Latest Features

Christian Petzold on ‘Transit,’ the Refugee Crisis, ‘The Sopranos,’ and Cinematic Rules

Written by Zhuo-Ning Su, March 13, 2018 at 8:52 am 


Barbara and Phoenix director Christian Petzold returned to Berlinale this year with Transit, without regular muse Nina Hoss for the first time since 2005’s Ghosts. Rather, the drama centers on Georg (Franz Rogowski), an escapee of a concentration camp who flees Paris just as the Nazis march in as the film depicts his few weeks in the French port city of Marseille before his final trip out of the continent. Despite the film taking place during the era of the Second World War, Petzold boldly decides to ignore the historical setting, costume- and production-wise, rather having the feel of the present day.

“Local boy Christian Petzold’s audacious retelling of Anna Seghers’s World War II-set novel about refugees escaping Nazi-controlled France is a strange, beguiling creation that will be hard to beat in the competition line-up, and ranks as a rare period piece that utterly gets under the skin of contemporary concerns,” Ed Frankl said in his review. “It’s an engrossing, uncanny and somewhat disturbing film, and completes something of a trio of historical melodramas after Barbara and his worldwide hit Phoenix, but develops the themes of those in an adventurous, if oblique, way.”

We spoke to the director below about commenting on the refugee crisis without making it the message, why he doesn’t deceive his audiences, the brilliance of The Sopranos, Harun Farocki, and more.

This film is dedicated to the late Harun Farocki with whom you’ve collaborated on many films over the years. By staging the WWII story in the present and not in the past, it feels like you’re taking a leaf out of his book. Do you think this is something he would have suggested?  

It was my decision to shoot the film that way. And now I will tell you a story that might seem a bit corny, but I actually went to the grave of Harun and placed a tiny twig on it. I said to myself, if it falls to the left, then I won’t do it this way, if it falls to the right, I will–then, of course, I gave it a little push to the right.

I had actually never planned to make this movie together with Harun because the book, the novel by Anna Seghers, had been a reference for almost all the projects we ever did together. It was a constant reference.

If the book has been a constant reference, why are you only adapting it now?       

By reference I mean Harun and I had a couple of fixed rules, the basic laws of our collaboration so to speak. One of which was that in our projects all characters must always be in transit, moving from place to place. As with the work of Gilles Deleuze, it’s always about becoming and never about being. Also, we always tried to tell two different stories in a film that counterbalanced each other. One year before Harun’s death, we decided to give it a go and try to turn this novel into a film. We wrote a first treatment which was a period piece. Then the World Cup happened and Germany became the soccer world champion. A week later Harun died. But during those seven days, I told him that after Phoenix I didn’t feel like making another historical movie. So we decided to put the project on hold.

TRANSIT Regie Christian Petzold

How do you go about adapting a book you love for the big screen?   

Hitchcock famously said one can only adapt bad books. An absolutely correct observation in my opinion. The books that I love–Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or books by Hemingway–I would never try to turn them into films. Transit is not just one of the greatest works of world literature, it’s also one of my favorites. It would have been absurd for me to make a direct screen adaptation. The only thing I could try is to make a film based upon my love and passion for the book, my own reading of the book. That would be something I could do.

And I brought a second book into the project–going back to that rule about counterbalance shared by Harun and me–Georg K. Glaser’s autobiography Secret and Violence. This is the second component of the film, which is also why the protagonist’s name is Georg. His journey by train and arrival in Marseille, that’s taken from Glaser’s book and not from Seghers’. I used this story of a pickpocket who changes over time and combined it with the love story and the visa story in Seghers’ novel.

The movie has a strong literary feeling to it. There’s a voice-over that narrates the story like it’s writing it. Would it be fair to say the film plays out like a novel?

That would be totally right. Harun and I have always had a rule about never using voice-over. There are a couple of voice-over films that I love: Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, for example. Anna Seghers’ book is written in the first person, and I find a first-person voice-over in a movie almost always cons the audience. Fight ClubThe Usual Suspects, etc. The narrator is screwing with us, he deceives us. And I don’t like that. I’m a disciple of Hitchcock. I don’t con the audience. In Hitchcock’s films, the viewer would shout to the characters “Don’t do it!” because they know more about what’s going on than the characters themselves, and the suspense comes from that. Audience deception is an established approach to filmmaking, but I don’t subscribe to that.

At the same time, I don’t like it when the voice-over seems to be above everything else and in a God-like position as if it could–like the author–do anything it pleases to the characters. That’s why I decided to have the story narrated by the barkeeper in the third person. He doesn’t con us so much as he tells the story like a bad witness would. For example, he says “Then they kissed” when in reality they did not kiss at all. He remembers things incorrectly, but by doing so he himself becomes part of the narrative. That was my idea–to also show the narrator’s longing and desires.

TRANSIT Regie Christian Petzold

Why did you go with the song by Talking Heads in the end credits? Atmospherically speaking, it’s not the most obvious choice.

I must make another confession. Before I went with the Talking Heads song, I didn’t know exactly how I should end the film. One day, I remembered the wonderful ending of The Sopranos, my favorite TV show. Tony Sopranos’ daughter enters a restaurant. You see a shot of her and expect a reverse shot of her father. Instead, we get blackness. Which could symbolize death or the void, but it could also symbolize the constant transit of this family that never arrived.

I told the actors and the crew about this and they found it a great idea. So I have this image of darkness at the end for about seven, eight seconds. And I thought, there has to be something else that comes to the rescue of all these people, these refugees. This led me to gospel music and the song by Talking Heads, which starts off like a gospel song. Gospel music picks us up and tells us we’re all on this road to nowhere but it’s ok. Maybe we’re better off believing that there’s no ending, no such place as homeland, realizing that we’re always in transit and it’s not such a bad thing at all. That was the idea behind the song choice.

I told the producers about this as we shot the scene where Georg finds out [something about Marie’s ship]. On that day I heard this song and played it for the cast and crew. Everyone said, “This is THE song!” So I called up the producer and he said “Are you crazy? This would cost us 45,000 Euros!” I promised to cut one scheduled day of shooting and he said that’s not gonna cut it. But eventually I was able to convince him. He’s a musician himself, and when he heard the song, he admitted: “You’re right.”

Is this a divorce from Nina Hoss or just a temporary separation?

There was a press day during our shoot in Marseille, and many journalists from Libération, Le Monde and other outlets dropped by. They asked me the same question when they couldn’t find Nina Hoss anywhere. She’s obviously well known in France. We just had a joint retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in December. And because Paula Beer is also famous in France after starring in François Ozon’s Frantz, they asked me if Paula Beer is the new Nina Hoss. I was made a bit uneasy by the question, which implied that I went for someone younger when my actress grew older, Weinstein-style. I found it unfair to me, to Nina and to Paula. So I said “No, Franz Rogowski is the new Nina Hoss.” and got myself out of the situation.

But obviously, the question wasn’t entirely baseless. The fact is, on this project, there’s no suitable part for Nina–and unfortunately there is none on the next one either–but this is not a divorce. We will certainly work together again. With Transit my focus is on young people who don’t know who they are yet and who must grow up in the most painful way. Whereas Nina, with whom I’ve made six films already, is someone with a full-fledged identity, and not like the two main characters in this film who are still searching for theirs.


This is a timely film considering the current refugee crisis Europe is facing. Are you consciously contributing to the debate with this film?

In Germany we have the Basic Law with an asylum clause which grants asylum to anyone who’s fleeing persecution for their political beliefs, religion, sexual orientation, etc. It’s a responsibility that we as German must assume because of our history. Said history is the history of Anna Seghers and it includes the experiences of German immigrants and refugees who were rejected by just about every nation besides–to a limited degree–Mexico, Turkey, and China I believe. Such experiences were the basis for the asylum clause. Now we have refugees seeking asylum in Europe and–I don’t know about France, Poland or other countries–but in Germany, we just did away with the asylum clause. At a time when it is needed, we destroy it.

At the same time, we’re seeing a rise of the very same vernacular and rhetoric that led to disasters in the 1940’s like “nations,” “borders,” “identity,” or “we cannot afford to accept every person in this world into our country,” “we’re not the welfare office of the whole world,” etc. This kind of discussion is present in Transit without it being the message. I’m confident enough about the movie to let it to speak for itself on these subjects.

Transit premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.

See our complete Berlin 2018 coverage.

Ruben Östlund on Criticizing Liberal Politics and Seeing Himself in ‘The Square’

Written by Joshua Encinias, March 3, 2018 at 6:36 pm 


It’s very seldom that a Palme d’Or winning film should also win Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but Ruben Östlund’s The Square could buck the trend this Sunday. If his film wins, it would be the fourth Oscar for Sweden. (Ingmar Bergman won the previous three statues.)

The Square posits ideas about liberal democratic social contracts through a controversial but ultimately banal art exhibit at a museum in Stockholm. The museum’s chief art curator Christian (Claes Bang) goes through a series of personal and professional crises that leave him jobless. Once jobless, Christian is finally free of the social structures finally that didn’t award honesty.

Often funny and simultaneously depressing, The Square is a Buñuelian satire of the West’s flexible social values and specifically the patrons of high art. It turns a mirror on the affluent milieu who award themselves for giving lip service to helping their fellow man. We spoke with director Ruben Östlund about the film’s political underpinnings.

Do you get subversive joy when your movie screens for the very art patrons you satirize in The Square?

Yes, definitely. One reason I made the monkey scene with a tuxedo-dressed audience because it was going to screen at Cannes in front of a tuxedo-dressed audience looking at themselves. That’s a way to put a mirror up to the audience and the kind of social class that’s going to Cannes. We’ve screened the film at all of the major festivals for the same reason.

One of the hallmarks of white liberal enlightened people is to point out the hollowness of other people’s virtue. So as someone who works with the tuxedo-dressed audience you mention, what is The Square saying about them?

