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‘The Shape of Water’ Cinematographer Dan Laustsen on Capturing Guillermo del Toro’s Fantastical World

Written by Nick Newman, December 15, 2017 at 5:15 pm 

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It’s good to speak with the central creative forces behind a film you enjoyed — for instance, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which I’d count as his best film since Hellboy II and generally one of his most well-rounded achievements. Less ideal is when I speak to them before I’ve seen it at all — for instance, when I sat down with cinematographer Dan Laustsen at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival.

Laustsen is, as the film itself will show, a great practitioner of his craft and, to boot, rather friendly, and the working process on a project of this scale is always going to interest me, nuts-and-bolts-wise, so the result is, to my mind, still a proper overview of what went into the Cold War fantasy romance.

The Film Stage: So here’s a funny thing: the film screens on Saturday, which means I haven’t seen it.

Dan Laustsen: Well, that’s a shame. Because it’s a great movie.

Convince me to see it.

First of all, it’s a movie shot… no.

By you?

Exactly. First of all, it’s a Guillermo del Toro movie, and he’s doing movies – if you ask me – fantastically. And now I’m working with him, which I’m happy about. And if you have seen the trailer… have you seen the trailer?

I have.

the-shape-of-water-2It looks pretty cool. That’s a reason to see it. And it’s a fantastic love story shot on a very unnormal way. It’s a very artistic way to shoot it – that’s the way Guillermo wants to shoot it. It feels like the camera is floating in water all the time, if you ask me. Now I’m talking about my own work. It’s a little bit crap, but you know. But we tried to get the camera floating, and the way we are making the color palettes is very beautiful.

So the trailer told me. Do you have any say into what gets seen beforehand?

No, not at all. Not for a minute. I’m the cinematographer: I’m shooting the movie, and then I’m out. Then I’m color-correcting it, and I’m out again.

Are you ever ambivalent about what’s first revealed?

No.

There are no images you’d prefer people see for the first time within the context of the movie?

No. First of all, I think those marketing people know what they’re doing. I’m sure Guillermo’s a big part of that. On this movie, he’s just a fantastic director – full hands-on with everything, and that’s the reason it’s so fun to work with him: you really have a vision, and he knew how he wanted to tell the story and how the movie should look. As a cinematographer, that’s a really good starting point. I like when you have a plan, when you have an idea how you want to shoot and how the story looks. For me, that’s magic – that’s moviemaking. Of course, people can do whatever they want to do. There’s no rules anymore and that’s pretty good.

But the movies I like and the movies I’ve been a fan of my whole life are when the director and cinematographer and production designer are making a decision, and you try to do that and, in the end, it works; nothing is by accident. I like to be as much in control as we can, and play around with the light. For me, it’s not a big deal when you say, “We shot this movie with no artificial light.” I don’t get that. People, again, can do whatever they want to do, but I think it’s important to shoot the movie with dramatic lighting and camera angles – whatever you want to use, what kind of choice. I just think painting with light is amazing. That’s one of the reasons moviemaking is so great and a good way to tell stories: you have these tools – the camera, music, lighting, and editing. But from the cinematographer’s point of view, it’s moving the camera and painting with lights, and I think that’s a great thing to do.

A couple of years ago, I asked del Toro about his penchant for shooting 1.85. Crimson Peak was surprising in that way, because haunted houses either bring to mind the classic 4:3 or wide environments. I wonder if, first, you have particular preferences for aspect ratios, and if there are difficulties sticking to 1.85 with him.

We have that discussion on all the movies we have done. I’m a big fan of Cinema Scope; I think it’s fantastic. But he wants to shoot 1.85, so we’re doing that. I just think Cinema Scope is a very nice film format, but Guillermo is not so keen on that, so we have shot 1.85 on all the movies. We have discussed that and done a couple of tests, and I try to push my luck every time. [Laughs] It’s not working yet, but maybe, one day, I don’t know. We have the same discussion on all the movies. “Let’s shoot Scope.” “Yeah, let’s do that.” And then we do a lot of tests, and just before we start shooting he goes, “Let’s go back to 1.85.”

He likes that format, and I’m not against it because it works pretty well, and they’ve shot a lot of very nice movies with this format. Personally, I think Cinema Scope is nice, and I like to shoot anamorphic lenses – as we did on John Wick 2. Shooting 4:3 in the camera and shooting anamorphic lenses. I just like that look, but it’s not a big deal to shoot Shape of Water in 1.85 or Crimson Peak or Mimic. It looks… I’m very proud of the movies, but we have that discussion on all the movies we’ve done. I’m going, “Hey, let’s shoot anamorphic.” “Yeah, let’s try to do that.” And then, as I said: we shoot some tests and end up shooting 1.85.

What do those tests usually consist of?

It’s just some make-up tests, normally, or some tests in a room. He wants to play around – I do some filter tests and stuff like that. Then we do one with Cinema Scope or anamorphic or 1.85. We screen together, and he just likes this format. It’s the way it is. I’m not sour over anything; I just think it looks great. So it’s not like I’m going to bed every night and crying. [Laughs]

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You said the budget difference between Crimson Peak and Water was decently sized, and thus there were many things you couldn’t otherwise do. There’s a lot of scheduling and preparation before production, but I wonder about moments where you did plan on something and then a roadblock emerged.

I think I’m not so much into the money world, but the budget on Shape of Water is around $20 million. Of course that’s a lot of money when you’re in Europe, even in the United States, but compared to the big movies, it’s very, very little. If you’re doing a movie on $150 million, you can do much more. So when you’re doing a movie like Shape of Water for $20 million, we have to be very clever about how to spend our money. You haven’t seen the movie, but you’ve seen the trailer. There’s a big laboratory set – pretty big, like 30, 40 feet high. The plan was that we wanted to have a catwalk around the set – scaffolding you can walk around so you can light from above. You do that when you’re shooting in a studio, but we could not afford that because it was too expensive.

So the way to light that set was a little bit of a drag. That’s one of the things when you’re running into less money: you have to be clever in another way. It looks really good – fantastic, if you ask me; I’m very proud – but to come to this look without the catwalks was a little difficult. So that’s one of the reasons. I’m not complaining, because it’s a decent budget for a movie; but compared to Crimson Peak, with a lot more money and catwalks all around, it’s easier to do that stuff. So something like that.

On a fantastical film, what, roughly, is the gap between what’s captured in-camera and the final image?

The way I’m shooting movies, it’s 1:1. What you’re shooting on the set is exactly how it’s going to look in the movie. When we did the color-correction, the DI, for this movie, Guillermo said, “I don’t want to make a DI, because I think I like exactly how it looks.” We spent some time on the set to do the right colors, and I think that’s very, very important for me, to shoot the movie exactly as it should look. So when we’re doing the DI, I’m just making a corner a little bit darker or a window a little bit brighter, but we’re not changing the color. So when you see framegrabs from the sets the day we shot it and you see the final movie, it’s exactly the same; we’re not changing colors at all.

And I think that’s very important when you’re doing a movie like Shape of Water, where the color’s so powerful and a big part of the story you’re telling. So if you don’t know exactly where the color is going to be, I think you are a little bit lost. So for everybody – for me, the production designer, for Guillermo, for everybody – it’s so important that what we’re seeing at the set is going to be the movie. That’s the way we work, so we’re very precise. It looks more or less exactly… we’re changing very, very little in the DI.

How much time did you spend on the post-production?

I think I spent two-and-a-half weeks in DI. Something like that.

What are some things particular to that process, given the 1:1 comment?

You just want to be sure you’re right, so when I’m coming in to the DI, the whole movie is like as we shot it. I’m old-school, so I’m used to shooting on film and everything having to be very even. It’s very even when we’re shooting; we’re not fixing anything in post. You can make – knock on wood. [Knocks on table] Don’t make too many of those, but, of course, that can happen. But when you’re shooting digital, you can see that right away; you can figure it out. It’s very even, so you see the movie a couple of times just to be sure.

I hadn’t seen the movie for nine months when I’m going into the DI. Then we just have to feel the movie a little bit, and then we are going into power windows and stuff like that – but, as I said before, we are not changing colors. It’s very much 1:1. Then, of course, the problem with DI is that you can just keep going on. You can change bits and pieces forever, and nobody’s going to see the difference in the end except you and, maybe, Guillermo. But it’s just a fun part of making movies, because that’s exactly where you’re doing the final touch.

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Well, I have seen John Wick: Chapter 2, which has such a plurality of color and environments. Could you talk a bit about conforming to that particular style of action filmmaking – long-take-heavy, that is. Was that a particular pleasure?

Oh, it was cool. Chad Stahelski, he called me and asked if I could go to New York and meet him. I did that, and he had just seen the trailer for Crimson Peak. He likes the way I’m lighting dark shadows, you know, colorful… so I met him and he said, “I want to do this action movie, but it has to look like a Bertolucci movie.” You know: long, wide shots, a lot of action going on. He said, “I don’t want to go into a million cuts. I want, when you have an actor like Keanu – who’s so good to do his own stunts – I want to show that to the audience.” That was very, very much his idea from the beginning: you have a big, wide shot and come in for the coverage, but he wants to show the action as it works. And then the color palette was coming, very much, from Crimson Peak, and of course we fine-tuned that for the movie. We shot it in New York and Rome, and we played around with that a little bit as much as we could. But we wanted to do a colorful, powerful movie with a lot of wide shots, as you said.

It was very important for him to shoot wide shots, so the actors could show what they’re doing and not cutting into stunt guys. For Chad, it was very important to do that, and it was an interesting discussion because you come into an action movie and you think, “Let’s do a million set-ups.” And we did a million set-ups, that’s another thing — but we never used them so much. Going in, I wanted to make it more classical. Of course, that’s great; it was fun to do. I’m open for everything. As long as you’re working with directors that really want to tell interesting stories and you’re on the same page… it’s so important to work together with directors, to have the same opinion about things. Because then it’s not getting so difficult to do the movie. You’re not afraid of the darkness; you want to play with the colors. Chad was very open; it was really pleasant. And I think we’re going to do #3 now; that’s the plan.

When does that start?

After Christmas, somewhere. I don’t know the details, but the plan is to come back to New York to do some more stuff. I saw a release date in 2018 – May, or something. You have to figure that out.

What’s something we don’t know about del Toro’s working method? Maybe when you’re in the thick of it, what do you see that’s otherwise hidden?

I think he just loves to make movies. For him, I think it’s the best time of his life. Of course, I don’t know anything about that, but he feels so happy on the set – he’s there all the time, never leaving the studio. That’s giving a lot of energy to everybody because, if you have some directors who are there all the time and just pushing the machine forward… it’s such an inspiration to work with Guillermo, because he’s editing all the time. When he’s between takes, he’s editing a little bit. Because the way we’re shooting is so particular.

Every shot is blended together so precise, so he’s using a lot of time to edit, and I think that’s fantastic because the way he’s moving the camera is, as I said before, feels like it’s floating in the water. But he’s really a moviemaking guy: he loves to be there; he’s very keen about every detail; there’s nothing he’s not aware of. He knows everybody on the set. He knows everybody’s names, and all the guys’ girlfriends’ names as well. He has an amazing memory: he talks about Mimic like we shot it yesterday and I don’t remember anything. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I think his secret is that he loves, loves, loves what he’s doing.

Are you working with him while he’s editing on set?

He’s doing that when I’m lighting. Of course I’m going to look over his shoulder, but he’s just doing that all the time; he’s doing that on his chair when I’m lighting or changing set-ups. He does that a lot, and he does that in the morning and after wrap. So he’s with editors a lot, and that’s very fantastic. We never see dailies; we see the first cut of the scenes the next day, so that’s very inspirational for everybody.

The Shape of Water is now in limited release and expands in the coming weeks.

Luca Guadagnino and Michael Stuhlbarg on the Honesty of ‘Call Me by Your Name,’ Luis Buñuel, and Sequel Ideas

Written by Joshua Encinias, December 7, 2017 at 2:03 pm 

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Luca Guadagnino’s playful sensuality extends beyond his desire for actors. The director of arthouse hits I Am Love, A Bigger Splash and now Call Me By Your Name lavishes focus on anyone who has his attention. Michael Stuhlbarg, co-star of Guadagnino’s new film, channels his attention through lugubrious, monastic-like focus. When I talked with both the former dances with his id for all to see and the latter negotiates with his ego before saying a word. Put them together and you get a snapshot of Call Me By Your Name’s sexual ethos: muted sensuality, or as the director put it, “We were free to show everything and we decided not to. And in a way it was a very liberating experience.”

Goodwill for Call Me By Your Name has already propelled the film to nearly $1 million and that’s from just four screens in New York and Los Angeles thus far. In our conversation, Guadagnino refuses to talk theoretically about his work but Stuhlbarg does (he shares his summum bonum of parenting). We also cover James Ivory’s script, the work of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the director’s cartesian philosophy of sound following the image, and yes, talk of a sequel.

Luca, I read an interview where you said today’s cinema isn’t being used to interpret reality. So because Call Me By Your Name doesn’t have a formal antagonist, what are you saying about the nature of identity?

