The latest film from prolific writer-director Joe Swanberg, Digging for Fire, is currently in limited release and available on VOD and stars familiar faces Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt as a couple struggling to find a place of solace while housesitting for a friend. While Dewitt is looking to simply have a girl’s night, Johnson finds a bone hidden by the tennis court that gives him a sense of freedom and objective that he hasn’t experienced lately. While they split off to explore the locale separately, they both find similar arcs. In our review we mentioned, “Digging for Fire is one of those movies where there isn’t any ‘acting.’ Every performance is authentic, helping to create another tangible and honest film from Swanberg.”
I recently had a chance to sit down with stars Jake Johnson and co-star Steve Berg to talk about the film. Together we discussed Johnson’s love for New Girl and why he was recently misquoted about it, what they do when they aren’t filming, and what it was like for Steve to step into a set for a few days while the train was moving. Additionally, we dive into what it takes to outline and fill in the spaces on a film like this with so much improvisation and naturalistic acting, and even get into a mild spoiler that we both love. It’s a fun conversation and you can catch all of it below.
The Film Stage: You’ve ridden this wave of popularity lately. Whether it is New Girl, Jurassic World, or a film like this. You’ve been in a film twice a year for the last few years it seems. How do you balance that prolific pace where you are also a main star of a TV show?
Jake Johnson: That’s right. Well, I do the show for eight months out of the year.
That’s such a long time.
Johnson: It’s a lot. It is.
That’s like baseball.
Johnson: It is like baseball. Yeah. It’s like high school.
Johnson: But a movie like this was only a 15-day shoot. And I only shot eight days on it. And for Jurassic, I only shot eight days as well. So part of what I’m doing is that I’m not an actor that needs to be acting all the time. I don’t need six movies coming out at the same time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking time off. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having less than a moment. I only want to work with people I know are uber talented and really nice. I’ve been fortunate that those people and those projects have led to people getting out there and seeing it. But for me it’s a quality of life decision.
Some actors I’ve spoked to, on their downtime quite a few of them continue to pursue the craft of acting. Some take classes. Some do workshops. Some do plays. Where do you all fall on that?
Johnson: I do the opposite. When I’m not working I try to get as far from the industry and the world as possible. I delete my Twitter and Instagram. I don’t talk about it with my buddies or my wife. When I’m not on a press tour or on a set, nothing is less interesting than talking about movies and/or acting. So I respect the guys that do that and go deeper and deeper into their craft. But if I’m only on this planet for 80 odd years, I’m not spending all my time thinking about movies. The second I’m done I like to find some weird project and go deep into that.
Steve Berg: And you do!
Johnson: I do. Steve has taken some acting classes.
Berg: Yep, I do. I haven’t had the TV network grind that Jake’s been through. A couple of years ago I took a scene studies class to just challenge myself and mix it up and do some things I didn’t want to do. I found it very helpful.
Do you think that if New Girl wasn’t a show you were involved in you might go that route?
Johnson: Oh, absolutely.
It’s such a grind.
Johnson: First of all, I adore New Girl. I love what it has done for me. I don’t want it to go away. I did a quote the other day that got published but it was misquoted. They said, “What do you to have happen in season five?” And I said, “I don’t care because I trust what they’re writing.” But they obviously stopped after I said I don’t care. But the reality of it is that if I didn’t have that show, then I have no idea. But because I do and I have, that has forever altered everything I’m going to do. I got to play a character like Nick Miller who I really like.
I’ve been able to take a lot of myself and put it in him that people can see and go, “Oh, that’s him.” I love when people do that. I love when people’s realities get blurred. It’s entertainment. If people think you’re that character it is just more fun to watch. And like Max [Greenfield], who is really definitely not Schmidt, I like thinking about him as Schmidt. I like when people think of me as Nick, especially when we’re doing press and being out there because it’s more fun. But the day that show ends there will be most likely be a new thought about this business but I’m not there for another year.
Just riding that wave.
Johnson: Just riding that wave, man. That’s right.
So one thing that is curious about this is that you and director and co-writer Joe Swanberg came up with an outline. And that seems like the mentality of most of these style of films. Whatever you want to call them, be it mumblecore or just the slew of Swanberg’s films. You come up with an outline and you just fill in the spaces.
Johnson: That’s right.
It seems like it would make it a lot easier if you filmed in order.
Johnson: 100 percent.
Is that the case here?
Johnson: If you could do his movies chronologically, they would be the easiest. The problem is that it’s a movie and it’s a production and you just have to go off of locations and schedules.
Orlando Bloom is here for two days…
Johnson: And so you shoot that. And everybody is available for a couple of days. Everything is always out of order. So that’s the acting thing. Right before we shoot Joe and I have to go over what has happened and where we are. I think we did the end stuff early and everything is just flipped around. You just create all the pieces of the puzzle so you can put it together later. But the dream is chronological.
So, for you, Steve, coming in for a few days, is it super chaotic and you just fit in?
Berg: It’s really the opposite of chaotic. It’s very relaxed. Everyone seemed to really know what the hell they were doing. Which is rare because a lot of times you come in to do two days and it is so chaotic. But with Joe’s movies he’s got this crew that he always uses. And obviously I’m old friends with Jake so I’m working with a buddy which is comforting. But they’re all very serious and take their job incredibly serious. But with that also comes this ease. They all trust each other and they’re all very talented and know what they’re doing. It was a really wonderful, welcoming set. There were delicious pizzas at the end of the night.
And this was filmed at your house? Or was it just based loosely on a story at your house?
Johnson: The only thing that was based on my house were the bones and the gun and all that. The house, I would love to say that was my house. But it’s not.
Johnson: It’s a gorgeous house. That is actually a famous screenwriter’s house who fans and friends with Joe. So they offered to let us use the house. And once we got that house, then that changes the location and that changes the schedule. And that determines when we could use it. That house is such a character in this movie it was very important. Once we got that we started locking in our dates.
[Note: Mild spoilers to follow.]
As a final question, I found it wonderful that Anna Kendrick is in both your story and Rosemarie Dewitt’s side as well. They don’t even acknowledge this fact because how would either of you know.
Johnson: She’s just a med student who happens to be partying.
Berg: I love that.
And I think that’s such a clever and interesting way to make this entire area feel like one cohesive landscape. Was that a reflection of having Anna for a couple of extra days?
Johnson: No, that was Joe Swanberg’s idea. He wanted to have one character connect the worlds. And he wanted one character, just like you said, without telling everybody, “See, it’s all connected and it means something.” He wanted that character. And for him, he’s got friends that are med students and he said he’s never seen people party harder.
Johnson: Partying one night and being able to do stitches the next. He’s showing a side character that has a skillset that’s incredible.
And that never reflects on it when they’re partying.
Johnson: Yeah, it’s just a different thing.
Unless someone gets hurt.
“Ah, crap. OK, I can take care of this!”
Digging For Fire is now in limited release and available on VOD.
It was only 10 months ago when I first spoke with Alex Ross Perry, the ever-ascending writer-director whose then-current feature, Listen Up Philip, had been making waves and earning praise, even coming off a spot at the 52nd New York Film Festival. At the end of that interview we briefly touched upon his recently shot fourth outing, Queen of Earth, about which he said this: “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.”
Reviews for Queen have been just as good as, if not better than, anything he’s ever done, but Perry seemed no different from the clear-headed, humble filmmaker I talked to last time. This is also in spite of the fact that our conversation was held a day before New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, as good a film venue as any, were to begin a retrospective of his work. (As a result, what you’re reading might be the only current interview containing any real discussion of the Pynchon-inspired debut, Impolex.) From there, we got into the personal angst that helped birth Queen of Earth, the pleasures of being consumed by work, the benefits of shooting in chronological order, and even discussed my theory of a Listen Up Philip Cinematic Universe.
As of this recording, tomorrow will begin the Museum of the Moving Image’s retrospective of your work. You must be honored by the distinction, but I wonder if it’s odd to have this sort of career overview four films in — if it even feels sort of alien.
Yeah, it’s funny. To me, I was just like, “Great. That sounds like a cool thing; I’m really glad that gets to happen. I love that place.” People say, “That’s crazy. You must really feel like you’re at this different point in your life and your career.” Which leads me to say, “Everyone’s so excited about it; maybe I should’ve thought about it more.” But, you know, it’s also because a couple of festivals this year did exactly the same thing, so I’ve been to a few places with it. So maybe it’s just a little bit less shocking.
Because to me, it’s like, “Wow, that’s really cool — all my movies get to play at this theater that I love.” It’s even cooler when I get to look at the New York weekend-repertory listing, as I do all the time for the last twelve years, and see my own movies on there. To me, that’s more impressive than the fact that you can do it in a short period of time. They’re playing in New York repertory, which is my favorite thing in the world. So I approach it more as a fan: “Wow, it’s really cool that the Museum of the Moving Image is playing Lawrence of Arabia on 70mm and Impolex.”
Has it been a while since you’ve seen Impolex?
I watched it in the theater, in March, at the first one of these retrospectives that I went to earlier this year in Spain. That was March of 2015, when I last watched it. Last time I was at a festival it was playing was in the summer of 2012 — so it had been, like, two-and-a-half years since I watched it. I guess that’s not that long, but, for some people, once it’s done it’s done and you don’t want to watch it again. But I kind of wanted to watch it again because I was really bored and lonely at this festival. I didn’t really have anything to do, and Impolex is not very long, so it was either wander around after my intro for 65 minutes, or sit in the back and look at it again. So I ended up just watching the whole thing.
Has your relationship with it changed much? I like Impolex, but I do think you have — and I think you will take this as a compliment — certainly grown as a filmmaker in the time since.
