Grand Piano is a film that is so masterfully done that it seems silly one would ever have doubts that the story could be pulled off. Much of that has to do with the work of the blossoming director Eugenio Mira, who actually created animatics of the film to get everyone on the same page. Starring Elijah Wood as a wunderkind pianist trying to get over his past failures performing live, this thriller never relents once it is pushed down the hill.
At Fantastic Fest last fall I had the opportunity to speak with Mira, Wood, and co-star Don McManus about the serendipity they felt with the film, the type of piano they went after and how it turned into an essential part of the story, appreciation of music after the film, what Fantastic Fest means to all of them, and much more. There are no spoilers and I encourage you to read this before or after seeing the film, which is already on VOD and hits theaters in limited release this weekend. Read on for the full interview below, as well as a recent 50-minute conversation between Wood and Mira.
The Film Stage: First off, Elijah Wood, you seem to be a constant presence at Fantastic Fest. Have you been here since the beginning and what drew you here to begin with?
Elijah Wood: I had actually heard of the festival for years before I came the first time. My first time was in 2010. My brother had lived here for a while and had been here multiple times before I ever went. So I was chomping at the bit to come to the festival. Partially because I love Austin. I’ve been coming to Austin for over 15 years. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Alamo Drafthouse. I know a lot of the characters around the festival. There was a sense of familiarity already but then there was also this great celebration of movies that I had heard so much about. All the kinds of films that I love so much. So that was the draw. And that’s actually where I met Eugenio for the first time. That Fantastic Fest in 2010. Nacho [Vigalondo] as well. Eugenio was here with Agnosia.
Eugenio Mira: Yep!
Wood: So in some ways, I don’t know if I would have been involved in Grand Piano had it not been for Fantastic Fest. It’s all full circle. Here we are in 2013 having missed Fantastic Fest last year because of this movie. We were literally… there was a dinner with Nacho, me, and Eugenio in Barcelona during the closing night party of Fantastic Fest and we’re getting pictures from my brother and are just like, “what the f*ck?”
Mira: We had our own private Fantastic Fest.
Don McManus: I had never been to Fantastic Fest, but hearing them in Barcelona talk about it, there was a whole mythology. [Laughs] There was a whole world!
Mira: It’s hard to explain to people.
It is! It’s really hard.
Mira: I like to say this. It’s like a secret society that is open to everybody. There’s no secret. You can see the pictures. People go nuts when they see pictures of Fantastic Fest on the internet. “What the hell? Is that Bill Pullman?” It’s hard to contextualize.
Getting back to the film itself, this film obviously revolves around this one particular piano. I’m curious, what was the piano? Did you try and get a particular piano? Did you try for something grand or was it really just more of a prop?
Mira: I have to say I was obsessed with going for a Bosendorfer. The fact that it looks like a black cat and is one of the largest pianos. The first time I got to see one was recording the soundtrack of a movie The Totenwackers and they had these two Bosendorfer pianos. When I stepped into the studio there was 16 musicians waiting on me to record it. I saw them and I just didn’t know what they were. I sat down and I tried it and fell in love with it. That was back in 2006. I’ve never told y’all this. So I fell in love with it and then I forgot about it. We were discussing pianos with the writer, Damien Chazelle, and he never mentioned any kind of brand. My producers came up and said, well, we could go with Yamaha, Kawai, etc. Of course they were interested, but to me, it’s like, “Yamaha?” The word itself is like, really?
Wood: Yeah. It’s not very classical.
Mira: And we did just a tiny bit of research and we found that this particular Bosendorfer, the same model that is only one century old, it was specifically developed for [Franz] Liszt, the composer, because he needed an extra octave. That extra octave has an extra set of black keys. So even the white keys are black.
So that even ties directly into the movie.
Mira: Totally! So you have all these connotations of this crazy guy creating the most impossible-to-play things and needing another instrument. Pushing the boundaries. That was so, so good.
McManus: But, that’s essential to the plot. I didn’t know that was true.
Mira: Yeah. Well, I mean I fell in love with that piano and that helped build the character of the mentor for me. That he had two mentors, and one was Tom Selznick.
There just seems to be so many coincidences around this film. How you met Elijah and this piano. It’s insane.
Mira: I’m so aware that in this business, if this turns into one thing in life, I’m fine. We won’t talk about that. We keep moving and hopefully we will be able to put this into other projects 5 or 10 years from now.
Wood: There’s a lot of serendipity.
Mira: Yeah. We were overwhelmed by that. Everything that could go well, it went incredibly well. We didn’t come to it from the lazy perspective where we sit and, oh, that looks amazing. No! We worked our ass off. But in life, that doesn’t grant anything. But it’s the only way to go. You cannot afford to be lazy. But if you work your ass off, and we all did, and it’s synchronized, maybe we can take a little bit of credit for that. We are very aware that there is something extra. I think it’s in the movie. There’s some magic there that as a director I cannot take the credit for.
McManus: The planning was amazing. The year before I auditioned for a part in Rodrigo Cortes’s film, Apartment 143, and it didn’t happen. Which was fine.
Mira: But he was such a big part because he told me, “You really should check this guy out. He’d be perfect.” He loves you.
McManus: And the next year I heard back and it was like, “Really? From that?” I had forgotten about that audition.
Mira: He was perfect and Rodrigo was like, “I told you.” [Everyone laughs]
So, this role really exposes the actors and the cast to this kind of music, the orchestral and piano scores. I feel like music is one of those things where if you’re exposed to enough of it, and even if it’s for a job and you’re basically forced to listen to it, you do form an appreciation for it.
McManus: Oh, yeah!
How much did that stay with you after? Do you listen to orchestral music now?
McManus: I do! Well, first of all, I conduct now when I listen to music.
McManus: I do! I’m sitting and my hands are just [motions like a conductor]. I’ll see people going, “What is he doing?”
Mira: But that’s beautiful, man. That’s beautiful.
McManus: Well I’ve got to thank [coach and double Tobias Gossman] for that.
Mira: He did a great job with you.
Wood: I haven’t listened to more classical music since filming but what I have noticed is due to that rigorous schedule and playing so much there, my understanding of playing has increased so that now if I hear something I can imagine where the hands are.
Wood: I can imagine what the hands are doing. That’s all just in my mind now.
Mira: I’m so proud of him taking piano lessons. From what I’ve seen, he’s just got a natural ability to understand lower, higher. Like a theremin thing. It’s a very basic premise but it works. If you can understand how to go up and down in keys, then you can write music. And if you can write music, you understand what to do with your hands.
McManus: It’s that easy. It’s really that easy.
I don’t have that at all. I’m a very visual person and a lot of that stuff is just in the atmosphere.
Mira: But if you’re visual, let me tell you, because I’m in both worlds, there is a moment where this wall just drops and suddenly you’re like, “Oh!” My sister is a genius and she told me once, the only thing she learned from her teacher who was this 80-year-old guy, that in sequential art, everything that has to do with music and be expressed with stuff, there’s two forces. One, creating the tension. The other is the resolution of tension. The more you wait to go for the resolution, it builds up and you get uncomfortable. That’s how you find success. The more you get back to the original plan, easier for everybody. No disturbing. You’re not going to lose the tension of anybody. But if you are bold enough to don’t get back, you’re getting to a very perverted and greedy world. So in cinema, it’s the same. You sit down to write the script and you try to stay away from boring. It’s those two forces and once you understand that you can break down anything. Even a painting. So you’re closer than you think.
Obviously you know people at this festival. I’m wondering how easy it was to get into this festival. And what kind of cut did you send in? A finished cut? And early cut?
Wood: The way that it happened, we didn’t actually submit to Fantastic Fest. Tim [League], who’s a dear friend of our, had seen a screening at Cannes as a market screening and he emailed you.
Mira: Yeah, he emailed me, “I saw the movie and I loved it. I want it to be in the festival.” It would have been the same had we known each other or not known each other at all.
Wood: But the reality is that it’s important to know that while we have a lot of friends at the festival and friends that get into the festival, ultimately it comes down to whether the movie is good or not. The movie never would have made it had we not done our job.
Mira: No, totally. I can give you an example. The last movie I made, Agnosia, which is a movie I love, I was concerned about the fact that it…
Wood: Wasn’t perfect for the festival.
Mira: It wasn’t normal. I warned them. “Guys, I want you to know that there’s a long life ahead of us to do a lot of stuff.” There may be a project about chimpanzees going back in time and kidnapping Benjamin Franklin, for example.
I want to see that movie!
Mira: Yeah, you want to see that movie. But this is not that kind of movie. Agnosia was a 19th century Mediterranean gothic era. It’s about other interests I have but definitely not fantastic. And Tim let me know. “We’re not taking this movie because you’re a friend of ours. It’s because we really dig it. We thought it was amazing.” And he had the balls to take the microphone and make this kind of disclaimer before the movie. They basically said we won’t apologize for this movie. We love it so deal with it. But yes, I’m very aware of all this. I have a project now that isn’t up this alley but I’ve seen films that aren’t necessarily genre that play here. They go after what they love. For example, Bullhead.
Wood: Michel Gondry’s film as well.
