Latest Features

‘Custody’ Director Xavier Legrand on Keeping the Spectator in Suspense and the Machinations of Domestic Abuse

Written by Jared Mobarak, July 10, 2018 at 8:01 am 

It’s always a treat to see a director whose work you’ve enjoyed in short form make the leap to features—especially when the latter debuts at a venue as auspicious as the Toronto International Film Festival. This is exactly what happened with Xavier Legrand last year. Less than half a decade after earning his first Oscar nomination for the wonderful Just Before Losing Everything, he decided to revisit those same characters in the direct aftermath of its dramatically tense events.

The result is Custody, a brilliant look at the emotional and psychological trauma inherent to domestic abuse. With unforgettable performances and a precise visual style to ratchet up the suspense at every turn, Legrand shows himself as an artist worth remembering. Kino Lorber thought the same, scooping up U.S. distribution rights a month after its Toronto debut. As the film continues to expand, I was lucky enough to speak with the director about his process via email.


The Film Stage: What was the genesis of Custody? Was this portion of the Besson family’s story always planned with Just Before Losing Everything serving as a proof of concept or was the short’s international success a motivator for expanding that claustrophobic world into a new chapter?

Xavier Legrand: Originally, my project was to make a trilogy: three short films that told three different moments of a couple’s separation. Just Before Losing Everything was the first episode of this trilogy. Once I finished it and it was [time to create] the other two episodes, I realized that the second and third parts would be more interesting together. I needed more time to talk about the divorce and custody issues and the consequences of the family court decision. That’s why I decided to make a feature film instead of two short films to finish this project. It was not the success of the short film that motivated this change since it was during the editing of Just Before Losing Everything that I started writing Custody.

What was your writing process like as far as paring everything down to such potently spare moments overflowing with content and context? The opening discussion with the judge sets up the drama and domestic abuse for those who hadn’t seen Just Before Losing Everything, but everything is built upon pure dread afterwards. You never talk down to your audience, though, always packing so much information into your scenes so our own instincts and emotions can fill in the blanks.

To keep a spectator in suspense, I have to make him work, doubt, interpret, and sometimes lead him to make mistakes. Starting with the scene in the Judge’s office, the film allows the spectator to be put in a dilemma and measure the importance of what is at stake: the custody of the child. From the beginning the objective of the film is to show what you see but don’t want to see. For that it’s not necessary to make a moralizing film, but rather something more organic. I thus privileged the feelings and the emotions rather than the theory.

Could you speak about the topic of domestic abuse and your portrayal of its horror more through the complexity of its psychological consequences rather than the physicality that brought them to this point? There’s something so powerful in knowing what happened and what will potentially happen through the silent body language and demeanor shared between abuser and victim.

It’s difficult to answer your question in a few sentences; there is no universal theory on how to portray abuse because each individual and each couple has their own way of functioning.

Before violence there is often a vicious and invisible cycle of psychological control. This control is possible because society has previously built gender roles so that they correspond to certain categories (sorry to state the obvious, but this is how our society is still established): the man is the head of the family, he works and brings the money home to feed his family, while the mother takes care of the children and home, etc. The roles are distributed in this way and everyone is conditioned to accept their role. Under this guise—of education, love, or exclusivity—violence can operate freely in private, behind doors and out of sight.

A recent study found that the post-traumatic consequences of domestic violence on victims, or children who witnessed this violence, were as powerful as a war veteran. That is why fear—tremors, haggard eyes, tension, or breathing—were a source of work with the actors, rather than focusing on the words. Léa Drucker had to see Denis Ménochet’s body as a body she once desired, which gave her the life of the children she carried, but also as a body that could cause her own death.

Just like in your short, Custody is a brilliant example of sensory economy. It’s easy to forget there’s no score playing because the imagery is so emotionally intense. I remember my TIFF press screening ending with everyone holding his/her breath—that elongated pause of black and the silence that followed was deafening. What motivated you to forgo using a score?

It is by listening to the testimonies of some women who have experienced this kind of family and situation that the concept for the film came. They described to me their daily life, which was always one of fear, anxiety, and constant threat. They were on the lookout for the slightest noise, the slightest clue that could help them anticipate danger. One of them told me that one evening, when she was home and her husband came back from work, she could tell from the way he turned the key in the front door whether she was going to be beaten or not. That story was chilling. I understood that the film had to reflect this permanent anxiety: a kind of sound terrorism that is much more important and affecting than any music.

Nathalie Durand’s cinematography becomes a character with many moments spied from under bathroom stalls or through open doors. The party scene’s interiors are almost dialogue-free with “Proud Mary” blaring, but the camera never misses a beat due to our always knowing whose vantage we’re using to gauge worry, fear, and frustration. Did you storyboard? Was everything scripted this way or did you find yourself removing dialogue for visual cues while filming?

The film was entirely storyboarded. Moreover: I had such a precise conception of the places in which I wanted to film the scenes that I looked for the sets that corresponded to the way I envisioned rather than finding the sets that I liked before adapting the technical cutting to them.

For the birthday party scene everything was written like it was shown. I knew I didn’t want dialogue. It’s the only time there’s music in the film, so I wanted to give it its full place. And realistically, at a birthday celebration for a teenage girl and all her friends, the music is so loud that you can’t hear yourself talk. When I wrote it, the scene described precisely all the actions, the looks, the exchanges, and the comings and goings of the characters as seen in the film.

Where did you find young Thomas Gioria? So often you see children in horror films “acting” scared, but he never has a false moment within your heightened drama. His lack of eye contact, constantly calculating how to best protect his mother, and possessing an underlying sense of courage impeccably augments his fear.

Thomas was spotted by a casting director who auditioned him. Then I met him and we worked at length in preparation for the shooting. From casting to shooting, Amour Rawyler—who specializes in coaching for children—prepared him to approach the work we were going to do on the set. She did an extraordinary job with him.

I also met him several times prior to shooting to deepen our relationship and get used to working with each other. His performance in the film was very difficult since his character goes through extreme situations. It was very important for me that he understood what the truth of an actor’s work was and that he was able to differentiate reality from fiction.

Thomas is not only talented, but he has a quality very rare for his age, which is key to the best actors, including adults: his ability to listen and breathe. Thomas speaks with his eyes and dialogue is deepened with the intensity of his breathing. Our work with the coach was to highlight these qualities while preserving his spontaneity, which is so precious for a young actor.

Drucker and Ménochet (who many here in America will recognize from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) reprise their roles of Miriam and Antoine from the short. How did their initial casting come about? Was it easy to get them onboard for this sequel?

Léa and Denis both accepted the roles without hesitation—both for the short film and for the feature film. I really wanted to offer these two absolutely splendid actors these roles to champion their talent. We are not used to seeing them as these kinds of characters or in this kind of film. I think that’s what attracted them to the project.

Any new projects on the horizon you could tease?

I’m sorry to disappoint you but: yes, I have several projects in progress, but I prefer to keep them secret!

Custody is currently in limited release in New York City with a Los Angeles opening date of Friday, July 13.

Mark Cousins on Orson Welles’ Trumpian Characters, the Era-Defining Films of this Decade, and Ozu’s Sexuality

Written by Rory O'Connor, July 7, 2018 at 12:32 pm 

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What can we tell about an artist from the places they’ve been, the films they’ve made or the sketches they’ve drawn? And what if that person happens to be Orson Welles? Such is the basis for The Eyes of Orson Welles, the latest time-hopping feature-length video essay from film historian and critic Mark Cousins. Similar to his previous work in many ways, Cousins imagines a correspondence between himself and Welles as he goes through a treasure trove of seldom seen sketchbooks that the larger than life movie trailblazer left behind.

The Eyes of Orson Welles premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim. It screened last week at the Karlovy Vary festival in the Czech Republic where Cousins was also sitting on the Grand Jury. We caught him in sprightly form in the jury conference room at KVIFF, to talk Charles Foster Trump, Agnès Varda, and what an update to The Story of Film (his epic, singular 15-hour film history of the artform) might look like.

I was at the premiere of Vulkan the other day and during the introduction the producer said that they wanted to premiere at Karlovy Vary because it’s an “A festival” that also has a human quality to it. I think I agree with that.

Well, I’m on the jury here and I also have a film here and over the past they’ve shown my films here. I think this is might be my fifth Karlovy Vary and I really like it. It’s just right what the producer said. Also because of where it is in the world, you know, it’s further east then a lot of the big European festivals and it’s got more of an Eastern perspective on things, which is really valuable as well. Things like the retrospective here, The Baltic Poetic Documentaries–who else would do that? No other festival would do that and I think often a festival’s identity is given by its retrospectives.

Your film here is The Eyes of Orson Welles. How would you describe its style to someone unfamiliar with your work?

I used to make a very observational style of documentary; you know, a sort of classic BBC style, and then I got into a more essay style. I saw the films of Agnès Varda and Chris Marker so I decided to make films which are kind of documentaries but with a poetic use of language. You know, with no interviews. I shoot silent, for example. No sound is recorded on location. To try and make a documentary style of cinema that isn’t reportage, isn’t journalism, is more in the poetic side.

The film imagines a correspondence between you and Welles. It’s not the first time you’ve used this device, although perhaps never on quite such a scale.

Yeah, I’ve done it quite a lot. You know, I’ve always been slightly resistant of the kind of expert–usually white male–worldview. You know, He did this, he did that. I always preferred you did this, you did that because it’s more intimate. It’s less claiming to be objective; it lets you get closer to the subject. And when you talk to a person, it changes how you write. It allows room for little sly jokes, I think, or emotion.

Humility as well I think.

I think so. It’s that kind of 19th-century novel approach to the word, the god’s eye view. And the Orson Welles film is definitely not a god’s eye view. And I like that. Also, there’s been so much said about Welles, and you need to find a new voice if possible and I like that kind of intimate voice.

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Mark Cousins at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

The biggest laugh the film got at the premiere in Cannes was when you informed Welles that Charles Foster Kane is now in the White House. What do you feel are the comparisons between the two?

[Laughs.] Well, you know… I was trying to make a sort of film that was Welles for the era of Trump. Boy, do we need Orson Welles to make a Trump film! You know, Donald Trump admires Citizen Kane. He thinks that Charles Foster Kane’s a great guy. And he once said that he admires Orson Welles because he has great taste in “skirt”–meaning Rita Hayworth, I think, or Dolores del Río.

And if you think of these big figures that Orson Welles made films about: Mr. Arkadin, Charles Foster Kane, even Macbeth in a way, they’re big tragic empty fascists, and there’s a bit in my film where there’s an Archibald MacLeish play, and there’s the beast and the fascist characters coming in closer and closer and they raise his mask and there’s nothing behind the mask. And I think there’s something Trump-like in that. It’s all façade, it’s all gold buildings and I’m not sure what kind of humanity is behind it. And I think Welles would have really got that massive barouche emptiness. That dangerous emptiness.

