The thoroughly unsettling Faults, in theater this weekend, knows how to push the audience’s buttons in the right order to get the most out of a small budget and setting. The film follows Ansel (Leland Orser), a once-famed cult deprogrammer that is looking at diminishing returns on his success. When a couple find him in hopes that he can work his magic on their daughter, everything tells him it is too good to be true but he takes the money anyways and sets off to help Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) come back to reality from a cult. As he progresses he realizes this might be more than just his toughest case yet.
The film is from debut writer/director Riley Stearns, who gets a powerful performance from Winstead, his real-life wife, and unearths a potential star-turning role for Orser. During SXSW last year, I had a chance to sit down with the trio to discuss their film. Among the topics was the unique draw of the festival, their packed screening, the way they built and used the motel room set, how they landed on Leland for the role of Ansel, how the George W. Bush autobiography lent a helping hand, and much more. Enjoy the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: I was at the screening last night and I’ve got to say that you packed the house. Did you expect that kind of crowd to show up? They literally turned away 50 people.
Riley Stearns: We just heard that.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: We didn’t even know. We knew people didn’t get in but we didn’t know it was such a big crowd. I don’t think we expected that many people at all.
Stearns: Once we got into South By, I did feel like we were the type of film that could play pretty well — the type of crowd, the energy and even that sense of humor. But I didn’t think people really knew what the film was at all because nobody had seen it. So the fact that people come out to something that is just buzzed about, but then you’re like, “Where did that buzz come from because nobody has seen it.”
Stearns: I think the only person that Tweeted that they had seen it was David Lowery, who did Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and he saw a rough cut and gave some little things here and there along with a group of select filmmakers. So that’s the only official buzz that we got. Everything else was proverbial buzz. So yeah, it was a surprise. What did you think, Leland?
Leland Orser: It was exciting to be there and have so many people interested in seeing it. It was really cool to arrive at the theater and see the line of people waiting to get in. It’s great. This is a community and a festival that loves movies.
Have any of you been to SXSW previously? Didn’t you have a short, Riley?
Stearns: It didn’t get in! I’d submitted three things and all three had been turned down. I’m not saying they were wrong. They were probably right. But yeah, this is the first time and I grew up in Austin. I had only been to the music side of the festival. And, you, Mary, Spectacular Now was here but you didn’t come for that.
Winstead: Yeah, I’ve only been for the music. I came in for literally a day and did a show then left. Just an in and out. There were so many people and it was all kind of a blur. It’s nice to be here for a few days and get a more laid back version of what the festival is all about.
Orser: I’ve had films here but I haven’t ever been here before. I’ve always been working. So I’m so glad to finally come. I come to Austin. I have family here. I love it here so it’s really exciting to come here and be a part of this. This Interactive thing though is crazy how many people are here attending that.
It’s funny because when I talk with friends or family about this festival, this is a very unique place and for interactive, especially, this is the biggest thing around.
Stearns: It’s the Comic-Con.
Yeah! It’s the Comic-Con of interactive. The film side is getting bigger and bigger every year and the music side is gigantic. I mean, if you think it’s crowded now, wait until Tuesday or Wednesday rolls around and you can’t move. So it is this weird hybrid festival with three gigantic mediums.
Stearns: And they’re kind of fighting each other.
Stearns: Maybe it used to work when the film side wasn’t as big but because it’s getting bigger and studios are bringing TV here now.
Stearns: And HBO. And I get that they want everyone to have this experience at the same time. And the infrastructure is here but it is just ballooning to the point where they’ll either have to move the music or movies to one spot or move the interactive to a spot. I just don’t know how it keeps going this way. Which is good for them. It’s a good problem to have.
Transitioning back to the film itself, there are some interesting things going on in Faults. You mentioned last night after the screening that you had really dug into cults and done a lot of research. You turned that into this weird, atmospheric film. And you even ended up on the Black List.
Stearns: It’s a really weird film, especially on the page. I’m still shocked it made the Black List. It’s funny because we had shot this in secret and the script had been passed around before and then boom, we were on this list of unproduced screenplays with a film already made. Whoops.
For Leland, you’re coming into a family effort here. What was the atmosphere?
Orser: It was very touching. I’ll forever be grateful for being invited into their film. This is a family production. Keith and Jess Calder [the producers] got married in the middle of all this. I think of this as Riley’s baby. It was an honor and an enormous undertaking and responsibility. I was there to hold up my part of it and not disappoint. I understood how great the script and character was. It was very freeing and liberating to be doing something for someone else and not just for yourself. It all started with a mustache, by the way.
Orser: I shot this film in New Mexico with Keith and Jess.
Orser: Yeah, The Guest. And I just thought that this guy should have a mustache. I had never had a mustache in my life. So I let my facial hair grow out and I went to a barber and told him to give me a mustache. I looked and thought, “Yeah, this is great.” I showed up in New Mexico with this mustache and I asked if they liked it, and Jess liked it and stared at me.
Orser: They took a picture of me off the monitor on set one day and sent it to Riley.
Stearns: I guarantee that’s why she was staring at you.
Winstead: Light bulbs were turning on.
Stearns: Yeah! I got a text from Keith with Leland on the monitor saying, “Ansel?” I’m sure they were sitting side by side saying, “This is our guy.” And when they said Leland’s name I just thought it was genius. We had gone through so many people and it’s just such a hard role to cast. But as soon as Leland’s name came up it felt right. We had a meeting after he came back from The Guest and we just talked about all sorts of things, including life and a little bit about the script, for an hour and a half over coffee. “So, the part’s yours if you want it.”
Orser: Yeah, you just don’t get scripts of this quality. I read it in New Mexico and was just so impressed.
One thing I noticed, there are a ton of books in the film, especially the beginning. How are those props made? Are they all fake? Place holder and a few real ones?
Stearns: The funny thing about our books is that at the prop house, I guess they had a surplus of the George W. Bush autobiographies that if you opened up our book sleeves you’d see them. I’m not saying the book didn’t sell…
Stearns: But this one prop house has more than enough to fill boxes and boxes of them. But we did have some books that were foam and I think they were even foam versions of the Bush autobiography. The ones you’d use for display at like a Barnes and Noble. We filled some boxes with those so Leland is pantomiming that they’re heavy.
Your production designer designed the hotel room that the film mainly takes place in. What tricks did you use to hide cameras or have walls that could tear away?
Stearns: The ceiling could be moved but it was going to be a half day process. So that wasn’t going to work. The ceiling was tall enough to put lights where we needed to put lights. The walls where the beds are against, those could fly out a bit, but they couldn’t be taken away completely. Once they were set, though, we never moved them. I like to shoot with wider lenses so pretty much everything in the movie is a wider lens and in that space. And trying to treat it like a real space was very important. There were some shots in the bathroom at the end of the movie where we flew the bathroom wall away and got a camera in there and used a longer lens to get a different effect. But yeah, the space was basically a working, functioning motel room. Some of the outlets had electricity.
Orser: The sink worked.
Stearns: Yeah, we had flowing water from some of the faucets. We tried to make it feel real, but slightly off.
Faults hits theaters on Friday, March 6th.
Bruce Wagner knows what’s in the water at Hollywood. He’s established an authorship as a novelist/screenwriter whose examinations of lost humanity star the citizens of Tinseltown, casting producers, actors, and writers in a shadow that’s more than insider gossip. In Maps to the Stars, his latest script as directed by David Cronenberg, fame creates haunted psychoses, with vain movie stars tormented by ghosts of incest.
The center of this ensemble piece is Mia Wasikowska’s disturbed Agatha Weiss, who returns to Hollywood years after she tried to burn down her family’s house, and murder their cash cow son Benjie (Evan Bird), an acting superstar who talks franchises at the dinner table with his managing mother (Olivia Williams) and ritzy massage therapist father (John Cusack). She befriends a limo driver/screenwriter named Jerome (Robert Pattinson), and becomes a “chore whore”for middle-aged actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is desperate to repeat the role once made famous by her sexually-abusive mother in a new remake from a Paul Thomas Anderson-esque director. Wagner’s delightfully toxic repartee and Cronenberg’s disturbing curiosities make for a wicked mix, which despite its third act imperfections, recalls the first time you saw Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.
Before publishing novels, Los Angeles native Wagner labored as screenwriter on Hollywood projects like 1984’s lost Young Lust and later A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Cronenberg executive produced Wagner’s 1998 directional debut I’m Losing You, about a movie producer, which was an adaptation of his own novel.
On Friday before the Oscars, The Film Stage talked with Wagner about his psychotic star tale, why you shouldn’t read its juiciness too literally, how his collaboration with Cronenberg was like The Fly, and more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: When you write an acerbic tale like Maps to the Stars, are you mostly imagining an audience of people who outsiders to Hollywood folk? Do you expect that people within the business will see these stories more intimately?
Bruce Wagner: I’m from Los Angeles, so Hollywood is more a backdrop for me. I don’t really consider my books to be “Hollywood”novels. I am not interested in excoriating or exploring the industry, the mores and manners of people in show business. And I don’t really write them as memoirs either. I write about extremists, people who are indulging in behavior —sometimes bad behavior, sometimes good behavior. So none of them are really anecdotal. That’s not how I work as an artist. Maps to the Stars is not a guide to the urgent state of affairs of Hollywood whatsoever. It’s an exploration of a damaged family, and the extremes of how people become corrupted by fame and by family ties. It’s more that than notes of observer.
It’s really almost like a melodrama. It’s a kind a fever dream, a ghost play. One of the interesting things for me is that in the original script for Sunset Boulevard, it begins in a morgue, with the cadavers explaining how they got there. I think that’s what Maps to the Stars is. And there are these themes of mutilation of both literal and spiritual, in the case of the Weiss family. They are embodied by fruits of incest. And there’s madness present as well. The madness being that Wasikowska’s character is actually the most sane person in the film, and wants to end it.
You’ve known David Cronenberg for years, but this is the first time you’ve written something for him. What was your chemistry like on this project?
I consider David to be a visionary and a master. It would be like writing a song and having it interpreted by someone of genius. And he brought something that was very mysterious to it, and was yet unavoidably himself. His fingerprints are on every scene obviously, in terms of casting and pacing, and this cool formalism. I felt that, like in the The Fly, that David and I got into the same pod, and our DNA kind of tangled [laughs]. I wrote the script many years ago, and we tried to make it then, but David wanted to shoot the entire film in Los Angeles, which was not possible. And we ended up shooting for five days in Los Angeles which was the first film in a long while that he has shot on American soil. And it was unique in that way. He has said that all of his films are comedies. But I think they’re visionary in how he explores human behavior.
