Thanksgiving is just a few days away, but before we dig into the seasonal fowl, let’s digest this year’s other most buzz-worthy winged creature. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu‘s one-of-a-kind film Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) hit theaters in October and thanks to a healthy expansions, it’s very much still in the conversation. Picking up speed on a weekly basis, i’s a tour de force in acting, direction, and cinematography, all seamed together with one very jazzy soundtrack.
Antonio Sanchez, a four-time Grammy Award winner, embarked on his first role as a film composer with the project, recording parts of Birdman‘s drum score by improvising from the script’s themes. We recently got to speak with Sanchez about his background and experiences on the film. Check out the full conversation below along with his full score and listen to our discussion on the film here.
The Film Stage: I tend to avoid asking basic questions like, “How did you get involved?” but this is such a unique project and Alejandro is such a unique director that’s probably the best way to start. So how and when were you approached, and what made you want to take this project?
Antonio Sanchez: I immediately wanted to take this project because Alejandro is an idol of mine. He’s such a creative force and a true example of what it means to be an artist. He was already trying something so different from his previous movies which was interesting enough, but he asked me out of the blue, and the fact he wanted nothing but a drum score was such a wild idea that I just had to say yes.
It was a scary proposition because I had no point of reference of how to achieve this. There’s no other movie I know that has a score like this. So there were a lot of factors that were unique and interesting, and again it was scary, but very exciting. We’ve known each other of a while, and he’s always been a big fan of Pat Metheny. I’ve been playing with Pat’s band for the last 14 years and Alejandro and I met after a concert at the Universal amphitheater in L.A. We started talking and hit it off, and we’ve kept in touch all these years.
The other connection we had is that he was a DJ at my favorite radio station in Mexico City. Growing up, I used to listen to him and Martin Hernandez, the guy who does sound design for Alejandro’s movies, all the time. To make things even more interesting and more full circle, the first time I heard Pat Metheny was on their radio show.
Seeing all those coincidences come together must be pretty cool from your end? What’s it like working with your hero-turned-friend then?
I went to see Birdman yesterday with some guys from the band. It was their first time, my third, and I still just marvel at the risk he, and everyone involved, took with the film. They shot it in a month, and the whole nature of the project is so ambitious I am so glad to see how it all came together. I really hope this gets the recognition it deserves.
The more time goes by, the more fans Birdman is going to pick up. I’m a life-long Michael Keaton fan, so that was the allure for me, but there’s so much about this picture that just shines. The direction, the writing, the technical tricks, and, of course, your jazzy drums, are all amazing. This is, hands down, the one to beat this year.
[Laughs] Yeah, I think so too! But like I was saying before, Alejandro is such a creative force, and like a true artist, he’s always trying to reinvent himself. The goal should always be for any artist to challenge their talents and push in new directions. The way Alejandro does that is exceptional.
Alejandro is a visionary, and you’ve said that it was his idea for a solo drum score. What kind of ideas did you throw back to him?
The first thing he did was send me the script and honestly it was the first time I’d ever done that, which is read something without the movie being shot. Movie scripts are weird – they’re not like a book that has a lot of subtext and detail, it’s just a flat outline of the story. All that detail and subtext comes from the shoot with what the actors and cinematographers bring to the picture. It would be like if I sent Alejandro a demo CD, and then later gave him extensive sheet music afterwards.
I thought the script was cool, but it didn’t give me many ideas and didn’t know what to do with it. So I thought maybe I’d start by composing rhythmic themes for the characters and give Alejandro a range – funny, relaxed, ambient, pensive, etc. – and see what he says. I did that and he said “No, that’s the opposite of what I’m looking for. I want something really jazzy and spontaneous. When you see what we’re putting together, then you’ll get it.”
A few weeks later they started shooting and I went to the set. That’s when I started getting inspired, when I saw Michael on the street and other actors taking direction from Alejandro. As a jazz musician I am very used to improvising and doing things spur of the moment and composing on the spot. So that wasn’t a problem, I was just waiting for some guidance from Alejandro.
We both went to a studio in NY and we created some demos together. He would explain the scenes to me, and having read the script I knew where he was coming from, but he would also give me the back story of each scene. I told him to sit right in front of my drums and think about the script. I would start playing and asked him to raise his hand whenever he saw the scene going to the next sequence. Alejandro would visualize Riggan (Michael Keaton) sitting at his dressing table, then get up, walk out of the room and down the hall. So I would start playing and when Riggan or any other character would do something new, I would change my playing style, speed, texture or add an accent.
I was completely improvising, there was nothing for me to look at but Alejandro’s hand. It felt like a continuous groove but it was all playing to things in his mind. [Laughs] And it’s kind of tough to follow someone’s mind and imagine it as well. [Laughs]
They went on to finish shooting the film, and later I went to L.A. and saw what they did. It was a rough cut, and they had spliced my demos and put them into different scenes. It was pretty crude, but Alejandro saw that it was working and he liked it. He sent me an email that said he got the green light and we were going to continue doing this. So I went back to the studio and we were going to do it all over again but now to picture. But Alejandro had really taken to some of the demos and blanket of sound I created, so it was a matter of recreating it in a more honed in way with all the images. But this time he could be more specific to scenes and gestures. We also made the drums sound a little more raggedy and beaten up, not as clean as the first time around.
I was noticing that some of the tracks on the soundtrack have no beginning or end. In the film it all feels continuous but the CD feels unfairly chopped up. How did you extract those tracks from the overall film? Also, can you tell us how you achieved the cool channel effects on tracks like “Doors and Distance” and the ambient and ethereal accents in “Fire Trial”? You’re on the drums, but when do you get help from digital artists?
“Doors and Distance,” that plays when Michael Keaton and Edward Norton go out of the theater and into the street on their way to the bar. That track was made for when you see the drummer they walk past for two seconds. What Alejandro wanted was for it to feel like the drums were, at first, inside and part of the score. So the music starts when Michael is in the dressing room and as he walks toward the door, the sound becomes focused. As soon as he opens the door, it sounds like they are on the street. The music passes from being part of the score to being an actual part of the scene, like source music, but it feels dynamic and real, especially when you get to see the drummer.
The way we did that was just take my drums out in the street. There were a couple of guys with mics and really long cables and they were about a block away. I started playing and they started moving really slowly toward the drums. Then they would pass in front of me, stand there for a couple seconds and then walk away from me in another direction for another block. So what you hear is actually the mics getting closer and further away from me.
That is awesome! I listened to the score plenty of times in my car, and I could hear the sound move around. I thought that was just a studio tweak, like fading the music on different channels. And in the actual film I thought, like another scene later on, it was a trick to help hide the cuts in the film.
Of course they could have achieved it in the studio in post-production, but the only effect was they they used a real mic in a physical setting. I thought that was really cool.
There are two scenes where we do see a drummer. We know that’s not you. But when was the idea introduced that there would be an actual musician you’d have to deal with on screen? Was that his music or yours?
Alejandro had that idea in mind from the beginning. But because I wasn’t around when they were shooting, I recommended a really good friend Nate Smith. But they shot that before we did the final sessions. Instead of him having to match the demos I created, it was the other way around. Nate was just improvising and so when I got the video of him playing, I had to change my music to match what I saw him play. I had to learn it and for those two seconds I had to match him exactly. That took a while. I’m very glad Alejandro is that nit-icky because it makes everything better in the long run. He would look at some takes I had done and tell me, “No, you can tell that it’s not completely precise.” So I took time to learn the sticking that Nate was using.
This is your first credit scoring a film. Does this seem like something you’d like to pursue? Or are you more interested to continue touring and playing live shows?
It’s hard to tell. I have this totally other life as a jazz musician. I’m a composer, yes, and next year I am coming out with my fourth and fifth solo record. I’m also recording a one-hour suite with my band and I’m also very busy touring – this year it was with Pat Metheny and next year it will be with my band. So if it happens that I score another film, I will welcome it; it’s not something I’m opposed to at all. But film music is not something that I have looked for. It kind of found me and Alejandro really made this a special project to be part of. He’s improvisational so in a way it was very much like jazz. I would love to do more but it’s not like I have been trying to get into this business for 20 years and now I finally got my shot.
There many different kinds of jazz and there seems to be a mix of styles in the film. The story takes place in New York City, so was the music and your hybrid approach based on the setting and the diversity of the city in any way?
I didn’t start off as a jazz musician. I began playing as a rock drummer and transitioned into fusion and Latin jazz, and everything from Brazilian to Caribbean music. I play with many bands who have different jazz angles, so the sound in the film comes from me actually. I have a large vocabulary available to me when I improvise, so when you hear the score and you hear the music in the beginning versus what goes on in the end credits, which is just me going completely nuts on the drums, you can hear a lot of different currents.
I do a lot of second line stuff from New Orleans and I do some funk stuff, then I do some free stuff and some straight-ahead swing stuff, so I was trying to work with what Alejandro was giving me, and, in turn, I tried to give him something that would make sense. But like I said, I am able to handle many different kinds of jazz. I wasn’t over-thinking any of it, I was just reacting to it. That’s what Alejandro wanted and I think that’s why it worked.
Birdman, aside from its technical merits and superb acting, has a lot of people talking about the ending. Like Inception, they are forming their own opinions about what happens before the credits roll. Unless Alejandro told you what he was going for, what are your thoughts on the final scene? What do you think it meant?
I like to not over-think it. The best thing about it is that you just don’t know what happened and that allows you to believe whatever you want. But I like that it’s all up to you. Personally I wouldn’t like it if someone told me exactly what happened. It’s fantastic and I like that it can be a few possibilities, all are likely and yet none are definitive.
Nice answer, and I have to agree, I’d rather not know than have anything confirmed. Well, every element – shot, performance, effect, etc. – in the film is just jaw-dropping. On top of all that, there’s one rooftop transition, which travels backwards mind you, to the fire escape across the street that just floored me. What did you find the most thrilling after seeing this three times?
I have to say it’s that whole sequence after Riggan talks to Tabitha the critic. You know, where he’s drunk then goes to the liquor store and gets more drunk. Then he falls asleep, it transitions to daytime and then out of no where this huge action scene takes place.
I like that you would never expect that in the movie, but when it happens, it’s full on – like one of the best action movies ever made and it lasts maybe ten seconds. So the fact the fact that they held it back for so long but then put it all out there is really cool.
Birdman is now in theaters.