Luca Guadagnino: Well, it’s a complex question and I feel very shy about answering the question because I resist the temptation of being theoretical about my own work. We should have a great conversation about the work of a colleague probably or someone in the canon. I can tell you this: I believe that when you show behavior and when you unfold, in a way, the consequences of behavior and the way the different behaviors clash between one another, it’s where I found the best surprises as an audience member in cinema. So whether we succeed or not with Call Me By Your Name, it is, in any case, the approach that we want to use to make the movie. So it was not about the drama of these people in the film, but more about how can you capture these invisible threads that unites and separate these people as if it was real life. I don’t know if I answered your question.

It was a convoluted question.

Guadagnino: It wasn’t convoluted. It was a very consistent and important question, but it’s me, I don’t want to interpret my work.

Michael, when Professor Perlman gives that talk to Elio at the end, you know he’s accepting his son and he understands his son, but you also hear regret in his voice. He talks about a time when he felt desired for his body. What were you conceptualizing he was going through in their conversation?

Michael Stuhlbarg: I just wanted to be honest as a parent. Honesty in every relationship requires one to take the risk to bear one’s soul to, perhaps, judgment coming at them. And I think Professor Perlman at that time could observe what his son was going through by offering a glimpse into his own past that perhaps his son didn’t know. Maybe he’s taking a risk. I think he says, if I remember correctly, what kind of parent would I be if I didn’t speak? I think he’s offering up a part of himself to his son at a time when his son needs it. I understand that his father is not just a father, he’s a person and had a life before he met Elio’s mother. He has some, perhaps, joy at the fact that his son has felt something so deeply and perhaps a sense of regret from his own past that he didn’t take a road that he wanted to. Or maybe a road he wanted to take and did take and it didn’t workout. I think he’s offering up a part of himself to his son that his son needs at that moment.

Luca, had James Ivory written the script by the time you were involved?

Guadagnino: We worked on the script together. This script happened to be the one we shot. It’s the outcome of the decision that James and I made, an attempt to try to make our version of this film.

Michael, what drew you to their script?

Stuhlbarg: First and foremost it was Luca inquiring whether I was interested in participating in the project. I had seen I Am Love and was dazzled by it. I loved the boldness and the nuance, the subtlety and the breadth within the piece and the challenge of it. So I was familiar with a spectacular filmmaker. I didn’t know the novel. And when I read it I was taken with the particular challenges that are set up in playing this kind of role. And at the same time trying to take in all that information about being a scholar and trying to make it, you know, he’s as a humanist as well. There were just many challenges to the prospect of who this man was. Plus, the opportunity to get to shoot abroad is always a wonderful thing. It’s one of the things I love about this job when it happens: getting to see the world and seeing the different way people live. And then getting to read Andre’s novel, I can see the rich source material. There were many things that drew me to the project and I’m grateful that I was thought of.

Luca, it was raining for most of the shoot in Crema, but the film looks so rich and warm. Will you talk about some of the visual choices you made with your cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom?

Guadagnino: I think that it’s a testament of the sensibility of Sayombhuof, the light of this film. He had to create light from an artifice because we really were constantly assaulted by this weather. It wasn’t nice at all. We had the rain tower ready to be used for the scene at the train but we didn’t have to use that because that was real rain. I think that when I was younger I used to have a lot of visual references and a mood board. In growing, I felt more confident in myself to the tone that comes off the given elements of the movie. The location, the period, the performances. So I think that the reference that really came into my mind was the work of Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours on the lighting. Then that got translated by the sensibility of Sayombhuof. We really narrowed our choices though, because we used 35mm, one camera, one lens, and mostly it was about, even if it was artificial, you know, the way light behaved was the reality of the given location. I liked the way Sayombhuof exposed because he goes all the way toward the darkest side of the spectrum instead of the brighter. That is something he does. It’s in a way quite strong because it makes the image three-dimensional, gives some more depth to the image.

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I found the sound design for the various sex scenes more erotic than anything you show on screen.

Guadagnino: My take is follow the images and also follow the narrative that’s outside of the images. It’s very Cartesian what I think I need in terms of sound. Like you see them, they are having lunch, but then you have to think in retrospect: what is happening in the kitchen and on the other side of the house? So we investigate these background and in the foreground and what is on the screen. There was a very good production sound, but then you add the reality of the things. I don’t think you need to hide the usage of sound, which to a degree needs to be artificial. I think in the case of my following movie Suspiria, sorry I’m talking about it, but it’s an example of how the sound, because Suspiria is really about sound. It means in ‘sighs’ in Latin. We approached that not as a some sort of fantastic element but for drawing the idea of sighs and the uncanny from the reality. So it’s really important to be logical with sound in my opinion.

For a movie that’s just over two hours, a lot happens and I think it’s because the scenes are short. How did you create the drama with this brisk pace?

Guadagnino: Thank you. I don’t know. I wish I had a better answer but I don’t know how to explain how we proceed. I don’t know. I think it’s really about following your intuition and being in absolute contact with your collaborators whether they are the performers or the technicians. And to be open, as I said in another interview, I think it’s about listening and I think the more we are all wanting to be open to one another the better we are. I don’t have a recipe. I don’t storyboard. I don’t analyze the movie to the purpose of its effect. I admire those colleagues who are able to do that, but for me it is a bankruptcy of the craftsmanship that you have to put into making film. You know, it’s like thinking that the movie is a script. The script is not the movie. Any decision that you can make about the movie that are basically about the mise en scène are not necessarily the end of the process of making the film.

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Talk about the bit with the Italian couple discussing Luis Buñuel during one of the Perlman’s meals.

Guadagnino: Well, it’s really interesting. I think one of my privileges is to be able to work with very different identities, you know? It’s beautiful because I don’t do Italian films. I don’t do strictly Hollywood films. I do movies that I happen to have the privilege of being able to make and I have the luck to work with the people I like to work. In that specific case, we had Americans from different generations, from different backgrounds. We had the Italians, English. It was a mixture of things. The couple is played by Marco Sgrosso and Elena Bucci, two of the most striking powerful theater actors in Italy. I love them and I know them since many, many years and they ended up in A Bigger Splash. The thing I like the most about my work is it’s like a family, you invite your friends and you do this thing.

So I called them and I said I have this little scene that we added in the script about this couple coming to dinner, because you know usually that kind of family, the Perlmans, it’s a typical family that have a lot of guests coming. Usually the relationship between the friends explains a lot about the people that live in the house. So I said can you come and be this neurotic couple of intellectuals who are, you know, like they want to be current and at the same time they don’t care about the people in front of them, but they love them. It’s a strange narcissistic couple and yet they are irresistible to their friends.

About that scene… they are fantastic, they improvised. I mean, we went online and looked up what happened in 1983, on that month and that day. We discovered that Buñuel was dead. [Stuhlbarg laughs and claps.] We said okay, improvise about Buñuel. We went into rehearsal and Michael’s reaction shot surprised me because what I love about him is you don’t see Michael Stuhlbarg, you see Mr. Perlman watching his friends and he’s enjoying the spectacle and he wants that spectacle to happen every now and then. You know it’s like something about their family and it’s beautiful. And it was generous because Marco and Elena came up quickly to act and went away. But yeah, if we do the sequel they will be back, for sure.

So are you seriously considering continuing with that last part of the book that isn’t in the film?

Guadagnino: To call it a sequel is not nice. It’s like the Antoine Doinel chronicles. It is for me a landmark in the history of cinema and in general I think every movie I do it’s a dream of a dream of a dream of a movie I really like. And so for me that these amazing characters happen to be living in the next fifty pages of the book by André Aciman. In a way, they now outlive the book and they are now creatures of their own. I think there is a way in which we want to see what happens to them. I think it’s great. It’s not like a sequel. We don’t want to exploit any possibility, and I put in big brackets any success of this film. I would try to make the sequel even if the movie wasn’t successful because I want to see these people. There are a few episodes, there is documentary about the growing up of the kids. So I think how great would it be to see Timothée Chalamet growing up as a man? In three years time he is going to be twenty-five. We leave Elio as he is almost eighteen. What if we catch up with the real age of Elio and Timmy, and we make the second chapter about him being twenty-five, which is seven years later. What happens in that gap? What happened to all these people? How did they end up meeting again together? I think those characters are affecting enough that probably there will be more to say about them and more to see of them. I have some ideas though. The beginning of the sequel is fantastic.

Call Me by Your Name is now in limited release and will expand in the coming weeks.

Writing a Movie About the Worst Movie Ever Made: A Conversation with ‘The Disaster Artist’ Screenwriters

Written by Jose Solís, December 6, 2017 at 8:44 am 

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Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have dealt with heightened emotions through their work in adaptations of Young Adult novels like The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, but in Tommy Wiseau of The Disaster Artist they might have found the ultimate symbol of volatility. As played by James Franco in the film, Wiseau is a force of nature who refuses to bend down to things such as budgetary restrictions, other people’s feelings, and even common sense. His mission is to shoot The Room, a film in which he’s put all his energy and hopes. He doesn’t care that his film seems to make no sense, that his actors don’t know what they should be doing, and that the people he’s hired to work with him have no clue as to what he expects from them.

In the screenplay by Neustadter and Weber, one finds deep compassion and understanding of who Wiseau was during the making of The Room, his moments of asshole-ness often balanced by his acts of love, not only for creation, but also for his best friend Greg Sestero (who co-wrote the book the film is based on), played by Dave Franco. Wiseau’s larger than life personality isn’t used for easy laughs, but rather as an entry point for audiences to enter a world where the end seems to justify all the means. The film succeeds in raising questions about the way in which Hollywood works and how not everyone is afforded the opportunities they deserve based on their talent, but it also is a celebration of filmmaking in all its glory and gore.

We spoke to the creative duo of Weber and Neustadter about entering Wiseau’s mind, their own writing process, and what actors they want to write for next.

Tommy Wiseau is a screenwriter. Was that an easy way to write from his point of view and get into the mind of the character?

Scott Neustadter: When you watch The Room you get some good insight into this man’s brain, so we used the film and also Greg’s book. James Franco gave us some audio recordings that Wiseau had made, and there was also some behind-the-scenes footage, so we had a plethora of material to dive into him.

But was there anything in particular about Wiseau’s unabashed love of movies that made it easier to write about him?

Michael H. Weber: For us the angle was seeing this as the story of two outsiders, two dreamers who stick with each other even as everyone else tells them no. So as an outsider, a dreamer, a fan of movies, Tommy’s voice is unusual, but we identified with all of those characteristics about him. It wasn’t too long ago we were outsiders desperate to break into this business.

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I found the film to be very romantic in how it approaches these two men and their love for creating. At the risk of sounding ridiculous and using the word “bromance” I wondered if as co-screenwriters you have a similar dynamic.

Michael H. Weber: [Laughs] Definitely the thing that we were attracted to was the fact that this is a relationship story at heart. That’s the one commonality of all the projects we’ve worked in together, obviously we’ve dealt with romantic relationships in other projects, but in this one it’s more of the creative relationship between the two of them. These men have known each other for 20 years now.

How many times did you have to watch The Room?

Scott Neustadter: I watched the film while reading the book, but Weber didn’t actually watch it until we finished writing the script.

Michael H. Weber: I waited till we finished the first draft, because fans of the film are very passionate, they’re a subset of movie culture and the vast majority of people out there have never even heard of The Room, so the movie we were trying to make needed to work for the superfans, but for the most part it needed to play for people who’ve never heard of the movie. I felt it was better if I held off on watching The Room and just use the book as the source material.

So what surprised you the most after you watched the film?

Michael H. Weber: The book does such a good job of describing many of the scenes and aspects of the movie, but even despite having read the book I was shocked at just how strange the movie was.

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Films are an extremely collaborative medium and throughout the film it seems that Tommy doesn’t get this, he wants to be in control of every aspect. So even if this seems trite, what advice would you have given him when he shot The Room?

Scott Neustadter: I don’t think we would’ve changed anything or given him any advice. One of the things that made sure The Room wasn’t a movie that was forgotten was that it wasn’t made by committee, as most studio films are: you get notes and a lot of feedback. In many ways that can water down a vision, and The Room is one man’s pure vision, it’s as pure a movie as you’re likely to see. We learn about the auteur theory in college and The Room is as singular a vision as you’re ever likely to get.

Have you come up with a formula or division of tasks when it comes to writing together?

Michael H. Weber: It’s funny, we’ve had the same process from the beginning since we first met in New York. We never write in the same room. We will outline extensively before we write a word, and that thorough outline is pretty helpful, then we work over it through email or on the phone. We divide scenes and a day or two later we email each other to go through them.

You’re also executive producers in The Disaster Artist. What does this means in terms of new tasks or things you’ve never done before?

Michael H. Weber: It changes in every project, because it’s a role that’s somewhat undefined. In a lot of cases being a producer is simply the difference between asking permission to be involved in other creative decisions and being involved in those creative decisions. Regardless of our role as producers we were on set every day. We felt good about our creative place. We didn’t want to overstep and we were just so happy to be involved in this.

