Director Alexandre Aja, whose Horns is currently available through VOD and will hit a limited theatrical release this weekend, made his name with vivaciously violent horror films which shock audiences and yet he is also one of the more economical filmmakers out there. This time around with his adaptation of the hit bestseller by Joe Hill, Aja is at a crossroads because he has over 400 pages of material to try to fit into an R-rated love story that never embraces the horror aspect fully but instead delves into some fun fantasy elements in precisely two hours of runtime. Daniel Radcliffe plays Ig and he is the prime suspect of the investigation into the murder of Juno Temple’s Merin, whom Ig was dating.
In many ways the film is a love story but with an odd twist. Ig maintains his innocence but soon after Merin’s death he starts to grow horns from his head and have an odd effect on the people around him who suddenly start confessing things to him and asking him for permission. After the U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest last month I had a chance to sit down with Aja to talk about the film. We discuss him going and presenting at Comic-Con, the nature of adapting the book into a two-hour film, challenges of making a film like this, the fact that his movies are usually short, how blockbusters are getting longer, why he might have took the option to make it into a TV series, and how he wishes people would edit his films for TV, and more. Enjoy the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: So, I know Daniel Radcliffe ran around Comic-Con dressed as Spider-Man.
Alexandre Aja: The same with Peter Jackson.
Do you have any interest in walking around the convention floor like that?
I did! And I don’t have to hide myself.
No one recognizes me!
I’m completely okay.
When did you get in?
And you’re going to be taking off again?
In a few hours. Yeah, I’m prepping another movie.
Wow. [Looks above Aja]. Holy shit. That is a great poster [pictured right]. Who designed it?
That’s a great question. I don’t know. It’s like the marketing team. It’s coming from their brain.
I especially like the way the title looks. The way the horns are stylized just like in your title card in the movie.
Yeah, the snakes.
Oh, okay. It’s snakes. I get the reference now.
There’s a lot of snakes.
Definitely! You know, this film is 120 minutes on the dot. I’m curious about that. Any time I see a film like that I’m always like, “How’d they arrive at that?”
I think we’re an hour and 59 minutes. Which is super important in the 99 cents. But yeah, I cannot believe that I managed to get it that short.
All of it in there.
It’s based on this cult book by Joe Hill. That’s an amazing novel. There’s a reason why it’s such a big, best-seller. My first instinct was that I had to make this adaptation and I wanted to make it as truthful to the book. But that would have been like six hours. So when you’re writing the script, we had to find shortcuts and stuff. I think the first version of the movie was like three hours and something. So we managed to cut in under two hours which is really hard to do. Trust me.
Well, it is interesting that you mentioned that.
It’s also, if you look at all my movies, I think there is a great place when you do a movie that is an hour and a half, but the story here was so complex and had so many elements. We are going back in a different time frame, there’s different things happening. We needed screen time to be able to tell the whole story and that’s how we end up. And there’s also something very interesting that more and more blockbusters have that tendency of going like two hours and a half.
I think it’s a good reaction compared to TV. TV has such an amazing amount of time to develop characters. In a movie, you have to do it in less than two hours. Which is always a big challenge. But at least two hours is better than an hour and a half.
Well, in particular you have to do that with a script. Maybe you can get away with a final cut that ends up over two hours but a lot times a studio won’t even be interested in talking about a film like this, which is rated R, if it’s over 120 pages. They know what that translates to in minutes and they don’t want to talk at all. So it’s a very difficult conversation to have, unless you have Daniel Radcliffe in your film. Then I’m sure that makes life a little bit easier as far as financing.
Yeah, and a movie is expensive no matter what. This one I was quite ambitious. There is a lot of things happening. Action, it’s a supernatural movie and it’s also a thriller and there’s a different time frame. Tons of snakes and visual effects, monsters. But at the end, it’s always coming down to the creative choice. You don’t need a movie star to just have a movie star. You need to have the best actor possible for the story. I think Daniel… I can’t imagine anyone else but him to play the character from a book that is a cult book. There is some big pressure on him and myself at the end of this movie because, again, so many people are expecting to see the movie after reading the book.
Have there been changes to the film since its premiere?
We presented the first version at Toronto last year. We did a few changes over the last few months. Then we premiered the movie in Paris and here in the US it is opening on Halloween. But we were at Comic-Con to present the trailer. But we’ve been talking about the movie for a while.
It is interesting that you did bring up TV because it feels like it’s becoming an option now. When you have, specifically, like a 400-page book you can go there. Something like True Detective.
Yeah, True Detective opened a direction that didn’t exist three years ago. These limited series, where it’s not a full season but it’s like five to eight episodes, it’s a great medium and an amazing opportunity for a filmmaker to just make a theatrical film in five hours instead of two, which is great. I would have thought about that if like three or four years ago we had the choice between the two options. It’s not something I would have rejected.
You’ve never worked in television before, correct?
No, I never worked in television before. I’m developing a few shows now, but I always only did theatrical films.
I do know there are TV edits of films, whether it’s played on prime time.
[Aja shakes his head after grimacing.] It’s awful, awful, awful.
Well, a lot of yours have to get cut a lot. And you don’t want any part of that?
I’m completely advocating for the beep and the blur.
I mean, okay, you need to censor the movie playing on TV or whatever. But don’t change the movie. Let people know that you are censoring it. I’m all for blurring images and beeping when there is language.
Instead of cutting whole scenes out.
It messes with the continuity and everything else.
I had the worst experience ever, recently. I was in India and I would switch on the TV. On one of the cable channels, there was Piranha 3D, my last movie, was playing. “Oh, this is interesting. They’re playing Piranha 3D.” Then I realized they cut all the gore, which is half the movie. And then all the nudity, which is another half of the movie. Basically the movie was like 40 minutes. But the worst thing was because they cut so much they didn’t have access to the soundtrack or the music, so they had to cut the music as well. So it was like 45 minutes of nothing with no music.
Oh my God.
This is like butchering.
And I was thinking that in some cases, oh, who cares. Who is watching that? But you’re in India, so you have at least 300 million people watching that channel at that time. It’s just a nightmare. I mean, no one else has that kind of control on not touching the movies too much.
I know you had all this controversy around Piranha because you had to play the trailer off site. They kicked you out of Comic-Con. [Laughs] It was crazy. Did you play an R-rated version of the trailer?
It was weird because we were in the Hall H and it was a big thing for me. First time. Huge. And we were actually supposed to be there with Piranha and I was wondering how it would do because we had a lot of R-rated material in the movie. We picked out one scene but we had to cut out one of the best elements, so we used that almost as a joke with the audience, telling them exactly what they were missing. Which was interesting. It was a great reception. We didn’t have the same problem that Piranha had. Piranha was so treacherous. Which I can understand, but it’s not really fair because now people are attending Comic-Con and are much more ready for gore.
And even the kids love it. So, it changed a bit and needs to.
Horns is now available on VOD and in theaters Friday, October 31st.
Few films from this year challenge their actors like Goodbye to Language, Jean-Luc Godard‘s 39th feature and his first in 3D. It is here where two things take center stage: first is that format, so often a misused gimmick but, in his hands, shown in perhaps its most astounding powers; second is, of all things, Roxy, a dog played by the writer-director’s own pet canine, and through whose eyes viewers see a majority of the film.
But a real emotional center does indeed emerge amidst the eye-popping techniques and philosophical musings, and one of Language‘s greatest effects is very human indeed: Héloïse Godet, whose fearless performance helps lay bare (literally and figuratively) the complicated gender dynamics of Godard’s work. We discuss some of that below, all while learning how his intuitions come to fruition on a set, the experience of working with such heady material, and what the creative association means for your own self-worth as a performer. If we’re fortunate, the apparent confidence it’s granted her will help breed a long, prolific career.
The Film Stage: I’ve been hearing about this film for a while — at least since production began in mid-2012. It must be strange, after all this time, to be here, talking about it.
Héloïse Godet: Absolutely. And also because I could’ve never come here, because it’s always the creator representing the whole team, not really the actor.
Godard doesn’t do so many interviews these days. I find it interesting how the main representation for U.S. press are you and Fabrice Aragno, his cinematographer. Do you thus feel any pressure to represent Goodbye to Language in an “adequate” manner? There may be the sense of speaking on someone else’s behalf.
I’m not speaking on his half completely, because I couldn’t be in his mind and internalize what he was trying to say. I’m just speaking about my experience, which is where I can have less pressure. People sometimes ask me questions as if I was Godard, and then just, like, try to say, “Well, I had this story and that’s it.” I’m not going to try to invent what’s in his mind, which is really… [Laughs] He has a genius mind that is not completely what you could expect to analyze.
When did you finish shooting this film?
Last November, there were extra takes for the sound. Last November, yeah; end of November. Otherwise, for me, it was the Autumn of 2012. So you’re right: long time ago. But the actors for the second part of the movie, the second couple, they’d been shooting six months after me. So they were expected to arrive in Winter, and that’s what happened to me before: I was chosen in 2011, and then, little by little, “No, later. No, later.” So I turned down some projects to be available, and that was kind of hard for a bit, but then it was worth it.
You haven’t done many interviews on the subject of Goodbye to Language, but I was still able to learn he’d originally found a photo of you, which sparked his interest.
One thing I didn’t quite understand is if you auditioned for the film, or if he found out about you through some other means.
It wasn’t really an audition. I think the 45-minute interview with his assistant, because it was filmed, was kind of an audition, because he just wanted to see if I was able to talk, if I was a normal person — because we were just talking about life and my way of seeing work — and, also, he’d seen a short movie. So he knew I could act, basically. That’s what he wanted. And he knew I could talk normally, but, also, he’s been deconstructing my way of talking by having me work on this deaf, dumb, hair-lipped, kind of handicap before the shooting.
He knew I was available about whatever could happen, including nudity. He knew I could be normal; I wouldn’t be a pain in the ass. [Laughs] That was basically it. I was chosen before meeting him. Then he, for production reasons, it turned out, he said, “Now I’m going to work with an actress from Switzerland,” so I was really disappointed. After that, it didn’t turn out to be what he expected, so he said, “I want to meet Héloïse again.” That’s where, you could say, it would be an audition, but not really. He said, “Just read this text,” but I think he had already made up his mind. It was just to shake hands and talk about whether I would be all right doing it.
You must’ve been at least somewhat familiar with his work before getting the role.
Before the offer, I knew the classical movies — I mean, the first ones. I knew, like every French person that is a little bit into cinema, but he’s really so famous that you just put on the TV. At some point, there is Contempt, there is Pierrot Le Fou, and several others. You don’t have to really look for it — it’s here. But then, when I heard about it, I heard this festival that had this enormous retrospective, and I was really lucky that it was really good timing, and so I saw a lot of things. Including things that are really rare, like the really-difficult-to-watch ‘90s movies — I mean, “really difficult to watch,” not really, because I’m really into it. I’m really into watching those movies, but it’s not a narrative kind of approach. But, yeah, after that, I educated myself — because I had some pressure, of course.
It’d be totally different in America, where a lot of people simply don’t know his films. What was the reaction among friends, family, colleagues et al.?
