Gore Verbinski first attracted wide attention for directing The Ring – one of the few examples of a successful foreign horror remake. Now, after 15 years of directing blockbusters (and also The Weather Man), he’s returned to the stage of psychological thrillers with A Cure for Wellness, opening this weekend. We spoke with the director about the recurring motifs in his films, and particularly his latest, the design of the locations, how the film acts as a reverse Sleeping Beauty, and more.
The Film Stage: Water is a recurring motif or element in a lot of your films.
Gore Verbinski: Yeah, you’re referring to Rango and The Ring and Pirates… god knows what else. That is strange, isn’t it? It’s a beautiful metaphor for so many things — for birth and catharsis and drowning and baptism and purification. In A Cure for Wellness, it’s the idea that Volmer [Jason Isaac’s character] is diagnosing modern man, and offering this sort of cure, and it’s all about our fluids, and purification. He’s clearly obsessed with that idea.
Animal motifs, particularly eels and stags, figure here as well.
The deer is Lockhart [Dane DeHaan’s character]. When the deer is struck by the car, he keeps trying to walk. If Lockhart would just lie down, it would all go so much easier for him. But he’s not like the others in the clinic. He is younger — it’s going to take a stronger dose to put him down. As to the eels, it’s hardwired in our DNA to react to things that slither with revulsion. There are also Freudian implications, and the primal sense of fear — there’s something in the water! There’s something in the water, and now it’s inside us.
How did you extend that to the film’s style?
As Lockhart gets close to this place, he’s slipping out of the bounds of reality and into more of a dream logic. So it’s water as it occurs in our nightmares, in a non-waking state. That’s the thing we applied to photographing it. It’s almost a character in the film. It’s the silent scream, you know – and the louder you scream in this place, the more there’s somebody there with a nice warm bathrobe and a pair of slippers, looking at you with a concerned smile on their face.
The film mainly takes place in this old Swiss castle that’s been turned into a health clinic. What was the process of designing its look, and then bringing that vision to life?
The movie is about two worlds. There’s the world that Lockhart comes from, the modern world. And that’s what’s being observed by this other, ancient world — this castle above the clouds. It’s watched humanity progress through the industrial age and its obsession with computers and cellphones. It’s offering a diagnosis. The steam room is sort of the portal between the two, one world closing and the other opening up. As Lockhart drives to this place, his cellphone doesn’t work and his computer glitches and his watch stops. He’s flipping off the map, if you will.
Designing the clinic — for starts, there are a bunch of thumbnail drawings on paper. We scouted Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Romania, Prague, looking for a castle exterior that would be our location. We found it at this place near Tubingen, Germany. For the interior, on completely the other side of Germany, out of Berlin, we found an old abandoned hospital. It was actually used to treat Hitler after World War I, I believe for mustard gas.
And then we needed a swimming pool, which we found in a location with this old tile that kind of matched. We glued together all these different things to build the place itself. The clinic is sort of a tiramisu. Lockhart is coming from a dark world, and it’s important that he is entering the light when he first arrives — the Alps and the people in white robes in the top layer of this place. Then he descends, and he gets closer to the truth and loses his purchase on reality. It’s an ascension into light and then a descent back into darkness. For the lower levels, obviously some of it is underwater, so we had to build things on stage.
You go more into some overt visual stylization here. I’m thinking about an early shot of Lockhart’s mother painting a ballerina, where her magnifying glass obscures her head while blowing up her eye. What motivates such choices for you?
I wanted to create a kind of underpinning of sickness – that there’s some invisible force or cancer in the movie itself. The main character is in denial, but the cancer is not going away. In the example you give, I wanted to emphasize that she’s seeing. In her early stages of dementia, she’s aware of things that the scientist doesn’t even see. The tune of her ballerina is used to awaken others. That shot emphasizes what she’s saying right there, that she’s seeing something that he is not.
There’s a lot of that and reflection shots, which are designed to emphasize the two worlds. In many ways, you can think of this film as a reverse Sleeping Beauty. He’s being put to sleep, and yet he is able to rival this contagion. He’s a sort of pinprick that awakens others in the process.
A Cure for Wellness opens in theaters on Friday, February 17.
Depicting teenage angst with such pinpoint accuracy one wonders why it’s never been handled precisely this way before, The Edge of Seventeen was not only one of the best directorial debuts of last year, but one of my favorite films of 2016 — period. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig‘s script — which never dumb downs or generalizes the high school experience — is brought to life perfectly by Hailee Steinfeld in her finest, most emotionally honest performance yet.
With the film now arriving on Blu-ray/DVD today, I had the chance to speak with Craig to discuss capturing the high school experience, the underlying sadness of the film, two of my favorite scenes in the third act, the box-office reception, her favorite film of last year, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage; So many high school films feel like they are written by adults trying to remember the experience, but not quite grasping it. This one has an authentic feel throughout the whole thing. Obviously, you didn’t start writing this when you were in high school, but how did you get back to that mindset?
Kelly Fremon Craig: You know, I did a lot of research and I hung out with a lot of teenagers to just remember. I also went to high school to be a fly on the wall. I went to a high school dance — just really try and get back and remember what it was all like. It was interesting how much of the feeling of that age just came instantly flooding back. As a 30-something woman I was immediately back in all my insecurities and every awkward feeling, you are back there. It’s just some visceral reaction where you right back. So I think that helped a lot. Spending a lot of time sitting down and talking to teenagers and asking them a lot of questions, trying to get the age right.
There’s a pathos to this movie, an underlying sadness that runs throughout, which is what I love about because other studios might have given notes (“this has to feel happy, everyone has to feel good”). Hailee Steinfeld is quite amazing in being able to convey this without feeling cloying. Can you talk about that element of the film?
Yeah, it’s interesting. Just this past weekend I went and I drove around my old college, which I hadn’t been to since I was in college. It was so weird being back there because it was there was this sense of gnawing loneliness that I remember having there and that I remember having in high school. I think it’s just a part of that age, at least it was for me. This feeling of being all alone in the world. Does anybody understand? At some point feeling like nobody, nobody could possible get what you are feeling. I guess that was so central to my experience through high school and college that I didn’t know how to write a movie without that. It was just so in the bones of it.
The one scene that really hit me hard was when Blake Jenner’s character comes to Woody Harrelson’s character’s house and has that speech about his life is “fucking incredible” and then it shifts and we really get to see his perspective. It felt so true to a brother-sister relationship where you are at each other’s claws all the time, but then you put yourself in their shoes.
Yeah, the central thing I was really trying to explore is how you can feel like you are the only person in the world with problems — that everybody else is faring better than you. Nadine definitely suffers from that. I think in her head her brother is the greatest manifestation of that story she tells herself. Somehow life has just shit on me left and right, but has left him completely unscathed, and it’s so fucking unfair. In times when I’ve felt really fucked up or emotional or I’m going through a really hard time, what’s worse than that is the feeling that while you are feeling that bad, everyone else is happy. It’s just terrible. It’s a terrible thing. It’s bad enough to be in pain. It’s way worse to feel like you are all alone in your pain. The message of the film is really that nobody gets out of this unscathed. Nobody gets out of life without some real bumps and bruises, even if they look like they are faring a lot better. I think the truth is that just some of us hide it better. Some of us just pretend better, but the truth is that everybody goes through stuff that is really difficult. It’s carrying around something that’s tough. I think at that age it’s really easy to feel like you are the only one, so that’s what that speech was about.
The other scene that I loved was Kyra Sedgwick’s character and her text message conversation with her daughter, when she lets go and says “Ok.” It’s amazing how little can say so much.
Now I’m a parent and I have a three-year-old son and as I was writing this, I was pregnant with him, then giving birth, then starting to raise him and be a mom. I just had a lot of compassion for how much you worry about your kid and how you are trying to do the right thing for your kid, but your own flawed self gets in the way. I still struggle with that. I’m constantly nervous about the way I’m screwing up my kid. [Laughs] I guarantee somehow I’m messing this up, because everybody has something they could talk about in therapy about their parents. That scene was just her realizing that maybe the best thing to do was to let go a little, to not fight, to not try and control it. I think as a parent that’s what you are doing every day. Every day you are letting go a little more. That’s the job, one you let go — I don’t know if you let go completely — but the job is for them to be on their own two feet. So it was just about that. It was also about her letting go of her own personal issues. Because you can get caught up in your own personal issues and be like, “I deserve a call back right now! This is unacceptable.” You can get into all your own stuff, but it was her sort of letting go of that.
When the film came out, we were championing it a lot on our site and everyone I talked to really loved it, but it wasn’t a smash hit. I was wondering what you thought of the reception of it, both as it seems to be gaining a cult following and the box-office?
One of the best parts of the whole experience is seeing people watch it and relate, and say “Oh my God, I’m her. She’s me. I felt that. I’ve been there.” There’s a great quote that Jim Brooks, our producer says, and I love it so much. “The purpose of film is to remind you that you are not alone.” That’s the real purpose of it. Every time that happens, I just feel like, “Oh, man. It’s the best feeling.” So that part is really neat. It’s overwhelming. It’s surreal. The box-office thing, that’s always kind of a crapshoot. Obviously, you always hope that as many people are going to see it that can possibly see it, but it’s nice that the people that are seeing it are responding to it.
Maybe it’s just because of my age, but it feels like struck a chord a lot with people that have been 5-10 years removed from high school. Do you find that at all, when you have a perspective on the experience that you get more out of the movie?
