Latest Features

‘A Cure For Wellness’ Composer Benjamin Wallfisch on Hans Zimmer’s Advice and Embracing Technology

Written by Marc Ciafardini, June 14, 2017 at 3:00 pm 

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Golden Globe and Emmy nominee Benjamin Wallfisch is recognized as one of the leading film composers of his generation, with a career spanning over a decade and 60 feature films. He has composed music for such legendary film makers as Steven Spielberg, Rupert Wyatt, Gore Verbinksi and Lars von Trier, and has worked on scores that have been recognized with awards and nominations at the Academy Awards, BAFTAs and World Soundtrack Awards.

Wallfisch fit us into his extremely busy schedule and we were happy to have any time with this dynamic composer. We asked him about Verbinski’s thriller A Cure For Wellness and the sensational Hidden Figures — both now on Blu-ray/VOD — as well as insight into how he works.

The Film Stage: I first heard your name when your music was featured on a friend’s film score radio show: Tim Burden’s Movie Magic. In short, “Conquest 1453” just blew me away. It’s a tremendous score – where did that come from and how was the feedback from it?

Benjamin WallfischThank you! A sound designer friend of mine was working on this very ambitious indie movie about the fall of Constantinople — he called me up to see if I’d be interested in meeting the director. He described it as an old-school epic war movie and was a lot of fun — the brief was to bring the grandeur of one of my favorite scores, Miklós Rózsa’s genius Ben-Hur, into the 21st Century. I had a great time and it led to some other interesting projects.

Which of your scores do you feel most closely represents you as an artist? 

For me (and I think for many of my colleagues) it’s your last score that best represents you at any given moment. I say that because writing over the years is a constant process of creative discovery, challenging everything you did last time so your music evolves and there’s always something new and vivid to say.

A Cure for Wellness had a sort of out-of-tune music box and young girl lullaby that was a prominent instrument in the score. In any genre, it seems there are certain things you can’t get away from using. So do you look at music from the standpoint of what the studio expects, or what the audience expects?

Early on in the movie Lockhart’s mother gives him a small music box, with a handprinted ballerina that sits atop it — the first time we hear Hannah’s theme is in fact played by this music box on screen, as his mother winds it up and plays the tune for him, just as she tells him he won’t come back from his trip to Switzerland. Then later in the film, when we first meet the mysterious young girl called Hannah, she is humming the same melody; it’s her voice that you hear in the score — first heard on screen. It’s mysterious to Lockhart that she knows the tune, and he asks her where she learnt it… a question that remains unanswered. Hannah’s theme is something in the air that ties the key characters together, both onscreen through the music box and Hannah’s own singing, and also under the surface of the story. It was important for that melody to have a strange ‘false smile’ about it — a perfection of form in terms of symmetry, but always performed in a way that’s not quite right. It creates an interesting tension between the ideas of purity and malevolence, and how in the wrong hands there is sometimes a fine line between the two.

In terms of which standpoint I adopt when writing, all musical decisions are driven by story. The only expectations I try to fulfill are those of the film-makers, and the first stage in the process for me is always to try to absorb all I can about the director’s point of view and start to figure out how can I contribute to it musically.

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It’s been said that studios these days don’t want a true “theme.” I find that odd, as I am a fan of big meaningful scores, and not wallpaper music. But since you’re in the industry, what’s the current vibe, and are themes making a comeback?

It’s interesting you say that as to be honest I’ve never come across that attitude in any of the projects I’ve worked on. For all of my scores to date I’ve been asked by the filmmakers and the studio to create strong themes, and it’s something I love to do. It goes without saying that melody is among our most potent tools as composers. Creating a theme or set of themes that feel truly integrated into the DNA of the movie is often the first thing I’ll present to my director — it’s always a great starting-off point. Of course, depending on the movie and what it needs, a theme can be as simple as a two or three note motif, right through to a complex extended melody. But from my own standpoint, thematic writing is very much alive and well.

I’m in architecture, and we can endlessly tweak things because being “done” with something is a matter or perception and personal taste, especially when presenting to a client. So when do you view something as done?

When it’s in theaters! Of course, most of the time the score is done once it’s recorded with live orchestra and mixed. But it’s very important to me to give my film-makers total flexibility throughout the process, right to the very end. No ask is too big, even after we’ve scored with live orchestra. If something isn’t quite working, or there’s a better idea to explore, as long as we are literally not yet in theaters, it’s important to always find a way. For example, in a movie I recently finished, we completely re-crafted an entire set-piece cue in the very last day of our final dub, because of a new idea the director had. It was a case of constructing a new piece of music from various stems of other cues, and re-crafting other sections using samples, and in the end it worked so much better. So whilst that situation is unusual, you have to be open to it. Technology allows us as composers to give our clients total creative freedom and I embrace that as much as possible, within the time-frame we are given.

Tell us about how you like to work. What do you draw from the most on any project: the script, the director, an actor, or a scene, or something else?

It always starts with a blank piece of paper, and a story. But after that the process is unique for each project. Sometimes I’m asked to come on board months before a frame of the movie is shot; other times I’m brought in with literally tw0 weeks before the scoring date with orchestra… and of course there is everything between those two extremes. Scripts are helpful for preparing for a first meeting with a new director, but it’s the film itself that has to guide you. My great hero John Williams famously never reads scripts, preferring to be guided purely by what’s on screen, and that makes total sense.

It can be one or many things that spark an idea: the rhythm of the cut, a particular nuance in an actor’s performance, a huge set-piece sequence that just screams out for a particular type of theme or musical concept, the visual tone/color choices, the list goes on. But what unifies all of this is story. Everything stems from that, and I’ve been lucky to work with some incredibly inspiring directors who each have a unique way of communicating their stories. The blank piece of paper at the beginning of the process is so important as it enables each score to be entirely bespoke and unique – it’s important to have no pre-conceptions, and to live dangerously.

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Talk to us about the importance of orchestration – how through collaboration, an idea can go from notes on a paper to coming alive through a studio orchestra. Also, what parts of the process do you trust to others?

The orchestration process often starts very early on when writing, with the orchestral synth demos we present to the film makers and other collaborators. Everything is mocked up to a very high level using orchestral samples, so we are making key orchestration decisions sometimes many months before we actually get in a room with the live orchestra.

To allow my director and other film makers maximum time for creative changes, I normally only allow around 10-14 days of final orchestration time before the orchestral recordings. With often between 80-100 minutes of music to be orchestrated in that timeframe, it requires a team of highly skilled orchestrators whom I supervise to pull that off. I have a fantastic lead orchestrator who I send my finished demos to, and he has a team around him to make it happen. He’ll send every orchestrated cue to me as a Sibelius file, I’ll change things as needed, and then send off the proof-read score to the music prep team, who then prints everything for the scoring sessions.

I always work solo when composing, unless it’s a co-composing situation like Hidden Figures, but when we come closer to the recordings I have an extensive music production team around me who I’ve now worked with for many years. They make sure everything comes together beautifully for the recording sessions, the preparations for which involving orchestration and copying, preparing extensive stems for each cue, click tracks, mix templates and also making sure everything is conformed to the latest version of the cut.

They say that your first answer is usually your best answer. When writing music, how many times have you or the director come back to what you first came up with? Beyond that, what has changed the most from start to finish?

When a piece of music really works against picture, there is often a kind of instinctive feeling that it’s right — I think as composers we all strive to create scores that somehow feel like they’ve existed ‘from the beginning’ with a particular movie, even if the music comes at the very end of the process. Sometimes that happens straight away, with a theme or musical concept that just undeniably works; other times it can take weeks or even months of iteration before you finally discover ‘the one’ – a musical approach that just feels inevitable to the picture.

I’m very fortunate to count Hans Zimmer as my friend and mentor, and one of the things he once said that has stuck with me is how you sometimes have to allow a core musical idea to ‘creep up on you.’ I sometimes spend long hours cranking away at a particular idea which I think is going to be ‘the one’ for a particular cue or theme, only to discover that through that process I’ve uncovered something completely different; a concept or motif that would never have occurred to me at the beginning that works so much better than the original concept. So the days of work gets canned in favor of that new discovery, which can be exhilarating. So I guess it’s being open to that sense of adventure when writing – living dangerously and constantly striving and examining what you’re doing, to make sure it really is living intrinsically within the world of the movie and story you are scoring.

A Cure for Wellness and Hidden Figures are now on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

Rachel Weisz on the Importance of Secrets, Her Dream Job, and ‘My Cousin Rachel’

Written by Jose Solís, June 8, 2017 at 8:10 am 

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Characters like the one that gives its title to My Cousin Rachel are usually played with broad strokes, either to elicit extreme sympathy, or total disdain, and yet what Rachel Weisz does in Roger Michell’s adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel is unlike either of those, it’s a performance so layered that it would unfair to say it lies even in between. We are supposed to mistrust Rachel from the moment we first hear her name, after all she is the stranger who has seduced Philip’s (Sam Claflin) saintly cousin, made him renounce his bachelorhood, and abandon his beloved England. Not only that, but according to some suspicions, she might have even been behind his untimely death, meaning there is nothing left for Philip to do but seek revenge.

And yet upon meeting Rachel, Philip discovers something quite unexpected, rather than a severe gorgon, he finds her to be quite sensitive, agreeable even. But he has come to believe in her evil ways to such degree, that nothing she does can absolve her. Weisz takes advantage of this grey area where her character lives to play her as both aware and elusive, she’s the screen where Philip and the audience can project their doubts, but she’s strong enough that she reflects back to us our own issues. Ahead of its release in the U.S., I spoke to the Oscar winner about how Rachel encompasses the way in which men are taught to think of women, how she slipped into Rachel’s skin, and the concept of the femme fatale.

The Film Stage: My Cousin Rachel is such a litmus test for how audiences react to female characters and the timing could not be better. Was this one of the reasons why you wanted to play this part?

Rachel Weisz: I didn’t know that it would resonate in the way that you’re saying, but I liked the idea of playing with what people’s preconceptions of women are. I knew whether she was guilty or innocent. The director didn’t want me to tell him so I kept it a secret. There was a sort of mystery involved in how we made the film as well. What’s fascinated me are the reactions of people who’ve watched it; some are sure she’s guilty, others think she’s innocent and each side argues passionately. But what did you mean about the timing?

Watching it I kept thinking how the men are paranoid about Rachel’s letters but they might as well have been talking about private email servers.

Oh, I see. Yeah, yeah.

Men always seem to find reasons to not trust women. Society seems to enjoy pitting women against each other or vilifying powerful women. Did you have a moment when you realized this, and did it affect your work in any way?

I know what you mean, but no, I didn’t have a moment. It’s a great question though, but I don’t relate to it personally. The story of the movie was written by a woman, so it’s a woman imagining a man and he’s such an unreliable narrator because he’s in love and obsessed and whatnot. His records might not be true; apparently du Maurier wrote the book so that she was Philip, and she was obsessed with, I think her publicist’s wife, so it was kind of a disguised tale about girl on girl love, but we don’t need to get into that…

Did you find either the book or the first movie to be essential in helping you shape your character or did you just go from the script?

I still haven’t seen the original movie. I need to watch it now so I can reference it in discussion with people, but I didn’t want it to influence my performance. The book was interesting, but the film obviously becomes something different. The book was useful but you start from scratch when you make a film.

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Assuming you liked the character and felt empathy for her, do you want people to think of your character in My Cousin Rachel in a specific way?

I want them to make up their own minds and come up with their own conclusions.

I saw you last year in Plenty at the Public Theatre and Complete Unknown, and with My Cousin Rachel they kind of make this trilogy of works about women who men purposely choose not to trust, who also happen to want to live bigger lives than patriarchal society allows them to have. Do you ever find unexpected threads like that in the projects you choose?

I know what you’re saying. I guess there are archetypes in storytelling and maybe this film is playing with the archetype of the femme fatale or the Black Widow who poisons people. I think what Roger Michell does is he plays with the archetype so you question your own preconceptions of what women are. I think it’s really interesting storytelling from his part.