Shame, shame on you! [Laughs.] No, but I look at Christian (Claes Bang) also the same way I look at myself. I don’t think that Christian is hypocritical, I think he actually believes in the kind of questions that the square exhibit poses and he thinks it’s good to promote that. For me, I don’t think we should put that much judgment on an individual when they are behaving badly because we have to look at the situation that is creating the behavior. I think there’s a lot of situations in which we can do something that is kind of stupid and it’s knowledge about the situation that can cause us to behave in a different way. Being a good person is not about character–it’s about education. Or if you have experience with a situation that is similar. I wonder when it is possible for me to behave in the same way as Christian. I try to imagine a set up where it is possible to behave in the same way, even though he’s doing quite stupid things. I never want to make the character someone who is bad or unbelievably stupid, even though we’re dealing with satire. I’m twisting the reality a little bit.


If you’re not critiquing Christian, but a milieu of people, is your criticism that liberal politics are an abyss and the only ones who can make it out alive are the ones in charge?

Liberal has a different meaning in Europe than it has in the United States. Liberal in Sweden means everyone has the same possibility in life but seeing people in their context and seeing how the context is limiting them or making things possible for them. When my country was exposed to Romanian beggars a few years ago we were kind of shocked because we haven’t dealt with this issue that much before. I think in the beginning our feeling was: is it my responsibility as an individual to deal with this or is it the state’s? Very quickly we took the responsibility and put it on the individual level. The discussion was: do you give money to beggars or don’t? And should you feel ashamed if you didn’t do it? At the same time, you’re only feeling powerless, you don’t feel like you have any possibility to change a beggars life by giving them a couple of coins. This is a problem we should solve as a community together. I thought it was a little scary we didn’t talk about raising taxes to deal with it. Instead we talked about it on an individual level. But that isn’t a realistic way of looking at the world because that isn’t the way to solve these problems. Why are we putting the responsibility on the individual and taking away the ability to organize ourselves and doing things together? I feel a lack of the common project in our time.

That reminds me of the scene where Christian is on the phone and takes blame for the letter he wrote but changes gears to blames society.

I can relate it to something I’m close to. My mother was a teacher and she was telling me Swedish schools have not been that good in the last year. They have less money to provide a good education, the teachers have too many pupils in the classroom, etc. She described the breaking point as the teachers receiving individual salaries. When that happened they couldn’t organize as individuals and tell their bosses if their work circumstances became worse they would strike. Because they each received different salaries, they didn’t want to be considered troublemakers in front of the boss. I think the economic system is making us very lonely and scared. In the end, when Christian decided he’s going to do the right thing and apologize for what he’s done, that only happened after he lost his position at the museum. He has already lost what he was afraid of losing.


The Square is now on Digital HD and DVD.

Sebastián Lelio on the Splendor of ‘A Fantastic Woman,’ Subversive Casting, and Embracing Resistance

Written by Joshua Encinias, March 3, 2018 at 6:01 pm 


Sebastián Lelio could become the first Chilean director to win Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards this Sunday. A Fantastic Woman stars Daniela Vega in what Lelio calls a “transgenre” drama about a transgender woman’s struggle to grieve her lover Orlando’s (Francisco Reyes) death.

The film chooses classical cinematic storytelling over the gritty, social realism used for documentaries like The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. In the film, after Orlando dies, his family mistreat and abuse Vega’s Marina, barring her from his funeral. Instead of using Vega’s transgenderism to move the plot, Lelio focuses on the inhumane treatment Marina receives from characters on-screen and a mythic fight against gravity.

In our conversation, Lelio discusses the subversive casting of Chilean actor Francisco Reyes as Orlando, Daniela Vega’s influence on his script, and pushback against the film.

I read you shied away from the social realist approach that is often used for transgender characters. How did you come to that decision?

I think there is a moral behind every aesthetic choice. I wanted to change the aesthetics around a narrative that serves a transgender character. Usually it’s like handheld, raw light. There’s a roughness to it. And I think it’s perfectly valid to try to provide a different angle and one of my first intuitions was to change the aesthetics with which the subject has been explored before. That’s why the film has that attempt to have splendor and be classical. It’s almost like you sit down and you start watching a 1940s melodrama. Then the film keeps changing and changing and it has something hidden inside that is not classical at all. It’s the character, maybe more importantly the gesture, that your character is interpreted by a real transgender woman.


How did you come to cast Francisco Reyes as Orlando? It was great to see him appearing as this apparition throughout the film.

Well, he’s a well-known actor in Chile and a symbol of heterosexual masculinity. I admired him as an actor in the first place but it was a bit of a provocation to cast him because he’s so beloved and an icon of heterosexuality. I think he was very graceful in presenting a different way of masculinity. It probably would have been more acceptable to present a less classical type of masculinity. His normality makes everything about his relationship in the film with Marina subversive.

Will you talk about filming the dance sequence?

In the writing process, this idea of creating a transgenre film about a transgender character was very important because suddenly this device was capable of shifting everything. It has that sentiment of social portrait; it’s a film about a woman, it’s a ghost film. There was even room for these enhanced reality moments, or surreal moments. I hate to call them magical realism moments because that’s a concept we are very careful with in Latin America. Then I decided to take on the pressure to pay homage to films I love. So the windstorm sequence is a salutation to Buster Keaton and then the dancing sequence, we were watching a lot of the Busby Berkeley films and how he created his choreography with women. In one of his films a few of them fly meters away from the camera so we were playing with that idea. It was available to me to bend the limits of what was possible in the film and to push things forward.


The movie deals with a lot of ideas about humane and not-so humane treatment of transgender people. Will you talk about your thoughts on the changing conceptions of transgenderism?

It’s hard to put everything in the same bag, but I think the limits of what’s possible are expanding. The mindset of what being a human means is expanding in many different ways and different areas. So I think that things are changing and we are shifting landscape in terms of identity or in terms of what identity means. So the old conceptions of male, female, even class, race and gender are somehow not enough anymore. But most importantly it will shake up things and create more space and ways of existing.

Daniela Vega’s life informed much of the script. In a sense, it blurs the line of fiction and non-fiction. How do you interpret it when someone doesn’t understand or doesn’t like the movie? Are they saying they don’t agree with transgenderism?

When you are on the side of the people who create things, you have to know you will find resistance and friction. I consider that healthy. If the film didn’t find any kind of resistance it would mean that the film has no urgency at all. Although it wasn’t our idea to offend, but to create something that is alive and complex, that can be seen from many different angles. It’s a film that is presenting a problem and fighting to deal with it. So just like with anything, there will be people going in different ways with this phenomena. Some people say God created man and woman and that transgender people should be locked up. A percentage of the population think this and that’s precisely why the film is urgent. Another attitude toward the film is Daniela’s character is presenting something we will learn so much from and it’s beautiful to try to attempt to learn how to live together. I want the negativity. I think it’s a sign that the image alive.


A Fantastic Woman in now in theaters.

Zellner Brothers on Deconstructing the Genre and Creating a Mythic, Humorous Western with ‘Damsel’

Written by Jordan Raup, February 5, 2018 at 2:15 pm 


The stunning vistas aren’t the only signifiers of the western genre in Damsel, yet we quickly grasp that David and Nathan Zellner have crafted revisionist take on the genre, lovingly poking fun at its foundation while slyly pulling the rug under the audience in humorous, forward-thinking, and genre-redefining fashion.

Following Samuel (Robert Pattinson) as he goes on a rescue mission to save his true love Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), we won’t spoil anything beyond that, but rest assured, it’s a humorous, inventive western that could only come from the brothers who last gave us Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

Following the Sundance premiere, I spoke with them about balancing the perfect tone, the formation of Pattinson and Wasikowska’s characters, playing with tropes and archetypes of the genre, capturing a vibrant, mystical landscape, themes of feminism and cultural reappropriation, and more.

Was Damsel at all a response to Kumiko? There’s an underlying darkness to that movie and this is more comedic.

David Zellner: Definitely, but I guess everything we do is somewhat informed by what we’ve done previously though. At one point we were going to do Damsel before Kumiko. It changed significantly, but it was kind of just the way things went in terms of what got off the ground. That would have been very different if we made it now.

One of the shots I love in the film is when they guy gets shot in the head and then he’s pissing at the same time. I’ve never seen that in a western before.

David Zellner: [Laughs] Us either! That’s why we wanted to do it.

If I told someone about that shot they might think it’s a dark gratuitous film, but it’s really not. There’s a lightness running through it. Can you talk about balancing that tone?

David Zellner: Yeah, it just something we feel as we go and try to find a tonal sweet spot. Yeah, like that it just seemed like something we hadn’t seen in a western. And it that is something where you’re the most vulnerable.

Nathan Zellner: And when we were setting up Anton’s death and Parson Henry’s involvement in it, we had to make it the just one of the cheapest, worst ways to clock out. It just kind of added to how pathetic and how just sloppy the situation was. That image is what we went for.

Damsel - Still 1

One thing I love about the film is how it sets up these western archetypes–the beautiful vistas, one guy coming into town (though with a mini horse, which is different)–and then it challenges them so much by end that if revisited a classic western I would view it in an entirely different light. Can you talk more about these archetypes and what westerns you liked the most growing up?

David Zellner: We’ve seen the most famous ones, the John Ford and John Wayne type of stuff, The Searchers, and things like that. We’re not as schooled too deeply on that. The stuff that came shortly after that, where it started to deviate from the John Wayne kind of hero. Budd Boetticher and the westerns he made in the ‘50s with Randolph Scott, we really love those because on the surface they can seem almost saccharine, but there’s this real underlying darkness and always a real heavy ending that has all the more of an impact because the rest is light.

Nathan Zellner: There’s some comedy in there too. Not overt comedy or slapstick, just funny little sayings here or there, little quips and like David said, there’s always this downer of a twist or an ending that feels different.

Robert Pattinson’s character in Damsel feels like he could be ancestor of his Good Time character Connie.

[Both laugh.]

Just manipulating anyone to get what he wants, even though he’s more sweet-natured in this film. Can you talk about forming that character? His introduction at the bar and the dialogue there is amazing.

David Zellner: Yeah, we just wanted to use the hero archetype as a foundation and then deviate from there with it. So much of the information you are getting is through his perspective and his image of himself or what he wants to believe or what he’s trying to project. It makes him not the most reliable narrator.

