In theaters now, Ivan Reitman‘s new film, Draft Day, does quite a bit with a hard subject. Part of that is the writing, but a lot of the success on screen is due to the amassing of talent Reitman manages and the flash he implants into ordinary scenes. The life of a GM during a tumultuous and pressure-packed day deciding the future of his NFL team is, as this film proves, fairly riveting and entertaining stuff.
One of the younger stars in the film is Tom Welling, best known for his ten seasons playing Clark Kent in Smallville. I got a chance to speak with him during a press day for Draft Day and talk about what drew him to a set where he takes on a smaller role, why he shaved his head for the film, and if he’s ever seen someone fired or had to fire them himself. I also asked how he would feel if Smallville ends up being the biggest thing he had ever done. He had an interesting response to all these questions and more, which you can catch in my exclusive video interview below.
Draft Day is now in wide release.
Hitting limited release and VOD this week is Joe, the latest film from director David Gordon Green, starring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan. Based on Larry Brown‘s novel, the story follows a young boy trying to make his way in life and get away from his abusive, drunken father when he runs into a foreman that poisons trees in Texas. The foreman is kind and protective, but has some serious anger issues that keep him from getting very far in life. Sincerely, it’s one of Cage’s best films in some time and a showcase that he still has remarkable talent.
After the SXSW premiere of the film I was able to attend a press conference with Green, Cage, and Sheridan to discuss the film. Among the various topics were the way this film and Green’s last film, Prince Avalanche, feel like they share some DNA beyond just the director, the way that Green incorporates pieces of the actors into their characters, the importance of the facial hair that Cage sports and whether it was real or not, what kind of personal experiences Cage and Green brought to the film, and much more. It’s a fascinating read for those wanting some background before going into the film and I also ask about one of the funniest moments in the film: the “pain face,” and where it came about. Enjoy the full conversation below and read our TIFF review here.
Can you talk a little about finding the different locations you used and the people you interacted with? In particular Gary Poulter, because he’s so terrific in the film.
David Gordon Green: I remember when Nic came to town we were talking about how to flesh out the cast and I really wanted it to have a raw southern authenticity and not necessarily a Hollywood polish. I wanted to make sure these characters felt like they were from the real world and we were dropping in on guys that knew how to do this labor and had these voices of either poetry or horror, depending on who we were looking at. Outside of Nic, it’s all Texans, people that were living here and had the voice of here. We’d go in the morning down to town — it was all shot in and around the Austin area — we’d go down downtown to the day labor center in the morning and there’s construction foreman looking for guys on the job and people with landscaping needs looking for guys and we’d be out there gathering some guys for our job. So we’re casting based on their face and their voice and it were taking a leap of faith. It was the instinct of me and my casting directors, who were really unique, really visionary in their length and detail of looking for fresh faces. We also did traditional casting and there’s a lot of really talented local actors, Adriene Mishler, Heather Kafka, and Tana Morris.
The difficult part of this movie in putting the cast together in a lot of ways was to find the character to play Tye’s father in the movie. I just knew I needed a movie star of the magnitude of Cage and I needed a fresh face, young voice, super energy, young character for the Gary character. Gary Poulter, the gentlemen who played his father, I just didn’t want the cynical hollywood villain. I wanted somebody that felt sad in a way and had a depth and darkness behind his eyes rather than just a guy that was going to role up his sleeves and chew on a bad guy role. We looked at some incredible, well-known actors for the part. For those familiar with the novel, it’s a very memorable, notable character of southern literature, so we really needed just to finesse the casting process. Our casting directors met Gary Poulter at a bus stop here downtown. He was just waiting for the bus and he was actually on his way back from his father’s funeral. He had been living on the streets downtown for quite a while and had a lot of hardships and had a lot of stories to tell and a wonderful charisma and positive ambition to bring the table and was looking for a new step in life. It was amazing to work with him. I introduced him to Cage, we had breakfast one morning, and they hit it off. I introduced him to Tye and they hit it off. We just had a wonderful time working with him.
Nicolas Cage: It’s a little sad because I said to Gary, “Just keep it together for one year. Just one year and your life is going to change dramatically. You’re going to get all kinds of phone calls and you’re going to be making all kinds of movies.”
Can you also talk a little bit about what David was saying about working with the real people, the people off the street, as opposed to working with other actors and what that was able to add to the authenticity?
Cage: The thing is that everybody I worked with had tremendous work ethic. Gary Poulter had work ethic. He had the Vincent Price smile on from The Black Widow Alice Cooper album down. He would perform all the time. He was a real, trained street performer. So when I was ready to work, he was ready to work, and vice versa. It didn’t feel that much different than working someone out of Juliard. He was on point.
Joe had all of these inner demons it seemed, but he also was an everyday man. I’m just curious in your own life, what do you bring to a character like that?
Cage: The great news was that when I read the script I knew right away this was something were I wouldn’t have act too much. I could bring whatever my life experiences were from the last two years into the role. When my wife saw the movie when it premiered, I think in Venice she said, “Well, that’s you.”
I was wondering what drew you into a making a picture about community violence, where problems are often solved through aggression rather than reasoning. Is there something in your background?
Green: When I read the script it struck me as a great contemporary western, a genre that I’ve always been drawn to and love. This story particularly was based on a novel by Larry Brown and when I was in college a film professor of mine named Gary Hawkins introduced me to Larry’s work as a southern writer among other writers, like Harry Crews and Barry Hannah and Tom Franklin, a lot of great writers. Cormac McCarthy has really escalated and guys like Charles Portis that are amazing, and when you dust them off they’re beautiful literature. I worked on a documentary on Larry, the novelist’s life, so I got to know Larry when he was alive. My professor did the adaption of the novel after Larry passed away. My professor, in honor of Larry, said, “I want to take a stab at Joe because that’s the one I find the most personal.” The most personal to Larry, the most personal to himself. It’s a story very distant from me, but it’s something that really resonated with a lot of relevance to me. I felt very familiar with this world even though I can’t say I’ve grown up in the squalor of Tye’s character, can’t quite stay I’m the bad-ass and masculine as Nic’s character, but it’s people I look up to and I wonder about them. Even the horrific characters or some of the quirkier characters are people I’ve, in my strange life, met along the way. I’d love to explore and take these steps in their shoes.
It’s almost as if the roles were made for them…
Green: I talked about the authenticity of the raw, untrained actors but it’s great when you have actors that can find within them depths of reality that trigger something that audiences… it’s the reason we go to the movies. To see guys like these guys, invite us into our lives and experience characters through their eyes and that’s the most rewarding part about a movie like this; getting into the ring with Nic and Tye and bringing a story that’s very passionate and I have a great history with to life.
Cage: One of the great things about working with David is that he will interview his actors. He’ll invite little stories that you may recall from your own lives and just put them in the film so it gets that feeling of spontaneity and feeling of life actually happening as opposed to just sort of acting it. Little memories, little bits and pieces, little bits of dialogue, little thoughts or experiences that actors can put in the performance so you don’t have to act so much, which is very much a part of the process working with David.
I have a question for Tye. You have had a pretty remarkable start to your career, something that a lot of actors couldn’t even dream of having right off the bat. What did you find unique about working with David and Nic? Did you learn anything new in your experience on this film?
Tye Sheridan: Absolutely. I like working with David because, like Nic said, he incorporates specific and realness and honesty into his films. He’s very spontaneous. I remember one time he told me he had a booger. Nic is just a true professional and has had a great career over a number of years. I look up to him and is one of my role models.
David said something about you being in a point in his career that is perfect for the film…
Green: Perfect for me to mess around him. Sometimes people get a little manicured. It’s fun to find someone that’s fresh and energetic that you can sculpt things. There’s a certain device you can sometimes get a little self conscious in that, especially young actors that are starting to look at themselves and see themselves in interviews and say, “Oh man, I’m cool as shit.” It was good to get Tye before he took on that teen idol role. I’d like to be a big brother to him. He’s fun and brings a lot of ideas to the table and as much as me or Gary or Larry are looking at this period in a young man’s life, why not look to the young man to tell us what to say? He’d come to us and say, “This line is bogus.” Hey man, it’s gone. You say what you mean.