I wonder. It’s interesting. People that are in the white-hot center of it, like 17-year-old girls seeing it, I hear a lot from them — girls and guys. I heard a lot from them that they see themselves reflected in it and that’s really cool, but it’s also been nice that people of a few years removed seem to be able to reach back to that feeling. Maybe it’s because I don’t know if that feeling ever completely leaves. The things that she’s dealing with in this film, embarrassingly, I don’t deal with on that level, on that extreme, but they still creep up. I still feel them here and there. Now I have the benefit of knowing that there’s an ebb and a flow to life and that feeling will pass. It’s not the end of the world, which I think you don’t know at that age, which is why it’s so devastating. After anything happens you feel that it’s going to be permanent and forever, but now you sort of know there’s highs and lows. Again, I don’t know if that feeling is every gone, so that may be the reason that people are able to relate even years beyond.
I saw on Twitter you said Moonlight is your favorite movie of the year. I actually saw these movies close together and while the protagonists couldn’t be further apart, a similar feeling of loneliness pervades both movies.
I think that movie is a masterpiece. I had the chance to talk to Barry Jenkins. As we go to these little awards season events and you see the same sort of people there, and for like three or four of them, when I would see him across the room, I’d go, “I’d gotta talk to him.” For one reason or another, I couldn’t figure it out or too much stuff was going on. Finally, at a BAFTA event, I made a point to go over and just gush to him about what his movie meant to me. I think part of why it’s such a triumph is the character is so non-verbal. He says so little and yet you feel so much. I think that’s such a triumph. It’s also a triumph in subtlety in that in never pushes too far. It never pushes into melodrama even though it could. It explores the shades of grey in life in a way that’s so specific and so heartfelt and sad and, in a weird way, life-affirming. Finding those little, tiny beautiful moments in the midst of a lot of pain. It stayed with me. It still stays with me, but for days and days I was just in it after watching it.
The Edge of Seventeen is now available on Blu-ray/DVD.
Twenty years ago, Cheryl Dunye made history as the first African-American lesbian to direct a feature-length film. Now that film, The Watermelon Woman, has finally been given a proper DVD release, courtesy of First Run Features. To mark the occasion, we spoke on the phone with Dunye about the film, history, performance, and authenticity.
The Film Stage: Both The Watermelon Woman and the short that’s included on the new DVD, Black Is Blue, express a high level of commitment and detail in the recreation of documentary form. What documentaries and / or mockumentaries influenced you?
Cheryl Dunye: I’ve been working in this practice since the late ‘80s. I went to Rutgers and had a studio practice there, got my MFA, and that’s where I discovered what was becoming the queer film world. There was a lack of identity, representation — in the work that was being seen — by, about, and from what I would just use the tag word “queers of color.” I stumbled on this theory that if you do a talking head, if you speak to somebody straightforward, and weave it all together, they’re going to understand the story that you’re telling. So that’s really where it came up. I call it the “theories of three,” which is ultimately called the “Dunyementary.”
The politics of the time, which were very similar to now, what we’re about to kind of roll into… I had to represent. I was tired of being misrepresented by the forces that be. So I watched a lot of work. I would say Godard, African cinema, Black radical cinema from those UCLA folks, Larry Clark, Killer of Sheep, Daughters of the Dust… they gave me a way to kind of mix it together and come out with a unique voice and vision.
David Holzman’s Diary was one of the turning points, when I realized that Jim McBride was fooling us all, and why. And then Marlon Riggs and all the black gay artists and activists and leaders who were involved in survival and telling these stories in the early ‘90s, who were my mentors. It was this bridge between critical writing by black gay men and black lesbians and people making work. So I just picked up my camera and kind of rolled.
When you started making Watermelon Woman, did the faux documentary come first? Or did the traditional, straightforwardly fictional part?
They both come at the same time, I made three earlier works prior to this: Janine, The Potluck and the Passion, and She Don’t Fade. Each of them played at the Whitney Biennial, and they each were this unique prism for vignettes and the talking heads. One thing about doing the talking heads before, after, and even during the process is that you get talk about the past, present, and future tenses of the subject and the issue. So it gets at kind of a different level of truth. And that’s what I wanna get at, I wanna get at that truth. Because for me, it was about putting myself in the picture of these sacred tropes of narrative and identity.
So I was putting in the topics of who I was and what my community was at that time, a conversation about racial politics within the queer community, etc. I took what was there at a time, and maybe even before the time, and fictionalized and narrativized it within the context of the footage and the politics and the truth that we were experiencing. I was making an attempt at opening up a conversation. I’m an activist. I’m an art activist.
I understand that when you looked for examples of black lesbians who worked in classic Hollywood, you couldn’t find any. But there’s a lot of verisimilitude in the story you construct for Fae Richards. Did you draw inspiration from any particular real-life figures to put that together?
Fae Richards is a mixture of all the black actresses at that time. Butterfly McQueen, who I think passed away at [the time she was making the film], Hattie McDaniel … Everything I read in Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, a great collection of narratives of blacks in Hollywood, mostly in front of the camera. But it doesn’t go into detail, so that’s where I was like, “Oh, well what about their personal lives?” Hollywood generally has a separate space for people of color — and other identities. I also looked at Vito Russo’s writing and all that we knew about queer Hollywood. I was looking through to find anything about blackness. I definitely felt like making a character the way that I wanted to.
And then I essentially picked the white director, Martha Page, as a reflection of possibility — of what a white woman queer director who had lovers of color would look like. It is a bold kind of revision and way to relate to it the way I wanted it to be. And she’s Dorothy Arzner. I mean, that’s just a given. Straight-up, Arzner was documented, Arzner was out.
In the time since the film came out, has anyone learned of any black lesbian actors or other creators in the industry during that period?
No. I mean, I’m sure there were. There’s two in 20, right? But they weren’t documented. The stories weren’t told — the same way it works now. We don’t want to hear from the margins; we want to see what’s in the middle and put spotlights on that. So those marginal lives and stories did not get recorded, did not get saved. You know, and so it goes. I think we’re crashing into a moment right now where we have to have conversations about that within the context of Hollywood. But I don’t see them rushing to bring in any other folks who are of-color and queer combined. I mean, there’s only one black gay director who’s received an Academy Award, Roger Ross Williams. For the most part, there’s nobody to look to. So, you know, we’re making it up.
Camille Paglia appears for one scene to offer some contrarian opinions on iconography like the mammy figure and the watermelon boy. You had her sit down specifically for that?
Oh yeah, we had her come in, play with the text, play with herself in the sense of what she represents, and give an interview from that point of view. At the time, we were friends. Her girlfriend and I knew each other from the Philly scene. The way I work is that I give the context of the film. She read the script, and I said, “I’m gonna ask you these questions, and you just answer them and have fun.” So she’s talking from the hip, talking from the heart. I think she’s mixing a lot of intellect and fun and intuition.
She’s doing what most people in the film are doing — even including my mother. They’re playing with a part of themselves that’s performative. I think now, when we reread Camille, you know in hindsight, she’s a provocateur. You know, does she believe everything that she’s about? Of course. But she’s able to poke us, to make us think a little bit harder. And that’s what she did for that narrative. I don’t know what long-lasting effects Camille might have thought that depiction of her might have, but it definitely works.
When I watched Black Is Blue, I did not realize at first that it wasn’t a “real” documentary. The level of attention to the way that such films are made was impressive. When constructing a Dunyementary, do you write it with an eye toward where such specific elements like interview segments go?
I film the narrative, and then I film the talking heads second, or even a third time after we edit a little bit. The questions come from all over the place, and directed to the actors speaking in character. So Kingston was speaking as both himself — his own experience as a trans man living in Oakland — and also as the character, black. So you don’t know what is “true” or not. And I think that’s about the performative nature of our own identities. We have these conversations in our head, and half of them never get out and we act a whole different way.
You’ve mentioned how certain aspects documentary presaged social media, and what you speak of — the performance of one’s own self for a public sphere — resonates now in a different way with the rise of social media. Another interview mentioned that the confessional moments in Watermelon Woman resemble a YouTube vlog.
I know academics have started looking at phenomena like [gender] transitioning on YouTube, and the diaries that people keep. And once you put it out there, you start to find community. And I think that’s the power that we, the people, are hooked to with social-media activism. Now it’s like, how do we get offline? [Laughs] You know? I mean, some of us need to be online doing the activism, and some of us need to be out on the streets. Now how do we all unite. I think we’re starting to see it. Things are being shut down and shifted and changed with a YouTube or a push of a button.
The Watermelon Woman is now available on DVD.
Tim Sutton is a filmmaker with a distinct visual style, which he brings into the heart of the gun control debate with Dark Night, an entrancing, terrifying exploration of the moments before a horrible event. Following multiple characters living in a Florida town, Sutton paints an American portrait that feels doubly relevant following last year’s election and everything that’s come since. The Film Stage had an earnest conversation with the writer/director about the the business of indie film, how politics affect art and how one casts a film so it feels authentic to the story being told.
The Film Stage: When you jump into a project like this, what’s the research process like?
Tim Sutton: So, research-wise I really tried to limit myself. People have asked if I’ve talked to a lot of people in Aurora or in Denver, and I did not. The work is purely fiction, outside of a few newspaper articles that I read. I did read Dave Cullen’s book on Columbine (titled “Columbine”) to just see a very matter-of-fact storytelling style of events that happened before, all the way up to the event and then to the post-event. It really was important for me to think about it in terms of what would happen in my hometown, any day of the week, knowing the fact that it all just comes down to the theater. The film was not supposed to be a movie that had dramatic arcs or had great relationships to any events that happened outside of the fact of the movie theater.
