“It can’t always be about money,” says the infatuated Carletto (Nino Bergamini) to the object of his affection, a country-girl-turned-city-woman named Adelina (Sara Rapisarda) who rejects his marriage proposal because they haven’t yet reached the economic level she desires. In All Screwed Up, Adelina’s refusal to marry a man because of his position, and his violent reaction towards the rejection (he rapes her as she tries to save the new television set she bought for the apartment she shares with other girls) might very well represent the conflict that was at the center of all of Lina Wertmüller’s films, the clash between money and virtue, or more specifically can people be in possession of both?
In films like Swept Away, Seven Beauties and The Seduction of Mimi, Wertmüller displayed a worldview that changed the way people thought about female filmmakers, she made films so bold, unique and transgressive that of course all people wanted to discuss was the gender of their creator. She will be forever known as the first woman who broke into the boys’ club and was nominated for the Best Director Oscar; she lost and it would take another 40 years for a woman to win, but Wertmüller’s legacy remains unsurpassed, and yet her work has strangely been neglected by audiences and critics alike, which is why it’s refreshing to see her at the center of a retrospective at the newly reopened Quad Cinema in New York.
The aptly titled Lina Wertmüller: Female Trouble series features the auteur’s major works including her first film The Lizards and will also include the U.S. premiere of Valerio Ruiz’s Behind the White Glasses, a documentary that tries to encompass Wertmüller’s themes and her legacy. To commemorate the retrospective, Wertmüller answered some questions via email, in which she discusses actors she loved working with, satire and what she hopes audiences will get from the retrospective.
The Film Stage: Does having a retrospective of your work make you feel nostalgic or does it inspire you to want to make more films?
Lina Wertmüller: I’ve never been nostalgic about the past. I generally look to the future and feel grateful to the extraordinary experiences I had during my whole life. The retrospective means so much to me. It’s a unique occasion to meet younger generations and to see if my films are still appreciated by new audiences.
At the center of your films there was always a battle of social classes, why did you choose satire and black humor to address those issues?
I think that grotesque portraits can be very helpful to underline defects and vices of people, especially if you are portraying characters that represent a particular political background.
Your films proved controversial in America for their sexual content. Why do you think American audiences are so puritanical when it comes to sex?
This is a very hard question! I think that time has changed. I’m not sure Americans are so puritanical today.
You’ve talked about how American distributors haven’t been as good with your most recent films. Are you hopeful about platforms like Netflix to make your films available to wider audiences?
Yes. I feel positive with new technologies and new platforms. They are a new opportunity to produce films and to diffuse them all over the world.
Films like Swept Away seem more relevant than ever. When you made those films were you hoping that at some point there would be social and gender equality and your films would seem like artifacts of the past?
I don’t think that genders are not equal in my film. They are put in contrast, which is quite different and their conflict represent a social battle between classes.
What actor or actress did you love to work with?
After The Seduction of Mimì, Mariangela and Giancarlo started to become very popular. We worked very well together and it was my intention to make a new film with them. We were a good team and I made some of my best films with them. I always kept a lot of attention while choosing my actors and I could not imagine a different cast for my movies.
Which of your films are you the most fond of?
I love each movie I made. I can’t express a preference. It’s like choosing between your children. It’s simply impossible.
With a renewed interest in grassroot politics and activism in young people, do you feel your films are in store for a rediscovery?
I hope so. I hope that the retrospective at Quad Cinema will give a positive answer to your question.
Lina Wertmüller: Female Trouble runs through May 2 at NYC’s Quad Cinema. See more information here.
My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is more than just another animated comedy full of high school angst. Written and directed by Dash Shaw with a voice cast that includes Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Lena Dunham, John Cameron Mitchell, and Susan Sarandon, the film enjoyed an acclaimed run on last fall’s festival circuit, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival and going on to screen at Fantastic Fest and the New York Film Festival. As the film arrives in limited release courtesy of GKIDS, we spoke with the filmmaker about the inspiration behind and process of bringing the semi-autobiographical, small-budget high school adventure comedy to the big screen.
The Film Stage: Thanks for speaking with us. We’re about the same age and I think I recognize a few of the influences in the film from comics, cartoons, books and movies. What were you watching and reading back then that influenced the film?
Dash Shaw: When we were teens in the 90s, the main alternative comics were auto-bio comics like Chester Brown, Julie Doucet — all of these people post-Robert Crumb. The opposite of that was the boys adventure comics, the superhero comics, and so the spark of the story idea was to have the autobiographic comic that’s been warped to favor that character’s perspective, so that you have a boys adventure comic landscape. And it felt like that’s what a lot of those auto-bio comics were about, was seeing the world through Chester Brown’s unusual perspective than they were about anything grounded in reality. Also in the 90s, there was anime, and I went to all of the anime conventions and a lot of those cartoons were about schools in danger. Like every Sailor Moon episode was about a monster attacking your school. Even the cartoons for adults like Urotsukidoji, the kind of tentacle porn movie, was about a demon attacking a school.
What I love about the film is has a distinctive hand-drawn aesthetic. It looks a little like something a high schooler might draw in the margins of their notebook in class. How did you adopt this aesthetic as an animator and an artist?
It’s basically traditional hand-drawn animation done using a computer instead of a camera. I scan in the drawings. Every line is made on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper and all of the background is acrylic paintings. What you mean by it looks like a teenager did it, in that its partly intentional, it’s all about reinforcing that character’s perspective, but it’s a combination of different choices. I’m drawing with a very thick line and a lot of illustration is drawn larger and shrunk down but there’s like a thick coloring book line which means I can do a lot of strange things with the color and the line is still legible. In a coloring book the lines are thick so that if a kid scribbles over them you can still see that there’s a drawing. So it’s a very blunt line. In the 1970s there was an illustration movement called Heta-Uma which means unskilled use of skills, and one of the main artist was a guy named King Terry and the idea was that they would subvert conventions of illustrations so there could be no logical perspective that instead of drawing lines and shrinking them down, they’d draw small and blow them up. And the idea was to challenge ideas of beauty and questioning what you find beautiful and it has a wonderful punk sensibility behind it. And of course it was appropriated by people that were not very skilled in the first place.
I always felt like there should be something raw and messed up about these cartoons and it should be like these lines are animated Frankenstein-style — it isn’t pretty but it’s alive and coming at you. I knew it would make sense for this story and them being younger and it feels they could maybe have drawn this, but also it also felt like it would be really cool to see a movie like that.
And that aesthetic is mirrored in the plot of the film, especially someone like Lunch Lady Lorraine [Susan Sarandon] who becomes a kind of superhero.
The plot came first, so it made me make these decisions. I always start with story first and the style came out of what I thought would be the best way to tell that story.
The film has an incredible voice cast including Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Lena Dunham, John Cameron Mitchell and Susan Sarandon. How did casting come together?
A lot of those people I had met before like John Cameron Mitchell, we had done a Sigur Ros video together and I did the drawings for his film Rabbit Hole. In his case, I just emailed him. Jason Schwartzman I had known for years. Lena Dunham I met at the Sundance labs. And for people I didn’t know like Susan Sarandon, we had a lot of the movie drawn, so we could go to her with a movie that’s 90 percent drawn, and its amazing we got that cast. It helps that the ball was rolling. It’s not like we tried to get that cast and draw that movie. We had a lot of the movie drawn already and we were able to change their faces to match their expressions, but no one’s character’s design was based on that actor, because we were already underway.
I remember from TIFF you brought on stage your team at the Ryerson. It was a small production. What was the production process like?
Jane Samborski and I are married and she’s the lead animator on the team. We lived in the same apartment when we were drawing it. It wasn’t like an office. There wasn’t departments; I storyboarded it and used that to make a sheet: scene 3, shot 10, background by Frank Santoro – who is a comic book artist I know, so I asked him to paint some of the backgrounds – and pencils by Jane and ink by Dash. We divided up that way. I thought of it much more like a band — with one person drumming and another writing and singing the songs — than a movie studio.
How long of a journey was it from script to premiering it last fall?
The script was written 2010 and premiered at TIFF in 2016, so six years but it was kind of a side project for many years so it exaggerates the amount of time.
I’m always curious about how a long-term project evolves as the project grows and evolves.
I tried for many years to make an animated movie in a more normal way where you get cast attached and trigger financing and it never happened. So this film evolved around what was achievable with a few people and no money. I didn’t even think I would get great actors, so the joke of the movie is that there’s all this disaster going on and the actors remain kind of deadpan about this high school experience and that would maybe still be funny if the voice talent were great. So pretty much every decision was based on what was possible. When the other movie fizzled — and that was a hard time because I tried to it and I failed – [I said] I am still going to try to do this. That was a big blow at the very beginning and I was never a super successful comic book artist, but I was creatively satisfied and involved in multiple projects, but I still wanted to see an animated movie that looked like this and I still thought I could do it. And then when the voice cast came on in 2014, that was the opposite of a hurdle. When I was working on this for so many years I thought no one would see it and now they will. It didn’t really change the scale of the production, but now we’re thinking maybe some people will actually watch it now when we’re all done.
