There’s a restlessness associated with Greta Gerwig’s characters that’s nowhere to be found in Abbie, the young cancer survivor she plays in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. Rather than having Abbie show her unique worldview through kinetic expression, Gerwig allows her introspective moments to do the talking. Through her obsession with photography and art, we see Abbie trying to create a legacy, and a self-portrait: she’s angry about being sick, but realizing this means there’s no time left to waste. Even though at first Abbie doesn’t seem to speak much, Gerwig uses her face to communicate what’s going on inside her. It’s a strangely delightful contrast to the whimsy Gerwig usually infuses her characters with. Even though Abbie couldn’t seem to be further from Frances, Violet Wister, and Brooke Cardinas, she’s bound to them by the magic of Gerwig.
The actress had a banner 2016 with unforgettable performances in four films, Maggie’s Plan, Wiener-Dog, Jackie and Women, the latter particularly bringing her universal acclaim and awards from critics groups. With both Women and Jackie opening during the peak of prestige film season, it’s great to see how they are showcases for Gerwig’s versatility. While her Abbie in Women dreams to have the world understand her, as Jackie O’s Social Secretary and confidante, Nancy Tuckerman, in Pablo Larraín’s impressionistic biopic, she’s a woman loyal to the secrets of others. Her Tuckerman exudes the kind of warmth that makes us wish we knew more about her character after the film is over. When I spoke to Gerwig on the phone, she was quite eloquent about creating these two characters, working with Mike Mills, and she mentioned having wrapped up her directorial debut Lady Bird — but not being ready to speak about it with the world just yet, she wanted to keep it to herself a little bit longer.
The Film Stage: Abbie was based on Mike Mills’ sister. Did knowing this restrict or open up the places where you could take the character?
Greta Gerwig: Knowing that it was based on Mike’s sister was only helpful to me because, first of all, she was incredibly generous and talked to me, which was very helpful. Also, any point of contact with reality for me is what makes characters rich, deep, and resonant. I loved it.
There is something very tactile about Abbie’s passions, from her record collection to her photographs. Do you think she’s a character obsessed with physical permanence and objects because she’s ill?
I definitely think that having cancer makes her see herself as an object that could pass. I think the cancer feels like a foreign object taking over her, so that’s all really resonant and layered in the film. That’s a great read on what it is.
Can you talk about how you connected to Mills’ music choices for your character?
I loved Mike’s music choices. In preparing for the role really early, he gave me a bunch of music, in addition to art books, photography lessons so I could learn to use those cameras, feminist writing, and arts writing from that time. I loved the music. I knew a lot of it because I love that era, the David Bowie glam-rock world, but what I didn’t know about was the more hardcore scene of the punk movement. I’d never listened to Black Flag. I didn’t know The Slits or The Raincoats and other female punk bands. In a way, it’s what you hope a director will do, which is to push you out of your comfort zone and see the world differently through the eyes of the character. I adore the music in the film and think it’s so lucky all of them allowed for their music to be in the movie.
The women in the film made me think of Baroque paintings, where you would see the different ages of men represented within one frame. Can you talk about working with Elle and Annette, who, in a way, each represent a different age of women, and if their characters made you reflect on your own character differently?
It really is a portrait of all these different people at different ages, not just women but also men. Billy’s character is in his ’40s; Lucas is 14. I think it’s really this moment in 1979 and all these different ages, and characters at different moments in their life, and how they react to this modern new world which is emerging even more quickly than they can keep track of.
Abbie is quite communicative, which made me think of how Nancy Tuckerman in Jackie: the opposite, as she’s someone who was well-known for keeping secrets. How do you access someone like that?
In a way, that was a big part of the key to her character — which was her silence, she was not someone who talked about her personal involvement and the things she knew. That’s how I created the character. I didn’t have a lot of time to make Nancy the way I did with Abbie. A lot of it was picking up things I learned about Nancy by reading about Jackie. Nancy didn’t speak for herself. She spoke for Jackie, and, when she died, Nancy Tuckerman wrote the press release which showed a loyalty from another time.
You’ve talked about carrying bits of characters with you. As you went from Women to Jackie, traveling back in time so to speak, did you bring any of Abbie to Nancy?
I shot 20th Century Women first and then I shot Jackie, and in a way it was a good way to say goodbye to the character of Abbie. It was a different decade, different costumes, a different woman, another country, since we shot most of it in Paris. It felt like I could kind of go into another imaginary world. But I will say, Mike told us, when we finished Women, that we would do reshoots, so I knew that I could come back to Abbie, so I didn’t feel like I was letting her go. Shooting Jackie in Paris, we took a break and then shot the rest in DC, so with both characters I had the sense of quite not letting the characters go, even though we were wrapped. Which was nice, because it felt like less of an abrupt ending.
Both Jackie and 20th Century Women touch on grief, particularly a woman’s grieving process. How do you think the films will be perceived in a country that’s undergoing a period of grieving and uncertainty?
It’s funny: both of the films have taken a new resonance because of the election, so I think the feeling before the election and now for both movies has really transformed. For 20th Century Women I think that, specifically the Jimmy Carter speech — which is one of the centerpieces in the movie — lands differently. It’s a very prophetic speech and we’re experiencing the flipside of what he said, which is this drive for consumption and wealth for wealth’s sake is a disease and a malaise for our modern culture. With Jackie this idea of using the media to shape a hero, or a presidency is something that we’ve surely seen how it spun out in this moment. Those things are very resonant, in terms of grief, I think I resonate with the movies more as a portrait of personal grief, rather than national grief. But the personal is political.
20th Century Women and Jackie are now in limited release.
To watch Mike Mills‘ two most recent features, Beginners and 20th Century Women, are such warm and open-hearted experiences that I was led, in my review of the latter, to wonder if he’s ever been unsympathetic to anybody. Actually sitting down with the writer-director does nothing to make me think otherwise, though he could’ve been a total bastard and I’d still want to pick his brain about his new film. It’s too rich and satisfying a work for me not to have many questions.
Also of little surprise is how quickly the discussion can turn towards a personal place, but one doesn’t follow-up a film about the last days of their gay father with a film reflecting on their relationship with their mother and not tip their hand a bit more than the average subject. Don’t think it’s too heavy, though: what follows is nevertheless more a reflection of 20th Century Women‘s creation than anything else
The Film Stage: I’ve been lucky enough to see this movie twice now. I think you’ll be pleased to hear it holds up.
Mike Mills: Oh, that’s nice. I do feel like it’s really dense, and so I’ve had a few people say they saw it twice, and it kind of makes me feel relieved — like, “Oh, maybe you’ll get everything I was trying to jam in there.”
I found the web of relationships and rhythms of scenes more fluid on a second outing. Your movies have such an intensely personal quality, with the parental figures here and in Beginners based on your parents and the protagonist being —
Kind of a quasi-character.
I wonder about talking to people such as myself who only see your movies, don’t know you, and ask you questions about these things in your life — if that’s weird, basically.
Not really. When you write it for a couple of years, you exercise it every which way you’ve distilled it, and you can see this coming. What’s really weird… journalists don’t do this so much, but, when I’m doing a Q & A, normal people just want to know all about my mom. I’ve opened that door, so I answer everything as honestly as I can. I’ve had a lot of therapy, and, in therapy, you talk through all this shit. I find therapy to be a really powerful, great experience, and it really informs my filmmaking. It’s a real similar project: where you’re trying to figure out how you got this story of yourself in your head. Like, the history of it: your mini, personal, micro-version; your family version; your society, town, cultural, history version. That’s sort of, like, my whole project in a nutshell. So I don’t mind talking about it.
Most of the time, people are pretty nice about it — like, not malicious — and sometimes people are weirdly crass about it. It was a little trickier with my dad, I’ve got to say, because it was about him dying, you know? But mostly it’s really sweet. People have been very nice, and people bring up their experiences. It’s part of my job, and I admire other people who do it. There’s a book of Allen Ginsberg’s interviews called The Spontaneous Mind, and his interviews are as good and as revealing as his poetry, and it’s part of his, like, social contract or social responsibility. This is sort of a privilege, right, to be interviewed or put into press; it’s the world saying you’re interesting enough. So I’m like: “Okay, if that’s a privilege and a responsibility, it’s my duty to try to contribute something decently — not just self-promoting [Laughs] — back into the commons.” If anybody asks me something about my personal life, I try to just be straight-up. That’s kind of like my responsibility.
I would see it as a compliment to your mother that people see this movie and want to know more.
And you seem to have done well for yourself, so the parents deserve some compliment on the upbringing.
[Laughs] And part of it, too, is… I think one of the more interesting parts of both these films is that I don’t totally get my parents. I don’t totally understand them. They’re really inscrutable to me, in certain ways. The thing at the end of the movie, “I thought this was the beginning of a new relationship with her, but maybe that was it. Maybe that’s as close as we ever were.” Like, that’s incredibly fucking true. I didn’t get to know my mom as much as I want to do, and maybe, at 15, it was over, in terms of the depth of our intimacy. In some ways, I feel ashamed of that — like I failed, or something. But it’s… I just like it when other people are that straight-up. Like, when I’m the audience and a filmmaker does that, I think, “I feel like I’m getting a more whole food.”
I like that you say this, because I’m a big fan of Beginners, and the set-up made me think it would be intolerable.
“Man finds out father is gay, which sets him on a journey of the self with montages and a talking dog.” Then I wasn’t ready for it, because the movie — as with 20th Century Women — has a way of processing time that’s very similar to my own. This is partly due to your montage of clips and photos. I wonder how you choose the exact photos. What is the process of, “It should be this one and not this one.”
Well, it’s a very important part of trying to construct accurate period stuff and finding real photographers from those time. So when Jamie runs away and goes down to L.A., you know this club called The Mask?
It’s this very important punk club. Pre-hardcore, L.A. punk scene — much more arty, weird punk scene. The Screamers, Germs, Alice Bags. Those are all the people that you see. Jenny Lens, who’s a great photographer of the time, was part of that scene. So it’s part of the authenticity of me trying to depict that moment. It’s all a very specific group of people. Abby’s talking about when she came to New York and found her sexuality and found out how to make men nervous and uncomfortable, and you’re seeing all these women from CB’s — they’re all New York women, because she was in New York and it’s right at that time. They’re not… Patty Smith and Debbie Harry are in there, but it’s a lot of unfamous punk women from that time. So it’s a really crucial point of the story, to me, to insert my fictional character in a real historical, cultural context. It gives it more verisimilitude.