I love the buildup to meeting Rachel, people talk about her as if she’s a demon or some sort of seductive goddess, so by the time we meet her we’re half expecting her to appear from a cloud of smoke. Did you talk to Roger about the importance of this introduction?

That was just a function of the script with Roger also wrote. It’s a big setup, and it’s great to have a big setup as a character, it’s just wonderful, but for me it was just telling a story of seeing Philip for the first time and being shocked at how similar to my husband he is, it shocks me to see a boyish version of my husband who I didn’t even know as a boy. So for me it was a very powerful moment. Imagine if you meet someone in your 40s who you didn’t know in their 20s, and then they die, and you meet someone who looks like them in their 20s. It’s so spooky! So just imagining that was very powerful for me.

Are there any other character entrances in movies that you absolutely love?

I can’t think of any, can you?

Some of mine are Orson Welles’s character in The Third Man, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, or Blanche in Streetcar which you’ve played onstage.

You know what those are good examples. I’ll steal your Vivien Leigh ones.

You mentioned you knew whether Rachel was guilty or not, do you usually have secrets about your characters that help you understand who they are?

Oh, yeah. I’d never had this experience where the director said they didn’t want to know if she was guilty or not, but you always have secrets from the director, and the director has secrets from you. Actors should never explain their motivations to another actor. You should have secrets from each other. Just like in life: you don’t explain yourself to everyone, you just do stuff.

How did the locations affect your work?

I mean, you can’t fake that level of gorgeousness. It was staggeringly beautiful, a lot of the British countryside is really beautiful. Roger wanted to capture the four seasons, so even if we shot in the spring we managed to get a little bit of winter, a little bit of summer.

You played a real person in Denial last year, do you feel a special kind of responsibility to characters based on real people that you don’t feel for characters like Rachel?

Yes, particularly with Denial, which was more like a documentary in a way. We used actual court transcripts, and I made myself talk exactly like Deborah Lipstadt. There’s a different responsibility.

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How does alternating between stage and screen help you stay excited about the work or define who you are as an actor?

Both are challenging in different ways. Doing plays is harder I think. Plays are like running a marathon. Plays are physically very demanding. You have to be an athlete.

After I saw you in The Deep Blue Sea I really wanted to see you play an old fashioned femme fatale a la Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Are there any you love and would love to play?

I’m not sure I’ve seen Double Indemnity. What would you suggest for me?

You’re asking me to give you my wish list of characters for you?

Yes, I’m serious. I think you’ve seen a lot more films than I have. You seem very knowledgeable.

If Pedro Almodóvar ever makes an English movie I’d love to see you play a femme fatale like the ones from The Skin I Live In or Bad Education.

You have created my dream job. For real! I don’t speak Spanish. I’ve met him and told him what a big fan I am and how I adore him. If he ever made a film in English, yes please.

I also got to see you in Betrayal on Broadway and have always wanted to ask you what it was like to star in what would end up being Mike Nichols very last play on Broadway?

It was a slightly strange honor, I didn’t know it would be his last play, but looking back it’s an incredible honor to have shared in his talent near the end of his life.

Thanks for your time, you were great in that play as well.

But before you go, you said Double Indemnity was a good one right?

Yes!

Great, I’ll check it out then.

My Cousin Rachel opens on Friday, June 9.

Steve James on Documentary Ethics, ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,’ and Capturing Chinatown

Written by Michael Snydel, June 7, 2017 at 4:50 pm 

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Legendary documentary filmmaker Steve James has a gift for effortless empathy. His films have a pre-natural ease with their subjects, chronicling the ordinary and extraordinary with equal levels of awe, and regularly showcasing an ability to enter his subjects’ inner most sanctums without feeling intrusive. James’ films are primarily observational with a few exceptions, but there’s never a sense that James’ camera is anything less than an old friend.

His latest film, Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, is a formal and tonal departure, but also a reiteration of some of James’ most prevailing thematic interests – namely underexposed communities and their mistreatment. A procedural probing into the stranger than fiction court saga of Abacus, a Chinatown bank plagued with wide-scale fraud, it’s anything but a pedestrian court film.

Embracing the disadvantages of recounting an ongoing court case — James and his crew were barred from filming the trial, and were unsure if they would have access to either the prosecution or defense team — Abacus instead leans into the outsized personalities of the Sung family. Patriarch Thomas Sung is a classic figure of martyrdom while his daughters epitomize the double edged sword of being deeply involved in both an immigrant community and a family business.

With the film now in theaters, I talked with James about making Abacus and his career as a whole. In a sprawling conversation, we talked about the process of making his first procedural without all the pieces, the benefits to filming in your hometown, and even broadly about the state of modern documentary film ethics.

The Film Stage:  I know that your long time producer, Mark Mitten, was personally familiar with one of the main subjects of Abacus, Vera Sung, and came to you with their story while you were making Life Itself, but what was the genesis of this film?

Steve James: Well, that’s partially correct. It wasn’t while we were doing Life Itself that I found out about it. That film was done, but Mark Mitten was an executive producer on Life Itself, and someone that I’ve known for about ten years. And so it was him that brought it to my attention literally back in 2015 right around the beginning of the trial. That’s when he talked to me about it, and he said, “There’s this crazy trial about to kick off, and I know this family. I’ve known them for a long time. It seems like an important story.”

So you became involved literally right as the trial was beginning then?

Yes, yes, because we didn’t start filming until then, and I didn’t know about the story until then. The spine of the film really is the beginning of the trial through the end, and the decision. But you know, there are other things that we got — New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s press conference back in 2012, for instance. We were able to get archival material that takes you back to that time, but our filming covered the trial basically. It was a five-month trial, and then we filmed afterwards. And you know we did interviews and stuff after the conclusion of the trial.

I know it’s probably instinct or an intangible quality, but what was it initially about meeting the Sung family that made you think you wanted to pursue a film or larger project? Was there something specific, or was it just the process of spending time with the family?

It was a combination of learning more about the situation of the trial, what was going on, what they were up against, and just further understanding that. Here’s this bank going through this, and no one seems to be paying any attention to it from a media standpoint, which when you’re a documentary filmmaker is not a bad thing. [Laughs] You feel like you’re telling a story that other people are not telling. And frankly, I was surprised that no one was really following it. The New Yorker eventually did a piece, and that reporter [Jiangyan Fan] was in the court regularly, and she became a great interview for us as a result of that. So it was a combination of that, and learning more about the particulars of what they were up against, and why they were brought to trial. But then a very big part of it was just meeting Mr. Sung and the sisters. I didn’t meet Mrs. Sung until later. I didn’t meet her on the first trip, but she was a gift from the documentary gods [laughs] yet to come. But just meeting the family, and finding them engaging, strong-willed, funny. Everything about them, I would have had to be an idiot to not grasp how interesting they were as subjects. But there was a point in that filming – and I made the decision very quickly – but it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to get in the courtroom. The DA’s office was not going to cooperate in any way during the trial. And there was a real question — although it was resolved in the first shoot — as to whether the Sungs’ lawyers would really cooperate much until the trial was over. And so, I had to make a decision based on, well, we would literally just be following the story with the Sung’s family outside the courtroom, but I decided that alone was worth it because of them and the story.

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That was a gamble, but I think it works here. There’s documentaries where you notice when a filmmaker doesn’t have the coverage, but even though you’re only able to have small touches like the door closing to the jury room, or the illustrations of a court artist, all of those elements work to the film’s benefit as it adds a layer of suspense, but also a grim inevitability as to where this story could go.

Yeah, that’s nice to hear. I think we had to decide in terms of the actual unfolding trial that given that we weren’t able to be in the courtroom — how were we going to tell that story. I knew that since we were going to be following the family in real time; like how would we when we got to putting this all together, how would we find a way to have the trial unfold in a way that was satisfying. So I knew that we would film the empty courtroom, and do those kinds of shots, which are pretty standard when you get into a courtroom for a trial, but I knew I wanted to do something more. That’s how we landed on the idea of using this phenomenal court illustrator to go and spend several days at trial, and do a bunch of illustrations that then became the foundation for visualizing the trial once we got to editing and decided which parts of the trial we were going to feature.

From my experience with your work, this seems to have the most procedural bent.

Yeah. [Laughs]

Had you ever had to specifically think about this much with a court room?

Well, no. This was a different kind of film for me. But if you look at my body of work, I do different things from time to time. My better-known work tends to be in the more observational mode of Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, or even a film like Stevie, although Stevie was very different. It had a very personal aspect to it. So this was different, but so was Life Itself. I mean, Life Itself, was a biography on one level, and on a very big level, it was a biography of a famous person, which I hadn’t done before. And then this is a procedural. I hadn’t been going around being like, I’m really looking for a good courtroom film. You know, it just presented itself, and then I asked, what do I think the best way to try to tell this story is. Had we gotten the kind of access that I would have loved to have had — to the case, to the courtroom — It would have been a very different film than the one you saw. But I feel like filmmaking, as I go along in my career, that increasingly, what filmmaking is really about is dealing with what you don’t have, not just with what you’re fortunate to have, and still trying to find ways to tell a good story. And so this presented real challenges to the kinds of films I’ve done in the past. But I also welcomed that challenge. I welcomed the opportunity to try and tell a courtroom story, and one in which it’s not like sexy murder. It’s not sexy material, if you will. [Laughs] Part of the virtue of this for me was that all of this stuff was so freaking petty. And yet, they were putting this family through this for all these kinds of petty fraud that the family had even admitted that they had discovered and tried to deal with. I mean, I’m rambling, but I love trying to stretch myself as a filmmaker, and not just do the thing that I do a lot of that I enjoy doing greatly, which is to follow people around for a year or longer, and create a more vérité-related film.

You had pretty extensive access to a usually closed community with Chinatown, a place that is generally portrayed in cinema with a mystique and exoticism that’s rarely ever removed. What were your impressions of Chinatown, especially as an outsider?

Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s sort of like, part of the attraction to telling the story as we went along was to get this access to a community that is not easily accessible. I’ve been to Chinatown once or twice in my visits to New York over the years, but I wasn’t aware of how closed the community was when we started to film. But I found out pretty quickly that it was, and you know, Mr. Sung was really our passport into that community. Because of his stature in that community and all that he’s done in that community. And so it really was through him that we were able to be there in a way that went beyond just rolling up and shooting postcard shots of Chinatown. I loved that. That’s always true with every film that I’ve done. It’s sort of like the way into any community that’s not your community, and most every film I’ve done, if not every film I’ve done, is then about communities that aren’t mine. The key is always your subjects, and them bringing you into that community in a way that you would not otherwise have access. That was true with Mr. Sung, and that was exciting, and it was also confirming of his significance. It’s one thing to hear people say he’s a pillar in the community, it’s another thing to walk around with him and really see it.

Related to that, you spend some time with an activist, Don Lee, who has a couple of choice quotes, and advocates for the Sung family. Was there a large group who was defending the Sung family in the community, and could Lee have been a bigger part of the film?

He could have. He was a friend of the family, and he was one of those people that also helped with our access. He embraced the fact that we were making this film. He was hugely supportive of them. So even being with Don Lee in the streets of Chinatown was wonderful because if Mr. Sung was the mayor of Chinatown, then he was his right hand man. He was really an extremely well-known and well-liked and well-respected presence in that community, so we did spend time with him and he was one of these very outspoken people in the community about the family and their innocence. And so we didn’t follow him as such, except to the degree that you see in the film – but he was someone that very important to them for sure. And he’s there. We don’t lower-third him, but he was there that day we were waiting for the verdict. He was there in support of them, and hanging out with them.

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I wanted to ask you a little about your remarks at the Cinema Eye Honors earlier this year.

You mean my jokes. [Laughs]

You definitely had jokes [laughs], but you spoke specifically about Weiner and ethics, and your quotes made me curious about your own views. I don’t have the whole context of the conversation, but you said, “Who among us wouldn’t have killed for access to this story. It makes me wonder what compromising photo Kriegman and Steinberg had of Anthony Weiner to be able to blackmail him.”

