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Todd Haynes on Campaigning for ‘Carol’ and the Historical Appeal of ‘Wonderstruck’

Written by Rory O'Connor, August 17, 2017 at 1:40 pm 

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26 years, 6 movies, and 1 miniseries since winning the grand Jury Prize with his debut film Poison at Sundance, Todd Haynes remains a remarkably difficult auteur to pin down. He made his first short while still in high school but decided to focus on semiotics in university instead. That knowledge would nevertheless bleed into the fabric of his work, becoming a director of significant gestures and homage. He soon became a major — and quite radical — player in both the American independent and queer film scenes of the early ‘90s before channeling that spirit to produce experimental works on Bob Dylan and Glam Rock. His period films, those great sweeping odes to Golden Age Hollywood, were radical in their own subtle way, if less avant-garde. He recently peppered that remarkable back catalogue with Wonderstruck, his first family-oriented outing.

The Locarno International Film Festival decided to acknowledge that diversity and radicalism this year by awarding the great man with their Pardo d’Onore Manor, the festival’s equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. While it might just be a little early for that, it’s nonetheless deserved, and we had the opportunity to speak with the director during the festival.

You’ve always been a wonderfully eclectic director when it came to choosing stories; if anything, since you began making films, what has changed with regards to what you look for in a script and what you hope to achieve when you make a film?

Todd Haynes: It’s relatively new for me to open the door of stuff that’s out there in the world that I haven’t generated myself. For many years, that’s really what I did. I sort of developed and wrote my own material, and my agent would tell people, “No, he doesn’t read scripts, stay away,” and it was a great experience and process to do so. It took a lot of time to do so, to generate, research, produce, write, finance your own work one after the next, and it meant that I was extremely single-minded one thing at a time, and I would see other directors balancing different projects in different states of development, and it’s only recently that that was something that I was like “that would be interesting, I would like to do that.” I also wouldn’t mind working more, having more projects come into my life more quickly. I think it was since Mildred Pierce, which was also a different process; I did originate that and adapted it from a novel with a friend, but since Mildred I have directed two films that were not my scripts.

Have you fallen out of love with writing, temporarily?

No. I don’t know if I’ve fallen out of love with it, but it’s been a new part of the creative process, and I get involved with the scripts that I take on, like Carol or Wonderstruck, and work with the writers and make it into something that feels like it’s my work. But what’s funny is even when it is your script, there’s a funny way in which it becomes something other once you embark upon it. It’s an assignment that you give yourself, and then you kind of need to work yourself through it and discard, and once you’re shooting, the script is history. And even more just filming the script, what’s happening in production means that the script is just a blueprint for what you’re doing with the camera and with your actors and with your locations. Once you’re done shooting, it’s over, and you’re in the editing process and you have to be able to keep discarding and not hanging on to the imprint and the expectations and the assumptions that you have conjured at each stage. I think it’s the only way to really see what you have in front of you, and to also let it become what it is to a certain point. You can do everything you can to manage that process but ultimately it is what is in front of you.

What hit you about Wonderstruck? Was it the fact that it could be a kids movie, something that you hadn’t done before?

It was that; it really was that initially. I mean, it was obviously this script was so film-fluent. It had such a rich cinematic language, series of references, historical material. Brian [Selznick]’s adaptation of his book was intensely intercut on the page, so you felt the editorial rhythm of what it could be, and so it felt already like it had moved into a different medium from a book into something else, and that was enticing and stimulating from a cinematic perspective. But yeah, I wanted to feel like I could create something with as much love and attention to detail and history and character as I’ve given to my adult dramas, but something that kids could be able to experience. I went back and I saw movies that had meant a lot to me as a kid, and I found that they were mature films that weren’t necessarily catering to a different audience. The movie Sounder, I hadn’t seen since I was twelve — the age of the kids in Wonderstruck — and I thought, “oh, it’s going to be kind of manipulative.” Do you guys know that movie Sounder?

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No, I can’t say I’m familiar with it.

It’s a beautiful film from 1972 with Cicely Tyson and nominated for Best Picture, but it was very well received at the time, a Martin Ritt film, and I thought it was going to be kind of a tearjerker about a dog. The dog’s name is Sounder, it’s about a sharecropping family in 1930s America, and the story of the boy going after the father once he gets imprisoned and trying to find him. And the movie is so sophisticated and so subtle, and I was so astonished at how restrained it is, and mature it is. I don’t think it was even marketed as a family film, but we all went as a family to the film and it’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking. And I was like, “Yeah, you can really treat kids like anyone else, and assume they have a range of experiences and emotions and responses that can handle complexity.”

Twenty years ago you made films like Velvet Goldmine, that were pretty wild. Is there a logical line from Velvet Goldmine at your young age then to Wonderstruck in your age now?

No, it’s funny. The last time I saw Poison it shocked me, and it had been years since I had seen the movie, and it demonstrated to me a different side of myself, of my history, of our history as a culture, as a kind of radical, fierce, almost terrorist approach to the language of movies. I think yes, we completely evolve and change as we mature and grow, and I don’t have that same radical child who made that film, is no longer who I am.

I miss that person somehow.

I do too, but I also miss a queer culture that was not getting married and wanting – I mean I appreciate and I am fully supportive of all the legislative progress that gay people have made and trans people have made, and the sense of having choices in our lives, but when you are fighting to be alive, let alone be accepted at the table of the normal status quo, you have a different kind of critique, and I think it sharpens your wits and you are more weaponized to change the world and alter the world. I don’t know that that’s sustainable through one’s entire life, and you win victories. I mean now people don’t die of AIDS. That is an uncontested victory. There’s so many people that I lost that had they survived past a certain number of years would not have been the case. So you look back at – we fought that fight, and we actually had a victory.

But I think you lose things along the way as well. I think being excluded from the society teaches you things that you don’t learn when you’re included in the society. We have big questions about what is outside the society today, what is the counterculture, what is the critique, where is the critique, where is the activism, you know, and it’s almost too easy to have the target be Donald Trump. It’s disappointing and enraging, and it’s essential to be focused on that conflict because it’s so profound and in-your-face, and extreme and verbose, but the nuance of discussions about representation are no longer the things we are discussing. We have much more urgent matters that are extremely black-and-white, as they were during the AIDS crisis. They were black-and-white, they were survival issues, and we now have nuance to deal with. I was talking to a kid in college who was coming out of his philosophy class, and he felt like, “Yes. I’m ready to take on the world” and I was like, “Yeah, that reminded me of myself,” and that’s what I want to hear. It’s something that needs to happen, and I think we get inspiration from our elders and the people who came before us, as I did.

On the next page, Todd Haynes discusses Oscar campaigning for Carol, his upcoming Velvet Underground documentary, and more.

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Previewing TIFF 2017’s Boundary-Pushing Wavelengths Program

Written by Ethan Vestby, August 16, 2017 at 9:32 am 

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The true highlight of Toronto International Film Festival every year is the Wavelengths program, an expertly curated selection of the most boundary-pushing cinema from around the world. Led in particular by the programming vision of Andréa Picard, also known for her  contributions to Cinema Scope since its inception, it acts as its own mini-festival of sorts. We were lucky enough to receive a personal preview of this year’s exciting looking batch of films from her.

Can you talk about some of the pairings; for example Blake Williams’ Prototype with Erkki Kurenneimi’s Florence or Denis Côté’s A Skin So Soft with Kazik Radwanski’s Scaffold?

I’ve always tried to curate the program as much as possible. There are infinite possibilities out there and sometimes I’m not even looking for a theme, but a theme will emerge. Sometimes things lend themselves to make a really great programme. In the case of Blake Williams’ first feature Prototype, which is a 3D work, it’s very abstract but it also has a chronology and it deals with proto-cinema and sort of cinematic devices in some ways. I think there’s probably references to Godard’s Numero Deux in its split-screen and then he sort of shoots off different monitors that look like windows onto the world. Erkki Kurenneimi, he was sort of a master futurologist filmmaker and electronic music composer. He passed away earlier this year so there’s been a lot of tributes to him and there’s a Finnish distributor that’s started carrying his body of work. But he was very influential and he’s influenced other Finnish filmmakers, especially avant-garde filmmakers who I’ve shown before in the program.

So I took a look at some of these works and Florence is just this really amazing film that’s sort of a travelogue where he goes to attend a music conference and it’s got these kind of hippie summer of love images but matched over his trip on a train through the alps, but what he did was re-filmed over the film stock again and there are these superimpositions and then he added a electronic score to it. Blake’s film is all about these proto-cinema devices as well so when I saw the two, which was probably within a three week period, they immediately spoke to each other in terms of technology and chronology, because Blake’s film is also a travelogue and they’re both tied to their own personal histories and professions as well. So that was sort of a natural pairing because one is really short and why not round out the programme for the audience with another discovery. Also with Wavelengths, we like to include one or two historical films to speak to the contemporary films as well.

In the case of Denis Côté  and Kaz’s films, they’re two of Canada’s most talented filmmakers, and although they’re quite different, one’s fiction and one’s documentary, Denis’ is about bodybuilders in Quebec and very much about bodies, so there’s the rigour and the regimes, the upkeep of their physique. Whereas Kaz’s film is about bodies and construction workers in Canada, but the way that he frames it is everything is shot through the scaffold. I don’t want to give it away too much but it does become about bodies as well and gestures and points of view where bodies are cut off. So both programmes are about men at work. Men working and their point of view and our point of view of the body and the work that they do. So those were two that were also a natural pairing.

The other one I’m very excited about is called Beyond the One which is paired with Strangely Ordinary this Devotion. Beyond the One is a brand new film that hasn’t showed yet, it’s a world premiere directed by Anna Marziano and she’s an Italian artist living in Berlin, I’ve shown two of her previous short films before. She studied in France and she mainly works with celluloid, so this was filmed on 16mm and Super8. She’s been working on it for a number of years and it’s a sort of mysterious essay film that deals with love, with coupledom and how the nuclear family doesn’t really exist anymore and maintaining bonds of love after people die. There are these really abstract passages with testimonies from people in relationships, touching on issues like domestic violence and radical forms of intimacy, desire and longing, it’s a really beautiful meditative work. We’ve paired it up with a film that’s very different in tone but similar in themes. Strangely Ordinary this Devotion is a collaborative project between two women and it includes their daily lives together in raising a child. It includes them maintaining clear desire and intimacy while raising a baby and it’s quite graphic, it reveals a lot about their relationship even though parts of it are scripted. You’re witnessing a relationship and you’re in it. So those two films together deal with similar topics about being alone and being together.

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The first shorts programme is titled Appetite for Destruction, is that title particularly relevant to now?

You mean Guns ’N Roses? [laughs] For sure, you can’t look at the news and not feel like the world’s falling apart. Everything is just depressing, alarmist, out of control. We have leaders who are destroying the world, our environment is being destroyed and I think that we’re perhaps destroying ourselves with our use of technology. I think it’s exceedingly relevant actually.

