Today we have a special episode of our official podcast, The Film Stage Show. In honor of James Gray‘s The Immigrant arriving on Netflix this week, we have an audio version of our full interview with the director, published in text form on the site during the film’s theatrical release. Conducted by co-host Nick Newman in New York City, it’s a fantastic listen after watching the feature, along with checking out our review episode.
See below to stream or download (right-click and save as…) or subscribe on iTunes.
Hal Hartley’s latest, My America, began in collaboration with Baltimore-based Center Stage as a series of monologues written by 50 American playwrights called to create new work around a central theme of “My America” circa 2012. Filmed and edited by Hartley, the series can be consumed in a number of ways — it’s screening theatrically and online via Fandor (which fittingly bowed the film on July 4th), and had previously screened at the IFC Center. Hartley talked with us about his direction of these monologues, trends of downsizing amongst other 90s indie luminaries, and how the new models of distribution and consumption are shaping his work.
Thank you so much for talking with us. Can you tell me how My America came about? It structurally bares some similarities to other films you’ve made.
Well, in 2012 I was hired by Center Stage — which is the state theatre of Maryland — to direct 50 of these small monologues. They had commissioned 50 American playwrights to tackle this issue of what is my America or where is my America? So they had all these monologues and they were going to perform them at the theatre, and they were also going to tape them. I’m friendly with Susan Geller whose a producer there; she’s also the producer of the film and I did it. We shot about six or seven days over the course of a month in rehearsal studio. As we were editing them I got the idea that I could put them together in a line and it would be something interesting and different.
That wasn’t the job. When I was editing the monologues together I asked Center Stage if I could edit a few together and create a feature-length film, and they were all for it. Then it was a matter of talking to the individual play writes and actors involved, that was the hardest part of the process and took the longest. It was satisfying to see that my hunch was correct. There was a lot of great monologues, but some of them were too particular, their subject matter wasn’t appropriate for this kind of entertainment, but they were terrific all by themselves. So creating a 75-minute entertainment of this nature I felt it was important to get at more general concerns. And it’s interesting, 50 playwrights all answering that question, what is my America or where is my America? It was a pretty accurate reading of the nation at that time.
What year was this staged?
They were originally shot in the summer of 2012.
In terms of how they were constructed and edited it feels very cinematic. One thing I’ve noticed is that many filmmakers of the 1990’s including Neil LaBute (whose work is featured in My America) have downsized. His last film Some Velvet Morning was shot in an apartment with two actors verses working with his previous budgets and scope. Can you comment on this trend filmmakers going back to more contained films?
All of these things play into that, technology, new economic model. I’ve never worked within the studio system, and I’ve always made small films before, during, and between my feature films that tended to be more experimental, just because I like to work. I know a certain 90-minute feature film has certain expectations and a short film is a way to play with these ideas.
Technology has changed because people are watching more work on their devices and I really believe people prefer shorter pieces. The notion that a film has be 90 minutes is going away. When I started out the festivals and distributors classified a feature film 90-100 minutes long and now festivals are classifying features as 60 minutes long. My film from a few years ago Meanwhile took advantage of that and its 60 minutes and a feature.
There’s also, of course, experience and aging. When you get older you get curious. If you’re lucky enough – and I consider myself lucky – to have made a living a this, I can pursue my artist aims in the manner I feel is appropriate without shackling myself to the commercial restraints.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a feature called Ned Rifle, which is the third and final part of the Henry Fool trilogy. We’re mixing the audio now.
I know Fey Grim was released day and date by Magnolia while Henry Fool had a more traditional theatrical release [via Sony Classics]. How is your work adapting to these new models. Is theatrical important?
I’ve been working for a long time with adapting these new technologies, or trying make the technologies adapt to my ideas. Back in 2004 that was our idea with The Girl From Monday. We said, ‘let’s make a movie people will watch on a website we design.’ Unfortunately the technology hadn’t quite caught up so we decided to go with a limited theatrical release. I traveled all over the country showing it at art house theaters and then it showed on Netflix.
Now with streaming and the internet being so fluid, it’s a real easy fit for something like My America which is smaller film. Ted Hope and I used Girl From Monday as a kind of reference. It was a successful limited release in selected art house release and followed up by an internet release. That’s the Fandor model. Even distributors like Sony Picture Classics, whom I’ve had a good experience with in the past on Henry Fool and Amateur, we talk and they also believe theatrical release is advertising. The real revenue comes from various kinds of transactional video on demand and subscription video on demand.
I’m not a purest, I think the theater will always be here, but it’ll be more like going to a museum or something. People are comfortable consuming media in new ways.
Is the festival circuit then the “new” theatrical release?
It is fun to go spend a week watching the new films from around the world. I think that will remain. Although most of the time I’m working if I have a film at a festival. If I’m not working then I can go spend a week with other enthusiasts — that’s very cool. Smaller festivals are easier to organize because the costs of prints and shipping have declined. A few ambitious people can put together a really great festival in town.
Alright, thank you so much for your time.
My America is now streaming on Fandor.
One of the most enjoyable features I saw at Sundance this year was Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens‘ Iceland-set road trip comedy, Land Ho!. Tracking the journey of two men (perfectly cast as Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson), I said in my review, “As our aging characters reflect on life, boredom, Facebook, Jewish mysticism, and all things in between, the film blissfully rolls by, touting the importance of friendship in any period of life.”
Soon after its Sundance premiere and moments after it got acquired by Sony Pictures Classics (who are distributing it this weekend) I had a chance to sit down with the leading duo for a candid conversation. We discussed if they knew each other before filming, producer David Gordon Green, filming in Iceland, day jobs, fellatio, crying at the premiere, and much more. Check out it in full below.
Can you talk about the initial steps of the project and how you came aboard?
Paul Eenhoorn: Well, we can paraphrase Aaron. Aaron and Martha are North Carolina alumni and they’ve known each other for a long time and they’re making their own films…
Earl Lynn Nelson: Martha came up with the idea after she get Paul and me to commit to go to Iceland. Then they wrote the script.
Eenhoorn: Yeah, they had 20 pages and we shot the first 20 two days in Kentucky. Then the next three months they had everything done and we were ready to go.
You guys have such natural chemistry.
Nelson: We met the day we started the film.
That’s amazing. Wow. Was there time to rehearse?
Eenhoorn: Earl and I ran lines where we had to just to stay on track. As Martha says, 50% of the script we stuck to, 25% is loose, and 25% is just improv.
Did you see the film for the first time at Sundance?
Eenhoorn: First time.
Were you surprised at things they maybe kept or took out of your conversations?
Nelson: I actually cried a couple times during the movie. Not because I was sad or not because I was happy. I just couldn’t believe how well they put it together, how it went together.
It’s a beautifully shot movie, too.
Eenhoorn: Yeah, Iceland is definitely the third character.
Was there time when you were in Iceland to see the sights outside of shooting?
Eenhoorn: We saw everything! We saw like half of the island.
Nelson: We saw the geysers, we saw the waterfalls, we saw the glacier, we saw the hot springs, we saw the blue lagoon. We shot all over the place.
Eenhoorn: We shot everywhere. Then we went back Reykjavík.
Nelson: The thing that was tough was that we shot the end of the movie first and the first part of the movie last. One time we were doing something and Martha say that hadn’t happened yet because the continuity. It was basically me, because this was only the third movie I’ve ever done but Paul was my pro.
Eenhoorn: It worked really well, the way the characters are set up. They’re pretty straight-forward. I think I’ve said this many time, but I don’t remember shooting a comedy. [Laughs] Because it was a demanding film, a physically demanding film for both of us. It was out in the wilderness and long drives and really bumpy roads to get to some of the locations.
Nelson: You think you’ve seen potholes, but you haven’t seen an interstate with nothing but potholes.
Working with two directors, what was the divide?
Eenhoorn: I see the film and see the hand that Martha put on it and the same with Aaron. You can see the paths where I remember talking to him about it. They both directed the film really well. It wasn’t a loose shoot, it was a tight shoot.
Nelson: There was no hostility there. It seems like everybody is trying to suggest there was friction.
Nelson: I don’t mean you. Of course, I don’t know these things but they say when you have co-directors there might be friction. And there wasn’t any.
I know the Coen brothers, one of them will talk to the actors and the other will work out more of the technical aspects of the movie so I wonder if anything like that was happening here.
Nelson: They both talked to us.
Eenhoorn: Yeah, they both set up shots. There was an open discussion on set ups, which they resolved together and went with. Of course you had [cinematographer] Andrew Reed and Benjamin Kasulke on second camera, so it was a two-camera shoot. They really, really worked beautifully.
Nelson: Whether you know it or not, the scene at the lighthouse, when you focus in, Andrew actually shot through that Kodak camera. That was actually through my camera. Seriously. I couldn’t believe that, that he could do that.
Have you seen the movie The Trip? Has anyone brought this up yet?
Because I called this movie The Trip to Iceland. It’s just about two guys going out discussing culture, life, etc. That film has a sequel where they go to Italy. I would love to see a sequel to Land Ho! Where would you go if you could?
Eenhoorn: Well, Martha and Aaron both love The Trip and Planes, Trains & Automobiles –two of the films that they really wanted it to feel like.
Nelson: Uncle Buck. They both love Uncle Buck.
Eenhoorn: So, where would we go next?
Nelson: Warmer weather. [Laughs] Hawaii.
Eenhoorn: Lei Ho! [Laughs]
Nelson: We were talking about the next one Land Ho, Ho, Ho in the North Pole. [Laughs] So we can try to find Santa Claus.
Is this your first Sundance?
Nelson: First time. I hadn’t been to Park City in 30 years.
Have you been able to see any other movies?
Nelson: We haven’t had a chance to do anything.
Eenhoorn: Yesterday we had the night and we just chilled. We were tired.
Nelson: When you’re going 18 hours today. When you’re going down the street up, down the street, across the street, etc.
Eenhoorn: Yeah, I’ve been to so many festivals and all I’ve seen is This is Martin Bonner and Land Ho!.
[Laughs] You just need to go to one without one of your movies there.
Eenhoorn: Yeah, it’d be nice to just go to a festival and just go and see the films. I mean I catch up with the ones I can on cable and things like Frances Ha, which is such a beautiful film. I’d love to see them all in a theater. It would be so cool.
Some of the movies you reference in the film. Is that scripted or does that come from your history?
Eenhoorn: Yeah, the film references kind of got dropped in after our first couple of shoots. I didn’t realize there was going to be film references all the way through. Some of that is improv.
