Alice Lowe has long been known to fans of offbeat British comedy for some time, having starred in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Sightseers (which she also co-wrote), and more. Now her directorial debut, Prevenge, is hitting U.S. theaters. Featuring Lowe as a pregnant woman (with no need of a prosthetic belly, since she was actually pregnant during the shoot) urged to kill people by the voice of her fetus, it’s a darkly humorous romp. We interviewed Lowe over the phone, with her daughter audible in the background, to talk about mythological influences and working under budget constraints.
The Film Stage: The film makes recurring use of images of the furies from 1934’s Crime and Punishment.
Alice Lowe: I studied classics, so I studied Ancient Greek. The fury of the ancient goddesses, in stories of vengeance and revenge, that’s a concept that is thousands of years old. I stumbled across that film, and that’s a tiny section of it, but I felt the symbolism was so powerful, and the woman were so powerful in it, and I loved it. I really thought I wouldn’t get the rights to use it, but luckily we did. I was happy to be able to make that the core of expressing the main character’s feelings, her wrath.
Normally, revenge films feature people taking revenge for concrete injustices, whereas here, the main character is seeking revenge over what’s basically an accident. The furies fit that because of their elemental, above-good-and-evil nature.
We did go kind of out of the ordinary with that. I mean, there’s a line in the film where maybe she’s a bit of a cunt. I wanted to express this idea that there seems to be injustice sometimes in the world in terms of shit that just happens. From this woman’s perspective, it wasn’t an accident — in her mind, these people totally could have prevented it and they didn’t, so they’re all horrible and they all deserve to die.
As a mother, you’re bringing a child into the world, and you are expecting people to treat the child as well as you would like them to. I was thinking about society as a safety net – how if things go wrong for you, other people will help you out. I feel like that’s less and less true in a world that’s quite individualistic and selfish. So it came to me, this metaphor of someone who gets cut out, basically.
So she extends the nesting instinct of pregnancy to correcting the social safety net?
Absolutely. This is someone who feels like “This place is not good enough for my baby, this world is not good enough.” As far as she is concerned, she’s acting for justice. Sort of cleaning the place up. Travis Bickle was one of the inspirations for the film, so there’s a little bit of that in there.
Each encounter between the main character and one of her victims has a different visual sense — different color tones and the like.
I went with this idea that she is moving through different circles of Hell. Some of it is fiery, some of it is disgusting and slimy, and some of it is ice-cold. It’s a journey through the underworld – an Orpheus and Eurydice sort of thing. She’s entered into the horrific shadows of being. That was my wish list, planning the film — I wanted this thing to be green or that thing to be blue. But I knew, realistically, that we didn’t have the art department to create that, so it was about choosing the right locations, and we were really lucky that we were able to express these ideas with just places that we found and got to shoot in.
You worked on a short schedule. How long did you have for location scouting?
I wrote the film over a very short period of time because I knew that we needed to get onto location. We had three weeks or something like that to start looking for places. It was a big leap to decide to shoot in Cardiff. I knew I wanted it to be set in a city, but I didn’t want it to be London. Once we hit upon Cardiff, our DOP lives there, so he was able to tell us, like – “Do you know any good overpasses?” “Yes, I know five!”
The story’s structured as a series of two-hander scenes. Is that how you originally wrote it, or did you adapt it to fit the needs of the shoot?
I wrote it knowing that we had to shoot in a very short time, so the whole structure of it had to be long scenes, two-handers, very few locations, very few costume changes, that kind of thing. And that dictated a lot of the style and the episodic nature of the script.
How do you think it might have changed with a bigger budget?
I’m not sure. I like its sort of ordinariness. It’s a social satire in some ways, with ordinary people having strange things happen to them. I wrote it for the budget that we had, and it is its own beast. Though there are certain scenes — I would have loved to have gotten the whole cast together, take them to the cliff [for an important flashback scene of a climbing accident], and shoot some crazy stuff with them. That’s one of the few things where, yeah, if we had more budget, we would have shot that. But we didn’t. [Laughs] But the film is what it was meant to be.
How much of the depiction of pregnancy is your own experience vs. that of others vs. cultural touchstones, etc.?
It was less about my experience than it was about my fears about pregnancy, and fears about not meeting expectations or not fitting into what is expected of you – and feeling that you have to keep quiet about the way that you feel. It was a cathartic, wish-fulfillment expression of all the things you are not supposed to say or do with pregnancy. I didn’t have to do any research about it, because it was all coming to me. I was meeting a midwife, who sometimes I would find quite annoying. I’d go to prenatal yoga and think, “God, is this what it’s like? Are these the people I have to hang out with now?” Which was scary to me. Then, when I actually made the film, I felt like the fears weren’t there anymore.
Has that happened to you in filmmaking before?
What, where it’s been like therapy? I don’t know. I mean, this is definitely the most personal project that I’ve ever done for me. And that’s a big departure for me. I’m a comedian, but not a stand-up. I don’t usually do stuff from my own life; I play characters who are separate from me. And this character is separate from me as well, but with this one, I realized that my characters are all aspects of me. Kind of heightened versions of my personality, or parallel lives, or something like that. So I think this is probably the most honest I’ve been, just letting it all hang out and letting people see this warts-and-all reaction to the experience of pregnancy.
Prevenge is now in limited release.
By strange and fortuitous coincidence, my meeting with Jack Garfein fell upon the nexus of several intersecting moments in history. It was Friday, January 27th — International Holocaust Remembrance Day. One week earlier, Donald J. Trump was sworn to office as forty-fifth President of the United States; and in the ensuing weekend, allegations of Trump’s unpunished sexual misconduct, callous attitudes toward women and courting of radical right-wing supporters helped bring about the Women’s March on Washington, one of the largest mass protests in the nation’s history. All around, people are anxiously reading the past with tenuous hopes and fears for the future. History, so often a thing defined after the fact, is currently in violent and furious motion.
Jack Garfein is living history, and he’s not shy about telling it. Born to Ukrainian Jews in 1930, Mr. Garfein personally witnessed as a child the rise of Nazi Germany and the horrors of their regime, surviving no less than eleven concentration camps – including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen – which took the lives of his parents and much of his family. As a teenager, orphaned and alone, he relocated to New York, where he channeled his wayward emotional energy and indomitable thirst for life into a prodigal career with the up-and-coming Actors Studio. Over the next half a century, he would act as pupil, mentor and friend to a veritable who’s-who of American screen legends, including (but by no means limited to) Elia Kazan, John Ford, James Dean, Sissy Spacek, Paul Schrader, Steve McQueen, and his former wife Carroll Baker.
Mr. Garfein is a born storyteller and instinctive dramatist: every person he speaks to is an audience, every conversation a stage. Gregarious, theatrical and undaunted by his advancing years, he drops names from his decades-long dossier of celebrity friends and admirers with aplomb and shares colorful stories of his past with equal vigor. His ice-blue eyes radiate with life, in spite of his past, in spite of his age, and to be in his presence is to feel as if he is a dear and eccentric old relation one has known all their life.
