It’s possible that no frequent pairing of helmer and star in contemporary cinema — or, for that matter, creative union of husband and wife — is quite as fruitful as Jia Zhangke and Zhao Tao‘s, and their new picture, Mountains May Depart, is potentially their most impactful yet. A three-part epic about the China of the recent past, contemporary moment, and near future that explores as many aspect ratios as it does decades, it’s a film whose large ambition, courtesy Jia’s continued fascination with wherever his native nation might stand and where it could go, is given a human face by Zhao’s magnetic presence and perceptible absence.
Shortly after seeing their project at last year’s New York Film Festival, I was fortunate enough to interview the pair and probe this film’s many layers, from recent changes in language and communication formats to evolving forms of digital video. That’s only scratching the surface, but although the need for translation cut down on the amount of things I might ask — a fun fact befitting this film: I believe the only words immediately understood between the three of us were “hello,” “thank you,” “Google Translate,” and the names of various iPhone models — there’s much to be gleaned from what’s contained herein. If you want more to consider, there’s only one real option: seek the film out for yourself.
A special thanks must be extended to Vincent Cheng, who provided on-site translation.
The Film Stage: There are a lot of places to go when discussing Mountains May Depart, and so it may be wisest to begin with the most basic question: when and how did the shape of it start to take hold?
Jia Zhangke: After I finished A Touch of Sin, I suddenly wanted to make a film about human emotions — about love. The reason is because, when I turned 45, I started to have a new understanding and perspective of the loves and emotions I’d experienced in the past. It needs time in order for me to examine that; that’s the thing about aging and turning 45. And the other things about feelings and human emotions, even though it’s very intimate and private, they can be hugely impacted by society, the environment you live in, and, in this particular case, the technology that we introduced. Within this particular society full of customers, that completely changed the value system, thinking that money could solve everything.
I also realized I was a victim, a receiver, of this consumer culture. I used to visit my mother in my hometown, when I do have time, and, when I visit her, I’d give her some money, thinking it will provide her with a better life. But she wasn’t happy. She didn’t want the money; she wanted to spend long-lasting, quality time with me. The other thing that really excited me to make this film is that I’m going to experiment a different way to create my narratives. In the past, I tend to use a very restrained and inward expression of emotions rather than outward and explosive; for this one, I wanted an abundance of emotions that you can observe in every shot.
And, if I may use a metaphor — or something to represent the feelings I want to portray with this film — when the blood is flowing in your veins, usually you don’t really feel the movement of the blood in your veins, but, suddenly, when you encounter a certain situation and feeling excited, you feel this rush of blood to your head and your extremities become cold. Then, when it dissipates and you are sad, you do feel how the blood in your veins flows differently from how it would usually flow. So the influx of this blood sort of represents how I wanted to portray this film.
The other aspect of this film is about the imagination, how feelings and emotions change in terms of how people used to be very closely and intimately connected, with interactions that are very meaningful and very deep. Now, because of cell phones or the Internet, they somehow make us feel isolated and alienated, and that takes a span of 26 years for me to bring that to forefront.
When playing this character in the 1999 portion, how much — if at all — were you considering what happens to her in later segments? Do you internalize this or rather do what’s possible to keep the “present moment” solely in mind?
Zhao Tao: As an actor, the method I usually have to create a character that I have to play is to always map out this character from her birth all the way to her death, and all the journeys in-between — adolescence, middle-age, later years. That’s my method. But for this particular character that I play in 1999, I want to make sure that she is young, naïve, happy-go-lucky, and will look at the things right in front of her and believe everything — be very optimistic — and I don’t think this character, in 1999, will actually think about what is going to happen in 2014 or 2025. She just couldn’t see that far. Everything is right in front of her face and she’s dealing with that reality right in that moment.
It’s said that this film follows a written screenplay more faithfully and more rigidly than your previous features. Why that approach for this story? What about it necessitates a stronger fidelity?
Jia: The reason why it pretty much followed a script — especially for the third episode — is because the screenplay is written in Chinese, but then all the dialogue has to be translated into English. Since I have some limitations with the English language, we therefore have to follow the script and shoot — especially the third part of the film. The other thing that relates to this is also because it’s shot in Australia, and they have very strict restrictions and guidelines in terms of what’s acceptable and is not. Even if I find a public space that’s very interesting and in which I want to shoot, I can’t unless I go through getting a license and permits to shoot the film in certain locations. Based on all these objective limitations and reasons, I have to somehow adapt to that more prescribed way of making this film.
So not only that: most importantly, it’s because this is a script about human emotions and loves, and I think that, when I was writing the script, I very precisely, very delicately had written down the emotions and feelings I’m trying to portray. I think that, in order for the actors to somehow get into these characters, it would take time for them to embody those lines and dialogues. I think that’s also one of the major reasons it follows a script rather than just improvise on the spot.
Zhao, did you follow the third section as it was being constructed? Were you talking to actors, viewing footage, or even on the set?
Zhao: I was not that involved with the third part of the shooting. Even though I did go with the crew to Australia, I was never on location; I never did observe how they were shot. My main task is to take care of the director — to observe the film. [Laughs]
The 1999 segment features digital video that, in its appearance, recalls your earlier films. Did you enjoy returning to an aesthetic that hasn’t been prominent in your work for some time?
Jia: During 1999 and 2000 was the time I had my first DV camera, so I would usually, aimlessly go about shooting footage. This is a habit I still maintain up to this day, and I have a lot of raw footage using different types of cameras and captures throughout the years. I might have a future plan of editing this footage and making it into a film. Since the story starts in 1999, I need to recreate and reenact that particular era, and, for research purpose, I thought, “Well, I have footage from 1999. I might as well take a look at how people look, at how people talk at the time.” When I revisited that footage, I realized it’s very affecting and I might as well include them in the first episode as well.
So I do think that footage really captures the psychological state of the youth or general public at the time, and I think it would be a great idea to not only juxtapose but integrate them. On the one hand, you have the actual documentary-type of reality, and then you have the fictional, creative reality. By combining these two, you create the realities that these characters can somehow position themselves in.
Jia, when you planned the 1999 portion, how much did you consider any changes in language from then to now? They don’t feel significant to me, but perhaps there are subtleties you wished to explore. Zhao, considering the way you map a character’s life, did you find yourself considering the way you spoke in 1999 and then try to return to that state?
Jia: In the first episode, most of the dialogue is in the mother tongues of the character. Moving onto the 2014 part, when the son comes back from Shanghai and you notice that he no longer understands his mother’s dialect — he instead speaks the dialect of his stepmom — that also forces the son and mother to communicate in Mandarin, which both understand. Later, in 2025, the son has lost his Mandarin as well and now takes on English as the dominant language. So I do think that a general audience will probably pick up, very easily, the differences from the Chinese to the English language, but I do think the minute transformation and changes already happened from the first episode to the second — from the past to the present time because of the hometown dialect.
So I do think that mother tongue is an important way for two people — especially for loved ones — to really communicate with each other very deeply and meaningfully. For someone to lose the mother tongue is to somehow create that emotional distance with the loved ones that you’re communicating with, because not only do you not feel as intimate, but you probably have a hard time trying to describe with your language a language other than the mother tongue.
Zhao: For Thao, in 1999, she was still very young, and I wanted to portray her as someone who was very carefree — very easily excited — and, with that, I also intentionally raised the pitch and spoke with a much sharper tone. Not only orally, but physically, I would transform myself into someone who’s definitely a lot more energetic. A lot of vitality and energy that you could observe from her behavior could be sudden bursts of applause, and she’ll be jumping around. These are things in the character I try to embody not only orally, but physically.
The 2025 sequences are perhaps most clearly marked by the presence of a futuristic technology, including a tablet that syncs with Google Translate and, with the flick of a finger, eases communication between foreign languages. How did you create these, and who did you work with to make them seem as believable as possible?
Jia: When I was thinking about shooting the 2025 episode, I at one point thought of something very sci-fi-like. [Laughs] I even thought that maybe the son would be in love with an alien. But then I realized it would be too abrupt, going from the first two episodes, because it’s not that far away from the “present” time; it’s only eleven years away. So the car you buy today you can still drive in 2025. But, in terms of the telecommunication devices we’re using, it’s changing almost every single year! [Laughs] There’s always an update: iPhone 5, iPhone 6, iPhone6 Plus. And because I want to focus on one particular element — which is technology, and how it fundamentally transforms the way people love and feel — I didn’t do too much in terms of the rest of the upgrade, except for the telecommunication devices. I wanted them to somehow have this futuristic but, at the same time, realistic look to it, so I collaborated with a science company in France.
Mountains May Depart will enter a limited release on Friday, February 12.
“Charlie Kaufman told us if we could get the money we could do it,” says Rosa Tran, producer of the Oscar-nominated animation Anomalisa. The project, which adapted Kaufman’s 2005 stage play into a stop-motion animated feature about a customer service speaker who falls into a eerie routine where everyone looks and sounds the same until he meets a woman that changes him, had humble beginnings and was almost a short film. Tran has helped usher the project from the very start when it was just co-director Duke Johnson and herself working to make a Kickstarter project video using a rented studio and old puppets.
“We were working together at Starburns Industries and wondering, ‘what’s the next project?’” recalled Tran. “Duke got a hold of [Kaufman’s] script from Dino [Stamatopoulos] and immediately wanted to make it.” When they initially pitched the project at various studios they were either rejected or told to turn it into an episodic format that could be aired on television. The small screen didn’t scare Tran and Johnson, who had worked together on stop-motion animation for TV’s Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, all produced by Starburns Industries. But they envisioned something bigger for the project.
“Then someone said we should try Kickstarter, so we shot the Kickstarter video and off we went,” Tran said. Anomalisa serves as the first feature film for Tran as a producer, who cut her teeth in live action. She brings a giddy enthusiasm to the production side, laughing during our interview and showcasing her absolute infatuation with the process. When I ask how she keeps track of everything that moves at a snail’s pace — it takes approximately one week to animate a minute of usable footage in the stop-motion animated format — she dives right in.
“We have this thing at the studio called The Big Board and it’s literally a big board,” she said, laughing. “It’s broken into all these different stages. Stages 1-18. Each stage is assigned a scene based on the size of the stage with additional angles. In order for us to shoot in stop-motion you make multiples of sets and multiples of the puppets. So by the end of Anomalisa we had eight identical hotel rooms, we had three stages with the hotel hallway, we had the lobby on one stage and the hotel elevator on another.”
