If you don’t think someone fresh off an Oscar nomination would spend five years to follow her critically acclaimed fictional narrative with the first feature-length documentary of her career, you don’t know Debra Granik. When I interviewed her back in 2010 in support of Winter’s Bone, she was already talking about documentary observation as being key to her work. After all, that movie and her debut Down to the Bone both utilized real people from the towns in which she filmed for visual and contextual authenticity. One of those locals—Ronnie Hall—made enough of an imprint to keep Granik’s attention well after her cast and crew left Southern Missouri.
Nicknamed Stray Dog, Hall proves a captivating soul who was much more than outsider preconceptions allow. On the surface he’s an aging biker who lives in and owns an RV Park. Beneath that exterior, however, is a Vietnam veteran grandfather that recently married his new love, moved her and her sons to America from Mexico, provides a sympathetic ear to those currently battling the effects of war, and generously gives tenants/friends extra time to pay rent due to the scarcity of livable wages in their area.
Granik sifted through hours of footage to project her subject onscreen, uncensored and untouched. Everything moment is authentic—every emotion, regret, and joyful smile. She dismantles stereotype through Hall, showcasing a man constantly looked down upon by those who fear his appearance or question his convictions to be the kind-hearted hero he always has been to those who know him.
The Film Stage: When did you know Ron’s story was one you wanted to help tell?
Debra Granik: Meeting him in his own landscape. Going to his RV Park to say goodbye to him after Winter’s Bone and seeing him greet us with four small dogs in his arms and seeing the friends and neighbors that he had recruited to help out on Winter’s Bone living right around him [there]. It was a scrappy landscape, but a lot of responsibility was being taken to make sure the ship would sail. I instantly became attracted to this person that I felt was connected to a very rich web of life—his existence had a large amount of strands of contemporary American life in it.
Themes: surviving in the context of very tight financial resources; warrior culture. We would later learn about the connections to his biological kin. He let it drop that he fancied a woman in Mexico, where he had really connected profoundly with Alicia [Soriano Hall]. After seven years of living alone in the smallest RV with his dogs, he was flummoxed by new feelings about possibly wanting to cohabitate with a female Homo sapien. So he was toying with that. He wasn’t sure he could go there and he seemed challenged by it.
The bikes were parked in the yard and he let me know he was looking forward to performing a pilgrimage from the middle of the country to the Washington DC Vietnam Memorial. Later that afternoon one of the other bikers with a big presence, Whitey, kind of sauntered into the place. We talked about the term hillbilly. We talked about so many different topics and I just found him to be a rich storyteller and a deep thinker. Hands down I was drawn to the person, but I was also drawn to the wealth of material that was around him.
So you were ready to begin filming his life before the prospect of Alicia coming to the US had been dreamed up?
I was definitely interested and I didn’t know that Alicia was going to play such a large role in the film—in his life. I had never really had a chance to talk to someone who had participated in the Vietnam War as a combat soldier and yet it had been a big part of my awareness of growing up, a big part of things I tried to learn about—the country I live in.
The Alicia aspect was something Ron chose to implicate himself in. A new chapter of his life that involved being responsible to and connecting profoundly with another set of people from another country and it did take on a major part of the film. I think sometimes with a documentary you kind of take a pledge to have to be receptive to stuff that enters the story even if it wasn’t something on your shot list. You know?
When I spoke with you five years ago in conjunction with Winter’s Bone‘s release you had talked about your short film Snake Feed and how it began as a documentary before your leafing through the material and seeing new tangents and directions became overwhelming. What was different this time that you chose to keep Stray Dog a documentary as opposed to a fictionalized narrative?
Oh gosh. I guess in this sense I got my cake and icing because the cast was made by fate. The cast is a group of people who live in a particular setting and a couple miles down the road is another set of bikers and then at the church there’s so-and-so and the community center there’s [this person]. So the cast is given to me by life. Not given to me—that sounds so crazy. It presented as a photographic subject by life itself.
Ron has lines I couldn’t write. Ron has a way of speaking and so do his friends. I couldn’t write that—especially as an East Coast person who speaks the way I do. The dialogue is being written by the people who are speaking it and feeling it and understanding it.
The temptation is of course to go back and make a fiction with all the stories I couldn’t tell because they happened off camera. The temptation is huge to go down and make a little every day life comedy slash realistic—I wouldn’t say comedy—a neo-realist film with humor and joie de vivre. That temptation is huge. But in this case—I guess maybe the onslaught of material that was created by life [made it so] I didn’t really have time to fantasize whether I could somehow fictionalize it in the making, in the time, in the throes of it. In retrospect, when I see the scenes we’ve cut, I’m like, “Oh my God. We could make a little narrative out of the scenes we cut.”
From A to Z, name every letter in the alphabet and there was a scene that corresponds that didn’t fit. It would be much more of a pure family comedy because there were a lot of things about getting along and bizarre habits you don’t understand about another person and stuff like that. Not bizarre, I want to say quizzical.
I think I will struggle forever about when it’s time to be in documentary mode and when it’s time to slow it down, recreate, and try to fictionalize. And there’s a third rail which you hop onto that’s a real mixture of right between where you’re asking people from everyday life—people you’ve met who don’t consider themselves actors—to perform certain kind of skits that they do well at. I would like to try that going forward. I really would.
There were moments when I was trying to film research material for a narrative fiction set in Baltimore and I was just, “Oh my God. I can’t do better than the documentary really.” But then at the same time I remember that there were some things I missed. I got tortured because these guys could do a great scene about being in a group home, these teens in Baltimore. They know the deal and we can totally recreate it. Add something even. I was talking to myself, “We could say that this is New Year’s Eve in the group home.”
What I’m trying to say is that at any given moment I [don’t feel] at ease with how to determine whether the material is best suited as a narrative or a documentary. When it’s an adaptation of someone’s novel it is so much more of a clear path for me.
I thought it was a great choice on your part to only show real life unfolding without any talking heads steering us through his life. Was that a conscious decision from the beginning or had you filmed such interviews before deciding they didn’t work?
We did indeed. It was not a conscious decision—we went at it every which way. We used the three major strands of technique: copious on-camera interview with the idea that you may use it directly or as voiceover. We were using every technique that we knew of—and there aren’t that many—to see how much anecdotal material, remembrances, consternation, and questioning we could record. We even tried a technique where we were not present. We would give Ron a voice-recorder in the service of possibly creating certain kinds of voiceover he could only say when we were not present.
It became very hard very quickly to mix them, which was so interesting to both [myself] and the editor [Victoria Stewart]. She did a great job stringing out all the live action scenes we did, so we had this assembly. And then we had another whole strand with pieces of the interviews that we thought were stellar—either really well worded or head-banging or confounding or interesting or provocative. So we had the “Best Of” the interviews and the “Best Of” the live scenes and we thought, “Okay. No-brainer. We’ll just integrate them.” Never shall the twain—at least not in this film. They didn’t marry well. It was weirdly awkward to go to him sitting still after we had seen him bike across the country or something. And we were like, “Why?”
We did try the voiceover and it turns out the voiceover did find a home in the shorter cut for television. Not extensively, but sort of a short cut with some insights to basically give some backstory in the way it needs to happen when a viewer does not have time to ramp up in the shorter confines of a broadcast presentation. The voiceover was helpful to kind of detonate the film that way.
So yes. You had phrased it correctly. It was not intentional and your question speaks to that. We felt that in the end the material dictated that we would choose the live action cutting.
Did Ron have any ambitions for what part of his life the film would show? Or did he just give your carte blanche to find the story in the process?
Ron did not make any stipulations about the footage that we had gathered. About what we could or could not use, in that sense. The burden about what things we felt would be a disservice to him or that he could regret—we had to be aware of that. There’s nothing so devastating and weird and diabolical we chose to delete, but on certain subject matters I think people would jump [to conclusions] not knowing the full context—which was impossible to portray at times.
The Second Amendment for example. There was a lot of material that we recorded about gun culture and gun country and Ron was very willing to have a dialogue with me even though I come from a very different cultural perspective on the role of firearms in everyday life and whatnot. He was very willing to have a sustained and respectful conversation with me. But it’s its own subject matter. We tried to make a strand about guns and their role and we had footage. We took that out in the end because our theme—our wall chart of our themes and all our note taking about where we felt the film was headed was very replete. It was like one or the other: guns or Ron trying to figure out how his family was going to make it. Like with his granddaughter and stuff—themes about surviving certain kinds of poverty and living in it versus a complicated set of questions and discussions about guns.
Ron put it all out there. We made decisions about where we thought our precious minutes of content should occupy the space we were given to make the film. Which is a palatable running time. That is one of the big responsibilities you have as a documentary filmmaker. You can get close to someone and yet you also know you didn’t get close to throw them under the bus. You didn’t get close to them so you could re-present certain things that you might expect without giving it due diligence. If that content was going to be in the film we would have had to really take the space so the viewer understood how nuanced the discussion was.
I feel like maybe I’ve been so vague that I’ve confused you.
No, not at all.
With what you just said about content—how important was it to show this “softer” side of bike culture when shows like Sons of Anarchy are ratcheting up the violence quotient?