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You’ve become specialists in adapting Young Adult novels, I remember my niece asking if I was embarrassed of seeing The Fault in Our Stars since I’m an adult, and my answer was no, because I don’t feel in your screenplays you don’t approach these characters from a point of condescension. How do you pull that off every time?

Scott Neustadter: I don’t know if we’ve matured or not, but we remember how important everything seemed when we were young. We grew up on movies by John Hughes and others who refused to talk down to teenagers and make their problems seem small, because they aren’t small when you’re that age. Those little dramas are big deals we don’t overlook or belittle.

I recently spoke to Daniel Kaluuya who said his most memorable moviegoing experience was watching The Room in London. So I’d love to know what’s your favorite moviegoing experience?

Scott Neustadter: I remember distinctly two movies from when I was younger. I saw Coming to America when I was way too young probably. I went with a friend, my parents were like, “Oh yeah, go see that movie, it’s totally appropriate for two eight year olds to go see that movie,” and I remember the energy and the atmosphere. I also remember Misery because it felt like a collective experience where audiences were talking back to the screen and there was a lot of back and forth, we were all communicating together. The Room similarly becomes a communal experience, it’s so different than watching something alone in your laptop.

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It’s become very common to see people in social media call out and condemn other people for their taste. You wrote a screenplay about what many people consider a terrible film and yet we see in the end how much pleasure it gave to audiences. Did writing the film in any way change you approach taste?

Scott Neustadter: It’s just what you just said about Daniel. If something’s the most fun you’ve had at the movies, how can it be bad?

Michael H. Weber: I remember being in college and making fun of bad movies, but as an adult now that I’m doing with movies with Scott you realize how hard it is to get anything made. That made me stop making fun of bad movies, because people can discuss many elements of The Room, and a lot of it is unorthodox if not just plain not good, but the fact is what you can’t argue with is that Tommy and Greg made something lasting. People still line up all over the world to see The Room, and that matters a lot. They made something people really care about.

You also co-wrote the screenplay for Where’d You Go, Bernadette and I’m so excited to hear what Cate Blanchett does with that material. So with that in mind, is there any actor you’re dying to write something for?

Scott Neustadter: A lot! My favorite performance I can think of is Emma Thompson in The Remains of the Day, so I’d be happy to put some dialogue in front of Emma Thompson any day.

Michael H. Weber: I’d love to write something for Jessica Chastain. She can do anything. So I’d love to have the opportunity for us to write something for her.

The Disaster Artist is now in limited release and expands wide this Friday.

Michael Shannon on Kubrickian Inspiration, Sex as Storytelling, and Sidney Lumet

Written by Jordan Raup, December 1, 2017 at 11:55 am 

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Bringing a defining presence to any project he takes part in, Michael Shannon exudes both a controlled menace and an emotional complexity in his wide range of roles, from his collaborations with Jeff Nichols to 99 Homes to superhero villains to his small-screen gangster drama Boardwalk Empire. Following his Oscar-nominated performance in last year’s Nocturnal Animals, he’s back on the circuit with Guillermo del Toro’s Cold War era fantasy tale The Shape of Water.

If one only viewed the trailer, it may be easy to label his character or Strickland as a villain, but, like many of his roles, Shannon carries a beating, humorous heart to this archetype as he wrestles with the pressures of bureaucracy and the discarded promises of the American dream. We spoke with the actor about getting room to breathe on set, being in del Toro’s world, the complications of sex, and working on Sidney Lumet’s final film.

Your character embodies this disillusionment of the American Dream in this almost Lynchian fashion. Did Guillermo del Toro talk with you about his vision of America while forming the character?

Yeah, that was certainly swirling around in the mix of things, of course. You always have to be careful in a situation like that and realize at the end of the day you’re playing a person, not an idea or a thought or a notion. I definitely had seen those parallels myself and Guillermo is a very socially-conscious filmmaker. I mean, he always has been. That is a welcome interpretation, for sure.

When you go see one of Guillermo del Toro’s films, you’re not just seeing his story. He often weaves in his love for cinema, or in this case, biblical tales and fairy tales. What was it like to have that foundation of timeless, classic stories in the script?

Ultimately, what I’m most drawn to is something that feels unique, but the fact of the matter is that a lot of stories have been told. A lot of the great stories have already been told and everything is kind of a riff on everything else. With Strickland I thought a lot about, oddly enough, Dr. Strangelove, that kind of tone and that sense of humor in that movie. Because, honestly, the first time I read the script I found a lot of humorous–not in a silly way, but in a Kubrick way. With a point, pointed humor.

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That comes out greatly with scenes in your office, whomever your character is talking to. You’re given a lot of room to breathe in terms of your reaction shots. How much of that is found on set versus the script?

It’s found on set a lot, particularly with Sally. I mean, Sally’s work is almost entirely found on set, because you’re not basing it on any dialogue. You know what the story is, but until you’ve got Sally’s face on camera, that’s when it really comes to life. The deal is if you give Guillermo options, if you give him a nice reaction, something that some substance and weight, then he has the option of using it. He doesn’t use all of them, but I always try when I go into work, I try to do as many takes as I can. Not necessarily because I think they are terrible or I think I’m failing or something, but I just think I know I would appreciate as a director if I had as many options as I could in the editing room. Because sometimes when you’re there on the day the scene remains elusive even after you’re done shooting it. You’re not quite sure what function it’s going to serve or what the mood is going to be at that point in the movie. It’s very different shooting a scene individually and then stringing them all together. There are things that feel phenomenal on the day when you’re doing them that don’t even wind up in the movie, but that’s the director’s privilege. Honestly, as an actor, my favorite time on camera isn’t when I’m talking. It’s when I’m not talking. The talking is, a lot of times–not all the time–kind of a chore, actually. My favorite part is listening and reacting to things.

One thing I loved about your performance: your body is literally deteriorating with your fingers, but there are also some subtle things you bring that shows your downfall might be imminent. What was your challenge to embody that as an actor?

Something Guillermo and I did talk about, because of the finger situation, I had gotten some painkillers. So in addition to my candy, I’m starting to get strung out on pills. That was definitely something we wanted to layer into the performance and just the sense that he’s growing increasingly kind of disillusioned and out of it. I think there’s a huge break that happens when he realizes the general is willing to flush him down the toilet without a second thought. I think up until that point in the movie, he thinks he’s achieved a certain stature that is kind of ripped out from under him. Once that happens, all bets are off. He’s all of sudden realized that all the choices he’s made along the way may have not been the correct choices in his life. He’s got this family that he’s not quite sure if he likes them or not. He talks about being drawn to Elisa because she’s quiet and he wants quiet and peace. That’s the irony of it. He’s a violent man. He creates violence, yet ultimately what he really wants is peace.

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The way this film depicts sex is refreshing. A lot of times in Hollywood there’s a predilection to show violence and filmmakers often shy away from sex. However, Guillermo del Toro shows it in a positive light, with Hawkins’ character and her sexual desires, but then in your home life there’s this perversion to that idea. Was it also refreshing for you to see it in the script?

Yeah, and to use it as storytelling. It’s not gratuitous. It’s giving you a lot of information about the characters and it’s real. It’s not through a tinted lens with the saxophone playing in the background or some silliness. The fact of the matter is that sex is as much a source of anxiety and confusion as anything else in our human life. There’s a wide variety of experiences that can be had. It can be also very loving and tender, it can be scary, it can be so many different things. To show the variety of that is a more honest, healthy way of looking at it.

We recently published a piece for the 10th anniversary of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, just a few weeks ago.

Oh, wow.

You make such an impression in that movie, in just the five minutes or so you’re in it. I was wondering if you could talk about working with Sidney Lumet on his last film.

Man, I made it in the nick of time, eh? I’m so profoundly grateful I got to work with the great Sidney Lumet. I was really included in that process. I mean, like you say, I don’t have a huge role in the movie, but I had enough of a part that I was able to be part of the rehearsal process, the famous Sidney Lumet rehearsal process. It’s a very tricky thing to rehearse in a film. It’s very different than rehearsing theater because it’s a fine line between making sure everybody is up to speed, but not over-doing it, so you can still have spontaneity when the camera is rolling.

One of my great work memories is shooting the scene in the restaurant where I’m shaking down Ethan’s character. We did a master shot that held the three of us–Alexa, me, and Ethan–and Sidney would sit right next to the lens, like a little gargoyle. His face was right next to the lens. He would just sit there and watch the scene. I said one my lines in the scene and I heard out of the corner of ear, I heard a little chuckle. I heard [imitates a quick laugh]. I was like, “Holy shit. I just made Sidney Lumet laugh during a take.” That’s one of my proudest accomplishments.

The Shape of Water is now playing in NYC and expands in the coming weeks.

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer on Desire, Studying Cinema, and the Humanizing Power of Acting

Written by Joshua Encinias, November 29, 2017 at 12:58 pm 

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Timothée Chalamet showed up for a long day of New York Film Festival interviews after his Call Me By Your Name castmate Armie Hammer. When “Timmy” (as the cast and crew affectionately call him) walked in, Hammer blasted Kanye’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing and the two danced until the film’s publicist pulled them into our interview.

Call Me By Your Name is dominating entertainment headlines of late: last weekend the film earned the highest per-theater-average of 2017. Following that, Hammer deleted his Twitter account after calling Buzzfeed’s hit piece on him “bitter AF,” Chalamet won Breakthrough Actor at both National Board of Review and the Gotham Awards, where the film also won Best Feature. For reference, the last three films to win Best Feature at Gotham went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Hammer led the conversation, with Chalamet often deferring to the seasoned actor, noting it was his first press junket. The duo talked about director Luca Guadagnino’s intimate set, the personal transformations that took place during the shoot, and the idea of returning for a second chapter of the Elio Perlman Chronicles.

Luca said when he was casting you guys he didn’t do screen testing or anything. He said a lot of it was based on who you are as people. So, what in the movie is clearly you?

Armie Hammer: I mean, I’ve been told that Oliver really looks a lot like me. All jokes aside, you know, every character that you do as an actor–I don’t want to wax philosophical about acting and sound like that guy–but everything you do has a little bit of you in it by default. It’s you doing it. The goal is to try to shave that down to as little as possible. The better you get at it probably the less of you there can be in it. At this point where I’m at in my career right now, and how much I feel I still have to learn, there’s probably quite a bit of me in there. Whether some of the body language stuff, some of the reactions. But the goal, I guess, would be to completely learn how to shed that.

Timothée Chalamet: I really couldn’t say it better myself. I think the parts of yourself that are appropriate for the character you let bleed in and the parts that are inappropriate you shave off, as Armie put it. I guess for more period-oriented pieces there’s a certain mannerism-learning process or dialect-learning process, but I think it changes from role to role, project to project.

I heard it was a small production, like one camera.

Hammer: We only used one lens the entire time.

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So it was an intimate experience for you. How is it to take that to people across the world, to share that experience with people? Is it tough to express it and are there things you want to keep for yourself?

Hammer: There are things that I’ve learned and that I went through in the sense of personal transformations. There’s stuff that I was lucky enough to go through in this film that I don’t feel the need to share with everybody. But as far as people watching it and watching what happens, I think that so many people are having their own reaction, you know, which is a wonderful part of art and what art can do–changing perspectives, changing people’s minds. So personally I’ve got stuff that I learned, just like anybody who watches might get something personally from it. Like the movie on a whole, there’s nothing about the movie that I feel hesitant or nervous about people watching. I wish everyone could see it, especially with the work that Timmy does and the speech that Michael Stuhlbarg gives.

Chalamet: What’s more destabilizing for me and where I find myself really full of gratitude is that I have someone like Armie to lean on in this experience of showing something you worked on a year and a half ago. To talk about it in abundance now, I haven’t done any sort of press tour or press junket like this before, so that’s been the real learning experience. But I’m really between two MVPS, between Luca and Armie because they are really good at this.

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What was it like working with Michael Stuhlbarg?

Hammer: A gift.

Chalamet: Michael, yeah, it was an absolute gift. You know I went to LaGuardia High School. It’s a theater high school, and I grew up seeing a lot of plays in New York and had seen Michael Stuhlbarg in The Pillowman about eight or nine years ago. I was floored by his performance, so the opportunity to work and the opportunity to learn from him was an absolute gift.

Hammer: You know, I didn’t get to work with him as much as Tim did, which I was really jealous about. But when I did get to work with him, I was just amazed. It was such a delicate and beautiful sense of complete control over his instrument. You didn’t watch a guy struggling to do his job, you watched the man just so perfectly embody this thing that it looked effortless, which you know it’s not, and to just see that and to work with someone who is that talented is amazing.

Now what about working with Luca Guadagnino?

