For as quaint and economical as it comes across, The Eyes of My Mother is a pull-no-punches horror film. This debut effort shows that Nicolas Pesce is not just a talent to watch (with your hand over your eyes) but his attention to details make this effort as striking as it is horrific.
In the film, a traumatic event befalls a young girl and her family. Soon after, she begins to associate pain and death with love and friendship in increasingly dangerous ways. At the festival, we spoke candidly about the elements and plot points in Pesce’s film. So, be advised, this interview contains spoilers.
The Film Stage: Nicolas, I have to tell you that I’m not sure I liked your film, because of how it made me feel, but I will never forget it.
Nicolas Pesce: [Laughs] Great, that makes me so happy to hear. [Laughs]
There’s something unnerving about the level of horror you brought to the screen, so matter of fact, in black and white. You also didn’t hold anything back. It reminds me of Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It leaves such an impact, so, please, tell us where this came from.
Your reaction is great as I was aiming to unsettle and unnerve. I’m glad you bought up El Topo because I never bring up those psychedelic films, but there is an unnerving quality to all of Jodorowsky’s stuff. You can’t put your finger on what’s wrong, but there’s always something disgustingly wrong, and it makes you want to jump out of your seat – that’s very much what I was going for with this. I wanted to claw into the darkest recesses of your brain and poke at things that you don’t want to think about.
That’s part of the reason why the movie is so short, and I don’t really show any of the violence. But I did want it to be a quietly aggressive experience. I wanted to explore the moments in between the horror and how scary life can be when you know what someone is capable of especially when you know where someone’s logic is at. So seeing them go through their everyday life is so much more terrifying. The things that are so banal take on a whole new meaning when the person spends the other parts of their time doing distinctly dark things.
There’s that one line where young Francisca asks the killer why he did it, and he says because, “It feels amazing.” Every line of dialog was so calm and commonplace that my face was transfixed in disbelief and horror for three-fourths of your film. I hate to ask, but is there a longer cut? Does a “worse” version of the film exist?
Oh, there was a worse version at one point. But what was important for me was treading that line where you want to feel so bad for her Francisca, and that she needs a hug, but then if you get too close, she’ll stab you. So there’s that point, at the end of their conversation, where the killer goes, “You’re gonna kill me, right?”and she goes, “No, you’re my only friend.” It’s so sad, and so depressing.
To me, the movie is about loneliness and losing the one person who made you understand the world. Without them, you’re at a loss for everything. That leaves Francisca trying to scramble to understand everything, but she’s going about it all wrong and not quite understanding how to cope with the loneliness.
But it’s a world where horrible things happen, and I don’t necessarily treat them as horrible. She does it, and then moves on. It’s part of the fabric of her world, and there’s something painfully ordinary when she’s stitching the woman’s eyes at the end. It’s terrible to see how she kind of lovingly takes care of Charlie in the barn. I think that the intentional grossness I was going for toggles oddly between her trying to be good and solve her problems, but then doing them in these horribly disgusting ways.
Getting the audience to a point where they don’t know how to feel about her was tough, but it was my goal. The best thing I could ask for is to have people leave the theater going, “I just don’t know what to think.”
She does despicable things moreso than a lot of slasher movies and her level of torture is pretty depraved, but not in her eyes.
Exactly. To her, it’s logical and she needs to do it for whatever reason, and I feel that I need to get the audience in the mind of this girl, even if it’s only fleeting, so when they start to think, “I feel for her,” to me, that’s the scariest thing. You don’t want to feel for a serial killer, so you really don’t want to see bits and pieces of yourself in there.
Hopefully, what makes people the most uncomfortable is that as crazy and wild as she gets, there’s moments you can see yourself having the same emotions but not going to the lengths she has. Her grief is very real, even if she is a monster.
Francisca is incredibly lonely, directly tied to losing her mother and father at certain points. But then she picks up a woman at a bar, and you know it’s not the first time. You can tell she wants someone in her life, but she can’t keep from being who she is. It’s a scarily interesting duality. But let’s talk about chaining people in the barn. It was a means to control the wanderer, Charlie, and then it became a way to keep people in her life.
Yeah, it was, with the father, a way to contain the wanderer, but only because he didn’t know what to do with him. This reminds me a lot of my grandfather. He’s the kind of guy that believes there would be nothing that would cause him to call the police. He was from Sicily, and he lived in the Bronx, and just thought that, “Whatever happens to me, I will deal with it. No one else is going to handle my family’s problems.” So I took that to the most extreme extent, and here’s a guy whose wife has been murdered, and he has the guy who did it, but he’s not going to call the cops and he doesn’t know what to do. It gets weird when his daughter thinks she’s helping him by finishing the job for him.
[Editor’s note: spoilers for the ending ahead.]
In a way, this reminded me of Rob Zombie’s The Devils Rejects in that it’s very brutal, and you get to an ending where the bad guys get what they deserve, but it’s not triumphant. It’s a little sad. So was what we saw the original ending, or was there something else you were developing?
That was always how I saw it ending, and there’s an extra layer of depth I aimed for. The ending happens and you have this girl who just wants connection and love and a companion, and she goes through all of these things to get there. But, in the end she’s taken out with a bang and you think about so many of these serial killers who get swept under a rug. Now I’m not saying they deserve legacies — because they do wilder things that most normal people would never do— but their end, the finale of their life, is done in an instant. They go to jail, they’re on the news once, and no one ever thinks of them again.
For a girl who we’ve just spend 75 minutes with, her life is reduced to the cops busting in, saw her with a knife and shot her, and nothing else matters. There is sort of a banality to the end of everyone’s life, you know? There is no grand, “I did all this and this is what it meant.” But really, it meant nothing. You tried, you failed, and now it’s over. To me, the world where Hannibal Lecter walks off into the marketplace at the end of Silence of the Lambs is not a real one. I wasn’t trying to say, “Beware, these people are out there.” This is about one girl who wanted one thing but she never got it.
One idea I had was to have the news play over the credits, and it would tell about how the police took her down. But they don’t talk about anything – they just list the crimes. I think it’s unfair that anyone who commits crime like to this gets their life reduced to mere facts. I’m not trying to justify their actions, but in attempts to understand any sort of violence, we’re not going to get anywhere with blanket statement like, “Oh, they were horrible” They became that way for a reason, and there would be a lot less killers if we learned why they were the way they were and helped them.
You make two good points in the movie: 1) The importance of having a strong two parent household. And 2) Don’t pick up hitchhikers.
[Laughs] Totally! I did throw a lot of classic horror tropes in there, too. Don’t let the stranger in your house… don’t pick up a hitchhiker… don’t give your baby to a stranger! Then, similarly, there are things I just love, like the fingernail breaking. Those never get old so, for me, it was about finding a story where I could weave in all that stuff in a fresh and unique way.
To end this, talk to us about shooting in black and white. It gives the striking visuals a real edge.
Shooting that came, partially, from the movies I love: Night of the Hunter, Strait-Jacket, Psycho, and by going black and white, that kind of tells the audience what kind of movie they are about to watch. It’s like putting you in the Alfred Hitchcock boat as opposed to the Tobe Hooper boat. Also, its use was more expressionistic to try and emulate what’s going on in Francisca’s head, and the way in which she sees the world. Also, technically, it let us play with filmmaking techniques that let us do things visually that you can’t really get away with in color: shadows, lighting, day for night, and all sorts of reality-bending tricks. In black and white, things can become otherworldly, and that heightens the unsetting feeling.
The Eyes of My Mother screened at Fantastic Fest and opens on December 2.
It’s safe to say Oliver Stone isn’t exactly fashionable these days, a matter apparent in how the trailer for Snowden instantly became a punching bag on this writer’s Twitter feed. Yet film critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s behemoth of a book, The Oliver Stone Experience, should, with any luck, shift the conversation. Framed as a series of interviews with Stone conducted over the past half-decade or so and interspersed with everything from personal photos to studio-executive notes to archival reviews, this feels like the definitive text on someone once at the center of American cinema. It might not change anyone’s mind on Stone’s films, but with the man being such a raconteur, you’ll still find yourself tearing through it.
We were lucky enough to chat with Seitz over the phone about his undertaking, as well as some thoughts on American politics and cinema in general.
The Film Stage: Reading your book, a comparison came to mind for Stone; Samuel Fuller. He was a soldier, journalist, pulp writer, and filmmaker. Is that a fair comparison?
Matt Zoller Seitz: I think that’s a very fair comparison. In fact, we talked briefly about Samuel Fuller, particularly The Big Red One. It’s a memoir of his service in the pacific in World War II. Of course, that movie came out 35 years after Fuller’s experience, and Platoon came out approximately 20 after Stone’s in Vietnam. That’s a fair comparison. And, also, the left-wing politics.
You bring up the various criticisms Stone has received on a number of his films regarding treatment of certain ethnicities or female characters. But now that we’re in an age where films are judged far, far more on the basis of ideology, how much worse do you think these controversies would’ve been today?
I don’t know if they would’ve been better or worse, but they would’ve been more immediate, I think. I think people kind of forget nowadays that movies open on 2,000 screens and then they’re gone in a month. Everything happens faster now, like the way movies are released and the reaction to them on social media. Back in the day, Platoon played in a lot of theaters for three months, six months — nine months, in some cases. And there was plenty of time for a reaction to sort of build, and it happened in slow-motion. I don’t necessarily know if it would be worse, but certainly it would be more simultaneous.
There’s a part of the book where Stone remarks “I’m getting deeper into the shit-hole every time I talk to you.” How difficult was the process of getting him to be as open as he was?
It wasn’t really that hard; he’s a pretty open guy. If you go back and read the interviews with him dating back to the early ’80s, he’s pretty open then, too. He’s an open book, and one of the original titles we thought about for this was Oliver Stone: An Open Book. I would say the biggest problem I had while interviewing him was keeping him on track, because Oliver has a very wide-ranging imagination. He doesn’t stick to one subject for very long; he’ll jump all over the place.
In your introduction, you state how Stone’s films were instrumental in your political awakening, particularly your disillusionment with Ronald Reagan’s values. Obviously, as you note in the book, Reagan was enormously popular — the 1984 election was a massive landslide — but what was the point where you started to sense his ideals were of less value to the American people? Was it before Bush’s loss to Clinton in ’92?
It was a little bit before that. I think it was probably when he announced the Star Wars initiative, which was in 1987. I remember: it was on the cover of one or both news weeklies and I was standing in 7/11 as a high school kid thinking, “We’re really going to commit billions of dollars to a system that can shoot missiles out of the sky when we’ve got so many other things to be spending money on?” Like, it’s still going to be armageddon; like, it’s going to be half the earth instead of all of the earth if we can shoot down their missiles and they can’t shoot down ours. It just seemed insane to me. That’s when I think it started to turn, but Stone was going along a similar tract. In fact, he says in the book that he was a Republican when he was younger; he inherited his father’s values. His dad was a stock-broker.