Yeah. You said it. After Sons of Anarchy I want to see when bikers—I want to see what works with it. Why it performs such a rich, therapeutic function in the lives of many American men. I want to see why veterans seek out the velocity and riding in a flock and having a mission. Even if the mission is just to go down to a beautiful park in Arkansas to have a lyrical afternoon. I want to see what it looks like when bikers serve each other coffee. I want to see when they get real about their changing bodies and their sexual prowess. I want to see every time that they—Ron would describe how responsible it is when you go with a bunch of brothers to a shindig and if someone gets inebriated. What it’s like to lift your brother onto your own bike; find a way to get the other bike home. There’s a lot of physicality and that’s—
TV can turn up some of the suspense, some of the darker stuff, some of the stuff that keeps us jolted, right? Increments of violence. And then sometimes films—documentaries and other types of filmmaking—are supposed to show the other moments. Sons will give the jolts, the intensity of what it’s like to be even sometimes sadistic or being really kind of cool and documentary makers are sometimes supposed to go out and find the moments of hope or the moments that fall between the cracks of suspense or commerciality.
It’s important because on one level when you feel like you share the planet with a whole array of people, when someone’s willing to let you know other aspects of what it’s like to be a biker it’s a rich opportunity. I felt really compelled to take the invitation because I only know the other stuff. I only know what it’s like to kind of be scared at a rest stop and want to walk on the other side of the parking lot or be freaked out or be upset. I only know sort of the image of the one-percenter. Now I feel much more inclined to go up to someone and compliment their bike if they’ll have it. They won’t always take it. [Laughter] See if there is any moment of common ground. There isn’t always, but sometimes there is. Some people—it’s our mission to look for the sometimes.
Stray Dog opens in NYC on Friday, July 3rd and LA on Friday, July 24th.
After finding success from his debut feature Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale—an expansion of a world he created through two previous shorts all released together by Oscilloscope—Finnish writer/director Jalmari Helander did what many European filmmakers do and went English-language for his sophomore effort. But he did so on his terms by once again writing his own script and recruiting familiar faces to act against the newly accessible stable of international stars provided to him. The result is action romp Big Game and it has the potential of turning even more stateside heads his way due to its decreased number of subtitles and broader scope.
The Film Stage: You brought Rare Exports to the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010 as part of their Discovery program, but Big Game debuted as a Midnight Madness screening. How great was that atmosphere amongst the genre junkies ready to consume the action?
Jalmari Helander: Well, it was one of the greatest experiences probably in my life because it was the first time an audience would see the film. I was also really nervous at how—do they like it and stuff? It was a really big audience.
I was crying there in my seat of happiness when people were laughing and clapping their hands during the show. It was absolutely super great.
This one has a very recognizable international cast with Jim Broadbent, Victor Garber, and Samuel L. Jackson. Besides switching to English, how different was your preparation?
It was quite similar because also on Rare Exports the like “working language” was English. We were filming it in Norway and it made life easy in that sense.
Of course it was interesting with—I had a lot of questions in my mind with how Onni [Tommila] will act because he has to speak English. Will it still go as well as before? It actually was really nice how well he and Sam worked together. It was really great.
How has it been to watch Onni grow as an actor? Because he really is holding his own opposite Hollywood stars like Jackson and Ray Stevenson.
Yes. I can tell you I had some really nice moments behind the monitor when Onni’s giving a hard time to Sam in the forest. Sam never overshadowed Onni in any way. It was really nice to see how they worked together.
Of course the process of Onni learning how to act has been really interesting to follow. For example, in Rare Exports it was a totally different kind of working [relationship] because I had to have all kinds of prizes like, “If you do this one more take I’ll give you a piece of candy and a Coca Cola and maybe a hot dog when the day’s over.” [laughter]
Now I didn’t have to do that kind of stuff. So it was a helluva lot easier.
Do you see Onni continuing to pursue acting as a career?
Definitely he wants to be an actor. Of course there’s a lot of people in Finland on Finnish movies where Onni is quite popular at the moment. He’s definitely going to follow his Dad’s [Jorma Tommila] footsteps.
I love how you have Sam Jackson playing against type. You look at the poster and you’re thinking he’s going to be his badass persona as president, but he really is just a politician with no combat experience. Was that a factor in casting to play on our preconceptions?
It was important that the president be weak and I was really happy because it was really important for Sam also that he really can’t fight at all. Even with the stunt coordinators and people trying to invent some cool move or something for Sam’s fight scenes. But it was really important that he really can’t do anything.
He only had one demand: that he wanted to kick the main terrorist in the balls. [laughter] And that’s what he does.
Back to his rapport with Onni, did he kind of take him under his wing? Maybe give some pointers in lieu of the candy from Rare Exports?
I don’t know. They had somehow some really good chemistry. The first time they met was in a hotel and it was a really like nervous situation and I was wondering what the hell was going to happen. It was really a hard and unnatural environment to meet in a hotel. What do you say and blah, blah, blah?
But when we started rehearsing somehow magic was happening almost instantly. And Sam was really happy playing with Onni. He respected Onni as much as Onni with Sam.
There’s a great juxtaposition between extreme 80s-style action and this really heartfelt coming-of-age drama. Big Game is billed as an over-the-top romp, but it really is about this child overcoming the odds to step out of his father’s shadow isn’t it?
Definitely. I’ve always liked underdog stories. When I started to imagine the film [I thought] it would be cool to make somebody who nobody believes in [that] does something really, really over-the-top—something that no one could imagine he’d be capable of doing. It was real important to me to have that kind of situation. I’ve always liked that.
And the 80s action really helps facilitate that.
It somehow gives you a little bit more room with the action scenes if you have that kind of feeling. So you can understand they are not like totally serious. It’s more fun to almost like—I think of it like Pixar kind of movie in a way also. Where you have more room for inventing what the people can do. Reality: we’re leaving it. It gives you more freedom and that’s nice.
And how was it working with Broadbent, Garber, and Felicity Huffman in the studio scenes? Were they allowed to improvise a bit or was everything pretty close to the script?
We had some improvising, but it was quite straightforward because it was the last four days of our shooting in the studio, in the Pentagon set with the actors. We did quite a lot of scenes each day and working with them was—of course I was really nervous about it. I hadn’t seen any of them and we are starting shooting next day. I was meeting with all of them like the day before and was thinking it would be really hard to do, but they were so super nice. Especially someone like Ted Levine—he was probably my favorite guy on a set ever. He was really nice.
How difficult was it shooting the exterior scenes in the mountains? Did you do extensive scouting?
There was a lot of scouting for this because I wanted to—we didn’t have the budget to make anything that big in that sense. So it’s wise to go in a place where you already have huge landscapes. It gives you the feel of big, big adventure film.
Of course there’s always problems where you’re up in the mountains and stuff like that, but it gives you that edge. I really like doing films outdoors and in hard locations. It gives quite a lot to the whole crew and the actors if they support it.
With that sense of “big”, could you talk about the score? It’s very much this epic, sweeping score that punctuates the action.
Yes. Juri and Miska [Seppä] did a really great job. One of my favorite things of the process of making this film was actually in the big orchestra where we recorded the music. Hearing for the first time this score on real [live instruments] was real emotional. It was great.
As a result of Big Game‘s festival success and its impending US release, have you been fielding offers from Hollywood? Any scripts coming your way?
Oh there’s been a helluva lot of offers at the moment and during this year. But nothing that I could say I would really want to make. Cause it has to be like—I’m writing my own movies—so it has to be something that really interests me when I read it. I want to feel like I could be the best man for the job.
But at the moment we are with the producer Petri Jokiranta developing our third film and we’ll see what happens with that.
Can we expect Onni to be back as well?
Probably yes. It will be bigger and [with] more action. But I can’t tell you anything else about it. [laughter]
Big Game hits VOD and limited theatrical release on Friday, June 26th.
With increasingly ballooning tentpole budgets, producer Jason Blum seeks to create crowd-pleasing horror films on a miniscule scale, whether it be Insidious, Paranormal Activity or The Purge. Luring name actors like Ethan Hawke, Patrick Wilson and Olivia Wilde to his productions with the promise of massive back-end deals, he’s managed to stand equally in the multiplex against the competing Hollywood blockbusters. On the occasion of the home video release of The Lazarus Effect, we spoke to him about his business model and the horror genre itself. Check out the conversation below.
The Film Stage: I heard you recently on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast describe bad producers as frustrated creative types; that being said to what degree do you have creative input?
Jason Blum: No, I didn’t. I described bad producers as frustrated directors. I’m a creative type.
Thank you for correcting me. But to what degree do you have creative input on your films?
Me and my team have a ton of creative input, but we offer it as suggestions and not mandates.
I’ve heard an important part of your process is to shoot in Los Angeles. What do you get from shooting there that you don’t get from being in Vancouver or Louisiana?
Our movies are low-budget enough that the rebate doesn’t quite make it worth travelling, and I’ve found it harder to get top-tier actors and directors and producers to work for scale and back-end when you’re also asking them to live somewhere else. We’ve had more success when being able to stay in L.A. But we don’t shoot in L.A. with all of our movies and TV shows.
You’re producing M. Night Shyamalan’s next film, how did the process go for him after doing a series of large-scale films?