What I find really exciting about it is it does the opposite, too: it points out my film’s a fiction, a construct, in a way I find kind of exciting. It has a bit of a French New Wave quality to it in how it undermines and supports the film. And Koyaanisqatsi: I was really happy I got that in, because it’s in the Jimmy Carter speech — crisis of confidence, lack of meaning, dissolution of these things that support us and bind us — and Koyaanisqatsi was shot in that time. It came out in ’82, but it was shot right in that time. “Life out of balance” is what the title means. It’s sort of a journalistic-documentary practice that I’m inserting into my narrative movie, and it’s very much, to me, like Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, with those essays inserted into the story: essay on kitsch, essay on misunderstood words, essay on the Russian invasion of Prague.
I love that sort of hybrid, polymorphous way of working. It’s all trying to deepen the same theme — who am I? how did I get to be me? how am I in relation to you? what does it mean to be a parent to a child? that’s all in the nucleus of the movie — but I love approaching it from different angles. All that historical stuff… I love crediting the books that are in the movie. I remember showing it to 20-year-olds in our very small test screenings we were having. They were like, “They just read so many books.” And I’m like, “Well, there was this thing called ‘before the Internet,’ where that’s how knowledge was transferred, and you had to know someone who had the book to give it to you to learn this thing.”
When Elle Fanning’s Julie says something about the way guys smell, it’s set to photos that allow me to imagine how, in fact, the guys smell.
It’s one of those things that felt particularly on-point, so it’s interesting to imagine you finding those.
Those are all Joseph Szabo photos. He’s, like, the most important photographer I got in there; I don’t know how we got him. He did this book, Almost Grown, about teenagers, and they’re ‘70s teenagers smoking and making-out. There’s this level of sexuality you just wouldn’t find now, so it is really… you’re picking out some of my favorite parts of the movie, so that’s exciting. But I agree with you: I really love whatever magic, weird trick that is of telling your story both through your fictional characters and these real, historical things that you didn’t even create.
Do you have conversations with the photographers about using the work? I’m curious what those entail past, “Can I use this?”
Well, when we were getting the stuff, it was mostly, “Can I use this?” I have this woman, a photo researcher and archivist, and it’s also her job to make the deal — which is, weirdly, the most complicated part of all that. Weirdly, her mother is in the movie: the woman that William’s character was in love with, Theresa. You see a few stills of her. That’s my archivist’s mom, who was perfectly right in the period, the right kind of soul, and very beautiful. I love little serendipity things like that. So it’s not a lot of conversations like that, and she does a lot of the pre-work. I find the things, usually — I have them in my head or I find them online, or whatever — and there’s a conversation with her, who makes initial contact. Usually I write a letter, or some kind of conversation happens, but, since then, I’ve been interviewing them all, because I want to make a book of all their photographs. It’s been really fun to get to know them.
Certain lines of dialogue are so perfect that I wonder if they come from memory and are simply inscribed into the film. For instance, when Bening says to Gerwig about her son, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.” Had you heard your mother say this or devise it yourself?
No. That’s a very personal one. It partly comes out of… writing this film, writing a movie about my mom, I think I know my mom. Lo and behold, I really fucking don’t. It’s hard for me to write her — to write a middle-aged woman, and my mom in particular. She just didn’t want to be known; a very secretive kind of person. So my film was about how we don’t… we loved each other very much, were very interwoven. I was kind of like her little husband-partner, because my dad wasn’t really present. As close as we were, we’re still like mysteries to each other — intangible to each other, unknown to each other, kind of can’t be together in some key ways. That was a growing theme of the movie, of things I was trying to find ways to talk about.
And then, one day, I dropped off my two-year-old to pre-school. It was one of the first times I gave him to people and left him, and, if you’re a parent, that’s a wild moment. I’m walking out and I can peek through the fence and see him talking to these people, and he was kind of different. I was like, “All right. I can just smell it. This is the beginning of that. He’s going to have his own life that I can never really see in this particular way.” So I went home and wrote that line after this experience. It’s a combination of my feelings about my mom, the themes that your own script kind of teaches you — your script at the beginning, you don’t really know what it’s about, or you think you know what it’s about, and usually this crazy problem comes up that makes you feel like you can’t finish the script that becomes the best part of the script, hopefully — and my own experiences as a dad combining.
This movie really overwhelmed me in the final montage, which again relates to my own way of processing things. I wonder about you coming to that point — if you, as a writer, actively work to those points, or if there’s a moment of revelation. Did you always know the film would end with that, or did you come to that point and realize it was best to employ this strategy?
I didn’t know at the beginning, but I knew early on, and I knew early on that my last line was going to be that thing of, like, “I thought this was the beginning of a new relationship with her, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe that was the most I ever got to know her.” I knew that. I knew that was my end, and it really helped. And I love biographies. The itinerary of our lives, when told honestly, are so surprising and not what we expected and kind of very bittersweet. I could just endlessly read obituaries, and I find that that’s the best poetry that there is. So it was partly just that.
I knew my character’s stories — because they’re based on real life, some of them — and I just knew what Julie’s would be. Julie is sort of my first girlfriend and these girls I knew, but her future is all invented, and I had a sense of what it would be. I feel like some of the more bittersweet, real-life stuff is in those epilogues — like how they don’t end up knowing each other. It’s such a weird convention in films. The happy-ending convention of films, but also, like, “The fabric that you invented in the film is going to continue,” says the film, and I like making a film that says, “The fabric I’ve just shown you is going to dissolve.” That felt very life-y to me.
It’s the kind of thing movies don’t really even dare go to.
Uh-huh. I agree with you. That was one of my favorite things, and it worked. Sometimes, you have ideas like that and think they’re incredibly masterful, and they just don’t work, for whatever reason. But, luckily, that one did. A weird factoid is: William’s future… I got really interested in Shields and Yarnell. Do you remember them?
They were, like, these mimes on TV a lot who did these robot things. They were in the movie at one point, and Dorothea and the son, Jamie, were imitating them on TV. They were a very common ‘70s thing. William’s future is Shields’ future that I just read on Wikipedia: he moved to Arizona, met one woman, she died a year later; met another woman. That’s just so, like, life. So I really enjoy taking found objects of people’s real existence and inserting them into my narrative. It’s also the end of Animal House. You know what I mean? It tells everyone’s future. It’s just very entertaining. It’s like a little secret; you want to know more.
The other thing with the end of this movie: my mom really loved ‘30s and ‘40s movies. I feel like she was kind of steeped in them, and studying Bogart was key to figuring out how to talk my mom’s language. Watching Hawks and Casablanca and To Have and Have Not and Stage Door, I kind of, maybe more than ever, fell in love with this idea of, “Right: films are to entertain.” Going to art school and growing up on maybe a little too much Godard, it’s, like, illegal to entertain; it’s false consciousness to entertain. But those movies are so happy to entertain, and I really appreciated that. The ending, to me, is not a direct quote from any of those movies, but it feels kind of Howard Hawksian to me. It feels a little like Capra to me.
20th Century Women opens on Wednesday, December 28 and expands in January.
When you think Pedro Almodóvar, you think Rossy de Palma. The actress’ unconventional, but striking, beauty has often made her the most memorable player in the auteur’s works, from her uptight virgin in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, to the heroine’s sister in The Flower of My Secret. In Julieta, which marks lucky number seven in de Palma’s collaborations with Almodóvar, she plays Marian, an overprotective housekeeper who looks after what she thinks should be her employer Xoan’s (Daniel Grao) interests. After meeting the title character, played in younger age by Adriana Ugarte, who is about to become the new mistress of the house, Marian reveals a secret that sets the entire plot into its tragic motion.
The usually glamorous actress – she’s been muse to designers like Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier – is seen sporting a frumpy, matronly look as Marian, in a short salt-and-pepper wig and opaque dresses. But despite Marian’s ominous qualities, de Palma allows her unique brand of humor come through in line deliveries that lesser actors would’ve given little thought to. Marian is by far her most dramatic turn in any of Pedro’s works, and perhaps one that announces a new period in their thirty-year-long collaboration. It speaks highly about her place in the Almodóvar world, that it was de Palma who joined Pedro in New York City where the Museum of Modern Art was offering a complete retrospective of his work, leading to the premiere of Julieta. I sat down to speak with the iconic actress who ate colorful jelly beans as she spoke about her work.
The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective celebrates Pedro, but it’s also a celebration of your career since you started making films with him. Are you excited to be a part of this?
I feel like we started yesterday — time hasn’t really gone by. The films themselves haven’t grown old. They feel new despite of the anachronisms that remind you we made them years ago. The characters are so fresh. They remain politically incorrect — which is something to be thankful for — they say whatever they want, and they have no worries. So there’s no nostalgia at all.
When you work with him how much do you feel as a collaborator rather than an actor he’s directing?
Oh, he’s directing me, he created the characters, but for example in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown I was bored because my character drinks the gazpacho and falls asleep. When I got calls to let me know they needed me because the camera would do a traveling and they needed to show my legs I would say, “Pedro, this is a bore. I’m asleep all the time.” I became very obnoxious, even if he told me people don’t do anything when they sleep. So one day he told me he’d decided I’d have an orgasm while I slept, and since my character was a virgin it would serve her well because she was so dislikable. In Spain we say “ask and ye shall receive,” so it was good that I was obnoxious because I became a collaborator of this moment. Working with him is very open, but all the great ideas come from him. He knows very well what he wants, so all you need to do is give yourself to him.
Did you imagine yourself at the beginning that 30 years later you’d be a part of his legacy?
Not really. I don’t think he thought about it either. In the 80s and 90s we did everything without thinking about the consequences, whether bad or good. We didn’t think about money or celebrity like people do now. All we wanted was to have fun, to share, and create.
It sounds like fun. Everything is so calculated nowadays.
It was great fun! It’s important to be in touch with our intuition, and the unconscious which is what speaks to us the most in the artworld.
Besides Pedro you’ve worked with some of the greatest, so how is it different to work with him? I read once that you said your relationship was like a love affair — it needed to be reciprocal.
Yes, if you have a lover they have to desire you. If they don’t, there’s no point of getting in bed with them. I need to feel desired.
So there’s an unspoken language of sorts with you and him?
Yes. It’s like telepathy. Sometimes I feel I’m operated by remote control, I give myself very well to him. He’s so imposing, but since I’ve known him for so long I don’t feel like I’m in the presence of a genius. Other people who are new to working with him might be more scared of disappointing him. For me it’s also a game — we both need to be very relaxed. Did you see the look he gave me in Julieta? I trust him. This is proof that I abandon myself to him completely. With any other director I would’ve asked them what their problem was.