Mira: Tim’s a very big supporter of films like Bullhead. So I trust them. And I’ll do the same for them. When I have a film that maybe isn’t fitting, I’ll let them know. To me, it only adds more responsibility. After three movies, with this one and what we’ve put together, I get back home tomorrow and wake up and it’s like, OK, I made these things. What’s going to happen? If I’m healthy, four decades of working and figuring out what to do. That’s the challenge. What am I going to bring back to Fantastic Fest? To me, that’s how I feel. It’s not about disappointing. I just want to add something extra. Push the envelope. Hopefully we’ll keep doing that.
Grand Piano is now on VOD and in theaters.
Tony Revolori‘s name does not carry any of the weight one might associate with Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray, or Jude Law, and thus his involvement in Wes Anderson‘s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has been rather significantly swept under the marketing rug. Thinking that Gustave H. is our guide through another one of the writer-director’s immaculately designed worlds, actually experiencing this effort yields the surprise of how central this newcomer’s character, Zero Moustafa, is to the manic, multi-tiered action — its lead, in fact, and by all means the film’s true heart and soul.
In light of my own viewing, I was keen to speak with the up-and-coming star, whose biggest role yet, by far, is a part most well-established actors his age would’ve killed to land. To get some insight into the working mind (and sets) of Wes Anderson, working in a 4:3 frame, and how one prepares for a screenplay as knotty as Budapest‘s, read on below:
Based on just the trailers, I felt like I knew what character orientation Anderson had devised here, and so actually seeing the film was a great surprise. Were you aware that Zero was Budapest’s true protagonist when you’d initially approached the project?
I was a bit confused who it was going to be perceived as, because Ralph does such an amazing job, as well as, you know, my… I think I do a pretty good job myself. [Laughs] So the characters are very similarly placed, and I didn’t know who was going to be the main protagonist. But I think it’s up to anyone; whoever thinks what is fine, in my opinion, but I do appreciate your saying I’m the true protagonist. That’s really cool.
How much were you given when submitting an audition? Was it just a scene?
It was just a scene — the interview scene, where Gustave is interviewing me to get my job as a lobby boy. For the first two auditions and, then, after the first two, it was down to my brother and I, they told us, and then I flew out to Paris, where they gave me the full script.
The structure is very surprising, and to see it unfold is, I think, one of the movie’s greatest pleasures. How did you react when first discovering that?
I thought it was fantastic and great, the way he placed it all; the way he did it was amazing, to be able to keep jumping back in time to these moments. The way he did it was very seamless and fantastic. Very story-like, which is great for this film, because I felt this film really is a “true story,” in many ways, so it was just fantastic to be able to see all these characters. You pretty much know what happens to all of them, and it’s great to see how everything unfolds.
Because Anderson is so well-known for his design, how much were you made privy to before stepping onto the set? Was there a surprise in seeing this, physically, for the first time?
Definitely. I was surprised all the time, because no matter how much you prepare yourself, with pictures and everything, the real thing was always just so breathtaking. I had seen cartoon versions of what the lobby was to look like, and everything like that, so I had a pretty clear image when I came onto set — you know, I knew that this was “our lobby” — but it, still, was just a fantastic thing. Adam Stockhausen and Wes designed a fantastic world, and I was just happy to be part of it.
When on these elaborately designed sets, how does having so many small details at your disposal help?
It’s great, because, as an actor, we were able to create — at least, I was able to create – clear pictures, in my mind, where everything was. There was no greenscreen so, when I needed to point to something, I pointed directly to it; when I was walking to something, I was actually walking through this lobby. You’re able to create this realism and truly feel like you were in this hotel, because there’s no greenscreen — you’re not imagining it and it’s all there. You’re able to walk through as “this truly is the lobby” and feel attuned with this fantasy world.
I recently read an article which described Wes Anderson’s deliberateness in handling a screenplay, line readings, etc. Did you like having someone who takes that direction?
Both ways are great: to have a director who lets you have the freedom to do what you want, but there’s also greatness in having a director who knows what he wants. This is Wes’s movie, and, so, I feel what he wants is what you’re doing your best to get, and he’s one of the directors who can truly say, “I want Tony to fall out of a window,” and he will get people to do it for him. It’s fantastic to work for a director like that, and it’s a great challenge, to try to get exactly what he’s thinking, picturing in his mind. That’s another thing that’s really cool about it: getting to live up to that challenge.
Your section is in 4:3, and it feels as if the camera is a bit closer to you than a more “modern” frame would require, where your physical presence is really “felt” inside any given frame. As an actor, is there anything odd about being closer to the camera and with some tighter sets?
No, not at all. I kind of blocked those moments out — I was just thinking about my role and trying to do as best as I possibly could. Whatever they told me to do, I did my best to try to do it, and so I never really thought much about, “Oh, well, they’re shooting in 4:3” or, “Oh, well, they’re doing this and that.” I kind of went in and did what I was told.
There’s definitely a darkness to the film, sometimes to an unsettling degree. As an actor, is there any need to reconcile the tone and the content?
You know, there are a couple of moments where my character — my younger version of the character — definitely has sad moments, so I was able to move forward with that quite easily, because that’s something we all have — that kind of sadness, and I was able to get to it really easily. Wes and I had about prepared about four months before shooting, just talking to each other, sending each other videos of us reading the script, things like that. So I came in very prepared with this knowledge and, subconsciously, he got me where he wanted me to go; I was able to get there really easily.
As for Zero’s older counterpart — who’s played by F. Murray Abraham, who did an amazing job — he had a different view, a different process to get to Zero, because Zero was such a sad character at that point in his life, so there was that difference. We did keep it separate, and it was very, very simple and easy.
You talked about some physical work, which is very present later in the film. How do you prepare yourself for these scenes, where it seems like you’re enacting a great deal and Wes is requesting as much?
I always say I had the most “physical” character in the movie; I was lugging around all the time, which was really, really nice. There was no preparation for this, in any way — I just arrived on set, put on my costume, and they said, “Well, you’re running from here to here; you’re jumping out of a window; you’re going to be on a harness.” So I said, “You know what, let’s do it.” I had no questions or problems or anything — I just got up, got ready for the day, and that was it. Whatever was happening, that’s what was happening.
The Grand Budapest Hotel will open in limited release on March 7.
One of the most extraordinary films of the last year, the Belgium bluegrass drama The Broken Circle Breakdown, screened to great acclaim stateside at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival before obtaining an Oscar nomination for Foreign Language Film. The powerful, non-linear story follows several years in the life of Elise aka Alabama, a tattoo artist (played by Veerle Baetens), and an American obsessed musician Didler, with the stage name Monroe (Johan Heldenbergh). The film beautifully interweaves past and present creating a rich, emotionally and politically charged tapestry.
The Film Stage recently spoke with director (and co-screenwriter) Felix Van Groenigen and lead actress Veerle Baetens about the process from adapting Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels’ hit play to its political influences to getting ready for Oscar Sunday. Broken Circle Breakdown is currently available on VOD and is screening in select cities nationwide via Tribeca Film and one can check out our full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Thank you for talking with us.
Veerle Baetens: With pleasure.
It’s a very beautiful movie – can you tell me how the story came about?
Felix Van Groeningen: Thank you. The film was based on a great theatre play by Johan [Heldenbergh]; it was a big hit in Belgium. I went to see it twice and I was very much intrigued by it because it has the same emotional impact as the film. But on the other hand it wasn’t very cinematic. So I played with the idea, and it was just too hard; I said I wasn’t going to do it. But it just kept coming back to me, so six months after the first time, I just tried it again. I started working with Charlotte Vandermeersch, the screenwriter, and step by step it led to a movie.
It is a non-linear film. Was the play also non-linear – what were the decisions you made in adapting the material?
FVG: The moment I started working on it, I knew we were going to have to play with time. It worked really well in the play. The play wasn’t told in flashbacks, it was two people talking. But we knew very quickly that it was about an ex-couple that lost a kid, but knowing that made the stakes very high. And it worked well on stage, knowing where we were and being afraid of that, and we wanted to know more and more. That made me think, for the adaptation that we’d have to play with time. In developing the screenplay we created three timelines and we were going back and forth, but it was more of a classic structure. On paper it worked fine, but when we saw the first cut we realized it wasn’t as emotional as the theater piece. Then we started over, throwing away the script and working with the material in the edit room.
Was it a test audience that helped you determine this? The film is really brilliant in that its disorienting yet engaging then things all start to snap together in the third act.
FVG: When we started playing with it, we didn’t know if it would work. We brought in a small test audience — a few friends that we invited — and when we saw they never doubted where they were in the story, it encouraged us to push the limits. It was an amazing ride we were on, and it just happened while we were working on it.
It’s really great — it works! Veerle, can you discuss how you prepared for the role of Elisa? Were you a musician?
VB: Actually I saw the play twice, too, even before I knew I was going to get involved. I was crazy about the play, and then I got to audition for the movie and got the part – and was very happy about that. The preparation was actually really refreshing because Felix got us to rehearse six months in advance for the music, then one month in advance for the character building and the relationship between Johan and me. It was like going back to school, when you had time to develop a character and someone was guiding you through the process. Apart from that, I’m someone who likes to prepare by reading books that describe people, and think about astrological signs. It really pinpoints people; it puts them into groups. That’s how I do character development.
Did the music help? Of course there are themes in the songs that play into the narrative?
VB: Yes, it did actually. I think the music is the basis for it all, the music is very honest and true – the character of Elise, for me, comes out. It’s represented very well, so it gives her a depth, and simplicity and truthfulness to it, like Elise.