How did David’s involvement change what you had written? What you would have done differently with the story?
The script might have been longer, but one thing that David doesn’t like is a long script. And the first script was a little more Byzantine, a little more baroque. Part of our collaboration was that I accede to David’s desires as a filmmaker. And you do that with any process with a director. We eliminated some scenes with regards to budget. There were more ghosts in the script. I like ghosts, but David is more ideologically opposed to ghosts. He wanted a strong psychological reason to it, and a meaning. Whereas I’m a little messy about it, and don’t care as much.
There’s a very up-to-date sensation within the film, regarding the names of celebrities mentioned, along with general terms. As the Maps to the Stars took a while to come to fruition, what elements were changed in the script?
The only things there were changed, aside from some scenes that were changed, were technical things and proper nouns. When someone said “call me,”that was changed to “text me.” If it was an answering machine, we changed it to an iPhone. Very small things, but David is very much like a theatre director. If an actor left out an “and” or “the,” a script supervisor would tell David about it, and it would be up to David to see whether he wanted them to say it or not. Not a word was changed, and no improvisation.
From your perspective as an author, how do you perceive David’s relationship with the literary world?
David is a writer himself, and he has a novel (2014’s “Consumed”). He knows his way around the word, and he honors that. And while this film was not an adaptation of one of my books, he adapted William S. Burroughs [Naked Lunch], Don DeLillo [Cosmopolis], etc. His inspirations are from writers of books. I’d say he’s more directly inspired by literature or theater than he is by other movies.
What perspective did the Maps to the Stars team have for awards in 2014? Moore won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival last May, but this movie has a different appeal than other reflective Hollywood fare. It’s not a flattering perspective on the same people who might have immediately identified with something like Birdman. This film even features a line in which someone mentions how a certain part is “made for Best Supporting Actress.”
We really felt that we had won everything when Julianne won Best Actress in Cannes, and she got nominated for a Golden Globe [for Maps to the Stars]. But this is not Academy fare, and we did not want to muddy the waters with a campaign. Aside from the fact that it would cost money, we didn’t want to take away from her performance in Still Alice. She’s extraordinary in both films. We felt that we happily were very happy with Still Alice getting that focus. This films come out the week after the awards, and our film is kind of the b-side of that record. I think people will say, “if you like her in Still Alice, you will like her in Maps to the Stars.”
Maps to the Stars opens at select theaters and VOD on February 27th.
When it comes to larger-than-life comic book universes playing out on the big screen, both Henry Jackman and co-composer Matthew Margeson are the reigning champions of super hero themes and kick-ass action sounds.
Kingsman: The Secret Service tells a story of a super-secret spy organization that recruits an unrefined, but promising street kid into the agency’s ultra-competitive training program just as a global threat emerges from a twisted tech genius.
While they intended to make this score their own, they still included a fair amount of hat tips to the likes of John Barry, and David Arnold. Well, Kingsman is a movie about the spy world so some things can’t be helped. It’s a trifeca of awesome, as this com-dram-actioner (and a self aware one at that) finds director Matthew Vaughn and company not just firing on all cylinders, but running on pure rocket fuel.
To get an idea of what went into this equally sophisticated and volatile score we chatted with composers Matthew Margeson and Henry Jackman. (FYI, Henry was tied up with work so he popped in when he could. Plus we already had an extensive sit down with him to discuss Big Hero 6 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier - which you can read here – so we didn’t want to keep him from his deadlines. Henry did join us more at the end of the interview to talk specifically about the La-La Land Records release of the score).
The Film Stage: Thanks for taking some time with us guys. First off, congratulations on a fantastic score – it was everything fans of spy films could have asked for. I’ve been listening to it for about a week now, and per usual, it’s catchy and memorable. But I saw the screening last night and holy shit, that was just insane! I had so much fun!
Matthew Margeson: Well thank you, it is quite a ride isn’t it? [Laughs] I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Well it’s Matthew Vaughn, so you pretty much know what you’re getting into from the start right?
Henry Jackman: Exactly, there are no holds barred!
I’d like to bypass obvious questions, or ones you’ve answered plenty of times before. So stop me if anything gets routine or boring.
Margeson: Fine by me. [Laughs] Go right ahead.
Matthew, you’re an American composer, Henry is British and so is Matthew Vaughn. So what do you bring to the table, culturally, as far as what you perceive a spy film to be? And how did that compare with what Henry brought to the table?
Margeson: Interesting question. I think that depends on where in the process we were because at the beginning of the movie, before we really get into the story, we are focused on Colin Firth’s character, Harry, and finding out who he is. So there was a big push to be a little bit more traditional and be a little more “British” during those scenes. Then as the movie progresses, and the young agent comes into his own it becomes something else. This is a weird parallel that I’m about to draw, but I would say that maybe I brought to the table the same thing that the Eggsy (played by Taron Egerton) brought to the organization.
He’s a little more rugged, and a little more ‘screw the rules, let me go on a rampage and do things my way’. So while Henry, I would say, had to be a little more restrained in his orchestrations, and how we were using the orchestra, as the film develops you do go on a bit of a journey where halfway through, and especially in the last half hour, you’re not sitting properly anymore. We inserted some guitars, and synthesizers, and distortion, and a drummer banging on drums the whole time. We were a little more rambunctious with the music as opposed to the beginning. I think that kind of moves in parallel to the film when you’re watching it.
The whole first half is kind of this rite of passage and training. “This is how we order drinks, and “this is how we sit at the table” then in the end you ask yourself “when did we get here?”. So it’s not that I worked on the back half of the score more than I did the front half of the score, I think that we had a really homogeneous collaboration and Henry and I were able to pull off some really great music. I think my personality came out when I focused on the stuff that’s a little more over-the-top and rowdy.
Henry Jackman: Well I don’t want to make it seem too cut and dry, that Matthew went crazy and I played it straight, but there are definitely cultural differences, and I think that it was a really good mash-up of our styles.
Well homogeneous sounds like a really good way of describing your process and collaboration.
Margeson: Yeah it wasn’t like we just split often said “alright, I’m going to spin off and work for two weeks, you work for two weeks and then we’ll meet and play stuff over the phone.” It was the two of us really, really working together and spending hours in each other’s writing suites, making suggestions, and writing alternatives, and really testing ourselves until we thought each piece was correct. Then of course, trying to get everything by Matthew Vaughn is another story entirely.
Henry, lets go back to what Matt just said about getting cues by Vaughn. You’ve worked with him before, what’s your secret? How do you make Vaughn happy and get him to approve cues?
Jackman: Well it’s really just about collaborating with him. The funny thing about Matthew is that he’s the real passionate about music. We came up with these themes early on and he really liked them because we had a really strong Kingsman theme, and a really strong Valentine theme. I was hanging around him one time and I remember, by his own admission, he said, “you know, I secretly wish I had been a record producer.” [Laughs]
Your question makes it sound like it was some hellish process. [Laughs] Directors come in all shapes and sizes, and once they’re happy with the tone, style, and orchestration of the music, they’re happy to take a back seat, which I would say is the norm. But with Matthew Vaughn, his favorite bit, almost, is hanging around in the studio at the mixing board. He’s great in other aspects, but he is just a massive music fan and he’s always excited about who is going to do the and credit song and which studio he needs to go to the hear the latest idea.
He’s really hands on with music which is, [Laughs], something that can drive you a bit nuts, but I much rather have someone with a huge amount of passion and a really strong opinion. Now and then you’ll get a curve ball thrown at you. I remember once with Valentine, we had a really cool theme, but it was a little on the posh side, it was a little too Jerry Goldsmith. So Matthew was like, “you got to get funky with it, you gotta get disco involved.” And I remember thinking Valentine, bad guy, adversary…disco?? To me, Disco is like kick drum, open hat, baselines and all that. How the hell has disco got anything to do with how we’re going to do adversary music?
So I thought, what if you take a baseline and then distorted it like crazy, and forget the drums of disco so it gives you a really gnarly rhythm that could have been a Motown rhythm. You slow it to 90 beats per minute, start playing with it, and before you know it you’re like “wow, this sounds really cool.” It’s a really good example of Matthew Vaughn meaning one thing and then, once you get past the shock of hearing it, you just trust him because the end goal is worth all the trial and error to get there. Me and Matthew Margeson just sat there on the analog keyboard having a jam session for 10 minutes to see if we can make any sense of it and make disco threatening.
Matthew Vaughn is such a driving force and his films could easily be their own genre. He brings a strong visual palette, you guys bring an auditory one, but to get there, what kind of keywords did he want to start with? Also, I know every project is different, but how closely did your initial sketches line up with the story once you started seeing the picture develop?
Margeson: Well I’ll speak about this case specifically because you’re right, every film is different, and there’s a large grey area. There’s no one way it all happens, but with Kingsman more specifically, Henry and I watched the film once or twice, and then we really didn’t even look at any frame of footage for the next three or four weeks.
We really dove into our own laboratories and really started spending time with each other as well as a lot of time with Matthew Vaughn. He was on speakerphone 6,000 miles away in London but the three of us would just start jamming on piano, all the while recording all of our conversations. I think your question, in this case, is a good one to ask because the things that we came up, all of our original themes, all made it through the firing range with Matthew and we were able come over was the way they were presented and executed.
Henry and I both thought that this was maybe an opportunity to make a really really serious score and have the music be a juxtaposition to what is happening on screen. In the early weeks, Henry and I would send initial sketches, but the one note we kept getting from Matthew was that everything was too serious and we need to be having fun.
He told us, “No matter what is happening in the film, the audience has to be having fun and be on this roller coaster. Even when there are lulls, we are having fun and they should always be laughing with the film.” So that was our cue to re-orchestrate things, and play with the instruments, and size of the score. Now he actually really, really liked our themes. But the way they were presented definitely went through a lot of changes and variations. But coming up with how we had fun with them was something we had to nail down. We were able to move really quickly, while still chasing our tails in a way, but we had a good time with it.
I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s what Matthew’s films are known for, that fun factor. Not that there’s anything wrong with Liam Neeson or Russell Crowe and a stone-faced, cigar store Indian delivery, but that is not this kind of movie. I mean Sam Jackson, of all people, speaks with a humorous lisp, and you play to the characters like Eggsy and the way he plays by his own rules.
