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‘American Factory’ Directors on Capitalism, Communism, and Capturing a U.S.-China Culture Clash

Written by Joshua Encinias, August 24, 2019 at 11:11 am 

In a letter to the editor of The Atlantic, Penelope Gristelfink wrote: “China is the new America. America is the new Soviet Union, and the walls are closing in.” Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s new documentary American Factory, through no intent of their own, makes a strong case for the former. 

American Factory picks up seven years after their Oscar-nominated short film The Last Truck, which documents the closure of GM’s plant in Moraine, Ohio in 2008 and the social, economic and spiritual decimation left in its wake. Flash forward to 2015, and Chinese glass company Fuyao owned by Chairman Cao Dewang redeveloped the property to open Fuyao Glass America. Factory follows what was supposed to be a harmonious merging of cultures but resulted in an ongoing culture clash of the Chinese work ethic and labor expectations of the average American worker. 

We spoke with Reichert and Bognar the weekend after the deadly mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. Moraine, Ohio, where the factory is located, is just outside Dayton and we discussed the killing’s impact on the wider community. We also discuss the irony of Chinese communist success at global capitalism and how the filmmakers learned to depict management and employees fairly by not picking sides. 

The Film Stage: How did you find out about the plant’s redevelopment? How did you get such intimate access?

Steven Bognar: Well, it was big news. We live in Dayton, Ohio. We are very proud to be from this little town. It’s a scrappy, little, industrial town. Everyone in Dayton knew someone who worked at the old General Motors factory. For generations people worked at that plant. 6,000 people worked there. It was a good job, it built a middle class in that whole region. Just as Youngstown and Pittsburgh and all these other towns had blue-collar, working-class communities. Multi-racial too, not just the white folks in the suburbs. These were folks who didn’t go to college but who sent their kids to college, who could afford a home. The GM plant in our town closed in 2008 and it was devastating. That plant sat empty, rusting for six or seven years. Then a Chinese billionaire entrepreneur bought it and it was huge news. It was like, “Okay, what?” The word went out that manufacturing jobs were coming back to Dayton, Ohio, and it was very exciting. Pretty soon, someone started saying this should be documented and our names came up because we had done an earlier film there. We had done a film about the closing of the GM plant. It’s on HBO. It’s called The Last Truck

Julia Reichert: It’s a short. It’s actually like a prequel to this film. This film actually has some of the footage comes it. It’s only a 40-minute short. It was an Oscar nominee and it was a good film. It’s sad. It’ll make you cry. 

Bognar: As an aside, it’s weird being in New York these days given the mass shooting that just happened. We’ve been talking to our friends and family back home and keep our pulse on how people are doing. 

Do you know anyone at the factory who was personally affected by the shooting over the weekend? 

Bognar: Not yet, we are still asking people. We know a lot of people at the factory. We don’t know anyone impacted. But it’s not like we couldn’t hear tomorrow, “Oh, so and so…” Dayton is a small town. Our grandkids go to a school where one of the other kids lost their mother–their mother was killed in the shooting. The degrees of separation are quite a few in a community like that. 

Getting back to the movie, we had done this earlier film. Our names are suddenly being talked about. “There’s these local filmmakers, maybe they could document the birth of this factory.” We started talking to the company, and the original idea was the company would pay us to do it, but then we didn’t want to do that. [We said], “If you let it be an independent film that we can have total control over, then we’ll do it. But you have to give us access and you have to trust us.” The person who greenlit it was Cao Dewang, the chairman. He runs the show there and he said, “Let’s do it.” So there we were, filming. This was in the early days when there was a hole, and it was still hugely empty and there were just cement mixers there and it was coming back to life. We started filming in 2015 and we basically filmed for almost three years. It got more and more intense. The more we filmed, the more things started happening. 

When the chairman and the Chinese workers on site become suspicious of their American co-workers did your jobs become harder? Did they become suspicious of you at any point? 

Bognar: The leadership of the company did not get suspicious of us but there were issues of whose side we were on. The plant is huge, and in the early days, we were walking with our heavy tripod, you’re literally walking miles a day. We’re walking and suddenly one of the management folks stops us and says, “Hey, you want a ride?” So we got on the cart and we got a ride to where we were going. But the people on the assembly line start looking at us and seeing us riding with the management guy. They start thinking, “Are the filmmakers with management? Are they working for the company? Are they independent?” We pretty quickly realized that we have to walk, we can’t take rides on the golf cart. Even though our cameras and tripods are heavy, we have to walk because we can’t be aligned with anybody. When the union battles started flaring up, people start wondering if we were in cahoots with the union–people in management started wondering that. Then people in the unions thought we were company spies. So it got complicated.

Reichert: If someone talked to us and said, “Yeah, there should be a union here” or “I went to a meeting” they wondered if we were gonna report back to HR or management. 

Was there a specific instance of your loyalty being questioned?

Reichert: I went to three or four union meetings, and we made The Last Truck, and if people hadn’t seen it we just gave people copies and pass them out. A lot of people had seen it. I just went to observe, I didn’t ask to shoot or anything. At one point the union organizers said, “We don’t want you to come to any meetings at all because people are afraid to speak in front of you. They don’t know what side you are on.” It’s very intimidating as you can see. People got fired for being union supporters. 

Bognar: There were certain company meetings we wanted to be in, and they wouldn’t let us attend.

Reichert: Especially once the Labor Relations Institute, the anti-union people, they really kept us away. They pushed us away, even saying,  “You can’t shoot our signs.” We had to sort of pretend they didn’t exist. They were extremely impactful in that factory. We did film some of their stuff. We just had to shake that off. 

Bognar: It was a delicate situation in that we would often hear things that could impact the course of events. We tried to have a Star Trek philosophy of don’t change the course of events. If you go down to a planet, don’t alter it. Now with cameras in the room it changes something. It changes how people act. It makes them self-conscious. But we didn’t want to inadvertently reveal information that would change how things were going down. We would things on the factory floor that management would probably want to hear. We would hear things from management that people on the factory floor would want to hear about policies that were going to change. We realized we can’t be revealing stuff. We had to be careful because we were kinda everywhere. It was delicate. 

Was the mass wedding at the company party in China real?

Bognar: Yes. There were like six or seven couples. 

Reichert: That’s a whole, long evening. Those people who danced or who were in costumes are workers. They rehearsed and all that stuff on their own. 

What about the children who performed? 

Reichert: The children were children of workers. 

Bognar: The little chickens? Weren’t they amazing? Our jaws dropped. When we saw that we were like, is this really happening? 

Reichert: That night was extremely… one thing after another, we just couldn’t believe it. Then when we got the translation and we learned what they were singing about we just couldn’t believe it again. The weddings, they were real. There were couples that got married that night. Because it was so odd to us, we asked our Chinese colleagues about it and it’s actually pretty common. It’s pretty much the company offering them a free wedding. They don’t have to spend the money on the clothes and the party. They give it to them. They’re very happy to get a free wedding. 

Bognar: It shows on some level the sense of unity that is prevalent in some Chinese companies that is not present in the U.S. anymore. Maybe in the 1950s people had an allegiance to their employers. Like if you worked for Ford or GM, you might say “I’m a Ford person” or “I’m a GM person.” But that bond between employer and worker is broken. But we felt a lot of loyalty between worker and company in China. 

Reichert: It’s a different culture. We are made up of individuals. We’re individualistic. We all came from somewhere else. It’s that cowboy/cowgirl culture. It’s much more collective over there. You keep hearing the words harmonious society–they are striving for a harmonious society. Now maybe that’s fluffy word for conformist. But there’s a sense that they all really support the company happy, they’re having a great time. Even on the factory floor. Even with the long hours there’s a huge sense of “We’re trying to make this happen.” They are much more patriotic in a real way. If you think about it, China only started pulling out poverty and starvation in the 1980s. That’s not very long ago. People’s parents were living in rural poverty as opposed to our grandparents, who had good jobs. 

Bognar: Better jobs than what we can get now. As the quality of life and standards of living for blue-collar Americans has gone down, they have actually gone up dramatically in China. One thing we’re trying not to do with the movie is not judge that. Not view that through some kind of lens of American anxiety. What’s happening in China is lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and you can’t say that’s a bad thing. Yeah, there are problems, there are environmental problems, there are global problems…

Didn’t China buy most of the carbon emission credits under cap and trade? There are some big problems. 

Reichert: I didn’t know that. 

Bognar: It’s not without serious issues, but the fact that hundreds of millions of people aren’t starving is a good thing. We want the film to be this sort of neutral space. We don’t believe in objectivity, but there’s fairness. You can be fair to oppositional sides and we try to do that in this movie. 

Is what you’re talking about–the integration of a person’s life, government, business, culture, entertainment–is that the gist of Chinese communism? 

Bognar: We aren’t specialists on this…

Sure, but you are specialists of your movie. What do you think?

Bognar: We saw a lot of integration of work life with personal life. You see this with Wong He. Wong works in Dayton. He’s in Dayton for two years without seeing his kids, and he’s in that factory 12 hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes on Sundays he goes in. It’s a deep dedication of his personal life and his professional life. 

It makes sense because the film shows Fuyao’s headquarters is also the Communist Party’s headquarters. 

Reichert: I think what you’re asking is more about the Communist party over there. This was again, one of those things as Americans that we were shocked by. We thought this is wrong. But as you meet people over there and you talk to them… Yes, there’s communist party headquarters and union headquarters right on the company ground. This is very common with any kind of big factory in China. It’s more of the union headquarters with a communist party office inside it. But what that means is something different from what you might expect. People can go there for basketball teams, to learn calligraphy, to have meetings, to learn, there’s a library there. It’s more of what you would think of as social support and team building. There are people who join the party because they want to get ahead. It’s like here. You might become an activist in the Democratic party, partly because you want democracy, but also you see that as a way of becoming a leader in your county or state. My understanding is if you want to get ahead in China you join the party. The chairman is not a member of the communist party as far as we’ve ever heard. We’ve been told he’s not. 

He’s the CEO but they call him chairman. 

Reichert: Chairman Cao. 

Bognar: Like Chairman Mao. 

Reichert: Some of the top management around him are in the Communist party, but he’s more of a maverick. The communist party means something different than it does to us as outsiders.

Bognar: It’s fascinating to us. We still want to learn how this is working. China has state-sponsored capitalism. In many ways, these communists are the best capitalists in the world right now. 

It’s like authoritarian capitalism. 

Bognar: There’s power in centralizing everything so you have more resources to buy more, so you can do more. Think about the huge infrastructure projects China is doing. If China invests hundreds of millions of dollars in Zambia or in the ports in Greece, that gives them measures of control over resources, expands their reach, all in large part because they have this state-sponsored capitalism that has lots of deep pockets.

American Factory is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the directors’ conversation with the Obamas above.

Simon Bird on his Feature Debut ‘Days of the Bagnold Summer,’ Comparisons to ‘The Inbetweeners,’ and Belle and Sebastian

Written by Leonardo Goi, August 24, 2019 at 10:03 am 

If you were anywhere in or around the United Kingdom during the last stretch of the noughties–or anywhere else with easy access to Channel 4’s streaming platform, for that matter–chances are you witnessed the pandemonium stirred up by a cult TV comedy series, The Inbetweeners. From the minds of creators Damon Beesley and Iain Morris came a show that chronicled the banter, mess, joys, and sorrows of four high school students stranded in an unidentified stretch of British suburbia–an endlessly watchable, endlessly quotable sitcom that later birthed two spinoff features (The Inbetweeners Movie, 2011; The Inbetweeners 2, 2014) and crystallized the show’s acting quartet as household names. 