Well, I hope so. I mean, it’s just very funny to watch. It’s clearly incomplete in almost any way the cinema should be complete, but, watching it, I was reminded of how much fun it was to make and how much I can’t believe that this is the movie I had all these people helped me come and make, and I can’t believe anybody saw it; it just seems like a lot of fun. But the thing I felt at the time, of all the movies to compare it to — and what I still feel now, with three others — is that we got it pretty close to the hole on that movie, my hopes for what it could be, what it could look like, and what it could feel like lined up pretty much with the way the movie ended up being. At the time, I felt really excited about that, knowing now how hard it is to get that… not this feeling of “Oh, this movie’s great,” like some perfect movie, but of, “This is as close to what I wanted to do as what I could’ve possibly accomplished at this point in time.” But, yeah, I felt that way watching it right now, but it was exactly what I was talking about making six months before we made it.
In the press notes for its premiere at BAMcinemaFest, you said Queen of Earth emerged from asking questions about “privacy and the distrust of others.” I’d like to know how those questions even first came up, then how you channeled them into this psychological thriller.
Yeah, I mean, it wasn’t a very extreme set of feelings. I mean, the idea of doing the movie is that it, like all the movies, would’ve been a more extreme version of all the stuff I’m currently thinking about. But really it was just… January 10 of 2013 we shot this little project that never got finished for HBO. We shot until February, I was editing it until June, Listen Up Philip pre-production started in July, and we shot it in September through October, then edited every day until the first week of December, and then we were in post-production of all of December, and then we went to Sundance in January. So by the time Listen Up Philip was in the rear-view mirror, I was just really beat. All I wanted to do after Sundance was just kind of sit at home. It was February; it was freezing. I just really wanted to be left alone after a long time of doing a lot: making a movie and being around people every day for months and months, which isn’t my natural instinct, then going to the premiere and being around people constantly.
What I really was interested in was just being left alone, and, of course, at this time, there was this kind of lifestyle set up where I had to go and do stuff. I had to meet with people or talk about a movie, which was very interesting to me, but talking with Joe Swanberg, the producer of the film, we were starting to think about ideas that we could conceivably pull off, and he was basically in the exact same position, having just been at Sundance with Happy Christmas. We’re talking about how annoying it is when people get invasive with our privacy and say things like, “When’s the movie coming out?” Or “When’s the local premiere?” Or “What are you working on now?”
It’s just, like, very innocuous questions that people ask you in this kind of cocktail-party context — it’s just small talk — but we were both saying we find that kind of stuff oddly invasive, how much we want to answer, “Well, I don’t know. I’m so tired. I don’t want to talk about it.” So we were saying how funny it is that independent filmmaking, which is probably the least-important thing in the world, sparks real-world conditions. We felt like there was this kind of push and pull where, even as guys who do something that’s pretty irrelevant, our privacy, in certain contexts, was something people wanted to pry right open and dig into. It was all kind of coming out of that.
Another Swanberg influence was shooting it on this small-scale format, eventually finishing production over twelve days. I’m interested in the fact that you got to shoot in chronological order, which is not at all a common practice. Is this something you’d previously had a desire to do?
Yeah, I mean, I never really thought about it, just because there’s always some logistic reason that you can’t do it. Even on Impolex: that would’ve been a perfect movie to shoot in order, except some of the other people in it weren’t there the whole time, nor were they ever going to be. So, even on that, when we’re a crew of six on a one-week shoot, those people are around for a day or two, but you can’t really make that happen. But, yeah, for some reason, the idea of pressing down all the variables in order to make this thing as small as straight-laced as possible, it was like, “Well, I don’t really want to have an AD or AD department,” which is generally three people making a schedule, hanging around, or keeping up to the schedule.
Our other producer, Adam Piotrowicz, said, “How are you going to get around that?” I said, “We need to shoot it in order so we don’t really have a schedule; we can just keep turning the page and shooting, and that will be that.” We were like, “That’s really smart, because now we don’t really have a choice. That’s really simple. What we have to do is plan the actors’ schedules around that.” It was partially a pretty practical decision, and we thought, “This is a really cool thing to do.” It’s really hard to pull off, unless you work in a soundstage where you control all of the elements, all of the lights. So I wanted the shape of the movie to grow organically, because the script is pretty comprehensive, but I like all the actors coming in and pledging all their ideas, and I knew from Listen Up Philip that that’s a really fun way to work, and that they really enjoy it, because if it doesn’t end up in the movie, there’s the process of making sure that the environment is welcome to that.
It makes sure everybody has a better time, and I knew that, if we were doing this… the movie takes place over a very contained period of time — it’s a week. So if something happens between Katherine and Elisabeth on day one in the story, then, in the next morning, when we’re filming day two of the story, they can refer to it. Even if they don’t have to refer to it, they can just have it in their minds, and, as actors, they found that really valuable. As soon as I started mentioning that to actors, they got really excited about that. So, I mean, it’s really difficult. Even on a small thing like this, there are plenty of reasons not to do it. Anybody who is more professional would’ve said, “We just can’t possibly justify doing this,” but we really stuck to it. It was a lot of fun.
This next question is kind of odd, so bear with me here. Katherine Waterston’s character reads Madness & Women, one of Ike Zimmerman’s books in Listen Up Philip. Last year, you did this feature with Slate about the film’s book covers, and you say that the book was in some sense inspired by the existence of Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness, “a feminist study of women and mental health.” In this feature you also said that “inverting it might be a perfect Ike book, perhaps his biggest hit. Maybe Ike even named the novel after Chesler’s popular book.” So was there some conscious idea where, reading a book about female psychology, it could have an effect on her and the way she treats her emotionally fragile friend? Did you have this in mind?
Yeah, that’s good. That shows you’re responsive to the movie — the movie for all that it is and all that we put into it and all that it means to me. It truly was enough of a blank canvas in the inherent nature of what this film is that you — and hopefully, anybody — could be going the distance with those kind of personal reactions to it, bringing in what you know about another movie I made that someone who hasn’t seen that movie, or has seen the movie and hasn’t read that article, just wouldn’t have that reaction to things. To me, the best kind of movie is this kind of objectively open road, where there are signposts all over it but it’s not a one-way street with a lot of specific things that say “now you must turn here; now you’re turning down the sad street; now you’re turning down the happy street.” What you’re saying is proof that people really can go deep with their own feelings — if you give them the opportunity to. I, as a viewer, appreciate that; I think most people do. They don’t get it very often.
Yeah, what you’re saying kind of proves the philosophy behind this movie, and there’s hopefully many more movies that I’ll be making about similar ideas, but, basically, at the same time, you’re giving that a lot more credit. Basically, we just had books because we needed to fill up the house with stuff. We have them and I like them, and Katherine had seen Listen Up Philip before we made the movie — but, of course, she didn’t get to experience any of it, as Elisabeth did and everyone making this movie did.
She said, “Oh, man, you have these books here. They’re so beautiful. I would love to be holding one of these — just, like, reading it in the scene.” I was like, “Well, it’s kind of silly, but if it’s important to you, then yeah, sure, go for it.” We were just like, “Well, this is obviously the one you should be reading,” because, yeah, basically for the reason you just said: somebody who’s seen Listen Up Philip will go, “Oh, it’s that thing.” Someone who hasn’t will be watching this movie and say, “Oh. Someone in this movie about this woman going crazy is reading a book called Madness & Women; that makes perfect sense.” So even just the smallest object, like that, can have a totally different set of responses built in for anyone who’s watching it — if they even notice it.
I rarely come up with “fan theories” about things, so it’s good to hear that my rare entry into that area isn’t a total bust.
I mean, yeah. It’s not exactly Room 237, but it is something that people can make of it what they will.
You recently said you’re writing a new TV project. You had The Traditions, which was developed at HBO for a while, and I’m curious: between this new project and that, what excites you about the format to ensure you keep returning to it?
What excites me about it? I don’t know… that you actually get paid to do it, as opposed to independent film? And that it’s a sustainable thing that is just good to do, in a different way. I really don’t know. I mean, the thing that I’m doing now couldn’t really be a movie. I mean, it could, but, if you made it, it’d either be incredibly compromised or just it wouldn’t be very good. Because the idea that I like is, potentially, you can do — I mean, not that this is where our head is at; I’m still developing this pilot part of it — but, looking ahead, in the best case scenario, you can do a lot of digressions, a lot of tangents to whatever the main story is or seems to be. I think that’s kind of exciting. That’s why I watch television: you can do stuff we were just talking about, where you just have an endlessly recurring world that you’re building with the same characters spread out.
I watch a little bit of television, but not as much as most people, certainly, and I don’t really know the rules of it — certainly modern television. I don’t really watch any modern, half-hour shows. I don’t really know “the game” as well, so what I like about it most, as in anything I’m working on, is that it’s like doing anything but I’m basically being paid to work — like I’m getting a PhD or something. It’s very weird for me. I mean, Listen Up Philip is a 140-page script. It’s weird for me that, like, I turn in a 35-page script and I’m told, “We still need to get this down a little bit.” It’s like, “Well, this is pretty short, as far as things go,” but playing the rules, where this thing has to happen, is very interesting to me. It helps me understand why I like the things I like and what makes the things that are great great.
Between this, Winnie the Pooh, and an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s The Names, is your life absolutely consumed by work? Are you as busy as ever?
Well, like I said, if you look at 2013, which was production, post-production, pre-production, production, post-production for an entire year, technically I’m doing more things now — but everything you just listed I just do at home. This is the way it’s been for me for several months now, so I guess, theoretically, there are more things I have to leave my mind open to, but “busy” is a relative term when all I kind of do is settle into my desk at the same time every day, sit there, and think until I feel like making dinner. I get up and sort of wander away, but, in this sense, the writing lifestyle has really been agreeing with me. If I could continue to have three things to write at any given time, any excuse to kind of sit at home and make my own schedule, that would be ideal. So it’s a totally different kind of living than the living of “making stuff,” and it works really nice. But after shooting three things in, you know, eighteen months or so, doing this still feels like being on vacation, and I’ve been doing it basically this whole year.
I’m just glad you’re working.
Cool; thanks. Again, like, that’s the thing: if you have fans, the fact that I’m doing all this stuff… the busier I am and the more stuff you take on, the more likely it is I can make a tiny, idiosyncratic movie like Queen of Earth at some point, sooner rather than later. Because the minuscule and totally token sum I paid myself to make that movie will just be my year-end bonus instead of this money that I desperately need.