Margeson: Yeah, you bring up a good point Marc. This has been brought up in other interviews, not by me but by Matthew Vaughn, and we are definitely in an age now where there’s an extraordinarily abundant feeling of seriousness in all of these superhero films. It shows up in a lot of the Marvel films and of course, Nolan’s Dark Knight series. They’re all brilliant films, but this is a little bit of a different vibe for a superhero film. We don’t ever get caught in this really profound seriousness of the film which is a breath of fresh air.
What you and Henry did together was great, but I was surprisingly drawn to the source music like ‘Free Bird’ and ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ because of how important their inclusion was to the film. Both of those scenes were over-the-top, but meticulously choreographed and really help establish this as a Matthew Vaughn film. I know composers usually have little to do with the selection of those tracks, but how did you have to work around them being in the film?
Margeson: Well specifically Free Bird and Pomp and Circumstance were very, very early choices – before we ever got involved – by Matthew, some of the producers, and the editor. We all loved them in there, there was never any question, but you of course have to ask yourself “is this the best thing that can go in there?” We tried some alternatives, just to say we explored all options, especially with Free Bird. At one point we were looking at different versions on YouTube, because it is used in the Baptist Church scene set in Kentucky, so we were looking at bluegrass versions and playing it up against the picture just see if anything would stick. Ultimately, the original EP is what we used but we deconstructed it to make our own edit of it.
Then with Pomp and Circumstance, we always knew Matthew wanted it and it was an opportunity for us to work with the visuals effects department, because everything had to be timed pretty much to the frame – 0ur tempo had to match the tempo of the heads exploding. We had to record that piece two, maybe three times, because we would record it and then all of a sudden the graphics would change and they would insert one extra head exploding. So we would go back to the drawing board and figure out how to, again, make Elgar work to these heads exploding.
Like you said, in most cases, I’m not really involved in the song choices, but in this one there was a bit of a happy medium where we came together. Also though, if you remember in Free Bird, near the end, the arrangement kind of melts into this angelic choir and piano version when Colin Firth’s character Harry comes out of his trance. So there was an opportunity for us to get involved there, but usually there’s a whole different department picking songs and getting involved with that.
Matthew, you’ve worked with Henry a lot, but you also cut your teeth in the industry working with the likes of Steve Jablonsky, Brian Tyler, and Hans Zimmer. Now there is a wonderful line in the movie where Colin Firth tells Taron Egerton that being a man is not being superior to other men but being superior to your inferior self. Or something along those lines. Looking back on your career, how do you think that your previous experiences prepared you for Kingsman, and how do you see yourself today?
Margeson: It’s a true blessing that I have been able to work with all of these A-list composers, and I was very conscious of not taking that for granted and really self-analyzing myself, and my role with each of these projects. But also learning from all of them and making my own decisions about what I loved about their process, as well as what I would change if I was in their position. I have been really conscious of that and not just view my next project as “just another job”. You can also dissect the process and experiences into a lot of different ways, not just musically.
There’s always going to be the part where you write music, but then when you have the director there, it’s all about how you present the material and deal with them personally. So it can be ‘what wine do we serve them?’ or ‘how do you relate to them if you see they aren’t reacting to the cues?’ It’s all those different things that are part of the business without being just about notes on the page. And everyone does it slightly different, but I think it’s definitely an advantage I have had whether it was orchestration, or ghost writing, or whatever you want to call it with a lot of these guys and the opportunity to be a fly on the wall means you get to watch everybody to see their fortes and their weaknesses.
Let’s jump backwards and talk about the release date push from 2014 to 2015 and why the film was rescheduled. What’s the story on that?
Margeson: Thinking back on it, and it’s all a big haze now. [Laughs] It was supposed to come out in September or October. At that point, it would have been finished as far as music, visuals, ADR, color timing, etc. but I think that giving it a couple extra months meant that it could have been a little better and I think that was part of the equation. I also know that there was some other time needed for marketing with Fox and how they were approaching that. But don’t hold me to this, I don’t know how accurate all of my quote unquote inside information is. [Laughs]
But whenever anyone tells me they’re pushing the release date my initial reaction is “that’s excellent!” because I can spend more time on this music and I can get one extra half hour of sleep per night! But I think if it were to be released when it was moved back to November or December everyone would have been fine with it but it was really to let the marketing brew.
Now that we’re in 2015, I think we have a really good weekend for it to come out. We’re up against Fifty Shades of Grey, but I think it’s not like we’re releasing in the middle of summer where we have one good weekend and then The Avengers is going to come out. I think it’s a good time of year for something like this because it’s a little dose of comic action and we don’t usually get that in February.
I agree completely because I was just thinking about what’s on the horizon. You have Hot Tub Time Machine 2 which is a comedy, then there’s the Will Smith thriller Focus and Cinderella which is a bit of a light-hearted fantasy. So there’s a lot to choose from at the cineplex but the Kingsmen is going to help pull people out of the Winter doldrums.
Margeson: I think so, and this is definitely the kind of there where once people start seeing it, they’ll go back with a friend. It’s already getting such good feedback from screenings and hopefully it’s going to thrive on word of mouth. Now I’m not going to say it’s for everyone, because it’s not, but it really appeals to men and women of all ages.
Like I said earlier, I had in my mind that I was not going to touch on Bond or John Barry, because everybody has probably asked you about that. However, when they specifically refer to spies like “James Bond” in the film, I thought, well, what the hell.
Margeson: [Laughs] Right!
Because this is such a self-aware film, and Matthew Vaughn told you two to have fun with it, did you and Henry ever say, “ok, we’re gonna channel John Barry and we don’t care who knows it”? How did you two plan to pay homage and make nods to the genre while still making it your own?
Margeson: [Laughs] Yes, it is a self-aware film and our process was pretty simple actually. We decided we were not going to steal from anyone or any composer specifically. So we said “let’s not go listen to anything. Llet’s not listen to any James Bond, the old Avengers TV show, or even the more contemporary things like Mission: Impossible or the Bourne movies”.
However, I think all of us, having seen those films, the same way you have seen Superman and you know, aesthetically, what makes up that film. We all have a place in our brain that has locked away what instruments those composers have used, and so our decision was to not do tangible physical research, but we still want to honor this genre and remind ourselves that we are in a spy film.
I think the great thing about our movie is its pace. We pick our moments, even really potent moments that, like you said, specifically reference James Bond, to be these big head nods and references that call back to the British espionage series. But there are also many moments that are not.
So it was very easy to look at a scene, and every once in a while bring in a vibraphone, or have an alto flute playing a line, and I think that was enough to kind of say, “yes we are still in a British spy film, but it’s our own take on it.” We just gave it some exclamation points and punctuation marks to remind us throughout the film. A lot of that, too, was experimenting on the stage.
We play a scene and say, “alright, let’s take the brass and have all the trumpets put in Harmon mutes, or an inner cup, and see if we can inject a little bit of swank into the score.” Or, “try it once we de-tune this a little bit.” We did need that little bit of experimenting because we knew what kind of film we wanted.
Jackman: And just because you have a trumpet playing open fifths, you’re not necessarily stealing from Superman or Star Wars. But one can definitely be reminded of it because it brings you back to a certain time and place.
In the beginning of the movie, a young Eggsy gets a medallion from Harry and there’s a three key piano motif that seems to be the start of the Kingsman theme. You hear that develop further in a track like “To Become A Kingsman”. Did you find that theme later in the process and come back to the early scene, or did it all start there with those simple notes?
Margeson: We originally had a different Kingsman theme, and it is in the film, but it developed into the more in the stylistic Kingsman theme. We had an original idea for the theme which was a little more elaborate. It was more for the older generation and Matthew was pretty adamant that we needed something for specifically Eggsy and his coming of age and to represent the new generation of Kingsman. So you’re right, we do get that for the first time when Harry gives him the medallion in the beginning. It’s the first time we meet Eggsy and it’s a whisper of that tune which ultimately becomes the new Kingsman theme.
It’s this rite of passage and the passing of the torch from the old generation to the new. We came up with that theme away from picture, and once we started writing to picture, the theme was so simple it actually worked to our advantage because it allowed us a chance to play it on strings, or on horns, and guitar and was an arrangement that was great for all these instruments to sprinkle it throughout the entire film.
Henry, you and Matthew are producers on the La-La Land release. What happens between the recording process and when CDs are on shelves? How do you go about selecting the specific tracks, assembling them and cutting them if needed?
Jackman: Well we were really lucky that Al Clay is a really good engineer and mixer. He produces stuff as well and has a record industry background, so right off the bat, the mixes of the cues for the film are already in nice shape because Al has really good instincts and he’s really sonically aggressive. Then there’s this extra layer because once you’ve delivered all of the cues for the film, now comes the CD.
If you just play every single cue that’s in the movie chronologically there are certain ones that are just so functional to what’s happening in the scene that it is not exactly right for a standalone music experience. Matt and I wanted to tailor it so the CD would keep all the essence of exactly what’s in the film. Sticking in a CD and turning up the music is a different experience to watching a film, so the few decisions we make is to select the right tracks and get the pacing right. Sometimes you just don’t need a cue because it’s similar to another one in the film.
So we edited and re-balanced the masters. I’m a real audio geek and I used to work in the record industry, so I like carrying over some of those concerns. I really get off on that final layer of tweaking and having extra maneuvers available to make the music enjoyable for people as much as possible.
I talked to Blake Neely and he says if you listen to everything from the sessions you just get audience fatigue after about 45 minutes.
Jackman: Totally, totally agree.
Well, going back to your time working on soundtracks before you started scoring, I do want to thank you for working on the song to The Family Man with Seal. That song “This Could Be Heaven” is one of my absolute favorites.
Jackman: Oh yeah, he’s such a great writer and has a brilliant voice. He just opens his mouth and pure gold comes out! [Laughs] If I could open my mouth and sound anything like that, I’d be a very happy bunny. [Laughs]
The CD for the Kingsman came out on February 10th and La-La Land Records is one of the specialty labels really helping bring music to the masses.
Jackman: It’s fantastic having a niche market. But when you finish a movie, and you’re really proud of the music, it’s really nice to have a dedicated and committed outlet for people who are passionate about it and care about it and specialize in bringing the experience to people who want to listen to the music of the movie. It’s great to have that collaboration. It doesn’t matter what outlet, the important thing is that it’s executed well, sounds great, and is mastered great and gets out to the people who want to purchase it, then it’s all good.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is in theaters now and the score is available from La-La Land Records.