Marian is so terrible to Julieta.
She’s very bitter, territorial, she’s a person who probably suffered a lot. I think of her as a Greek chorus member who announces tragedy, she’s always thinking bad about others, she’s very dark.
At the New York Film Festival, Pedro mentioned he shaped Marian after Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca. Did he ask you to watch the film in advance?
No, I found out the whole Mrs. Danvers thing much later. He gave me no references. He knows so well what he wants, you have to be careful not to do a reproduction of what he says — it needs to come from you. He draws you a sketch, you eat it up and then unleash it. I didn’t really look for references. Everything was in the screenplay.
Did you like playing a villain?
I love villains, they’re so much fun. I’m very good in real life, so I like to compensate. I’m too good sometimes, I’m a softy. So I like villains to do in fiction what I can’t do in life.
Who are some of your favorite villains?
Tons, but I love Anjelica Huston in The Addams Family. I’d love to play a villain in a sci-fi movie, or a martial arts movie, I’d love to play the Madam of a brothel in a Bruce Lee-style film. Or something like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
You’d need to do lots of training for a kung-fu movie though.
Oh I have many villains ready to come out. I just need some stories and a producer.
You mentioned that Marian is like a Greek theatre figure, and in the film Julieta teaches Greek literature as well.
Yes, she talks about the guilt us women carry inside. She also talks about fatality, how we build our lives without thinking about it. I’m terrified of fatality. It’s something you can’t foresee, your life can be changed overnight.
Does making art help you deal with this fear?
No, no. You can handle fear better; fiction helps deal with your fear of death, or something bad happening to those you love. Art is therapeutic. It allows you to feel small and become aware of your insignificance. But how do you deal with fatality? It happens when you least expect it. We forget about it, but then it arrives and changes your life. Look at that Colombian plane that crashed with all the soccer players. A young man forgot his passport, he didn’t get on the plane and his father died in the crash. Forgetting his passport saved his life. It’s fatality.
Do you think art helps give you a sense of immortality?
You don’t feel immortal, but you definitely handle the unbearable lightness of being in a better way. If I wasn’t in the art world, things like sculpture, music and writing, I would have been a sad person. Even when you’re depressed, art takes you to poetry and things that make you feel better — or at least you realize sorrow made you create something, so it’s not that innocuous. It’s a universe of learning, empathy. I visit this world and live in the other.
You’re wearing Sybilla today, and you’re one of their muses. You’re also muse to so many other creators. Is that something you like?
I don’t tell myself, “I’ll be a muse. [Laughs] In Spain we have a mayonnaise brand called “Musa” and I tell people “if you want a muse, go find the mayo.” I like inspiring people because I am inspired by other people’s inspirations. Knowing that you inspire someone who inspires you is like love. We’re all noodles in the same soup, swimming happily.
What actresses are your muses?
I’m inspired by women. I created a spectacle called Resilience of Love which talks about how art helps us live, it’s like a balm that helps us understand life better. The show has references to Dalí, Lorca and Picasso, but most of it is dedicated to women. I feature Maria Callas talking about her sadness, Anna Magnani talking about her work, Ana Mendieta’s photography. It’s a universe of women that patriarchal society has ostracized, so this is the world that inspires me. I’m known as an actress, but I consider myself an artist. Actresses can be fragile and vulnerable, but since I work in other fields I don’t depend on that frailness. I love to act of course, but most of all I love to vanish; it’s more like a possession, I empty myself and let the character take over. There are actresses like Magnani and Meryl Streep who are timeless. I like actresses who are organic, the ones you feel you can touch onscreen.
You’ve probably been asked this a million times, but how would you define the “Almodóvar girl”?
When we first heard the “Almodóvar girl” thing we honestly didn’t like it, but as you grow older it’s very nice to be called “girl,” so we like it more and more now. But I have never analyzed it really. It’s not something that came from us, like people who call me “a Picasso come to life.” Picasso didn’t know me so he didn’t come up with it.
Your character in Broken Embraces is called Julieta. Can you talk about these connections that exist between Pedro’s films?
You’re right, I hadn’t even thought about that. The Julieta in Broken Embraces was a tribute to Julieta Serrano’s character in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, who shows up at Carmen Maura’s apartment. I think of Julieta as sister to The Flower of My Secret, the writer played by Marisa Paredes could very well be this mother trying to find her daughter. All of Pedro’s films are related, but some are like sisters. Like you mentioned, there are characters that could easily travel from film to film.
Thinking about the next 30 years with Pedro, would you like to become like the dear Chus Lampreave for example?
Of course, and if it’s not onscreen, let it at least be in life. We have a long road ahead together.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work with the OAfrica foundation?
I’m the ambassador for Spain, Margarita Missoni is the Italian ambassador, Victoria Abril is the ambassador in France, and Lisa Lovatt-Smith the founder who wrote a book that I believe is being adapted into a film. We just did an auction in Madrid, we have a big fundraiser in Paris in March, and it’s such a joy to be able to help Lisa. She’s such a modern heroine, I’m so glad you asked me about this.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was turned into a musical, would you be interested in revisiting any of the characters you’ve played for Pedro onstage?
We saw the musical in London and it was such a delight! I already did the stage version of Dark Habits. I played one of the nuns, I felt like a guardian of Pedro’s world because I was the only one who knew him in the cast, so I was making sure they made justice to him. Sometimes people get “Almodóvar-ian” wrong. I like guarding his legacy.
Julieta is now in limited release.
Issey Ogata‘s name is not at the top of the poster or in much of any marketing for Silence, but his role as Inoue Masashige, so very ominously nicknamed “The Inquisitor,” is among the most essential and memorable in Martin Scorsese‘s religious epic. While primarily a veteran of Asian television, Ogata still eanrs a special place among cinephiles — one that will only grow wider and stronger once this film opens — for his work in Edward Yang’s Yi Yi and Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, the latter of which features him as Japan’s Emperor Hirohito in the final days of World War II.
Much of Silence comes to comprise the opposition between Masashige and Andrew Garfield‘s Sebastião Rodrigues, but Ogata’s performance excels largely because it’s far more difficult to parse than the character it represents — alternately comic (a major part of his acting background) and menacing, often condescending, yet with hints towards some sympathy for the Christians’ devotion. In person, the actor is a very kind man who, in brief answers, makes clear the breadth of his knowledge and experience.
The Film Stage: Given that he’s such a cineaste, I wonder if Scorsese had many questions about your film career — for instance, your time with Edward Yang and Alexander Sokurov.
Issey Ogata: Marty, I remember, towards the end of a dinner, he told me that he loved this particular scene from The Sun by Sokurov.
It’s a scene where the Emperor met with MacArthur, and he’s about to leave, and nobody’s there to open his door — and he’s never opened his own door, so he’s very carefully opening his door. Marty liked that scene very much.
What was your familiarity with Scorsese before coming aboard this project?
I’ve certainly seen many of Marty’s films, but it was definitely Taxi Driver that gave me the strongest impression and just keeps coming back to me.
At today’s press conference, you talked about applying to your performance a Shūsaku Endō text, The Golden Country, that also features the Inquisitor. Did you introduce Scorsese it? What were his thoughts on your making it integral?
He definitely read it, Marty. He definitely brought it up, but I’m not sure if he read it at that time of the shoot or not — but he most likely has. Marty reads everything. He’s read most of Endō’s books.
Were you a great admirer or Endō in your previous years? How might you describe his place in Japanese culture and literature?
I hadn’t read much before taking on this job. Even Silence I tried to read when I was young and didn’t get through. So I can’t speak much in terms of Endō’s place in the Japanese culture and literature, but there’s a book called The Sea and Poison — I think there was a film, as well — where you can see it, but I think the themes in these stories are that people would do such cruel things. “Can these people be saved?” is one of the questions. It’s not about salvation for victims; I think it’s more about salvation for the people who do the bad deed. I think he’s someone who really explored the theme of salvation for people who were weak or betrayed. I think that was his theme, and I think he really explored it for the language of literature.
I assume you revisited the novel for this film. I wonder if it was strange to do so — since you might associate the book with youth — as an older, accomplished man.
It’s a bit tricky, because I was already cast, so I read very much in the mind of Inoue. [Laughs] It was a very important point for me, as Inoue — but I think for the book as well — where he talks to Rodrigues about these four concubines. He’s comparing this religion with a very crass analysis of these four women, so I thought Inoue was… it’s very tricky, because he’s not just denying this Christianity. He is, first, taking this extra step to compare Christianity to this very crass, real-life situation; then he’s denying that. That really stayed with me when I read the book. The concubine is very similar: it’s violently, forcefully replacing this faith. Comparing a big thing to a tangible object. It worked quite well. People are having a very hard time stepping on the tablet. That method gave me a huge impression.
Your English-language performance was particularly fantastic. I wonder about your preparation, since you have these very long dialogue scenes.
First, I memorized a line, and had this dialogue coach, Tim Monich, who helped me with the pronunciation of each word. Then, on set, I just went with it. It was as if improvising a song — so I played. It was as if I knew the lyric and was just improvising the melody of it, based on the instinct I had on set.
While I have time, I’d love some memories of your time with Edward Yang on Yi Yi, which is a favorite film of mine.
Such a kind man, Mr. Yang. He was very gentle; his voice was very soft. It’s like Marty’s set: it’s very quiet. With him, it was really one or two takes — very fast. The crew loved me, because it was so fast. [Laughs] There was a scene where we’re in a Chinese restaurant and the character I’m playing is talking to the main character. First, they did the wide shots — so the camera is all the way — and, after, the camera came very close to me. Edward, for some reason, was very concerned, assuring me: “The camera’s close by, but don’t worry — just do as you’ve been doing.” He was very concerned and thoughtful. When I was being considered for the film, I saw a couple of Edward Yang’s past films, and there was one actor that stood out, and I was convinced that it was the same guy in these two films. I told Mr. Yang, “Oh, yeah, I really like this actor who was also in this film,” and Edward was kind of upset because it was two different actors, and, to him, it was a completely different person. To me, it was a little embarrassing. [Laughs] He was a very kind director.
One last thing: I have to compliment you on the deflation you do at one point in this movie. It is one of the great cinematic moments this year.
I have a very soft spine. It’s not a visual effect!
Silence enters a limited release on Friday, December 23, then expands on January 6 and January 13.
