Many who haven’t seen Madonna: Truth or Dare can still claim to know it in a cultural sense — probably thanks to Saturday Night Live, if anything else. The film’s recently been restored on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, and will begin a new run at Metrograph today. This also marks an occasion to speak with the film’s director, Alek Keshishian, who’s had a closer access to Madonna than just about any filmmaker, working or otherwise, and who proved remarkably open about the story behind his documentary classic.
But how else could one be? Truth or Dare still surprises in how much it revealed, even if we’re only talking about the star’s distaste for Kevin Costner and even (or especially) if its all-access quality means a bit less in light of today’s social-media-obsessive stars — one of many areas we managed to cover in our time. And, yes, some questions about David Fincher, with whom he’s currently working, came up; perhaps the lack of total confirmation will make Keshishian’s hints all the more enticing.
The Film Stage: I’m very interested in the restoration process, and Truth or Dare, with its grainy black-and-white photography, seems like a case that has to be handled rather carefully. Can you walk us through it a bit?
Alek Keshishian: I was told there was a restored print. That’s how not-in-the-loop I am. I do know one thing, which is that there’s a real question mark as to where all the prints of the movie are. I know UCLA has archived at least one really good print, and they were trying — as were Madonna’s people — to locate other prints, or even a negative. I don’t really know the details of that; you would have to ask, maybe, UCLA.
Have you at least seen the restoration, to get a sense of what’s coming?
I saw the UCLA print — if it’s the same print, which I can’t be sure of. Last year, Outfest did a special screening, and it was a pretty good print. I mean, you know, it was scratchy in areas — the black-and-white especially — but it was working in its full-screen glory. It looked pretty good, considering it’s [Laughs] 25 years old.
You’ve said that people will approach you about other films you’ve made; you’re not necessarily chained to this one movie. But people still want to talk about Truth or Dare and, of course, see it. This might be a bad question to ask in an interview, and yet: do you ever get tired of talking about the movie? Do you worry you’ve nothing left to say after a quarter-century.
You know, that’s a great question, and I’ll be honest with you: initially, yes. I was tired of talking about it, and especially when the most pertinent questions seem to be, “What’s she really like?” [Laughs] And I’d be like, “Well, you just watched the movie.” But, you know, it’s nice now, when I heard about it — so, no, it doesn’t get old, because it’s not all the time. But there was a period where people in their late-20s would go, “Oh, my God — you made one of my all-time-favorite movies.” I’d be like, “What, Truth or Dare?” And they’d be like, “No. With Honors.” And you’re like, “Huh?! Oh, they were at that critical age of fifteen or sixteen when that movie came out.” So that was a pretty surprising moment. But Truth or Dare, I think, was groundbreaking on some level, to be allowed to see those aspects of a celebrity — especially long before the Instagram period where, now, pop stars… it was unique.
There is something about the movie where, if it was released today, it could actually run the risk of feeling banal, at least if Madonna was a social-media-obsessive artist who broadcast every piece of her life. The filmmaking is very fine, but the level of access wouldn’t feel as unique. So what do you think is the enduring fascination with this film?
I think, instinctively… I mean, that’s an interesting point you’re making: that, right now, it could be banal. I will say one thing: I’ve been asked, many times, to shoot for other celebrities, but none of them would interest. Believe it or not, I don’t think I’d get that access with Madonna today. They’ve all made documentaries. There’s an aspect to Truth or Dare, and I can’t think of a documentary on a music super star that’s been quite like that. I think Katy Perry’s tried to do that a bit. You know, I can’t speak for other people. I certainly didn’t make a movie that would, you know… I was making this movie where I thought we would be lucky to see something.
Metrograph’s site calls your film “crucial film for generations of the LGBTQ community,” which is no small thing. Have you seen a label that you’re particularly proud of?
You know what I’m proud of? Well, not “proud of,” but “grateful for,” is when people come up to me and tell me it helped them receive acceptance for being gay. I think, for a lot of them, it was their first taste of acceptance. And that, I’m grateful for. It’s always gratifying to hear that something you’ve worked on has touched somebody that deeply and that fundamentally. I think all artists dream of making an impact in somebody’s life. Sometimes the movie comes out and it might only touch one person in the universe that powerfully, but that’s our goal, as artists: we’re doing it on stage, on film, as writers — whatever. We’re trying to reach people to show the humanity, somehow, between all of us. In that respect, it’s been very gratifying to hear that it helped. I consider it an honor, in other words.
Oh, sure. And it’s funny, because I’ve been telling people who, like me, weren’t even alive when this movie came out —
How old are you?
They’re probably like, “Who the fuck is Madonna?” [Laughs]
Yet many friends said, “Oh, I love that movie,” and some said they think it’s one of the better music documentaries.
It was, at the time, definitely a cultural phenomenon — certainly for a documentary. It was a port in the storm, in a sense, where her fame was at pinnacle, and then there was this movie that had been made, which was unprecedented in its access. It was just before Rattle and Hum, and it had not been successful at all — the problem being that U2 had censored all the interesting stuff. At its moment, it became, like, part of the zeitgeist, almost. I certainly didn’t expect that. And then you don’t know whether it will endure. People will sometimes say, “Oh, do you think anyone remembers it?” So much of what we do is disposable, unfortunately. So that aspect of it enduring for 25 years and being so talked about…
I wonder if, over time, you’ve become more picky with the film: wondering what could or should be cut, what you wish was kept in, etc.
Oh, probably. Literally, in 25 years, I watched the movie for the first time last year at Outfits in L.A., and, overall, I was more surprised that an audience — made up of people certainly much younger than me — were still laughing at the same places. But I’m sure if I were to watch it with a careful eye, I would make certain cuts or whatever, but that’s the thing with film: it’s a moment in time that’s caught forever.
Is it true that David Fincher was almost going to direct Truth or Dare?
Well, what happened was, Madonna was working with David on “Express Yourself” and “Vogue,” so they talked about the possibility of him shooting a documentary. But then they had a falling-out-of-sorts, so I met Madonna because, believe it or not, she saw something I did, and that’s how she first got wind of me. Unbeknownst to me, she asked her agents to see anything I did. I was 21, fresh off the boat in Hollywood, and, many years later, when I was at her house, I found on a bookshelf each of the music videos I’d done. Individually. Not a show reel. Individual ones, because she’d been keeping an eye.
So, initially, I think she contacted me for something very different. A lot of my videos had dance, and I think she liked the way they were shot and edited. She said, “So, I’m doing this HBO special. I’m wondering if you might be interested in directing it.” I said, “Wow, sure.” She said, “I’d maybe like some black-and-white stuff to put between the numbers. One place I’m going is Japan — in four days. I’m wondering if you’re free to go to Japan and shoot a little of that black-and-white stuff.”
So it began like that. It was never meant to be a film documentary. It was only after I shot what I shot in Japan. Specifically, I shot hours and hours of interviews with the dancers in bed, because I could be sure that they’d show up in the morning. So I had, maybe, ten hours of film. The producer I had with me in Japan had done Rattle and Hum with U2, and he said to me, at the end of day three, “You’ve gotten more interesting stuff in three days than we got in all of Rattle and Hum.” That’s how it came about: it was kind of an evolution that happened organically.
It’d be remiss of me not to ask, even briefly, about the status of some projects you might be working on with Fincher. If you can’t talk about them, or if there isn’t even anything to say, I completely understand.
Well, with David, one of the things you learn is not to say anything until it’s actually happening. But we’ve been working on a TV idea, and that’s all I can say, and also a very experimental film idea. And, you know, he remains a very close friend and someone who I just respect tremendously, so we’re working on this stuff. As you know, with David, everything has to align perfectly — and, until it does, he doesn’t want anyone to talk about it. So I’m going to respect that.
Madonna: Truth or Dare is now playing at Metrograph.
Those who find themselves enamored with Kate Plays Christine — that includes us: along with giving it an A at Sundance, we think it’s your best viewing option for this month — often struggle to find a starting point for even describing the film, let alone praising it, which speaks as much to ambitions as it does the many pleasures they eventually afford. Robert Greene‘s documentary often plays as a rather straightforward example of the form: Kate Lyn Sheil (Listen Up Philip, The Girlfriend Experience) conducts research for a film in which she’ll portray Christine Chubbuck — a newscaster who committed suicide on-air in 1974 and has become something of an underground legend, in part because the sole tape of her act has been suppressed — and struggles with getting in the head of a woman few really knew, as readily evidenced by footage from said film.
But that project doesn’t actually exist, no matter how often Kate Plays Christine insists otherwise by working shot-and-edited material and behind-the-scenes happenings (including interviews with co-stars) into its documentary surroundings. And yet the psychological torment Sheil undergoes for her role plays as awfully real, which makes you wonder about the morality of this whole thing — whether Greene is some Svengali-like psychotic, or everyone who made this is in on the joke and we’re being taken for suckers. Or none of those things, which is equally possible. I’ve seen it twice and don’t like settling on any single point of concentration.
Given both my admiration of their film and my desire to learn more about what, exactly, was going on here, Greene (who I previously spoke to about his 2014 Actress) and Sheil made for great conversational partners; the only downside is that our interview couldn’t be extended, by which point I’d have gladly doubled the size of this interaction. (Take the fact that we already had an interview with them out of Sundance, where Kate Plays Christine won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Writing, for what it’s worth.) Enough with the introductions, however — let’s let the people speak.
The Film Stage: This is a film that, for the viewer, has a potential to shift shapes and change in meaning over time, so I’m glad to talk to the both of you now, months after its premiere — and after you’ve done interviews, probably read reviews, and had time to let it sit. How has Kate Plays Christine changed for you since Sundance?
Kate Lyn Sheil: I’ve only watched the film once; I watched it at Sundance. It can be a difficult and interesting experience to watch that much of yourself, so, yeah, I really only have watched the film in its entirety that one time. I know that talking about it has sort of shifted and mutated. I think because, first, we were so sensitive about talking about it, I suppose, and now it feels, somehow, more comfortable — or something like that. But you’ve probably watched it many, many, many, many times.
Robert Greene: The movie hasn’t changed, but… we shot a year ago, coming up in a few weeks, and the whole thing happened so fast. I started editing sometime mid-August; two months later, it was off to people for them to look at it. Maybe a month later, it was basically done. That’s an incredibly fast process for a movie this weird and complex. We made decisions that were just “let’s go for it” — for example, the ending — and I just went completely instinctually in terms of editing decisions and shooting decisions and everything. We were just going and figuring it out as we went, and, now, living with those decisions is kind of exciting. So how I think about the movie has changed.
I think it’s a movie made for people to have reactions to. It doesn’t work if there aren’t reactions. It’s not a story you just get sucked into, you get the payoff at the end of the story, and that’s it. What would be the reaction other than you laughed or cried? This is a movie we made to have you thinking and there should be multiple layers of thinking and feeling. I read every review and I’m like, “I want to know what everyone thinks.” The fact that we made something to be discussed, and we get to… I get to see the discussion. Kate avoids all that stuff.
Sheil: Yeah, I don’t engage with it.
Greene: So it’s different. Maybe it will be taken one way in your brain. For me, it’s like a conversation, and it’s not just reviews. I’ve done a lot of discussion, and that’s how it changed, I guess, for me.
Ms. Sheil, you’re pretty prolific, and I wonder how the work you’ve done since might have at all affected you as an actor — if there are specific things that got you thinking differently in later performances.
Sheil: I don’t know if it changed me as an actress. Truthfully, I feel like every project changes me as an actress, because I think I’m still learning and growing, hopefully. The other thing is that most of the work I’ve done since shooting this film has been in a very different sphere, creatively; I’ve done some TV stuff, and it’s a different medium and requires different muscles, I guess. But, yeah, it absolutely informed me as a person. I feel like each experience kind of changes you, right? But, no, I mean, to be honest, I don’t think it changed me as an actress.