He voted for Nixon, and although he had certain questioning tendencies after the war, they didn’t really coalesce into anything coherent until about 1984/85 when he started taking trips to Central America to research what would later become Salvador. When he saw what was going on there — when he saw students, he saw kids, he saw teenagers fighting in service of the right-wing forces down there, wearing uniforms not too different from the ones he wore in Vietnam — that’s when he started to question things a little more. And it’s funny, because Stone is often attacked for being incoherent, but he happens to be quite coherent, and I happen to agree with a lot of it, that he believes that military expansionism after World War II has driven a lot of this country’s decisions, and it’s not just the decision of who to invade and who to occupy, but also whose bank account is the fattest. A lot of defense contractors and business owners have a stranglehold over our legislature. And it’s the kind of thing where, if you mention them, well, a lot of people go to the movies to escape that kind of thing, so it’s no surprise that Stone has had trouble getting financing for questioning movies.
Stone mentions Reagan and Bush plenty throughout the book, but do you think any of his films were a response to the Clinton administration?
Not so much. I think that maybe, if you stretch a little bit, you could say U-Turn and Any Given Sunday might’ve been, if only because they express the casualness of corruption. He didn’t have too many nice things to say about Bill Clinton when I talked to him. He saw him as a guy who posed as a liberal but actually continued a lot of the policies of the Republicans, and I think that’s probably accurate. I think more of his concern is with the military-industrial complex — not just on foreign policy, but our own self-image. The national self-image is that of righteous warriors who go and intervene in situations to make things right, and that’s often cover for much more base motivations, and that’s what drives him. And that’s been, until fairly recently in our history, something that’s a lot more of a Republican thing, although certainly he criticizes Lyndon Baines Johnson for escalating the war after Kennedy’s death in JFK and Born on the Fourth of July explicitly.
You repeatedly state how much Stone’s films resemble the personal epics of ’70s American cinema. But does looking at Stone’s films from the ’80s give you a greater appreciation for the American cinema of that decade? Because, if you ask me, it looks like a Golden Age compared to now.
I mean, yeah — it does. But almost everything looks like a golden age compared to now. Personal filmmaking on a big scale has been largely driven out of movies. It’s really sad, and it’s even sadder when you hear people still defend American cinema as an art-form that’s superior to American scripted television. It’s like, what do you have to defend that with, really? Some indie films, maybe an occasional Scorsese or Spielberg, but that’s about it. It’s really depressing, and I think the ’80s look a lot better. I came of age in the ’80s, and that was my decade to come of age as a movie-goer. But I’m a little appalled by the quality of storytelling in some of those movies.
This is the age where they discovered MTV, fast cuts, music montages. I remember, even as a teenager, watching movies like Flash/Dance, Footloose, and Top Gun and going, “These don’t feel like movies to me. They feel like advertisements or music videos.” But there was a lot of stuff going on at the same time that were very expressive: there was Stone’s films, but there was also Jim Jarmusch, and Robert Altman was making some interesting work in the ’80s. Although he’d fallen out of favor by then, all his theatrical adaptations were extraordinary. And then you had people like Alex Cox that were very much working in Oliver Stone’s tradition.
Every once in a while, we get a Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper — a political film that enters the zeitgeist. But it seems like politics in mainstream cinema is basically reduced to exploitive 9/11 imagery in superhero movies. Are Stone’s kind of films just not what we want to see? Are we collectively running away from trauma?
Well, I wouldn’t say “running away from it,” but we’re transforming it into something we can handle. There’s been a lot of disaster films and giant-monster films, like Pacific Rim, and superhero movies are all a manifestation of this shock after 9/11, and also the political fall-out after it. But it’s all very incoherent and self-serving, and there’s nothing in any of these movies as self-lacerating as anything Oliver Stone puts in any of his films in the ’80s or early ’90s. The subtext of a lot of superhero films is how good individual people are. There’s always one big bad guy who’s really bad, and if only the good guys can get their act together, they can beat him. There’s really no difference between that mentality and the one that got us into Vietnam and other wars.
I don’t really see a lot going on. I see, as you say, a lot of exploitation of imagery of fallen buildings, but I don’t see anything resembling a single coherent political thought in those films, which is very sad. I don’t know what to do with American movies. Occasionally, I’ll come across something that really excites me, but, even if it excites me, it’s not in terms of the view of the world it presents. It’s more that’s an interesting way to tell a story or that’s an interesting shot. It’s been a long time since we’ve had something as shocking and innovative on the level of JFK.
The Oliver Stone Experience is now available through Abrams.
Wim Wenders‘ latest film, an adaptation of Peter Handke’s The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez, premiered at the Venice Film Festival last week. While the legendary New German Cinema director has, in recent years, found much more success with his non-fiction output, Aranjuez is undeniably wistful stuff — and frankly quite dated, too, yet it nevertheless demonstrates that Wenders is still eager to take risks with his films and further push the boundaries of his technique. Whatever the case, in a quaint hotel by the Mediterranean Sea, we found the great man in a somewhat introspective mood.
Shot, essentially, as a 3D chamber piece, Aranjuez imagines the conversation between a man and a woman sitting on the patio of a grand old French chateau. The man talks nostalgia. The woman talks sex. Nick Cave appears on a piano. Check out our conversation below.
The Film Stage: Aranjuez takes place on a beautiful day in a beautiful garden. Is the film a search for that tranquility?
Wim Wenders: Well, the garden does evoke the First Garden. And it’s a little bit garden of paradise. We even added an apple. And I think we all miss it. If we know it or not we all miss it. We all miss the wind in the leaves and we all miss the birds. Maybe we have unlearned it.
The Film Stage: And yet you are a very urban person. You’ve lived in cities your whole life.
Totally right, but luckily my profession led me to silent places and it led me to deserts, and I realized those deserts were my favorite places in America and Africa and Australia. So, I realized I was a city man who had the capacity to be exposed to silence. And I much enjoy shooting in nature today, I must say. I really enjoyed [it]. And I really developed an ability to film there that I didn’t have before. My entire desire, as a young filmmaker was to be out in the cities, to discover more roads and more cities. It’s only now, that I’ve become older, that I am happy to be in silent places.
The Film Stage: You mentioned the wind in the trees; filmmakers often use that image to show madness or desire. It’s very prominent when these characters express desire.
It’s only when we’re shooting that I realized you first hear the wind. You hear the wind and only a few seconds [later] you see the leaves starting to move, and then they sway like crazy and sometimes at dramatic moments in the dialogue it’s as if the wind knew to orchestrate itself. But it’s only in the film that I realized you first hear it, and then you see it. In a lot of our other phenomena, [it is] the other way around: you first see it, and then you hear it. The wind you first hear him. Him, why do I say “him?” [Laughs]
You are also playing with 3D, color, and black-and-white. Would it be correct to say you use technology very consciously in your films?
I do, because it enables me to do things I wasn’t able to do before. I’m not necessarily a technology freak, but I’m curious to find out what you can do with new tools. I also started to experiment with virtual reality because I am interested in where technology… does it expand what we can do? Does it expand our possibilities to express ourselves and to be storytellers, or doesn’t it? And 3D does, so I like it and I embraced it, and I’m horrified by the fact that it’s going to disappear before we know it because it’s only been abused. It’s been abused, and abused and misused over and over again, so now a lot of people are sick and tired of it. And they think it’s useless, because it’s mainly used in useless ways. Unfortunately.
Do you mean with blockbuster movies?
Well, most of them don’t really need it. And a lot of them are not even shot in 3D — they’re shot in 2D and then they make some sort of artificial 3D out of it afterwards. That is brain-damaging. It really hurts our brains.
Do you think VR technology will have a similar story? Will it have a big burst and then fade away?
VR? I don’t know if it has storytelling abilities. I think it has great abilities to put us into situations — so I think it has great abilities for documentary situations — but I’m not sure it has storytelling abilities. I’m not sure. I don’t know if I want to know what’s happening behind my back in a story. Unless I make that a subject of that story, but then it is limited. I think editing is difficult in VR, and editing is a very important part of storytelling. For a writer, as well as for a filmmaker. I am not quite sure, but who knows what we can come up with? I haven’t seen the film that’s showing here, The Life of Jesus Christ, but I hope I can see it tonight.
How has 3D changed your language as a director?
I realized it gave me a more complete instrument of perception. And I realized that a huge part of my desire as a filmmaker was to take people there — where I was filming. And I always realized that my means were limited and that the flat screen is a limited place to immerse somebody. As hard as I always tried — sometimes I succeeded; sometimes I didn’t — it’s limited. Because, for a 100 years, movies were pretending they can take people into space, and movies invented a lot of fantastic things like tracks and cranes, steadicams to be more and more mobile, and more and more to [be able to] invade space, but, in the end, it’s always like in the ancient caves — it’s always on the wall, it’s always on the flat surface.
So the fact that the screen suddenly opened up and really became a window — and of course, movies always pretended to be windows into the world, but these windows always had a closed shutter because it always happened on a wall — now for the first time that wall opened and I thought that was interesting enough to try it. And then I realized it opened ways for storytellers, it definitely opened ways for me as a documentary filmmaker when I was making Pina. For the first time, it gave me a tool that allowed me to be in the realm of the dancers, in the realm of the dancers’ space. That’s their principal equipment, and that’s their principal tool, space. Everything they do is conquering space, and my tools never allowed me to do that.
So I was happy to discover 3D with something that really needed it. And of course, that was in the early days — we shot Pina before Avatar came out and put 3D on the map and I’m eternally grateful to Cameron that he did because I don’t know if we could have even distributed Pina without Avatar. A lot of theaters equipped themselves with that 3D equipment and that was very, very helpful for our film. When we made the film in 3D and announced it was going to be in 3D everybody said, “You’re crazy. Which movie theater is going to show it? They don’t even have projectors for it.” And then James Cameron brought in the projectors, and it was a beautiful film as well I thought.
Were you aware that Avatar was happening at the time?
Not really, no.
James Cameron saves European film.
In many ways no, no he didn’t. Because not many people caught up. And I was so sure, I was so sure that it was going to catch on and documentary filmmakers were going to start using it, and experimental filmmakers were going to start using it, and I was sure that they were all going to jump on it. It was too good to be true and then nobody did. Because the industry didn’t really want other people to use it. The big studios made sure that everybody believed it was their tool, and their territory. And even now, if you look at the trades [papers], which are really the arm of the big studios, they have foam in front of their mouths to talk about my films in 3D. They hate it. They don’t want us, independent filmmakers, to mess with the studio’s own tool. They hate people and auteurs using it, because they think it’s none of our business. And that’s going to ruin the language of 3D, before we know it nobody’s going to make these movies. And there’s going to be a huge cry for it.