Tran equates the entire process to a game of Tetris. Each morning you gather everyone around the big board and go through each shot. It’s all hands on deck from the outset. Everyone from lighting, art, and directors show up to each stage and give final approvals before the animators are left to begin the tedious but rewarding process. The extensive technique takes quite a long time and that is part of the reason why the Kickstarter campaign ruffled the feathers of a few of their backers — some of the entire 5,770 of them — who had helped raise just north of $400,000 for what was initially going to be a 40-minute production before more funding was secured.
“We were naive,” Tran recalled. “We didn’t think it would take this long and encounter all these different problems. You just lose track of time and forget to update them. I can see it from both sides and I definitely understand.” Despite that, she still loves the way they were able to utilize Kickstarter and sees it as a place for great things. “How cool is it that there is a site where you can go and support these independent projects and get excited?” she asked. “You literally put your money where your mouth is.”
The enthusiasm Tran brings to the production role isn’t something she sees changing anytime soon. It would be easy to think that the long hours and constant juggling might wear her down. So I asked her whether she thought she would move back to live action. “I was so miserable,” she laughed, recalling her days as an assistant on live-action sets. Besides the long hours and tough work, she emphasized that people think there is something glamorous about being on a live-action set that just isn’t the case.
“I got involved in animation and it was like something clicked,” Tran said. “I call it the animation bug. You go onto a stage and it is beautiful.” She specifically tells the story of her days on the long-running stop-motion animated TV show Robot Chicken and how they had a Star Wars special. “You go onto the stage and there’s the scene where the AT-ATs are crossing over this icy terrain and I’m looking at the AT-ATs on this 20 by 20 set,” Tran noted. “I look at the computer monitor and I look back and forth and it’s like a magic trick. The snow is perfect. The AT-ATs are perfect. The little stormtroopers are perfect. When you look on the screen, it’s like the movie. The small details are so amazing.”
That animation bug has even bled into real-life for Tran. “I see people and I’m just like, ‘You’d make a good puppet,’” Tran exclaimed, laughing in an infectious tone. “It’s exciting because you just get to make it. There’s something warm about stop-motion that CG just doesn’t have. It’s the life that everybody puts into it. There’s the invisible animator hands that you don’t see. Or how everybody that makes it touches an object and brings it to life.”
Anomalisa is now in theaters.
Ever since his indie breakout Metropolitan in 1990, Whit Stillman has built a specific kind of comedy within class structure. From the strait-laced businessmen struggling to break free of themselves in Barcelona to the ambitious, two-faced college girls in Damsels in Distress, Stillman finds the laughter in the deviousness of human nature.
Love & Friendship, his fifth film, premiered at Sundance and is set to be released by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions this spring. Adapted from Jane Austen‘s little-read, barely-published novella ‘Lady Susan,’ the costume-drama setting and biting social commentary allows for some of the funniest moments in Stillman’s career. It’s as though Austen was writing for a filmmaker like Stillman to adapt her. It’s a true match made in heaven.
Check out our conversation with the director from Sundance 2016 below.
The Film Stage: Was this adaptation something that you had in your back pocket for some time?
Whit Stillman: Yeah. This has been in my back pocket since the beginning of 2000s I’d say, maybe even earlier. The first correspondence I could find when I was talking to someone about it was 2004. But I wanted to do it kind of on my own without pressure or big commitments and just let it ripen. Because I knew it was going to take forever to get this from the letters going back and forth in the 18th century style to something dramatized comedy that could work.
What’s interesting about Lady Susan (played by Kate Beckinsale) is that in a lot of ways she is one of the most socially progressive characters Austen’s written.
That’s one of the reasons I think Austen didn’t publish it. She was too skeptical of the character.
Because you can see the Emma Woodhouse, from Austen’s novel Emma, in the character without the optimism…
Yeah, it’s kind of the dark version of Emma.
It’s a very funny movie. The James Martin character (Tom Bennett) is such a bright spot of comic relief. When you’re making this film and you’re adapting a Jane Austen novella from centuries before, is there a struggle, an alchemy, where you don’t want him to be so silly that it comes off disingenuous or feels displaced from the rest of the film?
Yeah, like, last night [at the premiere], for instance. When I saw it I thought that maybe when we did the sound [mix] we made his silly carings-on in the dancing scene too noticeable. So before we had the sound in, he was there, but there was other stuff going on in the dancing scene. Now it’s all about him being silly, and we don’t get Frederica’s suffering, so it takes some of the emotion out of it. If I got the chance to do the sound again I’d change it.
Can you go back and do the sound again?
I think maybe when it goes to DVD.
And this is Amazon Studios, which is new for you. How was this foray in new platform?
Well, I know some of the people from The Cosmopolitans, the TV show, and then I know other people who are long-term friends in the film business so it was kind of a familiar thing.
So it sounds like it was a good experience.
Very good. I mean, it’s just starting but it’s been very good. I’ve had a great time with Amazon, I’ve saved my bacon. They did a deal early on right when they were just starting to buy the remake rights to Metropolitan, which kept me in shelter for a while.
Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see with this film, The Cosmopolitans, Woody Allen’s show. There are a lot of things Amazon’s doing, going right at Netflix.
Although in this case with the film this is going to be a different profile than Netflix because this is really a theatrical release. It’s Roadside Attractions. So I’m really looking forward to what Roadside Attractions does.
One thing that struck me in this movie: it’s amazing how the language we’ve come to expect from your films in general – class structure, manipulation of emotions – is so timeless. How was writing this – as you said, ‘adapting letters’ – to fit into your cinematic world, adapting the letter correspondence style?
Well, it kind of freed me from a lot of criticisms people have from my other films. The idea of a certain kind of realism and people saying things like ‘oh characters in films don’t talk this way.’ A lot of my friends say that criticism isn’t true; that their group does talk that way. But that’s not the point. The point is what sort of test of realism are you going to apply to everything and I think it’s generally a bad test. Things can work really well and not be entirely realistic and often they can be better than realism. We love the old James Bond films. They weren’t realistic, but they’re delightful. And the great 30s films. The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. It’s not realistic, it’s just perfect. And so, doing it in the end of the 18th century, if people speak in complete sentences and paragraphs and are quite articulate, I really doubt people are going to say ‘oh, that isn’t truthful. Why aren’t they saying the F-word every three sentences? Or every two words? Is more like it.’
It kind of liberates me. I don’t really like showing contemporary apparatus in my films because I think in two years it’s going to look ridiculous and so I try not to show stuff like that in my films. Like cell phones, there’s no mobile phones. Like a lot of people say ‘Oh, there’s no mobile phones in Damsels in Distress.’ Okay, there is one. And there were more things, we had computers and stuff in certain scenes. But, one thing or another, there’s only one cell phone at the end of the film, but like, who cares…give me a break. Do you really want to see people sending text messages to each other? And so, it’s a choice. And the idea that someone can’t enjoy a film because everyone isn’t staring into a smart phone, particularly when it’s these girls trying to re-create a 1950s utopia.
Well, it’s interesting, with that film. There’s a screwball element, you know, and comedy’s changed so much. Speaking to The Awful Truth and those movies, Trouble in Paradise. You watch them and that style is so lacking now. Those mannerisms have gotten somewhat lost. But what is nice, it would seem, with the Amazons and Netflixs, there’s an ability to carve out these niches where there’s an audience for that and a scenario where it can be seen.
Moving on. When you’re developing something like this, is it Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny from the start?
It’s kind of a strange thing because Kate, in all of our heads, was the right person for the role. But, with the eccentricities of the film business, her casting wasn’t confirmed until very late. Chloe [Sevigny] was on for longer. The first person who was cast was Morfydd Clark, who played Frederica. And that’s kind of a milestone for a film. When we find an actor who’s right for the role it kind of makes the project come to life, and James Fleet, who plays the father, Sir Reginald DeCourcy, he was cast early. We met Jemma Redgrave (who plays Lady DeCourcy). I met Tom Bennett (Sir James Martin), but there were two other guys who were really good for that part. Things just started falling into place and it makes it real when you have people who can do the parts.
It is great seeing Kate Beckinsale dig into this material when you have that thing of studios and this terrible thing for women over 40 where roles become scarce. So to see her devour this role is wonderful to watch.
I’m not sure if it’s that she just hasn’t seen these type of scripts or she has a big deal, big film career, and not all of her advisors would want her to do this film. I would say they’re short-sighted. They only want to plough the same big budgets. They want to get their commissions, to be honest. And we’re really lucky that she’s being represented by a great agent at UTA who really cares about the material and really knew that this would be great for Kate. You know, an agent who is really smart and insightful can really improve the odds of a project happening, so she really went to bat for our project and really helped us with the casting of Kate. If it had been at one of the huge, behemoth, mercenary agencies maybe we wouldn’t have had our phone calls returned.
What’s next after the festival for you?
So I have the novel, and then I have The Cosmopolitans. I think I’m almost done on the novel, and then Cosmopolitans full on. But I don’t know if they will like it or not. It’s going off in a new direction. It’s not just Paris. It’s something else, kind of. A lot of the same actors.
And do you know how many episodes?
[Amazon’s] commissioned six scripts.
And you start shooting soon then?
Like Tuesday. Or a week from Tuesday.
Love & Friendship premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.
Florida TV news journalist Christine Chubbuck shot herself live on the air in 1974. More than 40 years later, actress Kate Lyn Sheil and documentary filmmaker Robert Greene have made Kate Plays Christine, an attempt to figure out the motivation behind Chubbuck’s suicide. But they do so via rather unconventional means. We spoke with Sheil and Greene at Sundance, where the film premiered, to talk about the film and how they used fake performance to explore real-life performance, as well as how we perceive both.
The Film Stage: When and how did each of you first learn about Christine Chubbuck and what happened to her?
Kate Lyn Sheil: I first heard about it for this project.
Robert Greene: It was probably 10 years ago, maybe more. A friend of mine told me the story, and I had sort of like everybody else’s reaction to it: “Holy shit”’ and also, “How come I’ve never heard of this before?” And then you find out it influenced Network, and then it makes more sense.
And what spurred you to make a film about Chubbuck?
