and therefore would be more interesting, but also to cast someone who had that innate likability.
For Dan, I know that Simon and Adam have worked together a lot. They’re frequent collaborators. And I’m sure they are using a lot of the same crew as well. It’s kind of a family. Did you do anything to try to ingrain yourself with them?
Dan Stevens: I think it was awesome. It was a very warm and welcoming environment. It’s a very well-established team. Keith [Calder] and Jess [Wu], the producers, are very much a part of that. And it’s about preserving that environment at the core of the set that enables good work to happen. I’ve seen it on a few sets and people maintain it in different ways. But this was a very special one because largely there’s a shared sense of humor on the set. We’re dealing with some fairly dark material at times here but we did try and have fun with this and inject some of the movie with that shared sense of humor that we all have. So I knew before stepping on the set that Adam and I got along and found the same things weirdly funny and then I met Simon and the rest of the team and it was an easy transition for me, I think.
[Watch a redux trailer for The Guest cut by Hobo With a Shotgun's Jason Eisener below.]
So, this is familiar territory a bit for Simon and Adam. But for Dan, this is really the first genre picture you’ve been a part of. It’s easy to feel comfortable but I’m curious what you are individually working to improve on.
Barrett: Well, it’s hard for me to answer that.
Stevens: Simon has no weaknesses.
Barrett: No, no. It’s not that. I think it’s very hard to be objective about your own weaknesses. I think the best thing you can do is to always make sure to not totally work in your comfort zone and just make sure that in my case, writing screenplays, is to make sure each one is better than the last. I could go through and list deficiencies I feel I found in my past works but I think it would mostly be very boring. I think the trick is to never repeat yourself. Make sure what you’re doing is a challenge, that way you can constantly grow as an artist.
Stevens: That was one thing I think for me, stepping away from a long-running TV show in England, a costume drama. I’ve done a few of those in England over the years and I was coming over here, looking to do something very different and happened to meet these two guys almost in a corridor. They come from more of a horror background and were looking to do something a little bit different and so despite our backgrounds and despite our different nationalities, we were in the same kind of mind space. Let’s do something a little bit crazier than we are used to and see what happens.
Wingard: For me, I feel like at the end of every production I check off things that I wish I’d done differently or just different aspects of my take on the stylization of the film that I found didn’t really fulfill my initial thoughts. I feel like we always are very critical of ourselves and that’s what helps us become better filmmakers because we do try to give ourselves that objectivity and not letting your ego just push you through everything. And really, a lot of our process is about objectivity. Simon, Keith, and Jess and I, the producers, we work really closely in the final stages of the editing in terms of just trying to make sure the movie is as tight as possible and that really does mean moving your preconceptions of your early phases of your vision of the movie and actually looking at what you’ve shot and what’s there. And what’s actually working and what’s not. That’s a very difficult thing for a lot of filmmakers because sometimes… well, I know this because of my early days, it really is hard to distance yourself from admitting is something is working or not. That means you have to admit certain faults in things but it’s part of the process and I think a lot of good filmmakers tell you the same thing: You have to trust other people’s opinions sometimes and take a leap forward.
The Guest is now in limited release.
With a seemingly endless amount of streaming options — not only the titles at our disposal, but services themselves — we’ve taken it upon ourselves to highlight the titles that have recently hit the interwebs. Every week, one will be able to see the cream of the crop (or perhaps some simply interesting picks) of streaming titles (new and old) across platforms such as Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and more (note: U.S. only). Check out our rundown for this week’s selections below, and shoot over suggestions to @TheFilmStage
All is Lost (J.C. Chandor)
The hurdles in making a film with a single actor, virtually no dialogue and, while you’re at it, also setting action in the middle of the ocean sounds like a daunting, if not impossible feat for a filmmaker to successfully accomplish. Yet, miraculously, All Is Lost, the second feature film fromMargin Call director J.C. Candor, is an uncommonly effective piece that acts as a complete reversal from his previous feature. Starring the timeless Robert Redford as a nameless man — in what might be a pinnacle performance that he could happily retire after — the film rests entirely on his shoulders, and he carries it with grace and class. Moreover, the nuanced details in his performance anchor All Is Lost without exaggerating the direness of his own predicament. – Raffi A. (full review)
Where to Stream: Netflix
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s latest summer action vehicle, fits nicely into the group of recent blockbusters concerned with altering a distant past. Like X-Men: Days of Future Past or Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow is also adapted from existing material, this time a Japanese science-fiction novel titled All You Need Is Kill. Created by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, it’s the backbone for director Doug Liman’s tent-pole about an unfortunate military major trapped in a perpetual time loop. Cruise has crafted a body of work consisting of drastic and bold characters; he has taken his star persona and flirted with physical and emotional recklessness to craft memorable moments in films as diverse as Magnolia and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. These characteristics are notably absent at the start of Edge of Tomorrow, as Cruise plays Major William Cage, a figurehead used to sell a war to the public against an invading alien species. – Zade C. (full review)
Filth (Jon S. Baird)
A movie not being exactly what you expect can lead to a certain kind of emptiness or hollowness once everything is said and done. When you walk into any situation desiring one thing and then leave having gotten something else entirely, it takes a moment for your mind to adjust to the shift. There may be disappointment at the bottom of your experience, a foundation laid by the apparent bait-and-switch you just went through, but does that mean that the experience was a net negative? After all, the thing you received might be objectively perfect in its own right, outside of your expectations.
These are the kinds of questions one might have to ask oneself after watching Filth. – Brian R. (full review)
Where to Stream: Netflix
God’s Pocket (John Slattery)
God’s Pocket, the feature directorial debut of Mad Men’s John Slattery, is a dark comedy determined to paint a distinct picture of small life in a very particular kind of town. It’s place full of colorful characters but lacking in a particularly interesting tale to tell, or a particularly interesting way to tell it. The town, in this case, is God’s Pocket, and we open at a funeral. A young man named Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) has died, and the people of God’s Pocket have gathered to mourn and get drunk in their own way. – Dan M. (full review)
Honeymoon (Leigh Janiak)
Honeymoon is a kind of Trojan horse; going in cold and not knowing that its playing in the “Midnighters” section of SXSW, you’d think you were in just another festival drama about 20-something hipsters venturing into the woods to discover themselves and something new about their relationship, family, etc. — it is that, and a great deal more. Initially we’re confronted with talking heads of our couple explaining a disastrous first date over Indian food in Brooklyn. – John F. (full review)
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
A black-and-white film about an orphan nun trying to find out about her family sounds like the kind of clichéd awards bait which could easily fall flat on its face. Pawel Pawlikowski manages to undermine those dire possibilities by making a subtle, affecting picture about long-buried secrets, as well as the conflicted dialogue between virtue and vice. The film is buoyed by the strong performances of its two leads, Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, both of whom manage to bring real humanity to characters who begin as archetypes. Add to this base the way in which Ida delves deep into horrors wrought by war and attempts to construct some greater peace, and a film that sounds like a didactic one-act play becomes a moving, resonant glimpse into a very human profound in two people’s lives. - Brian R.