I can’t answer how the physical production went on it, because we didn’t get involved with it until there was a rough cut of the movie. But what he told me was that he really liked working low-budget because there was only one voice in it, it was his. It was much more containable and controllable so he enjoyed it and hopefully we’ll revisit something else as low-budget from the very beginning and I’ll be able to answer that better. But from what he said, he really liked working on something with a smaller budget.
We’re doing this on the occasion of the home-video release of one of your films, and there was this talk about there once being a glory day of DVD, which has changed now with streaming and iTunes, but just how have they affected a film’s second life?
I think eventually streaming and iTunes will make the delivery of films more efficient, and ultimately it will be more profitable but right now we’re at a point where it’s catching up to where DVD was. But it’ll get there and ultimately make the business more efficient and profitable.
Have you looked into doing any projects with esteemed masters of horror like John Carpenter, Wes Craven or George Romero?
We’ve forwarded with all three of those people, haven’t found anything yet but I’d be thrilled to work with any of them. We’ve talked about developing things with all three of them.
There used to be a big emphasis in Hollywood on going through the test screening process, do you do that with your films or do you avoid it altogether?
I’m a big believer in it. Not necessarily scoring and results but I’m a big believer in watching movies with audiences. That’s why we got involved with Paranormal Activity after seeing it with an audience. I think it’s a very helpful exercise to look at movies in a commercial theatre with a full house to get a feeling of the film.
Following that, do you ever do reshoots or would that bloat the budget?
We do reshoots on 90% of our movies. We love to tinker. On Paranormal, I think there were fifty reshoots. We try to save a little bit of money to do that.
With the first Paranormal Activity, maybe you can confirm if this was a rumor or not, but it was Steven Spielberg who actually had suggestions about a new ending?
He did. The ending of the movie that came out was actually his idea. I think we shot three different endings and that was the one we ended up with.
If you look back in the 1980’s, all these franchises like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street churned out one sequel after another, yet it seems strange that those franchises can’t seem to make a comeback. What do you think prevents that from happening and are you wary of making too many sequels?
I like to think that there’s a natural life to sequels where at some point you have to stop. I don’t know if those franchises are doing that bad though, Paramount is releasing Friday the 13th I think in twelve months. And Poltergeist was another remake, and that did well, so I think that IP still has some influence and people are still interested in seeing those movies. And I think people are interested in seeing those IP turned into a mini-series, like there’s Bates Motel and I think a few others like that; it’s a new way to dive into those stories.
What trends in horror do you think are on the way out and what trends are going to be hot again?
I don’t think it’s out yet, but I don’t know how much longer supernatural is going to be very strong. But I think in about eight years or eleven years we’ll be in the third act of supernatural. I think The Purge is very different, The Purge is very much grounded and real. I think real and scary, I don’t think it’s the beginning of a trend, but it’s the movie I have that I think could. A little less supernatural, a little more real-life scary things. I have no idea, it’s just a theory.
The Lazarus Effect is now available on Blu-ray.
In the six years between Snow Angels and Prince Avalanche, writer/director David Gordon Green became a collaborator on a string of comedies of which he was not credited as a writer. In the two years since he’s utilized that process with drama Joe and now Manglehorn. He’s said in other interviews that it’s a way for him to have multiple projects going at once, passing ideas onto others to see what develops into something he wishes to pursue and what doesn’t. And as he tells us below, it also allows him to commence production from a less trained place than his industry experience has cultivated into his own voice.
That’s why the story behind Manglehorn is so intriguing. It’s still very much his as the title had been bouncing around his head for a little while and his meeting star Al Pacino ultimately jumpstarted the idea eventually passed along to screenwriter Paul Logan. This process has allowed Green to become a very versatile artist moving from stoner comedy Pineapple Express, heavy drama Joe, and a little Eastbound & Down in between. Manglehorn toes the line of both genres with some romance thrown in, adding to his filmography’s diversity with yet another complicated character wherein appearances are very much deceiving.
The Film Stage: You tasked your neighbor in Austin, Paul Logan, to turn your idea for Manglehorn into a feature script. What was it about him that made you think he was the one for the job?
David Gordon Green: Well I’d read some stuff he’d written. He was a lighting designer for the band Explosions in the Sky and he worked as a production assistant on Prince Avalanche, so he’s just a guy that you wander around and shoot the shit with. He knows a crapload about 1970s films—which are my favorite movies.
So I had this weird meeting with Al Pacino, unrelated to this movie, and when I got back from that meeting—actually it was an airplane ride from that meeting where I was thinking about all these ideas about what I saw in the room with Al and what could be a cool way to pull back some layers of what we know of Al and his recent work.
So I started telling Paul—we grab coffee and shoot the shit on the porch—I started telling him about it very organically. I’m sure you and your buddies are sitting at a bar scribbling down ideas on a barroom napkin. “Wouldn’t this be a cool movie to see?” or “What if that actor did this thing?” or “That director doing the other?” We all just sit around cause we’re movie nerds and we talk about that stuff.
This was one that Paul just started running with ideas and I was like, “Man. Shit. Start writing this down.” because the scenes started coming together in this bizarre way. What I’m drawn to about Paul—which is a quality that I don’t have anymore—is that he’s not yet been abused by development notes and standard structure and textbook writing ability. He’s really just writing from the gut intuitively like how I did when I was in 8th grade or even on George Washington, my first film. When you’re young and writing things you’re more experimental and now when I write I find myself being very—either technically considerate or thinking about things like, “Oh, I don’t want to write a scene that has driving at night because it’s a pain in the ass to film.” So I have all these cynical boundaries that have developed like tumors from working for the last fifteen years.
So I really like to surround myself with writers and collaborate with writers that are not so engineered. When an agency comes and starts telling me about these “hot” spec scripts to sell and how the studios are buying this guy’s writing—I have no interest in those guys. [laughter] They’re getting paid great and I’m sure their voices are trained with that kind of Hollywood impulse, which is very cool if you’re making these movies. For a movie like Manglehorn where we really just wanted a strange subconscious character piece, you want someone who’s thinking more organically, more spiritually about a character rather than the technical fabric of set-up and payoff.
Does that help also in how Austin, TX becomes kind of a character in this film? Did his not quite knowing the constraints of where the camera can go make you choose places you may not have gone to otherwise?
One hundred percent. He lives three blocks from me and we can walk to every set in the movie. We were shooting at the American Legion. We’re shooting at the locksmith shop. That locksmith shop—not to diminish Richard A. Wright‘s beautiful production design, but we didn’t touch anything in there. That’s literally where I got all my locks changed when I bought my house.
The locations are really informative of this character because where we live—this neighborhood—is really starting to flip. You live in a sketchy neighborhood twenty years ago and now it’s gentrified and prices have skyrocketed and things like cool locksmith shops are being bought and turned into condos. Manglehorn’s house has already been destroyed and it’s like a duplex, a modern architecture duplex. It’s crazy how quickly these things—the locksmith shop is sold now too.
Everything changes so quickly and in a weird way it’s perfect because that’s what this character is like. He’s just caught in the transition of this world and he’s still stuck in this age of romance. And now he’s just pissed because he doesn’t fit in with the rules of today. It’s really beautiful to watch the sad evolution of things.
It’s a weird perspective for the film to have and that’s something that—Paul’s been living there longer than I have. It was cool to see him point me to a park that I never—I have kids and I still never knew about this little playground or things like that. So he does have a cool perspective on trying to make it feel like a legitimate environment. We’re literally a fifteen-minute walk from downtown Austin and most of the locations in the movie are seemingly very obscured. You’d never know you were in a major urban area. All of a sudden you’ll see Manglehorn buying hotdogs and a skyline and a horse riding by. There’s a guy riding a horse. That’s not someone we hired. That’s a dude that rides a horse around. It’s a contradiction to itself and I believe that’s what helps tell the story of Manglehorn.
And with that contradiction—I loved those little vignettes of magic where memory is warped by nostalgia. It’s interesting that you have some people using it to almost forgive Manglehorn for who he is today while there are others like Chris Messina who’s remembering times when his father was even more fearsome. What is it about nostalgia and its ability to make Gary (Harmony Korine) smile while also preventing someone like AJ from finding real happiness beyond regret as a result of living in the past?
There’s a couple things. One is the way we approached those stories. I went to every actor in the movie that had a speaking part [and asked them] to make up a story that is almost possible/almost impossible. Maybe it just barely doesn’t defy gravity—something Manglehorn did. Make it super far-fetched. It’s almost a miracle that Manglehorn performed it. And then how did that affect your life?
So we did that with a dozen actors and picked a few that we thought were cool, breaking the standard screenwriting rule of “show, don’t tell”. I thought it would be more interesting to have everybody’s perspective of this magical guy who we just see as a melancholy dickhead. To be wondering about him. They say all these things, but what’s the deal with this guy? I thought that was interesting.
And then the movie itself is kind of a romantic study of nostalgia. It’s about how we romanticize the past—good and bad. If I went through something fucked up when I was nineteen years old, man, I got a way better story for you when I’m forty. That story’s been told six hundred times and I know the parts that turn your head. So I know where to put the emphasis and everything kind of falls into place. So if I think about the one that got away in college—there’s so much more involved now because when you’re forty years old you don’t have those hormones firing on the same level. You don’t have the romantic aspirations you had. Your emotions are far less vulnerable because maybe you’ve been burned or got tired of feeling that way.