That certainly is the case with the release this weekend!
Yes. It’s getting a theatrical release this weekend in New York, LA, and Toronto. In New York at the Metrograph they’ll be a lot of artwork from the movie in the lobby and I curated their bookstore. If you’re in New York, it’ll be a special experience.
Any teasers about what you have planned for this weekend at Metrograph?
I’ll be doing Q & As with Jane and on Friday with Thomas J. Ryan, Saturday, John Cameron Mitchell will be there – in the bookstore there’s a lot of things that inspired the movie like Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reingier and Devil Man, a 70s TV series, and some contemporary comics I think people who like the movie will like from Anya Davidson. If you’re going to the Metrograph you’re probably with it, but you might not know much about contemporary comics, so if you’re curious I’ve figured it out for you. You can buy one of everything and you’ll be set!
My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is now in limited release.
There was a time when Hollywood specialized in big films with big ideas, epics that not only transported audiences to previously unseen worlds, but also had something important to say about the human condition. If that tradition has all but vanished, director James Gray seems intent on rescuing it with The Lost City of Z, a grand epic about British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and his obsession with unearthing an ancient lost city in the Amazon which he believed to be the remains of El Dorado. While Gray shows the thrill of the adventure, he’s equally interested in capturing the struggle within Fawcett who renounced a traditional family life to seek the restoration of his family name, and the creation of a new legacy for his children.
Even though he displayed his ability to convey emotional turmoil in FX’s Sons of Anarchy, the movies for the most part haven’t taken advantage of Hunnam’s abilities. This should change as he proves his leading man quality in The Lost City of Z, where he turns Fawcett into a character of many contradictions, who can go from utmost tenderness towards his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) to a complete lack of humility when he confronts the people who challenge his expedition. Hunnam makes for a commendable adventurer, but it’s his quieter moments that are the true revelation, as in scenes where he evokes pages of dialogue with a simple gesture. I spoke to Hunnam about what drew him to Fawcett, how he found reintegration into daily life a challenge after shooting in the jungle, and working with Gray.
The Film Stage: Doing your research to play Percy Fawcett what surprised you the most about him?
James Gray: I don’t know what surprised me the most. I was struck by how much sacrifice he made through his life, and the compromise he made with his family, and how the folly that all of that sacrifice in his life kept being rewarded by failure. Yet he had the tenacity to keep moving forward, he was never deterred from trying to reach his goal. I was struck by how painful his life must’ve been, and also how incredible it is to have such belief and conviction in one self. Even as everyone in society told him he was crazy he had come to believe that this very modern civilization had existed in the Amazon rainforest, and while at that time everyone believed that was impossible, he believed it so deeply he spent 35 years of his life trying to find proof of that.
What was the challenge of playing someone who was always doomed to fail in the eyes of society?
It’s funny, the great tragedy of the story of Fawcett is he actually didn’t fail. He wasn’t able to prove it in his lifetime, but since the deforestation of that area of the Amazon, and thanks to infrared photography, it’s actually been proven that the city he was looking for existed, and it was exactly where he thought it existed. The great tragedy is he was walking around that area trying to find a civilization that had become extinct, what he hadn’t anticipated was how quickly the jungle would reclaim that territory and leave no sign of that civilization. I never thought of him as a failure. I thought of him as a heroic, pioneering thinker, who was a little ahead of his time.
Your scenes with Sienna Miller were beautiful. How did the two of you work on the relationship between Percy and Nina?
I think Nina historically was such a wonderful, impressive lady, she was also ahead of her time. Working with Sienna was extraordinary — I think she’s absolutely brilliant and had really been actively seeking an opportunity to work with her. There was a film I was talking about doing that shot at the same time as The Lost City of Z, that I was attached to, and I was advocating them offering the female lead to Sienna. That film ended up not going forward, but then we did this instead. She’s effortlessly brilliant as an actor, but also an incredible person to be around, she’s incredibly smart, gregarious and a good quality of life human being.
James Gray is a great director and he’s also such a wonderful cinephile. This film made me think of things like 2001: A Space Odyssey and I wonder if he gave you any assignments or recommended films to watch in preparation for the shoot?
No, in terms of his directorial inspiration he didn’t talk about that too much. There was a narrative about 2001: A Space Odyssey because there’s one shot, the segue from a rather dramatic moment Percy has where he slaps his son into the first World War sequence, and there was a shot he borrowed directly from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that was the only time I actually remember referencing that film, or any other film specifically. We were more engaged in making it personal and finding the emotional truth of Fawcett’s journey.
I’ve heard the stories about bugs in your ears and all the craziness that went down in the Amazon, but did you discover that coming back into urban living was strange after being in the jungle?
I gotta say I found reintegration incredibly, incredibly difficult. It’s funny, one of the things I could relate with Fawcett so deeply was this sense of trying to fill the great and terrible hole we spend our lives trying to fill, and trying to figure out what it all means. It felt to me that greater than the desire to find the lost city of Z, what Amazonia provided Fawcett was a purpose, it made his life make sense. My interpretation of it is that he felt alive and whole, and the terrible voice inside him begging for an answer and the meaning of it all was silenced when he was there.
I can really relate to that because the only time when I don’t feel completely fucking crazy is when I’m making a film. For me that’s when the world makes sense. I’m engaged in a process that feels like a worthy use of time. It’s so funny that the process of acting and the rhythm of an actor’s life, when you’re making a film your day is filled up: you’re shooting 80 hours a week, there’s also rehearsal, and it’s such a specific goal that’s fulfilling or filling every waking hour of your hopes and dreams. Then the film finishes, you come back to your daily life and there’s that gaping hole of the loss of that experience, but then also trying to reconcile what life means outside of the context of work.
Life moves on as well, you leave for three or four months and life goes on. You come back and the rest of the people in your life have also moved on, so there’s always a feeling of alienation. All of it combined makes me find the process of reintegration very difficult.
You have King Arthur: Legend of the Sword coming up in the summer, so with The Lost City of Z we’re bracing ourselves for a “Charlie Hunnam tells the History of Britain” kinda thing.
[Laughs] Just call me the Professor.
I haven’t seen King Arthur: Legend of the Sword but considering the Arthurian legend is about glory and loyalty, just like Percy’s story, do you feel that in the aftermath of Brexit these movies about the expansion of the Empire seem bittersweet? Or do you think of them as romantic reminders of what once was?
That’s an amazing question and it’s a subject I would love to talk to you for an hour about. From the way I look at life, I feel very acutely that a decade ago we arrived at this point where historically there was this wonderful force of progress and moving forward. I really don’t have that sense anymore, I don’t feel that anymore. We reached critical mass and as morbid as it is, I don’t sit around feeling depressed about it, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’re now in the end of days.
There’s really no real tangible hopeful future for us. If you look at all the things we’re facing with economic difficulty, the Ponzi scheme that the global economy has been based on, the lack of resources, water shortage, climate change, overpopulation…. I don’t know if all the challenges we’re facing are surmountable. We’ve reached the top and now we’re in a very serious period of very rapid decline. [Laughs] On those hopeful words, I gotta go. That’s a rather depressing note to the end this interview on.
Thank God for art then.
Yes, exactly: we have art. Well said.
The Lost City of Z is now in limited release and expands nationwide on April 21.
Read even just a couple of interviews with him and you’ll realize that James Gray — in his humor, candor, self-effacement, knowledge, and general kindness — is better at the process than almost anybody else. So I’d experienced twice over, and now a third time on the occasion of his latest picture, The Lost City of Z. Although I liked the film a whole lot upon seeing it at last year’s NYFF and found it a rich source of questions, our conversation proved too casual and genial to be intruded about with a query about sound mixing — which I, of course, just knew I’d ask before entering a hotel room and sitting at a tiny table, complementary chocolate cake between us, and realizing that my muse then and there was instead a question about Steven Soderbergh’s Twitter account.
It’s not every day you can bring it up, and it’s certainly not often that it leads to a sort-of-amazing anecdote about the prior week’s risible Pepsi commercial — least of all when it ends up involving someone you’re friendly with on a day-to-day, sometimes professional basis. But yes: you’ll learn about The Lost City of Z‘s many-layered production, and to very specific extents that, as far as I can tell, haven’t yet been covered.
This first question may seem kind of stupid, but I ask it sincerely: how do you, personally, pronounce the title? I and others have been saying “The Lost City of Zee,” but…
Yeah. The correct pronunciation is “The Lost City of Zed,” but I don’t say that. I say “zee”; I call it “zee.” But that’s an English-American divide, I suppose.
I just needed to ask that.
There you go. How about “both”? That’s an answer, right? Both.
You’ve been involved with, or at least circling, The Lost City of Z for a long while. I wonder about the feeling of finally starting a movie that’s been percolating for years. Many directors have passion projects — recently Scorsese with Silence, to name something obvious — but is there a particular force at play when cameras actually roll for the first time?