Nelson: Could you hear during the waterfall when I said, ‘Have you seen Last of the Mohicans?’
Nelson: You heard that?
Nelson: See, a lot of people didn’t even hear it.
I picked up on it, yeah.
Eenhoorn: I think that’s one of the funniest gags in the film. It doesn’t get the major laughs because…
..it’s during a transition, kind of.
Eenhoorn: Yeah, it’s kind of during a transition and it’s just funny. You can just see it.
Nelson: Well, the thing is, did you realize how many facial expressions got laughs?
Nelson: With no dialogue whatsoever, his face or my face. The look that we had on our faces that they helped us get on our faces. I enjoy comedies and I couldn’t see how many facial expressions got laughs.
You said they helped you get them. What kind of things did they say to do so?
Nelson: They would either come up and whisper in our ear or like the night before one of them would come to the room and discuss the feeling and…
Eenhoorn: ..the character arc.
Nelson: The feeling of the scene. The thing that gets me is that in all of our interviews people want to talk about how this is about two guys retiring but the thing about it is is that I think it’s a lot deeper than that. Because young people can lose their jobs. Young people can get divorced. Young people can lose a loved one and have these same problems and you find a friend that helps you through that. So they’ve got the big stamp that it’s only old people, but that’s not the way this movie. It’s all ages.
Yeah, it’s universal.
Nelson: The thing about it is is the movie, to me, was fun doing even though it was hard work. What made you feel good was people laughing and having a good time during the movie.
There’s a brief moment of conflict, but it was pleasant to see a film this relaxed. Was there anything in the script that inserted more conflict?
Eenhoorn: It stayed pretty true to the bones of the script all the way through. I think Colin is one of those guys that sucks it up until he can’t suck it up any more and he has to say something.
What did you find most relatable in the script?
Eenhoorn: From my point of view, as an actor, I’m not a backstory guy. I strictly go with the words of the script and they lead me to the character. Always. that’s the way I work. And Colin’s character was a good, solid backbone for me. It was well-written, a beautiful script.
I love the dynamic when your cousins come. During that dinner conversation, was that a much longer conversation?
Nelson. Oh, God. Yes.
How long did you shoot that for?
Nelson: Two days.
Eenhoorn: It was a lot of pages and then it was trimmed down. I don’t think half the footage is there.
How many Q&A’s have you done so far?
Nelson: Just two so far.
How has the response been so far?
Nelson: You can’t imagine the people that didn’t leave. That’s what everybody was amazed about.
Eenhoorn: That’s the first clue I saw when I did the premiere. I was amazed.
Nelson: I was amazed by the applause we got. It was thrilling for me to see people the really enjoyed the movie.
Eenhoorn: The real compliment was a question in Salt Lake City and it’s been repeated. He said, “I was watching it and I drifted into this feeling that I was watching a documentary about these two guys.” I think that’s a compliment to both of us, to get that far into a character that they think they’re absolutely real. For me, as an actor, that’s what I’m trying to achieve.
This morning, with it being acquired, how was that news?
Nelson: I didn’t know what that meant. See I’m a surgeon. I’m not an actor. I do surgery three days a week.
Wow. You’ll have to be on the press tour, when it’s released. Right?
Nelson: I didn’t operate for a month when we were up on in Iceland.
Eenhoorn: That’s yet to be sorted out. We’re kind of deliberately out of the loop.
Nelson: We don’t want to know the ins and outs and so forth because, number one, I don’t know how to explain them.
Eenhoorn: You’re the face of the film, but there’s a team that’s behind this film that’s indomitable. From when we shot those 20 pages in Kentucky to David Gordon Green coming on..
When did he come on?
Eenhoorn: The money had been arranged, but the time between pitching and actually shooting in Iceland was amazing. I thought this was a forced to be reckoned with, Gamechanger Films had such an incredibly slick act.
This is their first feature, right?
Nelson: That what’s they said. Yeah. I did an episode of Eastbound & Down. I was an Uncle Al and I had the four nieces and the crazy nephew on that show. I don’t if you watch that show.
Yeah, I’ve watched every episode. I love it.
Nelson: They said I might be in two or three episodes, but I only ended up being in one because David, when Martha went to him, to ask him about how to get funds for our movie, he said, let me see what you’ve done. I was in Martha’s first two movies — see I’m Martha’s cousin — and he saw her two movies and said, ‘Whose the guy with the voice?’ He said, ”I’ve never heard that voice. I want that man’s voice on my show.” Then he flew me to North Carolina.
Have you seen your work on it?
Nelson: No, I don’t have HBO.
I bet you can call David Gordon Green. I’m sure he can arrange that.
Nelson: Well, I feel like I’m an inadequate indian and he’s one of the chiefs. [Laughs] I’m glad you enjoyed the film. That’s what’s important to me. You’ve got to laugh. There’s so many movies now that are so damn depressing and so many people killed and lasered and shot and blown up. When the F word is used a thousand times…
Eenhoorn: It turns you off. It’s not dialogue. It’s not two people talking.
Nelson: It’s trash, as far as I’m concerned.
Eenhoorn: I’m with you totally on that. That’s why I think this film is liked so much.
Nelson: It was done in good taste.
Eenhoorn: If we can talk about pussy in good taste, it was done in good taste. [Laughs]
Nelson: Well, if you’ve never eaten any pussy, you wouldn’t know. [Laughs] Remind me to use that one some day.
Eenhoorn: It’s just a fun film and I’m proud of it and so is this man.
Land Ho! hits theaters on Friday, July 11th and will expand throughout the summer.
Thanks to the combined efforts of Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane, those who see Boyhood — and I’m of the mind that anybody with so much as the slightest passing interest must buy a ticket — will be witness to one of the most unique performances ever captured on film. This sounds hyperbolic, I know, but few other qualifications are as immediately applicable to a 160-minute-long, 12-year-spanning journey that wears many different hats with aplomb. At its heart is just one person: Mason, who we meet as a young boy and leave as… well, if not exactly a man, someone with whom we’ve nevertheless experienced more than any normal-length film would seem capable of capturing.
I was pleased to meet Coltrane at SoHo’s Crosby Street Hotel earlier this week, where we talked about both project and performance — though that’s hardly the entirety of it. Boyhood reaches in so many different directions in any given scene — historical, cultural, personal, tonal — that any worthwhile discussion with one of its main creative forces can’t help but bring us many places. With this overlap between title and talk in mind, it’s my hope that what’s provided below will offer some additional insight into a complicated work of art.
The Film Stage: How many interviews have you done today?
Ellar Coltrane: I just did three phone interviews, and I was on The Today Show this morning.
I was hoping to look at that and make sure there wasn’t any overlap between my questions and their own, but I had to rush out the door. We’ll see.
Well, no worries.
Are you tired of talking about yourself? Or at least the whole press thing?
It’s very bizarre; it is. I think I’m coming to terms with it. It was just overwhelming at first, and it’s weird to analyze myself this much — but I also kind of do that all the time, anyways. But I’m becoming more comfortable with it and kind of establishing just, you know, what I want to do, I guess, and being able to be more vulnerable. Because it’s easy to kind of… like you said, I get asked a lot of the same questions, so it’s kind of easy to just slip into giving scripted answers, which I really don’t like. It feels very ingenuine to just kind of regurgitate the same answer over and over again, so I think I’m just getting better at just kind of keeping my mind clear and, you know, being able to just kind of try to be surprised.
How long have you been in New York for?
I just got in last night.
When I boarded a subway to come here, there was an ad hanging at the station.
It was just one of those weird moments. I don’t know if you’ve seen ads for it around town, or…
Yeah. There are a couple of posters up in Austin, which is very, very strange.
Watching this film, it’s interesting how you not only become more prominent as a figure in the film, but — and I say this as a compliment — you become a better presence, as in, a better actor.
Oh, thank you.
To the point where, by the end, I thought it was such a perfectly sustained turn. I’m wondering if you feel the same way — if you felt yourself growing into this role over the years.
Definitely, and I think as the character grew up and, you know, became more of a person and had more to say — and the character required more input — I was also growing up and becoming a person and had more input to give. I definitely think there was a point where I became an active participant as opposed to just a subject.
Was there ever the feeling of wanting to stick around longer, seeing as you’re growing into it more and more?
Yeah. Rick and I have talked a lot about that — just, really, from the second half on, it seemed like every year was the best year we had done. It kind of just got better and better as we all became closer to each other and closer to the project and gained confidence. Maybe me, most of all, as far as gaining confidence, but we all grew — they’re better actors than they were twelve years ago, and I think Rick’s better at making movies. We all kind of grew into ourselves. Definitely. It was sad; as exciting as it was to be done, it was also kind of sad to think that we’re not going to go back and do it this year.
When you get to the final moments, I’d be curious, when you’re shooting the final scene, if there was sort of a pressure to get it right in one take — this moment that’s been led up to for twelve years.
Yeah, and because we needed the sunset. So there was. But I never really felt pressured. By that point, it was so comfortable that… I mean, Rick’s comfort and Rick’s confidence is very infectious. It’s a very relaxed kind of dynamic on the set. But it was — I mean, it was intense. It definitely was to just, simultaneously, what we were doing on camera and just, what I just said — the knowledge that it was coming to an end — and this very important part of my life was just kind of being wrapped-up at that moment, and struggling to appreciate it. Struggling to be there in the moment and, you know, appreciate what I had just done. So it was a bizarre moment.
A viewer has this 160-minute lead-up to the final bit of dialogue, which I already think is one of the great closing lines from any movie.
[Laughs] I like it. It’s good.
It’s almost, at the last second, Linklater acknowledging that this was all very strange, this twelve-year thing. And you started shooting in 2002, playing six, but you’re actually nineteen. So, when it starts, you’re really playing younger.
Yeah. I think the idea was that I was usually about a year — the character was about a year younger than I was. I mean, it was never very specific, but I think that was usually the idea.
So that never had some sort of impact on your performance, playing slightly younger?
Not really. I mean, I was home-schooled growing up, so I think a lot of the, like, divisions between ages that are just really a couple of years apart, I think public school kind of instills that in you. “You are very different and separate from someone who’s a year older than you.” I mean, I always had friends that were all different ages. I never really thought about it, and I think it also kind of helped; part of what Rick thought about, I think, was kind of not having me do anything on camera that I hadn’t already experienced in real life. Just a slight bit ahead, so I had kind of a head start to understand what the character might be going through.
Can you talk a bit about the evolution of how we worked with you, from a kid to basically an adult?