Oh, it was crazy. [Laughs] It was hysterical, because he’s huge. At the beginning, people were like, “Really? Are you sure?” Not meaning, “I’m a liar,” but, “Are you sure it’s going to happen? Don’t take it too high. Don’t get too many expectations, in case he turns down,” which happened, so people were right to tell me, because I was so excited. But then, when it was really sure… which, actually, it was really sure just on the day I was shooting, in front of the camera, and “action.” Because, before, I could’ve been turned down at any minute, because of what he made us used to. Like, “Okay, we’re going to film now… no, no, in three months.” Around me, people were really excited for me, but because it went during a long time of expectations, we learned also to be reasonable.
I mean, talk about it like I’m going to work with Godard, but let’s see when, let’s see how… we’ll see. And then, when it finally happened, people went crazy. “Tell me about it! Tell me about it! Tell me stories!” But you’re right: there were not that many interviews. There were just some, but not that many, because people are right about the movie: the real star is the dog.
Was there any requirement to be secretive from Godard or anyone else?
There weren’t many reports on what was happening.
Yeah. There was an excitement about the mystery.
One thing I wonder: I can’t claim to wrap my head around all of this movie, but I find both the images and ideas within to be very exciting. How is it to sit down with a screenplay of his and read it? I can only imagine that it’s very different from most other screenplays you read.
Yeah. I regret not having brought it with me, because it’s a book. There’s one page of text and one page of images, and you go through it like contemporary art. There was pretty much all of the movie, already, in the script, because the images are also already kind of edited. It’s really, really interesting. And so I go through it like something I could analyze for ages, and I know that he didn’t want us to go to “psychological” places or anything, but you couldn’t! There was no narrative story, so every time I’m asking questions I’m like, “What do you mean?” I knew I wouldn’t have any answer.
Did you like that?
It was kind of scary at some points, but because he was so detailed in his direction about the movements, the way of talking — like with music sheets — I wasn’t scared at all, afterwards, because I knew I was in good hands. And if I did what he wanted, it’d be all right for him, at least, and, for me, I was feeling comfortable. But then preparing it was still trying to see the sentences in the kind of dialogues — there was not a real dialogue — where it was coming from, but it didn’t really bring me many clues, though. Some bits were coming from the historical or social, cultural analyzing books. But even if it was from a book analyzing the language, I wouldn’t read the whole book to try to know what he meant, because it’s the composition of all these little sentences together that makes it special. It’s not especially where it comes from or what he meant.
Did it take an especially long time for him to establish compositions or block actors? It all seems so precise, so I have to wonder if he’s especially slow or, in fact, moves at a normal rate.
No, it’s normal. I mean, he knows exactly what he wants, very fast. Is this what you meant?
He’d just put you there and tell you to do that.
It seems difficult to conceptualize what that experience is like.
[Laughs] I know! I know. I’ve done a diary, every day, that was published in the Cahiers du cinéma in France, in the June piece. And it’s pretty detailed, the everyday life on the set, but I should have translated it to bring it with me, too. Some days were more confusing than others, but, sometimes, it was just full of jokes all day long. You could expect that from him. But sometimes he was down, sometimes he was really, really into jokes.
Well, the film is really funny.
Yeah. Do you think so, too?
I very much do.
I’m happy that you say that.
I saw it a couple of weeks ago, and, when exiting the theater, I said to a friend, “I didn’t think I’d be laughing so much at the very end.”
Yeah! Especially the last moment! It was brilliant. That’s such a brilliant end.
Did you see it prior to Cannes?
Yes. There was one for the crew.
Could you talk about seeing yourself in 3D? That experience seems so bizarre.
Actually, during the filming, I already saw a little bit, because, at some point, they had to check if one camera worked. Godard has a big 3D TV in his home. We were sitting in his home. We all wore 3D glasses — he had a bunch of them in his house — and we were plugging the camera to the HDMI on the TV, and just watching what we just did in 3D. So I already saw what it would be like, and it turned out that one of the cameras didn’t work, so we had to re-do some takes.
Otherwise, I thought it was bringing something very special — an ambiance. It also was very special to watch all that. It’s always a little bit hard to watch yourself, but I think I was pretty happy with what I saw. But the rest of the movie, in general, I kept being surprised and happy about the whole movie. Really, really enjoying it.
Even if you don’t completely understand it.
I don’t, and I think people come to me and say, “It’s the third time I’ve seen the movie. I still don’t understand anything.” I say, “Ahh, well, just get your own experience. It’s just like poetry: you don’t always want to internalize everything the poet would have to say.”
I think that would be exciting, starring in a film you don’t totally grasp.
Yeah. It’s not that I don’t “understand” it — it’s that you don’t get everything. You just feel things that are really emotional, because of the mix with music, with the frustration that he’s creating. I love that he surprises us in an uncomfortable way. [Laughs] That puts the audience in the position of being awake all the time. That’s interesting.
Regarding Language’s other couple: were you ever placed in a room to talk with them, or —
Before the filming?
Before the filming.
With Godard, or just between us?
Either / or.
We had one appointment in a café in Paris, on a terrace. I thought, “What? Godard is on a terrace and nobody’s jumping on him?” But that’s what happened. He’s in the streets of Paris like a normal guy, with his big cigar — all the time with his cigar, enjoying Paris — and we were all together with the actors on a terrace, him and his assistant. He was saying, “Oh, I’m happy that you’re all here. We’re going to do this thing together. How are you?” And that’s it. Not trying to explain anything.
It’s interesting how he casts an actor who looks like you. A lot of people don’t even realize there’s a switch, so I wonder if, when you first met them… was it really just going over things and moving on, or did you talk in-depth about the performances?
I wish we would have, but he was more talking about everyday things — not especially “everyday,” but he was not trying to get me into the film itself. He was really more trying to know which person I was in life, to know if we would get along together, and how I was feeling. I think he wants, also, to have the company of people he likes. [Laughs] That makes it logical, because maybe he doesn’t want to get annoyed anymore; that’s why he has such a small crew. We were just five. [Pause] I don’t know if… yeah, what I say is right, I think. I don’t pretend to analyze what is in his mind, again.
You certainly know better than I do. Along with the screenplay containing words and images, did he ask you to look at any specific works of art or read anything in particular? For instance, there are films on the TV. I don’t know if you needed to watch those beforehand.
Not really. Yeah, at some point, he gave us a painting of abstract art, saying, “That’s your character.” That was kind of a direction. He gave this to Kamel [Abdeli] and me, and we were not surprised. I think we really enjoyed it.
So you understood this, “That’s your character”?
Yeah, but maybe because my mind is a little twisted, too. [Laughs] I don’t know. But Kamel actually did to the same school as me, which is a theater school, the Jacques Lecoq International School, where you get asked to represent, on-stage, with your buddy, without speaking, an abstract tableaux. So that wouldn’t be that surprising for us. I mean, representing something that would be blue and long, or a ball of fire, you could express the idea of your character.
But that wasn’t that psychological as when Godard gave us this abstract painting. We just thought, “Okay, let’s just not really talk too much about it.” We just tried to evoke it in front of Godard to make him know that we were thinking about it, but not too much analyzing. Just trying to feel things. But, you know, when you see the result, you don’t really know if we could make the difference. It’s so…
Visceral? No. He made us talk so naturally. Degree-zero of talking, without trying to interpret or anything.
Agh, that doesn’t give you much… [Laughs] That’s full of contradictions, what I say.
I don’t think so. No, I mean, what you’re saying makes sense — it’s just a matter of working through a process.
Yeah, you’re trying to make your way through this process, but it’s never really that clear. [Laughs]
It seems somewhat clear for you, working through it. I guess one thing I would wonder is if, after doing this film, you come out of the process feeling like a new actor? I mean, do you go to the next set with a suddenly alien feeling?
“Alien”? Yeah. Maybe just a little more confident, because I knew working with Godard. Just because I felt he wasn’t that easy to be always so available. But I think, because I’ve experienced that, to take this small direction where he is just whispering, “Okay.” And just starting these takes that he’s adding [snaps fingers] at the last minute. I’ve never learned takes that fast. Also, I know that I’m able to do that, so, after all the sets, that made me, maybe, just a little more confident and ready for anything.
“If I can go through Godard, I can go through anybody.”
Yeah, that was kind of my… [Laughs] Yeah.
Whether or not that’s a little egotistical, there’s a truth to it.
Yes. But it’s so specific, also. I think nothing is going be the same after, so I shouldn’t be that confident. [Laughs] There was just Godard and nothing else.
Well, it is making a splash, and your work has garnered the biggest notices, as far as an actor is concerned — excepting Roxy, of course.
Goodbye to Language will begin its U.S. release on Wednesday, October 29.
Currently in theaters, John Wick is a great deal of fun. As I mentioned in my review, the film is a slick and smart action flick that won’t break new ground but does what it wants with extreme success. Filmmakers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch make their feature debut with Keanu Reeves as an ex-hitmen dragged back into his murderous ways. We have my interviews with Reeves and Stahelski and Leitch already up, and this time around we have star Adrianne Palicki who plays another assassin in John Wick’s world.
Palicki has been hovering around the action genre for a while now, and this time she jumps in with both feet. She seemed to be pretty excited to discuss her role in the film, and while we do get into some spoilers I’ve separated them out so you can come back after seeing the film. On the other hand, we talk about how her role as Perkins was originally a male, where she collaborated with the filmmakers to flesh out her role, friends she kept from her various roles over the years, what drew her to the film, the benefits of seeing the film in private first and then with an audience, and even the choreography. Check out the conversation below.
The Film Stage: From talking to other people in preparation for this interview, I have heard that your role was originally written for a male.
Adrianne Palicki: It was.
At the beginning.
When I first read the script it was Mr. Perkins.
And you basically said you didn’t want anything changed and to just be a badass.
Yeah, I don’t think they really wanted anything else to change. I love that about it. They didn’t want to make it a female… I don’t know. They just didn’t want to weaken the character at all. They wanted to keep that masculine, emotionless character intact, which is great and I think it really worked. And we also came up with a little backstory between the two. They probably, you know, [slyly grins], were friendly at one point. It worked with the sexual tension in the fight scene.
Yeah, I loved that fight scene in particular. And I loved how they blocked out and framed the action as well. I was telling [David Leitch and Chad Stahelski] that it’s so noticeable that they have an action background because of the way that they film things but also just the fact that they keep everything in frame. And any time they cut, it’s to get to a better angle. So many blockbusters now, they cut and you just confuse the audience.
It’s just so fast.
Yeah, it’s so fast and you don’t get the benefit of seeing the choreography or seeing the actor themselves. I’m sure sometimes those cuts are so that you don’t notice it’s not the actual actor. So, that level of prep and even in the filming, how much do you see a difference between this and, I don’t know, G.I. Joe?
Well, it was so different. G.I. Joe was much more gun and combat related. We were trained by Navy SEALs. The training was exceptional and very difficult. But this was using my body and learning a martial art, which is completely different. Both are equally fun.
You have a lot of fights and I do know that you met your fiancé on set.