That was a joke though. I was attempting to be funny because then I said, no, I don’t want to see that photo actually. [Laughs]

I know [laughs], but I am still curious about your views about recent shifting approaches in documentary filmmaking. You’ve been a non-fiction filmmaker for going on thirty years, has your view toward documentary ethics changed or expanded? I’m speaking specifically of films like Weiner, or even something like Matthew Heinemann’s Cartel Land, films with an incredible level of access, but arguably muddy presentation of their respective conflicts.

I think the whole question of ethics in documentary is something that I think has always been there, but is increasingly one that deserves more discussion and debate among people who care about documentaries. I think that’s because the genre – we used to kind of think of documentary as genre, but that’s a wholly inadequate way to categorize a form of filmmaking that really traverses every kind of genre imaginable. There are comedy documentaries, there are horror films. What is The Act of Killing, if not a horror film? There are thrillers and caper films. That film about the dolphin slaughter, The Cove, was like the documentary version of Oceans 11. The medium is expanding in so many ways, including pushing the boundaries of what we define as non-fiction with re-enactments, animation, all manner of manufactured realities that then become documentaries. I think these questions of ethics are more with us now and more urgent than ever. I’m not one of those people that feels one should not manipulate, or one should not use fictional material — that that’s forbidden. I’m not one of those people at all, but as a rule, I think we need to maybe do better about being candid about what the lines are within the work itself, so that the audience is very much aware of what they’re watching. I think the self-reflexive aspect of examining one’s work within the work is something I think there could be more of. And sometimes whenever I find a film problematic from an ethical standpoint, it’s frequently because I feel like the film is attempting to present itself as a kind of truth without that reflexivity, or is questionable, and the film is not acknowledging its questionability.

One of the projects you’re currently working on is America To Me, a miniseries that follows high school students over the course of a year. You’ve chronicled high schoolers a bit in Head Games and then The Interrupters before that if I remember correctly, but what was it like returning to high schoolers?

Yeah, and even in that film, the focus really isn’t on high school students. There’s some families that have high school students who are at risk of head injury in the sports they’re playing. But I think in many ways, this is the first time i’ve really returned to kids like that since Hoop Dreams. In Hoop Dreams, a big part of that story that people may not remember when they remember the film takes place in schools and classrooms, and is focused around the academics of Arthur [Agee] and William [Gates] and where they’re succeeding and failing. That is a big part of that film that’s probably forgotten because the basketball and the family life is what you remember, but so yeah, it’s not been since then. I think one of the things that’s been exciting to me about this project, America To Me for me as a filmmaker is that i’m telling stories about kids and families who I have not profiled in the past. They’re not living on the West side of Chicago or Cabrini Green. These are stories of kids who are a different part of black and biracial America, kids who are in well-funded schools in Oak Park, who live in a very liberal community. It’s not like there’s not economic need at work in some of our stories. There is, but none of these kids are in danger of being murdered on the corner or falling prey to gangs. And so these are some stories that fascinate me that I want to tell that don’t conform to a lot of what not just the stories that i’ve told, but many filmmakers have told when they try to tell the stories of young black people.

I know you live in Oak Park, did it feel significantly different to be filming in your own community?

That’s a good question. First of all, because it’s a miniseries, I recruited some really talented collaborators who followed stories of kids. There were three other filmmakers involved, and they were each filming and following stories, as was I. So this is a very collaborative work. They didn’t live in Oak Park, even though i’m the one that lives there. It’s different because I have a history in the community, and I think the only reason this film even happened was because of that. It wasn’t because of my track record as a filmmaker, but because I lived there — for the community, for the school board, to vote to allow me in for the year and give access at a school that is struggling with these issues of achievement. That was a brave thing for the community to say yes to. It would have been a lot easier to say, No thanks. We’ll just struggle with it, but we don’t want a film made about it or a miniseries about it. I think all of those things only happened because I lived there. My kids went to that high school and the grade schools too, and so they were willing to take a risk with me to allow me and my team in.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is now in theaters.

Demetri Martin on ‘Dean,’ Learning from Steven Soderbergh, and Writing Female Characters

Written by Jordan Raup, May 31, 2017 at 9:36 am 

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The most piercing comedy is often mined from the darker aspects of life, presenting our fears in a new, hopefully amusing light. While Demetri Martin‘s stand-up has tinges of this, represented in his lo-fi sketches and carefully constructed one-liners, his directing and writing debut Dean effectively melds, both on the page and stylistically, a dramatic backbone with his personal brand.

Ahead of the film’s release this Friday, I had the opportunity to speak with Martin about his feature as we discussed what he learned from his past experience being directed by the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Ang Lee, how he’s trying to write better female characters, balancing tones, giving a voice to his supporting ensemble, and more.

The Film Stage: Congrats on the film. I’ve seen it twice now. I was at the premiere at Tribeca and I really enjoyed it.

Demetri Martin: Oh, awesome! Thanks, that was great. Such a stressful event, [but] kind of a magical night. You can imagine, I didn’t know how the crowd was going to react, so happy it was warmly received. I don’t know, it was kind of a relief.

That’s good to hear. Well, talking about the film, there is a relaxed style to it that definitely fits your comedy. I’m curious how you balance that tone and if there was there pressure on your part to speed up some of the narrative, because I enjoyed how you let the comedy play out.

I’m learning that tone is such a mysterious thing, because you might have an idea in your head when you set out to make a film, and certainly with stand-up I have an idea, and when the crowd guides you along the way, you say, “Okay cool, this is working, I can understand how this works.” But then you go make a movie, and first of all, the page, writing it. I have an idea, and [I think], “Oh, this could work, maybe,” but it was kind of a tricky balancing act of the more dramatic elements of the movie but still have jokes. Typically, I want the characters to feel like real people as much as I could, and have them be kind of grounded. There are moments where the Becca character [played by Briga Heelan] and Kate Berlant’s character on the plane, Naomi, they’re a little maybe heightened, more comedy than drama in those scenes, I’m sure, but generally I don’t want it to be like we’re in a comedy and then all of a sudden we’re in a drama, flipping back and forth and everything. I was trying to make it one movie and one voice. The pacing was part of that and something I was cognizant of. Then I was afraid as a stand-up, you get worried if it gets quiet. You’re afraid you’re losing your audience, you’re not being funny enough, so I had to put aside some of those fears and instincts to say, “Alright, just believe in your story, and it’s either a good performance or you know, people will stay with it.”

I loved your depiction or kind of hatred of the word “creatives” and going to the social media company. With the movie coming out now, I’m curious if you had to deal with creatives or marketing gurus, so to speak, and how that’s gone over?

I did. That’s one of the few things that it’s a totally made up scene but from a very real experience. Years ago I was involved in an ad campaign and I worked at this boutique ad agency — they were actually in San Francisco not LA. Just that kind of that bro culture, I just felt blinded by the whole thing, do you know what I mean? I have the utmost respect for creatives — I just think the word is stupid. To call them creatives has an annoying sound to it and it’s insulting to them and to the people who supposedly aren’t creative. “Oh, I’m sorry, you’re not a creative.” So yeah, I wanted to have some fun with that. That was one of those nice things about making a movie. I was like, “You know what, I can say something about this, and it’ll just be a little scene.” And those guys were so great in it. Beck [Bennett], who I didn’t know, and Andrew; Andrew is a stand-up and Beck is obviously on SNL, I thought they were so great.

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You have worked with some pretty great directors in the past, and I wanted to ask specifically about Steven Soderbergh — you briefly popped up in Contagion. Can you talk at all what you learned from him? Your movie probably couldn’t be any different, except he is slyly comedic in his movies.

He’s a comedy fan, obviously a very smart man.

What was that experience like, if you took anything. He works very off the cuff with shooting his films. I’m curious what you took from him and maybe brought to this film at all.

Sure, there’s a couple of things. First, I got to be in an Ang Lee movie a few years ago, which was great. Then I got to be in Contagion. And you’re right, I’m obviously in a small part. I only worked a couple of days, but what I learned after being involved in those projects: when you’re directing, whether you like it or not, it’s a performance. Not like it’s a self-conscious thing, where you’re trying to show off or something, but it’s more like you can’t escape the fact that when you get to the set, you’re shooting for the day. People are looking to you. They are literally trying to read you, to understand, “What are we doing next? How’s it going? Is this working? Are you trying to figure something else up?”

And it was interesting, having been an actor in both cases, to realize that I was an actor who wanted to direct some day, just thinking, “Wow, this is really interesting.” You can’t escape the fact that you are leading this group of people, and people are looking at you. And therefore, it is kind of a performance. In both cases, I learned that they had different styles. Ang has these people he works with and he’ll be in [the] video village or whatever. However, Soderbergh’s operating camera a lot of times. He’s looking at it through the camera. Those guys are both wizards. It doesn’t get much better than Ang Lee or Soderbergh just in the era we live in, and from Soderbergh it was so fascinating because they both have their teams, and I heard this about Woody Allen. He has the people that he likes to work with, loyal, and they work with him. It’s a well-oiled machine, and that performance or whatever you want to call it, it’s really economical. Soderbergh would walk around and look down and pace and figure out. You could see he was thinking, “Alright, what am I going to do next or how do I want to shoot this?” and people would just leave him alone. And then as soon as he looked up, his people would know, “Okay, cool. He’s ready.” And they would go over and talk to him and he would be like, “Let’s do this, let’s do that.” And did they move fast, it was so awesome. And you probably noticed about him, but he edits his stuff, too.

Usually right after shooting, right?

Right, we shot something and we’d come back the next day and he’s like, “I put this scene together last night. It works, it looks good, and I’m happy with it.” I probably would have wanted to go to sleep but he goes back. The biggest thing I got, especially after working with Soderbergh, was, “Oh my God, there are people who are really gifted doing this kind of work,” and the top goes up so high. A guy like that can do all of that work, and can be that prolific. It was just really inspiring, like when you see people who are just excellent, it makes you feel like there’s more possibility than maybe you thought beforehand. That doesn’t mean you can do it — I mean, I’m still trying to learn what I can do — but it sure is inspiring.

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Definitely. With the compositions in this film, there’s more of a visual impact than your average kind of dramedy, I would say. I think of the shots at the art gallery with the paintings behind you and some other shots, it feels almost like you were using a dolly track. This being your first film, how did you come up with the visual design? 

I’m psyched that you mentioned that one, because part of the challenge to myself was [that] I was like, “Hey, I’m a stand-up,” and I’ve worked to be as visual as I can at stand-up. I’ve put drawings and certain things on stage so it’s not just verbal, because I gravitate more towards verbal. There’s nothing wrong with verbal, it’s just I realize that that’s my comfort zone — wordplay, things like that. So I want to learn to move beyond that a little bit, so that’s cool I’m making a movie, it’s a visual medium, let me play with that. So the art gallery, that was an idea. I thought it’d be great if I could make some fake art and put it in this gallery and have them go to this thing, and have it be almost like an external representation of what he’s dealing with and inside what’s happening. [He’s] pursuing the girl and falling apart, then you’ve got guns basically pointed at his face while he’s walking around with her. I thought there’d be a nice visual counterpoint there, and it works pretty well. And my DP [Mark Schwartzbard] was great, he was up for stuff like that. I was like “I’d like to do this without cuts,” so he just moved through the space and hit our marks. Gillian [Jacobs] was awesome, she was better at it than I was. She was walking backwards, and if you watch that scene she’s doing a great job. And we got it and it was great for morale, and I was really happy that my tiny-budget movie could still pull off things like that.