There is a quality to Aranjuez that feels uniquely European.
Maybe it’s because it’s in French, and because French is such a language at the center of European cinema. Maybe that’s part of it. Maybe it’s because we had Portuguese producers and a German director and an Austrian writer. I don’t know what it is.
Well do you think nowadays — as a member of the EFA — that European cinema has its own quality, its label?
Oh, yes. I think it has proven that it deserves a name and that it has qualities that, unfortunately, the political Europe does not have. I think our films have a European quality that deserves the name, while European politics, in my opinion, don’t deserve the name. Politics continues to beat us down, to understand Europe as a financial and economic unity instead of a country. In our European film academy we have Palestinians and Israelis because we realize that’s part of our context. And the English will still be beloved partners of the European Film Academy after the Brexit, so we have nothing to do with the way politics defines Europe. I think politics would be very well-advised to come off that high pedestal of economics and start thinking about Europe as a cultural unit instead of an economic unit.
Are you very disappointed with what’s happening in Europe?
What do you mean, disappointed? It’s a catastrophe. We’re not only disappointed; we are hurt. We are very hurt because that is the opposite of what were looking forward to. I mean this nationalism and this redefinition of nationality. Countries that define themselves by their borders is a disaster, a total disaster. It is the worst that can happen to Europe is this onslaught of retro ideas of what culture is, of what a country is, of what a nation is, of what freedom is. It’s a disaster.
None of us thought so when this millennium began, right? We all thought, “Wow. Wow, that’s a great future ahead of us.” And now we wish we could be back in the 1990s. It was so peaceful! And so lovely! So full of hope!
Those values that seemed natural are suddenly being questioned. Like being tolerant and listening to other people.
They are all questioned by the past, that is the trouble: they are not questioned by the future; they are questioned by the past. None of these right-wing parties has any ideas for the future, all of their ideas are about bringing back something. And a whole generation of young English people are stolen, their future is stolen from under their feet by old farts. That makes me more angry than anything else, that it’s elderly people who steal the future of the young. That is unheard of in history, I think. I still get angry. Let’s get into something else.
Some of the close-up shots in Aranjuez are reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu. I was wondering what has been his most lasting influence on your work.
Ozu is a great inspiration, always — not because of his technology or because of the way he shot or anything, but because of his love for people. And because his style is not even a style, it’s an expression of his affection for his people. I don’t know if I learned anything from him in terms of filmmaking, but I certainly learned from him in terms of being in love with his characters. And that almost automatically translates into what the camera does.
So some of the shots [in my film] may evoke some of Ozu’s, but that is only because I love people. And I learned that the camera can express that.
What are the types of narratives that you love? And what can they bring to the modern world?
I think, in a sense, that the creative act is one of the last adventures left. I was such a great traveler. I thought traveling was one of the greatest freedoms a man can have. And I defined myself more like a traveler than anything else — until I realized, not so long ago, traveling didn’t mean much anymore. Anybody travels, any secretary who goes for a weekend in Thailand or a week in the Australian desert and then they’re back in another week. There’s almost no place that isn’t already discovered as adventureland. So traveling has been so much replaced by tourism and virtual traveling that traveling is no longer where discoveries take place.
I think the huge discoveries and the greatest adventure today is the creative act. Musicians, painters, writers, whatever, architects. I think the greatest adventures today are people who venture into new territories of the mind, and no longer into some remote area of the Himalayas. They go there, there is already a hundred people there.
With cheap airlines and everything else, might this increase in availability also be a good thing?
I don’t know if it’s good; I don’t know if these people gain something by going there. I doubt it very much. I really doubt it very much that these people enlarge their horizon or really experience anything by traveling this way. It makes me depressed by thinking that they go there, and then they only arrive there when they’re back home looking at photographs. That’s the only time where they’re really there. That depresses me. It depresses me that first-hand experience is going out of business.
What journey affected you the most? Was there any place that made you a different man, a different person, a different artist?
I don’t know. My greatest travels were travels into museums when I was a kid.
The Rijksmuseum, yes?
The Rijksmuseum, for instance. Yeah. That was my most exciting travel when I took my bicycle, didn’t tell my parents, and I arrived in Amsterdam the evening of the same day — because it was just 100 kilometers — and I called them and said, “I’m now in Amsterdam, I think I’ll find a youth hostel and then come back tomorrow.” My mother was out of her mind. But I was so happy because, the next morning, I went to the Rijksmuseum on my own and then I got back on my bike, and I think that… not the distance, but the museum was the place of my longing. In these paintings, and it was something else see them and to be there than to see them in a book.
What about your first trip to New York?
When I first traveled to New York, I was the first person I knew who had ever been there. None of my friends in school, none of my friends in film school — nobody I knew had ever been there. So I wrote hundreds of postcards because I realized I owed that to all these people, and I was the first one there and now, pfft, I don’t know where I would travel to to send post cards, because I was proud to be there. [Laughs]
New York was different. Berlin was different. Obviously the architecture is different…
Well, the entire planet becomes one place anyway. Which is, of course, in many ways a good thing, and in many ways it’s a loss of specificity and a loss of identity, and a loss of attraction, and the planet becomes a different planet and we have to find other ways to explore.
Did you find your place in the world? When you close your eyes what place do you see?
I’m in Berlin when I close my eyes. I’m in Berlin and very happily so. I moved to Berlin in 1974, and that’s now quite a while ago, and I’ve always had my office there and an apartment, even when I lived in America. Berlin is my city and it had difficult times and hard times. [Pauses] It was divided when I first got to know it and it’s now a place where everybody wants to go and it will also survive that.
I think it’s still a specific place.
It’s still a specific place, but you don’t know for how long. Cities go through these cycles.
What do you love so much in Berlin?
Wim Wenders’ PA: Do you work for the Lonely Planet? [Laughs]
It’s different, and developers are trying hard to make those different places disappear. Unfortunately, a lot of the places that are different in any other city are slowly disappearing because they are slowly bought up by developers who make it like any other place. So, it goes down the drain. But I have high hopes for Berlin because Berlin is quite a special breed and they have their own sense of humor and they’re quite resistant. What movies will you see tonight?
There’s a new one from Ulrich Seidl.
Oh, yes, he’s talking about what we were talking about: tourism. [Laughs] Well, great. We need him.
The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival.
Yes, the rejection of Bertrand Bonello’s youth terrorist drama Nocturama from major European festivals has pretty much been made public, which, despite the subject matter, is quite baffling: the film is easily one of 2016’s most formally and conceptually audacious works. (Check out our excellent review for an articulation of why.)
Luckily, it was programmed in TIFF’s Platform section and we could briefly catch up with Bonello in Toronto to discuss influences, the difficulties of making his film, and the choice of Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” which is sure to be the talk of the fall festival season — at least for people who matter.
The Film Stage: Just released online was an excerpt from an unmade remake of Vertigo you had wanted to do. In addition to the excerpt was the statement that part of Vertigo’s importance in film history is that it marked the movement from classical to modernist cinema. Is Nocturama of a similar impulse — to take something classical, genre cinema, and mutate it into a modern film?
Bertrand Bonello: Well, I don’t have the pretensions to compare the film to Vertigo. [Laughs] I don’t know, but do you want me to talk about Vertigo? It’s true that, for me, it’s been a major film, and I had this project for a long time that I couldn’t make, but Nocturama is very different. But to answer your question, I wish it was true. [Laughs]
You said you had written Nocturama five years ago. I’m curious about how much the film changed post-Charlie Hebdo. Not necessarily in terms of content, but I imagine having to shoot all these sequences around Paris in the beginning would be different because security would have ramped up. Did you change any of your formal ideas of depicting the city?
No, I didn’t change anything — but, in fact, everything in Paris, in the city… well, you don’t see a lot, it’s just people walking, taking the metro. The explosions of the cars in the center of Paris, that was a little tricky to do after January, but they allowed us to do it and the rest is special effects so we didn’t have any problems with the authorizations. But I didn’t change anything after the events.
I actually found something kind of touching about the use of the Willow Smith song, because you must have picked that five years ago. I mean, I don’t think anyone’s even mentioned it since 2010.
I like the idea that when they are in the mall they have their iPhones and they can be like, “Oh I like this song,” and they can listen to it again. And I was really searching for a sugar-pop song, like a dance song that could go with the images of the explosions; they put the music on, then they put the TV on, and the mix of the two is quite violent, in fact. I mean, this song is quite easy listening and pleasant, but, for me, becomes quite violent when they hear it on these images.
How difficult was it finding the right young actors? Because everyone nowadays talks about how natural most kids seem in front of the camera, like they’re just used to it. Did you find that to be the case or not so?
When you do this kind of casting, where you have, like, ten people to find, mostly unprofessional, you have to give yourself a lot of time, so it took me, like, eight or nine months to do the casting. If you take the time, you find the people. The script was finished, but I didn’t describe a lot of the characters in the script, so I wanted the actors I’d find to bring everything I didn’t write, be it the way they talk or walk; that they bring to the film who they are also.
Were any of the music choices inspired by them?
No, the music choices were all mine. [Laughs]
A few years ago, when both Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring came out, there was all this talk about how the dominant narrative in American cinema was the millennial and the pursuit of the American dream. Do you think, with this film, you’re in comparison presenting French youth as a less narcissistic and more radical generation? Or at least one that thinks so?
I wouldn’t say that. They’re really the same. It’s very difficult in the U.S., and they came with the right intentions, but there’s not really the opportunity there to be more radicalized and less narcissistic.
A comparison a few people are making with this film is Dawn of the Dead because of the shopping mall. In that film, every character is essentially an archetype — they’re all basically cowboys. But you get to relate to them more because you see them indulging in consumerism. Is consumerism a great way of developing characters?
Oh, yes, because it develops behavior. This kind of location is fantastic to develop the behavior of characters, because it’s like a small world, an all-inclusive world. If you throw the characters in this world, you can see through their behavior how they start living again. And it allowed me to see the characters.
Was John Carpenter an influence on this film? Because I think the setting just instantly makes it like your Assault on Precinct 13; it also becomes a siege film at the end. As well, the military are essentially faceless villains, like Michael Myers. And you even do the music, just like Carpenter!
Yes, they are just like shadows. Yes, he was a director that I really loved when I was a teenager and he was one of my influences on this film. The characters are obliged to be inside together in this small place, and it’s like a micro-society where they have to learn together, and the danger is outside. You don’t see it, like in my film. Just shadows.