I was invited in January to speak with Mr. Garfein at the Criterion Collection’s offices near Union Square in NYC. The occasion was Criterion’s new release of his second and final foray into filmmaking, Something Wild (1961). Hailed as a lost classic of American independent cinema, the film stars Mr. Garfein’s theatrical colleague and then-wife Carroll Baker as a college student whose violent rape triggers a complex and emotional spiral into erratic behavior, in a stark vision of New York laden with repressed emotion and hidden violence. A domestic flop in its own time, the film spent decades languishing in obscurity before its critical rediscovery within the last decade. If the film’s premise sounds distinctly modern — at least compared to the more conventional Hollywood cinema of the era — there are more than a few viewers, then and now, who agree. The late Italian author Albert Moravia (whose work is best known to the English-speaking world for inspiring acclaimed adaptations by Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci) is said by Mr. Garfein himself to have cited the film as an unmistakable product of the twenty-first century — back in 1961.
I came to see Mr. Garfein with questions about Something Wild, and we discussed the creative origins of the project, Mr. Garfein’s relationship with the Hollywood studio system, the inspiration for some of the film’s more idiosyncratic elements, and his interpretation of the controversial and ambiguous ending. In the process, however, our conversation took on a life of its own. Spanning wide across topics as diverse as trauma, spirituality, gender, history, violence and the media, our meeting ran over three times the scheduled sitdown period. (My apologies to the patient and supportive women and men at the Criterion office, who waited out our extended conversation to close up as late afternoon turned into evening.) Mr. Garfein is such an electrifying and intimate speaker, his voice so rich, humorous and distinct, that it seems an injustice to try and reduce his statements and near-endless reservoir of colorful anecdotes to a series of box quotes and soundbites. He is a lifelong storyteller, and in service to that I have sought to reproduce his story in much the same way as he tells it. What follows is edited for clarity, but otherwise a faithful recreation of our 90-minute conversation that Friday afternoon.
How did you become attached to Something Wild? What drew you to this project?
Well, what happened was Audrey Wood, who was Tennessee Williams’ agent, read the book. And she wasn’t my agent, but she knew me – but that’s sometimes how things happen, by intuition, you know? She called me and she said, “Jack, I read this book, and I think it could make a very good movie in your hands, and I think your wife [Carroll Baker at the time] would be right for the part.” So she sent me the book, and I read it. But again, you know, real creations are subconscious. You’re just impelled to do them, you don’t even know necessarily why, but something draws you; and so, when I read the book, I immediately thought after the first reading that I wanted to do this. But if you asked me at the time why, I just would tell you that I was taken by this story – I thought it was a story about a girl who was raped, and that was how I approached it on the first reading. So I called Audrey Wood and I said, “Alright, I want to do it, so I’d like to get the rights to it.” And my ex-wife also read it and liked it and liked the part. So that’s how it started.
The title of the novel was not Something Wild but Mary Anne. I was wondering how the change of title came about, and for those who haven’t read the book, what other changes (if any) were made from the source material.
Well, I would say that the title for the film came from me. It was more than just Mary Anne. I just knew – intuitively reacted – and felt that something happens in life that we’re not in control of, that happens to us and can change our lives. And, never even relating it to my own life, I just felt that this is what’s happened to this girl; that this element exists, a wild element, and by “wild” I mean something like… that you’re innocent, and you’ve done nothing to it, but it comes and finds you.
So you think that “Something Wild” is that violence that comes into her life?
Yes. The element that exists in life – a war, or anything that takes innocent people who have done nothing, and suddenly affects them in a certain way and changes their lives.
Something Wild was your second and final time in the director’s chair, and since then your main focus has been on theater. What made you gravitate away from cinema? What are some things you’ve felt that you had the opportunity to do in the medium of theater that you would not have been able to do in cinema, and vice versa?
Well, first part of the question: it started with my first film [The Strange One (1957) starring Ben Gazzara, adapted from the theatrical production, End as a Man, also directed by Garfein]. The cast was all unknown actors I’d worked with in the Actor’s Studio and prepared them. When it opened on Broadway it got rave reviews for the acting, and Ben Gazzara, who was totally unknown, became a star. So did Pat Hingle, so did all of them – totally unknown before.
So when I found out that then a film was going to be done, I fought to try and keep as much of the story as I could. Well, there was no ending for the film. So one night I went down to Florida, where we were going to shoot, and I saw a train coming from the South – this was during the segregation era – and on the train I saw black people sitting with children, even on the floors of the train. In a way it touched something in me – [it reminded me of] the deportation trains in Europe. And suddenly I said, this is the train that they’re going to throw [main character] Jocko on to humiliate him in some way.
When I called the producer, Sam Spiegel, he said, “Well, great! What a great idea! Genius!” But then it got to Harry Cohen, who was head of Columbia: “What? Blacks in a movie? Black actors in a movie? No such thing! We’re not gonna get distribution in the South!” So he said, “Jack, it’s gonna be a milk train.”
And I said to the assistant director, “No, it’s not gonna be a milk train.” And the assistant director says to me, “Jack, do you think if I hide black actors – nobody can see them, and then you can have your shot. I’ll just put them in the car but without having a full car load of black people.” And I said, “Okay, fine.”
Well, Spiegel suspected something, so he advised the other assistant director to make sure there were no black actors on the stage. And then he shows up in a limousine the night that I’m shooting this scene. And [as] I’m shooting the scene, Pat Hingle came up with an idea: he spreads the word that there are snakes around, and Spiegel will never get out of his car. And we did exactly that. We spread the word that there were snakes around, and so the assistant director took two black actors, put them in the scene, and we shot the scene.
Spiegel then called me over and said, “Jack, I want you to reshoot that scene and take those black actors out.” I said, “Sam, you want an Auschwitz survivor like me to cut black actors out of a movie?” He said, “No no no, I want my Jewish director.” I said, “But your Jewish director is an Auschwitz survivor, so I can’t do it.” So then he went and talked to Ben Gazzara about getting another director to cut the scene and to reshoot it, and of course Ben Gazzara refused to do it. So my contract with Columbia, because of that, was cancelled. So then the only thing I could try to do was to do an independent film – and I had Mary Anne, or Something Wild.
So MGM was at first interested in it, but they said to me, “Jack,” – and they had two other writers there – “It’s a nice idea but you know, after the girl gets raped, she doesn’t talk to anybody. She moves out of the house. That’s not going to work. Our idea is that what happens is, she loves her uncle, and her uncle is coming for a big celebration in the house, they have a party, and that night she’s in bed and the uncle comes into the room and rapes her. And the reason she can’t talk about it is because it’s in the family, she’s afraid it’ll wreck everything, and that’s why she walks out. But not just a stranger, somebody reaching out and raping her. And then, Jack, what you should do is after a while she reaches out and talks to a priest, and the priest sets her straight, and then she goes back to college, and one of the boys that was interested in her before is interested in her again, and that’s the ending of the movie.”
