Welcome, one and all, to the newest episode of The Film Stage Show! In a special episode, we talk to composer Hanan Townshend on what it’s like to work with Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and, most recently, Voyage of Time, as well as his producing efforts The Better Angels and The Vessel.
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The Handmaiden is, in some way, the über Park Chan-wook film — revenge! double-crosses! violence! eyebrow-raising sex scenes! wild angles and edits! — thus making it a perfect occasion to speak with South Korea’s best-recognized auteur. That I don’t especially love his latest picture and, still, found myself eager to speak with him about its particulars should be a testament to the level of interest it affords. When was the last time a filmmaker could reasonably answer questions about the use of subtitles?
When we get into the film’s sexual politics — a major point of contention in our Cannes review — it’s clear that Park feels a deep need to defend his material and artistic perspective, but the conversation remained cordial as he paced back and forth in a Manhattan hotel room. I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself.
I’d like to thank Wonjo Jeong, who provided excellent on-site translation.
The Film Stage: Following the English-language Stoker, did you feel some relief in returning to your native tongue — even a reacquaintance of sorts?
Park Chan-wook: Well, I never thought about it, but since now that you ask and I think about this, maybe that’s the reason why The Handmaiden has the most dialogue of all of my films. Maybe, in returning to this language I’m so comfortable and familiar with, I thought, “I will use it as much as I can.” Well, I’m not so sure. The amount of the dialogue is partly because, in the process of condensing the original novel [Sarah Waters‘ Fingersmith] into a feature length, I had to give a lot of information through dialogue. That’s probably the reason. Fundamentally, though, a movie set — whether you find yourself in Korea or the states — is the same.
I wonder if that created an extra dimension of play in the interchanging between Korean and Japanese dialogue, which has a major part here.
That’s right. It’s a situation that’s not found in the original novel, and there’s some fun to be had, because of the mix of the two languages — that would come across a little differently for anyone who doesn’t speak either of the languages. But, hopefully, the fun side of playing with the two languages still would’ve come through in the different-colored subtitles. For example, in the torture scene at the end, Uncle Kouzuki is using the Korean language, which, up to that point, he hadn’t used. It’s a funny situation, because here’s a character who worships Japanese so much that he insisted, always, on using the Japanese language, but after his collection has been destroyed and his life’s work was all gone, he’s in this mentally destroyed state; he’s now using the Korean language.
But even while he is using Korean, he would use some words of Japanese — and it was the actor, Cho Jin-woong’s, idea to do that, and I thought that was brilliant. And it was his idea that, during the colonial era, there would’ve been Korean intellectuals who would speak in this way, just like some of the intellectuals nowadays are doing: when they speak Korean, for instance, they will sprinkle little English words here and there — a conjunctive word here, a preposition there, or something like that.
The different-colored subtitles, with white for Korean and yellow for Japanese, are a great pleasure. I’d like to know at what point you realized this approach would be taken.
That was decided during post-production. We got to the stage where we had to subtitle the film; I thought about how to best present that there are two languages in the film and a play between the two, because I didn’t want the overseas audience to miss out on any bit of enjoyment from that.
What about showing the same scene from multiple angles? In terms of scheduling and, when it comes to perspectives, camera set-ups. The scene in a tree-lined path comes to mind.
Well, the scheduling was all strictly centered on the different locations that we were shooting. For instance, in the scene you reference, that was all done around the same time — when Kim Min-hee was there for shooting. It’s something that’s made possible when you do a thorough storyboard, and, in terms of performance, I would ask the actors to not do anything different for the first part and the second part, and we would achieve the perspective through the positioning of the camera and such. But, on some shots, I would ask for the performance to be slightly different. Those kinds of things we would try to figure out when we were doing a reading with the actors. Right now, I can’t think of any such moments in the release version, but there are moments like that in the extended version — shots where I asked the actors to give a slightly different performance just because of the different perspective. So it’s probably something you’ll find on the Blu-ray.
Your co-writer, Chung Seo-kyung, has a queer friend who informed the writing and perspective of this story. Ultimately, what role did they play in shaping the final film?
I haven’t conducted all the conversations with her queer friend myself. It was my co-writer who talked the most with her friend about all the different iterations about the script, and, whenever that happened — whether her and her friend say, “Well, you can change certain things this way,” or, “This is good” — I can’t really remember. I wasn’t part of all the details of that conversation. Right now, something I do remember and can give you as an example is her comment about the scissor position. It was the queer friend who said, “That has to be in the film. It’s the best position.”
The Handmaiden’s couching of Asian culture and austerity within extreme subject matter recalls, for me, the Japanese New Wave, and many of its camera moves and edits brought to mind Nagisa Oshima. Were these conscious influences?
There weren’t any specific writers or filmmakers that I had in mind while I was making this film; if there were any influences, it must have been from some subconscious level. Since there are Japanese characters in it, Japanese-style house, Japanese-style costumes, and some sensual moments, I wouldn’t blame people if they think of Japanese New Wave films when they see this.
You said that, lately, you’ve had less time to watch films for yourself, being busy actually making them. Do you suspect that the decreased time for watching films might have changed you as a filmmaker?
Well, from 1999, when I started shooting JSA, I lost every right to be called a “cinephile.” But how did it affect my work? Well, you see, I can’t tell you about how things have affected me and changed me because I was doing a lot of something. But doing less* of something [Laughs] and how it “changed” me… I don’t know how to answer that question. Moreover, because I don’t have time to see many films, I tend to be very selective about what films I do see, and I end up relying on the old, classical movies and tend to see a lot of them — meaning that I don’t get to see a lot of the contemporary cinema. Maybe that means I’m behind the trend?
Years ago, you expressed interest in making a version of The Revenant, with Samuel L. Jackson as the lead. I’d love to know if you had many ideas for the material when it was in development.
I don’t know how this story has come out this way, but I don’t feel it was that long ago. At the time, I was trying to work on another western as well. I’m not even sure whether I had received the book — whether I actually ended up reading it — but, thinking about it now, I probably had read the material. But there hadn’t been any detailed conversation that had taken place on the material, and it was a situation where, even if I wanted to direct the film, there was no guarantee that I would become the director of that movie. It was just an idea that was floating around, and that was pretty much it, really. I don’t even remember that Samuel L. Jackson was attached to the project at the time.
I read an interview with you that was conducted by someone who found The Handmaiden’s “male gaze” troubling. Have many people spoken to you about those matters after seeing the film?
You know how important these reading sessions, that Hideko is part of, are for this film? These scenes are designed to literally show what “male gaze” is, and, in a very palpable manner, it shows you what the violence of gaze can do. Even if Hideko was wearing layers of kimono, it doesn’t matter; she might as well have been exposed in the nude in front of those men. So, rather than touch her, these men are meters away from the stage where she’s giving the reading — but, in these reading sessions, they might as well have been gang-raping her. So for a filmmaker who is trying to make a film about the violence of male gaze, and to make a movie that is a criticism of these kinds of violent male gaze, really, how careful we have been and how much thought we have put into designing these scenes of Hideko, who’s been the subject of such violent male gaze all her life. When she finds her true love and has this moment of love, and makes love, how careful would I have been not to make that moment yet another object of voyeuristic male gaze?
So, if you could, please consider that. I would ask, please, that you forget the fact that I am a male director and, please, try to look at the film objectively. To depict a woman as having sexual desires, in a frank manner — to be showing a nude female body, and show it in a beautiful way — does that automatically make this fall into the male gaze category? I think that’s where the problem begins, and this kind of thought, in itself, is a “male gaze” of looking at this issue. It is entirely possible for female filmmakers to depict women in their honest sexual desire and to show their nude body and the beauty of it. Female directors could just as well do that.
Someone asked what Spike Lee movie you’d like to remake, and you said Jungle Fever. I’m very curious if anything particularly attracts you to that work and a possible translation?
I would like to actually correct my answer. The reason why that answer sort of popped out of my mouth is because I was on the spot, and I was thinking, “What do I think is Spike Lee’s best film? Jungle Fever.” But if I had to remake one of his films, I would say… what’s the jazz film? Mo’ Better Blues! Mo’ Better Blues would be the better one to remake, because even if you just changed the music, it would feel like a different film. As a jazz lover, making a film like that would be such a joy.
The Handmaiden begins its U.S. release on Friday, October 21.
Certain Women is an ensemble piece that features Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart in prominent roles, and so it’s a surprise when the runaway success may be Lily Gladstone, a relative newcomer most prominently seen in Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. and this year’s Buster’s Mal Heart — the latter of which has yet to even receive a theatrical release. While one can ascertain certain things about her character, Jamie, from the moment her face enters the frame, the actress imbues numerous instances of silence and, in the case of interactions with Stewart’s Beth, romantic longing with something that’s hard to pin down precisely because of evident authenticity. If those feeling really are so complicated, why should a cinematic representation be any less?
I was fortunate enough to speak with her about the making of this, one of 2016’s finest pictures, and came to know a great deal about how Kelly Reichardt (interviewed here) operates — a further confirmation of the writer-director’s brilliance, it turns out. For that and an idea of just what Kristen Stewart is really like (or something along those lines), read on.
The Film Stage: It’s a standard aspect of preparation to look up previous interviews with the subject. You don’t have many, and only found some sort of Squarespace site.
Lily Gladstone: Yeah. [Laughs] That was the website I started for myself about three years ago and marginally maintain. I have press on there from earlier this year, from Sundance, but the rest of this year is kind of realizing that Twitter is a more effective means of getting that stuff out.
I have to wonder if you’ve developed ways of talking about acting, especially with those who aren’t themselves actors.