Arriving into theaters this weekend is one of my favorite films of the year, The Better Angels, which I said my review, “makes for a sublime, transfixing, and informative look at the early life of Abraham Lincoln.” Coming from A.J. Edwards, who edited To the Wonder and has worked on The Tree of Life and The New World for Terrence Malick (who produced this debut), his experiences on those films is clearly felt, but the influences go far beyond.
After having an extensive conversation regarding the production during the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere, I recently had the chance to talk with Edwards about a different aspect of the feature: its strongest influences. During the conversation, the writer-director touched on twenty films that helped inform The Better Angels formally, thematically, and many other ways. Featuring films from Lynch, Truffaut, Bergman, Bresson, and more, check out the list below, including Edwards’ take on each, as well as trailers (or full films, where applicable).
The 400 Blows (François Truffaut)
Anytime you make a picture about a boy, that film has to be mentioned. It’s so important. It’s so personal and so timeless that it’s eternal in that way.
A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson)
A Man Escaped in its reliance on voice-over to propel the story, which is usually verboten in cinema. People usually look down on you for that, so the film is brave in that way. When he’s confined to his cell or in environments where he’s not allowed to speak, there’s therefore minimal on-screen dialogue. The film is incredibly tense, kinetic, and perfectly photographed. So much of it is about the movement: his hands, keys, and doors and locks. It’s a real nail-biter, but in the most minimalist way.
Ben-Hur (William Wyler)
I think Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, as its called in that subtitle, you have a story that’s about Christ but you never name Christ. You never see Christ. You just feel him. You sense him more in the characters around him then in the Christ character himself. A lot of the story of Christ in that film is told musically. You’re not hearing the gospel being preached. You’re not hearing the Sermon on the Mount. You get it through Miklós Rózsa‘s score. That’s where Christ is most present in the film. Just as in The Better Angels, the aim was for Lincoln’s character to be suggested through the music. Both the indirectness of Ben-Hur and the musical structure was influential.
The Civil War (Ken Burns)
It’s definitely fascinating from an historical and narrative point of view. The tone of it is perfect. Some would say its too romantic a notion to have of The Civil War that mentions the brutality and ugliness of it, but that’s just the way Ken Burns is. He’s so interested in Americana and has such a love for it that you can’t blame him for the genuine sentiment that he shows in his documentaries. Also, the music of it, that Jay Ungar score, is completely entangled in the movie. Its in its DNA. He is the violinist in our church scene. I was so proud of that because I love Ken Burns’ work in specifically that film. Jay Ungar has done other scores for Burns and to get Jay Ungar performing at that church dance is a highlight for me.
Come and See (Elem Klimov)
Come and See is brutal and it’s very difficult to watch and both the music and visuals are ferocious in that way. The steadi-cam work is incredible and very much ahead of its time. The movie looks like Tarkovsky‘s The Mirror but it has this very mobile, restless camera that’s always journeying on with the boy. The story is like a journey through hell. For the more despairing parts of The Better Angels, the more ugly and brutal scenes that they experience, the rawness and honesty of Come and See was very relevant.
The Elephant Man (David Lynch) and The Wild Child (François Truffaut)
The Elephant Man would be for the subject of it. The way this very noble man, the part that Anthony Hopkins plays, takes on this case of John Merrick, The Elephant Man, and his patience with him, his goodness of heart and the compassion he feels for him when other people are appalled and horrified. The way that he metaphorically hand holds the Elephant Man through the story and the love and tenderness that he shows him, in that way it’s a parallel to Sarah Lincoln with this young boy who is in despair and how she helps him.
It’s the same with The Wild Child, the Truffaut picture where there’s a parent-child story where the child in a completely unnatural state that they need to be pulled out of be it living with wolves like in The Wild Child, or like The Kid with the Bike where they never receive love in these foster centers. Yeah, The Wild Child in its very natural black-and-white photography by Néstor Almendros and the way the story is told in vignettes, it feels less like scenes and more like episodes, where you are just getting moment-to-moment, kind of like Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis where it’s all told in episodes, The Wild Child has a great rhythm in that way.
The current landscape of independent American film would look a whole lot different if we didn’t have Robert Greene, a man whose touch can be felt across several films released (or at least premiered) in the last 12 months. But although he’s made invaluable contributions to some of this year’s more acclaimed titles — editing Listen Up Philip and Approaching the Elephant are but two of the more recent credits — his new film, Actress, is earning the most attention of his career. A verisimilar melodrama that marries Douglas Sirk with the Maysles brothers, it follows former Wire actress Brandy Burre on her difficult, sometimes tumutlous attempt at resurrecting a long-dormant career — if she isn’t already getting that opportunity from her documentarian neighbor.
It just so happens that the film is shot and set in Beacon, Greene’s current location and a town no more than 15 minutes from my own. This was not only of great convenience for two people seeking an interview — we had no real time limit, for one thing; the length of this interview will show as much — but allowed us to speak about Actress in-depth right off the bat. For valuable thoughts on distributor Cinema Guild, the basic failure of many documentaries, and a slight peek at his terrific-sounding next feature, read on below, then pick up tickets for the film’s Lincoln Center engagement.
The Film Stage: Maybe I’ll commence with Beacon itself, having never driven to an interview and spotted locations from the film in question on my (brief) trip. Having grown up fifteen minutes away, the whole experience was unmistakably, incalculably odd. What is your own personal connection? What does it mean to shoot in Beacon — if it means anything at all?
Robert Greene: I think it means, inasmuch as the location… a part of our job, if you’re making a film, is to set it in a location firmly. And that’s not just a flippant answer. Location is psychology, and, specifically, it became… I ascribe to the probably hackneyed, half-baked idea that most films like this are autobiography, and although I’m not going through exactly what Brandy is going through — not the least of which because I’m a man and she’s a woman — the idea of having a relationship with Beacon and the city, and the idea of a commuter town and those trains — what that all meant — became something that, once I realized her story was so important, once I realized the nature of that story and what that all meant, it then became immediately clear that Beacon needs to be firmly established.
I’m not here for much longer — I’m moving kind of soon — and so I’ve been here for six or seven years, and it’s always felt a little strange to me, the place. But then, the minute you start filming it, I immediately feel nostalgic and love the place in a way that I probably didn’t before. You know? As a storyteller, it became very important to establish what the town was, and without anything close to some documentary, bullshit idea of, you know, “population this,” “socio-economic situation this” — I didn’t want to do any of that. But, with images, I wanted you to get a firm sense of where she is. More importantly, probably, than the radical specificity of Beacon, I think it’s important to think of what it’s like in all these towns — all these towns that surround New York City.
We all have an identity crisis of it being a “suburb” vs. a “town,” and people tell me, “Oh, you moved from Brooklyn to the suburbs.” Well, I didn’t move to the suburbs; I moved to a town. It feels like a town, but, the fact is, it’s not. The city still has its tentacles cutting through the soul of the place, and I wanted to get all that. It was part of what took the sort of formal ideas — and, also, her specific story — and made it universal, because the town has this sort of universal thing for a commuter town.
Her home is right next to yours. When you stepped into it after conceiving the idea for this film, did you immediately start conceptualizing how you’d capture it?
Yeah. She’s my neighbor, so I know her home very well, and I always joke with her that the work that she put into it, when the home was her only creative outlet, so to speak — it never really was — she put a lot of work into that house. I made a joke that it paid off, because now she has a film set. I would never film my own house, because we have a junkier house. We have more scattered things, we don’t have neatly placed cups, we don’t have a beautiful window area. It’s a beautiful house, and I think… I liked the house from the beginning. It almost had this envious quality of, “Wow, she has a much more beautiful house than I do,” but she’s an owner and I’m a renter, and that’s a whole other thing. I’m like, “Where’s the next place I’m moving to?” while she’s very much, “This is my home,” which is a different mentality.
I guess I always had this kind of love of the house, but, when I turned the camera on, it was like, “Every shot is working,” because of the place. Because of the staginess of the space, and because the light coming through the window was so beautiful. It was a combination of the way she carefully articulates herself through the space, but then, also, how she defuses light with these curtains. It made it all really lovely and nice, and it just was easy. I felt like if we had to film in a… if the house didn’t have that feeling, I think it would’ve failed, probably. If it succeeds, part of the reason why it succeeds is that setting.
“If you cast your film, you cast your fate” — that’s 100% true. When you place your film in a setting, you cast your fate as well, and I immediately fell in love. I didn’t really need to think about where we were going to put the camera, or stuff like that, because I conceived of these things as we went. I had an overarching sort of formal idea of how to explore acting in a documentary, but when the movie started really taking off, it was like trying to be in the right place.
During the Christmas scenes, your camera is invisible. It seems to be capturing a very natural, festive, yuletide environment. People don’t seem inhibited by it — they can move around and interact with one another in a way that gives a fly-on-the-wall sensation. But other moments aren’t like that, where it feels like there is a camera — “performative,” you might say. Tell me about striking that balance, or if there’s a need to strike one.
There definitely is. I think that… one, I’ll just back up and say that part of the nature of the space for this movie is that it’s psychological space. There are many, many different ways that we created space in this film, and you’re touching on a couple of kinds there. One of the ways we’ve created scenes was to say, “Okay, you need to clean the kids’ room. Let’s let that build up for a couple of days and I’ll film you doing it. I’ll film you doing this labeling and stuff.” That was a directed scene in the sense that, “Okay, I’m going to come over for the purposes of getting this scene.” And so that is filmed — the kids’ room scene, earlier, is very much “directed,” in that sense. It’s very much about trying to establish a psychological space. In that sense, there absolutely is a camera present. You’re very aware of composition.
That’s the scene where she repeats the line of dialogue, so she’s very much aware of the camera, and you’re very aware that I’m composing, but then she’s doing something with a Lazy Susan, and a kid cries from upstairs, and obviously it’s a kind of eruption, a break, from this structure we’re creating. Obviously, the dialectic there is established immediately — that it’s reality breaking in — and there’s no way we’re staging a kid crying, although I wouldn’t say the audience understands, intimately, that this is the day I went over there to shoot that scene, but it does have a directed sort of quality. That whole scene actually does all the things: it has that directed quality, but then there are these eruptions of reality. That sort of thing which encapsulates what I think of documentary, which is structure, directing, chaos, and serendipities of reality — how those things relate to one another. That dialectal thing is what, formally, I’m totally interested in.