I mean, when I was young, I think a lot of what Rick was doing was kind of just trying to create an environment where me and Lorelei would be comfortable to just be ourselves, because most kinds aren’t, like, super-dramatic. Dramatic, in ways, but they’re not fully formed people yet, and so it’s just kind of capturing these little things about them. As far as the script-writing process: when I was young, I think it was more a matter of Rick just asking me questions and trying to get a feel, sort of vicariously, for what I might be and what kind of experiences he could kind of pull from my life to supplement the character with.
But as I got older — somewhere around halfway through — I became more of an active participant in that process. It was more of a collaboration, where he would kind of come to me with what was going to happen that year, and he very rarely had dialogue written ahead of time. Sometimes. He had his outline, and we would take that and compare it to what I was going through — what things I could reference, and what dynamics were like between me and girlfriends, or my family, or friends. That kind of thing. So I was able to use my experiences to flesh out the character and make him more of a real person.
Were there things you felt uncomfortable sharing and wished to withhold, for the sake of privacy?
Not consciously, really. I’m a pretty open person; I’ve always had a really respectful relationship with my parents, so I never… I don’t know, I never really felt the need to close myself off. But certainly, watching it back, there are things — especially kind of in the teenage years — that I maybe didn’t know I was expressing at the time. You know, just certain aspects of myself and my emotional state that I didn’t know how, like, obvious they were. [Laughs] So that’s a little interesting, to go, “Oh, I didn’t know anybody could see that.”
And do you think other people can see it, or is it just you?
I don’t know, I mean… I mean, definitely, but it’s kind of under the surface. You know, it’s self-conscious, so I definitely think other people see it, and I think that’s why so many people connect to it in such a meaningful way: because there is so much that’s unsaid — there’s just so much that’s just under the surface. Which is amazing. That’s an amazing thing that Rick did, making it — making us comfortable enough to express the same things.
We’re right around the same age, so I was thinking of small signifiers: if his hair’s growing longer, maybe that’s a sign of… not exactly rebellion, but a lot of friends around that time would —
Let their hair grow longer.
You notice personality changes which come with that.
Or if they’re skateboarding, or something, that’s a new facet of their personality which comes around. I feel like these things happened around similar times for my friends. For instance, I was able to place one part as 2007 because of the Soulja Boy cue.
Did you have a lot of say in the music?
No, actually. Rick did a lot of consulting for all of the music, and he asked me & Lorelei [Linklater, the writer-director's daughter and actress portraying Mason's sister], but I don’t think we were much help, because he wanted, you know… I mean, kind of a timestamp. That’s really one of the biggest timestamps that any of the years have, is the music — it kind of lets you know. And neither of us ever really listened to current music. There was an interview with me from the first year, when I’m seven, and he asked me what my favorite bands are, and it’s, like, Tool and System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine. Later it was Pink Floyd and Radiohead and stuff like that. I love all the music. Some of those songs are songs that I like now; I’d never heard of them before and I… but, yeah, I wasn’t quite “on the pulse” of what most kids were into.
So you did home-schooling from 1st to 8th grade, then attended a public high school?
I went to half a year of sixth grade, and, yeah, then I went to two-and-a-half years of high school.
One thing I’ve been curious about: when I first read about this film — in maybe 2007 or so — I was just searching around to learn a bit more, and, in the process, came across your IMDb page. When you were in public school, did friends ever Google your name, for whatever reason, and then found out you were doing this film —
And then you get questions: “what is this thing I found?”
Right. I mean, I don’t know. I mean, the only people that thought to do that were people I had already told about it. But it was weird. I mean, as big a part of my life as it was, it was also, like, a week out of the year, so a lot of times I would forget about it and, like, forget to tell my friends about it. Then I go off to do it, and they’re like, “What are you talking about? What are you doing?” And I’m like, “Oh, right: there’s this weird thing I’m a part of.” My first girlfriend, actually: I was dating her for months, and then I went to go do it, and she was like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” But that’s happening now, you know? I mean, I get texts, every day, with pictures of myself from the Internet, and I’m just… you think I want to see that? I know. Believe me: I really know. But, yeah, people freak out about it. It’s bizarre.
I know you also did a role in Fast Food Nation.
Yeah, real small.
Did that come about from… were they shooting around the same time, or was it just a matter of Linklater calling you up?
Yeah, I think Rick just kind of wanted to just do something with me — just give me a chance to come see a different set. I’m not really sure; maybe I have to ask him. But I think it was just kind of just a little thing to do.
Do you have favorite films by him? I assume you’ve seen most of them by now.
The only ones I haven’t seen are the Before series.
Yeah, amazingly, I haven’t seen any of those. But I’ve seen all the other ones, and I think Waking Life has always been my favorite; that’s a very special film to me. And Slacker, also. I mean, that’s right around the time I was born, and it’s a love letter to Austin. Austin’s home, I know a lot people in that film, and it’s very surreal to watch.
Well, doesn’t an actor from Slacker appear in the film? Later on, when you’re in the Tex-Mex cafe with your girlfriend?
Oh… yeah, I think so. Yeah, maybe the guy that’s talking to himself?
Yeah. Yeah, I remember him; I remember that.
I’d thought, “Maybe these exist in the same universe.”
That’s sort of lovely.
I mean, yeah, Rick has constructed his own little world, and some of us get to inhabit it. [Laughs] Definitely. I think he has his own universe.
And where Mason is at Boyhood’s conclusion kind of dovetails neatly with Slacker. I remember many saying it felt like he could just walk into it by film’s end.
I don’t know if you ever felt that connection.
I mean, never specifically, but even though I haven’t seen the Before series, we also talked about that: that it’s like, maybe Mason gets on a train and goes to Europe and meets a woman. So I certainly have thought about that. It’s kind of this bizarre meta reflection of the other films.
Now that it’s coming out… I had read you were considering pursuing an acting career. Boyhood is a pretty good piece on your résumé, but do you ever feel like this is a good “cap” to the career, too, just because it’s one of the most unique roles any actor has ever had?
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I mean, I don’t feel desperate or pressured to start some kind of career. I think, more than anything, what this has taught me and inspired me to do is just make art, in general. I definitely can be acting — I enjoy acting — but it’s also all kinds of other things, you know, but yeah, it is weird. It would be hard to “top” this experience, so we’ll see.
Really I just want to be lost in the creative process, more than anything, and that’s kind of what I found over the last twelve years, is that that’s really the thing that makes me the happiest: to just be submerged in the process of making something and kind not concerned with the outcome. Working over that long, that’s kind of how it became. I think we, in a way, forgot that it was ever going to come out — it was ever going to be a movie. It was just this experience that we were having, and that’s a beautiful thing.
And then it finally hits you that we’re here.
This movie I’d known about for years and could find hide nor hair of, and now —
[Raises hands] Now it’s a thing. Now everybody knows about it. It’s crazy. It’s crazy.
Boyhood will enter limited release on July 11 and expand from the week of July 18. See the full roll-out plans here.
Capturing the final, heartbreaking months of Roger Ebert’s life and going into the archive to tell his life’s journey, Steve James has crafted a stunning, balanced documentary that’s a must-see for anyone who loves going to the movies — but, more importantly, discussing them afterward. Upon the theatrical and VOD release of Life Itself I was able to speak with the director about creating the film.
We discusses the critic’s legacy, why it was important for him to tell the story the way he did, Ebert‘s relationship with critics, and if that mirrors James‘ own, being in production when Ebert passed, the new cut premiering at Cannes, Chaz Ebert‘s involvement, and much more. Check out the conversation in full below.
Congrats on the movie. I haven’t seen it Sundance, but it was quite a screening. It was a press screening, so it was all critics. I was curious if you’ve sat in on any screenings where it was just critics and what that reaction has been, perhaps different to regular audiences.
Have I sat in on a screening with critics?
No, I haven’t. There have been some critics in screenings that were general public screenings, but I don’t think I’ve been anywhere where they encourage the filmmaker to be in the same room. [Laughs] I would love to. I would to unobtrusively be observing. I heard that press screening at Sundance was very well attended and it went quite well. That’s the word I heard back, but I wasn’t there.
Yeah, it was pretty incredible. How Ebert effected so many of our lives and seeing it with a group that was so effected by him. It’s a very balanced look at his life and that truth and honest takes the film to another level. How important for you was it to show that complete portrait?
I feel like in all the films I do, my goal is to follow someone’s life in some way or understand someone’s life in some way, but I’m not trying to ever do, I hope, a kind of hagiography on someone’s life. That’s not usually what make it interesting, to me. In the case of Roger, when I read his memoir, what I loved about it was the candor, the circuitous journey his life had taken him, the ups and downs, the glory of his drinking days and then having to give it up. The glory of fame, and the importance, that came from the Siskel & Ebert show and the often torturous relationship at the center of it that made it such a success. The way in which different people viewed him. Some people viewed him as a man with too much hubris and other people would say he was the most humane and understanding and humble person they’d ever met. All of that interested me and it was important to show and the fact that he was as candid as he was in his own memoir was a really good sign that he wanted the same thing. In fact, he more than lived up to that.
He obviously had a wonderful relationship with some directors, a few of which are in the film. As a director, I know he championed Hoop Dreams, but I’m curious if you have a similar mindset as him when it comes to critics? Do you read reviews?
Yeah, I only had a friendly, courteous, but professional relationship with Roger over the years even though we were both in Chicago, but I did continue to read him, and I read other critics. I like reading criticism. I’m careful about reading criticism of movies not mine own of movies I want to go see. I’m careful about reading too many of them or even reading the whole review because I really don’t want to have my own opinion influenced by what a critic might say, especially a critic I like. Oftentimes I really go back and read the reviews much more after a movie if the movie warrants it for me, like I really wanted to know what other people thought. I feel like reading criticism over the years, of my own work, has informed it. There are reviews that you read that are positive that have great insight. There are reviews that you read that are positive that don’t have much insight, but I’ll take them anyway. There are reviews that are negative that you feel like the critic completely missed the point. Then there are reviews, sometimes you read them that or more or less negative and you kind of go, well, they are kind of right about that. They put their finger on something that doesn’t quite work. So I have a lot of respect for critics. I probably have too much respect which is why I always remember the negative reviews and the positive ones seem to go out of my head very quickly.
Scorsese is in this, and he also produced this, and you have a few other filmmakers, Ramin Bahrani and Herzog. When the documentary was announced — I’m sure many directors were affected by Ebert and his championing of their films. Was there any requests to you that filmmakers that said they were curious and you had to decline them?