But for some people—including myself to a large degree—I get caught up in that and I catch myself in a moment of contemporary frustration thinking about how it used to be so great. In the movie business we’re always talking about how movies used to be so great when we were kids. Talking about going to see The Goonies all summer in 1984 or whatever. And then my dad is like, “Man, you guys don’t know jack shit because when I was fourteen and going to the movies it cost a nickel and it’d be a triple feature at the drive-in.” Or whatever.
Everybody has that nostalgia about [his/her] childhood. I feel we all kind of form our romantic notion of culture when we’re eleven to fourteen years old. We have these things where the world really opens our eyes and we’re processing it. That’s love. That’s movies. That’s music. We’re sponges just saying, “Ok, now I can sneak into seeing R-rated movies. I’m going to eat those up.” Because that’s new material. And love: you’re starting to feel things you didn’t feel about people before. You’re starting to really connect with them.
Then it just changes and it changing as you mature isn’t necessarily a good thing. Sometimes I love the adrenaline of a first kiss or the first time you see a film in 70mm—something that would energize you to such a high degree. I wanted Manglehorn to reflect that. He’s a guy that never went beyond that. He got caught in that adrenaline and he couldn’t get over it.
While Pixar’s latest feature Inside Out is getting widespread acclaim (our review here) and setting records at the box-office, their accompanying shorts are generally a highlight. Lava, the short film playing in front of their latest animation continues that tradition as the music and the visuals are absolutely gorgeous.
At SXSW this year I had the chance to sit with the man that developed this idea for more than two decades prior into the fully formed short, James Murphy, who has been with the company for that long himself. Together we talked about filmmaking and specifically the process of Pixar’s shorts. I was surprised to find out the painstaking process they go through with their features is the same with their shorts, though upon reflection it makes sense considering the consistent quality. We talked about how he found the musicians, whether they made a work-trip out of visiting Hawaii, and the general inspiration behind the project. Check out our conversation below.
The Film Stage: I was listening to an interview with you and you had mentioned that the idea for this short had actually come to you around 25 years ago when you were on your honeymoon.
James Murphy: Right.
A lot of people know about the Pixar process of tearing things down and then rebuilding them, over and over. They don’t even often watch something so much as listen to a story pitch with storyboards before ever going into the animation phase because it’s obviously so expensive to animate something you might end up scrapping. For a short that is only going to be a few minutes, how much is that the same process?
You go through the same process. So you go through the stages of you pitch. If your pitch goes well, ideally you get greenlit. If it doesn’t, they may say we’re going to pass or they may encourage you to work on some scenes and that it has potential. So once you get greenlit, then you go on to story. Just like a feature, you’re creating story reels. Those have to go through a review process. With Lava, that was with John Lasseter. He would see it every six weeks or so. So that lasts about two or three months. Then you have the reels finalized. “This is the movie we’re making.” Then you go into production. Then each stage goes through a similar review process. From reels you go into layout. In that part John really looks to Lee Unkrich a lot. Lee is our editorial/layout guru. When layout gets finalized, you go into animation and all the way down. Throughout that you’re also designing your characters. So everything is being looked at. And there are times you’ll show it to some of the other directors. I think I showed it to Pete Docter a few times and even Andrew Stanton. So it’s really great.
To get that kind of feedback.
Yeah, and it can be tough. But it also gives you the confidence.
And when they compliment, I’m sure it means a lot.
And sometimes it may be constructive criticism but every now and then you’ll get a compliment about something that will give you confidence that, “OK, I need to work on that but this section works.”
Absolutely. And there is a tremendous amount of pressure that I put on myself as well. I just had the fear of, “God, the pitch was so good. What happened?” Or even the boarding. You just don’t want it to fall apart at any stage of the game. Each stage is kind of a mystery in that each time you move on to the next rung, you kind of have to tear it all down and rebuild it because each stage reveals a truth about the world that you’re creating. Sometimes they’re not what you were planning on. So you either have to figure out how to make it what you wanted or accept that it doesn’t and let it take you new places.
That happened with Lava, particularly in layout. We did a lot of stuff in boards that were cheating, scale and camera speed wise, and once you got to layout you couldn’t cheat. Even if you did, you were found out. We were really trying to create scale for these giant mountains and we found really early on that if we moved our cameras, that were on a helicopter theoretically, any faster than the speed of a real helicopter, it instantly shrunk down the size of the island.
Perception wise, yeah, it makes it look smaller than it should be.
Exactly. But it was a revelation. Once we figured that out we just were in awe. We have long, sweeping helicopter shots with time cuts that we’ve edited with cross dissolves that just gives you this sense of scale but with the cross dissolves and the helicopter shots it emulates the spirit of the hula. It just gives you that feeling.
It’s interesting because I know a lot of Pixar films will go on these work visits to locales to take photos of real places and exotic things. Even though they are creating a virtual world they are often creating things based on the real world.
We had so much reference material but really it was from stuff I had found.
Did you go back and look at some of the pictures from the honeymoon itself?
Yeah! I bought some DVDs on a trip and even some other materials. We looked at a ton of stuff. We looked at really specific places that we wanted to incorporate into the character design and not like, “Oh, that’s exactly that.” But no, “You see how this feels? You want that.” You want to integrate that into the character design so that you’re creating a character that is also believable as a place. So after seeing the film you think, “I want to go visit this character. I want to go hang out at the beach and look up and see Uku looking down on me.
One trip we did make, producer Andrea Warren and I, went to the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards and Music Festival. It was a music award festival that’s held every May in Honolulu. It’s the Grammy awards for Hawaiian music. We went to that festival searching for the singers that we ended up casting. We were on a research trip and I don’t think we ever went outside. We were in a convention center in Honolulu but this music festival, the awards are on Sunday but Friday and Saturday all the musicians come and give workshops on composing in Hawaiian and hula and it was just phenomenal. We left there not only with these amazing singers but with this whole responsibility to this amazing culture that we just had get this love that we were leaving with into the film. But yeah, even Google Earth helped us as well.
Did you find tons of timelapse videos of an active volcano there or any of the mountains and use that?
There are a ton of timelapse videos out there. What I did with them was the same thing I did with Hawaii. You can’t take anything specifically. You have to take the essence of what it is. With time lapse, I broke it down into ingredients. The secret with the timelapse was to not have it too busy so that you knew where to look. So you wanted to start with the sun and the moon, so you start with a clock. You want to have the clouds come in and I wanted the clouds to be like a magician’s trick.
Showing things change.
Yeah, you see the mountain and then you see the glow go out. Then you have the metronome of the color of the skies that hit the rhythm of the song. So it’s all of these ingredients and then you want to see the big healthy plume that is representing him when he was the mighty mountain before he shrinks all the way down. Layering all of these things on it and not having any of them overpower one another. Then, find the angle that would give us the best vantage point. It’s like a stage play when the clouds go away and the sun is back.
Lava is now playing in front of Inside Out, in theaters nationwide.
While We Are Still Here marks Ted Geoghegan‘s directorial debut, he’s been around the independent horror film industry enough to understand what does and doesn’t work. Premiering at SXSW in the Midnighters section in March, the film is now available on various VOD platforms and is a nice throwback horror feature that mixes practical effects, a simplistic storyline hook, and quality character actors peppering the scenery with charm. The film stars scream queen Barbara Crampton as Anne Sacchetti, who along with her husband Paul (Andrew Sensenig), have moved into a snow-laden sleepy town that hides a mysterious curse. Their new home continues to perplex them, whether it is the faulty furnace or the voices they hear emanating from the basement. But when locals Dave (Monte Markham) and his wife stop by for a welcoming meeting, they leave the couple with the distinct impression that something is seriously wrong. As the story plugs along, we are introduced to the Sacchetti’s friends, Jacob (Larry Fessenden) and May Lewis (Lisa Marie), who help them figure out the curse before the body count climbs higher.
The film is a charming horror experience that revels in old school gore and filmmaking, including some deviously great creature effects. There’s even a tinge of humor that comes off as knowing audience nods while the story will leave you desperate for a prequel to come about. It’s the type of film that looks way better than you’d expect and continues to draw your interest throughout. It sets out to achieve a certain mood and fun and achieves it. So it was great to sit down with the cast, including Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Monte Markham, Larry Fessenden, and Lisa Marie to discuss the film in depth. Together we chatted about the rise of the independent horror film community, the house the film takes place around, the way weather can affect a film and the mood on set, and how independent film is alive and well today.
Midnight films are a wild venue for a film premiere and they’re always a lot of fun. But was this their first midnight movie, minus Barbara who has seen a resurgence of late. Fessenden, a veteran of the horror genre, simply laughed and mentions his back catalog and how he is usually around for a small amount of screentime before being killed off. Yet even still the question wasn’t wasted as Andrew Sensenig recalls the first few weeks on set, saying, “Barbara, you probably remember, I was quizzing you the whole first week or two of shooting. We shot for almost two weeks with just Barabara and I, then Larry and Lisa came in and the fun started to pick up. Then Monte joined us. But I didn’t know any of these people and she would be throwing out names. I’m not connected at all to this genre. I’ve done more narrative features. So she would mention someone and say that I needed to meet them and this other group of people. There is such a huge group of fans, writers, directors, actors. Some very unique looking people as well. There’s so much creativity and heart.”
