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Keanu Reeves on ‘John Wick,’ Directorial Advice, DGA’s Antiquated Rules, Favorite Expletive & More

Written by Bill Graham, October 23, 2014 at 1:26 pm 

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Hitting theaters in wide release this weekend is John Wick, a film I fell for at Fantastic Fest and I’ve since revisited. The actioner, from first-time filmmakers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, follows Keanu Reeves’ title character who left behind a life as a hitman for Russian mobsters to settle down for a quiet life with his wife. We see him grieving after her short demise and when he has an unfortunate run-in with his old boss’s son, he only has vengeance in his heart.

This simple set-up is all that is needed to propel the film forward, and yet it is set in a lived-in world of assassins and hitmen that builds mythology and a code around them. But more than anything it’s a vehicle for Keanu and he shines here. The action is wicked and clearly in focus at all times, showing Reeves’ willingness to jump into the action genre that made him a household name in the first-place. John Wick just oozes cool in an effortless way and the way it embraces the silliness and humor just rounds it out.

During Fantastic Fest I sat down with Reeves to talk about the film and he touched on why the DGA didn’t rule in Stahelski and Leitch’s favor for being co-directors, what kind of advice and help he gave them coming off his own directorial debut, his puppy co-star’s range, what it will take to get him into the Fantastic Fest ring for a fight, and more. I had some fun questions throughout and think it shows that Reeves has a good sense of humor and is game. We will have one more interview with his co-star, Adrianne Palicki, in the coming days and you can check out my previous interview with Stahelski and Leitch here. Enjoy the full conversation below and don’t forget to check out the film when it releases this weekend.

The Film Stage: This is your first film since directing Man of Tai Chi, right?

Keanu Reeves: Yes.

Coming from that side of things, do you see production a little bit differently now?

Absolutely. Yeah. With Chad and Dave, they had a lot of experience shooting second unit with their action design company. I had worked with them over the years. So coming from directing Man of Tai Chi, then to partnering with them on their first film, I was trying to help in a [producer-like fashion].

Yeah, I bet. I’m curious; did you give them any advice coming from your own directorial debut?

I did, yeah.

Give me a nugget.

Make sure that while you’re in editorial that you project big once in a while. Don’t forget to look at the movie big.

Instead of on a monitor.

Yeah. Things will feel different. Some of your edits will feel different. During production, I was just trying to help. They knew physical production. But just trying to help behind the scenes to try and get them resources and things like that.

You use a number of guns in this film. Some of them are pretty unique, like that shotgun. What was your favorite to handle on set?

Yeah, for me it was just the pistol.

Yeah, you like that one?

I use it the most. [Laughs]. Yeah, I do like that one.

The film follows your character and every time someone mentions your name, there’s a sense of respect, awe, or horror. “Oh, crap, I gotta deal with this guy.”

[Laughs]

Was there any name growing up that struck terror in you?

How about… dad.

[Laughs]

Uh, like the mythical boogie man? Hrmmm. I don’t know. No.

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[Laughs] That’s all right. You don’t have to have an answer. This is your second time at Fantastic Fest. I don’t think you got in the ring last year, did you?

I was in the debate.

You were in the debate but you weren’t in the ring, right?

No, he fought Tiger Chen.

So what’s it going to take to get you in the ring?

An invitation by Tim League!

[Laughs] I’ll have to let him know. The film has a very emotional core at the beginning of it. I thought it was clever because it showed off your range almost immediately. Did you shoot in sequence? Where did that scene with the puppy come into play in the shoot?

Yeah, I got fortunate in that sense because we shot some of the early parts of the film in the beginning. So it was nice that way to get to feel John Wick’s love and his grief. Then to have the scenes connecting with Daisy the dog. So it was nice in that regard to have that in the beginning of the schedule.

I know that famously animals are always kind of a nightmare to deal with on set. What was the dog’s name and how was she or he?

It was Andy the dog.

Uh huh.

And he’s got great range because he’s playing a girl.

[Laughs]

We got along pretty well. Which was nice. The dog was getting older and older. Which was great in a sense because puppies have puppy mind. But fortunately, the dog and I, I tried to spend some time with the dog before filming and hang out. So we had a rapport. It was still difficult. Sometimes, “Are you a cat or a dog!? Come back here.”

[Laughs] They’re not responding to your calls or anything.

Yeah, they don’t care.

“No, this smells really good.”

“What’s that shiny object?”

You drive three main cars in this film. Whether it’s the 69 Mustang, or the SS. Was it a Chevelle or a Camaro?

I think it was a Chevelle.

Those cars have so much power and…

History

Yeah, history. Which one of those two would you rather drive?

The Mustang. The Boss 69. For sure.

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There is a redemptive aspect to this film with Chad and Dave. And Dave is the producer, correct?

They both directed the film.

Okay. Because it is kind of confusing on some of the production materials right now that are out.

Yeah, they had a situation where they were directing the movie as directors and when they finished the film the director’s guild wouldn’t recognize them as the directors because of a precedent that they have. It’s grandfathered. Chad and Dave were under the impression that they could satisfy the [requirements] to be recognized. But then when it came back to the end the DGA decided that basically, next time, you can be called directors. But this time we have to split you.

Did they already lean towards Chad to begin with or was that a decision from the both of them?

No, that was all from the DGA. They had to declare one as the director and one as the producer. But then they were told that they can go try and be directors so they were monitored as directors and they were passing all of those recognitions as co-directors. Being responsible for the shared vision. But since the, I don’t know the years, but it was like the 30′s, the idea that there could only be one director, one voice, one movie. So they’re going through the process.

That’s unfortunate.

Yeah, it sucks.

So, I have to wrap with you so I’ll do a fun slew of multi-choice questions.

Cats or dogs?

Uhhhh, depends on the day.

Manual or automatic?

Manual.

All right. I like that answer. Liquor or beer?

Ohhhhh. What is wine?

What is wine?

Is wine liquor? I mean, I know it’s not beer.

Well, wine can be a third option.

Wine is a third option? Well, mostly I’ll take the third option.

Movie or a play?

Ohhhhh. You cannot choose.

[Laughs].

That’s like choosing heavens. “You want this heaven or that heaven?”

Favorite bad word?

Uh, the classic.

The classic? [Raises hands]

[Claps hands] Come onnnn…

Fuck?

Yeah!

[Laughs] All right! Well, thanks for sitting down with me and I wish the film the best.

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John Wick hits theaters on Friday, October 24th.

Director Lynn Shelton Talks ‘Laggies,’ Keira Knightley’s Naturalism, Striving For Realism, and More

Written by Jack Giroux, October 22, 2014 at 3:30 pm 

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For some time Lynn Shelton has been making largely improvised pictures. The director behind HumpdayTouchy Feely, and the fantastic Your Sister‘s Sister has now made a change of pace with her latest film, Laggies. The story of a young woman, Megan (Kiera Knightely), marks the first film Shelton didn’t write herself, and one that sticks mostly to the script. Written by author Andrea Seigel (The Kid Table), Laggies is about a misunderstood 28-year-old “womanchild” who’s not quite sure what she wants out of life yet.

The decisions Megan makes are often immature, contradictory and harmful, but Shelton and Seigel paint a very warm and empathetic portrait. It helps that they have Keire Knightely giving one of her most relaxed and effortlessly charming performances to date. She’s surrounded by the likes of Sam RockwellJeff GarlinChloe Grace Moretz, Ellie Kemper, and more in Shelton’s sixth feature film.

We recently had the chance to recently discuss Laggies with Ms. Shelton. Here’s what she had to say about why Megan isn’t a womanchild, making her own film out of someone else’s script, and more:

Do you consider Megan a womanchild?

laggies_1I think she’s been made to feel like a womanchild because she lives in a society that values…she’s surrounded by all her old High School friends, who are following this conventional path. They’re doing all the things they’ve been told they should do [Laughs]. She’s just marching to the beat of a different drummer. She doesn’t have anyone around her doing that or someone telling her that’s okay. Everyone is pressuring her to be another way, to be someone she doesn’t feel is right for her.

She’s made to feel like a womanchild. She’s made to feel immature, but she’s really not. She is maturing. She is mature. She’s mature enough to realize: “This isn’t working for me. I need to take a step back and figure this all out.” It’s not failure to launch. She’s not hanging back for the bad reasons, but to avoid the bad decisions. It takes her a while to realize: “I’m actually not doing something bad.”

She’s very happy and content at the start of the film.

Yes. She just finds she’s not on the same page with those around her. She just starts to ask, “Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with them? What’s wrong here?” [Laughs] It may seem like an odd choice to hangout with these new teenage friends — and the father of one of these friends — but it actually presents her an opportunity to be in the presence of people who let her be herself. She gets to discover what that feels like.

Even though you didn’t write the film, your voice is definitely a part of it. When you read the script did it feel like a story you would’ve told?

Absolutely. I would’ve written it differently, but just that territory…I had already made a few high-concept movies that, on paper, don’t look like they would work. My challenge to myself was to create human beings and tell a story that’s surprising, and make it all feel believable. When I read script it was the same thing, where I thought, “Wow. Here’s this great concept that doesn’t seem like it would work, because she just makes all these surprising and different choices along the way.” I believed everything, though. Everyone felt very real. The humor came from a very character-based place, as opposed to contrived set-pieces.

There was these amazing moments. One of the scenes that really got me…I’m trying not to give anything away, but there’s a scene with Gretchen Mol that was just so genius and from so left field. The way the scene played out made me think, “I don’t know if I would’ve thought to write it in that way, but…wow.” Andrea’s writing and ideas…she’s just so brilliant. She was so easy to work with. The only other time I’ve worked with other people’s scripts has been on television, which is the domain of the writer. On television I’m fulfilling someone else’s vision. Andrea had to remind me, “Hey, this is your baby [Laughs]. You don’t have ask me for permission if you want to change anything.” It was really nice of her to remind me. It was a new experience of having to convert her script into my own movie, but it ends up being a great collaboration.

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A few years ago were your hesitant about directing someone else’s script or has it been about finding the right material?

I had been reading scripts. After Humpday and Sundance I got an agent and a manager, and they all sent me a lot of scripts over a year. It’s so rare I find a script I connect to. This actually didn’t need a ton of work. I had experiences where I’ve read a script and felt, like, “Would it work? Maybe.” For the most part, I’ve ready so many great scripts and really great stories, but I just didn’t feel that personal connection. This was one of those rare exceptions. It’s not like I’m on the search for it, really, but more like I read scripts and, if something really sticks out to me, then I might pursue it. I’ve made five movies where I was the writer, so it’s not something I’m on the lookout for. At the same time, I was excited to take on this new challenge.

The improvisation on your past films definitely helped create a sense of realism. When you’re going off almost entirely what’s on the page, how do you capture that a similar spontaneity?

Well, it starts with a script that actually feels like something actors can make feel like it’s coming out of their mouths [Laughs]. It starts with the writing. Then it’s casting actors who can really find the overlap between themselves and the characters, and I felt I had lucked out in that department. I have just the highest of praise for all the actors. Then, yeah, there’s Andrea’s lovely writing. There were definitely ad-libs or a little addition, but maybe 3% or 4% of the film. In general, we didn’t really feel the need to do that, though. It was all working on the page.

You still root for Megan at the end to work things out, even after a few not-so-great decisions. That’s tough to do, but Keira Knightley pulls it off. What convinced you that she could help keep an audience empathizing with Megan?

You know, the Keira I cast was honestly the Keira I remembered 10 years ago when I saw her in Bend It Like Beckham and the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Finding out she was 17 after that I was just so floored by the confidence. She’s just so loose-limbed and comfortable in her body. She just had this naturalism, which she’s managed to maintain. I feel like I believe her in all her roles, no matter what she’s doing. The thing about the period pieces… [Laughs] not only is she often in a corset or whatever, which means physically bound, but a lot of repression of emotions and her personality. I don’t know… I just went into it thinking about those early days. Those were funny, too. There was humor in her performances. It was delightful to see my instincts were correct! She was able to tap right into it, but she’s very much like that. She’s comfortable with her shoes off and cross-legged [Laughs]. She’ll curl up in a chair, as opposed to [English accent] being a lady. She was perfect for the character.

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Laggies opens in limited release on Friday, October 24th.

‘John Wick’ Filmmakers on How to Direct Action, DGA, Keanu Reeves’ Advice, and More

Written by Bill Graham, October 21, 2014 at 4:20 pm 

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As my review can attest to, I’m looking forward to not only watch John Wick again but also see how the film hits with general audiences when it arrives this weekend. The actioner stars Keanu Reeves as an ex-hitman who is crossed by the son of his old employer. When everything is taken from him, he decides to seek revenge in the only form he knows: mowing down bad guys in glorious action. The film is deceptively smart, has a slick presentation, and some genuine heart behind it.