Nocturama is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Chan Is Missing has long been considered a benchmark in Asian-American cinema — some would say that, unfortunately, it’s by default the benchmark — but, 34 years later, writer-director Wayne Wang mostly has other things on his mind. Speaking to him on the occasion of that film’s Metrograph run, Wang was more keen to talk about what he’d wished to do with the movie, other movies in his filmography, and what’s happening elsewhere.
The film absolutely deserves your time and attention, and Wang’s attitude is more telling of where his career has gone: many places, and, more importantly, where he’s wanted to take it. Read my discussion with him below.
The Film Stage: After so much time, has Chan Is Missing ceased to yield anything new? Or do you still discover new things?
Wayne Wang: Well, you know, everything about the Chinese-American community has changed. Filmmaking has changed. I just recently resew the film because of the screening; I was cutting a trailer. I still had a lot of fun with it. I want to redo it, as I want to redo all my films. Otherwise, I don’t mind the film. It’s hard to talk about it because it’s so far away. The things that I do want to redo is that, originally, it had a more structural element to it that I couldn’t pull off at the time, but it’s fine that it is what it is.
What is this “structural element”?
The film was originally an application for National Endowment for the Arts. When I wrote the application, I wanted to make a mystery that was based on the development of the Chinese written word, which is in the interest of Eisenstein’s montage theory. Basically, in the first stage, everything is based on the image. The second stage is pointing to the situation. To point to the situation, you would draw a knife and add a stroke to indicate the edge. The third is the meeting of the ideas, which is Eisenstein’s montage theory: you take a picture of a knife, and then, let’s say, a picture of a person’s heart, and you put a knife on the heart.
It becomes patience, the meaning of patience, because patience is an emotional concept that you cannot draw. The combination of images to express that — the meaning of ideas. The fourth part is the relationship between picture and sound: an element of sound coming in. A movie about pictures and sounds. Anyway, I wanted to make a mystery that had at least four structural changes. Intellectually, it was interesting, but because of a lack of money and being able to experiment with stuff, I couldn’t pull it off, so I made a straightforward mystery instead.
Metrograph’s description calls it “a milestone in Asian-American cinema.” Has this status affected your way of seeing your work?
When I was at film school, there were no true representations that matter. If you look at it, it’s all Fu Manchu and characters like that — pretty stereotypical. Images in the media about Chinese-Americans… it was kind of a burden on me, and there were no other filmmakers doing that. Ang Lee did a couple in a similar context, but there were few doing it. So I carried it for a while, until I did The Joy Luck Club and a few other things, because I didn’t want to be boxed in. So I took off and did different things and all that.
Are there recent examples of Asian-American cinema that you find worthwhile? Even ones where you can recognize traces of what you’d done?
It’s been hard. You know, mostly because my feeling is that the American independents are so about storytelling and trying to be more stripped-down, minimal narrative, but, basically, they’re very narrative. I remember films of that time — such as Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise — and they were very interesting films, narratively.
These days, I look at student graduation films and the films are really wild and crazy. I miss that and I see that more in some interesting European films, more than anything else. In my days, I was also very much influenced by Godard and his whole theory that film language isn’t just one language that Hollywood has dominated, but one that can be very diverse, and, in montage theory, you can watch just a lot of images rather than always accepting what these images mean. These days, it’s completely dominated by the Hollywood narrative.
How do you think you’ve changed in the decades sense? How has your sense of form evolved?
My form has not evolved, really. Well, yes and no. I would say that I think, for myself, what’s important is that I’m still “the one” that sort of makes films about the Chinese-American community. I’m proud that I did a lot of different kinds of films; if you look at my career, I just jump around a lot. More recently, I’ve come back to experiments. I did a documentary called Soul of a Banquet that’s about a 93-year-old; I did a film in Japan with Takeshi Kitano. I don’t know if I think of myself… over the years, I’ve stripped myself down to a minimalism.
Chan makes great use of San Francisco, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on the city’s place within cinema film.
San Francisco has been, kind of, the outsider and rebel for those who don’t want to be in L.A. — and I count myself, because I hate L.A. and don’t want to live there. Some, like Coppola and Lucas, have made their career there. You also have George Kuchar and others. San Francisco has always had this attitude about being different, and that’s the beauty of it.
Do you have memories of coming up with other filmmakers?
There was one day in time that I really remember well. Chan Is Missing was selected to show at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and I went there. Edinburgh is such an interesting city and I’d never really traveled much through Europe at that time, and that’s a festival where I ran into Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. Everyone was coming out with their new films at that time, and we all had lunch at a fish and chips shop. We talked about Taiwan, China, our films, our ideas. I met Ang Lee when we were both struggling. I met a lot of younger Chinese filmmakers. There were some really young filmmakers there.
I’ve spoken to many accomplished artists, but there are perhaps none who bear the same extent of experience as Kirsten Johnson. Don’t worry if the name doesn’t ring any bells: she’s built her repertoire as a documentary cinematographer by working with and for the likes of Michael Moore, Laura Poitras, and Jacques Derrida, and the things she’s seen have been funneled into Cameraperson, a travelogue-of-sorts through Johnson’s subconscious.
Her time as an interviewer, or at least a companion to interviews, came through when we sat down together at Criterion’s offices in New York last month. Never have I been more directly forced to think about my work than when she turned the tables on me — all of which started with some complementary danishes left for us in the room. It’s a level of engagement that befits one of this year’s greatest films, documentary or otherwise.
The Film Stage: There are many places one could start, since this movie goes so many places and evokes so many things. I struggled to think of a good first question.
Kirsten Johnson: Aw!
The good thing is that I have a lot to ask — a lot I want to ask. While this may be a weird note on which to begin an interview, this is a movie that comes from such an internalized place and is dictated by a formidable internal logic — so is it strange to explain or clarify these things? How has the process been?
Well, that’s a really perceptive first question, because I think, for me, I didn’t initially trust that what was going on inside of me while I was filming could be seen in the footage, and I guess what we learned, making this film, is that my internal life is present in this footage. That was a huge revelation for me and, of course, somewhat obvious, on a certain level. But it’s interesting how much you think yourself to be hidden or not be present — even in a conversation with another person. You and I are here, talking; this is supposedly about me and my film. But, in fact, I would say this is a relationship between the two of us.
I gave you permission to eat during the interview. You want to eat, right? That changes the dynamic. If you were sitting here the whole time wishing you could eat and I made you so uncomfortable that you didn’t eat, you would get into the interview and be present, but there would be some part of you that’s disconnected. In some ways, it’s the body — you’re hungry — and, for me, what is so profound about camerawork is you can only do it if you’re present with your body. You can watch a movie and you’re present with your body, but you’re not in the place — your relationship to the physicality of the thing. You’re looking at a screen. You’re somewhere — you’re in a movie theater or in your bed at home — but when you’re shooting, you have to actually be physically present. I think, somehow, this question you have about my internal state… your internal state is that you’re hungry.
So we know, because we are here — two bodies in a room — I know something about your internal state, and, in some ways, we connected on a more intimate level because I acknowledged your body. I acknowledged you’re hungry and need to eat. We can go new places because of that acknowledgement. So that’s this very weird idea, I think, of what a body is and does in the world. Sometimes it’s completely abstracted from its presence, but in filmmaking and camera work, you have to be physically present — and thus, on some level, interested in the insides of other people. You’re feeling your own insides and other people’s insides. Does that make sense?
Yes. That’s a very strong, profound note to start on.
There was something I wanted to ask later, after “making our way through” a bit, but now I want to ask right away. After all, you’re probably as well-equipped as anybody to answer this. About a month ago, I talked to James Schamus, and he told me there are certain things you can use to represent subjective experiences, but that there isn’t really a first-person cinema — that, ultimately, forces make cinema more than an experience of one.
He cited Chris Marker and Jonas Mekas, the essay-film, as possible counterexamples, and you’ve made something that specifically brought Mekas to mind. What are your thoughts on first-person cinema? Do you think it exists? Do you even have an idea of what it might constitute?
Well, one, it’s really beautiful to me, the idea that first-person cinema sort of can’t exist, because it is always relational filmmaking. So I… Chris Marker, Mekas, there’s people with which they are engaged in the filmmaking, and I think that’s what James is talking about: in some ways, without the collective, you can’t make anything. You can get really crazy about it. You can say, “Okay, I can make something by myself, in a room, with a camera and still objects,” but somebody still made the camera. The way the camera can see as an object of technology in relation to the person who is holding it, that is already a relationship. I guess that’s what I’m really interested in acknowledging with Cameraperson, is how many people are involved in making anything.
Certainly, I feel like what happens between people… so somehow, what happened between us in the first question allowed you to go to the question that you thought you would have to build through a whole interview to get to. In fact, we can go right in. This is what I do when I do camerawork. You’re a person who’s lived through the Rwanda genocide; we’re only here for two hours. How is it possible that we can have a conversation where I’m respectful of you and we will film something that will be meaningful to people in that amount of time? We are skipping huge steps of human relationships, and, in some ways, it’s because of these technologies. Right?
You have a recorder here. You have a job to do. We have a limited amount of time. So we’re going in as deep as we can in this moment, and there’s trust between us. It was established very quickly in this back-and-forth that happened between us. I can do a first-person interview in which I say what I want to say at you, and you would feel like I had never seen you, but I would answer your questions. But I still think it wouldn’t be first-person. It’s about the two of us together. Does that make sense?
Yes. Maybe you can’t answer this because of your own experience, but I nevertheless wonder if you’re more conscious of the interviewing process than most other filmmakers who speak with press.
Definitely. Definitely. Yeah. I can feel what is to be you. I’m much more familiar with what it is to be you than it is to be me in this situation. And I think because, in some ways, doing the camera demands that you be silent — you’re listening to interviews and filming them — and I know how much is going on inside my head while that process is happening, that I’m really interested in who the interviewer is and what’s going on in your head. What’s the subtext running through your head in this moment? You’re sort of wishing, “Ugh! I wish her sentences were shorter and we could get to the —
But, you know, there’s some subtext, and I’m curious about that, as well as being curious about this, and I also think that’s what camerawork enables: you can process on these multiple levels simultaneously.
We wrote a very positive review of this movie out of Sundance, a review I edited, and I knew this was “a movie to see,” but I avoided knowing anything over six months. Going in, I had no idea what the movie was.
Even though I’ve seen movies to which your name is attached, I have to admit that I didn’t know, specifically, who you were.
I wonder about the question of discovery, because it’s kind of a hard thing, where the movie has to be sold: the company bought it and they want to make money, so you have to make a trailer and do these things of telling people what the film is and why it should be seen. So I wonder how you feel about people going in and knowing what they’re getting.