Can you talk about the political influence? Of course there is a scene where the camera focuses its attention to George Bush vetoing funding for stem cell research. Was that also an element from the play or was that brought in?
FVG: It was very much in the play. I think it was even a bit more. It was just important for Johan – he’s very much like Didier – not in his anger, but he has ideal picture of how things should be. He did see Bush stop stem cell funding and it made him very angry. He said OK, ‘I’d like to talk about religion, and how religion is trying to interfere in my life.’ And it inspired the play. At the same time he discovered bluegrass music, which is also very religious music, and somehow he put those two together and told this magical story. He doesn’t take sides – he tells both sides – they need each other but at the same time cannot live with each other. I felt it needed to be in the movie, which is why I set the film in the 9/11 era.
I know the film was made a few years ago, but it’s now screening throughout the world. What’s been the most surprising thing about the reception it’s receiving?
FVG: It’s crazy. The last few months I’ve been doing promos for the movie and traveling all over the world – Brazil and Columbia lately. We’ve got the Oscar nomination and a nomination for the Best Foreign Language film in France – so it’s crazy. I’m so happy, because when we were working on it, it felt really special and it’s great to know we weren’t mistaken.
It’s a really beautiful movie – anything else you want to tell us before you take off?
FVG: Yep, no we’re very happy to be nominated for an Oscar and we’re enjoying the ride.
For many over the age of twenty-five, the names Mamrie Hart, Grace Helbig, and Hannah Hart might mean nothing. Twelve months ago I would have also said, “Who?” That’s around the time my girlfriend started playing YouTube videos of these bona fide stars on her computer while I walked in and out of the living room. From that point forward intentionally bad puns, drunken recipes, and the catchy repetition of “Seeex-eee Fri-daaay” became a weekly staple I began sitting down to watch alongside her.
It only took this trio five years to gain a combined 3.5 million followers on the internet video site as their tight-knit friendship led to multiple collaborations on their respective stations, a successful tour entitled #NoFilterShow, and now a feature-length film earning each an Executive Producer credit. Co-written by Mamrie and starring all three, Camp Takota shot for 18 days during the summer of 2013 and debuts this Valentine’s Day (2/14/14) exclusively via its website CampTakota.com.
Courtesy of the site: “With her personal and professional life in shambles, Elise (Helbig) ends up having to take a job as a counselor at her old summer camp. There, she reunites with two estranged friends (Hannah Hart, Mamrie Hart) who attended camp and never left. When the future of the camp is put in jeopardy, the three friends must band together to save it, changing the course of their lives forever.”
We had the pleasure of talking to “Holy Trinity of YouTube” recently about their BFF-status, going to camp, and the loyal fans they always put first. They’re primed to takeover twentieth-century entertainment if they haven’t already. And everyone—no matter their age—should know their names very soon.
I watched the behind the scenes footage that Grace posted and I felt compelled to ask whether Camp Takota could have been made without Katy Perry’s “Roar” pumping you up every morning?
All: [Laughter] No.
Grace: No—it really probably couldn’t have. I still listen to it on repeat all the time and it just makes me a little nostalgic for a time that really just happened.
Hannah: Exactly, we were nostalgic about it before we ended shooting.
Mamrie: I know, it’s stupid.
No, it definitely showed the enthusiasm. It was a nice touch to see you all get excited every day.
Grace: Thanks. Yeah, if only we had a bigger budget we could get the rights to that song for our end credits, but unfortunately not.
Hannah: Not at all.
Mamrie: Oh my God, you never know. Katy Perry might just decide to donate without royalty the song for our movie.
Grace: Yeah, we’re all going to tweet her after this interview and get her to come to our premiere.
Hannah: Oh my God. Wouldn’t that be amazing!
The three of you are very prolific YouTubers. You have the 3.5 million combined followers in only about five years. How crucial is that collaboration for your careers? And when did your involvement with each other begin?
Grace: Well, I will start. I think that I got—I was on Daily Grace and it happened pretty early on in its history. I think I only had that channel for a year before I met these fine, fine people.
I would say that collaboration is obviously huge in the YouTube space. It’s a co-work space—you know—so these people are your competitors and your colleagues. And jumping around the internet and making funny content with individuals who are also independent creators—it’s a pleasure really. It’s cool.
Mamrie: Yeah. So Grace and I—Grace, you should know is the other half of You Deserve a Drink. The entire way she’s been there with me. So she’s kind of like an added bonus in your vid.
Mamrie: You fit the hole in our hearts—the teeny-tiny hole in our hearts.
But, yeah, because traditional media is kind of based on competition and YouTube is founded on the philosophy of collaboration—I think that’s the really interesting concept that drew Michael Goldfine and Rockstream Studios to us as creators to create a project that was kind of based in the digital space. We came into it with a built-in audience and it’s a brand new way to create what is referred to as traditional content.
Hannah: While also bringing in elements like Grace vlogging every day and us doing our own behind the scenes videos and kind of bringing that digital aspect to the lead up for the actual movie.
Grace: Yeah, that’s the thing—YouTube is a very personal medium. It’s very intimate; there’s a two-way conversation that happens with our audiences when we make videos. And so we’re really kind of delivering our film in a more experiential way. They’re seeing the film from conception to the final product so we really wanted our audiences to feel like we’ve created an entire environment around the film that they’ve been a part of from start to finish.
Hannah: I think that that would be something that people could really start up—you know, the next time you’re making a movie with somebody else you know how to do it. Like you’re kind of planning out the experience of how you’re going to invite the audience into the process of making it.
Right, it’s kind of the evolution of Kickstarter. It’s that but it’s so much more.
Could you talk about the origins of the movie? I know Mamrie co-wrote, but am I correct that Hannah was the first person Michael approached?
Hannah: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah. And then I pointed Michael in the direction of Grace and Mame and, Mamrie and Michael met and they were like two or three schoolgirls talking about camp and teddy bears and stuff like that—right? Is that how it happened?
Mamrie: Yes, that is one hundred percent correct. We both got on our hamster wheel and just ran and ran and regaled with our stories of camp. And seriously, Michael and I talked. We knew that, like, our love for camp was so deep and that there are so many people who feel the same way, that creating a movie on camp and these friends at camp would resonate so much for people who had that shared experience.
So did all three of you go through that camp experience?
Grace: Yeah, Hannah and I have never been to camp, however, shooting this film was like going to camp. We were on an area of land up in Santa Clarita that had no cellphone reception, so all day long—you know, 12-15 hours a day—we were having real human conversations with our fellow castmates and crew. We really felt like it was a special experience. We made eye contact with each other … it was weird.
Hannah: Yeah, we got up early, we all sat down for meals together. It really is—yeah.
Mamrie: A movie set is a camp. We know this now.
Now was there a hierarchy? Was Mamrie as a co-writer—did she get to boss you two around about line readings?
Mamrie: Oh, I’m such a bitch. I don’t know if that came through or not yet.
No, I will say that it was easy—we’re friends. So, not only do we have similar senses of humor, but we also can always be honest with each other. And both Hannah and Grace are so funny on their feet that—there weren’t a lot of lines changed but they would think of things on the fly which were way better than the script.
Mamrie: … but marginally better. Marginally.
Hannah: I mean that’s the joy of working with your close friends—that you have each other’s back. You’re supportive of each other. There were some days where I was really tired—you know, felt like emotionally out of it—and they really had my back. It felt like a safe environment.
The film is very much a testament to that friendship and that community. YouTubers like The Brothers Riedell [Chris and Nick] came on to direct; you have Chester See and Sawyer Hartman in the supporting cast. Was it a conscious decision to utilize that world or a natural evolution?
Grace: It was definitely a conscious decision. When we talked to Michael originally about creating a film—I know that we definitely wanted our community to be represented in the film. I think it wouldn’t feel as digitally organic if it didn’t include people from our community that, One: are great actors, and Two: do have a social presence along with us.
Mamrie: Yeah, we just wanted to incorporate these people like Grace said, but we didn’t just keep it in that realm because, well, we needed people who were older than 25 for some roles—
Mamrie: And also because it is a way to expand the audience—it’s not a YouTube movie. It’s a feature film and there’s going to be people watching it ideally who have no idea who we are or who the other YouTubers are within the film. We didn’t want it to just be this gimmick of, “This is a YouTube movie with your favorite YouTubers”.
How mutually beneficial was the project as far as Michael educating you three on what goes on to make a feature film while you exposed him to the digital side’s potential? He had produced Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, but how experienced was he with the intangibles you brought to the table?
Mamrie: Michael had a lot of those connections before we met him. And his electricity was, like, Gil [Kruger, co-producer] on a bike.
Hannah: The thing is—I think Michael was definitely—he’s really good at teaching himself and educating himself in this world. It was such a good thing because most of Rockstream’s work is more on the doc[umentary] front. So, just being a narrative—that was new territory for him. And this was definitely new territory for us, making a movie. But it’s cool too—I mean he’s a very knowledgeable producer so we can all kind of each learn new things every day.
And how has this experience lent to what you three do on your own through YouTube? I know Mamrie and Hannah have books coming out [You Deserve a Drink and My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide To Eating, Drinking, And Going With Your Gut respectively], but has this given you the bug to do another film?
