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Todd Haynes Discusses ‘Safe,’ Letting Go of the Past, Working With Julianne Moore, and ‘Carol’

Written by Jack Giroux, December 15, 2014 at 2:00 pm 

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Todd Haynes‘ 1995 film, Safe, turned the high-life of San Fernando Valley into an absolute nightmare. Some would argue that’s not exactly a difficult task, but never before had perms and manicures been so frightening. The mundane life and home of “homemaker” Carol White (Juliane Moore) is a disease. When White confronts this illness her life, in some ways, gets worse. Even in a warm, sunny and wide-open environment, White’s state doesn’t improve, or maybe it does. It depends on what one takes away from White’s deeply internalized journey, especially with the haunting final shot.

White’s story is finally coming to Blu-Ray, thanks to Criterion. Perhaps one day the company will release two of Haynes’ other films, I’m Not There and Far From Heavenboth of which are sadly only available on DVD. While we keep our fingers crossed for those Blu-Ray releases, let’s just be happy Safe has been given the Criterion treatment, meaning more people will discover Haynes’ unsettling horror film.

Haynes, after recently finishing up some work on his latest project, Carol, was kind enough to make the time to discuss Safe with us, in addition to his body of work, his thematic interests, and, of course, Portland and Cincinnati:

I’m guessing you’ve revisited the film a few times now for the Blu-Ray?

Yes, I did. I was in New York while they were doing color timing and correction. We weren’t able to locate the original soundtracks of the sound elements, but they did the best possible polish they could do on what we had. It was a great process. Everyone involved was so engaged and cared so much.

Are you someone who can watch their work without thinking about what you could’ve done differently? How do you see Safe now?

Oh, yeah. They’re from such distinctive, separate times of my life. There are little things here and there you realize about budget, time, and perspective, and you wouldn’t mind polishing up. For the most part, I try to let them be what they are, even as much as this little movie I threw on [the extras] I made when I was a child in high school. I didn’t have a copy of it in my possession for years and years, but one of the guys who worked on the movie when I was in high school just wandered into Goldcrest Post in New York City, where I was working on this feature. He told me his father passed away, and his father found a copy of Suicide in his attic. I was, like, “Whoa.”

I was working with Issa Clubb on the Criterion release, and I mentioned to Issa this film of my deep past that had fallen in my hands. Isaa was like, “Oh, my god! Let’s put it on the special features!” I didn’t even get a chance to watch it again before I said sure. I did finally watch it on the plane as I came back to Portland, and I thought, “Holy shit.” [Laughs]

You kind of gotta let go, man. It’s your past, you have it all out there, and try not to get too neurotic about correcting the past. Safe is a film completely from a time and place I respect. I do feel it’s weirdly relevant, even with certain changes — at least in the culture of HIV and AIDS, which inspired me to a large degree. Not to say other similar panics around illness or contagions don’t continue to stay with us or return to us as a culture, because we have plenty to look at today. So, yeah, it’s really great to have it out there.

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Your depiction of San Fernando Valley remains relevant as well. Sometimes that place makes you feel like you’re on a different planet. 

Yeah, yeah, definitely. I felt that way watching it, and I still feel that way about LA: everyone is sealed off in their separate vehicles. There’s a glassed-in feeling about life in Los Angeles, and it’s quite different from life in the East Coast. I remember thinking of the films of Stanley Kubrick and 2001, and trying to infuse suburban life with that weird sense of being in a completely controlled environment, where there’s conveyer walkways, carpeted walls, and where nothing feels it’s been bruised by human soiling. It’s beyond human, in a way. You find this fragile subject, Carol, at the center of this alienated life and world, which really does come through. It speaks a lot to that city.

I was just reading an interview with you where you said moving to Portland, in a way, rejuvenated you. As a filmmaker, do you find it beneficial not living in a place like Los Angeles, where you do interact with people on a daily basis?

I do. I definitely do. What’s funny is, we carry around our own orbital patterns of life, the ways we fall in domestic life, and the way we fall into a pattern of life — and that’s natural and normal, but you kind of carry that with you wherever you go. What’s really great is — and many filmmakers happen to have this built into their lives — you have to move around quite a lot, and not be in one place, even if you have a home base, like I do in Portland. I love it. I still feel a tremendous amount of relief when I come back here, because it’s a beautiful, vital, and exciting city. It’s a bit of peace and quiet. I was just in New York for an entire year for my new film, Carol, and it was great. It’s fantastic to be there. It never felt completely real; it felt a little imaginary. I was there for post-production, but I was in Cincinnati for the first half of the year.

Great city.

It really is a great city. I really, really dug it. I was so surprised where we landed, but once we saw what the city had to offer, it made so much sense for a film set in the ’50s in New York. I really like the people and the place. It’s obviously a city in transition, like a lot of second cities in this country are today. There was surprising stuff, like using non-union extras, local folks out there as our background. Not only did they look so good in the period clothes and hair, but they just looked like real people. They really performed well and felt totally at ease, and I don’t always feel that way with union extras, who kind of do it automatically. These non-union extras had these imprecations and the human blunder of real people, and I just love that because it brings a great deal of life and authenticity to what we were doing.

I imagine that working with those extras is different from the experience of Safe, where Carol is isolated for a considerable portion of the film. How was the experience of working with an actor one-on-one for so much of the production? 

Well, it’s great. It’s impossible to overstate the experience of working with Julianne on Safe, and the projects that followed. I don’t think I ever wrote or conceived of a more challenging character on the page for an actor to embody than Carol White, who’s just so absent from herself when you first encounter her. There’s so many barriers set up for the viewer’s access to her that we usually come to expect from movies, not the least of which is the fact she’s not a very fleshed-out or interesting person. Initially, Julianne had total respect for that predicament: the fragility of the interior world of Carol White. Julianne not only respected the character and the person, but also the filmmaking, which really distinguishes her from a lot of actors.