Greene: I love the question, though, because I remember, at one point, we were thinking about how the movie could end. At one point, the last shot was going to be on the set of a TV show, and we were saying, “It would be great if people thought you quit acting after this movie.” [Laughs] But then you see, “Oh, no, she’s still acting — oh, no.” Almost as if acting itself is a dangerous thing to do. And I think it’s a testament to the performance that Kate gives.
I think people legitimately have the feeling of you being in danger, and what’s interesting about that is that we were just traveling over here, and we have the wig with us for a thing we’re going to do today. We were talking about the power of that wig. [Laughs] Like it’s a ghostly object that, I think, affects us both still. We don’t want to touch it and put it on and play with it; it’s not funny. So that’s real, yet the way Kate brings that to the screen is a performance. I just love that people all around the world have asked me if you’re okay.
Sheil: Yeah, that’s a question we get in Q & As a lot, but, you know… it’s a movie. [Laughs]
Greene: But it’s good. It’s good that they’re connecting. What’s interesting is that they’re connecting because you’re creating that performance, which just shows how good you are — but, beyond that, there is something that we’ll be thinking about, the fact that we went to that place together, for a long time.
Sheil: And there’s certainly more to chew on, as there often is.
Did one of you keep the wig?
Greene: Well, there are two wigs. I don’t know what happened to one, which is really weird. I bet someone on the production has it. I have the one that was in the final scene, that I just kept as a memento. I kept moving it around. I kept moving it around in my editing room at home. It felt really weird to have it, so I kept putting it in different boxes.
That sounds weird.
Sheil: He’s got it in his bag right now.
This relates to something I had in mind: you both did an interview where it was said you’d questioned interests, motivations, and desires going into the movie, and one thing I never quite got from prior discussions is if that questioning would let up a bit — perhaps you’d been so involved in the process of making a film that those concerns just have to disappear. Or were you always questioning, even up to the end?
Sheil: Yeah, I think we were. I was questioning up to the end. Something that we brought up at Sundance was that a part of my function in the film is questioning the rightness or wrongness of making this film in the first place, and I think people watching the film, as you note, often ask, “Why is she doing it?” And that’s something that we struggled with right up until the end, because the reason I was doing it is that Robert asked me to.
Greene: One of the tricky things was that we like each other so much on a personal level. Well, I like Kate. I’m not sure if she likes me.
Sheil: I love Robert.
Greene: That’s very nice; I was just prompting you. But Kate and Sean [Price Williams] and I and Bennett Elliot, one of the producers on this film, we just had such a good time being together and we like being together. There was an on and off switch. Sean, on the plane ride down, was very careful to say, “You’ve got to make sure that you are not filming all the time, because we’re going to have to think about this more like a fiction thing, where we’re off-duty.” That goes against my instincts as a documentary filmmaker, but the thing that was tricky was that because we are genuinely friends and want to be kind to each other, keeping it unstable was sometimes hard — meaning, it was sometimes difficult to jump into this instability thing where questioning always had to be at the forefront.
There could never… I think what you’re saying of if she clicked in, of, “All right, let’s just do this scene” — no, never. In fact, sometimes it would’ve been better for us, mental-health-wise, if I was able to do that better. But I wasn’t. One absolute thing that happened would be, Kate would say, “I don’t like what I’m doing,” and I would say, “Great, because I don’t want you to like what you’re doing.” She’d say, “That’s fucked up.” “You know that’s the concept here?” “Yeah, I know that’s the concept here, but you’re not out here, embarrassing yourself in this makeup and wig, like I am.”
And that was the real channel of tension. It was productive, and we could go home and be like, “That was good that we had a fight or that there was some tension there,” but it was all so real because… for me, making it more real was so necessary and, also, personally mortifying, because I felt like I was doing a bad job, and we were also documenting the real bad job, and, as a documentary filmmaker, I wanted it to be real, that I was doing a bad job! [Laughs]
Those layers were actually happening in the production. They’re not manufactured all for the sake of the movie. Having said that, I think Kate was more in control — even months later. There was one moment where Kate was crying and I was never going to film you in that situation, because you looked legitimately mad at me, and Kate said, “I was mad because you didn’t fucking film me crying. What else was I crying for?” So the one thing I definitely have learned since the movie is how much more in control Kate was than I realized. I don’t mean that I was stupid; just that I was doing my job and you were doing your job even better.
Sheil: That’s not necessarily true. I think you and Sean and I were all… there was a great deal of communication, but, once we started shooting, we had to do our job, and we had secrets from one another.
Greene: We had secrets. That’s actually a key part of the whole thing: we all had three different agendas and we had to keep them to ourselves. Because we were so friendly to each other, we may have overshared aspects of the thing, and you needed to not tell me stuff, and I needed to not tell you stuff — which is a very weird way of being. But, also, you can only do that when you basically feel in love with the people you’re working with. Like it’s a family and that kind of thing.
I was surprised whenever the director appears onscreen.
Greene: Yeah. I hated that.
It’s maybe three-to-five shots in total, but it stood out because I know you. Those who don’t, however, might not be able to place your role — you could just be a crew member. I wonder about being certain when it is and isn’t okay to make yourself present.
Greene: It’s something I think about a lot. I think, with Actress, I’m not in the frame but I’m in every frame because I’m holding the camera, and I really believe that, at this point in the history of documentary filmmaking, the fact that there’s a camera means there’s a cameraperson, which means there’s a filmmaker present, and that should just be taken for granted with every film that we see. I really never wanted to be in the movie, but, to make certain scenes work, you really had to see Kate having conversations with someone — and that happened to be me. Also, it felt very honest to depict myself as kind of an idiot in this process because — and I’m not performing that; in a way, I guess I am, to try to get across this idea — you need to know the thing that we struggled with, which is, “Why is Kate doing any of this?” You needed to hear the voice going, “Well, maybe you should do it this way.” “If you say so.” That must be the director’s voice, and then you see me.
Every time I’m in the frame, I’m doing something that’s pretty repellant, and that’s not… sometimes that feels like when you have an abusive boyfriend. That he recognizes he’s abusive doesn’t mean he’s not abusive. [Laughs] So I’m not trying to, like, weasel out by saying, “Look! I know I’m a fucking idiot!” I do think it functions in the movie, basically, and had to be as little as possible. A late addition is me walking up to Kate to check my mic before the 4th of July scene, and that functions in the story: you need to know that Kate was being put to do this thing. She’s not on that boat because she wants to be on that boat; she’s on that boat because there’s people watching her and filming her and making her do this, and that changed the entire scene — once you see me in the simple act of adjusting something. You’re like, “Oh, that poor thing.” It makes Kate less of an asshole and makes her more sympathetic, and it makes the filmmakers more sadistic for creating that situation for everyone involved.
So wherever I’m on the screen, hopefully it’s functioning to add insight into what Kate is doing and why she’s doing it, and that, as Kate said, was the trickiest part of the whole thing: establishing that without ever doing one of those things where it’s like a movie-within-a-movie of “action!” Shit like that would be terrible. So it was trying to advance that thing. But I also hate it, absolutely. I mean, I hate it. I just look, like, terrible, in every way. Like, look fat and shitty and I hadn’t shaved and I was doing stupid things. [Laughs]
[Note: particulars of Kate Plays Christine’s ending are discussed with the next question and answer.]
The last sequence is the clearest communication between the two of you — which is obvious when it’s you pointing a gun at the camera. I like the way things come together there, and many are divided: there’s been a debate about if the scene works in the context of the movie, how else it could have ended, and so on. Have you thought about that in particular? Has the memory of shooting that last scene been a pointed memory? Even in terms of how else it might’ve been done.
Sheil: I haven’t thought too much about other ways it could’ve been done, because I sort of moved on, mentally, after the film, but you were in the editing room.
Greene: To me it’s, “That’s what happened, so that’s the ending.” I feel very strongly about that. What happened was, we… I had a million ideas for the ending. Kate, you always assumed —
Sheil: I never wanted to do an actual reenactment of the tape, and you, apparently, were never going to do that — but, as pitched to me at the beginning, you said we were going to do it.
Greene: It was important that the option was on the table, for us to go through with the whole entire thing, because if you didn’t think that was something that would hang over your head, then the entire movie wouldn’t work, period, and your involvement in it probably wouldn’t work. So then we basically figured out that we can’t do it. We’re not going to do it. So we came up with this… I love the idea of giving a speech at the end, because it echoes what Christine did, it echoes Network, and it would give us a moment to finally hear Kate say what she really thinks, in some way. Christine had that moment where she’s telling you what she really thinks, in the most horrible way. But Sean and I each scripted what we might thought be the end of the movie, in speech form — totally different kinds of things — and we gave them to Kate and she reacted. “Okay, interesting” or “nope.” I didn’t ever say, “You have to do this or that.”
We were rolling, we had one shot at it, and what we see is what you wrote for yourself to say, and performed — sort of. But then I had no idea she was going to pick up the gun. At the time, it felt truly dangerous and scary. She only does that once. And I had no idea that she would call us sadists. I’m totally fine that an audience will take that away and say, “See, the whole movie was criticizing me.” That says more about you, as a viewer, because some people don’t see it that way. The fact that the ending can bring people to whatever they’re taking away from that moment is the entire point of the movie — so we couldn’t have planned it to be that way, but it works. It works because it is open-ended and layered and absolutely questionable in every way.
Like I said before this: I’ve read all the reviews. The idea that we’re supposed to close this thing without it being questionable is… I don’t know how we would do that. It’s a movie that’s endlessly questioning itself. Beyond that, the last moments aren’t her saying, “You’re a bunch of fucking sadists.” The last moments are the credits. That’s the end of the movie. The end of the movie is: she points the gun at Sean and I, she says, “You’re sadists,” and the movie ends and continues with more. It never stops; the movie never settles on the message. It keeps going and could keep going forever. Do you think of the end of the movie as that moment or the credits?
Sheil: The credits.
Greene: The credits are definitely the end.
Sheil: But I mean, again, I didn’t know that you were going with that. That’s where the documentary element of it comes in, because I really did think it was over.
Greene: Yeah, the moment was passed where you said, “You’re a bunch of faking sadists.” I feel like that was a little bit… I think it’s fair to read that as you, “I want to say this line. I feel this right now,” but also, “Robert could just cut this,” and it was important for me to include it all. It was an electric moment for me, and it still feels dangerous to watch it now. Because I feel awful.
Given your film-literacy, I’m curious if either of you have an idea of what Kate Plays Christine could be double-billed with. If you had to choose, what movie makes a good partner? I don’t know if ideas were in place when directing or performing.
Sheil: Sure. I mean… Edvard Munch, probably.
Greene: Yeah. Edvard Munch, my favorite movie, would be a good one. Or several Fassbinder movies. Maria Braun would be an amazing one.
Sheil: That’d be really rad.
Greene: Someone else had a recent one… oh, I can’t remember the name of it. I’m intrigued by the question because I do feel like it’s speaking to movies. I mean, obviously, Gena Rowlands’ birthday was yesterday, and A Woman Under the Influence would be an amazing double-bill. So much of when you’re talking about how women are perceived in movies in the movie, I just cut out references to Gena Rowlands so it wasn’t so specific. But, literally, it’s you talking about Gena Rowlands, so that would be perfect. Or even just documentaries about performers, like Portrait of Jason, or something. There’s so much Portrait of Jason in everything I do — just a more stripped-down, perfect version of that questioning.
Sheil: It’s true.
Greene: Well, it’s funny, because I was reluctant to make another movie that was so much about acting and an actress, but I think they’re very different movies, and, for a while, I struggled with that, because I think Actress feels materially more grounded than this does, and I was always worried about that — but I’m really proud of how the film turned out.
Kate Plays Christine will begin its theatrical run at the IFC Center on Wednesday, August 24 and expand from there.
When I last spoke with Travis Knight he was juggling the responsibilities of CEO and lead animator at his Portland-based animation studio, Laika. Now, with the company’s fourth feature, he is adding another to his resume: director. Kubo and the Two Strings, the year’s most gorgeous-looking animation thus far, arrives in theaters this week, and I had a chance to speak with him about his debut.