Like a musical theater version of Blue Valentine, adapting writer/director Richard LaGravenese’s The Last Five Years intimately explores a relationship from its grinning beginning through a devastating end, albeit with nonlinear retrospect. This tale of love and love lost is that of aspiring actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and her marriage to novelist Jamie (Jeremy Jordan). Jason Robert Brown’s bleeding-heart music & lyrics serves as an uncommon mixtape for failed relationships, as the two leads alternate songs; Cathy’s start at the couple’s end, and trace backward. Meanwhile, Jamie’s start when they’ve just met, and move forward. They share the lead at their relationship’s peak, in a proposal scene that LaGravenese shoots in a single take. Like other sequences, this moment is captured with inspired camerawork work by cinematographer Steven Meizle, while the singing is performed live.
LaGravenese is no stranger to the lovers’narrative, having written the adapted screenplays for The Bridges of Madison County, The Mirror Has Two Faces, The Horse Whisperer, P.S. I Love You (which he directed), Water for Elephants, Beautiful Creatures (which he also directed), and Behind the Candelabra. Before 2015’s limited release of The Last Five Years, LaGravenese also had a co-writing credit on the Angelina Jolie film Unbroken, collaborating on its screenplay with the Coen brothers and William Nicholson.
After seeing The Last Five Years as the centerpiece presentation at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival last October, I had a chance to talk with the Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for The Fisher King) about the project that he says is a “reward for all of the other work I was doing.”We discussed his contributions as a writer/director to a narrative that already has its story from music & lyrics, the vitalizing support that The Last Five Years received from Steven Soderbergh, LaGravenese’s perspective on the deficit of original scripts in Hollywood, and more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: In the theater world, The Last Five Years is not cinematic at all. The two characters monologue directly to the audience, and they don’t interact with each other until the middle when their timelines intersect at the proposal. How did you work with this attribute when adapting it for film?
Richard LaGravenese: When I listened to the score, I didn’t know that it was a monologue show. I just kept getting images listening to the score years before. When we decided to finally do the film, I just started writing what I imagined the staging to be in my head. Then when I brought in Anna [Kendrick] and Jeremy [Jordan] into rehearsals for five days, I got ideas for each of the songs. And when we were shooting, a lot of camera ideas came because of music. I actually put headphones on the dolly grip, and I said, “Hear when those strings come in? That’s when I want the camera to move.”Everybody was listening to the music so that they could feel when the camera should be moving, and on what lyric.
In terms of adapting, if the music and lyrics are already there, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.
That was my key, because I didn’t want it to change. Musical theater geeks like me, we are the same personality as Comic-Con geeks — very possessive, very critical. You don’t fuck with [the material].
So you’re adding a lot of blocking, and camera framing.
But also intention. Because, for example: “This lyric that has a certain effect, she moves away. Why does she move away?”So it became subtext. I had to fill in the subtext for all of the lyrics for the person who wasn’t singing. I had to give them a story about what they were feeling, with each lyric that was being sung to them.
Both Anna and Jeremy were involved in different musical projects from director Todd Graff; Anna had a supporting role in his cult film CAMP, while Jeremy was a lead in Joyful Noise. Coincidence?
Todd’s one of my best friends, that’s why I knew the score! Todd gave me the CD. We go to theater all of the time together, and he gave me the CD because I had never heard it before. I had known Anna’s work from CAMP, so I cast Anna before Pitch Perfect ever came out. That was a lucky break for us.
Did Todd mention Jeremy specifically?
Jeremy had worked with Todd on Joyful Noise, but he came from Bernie Telsey, a great casting director, When he believes in talent, he is amazing. And Jeremy came in an auditioned for me, and he was incredible. He’s got the most incredible voice, and he’s a great guy.
Was directing this film more of a challenge than your previous ventures behind the camera?
Very much. Absolutely. It also forced me to think in a visual language, as opposed to dialogue. I’m a writer, and I’m not as strong in the visuals. So this was a great opportunity for me.
Have you shown this to musical theater fans in particular?
Oh yeah, they applauded. They really get it. But I’ve always had the audience mixed. The non-musical theater people are pretty affected by it, because if you’ve ever been in a relationship, this material speaks to you.
Curiously, Steven Soderbergh is name-dropped in your “Thanks”section in the film’s end credits.
He gave me Steven Meizler. I was looking for a director of photography, and Steven had been Janusz Kamiński’s assistant all through Schindler’s List through War of the Worlds, and among camera people, Steven Meizler is a god. And then he was with David Fincher and then with Soderbergh, so I said to [Soderbergh] that I want someone who is hungry creatively and who is good, I don’t want a DP for whom this is just a job. And he recommended Steven, and he so believes in Steven he’s like his agent. And I loved Steven. It was the greatest relationship I’ve had with a cinematographer ever. He had his Red camera, and we did these rehearsals together and I played him the score and he got so into it. We did a lot of these things in very, very long takes, and that’s him holding the camera during all of it. He was pretty amazing.
What about Meizler’s experience with Soderbergh might have influenced him, or you, when making this film?
My and Meizler’s style came from the material and wanting to make as organic as possible. I also remember being on set briefly for Behind the Candelabra, and Soderbergh said to me briefly, “What I do is that I come on set, and I see the scene and think, ‘How can I shoot this in as few angles as possible and tell the story?’” That’s how we approached it. And I love capturing performances. So if you have those long takes, what you are seeing the actor do is in real time. It’s not cut together and edited piecemeal. I love that.
Considering your experience with numerous romance films, what do you think is the key to making couples endearing to audiences?
I think it’s just making them human.
How do you do that?
Flaws. They’ve got to have their ugly spots. I don’t believe in victims, and I don’t believe in perfect love, and I don’t believe in love that lasts forever in exactly the same way. The feelings change. It fascinates me because I don’t really understand what it is – how is it that you can feel so intense about somebody, and then have them, and it fades? Or, it turns into something else. You know what I mean? It’s a really mysterious property.
Has that always been your mindset? Was that the mindset when you were adapting something like The Bridges of Madison County?
For that film in particular, it was just about trying to make them human so that they didn’t sound [whispers] like they did in the book. [Laughs] It was just making the dialogue, and how they spoke to each other, to be real and organic.
What interested you in taking on the Unbroken script, of which you shared co-writing duties with the Coen Brothers and William Nicholson?
My father was a WWII veteran. He was an athlete, he was the son of Italian-American immigrants, he came back crippled, [and] he was in the Asian campaign. So, I did that for my dad. He and [film subject] Louis Zamperini have a lot of similarities.
As someone who started working with original screenplays (Rude Awakening and The Fisher King) and has now involved himself with many adapted projects, what’s your take on the cynicism related to a lack of original ideas in Hollywood?
It’s not so much the adaptations, it’s the reboots. When they’re rebooting a movie that was only ten years ago, that worry me. There are always going to be adaptations, books or comic books, and there are always originals. It feels like originals are finding more of a voice in the independent world, which is maybe as it should be. Because the studios now don’t seem to be able to know not only how to sell an indie film, or how to develop one. The executives don’t seem to understand creatively the voices. Even The Fisher King—I would never in a million years be able to sell that to a studio nowadays. In those days there were executives who actually were passionate about it. I don’t know that that would be true today. It’s different. The business has changed and it’s all about big movies and tentpole movies. but there are certain people, I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Gabler at Fox Searchlight, the fact that she got Life of Pi through the system, and not only got it through the system but that it became an enormous box office hit. That’s an executive who loves moves and has a creative eye. I shouldn’t make a general statement, but most of the Hollywood system is geared for stuff that original voices can’t thrive in as much.
How did the experience of adapting The Last Five Years differ from others?
Well, this was all for me. It was very liberating because creatively I could do whatever I want. This was a— I hate the phrase—a labor of love. Working on it was like a reward for all of the other jobs I was doing.
What’s wrong with that phrase?
It’s overused. It’s that love thing. I’m already considered a softie and all that shit [laughs].
The Last Five Years is now on VOD and in theaters.
As of late, there seems to be no sub-genre more worn out in Hollywood than that of the vampire. Thankfully, a pair of New Zealand’s finest comedic talents, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement are here to breath new life into the blood-sucking mythology with the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows.
After enjoying it at Sundance last year, I recently had the chance to speak with the duo about the project. We discussed the timing of the project, the massive amount of footage they worked with, picking tropes, splitting up directorial duties, Waititi’s involvement in a new Disney project, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage You first came up with this idea ten years ago and it might not have worked as well back then. This recent vampire influx has given you more material to work with and better context for the audience. Were you happy you got to make it when you did?
Taika Waititi: I was a little bit worried as the years went on, but..
Jemaine Clement: The reactions that we were getting when we told people we were making vampire movies wasn’t very promising. They were rolling their eyes when we were actually filming because there are so many vampire movies, but everyone now is at least educated in vampires.
You guys perfectly tackle each trope of the vampire mythology. For your writing process in those early days, was it a huge board you wrote everything down with at first or did you structure it more initially?
Waititi: I’m not sure we knew exactly what we were doing when we were writing, but we just concentrated a lot on the group dynamic and eventually I think we decided that something that needed to happen. We knew it was going to be a little bit about this new vampire and how he changes things, but the end and some of it were late developments.
I believe you shot for a long time with around 125 hours of footage.
Clement: Over a short amount of time. We only had 25 days of shooting.
Ah, you just kept the camera rolling the whole day? [Laughs]
Clement: Kept the camera rolling the entire time.
Some films have a completely other version made up of bonus material, like Anchorman. Do you feel like you could potentially do this with the footage you have?
Clement. A worse one.
Waititi: No, I don’t think we could. We could make one using completely different takes, but it’s not like we had another movie’s worth of completely unseen stuff.
I’ve been enjoying following your Kickstarter campaign. I have to say you guys are math whizzes with your percentage calculations. Can you talk about coming up with that idea or did you try and get funding elsewhere first?
Waititi: Well, we really just wanted to try and sell the film at Sundance last year, but no one bought it.
Clement: Well, they wanted to release it on VOD. A lot of people want to do that instead of theatrically release films nowadaways, but in order for us to have any kind of chance of making any money, we should also do a theatrical release. So the money for the Kickstarter is paying for the prints and advertising. Most movies will spend at least whatever the production budget of the film was again, or even more, on the advertising and we’re spending half of what we made the film.
