Christian Petzold‘s Phoenix is something of a contradiction: precisely calibrated on a screenwriting level and cleanly delivered on a formal level, yet working with a concept high enough and depending upon ambiguities significant enough to inspire debate and doubt right after its final scene, an instant all-timer, has concluded. But what else to expect of a movie that so effectively takes advantage of said concept, in which Vertigo is reconfigured as the story of a concentration camp survivor who returns home to a possibly duplicitous husband who doesn’t recognize her? In light of a stunted run on last year’s fall circuit — Toronto was (inexplicably) the only major festival to make room, despite a clear superiority over much of its ilk — the impassioned response its received is ample evidence of how the right film can capture people’s imagination.
With these open qualities in mind, speaking to Petzold about his ninth collaboration with recently deceased co-writer Harun Farocki and sixth with leading actress Nina Hoss offers many opportunities — more than could be stated in the window of time typically offered by interviews conducted during a promotional tour. But the ground covered herein is fascinating, from an unexpected historical parallel he sees with the life of Billy Wilder, the artistic trait he shares with James Gray, and how he lets go of auteurist control.
The Film Stage: Where are you located right now?
Christian Petzold: Sacramento, in a little hotel. I’m making my way through California. Yesterday, we were at Folsom Lake, which is not far away from Sacramento. I like to travel, sit in a car, and listen to music for eight or nine hours. I like it; I don’t know why. It’s great. You don’t want to see any museum; you don’t want to see anything about the history of California. No gold mines. You want to go by car, hear music, sleep in cheap motels, and eat burritos and have burgers the whole day through. I like it; I don’t know why. I like that.
It’d be more appropriate if you were in San Francisco.
I was there four days ago. I stayed there, and I saw Vertigo there in 1996, together with Harun Farocki, on a new copy which was remixed by Martin Scorsese. I think it was 70mm. It had a new sound mixing, and I really was disappointed with the sound because it was too real.
I read that a Farocki-penned article, which you’d encountered decades prior, was the first source of influence. That’s a long time to be carrying any creative endeavor — even in its most nascent forms — so I have to ask if it manifested itself at all in your earlier work.
Yeah. It was born in the ‘80s, this idea between Harun and me. We always thought about the male perspective. We always thought about a man who creates a woman, but we never thought about the perspective of a woman. Something changed after I met Nina Hoss at the beginning of the century. It was Harun that said we had to change the perspective, so we started thinking about what the the male subjectivity had done to Kim Novak, and the studio system — to the actor and to the character in Vertigo. Why all these stories are made by men, huh?
We started when Harun saw Barbara on the editing table; this was three-and-a-half years ago. He said to me, “Now, there’s the lost couple. It starts at the end of the movie.” Then we thought about our old idea for Phoenix, then we tried to change the perspective to the woman. This was the reason we started with the whole project. Oh, excuse me; I threw my son out of the room because he started laughing at my English, and I hate that.
Are you ever uncomfortable with homage? Do you worry that using certain concepts and frameworks brings you too much in someone else’s direction?
I don’t think so, because I saw the movie many, many years ago — but Sans Soleil? There’s a passage in the movie that says Vertigo is the best movie ever made, but he hates it. He hates it and he loves it in the same way. For me, it’s a little bit the same: I love all the cinematographic images of the Hitchcock movies, and sometimes I hate that everything on the screen was filth. Nothing can come out of the picture.
So it was a love-hate relationship, but, for me, all my movies are made with quotations of Hitchcock things. For example, when I made Yella, I loved the scene in Marnie when Marnie is seen from the back at the train station. The camera is following her, and then the camera stops and she goes by herself to the end of the station. It was a dream-like atmosphere, and I tried to rebuild this with Nina Hoss in Yella, and it was terrible — like, shit. It cost me two days with Steadicams and camera operators, which I had meant for the perfect light, like the technical allure of Hitchcock, and I cut it out. So I’ve made my homage, but I cut them out of the movie.
Your personal aesthetic choices are interesting in their own way. For instance, the brick-strewn, post-war streets have as much of a psychological dimension as they do a physical one. How much would that, for instance, be based on historical research and how much — if any — of it comes from the character’s psychology?
We made it always like this: we have a little factory in Berlin, and, in these factories they have two big rooms — these are “mood rooms.” Half a year before starting shooting, there were thousands of photos from this time, and inside of this “mood room,” we have made our rehearsal, where the actors can go up to the wall, this museum of photos, and see portrayals and the colors. It was a very specific research we have done, but, for me, it’s more important what I can do with all these moods. I don’t want to have material in a room; I want to have a structure, an idea, and it’s tougher for a mood, yeah? I was a little like a professor, I must say, in this moment.
I said to them, to the actors, and also to the cameraman — who was part of the rehearsal — “We have this fantastic movie made by Billy Wilder and Edgar Ulmer and Robert Siodmak. It was made in 1932. The German title is Menschen am Sonntag — People on Sunday.” It was a half-documentary story, and you can see Berlin, you can see fantastic daylight, a life without studio light. It’s like nouvelle vague; it’s free, the movie. One year later, everything was destroyed by the Nazis. I said to them, “We have to tell a love story which was born in 1932, like the movie Menschen am Sonntag, but this time is gone — and now, like Billy Wilder, who left in 1932, who was exiled to Hollywood, our movie has the colors of The Lost Weekend.” I showed them The Lost Weekend. So we have this idea for something we have missed and lost in this time. My English is a little… do you understand what I’m talking about?
So the cameraman said, “We can recreate this historical time with trees, but what we have to do is to recreate the light, the colors — we have to create the atmosphere.” So we take the atmosphere from The Lost Weekend, and almost Robert Siodmak’s The Killers with Burt Lancaster. I showed the first five minutes of The Killers by Siodmak, and this hired man — Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past — they are all really tired, because they have lost everything. All the movies are based on the last energy of the male subjects, and they want to have a last chance. This is the atmosphere of the Johnny character.
Physical movement is such a big part of this film, especially the many routines Nelly, Nina Hoss’ character, is put through. When filming these scenes — as she’s walking around or lifting and dropping things — do you like to capture actions in a single take, or is it repeated many times?
No, no, no. We do it always in one take. I talked to, I think, James Gray, and he’s working in the same way. It’s always the same. We have these rehearsals I told you about, but we don’t talk about the book. And then, during the shooting, the actors and I meet at 8 a.m. in the morning — without costumes, without masks — and have rehearsals for half of the today, until 12, for example, and then they have found something. For example, Johnny is in his basement room. He’s always looking how he can move, because both actors know that this is a choreography in a basement. It’s also like a dance of a couple who had loved each other many years ago, and they have tried to recreate their love like in a dance movement. They have tried for themselves.
I’m sitting there, smoking, they’re talking a little bit, and then they find something. Then the technicians are coming — the cameraman, the DP, the sound and the light man — they’re coming and looking for what they have done, and then the actors went to the trailer to get their costumes, their masks. We build up the lights and we make the shooting list, and then we do it in one take. Always just one take. It’s not like Hitchcock or Bresson; it’s the other way around. We are reflecting very hard on the movie, and to refresh our reflections we had not to rehearse much.
In the case of being acquainted with collaborators, I wanted to ask about your relationship with Hans Fromm, who’s been your cinematographer since the mid-’90s. Does this long-standing fidelity mainly stem from aesthetic agreement, professional comfort, or both?
Because we’re old friends, for example. [Laughs] We are like a family I see only during the shooting. But, since the beginning of the shooting, we are sitting together for two days, and I hate to obtain all these takes. He’s also someone who… looking together through movies and photographs and graphic novels, thinking about how we can do this, and then he goes away and he’s working on his own. I never look through the camera, I never have the monitor display; he’s doing this stuff for himself, and I trust him. When I see the rushes two days later, it’s not my movie. It’s a little bit strange, what I see. I like that I can trust it, hopefully.
Is there anything liberating, then, in it belonging to multiple people? How do you feel, recognizing this as a collaborative project as opposed to something marked mostly by your stamp?
Nina told me a couple of weeks ago that, from the first moment, she was afraid when we worked together, because I have so much material and talk so much, and she thought there was no space for me during the rehearsals, at the beginning. I think, when everything I have worked on one-and-a-half-years for — all the music I heard — I did for the actors. This was my reflection; this was my work. You have this material you can use, but there are also actors who hate to have too much material. You can use it or you can throw it away.
Then we made a little journey, two or three weeks before the shooting, to all the shooting places, and then I left them alone for two or three weeks. So they have imaginations of the shooting places, of the rooms, of what we created there, so they can do it by themselves. I’m very, very in the margins during the shooting, and don’t talk too much. I let it flow a little bit because I’m a little over-reflective in my life, so it’s good to let the movie go by itself a little bit.
[Editor’s note: The ending is briefly discussed below.]
It’d be best to end with the ending. You and Farocki had a picture of Nina Hoss in front of you as you were writing and going over the role with her throughout. With all this thoroughness in mind, have you thought much about what happens to this character after the final scene? Does this sort of question sit with you, or is the story truly done once it’s done?
I think Harun told me that the end of the movie… he likes the ending very much because it’s the end of the story, yeah, and it’s not the end of living. Something goes on; it could be a new movie, at the end, when she’s living. She could be going to Palestine or she could be going to the United States to start a new life. It’s also worth to tell this story in 95 minutes, this story of the past — a love story — and also the story of the Germans between ’33 and ’45, and also the story of people like Jews in Germany at this time. This story is finished.