That’s a good question. I don’t remember anyone reaching out to me specifically to say, “Hey, would you please interview me.” Which I’m glad, because it could have been hard because Roger had such a profound influence on so many filmmakers, particularly on filmmakers in the independent world. It’s true. I could have probably interviewed a couple of dozen. You could have made the strong case for a couple of dozen filmmakers that I could have interviewed that he really had an impact on their career, but the bar for me became not just that he had an impact on a filmmaker’s career, but that they had either, at the very least, had had a kind of really significant encounter with him and the way in which he came to their work was extremely meaningful in terms of telling us something about Roger. That’s why Ava Duvernay is in there. Or in the case of Scorsese, it was a real friendship. Or Gregory Nava. These were two filmmakers whose work Roger championed, but also become close friends of Roger. So there had to be more to talk to a filmmaker about then just, he loved my work and why.
In his last years, it was incredible to see him embrace this social media front. He became a source for things that were interesting online related to film criticism. One of my best moments was when he shared an article I wrote early on in my days. This documentary seems like it’s coming at a transition period for criticism and I wonder if you could comment about that and his legacy that is still alive with his website.
Yeah, I think when you look at Roger’s reign from 1967 until last year, in many ways he was very fortunate to have come into reviewing films when he did and then been able to be a part of it and help shape it and define it for so long. I mean, 1967 was a watershed year in American cinema. Mark Harris wrote a book about the five films, which Bonnie and Clyde was one of them, In the Heat of the Night, and there are several others which are escaping me at the moment. The Graduate was one of them. It was watershed year as it was identified as the birth of the New American Cinema and then it was also, though, the rise of a cinephile culture in the states. We started to get and see the works of Truffaut and Antonioni and Fellini and Kurosawa and all these iconic European and Asian directors. So it was a thrilling time to fall in love with movies and Roger was able to traverse that time as a film critic and teach himself to be a scholar at the same time. He started out as anything but. He was just a guy that loved to go to the movies.
So for him to be part of that and then also transform the art of film criticism; first of all, being the first critic to win the Pulitzer, and then he got to the show and transformed the whole idea of what film criticism could mean in the larger culture, was amazing, and then to have this last act where he reinvented and transformed himself again on the internet. It’s pretty remarkable. And one of things I always loved about Roger was that he both looked back with great fondness — and I tried to put this in the movie — on the beauty of appreciating film and all its glory in a theater with 1,000 people and a 10-story high screen. He loved that, as all of us who love movies do, but he didn’t cast dispersions on the reality of where we find ourselves today, where people are going to encounter movies and encounter criticism on the internet, and download movies. He realized that even though that may not be the ideal way to see movies, it is a way in which movies can stay alive and thrive and prosper and we have to embrace it.
You went to Cannes with this film and there was a section added. Is that also going to be on the release or was that strictly for Cannes?
Yes, it is. It’s just a little five-minute section, but I’m really happy with it. We had had a Cannes section in the movie and then I cut it out at a certain point, just because I was trying to shorten the movie and I liked it, but it just kind of went away. Then we kind of retooled it for Cannes and I really like it because it’s very entertaining, but it also allows to feature another review like we do of Bonnie and Clyde and Cries and Whispers and a Bresson film, L’Argent. Even beyond that, it allows us to further define why Gene was so afraid that Roger would leave the show because at Cannes, as his producer tells us in the section, Roger really came into his own and realized he could create television and do media by himself and be very happy with that. It helps to reinforce why Gene was so afraid Roger would give up on the show and leave.
Yes, it’ll eventually be on CNN but it’s not going to be on either at the end of the year or the beginning of next year. It was always our intention, even when CNN came on early, that this film would be a theatrical film first and foremost. Because, number one, it’s about Roger and it’s about the movies, but number two — and you saw, in the press screening, it sounds like you had a bit of this experience — I’ve seen it a number of times with audiences. It’s a really wonderful viewing experience in the theater with other people, because of the humor and because of the poignancy. I’m not saying it’s Lawrence of Arabia.
But I think it’s a film that plays well in a communal setting with other people because it’s what Roger loved and so many people loved Roger.
Absolutely. When Ebert passed, you were already deep into making this movie. Is that correct?
He passed away four months into the making of the movie.
OK, so you hadn’t started editing or anything.
No, I actually begin editing right on the heels of his passing. We had done about two-thirds or more of the interviews at that point so I still had some to go. But I started right after he passed away. I sat down and started to carve out the movie the movie while I collected the remaining interviews.
For the structure, did you mostly use the memoir or did have your own ideas for the flow of it?
The memoir informed the movie in a lot of ways, including the idea of the structure, which was to sort of see life in the present and see it as a springboard in the past, because that’s what he does in the memoir. But the devil is in the details about how you go from one thing to another. That’s always a bit of a trial and error process, but I know, like the memoir, I wanted it to be largely chronological, but I didn’t want to be bound by the chronology because Roger’s life doesn’t fit that box so neatly. For 40 years he went to Cannes. For 40 years he want to the conference on world affairs. He devoted chapters to each of them. So I wanted the film to have that kind of feeling of when we deal with the conference or Cannes we just dive in and deal with it, even though it spanned his lifetime. I love the freedom of that, as someone who edits my own films, I loved the freedom of not, frankly, always being a slave to the narrative chronology of someone’s life.
Just wrapping up, Chaz Ebert has been such a champion of this film and it’s great to see her continue Roger’s legacy. Her strength and stamina must be such an integral part of this process. Can you talk about going on the press tour with her?
First of all, we couldn’t have made the movie without her. She was instrumental in everything that happened in order to get the film made and not just the filming of her and Roger, but access to archival sources and clips from shows. She was just phenomenal. Then, yes, it took several viewings of the film for her to finally really allow herself to watch the film that’s there. But she’s completely embraced it and like you said, she’s been an incredible trooper. She really likes the movie, loves the movie. I think she sees this movie as a part of Roger’s legacy and that’s very important to her.
That’s great. That’s all I have. Thank you so much for talking with me and best of luck with the film. It’s a great work.
Thank you very much. Take care.
Life Itself is now in limited release and available on VOD.
At least every other day when I’m walking around Los Angeles I overhear someone on their phone saying, “I got an audition tomorrow,” “I don’t think the audition went very well,” and plenty of other audition-related conversations. Most of the time their tone isn’t exactly upbeat. After facing rejection and after rejection, it makes sense for aspiring actors — or anyone else trying to make it in the industry, for that matter — to be a little down on themselves. Plus, sometimes Los Angeles feels like a city constantly poking you in the eye with stick.
And yet, there’s plenty to love about this city, especially when the right people manage to break into the industry. Writer/Director Lorene Scafaria is one of those people, but, like most aspiring filmmakers without connections, it wasn’t an easy journey. Although the co-star of a new sci-fi drama, Coherence, makes her living off screenwriting, she’s had past acting experiences that have been inspiring, or, in the worst cases, draining.
Scafaria recently discussed these experiences with us, in addition to her disappointment with modern comedies, how she became involved with Coherence, and America’s desire to see beautiful people on film.
Here’s what the writer/director behind Seeking a Friend for the End of the World had to say in part two of our interview with her (read part one here):
Do you enjoy acting?
I like it. I couldn’t call myself an actor, though. I don’t audition or hit the pavement. I feel like I would insult actors if I called myself an actor. This was such a great opportunity, though. I met [director] Jim [Byrkit] because I did this roundtable for Rango with [director] Gore Verbinski. We basically sat around a table for a week with Jim and all these Simpsons writers. I was the only girl there, which is usually the case for a lot of roundtables. It was the most fun I’ve had doing something like that. You wanted to impress Gore Verbinski so bad. There was a bell in the middle of the table, which he’d ding if he particularly loved a joke. I just wanted that bell to ring so bad [Laughs].
[Laughs] He’s a quiet guy, so you know if you got a big reaction out of him, it must’ve been a good joke.
Totally. I kept calling Jim the wrong name at the roundtable, because I thought he was the screenwriter. Anyway, he did so much story writing on it and did some character voices on it. He was really Gore’s righthand man. I was impressed with how his mind worked. We stayed in touch, but it was at least a year after that when he asked if I wanted to be in this film. It sounded more like an experimental thing than anything else. He had shot a shorter version of it with the same seven people, but his wife played the part that I played. She was nine months pregnant by the time he was about to shoot the film, so he asked if I would play the the part.
Everyone had met, except for me. When he told me I was going to play Nicholas Brendon‘s wife I was in. I was the biggest Buffy fan ever. I used to have a Xander trading card. All I needed to hear is I’d be Xander’s wife. That guy’s a riot. He did not disappoint. I wish I could tell 16-year-old me, “Listen, you’re going to get to play his wife in a low-budget sci-fi drama!”
I showed up at this house and they shot it on these little cameras. All I remember is we had to take our shoes off, because there’s no shoes allowed in the house. We were all in our socks, making it feel like it wasn’t really happening [Laughs]. I really didn’t know what was going on. He didn’t really let us know many details as the film was going. We just knew we were having a casual conversation and what we’d have to mention. It was so fun to keep everything natural and loose. I certainly preferred filming those first two days best, before the mania of the film takes over and then I’m saying, “Oh my God.” [Laughs]
I read another acting experience of yours was playing an extra on Stuart Little 2. Is that correct?
I really was. I was a struggling actor in New York. I wanted my SAG card so badly and was doing extra work for the money. Weirdly all the movies I was in have numbers in the title. Did you see 15 Minutes with Robert De Niro?
It sounds familiar.
I had a really weird time there. I was an extra on The Sopranos and had the time of my life. James Gandolfini was the nicest person I had ever come across. He was actually responsible for getting me my SAG card. I forget how, but he got me an audition. With Stuart Little 2 I remember they said we had to wear Fall colors. It’s a scene where in Central Park Stuart is chased by a hawk. Basically a tennis ball was moving through central park and we all had to move out of the way and go, “Whoa!” [Laughs]
[Laughs] That’s a very convincing “whoa.”
[Laughs] Pretty good, right? It was hysterical. I did 10 or 15 extra work jobs in New York before I moved to Los Angeles. It’s interesting, because at that time it felt like everybody wanted to be an actor. There’s so much competition, so you feel like it’ll never work out. Truly being an extra made me feel terrible about myself, but it made me look around and say, “Is this the competition? Because I feel like 20% of these people are homeless and here for the food.” I was there for the food too, but doing Stuart Little 2 made me feel I could get ahead.