You speak a lot about scale, or rather Welles’ eye for scale, shooting from below and so on. How does that relate to the scale of the man himself?

There’ve been lots of theories about why Orson Welles shoots low and upwards. A lot of people say it’s because of his theater work but when I was in Chicago I thought Chicago was the first modern city of tall buildings and that was his formative city and surely it’s something to do with that as well. He talks in interviews in France, and people say, “Why do you do this, why do you use this 18mm lens?” And he said, “To be distinctive. If everyone else was using an 18mm lens,” says Welles, “I wouldn’t.”

I’ve got one of his boots here, seeing as we’re talking about the size of the man. [Produces a black leather boot.] Look at that for an ankle, it’s nearly twice as big as mine!

Welles had a strong connection to Ireland, which we see in the film. How much of that was a fresh discovery?

Yeah, I had been to most of those locations but not looking through the eyes of Welles. So to go back to Inishowen for however months it was, to learn that he probably lost his virginity there–that he discovered something about life there–it made a difference. Then I started to realize that he was a white Anglo Saxon Protestant, right? But which cultures did he fall in love with? Mexico. Spain. Morocco. Ireland. Not Scandinavia. Not the Protestant-y, cool, intellectual parts of the world but the hot-blooded, the passionate, hard drinking, hard living parts of the world.

I think they know how to drink in Scandinavia.

[Laughs.] That’s true, but there was definitely an attraction to the Celtic world and the Arab world.

Do you think he would have been interested in any of the filmmakers around today?

Welles? There are certain filmmakers who are in the spirit of Welles, in the shadow of Welles. I think Paul Thomas Anderson for example but when you think of Welles’ own taste in cinema, John Ford for example, this sort of neoclassicism. I think personally if Welles had seen the films of Kira Muratova, who died a couple of weeks ago, I think he would have adored her work. I think in terms of things like foreground/background; the baroque; those big traveling shots that she did in Kiev in the Ukraine, I think he would have admired her. You can draw a line from Sergei Eisenstein through Orson Welles to Kira Muratova.

I’m not familiar with her work, I must admit.

Well, I mean this is the problem. She was one of the world’s greatest filmmakers and lots of people in the west hadn’t heard of her and I’ve been writing and tweeting about her for years and about two years ago I tweeted: “Now that people are finally talking about Agnès Varda properly, two decades late, I said, are we going to wait until Kira Muratova dies before we give her the major retrospectives or for the honorary Oscars, all of this sort of slightly rubbish stuff but it’s important.

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Why do you think it is that Agnès Varda is talked about more these days?

I think it’s the honorary Oscar that’s done it. Loads of people behind the scenes lobbying–and I was one of the lobbyists, not that my voice counts very much–to give her the honorary Oscar. And that gave her visibility. You know people in the know knew that she was great from the late 1950s. She made the first great French New Wave film for example. But that kind of crossover thing I think really happened because of the honorary Oscar.

I re-watched The Story of Film recently and I spotted that you had put her debut film as the first in the French New Wave sequence.

Yeah, La Pointe Courte. It’s incredible. I should have had more of her in there, you know.

Is that something you’ve ever thought about adding to? What would make the cut?

Yeah, I toy with the idea. It’s coming up on ten years since I did that. Maybe yeah, I mean there’s things like Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and you know those film made by those Harvard ethnographers, there was one called Leviathan?

Sensory Ethnography Lab. Yes, and Somniloquies.

Yes, and there’s one here that they made called Caniba. I saw it in Venice and we gave it a prize at the Venice festival. I think they are doing stuff that’s deeply original. When I saw that Leviathan film where they had GoPros attached to birds I thought, “Oh my God, Méliès would have loved this.” That’s what we were looking for in The Story of Film, these sorts of era-defining types of filmmaking. I think there’s been a lot of really good stuff.

How do you feel about The Act of Killing?

Yes. I mean, I have a few ethical problems with The Act of Killing but I think it is kind of great, yes.

The core of your new film is a collection of Welles’ drawings. Are there any other filmmakers you know to have sketched quite so much?

Well, we know that some were very good. Jean Cocteau was very good, Akira Kurosawa was very good, and the best of all, Eisenstein. He was the best artist who became a filmmaker I think. His set designs are brilliant, his erotic drawings are amazing, these incredible snakelike orgies and bodies.

I’m really into African cinema so if Youssef Chahine drew I’d love to see that stuff. If Safi Faye did I’d love to see her stuff. Ozu drew a little bit, if Mizoguchi drew that would be so interesting. I’d love to come across a cache of his things.

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Are Ozu’s similar to his set design?

They’re little minimalist sketches. There’s nothing too elaborate there. They’re more just little frame designs and things. There’s not a lot in there. He didn’t draw for pleasure. Orson Welles clearly drew for pleasure, and frustration, and for everything in between in a way. So Welles, as we can see now, was a compulsive drawer, he couldn’t stop himself, whereas Ozu wasn’t.

Ozu’s fascinating. I mean I think we still don’t understand Ozu. Have you been to his grave in Japan?

I have actually.

Did you bring him some beer or something?

I brought him a little bottle of Jameson.

I mean that kind of ultra minimalism is aesthetic. And yet that maximalism in his life. That kind of incredible drunkenness. He was clearly gay and it’s still not talked about in Japan. I think it’s sort of considered a taboo still. So I think more needs to be said about him. The relationship between aesthetic minimalism and sort of alcoholism and sexuality and a kind of passionate determination to make films.

You know one of my favorite filmmakers is Kinya Tanaka–you know the great actress–and she was in loads of Mizoguchi and Ozu, she was also a great director. He supported her massively. She was the only director in post-war Japan who was a woman. That kind of side of him… just… far more needs to be done on Ozu. Someone needs to write a new account of Ozu and shake off some of the politeness in the way he’s talked about.

The French writer George Basille wrote a book called The Accursed Share. It’s about the excess energy in life. And I think Ozu has to be looked at through the lens of The Accursed Share.


The Eyes of Orson Welles screened at Karlovy Vary International Festival 2018.

Debra Granik on ‘Leave No Trace,’ the Power of Minimalism, and Learning from Our Ancestors

Written by Jose Solís, June 30, 2018 at 9:55 am 

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In Leave No Trace we meet Will (Ben Foster), a father living with his young daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) deep in the Oregon forest. Their everyday life consists of filtering rainwater and squeezing moss to drink, finding ways to ignite fires without using too much fuel, and Will teaching Tom about the importance of harmony with nature. But this is no Swiss Family Robinson adventure, and soon the father/daughter find themselves at the hands of the authorities who have seized them for living in a public park. With Leave No Trace, director Debra Granik is treading familiar territory – people in the margins of society, living in poverty due to social indifference – but by doing so, she reminds us that she is one of the only American filmmakers who cares enough about these kinds of stories.

Her previous film, Stray Dog, was the portrait of a real-life Vietnam War veteran trying to cope with trauma and PTSD in a world that has already decided what kind of person they will take him for. Touching on issues of the social divide, immigration, and fear of the other due to isolation, Stray Dog should be revisited as one of the defining films of the pre-Trump era. It showed us what was coming, but we chose to look away. Perhaps with Leave No Trace, which deals with PTSD but also the opioid addiction, and the perpetuation of isolation by ethnically homogeneous communities, we will be more receptive to the importance of the message.

We spoke to director Granik about why she’s so interested in revisiting these issues, directing Ben Foster, and her fascination with nature.

The Film Stage: I find it very peculiar that when people have been writing about Leave No Trace they comment on your “hiatus,” as if they’re forgetting Stray Dog…

Debe Granik: I know! Thank you. My colleague who edited Stray Dog would be so happy to hear you. She actually showed me this thing yesterday where they described another colleague as not having made a film in years because “he’s so discerning, he waits for the right project,” and then she looked at a piece about Leave No Trace which talked about me in a very different language, saying “for whatever reason she’s done no work except for this little deviation to make this documentary.” Why is there this linguistic difference to how we explore how people do their work? So thank you for bringing this up.

You’re a filmmaker, not a “fiction director” or a “documentary maker.” Why do you think people forget about the achievement of nonfiction so often?

That’s such a great question. Jennifer Fox is doing the rounds for a film called The Tale, but she’s been known most of her professional life for her work in documentary. I heard her in a Q&A trying to answer the same question and it was just so difficult to figure it out.

Stray Dog is a perfect companion piece to Leave No Trace. They’re both about how America is ready to send their men to war, but so unprepared to welcome them back. So I wondered if the novel came into your life when you were making Stray Dog?

The themes absolutely have huge links but they didn’t cross my path at the same time. Will in Trace is carrying a bag from the war just like Stray Dog. The people in Stray Dog were also trying to live their lives with little. They didn’t have much material wealth, their dwellings were small. Stray Dog himself wondered his whole life how little he could live with, so there were many thematic congruences.

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In the film it becomes clear that while the media and society are eager to call out people about their opioid addiction and toxic masculinity, there is so little being done about mental health.

And it’s the same after incarceration. That’s another set of veterans we have. We’ve practiced a long war, 25 more years of another domestic war which is to incarcerate 2.5 million people, and we don’t want those people back either. We don’t take them well either. We keep them as dangerous pariahs. We have this pattern that other civilizations didn’t have. Some civilizations didn’t let them come back. They knew they would be different than the people they’d have to live with. We don’t ask these questions though. If we don’t ask them we’ll just keep saying “what happened?” We only need to go a few decades back to Stray Dog’s era to figure what happened.

You almost can’t blame Will for not wanting to come back into society. Why would he want to be with people who don’t want him there?

One of the best portraits on this is a 1985 documentary available on YouTube, called Soldiers in Hiding, it’s such a great portrait of all the facets of the toxic and non-toxic parts of masculinity and how they combined and churned the lives of young men who’d participated in Vietnam and decided to become reclusive. They could never come back.

You grew up in an urban area, and even though you never romanticize nature, you’ve given us two wonderful portraits of young women who have to rely on nature in many ways. I wonder if you ever had fantasies as a child of just wandering into the forests and setting up camp somewhere?

Oh boy, I’ve always been interested in people who are non-conforming, who find a way to live that isn’t totally social-conforming. I myself am a very average urban person. I’ve never pushed myself to live in a way outside the way I know how to live, but the awe is there. Maybe that’s part of it? Characters kind of show you what that might be like even if you can’t do it. But I’m not foreclosing the option.

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You’ve described your research work before making a film as a sort of investigative journalism. What were some of the most fascinating things you learned while researching Leave No Trace that you wish people and corporations could bring into their daily practices?