Well, that’s all the time we have. Thanks again.
Thank you very much. It’s fantastic to sit in a hotel room with a cold glass of water and the roommates always knocking on my door. I like the situation.
Phoenix is now playing in New York and will be expanding to more theaters in the coming weeks. Above, you can watch a video essay on Petzold’s work.
Given access to hundreds of hours worth of previously-concealed audio interviews/musings with Marlon Brando, director Stevan Riley magnificently produces one of the best documentaries about a legendary figure — all without a single talking head in Listen to Me Marlon, as I noted from Sundance this year.. Ahead of his time, we begin with Brando predicting the future of filmmaking: actors will soon be motion-captured and their essence created in a computer screen for projection. We then witness the man resurrected through such a digital form, incorporating the audio from his interviews, giving an ethereal effect interspersed throughout the film.
I recently had the chance to speak with Riley for an in-depth conversation regarding the technical process of creating the documentary, the legacy and enigma of the actor, how he’s pushing the boundaries of documentary, being inspired by Radiohead, the theatrical vs. television experience, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
Much has been discussed about the 300 hours of audiotapes that were used. From an editorial perspective, was it already organized or did you have to go through chronologically or thematically?
Yeah, it actually wasn’t 300 hours at the outset. The way the project involved, in fact, was that I was more interested in the story and I wanted to do something original. We had access to all the archives at the estate and so the question was, what do you they have exactly. But they were just unpacking this stuff at the time. So a lot of the archive was in boxes in fact. It had been stored for ten years. So even during the edit – and the edit was nine months – there was stuff coming out of boxes and even towards the very end there would be ten tapes I would get.
So it was very interesting how it involved, in a way. I was actually terrified at the beginning because I had kind of committed to this route of telling it all in Marlon’s own words after just listen to six or seven tapes that were initially available and were just being digitized. But there was no clue that it was ever going to be possible to tell it all in his own words at that point. I had actually went out to the states to do research but also figure out, if I can’t tell it all in his own words, who would I possible include in the film? Who would I interview? It was only the further that things developed that I became more and more convinced I should go with plan A because it would actually be less confusing. There were so many people in his life who were only in touch with him for brief periods, maybe a few years. He might pick up a friendship, drop a friendship.
Anyway, just to mention that, but then in terms of organizing it, I did a fair bit of pre-production. I did the initially proposal, which it currently has the title Listen to Me Marlon but it was Brando on Brando and when that was commissioned I turned it into more fully formed shooting script. That shooting script helped inform how I’d go through the transcript. When all the tapes were transcribed, they were in these big, thick folders. There was twelve of them so they came several feet off the ground. I’d just go through with a highlighter and then just go through every page and write in the margins, tiny little one or two word captions, I’d call them, that would conform to different story points. And then the story points I arranged in a grid and then brought them into the edit in different sequences. Then those were movable parts that could then be constructed into scenes, If that makes sense.
Yes, that’s fascinating. In my review I said it almost feels like you’re watching a final performance from Marlon Brando. We’re never going to see another movie with him, so this feels like a send-off in a way. Did you feel that pressure as you were making it or was it more when you saw the final product, if at all?
Even from the opening section, where he talks about how actors are not going to be real, they’re going to be inside a computer, then that soliloquy from Shakespeare. I felt like he was delivering on his prophecy and that was his performance in a sense. When that 3D scan was done of his head, I got an actor in to lip-sync his lines and film it from different angles so I could switch those up in the digitization of the head. It was a performance in a regard – the inflection, the turn of the head. It had to really try and look like Brando. So there was a bit of that. Certainly for those sections and then even if wasn’t a performance, it was certainly a kind of right of reply. I was representing his life. Of course, he did a post-mortem on his life by himself, but he’s also going to bring on his character in a way that people that might wouldn’t otherwise know because all they’ve been fed through the course of his life was that media representation, that tabloid myth of Brando, it was performance in a sense and also this right of reply, a last word.
You spoke about the digitized version of Brando and the motion capture that he saw. We’re seeing it come to fruition in films like The Congress and James Cameron’s work. When you came across his speaking to that, did you know immediately you were going to use it at the beginning as this ethereal opening?
Yeah, I was already racking my brain to thinking what kind of device… bear in my mind, the edit was all pretty much, largely black screen. It was audio and music. I was just trying to get the story down first and the mood and the tone of it. I was always thinking about visuals. It was always this press question: what the hell am I going to cover this with all the way through? I had a rough idea it would be a third archive, a third movie (his films), and then a third re-con. Re-constructing the house and rebuilding this “house of pain,” the media dubbed it, but also this house being the inner workings of his mind as well, a metaphor for his brain, for this inquiry and his own thought space. I thought it would be nice to have some kind of presence of Brando in the film, that third-person presence of him looking back on his life. Of course that possible by trying to make the house alive, by putting wind through the curtain or having candles or smoke – just this sense of presence, that it was a living space and there was somebody in the home was going to do it.
Then I toyed with the idea of if you could involve an actor, but that was never going to work. No one could play Brando and then I heard about this 3D scan that he’d done from one of the guys who works at the archive and I just latched on to that immediately, just thinking where is it, what could I do. I thought straight away about the possibilities of bringing that to life. We had his head, what could be done? When we finally got access to it – it took about six months to actually track it down, assemble it, decode it because it was very old software, and then do the creative to bring it to life. There was actually enough detail in the scans to do enough facial representation down to his skin pores. It was super high-resolution. There was several scans. He did all of these different expressions, then what you could do with interplay with this software. It was fine though, because I didn’t want it to be photographic or photo-real because I wanted to be this ghost in the machine, kind of fragmented, digitized being that was searching for meaning. I’d seen Radiohead’s House of Cards music promo.
Yeah. I was thinking something that might approximate to that. That was my creative reference in my own head about where to go with it. The it was a case of bringing it to life with an actor and doing that motion capture with this actor lip-syncing and, as I said, filming it from different angles to try and get that recreation.
You spoke about the footage you used from his actual films. There’s a few sections, whether it’s A Streetcar Named Desire or when you show his character’s death in The Godfather, and you overlay his audio discussing death and the meaning of life. It’s this two-handed emotional punch because we all have memories of watching those films for the first time coupled with the emotional weight of his recordings. How early did you think about which films would be well-represented and did you re-visit his filmography?
Yeah, well, I discovered a lot of them as well, really. I had seen a lot of Brando’s films but I hadn’t realized he starred in 39 or 40. It was a lot to watch, in fact. I was just figuring those out along the way. I was also how much life was imitating art and vice-versa. Brando would bring all the things he’s interested in to a part and try and smuggle them into his character. He’d bend it to almost convey his message and there was many things which he was fascinated by and the film looks into about the nature of technology and good and evil and all these things that occupied him – and there were quite a lot through the course of his life. It took from the light to the dark and from truth to lies. That is when he was oscillating through a lot of his life. So, yes, some of those parts really resonated and explained those things that had fascinated him better than others.
The Godfather had its own resonance and Streetcar was great, again, for exploring that idea of the myth of cinema and in Apocalypse Now you see the myth of America that he explores. All these things corrupt our view of the truth or we lose touch with reality and then people were losing touch with who Marlon Brando was and it was becoming a myth of himself. Then Streetcar was emblematic in so far it was his exploration of the method and how he had to relive his childhood every evening when he was playing Stanley Kowalski on stage and he was trying to channel his father’s anger and rage. It was also nice using the film clips not just for their own sake, not just popping [them in], oh it’s just Brando playing a character, but to actually to get inside his head and use the clip from the film to be woven into his first-person narrative and make sure those were tidy scenes between those because they did overlap. The thinking and the emotions applied to the real-life and the characters he was playing.
With a seemingly endless amount of streaming options — not only the titles at our disposal, but services themselves — we’ve taken it upon ourselves to highlight the titles that have recently hit the interwebs. Every week, one will be able to see the cream of the crop (or perhaps some simply interesting picks) of streaming titles (new and old) across platforms such as Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and more (note: U.S. only). Check out our rundown for this week’s selections below.
Before We Go (Chris Evans)
Being one who’s often interested in whatever an actor-turned-director might bring to the table, it’s only natural that Chris Evans‘ first behind-the-camera effort, Before We Go, would attract some of my attention. This, despite the little notice and less-than-enthusiastic reviews critics gave it at last year’s TIFF in their writing calling the picture a warmed-over homage to the Before series (it’s even in the title!), and little else at that. Nevertheless, he and Alice Eve walking around Manhattan at nighttime and sharing a long conversation is a good-on-paper concept — enough that the execution would need to be significantly botched for things to fall flat. – Nick N.
Child 44 (Daniel Espinosa)
Every so long a film comes along so buried and immediately discarded we weren’t even given the opportunity to review it. This year’s prestigous winner is Child 44. Although it stars Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, and more, proceed with caution.