I am sitting in the lounge room of Locarno’s Belvedere Hotel waiting to interview one of them, actor-turned-director Simon Bird (The Inbetweeners’ put-upon Will McKenzie), moments before the Locarno Film Festival will draw the curtains on his Days of the Bagnold Summer. This is not the first time Bird has taken a seat behind the camera: in 2016, he traveled to SXSW with his short Ernestine & Kit, the road trip chronicles of two cantankerous seventy-something women, but it is the first he grapples with a feature-length project.

Days of the Bagnold Summer is a gentle, heartfelt portrait of a preternaturally shy middle-aged mother, and her moody, laconic metalhead son. It’s a chronicle of the summer they’re forced to spend together once the boy’s much-awaited trip to the States falls through, and it unfurls as a twofold coming-of-age tale, zeroing in on both leads with equal affection, crafting each as loners struggling to open up to the world. A quirky and endearing first feature enriched by the terrific performances of co-leads Monica Dolan and Earl Cave, Nick’s son, and graced with original tracks by Scottish band Belle and Sebastian.

By the time I sit down with Bird, it’s been a few hours since Bagnold bowed for its first press screening, stirring chuckles all throughout its brisk 86-minute running time. “It’s weird to know people have now seen the film,” Bird smiles as we begin chatting. “I almost forgot that happened.” 

The Film Stage: How long ago did you shoot it?

Simon Bird: We filmed it in September last year, which I guess it’s not too long ago, in the context of how long it normally takes to make films. 

This is not the first time you sit at the director’s chair, and I was wondering if there was a specific moment during your acting career in which you sort of felt: I want to switch, and embrace directing instead.

I think I’ve probably always known. Everything I did before I started acting on TV, when I was doing comedy shows at university–it was always somewhat collaborative: we were always involved in every aspect of the show. We’d write them, and cast them together, and think about what the set design would look like, and we would direct ourselves. You were always involved in everything. And once I got the job with The Inbetweeners I sort of realized: oh, right, I was only really involved in this tiny slither of everything that happens around you, as an actor, you just show up and that’s it. Being on set made me realize that I was much more interested in–or maybe just a lot more jealous of–people who got to be a lot more involved in the overall process than I did. The edit, for instance: that’s where the show actually happens! You can totally re-write something in the edit room. And it was just amazing in The Inbetweeners, working with [series creators] Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, who had this vision and were able to see it through. It was their production company–and they were certainly involved in every aspect of it. I got to see what that looked like, and realized that’s what I wanted to do.

How much do you reckon your work in the TV show helped pave your directorial career?

I’m sure it did help, I’m under no illusions here [laughs]. I think it helped me get a meeting with Matthew James Wilkinson, who then went on to produce my short. It probably helped us raise money for that short, too, and beyond that–it just opened all the doors for those initial meetings. That said, I hope that the short was good and interesting enough that people would have thought: ok, we will back this person, even if he wasn’t semi-famous. 

When did you come across Joff Winterhart’s graphical novel?

I think it was the year after it came out. It came out in 2012, if I’m not wrong, so it must have been 2013. 

And what brought you to it? What made you think that it was something that could be turned into a film?

Well, it wasn’t a case of me reading it and going: this has to be turned into a film. It was much more cynical than that. Once I made the short, the natural next step was to make a feature, and I was sort of going around looking for what that may be. I knew that I didn’t want to write it myself, or come up with an original story. I read a lot, so the next step was to sort of go back to all the novels and short stories I’d read in recent years and see which ones had stayed with me. And initially, when I was looking through my library, I sort of glossed over it, and it was actually my wife [Bagnold’s script writer Lisa Owens] who went, “Oh, there could be something there.” I just dismissed it because it was so small, and I thought there wasn’t a story there. It just didn’t feel filmic. But Lisa, to her credit, thought there was plenty already, and she ended up writing the screenplay. And I think she did a pretty good job–I mean, there isn’t much of a story in the film. That’s something I love–films that are very small, more character-driven than heavy on narrative. But really, the story that’s in the film, tiny that may be, is gigantic compared to what’s in the book. The book really has no story–it’s just this series of vignettes, with no real arc. And Lisa’s done a great job at drawing a story out of it. So yeah, it definitely wasn’t a case of me reading it and going: yeah, this has to turn into a film, but the more I thought about it the more I realized there was lots of it that felt right. It was small, but also practically very manageable for a first film. And there was an element of The Inbetweeners to it, which could convince the financiers who may have only gotten aboard because of that link to the show. There are definitely things in common, but hopefully people will notice different elements, too. 

I came in thinking you’d served as director and writer, and I was genuinely surprised when the end credits told me otherwise. I say this because there was so much harmony between your direction and the script, the kind of synch you’d normally register in a one person’s show. Which makes me wonder, ever toyed with the idea of writing your own scripts?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I never really considered it for this feature, or for the short, just because directing is still so new to me, and I wanted to approach it in its own terms, and not be worried. I wanted to be sure that if the film was terrible it’d be because I directed it badly, not because I wrote it poorly! [laughs] That said, I instinctively felt like I’d be able to direct, as though I had the necessary skill set for that. Whereas I didn’t necessary feel that for writing. I’ve written stuff in the past, and will definitely write again in the future, but it felt natural to me to work with someone whom I know is a great writer–and in this case, it was my wife. It was a very enjoyable process, and I’d definitely be up for working with writers again in the future. 

Days of the Bagnold Summer essentially unfolds as a twofold coming of age tale. By that I mean, both mother and son struggle to overcome their insecurities, and open up to the world. 

Yes, and I thought I hadn’t really seen that before. Again, that’s all from the book. I knew when I read it that it felt very interesting and unique, and I was very aware that we wanted to retain that. And again, it would have been really easy to ditch that and say: this is Daniel’s story, or: this is Sue’s story–which would have made it much more of a genre film, something people could understand, and would be easier to sell. But we were very careful to ensure it stayed even-handed. Even down to the script: we actually counted how many pages were Dan’s scenes, and how many were Sue’s scenes. Just to make sure. Just because we’ve all been through teenage years, and a lot of us will go through the parental admin as well. 

You said you hope this new work will be somewhat different from The Inbetweeners, and I remember you stating that Bagnold is a “celebration of life in the suburbs.” To some extent, The Inbetweeners felt a bit like that too: a tale set in an ostensibly ordinary, uneventful world, far away from the hype and thrills of the city. Why this fascination for suburbia?

I don’t know, really. I think you’ve hit it on the head: that’s the big similarity between the show and the film. I guess the fascination must be there, somewhere in my consciousness [laughs]. But like I said, this was the book that jumped out at me. It could have easily been another text, not set in British suburbia. It wasn’t a case of: oh, I have to make a film in the British suburbs, what stories can be set there? But at the same time, I grew up in the suburbs, it’s a world I know, so it felt like a story that was relevant to me. Again, much like I felt for The Inbetweeners at the time, I felt like it filled a niche. And, perhaps on a cynical level, I thought there was an opportunity to say something new. 

Both Earl Cave and Monica Dolan are pitch-perfect choices as Daniel and Sue. How did the casting process go?

Well, the casting of Sue, Monica Dolan, was pretty easy and effortless. I’ve been following Monica’s career for years, I’m a huge fan of hers. And there’s something about Sue, in the book as much as in the script, that made Monica stand out as the first person I thought of. I just knew she’d be perfect. I offered her the role, and I met up with her, and it all happened very easily. Daniel, on the other hand, was a lot harder to cast. Purely because, you know, you’re casting a teenager and you’re bound to find fewer experienced teenage actors out there. But also because I think his is a very hard part. You’re playing someone who’s very introverted, and very quiet. Much as he may share the lead role with Sue, he doesn’t have many lines, so it’s like having to do quite a lot with quite little. And it’s also an inherently unlikable character, you know. I think Daniel’s lovely, but he’s obviously going through a tough phase in his life. He’s very rude to his mom, he shouts a lot, hides behind his hair, but I needed someone whom the audience could root for, as well. 

Still, he’s not a one-note teen. He’s never really a stereotype, as much as he may sometimes veer into the “grumpy, frustrated teen boy” archetype. 

Totally, and that’s all down to Earl, and probably why the casting process took so long: it was very hard to find someone who could do that. And he was brilliant–he can definitely do the moody stuff, but he also has a screen presence, and a magnetism to himself. 

And a certain vulnerability.

And a sense of humor. It’s all in there. You watch Daniel and you think: he’s definitely going to be fine in the future. He’s going to be likable, and will have friends, and will have a nice life once he gets through this tough time. And that’s really important, I think. For it to be uplifting, you have to be likable underneath it all. 

Another brilliant ingredient to your feature is the score. You were blessed to count with original tracks by Scottish band Belle and Sebastian. 

Oh, it was just amazing when they joined. I mean, I’d spoken to the music supervisor, and he asked me what composer I had in mind, and I said I didn’t really know any, and he told me to think big: if you could have any major band or artist in the world, who would you go for? And I said Belle and Sebastian would be perfect a fit for the kind of vibe we were going for. And he spoke to them, and well, three days later they got onboard. We were very lucky–they had a break in their schedule, and were very keen to work on a film, and do some instrumental stuff. So that all happened very seamlessly. The challenge with the music was to balance that style with the kind of heavy metal tunes Daniel likes, just because music is such a big part of his character. 

And yet the juxtaposition never really feels too strident, in the sense that Belle and Sebastian’s score somewhat meshes with the metal soundtrack, and both morph into a whole just as complex and multifaceted as Daniel’s persona.

I’m glad to hear that! It was a bit of a challenge–getting that balance right was something we were hoping to achieve. There are two sides to Daniel, and overdoing the heavy metal part would have been detrimental. That side, after all, is also partly just a show he puts on.

Days of the Bagnold Summer world premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.

Into Foreign Lands: Kiyoshi Kurosawa on ‘To the Ends of the Earth’

Written by Leonardo Goi, August 21, 2019 at 11:03 pm 

Photo by Ottavia Bosello

From the mezzanine level of Caffè Verbano, Locarno’s Piazza Grande glitters under the scorching sun, the army of black and yellow chairs sprawling below the festival’s biggest screen and iconic open-air theatre. At a table overlooking the piazza, Kiyoshi Kurosawa sits for the last few interviews ahead of the premiere of his new feature, To the Ends of the Earth

It’s the Japanese horror master’s second time in Locarno–in 2013, his Real found a slot in the Swiss festival’s international competition–though the first in the non-competitive sidebar for which the fest is possibly best known for, the programme named after the square where, every night, an 8,000-strong audience enjoys some of the best in the year’s world cinema. 