Julianne really thinks about what the stylistic language of the film is and what the frame is, and she really wants to work with directors who have a strong sense of how that process can be articulated in different ways to serve different kinds of stories. She understands that, so she doesn’t try to fill in as some actors, understandably, feel compelled to do, to feel they’re helping the viewer out. Ultimately, Julianne recognizes viewers have incredible intuition, and power of reading information on the screen, and reading narrative form and style.

An audience’s hunger for stories to unfold a certain way are actually opportunities actors and directors have at their disposal to illicit but also betray, play with, or toy with — and we were certainly doing some of that with Safe. She really trusted me and the writing, but, ultimately, it’s the trust in herself that gives her the ability to underplay and let an audience find you in the frame, and not always be waving desperately for their attention. She’s really extraordinary that way. When I saw it again recently she… I’m proud of the film, but it rests entirely on that performance. It’s an inconceivable piece of work without someone as powerful as Julianne at the core.

Is it rare for an actor to ask about framing to inform their performance?

I have to say, the really extraordinary actors I’ve worked with really do care about the frame. Sometimes it’s even just simply… when I was working with Cate Blanchett on I’m Not There, she was playing a man in this role of Jude. She would look at playback. She didn’t look out of a sense of vanity; she just wanted to see how her hips were being filmed and how to place her body in the frame to minimize the broadest curves of her female hips. Sometimes it’s very technical reasons why actors want to see what the frame is. It’s all relevant. It all plays into what is the language and the style, and how is that style informing the interpretation of the storytelling and character. I find some of these extraordinary people I’ve been lucky to work with ask questions about the frame, and it’s always for reasons of how they’re going to interpret their performance accordingly.

The framing of Carol, especially when she’s alone in her oppressive home, is haunting. Home usually plays a major part in your films: In Velvet Goldmine Christian Bale’s character has to hide who he is in his home; there’s an isolation to the home in Far from Heaven. The ideas or themes that tie together your work, are they an intentional exploration on your part or is it all subconscious?

It’s a good question. It plays in very different ways in very different films. The two examples you mention are almost on the opposite poles from each other. In Safe, Carol’s introduced almost as one of the objects of her house, almost competing for a sense of importance or presence with the objects in her house. She ultimately comes to realize there’s tremendous danger within the walls of what would otherwise be described as the American dream home: full of all the material comforts we covet as a culture.

It’s very much like the Sirkian homes, from Douglas Sirk‘s films, which are these magazine images of idyllic dream interiors. The clothes, costumes and stylings of those films only contribute to that sense of an almost unbearably perfect domestic life, that none of the subjects in these films can quite live up to. Their limitations as subjects or characters is what’s so poignant about those films — that they’re not nearly as gorgeous, heroic and victorious as they look. There’s a sense of loneliness and despair living amongst perfection.haynes heaven

In Velvet Goldmine, it’s a very different moment. It really is the secretive moment: he has to lock and wedge the door shut before he explores something that is wholly available at the record store down the street. He unlocks a channel of discovery, erotic surprise, and danger that, you know, one would think has no place in that suburban house. As it turns out, it precipitates into him having to leave his house, which threatens his domestic relations. You know, I love how that sense of danger and the unknown exists next to the absolutely domesticated and familiar objects we’re surrounded by.

With Carol White, I didn’t want to create a perfect life her illness begins to undermine, because I actually wanted something to be wrong about this life. If anything, the illness leads her to an opportunity to see there’s a discrepancy between this life and something else. The illness alerts her to a hint of danger that is signified by the world around her, in a way that’s the beginning of some crucial discovery about her own despair, grief, and own distance from that life and herself she otherwise never would’ve had the opportunity to encounter.

Are you a writer who thinks about themes and what a film is saying?

I have to say, I do, without necessarily putting it that way — like, what the film is saying. I do have some questions about the world around me that I feel the setting, the place, or genre can help me expose or get deeper into — or, in some ways, just teach me more about. It’s not necessarily so much the story but the occasion that inspires me as a writer or director. In some ways, I feel like the story can be a masking over the real core issues in films, and the ways those issues break through the story or upset the story or interrupt the story are the best chances for us to learn something new or say something different.

I like genre, because it sets up expectations in how stories should move. Ultimately, I think it’s about the ways in which some films take those expectations and twist them that take us to a different place. There’s something about Safe where I wanted your own narrative expectations to first drive this woman out of a certain kind of oppression, and then ultimately drive her back into it. The Renwood world is suppose to be this place of answers and cures for illness, but it puts her back into a place of total inclosure, which is very much how we found her at the beginning of the story. We want resolution. We want movies to wrap themselves up. It’s that very desire for resolution that can often inflict a kind of torture or abuse on the characters themselves. I love that you can follow those steps to the “happy ending,” and yet Safe is anything but, because it raises all these kinds of questions.

It’s funny, when I watched Safe I thought of Far from Heaven, because Sirk is famous for his happy endings that aren’t really happy endings. You don’t really trust the absolute wrapping up or the solving of the problem. In a way, my ending of Far from Heaven is not exactly a Sirkian ending, because it’s kind of full of despair and loss. When I saw Safe, I thought, “That’s a Sirkian happy ending.” Carol follows all the steps and says she made herself sick and says all the things people are telling her to say, but you know, in your heart, that’s not really what you want for her, but it’s sort of what society tells us what we’re supposed to do. I got my Sirk ending in there somewhere. [Laughs]

That’s great. Before I let you go, I have to say we’re very excited for Carol at the site. How is it coming along?

I’m so happy. It came out beautifully. We literally just finished completing all the deliverable requirements for it. It’s weird, because it’s so late in this year, but there was no way to make any festival’s deadline for it. We all thought it would benefit from a festival launch, so we decided to wait. It’s not going to come out until next year, and it’s going to be torturous to wait that long.