You know, I’m pretty, pretty… I absorb a lot from a first read of a piece. My process is fairly organic. The only thing I really kept from my training and really, really love to implement is always starting with the physicality of a character; that’s usually my “in” into it. I definitely do have a very clear read, especially after seeing the film twice. You get a much deeper sense, and you see choices, maybe, that you made, or little micro-expressions or thoughts. Even if it’s just a color of an emotion that you’re sitting in. People don’t always have totally articulated, clear thoughts about themselves, anyway. [Laughs] During the performance, I’m obviously not going through that. After watching the edit a couple of times and seeing the takes that Kelly chose, it surfaced some choices that were definitely in there when I was performing and looking for who this woman is. There’s always a sense. You have a deep intuition if something’s working or not, and seeing it when all of the pieces are put together, and seeing your choices live on screen.
I can see where my preparation and my process is really effective, because sometimes it’s not. Some characters are really, really evasive for a really long time, and because this was such a big deal for me walking into it, I told myself, initially, “Don’t over prepare.” That tends to be a mistake I made when I was a younger actor. First big role in a school play, for example. [Laughs] There’s being prepared and then there’s being so over prepared that you’re in your head chronically, and this wasn’t a piece at all that you could do living in your head. The camera notices it; Kelly notices it. That was maybe one choice that I made on the front end. I bought my character’s shoes — what I guessed to be her shoes. I sunk into her physicality for a few days before I was able to submit my first audition, which was lucky; you don’t always get that luxury. Everybody on this project is fine with people really diving into it, and Kelly really appreciated it.
So I built a physical life for the character before I started making any deep, internal choices, and the trick is, once you do, you have to forget them, because we don’t sit around and think about all of the things that define us and who we are every second of every day — especially not in a film like Kelly Reichardt’s. A lot of films do strive for that kind of constant catharsis and hyper self-awareness where the character shares their exact agenda. [Laughs] But Kelly’s… I wanted to allow my character what the original literature informs. Even on the onset, I didn’t want to read it. I knew that Maile’s stories had inspired the screenplay. I read Kelly’s treatment of Maile’s work before I read Maile’s work, and I chose not to read Maile’s work until I was told to. Kelly basically shoved it into my hands on set and told me to read it, which was great. I remember the first time I read it, I was so excited because a lot of the choices I made… just from Kelly’s treatment and, also, the things I knew about characters like the rancher that I know from being a Montanan, because a lot of us know the silent types. But there’s a very specific Montana feel to this project that I’m sure lends itself well to my performance and my understanding of the character.
But a lot of the choices that I made from Kelly’s adaptation were pretty spot-on and exposed in Maile’s work, but because it’s an internal story told from the rancher’s perspective, in Maile’s adaptation, it was a young boy named Chet rather than my character, which became a female for this film. It’s such an internal sort of narrative that there’s a lot of subtext within that story that you don’t hear on film, and it doesn’t make it to dialogue in the film — but it was there, and it supported a lot of the things that Kelly noticed and that resonated with her. So I wanted to try to match my end of the character with what worked with my training and process. I’m personally more of a fan of biomechanics. So there’s all of that boring stuff. [Laughs] But, ultimately, I decided that I wanted to try to match my process with this character with the way I perceived Kelly’s films and Maile’s writings, because, when I read Travis, B., I went and got her other works.
She’s such an immersive writer and so good at writing at something and letting the audience fill in the other shades themselves; she points you directly at the thing without spelling it out. So I tried to adopt that with the rancher. Maybe the first time I can say I was successful in that. I did develop an incredibly deep like, and one reason I feel successful is because Kelly’s such a wonderful director. I would make a more transparent choice, and she’d confirm the impulse but then push it down a little bit farther. She has a really remarkable way of helping you pick out little inauthenticities that you were aware of but you’re not even sure how to work out of your performance at all. I mean, she does it in the edit, but definitely in the frame and on set, too.
What might she say, regarding inauthenticity, to pinpoint?
[Laughs] You know, there was really only once, and it wasn’t even an inauthenticity. It would’ve felt inauthentic if that were the only take I’d given her and that was the only thing she had to cut to in the room, because that would’ve been out-of-pace with the rest of the story. The thing that helped me the most is that she kept it so much in scope for me. Like, there was one instance where I made a pretty strong choice, because it’s a pretty small film with a lot of minimal shots where big choices aren’t being made in the moment, but are kind of churning under the surface. So there was once where I made a strong choice, and she was sitting behind camera with me in the front of the truck. We did one take, and then she just reached out and touched my arm and said, “That’s really good, and that’s definitely what you’re feeling, but where we’re at in the story, it’s going to be too much too soon. You’ll get this moment, but you don’t get it quite yet.” “Oh! Okay! Great.” So that was basically it.
She’s also just funny and kind of a smart ass. [Laughs] Which she needs to be. We developed pretty quickly our director-actor language, and usually it just kind of would be in-the-air gestures — like tweaking knobs, taking a shade down a little bit or bringing it up — but most of the time she would be like, “All right, we got it. Let’s move on.” So, like any process, Kelly and I took a couple of day to settle into each other and find the language, but it was pretty effortless once we both saw that we were kind of coming from the same place with the character. She was happy with the footage that we were picking up as we were going. Basically, her style is very much… she’ll affirm it or just throw something completely different at you. I felt super-incredibly validated when there was one take where she asked for “this perspective” and I gave it to her and said, “No, that’s not it.” I got the first take, she got the second take, and she said, “All right. You were right, Lily.” She gave me the first take. That was fun.
I think that’s what the greats do. You can’t be a totally commandeering creative unless you have to be. Some shots, you just have to give your director the shot that they want. But, as far as choices with character and everything, she was very, very respectful, and she expects that. She wants you to come in with a strong idea to try out, and then she’ll tweak it or just completely say no if she doesn’t like it. She’s a very smart director. She’s very driven. She knows what she wants, but, when she doesn’t, she is completely collaborative and just trusts the piece. There are a lot of things that we found through that collaboration.
There’s such a sense between you and Kristen Stewart’s character when you’re not around. The absence is felt, which makes the interactions so much more understandable — that experience of thinking about someone who you like and then seeing them, getting this fulfillment just from that. Did you make a point of staying separate while on set so as to create the feeling?
No. Kristen and I, when we shot together, we hung out together as much as we could. It’s really busy, and this was my first time being a lead in a film, so I wasn’t used to so many set hours. But when we had time to hang out, we did. We played pool. We just chilled and talked about art. It’s funny: she had a good friend with her from Ireland, and she was awesome and we just nerded-out about Beckett for a while. God, I’d love to see Kristen jump into that someday. I think she would have so much fun doing a piece like Beckett. It’s kind of her sensibility: she’s really hyperactive in her mind, and she stays in a scene remarkably well. Anyway, that’s how Kristen and I bonded — just hanging out when we could. But we were on set together for a couple of weeks. A lot of the time we spent together was in between takes, just kind of playing sugar-packet football and running lines and commiserating over all the stuff that you do when you’re getting to know somebody.
But going back to the whole idea of separation and everything. [Laughs] Those segments are so incredibly rich, like you said, because you feel somebody’s presence almost more in their absence, like you said, when you have feelings for them. It’s the air that allows the flames to stoke. So while we were filming all that stuff, I actually hadn’t even met Kristen yet. Just the way the schedule worked out, all the stuff we shot on the ranch was before she even got there, and the space in between that was just me. They shot that before Kristen even got to set. I was definitely pulling from pining for somebody I’d had a romance with just the summer before. [Laughs] That’s what started it. There were a lot of little things that we’re all familiar with, but I hadn’t really experienced being in that situation where you respect the boundary somebody else draws, even though it sucks — basically, being told “no.”
Also, getting to know somebody in their absence, almost. So I’d had a romance earlier in the year that I definitely hadn’t worked out of my system, that I was definitely still processing as we were filming, and it only really came up a couple of times because it was a very different romance and connection than the rancher and Beth have, so I didn’t want to fully draw from my own experience — but I definitely know what you mean, missing them in their absence. It wouldn’t have come through without Kelly’s edit. [Laughs] A lot of those moments, Kelly would say, “This is a day where you just saw Beth last night and it’s gone well, and you’re thinking about her.” So it changes the pace at which you move and do your work. But my favorite one that I think really shows it is when the rancher is washing the dishes particularly — it’s just that anticipation, and it’s Kelly’s words. She said, “Anything can happen!” [Laughs] Long story short, all that stuff was shot before I met Kristen, we hung out as much as we could, and she’s great.
Looking at some previous film work, I notice that you often play Native Americans. What’s interesting is that, here, there isn’t much indication of the character’s background.
You just kind of are this person.
Thank God. [Laughs]
It’s funny you say that, because Native-American representation can be pretty limited. You seem to feel relief at not being cast on the basis of appearance and being pigeonholed.
Right. The role was just such an incredibly revolutionary role for a Native-American actor to get, period. I am mixed. I grew up on the Blackfeet reservation. That’s why I feel like I understood the character so well, in a lot of ways, especially when I read Maile’s work, which talks about family history and boarding schools and marginalization in the education system. That spoke to me so much, because the work that I have done with my career before, and in between getting roles, are social justice theater and a lot of advocacy — workshops with youth and such. But I’ve been in that position a lot, anyways. I work with a theater company called Living Voices on occasion, but it was pretty much what I did through all of my twenties: traveling through rural communities, talking about shared oppressions and historical trauma. The piece I did dealt with Native-American boarding schools and military veterans, and talked about PTSD from two different perspectives.