Assuming one can still find a leitmotiv in an oeuvre that’s as vast as it is growing increasingly protean, To the Ends of the Earth may not strike as your traditional Kurosawa film. Closer to his 2013 Seventh Code than to the works that earned him the title of J-horror master (Cure, 1997; Pulse, 2001) it is the second film the Kobe native shoots entirely outside Japan. Where the 2013 thriller had been filmed in Vladivostok, Russia, Ends takes place in Uzbekistan; here again, Kurosawa’s muse Atsuko Maeda serves as lead. Now with her third collaboration with the director–after Seventh Code and the cerebral sci-fi Before We Vanish (2017)–the singer-turned-actress plays Yoko, a TV reporter who travels with her crew across the steppes of Uzbekistan, ostensibly to film a 2-meter long fish that may or may not even exist. 

A failed quest turns into an opportunity to grapple with an unresolved longing, a lingering and all-pervasive solitude. Thin in plot but not uneventful, free from jump scares but still perturbing, To the Ends of the Earth is a gentle-paced, melancholic ride, a frustrated tale of belonging graced by Maeda’s mercurial performance.

I took a seat in between Kurosawa and Locarno programmer-cum-interpreter Julian Ross, and spoke with the director about his latest feature, his horror master credentials, the fascination for Atsuko Maeda, mythical animals, and Edith Piaf. 

The Film Stage: After Seventh Code, here’s another film shot a whole world away from your preferred turf, Tokyo. I was curious about your fascination for foreign lands.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Well, I always set out to make a different film, every time I begin a new one. I guess that’s just the kind of director I am. I am always drawn to new challenges, and to be able to work in different types of films feels like a dream to me. All that said, somehow I always end up shooting around Tokyo, the budget being the primary reason for that. Rarely do I get opportunities to shoot outside the city, let alone outside Japan. I never ask for those myself, but when I’m approached with a project such as To the Ends of the Earth, I am naturally drawn to it. There was Seventh Code, in Russia, and this one, in Uzbekistan. The producer came up to me and asked if I wanted to shoot a film there, and I said yes, thinking I’d be able to make another type of film if I were to do it over there. 

I also read that part of your fascination with the country stemmed from your interest in the Timurid Empire, which comprised modern-day Uzbekistan. 

Oh, I certainly do have an interest in that, but of course, that’s something beyond cinema. When I was young I was particularly interested in world history, and history outside of Japan, and I read plenty of books–and yes, I was particularly drawn to the rise and fall of the Timurid empire. Except–I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know this from before–it was only when I was approached and asked to shoot in Uzbekistan that I came to the realization that the center of the empire stood on what is now the country itself. I guess it was some sort of destiny. 

Going back to one of the points you raised earlier, the idea that you never really want to make the same film twice, I was wondering how you feel about being revered as a master of genre–J-horror, in your case. How comfortable do you feel with that label?

It doesn’t really make me feel uncomfortable. I have made several horror films, or at any rate, films that could be categorized as horror films, though it’s not like it was me who started the genre–and of course, I’ve also shot many other kinds of films, too. I guess it would be disconcerting if people thought horror films was all I did, and that I was just this expert on all things horror. I mean, I love horror films, and if there will be other opportunities in the future, I would love to work in horror again, because it is the kind of genre that offers many things, and many opportunities to explore.

A while ago, reading one of your statements before To the Ends of the Earth traveled to Locarno, I remember being intrigued by you describing its theme as “very personal” to you. How so?

I’m trying to recall in which context I said that, and what I meant by it. But sure, as far as the protagonist’s experience goes, the fact that she travels to another land and suffers from all sorts of small details, that’s something I’ve experienced myself too, anytime I’ve been invited to international film festivals. The experiences I went through form the basis on which I shaped the events in the film. I think a particularly representative scene is when Yoko sees a glimpse of Tokyo on fire broadcast on an Uzbek TV channel. I had a very similar experience myself, in March 2011, when that great earthquake struck Japan. I was in Paris, and I remember undergoing a similar experience as I watched Tokyo break down from afar on a television screen. That was how I was getting all my information. I was shocked–I kept calling people all over, but it turned out it wasn’t Tokyo on the screen, it was a town in the north east of Japan. And then of course, the big tsunami waves, and then the breakdown of the nuclear power plant. I have this memory of watching all these tragic events as they unfolded in Japan, but all from afar, and I feel the feeling is echoed in the film. 

There are two near-mythical creatures Yoko and her TV crew are after. One is the “bramul,” this gigantic, two-meter long fish, and the other is the “markhor” described to us as a goat-like “beast with huge horns and long hair.” I use the word described because we never actually see the two animals, which dons them this sort of Beckettian aura. How did these two creatures come into the script? And how exactly do you imagine them?

I must confess this is the first time I’ve ever been asked this question (laughs). These two creatures, well, it’s not that they don’t exist–they do. Apparently the fish really does live in that lake we shot in [Aydar], and apparently it really can reach up to two meters in length. Same with the goat, the markhor: there are only a few hundreds of them now, they’re very much on the brink of extinction, and they’re so majestic they’re referred to as the “kings of goats.” And sure, as you said, we may not see them on the screen, but this the story of a TV crew that go out looking for them, and never find them. It’s a story about people traveling abroad, and people often travel with a certain goal in mind, but as far as I’m concerned, experience tells me those goals are never achieved the way you imagine they would. Things happen, things that go beyond your expectations, and that’s what special about traveling. At any rate, that’s been my experience in life, and that’s something reflected in the characters and their own struggles in the film.

There’s definitely a lot of irony in that depiction, of a TV crew’s failed quest, a satire of sorts. 

Sure, but it wasn’t my intention to depict the TV crew in any ironic way. In a sense I go through the same they do in the film. I mean, they may go about shooting stuff for a TV programme, and I make films: like them, I have some goals and preconceptions in mind anytime I embark on a new project, but it’s always the case that I don’t achieve them. And I think in a sense this is the essence of filmmaking. These goals are rarely accomplished, but nevertheless there’s always something, something beyond your initial plans and expectations, that appears on screen, and that’s what makes cinema so special. These coincidences, serendipitous things, if you like. In a sense, what I wanted to depict was a TV crew going about doing their job, and that turned out to mirror my own work as a filmmaker, in that not everything I plan works out, much like in their own frustrated search. 

After Seventh Code and Before We Vanish, this is your third collaboration with Atsuko Maeda. What is it that attracts you about her craft?

Simply put, she’s always left a great impression on me. Of course, there are many other great Japanese actresses out there, but she’s distinct, she has some qualities unique to her. Especially when she’s on her own on the screen, and she doesn’t share the shot with other people: she’s able to exist by herself. And as Yoko, despite having to face so many miscommunication issues with the local people, she pursues life, and pushes forward. As I began writing this role, I immediately thought of her. 

Maeda is a renowned singer, which is the sort of career her Yoko wants to embark on. And while To the Ends of the Earth is certainly not a musical, music plays a crucial role here–most evidently in the two scenes where she bursts into a Japanese rendition of Edith Piaf’s classic, L’Hymne à l’Amour. Did you always envision music would play such a key role, or did the presence of actress and singer Maeda influence the decision?

I think it was both, really. There’s a scene we shot inside Tashkent’s Navoi Theatre–I really wanted to use this location, it’s so gorgeous, I wanted it to be in the film. I asked myself how I could fit it in the story, and I came up with the idea that the protagonist was pursuing a singing career, and there’s a moment in which she sort of hallucinates and imagines herself singing in that theatre. At the same time, I sensed Maeda would be perfect for the kind of scene I had in mind. So it was sort of simultaneous: on the one hand I wanted to exploit the setting, on the other I knew she was the best actress who could help me do so.  

That choice of Edith Piaf’s piece was most interesting, it’s another foreign element in a story of alien things. Why that song?

To be honest, I really didn’t think too deeply about the question. In all fairness, I really just liked the song a lot, and thought it would suit Atsuko Maeda very much. I knew it’d be difficult for her, but I believed she could do it if she practiced hard enough. And of course, the other major factor was that as I started looking into the song I realized the copyright was free! (laughs) You know, when you use famous songs from relatively recent times you’re always bound to face copyright issues, but in this case, we overcame that obstacle fairly simply. As to why I included that scene in the end–well, this is a film that marks a departure from the idea of a genre, in the sense that, you know, when I make a horror film I want the audience to be scared, and therefore I use certain things such as scary music to instigate that. But this one here is an original story, and I wanted its interpretation to be completely free, and up to the audience to elaborate. In that sense, it’s fine for the audience to have different responses–to laugh, to be scared, and so on–which is why I didn’t want the music to dictate this or that feeling. But I did want to use music in the last scene. You can read the image anyway you want, but I wanted to ask the audience to just look at Maeda, at Yoko: all eyes on her. And one of the ways to ensure this would happen was to make the character sing a song–in this case, a whole song. And as beautiful as Uzbekistan’s mountains may be, my hope is that the audience won’t be able to take their eyes off her. 

To the Ends of the Earth premiered at Locarno Film Festival and screens at TIFF and NYFF.

Bong Joon-ho & Song Kang-ho on ‘Parasite,’ Mixing Darkness and Comedy, and Cinematic Influences

Written by Rory O'Connor, August 19, 2019 at 8:56 am 

In a recent, some might say premature, list of the top 100 films of the decade, South Korean master filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s latest Parasite, starring his regular collaborator Song Kang-ho, placed 48. It had premiered at Cannes just two months earlier.

Recency bias can help as much as it can hinder, especially in polls such as these that tend to reflect better on films that have already stood some test of time. The fact that Parasite has resonated so rapidly with audiences and critics, its brilliance almost a given, speaks to the diamond-cutter perfection of Bong’s screenplay and the riotous, gripping manner in which he and his team have executed it.  Bong was awarded the Palme d’Or in Cannes for his efforts, becoming the first South Korean filmmaker to do so.

The director and star landed at the Locarno film festival to present a screening of Parasite and, last Monday, the festival awarded Song with its Excellency award. We found them in an understandably amiable mood.

The Film Stage: Congratulations on winning the Palme d’Or. What is the significance of awards like these, and of being the first Korean filmmaker to do so?

Bong: Coincidentally it’s the 100th anniversary of Korean cinema this year, so when we won the prize it was incredibly dramatic. Personally, I’m trying not to make it dramatic as much as possible for me and to just work in my usual way with my usual flow–a very measured way of working–and continue my working process.

Song: It’s an incredibly big prize that I didn’t expect. It’s incredibly valuable for us and the Korean audiences to feel a sense of pride in Korean cinema and a sense of achievement, and I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding than that.

Where do you see yourself in the Korean cinema?

Bong: It’s not easy for me to say that for myself, with my own mouth. What you’re asking needs to come from someone outside the work who will be able to see it much more clearly and objectively. In terms of this film, and of course in terms of genre, it’s entertaining. The brilliant actors have a very vibrant energy that appeals to audiences and these things can really help. At the same time the film has very dark elements. It’s showing in a very clear way the gap between the wealthy and the poor. That can be very uncomfortable for audiences to watch, I think. So it was very unexpected that it did so well at the box office because the audience might find that difficult to stay with, so I’m very grateful that it’s done so well.

It’s different from your two previous films, which included English-language characters, and very different atmospheres. Are there aspects that you like to repeat in your films or do you always want to express something different?

Bong: So I don’t really think too hard about how I can connect my next film with my previous films. In fact, I think hard about how I can make my next film as different as possible. However, because I’m one person, you inadvertently repeat similar things, so my obsessions with stairs or basements for example.