There are hints of, you know, Aurora has already happened. There are hints of other acts of violence that have already happened. And the fact that there is a [military] veteran character. You know, there were a lot of Air Force people in the theater in Aurora which I thought was, you know, it’s horrifying for anyone to die by the end of a gun. But to come home from Iraq or Afghanistan and then die in a movie theater I just thought was as wicked as it gets. So I did want a veteran character but no more so than I wanted a young Latina who was trying to fit into a new crowd or a troubled teenager who is smothered by his mother or a kind of self-obsessed selfie freak. I was more interested in looking at it in terms of the greater culture, rather than something that specifically came from events.
It certainly does, in that way, feel like a mosaic for our country. Something you’re trying to paint and it certainly comes through. Now, of course, this film was screened a year ago [at Sundance] and made before then. When you’re watching it now under this new [presidential] administration, is there anything to be taken differently? Do you feel differently?
It doesn’t make me feel differently. There are two things: one thing is while I was actually making the movie, before I had shown it anywhere, two more mass executions happened. And then before, on the eve of Sundance, San Bernardino happened. On the eve of BAMcinémaFest, Pulse in Orlando happened. And, you know, Fort Lauderdale has happened since then. Trump’s election is another mass execution, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a place where the media has gone crazy. Where the public is completely at odds with each other. And that there is acts of violence and that there’s an act of violence done towards liberalism in general. So I think that the country is traveling a very, very dark path right now. And I think the film is not a piece of entertainment. It’s not going to do “box office,” but it’s just as vital as it was on the day we finished it or on the day we thought to start shooting it. It’s a living document and to me it still feels like a living document. The great blame, in a way. Not blame, but the great frustration is not that I didn’t make any money or my feelings are hurt because it’s a good festival film but not necessarily a marketable film.
The problem is the industry does not want to show this film. But the industry will show the most violent, asinine depictions of violence and of cultures and of people and of races and yet a sensitive movie that’s really trying to just be a document of what the county is, years ago, won the Cannes Film Festival and got bought by HBO. And sure, yes, Sundance put [Dark Night] up and Venice put it up, and I’m not saying I’m not completely elated by its reception. But it’s barely getting a New York [theatrical] run. It’s barely getting an L.A. run. And I think that’s because the market has turned its back on films like this.
So you would say between that fifteen years or so gap of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and now, you see a change in the indie market. People just saying, “Hey, you know people don’t want to pay to see that so we’re not going to take the chance.”
Yes, I am saying that. I feel that way, unequivocally.
It’s hard not to see that and not see where you’re coming from.
I think the indie film world can make very daring films and very exciting films. And so can Hollywood. But there are the priorities of the marketplace that have fully taken over. If they hadn’t fifteen years ago, they’ve fully taken over now.
And even when you talk about the small screen space where more adventurous things are happening, there’s no other way to justify the [big-screen] change other than financially.
Yeah, financially, and I think the small screen matters but what are the films but what are the films that do well on demand? You have to have like a name actor. Listen I think Dark Night…whoever sees Dark Night is moved by Dark Night. Whether they love it or hate it is not my concern. They do experience something that I think a lot of films leave out, and that is a deep, deep personal connection. So if you’re watching it at home or watching it in the theater you are going to experience something very, very meaningful. It’s just, you know, if you have Joaquin Phoenix’s name up on your marquee it makes it a hell of a lot easier for people to have that meaningful experience.
Right. People say there’s no more movie star, but on iTunes that name is still going to mean something.
Yeah, even the name of some TV actor you’ve never heard of but has fifty-thousand Twitter followers.
Let me segue into the production of the film. Following Pavilion and Memphis, you’ve got an aesthetic of sorts. Found isn’t the right way to describe your movies, but like you said it feels like a slice of something. Almost, uninterrupted. Fluid. So when you’re making this movie, how much footage are you shooting? Are other locations and scenes getting cut out?
Yes. Each film has a similar vibe as far as its aesthetic. But each approach has been somewhat different. Pavilion I shot for ten days, so I did not have a lot of footage left over. But to me that was very much specific. That was always going to be 50/50 Arizona and upstate New York. I knew the film was going to start with one character, lose him, go with the main character and eventually lose him. That to me was the, kind of, arc. There was some things got cut out that didn’t feel authentic. And, to me, I will always side on creating an authentic strings of events, even if they’re strange or weird or dreamy, rather than give information that might make you think, ‘huh? I didn’t really buy that.’ You know?
So in Memphis there are things that are cut out. But Memphis was very much an exploration of day-to-day, and felt very much like Willis [Earl Beal]. Looking for our muse, and finding our muse and letting it guide us. Dark Night I had sixteen days. I had a very specific script. We shot the script pretty much to a T.
I cut a few scenes out that I thought didn’t help the tightening of the narrative. The narrative had to act as a funnel, in a way. Getting tighter and tighter and tighter. There are some scenes that I really did like that I cut out. It’s a tough enough movie as is, and I didn’t want to take people out of this spiral. And so we sided on in terms of the thriller vibe. Not thriller vibe, but tightening of the grip, rather than sticking with the the real moments. But I don’t find the movies in the edit. My editors, who I’ve worked with, have been tremendous storytellers without question. I mean Dark Night was…we got the first cut together in three weeks. That’s not final cut but there was one movie to tell.
So you came in with a specific script and a way to get there. Following up on that, how does someone like Robert Jumper come into the fray. How do you find him?
Sure. Well, you start with someone like Eleonore Hendricks, whose are casting director. She did everything from the street casting in Beasts of the Southern Wild, she cast Memphis and she also, her latest credit, is American Honey. So she just has this ability. You send her down to Florida, with a car and an assistant and a few bucks and she’s just on her own. She goes to bowling alleys and parking lots and malls and bars and schools. And she’s got specific types she’s looking for but she’s the type of person who can, in a moment, can explain what she’s doing in a way that makes you want to be a part of it. You go up to someone in New York and say ‘do you want to be in a movie?’ they’ll walk right by you. But if you do it in Florida, where everybody’s kind of curious and they don’t get that question asked of them a lot, you can find some very interesting people.
For example, Robert Jumper. So Eleonore and my producer Alexandra [Byer] were following this cool vintage white Mercedes and they pulled up right next to him at a stop sign and he looked over and his eyes popped and they had him pull over. And, you know, it turned out he had never acted before but he had randomly modeled for [photographer] Ryan McGinley once. He got the feeling he kind of wanted to be in front of the camera. Certainly had movie star good looks. I came down to Florida. I met him in a bar, we didn’t drink. Talked for five minutes. And then I asked if we could just get in his car and drive me around. And, so, I kind of come from the Nicholas Ray school of casting. He would meet with people and take walks. He would never cast. He and James Dean would just walk around the block endlessly, instead of go through more traditional. So Jumper and I just drove around and he showed me Sarasota and the sun was going down and it was beautiful. And then we went to his roommate’s place and they happened to have a lot of guns and it started to get dark and I was like, ‘alright, I understand that you are my character,’ and I did that with other characters as much as I did with him.
You could say it’s a little lucky but it’s not. Someone like Eleonore and that search. The casting and the writing was a search. The casting was a search. The movie is a search. It’s all part of the same process. They also say in Memphis, ‘Tim, don’t you feel lucky that you found Willis?’ And I was like, ‘Well, Willis is lucky we found him too, because we’re the only one who could tell his story.’ So I think it’s an open-mindedness that brings you that access.
Right. And like you said Robert is magnetizing on screen.
Well, his character is trying.. I think these shooters want to be stars. And Jumper in his own way wants to be a star. So his character wants to be a star and he wants to be a star so that’s why I ask in the movie, ‘Is that your movie star face?’ He’s like, ‘I sure hope so.’ I mean, there are so many layers working together that I think a movie like this, that a guy like Jumper can just tear up.
One thing that jumped out at me was the color palette. It’s so vibrant at spots throughout the film. And I know you worked with a new DP [Hélène Louvart] who has done a bunch of great stuff. You’ve got a very patriotic opening, color-wise, in the beginning and some lush greens in the middle. What’s that conversation?
All three of the movies, to me, are very colorful. Pavilion you have the lush greens of upstate New York and the endless lakes. The vast desert. And Memphis, of course, is kind of a mythic, emerald city of trees and greens and skin tones. And I wanted Dark Night… you know the red and blue is very much an opening. I’m a subtle filmmaker, so when I decide not to be subtle it’s very, very purposeful. So that opening is America. It’s red, white and blue. When he dyes his hair orange I want it it be very very clear, ‘Yes, I’m summoning up your fear of James [Holmes].’ And I think that you do that through color. You can only do that through color and through the frame. I think this is our world at the same time.
My Instagram style of photos looks just like the movie. So it matches the natural aesthetic. But you have to take a stand as a filmmaker to sometimes say exactly what you’re trying to say. Like when Bertolucci uses green and yellow in The Last Emperor or red in The Conformist. He’s not shy to try and evoke a very specific reaction. To me, it’s important especially when you’re not working with dialogue. You’re not working with the traditional dramatic arc. You don’t have Marlon Brando to have that perfect monologue that says, ‘It was you Charlie.’ You have to use your senses and to me the senses are always visual and always color.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m developing a couple of things. One is set in Coney Island and the other thing is set in Indiana. One I’m doing with the producer David Lancaster who did Drive and Nightcrawler. It’s kind of an art film for the red states. And the other one is based in Coney Island is kind of my surreal gentrification movie. Both are visual stories. One is going to be a little more genre-driven, the bigger one, because there will be more money at stake. And the other Coney Island one is going to be just as wild as Dark Night. It’s kind of like my Repo Man.
Well, you got me there.
It’s a good hook. That’s what we’re going for.
Dark Night is now in limited release and will expand in the coming weeks.