So I was in my own life. I’ve been in Beth’s position far more often where I’m coming into a small town where I’m a stranger, and, a lot of times, you’ll get the people who are on the margins or the periphery, the ones who sit quietly in the back that are very… what you’re doing speaks to them, but they’ve removed themselves and are shy about it. But I’ve had instances in my own life where audience members or people that are in the class will come up afterwards and just kind of linger and follow you to your car and want to just keep having conversation. [Laughs] Something in my performance or the show spoke to them so much and they just need to know a little more about it. It’s the same way that all of us get crushes on our teachers. [Laughs] It feels a lot like love, but it’s also learning something tremendous when it touches your own family’s origins with marginalization and sheds light on some of your own feelings of inadequacy. It gives you permission to maybe be angry about it, but also go, “Oh, maybe that’s why things happened the way they did. Maybe it wasn’t my fault.” That’s huge for people.
I’ve been on the other end of that a lot as a teacher and a performer, so when I got this script I was just really excited to play her. In Maile’s story, Chet’s ethnicity being mixed Crow and Scottish definitely plays with the dynamic of he and Beth in that story, and it definitely informed a lot of my choices — my dialect, the people in my own life that I’d based my character’s physicality on. But it wasn’t any kind of statement Kelly was trying to make. Having a role where a Native-American character just exists as a complex, nuanced person doesn’t happen that often. It’s kind of cool that that aspect isn’t… this isn’t a piece that’s just going to pique the curiosity of people who want to know more about Indian culture, and I’m really thankful for that. It’s going to speak to a lot of people on a lot of different levels, but there’s a beautiful representation in independent film that I haven’t really seen before in this way. A lot of audiences are going to watch this piece and completely miss that my character’s Native American — which is my reality. Most of my life, people don’t know that until I share it. Other Natives see it. [Laughs]
Kelly said it in talkbacks before at festivals: they were looking for the right actress for this role, and because the character’s Native American in Maile’s treatment, of course that was the first path in the screenplay, but Kelly wasn’t led to ethnicity. It had to be the right performer and the right person. So I would say that my previous “pigeonholing,” even though all of the projects that I’ve worked on have been really remarkable as well, they definitely play to audiences that have a piqued interest in Native American communities, and this one hasn’t caught on, really, with that whole vein. There hasn’t been that noise made about my role in this… yet. [Laughs] The movie’s not out yet. So I really like that. It’s not something that’s worked its way into any kind of marketing, which has been present for every other project where I’ve played an ethnically specific character.
So it’s exciting; it’s new. It’s kind of what you hoped for when you’re an actor and your culture is not really represented in mainstream film and media. I’m really thankful that Kelly cast me and kept true to that part of the story, because I get really annoyed when there’s westerns and they don’t have complex Native-American characters that just exist in the world, and Kelly’s done that. From what I can see, it’s the first time things have happened. And she’s done that with a native character in a lead role; she wasn’t championing or anything. Kelly’s just quietly revolutionary, whether she likes it or not.
Certain Women has begun its theatrical release and will expand in the coming weeks.
Studio Ghibli’s The Red Turtle, their first international co-production (handled in conjunction with Wild Bunch), screened at this year’s Filmfest Hamburg, and we had the good fortune of sitting down with the its director, Michaël Dudok de Wit. The feat he’s achieved with this picture is significant. As we said in our review at Cannes, “De Wit excels at producing compelling drama from such extreme self-imposed limitations. Indeed, despite there being no dialogue and very few characters, the film consistently celebrates the excitement of exploration and invention while also keeping the audience aware of the man’s growing frustrations, like the awful finality of falling down whens there’s no rope or ladder or hand to help you up.”
For a look into the creation of 2016’s finest animated endeavor, read on below.
The Film Stage: This is Studio Ghibli’s first international co-production. How did it come about?
Michaël Dudok de Wit: There’s a press kit that describes their version of how it happened but I can tell you the story from my perspective. Well, they approached me, saying, “Let’s work together.“ And it was one of the biggest shocks in my life. I mean, you just don’t expect to receive a letter like that – not from the country where I live, and certainly not from Japan. They wrote me, “We liked your short film, Father and Daughter. Have you thought about making a feature film with a similar sensitivity? If so, we would like to produce it — or to co-produce it with Wild Bunch from France.“
That was so bizarre, because you ask yourself, “Why me?“ And this is Japan, too, where they tend to make films within Japan. So I actually asked them, “Can you explain why you chose me? Do you want me to make another, longer version of Father and Daughter?” And they replied, “No, no, no, please propose a story.” And I said, “Should it be a Japanese-style film?” And they said, “No, just propose a story, a graphic style, and we’ll take it from there. It may not work, we are not promising anything. We might find after a while that it’s not working, but we’d like to try.” It’s a long story, but that’s basically how it started. So from one day to the next, I started asking myself, “Oh, my God, what story am I going to tell?” I had to think very quickly. I needed a story.
How involved were they during the subsequent creative process?
They were quite involved during the writing, meaning also doing the storyboards and animatics, which, altogether, took about five years. That sounds long, but the script took me three or four months to write, and I had to proof it and make some changes. Then I had to do some still images. Then came the storyboards, which you can’t do fast. And, of course, you take a look at the whole thing and it doesn’t always work, so you have to keep trying out different things. So I literally worked every day for five years to develop this story. Sometimes it was just me sitting at my desk, inventing ways to turn the verbal scenario into a story told with film language. There I often encountered difficulties. During that process, I sometimes visited the Ghibli team in Tokyo. I went there to show them the latest progress, discuss some details, etc.
So they were involved in the development of the story as well.
Yes, but they’ve been very careful. They told me early on that they didn’t want to interfere. They were even surprised I asked as many questions as I did. But I told them I really needed their feedback. The project was too big for me alone. I needed to learn — at full speed. And, also, I didn’t just want to make a film that works; I wanted to make a film that they would be really proud of, that I can be really proud of. So I visited them and wrote to them from time to time. They were very careful. They always said, “These are just our opinions, what we would suggest” – and sometimes they don’t necessarily agree among themselves – “but it’s your film. You decide.” Their studio head said, “In our studio, the director decides. It’s always been this way.”
And how did you come up with the story?
Literally on the day I received the letter, I thought to myself, “I have to have some idea to get back to them. I need that first spark.” And I had a couple of those sparks. First of all, the theme of a castaway on a deserted island was very present. I’d already written little things based on that theme in the past, but they didn’t work for short films, so I left them in a drawer. As a child I liked the black-and-white TV series Robinson Crusoe, made in France in the sixties, a lot. The idea of being alone in nature was very appealing to me. Moreover, the theme is symbolic of life in general, “Who am I, really? What am I doing here?” It’s like, you get born, you live your life, and what happens at the end of the film? Well, let’s find out. So that’s the idea I started with.
Secondly, I’m a person of nature and I wanted to express my love for nature. By that I don’t mean love for beautiful plants, sunsets, rabbits, and horses, but more basically and subtly, “What do you feel when you’re in nature?” We all feel certain emotions when we’re in nature. What’s the ambience when you find yourself in snowy mountains or just in a city park? The way we see how light falls and follows the shapes on the ground. The way we feel about death, of course, and about growth. How things start from nothing, grow into something, and eventually disappear again. All that. It’s a film that expresses my love for nature — and not as a message, but just a pure, simple expression.
Was the decision that there’s going to be no dialogue in the film made early on?
At first I actually thought it needed some dialogue. I mean, I was happy with the protagonist not talking to himself. I’ve seen Cast Away with Tom Hanks, in which he’s alone on an island, sometimes talking to himself. I thought it’s brilliant. But that’s Tom Hanks and he can pull it off. For my film, I was less worried about the parts where the protagonist is by himself. But when he meets the woman, I thought there had to be some kind of talk. I thought it’d be nice if the woman is silent — not necessarily handicapped, but simply silent because she comes from nature — but the protagonist would surely want to know who she is. So it’d only make sense that he would say something. And later, when they have a son, something would be said also. So I wrote dialogue for those parts, but it didn’t feel right.
So you didn’t set out to do a dialogue-free movie.
Correct. I initially wanted some talking. People helped me with it but it never felt 100% right. After the five years of development there was a one-year break, while the producers secured the investments. After this break, the whole team came together to make the film. The story was finished by then — in the shape of an animatic, which means the film made with fixed drawings, like a blueprint — so you could already see the film in a primitive way. But then it still had to be animated, with the backgrounds and the special effects. That’s the big challenge.
Just before the team arrived, Studio Ghibli called me and said, “We’ve been thinking about the list of words that are supposed to be spoken in the film and we think you should drop the dialogue entirely.” I said, “Wait, he has to talk to his wife there, otherwise we wouldn’t know what’s happening.” They said, “We think it can work, if you alter the story a bit to make it clearer.” At the end of that discussion, I thought, “They’re right.” Dialogue can be a little silly in animation. Instead, we could express everything with body language and cinematic language.
So that decision was actually made relatively late.
Yes. And even after everything was animated at the end of 2015, we were recording voices for the coughs, laughs, breaths etc – not dialogue, just human sounds. And there’s a point in the film where the son calls his parents, we thought, “Well, here, he needs to say something.” He needs to shout something like, “Mom! Dad!” So we asked the voice actors to scream those words. We also asked them to invent a language to say something simple, but not in English or French. I looked at it with the editor, the sound people, and the producers, and we agreed it didn’t feel right. It felt like, “He speaks English!” And why wouldn’t he have said something already? So we called back the actors and we just asked them to scream. It became less specific, but we thought it was better not to hear any specific language. So with that, the very last trace of spoken language was erased from the film.