At least part of Ned Benson’s directorial debut is arriving in theaters this weekend. Collectively entitled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Benson’s work is actually three separate films telling a story of estranged love from different (or combined) perspectives. Him, the version told by James McAvoy’s character Connor Ludlow, along with Her, the film told by Eleanor Rigby’s (Jessica Chastain) point of view will be released early next month, but first is Them, a slimmer version that combines both sides.
I recently had the chance to speak with the writer-director for an extensive conversation where we discussed the production process and film structure. We touched on Chastain’s (who is also a producer) influence on getting the project made, crafting the different versions, shooting in New York, working with Bill Hader, what’s next, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
With this project, it took over a decade since you first conceived the idea for it come to screens. I know Jessica Chastain was a producer and helped it move along. Can you talk about that journey and your collaboration with her?
I started writing the first script about ten years ago, when I was 27 and I’m 37 now. About a year or two later — Jess and I were friends and had been for 11 years — I gave the script to [Jessica] and she looked and she liked it but she started asking me questions about the characters. That opened up an idea which I thought was very interesting, because I wanted to make a love story and it would be interesting to make sort of a two-sided love story showing the perspective of the guy and the perspective of the girl. I used that thought and created a whole other script and worked with Jess and Cassandra [Kulukundis, producer of the film]. And we shared drafts and then we’d created this 223-page story that ultimately became the film. Then Jess first started to take off, but wasn’t completely bankable. We were excited about her and we just pulled together financing and it was rejection after rejection. The group of us that were involved, which also included Jess Weixler, who is Jess’ best friend, we really stuck with it. I was writing for hire on the side to pay the rent and Jess, well her career was starting to take off. So it was interesting because we were two struggling filmmaker-actors at the beginning and by the end of this, her career had taken off and all of a sudden when James McAvoy got involved something clicked into place and we got to go make this movie.
I loved the Tree of Life, but it wasn’t necessarily a massive hit. I’m curious, was there a certain movie — I know The Help was a big hit — or did it naturally evolve based on projects she became attached to like Zero Dark Thirty?
Obviously with The Tree of Life all of a sudden people became really interested and then she did The Debt and she did a bunch of other films, but I think after she shot The Help and she got the Academy Award nomination, her career really kicked into gear and James joined after that. That’s when things really clicked together for us.
In today’s romantic drama world some films get criticized for having one, perhaps bias, perspective only. Did you share that kind of frustration and wonder why this hasn’t been done before? Was that a driving factor just looking at the marketplace and looking at what other kind of films were around?
I wouldn’t say it was a driving factor in that sense it was more like, this would be really interesting to try. I think in order to present a love story what better way than to show both perspectives of a couple? So that became really interesting conceptually. I didn’t want to go in thinking, “Oh, we are doing something so different.” I just wanted us to be doing something with a concept we were excited about and not think like, “Oh, we are doing something special.” It was just something we wanted to do and our concept. I didn’t want to have that mentality. I didn’t want to pretend that we were exceptional. I just wanted to try and make a movie. It was tricky as it was and we used the concepts which mostly terrified people, in terms of investors. It was exciting to a few people and that’s all we really needed. When you’re telling a story I just wanted to tell it in the appropriate way, that’s what I was thinking about doing. The two perspectives and the two parts and an interest in subjectivity is what I was trying to be doing.
Getting to the aspect you touched on with investors and the different cuts, that’s a big topic of discussion now. When we’re presented as press to see the Them version first, I kind of took it as this is the version that will probably be most widely seen — at least initially — and then Him and Her could feel like expanded director’s cuts, even though you obviously had a say in everything. How would you go about recommending which version to see first?
I think exactly what you just said is correct. I think Them is a two-hour film about a couple that ultimately I feel most audiences will choose to go see. I think it gives you more of a typical length movie experience. But the Him and the Her are expansive and there are new characters and there are side plots that don’t exist in Them that exist in those other two films. Those two films become more about those separate perspectives and two characters and feel like a new space you move in to, in terms of the initial film you watch. That’s the best way to see it, because you will have an expansive new experience with it as opposed to seeing Him and Her and Them following it. But I also think you can just go see Him and Her or just see Them. The point for me is to create a subjective experience for the audience and have them choose the way they want to see it. If you want to see Them then great, go see Them, and then go see Him and Her or just see Them or just go see Him and Her or go see Him or just Her. I’m not going to tell you which way is the right way to see it. The point is to create your own experience with it.
About Him and Her, when they are released in October, is it a double feature or do you pay for one?
It’s a double feature that you pay for one. You have one movie ticket and get to see both movies. It gives you the chance to see both on the one bill. That was a fun idea for me.
When I went to go see Them I avoided trailers just for a fresh experience, but last night I saw the trailer and I picked up on the idea that it literally is different perspectives in the sense that you’re viewing it how James McAvoy’s character views it and Chastain’s, using different takes. With the Them editing process, did you balance things out with equal perspectives for different scenes or was it just a sequence where one was from Her and one was from Him?
It really was depending on how the rhythm of the film was dictating which version of the scene seemed more appropriate, emotionally or what I thought worked best. If you look at the films you’ll realize that there are different visual palettes, like there are different color palettes and different camera rhythms and different costumes. So when I was making those choices I also had to be aware of continuity. So if I chose a scene before where James is wearing a green shirt, then I had to choose a scene later where he also is wearing a green shirt to sort of follow the continuity of the story. There were little details like that that helped dictate things to me, but mostly I just looked for what I thought was the most emotionally resonant or the things that hit hardest and got across the themes that I was playing with in that version of the film.
There’s a lot of unique and specific touches that feel very personal to their relationship. I loved the scene where they’re in the car and she wants to listen to the Top 40 station and he turns it off. Even with all that stuff, stepping back after you view it, it feels very much like a universal love story — there’s emotions everyone has gone through, even if you’ve never been married. Can you talk about embracing that aspect and having a balance?
There are definitely personal things that you use and there are always moments in relationships, like when they’re in that scene that you’re talking about, they make a stop at the 7-Eleven and get their Twizzlers and their soda, which is something they always did. If you remember that flashback sequence, they’re trying to recreate a moment in their relationship that was happy for them and they’re doing it almost a subconscious way through the routine that they used to have together. So yeah, I wanted to call attention to these little shared experiences that build a relationship and these shared moments, whether it’s the fact that you bought Twizzlers from 7-Eleven together or you both like certain songs. Those are things that as much as you love someone you can be annoyed by it too. I just wanted to touch on all those little detail-oriented things that make up a relationship. There are huge moments that are punctuation marks in our lives, but there is also the minutia that become the texture in our relationships.