I think it’s a real problem. Because when you’ve had your ideas percolate for a long time, you become a different person — you change — and maybe some of the things that you thought were just terrific about the story when you read them in 2008 don’t strike you as quite so marvelous in 2016. Or maybe other things that you thought nothing of… I mean, I had to reread the book, like, 400 times over the span and, at some point, you wonder if you’re going to have to reinvent your passion for the movie, which is a very bad thing. But, in this case, I felt — out of sight, out of mind — that I actually wasn’t… I was dying to make it around 2010, but when it fell apart, I gave up. I went off to make The Immigrant after that, and the movie was out of my mind completely. It really was. It came back to life purely because of Plan B: they were the ones who were committed to making the film — really, in a great way — and I owe them a huge debt.
And I think that’s a good thing, that I wasn’t dying to make it, dying to make it. I thought, “Oh, this won’t happen.” In the end, it allowed me to approach the material in a way that I think was who I am in that moment of my life in 2015, in 2016. I had to do a big script rewrite — I had to do some other things to get it to where I am now — but I think that’s the only way you can approach these long-gestating passion projects. I had to do a Q & A with Martin Scorsese for Silence when it came out in Los Angeles, and I asked him this exact question because of exactly what we’re talking about here, and he responded in a very similar way: that he had been through so many other projects that, in a sense, it allowed him to come back to this one fresh. Which I think is the same thing here. I mean, I don’t have his greatness or talent or whatever, but the same idea.
Are there things about yourself that you could identify as having changed?
You know, that’s hard for me. Not because I don’t care about what you’re asking, but quite the opposite: I don’t have a good view of myself — which is probably abundantly clear to you already — but I can’t judge myself. I have no filters; I always answer questions completely honestly. I don’t even know what the hell I’m saying half the time, and how I’ve grown or changed is totally imperceptible to me. Have I grown as an artist? Well, I certainly hope I have. But growth is not assured. If growth were assured, Full Metal Jacket would blow away 2001. So I don’t even really know how to approach my advancing age. You hope you’re growing, but life and the world have other ideas. So I think it’s better for you to ask that, or to answer that, than it is for me, what the work looks like now vs. what the work was like in 1993.
I did think your involvement was strange, knowing what you’d made up to that point — that the man behind Two Lovers and We Own the Night would do this jungle movie. But The Immigrant is… I don’t want to say “a stepping stone,” because I think that’s a great film and to call it as much puts a certain, not-flattering spin on it, but —
I know what you mean.
But I’m thinking of that as you’re talking.
Well, I do wonder why — and I say this not argumentatively; I’m just really curious — it was a weird choice that I might make this movie. Just because I’ve done one kind of movie doesn’t mean I want to spend my whole life doing that kind of movie. I mean, when somebody sends me a Russian-mafia script set in Brooklyn, I barely… I don’t even read it most of the time. It’s like, “No, I did that. Somebody else could approach it in a much more fresh manner and make a much better movie than I ever could.” Now, maybe some people will say that, “No, the perfect director The Lost City of Z is Sam Mendes.” I’m just thinking of an English director — I don’t know — and maybe that’s true; maybe that’s not. Maybe it needs cultural distance.
John Schlesinger is an Englishman who made, I think, the best movie about New York in the ‘60s. Midnight Cowboy has its own feel and is a completely beautiful film, but he was an English director who made Bill Liar, or something, before that, and all of a sudden came this beautiful work. So I don’t think you can predict, really, what one filmmaker can do or should do. What I do think is consistent is a point of view, and a view of the world. The best quote I ever heard — not to get too sententious on you — about a filmmaker was about Kubrick. It’s, “Stanley Kubrick saw what was wrong with the world and turned it into art.” Which is so magnificent; and, in some ways, that’s what we’re all hoping to do. So you can’t say, “That’s only one corner of the world.” Now, having said that, there are directors who stay in only one corner of the world and are incredible. Federico Fellini very rarely ventured away from himself. I guess you could say Satyricon, but it’s weird: I think that’s, in some ways, his weakest film. But there’s the rest of his filmography — Amarcord, I Vitelloni, 8½ — they’re about him. So maybe I should stick with myself, rip him off.
I wanted to bring up the pretty explicit visual reference to I Vitelloni in this movie.
[Smiles] That’s right. Totally cribbed. Totally cribbed. Which, I don’t care. I’m totally fine with it.
As soon as it popped up, I just kind of went, “Oh, there it is.” I haven’t seen anybody bring it up, which I take as a sign that you did that properly.
Oh, thank you, but I was trying to communicate… of course it takes on — always, because context is everything — a slightly different meaning, but I remembered that moment from that movie being so powerful because what it said was that he’s leaving it all behind, and he’s leaving that stage of his life behind. There’s something both beautiful and, also, very sad about it. And I thought I would use that thing that he did, but except apply it directly. Because there, it’s his friends, although I think one of the shots it’s his parents — I can’t remember now; it’s been a few years — but the idea here is that it’s his wife and children that he’s leaving behind, so it has a different feel about it, I think, but it is totally ripped off.
It’s funny: I’m not the slightest bit embarrassed about it. In fact, if you were to watch Nights of Cabiria and Giulietta Masina’s performance, and, right after that, watch anything by Charlie Chaplin, I think you would laugh hysterically at how much he and she stole from Mr. Chaplin. So everybody steals from everybody. Just because Sister Rosetta Tharpe was playing guitar the way she was and singing the way she was doesn’t diminish Chuck Berry. I’m always trying to steal from the best; that’s the idea.
And I think you did it well.
Oh, thank you. I think it works well. It’s my favorite part of the movie, the last 30 minutes, because what I was trying to do was have the movie moving towards this idea of transcendence and build in a certain wistfulness — and to not do what the other “jungle movies” do, if you want to call them that. You know, “white man goes to the jungle,” which is always, they descend with monkeys on a raft or everybody going crazy. Or [Whispers] “The horror, the horror.” That’s the southeast Asian jungle, but the point is: I didn’t want to end it with the horror. I know that what happens to him is horrible, but I want it to be different. Maybe it doesn’t work; maybe it does. I don’t know. But that was my intent.
It’s funny for me, because I actually didn’t know the story really at all.
Well, I took a lot of liberties. The book is magnificent, and obviously completely factually, unbelievably well-researched and thorough — David Grann is a brilliant investigative reporter — but, for a movie, you can’t do that. It can’t be a recitation of facts. In documentary, you can do it, but a film requires something, dare I say, more poetic. Because the whole thing acts as a kind of metaphor, if I may use a dirty word, because you’re already taking somebody’s life — already impossible — and you’re going like this [contracts hands] into two hours. It’s impossible. So what you do is show sequences, and, in a kind of pop-psychology, armchair-psychology way, hope that a greater truth emerges. You know what I’m saying?
Absolutely. So is “metaphor” usually a dirty word for you?
Not for me. Are you kidding? The whole thing is about metaphor. But I say “dirty word” because you’re not allowed to be pretentious or sententious; you’re just supposed to say, “I don’t know…” and have everybody else write about it. And I’m bad at that. I talk too much, and also joke too much. A lot of times, when I joke, it’s not relayed in print as a joke, so it can get you into trouble — which is why I’m not very good at these things, generally. Interviews, I mean. But that’s why I prefaced it that way.
I found it interesting how there is a use of makeup to communicate the characters’ advancing age — a really common cinematic tool that, as far as I can recall, you’ve never employed, at least to age an actor. If it is, in fact, new, how was it going into that terrain? Was there a need to get your bearings?
You’ve got me wondering now. I have never done it — you’re right. Well, I did it with huge concern. We had to do a lot of testing and see what the limits were of what we can do, and how much to age him. That’s Nana Fischer. I thought she wound up doing a wonderful job, because what you want is to be subtle and make the point, but you don’t want it to be that the person looks exactly the same. That’s not an easy thing to do, to age properly. We added a mustache on Tom Holland and all that.
It just was a source of frustration and terror for me because, you know, you live in fear of, like, the mustache coming off or hair looking wrong, whatever. And we did have photographs of these people to go by, to see how they aged, and that’s kind of what we based it on. But it’s a good question. You’re right: I’ve never done aging before. This was the first I ever did it in. We just had to test a whole lot. Then there are these things called prosthetics, where they basically put, like, plastic under the skin — they make fake skin and all that — and we didn’t do that because we just thought the face would melt in the heat of the jungle. So we tried to keep the makeup simple.
Speaking of your time in the jungle: I read in a recent interview, I believe with The Telegraph —
Every time someone repeats my words to me, I’m like, “Did I say that? Jesus, that’s so stupid.” Go ahead.
You said how, out of necessity, the jungle shoot didn’t have anything in the way of setting up lighting.
Lighting can take an unbelievable amount of time, so I wonder how cutting this process out of the filmmaking scheme changes your rhythm and tempo.
That’s an excellent question. The answer is: it didn’t change it at all. Even though there’s no lights, you have to do a tremendous amount of lighting. The jungle is so hard to shoot in. Forget all the other elements. Cinematographers have a very difficult time in the jungle because it’s about balancing the light and it’s about exposure — and you have the light that streams through the trees that’s very hot, and the darkness. So you have to find a place where you’re exposing to. If you’re exposed to the white light, then all the areas in the dark fall into nothing. So your exposure has to be a kind of… you have to modulate the light in the jungle. A huge number of black flags and reflector boards and so on.