With no dialogue, you take away an essential tool from a storyteller. How do you compensate that loss?
Well, first of all, I think it’s not that drastic a move to do without dialogue. In short films, for example, it’s quite common not to use any. I used dialogues in all the commercials I made, because that’s exactly where dialogues are needed, but, in short films, you often tell a story in different ways. The main substitute language is obviously the acting, the body language. In this movie, the storyline is very simple; it’s a linear story. It’s not like, “Meanwhile, this other thing is happening.” We basically follow the same characters the entire time.
So we just relied on the behavior, the acting done by the animators, the cinematic language, the editing, the sound effects, and the music, obviously. By sound effects I mean, for instance, you hear the characters breathe. That creates empathy. Even though the breathing doesn’t say anything, in a way, it says something subtle. It brings a character closer to you, and, when it’s closer, a lot is already explained. In these ways, we tried to compensate for the absence of spoken language.
As an example, there’s a scene in the film where the son grows up and starts wondering about the outside world. His father sees him and, without exchanging any words, understands what he’s thinking, and we the audience too understand what both of them are thinking. How did you know that would work?
Actually it took us a long time to get that part right. It was the three of us who worked on it — me, my co-writer, Pascale Ferran, helping me, then, with this difficult part, and the editor, Celine Kelepikis, who was also, like, a writer because she could say, “This scene is good but we need a different camera angle, can you re-do the storyboard drawing, etc.” In this scene, we need to clearly communicate that the son is happy on the island, that he’s mature and that he’s ready to leave. Even though he’s happy being where he is, he doesn’t hate his parents, he’s not leaving them out of spite, he’s leaving simply because he’s ready to leave. It’s a natural desire to leave the island and go into the big wide world.
We worked on it a lot, including a sequence early on where you see the son at a young age looking at his parents’ drawings in the sand. That’s part of the narrative, because the son has to feel there’s more to the world than the island. The discovery of a bottle also makes him realize there’s more out there. So when the moment comes, we have to have established he’s happy with his parents – you see them eating and walking around the bonfire together etc., little hints like that I can go on naming forever. But when the father sees him at night, he doesn’t go over and say, “Hey, son, you want to talk?” Instead he just lets him walk on and be by himself, I think that’s expressive.
And when the son later sits down with his parents and, without saying anything, just gives them this look.
Did that work for you?
It broke my heart.
Oh, that’s great. That was one of the last dialogues that we dropped. The animators spent a lot more time on the performances. It wasn’t even, like, sign language or anything — just people looking at each other’s faces.
Were you inspired by particular mythologies, tales, or philosophies when writing this movie?
I don’t have a simple or very precise answer to that. But, as a child, I read a lot of fairy tales; I was obsessed with them. Also Greek mythology. Secondly, as soon as I said yes to Ghibli, they recommended me a book to read called Kwaidan. It’s a collection of short stories, kind of like fairy tales or ghost stories. It’s very Japanese but actually took an outsider, Lafcadio Hearn, to write them. I didn’t use any of the stories but they carried very intense emotions and were very interesting to read. So that also inspired me. The essence of Zen Buddhism also appealed to me, ever since I was a young adult. And not because it’s lovely, pure, quiet. It’s all those things too, of course, but mostly because it resonates with me deeply. You don’t need to be oriental to recognize that.
The Taoist philosophy and its relationship with nature inspired me as well. That relationship with life and nature you can also find in other cultures, like with Native Americans in North America and with the African cultures. I also have a thing for marine turtles. I had never used them in a story before. But even as a child, when I was, like, nine, I wrote a story about them where a marine turtle — leaving her home and infinity behind — crawls onto land with great effort. She digs a hole on the beach, lays eggs and, after doing this, using her last strength, she returns home, returns to infinity. It was just something she had to do. As a child, I could really identify with that. It’s an archetypal idea.
Are you aware of the Oscar buzz surrounding this film?
Yes, I do know there’s some Oscar buzz. If I had made a 3D computer film, I would have said forget it, because in Hollywood they can make the highest-quality computer animated films. But this is a hand-drawn film, so I guess it suddenly has a chance. In this profession, I guess also outside of it, there’s still a deep love for hand-drawn animation. Maybe the fact that it’s simply a beautiful fairytale will also help, but we’ll have to see. It’s very quiet film and most Academy members are from North America and they love dialogue — with passion. And they love humor and entertainment, etc. Ours is a quiet art-house film, made with a modest budget compared with Californian budgets. So I have to be realistic. It faces very strong competition.
If a Hollywood studio approaches you to make a big studio film, would you do it?
With some hesitation. I wouldn’t say “no” outright. I’d love to talk and find out if it sounds interesting. I’ve had a couple of offers in the past, but it’s a totally different world. Someone like the extremely talented Pete Docter, who’s an established director, thrives in it. But for a newcomer to big studio films like me, whatever strong idea I might have, I’ll have to pitch it to them, and I’m not good at that. Studio Ghibli, they make director’s films, not studio films. If a director has a deeply felt but somewhat unusual idea that he or she can’t necessarily explain, they will likely still let the director try it out. In America, I’ve worked a little bit with Disney before and everything has to be tested with an audience and explained and I must say I’m not very good at that.
The Red Turtle screened at Filmfest Hamburg and will open in the U.S. on January 20, 2017.
In pacing, mood, and form, Certain Women is undoubtedly a Kelly Reichardt film (and we’re glad), but those who can make that distinction will be all the more likely to spot some incongruities. For one, it’s an omnibus film that takes the format and its possibilities very seriously, in turn giving its incidents an added tension – so it is when there’s simply less time to linger. It’s also set outside her beloved Oregon, a state she’s done more for than any working filmmaker, or perhaps just any filmmaker, period.
This became the crux of my interview with Reichardt, who I’d spoken to when her great (and perpetually under-appreciated) Night Moves opened in the spring of 2014. Now seated in a midtown hotel, we had a largely off-the-cuff conversation — short story: I wasn’t supposed to speak with her during the press day, so I just ran with what impressions the movie, seen two days prior, left in my mind — that reveals what her admirers could imagine: an artist deeply in tune with the world around her, noticing its peculiarities and differences and finding a way to embrace them.
Certain Women premiered in January, and, as happens with all your work, garnered many reactions. People have no shortage of things to say about a Kelly Reichardt film.
Slow… no, okay. [Laughs]
Oh, I see. Maybe that indicates what you’ll answer, then, when I ask if you’ve made anything of the conversations that have followed your movie.
No. I can’t… whatever. On the night of, I’ll read the first couple of things that come out, and then I just have to tune out. Stay off the Internet when it concerns yourself, is my philosophy. I’ll read a few things and get “the gist” of it, and then… no, actually, I spent the summer working on a script and, kind of, just in this whole other world of thinking of a different movie. So, yeah, now it’s weird to shift back into Certain Women mode.
But I did go back out to the ranch where I shot this summer, and it was nice just driving cross-country — which I do a lot — and I stopped there, and it was just nice to be in that place and not be so frantic. To see the horses, the dog, the ranchers. Anyway, I’m not really answering your question. I can’t… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with all that information. Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know. I guess, yeah… it… yeah. I don’t know. [Laughs]
I made a point of not knowing anything about this beforehand, and so I found myself surprised that you weren’t working in Oregon. I’d like to know a bit about the decision to move out to Montana, as well as the acclimation process.
The acclimation process was, like, going to the ranch in the morning to work with the rancher. My assistant director, my cinematographer, and I going to the sporting goods store every single day and buying another layer of heavier boots, heavier jacket, trying to find some amount of clothing to stay warm in. What we learned is that there’s some point where you just can’t get warmer from clothes. [Laughs] It’s cold. But just getting to know a place. It was the first time I’ve lived somewhere that was not on a coast; I’ve never lived inland before, where you’re just surrounded by mountains. There’s, like, a mountain range on every… it does change things. There’s a really different feeling.
Like, I didn’t feel as… all the play-by-play politics of the day feels so less important, and there is a thing about being isolated that comes with the landscape. “Insular” is more the right thing to say. I was living in this super cookie-cutter house, which I found so refreshing — that it was this little blank slate I could go to. There’s a little creek out the window. I had the grocery store I went to every day. It was just living this… all of a sudden, I just made this environmentalist movie, Night Moves, and now I’m driving an SUV, listening to country radio. You press the thing, the garage door opens, and you drive through the garage and take your groceries to the side door. I lived in New York for 26 years and it’s just so out of my experience. Like, “Oh, this is what people do. You come in here and this makes sense. I could get used to this garage-opener!”
All those things. I just became really attached to Montana, and I didn’t think I would be. A lot of the crew have been back since. I remember when [producer] Neil Kopp and I, on one of our first counts — I mean, I drive back-and-forth through Montana a couple of times a year and just kept driving from New York to Oregon — and I remember Neil saying, “It just doesn’t look enough like Oregon for us to shoot out here. It’s going to be much harder for us to shoot out here. It doesn’t look different enough.” And, of course, now, the landscape looks completely different to us. You just start to find the details; Montana doesn’t look anything like Oregon to me now. But I knew what he was saying at the beginning, so you start to… it’s just starting to know a place and, all of a sudden, becoming familiar with that eagle family that lives on top of that telephone pole that you pass every day. If the trucks have to stay at the diner because it’s too windy.
The first time I scouted Livingston, we just thought we were there on a strangely windy day, but that’s what Livingston is: it’s one of the windiest places in the country. I wanted a white film, but, by the time you get your car rig on, the snow will have vanished. Two inches of snow will be gone; a foot of snow will be gone halfway through the day, when you’ve just done half your shots and, now, it’ll be perfectly green out. It was a really challenging landscape. I thought Oregon was challenging, with the way it rains and doesn’t rain all the time, but the wind was like a whole new beast that was really different, sound-wise, and you realize that, in a lot of places, the wind would run through a truck stop, and the sound can be super-musical. You go, “What is that sound?” In all different places. Sonically, it was different.