Greene: The original idea for my last film, Actress, was that it was going to be a triptych. There would be a part about Kate, and then Brandy [Burre], and then an older actress, with each of them talking about different career stuff. But Brandy’s story just sort of took over the whole thing. Kate and I have known each other for a decade or so, the same amount of time we’ve been thinking about this movie. I never wanted to make a straightforward documentary about it. I don’t think it would get across anything that I’ve found actually unsettling and captivating about what happened. After Actress, I was thinking “What’s next?” and the title, the concept, and what we were going to do all came at once. I was like, “Kate, I’ve got this idea. Can we do this together?” It was building off Actress in a very direct way.
How much research did you do into Chubbuck’s life?
Sheil: Robert asked me not to do very much research before I got to Florida. Even if I were to do all of the investigation into the available information about her life, it would take 20 minutes or so, since there’s so little available about her on the Internet. I started reading Myths About Suicide by Thomas Joiner, a professor at Florida State University. I read about suicide more than I investigated Christine Chubbuck.
Greene: We were saving that for the cameras. That said, the research process is somewhat artificial, and staged in both obvious and not-obvious ways. The Durkheim book [Suicide] is important to me — it was very influential on how I think about the subject — and it’s also got the distinct red cover which is noticeable on camera. Kate wasn’t actually reading that one, but having her hold that red book is a cinematic expression of what she’s doing. So it’s representational.
That’s a good example of how our collaboration really is: Kate sort of enacting, representing, and embodying that I was going through, what she was going through, what Chubbuck was going through. She was like our cipher for all these things, and that’s not atypical of being the person in front of the camera. If you’re a journalist in front of the camera, you’re the face of the whole operation. If you’re the actor in front of the camera, you’re the face of what the director is trying to say, and this is just a more layered version of all that sort of put together.
What goes into how you control your performance in the film, both quote-unquote “as yourself” and as Chubbuck?
Sheil: The thing is that there’s the conceit that I’m in preparation for a narrative film that will be made at some point in the future, which is in fact nonexistent. That created a situation where I was acting the entire time. Even though I was genuinely doing research, because I was actually very interested in Christine Chubbuck and did want to find out more, I was also pretending to prepare as an actor.
I can talk about mannerisms and gestures sort of generally. For those reenacted scenes, the intention was that they were supposed to be bad, that I was woefully underprepared for them. There is no moving image available of Chubbuck on the Internet, so when I finally see footage of her in the film, that was the first time I had heard her voice or even seen her in motion. So I was just guessing before then. But people who knew her kept throwing around words like ‘hard.’ There was a masculine quality to their descriptions, but who knows what that means.
If you’re reading a script, one of the things acting teachers tell you is to read what other people say about the character. But [what people think about Chubbuck] is so flawed, and the things some people said about her were very infuriating, because I could imagine them saying the same things about me. Regardless, I did keep them in mind when trying to do the reenactments. Also, given the fact that she was a woman working in a newsroom in the ‘70s, there had to be a certain level of projected confidence. Otherwise, she would be destroyed by that sort of boys’ club.
Greene: I think straightforward documentaries record performances. That seems to me to be completely, 100 percent, non-negotiably true. Oftentimes when you’re in a documentary setting, your goal is to erase that performance, or try to make it seem as authentic as possible. The authenticity is the thing you’re selling to your viewer, because the viewer is naturally suspicious of documentaries because they know they’re half fictional, since they’re films. That’s why I’m excited for everyone to see Kate in this, because her performance says a lot about social performance and who we are, who we think we are, and the intentionality of movement.
Working with Kate was a revelation because she’s so in control of her body, and in this really artful way. When we’re seeing her build toward this incomplete sketch of Chubbuck, I think you can actually see that incompleteness in her acting. I don’t think there’s another movie out there that really catches such an incomplete thought. It put Kate in a situation to be herself and act as herself. I needed her to be in these reenactments that would be purposeful failures. The point was that we needed to embody something about the real person. That you can see all these things in different phases, and sometimes collapsed into one moment, is pretty neat.
Is there a difference between a straightforward movie performance and this, where you’re acting as someone acting as someone else?
Sheil: Yeah. I feel like I was doing character work to play myself, which is strange. There are also scenes in it when … for example, some phone calls are staged. Everything where I’m playing “myself” is staged. I saw the movie last night for the first time, and [cinematographer Sean Price Williams and I] just kept cracking up at all the times where I could tell I was trying to imitate my own mannerisms, or to be some version of myself. It just felt very silly to me.
Also, in terms of acting, I feel far more comfortable with a script. It’s just a different process when it is unscripted, because I as a person naturally have a confrontational relationship with the camera. If I’m not working, or I don’t know what I’m doing, or if I haven’t prepared, then when I’m being filmed, I just kind of want the camera to get the fuck away from me.
Greene: But I loved that. A lot of times, I’d be like, “No, you just did exactly what I want, and I can’t even tell you that it’s good,” because the point is that I see the confrontation, I see the resistance, I see the badness of the reenactments, and that’s what I wanted. I think the viewer can detect that attempt to say something. But she would just be like, “That does not help me. That does not make me feel better.” Sometimes, even when the camera stopped rolling, I could tell she was really annoyed at me. Ultimately, to me, if this was just an aesthetic game or some sort of exercise, academic or otherwise, it would be nothing. It would just be total shit. But I think that when you’re trying to read into the authenticity of what Kate’s doing, it takes you into a psychological space where maybe you can start to understand a bunch of things.
Why we try to tell stories about people who commit suicide? Why do we try to fill that hole with whatever we can? You’re seeing in every gesture, whether it’s directly related to the research into Christine Chubbuck or not. Every decision is sort of metaphorical, about that need to tell and explain. To me, the fact that there’s an emptiness to this is very evocative of the emptiness of trying to understand why someone would take their own life in the way that Chubbuck did. The film’s not actually about her. It’s about her story, and what it means to me, and what it means to other people. It’s about how everyone we met, from the wig maker to the journalist to the TV people, all filled themselves into explaining her suicide. They all put their own projections into it. That’s human nature.
In the film, you eventually find out that the widow of the old station manager supposedly has the tape of Chubbuck’s suicide. Did you consider trying to pursue that further?
Greene: We have her phone number, and we could’ve called her, but there was never any need to take that step. We also thought that there was a chance that we would continue filming. We shot in July for three weeks. I was assuming that we would have to keep filming, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought that if the movie needed something different, whatever that might be, that would be a stone we could turn over. But once I saw what the film was, I knew that wasn’t necessary. Not making that phone call is so crucial to what this film is.
There’s the recurring question throughout the film of whether you’ll end up actually reenacting the suicide. How did you ultimately decide to approach it?
Sheil: As it was pitched to me originally, we were going to do a straight reenactment of her suicide. Which was something I was grappling with from the beginning, and of course I never really wanted to do it. And as the movie progressed, I think we all sort of all mutually felt an increasing sense of the wrongness about doing that, at least in this particular film.
Greene: I always had in my mind somewhere the idea that we could do some sort of deconstruction. I had like, nine possibilities. One pitch I wrote out said that it’s either this, this, this, this, or this, etc. And every scenario was some sort of play on expectations. But then the psychologist told us how he thought that maybe Chubbuck was really angry with all the people around her. Sean and I walked outside and we were just like, “We can’t do this, there’s just no way.” We’d been working toward that anyway, but this was the definitive moment where we were like, “This cannot happen in any sort of straightforward way.”
After that, we all wrote versions of what we think the final scene should be. Kate took some of our ideas to heart and threw out most of them, and the result is her speech at the end. The idea of making a statement is so important — not only to understand what Christine Chubbuck was doing, but also to even understand how a movie like Network works. There are these emphatic words that say something deeper, and that’s what we see at the end. Kate’s speech is totally true, totally authentic, and totally scripted in a sense as well. But no one besides Kate knew at all what was gonna happen when the cameras were rolling.
Sheil: Even I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to say. I’d written down my own ideas for the movie. There were many more points I’d considered, but they all sort of ended up circling this one idea of looking. “Why do you want to see Christine kill herself?”
Kate Plays Christine premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Three years after making a splash among indie enthusiasts with his feature This is Martin Bonner, writer-director Chad Hartigan has brought another film to Sundance. But whereas the former was about an old man navigating the barren, grayscale landscape of Sparks, Nevada, Morris from America is aglow with lusty colors and youthful energy. The film centers on young Morris, played by newcomer Markees Christmas, and his difficulty adjusting to life as a black American boy in Heidelberg, Germany. Craig Robinson (of The Office fame) plays Morris’ father, Curtis. At Sundance, we sat down with Hartigan, Robinson, and Christmas to discuss the making of the film and the development of its characters.
The Film Stage: How did you find Markees for the project?
Chad Hartigan: I had friends who were familiar with this YouTube series he was in called Markees Vs. They emailed me about him, telling me to check it out, because they knew I was looking for a very specific type.
How did you get involved with that series?
Markees Christmas: I was 12 years old when we made my first YouTube video. So … about 2011 or 2012. I first started acting because I needed extra credit so I could go to the next grade when I was in sixth grade. They were like, “The only way you could pull your grade up is if you participate in the school play,” which was A Raisin in the Sun. So I auditioned for Travis, thinking I would only have a few lines and I could just pass the class. They ended up giving me part of Walter … It was crazy.
My mom told Matt [Hill] I was in this play, and that I could act. He was working on a project for Channel 101. He was like, “Oh, I gotta see this.” So he came, he saw that I could act, and he told me, “You gotta do a show with me!” And that’s where it all started.
Stylistically, this is quite distinct from This is Martin Bonner. That film was very straightforward, subdued. This one is bright and colorful and uses iris-ins and -outs and slow-mo and such.
Hartigan: It’s actually the same approach, in that I want the style to be dictated by the POV of the main character. Martin Bonner was a calm, 60-year-old man living alone, and his film reflected that. But this had to be through the eyes of a 13-year-old experiencing all these emotions for the first time. How do you tell that visually? It’s not gonna be done the same way as Martin’s story.
I like the challenge of trying to branch out and do something different stylistically, to add flourishes that aren’t realism. I actually find realism to be easier. I don’t know if everyone feels that way. But it’s hard to do something like this, because people could very easily be like “That’s stupid.” But that’s what we were trying to do: Be true to the point of view of the character.