Felt (Jason Banker)
Being challenged and shocked by a film can be both a blessing and a curse. Inevitably it will alienate many, but those that show up to the genre film festival known as Fantastic Fest are game. Mixing slow-building dread and mental health issues, Felt arrives as a needle prick of chaos. This is the kind of film that many will receive the main actress with open arms for giving things like a “brave” performance and more, but will shirk off the film as a whole as a bit too downtrodden to have much commercial or critical appeal. However, any time a film revolves around a creative person’s dealing with trauma, likely sexual in nature in Felt, and the ramifications it can have, you get a sense of who is in for a film that isn’t exactly a pleasure to watch but might offer insight or perspective in a way other directors shy away from. – Bill G. (full review)
La Sapienza (Eugène Green)
La Sapienza opens with a montage of Italy’s greatest architectural wonders — cathedrals, domes, churches, and more shot in perfect lighting, propelled to grandiosity by the backing sounds of an operatic choir. It is a gorgeous five minutes that seems to build a sense of artistic appreciation in the viewer through sheer rhythm. That makes it all the more shocking when, after the brief interruption of an epigraph, the film resumes with a shot of an ugly corporate skyscraper. “Life’s good,” the sign boasts. – Forrest C. (full review)
In 2012, actor Omar Sy (with co-star Francois Cluzet) and co-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano crafted a new classic buddy tale with The Intouchables, an international success that presented an affluent white man finding unexpected friendship in a black man from the projects. The trio have teamed up now for their fifth film with Samba, a comedy/drama about the life of an undocumented immigrant in Paris. Sy plays the title character who struggles to make money that he can send back to his home land of Senegal, especially with France’s strict immigration policies. Along with a South American man named Wilson (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim), Samba works odd jobs while dodging French authorities. Throughout, Samba receives help from a human rights volunteer named Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), of which the two begin an unusual emotional connection.
Sy won a César for Best Actor for his performance in The Intouchables, which made his charisma further enticing to blockbuster projects like X-Men: Days of Future Past and this summer’s Jurassic World. The French native will be seen again later this year in the John Wells chef comedy Adam Jones starring Bradley Cooper, and next year in the Ron Howard film Inferno, based on the Dan Brown novel.
The Film Stage sat down with Sy in a roundtable interview in Chicago, where we discussed his attitude towards work, what he learned from acting opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg, how he has established his identity as an actor, and more. Check out the full conversation below.
You were born in France and raised in French society. Was it tricky to play a character who has only been in the country for a decade, and is confused by the culture?
It was a challenge for me as an actor to play someone far from me. That’s why it was interesting for me to meet these people, and to take on this responsibility to try to show them and be like them, and to show how different they are. Their way of talking, walking, and even looking at other people. It’s difficult for them, to look someone in the eyes for a long time, because they didn’t feel comfortable. It’s difficult for them to feel at home, even after ten years.
They see things very differently, like a train station, for example.
Of course. For us, a train station just means travel. For them, it means danger. And probably the last minute in the country because they could be arrested at any moment. It’s a lot of stress.
What did you bring to this movie personally in terms of your attitude towards work?
My own experience from my parents and some of my friends and some of my family working in manual labor. When I was younger, I used to do all that. The movie is a question for me of “Where are we putting the work in our life?” The opposite thing about the character of Samba is that he’s ready to do anything, including the tough labor. This balance shows how society is divided, and the complication in relationships that we have with our work.
You play Samba with a sense of hope, but there’s always this sense of his darker past.
Of course. I had to because even if we wanted to add some comedy in it, we tried telling the truth. The truth is sometimes really hard, and dark. And the fact that I spent time with people who went through that before shooting, I had the responsibility to represent them in a realistic way, so I couldn’t avoid the dramatic side of their life, and how it is hard for them. I had to consider that, and try my best to show that.
At the center of Samba is the unique relationship that your character has with a human rights volunteer played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. What did you learn from working with her, or what was different in how she prepared for performances than what you do?
Her way to focus on things. Coming from a comedian’s background, on set my way to focus is always to get away from the scene. I need to do some jokes to be alive before scenes. But she’s so quiet and focused on what she has to do, and it’s so different. So maybe I’ve learned to come down before doing a scene now. She is so intense and in the moment that it makes things easier for me, just to look at her and her eyes and I just have to react. She is just an amazing actress. It was easier to be in the moment with her.
Samba and Alice have a very unique relationship, in that they cannot reveal any of their cards about the true connection they have. How did you work with Charlotte to create that dynamic?
The directors wanted to have an awkward love story, and I think life helped us because she was kind of intimidated, and I felt the same. We maybe used that in our characters to do that. It was something special for me to act with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the fact that [Eric, Oliver and I] are already a team, and that she was new in the group, maybe that helped in the beginning. And we kept that until the end.
With the critical and financial success of The Intouchables, how was the set of Samba different from that film? Was it easier, especially with more resources and time?
Yes, and I think that’s why I think it was the right time for them to do Samba, because of the success of The Intouchables. They could finance the movie and have time and the money to do it very well, and have this good cast. I think [Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano] are so generous, and that they are so smart that they thought that after Intouchables – a lot of directors who could take any subjects or commercial film – they decided to do this. I think it was a good, good move. We’ve heard about immigration in France, and around the world, since we were young. We all come from immigrant parents – my parents come from Senegal, Eric’s parents come from Morocco, and Oliver’s parents come from Algiers. It was important for us, and a lot of people, to talk about that, because I think we are all affected by immigration.
How does a set with Toledano/Nakache set differ from those of bigger blockbusters, like Jurassic World and X-Men: Days of Future Past?
There are no dinosaurs [laughs]. It’s different mostly because I know them really well, and we’re used to working together. It’s also a French-speaking set, so it’s really different. But I am so focused on my English, and the sets have the same way of working. They have the passion and fun to do what we want to do, and we are really happy to do what we do in life. We are trying to enjoy each moment.
You’ve mentioned previously that for the past three years you’ve been living in America, and learning the English language. What perspective have you gained about how the issues within Samba of race and class play out in America?
It’s difficult to compare, because it’s a different story. For example, the United States doesn’t have colonies; a lot of immigrants in France are from colonies, so it is a different type of immigration. The race issues are different also, because black and white here with slave history.
Along with the idea of trying to blend in, there’s an idea about identity within Samba. There’s a particularly intriguing scene in which Samba is told by his uncle what he should be wearing so that he can fit in, to not look like an outsider, but to look like a regular citizen. As an actor, what is most important to you when it comes to creating an on-screen identity?
I think for me, the fact that being an actor is that you have to let the space for the audience to decide. That’s why you have to stay behind your character, because it’s the space for the audience to decide what they want to see. The thing with art, the audience has to find its space. When you see a painting or a photo, if you don’t find your space, or the artist is saying what you have to see, it’s not art. So for me, it’s just letting the space. I don’t say, “I want do that, I wanna be that,” I let the audience decide. At this moment, what I want to say and talk about now, there are no plans. Even if I wanted to do plans, it’s a difficult to be predictable because things change very fast. It’s just in the moment to try do what I want to do, and I have the luck to different things. So, I want to do all of that.
Samba is now in limited release.
Pedro Costa‘s films demand that viewers ask complex questions regarding theory, practice, and ontological qualities of the form, but even the most attentive viewer will be forced to contend with basic matters: plot development, character relationship, and chronology. Going into a long discussion with him is one thing; when it’s on the subject of his latest film, Horse Money, both a crowning achievement and a dense, convention-shattering, expressionistic work rooted in Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of 1974 — hardly a well-explored topic — there are about 1,000 places one might head. Since we were sitting in the lobby of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade theater less than two hours before the post-screening Q & A for a retrospective of the man’s work and personal favorites, his earlier films, which Horse Money follows, offered a good starting point.
It was also to my fortune that Costa is an extremely open, generous interview subject, speaking in a lengthy, detailed manner with extreme honesty, all while willing to concede that he’s neither a huge cinephile nor interested in what many acclaimed filmmakers are even bothering with nowadays. What follows is a thorough look at his working life, relationship with non-actors he’s made the stars of internationally acclaimed films, numerous personal philosophies, and, once we were more or less wrapped-up, perhaps the strangest thing I’ve ever confronted a subject with.
The Film Stage: Were you just doing an introduction?
Pedro Costa: This one? No. I should. I was supposed to, but… [Laughs] I preferred to do a Q & A. It’s not my film, so.
How’s this series going? Are you having a good time with the presentations and Q & As?
Very well, yeah. A lot of people are coming. Even for this very rare film, there was, I don’t know, a hundred people or something. It’s pretty good crowds, and, from the Q & As I’ve been doing, people are interested.
Do you find it strange to sit in front of a group of people who’ve just seen a film you made, say, 20 years ago?
Mmm… yeah, it’s strange, but… yeah, because, first, I don’t remember the films — some details, some stuff that people ask about. Certain things I really can’t remember. But, yeah, at the same time, it’s a good way to think about the films and think about how I did things and how I’m doing things. Talking and answering makes you think, so it’s always good.
I get the impression that you don’t revisit your work very often — that once you make a film, it’s essentially “done.”
Yeah. For me, I belong to that family of filmmakers where it’s really painful to see the films, because, in my case, I take so long shooting them. One year; two years, sometimes. In Vanda’s Room was one year plus one year of editing, so it’s a long time living with the film. When it’s done, it’s not dead, but it’s over. And, in my case, there’s also something a little bit special, which is that a lot of people are gone. The films that I shot in that place, with that community… it was a rough place. A lot of people died because of drugs, because of everything, disappeared — so it’s painful to see that. All the ghosts.
After Horse Money premiered at Locarno in August of 2014, you said that you’d only started to like the film, and that your relationship is evolving because you can finally talk about it a bit more. A year later, have you come to any sort of strong position? Does it sit resolutely?