Speaking about the structure, I heard that it was one of your first ideas. You don’t have to go into spoilers, but just talk about coming up with that and how you guys are always one step ahead of the audience. Even though we think we’ve figured things out, we really haven’t.

David Zellner: Yeah, that’s part of the fun of it. We wanted to play with structure and things that might be a climax don’t necessarily take place at the climax and we’re left dealing with the aftermath of a certain situation. The middle was kind of the impetus for it everything grew out in each direction from there. We always knew we wanted that to be the kind of centerpiece and build from there.

Nathan Zellner: And technically we talked a lot about–when shooting it and especially in post-production–shifting the point of view and which character was where we wanted the audience to side or see through. That really helped with the unreliable narrator of Samuel [Pattinson’s character] because as soon as you introduce him you’re on his side and we’re watching things unfold with him. Then with the middle part it becomes…

David Zellner: …more complicated. [Laughs]


Yeah, it definitely keeps you on your toes. You guys worked with cinematographer Adam Stone for the first time, who worked on all of Jeff Nichols’ films before. How did you guys meet?

David Zellner: I’ve known him about ten years. Jeff’s a friend of ours and I’ve just known him socially for a long time. We had never worked together, but liked him as a person and liked his work, so everything lined up.

Was there any specific qualities in perhaps his work with Jeff Nichols that attracted you to working with him?

David Zellner: Well, no one works harder than him. This was a very tough shoot and we’re out in the wilderness and have limited resources. He doesn’t settle.

It reminded me a bit of Robbie Ryan’s work in Slow West. Did you guys see that?

David and Nathan Zeller: Oh, yeah.

It’s rare to see those vibrancy of colors in a western. It feels like most of today’s westerns are super brutal and stark.

David Zellner: Yeah, we wanted it to be vibrant. That’s why we didn’t shoot it in the desert, outside of the opening. We wanted it to be vibrant and lush and not like the desert, kind of brown.

You guys probably get asked this question a lot, but what is your dynamic on set as directors, especially when one of you is front of the camera acting?

David Zellner: I guess it kind of depends. We do a lot in prep and we do a lot together talking through shots and character motivations. Especially the stuff we’re doing in front of the camera to make sure when we’re acting, we can switch off really easily between roles and we’re not holding up the crew and the other actors with the stuff that we’re doing. If you’re going to put yourself in front of the camera it’s kind of essential because you don’t want to waste anyone’s time. You want them to trust your instincts and abilities as well. Because we’ve had much more time together than we can with the crew and the cast. So it’s more about making sure we’re all on the same page with everything prior so then we just work together and have a shorthand.

Speaking about Mia Wasikowska, it would be more interesting if she never had any rehearsals with Robert Pattinson, just because of the relationship of their characters. But I’m curious, was there anything like that?

David Zellner: Well, they are old friends and have been in a movie together before. So they already had a comfort with each other. We did some rehearsal, not days and days, but we did some, just to work out some kinks in the script for flow. We also didn’t want to beat it death and overdo it. We wanted to leave some room for it to be fresh.

Nathan Zellner: Yeah, it was good to do a rehearsal and it was good they had some familiarity with each other. Because consciously or subconsciously, they are people who have a history on screen, so there has to be some sort of connection. The situation they are in is heightened and we have to feel like the things they are saying have that history behind it and has brought them to the point they are today.

I want to talk about the breakthrough actor of the film, Butterscotch, the miniature horse.

[Both laugh.]


I love her introduction on the boat. You think you’ll be in the desert because it’s a western, but it you are on a beach and feels almost mystical and otherworldly. Can you talk about the fairy tale aspect of the film?

David Zellner: Yeah, we wanted it to be the mythic west. Different drafts of the scripts talked about geographical settings, but as we revised it, we liked the ideas of the mythic west and not bound to a particular region or anything. So that’s why we were happy to cherry pick completely different types of landscapes, whether it’s a desert or mountains or rocky coastlines and create its own world from that.

Then with Butterscotch, we called her that in the script and she has a certain look, so it was pretty extensive to find the right miniature horse. Not just in terms of the period, but the appearance, with the flowing blonde locks. The Farrah Fawcett of mini horses is what we were going for. And also the right temperament. We wanted a horse that was happy to hang out a lot.

I hope it’s there’s another Team Bunzo campaign. [Laughs] There’s also the song Robert Pattinson sings, “Honeybun.” Did you see Hail, Caesar!? Samuel reminded me of Alden Ehrenreich’s cowboy character a bit.

David Zellner: Yeah, we liked the idea of a cowboy ballad in the movie. I like Ricky Nelson a lot and I love his song in Rio Bravo, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.” That movie is crazy because they play like two songs in a row. They play the whole song and you are surprised they play the complete song, and then they are like, hey, let’s play another one and they play a second song! And it’s so entertaining. I just love that kind of vibe so it seemed like a fun thing to put campfire song in there. And it fit into all the things he was doing for Penelope.

Nathan Zellner: It’s another cliche of two guys on the trails talking around a campfire. I love David’s expression as he’s watching them because this connection between the two character and everything sets up what’s to come later.

I love the themes you guys touch on. There’s this female empowerment running through the back half of the movie. There’s also the scene with the Native American character and your character [David] with this idea of cultural reappropriation or vampirism. Do guys start with those ideas then whittle them down to fit the script or is it the other way around?

David Zellner: Well, it’s hard to say. It all just happens organically. I remember the middle of it came first. With that scene, even some movies that people love that have the best intentions, they still end up playing up the white savior thing, which is so tiresome. They just kind of deal in extremes where if there’s a Native American character it’s a savage or a noble sage instead of being a regular human somewhere in between. They are both equally offensive, so making fun of that whole white savior thing and cultural vampirism or the way that people mix up appreciation with appropriation and think they are doing them a favor. That’s the thing that’s so condescending too. It’s like, “You are so lucky to have me.” Also, one of the funniest short stories I ever read is this Mark Twain one called A Day at Niagara. It’s so ahead of its time. It was written in 1888 or something like that. It has a similar thing where it has a guy that goes to Niagara Falls and what he perceives as Native Americans selling trinkets, he has a similar kind of expectation of them appreciating him. It’s very funny.


Talking about audience reaction, I was laughing a lot during the movie, but it also seems like some people are more amused than laughing a lot. As directors, are you hoping for a certain reaction people or it’s whatever comes?

Nathan Zellner: Well, certain shots for sure.

David Zellner: Yeah, there are certain parts where you are hoping for a big laugh.

Nathan Zellner: Some of it is just some details and stuff that it’s great if people react to it really broadly, or if it’s something subconsciously that leads to a bigger laugh later, or what would be a win reaction for us, when people start thinking back at the end of the movie and they start thinking about how things added up and little things…

David Zellner: The cumulative effect.

Nathan Zellner: Yeah, something that might have been small or not highlighted, [you think] “Oh, that’s why they said that earlier” and that’s ridiculous or funny.

Yeah, I was laughing the next day about the shot of Robert Pattinson going behind the outhouse and just staying back there the whole time.

[All laugh.]

David Zellner: Yeah, elements of physical comedy and sometimes it’s just funny when there’s stuff happening off screen and you don’t know exactly.

Nathan Zellner: Yeah, where there’s this huge action moment with Parson Henry and then you realize, yeah, Samuel is just checked out for a little bit. He’s just frozen in fear, but the’s definitely doing what he’s supposed to be doing.

Is there any other genre that you think is deserving of a revisionist take on it?

David Zellner: Oh, it’d be fun to do more westerns. Each thing we’ve made it’s as if it’s going to be the last thing we do. There’s some sci-fi projects we’d like to do. It’s fun to not always play with genre, but it’s great to use that as a foundation and deviate from it. Some of it is intentional and some of it isn’t. We love westerns and as you’re writing things just end up naturally going a certain direction. Some of it is calculated and intentional and some of it just gravitates based on our sensibilities.


Damsel premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.


Matt Walsh & Thomas Lennon on the Peculiar State of Comedy, Their 20-Year History, and Auditioning for Clint Eastwood

Written by Joshua Encinias, February 1, 2018 at 4:09 pm 


Neither a pun-based title or hagiography, A Futile and Stupid Gesture follows the caustic rise of National Lampoon from Harvard to newspaper stands to radio, TV, and film. Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) and Douglas Kenney (Will Forte) nurtured a new generation of comedians who found their way to Saturday Night Live, including Michael O’Donoghue (Thomas Lennon), the show’s first head writer. The Lampoon’s shenanigans were bankrolled by Matty Simmons (Matt Walsh), the American entrepreneur behind Weight Watchers.

We spoke Lennon and Walsh during this year’s Sundance Film Festival where the film debuted. The actors talk about competition between their comedy groups (Lennon was in The State and Walsh in the Upright Citizens Brigade), Walsh’s SAG awards speech for Veep and capturing the essence of O’Donoghue and Simmons.

For a majority of the conversation, the pair tackle National Lampoon’s un-P.C. humor and why it’s worth celebrating in 2018.

Matt, congratulations on Veep’s SAG award. Did you make your speech up on the spot?

Matt Walsh: No, that was a whole to-do. They told me that if we won, which of course we didn’t think we were going to, I was going to be the spokesman. So there was a bunch of back and forth between me, Dave Mandel, and Julia, who was at home. Just running it by her and making sure she was good with it too. So there was a lot of nervous energy that went into that. I give myself a B.

Lennon: I’m giving it an A. I’m familiar with your oeuvre and I love it.

Walsh: Nothing new. It was my oeuvre.

Thomas, in the movie you’re clearly doing an impression of Michael O’Donoghue. But Matt, most people wouldn’t know what Matty Simmons looks like, much less what he sounds like. How did you come up with him as a character?

Walsh: I read a tremendous of source material once I knew I was doing it. There’s documentaries and books, so I read all that. But I had a two-hour phone call with him when I had a layover in an airport. I tried to play him as described in the script, as a macher, which is a yiddish term for a mover and a shaker. So after talking to Matty, I think he fancies himself very funny because he wrote jokes for the old comics back in the day. So I tried to play him as the adult in the room but also somebody who felt he was as funny as these young whippersnappers.