We discussed the wide-ranging influences on the film — from Kurosawa to manga comics — as well as his thoughts on voice acting, Studio Ghibli’s legacy, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: In the film, I saw inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress with this ragtag group of characters and the unlikely hero — and obviously that was inspiration for Star Wars, which I heard was one of your first movie-going experiences — so I’m curious if you talked about developing that dynamic, and the influence Kurosawa had on this story.
Travis Knight: That’s absolutely true. Kurosawa was a towering influence — over me, personally, and over the film, specifically. It’s interesting you picked up on some of those nods; we have them scattered throughout the film. Kurosawa is a towering figure in cinema — he’s one of the pillars. In fact, I think the modern cinematic epic started with Kurosawa and he’s been so influential on so many filmmakers that I loved. That’s actually how I discovered him: when I was a kid — as you said, the first film that I remember seeing in the movie theater was Star Wars — and the first film that moved me to tears was E.T. Both were heavily influenced by Kurosawa, and so, when I discovered that, I went back and started to look at his films — and of course I was blown away, and I think you see threads of that woven throughout the film.
It’s not just that he’s a brilliant artist — I think Spielberg called him a Victorian Shakespeare, just in terms of his filmmaking: the cutting and the composition and the staging and the light. The way he made films was extraordinary, but he was more than that. It was what he made films about, which were these really powerful, potent themes, like humanism and existentialism and the heroic ideal. Even though those films weren’t his better-known Samurai films, in these smaller films, like No Regrets for Our Youth, you still see those big ideas you see woven throughout. So those were some of the core ideas we explore in Kubo and the Two Strings, and they are a nod to Kurosawa.
But the film really is inspired by a great number of different artists and different forms of classic Japanese art, including origami — [I can’t catch the name] brings origami to life with his art; effectively, he’s an animator on some level. So not only when we see origami in the film, but just in the design of his kimono, and some of the buildings and the ships — and even the the mountains he lives in with his mom — those are perfect geometric shapes, and that’s inspired by the origami. Then there are things that give nod to, like ink wash paintings and noh theater; our characters were heavily inspired by late-Edo-period doll making. Probably the biggest single visual influence you see on the film, outside of Kurosawa, was Ukiyo-e, which is literally these pictures of a floating world. The most important form of Ukiyo-e is the woodblock print, and I think the most famous woodblock print ever is Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” and you see a nod to that in our film: the opening sequence of the film, we have a massive towering wave that dwarfs our hero, and that was very much a nod to that incredible woodblock print. So you see a lot of those things woven into the movie. In some ways, what we tried to do, the movie looks like a moving painting, so that’s a nod to some of that beautiful Ukiyo-e art.
Probably the biggest visual influence on the movie is an artist named Kiyoshi Saitō, who was a brilliant graphic artist and wood block print painter in Japan in the 20th century. The thing that was interesting about Saitō was that he comes from a great tradition that goes back hundreds of years of woodblock printmaking, but he kind of threw that off his shoulders. It was still kind of in his bones, but he decided to try a new way of making this thing where he was essentially the author of all the art, as opposed to being one part, one cog of the process. So the work you’d see that he would do was his pure, undistilled vision of his subject. What’s more, he was heavily influenced by Western painters — European painters like Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin. So he takes all these incredible influences and he internalizes it, he synthesizes it, and he weaves it into his art — and then you see this incredible thing come out that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. That was, in turn, a huge influence on us, on this movie — not only stylistically, but just his approach: this fusion of East and West, and old and new, the real and the imagined. That was something he did in his work, and that is something we tried to do in ours as well.
There’s sort of a debate online about whether it benefits the film itself to have famous voice actors — if it helps the marketing and such. I was curious about Matthew McConaughey, because, at the beginning, he keeps the persona that he’s had in different movies, but then you kind of get lost in his character after his first scene. So, as a director, did you have any guidance for him?
Well, I know that the casting process is pretty opaque for people who weren’t a part of it — and there is a logic to it, there are reasons behind every single decision that we make. Casting live-action is very different than casting animation. When you’re casting live action, there are two parts to the performance: there’s the performance that you see and there’s the one that you hear. Those things are bound together. In animation, however, those things are completely separate, and really the actor is the performance that you hear. So what you want is an actor who can convey the complexity, can convey the full range emotions with the one instrument they have available to them, which is their voice. Some great actors, that’s not their most powerful instrument; their voice isn’t the most expressive part of their tool kit. So often times when you disentangle what an actor looks like versus what they sound like, it leads you to some interesting revelations.
So that’s part of our process, we pull clips from movies and interviews to hear how an actor’s voice actually sounds to try and see if they’re right for the movie. Because, in the end, it’s almost like a band or an orchestra: you want each actor to occupy their own unique space of the sonic spectrum — just like you got your violas and your violins and your cellos, etc — each of them occupy their own section, which comes through in the mix. You want the same thing for your actors, so every time you cast a new actor you basically have to recalibrate — you start to play clips from other actors and think, “Does he play well with them?”
So for McConaughey, for what that character was, we wanted a great actor; we wanted someone who is warm and engaging — but also has bluster and bravado — but ultimately had this really warm, beautiful, earthy quality and can play vulnerable and sensitive. With Matthew, going back three years, when he was cast in the movie, we’d seen Mud and Killer Joe and especially Dallas Buyers Club, where he showcases incredible range of performance. That’s exactly the kind of thing we wanted in our movie, so we reached out to him — and of course we’re just a dinky little operation in the armpit of the Pacific Northwest — we reach out to him to see if he’s remotely interested in our film, because he has all the options in the world in what he can be involved in. But it resonated with him in a meaningful way, and I think it’s because of some of the core elements of family. In fact, he read the script to his children in chapters as a bedtime story, which was really meaningful for us.
So yeah, with a director and an actor, you’re collaborating and trying to bring life to the character in the best possible way. So you capture the scenes in as many number of variations possible, because often times you’re recording the actors not together; you don’t always have them together. So you don’t always know what the other actor is going to do, so you have to get a lot of variations to the scene. It can be a weird process for an actor, but I think all of our actors were game and I think they all gave amazing performances.
What drew you to the film’s story, where you’re opening with a fable, and then Kubo kind of recreates the fable in the town square, and then there’s a lot of talk about mythology and fables, and then the film itself can kind of be a fable that will live forever? And can you talk about that sort of nesting-doll structure?
So we started developing about five years ago — when we were knee-deep in the production of Paranorman — and the original idea for the movie sprang from the fertile mind of our brilliant character designer, Shannon Tindle, and, even at its most raw state, there was something really exciting about it. You know, the idea of making a sweeping, stop-motion Samurai epic was just a cool concept, and it spoke to me on a number of different levels. When I was growing up, I was into enormous fantasy epics: I absolutely loved Tolkien, I loved Star Wars, I loved Greek and Norse mythology, I loved L. Frank Baum, and manga comic books like Lone Wolf and Club; I love the films of Spielberg and Kurosawa and Harryhausen.
So with Kubo, it was as if we had a blank canvas with which we could paint in those same colors, with which we could aspire to that epic pantheon of fantasy — that was at the core. When you follow a typical Joseph Campbellian Hero’s Quest structure, it’s a pretty well-trod path, but it’s a very solid foundation which you can use as architecture, for which you can layer on ideas and personal experiences and personal stories, and you can then give the film resonance and meaning. By following that structure, I think it allows us to do a lot of different things within this fairly well-known archetype of story. I’m incredibly proud of the way it all came together.
The timing of the film is interesting. Last year, Studio Ghibli did their last full-fledged feature — for the time being, at least — and this film… I don’t want to say it takes up the mantle, but if someone wanted to see a movie that had some similar qualities I would direct them to Kubo, with the magical realism and sense of adventure and escapism. As a director, obviously you didn’t know Studio Ghibli might not be making movies anymore, but how does it feel to have a film that has some of those qualities that obviously people are very interested in?
Well, I refuse to believe that Ghibli’s not going to make films anymore. I refuse it. Yeah, I mean, you can probably see in the film what enormous influence Miyazaki’s had on us as artists. So, for us, for our film to be spoken in the same breath as Ghibli is an incredible honor. I do think that we are kindred spirits. When I look at the kind of stories that Ghibli is drawn to — the kind of films that they make and the things that we do as well — it does feel to me like we have the same sorts of obsessions and fascinations, and interest in exploring different aspects of the human condition.
So that’s always been a part of what we do, to tell meaningful stories that are resonant and thought-provoking, that speak to something thematically and hopefully take the medium to places it hasn’t been before — and do it in a visually stunning way. That is, of course, something we’ve seen in all the Studio Ghibli films. Again, I refuse to believe they’re done, but we’re very happy if we can, in some small way, carry on that tradition that we’ve been inspired by with Miyazaki’s work. It’s a great honor for us.
Kubo and the Two Strings opens on Friday, August 19.
Krisha, the feature-length drama from Trey Edward Shults (which is adapted from his short film of the same name), has a lot in common with Requiem For A Dream. But instead of strung-out junkies, the character fraying at the edges is a member of his immediate family. Further, this film showcases the exceptional talent of Krisha Fairchild (Trey’s real-life aunt) as she portrays a character unraveling in front of her family on Thanksgiving; the result is a performance as magnetic as it is horrific. Part of what makes this modest feature so compelling is the uneasy music from composer Brian McOmber.
McOmber digs deep and hits on a number of emotions and feelings, specifically hope, anxiety, fear, and desperation. With cues that get closer to moody genre music than actual score, the composer accentuates each dizzying scene with his edgy and persistent themes. The character of Krisha has a fractured emotional state, and this uncomfortable narrative follows her through her last chance to connect with her estranged family.
Aside from his brilliant work on this emotionally charged drama, McOmber is also a former member of the popular band Dirty Projectors. Enjoy the highlights of our time with Brian as we discuss his work on A24’s Krisha, which is now available on VOD.
Brian, how has your experience been taking this music from a short film to a feature-length narrative? The soundtrack has samples from the short, but did you ever think that this would have been adapted to film?
Brian McOmber: Trey cold called me after seeing a short film I had done, and sent me over the short film for Krisha. After seeing it, I thought it could be a feature, and I found out later that he had actually tried to make it a feature with about $7,000 over the course of a weekend. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and he made it into the short, but after having done that he went on to make the feature we have now. That was his second try at what he had always intended to do.
With the short, he tried to put everything he could into it. We threw everything into the mix, so it has classical percussion, strings, electronics, and it was kind of like the “kitchen sink” approach. All that said, he wanted the music to be big! But when we got to work on the feature, he knew it was going to be a slow-burn, so we didn’t want to throw everything at it at once.
We broke all the aspects apart, and treated them individually. We wanted to use a lot of different types of instruments, and a lot of different styles. The short film helped inform what we were going to do with the feature, but we didn’t take the exact same approach. This needed to be paced better with more diversity to the cues. I included music from the short on the soundtrack because I was really happy with the way it turned out.
Picking up on that diversity, which is an understatement, that applies to both the film and your music. It was a combination of things – from horrific, to sad, to pathetic, to funny, and then just bizarre. There’s one scene in the kitchen as the turkey comes out of the oven. Even though it didn’t use your music, it was just terrifying. The visuals must have provided a lot of material for you to work with, right?
Absolutely! They were hugely important for the score. The same cinematographer who worked on the short worked on the feature. I credit him a lot for helping me extract some of the ideas I had. Actually, I didn’t even read the script – both myself and Bill Wise, who played Uncle Doyle, never read the script. When I saw the cut, that changed the lot of the ideas I had rolling around based on my experience with a short film or any descriptions I had read about this film. Once I saw the cut, that absolutely influenced me.
One particular scene, that is in the beginning of the film, happens in the kitchen. It was about a minute long in the short, and now it’s more than five minutes. Once I saw that, and how the arc of the scene played out, it gave me a whole new set of ideas. I don’t think reading the script would have done that for me. Also, logistically, I couldn’t start working on the film until Trey gave me something that was almost locked. Trey edited the film himself, and he was able to make some cuts to accommodate some of my music, but other things were cut out completely.