Honeymoon doesn’t mind playing it slow nor low-key. Co-written by Leigh Janiak, who is making her directorial debut, this mishmash of genres is more interested in the characters of the story than your expectations of just what a horror/thriller/sci-fi/romance might entail. Starring Rose Leslie of Game of Thrones fame, with support from Harry Treadaway, Honeymoon, which is in limited release this weekend, keeps its focus narrow and sharp. Identity is the examination here, asking just what makes us who we are? What if that line was blurred?
I recently had the chance to chat with Janiak on the phone about her debut and just what her goals were. Among the topics we covered was her mentality in terms of pushing the budget, a scary and hilarious story about her boyfriend’s twin, which classics influenced her debut, how her time at various movie production companies helped guide her career, and why she is so fascinated with bodies. We also delve into some significant spoilers near the end but I’ve made mention of them in plain text so you can avoid those easily. Read on for the full interview.
The Film Stage: So you worked for a production company for a number of years. You were writing scripts on the side but you were obviously reading a lot of scripts as well for them. What kind of insight did that give you into what was being made? You seem to specifically be interested in genre film, at least that’s what you’ve said in numerous interviews. Did that translate to genre films?
Leigh Janiak: Well, it’s interesting. I started working in LA at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company and I worked there for a year. I then I moved to another production company called Mischer Films. That was run by someone that used to run Universal. I was there for about five years, which was right up until I left to do full time development on Honeymoon. Neither of those companies really deals in a genre space at all. So most of my experience… it was certainly invaluable and a lot of it came from understanding the other side of things. It was a creative position and those are creative production companies. That’s how they develop scripts and then get them to screens. But it was more business oriented so I feel like I got a good grasp of the studio side of things. Knowing when the producer is saying this to the director, this is what they actually mean. That sort of thing. As for the scripts, it was really understanding that you’re trying to make these movies within the studio system. It’s not a formula but the confines you can really work in are smaller than the independent space.
Absolutely. In a couple of interviews you’ve mentioned that you don’t have to worry about foreign box office and sales, the market that that’s going to bring. It’s just like, “I just want to make a small movie.”
Yeah, and I think if you’re making a small movie part of the fun and joy of it is that you get to do what you want to do. You don’t have to put things in specific boxes. I think I was very lucky with Honeymoon because the budget level was at a place where we didn’t have to depend on foreign presales. I had the support of my producers, Patrick Baker and Esme Howard, who really just said, “Listen, we believe in your script and your vision and we’re going to support that.” So we were really able to make this weird genre thriller scifi horror romance thing and I feel really lucky for that.
You’ve mentioned before that you’re a big fan of genre stuff, sci-fi and horror. But this film kind of treads a very fine line between genres. It doesn’t lean too heavily to one side of things. Was that a budgetary constraint or was that grey area somewhere you were interested in playing?
For me, it was about living in that grey area. For me, the scariest horror movie and the scariest sci-fi stuff is the stuff that’s based in reality in some way. I always talk about Rosemary’s Baby or even The Shining are good examples where you start with their characters and you get into their space. Because you’re tied to such an intimate point of view, when it starts to become horrific or more science fiction-like you can appreciate it more. At least for me as a viewer. So that’s what I was playing with. I wanted everything to stem from Paul and Bea’s relationship and really just watch these people get torn apart. Whatever trauma there is, I think that that is what really drove me. And I was very excited and happy to get this place of more body horror at the end.
I know you shot in North Carolina and mainly in one single location. So you saved money in both of those instances. You also pull off some clever tricks visually to tell but not show. And this is a small budget film. So where do you push your budget? Do you go after more days?
That’s exactly the area. I would say we had a good schedule, as far as indie movies go. We had 24 days. A lot of them are 18 or 19 days. So 24 days was important to me because so much of the movie holds on performance and the chemistry between Rose and Harry. I felt that having the time to support them so that they were really able to get into that space. We were not a two take-and-move-on movie, specifically so we could get to that more authentic place in their relationship. And also, some of the effects we did with like the light beam, those were certainly… if we had shot in LA it would have been way easier. We would have had a bigger support crew and in this case we brought a lot of our grips and electrics from LA and we had support in North Carolina but you’re kind of isolated in the middle of the woods. If a piece of equipment needs to be changed it doesn’t just happen as quickly as it would in LA. I feel like we were so lucky that my key grip, who is named Jose Cruz, he was awesome and he just rigged amazing things. But a lot of that, it’s just you’re in the middle of the woods. Things becomes more difficult and expensive because we’re bringing things from further away. But yeah, I’d say mostly just days and a few of those special effects things because we had to bring it out.
I know that you found Rose first and then you found Harry. And I’ve got to share something with you because I was reading up on this film and I kept thinking Harry looked familiar.
I had seen him before. So of course I looked him up on IMDB and I was like, “No, I guess he’s not that guy I’m thinking of.”
But it turns out it is actually Luke that I was thinking of, his brother, who was great in Attack the Block, which I love so much. It’s so funny that you had mentioned them together in an interview because as soon as I saw Harry I just had a familiar feeling with him. It’s interesting that they’re both working in this genre space now. Are they twins?
Yeah, so they’re identical twins. Well, I believe. I mean, they look exactly the same. I don’t know if they’re technically identical or just fraternal. But it was interesting to me because my boyfriend is a film maker and he’s also a twin. And he writes and directs with his twin. And a lot of development of Honeymoon was understanding and thinking about identity. I had this one moment when I was on set for my boyfriend’s film and I woke up early in the morning and I didn’t have my glasses on. We were up in Vancouver and I ran my hand down his back and he turned around it was his twin!
It was the worst feeling, ever. It was terrible. He was disgusted. I was disgusted. It was a pretty benign interaction but the familiarity with which I touched him was just too much. I think that I was actually kind of excited when, I mean I knew Harry was a twin because I had seen Brothers of the Head, which by the way if you haven’t seen you should check out because it’s crazy. Him and Luke play conjoined twins. But I liked this idea that, and Harry lives in a space where he’d probably be like, “I never think about it.” But for me, I feel like being a twin makes you have to think about identity more than just a normal, singular person walking around. I kind of love that that was in there. And I literally never spoke to him about it but secretly I was like, “This is good.”
It’s so funny that you had that experience because there’s a scene in the film where Paul is looking at Bea’s feet and he’s recognizing down to the minute details. I was curious where that came from because it seems like such an interesting thing to hone in on. A lot of time these kinds of interactions in films end up focusing on the face or the eyes. He starts at the lowest extremity he can find.