During Fantastic Fest I had a chance to sit down with stars Keanu Reeves and Adrianne Palicki, but up first is my interview with director Chad Stahelski and producer David Leitch. While I personally would like to give them co-director credit in my introduction, the DGA didn’t feel the same. During our interview we touch on that briefly but we really delve into their joint background as stunt coordinators and second unit directors and just how they view action sequences. It’s fascinating to hear Stahelski in particular expound on the fact that most films, even big-budget blockbusters, rarely have any semblance of prep time for action sequences which is part of why they are so disjointed and chaotic on screen. Not so in John Wick, and they explain why as well.

They also reflect on why Keanu sounds like one of the best people to have in your corner as first-time directors, which Stahelski and Leitch surprisingly are. Additionally, we talk about the unique and cool way they stylize the subtitles and you will learn the reason behind it and the influences. Overall it is an absolutely spoiler-free interview that I am particularly proud of and hope it gets you excited to see the action up on the screen. Enjoy the full conversation below and be sure to stay tuned for my other two interviews arriving later this week.

The Film Stage: So, I talked to Keanu Reeves and he was telling me about the Director’s Guild of America and their ruling on you all not getting joint director credit. I don’t want to talk about it too much because I know that was probably an arduous process for you all.

David Leitch: We can talk about it a little bit.

You want to talk about it? 

Leitch: Yeah, briefly. Look, as longtime members of the DGA, it was kind of disappointing that they didn’t want to allow us to create a project together in a formal way under their banner. But we went on and collaborated how we were going to collaborate anyways and it’s our movie and we’re proud of it. If the DGA doesn’t want to recognize co-directors then that’s their prerogative but we’re going to continue to make movies together. We’ve been making action together for almost 20 years so it doesn’t really change. The titles don’t change it for us.

Chad Stahelski: Yeah, we’ve pretty much said that in the first meeting when we told them we wanted to co-direct. We have a relationship with the DGA and that’s going to continue because that’s our business. We just hope in the future that they can recognize that when we collaborate together that we would like to be recognized together.

Leitch: Or at least listened to.

Stahelski: Yeah! Let us give the pitch.

john_wick_15The stylized subtitles are a nice touch, whether you were emphasizing certain words or frame it so that it would skip over a character so it didn’t overlap them in a tight space. It’s so cleverly done and it’s such a small touch. It almost seems like you guys were bothered by the fact that most people don’t stylize them. Where did that inspiration come from?

Stahelski: I think it had to do with tone. Most people use subtitles to get across information or do what they are there for, translation. We needed hints with tone. The music. The ultraviolence. Subtitles. You’re in a graphic novel. You’re in a story. We’re telling you a story. We’re not showing you a movie. We want you to enjoy it and I think that helps. It puts you at ease to know that you can relax and just watch this.

Leitch: Yeah, it was all about defining the tone and it was just one tool that we used. I think we’re a fan of it. We had seen it before but very rarely.

Stahelski: Tony Scott had done it for Man on Fire. So we liked that. “That’s a neat little idea. How else?” We were a fan of like Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds and stuff where you have them translating three or four different languages. These are straight subtitles, but we wanted our cast to speak a few different languages. We wanted the subtitles to be part of the story. You look at comic book frames, we’re fans of Frank MillerJames O’Mar and stuff and they play with dialogue, too. It wasn’t just regular bubbles. You put the dialogue and the storytelling in the same thing so you didn’t know if you were getting subtitles or story text or whatever. I think Dave came up with it first. “Let’s use it as if it were just story text, not just subtitles.”

With your background as second-unit directors or as stunt coordinators, I have to say that I’m so appreciative of the fact that you guys used multiple cuts during action sequences, but you keep things in frame. Every cut seems to be a better angle at it instead of trying to hide some of the action. So many blockbuster films today use the quick cuts almost for dramatic effect to even getting away from showing the action on screen. 

Stahelski: Action, at least for us, you have talent or you’re trying to do something. If you’re trying to do genre action, you want people to see what you’re doing. Martial arts being the example. Fight scenes or technical things. It’s about showing. It’s not about hiding. Unfortunately, in most blockbusters today, they try to hide more than they try to show. Or they try to infuse, “WE GOTTA MAKE IT MORE ACTION-Y! WE GOTTA MAKE IT FASTER!” So, to make it faster you go with a longer lens, you go tighter, and you move the camera a lot. Granted, it does give a sense of frenetic energy but again, our big thing was for our whole career, it’s just like: human talent. You don’t go on YouTube to watch GoPro stuff of somebody’s face and you shake it around. You want to see the kid go up and do the parkour move. You want to see the surfer ride the big wave. You want to see it. Why are you so impressed by it? Because you see it! It’s a human being doing something cool. Like, when you see Keanu Reeves go through five guys, that’s Keanu Reeves going through five guys. He’s doing Judo and he’s doing Jiu Jitsu. He’s doing it. Why does everybody like him? Because it’s Keanu Reeves doing it. Why would we try to hide it? We have a phenomenal guy that put in a lot of work. Much like what we demand from most of the cast. From our stunt teams and stuff. You have talented people doing good stuff.

Leitch: There’s an example we always talk about and it’s the Ong-Bak factor. The Tony Jaa factor. If you look at Tony’s first movie and the camera is on sticks, he comes in, kicks a guy in the face, and everyone goes, “what the f***?”

Stahelski: That’s it!

Leitch: Why? Because Tony’s awesome. The performance is awesome. It doesn’t matter where you put the camera. You don’t need to cheat it. So we strive for that in our performances from our actors.

Stahelski: And I’ll ask, right now, what’s your favorite fight scene? Last five years?

Last five years? I’ve got to say some of my favorite recent ones were from this film called Sleepless Night, a French film.

Stahelski: Yeah, I remember. Which sequence?

The one in the kitchen. 

Stahelski: Okay, give me five moves out of that fight.

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Oh, wow. Well, I don’t know but some of them were MMA stuff, which I know is a loose-knit term for basically saying I don’t know but there were holds and there were throws. 

Stahelski: That’s what we’re getting at. As choreographers, you have to pay attention to that stuff. You can choreograph a hundred great moves, but what do you remember about it? You don’t remember the moves. You remember the vibe, the energy. The character in it. You can talk about The Matrix all day long, but if I asked you five moves, you’re going to give me Keanu dodging bullets, you’re going to give me Carrie Anne Moss suspended in air. You’re going to give me moments. Characters. Shots. So with John Wick, maybe you don’t know his exact gun moves, but you know it was Keanu and you know you liked them.

Yeah. 

Stahelski: That’s the interesting thing about it. If you take it one more notch down and you start shaking things around, you start hiding stuff, what are we leaving you with?

Leitch: It becomes this impressionistic thing. It becomes this idea that there was a fight.

Stahelski: I LOVED IT! I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT WAS. I THINK IT WAS A FIGHT. IT WAS GREAT! Ahhhh!

Leitch: I’M GLAD IT’S OVER!

Stahelski: You know, in the last Captain America, you actually saw one of our guys choreograph that. It was like, at least you saw stuff and I think the Russo‘s did a good job.

Leitch: That’s why there was a huge response to the action.

Stahelski: It wasn’t like the first one where you just thought you saw something. You actually saw something. And I think that’s a big thing. That’s the thing with a lot of the big blockbusters. You really think you saw something good. You think you did. [Laughs]

Do you get that kind of feedback from actors?

Stahelski: Oh, all the time.

They can tell the difference between what kind of time and energy is being put into things?

Stahelski: You have to remember, in the movie process, general audiences just think that because it’s a hundred million dollar movie or it’s this blockbuster that you’ve had six months… “Oh my God, everybody is training like in The Matrix!” That is not true. Very rarely do we get any prep. Even on some of the biggest Hollywood movies, you get a couple of weeks or you’re putting together on set. That sounds absolutely ridiculous because you think after that level of investment and financing, you’d have all the prep you need. That’s not true. Actor’s schedules, rehearsal times. It takes a lot. You’re asking a normal human being, a cast-member, no matter what level they are. Whether it’s Iron Man or Neo or Jason Bourne, they’re regular people. Now you’re asking them to perform at an extraordinary level with no training. Or they give them to us and they’re given six weeks. What person do you know that can go into any gym in six weeks and become super human? Our stunt doubles and our stunt people are like professional athletes. Some of them are the best in the world. So how do you get that? It’s not that easy to get great performances. What you do is if you find the gold ones, you get a Matt Damon, a Keanu Reeves, or someone like that, who puts in six months or four months of hardcore, living the life. And in the down time, Keanu is always doing something. It’s not waiting for the role. He’s preparing for a role he hasn’t even found yet. That’s a huge difference. So when you get one of those? You ride the wave and you show it off as much as you can.

It is a unique point in Keanu and the two of your careers because he is coming off of his feature directorial debut and you are making your own. I asked him if he gave you a tip and he mentioned that during the edit, to put it up on the big screen. What other gems did he give you about being a first-time director?

Leitch: He had a lot of sound advice. Speaking of sound advice, sound. He was really…

Stahelski: Big on sound.

Leitch: He had recommendations of people to use, and experimenting with sound. He was collaborative in our choice of music. Finding the right composer. He let us go in a lot of times.

Stahelski: Never obtrusive but always there to support. I think his biggest thing is that Keanu, having come from being a director before, he stepped up and became a department head. Which is interesting. We’ve worked with a lot of actors through our second unit career but never in this capacity. Keanu kind of took it upon himself to be, instead of the production designer in charge of the look of the sets, the director of photography being in charge of the lighting, Keanu became acting department head. He would go and welcome Willem [Dafoe] and he’d sit down with Willem and they’d sit down with Ian [McShane] and and Alfie [Allen]. He really ran his department. He would be like, “Look, Ian has a process.” He would do the intros. He was always going out of his way by not managing the cast but helping us through being the liaison between us and the cast and what made people feel comfortable. Maybe they’re process is different. He was very, very good with keeping us informed. Helping us through some of the stumbling blocks that most first-time directors make.

Leitch: And I’d say the story development and the character development. That was a long process.

Stahelski: He’s big on prep. Big on prep.

Leitch: So four or five months of analyzing the script. Talking through it. John Wick’s character. Who is John Wick? Really taking control of that and guiding us in what he wanted to perform and what he thought John was so we could execute it. It was collaboration.

Stahelski: He was uber detailed with us.

Leitch: It wasn’t like we instilled this John Wick on him. He’s John Wick and we wanted to make sure we helped him deliver that.

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John Wick hits theaters on Friday, October 24th.

Composer Nathan Johnson on Scoring ‘Young Ones,’ ‘Kill the Messenger,’ and Vinyl Release of ‘Looper’

Written by Marc Ciafardini, October 21, 2014 at 10:55 am 

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Composer Nathan Johnson is a master at making off-beat and imperfect instruments sound distant yet accessible on a number of vastly different narratives (see: Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper). His latest work is a pair of scores for films that were both released this month, Jake Paltrow‘s neo-western Young Ones and the journalistic thriller Kill the Messenger starring Jeremy Renner. Johnson has also been producing a couple albums and helped coordinate the Mondo release of Looper on vinyl, so he’s has been pretty hard-pressed for any down time. We got a chance to talk with him about his recent projects and one can read the full conversation below.

The Film Stage: You’ve had quite a busy year. It’s interesting when films that composers worked on open concurrently, or on successive weekends. Let’s start by talking about Young Ones and your relationship with Jake Paltrow. That film premiered at Sundance at the beginning of the year, so when did you get involved with that project?

Nathan Johnson: I met Jake Paltrow fairly late in the process. He was working on VFX in Ireland, so we met on a Skype call and he explained what he was looking for in the score. He sent me the script, and I really liked it. I met with Jake the following week when he was in L.A. and I already had a hunch I wanted to do the movie after reading the script, but when I saw the rough cut, I was sold – I loved Jake’s story, his approach to it, the tone of it, everything. I was so into it that I came on board as an executive producer as well as the composer, and it has been really exciting to help bring this story to a wider audience. It’s a super slow-burn movie, with a beautiful visual style and storytelling approach, and I was into the ideas Jake had for the music as well.

Interesting that you read the script; a lot of times, I hear composers say they don’t even bother with it. They prefer to read the treatment because they don’t want to get bogged down with too many details ahead of seeing the footage. But was the film nearly finished by the time you started work?

Yeah, pretty much. They were still refining the cut a little bit but, by then, it was pretty dialed in. For me, reading the script is always my first request. It’s one of the things I care about the most and I find that it’s a really helpful thing. Aside from being an obvious starting point, it can help immerse me in the world. Then, when I see the cut of the movie I begin to understand something about the director, especially if it’s the first time I’ve worked with them. I also love seeing how they’ve translated what I read on the page to the screen.

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There are so many things about the movie that floored me. First off, like you say, it’s a slow-burn narrative that comes across like Terrence Malick meets [your cousin] Rian Johnson. There’s a lot of purpose to all the slow shots, and also those impressive and highly inventive montages. But man, if I was in you shoes, I would have come aboard after seeing that extended funeral transition sequence!