And then putting the drawings, splitting the screen and having drawings occupy part of the screen, stuff like that, those were all things I wanted to see if I could pull off in my own small way for my first movie. It gave me hope for making movies in the future, if I had a little more time and money I could do more like that. Yeah, there was things I couldn’t get to shoot, like I wanted to shoot a scene where Rory [Scovel] and I are driving and he’s driving, and I’m in LA and I’m finally just having fun, escaping from my life in New York, and I was going to have him doing donuts with his car and we’re just laughing and kicking all this dust and dirt up on the helipad where we ended up shooting at night with this view of LA. I wanted to have the scene during the day with music and everything, and I learned quickly that like, “No, there’s no way you’re doing that Demetri.” You need a stunt driver, you need insurance, you need all that and I was like, “Got it,” reality check. Stuff like that was kind of a bummer because you realize you write this stuff in your script then reality slaps you in the face and says, “Good luck stupid, there’s no way you’re doing that.”

At least you got cats — those are cheaper than stunts. I want to talk about Rory Scovel, he’s kind of I feel like the comedic breakout, obviously aside from your lead performance, but in terms of a supporting performance.

No, but I agree with you! When I was in the edit, I was like “Rory’s stealing this movie!” That’s great, he’s naturally so funny.

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Can you talk about forming his character on the page, and then did you expand it once you were realizing how gifted he was on set?

What happened was on the page I knew I wanted to have this guy who was kind of like on the surface one of these kind of douchebag hook-up guys, but then I wanted to show that there was much more to him. There was something below the surface there; he was a sensitive person and he’s been through something. There was a scene I had to cut just because I couldn’t keep everything in the movie — I made it too long — but there was a scene where he and I have this heart to heart and you learn more about him and you kind of get why he’s so stuck on his cat and everything. He did a great job, all of his scenes I was just so happy with, and I couldn’t keep it. Even while we were shooting I was writing extra stuff for him to do because I was like, “I love this character and I really like what Rory’s doing with this.” He took what I had on the page and definitely made it better. Even Reid Scott, I didn’t give him a big role. I didn’t know how to flesh everyone out, especially if they had a shorter screentime, but I thought Reid did really nice work with what I gave him. Because again, he just seemed like a real person, not just like The Friend.

You definitely get that impact, especially in the scene when you go back to New York. I wanted to ask about Gillian Jacobs’s character. I liked how you increased her backstory more than you would expect in a comedy or even drama. I’m curious how working with her and the formation of the character, wanting her to be toe to toe with you in terms of having motivations and things like that.

Absolutely. I still feel like I’ve got to get better at this. Everybody should know by now that women really get the short end of the stick at so many ends of the business, but especially in comedy I feel like there’s so many funny women who gotta be the girl, they gotta be this person’s wife, they gotta smile at the guy’s joke. My wife helped me as I was trying to develop the script and the characters, and especially with Nicky; I’d read her a scene and she’d be like, “You know, it’s okay, I don’t know if I’d say that. I don’t know if a woman would really do that.” She’d tell me stuff like that and it was super helpful. So finally, we started to get Nicky to a place where I think this is a real person and a good character. Going into her backstory and what she was dealing with I thought was really helpful because you got to at least see her perspective. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, here’s my problems, my being, this is what I’m dealing with.” I thought it was nice to be like, “Hey, you know, she’s got her own story too. Even if the movie’s not all about that, she’s got that, that she’s dealing with.”

Dean opens on Friday, June 2.

Matías Piñeiro and Dan Sallitt on ‘Hermia & Helena,’ Finding a Community, and Filmmaking Logistics

Written by Ethan Vestby, May 26, 2017 at 7:00 am 

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Tucking away in the “lounge” of the crowded downtown multiplex last year that hosted the Toronto Film Festival, this writer managed to wrangle a wide-ranging interview with directors Matías Piñeiro and Dan Sallitt regarding the former’s new film, Hermia & Helena. This is the first work by the acclaimed filmmaker to take place outside his home nation of Argentina, something that pays off in the film to ends both bittersweet and totally strange. Coming off as less an interview and more a moderated discussion between the two directors (the latter’s involvement in the film being a surprisingly effective acting turn), this was a great opportunity to bask in the kindness and knowledge of two kindred spirits.

As the film opens at Film Society of Lincoln Center and Metrograph, read the conversation below.

The Film Stage: What was the image you had gotten of New York, at least before living there?

Matías Piñeiro: Well, at first, when I moved to New York, I wasn’t doing it in terms of a career, I went because my boyfriend moved there from Buenos Aires to do his PhD, so I followed him. And actually, for me, that was cinema: I thought I wasn’t going to be a filmmaker if I left the people that I tend to work with. So for me it was a challenge, but I thought, “Okay, maybe it’s a good thing to change a little bit.” I thought it was a situation where I leave the circle that has become for me, and I’ll see what happens. Maybe in Buenos Aires I’ll keep on making films like Viola and The Princess of France. But for me, New York was very uncinematic in that sense. But then, after four years of living there, I made friends and I made acquaintances and connections — connections in a friendly sense, a fluid sense — that somehow they achieved something that Maria Villar, one of the actresses that had started this shooting, said: “It’s like your friends in Buenos Aires but here in New York.” So somehow I felt it was possible to make a film because I had those friends. I don’t know if I ever told you this, Dan, but when I saw The Unspeakable Act, it was the first time that I was watching a film that I felt could’ve been made in the context that I made my previous films, like with friends. Watching The Unspeakable Act, I thought that it had an energy and way and idea of production in connection with style that are similar to searches that the people of Buenos Aires are having. And that film gave me the impression way before ever having the idea that I wanted to make a film in the U.S., that maybe it was possible to do it.

Dan Sallitt: Matías is a very open and likable person, so he gathered a lot of people around him in New York — and it’s kind of an extraordinary crowd. I was saying to him the other day that I think historians might take note of this assemblage of talent you can see just walk into these gatherings. There’s so many good filmmakers around and he’s friends with a lot of them, so however alien New York might’ve been to him, I think he has definitely positioned himself in the centre of a very nice group of people.

I remember when a friend of mine on Twitter was asking “What are some good recent American independent films?,” another friend just linked to Dan’s list of favorite films by year. So did you show him films and get him into the scene?

DS: Oh, no. It was a later meeting.

MP: Yes, it was a meeting through cinema in a very simple way — that, if you go to the cinema and watch films and you meet and you talk, and you’re not thinking about making films. I was not meeting Dan because I wanted him to be in the film, but it’s something like you meet people, even Keith [Poulson], I had the idea of putting him in the cast because I was meeting him in bars and / or after a screening. The way one moves, talks, behaves, and thinks one can be part of this, like we share a similar idea of how filmmaking can be. And that is not that easy.

DS: Keith Poulson sees a lot of movies, by the way. He’s a real cinephile.

MP: And he’s also a musician and he’s working in films — and, outside of films, he’s a very open person. There is something that brings in a sense of community in a way, and I think, in New York, the cinephile field is very open and enriching and very big. Somehow there’s connections that appear through that way, like people you meet at the cinema or the next series,  talking about this or previous films, someone that you’re helping. Everyone is mixed, and, as it gets mixed, filmmakers like Dan can be an actor, for example. And as things get mixed, there’s an impurity aspect that made me think it was possible. I don’t know how it was for you to do the film, but for me it was hard to be an American filmmaker. It’s not that easy.

DS: It’s just not that easy.

And this is beyond just acquiring the money to make the films?

DS: I’ve never acquired a cent; I’ve payed for every single movie I’ve ever made. So that, alone, is enough to indicate that I consider it very difficult. I have no savings because I spent my savings over and over again on movies. But it has good aspects, too, and what I think Matías is talking about is one of the good aspects: that nobody is competing for funds, everybody knows that it’s impoverished, and everybody’s scrambling, so everyone’s friends. It’s like musicians have always been like that: there wasn’t so much at stake, so everyone hung out with each other. When I was younger, I had the distinct feeling that filmmakers kept their own counsel more; they didn’t seem to want to open up or share things as much. But now it’s not like that. It’s been, like, 10-15 years now that there’s been a real community of independent filmmakers in America, not just New York, because the Internet and festivals have cast the net very wide.

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Since this film was made over all four seasons and in the English language, was it a much slower process?

MP: Yes, but in my first film, The Stolen Man, that, I think, has a very similar texture, and rhythm was the same. I shot that film all throughout one year, and Hermia & Helena was all shot throughout a year. I also think that having another way of shooting helps for films to be different. Also, in this particular case, I thought that it was good not to get pushed by myself to get the film finished. The first idea was to finish the film in December 2015, but things changed and it was not that easy, and instead of pushing it, I said that I need more time, I’ll take more time. And then, somehow, the film shows you how the thing should be; instead of you pushing ideas and forcing it, you somehow respond to things that the film is pointing out. Suddenly I had certain ideas about animations and kept on working on that idea and it didn’t work, so I was like, “Okay, I’ll put it because I think it’s a good idea that should work, and I’ll have to show the film to I don’t know who, so I will put it and I will send it.” But no, I just kept on working and didn’t send it to anybody, and I just kept on working and it was not working so I changed the idea and that requires time. There’s a filmmaker friend of mine that once told me, when I did my first film of mine, that film went to very few festivals, but it was okay. I was a little surprised — but nobody cares, so it’s okay. But he was like, “Of course nobody cares, because nobody asked you to do that film. You did it just because of your strength, but at the same time you shouldn’t be asking for anything else because you just did it because you wanted to do it. It’s not like you have a studio. You’re alone, so what do you want? You should be happy enough that you made it.” So in that sense I tried to keep the pace that it takes to finish a film, but it also has to have its own time. [To Dan] How do you work?

DS: I’m more anxious than you are. I try as hard as I can to get it done quickly, but you know you can’t always do it. I’ve noticed, working on the set with you, that your style reflects a certain… like, he’s more in the moment than I can be. When we were working, anyway, I know that he changes his style up, but he crafted each shot at a time, and they were mostly sequence shots. He would bring the actor together and he would talk to them, give us some ideas; he’d sit with us and come up with a vague sense of what we were going to do. Then we start doing it and he would go with Fernando Lockett, the D.P., and start setting up the shot, which almost always involved a lot of panning or a lot of focus pulling, so the assistant director was very busy, and he would start working on this for quite a long time. Fernando would light it very simply and just a little at a time he would come up with a shot which was covering an entire idea. It wasn’t very often a fragment of something else; it had its own existence. Matías changes his style from film to film, but at least with this movie, I saw him be able to work in the moment and make that moment from nothing almost.

MP: I do think that scene, or rather that whole sequence, that third story, was something that we really built together, like with you and Agustina [Muñoz] and myself. It was a whole sequence that depended a lot on you and Agustina. There was something about the text, we somehow worked out together the questions, but the answers were somehow things that you worked out by yourself, and we tried it once or twice, but we polished them from take to take, but you had this idea that it was like scriptwriting while shooting.

DS: I don’t know if the whole film was like this, but I think that maybe we had a less-written script. But I felt that a lot of what were being asked to do was come up on the spot with a lot of backstory about these characters, which is a kind of a writing function and maybe a little more comfortable because I’m more comfortable as a writer than I am as an actor. So were spending a lot of time just on the spot trying to think up what these characters might have done in the past. Sometimes it was really on the spot because Agustina is really clever and she would change things just a little bit from time to time — not so much as to confuse me, just to introduce a little new thing once in a while — and I would have to think about, on the spot, “What would this character do?” And sometimes the results were very strange. She was very much a part of this process. She, in her own way, was kind of directing me or taking her time in trying to find things that would bring out new material.

MP: I do really think that moment where the film works better are the moments where communion between the people involved is working in a higher level, like an intense level. The moment with Mati [Diop] and Agustina, the moment with Dan, the moment with Keith. There’s moments where the cooperation with the people involved was very intense.Not intense in the sense of struggling, but a sense of giving themselves, like putting themselves in dialogue with Fernando, with me or each other. So there you get the sparkles. Even in Dustin’s [Guy Defa] part, Dustin was helpful to make sure that character wasn’t somehow empty. There’s something about how we are as people that helps to build a character.