Chalamet: An absolutely dream. You know, I went to Columbia University uptown and they offered Luca professorship which is something I always like to point to and talk to friends about him. Beyond being an incredible filmmaker and auteur, there is a depth of knowledge as cinephile the likes I haven’t talked to before. That is was a tremendous learning experience to be around in the process of making the film and just learning about films in general. I was out there about a month early and we had a couple of screenings in his gorgeous screening room in Crema. We watched Alien and we watched Body Double, we watched Babette’s Feast. My parents give me a hard time about leaving school, so I can point to and say that I was with someone who could’ve been a professor at Columbia. [Laughs.]

Luca said he might do another film or series of films, sort of what Truffaut did with Antoine Doinel. Are you game to keep the story going?

Hammer: Page-wise, there’s a small section of the book that didn’t make it into this movie,  but it’s the span of twenty, thirty years.

Chalamet: I mean, any opportunity to work with Luca again would be incredible. Certainly these characters, Armie and Michael Stuhlbarg, they all have a special place in my heart.

Hammer: It depends on how much they’re paying. [Both laugh.]

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Armie, how do you compare playing Clyde Tolson in J. Edgar and Oliver in this film?

Hammer: They’re in different places and different people, but at the same time they’re both just people, they’re just humans. It doesn’t feel any different to play a character. I mean… it feels different to play every character regardless of where they come from, their background, their orientation, their identification, their whatever. It’s all different and that’s all part of the fun. You get to now put yourself in the perspective of someone totally different from yourself, which is an incredibly enriching and enlightening thing to do. If you think everybody should think like you and everybody does think like you, then anybody who’s different is wrong. But if you’re putting yourself in different perspectives then you realize people are just people. I think that’s a wonderful side of acting. You get a chance to really see from other people’s perspectives.

It doesn’t seem like other directors love their actors the way Luca does. He was telling me he cast you because of your performance in The Lone Ranger. How does it feel to work with a guy who loves you so much a person?

Hammer: It was great, it’s great. I think he loved us as much as we loved him and it was a wonderful part of this experience: the fact that we all got to have, in one way or another, a summer romance with each other.

Chalamet: It’s a tremendous gift. It imbues you with a sense of freedom that isn’t there on every project or even in a school setting sometimes. We were in a Q&A a couple of weeks ago and Luca quoted Quentin Tarantino and said that you must desire your actors. That sense of desire was very palpable on set in a way that only help to trust, because it felt like Luca had real faith and trust in Armie, Michael and I as actors.

Call Me by Your Name is now in limited release and expands in the coming weeks.

‘Twin Peaks’ Producer Sabrina S. Sutherland on Bringing David Lynch’s Monumental Vision to Life

Written by Nick Newman, November 27, 2017 at 1:37 pm 

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Hear the words “Twin Peaks” and a few names immediately come to mind: David Lynch, Mark Frost, Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Cera, etc. Less mentioned is executive producer Sabrina S. Sutherland, a longtime Lynch associate whose presence and input was no less an absolute necessity in the series’ conception, creation, completion, and, now, home-video release. Charting the show’s production — inasmuch as one can get access to what, even after its completion, remains a secretive process — will make clear that, when all’s said and done, she’s perhaps second only to the beloved auteur as an authority.

It was thus my great pleasure to speak with her at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival, where I also managed to see the two-hour premiere and attend an hour-long Q & A with Lynch. (Needless to say, their extended history with the man has paid off splendidly.) I think most interviews, being a chance to learn something first-hand and all, are an opportunity to be selfish, and this takes that to a whole other endpoint: if I wanted to know something about Twin Peaks‘ mysterious creation — while understanding full well that certain things won’t be answered, so don’t bother — I asked the question. What resulted is the following.

The Film Stage: Where was the show this time last year?

Sabrina S. Sutherland: So this is 2017; in 2016, in November, we were in post-production. We finished shooting in April. By this time, David was by himself in editing. Duwayne Dunham left already. He was there for a few months in post, and once everything was assembled and broken-up, David went through by himself. So that’s where we were.

What is your contact with him while he’s by himself?

Well, he’s not “by himself.” He’s working with people and I’m there as well, because I was lucky enough to be able to oversee everything. I suppose I was there, I don’t know… November, he’d be mixing and editing, and we started the color-timing. So he and I would go to color-timing together and he’d be editing with Noriko Miyakawa, his assistant, and some other people and working with Dean Hurley on music. I’d see him every day, we’d talk every day, and he’d show me some things. It’s a nice atmosphere.

Dunham did an interview with photos of the editing suites, with postcards. I’d get a slight panic looking at that, but the impression he gave was one of assurance — yes, it’s a lot, but they organized it neatly.

sabrina-sutherlandYeah. Duwayne is very visual and likes the tactile, old-school way of doing editorial, which is great. David had the entire film in his head, and I can tell you: he knows every single thing — where everything is, how it should be. There are scenes Duwayne didn’t even address; it was just left for David to look through. It’s overwhelming for me. David, I don’t know what’s in his head, but he had everything. So, in production, David with the costume-designing: he would say he wants his kind of outfit — this shirt and skirt and this kind of zipper, low here and cut there. He had a specific angle on it. When he talked to the production designer, he’d say, “Okay, I want a machine. I want it to look like this. I want this kind of bolt that has six sides — not four, not eight, but six.” Very specific about everything. So I don’t know what was going on in his head, but he had everything in his head.

There was a back-and-forth in the news about whether it would be shot on film and digital. I’d like some insight into those conversations, how you all weighed the pros and cons in your decision-making.

Well, to be honest with you, there was never a debate about it being film; it was always going to be digital. I think that was something that fans thought because of, maybe, the original Twin Peaks was film, and we had just finished doing the deleted scenes and David had stated how beautiful it was, how beautiful it looked on film — which is true. It has such a rich feeling, and I think film is a look of its own that is just unmatched, digitally, at this point, although it’s obviously getting better. What we tried to do with this film was make it as film-like as possible — but it’s different, and David is very specific, of course, with the looks.

But there was never a question that it would be shot on film. Obviously budgetarily, because it’s hard to even find film anymore, and the processing… everything about the post part of it is such a challenge. Then, production-wise, the crew, and just the way David wanted to move. David wanted to work quickly. He wanted to shoot stuff. Those cameras are giant, so we wanted to be as small and nimble as possible. We went with the AMIRA, to be as close to a kind of 4K — 3.2k — while having a small camera, but making it as close to film as possible. And, of course, the Mini, which we used pretty much every day with Steadicam.

Were many cameras in contention?

There were camera tests that Peter oversaw, testing all those things, and everything was screened for David and Peter to look at and figure out which one worked the best, and it was definitely unanimous — just to get exactly the quality. Plus, the possibilities in post to be able to work with it. Because sometimes you shoot things and, when it comes to post, you really don’t have that dynamic range to be able to adjust things. As much as we had a great process in production… we had a DIT who worked with us, which is, in television, not usual. FotoKem worked with us. We had nextLAB. I don’t know if you’re familiar.

Explain that a bit.

nextLAB is wonderful. We were able to do the dailies on set. And you can also play with it on set, so you pretty much have your post-color on set with you, if you’d like to play with it. There’s a lot of options you can do, so you have a lot to work with in production; then when you get to post and color-timing, you see what you have and what has been decided on the set. “Here is where we are; here are the settings.” But then, when you’re in post, David would go through and say he wanted a different look, so we would change that. Sometimes it would be set; sometimes it wouldn’t. It just depended. It really worked out, but it was definitely a process.

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There was a story about Showtime concocting some marketing ideas that Lynch shot down, feeling they were too revealing. What we got, preview-wise, was fairly enigmatic. How was the material therein decided upon?

David. David edited those little trailers, the ones that have the kind of black-to-image with the little sounds. That’s David figuring out what he felt was not revealing and something that could go out, and the way he liked to have the mood and tone of Twin Peaks — what is dark and more of an experience and not traditional television. Because it’s not traditional television. Certainly one of the things that we all agreed upon was: we didn’t want to give any information out, because once people know things, they know it. Nowadays, you just brush it off. “What’s next?” And it’s kind of a letdown.

If you look at trailers for films nowadays, I hate them because they give you the whole film. It’s like, what’s the point? I’ve just seen the mini-movie, so I don’t need to go see the movie. But in television you’ll see an actress… for example: if you had seen Diane, Laura Dern, you’d say, “Oh!” And then when you see her in the show, it’s kind of a letdown. It’s, “Oh, I’ve seen that.” So I don’t know that people understand that, but hopefully they appreciated being able to have this revealed to them.

That was definitely my experience with it. I’d watch it at a friend’s apartment, and the current in the air was one of a specific anticipation. Because we just didn’t know — even twelve, thirteen weeks in. So it was appreciated.

Oh, that’s so good. Because it was kind of… at first, for Showtime marketing to wrap their heads around that was difficult because it’s not the usual. They went along with it; they were happy to try and go with it. That was great. Showtime was wonderful to us, and they did a lot of things that they… don’t do. So it was great.

In a Reddit AMA, you said — as you’ve said here — that Lynch had the project down to a sort of science. But I wonder about cases where improvisations and switch-ups, even just down to set-ups on a scene, happen.

David loves to experiment, so there are times where he wanted time to either be able to add things or… not necessarily change things, because he did have an idea of how things would look. So I don’t know necessarily. I think, maybe, Peter Deming might have said, “It’s going to be better to be here because we can’t get the camera in this location to do this, so what if we did this instead.” For David, of course… he always says, “There’s 100 ways to skin a cat.” He will find a different way of doing what he wants that still gets that vision, that message, that tone, but changes. I think, for David, it’s more the experimentation of new things than it is changing what is already in his head as a vision. But adding to it or having something new — like a new scene — and having to change things. And we had to do that several times with, maybe, actors’ availability or location issue. So how do we get around that? He comes up with something new, so it was more like that than, you know, a very specific scene that he had in his head that he would change. Most of those things, that’s what he would want.

Phillip Jeffries’ role is one of the things somebody on the outside could identify — him going from David Bowie to some sort of machine that Lynch insists is not a tea kettle.

It’s not. It’s a machine.

I like that some things will never really be known.

That’s how it should be. There shouldn’t be answers. The way the film — to me, “the film” — ended is, at this point, the final word of that portion. I don’t know if there’s going to be anything in the future that would add to it, but just from this season, I think that’s really kind of an end. And it should be left open. There are unanswered things. Who is this? What does that mean? What is the frog-moth? Who are those people? Those should all be unanswered questions because it’s something left to the viewer to experience and to question, and it loses something if you’re told, “Well, this is what it’s supposed to be.”

It’s like on my AMA, where people were comparing 17 and 18 and insisting that David made it so that they were supposed to be overlapped together, and my response to that was, “Well, no, that wasn’t ever done in the editing room. David didn’t privately, somewhere, put these two together and edit them so that they matched.” But it’s a great coincidence and it’s really interesting that they do work together. So it’s perfectly valid to say, “Wow, let’s watch it like that and maybe that can give me an answer.” It’s not specifically meant or done to do that, but if it happens that way, that’s great. I think people got mad because I said that wasn’t the intent. They’re supposed to be watching 17 and then watch 18, and they got very angry at me that I said that. And I realize… that’s the same to me of saying, “Well, what does this mean?” I don’t want that answered. You don’t want to have answers.

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I was here for the screening on Tuesday, and it was pretty amazing.

Right? On the big screen.

Lynch was fairly open about his, let’s say, ambivalence with how people would experience it. He wanted people to be close to the screen, lights off, headphones on — but, of course, that’s not the easiest configuration. And let’s be honest: even if you’re watching on a good set-up, the video quality just doesn’t match up with a theatrical environment.

No.

What are the last steps of preparing for television? Are you undergoing certain compression processes? Are you reviewing materials on a television set to get a picture?

Yeah. That’s for sure. You do your best, both with the audio and picture, because we also, for the screening, did a DCP, so we did a theatrical color and we did a theatrical audio for the DCP, so you had that rich experience. But because it is compressed — because it is for television — we did it with monitors at FotoKem, and you do it for their… everything’s calibrated, and you do it for that. But when you go to each person’s home, not everybody’s television is calibrate the same, obviously, and not everybody’s going to have the same sound, so you do the best you can to make it the standard. Then, of course once Showtime gets it and other distributors get it, they have a whole other range of broadcast compressions and specs that they have to follow, and it reduces it. That’s unfortunate, but you can only do so much.

So we did it at the quality that we could, and once it gets to the distributor, we had asked that it try to maintain as much as possible. But I think, depending on where and how it’s broadcast, it loses a lot, obviously, because that’s the medium; it’s television. So I really hope, one day, that we can screen the whole thing in theaters as a feature film. Even though I like that, each week, you had a different part to watch, and you could rewatch it and think about it, I think, too, it would be really great to see it as one big thing so that you understand… you can kind of go through the story. It’s 18 hours, so maybe over a few days.

Do DCPs of other episodes exist?

I mean, even if they don’t, we can certainly make DCPs. So I would hope that, eventually, we can do something — but, again, it’s constricted because it was made for television, so there’s all of the regulations, licensing, things like that. It’s all geared for television, not theatrical.

Have there been discussions?