It’s something I discovered — which I didn’t know would be true — about this film: you can’t write a spoiler for it. We actually just made a trailer, and I don’t think the trailer tells you what the experience of the movie is at all, because it’s very specific to its duration and the accumulation of scenes. Even though we can say, “Oh, there’s a scene in a hospital and a scene in a boxing match,” that cannot convey what it is to be in each moment of the film.
I think, for me, that’s what was so thrilling about discovering this idea of doing it without voiceover, so that people were actually in my experience, as opposed to a mediated form, so you have to stay in the moment — or you maybe want to stay in the moment as it’s unfolding, because I’m experiencing it unfolding, and you can feel my searching as you, a viewer, search to understand. That’s both in the interior of each shot and each scene, and that’s also in the way it’s constructed — that we’re attempting to give you access to what it is to be me.
That leads me to wonder, then, if you’ve had a direct hand in the marketing — what the trailer should contain, watching cuts, and so on.
Yeah. I mean, I have, and yet we all really raise the question: what could the trailer of this movie be? In the making of the film, you make many short trailers attempting to get money from foundations, and we never made a trailer that could make sense to anybody. In attempting to fund and create the film, we couldn’t find a way to communicate what the film is because you have to be in it, and now we’re benefitting from the reviews that have come out and this accumulation of material around it, where people say, “Yes, I enjoyed this experience.”
The trailer that they’ve cut — and, I thought, they did a fantastic job of cutting — is very fast, which is very funny, because that’s not what the film is at all. It shows you the multiplicity of things in the film, and it indicates that there are visual connections between things. But it, in no way, is a spoiler for the film. So I’ve been advising but haven’t, I would say, been “directing” the marketing of the film.
It’s interesting how the movie’s been given a certain “anointment” because of its associations with Janus and Criterion. I mean, we’re sitting in Criterion’s office.
So I don’t think its home-video treatment is much of a secret. A film that’s been picked up by Criterion becomes part of a certain canon that people have access to, and they can compare it to other movies that the company’s released. I mentioned Mekas because I was watching the movie and asking, “What does this remind me of?”
My mind went to Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania and Walden. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them.
That doesn’t surprise me, because it feels so present here. Anyway, that’s a very long way of asking if you see this movie as fitting into a certain kind of tradition and being in sync with anything in particular.
Well, as you can imagine, I’m sort of stupefied that we are now part of this Janus-Criterion family, because, in many ways, it is the family of films that have mattered to me as I desired to become a filmmaker, as I enjoyed being a filmgoer. I do love Man with a Movie Camera. I do love films that are deep in cinema history, that somehow translate this experience of being a body, alive, making a movie, and so, in some ways, this incredible range of the personality present in the work. Ousmane Sembène is present in the work. Ozu is present in the work. Those are the films that have mattered to me over time, and I certainly feel saved by films. I feel saved, as a human being — given back my joy of living and given my desire. It gets reopened by films over and over again, and I feel like Janus and Criterion have loved and supported films that I have loved and supported. So, in many ways, it’s mind-blowing to me that I get to join the stream of all of these things that have fed me so much.
But it’s the multiplicity of ways in which we are fed, so I don’t… there are several things that inspired me in the making of this film that are not Janus-Criterion films. Tim Hetherington’s Diary was a really important film for me, as an experience, and then there are obviously films like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. That film has mattered to me for 25 years, and so, somehow, this idea of staring and “who stares back” has been a preoccupation for me my entire life. Those connections are real.
Have you thought about yourself differently since making this film, now having credits as both a cinematographer and director?
Well, honestly, what mattered more was to indicate the way in which all people who are making a film are thinking — not just the director. Obviously, a director has a vision and a big picture and the “direction” [Laughs] that they’re bringing to it, but I can’t even tell you… I’ve worked with sound people whose insights into what we’re experiencing are so incredibly on-point and profound because they’ve worked on hundreds of projects. They’ve seen systems of human relationships at scale, and they can triage and connect ideas in ways that, if you’ve only made three or four films, you can’t.
That is the same for translators and the drivers of cars. A driver in Darfur driving us to a location knows so much more about the conflict we’re in the middle of than the director, me, anybody else on the crew. That’s what I’m really interested in as a person, as a filmmaker: tapping into all of that insight and knowledge and, in some ways, revealing that that’s what it takes to make films — this complexity of human presence and interaction. It’s funny to me that people are surprised that the cameraperson has been thinking. Of course I have. Right? And so is the sound person. And so is the driver. And so is the PA. We’re all thinking in order to make a film.
Then I wonder if there’s a creative selflessness in giving over so much. You make a movie, and, when people see it, they’ll be talking about what you and others do, yet you’re still giving someone — for instance, a driver — the platform to do something. You also have these segments that are, one might say, “more personal,” since they concern your children and parents. I imagine that they’d come to feel separate, in terms of experiences.
It’s funny, because it’s not separate. All of my life is sort of happening simultaneously, and I’m sort of experiencing my mother dying when I’m in Sudan. There was an incredible moment when a group of refuges just came in from having their village burned, and there was only one translator. He was a man and the director was a man, and a whole group of men gathered to tell them what happened. So the translator was translating to the director, and I got surrounded by a group of women — I was the only woman on the crew — and we couldn’t communicate to each other, but they were trying to gesture what had happened. It was pretty obvious: men on horseback came, set fire to villages.
But one woman kept sitting down and getting another woman to pull her arm, and standing up and sitting down. She really wanted to communicate this thing to me. So I went and got the translator and said, “What is she trying to tell me?” I did her hand motions because I’d seen them so many times, and I said, “This is what she’s trying to tell me.” I communicated to him, and basically she said, “My best friend is experiencing this thing where she doesn’t understand time anymore and she has no memory.” I was trying to explain to her that we had to run away, that people were coming to kill us, and she kept sitting down. I couldn’t get her to stand up and leave. She’s crying and I realized, “This woman’s best friend has Alzheimer’s and is in a village in Darfur, and her friend’s trying to get her to go.”
Just by difference in fate — the difference in what I’m trying to get my mom to do by sitting her down in a chair — but I know exactly what she’s experienced on the level of, “You can’t be rational with her. It can’t happen.” So I get the translator to say the same thing: “I’ve done the same thing. I’m here, filming you, but I abandoned my mother, who has the same loss of memory, and I’m not with her, either.” We just hugged each other and cried. It was… this kind of moment that’ll never be in the film. It’s only between the two of us. I don’t know what it means to anybody else, but we comforted each other in this moment of both of us failing to help those people that we loved. That’s, for me, what filmmaking is.
Later that night, I got home to the compound where we were staying. I called my mom on a satellite phone and said, “Mom, I was thinking about you today.” She said, “Well, what I’m just really worried about is, are they getting ice cream to you there.” [Laughs] I was like, “They aren’t, but I’m going to work on it.” In that sort of weird connection, that entanglement of the world, that feels like my life all the time. So to have all of these strands together feels like the most honest thing I could do.
Cameraperson will begin its theatrical run at the IFC Center on Friday, September 9.
In his breakout drama Blue Valentine and narratively ambitious follow-up The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance has been fascinated with relationships fractured by sin and the ripples of regret. This makes him the ideal fit for an adaptation of M. L. Stedman’s hit novel, The Light Between Oceans, which, in film form, follows a lighthouse keeper (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Alicia Vikander) faced with a moral quandary.
Ahead of a Venice Film Festival premiere and wide release this week, I spoke with Cianfrance about the adaptation process, technically making a kidnapping movie, working with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, being fascinated with time, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: In your films, you really sense the weight and passage of time, and it kind of sneaks up on you here. What draws you to these stories?
Derek Cianfrance: Time? You know, it’s the eternity of every moment. I read Siddhartha when I was a kid, and he talked about how the river is the same at the top as it is at the bottom — that time is an illusion, that it’s all actually folded upon itself; that the water at the top and the bottom are the same thing, that there’s no real time. I don’t know. Maybe I’m a bit nostalgic, too, for old times, for other times, for memories. I feel like I’m always living in memory, and I kind of want my movies to exist in a place of memory, in long-term and short-term memory. Sometimes I’m not quite sure, in my real life, if I’m dreaming something, if I’m envisioning the future, or if I’m remembering a story. So I kind of like movies to take place in that same sort of memory; I want the movies to feel like home movies, and also memories.
The Light Between Oceans could technically be described as a kidnapping movie, but one from the kidnappers’ perspectives — which is kind of rare, especially considering the humanity you give them. Did you think of that angle at all? And how did you bring that humanity to them?
You know, yes. The author of the book was a lawyer, and I never thought much about lawyers until I was on jury duty a few years back. And when the prosecution was up, I was absolutely certain that the defense was guilty; and when the defense went up, I was absolutely certain he was innocent, and I understood them. So I realized that lawyers have to understand all sides of a story, and they really have to empathize with people. I thought the author of The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman, really empathized with all characters here. I’ve been trying to do this with my own movies. In my own original stories, too. There’s never really good guys or bad guys; there’s just people.
Because my best friends and my wife and my kids and my parents, they are not always nice, you know? They are human beings. Everyone, myself included… I’m an asshole sometimes, and I’m a real nice guy, too. You know, you hear this in Hollywood all the time: likability. The likability of a character drives me crazy because people are not likable all the time, and I don’t need likable people. What I want to find is human beings that are making choices, and they have to make choices in my movies, and there has to be consequences to every choice. I grew up Catholic, you know? So I have a lot of guilt, and I feel like everything I do, maybe, is wrong. So the characters in my movies always make choices and there’s reverberations.
In The Place Beyond The Pines, I made that because choices my great-grandfather made, I feel like, my kids are living with now. I really believe in that; I really believe in that ripple effect of a choice. I feel like Tom and Isabel, in this movie, they make a choice which I totally understand, and they make it out of pure intentions — they make the choice from their heart, they make a choice out of love. There’s nothing evil about their choice. They’re trying to save this baby. Maybe they put away some rational thought to do it, but they’re right. Isabel’s right: she says, “If we turn her in, if we report her, they’re gonna put her in an orphanage ‘cause they’ll never give her to this couple that live on this island with no church and no school.” So she’s right. I take her side there. I understand: the baby gets to be a certain age before the truth comes out; I understand that it would be crushing to the kid. And it is, in fact, and I understand Tom, that if he takes the baby away from Isabel, he’s going to kill her. And he’s right — it almost does. But if he doesn’t… so there’s these impossible choices all based on good intentions and good people.
I wanted to ask about Adam Arkapaw, the cinematographer. I don’t know if Michael Fassbender shot Macbeth with him before your movie.