Cage: I was also witness the moment where Tye said, “No, I will not eat the booger.” You know he had his dignity left.
What was the mood on set?
Green: I work with a real loyal group of filmmakers as a part of the crew and I always cast — regardless of the darkness or dramatic of the film — people with a sense of humor, because that “super serious, don’t understand when I ask them to eat a booger,” it’s not about that. It’s about something more, it’s about inviting a little bit of absurdity into the process and humanity into the process and making sure that no matter who we are and what pedestal and under what glamorous lighting we’re under, we’re eating boogers, man.
Cage: I do remember in between some takes of particularly tense scenes, I’d go into my David Lynch impression and David would start cracking up at that. We had a few laughs about that.
Can we see a David Lynch impression?
[Cage does Lynch impression, crowd laughs]
I’d like to talk about the deer scene. You have these three characters and then Nic’s character walks in and it’s a whole scene of hilarity. I was wondering how much was ad-libbed in that scene in particular and the movie.
Green: I had happened to see the movie Bernie when they were casting and this lady Kay Epperson was in that movie and stole the show in a lot of ways for me. Every time they interviewed her I’d pee my pants. I was like “where is that lady?” So we brought in Kay, she lives out in Longview, and all bets are off when Kay shows up. I just finished a new movie with her too, because I fell in love with her. She’s the lady in the wheel chair just talking trash. We had a good game plan. Tye is more of a deer hunter than anybody I was working with. We looked to him for technical advise and expertise and let it loose. There’s always one of those scenes where there’s an element in the room so to speak, in this case it was a deer. We just wanted to get in there and have it have a sense of strange absurdity within this southern world. In the novel it’s different, the end of the novel is very straightforward, it’s all a bunch of brothers. I think her name was Stacy but she’s a guy in the book, and I was like, let’s make Stacy a woman and bring Kay in. I was just trying to find a part for Kay, basically. I think it was pretty much all improvised, then we let chickens loose in the house, so Nic was chasing them out. I love animals man, because animals you never know what you’re getting. Everybody says don’t mess with animals and little kids in a movie but those are the funniest things, because you can’t be in control. I like to lose control as a director.
Some films are simply fun to talk about, something that’s certainly the case with Afflicted, particularly last year during its Fantastic Fest premiere. Following tremendous buzz, the film ended up garnering the awards for top screenwriting, directing, and best picture in the horror features category. Released this past week by CBS Films, the film starts with two long-time friends, Clif and Derek, on a trip through Europe with cameras in tow. Clif is an aspiring filmmaker and wants to put his latest equipment to the test so he rigs harnesses and everything else to shoot a video blog of the entire journey. Things change when Derek is attacked one night and starts to tumble down a dark hole of health issues and more. Just when things can’t get any worse, Derek gets a bit better. But that’s not good for anyone.
I sat down with the two filmmakers, Clif Prowse and Derek Lee, who both wrote, direct, and star in their first-time feature film to talk about the extensive use of practical effects, why they chose AVM as an illness, finding a bromance balance, why they shot the biggest scenes first, and some major spoilers. I’d recommend avoiding the last section of the interview for obvious reasons but everything else should give you a taste. Afflicted is currently on VOD platforms and in limited theatrical release and one can read the conversation below.
The Film Stage: I’m sure you’ve heard it a lot by now, but this is quite an impressive first feature.
Clif Prowse and Derek Lee: Thanks.
While it’s a small budget film, it doesn’t seem to cut any corners in the look and feel. Do you think that part of that is due to the fact that you have so many practical effects?
Lee: Paring down the number of shots that required visual effects and photo-real visual effects was definitely part of our game plan in order to achieve this idea. One of our guiding lights just going into our first feature film was making sure it wasn’t one of those films where people are like, “Oh, it looks pretty good for the budget you have.” You know what I mean? The film just has to work, and if you pick an idea that’s too big and we can’t achieve on a budget, there really isn’t an excuse. You can’t say, “Oh, it’s only because I had X number of dollars.” Well, maybe you shouldn’t have made a film that crazy big. So we had to keep our gaze as contained as possible. Now, having said that, we may have gotten a little ambitious with throwing people from buildings and jumping through walls. But for the most part, because those were practical. For instance, the wall was with our stunt guy literally running into a wall filled with squibs and showing up on the other side. That stuff all reads. It’s balancing out when you only have a few effects shots. If you can’t fix all your problems in post, you have to do practical, for sure.
Prowse: And that’s where you can sell the more spectacular and fantasy-based elements in the movie in those six visual effects shots, then the rest of it can be practical and you don’t feel like you’re missing stuff. We didn’t want the audience to feel cheated so hopefully we have enough stuff on screen to make you feel like you’re watching something supernatural happening in a real life environment — that was the core concept of the movie.
You are stuntmen, as well as actors, but I know how often that isn’t the exact case. How much of that was you? Every time we see your face, Derek, is that you doing that action?
Lee: [Laughs] I’d love to say that. I would have asked for that if it were possible, but I am not trained. My stunt double is Brian Ho, and he’s basically a faster, stronger, cooler version of me.
Lee: He makes everything that Derek the character needs to do look awesome, easy, and seamless. He’s actually so good that when he would do the stunts the first time through, he would be slick and he would be cool and land all of his jumps, but the character is just figuring this out. He’s awkward. He’s not an athlete. So we’re like, “OK, Brian, we need you to messy up a bit. Screw up the landing. Just get loosey-goosey about it.” To his credit, within a couple takes he became Derek. He’s full-on actor and he knew how to capture what it was to be my character doing all these insane things for the first time. Having said that, I would have loved to do some of the stunts. It’s a lot of fun getting strung up on a 110-foot cable and getting launched into space. I’m not shy, but there’s a levelheaded production assistant that says, “You know, your lead actor can’t do that. Don’t.” So, that’s not me.
Well, I want to talk about one scene in particular. You punch through a wall. Was that you?
Lee: Yeah, that counts! That was one of our fun, practical gags. We had to spend a lot of time writing the scene so we knew we could get the right angle to see that. But basically, there’s a cut-out of the wall with some plaster and fake bricks. But, it wasn’t fun to punch. It was a little heavy and hurt a little bit. We did three takes and we used the third take. For that much, I’m very thankful to Clif because when he asked to do another one it was like, “You better use it.”
I imagine you feel like a pretty big bad-ass after that sequence.
Lee: Oh, definitely. And I’m pretty sure I hit [Clif] on every take with the debris.
Prowse: Yeah… you did.
Prowse: But what am I going to complain about? He’s punching through a wall. During production, we built that wall. First take, it was dry. Then we had to build it again, which took a while. So it was actually wet the second time. It hurt. That was one of the very first things we shot. So the principle guiding light of the movie was that we need to shoot all the most crew-intensive and expensive things early in the shoot with the guys. Then, as we’re running out of money, we’re shooting simpler and simpler things so that by the end of the shoot, we’re shooting the stuff where we’re just running around Barcelona with a camera and a microphone. So that was one of the very first things that we did. It definitely was one of those moments where we had done the first two takes and had come back and thought we could do a third if we had time. It was worth it. The scene that appears in the movie now, there’s no dialogue. There was a whole part where it was an exchange back and forth but Derek says one line in that scene and it’s him putting his fist through a wall. That says everything about what he needs to say. It was way stronger that way.
How many cuts of this film were there? Was there a three hour version out there?
Prowse: The first version that our editor put together was about two hours long. So that was the longest version we ever had.
So it was a pretty tight script or was it just during production that you stripped things away?
Prowse: What happened was that we had a script that we started from, but then we allowed for a lot of improvisation around that to give it as much of a natural feel as possible. As soon as you start to feel like you’re actors reading lines, it ruins the aesthetic. It’s about making this feel as real as possible. So any time anything felt rehearsed or too perfect, or perfectly framed, then you’re losing the audience. Part of it was scripted and part of it was going through documentary footage and there’s a 40-minute scene at a table. You’re pulling those one or two nuggets that really captures the spirit of the beginning of the trip.