Hannah: I think it definitely has really kind of informed my knowledge of the process in general—yeah, I’d love to do more. We all have a better idea of [how] undertaking something this scale—like making a movie or writing the book—kind of really comes down to execution. And we’re really grateful for it because a lot of people in the entertainment biz learn that by being PAs [Production Assistants] or going to college and studying film and all that stuff. A good and a bad thing about being a YouTuber is that it puts me in a very public light.
What does the digital distribution platform say about your faith in and your love for your fans?
Mamrie: Hannah has a—I don’t know what the word was but Hannah said it once before. Something along the lines of “ViewTube”? Is that right, Hannah?
Mamrie: Yeah, I love that term and I think it kind of applies to the way we’re distributing it. Although we want to definitely branch out and reach a wider audience for people who are just in for a really great movie about camp or friendship. We know how fans and viewers like to get our content. You know, sometimes that’s on a laptop in your bedroom while also doing a time chat with other friends on Tumblr. We know how they like to watch what we do. We wanted them to have that same experience.
Is there anything in the pipeline to do a feature film version of something like the #NoFilterShow or some other kind of concert movie?
Mamrie: Thanks for the idea …
Mamrie: We definitely had that idea before this call …
Grace: Mamrie, I’m gonna let you answer it.
Mamrie: Well actually we haven’t—that would be—I guess you’re asking more in a doc sense like following us on tour? That would be super fun.
Hannah: Oh my God it really would.
Mamrie: We love—obviously—having cameras in our face in all aspects, but in addition to that we’re always looking to see what the next project could be. Could we make another movie and what would that look like? You know, it’s a big experiment what we’re doing with Camp Takota so we’re excited to see how that all plays out and then we’ll see about what’s next in the movie world.
Hannah: Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.
Is there anything the three of you could say about Camp Takota? An encapsulation for our readers that may not be on the website to get a feel of what to expect?
Hannah: At some point someone implied that the tater tot has gone through the [Hannah's final word to this joke was indecipherable on the recording and she doesn't remember what was said. She does, however, ask all of you to finish it with your favorite Hannah-ism in its place].
Grace: I was going to say it’s like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants meets There Will Be Blood meets, uh, Meatballs.
Mamrie: Yeah, but only There Will Be Blood because we were on set together for a month and change, though.
Hannah: Oh, wow.
Mamrie: No, it’s a really—it’s a fun time. It’s a great story about friendship set in the environment of camp, which everyone loves to watch—that little bubble. And at the end of the day, it is kind of based in reality and we wanted to make a movie [where] friends talk to each other like they do in real life. It’s not going to be an hour-and-a-half internet video. We think people will enjoy it and also relate to it.
And tater tots on the side.
Camp Takota hits VOD on Friday, February 14 at camptakota.com.
Director Ben Wheatley has made a name for himself by delivering films that defy what one might expect and go down the rabbit hole of whatever tickles his fancy. His latest film, A Field In England, which releases on VOD everywhere and in limited theaters on Friday, is shot entirely in black-and-white and has a loose narrative structure that drops one in the middle of a battle in England. Adjoined to the film is a bombastic and muscular score by James Williams. During Fantastic Fest last year I had the opportunity to sit down with Wheatley to discuss his goals in terms of pacing, why he doesn’t like using temp scores, and bringing The Devils print to Fantastic Fest to play as a warm-up to A Field in England. Check out the full interview below.
The Film Stage: The film that a lot of people really know you for right now is Kill List. That film is a slow burn but it takes on a chaotic pace at times. I’m curious, with this film, what you were shooting for in terms of pacing?
Ben Wheatley: I don’t know. I think each film has a different beat and breathes in a different way. The violence in Kill List is more pronounced. The emotional layers in A Field is much more complicated than in Kill List. It’s kind of a blunt weapon. This one is much more complicated in its emotional range. But there’s a similarity as well. Usually in my films there’s a first half hour of settling in, getting to know the characters. Then there’s the set-up and then the encounter. That’s the rhythm I’ve had in all my films so far.
One thing I was struck by were these sequences where you have your characters pose for four or five seconds. And it seemed like it was at different moments. Sometimes as a transition between scenes. Sometimes right in the middle of a scene. What was your intention there?
Well, your thinking is that this is set for cinema. But those rules don’t apply to this film. So it can open up a lot of different techniques that aren’t really used. Tableau vivant does exist in various forms. Theatre has it. There was a film, [Werner Herzog's] My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done that has these as well. But it’s looking at the tradition of painting and wood cuts. The very particular flatness of the artwork around that period in England. But also it’s saying it’s awkward. It’s slightly embarrassing and you’re saying, “Why are they doing this?” It makes you feel scared that something bad is going to happen. With the film itself, even. The film might break down and collapse. It’s part of the alienation of being thrust into a world you don’t understand the rules of. Once you break the rules of the film or film itself, it puts the seed in your mind that anything can happen. With all the films I’ve done, I’ve worked in the angle. Kill List does that on occasion. The whole hammer scene. You think it’s going to cut and it doesn’t. That’s the power of that scene. It’s not necessarily the gore or all that stuff. It’s breaking the language of your expectation.
You expect a cut.
Yeah. And when you see it, you think it’s real. But you know it’s not. You can’t process that, though. You jump rails from watching a film into watching something on YouTube. Same with this. You’ve jumped into a play and you feel bad for the actors almost. It breaks the fourth wall. That’s disarming.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but the score in the film is so heavy and metallic. It’s a juxtaposition to the film itself. I know most filmmakers use a temp score and I’m curious how close that was to the finished score?
We didn’t use a temp score on this.
Yeah, not this time. I’ve been working with James Williams now for four films and we’ve got an understanding. He made a lot of demos at first. But that’s the tension usually between the director and the composer. If you’ve loaded your movie with temp score then you cause a lot of trouble down the line. You can make quite average images look much more expensive and feel much better by putting on the best music that’s ever been recorded. That’s a massive problem because then you’ve got some poor composer that has to match [Ennio] Morricone on a keyboard versus a hundred piece orchestra and it’s not going to happen.
So to try to protect myself and to protect the relationship with Jim, I’m not doing that as much as possible. So the music on Kill List, there wasn’t any music. We took a little bit of modern classical stuff and slowed it down to around two percent and then put that. So it was more of a soundscape. So it could never be used and it could never be repeated. So you could place music on top of that.
Then you’re not competing with anything at that point.
Right. And there’s a thing about perception where if you do a storyboard and cut the storyboard shot to shot as an animatic, then it’s acceptable to people. But as soon as you half animate that and make it more like a film, then they start judging it as if it’s a film. People can’t stand it. They can’t look at it. If it’s just drawings on its own, then that’s fine. That can happen to music as well. The rough of the music is used as a temp. The music signals to you, the viewer, that it’s going to be replaced. But if it’s the perfect music, you start to compare.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about The Devils.
Did you watch it yesterday?
Yes, I did.
Is that the first time you had seen it?
Yeah, it’s quite wild.
It’s… impressive. The fact that it was made back then.
It couldn’t be made now, that film.
And I have to say it’s as good as any [Stanley] Kubrick film or anything. And even the way we watched it the other day, which was in pieces. It’s not even the full film. Even that is shocking.
Absolutely. So how did you come by it? Did you purchase it?
No, no, no. The Drafthouse guys approached me about programming a film around A Field in England to get people in the mood for it. And I mentioned The Devils and a few other films. I hadn’t seen it for years and I had never seen it in cinemas. So seeing it yesterday was really an incredible treat. I was really happy the print was in an OK condition. I did the intro and I regretted not talking about Oliver Reed’s performance in it. The entire cast across the board, really. And the art direction as well. Derek Jarman, the production designer, who went on to direct a number of films as well.
So have you seen the uncut version or is that something you’re still seeking out?
No, I’ve seen it. It was on… Well, here’s the thing. There’s debate over what the uncut version is. The thing is is that it is a movie that never existed. Well, it depends on how you define uncut. So I think they took stuff out before they sent it to the censors. Then the censors came back and they took more stuff out. Then each local territory took stuff out. So the U.S. version of it, there’s not anything in it. The Canadian version, which is what I think we saw last night, has got quite a lot in it. Then there was a version on British television that had a lot of stuff added back in that was never in any theatrical release. And I’ve seen that. But seeing it on TV, and I think this is the same with any film, if you see a film in a theater it is sixty percent more affecting than if you see it at home on TV. So the uncut version I saw was more extreme, but I don’t think that experience was as good as seeing this slightly reduced version we saw the other day. But yeah, it’s astounding.
A Field in England is now on VOD and in theaters. See more details on the official site.
One of the best films to premiere at Sundance Film Festival was the Terrence Malick-produced biopic The Better Angels, directed by To the Wonder editor A.J. Edwards. Tracking three years of the to-be president’s upbringing, I said in my full review that “it’s a sublime, transfixing, and informative look at the early life of Abraham Lincoln.”
We were honored to get a chance to sit down for a one-on-one interview with the helmer during the festival to discuss his directorial debut. An eloquent speaker, who clearly has deep knowledge of the history on his subject, we touched on a number of aspects of the film, including parallels to Malick’s other work (specifically To the Wonder and The Tree of Life), spiritual aspects of the film, if Malick has seen it, the original title, premiering at Sundance, how he feels about comparisons to Malick, and much more. Check out the complete conversation below.
The Film Stage: I was wondering how editing on Terrence Malick’s films — and you worked as second unit director as well — inform the development process? Those were kind of side by side, and you were working on those films while you were developing this?