In the last few years, Riley Keough has carved out quite a burgeoning career, working with George Miller, Andrea Arnold, Steven Soderbergh, David Robert Mitchell, Trey Edward Shults, and, for her most recent premiere, Charlie McDowell. Starring alongside Rooney Mara, Jason Segel, Robert Redford, and Jesse Plemons, The Discovery finds her playing Lacey, a character attempting to rebuild her own life under the guidance of Redford’s character after the afterlife was discovered.
While at Sundance Film Festival, I sat down with the actress to discuss the emotional sci-fi film, how realistic it might be, the ethical questions behind it, as well her promising upcoming year, her favorite sci-fi films, her thoughts on television after The Girlfriend Experience, and much more. Check out the conversation below.
The Film Stage: There’s great world-building right from the beginning, and I was curious if it was all in the script, or did Charlie talk to you about backstories with any characters?
Riley Keough: We talked a little bit about backstories, definitely with Lacey, because I mean we kind of touched a little bit on her backstory in scenes. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know what he’s done in terms of cinematography, but I saw the trailer… and it looks so beautiful. So I don’t know what he’s done. I kind of get a sense that it looks very beautiful and cool and amazing.
Yeah, the cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, also shot Rams and Victoria. Did you see either?
Rams, yeah. I love Rams!
This movie is more emotionally grounded rather than something like Primer, where it gets scientific. Did that emotional core attract you?
Yeah. It’s funny, because I read it and it felt almost like an emotional family journey a little bit, you know? And that was interesting to me, in this sci-fi world.
And one of your best scenes is with Robert Redford, where you kind of stand toe-to-toe. It’s probably one of the most emotionally vulnerable scenes of the movie.
I wouldn’t know. [Laughs]
What was it like just being next him?
It was a trip. It took me a couple of days to get used to not just being in a scene and being like, “This is Robert Redford.” [Laughs] By the time we shot that scene, I’d hung with him and luckily that wasn’t my first scene with him, so I was able to kind of get into the characters. It throws you when there’s someone like that, you know? It was also one of those moments, where I was like, “Oh my God, this is the coolest thing ever.” And now being at Sundance in a film with Bob, it’s crazy.
One of the other performances I loved was Jesse Plemons.
He’s just incredible.
His character is so disheveled.
He’s so wild, I love him. I just couldn’t stop staring at him.
There’s like a few scenes where he’ll just do his own thing. Did that surprise you on set?
I think that’s just him, or his character. I found it really fascinating. I found a lot of love for him. We worked together like six days or something, but I felt like I just wanted to hug him. He’s just so brilliant and interesting.
Did you see The One I Love?
Yeah, I loved it. I think Charlie’s amazing. It’s so different from this so. It’s funny when you’re trying to get the sense of what a film is going to be like when it’s completely different from their past films. He’s just a really good filmmaker.
Yeah, with only two films it’s crazy what he can do.
The world is so fascinating. I only read the basic logline before I saw the film and was surprised. Literally 98% of the film is about death, but it’s also really funny.
Were you interested how he would create the afterlife?
Totally. That’s a hard thing to do. I didn’t really know until the trailer, and I’ll see it tomorrow, but how he was going to do it. Once I got into the house, the mansion where we were filming in, and I could kind of see the vibe. He sent me pictures before we were shooting of locations, things to sort of get the tone. And I thought it was super interesting, I’ve never seen anything like it before.
What are some of your favorite sci-fi films?
I love Shane Carruth’s films. I honestly love sci-fi. So I loved Arrival. I love Alien, Predator. I love all that shit.
I was actually thinking about Arrival a lot with this movie, because the way he weaves in different backstories and it builds to a crazy conclusion that only gets revealed at the end.
When you were reading the script were you guessing ahead or were you surprised at the ending?
I was surprised. I have never read anything like it. So I when I first started reading it I was like, “Oh, it’s this thing.” And then I kept reading this I was like, “Oh no, it’s this thing.” And then I was bit confused and then, you know…
Then all is revealed.
Kicking off with The Discovery, you have quite a year with It Comes at Night, Under the Silver Lake, and Logan Lucky. They are probably four of my most-anticipated films of the year.
Yeah, you are waiting to see them too! How do you choose your projects? Do they come to you? Or do you seek out these directors?
I just try and stick with things that I love. Things that I can’t not be in. They’re different. It Comes at Night and Under a Silver Lake. Both of those I read and I was like I haven’t seen this movie yet. It excites me and I have to have that feeling in order to do something.
I know they are both very secretive movies, but I will ask you about the directors’ previous films. What was your reaction when you saw It Follows?
I loved it. I was like this is crazy! I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t know the background. I didn’t know it was arthouse. I didn’t know anything about him and I just saw it randomly on TV. And I was like, that was so trippy. And then I looked into it, and saw like, oh, it was being recognized.
Krisha was a little different. A24 picked it up and it was overlooked, but they have kind of nurtured him as a filmmaker. And that’s a pretty amazing film.
Oh my God, yeah. It’s so obvious. If you give a guy like $10 to make this film and it was brilliant. To me it was an indie classic. It’s so funny because he’s such a normal guy. You are always expecting filmmakers to be a bit weird, and he’s just so easy and normal and chill and nice to be around. And he just feels kind of like your brother, which is cool.
So, do you usually wait like for the premiere to see your film?
It depends on the filmmaker. Sometimes I don’t even want to see the film. I like to see it before I do press because I like to know what I’m talking about. Sometimes they’ll cut things or change things. But generally it seems like consistently that filmmakers want you to wait for the premiere.
With this movie Netflix is releasing it in March. I’m curious how do you mostly consume movies?
I love going to the theater. I also love watching movies at home. I’ve been making time this last year to go to the theater more than I normally do. But I am busy and I do watch things on my computer and on my TV at home. I like both. There’s so many different ways to watch movies.
Speaking of watching movies at home, I just caught Lovesong since I missed it last year. It was just an incredible performance, and your chemistry with Jena Malone is great. What was your experience bringing that to Sundance last year?”
It was so cool. I love Sundance. It’s the one time I get to pretend I went to film school. It’s just such a good environment, out of all the festivals. The enthusiasm towards independent films is like, “I want to live here forever and just talk about movies all day.” It’s my favorite thing to do. Last year was amazing because I had The Girlfriend Experience premiere here and Lovesong. So I had a week of talking about movies and hanging around interesting, cool filmmakers and I loved it. I love Sundance.
With The Girlfriend Experience, it almost felt like a movie because it’s such a cinematically interesting show. Did that open your eyes in the future of maybe being more interested in television?
Definitely! It was the first TV thing I’ve ever done, but the transition was super easy, because it was basically like, “We are filming this like one long movie.” It wasn’t anything different from what I’ve been used to. So it was an amazing experience. And at first I was like, oh, this is good because I only have to do one season and then if I don’t like it, I’m not stuck. But now I’m kind of bummed, because I really liked it and I love all those guys. I’m excited to see season 2.
I read an interview with you last year where you mentioned maybe being interested in writing and directing yourself. You’ve already worked with so many amazing directors already. What do you glean from them?
Yeah, I watch and hang around as much as possible. Most actors just work and then go to their trailer and sit down. I feel like a nerd because I want to go hang out and see what’s everyone’s doing. I’ve always watched everybody and see how people work. I think what I’ve learned is that there’s just no right or wrong way. You just have to stick to your aesthetic and what you like, because everyone’s so different. Sometimes I’ll work with someone and they’ll be like, “That’s right.” Just get it on the first take and then you are good. And that’s that. And then I’ll work with another director that does like 800 takes, but that’s also really cool. I just think you have to find out what works for you and stay true to who you are as opposed to trying to be somebody else.
You recently worked with Soderbergh again. What was your experience on Logan Lucky?
It was amazing.
It was his first movie in three or four years. What was is like seeing him back? Was he just having the time of his life?
He’s just so funny. You never know what the hell he’s thinking. Because he’s not a man of a lot of words. He’s great. I love him to death. He’s one of my favorite people. It means a lot.
I just remember when the casting was coming out how every new actor that joined, it was completely unexpected.
Yeah, it was so random.
When you were learning that were you wondering how it was going to fit together?
Yeah, it’s funny with Steven, you just have to go with it. You don’t know what you’re getting into sometimes and he’s just so brilliant. And I’ve seen enough of it to get the vibe I just think it’s going to be pretty great.
Well, back to The Discovery. One of the interesting things it brings up is the ethical quandaries where four million people and counting have committed suicide. Do you think if this actually happened, is this a realistic depiction of what the world would be like?
I don’t know. I never thought of that before. And the funny thing is, one of the reasons I want to do this film is because I think about this shit all the time. I think about what happens after you die probably every day. I probably spend way too much time thinking about it and having an existential crisis about it. And it’s never something I thought of. It just seems so simple. If the afterlife is proven, probably a lot of people would kill themselves. I think that it would happen. For sure. If it was proven that it was a somewhat decent place to go.
I like how the movie gives you answer for the afterlife, but doesn’t answer everything.
Yeah, I talked to Charlie about it a lot. I had never read something that was such an openly stated thing. It wasn’t something super ambiguous. He made a decision. And that was cool to me.
Yeah. You’re not guessing if there’s an afterlife. The movie jumps ahead. What was the prep process?
I met Charlie. I was an hour late to our meeting, because I had the wrong time. [Laughs] He still was there, which was great. We just talked about about life, the afterlife, the film. I just really liked him and then I heard that he wanted to use me for Lacey. Then we just talked a little bit about her backstory. His thoughts on it, my thoughts on it.
Specifically with your character and the group you are with, they bring up the question of whether it’s a cult. What’s your take on Robert Redford’s character? His power over these people?