You play a dad in this film, with a lot of emphasis on the father-son relationship. How’d you build that kind of character?
Craig Robinson: I’m not a father, but I did draw on my experiences with my father. For instance, how I would feel, you know, when I would be disciplined. So it was a lot about pulling … especially stern stuff, you know? Like the moment when [Morris] curses, I had a natural, like, “Hey! We don’t do that here” reaction. And that was my father coming out. But I was also drawing from my mother’s perspective. She was super sweet. Curtis is a single father, so he’s gotta be both father and mother to him.
The script dictated where to go. The script was why I did it in the first place. I know this character, I knew him. I could just see the dynamic between Morris and Curtis. It was painted for me in my brain, through the words. And I used what was on the page with my imagination. I’d think about this character, and how he must feel. The love of his life, Morris’ mother, is gone. So with him and Morris, it was like a “We’re both in this together” kind of thing. Curtis doesn’t wanna lose him. “Let’s just work together,” you know?
So I understand that you based a lot of the script on your childhood, how you grew up in Cyprus and wrote bad rap lyrics and such. How did it morph into a story about a black kid in Germany?
Hartigan: It was always Germany. The reason for that’s not too interesting, unfortunately. It was the most recent country I had visited when I started writing, and so it was fresh. I’d been to Ireland in 2005, then not back to Europe again until 2010. So I felt it was the only country there I really had a clear picture of to work with. It didn’t have to be Germany; it could’ve changed along the way. But Germany is an amazing place.
I honestly don’t remember when it became a black character. It was pretty early on, and it wasn’t actually when I was writing. I was just thinking about the movie a lot. When not actively writing, I think things like “Oh, that could be a good scene,” or “We should put that in the movie.” “Maybe they’ll take a day trip to Frankfurt to like, see a show.” If I sit down and look at at a blank page without a lot of ideas already, it’s too daunting.
So there’s it came to me in this period, maybe when I was thinking about the hip-hop stuff, because I knew I maybe wanted to include that story. And yeah, Morris’ rap lyrics are the real rap lyrics I wrote, and which my mom found. I was like, “That’d be a good scene, but what if my mom was more mad because they were really bad than because they were dirty?” And then I was like, “Well, what kind of character is that? Would it probably be a dad? What kind of dad would try to use hip-hop?” I don’t know how, but it just kinda happened, and seemed to turn the movie from the kind of thing I’ve seen before into something that I haven’t seen before.
I’ve seen plenty of movies about white kids growing up and going through painful adolescence while being sensitive and kind of awkward. But taking a black character who’s deep into hip-hop, and wants to be seen as tough, but deep down is really a sensitive kid … I haven’t seen a character like that. That made it exciting to sit down and try to figure out. It was also challenging and daunting ‘cause, I mean, who am I to tell that story? But I believe in that thing people say — If it’s not scary, you shouldn’t do it. I wanted to try to do it, and to do it with respect and authenticity.
Alienation is a big theme in the film. There’s sort of an amplification of the subtle prejudices black people face when they’re a minority. Did you draw on any real-life experience in portraying how Curtis navigates this environment?
Robinson: Before I was in the limelight — and I didn’t get to Hollywood until I was an adult — I could be invisible in some respects. People just don’t pay attention. Or I could also just be an instant suspect. Like, “Oh, what’s he doing?” In respect to that, the Germans in the movie often treat Curtis like he’s invisible. There’s this scene in a bar that’s like his first time hanging out with his co-workers, and they’re all struggling to figure out what to say to each other. As far as the suspect thing, that’s seen with Morris. There’s the scene where the guys at the community center find a joint, and he’s the automatic suspect.
Hartigan: There was gonna be a scene where Morris and Curtis go to the only baptist church in Heidelberg, and they were gonna be the only black people there. But it wasn’t in our budget to do it.
What was it like working on your first feature film?
Christmas: It was difficult. Very different from my past experiences doing these small five-minute skits. It took some adjusting, because there’s a lot more to it. Everything has to be perfect — in Markees Vs., as far as stuff like continuity, we didn’t really have to worry about the small things we were doing.
Hartigan: And you hated downtime. You hated not shooting. Some actors would love to take ten-minute breaks, but you were like, “Nooo, let’s keep shooting.”
Is there anything in your own life you brought to playing Morris? Things you share in common with him?
Christmas: Well, there’s his relationship with his dad. That’s the biggest thing that me and Morris have in common.
Robinson: If I could butt in … There’s a real-life Katrin [Morris’ love interest in the film], too, isn’t there? There’s some real-life sparks there.
[Christmas looks deeply embarrassed.]
You don’t have to talk about that, don’t worry.
Christmas: [Laughs] Oh, yeah yeah …
Wait, how old are you now?
Christmas: I’m 16 … Am I allowed to talk to [reporters] about girls right now?
We ran out of time at this point, so Christmas escaped any further good-natured embarrassment from his co-workers.
Morris From America premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by A24.
Like the similarly enraging and true story of Spotlight, The Big Short boasts a recognizable cast of top stars. Steve Carell stars as the prideful hedge fund manager aiming to take down Wall Street; Ryan Gosling is the hot tip guy just trying to make a buck even at the expense of his own employer; Christian Bale is the genius analyst and manager of investments that spots that the housing market is built upon bad loans packaged into bundles of bonds traded without a second thought. No one is investigating and everyone is looking the other way. The film, based on Michael Lewis‘s bestseller of the same name, details why the economy imploded in 2009 and what led up to the situation and what has happened since.
There’s a a great deal of information to digest and the film, written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, manages to parse out the essentials in an engaging way. Whether that is breaking the fourth wall with fun cameos or through the main characters, it can feel somewhat jarring at first, but once you get a handle on the idea that the film should be seen as an entertaining documentary with a narrative woven in, it suddenly clicks. McKay blends in a sly sense of humor with the raw truth. Our main characters aren’t so much heroes as they are the people that you might blame alongside the rest of Wall Street. So it was with great pleasure that I recently spoke with Randolph about his journey adapting Lewis’s novel, becoming a screenwriter after being a professor overseas, whether he and McKay will work together from the outset in the future, and his views on various issues raised by the film.Check out our full talk below.
The Film Stage: So, first off, I was reading a bit about your backstory and I know a lot of screenwriters seem to have somewhat decent jobs before they decide to shift gears and break in. You were actually a professor?
Charles Randolph: Yeah, that’s correct.
Were you writing before you left your position?
Well, I taught in Europe. I taught in Vienna, Austria. I would start to focus on various cultural forms every year and cultural studies. One year I became interested in documentaries and I made a couple of education documentaries for schools — for Procter and Gamble, actually. They were films that clarified their biology. Basically sex education but from a biological perspective. I did a museum show once.
So I did various things like that. Then I started studying feature films and I did some lectures in LA at USC on the status of various American genres. And I also did interviews with writers in those various genres and I got to know the Sperry Brothers and one of their producers asked me to write something for them, which they ultimately never got around to. [Laughs]. So it was one of those things where I was already interested in the art so it wasn’t an inorganic transition. And I wasn’t happy with where academia in my field was headed. Additionally, the pleasure from sitting down and creating something is just so phenomenal.
So you were over in Europe when you realized you wanted to make a switch. Did you pursue anything over there? Obviously Hollywood is one of the biggest producers of cinema across the world and has huge influence, but there is a healthy industry in Europe and specifically places like Britain.
Yeah, it’s easier to write films and fictional things in your own language although the first thing I think I wrote was in German. But the other thing is that you know your culture. You feel your culture. You can do that a lot easier than you can about other cultures. And you don’t want to make a lot of movies about the expat experience although Whit Stillman who lived in Spain for many years, he did that. Barcelona is very much an expression of that experience. So you can get away with a couple of things like that but really, if you’re going to build a career, I kind of wanted to do it from home and do it in my own culture. And frankly it is just much easier to make a living in Hollywood because there is so much development going on and even without having things made you can make an income.
You want to be close so you can do punchups and rewrites and have meetings.
Yeah, I’ve never done a lot of rewrites but you want to be close so you can have meetings with a producer who has a project and then you can get guild minimum to write that project. Otherwise you can get caught up in the bureaucracy of the European cities where you have to write a treatment and submit it to the film foundation and get approval and so on.
So you wrote the section of the film where the mortgage brokers take a trip to Florida to further investigate this lead they have. What it does really well is that it opens their eyes and in turn the audience’s eyes to what was going on. So you didn’t find that part of the story in the book, is that correct?
Yeah. What’s remarkable about the book is that we only used about six or seven pages that weren’t directly inspired by the book, and that was basically the Florida section. It was 2010 when I was writing this so there were a lot of articles about the role of mortgage brokers, real estate brokers, the relationship of renters to the crisis in terms of being in homes they had no idea were about to be taken because it wasn’t their fault and they were continuing to pay their rent. So they’ve got that beat. In fact, it was the first thing I wrote. The reason I bring that up in the press sometimes is because that really defined the tone of the film. I was able to take that tone from the Florida stuff and apply it to the rest of Michael [Lewis]’s book.
What I think it does expertly is that it sets the scene as to even the audience’s culpability in some sense. What were people doing taking out these loans that they shouldn’t have been able to ever qualify for? Didn’t something seem off?
Yeah, you’re exactly right. The movie is about finance players, but we also wanted to share that there was a lot more than just those guys here that need to be looked at. It’s the breadth of our society that we have to address.
You were the first writer and Adam McKay came in to rewrite your initial screenplay, and you have both been very amicable towards each other. I believe the quoted phrase was “peanut butter and chocolate” in terms of how you complimented each other artistically. So what was it about this process that made you want to reach out to him beyond just him doing a good job with the material?
Because he has such a spectacularly unique voice and he took the underlying script and put his touch to it that solved some problems. Largely the issue of how you communicate the nature of these financial products in the course of the story. His manic, farcical joy in telling you things in the film strikes me as the perfect solution to the material. So it wasn’t just the quality of what he added that was good. Additionally, it was that he was very generous to my underlying work.