Yes, he’s Keanu Reeves’ stunt double on set. Jackson [Spidell].
Did you tumble with him, some?
Yeah! [Laughs and looks at Jackson] Why’s your face red? [Laughs] Yes, yes, I definitely kicked him in the balls probably about four times, at least. Poor guy. [Laughs]
Get it out of the way.
And he still wanted to date me! Which is pretty cool.
So many of these films, like a G.I. Joe or a John Wick, you spend a certain amount of time on set and then you go away. You might make a relationship. You might make friends. But because of the nature of the business, you may never see them again.
It’s so true. You meet so many new people all the time.
Have you kept in contact with anybody from your films or TV roles?
Absolutely. I met Alyssa Diaz on Red Dawn and she’s one of my best friends. Connie Britton is one of my best friends. I think from everything there’s one person I just grab onto and I’m just like, “Okay, I’m keeping you. Not letting you go.” So it’s interesting. A majority of my friends I’ve met on some project somewhere along the line. Whether it was 10 years ago, eight years ago, or yesterday. It’s cool.
How many times have you seen the film so far?
This was only my second time.
Did you see it in an edit?
I saw it at a private screening. So I didn’t get to see it with a large group of people, an audience. It was kind of the best way. As an actor, you’re constantly critiquing yourself, so it’s really good seeing it for the first time where you’re not really focusing on the things that matter. You’re just focusing on, like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that with my face.” All that insecure bullshit. Then to see it with an audience and have reactions, and the enjoyment that was felt… and actually, you miss things, too. The humor that you finally understand. Like in Viggo’s character that I might not have seen right off the bat the first time I saw it. It was so awesome and so fun and I can’t wait to see it with another audience. See if there’s different moments and different things that play.
So, if your part was originally written for a male, how’d you get the script?
Well, they hadn’t actually made the change in the script when I read it but they were interested in me for the part. I remember reading it and, you know, it wasn’t a huge part and it was definitely written for a guy, but I remember reading it and going, “I want to be a part of this movie no matter what. I don’t care if I’m there for a day.” Also, knowing Keanu was going to play the part, I was just thinking, “This is his role. This is his Neo.” This was written for him and I was like, “I just have to be a part of it, no matter what.” Then the way the character came to life and they broadened it and made it bigger. It was totally worth it.
So you had a collaborative aspect with fleshing out some of your character.
What, specifically, do you remember?
Well, there was a lot of talk that for the scene she is in in particular we wanted it to pop. One of the big things was the backstory between them, and how they, like I said, were likely friendly before he got married and maybe this isn’t the first time they’ve fought like this.
I love the gold coin mythology and how it’s built up. So, John Wick gives a character a gold coin for watching over your unconscious body in the hotel. I don’t remember if you ever got it.
Oh, I did. After I killed him, I took it out of his pocket.
Cuz she’s a heartless bitch.
I know this is a heavy spoiler, but your character’s demise is this weird oddity. You have so much built up with this character and then she is just kind of offed. It’s almost to the point where I was wondering if there was something more. Was there?
There really wasn’t. The thing is that she’s such a gnarly character that they had to get rid of her. And also, she broke the rules. And I love that it was actually Ian McShane’s character, Winston who took care of it. And in the shots they had done some close-ups of me with it happening, but I love that they kept it in the wide because it’s just so cool to see all these guys surrounding her and just see her fall. It was a very interesting, cool choice.
And I’m sure it was difficult for them to have this character that they build up and just the question of how do we move forward without her. Because you can’t leave her character just out there on the loose.
John Wick is now in theaters nationwide.
Directed by Andrew Loo and Andrew Lau and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Revenge of the Green Dragon premiered at TIFF earlier this fall and has now landed in limited release. The crime drama follows an immigrant and his best friend growing up in a Chinese neighborhoods of New York City while being recruited for the gang The Green Dragons. It takes on the notion of a broken American dream by exposing immigration experiences and the workings of the gang. Based on a true story, both Loo and Lau sat down with us to discuss the project, how it differs from what they’ve done before, different facets of production, and more. Check out the conversation below.
The Film: Martin Scorsese won an Oscar for his adaptation of your Infernal Affairs and now he acted as executive producer for Revenge of the Green Dragons. Can you talk a little bit about his contributions to the film and how he got involved as producer?
Andrew Lau: Well, I mean he was very free hand. He trusts us. So actually he was free with whatever we want and told us to just go.
Andrew Loo: You know we figured it out in such an early stage. We were doing a movie about immigrant gangs, it’s New York, Lau, Scorsese — it all kind of made sense in a very organic way. There was a lot of interest to kind of make that package come together.
What was the process like of transforming a true story into 94 minutes?
Loo: The whole development process went well. Two producers from New York came to us in 2008 and they said, “Hey, we have this article,” and they sent it to me and I read it once then I read it twice. I didn’t understand anything. I thought, “This is so dense, there are so many characters, and different story lines. It’s circular. It doesn’t have a narrative flow to it at all.” And by the time you get through with you’re like, “Okay, it’s a very rich experience.” But at the same time, it could be a trilogy, it could be a 10-hour miniseries, so that kind of started us down the road of “Okay, let’s start checking out and doing some research so we get to know what issues were at play during that time period.” That really guided us in terms of how to make some creative choices on creating a 90-minute story from that original material. We eliminated characters, we consolidated characters. There were certain liberties we took which we felt were okay at the end of day because we felt we still always maintained this mandate of not necessarily doing a documentary about the Green Dragons, but making a film that was truthful to the gangs, what really happened, and also the time and the place things took place.
How did you go about deciding location and costume to make it feel as authentic as possible?
Lau: Research. We looked at a lot of pictures.
Loo: Lot of pictures.
Lau: Talk, talk, talk. We are not a big-budget movie. We had to choose the location very carefully. How many times did we go to location? A lot.
Loo: We looked at locations for half a year. Maybe eight months before we started shooting. As Lau says, we weren’t a big-budget film. We can’t approach it like The Truman Show where you actually build out entire streets to dictate a time or space. So, our approach was much more reductive rather than additive. It was about removing signs, removing cars, it was about trying not to show the cellular store that was across the store from our main house. Those things obviously don’t fit in with the period.
Mr. Lau, you’re from Hong Kong. Is this a story that held a special place in your heart or you felt personally connected to or one that grabbed your attention or just sparked interest?
Lau: You know I’ve shot a lot of gangster movies like Young and Dangerous but when Loo gave me this I looked and thought, “Oh, the Green Dragon. This is very interesting.” The name is pretty good, pretty cool, “Green Dragon.” And also the story is in New York, which is interesting, again. So that made me interested again to shoot a gangster movie. Also the backstory is very interesting. Why do people come to America? Like Hong Kong, people in 1997 were all immigrants. In that moment, 1983, so many people come to America and have that dream of getting more money and some people can and some cannot. Some people, before they get to America, die in the sea. This is quite interesting, it’s not only a gangster movie, and it is so many stories. It’s not only about killing people but it is so many things which made me interested. Also the tension is not like my movies before. We did quite well with the tension between people and even the dialogue, even with Paul to the young kids and the attitudes.
The movie chronicles the broken American dream. How did you go about doing so into the story and expressing that through the film?
Loo: I don’t think it was our intent to ever make a message film. But at the same time I think it is pretty clear to us that one of the main points of interest for us getting involved is this alternative perspective of the immigrant tale. I think the best stories you can tell are the ones you can find a personal connection to what’s going on. Our sort of dynamic in working together, Lau being born overseas and me being born in the states, we had our own sort of different complimentary connections with what’s going on in the story. Lau can definitely connect to these folks from Asia coming to America in hopes for a better life. For me there’s a family dynamic with these immigrants in America who are told, “Send me your tired send me your poor.” But when you get here the reality is incredibly different. Yeah, “Send me your tired, send me your poor so they can earn minimum wage in the back of a kitchen.” That’s the reality for all ethnic immigrants who are looking for a better life. “Hey welcome. Put on an apron, get to work.”
What was the most challenging aspect of the film?
Lau: Location. I mean the budget.
Loo: I thought the casting was challenging but ultimately very rewarding. There is not a huge talent pool to pull from when you’re talking about U.S.-based Asian actors. Yes, they’re out there, but a lot of times they don’t have the body of work to pull from where you can look at their films and their clips and say, “Oh yeah, they can play a leading man,” or “they can play someone who is physically imposing” or “we’re looking for a woman who has a real double sidedness about the way she speaks.” So it was a real challenge to be able to identify and audition and actually get to a point where we could populate our film with actors who could really pull off these rolls.
So when you first read the script you didn’t have any actors in mind? You didn’t think, wow, he has to play this role?
Loo: It has to be Brad Pitt! [Laughs] No.
How long did it take to cast the film then?
Loo: Basically the better part of four months.
Lau: Three to four months.
How did you work to separate this from anything else you have ever done?
Loo: A lot of people have been touching on this in the last couple of days. Lau has done so many films that deal with Asian gangsters. I think the obvious difference there is that instead of it being Asian gangsters in Asia it is Asian gangsters in America. It’s just an interesting film. People keep asking us, “Is this about gangsters or a film about immigration? Is this a Chinese film or is this an American film? Is it meant for a Western an audience or is it meant for an Asian audience?” I mean I think the reality is that we came into this without any sort of preconceptions on any of those questions, but I think just intrinsically it was interesting that you had a blend of all of that. Even our working style and our personalities, there is a blend of all of that. It was one of those really interesting things where just the material, our personalities, the work, it all kind of was very consistent and very organically came together. I don’t think we set out to do something like “here’s my career path and this is the way I’m going, now I need to get here,” I don’t think it was that conscious. If you’re telling a story or any form of art I think there needs to be a personal connection to it. In order to get the best of yourself out of it, so yes you want to evolve and you want to grow but at the same time there needs to be a personal connection to what’s going on in the world. Otherwise you sell yourself short.
Lau: It is good, it is a challenge to do this sort of movie. Even for me who has experienced it, but with cost and location wise and the system it is different than in Hong Kong. It is a good experience.
Revenge of the Green Dragons is now on DirectTV and in limited release.
Hitting theaters in wide release this weekend is John Wick, a film I fell for at Fantastic Fest and I’ve since revisited. The actioner, from first-time filmmakers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, follows Keanu Reeves’ title character who left behind a life as a hitman for Russian mobsters to settle down for a quiet life with his wife. We see him grieving after her short demise and when he has an unfortunate run-in with his old boss’s son, he only has vengeance in his heart.
This simple set-up is all that is needed to propel the film forward, and yet it is set in a lived-in world of assassins and hitmen that builds mythology and a code around them. But more than anything it’s a vehicle for Keanu and he shines here. The action is wicked and clearly in focus at all times, showing Reeves’ willingness to jump into the action genre that made him a household name in the first-place. John Wick just oozes cool in an effortless way and the way it embraces the silliness and humor just rounds it out.