Yeah, totally. I completely agree! The script was great, and actually, Jake just won Best Screenplay at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain. He was really great to work with and he’s got a really specific vision which is something that I’m always drawn to in the filmmakers that I want to work with. I’m less interested in working on things that could be confused with any number of authors, or, maybe a better way to say that would be that I really like working on projects that have a strong authorial voice to them.

What’s really smart about the story, and the direction and the way it’s presented, is that it’s sci-fi but it never lets the “science fiction” get in the way of the story. It’s very modern and you could almost see this playing out in small towns all across America. The issues with farms, crops, supplies and irrigation – it’s not so distant even though it’s set in the near future. There’s a lot of human interest and it’s because of the universal themes Paltrow presents. Did anything like that factor into your decision to use all those vintage and rustic sounding instruments?

Nathan Johnson studioActually, I never come into a movie with a pre-conceived musical palette. That is always something that I explore with the director of each particular film and it’s really important for me that I’m not coming onto a project with too many locked-in ideas. I always want the palette to serve the vision that the director is going for, and I find it’s usually best if we can discover it together. So that was one of the early conversations and we talked more about concept. It made me excited to hear Jake commenting on the scores that he liked and he really wanted to create something that would have people whistling the themes as they walked out of the theater. [*laughs*]

You know, there are elements of atmospherics, but overall, he didn’t want tonal scoring. He wanted melodic themes that, in a way, call back to some of the classic film scores we all love. We began talking about the palette and what the sonic elements should feel like, especially because this film connects two different worlds; it feels slick and futuristic in some regards, but it also feels like it could have happened 100 years ago. So we decided to combine electronic instruments with wind-generated instruments (harmonica & harmonium) and a classical ensemble.

What is that instrument that sounds kind of like a tinny piano? It reminded me of something I heard in your score to Brick.

Nathan Johnson - Young OnesYeah, what you’re talking about is an instrument called a Marxophone. We didn’t actually use that on Brick (though we used prepared piano, which has a similar sound in that score). The Marxophone is basically an old toy – essentially it’s an autoharp with spring-loaded hammers. When you press a key, this little lead mallet bounces down on the strings. It’s something that I’ve had for a long time and I love the imperfection of it – the bouncy, weird, slightly out of tune nature of it is so cool.

Jake and I would talk about classic westerns and, of course, we referenced Morricone a lot. He always used instruments in his westerns that you wouldn’t necessarily expect, and we wanted something that would have a similar strong central voice. The Marxophone became that element for all of the scenes between Michael Shannon and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

There’s an uneasiness to the film that has these young characters dealing with very mature responsibilities. Everything from tilling the land, to having a baby, the three “young ones” each have to become adults way sooner than they should have to. There’s lots of complicated issues but they are presented very subtly. I think that this film was tailor-made for your music and you nailed it.

Young Ones ScoreWell I appreciate that. That was one of the reasons I felt so excited after I talked to Jake early on because I knew he wanted to push in that direction and, combined with how much I was into what he was doing with the film, I was really happy to be a part of the process. He was speaking to me in a very conceptual manner, and I love it when a director is able to talk about terms that aren’t even music-based. He kept talking about “the wind.”

It’s so great to talk in a storytelling modality rather than, “give me something happier here,” or “make it sound sadder here.” Jake was so inside of his story and he wanted wind to be such a big part of it. That is super helpful for me and sets me down a road to suggest something like, “What if we use harmonica, but in a way that it isn’t perfectly recorded?” What we did was close mic the harmonica so you hear just as much mouth blow as you do actual tone coming over the reeds.

It was the same deal with the harmonium, which is originally from India, and it worked in two ways. First, it’s not the kind of instrument I would plan to use on an American Western so that makes it very unexpected. The whole mechanics of it centers on a bellows you pump and that gives you an amazing breathy sound. Second, we actually got it from a vintage store so it was a little bit broken, and so there were certain notes that you would play and, depending on how quickly you moved the bellows, these high pitched fans emerged that sounded like a synthesizer. It’s just the air from the bellows going over these broken harmonium reeds, but it sounds like a robot. [*laughs*] But again, dealing with very conceptual stuff sets you in a certain type of sandbox with rules and restrictions that end up being really helpful for the story and sounds you’re trying to excavate.

Let’s get into a little bit of the score to Kill the Messenger. It takes place in the 90′s and your score definitely feels like it with all the guitar work. How did you first start working toward that sound?

Kill the Messenger TheatricalThe film is a classic journalism thriller in strong the vein of historical movies like All the President’s Men. It was a really fun project to work on. The director, Michael Cuesta, was editing and doing all the post-production in Manhattan and so my wife and I relocated to New York during the coldest part of the year for a couple months.

Michael wanted the score to be slightly different from other electronic thriller scores – specifically, he was interested in evoking the personality of Gary Webb (played by Jeremy Renner). In the 90s, Gary was sort of a rock and roll journalist, and so we talked about the idea of using electric guitars as the basis and the driving point for the score. But we wanted to do it in a certain way that didn’t feel like…

…like a Whitesnake music video.

*laughs* Yeah exactly! We did not want this to be a purely rock and roll electric guitar score. It was important that it still felt pulsing and suspenseful… you know, really key to support the storytelling in that way, and so we developed the music using a lot of bowed electric guitars and live drums. My good friend Judson Crane has this instrument called a guitarviol which is a combination between a cello and the guitar – it’s fretted and you can plug it into an amp. So we were doing a lot of bowed guitar techniques that had us running that noise through pedals.

Then I built these synth elements from guitars combined with traditional synthesizers. And of course, it was really important to drive the story forward, so I brought in Darren King, one of my favorite live drummers. He’s notorious for duct taping his headphones around his head before each show, because he’s just such a volatile performer. But instead of giving him the drum kit that he’s used to, we went into a massive space with a bunch of huge taikos and surdos, and I said, “Okay, here’s your drum kit. Play this.”

I wanted his eclectic background, and I was interested in the approach he would bring using his technique on bigger cinematic drums that he wasn’t used to. So again, I like those conceptual doorways that let you pull elements from the main character’s personality and then see how we could apply those into that Darren King - Kill the Messenger scoresupported a journalistic thriller movie.

Kill the Messenger has under an hour of music. It’s not wall-to-wall, and Michael specifically wanted a lot of the scenes to breathe, which I really appreciate. But then there are these moments that are built around a lot of different things happening, and there’s one sort of pivot point in the movie where we use a six minute piece of music. I like movies that operate in that way. It’s not wall-to-wall. But at the same time, you’re not writing fifty 30-60 second pieces of music either. I like those scenes where we have a little bit of time to stretch out and develop the sense of pace and the creative ethos.

I’m a big Mondo fan and I follow their releases. So when I saw you put out the teaser announcement that the score for Looper was going to be released on vinyl, I told myself I had to get one. That and many other great LPs were released at MondoCon during Fantastic Fest this year and I’m so glad I got a copy. It’s a spectacular release, and I don’t know what I like better that burlap sack, or the gold plated gatefold. It’s amazing!

[*laughs*] I’m so glad you got one, because I knew they were going to go quickly. That was another really fun project to work on. Big props to Jay Shaw (the designer) on that. We spent a while talking and developing the idea. We were going back and forth on a lot of different options. But when he sent me that final concept I just flipped out. He said to me, “What if the cover was made of gold bars with the movie title in the gold bars? Then, what if we had a handmade burlap sack that had a blunderbuss whole blown out of it and you see the title through that?” I was so excited, but my first response was, “That sounds amazing…and it sounds impossible!” [*laughs*]

Looper Vinyl 12 and 7 inchI feel so incredibly honored and excited. I feel like it is one of the coolest LP packaging designs that I’ve ever seen and am happy that it’s the packaging that gets to bring Looper to vinyl. Seriously, as cool as it is, I don’t know if Mondo made money at all on that release. [*laughs*] The amount of man hours that went into making that release has been totally insane!

It was also really cool because they asked if I wanted to make some lock grooves which I was really excited about. The way records traditionally work is the groove that the needle follows just keeps spinning in towards the center, but a locked groove is something that doesn’t ever progress, so, in the middle of the record the normal groove leads into the locked groove and once it hits that, it just loops from there. It’s basically a drum break that will play forever, and we created it from elements in the score. I was also really glad to be able to include Kid Koala‘s track from the club scene on the 7 inch silver release. He’s my favorite turntable artist, so it’s fitting to feature him on the vinyl release.

Kill The Messenger and Young Ones are now in limited release. Listen to the former’s score above.

Composer Steven Price on the Success of ‘Gravity’ and Capturing the Horror of ‘Fury’

Written by Marc Ciafardini, October 20, 2014 at 11:30 am 

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In the second half of 2013, British film composer Steven Price made quite a name for himself. He scored two very popular films, Gravity and The World’s End, which were both commercial and critical hits. Once the dust of awards season settled, Price found he had walked away with some of the most coveted honors including the Academy Award for Best Original Score for Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón‘s space fiasco film was an amazing cinematic achievement, but it was Price’s ethereal and abstract musical accompaniment that truly helped make Gravity an unforgettable experience. We recently sat with Price to discuss his latest work, David Ayer‘s harrowing WWII film Fury. Check out our conversation below, which includes a full stream of the score.

The Film Stage: You once said you work in “an unpredictable industry”, and, further, that it’s really all about catching a break and hoping something comes your way. How have things changed for you now that you’re an “Oscar winner”?

Steven Price: Well, it’s always a challenge because we’re all trying to do the same thing, which is to make something out of nothing, and do the best we can at it. It’s not that easy. [*laughs*] But that’s half of the fun of it for me really – the idea that in a few months time you’re going to be trying the next challenge. But I’m really lucky to be doing what I’m doing – I get to make music and play instruments all day. [*laughs*]

Excellent. Well, a belated congratulations on your win for Gravity. How long did it take to come down from the hype of awards season? And what were the first couple things you did after coming home with the award?

Steven Price_ComposerWell, there really wasn’t time to unwind because I came home to a mountain of work. I was already involved in the TV series called Believe which is something Alfonso Cuarón had devised with J.J. Abrams. I came back and basically was faced with turning in more music than I’ve ever written in a very short period of time. I basically landed on a Tuesday and had to deliver something almost four days later. So there was no time which, I think, for me, was probably a good thing. [*laughs*]

I was already involved in Fury by then as well so really, until about two weeks ago, I haven’t really surfaced for air. It’s been a busy time, but it’s been nice to keep working instead of just staying home and staring at your Oscar all day. [*laughs*]

So that thing must be getting pretty dusty then huh? [*laughs*]

Actually, the award lives at my parents house now. I thought it was only fitting that they get to hold on to it after having a musical son for ages. [*laughs*]

I’ve spoken to a few composers who have told tell me that TV can be a non-stop grind. But what is your experience like on Believe?

Well the pilot was done with Alfonso Cuarón in April of last year, and I got into the thick of it at the end of the year. It’s kind of nice at the beginning when you’re getting started because there’s time some to create and develop the sound. But then, very quickly, you reach this terminal velocity where literally, every week, you are producing a lot of music. Now I, in my ignorance, went into it thinking “how much music can there be?”. There are some shows out there that are hour-long episodes which require 55 minutes of wall-to-wall music…and of course that’s the one I’m get! [*laughs*]

So, it was a lot of work but also a lot of fun. I got to do a lot of incredibly percussive stuff, and a lot of hitting of dustbins, metal cans, and all these oil cans which were put together to make this really propulsive score. They were balanced with a lot of ethereal sounds. I also got to play a lot of guitar, so that was a really welcomed release after doing Gravity. On that one, Alfonso and I established a very specific set of rules that we used to create new and interesting sounds. But Believe is a lot of work and so they’re right, television is more of a constant grind.

I very much like the film score process which is something that lets you write and develop and play it back with chances to revisit it along the way. Now in TV, there’s certainly no time for that. It was very much write it, record it, polish it and, oops too late…we’re on to next week’s show…here’s your next set of rushes!

It was quite extreme and I have the greatest respect for these people who do amazing work on TV writing in such continually tight time frames. And they may be doing two or three shows concurrently. *laughs* So I suspect they don’t sleep at all. [*laughs*]

Attack the Block, The World’s End, Gravity, and now Fury. You’ve pretty much got the market covered on unique sounds and atmospheric scores. This film, like the others, is very non-traditional and uses a lot of electronic instruments, and synth sounds set against some orchestral work. So what made you want to score in a similar fashion even though this is a historical picture?

The sound and style I now gravitate towards really came together at the same time. It is only recently that I have begun to trust my own instincts and I resisted the temptation to approach my projects like they were traditional scores. Honestly, I was never very good at that, sounding like anybody else or any traditional genre, so the realization that it’s not a problem to do things differently really helped set my mind at ease.

It made me understand that sounding like yourself is ok too. You don’t have to use a 110 piece orchestra because that’s what other composers have done and what people expect. Then, the more you trust yourself, the more you can explore. Ultimately your artistic quest becomes more like self-discovery and not just a job where all you’re doing is finding out how best to put music to picture.