Well, it’s very personal and, I’m sorry to say, there are secret ideas I have about the film — how we did it, what I think it is. But what happens to me in every film is that a bit of time passes and I become a bit more comfortable with the film because of the response or the relation I have with the friends that did the film with me — especially the ones in front of the camera. The community. Ventura and his family. All the families. The relation seems to grow or, I don’t know… after each film, I have this nightmare that they won’t like it, so they will break with me. They will say, “It was fun,” or, “No more. This is too far.” Because there’s not that much money involved, so they don’t expect… I mean, if they expect a new film next year, it will be for nothing again, or a very small money.
So it’s really a relation that’s growing with the films. With this one, there’s even new friends coming to “the boat,” let’s say. There’s a woman now, Vitalina, and she became a true friend this year. I have this new friend, and I have others that I just knew from two- or three-minute talks in the neighborhood, but now, after the film, they’re closer friends and I know them better. They ask me things and I can ask them things. That’s the great thing about the work I do: I don’t do films with actors who call and say, “How are you? Are you going to New York or Japan?” [Laughs] You see them every ten years or three years or whatever. These people I see once every day or every week, so they’re part of my family, I would say.
If you have this fear about an actor’s reaction, when did you realize your next fiction feature would once again concern Colossal Youth‘s Ventura? Was he always in mind?
I knew, after Colossal Youth, there was something that was in the air, that was floating between me and Ventura. It was this story, this episode, things that he told me about the years of the revolution — how we lived the Portuguese Revolution in ’74. It was an intriguing and very mysterious subject for me. I knew I wanted to make something around that; I just wasn’t sure if it would be with him. It could be, perhaps, that just a sort of screenwriter would give me the ideas and would probably write a little bit of the story, then I would shoot it perhaps with other people — younger people. I thought of doing a period film, and, for that, I would need a young Ventura — a 19-year-old, an 18-year-old. I would need teenagers. They were all teenagers in ’74, the grandfathers of today.
I was not sure, and, one day, I thought… it began with the elevator sequence that’s more or less the center of the film. It was not an elevator, but I imagined a sort of duel or a court scene. It could be a court scene like in the court films, or a duel, and I thought about this soldier, and I needed Ventura. And I thought Ventura could be young and old at the same time in this black box, in this mental black box that would have cables back and forth to the past and to the future and to the present. Then I assumed that the film would live with different time frames and lines, and that would be the film. So Ventura would be the actor, could be the actor — older, talking about the days before; the young life. As he says, “The young life.” Yeah, but it was more the subject than the idea of having Ventura. I wanted to do something about the revolution — but the screenwriter was Ventura, so I’m happy that he became the actor, too.
You’ve often said that Horse Money is “a film about forgetting” — specifically the trauma of this revolution. But I’ve never quite understood how one spends so much time on the depiction of something as a means of forgetting it. Historical recreations are usually meant to help someone understand, to make these times feel as if they’re a part of the present moment.
It’s more for us, I think. It’s more for us. When I told it — it’s not even a joke, but it’s a bad joke — I said, “We make films to forget, as opposed to making films to remember.” For us, it’s about exhausting this trauma. It’s like an analysis: you talk about it. In an analysis, you say it once or twice; in our work, we say it 200 times or 300 times. We exhaust the subject. It becomes one moment. On the third day or the fourth day, it becomes matter or material — like a piece of wood or a curtain. It becomes something. We’re in the space, doing the work. You have the soldier, you have the walls, a certain light, and then you have this memory that becomes almost plastic, you know? You work with that, but you forgot really about that. It became just a… the bricks, the plaster with which you’re making the film. For us, it became another element in the work.
When we begin, I think we begin with the idea that — and Ventura, too, probably, and all the neighborhood and all the community; it’s fair to say for every community that is like that one — we shouldn’t forget oblivion, let’s say. We shouldn’t forget that we will forget, but eventually we will forget. That cinema, film has a part in perhaps helping not to forget, still. I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I’ve been asked that so many times, and some friends and people I know have answered that so many times: if cinema can change, can help, can do this or that, or can help to remember or help to not forget — I’m really not sure. I think the other elements are more powerful. I mean, [Points out window] reality is more powerful than the reality on the screen.
Our reality on the screen, and I’m talking since the beginning, everything that’s projected on the screen today — old, new — I’m starting to be less a believer in the power of film, of cinema, but it’s not a reason to give up, so we keep on doing it. In the beginning, of course, you must not forget our natural tendency to be forgetful. In the most trivial ways. Forgetful in relations, in our everyday life, and the big, big moral things. Then I’m saying that memory, this material we’re working with, becomes so, so foreign to us that eventually we forget about that. We have to forget about that to turn it… to try and feel it, or for those words to resonate as a foreign, strange fiction. Fiction, really: it has to become fiction. And that’s a way of forgetting, a little bit, for me.
You might not give up, but if you feel this way, how do you, as a film artist, continue?
One of the few things I can really say I love is cinema. I’ve lived a long time for cinema. I lived with it, I still like it a lot, I like doing the work. Now I think it goes a little bit beyond cinema. I was much more of a cinephile 20 years ago; I was much more a believer in all the powers — natural, supernatural [Laughs] — of films. Now cinema, for me, has become… I always say, if I’m just doing a film, I think I wouldn’t bother. There’s something else for me. Perhaps not for other filmmakers; they are into doing a film and its form, its content, working with actors. I’m into working very, very hard and also very, very fascinated by a lot of things that I discover every day in form, content, etc. But if it was just that, I wouldn’t do films now. So there’s something else. The life I live, it’s not only when I’m doing the films — it’s around, before, after. Of course, the life I have with these people, it’s a relation that I began with them, with their story, when I wrote, because it has been, I don’t know, an evolution or a progression. Not a progression. I have to do a lot of things for them. I have to because I want to. With them, for them, help them in some ways, that transcend the film completely.
At the same time, that’s what really does the films. It’s not only talking about that detail of the revolution, or let’s talk about your first years in the neighborhood, or let’s talk about what happened with your mother or your father yesterday in the film, and let’s work it. It’s more than that. The days we spent together, the days we spent to get the passport or get the papers or go to the doctor or try to get the school for somebody’s son — or just shoot a marriage, like I’ve done so many times when somebody gets married. Now I don’t do it because they all have digital cameras like mine. [Laughs] But in the first year, yeah. So if it was just doing the film and living for the film, I think I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it.
Because that’s why I changed so much my ways of working. I changed my ways of working because I needed something else then — assistants and seven weeks of shooting and screenplays and festivals. I needed something else than the life of a filmmaker. I’m not talking the life of a social assistant or the life of a missionary. It’s not that. It’s belonging somewhere, probably. Before I felt I belonged to the cinema world, really — this fear, this planet of cinema that I didn’t like. I’m always saying that I hate that world. Of course there’s people I like in that world; there’s good people, there’s good films, but it’s a rotten world, anyway. The world of agents and sales agents and festivals and money and relations that are based on interest and profit — that doesn’t happen in my new world. I’m very far removed from that world. Of course, sometimes I have to go to film festivals with a film. And I feel I have to even much more, because they don’t do it; I don’t have actors or crews to be with me on the press conferences. It’s too much. [Laughs]
A hit at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival now getting a limited release from The Film Arcade, Unexpected proves a welcome breath of fresh air for stories dealing with pregnancy against the usual romantic comedy fare usurping the plot point for cheap laughs. Director/cowriter Kris Swanberg utilized her own experiences as a mom and from teaching within the Chicago Public School system as a basis for her look at a teacher and student bonding over their shared nine-month journeys to motherhood.
Steeped in reality and performed with authenticity by a recognizable cast, you can’t help but relate to one or more of the characters onscreen. This naturalism was a goal Swanberg set out to achieve from the beginning and the result makes good on that promise with the help of lead actors Cobie Smulders and newcomer Gail Bean‘s memorable turns.
The Film Stage: I thought it was very refreshing how your film ignores Hollywood stereotype. We’ve been conditioned to believe Sam’s (Smulders) boyfriend will turn out to be a cheat or that Jasmine (Bean) won’t have college aspirations.
Kris Swanberg: For sure.
Was that a conscious decision or a byproduct of your telling a story outside the system that still believes we need stereotype to relate?
I think a little bit of both. A lot of the film was based on personal experience and it’s kind of my inclination to steer towards a more natural story than a high-concept one.
I did get some notes—I have to say—when I was sending the script out to different agents and sort of enlisting people’s opinions. I got some notes to make it more dramatic and make the conflict a little—someone wanted me to have a miscarriage scare or a car crash or something like that. But I was very hesitant to do those things because I felt that [with pregnancy] itself there is so much conflict and drama that’s so grounded in reality. I really felt strongly that it would be able to hold its own just with that.
There’s so much interior conflict with both leads. Could you talk about the role of fear and uncertainty in their decision-making processes? It’s as though they are so afraid their dreams will fall apart that they’re neglecting to ask whether those are still their dreams.
Right. I think that’s definitely the case. Our whole lives are set up to think about our own lives and aspirations—career or otherwise. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s normal. Everybody sort of does that.
Then, all of a sudden, if you find yourself having a child, you have to kind of think about that. And that’s difficult to do. Also, it’s hard to know what the best thing to do is. We don’t have a road map necessarily and we really don’t have the data or best practices to know what’s best for a child in terms of staying home or working. There are studies that say both are best. So it’s all about finding that balance. Not just logistically—like, “How am I going to work and who is going to take care of the baby?” But finding that balance emotionally, which is, “I’m going to be missing some things.”