He left whole sections alone and turns of phrase that he liked he would use later and find places to work in. The stuff that I always loved, he kept. And some of the bottom stuff that I wasn’t quite sure about, well that was some of the stuff he changed. So I knew we shared a sensibility and I knew what he was doing was really making it better. He was meeting me halfway. It wasn’t just him changing scenes to fit his sensibility only. Sometimes you can feel a director fishing for a credit in how they rewrite. There were no lateral moves. So I was just delighted with what he had done. I felt he was generous, engaging, and interesting while still being very respectful of what I did. It’s easier then when you’re met with generosity to give generosity back.
You two do seem to have sensibilities that compliment each other, but it’s been very clear in the press that you two didn’t have much contact outside of a few emails while in production. So I’m curious, did you get to know each other on the campaign trail and will you work together again on a project from the outset?
Oh, it’s more than a possibility. It’s even greater than a probability. We will definitely do something else. I don’t know what it will be yet. We’re still talking about things and playing with ideas, but yeah, without question. Real friendships emerge in this process. It’s crazy. And as antagonistic as a writer/director relationship can sometimes be, it also can generate real friendships and real collaboration. So we developed a friendship based on the time we spent together because you do a lot of press. But we’re definitely going to find something.
Adam is a real force of good in the world. He’s got great instincts. He’s a really strong producer as well as being a great director. He’s been a delight to work with and there’s not that many people like that. And we have complimentary comedic sensibilities. It’s funny that you mentioned it. My sensibility seems to be more satirical and understated, and his is more farcical and overstated. So when we meet in the middle we do get things that are pretty special, I think.
That’s great because it seems like a lot of things in this industry should work out and they end up not doing what you expect. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the speed with which things tend to move once the wheels are in motion.
Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And a lot of it is ego. I mean the truth is that everyone always exaggerates their input, anyways. You can’t help it. So you have to learn to distrust your own internal voice saying, “All that’s mine.” Everyone feels that way. If the third person on the costume team brings you some comment or article, they feel ownership of that or the content of that article, right? They contributed to the process. So what you have to do in the process of credit arbitration is realize that you probably did less than you think. It’s a collective medium and a lot of people brought their A game. Adam smartly understands that and is first to praise other people. And there are moments that are undeniable. Hank Corwin’s contributions to this film as an editor is just phenomenal. You can’t underestimate how much he made this work by his own very unique sensibility.
So, I have to wrap with you but real quick I just want to thank you for making this film. It feels like a documentary with big stars that isn’t so much focused on narrative as it is on informing the audience and entertaining them along the way. In that way, where so many films feel the same, you really made something unique here.
Yeah, you’re so right and I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to hear comments like that because that’s what you strive for. “How can we break the mold a bit as we tell these stories?” With a complicated subject matter like this with such dense, abstract information, the terror on both of our parts is that no one is ever going to watch it and then no one is going to get it. So to hear that it is not only understandable but also engaging and entertaining, whether it makes them laugh or get mad or whatever it is, that’s what we’re going for. So thank you for that compliment. You hit exactly where we wanted to land.
The Big Short is now in wide release.
With Far from Heaven, Mildred Pierce, and I’m Not There, Todd Haynes has often depicted the dark, authentic underbelly of the perfect family that lives down the lane. In his latest film, Carol, he returns to the 1950s, with a titular character (Cate Blanchett) who’s lavish on top — impeccably dressed and elegant — but is aching underneath out of love for both her daughter and her new lover, Therese (Rooney Mara).
The woman Carol can always expect to stand by her is Abby, played by Sarah Paulson. Everything we need to know about their friendship isn’t from when their romantic past is mentioned, but when the two simply walk together, holding onto each other. Carol is a film in which actions often speak louder than words — one of the reasons why Paulson was drawn to the project.
The actress was kind enough to make time to discuss Haynes’ newest picture with us. Here’s what she had to say:
The Film Stage: You rarely see movies like this, which are more about what characters don’t say.
Sarah Paulson: I think that’s true in life, too. Don’t you?
It’s often what we don’t say that says a lot.
It’s what we don’t say. People over-write things, they over-act them. You know this is movie where none of that happens. And I think that’s why people are probably so, “What is it about this movie? It’s hypnotic. There’s something so otherworldly about it.”
Is it rare to find a script that doesn’t vocalize everything?
I think it is rare, because it starts to feel like it’s not been written by an American. It’s funny because, when I did Martha Marcy May Marlene, I remember thinking the same thing. I thought that the script was written by… I don’t know why I didn’t think it was American, but maybe because it wasn’t overly full of dialogue. It was so spare. I think that’s part of why the movie was so good. It was completely suspenseful and so chilling. Because you couldn’t figure out what was reality and what wasn’t. It was very clear on the page. Even though you’d be like, “What’s happening in this scene?” And in Carol, I feel like… did you talk to Phyllis [Nagy, the screenwriter]?
No. I’m talking to her on Monday, though.
I think she did such an incredible job. It is all about the subterranean story. Which everything really is.
Is that common, where you read a script and are surprised it’s written by an American?
Oh, no, but it’s just… In the world, I just feel like we’re so used to in television and movies, as viewers, I think we need more and more and more to be stimulated by. So no longer does the simple thing sort of seems like it’s enough for us until you see something like this movie and you kind of go, “This story is so simple and so pure.” And I think that is part of the reason it resonates: that it’s other than what we have been seeing lately. We are not being inundated by, you know, explosions and rapid-fire dialogue and crazy cutting. Just telling a story, simply and honestly, and with actors who are telling the truth.
Todd Haynes also visualizes the drama through camerawork. There’s a scene where Abby closes the door on Harge, and that image says so much about them.
Did you have conversations with Mr. Haynes about how he’d frame certain scenes?
No. It’s interesting because, on American Horror Story, I do that all the time. I’ll ask [cinematographer] Micheal Goi, “Where is the camera?” or how tight he’s going. I ask all kinds of questions, but, with Todd, I… It’s not that I don’t trust Micheal Goi; I trust Micheal Goi with my life on that show. But, somehow, Todd’s camerawork and his collaboration with Ed Lachman, the DP, is something I just trusted visually. It was just something that was going to be exactly where it needed to be and I should probably not make it any of my business to play the scene.
Do you think it’s important to be technically minded as an actor?
I think sometimes it is. I learned that slowly as I started working. You’d be doing a scene and the camera is right here and you’re shouting, and you’re going, “Jesus, you look like an animated…” What’s the cartoon where the eyes go bugging out of their face?
I feel like that’s a lot of cartoons.
Yes, it’s a lot of cartoons. So I was like, “Whoa, you need to calm down where the camera is. You can do a lot less.” But the instinct with actresses is we always want to act. We want to act a lot. And writers want to write a lot. And everybody wants to do a lot of directing and a lot of acting and a lot of costumes and I feel like, when you do it really right in this way, you don’t need it. The story is enough. The actors are enough. Everything feels authentic. So you don’t have to push; you just let the audience lean in.
I don’t think we let the audience do enough work anymore. We just give them every single thing that they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. By a music cue, by a line of dialogue, and in this movie I feel like we have to kind of lean in a little bit.
Absolutely. What were your initial conversations with Mr. Haynes regarding the role?
I actually auditioned for the role. Not with him in the room. He was scouting locations where he was working on another project, so he couldn’t be in New York when I was able to go. And I flew to New York and read with the casting director and made a 45-minute tape where I did all the scenes for Abby and did different versions of them. Once I got the part I talked with him on the phone and we emailed back and forth a lot about Abby’s hair color. Cate was definitely going to be blonde and Rooney was going to be a kind of mousy brunette, but he wanted me to have a little bit of red in mine. It was a whole thing, and there was a number of pictures that we sent back and forth because he is so just cinematically aware of color and texture and all that.
So, he wanted it to be a very specific color, and so we talked a lot about that. He wrote me a long email, sent me a lot of music that he wanted me to listen too. That he sort of thought of, some of which was for Abby specifically. Some of which was just for a feeling, an overall feeling that provoked a feeling of the movie. He’s economical in his direction. He doesn’t over talk. I think he trusts that he’s cast you for a reason. Everyone there is there for a reason. So he lets you do your thing and, if it’s off story-wise — or there’s something missing, story-wise — he’ll come in and say something. Not intrusive but kind of trusting.
What music did he send you?
Oh, my God — it was so many things. It was just music of the time, of the fifties. God, it was so many varying things, and he made these disc covers. That were just these patterns that said “Carol” on them. It was just really beautiful.
You mentioned talking about what you wanted Abby’s hair and costume to be. Does a director usually have that conversation with you?
Well, I haven’t had many conversations like that with a director. Michael Mann I did on Luck. I was going to do that show right before it got canceled because of the horse stuff. He was so focused on it. He wanted to cover up my freckles; he had a very specific color of blonde he wanted my hair to be. It was very, very detail-oriented in that way. But other than that, very few people have come in contact with.
I’ve done an interview with Micheal Man before and I don’t think I’ve ever talked to someone who is so detailed-oriented.
He sees everything.
Some actors like to listen to music to prepare for a role, to get into the mood. On set, were you listening to some of the music Mr. Haynes sent you?
I had it in my trailer and I listened to it a lot. Yeah, before I got to set. Usually on my iPod or my phone, once I was on set. The movie was not made for a lot of money, so a lot of our dressing rooms were in Carol’s house and we were shooting stuff in the house. Like, Cate had one bedroom, I had one bedroom, and Rooney had another one. There were no fancy trailers. We were all kind of together in a room and it was kind of cool.
With Abby, you don’t see inside her house and you don’t know too much about her life outside of her relationship with Carol. Is that something you need to know for yourself or are you just responding to what’s on the page?
I think I was just responding to what was on the page. I thought Phyllis’s script was incredibly beautiful and detailed and I had read the book. There was a lot more of Abby in the book, so I was able to get my history and my back story from the book. I could sort of fill in the blanks where it wasn’t in the script.
What were some details from the book that really suck with you?
Oh, there was a scene in a restaurant. Not the diner scene, but a scene early on, where Abby makes Therese come and meet her at the restaurant, where Abby has too much to drink and Abby is being very sort of provocative with Therese and pushing her to sort of say what it is that she claims I’m doing here. But also sort of dressing her down a little bit for her age, just being sort of dismissive. But she was also the one who asked her to come to lunch. She also walks her home and tries to drive her, and Therese wants to walk, and it was just a lot of personality things in the book that made things very clear to me about what was on the page in the script.
One scene I want to ask you about is the scene of you driving Carol around. It’s one of the few big exterior moments. Do you recall any details about shooting that scene?