All aboard the Starship Avalon lie in a deep slumber as they make their way from Earth to Homestead II, a newly colonized planet 120 years away from their home. All except for Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer who woke up 90 years before he was supposed to and now has no way to go back to sleep. If only he could find a lovely young woman to keep him company… which is precisely what happens when he comes across a passenger, a New York writer named Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), who he awakens to join him. The premise of Passengers has the promise of romance, thrills and drama that would’ve warranted an old fashioned movie poster exclaiming “it has it all!,” and as directed by the genre-hopping Morten Tyldum it certainly lives up to the promise of eclecticism.
After the success of the WWII-set The Imitation Game, which saw him receive his first Oscar nomination for Best Director, Tyldum wanted to work on a big sci-fi project, and got his hands on John Spaihts‘ by-then famous screenplay about romance on a futuristic cruise ship. By pairing two of the biggest movie stars in the world, Passengers seeks to find its place among the classic screen romances that often define entire generations. We haven’t had one of those since Titanic (although The Notebook fans would say otherwise), but those who go into the film expecting a traditional boy-meets-girl story will be challenged by a romance that lives in a moral grey zone. I spoke to Tyldum about the elements that attracted him to the screenplay, working with Lawrence and Pratt, and how he directed one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve ever seen.
The Film Stage: What about the screenplay made you realize you had to direct the film?
Morten Tyldum: The fact that it’s both so intimate and it has such an epic background. I’d been looking for a sci-fi project for a long time — I’m a big fan of the genre — and this was something that felt original. I love movies where you take a character, put them in difficult situations, and have them make difficult choices. I like to explore that and also to make movies that are difficult to put in a box. This isn’t an action movie, but it has action; it has romance but it’s not a romance; it has funny moments but it’s not a comedy. That was very important to me. It also gave me the opportunity to create this spaceship, every filmmaker dreams of creating an iconic spaceship.
Did you feel any pressure to try and come up with a version of outer space no one had done before?
There’s always a lot of pressure when you’re making a movie. That was a great challenge though, everyone knows how the Millennium Falcon looks like for instance. I liked the challenge of making something with scientific facts that was also very unique. We had to create each part of the spaceship. I loved the design part of it, and now you can associate the spaceship to these great cruise ships that brought people from Europe to the new world. I think we looked both backwards as forwards, we looked at art nouveau, art deco, as well as modern design.
Coming off The Imitation Game, which demanded so much historical accuracy, was it liberating to work on something like this?
You have to create the rules and the laws of this world. Why did this spaceship create such a luxurious spaceship when people would be asleep for such a long time? It’s a business model, a way of thinking, we had to think about how this company thought. It was liberating and fun, but also it was a challenge to create all this. We created documents about what you would need to go on this journey, we did research that’s not even in the movie but things that we as filmmakers needed to know.
That moment with Jennifer’s character trapped in a water bubble will give me nightmares forever.
Thank you! We needed to do something impressive that’s never been on film before. The idea of drowning in zero gravity was something I’d never seen, it was really hard to shoot. If you’re underwater you move very fast, so we had to tie Jennifer down to shoot this.
That sounds like a nightmare.
It probably was — she had to struggle to get out. Everything is floating and moving, so she was tied in the water tank.
You seem to have fixation on our relationship to technology, The Imitation Game is basically about the first computers, Headhunters dealt with nanotechnology, and Passengers is about space travel. Are you interested in chronicling a history of sorts about technology on film?
I’ve always been fascinated with how technology is combined with how we see the world. What does it mean to be human, a machine, alive? If we think a machine can be human is it human? Those were questions Alan Turing had too. In sci-fi we think about what happens when we take out time, what happens when we remove society? That was the fun part of doing sci-fi, we get to play around a lot. The movie is very character-driven. It’s about redemption and love, but it’s fun to think about all those other things as well.
Thomas Newman’s score made me think of WALL-E, was this film on your mind at all when you made this one?
WALL-E is a great movie with a great message and I love Tom’s music in it. There are similarities thematically but I don’t think it was inspired by it. I love how machines are given personalities in WALL-E, but there were other movies that inspired me for Passengers, films Marlon Brando did when he was young for instance, which inspired Jim, films about lost masculinity, about working with your hands, what a person like this does in a world where we throw everything away and don’t repair anything. Jim is not needed in his planet anymore, he’s obsolete.
Jim Preston, like Alan Turing ] seems to be an outsider who dreams of social interaction even if he doesn’t know the best ways to do it. What keeps attracting you to stories about people who are outcasts?
There’s something very relatable to characters who are trying to fit in — we all feel like we don’t belong. It’s interesting to put these characters in worlds where they don’t fit in, Alan had to make big choices in the middle of WWII, Jim has to make big decisions in this spaceship that’s falling apart. He makes decisions that go against his morality, things he knows are wrong.
Jim made me think of Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo who does very creepy things in the name of romance. How did you try to achieve a balance between allowing him to make creepy choices and also be a romantic hero?
I’m so glad that you brought up Vertigo because I can see the similarities. I think you identify with Jim because of Chris’ performance. When you have characters who make questionable moral choices you need to identify with them. I think I would’ve done what Jim does and I think most people would. It’s interesting to be part of that journey. As soon as you understand him it doesn’t become creepy. I still want people to feel discomfort. I want people to talk when they leave the movie.
Can you comment on developing the chemistry between Chris and Jennifer?
The biggest fear for any director is your actors won’t have chemistry, but as soon as I met them I knew there would be magic when I put them together. We had a table read where they met and they clicked. It’s a very intense movie, every scene has a big emotion: love, fear, hatred, survival. It was an intense shoot, they were great on the set, they were very funny to be around, I’m not funny but they are. They made the crew laugh, they were amazing, and they also pushed each other, and you can feel their connection in the movie. Someone said to me when they’re apart in the movie you want them to be together, and that’s what I wanted.
Passengers is now in wide release.
A mainstay of both Cinema Scope and Reverse Shot (not to mention plenty of other publications), Adam Nayman is one of our sharpest film critics. This is evidenced in his previous book, It Doesn’t Suck, a thorough defense of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls that only solidified the film maudit as something of a modern classic. He’s now turned his attention to another divisive figure with Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage. While Nayman has shown in much of his writing a skepticism towards the lionization of certain genre directors in Internet circles, he makes a compelling case for the still yet-to-quite-breakthrough Wheatley as a wholly intelligent filmmaker whose ideas transcend Tumblr screencaps. He sat down with us to discuss his new book, Wheatley, and other issues within film culture.
The Film Stage: In comparison to your last book, It Doesn’t Suck, do you think this was a bigger or smaller task? I mean the title of It Doesn’t Suck positions it as punching upwards, but, with this book, there’s the challenge of establishing someone as an auteur — so is it also punching upwards?
Adam Nayman: I think that, without being glib about it, the Showgirls book, to some extent, wrote itself — or could have, you know. I worked very hard to make that not a kind of viewing-companion book, or ironic companion kind of book. I think the limb I went out on in that book was a little shorter and sturdier than some of the people who covered it, or some of the people who bought it, may have acknowledged. I think, in the years passing, you’re on pretty solid ground in being able to say something has happened in the perception of this movie. And there’s the fact that this movie speaks for itself in that, in simply describing it, you make it sound compelling.
I think, with Wheatley’s movies, it’s in ways safer because I’m not the only one who thinks they’re good; they’re pretty extravagantly praised in some corners. In some ways, it’s harder because there isn’t twenty years’ hindsight to see what these movies mean and what kind of influence they’re going to have. I mean, you need to be Nostradamus to do that. But I also think what was hard about it, and what I still am anxious about — I mean, I wouldn’t use a smaller word than anxious — is, did I do it too soon? That has to do with what a lot of critics struggle with, especially in the Internet age, of received wisdom versus being too quick. If you wait around, you’re probably not going to write anything too new about Bresson or, at this point, even something new about Scorsese.
Conversely, you go plant your flag in whatever director, whether it’s Scott Derrickson or Ava DuVernay or Ben Wheatley, and you kind of have the excitement of getting in on the ground floor. But you also risk looking kind of hasty or stupid, and, in Wheatley’s case, the one thing that is true about him — ironically, the thing that everyone who pays attention would agree on — is that there’s no agreement. This is a legitimately divisive filmmaker, so that, in some ways, was encouraging, knowing that I was going to be writing a book met with both agreement and skepticism. But I wonder if even the people who agree are going to be, “Yeah, sure, but you have him right up against the edge of this interesting turn in his career, so why didn’t you just wait?”
I feel justified in using this term because we’re speaking to enough of a niche audience, but when factoring in reception for his films, do you predominantly consider Globe & Mail, New York Times etc., or really, “Film Twitter”?
Reception of his movies have a certain narrative to it, right up to High-Rise, and that narrative was, “Not many people have heard of this, not that many people have seen it, and those who had seen it were pretty excited about it.” They were pretty interested in it. There’s a certain sort of clandestine-like he’s a really interesting filmmaker doing stuff and the kind of audiences he’s reaching are the kind that get it already. It’s true that, even within that, there’s clusters of dissent and outright pans for some of these movies. When High-Rise got made — and I don’t usually like this analogy, but I’ll try to make it work — that’s it’s like when an indie band tries to reach a wider audience. It’s for very conventional reasons, like bigger actors, not an original script based on a bigger novel, a bigger distributor, plum festival placements and all that. I think, then, that reception context widens to include a varied group of factions, like the Wheatley fans who were disappointed with the film, or the people who’d never heard of him before and were just kind of amazed that a film like that exists, the people who think he’s been kind of shitty all along and now he’s just being shitty on a bigger canvas.
All of this is funny because, even if you put all of this together and amplify it, you’re still talking about a niche film and a niche filmmaker relative to stuff that is neither Film Twitter nor the Globe & Mail — like, say we’re talking about The Ringer or Screen Crush or Ain’t It Cool News. I mean, we’re still talking about something that’s pretty small, and I think that’s one of the reasons this book is being published by a very much respected publisher; I think they’re doing a good job in that they’ve got some pretty big bylines with The Critical Press and some pretty big subjects, but this is the kind of book that, at the moment, isn’t going to be published by Wesleyan University Press. I am betting, and I think I’m right, that in ten years it would be. But essentially we’re talking about a niche filmmaker, and I’m betting that’s not going to be the case in a couple years — but I still wonder if I was pre-emptive.
You bring up the name in the book, but I think you can kind of make a binary of Wheatley versus Nicolas Winding Refn. I mean, you can even see it through their comments about critics: Wheatley got in some trouble for what he said, but when Only God Forgives got panned in Cannes, Refn was like “I’m the Sex Pistols of cinema,” which is, of course, a far more pompous thing to say.