I think I’ve just thought a lot about bodies. [Laughs]. What makes you, you. I think I’ve always been fascinated by that idea about where is the self. Where do you exist? If I changed my hair color, I’m obviously still me. If I put color contacts in, I’m still me. If I cut off my hand, I’m still me. So how many pieces can we cut away before you’re like, “It’s not you anymore. Where have you gone?” I think it’s that mind-body kind of dichotomy and in this space it was Harry’s character Paul thinks he knows everything about Bea. Every little detail of his lover’s body. He’s so confused by that intangible thing that has changed and he’s trying to understand it and get to that point and it’s not adding up.
One thing I really wanted to get into, and we’re talking about spoilers here, is the alien design and the creatures themselves. They’re always in silhouette. The only thing I really noticed were the fingers or talons, whatever you want to call them. So I’m curious how much of the alien design you went after. Did you design it to the point where it looked good in light or were you mainly focusing on just the silhouette version since that’s all that was shown? And of course there is the creature that he pulls out of her, which is just awesome.
[Laughs]. Well, that design certainly was something that we had to build from the ground up with my awesome special effects makeup artist, Christopher Allen Nelson. I always knew that that would be shown in the light and for me that was because that was part of Bea and her transformation. The central focus of the film for me was their relationship. So I didn’t want the alien creature design outside of that to overwhelm what I thought was the central focus of the film. So it was twofold. I was worried that if you started seeing too much of the alien you’d want to know more about them and feel like you should be more concerned about what they are. What are the specifics of their plan? It becomes a different movie. And also of concern was budget. We didn’t have a lot of money for VFX and I knew that we could never execute a creature design that I would feel satisfied with as an audience member so for me, thematically it made sense, to keep them silhouetted. We used this camera attachment called the “Lens Baby” to give the distortion effect when we’re in her point of view, looking at them. Essentially, any kind of artwork we did for them was always basically something based on someone suffering from Marfan syndrome. That body type is very elongated with long fingers. And yes, as dark as we could make it so you felt like they were almost like black holes in themselves.
Honeymoon hits limited release and VOD on Friday, September 12th.
25-year-old Emily Browning has been acting for 17 years now. While her first project was the TV film, The Echo of Thunder, it was in 2004 that she was introduced to a wider audience with Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, a gorgeous adaptation that should’ve spawned a franchise. Following the divisive Sleeping Beauty and Sucker Punch, and more, she’s now returned leading a new project.
Her latest film, God Help the Girl, is a grounded coming-of-age musical marking the directorial debut of Belle and Sebastian‘s Stuart Murdoch. Browning plays a troubled young girl who finds catharsis through music. She’s sung in past films, but much more prominently in this instance. We discussed the film, in addition to her career, with Ms. Browning in recent conversation over the phone. Hopefully one day we’ll speak with her again for a project she’s written, which, based on her interest in screenwriting, is a possibility. You can read more about that below:
Looking at this, Plush, Sleeping Beauty, and other films you’ve done, they’re not movies you can put into a box. Is your taste just not the most mainstream?
I guess. I was just doing this interview where I was asked, “What’s your master plan? How does this film fit into your master plan?” I’m, like, “Dude, my attention span is way too short for a master plan.” [laughs]
I see a script I like, people I want to work with, and characters I like, and it just happens. I don’t think about it too much. It’s the one area of my life I don’t think overthink. I just kind of do it. It’s weird, because a lot of my films have been quite different but have a similar theme of a girl being trapped, to a certain degree. I’ve been in a psychiatric facility in about seven different films — [laughs] — and I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t intellectualize it too much.
Is it more freeing going with your gut rather than thinking like a careerist?
I think so. There has to be a certain degree… I mean, coming at it from a business perspective, which I’m so bad at, it’s, “Well, I’ve done 10 indies now and have no money. I have to go make a big film!” [laughs] That’s the only thing I think about career wise: paying my rent.
You’ve been working a lot more lately. There was a point where you considered quitting acting, but have movies like Sleeping Beauty and God Help the Girl rejuvenated you?
I definitely felt a shift after I did Sleeping Beauty. It was the first film I felt really proud of and made me feel like a grown-up. I still don’t really feel like a grown-up, but I felt like my first adult role. I started working when I was eight years old. At the time it was just a hobby, I loved it, and I loved the fact I got to be friends with grown-ups. I didn’t really get along that well with other kids. Not that I didn’t get along, but I was kind of weird, way too opinionated, and got made fun of a lot.
It was a hobby and I loved it, but I decided to quit for three years and finish high school. I thought maybe I wouldn’t go back and I’d go to university, but by the time I finished school it became very clear to me there was nothing else I wanted to do. Not that there was no other options, but I needed that feeling again of making a film, losing myself in a character, and being creative. That’s when I really started to take it seriously and know, if I can, it was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
And if you ever wanted to leave acting again, at least you got a level of education and could still go to university to find another profession.
Totally. I just finished high school, so I didn’t go to university. That’s something I really want to do at some point. I love the idea of just going to university to purely learn about something I don’t know about, as opposed to going to university trying to find a job. I feel like this is what I want to do. I’ve made money for myself this way, but going off and studying women’s literature or women’s studies sounds really appealing to me. That’s something I’m interested in doing at some point.
How about studying music? Music has been a big part of some of your films. Is that an interest?
Maybe. That’s an interesting thought. I definitely want to try to learn to play an instrument. People always ask me if I want to make my own music, but I feel like being able to sing a little bit is not really enough. I would want to know how to write a song. I’m trying to teach myself how to play the drums at the moment, which is hilarious. Yeah, maybe music. We’ve performed some of the songs from God Help the Girl for a live audience, and it’s a feeling unlike anything else. It’s something I really love. I’d want to get that feeling back at some point in my life.
As you said, you’re interested in writing music, but don’t you write screenplays?
I do. I’ve written like 15 quarters of screenplays, because I have a short attention span. They never get finished. That’s something I really want to work on and develop. At this point in time I don’t have enough confidence in my own abilities to share them with anyone, but hopefully I will at some point. I’ve been acting for such a long time. I started when I was a kid when I had no anxiety and neurosis, so I just felt free. That’s an area I’ve always felt comfortable in. I never feel embarrassed in front of a camera. I never had that time of experimenting, finding what I want to do. It’s always been there. Now the idea of starting something new and sharing it with someone is… [laughs] I’m paralyzed with fear at the idea of anyone reading my writing. That’s something I’m going to work on, because I think I would love to make my own films in the future.
What kind of stories interest you as a writer? Are they more like this and Sleeping Beauty?
[Laughs] Oh, I don’t know. See, I’m just nervous even talking about! The one idea I haven’t gotten bored of is writing about…I’m kind of obsessed with cults. I’m so fascinated with the brain of the cult leader or the mind of someone who joins a cult or is a part of a cult — that’s something that really interests me. That is the most I’ve ever told anyone [laughs]. Like, I even just told my boyfriend, “Yeah, it’s about a cult!”