There’s a note that Anne Charlotte Robinson’s [Pixillation] film launched the second programme. With the shorts programmes do you ever make a particular film a centre that inspires the other programming?

It’s a real big puzzle piece. We get so many submissions and to make sense of hundreds of films is difficult but obviously really strong work rises to the top. The challenge becomes putting them together in a way that’s meaningful but allowing a lot of breathing room for each film to be resonant on their own because they were obviously made individually and then to have a cumulative effect through the programme.

It’s always been a priority of mine to include some historical work. There’s not a lot of space for it and you do have the cinematheque programme that is there for that as well but I think all really good festivals include some historical work in dialogue with the contemporary work.

I’m a big fan of Anne Charlotte Robinson and the Harvard Film Archive has been restoring her entire body of work and they hold the collection. I’ve just noticed that given what we were just talking about, the grander politics of life being out of control, that there are a lot of filmmakers countering that with really localized stories, portraits or testimonies. I think just listening to individuals becomes very important in the world today and that’s the way we can foster empathy in a world that’s become so noisy and superficial. So Anne Charlotte Robinson was a filmmaker in the Boston area who was afflicted with a mental illness and in order to deal with that as a sort of self-preservation she made self-portraits and her big project was a five-year diary which actually took much longer. But this is a really brand new short that just premiered at the Documenta, which is a big arts manifestation in Athens. It’s a very short three-minute work of just her face that doubles and it’s disarming because she looks at you in a very intense way. It’s a perfect way to open up a programme that’s about portraiture and testimony or localized films that are extracted from the grander politics in a way.

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This year’s Straub/Huillet retrospective at the Lightbox drew surprisingly high attendance and seemed to show that there’s an audience for challenging cinema in Toronto. Was that and other Lightbox programming a good primer for this year’s Wavelengths?

Absolutely, I mean a number of those Straub/Huillet films I’d shown in Wavelengths over the years and James Quandt has been programming their films for a long time. One of the films in the retrospective I’d even shown last year as one of the restorations. There always has been a dialogue between the cinematheque programming and the Wavelengths programming. In fact Wavelengths was started by the director of the Cinematheque Ontario seventeen years ago, so Wavelengths grew out of cinematheque programming and it very much has the same ethos and it’s why I put so much emphasis on history. Also experimental film has been very important to the cinematheque as well like in the section called The Free Screen which used to be every Wednesday and for free would screen experimental film. We’ve re-branded that section and it’s curated by Chris Kennedy who’s a local filmmaker and also the executive director of Lyft, so that takes place at the Lightbox and it’s actually called Wavelengths.

Two films in the program, Jeanette and The Nothing Factory seem to be genre-hybrids, in that case the genre being the musical. Is that a trend you’ve noticed?

I don’t think it’s a La La Land effect, I think that filmmakers have always explored sort of radical ways of dealing with older topics or topics that have been in cinema for a long time, and Bruno Dumont was in the process. I mean Bruno Dumont’s career has changed radically, he started off as a very Bresson-ian filmmaker and in the last number of years he’s discovered television with Petit Quinquin, which was also a pseudo-comedy, then last year’s Ma Loute was a full-blown comedy and also a parody of the upper bourgeois-life. But then Jeannette is completely radical, I mean it’s a musical made with an 8-year old and it’s based on two Peguy texts about Joan of Arc, and that’s sort of an enshrined story in French history. And to be so radical in its undertaking shows an evolution on a filmmaker’s part in a really dramatic way, and it’s a really fascinating career. To say a film is category-defying is cliche, but there really hasn’t been a film like this. There’s a ton of Joan of Arc films, it’s kind of a genre itself. From Bresson to Carl Dreyer and Rivette there’s been a number of amazing Joan of Arc films. But this film is all-sung and it’s really abstracted in its landscape, and he always shoots in the north of France so that’s very Dumont-ian. But he uses this score by the French electronic artist Igorrr which has a heavy metal bent to it, and basically Bruno is equating religious ecstasy with head-banging. So it’s funny, really anarchic and inventive. I don’t think it would be a response to any trend I just think it’s a trend he’s following and he realized he made a certain amount of films and at a given point in time decided he was going to try something new, which is exceedingly courageous on his part.

The Nothing Factory has also been compared to something like Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes, which we showed a couple of years ago and was a direct response to the austerity measures in Portugal and austerity in Europe in general. It’s still going through a very difficult time and there’s very few resources for art-making, and filmmakers have responded by making really incredible works of art. It’s not a huge country with a lot of money but their national cinema I think is one of the best. This film is definitely a mix, it’s shape-shifting. It’s about men in a factory and the factory is about to become obsolete and sold so they’re trying to put up a collective effort to have a musical arrangement and a rock and roll band. It’s a very furious topic but it’s dealt with in a very anarchic way. I think filmmakers are looking at a new way to grapple with the politics of today so it’s not didactic and doesn’t hit you over the head, it’s really inventive and makes you think about different things while also being entertaining to a certain degree.

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Are there any particular films by lesser know filmmakers that you would like to highlight?

The thing about Wavelengths, why I enjoy doing it so much, is because it’s really a combination of unknown filmmakers and new talents. I’m really fond of Cocote by Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, it just won a prize at the Locarno film festival. And I showed his previous film two or three years ago. He’s from the Dominican Republic and it’s somewhat based on Bolano’s book 2666. It deals with religion and religious fervour in the Dominican Republic, and that’s a national cinema I don’t know much about to be honest, we don’t see many films from there each year. So to see this film which makes such a strong statement and also Nelson is such a wonderful guest, he’s going to come and I’m sure give one of the best Q&A’s, he’s so passionate about what he does and passionate about having local stories. The film is a mix of video and Super 16 and even if you just look at the trailer, visually it’s super stunning.

I would also mention Narimane Mari’s Le fort des fous which is a three-part film. Narimane Mari was in Toronto last at the Images Festival, where she showed her feature Bloody Beans. She’s an Algerian/French artist who lives in Marseille and she’s very much a political artist who deals with the history of colonialism, particularly with the French and Algeria. This one continues that work and grounds it in a localized continuation and this sort of cycle of colonialism in Europe. It’s told in these three parts where she has these re-enactments of legionnaires who are taking part in the colonialism of Algeria and then it ends up in Greece with activists and riots because she’s basically showing us that’s what’s happening today. So both these are manifestos in certain ways to use a loaded word, but she’s also cunning and very energetic so I’m excited about the films but I’m also very excited about the guests and having them engage with the audiences.

TIFF 2017 runs from September 7-17. See more about the Wavelengths program on their site.

Aubrey Plaza on the Popularity Contest of Social Media, Her Dream Project with Bette Midler, and ‘Ingrid Goes West’

Written by Jose Solís, August 14, 2017 at 8:51 am 

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Even though she’s widely considered to be the Queen of Dry Wit, sitting in the hotel room where we’re about to talk about her latest film Ingrid Goes West, there’s an unexpected innocence to Aubrey Plaza that makes her seem more like Sandy from Grease before the makeover. She’s wearing a dark baseball jacket over a lovely plaid dress in blush tones, and rather than welcoming me with a raised eyebrow, she smiles. I reach out my hand to her to say hello and apologize because it’s cold, she raises the eyebrow and explains, “I’m sorry too because my hand is warm.” And suddenly Sandy has given path to the sardonic Rizzo. Since her breakthrough in Parks & Recreation, Plaza has become one of the funniest people in the industry. Period. Few actors can accomplish so much using so little and making it seem so effortless, but Plaza can make your tummy ache from laughter with a simple look, or a deadpan retort.

Those who are only used to seeing her play cynical sidekicks might be surprised by the depth she brings to the title character in Ingrid Goes West, a troubled woman who unable to cope with the death of her mother, becomes fixated with an Instagram influencer (played by Elizabeth Olsen) who she manipulates into becoming her friend. Rather than going the Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction route, Plaza is more like Anne Baxter in All About Eve, her determination always overshadowing her inadequacy. While the film is hilarious, Plaza also breaks your heart when you least expect her to, which makes for a promising future as one can imagine her in parts where humor wouldn’t be the main draw. Talking to Plaza is easy, she’s friendly, warm and upon noticing my Sex and the City t-shirt throws me a curveball by asking me something before I sit down for our interview: “So are you a Carrie?”

Yeah, that’s who I pretend I am at least. How about you?

Hmm… I don’t know, probably Cynthia Nixon’s character.

Miranda.

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s who I identify with the most.

You first realized you wanted to become an actor when you saw Bette Midler in For the Boys. So, what did you think of Hello, Dolly! ?

She was amazing. I love her so much, I took my mom for Mother’s Day. When Bette Midler’s onstage I am so there, I will see anything she’s in.

Were there any moments when you wanted to jump onstage and be like, “I wanna be in the show with you!”?

Yeah! Actually I met her one time, she was doing I’ll Eat You Last on Broadway and I got to go backstage. It was so crazy. I took my mom that time too. We’re both obsessed with her. It was so funny because I was so excited to talk to her that I think she got scared of us. She thought we were freaks or stalkers. She came out, I was like “Hi”, and my mom was like “We’re stalking you,” it was a joke but I think Bette Midler was like [frowns] “oh, you are?” and then Lily Tomlin walked in. The two of them, big business style were talking and catching up, while my mom and I just stood against the wall thinking we couldn’t compete with Lily Tomlin. So we ran away.

So did going from being a fan to now being someone who has fans help you prepare to play Ingrid?

Yeah, I think so. I definitely relate to being obsessed with someone. I was also really obsessed with Judy Garland growing up.

Did the Judy love transform into a Liza obsession as well?

Not really. I love Liza, but I was actually really interested in Lorna Luft though. I read her book and I saw the movie they made out of it with Judy Davis. I own that movie on VHS and DVD.

Do you still have a VHS player?

I think so, yeah. I don’t use it anymore though, but I was obsessed with my VHS tapes. I used to watch them over and over again.

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I keep hearing people call Ingrid “unhinged”, “lunatic” and other harsh adjectives. I can see where they’re coming from but it made me think that if she was a guy he would probably be a romantic hero doing quirky things to win the girl.

Right, I never thought of that. If Ingrid was a guy, yeah, that is really interesting.

It bothers me because I liked the character a lot. Did you feel the need to understand and like her in order to play her?

Yes, I needed to understand how someone that has that kind of chemical imbalance or mental illness behaves. I read a lot about borderline personality disorder and things in that area. I also just related to the feeling of being insecure and misunderstood. Wanting to connect to someone and wanting a friend reminded me of middle school. I tapped into that a lot too.

Another aspect of social media is how people who don’t have any special skills or talents become famous. You have been working all your life to become an actor. How do you feel about Instagram and YouTube celebrities who become famous just because?