If I decide to stay home with the baby then I’m going to be missing [those] other things. That’s just the case no matter what. Even if you’re a person with a great amount of privilege, you still have to deal with it. And Jasmine in the film who is [about to be] a low-income single mom—she doesn’t have the option to not work. She has an internal conflict with how to reconcile that.
How was it collaborating with Megan Mercier? Were the two of you on the same page throughout or did you provide differing angles?
We were definitely on the same page and working with her was amazing. We wrote everything in the same room together. She’s since moved to LA so it’s made it a little difficult to work together [now], but at the time she was living in Chicago. We would go over to each other’s houses and have our laptops and we would write everything.
Every once in a while we would have a disagreement on verbiage—whether this would work or this would work in terms of dialogue. And sometimes she was right and sometimes I was right. [laughter]
But we were always on the same page about the integrity of the story. That is what made it so great to work together.
With that integrity—how important was it to showcase these issues from the perspective of soon-to-be moms who are strong and intelligent rather than aligning with most TV and movies placing a stigma on unplanned pregnancies as a byproduct of promiscuity or bad decisions? Unexpected becomes a cathartic experience to show women like Sam and Jasmine that they aren’t alone.
Yeah. For sure, I think that’s definitely true. There’s no judgment in this film. There’s almost an innate kind of acceptance I think in terms of the script: this is the situation and now lets move forward from it and try and figure it out. Instead of, “How did this happen?” or “What is this a symptom of?” etc.
It happens and teenagers have sex. That’s definitely just the truth. Everybody knows it. I think the film is very accepting of it—not placating it, but also not looking down on it either.
And how crucial are the performances to really making that happen?
Very crucial. If I didn’t have this cast I don’t know that I could have quite pulled it off—especially with the character of Jasmine. If that wasn’t spot-on I think the film would have really suffered. There really was some great acting and I was lucky to get it.
Was there rehearsal time to get Cobie and Gail comfortable with each other?
No. Sadly because of our independent film status we didn’t have the funds to fly them out to Chicago early and do a lot of rehearsal. So we just rehearsed on the day and on set. We would kind of just read through it and we would change things after takes if it wasn’t feeling quite right.
But we did do a lot of collaborating, especially Cobie and I. We collaborated very early on the script itself. I would send her a draft and she would—I was very open to her ideas. We made some changes based on what felt real to her and her own experience. She related so closely with the script that it came from a very personal place for her. A lot of the dialogue—we would on set scratch out and rewrite so it felt even more like it was coming from her.
Gail was a great find. Was her discovery made her through the audition process?
It was, yeah. We opened it up nationally and we found her outside Atlanta. She just sent in a tape and really blew it out of the water with her audition. We met with her and she was just so perfect. I don’t know that I could have found somebody else quite like her to do it. She gave a really outstanding performance and I’m really excited for her career.
Could you talk about the empathy that really comes across from the both of them? I’m thinking of even right at the beginning—looking at Gail when she sees Sam throwing up in the classroom and Cobie discovering through rumor that Jasmine might be pregnant too. You can see understanding in their faces.
Definitely. And I think that in a way is really true for all pregnant women. [laughter]
I remember when I was pregnant with my son, sort of looking at a woman in a restaurant and thinking, “Is she pregnant? Is she not pregnant?” I wanted to reach out and talk to people about it. And like Cobie in the movie, I was thirty. I was certainly an appropriate age to have children yet none of my friends were having kids yet. So I was the only person I knew at the time going through it.
The only person she really has to talk to about it is this seventeen-year old girl. And vice versa. There really is a bond there with the two of them.
You also showcase a real honesty to the male characters too where their actions aren’t a result of their gender like with Hollywood. John’s [played by Anders Holm] not pushing Sam to be a stay-at-home mom to pass off responsibility and Travis [played by Aaron J. Nelson] isn’t ditching Jasmine because he doesn’t love her—he’s just an immature teenager.
Can you talk about toeing that line?
I really didn’t want there to be any external hurdles. I didn’t want anyone to be the bad guy. I wanted it to just be that these people didn’t understand each other.
Especially for a young African American man—there’s a huge stereotype that they don’t care, they don’t make good fathers, they don’t follow through, etc. So I didn’t want it to be stereotypical like he was a “bad guy.” Like he was in a gang and sold drugs. That also would have spoke badly about Jasmine’s character. Why would she have ever been with someone like that?
But I also didn’t want to portray him as a doting father. I wanted him to be like an eighteen-year old. I think that would have been the case for any eighteen-year old kid regardless of social class—being a teenager and not being ready to do it. And we do see him at the end; that he’s kind of around. But yeah, for sure, I’m glad you pointed that out because I didn’t want him to be the bad guy.
I thought that was great too—seeing him at the baby shower. He is still involved and he’s come back.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
I’m working on a new outline about a married couple that I’m excited about, but I’m in the very early stages of that. I’m just focusing a lot right now on promoting [Unexpected] and getting it out for people to see.
And I have to ask—have you ever tried the pickle juice/Flammin’ Hot concoction?
I have to admit that I haven’t cause I find it so disgusting that I just can’t stomach it. But a lot of people did on set.
It definitely came from the real life experience of one of my students combining those two disgusting snacks together in my classroom when I was a teacher and me insisting that they leave because it smelled so bad. [laughter] It’s definitely a real thing.
Unexpected hits limited release and VOD on Friday, July 24th.
Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano‘s (shown above at middle and right with Omar Sy) Intouchables was France’s record-breaking Oscar hopeful in 2012 and did make the January shortlist. An infectious crowd-pleaser based on a true story, it vaulted Sy into stardom with a César win over The Artist‘s Jean Dujardin and ultimately co-staring roles in Hollywood blockbusters X-Men: Days of Future Past and Jurassic World. It most likely also opened a floodgate of offers for the duo at the helm, but these Frenchmen aren’t interested in bringing someone else’s vision to life. They’ve written and directed their own collaborations for twenty years and don’t look to be stopping anytime soon.
Their follow-up—and fifth feature together—is Samba, an involving and humorous dramedy that made its debut at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Finally ready to hit theaters stateside, we talked with Nakache about its development as an original story that ultimately brought in aspects from a novel by Delphine Coulin as well as his and Toledano’s penchant for getting collaborators to branch out and do things they haven’t yet done onscreen. And if for some reason you didn’t laugh enough at either Intouchables or Samba, he assures us we will with what’s coming next.
The Film Stage: I wanted to thank you and Eric for exposing me to the music of Ludovico Einaudi. I’ve been writing to his albums ever since seeing Intouchables in 2012.
Olivier Nakache: Ah, great. He’s a genius, Ludovico Einaudi.
How did your creative partnership with him begin?
When we write our scripts we work every time with music. And with Spotify: it proposes you that if you like Thomas Newman or if you like Michael Nyman, hear this man. You know? It’s a function of the application. One time, like this, we discover Ludovico Einaudi and we felt immediately that his notes are touching our hearts. He tells stories with his music. Each song has a beginning, middle, and an end. The music is very sweet and cinematic.
So when we wrote Intouchables we decided to call him. We said, “Hello, Ludovico. We are two directors and we wanted to meet you.” He says, “Oh, I don’t compose my music for films. No I’m not interested.” And we said, “We come tomorrow to Milan if you have just five minutes.” And he said, “Okay. Come on.”
We like pasta so we went to dinner and we showed him our three movies [Let’s Be Friends, Those Happy Days, and Tellement proches]. We told him about the story of Intouchables and he says, “Okay. I like you. Why not?”
We began like this, but you have to know that we took music that already existed and Einaudi than made arrangements of them for the film. [The same is done with Samba’s score.]
After the amazing adventure of Intouchables, he says, “Okay, guys. You can ask me for whatever you want.” So we decided to move on with him in Samba.
What was it that attracted you to Delphine Coulin’s novel Samba pour la France?
When we decide to plunge into a subject we do a lot of research because we want to nourish ourselves with sources. In New York City at the last French film festival we met her sister Muriel—Delphine and Muriel are directors too. They made a beautiful movie called 17 Girls.
We began to write a movie about an [immigrant] in Paris. We told this story to Delphine and she says, “Oh, amazing. You have to read my books because I was doing five years volunteering [at La Cimade, a refugee aid organization].” So we read the book and we immediately thought it was an incredible resource in terms of information. We then decided to use the novel as a starting point and basis for the movie. It’s a very dark and dramatic novel, so we added in Charlotte Gainsbourg‘s character Alice and changed another character into Wilson [Tahar Rahim].
This is now the fifth feature you’ve worked on with Eric. What is it like on set? Do you handle specific aspects individually or are you in tandem throughout production?
We met each other when we were kids in summer camp. We made three short movies and two hundred commercials so now there is an official [camaraderie] between us and it works. We split up the work, but both of us do everything. There is no, “This one has that job and that one has this job”.
We’ve got a Golden Rule: to try everything the other wants us to try. We let doubt insert itself and every morning we think, “What can we do to surprise the other one?” We are not brothers, but we became brothers.
Along with that collaboration, this is now Omar’s fourth film with the two of you. When did you meet him?