They offered me quite a bit of money, and I refused. So then United Artists said, “Well, we want to do the movie, but Jack: you’re going to work for minimum, and do everything for minimum, [if] we will do it. Otherwise, we’re not gonna take any risks.” And I said okay, as long as I can do what I want to do, it’s fine, I’ll do it that way.
So what happened was I finished the film, they didn’t understand it. The critics here in America just killed it, except for The Saturday Evening Post, and great writers like Henry Miller – who I didn’t even know at the time – who would write to me about it. “Wow,” Henry Miller said to me, “that guy, Jack, that’s me in that movie.” And the famous Italian writer Alberto Moravia wrote a review, and he said: “You want to know what the 21st century will be like? Go to see this movie.” The British press compared me to Strindberg, and the Swedish press – of course – compared me to Bergman. But here, I was a dead duck, in a sense, because the movie made no money and the audience didn’t react in any kind of a positive way.
So what happened was, Aaron Copland, who wrote the music… on his 80th birthday, the mayor of New York invited him, and said, “The city of New York would like to give you a present. What would you like?” Expecting him to say an orchestra, or a choir. He said, “I want Garfein’s film shown.” So they set up a screening in the Metropolitan Museum – just for Aaron. And I think Stillman Rockefeller was looking at the ceiling, and Senator Leland was looking at the floor, because those were the days of the Doris Day movies, you know. And after the screening, Aaron saw that I was disappointed again, that things were not going to get any better. He took my arm and he said, “Now Jack, as far as this movie is concerned… just live long enough.” So I tried to do that.
You took him up on it.
I took his word, I tried to do it. But what’s so fascinating is that he understood the movie better than I did. And if you see the film, you can see the way he uses the music – he realizes when the silences and things are important. He understood that film. When I was making the film, first I went to [Dmitri] Shostakovich, and the Soviet Union wouldn’t get me through to him. So then I went to Leonard Bernstein, and Leonard wouldn’t do it. So then I went to Aaron, and I said, “Aaron, I went to Shostakovich, I went to Leonard… what about you?” And he said, “Jack, I have to see a rough cut.” And of course United Artists got very upset, said, “What, you’re waiting to do the movie because of a composer?” I said yes, I’m going to wait.
So, [Copland] saw the film, I showed him a rough cut, and he said, “Okay Jack, I’ll do it.” And obviously he did. But as I said, sometimes the person who creates it doesn’t know [what it’s really about]. If it’s a work of art, it’s personal, and it comes from the subconscious. It’s only later, years later, that suddenly you say, “Oh, I see, so that’s it.” So for me, it happened [six] years ago. The [New York] Film Forum gave me a tribute, and they showed the film. And I was sitting next to the critic Kim Morgan, and suddenly as I’m watching the film, I say, “Oh my god – that [girl is] me.” It made me think of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. When he was asked about Madame Bovary, he said, “Madame Bovary? C’est moi. That’s me.” Part of my life is reflected there, and this is how I came to grips. But I could get no jobs. Since then, I’ve written a couple of very important screenplays – I think they were ahead of their time. One of them, The Farm, is based on a book by the African American novelist Clarence Cooper which deals with the topic of heroin addiction.
While I was working on it with Clarence – who was still on drugs – I got a visit one day from Harold Clurman. Great director, teacher, writer. He walked in and he saw me working on one of the parts, miming a state of heroin addiction, and he said, “What the hell are you doing!? Crazy Actor’s Studio! You went and you actually used heroin! You’re out of your mind! This is madness!” And after I snapped out of it, he said: “Garfein, stop teaching acting or making films. Tell people how to do what you’re doing. Much more important. You’ll save more lives like that.”
So, what is it that I touched on, that was so convincing to him? The fact that everything first is a human condition. A human need in nature. The drugs and all that are simply a way to reach a certain level [of experience], which you only reach naturally on the rarest occasions. This is just another way, an extension of that. And everybody has experienced it on a certain level. I still don’t think [Hollywood has] touched on that like I did in the script.
I also wrote another screenplay about my experience during the war as a kid with my mother and my sister. It goes all the way to Auschwitz. And, you know, people who have read it, they’ve never seen the Holocaust like that, because most Holocaust movies don’t come anywhere close to touching what happens. You know, in most Hollywood movies, the train arrives in Auschwitz – “AAAAHHH!!!” – they all scream. You know what my mother did? She brushed my sister’s hair. She straightened out my sweater. She made sure that because we’re coming to a new place, we have to make a certain appearance.
The title of that screenplay is A Rose in the Field. Because what happened was, we were probably the last transport to Auschwitz. And the Hungarian Jews came in from East Europe. And my grandfather was a very wealthy, influential man, and he for some reason believed that we were going to be resettled in Hungary. And only when we looked out of the barbed-wire window of the cattle car, and saw we were in Poland, did he realize where we were heading and he had a complete breakdown. I remember even seeing it. And once we arrived in Auschwitz, I remember hearing him say, “Dear God, what have we done to deserve this?” I thought he referred to us as the rose in the field. That’s why it was called that.
So anyway, the scripts are there, I still haven’t been able to get the finances. I’m still now trying to see if I can get it done.
So yes, I went back to working in the theater – I worked with Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett, Ionesco, it was wonderful. I learned more from working with them on their plays than I ever have before. That’s the great advantage of working with playwrights like that. And I recently, three years ago, did my own adaptation of Kafka’s Address to the Academy in Paris, with great reviews, and I’m now trying to see if I can get it done in London. Because here I was told you need either a television star or some big actor, otherwise they’re not going to back you.
There is no filmmaker in the world more attuned to the complexities of family life than Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda. Consider the emotional upheaval that faces the parents and children of 2013’s Like Father, Like Son, or the relationship between the sisters of 2015’s Our Little Sister. Koreeda’s latest film following those two gems, After the Storm, continues his warm but ever-truthful gaze at what bonds people together. (Film Movement opens Storm on March 17 in New York and Los Angeles.)
Set against the backdrop of an approaching typhoon, Storm is the story of a failing author (Hiroshi Abe) struggling to pay his child support, and his attempts at rebuilding relationships with his son (Taiyo Yoshizawa) and ex-wife (Yoko Maki). As sweet and funny as the last two great Kore-eda films, Storm also has the sharp insight of earlier masterpieces like Nobody Knows and Still Walking.
Currently working on his next film, Kore-eda answered some brief questions about Storm, working with his “alter-ego” Hiroshi Abe, and his experience directing child actors.
The Film Stage: After the Storm continues your focus on the shifting dynamics of family. What drew you to this story of a father and son, and this stage of their lives?
Hirokazu Kore-eda: I wanted to depict the concept of fatherhood with this film. [In addition], I wanted to make a film that cuts out a part of one’s long life. I think a part of life is better.
Did the idea of the typhoon come before or after the rest of the story?