One thing that struck me last night during the screening was just how sharp and fun the documentary stuff looks. It’s really well done and I’ve got to say, it made me want to watch that show. How much fun did you have with that and how much work was put in to achieve that?
Lee: It was crazy fun to shoot and there’s lot of it. There was a long-standing debate of just how much you want to spend with the guys before you go off. The more you care about the characters, the more they feel real, the more the trip feels real, the higher the stakes. As we’re figuring this out we had a skydiving part of the montage, and it’s actually a full, fleshed-out scene. It’s great. It’s about the bromance between the two characters and about Clif challenging his fear of heights and it’s about Derek getting over his own demons about his AVM. It was a great scene and while it was thematic and important to the characters, it was slowing down the movie. But it was literally tested as one of the favorite scenes by audiences and we had to cut it out because it was killing the movie. So what do you do? We actually had a cut of the film that went 27 minutes before the bite. That’s 27 minutes of just hanging out with these guys, living their lives and having a good time. People actually said that was their favorite part of the movie.
So they’re saying they loved the first portion of your 90+ minute film. It’s like, “That’s great, guys, but what about everything else?”
Prowse: Do you remember when that guy was thrown from the building?
Lee: So it was a tough thing. It was killing a lot of our favorite moments. We just couldn’t keep it. It’s a lesson on succinct storytelling. You can have the most amazing scenes that don’t stay because you are not staying on theme.
Prowse: I think we also wanted to have something that felt like there’s a reason why these guys are out there with their cameras rolling. You get a sense of who they are and what they’re aspiring to. So you get a sense of them and then the movie takes a huge turn and that was really exciting because we wanted to make you feel like you were watching one movie and all of a sudden a freight train comes in a knocks this into a totally different kind of movie. So part of that was if you could get people to buy in and enjoy the first part and feel like, “Oh, I would watch this show these guys are putting on.” That’s a huge compliment that you gave us. We didn’t want it to feel like you’re waiting for something else to happen.
Lee: The film is kind of predicated on the idea that you actually at least partially like the characters. If you don’t like the characters, we’re in big trouble. We needed to spend just enough time to get you to like them.
Prowse: And it’s important to us, because we are, that you feel that we’re normal, geeky guys just having fun with the camera and joking around with friends. Everyone has those relationships. We wanted you to feel the authenticity of that.
A small, but key point is AVM. You just mentioned it. That could be anything. It could be cancer. Or anything else. Why AVM? Does that have any kind of personal connection?
Lee: Thankfully, no. AVM, if it’s in your brain, it is quite dangerous. We spent a lot of time researching a lot of different illnesses. It is very tricky to come up with something and treat it respectfully and use it in a narrative. There’s an exploitative nature to that that we’re not comfortable with and using a sickness for our movie where people actually have this problem. So this AVM happened to work for us in the narrative structure. That’s ultimately why we chose it. It worked for the character motivations, would it be reasonable for him to go on the trip, how would his family feel about it, what would his friend feel about it. What kind of dangers would he face while on the road? All of those factors played a factor in why we chose that over anything else. And ultimately we were just hyper-conscious of not abusing the real sickness.
Prowse: I think the other thing we wanted to do is get away from the norm. The use of someone having brain cancer or a brain tumor is pretty pervasive. One of the reasons we chose AVM was that we wanted it to be specific and personal that felt real. Because the use of brain cancer is used a lot we thought it would make it feel it could be more easily dismissed as fiction. We wanted something that we could introduce to the audience that was not necessarily in everyone’s consciousness beforehand so it felt random enough that it could feel real and hopefully at the same time, as Derek said, you’re treating it with the respect it deserves because you are explaining it.
**MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD**
This will be a spoiler, but we’ll roll with it. Last night you mentioned that you aren’t big fans of the vampire genre. You hinted that this was a rebellion against where it’s at currently. Were you fans of the things out there now that have been a bit of a response to — well, let’s go ahead and name it – Twilight and those types of riffs on the vampire genre that don’t hold the same appeal to a lot of people? Maybe Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain trilogy or 30 Days of Night?
Lee: Elephant in the room!
Lee: We don’t really want to call out anything in particular, but vampires in pop culture right now are less interesting to us because they’re so not scary. Because they’re not curse-based. It’s just kind of like a laugh riot right now. It’s not that we weren’t fans of vampires. I think they’ve existed in our culture, in all cultures — they’re are even Asian vampires, and I think that’s for a reason. There’s something sinister, scary, and cool about blood-sucking demon spirits. But what we wanted to do with it is ask what would it be like if it actually happened? What would happen if, hey, it was you and I? What if we shot a movie like that? We just ended up there. We weren’t necessarily hating on those vampires. It was more like, “What is the vampire tale we want to tell?” Then it ended up being this very grim, biological… only give him the powers we felt would make him the ultimate predator. Don’t gussy it up with a lot of magic and bells and whistles. Keep it simple, keep it brutal, and make it curse-like.
Prowse: I think, also, the stylized and sexualized vampire genre… like True Blood, they do a really good job with that. But they’ve done that. So we wanted to look at something in a new way and the lens of reality was something that got us excited about it. It’s not that we hate those other movies and shows, it’s just, if we reimagine it in a very dark way, what would it do to a person to have to consume human blood and flesh and to kill people? What would that do to you emotionally and psychologically? That would just destroy you. That is a very dramatic journey for a person to go on. That’s what excited us about it. Other movies that we looked at were Let The Right One In [and] the horror aspect of 30 Days of Night was something we dig.
The five day thing. Did you have a seven day rule? What was it about five days?
Prowse: That’s an interesting question. What had happened was that we wanted to base it off of when Derek initially gets turned. It had to be that process where his body is adapting and changing and then all of a sudden it becomes hungrier and hungrier. So the pace of the movie helped determine that. We needed to get through that. If that took place over the course of a month, there’s not a lot of stakes to that. We needed it to escalate quickly. We also wanted it to be something that over the course of the movie, Derek is like, “Oh, man, I couldn’t do this every 10 days.” That’s what he thinks it is because that’s when he’s pushing his body to the limit.
That’s when he has to.
Prowse: Yeah, that’s when you’re pushing your body too far and at a certain point your body won’t allow you to do that and it will take over. You need to be consuming people even faster. What you thought was the curse is even worse then you think it is.
Lee: That time span is also part of a very complicated discussion about the lore behind vampires. Asking questions like, and it doesn’t show up in the movie, but you still as a writer and filmmaker have to ask, “What are other vampires doing? How many of them are there? If they’re all murdering, say, every day, why don’t we know about them?” Like, literally, the population is being trimmed by these vampires on a very global, epidemic level, you would notice that if they had to kill three people a day. But if they only have to kill one person a year, then they’re not even a statistic. So there was an awareness about all of that. So, if you make it once every five days, what does that mean? We had to ask a lot of questions like that and establish our mythology. Making sure we didn’t contradict ourselves. Keeping everything feeling semi-biological and semi-realistic.
Prowse: And urgent.
Afflicted is now available on VOD and in limited release.
Difficult as it may be for any independent feature to break through the glut of crowded festivals and four-walled exhibitions, the critical notices and long, continent-spanning run handed to Daniel Patrick Carbone ensure that his feature debut, Hide Your Smiling Faces, will leave more of a mark. For a coming-of-age tale that eschews many typical niceties to, instead, shine light on the traumas such a time may bring, it can only speaks to the singularity and universality of his vision that many can thus respond in kind.
Our review commends Smiling Faces for the way it “achieves [an authenticity] by employing sparse, naturalistic dialogue and allowing the story to unfold through lyrical, unhurried moments.” There was some attempt to get at the heart of this approach in my discussion with the helmer, and it was to my own fortune that Carbone is, as soon became clear, fully attuned to every aspect of both his own project and how others seem to experience the whole thing. For a rather extensive tour through the process of pulling together such an endeavor, read on:
The Film Stage: Looking up prior interviews, I say you talk about this as a personal work. Is it strange, now that the movie’s out, to be talking about it with so many people? Sharing it after internalizing the whole thing for this amount of time?