You know, it’s set in the ’50s, and it’s a very different kind of ’50s film than Far from Heaven was. The feel of it is much less inspired by ’50s cinema, and more by, I guess, photojournalism and a lot of the art photography we were seeing at the time, which has much more gritty… it’s a very poised film, because it has a real sense of control to it. The look of it is much more distressed.

It’s set in the early ’50s, before the Eisenhower era had really taken hold. It was a really transformational and unstable time from the war years into the beginning to what would become the ’50s as we know them. The historical imagery and references we uncovered showed New York was really like an old-world city in great duress: very dirty, very dingy, and very neglected.

I thought it was such an interesting place to mount this, ultimately, very pure and simple love story between a younger woman and older woman at the most unexpected cultural moment and place. For me, the look of it is very unique. The performances from everybody are just lovely. I’m dying for it to come out, but it looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer.

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Safe is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion.

Liv Ullmann Talks the Struggles and Triumphs of Crafting ‘Miss Julie’

Written by Nick Newman, December 4, 2014 at 3:30 pm 

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It’s no great surprise that a screen legend’s latest behind-the-camera effort would result in one of 2014′s finest actor showcases. Miss Julie, as directed by Liv Ullmann, takes place almost entirely in one home — and about 80% of its time in that home is centered in a single room — and often consists of no more than Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell attempting to one-up each other in tantalizing games of cat and mouse. Someone who boasts a decades-long familiarity with dialogue-heavy movies can orchestrate strong performances? Again: no surprise. But while you might think this, alone, would make for a worthwhile time, her adaptation is also a triumph of staging and cutting, where Ullmann translates August Strindberg‘s classic play with a visual intelligence that makes the leads’ sparring as electrifying as anything that hit multiplexes this year.

There are many places — too many, really — one could start when speaking with her, but our time was limited and my interest in almost every aspect of this film is deep. So, without further ado:

The Film Stage: The first impressions left by this film are Julie’s home, which is both “atmospheric,” going by the traditional definition of that word, and feels very lived-in. Explain a bit of the process for finding it.

Liv Ullmann: Well, the location scouting was very important, specifically because we were going to do most of the movie in a studio. Just before we were going to do it, they said they couldn’t afford the studio. But we had been so lucky to find that castle where our fantastic set designer did the kitchen; she became a construction manager as well. She made this kitchen, which looked like it was 200 years old, to be made into a “modern” kitchen of the 1890s. We found two rooms which were their bedrooms, and that incredible tunnel that they look out on and where she leaves in the end — all of that we were given, because we didn’t have a studio.

We were given one more thing: I had, in the script, them looking out of the window, the sun, and the midnight sun — that light — but we couldn’t do that anymore, because outside the windows were white walls. Everything was under the ground, because the rich people could not stand to watch the servants walk on their ground. So we got all that as gifts, because we couldn’t use the studio. I hurried to rewrite the script, and used that we were under the ground for the servants and above the ground for the people. We maybe got more of a luxury of the stairs on the other side of the house, on the upper level, and her bedroom, because all of that is a gift from the house and our set designer.

Can you share your personal reaction upon stepping into the home?

Well, if I can say that. Because I’m an actor, I’m not supposed to say personal info, because then they think I’m “actress-y.” But I am not. That house spoke to me, and I was happy when we didn’t get the studio, because when I found those enormous stairs where she was walking up and down to the bedroom — when I saw the enormous stairs for the little girl, all alone, no mother; I don’t know where the father was — coming into these big, wonderful rooms where there has been a party, but there’s no one there. No sound. No one to belong to. No one to be part of.

And then run out of the windows into the big nature. The nature was there. “Welcome. Here you are; here you belong. This is your book. Sit down. This is your life. This is where you’ll be happy.” All of that, obviously, gave me the inspiration to do Miss Julie in a way that, of course, could have been in the play if August Strindberg was writing for a movie. So all of that was given from the house and from the surroundings of that house.

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What probably excited me most here was your visual strategy for staging the action — a mix of close-ups with wide backgrounds and two shots dominated by movement and physical action. How much of this was in mind at the screenplay level, and how much came from interacting with the actors, knowing how you’d photograph their faces and bodies?

Well, so much of that was part of it while I wrote it. It’s really my way of writing and making movies. I think the way a face… I was thinking of big areas, these people walking in a big area, where they’re connected to the walls and the stairs. Then, because I’m a film actress, I know the close-up and the possibilities of showing what you can do with a face. That was for me, the center. When we did the rehearsals, and the blocking, that, for me, was decided. But, very simply, the big shot is the close-up, because that’s how I see life, and how I like to direct movies. I don’t know tricks; I don’t know how to do tricks. I love to see it myself, in movies, when directors know how to do that, and do it well, but I don’t know. I just want to show the environment and those faces and what is coming through in those faces, and what happened to them.

Then I’m curious about the relationship with your cinematographer, Mikhail Krichman, specifically what input they have vs. what you’re hoping to communicate.

This is shot on film, and I had in my contract it would be film and not digital. They tried to talk me out of this, but I was in luck: the cinematographer agreed with me. In the end, they had to give up. The contest was done. The cinematographer was there when we found the house, and we walked around it — we walked through the scenes. He had a script even before we knew we would do everything in the house, and when we knew we were doing everything in the house, we talked. He is a master of light, a real master of light.

I believe a director sets the frame — how big, where do you go, and where do you end up. That is the director’s job, and sometimes we would quarrel about that, and sometimes… we wouldn’t. But I win, because I’m the director. [Laughs] He’d win with a knife, because that is his wonderful way, with his movements and his things like that. We had a good connection, but we did discuss, because I think that within every director there is a visionary kind of cinematographer, although I wouldn’t know how to do it. And I think within every cinematographer there is a director.