I think anybody who is smart, innovative, and intelligent has power over people. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. If someone has the presence to command this many people, I think that’s accurate. Because if you look at people who are in high positions it’s because they are so genius. Maybe they are a little kooky, but generally, there’s a reason for it. There’s a reason people are listening to them. I thought that it was super interesting reading the script.
The Discovery premiered at Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Netflix on March 31.
Director Andrew Dosunmu made a splash at Sundance in 2013 with his film Mother of George, a Brooklyn-set story concerning a Nigerian couple trying to have a child. Four years later, the man is still in New York City with Where Is Kyra?, this time exploring how a metropolis can swallow up its older members whole, without a second thought. We spoke with Dosunmu about where this idea came from, how he collaborates with his great cinematographer Bradford Young and if his top-notch lead actors were aware of how often the camera was not focused on them at all.
The Film Stage: How did the project come together?
Andrew Dosunmu: After I finished my last film Mother of George, I wanted to do something different. And I live in the city (New York City), and people are out there. And for me, it’s like, there’s this guy on the street and I start talking to this guy and this guy went to Berkeley and I was like, ‘Slim are you for real?’ And we had a conversation. And then, you start to attribute it to the country and the situation, the society, the state of the country at the moment, what happens when you’re unemployed at a certain age? You’ve worked in a factory or at a company for twenty-five years and you’re fifty [years old], so you’re still pretty young. How do you find a job?
I mean, I remember a friend of mine saying something to me which I’ll never forget. She said, ‘Oh, I’m looking for a secretary, and this woman came in and she’s amazing.’ And she’s like, ‘[She can type] one-hundred words per hour’ or whatever it is, ‘but I’m not going to employ her’ and I said ‘why?’ and she said, ‘because I feel like I’m bossing my mother around.’ And I’m thinking, ‘this is what people like this are facing.’ She’s good for the job but [Kyra, in the movie] can’t even get a job at the pizza parlor because she’s not sexy enough…so really it’s that question of how, in this society, the decline of whatever we are going through…that’s the genesis really. So I spoke to my writer [Darci Picoult]…
And you two had worked together on Mother of George…
Yes, and we started piecing things together, and that was it.
It’s definitely such a specific part of the metropolitan experience…
Especially New York metropolitan, that metropolis, in my opinion…
Well, and it’s an interesting look at the City of New York. One of the main reasons to see this movie, aside from Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland who are great in it, is Bradford Young. The lensing that you guys collaborate on is so unbelievable. At this festival right now I sometimes feel that half of the movies are shot and set in New York City, so you can feel oversaturated in New York City stories. The way you two capture the city, in terms of the shadows and a tone that feels very lonely and very detached, feels fresh. When you’re filming and planning to film, what’s that discussion?
Well, I’ve known Brad for so long.
And you come from the photography world…
I come from photography and he was a huge fan of my work and he knew my work… you know it’s almost like being in a jazz band. We know what influences us, and he just blows and I just blow. So that helps. We’ve backpacked through the streets Sudan together, you know what I’m saying? So, you know, we know each other.
So it’s interesting, because our conversation is not film. Our conversation is life. We go out and listen to music and do stuff and that’s just what we make, as filmmakers.
There’s an early shot where Kyra is in the apartment bedroom and her mother is in the bathroom and the camera is placed in such a way that the frame looks split, and then a door opens up and it becomes a completely new shot without the frame moving at all. I’m still thinking about that shot and how you guys did that.
So that’s a conversation. Palettes, we talk about palettes and what we’re going to do. Like, for example, for this film I remember all I said to Brad was, ‘[artist] Cindy Sherman.’ That’s it. And we went from there.
Bringing it back to the performances. It’s obviously a very visual movie, but you have these two actors [Pfeiffer and Sutherland]] who – although Sutherland has been doing television work of course – haven’t been around in films too much recently. And they’re a great duo I would’ve never thought of together. But it works in the film, there’s a hardness to them. How do you get there with the two of them?
Well, it was interesting the whole idea of Michelle coming on. I was intrigued because it was like a challenge for me. This is a woman, an amazing actress. We all see Michelle as a kind of actress, fragile. It always seemed like Michelle was a certain kind of actress, fragile, all those things we associate with her. And actually, when I first met her I met her on a day like this [overcast and cold] in New York. And I knew that if I wanted to work with her this is what I wanted to do with her. I knew she had that capability. I was intrigued by that. There were places I could have gone. I could have gone the Tilda Swinton route. But you expect them to do this film. To me, the reason for doing this film was to add to the conversation, about our society. And what better way than to use Michelle, which is an American household face, because then it resonates with the audience, with the people. This can happen to anyone, and who is ‘anyone?’
With Kiefer, I love the way he’s introduced where you don’t see his face for a long while and when you finally see him he’s so shrouded in darkness you barely know it’s him. When you’re making a movie like this, with these two bigger names, the way you’re filming there’s almost a lack of camera coverage. Are they aware of where you’re putting them in the frame? Where the camera is focusing? Is that a conversation you have to have?
They are aware of it. They’re scared of it. It was something that…I felt the energy of the set that me and my collaborators – my DP and my writer – didn’t need that kind of fame. Of course they are aware of it. We’re not cutting from their face to another face to their face to [a wide shot]. And to me there’s something beautiful about that. Because this is the moment where you come with your A-game. And that’s it. And Michelle, flawless. Came in, Bang! Nailed it. So it was beautiful to work with her. I lent as a director, you know? I’ve always worked with directors and actors and someone of that caliber, in contrary of people I’ve known that have worked with bigger actors, Michelle was very open. It was my script and I knew what I wanted. And she was on it. She came, nailed it. And because of budget, there were a lot of constraints. It’s New York there’s no one-block trailer, all that stuff. So it’s like just trying to get her in and get her out. Asking ‘what’s the best way I can cover this? And stay true to me?’
Because I come for photography as well, the whole idea of installation and cinema and how they converge at the same time.
The sound of the subway in this movie is terrifying. It’s a very New York thing. During the transitional moments [in which Kyra walks around the city], you have a very industrial score that stands apart. Where does that come from?
For me, it started with the cane.
It started with the cane?
The repetition of the cane and how do you enhance that? Because it actually is the repetition of the cane, enhanced. Here’s this woman and here’s this cane…it’s that combination of the train and the New York sirens and everything. Not actually using that, but making people feel the same way. Like in New York, you’re so isolated and in your own world. You’re in the subway, you’re in taxis, you’re in the ambulance. We’ve seen that in movies. I wanted to create the same impact, of that isolation of that fear. Of this woman that is impersonating someone else and she’s terrified. And, for me, again this film is a conversation about our relationship to the elderly in New York City. Maybe it’s because I’m aware and my mom’s elderly and I think about those things. Like, we don’t want to think about…we want it to be quick. We want to get on the bus. We don’t have the patience for our elderly…that’s why she can go to the bank [impersonating her mother], because the teller is thinking ‘get this old lady out,’ so he’s even not looking at her.
Where Is Kyra? premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
There’s a restlessness associated with Greta Gerwig’s characters that’s nowhere to be found in Abbie, the young cancer survivor she plays in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. Rather than having Abbie show her unique worldview through kinetic expression, Gerwig allows her introspective moments to do the talking. Through her obsession with photography and art, we see Abbie trying to create a legacy, and a self-portrait: she’s angry about being sick, but realizing this means there’s no time left to waste. Even though at first Abbie doesn’t seem to speak much, Gerwig uses her face to communicate what’s going on inside her. It’s a strangely delightful contrast to the whimsy Gerwig usually infuses her characters with. Even though Abbie couldn’t seem to be further from Frances, Violet Wister, and Brooke Cardinas, she’s bound to them by the magic of Gerwig.
The actress had a banner 2016 with unforgettable performances in four films, Maggie’s Plan, Wiener-Dog, Jackie and Women, the latter particularly bringing her universal acclaim and awards from critics groups. With both Women and Jackie opening during the peak of prestige film season, it’s great to see how they are showcases for Gerwig’s versatility. While her Abbie in Women dreams to have the world understand her, as Jackie O’s Social Secretary and confidante, Nancy Tuckerman, in Pablo Larraín’s impressionistic biopic, she’s a woman loyal to the secrets of others. Her Tuckerman exudes the kind of warmth that makes us wish we knew more about her character after the film is over. When I spoke to Gerwig on the phone, she was quite eloquent about creating these two characters, working with Mike Mills, and she mentioned having wrapped up her directorial debut Lady Bird — but not being ready to speak about it with the world just yet, she wanted to keep it to herself a little bit longer.
The Film Stage: Abbie was based on Mike Mills’ sister. Did knowing this restrict or open up the places where you could take the character?
Greta Gerwig: Knowing that it was based on Mike’s sister was only helpful to me because, first of all, she was incredibly generous and talked to me, which was very helpful. Also, any point of contact with reality for me is what makes characters rich, deep, and resonant. I loved it.
There is something very tactile about Abbie’s passions, from her record collection to her photographs. Do you think she’s a character obsessed with physical permanence and objects because she’s ill?
I definitely think that having cancer makes her see herself as an object that could pass. I think the cancer feels like a foreign object taking over her, so that’s all really resonant and layered in the film. That’s a great read on what it is.
Can you talk about how you connected to Mills’ music choices for your character?