Crampton added, “Well, it’s different now. There’s a whole club of people that work in the horror community and with these advances in social media everyone knows one another and we’re all working on each other’s movies. Larry is a director and producer, and he acts in other people’s movies. He had an intern for a number of years that now has a midnight movie here, Pod. When I was working on You’re Next I was acting with Amy Seimetz and Ti West was an actor in it. They’re making their own movies. So there’s a great sense of collaboration that really wasn’t evident when I was making films in the 80s. I felt like I just came in and did my job as an actress, and everybody else had their role. Now the whole community seems a lot more collaborative, to me.”
I mention that I loved the way the house is shot and that you get a real sense for the layout. It’s to the point that I think you would be able to walk into that house now and know where everything is. But was it a complete set? Was that the real basement? Crampton perks up, confirming that it was the actual basement but with a twist. “We were speaking earlier about Marcella, our wonderful production designer. She’s worked on a lot of big movies. She drove all around the countryside to collect the furniture and appropriate TVs. They really transformed it. I mean, we saw it pretty much finished when we arrived as a late 1970s home.”
“The homeowners had been in there for a little over two years and they bought it as a redo,” Sensenig added. “So they would live in a small portion of the home and then remake the rest of the home. So when Marcella came in, they just redid the entire home. Wood paneling, they even built a fake fireplace over a door or something. So everything you see in the film was brought in.” The house has a great presence and it’s Fessenden that points out the obvious when he said, “It’s on the poster!”
When I mention the basement for good measure, Crampton adds a caveat. “You know what we did use, though,” the actress asked. “I think it plays well. There’s a door in the hallway that goes down to the basement in the film, but that’s actually a closet. The basement entry is actually in the garage. But they really liked the way the hallway looked as a door to the basement. So we would open that door and look at the floor as if we were looking down the stairs into the basement. But what we were actually looking at was a dirty sock!”
As a transition I throw out a question about whether they noticed any influences on the film that Geoghegan didn’t expressly mention to them or hasn’t been telling everyone else. Maybe a hidden influence they figured out. Fessenden figured out that someone deep within the film had a special, personal connection to Geoghegan. “The thing that he doesn’t talk about is personal stuff,” Fessenden said. “What I find interesting about the movie is that I feel there is a personal touch in there. If you get to know Ted and his history there is a very sensitive guy in there and I think he was drawing on that. He’s so modest that he doesn’t really describe that aspect of his creative process but I think there’s a lot of that in there.”
What about the location and the scenery? A snow film like this isn’t made all that often. “They felt lucky to find this location and Barabara, you probably remember, the first day on set it snowed like 17 inches and we had the perfect setting,” Sensenig said. “But then, on the second to last day of shooting it had warmed up and the snow was slush and muddy. This was the day before a big scene near the end and all of a sudden, that night, it snowed 12 inches and it was perfect. It looks like a million dollar Hollywood shot using a snow machine but it was just the weather.”
Fessenden keys on this aspect, giving insight from his own career, saying, “Those are really the magical moments. It’s the weather. It’s never talked about because people are self-centered. They don’t talk about how much the natural environment affects the feeling of the shoot. I made a couple of snow movies and in one of them the snow melted half way through and the rest of the movie doesn’t have snow. Luckily it’s established early enough in the film. It’s considered a snow movie but I know the heartbreak of the last sequence being basically in mud.”
The night prior during a Q&A after the film premiered, star Monte Markham mentioned that being in this film helped him realize how much film had changed. He saw a community of collaborators that he didn’t know existed before. He seemed inspired and full of hope. So I asked him if he would be making more films.
“Oh yeah, I am,” Markham said. “I just signed on to do a film in Serbia, [The Rift], which is a science fiction horror film. I’m very curious. Michael Ironside starred in a film I made in 1991 called Neon City and we still stay in touch. He told me about how he continues to make movies with this group in Europe. It’s more community now than it ever was when I stopped in the 90s. Now it’s wide open. It’s very exciting and I meant that. I don’t know who I’m meeting. It may be the next Spielberg, who knows. Everybody is like when the Fender bass came out, so many people didn’t know squat about music but they all did it. And they’re still doing it today. A lot of rock shit. With film it’s the same way. I go in for everything. I mean, at my age, my contemporaries either look like Methuselah or they look alright,” he says as everyone laughs.
Speaking of all the films that people make nowadays, Barbara Crampton had an interesting point. “It’s funny,” she said, “because Larry, you probably know a lot about this, but I think in the Midnight Section here at SXSW, there was something like 2,500 films submitted and only 10 got in. So, where are all these other films?
“I want to know who’s watching all these films,” Fessenden joked.
“But there’s a film festival every one or two months and someone is making all those films,” Crampton added.
I’m always fascinated by people that complain that no one makes good films anymore because I just want to tell them, “Have you tried a film festival?” Go see a film that isn’t released on 2,000 screens every weekend. There are tons of films out there.
“That’s so true,” Fessenden said. “There are so many great movies. Even with horror, you run into that. People complain about horror because they see the films that are released on 3,000 screens and they become dismissable. But there’s this whole other level of these little can-do films that are exploring the dark side and just as edgy as horror used to be.”
We Are Still Here is now in limited release and available on VOD.
Like John Carpenter and Brian De Palma, Joe Dante began in low-budget genre filmmaking, only to ascend to a steady two-decade career as a Hollywood auteur. His distinction is for often infusing family fare with a deeply personal and cinephilic touch that made them linger beyond just the inspired gags. To cement the comparison with those other two directors, he seems, unfairly, to be in Hollywood exile, kicked out by a system that no longer has any room for the middle-range movie. Luckily, Dante has still managed to keep himself busy, as his newest feature, the rom-zom-com Burying the Ex, hits theaters and VOD on June 19. I had the chance to speak with him about the film, and much more, which can be read below.
The Film Stage: What I thought was particularly interesting about this film was that it was about young cinephiles, and I think, in the last couple of years, young cinephiles have really reclaimed your work; I think specifically of Gabe Klinger’s book that was published on you. Was that what attracted you to the material?
Joe Dante: It’s never hard for me to do something that has to do with movies. [Laughs] The idea of making a film where the lead character is a film nerd is something that I can relate to, and Anton Yelchin, who plays him, is a major film buff. He’s almost obsessive the way that he gobbles up the experience of watching films. I gave him a lot of DVDs while we were making this film, but he was actually firmly in his Douglas Fairbanks phase — he was still doing silents and I tried to move him off to the talkies at least. [Laughs] But he is the character, and there’s something very retro about having a character who is so into old movies because I don’t think the majority of the audience that age finds that as relatable. But there’s still a pull factor to it, and it still makes the movie a bit more fantasy that he’s got these two gorgeous girls who are crazy about him. As most of us would attest, it’s not often that you’re going to find gorgeous girls who are going to talk to you about Val Lewton.
Do you think that, with this film, you’re depicting a Los Angeles that’s not often seen onscreen? Obviously the character is into film and he’s selling memorabilia, but he’s not trying to break into the business, same with the other characters. I think it’s an interesting depiction of class in Los Angeles, even just by the fact that the lead character doesn’t drive.
Well that’s another way he relates to me [Laughs] though I don’t have a scooter. It’s a very L.A.-centric movie and, at one point, to save money, the producers were talking about moving it to New Orleans to take advantage of the tax credit, but I just said, “I think that’s a terrible mistake,” because one of the appeals to me about this script was that it was about a sub-strata of Los Angeles that people don’t really see much. In fact, you don’t really see L.A. onscreen very much at all anymore; it’s mostly Canada. But even just the idea of screening movies in cemeteries, I don’t think, is very rampant in New Orleans. There was just something about the L.A. culture that livened up the story, so I convinced them to stay here. But I think it’s a very accurate portrayal of life in Los Angeles.
Does production a low-budget film such as this make you feel like you’re back in your Roger Corman days?
Completely. Luckily, I never forgot my roots, and I’ve been bouncing back and forth between television and movies, and in television, of course, you have to work very fast. You can’t go over-budget or any of that stuff — at least, you’re not supposed to. Well, some shows do. But, in this case, it was very much like making a New World picture of the ’70s: there was a very strict budget cap, there was no overtime allowed, and, to save money on the teamsters, we shot the entire picture within a seven-block area of downtown L.A. where we could push the cameras and move the stuff ourselves. We didn’t have to move them in trucks.
Speaking of Roger Corman, are there any updates on your potential biopic of him, The Man with the Kaleidoscope Eyes?
The only update is that I haven’t given up on it. We’re exploring various venues of how to get this thing off the ground, and we came close twice — we came surprisingly close — so I think it’s doable. But it’s still in the works.
You used Kickstarter to help with post-production on this film?