When I was watching the movie, I was like oh my god, these National Lampoon jokes would be crucified today.

Lennon: It was interesting because here at Sundance we did a live National Lampoon Radio Hour last night. We were going through all of the scripts and there was a lot of times we’re like, ‘Oh wow, this just won’t play right now, we can’t do this.”

Walsh: Obviously it’s a historical story. So, there was a time when things were like that.

I mean, isn’t the whole thing about National Lampoon is that there was a time where their humor was uncouth, but they did it anyway?

Lennon: I think they were trying to push people’s buttons and almost all the time. I think that’s why I was not really permitted to see it very much because I think the magazine fell in the category of like Playboy. There’s actually a lot of nudity and the humor, especially the O’Donoghue stuff when we were recreating it, like the Vietnamese baby book, that was one of the bleakest scenes. I think some sort of stuff was like just very explicitly to push buttons first and then to be funny later.


Do you think there’s a place for that kind of un-P.C. humor on a mass scale today?

Lennon: You know, I think everything like this tends to fall on a case by case basis. Funny stuff will survive if it’s inherently really funny. And I also think it has a tremendous amount to do with the tone. Some of the 70s stuff in tone feels pretty unenlightened, would be the best way to describe. It feels little unenlightened sometimes. And yet, I feel for the most part, even when they’re doing and saying things we wouldn’t say now, generally the tone is meant to be upbeat and not hateful. But it doesn’t all hold up some and of it does.

Walsh: I feel like the comedy now… my kids make fun of things they’ve never seen. So they’re seeing a parody of Casablanca. So they already assume Casablanca is no good. It’s a weird time for comedy for me. What I see kids watching is like a mini parody or everything is turned into a meme, but they don’t know the source material. It’ll be interesting. When we were little kids, Bugs Bunny would often go meet Peter Lorre for some reason and I never knew what the fuck was going on.

The movie is interesting because it straddles being a narrative comedy but it’s also like, ‘Just put some wigs on an actor and pretend it’s a documentary’. How do you think David Wain weaved these different ways of making the movie?

Lennon: I think the cleverness of Martin Mull playing an older, fictionalized Doug was the secret to cracking the whole movie because with a lot of this stuff you have to be able to step outside of the narrative to explain things. I think brings both a lot of honesty to the movie and also it adds a whole other level of funniness.

Walsh: I think David’s sensibility is always about breaking the fourth wall and breaking things down or commenting on things a little bit. So I think it plays into his strengths as well. Not a great answer.

Lennon: It was a pretty good answer. Let the people judge.

When The State and Upright Citizens Brigade were starting out, did you guys know each other?

Lennon: Yes, and it’s interesting because there were a lot of other sketch groups around the time and the State, certainly, we actively behaved like a gang. I mean we were rough. I mean, in the State, there were punches thrown in group meetings, chairs were smashed. We were really were really high on ourselves. So we loved see other groups come and go and then the Upright Citizens Brigade came by and it was unfortunate that we would all become such good friends because they were so fucking good and we were like, oh man. Generally when you see somebody like that, your first feeling isn’t ‘I’m so happy for them that they’re they’re amazing.’

Walsh: You would be like, who are these guys, they’re not very good. It is very competitive.

Lennon: We had to be friends with you because you were so good.

Walsh: We ended up doing dumb shows together.

Lennon: I’ve known Matt Walsh here since 1996. By the time I met him, I knew David Wain for eight years already. Yeah, we were certainly very curious about the UCB, a little bit envious, a little bit competitive with others. There were groups that you could tell the dedication levels of each member was one million percent. That they were either going to do this or nothing.


By the time you guys were in your respective groups, I think Michael O’Donoghue was ill. Had you followed his career?

Lennon: He had almost passed away when I met Matt. I knew remarkably little about him until the film came up. I was a tiny bit aware of Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video special that he did, I guess I’d seen it one time, but I thought it was kind of scary. He loved to do stuff that was scary and disarming and inappropriate and weird, but I was not super aware of him. I studied them a lot for the movie obviously. I’m trying to do his physicalities and his voice as closely as I can. I learned he suffered from terrible terrible migraines his whole life, which eventually he died of an aneurysm. And I think if you look at his career and you think this guy had a horrible, painful ringing in his head most of the time, it underscores the work in an interesting way. But I also I’ve been told he was an incredibly sweet guy if you knew him. Martin Mull knew him, Lorraine Newman said he was one of the sweetest people to her. I think he also loved to cultivate a persona of being a totally volatile crazy person.

Matt, the scene where Doug pushes Matty through the glass door, did happened in real life? And did you do that stunt?

Walsh: It did happen and I wanted to do the stunt but David said no.

Lennon: It was crazy dangerous. You would have died. But rightfully so they didn’t let you do it because it gave a stunt man a job. I was stressed out because I was standing in front of the door when they did it.

Thomas, what was it like working with Clint Eastwood on The 15:17 to Paris?

Lennon: Oh my God. So I was certainly nervous about it because he has this much larger than life persona. I auditioned for that film like every other actor who’s in it. That’s what everyone does for a Clint Eastwood film. You go into his office with his casting people and there’s a the giant poster on the wall of the barrel of a .45 that says “Go ahead, make my day.” There’s a gun barrel pointed at you while you’re reading for Clint Eastwood. I was certainly very nervous and got to set and we laughed all day long. It was so fun and funny.

Walsh: Really?

Lennon: Yeah. I always bring my guitar to set because there’s so much downtime. So there was a turn around and we were sitting in this office and Clint came in and it was only me and him. And so I was guess I’ll keep playing guitar. And then he bobbed his head for a little bit and then we talked about music for about twenty minutes and his son who’s a bass player in Paris. Then I played him The Smiths’ “The Headmaster Ritual.” I got to play a Smiths’ song for Clint Eastwood and he seemed to really enjoy it, but I never thought I’d spend any part of my life playing The Smiths for Clint Eastwood. He was a pure delight to work with.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is now on Netflix.

Bill Morrison on ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time,’ Primitive Cinema, and the Theatrical Experience

Written by Dan Mecca, January 30, 2018 at 2:11 pm 


Make no mistake, filmmaker Bill Morrison is not a man trapped in the past. Though he deals in celluloid from another time, his work bridges the gap between then and now. Dawson City: Frozen Time, Morrison’s critically-acclaimed documentary, tells the story of a treasure trove of lost silent cinema discovered in Dawson City, Canada under a swimming pool. From these slivers of nitrate film comes something grand. Aided by a remarkable score from Alex Somers of Sigur Rós, Morrison connects the history of film with the history of life in North America. Political movements, sports scandals, heinous fires (some caused by the flammable celluloid itself), and countless other moments captured in time. It appeared on multiple Top 10 of 2017 lists for us here at The Film Stage, sitting atop my own. Compelled to have a conversation with Morrison, the filmmaker was kind enough to chat with us for a good long while on his artistic beginnings, creative motivations and making “real” movies.

The Film Stage: How do you find yourself doing what you’re doing? Recovering and researching film, then making your own work from these discoveries.

Bill Morrison: Yeah, how did we get here, right? I guess I went down my own rabbit hole, you know? It started with a fascination with how early cinema could… we have early cinema. You can’t say we have early literature, or early painting. From that, I became interested in first how is primitive man depicted in primitive cinema, and the idea is that we’ve grown with cinema, we’ve changed with cinema, and cinema has changed us. The way we talk, and the way we dream, and even tell stories and think. What does the modern cinema man look like versus the primitive cinema man? I guess that got me into trying to collect as much, and I started working with a theater company relatively early… building out cinema backdrops for theater. Which I had very loose guidelines, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted, which often comes hand-in-hand with no budget, you know? It’s like you can do whatever you want, we’re just not going to pay you for it, but it did have a structure, a deadline, a context, a community of people to go out with for beers after the opening of shows. It was a devoted amount of people. It was good especially coming out of art school to jump in with a community and get my stuff out there, and very quickly it happened that this theater group that I was working with, Ridge, was working with a composer who fancied himself a protégé of Philip Glass, and I very quickly met Phil, and then [became familiar] with the entire New York downtown music scene within a matter of years.

When was this?bill-morrison

I was doing my early stuff with Ridge [Theater] in 1990…I was looking for found footage and public domain footage for the theatrical pieces, and so I started grabbing whatever was cheap and free, and rights-free.

Where were you going for the footage?

For primitive cinema, I went to the Library of Congress. That stuff is so cheap to get 16-millimeter prints made that it was easier to just look at a title and hope that it was cool and order it rather than try to go through any kind of a pre-screener thing.

Back then it was even more of a process to research I imagine, right?

You’d have the brown book with the Kemp Niver book, and then you’d fax the number and send a money order or something to Washington D.C., and some six weeks later a stack of prints, some with this god-awful footage, stuff that nobody had looked at.


I was interested that it had gone through this intermediary stage. That it had been shot God knows how long ago, and then transferred to paper, and then sat in a vault in the Library of Congress where it was actually exposed to the elements.

There probably wasn’t proper storage happening…

No, certainly not. If it was paper [storage], but I guess rats were in there, and it was rain and stuff. Eventually, poorly transferred to 16mm frame by frame in the mid-century, and this is what we were looking at however. At that point, I think there was no love lost between the technician doing that job, though I think some of it they’re tough original source material to work with, but I think to their credit Library of Congress is trying to go through and scan the stuff. But that was a real crapshoot back then, and sometimes we got crazy stuff, and sometimes we got terrible stuff.

You found some gems, I bet, too.

We found some gems too. I worked with that with Ridge for a few years, and around that time Lyrical Nitrate [by Peter Delpeut] came out, I was like, ‘Wow, so nitrate’s the gem, it’s going to keep moving and changing on its own.’ I didn’t get my hands on it probably for another seven or eight years, but eventually I made The Film of Her, which was about the paper print collection, and kind of a predecessor to Dawson City in terms of just being a kind of a proof of theory that you could use an ancient collection to tell its own story.