I loved Mike’s music choices. In preparing for the role really early, he gave me a bunch of music, in addition to art books, photography lessons so I could learn to use those cameras, feminist writing, and arts writing from that time. I loved the music. I knew a lot of it because I love that era, the David Bowie glam-rock world, but what I didn’t know about was the more hardcore scene of the punk movement. I’d never listened to Black Flag. I didn’t know The Slits or The Raincoats and other female punk bands. In a way, it’s what you hope a director will do, which is to push you out of your comfort zone and see the world differently through the eyes of the character. I adore the music in the film and think it’s so lucky all of them allowed for their music to be in the movie.
The women in the film made me think of Baroque paintings, where you would see the different ages of men represented within one frame. Can you talk about working with Elle and Annette, who, in a way, each represent a different age of women, and if their characters made you reflect on your own character differently?
It really is a portrait of all these different people at different ages, not just women but also men. Billy’s character is in his ’40s; Lucas is 14. I think it’s really this moment in 1979 and all these different ages, and characters at different moments in their life, and how they react to this modern new world which is emerging even more quickly than they can keep track of.
Abbie is quite communicative, which made me think of how Nancy Tuckerman in Jackie: the opposite, as she’s someone who was well-known for keeping secrets. How do you access someone like that?
In a way, that was a big part of the key to her character — which was her silence, she was not someone who talked about her personal involvement and the things she knew. That’s how I created the character. I didn’t have a lot of time to make Nancy the way I did with Abbie. A lot of it was picking up things I learned about Nancy by reading about Jackie. Nancy didn’t speak for herself. She spoke for Jackie, and, when she died, Nancy Tuckerman wrote the press release which showed a loyalty from another time.
You’ve talked about carrying bits of characters with you. As you went from Women to Jackie, traveling back in time so to speak, did you bring any of Abbie to Nancy?
I shot 20th Century Women first and then I shot Jackie, and in a way it was a good way to say goodbye to the character of Abbie. It was a different decade, different costumes, a different woman, another country, since we shot most of it in Paris. It felt like I could kind of go into another imaginary world. But I will say, Mike told us, when we finished Women, that we would do reshoots, so I knew that I could come back to Abbie, so I didn’t feel like I was letting her go. Shooting Jackie in Paris, we took a break and then shot the rest in DC, so with both characters I had the sense of quite not letting the characters go, even though we were wrapped. Which was nice, because it felt like less of an abrupt ending.
Both Jackie and 20th Century Women touch on grief, particularly a woman’s grieving process. How do you think the films will be perceived in a country that’s undergoing a period of grieving and uncertainty?
It’s funny: both of the films have taken a new resonance because of the election, so I think the feeling before the election and now for both movies has really transformed. For 20th Century Women I think that, specifically the Jimmy Carter speech — which is one of the centerpieces in the movie — lands differently. It’s a very prophetic speech and we’re experiencing the flipside of what he said, which is this drive for consumption and wealth for wealth’s sake is a disease and a malaise for our modern culture. With Jackie this idea of using the media to shape a hero, or a presidency is something that we’ve surely seen how it spun out in this moment. Those things are very resonant, in terms of grief, I think I resonate with the movies more as a portrait of personal grief, rather than national grief. But the personal is political.
20th Century Women and Jackie are now in limited release.
To watch Mike Mills‘ two most recent features, Beginners and 20th Century Women, are such warm and open-hearted experiences that I was led, in my review of the latter, to wonder if he’s ever been unsympathetic to anybody. Actually sitting down with the writer-director does nothing to make me think otherwise, though he could’ve been a total bastard and I’d still want to pick his brain about his new film. It’s too rich and satisfying a work for me not to have many questions.
Also of little surprise is how quickly the discussion can turn towards a personal place, but one doesn’t follow-up a film about the last days of their gay father with a film reflecting on their relationship with their mother and not tip their hand a bit more than the average subject. Don’t think it’s too heavy, though: what follows is nevertheless more a reflection of 20th Century Women‘s creation than anything else
The Film Stage: I’ve been lucky enough to see this movie twice now. I think you’ll be pleased to hear it holds up.
Mike Mills: Oh, that’s nice. I do feel like it’s really dense, and so I’ve had a few people say they saw it twice, and it kind of makes me feel relieved — like, “Oh, maybe you’ll get everything I was trying to jam in there.”
I found the web of relationships and rhythms of scenes more fluid on a second outing. Your movies have such an intensely personal quality, with the parental figures here and in Beginners based on your parents and the protagonist being —
Kind of a quasi-character.
I wonder about talking to people such as myself who only see your movies, don’t know you, and ask you questions about these things in your life — if that’s weird, basically.
Not really. When you write it for a couple of years, you exercise it every which way you’ve distilled it, and you can see this coming. What’s really weird… journalists don’t do this so much, but, when I’m doing a Q & A, normal people just want to know all about my mom. I’ve opened that door, so I answer everything as honestly as I can. I’ve had a lot of therapy, and, in therapy, you talk through all this shit. I find therapy to be a really powerful, great experience, and it really informs my filmmaking. It’s a real similar project: where you’re trying to figure out how you got this story of yourself in your head. Like, the history of it: your mini, personal, micro-version; your family version; your society, town, cultural, history version. That’s sort of, like, my whole project in a nutshell. So I don’t mind talking about it.
Most of the time, people are pretty nice about it — like, not malicious — and sometimes people are weirdly crass about it. It was a little trickier with my dad, I’ve got to say, because it was about him dying, you know? But mostly it’s really sweet. People have been very nice, and people bring up their experiences. It’s part of my job, and I admire other people who do it. There’s a book of Allen Ginsberg’s interviews called The Spontaneous Mind, and his interviews are as good and as revealing as his poetry, and it’s part of his, like, social contract or social responsibility. This is sort of a privilege, right, to be interviewed or put into press; it’s the world saying you’re interesting enough. So I’m like: “Okay, if that’s a privilege and a responsibility, it’s my duty to try to contribute something decently — not just self-promoting [Laughs] — back into the commons.” If anybody asks me something about my personal life, I try to just be straight-up. That’s kind of like my responsibility.
I would see it as a compliment to your mother that people see this movie and want to know more.
And you seem to have done well for yourself, so the parents deserve some compliment on the upbringing.
[Laughs] And part of it, too, is… I think one of the more interesting parts of both these films is that I don’t totally get my parents. I don’t totally understand them. They’re really inscrutable to me, in certain ways. The thing at the end of the movie, “I thought this was the beginning of a new relationship with her, but maybe that was it. Maybe that’s as close as we ever were.” Like, that’s incredibly fucking true. I didn’t get to know my mom as much as I want to do, and maybe, at 15, it was over, in terms of the depth of our intimacy. In some ways, I feel ashamed of that — like I failed, or something. But it’s… I just like it when other people are that straight-up. Like, when I’m the audience and a filmmaker does that, I think, “I feel like I’m getting a more whole food.”
I like that you say this, because I’m a big fan of Beginners, and the set-up made me think it would be intolerable.
“Man finds out father is gay, which sets him on a journey of the self with montages and a talking dog.” Then I wasn’t ready for it, because the movie — as with 20th Century Women — has a way of processing time that’s very similar to my own. This is partly due to your montage of clips and photos. I wonder how you choose the exact photos. What is the process of, “It should be this one and not this one.”
Well, it’s a very important part of trying to construct accurate period stuff and finding real photographers from those time. So when Jamie runs away and goes down to L.A., you know this club called The Mask?
It’s this very important punk club. Pre-hardcore, L.A. punk scene — much more arty, weird punk scene. The Screamers, Germs, Alice Bags. Those are all the people that you see. Jenny Lens, who’s a great photographer of the time, was part of that scene. So it’s part of the authenticity of me trying to depict that moment. It’s all a very specific group of people. Abby’s talking about when she came to New York and found her sexuality and found out how to make men nervous and uncomfortable, and you’re seeing all these women from CB’s — they’re all New York women, because she was in New York and it’s right at that time. They’re not… Patty Smith and Debbie Harry are in there, but it’s a lot of unfamous punk women from that time. So it’s a really crucial point of the story, to me, to insert my fictional character in a real historical, cultural context. It gives it more verisimilitude.
What I find really exciting about it is it does the opposite, too: it points out my film’s a fiction, a construct, in a way I find kind of exciting. It has a bit of a French New Wave quality to it in how it undermines and supports the film. And Koyaanisqatsi: I was really happy I got that in, because it’s in the Jimmy Carter speech — crisis of confidence, lack of meaning, dissolution of these things that support us and bind us — and Koyaanisqatsi was shot in that time. It came out in ’82, but it was shot right in that time. “Life out of balance” is what the title means. It’s sort of a journalistic-documentary practice that I’m inserting into my narrative movie, and it’s very much, to me, like Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, with those essays inserted into the story: essay on kitsch, essay on misunderstood words, essay on the Russian invasion of Prague.
I love that sort of hybrid, polymorphous way of working. It’s all trying to deepen the same theme — who am I? how did I get to be me? how am I in relation to you? what does it mean to be a parent to a child? that’s all in the nucleus of the movie — but I love approaching it from different angles. All that historical stuff… I love crediting the books that are in the movie. I remember showing it to 20-year-olds in our very small test screenings we were having. They were like, “They just read so many books.” And I’m like, “Well, there was this thing called ‘before the Internet,’ where that’s how knowledge was transferred, and you had to know someone who had the book to give it to you to learn this thing.”
When Elle Fanning’s Julie says something about the way guys smell, it’s set to photos that allow me to imagine how, in fact, the guys smell.
It’s one of those things that felt particularly on-point, so it’s interesting to imagine you finding those.
Those are all Joseph Szabo photos. He’s, like, the most important photographer I got in there; I don’t know how we got him. He did this book, Almost Grown, about teenagers, and they’re ‘70s teenagers smoking and making-out. There’s this level of sexuality you just wouldn’t find now, so it is really… you’re picking out some of my favorite parts of the movie, so that’s exciting. But I agree with you: I really love whatever magic, weird trick that is of telling your story both through your fictional characters and these real, historical things that you didn’t even create.