During Fantastic Fest I sat down with Reeves to talk about the film and he touched on why the DGA didn’t rule in Stahelski and Leitch’s favor for being co-directors, what kind of advice and help he gave them coming off his own directorial debut, his puppy co-star’s range, what it will take to get him into the Fantastic Fest ring for a fight, and more. I had some fun questions throughout and think it shows that Reeves has a good sense of humor and is game. We will have one more interview with his co-star, Adrianne Palicki, in the coming days and you can check out my previous interview with Stahelski and Leitch here. Enjoy the full conversation below and don’t forget to check out the film when it releases this weekend.
The Film Stage: This is your first film since directing Man of Tai Chi, right?
Keanu Reeves: Yes.
Coming from that side of things, do you see production a little bit differently now?
Absolutely. Yeah. With Chad and Dave, they had a lot of experience shooting second unit with their action design company. I had worked with them over the years. So coming from directing Man of Tai Chi, then to partnering with them on their first film, I was trying to help in a [producer-like fashion].
Yeah, I bet. I’m curious; did you give them any advice coming from your own directorial debut?
I did, yeah.
Give me a nugget.
Make sure that while you’re in editorial that you project big once in a while. Don’t forget to look at the movie big.
Instead of on a monitor.
Yeah. Things will feel different. Some of your edits will feel different. During production, I was just trying to help. They knew physical production. But just trying to help behind the scenes to try and get them resources and things like that.
You use a number of guns in this film. Some of them are pretty unique, like that shotgun. What was your favorite to handle on set?
Yeah, for me it was just the pistol.
Yeah, you like that one?
I use it the most. [Laughs]. Yeah, I do like that one.
The film follows your character and every time someone mentions your name, there’s a sense of respect, awe, or horror. “Oh, crap, I gotta deal with this guy.”
Was there any name growing up that struck terror in you?
How about… dad.
Uh, like the mythical boogie man? Hrmmm. I don’t know. No.
[Laughs] That’s all right. You don’t have to have an answer. This is your second time at Fantastic Fest. I don’t think you got in the ring last year, did you?
I was in the debate.
You were in the debate but you weren’t in the ring, right?
No, he fought Tiger Chen.
So what’s it going to take to get you in the ring?
An invitation by Tim League!
[Laughs] I’ll have to let him know. The film has a very emotional core at the beginning of it. I thought it was clever because it showed off your range almost immediately. Did you shoot in sequence? Where did that scene with the puppy come into play in the shoot?
Yeah, I got fortunate in that sense because we shot some of the early parts of the film in the beginning. So it was nice that way to get to feel John Wick’s love and his grief. Then to have the scenes connecting with Daisy the dog. So it was nice in that regard to have that in the beginning of the schedule.
I know that famously animals are always kind of a nightmare to deal with on set. What was the dog’s name and how was she or he?
It was Andy the dog.
And he’s got great range because he’s playing a girl.
We got along pretty well. Which was nice. The dog was getting older and older. Which was great in a sense because puppies have puppy mind. But fortunately, the dog and I, I tried to spend some time with the dog before filming and hang out. So we had a rapport. It was still difficult. Sometimes, “Are you a cat or a dog!? Come back here.”
[Laughs] They’re not responding to your calls or anything.
Yeah, they don’t care.
“No, this smells really good.”
“What’s that shiny object?”
You drive three main cars in this film. Whether it’s the 69 Mustang, or the SS. Was it a Chevelle or a Camaro?
I think it was a Chevelle.
Those cars have so much power and…
Yeah, history. Which one of those two would you rather drive?
The Mustang. The Boss 69. For sure.
There is a redemptive aspect to this film with Chad and Dave. And Dave is the producer, correct?
They both directed the film.
Okay. Because it is kind of confusing on some of the production materials right now that are out.
Yeah, they had a situation where they were directing the movie as directors and when they finished the film the director’s guild wouldn’t recognize them as the directors because of a precedent that they have. It’s grandfathered. Chad and Dave were under the impression that they could satisfy the [requirements] to be recognized. But then when it came back to the end the DGA decided that basically, next time, you can be called directors. But this time we have to split you.
Did they already lean towards Chad to begin with or was that a decision from the both of them?
No, that was all from the DGA. They had to declare one as the director and one as the producer. But then they were told that they can go try and be directors so they were monitored as directors and they were passing all of those recognitions as co-directors. Being responsible for the shared vision. But since the, I don’t know the years, but it was like the 30′s, the idea that there could only be one director, one voice, one movie. So they’re going through the process.
Yeah, it sucks.
So, I have to wrap with you so I’ll do a fun slew of multi-choice questions.
Cats or dogs?
Uhhhh, depends on the day.
Manual or automatic?
All right. I like that answer. Liquor or beer?
Ohhhhh. What is wine?
What is wine?
Is wine liquor? I mean, I know it’s not beer.
Well, wine can be a third option.
Wine is a third option? Well, mostly I’ll take the third option.
Movie or a play?
Ohhhhh. You cannot choose.
That’s like choosing heavens. “You want this heaven or that heaven?”
Favorite bad word?
Uh, the classic.
The classic? [Raises hands]
[Claps hands] Come onnnn…
[Laughs] All right! Well, thanks for sitting down with me and I wish the film the best.
John Wick hits theaters on Friday, October 24th.
For some time Lynn Shelton has been making largely improvised pictures. The director behind Humpday, Touchy Feely, and the fantastic Your Sister‘s Sister has now made a change of pace with her latest film, Laggies. The story of a young woman, Megan (Keira Knightley), marks the first film Shelton didn’t write herself, and one that sticks mostly to the script. Written by author Andrea Seigel (The Kid Table), Laggies is about a misunderstood 28-year-old “womanchild” who’s not quite sure what she wants out of life yet.
The decisions Megan makes are often immature, contradictory and harmful, but Shelton and Seigel paint a very warm and empathetic portrait. It helps that they have Keira Knightley giving one of her most relaxed and effortlessly charming performances to date. She’s surrounded by the likes of Sam Rockwell, Jeff Garlin, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ellie Kemper, and more in Shelton’s sixth feature film.
We recently had the chance to recently discuss Laggies with Ms. Shelton. Here’s what she had to say about why Megan isn’t a womanchild, making her own film out of someone else’s script, and more:
Do you consider Megan a womanchild?
I think she’s been made to feel like a womanchild because she lives in a society that values…she’s surrounded by all her old High School friends, who are following this conventional path. They’re doing all the things they’ve been told they should do [Laughs]. She’s just marching to the beat of a different drummer. She doesn’t have anyone around her doing that or someone telling her that’s okay. Everyone is pressuring her to be another way, to be someone she doesn’t feel is right for her.
She’s made to feel like a womanchild. She’s made to feel immature, but she’s really not. She is maturing. She is mature. She’s mature enough to realize: “This isn’t working for me. I need to take a step back and figure this all out.” It’s not failure to launch. She’s not hanging back for the bad reasons, but to avoid the bad decisions. It takes her a while to realize: “I’m actually not doing something bad.”
She’s very happy and content at the start of the film.
Yes. She just finds she’s not on the same page with those around her. She just starts to ask, “Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with them? What’s wrong here?” [Laughs] It may seem like an odd choice to hangout with these new teenage friends — and the father of one of these friends — but it actually presents her an opportunity to be in the presence of people who let her be herself. She gets to discover what that feels like.
Even though you didn’t write the film, your voice is definitely a part of it. When you read the script did it feel like a story you would’ve told?
Absolutely. I would’ve written it differently, but just that territory…I had already made a few high-concept movies that, on paper, don’t look like they would work. My challenge to myself was to create human beings and tell a story that’s surprising, and make it all feel believable. When I read script it was the same thing, where I thought, “Wow. Here’s this great concept that doesn’t seem like it would work, because she just makes all these surprising and different choices along the way.” I believed everything, though. Everyone felt very real. The humor came from a very character-based place, as opposed to contrived set-pieces.
There was these amazing moments. One of the scenes that really got me…I’m trying not to give anything away, but there’s a scene with Gretchen Mol that was just so genius and from so left field. The way the scene played out made me think, “I don’t know if I would’ve thought to write it in that way, but…wow.” Andrea’s writing and ideas…she’s just so brilliant. She was so easy to work with. The only other time I’ve worked with other people’s scripts has been on television, which is the domain of the writer. On television I’m fulfilling someone else’s vision. Andrea had to remind me, “Hey, this is your baby [Laughs]. You don’t have ask me for permission if you want to change anything.” It was really nice of her to remind me. It was a new experience of having to convert her script into my own movie, but it ends up being a great collaboration.
A few years ago were your hesitant about directing someone else’s script or has it been about finding the right material?
I had been reading scripts. After Humpday and Sundance I got an agent and a manager, and they all sent me a lot of scripts over a year. It’s so rare I find a script I connect to. This actually didn’t need a ton of work. I had experiences where I’ve read a script and felt, like, “Would it work? Maybe.” For the most part, I’ve ready so many great scripts and really great stories, but I just didn’t feel that personal connection. This was one of those rare exceptions. It’s not like I’m on the search for it, really, but more like I read scripts and, if something really sticks out to me, then I might pursue it. I’ve made five movies where I was the writer, so it’s not something I’m on the lookout for. At the same time, I was excited to take on this new challenge.
The improvisation on your past films definitely helped create a sense of realism. When you’re going off almost entirely what’s on the page, how do you capture that a similar spontaneity?
Well, it starts with a script that actually feels like something actors can make feel like it’s coming out of their mouths [Laughs]. It starts with the writing. Then it’s casting actors who can really find the overlap between themselves and the characters, and I felt I had lucked out in that department. I have just the highest of praise for all the actors. Then, yeah, there’s Andrea’s lovely writing. There were definitely ad-libs or a little addition, but maybe 3% or 4% of the film. In general, we didn’t really feel the need to do that, though. It was all working on the page.
You still root for Megan at the end to work things out, even after a few not-so-great decisions. That’s tough to do, but Keira Knightley pulls it off. What convinced you that she could help keep an audience empathizing with Megan?
You know, the Keira I cast was honestly the Keira I remembered 10 years ago when I saw her in Bend It Like Beckham and the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Finding out she was 17 after that I was just so floored by the confidence. She’s just so loose-limbed and comfortable in her body. She just had this naturalism, which she’s managed to maintain. I feel like I believe her in all her roles, no matter what she’s doing. The thing about the period pieces… [Laughs] not only is she often in a corset or whatever, which means physically bound, but a lot of repression of emotions and her personality. I don’t know… I just went into it thinking about those early days. Those were funny, too. There was humor in her performances. It was delightful to see my instincts were correct! She was able to tap right into it, but she’s very much like that. She’s comfortable with her shoes off and cross-legged [Laughs]. She’ll curl up in a chair, as opposed to [English accent] being a lady. She was perfect for the character.
Laggies opens in limited release on Friday, October 24th.
As my review can attest to, I’m looking forward to not only watch John Wick again but also see how the film hits with general audiences when it arrives this weekend. The actioner stars Keanu Reeves as an ex-hitman who is crossed by the son of his old employer. When everything is taken from him, he decides to seek revenge in the only form he knows: mowing down bad guys in glorious action. The film is deceptively smart, has a slick presentation, and some genuine heart behind it.