A.J. Edwards: Always, yeah, yeah. They’ve been in tandem and Mr. Malick was an integral of the origins of this picture. We had long discussions in the post process of The Tree of Life, while we were working together, and he was integral to sort of bounce ideas off of him, you know I would share with him the treatment and the screenplay, so he was essentially brainstorming the fundamentals of the production — the approach we had, the cast we had wanted to get, how we wanted to make the movie, and then also making sure that we got our meaning, which is the heart of the story being the two mothers and how Lincoln is a reflection of their goodness.
I know you didn’t edit this film, but I was wondering what your involvement was with it and did you bring anything from your previous experience working with Malick? With To the Wonder, I appreciated the cinema-as-memory approach and found a lot of parallels with that here.
Certainly, each picture that I have been able to edit has been a stepping stone in terms of knowledge and film understanding. And To the Wonder is no exception, in terms of its rhythms, it’s pace, the film feeling, like you said, memory or consciousness. So it’s not just a story. Films can be stories, memories, they can be fantasies or they can be regrets. They can tell the truth, they can lie and just like in our own heads, it’s not always linear. it can bounce around. Alexander Milan was the editor on The Better Angels and I’ve known him for a few years and he is rock solid in the cutting room and has great instincts and musical rhythm.
I know on Mr. Malick’s films the process can be really extensive, but did you have a shorter time putting this together. When did you shoot?
We shot this in October of 2012 and then we edited for about nine months, in Texas and New York, so it wasn’t too long, but a little longer than some. But I think it needed it because it sort of had to blossom and grow. We were out to discover and find things spontaneously, just like on set — it was the same during post.
Getting into some of the themes of the movie. I found it to be quite a spiritual movie. When Brit Marling’s character passes and you see her last gasp of air, then her walking through a doorway and then camera peering up to the heavens. Then with Diane Kruger’s character, I love the line when she says she will love Lincoln unconditionally, regardless of his feelings toward her, reminiscent of Christianity and God’s view of humanity. So, I was wondering if that was something you found historically or added and wanted to bring to the picture, or if you didn’t see it at all.
No, of course. I’m glad you noticed that. I think the death of Lincoln’s mother, Nancy (in the film, Brit Marling), I’m very proud of that sequence because of Brit’s emotional performance and even seeing her breath just naturally occurring on set like that and the music that we used there being a section from Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain, it all just came together very well I thought, and showing spirit… that death is not an end, it’s more like sleep and that the spirit moved on. That was the idea, that it left the cabin and went somewhere else.
And I think that line about unconditional love, that you were talking about, that Sarah Lincoln says is so important, with her wisdom and her love that she had to meet Lincoln where he was. He was a suffering child, he was in a lot of pain after the loss of what he loved the most, being his mother, and so she knows that his distance or lack of trust, as of then, that he had to learn to love her. It would be a process, it wasn’t something that happened immediately. She sort of tamed him and slowly made her way into his heart, sort of like The Miracle Worker or that Truffaut picture The Wild Child. He was someone that had to be sort of roped in and she so cleverly and tenderly did that to him.
And talking about the relationship with his father, I found it is sort of reminiscent of Hunter McCracken and Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. I know you developed this film around then, was there a parallel there?
There’s certainly a parallel there, in their dynamic, but in the end, this film being based on the actual history of Lincoln, the relationship was there and the history of difficulties he faced with his father were long lasting. I think Dennis Hanks has a wonderful quote that said, “Each man failed to understand the other’s world,” and that’s a pretty telling quote that shows that they could not meet in the middle. They didn’t see things the same way, one being a man of the land, a farmer, a laborer, living in the wild. That was the life that he knew and the discipline he found important. Lincoln aspired to a life of thought, study, of rhetoric, learning, and I guess those notions and ideals were not as central to Thomas Lincoln’s understanding of what a man should be. It’s a somewhat tragic relationship they had, that was never quite settled as things are in life. It’s very mysterious. This story I think is still a bit divided between Thomas Lincoln’s character and what kind of father he was and how he effected his boy.
I found that really informative, like you were saying, with Mr. Crawford and those sequences, what he learned. You also show the first time he saw slaves, presumably.
Well, that scene in the movie I think is a bit more figurative, you know, because there is no account of that literally. Indiana was a free state at the time and had just come into the union and decided that it would be free and no slaves. Kentucky did have slaves. Lincoln would have seen them there and the only way he would have seen slaves in Indiana would be runaways. He did see slaves later when he went down to New Orleans as a teenager. He saw slaves auctioned and a family being separated, which was horrific. But that scene where he saw slaves was more suggestive of his future, than it would be being based on an actual event.
And with the casting how did that come about, specifically Braydon [Denney]?
He was found by our casting team led by Stefni Colle and Jake DeVito. They spent a year searching out schools, churches, athletic teams, all in Kentucky, so we wanted to find that real authentic voice, that accent that’s so specific, being Appalachian. It’s not just a southern accent, it’s a beautiful accent that they have and people often write about how Lincoln spoke, how he had such an unusual accent. When he would go up there he wouldn’t say Lincoln, he would say “Lincorn,” You could read about how someone documented how he would say things unusually. They thought he was a bit of backwoodsy fellow when he would speak casually. But then, of course, when he would rise to make a speech he was so compelling with his rhetoric…and all the backwoodsy nuances would disappear. But, yeah, Braden was such a wonderful find, he was a blessing to the film and he’s a very good boy.
I’m curious in the writing process, is there certain events you knew you had to hit, especially in terms of his family relationships, but was a grab bag of things where when you were on set you could discover them?
Certainly, there were definite story check points we had to hit in and I’m pretty proud of the historical authenticity of what we achieved there. But also, in terms of discovery, those story points were sort of the foundation on which other things could be replaced, being the behavior and expression that we captured on set, which happened either through improvisation or spontaneity. Maybe even before we set out to shoot a scene or the scene ended, we shot the pages, and then suddenly something new happened with the children or the children and the mother’ and we were like “oh, hurry up capture that, you know let’s get going.” It’s almost like capturing wild animals, you have to be quiet and creep up on them and so I’m especially happy with that, in terms of when they’re balancing on the fallen tree, suggestive of trust and a relationship developing. That suggested that more than any dialogue or set-up scene could have. It was so casual and light-hearted and kind of paper thin.
In terms of the voiceover, you said that’s from an actual document, so as soon as you saw that document did you have that thought you were going to use it?
All of the voiceover in the picture is based on an interview with Dennis Hanks’ cousin, made in I think around 1890, something like that, and published around 1900 by Eleanor Atkinson, a great journalist, and it’s that document that’s so integral to understanding Lincoln’s Indiana years, because other than that, there’s not much recorded of words from the mouth of people that were walking with him and living with him, so all the voice over in the picture is verbatim his own words. But I would encourage people to seek it out, cause we just used 1/100th. I wish the whole movie could have been the interview, cause it is so funny, but also so emotional and sad at times. It has the bitter sweet quality of what those times in that life…you know, what that life must have felt like.
Over the course of more than thirty years, Abel Ferrara’s films have shocked and challenged audiences with their uncompromisingly personal vision of death, family, evil, and faith. On the occasion of the theatrical and VOD re-release of one of his earliest films, the female revenge picture Ms. 45, he joined us over the phone from Rome, where he’s working on his biopic of controversial Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Detailing the aforementioned projects, as well as his experiences with ‘R Xmas, The Addiction, Body Snatchers, his long-gestating potential take on Jekyll and Hyde, and much more, check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Is being in the middle of one film while doing promotion for the other force you to see the similarities between each?
Abel Ferrara: Between 45 and Pasolini? What would you say? What you think?
That’s why I’m asking you, man.
Well, that’s a tough question. But I just did make a film about Straus-Kahn, which is about a rape so looking back on 45, I think those are kind of similar. But, the similarity between Pasolini is that one time in the 90’s, we were going to try to do Pasolini’s story but only with Zoe [Lund, star of Ms. 45] as Pasolini; a female director living the life that Pasolini lived. It would’ve been an interesting movie but unfortunately Zoe’s dead, so that ended that idea.
Well, it was written by Nicholas St. John and it was basically that film which he wrote. I got the script, and I didn’t even know if he was writing for me, but it was just a beautiful piece of writing, and we just kind of stuck to it, it was really word for word off the page, you dig? But you needed the girl — she’s in every shot of the film — but the creative input of an actress, it’s 100% in the film. The film is really her understanding of what Nicky was writing; it was like a real marriage of character and material.
Three of the films of yours that are most outwardly genre — Ms. 45, Body Snatchers, and The Addiction — all have female leads. How important was the female perspective in tackling genre?
Well, that’s interesting with a woman in lead, especially now when you never see women; I mean, the female side of filmmaking is just a nightmare now. That’s the thing, though, that made it different, the approach to genre — it’s like going into the negative of it, you know, not “woman as victim” but “woman as victimizer.” It put a very interesting spin. Funny thing in The Addiction though: the two characters that were played by Annabella [Sciorra] and Chris Walken — well, when Chris read the script he was reading a female character, when I went to rehearse with him the first time, he thought the female character was a male character, that was just the character he wanted to play. It was written for a female but he played it, so we gave the other character to Annabella, which was a male character. It’s interesting: obviously the balance between the female and male side of anything, but in the end the actor got his wish.