Do you have conversations with the photographers about using the work? I’m curious what those entail past, “Can I use this?”
Well, when we were getting the stuff, it was mostly, “Can I use this?” I have this woman, a photo researcher and archivist, and it’s also her job to make the deal — which is, weirdly, the most complicated part of all that. Weirdly, her mother is in the movie: the woman that William’s character was in love with, Theresa. You see a few stills of her. That’s my archivist’s mom, who was perfectly right in the period, the right kind of soul, and very beautiful. I love little serendipity things like that. So it’s not a lot of conversations like that, and she does a lot of the pre-work. I find the things, usually — I have them in my head or I find them online, or whatever — and there’s a conversation with her, who makes initial contact. Usually I write a letter, or some kind of conversation happens, but, since then, I’ve been interviewing them all, because I want to make a book of all their photographs. It’s been really fun to get to know them.
Certain lines of dialogue are so perfect that I wonder if they come from memory and are simply inscribed into the film. For instance, when Bening says to Gerwig about her son, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.” Had you heard your mother say this or devise it yourself?
No. That’s a very personal one. It partly comes out of… writing this film, writing a movie about my mom, I think I know my mom. Lo and behold, I really fucking don’t. It’s hard for me to write her — to write a middle-aged woman, and my mom in particular. She just didn’t want to be known; a very secretive kind of person. So my film was about how we don’t… we loved each other very much, were very interwoven. I was kind of like her little husband-partner, because my dad wasn’t really present. As close as we were, we’re still like mysteries to each other — intangible to each other, unknown to each other, kind of can’t be together in some key ways. That was a growing theme of the movie, of things I was trying to find ways to talk about.
And then, one day, I dropped off my two-year-old to pre-school. It was one of the first times I gave him to people and left him, and, if you’re a parent, that’s a wild moment. I’m walking out and I can peek through the fence and see him talking to these people, and he was kind of different. I was like, “All right. I can just smell it. This is the beginning of that. He’s going to have his own life that I can never really see in this particular way.” So I went home and wrote that line after this experience. It’s a combination of my feelings about my mom, the themes that your own script kind of teaches you — your script at the beginning, you don’t really know what it’s about, or you think you know what it’s about, and usually this crazy problem comes up that makes you feel like you can’t finish the script that becomes the best part of the script, hopefully — and my own experiences as a dad combining.
This movie really overwhelmed me in the final montage, which again relates to my own way of processing things. I wonder about you coming to that point — if you, as a writer, actively work to those points, or if there’s a moment of revelation. Did you always know the film would end with that, or did you come to that point and realize it was best to employ this strategy?
I didn’t know at the beginning, but I knew early on, and I knew early on that my last line was going to be that thing of, like, “I thought this was the beginning of a new relationship with her, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe that was the most I ever got to know her.” I knew that. I knew that was my end, and it really helped. And I love biographies. The itinerary of our lives, when told honestly, are so surprising and not what we expected and kind of very bittersweet. I could just endlessly read obituaries, and I find that that’s the best poetry that there is. So it was partly just that.
I knew my character’s stories — because they’re based on real life, some of them — and I just knew what Julie’s would be. Julie is sort of my first girlfriend and these girls I knew, but her future is all invented, and I had a sense of what it would be. I feel like some of the more bittersweet, real-life stuff is in those epilogues — like how they don’t end up knowing each other. It’s such a weird convention in films. The happy-ending convention of films, but also, like, “The fabric that you invented in the film is going to continue,” says the film, and I like making a film that says, “The fabric I’ve just shown you is going to dissolve.” That felt very life-y to me.
It’s the kind of thing movies don’t really even dare go to.
Uh-huh. I agree with you. That was one of my favorite things, and it worked. Sometimes, you have ideas like that and think they’re incredibly masterful, and they just don’t work, for whatever reason. But, luckily, that one did. A weird factoid is: William’s future… I got really interested in Shields and Yarnell. Do you remember them?
They were, like, these mimes on TV a lot who did these robot things. They were in the movie at one point, and Dorothea and the son, Jamie, were imitating them on TV. They were a very common ‘70s thing. William’s future is Shields’ future that I just read on Wikipedia: he moved to Arizona, met one woman, she died a year later; met another woman. That’s just so, like, life. So I really enjoy taking found objects of people’s real existence and inserting them into my narrative. It’s also the end of Animal House. You know what I mean? It tells everyone’s future. It’s just very entertaining. It’s like a little secret; you want to know more.
The other thing with the end of this movie: my mom really loved ‘30s and ‘40s movies. I feel like she was kind of steeped in them, and studying Bogart was key to figuring out how to talk my mom’s language. Watching Hawks and Casablanca and To Have and Have Not and Stage Door, I kind of, maybe more than ever, fell in love with this idea of, “Right: films are to entertain.” Going to art school and growing up on maybe a little too much Godard, it’s, like, illegal to entertain; it’s false consciousness to entertain. But those movies are so happy to entertain, and I really appreciated that. The ending, to me, is not a direct quote from any of those movies, but it feels kind of Howard Hawksian to me. It feels a little like Capra to me.
20th Century Women opens on Wednesday, December 28 and expands in January.
When you think Pedro Almodóvar, you think Rossy de Palma. The actress’ unconventional, but striking, beauty has often made her the most memorable player in the auteur’s works, from her uptight virgin in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, to the heroine’s sister in The Flower of My Secret. In Julieta, which marks lucky number seven in de Palma’s collaborations with Almodóvar, she plays Marian, an overprotective housekeeper who looks after what she thinks should be her employer Xoan’s (Daniel Grao) interests. After meeting the title character, played in younger age by Adriana Ugarte, who is about to become the new mistress of the house, Marian reveals a secret that sets the entire plot into its tragic motion.
The usually glamorous actress – she’s been muse to designers like Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier – is seen sporting a frumpy, matronly look as Marian, in a short salt-and-pepper wig and opaque dresses. But despite Marian’s ominous qualities, de Palma allows her unique brand of humor come through in line deliveries that lesser actors would’ve given little thought to. Marian is by far her most dramatic turn in any of Pedro’s works, and perhaps one that announces a new period in their thirty-year-long collaboration. It speaks highly about her place in the Almodóvar world, that it was de Palma who joined Pedro in New York City where the Museum of Modern Art was offering a complete retrospective of his work, leading to the premiere of Julieta. I sat down to speak with the iconic actress who ate colorful jelly beans as she spoke about her work.
The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective celebrates Pedro, but it’s also a celebration of your career since you started making films with him. Are you excited to be a part of this?
I feel like we started yesterday — time hasn’t really gone by. The films themselves haven’t grown old. They feel new despite of the anachronisms that remind you we made them years ago. The characters are so fresh. They remain politically incorrect — which is something to be thankful for — they say whatever they want, and they have no worries. So there’s no nostalgia at all.
When you work with him how much do you feel as a collaborator rather than an actor he’s directing?
Oh, he’s directing me, he created the characters, but for example in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown I was bored because my character drinks the gazpacho and falls asleep. When I got calls to let me know they needed me because the camera would do a traveling and they needed to show my legs I would say, “Pedro, this is a bore. I’m asleep all the time.” I became very obnoxious, even if he told me people don’t do anything when they sleep. So one day he told me he’d decided I’d have an orgasm while I slept, and since my character was a virgin it would serve her well because she was so dislikable. In Spain we say “ask and ye shall receive,” so it was good that I was obnoxious because I became a collaborator of this moment. Working with him is very open, but all the great ideas come from him. He knows very well what he wants, so all you need to do is give yourself to him.
Did you imagine yourself at the beginning that 30 years later you’d be a part of his legacy?
Not really. I don’t think he thought about it either. In the 80s and 90s we did everything without thinking about the consequences, whether bad or good. We didn’t think about money or celebrity like people do now. All we wanted was to have fun, to share, and create.
It sounds like fun. Everything is so calculated nowadays.
It was great fun! It’s important to be in touch with our intuition, and the unconscious which is what speaks to us the most in the artworld.
Besides Pedro you’ve worked with some of the greatest, so how is it different to work with him? I read once that you said your relationship was like a love affair — it needed to be reciprocal.
Yes, if you have a lover they have to desire you. If they don’t, there’s no point of getting in bed with them. I need to feel desired.
So there’s an unspoken language of sorts with you and him?
Yes. It’s like telepathy. Sometimes I feel I’m operated by remote control, I give myself very well to him. He’s so imposing, but since I’ve known him for so long I don’t feel like I’m in the presence of a genius. Other people who are new to working with him might be more scared of disappointing him. For me it’s also a game — we both need to be very relaxed. Did you see the look he gave me in Julieta? I trust him. This is proof that I abandon myself to him completely. With any other director I would’ve asked them what their problem was.
Marian is so terrible to Julieta.
She’s very bitter, territorial, she’s a person who probably suffered a lot. I think of her as a Greek chorus member who announces tragedy, she’s always thinking bad about others, she’s very dark.
At the New York Film Festival, Pedro mentioned he shaped Marian after Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca. Did he ask you to watch the film in advance?
No, I found out the whole Mrs. Danvers thing much later. He gave me no references. He knows so well what he wants, you have to be careful not to do a reproduction of what he says — it needs to come from you. He draws you a sketch, you eat it up and then unleash it. I didn’t really look for references. Everything was in the screenplay.
Did you like playing a villain?