I would have to say they know how to do something. They know how to do that, and I don’t know how to do that. I can’t even take an interesting picture. My Instagram is so lame. I’m always shocked by people that happen to have Instagram accounts with so many followers. It must be a skill. I think it’s a skill to gain popularity that way, but it’s not a skill that’s interesting for me as an artist. There are artists who do it also and that’s cool, but as an actor it helps me build awareness for my projects, which I really like — you have access to people who like you and care about your work — but as an artist it doesn’t connect with me.

We’re back to repeating high school structures: the popular people and all the theatre kids and the nerds.

I know, it’s a total popularity contest on a crazy, big global level.

Do you ever get used to people crying and shouting when they see you?

No one cries when they see me. It’s so not normal. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. I didn’t grow up like that. Maybe it’s normal for people who grew up around that, but I’m from Delaware. I didn’t grow up around famous people. It’s always shocking for me when people recognize me out in the world. It’s like I forgot I was on TV.

Are you good at watching your projects on TV or at the movies?

No, I don’t like watching things that I’m in. I’ve had enough time away from Parks & Recreation that now I do enjoy watching it. It feels like it was so long ago and it’s comforting to me because those are my good friends. Sometimes I watch the show to feel like I’m close to Chris or Amy.

One of my favorite things you’ve done was the RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars special.

Thank you. That was so fun.

You looked so excited to be there!

I was.

Has being a celebrity and a famous actor helped you achieve dreams of meeting icons you had when you were a kid?

I still can’t believe that I’m friends with Amy Poehler or Molly Shannon. There’s people I grew up watching who were my heroes, especially comedians; the fact that now I get to work with them blows my mind. The fact that I get asked to be on Conan’s show, who I think is the best show host ever. Every time I’m a guest on his show I have an out of body experience. I can’t believe I’m here: What does this mean? What does this all mean?

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You have two producing credits this year. Has that helped you find characters like Ingrid and avoid being cast in April Ludgate-like roles all the time?

Being a producer is so helpful. As an actor you don’t have a lot of control over the end product of a film, so being a producer allowed me to be involved in making the movie that I saw in my head when I read the script. I think it’s rare for people to take risks on actors. When you do a part like April Ludgate for so long, it’s ingrained in people’s minds and they don’t offer you different parts. It happens sometimes, like when Noah Hawley offered me Legion which was a very big risk and I’m so grateful for. Being a producer is another way to find interesting roles you wouldn’t get otherwise, and to just fucking make it happen yourself. At the end of the day it’s your career and it’s time for me to take more control and say, “No, I’m not going to play the sarcastic best friend anymore.” I’m gonna show people what I can really do and I have so much more to offer than that.

You also produced The Little Hours. Did Pasolini’s Decameron serve as a reference at all?

I watched it, although I would say the director didn’t want us to imitate anything else we’d seen. He wanted it to be its own thing, but just for educational, research purposes I watched it again and also listened to The Decameron on tape. I think Alison Brie and Dave Franco also watched the Pasolini version to get you in that mindset of 14th century clergy life.

If you had the opportunity to have a do over with Bette Midler and work with her what would you want to do?

Oh my God. I have the best idea for me and Bette. It’s a movie called Like Mother Like Donna, where she plays my mom. I play her adopted daughter she has never met because she gave me up for adoption when I was a baby, and then I come back and try to find out who my biological mom is. But because she’s like this unapproachable, rich bitch that works in a country club I dress up as an old lady and go in disguise as a character named Donna and become friends with her. That’s my pitch for Bette Midler.

I hope you get to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings” then.

Yes, but I did that in The To Do List already. My character was obsessed with Beaches so at the end of the movie we sing that.

I don’t remember that part. I’ll have to rewatch it.

Yes, go watch all my movies.

Ingrid Goes West is now in limited release and expanding in the coming weeks.

John Cho on Architecture, Cultural Identity, and the Unique Experience of Shooting ‘Columbus’

Written by Michael Snydel, August 7, 2017 at 8:25 am 

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Setting as a character is a cliché that’s been thrown around for years, but it’s rarely more true than in the case of Kogonada’s finely crafted and evocative debut, Columbus. The story of two people (John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson) brought together by the modernist architecture of Columbus, Indiana; the film at first uses the city’s unique backdrops as a conversation starter before delving into each character’s complex associations with the city itself.

Columbus is a stunningly assured first film, filled with master shot compositions, fastidious production design, and rhythmically paced in a way that feels mathematical without feeling cold. But it’s even more impressive when considering the performances from its lead performers, Cho and Richardson, who adeptly depict a deepening relationship, while also continuously hinting at deeper, more fraught emotional undercurrents.

Like the film itself, Cho’s performance especially has to carefully walk this line between self-consciousness and prickliness. As Jin, Cho strikes a classic movie star presence, delivering each line with a firm, upright swagger – but his cool exterior is always on the verge of breaking. It’s not a showy performance, but one built from gestures and glimpses of vulnerability. The most telling moments are less climactic conversations than quick sequences where Jin mutters to Korean by himself in his ailing father’s home or fumbles with a usually reliably calming cigarette.

Cho has had a long, prolific career playing everything from scholarly stoners to William Shakespeare, but it’s clear talking to him that Columbus was an entirely different experience. In time for the release of the film, we talked to him about why the filming felt like being under a spell, playing a character that doesn’t respond to cultural stereotypes, and the influence of The 400 Blows on the film.

The Film Stage: I think the best place to start is with the city of Columbus. It’s such a big part of this film to the extent that the city’s unique architecture is featured in almost every scene. Were you familiar with Columbus, Indiana before filming? And how did you react to being there?

John Cho: No, and it’s hard to believe until you’re there, really. It’s so many works within an incredibly small geographical area. And it’s also just that this town pops up out of nowhere. You drive through the cornfields and past the big box stores, and then this little town appears. In a way, even when you’re there, you can sort of drive by without noticing if you’re hurrying. These modernist works, they don’t scream, “look at me.” They’re there for function. And that’s Casey’s (Haley Lu Richardson) thing is that she thinks that nobody in the town notices anything about where they live. I wasn’t aware of Columbus, Indiana. I thought it was Columbus, Ohio that we were going to. Actually, I remember wondering about the buildings thinking, “Is this all really in one place?” I googled Columbus, Ohio, and was trying to look up these buildings [laughs] and feeling confused. I feel like the places, they’re characters in a sense that they allow Jin and Casey to talk about themselves, and talk about their parents, and to reveal who they are without having to explicitly reveal who they are.

Yeah, the architecture is constantly in the background, but as you’re saying, they double as a device for conversation. I’m a midwesterner, but I had the same reaction where I at first thought that the film took place in Columbus, Ohio. I realize now that Columbus, Indiana is far more exciting than Columbus, Ohio.

Well, I don’t want to slam Columbus, Ohio, but you can.

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Sure, sure. I’ll keep that off the record then. [Laughs] How did you first become involved with the film? Were you familiar with Kogonada’s video essays, or his other work?

I wasn’t. Chris Weitz, who’s our producer, knew Kogonada. I think he met him through Twitter as a matter of fact. Chris is a friend of mine, and someone I’ve worked with before, and he sent me the script. And that’s how it got rolling. He might have just said, “Let me know what you think?” And it was just a beautiful, unusual script, and the writing was economical, but really felt. It was unusual in the moments it selected. I closed the script, and I was so enchanted by it, but I was also worried. I was like, “Who’s going to direct this? Who is this person, Kogonada? This is going to be such a difficult film.” In my mind, it required an auteur who had like a whole bunch of money and power, and who was going to be able to resist everyone and say, “No, no, no, we’re going to do it this way.” I was thinking, a Richard Linklater, a Wes Anderson. So then I looked up Kogonada’s work, and I was like, “Oh wow, this is an auteur. This is an artist.” And that’s when I really started getting excited.

I think that singularity you speak of is really present in the film. There’s such a palpable energy in the film. Was this an especially unique shooting experience given the location and how intimate the script was?

Yeah, just about everything in this movie was different than just about any other movie. I don’t recall a project with this much esprit de corps. If people were there, they wanted very badly to be there. It was bare bones filmmaking. It kind of felt as though being in this town and shooting all these locations, it sort of felt like we were under a spell for the summer just going from one place to another like this. We stayed in that town so we never left it. It was unusual to the way we worked. We didn’t do a whole lot of coverage because Kogonada knew what he wanted. So in a way, the schedule – the indie situation – could have broken us if we were going for conventional coverage, but we would have these long scenes that we would play out in these wide [angles]. And we were able to devote enough time to them because we didn’t have to do a lot of coverage that we weren’t going to use anyway.

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There’s such an elegant deliberation to the unexpected angles Kogonada picks. I have to think it would be a little weird on set when you — for instance — find out he’s going to shoot a long take that plays out entirely in a mirror. They work exceptionally well in the film, but was there a relationship of trust you had to have with Kogonada in these moments?

Your reading is one way to understand it, but the other way to understand it is that he’s having a whole lot of trust in his actors. A lot of people would plan on constructing the performance in the editing room, and therefore get gobs and gobs of coverage, so you could sort of piece together a performance. But he was very present, and was looking for a performance on the day. So in a way, he was trusting us. He’s saying, “I need you to give me this performance, and I’m not going to put it together in the editing room later on. I need you to give it today.” So I found it empowering.

There’s a comparable precision to the rhythms and cadences of the dialogue. Your charged delivery, especially, is almost reminiscent of classic noir. Was that something you brought to the character, or was it something that kind of emerged as you filmed?

I’m not sure. I tried to say what was on the page. I wanted to be like one of those modernist buildings [in Columbus], and so that was on my mind. I wanted to dress like one of those buildings, and walk and talk like one of those buildings. And that’s kind of what you see a little bit.

You’ve been one of a number of actors who’s been vocal about issues of representation and the lack of not only high-profile roles for Asian Americans, but the problems of generally being pigeonholed into racial stereotypes. In Columbus, your character, Jin is not only a character who’s anxious about how to balance their cultural identity and own identity, but he doesn’t seem defined by his Korean heritage. How do you personally try to find the balance in terms of the roles you take between something where you are faithfully representing a cultural identity and creating your own identity?

Well, I don’t know if I have a great answer for you. I don’t know how to find that balance. One is always trying or attempting to find balance. I don’t know if I think about it that much either. I mean, it’s really much more emotional than that and less intellectual. You have a script, and you either respond to it based upon who you are, or you don’t. There are things that occasionally come across my desk, and I don’t feel them or I’m not interested. And some I really respond to like this one. One of the reasons why I like this movie is that it’s not beholden to any ideas of representation. It seems to shrug all that politics off, and it doesn’t respond to any stereotypes. It’s just sort of his own thing.

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Is that a rare sensation to find when reading a script?

It is. Yeah. I’ve found in my career where the character seemed to — and it’s because they’re not written Asian usually — that the character seemed to be absent of any cultural history, which can be progressive, but also not mirroring life entirely. And then it’s either there, or it goes the other way where a character just sort of talks about where they come from all the time, which also seems unrealistic. I think in both those instances, they’re meant to respond to some kind of political situation. And this is the rare story for Asian American roles where — certainly not rare for Asian roles, but rare for Asian American roles — the character’s sense of culture seems to be proportionate to how at least I feel in real life.