So what you’re picking up at the party is literally just me hanging out at the party, getting shots, getting bits of dialogue, things to try to pull together this emotional idea that she was in this sort of state. That scene is absolutely fly-on-the-wall: they knew I was going to be there, I’d been there for a while, I’m friends with most of the people on camera. The goal in the film is to establish this sort of dialectical thing, so that the audience has this sense of different ways of seeing, and that goal is two-fold: the first is because that’s what I think documentaries should be doing. That’s where I think the art of documentaries lies. The greatest documentaries of all-time have done some different version of that over and over again, in different ways. But, beyond that, it also establishes the psychological dissonance of her personality. The form is matching the content, in that the story is a woman who made a decision she’s very proud of — which is to give up her primary art and to raise a family — and this is a moment where she’s somewhat in crisis and she needs to figure it out. The changing perspectives of the film absolutely match the changing perspectives of her psyche.
I just interviewed Bennett Miller last night for my book that I’m writing. I’m paraphrasing — it’s probably not the fairest quote — but he’s like, “I don’t think documentaries are really about reality sometimes. They’re about psychological space as much as anything, because you really do try to understand the psychology of someone as you watch them.” So those different ways of seeing are a comment on the form, and they’re also a raising of the content at the same time. That’s a really high-falutin’ answer, but I honestly swear to God that’s what I was thinking. [Laughs]
You talk about how New York City has its tentacles reaching into Beacon, and, for many, the center of Beacon is its train station. I’ve been to that train station countless times — my last visit was just a few days ago, actually — and, those associations in mind, I could not believe somebody photographed it in an interesting way.
It seemed impossible that you could actually make it an interesting location, but lo and behold. There’s that incredible shot where she’s crouching down and the train barrels right next to her, for instance. How many of these images were stored in your mind over the years, simply as a result of visiting it? What connects specifically to her story? The images do have tether — I’m just not sure how you first formulate them.
Yeah. I think I’m a person who goes to a place… one of the reasons why I knew New York City when I moved there fourteen years ago was that I couldn’t stop photographing things. I couldn’t stop videotaping, or even just looking with my eyes. You’d see a wall of flyers, and I’m like, “This is better than any art museum.” It’s the most beautiful city in the world to me. I think that Beacon, the train station, had a similar thing. Just the light. I remember when I first started Instagramming — and everybody, when you get Instagram, you just start taking too many pictures, and you’re constantly taking pictures — I just kept… just the tracks and the feet and the light, all of it.
One of the secret projects I’ve always wanted to make is a film about Grand Central, or a film about a airport — which has been done before — but I’m kind of obsessed with these places of transit. I spend a lot of my life in transit like that. And I’ve got hours of cell-phone footage of just out the train of a window, as it’s passing, just because I’m obsessed with the passing trains. This is why Chantal Akerman, for instance, is just a big influence on my brain. Just the way she thinks about train stations, really, is such an important part of News from Home, Les rendez-vous d’Anna, and D’Est — a lot of her movies.
So, yeah, it was in my head — the structures and the way lines are created. But then, like, obviously if Brandy didn’t have any reason to get on the train, we wouldn’t be filming that. The relationship that happened between her and the train station over the course of filming… like, the first time I went into the city with her was pretty early into the filming, and it was pretty much like, “Woo, we’re going into the city! We never do this!” I do it much more than she does, because I have to work in the city often. But then it became a thing where it was clear that her lifeline was the city, even though she doesn’t necessarily identify with New York City per se. It’s just that there’s art there — there’s life there. What the train station sort of meant for the psychology of that aspect of the story was super-important.
And then we filmed some stuff, but that one scene is just sheer magic. That was the same night that she drops the kids off. It’s cut together as one night and it absolutely one night. She drops the kids off, and it was a really sad experience, but she changes moods when she’s going to the city, and she’s leaving that behind for the night, or whatever it is. That night, everything looked beautiful. [Laughs] There was a glow to the Metro North machines, where I was like, “This is movies.” She knelt down; that reaction is totally unscripted. Her natural theatricality comes through in the way she reacts, and it’s a perfect moment to encapsulate the entire movie. But the train passes and she’s scared, and I just happen to be not-stupid enough to move to follow her off with that last train when the train goes.
That’s just one of those things where it reminds me of how movies get made: movies are made by people who obsess about things for a long time, and then are thrown into situations and don’t fuck it up, basically. And that situation was full of emotion for both of us, and I absolutely think about Chantal Akerman; I think about the Ross brothers. I think about all the influences of all the movies I’ve ever seen, and they’re all coursing through my fucking body, and then I just give up — because of fatigue, most likely — and I’m just reacting, and I happen to not fuck it up. There’s many of scenes where I did fuck up, but that’s just one that just works. It’s sort of this magical thing that can happen when ideas, in the moment, reach something together.
Were there moments that you felt you did “fuck up,” but had to keep in the film because it was essential? I don’t want to make you expose the flaws of your film —
No, no, no. No, I don’t think so. The only way I ever feel it’s fucked up… I don’t like how, sometimes, I move in a way, like where she’s confessing something. I’d rather not give away what that is, but when she’s confessing something, I feel like I’m moving with her, because I just don’t want to be still and static, because she’s going to be talking for a long time, and I can notice that camera movement. But the only time I ever feel like something is a “fuck up” is where I’m too self-conscious about a decision, or she’s going down a path — which, you know, many hours were spent together — where she needs to talk for herself, and that’s not necessarily what translates into good communication for the movie. That’s the only time I’m ever like, “We don’t need that.” Everything else is on the table, because there’s no vanity for that kind of stuff. If it works onscreen, it works. I suspect that many other people would be able to tell you where I fucked up, and I don’t know if anything in the movie is something that I would describe as a fuck-up.
I actually quite like that camera move.
Yeah, it does something. But I feel like it’s a little too… I mean, I think it’s very important, because one of the things I’m very adamant about is — and I just wrote this about The Kill Team and the response to The Kill Team — that the filmmaker’s always in the room. The thing about documentaries is that the filmmaker is present, and that is an acknowledgement that we don’t have to make in the same way that we had to make 30 or 40 years ago. We should all be very aware that there is a person holding that camera, and I think that camera move does help you sort of understand that. You very much sense that there’s another being, and that being is a very close friend of this person, talking, or some sort of closeness — whether you know it’s a friend or not — and there’s an interaction happening. And the camera is interrupting a normal interaction, pretty much.
You’ve expressed an admiration of Cinema Guild in the past, particularly their work with documentaries such as Manakamana and Leviathan. I’d like to hear about your relationship with the company, first their status as a “brand.”
Yeah. I mean, I don’t think it’s a gimmick that they release the best-reviewed films of the year, you know? I think that’s because they see in films like Manakamana, which you could look at… you could be another buyer and look at Manakamana and be like, “No one’s going to go see this.” Or you could be like Cinema Guild and say, “No, this is special.” The beloved energy around it, the specialness of the film itself, and understand that it’s going to play six weeks at the IFC Center — which is what happened. To me, the reason to have all these discussions is because I firmly, firmly believe audiences, art-film audiences, want to see these kinds of movies. It’s not general audience.
It’s not like people who go see Guardians of the Galaxy are going to want to see Actress in the same way, but there is a devoted, committed filmgoing audience of young cinephiles, old ladies in New York, people in Chicago — there’s a devoted sort of core group, and it’s finite. It has a finite thing, but they just don’t think of documentaries in the way that maybe they should. Cinema Guild, I think, kind of taps into an understanding of that. There’s a way of looking Leviathan, that it’s an audience-punishing experience, and there’s a way of looking at it that it’s exhilarating and exciting for audiences. I happen to believe it’s the latter, and I think Cinema Guild does, too. That’s the important thing: it’s not about commerce in the strict sense of money, because no one has the pretense that we’re going to get rich off these films.
But it is a sense of, “There is an audience out there, and you just have to find them. They will respond.” Because I’ve found them in different ways, seeing people respond to Actress on the festival circuit. It’s on the festival circuit, which is a bubble. But it’s in Wisconsin, where we have sold-out screening in Wisconsin, and it’s like mothers hovering around Brandy, telling her how important the story was to them, personally, or it’s like this guy saying, “I never really thought about my wife in this way until I watched this movie. These are not in-a-bubble reactions; these are real human beings who step in thinking they’re going to be treated like idiots — like most documentaries treat them — and, instead, they’re treated like filmgoers who want to be surprised and moved in a different way.
I think Cinema Guild gets that. They put out challenging films that still want an audience. They’re not putting out films that are needlessly distancing. They’re a company which has to pay its bills. It’s the classic thing of it taking two people to make a painting: the painter and the guy who shoots the painter when the painting’s done. I think of producers and distributors in that way, too: that person needs to be the person who says, “You need to remember the audience.” We’re talking about the trailer, for instance, and the way to present this story in the way that’s going to bring in the most amount of people, and we’re trying to get press that’s more interesting. The ideas of reaching for an audience is really important to me, because it’s not just about paying the bills.
You want to pay the bills, but it’s about finding a way to communicate these things that these great films have in them — which I can’t believe, that I’m able to say Actress is among those films. They’re just great people. I mean, they’re just straight-up-great people. I’ve worked with people who are all good, but they’re distracted or whatever. They’re just committed, smart people, and the idea that they would take the risk with me makes me want to take every risk with them. It’s an honor. It’s crazy; it’s really crazy. It’s crazy to have written so passionately about Leviathan a couple of years ago and to have your film with the same logo in front of it. It’s insane.
Currently in wide release, Nightcrawler is a relentless film that pummels one with emotions. At times its brilliantly frightening in its implications, but it can also be thrilling to watch; there’s laughter, shock, and in some cases, one can simply be appalled. However, the curiosity of what Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou is going to do next pervades every scene. While this is writer-director Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, he’s no stranger to Hollywood productions with a slew of screenplay credits to films you’d likely recognize, from The Fall to The Bourne Legacy. Setting a high bar from the start, Nightcrawler makes for a stunning debut.
After the U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest, I had a chance to sit down with Gilroy to talk about just how quickly the film came together. He’s just as happy as you’d expect him to be when the normal timeline is five to seven years between a script being turned in and a film actually being made. We also discuss why they chose Lou’s Dodge Challenger as his car of choice, the connection to Hot Wheels, how he and Gyllenhaal developed the character and focused on a coyote as inspiration, and the drive to succeed. Check it out below in full as the conversation kicks off.