Yeah, he did.
Did he make the introduction, or did you?
Well, I actually met with Adam the morning I was going to meet Michael for the first time. Yeah, my first meeting was Adam, second was Michael that day, when they were shooting Macbeth. First, it was like I had to find an Australian cinematographer for a tax credit, but then Australia decided to give their entire tax credit to Pirates of the Caribbean 5, which was what sent us to New Zealand. So I think that was, hopefully, a good choice for the country. I know they got dogs or something.
Anyway, Adam — I loved his work — I met with him and he had this really calm, quiet, observant demeanor and I liked him quite a bit, and I asked him to come over to my house in Brooklyn. A couple months later… he played basketball with my kids for two hours in the backyard and I thought to myself, if this guy can be that open to the world, that he could come over to my house and play basketball with my kids, then he’s going to come into this environment and not have to control every aspect of it. He can actually live. Here’s a DP who can actually embrace life, so I hired him on the spot.
I did the same thing on Blue Valentine, because Ryan Gosling had worked with Andrij Parekh and they had a trust, and I felt like it would help me with Ryan to have someone next to me who he trusted. And I felt the same thing with Michael; I didn’t know Michael that well, we were just getting to know each other, and I thought that if he had someone next to him that he loved, too, that it would help him feel comfortable and safe. And Adam, he’s amazing. His eye… you know, I’m not tooting my own horn — I’m tooting his horn — but I think his digital photography in this movie is as good as I’ve ever seen it.
With the sound design, the ocean feels almost overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like it’s overtaking the dialogue when they’re walking by it. There’s also a tranquility mixed with the images of the ocean, as well as a ferocity. Can you talk about developing that and knowing what you wanted to get out of the location?
First off, I’ll say that what I really related to in the story — being a parent myself — was there was a line in it about how Tom’s relationship with his daughter was, to him, more important than the eternity of time that came before him. Again, we talked about memory and time — that it was more important than the entire universe, and I relate to that as a parent. I relate to this incredible love for my kids that overwhelms everything in my life. I related to this idea of something so intimate being so epic, and putting something so intimate against an epic backdrop is, to me, like how to make a Cassavetes movie in a David Lean landscape — where that landscape and the weather is a part of it.
So, secondly, is how do you do that? So we all moved there; we all lived where this lighthouse was on this peninsula that was completely isolated from people. So we got to experience the isolation, we got to experience the wind and the windstorms that would shake our trailers at 3 in the morning, and we would show up to set completely rattled from the lack of sleep the night before. We got to experience the madness of that place, and also the beauty and tranquility because the nature teases you like that — it keeps you on your toes: it makes you feel like everything’s calm and then it comes in a tornado and it whips you. We put ourselves at the whim of this experience, and that’s what I’m always trying to find with my movies, is a place where acting stops and behavior and being begins; I’m trying to find a place where story stops and life begins.
So that was all in the sound mix and the photography of the movie — the only visual effects we have in the whole movie is to remove things sometimes, like an antenna that’s on the mountain or something like that — but we didn’t have to create something that wasn’t there. So what the audience experiences is what our experience of that place was like, too. As much as I want to give the actors that experience, I want to give the audience that experience of actually being transported to that place and time and that world, to really make a movie that’s a world.
The one shot that almost felt like a parallel to The Place Beyond the Pines, with the act breaks in that movie, when you had the overhead shot of driving down the road and you see the pines to the side. And in this movie, when the boat is approaching and they know their life is changing forever, it pulls back from the island.
I’m not necessarily referencing The Place Beyond the Pines, but it might just be musicality in filmmaking.
Like a repetition.
Yeah. It’s a repetition of a theme, basically. It’s the comings and goings. There’s a beautiful line in the book that I remember. I spent a year hunting down and trying to get the rights to do this book, because I read it and I thought to myself, “I was born to make this movie. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about my whole life is that people lived on islands, that relationships were like islands, that families were places where secrets happen. That every home was full of secrets, and when you went into someone’s home they would greet you with smiles and purely white teeth and charisma, and a beef goulash dinner, and then, when you would leave, the truth would come out again.” So I just felt like I was born to make this. So there was this line in the book where the last time he leaves the island, when he’s going to go to jail, he measures the distance and turns of the light, and, again — time, distance.
I wanted to ask about one piece of music, “Funeral Canticle.” I remember it from The Tree of Life, but how did you choose that?
Yeah, I chose that piece — I do remember Tree of Life, which is the best. Also, Alexandre Desplat was supposed to do the soundtrack to that movie, and I think Malick used a fraction of it. But you always put in temp music as you’re cutting a movie, and working with Desplat was a huge privilege and honor; it was like magic to be able to work that guy. I did something I’ve never done before in any movie: I showed him a cut of the movie and I stripped all of the music off and I was like, “How would you like to watch the movie?” and he was like, “I’d love to watch it with no music, but nobody but Polanski does that.” I said, “Okay, if Polanski is going to do it, I’m going to be brave enough to do it, too.” So I stripped all my music off except for that piece [Funeral Canticle], and he came out of the first screening and he said, “Your movie doesn’t need music.” I was like, “Is this your way of trying to tell me that you’re trying to get out of it, that you don’t like the movie?” And he was like, “No, it doesn’t need music.” But I said no, no, I don’t take it, you gotta do it.
You have to work a little.
Yeah, you have to a little harder than that, Alexandre. So he did it, and that’s the only piece he didn’t do. But I’m glad. You’re the first person to tell me that.
I just love that piece. It brings me to tears when I listen.
It’s the most rapturous piece of music I’ve ever heard.
One thing I really appreciated is there are a lot of extreme close-ups at the most emotional parts of the film — whether it’s when Alicia’s character is on the grass, or they’re fighting by the water. I’m curious: is that the kind of visual style you knew you wanted on the day?
The movie is about the intimate and the epic, and I tried to nash the film of any medium shots — it’s either extreme close-ups or extreme wide shots. Again, the Cassavetes movie in a David Lean landscape, that’s what I was going for. I always remember: a thing that sticks with me is that John Ford said, “The most interesting landscape is that of the human face,” and all of my movies… I’m always drawn into people. When I’m in a conversation with people, I’m looking at their skin, and I get close to them, I see the details. So when I’m with actors, I just want to be close. To me, it makes it more intimate to be in close-ups. I love close-ups.
I mean, look at the actors. Look at Alicia. Look at her face. She’s absolutely born to be a movie star; her eyes are so cinematic. You get so close to them, you realize — like they say — they’re a window into her soul. Her soul has so much going on. Same with Michael, too. Tom, in this movie, Tom is a guy who is like the lighthouse: he is stoic, but he has a storm raging inside him, he’s conflicted. And, I think, what a great performance Michael gave in this film is to see it, to get into him and see it.
I love when they first meet, how the light is just blown-out behind him and it feels like you’re in heaven for a second —
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
When I talked to you for The Place Beyond the Pines, you talked about how how you and Ryan Gosling felt like brothers by the end of Blue Valentine, and certainly going into Pines. You said that when you first started shooting Light you had just met Michael Fassbender, so how did your relationship evolve?
I knew Michael for three months or something, but we’re kind of getting to know each other on this film. I thought he was the greatest mental actor, the greatest brainiac actor of his generation. Just a great technical actor, but what I was interested in with Michael was his heart. It’s something I hadn’t seen before in his movies; I’d seen him as Magneto, moving shit with his brain. When he took the role for Steve Jobs while we were shooting I was like, “Yeah, makes sense, man. Because you’re a fucking genius guy.” But I was always interested in where his heart was.
Michael is a great guy — not only is he smart, like you would expect; like, super-smart — but he’s got a great heart. I wanted him to trust me enough, be vulnerable enough to show that heart. And he did. He did every day. The biggest thing he agreed to do was come live there on the island with me. Him and Alicia agreed to live on this island with me to make this film in an extreme way. Almost the way we did Blue Valentine, where Ryan and Michelle lived in the house together — Michael and Alicia lived in this world with me. He was brave enough to let his guard down and trust me to be pure and open in the film.
I want to talk about the adaptation process for the book, because you said you wanted to get it made for a while. During that process — before you were officially signed on to do it — were you already working on the adaptation?
No. So, I had met Steven Spielberg at some critics choice awards — when Blue Valentine was going on — and he told me Blue Valentine was his favorite film of the year, which was like a huge… you know, that’s like a big thing, big deal for me. So I went to DreamWorks a couple years later. I had just finished Pines, sick of myself, sick of my own ideas, and I wanted to do an adaptation, but I couldn’t find anything that made any sense to me. Literally, I’d read a page of these scripts and I’d just have no idea what was going on. I went to DreamWorks, they gave me a pile of stuff, and they gave me Light Between Oceans. I thought it was a cinematic title, you know, light, and it was about a lightkeeper. You got the lens and the light going through it — it was very cinematic. And it’s the islands — I already told you the thing about the islands and my feeling about living on an island when I was a kid — so then I started reading this thing, it’s about family, it’s about a husband and wife, it’s about father again. Anyway, I felt like I was born to make it.
So I called the studio and I said, “Yes, I’m in. I want to do this.” And they said, “Oh, well, we’ve already given that to someone.” And I said, “Okay, who? Who is the producer?” David Heyman. So I just bought a plane ticket and I went out there to visit David, and he was like, “Look, I like your stuff but we’ve already given it to someone.” And I was like, “Well what’s this guy’s ideas?” And he started telling me, and I was like, “It’s never going to work, all right? Those are bad ideas. Why don’t you just hire me now, and I’ll oversee it.” And he said, “I’m sorry.” So I said, “I’ll tell you what: when’s it due?” Due in seven months. “Okay, I’m not going to bug you too much, but, in seven months, when that script comes in and it’s terrible, I’ll be here. I’m going to keep myself pure like a bride on her wedding night. I’ll be waiting for you.”
So the next seven months I turned down everything that came my way; wouldn’t even read anything. Every time I talked to my agent I just said, “Light Between Oceans.” Because I was taught one time that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but the problem with being the squeaky wheel is that people can think you’re a headcase if you’re too much of a squeaky wheel; they can think you’re crazy. So every few months I’d write David and I’d say, “Hey, still here. Still right here, waiting.” I’m like a prepubescent kid trying to get the girl in high school, except I haven’t gone through puberty yet but I’ll get there, in time. Anyway, eventually, his script came in. David didn’t like it. I was still right there. I said, “I’m here. I know what to do.” By that time I had read the book so many times I had it memorized and they said, “Yeah, yours. Take a shot at it.” So it was just a pleasure.
The Light Between Oceans premieres at the Venice International Film Festival and opens wide on September 2.