I love villains, they’re so much fun. I’m very good in real life, so I like to compensate. I’m too good sometimes, I’m a softy. So I like villains to do in fiction what I can’t do in life.
Who are some of your favorite villains?
Tons, but I love Anjelica Huston in The Addams Family. I’d love to play a villain in a sci-fi movie, or a martial arts movie, I’d love to play the Madam of a brothel in a Bruce Lee-style film. Or something like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
You’d need to do lots of training for a kung-fu movie though.
Oh I have many villains ready to come out. I just need some stories and a producer.
You mentioned that Marian is like a Greek theatre figure, and in the film Julieta teaches Greek literature as well.
Yes, she talks about the guilt us women carry inside. She also talks about fatality, how we build our lives without thinking about it. I’m terrified of fatality. It’s something you can’t foresee, your life can be changed overnight.
Does making art help you deal with this fear?
No, no. You can handle fear better; fiction helps deal with your fear of death, or something bad happening to those you love. Art is therapeutic. It allows you to feel small and become aware of your insignificance. But how do you deal with fatality? It happens when you least expect it. We forget about it, but then it arrives and changes your life. Look at that Colombian plane that crashed with all the soccer players. A young man forgot his passport, he didn’t get on the plane and his father died in the crash. Forgetting his passport saved his life. It’s fatality.
Do you think art helps give you a sense of immortality?
You don’t feel immortal, but you definitely handle the unbearable lightness of being in a better way. If I wasn’t in the art world, things like sculpture, music and writing, I would have been a sad person. Even when you’re depressed, art takes you to poetry and things that make you feel better — or at least you realize sorrow made you create something, so it’s not that innocuous. It’s a universe of learning, empathy. I visit this world and live in the other.
You’re wearing Sybilla today, and you’re one of their muses. You’re also muse to so many other creators. Is that something you like?
I don’t tell myself, “I’ll be a muse. [Laughs] In Spain we have a mayonnaise brand called “Musa” and I tell people “if you want a muse, go find the mayo.” I like inspiring people because I am inspired by other people’s inspirations. Knowing that you inspire someone who inspires you is like love. We’re all noodles in the same soup, swimming happily.
What actresses are your muses?
I’m inspired by women. I created a spectacle called Resilience of Love which talks about how art helps us live, it’s like a balm that helps us understand life better. The show has references to Dalí, Lorca and Picasso, but most of it is dedicated to women. I feature Maria Callas talking about her sadness, Anna Magnani talking about her work, Ana Mendieta’s photography. It’s a universe of women that patriarchal society has ostracized, so this is the world that inspires me. I’m known as an actress, but I consider myself an artist. Actresses can be fragile and vulnerable, but since I work in other fields I don’t depend on that frailness. I love to act of course, but most of all I love to vanish; it’s more like a possession, I empty myself and let the character take over. There are actresses like Magnani and Meryl Streep who are timeless. I like actresses who are organic, the ones you feel you can touch onscreen.
You’ve probably been asked this a million times, but how would you define the “Almodóvar girl”?
When we first heard the “Almodóvar girl” thing we honestly didn’t like it, but as you grow older it’s very nice to be called “girl,” so we like it more and more now. But I have never analyzed it really. It’s not something that came from us, like people who call me “a Picasso come to life.” Picasso didn’t know me so he didn’t come up with it.
Your character in Broken Embraces is called Julieta. Can you talk about these connections that exist between Pedro’s films?
You’re right, I hadn’t even thought about that. The Julieta in Broken Embraces was a tribute to Julieta Serrano’s character in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, who shows up at Carmen Maura’s apartment. I think of Julieta as sister to The Flower of My Secret, the writer played by Marisa Paredes could very well be this mother trying to find her daughter. All of Pedro’s films are related, but some are like sisters. Like you mentioned, there are characters that could easily travel from film to film.
Thinking about the next 30 years with Pedro, would you like to become like the dear Chus Lampreave for example?
Of course, and if it’s not onscreen, let it at least be in life. We have a long road ahead together.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work with the OAfrica foundation?
I’m the ambassador for Spain, Margarita Missoni is the Italian ambassador, Victoria Abril is the ambassador in France, and Lisa Lovatt-Smith the founder who wrote a book that I believe is being adapted into a film. We just did an auction in Madrid, we have a big fundraiser in Paris in March, and it’s such a joy to be able to help Lisa. She’s such a modern heroine, I’m so glad you asked me about this.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was turned into a musical, would you be interested in revisiting any of the characters you’ve played for Pedro onstage?
We saw the musical in London and it was such a delight! I already did the stage version of Dark Habits. I played one of the nuns, I felt like a guardian of Pedro’s world because I was the only one who knew him in the cast, so I was making sure they made justice to him. Sometimes people get “Almodóvar-ian” wrong. I like guarding his legacy.
Julieta is now in limited release.
Issey Ogata‘s name is not at the top of the poster or in much of any marketing for Silence, but his role as Inoue Masashige, so very ominously nicknamed “The Inquisitor,” is among the most essential and memorable in Martin Scorsese‘s religious epic. While primarily a veteran of Asian television, Ogata still eanrs a special place among cinephiles — one that will only grow wider and stronger once this film opens — for his work in Edward Yang’s Yi Yi and Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, the latter of which features him as Japan’s Emperor Hirohito in the final days of World War II.
Much of Silence comes to comprise the opposition between Masashige and Andrew Garfield‘s Sebastião Rodrigues, but Ogata’s performance excels largely because it’s far more difficult to parse than the character it represents — alternately comic (a major part of his acting background) and menacing, often condescending, yet with hints towards some sympathy for the Christians’ devotion. In person, the actor is a very kind man who, in brief answers, makes clear the breadth of his knowledge and experience.
The Film Stage: Given that he’s such a cineaste, I wonder if Scorsese had many questions about your film career — for instance, your time with Edward Yang and Alexander Sokurov.
Issey Ogata: Marty, I remember, towards the end of a dinner, he told me that he loved this particular scene from The Sun by Sokurov.
It’s a scene where the Emperor met with MacArthur, and he’s about to leave, and nobody’s there to open his door — and he’s never opened his own door, so he’s very carefully opening his door. Marty liked that scene very much.
What was your familiarity with Scorsese before coming aboard this project?
I’ve certainly seen many of Marty’s films, but it was definitely Taxi Driver that gave me the strongest impression and just keeps coming back to me.
At today’s press conference, you talked about applying to your performance a Shūsaku Endō text, The Golden Country, that also features the Inquisitor. Did you introduce Scorsese it? What were his thoughts on your making it integral?
He definitely read it, Marty. He definitely brought it up, but I’m not sure if he read it at that time of the shoot or not — but he most likely has. Marty reads everything. He’s read most of Endō’s books.
Were you a great admirer or Endō in your previous years? How might you describe his place in Japanese culture and literature?
I hadn’t read much before taking on this job. Even Silence I tried to read when I was young and didn’t get through. So I can’t speak much in terms of Endō’s place in the Japanese culture and literature, but there’s a book called The Sea and Poison — I think there was a film, as well — where you can see it, but I think the themes in these stories are that people would do such cruel things. “Can these people be saved?” is one of the questions. It’s not about salvation for victims; I think it’s more about salvation for the people who do the bad deed. I think he’s someone who really explored the theme of salvation for people who were weak or betrayed. I think that was his theme, and I think he really explored it for the language of literature.
I assume you revisited the novel for this film. I wonder if it was strange to do so — since you might associate the book with youth — as an older, accomplished man.
It’s a bit tricky, because I was already cast, so I read very much in the mind of Inoue. [Laughs] It was a very important point for me, as Inoue — but I think for the book as well — where he talks to Rodrigues about these four concubines. He’s comparing this religion with a very crass analysis of these four women, so I thought Inoue was… it’s very tricky, because he’s not just denying this Christianity. He is, first, taking this extra step to compare Christianity to this very crass, real-life situation; then he’s denying that. That really stayed with me when I read the book. The concubine is very similar: it’s violently, forcefully replacing this faith. Comparing a big thing to a tangible object. It worked quite well. People are having a very hard time stepping on the tablet. That method gave me a huge impression.
Your English-language performance was particularly fantastic. I wonder about your preparation, since you have these very long dialogue scenes.
First, I memorized a line, and had this dialogue coach, Tim Monich, who helped me with the pronunciation of each word. Then, on set, I just went with it. It was as if improvising a song — so I played. It was as if I knew the lyric and was just improvising the melody of it, based on the instinct I had on set.
While I have time, I’d love some memories of your time with Edward Yang on Yi Yi, which is a favorite film of mine.
Such a kind man, Mr. Yang. He was very gentle; his voice was very soft. It’s like Marty’s set: it’s very quiet. With him, it was really one or two takes — very fast. The crew loved me, because it was so fast. [Laughs] There was a scene where we’re in a Chinese restaurant and the character I’m playing is talking to the main character. First, they did the wide shots — so the camera is all the way — and, after, the camera came very close to me. Edward, for some reason, was very concerned, assuring me: “The camera’s close by, but don’t worry — just do as you’ve been doing.” He was very concerned and thoughtful. When I was being considered for the film, I saw a couple of Edward Yang’s past films, and there was one actor that stood out, and I was convinced that it was the same guy in these two films. I told Mr. Yang, “Oh, yeah, I really like this actor who was also in this film,” and Edward was kind of upset because it was two different actors, and, to him, it was a completely different person. To me, it was a little embarrassing. [Laughs] He was a very kind director.
One last thing: I have to compliment you on the deflation you do at one point in this movie. It is one of the great cinematic moments this year.
I have a very soft spine. It’s not a visual effect!
Silence enters a limited release on Friday, December 23, then expands on January 6 and January 13.