So just because we didn’t have electricity or bring in lights, there is still a shaping that has to be done, and that was a really arduous, miserable process because you think we would move fast, but we didn’t. Also, the way the sun peeks through the trees changes so rapidly during the day because of the way the sun moves. If you and I were on the Great Lawn in Central Park and the sun went from 10 a.m. to now, 5 p.m., you could shoot the whole time. In the jungle, with tree cover, whether the sun is here, where there’s a lot of tree cover; and then here, where there’s no tree cover; and then there, where there’s some tree cover… in other words, the differential is huge. So, you know, there’s a film that William Friedkin directed called Sorcerer, and he hired a man named Dick Bush to shoot the film; then he had to go somebody else named John Stevens, because Dick Bush, the jungle just killed him. He could not balance the light. So we had those issues for sure.
It makes me think of something that your friend, Steven Soderbergh, tweeted. By the way, have you seen his account?
You know, I know this is going to open me up for ridicule: I don’t go on Twitter. I don’t know Twitter. I don’t tweet.
That’s probably for the best.
Just for your own well-being.
Oh, really? What do they all say, that I’m a jerk?
No, no. I see good things. I’m only talking about the general…
I’m sorry. It’s not out of ego or thinking I’m better than Twitter. It really has to do with when you have three young children running around in the house, and you make dinner and take them to school and you want to do the work… I don’t have time to go on Twitter. I’m amazed that people do it, like, every twenty minutes. They’re tweeting something and I’m like… [Slack-jawed] My wife does. Not a lot, but she goes on every now and then and, a lot of times, she’ll tell me something really funny.
There was a recent Pepsi ad which a lot of people were very offended by. I haven’t seen it, but someone must have tweeted that I directed it, because I got a whole host of angry emails and phone calls about how could I make this commercial and what a jerk I am. Of course, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about; I was like, “What?” And apparently some film-critic guy tweeted it, so shows you what I know. I don’t know.
I didn’t expect things to go in that direction. Anyway, he said that anybody he knows “who’s any good is always stealing from Sorcerer.”
He said that? [Pause] That’s awesome! You know, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about Sorcerer with him. Is he a big fan? I’ve never talked about it with him.
He must be.
He must be, right? I think he’s kind of a big Friedkin guy. Well, you know, about that movie: it’s such a tremendously… not just gutsy, but the power and the force of what it is he was trying to pull off there. I mean, that sequence with the two trucks on the rickety rope bridge — the Sorcerer and the Lazaro, or whatever it is, on that bridge — that’s no CG. How the hell do you do that? There are other sequences I really love in the movie, too, like that thing that Amidou makes with the sack of the sand, so that it slides down and the rock hits the nitroglycerin and the tree blows up.
Friedkin really understands how process works in cinema. You see that montage in To Live and Die in L.A. [Blows] where you see the money appear for a second on the sheet of metal, and all that. He really understands that movies, sometimes, are just an incredible chronicle of events. But, yeah, you have to steal from that. I did talk to him in candor before; I went off and he talked to me about the jungle and the difficulties that way, and what it does to cinematographers. But I’m telling you: it does not really change your rhythm. It’s so funny: you can have all the money and all the time — or so they say; I’ve never… — or you can have no time and no money and, for some reason, the situation is the same. You’re always under stress, there’s always pressure, you don’t get enough shots… it doesn’t matter. It’s always ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag, no matter what you’re trying to do.
Perhaps that’s a good title for this interview.
Although I think your movie is better than that.
Oh, I certainly hope it is. My God. Ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. Can you imagine if that was the descriptor of the movie?
The Lost City of Z opens in NY/LA on Friday, April 14 and expands wide a week later on April 21.
Premiering at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival to rave reviews (including our own), Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion tackles the life and work of America’s premier lady of letters, Emily Dickinson. Starring Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson, the drama pulsates with repressed creativity and bridled vitality, textured by Davies’s painterly, atmospheric touches that capture those aspects as well as the distinct domesticity of the Dickinson household. At last year’s New York Film Festival, I was able to sit down with highly esteemed British filmmaker and discuss what drew him to Emily Dickinson, the cruelty of talent being unrecognized within their lifetimes, and films that inspired him: William Wyler’s The Heiress and Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman. With the film now opening in limited release this Friday, read our full conversation below.
The Film Stage: What drew you to making this, not typical, biopic of Emily Dickinson’s life? Why her as a subject?
Terence Davies: I discovered her when I was 18. Claire Bloom was reading her work on television. And the first one was “Because I could not stop for Death.” So I bought the anthology and I didn’t really know about her life because it had just a little preface about when she lived and when she died and all about that. It was about five or six years ago that I really started to re-read her. And I thought, “I’ve got to do what her life was like” and found this extraordinary life. Reminding me more and more of the Brontës. They didn’t go anywhere and look at what they produced, and she was the same. I thought this inner life was very, very rich.
There’s an English composer that doesn’t get played now called Michael Tippett. In every interview, he always said, “You’ve got to have an original life. You’ve got to feed that soul.” So even when if we die, the soul disappears. Without it, what do you do. And it doesn’t have to be rich in the sense of the arts. If you get a great deal of pleasure by watching sport, then fine, and if you know everything about a particular sport, as long as your inner life is fed. What I was moved by was her spiritual quest because I went on one of my own. I was a very devout Catholic until I was 22. For seven years, from 15 to 22, I really did fight because I was taught that these doubts about the religion, these are the work of the devil and you’ve got to fight it. And at the end of seven years, I just thought, “Well, it’s all a lie anyway. Why have I been so slow in realizing it?” But once that goes out of your life, what do you fill it with? Because it had been a very important part of my life, but then movies had been an even more important part. I said goodbye to God and said hello to Gene Kelly. Another thing that I was very moved by was that she wasn’t recognized in her own lifetime. That I do think is heartbreaking. Even her bread, she only won second prize. You think couldn’t she have got first prize just once.
What liberties did you take in dramatizing Emily Dickinson’s life story?
One of the liberties was that she did not meet Mabel Loomis Todd. But I mean, you go outside and you ask about Mabel Loomis Todd and they don’t know who you’re talking about. The lovely people at Amherst said that at this time, Mabel Loomis Todd was five years old, so she couldn’t meet anybody. It’s not a documentary. It’s only my version of the truth and in my Emily, it’s not anybody else’s, because content dictates form — it will tell you how do we give information. Stories are all about information and how you give it so it’s not confusing. As I said the other day, you don’t know in the first two shots, only at the end of the third shot do you know it’s about her. We see a group of women. Who is it about? And then we all ask that without knowing it, who it’s about, who are they. Oh, it’s about her. It’s a very simple device, but on a deeper level, it just tells you the information that you have taken from the biographies has then got to come out refracted and new. And the things you leave out are the things that you need to leave out. It’s like if I could just extrapolate… when you do a cut — I was told this at film school and it’s just fantastic — you do a cut and you think it needs this and it needs this. The person in the editing said, “Go home and tonight, before you go to bed, write down the shots.” So I did. And I got back and he looked at them. “You’ve left one out.” And I said, “Yes.” That’s the one you don’t need, and he was right.
So with that in my mind, thinking what do we do. You have to do that anyway when you’re shooting. You have to do it more so when you’re editing, but it tells you what to do. Dramatic truth isn’t real truth. It’s not, but it has its own logic. For instance, if we had started on her behind the doors when they played Nacht der Tonhalle, and panned reverse, left to right and around, left to right, what would it have meant? It would have implied that she sort of is aware he might flirt with this woman, but of course doing it the other way around, you don’t know what she’s thinking, which is precisely what it should be. It’s things like that that have to be… because you go through a series of deaths, really. You go through the deaths — the death of the idea when you write the script, you go through the death of the script when you shoot it, and you go through the death of the idea once you get to the actual final cut. But each time you lose something and you gain something by saying we don’t really need that. And other times, it’s sheer luck.
When we were doing Miss Vyrling Buffam’s wedding, it was originally written for inside the church. They come inside the church and say goodbye to her. We found this lovely Episcopalian church, but outside it was all modern. We didn’t have the money to dress it, so we confined it to the interior. We set up the wide and somebody hadn’t put the break on the camera, so it slid down a little. I said that’s the shot. Have it come down as she sits up, we don’t need any close-ups or action shots. But that’s luck. You have to be aware of the moment. You have to grab that moment. Just as the actors will do things, especially when they’re not acting and none of them did, they will do things instinctively and that’s what’s thrilling. When she has the first attack of Branson’s Disease, she could have sat down and been in pain and all that, but what she does is go to hold that dresser and all of that glass shakes, but it’s glorious. You can’t direct that. That’s glorious.
Cynthia Nixon captures that certain moment where she’s in great pain, but also the three servants walk in and, rather than revealing the source of her pain, she lashes out at them and then later attempts to make amends for that behavior.