[Laughs] I know I have to let you go, so my final question: You’ve been working since you were eight years old. Do you still find yourself learning as an actor on each project or is a lot of it familiar by now?
I think I still have so much to learn. On God Help the Girl, it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We didn’t have much money, we were running around, and it wasn’t so structured. It was kind of a dream. It didn’t even feel like making a film, it was like summer camp. It’s one of the most enjoyable professional experience I’ve had, and it was totally new to me. I feel like every film I’ve made has been a new experience. I still have a lot to learn, but I hope that I always do have something to learn. I get bored very easily. I wouldn’t want everything to feel the same.
God Help the Girl opens in limited release and on VOD on Friday, September 5th.
Bleak and harrowing, Starred Up is a prison picture that pushes the boundaries. The film opens with the graphic examination of Eric (Jack O’Connell) a teen transferred to an adult prison. Exploring the culture of violence, in particular the legacy of violence, David Mackenzie has crafted a powerful feature film that has resonated with in the year since I reviewed it at Toronto. In the system that reconnects with his long-incarcerated father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) while seeking therapy from Oliver (Rupert Friend), Eric’s story is inspired by the experiences of writer Jonathan Asser.
Ahead of a VOD and theatrical release this week, we sat down with a jetlagged David MacKenzie to discuss Starred Up from spec script to releasing, including the debut of its soundtrack (a non-traditional noise art piece composed by Mackenzie). Check out the complete conversation below.
Can you tell us how the film came about? I know screenwriter Jonathan Asser served as a counselor in the correctional system.
Jonathan pioneered a technique of allowing violent prisoners to deal with and decelerate some of their anger. He developed this system in jail in London and I think he’s the only person to have successfully done it. If you were violent in the jail than you wouldn’t get any access to treatment and it was only when you prove yourself to be non-violent that you get treatment for your violence, which is sort of a paradox.
Jonathan wrote the script, it was a spec script. I read it; I thought it was very powerful and had a great voice to it and it had great characters and a real sense of authenticity. So it was very attractive to me to take a subject that had that much detail. It’s pretty straightforward world, not much flower on it — to take that kind of material which I’ve never really worked in before, it was very exciting. It was immediate. I read it, I liked it, I met Jonathan, we worked on the script for a while, and then we went ahead and made it. It was a very clean, good process.
Was this his first screenplay?
I think so. He’s written another one now. It was very well done. We obviously did stuff together on it but the first spec script was great.
How did you find Jack O’Connell, the star of the film?
It was just a normal casting process. He came to audition and he was great. He just seemed like the kind of guy that would get that character and was bold enough to enter into everything balls out. He threw himself into that character and it was great for me to have someone that was going to be that brave and be in that kind of scenario where we could just trust each other. If you’re a director and you have an actor whom you like what they’re doing, it’s a great ride.
What scared the hell out of me about your film is that opening scene with the graphic examination – a film typically tells you how to watch it in the first few minutes, what the boundaries will be. Was there ever any concern in developing it with regards to the graphic material. It really puts you on the edge of your seat because anything could happen. Was that always part of the plan?
It’s one of the things I’m most happy about the film. Having seen it hundreds of times as the person that directed it, I’m still kind of on the edge of my seat. There is this fundamental tension runs through it because it is this hostile environment. It’s an unpredictable environment and some shit is going to go off at any time. And so you the explosive power of that throughout the narrative, and there’s scenes where that’s escalating and deescalating and all that. But that’s something that drives the narrative through.
In terms of the beginning, because we shot the film in story order, that examination scene was shot on the first day. That process and what goes on there, the way you get processed, was a very interesting part of the thing. We throw a character into a pretty humiliating process and as far as I’m aware the reality is pretty close to that.
I was reading you shot the rehearsals and then shot the film. Can you talk about that process?
Normally you rehearse and then you shoot. In my last two films I’ve brought the crew in on the last two or three days of rehearsal so you’re rehearsing the same day. This was like rehearsing the whole team, and since we shot the opening the first day so we all learned the group dynamic, and actually some things we shot during the two days of rehearsals ended up in the film.
Instead of just the actor, we rehearsed the whole team. Instead of the sound guy treading around the camera guy’s toes, everyone just hit the ground running.
I bet that helped filming in a real prison?
Yes, the big fear with that we were filming in a real prison and the cells are tiny and we’re filming in anamorphic scope so I thought we’d never get a camera to see everything. And those walls are very hard, there’s no give in them so the environment was unforgiving. But at the same time it gave us everything we needed in terms of the authenticity of the environment and architecture. That was pretty much the first decisions I made when I read the script — that was I must find a real location so we don’t have to cheat this as much as possible. As a director avoiding, cheating and faking – this is fiction we are faking – but we wanted to reduce it as much as possible.
Was there anything in terms of pre-production that you stayed away that was maybe too graphic. Was there any issues with raising the money?
The main thing we had to juggle with was the language. When the script first arrived you it had some obscure language. It’s prison slang, it’s the real deal, but even in Britain most people don’t understand those kinds of words because its very particular to the prison world. There was more of that when the script first arrived and we worried it was too obscure, and I hated the idea that we would try to make a film in common English because you lose so much of the flavor even if you don’t understand it, even if Eric doesn’t fully understand it. You accumulate your knowledge of it as you go. That was a big ongoing discussion while making it and it’s obviously a hard story. It’s not for everyone.
What was prep like? Did you and the team visit prisons to observe these things first hand?
We had a series of advisors whom Jonathan worked with within the system, they have small parts in the movie and they advised us. We had people that used to be prison officers in the jail that advised us along with Jonathan. All the way through we were always asking about the reality of the thing. The actors obviously too were learning from them too. We had to stay a little bit below the radar in terms of doing proper research within the jail so we relied on what we had to make it real. It’s fiction but obviously all these events have plausibly happened so everything had to pass through that plausibility test.
So is Oliver (Rupert Friend), Eric’s counselor, a surrogate for Jonathan?
He’s very close; it’s one of Rupert’s hardest things. He had to get to know Jonathan but then say I’m not going to play him, I’m going to be my own character. It’s obvious that Jonathan and Oliver are very close in what they’re doing and that the therapy techniques are very close. There’s a scene where they stand and absorb Eric’s anger and that’s part of a technique that Jonathan developed and its very brave in terms of what he does – and the reality of what Jonathan does is very brave and they capture it well.
Is there anything else you want to tell us about the film?
Whenever everyone asks me that I tell them we are releasing the soundtrack album. I did the soundtrack, I’ve never done a soundtrack before — I’m not even a musician. But I wanted to have a wall of sound underneath it. You don’t even notice it but it’s intense. I worked with a producer to make some interesting sounds, and it turned out that it’s quite interesting and quite dramatic in its own right, so we’re releasing that next month as Starred Up Music Reworked. We messed around with keyboards and live sounds and all kinds of sounds and we had a few musicians to come in.