Queen of Earth will enter a limited theatrical release and hit iTunes on Wednesday, August 26.
Peter Bogdanovich is a director who has lived cinema to the fullest. At one time or another he’s been a critic, film historian, interviewer of stars and legendary directors, actor, editor, producer, screenwriter, and of course: director. (One could also add Hollywood raconteur to that list as he tells the tales of Hollywood’s past better than almost anyone else).
She’s Funny That Way, his first feature in over a decade, stars Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Imogen Poots, Rhys Ifans, Kathryn Hahn, and Will Forte. It’s a helter skelter-ing marriage of backstage Broadway antics, call girls, private detectives and ill-tempered therapists, which is now in limited theatrical release and available on VOD. I got the chance to speak with Bogdanovich via phone as part of his Los Angeles press day.
The Film Stage: So I’ve seen the film twice now, once in the UK and once in Paris.
Peter Bogdanovich: Oh, my goodness, how did it play in Paris?
It played well, and for as much as I adore Paris, when I left the theater I craved to be in Manhattan. It was quite a peculiar feeling, but something that attests to the film’s quality.
That’s interesting. Did you see it with an audience?
Yes, it seemed to go down well. The film was called Broadway Therapy over there, though.
Yeah, I know. That’s interesting because I haven’t received any feedback from Europe at all.
But it played well in Venice I gather?
We got a ten-minute standing ovation. It was amazing.
To me the picture plays more as a farce than screwball. It’s a comedy of looks and glances, I’m thinking in particular of Rhys Ifans and some of the looks he gives Owen Wilson when he discovers who Imogen Poots is.
Well, you’re right about the farce, but, for several reasons, the movie industry doesn’t use the word “farce.” I don’t know why, but the screwball comedy is sort of a movie term for a farce, and why they don’t use “farce” I’ll never know.
Maybe they’re fearful that audiences will reject it. Audiences generally seem not to like the word.
It’s not that they don’t like it — they’re just not used to it.
Owen Wilson is an actor I’m rather fond of, mainly because he’s one of the few contemporary film actors who performs in his own voice and personality, and I know this is something that you will agree with me on, but this is something that’s very much missing from contemporary cinema. You ask people who the best film actors are today and they’ll say Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep, and, although they’re both wonderful technical actors, they’re more stage than cinema. To me, Jimmy Stewart, or Cary Grant, or Woody Allen are far superior film actors because they bring with them their own feelings and personality. They don’t hide and cinema is about showing.
Well, that’s absolutely right; you could be quoting me. I totally agree you, and one of those things that attracted me most about Owen was exactly what you’re talking about — he has the personality of the old-time movie stars. He’s a real movie star in the old-fashioned sense.
We seem to be in a period of acting were brawn is more important than brains.
Well, I don’t know what the hell period we’re in. It’s very sad. There used to be a studio system that fostered talent, and now there’s no place for those type of actors. Most actors want to be versatile like Marlon. They don’t want to be a personality actor, mostly because they can’t because they don’t have any personality to give. So the first thing that appealed to me about Owen is that he was the type of actor that you’re talking about, an old-style movie star.
Film acting has never been about technique.
There seems to be a lot of so-called stars today that wouldn’t have a chance of making it in the studio days.
Absolutely. What was so appealing about the movie stars of the past was, not only were they attractive, but they had a peculiar way of talking. Jimmy Stewart didn’t talk like anyone else and neither did Jimmy Cagney, neither did John Wayne — they all sounded different. But as I’ve said recently, do me a Tom Hanks impersonation. Go ahead, I dare you. Do me a Tom Cruise. You can’t do it.
Do you think that if Jimmy Stewart was starting out today that he would make it?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. But his style of personality has all gone, gone with the wind.
The film makes references to Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown. Can you talk a little about Lubitsch? To me he’s a director than can charm your socks off without touching your shoes.
[Laughs] Well, I love Lubitsch. I have a personal connection to him because I suppose, like me, he has a European background. But I suppose what gave Lubitsch his humor was a kind of sly, sardonic undertone, not German at all, even though he started out as a German director. And not only was he very influential — he was very popular, and, today, nobody’s heard of him. In America, anyway.
You wrote a wonderful essay on Lubitsch for the Observer — “The Importance of Seeing Ernst” — and, on that European theme, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, to me are films that feel like they were shot by a foreigner. You managed to both sentimentalize and critique America at the same time, sort of like Lang or Hitchcock did.
Well, the fact that I was conceived in Europe — born in the United States but conceived in Europe — with a father that spoke Serbo-Croatian but not English, at least not very well, and a mother that spoke German, English, and Serbian — and my first language was Serbian-Croatian. I didn’t learn English until I first went to school. And, first of all, I have tremendous affection for all things American, as a first generation American normally does, yet I’ve always felt a little like I was on the outside, and it gave me a different perspective from someone that grew up in an all-American family. But you’re right: Texas was a foreign country to me. So was Missouri, where we shot Paper Moon.
But sometimes the best place for an artist to be is on the outside of the inside.
Yeah, because it gives you a different perspective from the rest.
Does making films give you the same joy as watching them?
[Laughs] Depends on which aspect of making films. My favorite part of making films is working with the actors on the set. That’s when I feel that I’m really making the movie. Aspects of post-production are necessary, but they’re not really when you’re making the film. I don’t particularly enjoy editing because it feels rather redundant, but obviously necessary. I enjoy making pictures — I enjoy seeing them, too, of course — but I think I enjoy making them more. I like the all-encompassing nature of making movies, but I obviously like watching movies.
But you can’t do one without doing the other.
Well, I could keep directing without seeing any more movies. I’ve seen enough movies in my life. If you asked me to decide between seeing movies and directing them, then I’d rather direct them.
Do you have any more updates to give us in relation to The Other Side of Wind?
Oh, I wish. The only update I can give you is that I’ve been told by the people who are handling it that we expect to able to start editing in September. I don’t know if that’s going to be true, but it’s just the latest report, and whether it will happen that way I really can’t say.
Well, I think every film fan in the world is hoping it’s true.
I’m hoping, too. It’s been too many years. Where are you calling from?
I’m in London at the moment.
Are you from Wales? I thought I could detect an accent.
Yes, I’m Welsh.
Rhys Ifans is Welsh, I believe.
Yes, that’s right. I’m actually from the same village as Ray Milland.
Oh, my God, really? That’s interesting.
He takes the name “Milland” after a local street which now happens to be a train station parking lot. So much for Hollywood romance.
[Laughs] Well, it was a pleasure talking to you.
The pleasure was all mine.
She’s Funny That Way is currently in limited release and available on VOD.
Director Andrew Droz Palermo is a familiar name in the independent film world. While his documentary Rich Hill won the documentary category at Sundance, he is also well known for being the cinematographer on various indie films like A Teacher and You’re Next. His feature film debut was this year’s One & Two, currently in limited release and available on VOD, which premiered at Berlin before hitting SXSW in March.
The film follows a secluded family living on a farm. The name itself refers to the siblings, played by Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men) and Timothee Chalamet, who hold a powerful ability that their father rails against. When their mother is taken from them the family dynamic crumbles and we learn how strong the sibling bond truly is. It’s a quiet, slow churning film that manages to be both haunting and frustrating in equal measures.
While at SXSW earlier this year I had a chance to sit down with Palermo to talk about making his feature film debut, whether he submitted to Sundance again, and even what it was like to work with Kiernan Shipka. But we also touch on what it was like for a cinematographer to choose another cinematographer and he explains how there isn’t a huge camaraderie that occurs and it can be a bit odd. Additionally, we touch on the unique title, what it was like to move from a documentary to a narrative, and even one of my lingering questions about the sound design that is a minor spoiler at the end. Enjoy the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: So, first off, let’s talk about the name. One & Two. And it uses an ampersand. It’s pretty unique but also obvious. What kind of feedback did you get from your financiers? Was there a lot of push and pull?
Andrew Droz Palermo: You know, really, it was me doing most of the pushing and pulling. It was the first title we had and it’s never changed. Originally that was their names. There was a first and second child and they didn’t have names. It was a birth order thing but also it was like Romeo and Juliet. Jack and Jill. It was this star-crossed lovers thing that I really liked. But I started getting cold feet about it after production.
I was saying, “This is a terrible title for us. We’re never going to be able to search it, you can’t hashtag it, and all of these ideas on the business front.” And they were just not having it. They didn’t want to change it. So yeah, we didn’t change it. But we’ll see if a distributor comes on and wants to change it because I’ll totally entertain it because I’m not wild about it. [Laughs] It’s really crazy though. If you go on Instagram and you search “one & two” you get all sorts of parents that hashtag their first and second child. It kind of re-sold it to me recently.
One other thing I think is really interesting about this film is that one of the young stars is Kiernan Shipka, who of course stars as Sally Draper in Mad Men. I’m curious about the conversations you had with her because I don’t know how you feel about Mad Men, but I think it is a wonderful show and I’m sure she is used to a certain level of writing and direction that is probably way above par. So could you get a sense of that from her?
So this is, I think, her first big feature. I had known her from the show and we just reached out to her. She and I talked and got along really well and I thought she knew what I was after. I knew she was capable from the show. But it’s interesting because she is so humble. She doesn’t seem to have any ill feelings about what she does and she loves it. I think a lot of that comes from that she has really good parents that are involved in her life and care about her. They spend a lot of time with her. They were on set. They were great to hang out with. They were part of the crew.
Your original breakout was with Rich Hill, a documentary that played at Sundance. A narrative feature is very different in that for a documentary you have almost two choices without painting it too black and white. One, you can guide the documentary yourself whether it be your voice or your own narrative idea. Or you can let the subjects guide the film and what it ultimately revolves around. For making a feature, how much did you embrace the ability to have absolute control? I mean you’re making small decisions all the time, right?