Two moments stood out: there’s a very expressive bit of candlelight on Samantha Morton’s face at one point, and, toward the end, Chastain is exposed to this very harsh light as Julie’s nearing her end. Where do you meet on there?

Oh, that’s where… I and the cinematographer, we never knew each other before, but each of us had the same favorite painter, Vilhelm Hammershøi. He’s a Danish painter. When you talk about the maid, Samantha, standing by the window, doing all these things — standing by the window, going through the doors — that is Hammershøi. We knew the same paintings, and we agreed that we loved each other for that. The harsh lighting: well, he’s the master of light. I’m sure a lot of actors would not like to have that, but if you talk about the first time she comes into the room, and it’s the first time she sees a face, you see a woman who comes in, who is tormented, who is coming in with some kind of feeling of non-existence — non-love, non-attention.

Almost like a ghost in the one place, in the castle which is hers, but where she doesn’t belong anymore, where she has no place. That harsh light, you have to give to the cinematographer. How to describe it for him, I don’t really know, but I know he’s the master of that light. I’m not sure that Jessica, the first time she saw it, really loved it, but I love it. I think, certainly, within it comes this woman, and she already is bringing in that light — who she is.

The film’s sense of pacing is very fluid, at least in how it complements the narrative. You’d shot this in only 28 days. What challenges came with shooting this in such a span of time?

It was terrible. I was even ahead of schedule, and then they came and said on a Thursday, “We are not going into next week. It ends this week.” It was unbelievable because, according to my schedule, we had four more days. I’ll tell you what it was: it was preparation — a lot of preparation. It was a lot stubbornness. “I’m not giving up.” We did so much of Samantha’s things the last day, when we didn’t have the other actors and it was her incredible stubbornness, not ruining this thing for me. And, of course, it was the cinematographer. He didn’t give up on doing the light, keeping the light. “We’re not hurrying. It’s going to be the best.” We did not give up. I’m proud of that, and we can only thank the artists of this movie, which is the actors, the designers, the cinematographer, and an incredible crew. An incredible crew. They didn’t give up. They deserve the credit, because we did it in too short a time.

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Miss Julie will enter a limited theatrical release on Friday, December 5.

Director Talya Lavie on Creating ‘Zero Motivation,’ Favorite War Films, Politics, Sundance Labs, and More

Written by Jordan Raup, December 3, 2014 at 12:00 pm 

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Delicately shifting from laugh-out-loud comedy to dealing with complicated issues such as suicide and rape, Zero Motivation, the debut feature from Israeli director Talya Lavie is one of the year’s most accomplished. Our review states that “Lavie for all intents and purposes gives us American cubicle humor as transplanted to the Israeli warfront. A hilarious analogy for us, it’s a head-smacking expose of absurdity for those who’ve lived it there.”

We recently had the chance to discuss the film, which is now in limited release, with the writer-director, who returns to the country after winning the major awards at Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. We discussed how she came about creating the film, the balance of comedy and drama, its reception in Israel and elsewhere, being influenced by Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, her experience at the Sundance Labs, and more. Check out the full conversation below.

The Film Stage: We certainly wouldn’t see this kind of film from an American director. What led to its concept and then the execution of it?

Talya Lavie: So, I’m an Israeli filmmaker. I went to an art academy in Jerusalem and studied animation at first and then I went to film school in Jerusalem and I started making short films and started to work for television and as a screenwriter and as a director. In the meantime I was working on the script for my first feature film, Zero Motivation. So that’s basically my background. I served in the IDF because it’s mandatory in Israel as you probably know. I was a secretary, like many other girls. Not all the women in IDF are secretaries, some of them are combat, but there is a major group that are secretaries. I thought that it could be funny since so many classic army scenes feature Israelis and Americans. I thought it would be funny to some of the elements of this genre — the heroic vibe — and to use it on an army story that happens almost solely instead an office.

Nowadays a lot of comedies feel a bit neutered with issues they won’t deal with. Your film deals with serious issues such as rape and suicide in the midst of comedy. How did you find that balance?

Yeah, at first I was always connected to comedy and I always loved comedies. The comedies I liked the most were the ones that were actually sad. Some teacher in my film school once told me, “It’s the saddest people who make comedy.” So I think that is true. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to mix the genre a little bit. My challenge was to keep the tone of the film and to move from parts that are really sad to parts that are really funny. I found out that sometimes the best way to do this is to have very strong cuts — cutting between them. I put in this film a large scale of emotions so we call it a dark comedy, but it really deals with a large scale of emotions.

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You’ve mentioned comedies that might be an influence on this, MASH?

Yes, MASH and Catch-22. Those were great inspirations and Charlie Chaplin comedies, of course. They are hilarious and yet so sad.

I think a gun is only fired a few times and there are no battle scenes here, but are there any war films that inspired you as a filmmaker?

Yeah, I really love Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now and Platoon and The Thin Red Line. I can’t even count, there are so many great army films. Also, in Israel we have a great tradition of great army movies.

Do you want to highlight any of those?

There is Waltz with Bashir and Beaufort and Lebanon.

I wouldn’t call this an inherently political film, but it’s definitely a side to it.

Yes, it’s political in the sense that it’s political about Israeli society and the way the political situation affects Israeli society. You don’t see the conflict and the Palestinians, the things that are going on, because you are focusing on people that are really not involved directly in those issues. It’s still the environment as you go through the war inside the office.

You’ve toured this film in many countries, I presume. Have you seen a different response in different countries?

We expected it to be more different than it turned out to be, because the film is very much inspired by the culture. It has a lot of inside jokes and humor, but when we came to Tribeca — we premiered the film here in Tribeca — and we didn’t know what to expect, but the audience responded so great to this film and we won two awards. We realized the film is more universal then we thought. Again, because to an extent it’s about democracy and it’s about being a small unimportant part of the big system. So many people can relate to that situation.