The first big awakening was that there is a huge subculture of people who practice primitive skills–not survivalism that comes with a militia, but people who want to learn how to light a fire without fuel or matches. What makes water drinkable? How do you learn how to live without trampling everything? Which mushrooms can we eat? Our ancestors knew so much we don’t know anymore. After making this film I feel I could go into a cave where people painted ten thousand years ago and feel a little more connected.

The first part of the film could very well be a silent film. Tom and Will don’t use a lot of verbal language to communicate. What are the challenges for you as a storyteller to accomplish that in an era where people want everything digested for them?

Maybe I’ve been asked or selected or assigned to keep the old school going? I like the idea that people like putting the pieces of the story together themselves. I rely on active viewing. I believe that, like me, audiences will want to think about the dots to be connected. You’re right about this story. In fact, it was very appealing to me that they don’t explain a lot. It reminds you that film is a visual medium: show don’t tell.

There’s also of course people who will be frustrated by this approach. It’s like we’ve forgotten how to imagine.

We should ask ourselves can we start the story when we meet them? When you meet someone for the first time in real life, you don’t know their story, you have to take them at face value.

In your films you don’t condescend to people society often looks down to. I was disturbed in the scene in the church where the flag dancers appear, to realize that people at my screening in NY were laughing at them. I never got the impression you were poking fun of these dancers, but it reminded me of how liberals and conservatives have decided that the easiest path is to make fun of what makes the other different.

Devotional dance is very prevalent in the United States. When I was doing my research I realized that people are trying to find ways to attract others to come into church, and finding visual or musical extravaganzas are a good way. The women in the film drove up from a different part of the state. I’d seen their work on YouTube and I thought they’d be more interesting for the film than Christian rock for instance. But it became clear as we went on that there was a risk they’d be laughed at. I think what helps in the film is that we hear her speak. One of the dancers speaks to Tom, and you realize this is her artform, and she’s so good and passionate about it. People laugh at something they don’t recognize. Laughing at things you don’t relate to is very human, but I hope after they laugh, they hear her speak and realize this is her commitment, and that she’s kind. I hope there’s some balance there.

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I’m not sure if you got to see Ben Foster in A Streetcar Named Desire onstage…

Sadly I didn’t, but we talked about it.

His work on stage was dynamite, you’re always getting a sense he’s about to explode. In Leave No Trace you push him more to go within, what was your direction like with him?

I’m a minimalist. I like minimalism in other people’s work, in score. If they take up all that space to yell and scream, there’s not that much space for us to have our emotions, they’ve done it all for us. We’re allowed to come closer, lean in. If someone onscreen is reacting huge all the time we don’t have any space.

As an artist who’s shown great empathy for people on the margins, are you worried about our current tendency as a society to go precisely against feeling empathy?

Yes, I’m working on a project right now about a group of men and women who’ve been trying to perform reentry, to come back from incarceration, and it’s really, really hard. I’ve been thinking all day about someone who wants to conduct a fitness class. He’ll never have access to the capital he needs to own a gym or property, and he can’t even do it on a playground. He could get re-arrested any moment for being on a playground. He can’t afford anything. Where is he supposed to put a seed in the ground and see if he could grow something? If I could, I’d like to implicate someone and ask: what is he to do? He doesn’t want an illegal hustle but how can he make a decent wage? It’s such a head banger. I’d like to make his predicament vivid enough that anyone feels implicated.

Leave No Trace is now in limited release and will expand in the coming weeks.

Chewbacca Actor Joonas Suotamo on Stepping Into Peter Mayhew’s Shoes and Conveying the Wookiee Language

Written by Marc Ciafardini, May 27, 2018 at 10:00 am 

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For the third time in as many years, Finland’s own Joonas Suotamo dons the iconic Wookiee get-up to continue playing Chewbacca in a galaxy far, far away. Suotamo, at 7 feet, certainly has the height to play the famous walking carpet, but how about his acting chops? Well, if you somehow thought Chewie was still being played by Peter Mayhew, then you can thank Suotamo’s thespian background for the seamless performance.

We got to sit with Suotamo (who has a very Star Wars looking name) to discuss the role, the gestural and non-verbal delivery, his inspirations, and his hard-to-pronounce last name. I fell into the trap inadvertently referring to him in his own tongue as a “swamp worm.” [Cue Finnish children’s laughter]. Chalk it up to the dizzying environment of a press junket, and my last name is also regularly butchered, so I get a pass.

But Suotamo is a delight, and has embraced the film series and the culture. He’s also got a great sense of humor. As he was a professional basketball player in Finland, we discussed the possibility of him playing basketball dressed as Chewie. Would a Wookie have a wicked hook shot? His answer is pretty funny. Enjoy our time with Suotamo below.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is now in theaters.

Whit Stillman Reflects on the 20th Anniversary of ‘The Last Days of Disco’

Written by Joshua Encinias, May 24, 2018 at 4:45 pm 

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Among the memorable scenes from The Last Days of Disco is the easily discouraged Josh Neff’s (Matt Kesslar) dissection of Lady and the Tramp. Just as Disney released the pups from their vault this year, director Whit Stillman and select cast will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Disco at select screenings this summer.

The third film in the director’s Doomed-Bourgeois-in-Love series” follows what today we call “frenemies,” Alice Kinnon (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte Pingress (Kate Beckinsale), as they spend their days working their way up the ladder at a New York publishing house and their nights dancing and romancing at a Studio 54-style nightclub.

Cinephiles on both coasts and London (with more screenings to come) have that rare opportunity to see Disco with the filmmakers in person. The Film Society of Lincoln Center kicks off the summer tour with Stillman, Chloë Sevigny, Michael Weatherly, and Mackenzie Astin in attendance for a post-screening Q&A tonight, May 24. For more dates, follow Stillman’s active Twitter account.

We spoke with Stillman about Alice and Charlotte’s fraught relationship, today’s characterization of the disco era, and about his future projects, including a possible TV continuation of Stillman’s 2016 hit, Love & Friendship, starring Tom Bennett.

The Film Stage: I’ve seen the movie a few times, and I can’t figure out why Charlotte is so cruel to Alice.

Whit Stillman: We live in a society that’s considered to worship youth and implies it’s much better to be young than old. It’s a bit of false thing. Yeah, it’s good to be young and healthy, that’s true. Maybe good to have a lot of options and possibilities ahead of you. But also, you sort of don’t know your own mind that well. You get in situations, you get with people and you don’t really know that maybe this isn’t a situation you want to be in. You go along with situations that rational people would change. You go on a lot longer. Also there was a housing shortage. So Alice ends up friends with Charlotte, and she’s not really a friend of Charlotte’s. She even says “I’m not even sure I quite like you, we’re just roommates” to Charlotte. [Laughs.] I’m laughing again, I think it’s a funny thing. Somehow this kind of character, this Charlotte character, this egomaniac person who is too cool for school… first she’s the most sexy girl, the most out there girl, the most daring girl with all these situations. And then she’s also the most moralistic and most religious girl and singing “Amazing Grace” from the bed while criticizing Alice. Whatever it is, she’s going to outflank Alice and everyone else around her.

I just think that those people when you’re younger, unless they get elected president, you can avoid. You can say “I’m not going to be around these people who are totally putting me down all the time, and they’re always better than me, they’re bragging all the time.” Unfortunately, when you’re twenty-two or you’re sixteen, you put up with them for too long. Part of the film is Alice putting up with Charlotte for too long.

The disco era is characterized by the extravagant personalities, costumes and sexuality. But in Disco we only see it in passing. The main characters will walk by someone about to take drugs or a couple about to hook up. They’re always walking through it but stay unaffected.

You didn’t see the outlandish behavior. Fifteen years later we found out about all these amazing things that were supposedly going on. We didn’t see it at all. So we put in more stuff to satisfy people’s expectations. [Laughs.] It was there, I guess—someone saw it. There was just a lot of normal behavior. These nightclubs were really cool places and really fun. They made their money selling drinks generally, so it was mostly people buying overpriced drinks they would nurse for a long time so they didn’t have to buy another. One of the great things about this period is you didn’t have the bottle policy. Now at nightclubs, if you sit at a table they make you buy a bottle of champagne or vodka, and it just cost an absolute fortune.

If the disco nightclub era wasn’t as out there as it’s depicted today, what was really lost when it all ended? People still go to clubs and dance.

That’s true. The idea that it all ended is false. But record companies did suddenly stopped selling disco records, that’s true. The great clubs that were so important, they did disappear pretty quickly. To talk about Studio 54, it was a great place, it was sensational. They did great theatrical things. If you somehow managed to get in, you would get a high from the liquor plus the feeling of exclusivity. It was a marvelous atmosphere. Licentious behavior and drug taking doesn’t enhance that. When you read about that, it doesn’t seem like what life is all about. I think you’re right that we thought it had ended and disappeared more than it had. Dance clubs continued, dance music continued. There’s more continuity then we thought.

Music in the film is often as loud as the dialogue in scenes at the club and Rex’s. I’ve always wondered if that was poetic license or did it have to do with the mix?

I think that’s an error somewhere along the line. The dialogue correctly balanced is audible. That was also kind of a cheat. We had the music as high as we could have it while still having the dialogue audible. I did actually have a conflict with the mixer. I am a great believer in poetic license. I dipped the music for the dialogue. I liked to hear the music be substantial and I liked to bring it down for the dialogue so you can get in the words. The mixer I was working with had some religious thing. [Laughs.] He didn’t want to bring it down as much as I wanted to. He either wanted it lower to start with or higher for the dialogue and that was a point of conflict.

I think a lot of people working on films have specialized knowledge and hearing. He knew a lot more about music and acoustics than I did. I’m just a generalist, I don’t know much about music, I just know what I like. Sometimes I think we generalists who aren’t that knowledgeable are closer to the audience experience. And so if you had a problem that way, that’s either a mix in your TV set or the way it was produced was wrong. But I guess there was a problem. The intent of my poetic license was the opposite: I wanted you to hear the dialogue even though it’s set in a place where you normally couldn’t hear people without shouting. We tried the shouting thing on set but it was just ridiculous. We did the cheat of having them talk normally in a loud club.

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Will you talk about the philosophy behind the Lady and the Tramp scene and how that ties into what Des (Chris Eigeman) says about “to thine own self be true“?

I think they’re similar kind of scenes, but I think they’re separate in their content and their implications. Lady and the Tramp is pretty specific to the sort of myth in literature, theater and film of opposites attracting.