As evidenced in Ms. 45, your films depict a very scary New York, which later was seen on the verge of change due to Guiliani’s election with ‘R Xmas. How much more has it changed in the years since?
It’s changing constantly. Now it’s become the millionaire’s playground. I mean post-9/11 it became a.. you know, it’s just such a dynamic place that’s it’s attracted every single person in the world, and when that happens, well, just the natural flow of supply and demand. But once you get out of an end, New York gets funky quick. You know what I’m saying?
You said before, in regards to the relation between King of New York and ‘R Xmas, that the former depicted a more blatantly exaggerated view of drug dealing, while the latter an intimate one. Do you feel that this duality of sorts extends throughout your entire filmography? That one film addresses a theme in a more make-believe way, the other a more realistic one?
Well, yeah. When you start living a life, I mean when you make something like King of New York, where there’s drug dealing and this and that, it’s kind of a part of your imagination. But when you start looking at the reality of these movies, the film doesn’t reflect that. So that’s why we started enacting the style of — well, I don’t quite know how to say it — but pursuing the reality of the acting in the kind of style you love, or that I really love; you start getting into an almost documentary-filmmaking way. So the fact that we started making documentary films was an obvious direction to go in — not a place to end up in, but pass through. And I think ‘R Xmas kind of was like a first documentary film, because the characters in that film… I mean, that story happened, and those were people that we knew, and we tried to keep it real.
How much have you felt your films have changed since Nicholas St. John stopped writing them?
Nicky was a dynamic, brilliant writer, and dynamic thinker, and an incredible person, but he just didn’t want to do it anymore. You know, he just had enough. In this business you’re part of a team, but at the same time I am me, man, I’m a filmmaker — I’ve got to keep making films. It wasn’t in my deck of cards to stop, at least not then, and not now. It was a big thing to achieve, but, at the same time, as they say, “next man up.”
After Ms. 45 you did a lot of work in television, such as episodes of Michael Mann-produced shows like Miami Vice and Crime Story. Do you feel there was anything personal about that work, or were they simply jobs?
I don’t know how personal you could shoot Miami Vice in a week, but Crime Story was different. But it’s your art, it’s your work, you’re the director and you deliver. It’s Michael’s Crime Story, it was Chuck who wrote it — it was true, it was real. I went in there and I did what I needed to do. Crime Story I kind of like a lot. I certainly reached through when making it then. I was to, for better or worse, comprehend that vision, and deliver a vision. You know what I’m saying? Ya dig? It was a collaborative effort where the producer was a major collaborator, because it was his take on it. Ya dig? Almost 90% of the time we’re the ones put in that position.
I recently saw Body Snatchers and loved it, then found out that it was completely buried by the studio. What happened, and did that scare you away from studio filmmaking?
It was one of these corporate in-fighting things, and it’s a long and boring story, but if we meet each other and you got a couple hours, I’m sure you’d find it interesting. But it was a corporate deal, and the people involved with it fell out of favor with the studio, and it’s one these films where they run it through a bunch of high school kids who grade it, and if you get less than a fucking 80, they don’t give a shit. But, again, the film exists and it’s there, and you thought it was great. We put a lot into it, but the plus side was an unlimited budget to do certain things. There were just certain things we did in that film that you really can’t do unless you have that kind of money.
I worked with studio guys, but it’s a film I’m very proud of, and it is what it is. And I certainly didn’t make any more there, and I wasn’t asked to make any more, so I could’ve turned down a big Hollywood career, but we weren’t exactly pursuing it. Film’s about personal freedom, man, and you can’t be compromised even a little bit. With filmmaking, it’s all or nothing, and it’s as simple as that; if you’re not making films from a place of total artistic freedom, don’t even bother.
I know that you’d been working on a Jekyll and Hyde adaptation at a big studio that ended up falling apart. Do you think it’s still something you could do with budget and resources more in line with your recent films?
I mean, it’s been around for 150 years, so I don’t think it matters whether we do it last month or nine years ago or three years ago. I wanted to do it with Forest [Whitaker] and 50 Cent, and it’s still a story I really want to do, because it’s never really been done, or at least not the way it was really conceived by the author; it’s two separate individuals, not as one actor playing both of them. Ya dig? He was talking about the total physical transformation of separation, ya dig? When one guy plays both roles, that’s the werewolf — that’s not Jekyll and Hyde. Jekyll and Hyde’s never been made, and it never was. I don’t care how many Academy Awards they gave people, or how many times they did it. But this Pasolini thing is a little Jekyll and Hyde-ish, so the project is definitely still on, but it needs to be done by somebody and done right — not this bullshit make-up on the same guy thing.
Ms. 45 returns to theaters in New York and Austin on December 13th and Los Angeles on December 20th. It will be released on VOD on March 25th, and one can see the full roll-out schedule here.
After months of behind-the-scenes efforts, this weekend will bring the start of Jamieson McGonigle‘s Jesse James Revival, a fan-led initiative to bring Andrew Dominik‘s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford back to the big screen — as it was always meant to be seen, and, too, in the most pristine conditions available. Although sites such as this have been working to bring further notice to what, hopefully, will become a nation-wide series of theatrical presentations, some of the most valuable encouragement has come from none other than the film’s writer and director, Andrew Dominik.
Yours truly had already spoken with him in March for entirely different reasons, but so ubiquitous is his 2007 western that it nevertheless had to come up at the time — little did we realize, however, that minor talk of revisiting the film would become the basis of our next conversation. Below, one can also read his thoughts on the whole enterprise, different cuts of Jesse James, and what seeing it on a large canvas really brings.
So, what’s your daily working process looking like? What’s happening with you at this moment?
Well, I’m putting together the next movie, which is called Blonde and it’s about Marilyn Monroe.
Are you allowed to talk about that in any regard?
Well, we’re going to shoot it in August, and it’s scripted. We’re budgeting it; we’re planning it.
Good news. I was curious when that had been announced, so the occasional delays were the slightest bit discouraging.
Yeah, I’m very excited about this. I think this one’s going to be good.
We had spoken back in March — on the occasion of Killing Them Softly’s Blu-ray release — and, at the time, you told me you’d seen Jesse James about a year prior. After all this revival business was announced, have you revisited the film? Even just to look at the DCP?
No. I mean, I’ll probably have a look at the DCP just before the screening, but the thing I’m most looking forward to about the whole thing is just seeing the movie projected again.
When had you last seen it projected?
At the Venice Film Festival.
Would you say the concept of this revival and its positive reaction has provided any sort of creative boost to your daily process? Does knowing of this interest in your work do anything?
It’s nice. [Laughs] You know? It’s nice. It doesn’t really give me a creative boost, because I was chucking away, doing my thing anyway. I’m really glad people like the movie, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again. But, yeah, I wasn’t sitting around the house — like, wildly depressed, pajamas pulled up, and then I read about this thing in New York and got inspired to act, you know? [Laughs] That would be kind of silly.
At what point did you realize this wasn’t just someone’s crazy dreams?
I didn’t know what was going on, man. I mean, it was just the sort of contact made because, you know, he wanted to screen Jesse James at his bachelor party, and I thought he was crazy, you know? Just get strippers and an eight-ball. And, then, he rang back, saying, “Well, the museum wants to do the screening, and would you come out to New York if we did it?” And I said, “Okay.” And it turned into this whole thing of, like, trying to get Jesse James to be a fixture on “the revival circuit,” if they do such a thing in America.
He’s got a screening it New York, it rolls out, and there are plans to do it elsewhere. He’s got to screen it somewhere else, and I think it’s kind of great. Jamieson’s very enthusiastic, he loves the picture, and I guess I kind of felt like… you know, I was amused and flattered by the whole thing, and I guess my idea was not to stand in his way. From my point-of-view, I don’t want to run around and talk about something we did seven years ago, you know? But I’m glad someone else could do it.
It’s interesting that a lot of people will now see this on the big screen for the first time, and with your preferred method of DCP presentation — as opposed to, say, just a projected DVD or Blu-ray. Does this matter to you?
Well, you know, it really is a “movie movie.” The images are bigger, and it’s a more immersive experience. Some films, I guess, it doesn’t really matter. I mean, speaking for myself, projection is so bad at so many places nowadays that I’d rather just watch a movie at home, because if I’m home at least I know it’s going to be in-focus. But we’re going to be screening the DCP from the DI [digital intermediate], which is the most consistent picture. It’s just a more immersive experience, you know? And that’s part of the design of the film — everything, down to the sound, is something that works better in a theater.
Have you spoken to Jesse James collaborators about this new movement?
You know, [Jesse James producer] Dede Gardner knows about it. Casey [Affleck] knows about it, and I don’t know if Brad [Pitt] knows — I don’t know what he’d say about it. I mean, most people are interested in moving forward. I mean, Brad loves that movie; it’s something he’s really proud of. I think it’s his favorite film that he’s been involved in, and it was the first Plan B movie he was actually in, so I think it holds a special place in his heart — and mine.
Do you like the idea of having this film still being “present” and something that can be taken notice of in this manner, even as you hope to launch new efforts?
No, I love Jesse James. I’m really proud of it. I really hope, at some point, I’ll be able to do, at some point, if it’d be possible to release a different cut — a longer cut of the picture. I’d love that. So, not at all, but, you know, nobody wants to do that yet, so there’s something to be done. I mean, the movie’s done. I finished the movie. At the point where the movie comes out into the public consciousness — or wherever it is — the movie’s released; it’s over, for me. Although it’s nice to see it occasionally, it’s… the movie is like the ashes of the experience of making it.