There is a very strange mix of darkness and comedy. There’s violence and everything, but at the same time we laugh. How do you mix the two so well?

Bong: My wife says: “That’s just your personality, it’s just so weird and that’s why your films are like that.” Normally my personality is a bit split–that’s what she says. I think for me, to have two hours of just dark tragedy or two hours of just comedy is actually more difficult and more weird, because real life isn’t like that. Real life is a mixture of both. Even when we’re going through very terrifying things there are always unexpected pockets of comedy that we can find. And because for me life and reality is like that, that’s just naturally expressed in my films. I think also it comes due to working with actors who have similar tendencies like this. For example, actor Song, he is really able to express very well the complex and multi-layered aspects of life in order for the films to have this unique tone in the end.

You’ve made four films together at this stage, what is your opinion of one another?

Bong: I’m going to specifically discuss a very limited example to answer that question. When I was writing the script for Parasite there was a point that I was very concerned about and thought a lot on. In the latter half of the film there is a climax. In order to avoid spoilers I won’t say in detail what that is, but during the climactic point there is this one moment, and while I was writing it I was really concerned whether I could persuade the audience in this moment. However, because in this scene actor Song would be playing it I could write it with confidence and I did. If it was another actor I don’t think I could have written it in this way but with him I trusted that he could persuade the audience and he did, which I’m very thankful for.

So as a creator, director, and scriptwriter—the meaning of having an actor you can rely on in this way, it really made me think of this again. In a way it could be very irresponsible as a director, what I did, but with this part I thought I would rely entirely on his talent, being able to portray this.

Song: So it’s been almost 20 years that we’ve worked together–precisely 18. It’s a very long time that we’ve worked together. And also lived together in Korea as both people working in film. For me the most surprising aspect of Bong Joon-ho as an artist is that the end point for him is not the pursuit of cinematic pleasure, but through the cinematic pleasure that you conversely then reflect on life. And I think that was always surprising for audiences and that’s why they like his work so much.

You also made four films with Park Chan-wook, what is the difference when working with these two directors?

Song: I did three feature films and one short with director Park so, yes, four films. He has a very intense, unique creative world and he is loved by audiences and fans, and he is very representative of Korean cinema and he is incredibly different from director Bong Joon-ho. So as an actor, for me it is very happy but also very challenging to work in this way. That the directors are so aware of their own artistic worlds and pursue that, for me as an actor, how I can express this as closely as possible is always a challenge and always homework and always a little bit lacking. So it’s a very difficult but also a very happy dilemma to have as an actor.

 (To Bong Joon-ho) Are there many filmmakers that have influenced you?

Bong: My mentor is a Korean master from the 1960s and ‘70s; his name is Kim Ki-young, who made The Housemaid. He is really a genius. He depicts class and sexual desire within Korean society very well. I also like Claude Chabrol’s crime films. I also like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror films and I heard that this year he has the closing film at Locarno.

What do you think about the idea that there is a secret dialogue between your films and several films of Lee Chang-dong? Memories of Murder and Peppermint Candy; Mother and Poetry; and now Parasite and Burning.

Actually, when I was making Memories of Murder I was inspired by some aspects from Peppermint Candy, the description of the detectives in the movie… also, in the case of Poetry, Mother was released one year before so I don’t know if Lee Chang-dong inspired me or not. In the case of Parasite and Burning, while Burning was being shown at Cannes we were filming Parasite so it was only after we finished filming that we were able to watch Burning. In Burning you have these very wealthy and poor characters as well. At the same time having these very similar themes, our approach is very different. To share this with director Lee, whom I very much respect, is a very fascinating point for me.

You could almost include Shoplifters or Jordan Peele’s Us in that conversation.

Bong: Similarly with Shoplifters, I watched that after filming Parasite. During the filming I’d heard that he had won at Cannes, Kore-eda Hirokazu, and I was very pleased for him. I know him very well and I thought that Shoplifters dealt with characters that are outside the conventional Japanese society system and in a very interesting and unusual way.

Jordan Peele’s Us I haven’t watched yet but there was a moment in the trailer that I found very interesting. There is an image of the Rorschach–in fact the title for Parasite originally was [Rorschach]–referring to this, with the underlying meaning of the wealthy and the poor, two families reflecting on each other, and when I saw that at the ending of the trailer of Us I became very curious about it. So I’ve been telling everyone around me who watched the film: “Don’t tell me anything and don’t spoil anything for me.” But I’ve heard a little bit so I know a little bit already.

Parasite screened at Locarno Film Festival and opens on October 11.

This interview was conducted in English and Korean, via an interpreter.

Richard Linklater on Architecture and Filmmaking, the Challenges of Motherhood, and ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’

Written by Jordan Raup, August 13, 2019 at 9:31 am 

A witty portrait of a deferred career, marriage, motherhood, and a missing matriarch, Maria Semple’s hit novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette is prime material for Richard Linklater to adapt, and he found the perfect actress to take the lead. Cate Blanchett’s Bernadette Fox lives by the beat of her own out-of-tune drum. A once-heralded architect, for the last few decades she’s given up her creative passions, living in a bubble that ignores the fellow parents (aka “gnats”) at her daughter’s school and relying on a panoply of prescriptions to get by. When a family trip to Antarctica is planned, a series of unfortunate, perhaps self-precipitated events result in Bernadette’s further ostracism from those closest to her.

Ahead of the release this Friday, we spoke with the director about the desire to create, the similarities between architecture and filmmaking, the Up series, finding the perfect project, the struggles and unequal burdens women have to go through to balance career and family, as well as an update on his planned 1969-set film.

The Film Stage: So, a big part of Where’d You Go, Bernadette is how the opportunity or desire to create can be stifled in a person. Throughout your career, have you ever come across or felt something like that? 

Richard Linklater: Yeah, I’m highly offended and freaked out when the movie I want to make doesn’t get made–like I can’t get money for something–it’s really unnerving. So, Bernadette is kind of a portrait of that. I’m so blessed. I don’t have anything to complain about, really, but I can imagine it getting worse. You know, architecture and filmmaking aren’t that different; they’re art forms that require a lot of support. You need a budget, you need a client. They’re expensive artforms. So there’s a lot of architects who design things that never get built and filmmakers write scripts that never get made. It’s a very frustrating medium. No one can tell a songwriter “Oh, you can’t write another song,” or can’t tell a painter, “No, you can’t paint anymore,” or a writer, “You can’t write a book,” But, these things that require a lot more capital and bigger undertakings, they are that much more volatile. So, to me, it was a nightmarish scenario of not being able to do what you feel like what you’re most happy doing, and it’s kind of a toxic environment. 

That can be anyone whose either lost their muse, or is not doing it anymore. But, in [Bernadette’s] case, there’s very complex reasons we find out about what personally and professionally has kept her from doing anything for twenty years. The whole movie is a portrait of her slowly reconnecting with herself and getting back to work. You know, parenting can push life into a new direction, especially for women. 

One decision you made that I loved in this film was that there’s this theme of marriage and how hard it is to have a successful one over the years. You choose to cross-cut a scene with Billy Crudup and a scene with Cate Blanchett, both revealing quite personal things that have been bottled up over the last twenty years. It reminded me of the hotel scene in Before Midnight, except these people aren’t next to each other. I’m curious about your choice to have the scene play out like and how it drew you to the story.

Another thing is, yes, it’s a portrait of a long-term relationship. At the beginning of the movie, Bernadette and Elgin are on autopilot as a couple and a parenting unit; they’re pretty stagnant as far as their relationship goes. They’re not really seeing each other much in the way where these other things have crept in and it has a negative slant. That idea of the cross-cut scene kind of acts as the centerpiece of a movie in a certain way. It’s very important because they’re reaching extremely different conclusions. On her side, [Laurence Fishburne’s Paul Jellinek] is an old friend that she’s going to be very honest with and who’s going to be very honest with her. She keeps everyone in Seattle at arm’s length, but she’ll be honest with him, and he assesses her situation quite accurately. It’s like, “You just need to get your ass back to work.”

And he’s right! So many people need to do just that. But meanwhile, her husband, the person closest to her, is misreading her. He’s got a grievance list and doesn’t know what to do. He’s busy, so he does that thing that so many do: they sort of outsource their family health to professionals, who are very quick to pathologize. Really by the time they’re doing this little intervention, it’s a mini horror scene in my opinion. A collision of misinterpretation. It’s frustrating and horrible, and I think she does the right thing escaping… [Laughs.]

They really do force her out that window. In my opinion, it’s a survival technique, but she’s driven toward it. I think it’s a good move on her part. That’s just one of those big ideas. There’s all this information in the book about how to have it find some kind of cinematic form was always a challenge in the adaptation.

Speaking to the original book, I was reading a few interviews with the author, Maria Semple, and she mentioned one of her favorite films of all time is 56 Up… which of course, when Boyhood came out, people compared the two. Did you talk to her at all in the process? And did you talk specifically about that film and your shared of love for those movies?

Yeah, I went up there initially. She showed me everything, like, “Oh here’s the school [Gaylor Street] is based on, here’s the Queen Anne neighborhood.” You know, looking around, all that. I got a really good feel for it. I was in touch with her, and she came in right before we started. Cate [Blanchett] spent time with her. She was kind of busy on a couple of other projects, but she was around, which was nice. Very supportive.

The resonance with [56 Up and] Boyhood, I think it’s just anytime you show what the years do to somebody. With the Up series, obviously it’s a documentary and they film every seven years. With Boyhood, it’s fictional, and we filmed every year. It’s different; fictional versus documentary. But, I think the relation is that you see how powerful the passage of time is when you can see it and feel it. It’s a powerful relationship we all have with time, whether we like it or not. We’re all changing and we’re all passing through… I agree, though. I find those films similar. 

56 Up, however, they’ve all become so self-conscious. It’s so meta at this point and they’re so embedded in the process of the documentary itself. It kind of takes on a whole other zone, but I do love it and appreciate it. 

Even though the movie is an intimate and emotional story at its center, it is one of your more ambitious projects. There’s this crazy mudslide that comes through a house, there’s the gorgeous Antarctica sequence. What was the pre-production process like? Was it daunting at all?

Well, you’re always looking for challenges within the stories you’re trying to tell, and this story just required it. It’s like, oh gosh, how are we going to do that mudslide? Like Bernadette says, you want to get inside something, you gotta know what problems there are. She calls herself a “problem solver.” I feel like a film director can call themselves a “problem solver,” even if they’re not problems, there are definitely systems to be worked out, things to overcome and figure out in a tangible, physically manifested way. It’s one thing to have words on a page, but like, what’s the shot? How are we going to do that? 

This [film] kind of presented those fun challenges. Oh, we’re going to be around icebergs in Antarctica… how do you do that? So, you put in your years and you figure it out. You try to make it work and you have fun doing it. That’s kind of what the process is. 

I was impressed by your casting choices in Bernadette. Obviously, Cate Blanchett carries the film, but I also loved Billy Crudup. He’s so empathetic and is almost a grounded center and an emotional anchor for the audience. I think he is having a real resurgence; he was so great in 20th Century Women as well. I’m curious about your choice to cast him.