So that was a huge revelation for me, and then, all of a sudden, all these opportunities started to come my way. Attack the Block needed a very fresh sounding score that would fit the tone and the characters in it. With The World’s End there was very specific tone as well, and then, obviously, Gravity was one of the most unique opportunities for a composer.

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Then that leads to Fury which is its own animal because it’s a very different way of looking at World War II. Director David Ayer was looking to tell a story that was an intense and brutal but one that examined the psychological aspects of these characters in a very honest way. So, each time I’ve come aboard a project I’ve been paired with directors who have been very happy for me to take a look at it and see what the film needs rather than what a film in that genre would need. They are open to my ideas and accepting of a fresh approach and that has been really rewarding. It’s everything I could hope for in a career really.

Fury is an incredibly unique score, it’s almost like “Gravity in a tank,” as it has a lot of parallels to Alfonso’s movie. David’s story of these characters who are equally in great danger and peril find that they are never truly safe. When you two were getting started, what kind of ideas did you and David throw back and forth before you landed on this hybrid between ethereal and orchestral themes?

We had a lot of conversations in the beginning, and they were very rarely about music. Sure, we talked about music, but it was really about emotions. We talked a lot about what the crew of the Fury tank had been through, and the fact of the matter is they have been in hell for four years. They are ground down, they are beyond exhausted, but they have to keep moving forward.Fury_Still Pitt

WWII was the first truly mechanized war, and machines were being built by both sides of with just one intent: kill the other people before they kill you. In a sense, whether working on, or watching the movie, you kind of get involved in a way that you quickly feel what these men are going through. It feels like you’re exhausted, it feels like your riding forward, but within that, there are these really damaged human beings, so the trick was to find this music that, like them, was kind of broken but also, somewhat, echoed their humanity. I tried to capture what David was shooting – these beautiful, but very horrific images and scenes – and for me, it was about finding the layers that represent the subtleties and subtext in the film.

You touched on humanity, and there are tracks like ‘This Is My Home’, and ‘Still In This Fight’, and you help us find compassion for these soldiers who are so desensitized to violence. They are hopeless and lost, but really, they are just trying to do their job so they can go home, alive if possible.

Well thank you Marc. That’s what we’re going for. I feel like I’ve been lucky to have worked with David. Going back to the beginning, David’s first words to me were, “I want to feel, I want the music to help the audience feel”. And as he was saying that, he would thump himself in the stomach, and go “I want that gutteral feeling to the music.” When I was writing, David would always give me a little more time to explore and try to get a musical idea to work. We had a really close collaboration and a good give and take relationship throughout. For a composer, that’s a really amazing thing.

One of the standout elements in the score is the choral work. Let’s talk about that, is that even a language?

Oh, yeah. Very glad you brought that up. The choral thing, for me, was the turning point in the whole process. I was working on one of the cues, and trying to get the sense of constantly moving forward, and I started using a choir for it. It was meant to be a sort of emotionless chanting that is very constant and no deviation Composer_Steven Pricein pitch. I just wanted a very solid presence. But once I had that idea, it began to evolve in all different ways across the film.

Sometimes I changed it so the singers are just whispering, and you can’t really hear what they’re saying. I would record very close to the singers and then move the microphone around the room with the idea being that these soldiers are three weeks away from the end of the war, according to the timeline, and they are in Nazi Germany. They are surrounded in the most dangerous place you can imagine, and the choir is just constantly chanting. They’re actually chanting extracts from the Lutheran Bible that the Germans had translated for themselves.

In the session, I had an amazing choir who were watching the picture and as it played out I would literally point to a different passage from the Bible for them to sing. We would use passages that are incredibly fitting to the situation on screen. Things like “invaded lands”, or whatever it may be, and I just felt like it jelled with the film.

It was never designed to be heard, but it’s just always there – this Germanic presence that is almost taunting them. Many times the words are entirely inaudible. To achieve that, I would give different passages to the choir. So, one half would sing something and the other half would sing something entirely different. It really made it feel like the sounds are coming from all around you and I have to say it got very eerie when we were recording it. The first time I did it I wasn’t sure it was going to work, but in the sessions we got them to whisper and everyone in the control room just shrunk in their chairs. We all looked at each other and went, “oh, that’s quite spooky!”.

The score isn’t tailored to the film in an expected way, and, in that sense, it kind of mirrors what’s happening to Wardaddy and his crew. So, because the audience doesn’t know how, when, and where the score is going to come at them, it’s as unrelenting as the visuals. How did you and David Ayer decide on the balance between what was overpowering on screen and what was overpowering in an auditory sense?

Repetition in the scoring process goes a long way in developing the right sound. Many times you can get hung up on few seconds here, or those few seconds there. But when you watch the film over and over again, in its entirety, you get a better idea of the whole picture, it helps you develop a sound that is better suited to the overall themes. That helps keep you from getting stuck on one specific scene or sequence.

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That also really helped us figure out and decide what scenes we could tone down, or ones we could hold off a little longer before we really came on strong. Since we were, many times, speaking for the characters, we wanted to make sure we were conveying what they were going through.

Now there was a lot of trial and error, and we certainly didn’t get this on the first take. But one of the blessings of being involved very early on, and longer than what is traditional on a film score, is that you get a couple of bites at the cherry. You’re given time and opportunities to correct things if you have the balance slightly off. I think that’s tricky to do, because in Fury, we’re dealing with people who are facing intense mental and physical exhaustion. Within each of these tired soldiers there’s a character. We have to really work hard to identify what that is and there was a lot of energy spent and ideas tried just to figure that out to get it just right.

Well it does come across as the voice and the soul of these worn-out soldiers. But that’s another thing that the score did – it never went on heroic runs because, obviously, that was not the intention or message of David’s story. But a lot of people’s hands are at work on a score – you have input from the director, and the producers – so whether or not it was the case on Fury, how often are you given comments or input that really made a difference in the final product?

Steven_PriceWell there’s always something like that on every project because this is such a collaborative profession. I’ve been doing this for a while, about 17 years now, and I’m always wondering, “When is our turning point going to come?” You know, it’s that situation where I’ll get the idea or suggestion and then at 3 in the morning I’ll go, “That’s it! We need to do this!” Or sometimes, far later than you wanted it to happen, there’s a picture cut that changes everything and you realize that you have to rewrite everything but, luckily, it’s for the better.

So there’s always a little trigger that can take you somewhere unexpected. And sometimes it’s not even the music, it’s a note about a character, or something like that. Or a director might say, “Hey, would it be nice if we felt something like this, in this way?” and then I’ll go, “oh yeah! I can help that!” Then I’ll run up to the studio to try to solve the problem.

Some composers I’ve talked to have found that recently their career, in a way, is moving toward sound design and sound engineering as a way of making truly original sounds. It’s becoming a more fulfilling next step after they’ve done so many projects. So when you’re not working with strings or choir, and you’re doing more atmospheric and electronic stuff, do you work on those elements by yourself, or do you have a team of electronic musicians helping you develop and create your unique sounds?

I’m actually entirely self-contained at this point in my career which is why I look so tired. [*laughs*] But I really love that process of developing an entire pallet for a film or project and finding sounds that really feel like they belong to the film. Because I got involved so early on Fury, I asked the sound team to record a bunch of source noises. They went out and when they were done, I was given this hard drive with all manner of things. For instance, I had a number of sound files that were tank shells being banged around on and inside tank. There were also sounds of the tank moving, and gears changing, and all these sort of noises that I could kind of derive music from or manipulate, layer, etc.

Fury_by Steven PriceThe first sound you hear in the film is actually the sound of dog tags. We had a bag of those and that cue is just my hand going through the bag. I slowed it down and played it in very odd ways so you can’t tell that it’s dog tags, but it’s got a quality to it and it helps make it unique. I love that process. I pulled some of the more traditional music out of the film and then I added my own sort of elements to it and then put it all back together. You know, I can’t imagine not doing that all myself, and I find it a really crucial part of the process. It’s really inspiring. So often I listen to a sound, whatever it is, and that might lead me to develop a harmony. If I follow the trail, or my instincts rather, the next thing you know, you have a cue. So for me the, organic and the electronic parts of the score are all the same to me and I love working with both.

Well, I love your music, and when I say it’s directionless, I don’t mean it as an insult. I mean that I like how it can go in so many different ways. There doesn’t seem to be a beginning, or an end. Sometimes I’ll be listening to a soundtrack, and I’ll get the notion that it’s going to end, but with your work that’s not the case. Other times, a track might sound like the score is wrapping up or getting to the credits, but if I listen to Gravity or Fury I’ll look over and find I’m not even halfway through the the track list. Your music makes it easy to get lost in the music.

Oh great! That makes me really happy to hear you say that. I put a lot of time into the CDs, and I really like putting them together. I’ve been very much a proponent of keeping things on the CD in film order as opposed to changing them all around. My main goal is to make the CD honor the film in a way and let that tell a story – just like we do in the film. So I like that people actually listen to them. [*laughs*]

Fury now in theaters. Listen to the full score above.

Jason Schwartzman Talks ‘Listen Up Philip,’ Extensive Collaboration, Creative Immersion, and Current Music

Written by Nick Newman, October 16, 2014 at 3:30 pm 

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I didn’t expect that it’d be so fitting for us to post an interview with Jason Schwartzman just one day after our talk with Alex Ross Perry. The respective actor and writer-director, with Listen Up Philip, made a collaboration that seems to have gone swimmingly, yet the pair being in-tune with one another runs much deeper than what’s “merely” on the screen. As I learned after posing my first question to the actor — a question that resulted in the longest answer I’ve ever received, no less — their extended pre-shoot time together was crucial to developing the rhyme and rhythm of an elegant character study.

Even when talking over the phone on a Saturday afternoon does Schwartzman come off as far more graceful and friendly than Philip Lewis Friedman. I didn’t feel much of any need to ask about the “struggle” of playing a rakish asshole — the final results sort of speak for themselves, and plenty of other interviewers have that covered — but the way one becomes especially comfortable with it. There’s a tricky balance at play, and his response offers one of the more illuminating insights into an actor’s process I’ve yet been told.

The Film Stage: I wanted to start by asking if you’d seen Impolex and / or The Color Wheel prior to starting work on this film — and, if so, what your reaction amounted to.

Jason Schwartzman: No, I hadn’t seen them, and that’s not a comment on those movies — more a comment on my life. At the time, especially, with being a parent and all this stuff. There was a lot I hadn’t seen, but when the script came, it was sent to me with a DVD of The Color Wheel, and I watched it after I read the script. I really loved it, and not only did I like it as its own movie, but I couldn’t help think about it side-by-side to what I had just read. It’s sort of the movie that it seemed like Alex wanted to make, and that was exciting, because it seemed like it had just enough of that one and just enough of something else — a different type of movie with a whole kind of different spectrum of things he was going after. So that was exciting to me, for sure.

It’s funny to say, but I also think there’s something comforting about knowing he had acted — that he had been in front of a camera and sort of knew what that felt like. I liked that. I don’t think I’d ever really worked with too many directors who had also been in things, so there was something nice about that. It was a great script when I read it and, also, obviously complicated and everything, but it was beautifully written. So no question he can do this — he’s a great writer and all — but this script also seemed so… I don’t want to say “execution-dependent,” but I, personally, was nervous. Like, if I do this movie… which, by the way, I didn’t even know I was doing this, later, when we met, that it was even at that point. I thought I was probably one of many, many, many people he was trying to talk to about, and there was an audition involved, so it probably would have changed the tone of our first meeting a little. But probably not.

Anyway, for me, I have found that you work in all different ways, and each experience is totally different and should be totally different. What really is nice, or helps me, is when I sort of feel connected — like I know the director, or that we have a kind of rapport together. And maybe that just comes from my own way of communicating, anyway, which is just sort of thinking out loud. So, if I have an idea or something, it’s nice for someone like me not to feel so, so, so precious about them, that I could say a lot of bad stuff and have the person not vanish. Obviously, I’ve worked with directors where you don’t have the luxury of being around them a lot, and that’s often. You sort of have to change it. I don’t know why, but I felt, when I read the script, my hope was that Alex and I would have the kind of rapport that I’m talking about, which is more like an exchange of ideas, and a lot of things about judgement and a lot of bad jokes.

When I met him for dinner, within 30 seconds I felt like, “We have to make this movie.” Then, once I was in this movie, our collaboration was the best. It was just so generous of him. I mean, I came a month early, and he’s in pre-production, in the throes of all these other things — all these complicated, logistical things — and he’s also spending every day with me. We really gave ourselves a lot of time to be near each other, to get to know each other, and to share things with each other — like books and movies and records — and also gave ourselves a lot of time to not talk about the movie, but just sort of walk around New York and think about stuff.