Many who haven’t seen Madonna: Truth or Dare can still claim to know it in a cultural sense — probably thanks to Saturday Night Live, if anything else. The film’s recently been restored on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, and will begin a new run at Metrograph today. This also marks an occasion to speak with the film’s director, Alek Keshishian, who’s had a closer access to Madonna than just about any filmmaker, working or otherwise, and who proved remarkably open about the story behind his documentary classic.
But how else could one be? Truth or Dare still surprises in how much it revealed, even if we’re only talking about the star’s distaste for Kevin Costner and even (or especially) if its all-access quality means a bit less in light of today’s social-media-obsessive stars — one of many areas we managed to cover in our time. And, yes, some questions about David Fincher, with whom he’s currently working, came up; perhaps the lack of total confirmation will make Keshishian’s hints all the more enticing.
The Film Stage: I’m very interested in the restoration process, and Truth or Dare, with its grainy black-and-white photography, seems like a case that has to be handled rather carefully. Can you walk us through it a bit?
Alek Keshishian: I was told there was a restored print. That’s how not-in-the-loop I am. I do know one thing, which is that there’s a real question mark as to where all the prints of the movie are. I know UCLA has archived at least one really good print, and they were trying — as were Madonna’s people — to locate other prints, or even a negative. I don’t really know the details of that; you would have to ask, maybe, UCLA.
Have you at least seen the restoration, to get a sense of what’s coming?
I saw the UCLA print — if it’s the same print, which I can’t be sure of. Last year, Outfest did a special screening, and it was a pretty good print. I mean, you know, it was scratchy in areas — the black-and-white especially — but it was working in its full-screen glory. It looked pretty good, considering it’s [Laughs] 25 years old.
You’ve said that people will approach you about other films you’ve made; you’re not necessarily chained to this one movie. But people still want to talk about Truth or Dare and, of course, see it. This might be a bad question to ask in an interview, and yet: do you ever get tired of talking about the movie? Do you worry you’ve nothing left to say after a quarter-century.
You know, that’s a great question, and I’ll be honest with you: initially, yes. I was tired of talking about it, and especially when the most pertinent questions seem to be, “What’s she really like?” [Laughs] And I’d be like, “Well, you just watched the movie.” But, you know, it’s nice now, when I heard about it — so, no, it doesn’t get old, because it’s not all the time. But there was a period where people in their late-20s would go, “Oh, my God — you made one of my all-time-favorite movies.” I’d be like, “What, Truth or Dare?” And they’d be like, “No. With Honors.” And you’re like, “Huh?! Oh, they were at that critical age of fifteen or sixteen when that movie came out.” So that was a pretty surprising moment. But Truth or Dare, I think, was groundbreaking on some level, to be allowed to see those aspects of a celebrity — especially long before the Instagram period where, now, pop stars… it was unique.
There is something about the movie where, if it was released today, it could actually run the risk of feeling banal, at least if Madonna was a social-media-obsessive artist who broadcast every piece of her life. The filmmaking is very fine, but the level of access wouldn’t feel as unique. So what do you think is the enduring fascination with this film?
I think, instinctively… I mean, that’s an interesting point you’re making: that, right now, it could be banal. I will say one thing: I’ve been asked, many times, to shoot for other celebrities, but none of them would interest. Believe it or not, I don’t think I’d get that access with Madonna today. They’ve all made documentaries. There’s an aspect to Truth or Dare, and I can’t think of a documentary on a music super star that’s been quite like that. I think Katy Perry’s tried to do that a bit. You know, I can’t speak for other people. I certainly didn’t make a movie that would, you know… I was making this movie where I thought we would be lucky to see something.
Metrograph’s site calls your film “crucial film for generations of the LGBTQ community,” which is no small thing. Have you seen a label that you’re particularly proud of?
You know what I’m proud of? Well, not “proud of,” but “grateful for,” is when people come up to me and tell me it helped them receive acceptance for being gay. I think, for a lot of them, it was their first taste of acceptance. And that, I’m grateful for. It’s always gratifying to hear that something you’ve worked on has touched somebody that deeply and that fundamentally. I think all artists dream of making an impact in somebody’s life. Sometimes the movie comes out and it might only touch one person in the universe that powerfully, but that’s our goal, as artists: we’re doing it on stage, on film, as writers — whatever. We’re trying to reach people to show the humanity, somehow, between all of us. In that respect, it’s been very gratifying to hear that it helped. I consider it an honor, in other words.
Oh, sure. And it’s funny, because I’ve been telling people who, like me, weren’t even alive when this movie came out —
How old are you?
They’re probably like, “Who the fuck is Madonna?” [Laughs]
Yet many friends said, “Oh, I love that movie,” and some said they think it’s one of the better music documentaries.
It was, at the time, definitely a cultural phenomenon — certainly for a documentary. It was a port in the storm, in a sense, where her fame was at pinnacle, and then there was this movie that had been made, which was unprecedented in its access. It was just before Rattle and Hum, and it had not been successful at all — the problem being that U2 had censored all the interesting stuff. At its moment, it became, like, part of the zeitgeist, almost. I certainly didn’t expect that. And then you don’t know whether it will endure. People will sometimes say, “Oh, do you think anyone remembers it?” So much of what we do is disposable, unfortunately. So that aspect of it enduring for 25 years and being so talked about…
I wonder if, over time, you’ve become more picky with the film: wondering what could or should be cut, what you wish was kept in, etc.
Oh, probably. Literally, in 25 years, I watched the movie for the first time last year at Outfits in L.A., and, overall, I was more surprised that an audience — made up of people certainly much younger than me — were still laughing at the same places. But I’m sure if I were to watch it with a careful eye, I would make certain cuts or whatever, but that’s the thing with film: it’s a moment in time that’s caught forever.
Is it true that David Fincher was almost going to direct Truth or Dare?
Well, what happened was, Madonna was working with David on “Express Yourself” and “Vogue,” so they talked about the possibility of him shooting a documentary. But then they had a falling-out-of-sorts, so I met Madonna because, believe it or not, she saw something I did, and that’s how she first got wind of me. Unbeknownst to me, she asked her agents to see anything I did. I was 21, fresh off the boat in Hollywood, and, many years later, when I was at her house, I found on a bookshelf each of the music videos I’d done. Individually. Not a show reel. Individual ones, because she’d been keeping an eye.
So, initially, I think she contacted me for something very different. A lot of my videos had dance, and I think she liked the way they were shot and edited. She said, “So, I’m doing this HBO special. I’m wondering if you might be interested in directing it.” I said, “Wow, sure.” She said, “I’d maybe like some black-and-white stuff to put between the numbers. One place I’m going is Japan — in four days. I’m wondering if you’re free to go to Japan and shoot a little of that black-and-white stuff.”
So it began like that. It was never meant to be a film documentary. It was only after I shot what I shot in Japan. Specifically, I shot hours and hours of interviews with the dancers in bed, because I could be sure that they’d show up in the morning. So I had, maybe, ten hours of film. The producer I had with me in Japan had done Rattle and Hum with U2, and he said to me, at the end of day three, “You’ve gotten more interesting stuff in three days than we got in all of Rattle and Hum.” That’s how it came about: it was kind of an evolution that happened organically.
It’d be remiss of me not to ask, even briefly, about the status of some projects you might be working on with Fincher. If you can’t talk about them, or if there isn’t even anything to say, I completely understand.
Well, with David, one of the things you learn is not to say anything until it’s actually happening. But we’ve been working on a TV idea, and that’s all I can say, and also a very experimental film idea. And, you know, he remains a very close friend and someone who I just respect tremendously, so we’re working on this stuff. As you know, with David, everything has to align perfectly — and, until it does, he doesn’t want anyone to talk about it. So I’m going to respect that.
Madonna: Truth or Dare is now playing at Metrograph.
Those who find themselves enamored with Kate Plays Christine — that includes us: along with giving it an A at Sundance, we think it’s your best viewing option for this month — often struggle to find a starting point for even describing the film, let alone praising it, which speaks as much to ambitions as it does the many pleasures they eventually afford. Robert Greene‘s documentary often plays as a rather straightforward example of the form: Kate Lyn Sheil (Listen Up Philip, The Girlfriend Experience) conducts research for a film in which she’ll portray Christine Chubbuck — a newscaster who committed suicide on-air in 1974 and has become something of an underground legend, in part because the sole tape of her act has been suppressed — and struggles with getting in the head of a woman few really knew, as readily evidenced by footage from said film.
But that project doesn’t actually exist, no matter how often Kate Plays Christine insists otherwise by working shot-and-edited material and behind-the-scenes happenings (including interviews with co-stars) into its documentary surroundings. And yet the psychological torment Sheil undergoes for her role plays as awfully real, which makes you wonder about the morality of this whole thing — whether Greene is some Svengali-like psychotic, or everyone who made this is in on the joke and we’re being taken for suckers. Or none of those things, which is equally possible. I’ve seen it twice and don’t like settling on any single point of concentration.
Given both my admiration of their film and my desire to learn more about what, exactly, was going on here, Greene (who I previously spoke to about his 2014 Actress) and Sheil made for great conversational partners; the only downside is that our interview couldn’t be extended, by which point I’d have gladly doubled the size of this interaction. (Take the fact that we already had an interview with them out of Sundance, where Kate Plays Christine won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Writing, for what it’s worth.) Enough with the introductions, however — let’s let the people speak.
The Film Stage: This is a film that, for the viewer, has a potential to shift shapes and change in meaning over time, so I’m glad to talk to the both of you now, months after its premiere — and after you’ve done interviews, probably read reviews, and had time to let it sit. How has Kate Plays Christine changed for you since Sundance?
Kate Lyn Sheil: I’ve only watched the film once; I watched it at Sundance. It can be a difficult and interesting experience to watch that much of yourself, so, yeah, I really only have watched the film in its entirety that one time. I know that talking about it has sort of shifted and mutated. I think because, first, we were so sensitive about talking about it, I suppose, and now it feels, somehow, more comfortable — or something like that. But you’ve probably watched it many, many, many, many times.
Robert Greene: The movie hasn’t changed, but… we shot a year ago, coming up in a few weeks, and the whole thing happened so fast. I started editing sometime mid-August; two months later, it was off to people for them to look at it. Maybe a month later, it was basically done. That’s an incredibly fast process for a movie this weird and complex. We made decisions that were just “let’s go for it” — for example, the ending — and I just went completely instinctually in terms of editing decisions and shooting decisions and everything. We were just going and figuring it out as we went, and, now, living with those decisions is kind of exciting. So how I think about the movie has changed.