One of the most compelling things about the movie are the long takes – specifically the first scene. It’s a little unnerving, and because of the irregular height of the camera, and the shakiness, it feels like a voyeuristic documentary. Also, because Krisha is way out there, it represents her struggle to stay in the moment and keep up with everything that’s happening. Some of these scenes just kept going, and it seemed like your music was on an endurance run just to keep up with the chaos.
There’s a funny moment in that Steadicam shot – where Krisha is on that long walk to get to the front door of the house – and Orlando, the camera operator, was pulling out. He bumped the camera and I remember him telling me he thought he messed up. But Trey saw it and he said, “No, that’s perfect. That’s exactly the kind of thing that makes it unique!” The little mistakes you make can be embellished into something else.
There are so many of those beautiful long shots, like that one kitchen scene where the camera is just passing back and forth. It really helped me and is such a treat because it helps me remember to make music in that spirit by using a lot of improvisation. Things would happen in the early part of the music-making cycle that were not what I expected, but what was most exciting was trying to make things work in an unexpected way.
It really fit her character well. Krisha was unhinged from the beginning, very close to going over the edge, and your music did that in so many different ways. It wasn’t just a driving theme like Requiem for a Dream, it really played up all of the madness spawning from every encounter happening in the house. Your music had some static, it had woodpeckers, but then it was very experimental and improvisational. It sounded like at one point you even dropped the drumstick.
[Laughs] I totally did! Those little things are, I think, what made it special. It’s a combination of being really, really slick, and homemade at the same time. That combination presents itself in the dialogue too. Some things are scripted, but lots of other things are just improv. The entire outside scene between Uncle Doyle and Krisha, where they’re just going at it verbally, is completely made up on the spot. But also the scene where they wheel in Grandma – she didn’t know she was being filmed because she has Dementia. So in that aspect, it’s like a documentary, and it really was, because she was interacting with her real family. These unique, and unplanned moments really helped influence the score as well.
Krisha Fairchild is just magnetic. Whether she’s got the camera on herself – like that scene where she’s leaving her boyfriend a voice mail – or she’s with one character, or the whole family, she really anchors this film. So talk to me about the spotting sessions. How did you decide what music to put in and what to leave out?
A lot of those decisions came from Trey who, immediately after shooting, jumped right into editing. So he already knew where he wanted music and where he didn’t. But there were a few instances where I would jump in and add or remove something. Now that was something that I was most self-conscious about in the beginning – thinking there was too much music. Trey already had a strong vision because, in a way, he’d already made this movie. By failing to make the feature, and focusing on the short film, he knew what he wanted to do and that made it easy. A lot of times when I’m given a film, the director doesn’t know where music goes and where it doesn’t. But Trey really did have an idea, and that made the spotting really quick and easy.
Going back to that sequence where Uncle Doyle and Krisha are outside, that has music come in and out of the scene over the course of seven minutes. It creeps in and creeps out four different times, and that was one of those spotting sessions that came about as we started to tweak the music. That particular cue is just so freaking annoying that you couldn’t take seven minutes of it. So fading in and out at certain points keeps it from being entirely anxiety producing. It’s less in-your-face, but it is still persistent and creepy. We spotted it so the music would sneak in when things were getting really heated and the music could be loud, and then other times it would drown out and become unnoticeable and disappear.
So, spotting was easy, but as far as difficult requests, that came when Trey wanted to have an epic seven minute piece that builds and be comprised of orchestral instruments and synthesizers. If you don’t have a lot of money to record strings and orchestral instruments, it can get very expensive.
This will probably open a lot of doors for Trey, but have people contacted you about their projects after seeing the film?
Well, I’m doing pretty well. I’m very busy right now working on a film with a director named Dustin Guy Defa. He made a short film called Person to Person and is expanding that to a feature-length film with more characters and different elements. I’m doing less of what you would call score work, and focusing on more songs and source music.
Personally, I like to do music for film because I like doing it for the film, not because the director is asking for a particular type of music. Krisha had a score, but I just like making genre music. I’m going to make one piece for the film which is like late ’90s melodic hardcore metal. Another is like late ’60s classic soul music, and then a different one is modern synth pop.
I don’t feel that a lot of indie films have scores, although I’ve done a couple recently and one was for a film called Ma, directed by Celia Rowlson-Hall. That’s a silent film, so that was a score, but I did a documentary called Nuts! with director Penny Lane, and that was another one where it was less score and more writing songs to fit into the film and work with other licensed music they were working with.
I hope people see Krisha and like what they hear, because this for me was the most exciting film to write music for especially when the director is looking for that type of atmosphere and score. The music is an indicator of her own emotional state, and the music is coming from within her and her internal thought process and emotions. So it was a really fun process.
Would you clear up one thing for us? How do you pronounce Krisha? I thought it was like Trisha but with a ‘K’. You say it with a long ‘e’, so is it Kreesha?
[Laughs] I did the same thing! I’m from the Northeast so I would pronounce it Krisha, but because she’s from Texas – they are like a Texas Family – they say Kreesha. So I’ve learned to say it that way. [Laughs]
Krisha is now available on VOD. Listen to the score above.
Virtually the talk of the Locarno Film Festival, João Pedro Rodrigues‘ The Ornithologist has continued the Portuguese auteur’s fascination with his nation’s history, all while delivering a deeply funny, strange film that breaks from many of this festival season’s more austere, serious work.
We sat down with the man who won Best Director at the festival to talk Saint Anthony (the claimed figure at the center of his film), as well as the technical challenges and his lead actor, Paul Hamy‘s, bound-to-be-a-star breakout performance.
The Film Stage: In the film’s press kit, you mention that one of the inspirations was how, when you approach the age of 50, you start to think about all these lives you could’ve led. Is that something that’s very specific to being an artist?
João Pedro Rodrigues: I think it’s specific to being a human being. [Laughs] I think everybody has that feeling. You always look at your life in retrospect, I think, especially when you turn these mythical ages. Though it’s true that I wanted to be an ornithologist when I was a kid. And I was, but then I studied films and I made films. I could’ve been an ornithologist; I’m a scientific person.
When I think of your few films — O Fantasma, Two Drifters, To Die Like a Man — I kind of think of them as genre pieces, in ways. Like a thriller or a melodrama. But with your last couple of films and shorts, you’ve really turned to tackling Portuguese identity and history. What’s behind the compulsion to act the historian of sorts?
I don’t know if I have a compulsion. But I don’t know if this is just Portuguese mythology. It’s broader, because it’s about the most popular saint in the world. But what I’m interested in is more to depart from the popular knowledge about this event that happened a long time ago. But everybody knows them, so they’re like the structure over which I can trace different stories. It’s the life story of a saint, but I traced a story that is totally different. Of course, in the end, the film is not the real life of the saint. I don’t believe the church would be like, “Let’s show this biopic of Saint Anthony.” [Laughs] I think that Catholicism is so inside Portuguese culture and European culture, but I’m not a religious person myself, and I’m trying to break up with that. But it’s something that intrigues me, especially in how I arrived to religion through art — like paintings, for instance.
And how do you portray a Saint as a transcendental being? But portraying a man or a woman. So you have to give him or her features. There’s the model. Many painters painted models as the Virgin Mary or what. But they’re all mythical figures and you don’t know if they existed or not. But I like his idea of, “How do you embody transcendency? How do you incarnate transcendency?” I think it’s what most interests me. How do you talk about mythology with something that is very much real life? It’s like people and actors in front of a camera, and of course I’m not doing The Ten Commandments. [Laughs] And I’ve been very free with those stories; trying, in a way, to tell a story that’s closer to me but, at the same time, having anchors in mythical events. Not just Saint Anthony’s story, but there’s a lot of biblical episodes that I recreate. Even Pagan, because those wild guys in the forest that dress up — there’s this kind of Pagan ceremony that really exists in those parts of the country. It’s like taking things that are in the popular knowledge and making something different from them.
This is the widest aspect ratio you’ve ever used for a film. Was it difficult to adapt to that and what was the impetus behind it?
I wanted to make a film in CinemaScope, because there’s a monumentality in those spaces that I think asks for something as wide as CinemaScope. It’s really very different because we shot with anamorphic lenses. For instance, the relationship between the bodies of the actors and nature and the background is totally different that in other formats. In the beginning, I was surprised that it was so different. It’s harder to go close because there’s so much space around. I always prepare with every film — I know what I want to shoot — but, sometimes, I think I shot things in longer shots than in other films.
Did shooting outdoors make that more difficult?
It was a pleasure, because those places are so beautiful and so hidden. They are so unexplored; sometimes I felt I was somewhere where very few people had been in a long time. It’s like going back in time, because those places have been like that for a long time; they’ve changed very little. You’re in a place where time has different rules, as if you could be in the past but it’s now.
I believe I missed this in the end credits, but a friend I saw the film with pointed this out: is there a dedication to Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart?
Because, when I think of both of those actors, I think of the stars of Anthony Mann westerns. Do you see the film as your version of a western?
That was one of the main ideas, to make a western, because it’s my favorite genre. Because there’s really this [sense of] man and nature. You can really see how a man can be strong or weak in nature, how he can resist or survive. It’s like you’re challenging the physicality. That’s why I like those few years of the wild men; I thought a little bit of them as like Indians in a John Ford film.
But I was thinking more about someone like Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott — that kind of, like, harshness and very fast storytelling. In some of these films they are very precise. Also, I like people that are not artistic in a sense. These are people that did a lot of films and did not see themselves as artists, like doing a job. I like the idea of doing a job, doing something with efficiency.
Do you see your lead actor, Paul Hamy, as a Gary Cooper-like figure? Did you get that rugged-movie-star quality from him?
He’s half-American, half-French, and I don’t really like French actors. [Laughs] I couldn’t find anyone in Portugal to portray the character I imagined, and I thought he had in himself a physicality. Also there are not many words in the film, because he’s mostly alone. He has this kind of monumentality, so I thought he could easily play in a western as Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott, like where they also sometimes don’t speak much. For me, he had the same importance as nature, as well as the animals. Everything is at the same level, in a sense; I tried looking at him like I was looking at the birds, as I was looking at nature.
Watching the film, it reminded me of how certain directors have used animals in films as a supernatural vessel. I think of Jacques Rivette and cats, or David Lynch and owls in Twin Peaks. When you were originally an ornithologist, did you get that feeling looking at animals all day, that they had this otherworldly quality that inspired you creatively?
There’s a lot of myths with birds, and there’s a lot of symbolism with birds. But what made me do what I did was scientific, because when I was looking at birds I was really looking at them scientifically. Of course, one bird is very symbolic: the white dove. The white dove is like the ultimate symbol of the holy spirit; it’s always portrayed like that in paintings. So of course I used that symbolism, but it’s also like just doves: there’s a physical white dove and not the ethereal dove, like in paintings. He holds the dove, it has a broken wing, and it’s guiding him. But I always think the departure is not the symbol but the physicality. It’s a bird, and then, perhaps, it’s the holy spirit. Or you can look at it that way, but it’s the bird that interests me.
The Ornithologist premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.
At one point in Ira Sachs’ Little Men, the young Jake (Theo Taplitz) explains to his parents (played by Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) how they can avoid evicting their tenant, Leonor (Paulina García), from the store she’d been renting from his late grandfather for years. Jake’s simple economic plan makes the heart ache because of how perfect it is: it calls for empathy, equality, and, without being completely naive, proposes something that could be achievable within the right political system. But his plan is even more heartbreaking because he knows it’s his last chance to salvage his friendship with Tony (Michael Barbieri), Leonor’s adolescent son, who’s become his closest, dearest friend. As the adults stand in disbelief of Jake’s plea, is he addressing their inner child or are they merely getting a preview of the troublesome teenage years ahead? Sachs makes us wonder who the “little” people from the title are. Is it those who are still young in years, or those who have lost the ability to believe they can achieve greatness?