You know, it all kind of circles back, and you get so many ideas from things that… “Oh, let’s just take a break and not think about this for a while,” and then something happens. You see something on the street and go, “Oh, put that in the script.” But it was sort of like us going to the script. We wrote every scene out on these note cards and laid them all out so we could have the whole movie in front of us, so we could just talk about it and look at it as a big thing. Essentially, I never had a doubt about anything, but I always felt like I had to ask the dumb questions — things that, maybe, are obvious.“Well, why does he go there afterwards?” And it’s just, like, Alex saying, “Because he goes here,” or, “I don’t know, because…” Whatever. Just to see if. It was fun, and it wasn’t, like, super-intense. It was really just casual, spending hours together, just kind of thinking about stuff, proposing ideas — but, certainly, if we had an idea or a line or something, Alex and I would talk about it. If we were laughing, Alex would usually go home and type something up.

So it wasn’t like a bunch of improving and “let’s remember that for the day.” He would actually make it into a scene. You know, the script is so balanced, in its weird way, that you can’t just start going off the rails, because of all this other stuff. But I think the most enlightening thing that came out of the experience, for me, of that month of being together was that he’s so abrasive, Philip, that part of me was wondering, “Well, is there a version of this where he’s not so abrasive? Is there a way to lose that line? Is there a version where he does this? Let’s talk about these things.” I think, through experimenting, we realized that anything that was added that seemed like it was trying to lighten things up for Philip — make him a little more likable or empathetic — actually worked the opposite way and made him just detestable, because he became super passive-aggressive.

It was just trying to slap a smile on something that, fundamentally, doesn’t want to smile. So I think there was just something cool about having that time. By the way, also the reason for that big time together was that, when we started shooting, there was a lot of stuff to cover in a short amount of time, so we want to make sure we’ve gotten all our bad ideas out of the way, not on-camera. Kind of cross things off. Like, “We’re not going to go there, we’re not going to go there, we’re not going to go there. Here’s what we’re going to be doing.” It was just fun.

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This is funny, because you’ve answered about three other questions I had.

Oh, good.

No, it’s good. One thing I wanted to ask, which I think you’re kind of suggesting, relates to a quote I’d found: you were initially repulsed by Philip, yet kept going back to the script, only being more compelled as the read-through continued. In the process from first read to final shot, how did you become acclimated to him? Was stepping into his shoes easier after this whole pre-production business?

Totally. Yeah, absolutely. I remember, when I was on-tour with my band a long time ago, we’d been through it for almost, like, two years, and we used to do things. We had this inside joke where we would roll our Rs all the time — just that [makes sound of rolling r]. I remember it just became the way we lived. And I came off tour, and I was out having breakfast with, I think, my brother, or something, and there was something on the menu, and I rolled the R. I did it, and no one laughed. I realized, without realizing it, [laughs] that I had become immersed in a whole series of things that are not funny to anybody else but people who know it. You know, you don’t do it on purpose, and I think it’s just that.

I didn’t come to New York a month early to “become” a person; I just came to be close to Alex and be close to the material. If you’re reading something all day long and talking about something all day long, you — without knowing it — start to think about ways and think about things a little differently, more in the atmosphere of the movie. I mean, it was funny: when Elisabeth Moss came to join us a couple of weeks before shooting, I remember we were talking about Philip and Ashley. She said something about the way Philip did something, and I took it personally. I remember saying, “That’s not exactly how it happened. Your character wasn’t really easy to be with at times.” She said, “Are you kidding?”

And we got into a fight about these people, but it was way more of an intellectual sparring, with smiles. Because I was saying, in-between it, “I can’t believe I’m defending this behavior.” It wasn’t like I was arguing as someone, but, “It’s so crazy, Elisabeth. I really am struggling to see your point-of-view on this, and I know that’s wrong.” I’m like a half-vampire or something. I’m half-me, and I’m arguing for something that is insane. Like, there’s no way you can say a lot of this stuff is right, and yet I just didn’t see it any other way. So it was really fun to sort of get into that zone — with her, especially.

So you’re immersed in the character’s mindset. When I spoke to Alex, I brought up the film’s “literary” qualities and roots. I’m wondering if he recommended any specific books to help get you into that shape.

Yes, he did. The “one” that he said, “If you’re going to spend a month reading something before this movie, read this” was a book called Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates. It’s a beautiful book that shares many things with our movie. Obviously, it’s a totally different thing, but it has a young couple, showing the decay of love and respect, and also going off with them on their own, for a little bit — but all kind of happening in a non-flashback scenario, really. So that was one. I got some Jonathan Franzen, audiobooks of his essays, just because he loves Franzen and I love books on tape. He’s extremely verbose, and is just a good talker. That’s something that was there.

I got some Philip Roth, but really didn’t read it so much as I just had it near me. I didn’t buy it, because this isn’t based on a Philip Roth thing exactly, but that’s Alex’s favorite writer, without a doubt, and so it would be silly not to just have that around. So I had him, and I would just kind of sleep with him next to the bed, or I always had him in my backpack, and I would just thumb through them and just kind of have them — more as a thing for the ether. But I’m a slow reader, and there just wouldn’t have been time to get into that. Also, the task of trying to learn all the lines and stuff was a big undertaking, anyway, so I just kind of had to focus my time.

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This is a bit unorthodox, but one of my apartment mates really wants to mention a specific thing, so… if that’s –

Give him to me.

Daniel Dickerman: Hello, Jason.

Hi! How are you?

Pretty good. How about you?

Good. Thanks.

I always loved the show you and Jonah Hill did in 2008 on Indie 103.1, when you subbed for Jonesy’s Jukebox.

Oh, thank you so much! It’s great hearing that. That was so fun.

Your band, Coconut Records, makes obvious that you have passions extending outside cinema. What music do you happen to be into right now?

Well, always, there’s so much music, and the great thing about music is that it’s so portable that you can have it on-the-go all the time. So I’ll open my iPhone and I will tell you what I’ve got. There’s the new stuff, the new Caribou album I’ve been listening to, but I’ve been spending a lot of time with… are you familiar with Steve Gunn?

No.

He’s a great musician, so I’ve been listening to that recently. How about you?

I’ve been into The Orwells a lot lately.

Oh, good. They’re great.

That and Jack White, I guess.

Oh, cool. Lazaretto!

I saw him at Radio City a few years ago, where he stormed off the stage, so I sort of put that down for a little bit.

Oh, really? Huh. Shit. Well, I don’t know.

Anyway, thanks.

Yes, of course! Steve Gunn: check him out.

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Listen Up Philip will begin a limited release on October 17 and hit iTunes on October 21.

David Ayer and Jon Bernthal Discuss the Brutality, Accuracy, and Influences of ‘Fury’

Written by Zade Constantine, October 16, 2014 at 2:01 pm 

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“The year is 1945. An opening title card states that “every man, woman and child” have been mobilized to kill the Allies. David Ayer’s latest film, Fury, spends much of its time making a case for why we should care about the members of the five-man tank crew at the center of this film,” we said in our review. “As led by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), the tank and its operators are in disarray. In the film’s potent opening, Wardaddy transverses a battlefield of broken tanks and machinery on horseback. It’s here Ayer where finds the film’s most poetic image — the durability of animal over man — and it’s a moment that capitalizes on the presence of its star to imbue Fury with some compelling point of reference.”

Also starring Shia LaBeouf, Logan LermanMichael Peña, and Jon Bernthal, we recently had a chance to sit down with the lattermost actor and the director to discuss their WWII tank drama. Among the topics discusses are the film’s influences, how it’s more European in its sensibilities, pushing the ensemble and having no safety net, crafting the film’s toughest scene, accurately recreating the war, and much more. Check out highlights from our conversation below.

The influences of Fury and how it differs from modern American movies

“It’s a snapshot of a family,” the director says. “A lot of these war movies are about the big battle, will they save the world? This is a portrait of a family that happens to live in a tank and kills people. It’s an anonymous corner of the war. It’s a day in the life. It’s these brothers trying to survive and stay together, who love each other and hate each other, the best friends and the worst enemies of each other. I wanted to show that reality.”

Explaining how it differs from other films in the multipex, Ayer adds, “With modern american movies, you’re supposed to tell everybody everything — put a little bow on everything explain everything. You’re supposed to walk out of that theater and not have any questions. Movies used to be about raising questions, making you talk about it presenting you with something, a viewpoint about the world. I don’t want to say the dreaded thing, but I don’t know if this is more of a European movie in that sense. It’s this study of imperfect people. The characters represent how there’s different coping mechanisms for the most horrible situations, the movie is about live PTSD.”

Apocalypse Now is my favorite film,” says director, discussing the film’s defining influence. “I was fascinated by the immediate cinema of post-World War II. Italian neorealism in particular, Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero.”

On pushing the ensemble and having no safety net

“There was a long pre-production period to this,” Bernthal says. “It was intense; three months of sparring in the morning every day, six hours of tank training, then rehearsals at night. That was every day, six days a week, for three months before we even started. The last two weeks we spent in a very intense boot camp led by active navy seals. By the time we started shooting we really knew each other as actors, as people, and as characters. One of the specific things for me was the relationship with Shia’s character. We felt their connection between my character Grady (gun loader) and his character Boyd (gunner) had to be strong. Any time one of us smoked a cigarette we chose to share it. Any time one of us went somewhere I always looked to him. it was very much like a mother son relationship. I feel like Grady didn’t have to have a relationship with God because he has a relationship with Boyd. The tank will not make it unless these guys are absolutely in synch.”

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Ayer also discusses the lead of the film, saying, “What’s great about Brad is there’s no movie star crap. No entourage. No special treatment. He was in the mud with the guys and really became their big-brother. Off camera, he took these guys under his wing and helped them out. This guy is like a statesmen in Hollywood-world and when you get down to it, he’s a dude. He’s a bro. He’s this guy from the midwest, pretty traditional guy in a lot of ways. and maybe that’s why he connected with this character.”

“I come from a military family,” Ayer says, discussing his background. “I served and all that. It’s the people; you remember the people. You remember the characters. You remember the interaction and the brotherhood. When people in the Armed Forces see this they recognize the behavior, they recognize the depths of the relationships, when you’re willing to take a bullet for someone, for real, not as metaphor talk, there’s a bond there and that bond transcends anything. Anything other than your immediate family or your wife. There’s nobility in that. I just wanted to show that. It’s a hard thing to show because I have to take these five actors and turn them into this family, turn them into these brothers. As a director, I want them to know each other better than actors typically know each other and I’m trying to create relationships and friendships. The more pressure I can put them under the more they’re going to coalesce into a unit. That’s why they’re in the movie. They’re good dudes, they have this great chemistry together, but on top of it they are all willing to suffer for their art.”

“There is no safety net,” recalls Bernthal. “I remember Logan [Lerman] was a little nervous about how we were going to play a scene. I was like, ‘Dude, fucking hit me, just go.’ We did it so many times, my ear exploded at the end of the day. I want actors to get in my face, push me, get me out of my rhythm, and I try to do that for other actors. These are extreme circumstance they call for extreme measures, we all felt pretty damn good pushing each other. The only time if there was an sort of friction is if we went the other way, if we weren’t pushing enough.”

On crafting the film’s toughest and most pivotal scene

“This scene didn’t change from the first draft of the script. it was always consistent,” Ayer says regarding a pivotal scene we detail in our review. “There’s some ad-lib bits in there and some great moments. The script took a while to understand what the human dynamics were. As a writer, I knew what the scene was about, as a template versus living bringing it to life in the skins of characters. It took a while for the idea of the jealousy the other characters had for the relationship between Norman and Wardaddy. I didn’t focus enough on the photography, and the execution and articulate that visually. As my director of photography would say, ‘What’s the optical psychology?’ He’s Russian. I didn’t articulate the optical psychology. we ended up finding it in editing, scouring the footage for moments that tagged that optical psychology. Once we found those little nuggets we were able to string them together as a sub framework for a larger framework and then the scene really worked. It was the toughest scene to film. It was brutal. It’s the Thanksgiving dinner from hell, is how I think of it.”

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On David Ayer and the character of Grady:

“I was a huge fan of his,” Bernthal says regarding his fondness for Ayer. “I loved End of Watch and Harsh Times. He’s the kind of guy who does what so many filmmakers in Hollywood try to do but can’t: he writes real stories about real men and real brotherhood. He’s a vet. He’s a wrong side of the tracks kind of guy. He’s been in his share of scraps. He likes to work with actors who come from the same background as him. He also wrote a beautiful script. The story was incredible.  I knew that he was a hard ass guy and he demanded a lot from his actors. I don’t like movies that are fun and easy. He felt the responsibility to get it right.”

He continues, “I don’t think you can ever pinpoint as a character or a person as type of guy – like a good guy or bad guy. I try to avoid the archetypes even if they’re written a certain a way. I will say I’ve been very luck that I’ve gotten to play characters that are products of their environment and I think that what this guy Grady is. He’s been at this thing a long time. It has become him. The war is inside of him. It’s not about him being super tough or super mean, I think he’s super afraid. He’s been dealing with this fear for so long. The job, actually what he does every day, he loads shells into a cannon. He doesn’t pull the trigger, he doesn’t shoot people, he doesn’t punch people, he doesn’t get the release of killing an enemy after he’s seen so many people day. He’s manual labor. It’s not different than working at a plant. He knows the survival of his brothers and this tank crew, and his survival depends on how well he does his manual labor and the tenacity with which he does it. I think that walking around without that release is frustrating. He’s pent up and he’s horrified.”