That took place over a couple of days. There’s the first time when I see Therese and I turn around and Carol is waving at her. I think on one day, the longest portion of it, Todd was shooting between the windows of another taxi cab or something. There were a bunch of things going on. That was my last day of shooting and it was freezing cold. And it was snowing and raining and we had to wait out the rain and wait out all those things.
I was just making Cate laugh because I was just having to drive this Packard. I had to drive a 1949 Packard stick shift. I don’t even drive a stick shift now, so I had to learn to drive it because Todd was obsessed with the color of this car. I got a call where he was like, “Do you drive a stick?” And I said no, and apparently they were like, “Well, Todd really wants to use this car as your car. He loves the color of this car. Do you think you could learn to drive it?” I was like, “I can try.” Cate was taking driving lessons, too, but hers I don’t think was a stick. But those cars are very different to maneuver because of all the time they spent on the road; they were doing a lot of real driving and I did my own driving too.
So I was in the parking lot every day, practicing my turns and stopping and gear shifts, and I’m sure I could not do it today if I tried. But it was something I was able to do because Ed Lachman was like, “If you hit your mark every time, I’ll give you a dollar.” And I did. I hit my mark every time. I think I made about ten bucks.
Congratulations. You’re an actor that seems really comfortable in period pieces, with American Horror Story and 12 Years a Slave. Does period acting come naturally to you?
I always think it’s because my nose turns up at the end. I think I have a period profile. I’m not kidding. Something about it seems old-timey.
Right. Now I’m just looking at your nose because you said that.
I know it sounds stupid, but it’s like what I think it looks like, the profile of a person from another time. I think it’s just because a camera guy told me that once, and I’m just repeating it back to you because I don’t know. I certainly think I don’t have maybe a particularly modern quality. And so therefore you know there are just some actors where, if you put them in a corset, you would just not buy it. There is just something about them that is just too modern. And I think I don’t have that. So, it lends itself to me. Just put me in some time period other than now and it would probably work. I think I’m able to do it. I don’t know why.
Once a director calls cut, can you start chatting in-between takes, or do you usually need to stay in the mood of the scene?
It depends on the materiel. Season two of Horror Story, where I was doing all that stuff where Lana was trapped in the lair, I just wouldn’t leave the room for a long time, because it was too hard for me to be in that state of being so terrified and upset and then go hang out by my chair and text message on my cell phone. It just felt really weird.
But then there were other times, like, with 12 Years a Slave, there was a lot of quiet and respect in-between takes. And other times there was total levity, and it just depends on the day, the scene you’re shooting. I don’t really have one set of things I do. It’s very project-specific. See what the story is, then I go from there. I mean, people were doing paint ball competitions during 12 Years a Slave on the weekends. You know what I mean: you don’t really think that that is what people would be doing. But you know.
One period piece I have to bring up is Down with Love. That’s a great movie.
Oh, you’re a real filmie. It came out at just the wrong time; it was like counter-programming to the Matrix or something. They were, like, “Let’s put this movie out for the people who don’t want to see the Matrix,” and you’re like, “Well, nobody doesn’t want to see the Matrix. So that’s probably a bad idea.” There’s no counter-programming. You just don’t do that now.
It’s gained a following over the years.
It has because it’s on cable. I think people appreciate what it is now.
Reading past interviews with you, it sounds like one of your favorite experiences.
That was one of the more fun experiences ever. Peyton was so much fun on that movie. And Renee [Zellweger] had just come off Chicago and Ewan had just come off of Moulin Rouge! and David Hyde Pierce was ending Frasier, so everyone was really firing on all cylinders and it was just a really fun, light-hearted movie to make. That was, like, a joyous thing; it was not arduous at all. And we had this thing where we had no trailers on that movie. We were shooting in a lot, and we had all our dressing rooms on a sound stage, just like they did back in that day when they were shooting movies like that. So we all kind of felt like, “Look, we’re making a movie in the sixties, and there are no trailers. This is so exciting.” It was very cool.
You became interested in acting in the fourth grade. Doing it as a job now, does it feel completely different from when you started?
It certainly feels the same way, in a sense that I can’t believe I get to do it and that people are asking me to do it. More than once. I get to live my life from my acting career. I get to pay my rent because I get paid to act, which, as a child, I didn’t really know that the two could go together. That’s a kind of remarkable thing, that I get to actually do it. It’s one thing to dream about it; it’s another thing to find yourself doing it and I get to do it and keep doing it. It’s pretty rare to do what you love.
Has your career in acting matched your expectations?
I’m sure when I started off I had an unquenchable desire to act, but I didn’t really know what acting was. But I knew I wanted to do it. And I’m sure the idea of fame was some kind of interesting component when I was really young. Because that’s what it sort of looked like. Then it became about the act of doing– which, to me, is what acting is.
Carol is now playing in limited release.
Just in time for a post-Christmas read, here’s a conversation with Charles Poekel, the writer/director of Christmas, Again, a wonderful little movie about a lonely Christmas tree salesman, played by Kentucker Audley.
Poekel’s been working in the industry for years, moving from documentary to narrative fiction in his directorial debut. We talk about that transition, owning a Christmas tree stand and making Christmas lights look like tiny Christmas trees. Check out the conversation below.
So you still have that tree stand where you filmed the movie?
Yeah, yeah. I think this is the last year I’m going to do it. I’m doing it still just kind of — well, I enjoy it. I kind of fell in love with it. But also for promotional tie-ins with the movie and that kind of stuff. So a lot of my customers are excited about the movie so that way I can keep interacting with them.
That’s great to hear. Starting off in that direction, you’re the sole writer/director on the movie, which I saw at Sundance and really enjoyed. What compelled you to dive into this very specific story about a very specific occupation and time period?
I’d been living in New York for maybe two years and I didn’t quite… I saw the guys selling trees but I didn’t pay much attention to them and then, I think my second or third year, I went to buy a tree at like midnight and for some reason I was very alert and had all these questions. So I became immediately fascinated with the job because it was so unique and something I hadn’t seen before. And I thought it would just be great to set a movie at a tree stand. So I immediately started about thinking and about writing but I didn’t know anything about tree stands, so I interviewed a bunch of tree salesman and I even volunteered selling trees. But I didn’t really feel that I was learning the nuts and bolts of it — the nitty gritty. So that’s when I decided to open my own tree stand. Also I could help fund the film with the profits from the trees, and this way I had a location that I had full control over. It just kind of made sense I guess, to start selling trees to understand it better and make the movie.
So the idea came before the tree stand.
Yeah. I opened the tree stand solely to make the movie: to write the screenplay, to have all of the material for it. And I knew when it came to shooting, no tree stand in New York would let me take over their tree stand to make a movie. They’d be like, “Get outta here. We’re trying to make our money and get out.”
So when Noel [Kentucker Audley] is selling trees in the movie, are those real sales taking place?
Some of them, yeah. A lot of the smaller ones, where a couple of words are exchanged in a montage, are all actual customers. The longer conversations he has with customers were cast.
It was great to see Hannah Gross in the film. I went into the film somewhat blind at Sundance. I had seen her is I Used To Be Darker, which she is wonderful in. She really has a presence here.
Yeah, she’s fantastic. She was the first person I cast actually.
And to that end, what results in Kentucker getting cast as the lead?
Well, Hannah was the first person I cast. I guess I first saw her in Dustin Guy Defa’s short Lydia Hoffman Lydia Hoffman, and a friend of mine had just acted in Nate Silver’s Uncertain Terms, and had said, “Oh, I just worked with this actress she’s great. You’ll love her.” And then it was a coincidence that it was the same person and then I saw her in I Used To Be Darker and I was like, “Oh, she’s fantastic,” and so I met with her in the fall and she loved the script and kind of signed on immediately. And then, yeah, we started looking for a lead and we had some really good options, but we wanted to explore all of the different options we had out there. And she said, “What about Kentucker?” and she kind of laughed and said, “Yeah of course.” And he loved it and called me kind of immediately and had all of these ideas for it. And then we brought him in to read with Hannah and the second they started reading together it was clear that they were the perfect match.
Going a bit more macro here, what’s the story of how you become a filmmaker? What’s led you on on this path? I saw you’ve got a cinematography credit on the doc Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.
I always wanted to work in narrative features and out of college I got a really great internship that turned into a full-time job for a documentary film company called 4th Row Films in Manhattan. I knew the basic tenants of documentary film, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t know much about documentaries, to be honest. And I fell in love with them there. I was doing everything from cinematography to post-production to a little bit of producing and that is where I met [editor] Robert Greene and [cinematographer] Sean Price Williams.
And the last thing I worked on before I left 4th row was shooting for the National Lampoon documentary, which Sean also shot part of. So yeah, I kind of learned everything about the film business working there. And working on some of Robert Greene’s films, like Fake It So Real and Kati With An I, I gained a strong appreciation — through Sean’s cinematography as well — for verite and more naturalistic stories and appreciating more subtle moments in film. I think that’s all stuff I tried to fuse into Christmas, Again.
When you’re making a film like this, with your documentary background and what not, is there a particular filmmaker you’re pulling from for reference? When you’re picking lenses with your cinematographer – I know you guys shot on 16mm film – what style are you going for?
Early on Sean brought up the idea of using Zeiss lenses with 3-blades irises so all of the Christmas lights are out of focus for the most part, except when you’re wide open. They look like little Christmas trees, little triangles. You’ll see them used in some 70’s films and a few Godard films.
There wasn’t any particular visual style other than to work with the film and the grain to create this warm texture with all the elements that are playing there at the tree stand, whether its the vintage feel of the trailer or the needles or the Christmas lights. We just wanted it to feel the same way a box of ornaments feels when you pull it out after a year or 20 years. It just feels warm.
It’s admirable how the movie opens without much of a hook. As a viewer, you’re wondering if that film is simply going to be about selling Christmas trees and then Kentucker’s performance reels you in. Was there ever a pressure to inject a bit more conflict earlier on in the film?
Yeah, it was tough. I remember in editing, that first 20 minutes was always what gave us the most grief. It’s kind of a slow build, so if you can make it past that first 20 minutes you’re good. We never were really happy with it. We also shot the film in order, so I personally see a little bit of us warming up as a unit with all of those early scenes.
What’s the next move for you?