We met him in 2001 because we wrote a short movie [Ces jours heureux] and he was on TV [in Fred et Omar: Le Visiophon]. Not as a famous person—he played in a show exactly like Saturday Night Live. We caught a glimpse of him and decided to talk to him.
“We wrote a short movie. Can you read it?” He says, “I’m not an actor. I’m not an actor.” And we said, “We’re not directors so it’s perfect. Come with us.” The story began like this and a special thing happened between us. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a mix of friendship and respect and admiration.
Could you talk about his versatility as an actor going from the cocky confidence in Intouchables to an almost awkward shyness in Samba?
The character of Driss in Intouchables was very close to Omar in life. For Samba we wanted him to perform something, to create a character. We didn’t want him to dance and make jokes. We wanted to try something else. So for him it was a big challenge and it confirmed and validated for us that he is a great actor. Omar is like Novak Djokovic, but he has to have a Rafael Nadal or a Roger Federer or Andy Murray or Stanislas Wawrinka opposite him. His return is excellent.
Was he always your Samba? Did he agree to do the role as you were writing?
Yes. Right away. We also knew we’d have Charlotte Gainsbourg because we saw her before we started writing the script.
And your third lead—Tahar Rahim—my knowing him from films like A Prophet and The Past makes his turn here an unforgettably hilarious contrast. How did his casting come about?
We knew him in life. Tah has an incredible intensity and is a great actor, but in life he is very, very, very, very funny. He can’t sit still. In the middle of writing we came to see him and said, “Do you want to just smile in a movie? Because we never see your teeth.” You know?
“Do you want to smile with us?” And he said, “Okay. With you? No problem.”
We created the character of Wilson for him and he had a lot of fun. It’s funny because he’s received a lot of [comedy offers] now in France. No one knew how comfortable he was doing comedy.
Were you on location for the entire film? The scenes where Omar and Tahar are running from the authorities on the rooftops for instance—were they actually on those roofs?
Yes. It was done the old-fashioned way without any tricks. We had taken security measures, but it was real.
Could you talk about what we can expect next from you and Eric?
We always want to talk about our society. We want to take all the various tensions in French society and we want to make a comedy out of them. We decided to make a film that would take place in one time period.
So we want to laugh again about our fear and the absurdity of this crazy climate. But we especially want people to really laugh so Eric and I decided we were really going to let go.
Samba opens in limited release Friday, July 24th.
I barely had time to fully delve into Amy Winehouse‘s music before she tragically lost her life, but when it came to her personal life, there seemed to be 24-hour news cycle that the tabloids ate up. The new documentary on Winehouse by renowned director Asif Kapadia (Senna), simply titled Amy, explores the behind-the-scenes journey of the famous singer and gives one a glimpse into her tragic story. She was more than just a tabloid headline. She was a woman full of love, joy, and a singular passion for music that was contagious and engrossing. She had nuance and Kapadia, utilizing hours of footage from media, friends, and especially manager Nick Shymansky, gives us a well-rounded look at the singer’s all-too-short life.
It was a great pleasure to get to talk with Shymansky on the phone to discuss the film and how he got involved. Considering he discovered Amy at a very young age and grew up alongside her, he was uncomfortable with the idea of being part of a documentary on one of his closest friends that he parted ways with shortly before she died. We touch on how the director convinced him to participate and sign off on the footage from his own personal tapes, as well as the lessons he and Winehouse’s friends learned from the tragedy. Additionally, we talk about where his drive to record his early years came from, the ways he has tried to move forward, and why he ultimately walked away from their friendship. It’s a heartbreaking documentary and the conversation we had doesn’t sugar-coat any of it which is why I’m proud of it. Enjoy the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: The film relies heavily on hand-held footage from what I assume was you, Amy, and some other various friends. It was all low-key homemade stuff from when you were just hanging out as friends. You couldn’t have known back then that you would end up using it in a film like this, but did you think you would ever look back on some of that stuff?
Nick Shymansky: No way, no. I was very young and I was very excited about Amy. Remember this was before people had cameras on their phones. My father is actually a videographer. So I grew up with this culture in my family. Like, film everything. So I literally have my life on VHS.
So was a lot of the footage yours?
Yeah, yeah. Most of it is mine. I’m that guy that films every holiday and every event and then never watches it. Particularly in the era when it was all on tapes. I’d put the tape in the cupboard. But I was excited. We were on the road. We were doing things. I believed in her. And I wanted to show my friends. I wanted to feel proud.
So I filmed a lot of it and to be honest I never had any intention, even after she died, to go there. I certainly wasn’t in the right headspace to watch this stuff. I felt very negative about the fact that there was a film being made. I thought it was way too soon and didn’t know why people were doing this. Then through a whole chain of events I ended up changing my mind. I spent some time with Asif and I believed in him.
Was there anything in particular that kind of swayed you?
Well, for one, it was made very clear to me that this film was being made regardless of my involvement. But I had to think about it. I had to think about what was bothering me. The biggest thing was that no one of any quality had put any time into Amy’s story. It was all very cheap, tabloid-y stuff. She died and because it wasn’t a murder there was no intellect. Apart from her mother and father writing a book, which in the best of worlds when your mother and father write a book, you’re only going to get one letter of thought. So for me, I thought about Asif and the fact that he made Senna, this incredible film. Had I not known about Senna I probably would have never even met him. But Senna is such a great film that is so deeply told about the person and about the subject.
So I spent some time with him and I thought this guy was the real deal and knew that he had been funded to make this film which meant he could put the time and space into it. I thought that if ever I was going to do anything to set the record straight in terms of Amy’s beauty, brilliance, and story. I thought there was a lot of unfair perception of Amy as a person. To a lot of people she was seen as a total fuck-up. To me, there was a lot more. I never saw any questioning about the fact that she was suffering from depression or mental health. For all the pictures, for all the magazines, and all the avenues of coverage around the Back to Black years… I mean the album is called Back to Black. There was never any real thought or journalistic investigation into the fact that she was suffering from severe depression and got very lost in it all. Asif was great and very relaxed throughout the whole process. At no point was he being pushy. I think I could have just walked away and he would have probably allowed me to. And he also said to me, “What’s your biggest fear?” And I told him, “My biggest fear is that you make a glossy story that doesn’t feel like the truth.” And I said, “Even if you want to make the right film, someone is going to stop you somewhere.” So he said, “Okay, the only way I can prove that is by doing it. And the only way I can do it is if people back me to do it.”
So we came up with this understanding that I would eventually give him my tapes and give him the interviews, but I certainly wouldn’t sign a release form until I felt like I was seeing the finished product. Then it was a long process. We spent a lot of time together and eventually I said to him you can’t make a film about Amy unless you talk to Juliette [Ashby] and Lauren [Gilbert]. They’re like sisters, man. When I saw the first cut of the film I was so nervous. I didn’t care whether he was going to use 10 seconds of my footage or an hour of it, as long as he was getting the essence of Amy. I thought it was incredible because he had managed to really show the Amy that I remember. He brought some very sensitive issues in. I didn’t feel like he was being too judgmental. And he has also found a way of making a social commentary on it. It really brings a lot of interesting, modern issues into the spotlight.
One thing that I was struck by during the film was the fact that Amy had enablers around her but also people that truly cared for her and were attempting to get her help. One of the things that I thought about was just that the film makes people from the outside feel like they could have tried to help. They could have tried to be there. But none of this was really going to fix what was broken with her. I imagine that it brought up a lot of emotions to watch this film. I’m sure a lot of us have had those friends that aren’t quite getting it and sometimes you do have to walk away. That seems like what you did and yet you were still there for her.
Yeah, that’s the hardest thing for me. What I’ve learned, and I’ve had three relationships, including Amy, where they ended up needing rehabilitation and intervention. Of those three, the only one that never came out of it was Amy. The other two relationships in my life have gotten completely back on track. What I would say is that — and it’s a good point, what you’re getting at. I’ve recently become a father so I have a perspective on this — you can really care about a kid. A nephew, a niece or even a friend’s kid. Really, you can have all the opinions and even say something to the kid. But really, if the parents aren’t there instilling that, then it’s a very hard situation.
What I found myself with Amy was I tried so hard to intervene. So did Juliette. So did Lauren. We constantly tried. But we suddenly realized, out of nowhere, we were dealing with someone’s wife… she was married; we were dealing with someone’s daughter, she had parents there; she even had a new manager. And all of a sudden we’re dealing with this person that has this really bad support system around her. We’ve gone from being the most important people to not the most important people and on top of it the people around us seem to be really into this idea of making money and getting recognition and all the things that come with being extremely successful and famous. I constantly fantasize about whether I should have walked around with a baseball bat? But the reality is, man, when the core team around someone becomes a team that doesn’t have that person’s best interests at heart to get them focused and back on track, it’s near enough impossible.
Months before she died, she had a huge relapse. She ended up in a place called The Prairie. It’s a famous rehab location in London. But it’s kind of one of those places that’s a notch up from being a spa. It’s bullshit. It’s just a very expensive retreat. But it was all over the news that the doctor was saying that she’s in a very dangerous space and it was very well-publicized. So the whole country knew she was on her last legs. Two weeks later, she’s playing a gig in Belgrade. I spent some time recently, and I’m not going to say who it was, with a manager of one of the biggest artists in the world and he said to me, “Do you know how many times we get huge requests that I just say no to? I don’t even discuss it with the artist.”
Yeah, they know the head-space of their artists so why even bring it up?