It does feel like Dawson City is what you’ve been working towards in a way, some kind of culmination.

It contained a lot of ideas that I was interested in all along, and I certainly always thought I was going to make a Dawson City movie. I didn’t know it would take me this long to make it, but I’m glad it did because I’ve made a lot of movies since [1996], and the technology has caught up so there’s such a thing as a 4K scanner, and I can see all of these incredible films.

Music is so essential in all of your films. I read somewhere that you will sometimes let the composers make the music and then you’ll edit to what they do?

It’s true, but I think what gets overlooked is the original idea is mine. I’m saying [to the composer] to go off and write music about X, I’m going to go off and make a film about X, and I’m not going to tell you how to write music because you’re a genius, and I want you to do it completely on your own terms, but this is roughly the amount of time we need, and I’m going to go off and make the film I’m going to make, and you’re not going to say anything about that. Then at the end, when your music is organically fixed, then I feel like I have a more malleable medium to work with, and I can cut to the beat. Sometimes I feel it to be lost when people say dismissively that I cut to music, because in fact the original idea is mine, and that’s what’s driving the project, so I am the director. With all these projects the seed idea, the title, all of it–well, not always the title because sometimes the title’s theirs–but the seed idea and the meaning I feel like at least the literal narrative meaning that people are going to take out of it is derived from the film, whereas the emotional meaning could be derived from either.

It’s interesting after going back and watching everything and then re-watching Dawson City, the tone of the film feels so unique to the rest of your work. As much as it feels like a culmination and something you’re driving at, it feels meditative almost.

I think Alex and Jonsi, who was originally part of the project, were fans of Decasia and decayed film. That’s what they knew, and they were hoping I was making another Decasia basically. I said there will be decayed footage in this, however that’s not the point. I don’t think they ever really believed me until they saw a rough cut. Very early on, and this was just pure coincidence because I had been in touch with their management, there had been some talk about bringing Decasia out on tour with Sigur Ros like in 2013. I think what they had hoped was that they could bring in another electronic artist who would re-score Decasia as a pre-show thing. The deal I have with [Decasia composer] Michael Gordon is that people can’t do that. When I put my foot down, they were like okay, then maybe we’ll show it before the live act that would have re-scored it, and then have the concert. I was like that’s probably not going to happen, but let’s go down that road together and sure enough it didn’t happen. As with things that don’t happen, you say amicably maybe something else is out there.

What they probably didn’t count on is that I was going to come back and say how about this. Their management said maybe not for the whole band, but Jonsi and Alex are looking for something. As it happened, Sigur Rós was on tour, and they did a stop at the Ottawa Senators’ hockey rink while I was in Ottawa researching Dawson City, maybe during the first days. I described to them what I saw, and maybe a month later they came over to my place [in New York City] and they looked at it. Now two years went by before I had a rough cut, but they in a very short time turned around 20, 25 minutes of this beautiful spec music, really inspirational and guiding. It changed how I thought of the mood and pacing of the film in a certain way. I cut to that and repeated it, and used their 2009 record Rice Boy Sleeps as scratch track… I think if you put Rice Boy Sleeps on [with Dawson City] you might see something interesting. Ultimately Jonsi had gone off on tour again by the time 2016 rolled around, and Alex was good to go.

Oh, okay, so then Alex just kind of owned it.


So this is very specific, but of all of your films that I’ve been catching up with in preparation for this interview, the one that I’ve loved the most is The Mesmerist. It’s short, fifteen minutes or so, and is fascinating on its own, and then after I watched it I went back and I watched The Bells [the original film from which The Mesmerist is based].

It’s in parts on YouTube.

You can find it, yeah. So I did try to watch some of it, and I know that Light Is Calling also comes from a scene from The Bells, and what I can’t help always thinking about when I watch your films is this perspective that’s so interesting where I’m watching The Mesmerist and I love it because I’m watching a movie that feels new to me because it is, and it’s with [Lionel] Barrymore, and [Boris] Karloff. I’m watching it, and it is its own new thing, but then I think that it’s part of this other movie that’s barely available. And then you read what that movie [The Bells]  is and you try to watch it, and you learn that [the character of] the mesmerist (played by Karloff) is the climax, but in your movie, it’s the wraparound story, it’s the framework. It makes the whole narrative different, and informs everything…which brings me back to Dawson City and why it feels like a time machine, but also so current. You’re watching the young actress dance at the end of [Dawson City], and it feels so fresh.

She’s actually dancing in support of the suffragist movement, so she’s dancing in support of women’s rights, which it could be incredibly timely. It’s the “Me Too” moment, you know?

It’s so amazing. With The Mesmerist, your film feels like such a stark introspective guilt-ridden thing with Barrymore’s character. I feel like The Bells, from what I’ve seen of it, it’s more traditional…

Ultimately, [The Bells] has a happy ending. Despite the fact that [Barrymore’s character] killed a Jewish guy, his house’s problems are solved in the end. Even if he’s wracked with guilt, the daughter is married off happily, the couple that you see in Light is Calling, and then the oppressive landlord’s out of the picture. He’s set everything right through this murder, which is wrong.

It’s so wrong.

It’s so wrong, right? And there’s something very dark about that because he also drags this Jewish corpse into an incinerator in 1928.

Unbelievable. That movie really just hit me watching it. And is that something that you just find while researching? The Bells I mean?

Yeah, absolutely. The Mesmerist and Light is Calling came out of this same brilliant print from the Library of Congress.

Continue >>

‘The Commuter’ Cinematographer Paul Cameron on Creating Tension, Spatial Coherence, ‘Collateral,’ and Tony Scott

Written by Jordan Raup, January 15, 2018 at 10:31 am 


The current state of action cinematography owes a debt to Paul Cameron. Along with being on the forefront of the digital revolution with his stunning night-time work on Collateral, he also collaborated with Tony Scottt on films which have an experimental visual energy simply missing from the genre today.

His latest feature, The Commuter,  finds him collaborating with one of the great directors of today’s thrillers, Jaume Collet-Serra, and working carefully in the confines of a single train car. Through a custom rig and well-executed trickery, he expands the scope of this location while still adhering to lucid spatial coherence, something Collet-Serra can pride himself on film after film.

I spoke with the cinematographer about the utterly brilliant opening sequence, utilizing the new technology of Cinefade, the custom rig he built, his collaboration with Michael Mann and Tony Scott, his early film-going memories, and more.

Let’s start at the beginning. The opening sequence brilliantly conveys the passage of time. From a cinematography point of view, as it relates to matching the shots or coming up with the structure, what was your hand in that?

Well, it was interesting. Jaume Collet-Serra, the director, he wanted to try something different to show the passage of time and we kinda talked about it. We talked about how do we show the repetitive nature with different times of day and all that. We kind of defaulted on this idea of the same time of day, but the same scenes. Then it was like, okay, we have very limited time to shoot it, so we did a little test on it to see how it would work then we were very judicious and very well-planned in terms of how we would cover a line and how that would cut with the next reaction shot, so the test actually helped us lay it out quite well. I had a lighting scheme that I could turn from a hot summer day to a wintery snowy afternoon, so we just had a good plan and we were able to execute it well.

One thing I love about his films is the spatial coherence as it relates to the action. A lot of that has to do with your cinematography. Even though you didn’t shoot his previous films, this feels in line with his vision. The film is kind of taking the ideas of Non-Stop then multiplying it by 10-15 more cabins. Can you talk about bringing that to life?

Yeah, Jaume is a very talented director. He’s got this genre down very well. I’ve shot a fair amount of action films with Tony Scott and other people, so I think it was: how do we merge the two worlds and try to notch it up a bit? Again, he’s just so judicious about he plans things. In this case, it was how do we utilize one train car? Basically we shot it all on one train car with a small section of another one. So to give this reality of six cars and Liam moving up and down and different people in different trains, it was quite a challenge that way. The train didn’t move. It moved 20 feet up and 20 feet back. It would pull into a station on stage, then leave. It was very limited how we shot those platform sequences, but I think they turned out pretty well.


There’s something called Cinefade that is a new technology you used, allowing the depth of field to fluidly change. Can you talk about that?

Yeah, I actually saw a demo of Cinefade quite awhile ago and decided to use it on the film in its prototype form and I’ve since facilitated bringing it to the U.S. as a rental here. What I love about it is that it changes depth of field with spinning polarizers and your iris. In the past we used to do it with more of a shutter control, so it would have a completely different feel to it. This is a much more photographic way of doing it. We employed it on a few shots in the film, one of which is when Liam gets fired. We slowly track in and the background dissolves away. It’s kind of like we’ve seen these Vertigo effects–and we actually did one Vertigo effect in the movie–so Cinefade is new and it’s very subtle and it’s very photographic, and kind of charming to use.

You use a lot of insert shots, which help to heighten both the emotion and the thrills by adding to your perspective as a viewer. The planning must be insane for this. Do you know how many shots total are in the film?

No, I don’t. [Laughs] I’d be curious to know. For us, we really believe for thrillers, it’s how the audience discovers the story and what they do with the clues of the story and how they take a misdirect and how they pay attention to different things. In this case, there’s a lot of insert shots. I hate to even call them insert shots, cause they are really shots and they have to do with Liam’s point of view for the most part and it has to do with Liam trying to figure out, what do the tickets say and how do I know what zone they are in? This group of people sitting here, how many of them have that zone that are getting off? Those pieces were very important to show for both Jaume and I to get a sense of the reality of it. It’s about finding a bag on the train or finding a person on the train so there’s a lot of points of views that Liam drops into and a lot of details within that.


Speaking about Liam Neeson, he’s built his own iconography with his physique and his expressions that it must be a joy to shoot him in an action film because he brings so much to the table already. Can you talk about how involved you were in the blocking and framing of him?