I mean, we could certainly talk about it in terms of binary. I could certainly talk for hours about why one is really good and one is really bad, but it’s maybe more interesting a discussion to place Wheatley within these kind of emergent, transnational genre auteurs, kind of specialists who have personality beyond the kind of generic structures they inhabit. I mean, Refn is one; Bong Joon-ho is another. I’d even say, in a way, someone like Denis Villeneuve counts, or someone like Park Chan-wook. Because all the roads for these guys lead the same way they did for guys a little older, like Guillermo Del Toro — they all lead to either big international co-productions or what is the big American Hollywood cross-over. Wheatley’s in the first chapter. I mean, it’s not a big international co-production in that there’s not too many countries involved, but High-Rise is kind of that and Free Fire, too, but in some ways it’s kind of smaller.
But he hasn’t really had a Snowpiercer yet, he certainly hasn’t had a Prisoners, he certainly hasn’t had a Sicario or a Drive. But I don’t think he’s too far from those guys. But I think the difference between him and Bong or Park or Villeneuve, a French-language guy, is his regional films are in English, so they’re not as clearly exotic as those guys’ movies are kind of out of the gate. In some ways, Memories of Murder and Kill List are an interesting comparison, I think they’re both the best films by each respective filmmaker. They’re both genre films with a lot of attention. I think Memories of Murder is hurt in some ways by not being English-language, but it was really valorized as being a new kind of Korean-cinema kind of movie. Kill List, because it’s in English, means it’s maybe the kind of movie that more people would sit and watch on Netflix, but it doesn’t seem as exotic — it doesn’t seem as worldly — and that has to do with the American relationship to British pop-culture, too.
I think a fair comparison would be Takashi Miike, at least in terms of a prolific, genre-switching craftsman. Though I think your book helped in seeing him more as auteur than craftsman.
Well, I think one of the things that comes out in the interview with him — and I think it comes out in the film, too — is the prolificness, the rate of production, has to do with a feeling of a late start. Ben wasn’t putting together features in his ’20s. I mean, he didn’t start super-late, but it wasn’t until his late ’30s that he really broke through and figured out that you literally have to do it yourself, make it yourself for the first one, then a certain industrial infrastructure follows. I think he and [co-writer] Amy Jump are restless and creative enough that they can keep up the momentum. I think it might be too early to judge if the film-per-year thing is good or if there would be a different quality to them if they were made with a bit more patience. I mean, the one thing you wouldn’t call his films, even if you’re a fan of them, is methodical, or you wouldn’t even call them over-conceptualized.
Even the films — I think, in an innate way, or even an instinctive way — that are quite brilliant, that are intellectual and quite politicized, aren’t films that feel like too long were spent on them. With circumstances like A Field in England, they’ve had to shoot pretty quickly and pretty efficiently. I think that’s why High-Rise is the odd film out, even more so than Free Fire — the scope of that production — but also that it’s an adaptation; it meant that there’s a little more design, a little more pre-conception, a little more planning, even just down to the architectural metaphor of the movie itself.
I think it’s fascinating that it’s the movie of his that’s the most divisive. It’s the movie of his that the most serious critics have taken the most seriously because they’ve liked it, and that’s why I gave it so much space within the book — because, like it or not, it’s sort of the movie that suggests there might be more in this career than just a kind of cheap-o genre experiment every year. There are people I know who feel very strongly about the movie and don’t want him to ever make something like High-Rise ever again. They’re like, “Please make the things you made before.”
Before writing the book and doing the research, were you very aware of Amy Jump as co-author?
Yeah, but that’s because I’ve been very aware of Wheatley. I mean, I was when I saw Kill List at TIFF in 2011… I mean, I’m sure you do the same thing at film festivals where you test your responses of not just, “Do I like this?” but, “Why do I like it?” Just to the extent that I liked it that I was going to cover it, it’s part of your job — you’re making money by liking something. I just knew it, when I saw Kill List, that it was extraordinary, and I immediately read and tried to think about what made it extraordinary. I wrote a cover piece on Kill List for Cinema Scope, which was really fun because [Mark] Peranson was on board with the idea that it was a major film; in fact, he’d written a capsule about it in Scope’s coverage that I’d read that got me excited to see it So upon sitting down with Wheatley, you ask how’s the film written, how’s it made, how’s it cut, and immediately he brings up Amy Jump, so that’s been a constant in the reception and coverage of the film since.
I’m by no means the first person, and I won’t be the last — and I don’t just mean as a critic, in terms of people trying to write about or profile him — who’s made a request to interview him, and not a casual one, like sending him an email, like, “I wonder if Amy Jump wants to talk or comment,” and the answer is always no, so I don’t consider myself more or less responsible than any other critic in terms of being able to answer for her just because I wrote the book. I mean, there was that critical quarterly symposium which I drew from in my book where I tried to talk to her and the answer was no.
I tried, and someone who’s read the book can determine this for themselves, but I tried to make the case that she’s important, but without quotes from her and without explanation of how much the film belongs to her versus how much the film belongs to Ben. Putting the two of them together, it’s pretty hard to quantify. I would say if the female lead in Sightseers seems particularly interesting, if the subplot of the community of women in High-Rise seems particularly interesting, and if the satire of male comradeship in A Field in England seems particularly interesting, even if the ultimate narrative outcome of Free Fire is interesting — like, has that particular feminist read to it — it makes sense.
Did you debate considering his early viral videos for the book? I remember, when there was a touring retrospective of Ruben Ostlund a couple years back, they sent out links to all his films, but also early ski videos he made, maybe as to track their influence on Force Majeure.
I was working pretty hard to find them. MrAndMrsWheatley.co.uk had some of them stored, but not all of them. But then even finding factual information about these things, like some of the products they’re advertising, is not always easy. But I thought it was important. I mean, there are lapses in my book, and not accidental ones. A couple of people asked me why I didn’t talk about the Doctor Who episodes he did, which, in some ways, may be the most widely seen things that he’d produced. I talk in detail about The Wrong Door, but not some of the other British television, though I mention them in passing. He did a couple seasons of Ideal and some gigs doing other stuff. In my thinking and my research, I thought these were the things that constructed the best story and the most consistent story of him stylistically.
The Doctor Who thing, I think, the argument could be made — that could’ve gone somewhere in the High-Rise chapter as an example that he gets big work now — but I also think, having seen those episodes, and I mean this no bad way, they’re like competent, well-made, entertaining episodes of a television show, which I think tells me more about his reverence, fidelity, and respect for that franchise than him as an artist. Whereas I think the viral videos which are largely his own treatments and his own ideas, there are themes and ideas and a sense of humour that feels like an indication of what he’s into. If you watch something like The Wrong Door, as silly and undisciplined and childish as some of the humour is, it’s super-prescient at the time. Like how TV and Internet comedy have become kind of adjacent of each other in terms of short comedy, like Adult Swim, I think it’s pretty forward-looking stuff.
Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage will be available in early December from The Critical Press.
It could be said that an introduction to Mia Hansen-Løve is entirely beside the point, given the extent to which her films concern herself and loved ones. Following the portrait of her brother, Eden, she’s centered her fifth feature on her mother. The film is Things to Come, and the woman at its front is Isabelle Huppert — in one of her best performances, which I discussed with the actress here.
I had the good fortune to sit down with Hansen-Løve at this year’s New York Film Festival. The discussion we had two years prior remains one of my favorites, and the consistent ebb and flow between features means this was, in certain ways, a picking-up of where we left off in the fall of 2014. But you don’t have to know her work to find this an engaging read on the nature of art-as-introspection.
The Film Stage: When this movie was in development, it was known only by its French title, which, here, translates to The Future. Its actual English-language title, however, is Things to Come. Do you see a clear distinction? Do you view them in different ways?
Mia Hansen-Løve: I like the idea that, sometimes, it makes sense to have a different title in English than in French. It’s two different cultures, two different worlds, and I like the idea that, somehow, you need two different doors to get into a film, and a title is always a door — it’s the first step into a film. It’s not that different, though, because it’s not like “things to come” is the contrary of “l’avenir.” To me, it seemed a more right translation, because “l’avenir,” in French, means “the future,” but it has more of a sense of openness. “L’avenir” makes you look at the horizon, not at the chronology, whereas “the future” is a more scientific idea of what “l’avenir” is about. “What is going to be the future?” Like a science fiction movie.
So, to me, “things to come,” in its approximation and its relationship to everyday life, was actually more relevant to transmit the idea of what was in the French title, L’Avenir, than “the future.” My father has been not only a philosophy teacher, but also a translator from German to French, so I’m very interested in these questions, and I know very well, of course, that sometimes the proper word to translate is not the regular translation. Sometimes, you need to change something to be more true about the translation.
Maybe you’re aware that there is a science fiction film called Things to Come.
I know, because I checked; I had to. I haven’t seen it.
When we last talked, you said that love is maybe the only theme of your films — that all of your films are about a love of something. I have an idea of what the love in this work might center on, but I want your perspective.
The thing is very simple in Things to Come, maybe even more, than love of wisdom, love of ideas. Maybe the film would reveal that it’s actually love of life. I think that’s what, ultimately, saves the character. So there is a paradox in that film, because you could also say it’s the one film that is not about love, because it’s about a character who actually survives, or finds a way out, without falling in love again. It’s about her finding a way to live without love — without the love of a man — but that doesn’t mean it’s not a film about love.
For me, what ultimately helps her or helps her find a meaning, and not lose the desire to move on, is love of life. Which is maybe impossible to catch, more difficult to define; something more mysterious. That’s something that’s very important and very deep, and that connects us with our freedom, and I think the film is really about that quest: an inner freedom that doesn’t depend on how successful you are in your life — not only in terms of career, of course, but in terms of how much the kinds of things you can hope from life. There is this idea that once you’ve lost a lot, once there is this emptiness, you can stop being scared of that void and actually embrace it and inhabit it. Sorry if it’s very abstract or mystical. I really do think there’s something about very existential issues.
At this morning’s press conference, you said there’s a drama of the unconsciousness in your work. I wonder how you can dramatize this in a way that doesn’t feel self-conscious and is dramatically interesting — not too on-the-surface.
Years and years ago, when I was writing films, I would discuss a lot with Olivier Assayas the process of writing films, and I remember having discussions with him about that issue of unconsciousness, and the fact that he didn’t want to know too much about his inspiration and where things were coming from. That was the reason, he said, why he would never do psychoanalysis, or this kind of thing, because he wanted unconsciousness to stay unconscious, you know? Not to become self-aware.