Since you’ve kind of lived with this film for awhile, has it been fun to be able to connect with your audience by doing the Kickstarter? To remind yourselves that there are people still dying to see this movie?
Clement: Yeah, it is good. Yeah. The Kickstarter is quite a recent thing. All the other countries have liked it different ways, now it’s time for America.
Have you noticed a different response in different countries or has it been a universal response?
Waititi: Universally, it’s mostly positive — pretty much all over. But the comedy seems to translate really well everywhere. We were dubbed in Germany, so we couldn’t really tell.
Clement: I couldn’t watch that screening. I couldn’t handle seeing my face with a different voice coming out of it.
With this being the first feature you’ve directed, Jemaine, what was a normal day on set like, with you guys acting in it as well?
Clement: We started off both doing the same thing. We both did the camera. We both talked to the actors. By the end we focused on what we were good at, so it ended up that would talk to the actors and Taika would talk to the other people, mostly. We’d sometimes swapped around.
I love the production design of the film. It really sells this world they are living in and doesn’t feel cheap.
Clement: That’s great, because it was quite cheap. You know, if you watch big films like The Hobbit films or Alice in Wonderland or The Lord of the Rings they have all the designs transcribed already. They just have to make them come to life and do what you want, for the most part. We wanted the set to be lit so we could sort of walk around wherever we wanted and improvise with all of the actors. We wanted that feeling so we could glide around if we wanted.
The house was obviously a closed set, but when you go out at night, did you block off areas and everyone around you knew you were filming or did you just go for it?
Clement: We tried to keep our crew as small as possible and just walk around. There were a lot of people around in some sections because they were just out at night.
In terms of the influence of the film, I’m sure you’ve talked endlessly about the vampire films you liked, but what were some mockumentary influences? I could sense Zelig and Christopher Guest.
Clement: Yeah, there’s one from the ’70′s in New Zealand. The character’s called Fred Dagg. That’s kind of the first mockumentary I had seen, where it follows this comedian but he’s a farmer. It’s all very realistic and deadpan, but kind of ridiculous.
In the intro there’s the 70′s-esque New Zealand Film Board bumper. Is that were that comes from?
Clement: That comes from most New Zealand films because they are sponsored by the government, so we’re kind of making fun of that.
When it comes to the marketing, the posters that list “hilarious” as every quote are great. Are you heavily involved in that?
Waititi: We liked that.
Clement: We did like that.
Waititi: We tried to really emphasize that people knew it was hilarious. [Laughs]
Clement: Rather than it be focused on it being scary or anything, because it’s not. Also, the New Zealand audience is a bit wary of comedies, so you need to really convince them. So if you write it on everything, they’ll believe you.
Coming up with the different character archetypes, since it’s a lot of your friends in the film, did you know beforehand who would fit each character?
Clement: Every couple of years we’d talk about filming it. I’d say, ‘I want to have the ridiculous haircut, that Gary Oldman hair,’ and than it would stand still for a couple of years. We’ve pulled [the characters] from other vampire stories and put them together and knew we wanted to tell it the whole time from the vampire point of view. That someone is in love with someone. That’s common in a lot of vampire stories. They are in love with a human and the relationship is doomed.
A lot of vampire stories focus on a heightened aspect, but you revel in the mundane, which is very funny. Is that day-to-day aspect something you formed from the start?
Clement: Yeah, probably our first idea was more special effects-y stuff and sequences, but we slipped those in more as we went along.
Being on the festival circuit for some time, are there any films you’ve enjoyed while traveling?
Waititi: I saw We Are the Best! by Lukas Moodysson about a teenage girl punk band. Really great. That’s the last good film I saw.
Clement: Also, Here Comes the Devil was pretty terrifying.
Waititi: About a Tasmanian devil?
Clement: Yeah, it was a Tasmanian horror movie. [Laughs] It was pretty frightening. Oh, The Babadook was another one, which was great. Australian film. I don’t always go out and see horror films, but we’re in these sections. Like at Toronto and saw The Editor, which was great, and Spring.
Taika, I heard you were writing the Disney animation Moana. How did that opportunity come about?
Waititi: I think they wanted some sort of authenticity in the specifics and usually it’s just white people imagining what it’s like with other cultures. They don’t do much research but that’s changed a lot now. They did a lot of research and I think I was the only person they heard of that has some Polynesian in them.
[All laugh] So you were the only one and the best for job.
Waititi: People talked about The Rock being in it, but that’s only because they can’t think of a single other Polynesian actor.
[Laughs] Thanks so much for talking with me. Congrats on the movie.
Thanks so much.
What We Do in the Shadows hits theaters on Friday, February 13th.
One of the best experiences I had at least year’s Sundance was going in blind to Marjane Satrapi‘s The Voices, knowing it starred Ryan Reynolds, and virtually nothing else. Consider my surprise when it was one of the best films of the festival. Over a year later it’s finally available to see in theaters and on VOD and for the occasion I sat down with Satrapi.
We discussed pulling off the tonal balance, casting Ryan Reynolds, moving from animation to live-action, the importance of directorial control, how the film feels like a drug experience, her recent favorite films, and much more. To note, we get into some spoilers towards the bottom that are best left once you’ve seen the film. Check out the full conversation below.
The film balances a dream-like vibrant tone mixed with the underlying darkness. How much of that was in the script and how much did you bring to it?
The script from the beginning was a very good script. That’s why I wanted to do it. Michael Perry did the script. I was like, ‘I had never read something like that and neither had I seen a movie like that.’ I knew it would be something I had never seen before. I loved it from the beginning. Then when you’re working, you have to make some adjustments — some scenes are too long, etc. I worked a lot with Michael Perry and we had to cut a lot of scenes because we only had 33 days of shooting so you cannot do everything you want in one day. It’s impossible. So we had to make a lot of adjustments. I said what I wanted to do to Michael Perry and he came with different ideas. Ryan Reynolds also improvised a lot of things, some lines, saying things much more naturally in one way rather than in another way, but the script from the very beginning was a very good one.
I’ve admired Ryan Reynolds acting for some time and I feel like he’s now in a mode where he’s trying out more daring projects. Did you see anything with him previously where you knew he would be right for the role?
They called me and said Ryan Reynolds wants to make your film and I wanted to meet him. The moment we met it was obvious that Ryan was right for the role. You can have the best filmmaker in the world and best writer in the world, but if either of them want to make a different film, the result is never good. But if you have the actor and the moviemaker and they have the same vision, then you might have a good film. Ryan was excellent. His approach of the role, his understanding of the role was exactly the same thing as I had. We also had many things in common. It was an obvious choice to work with him. He appeared to be much better than whatever I expected.
I was surprised to learn he did the voices of the cat and the dog. How many iterations did that go through or did he come up with that right on the spot?
Before we started the movie he did it one afternoon, he did it all in one go. Then everytime we did the scene when the cat and the dog were in there, then he couldn’t play that because that’s something you have to do before because he’s interacting with them. He did a great job. He also did the deer and the Bunny Monkey and everyone. He did a great job.
For me, writing about this movie has been a little difficult. I don’t want to spoil what happens. Do you care at all about spoilers and how do you feel about the marketing so far?
Well the movie and the marketing are really two different things. I don’t think they have to spoil it, but at the same time it’s not a surprise that it’s a serial killer who talks with his pets, so that is what we can say. No matter what you know about the film, I think you will still be surprised by things. It’s very difficult if I want to pitch the movie to someone — ‘just tell me the story’ — it’s very difficult for me to tell the whole story. It’s a bit of an issue, but it’s not a big deal.
With your other movies, you’ve also done animation and Chicken with Plums, which I loved, and has some animation in it. How do you feel about fully transitioning to live-action?
Animation is really good, but at the same time it’s such a long procedure. It takes forever. It seems to last forever. I love to make a film with real actors. I prefer that. Wherever my life will lead me after, I don’t know. I really don’t know. Two years if you would have told me, ‘You are going to make The Voices with Ryan Reynolds,’ I would have laughed at you. I would have said, ‘Never’ and then I did. So I’m waiting for life to surprise me.
With the reception of this movie, have you seen a different response in different parts of the world?
Well, of course with English-speaking people the film is much more funny because all these jokes that the cat makes, you don’t have to read the subtitles and it makes it much more funny, obviously. This movie has been shown two times in two different festivals in France and each time I won an award and each time I won the award of the public, so the public really loves the film. I was in Belgium and people really loved the film. I wanted it to be a universal film and I’m very happy about that.
Reynolds’ character is likable despite being a serial killer. Did that reception surprise you?
Yes, everybody is in love with him. Everybody is like, ‘Oh my God, Ryan Reynolds!’ And I’m like, yes, I know. He’s a great actor, of course. Everybody is in love with the dog and everybody is in love with the cat.
Was there test screenings or anything? It feels very much like your own vision coming through and not edited down — in a good way.
You’re right. You’re right. It was my own vision and nobody rejected it. This is the way it should be. If the director has a vision of a film you should go through with it. It was important that I controlled everything. Sometimes I have a vision and you have the actors who give the performances and never in my wildest dreams would I have never thought the performances would be this. It’s much better than I would have expected. Of course, it’s a vision of the style and how to make it, etc. that I tried to keep.
[Spoilers to follow]
When he has the first murder, it’s shocking, but the first scene that made the audience squirm a bit was when he was cutting up the body and perfectly packaging it. I got a kick of that. Was there any pushback at all for that stuff?
Actually, you don’t see anything. Everything is off screen. I was like, ‘OK, if he’s a psycho and his pride is that he works in packing and shipping, what would I do? I would put the pieces of body in tupperware.’ I have to put myself in the skin of the guy and say, ‘If I’m a psycho and if I killed and if I was a packer and shipper, what would I do?’ So, you can imagine how my mind is sick. [Laughs]
No, I love it. I’m very much on the same wavelength. You’ve mentioned that this film, in certain sequences, gives you the effect of taking LSD without taking LSD. Can you talk about that, especially in the last sequence?
You’re right. For the final scene I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do? What am I going to do? The solution was pulling at me and I didn’t like it. I was like, what does paradise look to me? OK, white. Paradise is white. How am I going to do it? I was watching some films from the 1960′s and actually they have taken LSD — I can assure you of that. You don’t made those films if haven’t taken LSD. It’s impossible. One day, I was like this it. I tried to make it without taking LSD because that’s not the best combination if you’re a director.