The Film Stage: Let me put this right here to record us.
Dan Gilroy: Is that the new iPhone?
Oh, no. This is the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. It’s about the same size though.
Ah, had you heard about them bending? What’s that about?
Well, people were sitting on their phone.
[Gilroy gives incredulous look]
Who puts an expensive piece of technology in your back pocket and then sits on it? It’s going to be hard for you to answer your phone.
Totally. No, this to me [points to phone] is like a family member. I try to treat it with real respect.
Oh, yeah! I love my phone.
It’s important to you.
Yeah. It’s a part of me.
You do love your phone?
I totally love my phone. I have a personal relationship with this thing. We both brought out phones. You’re on that as much as you interact with anybody during the day.
Definitely. So, let’s jump into it. This is your directorial debut.
Yes it is.
And you are married to Rene Russo.
I’m married to Rene Russo. I’m a lucky guy.
[Laughs] So it seems like this came together fairly quickly. I hadn’t heard much about it and then all of a sudden I heard all this hype. It was out there. It was ready. It was finished. It didn’t seem to take long.
It’s really true. I’ll tell you really quickly. In my experience, the films that I’ve gotten done on average — from the time I finish writing to the time that they get made — take anywhere from five to 10 years, more like seven to eight years.
And part of that is just the studio system.
It may not be ready to go until all of a sudden they have an available slot two years from now and they’re like, “Hey, we have to fill this.”
And that regime is left. Then the actor has left. There’s 15 things. So it takes forever. So what happened here was I wrote the spec, and it was a very personal script for me on a lot of levels, and I was very fortunate in the sense that I got a very, very favorable reaction very quickly. So I sent it to my agency and because it’s a character study, people right away are going, “Who can play this part?” The agents started. Jake was at the top of the list but wasn’t available because he was going to do Into the Woods. But within a couple of months that fell apart and I flew to Atlanta. I met with Jake. He came on board.
Were you going to go a different route? I hate to go down that rabbit hole.
There were different actors. There were people you flirt with and think about. But no, the only serious step we ever took was with Jake. Once we had Jake we very quickly went through a round of looking for financing and we had a number. We would make it for below $10 million. So with Jake and below $10 million and the crew that we were bringing in… people like [cinematographer] Robert Elswit, my brother Tony [Gilroy] was a producer, my brother John [Gilroy] is the editor. The financiers felt comfortable. So very quickly the money came through. Very quickly Jake’s schedule opened up. So we shot it very quickly — something like six weeks in LA.
Then we edited it right away; my brother John is a great editor and we only had 16 weeks post so we cut it. Then we went to Cannes and they were doing some more presales and we had a trailer. The buzz on the movie started to become so strong that a bidding war broke out over the trailer. At Cannes, unexpectedly, we got picked up by Open Road as a distributor who had a slot for the fall. So everything just sort of snowballed [laughs] extraordinarily quickly in what I felt was a very positive way. I wanted the movie to come out in the fall. I wanted the movie to premiere internationally at the Toronto International Film Festival. So to me it was a dream. It was a very odd experience to have something happen that quickly.
You’re on one side of production. But even your wife, Rene, I’m sure it was fascinating for her to watch how quickly things went through.
She’s a veteran and she’s been through so many films. I’m sure it was wild.
She was going, “What!? We’re shooting next week? What are you talking about?”
Yeah. “Don’t we need to talk about it more?”
It was happening very fast. It was so exciting to have things happen quickly.
I’ve got to say, having watched it, I can see why everything moved so fast.
One thing about Jake’s character in particular, I almost feel like he has no social skills except what he’s read about online.
As soon as anything goes wrong, he shows that he doesn’t have any social skills.
I love that but you also have to nail down his speech and his cadence. It’s very particular. He’s methodical about the way he says things and delivers them. Part of that is the script and part of that I imagine is what he’s bringing to it. Does that take a long time to nail or does he bring so much out of the gate?
I wrote the script extraordinarily specifically. Jake never changed a word. Jake followed commas! That said, we decided, in our first meeting, that we were going to collaborate and rehearse together. So we rehearsed for three months before, in which Jake explored so many different variations of what was on the page. So many different back stories to what might be going on in the character at that moment. It was all starting to drift in a really positive way towards finding the humanity of the character. Trying to find the elements of the character that made it difficult for the viewer to look at the character and go, “Oh, he’s just a sociopath. This is a movie about a sociopath,” which is what we never wanted. What Jake was always looking for is if you watch him, he’s engaging, in an odd but strangely human way. What the character embodies in a lot of ways is a touchstone experience for a lot of people: the desire to want to succeed. I think it’s an identifiable door for people to go through. So when you’re watching the character, as odd as he is at times, he’s always doing something that is identifiable in the sense that he’s trying to climb the ladder. Which, for better or worse, we’re all hammered with from grade school.
You’ve got to succeed.
Yeah. We also felt that he’s a lonely character and ultimately a tragic character. He desperately wants to connect and communicate. But everything comes out a couple of tragic degrees off. I think there’s a pathos in that but I also think there’s an odd humor to that. I’ve watched it in a large theater and there’s an absurdity to what he says at times, given the situation. It becomes an interesting character study because you don’t know what’s going on with the character. Is he coming from someplace of loneliness? Is he coming from some place of social dysfunction? Is he coming from a desire to succeed that is legitimate? Is he really a sociopath?
I think it’s a great line that you mentioned is that his desire to succeed is the number one thing on his mind. Which means when he runs through certain situations, he’s going to say, “Does this benefit me to interfere? Does it benefit me to do anything else except film it?” A lot of times, it’s going to be, “Film it!” I don’t need to interfere. It’s not going to help my career.
He looks at each situation in its own light. I think brilliance is one of his traits. Brilliant in the way that a predator is brilliant. You can look at a predator and say, “It’s just a killer.” But predators understand their prey on a level that we’ll never know. They understand how they smell and where they feed. Their habits and what they do. I think Lou understands people the way a lion understands a gazelle. He studies them. It’s instinct and he studies. I use the animal symbol in a way because Jake and I always thought of Lou as a nocturnal animal that came down out of the hills at night to feed. And we specifically thought of him as a coyote. What’s interesting, I think, about attributes of an animal is that there is no emotional attachment to violence with an animal. An animal will kill without any build-up of emotion and without any aftermath of emotion. It’s just something that needs to be done to survive. I think Lou’s character similarly gets no joy out of violence. Maybe that is the distinction between a sociopath. He doesn’t get any joy. It’s just something that needs to be done to survive and to succeed.
I’ve gotta ask, because I’m a car guy, I love the fact that you bring in the Dodge Challenger. It’s an SRT?
Yeah. And that’s not the color of the car. You can’t get…
We had to wrap that car in red. It comes in a burnt orange. We wrapped that car in red because I wanted the cherry red. [Laughs] To me it looked like a Hot Wheels car.
It’s a fantasy car.
It makes the same noise that a kid would make. Brrrrrr.
I’m curious about the choice of that car versus anything else. I mean, he’s such a hyper intelligent guy. It almost seems like he would go with a four-wheel drive sports car or something more than just a straight line car.
We see the character as an innocent child, in a lot of ways. And like a child, when you bring up Hot Wheels. If you look closely at his apartment, in the background there’s a couple of little toys. There’s a toy dinosaur and a couple of other things. We were going to lean more heavily on that but it never came through in the movie. The idea that he’s into toys. He’s like a child. So the car in a way was like a wish fulfillment for a child. So he is like a child. There’s something strangely innocent… or naive about the character. So the car for him was like the full-scale version of the Hot Wheels car. I don’t think we made that connection as strong as maybe was in the script but I think an element of it comes through, maybe.
I think it definitely does. Well, I’ve got to wrap with you.
Oh, thanks, man. Great talking to you.
Nightcrawler is now in theaters.
Director Alexandre Aja, whose Horns is currently available through VOD and will hit a limited theatrical release this weekend, made his name with vivaciously violent horror films which shock audiences and yet he is also one of the more economical filmmakers out there. This time around with his adaptation of the hit bestseller by Joe Hill, Aja is at a crossroads because he has over 400 pages of material to try to fit into an R-rated love story that never embraces the horror aspect fully but instead delves into some fun fantasy elements in precisely two hours of runtime. Daniel Radcliffe plays Ig and he is the prime suspect of the investigation into the murder of Juno Temple’s Merin, whom Ig was dating.
In many ways the film is a love story but with an odd twist. Ig maintains his innocence but soon after Merin’s death he starts to grow horns from his head and have an odd effect on the people around him who suddenly start confessing things to him and asking him for permission. After the U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest last month I had a chance to sit down with Aja to talk about the film. We discuss him going and presenting at Comic-Con, the nature of adapting the book into a two-hour film, challenges of making a film like this, the fact that his movies are usually short, how blockbusters are getting longer, why he might have took the option to make it into a TV series, and how he wishes people would edit his films for TV, and more. Enjoy the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: So, I know Daniel Radcliffe ran around Comic-Con dressed as Spider-Man.
Alexandre Aja: The same with Peter Jackson.
Do you have any interest in walking around the convention floor like that?
I did! And I don’t have to hide myself.
No one recognizes me!
I’m completely okay.
When did you get in?
And you’re going to be taking off again?
In a few hours. Yeah, I’m prepping another movie.
Wow. [Looks above Aja]. Holy shit. That is a great poster [pictured right]. Who designed it?
That’s a great question. I don’t know. It’s like the marketing team. It’s coming from their brain.
I especially like the way the title looks. The way the horns are stylized just like in your title card in the movie.
Yeah, the snakes.
Oh, okay. It’s snakes. I get the reference now.
There’s a lot of snakes.
Definitely! You know, this film is 120 minutes on the dot. I’m curious about that. Any time I see a film like that I’m always like, “How’d they arrive at that?”
I think we’re an hour and 59 minutes. Which is super important in the 99 cents. But yeah, I cannot believe that I managed to get it that short.
All of it in there.
It’s based on this cult book by Joe Hill. That’s an amazing novel. There’s a reason why it’s such a big, best-seller. My first instinct was that I had to make this adaptation and I wanted to make it as truthful to the book. But that would have been like six hours. So when you’re writing the script, we had to find shortcuts and stuff. I think the first version of the movie was like three hours and something. So we managed to cut in under two hours which is really hard to do. Trust me.