DS: There’s a lot of good personal connections on that set. The fact that Matías is so open and warm kind of sets a certain tone on set. Agustina is also very approachable and easily brings out a kind of intimacy into people, so the whole set had a kind of nice feeling of people who are very pleasant and also giving you a little more than superficial things. It was a nice environment.

MP: I had a sense that everybody was doing what they wanted to do. I was happy about making a film outside Buenos Aires. For Mati, she lives in Paris and suddenly she was doing a fellowship, and suddenly she was asked to do a little part and she had no idea what it was. I think that she was thrilled by that and you see her thrill in the film. And I think that something similar happened to you.

DS: I was a little starstruck by Agustina. I’m not a good enough actor to get myself out of there. At the time I thought to myself that I was kind of fascinated with her and a little nervous around her, but it seemed like it was perfectly fine for her father in this situation. No one needed to know that I had seen the film and was like “Oh, my God, this is the girl from Viola,” but nobody probably sees that onscreen.

In this film there’s a real emphasis on physical objects. In so many films today you see people scrolling through their phones or screens; this has the postcards or the photo of Dan and his band. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

MP: It connects with, maybe it’s an old idea, that film captures objects. Not, like, objects in space or objects in time. It’s helpful that it’s an object, like a post card. Even though now it’s a little anachronistic, it works. Even when I had to shoot the Skype sequences, which was very contemporary, I didn’t go to the object; I went to the conversation. It was like a shot and a counter-shot. I could’ve had ideas of putting the text in the middle of the screen and tried to make it very contemporary, but I thought that it had to be done very easily. There’s no object there. It’s a conversation, so you just shoot air between people. While when you have an object, you can picture the object — like the postcard or the photographs. They have information. What we need in film is information. Like, Keith receives a postcard and the other doesn’t see or one receives one without a name. There’s something about the information in a very Hitchcock-ian way that these elements provide me much more easily than other stuff, like more digital elements. But I also thought it was interesting to work with some digital elements not to make the film anachronistic, but I think that has another treatment. In the Skype sequences I was avoiding the computer, for instance, while in the postcards or photographs that is an older technology; they become an object. I think there’s something different in the shot of someone holding a photograph than the whole picture of the photograph. With Skype scenes, there’s putting the whole screen as a computer, but then I was like, “No, I’ll just photograph it as something ordinary.” I shoot it like that and it’s almost like you don’t see it, because when you are doing Skype you are cooking, walking, naked, I don’t know.

Do you agree?

DS: Oh, I wasn’t there for that. I wasn’t doing any Skype-ing.

I just thought because there was that photo of you. Maybe it was something you brought.

DS: No, they asked for some photos and I gave them and, from that time on, they decided everything.

MP: Actually, I’m very curious to see, because Dan hasn’t seen the film yet. When I was editing I was using his photographs. There was someone there that I didn’t know, but someone who relates to him in a very personal way, I guess. And I was using that image like that, like I’m using it for a certain way — but it will hit him differently, in a very intimate way. I like that, that film can write to people in a very intimate way.

DS: This is very common, especially with very low-budget movies that you forage into your actors’ lives for something from their past that fits you. All the time they’re bringing stuff in that has a story behind it.

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Hermia & Helena is now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Metrograph.

‘Citizen Jane: Battle for the City’ Director Matt Tyrnauer on Urban Planning, Syd Mead, and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, May 19, 2017 at 7:49 am 

Debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, Matt Tyrnauer‘s Citizen Jane: Battle for the City has received rave reviews across the country as it opened in limited release last month. Centering on Jane Jacobs — a journalist, author, and activist — the film showcases the problems inherent to how urban planners in the mid-twentieth century worked.

One of the key proponents of this movement to teardown what he deemed “slums” for new, mammoth housing projects of concrete erasing the very communities they sought to “save” was New York’s Robert Moses. His power and reputation allowed him to force his ideas through the legislature for decades until Jacobs caught wind professionally and personally (he would eventually target her neighborhood). She ignited to take a stand and share her own beliefs in writing and via protest on city living, safety via “eyes on the street,” and the notion that cities are defined by its people, not its buildings.

We spoke with director Tyrnauer about his project’s origins, Jacobs as intellectual and activist, and her continuing impact today.


The Film Stage: I’m sure you get this question every interview, but when did Jane Jacobs get on your radar as a documentary topic?

Matt Tyrnauer: I read [her book] The Death and Life of Great American Cities about six years ago. So I came late to it. I’m not schooled in urban planning or architecture, but I’ve written about architecture — mostly for Vanity Fair magazine and sometimes the New York Times. But I had never read The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

I bought it at a bookstore not far from where Jane Jacobs lived — in the Village [Grennwich Village in New York City]. [It was] one of those books I had always intended to read, but never had. And I was immediately taken with it: her writing style and the way she makes you see the city in a completely different way than you had seen it before.

Then I was talking with friends about the book. Among them was Robert Hammond who co-created the High Line in New York [and helped produce Citizen Jane]. We started almost joking: “There should be a Jane Jacobs documentary.” There’s never really been one that’s theatrical. And that’s how we got started.

Did the project start as a straight biography about her life before paring down to this specific focus. Or was that always the intent?

No. Actually we started farther away from biography then we ended up. We wanted to make a movie about ideas.

The movie was mostly foundation funded. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations are the principal funders and they were very interested in a film about Jane Jacobs as she relates to the current day’s issues of cities — as were we. So we started off more in that direction and then put more biography in … although I never intended to make a biographical portrait of Jane. I wanted to make a movie about her ideas.

In the name of making a movie that was accessible to as broad an audience as possible, [we were led towards] a film that was about her ideas but also a particular period in her history when she was writing The Death and Life of Great American Cities — her first book — and also her pivoting into activism and taking on Robert Moses in New York City. And in many cases winning her battles with him.

What was the researching process like? Your first film [Valentino: The Last Emperor] allowed you to have access to your subject — they were alive for you to follow around. What was it like to transition into a completely archival film?

Well, I’m a big vérité guy. So I love vérité filmmaking — my next film is a vérité film. But I also wanted to try my hand in an archival movie. I’m a huge admirer of modern architecture and am obsessed with cities, so it’s subject matter that I’m deeply interested in. So it seemed like a good idea to do something archival, especially in an area where I’m so keenly interested.

So I really was excited to be able to look at all the archival photography of the cities — particularly in that period of the early to mid-twentieth century. Cities were so beautiful then and the photography of them is so evocative. I was also excited to go on the hunt for rare footage of Jacobs and Moses. We succeeded, eventually, in finding never-before-seen footage.

So it’s definitely flexing a different set of muscles — doing an all-archival film — but it was a challenge I was eager to take on.

What was your process as far as finding the subjects you interview about Jacobs and her work? Did you seek people who knew her or search out those who appreciated her ideas?

There’s a range. Some people knew her and are involved in the issues of city planning — and in some cases architecture. And then there are a lot of scholars who wrote very well on her. So we talked to people and found those we thought would be the best and most articulate on-camera.

The film has no narrator so we really lived or died by what our interview subjects said. There’s nothing like a great interview — someone who can really sell what they’re talking about. That’s hugely important to a film like this.

You self-distributed Valentino, but this one is of course being handled by Sundance Selects. Can you talk about that experience and how it prepared you for readying this film on those terms?

Yeah. Self-distributing Valentino was a great — and I might say unexpected — education because we didn’t initially plan to self-distribute it. But it ended up that way and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was an amazing experience. I learned so much about how the distribution side works and that’s information that a lot of filmmakers don’t get.

It turned out that Valentino was extremely successful on self-distribution. I think Box Office Mojo has it just under two million, but it’s actually over two million due to inadequacies of its accounting procedures. But anyway, it did — for a doc, as you know … it was really, really high for just theatrical. So it turned out to be a positive experience if a daunting one.

But it did, I think, help a lot with engaging our distributor. I think it allowed me to understand where the strengths and weaknesses of our movie lie and how to best support it as the distributor brought it out into the world. And also how — you have to be the squeaky wheel sometimes to get your way. Me having self-distributed told me what battles were worth fighting. That was an interesting thing I think I learned.

One of my favorite parts of Citizen Jane: you’re telling this great story that many people may not know, but underneath it is Jacobs’ activism and its parallels to today. She’s — as revealed in your movie — a precursor of sorts to the Women’s Marches and a lot of the stuff happening right now. Can you talk about balancing those two aspects?

Jacobs’ brilliance is sort of in two parts. She’s a brilliant writer and thinker and synthesizer. The Death and Life of Great American Cities goes down as perhaps the greatest book ever written about cities, but also maybe one of the greatest books of the twentieth century — it’s never been out-of-print. It’s one of the few books that you can say changed an entire profession. Urban planning was never the same after that book. It created a paradigm shift.

The other part of Jacobs is that she was a great activist and strategist in that realm. So these were the two parts of her story that we needed to tell.

When we started out making the film, we never could have predicted a Trump presidency. As we were finishing the film we were anticipating our first woman president. So we thought the film would be received with that as a historical backdrop. Well we were of course very wrong about that. The story of Jacobs’ activism and the success she had against tremendous odds resonates in an entirely different way. I think it’s one of the film’s strengths.

If you had asked me when we started the project what the big take away would be, I would have said, “Well, it’s how important cities are in our century.” That’s the number one topic because it’s adjacent to [today’s] most important things: climate change, sustainability, poverty, and hunger. For all these things a city matters. But given the urgency of the political crisis that’s sweeping — not only our country, but also the world right now — [it becomes] a playbook for activism and an example of someone who was effective in defending minority communities. I think this is very urgently needed and I’m very pleased the film is resonating in that way for a lot of audiences.

And in that same climate we’ve been receiving a lot of dystopian views in art again. Looking at the designs you included in the movie with Corbusier as an example, I couldn’t stop being reminded of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise.

Oh, I love that comparison. I’m a Los Angeles native. I lived in New York for quite some time, but I’m now back in LA. So Blade Runner is a touchstone. They got it so right in its fantastic way.

I actually went to see — this is a side-note — the man who invented that world for Ridley Scott. I’m blanking on his name right now. Do you know whom I mean? He’s a futurist.

I can’t think of it.

I’ll have to look him up. [The artist in question is Syd Mead.] He was the one who kind of sketched out that world. He was at a conference about the future of the city at the Getty Center and was just such a wonderful presence at that event.

Back to the subject at-hand: I think Corbusier … the problem with Corbusier is that he just wasn’t thinking at the human scale. So when urban renewal began to gather steam in the United States and many other parts of the world, this obsession with gigantism and super blocks and super scale was so sexy to architects and planners who could get rich off of it. [They] were blinded by their utopian visions. And when these were realized, Jacobs was among the first to say, “Wait a minute. These things are completely out of scale and are creating many more problems than they are solving.” This is one of her great contributions to society.

It seems so obvious to look at in hindsight. And it’s great to learn that she didn’t go to college for that expertise. She didn’t experience it academically, but lived it instead. That’s a great source of inspiration.

Yeah. That’s very important. She tells you by her example that you don’t need a higher degree to make worthy observations and to put your ideas out there. She was scorned because of her lack of credentials and she continuously — all through her writing, starting with Death and Life — railed against the system of credentialing. It’s almost like a fetish of hers and you can see why.

She’s self-taught. She’s obviously very bright if not even a visionary. She was an incredible observer and intellect and was able to kind of put these things together and arrive at what’s now accepted as common wisdom. But she arrived there generations before the rest of the world caught up.

As kind of an aside — I’m in Buffalo, NY and recently we’ve seen our Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls changes its name to the Niagara Scenic Parkway. Governor Cuomo did it last year and even passed a forty million dollar budget to turn part of it back into park.

Oh wow. I didn’t know about that one. It’s interesting because Cuomo is also trying to take the Sheridan Expressway [in the Bronx] and turn it into a park. It was another of Moses’ pet projects.

I’m sure the success of the High Line is helping him turn things back.