My worst and last experience was on 13 Going on 30. I had a meeting with the director six months before about a script I wrote. Gary Winik, who passed away, was very nice to me and passed on my script. Six months later I was on the set and I turn around and see him and two producer women. They were looking at my ass, deciding if it was good enough for me to be upgraded to “thong girl.” The answer was: no [Laughs].
[Laughs] That’s terrible. Were they speaking loudly enough for you to hear them?
They were speaking loudly enough for me to know what was happening. Now when I watch the movie that scene starts with the girl wearing the thong practically over her ribs. I remember that day when it happened I thought, “This is my last day of extra work.” I didn’t go back the next day, even though it was a big dance number. I thought I was all set. It put some hair on my chest. It was pretty bad [Laughs].
[Laughs] I hope you treat your extras better.
I don’t treat the extras that way. I look at them and think, “This isn’t easy.” Out here everyone is dead serious. People are trying. I can’t say the most trained actors in the world are out here in L.A., but they’re people with dreams. I couldn’t possibly feel more for extras and bit players and all of that. Also, I would be nervous. When there’s that moment where they have one line to get right, it’s just, “Oh man, get it right…” I’m rooting for everybody. I feel bad for people in every role.
The greatest thing about a movie set is it’s 100 people with different sets of skills. For me, that’s what made it less scary: I could look around and see there was all kinds of specialists in everything I don’t know about.
[Laughs] It’s funny hearing that 13 Going on 30 story, because in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Norah has that line about not wanting to go into the music business, because she’s worried she’ll stop loving music. Is it the same for film?
Yeah. I think it’s come back around for me, but for a while it was hard not to watch a movie without pulling it apart, knowing what’s suppose to happen or rewriting it yourself. At first, I was losing my love for storytelling. Seeing what gets rewarded is hard. Sometimes I feel ambition is something that gets squashed. Even with the movies that get praise I think, “Oh, that was so down the middle! It’s so easy!”
When you’re making a film stars have to align. Then after marketing, which is where I think dreams go to die, and it’s released into the wild, I think, “Is this of the moment?” I have gotten that love back, though. I love movies so much. After Seeking a Friend I was so sad thinking the kind of movies I like weren’t getting made anymore. I dream of the 1990s.
I saw Pulp Fiction six times in the theater. My mind was blown by David Fincher and Sam Mendes. Now I think it’s coming back. Like, with Steve McQueen, I can’t fucking wait to see what he does next. I’m too excited about different filmmakers and getting surprised. With actors we’ve imported a lot of great ones, which is also inspiring.
It’s not always about what wins or does the best, for sure. I get excited to see movies like Locke or Under the Skin that inspire you, and the same goes for television. I just watched Breaking Bad in all of two weeks. In one day we watched 12 episodes. When it was over, I thought, “I don’t know who I’m going to be anymore! I’m like Hank with his minerals!” [Laughs] There’s too much good stuff to be put off by shit being pushed to the top.
It’s sad what’s happened to some of those ’90s filmmakers. I mean, now Nick Cassavetes has to make The Other Woman.
Was that good? I love Leslie Mann.
It’s so bizarrely bad, you gotta see it. It’s really mean-spirited and misogynistic.
That’s what I guessed it’d be like. Obviously I want woman stories and woman comedies to come out, but I mean…what are we saying [with those kind of films]? Everything is so mean-spirited. I’ve never enjoyed that so much. I think I was the one person who didn’t like Ted. Of course it crushed Seeking a Friend six days after it came out, so maybe that had something to do with it [Laughs].
There has to be another way to make people laugh. I think of all genres comedy is what’s lacking most. I’m proud and impressed by people like Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who help us keep comedy alive. It may not even be the kind of comedy I would be doing, but it’s good for human beings, young parents, and the manchilds of the world [Laughs].
[Laughs] I really miss Albert Brooks’ tone for comedies. When you mentioned the script about your mother, the first thing I thought of was Albert Brooks’ Mother.
He’s the one. I meant to say his name before. That’s the person whose movies I miss the most. I couldn’t watch Broadcast News more often. It’s really bizarre how much I watch that movie. I feel like all the movies I love would never get made today, and that’s hard for me. I do think romantic comedies have been ruined by: let’s put two giant stars in this 40 million dollar high-concept movie about newspaper against newspaper. At the same time, what happened to talking about relationships? I miss romantic films and comedies, so there has to be a way to bring that genre back, without dumbing down or saying the wrong things. I think what a movie says isn’t something we think about too often [Laughs]. I think about… not necessarily the themes of what I’m writing, but the whole of whatever it’s trying to say.
It’s funny you say that, because when I interviewed Rob Corddry for Seeking a Friend he tore the ending of Grease apart. The moral of that movie is basically: if you dress a certain way, everybody will love you. It’s weird to be shown that as a kid.
Exactly. You’re not really thinking about what that means as a kid. She puts on those tight leather pants and everything works out.
[Laughs] I think that is the most valuable lesson.
Especially in Hollywood.
Well, not even Hollywood. Hollywood is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot. I saw this article recently that was blaming casting directors for casting exclusively beautiful women. First of all, the casting directors have very little to do with that. They certainly make suggestions and have input, but they are not responsible for how beautiful an actress in your film is. That’s certainly from studio heads, but, to me, that’s America. America wants to see beautiful people. Sometimes you hear people say how the images of beauty in Hollywood are corrupting America, but I think it might be the other way around.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough to know insecurity is running rampant here [Laughs]. I think Hollywood is trying to keep up with America’s demands for beauty. I don’t know how much you can blame Hollywood. It seems like a worldwide epidemic, that women are valued for their beauty and male actors are paid more. That’s just how it is, but obviously it deserves to be fought. I think Hollywood being used as a curse word is pretty funny, because I think it may just be the representation of a larger problem.
This is a sad note to end this interview on.
[Laughs] Totally depressing! Women will never get ahead! No, women just have to fight twice as hard. That’s all…
Coherence opens in limited release on June 20th.
Around 15 years ago writer/director/actor/musician Lorene Scafaria began her road trip to Los Angeles. With the promise of an agent waiting for her in Los Angeles, it sounded like the right time to make the move…until she reached Texas, where she learned that agent had switched agencies, leaving her with nothing.
Since then she’s has released an album, sold a handful of scripts, adapted Nick and Norah‘s Infinite Playlist, and wrote and directed one of the best films of 2012, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Now Scafaria can be seen in writer/director James Ward Byrkit‘s Coherence, a very clever piece of suburbia sci-fi. Without spoiling the film, it’s about a group of friends that have a dinner party interrupted by a strange occurrence, which is really all anyone needs to know going into this movie.
Scafaria was kind enough to speak with us for a solid hour in Los Angeles a few weeks back to promote the film. Since the conversation ran long and we didn’t want to cut too much out, our interview with Scafaria will be published in two parts.
Kicking off part one is a brief mention of an excellent script she sold years ago to Warner Bros., The Mighty Flynn, which she hopes to direct herself one day. In addition to future projects, here’s what Coherence star Lorene Scafaria had to say about the hurdles of writing technology, telling personal stories, salsa dancing, family, and much, much more:
One of your earlier scripts that hasn’t been made yet is The Mighty Flynn. You said how you were worried if it’s outdated. Is that because the story relies heavily on the yellow pages?
That’s just it. Maybe I’m crazy, but when I wrote that everybody didn’t have a cell phone. When I went back to rewrite it I thought maybe it’s been long enough since Up in the Air where I could do it again [note: it's also about a corporate downsizing expert]. Looking back, though, I thought I’d have to do it as a period piece. I forget the year where there was mass firings in New York, but I thought maybe I’d change it to that period. Technology is really ruining things for dramatic purposes.
When you’re writing a scene, do you ever have to stop and ask yourself, “Why don’t they just call or text this person?”
All the time. Don’t you think that in movies? When someone says, “What are we going to do?!” It’s really easy: you have a phone in your pocket, so call 9-11 [Laughs]
[Laughs] It’s so boring to watch characters on the phone, and the same goes for characters on computers.
I hate it.
Unless you’re David Fincher, it probably won’t work.
My boyfriend is also a writer, so we’ve been discussing how computers have been shot in film and how tweets are shown. I saw Chef recently, and that had birds flying threw trees and stuff. I mean, everybody tries. I have to hand it to everybody for giving it a shot, but I think you’re right about David Fincher. We were watching House of Cards last night and I was thinking, “This is the way to do it. There’s two words filling the screen and a blinking cursor. We’re in the moment.” There’s a great 17-minute short film from the perspective of somebody’s computer. Have you ever seen that?
You should check it out. It’s really cool. This thing I’m writing now, fortunately or unfortunately, is all about technology. I’m writing this thing for Warner Bros. based on a blog, which scares me, you know, writing something based on a blog. The blog is actually really fascinating and based on these two people who dated for 40 days as this experiment. The first script I wrote I didn’t want to bring the blog in. I tried so hard to leave technology out of it, but it really did read as the smallest and nonspecific movie. People do email each other, call each other, and text each other. I had to wrap my head around using technology. I hate it and want to leave it out of everything, but now I’ve incorporated the blog and realized all my instincts were wrong [Laughs].
[Laughs] I’m sure we’ll start seeing big dramatic scenes done over text messages, which probably wouldn’t be very interesting.
Yeah. Maybe that’s why that short is interesting to see, because maybe there is a way to hang some interesting drama or tension on that. I certainly will text someone, in my single hours [Laughs], and see those three dots and stare at them.
[Laughs] Did you see Locke?
I love Locke.
I was amazed by how well that worked. It’s kind of similar to Coherence, where it’s so simple you wish you thought of it first.
I know. Locke I was so impressed with. Just fading from headlights to headlights should not have been so gripping, but it absolutely was. There’s been some movies this year I’m really psyched about.
What else have you liked?
I thought Enemy was great and I loved Under the Skin. Under the Skin is my favorite [of the year] so far. Aren’t they all A24 films? A24 is kind of kicking ass.
It’s been a really good year for movies.
I know. I just saw X-Men last night and really liked it [Laughs].
[Laughs] I actually didn’t like Days of Future Past. I feel like they’ve pretty told that story before.
It’s all so boring. They’re all the same. X-Men is, like, the greatest actors all in a giant superhero movie, which, for me, is different than other superhero movies. I mean, Hugh Jackman may be the greatest actor of all time. Did you see Prisoners?
He s great in that.
He’s so fucking good in that. He had the moment in Prisoners where he’s like, “[Hugh Jackman impersonation] You have to handle this! [Pause] I’m sorry.” Then he hugs his son and tears shot out of my eyes. I don’t even know how it got me, but I felt like the ghost of my father was tapping on my shoulder.