No. I’m still just working on the show and the DVD and all that, so we haven’t talked anything about future — be it a new season or theatrical or anything like that. But, of course, it would be great to do. I’d be 100% behind it.

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Did you first see the show divide into episodes, or was it a more continuous stream?

When it was edited, we knew that we had to put it in parts and we had specific times. So I saw scenes — some scenes. And I love David for this: he wanted me to see it at a point when it got broken up into parts — like, all together. Once it was the first rough-cut show that he felt was good enough for him to then sit and look at what was done. So I waited until that point. What Duwayne and the editors did while we were shooting was assemble everything, and they put it in as, kind of, a film, but you also have certain constraints in terms of time. So they knew — Duwayne knew, the editors knew — upfront that they could be 52 minutes or 58.5, whatever it was. So they already kind of put them in chunks. It wasn’t like a feature film, all strung together; it was already kind of pulled. But, then again, it was the first assembly, and not necessarily in the way it ended up being onscreen. So the first episode maybe didn’t have the same scenes; it was the timing.

When David finished shooting, he came back, sat down, and, that first week, would see, I don’t know, four hours. They were broken up into hours and he’d just watch the hours to see what was there, and worked from there. They worked for a few months, and once they had, they felt, it put together, that’s when Duwayne was done. That’s the first time I saw it. That was, like, around August or September of 2016. And I was so happy that David wanted to see it, so he and I would watch the whole show together. Each night we watched, I don’t know, two or three of the shows, and that’s the first time I saw it. It wasn’t even a rough cut; it was the cuts of the final, where it is. Still rough, but not like the very first. I got to experience that with him, so it was all pre-everything — no effects, no music, the sound wasn’t done. It was pretty much just what the picture might be.

When was the project completed?

In May. Everything was done, again, not like a television show, so it’s not like I could pull one episode and start doing the delivery of part one because everything was done as a group. So everything edited, the effects done, mixing — everything — then doing the color-timing, then doing the delivery. So they were done in big blocks, so I couldn’t even pull out, if it was done mixing, part one and say, “Okay, let’s start doing the color-timing. Let’s deliver it.” We had to wait until everything was done before I could start delivery. So delivery started around then.

Did Lynch watch it as it aired on Showtime?

He did.

I got a good laugh at the start of the series: there’s such a mystery as to who will even show up when, and it goes from the opening title to the casting credit. There’s the sense of holding back until the very last second; and then there’s the now-iconic Kyle MacLachlan credit, followed by everyone else, at each hour’s end. When was this system decided upon?

The very beginning. David wanted that from the beginning. He didn’t want anything revealed; he wants you to experience it. So a lot of times you see somebody’s name and you’re anticipating that person, and he didn’t want that — just like with the trailers. So that was from the very beginning, and that was a change for Showtime because, usually, you have your cast upfront and crew credits at the end. Plus, David didn’t want to have any credits over picture. That’s a common thing as well: if you have actors, you’ll have your series regulars that might be in the titles every week; then, as the new show starts, you’ll have whoever those people are, and those credits will be for the first couple minutes. David didn’t want any credits over the show.

You worked on Lynch and Frost’s greatest creation, On the Air. Frost told me that there are some plans to put it on home video.

No, it hasn’t been discussed; I don’t know if that’s the case. I think it’s wishful. It would be nice, but there are no discussions about it right now.

That about covers it.

I answered everything? Unlike my AMA.

I liked that aspect of it.

It was “ask me anything,” but I’m not going to tell you everything.

Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series arrives on Blu-ray on December 5.

‘Three Billboards’ Cinematographer Ben Davis on Camera Placement, Single Takes, and Authentically Capturing America

Written by Nick Newman, November 16, 2017 at 9:59 am 

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Our rave review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri notes that cinematographer Ben Davis “captures the action and outbursts of violence with assured zip and clarity.” Though true, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Martin McDonagh’s third feature — his second with Davis behind the camera, following 2012’s Seven Psychopaths — is among the most beautiful released this year, photographed with a knowledge of its small-town environment (North Carolina rather than Missouri, but let’s not hold that against the film) that renders seemingly quotidian settings a scarred landscape of pain and anger.

Speaking one-on-one with Davis will make clear that Billboards‘ fine palette is no happy accident, instead being the result of intense consideration for environment, emotion, color, space, and, especially in the case of a show-stopping single take — one that hardly asks for us to stand and applaud, even as we’re wondering how it could be pulled off — movement. Though it may look something like an outlier on his recent filmography (it comes between three recent Marvel movies and Tim Burton’s upcoming Dumbo), one hopes Davis has numerous opportunities to photograph films of this size and shape.

Between this and Seven Psychopaths, you and Martin McDonagh have explored two pretty distinct parts of the United States: Hollywood and North Carolina, in the latter case dressed up as Missouri. I’d like to know about getting acquainted with Three Billboards’ shooting locations, which seem to have been photographed by somebody who knows them rather intimately.

Do you mean me, as a foreigner — an Englishman — shooting in North America? Or just me as a cinematographer.

The latter.

My first thought is that you have to separate the two films. Whereas I would describe Seven Psychopaths as deeply comic, in a way — a dark comedy — I would say that Three Billboards is more a tragedy than it is a comedy; it’s a tragedy with comic elements to it. So I’d say they’re quite different films. As far as locations go: as a cinematographer, I like to acquaint myself with the… I think you need to know your shooting locations quite intimately. Martin found the location, not me; it was a town called Silver in North Carolina. When I read the script, I had a very kind of Paris, Texas flat plain — drier, more arid landscape.

What comes to your mind when you read the script is, “What does the road look like with the three billboards?” You kind of know what small-town America is, but it was the landscape, so I was very surprised when he showed me, because it was a very lush, green environment. You’ve got the Smoky Mountains around; there are no flat plains. So that surprised me. I don’t like to spend time in an office pushing around bits of paper in endless meetings, which can happen in pre-production. I spend my time on the location, so, every day, I would go to the road; I’d go to the town of Silver, which was just around the corner. I’d spend the day there and getting to know the locations intimately — getting to know how they worked, how things are interlinked, what times of day look best. So that’s my process for doing that.

How many of the interiors are sets and how many are locations?

They’re all locations. The only thing I would describe as partly a set is that the police station, the building, exists where it exists opposite the office; it was actually a sort of haberdashery kind of shop, and we converted it into a police station. It’s more dressing — a kind of wall was put in for the little office — but, really, all the locations are locations, and it’s dressing as opposed to build. There are no sets.

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There’s a plurality to the lighting in those interiors. How much of it was working with the available configurations and how much was it introducing your own equipment? I think of the bar, which has a different character in each of its two appearances; then the police station is very flat, dry lighting; etc.

A lot of the lighting in locations kind of spoke for themselves. The bar in particular, we went into and it had those red tones you see; there was some of that, because there was a couple of red neons in one particular area. The rest of it was quite brightly lit, but there was one particular area of it which had this sort of look to it, which was coming from the neon signs on the wall. I kind of looked at that area and said, “I like the way this looks. I might try to push this look into the rest of the bar and give it a feel, and put some color in it.” We did something similar on Seven Psychopaths — there’s a bar scene in there with Christopher Walken. And I liked that. So that was responding to something that was there.

Most of my approach is to respond to what you’re given. On a location film, it’s very hard. It’s not a set, so it’s hard to dictate what’s over there. You’re far better-off embracing the elements of what’s there and then manipulating them into something that’s more “photographic”; that’s generally the approach. I mean, it’s the same approach with exterior work: I don’t try to impose a light direction in exterior work. I won’t come in with great big lights and try to light it; I’ll take the light from where it’s coming and then try to introduce negative space to try, you know, large blacks, and try to shape that light and create contrast in a different way, to embrace what’s there and try to bend it to your will in some way.

Having spent most of my life in small towns, I felt those exteriors showed authenticity. What time of year was this shot in?

A really good question. It was late summer, early fall, I’d say. That’s an interesting thing you say. See, someone said that to me the other day about small-town America, and I read a review that said something about Martin being an “English-Irishman,” if you like, and “how can he understand small-town America?” Because the interesting thing is: I’m a Brit, born in London, and two of the best films I’ve seen set in London are photographed by DPs who are not English.

Sometimes, coming at something from a very neutral background, from a foreign environment, and observing it where you’re able to remove yourself from it, observing it from an emotional distance because you’re not part of that world — sometimes you capture things, you see things, that are unobvious to people who are immersed in that environment every day. So it’s interesting, and I thought about that. I do think that two of the best films I’ve seen about London were shot by people who are not from London.

What are those films?

Eastern Promises would be one in particular, and Dirty Pretty Things. I thought, “Wow, they’re a really interesting take on London, which I haven’t really seen before. But now that they’ve shown it to me, I can see exactly what they’re trying to say.”

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Which brings me to the first question I wrote down while watching the movie: how much say did you have in the size, shape, color, and font of the billboards?

Yeah, that’s an interesting conversation. The size of the billboards were really, I would say, dictated by the location — the road we chose to put them on. I kind of wanted them… they’re also dictated, slightly, by budget, and logistics; we had to build these things. There are several things in the script that had to work: she has to be able to climb up them; she has to be able to put them out when they’re on fire. So, in my head, I thought they’d be bigger than they turned out to be. But if you then break it down and look at the script, they have to be on fire and she has to be able to put them out; she has to be able to climb to the top of one. There are dictates within the script which kind of land the billboards where they ended up being in terms of size, and a lot of it was also about that road and what you see from Mildred’s house. Mildred’s house did, the swing set and her house, actually overlook the road the billboards are on; that was very important to Martin, that that visual link was there.

We picked them out and looked at them, so we had stakes in them; we lined them up from Mildred’s house, from the road. We decided what angle they needed to be. It was a long process of coming to the size. I think I arrived and, initially, made them a bit bigger, because I thought they needed to be more of a statement. And the color and font thing was an odd one because, again, in my head they weren’t red with black writing. There was something very different; I don’t know what they were, but they turned out to be. I remember sitting on the bus with Martin and one day, because Martin and I have a very close relationship, and the art department had sent him a whole range of background colors, fonts. We were looking through it and I remember white ones with black fonts, green ones — there was a whole gambit. I remember, Martin pulled up the red one with white writing and said, “I quite like the red,” and I was like, “Wow.” I said, “Martin, I think that’s a real statement, the red,” and he goes, “Yeah, that’s why I like it.”

We went to red and he started playing with fonts and letter sizes, and he arrived at red with black — which took me by surprise, but it was interesting when we put it out there, because the environment is so green and you have this red. I mean, I love red and green, personally — it’s one of my favorite combinations of color — so I loved it; I thought it was inspired. But that was Martin. Clever guy.

His films tend to be well-photographed and, speaking in a broad sense, well-directed, so I have to wonder how much visual approach is detailed in the script, or if those are mostly textual documents.

No, Martin’s screenplays are very like his stage work: there’s not a lot of visual direction within them; they’re mostly the words laid out. But Martin has all that in his head; he doesn’t include it in the script. Making a film with a playwright director — or someone who comes from a theater background as opposed to a film background — is a very different process because, in theater, the script is sacrosanct. You don’t take Hamlet and change the dialogue because you don’t think your character would say something — which happens a lot in a film. On a film set, I’m quite used to, “I don’t think I should say this. Should we change this line?” You don’t do that with a playwright because the words are sacrosanct, so all the words of Martin are… Frances and Sam obviously had quite a lot to offer in there, but it’s a very different thing. HIs scripts don’t have stage direction particularly.

I generally find shot-reverse conversations incredibly boring. Here, there are worthwhile rhythms: I noticed that the camera focuses less on someone else if she’s not particularly interested in what someone has to say, e.g. Woody Harrelson probably getting the most screentime out of anybody else, and there’s less of Sam Rockwell. How much is dictated by his intuition with dialogue and performance, and how much comes down to visual character — lighting, the actor’s face?

I’ll often work with two camera, so I always think… particularly when dealing with Martin’s work, because we tend to shoot the rehearsal on take one, because sometimes it’s far more interesting to see the other person’s reaction than actually to see the line, and Martin very much plays with that. I remember when we did Seven Psychopaths, there’s one particular scene where they’re around a fire in the desert and Sam Rockwell does his pitch for the end of the movie to Christopher and Colin. He does this pitch, and Martin had seen Sam rehearse this pitch where he does this really bad Irish impression. He said, “Listen, when we shoot this, I don’t want to shoot Sam on the first, because I know what he’s going to do. I want to shoot Colin and Christopher and I just want a camera close on their reactions to Sam doing it.”

So we didn’t rehearse it; we just went straight into it and we had a camera on Christopher and Colin. He used it and it’s priceless, because you can see Christopher trying, desperately, not to break out into laughter, and Colin’s face when Sam does the really bad Irish accent is priceless. You use that, and one little, spontaneous moment can make or break a scene as an audience. You see, as an audience, this visual reaction which is the same as yours, in a way, and this is a thing that happens, emotionally, for an audience where they feel they’re there. I think Martin plays with that a lot, and we played with that a lot on this about the person who’s listening — particularly when it’s Sam. [Laughs]

It’s always worth having Sam on camera. Sam, he says the words that are on the page, but he’ll always do something with that you don’t… he’s really, properly a genius, Sam, and he’ll always do something that you’re not expecting. As a crew, we go into the day, and if it was a scene with Sam — the same applied to Frances as well — my crew, the focus puller and grips, would be excited. You could sell tickets: everyone wanted to watch the first take because you didn’t know what he was going to do.