Of course, you still have unconsciousness: even if you think you know everything, you still don’t know a lot of things. But, still, it changes the relationship you had with that if you start theorizing about your unconscious. Now I’m doing that with Things to Come, but I do that only once it’s over; I would not have done that before. But I remember this idea stayed with me: that it’s very interesting or precious or important, for the kinds of films I want to do, to stick to things as they are still all mingled and confused — as they are still a big ball of things that are… you know the things that cats like to play with?
A ball of yarn?
Yeah. When the things are still very dense and not unfurled. That makes powerful images and moments, and all that, ultimately, reveals itself, but finds its own way out through the image and to the eyes. It’s just a choice. It’s not that you can’t make a very interesting and powerful film in the other way, where you will be aware of all the reasons of the characters and the psychology. It’s just a choice to make films where you trust that — just as in life. I think it has to do with the choice of making films that give a feeling of life, and, in life, people come and say things that are not true. They say things about themselves that are wrong, and, sometimes, they actually feel the opposite of what they said and don’t know it, but, at the same time, are sincere.
That was what I was trying to say when I was talking about unconsciousness, the character of Isabelle in the film: I think, very often, in films where characters will say something about their life or themselves, there is nothing behind — there is no other dimension. Everything is in the mind. Whereas, in real life, where somebody says one thing, there is always a whole bunch of layers. It’s a lie, it’s true, there is a story behind it, and I like the idea of finding a way to tell stories where, when people talk, you still have all those layers. I guess it has to do, also, with my desire to make films that are connected with the past — that are very much in the present, but where you can feel the past. I think it has to do with that, too.
You told me about an obsession with the French writer Modiano.
Yes! It’s still the same: I’m waiting for the new one. I hope I’m not repeating myself too much. I guess I am. It’s not like you have so many things to say about your own work; at some point, you end up repeating all the same things over and over, so I’m sorry. Maybe you’ll realize it’s going to be the same interview, like three years ago.
I think we’re doing well.
But I do want to follow-up something we previously discussed. Eden is based on your brother’s life, and the main character has a sister. I asked if that was, in a way, you, and you said it could be, but it sort of isn’t. I wonder if —
Maybe I could, you know, edit a film that would be with all the characters. [Laughs] Maybe, at the end of my life — if I continue in making so many films inspired by people around me and my own life — maybe I could just reedit the film, where it will be the film about me or about my brother, but all the brothers in all the films and all the me’s in all the films. That would be fun, maybe. [Laughs] Anyway.
Huppert’s character is inspired by your mother, and she has a daughter and a son. I wonder if you draw on you and your sibling when writing those roles — which aren’t big, but nevertheless set off that bell for me.
Yeah, for sure. Partly, it’s us — and it’s not us. I tend to forget it’s even us when I start preparing the film. When I write it, I think of it; I don’t really forget that it’s partly inspired by us, by me, by people I know. But then, at some point, when I start working on the film and looking for the actors, I don’t think of that. Like, I’m not looking for an actress who would look like me, or anything like that. It becomes, really, something else. [Pause] But, yes, it’s true that there is something of us. But it’s the case in so many literary works. You know this? You have a lot of writers who made books where you would have, like, a family, and one book would show these members, and the other ones would be in the background, and then another book would put the ones in the background in the front — and, at the end, it’s like a portrait of a whole family.
At the end, there’s this idea that the oeuvre is not only the single books, but also the whole thing. You have that in Balzac, but you also have that in Salinger. Franny and Zooey: you have the brothers, and then the brothers are the main characters in some other books. So I think there is something like that — of course, on a smaller scale — in my films. Maybe I’ll do a film one day where the characters of Goodbye, First Love will show up in smaller parts in the background, with different names. Maybe not with the same names because I don’t want it to be too obvious. But I like the idea of creating a world that has its own characters, and the idea that you can meet them in any part of this world — they kind of cross their way, just like how, in the street, you can cross people you know.
Actually, I even did that in that film, because there is a shot — and it’s not placed there by accident; it’s on purpose, and that time was self-aware — with the actress from my first film, Constance Rousseau, who I really love. It’s, like, one short shot, just before the shot of Isabelle coming out of the metro and going to the cinema, and it’s a moment where Isabelle is very lonely in the film. It’s about these shots of young people who are having fun. It’s the beginning of the holidays, and she goes out, lonely, to the cinema, and I wanted to do a shot about a young girl who would kind of symbolize youth and grace. There was a cruelty about that, but it was the cruelty of life: having that shot right before Isabelle arrives and goes to the cinema. To me, it totally made sense, at that point, that it would be Constance Rousseau from All Is Forgiven. They don’t meet each other, but they are placed, edited, in a way.
I didn’t even notice.
No, of course. It’s very short. Very few people notice. Actually, somebody asked me a question about that specific shot — somebody who had been struck by that shot — without having any idea that it was the actress from my first film. It’s just a very short shot; it’s, like, three seconds. She’s standing and she holds a metal barrier from the subway. She’s in the street, and the night’s falling, and she’s very lonely and looking behind herself. It’s so short. To me, it’s like a breath of wind of my first film.
Is it the same character?
Yeah, kind of. But grown-up. It’s not her in the past; it’s her now. To me. I actually did that with Félix [de Givry], too — Félix from Eden. In the same scene, I wanted to have Félix just before, but I had to take him away because everybody would recognize him. The reason why I could leave Constance is because it was ten years ago and it was so short and it was felt in a way that people don’t recognize; it’s not disturbing. But, with Félix, it turned out to be disturbing, because Eden was made just two years ago, so people know my film. At the end of my film, in the first editing, people were saying, “Why is Félix there? You feel, suddenly, that you are in Eden. It’s very strange.” So I had to take him away.
That would complicate the —
Brother-brother thing? Yeah. I know. That would make, like, twins, or something. Or doubles. Double brothers.
I can imagine the universe folding in on itself if they ever met.
Yeah. That would be very dangerous.
Having seen and admired his work on several features, I could’ve only assumed that cinematographer Steve Yedlin is well-acquainted with his profession, yet I found myself surprised when digging into his presentation at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival, “On Image Acquisition and Pipeline for High-Resolution Exhibition.” Fortunately, those who were not in Poland can (and should) dig in with “On Color Science,” an extensive piece in which he runs through the tiny, tiny nuances that create various balances in any given image — and it’s not as simple as film vs. digital.
There is, of course, also the fact of his being Rian Johnson‘s regular cinematographer, including a new feature tentatively titled Star Wars: Episode VIII. That is covered in due time, though the broader discussion we were having up to that point proved so engaging, and often so assertive, in its authority that I didn’t want to distract. If nothing else, know this: the franchise has fine minds at its helm for the next (non-spin-off) go-round.
The Film Stage: I’m curious when and how this interest in camera science started. Was it parallel to your burgeoning involvement in filmmaking?
Steve Yedlin: No. It really came out of necessity. Around 2004, I started to feel that digital was coming and it might get crammed down our throats before it was as good as film. I didn’t necessarily think it was never going to be as good as film, but I didn’t think it was at the time. I was worried that market forces were going to force it on us before it was ready. Whether that happened or not, I don’t know, but we’ve gone through a transition and, now, it is ready. I just started digging into what we can do, and it started with the simplest… I remember, at that time, just the simplest, dumbest things being a big revelation. What’s happening inside the camera.
One example: at that time, all the digital cameras were still very much video cameras — even just in terms of having a million switches on them, menus — and there was this kind of prevailing wisdom that was, “Well, it’s a video camera. You have to white-balance. No two cameras are the same.” Part of me was really suspicious. Like, how does a thing even work if that’s the case? If the actual, physical sensor has such a spectacularly wide variance, how can it even work? I know there’s many factoring-tolerance issues, but if it’s that widely different, I don’t understand how the thing cane even function. Sure enough, on the first digital movie I did, Conversations with Other Women, I didn’t have any color science; I was just a DP. I didn’t even know the word “color science” at that point.
The one thing I figured out on that movie was: we had two cameras, and, a lot of the time, we were going to be shooting the same thing — not just for inter-cutting, but split-screen, so it really has to match — and, sure enough, I did some tests. If you turn off things in all the menus, you have to go to the engineering menu and everything, then the cameras do match. You don’t have to white-balance them separately; you can put them at the same setting and they will look the same. It sounds like that’s such a tiny nugget, but that was my very first thing. Everybody thinks that stuff is out-of-control, but it’s just because they haven’t learned it, and it can be brought into control and understood. That was kind of the beginning.
What resources did you have in educating yourself? Did it come down to particular texts and experts?
I talked to people when I could. It’s interesting, because people do ask what I can read, and I wish there was an answer. [Laughs] All of the overall conception things just come from figuring out how to poke and prod at the stuff unambiguously, where you are only changing one thing at at a time. You say, “Can you do this? Yes.” One example is: people superstitiously say, “Well, isn’t it going to look different if you DeBayer it differently?” Well, open up a raw file in NUKE, and do it two times — once with one DeBayer setting, and one with the other, and go back and forth and see what it looks like. Then you’ll know what that difference is.
One thing that happens all the time, that I’ve noticed, is that people jump to an assumption about what a cause of something is — a cause-and-effect assumption, which I mention in the “On Color Science” thing. They make a completely intuitive guess about something they haven’t even studied, and not only do they not know whether that’s the cause — they assume there is just one cause, as opposed to several causes, for something. The example in “On Color Science” is jumping to a conclusion about what makes film look different than digital. Many people have a thing that they’ve decided in their head, and it’s one answer. They’ll say, “Because of a random scatter of the silver crystals,” but can you see that scatter? If the rows and columns of pixels makes it look digital, then as soon as you scan film, it will look digital — because that’s it. You just said that the whole thing is that it’s not in rows and columns, so it would immediately not have whatever this look is that you’re talking about.
People tend to chalk things up to one thing, and it’s a guess. [Laughs] But that’s not just with film vs. digital. That’s with all kinds of things. People guess about what the difference is between compressed and uncompressed. The reality with something like that, again, is complicated. You have certain types of compression that are negligible and don’t matter, you have other types that do, but you get people who are so superstitious. One person will be like, “I can’t shoot compressed!” And it’s like, “Have you looked at what the difference is?” But then someone else will be so dismissive of it that they’ll shoot highly compressed stuff, because somebody told them that the codec is magical, and they don’t notice that it’s actually very degraded because they haven’t investigated. Anyway, I went way off the rails there. [Laughs] What was the original question?
References and sources.