I had the idea of a typhoon from the very beginning. I actually started to write the script on the night of a typhoon. After my father passed away, my mother started living by herself in the housing complex where I grew up. When I went back home for the New Year, I noticed the changes. The kids had left, and only the trees had remained and grown up. Seeing this gave me the idea to make a film about the housing complex. The first scene that came to mind was a walk through the complex with grass that had become very beautiful in the morning after a typhoon. Since I was a child I’ve always wondered why the complex was so beautiful after a typhoon. Though nothing changes, it seems like a complete transformation happened overnight. I wanted to describe that moment… Although a typhoon can destroy ordinary life, in most cases it purifies everyday living.
You work so well with children, in this case actor Taiyo Yoshizawa. Do you direct your young actors differently than your adult actors? Are there any other filmmakers whose work with children has influenced your approach?
Usually I don’t provide a script to kid actors. I only explain to them the setting of a scene and give them the dialogue verbally without telling them the whole story of the film. I don’t know if I am influenced by others, but if so, it’d be Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films, Ken Loach’s Kes, and Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer.
See Also: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 10 Favorite Films
You’ve worked with Hiroshi Abe before. What made him right for this role?
In my 40s and 50s, I identified with the roles that Abe played in Still Walking and the TV series Going Home, so he is special for me. He is like my alter-ego. After Still Walking, both of us became fathers, and I think this is reflected in our characters. I think it’s wonderful that a director, an actor, and the roles we create grow up together.
Your films are known for their emotional impact, but also their warmth. When dealing with a drama such as After the Storm, how do you juggle the heavier, dramatic elements with the humor that’s also a trademark of your work?
I want to add the serious sequences into scenes of ordinary living. I think people tend to laugh when they want to cry. It applies to the feelings of characters and audiences as well.
What can you tell us about your upcoming film, The Third Murder?
I’m still in the process of editing the film, but the story is about an attorney, a murderer, and the family of a victim.
After the Storm hits theaters on Friday, March 17. See the theatrical roll-out here.
Perhaps the greatest privilege of this job is an opportunity to speak with artists whose work you admire — doubly so when it’s multiple times over the years, as their oeuvre slowly expands and, with some luck, the interviews you do begin to form a sort of continuous dialogue. I like to think that’s the case with Olivier Assayas, to whom I’d spoken twice (once in 2012 and again in 2014) before we sat down at last year’s New York Film Festival on the occasion of his latest picture, Personal Shopper, playing for press mere hours before. Lo and behold, it again went quite well — both because Assayas is as open as he is intelligent and on account of the fact that this new endeavor could be discussed on and on and on.
Which also means the 25 minutes we had didn’t feel like quite enough. I thus managed to snag another, equally sized interview with him on the day of Personal Shopper‘s U.S. opening, during which time there have been some interesting advancements: the once-dead gangster picture Idol’s Eye has been resurrected, and he’s written Roman Polanski‘s new film. These, along with further reflections on Shopper, form the second part, but hopefully you won’t be able to tell so easily where a split begins — and where certain back-and-forths are mixed into a five-month-old conversation.
Last time we talked, you said something that stuck with me. Your brother, a rock critic, compiled a rock dictionary, and he passed along this theory that decent musicians have one song, good ones have two, and great ones have three, and you’re looking for your third song. Personal Shopper feels so much like you, but it constantly surprised me — for instance, I couldn’t believe I was seeing a CG ghost in one of your films. So do you see Personal Shopper as a “third Olivier Assayas song”?
You can’t make the process conscious, you know? [Pause] In the sense that you don’t control your inspiration. I never really sat down and said, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” I’ve always felt, with every single film I’ve made, that I have my back to the wall and that’s the one movie I can do. There’s nothing else. I would love to be able to do something else, but I only happen to be able… the only thing that kind of drives me is a specific story, so I just go ahead and don’t really question it. I think that, as far as abstract ideas go, what was present in the conception of this film was the feeling that… I’ve always been fascinated by… I always say “genre filmmaking,” but it’s wrong. It has to be more like with stories that deal with what we call “the paranormal.”
Because it’s something that has been absorbed by genre filmmaking, in a sense, and it has been codified by genre filmmaking. Something that has to do with the American notion of what genre is — meaning, defined by a Protestant worldview, in the sense that there’s good and evil, and what is on the other side of the mirror has to be evil, pure evil, meaning genre filmmaking is totally defined by this notion that evil is lurking around us. Which is something I do not believe, and I think that, including in French classic culture, but more in French culture of the late 19th century — symbolist poetry, early science fiction writing — you have a notion of what the other world is that’s slightly different, and it gives a very specific identity to the relationship of French art with the world beyond our world, with the world of the invisible. I had always been interested in trying to reconnect with that through cinema, in my films, because it’s something that has always been pretty close to the surface in all of the films I made, but never completely integrated.
I wanted to see what happens if you go one step further and you deal with a world where the existence of the invisible, of something behind the invisible, is part of the character’s worldview — where it defines the space where the film takes place. That’s why, very early on in the film, I inject that scene where there is something happening —there’s a door that opens — and she does not see it. But at least it sends the message that there is another world, and, eventually, if she’s not doomed, she might access it. I’m not sure if that answers your question. [Laughs]
I went into this movie purposefully not knowing much of anything.
Yeah. That’s the way to see most movies, I’d say. [Laughs]
Do you have a preference for what people know about this film beforehand?
No. I think that any movie — and specifically my films, because I have those weird twists and turns once in a while — the least you know, the better, because that’s the dynamic of the film. I think all movies, but maybe my movies more than others, are explorations of perception, explorations of the world, and they don’t have, like, pre-chewed answers, so it’s meant to surprise you; it’s meant to put you off-balance. It’s meant to provoke some kind of thought process where you have a dialogue with what’s going on on the screen. So, yeah, my ideal audience is an audience who knows nothing about a film. Or, eventually, who’s misled. [Laughs] Who thinks they will get something else and ends up getting that.
Do you have much of a hand in this movie’s marketing?
Not really. It’s really a part of filming where maybe I should be more involved, but, ultimately, I’m not involved. I’m very marginally involved. It’s the same way as I trust the people I work with on the set to chip in their ideas, their inspiration. When I’m working with a distributor, when I’m working with marketing people, I just consider that they know better than me. I have no idea how you market a film, really. I’m just not interested. I just prefer to keep it… dignified. [Laughs] That’s my main concern.
But then a movie like Summer Hours: in France it had, like, the ugliest poster. You have no idea. It just looked like a cheap family drama, and that was my biggest film ever in France. So what can I say? Those guys know better. And thanks to the success of Summer Hours, it helped me get away with a lot of things — so it was welcome. And you can’t twist the arm of your distributor saying, “I like this approach, this poster” because, ultimately, people will lose confidence. If you impose this or that on them, maybe they will trust it less than their own approach. To cut a long story short: I’m not involved that much.
I wasn’t expecting Personal Shopper to be so scary, but some of those sequences — especially in the abandoned house and when she’s looking through the peephole — had me on edge. I wonder if, in constructing those scenes, you were feeling your way through them more than others.