So opposites attract I have a lot of problems with because it seems cool but actually, generally, it’s not a good idea. Generally, Tramp is going to revert to type at some point, as I’ve observed in human relations. It’s rare. Usually, change is a kind of come to Jesus thing. It’s a little bit like an alcoholic giving up alcohol or a licentious person becoming religious. They really have to transform themselves if they’re going to get away from being Tramp. It’s a big, big thing. It’s not just falling in love with Lady and getting along with her owners. And so I think that’s one message. And “to thine own self be true” is a different thing. You’re right that they’re very parallel as far as taking something we know about and applying it to the lives of the characters in the film.

Do you have any updates on The Cosmopolitans and Dancing Mood?

I’m working on both and I have another possibility, something written by someone else. It’s the first time I’ve been offered a good script, frankly. I’m waiting for things to settle at Amazon to finish The Cosmopolitans scripts and submit them. I’m recasting what I was thinking of doing for Dancing Mood. It might be called something else, but I really hope both of those things will happen. I also have the chance to, maybe, do a TV series based on the Love & Friendship novel I did. In that there’s a continuation character, Rufus Martin-Colonna, who is a really funny character. So there might be this funny, silly English aristocrat in the 1800s as a TV comedy. Essentially it’s the same character Tom Bennett played in the film. In the novel he’s the nephew of Sir James Martin played by Tom Bennett. But if it becomes a TV show, I would like Tom Bennett to play the nephew.

The Last Days of Disco 20th anniversary screenings will continue this summer. For more dates, follow Whit Stillman on Twitter.

Claire Denis on the Emotional Journey of ‘High Life’ and How Filmmaking is Like Murder

Written by Nick Newman, April 28, 2018 at 11:04 am 

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Full disclosure: this is not really an interview about Let the Sunshine In. Claire Denis and I met on the day of her new film’s U.S. release, which was, like many cinephiles, on my mind. All the more so because Sunshine has been swimming through parts of the subsoncious since I first saw it nearly seven months back at the New York Film Festival — where I mean to speak with Denis, and finally didn’t on account of her shooting, to our immense fortune, another film: the much-anticipated Robert Pattinson-starrer High Life.

So there many questions about this wondrous, mysterious film had percolated for a long time, and I didn’t get to them — to this interview’s benefit, as I think will soon become clear. Denis is, in her films and both times we’ve spoken, a searching mind, and it’s clear that, a year out from its premiere, Let the Sunshine In — about which she’s done many interviews and, by her own admission, answered many of the same questions — is in the past; High Life, and the personal loss that surrounds it, holds steady.

The Film Stage: How was the Q & A last night?

Claire Denis: How was the Q & A last night… I think, probably, the people’s faces were mostly happy. The questions were not so different from other countries or friends; the questions are mostly about Juliette Binoche. Secondly, if it is an adaptation of The Fragments by Roland Barthes, and then why I kept the fragmentation. The third question, more or less, is about what it is to be a woman in middle age — is she heroic, is she strong, is she too fragile, is she stupid?

Psychological questions which, honestly, I try to avoid because I have the feeling that, sometimes, me — myself — I don’t ask. I’m not even asking myself when I am in trouble, when my life is not so fun. I think I don’t interrogate myself on a psychological level; I think I’m doomed or I’m lucky. You know? I always consider my situation under a very primary statute: am I a victim or am I a brute? So when it comes to a very specific psychological question, I feel that’s better to… it doesn’t go with filmmaking, I think. Filmmaking is a more abst… it’s not abstract, but, in film, it’s better not to pay too much attention to those things.

I had a question that I’d worried is too psychological.

Ah. No, maybe not.

Well, at the New York Film Festival screening, you said something along the lines of —

It was so weird. I was shooting in Germany; I flew in the morning. [Laughs] No, it was weird. Anyway.

You said that writing the screenplay with Christine Angot was a process of incorporating your lives and personalities into this film. This sparked something in me, because my favorite films of yours is U.S. Go Home, which is supposedly based on —

Autobiographical memories, yeah. Sure. Except I didn’t meet Vincent Gallo when I was 14 — sadly.

I don’t often see your work labeled as autobiographical, but that’s coming from outsiders’ perspectives. Is there more of that throughout your filmography than any of us could realize?

There is a lot, I guess; there is a lot. Maybe my first film, Chocolat, was always considered to be autobiographical, but you are right: U.S. Go Home was much more autobiographical, except that the setting in Africa at the end of a colonialist era is maybe more obvious, as I grew up in Africa. But U.S. Go Home was much more close to my coming of age, yeah. I think, in a way, I’m not able to imagine any character, even when they are very far from me. Like, for instance, the man interpreted by Michel Subor in The Intruder; I think it’s also very close to Michel. Now Michel told me, “This is now my real life. This is a pure, autobiographical film.” But, in a way, it’s also my autobiography. If I had been a man, I would have been that man of 70-ish.

Isabelle Huppert in White Material is very close to me, you know? Not only that. I think Isabelle is so shrewd and brilliant and funny that she was really looking at me all the time. I was not realizing that, but she did something. When I was in the editing room, I realized she was doing things I am doing. And I realized — although I never had a coffee plantation — there were so many things of my own feeling in that, and Isabelle picked them up. Is it a right answer?

I would say so. You had shot Let the Sunshine In over about five weeks.

Sure, yeah. Very short.

That’s short for you?

Yeah.

Do you find there’s a different energy when you’re working at a faster pace?

I never had a long period. It never happened to me that I had a big budget. I would say that my budgets are always too small for what I want, and I accept it as too-tight jeans because I thought, “Maybe it will be better for my life.” You know what I mean? I think it’s giving me a sort of fierce energy to fight against all odds. If I was at ease, maybe I would stay and bed and do nothing. But this film, I’d been waiting to start shooting this film, High Life, with Robert Pattinson, and, every month, there was this thing: “No, let’s wait another three weeks.” Then four years –five years, almost — went through, and Robert was still waiting, and I felt I was going to die. It’s not the waiting — it’s the non-waiting. Then when I was offered to do this film with a small budget, I said yes — because it will wake up my senses. I was in a paralyzed situation where I was ashamed to have Robert waiting on me. Ashamed to be lied. And this offer, wow, was like pure joy.

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I’ve been thinking about how you sometimes make films in very close succession. There was Trouble Every Day and Friday Night, 35 Shots of Rum and White Material, now this and High Life. Can you sense ways in which one kind of informs the other?

Sure. I don’t know who — a famous director — said you do a film against the previous one.

Arnaud Desplechin has told me that. Are you thinking of him?

No, it’s not him. It’s, like, a famous American director who said that. It’s not Hitchcock. Maybe Howard Hawks. Someone like that, who can say something brutal. And I think, in a way, it is true, but in the process of making a film against the other, there is a strange thing happening: you then realize they are closer than I think while shooting, and they have something in common, in a way. And they are not enemies at all. One is leaning on the other. One is supporting the other.

On a more practical level, I think about the potential for exhaustion.

This time, it was terribly exhausting because I’ve been waiting so long to do High Life, and then, as soon as I finished this one, I was told, “You have to be ready on September 4,” and I knew I was not ready. The art department will not be ready. The only person ready to be ready was Robert, actually. And then I lost Patricia Arquette, and then Juliette came to me and said, “I want to replace her.” There was a lot of friendly moments where Robert told me this great thing: “You see, Claire, you thought I was too young four years ago. Maybe now you will accept me because I am older.” It’s true that, at the beginning, I told him I wanted an older guy, but I don’t know.

It was painful for me, but probably also painful because I was breathless and because I was losing my mother in the same time, and I was shooting in Germany. My mind was always occupied by the fact that I wanted to be in Paris, holding her in my arms; and, on the other hand, I didn’t want to betray the actors. So I was always split, and I don’t think it is the saddest moment of my life, because it happened only once in life, that you are losing a mother. So I never experienced that before. It’s not like a love story, you know? I knew I was losing my mother, and I was shooting in Cologne — four hours away from Paris by train — and it was an extremely strange thing. Maybe I gave to the film, maybe, a sort of sadness, but I put all my trust in Robert — as if I was telling him, “I’m here for you. Otherwise, I would be in the train already, to the hospital.” I’m almost crying.

I’m sorry.

It’s true. It’s true. Now I know what it is to lose a mother, but, at that time, I thought… losing a mother at a young age is one thing. Probably terrifying. But me, I’m the oldest child in the family, and I had got along in a sort of friendship with my mother, as though we were two friends. No more mother and daughter — I mean, a little bit, yes. But she was not immortal to me anymore. It’s strange. And then the film was very important for me, not to betray the film. I was not allowed to do that. But maybe I did betray the film. I don’t know.

And it’s partly about parenthood, right?

It’s about parenthood, yeah. It’s, in a way, parenthood like 35 Shots of Rum — father and daughter.

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Do you see the production of your films as demarcating periods of your life?

Of course. I think the reason why it’s difficult to answer is that the film, during the shooting and pre-production, is a sort of new era, a new relationship in my life. It’s a completely different moment; I’ve never experienced it before. It happened once, the film, not twice, so there is no experience. It’s not because it’s the third film or the fourth or the fifth. It’s the first and only time, and it’s the only time in the editing room that I can suddenly see a little bit of myself in the film. While I’m shooting and preparing, I’m projecting everything that is alive in me into the film. Also projecting all my avoidance. I don’t think I project all of myself, with all my energy, to the film.

I also give to the film my fear, my fright, what I avoid in life — everything for one time. And I know it’s for one time, for a few weeks, and it’s rare to experience something for once. Maybe in a murder case. You can kill a person only once, you know? And the second murder is not at all related. You know? I always think there is something like serial crimes in filmmaking. There is a relation: it’s the same person who does commit. But it’s always a different one, and it’s bringing so much of love.

I’ve interviewed many filmmakers. You’re the first to compare filmmaking to murder.

But it’s honest. Because when I say murder, it’s not because I want to be exotic. No. I mean it, because there is something to do with life and death in filmmaking. The first time I shot a death in a film was in No Fear, No Die — the death of Alex Descas. And I remember it was a big shock for me. I remember Jacques Rivette told me, “You have to think twice before killing one character in a film.” And I realized it’s true. It’s also a matter of death and life, even when there is no murder in a film, because I have no idea where I am. I’m doing my best, but I know that it could end in a very bad way for me. It could be such a bad movie. I would prefer to die instantly.

[Laughs]

No, I’m not joking about this question. I think if it’s too bad, then I will jump. I’m not going to stand it, a bad film.

You’ve done well so far.

Safe, it’s something I don’t know, to be safe. I never experienced being safe — or very rarely. Very rarely. When I was shooting the last scene with Gérard Depardieu and Juliette, Gérard said, “Okay, I like this scene, but one day.” And it’s seven pages. I said, “Am I able to do it? Can I stand the pressure to do it one day?” And of course he was right. It was the most easy way to do it, to do it in one day. Let’s say I had one week to do it. It would have been a disaster. But, on the other hand, while I was shooting I was not safe; I was petrified.