It’s great. This is happening … it’s happening in LA. It’s happening in New Haven — the Oak Street Connector, which destroyed most of downtown New Haven is being taken down, I think. Stuff is happening generations after Jacobs sounded the alarm.

You had mentioned your next project as being another vérité film. Are there any details that you’re willing to share?

Yeah. It’s called Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood and it’s about Scotty Bowers as the “male madam” to the stars in the Golden Age of Hollywood. He’s still alive and it’s a vérité film about him and about sexuality and Hollywood and America.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is now in limited release.

Doug Liman on Making ‘The Wall’ as a Reaction to ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

Written by Dan Mecca, May 11, 2017 at 4:38 pm 

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Though Doug Liman has built much of his blockbuster filmography on memorable action set-pieces, from The Bourne Identity all the way through Edge of Tomorrow, his earlier work (SwingersGo) speaks to a more efficient, character-driven filmmaker. His new picture The Wall feels like a little bit of both. We got a chance to chat with the director about the film, the intricate design of the titular wall and how he deals with his short attention span while making movies.

You’ve worked on a decent amount of action thrillers. What jumped out to you when you read this script?

The reason why I’m drawn to making action movies is because I love pinning characters down in impossible situations and then seeing how they survive. And, you know, I’ve created some pretty outrageous situations; spies with amnesia or aliens and time travel in Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. So The Wall had that in such an elegant way. Two soldiers pinned down by an Iraqi sniper, where the sniper is a thousand meters away. Because bullets travel faster than the speed of sound. You’ll be dead for three seconds before you hear the sound of the gunfire.

And I’m also interested, throughout my career, in alternative versions of superheroes. You know, Jason Bourne is a version of a superhero and in Fair Game Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame standing up to the most powerful men in the world in the White House are superheroes of sorts. And, obviously, in Edge of Tomorrow Tom Cruise actually has a superpower.

But I looked at the characters in The Wall and what it was going to take for them to survive. You know, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a form of superhero. He’s almost like Iron Man, he’s got all of those pouches with all of those supplies and he knows how to use them all and he keeps lifting himself up and he keeps going. These American soldiers who are in combat are like one-man fighting machines. It’s like Robocop.

The level of technology that you go into the field with and the level of training they go into the field with makes them a form of a superhero. And so The Wall had the elements I love in a big, Hollywood film, of a superhero facing impossible odds. But it’s real. Even more real than The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Identity I tried to make as real as I could.

the-wallWhen you’re working in one location, you’re still creating these visually-interesting, visually captivating situations. How do you keep the look fresh when you’re in one spot? Does that limit you?

Well, it’s a huge challenge to work with one location. But, on the other hand, it allows you to dig in deeper and do something that’s ultimately more compelling and it’s a box that’s even more difficult for the hero to escape than if you keep changing locations. Probably for me the biggest difficulty is that I have a very short attention span. Part of how I dealt with my short attention span in the past is lots of different locations, lots of different characters, quick cutting. You know, with The Wall how could I make a film that, given my short attention span, not use some of my crutches that I’ve used in the past.

Speaking of the titular wall, I love the design of the thing. The minute [Aaron Taylor-Johnson] jumps behind it, we get to know exactly what it is. How he’s playing Tetris in making holes for visibility while it’s barely still standing up. How does that intricate design come to be?

I mean honestly? It started with LEGOs on my desk. I wish I could point to a more sophisticated approach. And then Jeff Mann, who designed Mr. and Mrs. Smith for me, was the designer for the movie and we wanted to give the wall personality and character. We also had to design a wall that was going to collapse in different ways but we only could afford one wall. And we couldn’t have it collapse on Aaron Taylor-Johnson, you know?

Right.

It was way more of an engineering feat than it might appear to be. Given what a significant element it is in the movie, Jeff and I spent countless hours designing the detail of it. And I did want it to feel precarious as well. That it was the only thing keeping him alive and he can’t necessarily count on it standing for the whole movie.

And that definitely comes through. In terms to the narrative itself, there are these legends of these snipers in the Middle East that the military was aware of and their rumored kills. It’s interesting how you create this American military myth within this very real scenario. In telling this story, how do you construct that mythos of sorts with a very authentic context?

There was a version of the movie where we talk about the real [Iraqi sniper] Juba and his legend, which we decided not to do. Because it’s not really a movie about him. For us, the key was to connect with the soldiers. We were really fortunate how many veterans and soldiers and Gold-Star wives reached out to us and helped us and let us into their homes and into their photo albums and into their letters and into their lives so that we could understand what it means to be a soldier. And a soldier in combat. Give us a taste of what that feels like so we could bring it to the screen.

What have you got on the horizon? I know American Made in September. Anything else exciting?

The paint’s still wet on The Wall. [Laughs] I make films, sort of, that when I’m done with a movie I react and that affects the one I choose after it. In a way, I chose to make The Wall as a reaction to Edge of Tomorrow, where I was like, wow, I didn’t need to have aliens and time travel and this crazy, outrageous situation to pin the hero or superhero down in an impossible situation and watch him try to get out of it. So I think the simplicity of The Wall was a reaction to the over-complexity of Edge of Tomorrow. So I’m not quite sure what my reaction to The Wall will be. Too soon.

The Wall opens on Friday, May 12.

Wyatt Russell on the Naturalness of ‘Folk Hero & Funny Guy’ and the Art of Humor

Written by Dan Mecca, May 10, 2017 at 7:42 am 

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The bond of male friendship is examined – and tested – in Folk Hero & Funny Guy, a short and sweet dramedy from multi-hyphenate Jeff Grace, who writes and directs. We meet comedian Paul (Alex Karpovsky) at the end of a tired stand-up routine in a beer-stained comedy club. Meanwhile, Paul’s childhood friend Jason (Wyatt Russell) has built a successful career for himself as a folk music star. Inspired over the course of a drunken reunion, Jason gets the idea to take Paul on tour with him. We had the opportunity to speak with Russell about the film, and one can read the full conversation below.

How did this all come together? 

I came back from doing a film and I just read this movie that I thought was really good. And it had a musical element to it which is something I’d wanting to do. Because I play guitar, and it’s an important thing in my life. For myself. I’ve never done it for anybody else. Or played it for anybody else in a way of going ‘I want this to be a career.’ It was always sort of private but [the movie] was the first time I was like, ‘You know, this could be a cool thing for me to do and challenge myself to be able to play live and sing live.’ You know, there’s no hiding. That appealed to me a lot, so when I met Jeff [Grace], the director, I met someone who totally understood what they had written, had lived with it, and I knew that the movie was in good hands and that whatever performance came out of it was going to be in good hands so it was an easy decision after that.

Yeah, the music is great and certainly one of the highlights of the whole film. As I understand it, you were basically filming live on location, is that right? Sounds like the way you captured it was pretty down and dirty.

Yeah, there was no other way to do it. For that specific thing. Obviously, for bigger projects that calls for more involved things. This was just me and a guitar so. If I wasn’t going to play it would sort of violate the entire movie. So it was never even a question and I knew that Jeff, the minute I met him, that that’s what he wanted so that’s just what we’ll do. We have this guy Wil Masisak, who’s basically just an audio wiz. It was just him, alone, doing all of the audio. Meaning all of the guitar work, all of the levels of the mic and the guitar and all of that. Combined with everybody else’s levels and the room tone and…doing everything by himself. Like he didn’t have an assistant until like the last four days. Booming everything. The guy was like magic. And so having somebody like that, who has an engineering background helps massively with just getting the takes down. Because it could’ve been where you’ve shot the movie and you get the audio back and you’re like ‘what the fuck is wrong with it?!’ So big props to Wil for being able to make that a reality.

And you can definitely feel the naturalism throughout the film. It feels like a very authentic road trip movie. Everybody’s had an experience like this to some degree or another. It sounds like the way it was filmed, what was there to take away from being real indie about your locations, actually being on the road shooting and all of that?

I think it all leads into everything. And the way we lived was like two houses right next to each other. So we were with each other all of the time it was very familiar. Everything bled into everything else. So with a movie like that, I think it kind of has to feel like a summer camp vibe in a weird way because that’s what that level of indie filmmaking is kind of about. So that was something that came organically. And more than anything, I think just everybody being good people. Fun to hang out with. Easy people. People who could take a setback. People who didn’t look at the top of the mountain and go ‘whoa, we’re never going to get there!’ The amount of [location] moves we had to go on a budget of, like, zero dollars was a joke. And what [the production] was able to accomplish with the budget that they had is kind of mind-boggling to me. So all of that pace and all of that stuff added to whatever it is you feel towards the natural-ness on screen.

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One great thing throughout is the comedy. There aren’t many joke jokes. Alex [Karpovsky]’s character is a stand-up of course, but the majority of the laughs come from the character relationships and the interactions. When you’re prepping the role and getting to know the other performers, how much of that can you plan for and how much of that just comes to be on set?

I think a lot of those moments comes from everybody’s understanding of humor. And that our humor matched well. Like Jeff makes me laugh so hard. Alex makes me laugh so hard. Meredith [Hagner] makes me laugh so hard. And everybody could make each other really gut-bust laugh. It all came from not concentrating on any type of particular joke and not making any joke precious. But by listening to each other and going, ‘that’s fucking funny! What if we did this?’ And then the humor comes up and it’s not a set-up joke that after a while might get stale. And might not be funny. And the joke might not land. But if you play the humor and you all have killer humor you’re going to be entertaining each other while you’re doing it and that is real.

Last question. What’s on the horizon? I know you’ve got the Ethan Hawke movie Blaze coming up, which seems to have a lot of music in it. What else exciting coming up?
Yeah, [Blaze] was a movie where I went down there for like five or six days and Alia Shawkat was in it as well as Ben Dickey who’s playing [musician] Blaze [Foley]. I play a guy named Glen who they rent a treehouse from. Working for [Ethan Hawke] was amazing. And then I did a movie called Ingrid Goes West that comes out in August, Neon’s distributing that movie. And then tomorrow I get on an airplane to do a movie called Overlord, a Bad Robot movie a guy named Julius Avery is directing and J.J. Abrams is producing.

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Folk Hero & Funny Guy opens on Friday, May 12.

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson on Creating the World of ‘The Endless’

Written by Jared Mobarak, May 2, 2017 at 8:48 am 

As someone who loved Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson‘s Spring to the point of seeking out everything else they had done before that point, hearing about a new work debuting at Tribeca got me excited to see what they would deliver. My assumption was that it was the Aleister Crowley picture they spoke about when I interviewed them last year — I was wrong. While that discovery wasn’t surprising considering how long projects gestate, it was shocking to discover The Endless proved to be a sequel to their first feature collaboration Resolution.

They have created a film around the characters they played themselves: Aaron and Justin, UFO cult members. Would this new tale ten years later be only tangentially related through these characters or would the mythos be the same? If the latter, would it bring back the “monster,” locale, and supporting cast? These are important questions to ask, but not necessarily seek out answers until watching it. As Resolution and Spring have both shown, Moorhead and Benson always have a few tricks up their sleeves to freshen up genre conventions and provide intelligently and emotive mysteries to excel beyond them. The Endless is no different.

In an attempt to avoid spoilers our conversation with the duo mostly focuses on their craft: what it was like developing the story, directing themselves as leads, and any hopes for the future as they looks to secure distribution [Well Go USA has since bought the rights for a 2018 release]. They provide us an update on that Crowley project too.


The Film Stage: Not to start this off with a weird question, but I did notice your “international collector” Jesse Summoner [an online character created during the build-up to Resolution] being thanked in the end credits. Was that just an Easter egg or perhaps a hint towards a new viral social media campaign on the horizon?

Justin Benson: Oh man. Thank you for the idea. We’ll pass that along to the future distributor — whoever that ends up being.

Aaron Moorhead: It’s brilliant.

JB: But it is. It is a very intentional Easter egg and it’s very inside and very impressive you caught that.