Hugh Jackman can basically do anything.
He really can. Hosting the Tonys in a couple of weeks? Nobody that tough and cool should be able to do it all. I’ve never seen range like that.
He’s one of the few macho guys on film that cries like an actual person. That scene in The Fountain where he’s just losing it is amazing.
Right. Robert De Niro used to be my absolute hero, because when a tough guy like that breaks down you feel it so much more. When De Niro cried in The Silver Linings Playbook, I just couldn’t describe what I’m feeling. Did you like Noah?
I really like Noah.
I like Noah so much. I love Aronofsky, but I was blown away by it. What a powerful image it was with all the people clinging to the rock and him inside the ark. It was all really intense, of course, because it’s Aronofsky and God [Laughs]. Even just to have that scene of him holding the knife over two babies. He makes you think he’ll do it. I thought, “Maybe I don’t remember the story well, but I’m pretty sure these babies are going to die.” [Laughs] I’m becoming more of a fan than a critic. Once you realize how hard it is to get anything made, let alone anything remotely good, it changes the way you see a movie. There’s just too many factors.
That’s why I hate it when a critic says, “It’s not perfect.”
I know. The hardest thing with Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is I thought I could make a flawed movie or no movie [Laughs]. I decided to make the flawed movie, because this is it, you know? You’re just looking at a calendar saying, “These are the people we have. This is how much time we have. This is the plane we’re getting.” Obviously it’s so much better to get out there, make something, and just assume someone will get it.
I always like how Danny Boyle says your first movie is always your best movie, because you think it’s your only chance and you’ll try everything.
Totally. I felt like that afterwards. I thought, “Well, I said what I wanted to say. This is all my ideals. I think I’ve said everything.” After that, you just have to figure that out.
That makes sense. After reading The Mighty Flynn and revisiting Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, you can see some connections, like, a character trying to connect with their cleaning lady or someone’s final words interrupted by death.
Absolutely. Once The Mighty Flynn wasn’t happening I looked for what I could steal from myself. I felt like I had been trying to tell that story for a long time. Once Seeking a Friend came out these characters seemed like clichés to people, and yet I was still trying to tell the story of a guy who’s sleepwalking and in need of an awakening and the free-spirited girl who helps him. Obviously people can call her a manic pixie dream girl, but I thought, “No. That’s just me. She’s British, but she’s me.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] It must’ve stung if a critic ever called her unlikable.
I really did take it personally for that reason. I couldn’t believe that you put on a pair of chuck taylors and suddenly you’re dismissed. For me, it was that my dad used to wear them, so I put them on the character. You make these personal decisions, but then realize, “Oh right. These sneakers could really crush it for people.” Those reviews or opinions mean nothing to me. You know, the reviews with people flipping out that Steve Carrell is so much older than her made me think, “Well, that’s how you went into it. You’re missing the point.” People who don’t like the film are fine with me [Laughs], but those critiques I can’t even listen to.
Afterwards I thought, “Am I ever going to want to make a personal film again?” It really was a personal thing for me, as much as it was high-concept and not my life story. Afterwards I wanted to swing the other way and write something not personal. After that, I thought, “No, fuck that! I’m going to write the most personal thing I’ve ever written.” Immediately after I wrote about my mom, my dad, and me.
What comes easier: writing the personal story or the impersonal story?
I don’t know. It was so easy to write a character whose voice I know so well. I felt I had source material just because of my mom calling me eight times a day [Laughs]
[Laughs] Your mom sounds great, though.
She is. She moved here after my dad passed away and I thought it was incredibly brave that, at 60-something, to pickup your life, move 3,000 miles away from everything you’ve ever known, and basically hangout with me in warm weather. If this movie gets made, I hope it’ll bring in mom tourism to Los Angeles. After she moved here I had a lot of friends’ moms and dads want to move here. I mean, there’s the warm weather, so it’s not hard to get them out here. We don’t live in the worst place. Well, it depends who you ask [Laughs].
[Laughs] Maybe you went through the same thing, but I think moving away from your family almost makes your relationship with them better.
Absolutely. It’s what made my relationship with my dad really good. It’s almost an unnatural thing to be a family, you know, having four or five different people live together for so long and share bathrooms [Laughs]. I can’t even believe I shared a bathroom with my brother for 18 years. It’s a trip having my mom live out here. The reason I wanted to write the script is we were both grieving my dad at the same time in very different ways. My mom is a completely optimistic person, while I try. [Laughs]
[Laughs] You can see that in Penny.
Yeah. That phone call to her parents is how I felt. Every speech she made was probably true to me with some regrets about not spending enough time with some people. When you getaway it makes it so… I would talk to mom for hours when she lived in New Jersey. Now she’s here with me and I’m, like, “I don’t have time!” [Laughs] It’s really intense. I’m her best friend, maybe her only friend. She really is the loveliest person. Even as they get older they’re human beings and really become your friends. I’m grateful I had as much time with my dad as I did and my mom, but it’s wild to think, “I’m 36, I don’t have kids, and I gotta entertain my mother.”
I used to say to my brother and my dad, “If we weren’t family, we wouldn’t be friends.” Not as an insult, but because… it’s just kind of a funny situation.
Isn’t that funny? Of course. My brother and I are completely different people. I remember being new in L.A. and it took a while to meet the right group of friends. I feel like I went through a few different groups of friends before landing on the sole group of people. It takes two years to get used to Los Angeles. I still look around and can’t believe I live in a place with palm trees. I mean, that’s bizarre to me. They shouldn’t even be here [Laughs].
Again, I think it is about making friends. You’re just indoors all the time. You’re either in your house or someone else’s house. For me, at least, I wouldn’t be out at clubs or bars. L.A. is good for day life. It’s not the nightlife city, like, New York or D.C.. [Pauses] Oh God, I just remembered salsa dancing in DC.
[Laughs] How was that?
It was great. You know, I just got notes yesterday for this romantic comedy I’m writing. I said to them, “I’ve never received a set of notes for a romantic comedy that didn’t suggest a scene of salsa dancing.” I could search salsa dancing on my computer and 10 scripts would popup. It’s always, “You know what wouldn’t be a bad idea? Put them in a salsa dancing class!” [Laughs]
How are you with bad notes?
Pretty good. There is such a thing as bad notes. A lot of the time it’s about the note behind the note, with people not knowing how to articulate exactly what they want you to change. I’ll usually hear bad notes on a Friday, bitch about them on Saturday and Sunday, and realize on Monday what I think they’re trying to say. You try to act accordingly, but even on this new one, it’s a learning experience. Every single time it’s new. Like I said, with this first draft I really needed to be told to embrace the blog.
Do you still read your scripts out loud to your mom?
Totally. She’s my best audience. I just forced that upon her the other day. She completely indulges me. Nobody else lets me be so self-absorbed.
[Laughs] That’s the thing with writing, though. I mean, you’re stuck with yourself.
It’s just so lonely. Many of my friends are writers. We used to have a lot of time to sit around and discuss our ideas, but not they’re raising kids or, you know, Liz Meriwether is running New Girl. Everybody has lives to get back to me, except for me. I felt like I had really bad writer’s block after I finished the script about my mom. I was so down after Seeking a Friend and trying to get that going. I realized how much I loved directing. I feel most at home on set as a director, so I started to chase that. It coincided with feeling a little blocked as a writer, so until recently that was the main pursuit, like, shooting this pilot I recently did.
Now I’m back to beating myself up about the writing. It really is two different sides of the brain. I like both writing and directing, but it’s almost like I can only do one at a time. Still, I want to direct the things I write, so I had to get my groove back a little bit. It was certainly the worst case of writer’s block I’ve had.
When did this happen?
Just last year. 2013 was the year of writer’s block. Not writing would be one thing, but everyday it was writing and saying, “Well, this is garbage. What a waste of a day. What a waste of a week.” I couldn’t get past page 30 of anything. Television is now king and people are trying to get me to do TV. They say, “A pilot is 30 pages! You could be done by now!” I know, but I moved here for film. I love television. I could only hope to create these perfect shows, like, Modern Family or Breaking Bad. When they wanted me to turn the script of my mom into a television show, I thought, “There’s a reason some stories have a beginning, middle, and end.” There’s some great characters you want to see more of, but…
Sometimes less is more.
I think so. I don’t know if I want to live with the story of my mom for five years [Laughs]. I love television and would want to work in it, but every time it comes around, I miss film. I said years ago when Seeking a Friend was coming out that television is becoming independent film, but I’m hoping it’ll swing the other way. Just now seeing A24 and Megan Ellison‘s Annapurna makes me think, “Somebody is supporting the right stuff.”
With Coherence, it’s not a low-budget film, it’s a no budget film [Laughs]. To make something compelling like that is inspiring to me. This kind of movie makes me look around my house and think, “Let’s do something here. Let’s shoot in the living room.” There’s still access to some things, but I miss the tweeners. I miss the 10 million dollar movies. I know things are now either 80 million or $200,000 or, you know, a found footage movie.
Coherence opens in limited release on June 20th.
Make sure to check back in the next few days for part two of our discussion with Lorene Scafaria.
Following its Sundance premiere, there was a great deal of buzz for Obvious Child, and judging by the fact I screened it twice in a week, I have to agree with the acclaim. Writer-director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate have crafted a very humorous film that riffs on a lot of the crappy romantic comedy tropes out there by being honest and refreshing. But more than anything it is a film about what it means to live in modern-day America and all the pressures and realities of that. It’s genuinely hilarious, capable of holding up to multiple viewings, and also touches on some really important issues in a serious and real way without making it feel like those things have to be talked about in only a serious tone. There is humor in life and Obvious Child mines those for a lot of quality entertainment.
During their press tour in Dallas I got a chance to speak with Slate and Robespierre. Among the topics were whether any of them actually wear Crocs, their thoughts about how a particular scene plays later in the movie and how they were surprised it garnered laughs, whether anyone has ever stolen jokes from them, and even the research they did on the abortion clinics and trying to bring a sense of reality to the situation. One can read the entire conversation below.
The Film Stage: One thing that I love is that you touch on shoes in this film. Specifically the slip on, boat shoe-style and Crocs. And I really, really dislike Crocs. I find them hideous.
Jenny Slate: Me too. They’re the ugliest shoe.
Okay, so, I see you, Gillian, shaking your head. Do you wear them?