Yeah, I was. I was. It’s really interesting when you mention that specific scene — and I’ve heard it mentioned in other conversations I’ve had — because it’s really something that I didn’t realize the full potential of, really, and it’s really, when I was shooting, I was kind of… [Pause] I was kind of surprised. When I was shooting that scene, I kept on covering it and doing more and more and more because, when I was shooting, I was realizing that this was, in terms of tension, a very important moment, and, of course, it all came together when we were editing — with all the music I used and all that — but, still, I had underestimated the complexity of the scene and its dramatic potential, and it’s really something that I invented on the set.
Sometimes I have a shot list and it’s kind of precise. I figure it out in the morning. That’s the way I function: I have to invent the film on a day-to-day basis, but, usually, I kind of stick to whatever I designed in the morning. Here, I kept on adding shots. “Yeah, it’s really important to see her feet. It’s really important to see her approaching the peephole.” I realized, shooting, that it could be scary, and, in terms of tension, maybe one of the important moments in the film.
Are you a fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa?
I’ve known him for ages. I love his films. Yeah, sure.
I thought of him here.
Yeah. It’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It’s Japanese filmmaking. It’s also part of Hong Kong films — some things in Hong Kong filmmaking. It’s certainly a movie connected to film cultures where ghosts are part of the worldview — cultures where people do believe in ghosts and it’s not an issue.
I have to ask about all the texting. I saw this with a friend of mine, and, when checking our phones afterward, we wondered when a film last made us so aware of using these devices. It’s one of the only movies I’ve seen where an iPhone — and I might even have the same model she does — is presented by people who seem to know how they work. Did you feel nervous or limited about filming a phone screen?
It was easy to write, because I had a very clear notion of what the scene was about, and I think it could’ve gone for much longer. I mean, half of the film could have been text. At some point, it was part of the idea I was playing with, and it just ended up being this very long scene, but there was a moment when I was considering how to approach the film. Doing it all through text messages was an option. But when I was writing it, it came very easily to me — it was completely obvious — and I thought it would be extremely simple to shoot. Then, once I started shooting the scene, I realized the complexity of it. I totally underestimated the complexity of that scene, in the sense that: once I started shooting screens, I realized that the pace of the typing, the timing of how the answer comes back, the expressions on the face — how Kristen would interact with the screen if I was using close-ups, a bit wider shots, how long — that every tiny nuance, even in the wording of the text messages, was essential, was part of the suspense that had to do with tiny elements.
So I became obsessed with the complexity of it, really, and, in the end, we redid those text messages — all of them — two times, three times, four times. The guys who do the special effects in the film were just going nuts, because I thought I had what I wanted live, but then I realized that I needed to inject… sometimes you have the three little dots that are blinking. Sometimes they were there; sometimes they were not there. It’s kind of random when you do it live, and sometimes they would come out blue, sometimes they would come out red, so it was extremely… there’s so many of them that we had to redo. When we were editing — even at the late, late, late stage of editing the film — I would be cutting a few images here, a few images there, and I realized that the whole scene reacted to those tiny, microscopic cuts, so it was so complex to get it right. Even when all the text messages come crashing when she turns her phone on.
That one, we tried five, six, seven, eight times, I don’t know, and the pace was never right. We tried a little faster, then a little slower. At some point, I asked my editor, “Why don’t we do it ourselves instead of asking the special-effects guy? Why don’t we just slow it down and try it step-by-step?” So we tried this tiny bit of slow-motion, and it gave this kind of vibration, and I realized, “Actually, that’s what I wanted.” My editor said, “We can have this fixed,” and I said, “No, no, I want the vibration. It’s the vibration that becomes scary.”
I actually thought you were off-camera doing the texting as the scene was being filmed.
No, no. We had a prop man. But there was someone off-camera, yes, because, again, I needed it live because I needed Kristen to interact. We could not do it just storyboarding it.
I got a pleasure out of how you take advantage of the tiny screen. In one scene, the camera has a wide shot from her right side, then a close-up of the phone, then a wide shot from her left side. That rotation evokes the sensation of being consumed by a small thing in a wider space.
It’s interesting you say that, because it’s a movie where I really had a sense of space when I was writing. I had a very clear notion of the place. Usually, not that much. I’m kind of open to suggestions. I often write as I would be writing a play, and then I kind of adapt to the spaces; I visit locations and, all of a sudden, say, “Oh, that’s interesting, because this gives such an interesting space to us.” Here, I had, like, a vision of the space, so that’s why I had a few of the interiors built as sets: because I wanted to stick to the sense of space that I had in the film.
With Eduardo Casanova‘s visually and conceptually startling debut Skins (aka Pieles) , the question of how John Waters and Pedro Almodóvar’s love child would fare as a filmmaker might just have been answered (high praise in queer film terms, of course). Fierce style, check. Subversive sexuality, check. Gross-out humor, check. Blown-up melodrama, check. Skins is a pointedly shrill, singularly provocative exposé on our relationships to our bodies that will scar some minds, offend many sensibilities, and exhilarate all the rest of us. We spoke with the director about his debut while at Berlinale and one can read the conversation below.
How did you find your way into filmmaking?
I started out as an actor when I was 12 and began making my own shorts at 17, so I practically grew up in the world of cinema. In a way this also relates to Skins since the film came from a need to be understood. As I started working so young, I was always the child on set and never quite felt I belonged. During my acting days, also felt out of place because I found filmmaking to be my true calling. But even when I started to make films, this uneasiness persisted because filmmaker felt like a role for people older than myself. So all my life, there never seemed to be a right place for me, like the characters in this film.
How did you realize that directing is what you wanted to do instead of acting?
I realized that what I wanted to do is to create my own world through cinema, a world where I can live in peace, one that I can’t find in reality.
And just how does one start directing films at 17?
Part of it was intuition. But also from a professional point of view, I’d been exposed to working with cameras since 12, so in a way I’d been prepared. I started watching movies by John Waters, Bruce LaBruce and Todd Solondz at 12. That probably helped too. Financially it was relatively easy because I was earning good money as an actor. So I would use that money to make shorts during my downtime in between shoots. From there I went on to make some ads and started trying to forge a career as filmmaker.
Did the leap to feature filmmaking turn out to be just as smooth?
In Spain that’s never easy. With this kind of project, which is quite different from other films out there, it’s even more difficult. I had it a little bit easier because of the contact I’d collected from my acting days. In any case, the passion to create cinema and tell stories comes from such a deep place within me I would always find a way to do it.
How did you manage to get so many veteran actors to star in your debut?
It’s easy to convince actors when you have roles to offer that are very different from them. Apart from that, I have my own seduction techniques of course.
Your films have a very stylish — in some instances over-the-top — look. What’s your relationship to aesthetics?
Generally, I hate aesthetics. It’s an aspect of filmmaking that I see as a monster, which, if you don’t control it well, will consume the story. For me there must be a story behind the aesthetics. It’s about finding a balance between the two.
What about designing the look of your characters, which is often very distinct?
It’s similar: What counts the most for me is not the outside of the characters, but what’s happening inside.
Some people might be offended by the look you created for your characters in Skins though.