During Fantastic Fest I had a chance to sit down with stars Keanu Reeves and Adrianne Palicki, but up first is my interview with director Chad Stahelski and producer David Leitch. While I personally would like to give them co-director credit in my introduction, the DGA didn’t feel the same. During our interview we touch on that briefly but we really delve into their joint background as stunt coordinators and second unit directors and just how they view action sequences. It’s fascinating to hear Stahelski in particular expound on the fact that most films, even big-budget blockbusters, rarely have any semblance of prep time for action sequences which is part of why they are so disjointed and chaotic on screen. Not so in John Wick, and they explain why as well.
They also reflect on why Keanu sounds like one of the best people to have in your corner as first-time directors, which Stahelski and Leitch surprisingly are. Additionally, we talk about the unique and cool way they stylize the subtitles and you will learn the reason behind it and the influences. Overall it is an absolutely spoiler-free interview that I am particularly proud of and hope it gets you excited to see the action up on the screen. Enjoy the full conversation below and be sure to stay tuned for my other two interviews arriving later this week.
The Film Stage: So, I talked to Keanu Reeves and he was telling me about the Director’s Guild of America and their ruling on you all not getting joint director credit. I don’t want to talk about it too much because I know that was probably an arduous process for you all.
David Leitch: We can talk about it a little bit.
You want to talk about it?
Leitch: Yeah, briefly. Look, as longtime members of the DGA, it was kind of disappointing that they didn’t want to allow us to create a project together in a formal way under their banner. But we went on and collaborated how we were going to collaborate anyways and it’s our movie and we’re proud of it. If the DGA doesn’t want to recognize co-directors then that’s their prerogative but we’re going to continue to make movies together. We’ve been making action together for almost 20 years so it doesn’t really change. The titles don’t change it for us.
Chad Stahelski: Yeah, we’ve pretty much said that in the first meeting when we told them we wanted to co-direct. We have a relationship with the DGA and that’s going to continue because that’s our business. We just hope in the future that they can recognize that when we collaborate together that we would like to be recognized together.
Leitch: Or at least listened to.
Stahelski: Yeah! Let us give the pitch.
The stylized subtitles are a nice touch, whether you were emphasizing certain words or frame it so that it would skip over a character so it didn’t overlap them in a tight space. It’s so cleverly done and it’s such a small touch. It almost seems like you guys were bothered by the fact that most people don’t stylize them. Where did that inspiration come from?
Stahelski: I think it had to do with tone. Most people use subtitles to get across information or do what they are there for, translation. We needed hints with tone. The music. The ultraviolence. Subtitles. You’re in a graphic novel. You’re in a story. We’re telling you a story. We’re not showing you a movie. We want you to enjoy it and I think that helps. It puts you at ease to know that you can relax and just watch this.
Leitch: Yeah, it was all about defining the tone and it was just one tool that we used. I think we’re a fan of it. We had seen it before but very rarely.
Stahelski: Tony Scott had done it for Man on Fire. So we liked that. “That’s a neat little idea. How else?” We were a fan of like Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds and stuff where you have them translating three or four different languages. These are straight subtitles, but we wanted our cast to speak a few different languages. We wanted the subtitles to be part of the story. You look at comic book frames, we’re fans of Frank Miller, James O’Mar and stuff and they play with dialogue, too. It wasn’t just regular bubbles. You put the dialogue and the storytelling in the same thing so you didn’t know if you were getting subtitles or story text or whatever. I think Dave came up with it first. “Let’s use it as if it were just story text, not just subtitles.”
With your background as second-unit directors or as stunt coordinators, I have to say that I’m so appreciative of the fact that you guys used multiple cuts during action sequences, but you keep things in frame. Every cut seems to be a better angle at it instead of trying to hide some of the action. So many blockbuster films today use the quick cuts almost for dramatic effect to even getting away from showing the action on screen.
Stahelski: Action, at least for us, you have talent or you’re trying to do something. If you’re trying to do genre action, you want people to see what you’re doing. Martial arts being the example. Fight scenes or technical things. It’s about showing. It’s not about hiding. Unfortunately, in most blockbusters today, they try to hide more than they try to show. Or they try to infuse, “WE GOTTA MAKE IT MORE ACTION-Y! WE GOTTA MAKE IT FASTER!” So, to make it faster you go with a longer lens, you go tighter, and you move the camera a lot. Granted, it does give a sense of frenetic energy but again, our big thing was for our whole career, it’s just like: human talent. You don’t go on YouTube to watch GoPro stuff of somebody’s face and you shake it around. You want to see the kid go up and do the parkour move. You want to see the surfer ride the big wave. You want to see it. Why are you so impressed by it? Because you see it! It’s a human being doing something cool. Like, when you see Keanu Reeves go through five guys, that’s Keanu Reeves going through five guys. He’s doing Judo and he’s doing Jiu Jitsu. He’s doing it. Why does everybody like him? Because it’s Keanu Reeves doing it. Why would we try to hide it? We have a phenomenal guy that put in a lot of work. Much like what we demand from most of the cast. From our stunt teams and stuff. You have talented people doing good stuff.
Leitch: There’s an example we always talk about and it’s the Ong-Bak factor. The Tony Jaa factor. If you look at Tony’s first movie and the camera is on sticks, he comes in, kicks a guy in the face, and everyone goes, “what the f***?”
Stahelski: That’s it!
Leitch: Why? Because Tony’s awesome. The performance is awesome. It doesn’t matter where you put the camera. You don’t need to cheat it. So we strive for that in our performances from our actors.
Stahelski: And I’ll ask, right now, what’s your favorite fight scene? Last five years?
Last five years? I’ve got to say some of my favorite recent ones were from this film called Sleepless Night, a French film.
Stahelski: Yeah, I remember. Which sequence?
The one in the kitchen.
Stahelski: Okay, give me five moves out of that fight.
Oh, wow. Well, I don’t know but some of them were MMA stuff, which I know is a loose-knit term for basically saying I don’t know but there were holds and there were throws.
Stahelski: That’s what we’re getting at. As choreographers, you have to pay attention to that stuff. You can choreograph a hundred great moves, but what do you remember about it? You don’t remember the moves. You remember the vibe, the energy. The character in it. You can talk about The Matrix all day long, but if I asked you five moves, you’re going to give me Keanu dodging bullets, you’re going to give me Carrie Anne Moss suspended in air. You’re going to give me moments. Characters. Shots. So with John Wick, maybe you don’t know his exact gun moves, but you know it was Keanu and you know you liked them.
Stahelski: That’s the interesting thing about it. If you take it one more notch down and you start shaking things around, you start hiding stuff, what are we leaving you with?
Leitch: It becomes this impressionistic thing. It becomes this idea that there was a fight.
Stahelski: I LOVED IT! I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT WAS. I THINK IT WAS A FIGHT. IT WAS GREAT! Ahhhh!
Leitch: I’M GLAD IT’S OVER!
Stahelski: You know, in the last Captain America, you actually saw one of our guys choreograph that. It was like, at least you saw stuff and I think the Russo‘s did a good job.
Leitch: That’s why there was a huge response to the action.
Stahelski: It wasn’t like the first one where you just thought you saw something. You actually saw something. And I think that’s a big thing. That’s the thing with a lot of the big blockbusters. You really think you saw something good. You think you did. [Laughs]
Do you get that kind of feedback from actors?
Stahelski: Oh, all the time.
They can tell the difference between what kind of time and energy is being put into things?
Stahelski: You have to remember, in the movie process, general audiences just think that because it’s a hundred million dollar movie or it’s this blockbuster that you’ve had six months… “Oh my God, everybody is training like in The Matrix!” That is not true. Very rarely do we get any prep. Even on some of the biggest Hollywood movies, you get a couple of weeks or you’re putting together on set. That sounds absolutely ridiculous because you think after that level of investment and financing, you’d have all the prep you need. That’s not true. Actor’s schedules, rehearsal times. It takes a lot. You’re asking a normal human being, a cast-member, no matter what level they are. Whether it’s Iron Man or Neo or Jason Bourne, they’re regular people. Now you’re asking them to perform at an extraordinary level with no training. Or they give them to us and they’re given six weeks. What person do you know that can go into any gym in six weeks and become super human? Our stunt doubles and our stunt people are like professional athletes. Some of them are the best in the world. So how do you get that? It’s not that easy to get great performances. What you do is if you find the gold ones, you get a Matt Damon, a Keanu Reeves, or someone like that, who puts in six months or four months of hardcore, living the life. And in the down time, Keanu is always doing something. It’s not waiting for the role. He’s preparing for a role he hasn’t even found yet. That’s a huge difference. So when you get one of those? You ride the wave and you show it off as much as you can.
It is a unique point in Keanu and the two of your careers because he is coming off of his feature directorial debut and you are making your own. I asked him if he gave you a tip and he mentioned that during the edit, to put it up on the big screen. What other gems did he give you about being a first-time director?
Leitch: He had a lot of sound advice. Speaking of sound advice, sound. He was really…
Stahelski: Big on sound.
Leitch: He had recommendations of people to use, and experimenting with sound. He was collaborative in our choice of music. Finding the right composer. He let us go in a lot of times.
Stahelski: Never obtrusive but always there to support. I think his biggest thing is that Keanu, having come from being a director before, he stepped up and became a department head. Which is interesting. We’ve worked with a lot of actors through our second unit career but never in this capacity. Keanu kind of took it upon himself to be, instead of the production designer in charge of the look of the sets, the director of photography being in charge of the lighting, Keanu became acting department head. He would go and welcome Willem [Dafoe] and he’d sit down with Willem and they’d sit down with Ian [McShane] and and Alfie [Allen]. He really ran his department. He would be like, “Look, Ian has a process.” He would do the intros. He was always going out of his way by not managing the cast but helping us through being the liaison between us and the cast and what made people feel comfortable. Maybe they’re process is different. He was very, very good with keeping us informed. Helping us through some of the stumbling blocks that most first-time directors make.
Leitch: And I’d say the story development and the character development. That was a long process.
Stahelski: He’s big on prep. Big on prep.
Leitch: So four or five months of analyzing the script. Talking through it. John Wick’s character. Who is John Wick? Really taking control of that and guiding us in what he wanted to perform and what he thought John was so we could execute it. It was collaboration.
Stahelski: He was uber detailed with us.
Leitch: It wasn’t like we instilled this John Wick on him. He’s John Wick and we wanted to make sure we helped him deliver that.
John Wick hits theaters on Friday, October 24th.
Composer Nathan Johnson is a master at making off-beat and imperfect instruments sound distant yet accessible on a number of vastly different narratives (see: Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper). His latest work is a pair of scores for films that were both released this month, Jake Paltrow‘s neo-western Young Ones and the journalistic thriller Kill the Messenger starring Jeremy Renner. Johnson has also been producing a couple albums and helped coordinate the Mondo release of Looper on vinyl, so he’s has been pretty hard-pressed for any down time. We got a chance to talk with him about his recent projects and one can read the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: You’ve had quite a busy year. It’s interesting when films that composers worked on open concurrently, or on successive weekends. Let’s start by talking about Young Ones and your relationship with Jake Paltrow. That film premiered at Sundance at the beginning of the year, so when did you get involved with that project?