I’m writing a script right now with my wife, which we’re nearing the end of, and that’s been going well. We went through the IFP [Independent Filmmaker Project] Emerging Storytellers Program in September during [IFP] Film Week. So that was fun — it was nice to just start pitching the project, thinking more about it in different ways, speaking with potential investors and that kind of stuff. So we’re hoping to finish that up in the next couple of months and shoot it next year or as soon as we can.
Where his second feature Weekend was deep in the midst of two men at once falling for one another and trying to come to terms with who they were and who they wanted to be, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years takes an approach where the couple we watch (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) have already mostly finished becoming who they are, both as individuals as well as with respect to one another. But it’s one thing from the past that makes them confront the meaning and authenticity of their relationship and their identities.
Keen on using subtlety the quotidian as emotional explosive, Haigh delicately films his lead paying acute attention to every movement, word, and look, how they relate to how these characters see themselves and each other, and how that impacts their relationship with the past, the present, and the future.
45 Years is a stunning piece of work, as exceptional as Weekend and his late HBO show Looking, one that haunts with every frame. But the “ghost story,” as Haigh calls it, has specter that’s a far more real, consequential thing. We spoke with Haigh about the past as a ghost, (trying) to live authentically, and what love means to the director. Check out our conversation below.
The Film Stage: Locations seem to be relatively crucial to your work, both in the grand scheme of things — Nottingham in Weekend, San Francisco in Looking, and Norfolk in 45 Years — as well as the smaller, intimate spaces, such as the carnival and the house in 45 Years.
Andrew Haigh: Yeah. It is so important to me, and I’m not entire sure why. I’m just kind of really drawn to the importance of location. I think when you’re trying to work out how you want your life to be as a person, where you decide to live is so important and it really does come to define you. Say the character in Weekend decides to stay in Nottingham. He wants to live in Nottingham; he doesn’t want to live anywhere else. So that kind of environment becomes incredibly important. And it’s the same in 45 Years: these two people have lived in this house for a long, long time, for many years, in this surrounding, in this landscape, and it kinds of starts to reflect them. I think a person’s location is a really good way to try to understand them. Does that makes sense?
Yes, absolutely. It becomes a part of their identity almost.
Yeah, exactly. We all want to live somewhere where we fit in, and I think all of my work is about trying to find your place in the world, and trying to find where you fit in, and trying to understand who you are and what you want, and I think location is crucial to that.
Yeah, the navigation of identity at personal turning points, like age, also seems to be a crucial part of your work. Why do you choose age, specifically as this marker and for this constructed identity? And do you think there’s ever an age where we stop doing that?
I think age is really important because, most of the time, we’re very busy in our lives. We just kind of… we amble forward and kind of coast along in our lives, and sometimes age or – it can be anything: it can be age, it can be events, someone’s birthday, whatever it is – just meeting someone new. It’s like those things just pop up in the timeline and remind you of where you are in your life, and I think when you’re reminded of that thing, it kind of makes you analyze what you got, where you’ve been, what you’ve achieved, what you want to achieve, and all these kinds of things.
So I feel like there are moments where your identity comes into focus and, like in 45 Years, not only does this letter arrive and they’re thrown into chaos because of that, but also it might have happened anyway, because they’re having an anniversary party. So I think anything that makes you focus on your life is really important. And I think you always… I imagine I’ll always be doing it, always trying to understand how I fit into the world, and I don’t think that age stops that. It’s always an ongoing process, because we’re always changing and adapting and meeting new people, and our lives are changing, so it’s always ongoing.
I actually think that technology is a really interesting aspect of your work with regards to time and how we interact with one another and create our identities. In Weekend, it’s primarily through texting and through computers and a tape recorder. In Looking, it’s dating apps, and, in 45 Years, it’s a letter that sets the film in motion. I was wondering if you could talk about the role technology plays in your films.
That’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of that on any kind of conscious level. But I think it’s true, it’s a way… all of technology is a way that kind of enables us to identify ourselves and understand ourselves. Like writing a letter, or reading a letter, or texting, or doing something on the internet – they’re all things that allow us to put down, in words, how we’re feeling. The characters in my films are trying to understand themselves, they’re trying to express themselves and it’s a very hard thing to do, and I think technology allows us to do that and, in a strange sense, hinders authenticity at the same time. It’s like a terrible curse. I find the internet now and social media, it allows us to try to show the world who we are, but at the same time in many ways, it makes us less authentic.
I remember reading that you said when you meet a person it’s like creating a blank slate, and I think that’s a line in Weekend. 45 Years seems to be about how that entire slate can be recontextulized after this one thing.
Yeah, I think it’s true. As I said before, we’re constantly changing, and we’re constantly disappointed with ourselves in who we are and what we wanted to be. So when we sit there and think, “Oh, my God, I have this really big desire to be something. I have this quest to find my authentic self.” But it’s so incredibly hard to find that. It’s almost impossible to find that, because we don’t really know what that is, anyways. We have so much baggage we’re bringing along with us. So much has happened in our lives — all that factors into our lives and dictates the person we are, so it’s very, very hard to live authentically. So I think whenever we have the chance, we want to redefine ourselves. Like, “No, I want to be this person.” Like, I feel like Glen and Russel in Weekend are saying, “Okay, I’m going to show you the person I want to be right now, not necessarily the person I am.” And I think the key to happiness is when you can merge those two: the person you want to be and the person that you actually are together. Then that’s the perfect kind of symmetry, but I think it’s hard to get.
What have you learned about trying to live authentically and trying to merge those two things after each of the works that you’ve created?
Oof, God! [Laughs] I don’t think I’ve learned anything! I think the reality I’ve learned is that it’s just messy and really difficult, and I think that’s the thing that I try to put in my work: that it isn’t clear-cut and it is complicated and it is messy and it can make you sad and it can make you happy and it can make you frustrated, and the thing that you should do is keep trying but not expect that you’re going to get there. I think the “keeping working at it” is the thing itself that is important. I don’t know if I’m any more authentic now having made those films than I was before. It’s a very hard, difficult thing to achieve.
I totally understand. But how do you think you’ve learned in terms of writing these characters and imbuing them with these complexities and nuances over the course of your career?
I’ve definitely learned. I think it’s always about just trying to make it as complex as I can and work on as many levels as I can. I think people are driven by such a core in their bodies, some sort of center of pain and memory that lives there that really drives them every day, and it’s very hard to articulate that. We can’t articulate it ourselves, and I don’t think you should try to articulate it too much in films. So, when I write, I try to keep it messy. I try and keep it unclear, keep some sort of mystery to it, because that feels more truthful to me about how we try to exist.
I actually think the thing that you really nailed in 45 Years is this sadomasochistic relationship we have with time — with the past, the present, and future.
Yeah, I think that’s true. We really, really want to whip ourselves. I always think it’s an interesting thing when Charlotte desperately wants to know these things — she wants to understand it, she wants to understand what their relationship has been, but she knows really that she doesn’t want to hear the answers. She doesn’t really want to have to deal with it because it’s too painful to have to deal with it. It’s too painful to deal with the fact that our lives have meant one thing, and then it turns out that it could have meant something else or we could have done different things and made different choices. It’s a very painful thing to understand.
But at the same time, we want to pick that scab. It’s like, “Ooh, I’m bleeding.”
Yeah, that scene in the attic where she’s going through the projector, and she’s looking through those photos. That scene is so potent. Where did it come from, in terms of conception?
Initially, it was always going to be that she was going to find photographs of them. It wasn’t going to be like a slide projector. And then I started thinking about it more, and slide projectors – I still take photos on slides, so I have a slide projector – and there’s something so haunting and terrifying about slides. Something to do with the sound, and they come up so large in front of you. I really wanted it to feel like there’s a ghost up there, you know what I mean? It’s like actually the ghost of Katya but also the ghost of herself, Kate, of like a younger version of herself. And it was very important to me that that scene was constructed in a way that we saw both people in the frame at the same time, that it wasn’t cut between the two, and so we kind of designed it in a way that we hung this sheet. And I love the way that it’s like she’s looking at a projection, but we’re actually seeing the reverse projection of the image because it’s coming through the sheet, and then we’re seeing her in the background. It was all kind of trying to make it feel like we’re watching a ghost story unfold.
Yeah, I thought the cinematography was very interesting, in that it felt very specter-like, like there was a ghost creeping through corners. And I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition against Weekend, which tended to be a little bit more intimate, I suppose, in certain respects.
Yes, I love the idea that in many ways this film started out very naturalistically and then it got, like… as we start grinding into Kate’s psyche, it’s started to almost be like a ghost story, and we move away from that naturalist, realist way in a very subtle way, but I kind of love that. Because the past is this kind of ghost that’s hiding in the corners and I love this idea of the past up in the attic, creaking above, always being there, pushing down on the rafters of the attic, almost threatening to break through and land on top of them. I wanted to play with that a little in the visuals as well, edge it towards some kind of ghost story.
Did you have any films in mind when you were creating the aesthetic?
Not really. It’s strange: I feel like you have films that you kind of tell people that you were influenced by in order to help them understand what you’re trying to do, but I can never remember what those films are now. But there’s always, like, films that live, like a well of films that subconsciously affect all of these things. I think you can’t make a relationship drama like this without having a bit of Bergman in the back of your head. There’s a Turkish film called Uzak, I think the translation is Distant, by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and I love that film and I think that’s a very good example of being incredibly realist but then moving into some kind of strange no-realist sort of world. He has a dream sequence in the film which basically highly inspired the scene in 45 Years where she’s walking down the hallway and feels the wind coming through the kind of thing. It’s not really a dream, but she’s like half-awake / half-asleep at that moment.
And spatial relationships are, I think, key to your work. How does that inform the thematic content and your approach to cinematography?
It’s everything to me, because I don’t like to cut too much. I really try to keep the takes long, and the people in the frame are so important. I basically try to cut within the same shot, like people moving, or people getting close to the camera. You want to direct the audience not through cuts, but through focus shifts, through camera placement, through hiding a certain character, like having someone in the foreground and someone in the distance. Like trying to find ways to tease out the emotional context of the scene without having to force it through edits.
Yeah, and I think looks and glances and those gestures often play into that in terms of directing the audience towards the emotions in the scene.