I don’t know. You just settle in and get used to it. Before you know it, it’s time to leave and you become attached. I find myself missing it. Not production; I don’t miss that — but I do miss Montana. It brings you closer to the stories. I realized, when I first read those stories, I didn’t really have an attachment to Montana. I liked Montana, but I didn’t have an attachment to it the way I do now.
When we talked a couple of years ago, you said you hoped to leave Oregon.
[Laughs] I mean, I love Oregon — don’t get me wrong. It’s just such a discovered place.
I’d like to know more about this issue of it feeling too familiar.
Well, just that I feel, sometimes, like I should shake it up a little bit. I mean, I live a very unadventurous life most of the time, and then I make these films and they’re adventures. All the areas we’ve shot in Oregon have been incredibly different. Southern Oregon is really different from eastern Oregon, which is a desert. So it is such a diverse state. Those landscapes were all really different. But if I wasn’t going to be working with Jonathan Raymond, it seemed crazy not to sort of mix it up and look for some new setting, just to try.
What I liked most about Certain Women is that, in the three stories, there’s a plurality to the actors’ presences — Laura Dern is not like Michelle Williams, and neither are like Kristen Stewart or Lily Gladstone. I wonder about the difficulty of casting for a project such as this, where it’s not only who you like, but what temperatures they each bring.
How they will all work together. Yeah. That is tricky, and it’s kind of fluid, because people… you’re trying to find people that are available, who are up for playing a part where they’re not in the movie for the entire time. There’s a lot of requests that you’re… it’s not an easy one. Also, “What is it? Will this work?” That question, which is always a question. And then, I don’t know — somehow it ends up working out. I don’t know how. Also, just age-wise, I’m so bad at telling what people’s ages are. I just can’t tell how old Kristen Stewart looks vs. how old Michelle looks vs. how old Laura Dern looks. They all look fantastic to me! Everybody put on 20 pounds — we’re going to Montana! Or if pairing James Le Gros and Michelle could work, because there’s a range between their ages, but I thought it did work.
Yeah. But, with Meek’s, I’d already had her be “the younger bride.” [Laughs] But I believed their dynamic; I thought they were really good together. So, yeah, it’s an ever-changing…
Yeah. Well, I don’t know. I got pretty lucky, is all I’ll say. I feel so fortunate with the cast all-around — people I’ve been wanting to work with. You know, René Auberjonois, I’ve loved forever since McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I’ve just always loved him. Jared and James Le Gros, who I’ve worked with before.
It’s nice when you’re watching and can go, “Oh, Jared Harris is here.”
Yeah! Yeah, yeah. I was intimidated by him.
Yeah. I don’t know why. Just because he’s a… whatever, a great actor, and he’s got to do this Montana dialect. But he was totally up for it. I don’t know; people are generous.
I’m surprised you could still be intimidated by actors. The films speak for themselves as fine showcases.
Well, you know, it’s just like anything: you don’t know when you’re… it’s just a strange way to meet someone. I got to have lunch with Jared beforehand, so it wasn’t, but it’s a strange thing, just, like, our hopping in with people who you don’t necessarily know, and, on your first day, you’re going to be working these incredible hours together in extreme conditions. Hopefully you have some time during wardrobe to ease into it, to get to know it. Jared came out, because he wanted to know Livingston, and did his thing in town for a few days.
But it’s just a strange way to get to know people. You’re just in it, in something, together. “We’re doing some art project together,” or whatever it is, and, “It’s nice to meet you.” It’s exciting, also, because these are all people who bring things that are different from what you’ve imagined — and so that’s scary, but it’s also exciting. That’s why they come in: because you like what they’ve done before.
This doesn’t feel like Mad Men‘s Lane Pryce.
Yeah, no, but that makes me nervous: someone who’s been working on a show with a lot of resources that probably runs like a clock — to come out to Montana to work on a low budget. It’s that kind of stuff that makes me nervous. But he’s been in enough small films that he knows the score.
Certain Women enters a limited release on Friday, October 14.
A 163-minute road trip to an Americana we rarely see onscreen, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is a polarizing film. Perhaps best described as a Grapes of Wrath or On the Road for and about millennials, Arnold depicts a wayward group that are disconnected with their country. They’d rather sell their bodies than live in a capitalist-run society trying to live the “American dream.” The structure runs constant repetitive circles, and yet we are fully engaged. There’s a sense of unimaginable freedom in Arnold’s filmmaking, and it makes for a vital and great American movie.
Newcomer Sasha Lane plays Star, a lost American soul that decides to hop on-board a bus full of magazine-selling kids that go cross country to make money by vending subscriptions. On the way to nowhere they argue, fight, make love, and have bus ride sing-alongs to Top 40 radio. In her first role, Lane is a natural and perfectly captures the isolation and resistance that is slowly creeping up with American millennials, more specifically their search for purpose in a world filled hopelessness.
We spoke to Lane about her peculiar, unlikely story:
The Film Stage: So tell me how this whole adventure with the movie started.
Sasha Lane: It was the middle of spring break. I was at the beach in the middle of Panama City. And that’s such a big beach with so many people, but she noticed me for some reason. My spring break was going pretty crazy. I was getting kicked out of hotels and it was just shitty. She came up to me and just said, “I’m Andrea. I’m doing this movie. I know this sounds weird,” and I don’t really remember what happened next. It’s all just a total blur. I told her she could come to my hotel that night, and I didn’t think she’d come. I was kind of surprised when she did. She called me and said, “I’m outside.” I thought to myself, “Oh, this woman is serious.” My friends actually Googled her in the hotel room to make sure this was safe.
Had you seen any of her films before?
No, but after that I watched Fish Tank and she told me that the way the film followed Mia was the way it would follow me. The whole aesthetic of it, the music, I really enjoyed it and it got me excited for making the movie.
How was she as director?
She’s so open and she loves people, she loves chaos. She also gave me advice and just said, “Be you. I chose you for who you are.” So I felt comfortable. We built this trust that lasted all the way through the movie shoot.
So not only did you end up becoming an actress, but the film then gets selected for Cannes. How was that experience?
Nothing will top Cannes. That was the first time we all saw the movie. There was so much energy in that room. A lot of love. It was also such a surreal and intense experience. There was so much love in Cannes. I’m just getting emotional right now thinking and talking about it.
Did your parents see the film? What was their reaction?
My dad and stepmom saw it. My dad walked out — I don’t really know why and to what extent, but we don’t really talk about it. But they supposedly both loved what they saw.
Your dad walked out?
Yeah, I haven’t really spoken to him about it, but I understand. I have no hard feelings. Everything happened so suddenly and all of a sudden there I am acting in a big movie. It can be an overwhelming experience.
What was it like watching yourself onscreen?
It felt weird. While we were shooting the film, I wasn’t really sure what Andrea was trying to create, but once I saw the film it felt like an epiphany. It just all gelled. I was also thinking of all the experiences and moments I had with each individual scene and it’s all just such a beautiful thing.
How many hours of footage did you guys get?
There was one-hundred hours worth of film, a lot of those were scenes in the van. The movie also felt long to some, but there was just so much more we shot.
You mean musical numbers?
How did those work out exactly? They feel so organic and communal onscreen.
We were just trying to get into a lot of the music Andrea was playing for us. You’re loose, you’re having fun and you just get into it. You were allowed to be like, “I’m not feeling it today” and that made it very organic and real. We would think of these random songs and get them played, but if Andrea couldn’t get them approved we wouldn’t be able to use them.
Did anything else change from the original version Andrea had in mind?
The ending changed because she ended up taking on who my character was and how I changed over the course of the movie. I don’t know how it changed, but I was told it was very different.
The cast also seemed to be a very tight unit onscreen.
Yeah, we all became friends. A lot of that excitement and fun onscreen was very genuine and real. A lot of love. Also, many of the hotels we stayed at had bed bugs so we’d hang out a lot outside and we bonded that way, until we could get another shitty hotel which was most probably across the street from the other one. We stayed in those motels and every day was shot like it was that day. The film feels like life.
The film tackles a side of America that we rarely see onscreen.
There’s a lot that people don’t know about that part of the country and some people even refuse to see it. These are parts that don’t get looked at but should be looked at. People need to be aware of what’s going on there. I know about that part so well: the people, the poverty. I am that kid that gets discarded and pushed to the side. I am that kid that has dreams that nobody bothered to care or give a chance. There is a lot of beauty and light in people and the communities that are formed in places like that.
How would you describe in one sentence this whole experience?
It just felt really whole, and it felt like the right decision to make, to say yes. I think that was what I was looking for, but I didn’t know what exactly it was. It worked out in such a perfect way.
American Honey is now in limited release and expanding.
With over a hundred credits to his name, Adam Scott has become one of the most prolific comedic actors of the last decade, perfecting the duality of his nice guy/jerk persona to create some of the most memorable scene stealers in recent comedies. After early career credits that ran the gamut from Torque to Party of Five, Scott soon became a fixture of the Judd Apatow universe earning sizable parts in films like Step Brothers and alt-comedy television landmarks like Party Down, Burning Love, and beloved network comedies like NBC’s Parks & Recreation.