Well, it is interesting that you mentioned that.
It’s also, if you look at all my movies, I think there is a great place when you do a movie that is an hour and a half, but the story here was so complex and had so many elements. We are going back in a different time frame, there’s different things happening. We needed screen time to be able to tell the whole story and that’s how we end up. And there’s also something very interesting that more and more blockbusters have that tendency of going like two hours and a half.
I think it’s a good reaction compared to TV. TV has such an amazing amount of time to develop characters. In a movie, you have to do it in less than two hours. Which is always a big challenge. But at least two hours is better than an hour and a half.
Well, in particular you have to do that with a script. Maybe you can get away with a final cut that ends up over two hours but a lot times a studio won’t even be interested in talking about a film like this, which is rated R, if it’s over 120 pages. They know what that translates to in minutes and they don’t want to talk at all. So it’s a very difficult conversation to have, unless you have Daniel Radcliffe in your film. Then I’m sure that makes life a little bit easier as far as financing.
Yeah, and a movie is expensive no matter what. This one I was quite ambitious. There is a lot of things happening. Action, it’s a supernatural movie and it’s also a thriller and there’s a different time frame. Tons of snakes and visual effects, monsters. But at the end, it’s always coming down to the creative choice. You don’t need a movie star to just have a movie star. You need to have the best actor possible for the story. I think Daniel… I can’t imagine anyone else but him to play the character from a book that is a cult book. There is some big pressure on him and myself at the end of this movie because, again, so many people are expecting to see the movie after reading the book.
Have there been changes to the film since its premiere?
We presented the first version at Toronto last year. We did a few changes over the last few months. Then we premiered the movie in Paris and here in the US it is opening on Halloween. But we were at Comic-Con to present the trailer. But we’ve been talking about the movie for a while.
It is interesting that you did bring up TV because it feels like it’s becoming an option now. When you have, specifically, like a 400-page book you can go there. Something like True Detective.
Yeah, True Detective opened a direction that didn’t exist three years ago. These limited series, where it’s not a full season but it’s like five to eight episodes, it’s a great medium and an amazing opportunity for a filmmaker to just make a theatrical film in five hours instead of two, which is great. I would have thought about that if like three or four years ago we had the choice between the two options. It’s not something I would have rejected.
You’ve never worked in television before, correct?
No, I never worked in television before. I’m developing a few shows now, but I always only did theatrical films.
I do know there are TV edits of films, whether it’s played on prime time.
[Aja shakes his head after grimacing.] It’s awful, awful, awful.
Well, a lot of yours have to get cut a lot. And you don’t want any part of that?
I’m completely advocating for the beep and the blur.
I mean, okay, you need to censor the movie playing on TV or whatever. But don’t change the movie. Let people know that you are censoring it. I’m all for blurring images and beeping when there is language.
Instead of cutting whole scenes out.
It messes with the continuity and everything else.
I had the worst experience ever, recently. I was in India and I would switch on the TV. On one of the cable channels, there was Piranha 3D, my last movie, was playing. “Oh, this is interesting. They’re playing Piranha 3D.” Then I realized they cut all the gore, which is half the movie. And then all the nudity, which is another half of the movie. Basically the movie was like 40 minutes. But the worst thing was because they cut so much they didn’t have access to the soundtrack or the music, so they had to cut the music as well. So it was like 45 minutes of nothing with no music.
Oh my God.
This is like butchering.
And I was thinking that in some cases, oh, who cares. Who is watching that? But you’re in India, so you have at least 300 million people watching that channel at that time. It’s just a nightmare. I mean, no one else has that kind of control on not touching the movies too much.
I know you had all this controversy around Piranha because you had to play the trailer off site. They kicked you out of Comic-Con. [Laughs] It was crazy. Did you play an R-rated version of the trailer?
It was weird because we were in the Hall H and it was a big thing for me. First time. Huge. And we were actually supposed to be there with Piranha and I was wondering how it would do because we had a lot of R-rated material in the movie. We picked out one scene but we had to cut out one of the best elements, so we used that almost as a joke with the audience, telling them exactly what they were missing. Which was interesting. It was a great reception. We didn’t have the same problem that Piranha had. Piranha was so treacherous. Which I can understand, but it’s not really fair because now people are attending Comic-Con and are much more ready for gore.
And even the kids love it. So, it changed a bit and needs to.
Horns is now available on VOD and in theaters Friday, October 31st.
Few films from this year challenge their actors like Goodbye to Language, Jean-Luc Godard‘s 39th feature and his first in 3D. It is here where two things take center stage: first is that format, so often a misused gimmick but, in his hands, shown in perhaps its most astounding powers; second is, of all things, Roxy, a dog played by the writer-director’s own pet canine, and through whose eyes viewers see a majority of the film.
But a real emotional center does indeed emerge amidst the eye-popping techniques and philosophical musings, and one of Language‘s greatest effects is very human indeed: Héloïse Godet, whose fearless performance helps lay bare (literally and figuratively) the complicated gender dynamics of Godard’s work. We discuss some of that below, all while learning how his intuitions come to fruition on a set, the experience of working with such heady material, and what the creative association means for your own self-worth as a performer. If we’re fortunate, the apparent confidence it’s granted her will help breed a long, prolific career.
The Film Stage: I’ve been hearing about this film for a while — at least since production began in mid-2012. It must be strange, after all this time, to be here, talking about it.
Héloïse Godet: Absolutely. And also because I could’ve never come here, because it’s always the creator representing the whole team, not really the actor.
Godard doesn’t do so many interviews these days. I find it interesting how the main representation for U.S. press are you and Fabrice Aragno, his cinematographer. Do you thus feel any pressure to represent Goodbye to Language in an “adequate” manner? There may be the sense of speaking on someone else’s behalf.
I’m not speaking on his half completely, because I couldn’t be in his mind and internalize what he was trying to say. I’m just speaking about my experience, which is where I can have less pressure. People sometimes ask me questions as if I was Godard, and then just, like, try to say, “Well, I had this story and that’s it.” I’m not going to try to invent what’s in his mind, which is really… [Laughs] He has a genius mind that is not completely what you could expect to analyze.
When did you finish shooting this film?
Last November, there were extra takes for the sound. Last November, yeah; end of November. Otherwise, for me, it was the Autumn of 2012. So you’re right: long time ago. But the actors for the second part of the movie, the second couple, they’d been shooting six months after me. So they were expected to arrive in Winter, and that’s what happened to me before: I was chosen in 2011, and then, little by little, “No, later. No, later.” So I turned down some projects to be available, and that was kind of hard for a bit, but then it was worth it.
You haven’t done many interviews on the subject of Goodbye to Language, but I was still able to learn he’d originally found a photo of you, which sparked his interest.
One thing I didn’t quite understand is if you auditioned for the film, or if he found out about you through some other means.
It wasn’t really an audition. I think the 45-minute interview with his assistant, because it was filmed, was kind of an audition, because he just wanted to see if I was able to talk, if I was a normal person — because we were just talking about life and my way of seeing work — and, also, he’d seen a short movie. So he knew I could act, basically. That’s what he wanted. And he knew I could talk normally, but, also, he’s been deconstructing my way of talking by having me work on this deaf, dumb, hair-lipped, kind of handicap before the shooting.
He knew I was available about whatever could happen, including nudity. He knew I could be normal; I wouldn’t be a pain in the ass. [Laughs] That was basically it. I was chosen before meeting him. Then he, for production reasons, it turned out, he said, “Now I’m going to work with an actress from Switzerland,” so I was really disappointed. After that, it didn’t turn out to be what he expected, so he said, “I want to meet Héloïse again.” That’s where, you could say, it would be an audition, but not really. He said, “Just read this text,” but I think he had already made up his mind. It was just to shake hands and talk about whether I would be all right doing it.
You must’ve been at least somewhat familiar with his work before getting the role.
Before the offer, I knew the classical movies — I mean, the first ones. I knew, like every French person that is a little bit into cinema, but he’s really so famous that you just put on the TV. At some point, there is Contempt, there is Pierrot Le Fou, and several others. You don’t have to really look for it — it’s here. But then, when I heard about it, I heard this festival that had this enormous retrospective, and I was really lucky that it was really good timing, and so I saw a lot of things. Including things that are really rare, like the really-difficult-to-watch ‘90s movies — I mean, “really difficult to watch,” not really, because I’m really into it. I’m really into watching those movies, but it’s not a narrative kind of approach. But, yeah, after that, I educated myself — because I had some pressure, of course.
It’d be totally different in America, where a lot of people simply don’t know his films. What was the reaction among friends, family, colleagues et al.?
Oh, it was crazy. [Laughs] It was hysterical, because he’s huge. At the beginning, people were like, “Really? Are you sure?” Not meaning, “I’m a liar,” but, “Are you sure it’s going to happen? Don’t take it too high. Don’t get too many expectations, in case he turns down,” which happened, so people were right to tell me, because I was so excited. But then, when it was really sure… which, actually, it was really sure just on the day I was shooting, in front of the camera, and “action.” Because, before, I could’ve been turned down at any minute, because of what he made us used to. Like, “Okay, we’re going to film now… no, no, in three months.” Around me, people were really excited for me, but because it went during a long time of expectations, we learned also to be reasonable.
I mean, talk about it like I’m going to work with Godard, but let’s see when, let’s see how… we’ll see. And then, when it finally happened, people went crazy. “Tell me about it! Tell me about it! Tell me stories!” But you’re right: there were not that many interviews. There were just some, but not that many, because people are right about the movie: the real star is the dog.
Was there any requirement to be secretive from Godard or anyone else?
There weren’t many reports on what was happening.
Yeah. There was an excitement about the mystery.
One thing I wonder: I can’t claim to wrap my head around all of this movie, but I find both the images and ideas within to be very exciting. How is it to sit down with a screenplay of his and read it? I can only imagine that it’s very different from most other screenplays you read.
Yeah. I regret not having brought it with me, because it’s a book. There’s one page of text and one page of images, and you go through it like contemporary art. There was pretty much all of the movie, already, in the script, because the images are also already kind of edited. It’s really, really interesting. And so I go through it like something I could analyze for ages, and I know that he didn’t want us to go to “psychological” places or anything, but you couldn’t! There was no narrative story, so every time I’m asking questions I’m like, “What do you mean?” I knew I wouldn’t have any answer.
Did you like that?