Daniel Carbone: Yeah. I mean, it is kind of weird. It’s been over a year, actually, since we premiered, so it’s been kind of a long run leading up to any kind of public release of the movie, so I’ve had some time to kind of adjust to that. But, yeah, it is; it is because, you know, there definitely are a lot of elements in the film that are pretty autobiographical. As the writing process kind of continued — and even all the way through shooting — a lot of that stuff that started as being very specific to my own upbringing or very specific to my brother, things like that, a lot of those things kind of combined into other ideas or morphed a little into stuff that happens in the lives of the two boys playing the characters.
I tried to keep it pretty open, and I was never setting out to make it “my story,” or anything like that; it just happened, in the writing process, that of course the things I’m going to be interested in are things I experienced as a kid. But, as I wrote and wrote and the plot sort of came together, I became less interested in keeping this story authentic to my experience and more, just, hopefully making it a little more universal, and letting the kids who finally got cast, letting them speak the lines they felt the way they should speak them. If they had a brother.. the older boy has younger siblings, and he sort of used a lot of his relationships with his younger brothers and sisters as sort of part of his character and part of his performance.
While it started super-personal to me, it became a collaboration between the other kids in the film, and there were a lot of things that happened on the set which were better than what happened in my script, so I was willing to keep it organic and let whatever happens happens and not be so married to it. If something else comes up that’s more “true” to a scene in the movie, then it doesn’t really matter, to me, if it was exactly what happened when I was a kid or exactly where it happened. So, I became able to lose that, even before the movie came out. It isn’t really strange for me to talk about it, because it isn’t like I’m specifically talking about a trauma of my childhood with all these strangers. It started that way — it was based on that — but it devolved quite a bit.
But, regardless, was there anything you excised because it started to feel too personal? Were there any places you weren’t willing to go that, initially, was on your mind?
Not really. The obvious things in the film, that most people think I’m talking about, is the boy dying; that scene is kind of a combination of a few things that happened. When I was growing up, I remember, there was one day I walked into my high school, and you could just sort of feel that the air in the building was different. Something was different, and I found out, a few minutes later, that one of the students had died over the weekend. He wasn’t a close friend of mine, but, still, we were in a small neighborhood and I knew of him; he was a friend of a friend, things like that. There was just sort of that feeling you get, the first time you experience something like that — the weight of something like that — and that was one of the main things I wanted to explore.
A lot of people say there’s not very much “plot” in the film, and they’re right, but I think that the goal, with the film, was always to put the audience in the mind of a young person dealing with these difficult situations for the first time — and not necessarily making sense of them, but just attempting to. Seeing the way the world kind of changes when you realize that you’re not indestructible, but you sometimes feel so, as a child. So the combination of being that young and remembering that sudden tragedy happens, and also, just, when I was in college, I had a roommate who passed away, and remembering when my grandparents I had passed away — when I was quite young, as well — so it’s sort of a combination of actual events that happened and, also, just the emotions. The autobiographical parts are just the emotions, I felt; the actual event that happens, with the boy’s death, that didn’t happen, but it’s sort of a dramatized version combining a couple of things that did happen.
So, no, I always knew that if I wanted it to resonate, it should come from a personal place. To withhold things like that, I think, is a detriment to the film. I don’t know, maybe not everyone would agree, but, to me, that’s kind of the only way to do it — I think. To hold things back is to make less-strong of a film, I think, or at least a film people aren’t going to be able to relate to as well. You can kind of tell when something’s been created to elicit an emotional response, and, sometimes, that works really well, but I had these events in my memory, so I wanted to try to get actors and an audience to experience the same sort of emotional response — and I thought, “Why not?”
So does pilfering from personal experience make writing easier? Is it something you especially like to do?
I do, I do. I’ve also said, a few times, that the script process was kind of therapeutic, in a way, partially because of the sort of things I was talking about — the things I remembered, as a kid, that I hadn’t thought about in a while. Just bringing up those old ideas is something that was interesting to me and asking… going to my parents and my brother, asking if they remember “this” and “this” and “this.” It was almost kind of like a therapy for me, where I put the ideas down in a script format. For me, again, I wouldn’t say this is the way everybody should write, because there are many writers who don’t take from their life and are amazing.
But, for me, I like to sort of have a skeleton of an idea — I kind of know who the characters in this film are and where it all takes place, and what kinds of themes I want to explore — but then, actually, with the minutia of the scenes, I try to find something from my own life, or, I’m writing a script now, which didn’t happen to me, but I’m sort of trying to find people who went through similar things. You know, “What did you do day-to-day? What did you do right after you heard about X or Y?” For me, at least, in the films I really respond to, I always feel like these things are so specific that somebody had to have experienced it — how other people act when they’re totally alone and what people do when they’re trying to be the most efficient at getting around their environment. So, for me, using my own life or using the lives of other people who I can speak specifically to is the kind of way to fill in the gaps between the major plot points and things like that — make the places feel real and make the people feel real.
This being a feature debut, is there ever a struggle to break from influences when stepping behind a camera? When taking on something so big, I have to wonder if the pull from the voices who shaped you feels stronger or, even, more tempting to mine.
Right. That’s an interesting question. I don’t… I mean, I definitely have a lot of influences — I think some are more obvious than others. Pretty much, for me, that was important, to get those influences across. I mean, when you’re writing, it’s just you, so you can be watching movies or you can be reading books by directors you really like to sort of help you and motivate you to write. But, once you’re with other people, I think the most important thing is getting them to kind of be on the same page — so, for example, with my DP, I showed him a lot of the films that I was using as a reference point, visually. We try to do that in pre-production. When you’re on set, you’re hopefully not just mimicking the people who inspired you and the way they achieved tone. Not saying, “Well, the way they shoot from a high angle…” You’re not trying to rip off exactly what they do, but you’re trying to find what it is about their work that makes you respond, emotionally, and trying to figure out what your own version of that is.
So, like I said, some influences, I think, are obvious — and that’s fine — but I know people who, at all costs, avoid doing anything that any of their influences do, and I think that also leads to work that’s strong. Things inspire you because they’re good, so you shouldn’t totally ignore them for the sake of being 100% original; I don’t think anyone is 100% original anymore, including a lot of my influences. So, knowing when to use them and when you’re overusing them is, I think, the most important thing — but, on this film, we weren’t on set, talking about movies so much. That was more in pre-production — getting everybody on the same page, getting the crew. that I hadn’t met before, knowing the films I like and the style and how to shoot it.
But, once you’re moving — especially on a film like this, where we had very little time — there’s really no time to stop and look back at references to mirror them, and things like that. It’s more in the subconscious, I think, at that point, and a lot of it does come through, but it’s about balancing, I think — when is “too much” and when is it not enough. Using those influences and also trying to make it your own, of course, but not copying things. I’m kind of rambling at this point, but, basically: there’s a good way to do it and there’s a technical way to do it, and I think that usually comes from when it’s not even intentional — when you put the seeds in the heads of everybody and your own head and sort of let the chaos of the shoot take over, and those little things are going to peek up. Hopefully in a good way — in a respectful way — rather than a straight-up-copy way. Like I said, I think most of the people I’ve referenced for this film have references of their own, and so on and so on and so on. Cinema, at this point, has been around for long enough where every film is, in some way or another, a combination of a bunch of films from twenty years before that. I think it’s kind of an interesting thing to look at.
Hide Your Smiling Faces is currently on VOD and in limited release from Tribeca Films.
When it premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year (my review here), The Raid 2: Berendal rocked the Park City audience out of their seats with its audacious fight sequences and uncompromising frenetic energy, not to mention a ludicrously absurd body count. Having garnered a legion of fans with its original incarnation The Raid: Redemption, Gareth Evans, the Welsh-born filmmaker whose made his last three films in Indonesia, returns with a grander vision of gangsters, assassins and mayhem.
The complicated shoot, which lasted over seven months was an intense exercise in filmmaking for Evans and his team, but one can feel their hard work bursting from the screen as some of the most exciting action scenes you’ve ever witnessed unfold. I was fortunate enough to sit down one-on-one with the film’s star Iko Uwais, who bravely spoke English with me despite having a translator, even showing off a few moves. We also talked to the charming, yet deadly, Hammer Girl Julie Estelle, who talks about her process, including puking on the first day of training.