As with all of Sachs’ films, Little Men is a study in compassion and humanity where each character deserves a film of their own. As thorough in his writing (he co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias) as he is detailed in his direction, Sachs offers his audiences the opportunity to embrace complex moral dilemmas the likes of which mainstream American cinema has practically dispensed of. Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, Sachs’ films are about soul-searching, and Little Men might just be his most profound work to date. I sat down with Sachs at the Magnolia Pictures offices in New York to talk about the films that inspired Little Men, how he came up with a thematic trilogy, and his upcoming film about Monty Clift.
In your last three films you’ve showed us stories about men in different chapters in their lives, we have the children in Little Men, the adults in Keep the Lights On, and the older adults from Love is Strange. How did this trilogy end up manifesting itself?
I wasn’t preparing a trilogy when we first did Keep the Lights On, but by the time we finished Love is Strange, Mauricio Zacharias and I felt there was a third story to tell which focused on young people. That was quite conscious, but, with that said, they exist in very different universes. Once we made that decision, we focused on the story of the boys and their families. I guess that’s where the film is in dialogue with Love is Strange, they’re about generations and the conversations between them.
They’re different universes but they’re still connected by New York…
…by New York and the people involved in telling the stories. There’s themes that come through the films in a sustained way.
Did you want to tell a story about New York decaying?
No, I guess when I make a movie I try to be as accurate as I can with my depiction of place, character and community, so each film have a different community they investigate. I think art, in particular cinema, is by nature about change so a thing film documents is change in a city and an evolution that never stops. By documenting your time with precision you are speaking to elements of life which are ageless.
When we talked about Love is Strange you mentioned you had been watching a lot of Ozu which influenced the outcome. You also mentioned The 400 Blows in preparation for your next project. Was this it? Because this certainly feels like a Truffaut tribute.
Yes, but specifically this film is a remake of two Ozu movies: I Was Born But… and Good Morning, which is a remake of his own film. In both films, kids go on strike against their parents, and that seemed to Mauricio and I to be a great plot. We took that plot and little else from these movies, except our love for Ozu, which we carry on, and that’s how this began. As we started meeting on 23rd street, a block from where we are now, to talk about this movie, we tend to talk about movies and life when we get together. Mauricio is from Rio and his family owned a shop and they were in a long battle with a tenant to evict her. Every day, he would tell me some different episode of what was happening in that story and he told me how one day they were in court and when they went back to the shop she had posted a sign that said “Help Wanted.” I thought that was a great scene, and also I knew there were two sides to that story, that gave us the nuance for our plot. We have a Romeo and Juliet story here between two kids from different families who are in great conflict.
I’m glad you brought that up because I wanted to talk about the sexual dynamics in the movie, which reminded me of the kid from Love is Strange, too, and it’s that you open the door for these boys to grow up and be gay without ever imposing a sexual orientation on them. Just the fact that this is an option for the characters without being the center of their plot is so remarkable.
I think the parents in the film are wonderful. They’re flawed; they disappoint their kids. As a parent, I know I will disappoint my kids too and that recognition is very Ozu. We struggled with how to make decisions for these kids and, ultimately, I felt that I couldn’t impose a future on these characters or the actors. Specifically Jay, because he represents me in the film — also my husband, who is a painter and went to LaGuardia School. I felt I had cast two kids who were not at the point where I could define their future and I accepted that. It also probably reflects my own experience of friendship as a child and as a gay man. My adolescent friendships were not the site of my sexuality. My sexual relations occurred outside that realm.
It’s also refreshing to watch your films with someone else because they always lead to arguments afterwards…
I keep walking to this building and the last shot of Keep the Lights On is the corner of 26th and Broadway, and it’s changed one hundred percent in 5 years. Every time I walk past that corner, I think that was me as the character of the filmmaker going into the future, going into the unknown. Generally my films end in an open space in which the future is not determined.
Right. Beyond that, I got so defensive of Leonor, maybe because I’m a Hispanic immigrant myself, and the friend I watched the movie with took the side of the parents. In this election cycle I just had to see Leonor as someone who would be reviled by Republicans, but that’s probably not something you wanted to impose on her, either.
It is a little bit in this film, to the extent that I think it’s nice that you’re saying that you leave the films and you engage in conversation or argument — which is my intention. At the end of the film, I hand the movie over to the audience; I don’t tell them what to think. I like an open ending, so it would make sense that people want to argue about it. What was intended was not to stack the cards on either side, which is also very Romeo and Juliet, which has no villains…
…or Tybalt, who I played in a children’s theater in Memphis. For example the rich are not really, really rich or the poor are not really poor. They are similarly educated and feel like they belong to the same class which calls for moral suspense, because you do vacillate in your identification. I always think of Patricia Highsmith when I’m making a film. I always think, even in art films, you need to create suspense.
As a theatre nerd it also struck me how the kids in the film are basically Konstantin, and you chose The Seagull as the play the father stars in. Did you talk to Michael and Theo about Chekhov?
No, one of my favorite lines in the film is when Michael says he’ll do a Strindberg play because it has two actors and that’s all he knows about Strindberg, which to me is very funny.
But why The Seagull and not The Cherry Orchard?
Mauricio and I are writing a film about Montgomery Clift and he performed in The Seagull in the 1950s, so we were very familiar with that and had been studying the backstory of that production. We actually tried to get the rights to “No Exit,” but the rights are controlled by the Sartre Estate which is controlled by his wife and she didn’t give us the rights to use this bit, so we ended up choosing Chekhov because without being too heavy handed felt right. I also liked the idea of Greg Kinnear in period costume doing Chekhov.
I hope we can see that production for real some day…
[Laughs] I don’t know about that.
I really liked that scene in which we see Michael’s character doing the acting exercise.
In that scene I wanted to show the kids from that school in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I wanted to make people feel like they were in that classroom, it’s important for me to build that world with as much detail as possible, show class and race. The kids are actually doing Meisner within Strasberg, the two are oppositional approaches so I’ve now had long Facebook conversations about whether I did good Meisner or not [laughs]. It was important for me to show the kid was talented, so we could invest in his hopes.
I’m really curious about who you’ll cast as Elizabeth Taylor in Monty.
One of my favorite things about Clift is when I remember he played Freud…
Freud is a big part of our script.
That’s great. How do you narrow what aspects of someone’s life you want to focus on?
It’s a long process. Eventually, you have to find your own story which is separate from the research and the real world. You are making creative and narrative decisions, so you have to create a world within your screenplay which you begin to believe, and then that becomes the life of Monty Clift. Suddenly you forgot there was this whole thing you thought you needed which is no longer there, and when the screenplay works it feels like it’s the only story you can tell.
What’s the definitive Clift performance for you?
I don’t have a favorite. I discovered some, though, like The Search, which is a Fred Zinnemann film he made after Red River and before A Place in the Sun. It’s so loose and alive, he made it in Germany at the end of the war, he becomes a document of a very emotional time, his emotions are part of the story.
You’ve done period pieces before — Married Life is wonderful. What excited you the most about going back in time? Any other characters you’re dying to cast?
I think if you do period well it’s not about period, it’s about life and it seems as contemporary as possible. This neighborhood is great for Monty, because it’s a very New York story, he never left this city, so there is so much here that I hope to get right. I’m interested in casting Lew Wasserman. He was very important, especially in connection to Freud, which came at a very dramatic point in Monty’s life. It’s a whole imaginary universe, I’m still in the fictional version, it needs to be greenlit, so now I’m on the page and I try to stay there.
Little Men is now in limited release and expanding throughout the month. Watch a talk with Sachs above.
Gleason follows the life of ex-NFL football player Steve Gleason and his battle with ALS through video journals and, later, camera footage. Gleason is the star here as his honesty is what draws one in. He has been described as a warrior poet and that description definitely applies. His travels with his wife are sure to pull at the emotional strings, but the film also feels honest in its intent and drive. That is largely due to Gleason and the people around him, but also to director Clay Tweel. It was a great pleasure to talk with Tweel as I asked him about the practicalities of financing a film like this, how involved Gleason and his wife were, and what his goal was in the making of this documentary. Enjoy the full conversation below.
Bill Graham: First off, I wanted to know the genesis of this project and in particular, at what point you got involved with Steve [Gleason]? Because he was doing the video journals and things like that ahead of when film crews got involved in this. So I’m curious who reached out to who, and how that relationship evolved.
Clay Tweel: So the background is that, Steve is having trouble — he’s losing motor skills — and so he needs some help to document his life, and so the project was growing beyond potentially just making video journals for Rivers [Steve’s son].
There’s these two young kids, Ty Minton-Small and David Lee, fresh out of school and they came on board and really embedded themselves with the family and became a part of it — they became brothers to Rivers and caretakers to Steve, and were documenting and were around for about three and a half years. So I became involved when a couple years ago I saw a clip that was very emotional and really distilled what was the heartwarming and, at the same time, heart-wrenching emotional component of the film. The producers Kimi Culp and Scott Fujita were reaching out to find a creative team to help shape this movie, so myself, [and producers] Seth Gordon and Mary Rolich came aboard to help turn this into a feature-length documentary out of the — at that point –12,000 hours of footage that had been captured over four-and-a-half years.
It’s a lot. I’m curious at what point do you just get a hold of all this material? Because at the same time, Steve is still making more and more material. So you’re living with the actual subject as well — it’s an ongoing process — so I’m curious how much do you map out what you’re trying to tell narratively, and how much did you actually get Steve involved? Because it’s very obvious Steve would want to be involved in your process.
Sure, it was his idea from the beginning, so it would have been irresponsible for me to not have him involved. The first conversation that I had with him, I was going down to New Orleans and professing my love for this story, and it was really great. Steve is very well-read, and he kind of breaks the mold when it comes to football players. I’ve heard his friends describe him as a warrior poet. So he’s very philosophical, and I got down there and I could talk to him about Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, and story structure. So it was amazing to be able to collaborate in that way with somebody who is not coming in completely blind.
In terms of what we had to try and plot out, the story was, on first blood for me, really about a guy who, through a series of tragic circumstances, finds his purpose in life — his purpose of why he was living and what he wanted to impart to his son. But in really digging into the footage and getting into what we had caught on camera over the years, was the story of intergenerational fatherhood and the caretaking story, and the husband and wife story of Steve and Michelle. Those were both really big surprises to me, I didn’t think we would have the ability to go as deep as we did in those areas.
It’s interesting because you get a lot of honesty out of the subject matters in the film — whether it’s Michelle, or Steve, or his father, or anyone dealing with the situation at hand — and I’m curious how much you push for that. Because it seems for Steve and Michelle both, that was the reason they got together and they click so well: because they were both very honest.
And they didn’t care about the fact that people aren’t supposed to talk about it in that sense, but in a way that’s silly because this is life and we have to talk about it and we have to deal with it. So, I’m curious how much of that is presented and how much of that you had to coax out of them.
I didn’t really have to coax much. They are incredibly unique people in that way, in exactly what you’re describing. They are able to — with a great amount of clarity and openness — talk about their emotions and exactly what they’re feeling as they’re going through something. The courage it takes to be that vulnerable and that raw in trying times, combined with the fact that the camera is there and it’s always around. There’s this extreme experiential vérité film being made at the same time with those types of people — that combination makes the film incredibly moving and powerful. That just equals the raw aesthetic and tone of the entire thing.
Steve mentions Hawking, and especially the unit that he uses to speak and uses his eyesight for that purpose. The film The Theory of Everything explores a lot of what’s going on in this film towards the end. That film came out while you were making your film and I’m curious how Steve and Michelle responded to it, because I’m sure they had to be aware of it and have seen it at some point.
Yeah, I talked to Steve and Michelle about it a little bit and I do know that they both liked it and thought it was a great movie. But what Steve said to me very early on was that he wanted to show the daily brutal realities of what this disease does to not only the people [with ALS], but the people around them. So I think The Theory of Everything certainly did that to a certain degree, but there are little moments in it: for instance, they’re at dinner, then all of a sudden Stephen Hawking is upstairs in bed, and his wife is talking to him in bed, and what you don’t see are the little in between moments, right? Which is she’d have to carry him up the stairs, physically lift him and put him in bed.