AM: You know what’s funny is I remember checking the credits during one of our last three screenings and being like, “Did we put Jesse in there?” We normally do and I couldn’t find it because I was distracted with something else. But I’m glad that he is in.

I actually watched Resolution after Spring at home, so I was able to pause it on the screen stating where the “footage” originated. A Google search later and I’m reading through all the WordPress posts. It was definitely a nice little added bonus.

JB: Awesome.

What was it like finding out that the festival [Tribeca] where everything started with Resolution not only selected The Endless but also placed it in competition for US Narrative?

JB: It was a really exciting night. I can imagine someone looking at our careers and being like, “Oh they made a new movie so they’re probably going to premiere it at a big film festival.” The way we feel about it is, “We have a new movie done. Oh my God. What if no one premieres it anywhere and no one ever sees it and we just wasted a year on this.”

So we were overjoyed to the fact that it was kind of home. Obviously we love the festival. It’s launching a movie from arguably — at least one of the most important cities on the planet that operates as like a satellite dish for information. It just kind of explodes out from this spot like a giant satellite. And the competition thing was particularly exciting because … it’s less about the prospect of winning an award and more about just feeling good that someone saw our movie and saw dramatic merit beyond all the sci-fi stuff. We love all that stuff, but it was cool that people would have the expectation that this is going to have an additional dramatic merit.

AM: Also we were told that a genre film doesn’t normally get into the competition of festivals like this so … we were told it was the first genre film let in since Let the Right One In about a decade ago. I’m not sure that’s true because I didn’t check, but we were told that and we’re very, very proud of it. So it felt like in some ways thematically appropriate considering the film is about coming back to the homestead — that we were able to kind of like do something that gave our careers such a big start five years ago, but even bigger this time.

How long has this chapter been gestating? Were its revelations known while writing Resolution or did that evolution begin more recently?

JB: Genuinely, this movie — whether we knew it or not — was in development for about six years. There were a lot of things in Resolution that we just couldn’t stop thinking about. It was a situation where we always knew most people haven’t seen Resolution or will never see Resolution, but it was a world that inspired us to tell a story that we’re really proud of that can exist on its own.

It’s been fun seeing both reactions. It’s been fun seeing people discover certain characters we’ve loved for six or seven years now and love them too. And it’s fun to see people who already loved them revisit these characters. It’s weird. We didn’t know it, but we were developing this movie for six years.

We even did a trial run with a different movie. [laughs]

AM: Yeah, that’s the weird thing. We keep on forgetting to even mention it much less think about it, but there’s about maybe twenty to thirty minutes of a totally different movie with a very broadly similar concept that we were making just on our own while traveling with Spring on like a DSLR camera in different countries. We were playing like really goofy versions of the cult members. That exists. Maybe we’ll piece some of it together for the Blu-Ray or something.

The idea was definitely sticking with us. And then all of that got completely ditched in favor of making this much more cohesive and coherent movie. [laughs]

And with that you then put it into the Resolution world and onto characters that you two and [producer] Dave Lawson played. What was the experience like directing yourselves?

JB: You know, every single thing in filmmaking is really, really, really, really hard. Directing ourselves … it wasn’t for the most part more difficult than it’s ever been. Again: everything in filmmaking is hard.

In terms of where your time and energy is going: instead of answering a million little questions for another performer that you have to be able to answer as a director — that’s your job — to work with that performer. Instead, we knew the answers to all those questions. But we were the ones in rehearsal doing it for a month ahead of time. A lot of time and energy goes into that.

It’s not necessarily more difficult, but it’s a reallocation of time and energy and towards our own performances rather than communicating it to someone else.

How was it knowing everything? It’s the kind of movie that some directors may keep their leads in the dark as far as its revelations. You didn’t have that luxury. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been a luxury?

JB: It’s actually a two-part answer. One is … what’s really exciting about a movie like this to us is the mystery. It’s a mystery probably first and foremost. It’s the easiest way to describe it without mashing a bunch of genres together. It is definitely a mystery. When you know all the answers to a mystery, normally it becomes uninteresting. It loses its re-watch value and that kind of thing. Everything about it is: What is the answer to the great big riddle?

But for us this movie somehow was always the kind of movie we’ve been trying to make. It wasn’t exactly like this story or whatever, but it was this kind of movie where it was like: “Oh it’s this cool sci-fi, kind of funny, definitely scary, sort of puzzle box of a movie.” And that’s what we’ve always been trying to do. So we were able to derive a whole lot of excitement out of knowing all of its mysteries. We were able to come for the mystery and adventure and stay for our own interest in the character development.

The second part to it: when you say that you wouldn’t want your lead actors to know things like that? Honestly that isn’t part of our process at all. Even if we didn’t cast ourselves we would have told everyone everything. We find deep understanding to be a more useful tool than keeping people selectively in the dark. But that’s just our process. A lot of other filmmakers do it differently.

Now that you have two films in one franchise — one world — did you create a “bible” to go back to for that character development?

JB: It’s interesting. We don’t have a bible for this world. That’s an interesting idea, though.

AM: That’d be kind of cool.

JB: We have several TV shows in development where we’d typically do something akin to a bible that has a lot of details about the world in it. But to be honest, it’s almost like the bible to this world is The Endless and Resolution. It is the Jesse Summoner chronicles.

AM: The blog website.

JB: It’s the weird UFO cult website.

AM: It’s the first ten minutes of Spring.

JB: It’s like two characters from an early script phase of The Endless. There are scenes that already exist that just didn’t … we swapped them out for something else that communicated a little bit more of what we wanted in this movie.

It’s more fun to come up with your rules by coming up with characters and working around them — what they would do. Letting the rules kind of get identified through that rather than coming up with the rules first. So that’s why the “would-be bible” of this world just seems to work a little bit better in conversations first.

You guys definitely do that with character. The supporting cast is great front-to-back, but I want to single out Lew Temple as Tim because on first watch he’s a mysterious figure, kind of Hal’s [the de facto cult leader] equal but quiet. And then you watch it a second time and you start seeing that stoicism as worry of this kind of paternal figure. There are so many layers to it.

JB: He … Oh man. I hope I can express this in a way that doesn’t sound like hype promotional director talk. But he is fascinating because he asks so many good questions. We’ve had hours of conversations with Lew about his character.

AM: Before he would even sign on.

JB: Before he would sign on it was probably a six-hour discussion and then another six-hour discussion.

AM: By the way, I also want to point out in all of this: I think Lew has three lines in the whole movie and they’re all about beer. [laughs]

JB: So every character in The Endless at the camp who … you know, it’s never said exactly, for example, how old they are, when they entered the camp, or what exactly their backstory is. But everyone has a very elaborate backstory they’re aware of. Aaron and I wrote them out, gave it to them, and then we had a very long discussion. The longest discussions were probably with Lew and it is fascinating to watch him on set internalizing that information and then just execute little things in his performance. It’s truly fascinating.

I actually … I used to think that building a character’s history was kind of like an actor-y film school thing. Not that we’ve not always done it, but I don’t know how much of an impact it actually made. We can answer any question about anything in this world.

But in this movie, watching Lew and watching [Callie Hernandez, who played Anna] and watching Hal [Tate Ellington] and Shane [Shane Brady] — watching these characters who … there’s a lot of them. So they don’t get … the screen time is distributed among them, so they don’t get much. But how much they did with a glance because they had so much information about their characters [is immense].

I’m very proud of our accomplishment of I think people feeling, as they say, a river — this big river of something under all of these people [so audiences] get little hints of these characters’ backgrounds because we did all that exploration. And Lew is probably the one we did the most with. I don’t know. He’s a brilliant guy and it’s fascinating to watch how his mind works.

AM: It’s cool that you were able to single that out because when you do that kind of work, where it just revolves around shots of someone looking with an enigmatic expression on their face — and that’s basically all he gets except for one powerful line, “Don’t do it if you don’t want to” — that’s called doing a whole lot with [very] little. And Lew is a master of it.

You can see that depth in micro-expressions and little lines of dialogue. You want to know what Hal’s physics equation is. You want to know about Anna’s sister who supposedly left — it’s like a throwaway line, but it has so much weight behind it.

AM: Man, you have a good memory.

JB: Thank you for bringing up Anna’s sister. That’s a really interesting one.

And I’ll point out another small detail that Lew brought to it after lots of conversations: the fact that Tim, well Tim’s wardrobe was always intentional. “Oh, you know, he’s going to be dressed basically like how John Muir dressed when he came to explore the west coast of America.” That was kind of the inspiration for that. But Lew came to set wearing this Christian cross, which is really interesting because the movie deals with an esoteric, unknown omniscience. It has nothing to do with Judeo-Christian mythology, but we saw it and loved the idea that Tim still had his own faith. The fact that he seems to be involved in something otherworldly that has nothing to do with that faith. It’s just a small, interesting thing.

AM: I also want to mention how Lew started talking on set with an Irish accent. I couldn’t remember and I was like, “Is he Irish?” I couldn’t remember. And then when he runs through rehearsal he didn’t drop the Irish accent. And so at a certain point we’re like hanging around the camp and he’s just like, “What do you think? Is [Tim] Irish now?” We talked it out a bit and were just like, “I’m going to trust you that that’s a great Irish accent because I think it is, but I’m an American. And I think it makes a whole lot of sense that he’d be Irish especially considering what we talked about with his backstory, but I have to trust that that’s a good accent because I don’t know. You know it sounds great to me.” [laughs]

And luckily we have [received] the thumbs up from Irish people [who have seen it].

I wondered if you could talk about the use of “House of the Rising Sun” throughout the film — thematically and ethereally with Emily Zuzik’s haunting vocals. Not that Aaron’s renditions are also haunting.

AM: It’s haunting in a different way. [laughs]

Yeah, when Justin is writing a script we basically kind of — for this one because it was going to be just a tiny production originally — we were kind of gathering our resources. What seems big but doesn’t cost anything, right? So we’re looking at songs we can use because one of the things that Aaron … Moorhead, in real life — I really like karaoke. Okay, we can add a karaoke scene, that’s fine. We can see how we can integrate that into the camp as like a camp building exercise.

So we’re looking for songs we can use that are in the public domain and “House of the Rising Sun”, the lyrics were actually written like one hundred and fifty years ago or something. What it’s about is a sibling warning their other sibling not to repeat their mistakes. So it’s just like, “Well that’s absolutely perfect.”

So that came into the karaoke scene and then it actually turned into a much bigger deal, especially once Jimmy got on-board. Jimmy is our composer — Jimmy LaValle. He got on-board and he was able to turn it into one of these just massive themes. Even the “House of the Rising Sun” coming from that tent in the movie — that was just supposed to be some old music. And then the credits, we didn’t know what we were going to play.

So yeah, it kind of ended up wrapping around itself just purely by virtue of it being a song that’s in the public domain that happens to reflect the theme of the movie.

JB: The only other song that could have matched the movie tonally in terms of, “Oh, those lyrics are creepy and everyone kind of knows it.” … And actually that the content of the song, depending on how you interpret it, is similar is “Hotel California” by the Eagles. However, if we had used that song we would be speaking to you from jail probably. [laughs]

AM: Either from copyright infringement or bankruptcy. [laughs] One of the two.

With The Endless being a new release that just premiered without a distributor yet … there’s been a lot of talk about Netflix and streaming opposite independent filmmakers. You guys have seen Tribeca Film and Drafthouse release your films in theaters and now Resolution is on Shudder.com. What are your opinions on that part of the industry? Do you necessarily hope for theatrical above online or are you happy wherever it lands?

JB: They both have their advantages. I don’t think that anyone would argue [against how] in most cases on Netflix, that’s when the most people will see your movie. And no one will argue against the movie theater experience being an extremely romantic spectacle.

And that’s not like a diplomatic cop-out. It’s the truth.

AM: There’s been many weekend recently where the indie, the specialty box office has beaten — you know, per screen averages — traditional box office. So it’s definitely a viable method of making your movie seen and to make money for the distributor.

The good news is, at the end of the day all you really want is for a whole lot of people to see it.