Do takes get ruined because of laughter?

No, I don’t think we had that. It’s not broad, like slapstick laughter; it’s sort of an inner laugh. As well as Sam’s character being comic, he’s also very tragic, and there’s a sadness to it. But it’s just that thing of watching someone who’s so brilliant and so in-tune with the character they’re trying to portray. It’s watching a master at work — fantastic, a privilege.

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Talking about immediacy brings to mind the long take, where Rockwell goes from his police office to the billboard office across the street, breaks its glass door, goes up the stairs, beats up Caleb Landry Jones’ character, throws him out a window, strikes his assistant, goes down the stairs, finds Jones crawling on the street, then goes back into the police office. Were there invisible cuts?

There’s no invisible cuts in that scene, but I can explain to you how it works, if that helps. When I read it, I said to Martin, “This should be a one-shot scene.”

And there was no indication that it should play this way?

No, no. It just read like one shot. I also felt there’s something that happens when you do… I don’t ever like doing things in one shot just for the sake of it. I think there has to be a damn good reason, and the damn good reason for this is, I didn’t want let the audience off the hook. It’s like, “This is what’s really going on.” As soon as you put a cut in there, you’re allowing people to take a breath, a deep breath, and I don’t want them to take a deep breath: I want them to be shocked, and relentless to the point he goes back inside the police station. So the logistics of that took a bit of working out. We had a great stunt coordinator and Martin and I stuck to our guns: “It’s got to be one. It’s got to be one.”

So you follow Sam up to the first door, which he smashes — which is a real plate-glass window, which we had to replace every time — then you follow him up the stairs. He walks into the office. As he’s walking up the stairs, a truck pulls up outside the window — a big truck full of cardboard boxes for the stuntman to land in — so as he goes into the office and hits Caleb in the face, Caleb’s got a blood thing; there’s a blood thing at the bottom of the gun and, also, in his hands. None of that is visual effects; it’s all in-camera. He drops out of frame, and then Sam smashes the window in the office. So when he drops out of frame, Caleb rolls out of shot, stuntman comes in in his place — because he falls out of the frame, you have Sam smashing the window, and while he’s smashing the window, there’s a switch to a stuntman. So the stuntman, he picks him up and throws him out the window.

While that’s happening, Caleb is rushing down the stairs and being put into position on the road and they’re doing his makeup; there’s makeup artists down there applying more blood. He throws him out the window, stuntman lands in the truck. We pan away from the window and come around to where he hits the girl in the face. As that’s happening, the truck is driving away with the stuntman in the back of it around the corner. Then we come down the stairs and out and there’s Caleb lying on the ground. So it’s quite simple in its strategy, but that’s how we worked it out. It was okay; it wasn’t too big a deal.

I definitely mean it as a compliment when I mention invisible cuts, because I was wrapped up in it and not thinking about the possibility of trucks, stuntmen, etc. And there’s nothing in the film like it.

Yeah. It’s not a one-shot film to be show-offy; it’s a one-shot scene for that, for a necessity. And there’s no great big hoo-hah about it — it just is what it is.

How many takes did it require?

I think we got that on take four, I think it was. I think we did about five, and I think it was three or four. We got it early on, but we rehearsed it. It was easy, in the end. Difficult to work out, but easy to execute.

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A lot of interiors are static shot-reverse exchanges, while much of the exterior sequences have a more floaty visual character. Was this devised at a particular point in pre-production?

I don’t think that was a deliberate… I don’t ever remember discussing that as a strategy. I mean, every single shot and scene was planned beforehand, but I don’t remember that being a particular strategy. There’s also a lot of car work in the film; there are numerous scenes that take place in cars, including the finale. So there were lots of discussions about camera placement, for the car work. When you are in the back of the car and are looking — which is one of my favorite angles: from the rear of it, and not giving away too much — when do you need to be on their faces, which obviously requires a different approach? Technically, you’ve got to tow a vehicle. So there were lots of discussions about where the camera needed to be in the car, and that went throughout the film about camera placement for me. It wasn’t about lighting. A lot of it, for me, was about, “Where do you want the audience to be in this particular scene?”

I remember reading about something Gordon Willis did ages ago, and he said his camera placement would often be about, “If I wanted to observe this scene, where would I sit?” And that’s where I put the camera. A lot of it was about what we want the audience to see. How much of what she’s feeling do we want her to see? Is it here or is it here? So there was a discussion in every scene about where you want to put the audience. I felt the audience in the scene needed to be present, particularly with Mildred. A lot of that was about Mildred. She’s our central character, and I felt the audience needed to take the journey with her; the other characters are sort of satellites around her, in a way, but you need to anchor the film with her. She’s who you hook onto as an audience.

She doesn’t go… I read somewhere, once, that in a script your character needs to change in some way; they need to go through some sort of change. Mildred doesn’t, really. She starts off going to war and finishes the same; it’s Sam’s character who changes, but it’s still her character who’s our central character. She’s the one who you’re trying to read, who you go on the emotional journey with.

How many days did you shoot on this film?

It was 30-40 days, maybe 39.

How does that compare with bigger productions?

They’re very different. I just finished Tim Burton’s film; we did 96 shoot days. So there are massive differences. Having said that, there are differences in days, but also ambition. Generally, you have enough days to shoot what you need to shoot: the schedules and budgets are in place because that’s what you’re trying to achieve. I don’t think they’re any different, big films or small films: you’re always up against the schedule. There’s always the ticking clock that you have to work to. That doesn’t really change. People think, “It must be very different when you’re on these big films.” No, there’s still a schedule: this day, this much has to be shot; this week, you have to achieve this much. It’s just there.

Even a lot of The Avengers is actors in front of a camera.

Yeah. That doesn’t change. My favorite bit, to be honest, on those big effects movies is still the bit where you’ve got two or three really good performers performing a great bit of dialogue, a well-written scene; nothing beats that. I mean, I find shooting great big sequences, special-effects sequences, really dull. I’d rather be confronted with a well-written scene. I mean, that’s the privilege of being a DP, I think; that’s the thing that gives me the most joy, is watching actors do their work. Good actors perform great lines, and a good director then working this scene.

We saw that a lot on Dumbo, which I just finished doing. We had Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, and you’d see this scene on the page — “You know, it’s okay” — then they’d come in and do it, then Tim would push it this way or this way, and you’d see this scene evolve from something that, on the page, seemed okay into something incredible because you had two great actors and a great director just working. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and I get to sit there, quietly, behind my camera and observe. It couldn’t be better, really.

I imagine you’re especially tired at the end of such a shoot.

It’s like a marathon, yeah. But it’s interesting, because my daughter came along and worked on the film for a bit. She’s very young; just worked as a runner. She couldn’t get used to the exhaustion, and what I realized is that people who work in the film industry work in a level of exhaustion, permanently. You’re just exhausted, and you work really stupid. I leave my house at 5, get home at 10 most days. You work at this permanent level of exhaustion and just become accustomed to it, and people who come into it the first time find it really hard because it is really hard.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is now playing.

Read our Camerimage 2017 coverage.

Joachim Trier on Memory, Trauma, and the Fairytale Appeal of ‘Thelma’

Written by Andrew Ward, November 10, 2017 at 2:54 pm 

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In the course a decade, Joachim Trier has liked to set the bar high. With 2006’s Reprise marking the start, each film has proven more ambitious than the last; his latest, Thelma, continues that trend. It eschews Trier’s quietly dramatic, naturalist approach that characterizes previous works — and that came to a head in 2015 with the ambitious, American-made Louder Than Bombs — and instead finds him venturing into uncharted territories with a genre-blending mix of erotic thriller, supernatural horror, and coming-of-age films.

I found it to be among the best of the main-slate offerings at this years’ New York Film Festival — but, as our review can speak to, how much it succeeds might ultimately depend on your temperament. Whatever your stance on it, Trier’s ambition is palpable, and Thelma contains every reason to be excited for the new directions his career will take in the future.

We spoke to Trier about his experience exploring ideas in different genres, working with CGI, and the career-making lead performance from Eili Harboe ahead of the film’s premiere in New York.

The Film Stage: Thelma is an ambitious work, but, because of the way it uses genre, in ways very different from your previous picture, Louder Than Bombs. It’s a supernatural romance, coming-of-age tale that deals heavily in psychoanalytic interpretations of unconscious repression and its oedipal roots in the family structure. It’s quite a bit to juggle, but I think, formally, you handle all of it so well. Can you talk a bit about the differences in your approach with this film, given that it is, in part, a dramatic character study similar to your previous outings, but operates in a variety of genres simultaneously?

Joachim Trier: Thank you! I think you should write that. I think that’s a great summation of the film. You should work in PR — how to convey what I do.

[Laughs]

No, seriously. I think that’s a good… I mean, I think we’re trying to do a lot of different things with it, and to let go, and have that kind of freedom, because we have that sort of genre umbrella over it, to, underneath, play around with. You’re right: it’s a coming-of-age story, it’s about sexual liberation, but it’s also a horror story of losing control and trying to realize what you really are in the sense of the id coming out, and how culture, and ourselves, and our superegos are trying to suppress a lot of that, and what a brave leap of faith it is to become who you need to become to be who you are — and that’s an ongoing process! You know? And it’s a kind of tragic family story as well,  where we’re trying to invert a lot of the happy Norwegian — and I’m sure very similar to America — like that walk in the woods with Dad, or the appreciation of the newborn baby in the family, and we’re kind of making a sinister underbelly, inspired maybe by David Lynch’s approach to Americana. We’re trying to do something similar in Norway.

The unheimlich-ness, or the perversion of these kind of familiar images that you can kind of play around with in cinema to try to see if something comes up, something that’s more real, through the unreal. Or whether the sense of abstraction in genre can actually touch on something that my naturalist previous films couldn’t. But, at the same time, I think some of them — Louder Than Bombs, for example, you mentioned — were also playing around with memories, false memories, interpretations of each other, varying perspectives, fantasy, imagination, dreams. So I’ve always been drawn to the idea of the mental image in cinema as something equally important to the observation of reductive reality, if that makes sense.

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And there are very direct thematic similarities with your previous work. You seem very attuned to characters trying to live in the aftermath of some instance of trauma. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that of all the characters in your films, the stakes are highest for Thelma. She is dealing with the prospect of the dissolution of every structure in her life: her sense of self derived from her family, her sense of self derived from her religion, and then the very primal and existential understanding of herself as a human being. Her bodily response to the trauma in her life seems like a violent reaction to the unconscious forces that are desperately trying to hold her reality intact. Can you speak a bit about how this thematic preoccupation of trauma figures into your work?

Thank you for that perspective on my work. I think you’re right. To start at a different place, I think memory is inherent to cinema, because through movies we have an artistic representation of what we experience in our own lives — that something is recorded or experienced and it can be reproduced, but able to change, and it won’t be the same, and it will keep going. Yes, it’s more locked than a memory, yet our experience of a movie will change through time as we grow older; as we change, our perception of a film will change, like our perception of a memory. So, as a child I was very, very obsessed with the idea of forcefully remembering things. I have a tremendous memory, actually, of my childhood. I’m not saying it braggingly. It’s been damnation at times. Maybe it’s good to forget some things. No, but it’s a good thing to be concerned with memory, because it gives you ideas for movies. You know, movies are about time and space, and little pieces of time that you create narratives out of — little moments. And I love collecting moments. Since I was a kid, I filmed.

So what is a trauma, then? That is a memory that you don’t know how to express, or resolve, or you don’t know how to put it to words, you don’t know how to digest. That is very much, when you use those terms, like to describe art or the sublime, that experience of watching something on the other end of the scale, non-traumatic, the beauty of something, that you don’t know how to tell your friends. Like a painting, or a piece of music, or cinema. You try to put it to words and you don’t know how. It’s a little bit beyond how you know how to speak, you know? And I think in art, we yearn for that.

And so, on one hand I’m concerned with memory and the idea of the past, and how that plays into identity and the idea of the self. And on the other hand, I’m also interested in the concept of that representation in movies. Sorry if I am sounding academic, but I’m genuinely interested. And your questions are so advanced that I have to try to sit up straight now and answer you properly for this. And I think there’s something about the trauma that triggers the ambition of art. To be a different representation of something that we couldn’t achieve in our everyday conversations. Even in a psychoanalytic tradition, trauma is something to be pondered upon time and time again. It’s not something where you can ever quite be conclusive. It’s, as Freud says, to throw light into darkness, is the term he uses. So, you know, yeah: there’s something there that I find existentially very — how do you say — triggering.

So it’s almost that your thematic preoccupations are more directly concerned with memory, and that everyone, in some sense, has a traumatic relationship to memory in some way, shape, or form.