She would have done that because she had great sense of consciousness, and that’s why I have her say, “Have I been forgiven? Keep the money, it will ease my conscious.” Because she’s genuinely upset that she has done such a thing, because she very rarely loses her temper. And she would be deeply upset that she had taken advantage of those servants, because those servants were loved. It was not true of lots of servants, especially in New York, they got three dollars a week… as [Mr. Dickinson] says to her, “They’re not servants; they’re employees.” And she’s really touched by that. She genuinely is sorry and the fact that she would say she was sorry to people who work for her father, and he doesn’t actually say to her you’ve got to apologize. She does that on her accord.
In the film, there is a really breathtaking pan across the Dickinson parlor, which in and of itself is so domestic and such a Victorian setting. The shot lingers on that atmosphere, then lands on a young Emily and a tumult of intense anguish from her. How did you approach capturing that very specific feeling?
When I was a child, we didn’t have a large house. It was a very cramped house. In September term at primary school, you’d get home in the dark and the parlor wasn’t lit. We only had very cheap furniture, but the fire was pleasant. It reflected in all of these surfaces, the pot of tea and something toasted. It seemed to make everything unbelievably luxurious. I used to sit and watch my family just do things. When you’re the young son, you do. And I thought that that’s what she does. What entertainment have they got? Either they play a game of cards or they read or they sew or they play the piano or they just sit and look in the fire. So that was something I’d experienced as well. When we come back to her, I said to her, “But something in you has died,” and I didn’t explain it. Her eyes filled with tears. She’s a wonderful actress, that girl. Because I did that as a child, thinking one day, they will all be dead. And even as a child, I experienced the ecstasy of happiness, but knowing that it wouldn’t last. That’s what I wanted to convey. They carry on with their lives and they’re only doing small things, but they’re together and it’s peaceful… the fleeting nature of happiness.
In telling Emily Dickinson’s story, how much did you think of her being a woman writer, a woman creative, being stifled by her times?
It wasn’t a conscious feminist tract. It was, “Here was a great artist.” Simple as that. She happens to be a woman, but she’s a great artist and was not known in her lifetime. That more than anything drew me to her. It reminded me of Anton Bruckner’s music. He had one success, the 8th Symphony and that’s it. It wasn’t until the 1960s when they began playing Mahler in concerts and then Bruckner, and he had one success and he was a very devout Catholic. There’s a wonderful story. I think it’s after the 8th Symphony, he didn’t know how to say thank you to the conductor, so he waited for him to come out at the stage door and he gave him forty donuts in a bag. That’s what moved me more than anything else that she wasn’t recognized. There were men who weren’t recognized either. Not just her. And any artist of that stature, not to have someone say, “Look, you are gifted.” At least Brookner had a young Mahler saying to him, “Dr. Brookner, your music is wonderful.” And he said, “Yes, but nobody wants to hear it.” So he had at least that. I don’t know whether she had anyone who said to her, “Look, you are a great poet.” I wanted someone to say it. Just once.
It was so beautiful having that scene with the man she has a bit of a crush on. He reads her poetry, says it’s great, and asks where she’s been published — that moment of tiny validation, albeit private and in her garden. At that point, any validation felt so nice for her and for us as her audience.
I do also think in a way, it’s not enough. Perhaps, people totally ignoring your work is better than one person saying, “I think it’s fabulous.” It’s certainly better than someone saying it’s interesting. That’s really awful. There are those awful times where if someone’s in a play, you go backstage and what do you say… I can’t lie. I asked someone what do you do, she said, “I go and say, ‘You’ve done it again.’” I said I couldn’t do that to them.
What sort of films influenced you while making this?
The two great influences were The Heiress and Letter from an Unknown Woman. I love those films. They’re just fabulous. Letter from an Unknown Woman is the greatest film about unrequited love, and what is wonderful about The Heiress is that she finds her strength and look at what she’s had to abandon. Someone described Ralph Richardson’s performance, which is the best one he ever gave, as a study in hushed tyranny. Isn’t that wonderful? When they’re in Paris and they’re eating chocolate, he says to her, “Have you’ve changed your mind?” and she says, “Never.” Then he says, “We’ll go back to New York.” She says, “I thought you wanted to see England?” He says, “I’ve seen England.” It’s a fabulous film. They were great influences.
And in your film, Emily speaks down from the top of the Dickinson staircase. For me, the staircase from The Heiress immediately came to mind. And then when you bring her poetry to life with the phantom male figure going up those stairs, I felt that sublime romantic yearning you feel in both of those films.
That is never requited, because no man came. The sad fact is that when you really desperately need something, and someone quite innocently has got no hidden agenda, this young lad is just a nice young lad. She misinterprets everything. She thinks she’s being spoken down to and she goes for him, and he’s really a nice lad. When you put it between those two scenes, going out and coming back, and she’s had her fantasy… because she’s still vibrating with that idea, and then this kid starts saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Great, that’s all I need — a cliche. That’s why she’s so acid with him. The poor lad, he hasn’t done anyone any harm. He’s probably a bachelor for the rest of his life, the poor sod.
A Quiet Passion opens in limited release on Friday, April 14.
Premiering back in September at the Toronto Film Festival, Walter Hill‘s The Assignment (formerly known as (Re)Assignment) came not necessarily as a galvanizing work from an old action master, but a charming, off-beat genre exercise as well as show-off for older thespians (chiefly Sigourney Weaver and Tony Shaloub). With the film now in theaters and on VOD, we were able to talk to Hill about the freedom and fun he had in making his first real low-budget film.
The Film Stage: How have action films changed since you returned to directing with Bullet to the Head?
Walter Hill: I think the changes were well in the works before I did Bullet to the Head. Obviously the superhero comic-book film has taken over. They’re now what’s referred to as action films, but I think they’re very different from the kind of movies we used to call action when I was working in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. I don’t quite know how to frame this, especially since I’ve just done a movie that’s often referred to as within a comic-book / graphic novel approach — which is certainly true, by the way. But there are comic books of a different kind. The most obvious way, though, has been how the technical changes of the modern apparatus of CGI etc. has opened up a much larger canvas, and a lot more money is being spent on these action movies than they used to get in the old days. I mean, in the old action movies, the violence had consequences. We used to have this joke that the jokes were funny and the bullets are real. But now they just beat the shit out of each other but nobody really dies; they’re just warmed up for the next sequel.
The director’s cut of The Warriors also incorporates comic book transitions like this film does; is that something you’ve been trying to do in other films?
I think that’s fair to say. In other films, I don’t know. With the whole The Warriors thing, I think what I was trying to show was if I was left alone what the movie would’ve looked like, which was not quite true because of some of the voices we were going to use, and some of the comic book art that I put in the movie, was from a very different artist than the guy we were talking about using back when the movie came out. I thought it was kind of interesting to see what the director wanted to do. A lot people felt that the additions weren’t good for the movie, and hurt the movie as they saw it. I had no problem with that — I just thought it was interesting to have the choice — but I was not ashamed of the movie the way it came out.
Speaking of comics, what I thought this was most similar to was your work on Tales from the Crypt.
That’s exactly right. That was the real touchstone for this film. I had come to Denis Hamill’s screenplay first in 1978 I think and was interested in the material and optioned it several times, but I really couldn’t figure out how to do it. Then it was after Tales from the Crypt that showed me the way; if I did this in that vein, like it was a king-sized Tales from the Crypt, although we didn’t exactly have a king-sized budget. But I thought in that kind of texture I could pull this thing off.
Had you always been interested in making a film with a female lead?
Yeah. I mean, you get tired of everybody jumping on you because your movies are masculine. I like to think that I’m not a director of men — I’m just a director. Sigourney’s part was actually written for a guy; then I switched it at the last second at about roughly the same time Michelle was coming in the movie. Once I had switched it over to a woman, Sigourney was the first person I sent it to and it was a different part than she usually got a chance to play, and I said, “If this put a strain on our friendship, I’ll understand. I thought it was a good part.” She laughed and called back two days later, and said she’d love to do it.
This film is produced by Saïd Ben Saïd, who’s recently worked with people like Paul Verhoeven and Brian De Palma. Do you feel like there’s more appreciation for your work in Europe?
I think it’s safe to say my reviews have always been better in Europe than they’ve been in this country — not that I haven’t been treated kindly upon many occasions. You know, I just think the Europeans are, on the whole, a little more into the vibe of what I do; I’m really talking about critically, not audiences. The audiences have been pretty consistent everywhere in the world, but occasionally you catch a hit in one culture. Streets of Fire, for instance, was an enormous hit in Japan, but to say the least it was not an enormous hit in the United States.
I think it’s fair to say this was your first “independent” film?
Yes, it would be very fair to say. Though it depends what you think about Avi Lerner’s company [Nu Image/Millennium] in the year 2000; those were very independent movies. Southern Comfort back in, what was it, 1980 or 1981, was a negative pickup. It was released through Fox, but it was a negative pickup.
Did you find it in anyway a relief to be doing an independent film after so many studio films?
I don’t know if it was a relief. It was different. I was definitely left in a more “splendid isolation,” shall we say. The budgetary restrictions were very upfront and boldly stated, but I didn’t go over-budget and over-schedule or anything. I really was treated with total freedom and I, of course, liked that a great deal. Since I didn’t go over-budget or over-schedule it worked out pretty well. I shot it in twenty-plus days and the budget was a little under three million dollars.