First off, Liam is an amazing actor. He’s obviously a big movie actor, a big close-up actor, so he’s an absolutely pleasure to work with. He comes prepared and he knows his lines and he’s ready to make suggestions. In terms of blocking, we had to adjust the blocking quite a bit with Liam and a lot of the actors, due to the nature of the train and how we were able to get cameras where we needed to get them and get some kind of light or glimmer in an eye the way we wanted to do it. It was a challenge how to make that train interesting. The blocking ideas, we kind of went through the script and we realized we wanted sections of the film to be dormant and static with very subtle push-ins and then we didn’t want gratuitous dollies or Steadicam, then there were other parts where we were very certain we wanted to handheld and we wanted the camera right in Liam’s face in a lot sequences. It kind of evolved that way and then Jaume and I came up with a lensing chart. We broke it down in five sections of the movie and we decided we would stay within certain focal lengths in certain parts of the movie. We stayed true to it, even though we were blocking something and we felt like, oh, let’s go to a 17mm [lens] or something and we realized our bible said that we couldn’t go wider than a 40mm. So, we had to adjust the blocking or figure out a way to make it, but it was interesting to come up with that plan and do it, because I think it helped overall.

You created a rig for the train car with a custom rail that could move back and forth and 360 degrees around actors. Setting that up, does that free you up in a way to experiment or is there a loss in spontaneity?

I think the primary challenge on the train was: how do you move the camera on the train? We made the aisle width slightly wider as it was just so that we could potentially get handheld cameras and there was a lot of scenes where characters cross each other or pass each other. On a normal train that can be quite though. But the biggest challenge for us was how to move the camera, how to make dynamic movies over seats and go to Liam, wrap around Liam, and go the other direction and the physically it was kind of a process of me envisioning how to do it. I came up with the center track rig that actually would travel up and down the length of the car. You could also travel left and right manually and I added a z-axis to it, which was the ability to actually pan an extended arm all the way around, so actually do a 360 around him and track. There’s a fight sequence we tried to emulate as one shot. There’s quite a few wrap-around shots that would have been impossible without the right. Then there’s shots like Liam when he’s taking the cash and he realizes he’s on a train with hundreds of people and the camera pulls back through six train cars. That rig was obviously amazing to do the pull back on it and then five days later when we are redressing for another car with a different group of people, we were able to pull back through and get another car all the way through, etc. so we ended up on six different days doing the same shot, but we had it programmed. It was a lot of motorized winch systems so we could just execute the shot perfectly with very little time.

Yeah, it looked beautiful. If I could ask a few more questions about your background. Collateral is just an incredible feat of cinematography. Now it’s well on ten years old, looking back, the digital cinematography, even though you guys were on the forefront of it, it still holds up so well. Can you talk about your experience shooting that and working with Michael Mann?

Well, on the film I never intended to shoot the film digitally. Digital wasn’t even kind of an option back then. There was talk about it. We knew that in the technical world, companies were looking at this possibility and Michael had done a little bit of shooting on Ali with a Sony 900 on a rooftop with Will Smith and I remembered it from the movie. We looked at some of the scenes to get a feel for it. I mean, it was quite honestly like a film stock for me at that time. It was this kind of acidic acrid film stock that happened to be digital capture. [Laughs] It was never meant to be on the forefront, but it certainly changed a lot of things, that’s for sure. That film is interesting for me because it has a lot of action, but it’s kind of a night of, less than 24 hours in the movie, and the ticking clock, and you have the intense character that Tom plays, and the limitations of the taxi, so it was a lot of challenges. I bet specific trailers for being able to go handheld and keep the interactive light on the car and keep it sound-proof. There was quite a bit of planning that went into that it. So, it was quite a feat. I’m very happy with the results.


You mentioned Tony Scott and your collaborations with him brought such an experimental vision that seems like it’s missing nowadays from action films. Do you miss seeing his approach to the genre?

Yeah, Tony was one-of-a-kind for sure. He probably pushed cinematographers in general more than any other director I know, quite honestly. Our first film together was Man on Fire and we were talking about to enhance the visual palette and Tony had some hand-cranking on cameras. I had done some hand-cranking on cameras. We decided why not experiment with it? We saw this radical footage from hand-cranked cameras and using reversal film and cross-processing, so I brought a lot to the table with that, but I was supported a lot by the director who was very much in love with the results and the energy that type of photography brought. We went on to do a less chaotic film Deja Vu, but also very chaotic action-wise as well and that was a different approach. That one had to do with timeline change, so Tony, I think he was still in love with the frenetic visual quality but lessened it because I didn’t feel it was as appropriate. The bar got raised very early by Tony visually in action movies, and certainly we saw people like Michael Bay follow. Since then it’s been amped up completely. So it was a great evolution and it was great to see his effect on that genre.

My last question is going back even earlier. You’ve mentioned how you went to SUNY Purchase and you came into the city to go to New York Film Festival. Can you talk about those first experiences where you fell in love with cinema and what drew you in?

Yeah, one of the first films I saw at the New York Film Festival was Wim Wenders’ The American Friend. That had a major impact on me. The cinematography on that film was certainly evolutionary. Robby Müller from Germany was doing a lot of mixed light, natural light and I think for me the experience of the New York Film Festival was getting exposed to many more foreign films and I saw much more of a global vision to storytelling and cinematography and directing across the board. I realized that my first experience there at the film festival, standing on line and trying to get tickets, I would go every year. It was the most important, significant week of every year for me for many years.

The Commuter is now in wide release. Listen to our discussion of it below.

Lesley Manville on the Power Dynamics in ‘Phantom Thread,’ Deleted Scenes, and PTA’s Humor

Written by Jordan Raup, January 11, 2018 at 9:17 am 


The casting of Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread led some to believe Paul Thomas Anderson might be taking on a sprawling, character-filled Mike Leigh-esque look on London society, with a touch of inspiration from his mentor Robert Altman. However, his latest film quickly reveals itself to be a chamber drama (or comedy) and a more minor, but no less integral part of the three-way triangle is Manville’s Cyril Woodcock. Sister to Day-Lewis’ Reynolds, through no more than a few words and a penetrating glare, the true relational hierarchy reveals itself in cunning ways thanks to Manville’s icy cool.

I spoke with the actress about giving Paul Thomas Anderson cultural advice, what was left on the cutting room floor, the power of reactions, her character’s secret control, the underlying sadness of Phantom Thread, Jonathan Demme, and more.

This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film shot outside the United States. Did he talk to you at all about customs or culture to get advice from you?

Yeah, he did actually, about language. Sometimes I said, “That sounds a little bit American to me.” He said, “Yes, of course! Let’s change it.” Then in one scene we went off script a little bit, which we occasionally did, which was fine. It was encouraged. It wasn’t taboo. I said something that’s very English, but I didn’t realize it wasn’t an Americanism as well. In a scene with Alma, I said, “Well that’s as may be.” He went,” That’s as may be? What does that mean?” I said, “Well, that might be the case, you know. That’s as may be.” He said, “Are you sure? Because it doesn’t make sense putting those words together.” I said, “I’m sure it’s a real thing because I’ve been living in England all my life and we say that’s as may be, especially if you are middle class, upper middle class.” And it’s in the film. He trusted me. He believed that I knew what I was talking about, which I did. Yeah, but every now and again. I mean, Christ, he’s written a fantastic script about a very English situation and setting. He’s done pretty good for a boy from the valleys.

As an audience member, there’s a lot of humor to be mined from the interactions, but I’m curious on set, did that dynamic come across? Did you talk about it beforehand?

No, we didn’t talk about it, we just did it. I wasn’t aware that it was funny, but Paul has a big problem sometimes with laughing and when something makes him laugh he can’t really disguise it. There were two scenes that I did that he had to leave the room because he just got the giggles. I thought what’s the point of leaving the room? I can still hear you giggling next door. [Laughs]

Was one of the scenes when Alma proposes to you that she’s going to do something nice for Reynolds?

Yes. [Laughs]

And you are kind of stone-faced. The power of that entire scene lies in your reaction. Did you shoot more than one reaction?

I think we did shot quite a lot of stuff. We generally shot quite a lot. We generally did most scenes quite a bit, but I think we both knew what was right. You try other things, like the scene where I say to Reynolds, “Don’t pick a fight with me. You won’t win.” I remember doing a version of that where I sort of shouted at him. It was fine, but it wasn’t really right. Paul said, “You know, it’s much more scary if you aren’t even looking at him, just drinking your tea.” And it is quite scary. I scared myself even. [Laughs]

This whole movie there’s this power dynamic between Reynolds and Alma, but then as the movie progresses, we learn that you actually almost own both of them in sense.


You control everything. Was that clear in the script?

Well, of course it kind of is all there in the script, but a script is up for interpretation. The great thing about Paul is that he doesn’t go, “This is how it is.” He lets you discover it, because he’s discovering it too. I mean, yes he can write it. Like all great directors do, they have a vision. They have a feeling for what the film will be. Above and beyond that, they can’t really know what it’s going to be like until it gets in the hands of the actors and if you’ve got good actors, they are going to be creative and they are going to come up with stuff. He would watch us do things and he would just love it. Then he runs with it and then he gets an idea. “I love the way you did whatever. Let’s push that a bit more.” So somehow or other through that sort of, not even a process, it’s just letting creatives be creative, we come to the point where Cyril is how she is and the way for her to deal with things is to kind of keep stony about it. Once when I did a scene I took the glasses off and tidied the hair and then there’s another scene later when I took the glasses off and he said, “You have tidied your hair.” I didn’t even think he noticed when I did it before. Of course, he noticed everything. He’s all-seeing, all-knowing.


I spoke with Vicky Krieps and she said there’s an opening of the film that was shot but wasn’t used, with her character at a church and you realize her mother had passed away. It was stuff we don’t see, but it helped her form the character. When it comes to your character, was there stuff you shot or talked about that helped you form Cyril?

There was only really one scene that of mine that was lost. I mean, Christ, along the way Paul lost a lot of little subplots. A lot. There’s a lot of woman coming to the couture house that had gone. All sorts of minor, not major, but minor subplots that ended up going. He did cut one scene with Vicky and I which was kind of halfway through the relationship of getting to know each other when Cyril starts to see that this relationship with Reynolds is slightly more serious than most of the other woman that have been in his life. It was in the country house and Alma finds his mother’s wedding dress that Reynolds thinks he lost. Because Reynolds says, “I don’t know where it is know. It’s probably ashes.” Actually, Cyril had kept it, but hadn’t told Reynolds. Alma finds the dress and they have a kind of strange conversation about this wedding dress and then Cyril asks her to keep it quiet from Reynolds that she’s still got it. But that went, and I could see why it would go, because actually you get that Cyril is warming to Alma just through the way Cyril is looking at her and smiling at her.