Well, it was nice because you get a lot more freedom. Rich Hill was a unique thing in that we wanted the boys to feel like they had authorial control. But of course, Tracy [Droz Tragos], my co-director, and I are controlling it all. In the end in the edit room we’re making it. But we wanted to make it feel like it was theirs. That they filmed it and it was their voice. I do think it’s successful in that, for me at least. But yeah, with a doc you just have this mass of footage that becomes a blob of clay. You work it. With a narrative film, at least with this one, we had what we had. We had my guide, which was the script, but then it became something different. Many films do the same. They go through many different lives as you’re making it. It becomes a different thing. It even warps again in the edit.
How many days did you shoot?
That’s a pretty good length.
It’s nice. There were some big setpieces in the film like the final climax and such.
One thing I’m very curious about is the fact that you’re a cinematographer. So choosing another has to be weird. What was that process like? Did it take a while?
It did. You know, it’s weird because as a cinematographer you don’t get to know a lot of others. You’re always working and you don’t know anyone else. At the festivals cinematographers don’t often have the time. So it was nice to get to talk with a lot of others. But Autumn [Durald] was just very sensitive to the material and had shot a lot of music videos I enjoyed.
And is she a camera operator as well?
Yeah. Like me, I prefer to operate as well. So she had a great energy and we collaborated well. We were able to feed off of each other. It helped me relinquish control while we were shooting. I didn’t feel like I needed to be a DP.
Getting a bit deeper, did you have to tweak anything colorwise? I noticed you have a lot of earth tones. Of course, you surround the cast with earth tones as well. But I’m just curious.
No, not really. We are both very sensitive about greens. We both have our preferences and I don’t like them to go very lime. I don’t want them vibrant. But the main tweaks were in the black levels because a lot of the film takes place at night. Things like how hot were we going to have our windows which were illuminated by moonlight and such. In the country it really is quite bright.
Your last film, the documentary Rich Hill, won the Sundance documentary category. But this didn’t play at Sundance. So did you submit?
So the film is supported by the Sundance Institute. They gave us a small grant to help us and helped in the screenwriting stage and even in casting. We shot in July and August and it was very, very tight. We did submit and we talked about it, but the film wasn’t really ready. So we went to Berlin for the Berlin Film Festival instead which is just a month, but it was the month that we needed.
[Note: Minor spoilers ahead.]
There is a noise when they disappear and then reappear. I’m curious, in the reality of the film, can they actually hear that noise? Are they aware of the noise that they are making? Or is that just for the audience’s benefit?
My feeling was that yes, they could. It was audible. But also it’s just so important to sell the visual trick on just a technical level. Without sound, it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t feel right. It’s quiet and you pay attention to the visual too much. I love the visual effects work we achieved, but this just really helps sell it. It’s got some body to it and some undertones. But we tried to keep it quiet enough so that they could sneak out. It wouldn’t be audible across the house. That sound was largely done by Pete Horner at Skywalker Sound and Zach Martin, who worked a lot on the film. He added this tearing through the air sound when they would arrive that I really liked.
One & Two is now in limited release and available on VOD.
Before watching director Bobcat Goldthwait‘s documentary Call Me Lucky, out now in limited release and on VOD, I wasn’t familiar with standup Barry Crimmins who is the subject of the film. His story is both heartbreaking and uplifting. Crimmins has been very open and vocal about his childhood rape and how it affected him. But according to himself, it isn’t the sole driver of his subsequent activism and taking on AOL in the 1990s. The film also touches on Barry running a small but popular standup comedy stage and how it helped shape and launch many well-known comics, including Goldthwait.
I recently had a chance to call in to the Call Me Lucky press day with Crimmins and Goldthwait and together we touched on the AOL trial at the heart of the film, Goldthwait’s inspiration, the root of Barry’s activism, and even a fun question to cap it all off. Catch the entire conversation below.
The Film Stage: This film has two halves. The first deals with Barry’s role in the standup world and how he rose up while the second half deals with his rape as a child and how it has led him to become this activist. I’m curious, Barry, how much you wanted the film to weigh in on one side or the other?
Barry Crimmins: Well, I had no problem talking about my rape as a child because I didn’t do anything wrong. So that’s part of my healing. And it’s also a way for me to maybe set a good example for others and show that there’s a path out of it. As far as my career is concerned, I’m proud of my career. I’m sure part of my background and how I approach it is that I hate bullies. I suffered one of the ultimate acts of bullying. So there’s something there that I’m sure is part of my makeup. But I like to think that I would still be opposed to death squads and nuclear waste production facilities, wars that are redundant and stupid, militarism, bigotry, and a lot of other things. I’ve been involved with a lot of these struggles with people that aren’t rape survivors. And they somehow figured out that these things are wrong and took a stand, too. So it’s part of my story, but it’s not the real setting.
You know, speaking of your activism, I love that you took on AOL. And, just for context for anyone that wasn’t around back then, I’m trying to think of what they were like.
Crimmins: It simply was the Internet to almost anyone that got online.
Right, right. I mean, they have a movie called You’ve Got Mail. That’s how ubiquitous it became.
Crimmins: Right! [Laughs]
That was what AOL was known for. They were a juggernaut.
Crimmins: And they were training you to believe that they had the most interesting bits. “You could go to these other places, but why don’t you let us bring it to you?” But I knew that there were bad things and it was easy to get to them. One of the things that I learned that was terrible sitting in front of them for these hearings was that they asked for my testimony in advance. If you look at the AOL representative’s testimony, his testimony is in direct response to mine. Nobody gave me his testimony. So our US senators gave my testimony to the guy that was there defending the rape and exploitation of little kids. Why? Because of campaign contributions? That’s pretty scummy. I had such a watertight case that I was pummeling them. This $800 an hour lawyer in 1995 still couldn’t beat me. If you look at his face near the end it looks like he’s in the 14th round and it’s like, “Geez, the ref should have stopped this a while ago.” But I still won. That’s pretty cool. I don’t want to sound bragadocious but I hadn’t really thought about that until Bobcat told me.
Bobcat, I’m curious what kind of inclination you had going into this film. Like I mentioned earlier, the film really is a two-part story and you could have focused solely on Barry’s career. But it seems like all of the interviews you do were all leading or hinting at Barry’s rape in childhood. So, where did you feel coming into the film you were going to go?
Bobcat Goldthwait: The crux of it was always going to be Barry taking AOL to task. He had written an article in the Boston Phoenix. It was really well written and it was a great story. This was in the mid 90s and it reminded me of a Frank Capra movie. That’s what I wanted to make it into originally. I thought it was going to be a movie with another actor playing Barry. I even asked him to work on a script. It was still really raw at the time.
Can I intercede real quick? How far did you get into it?
Goldthwait: Well we both wrote screenplays. And years went by and I always had this in mind to make a movie about Barry and his story. Robin Williams was a pal of mine and he knew Barry and my passion to make a film about him. And he suggested making it as a documentary. That was just last February. He actually gave me some of the initial funding and it really wouldn’t have been made if it wasn’t for Robin. I had heard Barry on Marc Maron‘s WTF Podcast and Dana Gould‘s podcast and realized Barry was up for the task of being in a documentary. I also thought about Werner Herzog‘s movie [Little Dieter Needs to Fly] that became Rescue Dawn. So I figured I could still do it as a narrative later if I want.
So, I have to wrap up with you soon so I’ll go with a lighter question. Barry, your home is in this idyllic setting out in the woods and such. And of course it shows you have a penchant for alcohol and specifically beer. Considering this, have you ever tried doing home brew? I think it might be a nice focus.
Crimmins: No, no… no. No.
Crimmins: No, I’m not that patient. But I have friends that brew stuff. I’ll tell you, the beer these days is too strong. So if I drank it at the same rate, you know. I had to go back to some of my old stuff. If you drink the new stuff that is three times as powerful at the same I have found it has a bad effect on me.
Crimmins: But you know I don’t even drink much at home. It’s more of a thing I do when I’m up on stage and such.
Call Me Lucky is now in limited release and available on VOD.
Shannyn Sossamon entered the spotlight as an actor in 2001 with Brian Helgeland‘s A Knight’s Tale. The film was and remains a delightful surprise — and it seems like the kind of original studio movie Sossamon responds more to than, say, the average romantic comedy or a movie we see every month in theaters. We’ve seen the actress in some major releases over the years, but she always tends to shine brightest in projects that aren’t the norm, such as, The Rules of Attraction, Wristcutters: A Love Story, or in her brief but pivotal role in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang — a scene I, regretfully, did not ask her about.
Now she’s starring in Sinister 2. Directed by Ciarán Foy (Citadel), Sossamon play Courtney Collins in the film, a mother on the run with her twin boys from their abusive father. Until the end of the film, it’s just the boys acting in the horror film, while Sossamon is performing in the drama — a part of the project she responded to.
We spoke with the actress in West Hollywood at the Sinister 2 press day. Time was short, but Sossamon was in good spirits and engaged. While it’s generally best not to include smalltalk in printed interviews, I decided to keep Sossamon asking me questions. It’s a rarity, especially at a junket, for an interviewee to show interest in the interviewer. Obviously that’s not the point of a junket, but nonetheless, the curiosity Sossamon expressed was genuine and, on top of that, it’s always refreshing to go off script in interviews.
Here’s what Shannyn Sossamon had to say about making horror films, her process, and her plans to direct one day:
The Film Stage: You’ve discussed finding the making of horror films draining in the past. Why is that?
Shannyn Sossamon: They are draining because of the content. Usually you’re going through something horrifying; it’s a horror film, obviously. You’re adrenaline is up all the time. Your emotional state is either frantic, in fear, in anger, in terror, or you’re in survival mode — and what makes that extra draining is if you, as an actor, are not at the hands of a master or someone that really has a vision for what they’re doing. When I speak of them being draining or not wanting to do anymore, it’s because sometimes you feel a little alone when you’re doing them. You do think, Oh gosh, I’ve just given this all my energy, and you realize you weren’t really suited for the part or you weren’t on the same page with the person making it. When they came to me with Sinister 2 I said no. I had just done Wayward Pines — which was very high energy, playing a worried mother.