You know, it’s such a treat. The best thing about making movies is that you get to work with these actors. In Billy’s case, I saw him on stage in New York at Lincoln Center in the ’90s doing a Tom Stoppard play. It was kind of like, who’s this guy? He was just out of NYU, so that’s how much I’ve been a fan over the years. And it finally just worked out that we could work together. So, you know, it’s a great opportunity. I can also say that about Kristen Wiig, I was a fan of hers. That’s the wonderful thing about this; you get to work with these great artists and have fun and dig into their characters. It’s great when it works out. And also, Emma Nelson. Thirteen-year-old kid comes in and you feel she’s perfect to be young Bee… and that’s a huge backbone of the movie. And I was lucky Cate was in the air since the beginning. 

One big thing that comes through in this film is the struggle of women having to give things up in their career. Do you think that resonates now more than ever as we see Bernadette’s life and backstory?

I think the film portrays just how tough parenting is: it is a challenge, it is a compromise. Every parent kind of feels like they’re failing. But I think it’s so much more acute for women, for the mom. I think it’s just a fact, and it comes from various directions. It’s not only societal expectations, but it’s also that having a kid transforms a woman’s life more than it does with a man’s life. Quite often, they’re more likely to make a career choice in relation to that. I can’t say if that’s a nature/nurture, societal, or gender-based thing. Though, it’s a real thing. My whole life, my mom had kids and struggled to come into her own. We did it kind of backwards when I portrayed it in Boyhood: a mom who had the kids and is now going back to school. 

With men, kids interfere less with their careers. Cate said, even when she’s working, she gets asked all the time, “How do you balance parenting and being a mother at work?” Whereas, no one asks the guy next to her, who has kids that are the exact age as her kids. People know it’s a tougher thing for women to do, but I personally think parenting is tough. You never quite get ahead of it. You’re always kind of behind, you’re always flailing a little bit, you’re always unsure if you’re making the right choices and decisions. It’s a tough thing, and it’s that much tougher for women with lots of stuff. It’s tough to be a human and negotiate roles. [Laughs.] But [the film] is definitely an accurate picture of that for sure, and the mother-daughter nature of it is strong.

Last year it was reported that you were working on a movie in Houston about the 1969 moon landing. Since the 50th anniversary just happened, I would love to hear if you had any details about it, and for you, as a child at that time, how it feels to look back on the 50th anniversary.

It was kind of bittersweet for me. I did have this project, and I think I will get to do it eventually, but no one took the small step–or the great leap–at that time for me to have it out by the anniversary. No one cared enough. I didn’t get to get the project off the ground… but someday!

It was kind of a magical time to be a kid living in the Houston area. That’s what was going on, NASA was right down the road and we all wanted to be astronauts. It was just a whole different world we were living in at that moment. I thought that’s worthy of exploring from the kid’s perspective. You know, they’re always making movies about the astronauts, how about the citizens’ perspective? We just celebrated the 50th anniversary, and it’s certainly worth celebrating. It’s like, oh my god, this is the biggest non-military undertaking in human history apparently? 400,000 people worked on it, 20,000 corporations? Incredible. That’s a big circle of people who got to share that triumph as everyone did, just as citizens of the world. I mean, it was special. There’s been nothing like it.

Since we’re at the end of the decade pretty soon, people are talking about which films have resonated with them the most in the 2010s. Of course, a few of yours are on that list. I know it’s kind of a big question, but I’m curious as to what you see as the most impactful or touching films of the past ten years?

Oh gosh, I never think in terms of decades. I mean, if a film touches you and it continues to touch you… I don’t know. I guess we are heading to the end of the decade. I think in terms of centuries. I personally feel good, I’m lucky I made a lot of films this century. And for this decade, I can’t complain, I’ve had a good decade. But gosh, so many every year, there are so many great movies. I don’t know, I’d have to look at lists. But you know, Quentin [Tarantino]’s latest film is right up there, though. That’s something I really, really loved.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette opens Friday, August 16.

‘For Sama’ Directors on Capturing Assad’s Barbarism in Syria and How to Fight Back

Written by Joshua Encinias, July 30, 2019 at 9:27 pm 

The Battle of Aleppo ended three years ago with Bashar al-Assad strangling the rebel’s supply line. Waad Al-Kateab joined the civil uprising in 2011 shortly after graduating with a degree in economics. Al-Kateab documented the experience using her phone, the go-to device for capturing underrepresented voices in documentary and fiction. Her film For Sama resulted from years of footage, co-directed by Edward Watts, who helped to compile the footage.

Sama is Waad and Hazma’s daughter, who was born in the Battle’s final year. Waad narrates and reflects on the world Sama was born into; she wants the best for her daughter and her country, but as friends from the rebellion die and Hazma’s hospital is destroyed by a bomb, hope is in short supply. For Sama is a diary of Sama’s first year and Waad’s experience marrying and having a child during the civil war. Waad’s documentary is a female voice bursting through violent oppression as a signal flare to freedom fighters in Syria and allies around the world. 

We spoke with co-directors Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts about Assad making Aleppo unlivable by destroying hospitals and homes, why Westerners have difficulty believing the extent of his barbarism, and how Al-Kateab’s footage went from home video to a documentary playing at Cannes.

The Film Stage: There are competing ideas about what Bashar al-Assad has done to Syria. I want to hear from you what he’s done to your country.

Waad Al-Kateab: We’ve been beaten and displaced because we were protesting. Our people have been killed by violent shooting at the protestors. We’ve been arrested and kidnapped and no one knows even where are the prisons and we have been tortured to death. They have destroyed whole cities. We have been bomb-shelled by all the weapons you can imagine and none you can imagine. 

Edward Watts: And that’s just the citizens. As for the country itself, destroying all the infrastructure. Agreements and contracts are being signed with Iranians and Russians that no one knows about. Not even Assad’s supporters know what’s going on with those.

What does Assad gain from destroying the country?

Al-Kateab: Controlling Syria, being the great dictator. You can hear now what the locals and media are saying about the next generation of Syrian rulers: his sons will be ruling next. They believe in an idea that Syria belongs only to this family. That nothing is out of their control. 

Why did you start filming the Aleppo revolution in 2011? 

Al-Kateab: When I was a student in 2011 we know Syria was full of corruption and injustice and we are just the animals of Assad’s farm. All of our dreams before were to leave Syria and begin to start our own lives individually without any care of the public, but we are Syrians and we want to live in our own country the way we want.

Toward the end of the documentary, the bombers targeted your second hospital. Why were they targeting the hospital? It’s one thing to control the infrastructure, but it’s another thing to kill those who are already victims. 

Watts: They bombed hospitals to make it impossible to live in that area, and to break the will of the people to live there. For example, losing the hospital made it impossible for a woman to receive gynecological care, much less general medicine. It’s just impossible to live without a healthcare system. There are so many interviews I have done as a doctor and I have been asked several times if we were sure we were chemically attacked. I tell them come investigate for yourself.

It’s hard for us in the West to see the unrepentant and relentless violence of the Assad regime. They say there must be a rational reason for it or a way for us to explain it. But the simple truth is, and this was told to me early on by somebody in the American government: the Assad regime made the decision right at the beginning of the revolution, they would torture old ladies and destroy embassies and hospitals. Do anything in the world to stay in power. There’s a famous phrase said by the thugs in the regime “Assad or we burn the country.” That is the explanation for everything you see. 

Will you talk about turning Al-Kateab’s footage into a documentary? Was it always intended to become a documentary?

Al-Kateab: I was just going about day by day, I had no idea if I was going to survive. I was just trying to capture as much footage as I can, and hopefully one day somebody will take these photos and use them for a documentary or just as evidence of what was happening on the ground, to counter the propaganda from Russia and Assad regime. In 2016, I was working with a daily news program on Channel 4 and we did over twenty reports about Syria. When I left Aleppo, I went to London and we talked about making a longer story about what’s going and what I went through. At that time they introduced me to Edward and I showed him all the footage I had. It took two years before we finished the film as you’ve seen it. 

Have you received negative pushback about the documentary? 

Al-Kateab: Not so far. 

Watts: The Russian regime has a history of trying to discredit films and pieces that show the truth of what they’ve been doing, but so far nothing. 

How can interested viewers help your cause?

Watts: We’re building and impact campaign. The first thing to do is spread the word about the film, follow us on social media, we have a website. We are putting together a campaign which will offer a range of actions for individuals to take which will hopefully be launching in September. But for now, talking about the film, spreading the word about the film, following us, it would be a great first step. 

Al-Kateab: I want mothers and women who clearly have something to share to record it. Whatever the story is, everything is important in this life. Anything could inspire other people and encourage them. As a female filmmaker, I want to see more stories about women in their own words. Also, I want journalism come back to the point of its existence: to make a difference in this world.

For Sama is now in limited release and expanding.

Robert Richardson on Quentin Tarantino’s Specificity, 1960s TV, and 35mm vs. 70mm vs DCP

Written by Nick Newman, July 26, 2019 at 9:48 am 

Were he only a distinct player in some of Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone’s best films, Robert Richardson would have one of the most solid foundations of any working cinematographer. Arguably the most fruitful relationship, though, is with Quentin Tarantino, for whom he’s been an essential partner over most of the director’s career. Their collaboration reaches new heights with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Practically exploding color and light, the movie does less to evoke old-time Tinseltown than create a living memory of homes, bars, cars, streets, faces, landscapes, and, of course, movie theaters.

With one of the year’s best films (about which I wrote some here) opening today, I was immensely fortunate to interview Richardson about this dazzlingly complex production’s mix of stocks, grades, and long takes, as well as those elements you can’t control once it’s out of your hands–most essentially the presentation, which plays a major part in how we, collectively, talk about his work with the director. And because–to quote another Tarantino character–I couldn’t resist, there was time to ask about our chances of ever seeing Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.

Did Tarantino shooting Death Proof change anything about him as a director, as far as you can tell, and anything about your creative relationship?

It didn’t, actually. It was interesting that he made the choice to shoot it on his own, and I think his relationship with other directors who were shooting influenced his choice greatly, but it didn’t necessarily impact our relationship. It maybe, in some ways, could be beneficial, because to actually shoot a movie–to light a film, do the camerawork, and direct, act, etc.–is a tremendous amount to try to do by yourself. So perhaps he found that it sort of liberated him from a desire, in the future, to do the same thing.

Yours is one of the most recognizable DP filmographies. I think of my friend who said Casino is “the most Robert Richardson you could ask for.”


I’m curious about visual autonomy. How much do you value that opportunity? And how readily could you watch Hollywood (or any other Tarantino collaboration) and identify what’s yours, what’s his?

As you may know, and has been said, Quentin comes in with all the shots, so there’s very little that I offer in terms of shooting an image–in terms of coming up with a composition of something, or determining where it’s going to move or how it’s going to go. Quentin comes in every day with that. The look, he leaves a lot of to me. He will say when he wants something very specific. I try not to have my work stand out and take attention away from his words as much as possible. There are times, obviously, when my work has more of that hardcore lighting or back-lighting, etc., but I try not to do that.