You’ve said that choosing collaborators comes down to people you can trust. What is the metric for knowing you can trust someone?

It’s like when people ask me, “What is casting for you?” I said, “I never cast. I don’t know what it is to cast someone or to test someone.” It happened with me that, for some reason — maybe I am not brave enough to face casting or choosing. I feel someone and I understand this person is important to me, and because this person is important to me, trust is necessary. It’s like when I meet an actor, an actress, I hate the idea to test if it’s a good cast or not. And I don’t trust myself for that, you know. The trust I can share with someone; that’s the only thing I can share. Not myself. My English is very embarrassing.

No, it’s fine. Where did you learn English?

I learned English when I was at school, and I discovered, at night, this British radio station, Radio Caroline, that was set in the middle of the sea because free radio was not allowed at that time. I remember listening to The Animals, The Byrds, of course Beatles. And I thought, especially with The Animals, I wanted to be an English person immediately. I was always going all summer, in England, working. I was working in shops, in offices, I was doing summer jobs to be in England as much as I could, because I had this sort of resistance to learn English at school. I wanted to learn it the way English people were speaking, the way they were. It’s England I liked and English people.

Of course American movies, but American rhythms language were a little different for me. There was something in the English accent that drove me crazy, you know? I wanted this learning to be on the spot, not from school. It’s only later that I started reading English and started learning Shakespeare or famous writers. I started to read English to force myself to overcome my… I had a kind of… I was resisting study. So, by reading a book, it was my own decision, and I was learning the word and the rhythm. American language came, of course, through songs and bands and mostly films. Yeah, mostly films to start with.

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One of the best scenes in pretty much any movie is in U.S. Go Home, where Grégoire Colin dances to the Animals’ “Hey Gyp.”

One thing happened to me in Berlin five years ago. I was there for Arte, the French TV, and they said, “We have a surprise for you.” There was a private concert of The Animals, and I met, in person, the singer, which has been my first idol. It was great. I liked him, also, when he went to L.A. with the band War. I think it was also great.

When I last talked to Olivier Assayas, he talked to me about supervising his movies’ English-language subtitles. Do you have a hand in that process?

When I did High Life, the English producer introduced me to an English writer, and, for some reason, I was curious to meet her. But, for some reason, I was afraid that there was absolutely… although I really agreed to work with her, but she was so distant. We had no connection at all, even in literature, even in music, even in casting. She kept telling me that Robert Pattinson was the worst casting ever. Then I went on doing the film, only with Andrew, who is also working with Olivier translating. I asked him to be with me. I didn’t want anyone else, because, otherwise, a supervisor is someone who is not even interested in the film. They’re only interested in a superiority of English practice, and this is fake.

I remember that there was in my script… [Puts hands over face] I’m crazy. Because I wrote the script in French first and it was translated. There was a place I called the “Love Machine,” and it was a place where people could go and have their own sexual fantasies. This writer told me, “‘Love Machine’ is stupid. It’s a song. It’s nothing.” And I said, “Yeah, but it helped me to understand the meaning of it.” And it became the Fuck Box. But without her, because I thought, “She’s right, probably.” But I need, to move from “Love Machine” to “Fuck Box,” this Tindersticks vision of what it was. Because Stuart said, “Oh, it’s the box.” And I said, “Oh, the box. Yeah. Great. Fuck Box. Suddenly, this is really helping me.”

I feel I should mention that my bag has your former collaborator, Rivette, on it. I’m a huge fan of your documentary on him, of course.

Oh, no! Beautiful. Great. During High Life, I was thinking of Romeo & Juliet, the words of the father of Juliet — some lines. And he was telling his daughter, “My little baggage.” Meaning: he’s thinking she’s mine, but she’s also baggage, heavy to carry. I thought this was so beautiful, so I told Robert, “Would you mind to add that into the dialogue,” and I thought he was going to say, “No, this is too old-fashioned. How could I speak like, ‘Oh, my little baggage.'” Finally he loved it and he did it. So I think supervising English is something that has to do with song and reading — songs and sounds and reading a feeling. Like going from “Love Machine” to “Fuck Box.” It’s the perfect example, for me, of real English.

So your English is actually very good, if you can go from “Love Machine” to “Fuck Box.”

Yeah. Thank you.

You’ve had one great film open this year, so here’s hoping for another.

I hope. Yeah, I will finish in June. I think Robert is going to do voice, post-production, at end of May or something like that, and mixing is in June. In the meantime, I hope for some special-effect add-on.

Let the Sunshine In has begun its theatrical run, while High Life is expected to premiere this year.

Sebastián Lelio on Identity, ‘Disobedience,’ and Avoiding Simplicity

Written by Jose Solís, April 27, 2018 at 1:51 pm 

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Director Sebastián Lelio arrived at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival with two new works: A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience. The former, a melodrama with surreal touches about the grieving process of a transgender woman (played by the incredible Daniela Vega) dealing with the death of her lover. The latter, a naturalistic look at an Orthodox Jewish community in London, disrupted by the arrival of the self-exiled rabbi’s daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) who comes to pay tribute to her late father.

At first glance, the films couldn’t seem more different from each other if they tried, but a closer look reveals common themes that are becoming identifiers of Lelio’s oeuvre. The Chilean director has become a master at telling the stories of women living on the edge; whether it’s the middle aged divorcee of his international breakthrough Gloria, or the fearless Marina of A Fantastic Woman, Lelio is in his element when his camera becomes the medium for these women to remind the world that they’re still here and that they’re forces to be reckoned with.

Even though the women in Disobedience, Ronit and her former lover Esti (Rachel McAdams in a career-best performance), are much more subdued in the reclaiming of their power, the ripples of their awakening send their quiet community into chaos. The plot sees them rekindle their affair, even though Esti is married to the future rabbi Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), and the film’s twist lies in the realization that the women first need to discover who they are, before embarking in a relationship. Lelio, who co-wrote the screenplay with playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, imprints the film with his love of texture and sensual cuts creating a sense of melancholy and longing in every scene.

We spoke to the director during the Tribeca Film Festival where Disobedience made its U.S. debut. In the interview Lelio discusses the themes that attracted him to the story and the effect of his Oscar-winning Woman in his native Chile.

First of all, congratulations on the Oscar for A Fantastic Woman. I’d love to hear you talk about the social movement the film began in Chile and what it’s like for you as an artist to see your work create real change in the world.

That was something we wouldn’t have been able to calculate. It’s been thrilling to see the film spill out of the screen and become part of the social fabric and collective imagination all over the world, but especially in Chile. The film began a movement in my country that woke up members of Congress to talk about the Law for Gender Identity. They’re currently discussing it and we hope it becomes law. It’s what Chile deserves. To have a film trigger, or push a movement like that is impressive.

With Disobedience and your upcoming remake of Gloria, you will have done four back-to-back films focused on women who have become exiled within their own world. What attracts you to telling their stories?

Precisely what you’re saying, taking a character who lives on the edge of society and prevailing narratives, and putting them at the center where we can observe them in portraits that are both exaltation and examination. I like to capture these women from all possible angles to make something resembling a cubist portrait. There’s something in watching them fall and lift themselves up that has truly moved me. It’s hard for me to intellectualize it, but I tend to pursue what moves me, and I’ve been going through a phase where following these female characters who seem to not deserve movies of their own, and to make them leads in my films, has mobilized me.

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Disobedience is your first film in English, and it’s also about a culture not many people are familiar with, so it’s like a foreign film times two. What was your approach in dealing with two completely new worlds to you?

It was interesting to go to England to make a film about a world not even the English know about. It was like making a contraband foreign film [Laughs], but I also loved the novel, its approach to characters, and I also wanted to work with Rachel Weisz who I admire deeply, and who owned the rights to the novel. I appreciated the invitation to direct and write, which provided me with more freedom than other opportunities I was being offered to direct films in English based on screenplays written by other people. Disobedience gave me an opportunity to leave my mark on the screenplay, and allowed me to find familiar elements in a world that seemed to be so remote. At the end of the day, we’re telling a human story about law vs. desire or individual liberty vs. social expectations, which are recurring themes in my films.

Ronit is a photographer and she comes back to England to pay respects to her father, but she doesn’t feel she’s returning home. I read that when you were growing up you moved a lot, so I wonder if this sense of a displaced home was something you shared with Ronit?

Perhaps? But perhaps there’s also an element of having grown up in a Chile that was so defined by Catholic morality and during the dictatorship, which made the country feel very isolated. Those elements also resonated in Chile. I’m not saying that the Orthodox neighborhood in the film is a dictatorship, but there are certain elements that I felt I understood. I know what it’s like to live under religious influence, and I also know about the power of disobedience as a basic human right. The idea of disobedience as duty was what attracted me most to the story.

It’s also a world where a wig changes who you are. I really liked the contrast we see first when Esti doesn’t recognize Ronit when she sees her wearing a wig, and then during the love scene when Ronit takes Esti’s wig off, making her feel more exposed than any other form of nudity. Can you talk about elements like the wigs that helped shape the characters in the film?

The film is focused on the idea of the individual identity vs. the identity imposed by the community, so the idea of a person in the epistemological sense, as a mask, is very strong. These are the layers we use to hide and function in society, in a way each of these layers fall apart in the film. We see wigs fall off, then clothes, and we ask who is behind all of that? The love scene is striking because it’s the first moment we truly see Esti, with the simple removal of the wig, the scene achieves that power because of the context.

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Usually when we see love triangles in movies there’s always a villain, but in the triangle in the film they’re all simply people. It made me think a lot of what Truffaut did in Jules and Jim, were you thinking about the movie, or any other famous love triangles, by any chance?

More than being inspired by, and as much as I love Jules and Jim and The Woman Next Door, I wanted to avoid turning the community into the antagonist. I wanted the antagonic force to be within each of the characters, they’re their own biggest obstacle, of course taking into consideration that the community does play an important role because voluntarily or involuntarily they each allowed the community’s ideas to blossom within them. Each of them, including Ronit, is their own worst enemy. Turning the community into the antagonist would’ve been simplistic.  

I was very moved by the scene in which Ronit takes a picture of her father’s grave. We never meet the father in the movie, but this intimate moment was almost like watching a conversation between them. I wonder if this scene involving a camera is also the way you see art as a tool to preserve the essence of those who leave us?

What I love about that scene is that she’s taking a picture of “nothing.” She’s photographing a grave but she sees much more than that. She’s taking a photograph of her father, her childhood… and I believe cinema has that power, to see and capture all the meanings that reality can possess. Cinema does what Ronit does; through a camera you shoot an object, but you also shoot everything that object could represent, of course depending on the sophistication with which the film is constructed.