JB: This isn’t even false optimism: it’s becoming a very good time for independent film. I saw a few weeks ago that Trainspotting 2 did amazing in the specialty box office. That was so heart-warming to see. On the one hand it’s, “Well it’s a franchise; it’s a recognizable name.” But on the other, that’s like a very personal movie. It’s cool that people went out to the movie theaters to see it. That’s amazing. It’s really inspiring.

Any update on the Aleister Crowley movie?

JB: Yeah, it’s actually currently now being developed as a TV show. It’s still moving ahead — full speed ahead. And it’s actually just gotten bigger and better, which makes us very happy.

The Endless premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and will be released in early 2018.

‘Flames’ Filmmakers on Emotional Exploitation, Nudity, and the Complexity of Collaboration

Written by Diana Drumm, May 2, 2017 at 6:36 am 

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At the Tribeca Film Festival, press photographers lined the Flames red carpet expecting the likes of James Franco and Greta Gerwig. Instead, they were greeted by filmmakers Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker as well as Flames cast members wearing printed-out masks of said celebrities. In a way, this stunt acts as a great introduction to the tone of the film, a documentary that explores and expounds on Throwell and Decker’s relationship over the course of five years in very intimate detail (from funnily-posed sex to a post-dating therapy session to the editing room of this film). I got to sit down with Throwell, Decker, and their long-time DP Ashley Connor to discuss the intimacy of the film, how nudity isn’t necessarily the most revealing thing, and the line of exploitation both on film and in a relationship.

The Film Stage: This is an understatement, but Flames is a deeply intimate film. How do you feel about sharing all of this with a public audience?

Zefrey Throwell: Did your mother ever catch you masturbating? I remember once when I was 13 and I was in the thick of it. I couldn’t touch myself enough. I remember she just came in the room, and why I pulled the sheet back… Who knows, right? I was really in the moment. It was dark, and she opened the door, and the light shoots through. It was like a goddamn B-movie that highlights me jerking off. I was just like, “AAAAH!” She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me and went “huh” and shut the door and never talked about it. This is what I feel like that film is for me, that moment of “AAAH!”

And Josephine, you had your mom at the premiere…

Josephine Decker: I don’t know if I’m going to know how I’m going to exactly feel about sharing all of this for a while. It’s very exciting right now. We’re all celebrating and we’re getting a lot of positive attention. And I think next week, I might be like, “Oh my God, what have I done?” It’s scary. It feels like we’re sharing the kinds of things I wish I already saw a lot more in the world. So that part doesn’t feel scary. I definitely feel like I can stand up next to the movie and feel proud of it. But I do feel very exposed.

In the film, I loved the use of nudity, from playful to anxious, as an extension and expression of experience. What are your thoughts on nudity on film, in this film in particular?

Ashley Connor: You can’t get these two to wear clothes. I’m shocked that they’re wearing clothes right now. I’ve never met two people — and this is from prior to you two getting together — that they’ll just get naked and pretty much have zero reservations about it. We were shooting Butter on the Latch. There were six of us: three actors, Josephine, me, and the sound guy. They were going to simulate having sex and basically at a certain point, they were feeling a bit uncomfortable. So I was like, “I’ll take off my top.” And I had to run up a hillside. I was just in my bra. Josephine, I think you were naked. The sound guy was not, but he was having a good time and there were boners everywhere… I think this translates into the film, within a larger sense, nudity is the least revealing thing in the film. It never gets clinical, but it’s one of those things that’s just like a celebration of bodies in a way, but also that’s not the rawest thing of the film. Watching it, it’s painful in so many other ways. The nudity feels like the least saucy part of it. I’ve seen you guys emotionally naked in far worse positions than you guys having pleasurable-looking sex.

Josephine Decker: I really thought she was going to tell a different story about Butter on the Latch, which was that we shot this climactic kind of sex-death scene in the water and we’d been out in this riverbed for hours. We finally got the shot. The actors were freezing. [Decker claps.] It was great that we finally finished it. And then we had to do this other scene where we were running up the hill. I had felt so relieved that we had gotten that scene that I’m still literally talking to them, directing the next scene, and… I stood up in the river and squatted down and started peeing while I’m talking. I was just so comfortable and excited and also knew this had to happen. There was no time in the schedule for this. It didn’t even process until after talking and talking and I just see all of their faces.

Ashley Connor: The amount of times you and I have seen each other pee, it’s in the hundreds at this point. We’re having a conversation and someone just goes. Just keep going. It’s boring at this point.

Zefrey Throwell: There’s one scene that unfortunately got cut from the film that is Josephine having to pee so bad in the Maldives. She was running up and down the beach. There was a palm tree right there and she has her skirt up and her panties down. She’s looking and tourists keep walking by. She keeps going back and forth and finally is like “Fuck it.” Some guy walks by in the background. It’s so good. I’m sad that didn’t make it in.

Jumping off of that, what other scenes didn’t make it in that we, the audience, might have enjoyed? It’s a really boring question, but I know you’ll have a really great answer.

Josephine Decker: It’s a miracle to me that I walked out of that screening and women were like, “God, that asshole!” I was like, “Great, I’m glad that you saw he was an asshole.” Because he took out all of the parts where he’s actually being really mean to me. Like when he slaps me, he started that slap fight. In the film, he took out him slapping me first. There are so many times… He was the editor and director of this film. I think you made yourself look bad enough, enough that people still managed to hate you by the end. I didn’t spend the years with the footage that Zefrey did. I spent a good amount of time with the footage, but not nearly as much. Probably one one-hundredth of how much time you were spending with everything. So in a way, I don’t know as much of what got cut, but my overall feeling is that Zefrey could have been more of a jerk in that movie.

Zefrey Throwell: There’s so many scenes. There’s Josephine singing under red lights with full accordion background, like a 14-accordion band, and her onstage singing “Bad Romance.” We have hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage, because of this saint sitting in the seat here [points to Connor]. As far as being a jerk, yes. Yes, I was a jerk. But I think this is one of the things I enjoy about the film. Cheating is a reality, right? I don’t think it’s a good thing. I don’t think I did a good thing. I’m ashamed of what I did. But I know I am certainly not alone in the world. For other people to see this on screen, this can be cathartic as well. When I talked to men and women about it, it’s such a shameful thing, in American society particularly… There are worst scenes we could have put in, but plenty for yourself, my dear.

Josephine Decker: I’m sure.

Ashley Connor: I look at it as pretty balanced. Obviously, you guys carry a lot of weight around with you and how you guys interpret the relationship, but for me as the third party, I look at it as pretty balanced.

At last night’s Q&A, Josephine, you mentioned that you felt exploited. Would you expand on that?

Josephine Decker: How do I put this? My mom does not like Zefrey very much, because Zefrey likes to make art that is some form of manipulation. It’s usually manipulation of expectations. Sometimes it’s a more dramatic manipulation like when he impersonated a lawyer, which I am pretty sure is illegal, and offered legal advice to people in a mall.

When did that happen?

Zefrey Throwell: That is something you get a small slice of in the film. Me walking around in a tan suit. Do I look like a tan suit kind of guy? This was in the middle of a performance of giving free legal advice in a Dallas mall, which was looked upon as criminal activity by her mother.

Josephine Decker: Yeah. Well, it is criminal, I think.

Zefrey Throwell: What is malicious intent, though? This is really what the law is. Was I misleading people consciously or are we having a good time?

Ashley Connor: What I think you’re hitting on with Zefrey’s work and where I’ll argue a bit with you, Josephine, is that you decided to participate in this. It’s one of those things where you talk about the strip poker game, where you went and suddenly, you were like “I’m not comfortable getting naked,” but that’s precisely what the performance was.

Josephine Decker: Yeah, but I didn’t know that.

Zefrey Throwell: But it was strip poker… When I say “strip poker,” what does that mean?

Poker where you strip, but I do believe you can call “out.”

Ashley Connor: I believe you felt severely uncomfortable, but it’s one of those things where you volunteer for something and then you’re like “Oh, wait, hold on. This is what it’s going to actually be?” And that’s the beauty of the film, too. You guys volunteered to film yourself in this relationship, and it’s hard. It’s very painful. It shows everything and more, and everything we try to hide about ourselves. That’s scary, and that can be upsetting. But I think what Zefrey’s work does… Can we talk about the photoshoot last night? … All of these photographers were very angry that he called a press line and mentioned all of these celebrities that were going to be there.

Zefrey Throwell: We got this hot red carpet, alright? All the way down the line. All top-tier stars coming to our premiere.

Ashley Connor: He mentions like literally all of these people. Then all of these photographers come and it’s just Zefrey has printed out masks of all of them. After the photoshoot, all of these photographers are like, “What the fuck was that? Are these people not coming here?” It’s like [points to Throwell], “Yes, you’re an asshole! Yes, you did a shitty move!” But also these people only care about this completely ridiculous thing about celebrity or what makes a premiere hot or not. You really exposed that in a way. I don’t think they walked out of there thinking, “It’s kind of ridiculous that I don’t care about artists, but I care about James Franco being at a premiere.” I think you reveal that even though you are complicit in the sense of “I’m going to make an asshole move.”

Zefrey Throwell: In the midst of it, no shit, my fly busts and my pants are just open. It doesn’t get any richer. It’s crazy.

Josephine Decker: But coming back to this question of exploitation… I would say any project you sign on for might have twists and turns along the way. Almost any filmmaker at some point might feel exploited. For instance, I think that’s something I deal with. I love this boundary between documentary and fiction. I’ve built a lot of my work around and off of real people in real settings. That does often get me in trouble. But maybe the difference between me and Zefrey is that I try to anticipate the places where people will feel uncomfortable, have conversations with them about it. Whereas at least when we were dating, and I don’t know that you’re still like this, Zefrey would create a slightly manipulative situation. He wouldn’t outline it, so your expectations aren’t what the actual project is. We weren’t able to have the conversation at that time where I could say, “Hey, I feel exploited and unsafe.” He didn’t hold space for me to air my feelings and be like “Oh, I’m very sorry and maybe we can accommodate that. If you want to drop out of the piece, that’s cool.” He’s just like, “You feel exploited? This is the piece. Get the fuck out! You are ruining my piece. You committed to this and you won’t do it.” So that’s the line.

Zefrey Throwell: That’s not how it happened.

Josephine Decker: How did you think it happened?

Ashley Connor: You can’t deny someone feeling exploited.

Zefrey Throwell: Totally. I asked you multiple times if you wanted to leave. Pleasantly.

Josephine Decker: I did leave.

Zefrey Throwell: Yeah, eventually. But not before staying through… Anyway. Exploitation is one word also to call pushing a boundary. Right? You can’t actually move forward without taking some chances. Taking chances is uncomfortable. Did I push Josephine too hard? So she felt unsafe and manipulated as you would say? Sounds like it. But I think we landed in a place that’s pretty special where you get to see real emotions.

Ashley Connor: It’s very Herzog-ian. A lot of his work, and what he said after Little Dieter Needs to Fly, asks, “Do you want the truth or do you want the emotional truth?” What is truth if I make him run around in this one action and get this one thing? If I fed him a line, is that more truthful? What are we getting at with these truths? Is it real? Is it not? Does it make it any less of a documentary? And then we get into the politics of documentaries or hybrid-docs. I think that’s a far less interesting conversation than making you emotionally get there, regardless of the means.

Josephine Decker: What I learned in the book “Facing Love Addiction” by Pia Mellody is that two people participate in any relationship. The abuser and the abused are both in some way enabling each other and enabling this relationship to happen. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should just acquit abusers, but there is something where Ashley was right that I said yes, I would be in this film, and I said yes to dating Zefrey, and I said yes to be in this film even though… I had a really fun time at the Q&A. I was really excited. And then I went into the bathroom and suddenly burst into tears, unexpected to myself. There’s a complex series of emotions that goes into any dating relationship, and certainly any collaboration, too.

Flames premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.