Even if she wanted to do it — which I know she didn’t — a good manager, good parents, good people around you would have just gone, “Absolutely not. In fact, over my dead body. You have to get past me if you’re going to play this gig.”
I’ve never wanted to come across as self righteous. I’m not saying it would have been any different if I carried on as her manager. But Juliette, Lauren, and myself made a statement to Amy that was very clear. We’re going to sacrifice… think about Juliette and Lauren. They grew up with her. What’s better than your best mate becoming a star? Being rich and traveling around on jets and going to all these parties? It’s the dream. It could have been like Entourage or something for them. But they sacrificed that because they couldn’t watch their friend in that position. And unfortunately, not enough of that went on with Amy. If it did, maybe she would have focused and got back on track. We’ll never know.
Amy is now in theaters.
Goodbye to All That was one of the delights of the Tribeca Film Festival last year, a mature comedy with a divesting first act twist: a likable young suburban couple Otto (Paul Schneider) and Annie (Melanie Lynskey) split up following a reckless accident that leaves Otto injured. Rebuilding his life, he takes to dating websites and after a series of encounters, one night stands and confusion towards Annie, he slowly rebuilding his life. Offering no easy answers, with the film now available to stream on Netflix, we’re sharing our conversation with Paul Schneider and first-time director Angus MacLachlan (screenwriter of Junebug and Stone) about love, life and filmmaking. Check it out below.
I’ve been a fan of your work since Junebug. How did this one come together – and what made you want to direct it?
MacLachlan: It came about because I had a lot of friends who went through similar experiences and I found them horrifying or funny…
MacLachlan: Horrifying. Every screenwriter probably wants to direct and I’ve done it on stage. As I said last night we talk about Phil Morrison [director of Junebug] maybe doing it, but I said I wanted to push myself. The biggest satisfaction is really getting to see your intentions and images realized the way you wanted it to. I write as an actor with a lot of subtext, so theirs people that might read the work and think there’s nothing going on their, and its not heavy with plot. So it’s really about human beings, and theres not a lot of films made about that these days. So to be the director and say, “this could be funny” — and I’d have to sometimes argue that with producers sometimes when they’d say, “I don’t understand why that’s in here. It’s not doing anything,” and I’d say, “It’s funny.” If someone’s not getting why something is funny, you can’t convince someone that it is funny.
Schneider: Did you feel you tried to escape the fate of some of the people who were divorcing by ventilating?
MacLachlan: In my marriage?
Schneider: No, no — by ventilating your ire into this script as if to save yourself from this fate?
MacLachlan: No, no. I’m always afraid being psychic about something that’s going to happen to me later.
Schneider: Really? Oh Shit. Why didn’t you write about a lottery winner or an ice cream taster, or a…?
MacLachlan: No, but it was kind of scary to show the film to my wife for the first time.
What about your friends who have gone through this?
MacLachlan: Well, some of them who have seen it really like it, and one friend in particular who went through a lot of these similar experiences, I would consult with him. I gave him the script to read and actually later he thanked me because he got to talk to someone about it. And he really likes the film.
So he’s not upset about the film?
MacLachlan: No, but his ex-wife hasn’t seen it yet. And I said, “Oh, what was she’s going to think?” and he said, “I don’t think she’s going to realize it’s her.
Schneider: I’ll tell you a funny story. The woman that mostly inspired All the Real Girls, David [Gordon Green] and I broke up with around the same time. He had his ex-love and I had my ex-love.
The same women?
Schneider: No, no – different relationships. We sort of poured our pain into that script and there’s some extremely autobiographical, I mean un-missable things — if you were one of the parties involved, unmissable factual moments. So years and years later, that very women, who broke the shit out of my heart and who is a beautiful and really great woman, she was at graduate school and really had the hots for this guy and sort of engineered as women do, a way for him to ask her out. And so he did and said, “Let’s go out Friday night, what do you want to do?” He said, “I don’t know, how about a dinner and a movie?” And she’s very excited to go out with this guy because he’s handsome and smart and she said, “What movie do you want to go out to?” and he said, “There’s a movie I heard about, it’s supposed to be amazing” and it was All The Real Girls. So she went and saw it, on a first date, and watched moments of her life.
MacLachlan: How did you hear about it? Did she call you up and tell you?
Schneider: A couple of years ago, I heard it from someone else whom I don’t remember, but then she confirmed it on the phone. It wasn’t such a break-up…it was probably the right thing to happen for her in her life and I was kind of sad.
So filmmaking as therapy?
MacLachlan: It can be, certainly art is.
I feel as if this role is a similar. In that you play kind of the American everyman, but here you seem a little more neurotic than anything else you’ve done.
Schneider: Well, the way I prepare is I write my lines down on index cards with a particular kind of pen — it is a colored wet erase sharpie, a thinner sharpie. I put the cards in my pocket and I record the other side of the conversation on to my phone, and I wonder around around the city and I learn my lines speaking to myself. Thankfully now with the earphones it doesn’t sound like I’m schizophrenic. It just sounds like I’m on the phone although I’m having a really dramatic, well-written conversation with a beginning, middle and end – with a button on the end. To be perfectly honest, that’s 90 percent of how I prepare, just learning the lines. Especially with this one, because there’s a lot of lines to learn. I’ve never been in a film more than in this film. The heavy lifting of acting, it was just learning the damn lines and I don’t think there was that much character development, but I don’t know what character development is because do you just watch someone on the street and walk like them? I guess I understand if you’re playing someone whose a real-life person who has lived and you’re in a biopic. I guess I can understand looking at footage and trying to speak like them. I don’t understand character development but maybe it was easier in this because he was clumsy and had foibles and had self-doubt and was unsure he had things figured out and strange, painful things had happened in his life. And that wasn’t much of a stretch.
MacLachlan: And yet its a complete a character that’s unlike Paul.
How did you come about casting everyone in the film?
MacLachlan: A lot of it is you have dreams of who you want to be in it. Paul was one who came up soon, and Melanie Lynskey was connected to it and she suggested Paul, whose name had come up earlier, so we contacted him. A lot of it is intuition, hope and in a some instances we had some actors who were cast and sort of dropped out and then we got who we got. Now I can’t imagine anybody else in these other rules. I had the same instances with the DP whom I worked with for four months and he couldn’t do it, he dropped out and then Corey Walter came in — now I don’t want to do a movie without Corey Walter. A lot of it is out of your hands which is incredibly nerve-wracking, but I like actors who fundamentally can play comedy and are true actors. And one of the things I like about Paul is he’s an actor whose always thinking — he’s a thinking actor. Even in small roles, you look over and he’s in the background and something’s going on in his head – and that’s very intriguing and interesting to me to me. The way I write or my intention is that there are scenes going on that are very funny or serious at the same time or back and forth, and that’s the way I feel like life is. Someone like Celia Weston, who was in Junebug, I was a fan of her work way even before thinking of Junebug, because she has that way of being really true and being really funny at the same time, and that’s sort of electric when you hit that spot.
Can you talk a bit about setting the film in Winston-Salem. Aa lot indie American films here [at Tribeca] are set in New York by people who rarely leave Brooklyn, so this one certainly feels rare?
MacLachlan: What’s funny in the catalog is I’m listed as New York film filmmaker, which I kind of think, okay – alright. But no, I live in Winston-Salem. Ideally I wanted to shoot there. There was a small window where we were maybe going to shoot it in L.A., which was a nightmare to me. But [Winston-Salem] is my hometown, so I got to sleep in my own bed at night, and got to sort of show a story that could happen in any place. It could happen in Portland, Oregon or Des Moines or Ann Arbor – these towns that are not Chicago, L.A. or New York. A lot of the actors are Southern and we don’t all sound like the Dukes of Hazard if you’re old enough to remember that people have different accents..
Schneider: Now it’d be Duck Dynasty.
MacLachlan: But Paul is from the South, Celia is, Anna Camp is from South Carolina, Amy Sedaris grew up in Raleigh — we have have a lot of Southerns there. And, in fact, one of the test screenings we had someone said, “How come they don’t have Southern accents? This is completely inaccurate.” And I know its always a Yankee that writes that down. Heather Lawless is from Cherokee, North Carolina.
Schneider: And that’s countttrry…
MacLachlan: I love at the end when she says, “Do you have a pitcher [picture]?”
Schneider: I remember when we screened George Washington up here for the first time and there was a very self-important New York-style critic who said, “This movie does not ring true to me because it’s set in the south and the black kids and the white kids are getting along, and if you expect me to believe this is happening…” And I’m like wow, this is amazing.
MacLachlan: I’d like to say a little about Heather Lawless who I think does such a beautiful job and she’s never done anything like this. She’s a stand-up comedian who does this crazy show called The Heart, She Holler. She’s crazy in this, she’s just a lunatic, she’s great. And she has such a beautiful quality to me in our film, and it’s who she is. And I really need a woman who had lost a child and had not been completely crushed and that character is actually based on a friend of mine who lost a child, and she’s seen the film and she’s an amazing person – my friend is. So Heather has this gravitas as a person and still is funny too. Even in that scene where he says, “Did you and your husbands fight?” and she says, “Yeah, I had a warning against him,” and she gets a little laugh in, then she’s completely heartbroken in the next moment.