That makes sense. You don’t want to be screaming your lungs out all day for a project you’re not fully invested in.
Yeah. When it is right, which is the case with Sinister 2, when I met the director, in my mind, I was like, No, I’m too tired. I need something lighter, something I haven’t done before. I met Ciarán and we just couldn’t stop talking for two hours — and it was wonderful. What I liked about Courtney and her storyline was that it was actually grounded in more of a drama. I’m trying to protect them and make a better life for my kids — and I hadn’t done that before. Ciarán really cares about that part of the movie.
Working with kids, do they bring a different energy as an acting partner than, say, a seasoned 40-year-old?
Yeah. They’re very precious and in the moment. Well, all actors are in the moment, but I just love kids. You can really see them having fun and playing pretend, and you think, Yeah, I want to do that.
How analytical are you as an actor? Are you always analyzing a scene or is it more about instinct?
A little bit of both. There’s definitely a tendency to overanalyze, especially before in the prep. The prep is actually a very precious and sacred time, so you don’t want to let too much of that to creep in, but it can. Every time you start a new job it’s very scary. Yeah, I find room for the fun, too. My favorite is to do that when the camera is rolling [Laughs].
[Laughs] When do you begin to feel comfortable on the job? Does it take a few days or a few weeks?
A few weeks.
How long was this shoot?
Six weeks. I was comfortable as I could be with this sort of material. It’s never super comfortable to do the really heightened fear scenes.
You mentioned how sacred preparation is. What’s usually your process? Do you tend to watch films or listen to music in the same vein as the project you’re working on?
I definitely always have a playlist. You’re going to ask me what my playlist is, aren’t you?
Yeah, I knew it… it’s a funny one. I’m asking for it, so I did that to myself. Music is huge. You know, I had a really great teacher who called it “time for pretend and imagining,” so there’s a lot of time just doing imaginative work. It becomes real to you, so you’re not acting.
Is it a similar process on a drama?
Yeah. The process does always change, though. Whatever is required of you you kind of have to do to get in that atmospheric mode — to get that cooking in your cells. I’d like to switch it up. [Laughs] The two back-to-back intensely worried and stressed out mothers was just so draining, truly. So, the playlist question?
Yes. What did you listen to?
I just went on YouTube and tried to find a lot of the old ’80s butt rock.
[Laughs] Why are you embarrassed?
[Laughs] I didn’t actually want to answer this question, so that’s why I’m bummed. I was listening to ’80s one-hit wonders. I just felt like Courtney and Clint would have that playing in the house a lot when they were first together.
I’m guessing you don’t frequently listen to butt rock?
So you’re not into skin leopard jeans?
It bugs the crap out of me.
[Laughs] What preparation took the longest amount of time? What role was the hardest one to crack?
They’re always hard to crack, and sometimes you don’t crack ’em. [Laughs] That’s the real truth. Wayward Pines was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. I couldn’t crack anything there. Not to sound like I’m being too hard on myself, but it was a hard job. A lot of it had to due with being in Wayward Pines. I think the character was bleeding into the experience, for sure. You know, you always find out you get a job a few weeks before, it’s never many, many months before — at least not yet, at this point in my career. I always move quickly, and the plus to that is you move with first instinct, which can be pretty magical.
Right. That’s why Clint Eastwood does so few takes. He also doesn’t like screenwriters doing many revisions, because he wants their first instincts.
That’s amazing that he does that. I didn’t know that he does that with the scripts.
I’ve talked to screenwriters before about that. Some wish they had more time to polish the scripts, but maybe something good came out of it.
What is your interest in this business?
I had a feeling. How old are you?
You’re going to do it.
Do you know what kind of stories you want to tell?
All kinds. I’m sure just like you, as an actor, you kind of want to try everything.
Oh, for sure. You crave it. Where are you from?
DC. It’s great being in LA, though. People like to talk about how fake everyone is out here — and there are a lot of people like that — but there’s also a lot of passionate people here.
Yeah, you just have to find them. Have you met Ciarán yet?
I have not.
It feels like you guys would get along really well. There’s a love in your eyes I can sense, an innocence about it — and I feel there should be more filmmakers like that. I feel that way about Ciarán, too.
That’s very kind.
I’m so excited for you. That’s cool.
Thank you. I know I’m running out of time, so I have to mention Wristcutters: A Love Story.
That’s one of my favorites.
Do a lot of fans mention that film?
I mostly hear about Rules of Attraction and A Knight’s Tale, but I wish more people had seen Wristcutters. That is probably one of my favorite moviemaking experiences, for sure. Everyone was very in character and it was a special little production out in Lancaster, which is the perfect place to have the dead, dull place you’d be stuck in after you’ve committed suicide. I found that really funny.
You’re one of the few actors who doesn’t use social media to promote their work, and you often post little short films you’ve made. Do you have any interest in directing features?
Yes, very much so. I’m a mom to two boys, so I have to be an actress-for-hire a lot, to support my family. I can’t tell you how much I’m craving to be in a cave and buckle down to do that. I’ve made other choices in my life, so it’s just going to take longer. That’s all. I write when I can. One day when the timing is right I know it’s finally going to happen. I feel much more comfortable wearing that hat, and sometimes in being an actress, too. I would be so excited to cast, make the pictures, and I love editing. The rhythm of editing is so fascinating to me. It’s so important. Even making posters seems fun to me. Every part of it just seems fun. I’m excited.
Sinister 2 is now in theaters.
Director James Ponsoldt has made a career with his ability to take nuanced looks at dramatic moments in life. He made a name for himself with the heartfelt Smashed and followed that up with the critically acclaimed The Spectacular Now. His latest film might be his most endearing.
Expanding nationwide in theaters, The End of the Tour follows the real life memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself that tells the interaction between author and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky and his interview subject, celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace. The film stars Jason Segel in a dramatic breakout role as Wallace while the ever-reliable Jesse Eisenberg brings his crazed energy and focus to Lipsky as they bounce off of one another. You don’t have to be a fan of David Foster Wallace, let alone know who he is, to be enamored with Ponsoldt’s film. It certainly won me over in a deeply interesting look at what it means to be successful and how that may not actually lead to happiness.
I had the pleasure to speak with Ponsoldt recently over the phone when he visited Austin as part of the press tour and together we talked about his respect for the Austin Film Society, how he got the script and and his love for David Foster Wallace. We also talked about how much impact the weather and snow made on the shoot, and why they wanted the winter so badly. A surprise was to learn just how much of a duality that Ponsoldt has in terms of being familiar with being in front of and behind a microphone, but also the multitude of talents that Eisenberg and Segel have as well and how that directly relates to Lipsky and Wallace.
Additionally, we touch on the nature of the film’s timeline and how it bookends the story with the Lipsky in the film’s present tense as he remembers his fateful days interviewing Wallace on the last leg of his book tour. All told I believe it fleshes out some of the ways that life imitates art and gives you insight into the head space of Ponsoldt and the two main stars during filming without spoiling anything. Enjoy the full conversation below.
The FIlm Stage: First off, I always like to talk a little bit about the press tour. How is your day going?
James Ponsoldt: It’s going well. I got into Austin today and I love this city. I have a number of friends here. Ate some good barbecue down at Iron Works and I’m really excited to do the screening at the Austin Film Society. The AFS has meant so much to me over the years. Before I was even a filmmaker, I was a fan of films and I was a fan of Richard Linklater.
Is he going to be doing the Q&A?
Richard is in New York right now. But he’s been very supportive and generous guy over the years. He means the world to me and his films have really inspired me. Austin is a great city, regardless, but to be able to film something with the Austin Film Society just means the world to me.
Good. Sounds like you are going to have a good time. So, your various films have had a lot of characters that self medicate with alcohol. Whether it is Smashed or Spectacular Now, this is a running theme in the films that you’ve created. Again, this film deals with that though it is more about the period after. But you didn’t seek this film out, right? This was a script sent to you.
Yeah, it was sent to me by Donald Margulies who adapted David Lipsky’s book. Donald had been my playwriting professor years and years before while I was an undergraduate in college. I had stayed in touch with Donald over the years. He had seen my films and I kept watching his plays. I love his writing and he’s a fantastic teacher. When he sent it to me he said in his email something to the extent of, “Hey James, I don’t know if you’re a fan of David Foster Wallace, or if you’ve read this book by David Lipsky, but I’ve adapted it for Anonymous Content who is producing it and we’d love for you to read it.”
I had read Lipsky’s book almost as soon as it came out in 2010 and I was a huge Wallace fan. So it felt like some level of weird synchronicity. It was exciting and nerve-wracking to some degree because Wallace means so much to me. I’m also acutely aware to how much he means to so many other people. I have been into Wallace since I was a teenager. Infinite Jest came out in 1996 and I started the fall of 1997. I was an English major. And even before that, when I was in high school I wrote for an alt weekly in Athens, Georgia. Reviewing concerts and interviewing bands. A lot of the people that wrote for that were grad students or were in older, local bands and they were really into David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction. So Wallace even then was a big fixture in my imagination and just the coolest, smartest, funniest writer out there. And then Infinite Jest was a total game changer for me.
One thing I had heard was that you filmed in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Yeah, mostly in Grand Rapids but also in other small towns in the surrounding area towards Lake Michigan. We also shot a bit in Minneapolis and even in New York City.
So, basically following the book tour almost.
Yeah. What was great about Grand Rapids was that even though Wallace lived in Bloomington, Illinois and he had been teaching at Illinois State and had been raised about an hour away in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where the University of Illinois is. That was a big part of the story and then when the book tour went off to Chicago and Minneapolis, we needed an area that could simulate a smaller, Midwestern college town and then a big city. Grand Rapids offered so much to us. It was really, really amazing. We had this fantastic crew that came up from Detroit.
So did you have to bring in the snow as well? From what I understand it was very cold there already.