And the breakfast scene you say you actually kind of like her.

Yeah, exactly.

One thing I love about Paul Thomas Anderson and the way he does transitions, it can feel as though you’re watching just one scene unfold across the entire movie. It helps with Jonny Greenwood’s score weaving through everything. When you saw the film for the first time, what was your reaction?

Well, it’s always lovely when you see a film for the first time because you’re seeing all the stuff that you’re not involved in. One of the scenes that really struck me is the omelette scene, which has got very little dialogue in it. I mean very little. We probably watch her making an omelette for about three minutes and we watch her putting the butter in the pain and chopping the mushrooms. Then we watch him watching her making the omelette. Then she washes her hands. Nobody is saying anything and then there’s this incredible score. The way that scene is cut together, I find it such a genius piece of filmmaking, the whole thing. You can say the performances are good. Yes, the performances are one element. Paul is responsible for all of the elements. He’s responsible for our acting. He’s responsible for how it looks. He’s responsible for editing it. He’s responsible for putting the right music on, getting the right musician, getting the right music in the right place. I think that section will become one of the great scenes from filmmaking history. I think it’s extraordinary, a really, really, really extraordinary sequence. And I just love the film anyway. If I wasn’t in it, I would love it, because I love films that are about relationships and about how hard relationships are. Whatever life we think somebody is having–the person out on the street, the people we read about in glossy magazines–however you idealize other people’s lives, they are never like that. Every relationship is utterly unique and what goes on behind closed doors, nobody can ever know. Except Cyril. She knows everything.

[Both laugh]

One of the great things about this fall season is seeing both you and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water on this circuit.

I know, isn’t that good?

Mike Leigh’s troupe, you could say, both doing amazing things.


Have you spoken to her at all?

No, I haven’t spoken to her for awhile, actually. I miss her. We used to communicate a lot, but it’s been less so in the last few years. I’ve been thinking I must get in touch with her. Who knows, we might even bump into each other, but I think she’s more likely to be there than I am and well, good luck to her. Richly deserved.


Back to Phantom Thread, as they viewer you see all these costumes coming through, but I imagine it was even more on a massive scale on set, seeing it all unfold. One of my favorite scenes is the auction day, when they are parading the costumes around.

Ah, yes. That’s how they did fashion shows back then. I knew the way they did fashion shows in that day is they walked around with a number and it was mostly done in houses or sometimes in the designer’s garden and there was people smoking because everyone smoked and no one cared about it, making the house stink and all that kind of stuff. It was a great scene. All the elements were just spot-on. I’m sitting there and I’m watching this parade. I think it is a beautiful scene. I love it when Alma goes back into the changing room and she’s so high on it. She sort of skips around and sees him. He’s doing all the kind of neurotic [adjustments]. There’s a bit of you that goes, “Oh, come on Reynolds. It’s a dress. Get real here.” But of course it’s the center of their life and it’s the center of his life because he’s a complete obsessive.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson mentioned in an interview they felt this great sadness after finishing the film, how it was almost indescribable. Could you sense that on set? It is a romantic film, but there is this underlying sadness throughout.

Oh, there is! There’s a sadness to all those characters. For my money, all good films end with things not tied up. You may have some resolution with Alma and Reynolds, but it’s not totally because you just don’t know where he’s going to go. He marries her, but then she eats her breakfast and it drives him mad again. You just don’t know where it’s going to go, where that neurosis is going to lead him and whether he’ll ever be really cured as it were. You’re left wondering about Cyril. I mean, some friends of mine said, “Oh, I wanted Cyril’s story to be a bit more resolved.” I said, “Well, it’s not going to be resolved.” That’s like saying you want my–Lesley’s-life to be resolved. You can’t say, “Oh, next Tuesday it’s resolved, Lesley’s life.” And tie it up in a neat bow. “Oh, that’s Lesley’s life.” It goes on and it continues and it breathes. I love the film for that. The last day of filming was the scene in the end in the park. When they go off for dinner and they leave Cyril with the baby.

That got a lot of laughs at my theater, your character taking care of an infant.

[Smiles.] And that was our last day. We were in this rather chilly park. It was sad. And also, what I didn’t know until last week, when I saw the film was credited to Jonathan Demme, I said to Paul, “Was a he a great friend of yours?” He said, “Oh, very, very much.” And he died the day we shot that scene, our last scene. He died on that day. So he was sad for double reasons. I mean, I was sad because I wasn’t going to walk into work every day with three people that I admired hugely and had a great time with, felt like we had done something rather special. So I miss the people and I miss playing Cyril, but there’s something in me that says, “Okay, alright. Next.” I don’t take characters home with me. I mean, Christ, if I took some of my characters home with me, I’d be in an asylum. And I don’t mean that “next” in that I’m blasé about it. I’m not blasé, but I’m a pragmatist.

Yeah, Vicky said she couldn’t take off months to prepare and had to go right to the next project, just to pay rent. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis, who had the luxury of taking years off.

Yeah, I spoke to Daniel a few weeks after we finished and he said, “How are you?” I said, “Oh, I’m great, but I’m filming this series I do called Mum.” He went, “You’re doing another job?” I went, “Yeah, I was commissioned to do this series and it was always slotted in.” He just said, “I wish I could do that. I wish I could do it.” I said, “Well, there is another element to me doing it, which is that I’ve got to pay my electricity bill.”

Phantom Thread is now in limited release and expands this weekend and wider on January 19.

Guy Maddin on Reinventing ‘Vertigo’ with ‘The Green Fog,’ Male Gaze, and the Bressonian Qualities of Chuck Norris

Written by Joshua Encinias, January 7, 2018 at 8:11 am 


“Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the plowshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guests, an altar for the unknown God.”

― Henri-Frédéric Amiel

Jack Palance recites the previous quote in Sudden Fear and it’s the manifesto for Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson’s new project, The Green Fog. The quote is one of a few lines of dialogue to appear in the film. It’s mostly ‘narrated’ with gestures, the breath between words and a score composed by Jacob Garchik and performed by Kronos Quartet. You hear nods to Bernard Hermann’s score of Hitchcock’s Vertigo throughout.

Commissioned by Noah Cowan for the closing night of the 2017 San Francisco Film Festival, The Green Fog is compiled of clips from hundreds of TV shows and films shot in San Francisco to create a parallel-universe version of Vertigo. The result amplifies some great (but mostly mundane) performances by stripping the original dialogue to focus on the actor’s faces. Maddin said when the Johnson’s removed Chuck Norris’ dialogue in Eye for an Eye, he reached “Bressonian quality.”

The Green Fog comments on Hitchcock’s self-criticism of the male gaze in Vertigo, but the trio don’t provide a precise reason for borrowing Hitchcock’s narrative to celebrate filmmaking in San Francisco. It allows The Green Fog to have a life beyond the San Francisco Film Festival as it plays for audiences in New York City at the IFC Center.

Do you consider The Green Fog an essay of sorts, vivisecting Hitchcock’s use of the male gaze?

Guy Maddin: When Noah Cowan at the San Francisco Film Festival approached us to make a closing night film featuring footage of films shot in San Francisco, we initially started thinking of city symphonies, we weren’t quite sure what to do. Pretty quickly we realized operating from a position of adapting Vertigo, using footage of other movies shot in San Francisco, gave us the freedom to riff on Vertigo the film, and do the kind of things good cine-essays do without the voiceover of a cine-essay.

Evan Johnson: While we were making it I thought of it as something that was making an argument the way an essay might. Like a thesis and antithesis and a synthesizing of arguments with the shot colliding together, saying something about Vertigo and what it meant and what’s dangerous about it. I wasn’t making totally clear arguments in my head with words. Whatever The Green Fog is saying or arguing is kind of mysterious to me still.

Watching The Green Fog, I would say Hitchcock’s use of the male gaze is your thesis and the quote you use by Henri-Frédéric Amiel is the antithesis. Will you talk about the dialogue you create between the two?

Evan Johnson: That quote was from Sudden Fear and Jack Palance is speaking it. To me it’s like a guide to watching the movie itself, almost like a manifesto. The first poster design we had used a part of the quote on it: “Let mystery have its place in you.” It’s exhorting us not to have too much literal-mindedness about what we were creating. It’s also a conversation about whatever we were trying to say about the male gaze in Vertigo. Which again isn’t entirely articulated. Vertigo itself is so self-critical, very honest and cruel about what the male gaze is and does, but at the same time we were thinking it may be nice to make a movie about the male gaze that wasn’t so stifling to the female characters. We were looking for ways away from the male gaze.

Maddin: I loved the scene of the two women discussing the trips to the museum. It’s a peek into Madeleine Elster’s life, what her off-hours might be like and how concerned she might be about what she’s doing. It’s offering a point of view there that Hitchcock doesn’t offer. It’s still doing the same thing what Vertigo is, being self-critical, it offers up a few more points.

How did you decide the breathing between words, facial gestures, background noise and orchestration by Kronos Quartet would set the tone and act as dialogue for the project?

Galen Johnson: Initially it was a practical thing for me to find our version of Vertigo. We had all these scenes filmed in San Francisco totally irrelevant to what we were trying to say. The thing to do seemed to be take it all out. [Laughs]. I wasn’t thinking at the time how cool the breathing would sound.