Yeah, those kinds of really small – like when you don’t have a huge amount of props, which, let’s face it [Laughs] my films and Looking do not have, it’s like those small moments become really, really big. Those small gestures become really, hugely important. So, like, someone starting to smoke again is of massive importance, even though it’s something very, very small. Or someone, like, putting their hand down in a final moment, or picking up a letter in certain way, or how someone looks at someone when they’re not looking at them: all of those little things you want to really poke out at the audience.
Like when you’re doing something quite subtle, those things become absolutely fundamental, and I think when you build up on those small moments, those small gestures, it’s almost like the overall effect becomes incredibly important. I’m a big fan of American realist photographers, so if you look at their photos individually, they don’t really mean a huge amount. But if you look at twenty photos by William Eggleston, the effect of them all together has a really profound effect on understanding something. And I think it’s those small mundane details, when put together, that end up defining someone’s life.
What’s your approach as a director – with this film in particular, directing Tom Courtney and Charlotte Rampling – to getting those subtleties and those nuances in the frame?
It’s all like discussing those things, and keep talking about them and keep trying to… as we shot, you build up through the takes of certain scenes. So it’s like, I have things in my mind that I want to try, and you try to adapt and change it. It’s like giving small action and making sure… like the scene at the beginning, when the letter arrives, and it’s things like her drinking the water, him opening the letter, what she does while he’s reading the letter. It’s like finding all these little tiny actions to kind of help the audience psychology.
And, of course, I imagine you took advantage of Rampling’s “look.” What was that like?
[Chuckles] Yeah, you can’t not take advantage of that; you’d be a crazy person not to. There’s just something going on in that face that is so fascinating to watch. And I think, for me it’s misinterpreted, and maybe it’s the roles that she takes, but it’s often seen as like – some people see it as iciness, I actually see it as intense vulnerability, which I find really interesting about her as a performer. It’s like there’s this incredible strength, but also a real vulnerability behind that strength, and I think that’s fascinating to watch. And you see it, like how she can change her eyes, or change the position of her body, and it seems to speak volumes about her interior life.
How has the meaning of love changed for you after each piece of work that you’ve done?
[Laughs] Oh, that’s a great question. That’s a really good one. Oof. I think it’s the heart of everything that I’m trying to do, that is at the heart of it. What does love mean? How do we understand what it means? And I don’t think I necessarily know if I’m any clearer on what it means, but I think the thing is that it can mean something different to each individual. I think that’s the key. You have to try to understand what it means to you.
And I think, for me, love is about our desire to not feel alone in the universe. [Laughs] I think that’s the heart of it. There’s that and not even being morally alone; you need someone that understands you and you understand them, and you have a view of the world that feels connected, and you feel like you can exist like you’re in the world together. I feel like that’s what love means. And in many respects, that can be different things for different people. For me, it’s feeling some kind of comfort that’s security, but it constantly changes, I think — but, as I say, it means different things to different people.
45 Years opens on Wednesday, December 23.
One of the biggest names attending this year’s Marrakech International Film Festival is also one of the most recognized filmmakers in the world: Francis Ford Coppola. Having directed some of the most influential, acclaimed films in American cinema — including The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, to name only a few — his name is synonymous with a kind of filmmaking simply not seen today.
This year he is the head of the international jury, judging the films in competition, and we got the chance to speak with him about a wide variety of topics — cinema-related and otherwise. The man’s encyclopedic knowledge of film history, compounded by his theories on the evolution of the medium, make him a true force. During the roundtable interview, the luminous director generously discussed world politics, violence in film, working with Marlon Brando, what it was like creating some of cinema’s greatest masterpieces, as well as what direction he sees the form moving towards.
There’s footage of you at a press conference for Apocalypse Now with all of your children, and you make the statement that world cinema will be electronic. “It will be digital, it will bounce off satellites, and it will create the screams and hallucinations of the world.” Is there any cinema in the future from this point on?
Definitely. Cinema is in its infancy. The thing that makes it difficult, I think, is that we imagine the cinema as it is now and how we’ve been comfortable with it for the last fifty years. The truth of the matter is it will, like everything else, it will evolve and change, like the theater. We say the theater is thousands of years old. And the novel is maybe 400 years old. The cinema of the future, it would be fun to talk about it, and I do have thoughts and I do think about it, but very definitely, the golden age has not yet come, of the cinema, really. Certainly in the hundred some years it’s been such an abundance of greatness when you think of it. Really, in such a short time to have produced the work. I’ve often thought that the cinema was an art form that was waiting to happen, and of course needed technology to make it possible, and great artists like Goethe – he was a scientist, he was a dramatist, he was a poet, he would have been a natural, but it didn’t exist yet technically. So when it did happen, there was this rush of creativity that produced arguably 12 or more masterpieces in the silent age and then so many more in the subsequent years.
When people say, “What’s the greatest movie ever made?,” I say, “Well where do you want to start? Do you have the time to talk about it?” So it is a rich, rich literature that has already been produced. I always feel like it’s already beginning. That requires that we loosen our idea of what a film—we’ll call it a “film,” still, because it has that name, even though it’s not film anymore – but we have such a specific idea of what it has to be that we perhaps don’t allow what it can be or what it will be. I always like to imagine you sitting here, not even films you’ll make, but your great-great-grandchildren will make. How marvelous it would be if we could even get an inkling. But, no, I feel there’s a wonderful cinema in the future.
Also, you brought the kids with you to that press conference, and I wonder what you’ve done to raise filmmakers? What do children need to become a filmmaker?
I love children. I always have, but when I was 16 or 17, I was a drama counselor in a summer camp, and I would do plays with little children. I would do a play every week. With the 6-year-olds, I’d do a play; with the 7-year-olds, I’d do a play; and then all the way up. And then, with the teenagers, then I would do a musical with the boys and the girls from the girls’ camp. So, you know, I’ve always… when I had my own kids, it was such a treat for me, so I had a rule with my wife, that if I was ever going to go away on a job, I would take them out of school and take them with me.
Most of the time, like if we went to the Philippines, we thought we were going three or four months, but we ended up there for a year-and-a-half. So these were long stays. And I’m sure I messed up their academic abilities to some extent. But being in these exotic countries, we put Sofia in the Chinese school in the Philippines, so they learned other things. And the crews, and the people working on them, as they were often the same picture, became like their uncles and their aunts. They would come to the set and the costume department would make little costumes for Sofia’s dolls, and they’d play in the makeup department. We were like a circus family. Of course, as you know, that’s how circus arts are passed down from family generation to generation.
There’s so much legend surrounding the shooting in the Philippines and Apocalypse Now. And now, looking back, it’s part of the folklore of cinema. Looking back now, what was it like with Martin Sheen and that craziness, and Brando coming, and having him doing what he wanted to do?
You know, there’s a lot of misunderstanding, certainly about Marlon Brando. I think in the way that it’s gotten down, I think it hurt his feelings, the way I talked about him arriving overweight, and he was a very sweet man. He was a very affectionate man, and a genius. I don’t mean as an actor, but the way he saw life, and what he was interested in, and what he would talk about, it was pretty wonderful to be able to just listen. Although he did arrive overweight… you know, no fat person is comfortable with being fat. I, of course, had very practical problems, like what kind of costume should I put on him. He was supposed to be a Green Beret colonel. They don’t make those kinds of uniforms in his size. So I was in a pickle. But he was very forthcoming in his wisdom about life, and indeed, we sat… we had a three-week deal with him, and I just listened to him talk about termites and life and issues. And then I would write up stuff at night and bring it back to him and try to work it in. A lot of the dialogue as Kurtz at the end was his. But really, sometimes out of context, he was talking about other stuff, and I would always try to get it back that it could be you.
Our main experience was as someone who adapted. I was a screenwriter who was good at adapting novels or literature, so I was good at adapting Marlon Brando to be that role. But he had a terrible memory, which is why his acting style was very much “mmmmm.” He was trying to remember the lines! [Laughs] So we did a deal where he would record these little monologues, these little passages that I wrote based on stuff he had talked about, and he would press the button and listen to the lines and do it. But he was a great guy, no question about it. He was an affectionate man — he loved animals, he loved children. So basically I was very scared, because I was on the hook in two ways. I was not only on the hook of this imminent creative fiasco, but at the same time, I was basically the recipient of the debt. In those days, interest was 29%, so I was facing obliteration. I was always willing to accept the responsibility in order to make the film in the way that I wanted to make it, but that was just bluff. There were times in Apocalypse where I was pretty scared. That’s the only word I could use to describe how I felt.
Is there any bad side about having several of your films live as some of the greatest ever?
Well, I have to go back to those days. It’s true that I made The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now pretty much in a row, in a run of, I don’t know, five years. And The Godfather was this tremendous success, even though it was critically a little batted back and forth at first. But the other films weren’t immediate – thought of well. And I, like all filmmakers, was prone to getting really depressed about the reception of my films. Like people ask me, “Do you care?” Well, yeah, of course. I like to cook, and if I make a dinner for all of you, and then you go out and say, “That was a terrible dinner,” that makes me feel horrible. So I was very despondent during those years. It was only over time that some of them… like, Apocalypse Now was very dicey when it came out. It was not… people were interested in it, and people went to see it, but it was slow, over years, it was more accepted as something more worthwhile. So I didn’t know that these films might be thought of as classics.
Consequently, films that I made even more recently, you see there’s a process where the public or the evaluation changes over time. So now, as an elderly person, I look back and think, “Isn’t that strange? I was so suicidal over that or I was so miserable.” It makes you realize, if you’re younger: just do it. You never know what’s going to happen. It is odd to me that some of those films are thought of so well. I think what I did have was that I wasn’t afraid. When you make a film, sometimes you rub people the wrong way, because it’s different from what people – like painters in the Belle Epoch, they were doing these pictures and they couldn’t sell them on the street corner, and yet the paintings that were sold by the Academy, we don’t even know their names, but Manet and Monet and all those guys, they couldn’t get arrested. I think always it changes very quickly. I like to say the avant-garde art becomes the wallpaper. It just changes. And that’s happened with film now. Even with films we see now, more hold back what they’re saying and make you work to understand. That seems to be more of a common… and I agree, if you use the audience to fill in the spaces, I agree, it’s more wonderful for the audience, but when we were seeing Antonioni films, like L’Avventura, what happened? What was it about? It was so different. But as time goes on, things change.