It was kind of scary at some points, but because he was so detailed in his direction about the movements, the way of talking — like with music sheets — I wasn’t scared at all, afterwards, because I knew I was in good hands. And if I did what he wanted, it’d be all right for him, at least, and, for me, I was feeling comfortable. But then preparing it was still trying to see the sentences in the kind of dialogues — there was not a real dialogue — where it was coming from, but it didn’t really bring me many clues, though. Some bits were coming from the historical or social, cultural analyzing books. But even if it was from a book analyzing the language, I wouldn’t read the whole book to try to know what he meant, because it’s the composition of all these little sentences together that makes it special. It’s not especially where it comes from or what he meant.
Did it take an especially long time for him to establish compositions or block actors? It all seems so precise, so I have to wonder if he’s especially slow or, in fact, moves at a normal rate.
No, it’s normal. I mean, he knows exactly what he wants, very fast. Is this what you meant?
He’d just put you there and tell you to do that.
It seems difficult to conceptualize what that experience is like.
[Laughs] I know! I know. I’ve done a diary, every day, that was published in the Cahiers du cinéma in France, in the June piece. And it’s pretty detailed, the everyday life on the set, but I should have translated it to bring it with me, too. Some days were more confusing than others, but, sometimes, it was just full of jokes all day long. You could expect that from him. But sometimes he was down, sometimes he was really, really into jokes.
Well, the film is really funny.
Yeah. Do you think so, too?
I very much do.
I’m happy that you say that.
I saw it a couple of weeks ago, and, when exiting the theater, I said to a friend, “I didn’t think I’d be laughing so much at the very end.”
Yeah! Especially the last moment! It was brilliant. That’s such a brilliant end.
Did you see it prior to Cannes?
Yes. There was one for the crew.
Could you talk about seeing yourself in 3D? That experience seems so bizarre.
Actually, during the filming, I already saw a little bit, because, at some point, they had to check if one camera worked. Godard has a big 3D TV in his home. We were sitting in his home. We all wore 3D glasses — he had a bunch of them in his house — and we were plugging the camera to the HDMI on the TV, and just watching what we just did in 3D. So I already saw what it would be like, and it turned out that one of the cameras didn’t work, so we had to re-do some takes.
Otherwise, I thought it was bringing something very special — an ambiance. It also was very special to watch all that. It’s always a little bit hard to watch yourself, but I think I was pretty happy with what I saw. But the rest of the movie, in general, I kept being surprised and happy about the whole movie. Really, really enjoying it.
Even if you don’t completely understand it.
I don’t, and I think people come to me and say, “It’s the third time I’ve seen the movie. I still don’t understand anything.” I say, “Ahh, well, just get your own experience. It’s just like poetry: you don’t always want to internalize everything the poet would have to say.”
I think that would be exciting, starring in a film you don’t totally grasp.
Yeah. It’s not that I don’t “understand” it — it’s that you don’t get everything. You just feel things that are really emotional, because of the mix with music, with the frustration that he’s creating. I love that he surprises us in an uncomfortable way. [Laughs] That puts the audience in the position of being awake all the time. That’s interesting.
Regarding Language’s other couple: were you ever placed in a room to talk with them, or —
Before the filming?
Before the filming.
With Godard, or just between us?
Either / or.
We had one appointment in a café in Paris, on a terrace. I thought, “What? Godard is on a terrace and nobody’s jumping on him?” But that’s what happened. He’s in the streets of Paris like a normal guy, with his big cigar — all the time with his cigar, enjoying Paris — and we were all together with the actors on a terrace, him and his assistant. He was saying, “Oh, I’m happy that you’re all here. We’re going to do this thing together. How are you?” And that’s it. Not trying to explain anything.
It’s interesting how he casts an actor who looks like you. A lot of people don’t even realize there’s a switch, so I wonder if, when you first met them… was it really just going over things and moving on, or did you talk in-depth about the performances?
I wish we would have, but he was more talking about everyday things — not especially “everyday,” but he was not trying to get me into the film itself. He was really more trying to know which person I was in life, to know if we would get along together, and how I was feeling. I think he wants, also, to have the company of people he likes. [Laughs] That makes it logical, because maybe he doesn’t want to get annoyed anymore; that’s why he has such a small crew. We were just five. [Pause] I don’t know if… yeah, what I say is right, I think. I don’t pretend to analyze what is in his mind, again.
You certainly know better than I do. Along with the screenplay containing words and images, did he ask you to look at any specific works of art or read anything in particular? For instance, there are films on the TV. I don’t know if you needed to watch those beforehand.
Not really. Yeah, at some point, he gave us a painting of abstract art, saying, “That’s your character.” That was kind of a direction. He gave this to Kamel [Abdeli] and me, and we were not surprised. I think we really enjoyed it.
So you understood this, “That’s your character”?
Yeah, but maybe because my mind is a little twisted, too. [Laughs] I don’t know. But Kamel actually did to the same school as me, which is a theater school, the Jacques Lecoq International School, where you get asked to represent, on-stage, with your buddy, without speaking, an abstract tableaux. So that wouldn’t be that surprising for us. I mean, representing something that would be blue and long, or a ball of fire, you could express the idea of your character.
But that wasn’t that psychological as when Godard gave us this abstract painting. We just thought, “Okay, let’s just not really talk too much about it.” We just tried to evoke it in front of Godard to make him know that we were thinking about it, but not too much analyzing. Just trying to feel things. But, you know, when you see the result, you don’t really know if we could make the difference. It’s so…
Visceral? No. He made us talk so naturally. Degree-zero of talking, without trying to interpret or anything.
Agh, that doesn’t give you much… [Laughs] That’s full of contradictions, what I say.
I don’t think so. No, I mean, what you’re saying makes sense — it’s just a matter of working through a process.
Yeah, you’re trying to make your way through this process, but it’s never really that clear. [Laughs]
It seems somewhat clear for you, working through it. I guess one thing I would wonder is if, after doing this film, you come out of the process feeling like a new actor? I mean, do you go to the next set with a suddenly alien feeling?
“Alien”? Yeah. Maybe just a little more confident, because I knew working with Godard. Just because I felt he wasn’t that easy to be always so available. But I think, because I’ve experienced that, to take this small direction where he is just whispering, “Okay.” And just starting these takes that he’s adding [snaps fingers] at the last minute. I’ve never learned takes that fast. Also, I know that I’m able to do that, so, after all the sets, that made me, maybe, just a little more confident and ready for anything.
“If I can go through Godard, I can go through anybody.”
Yeah, that was kind of my… [Laughs] Yeah.
Whether or not that’s a little egotistical, there’s a truth to it.
Yes. But it’s so specific, also. I think nothing is going be the same after, so I shouldn’t be that confident. [Laughs] There was just Godard and nothing else.
Well, it is making a splash, and your work has garnered the biggest notices, as far as an actor is concerned — excepting Roxy, of course.
Goodbye to Language will begin its U.S. release on Wednesday, October 29.
Currently in theaters, John Wick is a great deal of fun. As I mentioned in my review, the film is a slick and smart action flick that won’t break new ground but does what it wants with extreme success. Filmmakers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch make their feature debut with Keanu Reeves as an ex-hitmen dragged back into his murderous ways. We have my interviews with Reeves and Stahelski and Leitch already up, and this time around we have star Adrianne Palicki who plays another assassin in John Wick’s world.
Palicki has been hovering around the action genre for a while now, and this time she jumps in with both feet. She seemed to be pretty excited to discuss her role in the film, and while we do get into some spoilers I’ve separated them out so you can come back after seeing the film. On the other hand, we talk about how her role as Perkins was originally a male, where she collaborated with the filmmakers to flesh out her role, friends she kept from her various roles over the years, what drew her to the film, the benefits of seeing the film in private first and then with an audience, and even the choreography. Check out the conversation below.
The Film Stage: From talking to other people in preparation for this interview, I have heard that your role was originally written for a male.
Adrianne Palicki: It was.
At the beginning.
When I first read the script it was Mr. Perkins.
And you basically said you didn’t want anything changed and to just be a badass.
Yeah, I don’t think they really wanted anything else to change. I love that about it. They didn’t want to make it a female… I don’t know. They just didn’t want to weaken the character at all. They wanted to keep that masculine, emotionless character intact, which is great and I think it really worked. And we also came up with a little backstory between the two. They probably, you know, [slyly grins], were friendly at one point. It worked with the sexual tension in the fight scene.
Yeah, I loved that fight scene in particular. And I loved how they blocked out and framed the action as well. I was telling [David Leitch and Chad Stahelski] that it’s so noticeable that they have an action background because of the way that they film things but also just the fact that they keep everything in frame. And any time they cut, it’s to get to a better angle. So many blockbusters now, they cut and you just confuse the audience.
It’s just so fast.
Yeah, it’s so fast and you don’t get the benefit of seeing the choreography or seeing the actor themselves. I’m sure sometimes those cuts are so that you don’t notice it’s not the actual actor. So, that level of prep and even in the filming, how much do you see a difference between this and, I don’t know, G.I. Joe?
Well, it was so different. G.I. Joe was much more gun and combat related. We were trained by Navy SEALs. The training was exceptional and very difficult. But this was using my body and learning a martial art, which is completely different. Both are equally fun.
You have a lot of fights and I do know that you met your fiancé on set.
Yes, he’s Keanu Reeves’ stunt double on set. Jackson [Spidell].
Did you tumble with him, some?
Yeah! [Laughs and looks at Jackson] Why’s your face red? [Laughs] Yes, yes, I definitely kicked him in the balls probably about four times, at least. Poor guy. [Laughs]
Get it out of the way.
And he still wanted to date me! Which is pretty cool.
So many of these films, like a G.I. Joe or a John Wick, you spend a certain amount of time on set and then you go away. You might make a relationship. You might make friends. But because of the nature of the business, you may never see them again.
It’s so true. You meet so many new people all the time.
Have you kept in contact with anybody from your films or TV roles?
Absolutely. I met Alyssa Diaz on Red Dawn and she’s one of my best friends. Connie Britton is one of my best friends. I think from everything there’s one person I just grab onto and I’m just like, “Okay, I’m keeping you. Not letting you go.” So it’s interesting. A majority of my friends I’ve met on some project somewhere along the line. Whether it was 10 years ago, eight years ago, or yesterday. It’s cool.
How many times have you seen the film so far?