These days, he’s still as impossibly busy, starring in films like the last year’s dark Yuletide comedy Krampus, creating oddities like The Adult Swim Golf Classic, and producing notable indies like The Overnight and Other People through the production company Gettin’ Rad that he created with his wife Naomi Scott. And even as his public profile is constantly rising, Scott is still constantly taking roles in projects from promising young directors.
Case in point, My Blind Brother is a low-key romantic comedy that places Scott in the role of Robbie, a blind megalomaniac whose life is a series of athletic feats. The film is about a seemingly light love triangle between Robbie, his unappreciated brother, Bill (Nick Kroll), and the self-destructive Rose (Jenny Slate), but it becomes a much smarter dissection of the dangers of emotional dishonesty. We talked to Scott about his multi-faceted performance, how he prepared for being blind, and whether he would be interested in writing and directing.
The Film Stage: I believe the character of Robbie in My Blind Brother is the first character you’ve played with a disability. Is that right?
Adam Scott: I believe so, yeah. You’re probably right. I haven’t even thought of that, but I think you must be right.
How did you prepare for the role – and related to that, were you worried about playing someone blind in general?
Yeah, very worried. Just because, the last thing I want to do is offend anyone who is in the blind community. And I didn’t want to fall into any cliches or anything. But I thought, you know, Sophie [Goodhart] had written a great script, so I wasn’t worried about that story-wise or character-wise. I was just worried about the technical side of it. I didn’t want it to be dumb and cliched and all those things you could really easily fall into. But I also was in the middle of another job, and I was over in New Zealand. I didn’t have the contacts, and I didn’t know anyone that was in the non-sighted community over there, so I just sort of started going online and I found this guy, Tommy Edison, on YouTube. And he has this YouTube channel, and he has dozens and dozens of videos about being blind and what it’s like. And there’s videos on everything from this is how to make breakfast to this is what it’s like to cross the street. This is what it’s like to go to the grocery store. This is what’s cool about being blind, this is what’s scary about being blind. He’s really open.
That’s amazing that you mention that. I recently spoke to Stephen Lang from Don’t Breathe, and he told me that he also used that as a source to figure out how to be convincing when it came to blindness. That’s really funny.
The same guy? Tommy Edison?
Yup, same guy.
Oh wow, that’s interesting.
Your character in the film, Robbie, he runs marathons, and he’s attempting to swim the entire length of a hometown body of water. Are you as physically active as that character?
Oh no, not at all. [Laughs] I trained a bit to get in shape for the movie, and it was really hard. The one excuse that I had for not being in as good as shape as an actual professional athlete is that Robbie has kind of built up this imaginary world up around himself. He’s come up with this alternate universe where he’s a superstar in this small town. I didn’t need to be in actual peak physical condition, just acceptable enough for a pretend athlete.
The film’s kind of really surprising in the sense that it has this light and charming surface, but you also have these character who are deeply flawed. There’s a real sadness to Robbie, but he’s also just kind of objectively a jerk. How did you find that balance in that character? Was there some point where you were worried that his actions or the dialogue went too far?
Well, Sophie had written it that way, and so when we were shooting. We would just do a few different versions with varying degrees of him being obnoxious or being an asshole, or just kind of modulating it, so she would have stuff to choose from in the editing room. And so when she was cutting the movie together, she put it together and used what she thought would tell the story the best. But on the day shooting it, we did a bunch of different versions because, we weren’t sure if it was too much at some points and not enough in others. So we just kind of tried it all, and then she cut together what she deemed necessary.
So it was a combination of improv in the moment, as well as following the script?
Not as much improv, but just doing the scenes in varying degrees of obnoxiousness, you know, and approaching it from different perspectives.
Especially at the end, this is arguably a more dramatic role for you. You’re still doing predominantly comedy roles, but you’ve had a couple dramatic roles like last year’s Black Mass. I know it’s probably a case-by-case basis, but are you interested in more dramatic roles in the future, or is it just kind of whatever comes to you?
I take it on case-by-case basis. It’s just depending on the material, and who’s doing it, and if the story is interesting, and all that kind of stuff. I try not to think of it so much in terms of genre, and more in individual pieces of material.
You’ve had many acting credits over the years, but you’ve only recently started to produce. Is there a certain philosophy about which films you want to produce, or be more involved with on the creative side?
My wife and I started a company a few years ago called “Gettin’ Rad Productions,” and our credo if you want to call it that is mostly just, we want to make things that we would want to see. And that’s about it, whether it’s comedy or drama, or whatever. We watch lots of movies and TV shows, and we just want to make the stuff that we would enjoy watching. So we’re open to just about anything. And so far, we’ve made a few movies and a TV thing, and we just want to continue making stuff with our friends that’s really fun to watch and to make.
When you talk to actors and creators, you hear about working with Hollywood, independent films, cable. But one of the big conversation topics is inevitably, what is it like working with Netflix? You haven’t necessarily been in creative roles for Most Hated Women In America or Little Evil, but i’m just curious has it been a different process in any way working with Netflix?
No, I’m working on Little Evil right now actually, and we’re in production. No, it’s just like making a regular movie. There’s nothing different about it. It’s great.
It’s just that I’ve heard a number of people who’ve had previous experiences in network or cable television talk about creative freedom, so I just wanted to ask about that one.
Well, I know that for instance if you’re making a movie for Netflix, you don’t have to worry about the MPAA. That’s a great thing if you don’t have to worry about making a certain rating. I’m not a producer on this movie or anything, but Eli [Craig] the director, and all the producers seem very happy. And it’s going great, so it seems terrific.
Are you interested in writing and directing more in the future? I know you’ve done a little bit of directing with Greatest Event In Television History and an episode or two of Parks and Recreation. Are you interested in writing and directing more in the future?
Yeah, maybe. I guess it would just have to be the right thing, something that I feel like I could really bring something to. I don’t know what that is, but I enjoyed it. The little directing I’ve done was super fun. And I love being on sets, movie or TV sets, and so yeah, it would be terrific. It would just have to be the right thing.
My Blind Brother is now in limited release and available on VOD.
When it comes to head-scratchers, Buster’s Mal Heart is certainly one of them. So, when given the opportunity to speak to filmmakers about their craft and their project, we jumped at the chance. At Fantastic Fest we sat down with writer-director Sarah Adina Smith to talk about her second feature. While many answers to questions we had after the screening weren’t given, sometimes getting to know where someone is coming from gives a better understanding of why they put on screen what they did.
Buster’ Mal Heart stars Rami Malek (in an incredible performance) and the film has just as many humorous moments as unexpected ones as his character seeks to find a better life for his family. Smith’s feature covers a lot of ground — from physics of the universe, to our place in the world, to religion, to the search for happiness. Below, Smith explains the way she saw the world, and this is the result.
TheFilmStage: I really hate to ask a question like this, but as the film industry is still a male-dominated profession, how do you view opportunities or challenges as a female filmmaker? How quickly does that connect to success, or opposition in your eyes?
Sarah Adina Smith: I get asked that a lot, but I don’t really have a standard or really good response. It’s hard to know what it’s like being a woman in the film industry because I’ve never been anything but a woman. [Laughs] I don’t know any other way. But the one thing I can put my finger on is, and this is true for women in any industry as we’re seeing it in our Presidential race right now, I think that for thousands of years we’ve been conditioned to find that a woman’s voice is less appealing than a man’s.
I think that for that reason, both men and women audiences tend to give a male voice the benefit of the doubt more quickly. So, in any movie, you have five to ten minutes to earn an audiences’ trust. If you don’t do it there, then they will discount the rest of your movie. So I think that, sometimes, when it’s a man’s name at the beginning of a movie, we give him a benefit of the doubt.
It’s kind of the equivalent to the soft bigotry of low expectations. So that’s the thing that I have felt, yet it’s very difficult to quantify and articulate because you never want to make any excuses for yourself, or cry and whine. I’m much more interested in making movies that I love rather than complaining.
But if there’s anything I would love to point to, and want to change, it would be that I want women’s voices to be so common that we no longer need to ask this question, or refer to female filmmakers as “female” filmmakers. We can just say that “this is a filmmaker.” By the same token, I greatly appreciate the efforts being taken to shed light on the issue, and people who are working really hard to do that. I long for the day I can be interviewed as just a filmmaker.
Let’s talk about you and your style. In the Q&A, you said that you have a short attention span. Does your creative process lend itself to your personal way of seeing things? Or do you adapt to the narrative at hand?
I do have a short attention span, but it’s only for things that don’t interest me. [Laughs] The deeper I get into a film, the more interested I become, and then my attention space becomes quite infinite. But my short attention span works to my advantage because if something is not speaking to me, I move on. So it’s my metronome for how I make decisions. It can be a liability in real life, but it can be helpful in my creative life because that means I will make things I truly fall in love with, and I won’t just make things to make things.
Of all the elements, literal and ambiguous, spiritual and theoretical, I really grabbed on to what Jonah (Rami Malek) said about needing to gain “traction.” It felt like you were trying to say something more about the topic than just one husband/father’s quest to get out from whatever was holding him back.
Absolutely! I think so many of us, myself included, live paycheck to paycheck, and month to month. That makes it really hard to get traction so you aren’t just a slave to money. I think we are all seeking freedom, peace, and love in some way or another. On that note, Jonah’s struggle was spiritual, but it was also very practical as well. He was having trouble providing for his family. But he wants to give them the freedom that he knows is possible around the corner, yet he never seems to be able to turn that corner.
I find that I connected most with that and Jonah’s relationship with his daughter as I have a 16-month-old daughter.
Oh, wow. So you know it really well!
I’m always worried about my next step because I now have another pair of shoes following me around. So I want where I’m going, and what I’m doing, to be of benefit to my whole family. Jonah had many problems, but that one was relatable.