There’s maybe a fifteen-minute process we just skip past.
Exactly. The more progressed you get [with ALS], the longer that process takes. So, by the time I met Steve, it took him about an hour to an hour and a half to get ready for bed every night. This is before he had the surgery, but it was a process. Steve asked to be filmed during those bedtime routines a lot because he wanted the world to see how much he had to go through, just to show people what his daily routine was.
I think in a way, more than anything, his story is so unique and interesting but he has a disease that a lot of people have to deal with and it’s something that becomes relatable. It’s that cliche of, “every person puts on their pants one leg at time,” right?
In this, it’s everyone deals with the same stuff, generally, when it comes to ALS — the progression of it, the degradation of bodily functions, and your ability to move and talk — and that is what becomes relatable and unique about this film. You don’t shy away from it. I think in a way that’s probably the smartest move of the film, is making it to the point where you have this unique guy who has this situation that a lot of other people can relate to.
I think you’re right. I think that in being more specific you actually get to be more universal. If you really get to not only show the unique position these people are in, but you’re also getting to the core of how people are feeling about these things and these challenges that they’re coming up against — you’re getting to their motivations and their thought processes — then you’re going to be able to get to abstract, more universal themes. That’s what’s going to connect your audience. At any one time there’s only 30,000 people with ALS in the U.S. but, for instance, there’s a scene in the movie where Steve and Michelle are having a fight before bed, and I think that hits a lot of married couples in general. You have one person who wants to talk about someone or something and the other person who is too tired to. I like those moments where we can have something specific yet universal at the same time.
I’m sure you did a lot of self-reflection while making this film, because it’s just something you can’t help but do. I’m curious what you’ve taken away from this filmmaking process and from being around Steve and Michelle. Especially with Steve’s drive to put things down into a medium that he — or potentially someone else — can show his son.
I think the main thing that I’ve gotten is just an overflowing sentiment of perspective — the perspective of my own problems in relation to what’s happening to the rest of the world, and really getting to that core belief of do the things you love around the people you love, with the people you love. It sounds very simple but it’s often very hard to accomplish. Just like for Steve and Michelle, when you’re confronted with those types of limitations and challenges, you’re often just left with these simple phrases and that’s what I’m left with. That, in conjunction with the power of the resilience of the human spirit. The movie is a very honest reflection of the human experience — there’s going to be these crazy highs and crazy lows, there’s going to be tragedy and chaos and there’s also going to be humor and hilarity and the joyous times as well — and it’s all a part of what it’s like to live.
This is a documentary and it’s about a certain subject that Gleason is very involved in with ALS, with the Team Gleason foundation. The idea that a documentary is made about his particular life, it would seem kind of a no-brainer that his own foundation might fund it. But I know the reality isn’t that cut and dry, it’s not as easy as that. What’s the reality of how you got the film funded and how you got the money to put it together?
So Seth Gordon, Kimi Culp, and Scott Fujita really put us in a great position. We teamed up with IGM Films, we were one of the first films they came on board to help finance. I don’t normally talk about investors or financiers, but they were fantastic to work with. I feel honored and grateful that they came on board and really put a lot of muscle behind the movie. Then we had some people and some corporations that are organic to the story: Steve uses a Microsoft tablet to speak, so Microsoft came on and pitched in a little bit; Steve recorded a lot of his video journals on GoPro, so GoPro came on and pitched in a little bit, so we were very fortunate to have these people. I think Steve’s story resonates so much and affects people so powerfully that we were in a good position to get the film financed and bring it to the market.
You’ve been a producer on a film like this before, whether it’s something like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters where you really dive into some of the subject that maybe you wouldn’t normally cover. I’m curious what you had to cut out of the film for runtime purposes or was asked, or maybe just for yourself you had to cut out.
Anything in particular you can think of?
There’s so many things. There’s so much. I’ve got this question before and there are so many things, my brain just goes in a million different places. These people were so honest and real, there were so many great, great moments. I think that on that Team Gleason side of things, there are a lot of caretakers and people that worked with the foundation and that were really special and were good characters.
Also, we highlighted through the movie how much Steve loves technology, and how he uses it, but the guy is the beta tester for every new piece of technology for ALS patients. He’s like one of the world’s fastest typers with that eye-tracking technology and he goes to Microsoft and lays the smackdown on their programmers and be like, “This is what I can’t do. Fix it.” So those little stories and just how passionate he is about the technology was not necessarily on-theme all the time, with fatherhood and Michelle’s story, but it is fascinating and I think something that he’s very passionate about. So, I tried to use it when I could, but really there’s some great moments in there that didn’t make the cut.
Gleason is now in limited release and expanding.
For all his experience as a producer and writer — most notably as the head of Focus Features, and most specifically as a longtime associate of Ang Lee — it was an odd choice on James Schamus‘ part to make a directorial debut in his late ’50s — and especially by adapting Philip Roth, whose psychologically dense prose, to name but one thing, has stifled those attempting book-to-screen translations. But no matter the author’s typically precise and internalized perspective, the text in question, Indignation, should be an easier work to slide into, in some part because its ’50s-college setting creates an atmosphere that could easily be brought to cinema. Here’s the good news: to view Schamus’ own Indignation is to again witness an understanding of time and place.
Even better was the act of interviewing him. The extent of Schamus’ experience and knowledge — it’s only so often you interview someone who’s written a monograph about Dreyer’s Gertrud, and about as often that Mekas is name-dropped to illustrate a point about cinematic ontology — as well as our mutual love of Roth, comes through in a discussion that only grew more specific the longer it ran. But despite how in-depth we ended up going on the subject for which, in promotion, a hotel’s entire basement had been rented out, we began with an unexpected point of note: my tote bag. With one glance, we were off.
James Schamus: Hold on… I have to see what’s on this bag.
That’s fantastic. I never realized; I never saw the bag. That’s crazy. Way back in the day — I mean, this goes back to when I first showed up in New York and was working for the Wooster Group — MoMA had these tiny screening rooms in the library for film scholars. You could just go and say, “Hey, I know you’ve got a print of x. We’re doing research. Could you screen for us?” If you were an approved scholar or cultural institution, it was free, because they had projectionists on staff.
So I remember Elizabeth LeCompte, who runs the Wooster Group, was developing something, and it struck a chord. I said, “You know, there’s this crazy movie about a theater group and politics and paranoia and the Cold War, which is very much Wooster Group territory, called Paris nous appartient — Paris Belongs to Us!” And I will never forget: I called up MoMA and they were like, “Yeah, sure, come on over,” and we trouped over and watched the movie. It was insane. What an experience! Yeah, those days are over.
And now it’s on Hulu. Just right there.
On the one hand, I feel I’ve grown up in the right time; on the other hand, there’s this option-paralysis issue when you have access to everything and don’t know what to choose.
That’s right. And, of course, the “access to everything” mantra creates another anxiety: you also know you don’t have access to everything, so what is it that’s missing? Because it feels like everything, you don’t even know what to think of what’s not there.
And new canons start forming because of what you can see, so things get swept under the rug.
And then you have to enter elite torrent networks for rare films.
You sometimes have to beg somebody to make something accessible. I guess it never ends.
No, it does. That’s the point. [Laughs]
As much as I’d like to talk about this all day, I think we’re obligated to discuss Indignation.
Damn. [Snaps fingers]
I’ve known of you in one regard because of your work with Focus and, specifically, Ang Lee, so I was intrigued when I heard you’d move to directing — and then, when I heard it was with a Philip Roth adaptation, became nervous.
You and me both! [Laughs]
They don’t have the strongest track record, as I’m sure you know. Did it at all give pause, this idea that one hasn’t really captured a book’s spirit and you’ll be charging in with that?
No, it did not. In hindsight, it should have! I’m not saying it shouldn’t have! [Laughs] Part of it was that coming at it at that particular point in my life… that is to say, if this entire exercise is one thing, it’s obviously, at least partially, the result of some midlife crisis. I had the luxury of going into it thinking that the odds were so overwhelming that this was going to be an embarrassing failure that who cares about the pedigree of Philip Roth adaptations? Or anything else? It’s probably not going to work out, anyhow, so who cares? [Laughs]
What’s the track record of late-middle-age studio executives who direct movies? That’s not pretty good, either! Let me tell you. Spoiler alert! [Laughs] The whole thing was a misguided lark, in some way. And then, of course, you have daily miracles of just, “Wow, this person seems to be responding,” or, “This person said yes.” Suddenly it becomes real, and then you can start working. That’s when you can start working.
You said you found a copy at the airport, read it on the flight, and, upon landing, started searching for the rights. So I’d like to know what, upon reading Indignation, first created a really strong visual impression. Did anything feel especially tactile and ready for cinematic translation?
You know, it’s funny: I don’t think that way, although, clearly as a producer — and now as a director, and even when I’m writing scripts… “film is a visual medium,” as they say. But I think primarily, first and foremost, in character and character interactions that then look like stories. I don’t have that sense of, “Oh, story structure and three acts.” I don’t really care about acts. What I care about is characters, and then they careen into each other what kind of resultant explosions occur and interactions, and that’s what gets me. It took a while for the visual language to develop. As they say, “Oh, it’s very talky! That seems like theater!” Like, “Yeah, but…” [Laughs] “Yes, but…” And then you get into the mechanics and specifics of the image.
If it becomes more real when people agree to participate, I wonder about the balance between what the book conjures up and what a collaborator can bring, by which I mean: is it hard to find the person who you know will bring what’s imagined? Or is it mostly a matter of trust that they’ll give you something “good,” regardless of whether or not it’s exact?
Right. There are two answers to that question. Number one is: if what you desire is a movie that you have already made in your head and that you just need, now, to communicate to the 400 people you’ll be working with exactly what they need to do to get exactly that movie you’ve already made in your head, you will fail miserably — or you may succeed somewhat, but, at the end of the process, you will have made 400 people into very bitter [Laughs] unhumanoid things surrounding you. Right? That, I’ve learned over the years, is not what makes directing work.
If, on the other hand, you have a very strong idea of a direction or flow or feeling or overall goal of where you want things to land, but the translation of that into the decisions that need to be made to get there you know is always going to be a process of question-and-answer and call-and-response between you and those hundreds of people, and that you need to establish a few ground rules for them — and that you need to know they are competent, and that they can communicate with you and you can communicate with them — then you have this incredible luxury of being open to surprise and exploration and realizing that what you wanted was less than what you probably are going to end up getting. You can get more, it turns out.
And desire is always very funny. Desire is a thing where you think you desire that — and, of course, that’s the thing, and it turns out, “Wait, I still have desire for what? What happened?” So that alchemy is what you’re looking for, particularly from actors. I can’t stress enough… again, there are always exceptions to this rule. I assume that… even the exceptions, I think, have their own, I would say, very specific counter-narratives. So if you have a kind of Bresson, who’s like, “I just hire models and they do exactly what I tell them to do,” and you’re like, “Yeah, okay, maybe. Maybe not. Let’s see how that actually works in real practice.”
But for me, with the actors in particular, it was important to create a space where, yeah, I was making adjustments. This was not free-range, “Let’s just all roam the prairie in whatever direction you want and I’ll just shoot you.” No, it was really in-context, but everything was about making sure they felt they can just go even further — that they can fly. So it’s that balance that I was looking for.
“Desire is always very funny” would be a good tagline for Indignation.
Yes! [Laughs] Except it’s not that funny! Although it is kind of funny. That’s the thing: people do laugh in the movie. Of course. Yeah.
Roth’s book is very funny. I don’t know if the movie is, which is okay — it’s a different thing.
Yet I still feel this is a pretty good adaptation, which I mean in the literal sense: bringing it to this new place. What you say about collaborators compels me to ask if you made it a point for everybody to read the book beforehand.