Disobedience is now in limited release.

Olivier Assayas on the Extremity of Cannes, Piracy, ‘Non-Fiction,’ and Restoring ‘Cold Water’

Written by Nick Newman, April 24, 2018 at 10:39 am 

Olivier Assayas presenting 'Après mai' at Viennale 2012

I’d spoken to Olivier Assayas four previous times in almost as many years, and last month was the first time I caught him at a funny moment. Though the writer-director remains as intelligent, enthusiastic, and friendly as ever, this latest promotional run not only concerns a film that’s about to turn a quarter-century — Cold Water, his semi-autobiographical 1994 feature restored by Janus and now getting a U.S. theatrical release for the first time — but interrupts post-production on his latest feature, Non-Fiction. (A vast improvement over the originally reported E-Book.) Though the good fortune of seeing it at Criterion’s office had enlivened my memory of his alternately spare and fulfilling tale of love, rock, and radicalism in a post-68 landscape, the inherently in-between nature of our conversation often took us away from there and towards specific musings on what’s happening with film culture today. Needless to say, Assayas has many a thought.

The Film Stage: Where are you with Non-Fiction?

Olivier Assayas: I’m finishing editing. I’ve almost locked image, after months of post-production.

How do you usually feel late into editing? Is there a serenity, calm in getting there?

[Pause] I start to get impatient to know exactly how it will play. In this case, it’s kind of a comedy. I didn’t write it as a comedy, but, in gradually putting the elements together, I kind of realized that was the closest to defining it, even if it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever done. It’s a series of dialogues, really. It’s a series of dialogues about the modern world — or, I guess, something like that. [Laughs]

Is it strange to do interviews about an old film while working on a new one?

Yes. It’s strange. But the thing is: it’s a movie I care a lot about, and it’s been such struggle just to get it, to get it out of the clutches of Universal, first — who sat on the film, who had the old rights and sat on it for, like, ten years — to solve the music-rights situation. It’s been a long process. Plus, restoring it — the image, the sound, ah! It’s been an ongoing project for quite a while, so I’m just, at least in talking about it, relieved, because it’s the end of the ordeal.

When did you last see the film?

I had to see it over and over again when we were restoring it, but I was just so focused on the technical side that I was not watching it. When the film screened in Austin, I did something I never do: I stayed for the screening and I watched the whole film with an audience, just being able to sit back and look at as a viewer — which is obviously completely an illusion, but at least I could kind of have a notion of what the film is about.

Is Cannes usually the one time you watch a film with an audience?

With the recent one, the one time I watched it with an audience was Cannes, yes. Absolutely. Totally. In Cannes, I don’t really see the film. I mean, Cannes is… it’s great. I’m always very happy my films are shown there, but it’s such a tough experience in the sense that that’s not what you make movies for. The tension, the pressure in Cannes, it’s so violent, so extreme. It’s a very violent experience. It’s not about it being positive or negative both ways; it’s just too much. It’s really hard to keep some kind of cool head in the context.

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Well, Personal Shopper immediately had sprung upon it this narrative of “booed at Cannes,” yet reports indicate it was really an isolated incident.

Yes, yes, yes! I know. And I more or less know who the people are, so it has to do with French politics. It was absolutely not important, but that’s also the Internet age; it’s the Twitter age. People don’t know what to say about the film. The thing is, anybody — myself included — needs… a moment, a few hours, a day, two days, I don’t know — some people less, some people more — to know just what you’ve seen and how to react to it. How it stays with you or does not stay with you. Just to analyze your feelings to a film.

Now, with Twitter, people… the credits are rolling, they want to be the first to say something, anything. It’s not the reason why I make movies. I don’t like that relationship to the medium; I think it kind of twists, in a bad way, the perception we have of cinema and movies, because it becomes competitive. It’s kind of absorbed by the worst, evil energies of the modern world, in a certain way, when movies should… it’s an art, so it should not exactly be happening in a bubble. It should be a moment of quiet in the media age. That, to me, is what movies are about.

It’s interesting to hear you say this since you started out as a critic, most notably for Cahiers. Do you find yourself still participating in discourse, even privately?

No, I do not. But it’s because I think I’ve been moving away from the logics of the ascetics of cinephile culture. I mean, I think that something of the cinephile culture has become fossilized in film theories of the 1960s and ‘70s. As much as cinephile culture has been a very relevant tool, in the ‘60s, for the New Wave and post-New Wave writers to make sense of cinema, to make sense of what had been happening — including in Hollywood; it was kind of a road map for what had been happening — I don’t think it works anymore. I genuinely don’t think it works anymore, because it creates some kind of closed, limited film world. I think it’s much more exciting and much more interesting to think about movies in terms of art theory, and I think that you can’t deal with cinema — with what is going on in cinema — if you don’t use the best tools that have been defined by writers through the ages to deal with images!

I suppose it’s one of the reasons I admire David Hockney so much and I think he’s one of the great theoreticians of modern images. He kind of uses the best tools of classic art theory to deal with how you can capture the world, analyze perception, and capture some notion of our experience of the world with the new, modern tools. You know, making paintings with iPhones or iPads or whatever, but trying to use them in relation with recreating the experience of watching a tree, a landscape, the view out of your window — very simple, basic things. So what I am saying is: I am much more excited by writers who think about analyzing perception and how reality is subjective and how moving images — including movie images — transcribe that in cinema. I think that’s where my concerns have been, as opposed to the cinephile debate, which I find extremely limited and frustrating and, in a certain way, out of touch with reality.

Not to bring up a cinephile debate when I note, nevertheless, that Cahiers caused a stir by having Twin Peaks as their best “film” of 2017 —

Yeah, I kind of refer to Cahiers as “post-Cahiers.” I think they have moved in a direction that is basically the opposite of what this magazine is about. Because I think it’s André Bazin’s magazine. I’m extremely conservative in that sense. I really believe that the framework that André Bazin designed — meaning: its relationship between filmmaking, ethics, morality, and representing reality — is basically the identity, the DNA, of what Cahiers is about. If you move away from that… and I’m not discussing Twin Peaks. I admire Twin Peaks; I think that David Lynch is a genius. But I think that Cahiers has been moving away from the Bazinian aesthetics in ways that I find disturbing.

The first time I saw Cold Water was in 2012, off a file I downloaded from The Pirate Bay.

Yeah, of course. Absolutely. For sure.

Do you have particular stances about the age where people are sharing rare, out-of-print films?

No! No. I am perfectly comfortable with that. I’m extremely honored, you know, when guys [Laughs] kind of struggle to get my films wherever they can get them. I think the relationship to a film, often — with any artwork — ultimately is made by the effort you made to access it, and that effort is not necessarily with money. It’s movies I made a long time ago. No, my concern is that people access them in a better shape, form than possible. So that’s why I’ve been struggling to restore this film, image, sound: so next time someone gets the film from the Pirate Bay, it will be a better standard. [Laughs]

I would never illegally download any film of yours I could easily buy.

Yeah, no! I don’t… well, “I don’t have to.” I don’t need to download stuff from a pirate site. I buy DVDs, and I like watching movies on a big screen, but again: I’m perfectly okay with the process. I’m just so happy when I find pirate versions of my films in China, on the street. I go, “Oh, wow, they went through the trouble of printing a jacket, putting it into the case, and now it’s on the street. Maybe someone will bump into the film and had never had a chance to see it.”

I’d just worry about the translation.

We fixed all the subtitling. Criterion helped us with that kind of stuff.

Were you looking closely at the screenplay and previous translation?

I always supervise the subtitles, the English subtitling. So they used the original subtitling, except there were a few mistakes. They made it better.

Speaking of at-home viewing, I’m sure that Criterion has you in mind of who sees this on Blu-ray.

Mmm-hmm.

Do you see most films at home now?

I like to… I have this fetish with silent films. I love silent films — I’m just obsessed — so I watch silent films at home. But I don’t know. For the last couple of years, I vote for the Academy Awards. So I get screeners, and I get screeners of movies I want to see because they are new films by directors I like. They are not accessible in Paris, so I end up watching screeners on my TV. A lot of recent American films — all the movies that were in the Academy Awards — I’ve seen on DVD. It’s a bit frustrating because, especially for the movies I like the most — like Phantom Thread, which I was just amazed with, I loved — I wish I had seen them on the big screen. Now I will be lazy, because the film has opened in Paris and, I noticed, I didn’t gather enough energy to go and see it again on the big screen.

When you watch silent films at home, do you soundtrack them?

No. I’m extremely respectful. [Laughs] And I’m not so fond of the guys who experiment on silent films. Once in a while, something decent comes out of that subculture, but, usually, it’s abusive. I remember when they had fully restored version of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc — all of a sudden, the full, original cut of Dreyer with 15 minutes more, at least, than the version we usually know — they gave the score to that modern composer. I went to see the film, and, at some moments, the sound level was like heavy metal, which made, like, zero sense. It was an unpleasant experience because, as much as I loved the image, I hated the soundtrack. [Laughs]

I was thinking of Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis as the gold standard.

Yeah. I like Giorgio Moroder, but… I prefer more conservative versions of the soundtrack to Metropolis. But I have it. I have it somewhere.

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You still buy films regularly?

Yeah. I’m not a streaming person.

You would’ve been in your late 30s when you made Cold Water. You’re now in your early 60s. When I was younger, I was really fond of movies about kids because I could identify, and now I’m at an age where I’m not interested in that. But I wonder if I’ll feel differently about that when I’m older, especially if I have children of my own. Has there been a change in how you perceive youth in cinema?

Cold Water was about looking back on the ‘70s, which is something that I rejected. In the sense that, for my generation, you had politics — leftism, radicality — in the years between ’68 and ’72, ’73, and, gradually, whatever had been fascinating, exciting, energizing in those years became oppressive, became burdensome, became cut off from reality. That’s when punk rock happened and, all of a sudden, it’s like you had turned on the light in a world that had become dark. So I was very much part of that, and I left the early ‘70s behind. I think it’s been rushing ahead, and, at some point, I had to turn back — and that was Cold Water, in a certain way. Accepting the ‘70s again and remembering the energy.

The thing is: I’m the least-nostalgic person. I don’t like looking back on the past, and I get no emotion out of that — or if I get some sort of emotion, it’s a melancholy, anxiety, depression. But still, I think I had to reconnect with myself. It’s like I had been cut off from a part of myself that was essential, and who was the person I grew up as. I think it opened the door to my following film, Irma Vep, where I also tried to deal with stuff I had left behind — including film theory, my love of Chinese cinema, and so on. It’s stuff that I had left behind because, when I started making films, I was just so mad that everybody would ask, “Okay, so how does it feel to start as a film critic and become a filmmaker?”