What I was trying to do with the film was show people how much pressure someone like Jonah was under. Later, we would find out what happened when he cracked. One of the things that this film examines is him in the here and now. We don’t get to know his back story too much, but I imagine that Jonah was a guy who had probably been to jail before, he was probably homeless before, he’s probably struggled with undiagnosed mental illness, and yet he fell in love and finally got his shit together for a second. He has this child he’s completely in love with, he has a family he wants to give everything to and he finally feels like he has some sense of stability. But he’s a slave to the system that’s giving him no reprieve. He’s working the night shift that is driving him back to the edge and that’s where we’re meeting him – back on that edge.
There’s a scene in the kitchen where he – talking about traction – just explodes, and I’m happy you got Rami for this. He’s just now getting a chance to shine and a film like this is going to help widen his awareness.
He’s a mad genius, and a filmmaker’s actor through and through. I feel really lucky that the stars aligned and he could be in this film, and I feel really lucky to know him as a person. He is truly dedicated.
Let me ask you about certain scenes in the film. Some things were foreshadowed and I love how the visuals were both hints and call backs. For instance, when Jonah walks into the hotel room, he walks to the bathroom to find the tub filled, a single boat floating there, but also, the drain is visible in frame. So you have references to Jonah’s isolation, but also the inversion. I really thought the visuals were strong.
[Laughs] The drain is a reference to the a huge element of the film – that inversion. Once we hit the threshold, we’re all going to be sucked in. For Jonah, it’s a driving theme of the move. It’s a one-way passage or path. But as you know, it is not certain to end any better than the life that Jonah has now.
One of the strongest elements was the comedy; the humor is as unexpected as the drama. Where in the process did you decide that the film needs humor, or how much, and where did you find that line?
I guess I don’t think that way. I didn’t set out like, “Here’s my story, and now I think I should add humor to it!” I think I work more organically than that, so I started with character, and this character was tragically sad. One of the opening images I had of him, which was not something that made the cut of the movie, was this mountain man who was snow shoeing up the mountain, but he’s struggling and falling over and over again. In some ways, that was one of my touch stone images while writing Buster’s Mal Heart.
Well that’s another kind of traction right there.
Exactly, and there’s a certain sort of absurdism because existence is absurd, and we’re in a universe governed by mechanics over which we have no control – we don’t chose when we’re born, we don’t choose when we die and yet we’re placed here with consciousness and there’s something sort of graceless about life. Life can be completely graceful, and beautiful, and full of wonder. And you would think that the universe would give you grace in the moments of sadness or uncertainty. But it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it’s just banality; you trip, you fall, and that’s the absurdism I was going for in the movie.
[Note: minor spoilers below.]
The film can be viewed many different ways. So would you call the ending a “happy ending,” or Jonah waking from a bad dream? Or is it a dream? It seems like he has nothing to worry about at that point, but it is too perfect considering what we saw him go through.
I would call it as much happiness as we’re going to get. I would say that it is a beautiful reprieve in an otherwise merciless cycle of love and loss. I was hoping to give the audience a brief moment of peace, however fleeting though it may be. For me, that’s incredibly optimistic, hopeful and happy because if you can experience it once, you know it’s there, and you have the opportunity to find it again.
Where does this take you both as a filmmaker and a person? What worked, what didn’t and what would you do, and not do again?
I think everything worked, and I think I learned an incredible amount. I wouldn’t change anything about the experience or the film, and I feel that way about life, too. I try to live a life without regret, and it’s a careful balance of what comes, but also determination and will for what you hope to come.
I guess I feel that this is a tough question to answer because asking me about the film has me thinking about a response to things that are going on in my life. I am constantly learning, and evolving and I don’t regret any of it. Things work out the way they do because they have been determined to end up that way.
Buster’s Mal Heart screened at Fantastic Fest.
For as quaint and economical as it comes across, The Eyes of My Mother is a pull-no-punches horror film. This debut effort shows that Nicolas Pesce is not just a talent to watch (with your hand over your eyes) but his attention to details make this effort as striking as it is horrific.
In the film, a traumatic event befalls a young girl and her family. Soon after, she begins to associate pain and death with love and friendship in increasingly dangerous ways. At the festival, we spoke candidly about the elements and plot points in Pesce’s film. So, be advised, this interview contains spoilers.
The Film Stage: Nicolas, I have to tell you that I’m not sure I liked your film, because of how it made me feel, but I will never forget it.
Nicolas Pesce: [Laughs] Great, that makes me so happy to hear. [Laughs]
There’s something unnerving about the level of horror you brought to the screen, so matter of fact, in black and white. You also didn’t hold anything back. It reminds me of Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It leaves such an impact, so, please, tell us where this came from.
Your reaction is great as I was aiming to unsettle and unnerve. I’m glad you bought up El Topo because I never bring up those psychedelic films, but there is an unnerving quality to all of Jodorowsky’s stuff. You can’t put your finger on what’s wrong, but there’s always something disgustingly wrong, and it makes you want to jump out of your seat – that’s very much what I was going for with this. I wanted to claw into the darkest recesses of your brain and poke at things that you don’t want to think about.
That’s part of the reason why the movie is so short, and I don’t really show any of the violence. But I did want it to be a quietly aggressive experience. I wanted to explore the moments in between the horror and how scary life can be when you know what someone is capable of especially when you know where someone’s logic is at. So seeing them go through their everyday life is so much more terrifying. The things that are so banal take on a whole new meaning when the person spends the other parts of their time doing distinctly dark things.
There’s that one line where young Francisca asks the killer why he did it, and he says because, “It feels amazing.” Every line of dialog was so calm and commonplace that my face was transfixed in disbelief and horror for three-fourths of your film. I hate to ask, but is there a longer cut? Does a “worse” version of the film exist?
Oh, there was a worse version at one point. But what was important for me was treading that line where you want to feel so bad for her Francisca, and that she needs a hug, but then if you get too close, she’ll stab you. So there’s that point, at the end of their conversation, where the killer goes, “You’re gonna kill me, right?”and she goes, “No, you’re my only friend.” It’s so sad, and so depressing.
To me, the movie is about loneliness and losing the one person who made you understand the world. Without them, you’re at a loss for everything. That leaves Francisca trying to scramble to understand everything, but she’s going about it all wrong and not quite understanding how to cope with the loneliness.
But it’s a world where horrible things happen, and I don’t necessarily treat them as horrible. She does it, and then moves on. It’s part of the fabric of her world, and there’s something painfully ordinary when she’s stitching the woman’s eyes at the end. It’s terrible to see how she kind of lovingly takes care of Charlie in the barn. I think that the intentional grossness I was going for toggles oddly between her trying to be good and solve her problems, but then doing them in these horribly disgusting ways.
Getting the audience to a point where they don’t know how to feel about her was tough, but it was my goal. The best thing I could ask for is to have people leave the theater going, “I just don’t know what to think.”
She does despicable things moreso than a lot of slasher movies and her level of torture is pretty depraved, but not in her eyes.
Exactly. To her, it’s logical and she needs to do it for whatever reason, and I feel that I need to get the audience in the mind of this girl, even if it’s only fleeting, so when they start to think, “I feel for her,” to me, that’s the scariest thing. You don’t want to feel for a serial killer, so you really don’t want to see bits and pieces of yourself in there.
Hopefully, what makes people the most uncomfortable is that as crazy and wild as she gets, there’s moments you can see yourself having the same emotions but not going to the lengths she has. Her grief is very real, even if she is a monster.
Francisca is incredibly lonely, directly tied to losing her mother and father at certain points. But then she picks up a woman at a bar, and you know it’s not the first time. You can tell she wants someone in her life, but she can’t keep from being who she is. It’s a scarily interesting duality. But let’s talk about chaining people in the barn. It was a means to control the wanderer, Charlie, and then it became a way to keep people in her life.
Yeah, it was, with the father, a way to contain the wanderer, but only because he didn’t know what to do with him. This reminds me a lot of my grandfather. He’s the kind of guy that believes there would be nothing that would cause him to call the police. He was from Sicily, and he lived in the Bronx, and just thought that, “Whatever happens to me, I will deal with it. No one else is going to handle my family’s problems.” So I took that to the most extreme extent, and here’s a guy whose wife has been murdered, and he has the guy who did it, but he’s not going to call the cops and he doesn’t know what to do. It gets weird when his daughter thinks she’s helping him by finishing the job for him.
[Editor’s note: spoilers for the ending ahead.]
In a way, this reminded me of Rob Zombie’s The Devils Rejects in that it’s very brutal, and you get to an ending where the bad guys get what they deserve, but it’s not triumphant. It’s a little sad. So was what we saw the original ending, or was there something else you were developing?
That was always how I saw it ending, and there’s an extra layer of depth I aimed for. The ending happens and you have this girl who just wants connection and love and a companion, and she goes through all of these things to get there. But, in the end she’s taken out with a bang and you think about so many of these serial killers who get swept under a rug. Now I’m not saying they deserve legacies — because they do wilder things that most normal people would never do— but their end, the finale of their life, is done in an instant. They go to jail, they’re on the news once, and no one ever thinks of them again.
For a girl who we’ve just spend 75 minutes with, her life is reduced to the cops busting in, saw her with a knife and shot her, and nothing else matters. There is sort of a banality to the end of everyone’s life, you know? There is no grand, “I did all this and this is what it meant.” But really, it meant nothing. You tried, you failed, and now it’s over. To me, the world where Hannibal Lecter walks off into the marketplace at the end of Silence of the Lambs is not a real one. I wasn’t trying to say, “Beware, these people are out there.” This is about one girl who wanted one thing but she never got it.