Yeah, but that was sort of an anomaly. That didn’t happen until we’d already started shooting, and then I think a portion of the budget may have fallen out, so the producers decided to quickly mount a Kickstarter campaign. And the one thing you can’t do with Kickstarter is that you can’t mount it quickly, because I did it for my website, Trailers From Hell, and I thought it would be very simple to do, but it took almost a year to complete. This happened over a period of days while we were still shooting, and one of the perks was supposed to be a set visit, which I don’t think was possible because, by the time Kickstarter had kicked in, we had already finished shooting. So there are some people listed at the end of the credits, of people who did supply some money, but it didn’t end up being a very substantial part of the budget.
I was curious if you’d been considering using it for your Roger Corman film?
Considering how well Orson Welles is doing with The Other Side of the Wind, I probably think that wouldn’t work. [Laughs]
You mentioned television. Considering that you’ve directed episodes of some shows, have you thought about creating your own show? Because what I think what’s starting to emerge is more of an auteur model on television, i.e. where a director will direct an entire season of a show, such Steven Soderbergh with The Knick or David Lynch with the upcoming Twin Peaks. So have you considered doing something like that?
Sure, but I don’t quite have the clout that those guys have. I’ve got some projects — like, I’ve pitched some pilots and things — but my shot failed when I had a pilot about the people who worked at New World in the ’70s and we didn’t get any takers. And I was involved in Eerie, Indiana years ago; I did the pilot for that. And to do the show — to start the show and be the one who’s guiding the creation of the characters and direction of the story — is terrific; it’s much more rewarding than coming on someone else’s show and doing an episode or two. But it pays the bills, and the shows I’m doing, like Salem, are the kind of shows that I like, anyway, so I’m happy to do them.
Have you watched Hannibal, by any chance?
A friend of mine told me last season that it was really terrific, so I watched last night’s season premiere and it’s really a good show. But I think by the time the show has come on, pretty much all the spots are taken.
I was actually thinking last night, watching it, that you should direct an episode.
I can’t tell you how many shows I watch where I think that. Like, I watch Mad Men and think I should probably direct an episode, but that’s all done in New York.
Back to the idea of cinephilia, you’ve also mentioned your website, Trailers From Hell. Has that reinvigorated your love of cinema in any way, banding with other filmmakers both young and old to talk about films you love?
Well, I don’t need my love of cinema reworked at all. [Laughs] It’s been great because I’ve met a lot of people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise, like a lot of the commentators are people that I didn’t know before we started and I’ve become very friendly with, and they constantly surprise me with some of the movies that they want to talk about, and a lot of them are new to me. That part of it is fun, and just the idea of it being available for people to be introduced to movies they might not have heard of, or actors or directors.
The nicest thing is when someone comes up to me and says, “I just watched so and so, and I never would’ve seen it if I hadn’t seen it on your website, and I want to see more of those.” That really makes me feel good. There are so many movies available to see now, more than ever in my lifetime — movies that haven’t been seen for seventy years are now available to stream and watch on DVD — but if you don’t know what they are, you don’t know the people that are in them and they’re not going to get watched, so I think it’s like a mini-film school for me.
Burying the Ex is obviously littered with horror references, but I think of it primarily as a comedy. I know you’re a big fan of directors like Frank Tashlin and Ernst Lubitsch. Were than any other specific comedy directors or films that were a big influence on this?
Every movie that I’ve ever seen influences me. It’s a shitty answer, but it’s true. You never go into it going, “How would [Frank] Tashlin do it?” It’s just whatever the scene calls for. There may be a precedent in your head of something that’s already been done that you might want to tap, but, most of the time, it’s just instinctive; you just do what feels right. I used to do elaborate storyboards because I was told that was the way films were done, and it was always good to have something to fall back on if the first idea doesn’t work, but I find I don’t do shot lists anymore. I have an innate ability to just go on the set, stand around and see where the people should go.
I like the actors to dictate what happens. I don’t want to be so strict that you have to be here, and you have to pick up your coffee cup on this line or any of that. It’s much more spontaneous to just let the actors go — and, in this movie, the actors are the movie. The most fun aspect of the picture is just watching the actors, and a lot of it is ad-libbed, because they’ll go in a direction. Like Oliver Cooper: we could cut a whole other movie of stuff he said that we didn’t use, but the stuff he said that we did use is really funny.
Burying the Ex hits theaters and VOD on Friday, June 19.
Sven Hansen-Løve‘s name probably won’t spark much recognition, but the extent of his influence on today’s culture is fairly significant. The proof is on the screen: Eden is based on his experiences inside French house music’s incipient days, when the likes of Daft Punk — upon whom the film is (rather erroneously) being sold — were still debuting their records on Hansen-Løve’s turntables. That distinction notwithstanding, much of what occurred in his life between then and now was rather turbulent — enough to comprise much of the drama in his sister’s fourth feature.
After looking over my discussion with her, it was obvious that the close creative relationship between them — Sven is, after all, the credited co-writer, and he revealed to me an even deeper input when we got talking — was a good point around which an interview could revolve. The insight he brings to Eden‘s creation is a fascinating one, and whatever comparisons one might, as a result, be able to raise between the lives of this real-life figure and his fictional counterpart should only deepen the film’s emotional core.
The Film Stage: I wouldn’t say we’d previously met, but I did see you when I interviewed Mia back in October. You were sleeping on a couch next to us.
Sven Hansen-Løve: [Laughs] When was that. In Toronto, or something?
In New York. Okay.
I asked, “Is he okay?” She said, “Oh, we’ve just been jet-lagged and celebrating, which is a bad combination.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah… [Laughs]
The film premiered several months ago and is only now opening in the United States. What has your life consisted of since that time?
Well, thank you for asking. I’m doing some studying again, so I’m finishing my first year of a Master’s in Creative Writing. In September and October, Mia and me were working on the promotion of the film, but then it stopped. So then I went back to writing, basically, and working on my creative writing, and having a cool, relaxing life in France. [Laughs]
Did you have this path in mind for a while, or did the experience of writing Eden spark it?
No, it’s something I had in mind much earlier. To explain to you: the film ends up in 2013, but it doesn’t really stick to the truth, actually, which is kind of better. The reason is, when we started to write the script with Mia, and we did end the film closer to the reality, which was in 2010, but we finished writing the script, and Daft Punk released their album. Mia’s completely in love with the album — she really loved it — and she wanted to put one song on the new album in the film, which is “Within.” For that special reason, we had to change the date. So what’s happening to the character is in 2013 because of that. But what I mean when I’m telling you this is, for me, what happens at the end of the film is already rather distanced, you know? Many things have already happened to me, because it’s been, like, five years. My life is very different, but all the things I’m doing right now I had in mind a long time ago, anyway.
I was transcribing my interview with Mia, and one thing that caught my mind was her saying you “wanted, violently, to turn the page” on your life, and that this was a matter of life or death for you.
Good point, yes. Absolutely.
I’d love to hear about that. Maybe, specifically, what the matters of life and death are, and how it could correlate to Paul’s journey in the film.
It’s kind of what you see in the film: I had a rough time, because I was trapped in something I could not get out of, and time went really, really fast. One day I woke up and I realized, “The years have passed, and I’m getting close to being 40.” And nothing had happened. I had made no progress, I’m still single, I don’t have a job, and the DJ thing is not working so much anymore; I don’t want to do it so much anymore, anyway. All those things, and, as you can see in the film, I realized I was trapped in something I had to get out of, in one way or another. It wasn’t easy, because I had some addictions — not only to drugs, but to parties and a kind of lifestyle that was bad. It just took me time to realize it.
Maybe the film helped me a bit, but maybe not so much — because I knew all this already. It’s not like I discovered all this writing the script with my sister; I knew all this. In a way, I guess, my sister helped me, because to be involved in a very important project was helpful for me, because I had no project at that time. I knew I wanted to write, but I wasn’t really able to do it. I was always putting stuff, procrastinating stuff. [Laughs] Also because I was tired all the time. I was tired, probably, from some sort of depression or something. But, yeah, to be involved with the project, that was going to take me a long time. All of this helped me, I guess.
Is it strange or surprising that your experiences are connecting with people all over the world?
No, I don’t think so. Because the film related to a time and a generation, so I’m not surprised that people come to see us and say, “Yeah, I see myself in the film.” Even, sometimes, it’s funny, because I think, for me, it should be very different from what you knew. At one screening in New York, we had a crazy connection with a very old guy — like, 80 or something — and the guy came up to us and said, “I recognized myself when I was young.” That was strange, because he’s old. [Laughs]
The thing is, maybe because the scene that we put in the script, they could be in the past, also, because it’s about the choice you make when you’re young, what you want to do with your life. The choice you want to do, if you want to get a regular job and become part of the “system,” or if you want to go on and try your passion. Can you do it? Is that possible? Are you ready to do it? Are you ready to make that choice or not? All of those those things, maybe people can get connected to them, I suppose.
With regard to writing, Mia told me she filled out the storytelling and character components. What would you say your contribution to the movie was, screenwriting-wise, past the relating of your own experiences?
The first thing Mia did was, when she started, she interviewed me for a long, long time — like, hours. She took some notes. Then, with those notes, she started to write a story — a plan, a structure. We talked about it again, I added some new notes, and then she asked me to write some dialogue that were related to some experiences of some things I had lived in the past. Then there was the musical part, also, which was very important. We took a long, long time to think about the music of the film. Particularly what we did was a list — over and over again; a long, long list — and then we started to cut the songs that were not that important to put in, so, at the end, we’d get the most important songs. We had a lot of time to do that, because the film took us a very long time to produce, to get the money for. We spent almost one year working on this soundtrack. I was pretty involved with this, and then I was also involved with all the artistic aspects of this.