Lastly, we spoke with the mad maestro himself, Gareth Evans, who not only wrote and directed the film but also edited it, oftentimes on set during production, immediately after the shots had been captured. One can hear some great stories from the production, advice for action filmmakers, why Evans hates sequels, his love for Sam Peckinpah and John Woo, and watch how they pulled off some of those amazing shots. He also discusses his thoughts on the Hollywood remake and what to expect for The Raid 3, so check it out below, and we’ve also embedded an extended deleted scene, filled with more action you won’t see in theaters.
The Raid 2 is now in limited release and will expand throughout April.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood. Ahead of a VOD and theatrical release this Friday, we talked with the duo about their film influences, deleted scenes, how the documentary came to be, how the experience informed their latest album, and much more.
The Film Stage: In the press notes there’s an anecdote about how when you two were kids, Matt came home from seeing Predator to tell you what an amazing film it was; has film always been a shared experience for you two? I don’t mean just going to see them together but rather in that they made you share emotions?
Tom Berninger: Yeah, when my brother was 16 and I was 7, we’d sit out on our driveway and Matt would actually talk pretty intelligently to a 7-year-old about movies. Of course, those movies were mainly Predator and Terminator and Alien, but we did share a lot in common with movies. Later in life my brother really started to go after those The Graduate and Harold and Maude movies — and I like those movies — but I was deeper into the science-fiction and horror. But we still share a lot of interests in the same things, especially the comedies. I mean my favorite, right now, is probably Alexander Payne, and I think my brother shares some of the same sentiment.
What were the different forms you thought the film would take on? A home video? A concert film?
Tom: Well, the reason it looks the way it does is because I had a camera wrapped around my neck, and all I really wanted to do was make a web series that a website could show; that’s all it was originally going to be, and I never thought about making it a documentary at all. It was lo-fi because it was a tiny little camera wrapped around my neck and I was kind of a fly-on-the-wall and I captured whatever I could; I mean, there was no film crew, there was nothing.
Matt Berninger: I thought maybe he could make a video for us, which he did; he made a scrappy kind of video for our song, “Terrible Love,” and then little stuff that we put on our website, but that’s all we really thought Tom was going to be doing, anyway, and none of us expected him to turn it into a feature documentary. If we knew it was going to be that way, we wouldn’t have let him shoot half the stuff he did.
At one point in the film you see a wall containing all these post-it notes with scenes written on them, including ones not in the final film. Can you talk about anything exciting that was cut?
Tom: There was a lot of stuff that was cut. That wall was basically every scene that I liked, but that didn’t necessarily mean the band liked it. There’s a few scenes, I mean, on tour, I had a crush on this girl, and I think everyone knew it but she had this boyfriend and she knew that I kind of liked her, but we cut together a little interview I did with her that made her feel very awkward, where I was asking her if she had a boyfriend. But that was my favorite thing that we cut, and I wish that was left in, but I had some of the band guys in their underwear and Bryan, the drummer, naked in the shower; I think I got every band member naked at some point, but that didn’t quite make it in, thank God.
You could say this is very much a dude movie because it’s about two brothers, but how much did [Matt’s wife] Carin’s role, in editing, give it more of a feminine perspective?
Matt: What happened was, after Tom got fired, I’d felt bad for what had happened, so I’d invited him to move in with us. My wife — who was a fiction editor at The New Yorker for eight years — and her perspective came to it when Tom was really digging through all this footage and trying to figure out if he had anything or if it was just useless garbage that he couldn’t do anything with. She was the one who saw all this footage of Tom in these kind of unflattering moments, and I think it was very much an interesting story to her. She didn’t have any interest in watching a band on tour backstage or on buses or whatever, but that alone for her was not something that she really cared about, so it was really the family relationship. She’s got a younger sister, and the dynamic between Tom & I was what she fond most interesting and compelling, so she and Tom really started cutting towards that, and bringing Tom much more into the story, to a point where Tom’s story eclipses the whole story of a band on tour, in a really good way, and I think even the band is really happy that the movie turned into something more than just the profile of a band.
Tom: I definitely see the dude element, because it’s a story about brothers, but I step back and I think it really has to do a lot with family. To call this a guy’s movie is like calling Alien a girl’s movie because of Ripley. So I think that it’s a good story about family and siblings as opposed to just guys.
How much was your last album, Trouble Will Find Me, a response to these events?
Matt: The seeds of that record all happened during that tour when Tom was there and, then, the film actually continues into the beginnings of the next record, but Tom’s presence for High Violet, both on tour and in my home, living with me, after he got fired — I mean, he was in my mind and my house for Trouble Will Find Me. I mean, the song “I Should Live in Salt” is very much about Tom. I mean, Trouble Will Find Me isn’t about Tom, but the title is actually very fitting for him, now that I think about it, as trouble does seem to find him more than anyone I’ve met.
After premiering at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Drake Doremus‘ Like Crazy follow-up Breathe In slides into theaters this Friday, and for the occasion we were able to sit down with the director for a brief chat about his latest work. The drama follows Felicity Jones as a British exchange student named Sophie Williams (Jones) who begins a relationship with her host father Keith Reynolds, played by Guy Pearce. Speaking with Doremus by phone, he talked to us about how his last film inspired his latest, improvisation, the unexpected comedy of Guy Pearce, and the traditional nature of his upcoming sci-fi drama, the Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult-led Equals. Check out the conversation below.
Did the success of Like Crazy provide you with opportunities to do something bigger?
Definitely, but I made a conscious effort to not do something too much bigger, to still kind of stay within my comfort zone but still explore some of the characters and scenarios that I found interesting.
What’s your working relationship like with your co-writer Ben York Jones?
It’s an amazing process; we come up with an idea or thought and pass it off to him and he really fleshes it out and writes it and understands it with diligence and research and patience. Then it comes back to me for the process of shooting and we develop it together on set when we’re writing lines or coming up with different things, so it’s a real fun process of outlining the movie as specific as we can.
Did Felicity Jones inspire the film’s concept, since again she’s playing a British exchance student?
Yeah, you got it. The whole things was written for her, and really thinking about Dustin O’Halloran and wanting to include his musical sensibilities in the heart of the film.
Are you interested in exploring the outsider context as a way of looking at America?
Absolutely, after meeting Felicity it was really fascinating to me trying to immerse her in American film culture and doing it in a way that felt really foreign but also really familiar so I think indirectly, by virtue of meeting Felicity, that just kind of happened.
Could you discuss your improv process, and is it at all inspired by Mike Leigh?
The truth is I’m not all that familiar with how he works. I mean, I’ve heard stories but I’m not really inspired by anything other than growing up in the improv and sketch comedy world and that being the base of me going to film school and learning a more structured way of making films, so this is more or less a hybrid way. For me it really starts in the rehearsal process where we take the outline and throw it out the window and do a bunch of exercises to sort of fully understand the characters and give them a life so that they’re living and breathing and functioning. Then we slightly rehearse the scenes so that we kind of have an idea of what they’re going to be, but not have them fully working at rehearsal and then when we get to set we continue to explore the scenes, and hopefully if it’s working there while we capture it, so we don’t have to get it totally right in the rehearsal process.
Are there actors you’ve met who you’ve wanted to work with and then thought maybe they wouldn’t be comfortable with this system of improv?
I’ve been surprised by lots of actors, including Guy [Pearce], who’ve never improvised before in a film, and I think a lot of actors are excited by a collaborative process like this. I’ve found most actors are really good at it and they’re just sort of relying on their instinct which they already have.
Can you talk about casting Guy Pearce? I don’t know if you saw Lockout, which not a lot of people did, but I personally think his comedic chops are underused. Did that ever come apparent?
It was unbelievably apparent, he’s one of the funniest actors I’ve ever worked with, which was very surprising to me, but at the same time he had this ability to be extremely intense and immersive in what he’s doing so he kind of went back and forth in-between takes and it was kind of amazing to be around but what an incredibly good, easy-going person he is.