While you’ve been on the festival tour are there any films you’ve enjoyed?
Oh, yes. Very much so. I loved to go and watch Dallas Buyers Club. I loved to go and watch Gravity. Gravity I didn’t feel like I was watching a movie. I felt like I had an experience in space. Lately, I saw this Argentina film. I don’t know how to pronounce it…
Wild Tales! Yeah, I really loved it. It shows all these things that you want to do. You feel like strangling people in the street or punching people in the nose because they make you angry and you never do it. But in this movie they do it. It’s so refreshing. I came out and I really had the biggest smile. I also saw the Japanese animated The Tale of Princess Kaguya and it was so beautiful. I cried from the beginning to the end. I go to the theater around three times a week. I love going to films.
The Voices is now on VOD and in theaters.
There is a unique creative purity that filmmaker Jody Lee Lipes is able to capture in his enthralling documentary Ballet 422. The cinematographer/director is no stranger to filming bodies in motion, having lensed the magnificent dance film NY Export: Opus Jazz which showcased talented dancers performing through New York City.
In his latest effort, the Martha Marcy May Marlene cinematographer takes a more intimate approach by following around ballet prodigy Justin Peck as he prepares, conceives and choreographs an original concept for the prestigious New York City Ballet. It’s a truly fascinating film for both the artist in front of the camera and the one behind it, as they both examine the concept of artistic inception. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Jody and discuss his blossoming career, his verité style and his advice for future filmmakers.
The Film Stage: How did you find Justin and become involved in this project and did it have anything to do with your previous film NY Export: Opus Jazz?
Jody Lee Lipes: It did. I got involved with Justin because Ellen Bar, who’s one of the producers on this film, was moderating a panel at the Guggenheim that Justin was on. Part of that panel was Justin having one of the dancers go through a ballet that he was working on at the time. Just watching that process and how we he worked with the dancer after she went through it once and he corrected her, it was so fascinating to me. He just seemed like he would be a great subject. One of the things that really interests me is focus, like extreme focus and I saw that on stage that day. As soon as that was over I was like huh, maybe we could do a film about this. Ellen Bar knows Justin really well, they were in the same company for a long time. So she helped us find the opportunity to get in there and to put the whole film together and make it happen.
What did it take to earn Justin’s trust and how did you get him to be so earnest and candid in front of the camera?
Justin was really open about this whole process and enthusiastic. He never said no. I don’t think he even totally realized that it was going to be what it was going to be. It’s not like we hid that from him but I think he just sort of thought like, ok they’re going to shoot some stuff, that’s cool, I’m happy to have them document this. But at first we didn’t know it was going to be a feature like at the very beginning. So he was very, very open about it.
So it was kind of amorphous at the beginning?
Initially we thought it was going to be a short. We didn’t know that it would sustain. But once we were shooting for a little while, we thought actually this could hold up. So at first it wasn’t as a big of a deal. It was just kind of like, yeah we’re going to shoot for a couple weeks and see what happens and it just worked out.
Was there any resistance from him to be candid and be himself?
It really genuinely feels to me like he forgets the camera is there. I’ve heard him say a few times since we shot the film that he literally was shocked when he saw the movie. He was like “You guys made a movie? I don’t even remember you even being there.”
There is that sense of detachment with Justin not noticing the presence of the camera at all and it creates that fly on the wall experience.
Yeah and again, like at the Guggenheim when for the first time we had the idea for this film, this twenty four year old kid gets up on stage in front of a packed theater and just starts talking to Tyler Peck, who was the dancer that he was working with. It was literally like he didn’t even know anybody was there. And I was just thinking to myself, wow that’s perfect because he’s not going to be bothered by a camera. He’s just so zoned in on her and helping her and making the work better and that’s all he’s thinking about. For me, the first like kernel of making a film like this came from when I was working on Palindromes when I was in college. I was an intern working in the camera department initially and it was my job to move Todd Solondz’s monitor. And I just remember him staring at that box and he would be so into it that he would be lip syncing the lines as the actors were saying them. I just remember thinking, what if there was a camera on top of the monitor with a shot of his face, and doing a split screen of the take and the director’s face next to each other. So I just started thinking about that and in this case it’s ballet, but any film like that or creative endeavor. When someone gets that absorbed by what they are doing, that’s just fascinating to me. So a lot of the film is Justin watching and absorbing what’s happening.
It’s interesting you mention that, because I see a parallel between the way you crafted this film and the way he crafted his ballet. It’s an interesting correlation.
I think anytime you can make a film a bit more personal, even if it’s like a documentary or verité, I think that ends up helping the film. There are some things where I feel like I’ve gone through similar experiences in my career and getting to the next level, having these opportunities. Learning how to figure that out as your doing it and just stuff like that, so I have an emotional response to some of that stuff in the film that probably a lot of people don’t but I think it helped me stay engaged and interested and made the film better at the end of the day.
What was the biggest challenge you faced with shooting this project?
Unfortunately there weren’t really any (laughs).
So it was a cake walk? It was just you and one other person shooting right?
Yeah Nick Bentgen whose an amazing DP and director. We’ve been working for like 10 years or something, he’s great. I think at the time, I was spending a lot of time writing a script and was just staring at a computer screen by myself in my apartment all day. So then when we had a shoot day for this it was like so freeing to get out of the apartment. And also the last few projects I have done have had a crew and there’s a lot of people there, it’s a whole machine. To literally just go to Lincoln Center which is like 10 blocks away from my apartment and there’s a camera there, and I just pick it up and walk into a room and shoot. It was very kind of relaxing in a way.
And also very pure, because it’s you and him in a space doing your thing.
Exactly, so it was really nice. And the editorial process was also really great. Saela Davis who is an amazing editor, this is the first thing that we did together though we’ve done one other thing since then. She really wrote the film in a lot of ways. She’s just really smart and I think it’s the first time that I worked with an editor where I felt they made the film more the way I wanted it to be than I thought it was. So that process was really great too and just being able to walk into the room and feel like someone who really understands the story, understands you and really understands the aesthetic and everything and they crafted this thing and then you can talk about it and make it a little bit better, that was great too. And working with Ellen and Anna, our great producers, so fortunately there was no drama.
Sounds like an awesome experience. In regards to the editing there was an interesting choice you made at the end. [SPOILER ALERT] We see Justin, after having choreographed his original ballet, has also been part of another dance projection that undoubtedly must have been equally taxing.
Well, every dancer at New York City Ballet is usually doing a lot of things at once. They have a huge repertory so there are parts that people do for ten years. For me, it’s my favorite part of the film. It’s sort of like him going back to square one after such a huge triumph especially for someone his age to be working at this level in one of the most important ballet companies in the world. Just to go through that and then go right back and get on stage and dance in a position that is sort of like the lowest rank in the company and just be totally focused on that and totally ready to do it and not have any reservations about it and being totally humble about it. To me that’s great and I think it’s really inspiring how he behaves and chooses to work.
Talk about your cinema verité influence which is apparent in not just this film but others, even ones where you were just shooting.
Yeah I don’t know. I don’t think about it, it’s not a choice for me. I don’t see it as different than the way anybody does anything else. It’s just sort of what is interesting to me. Like this shot is interesting, or this conversation is interesting. This is telling the story, I don’t really think about it aesthetically really and the idea of something feeling real, well it is real. It’s happening and it’s there. So I really don’t think about it, I’m just trying to tell a story and react to what’s happening and that’s what happens. When it comes to narrative film, it’s obviously more planned out but I think it’s the same thing. What is the scene about and it’s not always a process that I’m thinking about it, what do I need to show. It’s more like, this feels right, this doesn’t. And then after the fact I can justify it or if I need to argue for or against something. I think it’s just more like a feeling, like an improvisational feeling especially with verité.
You’ve had a great amount of success coming out of film school. What kind of advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers and cinematographers?
I think something that is really important is doing what you want to do. I think the more that you do things that you don’t want to do, the more you get pigeonholed into that. Obviously you don’t always have the luxury of picking and choosing exactly what you want to do or don’t do, but I think there are a lot of things you can do to get where you want to be. Like if you can not have an expensive apartment or don’t smoke and save fifteen bucks a week and then you can choose what you want to do more. Also a lot of it is luck. The fact that the first movie I was lucky enough to be able to do was with Antonio Campos which was Afterschool, was in Cannes. It’s like well that’s a good start but it’s so lucky. I really feel honored to have been part of that, especially so early. And then it was like I think I can keep doing this if I work really hard instead of doing instead of just any script that comes to you that’s what you take. To me, I don’t think I would be happy doing projects that I don’t like or care about, I don’t think I would do a good job. So if you want to do a good job you have to be doing stuff you want to do then that’s what you have to do. It’s less of a choice I guess than it is me not wanting to fuck stuff up. Because I know myself well enough to know that I’m going to shut off at a certain point if I’m not feeling fulfilled or if the people I’m working with are on the same page.
Is one of your hopes with this film for more people to go ballet more?
Of course. My wife, Ellen Bar who produced this film with Anna, really grew up in that institution. I think my favorite place in New York is Lincoln Center. I want that institution to survive and to grow and to have a new audience. For both of the dance films I’ve made, I tried to make them for people who don’t give a shit about dance and I tried to make them movies. We tried really hard to make it something that people could follow if they didn’t know a single ballet term or know anything about the institution itself. Because to me, it’s not really about ballet, it’s about the creative process in general. So I want people who don’t care about ballet to enjoy this film and hopefully in that process they will become curious about ballet and maybe they’ll want to go see something. Definitely I think they’re going to want to see more of Justin’s work. He’s definitely going to be around for awhile.
Ballet 422 hits theaters on February 6th. Check out Lipes’ Instagram for updates from the filmmaker.
At first glance,Nasty Baby isn’t the movie you’re expecting, but if you know it’s from writer-director Sebastián Silva (Magic Magic, Crystal Fairy), then maybe you’ll see the turn of events coming a mile away. For the first two acts, Nasty Baby is a natural, loose and lovely romantic comedy, starring Silva himself and TV on the Radio frontman, Tunde Adebimpe, as a couple hoping to have a child together.
The film becomes another story by the end, which, while at Sundance, we thought it was better not to discuss the change of events with Adebimpe and Silva. Whether one enjoys the third act or not, it’s hard not to appreciate the audacity. Six features in, Silva is an independent filmmaker still taking chances.