No. No. I didn’t discourage anybody, and I didn’t encourage, as a rule — although I expected people to read the book, of course. So it wasn’t really “a point.” Of course the cast all read the book; I assume that. It became very funny: the closer we got to production, there was a moment where I just put the book aside. Of course I, myself, had a copy that’s practically unusable now. It’s so frayed and marked-up and underlined and marginalia and blah blah blah. But there was a point a few months before pre-production where I just put the book aside and said, “I’m not going to look at it again.” It’s now in a place where I can’t even remember what’s in the book or what I did originally or… “That scene’s not in the book? Are you sure it’s not in the book? Oh, right. I did make that up. I forgot.” I can’t tell. I just don’t want to think about it, right? Because, at a certain moment, you have to turn your back and face forward towards the screen, and the decisions you make have to be decisions for the film.
So, with crew, it was really interesting. For example, the production designer, Inbal Weinberg, is amazing. A research fanatic and unbelievable reader, as well as a visual thinker. So we’d be talking through and she’d say, “Well, in the book…” I’d say, “That’s great. That’s in the book, and if that helps you solve this problem, that’s great. But if it doesn’t help you solve this problem and come back with the options that you think are right, that’s fine, too. It’s really fine.” Those moments started happening more and more as we got closer to production.
With that in mind, I’d like to hear some more thoughts on adapting Roth. I’ve read a lot of his books and feel you could make a good movie from just about any of them — so long as you “work your way around them” in some particular manner. You might have to take a strange approach, but…
Have you read many others?
In those you’ve read, what, if anything, is particularly adaptable? What do you think could give over to movies in a way people might not expect?
[Laughs] Well, here’s what I’d say, and it goes back to something you said. It really triggered a thought in me, which is: the book is really funny; the movie’s not as funny, but that’s okay because it’s still an adaptation. Why is that? I think I have at least a preliminary answer, which is: no matter how stringent or satirical or funny or cutting or biting or whatever you want to say about the book and the tonality of it, the bottom line is, by the end of the book — if it succeeded for you — Roth has created a very elegiac and tragic sensibility in you. The road to that moment when you put the book down, if it worked — if it didn’t, that’s fine — it probably worked because, when you finished the book, there was that gut check, right?
That modality in cinema is almost impossible. You have the same characters, the same situations, the same narrative — but if you try to get to the production of that sensibility at the end of that experience by sticking to the voice that Roth uses to get there, you’re screwed, and what you end up with is a very acerbic, stringent, but, weirdly, less truthful and emotional object. I think it just has to do with the technology, the media, that cinema is, as opposed to the novel. So the technology of the novel, just the use of voice — the modality of it — cinema doesn’t have. I use narration, but that doesn’t make the film a first-person movie. It’s very difficult. There is no such thing, really, as a first-person cinema. I mean, Lady in the Lake — whatever. Right? I always point to Chris Marker or Jonas Mekas — a type of essay cinema. The closest we get. But, even there, there’s something about the technology that says, “No, actually, that’s not a tool in your toolkit.” So we don’t have voice in that way; we just don’t have it.
So hence, yeah, the book’s funnier, but it’s just as tragic — interestingly. So I had to stick to characters. When you make the movie off the Philip Roth book, you’re hiring a dude to wear old clothes and have a haircut and put on makeup, and then, boom, that’s it: you’re filming that. You’re filming those people on the screen. You don’t have the luxury… it’s not a luxury. You don’t have the tool, the set of tools that Roth has. And, believe me, they’re not luxuries: Roth mobilizes them at such a level of genius. This is art at its most strenuous to create the gap between narrator and narrated, for example. We don’t have that, right?
The movie has a first-person narration, but one couched in a separate framing device. I’m very curious about this because it’s not in the book and gives closure to a character who, there, doesn’t have as much.
Someone who, as happens with a lot of Roth’s women, just kind of disappears and subsequently haunts the main character. So what was the… I don’t want to directly ask about “the meaning” behind it —
Yeah, yeah. Well, like I would know anyhow!
But when did that decision come in?
Part of it was, again, dealing with how to structurally create a gap or a space in which the feeling the book delivers can be approximated somehow — adapted — in cinema. And I realized that, again, this particular woman, Olivia, does exist at the end of the book. She’s there. Her presence is, in a sense, the reason for the book. The novel is, in a sense, a kind of material object thrown into the world 60 years later that brings her… she’s there. She haunts it. She haunts the end of that book, right? And he’s talking. She’s the object of the discourse, of the narration. “I’m talking to you forever.”
So I thought, “That’s really interesting that she exists and that she doesn’t exist,” like everybody else in the book. And then I thought, “This book itself is a kind of thing in the world that triggers the presence of this long-absent and long-dead past,” and so, for me, the older Olivia in the frame is actually Philip Roth. For me, that’s Roth, because he’s in the presence of something that’s there, in front of him, that’s gone. It’s not there. So she’s the viewer, the wall is actually the screen, and blah blah blah, blah blah blah. Blah blah blah! But you get the idea. [Laughs]
I think it ends at just the right moment. It’s not often a movie can do that.
Oh, thank you. No, I struggled with that, you know, and whether her face or just… no, because it’s a wall. There’s wallpaper. Whatever. It’s just a wall. Which is, by the way, what you’re doing, and remember: in terms of the question of time, temporality, and aliveness and deadness, one of the things I did very much, perversely and on purpose, was: as you know, the first rule in film school is, “Never let an actor or extra or anybody look into the lens.” Right? And I was like, “Hmm. Really?” One of the things I love about the reception so far to the movie, whatever it is, is that no one seems to notice that, every few minutes, every single actor in this movie turns — for no reason whatever — to the lens and stares at it. Like, they keep doing that. To me, it’s so crazy that it doesn’t break the world that we create, because the world I wanted to create was one in which the recording apparatus… and, therefore, the complete shift in temporality of what’s really going on; the aliveness and deadness, that moment that both of them are being breached.
So the very beginning of the movie: older Olivia [points forward] right there. And then the Chinese soldier: [points forward] right there. And then Marcus: [points forward] right there. Sarah Gadon. Everybody. They’re all like this: [points forward] “What are you doing here?” And it’s very funny. So it’s crazy. It’s supposed to be some extreme avant-garde gesture, blah blah blah, but it isn’t! It’s totally normal! Nobody even pays attention! And I love that. You know what I mean? [Laughs] It’s like it’s no big deal.
I have to ask about Roth’s reaction, since he’s spoken pretty highly of this film. Is there anything to say about getting to him and screening Indignation? Have you had an experience there?
Oh, yeah, yeah. He’s been so lovely. I can’t tell you. Look, I did something that was probably as stupid a thing you can do as a grown-up in this business: before pre-production, I sent him the script. [Makes grave face] Because he’s Philip Roth, right? What if he hated it? I don’t know; I probably wouldn’t have made the movie. And he did me one of the greatest favors anybody’s ever done me in my entire life: he refused to read it. [Laughs] I was like, “Wow.” What a gift, right? How freeing is that, to a filmmaker? I said, “Oh, that’s the healthy choice,” but still: the gift was to me.
And then I did screen it for him when we were in post, and he was great. And I knew that there would be things in there… because they’re not in the book; they’re really interpretations. The amount of respect he had for the fact that… and his ability not to judge the film as, “Is it faithful?” but rather, “Is this a movie?” It was amazing. We just had an amazing chat and [Claps] there you have it.
Considering his history of calling adaptations “a disaster”…
[Laughs] You know what? In this business, the most important emotion I’ve learned is relief.
Indignation enters a limited release on Friday, July 29.
In the time since I last spoke to Arnaud Desplechin — nine months, to be exact — his latest feature, My Golden Days, has gone from a celebrated theatrical release here in the U.S. to, on this very day, a title anyone can access via VOD services and DVD. Just as important, I think is word of his next feature, Les Fantomes d’Ismaël — though American press and Magnolia, its future distributor, use Ismael’s Ghosts in writing, the man himself calls it The Ghosts of Ismaël when speaking in English — a Sabbath’s Theater– and Vertigo-inspired drama concerning “a filmmaker whose life is sent into a tailspin by the return of a former lover just as he is about to embark on the shoot of a new film.” This sounds great on paper; that it’s to star Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Louis Garrel doesn’t make matters much worse.
Only one question in this interview directly concerns My Golden Days, being that we’ve already discussed it rather extensively, and what’s asked firmly takes advantage of our retrospective stance. What follows is, I think, as relaxed as it is focused, offering strange surprises and revelations along the way — including his love for both an acclaimed American rapper and controversial young auteur. (You can make a guess as to the latter if you know what festival he was just intimately involved in.) There’s always more to talk about with a man this experienced, wise, and open to the directions of discourse, and I hope it won’t be our last conversation. For now, this should do.
Where are you with this new film?
Arnaud Desplechin: The new film is called The Ghosts of Ismaël, and the next step, actually… I’m right in the middle of the production. I’ll start shooting it at the end of August; that’s the stage where I am. Shooting in August, September, and November.
Having moved from My Golden Days to that at a fairly efficient clip, I wonder if it could, in any way, play as a reaction — if one grew from the other, I suppose.
I guess I was carried by the fact that My Golden Days is dealing with young people and is about youth. This time, as a reaction to My Golden Days, it’s about middle characters, and I think all the character that I depicted in Ismaël are dealing with what you call in America “a second chance.” They are not that young; they are in their ‘40s. They are fighting for a new life, to reinvent themselves. It seems to me that, in My Golden Days, they were inventing themselves. But this time, it’s about the second chance — when you have to reinvent yourself. So it’s a different plot. The plot is quite different.
Also, I’m talking about the fact that what was so delightful in My Golden Days is that I was working with inexperienced actors, who are all so wonderful and fresh. This time, I’m working with major French movie stars, and so it’s quite different, to think that I’m dealing with people who are quite experienced. In the previous film, it was with younger guys and girls. It’s a big shift.
What effects could that have on you as a filmmaker?
I guess, in an odd way, I learned a lot from the young guys and girls — precisely because they were inexperienced with stage fright. They taught me a lot. This time, because I’m working with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Cotillard, I’m eager to learn from them. You know, I started not to rehearse, because I don’t do proper rehearsals, but I had to have some readings-through with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and I was so eager to know the way she works with Lars von Trier, which is so different from the way she works with other directors. To learn from that, and to learn from her experience is a real favor for me.
It’s different, also, because Louis Garrel will be in the film, and, with his way of working with his father, he asked me to rehearse a lot. As I told you, I never rehearse on my films. This time, I rehearsed a lot with Louis because he had to catch his character — that’s his way of working — so I guess I’m learning from all these actors who have all different backgrounds, and I’m trying to listen to them and to discuss their performances.
We’ve had more than a year between My Golden Days premiering and now. How, if at all, has it changed for you in this time?
It was a big change. I guess… I was saying that the film I wrote is about people who are trying to reinvent themselves after they’ve had a tough life. They are trying for this last chance. For me, My Golden Days allowed me to reinvent myself as a director, because of the youth of this cast, and the fact that I was working three plots. I had to go faster in my storytelling, so it helped me a lot. After that, we had this award in France, which is called Le César, and we had so many nominations. It was so gratifying for me, and I had the Best Director. I’m so happy to have this from the provisional of France, for this work that I did; it was really moving. I say that because all these actors that I will work with, Charlotte and Marion and Louis, I met them. Even if I knew them — France is not that big a country — I met them through My Golden Days. It opened to me a lot of doors, so it was pretty gratifying.
But I guess I learned a lot from the experience. It’s a little too complicated for words. It’s the fact that I was able to be — I guess; I hope — harsh in my writing. I’m harsh, and sometimes cruel, but everything is enlightened with the youth of the actors in My Golden Days. There’s no bitterness because they are so young and so fresh. I approached it in the same way in my new film: it’s trying to have hard lines and to be brutal with my characters, and the bet is that the actors will transform that dramatic material into something which is alight.
When we spoke last year, you said you expected the main character not to be named Ismaël later on. You said, “I’m calling him Ismaël right now, but I will change it later.”