Nathan Johnson: I met Jake Paltrow fairly late in the process. He was working on VFX in Ireland, so we met on a Skype call and he explained what he was looking for in the score. He sent me the script, and I really liked it. I met with Jake the following week when he was in L.A. and I already had a hunch I wanted to do the movie after reading the script, but when I saw the rough cut, I was sold – I loved Jake’s story, his approach to it, the tone of it, everything. I was so into it that I came on board as an executive producer as well as the composer, and it has been really exciting to help bring this story to a wider audience. It’s a super slow-burn movie, with a beautiful visual style and storytelling approach, and I was into the ideas Jake had for the music as well.
Interesting that you read the script; a lot of times, I hear composers say they don’t even bother with it. They prefer to read the treatment because they don’t want to get bogged down with too many details ahead of seeing the footage. But was the film nearly finished by the time you started work?
Yeah, pretty much. They were still refining the cut a little bit but, by then, it was pretty dialed in. For me, reading the script is always my first request. It’s one of the things I care about the most and I find that it’s a really helpful thing. Aside from being an obvious starting point, it can help immerse me in the world. Then, when I see the cut of the movie I begin to understand something about the director, especially if it’s the first time I’ve worked with them. I also love seeing how they’ve translated what I read on the page to the screen.
There are so many things about the movie that floored me. First off, like you say, it’s a slow-burn narrative that comes across like Terrence Malick meets [your cousin] Rian Johnson. There’s a lot of purpose to all the slow shots, and also those impressive and highly inventive montages. But man, if I was in you shoes, I would have come aboard after seeing that extended funeral transition sequence!
Yeah, totally. I completely agree! The script was great, and actually, Jake just won Best Screenplay at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain. He was really great to work with and he’s got a really specific vision which is something that I’m always drawn to in the filmmakers that I want to work with. I’m less interested in working on things that could be confused with any number of authors, or, maybe a better way to say that would be that I really like working on projects that have a strong authorial voice to them.
What’s really smart about the story, and the direction and the way it’s presented, is that it’s sci-fi but it never lets the “science fiction” get in the way of the story. It’s very modern and you could almost see this playing out in small towns all across America. The issues with farms, crops, supplies and irrigation – it’s not so distant even though it’s set in the near future. There’s a lot of human interest and it’s because of the universal themes Paltrow presents. Did anything like that factor into your decision to use all those vintage and rustic sounding instruments?
Actually, I never come into a movie with a pre-conceived musical palette. That is always something that I explore with the director of each particular film and it’s really important for me that I’m not coming onto a project with too many locked-in ideas. I always want the palette to serve the vision that the director is going for, and I find it’s usually best if we can discover it together. So that was one of the early conversations and we talked more about concept. It made me excited to hear Jake commenting on the scores that he liked and he really wanted to create something that would have people whistling the themes as they walked out of the theater. [*laughs*]
You know, there are elements of atmospherics, but overall, he didn’t want tonal scoring. He wanted melodic themes that, in a way, call back to some of the classic film scores we all love. We began talking about the palette and what the sonic elements should feel like, especially because this film connects two different worlds; it feels slick and futuristic in some regards, but it also feels like it could have happened 100 years ago. So we decided to combine electronic instruments with wind-generated instruments (harmonica & harmonium) and a classical ensemble.
What is that instrument that sounds kind of like a tinny piano? It reminded me of something I heard in your score to Brick.
Yeah, what you’re talking about is an instrument called a Marxophone. We didn’t actually use that on Brick (though we used prepared piano, which has a similar sound in that score). The Marxophone is basically an old toy – essentially it’s an autoharp with spring-loaded hammers. When you press a key, this little lead mallet bounces down on the strings. It’s something that I’ve had for a long time and I love the imperfection of it – the bouncy, weird, slightly out of tune nature of it is so cool.
Jake and I would talk about classic westerns and, of course, we referenced Morricone a lot. He always used instruments in his westerns that you wouldn’t necessarily expect, and we wanted something that would have a similar strong central voice. The Marxophone became that element for all of the scenes between Michael Shannon and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
There’s an uneasiness to the film that has these young characters dealing with very mature responsibilities. Everything from tilling the land, to having a baby, the three “young ones” each have to become adults way sooner than they should have to. There’s lots of complicated issues but they are presented very subtly. I think that this film was tailor-made for your music and you nailed it.
Well I appreciate that. That was one of the reasons I felt so excited after I talked to Jake early on because I knew he wanted to push in that direction and, combined with how much I was into what he was doing with the film, I was really happy to be a part of the process. He was speaking to me in a very conceptual manner, and I love it when a director is able to talk about terms that aren’t even music-based. He kept talking about “the wind.”
It’s so great to talk in a storytelling modality rather than, “give me something happier here,” or “make it sound sadder here.” Jake was so inside of his story and he wanted wind to be such a big part of it. That is super helpful for me and sets me down a road to suggest something like, “What if we use harmonica, but in a way that it isn’t perfectly recorded?” What we did was close mic the harmonica so you hear just as much mouth blow as you do actual tone coming over the reeds.
It was the same deal with the harmonium, which is originally from India, and it worked in two ways. First, it’s not the kind of instrument I would plan to use on an American Western so that makes it very unexpected. The whole mechanics of it centers on a bellows you pump and that gives you an amazing breathy sound. Second, we actually got it from a vintage store so it was a little bit broken, and so there were certain notes that you would play and, depending on how quickly you moved the bellows, these high pitched fans emerged that sounded like a synthesizer. It’s just the air from the bellows going over these broken harmonium reeds, but it sounds like a robot. [*laughs*] But again, dealing with very conceptual stuff sets you in a certain type of sandbox with rules and restrictions that end up being really helpful for the story and sounds you’re trying to excavate.
Let’s get into a little bit of the score to Kill the Messenger. It takes place in the 90′s and your score definitely feels like it with all the guitar work. How did you first start working toward that sound?
The film is a classic journalism thriller in strong the vein of historical movies like All the President’s Men. It was a really fun project to work on. The director, Michael Cuesta, was editing and doing all the post-production in Manhattan and so my wife and I relocated to New York during the coldest part of the year for a couple months.
Michael wanted the score to be slightly different from other electronic thriller scores – specifically, he was interested in evoking the personality of Gary Webb (played by Jeremy Renner). In the 90s, Gary was sort of a rock and roll journalist, and so we talked about the idea of using electric guitars as the basis and the driving point for the score. But we wanted to do it in a certain way that didn’t feel like…
…like a Whitesnake music video.
*laughs* Yeah exactly! We did not want this to be a purely rock and roll electric guitar score. It was important that it still felt pulsing and suspenseful… you know, really key to support the storytelling in that way, and so we developed the music using a lot of bowed electric guitars and live drums. My good friend Judson Crane has this instrument called a guitarviol which is a combination between a cello and the guitar – it’s fretted and you can plug it into an amp. So we were doing a lot of bowed guitar techniques that had us running that noise through pedals.
Then I built these synth elements from guitars combined with traditional synthesizers. And of course, it was really important to drive the story forward, so I brought in Darren King, one of my favorite live drummers. He’s notorious for duct taping his headphones around his head before each show, because he’s just such a volatile performer. But instead of giving him the drum kit that he’s used to, we went into a massive space with a bunch of huge taikos and surdos, and I said, “Okay, here’s your drum kit. Play this.”
I wanted his eclectic background, and I was interested in the approach he would bring using his technique on bigger cinematic drums that he wasn’t used to. So again, I like those conceptual doorways that let you pull elements from the main character’s personality and then see how we could apply those into that supported a journalistic thriller movie.
Kill the Messenger has under an hour of music. It’s not wall-to-wall, and Michael specifically wanted a lot of the scenes to breathe, which I really appreciate. But then there are these moments that are built around a lot of different things happening, and there’s one sort of pivot point in the movie where we use a six minute piece of music. I like movies that operate in that way. It’s not wall-to-wall. But at the same time, you’re not writing fifty 30-60 second pieces of music either. I like those scenes where we have a little bit of time to stretch out and develop the sense of pace and the creative ethos.
I’m a big Mondo fan and I follow their releases. So when I saw you put out the teaser announcement that the score for Looper was going to be released on vinyl, I told myself I had to get one. That and many other great LPs were released at MondoCon during Fantastic Fest this year and I’m so glad I got a copy. It’s a spectacular release, and I don’t know what I like better that burlap sack, or the gold plated gatefold. It’s amazing!
[*laughs*] I’m so glad you got one, because I knew they were going to go quickly. That was another really fun project to work on. Big props to Jay Shaw (the designer) on that. We spent a while talking and developing the idea. We were going back and forth on a lot of different options. But when he sent me that final concept I just flipped out. He said to me, “What if the cover was made of gold bars with the movie title in the gold bars? Then, what if we had a handmade burlap sack that had a blunderbuss whole blown out of it and you see the title through that?” I was so excited, but my first response was, “That sounds amazing…and it sounds impossible!” [*laughs*]
I feel so incredibly honored and excited. I feel like it is one of the coolest LP packaging designs that I’ve ever seen and am happy that it’s the packaging that gets to bring Looper to vinyl. Seriously, as cool as it is, I don’t know if Mondo made money at all on that release. [*laughs*] The amount of man hours that went into making that release has been totally insane!
It was also really cool because they asked if I wanted to make some lock grooves which I was really excited about. The way records traditionally work is the groove that the needle follows just keeps spinning in towards the center, but a locked groove is something that doesn’t ever progress, so, in the middle of the record the normal groove leads into the locked groove and once it hits that, it just loops from there. It’s basically a drum break that will play forever, and we created it from elements in the score. I was also really glad to be able to include Kid Koala‘s track from the club scene on the 7 inch silver release. He’s my favorite turntable artist, so it’s fitting to feature him on the vinyl release.
Kill The Messenger and Young Ones are now in limited release. Listen to the former’s score above.
In the second half of 2013, British film composer Steven Price made quite a name for himself. He scored two very popular films, Gravity and The World’s End, which were both commercial and critical hits. Once the dust of awards season settled, Price found he had walked away with some of the most coveted honors including the Academy Award for Best Original Score for Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón‘s space fiasco film was an amazing cinematic achievement, but it was Price’s ethereal and abstract musical accompaniment that truly helped make Gravity an unforgettable experience. We recently sat with Price to discuss his latest work, David Ayer‘s harrowing WWII film Fury. Check out our conversation below, which includes a full stream of the score.
The Film Stage: You once said you work in “an unpredictable industry”, and, further, that it’s really all about catching a break and hoping something comes your way. How have things changed for you now that you’re an “Oscar winner”?
Steven Price: Well, it’s always a challenge because we’re all trying to do the same thing, which is to make something out of nothing, and do the best we can at it. It’s not that easy. [*laughs*] But that’s half of the fun of it for me really – the idea that in a few months time you’re going to be trying the next challenge. But I’m really lucky to be doing what I’m doing – I get to make music and play instruments all day. [*laughs*]
Excellent. Well, a belated congratulations on your win for Gravity. How long did it take to come down from the hype of awards season? And what were the first couple things you did after coming home with the award?