Do you have any other scripts in the pipeline?
Yeah, I’m going to start shooting a movie later this year called Equals that’s written by Nate Parker who did Moon, and that’s a more traditional script that we developed together over the last year and a half. We decided to work in a different way and take this way of working, but do it in a hybrid form.
Breathe In hits limited release on Friday, March 28th.
Although we’ve long thought of this as a Charlotte Gainsbourg-led picture, the true star of Nymphomaniac: Volume I – and, if early looks should be any indication, still taking a big role in the second half — is Stacy Martin, a French-English model with enough humility to make the center of Lars von Trier‘s lengthy, no-holds-barred sex odyssey her acting debut. The task seems almost insurmountable and the requirements might make one’s head spin, but in the first two hours does she give the craft everything as emotions, the body, and an internal thespian psychology find themselves splayed across the screen.
Many questions will naturally arise after seeing the work for oneself, and it’s below where the actress and I discuss expectations, extreme tonal balance, shooting extensive sex scenes (including some curious qualifications), and how von Trier gets his actors to work through a scene. Read on:
The Film Stage: It’s funny, because I’m speaking with you about a performance I haven’t even seen all of. I know that, overseas, the situation is different, but is it strange to promote half a film in the United States?
Stacy Martin: [Laughs] I mean, it’s… I haven’t seen the version that’s coming out in America, so is it that different? I have no idea. I’m very curious to see how Americans react — especially, as well, because it has so many American, massive Hollywood stars. I’m really curious and quite excited, to be honest.
I’d seen Volume I with others — others who reacted rather positively — and watching with different reactions floating around offered an unusual experience. It’s a very funny work, but quite sad and quite dark, the particular example, for me, being your encounter with Uma Thurman’s Mrs. H. I feel as if an entire ten-minute interview could be orchestrated around that — so, when shooting such a scene, what is the on-set tenor? How does Lars make it work?
He just lets you get on with it. Lars is quite unique in his way of directing, in that he really lets his actors come up with ideas and come up with their own versions, and then he can mold that into whatever he’s looking for. For a scene like this, with the incredible performance by Uma Thurman, she really took the challenge of it all — and when you have amazing actors like that, suddenly, you are in the scene. All the amount of preparation that you’ve done, suddenly you don’t think about it all, because you’re there; actors like Shia LaBeouf or Christian Slater, they do exactly that, and it doesn’t become work.
It’s completely effortless and it’s very difficult, because your heart goes out completely to this woman who’s a complete mess, but, because of the character, I’m sort of forced to not empathize with her, to not like her — and that’s difficult, because it’s so contrary to who I am as a person. But it was also very funny, and it came out a lot filming it, when you realize, “No one’s helping her, she’s bringing the children, she’s not shutting up.” It’s crazy. [Laughs]
Does von Trier key you into his specific processes before shooting begins, or does he let you discover that while things are actually underway?
You discover it. It was a little surprise, because he arrives on set, he doesn’t… and I think this is quite new, because I was talking to Stellan [Skarsgård], and he said that Lars used to control a lot of the things — every movement of the actors was controlled — and, now, he sort of lets you improvise. He doesn’t block, but you find that on-set, in the morning: he’ll come and say hi to you, and then he goes, “Okay, let’s start.” Then he says “action,” and you’re going, “Oh, okay.” So it takes a few minutes to go, “Okay, this is how it is.” And, you, as an actress, suddenly your head kicks in, and you go, “Okay, right. That’s this way.” It’s fascinating.
You had body doubles employed for many of the scenes, yet I forgot, watching the actual film, that such a thing had even been done.
Yeah, I forgot watching it as well. I was so shocked; it looks so real. Thinking, “I don’t remember doing that!” [Laughs]
So I have to ask: are you performing anything in those scenes, or is that all a body double with your face grafted on? Honestly, it’s rather difficult to tell.
It is, isn’t it? Basically: everything is mine, but the special parts. Let’s say “vagina”; I don’t know why I’m trying to find new ways to say “vagina.” So, we would both do the scene and he would actually have people have sex, basically, and I went in for amazing CGI work. But anything that’s actually sexual… yeah, that’s not me.
You’ve just spoken about the process in shooting a dialogue scene with von Trier, so I’m left to wonder if the same applies for this physical work.
No, not at all. That was the complete opposite, because it had to be — just because of CGI — we really needed to know, we needed to sort out the positions because of the angles, because of the visual effects people. Also, for me, I said to him, “I want to feel as comfortable as possible doing this scene. Knowing that I have a porn double and knowing that I have a prosthetic, that’s one step, but I want to know what we’re doing.” I needed that kind of structure; it was very important. So, it was almost like doing a dance routine — you do this, you do that, click, click, click. You find your way through it.
How do you speak with a co-star, actor-to-actor, before doing that?
What was great with Shia was that we had time to get to know each other. We met before filming, and that was very important. Sometimes, we just didn’t; there was a time, I think we did a whole day, and it was just the smaller sex scenes. Then, suddenly, you know, it’s completely impersonal — it’s just, “Okay, let’s do this, let’s do that.” I think it kind of mirrors, as well, Joe and her character, and I kind of used that as well. I said, “Well, great. This is a gift for understanding where she’s coming from and what she’s doing, all those things.”
You’ve seen the complete project, I’m sure.
When you go to a place like Berlin, watching it with a big crowd… could you recount the experience of that, and how it might prove strange?
[Berlinale] was the first time I watched it in a cinema — with an audience, with Lars, and with the cast. It was… you know, I’d seen the movie before. I knew what I was watching, but the great thing about this film, that I realized, with all the digressions you’re constantly looking at them, sort of remembering things. “Oh, I forgot that!” It’s so dense. To see the reactions of the audience — how they were laughing — and to sort of be there with Lars, I was so proud for him and just so happy and really excited, as well. I mean, I felt very protective.
And you get to learn about fly fishing, too.
Yeah, I mean, don’t bother with all the sex — you get to learn about fly fishing.
I was surprised, after seeing the film, that this is your first real onscreen performance. I say it as a compliment, truly, though it forces me to ask if you see this as… when you get this kind of role, do you see it as a good start to a film career, or is it a bit of a digression from modeling work?
Well, it’s definitely a beginning — it’s my first film, first part, first job in a career that I really value and want to do. But, for me, when I read the script, there was no way I wasn’t going to do it. I just see it more as showing the world and, especially, the industry that I’m not afraid of taking on a challenge, and I’m not afraid of taking parts that will prove to be difficult, and might not be appealing for everyone. But that’s the exact kind of work that I love doing — getting parts that are really difficult and, you know, they’re not always difficult because of the nudity. You have a lot of difficult and heavy parts out there and that’s how I see it. So, that’s how I’m attracted to it.
Both Nymphomaniac: Volume I and Volume II are currently available on VOD; the first half is now in theaters, while the second makes its theatrical debut on April 4.
For a documentary on a filmmaker I had heard of but had never seen any films by, I was a bit hesitant going in, but I absolutely adored Jodorowsky’s Dune, which is hitting limited theaters today. Whether you’re a Dune lover, a fan of his films, or have no interest in either, this documentary is a must-see. Inspiring, touching, moving, and all-together entertaining, the film owes a huge debt to the man in the middle, Alejandro Jodorowsky or as he’s lovingly called, simply Jodo, and it’s clear that director Frank Pavich embraces that completely here.
The film is about Jodorowsky’s enormous vision and grand scope for the failed adaptation of Dune, the legendary science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. While that’s the initial hook, you stay for the wonderful character of Jodo and to see how hard he strove to create a vision worth experiencing. More than anything, this is about art and what drives us to follow our passions in live. Jodo lived by the sword and died by it too — he was relentless in getting his vision on the screen and enlisted that biggest stars, both in front of and behind the camera, to help bring his ideas to life.
Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Pavich to discuss any and all things about the film. Along the way we talked about when he realized the gem he was sitting on, finding the perfect ending to his film, how he went about animating the storyboards and his goals for that and the music, the first time Jodo saw the film, how he got a hold of all the material throughout, and more. I believe our conversation adds to the film and what it achieves, so check it out below in full.