This was only my second time.
Did you see it in an edit?
I saw it at a private screening. So I didn’t get to see it with a large group of people, an audience. It was kind of the best way. As an actor, you’re constantly critiquing yourself, so it’s really good seeing it for the first time where you’re not really focusing on the things that matter. You’re just focusing on, like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that with my face.” All that insecure bullshit. Then to see it with an audience and have reactions, and the enjoyment that was felt… and actually, you miss things, too. The humor that you finally understand. Like in Viggo’s character that I might not have seen right off the bat the first time I saw it. It was so awesome and so fun and I can’t wait to see it with another audience. See if there’s different moments and different things that play.
So, if your part was originally written for a male, how’d you get the script?
Well, they hadn’t actually made the change in the script when I read it but they were interested in me for the part. I remember reading it and, you know, it wasn’t a huge part and it was definitely written for a guy, but I remember reading it and going, “I want to be a part of this movie no matter what. I don’t care if I’m there for a day.” Also, knowing Keanu was going to play the part, I was just thinking, “This is his role. This is his Neo.” This was written for him and I was like, “I just have to be a part of it, no matter what.” Then the way the character came to life and they broadened it and made it bigger. It was totally worth it.
So you had a collaborative aspect with fleshing out some of your character.
What, specifically, do you remember?
Well, there was a lot of talk that for the scene she is in in particular we wanted it to pop. One of the big things was the backstory between them, and how they, like I said, were likely friendly before he got married and maybe this isn’t the first time they’ve fought like this.
I love the gold coin mythology and how it’s built up. So, John Wick gives a character a gold coin for watching over your unconscious body in the hotel. I don’t remember if you ever got it.
Oh, I did. After I killed him, I took it out of his pocket.
Cuz she’s a heartless bitch.
I know this is a heavy spoiler, but your character’s demise is this weird oddity. You have so much built up with this character and then she is just kind of offed. It’s almost to the point where I was wondering if there was something more. Was there?
There really wasn’t. The thing is that she’s such a gnarly character that they had to get rid of her. And also, she broke the rules. And I love that it was actually Ian McShane’s character, Winston who took care of it. And in the shots they had done some close-ups of me with it happening, but I love that they kept it in the wide because it’s just so cool to see all these guys surrounding her and just see her fall. It was a very interesting, cool choice.
And I’m sure it was difficult for them to have this character that they build up and just the question of how do we move forward without her. Because you can’t leave her character just out there on the loose.
John Wick is now in theaters nationwide.
Directed by Andrew Loo and Andrew Lau and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Revenge of the Green Dragon premiered at TIFF earlier this fall and has now landed in limited release. The crime drama follows an immigrant and his best friend growing up in a Chinese neighborhoods of New York City while being recruited for the gang The Green Dragons. It takes on the notion of a broken American dream by exposing immigration experiences and the workings of the gang. Based on a true story, both Loo and Lau sat down with us to discuss the project, how it differs from what they’ve done before, different facets of production, and more. Check out the conversation below.
The Film: Martin Scorsese won an Oscar for his adaptation of your Infernal Affairs and now he acted as executive producer for Revenge of the Green Dragons. Can you talk a little bit about his contributions to the film and how he got involved as producer?
Andrew Lau: Well, I mean he was very free hand. He trusts us. So actually he was free with whatever we want and told us to just go.
Andrew Loo: You know we figured it out in such an early stage. We were doing a movie about immigrant gangs, it’s New York, Lau, Scorsese — it all kind of made sense in a very organic way. There was a lot of interest to kind of make that package come together.
What was the process like of transforming a true story into 94 minutes?
Loo: The whole development process went well. Two producers from New York came to us in 2008 and they said, “Hey, we have this article,” and they sent it to me and I read it once then I read it twice. I didn’t understand anything. I thought, “This is so dense, there are so many characters, and different story lines. It’s circular. It doesn’t have a narrative flow to it at all.” And by the time you get through with you’re like, “Okay, it’s a very rich experience.” But at the same time, it could be a trilogy, it could be a 10-hour miniseries, so that kind of started us down the road of “Okay, let’s start checking out and doing some research so we get to know what issues were at play during that time period.” That really guided us in terms of how to make some creative choices on creating a 90-minute story from that original material. We eliminated characters, we consolidated characters. There were certain liberties we took which we felt were okay at the end of day because we felt we still always maintained this mandate of not necessarily doing a documentary about the Green Dragons, but making a film that was truthful to the gangs, what really happened, and also the time and the place things took place.
How did you go about deciding location and costume to make it feel as authentic as possible?
Lau: Research. We looked at a lot of pictures.
Loo: Lot of pictures.
Lau: Talk, talk, talk. We are not a big-budget movie. We had to choose the location very carefully. How many times did we go to location? A lot.
Loo: We looked at locations for half a year. Maybe eight months before we started shooting. As Lau says, we weren’t a big-budget film. We can’t approach it like The Truman Show where you actually build out entire streets to dictate a time or space. So, our approach was much more reductive rather than additive. It was about removing signs, removing cars, it was about trying not to show the cellular store that was across the store from our main house. Those things obviously don’t fit in with the period.
Mr. Lau, you’re from Hong Kong. Is this a story that held a special place in your heart or you felt personally connected to or one that grabbed your attention or just sparked interest?
Lau: You know I’ve shot a lot of gangster movies like Young and Dangerous but when Loo gave me this I looked and thought, “Oh, the Green Dragon. This is very interesting.” The name is pretty good, pretty cool, “Green Dragon.” And also the story is in New York, which is interesting, again. So that made me interested again to shoot a gangster movie. Also the backstory is very interesting. Why do people come to America? Like Hong Kong, people in 1997 were all immigrants. In that moment, 1983, so many people come to America and have that dream of getting more money and some people can and some cannot. Some people, before they get to America, die in the sea. This is quite interesting, it’s not only a gangster movie, and it is so many stories. It’s not only about killing people but it is so many things which made me interested. Also the tension is not like my movies before. We did quite well with the tension between people and even the dialogue, even with Paul to the young kids and the attitudes.
The movie chronicles the broken American dream. How did you go about doing so into the story and expressing that through the film?
Loo: I don’t think it was our intent to ever make a message film. But at the same time I think it is pretty clear to us that one of the main points of interest for us getting involved is this alternative perspective of the immigrant tale. I think the best stories you can tell are the ones you can find a personal connection to what’s going on. Our sort of dynamic in working together, Lau being born overseas and me being born in the states, we had our own sort of different complimentary connections with what’s going on in the story. Lau can definitely connect to these folks from Asia coming to America in hopes for a better life. For me there’s a family dynamic with these immigrants in America who are told, “Send me your tired send me your poor.” But when you get here the reality is incredibly different. Yeah, “Send me your tired, send me your poor so they can earn minimum wage in the back of a kitchen.” That’s the reality for all ethnic immigrants who are looking for a better life. “Hey welcome. Put on an apron, get to work.”
What was the most challenging aspect of the film?
Lau: Location. I mean the budget.
Loo: I thought the casting was challenging but ultimately very rewarding. There is not a huge talent pool to pull from when you’re talking about U.S.-based Asian actors. Yes, they’re out there, but a lot of times they don’t have the body of work to pull from where you can look at their films and their clips and say, “Oh yeah, they can play a leading man,” or “they can play someone who is physically imposing” or “we’re looking for a woman who has a real double sidedness about the way she speaks.” So it was a real challenge to be able to identify and audition and actually get to a point where we could populate our film with actors who could really pull off these rolls.
So when you first read the script you didn’t have any actors in mind? You didn’t think, wow, he has to play this role?
Loo: It has to be Brad Pitt! [Laughs] No.
How long did it take to cast the film then?
Loo: Basically the better part of four months.
Lau: Three to four months.
How did you work to separate this from anything else you have ever done?
Loo: A lot of people have been touching on this in the last couple of days. Lau has done so many films that deal with Asian gangsters. I think the obvious difference there is that instead of it being Asian gangsters in Asia it is Asian gangsters in America. It’s just an interesting film. People keep asking us, “Is this about gangsters or a film about immigration? Is this a Chinese film or is this an American film? Is it meant for a Western an audience or is it meant for an Asian audience?” I mean I think the reality is that we came into this without any sort of preconceptions on any of those questions, but I think just intrinsically it was interesting that you had a blend of all of that. Even our working style and our personalities, there is a blend of all of that. It was one of those really interesting things where just the material, our personalities, the work, it all kind of was very consistent and very organically came together. I don’t think we set out to do something like “here’s my career path and this is the way I’m going, now I need to get here,” I don’t think it was that conscious. If you’re telling a story or any form of art I think there needs to be a personal connection to it. In order to get the best of yourself out of it, so yes you want to evolve and you want to grow but at the same time there needs to be a personal connection to what’s going on in the world. Otherwise you sell yourself short.
Lau: It is good, it is a challenge to do this sort of movie. Even for me who has experienced it, but with cost and location wise and the system it is different than in Hong Kong. It is a good experience.
Revenge of the Green Dragons is now on DirectTV and in limited release.
Hitting theaters in wide release this weekend is John Wick, a film I fell for at Fantastic Fest and I’ve since revisited. The actioner, from first-time filmmakers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, follows Keanu Reeves’ title character who left behind a life as a hitman for Russian mobsters to settle down for a quiet life with his wife. We see him grieving after her short demise and when he has an unfortunate run-in with his old boss’s son, he only has vengeance in his heart.
This simple set-up is all that is needed to propel the film forward, and yet it is set in a lived-in world of assassins and hitmen that builds mythology and a code around them. But more than anything it’s a vehicle for Keanu and he shines here. The action is wicked and clearly in focus at all times, showing Reeves’ willingness to jump into the action genre that made him a household name in the first-place. John Wick just oozes cool in an effortless way and the way it embraces the silliness and humor just rounds it out.
During Fantastic Fest I sat down with Reeves to talk about the film and he touched on why the DGA didn’t rule in Stahelski and Leitch’s favor for being co-directors, what kind of advice and help he gave them coming off his own directorial debut, his puppy co-star’s range, what it will take to get him into the Fantastic Fest ring for a fight, and more. I had some fun questions throughout and think it shows that Reeves has a good sense of humor and is game. We will have one more interview with his co-star, Adrianne Palicki, in the coming days and you can check out my previous interview with Stahelski and Leitch here. Enjoy the full conversation below and don’t forget to check out the film when it releases this weekend.