Particularly with Once Upon a Time, I think you’ll notice there’s very little that draws attention to another time. For instance, Musso & Frank could easily have been lit off the table, and I made a strong decision not to do that–to make it more keeping with the dialogue, more keeping with the place, a little more conservative, and trying not to shine so brightly. Casino is very different because, of course, I was working with Marty and he wanted a strong feel. We kind of bounced around and I was in that timezone where he allows me to do certain things with hard lights, top lights, and backs, and I think it worked very well with what Casino is as a movie. In this particular case, I don’t want my work to overpower or in any way take over the element of what the director’s achieving.

How much are you and Tarantino talking through the psychology vs. the technique?

For me, it’s carrying out his wishes. Quentin comes in and is very specific, and the psychology of a shot can often be determined by where he’s placing the height, etc.–whether you’re lower, high, or above. Any of that, in terms of eye level, is more about where the two of us intersect, and we try to work on that aspect. But it is his. He comes in and says, “I want the camera here.”

There’s a high-angle shot of Leo walking back from his trailer after his conversation in the trailer and he comes back to the set, and the camera’s up high and goes down and gets to his foot level. A complicated shot to actually achieve as an operator, which I do, and it’s clear why he’s going it: he’s clearing the air. Also, we went with very long lenses where he appears almost through the dust before it goes into that shot. That element is technical, but also, I understand where he wants to go with it when he does it. He sees it because he wants a certain element to be broadcast in terms of what he’s trying to tell about the character. I assume that’s what you mean by psychology.

At what point is it made clear that certain scenes (e.g. the Bruce Lee fight) will be composed in a single take?

I knew that very early on. In fact, a weekend we went down with a small number of crew members to where we were shooting. We had stand-ins and ADs. We went through it, whether we could achieve the shot he wanted via the crane we normally work off or if we had to get something else. He choreographed it while we worked with these people, but he knew immediately what he wanted–he would say, “We start here, we slowly pull back, you need a zoom attached.” So we just slowly walked on the ground, the tracks, and found the placement of where the camera needed to go, so when we went back to shoot the scene, we knew we could achieve it.

I was surprised by the Lancer segment being presented in-camera and real-time, as opposed to Bounty Law‘s broadcast-ready presentation. What was the thinking behind this method?

Since this was a different time period, he wanted to make it feel like this was when Dalton was at the height of his career. It needed to be pulled from the past. So as opposed to living within the time period and seeing behind the scenes, he didn’t want to do that, but because he’s dealing with the day-to-day life of Leo on Lancer, he did want to incorporate the behind-the-scenes into the scene on Lancer. Because it’s “current,” right now.

The movie kind of finds a middle ground when they watch FBI at Dalton’s house. I love seeing the TV from their POV and getting a sense of how it would look shown in someone’s home. You’d shot on various film stocks for these segments, so when do you know the appearances of these period-appropriate broadcasts are enough? How much is it instinct vs. experience, or is accuracy not a concern?

What I had to do was find the highest-quality material we could get from FBI, because it’s obviously intercut with real footage. So I had to find out what that quality was, and once I understood what that quality was, I understood I had to do it native. That was shot with 35. And what I had to do was, first of all, get it in the same weather, find a location that was proper, and I pushed the stock to get more grain into it, and it almost cut in perfectly on the first attempt. We degraded it slightly, but minimal because it just fit inside FBI. We were very lucky, and I think that comes down to, as you were saying, instinct and also experience.

Tell me more about grading shows within the film.

Everything, I grade. I’m involved with grading on the movie from the moment we shoot it to when we do digital intermediate. I work with Yvan Lucas, who I’ve worked with for years and on a number of films with Quentin, and he does all the grading for all the dailies. Quentin shoots on 35, and also selects his takes–whatever those takes are–and prints those selects. So I work intimately with Yvan to make those dailies as effective as possible, so that when we get down to the point of having to do a final release, we are as close with our film. Because we match the film; we don’t create something new in the digital intermediate, or we try not to. We basically try to match what the film is. I try to keep away from all the tricks you can do with a digital intermediate, and stick to what would be chemical–which is why I think you feel there’s an honesty to the film. Nowadays, we have so much capability of changing things in a digital intermediate that it has a huge influence on the way films are coming out.

I saw it on 35mm at SVA and am seeing it on 70mm at the Village East. How much of a hand do you and/or Tarantino have in choosing who screens on film? Or is that delegated higher up?

It’s the latter of what you said–it’s more delegated. Quentin obviously loves the Cinerama Dome and pushes very high for the Cinerama Dome to become part of what he’s doing–there’s no question about that–but, overall, we don’t have that much influence, I don’t believe. I mean, I don’t have any influence. Whether Quentin has influence on trying to get into a particular house… the 70mm print, I haven’t even seen yet. I only saw a test of the 70, and I’ve never seen how it holds up on 70mm. In fact, nobody I know–not even the grader–has seen the whole movie. Which tells you one thing. So I can’t tell you.

Almost every single screening that I’ve seen thus far with press has been on 35mm. It can be a mixed bag, because if a house doesn’t have proper projection, you’re going to suffer greatly because the projectors are going to be out-of-focus. The vast majority of theaters no longer work in film for projection. They work DCPs, so in that cinema, the projector is dead-center and has the best spot, whereas film has been moved to the outside edges. It’s hard to find focus, etc. You need very good projectionists and good equipment, which isn’t being kept up-to-date in a lot of houses because there’s little use for a release on film.

It was great to see it on 35mm. I’m not as much of a fetishist for these things, but the textural quality was often stunning.

I agree with you. And you know what I’d be very curious about: you’ve seen it on 35, you’re going to see it on 70, you should see it on DCP–especially in a good theater. Especially if somebody does laser projection; the blacks are so great. But I wonder if you have a different reaction to a movie depending on the manner in which it’s exhibited, and I’d be very curious when somebody goes, “I saw it on 35, I saw it on 70, and I saw it on DCP, and I’ve got to say x, x, and, x.” I’ll be interested in seeing if there’s a difference in the way you respond to something because of digital vs. whether it’s on film.

So clearly you have a lot of ideas about how it should be shown. Do you get involved with that kind of thing, e.g. the famous letters Kubrick or Lynch had sent to projectionists?

You really kind of can’t get involved that way because, first of all, I don’t know the theaters in most cases. Like, for the premiere in L.A., I went to the Chinese the day they were setting up. I’d had a bad experience with a previous screening for the cast and crew, and I hadn’t been involved, so I thought, “I don’t want to go to the premiere and be upset.” So I sat with the projectionist, who’s extraordinarily talented, and we went through it. He got the very best he could in the two afternoons I was with him. That is extraordinarily rare, that you get to do that.

Do you know of any plans to do a home-video release for Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair?

No, I’m not aware of any, but I would certainly think he would do it. I’m surprised that isn’t already out there, because it would’ve seemed the most natural thing to do once he put it together as a whole movie. But I haven’t heard anything. I guess you know, with Hateful, he did an extended version for Netflix, so I would think there would be some plans in the works, but the best people to be asking would be Shannon McIntosh or Quentin himself. I will ask him when I see him, though.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is now in theaters.

‘This Is Not Berlin’ Director Hari Sama on Sexuality, Mexico’s Racism Epidemic, and the Film’s ‘Roma’ Connection

Written by Joshua Encinias, July 22, 2019 at 8:53 am 

In the midst of Roma mania last awards season, a little film emerged at the Sundance Film Festival, also starring Marina de Tavira as a stalwart single mother: Hari Sama’s This Is Not Berlin. Led by newcomers Xabiani Ponce de León and José Antonio Toledano as Carlos and Gera, they play two high schoolers growing up in Mexico City. Bored with his high school’s machismo soccer culture, Carlos joins the small but radical queer and leftist community, participating in public displays of nudity to protest FIFA officials. Gera wants to join but his personality doesn’t click with the group, so the boys grow apart as they stumble through class exploration and settling on their identities. The surprising fate of Sama’s characters makes the viewer reconsider everything they’ve seen. What seems like a natural telos for Carlos and Gera is worth closer examination. 

We sat down with Hari Sama at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and the interview is being published on the occasion of This Is Not Berlin’s debut at Outfest in Los Angeles. We discuss Sama’s own ambiguous sexuality, the conflicting class politics of Mexican punk and avant-garde scenes, Mexico’s own national racism epidemic, and Roma actress Marina de Tavira reaching international fame during This Is Not Berlin’s Sundance debut.

The Film Stage: Are you gay?

Hari Sama: Everybody thinks I am, so let me tell you that part of my story. I was very confused, and I was living in Europe in the ’80s, and I came back from Paris to Mexico City. I was a very depressed, very complicated kid, and I found this group of artists that took me as family. It’s them that you see in the movie; some of them are dead, but some of them are still alive. They had me like a part of the family. I felt so comfortable there and I had always felt uncomfortable in every group I had been in. I had no friends from high school, so that’s the group that took me, and I made a very big effort of trying to be gay without being gay. So I went through the opposite process, if you will. There was more of that in the original screenplay and then at some point it became less important, Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) trying to be gay to belong in the group. So that’s my story.

In the film, Carlos performs with his band at a punk show and it’s clear the punks are from lower classes and have traditional gender norms, whereas his art-electro band consists of rich kids who can afford to experiment with sexuality, drugs, etc. 

That’s a reality with which we grow up in Mexico. It’s not that in the U.S. you don’t have a difference of class but in Mexico the difference in class is related to the color of skin as well… well, here too. There’s a very big difference between how the European Mexicans and the original Mexican people relate to each other, and of course in music that is expressed as well. I thought it was important to have that dialogue. I thought music has always been one of the only places where that could come together in a more natural way even though there is always a difference for both sides and it’s very painful. I think that’s one of the biggest scars in Mexico.

I thought it was interesting how the guy running the show says to Carlos’s band, “You’re the pretty ones” and he goes, “You’re pretty too” and they’re like, “No, we’re not like you.” He gets it. But Carlos and his friends were not aware of their own class.

Yes. I had a couple of friends living in New York City at that time and some of them are still here. I remember they once took me to a Mexican place for tortas, it was called Abella Cruz. and it was all very Mexican looking. We said, “Oh you’re Mexican? We’re Mexican as well” and they’d say, “Yes, but you’re well made.”

They’d been told that.

Of course, that’s the thing.

But to also internalize it and accept it…

It’s been internalized for 500 years, so it’s not something that is very easily changed. And that dialogue about racism in Mexico is a conversation that has just started, believe it or not. In Mexico we thought we were not racist, and Mexico is one of the most racist countries in the world. We didn’t even think we were racist. We didn’t understand how that works. The film is not about that, but it’s about identity and different things and I just thought this film takes place in Mexico so we need to talk about this. It’s important.

In the first protest we see, the group is pulling Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro) and they’re naked. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on there? 

They had the bosses from the FIFA and so forth, and they were just slowing everything down. That performance was Mauro’s idea, the actor who played Nico. We had the opportunity of a lot of artists giving us lectures about why they became artists and why they are so passionate about their art. Especially artists who are very radical in Mexico. Some of them went to the point of giving lectures on contemporary artists starting with Joseph Beuys in the 1950s, so the actors understood contemporary art. Why they are you using their bodies as an instrument for saying things, even if it puts you through pain or something like that. Mauro was not really related to art, but the whole purpose of that was that they became artists themselves. I told them, “After these lectures you guys need to come up with ideas about what would you do if you were an artist. What would you say?” Mauro, being gay, said, “I always wanted to write the names I was called on my body. Words said by my mother, by my Catholic school, by friends, by people on the street. I’ve been judged and I’ve been kicked around and hurt.” So his performance has to do with that, shouting out the names he’s been called. I came up with the idea of them doing the performance in front of the FIFA bosses and having the police get involved because it’s visually stronger.