My main source is just to keep going back and doing each element on its own, and checking unambiguously. It’s just kind of checking work and doing things in element. So I always tend to do it. I started out doing most work in Shake, but now I use NUKE. It’s not an ad for those companies; it’s just something where you absolutely, unambiguously can do things mathematically — like, actually type the math expression. It’s not like you’re using some plugin that doesn’t know what it’s doing and just has a knob on it. Anything you can describe with math, you can do, so that’s the main source.
Of course, I looked things up, but I looked up individual things. I end up doing a lot of math for this stuff, but I’m not actually good at math, so I might end up looking up how to do a point-line distance in 3D space. Looking at individual things or very technical things. Sometimes I might be looking at the ARRI scanner manual — not because I’m using a physical scanner, but because they have some information in there — so there isn’t really something that teaches, overall, that I know of. There are color science books, but I actually haven’t read them, and those are targeted at overall color science — which isn’t even specific to cinema. There’s a guy called Garret Johnson; he’s the color scientist for Apple. I think he still is. I kind of got to know him, but that was years ago, so I lost touch with him. I think he was and is the only color scientist for Apple, with a PhD in color science, and he has a book that’s one of the more-known textbooks. But I haven’t read it. [Laughs] This stuff, it doesn’t concentrate on this type of application of the concepts.
You gave what seems like a similarly focused lecture last year. I wonder what experiences, if any, might have changed the shape of it.
Last year, I showed the demo that you’ve seen online and basically just talked about it. This year, it’s a new demo that’s similar to the other one with the same, overarching philosophy, but it focuses on resolution instead of on color and texture. It’s in two parts. The first part is the demo as it stands right now; the second part is… there is going to be a second part, hopefully, [Laughs] where you watch one and then the other. But the second one doesn’t exist, so, right now, the second one is me giving a presentation. It is totally different, just in the sense that it’s not the same thing. In terms of how philosophy… I don’t know if the overarching philosophy has changed since last year, but I’m always learning. I have a lot more details. Always digging deeper, so I’ve got more details — more exact answers to questions. I think that’s the biggest way that it’s different.
Honestly, to me, the new demo is a much more boring topic of resolution, because we should just be past this. Who cares about counting pixels? The short version of this demo is, “Why are we counting pixels?” I think it should be the more boring one, because I don’t even know why this is an issue, but the fact that it is an issue is why I had to make it. Having gone through the steps of it, I have verification of things. It’s things that I’ve known, that I’ve seen viscerally. I was talking about people guessing about things. It’s things that I’m not guessing about, but I don’t have years to explain to people what I’ve seen that proves it. So this is like, “Here it is” instead of me trying to explain technical stuff that I’ve investigated over many years. “There it is. Have a look.” [Laughs] I think the new demo has stuff that’s not its topic that’ll be interesting.
The new one is very pointedly where I say, “Look, the point of this thing is to say, ‘Why are we counting pixels?’” I’m almost dismissive of having matched these different formats — two are film and four are digital — and they don’t look exactly the same, but I don’t think, like in the other demo, there’s anything that stands out as being something that makes one look a recognizable way. They’re just very, very slightly different. You don’t even know which one’s which, and you couldn’t probably pick out… well, there’s one you might be able to pick out more reliably than the other five. Although I like to be very clear and concise — “here’s the topic,” and all that — I think this one, more than the others, does have some stuff that’s implied rather than stated. It’s only about resolution, but I think it’s going to raise questions about optics and other things. Partially, just seeing this vastly different-sized sensors next to each other, and the differences that you don’t see. [Laughs]
With all these applications and variations in mind, how does shooting a Star Wars movie come into play? The series has such a powerful iconography, and I wonder if you’d actually relish the opportunity to shoot this film in a way people sort of expect — because there’s some fun in that particular opportunity.
You know, Rian and I just approach it the same way we approach everything. There are aspects that… we talked about it very cursorily at the beginning, but I think we’re on such the same wavelength that that’s all we needed, was that little talk just to make sure we were on the same page. I think we said, “Enough of what we do, anyway, fits the bill.” Anything that we want to do… we didn’t have to do anything, so there were aspects where, to some extent, we wanted to have a continuity; and, on some, we were just doing what we’re doing. I think because I know Rian so well, it was easy to agree on that and know what we both meant without checking. I can imagine doing it with another director, where you say, “But, wait… what do we mean?” Even a smart director. It’s just the communication: Rian and I have known each other for so long, and I know what he means, and he trusts me.
If I don’t need much of an excuse to speak with Dante Spinotti, he shouldn’t require much of an introduction. Yet it is worth noting his place as a chief visual architect in the cinema of Michael Mann, with whom he’s collaborated on five key features: Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, and Public Enemies. The breadth of subject, scale, and format alone evinces a career well-spent, and his perspective is well-used on the jury for Camerimage’s Cinematographers’ Debuts Competition, but the man won’t deign to consider himself an artist. Read below for that and more:
The Film Stage: You’re on the debut competition jury, so I ask you what I asked Dick Pope: how, if at all, does the film-viewing process change when the fact of these films being debuts is in mind?
Dante Spinotti: Well, first of all, I don’t think it makes any sense to separate the films. You might consider it later on, but, as you’re watching the movie, it’s about enjoying the direct experience — the possibility of some emotional transmission. So I don’t think that makes a difference. What you do see, most of the time, is that there’s, obviously, a limit to the money they had. So part of it is either to admire the way they found solutions — notwithstanding the low budget — but, other than that, a lot of young people will tell you, “Dante, I did this. Can you look at my short? But I had so little time to do it, so little money.” This is not an excuse business. There is no excuse; it doesn’t matter. It’s your problem. The only thing that does matter is the communication between the director and what you saw. Do you get that emotion? Are you involved?
Are there particular aspects of cinematography that you take note of when watching a movie?
No. I actually find that when you look at these things — if you are just a spectator, but also if you are involved in a jury — you’re not really looking at cinematography. I’m not; I’m looking at the film, the humanity involved in the film, what the story’s about. Even if I had to judge in this competition for cinematographers, I would give my vote to the quality of the film — regardless of the cinematography — and the cinematography has to be so much better if it’s great. But it’s about working for the story. You have no other way to pass your message if it’s not through the actors, through the acting, through the screenplay, through the story — the actual elements of film art.
What level of freedom do you seek as an artist? Do you prefer directors who are visually minded, or the opportunity to put your stamp on a project?
I don’t care about putting a distinctive stamp. What I do care about is… when you read a screenplay, it’s possibly something you’d really like to work on. Something that represents a challenge, and so you go through a lot of things: the history, deep into what the story means — that’s what you’re trying to represent with your cinematography. There are a number of different ways of cooperating with a director. When I work with Michael Mann, Michael is usually very keen on his camera angles. Very rarely, if I step in, was I consulted about where or what kind of lens to use in how to do a shot. Sometimes, it happens. It’s a lot about prepping, so it’s a lot about interpreting the scenes with lighting in a way that is functional — also very efficient, very simple in communication, and possibly, also, somehow fascinating and dynamic. I’ve done films where my cooperation in telling the story with a camera — the angles and the editing — I had a much bigger influence in doing that.
Secretly down, I think a director should have a good idea of how he wants to photograph his film, because the director is the person who most knows, intimately — in an ideal world — what he wants. So it is good to communicate with a director that also has a sense of, visually, what’s going on. But I’ll tell you: I’ve done movies in which I have to take care of the whole reading, with the camera angles; others in which it’s a different kind of collaboration. It’s not a rule. I’m convinced that we are not artists — filmmakers are not artists. I like what Umberto Eco said: “For something to be considered a work of art, it is necessary that the elements of communication between the artist and the viewer are moved forward.” If you imitate another painting, you’re not an artist.
So you need to move forward, to make a step forward, with whatever element you use to communicate. In that sense, it’s a major step forward, because it’s a step forward for the whole of humanity, if you think about it. But this doesn’t happen. What I’m really saying is that I don’t think we’re artists. We are conditioned too much by a series of problematic elements — the weather, the mood of the people, the schedule, lack of money, lack of time, actors that come and go — but we all know that a movie can be a work of art. So, for some interesting reason, it’s cooperation that takes you there.
Mann is so known for his sense of control. Did you feel a change in workflow when moving from film to digital?
I know Michael very well. We are friends and have been friends for a long, long time. Michael is, for sure, the kind of director who, if you agree with him and understand what he has in mind to do, you can work with him. If you are someone who discusses or does disagree, you better not do that. You don’t need to step into a hard time. So if you agree and understand, it’s all fine — and you like it. If you agree with something, you like it. I always found, even when I did my first movie with Michael… the way I describe it is that, for me, coming from Italy and some good television, he was like finding a way of making movies that maybe I dreamed of, in my mind, but that I actually never worked on. It’s kind of interesting. He was great, and I have always highly admired him; I learned a lot from Michael Mann. It was always an operation that needed quite a bit of concentration to make it happen.
I think Michael has been as influenced as anybody else by the technical change to digital from film, because, obviously, it has been such a major change when you can see what you’re doing. It’s not small; you can see exactly what you’re doing. What I’d say, just as a note, is that the first movie I did with Michael was Manhunter, and Michael had started and learned a lot more about lighting throughout his movies. Every movie I work with him, he was a little more prepared. “Hey, why don’t you do this instead of doing that?” I remember a famous scene in Last of the Mohicans. We were shooting at night with Magua, and it was one of those night exteriors: 6:30, dawn is coming up. So I see the light getting blue in the sky, and I follow a technique that I experienced and worked out many times: I placed every light on a dimmer, so when the general light comes up, you boost up your Tungsten lights, and so you avoid seeing the light comes up. At some point, Michael turned to me and said, “Dante, why did you turn this up in the forest?” I said, “Michael, that is the sun.” He hadn’t realized that the sun was up!
Those movies have been remastered over the years. Do you have an extensive hand in that process?
At times, yes. If I’m around, yes. Like, with this new remastering of Heat, I was invited. I went to the screening of the film print, which was a beautiful film print. We saw it with a colorist and everybody, and they kept going and worked on it. But, at times, I’m also involved in going through the whole operation.
What is it like to watch these films that you worked on decades ago? Do you reflect on how you might have changed as an artist, or perhaps wish you’d done things differently?
Yeah, of course. Also, the process that I had in my working life — which was starting late, being a freelance in Italy, and, after a few years, deciding to abandon everything there and come over here and start all over again — those will influence the way you work, because if you work between friends for a long time and you don’t have this responsibility anxiety to make it work — in other words, not to do this movie, but then be called for another film, which is stressful if you want influence over what you do. You need to be good enough to keep going. You look back at things and probably feel there might’ve been something that you might’ve done better. But the great thing about this profession is that there’s really an ongoing process of learning, of encountering complexities and finding solutions in an environment which is always entirely different — a human cultural issue that is completely different from the previous. So that’s what really makes a difference.