When someone gets offended by something, it’s because that person doesn’t accept what he’s seeing. I don’t judge any of my characters, I simply expose them as who they are.
You approached some heartbreaking themes with comedy in this film. Was that something you decided to do from the start?
I didn’t set out to do a comedy. My intention was to present a reality. And reality can make you laugh, make you cry, sometimes it makes you do both at the same time.
Skins has quite an unusual premise. Was it inspired by any incident or personal experiences?
I’ve always felt deformed on the inside, which led me to think a lot about the physical appearance of people. Like gender, which is much more of a spectrum than just the binary distinction of man/woman. Same goes for faces. There are other faces than the ones with two eyes and one nose. I read some time ago a true story about a woman who felt strongly about implanting a pig’s nose in her face. Her psychiatrist and doctors all said no to her. That got me thinking about what power we have over our bodies. There seems to be an unspoken rule telling us to look the same as everyone else.
Are you inspired by any particular artists in your filmmaking?
The biggest inspiration for me always comes from real life. As far as artists go, [American painter] Christian Rex van Minnen’s work really inspires me. As for filmmakers, I’d say Solondz, Cronenberg, Lynch, Almodóvar. There are other great Spanish directors too. We have such an abundance of talents but most of them are not known outside the Spanish film industry.
Skins premiered at Berlin Film Festival.
Certainly one of the friendliest, and one of the more forthcoming, interviews I’ve ever conducted, Before I Fall director Ry Russo Young and I knew we did not have much time to chat, so we jumped into it rather quick. In no time, we were discussing the early false starts of this film adaptation of the YA novel from Lauren Oliver, from it’s beginnings as a potential studio film at Fox to the eventual indie-styled production starring a fantastic Zoey Deutch.
So you’re meeting with Fox about Before I Fall…
…I took a meeting at Fox. It’s just one meeting. It doesn’t seem to go well. To be honest, okay. Then a year later I get a call saying, ‘Do you still like that [Before I Fall] script?’ I say yes, because there are a very small handful of scripts that I like. And then I hear that Fox is no longer doing the movie, and they are going to go the indie route. Hire a cheaper, female filmmaker. [Laughs]
Where is she now?!
Where is that inexpensive woman?! [Laughs] And so that’s when I came on board. It was originally with a different company and we sort of went down the road a little bit with that company but they had cast issues. And then Awesomeness [Films] came on board and allowed me to cast…
So it was Awesomeness Films and then it became Open Road Films?
Yeah, so we made the movie with Awesomeness financing it and the great thing was they let me do my thing.
They let you do it.
And let it not have to be driven by, ‘This person’s a celebrity and you can only cast these two teenage women.’
It must’ve helped that Zoey [Deutch] was on the up a little bit, right?
She was on the up, yeah, and they liked her and they were down… but still, in a studio setting, they would never.
Which is a shame because she’s…
…the real thing.
The real thing. No question about it. She sells every moment [in the movie].
And there’s some excitement to seeing somebody who’s in the right age range and who’s an incredible talent. So anyways, then we made the movie with Awesomeness and once the film was pretty much finished they did buyer screenings and we sold to Open Road. We still made it like an indie film, though. Just to be clear.
It doesn’t look it. It looks good…
It was a lot of hard work to get it to look like that.
Did you shoot on film? No?
No, we shot on a Alexa, anamorphic lenses. But it was, you know, 24 days.
24 days of filming? Really?
Yeah, it looks expensive but it was so brutal.
That’s really quick. I’m surprised to hear that. I would’ve guessed like 40 days or something like that.
No, no. And, like, I didn’t make any money on this movie, you know what I mean? I mean indie route, like brutal indie route.
So you’ve got the genre touches in here. There’s the John Hughes-ness. You have a Duckie [from Pretty in Pink] kind of character [in Kent, played by Logan Miller]. When you’re making a movie like this, you’ve got a good balance of those tropes and more modern elements that will work for this movie’s audience. When you’re developing this with the author and the writer [Maria Maggenti] how do you parse all the teen movie angles?
I think some of it was baked into the book and the script, in terms of those character tropes, shall I say. So a lot of that came to me preordained in the nature of the storytelling. But I think what I tried to do on the directing front was to make all those moments truthful and one of the things I liked about the script was to not play into the stereotype — to actually add complexity.
It’s not that Kent’s necessarily getting pushed around at school. It’s more of a nuanced thing. Like he’s the one throwing the party. He presumably has friends. Touches like that make it feel more like the high school I went to. From a production standpoint, you’re going full Groundhog Day with the narrative structure. What is that like? How is it different making a movie where you know, ‘Okay, we’ve got to cut this scene multiple different ways.’
Well, part of that was understanding from the beginning the arc that [Zoey Deutch’s character] Sam goes through. The emotional journey that she is on.
Sam and her group of friends are admirably mean at the start of the movie.
Yeah, I mean. The editor Joe Landauer and I tried to make them infectiously mean. That’s what we were trying to do. Create a world where you felt like you were kind of on board with it’s sinister evil and that that evil was kind of fun.
It sneaks up on you a little bit. Because you like Zoey and then you realize…
And then you as a viewer are complacent in that experience. So that you almost are empathizing with her in some way. Even from the beginning. It’s the journey that you go on. And it’s a little bit of a psych out because it’s maybe what you think this movie’s values are, at first. They are these vapid values in the very beginning.
Pumping the pop music.
Yeah, and giving you this fun experience that a lot of these teen movies are.
But those movies don’t ever really go further.
Right. Which was so good about the script and the book. It was surprising. It’s so much more than that.
With the Juliet character, she’s in the movie and we don’t know a lot about her and then she’s so important at the end. But you don’t feel like you get to know her that much but you don’t want her to feel like just a tool to the plot. So when you’re doing that, what are those conversations like? On how much to reveal.
The editor Joe and I talked about that a lot. [Juliet] doesn’t really have a lot to say until literally three-fourths through the movie. So it’s really challenging to kind of bring the audience into her experience and to even make her experience relatable when she comes around late. Any character that shows up that far in, it’s tough. So part of it was, how did we deal with that? We made sure that we planted the seeds enough. It was a balance of sort of getting her in early enough and showing the audience that she was going to be an important factor. But not tipping our hat too much, and I think the audience knows she’s going to be important to the plot because of the way we cover her. And so, that you feel that but then I also think it’s a testimony to Elena [Kampouris‘] performance in that she is, when she does come in she’s so strong as an actress. And she has such a clear thing to say.
To finish up, what’s the next thing?
There’s a few different projects that I’m attached to, working on. Different sizes, you know? One is at Universal, and one is based on a book. And then one is a movie based on something in my background that’s way more personal and documentary elements. It’s like my Boyhood. So it’s kind of all over the place. And my approach has always been like you never know what’s going to happen.
And, like you said at the screening, it was cool to watch the movie the day of the Women’s March.
Yeah, well, also the movie being ultimately about basic human kindness feels kind of relevant to what we could all use a bit more of right now in our lives. And then with so many women behind the scenes makes a connection.
Before I Fall opens on Friday, March 3.
Premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Claude Barras‘ feature-length debut animation My Life as a Zucchini (aka My Life as a Courgette) is a deeply felt tale of the healing process through the eyes of an orphan. Ahead of its U.S. release this weekend, where it will also compete as a Best Animated Feature Film nominee at the Academy Awards, I had the opportunity to speak with Barras about crafting the animation.
We discussed his collaboration with Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) on the script, taking the perspective of a child, capturing taboo subjects, a crisis in production, his biggest animation influences, his Oscar nomination, and where he sees the future of his craft heading. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Can you talk about the child perspective of this film — you don’t see the mother’s death and adult conversations are usually heard from a distance — and how it helps the drama?
Claude Barras: For me it was really important, because it’s what attracted me in the novel. It’s the fact that the story was seen through the eyes of Zucchini. With the writer, Céline Sciamma, we thought a lot about this and how not to talk like kids, but put ourselves in the shoes of kids and basically become a kid again. When we recorded the voices, because we had all the kids play together, new stuff came up, so we adapted a few new things to the story, to the script, in the way they were talking.
At least in America, some say this film deals with taboo subjects — at least in animation — like death, sex, and abuse, but personally, I think they are very universal themes that anyone could get something out of. Do you think we have a ways to go before this becomes more accepted in animation?
The problem is the same everywhere, except in France and in Europe the movie can be seen by kids as young as eight years old. In America, it is PG-13. With the writer, we decided that kids are living in the same world that we are and they are confronted with violence and they are confronted with sex. It’s really important to bring those subjects up. After the movie, it’s really important to be able to talk with them and you have to do it delicately and softly and also with some sense of humor. It’s really important to be able to have a conversation with them after.
One of the lines you have in the film, describing sex, the kids say “exploding willies.” I certainly hadn’t heard that description before. When you first read the script, what was your impression?
In the script, there was definitely more references to sexuality. After we rehearsed with the kids, we used most of the stuff that the kids came up with and the way that the kids talked about it. We kept in the movie what would be less disturbing to the parents. There was a line when a kid during the recording actually said, “You put the willie into a girl and after that you will explode.” So we only kept the last part. For the people who are doing the censorship in movies, just that line is a line that describes penetration, so because of that, it would not be allowed. So we took it out. It was good to explore all these different things and then to keep the few things that were really funny.
There was a crisis in this film where you ran out of money with only 55 minutes. Can you talk about that process and if that break helped the rest of the film at all?
It was really interesting. It was a good break because what we already had shot was really, really good. The producers and nobody else wanted to sacrifice the movie. So with that we were able to go and ask for more money to continue the production. We already had the movie we wanted to make so we showed a few scenes that we made a little bit longer by having the character listen to what’s happening around him. So that helped us gain some time. It was quite radical and also a different way of directing the movie and I’m quite happy with the results.
It’s quite amazing to see a movie under 70 minutes to pack so much philosophy about life and death in such a short time. Is that length something you were going for from the beginning?
The script had three more scenes that would have made the movie 15 minutes longer. I don’t regret it because the fact that I had these constraints made me come up with something that, in the end, was more pure and concentrated. As a result, there is something that is very minimalist about the movie that I like.
I had the opportunity to see both the original French version and the English-language debut, which are different experiences. Did you have a hand in the translation process of how the script was read?
I’m very happy with the English translation, but I’m not involved at all with the recording and dubbing of the voices in English. I did a lot of work, about 30 hours, when we recorded the kids in the French version. The dubbing of movies is not something I know very well. I had to trust the people whose job it is, because it’s not just the voices, but you also have to time it right with the animation.
Congrats on your Oscar nomination. Can you talk about your reaction and why people are responding so well to it all over the world?
Because our movie was also up for Best Foreign Language Film we spent about five weeks in Los Angeles promoting the movie and have people coming to screenings and discovering the movie. We went to the studios, Sony and DreamWorks, where we had these screenings. It was beautiful meetings with these people and also see the way that they work here in the United States with way bigger budgets. For them, on the other side, to see how with a very small budget, you are still able to do something interesting. We were really, really proud to be here in the middle of those big, big movies. They streamed the announcement of the Oscar nominations and we screamed and we laughed and we drank a lot of champagne when we heard the movie was nominated.
Either when you were growing up or recently, what have been animated films that have influenced you?
I loved the series Heidi. It’s really close to my film in a certain way, because it’s a drama about a little girl who is also an orphan. The grandfather also has a little bit of the same face as the policeman who takes him in at the beginning. Princess Mononoke I liked very much as well. There’s another one that I don’t know the English title of. It’s about two orphans during the war in Japan.
Oh, Grave of the Fireflies?
Yes, exactly. Often the movies that I like are made by Japanese people, even Heidi for example is happening Switzerland, which I found very strange. And I’m Swiss. I also like movies from Jan Švankmajer, Brothers Quay, Tim Burton, Aardman, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, too.
Lastly, when I saw your film it felt like it was exploring untapped potential in the field of animation. What do you see as the future of animation in terms of storytelling and technology?
This is a huge question, but I’ll use the example of The Jungle Book, which you have a lot of animation but one real-life actor. We are completely the opposite. We are doing a story that is very realistic, but with puppets in a very simple way. In the middle there is an infinite way of telling stories and the form of it. The rest also has to do with the market. Is the market ready to accept a different kind of storytelling and animation that is not just for kids? For the time being, it’s mostly Japan who is exploring, so hopefully it’ll be the beginning of something that will open it for the rest of us.
My Life as a Zucchini opens in limited theaters on Friday, February 24.
Hot on the heels of a breakout lead performance in Blue Ruin and a solid supporting turn in Jeremy Saulnier‘s follow-up Green Room, Macon Blair finds himself in the director’s chair with I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore. Starring Melanie Lynskey as Ruth, a woman at the end of her rope, the film offers a welcome and relatable catharsis to the bullshit we deal with everyday. We got a chance to sit down with Blair at Sundance, before his film picked up the Grand Jury Prize, and chat about working with Netflix, acting for Steven Soderbergh and watching your directorial debut in a new, disgruntled political age.
How does it come together after Blue Ruin and that whole ride? You had been acting for a while and then this. How does that happen? I know Anish Savjani and Filmscience were part of it.
Absolutely, yeah, from the get-go. There’s no question that Jeremy [Saulnier]’s movie broke out in a way that just kind of opened some doors and people started paying more attention to him and…
…and to your performance.
Right, and gratefully so. And so yeah I got a little bit more people taking a look at me. But also I was trying to pursue screenwriting at the same time. And I wasn’t really getting enough acting work to support the family. Luckily, the screenwriting bridged the gap. And I always had the idea at some point in the future that I wanted to direct something and kind of be able to have that control. And watching Jeremy work was so exciting. But it was always this vague, at-some-point-in-the-future thing. But I started to think about it more seriously when we were working on Green Room and, coincidentally or not, Anish and Neil [Kopp of Filmscience] started talking to me about wanting to develop something together. And so I had a couple of loose, different ideas in my head and they started to come together as a script I wanted to write specifically to bring to them.