Great. Well, thank you so much.
Thank you. I’m very pleased you can remember it from last year!
Starred Up is now on VOD and in limited release.
Steven Knight‘s Locke, which, after a theatrical release this past spring, is now on VOD and Blu-ray as of this week, takes place entirely inside of Tom Hardy‘s BMW SUV cruising down the motor way in London. It’s a set-up the leaves much to the imagination. Ivan Locke is a concrete expert who is literally driving away from the biggest job of his life to take care of something much more important to him. The intimacy of spending 83 minutes with Hardy’s Locke inside his car as he phones and tries to cover his bases is one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in a theater all year.
I had the chance to sit down with writer/director Steven Knight to discuss the way he went about developing and capturing this unique experience. We talked about the benefits of shooting in one location, whether he had any dropped calls, integrating the reality of shooting on a live set, blurring the line between cinema and theater, the way that reading lines can be freeing for an actor, the kind of feedback he received from test audiences, and much more. I kept spoilers out of the conversation so it should be great prep for watching the film or even afterwards.
You can check out our entire conversation below and read our previous interview with Knight during the theatrical release here.
The Film Stage: I imagine, with a contained film like this, with really one set, there are a lot of benefits and drawbacks. There has to be something about knowing exactly where you’ll be each day and the familiarity with the location. But there has to be drawbacks, as well, right?
Steven Knight: The good outweigh the bad, hugely. Because we were shooting for a very limited period, there wasn’t enough time to get sick of the location. We were still having fun. We had three cameras rolling at all times and one of them at least would be at a crazy angle. Aimed at mirrors or reflections, whatever. So there was always something interesting to cut to in any sequence. But just the control you have over the location is great. Then making the decision that you’re not going to control the environment. Whatever happens, happens, and you don’t stop. If there’s a rattle in the car, you continue. If there’s traffic, there’s traffic. Those two decisions really helped each other. Once we’re on the road, nothing can stop us. Unless the cameras broke down. And even then, if one them goes, which they often did, we still have two rolling. Know that when you say action, you’re going to shoot the whole film. There’s something buccaneering about that. All of the people involved are very, very good at their jobs of making conventional films for a living. We all sort of took a vacation from the rules and that was what was fun about it.
There are quite a few contained films out there. There’s something maniacal about pulling this off. Do you have a favorite one or even a top five?
I try not to refer to other films when I’m making films. And I don’t actually watch a lot of films, to be absolutely honest. I’ve not seen any of the single-location films. Some of them I didn’t even know existed until I made this and people would say, “Oh, it’s a bit like so and so.” This was purely the idea of having the moving background as a theater. Putting an actor into the theater and shooting a play. Trying to blur the lines between cinema and live theater. Trying to get some of that intimacy you get from a performance on a stage. I hope that when the lights go up after a screening people are engaged with the character and the story. It’s only secondary that people should say that it was made in a particular way. What this film is about is getting people to use their own imaginations. Instead of special effects and the budget giving you the imagination that you then absorb. One of the best things that some people have said after watching it is that they forget they haven’t seen the other characters. Some people have even sworn they have seen the other characters people because naturally have that ability to imagine. They hear a voice, they hear the TV in the background, they can see their house. It’s an underused thing. It’s like when you tell a kid a story, they can see in their head.
Your film runs under the 90-minute mark. I believe it’s 83 minutes. For so many films, it’s a struggle to even get a film below the 110-minute mark. You’re way under that. Were there cuts even shorter than this?
There was a version that was longer where… before we started showing it to people I thought maybe people would get claustrophobic if you’re in the car all the time. So there were a lot of shot of the outside with the car driving by. From bridges and car to car. When we showed it to people they said they didn’t want that. They want to go back in the car. We want to know what happens next. By then people were engaged with the story. So that was great. That was the first clue that this was going to work. Far from being hemmed in by the location, they wanted to stay in it.
I’ve read that you had the calls a bit out of timing.
I kept it in sequence but I kept varying the gap. All the time, the cameras are rolling. So Tom never stops acting. He’s doing ordinary things as if you were driving. Just let it go. Then cue the call. So when the phone rings, it’s genuinely a shock. It’s inevitable that he’d forget. Even if you did it 10 times, you’d forget what the order was. So it’s genuine when he looks at the screen and is like, “All right, here we go.”
Dropped calls are just one of those things that happens. Were some in the middle of a take?
I thought there would be more. What I said to all the actors was that if it happens, react exactly as you would if it happened for real. It happened very rarely. Probably only three or four occasions, which is very unlike a cell phone to be so efficient. But it helped with the rhythm. Everybody got confident. If it had happened too much, people would start to just lose faith in the whole concept.
It seems like you all embraced the real life aspects of shooting the film. Tom Hardy was sick on set and you just rolled it into the script. I thought that was brilliant because I’m sitting there, as a film critic, wondering why the decision was made to make him sick. You don’t ever explain it. He’s not ever apologizing for it. To read that, afterwards, it’s brilliant.
Afterwards people have said that they thought the medicine would make him drowsy and he’d swerve off the road. But when you watch a film, we’re all so literate in film that we know what to expect. I think it’s great when you break the rules. You give people stuff that they think, “Ah ha” but that never happens.
Tom was very particular about the voice he used for this film. Audio is such a huge part of this. Do you even have a traditional casting process for the people that are going to call in or do you say, “Okay, I want you to go into this room, where I can’t see you, and call in and read some lines”?
We did five days of readings with the whole cast together. The people are not necessarily household names here, but they’re the best actors. All of our first choices said yes, which is incredible. It helps that it’s only eight days of their life that we’re looking for instead of eight weeks. So we read around the table and dealt with the issues of direction, character, background. All of those things there. That meant when we set off on the road people knew pretty much what to do. They could calibrate their own performance throughout because they were doing it for real. They have the script and Tom has the script in front of him, on the teleprompter. The words are there but that means they’re completely free to do whatever they think in terms of performance.
That has to be freeing for you as a director because you get to focus on the minutiae.
Exactly. There’s something very realistic about it. I think it’s because… the process of having an unscripted conversation, it comes somewhere first and then you say it. But it’s a split second delay. You think it and then you say it. Sight reading is similar to that. I know a lot of actors now, they use ear pieces and they have someone read the words. They say it makes it just like thinking. So maybe that’s what it is but the way Tom does it is just so incredible.
Can you talk about the response you got — or hoped you’d get?