Maddin: Once you get the dialogue out, suddenly people aren’t talking to each other, but looking at each other. That’s a big difference and that’s more in line thematically with what we were thinking about. Also, people were listening. Listening is a motif that sounds like a broad motif, but since we brought on a composer and a live string quartet, we needed a means of articulating that people should be listening while they were watching the movie. It shouldn’t be underestimated that it made us laugh to take people’s dialogue away from them. The television actors got better! Where they may have had a hard time delivering haphazardly-written, cheese-ball dialogue, suddenly became really powerful and erotic when you took their words away. They were saying so much more with their faces. Instead of adding something to collide with the face, we subtract and just have you look at the face. All those faces are so familiar to you. The lighting styles of so many different eras all loaded into those faces. There’s that sequence with Chuck Norris. When you isolate Chuck Norris without dialogue he has a Bressonian quality. The movie was Eye for an Eye and he’s basically grief-stricken. His partner or mentor has been killed at the beginning of the movie. The mentor was played by Terry Kiser, who played Bernie in Weekend at Bernie’s.

Did you create the background noise for the scenes you used?

Evan Johnson: Yes, we added a lot. There’s certain scenes where we have to match the ambiance of the scene and re-layer it over the entire scene. Cutting out the dialogue isn’t always so simple. Half of the shots of someone’s face where they’re listening to someone else’s dialogue, we had to replace the ambient restaurant or street noise, and we would have to re-add or add sound effects that weren’t there. The shot in The Green Fog from The Towering Inferno, Paul Newman slams a car door but it didn’t make that sound, so we added it. It’s the perfect slam, so we were fixing the mess-ups of other, lazier editors. [Everyone laughs]. We had to do a lot of work to make the dialogue cutting as seamless as we want it to be.


How did you secure the rights to seemingly hundreds of TV shows and films?

Maddin: One other major collaborator was a fair usage lawyer in San Francisco. My job was to talk to this fair usage lawyer while Galen and Evan were editing in Winnipeg. I had to describe to her how much we were using and how we were using it. I learned a lot about fair usage. It’s just the matter of a lawyer drafting up a letter of plausible arguments for a judge, then the movie can get insurance and proceed. According to contemporary conventions of fair usage, we didn’t use too much from any one source. I talked to Bill Morrison about Dawson City: Frozen Time where he was paying for rights to things and he told me recently he regretted doing that because he found out later he could have used it under fair usage laws.

Speaking of Dawson City: Frozen Time, Galen, I saw that you designed titles for the project.

Galen Johnson: I met Bill Morrison at the New York Film Festival and he liked The Forbidden Room’s titles. He said he was working on a project and he asked if I was interested. I didn’t really do all that much. He had a pretty solid rough cut of the movie and he had written all of the text. I just came up with the typography of it.

Did you have any nervousness about releasing the project beyond the San Francisco Film Festival? I read Tippi Hedren compared Harvey Weinstein to Alfred Hitchcock.

Evan Johnson: It didn’t occur to me to have those kind of nerves. I felt a couple of layers of defense. Vertigo as a movie is critical of Hitchcock’s entire method and his male gaze issue. On top of that, we were trying to intensify that criticism and find ways around ‘male gaziness’. And we weren’t trying to be heroes about it either. We had a quick deadline and not much time and were just concerned with small formal problems and then suddenly the film was finished. We wanted to delight ourselves, we wanted to make ourselves happy. Tippi’s probably right about Hitch. Sounds like he was a dubious character in a lot of ways. I don’t feel defensive of Hitchcock in any way. His films have taught me and I think I’m at a place where I’m ready to criticize Vertigo and complain a little bit. I’ve seen it so many times now, its initial devastating effect on me has worn off and it’s sort of fun to complain about it. [Laughs].

Maddin: It has crossed my mind a little bit. I don’t want to joke about it, but I like like Evan said, everyone has an opinion on Vertigo in regards to the male gaze. This one does play with that in ways I don’t think are obvious but at least is a step back from that dangerous territory. We’re not really interested in that stuff. We had lot of movies we could have pulled from and intensified the male gaze but it didn’t occur to us to do it.

The Green Fog is now playing at IFC Center.

Diane Kruger on Battling Nazis, Giving a Voice to Women, and the Aftermath of Terror

Written by Jose Solís, January 5, 2018 at 9:43 am 


Even though she was born and raised in Germany, Diane Kruger had never shot a feature film in her native language until she did In the Fade. Fatih Akin’s explosive drama sees Kruger playing Katja Sekerci, a woman who loses her son and husband in a terrorist attack perpetrated by Neo-Nazis. Worried that the law won’t make them justice, Katja decides to take matters into her own hands. But this is no simple revenge thriller, rather it’s an exploration of grief that often feels like staring deep into the abyss. Kruger gives the most compelling performance of her career as a woman trying to make sense of a world that’s completely new to her. Watching her transformation from the lively woman we see in flashbacks and home videos, to the torn human being she’s become by the end is truly heartbreaking.

In recent years, Kruger has been delivering quietly masterful performances in projects like FX’s The Bridge (which was cancelled way too soon), Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the sadly underseen The Better Angels in which she plays Abraham Lincoln’s stepmother. But she never has been allowed to command the screen like she does in Akin’s film; she’s practically in every scene and is asked to go through an unbelievable emotional journey that sees her getting high, breaking down in a courtroom, and driving to save her life. She won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival (13 years after she won the Chopard Revelation Award) and as the film opens in America, she’s part of the awards conversation. The film itself was included in the Best Foreign Language Film shortlist released by AMPAS in mid-December.

We spoke to Kruger about playing a character who deals with endless sorrow, her perception of the German identity, and why she thinks things are changing for the better for women in the film, industry.

There were moments watching the film where I looked away because I couldn’t handle looking at the pain in Katja’s face. How were you able to you take off Katja after a day of shooting?

I didn’t. I really felt there was no way I could do that. I felt I was drowning in grief and there was no way coming home after work and going out for drinks. Absolutely not.

You’ve battled Nazis in period pieces before, and now you’re battling them in a modern film. Are you surprised that we still have to deal with freaking Nazis?

Yeah, and apparently it’s not just in Germany anymore. Unfortunately there’s a huge uprising in the extreme right and white nationalism all over the world, so it’s unfortunate how timely this movie is.

Dealing with the Holocaust seems to be an intrinsic part of the German identity. What was your own personal experience growing up with this?

I’m from the generation of the European Union and growing up in Germany people talk about our history to make sure we don’t repeat it. In the early 90s there was a huge nationalist uprising after the fall of the Berlin Wall and I remember when I was a kid it was easy to spot Neo-Nazis; they had a specific haircut, they dressed in a certain way, and they were outcasts. But now with the internet and international networks of Neo-Nazis it seems it’s easier for them to connect. It’s scary because they don’t stand out easily–they look like you and me. As a German I’m ashamed to say that for the first time since WWII people from the extreme right have seats in our government.


Do you find that playing characters like Katja helps you deal with your own fears about everything that might go wrong in the world?

No, playing Katja made me aware that every day there are people like her being created, people who have to deal with the aftermath of terror attacks. It actually terrifies me and it makes me sad. I hope the film shows the effects of what terrorism does to the people left behind.

Which of Fatih Akin’s other works inspired you to want to work with him?

I’ve seen nearly all of his films. He’s one of the only working German directors I know because I left Germany so long ago, and his works have certainly left a lasting impression on me as an actor.

What was your work like with Numan Acar and Rafael Santana, who play your husband and child in the movie, but we see mostly through flashbacks?

Rafael had never acted before. He was so natural, all I had to do was gain his trust. We went to movies beforehand, we went to a playground. He’s a really sweet kid. We shot the film in order so I only spend a few days with both him and Numan. At first it was difficult to set that sense of the quotidian and pretend we’d known each other for years, maybe first day jitters? But we made it work. Numan is a wonderful actor, I love his face so much.

Given the way in which the tables are turning and abusive men are being removed from their positions of power, are you hopeful that we might get to see more and more films led by characters like Katja?

Yeah, things are changing. We have to see what happens in the next two years or so. Women have spoken up and they’ve taken control of the situation. Women have created the space for dialogue and for conditions that have reigned the film industry and the world, to change. I think we live in a different world than we did yesterday.


Has this inspired you in any way to make your own films?

I don’t know if I want to direct but I’m producing films. I’m producing a miniseries about Hedy Lamarr which I hope will arrive sometime next year. I’m buying content not just for me but for other strong women. It used to be an uphill battle, but not it’s more fun to do that. I’m also seeing an opportunity there that didn’t exist before.

What is your absolute favorite Hedy Lamarr performance?

I like Samson and Delilah. I also like Ecstasy which is the movie where she faked an orgasm that followed her around during her entire career. I didn’t know who she was before stumbling on a book about her life. I was so impressed by her mind. I hope I can make justice to her legacy. Her contributions to modern day life are amazing.

Hedy was often praised for her beauty and glamour, but few people know about all the work she did. I wonder if you have encountered similar problems working in film, and is that why you were so interested in telling Hedy’s story?

People always put prejudice on other people. People like to judge others based on their looks, religion, lifestyle… I think sometimes when you decide to take a break out of that it might take longer, but it’s very rewarding. In this time and day when things are changing for women, there is a real opportunity to give the women from the past the voice they didn’t have when they were around. I want to leave the world having been able to do what I want to do. I’m sure in my life I’ve been judged by the way I look or my work, but I want to look forward.


You’re also starring in the upcoming JT Leroy biopic which saw a writer pretend to be a man to get noticed. I wonder if uncovering all the sexism in the industry lately has made you look at this film with different eyes? Like, would Laura have been as respected as Laura and not as JT?

Maybe but I don’t know how much Laura was blaming men for that, or if her problems had more to do with her mental health. I really don’t know. But to me anyway the story was so fascinating. It says a lot about the media and celebrities jumping on bandwagons. There’s a lot of nuance in that story about society and writing. This movie is based on JT’s memoir as Savannah, so it’s a different side to the story.

Congratulations on the Best Actress award at Cannes. With the film coming out in the midst of awards season in America what are your thoughts on the film being in the Oscar race and all that?

It’s been exciting to be here and talk about the film cause no one had seen it since Cannes. It’s exciting to be in the room with the people being considered, because they are actors and filmmakers we admire. It’s exciting to have the film seen by more people. We are getting attention because of Cannes and it’s great because films that aren’t in English slip away very quickly here. So that’s been the most exciting part.

In the Fade is now in limited release.