In Israel, it did set a box-office record. Is that correct?

Yes, that’s true.

zero_motivation_1Were you taken aback by that?

It was released in Israel in June and it got great reviews. Most of the publicity was from one person to another — word of mouth. We didn’t have huge posters or huge publicity for it. It was immediately something that people talked about and I’m very happy. Because we have such a great tradition of army films in Israel, so I really wanted to add this film to that. A lot of people told me that the film was necessary for them and that’s something I was very thrilled to hear. So, yeah, a lot of people related to it and the most surprising thing was sometimes when you make a movie people ask, “What’s the audience for this film?” I thought it would be for those in their 30′s because it happened in 2003 or 2004 so I figured people serving in the army around that time would be most related to it but then we were surprised that people from all ages related to it. From eight years old to sixty.

Yeah, it can act as a coming-of-age film.

Yeah.

Did you take part in the Sundance Labs?

Yeah, I was very, very lucky to be accepted to this. I applied to the Sundance Institute and I was very, very lucky to get in there. It was a really life-changing experience. It’s a dream for every filmmaker to take part in such a great lab.

In Israel is there anything like that?

Yes, there are some. Jerusalem Screenwriters Lab, but the Sundance Lab is something known all over the world. I went to the Directors Lab there. I haven’t heard of it anywhere else. I got to work with great American actresses and to have great advisors and to try some things from the film and to be fearless and not to feel that anybody criticized me and to be very creative. I have only great things to say about this lab and what they did.

Did any changes to the film stem from the lab?

It’s not changes, but things that I realized about the script. It has a lot of nuance of the language and translating to English — I’m not a native English speaker so I don’t have this…

Background.

Yes, I can’t use language like I do in Hebrew. So it taught me so much because I had to only deal with the drama. I learned a lot of things and I got to experience and try things not under pressure of making of film, but with the joy of creation.

That’s great. Because of the success of the film in Israel and hopefully here upon its release, has that led to bigger opportunities?

Well, this year I hope to raise money for film the next time. But, yeah, I’m not looking for any other opportunities other than making more films. That’s what I want to do.

This film definitely has a rewatchability factor.

Thank you so much.

Some directors though, after they are done with the film, they want to put it away and don’t watch it again. Do you have that feeling?

Yeah, I kept watching it because I was worried about it. I wanted to make sure everything goes well, technically wise and all that. When it premiered in Tribeca I was very curious to see the audience response. Yes, I’ll rewatch it but I don’t just go to the cinema to watch it, stuff like that. I’ve really watched it a lot. This film is actually fun to watch it again and again. Really, I’m not saying it because I’ve made it. [Laughs]

This being your first feature, when you see the final product is it how you envisioned it?

Yes, I’m very happy with the film, but it’s a process. You go through this process all the time and everything new becomes the reality. You shoot the film, you find a location, you find the actors, you find the scene, then you have the material. You treat the film differently while you edit it. Then the question is how to cut. So every time you take a step, you don’t even remember what you thought before. The bottom line is that, yes, I got a lot of what I wanted and I’m very happy with it.

Zero Motivation is now in limited release.

Composer Henry Jackman on Big-Screen Heroes and Even Bigger Themes

Written by Marc Ciafardini, December 1, 2014 at 12:09 pm 

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Since 2009, composer Henry Jackman has been adding blockbuster films to his resume at an incredible rate. And there’s a reason for it – he’s extremely good at his job. Jackman has consistently been providing the modern film world with some of the most thrilling, weighty, and substantive music of the last decade. That’s high praise, but he’s certainly earned his laurels with the likes of X-Men: First Class, and things haven’t slowed down since.

In just five years, the Oxford-educated British musician has ascended into the ranks of Hollywood’s elite composers. This year he was tapped to create an epic, futuristic score for Disney and Marvel’s Big Hero 6. Melding together the triumphant feel of Marvel’s superhero lore and Disney’s emotional sophistication, Jackman drew from his experience composing for Wreck-It Ralph, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and X-Men: First Class to create a sound that celebrates the comic-book style action, while capturing the emotional bond between inflatable robot Baymax and robotics prodigy Hiro.

We got a chance to speak with the composter and one can check out the full conversation below, along with the score for Big Hero 6.

The Film Stage: Big Hero 6 is a score with equally light and fluffy parts, but then it goes on some very serious and thrilling runs. Like Wreck-It Ralph, it’s a really fun hybrid of symphonic and electronic cues. What were some of your initial ideas, and how did they develop once you got further into the process?

Henry Jackman: Well, you’re right. There are a lot of different textures in there. But funny enough, I got to see a preview of the film six months before I started writing - Premiere Of Disney's "Big Hero 6" - Arrivalsand later on you can get involved in a wide palette of sounds – but the fundamental thing I realized seeing the preview is that I needed to write a big, old-fashioned Big Hero 6 theme on the piano. Later on you can figure out what orchestration and electronics you’re going to use, but it clearly isn’t a film where a textural score is going to work.

I spent about a week just writing that “Big Hero 6″ theme. The funny thing with live-action films, these days, is that people want a reduced and minimalist score. They shy away from big themes, but the fact that this is a huge super hero film set in an animated film tradition means that you can really go for those colorful tunes.

So I started getting themes together for Yokai, Big Hero 6, Tadashi and all the rest of them, and then, once I got into the studio, it was time to weave them together, especially in the beginning. It’s about all these techie teenagers, so I had fun getting some electronic stuff involved. But the important thing about having those themes is that when you let go of the electronic sections, especially towards the end of the film, you’ve got some real music hiding underneath for when it gets really dramatic. It’s ultimately an emotional film, so you really do need your themes, not stuff that just sounds cool.