The Film Stage: When you’re trying to edit this documentary together, do you know you have this kind of gem?
Frank Pavich: No.
At what point did you realize you were sitting on something?
I always knew we had a special story, but we didn’t know how it was going to be received, if it was going to be well-loved. I mean, who knew? We really didn’t know until our premiere, and our premiere was at Cannes this past May. At our premiere screening, not only was our audience in hysterics and laughing throughout — totally behind Jodo, which was great — but they actually broke into spontaneous applause at four different points of the film, at the end of a certain story. Once that happened the first time, we were blown away. None of us expected such a thing like that. That just proved to us how behind Jodo the audience could be. It was really up until then that we were nervous. Maybe it was going to be crickets? But that really set the ball rolling. Every screening we’ve had since has been miraculous. People just fall in love with him. We thought it would be a fun film and it would be good because we were inspired, but we didn’t know the audience would feel the same way. The bar is set very high by Jodorowsky and his vision, and his outlook on life in general. As he says in the film, “Why, why do anything if you don’t have huge ambition?” Why? There’s no point. It’s difficult to do anything, so go all the way. You have to try. And if you fail, it’s not important. It’s not about the end result of the product. It’s about the process along the way and it is whatever you make out of it.
Here’s where I’m coming to this film from: I’ve heard of Jodorowsky and I’ve heard of his vision for Dune before, but I’ll be honest. I’ve never seen any of his films. So coming from that perspective, you fill in the gaps incredibly well. I feel like I’ve been given a crash course on Jodorowsky.
I know to seek out El Topo and The Holy Mountain.
That’s great because we were hoping to make it…
Accessible. Yeah. Hopefully the documentary is not only for fans of Jodorowsky or fans of Dune or science fiction. Hopefully it’s for everybody. I kind of use my wife as a barometer. She didn’t know Jodorowsky. I don’t think she’s ever seen a science fiction film and she’s never heard of Dune, and she’s brutally honest. But she was really enthralled. She fell in love with him. He’s such an amazing storyteller. So hopefully it holds up. Hopefully we put in enough information and background. To us, the ideal audience is the blind viewer. The person that goes in and has no clue and no history of any of this. Then they come out and are inspired to learn more and see more Jodorowsky. Maybe even see the David Lynch version of Dune. Who knows?
So he was with you at Cannes. Did he see the film for the first time there?
He did. Yeah. He couldn’t make our premiere screening but he was there for the second one. He was sitting with his wife next to me and the whole time I’m watching the two of them out of the corner of my eye and they were enthralled throughout. And at the end, I can see they’re both wiping tears from their eyes. So I leaned over and asked, “So, what did you think?” And he simply says to me, “It’s perfect.” That was one of the greatest moments of my life. Because here was this man who gave us this gift of this amazing, personal story of his. I mean, who am I? I’ve no right to contact this man and walk into his apartment and pitch my idea for a documentary. I’m not Errol Morris. I don’t have this track record, but he’s a reader of people. He’s a reader of intentions. I think he saw that I was obviously enthusiastic, as I am today for him, and that I had a real respect for him and a gratitude that he was going to let me tell this story and do it right. That I would take my time in creating it. That it wouldn’t be a DVD featurette. It wouldn’t be a depressing story, “Oh, look what could’ve been.” It’s something more than that. The film is about him trying to make Dune, but it is about so much more than that — those overriding themes of ambition and it’s interesting to make a story about a quote unquote failed project, but for the documentary to be so inspiring, enlightening, and funny.
It runs the whole gamut.
Yeah. You know you have the audience when they’re laughing, applauding, and when he pulls out that money during one point in the film, and he goes, “What the hell?”. You could hear a pin drop in every screening at that moment. I guess it’s a good sign because I still watch it. Every time it screens at a festival they’re always like, “Do you want to watch it?” and I’m like, “Yeah! Sure!” I must have watched it who knows how many times during the festivals, let alone the editing room. I never get tired of it.
When you set out to make a documentary, a big goal is to create a narrative. But that’s pretty difficult to do without heavily steering a conversation.
One thing you do phenomenally well here is you take the character of the Prince Paul Atreides in Dune, who is played by Jodo’s son, Brontis, and you have this story throughout the documentary and Dune itself of the Prince dying and his aura going and spreading out all over the place.
And you have this line in the film from him.
Isn’t that the killer line?
When you heard that, you had to have said, “Oh, shit, I’ve got a movie now.”
Yeah. That was part of our last interview. We knew we needed something else. I really wanted to get the two of them together because these two people need to be together. They both have influenced each other’s lives. It really needs to be Jodo and Brontis. So we sat with them for quite a while and we were going through all this stuff. We had a couple of ideas we were thinking. Like, I knew that that last scene of Jodo’s film. That scene 90, the death and resurrection of Paul, really tied into the theme of our story. That the film dies but it has spread out. I knew that was going to tie together but I didn’t know how we were going to do that. And yeah, it just kind of happened. Even at that point, when Brontis gave that line and Jodo was like, “OK, good, you go it? We’re good!” He starts taking off his microphone. And I was just like, “Yeah, I guess we do have it.” Why continue further? But yeah, Brontis just nails it. Oh, it’s so fantastic.
You get some of these outside perspectives for the film. Clearly, though, you hitch your horse to Jodorowsky and you showcase him throughout. But you have interviews with Magma. But not Pink Floyd. Not Mick Jagger. Why not?
We thought about trying to contact Pink Floyd but it’s kind of difficult. Because they all hate each other. Do you go to Roger Waters or do you go to David Gillmore? It became really complicated. But the Magma thing, well, everyone knows Pink Floyd. But not a lot of people know Magma, so it was kind of a cool thing to introduce people to them. But we also wanted to keep… I’m not a big fan of documentaries where it’s 90 minutes and there’s 110 voices. I can’t follow it and I lose interest in 10 minutes. I don’t know who is talking and I have no connection to anyone. I have to read everything. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, who is this person?” So we wanted a small number of people that you spend time with and you get to know. This should be an emotional connection. It can’t just be facts. I’m not trying to vomit facts out. There would be so much more that we could have included if we wanted to do that. We want that connection. I want people to go, “I love Brontis! I love Magma and I’m going to buy one of their records.” You want to spend time and hear their voice.
Jodo’s actual Dune project never went into full-blow production — nothing was ever shot and the film was never made. So what you’re dealing with is all concepts. You bring in some of the production designers and conceptual artists, which is perfect. But did you ever go after anyone for interviews and realize that they didn’t have anything to actually show for their involvement in the film? Like, that they would just be a talking head?
We were really particular about who we went after to talk to. So I didn’t even both going after a Mick Jagger or someone like that. If you can’t get the lead roles… I mean, David Carradine passed away, Orson Welles passed away, Salvador Dali passed away. “Oh, Mick Jagger‘s still alive, but he had a small role. Let’s go to him.” Then it becomes like stunt casting. And I don’t like those kinds of documentaries either. “Look at all the famous people we got.” What? Just because someone is famous means they have a lot to add to that story? Maybe Mick Jagger could have added to that story, but it would have felt lopsided. We have Brontis, who was going to be the star of the film, and that’s Jodo’s son, so that makes sense. It would just seem too peripheral almost. We wanted the film to be lean. I read some review that said the only problem with the film was that it didn’t show more animation and more of the artwork, but then he said that that probably means it was just the right amount. And I was thinking, “that’s a pretty good line.”
Speaking of the animatics, there’s this movement in the comic book world where they are creating these things called motion comics. They basically take the original, flat drawing of popular comic storylines and in Photoshop lift the characters off the page. They move them a bit and do rough animation to make their mouths move and things like that. But it’s never anything but the original drawings and words, but just brought to life. That seems literally exactly what you did with your animatics. What was that process like for you?