That was the beauty of it. Yeah, one of the reasons we went just about as far north as you can go before you hit Canada was snow. The weather was such an essential element to it. It was never something that I saw as a bleak element. I think so often you see films where snow or ice is played up for some cheap metaphor about existential despair. But in this case, no, that snow was deeply romantic.
Yeah, it was beautiful.
Yeah, beautiful in the way that you watch a Doctor Zhivago or White Christmas, or any number of Scandinavian movies. Especially for Lipsky. This is his story. And this was about how he was affected by Wallace. For him, he was going through this small town that probably to himself to some degree was exotic because he was a New Yorker. But he was also going, strangely, to the center of the literary universe because David Foster Wallace was the most famous young writer in America. Everything for him was heightened. So that snow was vitally important.
It’s always interesting when a film like this has bookends of Lipsky’s present world in the time of the film. All told it lasts maybe all of five minutes. I’m curious how much you expanded or contracted those portions.
It’s pretty true to the structure of the script. It’s a memory story in the sense of the remembrance of things past. Like Proust is a memory story at the beginning of something eating a madeleine cake and remembering a childhood story. It’s almost a cinema parody of someone getting a call about someone from their youth dying. You have this rush of memory and you’re seeing the story from someone’s point of view as they remember it. That was our story. Wallace did deeply affect David Lipsky and it stayed with him all those years.
Digging up those 12 year old tapes I think was a psychic excavation for Lipsky. It brought him back to an earlier period of time when he was a different person. His life was in a completely different place in 1996 than it was in 2008. For him, it brought David Foster Wallace back to life. The Wallace that he knew for a few days. Someone that was gone at that point.
The film revolves around David Lipsky interviewing and creating a profile of David Foster Wallace for a Rolling Stone article. It’s interesting to me that both you, Jason Segel, and Jesse Eisenberg have been in a number of situations where you are being interviewed and it seems to me like this film could be very cathartic.
How much did you allow your own experiences or even the cast’s to seep into the film?
Inevitably you bring all of your own experiences into the film that you’re going to make. In terms of the actors they were really trying to serve their characters as best as they could. Of course they brought their experience into it. Both Jesse and Jason are really great writers as well. They’ve been interviewed a ton but they know what it’s like to be a writer and have to get a story.
Jason writes big movies. We wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I love that film. Jesse writes humor pieces for The New Yorker and plays. They’re really smart guys and have been through it a lot. For myself, I started writing for an alt weekly when I was 15. I interviewed bands all the time. I interned at Rolling Stone later. I thought that I wanted to write about music. And I still write for Filmmaker Magazine today. I’ll interview other directors. So I’ve been on both sides of it and I have endless respect for people that do their jobs well. I know every job, to do it well, is hard, and certainly writing profiles and being a journalist or critic, it’s really hard to do it well. To do it fairly. Originality and intelligence, empathy, and humor. It’s really hard. So I respect how complicated the process is.
And what was interesting in David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky was that we had two people that did the exact same jobs. David Foster Wallace was being celebrated for his novel when he was with Lipsky but his first collection of essays came out the next year. Wallace was as good at writing profiles as any writer alive, I believe. And David Lipsky, at that time at age 30, was one of the most successful young writers in America as well. His first novel came out and it had been well reviewed. He had a collection of short stories. He was writing for Rolling Stone. It wasn’t the kind of success that Wallace had experience with Infinite Jest but there was a lot of it. So both of them knew what the other one was trying to do to some degree. [Laughs] So yeah, they were ping-ponging back and forth and maybe performing for each other but I think Wallace was really trying to be vulnerable and honest. But he obviously knew very well the pressure that David Lipsky was under and the restrictions of the format.
Well, I know I have to wrap with you. As some parting words I just want to tell you that while I’ve read a few things by Wallace like the water commencement speech he gave I really hadn’t explored him. So one, I am definitely a new-found fan, and two, I think there will be plenty more because of this movie.
Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate that.
The End of Tour is now in limited release and expanding.
In his latest project, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, actor Alexander Skarsgård shows a completely different side of himself. For starters, the Swedish actor exhibits an exceptional skill for comedy in Marielle Heller’s extraordinary debut film. He plays Monroe, a complete manchild who strikes up a relationship with his girlfriend’s 15-year-old daughter, Minnie (Bel Powley). Skarsgård isn’t just playing a pedophile, but much more than that – and that’s exactly what the actor wants to hear.
It’ll be interesting to see how general audiences respond to Monroe. Even at the film’s Sundance debut, where the film was received more than warmly, some viewers were clearly thrown off by the three-dimensional the depiction of Minnie and Monroe’s relationship is – which has its highs and lows, all told from Minnie’s point-of-view.
It’s a beautiful and honest depiction of Minnie’s experience, and we were lucky enough to discuss her story, the film, and Monroe with Alexander Skarsgård at the press day. Here’s what he had to say:
The Film Stage: Can you comfortably watch your own work?
Alexander Skarsgård: The first time I see something I very much dissect my performance. I do think, Ah, no, I’m terrible here. Why am I doing this? Ah, shit, they chose that take? It’s difficult for me to objectively get into the movie. Still, it obviously is, but in this case, before Sundance, it was great to have seen it before the premiere. I was able to relax more and enjoy the experience of watching it with other people.
It’s a movie that says a lot about the viewer. Monroe’s relationship with Minnie is not a one-dimensional depiction of pedophilia. If a viewer was just completely repulsed by him…
Well, we’ll see. We’ve been going around to a couple of festivals and screened the film in London, Germany, and other places – and it’s been really interesting. When we had the conversations at the Q & A’s they’ve been intelligent discussions. People have been very engaged. I haven’t felt like… I guess it’ll be different once it comes out. We’ll see what the reaction will be.
The goal was to make it uncomfortable and a bit confusing – and that’s when it becomes interesting: when you can’t label the characters. That would’ve been too easy. If I played Monroe as a villain or a predator, it’d be too easy for the audience to say, “Oh, that’s just a bad guy.” For me, it’s more interesting if the audience says, “Oh, that’s a bad guy. Wait, I kind of like him here. Oh shit, their connection is real. Wait, is it? Oh fuck, it’s not. Is it?” If it’s done that way, then it’s real. In the conversations we’ve been having, people aren’t sure – and that’s great to hear.
It’s really sensitive and thoughtful direction. The sex scenes, for example, show you everything, as uncomfortable as it might be, because it’s an excited teenage girl who would remember everything.
Exactly. She’s not a victim, either. It was just a very delicate and difficult balance, of how to play that. We had a lovely two weeks before principal photography in San Francisco where Bel, Marielle, and I just got together everyday, talked about the relationship, talked about the scenes, and to find moments where the connection is genuine and strong. Also, we needed to find moments where Monroe is a teenage boy himself, where she’s more mature than him.
Or a moment where his face just says it all, that he knows what he’s doing is wrong.
Absolutely. I think he wants to be a teenager. I think he doesn’t really want to grow up, and because of that, his connection with Minnie is stronger than his with Charlotte. That’s right, though, in those moments he has to pull himself out of it and go, “Oh, shit, I’m a grown man. I need to be responsible. I’m in a relationship with her adult mother. I have to do the right thing here.”
Even when it’s all going to shit and the mother finds out, he’s like, “All right. I’ll marry you. This is the right thing to do.” It’s a terrible idea, obviously, but he’s all, “I’m a man of my word, so this is happening now.”
He’s such a funny character.
It’s so tragic, but yes, funny, too.
It’s a really funny performance. Does comedy come naturally to you?
I don’t know. I hadn’t done comedy in a while when we shot this, so it was just really exciting to find a little bit of that in the story. I just did John Michael McDonagh’s movie, War on Everyone, with Michael Pena – and I had a fucking blast. I loved it. Also, in between those two movies, I did Tarzan, which… there are some funny moments in it, but it’s an action-adventure movie, with some intense characters. I just needed something that was different. After eight months of intensity it was really refreshing to go to Albuquerque to play a corrupt, alcoholic cop.
With that McDonagh dialogue, too.
Yeah, yeah, it’s unbelievably fun. I loved it.
How valuable were those two weeks you spent in San Francisco with Bel Powley and Marielle Heller?
It was incredible. It was such a luxury just to be in a room with them to talk about the relationships. This has been Marielle’s baby for almost a decade, so she knows these characters so well. This easily could’ve been a case of her wanting, “You come in and say this, and you do this that way,” but she was so excited to have us contribute, take control of our characters, and have us try something completely different from the way it was written. She was so inviting, to see where we could take a scene or take the characters.
Is that a rare experience?
It kind of it is. As a director, letting go of control… she was incredibly in control and knew the characters, but she was also excited to be surprised, even on the day we were shooting. If we blocked something we had talked hours about and then if something didn’t feel quite right or contrived, Marielle would be the first one to say, “Let’s try something different and see what happens.” We’d try it. Occasionally it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t, and sometimes something new and completely different would just spring out – and I just love those moments. That means it’s alive on set that you’re working with people who are excited about spontaneity – and Bel and Kristen felt the same way. Those are the best collaborations.
Do you recall any specific happy accidents?
I remember we had some fight scenes and the acid trip were scenes we had talked about a lot but intentionally had not rehearsed, where stuff just happens. Brandon [Trost], the DP, was just amazing, because not once did I feel like I just had to adjust for him. We only had 25 days, so it was a tough shoot, but we could always try something completely different if we needed to. Because it was such a small budget and small movie, everyone was there because they loved the project and Marielle. Half the crew was friends of hers or grew up with her.
It reminded me of when I first started in Sweden in small indie movies, where there’s no luxury at all and you’d just be lugging equipment. It’s all about the work and everyone is genuinely excited, in front of and behind the contract. This wasn’t one of those, “Oh, it’s a good paycheck. When do I get to go home?” [Laughs] Everyone was in it.
As you said, Ms. Heller knows these characters inside and out, but you also had the graphic novel, in addition to the script. What was maybe something that stuck with you about Monroe from the graphic novel?