What was your first impression of Kogonada as a filmmaker when you first met on set?

We had talked a lot, and really, we just talked as two guys who liked movies so much. You don’t know what a person is like on set until you get on set with them. And I wasn’t sure what he would be like, obviously, but I had high hopes. In retrospect, I think I was surprised by his maturity as a filmmaker. This was his first feature. There were things that he did that impressed me. And even, “impress,” is kind of the wrong word. He was very in tune with performances. You might not think that because the film is so beautiful to see. That a person who’s that concerned with composing a frame might not be as concerned with the performances. In my experience, I felt like that’s all he was concerned with. That it barely registered that he was setting up these beautiful shots. And that upon viewing the film, I realized there was so many things that he could have said on set, but didn’t. That is to say, he didn’t overburden the actors. He tried to make the scenes as simple as possible, and not clutter the preparation with too much data. I don’t know. I just felt like he was really serving the actors everyday. It just felt like it was really about us. And I see all the other elements he was working with now, and I marvel at the restraint he showed everyday.

You mentioned you two talked as movie fans. What were some of the influences that you two talked about for the film even before you started shooting?

Like a lot. But one in particular that we talked about was The 400 Blows. And like for me, that was a touchstone. It’s this sort of polaroid of this boy’s life who’s suffering. We sort of move in, and are with him very intensely, and then we’re out. And it felt like that for Casey’s character. I felt that there was a kinship between Casey’s story and The 400 Blows, and that’s one that I can recall discussing.

Looking at your future, you have a few different projects, but I’m especially curious about Serial Dater, Jena Friedman’s debut with you, Imogen Poots, and Timothy Simons?

Yeah, I don’t know when we’re shooting that, but I’m really excited about that. It’s a really good script. That’s one of those like you were asking, “How do I choose and balance?,” and it’s like, as I say. For me, it sounds like I would do more thinking because I’m asked about these things a lot, you know. But I talk about them because I’m asked about them. And it’s much more for me just like, “Oh my gosh, I vibe with this person so much.” And Jena is one of those people. She’s so smart, and her script is so funny. It’s about a girl who falls in love with a serial killer. That’s a great set-up.

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Columbus is now in limited release and expanding.

Isabelle Huppert on Stage vs. Screen and the Desire for Freedom in ‘False Confessions’

Written by Joshua Encinias, July 13, 2017 at 9:13 am 

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Legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert’s prolific film career is matched by her stage work in Paris, New York, Sydney and London. In 2014, Huppert played Araminte in Pierre de Marivaux’s 1731 play, Les Fausses Confidences under the direction of Luc Bondy at the Odéon-Théâtre de in Paris. This adaptation of the play was filmed by day with the same actors who performed it at night.

False Confessions stars Huppert and Louis Garrel, which opens in limited release tomorrow, July 14. We spoke with Huppert about the psychology of her characters in False Confessions, Elle, and Things to Come and about working with Luc Bondy to blur the distinction between stage and screen.

What was it like working with Luc Bondy on the play and then the film?

It was a really wonderful experience because we were filming during the day and performing in the evening. The way Luc used the whole area of the theater as the movie set because you know we shot in the great entrance of the theater, we shot in the basement. In fact, we did not shoot on stage except for that one last shot. But we used the theater as a movie studio. You feel the soul of the theater. This is a well-known, classical play with so many images. We used the spirit of the play and infused it in the filming. We shot it the way he wanted to do it and it’s very original and not like it was on stage.

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How did filming the play around the theater change your performance?

It did change a little bit. When you do film acting you use more faculties. I think of that long scene in the kitchen, we went a lot farther with the nuances and ambiguities and that allows you to go further. Again, Marivaux’s language is the perfect material to use in a cinematic context. Marivaux’s language is so much about what you said, but what you don’t say at the moment. When you said something but you mean something else. That works so well because cinema allows you to say something but to think something different inside and you can capture this. Marivaux’s text and language is based on that—it’s based on the unconscious. It always makes the character say something and mean something else, so cinema is the perfect medium for that.

What was it like playing Araminte, a character written in 1737? Was it any different playing it today opposed to how it would have been played when it was written?

Luc Bondy’s direction was very contemporary already in the stage version. When we started working on the play, very quickly we realized that Marivaux’s language was very contemporary and was easy to say in a very modern way, very casual way, a very cinematic way. So when we did the film version the way we acted was already there from the stage version.

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Looking at your last few films that have played in America, the characters that you play in False Confessions, Things to Come, and Elle are all women who have different sorts of relationships with their desires and their sexuality. Are any of these three types of female characters easier for you to play?

As you were asking me the question I saw that there is a kind of link between these three women. I mean they are three women who want to achieve something in life and want to be free in a way. Each woman is in very different contexts and situations. But the three of them are keen to be free to live according to their desires. They are sometimes submitted to power or strength that they can’t control. So in that sense, they have something in common. In False Confessions, Marivaux exposes something very cruel that happens with my character’s maid because obviously, Araminte has the power, she has the money. Which is not the case in Elle or Things to Come; money doesn’t really interfere with taking power. In Things to Come she wants to be free and feel pleasure no one else can give her.  In Elle she wants revenge and she has a plan that she wants to do on her own without any support. In Marivaux, it’s again different because the economy is linked with the feelings.

During the opening scene of False Confessions your character is doing tai chi. Is that an exercise that you do or is that something created for the character?

[Laughs] No, that was Luc’s idea. She takes care of herself like a good bourgeois woman who does yoga or tai chi, it’s like a quest for serenity. Previously I worked with Bob Wilson, the great stage director, and Bob wanted me to do tai chi because it teaches you how to center your body, have balance and to do certain movements.

False Confessions is opens in limited release on July 14. See more roll-out details here.

William Oldroyd on Crafting His Debut ‘Lady Macbeth’ and the Mastery of Michael Haneke

Written by Jordan Raup, July 13, 2017 at 8:30 am 

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One of the most accomplished directorial debuts of the year so far is Lady Macbeth, hailing from stage director William Oldroyd, who also previously won a Sundance award for his short film Best. Based on the Nikolai Leskov novel, the story finds a woman (Florence Pugh, in a star-making turn) who yearns for freedom from her dead marriage and begins an affair, one that brings horrific consequences.

Following the NDNF premiere of the film earlier this year, I had the chance to sit down with Oldroyd for a wide-ranging conversation about his influences, going from stage to screen, seeing Pugh’s performance on set, the lack of score, his experience at TIFF, and much more. On the eve of the films theatrical release, check out the conversation below, which we should note includes spoilers, albeit for an adaptation of a novel that is from 1865.

A lot of times theater directors will transition to cinema and it’ll feel kind of like they’re filming their own play, but with this it feels like it’s meant to be on the screen. I’m curious how you developed that.

I guess it has been a well-worked transition in the sense that before I started directing theater, I went to art college and that’s where I first used a camera. It was much more in the sort of venturous way, and it was not narrative, just catching images, and they did give me access to a very basic editing facility. So I was always interested in moving image, in the way to frame something. Once I was working in theater, I did keep a small Flip video camera like a moving sketchbook that I uploaded to YouTube, so I think I was always keeping fit in that way. But the first short film I made was a scene from a play that I had read, by a writer who I’ve directed a number of his plays, and when I put that together it was like filmed theater. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t feel like cinema that I liked, and I broke it down and realized it was mainly because I was too reliant on text. I was shooting it from more or less one angle which is basically where I would sit in the theater, and wasn’t making the leap to find something that was unspoken or move the camera closer in for a particular reason. So when I made my second short film which is called Best, which went to Sundance, is three minutes, very few words, that was really the moment when I started to realize how I could film something more successfully. And then, coming to this, I just knew because it would only be in one location, there was a danger it would feel like a play. That’s why I wanted to actually move around the house quite a lot and move it outside, and I just spoke to Nick Emerson, the editor, and Ari Wegner, the DoP, and they really helped me to understand how we make this film more cinematic relative to the camera.

It’s always said that with film versus play, in terms of directing actors, the camera picks up so much. Is there anything else that a regular viewer might not see that you would, because you’ve directed so many actors on stage?

Well, what I realized while I was making the film is that what you’re capturing really is the transmission of thought. If the engine of the play is the spoken word — actually what was really crucial for me when working with the actors for Lady Macbeth is in the rehearsal, we made sure that they knew exactly what the thought changes were. Because when we put them in front of the camera, all you need to do is get them to think, and the camera picks it up. Especially when we were doing the close-up, Florence [Pugh] at the end for example, when Sebastian comes in and confesses, the camera just sits with and looks directly at her and you see her processing in that moment, “What am I going to do to get out of this?” and I can see her going through that. First of all, she’s dealing with him very publicly breaking up with her. Secondly she’s thinking, “How am I going to get out of this?” Third she’s thinking of a tactic to save herself, and all the machinations of that you can see. That was something that actually she didn’t have to say anything for us to get. So it was making sure that all of the thoughts were very, very clear before we set about shooting.

Speaking of that, too, a lot of times here you film your actors at very confrontational angles. I’m thinking of any of the table scenes, but even in other scenes it’s very symmetrical, centered. You’re looking right at them and they’re talking to you. Especially at the end, kind of breaking the fourth wall, can you talk about what that adds to the movie?

I just liked it. I didn’t think it was particularly unusual. People will say, “You’ve got quite a fine eyeline here,” and I didn’t really know what they meant. All I knew is that I loved where the camera was in relationship to the actor, and it did feel very immediate, and it felt like if we were going to cut between something which was front-on and another angle, it would make sense for me to go ninety degrees to the side or behind. We also wanted to save our forty-five degrees for the third act of the film, when Agnes turns up, so we would have a different sort of grammar for each of the acts. So it would be locked off in the first act when we trap Catherine, then in the second act she starts to move and wake up, the camera moves with her, then in the third act we move to softer angles and a more usual perspective.

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I also want to talk about the most important casting of the film, which is obviously the cat. Where did you find that cat?

The cat belongs to the art director’s sister, who lives locally to where we shot the film. When we were doing prep, she just took a very quick video on her phone and showed me, and I was like, “This cat is perfect.” Also, what we really didn’t here in the film was that it made a really unusual sound too, so the cry was very human, which was very odd. Someone was telling me recently, because we were talking about another project, whenever they’ve had a cat around with a trained cat, they’ve had more trouble than if they just used an amateur cat or a friend’s cat, and sometimes when the trained cat is not available they bring in a lookalike cat and they have much more success with that. Cats are famously independent, so we just let this cat run around and then we just filmed it and we were able to use whatever we had, apart from when it sat in the chair, we needed that to happen. I’m very happy with that cat.

There’s a funny shot where after you realize she’s poisoning the father-in-law, that the cat jumps on the table and it’s kind of like his dominion with her. Narrative-wise, what did the cat play into the movie?