Here’s what Silva and his co-star Tunde Adebimpe had to say about Nasty Baby, improvisation, and more:
The structure of the film is surprising, especially the third act. Do you outline?
Silva: Yeah, yeah. There was a pretty fleshed out outline, and it was close to 20 or 25 pages of this whole story. I didn’t write any dialogue, only actions. If you added dialogue to what I had, it’d be a formal screenplay. All the dialogue was improvised, but we had solid guidelines of what we had to convey in each scene.
Adebimpe: Yeah, it was clear the spot we had to land on.
Is that your process on every film?
Silva: Not on every film. I’ve made six films, but I’ve only done this on two films: Crystal Fairy and Nasty Baby.
How was that process for you, Tunde? Am I mistaken or wasn’t Rachel Getting Married heavily improvised?
Adebimpe: It was pretty similar. There was a structure in the script to bounce off of, but after one or two takes of getting what was on the page, we’d go back into it, just trying to figure it out.
Is there more pressure as an actor having to be such an integral part of the storytelling, or is it a nice feeling?
Adebimpe: It’s a nice feeling for me. Well, it depends on who you’re doing that with, but, in this situation, there was a ton of communication and ground level understanding of the feeling of what we were going for. It was positive pressure.
I imagine you didn’t have a huge budget, so how many takes could you usually get?
Silva: Oh man, so many takes. We shot a lot. A lot of times we’d just keep the camera rolling and repeat scenes without cutting, which helps you get so much more footage than if you were cutting every time something went wrong. Scenes never really took on a new meaning, because we knew what we had to do in each scene. Dialogue, jokes, movements, or even locations would come out or slightly change, though. Like, something written to happen in the kitchen would happen in the bathroom. For editing, we couldn’t change much, because the story was there. Everything was structured, not that we had a bunch of random footage.
Adebimpe: The days I wasn’t working I’d come in on set and I’d just see how you made a really full world for those characters. In any movie you shoot there’s going to be stuff that doesn’t make it in the final cut, but what it got distilled down to was absolutely the story that was there. Everything worked so well and felt so natural, because there was an actual live world we’d go into as we started shooting. I saw it for the first time last night and, I thought, the way the film played was exactly how [Silva] described it to me.
Silva: The thing with improv is, it’s a little bit of a myth, unless it’s mumblecore, which is not Nasty Baby. After the third take you figure out what you’re going to do, and then you just start repeating that. After the second or third take it becomes more scripted, in terms of what they’re going to say or how fast they’re going to say it.
How helpful is it having your director be your co-star?
Adebimpe: It’s really helpful. He’s always right there, so you’re having that dialogue. The whole thing was extremely collaborative. You were never plugged in, like, “Okay! Do this dog! All right. We’re done here.”
Do you get a wildly different creative satisfaction out of acting than you do with music?
Adebimpe: It’s very different. With songwriting and with TV on the Radio, I’m sitting alone writing a demo or a part of the song, and then I take it to everyone else. I mean, it’s similar, in a way, but I like being a part of a bigger process, where I’m not generating the material; it’s not somewhere my mind would go, but it gets to go there.
Last night you half-joked about not wanting to ever make a movie this personal again. Were you completely serious about that or half-kidding?
Silva: Having only done it once, I don’t think I could do something similar or even close to this. I played pretty much myself in this movie. In the movie you see my place, where I live, my decorations, my cat, and you see some of the conflicts I’ve gone through. I do paint and have done art shows, so I’ve been a part of the art world. I thought it served the purpose of the movie well, so it’s not like I’m an egomaniac who has to share those kind of personal details just because. It is a lot of exposure, and I don’t think it’s healthy if you overdo that. I don’t regret a thing, though. I’m glad I went there.
I imagine that much introspection would be tough.
Silva: Yeah, yeah. I really don’t have any problems separating fiction from reality, because I know the experiment I’m doing. I know exactly why I’m using the elements from my life and giving them to the film.
Is it similar to songwriting? Does a personal song take more out of you?
Adebimpe: I pretty much used to write personal songs by default, because I didn’t know what else to do. As Sebastián was saying, it’s kind of an unhealthy thing to do, to go, “I have to go to this painful place to have something to say or sing about.” You know, I feel like if you survived ages 12-22, you have shit to write about for the rest of your life. Your most extreme emotions, with some exceptions, already happened. Your life is a springboard for fiction.
Can it be cathartic, though?
Adebimpe: It can be. It’s weird, because you do it and then… well, it’s only happened twice where I’ve been done with something musically or with animation that makes me say a week later, “Okay. That was good. I feel really good about that.” It usually takes two or three years later for me to realize what was going on that time and why I did what I did.
Do you have a similar experience with your films?
Silva: I guess it’s like that with everything you’ve done. When you revisit something you’ve made in the past, you do discover new things about yourself.
Do reviews or reactions mean more or less when the film is this personal?
Silva: Luckily, I don’t struggle that much with that, because it takes a lot for me to feel offended or insecure. I am definitely much more exposed on this movie than my previous films, so there is more of an edge to, “Oh shit, what are they gonna say?” I don’t think it’s like that in a negative way, though.
How about for music?
Adebimpe: As far as opinions? If it’s more personal, I think I care less. If you walkaway saying, “Well, I know how I feel about that,” then someone picking that apart who wasn’t involved in putting it together… I can’t take that very seriously. As far as bad reviews go in music, most of my friends making music come from the angry fumes of punk rock, like, “Please give me the worst possible review, because it means I’ve done something right.” I remember my friends in a band got a one star review from Rollings Sone, and they wrote a letter to Rolling Stone asking them to take their star back, like, “Get the fuck out of here! We don’t want your one star.” [Laughs] You know, you can’t help but… it is weird reading a review, because suddenly you’re in an outside mind, like, “Wow. I didn’t really think about that.”
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Adebimpe: It’s just a weird thing, yeah. You’re bringing something to it I didn’t think about. It’s always interesting to hear what people say, but, you know, you don’t know what mood someone is in when they’re writing about something. Maybe a critic who just went through a breakup is pissed and has to trudge through a review.
Before I let you go, I’m a fan of the videos you’ve directed for TV on the Radio and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. Are you going to direct another video soon?
Adebimpe: Thank you. I am thinking of making a film or a short. The band stuff is going to wind down by the end of this year, so I’m hoping to.
I would like to see you direct an animated film.
Adebimpe: I totally would. I’d enlist this guy [points to Silva], because he’s a brilliant cartoonist. I’m a snob with that shit, but he’s brilliant.
Nasty Baby premiered at Sundance Film Festival.
Rarely is a post-apocalyptic film this handsome. If the future was made up entirely of people who looked like Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, I think we’d all agree the world would be better off. Z for Zachariah, Craig Zobel‘s adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien‘s novel, written by Nissar Modi, is more than just a complicated romance, though.
Zobel’s film is about the struggle between religion and science, how the world may change but our emotions remain the same, and more. The plotting and conflict is simple, but there’s plenty underneath the surface. Z for Zachariah is a logical followup to Zobel’s previous feature, Compliance, because, thematically and dramatically, the two pictures are similar.
We had the chance to discuss that familiarity and more with Craig Zobel at Sundance. Here’s what he had to say:
With Compliance and Z for Zachariah, both films follow characters doing or saying things they probably believed they weren’t capable of.
That’s what was fascinating to me. If you boil down the movie to what it is about, by looking at it in a synopsis form, it may look like a dated version of some sort of post-apocalyptic story you’ve seen in recent times, with the Hunger Games or whatever, and I so feel that is not at all what would happen. [Laughs] Those scenarios just doesn’t make sense to me. What I was excited about – and this was in the screenplay in the beginning – is: you’re always going to carry around the same stuff, regardless if the world ended. You still have the weight of the society that used to exist and the way you used to do things. You know what I mean?
Yeah. The world is over, but your emotions are the same.
Yeah. Even if you don’t have to follow the same moral boundaries, you’re going to anyway [Laughs]. You just are, and that’s what got me excited this. I’m not so sure John Loomis had a great relationship with the girl [we see in a photo] before the end of the world.
You do see a questionable side of him in one scene, and maybe that’s who he used to be.
Right. Who knows what that guy’s backstory really is? He’s troubled and complicated, and hopefully all three of them come off that way. Obviously there’s reasons to make Chris’ character more… I wouldn’t say villainous, because I don’t want it to be read that way; he’s realizing he can do whatever he wants, though. It was an interesting thing to contemplate.
Going into Z for Zachariah, I expected something bigger in scope, but it’s a really intimate post-apocalyptic tale. Having only three actors, does that make the production run smoother: getting to focus more on their performances without a bunch of extras?
Absolutely. I don’t have to worry about a lot of that stuff. It was only the four of us. We had all day in the middle of nowhere, so we got to know each other really well. We also explored things in the script. We’d say, “Well, we did that scene and a normal movie would move on by now, but today we don’t have to. We can try something totally different.” A lot of scenes were totally improved.
Can you recall any of those scenes?
When Loomis is getting drunk in the store. In the screenplay there were no lines for that scene, because she just found him drunk. We wanted to make it be about something. He’s drunk, so he’ll be talking. I had fun with the idea he’d think of what she had or hadn’t eaten, and that he’d act like a scientist about it, trying to figure out who she was based on the evidence. Chiwetel just said, “Yeah, let’s do that,” and he made it way better than I ever could’ve thought of.
It says a lot that she hasn’t drunk any of the beer.
That was in the script. It was fun just unpacking the scene — thinking about what he’d really do.
What kind of discussions did you have the three actors before shooting?
Everybody was slightly different, but, for all four of us, it was really about accessing the subtext to everyday life, in a world with three people. I mean, if you mess up or do something wrong in this kind of a world, it’s going to resonate, because there’s really only two people, until there’s a third. Even if you’re the most direct person in the world, you’re going to have a secondary conversation underneath everything you say, you know? That’s what was fun: building that conversation.
The subtext is mostly internalized. Was there a back-and-forth over how much to vocalize the subtext?
Well, some of the religious stuff was in the script, and I just found that fascinating. At the end of the world, people would probably talk about religion. [Laughs] And that’s weirdly absent from some post-apocalyptic movies. A lot of it was us making it up as we went along or going really far in one direction, and saying, “Well, we shot that footage. We could use that, but then pare back.” There were versions more subtext-y.
How long was your shoot?