It’s a tough thing because you want to breathe just enough life into it without it being overwhelming. Maybe in the hands of somebody else it would have been too ostentatious. Too full blown. “WHOA! 3D!” And that’s not what Jodo is. You want to take these, for the most part, storyboards. The Mœbius storyboards, which were just pencil on paper. They were quickly drawn but with a lot of emotion and with the entire story, and take those and breathe just enough life into them where you see the movie and the scene come to life. But then your imagination takes you the rest of the way. You take the pencil and you just create a little life, you add a little bit of color, and sometimes there was original color in them, and then your mind fills in the rest.
What would this scene really be like? What would it be like with actors? So we have this animator who is based in Los Angeles named Syd Garon. He had that perfect touch for it. It was also trying to stay true to the time period as well. So, again, it’s not like ultra computerized. Just because you have the technology doesn’t mean you need to use it. You wanted to have that feel without going over board and screaming, “THIS IS 1974!”. It’s got to be right. Jodo’s work are timeless in many ways. They are from the 70′s but they are a different universe. They’re his universe. So we approached the animation and the music in the same way. Our composer, Kurt Stenzel, had never done anything before but he had that light touch to it. The music is of that era and of those instruments. But it’s not heavy handed.
Last question because I know I have to wrap with you, but I’ve heard first-hand accounts from some of these old movies back in the 70′s like Blade Runner where, when they were done filming, a lot of the props, the storyboards, and everything in between were literally trashed by the studios. They didn’t know what they had.
But with this film, considering it was never even made, it had to be even more so.
Sure, which is why there’s only a couple of those books left.
But that was Jodo’s copy in the film, right?
How much did you have to pull directly from that book and how much material did you uncover that you couldn’t use because it was so deteriorated?
There was nothing deteriorated. Everything is actually fine. The book is in great condition. Michel Seydoux has another copy of the book. Those are the only two that we know for a fact exist. And then Michel Seydoux has the original storyboards. The original, 80 x 100 or 60 x 100 centimeter pages. Which is really what we scanned to get the highest resolution possible so we could animate it and go in and explore the texture of the paper and the pencils. But all that exists. It’s all sitting in his office in a cupboard. All locked away. Chris Foss has all his stuff. H.R. Geiger has all his stuff. It was real artwork created. It was treated as such by the people because they all knew it was a great creation. Whether the studio knew it or not, I don’t know. When you walk into Michel Seydoux’s Camera One production office in Paris, there are four or five original pieces of Dune artwork framed up on the wall. Every day, for the past 35-40 years, it’s been up there and he’s seen it every time he walks in. It’s in his daily field of vision. They all love it and see the importance of it.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is now in limited release.
It’s been a good while since we’ve had Christian Slater inhabit a major role in a publicity-surrounded production, which can only make the impact of his work in Lars von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac all the more welcome. But, more than a turn with decent screen time, it’s the sort of lasting, unique character work that defined his earlier appearances — something he seemed fairly aware of in our conversation.
Consider me pleasantly surprised when Slater turned out both very loquacious and remarkably open about his process, at the same time evincing an active interest in various ways his director can find the pulse of a moment and make the actors inside it come alive. For a helmer with behind-the-scenes stories as notorious as von Trier, one will be surprised at the freedoms apparently offered therein. Read below for the full talk:
A friend suggest I ask Pump Up the Volume questions, but I’m actively interested in what’s happening with your involvement in Nymphomaniac. Although I’ve only seen the first half, your role in it, regardless, is significant for the imprint Joe’s father leaves on the film. I was hoping you could talk a bit about taking that sort of role — where you’re not necessarily in the “present” action, but nevertheless play a crucial part.
Well, yeah, I was thrilled to get this opportunity to play this father. It was certainly an unexpected opportunity; it was wonderful that Lars could see me as this particular character. Certainly when people think of me, they don’t necessarily see me as the dad who has an obsession with nature and trees — you just, normally, wouldn’t cast me in that role. So, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to kind of step outside, perhaps, people’s pre-conceived notion of what I can do. As an actor, I think it’s the thing that I love to do: kind of step outside of myself, really immerse myself in the shoes of someone else.
I remember when we were on the set and talking about leaves, ash trees, all these different aspects to this character, at first I found myself, you know, being a little nervous about, and, at times, maybe rushing through it. I think one of the great differences about making a film in Europe as opposed to America… in America, I think directors and producers tend to be more interested in making sure we “get the day.” You know, you get a set amount of pages that you’re supposed to get on a particular day, and if you don’t “make the day,” you’re in a lot of trouble. I think, on this particular experience, there was a greater focus on getting the moments. So, that was really wonderful; Lars was always there to kind of guide me, take my time, not rush, get myself & the other actors a chance to feel safe, and trust that it wasn’t about getting all the dialogue — it was just about getting special moments.
Was there a surprise in seeing this unfold as you were shooting, or did von Trier advise you on such a strategy beforehand?
I think, based on some of his previous work, I got a sense that he is a director that isn’t afraid to take his time — but, still, being on the set, you don’t necessarily know. It was a new experience for me. The hospital scenes that we shot were shot over a considerable period of time, and he actually made sure there wasn’t a bunch of camera equipment in the hospital room — that we didn’t feel trampled on by a bunch of crew being in the room. He actually had set up his station in another hospital room, away from us. So, really, it was me, Stacy, and the camera man just sort of working together, and he would just let the camera roll for twenty to thirty minutes, at times. So, in doing that, I wasn’t exactly sure what moments he was going to use in the film, but I was very happy with the end result.
There’s a tenderness in the moments of her childhood, here contrasted sharply with the unnerving physicality of those hospital scenes. Hearing you describe this is really fascinating and leads me to wonder: when you’re doing something such as writhing around on the floor, is that rehearsed, or does he just tell you to go?
For a lot of those moments, you get a line in the script, really — sort of a descriptive line of what the idea is, what you’re going to, visually, be conveying — and a lot of that might have just said “father falls to the ground” in the script. I think, because, we did feel safe with each other, and I knew that Stacy had already shot some pretty outrageous things — and was the type of actress to go out there on a limb — I felt safe taking chances with her and being physical with her; I knew that she would be up to the task. But you asked if this was stuff that was discussed before. Not really, no. We didn’t discuss it; it was more about turning the camera on and letting us just go for it.
Did you have much in the way of off-camera discussions with Ms. Martin? It’s often a bits-and-pieces interaction between your characters, and frequently with a different, younger actress, too. Do you discuss the development, or simply let her take that on with her own work?
Well, that is a crazy part about… well, for me, making this project was fascinating, because I did shoot it over the three- or four-month period, but in different sections. I had to shoot it when the leaves were full, during the winter, summer, and fall seasons, so I would come in sort of sporadically, so it was kind of hard to get the sense and communicate. I would hear stories about the stuff they would shoot in-between the parts that I was involved with, which… you know, some stories were very funny. It was interesting to hear how the crew was so excited and titillated on day one of shooting a love scene, and, by the end, everybody had become so desensitized to it that it became, “All right, let’s just do this one.”
So, that was fascinating. It was interesting to see people’s perceptions of shooting sexual scenes change over the course of making this movie, but as far as communicating with Stacy: pretty much, I relied on the stories that I heard of the things she had shot, and just heard genuine, I think, sensitivity as an actress. I mean, she came in really, fully prepared and ready to shoot these scenes. I don’t think she necessarily knew where I was going to be going, but because we captured a lot of the scenes of… because we didn’t rehearse a lot — or much at all, really; we filmed everything we possibly could — I think it added a layer of spontaneity and rawness that, hopefully, makes it a little more realistic and intense.
Does it feel as if you haven’t had that spontaneity in a while? Almost that you were going back a bit?
Of course. It definitely felt like a long time, and this was a project that I was thrilled to get the chance to be a part of and a group of actors that I truly respected and admired; all I can say is that, yes, I am quite addicted to it now, and very excited. I really want to continue moving in this sort of direction. I love being an actor; I love getting the chance to do different things and immerse myself in different kinds of characters. That’s just the goal for me, now, and what I would love to continue to do, and to work with a director, again, like Lars von Trier would be wonderful.
Both Nymphomaniac: Volume I and Volume II are currently available on VOD; the first half enters theaters on Friday, while the second makes its theatrical debut on April 4.