On recreating World War II and the accuracy of the film

“I did so much research on it personally,” the director says. “I knew what everything was supposed to look like and I didn’t want to have to lean on my departments and trust their version of the movie. I had my version of the movie I wanted to make. It’s interesting when you make a big movie, it’s pacing. End of Watch was shot in three weeks. It’s a sprint. With this, it’s a marathon. You’ve got to slow down and pace yourself. I’m talking about workload as a director and make sure you don’t burn out early because then you’re in trouble. I guess it’s more pressure, it depends how you perceive pressure — pressure to get it right.”

Discussing the accuracy, Ayer adds, “I’ve had people call bullshit on stuff and call bullshit on the ending, like it never happened. Everything in the movie happened. Everything in the movie is real. All the experiences come from somewhere. I wrote as much primary source material as I could, talked to veterans, read tons of military reports, and looked for patterns and take things that felt emotional and representational to tell the emotional journey. A slice of life. A day in the life. Versus your traditional mission-based movie. I wanted the audience to go on an emotional journey, care about these guys, believe they’re real people, and come out of the movie worked. Like Norman [Logan Lerman] is the audience in a lot of ways. He has the worst first day at school ever. He comes out of that day as a transformed person. I wanted to make people think. I wanted to make people appreciate what a soldier goes through. At the end of the day, I made this movie for soldiers and people in the military and people who serve.”

“You’re going to go see the movie and you’re going to feel something and you’re going to want to talk about it, which in this world is different. It’s not disposable,” Ayer concludes.

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Fury opens on Friday, October 17th.

Alex Ross Perry on ‘Listen Up Philip,’ Selling Your Movie, the Importance of Producers, and Literary Roots

Written by Nick Newman, October 15, 2014 at 2:03 pm 

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It was only a year ago when Alex Ross Perry‘s name was mentioned primarily among a small, supportive group of cinephiles, this contingent visibly excited by his funny, raw, and bitter road-trip comedy The Color Wheel. (Even fewer have seen Impolex, a dream-like feature debut from 2009.) That film — seemingly shot for nothing, and on grainy 16mm — is like few others of its ilk, yet received little attention when granted a theatrical release. If there’s any justice in this world, though, notices will soon expand greatly with the release of his third and best picture, Listen Up Philip.

It doesn’t hurt that Perry is now working with his most-prolific cast  — Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, and Krysten Ritter among them — receiving the largest theatrical release of his career, and earned a few major festival turns (Sundance and the New York Film Festival among them); better yet that the work is bitingly funny and startlingly relatable, “unlikable” characters or not. The writer-director, ever a strongly opinionated sort, proved a fine interview subject: intelligent, open, and, at the age of 30, with a wealth of experience behind him.

The Film Stage: You’ve made three films thus far, all of which have had somewhat unusual journeys to the screen: they’ll premiere, but then take several months or a couple of years to reach theatrical distribution. How does it feel to take that trip? Is it always strange, or have you become somewhat used to this?

Alex Ross Perry: Well, you know, it’s not that strange, because it’s all I know — as you point out. What’s strange is making a movie that the world premiere of is sold out, and there’s 200 people waiting in line that don’t get in. That was a very bizarre experience to have the third time I make a film. Not that Listen Up Philip‘s path is particularly strange. We premiered at Sundance, shortly thereafter knew we were playing at the New York Film Festival, and, after that, basically made a decision that the movie would not be screened in America until the fall — for distribution reasons, and also because it would make more sense for the New York premiere. But, you know, it’s just that everything has its own path, and that’s what’s interesting to me about having three films that I can compare my own experiences to, and I can look at my friends. It’s pointless to compare anything to anything else.

Even looking at Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip, they’re as different as night and day. It’s pointless to say, “Yeah, a guy I know got this and I didn’t,” because I could say, “Boy, my friend has this movie and it got such an easy pass. It has ‘this’ and ‘that.’” But, yeah, you have this movie that premiered at the New York Film Festival, because everyone has something different on every single film, and I think the more I remember that that’s just the way things are, the easier it is to not really be that confused about why things are different every time, for every film, for everybody.

listen_up_philip_1As you go along the press tour, do things change much? Maybe now that people know more about the film? Is going into this now, in October, like a regression to January?

Well, it depends. You know, there are always going to be the “what was your inspiration for this film / talk about how you got Jason Schwartzman” questions. And those are fine, because everybody’s going to be asking that, because they don’t know the answer. That was true when we did interviews before the movie had premiered, and it’s true when doing an interview with somebody who’s seen it twice and is talking to me. What is fun is something like this conversation. Your first question is, “Compare the arc of your three movies to each other.” Like, that’s an engaging question, and it’s always fun to kind of find the interviews — one in three; one in five, maybe — where the conversation is less about, “How did you make Listen Up Philip” and more about, “Let’s talk about independent cinema and the way it responds to itself as a moving organism that is changing entirely, so quickly, that no one can ever catch up with it, where the rules are always changing.”

But that’s just the difference, now, between a film that is a totally unknown entity at Sundance — which it was with everything that’s world-premiering, because who the hell knows? — and, now, nine months later, we’re in-between. Nobody’s seen the film. It’s not like we’re at 30 festivals, regional and otherwise, and everybody has an opinion on it. There is an “opinion” on the film set in stone at Sundance — which, thankfully and luckily, was “this film’s quite good” and “it’s full of great performances” and “we should be talking about this.” Then the movie goes away for eight months. Then, when it comes back, there’s this innate part of the conversation: “Hey, how does it feel to have made a film that’s well-received?” Whereas, at Sundance, they’re preparing the questions before you get your Variety review and New York Times coverage, etc.

Here’s something that I think springs from both questions I’ve asked: is there anything you’ve noticed about selling your movie that’s different? Do you feel taken aback by it?

I wouldn’t say I’ve been “taken aback by it.” Again, every movie’s different. Now, The Color Wheel is this small, scrappy movie that barely stands a chance in this world — like a sick cat born into a breeding farm for healthy animals. The most I can hope is to get out there and be the best I can be. In the case of a film I myself was in, my presence at a Q & A or at a festival is a very strong continuation of whatever experience the people have just had, so it was important to do everything you could for that. Many of my friends would have the same experience of being a traveling salesman for their own cheap wear. But then you have a film like Listen Up Philip, where I know, without a doubt, that there are some people out there who get excited about the director of a film, engaging in an interview or a Q & A.

But when you’ve got actors at the level that this movie has to have, people want to do an interview with Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss. If I’m part of the packaged deal, great; if not, there are those people are going to want to pay more attention to. So it’s actually quite liberating on this one, to be able to be a little more invisible in the process, look at my press scheduled and see “website that likes director and cinema”; then I look at Jason’s schedule, and he has twice as many interviews as I do, because that’s the benefit of making a movie with somebody like that. I get to make the movie and be the maker, then the actor knows what they’re signing up to be involved with in getting the word out on these films.

This itself leads to a question I’d had in mind: were you relieved that acting was off your plate, following The Color Wheel and your planned HBO series, The Traditions?

Very, very much so, to be honest. You know, part of that is because… there are a lot of people, great filmmakers we love, including real, all-time heroes like Cassavetes or Woody Allen, of course. They can do both excellently. Husbands suffers not at all, not even a little bit, from Cassavetes being in front of the camera; Opening Night suffers not at all from his being in front of the camera. He’s more talented than anybody else, almost, in the history of cinema, so he can do both with equal aplomb. I’m not nearly at that level, and I would rather sort of sit back in a chair and watch the scene come together.

So when I looked at The Color Wheel and I see what the result of that film is — and, editing The Traditions, I see that has its own rhythm — and my favorite scenes in both are scenes that I’m not in. When I’m editing those, I’m thinking, “Yeah, of course. Because I can just sit back and be in front of the controller here. I don’t have to be in front of a camera, learning lines, and I don’t have to be directing the scene from in front of the camera.” And it becomes much more liberating to function at 100% on one regard — which is directing actors and directing a camera. For me, the results speak for themselves, and it’s something that I’m much happier to be focusing my energies on. Especially when we’re getting actors that are so talented and so exciting to watch, the idea that I could possibly do what they do is just laughable.

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I have to ask: when did you write the screenplay for Listen Up Philip?

The Color Wheel was at festivals in 2011, and I was very busy in the spring, then I had a little bit of a gap in July, which is when I think my ideas started getting put down. Then I went to Locarno with it in August. Between early August of Locarno and the end of September, when I basically had all of October and into November, I sat down and did a lot of writing. I then chipped away at it when was traveling to some festivals. Then when the festival year of Color Wheel ended, about the first week of December, I made it a goal to have a finished draft of it by January 1, 2012, which I did.

Did the subsequent development then grow out of The Traditions? After it had been passed over, did you find an impetus to jump into Philip as soon as you could?

It was already very much up and running at that time. My first conversation… we had basically picked our start date for Listen Up Philip in February of 2013, and my initial engagement with the agency and the actors about the project started in February, continued through May and June, and we were always saying, “September, September, September.” All this time, I was editing The Traditions very aggressively. Jason and Elisabeth were already attached to the film in June of 2013, when I turned in my final edit and was told that would be the end of the road for that project. So I basically had a week off before we started production on Listen Up Philip. But it was 100% about to happen, no matter what.

News of this film was heavily attached to notice of the producing team, including Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery. What is your relationship like with producers? I saw something interesting, in which your editor, Robert Greene, posted something on Instagram regarding producer’s notes. Can you talk about developing a film with their assistance?

Well, this is a fun thing to have learned, because I’d never worked with anybody like that before. As I was saying, we made our approach to agencies and actors in February of that year, which was about a month after Ain’t Them Bodies Saints had premiered at Sundance. When those guys were in New York editing that film, from September to December of 2012, we were already sitting down and talking about it. At that point, those guys of Sailor Bears had already partnered with our New York producers at Washington Square Films, and it became a really interesting lesson in how much it matters whose name is attached as a producer, when it lands at an agency, as much as when it lands in an actor’s email.

I knew James [M. Johnston] and David from being vegans at film festivals, because taking Color Wheel at those festivals made me ask, “Where is there good vegan food in this city”; I’d say, “Hey, that guy over there is a vegan and he was asking the same question,” so I became friends with those guys. Every time we were at a festival we’d be eating together two or three times a day. Having a script for an indie movie land at the time these guys have an indie movie with great actors that just premiered at Sundance was a hugely instrumental part of getting this film recognized in a way that clearly was necessary for anybody to trust the film as a project that, at the time, was just a script.

It’s fun to see that, and we were very lucky. Those guys, who’d come out of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, could’ve done anything — they could’ve gone in any direction. They could’ve been doing nothing but fostering Texas filmmakers, they could’ve been doing nothing but photography things, but they put that credit to this project, and that got the project the recognition that it needed, in order to reach the actors that this film was in need of. Then it was just a tremendously valuable experience, then we’re making a film in New York City, which I’ve never done, because both of my earlier, micro-budget films were out of town.

Our other producers, Washington Square Films, they actually know how to put that together in New York, which nobody else does. They know how to get interviews with ADs, how to pick the right New York-based location manage and the right PA, someone who actually understood how to make a movie in New York. That was valuable for this New York movie, so it’s just learning that every producer brings something different to every film. If we were making this movie in Miami, then a New York production company would’ve been useless; we would’ve needed a Florida production company. So it’s different. But it’s just really interesting to see what each draw ends up being and how much value person A vs. person B can bring to each stage to the film.

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That was a great answer, so you’ll have to pardon me for bringing up something that’s no doubt been raised before: Philip Roth, who’s been a great influence on seemingly everything you’ve done — excepting Impolex, which is rooted in Pynchon. Do you get tired of people raising this comparison? Or is it consistently flattering?

Well, I certainly set myself up for it. It’d be callous to open up that door and get angry with people who walk through it, and I’m happy to talk about it, because who the hell else talks so much about literature these days? So it’s pretty cool to be a filmmaker who does interviews and gets to talk about fiction, novels — which, in 2014, are not part of the cultural discourse in the way that they have been for every other previous period of time, up until all our minds were all rotted by technology. So not only do I enjoy it — because it’s a fun thing to talk about, something I love, and something to take seriously — but, a) if people are telling me that the comparison is earned, and they feel the spirit of this work that I love and admire in my films, then great — there’s nothing that feels better than honestly earning comparisons to the work of heroes.

And b) if there’s ten people out there who see the film and respond to it — basically whatever version of me when I was a teenager is out there right now and they discover this film — and they do what I did when I discovered my favorite independent films, which was go out and read a bunch of interviews with a bunch of directors — some 15-, 16-year-old nerd watching movies in his parents’ basement — and says, “Wow, this guy made this movie that I like and talks about this author a lot. I should go get one of his works.” This is what I would’ve done. Then it was all worth it.