We do. I mean, being human is being traumatized; it’s being affected by breaks in understanding and mishaps. We grow through them, as well. The sense of trauma is very often a locked memory that you’re not able to remove yourself from. And the case with Thelma is very, very specific. It’s even to such an extent that she’s even denying, or not remembering elements of her past. So the audience starts knowing more about Thelma than she does at some points.

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You’ve mentioned that, with Thelma, you wanted to tap into the films that you fell in love with growing up, specifically American horror and Italian giallo. Given that, and given the fact that you’ve made a film in America previously, it’s somewhat surprising that you chose to make this genre-heavy film in your native Norway. But, watching the film, there’s something about the contrast between the religious conservatism of the rural countryside and the more liberal, secular class of the city in your presentation of Norwegian society that creates a subtlety and intensity that really bolsters the supernatural elements. Do you think there is something about Norwegian society, specifically in regards to the minimalist architecture and the societal customs, that lends itself to the type of supernatural film you wanted to make? Was there ever a question of setting the film somewhere other than Norway?

Yeah, it absolutely came up. Some people were saying, “You’re doing a big effects film with 200 CGI shots. It’s damn expensive. Why don’t you do it in America with a star or something?” It just felt like this story was born out of the wish to do a Norwegian version of something that was riffing off some American traditions in a way. You know, with Stephen King and some ’80s synthesizer culture. But, you know, Tangerine Dream, who made all of those soundtracks, they were German. It’s always been a collaborative thing. I think I grew up with a lot of American culture as a part of my identity, so it’s not foreign to me. I feel strangely at home in that kind of genre universe, anyway. I always loved those films.

But is there something specific about Norway…. this is the strange thing: I thought that it was different, but it’s very much the same. America also has a Bible Belt. It also has a tremendous gap between New York and the South, or certain Midwestern parts of culture here in this country. But it’s like a grander, bigger scope of what we have on a smaller scale in Norway. The journey of coming from rural, as you say, a different type of environment or milieu, into the more secularized or liberal city… that’s an American tale as well, isn’t it? You have those stories.

But I think there’s something specific about the Norwegians, our fairytale tradition, of our ambivalent relationship to nature. Norway is all about getting home from work at four o’clock and having a lot of free time to spend with nature and your family. That’s like if you are a healthy, functioning family — you are out skiing every Sunday. That’s like the virtue of the Norwegian, of the great nature that we have. You know? Like, yes, we don’t have Paris. We don’t have the city experience. But we certainly have the mountains. You know? [Laughs] Norwegians are so proud about that.

But there’s also — in the sort of Protestant, bourgeois culture of the 1800s and early 1900s — a sort of skepticism and anxiety about the woods and nature as this strange place where these sort of erotic creatures, very often female, are looming in the woods. Or like the witches, or the…what do you call it? We have this thing called nøkken, which is this gender-ambivalent creature that lives in lakes and would kind of rape or seduce you like a Siren. You know, it’s this old kind of critique and anxiety about about nature out there, but also therefore about the nature within us. So I think we kind of wanted to riff off that and do a more modern, empowering tale of a more feminist nature about identifying with the other, the stigmatized creature, and see if we can be rooting for her. I’m rooting for the freak. The marginalized characters are always the most exciting ones.

I’m curious about your experience working with your special effects team to plan out the look of CGI-assisted scenes. I think the film’s minimalist style is so central to its success and, similar to the way the Norwegian landscape and architecture plays into the the nuances of the coming-of-age tale, I think the same could be said about how the minimalist look of the CGI creates a more nuanced supernatural film than we’ve come to expect from this sort of genre fare in America. And the pared-down visual style, in turn, creates a more resonant coming-of-age tale. How was this experience planning out the CG shots? Can you see yourself employing more CGI in later work?  

Yeah, that was part of the toolbox I wanted to do more with and see if I could create images I hadn’t explored before. You’re always searching creatively, of course, to try do new things. That was fun. But trying to do something physically specific, tactile… I grew up loving Terrence Malick and Tarkovsky, and I didn’t want to do the effects work that was too stylized. I wanted it to look sort of physical. You know, the texturing: working with ice and fire and glass and animals — that’s really hard to make real. So that was fun. We had a great team, headed from Copenhagen. But we used nine different post-production houses in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark to try to get it all done properly. So that was a good experience.

But I’m interested in the Scandinavian element you are talking about. There’s something sparse and minimalist… you’re right, in the architecture we are using as opposed to the previous two films where the architecture was more baroque, beautiful, ornamental, west side of Oslo that is more elegant and posh. Here we are using the sort of seventies minimal, yet brutalistic, almost Ballardian landscapes of the east Oslo and the University of Oslo, which has these kind of ’70s paranoid, big spaces that creates this sort of mood and a vibe of almost agrophobia… is that what you call it, an anxiety of space?

Agoraphobia.

Right. That was just like… a place inspires a movie, you know? We wrote it for some specific locations, and that was fun.

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There’s a particular scene that blew me away in regards to Eili Harboe’s performance. Without giving too much away, I’m referring to where she decides to call her father and confess over the phone. I think the subtleties in her performance conveys the maturity and sensitivity of an actor twice her age and experience. It’s such a deeply personal moment, and with the amount of vulnerability and restrain she puts on the screen, it was hard to imagine that this private moment was captured in front of a camera and a crew. Can you speak about this part in particular, and what it was like directing the performance?

Oh, thank you very much for bringing up that scene. That was the irony, I was asked by someone earlier today, “What’s your big surprise about the film, or what was the best scene to do?” And the irony is that, with this film, we have a bigger budget, we’re doing 200 CGI shots, I have the whole Oslo opera filled with extras, but one of my favorite moments of this film was discovering that I had four angles for a scene cutting between a father and a daughter, and a full shot, and a close-up of her, and just sitting on set and looking at her close-up and thinking, “I’m not going to use anything else but this.” And coming to the edit, and my wonderful friend, the editor, Olivier [Bugge Coutté], seeing that and being like, “Damn, let’s just let it roll. This is great.”

She is, as you say, a wonderful performer, and… it’s just great. Films should be dynamic.  I don’t abide by the rules that film should be consistent. It should be changing throughout. That’s more interesting. As long as you are consistent with your themes and your character’s’ arc — of psychology, and presence, and identification, and all that — your style can change. It was wonderful to just, halfway through the film, stay with this long performance piece in a close-up. I’m a fan of Bergman, you know. He would just stay with his actors sometimes and say, “Fuck it, let’s just stay in a close-up for five minutes.” And that’s all because of Eili. That’s nothing to do with me. She played the hell out of the scene. And, of course, I want to show the audience the best material, and that was it.

How was it finding her during the casting?

I was just meeting hundreds of young actors and finally she showed up, and it was quite obvious, very quickly, that she was just incredibly talented. And she also spoke that dialect of the west coast, which was just fortunate for us. So that we could have that part of Norwegian culture represented and believable. And her parents are wonderful actors as well, and they all speak that west coast dialect. In Norway, you won’t notice that with the subtitles, but it’s quite remarkably different than where I come from in Oslo that has an entirely different dialect. Eili is wonderful. I think she’s going to be a star. She’s being noticed by Hollywood now, even. And some people are really giving her attention.

It’s my favorite performance of 2017 so far.

You think so? Oh, wow. Please write that!

At this point in your career, you’ve now made a film in America, and a film in a genre that is historically well-loved by American audiences. I never would have thought it after watching your earliest work, but it seems like you now have all the tools under your belt to be directing a genre-heavy Hollywood film in a few years time. Do you have any aspirations to work more in America and within a Hollywood context?

I mean, I’ve had final cut for my films. If someone will give me the trust that I can work really creatively and free, sure. But I don’t know if that exists anymore. You know, that space of really personal filmmaking. I’m very impressed with Denis Villeneuve. I mean how he’s been able to progress in his career, and doing very, very specific films that are very beautiful and very ambitious on big budgets. And [Christopher] Nolan is obviously very impressive as well. But it seems like that journey is very particular to both of those filmmakers. I’m able to finance films and have final cut on an okay budget, and I can even, perhaps, do an English-language film again. So I don’t know if that has to be a studio film. But there many ways of financing, and I’m open to that. I want to do different types of movies. So I’m going to be optimistic about the future.

Thelma is now in limited release and will expand in the coming weeks.

Martin McDonagh on Spontaneity, Humanity, and Why ‘Three Billboards’ Needed Frances McDormand

Written by Daniel Schindel, November 9, 2017 at 6:08 pm 

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Irish-British writer/director Martin McDonagh has gained cult followings both in the theater world, for plays like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan, and among cinephiles, thanks to the Academy-Award-winning short Six Shooter and In Bruges. His work on both stage and screen stands out for its grounded approach to absurd situations, as well as his nuanced treatment of deeply flawed characters.

McDonagh’s newest film is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, featuring Frances McDormand as a woman who goes to war against her small town’s police department over her daughter’s unsolved murder. We sat down with him to speak about the film and his idiosyncratic writing process.

The Film Stage: Your scripts don’t follow the usual conventions of Save the Cat screenwriting. Do you follow a story as it goes along? Do you plan certain things out beforehand?

Martin McDonagh: No. Particularly with this one, nothing was planned beforehand. Mildred’s character kind of popped up, and the idea of her putting up this outrageous message was all I had. But that was enough. I just sent her spinning, and then set up the police on the other side. And everything grew organically from that. I think that’s why it’s surprising from scene to scene. Like, I didn’t know what was gonna happen next, and I think the audiences hopefully don’t too. But that’s been true of all my work. I never plot a film out beforehand like Robert McKee says you should.

Once you’ve found the conclusion to a story, how much do you go back and it around to make things fit?

I don’t know what the ending is until I’m maybe 20 pages away from it. Usually things have hopefully started falling into place as you approach the middle, enough to know that you’re heading toward the end. But I’m always happiest not knowing how it’s gonna conclude. And I think this film, more than any of [my others], shows that. It could kind of go any way, this one. And there are red herrings along the way as to how it could end.

But even the big thing that happens in the middle of the film with Woody [Harrelson]’s character, I didn’t know that was gonna happen until like a scene or two beforehand. And that changes it up completely, what the second half of the movie could be.

You said this started with Mildred’s character. Do you use other ideas you have for characters? Or do the characters naturally arise as you write?

With this, I knew that anyone who put up a series of stunts like she does, with that kind of message, you knew what characteristics she’d have instantly. She had to be brave and angry, but someone who just didn’t give a shit anymore about saving herself. The drive of a character like that all sprang from that image, almost. So that was very organic this time around.

In Bruges, that happened organically too. I knew it had to be two guys who were in a place, and one of them didn’t want to be there and one did. The reason for it fell into place pretty quickly too. But again, plot-wise, that’s all that happens for a long time – just two people talking about a town.

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You give a lot of characters, even incidental ones, hints of greater interiority and things happening for them outside of the story.

For me as a writer, there are no secondary characters. Everyone could be like us in real life. We’re the lead character in our film, but everyone else doesn’t realize that. You know what I mean? So I think of Peter Dinklage’s character in this, or John Hawkes. When they go offstage, they could have a very interesting film of their own. You’ve only got them both for two scenes in this. You have to show that, they have to be fully formed and as interesting. The trick is to try and make your secondary characters as interesting or more interesting than your lead. And the opposition of that usually can help propel the plot, too.

Your most recent two films have been set in America. Do you find there’s any major difference between writing American and European characters?

I don’t think so. I don’t feel that way. If I’m writing an American script, I have very strong American voices in my head. Which I hope is as much or more about having traveled around America and listened to people in small towns and big towns, and having a love of all of those things, rather than a love of movies, of American movies, you know. Because you can fall into that habit if you’re just copying notes.

But right now, I’m equally happy writing Irish characters as American characters. It took me a while to write British characters. I only had my first play that had English characters a year and a half ago; I’ve always kind of avoided that a bit. But that felt good. But no, I feel the ease, because I’ve spent so much time over here over the last 20 years, I kinda feel the ease of the American idiom.

Why did you set Three Billboards in the Midwest, specifically?

Well, I knew it had to be one of the old Southern states, one of the old 13, just because of the racial tensions that were the backdrop to the story. Also there had to be a rural, lonely road, that was the image of where the billboards needed to be. I knew it couldn’t be too far on the East Coast or even West Coast. But I also liked the idea of it being a place where films aren’t usually set, your nontypical small town. It was important to find a kind of iconic and beautiful small town, too.

Missouri, I quite honestly just picked it because it had three syllables, and it scanned well. But it’s interesting that in the last few years – it was written eight years ago, the script – in the last few years, all those racial aspects almost made us wonder ‘Should we keep it there?’ ‘Is it gonna be saying too much about Missouri as a specific place, when it could’ve been any of those Midwest states?’ But we sort of decided that that was the original plan, so we shouldn’t be scared of tapping into those issues.

*** Local Caption *** Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, , Martin McDonagh, USA/GB, 2017, V'17, Spielfilme

What’s it like to see these issues come to the fore of cultural discourse right as this long-gestating project comes to fruition?