The vitamin business was something we added very, very late. I thought it’d just be funny and sad — that he’s so delusional about this pyramid scheme business and that he’ll buy a boat and travel the world. We talked about it the Friday before our first day of shooting on Monday – and we started with the very last scene, where he’s running on the beach with the “Ask Me About My Vitamin Business” T-shirt.
I really wanted him to be wearing it, because it’s the last time you see him and it’s been some time since they’ve seen each other. When you see him at the end you just go, “Oh no, he’s still dreaming about this?” They were amazing, because it was really last minute. Over the weekend they ran out and made these T-shirts. That was something that came from the book we added later on, because I just loved it.
Those 25 shooting days, did they feel similar to working in a fast-paced environment like television?
Comparing it to, like, Generation Kill or True Blood, they were big-budget television shows, where it was just a bigger beast. The catering crew on True Blood was bigger than the whole crew on this. It’s also different because that sense of discovery isn’t the same when you had played the same character for six or seven years.
In a way, it’s a well-oiled machine. Everyone knows what they’re doing, and that’s what made it difficult, because that’s when it gets boring, creatively. That’s the challenge when you play a character for 60 or 70 hours: you need to find those moments of discovery about your character. If you don’t, it’s like creative suicide. With that said, it’s very different from doing this, where every day something is changing.
Would you want to do another series? Is it just about finding the right project?
All about finding the right project. I had the most amazing time on True Blood. I miss my True Blood family. You don’t get that experience as a freelance actor. You just get an intense relationship for a couple of months and then you move on to the next one and then the next one. It was great having that for six or seven months in a year here in LA and then five months off to do movies or travel or whatever and then comeback to my family.
With that said, seven years is a long time. At this point, I’m just excited about the freedom – the fact that I can go anywhere and jump on any project I want. I can say, “Oh, you’re shooting this for nine months in Greenland? I’ll do it.” It’s not like I have to fit it into the hiatus, because, obviously, True Blood was always in the first position.
Things I really liked came up that I couldn’t do, because the shooting schedule just didn’t work. I’m probably not going to sign another six-year contract anytime soon, but I’d love to do television. There are some amazing writers and directors in television right now.
I always like to ask: What’s maybe a performance or a movie that really blew you away as a young actor – one or two that made a big impression on you as a kid?
Well, I was a child actor, reluctantly. I didn’t want to be a child actor. For me, it was the opposite. I loved it, but I didn’t love the attention, so I quit and desperately tried to stay away from acting for eight years. Until I was 21, it just wasn’t for me. Because I realized I was shit at everything else and had nothing else I could do, why not? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Are you comfortable with it now?
Yeah. I was 13 and did a movie in Sweden that got a lot of attention, and it just made me really uncomfortable, so I said, “Fuck this. I’m not going to be an actor anymore.” I figured when I was 21 that I really missed acting – and that it was just everything around it that would make me uncomfortable. 13 is a weird age, because you’re insecure and… I thought, I’m 21 now, so maybe I should give it a go. Maybe it’ll be different. I missed being on stage and working with people on a movie set. Yeah, it’s quite different now.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is now in limited release.
Christian Petzold‘s Phoenix is something of a contradiction: precisely calibrated on a screenwriting level and cleanly delivered on a formal level, yet working with a concept high enough and depending upon ambiguities significant enough to inspire debate and doubt right after its final scene, an instant all-timer, has concluded. But what else to expect of a movie that so effectively takes advantage of said concept, in which Vertigo is reconfigured as the story of a concentration camp survivor who returns home to a possibly duplicitous husband who doesn’t recognize her? In light of a stunted run on last year’s fall circuit — Toronto was (inexplicably) the only major festival to make room, despite a clear superiority over much of its ilk — the impassioned response its received is ample evidence of how the right film can capture people’s imagination.
With these open qualities in mind, speaking to Petzold about his ninth collaboration with recently deceased co-writer Harun Farocki and sixth with leading actress Nina Hoss offers many opportunities — more than could be stated in the window of time typically offered by interviews conducted during a promotional tour. But the ground covered herein is fascinating, from an unexpected historical parallel he sees with the life of Billy Wilder, the artistic trait he shares with James Gray, and how he lets go of auteurist control.
The Film Stage: Where are you located right now?
Christian Petzold: Sacramento, in a little hotel. I’m making my way through California. Yesterday, we were at Folsom Lake, which is not far away from Sacramento. I like to travel, sit in a car, and listen to music for eight or nine hours. I like it; I don’t know why. It’s great. You don’t want to see any museum; you don’t want to see anything about the history of California. No gold mines. You want to go by car, hear music, sleep in cheap motels, and eat burritos and have burgers the whole day through. I like it; I don’t know why. I like that.
It’d be more appropriate if you were in San Francisco.
I was there four days ago. I stayed there, and I saw Vertigo there in 1996, together with Harun Farocki, on a new copy which was remixed by Martin Scorsese. I think it was 70mm. It had a new sound mixing, and I really was disappointed with the sound because it was too real.
I read that a Farocki-penned article, which you’d encountered decades prior, was the first source of influence. That’s a long time to be carrying any creative endeavor — even in its most nascent forms — so I have to ask if it manifested itself at all in your earlier work.
Yeah. It was born in the ‘80s, this idea between Harun and me. We always thought about the male perspective. We always thought about a man who creates a woman, but we never thought about the perspective of a woman. Something changed after I met Nina Hoss at the beginning of the century. It was Harun that said we had to change the perspective, so we started thinking about what the the male subjectivity had done to Kim Novak, and the studio system — to the actor and to the character in Vertigo. Why all these stories are made by men, huh?
We started when Harun saw Barbara on the editing table; this was three-and-a-half years ago. He said to me, “Now, there’s the lost couple. It starts at the end of the movie.” Then we thought about our old idea for Phoenix, then we tried to change the perspective to the woman. This was the reason we started with the whole project. Oh, excuse me; I threw my son out of the room because he started laughing at my English, and I hate that.
Are you ever uncomfortable with homage? Do you worry that using certain concepts and frameworks brings you too much in someone else’s direction?
I don’t think so, because I saw the movie many, many years ago — but Sans Soleil? There’s a passage in the movie that says Vertigo is the best movie ever made, but he hates it. He hates it and he loves it in the same way. For me, it’s a little bit the same: I love all the cinematographic images of the Hitchcock movies, and sometimes I hate that everything on the screen was filth. Nothing can come out of the picture.
So it was a love-hate relationship, but, for me, all my movies are made with quotations of Hitchcock things. For example, when I made Yella, I loved the scene in Marnie when Marnie is seen from the back at the train station. The camera is following her, and then the camera stops and she goes by herself to the end of the station. It was a dream-like atmosphere, and I tried to rebuild this with Nina Hoss in Yella, and it was terrible — like, shit. It cost me two days with Steadicams and camera operators, which I had meant for the perfect light, like the technical allure of Hitchcock, and I cut it out. So I’ve made my homage, but I cut them out of the movie.
Your personal aesthetic choices are interesting in their own way. For instance, the brick-strewn, post-war streets have as much of a psychological dimension as they do a physical one. How much would that, for instance, be based on historical research and how much — if any — of it comes from the character’s psychology?
We made it always like this: we have a little factory in Berlin, and, in these factories they have two big rooms — these are “mood rooms.” Half a year before starting shooting, there were thousands of photos from this time, and inside of this “mood room,” we have made our rehearsal, where the actors can go up to the wall, this museum of photos, and see portrayals and the colors. It was a very specific research we have done, but, for me, it’s more important what I can do with all these moods. I don’t want to have material in a room; I want to have a structure, an idea, and it’s tougher for a mood, yeah? I was a little like a professor, I must say, in this moment.
I said to them, to the actors, and also to the cameraman — who was part of the rehearsal — “We have this fantastic movie made by Billy Wilder and Edgar Ulmer and Robert Siodmak. It was made in 1932. The German title is Menschen am Sonntag — People on Sunday.” It was a half-documentary story, and you can see Berlin, you can see fantastic daylight, a life without studio light. It’s like nouvelle vague; it’s free, the movie. One year later, everything was destroyed by the Nazis. I said to them, “We have to tell a love story which was born in 1932, like the movie Menschen am Sonntag, but this time is gone — and now, like Billy Wilder, who left in 1932, who was exiled to Hollywood, our movie has the colors of The Lost Weekend.” I showed them The Lost Weekend. So we have this idea for something we have missed and lost in this time. My English is a little… do you understand what I’m talking about?
So the cameraman said, “We can recreate this historical time with trees, but what we have to do is to recreate the light, the colors — we have to create the atmosphere.” So we take the atmosphere from The Lost Weekend, and almost Robert Siodmak’s The Killers with Burt Lancaster. I showed the first five minutes of The Killers by Siodmak, and this hired man — Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past — they are all really tired, because they have lost everything. All the movies are based on the last energy of the male subjects, and they want to have a last chance. This is the atmosphere of the Johnny character.
Physical movement is such a big part of this film, especially the many routines Nelly, Nina Hoss’ character, is put through. When filming these scenes — as she’s walking around or lifting and dropping things — do you like to capture actions in a single take, or is it repeated many times?
No, no, no. We do it always in one take. I talked to, I think, James Gray, and he’s working in the same way. It’s always the same. We have these rehearsals I told you about, but we don’t talk about the book. And then, during the shooting, the actors and I meet at 8 a.m. in the morning — without costumes, without masks — and have rehearsals for half of the today, until 12, for example, and then they have found something. For example, Johnny is in his basement room. He’s always looking how he can move, because both actors know that this is a choreography in a basement. It’s also like a dance of a couple who had loved each other many years ago, and they have tried to recreate their love like in a dance movement. They have tried for themselves.
I’m sitting there, smoking, they’re talking a little bit, and then they find something. Then the technicians are coming — the cameraman, the DP, the sound and the light man — they’re coming and looking for what they have done, and then the actors went to the trailer to get their costumes, their masks. We build up the lights and we make the shooting list, and then we do it in one take. Always just one take. It’s not like Hitchcock or Bresson; it’s the other way around. We are reflecting very hard on the movie, and to refresh our reflections we had not to rehearse much.