American actors are prudes about male nudity. Was it easy to get your male actors to do these scenes? 

There was doubts at the beginning, but believe it or not, that scene we were just talking about, that was the first scene we shot with the artists. It was important for me to do it that way. For the principal character Carlos, he didn’t want to do it. He was in the camper, the producers told me I needed to talk to him. I went to him and tried to explain why it was important to be a part of all this. We shot in a real street in Mexico and the film commission didn’t know what we were going to do, and then they’re naked there and people started arriving and that gave them a sense of power. I don’t know how to explain it. Suddenly they didn’t want to get the robes anymore, they just wanted to be like that on the street. You could see them become empowered. It was a very, very special moment. 

Did your filming overlap with Roma’s? 

No, Roma was shot first. I didn’t know anything about Roma, nobody knew anything about it. So I was very surprised to see that Marina de Tavira played the mother [in that film] as well. It was so weird she played the mother in my movie and in Roma.

I ask because Alfonso was tweeting about This Is Not Berlin during Sundance. 

I think he was retweeting Marina. But no, I had no idea. They had been saying that Marina is the only [known] actress in the film, and I was like, “Oh, ok, whatever.” I didn’t know what the film was about and then she was nominated for an Oscar.

You play Carlos’s uncle Esteban. Was that a real person in your life? 

It’s inspired by a real uncle. But my real uncle, he wasn’t that. I just got from him the music and maybe the drugs a little bit. I pretty much tried to portray a male figure that I did not have growing up that I would have loved to have. So I pretty much recreated my life and gave myself a male figure. 

Why did you want to play that part? 

I love acting, and it’s hard if other people give me parts in their films because I’m a director. It was just important to me to give me that. Carlos is me when I was younger, and I’m giving him what I would have wanted to have. So it’s almost a mystical experience, it’s almost a ritual, if you will, of transfiguration. 

What was the inspiration for the freewheeling Aztec club in the film?

It’s a recreation of a very specific bar that I came in Mexico City called The Nine. But it also refers to an experience I had in New York City with my brother. I think I was 20 and my brother was 16 and we came here in the ’80s and miraculously enough we could club. We were both minors but we could get drinks. I looked older. It was such an incredible time in New York City. We ended up at four in the morning in this place called the Aztec Lounge around here, when SoHo and the East Village were a completely different place. This is completely gentrified. [Hari gestures to the Tribeca neighborhood outside]. That was real. It was in blacklight, and they had painted skulls on the wall that came alive with the blacklight and we were at this bar with all this dark, wonderful music. It’s a way of merging these two experiences in my life. 

Was the New York club a sort of free-flowing, pansexual, artist place? 

Yes. The Nine was a pansexual thing, I think in clubs in New York were too. Something that this movement, it wasn’t really a movement, but it was this gathering of people trying to do something. I think what attracted us, it became pansexual very quickly. It was good to be androgynous and paint yourself. It didn’t really matter if you were gay or not, but it was just about being open to everything. 

This Is Not Berlin plays at Outfest in LA on July 24 and opens in limited release on August 23.

Lulu Wang on Bridging Cultures in ‘The Farewell,’ Believing in Lies, and Authenticity in Lighting

Written by Joshua Encinias, July 13, 2019 at 9:25 am 

Death is a tricky thing in the West, even the very word comes under scrutiny. Some prefer “passed away” to “died” and celebration of life services are frequently held in lieu of funerals. A telling quote from Lulu Wang’s new film The Farewell encapsulates how different death is understood in the East: “Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die.”

The Farewell universalizes one’s life-long struggle with death. It’s done from the perspective of both cultures via Billi (Awkwafina), who’s parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) immigrated from China to New York City and assimilated to western values. When Billi’s told about her grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis she’s asked to keep it a secret. Her struggle to understand why the lie is told, much less keeping it, personifies the tension of Western individualism and Eastern communality to simultaneously sad and hilarious results.

We spoke with writer-director Lulu Wang about casting Tzi Ma to act as the fluid connection between Eastern and Western cultures, her unique use of fluorescent light to capture a modern Chinese aesthetic, and the pressure of bringing The Farewell to the competitive film market. 

The Film Stage: I saw the movie at Sundance and thought it was hilarious. Then I saw it a few weeks ago and found it quite sad. Tzi Ma’s performance embodies both; the way he carries seriousness and humor in his facial expressions. Will you talk about casting Tzi and what his character Haiyan means to the story? 

Lulu Wang: Tzi was one of the easiest ones to cast. I knew I wanted him since I was writing the script because he’s such a familiar face in American culture. I wanted somebody that had a diplomacy about him. Somebody that was very fluid between the Eastern and Western cultures and felt fairly assimilated in American culture. At the same time, when Haiyan gets back to China, he’s very loyal to the family and understands Western traditions much more than Billi does. He’s probably closest to Billi in the struggle of navigating between his American values that he’s come to adopt, and knowing and understanding the family’s Chinese values. 

Since it’s common for Chinese families to lie about terminal conditions, do you find those with the diagnosis speculate and realize they’re being lied to? Certainly they told similar lies in their lifetime. 

No, not at all. You would think, right? They really don’t. I don’t know if that’s a matter of self-imposed ignorance. To them, because they’ve participated they also believe that ignorance is good. Even if they felt the family was lying to them, they probably choose to believe the lie. Because they themselves no good comes from knowing the truth. I don’t know for sure if that’s what it is, but from my own experience, no one has mentioned it. With my grandma it doesn’t seem there has ever been a confrontation, so it’s hard for me to know who knows what. 

Do you imagine at any point telling your grandmother about your story?  

I don’t feel like it’s my place to tell her. The decision will come down to my family. If they felt it was time to tell her or they had no other choice too. Or if my grandmother herself confronted me and said, “I know everyone else is lying to me, I need you to tell me the truth,” then maybe. But I don’t see myself doing that on my own volition. 

Among the unique things about your movie is the bright, fluorescent lighting. That’s such a different way to light a movie. 

For a long time, a lot of people in China didn’t have electricity, they had candlelight. So having electricity, having light is a sign of privilege. They don’t romanticize the idea of dim lighting, they are like, “If you have light, why wouldn’t you use it?” They are very practical, like, “Light helps you see, so if you have it turn it on.” When you go to homes in China, the feel of the environment is this overhead, fluorescent light that floods the room. I found it’s not just China, but also in a lot of third-world countries and a lot of developing countries. If you look at the high rises in India you’ll see a lot of fluorescent light inside. I think for them as Easterners, they’re used to it. But for me as a Westerner, that lighting is so specific to the place and it’s so uncomfortable for me and it’s not an attractive light necessarily, but it’s very much the aesthetic and ambience of the environment.

My cinematographer Anna Solano talked a lot about that. I wanted to make sure the lighting was portrayed authentically, and she wanted to make sure it was being used in a way that still created a strong aesthetic. If you don’t create an aesthetic around it, flourescent light just washes everyone’s faces out and it becomes a zombie movie basically. So we wanted to make sure not to do that, but you know, it was really exciting. I found fluorescents haven’t really been used that way in film a lot. They’re generally used in Hong Kong movies in a cool, seedy, music video kind of way, or they are not used at all. With Wong Kar-wai movies, they are period pieces so there are pools of warm light. But modern China doesn’t look that way. It was exciting to face the challenge of capturing modern China’s lighting in an authentic way but still capture an aesthetic. 

What’s it like taking your movie from an accepting and supporting creative environment like Sundance to the marketplace, which isn’t nearly as friendly?

What I did was really temper my expectations, and my family is really good at helping me with that. When the movie premiered at Sundance and people were responding really positively and audiences seem to be responding well to it, I didn’t then know how it would be accepted beyond those walls. I’ve seen that happen before, in the bubble of a film festival, in the hype of a film festival; Sundance is such a warm audience and they are primed to support a movie like this. I didn’t know when we left Sundance if that would be the case. So I tried really hard to not have any expectations. My parents would always say the same thing, they would say every time something good happens: “Be careful, karma is a bitch. It’ll even things out and something bad will happen.” So it’s hard to celebrate with that mentality. I guess I was always just waiting to see if the world would accept it. Particularly with subtitles, particularly with our casting, it being 100% Chinese/Chinese-American, I didn’t know if people would resonate. We will see once it opens. 

To follow up on your quote about capitalism in the Vulture interview, you said that whenever the competing streaming company offered more money for The Farewell, it changed your perspective. What exactly changed? What did it take for you to stick with your initial offer from A24? 

It wasn’t like I was mad. It’s a really good problem to have. It’s good to have options, to have people vying film for a lot of money. But I really wanted to work with A24 to bring the movie to the world. When we had this other company come and bring a lot more money, it was difficult for me to convince the producer and the financiers of the film to leave that much money on the table. It’s not that I was upset about the offer itself, but I knew I was up against a pretty difficult battle to say, “Hey guys, let’s not worry about the money. Let’s leave all of this money on the table and go with the company we feel good about.” It’s show business, we live in a capitalist society. It’s hard for me to even say that to somebody when they put in millions of dollars in investing in me. How do I say to them, “Don’t take all the money, do what feels good for me.” Ultimately, I gave this very emotional plea where I said, “Everyone is really ecstatic about this. We were able to recoup the investment, and I would just like to ask that we do what’s best for the film because it’s so personal to me and it’s my baby.” I know it’s a lot of money and it’s a lot to ask, but I don’t want to live in a world where it’s always the person with the biggest wallet that wins. I think that there are other values that are more important. I gave this pretty emotional plea and I was really grateful they listened.

The Farewell is now playing in NY and LA and expanding in the coming weeks.

Riley Stearns on ‘The Art of Self-Defense,’ Yorgos Lanthimos, and Small Business Realities

Written by Jordan Raup, July 12, 2019 at 8:59 am 

With only two films notched in his belt, Riley Stearns has proven to be one of the more distinctive voices in American independent filmmaking. Delivering both laughs and shocks with a considered precision–and often at the same time–Faults and his new film, The Art of Self-Defense, explore power structures and a twisted sense of community in inspired ways.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg as Casey, a lonely auditor who desires to prove his masculinity, he meets a mentor of sorts at the local dojo, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and things only get more intense and darkly humorous from there. John Fink said in our review from SXSW, “The Art of Self-Defense proves to be a twisted comedy with hidden depths that gravitates at times between tenderness and restrained silliness.”

Ahead of the release, I spoke with Stearns about his precise pacing, how he feels being compared to Yorgos Lanthimos, the realities of owning a small business (even for psychopaths), visual punchlines, casting Eisenberg and Nivola, not having a specific timestamp, how he hopes the film will be received, and more.

The Film Stage: With both of these films [Faults and The Art of Self-Defense and Faults] there is a very precise, patient pacing, letting us really live in this strange environment. I’m curious how much of that rhythm that you’re finding is on the script or if it’s more translated as you’re filming and editing.