I’m still waiting to see how that plays out. But I do like how the film, as much as it starts off as being about rage and anger, is more about hope and change. I like that we’re putting a film out at this time in America and in the world that is about those things. It’s not just about showing a warts-and-all picture of America. It’s kind of trying to get beyond that and see the people behind it.

Yeah, so it’s gonna be interesting to see … Is it gonna be kind of zeitgeisty? Is there gonna be any kind of controversy about it? It’s been pretty good so far. People have seemed to see the hope and the humanity in it.

I think that they also find a lot of vicarious catharsis in watching a character who gets to act out in ways that a lot of people wish they could.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, Frances, you just latch onto her and hold on tight. There’s a joy in following her, and not knowing what she’s gonna do next. More than any of my other films, I can watch this over and over again because of her.

The script was written for her. It was written for Sam [Rockwell] as well. But if Frances had said no… the picture of Mildred in my head was so wrapped in her and in what I knew she could do, that we’d have been kind of screwed. I wouldn’t have known where to go as a second choice. There was no second choice. Because I knew she had all the integrity that you would need to believe Mildred, and she couldn’t have the baggage of your typical Hollywood actor. But because she’s a working-class character – and that’s both of our backgrounds – we didn’t want to be sentimental or patronizing. And there aren’t a lot of actors who could do that.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens in limited release on Friday, November 10 and will expand in the coming weeks.

‘God’s Own Country’ Director and Stars on Making a Romance for the Ages

Written by Jose Solís, November 8, 2017 at 3:39 pm 

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Judging from the precision of the characters and the seamless storytelling at hand, it’s incredible to believe that God’s Own Country is director Francis Lee’s debut feature. His story of brooding farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) and Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), the Romanian worker he falls in love with, have all the makings of a legendary romance, something the Brontë’s would’ve written in less oppressive times. Set in misty Yorkshire, the film chronicles the tender romance as Johnny, who has no problem conquering men and women, meets his match in the soft spoken but confident Gheorghe. O’Connor and Secareanu light up the screen together turning short glances and shy smiles into sweeping moments that make this a romance for the ages.

Lee’s film is made even richer by the geographical and societal context he gives it, this isn’t a film about whether the love between two men can grow in the country, but whether any kind of love can blossom when the people’s livings are at risk. The farm work in the film isn’t romanticized, but rather shown in all its beautifully brutal, often messy, glory. If the film doesn’t reach Bresson or Malick-ian levels of communing with nature, it’s because Lee is often more fascinated by how the space affects his characters. Filled with rich performances (Gemma Jones and Ian Hart are exquisite as Johnny’s grandmother and father respectively) and some of the most breathtaking romantic scenes in any film this decade, God’s Own Country is a beautiful, much needed, reminder that we must learn to find hope in the mundane.

I sat down to speak to Lee, O’Connor and Secareanu about working together, their favorite romance films, and how they developed the chemistry that makes the film so compelling.

The film is obviously a story about Johnny discovering tenderness, but because of the setting and the sparse dialogue it made me think I was also watching a history of tenderness, and how people first discovered affection. Would you say tenderness comes from nature or nurture?

Francis Lee: I think it comes from nature.

Josh O’Connor: That’s really interesting because I hadn’t thought about that but now you’re saying it what I quite like is that through Gheorghe’s nurture, Johnny learns to love nature and his environment and family. By the end of the film Johnny’s beginning to have a new perspective of the farm. In the film we see him look up for the first time and see the world through Gheorghe’s eyes, so in some ways the nurture brings the nature.

Francis Lee: That’s brilliant. You’re right.

Alec Secareanu: I think you need to discover tenderness by yourself. We all have our own approach.

Francis Lee: And whether you want to allow it into your life or not.

Who would you say you learned it from?

Josh O’Connor: I think it can come from low key sources. Johnny’s situation at the beginning of the film is he hasn’t learned it, so in this narrative Gheorghe comes and teaches or re-teaches him, reminds him how to engage emotionally.

Francis, you made the actors take some “chemistry tests.” How did you know when you’d found what you needed?

Francis Lee: I cast Josh first in the UK. I’d been to Bucharest in Romania and had a shortlist of three actors I liked. Alec was always my favorite but I knew this film would live or die based on the relationship, so it was important to see if the two guys would get on. I flew three guys from Romania to London and with each of them and Josh, I spent a couple of hours in a room and we did some scenes. I would take Josh on his own, give him direction and then see how the other guy would react. We played, really. You want bits of tension, a counterpoint. You want the actors to push each other, but also to accept, listen, and be open with each other. Josh and Alec did that in the room brilliantly. I was aware that actors are very clever and conditioned to want to get jobs, so of course they’re not going to look like a pain in the ass with me there. I sent them for a cup of tea, hid around the corner and watched them, how they interacted. You know what people are like when they don’t know each other–they have tea but spend the time on their phones–but these guys weren’t. They were talking, laughing, listening, it felt very right.

Did you expect the role of a director to be similar to that of a matchmaker?

Francis Lee: I mean, yes. What you’re doing is bringing a whole bunch of people together, not just actors but crew. You don’t only need them to be great at their job, but you want people you can bring on your journey, people open to working how you want to work. You need their skills, but also need to make sure you can all work together.

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You gave Josh and Alec entire histories of their characters. Did the actors come up with any secrets they wouldn’t share with you?

Francis Lee: No, the rules were these: we developed the characters together, I’d give them questions or tasks, we’d talk about their thoughts and so on and so forth. We built the characters and they have secrets from each other but I have to know everything. If something comes up I can make suggestions during specific scenes, which I wouldn’t be able to if they didn’t give me that information.

You’ve spoken about how every single sound in the film was scripted, which made me think the screenplay probably looked like a novel. Were you ever interested in doing a book?

Francis Lee: No. First of all I don’t like reading books. I don’t get any pleasure from reading. The script I see as a blueprint. It’s not the finished thing but part of the process. It’s not in a sense work of art in itself. I see the world visually so I always play out everything in pictures, not words.

I’m an immigrant so I appreciated the story you were telling through Gheorghe about how not all immigrants leave their countries because they want to, but because they need to. For you Alec, was it refreshing to read a screenplay that acknowledged that?

Alec Secareanu: The first time I read the script I really liked the fact my character is a Romanian, because there is a debate in the U.K. about the Romanians. Preparing for the character I spoke to a lot of Romanians who left the country to work and be able to support their families back home. They went through things like xenophobic employers, ten or twelve people living in the same room with beds one over the other, there were a lot of things I found out working on this part about my people. Just in the last 15 years over 3 million Romanians have left the country. It’s really sad because a lot of people are leaving because they can’t find work. It’s tragic.

This is random, but I’m from Honduras and I believe Romanian movies are the best when it comes to capturing the spirit of my home country, even if we’re divided by language and a whole ocean.

Alec Secareanu: We’re both Latin people. This is why we have a lot of similarities in our cultures.

Obviously you don’t get to decide when the film comes out and you’ve spoken about how by the time the film was released Brexit had turned it into a period film. As a gay man and an immigrant I love the idea that stories should be universal and all that, but because of the rise of xenophobia in the world it’s also true that we need our stories to be specific. How do you navigate between those two concepts?

Francis Lee: That’s really interesting. I never felt it was my job to critique the film or to place it in a canon or a political sense. I worked from a very personal point of view and that’s kind of it, really. There was never a moment I thought something wouldn’t fit in the film because it wouldn’t “cross over” or play in certain multiplexes. My approach was truthful and authenticity for the characters. It’s been super interesting to see what’s happened. In the U.K. the film is still in the cinemas. It’s made significant money. It’s one of the biggest independent British films. It’s extraordinary and I think if I had been second guessing myself about what would work for certain people, the film would’ve lacked truth.

Since the love scenes were choreographed did the actors have any ballet or dancing background? Or were you guys nervous about memorizing moves?

Francis Lee: No, they were very rudimentary steps.

No pirouettes?

Francis Lee: As a director I don’t like making my actors rehearse, I want to keep everything for the camera. In this sense we knew what they would do in terms of the explosion and how it would develop, but the moves were more mechanical. [Alec does the moves.]

I think we’re all suckers for love stories, so what are some of yours?

Francis Lee: Yeeees. Can I go? [Looks at both actors who nod.] I love love stories. For me the references for this film were An Officer and a Gentleman, Working Girl and Pretty Woman. I love 80s romance films, but I can go on. The Bridges of Madison County. My God, I love that movie.

Josh O’Connor: I really love Love, Actually, Blue is the Warmest Color, Blue Valentine. Notting Hill is also something I completely love. They’re all sweeping love stories that are kind of escapist and celebrate love.

Alec Secareanu: I can only think of French movies, I love Blue is the Warmest Color and Jeux d’enfants.

Francis Lee: The best one has got to be Now, Voyager though.

When Paul Henreid lights both cigarettes at the same time I always swoon.

Francis Lee: I was talking to Josh about that scene and how it was code for sex since they couldn’t show it, so they had them smoke. Virgins in films of that period didn’t smoke, so if you had a cigarette it meant you’d had sex. In Voyager Bette Davis’ cigarette box is discovered in her room and she’s embarrassed because it means she’s had sex! [Laughs.]

Did you give the actors assignments in terms of things to watch? Since there is no Francis Lee canon yet, how do you build your library of references?

Francis Lee: DVDs. It’s old fashioned where I live cause there’s no internet, so occasionally I’d give them films to watch to give them a sense of territory and what I hoped to achieve.

Josh O’Connor: Some of the films you gave us were for different reasons, maybe one scene had lighting he loved, but there was not one film that was “it.” They were all little moments from different films.

Josh, I watched a few episodes of The Durrells and I couldn’t believe it was the same actor cause you’re so bright eyed and lovely there and so broody in this film. Were fans of the show surprised?

Josh O’Connor: I guess?

Francis Lee: I was so shocked when I met him. I couldn’t meet him at first and he sent a tape with some scenes. He looked so emotionally repressed and difficult, and I met him and was so surprised. He’s such a transformative actor. I’ve never seen The Durrells though.

Josh O’Connor: It’s a totally different world, format, and genre. One of the most exciting things about my job is throwing myself into different ways of working. If someone’s a big fan of the show and they see this film it’s nice. It means I did my job well.

Francis Lee: How do you think people would react if they see this first and then go to The Durrells? Would they be disappointed?

Josh O’Connor: If they went to The Durrells to find Johnny they’d be deeply disappointed.

You’ve mentioned also that you were afraid to make action movies in case people didn’t think you were buff enough, but after all that farm work in God’s Own Country you probably feel more capable, right?

Josh O’Connor: No, I’m sure I could.

Francis Lee: There are skinny superheroes, Spider-Man is wiry isn’t he?

Josh O’Connor: I did an interview and they were the ones who asked if I felt I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t buff enough.

Having lived the farm life while shooting the film what do you think is the most overlooked aspect of life in the country?

Francis Lee: Mental illness, the loneliness, the poverty. Agriculture in the UK has one of the highest suicide rates of any profession. You’re lonely, isolated, you never get a break and there’s not a lot of money.

Alec Secareanu: You need strength to survive in a farm.

Francis Lee: The farm in the film doesn’t exist anymore for instance.

I was fascinated by how the film addresses the fact that people in the country aren’t all ignorant homophobes. You’re defying liberal narrow mindedness to show that all political sides sometimes fall into prejudice.

Francis Lee: That’s been so interesting. It doesn’t come up often, but people ask me how realistic a same sex relationship can be in a homophobic rural society? Homophobic hasn’t been my experience at all. In fact it’s been the opposite, which makes me think twice about the middle class, liberal dweller who doesn’t see beyond their world. I don’t want to be political about this, but if you see the political climate in the U.S. and the U.K. there’s a sense that these ideas are closed off. I stand by the fact that this story and this relationship are a truthful depiction in a very specific geographical location.

Josh, you know how to draw and I wondered if you came back with any sketches from the country. As for you, Francis and Alec, did you pick up any new skills in the country that you use in your daily life?

Josh O’Connor: I actually didn’t do any drawing. I go through stages of doing the fine art stuff. They come in really weird times, more often than not the times when I’m more fruitful in my drawing is when I’m least creatively challenged in my acting life.

Francis Lee: You drew a bit before though.

Josh O’Connor: But mostly to inform. In terms of my personal ventures in art that was on the sideline because I was consumed by our film.

Alec Secareanu: I’m now more interested in the quality of life of animals in farms. Gheorghe really concentrates on that. He wants to give animals a good life, regardless of whether they die later or not. This stayed with me a lot, because I worked with so many animals for the first time in my life.

Francis Lee: I came up with a deep sense of pride and love for these two guys, and an incredible friendship.

Josh O’Connor: The process of making this film and Johnny’s experience taught me a lot about previous relationships I’ve had. Trying to empathize with Johnny indirectly gave me closure on previous relationships and some Johnny’s I’d experienced. It was a nice way of going “OK, that’s how they roll.”

God’s Own Country is now in theaters.