In the case of being acquainted with collaborators, I wanted to ask about your relationship with Hans Fromm, who’s been your cinematographer since the mid-’90s. Does this long-standing fidelity mainly stem from aesthetic agreement, professional comfort, or both?
Because we’re old friends, for example. [Laughs] We are like a family I see only during the shooting. But, since the beginning of the shooting, we are sitting together for two days, and I hate to obtain all these takes. He’s also someone who… looking together through movies and photographs and graphic novels, thinking about how we can do this, and then he goes away and he’s working on his own. I never look through the camera, I never have the monitor display; he’s doing this stuff for himself, and I trust him. When I see the rushes two days later, it’s not my movie. It’s a little bit strange, what I see. I like that I can trust it, hopefully.
Is there anything liberating, then, in it belonging to multiple people? How do you feel, recognizing this as a collaborative project as opposed to something marked mostly by your stamp?
Nina told me a couple of weeks ago that, from the first moment, she was afraid when we worked together, because I have so much material and talk so much, and she thought there was no space for me during the rehearsals, at the beginning. I think, when everything I have worked on one-and-a-half-years for — all the music I heard — I did for the actors. This was my reflection; this was my work. You have this material you can use, but there are also actors who hate to have too much material. You can use it or you can throw it away.
Then we made a little journey, two or three weeks before the shooting, to all the shooting places, and then I left them alone for two or three weeks. So they have imaginations of the shooting places, of the rooms, of what we created there, so they can do it by themselves. I’m very, very in the margins during the shooting, and don’t talk too much. I let it flow a little bit because I’m a little over-reflective in my life, so it’s good to let the movie go by itself a little bit.
[Editor’s note: The ending is briefly discussed below.]
It’d be best to end with the ending. You and Farocki had a picture of Nina Hoss in front of you as you were writing and going over the role with her throughout. With all this thoroughness in mind, have you thought much about what happens to this character after the final scene? Does this sort of question sit with you, or is the story truly done once it’s done?
I think Harun told me that the end of the movie… he likes the ending very much because it’s the end of the story, yeah, and it’s not the end of living. Something goes on; it could be a new movie, at the end, when she’s living. She could be going to Palestine or she could be going to the United States to start a new life. It’s also worth to tell this story in 95 minutes, this story of the past — a love story — and also the story of the Germans between ’33 and ’45, and also the story of people like Jews in Germany at this time. This story is finished.
Well, that’s all the time we have. Thanks again.
Thank you very much. It’s fantastic to sit in a hotel room with a cold glass of water and the roommates always knocking on my door. I like the situation.
Phoenix is now playing in New York and will be expanding to more theaters in the coming weeks. Above, you can watch a video essay on Petzold’s work.
Given access to hundreds of hours worth of previously-concealed audio interviews/musings with Marlon Brando, director Stevan Riley magnificently produces one of the best documentaries about a legendary figure — all without a single talking head in Listen to Me Marlon, as I noted from Sundance this year.. Ahead of his time, we begin with Brando predicting the future of filmmaking: actors will soon be motion-captured and their essence created in a computer screen for projection. We then witness the man resurrected through such a digital form, incorporating the audio from his interviews, giving an ethereal effect interspersed throughout the film.
I recently had the chance to speak with Riley for an in-depth conversation regarding the technical process of creating the documentary, the legacy and enigma of the actor, how he’s pushing the boundaries of documentary, being inspired by Radiohead, the theatrical vs. television experience, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
Much has been discussed about the 300 hours of audiotapes that were used. From an editorial perspective, was it already organized or did you have to go through chronologically or thematically?
Yeah, it actually wasn’t 300 hours at the outset. The way the project involved, in fact, was that I was more interested in the story and I wanted to do something original. We had access to all the archives at the estate and so the question was, what do you they have exactly. But they were just unpacking this stuff at the time. So a lot of the archive was in boxes in fact. It had been stored for ten years. So even during the edit – and the edit was nine months – there was stuff coming out of boxes and even towards the very end there would be ten tapes I would get.
So it was very interesting how it involved, in a way. I was actually terrified at the beginning because I had kind of committed to this route of telling it all in Marlon’s own words after just listen to six or seven tapes that were initially available and were just being digitized. But there was no clue that it was ever going to be possible to tell it all in his own words at that point. I had actually went out to the states to do research but also figure out, if I can’t tell it all in his own words, who would I possible include in the film? Who would I interview? It was only the further that things developed that I became more and more convinced I should go with plan A because it would actually be less confusing. There were so many people in his life who were only in touch with him for brief periods, maybe a few years. He might pick up a friendship, drop a friendship.
Anyway, just to mention that, but then in terms of organizing it, I did a fair bit of pre-production. I did the initially proposal, which it currently has the title Listen to Me Marlon but it was Brando on Brando and when that was commissioned I turned it into more fully formed shooting script. That shooting script helped inform how I’d go through the transcript. When all the tapes were transcribed, they were in these big, thick folders. There was twelve of them so they came several feet off the ground. I’d just go through with a highlighter and then just go through every page and write in the margins, tiny little one or two word captions, I’d call them, that would conform to different story points. And then the story points I arranged in a grid and then brought them into the edit in different sequences. Then those were movable parts that could then be constructed into scenes, If that makes sense.
Yes, that’s fascinating. In my review I said it almost feels like you’re watching a final performance from Marlon Brando. We’re never going to see another movie with him, so this feels like a send-off in a way. Did you feel that pressure as you were making it or was it more when you saw the final product, if at all?
Even from the opening section, where he talks about how actors are not going to be real, they’re going to be inside a computer, then that soliloquy from Shakespeare. I felt like he was delivering on his prophecy and that was his performance in a sense. When that 3D scan was done of his head, I got an actor in to lip-sync his lines and film it from different angles so I could switch those up in the digitization of the head. It was a performance in a regard – the inflection, the turn of the head. It had to really try and look like Brando. So there was a bit of that. Certainly for those sections and then even if wasn’t a performance, it was certainly a kind of right of reply. I was representing his life. Of course, he did a post-mortem on his life by himself, but he’s also going to bring on his character in a way that people that might wouldn’t otherwise know because all they’ve been fed through the course of his life was that media representation, that tabloid myth of Brando, it was performance in a sense and also this right of reply, a last word.
You spoke about the digitized version of Brando and the motion capture that he saw. We’re seeing it come to fruition in films like The Congress and James Cameron’s work. When you came across his speaking to that, did you know immediately you were going to use it at the beginning as this ethereal opening?
Yeah, I was already racking my brain to thinking what kind of device… bear in my mind, the edit was all pretty much, largely black screen. It was audio and music. I was just trying to get the story down first and the mood and the tone of it. I was always thinking about visuals. It was always this press question: what the hell am I going to cover this with all the way through? I had a rough idea it would be a third archive, a third movie (his films), and then a third re-con. Re-constructing the house and rebuilding this “house of pain,” the media dubbed it, but also this house being the inner workings of his mind as well, a metaphor for his brain, for this inquiry and his own thought space. I thought it would be nice to have some kind of presence of Brando in the film, that third-person presence of him looking back on his life. Of course that possible by trying to make the house alive, by putting wind through the curtain or having candles or smoke – just this sense of presence, that it was a living space and there was somebody in the home was going to do it.
Then I toyed with the idea of if you could involve an actor, but that was never going to work. No one could play Brando and then I heard about this 3D scan that he’d done from one of the guys who works at the archive and I just latched on to that immediately, just thinking where is it, what could I do. I thought straight away about the possibilities of bringing that to life. We had his head, what could be done? When we finally got access to it – it took about six months to actually track it down, assemble it, decode it because it was very old software, and then do the creative to bring it to life. There was actually enough detail in the scans to do enough facial representation down to his skin pores. It was super high-resolution. There was several scans. He did all of these different expressions, then what you could do with interplay with this software. It was fine though, because I didn’t want it to be photographic or photo-real because I wanted to be this ghost in the machine, kind of fragmented, digitized being that was searching for meaning. I’d seen Radiohead’s House of Cards music promo.
Yeah. I was thinking something that might approximate to that. That was my creative reference in my own head about where to go with it. The it was a case of bringing it to life with an actor and doing that motion capture with this actor lip-syncing and, as I said, filming it from different angles to try and get that recreation.
You spoke about the footage you used from his actual films. There’s a few sections, whether it’s A Streetcar Named Desire or when you show his character’s death in The Godfather, and you overlay his audio discussing death and the meaning of life. It’s this two-handed emotional punch because we all have memories of watching those films for the first time coupled with the emotional weight of his recordings. How early did you think about which films would be well-represented and did you re-visit his filmography?
Yeah, well, I discovered a lot of them as well, really. I had seen a lot of Brando’s films but I hadn’t realized he starred in 39 or 40. It was a lot to watch, in fact. I was just figuring those out along the way. I was also how much life was imitating art and vice-versa. Brando would bring all the things he’s interested in to a part and try and smuggle them into his character. He’d bend it to almost convey his message and there was many things which he was fascinated by and the film looks into about the nature of technology and good and evil and all these things that occupied him – and there were quite a lot through the course of his life. It took from the light to the dark and from truth to lies. That is when he was oscillating through a lot of his life. So, yes, some of those parts really resonated and explained those things that had fascinated him better than others.
The Godfather had its own resonance and Streetcar was great, again, for exploring that idea of the myth of cinema and in Apocalypse Now you see the myth of America that he explores. All these things corrupt our view of the truth or we lose touch with reality and then people were losing touch with who Marlon Brando was and it was becoming a myth of himself. Then Streetcar was emblematic in so far it was his exploration of the method and how he had to relive his childhood every evening when he was playing Stanley Kowalski on stage and he was trying to channel his father’s anger and rage. It was also nice using the film clips not just for their own sake, not just popping [them in], oh it’s just Brando playing a character, but to actually to get inside his head and use the clip from the film to be woven into his first-person narrative and make sure those were tidy scenes between those because they did overlap. The thinking and the emotions applied to the real-life and the characters he was playing.