Well, there really wasn’t time to unwind because I came home to a mountain of work. I was already involved in the TV series called Believe which is something Alfonso Cuarón had devised with J.J. Abrams. I came back and basically was faced with turning in more music than I’ve ever written in a very short period of time. I basically landed on a Tuesday and had to deliver something almost four days later. So there was no time which, I think, for me, was probably a good thing. [*laughs*]
I was already involved in Fury by then as well so really, until about two weeks ago, I haven’t really surfaced for air. It’s been a busy time, but it’s been nice to keep working instead of just staying home and staring at your Oscar all day. [*laughs*]
So that thing must be getting pretty dusty then huh? [*laughs*]
Actually, the award lives at my parents house now. I thought it was only fitting that they get to hold on to it after having a musical son for ages. [*laughs*]
I’ve spoken to a few composers who have told tell me that TV can be a non-stop grind. But what is your experience like on Believe?
Well the pilot was done with Alfonso Cuarón in April of last year, and I got into the thick of it at the end of the year. It’s kind of nice at the beginning when you’re getting started because there’s time some to create and develop the sound. But then, very quickly, you reach this terminal velocity where literally, every week, you are producing a lot of music. Now I, in my ignorance, went into it thinking “how much music can there be?”. There are some shows out there that are hour-long episodes which require 55 minutes of wall-to-wall music…and of course that’s the one I’m get! [*laughs*]
So, it was a lot of work but also a lot of fun. I got to do a lot of incredibly percussive stuff, and a lot of hitting of dustbins, metal cans, and all these oil cans which were put together to make this really propulsive score. They were balanced with a lot of ethereal sounds. I also got to play a lot of guitar, so that was a really welcomed release after doing Gravity. On that one, Alfonso and I established a very specific set of rules that we used to create new and interesting sounds. But Believe is a lot of work and so they’re right, television is more of a constant grind.
I very much like the film score process which is something that lets you write and develop and play it back with chances to revisit it along the way. Now in TV, there’s certainly no time for that. It was very much write it, record it, polish it and, oops too late…we’re on to next week’s show…here’s your next set of rushes!
It was quite extreme and I have the greatest respect for these people who do amazing work on TV writing in such continually tight time frames. And they may be doing two or three shows concurrently. *laughs* So I suspect they don’t sleep at all. [*laughs*]
Attack the Block, The World’s End, Gravity, and now Fury. You’ve pretty much got the market covered on unique sounds and atmospheric scores. This film, like the others, is very non-traditional and uses a lot of electronic instruments, and synth sounds set against some orchestral work. So what made you want to score in a similar fashion even though this is a historical picture?
The sound and style I now gravitate towards really came together at the same time. It is only recently that I have begun to trust my own instincts and I resisted the temptation to approach my projects like they were traditional scores. Honestly, I was never very good at that, sounding like anybody else or any traditional genre, so the realization that it’s not a problem to do things differently really helped set my mind at ease.
It made me understand that sounding like yourself is ok too. You don’t have to use a 110 piece orchestra because that’s what other composers have done and what people expect. Then, the more you trust yourself, the more you can explore. Ultimately your artistic quest becomes more like self-discovery and not just a job where all you’re doing is finding out how best to put music to picture.
So that was a huge revelation for me, and then, all of a sudden, all these opportunities started to come my way. Attack the Block needed a very fresh sounding score that would fit the tone and the characters in it. With The World’s End there was very specific tone as well, and then, obviously, Gravity was one of the most unique opportunities for a composer.
Then that leads to Fury which is its own animal because it’s a very different way of looking at World War II. Director David Ayer was looking to tell a story that was an intense and brutal but one that examined the psychological aspects of these characters in a very honest way. So, each time I’ve come aboard a project I’ve been paired with directors who have been very happy for me to take a look at it and see what the film needs rather than what a film in that genre would need. They are open to my ideas and accepting of a fresh approach and that has been really rewarding. It’s everything I could hope for in a career really.
Fury is an incredibly unique score, it’s almost like “Gravity in a tank,” as it has a lot of parallels to Alfonso’s movie. David’s story of these characters who are equally in great danger and peril find that they are never truly safe. When you two were getting started, what kind of ideas did you and David throw back and forth before you landed on this hybrid between ethereal and orchestral themes?
We had a lot of conversations in the beginning, and they were very rarely about music. Sure, we talked about music, but it was really about emotions. We talked a lot about what the crew of the Fury tank had been through, and the fact of the matter is they have been in hell for four years. They are ground down, they are beyond exhausted, but they have to keep moving forward.
WWII was the first truly mechanized war, and machines were being built by both sides of with just one intent: kill the other people before they kill you. In a sense, whether working on, or watching the movie, you kind of get involved in a way that you quickly feel what these men are going through. It feels like you’re exhausted, it feels like your riding forward, but within that, there are these really damaged human beings, so the trick was to find this music that, like them, was kind of broken but also, somewhat, echoed their humanity. I tried to capture what David was shooting – these beautiful, but very horrific images and scenes – and for me, it was about finding the layers that represent the subtleties and subtext in the film.
You touched on humanity, and there are tracks like ‘This Is My Home’, and ‘Still In This Fight’, and you help us find compassion for these soldiers who are so desensitized to violence. They are hopeless and lost, but really, they are just trying to do their job so they can go home, alive if possible.
Well thank you Marc. That’s what we’re going for. I feel like I’ve been lucky to have worked with David. Going back to the beginning, David’s first words to me were, “I want to feel, I want the music to help the audience feel”. And as he was saying that, he would thump himself in the stomach, and go “I want that gutteral feeling to the music.” When I was writing, David would always give me a little more time to explore and try to get a musical idea to work. We had a really close collaboration and a good give and take relationship throughout. For a composer, that’s a really amazing thing.
One of the standout elements in the score is the choral work. Let’s talk about that, is that even a language?
Oh, yeah. Very glad you brought that up. The choral thing, for me, was the turning point in the whole process. I was working on one of the cues, and trying to get the sense of constantly moving forward, and I started using a choir for it. It was meant to be a sort of emotionless chanting that is very constant and no deviation in pitch. I just wanted a very solid presence. But once I had that idea, it began to evolve in all different ways across the film.
Sometimes I changed it so the singers are just whispering, and you can’t really hear what they’re saying. I would record very close to the singers and then move the microphone around the room with the idea being that these soldiers are three weeks away from the end of the war, according to the timeline, and they are in Nazi Germany. They are surrounded in the most dangerous place you can imagine, and the choir is just constantly chanting. They’re actually chanting extracts from the Lutheran Bible that the Germans had translated for themselves.
In the session, I had an amazing choir who were watching the picture and as it played out I would literally point to a different passage from the Bible for them to sing. We would use passages that are incredibly fitting to the situation on screen. Things like “invaded lands”, or whatever it may be, and I just felt like it jelled with the film.
It was never designed to be heard, but it’s just always there – this Germanic presence that is almost taunting them. Many times the words are entirely inaudible. To achieve that, I would give different passages to the choir. So, one half would sing something and the other half would sing something entirely different. It really made it feel like the sounds are coming from all around you and I have to say it got very eerie when we were recording it. The first time I did it I wasn’t sure it was going to work, but in the sessions we got them to whisper and everyone in the control room just shrunk in their chairs. We all looked at each other and went, “oh, that’s quite spooky!”.
The score isn’t tailored to the film in an expected way, and, in that sense, it kind of mirrors what’s happening to Wardaddy and his crew. So, because the audience doesn’t know how, when, and where the score is going to come at them, it’s as unrelenting as the visuals. How did you and David Ayer decide on the balance between what was overpowering on screen and what was overpowering in an auditory sense?
Repetition in the scoring process goes a long way in developing the right sound. Many times you can get hung up on few seconds here, or those few seconds there. But when you watch the film over and over again, in its entirety, you get a better idea of the whole picture, it helps you develop a sound that is better suited to the overall themes. That helps keep you from getting stuck on one specific scene or sequence.
That also really helped us figure out and decide what scenes we could tone down, or ones we could hold off a little longer before we really came on strong. Since we were, many times, speaking for the characters, we wanted to make sure we were conveying what they were going through.
Now there was a lot of trial and error, and we certainly didn’t get this on the first take. But one of the blessings of being involved very early on, and longer than what is traditional on a film score, is that you get a couple of bites at the cherry. You’re given time and opportunities to correct things if you have the balance slightly off. I think that’s tricky to do, because in Fury, we’re dealing with people who are facing intense mental and physical exhaustion. Within each of these tired soldiers there’s a character. We have to really work hard to identify what that is and there was a lot of energy spent and ideas tried just to figure that out to get it just right.
Well it does come across as the voice and the soul of these worn-out soldiers. But that’s another thing that the score did – it never went on heroic runs because, obviously, that was not the intention or message of David’s story. But a lot of people’s hands are at work on a score – you have input from the director, and the producers – so whether or not it was the case on Fury, how often are you given comments or input that really made a difference in the final product?
Well there’s always something like that on every project because this is such a collaborative profession. I’ve been doing this for a while, about 17 years now, and I’m always wondering, “When is our turning point going to come?” You know, it’s that situation where I’ll get the idea or suggestion and then at 3 in the morning I’ll go, “That’s it! We need to do this!” Or sometimes, far later than you wanted it to happen, there’s a picture cut that changes everything and you realize that you have to rewrite everything but, luckily, it’s for the better.
So there’s always a little trigger that can take you somewhere unexpected. And sometimes it’s not even the music, it’s a note about a character, or something like that. Or a director might say, “Hey, would it be nice if we felt something like this, in this way?” and then I’ll go, “oh yeah! I can help that!” Then I’ll run up to the studio to try to solve the problem.
Some composers I’ve talked to have found that recently their career, in a way, is moving toward sound design and sound engineering as a way of making truly original sounds. It’s becoming a more fulfilling next step after they’ve done so many projects. So when you’re not working with strings or choir, and you’re doing more atmospheric and electronic stuff, do you work on those elements by yourself, or do you have a team of electronic musicians helping you develop and create your unique sounds?
I’m actually entirely self-contained at this point in my career which is why I look so tired. [*laughs*] But I really love that process of developing an entire pallet for a film or project and finding sounds that really feel like they belong to the film. Because I got involved so early on Fury, I asked the sound team to record a bunch of source noises. They went out and when they were done, I was given this hard drive with all manner of things. For instance, I had a number of sound files that were tank shells being banged around on and inside tank. There were also sounds of the tank moving, and gears changing, and all these sort of noises that I could kind of derive music from or manipulate, layer, etc.
The first sound you hear in the film is actually the sound of dog tags. We had a bag of those and that cue is just my hand going through the bag. I slowed it down and played it in very odd ways so you can’t tell that it’s dog tags, but it’s got a quality to it and it helps make it unique. I love that process. I pulled some of the more traditional music out of the film and then I added my own sort of elements to it and then put it all back together. You know, I can’t imagine not doing that all myself, and I find it a really crucial part of the process. It’s really inspiring. So often I listen to a sound, whatever it is, and that might lead me to develop a harmony. If I follow the trail, or my instincts rather, the next thing you know, you have a cue. So for me the, organic and the electronic parts of the score are all the same to me and I love working with both.