As a kind of period movie, it was important to have the contribution of some other people, also — to be sure that we were authentic in what we were showing in the film. The sets, all the details. I spent all that time on the pre-production, like the people working on the costumes and sets and everything, and I was almost there every day on the shooting, and again on the editing. It was the last part that was very, very important. Artistically, maybe the most important work I did on the film was the sound editing. It is really something important in the film, and we had to be careful, the way we use the music and all the sound in the film. We worked with a very nice and close friend, with a sound editor, and it took us a very long time, but it was very interesting to work on this. And then, the promotion, of course, is also very important. Basically, I worked one every stage of the film as an artistic consultant.
Did you have much of a hand in the casting?
I wouldn’t say that. It was really Mia’s choice, in the end, but she always asked me what I thought of them. I knew, also, the casting director, so I spent some time, but I didn’t want to interfere with that too much. I took a look at it, but, basically it was Mia’s choice, and also the casting director’s choice. And she’s a very famous casting director in France — probably the most famous — so I could think that they were maybe doing a good job.
Were there any big points of disagreement between you and Mia?
I would say we had some disagreements, but really, really little for the artistic side. Basically, I trusted Mia, and it was really her project more than mine. If we had disagreements, it was really about small details. We had one disagreement about one thing, but that was more the personal stuff of something I didn’t want her to put in the film, because there was a person to who I wanted to be respectful. But we had a conversation and it was fine.
All of her films are based on experiences belonging to her or those she’s close to. The previous feature was based on her youth, this one is about you, and now she’s written a screenplay inspired by your mother. Is it weird, in your family, when she’s making these movies about all of you?
Yes, it is. Yes, it is. But, you know, the interesting thing is that, in the “author” films, it’s very often that the film directors — and we had this conversation with a friend — when writing their own scripts, are thinking about the people around them. Actually, it’s rather common, I think, in the films, but I guess in the “author” films, like French films. It is a bit strange, but… I don’t know, we have to deal with it, anyway. [Laughs] But that’s the thing she wants to do. If you think about some great movie directors, they were really doing the same things — you think about Truffaut, Bergman — they were really talking about the people around them and themselves. It’s a sort of tradition, anyway. It’s pretty common, and of course we have to deal with it, but we did — in one way or another. I think Mia is never saying bad things. She’s always saying things that are not offending, in one way or another.
Eden enters a limited release on Friday, June 19.
After all the coverage we’ve provided, now is finally the time for a first wave of U.S. audiences to see Mia Hansen-Løve‘s Eden, a fictionalization of her brother’s experiences within and on the periphery of French EDM during its incipient stages, heyday, and eventual transformation. (It is, in some corners, being sold as “the Daft Punk movie,” which is true if you think bookending appearances and a few songs constitute being the central subject.) Although it’s been almost nine months since I saw it, the film has stuck in my memory becuase of the careful, patient eye she lends to the material, as well as the insight that her brother, Sven — upon whom the protagonist is based — brings in co-writing the material. Said I at the time: “Only in retrospect could I understand Eden‘s careful delineation of temporal, emotional, and geographic properties: it wasn’t that the Hansen-Løve siblings had fallen victim to imbalance, but that their taste for structure — or (deep breath) their taste for the delineation of temporal, emotional, and geographic properties — necessitated the full picture to be comprehended with even the slightest of critical responsibility.”
I spoke with Hansen-Løve in New York around its NYFF premiere, at which time the helmer still hadn’t made much in the way of any public statement on what, exactly, she was getting at with this material. Her answers are thus rather full, jumping from one intricacy to the other with the sort of clarity and logic that only a key creative voice could provide. With her sibling, co-writer, and essentially the film’s main subject sleeping next to us on a couch — and with my brain only a bit distracted by the minutes-old news that Twin Peaks would be returning to TV (you really shouldn’t look at your phone before conducting an interview) — she explored the bizarre reality-art dichotomy at play, offhandedly stated the secret lynchpin of her entire oeuvre, and provided me with her own theory on the true meaning of Inside Llewyn Davis.
The Film Stage: I tried to take these notes during the movie, and, as you’ll see, the dark palate of your opening scene messed up my lining a bit. I’d like to start at the beginning and ask about this. What was the idea behind submerging us in darkness and only bringing light when we finally hear music for the first time?
Mia Hansen-Løve: When I write, it’s not like I decide, consciously, what I’m doing and why, but if I have to try and analyze it, maybe it has to do with the fact that my previous films were very much connected with the light. I was always told that they were bright — and of course there was still some darkness in all of my films — but, still, in terms of the aesthetic, the films always had a lot of light in it. For some reason, after making those three films, it was as if I was fed up with myself. I wanted to go somewhere else. There was something about the young girls and the characters, like I was overdosing something from my previous films, and actually, now, when I see the film with a distance, I realize the film is as connected to my previous films as they previous films were to one another.
But I think this darkness you’re talking about at the beginning is maybe a reaction to my previous film, and a desire to find the meaning, the poetry, the beauty through another way, and to go deep inside the darkness, but not in the same way as in those films. This film is, in a way, less dark than my previous films — but, aesthetically, it’s darker. It’s darker, but colorful. That’s the choice we made, also, for the lighting of the clubs: we didn’t add any lighting; we used only the lighting of the clubs from beginning to end. So we made this choice to have the club scenes very, very darkly, sometimes to the limit of what the camera was able to get without adding any lights — the lights that came from the clubs themselves.
I have to follow-up with something you’ve said: one of the things that I liked so much was being reminded of your other films, quite simply because I like your other films. But, based on what you’ve said, I’m now wondering if you were at all disappointed to find Eden resembling the earlier work.
You mean when I realized how close it was to my other films?
No, I wasn’t disappointed. Ultimately, I knew it, from the start, but as soon as I had finished the script, I have enough distance from myself to see all it has in common, and it’s so obvious. The passing of time, the melancholy — I could not not be aware that there was a strong melancholy in the film. But, no, I wouldn’t say I was disappointed or annoyed by that, because I still had the feeling that, even though the themes were similar in many ways, the world I was depicting and the way I was doing it, thanks to the fact that there were so many characters — that was so different from my previous film, because it’s in nightclubs — will make me ultimately move on and move forward and make a film that will still be very different from my previous film.
And actually, I think it is, because — and that really strikes me; sometimes it’s even scary for me — I realized this film, the “public” of this film, is very different. Well, it’s not released yet, but it seems to be very different from my previous films. I mean, fortunately, people who like my previous films — like film critics — most of them follow me with this film, but I still have a feeling — and that’s not something I did on purpose; it’s just happening — because of what the film is about, and the music scene and everything, that the “public” for this film is much more specific and young than my previous, which was more general and art house public.
The other thing about your question that I want to say is, when you write for your own films — and that’s the case; this one I wrote with Sven, but I still have a feeling… I mean, we wrote it together, but I still took care of the storytelling, of the characters — you have to accept the idea that you will possibly be followed by some obsessions and themes. You can’t avoid that, and it’s really annoying, actually. For instance, the fact that I’m writing films that are biographical or autobiographical, I always have to talk about it and justify myself.
Not because people are attacking me on that, but because they’re asking — it’s normal. I would also ask a filmmaker, if I was doing it: how did you write it, why is it… but I do it just because I can’t do another way. I don’t feel like I choose to make films about my brother, my family, people I love. I just make films about things that are the most necessary to me. Every film imposes itself to me, and I would love to make films that are completely different from my life, but it’s like as if there were some kind of hierarchy. I need to go to the essential first before I can move on to something else, and in films, like, as long as I haven’t made the film for every person who’s around me — like, a portrait of this person — I can’t really go someplace else.
I was thinking about that in the taxi this morning, because I’ve been talking about that a lot recently — because of interviews — and I realized, because I was trying to explain it to myself, I need to… you know when you eat, you have the starter, the main meal, and the desert? I can’t start the main meal before I finish the starter. It’s really basic, but because the next film is a portrait of my mother, and I wish I wouldn’t do that. Every time I write a film, I go, “Oh, no, that’s not what I want to do.” But I have to. I have to go to the end of this inspiration before I can move to another place and open another door.
How far along are you with this film concerning your mother?
I wrote it already. Actually, I wrote it one-year-and-a-half ago. Because Eden was so tough to finance that there were entire months where basically nothing was happening, and I just can’t stay, waiting for finance — I get crazy. So I sit on my table and I just wrote a script very quickly. It happened to be a script that was a kind of portrait of my mother, who’s a philosophy teacher. It’s a film I would like to shoot next summer.
One of the things that most interested me is that these club scenes are like few I’ve ever seen. There’s a distance, remove, and sense of observation here that greatly affects the tempo of the movie.