You’ll be happy to know a friend of mine watched The Color Wheel, read interviews with you, and, following that, decided to check out Portnoy’s Complaint from the college library.

Great. See? Then it’s all worth it.

Do you see this as an opportunity to cherry-pick your favorite materials of an author? It was fun noticing small components of Roth novels that made their way into Philip, be it characters or situations. Yvette, for instance, reminds me quite a bit of Delphine Roux from The Human Stain.

I mean, yeah, that’s the fun of just doing your version of something. If you’re trying to adapt a novel, you have your blueprint right there in front of you, and you can’t adapt one novel, then take something form another novel by the same author. If you’re just being inspired by the spirit of an entire body of work and you say, “Boy, you know, I really love this scene. I love this relationship between these young lovers, and this book’s from 1973. I love the way there’s a French character in this book. That’s interesting to me.” I had this interaction with French people once when I was at a film festival, and there’s a cultural difference I would love to explore. I’m going to sort of see where that idea gets me.

I find it very comforting and very liberating to be able to be inspired by an entire body of work instead of being inspired by any little moment in any one of almost three-dozen books. That just sort of strikes a chord, filling in every little gap with my own experiences and thoughts and feelings — creating something that’s sort of indebted to a hero of mine, and then organically throwing in parts of me. Which is a lot more fun than saying “Listen Up Philip is Husbands & Wives meets We Won’t Grow Old Together.” That’s boring. You can watch both those movies in four hours, then watch Listen Up Philip and say, “Yeah, I guess I see it.” Or I could say, “It’s inspired by these twenty-five Philip Roth novels.” It’ll take you a year-and-a-half to read them all. At the end of it, then you’ll get it. That’s a little more interesting to me.

Another friend saw a bit of that book’s final passage at this film’s end. Did that specific thing come up when writing?

The final passage of The Human Stain? Well, I mean, I was a lot closer to having read it when I wrote the movie than I am now, so I don’t really remember the exact, final passage of it, but I love the book. It’s entirely likely that I was reading that book when I was writing the movie, and there’s something in there that seeped in — but, again, I don’t want to go back to the book and take things out. I want to put them on a shelf and then, two years later, be thinking about it, and kind of see what I remember. And then, if somebody points out, “Hey, this is just like that,” I’ll look at it and I’ll probably say, “Hmm, you’re right. I guess this is like that.” But it was just sort of inside me.

Then I’d like to coincide what you’re talking about with your upcoming film, Queen of Earth. Do you have particular literary influences on that film?

It’s never going to not be a relevant and alive part of my process at this point. It’s just too much a part of my understanding of narrative and writing for those influences to not be present. Unlike my other films, Queen of Earth does not have a book or a few books from one author that I could point to and say, “This is really what I was reading when this project became real in my brain.” However, around the time of Listen Up Philip, Lizzy and I were talking a lot about Edith Wharton, who she is a fan of, and these sort of stories about women in the throes of self-made torment. And I think if there was any supplemental reading for that film, we’ll have to see when we finish it — what it really shaped into.

I think I definitely was going through a little bit of an Edith Wharton phase recently, her work and her depiction of women struggling at the crossroads of one bad decision and another bad decision. It is very interesting that you can compile a scene from the early 1900s and do it in 2014. There are always interesting stories to tell about women who are suffering, and I think this film inches towards that more than anything else. But, you know, this one sort of grew out of personal ideas and cinema in-tandem with whatever I was reading at the time. It definitely is a little bit different than the way I approach the other films, which makes it fun.

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Listen Up Philip will begin a limited release on October 17 and hit iTunes on October 21.

‘Camp X-Ray’ Director Peter Sattler on Taking Kristen Stewart Seriously, David Gordon Green’s Advice & More

Written by Jordan Raup, October 15, 2014 at 12:00 pm 

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After doing odd jobs in various arena of the film industry, from a crew member on David Gordon Green‘s early features to graphic designer on Star TrekPeter Sattler finally premiered his directorial debut at Sundance Film Festival this year.  Set in Guantanamo Bay, Camp X-Ray follows the relationship between Private Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart) and a GITMO detainee named Ali (Peyman Moaadi) as we said it’s “a war movie that’s about individuals rather than ideals.”

I recently had the chance to speak with the director to discuss those early filmmaking days and what he learned, as well as what kind of experience he brought to his debut. We also discussed the legitimacy the project got when Stewart came on board, how she helped cast Moaadi, his time at Sundance, finding a narrative balance, if he’s sick of watching the film, what’s next, and much more. Check out the conversation below and we’ve also included a recent 40-minute conversation with Sattler and Stewart about the film.

I saw some of your first credits were working with David Gordon Green, who executive produced this film. Can you talk about that relationship?

Yeah, absolutely. David is a great friend and a long-time buddy. We went to film school together in North Carolina and we became friends there. He was a few years ahead. When he started doing his first features he basically would reach out to all of his friends from film school. I remember I got a call from him saying, “I’m making a movie. I want you to come work on it.” I was like, “Cool, what would you like me to do?” He was like, “I think you’re going to be the on-set dresser.” I was like, “I don’t know the first thing about being an on-set dresser.” He’s like, “No no, we’ll figure it. Just come down. I just want to surround myself with cool people.”

And he did and I’ve known him ever since, after having worked as a dolly grip, PA, all these things, and in the meantime just constantly working on writing and trying to get movies set up out in LA. Eventually I adapted a comic book for him for somebody and then it didn’t get made, then doing writer-for-hire-type stuff and studio rewrites, which is great since it pays the bills and it’s great exercise. Going through that I’ve always had this desire and this drive to make that first feature and I think part of the challenge of that was finding an idea I wasn’t just passionate about, but that was important and that was different, that could really grab an audience, but I could still make for nothing. When I finally keyed into the idea of doing this small two-hander inside of Gitmo, I was like, “This is the one. This is the film I’ve been waiting for my whole life.” So I instantly threw myself wholeheartedly into that. David, of course, is also an executive producer on the film and was really influential in championing me and getting the movie off the ground.

You’ve mentioned you’ve done a million things on set. Do you think that’s imperative for a first-time director? I’m sure it was a daunting task, but did you feel a little more equipped?

Actually, I felt perfectly equipped. There’s people who say that, they’re nervous on their first day on set, but I wasn’t. I’ve been around sets ever since I left college and even in film school as well. Having done all these jobs I think it was very helpful because as a director you’re directing the actors, but essential you’re directing the whole she-bang. The best directors are able to utilize every asset you have and maximize the efficiency of these things to reap the greatest creative awards. So if we’re sitting there trying to set up a shot, I knew enough about what a gaffer and a grip and our focus puller and our electrician was doing to be able to find easy ways to create efficiencies because on a film this small you’ve got to move like the wind. You can’t mess around and say, “Yeah. I want this over here.” If I said, “I want this to look this way,” I knew what that was going to cost in time.

I could easily decide that that doesn’t matter and this does. Don’t bother with that because I knew it was going to take you two hours to rig. I can shoot around that, it doesn’t matter. Spend your time here instead. Also, just like you said, it creates a general comfort level because you show up on set and you know how these things run. It’s also nice because as writers you observe. So I could observe all these other directors. Especially watching the way David worked was really essential. Also, I think, as I talked about David’s early films, surrounding yourself with people that are there for the right reasons. Not just a dated grip who is just waiting to clock out and go home, but people who have a passion for what you’re doing and can create this very friendly atmosphere, everyone pulling in the right direction. When that happens, it depends on the set, but it’s very magical. It doesn’t just affect the comfort of shooting, it affects the performances because the actors feel that so it does end up on screen.

Getting to the casting, Peyman Moaadi is such a fantastic actor in Asghar Farhadi’s film. Were you privy to A Separation and About Elly before?

I hadn’t seen either of them until our casting director suggested Peyman. I watched A Separation and I was blown away. I’ve just become obsessed with Asghar Farhadi’s work. He’s so good. Peyman is so amazing in that role. It’s actually funny because when I saw A Separation, he’s so stern and so buttoned-down and so taciturn in that film, I thought this is completely wrong. Ali needs to be loud and boisterous. Kristen’s character is the one that’s quiet and buttoned-down, but my casting director said, “Just call him. Do a video chat with him. You’ve got to meet this guy.” So I did a video chat with him in Iran and he instantly jumped on and was like, “Hey sir! How are you doing?” He’s so full of life. It spoke to his range as an actor that he could play a character so different from his own persona. Honestly, after that first call I had with him, I couldn’t get Peyman out of my mind and then when I put Peyman and Kristen on a video chat together the chemistry was instant. We were just talking with him and Kristen had since watched A Separation and we talked about him. During the video chat we were talking with him and then at the end, I remember Kristen and I just looked at eachother and she was like, “We have to give him the role.” I was like, “Yeah. We do.” We gave him the job right on the spot. We were like, “Peyman, no one else can play this role.”

Yeah, he’s great. When Kristen came on board is that what got more financing in place or was it there beforehand?

There was some in place, but I’m not even sure that would’ve been enough to get the movie going. You know, having Kristen on board helps in a lot of different ways. Not just in terms of financing, but really in terms of how people take the film seriously. If you sent a script out to an actor like Peyman Moaadi and there’s nobody in it and you’ve never heard of the director, no one is really going to take it seriously. No one is going to return your phone calls. Similarly, we were so lucky to get someone like John Carroll Lynch in this film. Just having an actor with the gravity and weight that Kristen does, it’s a vote of confidence. When you’re a first-time director, you need someone to say, “Hey, I believe in this guy and you should too.” David Gordon Green did that as an EP and Kristen when we met and said we want to do this movie together, she gave that vote of confidence as well. Even if they love the script, they’re just like who is this guy? I hope he’s not an asshole.

The film definitely has political elements to it, but I don’t think that’s really its main thrust, rather showing this relationship between two people. How did you carefully strike that balance?

It’s a real tightrope you have to walk there. I think the way that we approached it, the general mantra we had, was just to be honest, to shine a stark light on things that we saw as true and poignant without trying to make any judgement about it. We were conscious to make the film try not to manipulate the audience. I repeated that to everyone in every situation. I remember when we were working on the music with Jess [Stroup], our composer, I was like, “That cue feels like we’re manipulating too much. It feels a little too like we’re trying to make you sad about that.” So that kind of worked throughout the film as a way to be observational and austere and present an unvarnished look at the film. That goes into the cinematography. I didn’t want to do a bunch of flashy director tricks. I just wanted to, as much as possible, have it unfold in a very real, realistic manner. The second you start getting into politics you just go down a rabbit hole then half your audience is going to stop listening because you’re not saying what they want to hear. For me it was more important to try and avoid those pitfalls and instead focus on a more human story, and along the way show people a few things about Guantanamo Bay and don’t give them the answer, but at least have themselves ask the question again.

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Can you discuss your experience at Sundance and acquisition, perhaps what you felt going in?

Yes, Sundance was a whirlwind, as anyone that’s been there knows. It’s a circus, man. It’s crazy. That was the first time I’d been to Sundance, ever, attending or with a film or anything. So to go there with Kristen and all the media hoopla surrounding her and all the press we were doing, it was wild. At the same time it was very interesting to me because we literally just finished the film. I did a quality check on the DCP like two weeks before Sundance happened so it still so raw and still just a part of me. It was a very weird emotional time. There’s also kind of a release. Once it’s done and you get it out there and you start to talk to people that have seen it and you read a review or talk to someone and they understand exactly what you were trying to do, it’s a really satisfying thing. It’s like, “Oh, thank God.” I had a very clear vision of what I wanted the movie to be then it just becomes a question of the execution and when you execute that, do people get it? A ton of people have and that’s just super satisfying to me.

So yeah, I was there and IFC picked it up and they’ve been awesome. We’ve got a nice little release coming out here and we did a ton of crazy press with Kristen and we’re doing a bunch right now with her. It’s been nice and it’s a real challenge too. It’s a film about Guantanamo Bay. That’s an interesting marketing challenge. How do you get people to look at something they’ve spent the last 12 years of their life ignoring? Which is part of the approach I wanted to take. Not to be this over-the-top political film but make it about people. Whether or not you share my opinions about Gitmo, or whatever your opinion about Gitmo is, you can relate to people. You can relate to any human being if you get to know them well enough. That’s really the whole point of the film.

Some filmmakers when they premiere their movie they wash their hands and don’t ever want to see it again. Have you been watching it?

I’ve seen it numerous times but I don’t like watching it any more, not because I don’t like it. I really love the film. It sounds weird, but I think sometimes that’s a hard thing for an artist to say because you have to be critical of your own work but you have to believe in it. It’s a weird split mind. The real problem with making a movie, especially making one as fast as we did, is that it’s so easy to loose objectivity. I’ve seen the movie a million times so what I want is to not watch it for a year and then watch it again and have that experience the first time I had that idea. It’s hard. When you’re behind the curtain like that you don’t get that clean and clear vision like an audience does. Also our editing was so intense. I was in the room every day every hour with Geraud [Brisson], my editor so I saw it all a billion times. So actually I’ve been saving up since I haven’t watched it in awhile. I think the next one I’m going to watch is going to be in Abu Dhabi. We’re going to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and I’m really excited to see how the film plays to a Middle Eastern audience. That’s a really unique viewing experience that I’m quite looking forward to.