The Film Stage: This is your first film since directing Man of Tai Chi, right?
Keanu Reeves: Yes.
Coming from that side of things, do you see production a little bit differently now?
Absolutely. Yeah. With Chad and Dave, they had a lot of experience shooting second unit with their action design company. I had worked with them over the years. So coming from directing Man of Tai Chi, then to partnering with them on their first film, I was trying to help in a [producer-like fashion].
Yeah, I bet. I’m curious; did you give them any advice coming from your own directorial debut?
I did, yeah.
Give me a nugget.
Make sure that while you’re in editorial that you project big once in a while. Don’t forget to look at the movie big.
Instead of on a monitor.
Yeah. Things will feel different. Some of your edits will feel different. During production, I was just trying to help. They knew physical production. But just trying to help behind the scenes to try and get them resources and things like that.
You use a number of guns in this film. Some of them are pretty unique, like that shotgun. What was your favorite to handle on set?
Yeah, for me it was just the pistol.
Yeah, you like that one?
I use it the most. [Laughs]. Yeah, I do like that one.
The film follows your character and every time someone mentions your name, there’s a sense of respect, awe, or horror. “Oh, crap, I gotta deal with this guy.”
Was there any name growing up that struck terror in you?
How about… dad.
Uh, like the mythical boogie man? Hrmmm. I don’t know. No.
[Laughs] That’s all right. You don’t have to have an answer. This is your second time at Fantastic Fest. I don’t think you got in the ring last year, did you?
I was in the debate.
You were in the debate but you weren’t in the ring, right?
No, he fought Tiger Chen.
So what’s it going to take to get you in the ring?
An invitation by Tim League!
[Laughs] I’ll have to let him know. The film has a very emotional core at the beginning of it. I thought it was clever because it showed off your range almost immediately. Did you shoot in sequence? Where did that scene with the puppy come into play in the shoot?
Yeah, I got fortunate in that sense because we shot some of the early parts of the film in the beginning. So it was nice that way to get to feel John Wick’s love and his grief. Then to have the scenes connecting with Daisy the dog. So it was nice in that regard to have that in the beginning of the schedule.
I know that famously animals are always kind of a nightmare to deal with on set. What was the dog’s name and how was she or he?
It was Andy the dog.
And he’s got great range because he’s playing a girl.
We got along pretty well. Which was nice. The dog was getting older and older. Which was great in a sense because puppies have puppy mind. But fortunately, the dog and I, I tried to spend some time with the dog before filming and hang out. So we had a rapport. It was still difficult. Sometimes, “Are you a cat or a dog!? Come back here.”
[Laughs] They’re not responding to your calls or anything.
Yeah, they don’t care.
“No, this smells really good.”
“What’s that shiny object?”
You drive three main cars in this film. Whether it’s the 69 Mustang, or the SS. Was it a Chevelle or a Camaro?
I think it was a Chevelle.
Those cars have so much power and…
Yeah, history. Which one of those two would you rather drive?
The Mustang. The Boss 69. For sure.
There is a redemptive aspect to this film with Chad and Dave. And Dave is the producer, correct?
They both directed the film.
Okay. Because it is kind of confusing on some of the production materials right now that are out.
Yeah, they had a situation where they were directing the movie as directors and when they finished the film the director’s guild wouldn’t recognize them as the directors because of a precedent that they have. It’s grandfathered. Chad and Dave were under the impression that they could satisfy the [requirements] to be recognized. But then when it came back to the end the DGA decided that basically, next time, you can be called directors. But this time we have to split you.
Did they already lean towards Chad to begin with or was that a decision from the both of them?
No, that was all from the DGA. They had to declare one as the director and one as the producer. But then they were told that they can go try and be directors so they were monitored as directors and they were passing all of those recognitions as co-directors. Being responsible for the shared vision. But since the, I don’t know the years, but it was like the 30′s, the idea that there could only be one director, one voice, one movie. So they’re going through the process.
Yeah, it sucks.
So, I have to wrap with you so I’ll do a fun slew of multi-choice questions.
Cats or dogs?
Uhhhh, depends on the day.
Manual or automatic?
All right. I like that answer. Liquor or beer?
Ohhhhh. What is wine?
What is wine?
Is wine liquor? I mean, I know it’s not beer.
Well, wine can be a third option.
Wine is a third option? Well, mostly I’ll take the third option.
Movie or a play?
Ohhhhh. You cannot choose.
That’s like choosing heavens. “You want this heaven or that heaven?”
Favorite bad word?
Uh, the classic.
The classic? [Raises hands]
[Claps hands] Come onnnn…
[Laughs] All right! Well, thanks for sitting down with me and I wish the film the best.
John Wick hits theaters on Friday, October 24th.
For some time Lynn Shelton has been making largely improvised pictures. The director behind Humpday, Touchy Feely, and the fantastic Your Sister‘s Sister has now made a change of pace with her latest film, Laggies. The story of a young woman, Megan (Keira Knightley), marks the first film Shelton didn’t write herself, and one that sticks mostly to the script. Written by author Andrea Seigel (The Kid Table), Laggies is about a misunderstood 28-year-old “womanchild” who’s not quite sure what she wants out of life yet.
The decisions Megan makes are often immature, contradictory and harmful, but Shelton and Seigel paint a very warm and empathetic portrait. It helps that they have Keira Knightley giving one of her most relaxed and effortlessly charming performances to date. She’s surrounded by the likes of Sam Rockwell, Jeff Garlin, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ellie Kemper, and more in Shelton’s sixth feature film.
We recently had the chance to recently discuss Laggies with Ms. Shelton. Here’s what she had to say about why Megan isn’t a womanchild, making her own film out of someone else’s script, and more:
Do you consider Megan a womanchild?
I think she’s been made to feel like a womanchild because she lives in a society that values…she’s surrounded by all her old High School friends, who are following this conventional path. They’re doing all the things they’ve been told they should do [Laughs]. She’s just marching to the beat of a different drummer. She doesn’t have anyone around her doing that or someone telling her that’s okay. Everyone is pressuring her to be another way, to be someone she doesn’t feel is right for her.
She’s made to feel like a womanchild. She’s made to feel immature, but she’s really not. She is maturing. She is mature. She’s mature enough to realize: “This isn’t working for me. I need to take a step back and figure this all out.” It’s not failure to launch. She’s not hanging back for the bad reasons, but to avoid the bad decisions. It takes her a while to realize: “I’m actually not doing something bad.”
She’s very happy and content at the start of the film.
Yes. She just finds she’s not on the same page with those around her. She just starts to ask, “Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with them? What’s wrong here?” [Laughs] It may seem like an odd choice to hangout with these new teenage friends — and the father of one of these friends — but it actually presents her an opportunity to be in the presence of people who let her be herself. She gets to discover what that feels like.
Even though you didn’t write the film, your voice is definitely a part of it. When you read the script did it feel like a story you would’ve told?
Absolutely. I would’ve written it differently, but just that territory…I had already made a few high-concept movies that, on paper, don’t look like they would work. My challenge to myself was to create human beings and tell a story that’s surprising, and make it all feel believable. When I read script it was the same thing, where I thought, “Wow. Here’s this great concept that doesn’t seem like it would work, because she just makes all these surprising and different choices along the way.” I believed everything, though. Everyone felt very real. The humor came from a very character-based place, as opposed to contrived set-pieces.
There was these amazing moments. One of the scenes that really got me…I’m trying not to give anything away, but there’s a scene with Gretchen Mol that was just so genius and from so left field. The way the scene played out made me think, “I don’t know if I would’ve thought to write it in that way, but…wow.” Andrea’s writing and ideas…she’s just so brilliant. She was so easy to work with. The only other time I’ve worked with other people’s scripts has been on television, which is the domain of the writer. On television I’m fulfilling someone else’s vision. Andrea had to remind me, “Hey, this is your baby [Laughs]. You don’t have ask me for permission if you want to change anything.” It was really nice of her to remind me. It was a new experience of having to convert her script into my own movie, but it ends up being a great collaboration.
A few years ago were your hesitant about directing someone else’s script or has it been about finding the right material?
I had been reading scripts. After Humpday and Sundance I got an agent and a manager, and they all sent me a lot of scripts over a year. It’s so rare I find a script I connect to. This actually didn’t need a ton of work. I had experiences where I’ve read a script and felt, like, “Would it work? Maybe.” For the most part, I’ve ready so many great scripts and really great stories, but I just didn’t feel that personal connection. This was one of those rare exceptions. It’s not like I’m on the search for it, really, but more like I read scripts and, if something really sticks out to me, then I might pursue it. I’ve made five movies where I was the writer, so it’s not something I’m on the lookout for. At the same time, I was excited to take on this new challenge.
The improvisation on your past films definitely helped create a sense of realism. When you’re going off almost entirely what’s on the page, how do you capture that a similar spontaneity?
Well, it starts with a script that actually feels like something actors can make feel like it’s coming out of their mouths [Laughs]. It starts with the writing. Then it’s casting actors who can really find the overlap between themselves and the characters, and I felt I had lucked out in that department. I have just the highest of praise for all the actors. Then, yeah, there’s Andrea’s lovely writing. There were definitely ad-libs or a little addition, but maybe 3% or 4% of the film. In general, we didn’t really feel the need to do that, though. It was all working on the page.
You still root for Megan at the end to work things out, even after a few not-so-great decisions. That’s tough to do, but Keira Knightley pulls it off. What convinced you that she could help keep an audience empathizing with Megan?
You know, the Keira I cast was honestly the Keira I remembered 10 years ago when I saw her in Bend It Like Beckham and the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Finding out she was 17 after that I was just so floored by the confidence. She’s just so loose-limbed and comfortable in her body. She just had this naturalism, which she’s managed to maintain. I feel like I believe her in all her roles, no matter what she’s doing. The thing about the period pieces… [Laughs] not only is she often in a corset or whatever, which means physically bound, but a lot of repression of emotions and her personality. I don’t know… I just went into it thinking about those early days. Those were funny, too. There was humor in her performances. It was delightful to see my instincts were correct! She was able to tap right into it, but she’s very much like that. She’s comfortable with her shoes off and cross-legged [Laughs]. She’ll curl up in a chair, as opposed to [English accent] being a lady. She was perfect for the character.
Laggies opens in limited release on Friday, October 24th.