It was done in five weeks with 25 days, which is long for me making a movie. To make some of the movies these actors work on, I mean, they shoot for five months. It was a short shoot, in that sense, but it wasn’t less time than we needed. I don’t think the movie would’ve been much different if we had two more weeks or a month.
We shot the film in New Zealand, and we did that because it was when all three of their schedules aligned. We shot around January or February. I really wanted the film to be green, so I said, “Well, let’s go somewhere south of the equator, where we can find something lush and green.” You know what I mean?
Yeah, yeah. It’s refreshing, because most post-apocalyptic movies are dreary and rainy.
I didn’t feel like we had the recourses or the creative juice to redo the post-apocalyptic thing. When you watch a movie, like, The Road, it’s clear they thought about all that stuff, and we weren’t going to win trying to make a version like that. We’d just look bad. At the beginning of the movie there needs to be a little bit of the outside world, and I think we found a new look with those scenes.
Was it a similar atmosphere in the book?
The book is a green valley. The book has the mystery of what the atmospheric issue is that’s protecting this valley. Even in the book, there was this Eden-y thing. I just wanted it green, and I thought that was the way we’d be interesting in the wake of watching the beginning of X-Men: Days of Future Past and that sort of thing. Why bother trying to shoot that?
Z For Zachariah premiered at Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Lionsgate.
A strong and impressive debut, Take Me To The River was one of the most accomplished features we saw at Sundance. Telling the story of a teenager Ryder (Logan Miller) accused of an act he did not commit at a family reunion, the film features strong performances by Robin Weigert as his mother and Josh Hamilton as his uncle with ambiguous intensions. Tightly paced and engaging, Take Me To The River is best seen cold, so we did our best to avoid spoilers when talking with its writer/director/producer, Matt Sobel. Check out our full conversation below.
The Film Stage: You had mentioned last night before the screening that the film was six years in the making?
Matt Sobel: I wrote the film while I was still in undergrad art school, that six-year process was not just developing this project but me also figuring out how to be a filmmaker as well, and especially how the business works. In a lot of ways, also becoming an adult. I felt like I was pre-adult when I wrote the story, and it’s about this kid maturing. The idea was inspired by these real-life family reunions I’d go to every year in Nebraska. The farm in the film is my family’s farm in Nebraska, all of our locations were filmed on their property, and that house is where my mother grew up. But, the drama of the story is all fictional, and that came from a dream I had where I was falsely accused of something deceitful.
I noticed you’re the sole producer on the film – how did that come to be?
In the process we had many different plans for how the film was going to be made. A producer or two passed through the project, in the end I decided I wanted to make it for a more reasonable budget and do it on our family farm. The other options almost felt like they weren’t working out, so I decided to do the project myself. Our line producer was really more of a co-producer – me and Billy (Mulligan) were really on the ground during production.
Did they want you to shoot where there would have been bigger tax incentives?
There were many other plans to shoot in Winnipeg – it was going to be a German/Canadian/American co-production. There were also plans to shoot in upstate New York, I went on a lot of location scouts and in the end, I felt like we should bring it back to that location (Nebraska).
I’m curious about the role of the development labs, which I see shaping independent films at various festivals lately – how did it take shape and what help did you have from these labs and grants?
That was absolutely when I crossed over from being an outsider at these film markets trying to get people to read my script to feeling I had traction with financial people I wanted to work with. And the first thing that happened was Binger Film Lab, which is Amsterdam based accepted the film and I was at the writing and directing lab for a year, living in Amsterdam. That was an incredible experience, I didn’t know anyone else in the city nor did anyone else that was coming into the lab so we all formed a very close bond living together for a year and working on each other’s films. That was development in the first stage, and a lot of people from that either went on to be crew in the film or helped me and connected me to people I’d end up working with anyway. We also applied with a rough cut of the film to IFP’s lab, and they were helping us complete a fine cut of the movie and navigate sales and distribution with workshops to help orient us because we were new to this. And Sundance as well, they gave us a finishing grant recently, but it was not at the Sundance development lab.
Let’s talk about the movie – one of the things I think you really nailed was the family dynamics – especially between Ryder and his mother and father – they were spot on. Can you talk about casting and working to build that dynamic?
Casting was really hard. The hardest part of casting for me was for me to get out of my head the fact I had lived with these characters for four years already at this point and that they were somewhat inspired by real people. Especially the mother-son relationship and it’s rumination on my own relationship with my mother when I was 17 but it’s more intense than that. A lot of these characters were going to be nothing like my actual family. Basically Robin (Weigert) came on first and really helped me develop the story in the final stages and from that point on I saw about 60 kids for Ryder and was just sort of imagining who could be in the same world as Robin, I consulted with her about our choices there and we both felt that Logan (Miller) seemed to natural inhabit that place of awkward teenager that it seemed quite effortless for him. Richard Schiff came on at the very last minute actually – four days before we started shooting, but he had been a long first choice of mine for that role but we couldn’t secure that until four days before we started shooting.
How about Ursula Parker? She gives such a brave and daring performance for someone so young, especially what’s required of her by the story. How did you work with her?
I was petrified, absolutely petrified about not being able to find someone who could do this part and she was not cast incredibly early. We had a start date set and did not have that role cast – and that was putting knots in my stomach because it’s an incredible thing to ask of such a young actress. But, I was familiar with her from Louis and I loved her on that show and always thought in the back of my mind she’d be great. She has one of the most singularly particular energies that I’ve ever seen in a young actress, she is, in reality, she can be terrifying intense and flip back to being a normal little girl. She has elements of her that are way beyond her age and elements of her that are a normal ten year old girl, and I felt that that was right for this role – someone that you couldn’t really track. And the less you couldn’t follow her and the more interesting she became. Working with her was a whole other kind of challenge that required a lot of thought. One of the people whom I mentioned I collaborated with in Amsterdam, she’s a children coach in Belgium and that’s a sort of respected in Europe I feel, she’s not just a handler, she’s a director of children and I brought her over specifically to help me with her.
The way that the film uses the landscape out in Nebraska is really quite brilliant. I imagine taking the actors out into rural Nebraska also helped shape their process?
The landscape was integral part of the story from the first time that I imagined it, because I was envisioning these actual places that I had been visiting for my whole life. And that’s also why it’s so hard for me to find those locations elsewhere, all of those locations exist on my family’s plot of land and they’re all within miles of each other. I thought that something there was something that felt very interesting location-wise as well and somewhat elemental: there’s the only farmhouse, shake, the uncle’s house, and river and they’re all separated by these dells – and that’s the way the space really is. Then we kind of came across this idea of having everything look sort of like a child’s coloring book, and did things like the opposite how you think things might be presented – not dramatically but very flat and kind of simple and inviting, directly contrasting the behavior that was going on in it. This idea more fully evolved as someone suggested to me I should really watch Picnic at Hanging Rock and everything felt like the landscape was not just a character but a force that was acting upon the characters, and so we went back to do pick-ups of just the landscapes that was very much in my mind – especially how the landscape creates a kind of altered state of consciousness in these characters’ minds.
The tone of the film continually changes – switching from comedy to drama and then into some very dark territory – I was watching it on the edge of my seat thinking someone physically or emotionally violent could happen – I was wondering how that was shaped in post with your editor Jacob Secher Schulsinger (of Force Majeure)?
I hope I never have to make a movie without Jacob again; working with him was the best experience I ever had. The tone you’re talking about was very much in the script and sort of inspired by films like Dogtooth. Specifically shaping it and editing it, and getting close to that tone Jacob came up with this interesting idea of never quite letting the audience understand the resolution of each beat. In a long scene like in conversation at the dinner table at the Uncle’s house, there were maybe five beats in that scene and he cut the last three or lines out of each and had another beat interrupt the previous one. I think that’s where the lean forward feeling comes from; you never feel that you completely resolve anything until the end. I think that’s sort of Jacob’s special trick, when you think about it – it kind of shouldn’t work, and I’ve seen different cuts when it didn’t work.
Were there any other references you looked at? Again, I’m trying thing of a way we can describe the tone for our readers without telling them exactly what they’re in for when they see this film.
I’ve written hundreds of versions of synopses and loglines throughout writing the script and never felt like I could effectively communicate what it felt like to watch the movie with any of these synopses because by design I wanted to make a film that was as difficult to summarize and here I am trying to do the opposite. I think what we arrived at is I’m going to say as little as possible about the events in the plot and focus much more on how it makes you feel while watching it because that was my goal in the beginning to have a film that was much more about the visceral sensation rather than be about clever metaphorical meanings or its subject matter, I think that conversation will happen at dinner after the movie – but first and foremost I wanted to make something that hits you in the gut while watching it. I was thinking about it in terms of that sensation.
The moment I realized I wanted to do something like this was after watching Cache, and there’s that amazing scene where he slits his throat – I remember how amazingly unique the feeling I got right after that and I didn’t know it was possible to make me feel like that and that’s when I decided I wanted to make something that made me feel before I thought. And, so other films of like The White Ribbon – in terms of branching out storylines cut in negative spaces. Their was a lecture I heard Michael Haneke give about The White Ribbon where he discussed leaving potentially the most interesting part of the action outside of the frame, and I thought that would be great if we could do that narratively to kind of invite the viewer to create that along side us. I really love the experience of reading a book sometimes more than seeing a film because you have to really do the work – so the idea was to make a film that would invite the viewer to do some of that work.
That certainly seems reflected in the editing style where you haven’t always provided a resolution to the beats, and I think Haneke does this in particular when he holds on a frame perhaps providing us with more information that will then complicate our understanding of a situation by not just giving us the simple answer.
Yes, my editor and I developed this idea that every line of dialogue said is not a line a dialogue that an audience is not able to come to on their own. There’s an example where he’s cleaning off the graffiti off the car and in the script and when we shot it she gave him an answer – and Jacob asked me what would happen if she was just as evasive – and it would give five more seconds to think of who could have done this – and now we’re thinking of all the characters we’ve met so far. And we start to come up with ideas – and that was very in line with what I wanted even that’s not how we shot this.
How has it been received back in Nebraska, has your family seen it?
I have been totally shocked, no one in my family has seen the full version of it yet but they’ve seen parts and were there for filming and I was totally shocked that the things they were most interested in were seeing things they knew on camera. I guess that makes sense – the whole more was kind of a novelty but as part as getting a read on the story, I don’t know if and when that’ll ever happen.
Good luck with the film – I’ll be keeping an eye out it.
Thanks so much.
Take Me to the River premiered at Sundance Film Festival.