There was an idea, for me, to find a rhythm that wasn’t necessarily the rhythm of the songs themselves. I thought, because it’s going to be such a long film, because it’s going to be full of music, I wanted people to enjoy the music and connect with it, and find a way to film it in a way that they can be moved by the music. But I also want the film to have its own atmosphere, its own rhythm, its own look, and, if I want to have that, I have to take a distance to the music, in a way. Another thing is that I often don’t enjoy how clubs are filmed. I found it quite vulgar. The way it’s clipped, all these close-ups and very short takes, the way it’s edited — chop chop chop chop! — like MTV. You know what I mean? And with extras that look like extras and film sets that look like film sets, not like real clubs.
For me, one of the challenges of the film was to find a way to totally reinvent the clubs. And, strangely, “reinvent” didn’t mean to do something experimental, and go into a fantasy world, and to feel like you’re taking drugs. For me, it felt like filming it in a way that it seems more distanced, maybe, or more realistic, but find a poetry within the realism. I found it, in a way, more audacious — more interesting — than doing it the other way, because I had a feeling the other way was the “official” way. Like, when you make a film about a club and it has to be cool and it has to be glamorous — as if a filmmaker was trying to imitate the feeling of drugs, you know? But maybe because I believe in the invisible, I was more interested in filming it in a way that seems realistic, and finding the poetry and the interiority in another way — but not in a literal way. You know what I mean? It’s hard for me. I’m not fluent, so when I talk English, I always have to try to simplify what I’m trying to say, so sometimes it can seem very abstract.
Film culture’s classic binary; the big (blockbuster) or the small (Sundance drama) film, has become increasingly complicated over the past decade and a half. With the advent of technology that lets the cinephile see more, and the budding artist make more, it becomes easier to understand what a truly small film actually is. This can be further understood in the forthcoming retrospective “You Can’t Go Home Again: The Films of Luo Li” running from June 11th to 14th at the Bell Lightbox (see details here). Beginning with I Went to the Zoo the Other Day, the just-over-an-hour film depicts a day at the Toronto Zoo for two Serbian immigrants, their disembodied presence shifting through a chaotic public space of multiple visitors, languages and even the bored animals trapped behind glass or bars. Due to its production and budgetary constraints, it displays the kind of low-key formalism (one could even call it a “hang-out” film) that doesn’t often grab the attention of programmers and festival-goers, yet nonetheless reflects the kind of filmmaking that can still both capture the world around us, and render it completely strange.
Yet we shouldn’t be so quick to ascribe low stakes to Luo Li’s cinema, as in his following films he displays a tendency similar to the work of Lisandro Alonso, where often near the film’s end he’ll present a rupture that forces the viewer to rethink the arthouse modes they’d previously boxed the work into. While it can be just as easy to praise a film for its clever divergence as it is for maintaining an aesthetically “correct” determinism, in terms of seeing an artist’s progression, one in which genres and attitudes toward realism seem in a state of constant flux, it becomes a highly intriguing prospect.
The film that best exemplifies this being his following feature Rivers and My Father, in which he attempt to create a biography of three generations of his family through “adapting” his father’s memoir. This comes complicated in its last “act” though with the inclusion of an email from his father following his seeing a rough cut of the film. While his father openly admits to not completely understanding his son’s line of work in the first place, he doesn’t hesitate in calling in to question almost everything about the film; whether it be its anachronisms, elliptical storytelling or slow-cinema friendly length of its shots. In being forced to reconsider all the film’s images, it both presents his father as somewhat of a co-author, as well giving an admittance of being an imperfect work; the fruitless pursuit of both historical recreation and parental acceptance on equal plain.
Emperor Visits in Hell, which presents a pivot by surprisingly functioning as a deadpan comedy, is another adaptation of sorts; the legendary Journey to the West yet transplanted to modern China. Reconfiguring a few chapters into what’s ostensibly a quirky mob movie, through his trademark digital black-and white, Luo Li creates a stark yet off-putting atmosphere akin to the colliding realist/supernatural tales of Jacques Rivette and Apichatpong Weerasethakul — though the film abruptly ends with its lead actor Li Wen out of character and in a seemingly candid drunken state ranting about the state of China today. While perhaps some of the themes of the film will become more apparent for the uniformed Western members of the audience, it in some ways functions as simply the best joke in a movie already full of bumbling ghosts and mundane gateways to the underworld.
Initially promising to be his first true documentary, Li Wen at East Lake takes on China’s exorbitant capitalism again; this time through the prism of Wuhan’s famed East Lake being threatened by an encroaching urbanization. Though of course he doesn’t simply go the easy route of creating a simple polemic, as perhaps tipped of to the audience through simply its title; the star of his previous film probably isn’t going to be denied the chance to perform again. Playing both “himself” and a figure of authority, he’s asked to investigate the case of a local crazed person scaring off citizens with his stories of a man-eating dragon living in the lake; even that itself could be its own magical-realist exploration of Chinese folklore.
Luo Li’s body of work may still be rather small, but as recent retrospectives at the Lightbox dedicated to the similarly sized filmographies of Mia Hansen-Løve and Matías Piñeiro have shown, the promise of even greater things to come can be just as exciting as as a decades-long list of titles. Thus it was a great opportunity to discuss all this with him.
The Film Stage: Sorry that I’m going to start off with a really general question, but how did you first get interested in becoming a filmmaker?
Luo Li: I became very interested in films when I was a teenager. I was watching films when I was in China and then after I came to Canada I went to film school, where I did film studies at first and then switched to film production. I just wanted to make films and at the beginning I wasn’t very sure what kind of films I wanted to make. I was interested in experimental films when I was in my undergraduate years.
The title of this retrospective is “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Being that you’ve made films in both Canada and China, do you feel like you identify with one country more than the other?
I don’t know. I don’t think I ever consciously think about that question, but I think now I probably identify more with China again even after spending so many years in Canada. After making the last three films in China I felt that I reconnected with a lot of my friends here and my family here, I got to know more about what’s going on in China now. But I still spend a lot of time in Canada; I feel in Canada I’m still learning a lot actually. There’s still a lot to learn about Canada and I keep my eyes and my ears open. That’s why I feel I’m not really ready to make films in Canada at this moment, I feel I don’t know very well about it yet.
I live in Toronto right now and I feel like the city’s become less artist-friendly. The urban space of Toronto feels like it’s just all these condos and it’s very business-centric. Do you agree?
I agree actually, that’s happening everywhere. Toronto is probably not the worst city in the world in that respect, actually, but it is happening and I’ve seen that happen a lot in China for example. It’s normally done in a much more crude and cruel way. Toronto to me, relatively speaking, is not that bad actually, but I know what you mean.
Speaking of public spaces though, how difficult was your film I Went to the Zoo the Other Day to make? Did you shoot it guerrilla style?
It’s definitely guerrilla style and I didn’t get any permits. My crew was very small, we didn’t cause any problems for visitors. I think the whole crew including myself was no more than four or five people. We were just shooting other visitors, but we spent a lot of time there.
I think so much of what lends to that film is the sound that you capture; all this ambience, all these multiple languages.
Thank you, we just had one sound person, which was myself. It can be done though, because we did spend a lot of time there. We went there every weekend because my actors could only work on the weekend. So we’d go to the zoo every weekend and we spent maybe three or four months to finish the whole film, so over the course I managed to film a lot of stuff and record a lot of sound.
There’s this saying that every film is a documentary of its own making, do you feel that’s applicable to some of your films?
Yes, that’s an interesting remark. I agree.
I mention that specifically because of the film about your father where you create these images, bring them into question and then even literally bring him into the film as a critique of sorts.
I was always very self-aware, to reflect on filmmaking as a process and as a way of telling stories, as a way to represent people. I see a lot of the time that that could be a problem potentially, and I do want to address that in my own films sometimes.
I think the idea you see in that film and the following film [Emperor Visits in Hell] is the difficulty or recreating period; in the former your father brings up the various anachronisms and in the latter you update Journey to the West to contemporary times. Is that something you’re conscious of? Because obviously it’s costly to do so.
It was a very conscious choice, even for Rivers and My Father, I purposely filmed it in that contemporary setting. I didn’t mind having cars or things in the shots because I feel that even when you try to recreate the past and no matter how hard you try, it’s still not the past. To me the truth probably lies somewhere else; you probably don’t really have to be so faithful to the past in terms of details. You can still create a connection to the past through other ways.
As part of this retrospective you’re introducing a 35mm screening of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and I can assume that he’s an influence on your work. Can you name any other specific influences?
Other than Bresson? Yes Bresson is an obvious one. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is an important influence. I like Ozu. I watch a lot of films from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. I watch a lot of French New Wave, I watch a lot Film Noir. A lot of the New American films from the 60’s and 70’s. I like certain contemporary filmmakers like Pedro Costa and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
I was thinking of Apichatpong specifically during Emperor Visits in Hell, because there’s this sort of casual magical realism in it.
Yeah, you can say that. There’s this mythology in everyday life I guess.
In terms of making films in China and making films in Canada, I know you’ve said you prefer China, but how difficult today is getting funding from the Canadian government?
For the last three films I did get funding from the Ontario Arts Council. It wasn’t very difficult but I wasn’t really asking them for a lot of money. I’ve managed to make my films with a very low budget; I work with non-professional actors, I have a very small crew, I try to do as much as I can myself. But for those who want to make bigger budget films I don’t think that funding will be enough.
You Can’t Go Home Again: The Films of Luo Li is currently underway at TIFF Bell Lightbox. See details here.