We always wanted to strengthen the relationship between the cat and Boris, that the cat was his familiar or a representation of Boris. In the first instance, the cat was another pair of eyes, watching her when she’s in the house, so she’s constantly policed even when Boris is away, the cat remains to watch her. The cat is just being a cat, but it’s policing her and spying on her. In the Russian book, when Boris dies, there’s a whole section where the cat starts to speak with his voice, and a woman hallucinates and sees Boris’s face on the cat’s face. So we did try — we recorded some of Boris’s lines and then put them into the cat’s mouth in one scene, and it looked so ridiculous that we just cut it. But we kept the cat there, and people have said to me that they feel like they can see Boris in the cat somehow, so there is an association.

The cat is one moment of levity in the film, which I think you said was unexpected at the first screening, and I feel like the biggest laugh is when the father-in-law returns, and because you’re with Catherine and her decisions throughout, the jump from what he sees from when he left is so drastic. Can you talk about whether you thought it was funny on a script stage?

There were some things I had definitely put in there knowing there was potential for it to be amusing, so that was designed. For example, when Katherine is quite wanton in her desire of Sebastian, and having sex quite flagrantly in the house, and then we have a quite hard cut to her having tea with the priest, I think I probably knew, and there’s a whole culture about the British drinking tea anyway. There were some others which were less expected. Anna at the end example, I don’t know if people laughed from a nervous place or not. Also, the Toronto crowd were very, very supportive of the film, and they wanted to show their support so they were very vocal throughout. For example, the death of Alexander was applauded in Toronto. They didn’t quite stand up, but I think that was really nice, that we felt they were getting behind the film.

It’s interesting, because that death is so cathartic and then when she smothers the child its the exact opposite of that. Have you had any confrontations from audience members from throughout the festival tour?

Yes, people have used the word “evil” and so on, I don’t know whether they’re being a little bit too simple in their appreciation of the film, but I understand that, and quite rightly, infanticide should appall people. I think we found that most people draw a line at that; that they think she’s crossed a line when she does that act, whereas they were totally on her side up to that point. Some people feel like they’re on her side all the way through, that they feel that that’s actually sort of a logical conclusion of her actions, that she does need to do that thing. I find it funny, coming to America, how upset people are at the death of the horse; sort of more upset at the death of a horse than the death of a child, and just take a moment to have a look at yourself. [Laughs] But we had to be very clear that the horse was not harmed. There’s a very strong support for animal welfare, isn’t there, in this country.

In both of those shots, you’d expect it to cut away, or to look at it from a different angle, and you keep on it.

william-oldroydYes, I really wanted to do that, and obviously there were cost implications. In any normal situation, you would film the horse, you would cut to a close-up of her with the gun, and then you would then cut to the wide of the horse having fallen over and you would replace it with a dead horse or a puppet or something. But I thought we would get more impact if we saw the whole thing happen, and that then required that we found an acrobatic horse that would fall over on command. And similarly, with the death of Teddy, I didn’t want to cut because I didn’t want to relieve any tension at the moment. I thought that if people didn’t want to watch it they would have to look away from the screen, and it just felt more impactful in that way.

There’s some directors that I think of like Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier where sometimes they get criticism because people think they use their characters as pawns for amusement or degradation, and I feel like you very carefully balance keeping a humanity to the characters. Were any of those directors an influence?

Both, I love both of them. Not so much the recent Lars von Trier. I’d probably stop somewhere around Dogville. I didn’t like Antichrist, I found it really a difficult watch even though I thought the ideas were interesting. I thought the dialogue [of Melancholia] would maybe have worked better in a different language or something.

I do think the protagonists of his early films, like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, are much more intertwined with the emotional journey of the audience whereas the newer films feel more academic.

I agree; Breaking the Waves is a fantastic film, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark, I love those films. But Haneke, I have to be careful not to essentially just copy him, because he’s such a master, really. I think his compositions are wonderful, and character, and what he writes for people to say; he’s the very best, I think.

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David Lowery on How ‘A Ghost Story’ Evolved and Experimenting with Visual Language

Written by Michael Snydel, July 12, 2017 at 4:00 pm 

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Director David Lowery couldn’t attend a recent festival screening of A Ghost Story in Chicago, but he ensured he was there in more than spirit. As the curtains opened, a short video began playing with the clearly exhausted director lamenting his absence with an earnestness and disappointment that only comes across when talking about projects with great personal meaning. To be fair, his inability to be there was understandable. At the time, the meteoric Texas workhorse was nearing the end of production on his third film in as many years, while also multitasking the writing of his second project with Disney, Peter Pan, after last year’s surprising reinvention of Pete’s Dragon. But after watching A Ghost Story, that introduction video retroactively became an even more impressive feat — proof that even after making something as purely overwhelming as A Ghost Story, Lowery had far from extinguished himself. He’d only reignited his own passion.

Wherever you fall on A Ghost Story (our own Jordan Raup reviewed it at its Sundance premiere and awarded it our highest honors), and there will undoubtably be viewers who walk out in the first reel, it’s a film of a rare breed. Most filmmakers don’t even attempt a film that revels in this many contradictions in their lifetime, let alone this early in their career. Talking to Lowery, it’s clear that the film’s production was its own rewarding and terrifying journey — a deeply thought out but blind vision that could have just as easily ended up an unfinished relic in his attic as become a film gracing multiplexes this month.

In a sprawling conversation, we talked to the director about the challenges of working in an entirely different visual mode, the complexities of the atmospheric sound design, and the importance of making something that feels homemade.

The Film Stage: One of the things that I find so unique about this film is that it feels like it’s constantly mutating in shape. You’ve talked about how your original script and shooting script were surprisingly nearly the same, but how much of the tone and pacing was molded during the production compared to what was on the page?

David Lowery: There’s always a great deal that is found during production or during post-production. And certainly, the tone of the film was refined in the editing process — and on set, for that matter. But it was mostly in the editing process, as we cut away the moments that were too funny, or too scary, or too boring. The pace was similarly discovered on set, and in the edit. Many of the scenes are very long. And we even shot longer versions of them. Others, we had a stopwatch out on set, and made sure they were hitting an exact, preordained running time. And we really do just sort of feel it out. It was very intuitive. If something felt like it was too long, or if it was getting boring or getting redundant, we would cut it, whether it was on set or in the edit.

But the stage was set for that in the script, and many of the scenes in the script would describe the type of shots that the movie would be made of, and describe how long they would last, and what the running time would be. I wanted people reading the screenplay to understand from the get-go that this would be a movie that took its time in that fashion, or had a certain tone. I wanted that all to be clear on the page, so that no one would mistake it for something else, or to be confused on set when we weren’t cutting the camera after three consecutive minutes of holding on a house. So it was elaborated upon and refined and discovered in both the shooting and post-production process, but the template for all of that was set in the script.

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When you were first approaching Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara about this script, and then in the shooting process, did it take a little bit of extra discussion to communicate how pared down the film was going to be even after they read the script?

A little bit. I think Casey just sort of jumped in, and was open to whatever. Rooney and I definitely discussed the pace of the film and the way it was going to get structured and be put together because she wasn’t sure if it would work as a feature. She read it and loved it, but felt that it read like a short film. And so I just explained to her the way in which it would work as a feature and the type of pacing, and how that structure would change over the course of the movie. I don’t know if she ever believed that it would ever actually come to fruition. [Laughs] I think, to a certain extent, she thought it would stay a short film once we got into the edit — but she took that leap of faith that I knew what I was talking about.

This film feels unique in your career in relation to form. You’ve previously shot films for a widescreen format, but you conceived this project from the beginning with not only a modified Academy ratio in mind, but also as a series of long takes. What was your thought process for these two choices, and what were the challenges that came in the execution?

I’ve always loved movies that take their time, and that give you an image to luxuriate in. And my other films haven’t been of the sort in which I’ve had the opportunity to do that myself. But I’ve always wanted to make a film that functions in that way, at least to a certain extent. So that was all part of the design was to have a movie that employed time in a way which you’d feel the time passing. And in a very literal sense. [Laughs] And at the same time, you’d have the opportunity to regard an image for a longer period of time than you normally would. I love watching movies in which I have time for my mind to wander where I don’t have to be immediately ready for an edit or a new image to process or a juxtaposition to provoke a connection in my brain. I love being able to look at one thing for a long time, and regard it. And I love it when my mind wanders away and comes back, and the image is still transpiring, and maybe something’s changed, maybe it hasn’t.

That’s a beautiful thing to me, and I wanted this film to function in that way up to a point. So we designed it initially as a series of tableaus. The entire film was initially conceived to be a series of individual shots. Each scene would be one shot, and that shot would be meticulously designed and lit and then executed, and then we’d be done. At a certain point in pre-production, we realized that the whole movie wouldn’t work that way, that it needed to change. That still was the rubric upon which we based, you know, the first half of the film, and we would always try to find that one key image that we could rest the entire scene upon for any given scene, whether or not we went in for additional coverage or not.

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That was a wonderful process to discover with my cinematographer, Andrew Droz Palermo, and I spent a lot of time just talking about what those compositions would be, how we would compose them, what the components would be, what mattered to us in a given frame. And once we saw the house, we just started spending time there and looking at various rooms through a viewfinder, and trying to figure out what lenses would be best for individual moments. And he started to pay attention to how lighting would work in the house at different times of day, so we could figure out what scenes to shoot when.

Part and parcel with all that was this aspect ratio that was always going to be part of the film. It was always intended to be in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the Academy ratio. The first line of the screenplay was a statement of intent in that regard, and we just committed to it from the very beginning, not really realizing what a challenge it was going to be to shoot a movie in that aspect ratio because our brains naturally at this point think in rectangular fashion. We always think of images in rectangles. And so there was a bit of a mental gymnastics lesson that we had to go through to figure out how to squeeze these widescreen images that were in our minds into a square.

But it was a challenge that we were very excited about, and we definitely committed ourselves to it wholeheartedly. We shot on an Alexa Mini, which has a full-frame chip, and just embraced it. We shot in full frame with no cropping. We just kind of had to own it. We couldn’t backtrack on it. And it was an important aesthetic choice because this is a movie about a character who is trapped in a box, for all intents and purposes. And there’s a claustrophobia inherent to his circumstances that I thought we could amplify through that aspect ratio.

And also something intriguing about the fact that when we watch a movie in 1.33 now, or on a television screen, we’re watching it on a rectangular screen, so there is an inherent proscenium to the image. There are these pillarboxes, these black bars on the side that you’re just going to see when you watch the movie projected, or when you watch it at home, or when you watch it on your phone. They’re all going to have these black bars on the side, and I really like that. It’s very pleasing to me and to my sensibilities to have this enforced frame that we have to peer past to see the image that is being represented to us. It’s an enforced proscenium that makes my eyes really happy. I don’t really know why, exactly, I like it so much, but it just really makes me feel like I’m seeing the image better and more clearly. And so I was really happy to have that built-in factor working in our favor.