But I never defined myself as a film critic. I was a kid trying to get myself as close to movies as I could, and writing about them was one of the paths. But I had been a screenwriter, I was an assistant, I was a trainee on movies, I was a trainee in the editing room — I did any job that would get me to there. So I was so reactive against that that I kind of repressed the part of my life that had been about writing about movies and loving movies and experimenting — the cinema’s geography. Irma Vep was a way of getting back there, of reaccepting, of saying, “Yes, that’s also part of what defined me,” because it’s this weird kind of autobiographical moment.

Many studies of your filmography treat the pre-Cold Water titles as a prelude, which I find odd.

Well, for some reason, Cold Water is my first movie that had any kind of international recognition. The other ones did really well in France, but they were made in the framework of French indie filmmaking. But I’m better-known in France for my early films, in a certain way. Disorder and Paris Awakens were successful films, were much-lauded, at the time, in France, and they were released not so much in the English-speaking world. They were released in Italy, in Germany. They had some kind of European audience. But I genuinely think that I became, also, a slightly different filmmaker after Cold Water. Before making Cold Water, I had consciously tried to transform my approach to cinema when I did A New Life. A New Life, it’s like: you follow the wrong path. You want to move on, but I took a wrong turn somewhere. Instead of defining something new, I think I kind of pushed to the extreme what I was doing, into some strange, abstract area.

I love the film — I’m very happy I did the film — but it’s very much a transitional film. Whereas the change I needed, I longed for, was the change I found in Cold Water. I made this string of movies using the Super 16 format, which is more like a Dogme moment. It was Dogme before Dogme, where I realized, “If I use non-professional actors, if it’s handheld, if it’s Super 16, if I shoot it faster than I used to — if I kind of break all the formalities of filmmaking, get rid of the weight of filmmaking — maybe I can move on and go further in the direction I went for, and I think that’s what happened. Cold Water was the turning point.

You have Non-Fiction next, but there’s already word you’re developing another title.

Wasp Network. It’s the story of the Cuban Five, who were Cuban spies in Miami in the early ‘90s. That, I think, will be my next film. Most of it will be in Spanish.

And Idol’s Eye?

Idol’s Eye can happen; it still can happen. I actually had an offer to make it this summer, and I’ve written Wasp Network; I want to do Wasp Network first. If the offer is still around, I will do it next year.

Hopefully Non-Fiction shows up at NYFF so I can see it ASAP.

It’s a weird film. But I’m very curious to see how it plays abroad, because it’s a dialogue. Subtitling will be an issue. [Laughs]

Cold Water opens at IFC Center in New York starting Friday and at the Laemmle Royal Theater in Los Angeles on May 18, 2018, to be followed by a nationwide rollout.

50 Years Later, Douglas Trumbull Reflects on Stanley Kubrick’s Vision and the Technological Breakthroughs of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey

Written by Sam May, April 16, 2018 at 9:01 am 

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With its cosmic ambitions that still somehow achieved a universal appeal, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that has immersed audiences in its unique and singular vision for fifty years, and few were more immersed in the pioneering film than lifelong visual effects wizard Douglas Trumbull.

Working as a contractor on preliminary design work at production house, Graphic Films back when the film was still called Journey Beyond The Stars, Trumbull stayed with the film even as Graphics Film was let go by necessity, and the production moved to England. “I cold-called Kubrick from a telephone number I found in the (Graphic Films) office and I think he was impressed with what I had to say,” Trumbull said. “He contacted my boss (Con Pederson) and he helped arrange my flight tickets to England. I was never actually contracted for the film. I was originally told I would only be needed for about nine months, but obviously it turned out to be a lot longer than that.”

Despite being in his early twenties with no feature film experience at the time of the production, Trumbull’s ingenuity and perseverance made him a valuable member of the crew. “I was part of the team that had to design all these computer readouts, sometimes there would have to be sixteen projectors running at once so it was thousands and thousands of feet of film that was required,” Trumbull said. “I came up with a solution that could automate large parts of the process.”

douglas-trumbull-1Trumbull found a way to take graphics – often sourced from scientific journals – and animate them on a grand scale, eliminating an otherwise impossible hand-drawn process. “I think after that [success] I had gone up in Kubrick’s estimation. Before I knew it, I was shooting the Moonbus scene on the soundstage,” he tells us.

Trumbull was not the only inexperienced crew member on the film. Andrew Birkin (who ended up shooting the African location footage for the Dawn Of Man sequence) and Ivor Powell were also promoted to roles of greater responsibility despite limited knowledge. But it was also Kubrick’s own experience as a young filmmaker that dissolved the usual filmmaking hierarchy that exists on sets. “There were plenty more seasoned professionals on the film, but they all came from a particular way of working and Kubrick didn’t want to work like that. He encouraged a much more experimental process,” explained Trumbull.

With more responsibility in the effects department, Trumbull was working on the film’s iconic models, but Kubrick’s editing requirements often meant that arduous effect shots would get left on the cutting room floor. “It wasn’t an efficient way of working, but as we were watching the images on the giant, deeply curved Cinerama screens – it became clear that any fast motion or cutting would be objectionable. And you would [see the] blurring and strobing of stars, so Kubrick wanted to slow everything down and have a more editorial pace. He wanted to be able to pick and choose footage like live action.”

With all the film’s imagery being created ‘in-camera’ it would often be a nerve-wracking process waiting to see if a shot had been completed successfully. “It could be anything from a week to a month. The longest shot was the [Tycho crater shot] where they walk down into the excavation site; the rest of that shot wasn’t completed for over a year. The film would be put in a freezer and wait to be loaded back into another camera to be completed,” Trumbull said. “We tried to create a process that we dubbed ‘the sausage factory’ that would be able to churn out shots a lot quicker, but needless to say it didn’t actually end up saving a lot of time. I would say for every successful effects shot, there would be five or six failed attempts.”

Many involved have discussed being in the dark about what they were doing at the time, but Trumbull doesn’t believe it was because Kubrick was trying to be secretive, but it was rather a reflection of his directorial spirit. “I don’t think it was a deliberate move by Kubrick. You often got the sense that he was making it up as he went along. He was rewriting the script every day. He wanted to stop talking and have it be a visual experience. There was originally a narrator and he cut that out completely. Performers like Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea would come onto the set and [were] given new pages all the time, and there was HAL, who was originally supposed to be female and called Athena, which was based on a study that male pilots would respond quicker to a female voice. Douglas Rain was only really a last-minute choice.”

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While filming, and Arthur C. Clarke optimistically stated in ‘65 that they were aiming for a Christmas ’66 release, but production ended up stretching on for three years. Still, primarily shooting at MGM’s Borehamwood studios, Trumbull never noticed much of a studio presence, saying, “We were the only production shooting there at the time so we took over the whole studio, we were on every stage. Kubrick knew he would have to come here to get his way, he had already shot Dr. Strangelove (at Shepperton Studios) so he was comfortable working there. It really was a great place to work. It was a beautiful studio in the middle of nowhere surrounded by farmland; it wasn’t until I saw and worked in more film studios that I realized what a great place it was.”

While the model-based effects work required a painstaking amount of work, they at least drew from pre-production sketches and technical writing. But what eventually became known as the ‘Stargate’ sequence had to be completely imagined. The original script ended with the line, ‘In a moment of time, too short to be measured, space turned and twisted upon itself,’ and another variant mentioned a ‘slot tunnel’, but beyond that, it was up to the production to decide how to visually articulate the sequence.

“It had been alluded to as a tunnel in one of Jupiter’s moons that when you looked through it you could see through to another part of the universe, but no one really knew what to do about it. Initially, it wasn’t my job to create a solution but I was watching what others were doing and you could see it just wasn’t working. I had seen John Whitney’s work (part of the avant-garde animation crowd of the 60’s) where he had moved the camera around while the shutter was open to create a streaking effect and I thought it was promising. So I did a Polaroid test putting the camera on an animation stand and moving it with the shutter open as I moved around some artwork underneath. I showed it to Kubrick and he said, ‘What do you need to build the real thing?'”

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The resulting creation was the ‘slit-scan’ machine, which in layman’s terms, moved colorful artwork behind a slit while the camera was focused on the same point with the shutter open and moved away from the slit. This combination of techniques created the streaking effect. “Kubrick was very enthusiastic about the results; he just said ‘keep shooting, keep shooting.’ It took four minutes a frame, so it was running twenty-four hours a day, and the stuff that is in the film was probably only about a quarter of what we produced. It was always aimed to be subjective. We tried some shots with the pod, what would be described as an over the shoulder shot, but it was clear it wasn’t going to work. All Kubrick did was cut back to Keir’s face.”

The most complex aspect was a shot dubbed the ‘mindbender,’ which combined seven octahedrons arranged in the top half of the frame and the slit-scan process. Trumbull said, “We had exhausted the slit-scan, shooting vertically and horizontally, so I came up with the idea of shining the light onto Plexiglas to create this kind of pulsating effect. Each [octahedron] had four visible sides, each needing 3 passes, so as you can imagine it was incredibly complex. In total, [there were] eighty-five passes, all on the same piece of film.”

A complex process at the time, the slit-scan was still relatively inexpensive compared to modern CGI methods, which have become one of the most expensive elements of modern filmmaking. “Once it got going, it was a fully automated process. It would run twenty-four hours a day, all it needed was someone to watch for pieces breaking and flying of the machine, as they often would. I don’t dislike digital imagery, there has been plenty that I have been very impressed by, but if you look at the credits of any [effects heavy] movie now, the amount of manpower required is incredible.”

The Stargate wasn’t the only aspect of production that was difficult to visualize. The figure of the alien Monolith is one of the most iconic images, but creating convincing aliens was an altogether different challenge requiring extensive testing and trial and error. “For about the first year and a half of production we tried to avoid it, but Kubrick’s wife (Christiane) was doing concepts and sculpting alien designs, I think that was kind of a back-up project on Kubrick’s part. He adds, “Dan Richter also experimented with something that was dubbed the polka-dot man, where he was covered in dots and shot against black from above, and he would twist and contort his body.”

Then there were Trumbull’s own efforts to create the otherworldly beings.

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“After we had finished the Stargate, I adapted the slit-scan into what I called the ‘Jupiter machine’ which was able to create a believable vision of Jupiter. No one had been able to do [that] until then, so after that I began to experiment. I tried using video feedback by shooting its own feedback image to create this kind of undulating effect. Then I experimented creating aliens using just light. I put a light on the floor and moved a camera with the shutter open to create a figure composed entirely of light that only existed when the camera was running. And I also tried something I called ‘cities of light’ where I used dots of light and streaked the camera to create the illusion that they could be structures created out of light. The results were promising, but we just ran out of time. Kubrick made a decision at some point that ambiguity was better, that less was more and any kind of alien was never going to be convincing.”