Well, I love your music, and when I say it’s directionless, I don’t mean it as an insult. I mean that I like how it can go in so many different ways. There doesn’t seem to be a beginning, or an end. Sometimes I’ll be listening to a soundtrack, and I’ll get the notion that it’s going to end, but with your work that’s not the case. Other times, a track might sound like the score is wrapping up or getting to the credits, but if I listen to Gravity or Fury I’ll look over and find I’m not even halfway through the the track list. Your music makes it easy to get lost in the music.
Oh great! That makes me really happy to hear you say that. I put a lot of time into the CDs, and I really like putting them together. I’ve been very much a proponent of keeping things on the CD in film order as opposed to changing them all around. My main goal is to make the CD honor the film in a way and let that tell a story – just like we do in the film. So I like that people actually listen to them. [*laughs*]
Fury now in theaters. Listen to the full score above.
I didn’t expect that it’d be so fitting for us to post an interview with Jason Schwartzman just one day after our talk with Alex Ross Perry. The respective actor and writer-director, with Listen Up Philip, made a collaboration that seems to have gone swimmingly, yet the pair being in-tune with one another runs much deeper than what’s “merely” on the screen. As I learned after posing my first question to the actor — a question that resulted in the longest answer I’ve ever received, no less — their extended pre-shoot time together was crucial to developing the rhyme and rhythm of an elegant character study.
Even when talking over the phone on a Saturday afternoon does Schwartzman come off as far more graceful and friendly than Philip Lewis Friedman. I didn’t feel much of any need to ask about the “struggle” of playing a rakish asshole — the final results sort of speak for themselves, and plenty of other interviewers have that covered — but the way one becomes especially comfortable with it. There’s a tricky balance at play, and his response offers one of the more illuminating insights into an actor’s process I’ve yet been told.
The Film Stage: I wanted to start by asking if you’d seen Impolex and / or The Color Wheel prior to starting work on this film — and, if so, what your reaction amounted to.
Jason Schwartzman: No, I hadn’t seen them, and that’s not a comment on those movies — more a comment on my life. At the time, especially, with being a parent and all this stuff. There was a lot I hadn’t seen, but when the script came, it was sent to me with a DVD of The Color Wheel, and I watched it after I read the script. I really loved it, and not only did I like it as its own movie, but I couldn’t help think about it side-by-side to what I had just read. It’s sort of the movie that it seemed like Alex wanted to make, and that was exciting, because it seemed like it had just enough of that one and just enough of something else — a different type of movie with a whole kind of different spectrum of things he was going after. So that was exciting to me, for sure.
It’s funny to say, but I also think there’s something comforting about knowing he had acted — that he had been in front of a camera and sort of knew what that felt like. I liked that. I don’t think I’d ever really worked with too many directors who had also been in things, so there was something nice about that. It was a great script when I read it and, also, obviously complicated and everything, but it was beautifully written. So no question he can do this — he’s a great writer and all — but this script also seemed so… I don’t want to say “execution-dependent,” but I, personally, was nervous. Like, if I do this movie… which, by the way, I didn’t even know I was doing this, later, when we met, that it was even at that point. I thought I was probably one of many, many, many people he was trying to talk to about, and there was an audition involved, so it probably would have changed the tone of our first meeting a little. But probably not.
Anyway, for me, I have found that you work in all different ways, and each experience is totally different and should be totally different. What really is nice, or helps me, is when I sort of feel connected — like I know the director, or that we have a kind of rapport together. And maybe that just comes from my own way of communicating, anyway, which is just sort of thinking out loud. So, if I have an idea or something, it’s nice for someone like me not to feel so, so, so precious about them, that I could say a lot of bad stuff and have the person not vanish. Obviously, I’ve worked with directors where you don’t have the luxury of being around them a lot, and that’s often. You sort of have to change it. I don’t know why, but I felt, when I read the script, my hope was that Alex and I would have the kind of rapport that I’m talking about, which is more like an exchange of ideas, and a lot of things about judgement and a lot of bad jokes.
When I met him for dinner, within 30 seconds I felt like, “We have to make this movie.” Then, once I was in this movie, our collaboration was the best. It was just so generous of him. I mean, I came a month early, and he’s in pre-production, in the throes of all these other things — all these complicated, logistical things — and he’s also spending every day with me. We really gave ourselves a lot of time to be near each other, to get to know each other, and to share things with each other — like books and movies and records — and also gave ourselves a lot of time to not talk about the movie, but just sort of walk around New York and think about stuff.
You know, it all kind of circles back, and you get so many ideas from things that… “Oh, let’s just take a break and not think about this for a while,” and then something happens. You see something on the street and go, “Oh, put that in the script.” But it was sort of like us going to the script. We wrote every scene out on these note cards and laid them all out so we could have the whole movie in front of us, so we could just talk about it and look at it as a big thing. Essentially, I never had a doubt about anything, but I always felt like I had to ask the dumb questions — things that, maybe, are obvious.“Well, why does he go there afterwards?” And it’s just, like, Alex saying, “Because he goes here,” or, “I don’t know, because…” Whatever. Just to see if. It was fun, and it wasn’t, like, super-intense. It was really just casual, spending hours together, just kind of thinking about stuff, proposing ideas — but, certainly, if we had an idea or a line or something, Alex and I would talk about it. If we were laughing, Alex would usually go home and type something up.
So it wasn’t like a bunch of improving and “let’s remember that for the day.” He would actually make it into a scene. You know, the script is so balanced, in its weird way, that you can’t just start going off the rails, because of all this other stuff. But I think the most enlightening thing that came out of the experience, for me, of that month of being together was that he’s so abrasive, Philip, that part of me was wondering, “Well, is there a version of this where he’s not so abrasive? Is there a way to lose that line? Is there a version where he does this? Let’s talk about these things.” I think, through experimenting, we realized that anything that was added that seemed like it was trying to lighten things up for Philip — make him a little more likable or empathetic — actually worked the opposite way and made him just detestable, because he became super passive-aggressive.
It was just trying to slap a smile on something that, fundamentally, doesn’t want to smile. So I think there was just something cool about having that time. By the way, also the reason for that big time together was that, when we started shooting, there was a lot of stuff to cover in a short amount of time, so we want to make sure we’ve gotten all our bad ideas out of the way, not on-camera. Kind of cross things off. Like, “We’re not going to go there, we’re not going to go there, we’re not going to go there. Here’s what we’re going to be doing.” It was just fun.
This is funny, because you’ve answered about three other questions I had.
No, it’s good. One thing I wanted to ask, which I think you’re kind of suggesting, relates to a quote I’d found: you were initially repulsed by Philip, yet kept going back to the script, only being more compelled as the read-through continued. In the process from first read to final shot, how did you become acclimated to him? Was stepping into his shoes easier after this whole pre-production business?
Totally. Yeah, absolutely. I remember, when I was on-tour with my band a long time ago, we’d been through it for almost, like, two years, and we used to do things. We had this inside joke where we would roll our Rs all the time — just that [makes sound of rolling r]. I remember it just became the way we lived. And I came off tour, and I was out having breakfast with, I think, my brother, or something, and there was something on the menu, and I rolled the R. I did it, and no one laughed. I realized, without realizing it, [laughs] that I had become immersed in a whole series of things that are not funny to anybody else but people who know it. You know, you don’t do it on purpose, and I think it’s just that.
I didn’t come to New York a month early to “become” a person; I just came to be close to Alex and be close to the material. If you’re reading something all day long and talking about something all day long, you — without knowing it — start to think about ways and think about things a little differently, more in the atmosphere of the movie. I mean, it was funny: when Elisabeth Moss came to join us a couple of weeks before shooting, I remember we were talking about Philip and Ashley. She said something about the way Philip did something, and I took it personally. I remember saying, “That’s not exactly how it happened. Your character wasn’t really easy to be with at times.” She said, “Are you kidding?”
And we got into a fight about these people, but it was way more of an intellectual sparring, with smiles. Because I was saying, in-between it, “I can’t believe I’m defending this behavior.” It wasn’t like I was arguing as someone, but, “It’s so crazy, Elisabeth. I really am struggling to see your point-of-view on this, and I know that’s wrong.” I’m like a half-vampire or something. I’m half-me, and I’m arguing for something that is insane. Like, there’s no way you can say a lot of this stuff is right, and yet I just didn’t see it any other way. So it was really fun to sort of get into that zone — with her, especially.
So you’re immersed in the character’s mindset. When I spoke to Alex, I brought up the film’s “literary” qualities and roots. I’m wondering if he recommended any specific books to help get you into that shape.
Yes, he did. The “one” that he said, “If you’re going to spend a month reading something before this movie, read this” was a book called Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates. It’s a beautiful book that shares many things with our movie. Obviously, it’s a totally different thing, but it has a young couple, showing the decay of love and respect, and also going off with them on their own, for a little bit — but all kind of happening in a non-flashback scenario, really. So that was one. I got some Jonathan Franzen, audiobooks of his essays, just because he loves Franzen and I love books on tape. He’s extremely verbose, and is just a good talker. That’s something that was there.
I got some Philip Roth, but really didn’t read it so much as I just had it near me. I didn’t buy it, because this isn’t based on a Philip Roth thing exactly, but that’s Alex’s favorite writer, without a doubt, and so it would be silly not to just have that around. So I had him, and I would just kind of sleep with him next to the bed, or I always had him in my backpack, and I would just thumb through them and just kind of have them — more as a thing for the ether. But I’m a slow reader, and there just wouldn’t have been time to get into that. Also, the task of trying to learn all the lines and stuff was a big undertaking, anyway, so I just kind of had to focus my time.
This is a bit unorthodox, but one of my apartment mates really wants to mention a specific thing, so… if that’s –
Give him to me.
Daniel Dickerman: Hello, Jason.
Hi! How are you?
Pretty good. How about you?
I always loved the show you and Jonah Hill did in 2008 on Indie 103.1, when you subbed for Jonesy’s Jukebox.
Oh, thank you so much! It’s great hearing that. That was so fun.
Your band, Coconut Records, makes obvious that you have passions extending outside cinema. What music do you happen to be into right now?
Well, always, there’s so much music, and the great thing about music is that it’s so portable that you can have it on-the-go all the time. So I’ll open my iPhone and I will tell you what I’ve got. There’s the new stuff, the new Caribou album I’ve been listening to, but I’ve been spending a lot of time with… are you familiar with Steve Gunn?
He’s a great musician, so I’ve been listening to that recently. How about you?
I’ve been into The Orwells a lot lately.
Oh, good. They’re great.
That and Jack White, I guess.
Oh, cool. Lazaretto!
I saw him at Radio City a few years ago, where he stormed off the stage, so I sort of put that down for a little bit.
Oh, really? Huh. Shit. Well, I don’t know.
Yes, of course! Steve Gunn: check him out.
Listen Up Philip will begin a limited release on October 17 and hit iTunes on October 21.