Have you looked for a home? I remember you saying it could be brought about in “half a day,” because the cuts do exist, despite any necessary transfer processes that are still required. Have you been talking to people?
No, I haven’t talked to anyone about it. As far as Warner Bros. are concerned, it’s not a title that makes a lot of money — so, I don’t think they give a shit. Or, I don’t know how the DVD sales were, or whether they believe there to be a market for them or anything. I always figured that, maybe someday in the future, that time would come: someone would be interested in doing this, and at that point it would be very easy to reconstitute because all the cuts do exist.
Although you’re on-record as being happy with what played in theaters, was it nevertheless strange to see praise lobbed toward a film that wasn’t 100% the version you’d prefer be seen?
You know, I should clarify: there is a longer version of Jesse James that’s about 20 minutes longer, and I think it’s a really good version. And, then, there’s another version that I like a lot, that I think is better than the “big” version. It’s maybe about 4% different, you know what I mean? It’s very, very minor. I like the version of the picture that’s been released; I think it’s great. There’s just a couple of things I’d change, maybe.
When watching the film now, do you go toward another iteration, or is it simply the theatrical version?
No, I watch the theatrical version. I mean, that’s the one that’s on Blu-ray, you know? And it looks really good.
Will it be strange to go back on a stage and talk about it in a public setting, since it seems to have been a while?
No, not really. I think that… you know what’s sad about it? When you meet a director, and you ask him a question about a film that you really love, and they pitch you the same story that’s told on the DVD commentary. It’s kind of like, you know, you work out your routine about the movie, and then fucking recycle it again and again. [Laughs] I hope I’m not like that, but it depends on the questions people ask.
Have people at the Museum of the Moving Image talked to you about this presentation?
I haven’t talked to anyone who’s at the Museum of the Moving Image. Have you been to the Museum of the Moving Image?
What is it?
Well, it is, indeed, a museum dedicated to items with an important place in cinematic history — old cameras, projectors, props from famous movies, etc. — and there’s also a theater that you see upon entering, where they’ll screen the film. But, yes, it’s mostly dedicated to film history.
I figured you were more familiar with it before all this, but it seems you’ll encounter it for the first time next month.
No, I’d never heard of it before.
Well, it’s wonderful. (I suppose I should say that, since they’re sponsoring the event.) I think it’ll be a good experience.
Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.
What would you say to people who get this rare theatrical experience with the film, specifically those seeing it for the first time in this environment?
Oh, man, I really don’t know what to say to that. I mean, all I’d say to a person before they see a film is absolutely nothing, you know?
Although few in recent years have skyrocketed into a mainstream spotlight as quickly as Sharlto Copley, one, when looking over his filmography, is likely to be most impressed by an ability to balance projects on either end of the budget and exposure spectrum. Following back-to-back roles in the Matt Damon-led Elysium (a reunion with District 9 helmer Neill Blomkamp) and Magnolia-released Europa Report, his next project might land somewhere in-between: Oldboy, in which an out-of-bounds actor goes into even stranger, darker territory for director Spike Lee‘s small, violent reworking of the well-known South Korean thriller.
The unusual turn is something we jumped into almost immediately, and how quickly it leads into a fuller discussion would, I think, speak to the uniformity of Copley’s performance. For both this and notices of his experience in every corner of the film industry, read on.
The Film Stage: You’re calling from South Africa. What’s happening there?
Sharlto Copley: I’m shooting Chappie, again with Neill — the robot movie that he’s doing here.
How far into that are you?
We’re about… a third of the way?
That’s nice to hear. Given the project we’re meant to discuss, I think it’s only appropriate that I’d talk to you through an iPhone speaker.
[Laughs] That’s awesome. Yes, it is very appropriate.
Hopefully this goes a little better than what occurs onscreen.
I hope it goes better. Be nice to me! Be nice to me, Nick! That’s all I can say, you know? I’m sensitive, man.
That’s actually a good place to start, because I’d like to talk about, first, how you developed this character through voice acting; your initial presence is only through a phone, and what we hear of you is this very strange, off-kilter voice. Could you talk about building this from the ground-up?
Yeah, the voice: it’s funny, because, for me, voice is the single most important thing in a character, and every aspect of the voice. Obviously the most important is the accent, because that informs a whole bunch of stuff, for me, that I would be drawing on — usually kinds of stereotypes, and things that are associated with an accent. Very specifically, there are all sorts of subtleties within the voice. It was quite bizarre that, in this particular case, the general inspiration for the voice came from a make-up artist that I’d worked with on a previous film. And I said to him, during the film, I was like, “Dude, do you mind if I use it?”
And it actually isn’t “him” — none of his friends would say “it sounds like you” — but it was a certain feeling: sort of the more quietly spoken guy, most of the time, and a certain energy to the voice. So I generally try and base the voices — and, actually a lot of the time, the characters — on real people, or these real stereotypes in society, and pick pieces of those stereotypes to sort of build on the character.
What was Spike Lee’s first reaction to that delivery?
He liked it; I think he said it was creepy. [Laughs] The idea of making him English came from Spike, and I thought, “Okay, that’ll be cool.” He was going to be upper-class, so you narrow it down to what kind of voice you could use; I opted to sort of make the character… I went for this option that he’s bisexual, which kind of maybe does and maybe doesn’t come across in the film, because of what had happened to him — that he had a lot of issues around love and sexuality. So, that was sort of an additional sort of element that I thought would make sense, given the story, that I brought.
When we finally do see you, the physical movements require a bit of adjustment — the way you’re moving around, or even handling individual objects. It’s graceful, which I found very entertaining. How did you match a physical performance with the voice?
Yeah, there was a lot… I mean, it was the most work I’d ever had to do on a character. I had my girlfriend, literally, at home, driving her crazy, but she would help me with certain things — every time I picked up a glass, or drank a cup of tea, she’d say, “No, no, your finger’s not out!” She was my sort of “coach” at home, and it was probably the most “method” I’d been, in the sense of having to be in the character quite a lot to repress my natural energy levels, for example, to really control the movement. The voice came very, very easily.
Eventually, because I did it enough, the movements started to actually stay with me for a little while afterwards. Little things, little mannerisms that I had developed and forced myself into kind of doing as a habit — so, it was a very interesting experience for me. It was a character that’s the darkest thing I’ve ever done; I don’t think I’ll ever do something like that again, in my life probably. But it’s an experience that, from a professional point-of-view, I’m glad I did.
Is that part of the attraction, too, playing something this dark? Between Oldboy and this summer’s Elysium, it feels as if you really did take on relatively “intense” things in your two biggest roles this year.
Yeah, I think it’s more about what I was offered. It’s, “Well, these are the roles that are on the table for you — you want to be a working actor, and this is what Hollywood’s offering you.” I don’t know that I would say I’m particularly fascinated with the darker side of the world, or anything like that — I’m not, really, to be honest, as a person. I wouldn’t describe myself as the type of brooding, dark actor with a million issues that he wants to go into characters to explore; I just find it an interesting challenge, to entertain audiences. That’s my number-one thing, you know?
So, while I was sort of method-ing out on the mannerisms (or whatever) of this character, it didn’t mess me up psychologically, you know — because even something as dark as Oldboy, I wasn’t, like, “Oh, it’s a dark world.” It’s adapting, for me. I don’t allow it to mess with me too much.
I was struck by a number of the sequences that put you front and center, in particular. There’s a lengthy tracking shot where you’re walking with Josh Brolin, and it’s the sort of visual flourish you wouldn’t necessarily expect at that given moment. So, what is it about Spike Lee that distinguishes him from other filmmakers you’ve worked with? Moments such as that use of the camera?
I think it’s everything. Each director is different. It started, for me, with the fact that Spike has an enormous humanity to him, which I didn’t necessarily expect, from the perception I had gotten through the media, or whatever. He’s an amazing… I don’t know, there’s a humanness to the man, when you’re dealing with him one-on-on that I found amazing, and I feel really blessed to have just met him and worked with him and known him, just as a person.
And, then, as an artist, I mean he really is a true artist. You’re pointing out exactly the things like the shots on the Steadicam — I know the shot you’re talking about — or the sequences where he would very often do that, where it just goes, man; you just go right into the sequence and run the whole thing, and he runs it on-camera. He has a real “artistic” take on the medium — you definitely get the sense that he’s not trying to play to commercial tastes, or anything like that, that the man is a genuine artist. Like or don’t like it, he’s producing art, which is refreshing in the whole… you know. [Laughs] Which is why, I suppose, he doesn’t work in the whole Hollywood system, I guess, is he is a genuine artist.
Well, one of the things I’ve liked about your career thus far is how you volley between big-budget material and independent fare — just this past summer you had both Elysium and Europa Report, the latter of which was primarily seen on a format like VOD. How do you find a middle ground in getting material?
I mean, I think it’s really, for me, a combination of trying to develop a career based on doing some very different roles. So, I suppose the most important thing, for me, is, “What can I do with a character that I’m being offered?” It doesn’t really matter so much, to me, whether the forum is a bigger forum or indie forum; I’m just really trying to be a working actor, if that makes sense, so there’s only so many big films that I’ve made — there’s a lot of competition to get into those — and, on the smaller-scale stuff, there’s interesting material.