Well, with this, I’m really glad that it isn’t being viewed as an art house experiment. The person at the center of it is an ordinary man. The things that happen are ordinary. There’s no attempt to baffle the audience in order to impress them. It’s to make everything clear. For it all to be very solid except for the fact that we’re dealing with subjects that don’t normally get dealt with and filming it in a different way. But what’s been really gratifying for me is the box office in the U.K. and in New York and LA so far. People are going to see it and they’re going to see it on the strength of word of mouth. People are coming out of the theater and talking to other people about it. I’m not one of those people who is contemptuous of popularity. I mean, I worked in commercial television for years. If you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it so that people want to see it. So called ordinary people aren’t idiots. The audience aren’t idiots. If you make some really obscure piece of self-indulgent art they’re not going to want to watch. I’m really keen that this isn’t that. I know that the people who have had the most profound reaction to it have been working men, middle-aged, with kids. They’re far from being the art house crowd. I’m really pleased about that.
Locke is now available on Blu-ray.
One of the more interesting films touring the festival circuit this year was director Lenny Abrahamson‘s Frank, which enters limited release this weekend. The film follows an eager musician named Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) who is suddenly thrust into a touring band’s role of keyboardist. Leading that band is Michael Fassbender‘s Frank, who wears an overlarge papier-mâché head both on and off the stage and acts exceedingly strange. It’s a film that follows their peculiar process of recording an electronic album that rarely appeals to anyone but the most out-there of minds.
So when I sat down at a roundtable to interview Abrahamson, I must confess I wasn’t sure what to expect from the man himself. But we got a very aware and intelligent conversation about why he cast such an incredible actor like Michael Fassbender, if he was going to cover him up the entire time, the way he designed the fake SXSW and actually fooled me into thinking it was filmed there, how the cinematic language didn’t really change just because of the large papier-mâché head, why he thinks the film has garnered such a strong reaction, and much more. Read on below for the entire conversation and watch a conversation with the actors.
The Film Stage: The sound mix at the beginning of the films is very interesting, the way he’s walking down the street and he’s got all these different voices going on. You didn’t play with that all that much throughout. Is that mainly to put us in the headspace of the main character?
Lenny Abrahamson: Yeah, exactly. The first three minutes or probably less that leads up to the opening title is really just a very self-contained pre-title sequence designed to say, “Here is the main character of the film.” It’s quite self conscious in that respect. It takes you from a guy who you have no idea about standing on a beach to the point he realizes he just copied another song. I know what he wants. I know what he can’t do. You understand, without much dialogue, who the guy is. In my other films which have been more naturalistic — certainly my last film — I would never do anything like that. In those films I was keen not to determine characters so quickly; in other words, what I was trying to do was to force the audience to try and explore characters themselves. But this is a very different kind of film and you’re playing with those tropes of guys who desperately are in a band. You’re looking at those ideas in a broader way so it made sense to really define the character and play with that through the film.
Can you talk about where your main character comes from and the character of Frank comes from?
It’s funny looking at the online discussion in the UK about this. People are aware of some of the antecedents to this film and there’s a bit of a debate about it. I’ll tell you the history of them and what the debate shows. Jon Ronson, who is a writer you might know (he’s on the The Daily Show sometimes), he wrote the book The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. In the 80′s he was in a band in Manchester with this character. The character was Frank Sidebottom, who was a character created by a punk comedian creative, a very hard to define creative force called Chris Sievey. His schtick was he wore this big fake head, but he sang in this high-pitch accent. He sang silly songs. You saw him on kids television and he became a cult figure. Years later, when Jon and Peter were working together on the Men Who Stare at Goats just started riffing on this idea of the figure with the head. That became a magnet, that central image, it seemed to draw in other ideas taken from other outsider musicians. Frank Sidebottom wasn’t an outsider musician, he was a comedic creation. But Chris himself had that outsider spirit and Frank was a curiosity but there was also something very moving about him.
That became the beginning of this journey which took elements of Beefheart, Daniel Johnston, Harry Partch, Roky Erickson, all these people we were pretty fascinated with. The film is a riff on that, a riff on lots of traits of those characters and it talks about other things as well. What’s interesting about the debate back in the U.K. is that die-hard Frank Sidebottom fans, some, and Frank’s family are very supportive of the film. Chris Sievey himself didn’t want a biopic made, but he was really behind this idea before he died. But some of the very die-hard fans feel we’ve trampled on the purity of the original inspiration. I think people are very rigid in the categories they like to use to think about films. It’s either a biopic or it’s not. And if it is, why is he American? And if it’s not, why he’s wearing a head like Frank Sidebottom? I think the answer is that it’s own thing. It’s a creative leap. It’s a leap taken in the spirit of that original inspiration, and we didn’t want to deny that inspiration, hence the name, but it is a lot about other things as well. In America this is irrelevant, but is quite a debate among the fans.
It’s interesting thinking about the way this film would be received by an American audience and taking it back to the U.K., especially when looking at the cast. You have three core actors, all from such different backgrounds, and being received at different levels in different markets. What was it like exploring the creative dynamic between the actors?
That’s always the unknown going into any film — how the cast will gel and what that will bring up. As a director it’s a big mistake not to be sensitive to what’s really happening between the people who are in front of you; what they bring to their character and how they interact with each other. If you can make that work within the overall, the overarching thematic and tonal world of the film, then it’s always going to be better than just brining a rigid set of pre-conceptions as the director and just beating everybody into that mold. In this case, people got on really well. Particularly the early stages, we did some music rehearsal before we shot, before we did usual rehearsal. The band is really playing in the film. That meant we had to have a functioning band. That put constraints on what was written but also in a strange way liberated us in that we were really working with materials we weren’t just inventing.
People got on incredibly well both musically and personally, particularly François [Civil] who plays the bass player and Carla [Azar] who is the drummer were inseparable through the film. The rhythm section was this unit on and off the camera and they see each other all the time. I think Michael is very friendly with the other members of the band. He would have known Domhnall before, but with the other members they’re all in touch with each other. They’re all quite keen to play together again as a band. You can’t really know that in advance. I have certainly been in situations were people don’t get on that well. It’s quite interesting the relationship between Maggie [Gyllenhaal] and Michael it was really sparky and creatively exciting and I think for Maggie it was really interesting having this strong emotional connection to a character she can’t see. That plays really well.
It’d be one of those things where you’d have to employ so many different cards of your imagination. You’re projecting onto something you can’t see physically.
In a strange way, it isn’t difficult. I’d almost rather say it’s a bit like watching the film, and I suppose every viewer is different, but you kind of forget about the head. We forgot about it on set. I remember thinking, “Will I adjust? How will it be?” I had strong sense of how I was going to make the scenes, but still you ask yourself, “When I’m there, will the normal filmic grammar make sense in relation to Frank?” Like going in for a close-up, you go in on somebody to get a sense of what’s going on but actually you also go in for a close-up because it’s the way film sentence structure works. It’s telling you something significant is happening even if nothing is changing on the face. That dimension of the filmmaking process applies seamlessly to Frank. At the same time, Michael’s small movements — his tiny little settlings and readjustments — if you have a puppet you can make that puppet so expressive. It is remarkable how much you can take away and have a fully three-dimensional character. What it also gives you is this element of playful withholding.