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Along with the visual format, there’s such a careful precision and continuity to the sound design and an awareness of the presence and absence of ambient sound, as well as Hart’s score. But one of the most jarring and interesting scenes for me is the sequence at the party that slowly builds into this huge existentialist monologue from Will Oldham. And Oldham’s kind of plays the guy you want to avoid like the plague at the party, but the scene is so carefully orchestrated in the way it rises from scattered conversation to an unexpected climax of “Ode to Joy.” What was the process like in terms of the sound design for that scene, and for this film as a whole?

Yeah, that scene was probably the biggest challenge we had in the sound design process. I worked with a friend of ours named Johnny Marshall, who did the sound design on Upstream Color, and he’s just someone who we know from Dallas, who’s incredibly talented. We’ve been wanting to work together for a long time, and this was the perfect opportunity to do that. And for most of the movie, I don’t want to say it was easy, but it was sort of self-explanatory. There were times when the sound design needed to be scary or to be surreal, or to be very nonexistent, or to have a musical quality, and it was a very natural and intuitive process to sculpt it into what it needed to be to give the scenes the shape they needed to have.

But that party scene was a real challenge because it is a lot of dialogue, and the dialogue needs to be front-and-center, and yet there’s a party going on, so there needs to be a lot of other sound going on as well. And there’s a song playing that needs to be loud and boisterous, and at the same time you wanted to have a certain degree of intimacy as if this guy is talking directly to you, so finding that balance took a lot of trial and error, and we pushed and pulled all of the elements quite a few times.

And one of the things that was important was that at that point in the movie, we hadn’t heard anybody talking for a while. There’s been a little bit of dialogue here and there, but by and large, there has not been much to grab on to. And all of a sudden, we slap audiences in the face with this eight-minute monologue, so I wanted to get into it in sort of an organic fashion, and the song comes in loud right at the beginning. It’s a very confrontational moment where this pop song just hits you at full volume. But from there, we start to pick up pieces of different conversations, and you get a little bit of this character’s dialogue, and you see him for a second, and then he disappears, and we dip into another conversation, and everything is sort of overlapping until gradually Will Oldham’s character emerges as the center of the scene.

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But we take our time getting there! It takes a minute or so to realize that the scene is all about him, and hopefully that guides you into it in a more organic and subtle fashion rather than just having him sit down and start talking to you as if you were right there. His character is sort of meant to be obnoxious and, at the same time, everything he’s saying has some truth to it. You kind of feel captivated by him, but at the same time your time is being monopolized by him. And we wanted to make sure the audience didn’t feel like their moviegoing experience was being overtaken by this dude at the party who has a lot to say about the meaning of life.

And then the music was a balancing act as well because we had this pop song that was co-written by Kesha, who’s also in the scene, and that plays through most of the scene. But then at a certain point, Beethoven comes in and that is not something that is literally happening at the party. No one at that party is playing “Ode to Joy,” but it was important to have that enter into the sonic landscape of that scene. So finding that contrast between diegetic and non-diegetic music and finding the balance and making it feel natural and organic and feel something you don’t really notice, but you just completely feel when it happens, was just a long process.

And it was one of the few things that we re-worked after we showed the movie at Sundance. I didn’t cut a single thing. There wasn’t a single change to the edit of the movie, but we went back to that scene and remixed the sound entirely from the bottom-up, pretty much, because we just felt we could do it better. And one of the key things afterward was that the song that plays — you hear lyrics at the beginning, but then the instrumental part just keeps going through almost the entire scene. And Nick Sealey, who produced the song with Kesha, went back to it and reproduced everything so that it functioned almost like musical score, so that the highs and lows of a song are sculpted around Will’s dialogue, and so that they support it in a dramatic fashion rather than just being background noise.

Before you made A Ghost Story, you were understandably very cryptic in interviews about what was next, but you caught my eye in your repeated sentiment that you wanted to make something, “tiny, small, and homemade.” Can you speak a little bit about that what that impulse means to you?

Yeah. I mean, I love making things in my backyard. That’s how I grew up making films, and it’s been sort of my goal in life to keep doing that, and to be able to make a living doing that. Obviously, I can’t make every movie that way, and for Pete’s Dragon, we obviously had to go pretty far from our backyard to pull that off, and it took a long time to make. The goal in mind for every film I’ve made is sort of to make it in Texas. Obviously, I couldn’t do that with Pete’s Dragon, but you know, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, was made and shot in Texas, and Old Man with a Gun, which I just finished, I wanted to make it there. And part of it is just comfort. It’s a place that I know and I want to be in, and I like making things by hand. I think it’s important to have my fingerprints on everything I’ve made.

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A Ghost Story is now in limited release and expanding.

Edgar Wright on the Mechanics of a Perfect Action Scene and the Timing of ‘Baby Driver’

Written by Nick Newman, June 27, 2017 at 2:02 pm 

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It’s fortuitous enough that Edgar Wright‘s films will inspire any number of questions — fairly often along the lines of “how did they even do that?,” admittedly, but one takes what they can get — and all the more fortunate that the writer-director stands among the more verbose and open of his generation. (And that’s to say nothing of those working in the mainstream.) With the latest, Baby Driver, being a praise-worthy bit of craftsmanship from top to bottom and the man himself standing in something of a spotlight, now might be the best time to get his attention.

Although I could’ve thrown inquiry after inquiry at Wright for, say, two hours, our talk was a good bit of ground-covering — an update on how feeling about the progression of his career, where one film feeds into another, and, because it’d be silly to sit down with a great craftsman and not get into some nuts-and-bolts business, what contemporary editing systems and particular processes add to a picture’s final shape.

Your last few films percolated for several years before entering production, or, at least, almost reaching it: The World’s End had been a known commodity since Hot Fuzz; Ant-Man moved along for a good stretch of time; Baby Driver was first name-checked in 2009, and had a music video prelude it some fifteen years ago. With this one done, is there a certain sense of freeness, of freedom? Now, perhaps, you’re moving to projects that will come at you a little more quickly.

I think the thing is: it might seem like a director can plan their filmography, but that’s not really sort of the case. The truth with “original movies,” or whatever, is that they’re just difficult to get made, full stop, so the particular order in which they happen is not always by design. Funny enough, I finished the first draft of this before I even started writing The World’s End. It’s just the sort of way that it worked out: we wanted to make The World’s End the year that we did and other things were on the back burner. It’s not always part of a precise plan, sometimes, in terms of… but in terms of whether it’s “freeing”: I get a funny sense, with Baby Driver, that I keep having to pinch myself that it actually exists as a movie and is not just a thing that I’ve been talking about.

Because I feel like, with Baby Driver, it would start to feel like the boy who cried wolf. “I have this thing; I have this idea.” But there’s a sort of thing to build up the confidence to do a movie like Baby Driver. I couldn’t have made this movie ten years ago, even though I started working on it. I wouldn’t have made the same movie ten years ago, so there is just a sense of your building up to things. In terms of whether it’s “freeing”: I mean, I thought about it in those terms, in that I don’t know exactly what film is next — and that’s actually quite pleasant, in a way. Because I think when you’re making original films you’re not necessarily on anybody’s schedule. [Laughs] It’s like, there’s a Star Wars movie coming out every year, so that’s kind of on its own schedule. Or an X-Men movie has already been dated by Fox three years in the future. Something like Baby Driver literally lives or dies on your own persistence to get it made.

You’ve said that you couldn’t have made this movie ten years ago —

Well, not so much that. I think I just wouldn’t have the confidence to do it. I started to write it and had it in my head, and feel like it came at the perfect time, you know?

Did the productions of Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End ever bring this film to mind in specific ways? Did shooting, staging, or editing them form an idea that would come to be applied in Baby Driver?

By the time I had started work on the script, it was before Scott Pilgrim; and before we did The World’s End, I had written the script. I mean, it kind of changed a bit afterwards and got better, but it already existed. I think the truth of it is is that you sometimes, less so in films, do a dry run for things. So actually that music video from fifteen years ago: I had already had the idea for Baby Driver, and I did that video as a dry run for the movie because I didn’t have any other ideas for that video and I was supposed to turn in, like, a treatment for this video, and I was like, “Agh, I don’t know what to do!” I think, “Maybe I should do that ‘getaway driver’ thing,” and then I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to use this cool idea for a movie on this 20-grand music video for a dance act.”

At the time, when I did that video [see below], I was mad at myself for squandering the idea — mad at myself and nobody else. Nobody knew the thing existed. But then it actually ended up being something that was really helpful, because it would be, like, something that stuck around. That video sort of stuck around for, like, ten years or more after we did it because Noel Fielding got more and more famous — he’s still very famous, in fact — and so that video stuck around to the point where, and this is absolutely true, seven years ago, I was doing an event for the L.A. Film Festival for Scott Pilgrim, and J.J. Abrams was interviewing me. We had clips of my career, and he specifically said, “Can we show that getaway-driver video?” I said, “Sure,” so we showed that on the big screen, and during the clip, while the audience were watching it, J.J. leaned over to me and said, “I think this would make a great movie,” and I said, “I am way ahead of you.”

So it was funny. I think, sometimes, those things, when you’re doing music videos… I’ve done less than ten music videos, or maybe I’ve done ten exactly. Most of them were between Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, and certainly some of those ones were like dry runs for something. Like, in Shaun of the Dead, there’s that Steadicam shot where he walks through the shops and back, and I’d done a music video for the Bluetones called “After Hours” where I was like, “This is a dry run for that Steadicam shot.” With commercials and music videos, sometimes the reason to do them is to experiment with a piece or kit you’ve never done before, a chance to test this thing. So you do that sometimes. I don’t know whether in Scott Pilgrim or The World’s End… I’m thinking about those movies. I’m not thinking about what I’m going to do in Baby Driver.

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Which is funny, because Baby Driver‘s opening-credits tracking shot made me think of that scene in Shaun of the Dead.

And the similarity between both of those is that they were shot on the first day of the shoot. Which is a way of setting out your store to the studio and cast and crew. “This is the kind of movie this is going to be, guys.” [Laughs] It’s also a good thing, doing a shot like that on your first day of the shoot — it’s a really good way of getting everybody involved. Something like that, which requires the concentration of the cast and crew on every level, and also something that they can watch back and say, “Hey, we did it!” Because it’s something I think is a good kind of team-building exercise as well as a shot, you know?

I get such pleasure from how you transition between sequences and what that can evoke. In the 13 years between Shaun and Baby, has the process changed much with advancements in editing systems, whether you’re using Avid or Premiere or Final Cut, that have made the many ins and outs easier to orchestrate?