Gillian Robespierre: I didn’t wear them until the movie. My brother and his wife and all of his kids have Crocs as an indoor shoe. And I make fun of them because they’re so stupid. But then I tried them on over Thanksgiving and I had the same reaction that Max did. That these were little pieces of magic on your feet. That’s why the scene is in there. But I’m now the proud owner of the orange Crocs.
Robespierre: I traipse around my entire one room apartment in them.
[Jenny and Gillian laugh]
But you don’t go outside in them?
Robespierre: No way!
Slate: I would much rather wear Crocs than wear those shitty shoes with the individual toes.
Oh, yes. The Vibram Fivefingers.
Slate: Those are disgusting.
Yeah, those are weird too. It’s funny because they do crop back up.
Robespierre: I thought you just said “Croc back up.”
[Jenny and Gillian laugh]
Ha. I’m not that quick. But they do come back up in the clinic scene. You can tell who is paying attention very closely when they see the shoes because they’ll laugh. The other half is just like, “What’s funny about this?”
Robespierre: To be honest, I never thought people would laugh at that scene. For us it is that Donna is in a state of twilight and she looks over and sees the Crocs and is reminded of her mom and Max — everything we just watched for 83 minutes. It’s sort of an indicator for her and her past. That was all. We were trying to be a little more poetic and people are laughing. I’m down. I like that you work on something for a very long time in this small bubble and you unleash it and people have their own perspectives.
Slate: You put it in their hands.
I’ve heard this a few times, especially from a good friend, that the scenes in the clinic are spot-on. How much research did you put into that and why weren’t there cookies? Apparently there are cookies involved.
Robespierre: There were little cups of Sprite or ginger ale. I don’t think we had the cookies because we just didn’t have time. We worked with Planned Parenthood. We sent them a draft of the script. They were great partners in just letting us know. First of all, they loved it. They were really excited to partner up with us and let us shoot in Planned Parenthood. But other than that, more than just a location, we wanted to check in and make sure that everything the nurse was saying was true and nothing was a PSA off my brain. We wanted to create as authentic of an experience as we could in a movie that is still an entertaining romantic comedy.
There’s a very funny scene that almost seems to be an inside joke amongst comics when David Cross looks at your notes and you admonish him and say, “Don’t look at my shit!” I’m curious about that. I know Gillian wrote the bulk of the initial stand-up and then you collaborated together from that point. Is that something any of you have experience before?
Slate: No one can steal my jokes because they’re all stories about my dad.
Slate: So, it would be really weird if someone else got up and started talking about how my dad wears a nightgown. Yeah, nobody can steal my material because it’s not like bits. It’s just stories. I hope nobody starts ripping off my style. That would suck.
Robespierre: But it’s also a compliment, right?
Slate: Yeah, but I don’t even know what my style is. It’s just storytelling. You can’t copy someone’s personality, at least not well. That’s Gillian’s moment right there — she put that into the scene.
Robespierre: I’m just a fan of comedy. The research I did was just go watch Jenny perform.
Robespierre: I listen to a lot of Marc Maron podcasts because they’re really entertaining. “Well, I guess I have to do this research and listen to Molly Shannon talk about her life.” Which was amazing. I don’t think it was too far-fetched that somebody would snoop. I don’t know if it was just stand-up comedians that do that. He was just trying to weasel and get closer to her.
Slate: Yeah, he’s annoying.
Obvious Child is now in limited release and expanding throughout the coming weeks. One can also watch an extensive conversation with the filmmakers above.
The Rover immediately succeeds in planting one in the downtrodden world it’s created: ten years after an economic collapse and, needless to say, Australia. By keeping the scale small and the minute details abundant, David Michôd effectively sells a barren wasteland full of spare, secluded inhabitants. Leaving the rest of the world’s fate to our own imagination, it’s a far more powerful in approach than anything a fabricated news broadcast or prologue could attempt to convey, I noted in my review.
I recently had the chance to speak with the writer-director on crafting his sophomore feature ahead of a release this weekend. We discussed his choice to make the film, not over-explaining, casting Robert Pattinson, the effects of violence, idiosyncratic music choices, the score, contrasting it from his first feature, what he plans to do next, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Congrats on the movie.
David Michôd: Thank you very much.
I’m curious, how important was it for you to stay in Australia for your sophomore feature? I’m sure you probably got offers to go elsewhere.
I mean, I don’t know it was necessarily important specifically in Australia. What was most important to me was that I feel A) that the movie was of my own making, something that I had built myself from the ground up and B) that I could control it. On both of those fronts, I had been working on The Rover for awhile already and it seemed to fill both of those. In the couple of years after Animal Kingdom I did a lot of looking at what my options were and there were quite a number of different options available to me. But the more looking at those options and thinking about the things, the more it felt important to me that make a second film that felt entirely of me rather than surrendering myself to someone else’s machine.
I really like the setting of this film. There’s a lot of little ideas that you place throughout the movie, but nothing’s over-explained. It’s a great balance and it feels very believable. Can you talk about finding that balance and if you perhaps started with more on the page and then you pared it back?
No, there was never necessarily any more on the page. For me, the challenge was always trying to find the balance of making clear the specificity of the world and the time and not getting bogged down in exposition. I always like the idea, to me far more powerful than showing people explicitly what the nature of the world is giving an audience enough information to fuel their imagination. In a way, for me, the most powerful example of that is the first shot of the movie. Coming after a card that say, “10 years after the collapse” and then just showing a blank landscape to the horizon in the first shot. My hope was always that the power of an audience’s imagination, whatever they were imagining over that horizon would be more powerful than anything I could show them anyway.
Obviously, the risk in being relatively non-specific is that you… I’ve had to answer a lot of questions in the last week about the quote unquote post-apocalyptic nature of the movie. I’ve found myself a lot trying to explain to people that the movie isn’t post-apocalypse, you know. I very deliberately didn’t want it to be post-apocalypse. I didn’t want it to feel like whatever landscape these characters were wandering through was the product of an asteroid or some kind of nuclear holocaust. I wanted it to feel far more real and a product of the forces of evil that are at work around us to.
In this movie and your last there’s definitely a lurking uneasiness. In every scene it feels like something could happen at any moment to keep you on edge and I think it makes the violence all the more impactful compared to so many other features that just willy-nilly just show people getting murdered. In this movie, everything feels like it’s deliberately done and for a reason. When you see a gun you actually get nervous, compared to most action movies today. How important was that aspect to you? To convey that atmosphere?
I don’t feel like I’ve deliberately set out to represent violence in any particular way. I just feel like this is sort of the visceral cinematic experiences that I enjoy. For me violence is just a dramatic tool. Violence, in a way, to the extend that drama in any movie is about an upset in the balance of people, acts of violence are just a very manifestation of that. For me, what’s always most powerful about violence isn’t necessarily the act itself. It’s the effect that it has on people, both before and after the act itself. For me, what’s most powerful about acts of violence is the tension leading up to them and the upheaval of the aftermath.
Getting to the casting, Guy Pearce is just so fantastic in this movie. Every glance he has, he conveys so much. I’m curious since Robert Pattinson is such a great counterpart to that. It definitely feels like in the last few years he’s trying to segue into more films like this. When you met him and what he brought to the table, how much was on the page versus the many nuances he brings to his character? What was the process like of casting him?
One of the things I liked about Rob, right from the outset — other than meeting him and just finding him beguiling and fascinating — was that when he came to test for me, he came both with a really beautifully considered and specific reading of the character, but also a full understanding that on the page, the character can be played a hundred different ways. So straight away that said to me that I had in him a collaborator who would help me find the character. I talk about the fact that I kind of tested him over two days for something close to four hours, but I sort of knew that I wanted him in the first five minutes. The other three hours and fifty minutes were him and I exploring the character. He had a lot to contribute on that front.
When he came to Australia about two weeks before we started shooting we had lots of conversation about things that were seemingly cosmetic. Hair cuts and wardrobes say a lot about the character and the character’s backstory and the character’s sense of the world and he had lots of things to say on that front. He was the one who initially agitated to have his monkey haircut. That rationale for it, in a way, was that this was the point of his character. Unlike Guy, this is a kid who still feels like there’s something out there for him and his monkey haircut is his delusional way of styling himself on the off chance that there’s a kind of pretty girl in the next town that he might fall in love with.
The sound design and the score is just incredible. It felt a little bit influenced by There Will Be Blood, Jonny Greenwood’s score. Can you talk about weaving the score into the film and if that was an influence for you at all?
I love that movie, but I wasn’t necessarily influenced by that score. The challenge for me, when you set a movie that’s in some kind of unspecified near-future, the musical choices that you make sort of inform what that future might feel like. I just do a lot of diving down musical rabbit holes all the time and stumble across music that I love. What I’ve discovered is that the ones that appeal to me most, in regards to The Rover, were those kinds of artists like Colin Stetson or William Basinski who were making music with very traditional instruments, but music that felt like it was full of tension and also felt like it was disintegrating. It seemed to fit the world of the movie really beautifully. There’s that sense that William Basinski’s beautiful piano pieces that go on these sort of loops that sustain 20 minutes that literally start to fall apart. On a thematic level, that seemed to fit the world of the movie really beautifully. And then Anthony Partos, who I worked with on Animal Kingdom sort of came in to do three or four cues that were the connecting tissues that the movie needed, very character-specific connecting tissues.
I loved the selection of the Keri Hilson song. It starts as almost a fun idiosyncratic kind of way and then you cut right to Pattinson’s character and it’s sad because it’s part of a life his character will never come back to. Can you talk about using that song and you obviously knew about it beforehand because he sings it in the movie.
Yeah, the motivation there is not dissimilar to the one I was describing before with regard to his haircut. It’s just a reminder at a particularly crucial point in the movie that this kid is a kid who, unlike Guy’s character, still weirdly has a sense of the world being a place that is still to be explored, that he still has music that he likes. The ways in which those sorts kind of cultural interests feed into your whole sense of your place in the world and perhaps the girls he might meet, all of which is stuff for Guy’s character has just entirely evaporated.
We talked a little bit about this last night, but coming from Animal Kingdom to this, you mentioned how this feels like a smaller-scale movie in a sense. You said you were working on this for awhile, can you talk about the difference in production and what you learned the most from your debut?
Joel Edgerton and I kind of came up with the loose idea for it years before Animal Kingdom and I wrote the first draft of it before I made Animal Kingdom. In the couple of years after Animal Kingdom I was exploring my options and I found myself returning to that script and I found myself doing another couple of drafts. And one of the things I liked about the idea of it of a second movie was that rather than trying to recreate the sort of density and sprawl of Animal Kingdom, The Rover had a far leaner dramatic arc but still in a way for me felt bigger than Animal Kingdom because of the nature of the world of it and the vastness of the landscape. So even though on a certain level the movie is obviously leaner than Animal Kingdom, it was, on a practical level, it was more challenging just because of where we were and how we had to work.