The Assignment is now in theaters and available on VOD.
Despite winning Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Cristian Mungiu‘s approach in Graduation will feel safe to many already familiar with the Romanian New Wave, for which he broke major ground when winning the Palme d’Or with 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But look past the fact that, yes, this is another moral- and social-crisis drama consisting primarily of extended two-shot conversations and a knottier, more rewarding movie is waiting for you.
Mungiu will be the first to say as much, though not in an especially declarative manner — I was simply lucky enough to have a long, winding conversation about Graduation‘s finer aesthetic and thematic points, as well as the many times in which they meet head-on. Have you ever wondered if a movie could perfectly harness the look, sound, and feeling of a school year’s final days? And what is the benefit of editing a visually rigid film as it’s being shot? If Graduation‘s final effect is determined by its accumulation of small parts, how fitting that the film’s construction is the result of seemingly minor decisions and careful process.
The Film Stage: In an interview with The Guardian, you expressed concern about imparting proper values to the next generation — which is a key element of this film. Because of this story and your concerns, do you make a conscious effort to impart values through the work itself?
Cristian Mungiu: I think cinema should just stay cinema — which is to say it shouldn’t have any practical purpose whatsoever. So the only important thing is to make sure it’s truthful and it works as a work of art, somehow. Of course, I hope something: that there is a polemic aspect, sometimes, in my films, and that that will work. But not precisely through the film — but by the kind of conversation in society, and debate, that the film might trigger. Sometimes, very funny things might happen. I hoped that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days would have this very polemical impact on the society, but because it won the Palme d’Or, that was completely lost. People were just so happy that we won something — like an Olympic medal, or whatever — and that part of the film was kind of lost. For this one, there’s something funny happening as well, in a way: people don’t associate too much what happens in the film with their own life and experience, even if they should. I’m releasing my own films back home, because we have very few theaters back at home, we have to plan with all the equipment and plan screenings and stuff. We happened to be doing this right before the local elections in Romania.
So, at some point, we were organizing screenings of Graduation in May or June in places where I had to meet, all the time, the candidates for the mayor’s office; I even went to shoot the film in this small town of Victoria, where we shot. People were very nice with us, and we were very well-received and so on — but, at some point, when the film was playing, I was next to this guy who was the mayor, and the film was about him. He was the guy in the film, but he never took it like this. He never saw any problem with this. I mean, the film stays fictional for him and his life is his life, and even if he could enjoy, that he could use the film as part of promotion he was doing to be reelected. I mean, nothing troubled him whatsoever, which is a problem for me.
But, at the same time, people in the audience know this. So I like when this is happening, and it’s happening quite often with this film: people feel that they watch onscreen somebody else’s story, but the film speaks about them. What’s good for me is that I was having this feeling not only in Romania, but in several other places. I think there’s a level in the film which travels to people on different levels. On one side, even the story about corruption and compromise is not only a local story. It applies to a lot of countries where society is not precisely settled and people feel that this would have happened there as well, and they feel the same level of frustration towards something that doesn’t go well in their society. And then there’s a very personal level in the film which travels: about aging, about family, about proof, and about this huge difference between how life looks at 50 and how you imagined it when you were 20. And this speaks to people on a different level, and my feeling is that they feel more emotional when they watch the film not from the screen, but from what these scenes trigger from their own memories. I think I’m very far away from what you asked. Actually, what was your question?
Do you try to impart values through the work?
Yes, I see. No, I don’t have a solution in the film or with the film, but I think that what I should do as a filmmaker is: I speak about something that I consider to be important — for me, for people of my generation, for society in general. I think that people should relate to that, and that most of the films are just an attempt of encouraging people to watch themselves in the mirror at some point and to acknowledge something about themselves. But no more than this. There are no solutions associated. Sometimes people ask me, “Okay, we already got it in real life. So what’s the solution to this?” I don’t know. Sometimes there is no easy solution for something like this, and it’s neither your job to have a solution, nor to have a very clear judgmental position about what you present in the film. That’s a very strange conversation that we have back home. People feel, at some point, my position is — I don’t know, as a person, as a director, towards the facts which are being presented in the film — not clear. But I’m not sure it should be clear. I think that’s my position: that I am choosing a situation which is very complex to speak about how complex things are, really, in life. It’s not easy when you live in a society like this, to understand when this solidarity of helping the others is acceptable and when you step on the other side and it’s not acceptable any longer. It’s not that easy. You have to judge situation-by-situation, and therefore I don’t think I should be judging within the film.
The movies have their immediate reaction. Because people keep watching the films, could your concerns be negated over time? Ten years from now, somebody will watch Occident and the movie will, by that point, be 25 years old, but still seem new to them. Do you see what I mean?
I see what you mean, but I don’t see what is the question.
Maybe there isn’t a question.
It’s a comment. Ah. But, first of all, there’s something important associated with what you say, which is that… I think that cinema should be associated with a specific moment in time, and I think this is the most difficult thing to do: to do something which would, I don’t know, be still okay to watch when it grows old. And this is also connected with your first question. I don’t think films should be connected so much with a small thing — which is the issue today — but this is how I think, and how I think most of the Romanian directors think. I think that we are a film community thinking a lot about [lowers voice] the history of cinema. Whatever that means. But you understand. We do not tackle very specific subjects connected with something in reality nowadays, and I think we are a lot preoccupied by how these films will bee watched 20 years from now.
Is there something important in this kind of filmmaking 50 years from now? Who knows. But at least we think about it, and we understand that, more importantly, the topic of the film, the content, is to have a point of view about cinema, and in order to have a point of view about cinema, and to think about these things — to think about what are your means as a filmmaker, what is your position? Are there things which are more truthful, more honest for an artist? Can you be closer to life in reality? Can we extract the essence of your films directly from life and not through other films?
Cinema is already an application of life, so maybe you shouldn’t be taking cinema as inspiration for films. But in order to fake life, you have to understand how life goes. So are there narrative principles in life? I don’t know. It’s not so easy, because sometimes the problem with films is that you have to organize reality, so cinema, in the end, is as honest as you want to be. You want to organize portions of reality, but you can be more organized or less organized. You can allow some care, some ambiguity, and some complexity from life just to get infiltrated in your films, and that’s what I’m trying to do here. It’s not just the formal decision not to use, I don’t know, editing and music; it’s part of this judgement of saying, “Well, you know, it’s not just fair to cut off the moments which are irrelevant to a scene and to just introduce the audience to a selection of small moments which are ‘relevant.’”
And I decided this; I won’t be deciding this for you. I will just make the effort of staging all the situations in this one continuous moment because I trust you are as intelligent as me, and you should be witnessing the situations and decide for yourself what’s more important. So what I do as a filmmaker: I try to stage them in such a way in which I won’t introduce my comments into the scene, and I won’t be present as much as I can. Of course, you are present as a filmmaker already because you made the choice of the subject and so on, but at least I shouldn’t be present in having a close-up now or having some music now to tell me what to feel. I will, you know, make this step behind and let you just witness the situations.
There is still a very deliberate structuring of the scenes: a two-shot of people talking. Watching it, I found myself wondering how you realistically, believably construct a sequence where it is two people talking. When people speak, it’s in this close-quarters manner as people face each other and the world is passing behind them.
First of all, I made this conscious effort all along, while staging the situations, to create different patterns for these scenes. If you watch not only this film, but the ones before, I try to encourage as much variations and patterns in these people talking as I can — in the sense that, actually, the most common mode in life, when people talk, is that they will just face each other. If you watch these films, I try to find a lot of different models in which this wouldn’t be the model that I followed: just two people facing each other like this. They will be doing other things; they will be having a lot of different actions. I won’t be following both of them all the time. Sometimes the most radical decision you can do is to just follow one of them and just forget about the other one either completely or for a while, so it all comes from this decision of using just one shot per scene. This is what shapes all the other decisions about style. What I feel is that, sometimes, as much as I advance staging situations like this, I notice that, for the spectators, it becomes natural, in a way — they don’t notice the style any longer. So this tells me that I manage, sometimes, to find a way of staging situations in which you won’t notice how they are shot, and what I do all the time: I try to have it as natural as I can.
There are also a set of rules connected to the poetics of the camera. We won’t move the camera unless there’s a movement triggered by an action in the shot, so this also shapes the way you face the situations. Sometimes you need to move from here to there, but unless you are capable of inventing something coming from the situation, I can’t do this — so I need to use some time before shooting to understand what happens with all the characters. How shall I move them from one place to the other? There’s a lot of thinking before doing each scene, and I place myself in the situation of every other character because I need to make sure that things develop in a natural way. What I ask them to do is not only to speak and deliver what they need to say, but to continue doing things at the same time.