Do you have a desire to try new technologies, e.g. GoPros or iPhones? Do they inspire a desire to stake out some different frontiers?
Yeah, sure. For instance, we had a scene in the last movie I did — it was about human trafficking. The bad guys happened to hide in a mine, all these girls; then one escapes. The locations we had found were basically sections of a museum. We changed all the lights to make it as dark as possible, but my idea was to shoot the scene as if one of these girls had an iPhone with her, with imperfect, not-exactiy-precisioned framing — the sense of being there to witness something that happens and, somehow, you capture it. I enjoy, when you have these little cameras around, that you can put in angles where it can give you a very interesting point of view.
When I talk to students, I always screen a section of a movie that you might remember; it’s in The Last of the Mohicans. There’s a scene where she meets him in a significant way for the first time: she’s the nurse inside an infirmary, he arrives, they exchange a look. So there are some angles in the coverage which are “classic” — book-light stuff, the right framing, tight, over-the-shoulder — and there’s also an angle on him which is a three-quarters side, even though we shot him from the front and everything on the coverage. But Michael, in the editing, used a side-angle, and in that little trick is the whole key of how to use tiny little machines. What I like about that is that it’s good to have other cameras around, but, even then, you still learn how to show people talking and having a story from each angle.
Do you have an iPhone?
Yeah, but I’m technically kind of… I hate iPhones. I have one, but I like simple things; I like phones to be phones. In the end, you get stuck in something and don’t really know how to do it. When you learn how to do it, of course it’s great to go in Skype and WhatsApp and call my wife, who’s across the ocean, and see her on the screen.
No video apps?
No, I don’t. But, for instance, I’m pretty good in Photoshop. Since I always had a darkroom, I wanted to learn Photoshop and be at least as good as I was in the darkroom. When I really need something to do what I do, I learn about it — just to have this to go around town. If somebody has it next to me, it bores me that I have to learn; I don’t know some of the stuff. You click the wrong button, and it all disappears. I find it profoundly boring.
The Golden Frog winner at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival — a healthy bit of competition compiling the best in contemporary cinematography — was Greig Fraser for Lion, which we called “stunning” in our TIFF review. The Australian cinematographer’s quickly risen through the ranks, in several years jumping from collaborations with Jane Campion to Andrew Dominik to Kathryn Bigelow to Bennett Miller to, next month, Gareth Edwards on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
That comes up herein, of course, despite the fact that Fraser is limited in what he can say. A man of his knowledge and experience can go many ways in exploring his craft, so that’s exactly where we took it.
The Film Stage: When you come to a foreign country, do you look at environments and think about how to shoot them?
Greig Fraser: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s the light that’s the primary thing — well, not the primary thing, but light’s an incredibly important thing. When I landed yesterday in Bydgoszcz, I was just taken aback. I’ve been in Italy for the last two months shooting another movie, so landing here with the low sun, the fog, the cold, the slight softness to the air, I was just in heaven. I was like, “Why aren’t we filming more here? I want to be here, filming.” That freshness, that crispness. The coldness gets rid of it and creates a really lovely clarity, but, at the same time, there’s a certain mist in the air that creates a softness. The sun’s nice and soft, coming from Australia where the sun is not soft — it’s quite ozone-depleted. It’s just lovely being in Europe, just to see that amazing winter sun.
I’m curious how you discuss cinematography with fellow DPs, since this festival is overflowing with them. Is it a lot about equipment, chatting about directors?
It’s chewing the fat, yeah. It’s everything; it’s all those things. You might be talking specifically about the ethics of a movie or the underlying story. I just had a great conversation last night with Anthony Dod Mantle. Being a father to some very young children, the extent of my filmgoing, now, is limited to animated films, like Finding Dory and Inside Out. It’s not as common for me to see an adult film anymore, just for fun. It’s very rare for my wife and me to go out and watch a movie. I recently saw Snowden, which I thought Anthony did an amazing job on. I was really blown away by the film, and we had a great chat — the pros, the cons, the ethics, this, that, all the things that people talk about when they walk out of the film. Good? Bad? Ugly? Should he? Shouldn’t he? Without casting moral judgement. That’s not our job as cinematographers. But it’s really lovely to have a chat with him.
We caught up with a couple of other amazing cinematographers last night. We talked about everything from our amazing agents through to brand-new LED lighting. I went with Jacques Ballard, a great French DP, and Ari Wenger, a great Australian DP; we had a look at the new Panavision DXL camera. We geeked-out a bit; looked at some lenses. This is the thing: our job is wide-ranging. It goes from being incredibly technical, extremely technical, to being very much the artist-based art of lighting, illumination, or not-illumination.
So to run the gamut in conversation is what’s so fun about this. Some DPs are very technical; some wouldn’t know what end the lens is on on a camera. All they know is where they want to put it, or how they want to light it, but they don’t know the name of the light or its power; they just know it’s how things should feel. To be able to have those kind of conversations… on set, you don’t run into many cinematographers on set. Unless you’re taking over from somebody who’s leaving or… [Laughs] it’s very rare to be having a conversation about a project with a cinematographer.
And that could be pretty awkward.
It could be. It could be. Depending on how that was to go down, yeah.
Your filmography balances between very high-profile and smaller-scale. I wonder how much you feel the change between projects, scale-wise, in terms of access to equipment and locations you’re shooting in. And, in the case of something like Star Wars, you probably have a far longer shooting schedule.
At its core, filmmaking is identical, regardless of what you’re doing. You’re working with a director and an actor. It doesn’t matter if the machine around you is a $1 billion movie or a $1,000 short film; at its core, it doesn’t actually matter. What we do is identical: every actor and cinematographer on the planet, it’s all the same core. That doesn’t change one iota. The thing that does change, though, like you said, is access to equipment. That’s the tail, though. The dog wags the tail — so, effectively, just because you’re on a big film doesn’t mean you have to use big equipment. What it does allow, though, is for you to be… I guess it’s a luxury to be able to light with more expensive or complicated light set-ups. The classic example: I’m a massive convert to both 65mm and RGB LED.
On Lion, we used a handheld kit of three digital Sputnik heads in India — it’s pretty much all the light we used — whereas, on Star Wars, we had quite a few more than that. They’re exactly the same lights, but quite a few more. It just meant, I think, that limitations are less, technically. Also, prep time: on a big project, often you have more prep time — and, if you don’t have prep time, you have access to the sources that let you prep. So you have more days with your AC, with the gaffer. It just affords you slightly more luxury, and I don’t mean “luxury” as in “more comfortable beds” or “more comfortable pillows.” Just more luxury in, “Actually, I need two of those heads. Can we afford two?” That’s, effectively, the difference. The same end result still occurs, though. You still want the same result; you still want the drama and the performance to connect with the audience. My end result doesn’t change a bit. It’s more about the approach to that point slightly changing.
But, effectively, it’s the same. I can recount time sitting in a room in New Orleans, and I can recall sitting in a room in Pinewood Studios. Two very different budgets. Or sitting in a room in Calcutta, India — the film that’s playing now. They’re exactly the same. The tripod’s the same. [Laughs] Also, what a high-profile film allows, I think, is to get the R&D going. A perfect example is: the marriage of the lenses and the camera we did on Rogue One was a beautiful Panavision lens and beautiful ARRI cameras. They married. They may not have been able to marry if it was a small production. I say that economically, because the economics of filmmaking, obviously, are very important as well. We may not have been up to marry. There may not be the LEDs that exists in the world right now unless Rogue One had shot with them. Do you know what I’m saying?
This is the good part: Rogue One kind of helped push my LED idea along, and now, on Mary Magdalene — which is a biblical film — I’m using exactly those same LEDs. For a low-budget film. So I wouldn’t have been able to use those for that low-budget film unless they existed in a world, and only existed in a world, with a big-budget movie; and they only exist on the bigger-budget movie because I used them on a smaller-budget movie. So it’s this kind of infinite loop that just keeps going round and round.
Gareth Edwards’ work with DPs has a way of making high-concept stories feel feasible. How much is there a pressure to stick to a very culturally embedded iconography, as opposed to not wanting to be beholden to a 40-year-old movie? What was that conversation like?
Obviously, what I can say about Star Wars is limited. The main thing with Star Wars — and I’m not sort of revealing any spoilers here — but we all have our own influences. I mean, I do. Anyone who’s around my age — I’m 40 — has their own influences from Star Wars. They either absolutely hate it or absolutely loved it or are somewhere in between. It existed in everyone’s world, regardless of how they grew up. The thing with Star Wars is, iconography is a very big deal. It is built on iconography; it is built on silhouettes and images and shapes that are instantly understandable and repeatable. Death Star, Vader, Storm Troopers — those shapes, you catch a glimpse of them out the corner of your eye and you know what they are. To have that at your disposal is fantastic, because it means you’re not having to sell… Vader is Vader. You don’t have to go, “Ooh, isn’t he dramatic?”
We all know Vader is Vader. Having that iconography as a core point from which to launch from, visually, is incredibly inspiring. I wouldn’t say you have to work as hard to make it iconic, but there are shots we have in Lion that, again, you have to work a bit harder to make those shots iconic, because you need the audience to go away and remember those. I’m doing a Bible movie right now, and there’s clearly going to be iconic images in that Bible movie; that’s a western image. So the pressure’s less about sticking to the way it was 40 years ago. The pressure’s more about being true to your own belief and understanding about what Star Wars was — but, at the same time, not be hamstrung by that.
We’re making a movie that’s very separate to any of those other movies, and you want to be inspired by it, and you’re encouraged to lift — steal — from those films; it makes sense to do that. If you steal from that movie to make another sci-fi movie, well, maybe you shouldn’t be doing that. But if you’re lifting to put it into our film — I’m talking about frames or images or styles or lighting ideas or moods — then it’s encouraged. It’s great. But then, also, injecting your own aesthetic. I mean, Gareth Edwards… I don’t know if you’ve seen Monsters. That was the first thing that I’d seen Gareth did, and it looked amazing. He shot it; he had a very big say in how that film looked. I was quite excited to work with him, because you’re right: he makes conceit work. Filmmaking is false, at its core: you put an actor in front of a camera. Unless you’re filming a news report, it’s false. It starts out by being false; it becomes even more false when you start telling a person what to do. So it’s trying to make it so it feels not-false, and Gareth Edwards is incredibly good at that.