First: why did you want to change it? Second: why did you keep it?
I wanted to change it because the film is not at all a sequel to Kings & Queen; the film has no relation to Kings & Queen. The name works. This first name works for so many reasons. Melville would be one — a great thing. For a hero, it’s a good name — you can remember that name— and also, perhaps it works because, on Kings & Queen, the main character was an artist, and it was my first attempt to depict an artist as a main character, when usually I prefer to have doctors or something.
This time, you know, it’s a portrait of a director, which can be absolutely insulting for the audience, and which can be funny, too. I thought that this name, Ismaël, gave him something brash and arrogant, and that I liked. I just kept it. I proposed the part to Mathieu, and I asked to him the question, “Do you mind if we still go with this first name, Ismaël?” He said, “No, I’m fine. Let’s go forward with it. This will be a new adventure of Ismaël.” The film is not linked to my previous work.
Mentioning Kings & Queen reminds me of how you use rap music. What’s the thinking behind its presence in your work?
Because, I guess, hip-hop is the music of my generation. I know all the kids are listening to hip-hop music in France now, but I thought of hip hop, and I remember so vividly when we were listening to the first records of hip-hop that the older generation would call it “a fashion.” “In six months, it’ll be gone.” And, actually, we are still listening to hip-hop. There was a big revolution of that. I was in New York and the audience asked me questions about using French songs in my films, and I thought, “I’m not a great fan of the French popular music.”
Actually, we have good hip-hop — music where we are inventing new songs and we have good guys; good DJs. It’s a thing of imagination because it goes against everything — the melody, it broke the concept of the classical songs — and I love that break so much. I guess that the generation before mine had put everything in the concept of melody. It was not melody any longer; it was just notes. And, this time, there were no notes any longer; there was just rhythm and words. I love that. I just love that. It’s so difficult to use it in films, because it can fight against the dialogue, so you have to find the right track. Yeah. But it’s a commitment for me.
Do you have any hip-hop in mind for The Ghosts of Ismaël?
I will have a real hard time not to use any songs of Kendrick Lamar, because he’s a God to me — so I will just try to find something else, because Kendrick Lamar will be too obvious. But I will have a hard time not to use one song of his.
Do you have a favorite Kendrick Lamar song?
Oh, “King Kunta” for sure.
You served on the jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I’d love to know what you took away from being on the other side of that life for a bit.
I had this experience once in my life, and it was with Quentin Tarantino in Venice. I already served on a major jury in Venice, but obviously Cannes is a lot bigger than them. It was really great for me to stop the prep of my film and to see what worldwide cinema is about today, to have a picture of what film is today — all these films that come from many countries — and to see them. The experience of seeing the films and to discuss them… it was fascinating. It was really fascinating.
I learned a lot from George Miller. He’s so great; he’s a master. I was so happy to meet László Nemes at last, when I loved his film so much. If I had to say one thing that I learned from this experience, it would be the fact that the two main prizes we gave in Cannes… one was to a certain form of nakedness, of simplicity, which is the Ken Loach movie. When cinema is not hiding behind anything — a naked art. On the other hand, we gave the second prize to the Xavier Dolan because of his craft, because the film is so well-done, so impressive — the way it’s shot, the way it’s lit, the sets, everything. The art is so brilliant.
So we gave one award to nakedness and the other one to the pure craft and obvious talent of Xavier Dolan. It was wonderful to give these two prizes to two films which are so surprising in two different perspectives within cinema. Ask cinema to be simple or ask it to be complex; if it breaks your heart, it’s good. The film, the English film, was heartbreaking because of its simplicity, and the Xavier Dolan was heartbreaking because of its complexity, and it was great to reward these two films.
You’d told me about wishes to adapt Philip Roth’s Deception. Is that still sitting in your mind?
Mmm. I know that I’m reading this book again and again, and I read it after my trip in New York. Last time I was there, we discussed it, and friends of mine have spoken to me about it again and again, and this book fascinates me because it’s just pure dialogue — the most beautiful dialogue I’ve read between a man and a woman. Now, from the filmmaking perspective, the difficulty is that this film is dealing with the fall of the Wall, of this thing between eastern countries and western countries, and the love story is going through that. You have the character, this writer, meeting his lover in his apartment. You have one chapter with his lover, and the next is about some woman coming from the eastern countries — depicting the oppression in eastern countries and how they are lost after the fall of the Wall. Which means that it would be a period piece.
Which is difficult because the film, it’s about intimacy — so how are you dealing with a worldwide political issue when the film is dealing with intimacy? So today, I guess, my perspective is that it would be a wonderful thing, but I’m not sure the screen would be the perfect tool. I’m always wondering if it would not be a perfect theater play. I did this production for the stage in France last year. I’m wondering if I could transform it into a show, but onstage rather than onscreen. So I’m still dealing with that.
My Golden Days is now on Digital HD and DVD.
It would not be unfair to call Swiss Army Man “the movie about the farting corpse with the boner,” because that is the perfect description of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), one of its two lead characters (the other is love-torn Hank played by Paul Dano). What would be unfair is to only call it that, because it’s actually one of the most unexpectedly sensitive films of 2016.
As directed by the Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert) the film combines the best of buddy films, mumblecore aesthetics and unexpected romance to become something that defies genre and what’s politically correct on film. Needless to say so, it’s a delightful surprise and perfect counter-programming for a season so marked by how alike everything looks. Whether you like the film or not, the true thing is that you won’t be able to get it out of your mind for quite some time.
The Daniels first gained notoriety with their music videos, particularly DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” which featured yet another prominent penis attempting to free itself. If describing their work makes them sound like teenagers who happened to make it big, it’s not only important to deny that notion, but also to avoid making joyless interpretations of their oeuvre. Strangely enough they have mastered the balance between work that feels silly and playful, without ever disengaging from the intellect. The massive conference table where the three of us sat to talk about Swiss Army Man was the perfect setting, since it served a slice of great film talk with a pinch of poetic irony.
How do you go and pitch a movie about boners and farts?
Dan Kwan: It’s really odd. Normally it’d be impossible to even talk about it without people deciding they didn’t want to talk to you anymore, but we did so much experimenting with our short films and music videos that people started to trust us. The more people saw our work, the more they knew we had crazy ideas that sometimes worked. It’s basically all about having something to show. The first years doing music videos we pitched things and got a lot of no’s, because on paper they just seemed like bad ideas. We’re attracted to those in a way, because we like to prove people wrong. If your gut reaction is “this is a terrible idea, it’ll never be worth anything.” we will build that idea into something beautiful and prove them wrong.
Daniel Scheinert: Almost every film is like a little project.
Dan Kwan: We want to make things people can connect to — the ultimate goal is to make something someone will connect to emotionally.
Daniel Scheinert: Also, this movie was the most fun thing to pitch. I don’t know how people pitch boring movies. You have to pitch to people so many times. I never got bored of pitching this to people. Even when they said no, at lunch they would probably still talk about it.
I shouldn’t be dissing other movies…
Daniel Scheinert: I love dissing movies [laughs]
….in that case, let me say that I wish this movie was like I wish The Revenant had been like.
Daniel Kwan: That’s a great compliment though.
They’re both survival movies, but Leo needed more boners. But also there’s a very special element to this one and it’s that it explores something quite prevalent in your work which is the special bond between men. Other than you being guys, what makes you so fascinated with exploring the way men bond onscreen? I really wasn’t expecting to be so moved by this film.
Daniel Kwan: Because we are two guys and a directing duo, we do come up with ideas related to our personal experience, but at the same time I find myself kinda self conscious when it feels we’re making something with familiar tropes. So we compensate by going for those strange, grey areas we haven’t seen portrayed in the media.
Daniel Scheinert: Growing up, my friends in high school were very sensitive guys who liked to have sleepovers and talk about life. It’s the opposite of what most guys are supposed to do, but I feel there is something both fun and terrifying about putting that sort of soft masculinity out into the world. I think this film accidentally became the opposite of The Revenant, which is a survival film about brute force overcoming nature, men against men, revenge…it’s a very hard, traditional film about masculinity. Ours is the other spectrum of what men can be. I think it’s made some guys uncomfortable because it’s way too earnest and sincere about guys feeling uncomfortable with themselves and their shame. We were just talking about how this film rests in so many grey areas, both in genre and other aspects. It’s somewhere between an indie and a studio film, it first about four different genres, and then the relationship the main characters have spans many different types of relationships, they go from being strangers, to a parental-child thing, to a buddy comedy, to straight up lovers and then it transcends that.
Speaking of things guys aren’t supposed to be doing growing up, Daniel you did musical theatre in school, and I thought the aesthetics of Swiss Army Man were very DIY/let’s put on a show. You’ve mentioned wanting to work in as many mediums as possible, so is theatre on your list next?
Daniel Scheinert: I definitely miss theatre. Good theatre is probably my favorite artistic experience I’ve ever witnessed, but bad theatre, oh man. [Laughs] But, yeah, I would love to make theatre. For a long time our dream was to make a feature film, so it’s time to make some new dreams. We love the idea of new challenges, so a video game, or a play…
Daniel Kwan: …children’s books, an interactive video piece.
Daniel Scheinert: …a toy line!
If you could pick a classic musical to get your hands on and do in your style what would it be?
Daniel Scheinert: I’ve always wanted to steal an album by a band and make a musical. No, actually nevermind that, I don’t want to make Across the Universe.
Daniel Kwan: I was just listening to NPR the other day and they were doing a breakdown of West Side Story and it reminded me how beautiful that musical is.
Daniel Scheinert: I think maybe Bat Boy, that’s an old style musical and I love it. It’s so crazy.
There is a moment in the movie…
Daniel Scheinert: Wait, you know what musical we really want to make? Years ago we came up with this idea to make an Off-Broadway show called Spider-Man: The Musical: The Musical, and it would have Julie Taymor, Bono and The Edge trying to make the musical, while their lives are falling to shit in this impossible thing. People just dying and getting injured, and everyone blaming them. It’s like a dramatic musical retelling of the behind-the-scenes drama, and it’s narrated by a Spider-Man actor caught in the rafters above the audience. So he whispers, asks for help and tells the audience what happens next.
I love the moment in the film when Hank is trying to recreate moments from his life so Manny can learn about them. In a way it makes it a movie about making movies, have you guys thought of teaching young people about your aesthetics?
Daniel Kwan: We actually helped start a summer camp for kids who get to come for free and then we make music videos for real bands. The band comes in, the kids come up with the idea and we just film it there. We actually met in a summer camp originally during college. We had so much fun creating that we both were drawn to, and I can see how that bled into our work, the whole thing about making things real, and using your imagination.
Daniel Scheinert: We don’t really “teach” the kids though. It’s all about collaboration. Kids and adults become friends, everyone contributes ideas and the best way to learn is making shit together. We get a kick out of being collaborators rather than teachers.
In terms of special effects gone wrong, what’s the “one that got away” or that crazy thing you’ve never been able to master?
Daniel Scheinert: Oh there’s a whole lot. Our process is to just come up with images that make us laugh or sound cool, so we have this backlog of things we want to do, like “what if we put the camera here?” or “let’s do something underwater,” a lot of our work starts from that grab bag. But we got a lot out of our system in this movie.
Daniel Kwan: Yeah, a lot of dream fulfillment happened.
I hope you guys get to speak to Terry Gross about the importance of boners in terms of representation. I’m not even joking, but it’s insane we live in a world where people are uncomfortable talking or seeing erections and have no problem with guns and rifles.
Daniel Scheinert: I didn’t consciously think about it when we made the movie, but even the word “boner” is right on the line of whether you have to bleep it or not. On late night, Daniel and Paul are making the rounds and Colbert said “erection” not “boner,” but then I think Jimmy Fallon said “boner.” It’s great to push that angle, not in a jokey way, but more like let’s all talk about this. We’ll start a campaign to talk to Terry Gross though.
Swiss Army Man is now in theaters nationwide. Watch the Daniels analyze a scene above.