That’s not easy for an actor. It involves splitting the mind into two and not being so much focused on what you say because this guy gave me a million other things to take care of — but it helps a lot, and they are only free to focus on what they feel and to the truth of the situation, when they forgot all the routine. In order to do this, we rehearse a lot and I shoot a lot of takes. By the end of these takes, if you watch it at the end and the beginning, you see that most of the clumsiness and this awkward situation — that they’re still actors in the beginning saying somebody else’s words — by the end of it, it feels organic, in a way. So that’s why we do it as often as we can, understanding at the same time that, of course, there are limits to staging situations in a way like this, but I think it’s more acceptable to stage them like this than to just cut in this traditional way, showing people talking like… that’s okay, but I see this happening too often already.
I was truly impressed by his visit to the police commander’s office, because I didn’t even notice until the shot’s end that the camera had moved. The fluidity and envelopment of that sequence created this sort of “mental cut.”
That’s very complicated, actually. You just follow what happens, but imagine that technically, because film has this technical part as well. Technically, that’s very difficult to shoot. And there’s another scene in the film which is very complicated: it’s this last scene when he gets to the boy at the hospital and he lets the boy get into his room. That’s a scene in which we start with him in the hallway, and then we see the hallway with all the people moving. The boy exits the left, and we get the camera to the right and see another’s face. Then we get back and follow him again in the corridor. There is another scene, and then we follow him into this other space, which is a third one, and he speaks with the prosecutors. When we get back, we get back backwards — so we see the other part of the corridor — and then we continue like this. This is just one shot. So nobody from the crew can be there apart from the cinematographer and the focus-puller. So sound people, the light, everything needs to be from somewhere else, but there’s something coming from this which I like with a lot of films: whenever a spectator watches 360 degrees of the set, he doesn’t feel it’s not natural, but there is a feeling of reality.
Normally, in the film, you won’t be watching what’s behind the camera because there are people behind. Whenever you can do this in a film, there’s something coming with it — a force that comes with it. Of course, the level of precision is difficult to get, because it’s one shot. It needs to work for everything; for acting as well. Sometimes it’s difficult. We even had, in Beyond the Hills, action scenes in just one shot. That’s very difficult because it’s like performing a stunt in just one shot. There are no tricks. We had a scene where there was this curtain set on fire and it started inside, with the fire, and he was getting out, followed by the camera, getting to put the fire away. It was a very long scene and just happening like this. It’s a difficult way of shooting.
Attempted to be billed as an “ecological thriller” by programmers when it made the festival rounds last year, Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire defies any of the strict genre labels that can be thrown its way. Likely to go down as an oddity even within an already eclectic filmography, the film can be considered alongside Stroszek and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans as one of the director’s funniest films, at least depending on your taste. Many critics found their patience tested by its numerous non-sequiturs, while others fell for the deft comic timing of lead Michael Shannon as the world’s unlikeliest CEO. Regardless, the film came as a nice reminder from a man who was threatening to be remembered more as a meme than great filmmaker. We were lucky enough to have a brief chat with Herzog, which also included mention of his period epic Queen of the Desert, opening the same day as Salt and Fire.
The Film Stage: With your films, do you often start with an interest in locations? Were Bolivian Salt Flats the impetus for Salt and Fire?
Werner Herzog: No, that was not the original intention. As you may know, it’s based on the original short story “Aral” by Thomas Bissel, and it’s about this gigantic lake in Central Asia which has dried out. But it turned out that the location didn’t look that interesting, and I decided that I had to look into other options — and very soon I came across the salt flats in Bolivia, and I was immediately fascinated because the salt flats looked not from our planet, like something extraterrestrial about it, and it’s the perfect location for this kind of film.
Do you think you could even make a documentary about the Bolivian Salt Flats?
No, I could make poetry or a film poem about it with some of the footage you see in Salt and Fire, but it is like a poem towards the end of the film.
Can you talk about your decision behind shooting the first half of film with the camera constantly moving?
You’re right, but the camera is not really moving widely. It is not like in an action film; it’s more floating around with the characters. I think it was an appropriate style for doing the film. Each film requires its own kind of camera work.
Does Michael Shannon, as an actor, compare to Klaus Kinski? Do you see yourself making more films with him?
No, certainly not. I was the first one who gave him a leading part in a film in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. I didn’t discover him; he was already out there in a couple of very, very fine films, but in smaller parts. I always had feelings he was the best of his generation, and to put him together with real good other actors like Veronica Ferris, the German movie star, and Lawrence Krauss, who’s a cosmologist, that it would make a very good chemistry.
Would you make another film in Germany?
No. In that case it should be a story that takes place in Germany, but I don’t have a story that should be in Germany so I’m not contemplating anything at the moment. I do have three or four feature films in preparation, but none of them takes place in Germany so I’m not contemplating anything in the German language.
How interested are you in America right now as subject for your next films, specifically with things like the burgeoning “Alt-Right” movement?
Not as a filmmaker, but of course I do read and I’m politically aware. But it’s not anything for me that would trigger a feature film or documentary.
You have another film, Queen of the Desert, coming out. Was the subject matter and scope of that something you’d always been wanting to make a film out of, or was that only a recent interest of yours?
It was a long chain of coincidences that brought me to Queen of the Desert. And it’s a little bit odd: the film will only be released a week after Salt and Fire, but sometimes it happens like that. [Editor’s note: Since this interview, QOTD moved up to the same week.] Queen of the Desert should’ve been released a year-and-a-half ago, but it happens like that.
Are you still running your Rogue Film School?
Yes, I do, but very sporadically. It depends on how much I’m working, and I have done too many films to allow me to dig into the Rogue Film School very much. I did some workshop in Cuba just very recently with young filmmakers.
I know that part of the requirements for being able to do it is essentially having life experience, like having been through and seen difficult things. Are your students genuinely people like that or not?
It’s not necessarily difficult things — just very profound experiences of the world and of life, which is probably more important than having experience in academia.
Salt and Fire is now in limited release and available on VOD.
For years, Fantastic Fest has been a venue for the best filmmakers around the world to showcase their latest genre-focused features. 2016 was no different, as we saw the stellar debut efforts from some talented directors and welcomed back friends of the Fest. Chief among them is a genre filmmaker so famous and beloved, he has been dubbed the unofficial mascot of the Fantastic Fest.
I’m not sure that anyone ever sets out to be a “mascot,” but Nacho Vigalondo is happy to oblige… he’s even gotten two themed tattoos while at the Fest, if that tells you anything. Vigalondo’s style has endeared himself to many a genre fan, and it’s been great to see his career blossom since his break-out Timecrimes.
With his latest film, Colossal, arriving in theaters, we got a chance to sit down with him back at Fantastic Fest to discuss the making of his monster movie masked as a metaphor for addiction. While we recommend going in knowing as little as possible, he sells it the best himself: “This is the kind of movie that’s trying to punch [romantic comedies] in the face.”
Check out the full video interview below for the film starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, and Dan Stevens.
Colossal opens in limited release on Friday, April 7 and will expand in the coming weeks.
Blurring the line between documentary and fiction like few films before it, Michał Marczak‘s All These Sleepless Nights is a music-filled ode to the ever-shifting bliss and angst of youth set mostly in the wee hours of the day in Warsaw, Poland. Marczak himself, who also plays cinematographer, is wary to delineate the line between narrative and nonfiction, and part of the film’s joy is forgoing one’s grasp on this altering perspective, rather simply getting wrapped up in the immaculately-shot allure of its location.
With the film now debuting in limited release this weekend, I had the chance to speak to the director about crafting this one-of-a-kind experience. We discusses the poetic quality of the film, his camera technology, the youthful exuberance of dancing, and why he hates 90% of documentaries — and what can be done to improve this form of storytelling.
The Film Stage: At the beginning of the film, you have the concept of the Reminiscence Bump [the tendency for older adults to have increased recollection for events that occurred during their adolescence and early adulthood]. Can you talk about your decision for opening with that and how it informs the rest of your film?
Yeah, I started feeling it in my life — I’m 32 when we started making the film and I’m 34 now — that there was a certain point when the “I” is structured and you come to terms with who it is you actually are and when those memories are actually engrained. I got really interested in what it was that I was remembering. I remember just writing down, in a very free-hand and open way, all the stuff that I remembered most vividly. Then I read it and it turned out to be very random stuff, actually, but of course all of it had some deeper meaning to it. Then I just started reading about the psychology of memories and remembering and reminiscence and nostalgia. I found that research of that term, Reminiscence Bump, when in actuality the formation of the “I” is a very important part of human development and that’s why you remember it, because you have to kind of go back to it, to reconstitute who you and reinforce who you are. Of course, it changes, but that’s kind of the base that you come back to and reference yourself and how you’ve changed and how you’ve grown as a person. That felt like an interesting concept to try and make a film about as a structural device, because memories are random, but every single time you go back, they are different. They are alive. They are reshaped based on your present experience. Of course that’s something cinema can’t portray, but I tried to get as close to it as possible. That’s why the film opens with that term, to kind of set you up and give you the idea that’s why the little disjoints and memory-within-a-memory structure of the film will play out.
There’s a poetic quality to the dialogue, too. It almost feels like they are looking back on their lives while they are speaking about it, an all-encapsulating view of their entire life.