I don’t think I’ve noticed anything in that time, because I’ve only ever used Avid with any of the movies. Also, like, my editors are so kind of… I mean, particularly Paul Machliss, who I’ve worked with since Spaced. I worked with him on the first series of Spaced. He was the online editor, so he was doing the online effects. And then I did two films with Chris Dickens, who was the other editor on Spaced. And then, on Scott Pilgrim, Paul Machliss has his first feature credit, which is crazy, and Jon Amos, who was the assistant editor on Hot Fuzz, also kind of stepped up. When I was doing Scott Pilgrim, Donna Langley initially said “absolutely not” to Paul and Jon. She said, “You cannot use, on this big movie, two first-time feature editors.” I said, “Well, the two of them together would be cheaper than a big Hollywood editor, and if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them.” She said, “Fair enough.” Then they stuck it out and both got nominated for the ACE after that movie, and they both have “ACE” after their name because of that movie — on one credit.

So those guys are amazing. And this is now my third movie with them because they did The World’s End and Baby Driver. I don’t know if things have changed in terms of the process. I’d only say doing the effects on the Avid is a lot easier and quicker than it ever was. Paul Machliss is so good at this stuff. You can do what, essentially, back in the day you would have to do with film opticals, you can do now with transitions, where it’s like, “Oh, this frame wipe is good, but it would be great if it landed, like, six frames earlier. Can we do that?” “Okay. Let’s cut around it.” They change the timing of this framework and stuff. But most of those things are sort of designed in the storyboards — nearly all of the transitions are designed in the storyboards — and some of them are, like, super old-school.

A director friend of mine watched the movie the other day and he goes, “How did you do that transition from the parking lot to the junkyard? Is that with motion control?” I go, “It’s so low-fi. It’s literally like: we’ve got the shot from the parking lot; the camera system measures Ansel’s distance to the camera, the height of the camera, everything else; and then, when you’re in the junkyard, you get the monitor and you pull up the old shot and you do a half-mix to see the new shot. And then you go, ‘Okay, one inch higher. Ansel, one shot to the left.’” It’s done like that, so it’s super low-fi.

There’ll be little ones that come up on the day. Nearly all of them are in the storyboards, and sometimes you come up with something — one bit like Ansel puts down a coffee cup and it says “Baby,” and I was looking at it thinking, “Oh, that’s a good way to the end the scene. End on that.” And then I’m going, “Oh, let’s get a shot of the button, and let’s make sure the buttons look exactly the same size as the coffee cup.” I shot those two bits, but that wasn’t in the storyboards. But the majority of them are in the storyboards.

You did on-set editing of a day’s work.

And at the end of the day we’d be able to watch what we’d done.

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That’s rather interesting. I wonder how, even with storyboards, that might change an approach, even in small ways, to shooting a sequence or working with actors.

I think the reason we did that… I didn’t really start doing that. I was always against the idea, because I was always much more secretive about my process when I started out. Then I think you start to sort of be like, “Stop being so paranoid and actually realize that sharing things with your crew is just going to make the whole experience more enriching.” And so I think Scott Pilgrim onwards… Scott Pilgrim, we actually started editing some of the action on the set and it was really useful. On Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End, nearly all the action is designed in such a way that it’s like one-ers — as in: there’s no other coverage — because it’s very difficult, on the set, to edit between, like, five different cameras. But if you’re doing an action scene with one camera, then you can stick together the edit by the end of the day and say, “This is what it looks like.”

I remember, with The World’s End particularly, there’s that big brawl in the Beehive where we shot for, like, six days — I think six days — and on the last day we already had a shit load to do, and I said to my AD, “Don’t freak out, but there’s a shot that we did earlier that I want to re-do.” He goes, “Really?” I show him what shot and he goes, “Okay. Why do you want to re-do the shot?” I say, “Look at this guy here. I think this guy here can be much quicker. It’s okay, but it should be better.” It’s that thing of, “We’re re-doing something,” and then you announce to the crew, “Guys, we’re going to re-do the shot. I want you to gather around the monitor and watch it and I’ll tell you how it can be better.”

With Baby Driver, having done that with the action scenes on Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End, we only did it with action scenes — not dialogue scenes. Because the dialogue scenes are something like, as long as you know you’ve got it, then you’re going to create the best version of that scene in the edit. With this, it was specifically about making sure that the music stuff worked. Are we keeping on track with the songs? Are the scenes the right length for the songs? Are the bits there in-time with the music? So it’s literally something like, Jon Hamm is firing his assault rifle in time with “Hocus Pocus.” We do the shot and Paul said, “Paul, does it… does it work?” He goes, “Yeah, no, it’s good!” [Laughs] Like that, you know? That’s enough for me; I don’t even need to watch it. It’s just, like, the fact that he’s doing it and getting ahead.

Not many actors like watching stuff back, but Jamie Foxx would constantly be going over to Paul because he just couldn’t believe that it was coming together. He just, like, was over-awed by it because he kept watching stuff and going, “I can’t believe it’s this sharp. We’d just shot it and you’ve done it already.” But we really did it on this movie to enter into a movie where it’s like, “Okay, every single scene is going to be to music and we’ve got to keep an eye on the duration.” Because you don’t want to get into a situation where… and there’s one or two scenes in the movie where the scene expanded longer than the song. In the second car chase, we literally put a shot in where Ansel rewinds the song so it gets back to the point he wanted to be at. But that was the thing: it was basically a way of keeping the soundtrack in check.

The pleasure I get from your films remains very consistent over the years. But what about for you? Is there pleasure in looking back at them, even just in seeing what you and your team accomplished? Or is it a thing of remembering the day, the difficulties, the step-by-step processes, and that creates a distance?

No, it depends. I think in all of the movies there’s something where I go, “Oh, I wish I’d done that.” But then there are long stretches of them where it feels like it’s firing on all cylinders — like, “I don’t think we could’ve got it better on that.” So I think it goes between the two. I don’t watch my movies unless I have to. But it’s funny: I watched the whole of Hot Fuzz the other day because we had a ten-year-anniversary screening and I ended up watching the whole thing. There’s little bits where I go, “Oh, yeah, I would’ve done that differently,” or, “There’s too much of that.” And then there’s other parts where I’m thinking, “Yeah. [Laughs] This is about as good as it could possibly get with this.”

So it’s sort of a bit of both, really. I mean, I do take… the best part of it, most of the time — and Baby Driver is no exception — is when the crew watch it back, the people who work so hard on the movie. I’m able to say to them, “Oh, you’re going to be able to see your hard work on the big screen.” Actually, our camera operator and Steadicam operator, Roberto De Angelis, I just saw him in Paris and he came to watch the movie. He goes, “How is it? Are you happy?” I said, “It’s all up there, man.” [Laughs] Like, that’s the only way I could describe it: “It’s all there.” You’re not going to watch it and say… it’s just that thing: people do these movies that are so ambitious and so complicated that you just want to make sure that everybody who worked on it felt like their hard work is reflected on the big screen. It’s also a budget thing as well: you want to make a film where it’s like you got the most bang for your buck, you know?

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Baby Driver opens in wide release on June 28.

‘A Cure For Wellness’ Composer Benjamin Wallfisch on Hans Zimmer’s Advice and Embracing Technology

Written by Marc Ciafardini, June 14, 2017 at 3:00 pm 

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Golden Globe and Emmy nominee Benjamin Wallfisch is recognized as one of the leading film composers of his generation, with a career spanning over a decade and 60 feature films. He has composed music for such legendary film makers as Steven Spielberg, Rupert Wyatt, Gore Verbinksi and Lars von Trier, and has worked on scores that have been recognized with awards and nominations at the Academy Awards, BAFTAs and World Soundtrack Awards.

Wallfisch fit us into his extremely busy schedule and we were happy to have any time with this dynamic composer. We asked him about Verbinski’s thriller A Cure For Wellness and the sensational Hidden Figures — both now on Blu-ray/VOD — as well as insight into how he works.

The Film Stage: I first heard your name when your music was featured on a friend’s film score radio show: Tim Burden’s Movie Magic. In short, “Conquest 1453” just blew me away. It’s a tremendous score – where did that come from and how was the feedback from it?

Benjamin WallfischThank you! A sound designer friend of mine was working on this very ambitious indie movie about the fall of Constantinople — he called me up to see if I’d be interested in meeting the director. He described it as an old-school epic war movie and was a lot of fun — the brief was to bring the grandeur of one of my favorite scores, Miklós Rózsa’s genius Ben-Hur, into the 21st Century. I had a great time and it led to some other interesting projects.

Which of your scores do you feel most closely represents you as an artist? 

For me (and I think for many of my colleagues) it’s your last score that best represents you at any given moment. I say that because writing over the years is a constant process of creative discovery, challenging everything you did last time so your music evolves and there’s always something new and vivid to say.

A Cure for Wellness had a sort of out-of-tune music box and young girl lullaby that was a prominent instrument in the score. In any genre, it seems there are certain things you can’t get away from using. So do you look at music from the standpoint of what the studio expects, or what the audience expects?

Early on in the movie Lockhart’s mother gives him a small music box, with a handprinted ballerina that sits atop it — the first time we hear Hannah’s theme is in fact played by this music box on screen, as his mother winds it up and plays the tune for him, just as she tells him he won’t come back from his trip to Switzerland. Then later in the film, when we first meet the mysterious young girl called Hannah, she is humming the same melody; it’s her voice that you hear in the score — first heard on screen. It’s mysterious to Lockhart that she knows the tune, and he asks her where she learnt it… a question that remains unanswered. Hannah’s theme is something in the air that ties the key characters together, both onscreen through the music box and Hannah’s own singing, and also under the surface of the story. It was important for that melody to have a strange ‘false smile’ about it — a perfection of form in terms of symmetry, but always performed in a way that’s not quite right. It creates an interesting tension between the ideas of purity and malevolence, and how in the wrong hands there is sometimes a fine line between the two.

In terms of which standpoint I adopt when writing, all musical decisions are driven by story. The only expectations I try to fulfill are those of the film-makers, and the first stage in the process for me is always to try to absorb all I can about the director’s point of view and start to figure out how can I contribute to it musically.

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It’s been said that studios these days don’t want a true “theme.” I find that odd, as I am a fan of big meaningful scores, and not wallpaper music. But since you’re in the industry, what’s the current vibe, and are themes making a comeback?

It’s interesting you say that as to be honest I’ve never come across that attitude in any of the projects I’ve worked on. For all of my scores to date I’ve been asked by the filmmakers and the studio to create strong themes, and it’s something I love to do. It goes without saying that melody is among our most potent tools as composers. Creating a theme or set of themes that feel truly integrated into the DNA of the movie is often the first thing I’ll present to my director — it’s always a great starting-off point. Of course, depending on the movie and what it needs, a theme can be as simple as a two or three note motif, right through to a complex extended melody. But from my own standpoint, thematic writing is very much alive and well.

I’m in architecture, and we can endlessly tweak things because being “done” with something is a matter or perception and personal taste, especially when presenting to a client. So when do you view something as done?