One idea I had was to have the news play over the credits, and it would tell about how the police took her down. But they don’t talk about anything – they just list the crimes. I think it’s unfair that anyone who commits crime like to this gets their life reduced to mere facts. I’m not trying to justify their actions, but in attempts to understand any sort of violence, we’re not going to get anywhere with blanket statement like, “Oh, they were horrible” They became that way for a reason, and there would be a lot less killers if we learned why they were the way they were and helped them.
You make two good points in the movie: 1) The importance of having a strong two parent household. And 2) Don’t pick up hitchhikers.
[Laughs] Totally! I did throw a lot of classic horror tropes in there, too. Don’t let the stranger in your house… don’t pick up a hitchhiker… don’t give your baby to a stranger! Then, similarly, there are things I just love, like the fingernail breaking. Those never get old so, for me, it was about finding a story where I could weave in all that stuff in a fresh and unique way.
To end this, talk to us about shooting in black and white. It gives the striking visuals a real edge.
Shooting that came, partially, from the movies I love: Night of the Hunter, Strait-Jacket, Psycho, and by going black and white, that kind of tells the audience what kind of movie they are about to watch. It’s like putting you in the Alfred Hitchcock boat as opposed to the Tobe Hooper boat. Also, its use was more expressionistic to try and emulate what’s going on in Francisca’s head, and the way in which she sees the world. Also, technically, it let us play with filmmaking techniques that let us do things visually that you can’t really get away with in color: shadows, lighting, day for night, and all sorts of reality-bending tricks. In black and white, things can become otherworldly, and that heightens the unsetting feeling.
The Eyes of My Mother screened at Fantastic Fest and opens on December 2.
It’s safe to say Oliver Stone isn’t exactly fashionable these days, a matter apparent in how the trailer for Snowden instantly became a punching bag on this writer’s Twitter feed. Yet film critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s behemoth of a book, The Oliver Stone Experience, should, with any luck, shift the conversation. Framed as a series of interviews with Stone conducted over the past half-decade or so and interspersed with everything from personal photos to studio-executive notes to archival reviews, this feels like the definitive text on someone once at the center of American cinema. It might not change anyone’s mind on Stone’s films, but with the man being such a raconteur, you’ll still find yourself tearing through it.
We were lucky enough to chat with Seitz over the phone about his undertaking, as well as some thoughts on American politics and cinema in general.
The Film Stage: Reading your book, a comparison came to mind for Stone; Samuel Fuller. He was a soldier, journalist, pulp writer, and filmmaker. Is that a fair comparison?
Matt Zoller Seitz: I think that’s a very fair comparison. In fact, we talked briefly about Samuel Fuller, particularly The Big Red One. It’s a memoir of his service in the pacific in World War II. Of course, that movie came out 35 years after Fuller’s experience, and Platoon came out approximately 20 after Stone’s in Vietnam. That’s a fair comparison. And, also, the left-wing politics.
You bring up the various criticisms Stone has received on a number of his films regarding treatment of certain ethnicities or female characters. But now that we’re in an age where films are judged far, far more on the basis of ideology, how much worse do you think these controversies would’ve been today?
I don’t know if they would’ve been better or worse, but they would’ve been more immediate, I think. I think people kind of forget nowadays that movies open on 2,000 screens and then they’re gone in a month. Everything happens faster now, like the way movies are released and the reaction to them on social media. Back in the day, Platoon played in a lot of theaters for three months, six months — nine months, in some cases. And there was plenty of time for a reaction to sort of build, and it happened in slow-motion. I don’t necessarily know if it would be worse, but certainly it would be more simultaneous.
There’s a part of the book where Stone remarks “I’m getting deeper into the shit-hole every time I talk to you.” How difficult was the process of getting him to be as open as he was?
It wasn’t really that hard; he’s a pretty open guy. If you go back and read the interviews with him dating back to the early ’80s, he’s pretty open then, too. He’s an open book, and one of the original titles we thought about for this was Oliver Stone: An Open Book. I would say the biggest problem I had while interviewing him was keeping him on track, because Oliver has a very wide-ranging imagination. He doesn’t stick to one subject for very long; he’ll jump all over the place.
In your introduction, you state how Stone’s films were instrumental in your political awakening, particularly your disillusionment with Ronald Reagan’s values. Obviously, as you note in the book, Reagan was enormously popular — the 1984 election was a massive landslide — but what was the point where you started to sense his ideals were of less value to the American people? Was it before Bush’s loss to Clinton in ’92?
It was a little bit before that. I think it was probably when he announced the Star Wars initiative, which was in 1987. I remember: it was on the cover of one or both news weeklies and I was standing in 7/11 as a high school kid thinking, “We’re really going to commit billions of dollars to a system that can shoot missiles out of the sky when we’ve got so many other things to be spending money on?” Like, it’s still going to be armageddon; like, it’s going to be half the earth instead of all of the earth if we can shoot down their missiles and they can’t shoot down ours. It just seemed insane to me. That’s when I think it started to turn, but Stone was going along a similar tract. In fact, he says in the book that he was a Republican when he was younger; he inherited his father’s values. His dad was a stock-broker.
He voted for Nixon, and although he had certain questioning tendencies after the war, they didn’t really coalesce into anything coherent until about 1984/85 when he started taking trips to Central America to research what would later become Salvador. When he saw what was going on there — when he saw students, he saw kids, he saw teenagers fighting in service of the right-wing forces down there, wearing uniforms not too different from the ones he wore in Vietnam — that’s when he started to question things a little more. And it’s funny, because Stone is often attacked for being incoherent, but he happens to be quite coherent, and I happen to agree with a lot of it, that he believes that military expansionism after World War II has driven a lot of this country’s decisions, and it’s not just the decision of who to invade and who to occupy, but also whose bank account is the fattest. A lot of defense contractors and business owners have a stranglehold over our legislature. And it’s the kind of thing where, if you mention them, well, a lot of people go to the movies to escape that kind of thing, so it’s no surprise that Stone has had trouble getting financing for questioning movies.
Stone mentions Reagan and Bush plenty throughout the book, but do you think any of his films were a response to the Clinton administration?
Not so much. I think that maybe, if you stretch a little bit, you could say U-Turn and Any Given Sunday might’ve been, if only because they express the casualness of corruption. He didn’t have too many nice things to say about Bill Clinton when I talked to him. He saw him as a guy who posed as a liberal but actually continued a lot of the policies of the Republicans, and I think that’s probably accurate. I think more of his concern is with the military-industrial complex — not just on foreign policy, but our own self-image. The national self-image is that of righteous warriors who go and intervene in situations to make things right, and that’s often cover for much more base motivations, and that’s what drives him. And that’s been, until fairly recently in our history, something that’s a lot more of a Republican thing, although certainly he criticizes Lyndon Baines Johnson for escalating the war after Kennedy’s death in JFK and Born on the Fourth of July explicitly.
You repeatedly state how much Stone’s films resemble the personal epics of ’70s American cinema. But does looking at Stone’s films from the ’80s give you a greater appreciation for the American cinema of that decade? Because, if you ask me, it looks like a Golden Age compared to now.
I mean, yeah — it does. But almost everything looks like a golden age compared to now. Personal filmmaking on a big scale has been largely driven out of movies. It’s really sad, and it’s even sadder when you hear people still defend American cinema as an art-form that’s superior to American scripted television. It’s like, what do you have to defend that with, really? Some indie films, maybe an occasional Scorsese or Spielberg, but that’s about it. It’s really depressing, and I think the ’80s look a lot better. I came of age in the ’80s, and that was my decade to come of age as a movie-goer. But I’m a little appalled by the quality of storytelling in some of those movies.
This is the age where they discovered MTV, fast cuts, music montages. I remember, even as a teenager, watching movies like Flash/Dance, Footloose, and Top Gun and going, “These don’t feel like movies to me. They feel like advertisements or music videos.” But there was a lot of stuff going on at the same time that were very expressive: there was Stone’s films, but there was also Jim Jarmusch, and Robert Altman was making some interesting work in the ’80s. Although he’d fallen out of favor by then, all his theatrical adaptations were extraordinary. And then you had people like Alex Cox that were very much working in Oliver Stone’s tradition.
Every once in a while, we get a Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper — a political film that enters the zeitgeist. But it seems like politics in mainstream cinema is basically reduced to exploitive 9/11 imagery in superhero movies. Are Stone’s kind of films just not what we want to see? Are we collectively running away from trauma?
Well, I wouldn’t say “running away from it,” but we’re transforming it into something we can handle. There’s been a lot of disaster films and giant-monster films, like Pacific Rim, and superhero movies are all a manifestation of this shock after 9/11, and also the political fall-out after it. But it’s all very incoherent and self-serving, and there’s nothing in any of these movies as self-lacerating as anything Oliver Stone puts in any of his films in the ’80s or early ’90s. The subtext of a lot of superhero films is how good individual people are. There’s always one big bad guy who’s really bad, and if only the good guys can get their act together, they can beat him. There’s really no difference between that mentality and the one that got us into Vietnam and other wars.
I don’t really see a lot going on. I see, as you say, a lot of exploitation of imagery of fallen buildings, but I don’t see anything resembling a single coherent political thought in those films, which is very sad. I don’t know what to do with American movies. Occasionally, I’ll come across something that really excites me, but, even if it excites me, it’s not in terms of the view of the world it presents. It’s more that’s an interesting way to tell a story or that’s an interesting shot. It’s been a long time since we’ve had something as shocking and innovative on the level of JFK.
The Oliver Stone Experience is now available through Abrams.