So this wasn’t a script you had in a drawer…
Nope, I wrote specifically like, ‘Okay, if this is going to be the first thing I direct what is it that I want to do?’ And I’ve said this before but it’s — I don’t know if it sounds corny or not but it’s true — the attitude was like, ‘Let us just assume that you only get to do this one time. What is the one thing you want on your tombstone?’ So I kind of approached it from that angle. And part of it was that type of character I wanted to deal with and talk about and some genre stuff that I wanted to do and kind of try to blend them together. It’s not that Filmscience said ‘we’ll definitely do whatever you bring us’ but they were like, ‘Let us be the first to look at it.’ And so I brought it to them and they kind of took it over from there and brought it up and then through them it connected with XYZ Films and through XYZ it connected with Netflix. It was about a year of development.
And Netflix was basically on board through production then?
Well, I mean there was about a year of Filmscience where we were trying to develop it and get the money from more traditional sources. And there was some progress there but it never quite clicked. And at the eleventh hour, and it’s funny because it was at a meeting at last year’s Sundance, we connected with XYZ and that connected us with Netflix. And we had a meeting with [Netflix] and I pitched [the movie] to them and, like, two weeks later we were in pre-production. It happened very, very quickly. And so yeah, as soon as they signed off on the budget and the financing it was always going to be a Netflix production. And it was great because we had some initial creative conversations but it was more about me telling them what I wanted to do as opposed to them like, ‘you have to do this.’ I told them what I wanted to do, who I wanted to cast, and they said ‘great.’ We had one conference call and I never heard from them. They just gave us the go-ahead.
So Netflix was a good experience then.
So supportive. Like creative freedom that I was just not expecting. I just assumed, a first-time director’s going to have a lot of cooks in the kitchen, looking over your shoulder. And rightly so. For whatever reason, this was not like that so it was kind like, ‘Oh shit.’ They really gave me some space to play and it was very cool.
One thing that jumps out watching the movie, and this is real-world circumstances more than anything, is this movie feels so apropos to everything that’s happening right now. So I imagine one of the reasons it’s been so well-received is that it resonates on this level of today. I imagine as a filmmaker, you made this at a different time and now, what is it like to see the reaction it’s getting in this newer context? Like it’s refreshing for people.
No, I heard that. I don’t know if it’s refreshing. I think it’s anti-refreshing, but it’s more like a recognizable thing. Like I’m sure I’m not the only person that has those types of, ‘Can we please just take a breath and not be so shitty all the time?’ That cannot be just me. And so I think there is something and, you know, when I wrote it I don’t think the temperature had boiled to quite the heights that it did leading up to the election and afterwards. But it seems almost tame compared to that. The kind of rhetoric that gets associated with that kind of event and just the way things are now. And I think there are some behavioral things that Ruth (played Melanie Lynskey) gets real bent out of shape about. Like dishonesty and entitlement. Things that I think are relevant today and to current newsworthy events.
Or not-so-newsworthy events.
[Laughs] Depending on who you want to read. Yeah, so it was not intended that way but I think through good timing or, I guess you could say, through extraordinarily bad timing it does feel a little relevant.
Now, obviously, national treasure Melanie Lynskey is great and it’s great to see her in the lead role. Her counterpart here, Elijah Wood, is doing something a little bit different to such a degree that this feels like a role he’s been waiting to play. So when you’re casting do you have him in your mind?
Melanie was in my mind very early on and I think while I was still writing the initial idea was that Tony (Wood’s character) would be a big, lumbering oaf. Like, sort of a goofy giant. And then, I don’t know what the exact reference was, but I started to feel like maybe I’ve seen that before. At any rate, I started to think that it would be to do this character more as somebody with a little bit of a Napoleon complex because he is so tiny. He overcompensates with this energy and this certainty about morals and things like that. And it started to make a lot of sense that somebody like Elijah would work for it and, coincidentally, I started running into him at film festivals and he was very complimentary about some stuff that I had done and I’m obviously a huge fan of his. And it was just kind of like an idea popped into my head. And at first it was like,’ That’s…wrong’ and then I was like ‘That’s wrong…” It felt like fun against-type casting. And because he’s so likable I felt like we could get away with Tony being a little more obnoxious and not turning people off to him. Like you still kind of root for him.
So this is your directorial debut and good reviews coming in.
So far, yeah, feels great.
So are you looking at this like, ‘What’s the next thing I’m directing?’ You’ve got a part in Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming movie, Logan Lucky, so you are still acting.
Well, I like to be open to everything. There’s a script I did write before this one that some other people were attached to that now that I’ve done a movie that got into a festival, I think the producers started consider like ‘Oh.’ The other directors that were attached to it fell of, so now the producers are like, ‘Oh, you wrote it, it’s from your brain–‘
You know where to put the camera…
Yeah I mean, ‘you didn’t totally, hopefully, shit the bed on this one’ so I’m going to try to get that one off the ground. I’ve a couple of TV projects that I’m associated with that are, sort of, development phase so not quite… I wouldn’t say, ‘Look for them in the fall,’ but they’re moving up the chain. I wrote a script that Jeremy [Saulnier] is directing. He’s on pre-production on it right now in Canada. It’s called Hold The Dark, an adaptation of a book. Jeremy has been trying to get it made for quite some time. They were going to shoot it I think last spring and just had to push. It’s a much bigger movie. I don’t know exactly but it’s like well over 1o [million dollars in budget]. So it’s a much bigger machine, takes much longer to get up and running. But it’s finally up and running. So we’re excited about that. I’m trying to get whatever acting work I can. It’s sort of like there are so many things they can seem promising and then totally go away. I try to put as much stuff out there on the theory that 90 percent is not going to happen but if I can get a couple of that 10 percent stack going, that’ll cover the bills.
That’s the game right?
When you’re on a set like Logan Lucky are you pulling anything from someone like Soderbergh?
Kind of, but that would be sort of like a first-year physics student watching Einstein and being like, ‘What can I pull from this?’ He’s just on a different level.
He’s editing right? Editing while he’s filming?
I think they had the score written ahead of time. I was told that they were going to have a cast and crew screening of the movie. Almost an assembled cut of the movie a week after they wrapped, because he’s editing every night. He shoots so quickly it’s sort of like there are almost no lights. You see all of these trailers because it is a big movie and you think it’s going to be this massive thing and then you just walk into this room and it’s him and an AD [Assistant Director] and he’s like, ‘Run through the scene one time. Okay.’ One take. Two takes. We’re wrapped. You know people were astonished if the days would go to twelve hours because he’s so fast. It’s just like while he’s waiting for people to come in, he’s mellow and talking about NASCAR. It seems like a bunch of people hanging out and not making a multi-million dollar studio movie. Sort of just bullshitting and then like, ‘Oh, we’re ready to go? Okay… boom wrapped, alright, good day everybody.’ And you’re like ‘What did we do?! Was that a 3-page dialogue scene?’
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore hits Netflix on February 24.
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.