Part of what became really interesting when we were working on the script was people’s conventional understanding of creativity. The Jon character is throwing the kitchen sink at what it is that makes Frank good. Jon is not prepared to admit he just doesn’t have any talent. He thinks there’s some secret — if he had been in a mental hospital, or had an abusive childhood, or any of the number of things he wishes. He’s just this middle-class kid, but if only I had this great awful life, I too could be this creative genius. Domhnall’s part, I think, is the hardest thing in the film, purely from a technical point of view — being the center, quite often unappealing, being the one who the straight person in all this madness is really hard. You really feel his face changing from the beginning of the film to the end. He seems more at home with himself. There’s a melancholy resignation at the end, and he tracks that so subtly and so well through the film.
Was Michael on set the whole time and was wearing the head the whole time? It could have been just a voice performance and nobody would have known.
Yeah. We made the decision early on and he was a 100% determined on this that it would always be him. Apart from a half a second during one stunt, it’s always him. It’s him during the album play. He claims he doesn’t work out, but I don’t buy that at all. If it hadn’t been him you might not know, but it wouldn’t be as good a film. One interesting thing that came out in the cutting of the film; we had thought it was handy we can’t see the lips, so if you really need to take the lines from a take that’s working really well… But there’s just something about it, you want to be able to mix takes, take the voice from one take and use the pictures from another. Why not do that with Frank? It almost never worked. The body language just kind of worked. As human beings, if we’re good at anything, we’re good at reading other people. What makes you think somebody is trustworthy or not? You couldn’t write it down. It’s tiny things they do. I find this really fascinating to think about: people that have one or more senses that don’t work still compensate superbly with the other senses. We are getting much more information than we know by watching a person perform. Michael’s voice, which are all sorts of things in there, Iggy Pop and a bit of Jim Morrison when he’s singing, he really enjoyed that challenge and it was fun to do.
How did you land Michael Fassbender?
We sent the script to his agency. You do it in the sense of who might be interesting for some of the parts in this film. His agent is smart and Michael is too, so there was kind of a hope but not an expectation that he’d be interested. When he found out he was it was really great. I think there are all sorts of reasons why it’s really great. Why cast him if you’re not going to show his face? I hope when people see the film they get the why and get an amazing performance. Also, we’re not saying whether you see his face or not. You have to see the film. The other thing about it, the challenge for him was great. He loved the script, he laughed a lot at it. It’s a testament to the fact that Michael is not some kind of — none of the people in the film are — calculating career builders. They are people who are drawn to pleasures, difficulties, challenges of acting. It’s great. He can do X-Men and he can do 12 Years a Slave or any of the other number of film he chooses.
What it did bring is a physicality to the part. I don’t think we would have gone this route, but with Michael, there’d be a danger in thinking about a character like Frank to go with a Michael Jackson, childlike, wonder-filled amazement, and that would be what you expect. With Michael you get this extra dimension; the tyrant as well, the intensity, you get all that stuff too. This wasn’t something we thought about consciously at the beginning, but the film is a lot about the way people project versions of themselves. Jon is, through social media, desperately projecting a version of himself that is much more exciting and ironic than the real one. We trade in those things, especially in this industry, as well-known actors become a brand version of themselves. The film, among other things, it says there is value in just the thing in itself regardless of how many followers or how many hits it gets on YouTube. That’s not the mark of greatness. If that’s the case not showing your big, huge star is a big statement by the film. If you don’t like it, fine. This a performance we’re not trying to sell, we’re trying to be true to it — true to the idea.
You filmed at SXSW, so I assume you got permission from them to do so. How much does that directly lead to you getting into SXSW?
It’s a good question. We actually filmed in Albuquerque but we made it SXSW. We were filming in New Mexico. Thanks for thinking it. I take that as a compliment. We studied a lot and recreated little chunks of it. The convention center bit works really well. I’ve never been to SXSW until now and when I walked into the convention center I thought we did a pretty good job. I don’t think anything in our imaginations could quite prepare me for the sheer hipster kind of intensity of the place, but we did our best. I don’t know. We didn’t premiere here. We premiered at Sundance and there are all sorts of reasons one might do that. It’s more of a market and frankly what you’re doing when you premiere your film is that you’re trying to sell it. I think honestly had SXSW not liked the film they wouldn’t have shown it. But I think they wanted to like it because it’s crazy; it’s too good a story not to tell here. The audience certainly seemed to go with the SXSW part last night.
There’s been such a huge reaction to the film. What do you think it is about the craziness and the vibe of this film that has struck such a chord with so many different movie viewers?
It’s very hard to see your own film objectively. But what I think is unusual about the film is how difficult it is to think of any other film that is like it. It doesn’t fit into any obvious genre. It is funny, including moments of pure slapstick, but it’s also quite poignant and thoughtful and playful. There are ideas at play. There are pleasures to be had both in the comedy and the music. The obligation I always feel when making a film, especially one like this, is to make it as rich as possible, where families of ideas and themes and ways of executing it that somehow resonate, where the form and the function fit together. If you do that, I think an audience will recognize that. I know when I go and see a film whether I feel if the people who made it have sweat over it. Or is it just some simple dashed off thing or an attempt to catch a wave or target a particular audience?
I do think everybody, all the people who made the film — actors, us, writers, people who are releasing it — they all really believe in it. Everybody put their heart and soul into it. Loads of creative hours went into the film. It’s like the old-fashioned websites where there’s just one layer versus one with loads of deep rich content where you can come at them from different angles. In terms of how the film will be released, we have all this other music, we have filmed songs stuff that isn’t in the film — demos the band did in the studio before we shot. I have a whole archive of influences that went into. Same way the pictures were evolved, the way the head was designed. I feel like if you do that work in preparing a film what you end up with is a very solid thing that you can look at from different angles.
Some people just get the comedy, some people are very moved by it, and some people a combination of both. It also resonates, even though it’s a film about a musician and musicians. All of us have, in some aspects of our life, huge desires which we know we can never fulfill. The things we would have loved to have been. Given that we live in a culture that says you can be anything you want, which is painfully untrue, people are very conflicted about those choices they make. People are encouraged not to be realistic about themselves. I think that’s very negative. The film interrogates a person, a person desperate to be something they’re not really cut out to be, and it lets them try, and in a pretty humane way it tracks what it feels like and what that person learns. I think that’s pretty relevant to us.
Frank hits theaters on Friday, August 15th.