Even though 2001 took years longer than expected to complete, it was still rushed to be finished. But in a perfect world, it would have been an even longer production. “I think Kubrick could have gone on another year; certainly, the film would have ended up three and a half hours long!,” exclaimed Trumbull. But even after the production consumed the lives of everyone involved for years, Trumbull had no interest in an extended vacation. He went right back to work.

“I went back to Los Angeles and set up my own studio, making animations for the NBC network and other places, which led to creating effects for The Andromeda Strain and eventually directing Silent Running.” And with Kubrick, the legendary perfectionist editing the film up until its release date, Trumbull didn’t even see the finished product until its premiere, albeit in an extended form before Kubrick cut nineteen minutes for its theatrical run.

“There were a few surprises, musical cues and editing choices, but otherwise it matched up to what I thought we were making. It was great to see it all completed up there on the giant screen. The scenes that were cut, I don’t think they added anything to the film, I think Kubrick was wise to cut them,” he said.

Though the film lived up to Trumbull expectations, early reviews were not so enthusiastic. “I was surprised, they (Pauline Kael and other New York critics) didn’t like it. It took about a month until the film was rebranded as ‘the ultimate trip’ until people started to get it.”

Even inside the production, they were those who didn’t ‘get it.’ Scientific consultant Frederick Ordway even wrote a detailed letter to Kubrick outlining his problems with the film. “The thing about people like Ordway and Harry Lange (production designer) was that they were scientists, and I’ve come to the opinion over the years that when scientists get involved in a film, they’re going to end up disappointed. They want science, but a movie is a movie.”

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Trumbull was one of four credited as a ‘special photographic effects supervisor’ on the film, but he was unfortunately not given credit by the academy when 2001 won Best Visual Effects. In an unpopular decision, Kubrick accepted the Oscar alone.

“We didn’t feel that was a good move on Kubrick’s part. I don’t think it would have taken much effort on his part to lobby for the rules to be changed to accommodate us all. I didn’t get to see the Oscar until after Kubrick’s death, when I went to his memorial service, so it was a very long time before I got to see it.”

The fate of 2001’s incredible models have long been debated, with rumors of Kubrick wanting to destroy them to stop others using them. And with the film’s completion coinciding with MGM’s closure, they may have been accidentally destroyed, but Trumbull sees little truth in these speculations.

“I believe Kubrick had planned along with Ordway and others to take the models and props on a Roadshow and take it around Europe, but at some point he decided against it,” Trumbull says. “Then there was a fire where all the models were being stored so lot of the stuff got destroyed, though Kubrick may have kept the Moonbus model in his office and he had given the Aires-B (lunar-lander) model to his daughter’s tutor in exchange for payment. And it was only recently bought by the Academy.”

Arthur C. Clarke went on to write three sequels to 2001, the first – 2010 – was adapted in 1984 with returning stars Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain, but also with the conspicuous absence of anyone behind the camera from the original film, including Trumbull. “I cannot remember if I was asked to do the film, but my studio that I had started along with Richard Yuricich (Blade Runner) was used to shoot all the effects for the film. I didn’t care for the film, I thought it was more standard action fare and it didn’t understand what 2001 was.”

2010 achieved little in comparison to its predecessor, and in an age of franchises and sequels, where many old favorites are looked to be revived, it remains a testament to 2001’s singular vision that its two remaining sequels – 2061 & 3001 – have remained untouched.

Even despite owning a pilot’s license and demonstrating an evident passion for space travel, Trumbull doubts that Kubrick would have pursued real space travel. “I don’t think so,” he answers. “There was part of Stanley that was very risk-averse, physically. If someone had a cold he wouldn’t shake their hand and he would put a mask on. It has become a lot safer now, and its becoming more commercially viable. Perhaps if were a younger man I would be interested, but I am always interested in the beauty of the universe. I am doing an anniversary event at MIT where they are going to show the recent images taken of Jupiter accompanied by Ligeti’s (whose compositions signal the appearance of the Monolith) music, and Keir and Gary are going to do a reading of Kubrick’s (September ’68) Playboy interview.”

For its 50th anniversary, 2001: A Space Odyssey will get a 70mm unrestored theatrical re-release, overseen by Christopher Nolan, starting May 18. See a trailer above.

Bruno Dumont on the Rhythm of ‘Jeannette,’ Evolution of Style, and the Actor’s Interpretation

Written by Nick Newman, April 12, 2018 at 5:45 pm 

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At a distance, Bruno Dumont seems hard to pin down — a filmography alternately hilarious and horrifying, marked by a sense of humor as stone-faced as the bodies that litter it. Get closer, though, and the pleasure is in the clarity. Case in point: we ended our review of his latest film, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, by noting that the Frenchman had “made a gesture towards complete reinvention, both for a tale told many times and the boxes he’s been checked in as an artist” — seemingly big as far as these claims go, but one for which he has only absolute agreement. So I learned when we sat down to discuss his Joan of Arc heavy metal musical, a film I kind of had to ask him about because (and I know this directly contradicts what’s written right above) I have questions about the fact that I’m not even sure how much I like it.

Thanks to Nicholas Elliott, who provided on-site translation.

The Film Stage: In my research, I come across your great admiration for Péguy. You speak of him in very laudatory terms, the essential part his writing played here; but I think of Bruno Dumont as a very singular figure. So is there a sense of giving yourself over fully to an artist, or more than you’re used to?

Bruno Dumont: With Péguy, really, there’s a discovery that goes beyond the artist and poet. What really moves me most is the philosopher Péguy. It’s an extremely contemporary thought of the human condition, and there’s no correspondence among philosophers today. I really see his thought as a thought of the present, the instant, and grace which has no lineage in western philosophy, so he’s completely in the metaphysics of Bergson, but he’s also embodying philosophy in art – or art is the embodiment of philosophy. Bergson remains a philosopher, whereas Péguy takes this additional step – he’s the artist as philosopher, and he really describes, defines, cinema. Cinema is the overwhelming, lightning-like expression of the present through a heroic figure, and Joan of Arc is a heroic figure. The fact is, you can have the experience of God in cinema and in the location of the simulacram of cinema.

Do you share these ideas with your performers?

So, if I talk to the little one about all this stuff, she’s not going to understand anything. Once the director has the understanding, then the actor has the action. The actor is only in action. It’s an error to talk to the actor about thought. The actor is an interpreter. He’s not there to meditate; he’s only there to act, as in “do things.” Otherwise, it would be unbearable.

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You said the young Joan, in auditions, was wild and impulsive. How do you know that will be good for a production?

In fact, I filmed the casting. I make my choices based on seeing the rushes of the casting; that’s when I say “yes.” It’s not the interview with the actor; that’s quite banal. “Cinegeny,” or whether someone reads well on film, is something that I see, and something that some people have and other people don’t. I don’t know why that is, but that’s what I see when I look at the rushes.

You described her recitation of the material as obscure. What are the specific pleasures of obscurity in performance?

What’s obscure is the meaning; what is not obscure is the rhythm. The little girl understands the rhythm of Péguy’s text; she doesn’t understand the meaning. Myself, there are passages that I do not understand at all. Péguy’s poetry is rhythm. The meaning is not important. It’s a theologically obscure text, and what’s important is something that’s tonal, musical. There’s a kind of knowledge there that takes us towards a mystical, ecstatic level. It’s like when you listen to music there. There’s no meaning there; there’s something there that has nothing to do with thought, that has just purely to do with the domain of music. And I just want to correct something that I said earlier, for your tape: I said he’s tonal, music etc. It’s not that there’s a knowledge; there’s no knowledge, whereas there’s something mystical and ecstatic.

I’d like to know about the key differences between shootings on sets and locations.

The huge advantage of shooting on location is that everything is there. It’s like the sheep: I don’t order up the sheep. I like these accidents, this happenstance. It’s like the sound of the trees, the birds, the wind. All these things are happenstance, and they’re very important. Because cinema is such an artificial form: you have to set up your camera, you have to set up your frame, you have to go in search of the happenstance; you have to go in search of the breath. The countryside has this breath, this spirit to it.

And I accept the happenstance; I need it. It gives the film texture, and that’s why I use direct sound: I take what happens, whatever comes. In those circumstances, what wasn’t planned for is part of what was planned for. I can always cut, after all. I have this little girl’s breath, I have her heartbeat, and these take me back to something that is non-thought, and is a kind of counter-balance to the artificiality. As I was saying earlier, there’s an equilibrium that needs to be found. If we did all these things inside a room, it would very quickly become unbearable. That is Bergson. That idea is Bergson.

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It was recently announced that you’ll be doing a sequel to the film, titled Jeanne. This follows your upcoming sequel to Li’l Quinquin. Your movies often feel closed-off, singular, so what is your particular attraction to continuing narratives?

I find the subjects so unimportant. It’s like in painting: you can make something grand, major, with just a little crossroads in the countryside. The subject is so unimportant. I was very interested in a series, to come back to something. So, in Quinquin, I come back to my characters four years later. So there’s the same actors, the same characters, then something else. That’s exactly what I think of cinema: it’s always the same director making another film, so there’s always some same and some other. I’m always making The Life of Jesus, actually. But my style has evolved, my sensibility has evolved, so now, when I see The Life of Jesus, I want to recut it. We continue making films because we evolve. There’s no reason to say “I’m going to stop” because we’re constantly evolving.

You’ll be making a film based on the period that we do know. What material, in particular, do you look at when going there? Are you particularly conscious of the many great filmmakers who have explored it?

The second part is the battles. What I’m interested in is finding a way of renewing the battles, a new approach to the battles. We’ve seen lots of films that deal with the battles – most of them start there and then go to the trail – so what I’m looking for is renewing it, a new way of showing this part with a contemporary sensibility and make Joan of Arc felt today. I think I’ve found a new way to show these battles. I’m not going to shoot like Cecil B. DeMille, that’s for sure – but I do like Cecil B. DeMille.

Do you have a favorite of them?

[Laughs] I really like Cecil B. DeMille. His Joan of Arc looks like she’s 40. That makes it very original, actually.

While I’m here, I should mention that I’ve long been fascinated with the song from L’il Quinquin. Did you write it?

No. The actress wrote it, music and lyrics. I kind of held her in as far as the genre of the music – I steered her.

Admittedly, there’s not much of a question. I just feel that, if I sit before the man who directed those sequences, I should mention it.

Then you’ll be surprised by version two. Specifically in regards to what you’re mentioning, the song – and the singer. [Laughs] She’s dead.

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Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc opens on Friday, April 13.