Glad you used the word ‘emotional’ because the score starts off bouncy and fun in tracks like “Nerd School,” and then later, in something like “Silent Sparrow,” there’s a lot of depth, emotion, and complexity that come across so unexpectedly. It’s like it wasn’t meant for an animated film, if you know what I mean.

Yes, I do know what you mean. By the time you get to a cue like “Silent Sparrow,” it’s much more in the tradition of serious symphonic writing. At that point in the story you don’t need electronica, and the beats, because we are well past “Nerd School” and we’re into some heavy duty revelations, and discoveries, and troubling back stories. That particular cue is much more of a dramatic and symphonic styled theme.

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First Flight” is another one about self-discovery. Also it’s an adventurous, and rousing theme which is done in a very big, orchestral fashion.

Very true, and that’s the first time I got to play the tune down from top to bottom. It’s kind of a bit more like a record. There’s a lot of production going at the same time to support it, but it’s where you hear the Big Hero 6 theme realized for the first time with the full A and B section, so that was fun.

Yes, very fun, and great to listen to especially if you put on your headphones and crank it up. As a fan of your work, I have to say that seems to be your forte. There are, so-called, whimsical composers, or dramatic composers, but you compose some of the coolest themes out there. You’re like the Elvis Presley of film composers.

[Laughs] Well thanks a lot! But wait, I hope that doesn’t mean I’m going to die in a hotel really overweight. [Laughs]

[Laughs] No, not all. But, if that’s the case, at least you’ll have a tremendous following and a whole lot of show-stopping Vegas concerts to look forward to. But I say that as such a huge fan of what you did for X-Men: First Class.

Well, that’s another one that even though the X-Men score has production behind it, the main thing I worried about, and worked on the most, was that main theme. Once you’ve got that theme, you can dress is up a million different ways.

Aside from maybe Patrick Doyle, you get the most out of your string section. There’s a part of the Big Hero 6 theme where you can imagine the orchestra needing a rest. You did a number on them, but got some fantastic work in the end, just like “First Class”.

Heny Jackman-composer_HeaderI’m very flattered you mentioned Patrick Doyle because he is a totally legit symphonic composer. Now funny enough, with the character of Yokai, he just seemed very operatic. There was something about the visual style that was so grandiose and operatic that I got to use quite a virtuoso orchestration which was nice. Disney and the directors were on board for that especially considering today’s current vogue of more post-modern and minimalist use of orchestra, it was very nice to indulge and do so in a more historical style as well. It was justified in the picture but yes, if you were in the first violin chair you definitely had your work cut out for you. [Laughs]

Earlier you said you went to the piano for the Big Hero 6 theme. Is that your go-to instrument, and then you figure out what stems you need after that?

I do, but mostly in the cases where it comes to actual composition, especially if it is something that is thematic. You can get in a loop where you start getting too deep into electronics, and then you start orchestrating, and you can ultimately deceive yourself into thinking you’ve got something because it sounds orchestral and impressive. So if you are coming up with the theme, the piano is where I try to find all the thematic material.

I have to ask this question simply because I’m a fan, and, after hearing you talk about him on The Hollywood Reporter’s Composers Roundtable (watch here) when you were being praised for Captain Phillips, I know you are too. Is Big Hero 6 a love letter to Alan Silvestri?

[Laughs] I don’t know if this film is a love letter to him, but I have always been a fan of his work from about the age of 14 or so, like I said in that round table. When I first heard his score to Predator 2, I was at some posh school studying classical music and hadn’t really given film music much attention. While watching it, I thought “wait a minute, this is like decent, proper concert music. What’s going on here?”. It had some really interesting harmony in it and I waited to see the end and saw this name. As soon as I read Alan Silvestri I said “I’m going to have to remember that.”

The other thing that people forget about Alan is that these days, everybody is doing scores with loads and loads of production, but he was off doing cool things way before everyone had all the technology that we have now. He is someone who wouldn’t go “okay this is going to be orchestral” and leave it at that. He’s super well-known for films like Back to the Future, but if you listen to scores like Predator 2, there’s always something interesting, like a wailing saxophone that sounds like an animal, and of course that iconic kind of weird Bongo rattle that signifies the Predator.

He’s always someone with an idea up his sleeve that isn’t what you’d expect in a symphony orchestra. Sure, we are all used to that now because everyone’s got some sort of plug-in and what not, but it’s worth remembering that he was doing that when it wasn’t really the norm.

He also builds tension like few others can. Those strings and brass cues are equally iconic.

Exactly. The other thing is that it’s nice to write orchestral music for an animated film in the lineage of John Williams and Alan Silvestri and Danny Elfman because you can’t do that most of the rest of the time. You can’t have a symphonic, florid style in something like Captain Phillips. [Laughs] That’s the last thing the movie needs, and you’ll ruin it by covering it in a virtuosic, symphonic sound scape. So when you do get the chance, in a track like “Silent Sparrow,” you can play with things that are more like the palette of Silvestri and Jerry Goldsmith and James Newton Howard, and it’s nice to be able to go there.

We’re talking about huge scores today but, oddly enough, I first picked up on your work when I was reviewing a screener for Winnie the Pooh. There was certain bounciness to it, as you’d of course expect, but there was also something smart and complex. It’s amazing to see, and hear, your career grow. Films like Wreck-It Ralph and Captain Phillips are vastly different, but allow you to branch out and showcase your depth.

In animated films there’s this overt celebration of fun, and your music becomes very reflective of that. If you’re doing something like Captain Phillips, there’s nothing fun happening — it’s a very realistic and very psychologically credible film. And what it isn’t is a scenario in which the score should be florid and drawing attention to itself. Quite the opposite in fact. It has to enhance the everlasting tension. It’s just a completely different type of score.