Riley Stearns: I mean, for me, the script is the blueprint for making the film. So, everything that I can put in there I want to–anything that gives actors or my crew a sense of where we’re gonna be at any point in time is huge and important for me. Jesse [Eisenberg] and Alessandro [Nivola] have said in interviews that, for them, this was the script that was the closest to the final product that they’ve ever seen, and, in a weird way, that’s a huge compliment to me. I really appreciate that people are able to picture what something’s gonna look like based off of that initial piece of material they see. Anything that I can do to get people an idea as close to what it’s going to look like at the end of the day… that’s important to me.

With this film, there’s a keen exploration of toxic masculinity. It would make a perfect double feature with Under the Silver Lake, where you’re really in the protagonist’s head  I’m curious if you’ve seen that film, and also your approach to this theme in today’s age.

I can’t really speak too much to [David Robert Mitchell]’s film because that’s more for him to talk about, but I did see it and I do think that it’s exploring many things through a different lens than I was trying to explore. And it’s funny, too, for me… I wrote this at the end of 2015 and discussions about this topic have been around for as far back as we can remember, but specifically in the past year or two years it just really came to the forefront of people’s conversations. 

For me, when I was writing it, it was less about toxic masculinity and it was more so my own personal fears and thoughts; who I was, and “was I man enough?” and all of those thoughts went into writing this script, but it’s just interesting it’s coming out at a time when it actually feels more relevant than had it come out in 2015.

You use distinct framing, as if we’re trapped in the dojo and you’ve mentioned that the palette gets darker as the film progresses. You’re also utilizing some long zooms that are really effective. Could you talk about the approach to cinematography here? 

I really liked to be a little free going into the shooting of the film. The script is so set in its way, like, I know how the dialogue is going to sound, I know what I want to do with the performance… but the fun for me is being more improvisational with the way that I shoot things. Showing up on the day and saying with my cinematographer, Michael Ragen, “Where’s this gonna be based on the blocking that the actors are doing?,” “How can we go about shooting this thing?” It’s fun for me to just experiment, and I would be lying if I said I went in with an exact idea of how I was going to direct the scene.

I do have a rudimentary shot list and I kinda branch off from that, but I really–like you were saying–did want the film to progress and get darker when the film got darker, and feel more gritty when the film got grittier… that was a huge deal for me. Part of that was just through our lighting and the way we color designed the film; it just gets a little more muted as it goes along. All of those things are just fun to play around with, but yeah, I’m not one of those people who go in and knows exactly how their film is gonna look. When they start directing it, part of the fun for me is figuring that out as I go along.

A lot of the humor here is derived from sharp visual cues. I love the opening with the French insults… and then you cut to the car–


I’m curious about that balance of humor, ultimately being derived from the visual punchline. You are not necessarily feeding laughs to the audience. You let them discover the humor along the way.

That’s the first time, on that cut, where you realize, “Okay, this is the tone of the movie.” But even then, it takes another second. I would say the gun store scene is where you’d really start to say, “Okay, this is definitely different than what a standard film would feel. It’s got its own rhythm, it’s got its own voice.” Then, once you get further into the movie, or even just before the gun scene, the answering machine–that’s a good indication of the tone and just letting people to say, “Okay, I’m just going to go along with it. I don’t have any preconceived notions of where this is going, I’m just gonna let it take me there.” I like letting people figure out the tone on their own and not talking down to people, but at the same time giving occasional strong indications towards what I’m going for.

Even just like you were saying with the editing, I am of the school of a setup and a punchline with writing, but also in the way that I shoot things. So, I’ll show a wide of something, there’s something that’s said that is focused on a certain area of the screen, and then cutting to that area of the screen. Just being very on the nose about that kinda stuff sometimes can be humorous to me. For example, the shoes on the mat. That kind of very direct, like, “No shoes on the mat.” Cut down, there’s shoes on the mat! That kind of stuff is funny to me, so playing around with that and being a little on the nose is sometimes fun.

Since its premiere at SXSW, there’s been comparisons to the films of [Yorgos] Lanthimos, but I find your work with characters to be a little more full-bodied and with more heart. Do you feel honored by that comparison, or do you think you’re doing your own thing?

Both. I am hugely honored to be compared alongside him, and not even alongside him; just for people to say, “Hey, your stuff kinda feels like Yorgos’s.” I would be lying if I said I wasn’t inspired by his work and people like Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers and Hal Ashby, but Yorgos in particular… I saw Dogtooth when it came out and it blew me away in a way that I don’t think a film had at the time, and it just let me know that there were other ways to go about making a film and other tones and feelings you could feel from movies. I was a late bloomer when it came to watching movies. I feel like around 17 was when I really started to say, “This is what I wanted to do.” So, a lot of my references are going to be things that are a little more recent, and his happened to be some of those films. 

But at the same time I’m trying to do my own thing. I feel like, like you said, I like my characters to feel a certain way, and I don’t think that anybody’s going to watch my film and be like “[Yorgos] directed it!” nor should they, because he’s a better visualist and satirist than me–he’s on another level. But I also find it funny that I know for a fact that Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t have Google Alerts, but I love to picture that every day he opens up his Google Alerts and sees this dumb karate movie popping up in his mentions, and he’s like, “What the fuck is this movie?” So, I find a sense of humor in that, but again I’m trying to do my own thing.

Let’s talk about Alessandro [Nivola]. I loved him in this film. I remembered him from Face/Off, and now it’s 20 years later and he has The Neon Demon and You Were Never Really Here and this film, and he’s really coming into his own, in a sense. His character was super serious, but he was also concerned about the economic realities of his business–


–with the charging 15 dollars for a lost karate belt and more. I’m curious about crafting that character.

It’s funny, I think you are the first person that’s brought up, in the year that I have been talking about this movie: the economic realities of being a small business owner. Like, you may be a psychopath, but you also have a small business to run. When the Zellner brothers came on board as executive producers–just friends of mine, and I’m a huge fan of [Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter] and Damsel–David Zellner was on the phone with me after he had read the script, and he was like, “There’s some scenes at the end of him cleaning up after a super horrible act, but he’s having to clean the toilet, take out the trash, sweep the floors.” And, I loved that David got that the reality is that he still has to run a small business. He still has all these day-to-day tasks to take care of, and that’s the dynamic that I wanted to play with, where there’s some real-world shit still happening… it’s still a movie, but life is still taking place.

Having Alessandro come in and play that role was so perfect for so many reasons: he’s such a great actor, but also I didn’t want it to necessarily be somebody who was super well known. I wanted people to come into the movie, maybe unaware of who he was, or maybe just didn’t have too many preconceived notions of what he does as an actor, so that when you see him in that first scene, he’s just doing his crazy monologue and doing all the karate along with it, that you really believe he is who he is instead of saying, “Oh, I know this actor.” And it takes you a while to get them to that headspace. So, the fact that he came onto the movie so late to the game and just knocked it out of the park the way that he did, we couldn’t have been any more thrilled.

I feel like it’s almost the opposite casting with Jesse Eisenberg in the sense that we know him as audience members, and when the rug is pulled out from under us with the violence and darker elements we buy in and then we’re kind of shocked. Did that idea have anything to do with his casting?

I mean, it was a happy accident with the preconceived notions with Jesse happen to throw people off on where the film is gonna go. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was just a huge fan of Jesse’s, and being an independent film, when someone of his caliber signs on to do your movie, it just puts you in a different category. We definitely appreciated the fact that he has name recognition, that he’s as decorated as an actor as he is, and that he was so incredibly game just to play every day and be there for the film. I mean, he’s been doing press more than me, it’s nonstop for him, and it’s because he loves the film so much and I can’t thank him enough for that. I feel like we ended up with the perfect person to play Casey, and it’s cliche to say, but I do feel like I couldn’t imagine anybody else in this role. It’s just so nice that it worked out in the best of both worlds; people know who he is and they’re hopefully excited to see him do something a little different, but at the same time I think it’s going to surprise people where this film goes.

What was your decision in terms of a timestamp on the movie? Some things seem like they could be in the present day, while some things feel like a decade or two in the past. How do you think it adds to the story?

I like movies that create their own world, and part of me creating my own world was deciding what did and didn’t exist in that world, and one of those things was that cellphones just don’t exist. It just makes it easier to never have to explain why a battery has run out or why cell phone reception is gone. If you just don’t put the phones in the movie, it just takes away that problem. But, I also wanted to be able to have it feel timeless. In ten years, when people are hopefully watching the movie, I didn’t want them to be able to watch the movie and say, “I know exactly what year that came out.” I wanted it to feel like it could exist in its own time frame. So that was why I went in and said to my production designer, particularly Charlotte [Royer], “This is going to be VHS, this part is going to have a DVD, we’re going to use CDs here, we’re going to have a car from the 2000s here.”

I’ve been enjoying what Bleecker Street has been doing for the promotional bit, and I believe there were with the film from the ground up, right?

Yeah, they bought the movie before we even made it.

I’m curious how involved you are to the fun things they’re putting together. I was looking at the website this week and the teaser videos that have come out

I can’t take credit for any of the really cool stuff they’ve come up with. They’ve been so on it with a ton of thinking outside the box and saying, “Alright, we’ve got a movie here that we know will play for certain arthouse audiences, like they’re trying to see something from the director of Faults or the actor who’s been in so many incredible films and indies,” but they also knew that they had something that could potentially connect with a larger audience. So, thinking outside the box and saying, “Why does it have to be promoted in this one way? Why can’t we go after different areas?” It’s been really exciting to see what they bring to the table. And like you said, whether that’s creating a really weird website where you make Jesse kick and punch and learn karate, or the imagery of the poster being darker but also having a sense of fun about it, it’s been really exciting working with them and I think they’ve gotten it from day one. It couldn’t have been a better partnership.

There’s been a lot of talk this summer, with all the studio films coming out that have disappointed at the box office, that it’s kind of at a stale time for movies, but then you look at the indie side: The Farewell, Midsommar, The Art of Self-Defense they’re all coming out at around the same time and there’s so much fantastic stuff out there. As an indie filmmaker, how do you see the industry shaping itself in these last few years?

Interestingly, I feel like I used to keep up with the box office on some things, and I was more present with what release dates were about to hit, but I feel like I’ve fallen out of that a little bit more. Maybe it’s one of those things where once you know how the sausage is made, you don’t really want to see that in your day-to-day as much. So, I try to not think too much about the box office, but I am excited by the amount of independent films that are coming out in the summer. I don’t think you really saw that as much, or you saw indies that were maybe dumped at certain time slots because they knew they were going to get demolished by the studio films, but at the same time, it was a counter to what was happening.

I do think that between The Farewell, The Art of Self Defense, Midsommar last weekend, The Sword of Trust coming out… it’s a really fun feeling. Like, I think people are going to see the studio stuff, but also we got three really great independent films coming out on the same day as well. It’s an exciting time for independent cinema. I also don’t know what’s going to happen box office-wise with the film, you always hope for the best, but you also have to say that, “We’re an independent film and we’re a little left of center,” and everything with the response we’ve been getting and the fact that I’ll see the trailer play before a big blockbuster movie and it gets the laughs that you’re hoping that it gets. I feel like we’re in a great spot and I think that people want to see something a little different, and hopefully this is one of those things.

The Art of Self-Defense is now in limited and will expand in the coming weeks.