Before we wrap up, you probably can’t talk about it a lot, but you recently became attached to The Operators, and it’s such fantastic source material and working with Plan B, which is such a great company, I’m curious what stage that is at and what attracted you to that project.
Well I’ve always been fascinated by these particular theaters of war that have just been at play for a decade now. There’s something about the machine of it all that fascinates me so you stumble across a book like The Operators and it basically revolves a man at the center of the machine. I always knew it would be a rich scene to mine, but having said that, I have been talking to those guys about it for awhile now, but I haven’t starting writing it yet.
So I don’t yet know what form it’s going to do well.
Cool. Well, that’s all I have. That’s all I have. Thank you so much and congrats on the movie.
No problem, thanks Jordan. See you.
The Rover opens in limited release on June 13th and expands the following week.
Arriving in theaters this weekend is the sci-fi drama The Signal, a carefully designed, character-centered piece of entertainment. Premiering at Sundance, the story follows Nick (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), MIT students with a talent for hacking who decide to take a cross-country road trip to attend a Def Con Hacking Conference in Vegas, alongside Nick’s girlfriend Hailey (Olivia Cooke). They distracted by the antics of a rival hacker who goes by the name Nomad and revealing anything else would ruin much of the fun.
We had a chance to speak with writer-director William Eubank, whose last feature was the Angels & Airwaves-backed cult hit Love, also in the sci-fi genre. Our discussion involved that feature, as well as David Lynch stories, his Sundance experience, not revealing everything up front, Stanley Kubrick influences (or the lack thereof), expectations, casting, and much more. Check out the full conversation below, which picks up as soon as Eubank jumped on the phone.
William Eubank: Hello?
The Film Stage: Hi, how’s it going?
Good man, how are you?
Good, congrats on the movie.
Oh, thank you. Thank you, thank you.
So, I saw it at Sundance and I think I’d only seen a logline and a still and I kind of had no idea what to expect. I was really pleasantly aback when it goes to the places it does. Can you talk about that experience at Sundance and the premiere and maybe expectations and if they succeeded your expectations?
Oh, man. That was a dream. As a filmmaker you always kind of hope that that’s possible, that you’ll go to Sundance. And then there’s even a fear, that yeah, maybe you’ll make it into the commercial world, but you’ll never have gone to Sundance, which you feel is part of the merit badges you hope to get as a filmmaker. You know?
So that was cool, and I used to go there a lot as a technician for Panavision. It was a lot of dreaming. I’d be up there, when they used to have a digital center, which they really kind of turned into New Frontiers. But they used to have a digital center and I would sit up there and tell people about Sony F900 cameras and stuff and Panavisions they were using and whatnot. I’d see these premieres and things and I’d be like, “Oh my God. I hope someday I’m here.” So to actually have a film go there was a really big win, emotionally. It was very satisfying.
But yeah, the screening went really well and I feel like each screening got progressively better from the midnight screening. Which was kind of cool, perception seemed good.
Just seeing so many sci-fi films, I feel like the bigger ones have to put up all their ideas up front and then you know where everything is headed. I really loved how your point-of-view is with the main character the whole time and you keep guessing. When you were developing this project was that your initial idea?
I’m glad that you saw that, because I preach that a lot to people. I have a hard time understanding films, or how to tell films, unless I’m chasing that point-of-view. I always tell people, I always chase the Gittes point-of-view, the Chinatown idea that Polanski set up, which was never pre-lead your character. You’re always going to follow him from over his shoulder. You would never cut a camera into a room before Gittes gets in there, you know what I mean?
Because you are unraveling the mystery with him. And I feel as an audience member that produces that really indelible — well, for me it’s enjoyable because I’m guessing with the character and I’m identifying with the character and he and I, we’re all questioning this together. It makes the film a lot more interactive in a way to me.
While this is an original story, which I found refreshing, there’s definitely a few nods to some other films. I would say the casting of Laurence Fishburne reminds me of one of his most iconic roles and maybe some Dark City or Chronicle in there. Can you talk about any influences you had going in?
Yeah, Dark City. That was a huge one, that’s one of my favorite films ever. You know, a lot of different wide, different stuff. Visually, I always tell people I try and steal a lot from the Scott brothers, their lens choices and their colors. I’m a huge fan of anime. I’m really big fan of how lean anime action is and yet how intense it is. I’ve always sort of turned to that for a blueprint of how to create action sequences with not very much money, you know?
Because when they are drawing those cels, they can’t draw a million different cels and put cameras willy-nilly everywhere so they are forced to make these really cool, lean action scenes. So in terms of editing, that’s always been a really big thing. But just in terms of narrative, I guess all of the usual culprits, David Lynch, [Stanley] Kubrick, all those masters of films that get in your mind. I was talking the other day, some of David Lynch’s stuff, when I was younger, I really didn’t like at all. I was like, “Ugh, this is so weird and disturbing, not something I can understand what was happening.” Then the problem is, the film sticks in your brain. You can’t get it out and then it will just be there for years and you’ll always go back to it and then I realized, one day, oh, I really do like the movie Eraserheard. It’s crazy how that can happen.
Your editor worked with David Lynch, right?
Yeah, he did. Brian Berdan. He tells the best stories about him.
I was going to say, is there anything in the editing room where you had a break?
He tells me David Lynch used to draw on these pieces of tape and he’d just make old doodles. Brian would divide his desk with tape or something and then David Lynch would doodle on it all day. [*Does David Lynch impression*] “Now Brian, if you want to be the best filmmaker, you better listen to me! And hear what I have to say.” And he was doodling on his desk and he so desperately wishes he kept all that tape.
Oh, man. That would be in the archives. That’s awesome.
It’s funny, with David Lynch, there’s an interview somewhere and someone’s like, “Tell us about yourself.” And he’s like, “Well, I’m an Eagle Scout and I’m from Montana.” And I’m actually an Eagle Scout myself so I like to feel like I’m a kindred spirit in a way. My family used to take these crazy motorhome trips to the southwest and we used to go dinosaur bone hunting and stuff, super crazy. I feel like all that stuff, growing up, got my brain thinking in different directions to make all this weird shit.
Nice. Yeah, I actually caught up on Love right before this. It’s one of my friend’s favorite movies and he kept urging me to see it and so I saw this film at Sundance and then I thought, “Now I have to see this.”
Oh, cool man.
That was really impressive. You definitely have a precise visual style. Was that something that you do pre-visualization and storyboards? It seems like you do.
Yeah. If people really knew how that film happened, they wouldn’t… The other day somebody was going on about, “What a dramatic rip-off of 2001!” I was like, “Are you crazy, man?” 2001 wasn’t even remotely in my mind, like making the end of that film. It was funny though, looking back at it, I was like, “Ah. He is wandering around like at the end of 2001. And he is in space like at the end of 2001.” So I can totally understand why someone could say that, but that totally wasn’t even my point at all. I feel like the messages are so different. Mine is about lack of communication. But looking at it, I guess in that sense it does kind of do the same thing at that point. That was never remotely the point. That was just because we’d get a location and be like, “Oh, we have this location. We can shoot it.”
Or like the end when all the water is wrapping around him and the bubbles. That was just because, digitally we finally added more to that, but the first few shots were because I was using a Maxibrute that looked really cool with garden hoses. So a lot of that is actual, practical water. It just looks that way. I guess what I’m saying by all of this is that Love was born out of what we had available to us and then later we got a little more money to do some visual effects sequences at the end, so to wrap up a crazy story that’s really a big metaphor for human connection and the idea that if you don’t have somebody to talk with or bounce yourself off of or to communicate with, then whose to say you even existed in the first place? Love is really all about maybe someday here on Earth, life will be gone. Then what kind of story is going to be left to go somewhere? So the movie is sort of about a guy who becomes humankind’s last curator of a bunch of stories. I’m really proud of the film, but it’s obviously kind of a nutty film.
With The Signal, I was surprised because it has a very epic scope, but you shot it in 30 days, which is wild for this kind of movie.
Oh, thanks man.
So what did you learn most from Love? It also sounds like you had to keep the same DIY mindset.
Yeah, a lot of do-it-yourself. A lot of pre-production. All that boarding you’re talking about. I really forced myself, as a director, you try to hold decisions off. Your human want is to push decisions away as long as you can so you can make a stronger decision later. But what you really need to do is to make those decisions early, as uncomfortable as that is. So that way you can plan and adjust and actually get something done on a short schedule like that. So I always do a bunch of storyboarding and really confront my story technically. That’s shakes all the crazy monkeys out of the tree, you’re able to see where they are.
Is there anything you had to sacrifice because of the short shooting schedule?
Oh my God, yeah. Every single day you’re sacrificing something. But even when Jonah is going crazy there at the guard station. I had a crazy set-up for that. My brother and I built all of it and we had it all planned out, but we got hit by a sandstorm that was so crazy. We couldn’t shoot all day. We got a little opening to get a shot and it worked out, but holy moly, man, it was nuts.
As this film gears up for a summer release it seems like it’s a perfect anti-dote to a film like Transformers 4. I’d recommend something like this, an original story with a lot of heart of it, over that. Working with Focus Features, are you excited about the possibilities that this could kind of be a break-out hit in the summer?
I don’t know, I guess as a filmmaker you’re always thinking about the next stuff. Yeah, you just hope that you can do well. But these guys are so wonderful and they’re so creative. I was so blessed with such a cool freaking cast and really good kids and Brenton [Thwaites] and Olivia [Cooke] and Beau [Knapp]. And then to have someone like Laurence on top of that just gives it a standard. I hope people who are fans of him will just search it out to see another kind of unique role. It’s so weird, when he was asking about the script. He was like, “So, wait. Am I in this thing the whole time?” I’m like, “Yeah, man.” He’s like, “That’s cool.” [laughs]
So when you cast Brenton this was before Maleficent and The Giver?
Yeah, it was before The Giver. He had just done Son of a Gun with Ewan McGregor and Alicia Vikander. I knew he was good, but it was when I met him and realized how nice he was and such a cool dude he was that I knew that was what I needed for a film like this because we really had to stretch ourselves sometimes. It just worked that he was such a good dude. Everything’s kind of moving in the right direction so I guess we just have to see how it goes.
The Signal hits theaters on Friday, June 13th.