Okay, on that note, when you are creating your themes or writing supplemental music, is there a point where you say “No, I’m getting this too on the nose, it needs to be more overarching,” or conversely that you need to dial in to start hitting certain beats and find a rhythm that way?

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That’s a very difficult question to answer because a lot of times, when I start writing my cues, I don’t know what I’m doing. I kind of go into a bit of a trance actually. [Laughs] If anyone comes in and talks to me, I actually don’t hold conversations very well. Sometimes, somebody will come to me and ask, “So are you going to go to this meeting?” about such and such. And I’ll go, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” And they stare at me and go, “What do you mean? I called you about this today. We had a whole conversation about it!” And I’ll go, “Really? I’m so sorry, I have absolutely no memory of that at all.” [Laughs]

I think while you can maybe intellectualize afterwards, and make some changes having written something, when I’m actually writing to picture, if you’ve got a vocabulary going, and the directors and producers are on board with what you’re doing, once you’ve got a theme, and everyone is happy with it, then as soon as you really launch into writing the cues, it actually becomes quite instinctive. Then if you get into a snag, there can be a little bit of time set aside to assess and ponder and analyze and what not. But a good movie secretly asks you to do what you need to do. I know, that sounds very pretentious, but often, if you just lock into the picture it sort of tells you what it’s asking for.

How much is that is based on what historically were used to seeing? Aside from say, a bad guy having big loud drums or horns, and a smaller creature being characterized by flutes or something like that.

Yes, here are some unavoidable conventions, but I’m always trying to do the unconventional thing to be honest. In any given story, there are known arcs and you can always feel where Act I is, Act II, and Act III, and where the high and low points are. But if ever you are assessing a character, I usually try to not write the very first thing I think of. *laughs* It’s usually good to try and stretch it a little bit further than you would expect. If I were to play word association with you, and then give you a word, you might come up with a very expected response. When you’re writing, it’s good to try to consider it a bit and find an extra depth to something, or a new angle, and it’s a good policy just so you don’t end up having the most generic thought you can.

Speaking of that, when you do get in a haze, and become so focused on something, do you find film scoring in general is more of a sprint, or a marathon? Do you find that you have the time to develop themes properly, or is it just you reacting to picture because there’s a hard release date?

Well I definitely have the luxury of time on most projects. There are definitely times when you join something really late, and time constraints are pretty apparent. But with Big Hero 6 for instance, I definitely had enough time. I got to see the film a long time before I started working on it. Because animated films these days take about four years, and the process is very incremental, you can see it developing as you jump on board.

Unlike TV – where there is no time for beard stroking, you just have to get it out the door – the film industry is a little different, and I can say I’m really lucky to be in the position I’m in which I’ll say is “artistically luxurious”. There’s no time to dawdle, but there’s no compromise due to time. Three months is a good amount of time to get the project out, and luckily I’ve been able to get that on most of my projects.

We’ve covered Marvel, and we’ve covered Silvestri which both kind of a lead into another big comic book movie you had this year – Captain America: The Winter Soldier. What’s it like taking the reigns from another composer? I realize this question probably isn’t valid because the score to the Russo’s film is completely new material.

Exactly, and I would never do a project if they wanted to hold on to the previous score. I just wouldn’t do the film because I would say, “Well why on earth are you calling me? If you want the previous score, you should be bringing Alan.” [Laughs] But it almost wasn’t even the same film in millions of different ways. Instead of a period film, where Captain America’s adversaries are Nazis from the late forties, this was set iCaptain America_The Winter Soldier_OSTn 2014 and had completely different directors and just a completely different aesthetic. Right at the very beginning, there was one Alan cue to sort of link us to where we left off, but thereafter, it was its own score. Forget about me, mostly what the directors have put together, Joe and Anthony Russo, was just a different animal.

Same as the X-Men, when Matthew Vaughn did First Class, it was just a different animal. Not only was it a reboot anyway, but it was just playing by its own rules. And in fact, the other ones prior to Matthew directing had been done by different composers anyway. But if I were ever asked, I just wouldn’t do a movie if I couldn’t put my stamp on it. Imagine the circumstances if essentially they wanted to use the music from a previous score.

Well I just had to get that out there. Everything about this film was gritty, pensive, and driving. Even the “Captain America” track was so far removed from the patriotic cues in Joe Johnston’s film. That track is intense and the whole album is brooding, like a sensory assault at times. It’s got great string work but, then, in tracks like “The Winter Soldier” it goes on these electronic and techie spy thriller runs. And the Russos based this on a ’70s spy thriller anyway right?

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-promoExactly right, and “The Winter Soldier” is a perfect example of me wearing a completely different hat. When I saw the movie, unlike the more Americana themes, nostalgia and theatricality running through the first film, The Winter Soldier is much closer to Terminator or Robocop gone wrong. So I told them, “why don’t I not use orchestra and go back to my chops from all those years spent in basements in London banging out drum and bass? [Laughs] I should do something completely nihilistic, brutal, and viscous. Almost anti-musical.”

There’s nothing musical about him, he’s a tortured human being trapped in a machine and all he knows how to do is just plow forward and destroy everything in his path…and that doesn’t call for flutes and bassoons.

How is it working with two directors? The Russos had a great vision for this fish-out-of-water character continually coping with a world he doesn’t understand. When you’re not getting input and direction from just one person, how do you meld differing opinions?

This, Big Hero 6 and even the upcoming film The Interview has found me working with two directors, but I’d say I’ve been lucky that Joe and Anthony Russo kind of operated as one organism. I think there would have been problems if there were some sort of fundamental disagreement, but in both cases it was like two sides of the same coin. You may get different insights, but because the vision was shared, they saw eye to eye on almost everything.