When it’s in theaters! Of course, most of the time the score is done once it’s recorded with live orchestra and mixed. But it’s very important to me to give my film-makers total flexibility throughout the process, right to the very end. No ask is too big, even after we’ve scored with live orchestra. If something isn’t quite working, or there’s a better idea to explore, as long as we are literally not yet in theaters, it’s important to always find a way. For example, in a movie I recently finished, we completely re-crafted an entire set-piece cue in the very last day of our final dub, because of a new idea the director had. It was a case of constructing a new piece of music from various stems of other cues, and re-crafting other sections using samples, and in the end it worked so much better. So whilst that situation is unusual, you have to be open to it. Technology allows us as composers to give our clients total creative freedom and I embrace that as much as possible, within the time-frame we are given.

Tell us about how you like to work. What do you draw from the most on any project: the script, the director, an actor, or a scene, or something else?

It always starts with a blank piece of paper, and a story. But after that the process is unique for each project. Sometimes I’m asked to come on board months before a frame of the movie is shot; other times I’m brought in with literally tw0 weeks before the scoring date with orchestra… and of course there is everything between those two extremes. Scripts are helpful for preparing for a first meeting with a new director, but it’s the film itself that has to guide you. My great hero John Williams famously never reads scripts, preferring to be guided purely by what’s on screen, and that makes total sense.

It can be one or many things that spark an idea: the rhythm of the cut, a particular nuance in an actor’s performance, a huge set-piece sequence that just screams out for a particular type of theme or musical concept, the visual tone/color choices, the list goes on. But what unifies all of this is story. Everything stems from that, and I’ve been lucky to work with some incredibly inspiring directors who each have a unique way of communicating their stories. The blank piece of paper at the beginning of the process is so important as it enables each score to be entirely bespoke and unique – it’s important to have no pre-conceptions, and to live dangerously.

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Talk to us about the importance of orchestration – how through collaboration, an idea can go from notes on a paper to coming alive through a studio orchestra. Also, what parts of the process do you trust to others?

The orchestration process often starts very early on when writing, with the orchestral synth demos we present to the film makers and other collaborators. Everything is mocked up to a very high level using orchestral samples, so we are making key orchestration decisions sometimes many months before we actually get in a room with the live orchestra.

To allow my director and other film makers maximum time for creative changes, I normally only allow around 10-14 days of final orchestration time before the orchestral recordings. With often between 80-100 minutes of music to be orchestrated in that timeframe, it requires a team of highly skilled orchestrators whom I supervise to pull that off. I have a fantastic lead orchestrator who I send my finished demos to, and he has a team around him to make it happen. He’ll send every orchestrated cue to me as a Sibelius file, I’ll change things as needed, and then send off the proof-read score to the music prep team, who then prints everything for the scoring sessions.

I always work solo when composing, unless it’s a co-composing situation like Hidden Figures, but when we come closer to the recordings I have an extensive music production team around me who I’ve now worked with for many years. They make sure everything comes together beautifully for the recording sessions, the preparations for which involving orchestration and copying, preparing extensive stems for each cue, click tracks, mix templates and also making sure everything is conformed to the latest version of the cut.

They say that your first answer is usually your best answer. When writing music, how many times have you or the director come back to what you first came up with? Beyond that, what has changed the most from start to finish?

When a piece of music really works against picture, there is often a kind of instinctive feeling that it’s right — I think as composers we all strive to create scores that somehow feel like they’ve existed ‘from the beginning’ with a particular movie, even if the music comes at the very end of the process. Sometimes that happens straight away, with a theme or musical concept that just undeniably works; other times it can take weeks or even months of iteration before you finally discover ‘the one’ – a musical approach that just feels inevitable to the picture.

I’m very fortunate to count Hans Zimmer as my friend and mentor, and one of the things he once said that has stuck with me is how you sometimes have to allow a core musical idea to ‘creep up on you.’ I sometimes spend long hours cranking away at a particular idea which I think is going to be ‘the one’ for a particular cue or theme, only to discover that through that process I’ve uncovered something completely different; a concept or motif that would never have occurred to me at the beginning that works so much better than the original concept. So the days of work gets canned in favor of that new discovery, which can be exhilarating. So I guess it’s being open to that sense of adventure when writing – living dangerously and constantly striving and examining what you’re doing, to make sure it really is living intrinsically within the world of the movie and story you are scoring.

A Cure for Wellness and Hidden Figures are now on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

Rachel Weisz on the Importance of Secrets, Her Dream Job, and ‘My Cousin Rachel’

Written by Jose Solís, June 8, 2017 at 8:10 am 

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Characters like the one that gives its title to My Cousin Rachel are usually played with broad strokes, either to elicit extreme sympathy, or total disdain, and yet what Rachel Weisz does in Roger Michell’s adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel is unlike either of those, it’s a performance so layered that it would unfair to say it lies even in between. We are supposed to mistrust Rachel from the moment we first hear her name, after all she is the stranger who has seduced Philip’s (Sam Claflin) saintly cousin, made him renounce his bachelorhood, and abandon his beloved England. Not only that, but according to some suspicions, she might have even been behind his untimely death, meaning there is nothing left for Philip to do but seek revenge.

And yet upon meeting Rachel, Philip discovers something quite unexpected, rather than a severe gorgon, he finds her to be quite sensitive, agreeable even. But he has come to believe in her evil ways to such degree, that nothing she does can absolve her. Weisz takes advantage of this grey area where her character lives to play her as both aware and elusive, she’s the screen where Philip and the audience can project their doubts, but she’s strong enough that she reflects back to us our own issues. Ahead of its release in the U.S., I spoke to the Oscar winner about how Rachel encompasses the way in which men are taught to think of women, how she slipped into Rachel’s skin, and the concept of the femme fatale.

The Film Stage: My Cousin Rachel is such a litmus test for how audiences react to female characters and the timing could not be better. Was this one of the reasons why you wanted to play this part?

Rachel Weisz: I didn’t know that it would resonate in the way that you’re saying, but I liked the idea of playing with what people’s preconceptions of women are. I knew whether she was guilty or innocent. The director didn’t want me to tell him so I kept it a secret. There was a sort of mystery involved in how we made the film as well. What’s fascinated me are the reactions of people who’ve watched it; some are sure she’s guilty, others think she’s innocent and each side argues passionately. But what did you mean about the timing?

Watching it I kept thinking how the men are paranoid about Rachel’s letters but they might as well have been talking about private email servers.

Oh, I see. Yeah, yeah.

Men always seem to find reasons to not trust women. Society seems to enjoy pitting women against each other or vilifying powerful women. Did you have a moment when you realized this, and did it affect your work in any way?

I know what you mean, but no, I didn’t have a moment. It’s a great question though, but I don’t relate to it personally. The story of the movie was written by a woman, so it’s a woman imagining a man and he’s such an unreliable narrator because he’s in love and obsessed and whatnot. His records might not be true; apparently du Maurier wrote the book so that she was Philip, and she was obsessed with, I think her publicist’s wife, so it was kind of a disguised tale about girl on girl love, but we don’t need to get into that…

Did you find either the book or the first movie to be essential in helping you shape your character or did you just go from the script?

I still haven’t seen the original movie. I need to watch it now so I can reference it in discussion with people, but I didn’t want it to influence my performance. The book was interesting, but the film obviously becomes something different. The book was useful but you start from scratch when you make a film.

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Assuming you liked the character and felt empathy for her, do you want people to think of your character in My Cousin Rachel in a specific way?

I want them to make up their own minds and come up with their own conclusions.

I saw you last year in Plenty at the Public Theatre and Complete Unknown, and with My Cousin Rachel they kind of make this trilogy of works about women who men purposely choose not to trust, who also happen to want to live bigger lives than patriarchal society allows them to have. Do you ever find unexpected threads like that in the projects you choose?

I know what you’re saying. I guess there are archetypes in storytelling and maybe this film is playing with the archetype of the femme fatale or the Black Widow who poisons people. I think what Roger Michell does is he plays with the archetype so you question your own preconceptions of what women are. I think it’s really interesting storytelling from his part.

I love the buildup to meeting Rachel, people talk about her as if she’s a demon or some sort of seductive goddess, so by the time we meet her we’re half expecting her to appear from a cloud of smoke. Did you talk to Roger about the importance of this introduction?

That was just a function of the script with Roger also wrote. It’s a big setup, and it’s great to have a big setup as a character, it’s just wonderful, but for me it was just telling a story of seeing Philip for the first time and being shocked at how similar to my husband he is, it shocks me to see a boyish version of my husband who I didn’t even know as a boy. So for me it was a very powerful moment. Imagine if you meet someone in your 40s who you didn’t know in their 20s, and then they die, and you meet someone who looks like them in their 20s. It’s so spooky! So just imagining that was very powerful for me.

Are there any other character entrances in movies that you absolutely love?

I can’t think of any, can you?

Some of mine are Orson Welles’s character in The Third Man, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, or Blanche in Streetcar which you’ve played onstage.

You know what those are good examples. I’ll steal your Vivien Leigh ones.

You mentioned you knew whether Rachel was guilty or not, do you usually have secrets about your characters that help you understand who they are?

Oh, yeah. I’d never had this experience where the director said they didn’t want to know if she was guilty or not, but you always have secrets from the director, and the director has secrets from you. Actors should never explain their motivations to another actor. You should have secrets from each other. Just like in life: you don’t explain yourself to everyone, you just do stuff.

How did the locations affect your work?

I mean, you can’t fake that level of gorgeousness. It was staggeringly beautiful, a lot of the British countryside is really beautiful. Roger wanted to capture the four seasons, so even if we shot in the spring we managed to get a little bit of winter, a little bit of summer.

You played a real person in Denial last year, do you feel a special kind of responsibility to characters based on real people that you don’t feel for characters like Rachel?

Yes, particularly with Denial, which was more like a documentary in a way. We used actual court transcripts, and I made myself talk exactly like Deborah Lipstadt. There’s a different responsibility.

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How does alternating between stage and screen help you stay excited about the work or define who you are as an actor?

Both are challenging in different ways. Doing plays is harder I think. Plays are like running a marathon. Plays are physically very demanding. You have to be an athlete.

After I saw you in The Deep Blue Sea I really wanted to see you play an old fashioned femme fatale a la Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Are there any you love and would love to play?

I’m not sure I’ve seen Double Indemnity. What would you suggest for me?

You’re asking me to give you my wish list of characters for you?

Yes, I’m serious. I think you’ve seen a lot more films than I have. You seem very knowledgeable.

If Pedro Almodóvar ever makes an English movie I’d love to see you play a femme fatale like the ones from The Skin I Live In or Bad Education.

You have created my dream job. For real! I don’t speak Spanish. I’ve met him and told him what a big fan I am and how I adore him. If he ever made a film in English, yes please.

I also got to see you in Betrayal on Broadway and have always wanted to ask you what it was like to star in what would end up being Mike Nichols very last play on Broadway?

It was a slightly strange honor, I didn’t know it would be his last play, but looking back it’s an incredible honor to have shared in his talent near the end of his life.

Thanks for your time, you were great in that play as well.

But before you go, you said Double Indemnity was a good one right?

Yes!

Great, I’ll check it out then.

My Cousin Rachel opens on Friday, June 9.