In terms of what’s coming up next, is all your focus now promoting this or have you started developing other projects?

I’ve been writing away which is a nice way to not purge Camp X-Ray, but these things are so intense there’s a point where you have to let go and it’s helpful to have something else to throw yourself into. Right after Sundance, two or three weeks later, I had this idea that I had been holding on to for maybe 20 years. I was like, maybe now is the time. I think I can pull this one off now. So I sat down and I started writing. I’ve been hammering away on that. The cycle of films are so interesting. You go do this movie and then you get to walk away from it and focus on this other thing and now it finally comes out and you get to revisit all those old feelings and thoughts and memories. It’s nice because now I have some perspective and distance on it. I can look at it in a different way because I’ve had time to think about it.

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Camp X-Ray hits theaters and VOD on Friday, October 17th.

Tim Blake Nelson Discusses ‘Kill the Messenger,’ Filming in New York, Daniel Day-Lewis, and More

Written by Jack Giroux, October 8, 2014 at 12:00 pm 

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50-year-old playwright, screenwriter and director Tim Blake Nelson never imagined he’d act in movies. Born in Oklahoma, Nelson originally dreamed of a career in writing and theater. His first screen credit came in 1992 with This is My Life, but he’s known more for his work in The Good GirlMinority Report, and, most famously, for O Brother, Where Art Thou?. As he spent time on sets for independent films, that’s when he became interested in directing.

Nelson has made four feature films, including his upcoming film, Anesthesia. Nelson was just finishing up his latest when we spoke, as well as coming off filming next summer’s The Fantastic Four. We interviewed him for his role in director Michael Cuesta‘s Killer the Messenger, the true story of journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) uncovering the government’s involvement in bringing drugs into the United States. In addition to discussing his work in the film, we also covered the shooting of Anasthesia, working in front of and behind the camera, and more. Check out the discussion below.

Did you have a good summer?

I did. I was working on The Fantastic Four. Then I had this movie I’ve made called Anesthesia which I was finishing up. So yeah, very good summer.

Did you finish editing the film or are you still working on it?

It’s done. I’ve edited it and color timed it and mixed it. Now all I have to do is figure out just the titles, just the font for the titles, and look at the DCP I’ve done.

Have you watched it since just to see how it’s working?

I thought I’d finished it before I left for Fantastic Four. And then I just thought about it a lot when I was working on Fantastic Four and watched it again. As a result, I went back in and made some changes after Fantastic Four.

Does that usually happen when you finish a film?

No. This was a singular opportunity just because of Fantastic Four. I also had some of the contingency on the movie left, so I threw myself at the mercy of the producers and asked if I could go back in and they said yes.

Do you find editing maddening or is it the most enjoyable part of the process?

It’s both. I’d say it’s a lot of fun for about a month and a half, and then you look at the movie and you realize, oh, it doesn’t work. And then you have to start eliminating, and reshaping, and massaging, and moving scenes around. And then, suddenly you have a movie that does work. And then it’s fun again. And then as you become more and more meticulous and frame oriented, it becomes a bit frustrating again. And then, finally, you are finished.

I’ve read a little bit about the movie. Tonally, is it similar to your other work or is it a new kind film from you?

It’s my first New York movie. In that regard it’s different. It probably has, per-capita, the most articulate characters I’ve written. So yeah, I suppose it’s a departure. I’ve also never done as much of an ensemble piece as this one. It’s tricky to balance that in telling all the story.

Is shooting in New York as difficult as they say it is?

It is, just because if you are shooting low budget in New York and you don’t have a big crew and you are shooting exteriors, there’s not a lot of respect for sound issues and people walking through frame. People want to get where they want to get and they don’t want to wait for your long dialogue takes.

And then, subsequently, when you are mixing you’ve got people shouting, and traffic, and airplanes all over your tracks. So that can become very difficult. You end up shooting right in the LaGuardia flight path and it’s just murder.

Do you like to keep any of that background noise for personality?

A little bit of it, but if you are shooting coverage on a scene, you’d much rather have backgrounds in a library where you have control over them as opposed to corrupting certain takes and not other takes. So if you want to shift between different takes, you have continuity issues. So, ultimately, you just end up cutting.

Are you hoping to bring the film to any festivals?

Yeah. We’re going to show it to festivals and see where we get. Hopefully we’ll be somewhere in the winter.

Great. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to see it at Sundance.

Yeah. That’d be great. We’ll see. Who knows? Obviously it wouldn’t be in competition.

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Have you had a chance to see Kill the Messenger yet?

I haven’t seen the film yet, just snippets of it. Did you like it?

I did. It’s one of the movies where, on every level, it’s just really well done.

Oh, that’s great.

Are you someone who watches their work?

Yeah. I mean at this point I’m endeared to it. So I don’t get to anxious anymore. I’m sure Michael shot and edited us all very well. I loved what he had to say on set. Jeremy is fantastic. So yeah, I’m very eager to see it.

When you started out, were you very analytical watching your work?

I suppose I’ve grown more analytical but less repulsed. Initially, in I’d say for about the first 10 films, I would go into the theater with a high degree of anxiety, which would only be supported by having seen the movie, or by having seen my performance, I guess. And then I just got used to seeing myself. And now I’ve grown more analytical and just try to use each experience to become better.

There’s no film acting school. There’s theater school. I spent four years at theater school. But particularly for actors who train for theater, doing movies ends up becoming your school. And so, I probably spent about the first 30 movies I did just simply to get truly proficient at it, at having a relationship to the camera, to the directors, and scene partners, and to just manage that trichotemy.

Now I feel I’ve gotten to the point where I can worry a little bit less about that and more about just depending the character.

Does the school of film acting ever end?

Hopefully it never ends.

What do you take away from Kill the Messenger as an experience?

Finding intimacy when the camera is far away I think was the issue on that movie, because the feel of the movie is…there’s an espionage component to the movie so that the world is being spied on or investigated, rather, as a journalist would. And so, the camera spends a lot of time far away compressing space. So you have to try to find an intimacy with your scene partner when the camera is far from you and the crew and director are far from you. There’s an inherent contradiction there that needs to be overcome in performance. That was interesting to try and accomplish.

I know there are film directors who will stay behind the monitor, or some will get very up close to where the actors are. Which camp do you fall into?

I stay by the camera unless an actor says, “I’m more comfortable if you are at the monitor,” and then I’ll begrudgingly retreat.

So it’s a case by case basis?

Yeah. Edward Norton on Leaves of Grass found my presence sometimes distracting. And so, out of respect for that, sometimes I would get behind the monitor and give him a few takes without me there. And then I would spend subsequent takes by the camera when we were both more comfortable with where the scene was heading, if that makes sense.

Completely. The last time we spoke you discussed how working as a supporting actor, you have to let the lead performance inform your work. How about behind-the-scenes? Say if the lead actor is a method actor, will you, as well, try to stay in character?

I’ve had that experience working with Daniel Day-Lewis on Lincoln. It just became clear with Daniel that we all needed just to stay out of his space unless he approached us, because he’s got his own improvisation going. It was hard to know what the terms of that were. And you certainly didn’t want to intrude on his preparation for a scene or for the day. So it was just clearly more appropriate and helpful to let him guide what that was going to be. Any impulse on my part to get in there when the camera wasn’t rolling probably would have been more of a distraction for him.

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In terms of Jeremy, my part was originally going to be played by Jeff Goldblum. It didn’t work out with him, so they brought me in on a week’s notice. I made the mistake of reading the character and thinking about Jeff and what Jeff might do with it, therefore imposing a characterization on Fenster in my own preparation that didn’t have anything to do with either me or what was going on down in Atlanta where they were shooting.

In my first rehearsal with Jeremy before the camera was even rolling, I realized that what I had brought in as informed by Jeff having preceded me in the role was just not right. My image of Jeff in the role would have worked for Jeff acting with Jeremy. But my putting that one wasn’t going to work for me acting with Jeremy. I had to bring my own characterization, I guess. I had to bring my own characterization, because Jeremy is so subtle and so utterly present that I just wasn’t going to be in the same movie by larding my performance with some preconceived notion refracted through what I imagined Jeff Goldblum would have done with the role.

And so, I guess this is a longwinded way of saying that Jeremy commands a level of truth and subtlety from his scene partners, just by virtue of the fact that he brings that to his own performance. What I was going to be doing wasn’t going to work. I haven’t seen the movie, so maybe I seem to be hamming it up.

Not at all.

But it would have been a lot worse… [Laughs]

[Laughs] I wasn’t being sarcastic.

[Laughs] That’s OK.

[Laughs] I promise there’s no hamming it up in your performance. This goes back to what you were saying about not wanting the school of film to end, though, that you’re still learning lessons. Since you studied theater, is that a different kind of school?

It is like that for theater, but you can’t see yourself in a theatrical role. I guess if you went to The Lincoln Center Library and looked at the work in a filmed version of it you could see yourself, but not like you can in movies. And then, of course some actors, like Jeff Bridges, they will watch every take right after it’s done as a way of nuancing their performance while it’s happening.

Do you like to do that?

I do that on an ad hoc basis. But it can be a real time suck. In most of the movies I work on there just isn’t that amount of time to go back and watch every take. So I’ll do it if there’s something the director is after that I’m not getting. I’ll say, “Look. It would help if I could have a look at playback.” And sometimes the director will say, “Well, I don’t really allow the actors to do that.” And you have to respect that.

I’ve heard a lot of actor/directors say that one important lesson they’ve learned is to give themselves enough time, because someone they rush themselves, worrying they’ll appear selfish to other actors. When you are working behind the camera and in front of the camera, do you feel that pressure of moving faster than you typically would?

I do. I tend to give myself the minimum number of takes. And I do that because I never want a scene partner to say, “Oh, well he gave himself a lot of takes. This is all about him.” You have to be really careful about that because there’s a protocol that gets set up on a movie based on its budget and schedule.

When you are working on a film like Leaves of Grass, I imagine that’s even more difficult. 

Even more so with Anesthesia, which is far lower budget than Leaves of Grass. And so, you never want the other actors to feel as though they are not getting as much attention as you are. In fact, you need to overcompensate so that they feel as though they’re getting more attention that you are giving yourself. That’s as it should be.

nelson grass

Edward Norton seems like the kind of actor who goes beyond the regular acting duties. What’s that collaboration like? Is it a little different than the normal “work for hire” actor?

No. It certainly is. Edward was invaluable to me as an actor on that movie because all my scenes were with him. And I was able to turn to him and say, “All right. Am I good here?” And he would say, “Yes. You really got it that time.” I’d feel confident moving on once my scene partner, Edward, who also directs, said, “Yes. What you just did was wonderful.”

And then in the editorial process, Edward was never in the editing room. But I showed him successive cuts of the movie and he was very helpful, and I might add quite generous in urging me to cut back his performance in service of everyone else’s, including my own. Edward really helped, from his notes, shape my own performance in the editorial process.

A lot of filmmakers say the business is a contact sport. Having an experience that rewarding with Mr. Norton, is that a rarity? Or, in general, do you not run into much trouble in the indie world?

I’ve had successively easier time with my movies. My best experience so far as a director was this most recent one. There was absolutely no friction in terms of the creative process. The producers of the movie, Julie Buck and Josh Hetzler, were completely supportive, never intrusive. I think we all very much looked forward to going to the set and working with each other every day.

But a lot of that is my own approach to making these smaller movies as a director has been informed by the experiences with Rabbit Bandini. James [Franco] has really resuscitated my interest and understanding what independent film is supposed to be, which is relentlessly author drive and director driven, but utterly inclusive, and to use that seeming contradiction to balance a collective approach to filmmaking that, nevertheless, has a very clear point of view.

In an effort to do that, you surround yourself with really confident, ambitious, mostly young people. [Laughs] And so this was just a really, really good experience. I just turned 50 this year. This was also, on Anesthesia, my first experience of looking around and realizing that the production designer and I were the oldest people on the crew.

[Laughs] How was that feeling?

It was great. I felt, “Wow. I’m with all the hip people.”

Looking over your career with acting, writing, directing, and playwriting, when you were younger, what was your primary interest? 

My writing and theater. It’s not that I didn’t want a career in film. I just never imagined I would have it. I always loved movies and craved to be in movies. But I didn’t imagine that anyone would ever cast me. And I started getting acting work in movies. As I spent more and more time on indie sets, I became interested in directing. So I started writing for film instead of for theater.

Creatively, do you get something different out of each job?

It’s all of a piece. [Laughs]

nelson

Kill the Messenger opens in theaters on October 10th.

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