Earlier you said “word association” so, before we wrap up, I wanted to get a few off the cuff thoughts about some diverse projects you’ve taken. Give me the first word, or phrase, that you feel describes your experience on the film…

Ok, shoot!

Wreck-It Ralph...

[Laughs] Fun. Old-school, orchestral and bleepy! [Laughs] Bleepy, but with a strong Disney heritage.

Kick-Ass

Pure Matthew Vaughn! Anarchic, hilarious and irreverent.

Captain Phillips

Ruthlessly realistic. Unbelievable tension. Incredible performances, and an invisibly supportive score.

Awesome! So now tell us, what does the non-studio Henry Jackman like to do? Do you hang out with other composers? Do you say, “Hey I’m off the clock, no music for me”? Or do you go back and listen to your old work just for fun?

Oh, no, no, no! If I were to do that it would feel like work. *laughs* If I listen to anything I’d done I would be consumed thinking about all the things I would want to do with it now that I didn’t get to do in the mix or something like that. I’d end up just picking holes in everything. I can’t really relax if I’m listening to my own music.

But if I’ve been working really, really hard, I like running away to the Cook Islands and staring at the horizon or going spear fishing or running around the English countryside. It’s also nice to get a break by just reading about and listening to music, but not making it.

Last question. You’ve worked with Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen on This Is the End. What makes you want to go back to working with them on The Interview? It’s a ballsy picture, and you know North Korea is not going to be happy when it comes out – anyone associated with this is going to be on their hit list.

I really didn’t really think about that when I took this on. [Laughs] I’m not comparing them to Matthew Vaughn, but Seth and Evan The Interview_Theatricalshare a level of irreverence, yet in a totally different way. Funny thing about them is that they make these completely ridiculous movies that are goofy but they’re also incredibly smart. It’s sort of an exercise in lunacy, only the secret is that the films are made by very witty people. They are great fun to be around, especially Seth who is hilarious in real life.

They are both extremely good at their craft. The business of filmmaking and directing finds them so on top of their game. Just because a film seems kind of wacky and juvenile, with humor that’s all over the place, you might be tempted to think that the whole process is like that. But they know how to achieve what they want to achieve because they have a lot of leadership and focus. That’s refreshing despite them being two very hystrical guys. It’s almost like they have two sides to them. seth-rogen-evan-goldbergYou can leave them in a room together, and they’ll just start jamming and being hilarious, but when it comes to our music meetings, we just knuckle down and figure out what music is going where, and why, and they are totally on their A-game.

Plus the fact, like you said, they keep making really ballsy films. I can’t see them ever making a movie in which they aren’t just completely committed to it.

“Safe” is not something they’re known for.

No, you’re right. The don’t pull their punches, at all. But the funniest thing is that even though everything they do is R-rated, and it has to be because of the content, I think there is a lot of warmth to what they do. Even if each film seems completely inappropriate, it’s not R-rated because it’s disturbing, nasty, or gratuitous. There’s actually a sweet underlying warmth to everything they do, and it’s enormously friendly.

Big Hero 6 is currently in theaters, while Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on Blu-ray and VOD platforms now. The Interview will be released on Christmas Day, and Kingsman: The Secret Service in February of 2015.

Composer Antonio Sanchez on the Drums and Jazzy Ambiguity of ‘Birdman’

Written by Marc Ciafardini, November 24, 2014 at 12:45 pm 

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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 expansion, it’s very much still in the conversation. Picking up speed on a weekly basis, it’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.

birdman_1Seeing 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]

Antonio Sanchez BannerThey 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.

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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.

Director A.J. Edwards on the 20 Films That Influenced ‘The Better Angels’

Written by Jordan Raup, November 6, 2014 at 3:00 pm 

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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.

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‘Actress’ Director Robert Greene Talks the Documentarian’s Presence, Finding an Audience & More

Written by Nick Newman, November 6, 2014 at 2:20 pm 

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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]

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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.

Yeah! [Laughs]

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.

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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.

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Dan Gilroy on the Swift Production of ‘Nightcrawler,’ Creating a Predator, Finding Relatability & More

Written by Bill Graham, November 3, 2014 at 1:16 pm 

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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?

Yeah.

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.

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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.

Oh, yeah!

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.

Yeah!

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.

Thank you.

One thing about Jake’s character in particular, I almost feel like he has no social skills except what he’s read about online.

That’s right.

As soon as anything goes wrong, he shows that he doesn’t have any social skills.

Right, right.

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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…

That red?

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.

Oh, absolutely.

It’s a fantasy car.

It makes the same noise that a kid would make. Brrrrrr.

Exactly!

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.

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Nightcrawler is now in theaters.

Alexandre Aja Talks ‘Horns,’ Television vs. Film, the Butchered TV Edit of ‘Piranha 3D,’ and More

Written by Bill Graham, October 29, 2014 at 3:00 pm 

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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.

Really?

No one recognizes me!

[Both laugh]

I’m completely okay.

When did you get in?

Last night.

And you’re going to be taking off again?

In a few hours. Yeah, I’m prepping another movie.

horns_posterWow. [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.

Oh, yeah.

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.

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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.

[Laughs]

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.

Yeah!

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.

Yeah!

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.

Totally.

And even the kids love it. So, it changed a bit and needs to.

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Horns is now available on VOD and in theaters Friday, October 31st.

‘Goodbye to Language’ Star Héloïse Godet on the Godard Process, Watching Yourself In 3D & More

Written by Nick Newman, October 27, 2014 at 2:28 pm 

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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.

Exactly.

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.

How so?

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?

No.

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.

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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?

Yeah, absolutely.

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.

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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?

Visceral? No. He made us talk so naturally. Degree-zero of talking, without trying to interpret or anything.

Okay.

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.

Of course.

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Goodbye to Language will begin its U.S. release on Wednesday, October 29.

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