Totally. We definitely talked a lot about the concept of structuring the film kind of like a memory. So it has that layer of poetics to it and it allows us to not be super literal. The camera work, the floating camera, and the focus and careful choosing of what is in the film with so many areas of life — all that played to reinforce that theme of this being all one big, weird memory. That also allowed us to be more playful and poetic within the actual scenes, but also it actually very much corresponded with the way that people spoke. That’s why those things played out when I started remembering and playing with the idea of making a film, which has these jumps in narrative and is more about moments and the combination of moments, than something structured or with a more classical narrative. That also played very well into the fact, when I was just roaming the streets of Warsaw, that these people — these protagonists — have that kind of style already of nostalgia and poetry in them when they speak. That’s something very different than from generation, which was way more crude and straightforward. This one is way more playful with language and with being and playfulness with each other. Of course we added another layer to it by making it just a little bit stronger.
With this camera technology and the rig you invented yourself, it’s something I haven’t seen on film yet. Since the film’s premiered have other filmmakers reached out to you to utilize this technology? I feel like you could become quite rich if Hollywood wants to use this on the next Transformers film. [Laughs]
Ah, maybe not Transformers. They don’t care about that stuff, they have got a lot people. The whole point of this tech is to really allow one person what usually three people would do. It was all about miniaturizing things that are already out there. We designed the smallest follow focus unit available and it’s stuff that’s available now, but even now, it’s bulkier and it’s made with the idea of doing takes. Basically all this gear, that’s how it is designed. You do a 10-minute take, and you got an assistant and he picks up the stuff from you and puts it down and you have two more assistants rigging it all up and cabling it. The whole idea was to build something that is super compact which allows me to go out for a whole night and not have to worry about changing cards, changing batteries — where I can put it down safely and pick it up whenever I want; that I can control every single parameter with both of my hands. So that’s why we built our own software to control the gimbal and everything was programmable as if I had many, many keys under my hands. I could control focus and I could control the way the gimbal moved and operated and I could change it all within a shot. I didn’t have to put down the camera to re-change any of that, so that I could be continuously shooting and doing adjustments. And I’m shooting and pulling my own focus and having sound playback and everything — to have it really compact and light so that I could operate with it for long periods of time also. To have all those things in one, it was impossible to buy anything off the shelf and modify it. It had to be built from scratch to have all those values and properties.
Have other filmmakers reached out to you to see how you did this?
Yes, a lot. A lot actually have. It’s kind of funny. But it’s not easy. It takes actually quite a lot of work to do it. I had a really good engineer that was working with us that was full-time with a big lab — really sophisticated laser-cutting equipment and graphing facility and 3D printer with light materials. So it required a lot of that stuff, but once you make it, of course, you’d do another one. Once I go into the details though, people are like, “Okay, I think I’ll just do it handheld.” [Laughs] It was super annoying and it required me to learn so much about electronics, but the awesome thing is once we got past it and once we got it to work, it was just awesome. We got to that point which I love, and which I think a lot of young filmmakers fuck up, is that when they are shooting, they are actually thinking a lot about the gear. That is a thing you can never do.
Once you step on a theoretical set, even if it is a hybrid where the set is very loose, or once you are in a situation with your people, you should always be ready to shoot and never deal with anything technical. Everything has to work flawlessly and it has to work subconsciously. I think that was the most important thing: learning all the gear and learning how to use it well, but also our whole team. Our sound person, it was the same sound person from the beginning to the end, and she was also kind of an assistant director also, looking out and communicating with me about missing something — being my eyes where I couldn’t see. Same with assistants, very responsive and nobody ever used their phones. That’s also very important. Everybody be in the now. Everybody be super attentive. Everybody know what we are after. Everybody helping and giving each other tips and doing multi functions. So instead of having six people, we were able to have three or four.
There’s a moment in the film where it has this home video-style feel to it. Everything else you capture has a glossy sheen and is beautiful, but this lets us into the characters a bit more. Can you talk about that decision?
That’s like a memory within a memory. They are reminiscing about the past year and then it cuts into this. To emphasize the fact that it’s a memory within a memory, I wanted it to look different stylistically. I wanted to be on the axis straight on. I wanted the camera to be the character looking at you almost, like you are the eye of the character. I thought the best way to do that would be to put the camera on the character’s head. Once I did that I was like, well I shouldn’t really be there because I’m also going after something which is super intimate. At that time the characters which started out acting their first date and acting their second date, but by the time of these scenes they were actually a couple. Since they were actually a couple, I thought I shouldn’t actually be there because this is something very intimate.
I taught them how to use the GoPro camera, which I modified and put another lens in there so I got rid of the IR filter to make it better to work in low light so the lens isn’t as fisheye. So I gave them this camera and taught them how to use it and just said, “Shoot your life. Shoot the moments that you’d be okay with. Once you put the camera on you, don’t turn it off for an hour or two.” They shot with it for like two weeks. Then I taught Krzysztof, the main character, how to use Premiere because there is a lot of very, very, very personal stuff in there and I don’t want to look through all that. I said, “You and Eva sit down and look through that stuff and give me 30 minutes that you are both happy with me to use in the film.” And that’s what they did and that’s what I then edited into the film. Although I did have the master footage because I cut it all, but I never looked past what they gave me.
There’s a film I referenced in my review, where I said this feels kind of like a Polish version of Girl Walk // All Day. Have you seen it?
No, no I haven’t.
It’s about this dancer in New York City and it’s a very small-scale project, but it reminded me because of this youthful energy. There’s something magical when music and dance perfectly match up that’s like nothing else in cinema. Can you comment on finding that balance and the emotions it brings out in a viewer?
I can certainly speak about the way we went about it. I think everybody has their own natural state of dance they are in. Of course some people overdo it, or under do it when they are shy. It was really important for me to capture the state of the people that they are now. Dance is actually one of the devices that tells the story of Krzysztof opening up a bit, to the world and maybe to himself and becoming more comfortable with who he is. In the beginning he’s very tense and he doesn’t know how to dance very well. Someone says, “You dance like a chicken.” If you watch the film from that perspective, he has all these awkward moves and as the film progresses, they become more fluid-like and he’s discovering his own way of dancing. I really tried to make that an integral part of the story where that evolves. What we did is we actually got this amazing choreographer on board. She had this amazing technique of not teaching people how to dance — at all — but just playing around with their limbs and manipulating their limbs and their body. Just showing people how your body moves, what it can actually do. It’s all about finding the natural rhythm of your body. This is how your hand moves and you have this natural inclination to maybe move your hand up and then down. You kind of discover yourself.
It was this actually really cool thing where it was me and Krzysztof for months doing this choreography and dancing stuff. So I was learning and we were both opening up and it was just kind of awkward, two guys in a room sprawling on the ground and pretending to be worms, because that’s how it kind of looked liked. It all led to him finding his own sense of dancing. It was awesome with that technique because it didn’t really feel like he was learning how to dance or anything. It was really natural and really coincided with him as a character opening up and being more sure of himself. To answer your question, in a long form, for the magic to get it right, is for it to feel like it is really organic from the character — that the character really wants at that time to express something through the dance. That it’s not just about dancing, but there’s something in there that’s deeper with that. That was actually for me a very important dramatic tool to express that state of the character.
There have been filmmakers in the past that have blurred this line between documentary and narrative. I think of Kiarostami and Welles, but this one feels like it is pushing in a new direction, in terms of the camerawork. What are your thoughts on the documentary form and if it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of being able to tell stories in different ways moving forward?
I think we’re at the beginning. Honestly, most documentaries I really hate. I come from a documentary background and I’ve done mostly documentaries and that’s what I do and teach. But I hate 90% of them. They are just so bad. And they are so bad, because they do the exact opposite of what they should. They don’t bring you closer to feeling your reality. They tell you what you should think. Whereas I think especially in documentary, that’s the field where you can allow yourself not to have these strong narrative structures because you have an audience going in already knowing they are going to experience something different than a classical fiction film where you have all the beats and points and turns. So I think it’s a form that should be the closest to art, actually. It should be the furthest away from TV reportage. It should be in the realm of sensory art where you don’t have to abide by all these rules because you don’t have people going over 40 versions of your script. You have that freedom to experiment.
Reality is so complicated. You can only give glimpses of images and feelings and emotions. The whole context has to actually be created in the mind of the audience. You have to treat the audience with the utmost respect because the audience is intelligent. They can combine 2 + 2 and they can create and understand something. So I think the documentary world really needs to be using all the tools in cinema and art and music that have been and new stuff that has to be invented to keep up with our complex reality to somehow get us closer to it, but without ever telling us what it is — just having us be more in tune with the now. So I think great things are ahead for that genre, but I really am annoyed that it is so in touch with that fucking reportage stuff. Like access has any value — it’s such bullshit.
Well, I would agree with you. So thank you for doing what you do.
Not to be negative, there are beautiful films. The Act of Killing. There are amazing filmmakers that find ways to do this and once in awhile when it happens, it’s so fucking amazing. If more of that stuff is being made that would be beautiful.
All These Sleepless Nights opens on April 7 in limited release in Los Angeles and San Francisco and will expand to New York City on April 14.