There’s a tonal shift in the film. There’s some great, subtle moments and some broader comic moments and I know last night during the Q & A there was a heckler at the screening…
MacLachlan: I believe that life is like that. I believe you can be in a very emotional place and find something funny, which I believe can save one — it saves me sometimes. Things that are funny can be very serious. I did talk to him afterwards and he was an Italian and he’s like, “Why weren’t they more emotional?” And the sort of the point of the movie is [Otto] is not a man whose in touch with his feelings. We’re all in the arts and we deal with our feelings and stuff, but there’s a lot of men who are like I’m tired, I just want to watch the game, get a buzz off my thing, fuck my life, and earn enough money not have to work, and that’s fine for me. I don’t want to know how I’m feeling or express my feelings.
So Paul, why didn’t you get more emotional?
Schneider: We dialed back the emotion for God’s sake. It played much better, the peak of his emotion being expressed in that push-in on the phone. Why didn’t I get emotional?
I’m kidding — sorry.
Schneider: I think a lot of people handle their emotions by avoiding them, and you have to be fucking vigilant to not be a member of the herd, in this society. Because it’s really easy to sit on the couch and drink your beer.
But he kind of doesn’t. He runs a race in the opening scene and what’s so weird is when they break up, it really does come as a shock in act one, because they remind me of my friends and people I know who seem to have functional relationships and marriages.
MacLachlan: Have you had friends like that yet [you say], “They got divorced, I thought they were so great.” I think that happens, a lot. I was engaged for a year and a half and this couple asked, “When are you going to get married? You’re never going to get married.” I’d say, “Well, we have to think about it, what we really want, what we’re going to say,” and she said we didn’t think about it, they just did it. And they’re divorced now, because they never asked these questions before they got into it. They just went into it and had a family and they got frustrated.
Schneider: They might use marriage to cover up the work they need to do for themselves, you know. I don’t want to look in the mirror, I want to look in someone else’s eyes. Maybe I’m just congratulating the way I went about things. I spent the last ten years thinking about my feelings. I too was engaged for a year and now when I think about marrying that women, give me a fucking break, you know? That’s a marriage you get into because you fucking hate yourself.
This was great, thanks so much. I hope this was therapeutic for you guys.
Schneider: Thank you.
Goodbye All That is now streaming on Netlix.
With The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer instantly became one of the most important names in documentary cinema, his film proving one of the most acclaimed, discussed, and, sometimes, sharply criticized releases of 2013. Oppenheimer recorded the perpetrators responsible for the deaths of over half a million Indonesians in 1965-1966, a genocide veiled as an anti-communist purge that, because of its roots in politics endorsed by the West, is still relatively little-known. It was both a light into our world’s underwritten history and a bold new step for the form, but his follow-up, The Look of Silence, is even better. This time around, Oppenheimer documents the confrontation that Adi, the brother of a victim of the genocide, has with the various perpetrators. Resolving his first film’s formal uncertainties and provoking even more disgust amidst quiet strains of optimism, The Look of Silence is hands-down one of the year’s highlights.
After a screening at last year’s New York Film Festival, we were lucky enough to sit down with the director. Oppenheimer talked in eloquent monologues about everything from performativity in documentaries, the essence of nonfiction filmmaking, the origin of his latest feature, and, of course, the film itself. Looking back on it, I only wish I had requested more time, as the interview ended when there was clearly much more to say. Luckily, Oppenheimer will likely be a name that lasts, and we can only hope that more opportunities arise as he continues to shine a light on one of the 20th century’s darkest chapters, the repercussions of which are still felt in modern-day Indonesia.
To start, congratulations: you’re officially a genius, as per MacArthur. Did they just call you one morning and say, “You win”?
Yes, they do, they do, and, in fact, at first I thought it was like a journalist or someone I was supposed to meet and I failed to make an appointment, and I just jumped out of bed. It was a total surprise.
The Act of Killing was tied at #19 on the Sight & Sound list of greatest documentaries. There were a lot of newer films on that, e.g. Leviathan, Man on Wire, Los Angeles Plays Itself, and The Gleaners and I. Does that indicate anything about the state of documentary?
No. [Laughs] It doesn’t. It doesn’t indicate anything about it to me.
It’s a lot of different kinds of films. All of those films, and Act of Killing, are doing different things, but there is a lot of talk right now about “hybrids,” which has been done for a while, and obviously the availability of digital equipment has a big effect. Was any of that on your mind during either The Act of Killing or The Look of Silence?
So certainly — and there I have something to say — what I did in Act of Killing wouldn’t have been possible in the days of celluloid. To go through a filmmaking process where you get sort of sucked into catalyzing and allowing to flourish a project that takes on an absolute life of its own, namely these former death squad leaders, dramatizing the fantasies by which they live with themselves and justify their actions, and creating elaborate, increasingly elaborate, ever more elaborate fiction scenes… staging those fantasies generated 1,200 hours of footage. That would be an airplane hangar filled with celluloid. And that would be impossible for any filmmaker to edit, to review, to cut, to work with the multiple cameras, to sync them up. There was no way in the days of celluloid to sync up cameras on the same event…and then layers of reflection as the characters would watch the footage and comment on it. It just wasn’t possible. So that’s certainly something I’ve thought about.
And, more to the point, I’m not sure I really see a trend toward embracing what I feel is the state of nature in documentary cinema, which is that whenever you point a camera at anybody, they start acting, they start performing, and they start acting out the scripts by which they imagine would be coming to them. They start acting in the way they want to be seen. And from there you can infer how they really see themselves. And you can ask questions then for what are they compensating. Why do they want to be seen a certain way? But when you acknowledge that, that whenever you point a camera at somebody they start acting, they start staging themselves, then you’re in this space of performance. And you’re saying whatever you get in a non-fiction film is a form of performance. That’s a kind of axiom of mine that you see in the work of Ulrich Seidl, Michael Glawogger — you see it more in Europe; you see it, in some small extent, in other people’s work — but I don’t know if that’s enough to call it a trend, given that I think it is in fact the state of nature of the whole medium.
And it’s still the case that the vast majority of people calling themselves documentarians are trying to get past that state of self-consciousness as quickly as possible. And most of the time they don’t, but they try to hide it. That is to say, they simulate a reality with the people they film in which they pretend they’re not affecting it. Whereas, in fact, any time you film anybody, you’re creating a reality with the people you film, whether it’s a fiction film or a nonfiction film. But I don’t see a trend, but I think the attempt to hide that that’s what’s going on, and the way we try to talk about doc as a transparent window on reality obscures what really happens when you point a camera at someone and therefore leads filmmakers to miss the opportunity that the awareness of that self-staging invariably presents. And I think that’s an enormous shame.
Albert Maysles acknowledged that when you point a camera, people start acting, so you need to point the camera at them long enough until they can’t keep up the façade.
Well, I would argue that this is a very good example — and I love their work — but I would argue this is a good example of not speaking in a productive way or an insightful way about documentary. If you look at their masterpiece, Grey Gardens, the longer they point their camera, the more the women start to cleverly and manipulatively use the camera, perform for it, compete with each other for its attention. So the film becomes more and more performative, not less and less. And I think that if we recognize that as a basic thing that’s not just happening, not just generating fabulous performances that make that film, but actually the key to its emotional development as the women become more and more shrill in their competition for the attention of the filmmakers, then we start to have the opportunity to understand what that film is really doing and why it’s a great film and how its drama works. But if we simply say, “Oh, the filmmakers hang around long enough until they forget the camera,” then we’re lying to ourselves and we’re lying to any young filmmaker who is trying to think, “how does documentary work and what are we doing when we make it?”
The Look of Silence features many scenes where there’s a confrontation between Adi and somebody else and they get very angry, telling him “the past is the past” and telling you to turn off the camera. Is this sort of the opposite, where you film a short conversation and they’re closer to being themselves because they haven’t learned how to manipulate the camera yet?
Was there a lot of footage filmed and edited in each of those individual conversations, or are we seeing most of what was recorded?
I’m trying to think… it’s an interesting question and I don’t think I’ve thought about it that way. It’s interesting because not only could those conversations not exist without a camera — Adi couldn’t know who those men were without my old footage, without watching that old footage.
Which old footage do you mean?
I met Adi in 2003 when I was just starting this work on the 1965 genocide and was working with survivors, and Adi came in a plantation village where I had helped the plantation workers make a film called The Globalization Tapes, which is not really my film but a film they made with me and my colleague Christine Cynn’s facilitating. Then we started in 2003. It turned out the plantation workers were all survivors of this genocide and the film was made to document their struggle organizing a union. And it turned out their biggest obstacle was fear, because their parents and grandparents had been killed for being in a union in 1965. They said, after we made that film, “Come back and let’s make another film about what it’s like for us to live with perpetrators all around us and still in power.”
And I came back in early 2003 to start that work, and we started, of course, working with the survivors with whom we worked to make The Globalization Tapes. But they said there was one victim in particular whose name was synonymous with the genocide across that region, and his name was Romley. Because Romley’s murder had witnesses. People saw Romley die, unlike the tens of thousands of people who had been brought to river banks, decapitated and thrown into the river. People saw Romley die, so to speak about Romley for the survivors was to insist that these events, which the government had threatened them into pretending never had occurred, it was to insist even to themselves and to each other really had occurred. It was like pinching yourself to remind yourself and to retain a link, a connection, to the source of their fear and trauma, which, once severed, deprives you of any opportunity to ever heal from that trauma because you can’t recall what the original trauma is.