You know there’s this movie, Hardcore, that I just did in Russia; it’s probably the lowest-budget movie I’ve done, but it’s, without question, the most original film that, I think, has been made in a long time, in the sense that the entire movie is from the POV of a GoPro. It’s from this director who did the Bad Motherfucker shorts online, Ilya Naishuller — I don’t know if you saw that — and going to work in Russia… I enjoy that. I enjoy finding characters that are, maybe, a little different for me, something I haven’t done before — and, then, directors making something really different.
Europa, it was just a supporting role, but I think what they were trying to do was noble; with the amount of money they had, it was really sort of “true” science fiction in a more technically “true” sense. I wanted to try and support that. Something like the Open Grave movie was sort of a European art-house take on the horror genre, which is, again, just something very different — that’s an ensemble movie. So, yeah, I think mostly it’s about characters, for me, and getting the opportunity to play different ones.
Oldboy opens on Wednesday, November 27.
Whether it is the Five Minutes in Heaven‘s lesser-known subjects or Downfall‘s depiction of the final days of Adolf Hitler, director Oliver Hirschbiegel is experienced in the biopic field. His latest, Diana, currently in limited release, focuses on the late Princess Diana of Wales (Naomi Watts) and her secret love affair with an Indian immigrant surgeon, Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews of Lost fame).
I recently had a chance to speak with Hirschbiegel about the reaction all over the world, whether he sees the possibility of constructive criticism from reviews, what kind of ratio he was looking for in terms of an actress that could act versus how similar to Diana she looked, whether there were any animals left out of the film, physical locations, about approaching Hasnat Khan before making the film, and much, much more. Read on below for the full interview.
The Film Stage: It’s very nice to get to talk with you. I always am wondering how the day has been going for the interviewee. So, how has the day been for you?
Oliver Hirschbiegel: I’ve had very good interviews so far, I must say. Very good questions and I like the approach. The way people look at the film. Americans have a different reception to those things. It might be that an American’s relationship to the concept of romantics or emotion… the Germans are big on that and the Americans have it, too.
Right. Right. And the British, it always seems, like being aware of the fact that they aren’t very emotional. They’re self-deprecating along those lines, even. Emotions and feelings? That’s for everybody else. Not for them.
Yeah, it scares them a little. But then again that’s a source of some of the greatest sense of humor in the world, as well. The sarcasm and irony. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it gets in the way.
While I’m watching this movie, I’m keenly aware of the fact that it appears no one really has a pet. Did Diana ever have anything besides her boys? She never had a cat or dog?
No, no. They never had a pet. But it’s funny that you should mention that: if they had a pet, I certainly would have put it in. We know the Queen has lots of dogs.
Yeah. The corgis.
Charles, of course, has lots of dogs. For hunting. I think the whole family has lots of animals, actually. They’re mad about horses. But Diana was the complete opposite. She was scared of horses. She didn’t enjoy riding them. There were no pets. And of course, for Hasnat Khan, there was no room for pets. He was a doctor. He was working shifts. He would hardly find time to meet the woman that he loved. But that’s an interesting question, really. I haven’t had that one before.
Another thing that I’m sure you’ve been asked before is how you landed on your lead actress, Naomi Watts. But I’m very curious about the women that didn’t end up being cast. Did you go in with a ratio of how close you can get them to look like Diana versus how good of an actress she is?
Well, my first instinct was that I don’t want it to be a look-alike contest. I was even willing to go as far as having an actress that has dark eyes but be able to pull it off. The first name I ever wrote down was Naomi because I knew she would be the perfect choice. But of course you look at other actresses as well. Especially when I found out Naomi wasn’t available. As I suppose you’ve heard, I was talking to Jessica Chastain at the time. Who doesn’t look like Diana at all. But that didn’t go very far because she decided not to do this one nor the one with Tom Cruise [Oblivion] because she went to do the film with Kathryn Bigelow [Zero Dark Thirty].
So, at the same time that I got that news, and I was already thinking about others, Naomi got back to me and said that her project had fallen apart and that she could do my film. But she wasn’t sure. So I went to meet her and talk about it. Seeing her, I just knew she was perfect. But she doesn’t really look like Diana, either. She has the ability… she’s a chameleon. She becomes the character. She studies all the mannerisms. She’s like an athlete. She trains for these things. But what really makes it work is she takes it from inside. If you look at Downfall, Bruno [Ganz] doesn’t really look like Hitler. While we were doing it, he became Hitler. And she does the same thing, I think. She creates the same energy.
I think the more time you spend with someone on camera, being that persona, that’s what helps. After a while, you give in to the fact, “OK, she’s playing Diana whether I like it or not.”
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s an energy thing, really. What we do is energy work, at the end of the day. I mean, Chaplin showed us. He would never change his clothes in his early films. He would just take off his hat and put on a captain’s hat and before you knew it, you bought it. He was a captain of a ship, right? It’s sort of the same thing. It’s my preferred kind of acting, really. When the energy is just right, the actor makes me forget that I’m watching him pretending to be instead of being.
So, this story really is about the love affair between Hasnat Khan and Diana. He’s obviously a real person. So I’m curious if you reached out to him at all before making this film or did you just kind of approach it that it was true, it’s out there, and let’s just make a movie?
Well, the first draft of the script was developed in collaboration with Kate Snell, who had written a book. And she has been in touch with his family constantly, but he didn’t ever want to engage. He knew it was happening but he didn’t want to be a part of it. As for me, as a storyteller, like with Five Minutes in Heaven, which is based on these two real-life characters, I can’t meet the real people. It would make me feel emotionally involved on a personal level and would have stood in the way of my artistic interpretation or expression.
But you do as much research as possible. I met lots of people who knew him. People who had been close to Diana — like Simone Simmons, for instance, who Diana told a lot of details to, some of which are in the film. Then bit by bit, the more research you do, you get a better idea about these characters. Then you either recreate if you know or create if you don’t know, like very intimate scenes in the bedroom. You just try to hit the spirit of the characters and the spirit of the relationship.
It looks like you filmed on real locations. How much of it was the actual location and how much was dressed-up?
It’s all real places. Of course, the royals have never let anyone shoot within their palaces. So I had to find a grand house that inside and outside sort of met that architecture of the actual palace. But it’s a real house, really. We refurnished it and remodeled it. Same with the flat. It’s a real flat. It’s not really in the area of where the real flat was because it’s too posh now. But it meets the quality of what it was. It was this tiny little place. But it was very important to do as much on location as possible because I’m using the energy of the rooms. On stage, that’s a bit more difficult. You have to create that energy. But if you find the right room at an existing location, you already have an attitude you can work with.
And those tight quarters have that energy built in because they’re not meant to be movie sets. They’re not meant to have the lighting structures and everything else, so it becomes a bit more intense.
I know this is a tiny detail, but period films always seem to have fun with getting details correct. So, the cell phones in the film. Were they functional? Were they just props?
Ah, well, the funny thing is I think we used eight different models. Two of those would still be working. They wouldn’t really have reception, but they’d still be working. They would show the digits if you dialed them. The others were simply dead. [Laughs].
You’ve toured the world with this film. You seem to get a broad range of reactions. What has been the most surprising or most consistent reaction you’ve gotten from this film?
Well, there really hasn’t been a lot of consistency. As you might have heard, the UK press went into a hysteric frenzy it seems. They hit at the film as much as they could. The weirdest things happened. Right after the premiere, the Evening Standard wrote a very good review. Gave us four and a half stars or so. Only two weeks later, when the film actually released, they decided they had to slaughter it as well. So it seems there’s a weird collective thing going on there. I don’t want to say orchestrated [laughs], but there was a feeling that it was all in synch. Weird! Most of it being polemic. Which is not polite. As a filmmaker you like a good critic. It’s absolutely OK if a critic doesn’t like my film. But you want something written dealing with the way you staged things, or the way the film does or doesn’t work. But I hardly ever got that.
So that was the English response. Very mixed in France. About half and half. But the audience didn’t really respond that much. Then again, Denmark, number one for four weeks. Portugal? Hugely successful. And all of the East. Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia… all these countries, it really did great business. So it’s surprising. It seems from territory to territory, some audiences are more open to romance. This isn’t really about Diana. This is more of a universal love story. It has a pace, if you will, that isn’t what most of other films these days deliver. If you had asked me, I would have expected that in the East, they would be after more hard and fast, action-driven films. But it seems to be the opposite. It’s a first for me, really, because reactions are really different. [Laughs]
For my final question, I’m curious about your relationship with reviews. You spoke about it briefly just now, but can you expand on that? Do you see it with the possibility of it being constructive criticism or is it just part of the job?
Well, to be honest, the writing I learned the most from were smartly written reviews that did not really like the films that I’ve made. [Laughs]. It may sound strange but I’m learning from reviews, if they’re smart. And then, if I have a choice, of course often the ones that are ambivalent, shining the light on different aspects… good ones, bad ones. But that’s not only in regard to my own films. I like to read reviews about other films. It’s fascinating. Let’s take the Refn film…
Only God Forgives?
Yeah. Only God Forgives. The Guardian gave it five stars. It was a raving review. It was a hit. Then Time Out, who are really good. They have really good writers as well. They gave it one star. They were equally, smartly written articles. That’s fun. You go, “Oh, f-ck! This is interesting. Look, sounds interesting. I better get a ticket and then watch it.”
Diana is now in limited release.