I think it’s a movie made for people to have reactions to. It doesn’t work if there aren’t reactions. It’s not a story you just get sucked into, you get the payoff at the end of the story, and that’s it. What would be the reaction other than you laughed or cried? This is a movie we made to have you thinking and there should be multiple layers of thinking and feeling. I read every review and I’m like, “I want to know what everyone thinks.” The fact that we made something to be discussed, and we get to… I get to see the discussion. Kate avoids all that stuff.
Sheil: Yeah, I don’t engage with it.
Greene: So it’s different. Maybe it will be taken one way in your brain. For me, it’s like a conversation, and it’s not just reviews. I’ve done a lot of discussion, and that’s how it changed, I guess, for me.
Ms. Sheil, you’re pretty prolific, and I wonder how the work you’ve done since might have at all affected you as an actor — if there are specific things that got you thinking differently in later performances.
Sheil: I don’t know if it changed me as an actress. Truthfully, I feel like every project changes me as an actress, because I think I’m still learning and growing, hopefully. The other thing is that most of the work I’ve done since shooting this film has been in a very different sphere, creatively; I’ve done some TV stuff, and it’s a different medium and requires different muscles, I guess. But, yeah, it absolutely informed me as a person. I feel like each experience kind of changes you, right? But, no, I mean, to be honest, I don’t think it changed me as an actress.
Greene: I love the question, though, because I remember, at one point, we were thinking about how the movie could end. At one point, the last shot was going to be on the set of a TV show, and we were saying, “It would be great if people thought you quit acting after this movie.” [Laughs] But then you see, “Oh, no, she’s still acting — oh, no.” Almost as if acting itself is a dangerous thing to do. And I think it’s a testament to the performance that Kate gives.
I think people legitimately have the feeling of you being in danger, and what’s interesting about that is that we were just traveling over here, and we have the wig with us for a thing we’re going to do today. We were talking about the power of that wig. [Laughs] Like it’s a ghostly object that, I think, affects us both still. We don’t want to touch it and put it on and play with it; it’s not funny. So that’s real, yet the way Kate brings that to the screen is a performance. I just love that people all around the world have asked me if you’re okay.
Sheil: Yeah, that’s a question we get in Q & As a lot, but, you know… it’s a movie. [Laughs]
Greene: But it’s good. It’s good that they’re connecting. What’s interesting is that they’re connecting because you’re creating that performance, which just shows how good you are — but, beyond that, there is something that we’ll be thinking about, the fact that we went to that place together, for a long time.
Sheil: And there’s certainly more to chew on, as there often is.
Did one of you keep the wig?
Greene: Well, there are two wigs. I don’t know what happened to one, which is really weird. I bet someone on the production has it. I have the one that was in the final scene, that I just kept as a memento. I kept moving it around. I kept moving it around in my editing room at home. It felt really weird to have it, so I kept putting it in different boxes.
That sounds weird.
Sheil: He’s got it in his bag right now.
This relates to something I had in mind: you both did an interview where it was said you’d questioned interests, motivations, and desires going into the movie, and one thing I never quite got from prior discussions is if that questioning would let up a bit — perhaps you’d been so involved in the process of making a film that those concerns just have to disappear. Or were you always questioning, even up to the end?
Sheil: Yeah, I think we were. I was questioning up to the end. Something that we brought up at Sundance was that a part of my function in the film is questioning the rightness or wrongness of making this film in the first place, and I think people watching the film, as you note, often ask, “Why is she doing it?” And that’s something that we struggled with right up until the end, because the reason I was doing it is that Robert asked me to.
Greene: One of the tricky things was that we like each other so much on a personal level. Well, I like Kate. I’m not sure if she likes me.
Sheil: I love Robert.
Greene: That’s very nice; I was just prompting you. But Kate and Sean [Price Williams] and I and Bennett Elliot, one of the producers on this film, we just had such a good time being together and we like being together. There was an on and off switch. Sean, on the plane ride down, was very careful to say, “You’ve got to make sure that you are not filming all the time, because we’re going to have to think about this more like a fiction thing, where we’re off-duty.” That goes against my instincts as a documentary filmmaker, but the thing that was tricky was that because we are genuinely friends and want to be kind to each other, keeping it unstable was sometimes hard — meaning, it was sometimes difficult to jump into this instability thing where questioning always had to be at the forefront.
There could never… I think what you’re saying of if she clicked in, of, “All right, let’s just do this scene” — no, never. In fact, sometimes it would’ve been better for us, mental-health-wise, if I was able to do that better. But I wasn’t. One absolute thing that happened would be, Kate would say, “I don’t like what I’m doing,” and I would say, “Great, because I don’t want you to like what you’re doing.” She’d say, “That’s fucked up.” “You know that’s the concept here?” “Yeah, I know that’s the concept here, but you’re not out here, embarrassing yourself in this makeup and wig, like I am.”
And that was the real channel of tension. It was productive, and we could go home and be like, “That was good that we had a fight or that there was some tension there,” but it was all so real because… for me, making it more real was so necessary and, also, personally mortifying, because I felt like I was doing a bad job, and we were also documenting the real bad job, and, as a documentary filmmaker, I wanted it to be real, that I was doing a bad job! [Laughs]
Those layers were actually happening in the production. They’re not manufactured all for the sake of the movie. Having said that, I think Kate was more in control — even months later. There was one moment where Kate was crying and I was never going to film you in that situation, because you looked legitimately mad at me, and Kate said, “I was mad because you didn’t fucking film me crying. What else was I crying for?” So the one thing I definitely have learned since the movie is how much more in control Kate was than I realized. I don’t mean that I was stupid; just that I was doing my job and you were doing your job even better.
Sheil: That’s not necessarily true. I think you and Sean and I were all… there was a great deal of communication, but, once we started shooting, we had to do our job, and we had secrets from one another.
Greene: We had secrets. That’s actually a key part of the whole thing: we all had three different agendas and we had to keep them to ourselves. Because we were so friendly to each other, we may have overshared aspects of the thing, and you needed to not tell me stuff, and I needed to not tell you stuff — which is a very weird way of being. But, also, you can only do that when you basically feel in love with the people you’re working with. Like it’s a family and that kind of thing.
I was surprised whenever the director appears onscreen.
Greene: Yeah. I hated that.
It’s maybe three-to-five shots in total, but it stood out because I know you. Those who don’t, however, might not be able to place your role — you could just be a crew member. I wonder about being certain when it is and isn’t okay to make yourself present.
Greene: It’s something I think about a lot. I think, with Actress, I’m not in the frame but I’m in every frame because I’m holding the camera, and I really believe that, at this point in the history of documentary filmmaking, the fact that there’s a camera means there’s a cameraperson, which means there’s a filmmaker present, and that should just be taken for granted with every film that we see. I really never wanted to be in the movie, but, to make certain scenes work, you really had to see Kate having conversations with someone — and that happened to be me. Also, it felt very honest to depict myself as kind of an idiot in this process because — and I’m not performing that; in a way, I guess I am, to try to get across this idea — you need to know the thing that we struggled with, which is, “Why is Kate doing any of this?” You needed to hear the voice going, “Well, maybe you should do it this way.” “If you say so.” That must be the director’s voice, and then you see me.
Every time I’m in the frame, I’m doing something that’s pretty repellant, and that’s not… sometimes that feels like when you have an abusive boyfriend. That he recognizes he’s abusive doesn’t mean he’s not abusive. [Laughs] So I’m not trying to, like, weasel out by saying, “Look! I know I’m a fucking idiot!” I do think it functions in the movie, basically, and had to be as little as possible. A late addition is me walking up to Kate to check my mic before the 4th of July scene, and that functions in the story: you need to know that Kate was being put to do this thing. She’s not on that boat because she wants to be on that boat; she’s on that boat because there’s people watching her and filming her and making her do this, and that changed the entire scene — once you see me in the simple act of adjusting something. You’re like, “Oh, that poor thing.” It makes Kate less of an asshole and makes her more sympathetic, and it makes the filmmakers more sadistic for creating that situation for everyone involved.
So wherever I’m on the screen, hopefully it’s functioning to add insight into what Kate is doing and why she’s doing it, and that, as Kate said, was the trickiest part of the whole thing: establishing that without ever doing one of those things where it’s like a movie-within-a-movie of “action!” Shit like that would be terrible. So it was trying to advance that thing. But I also hate it, absolutely. I mean, I hate it. I just look, like, terrible, in every way. Like, look fat and shitty and I hadn’t shaved and I was doing stupid things. [Laughs]
[Note: particulars of Kate Plays Christine’s ending are discussed with the next question and answer.]
The last sequence is the clearest communication between the two of you — which is obvious when it’s you pointing a gun at the camera. I like the way things come together there, and many are divided: there’s been a debate about if the scene works in the context of the movie, how else it could have ended, and so on. Have you thought about that in particular? Has the memory of shooting that last scene been a pointed memory? Even in terms of how else it might’ve been done.
Sheil: I haven’t thought too much about other ways it could’ve been done, because I sort of moved on, mentally, after the film, but you were in the editing room.
Greene: To me it’s, “That’s what happened, so that’s the ending.” I feel very strongly about that. What happened was, we… I had a million ideas for the ending. Kate, you always assumed —
Sheil: I never wanted to do an actual reenactment of the tape, and you, apparently, were never going to do that — but, as pitched to me at the beginning, you said we were going to do it.
Greene: It was important that the option was on the table, for us to go through with the whole entire thing, because if you didn’t think that was something that would hang over your head, then the entire movie wouldn’t work, period, and your involvement in it probably wouldn’t work. So then we basically figured out that we can’t do it. We’re not going to do it. So we came up with this… I love the idea of giving a speech at the end, because it echoes what Christine did, it echoes Network, and it would give us a moment to finally hear Kate say what she really thinks, in some way. Christine had that moment where she’s telling you what she really thinks, in the most horrible way. But Sean and I each scripted what we might thought be the end of the movie, in speech form — totally different kinds of things — and we gave them to Kate and she reacted. “Okay, interesting” or “nope.” I didn’t ever say, “You have to do this or that.”
We were rolling, we had one shot at it, and what we see is what you wrote for yourself to say, and performed — sort of. But then I had no idea she was going to pick up the gun. At the time, it felt truly dangerous and scary. She only does that once. And I had no idea that she would call us sadists. I’m totally fine that an audience will take that away and say, “See, the whole movie was criticizing me.” That says more about you, as a viewer, because some people don’t see it that way. The fact that the ending can bring people to whatever they’re taking away from that moment is the entire point of the movie — so we couldn’t have planned it to be that way, but it works. It works because it is open-ended and layered and absolutely questionable in every way.
Like I said before this: I’ve read all the reviews. The idea that we’re supposed to close this thing without it being questionable is… I don’t know how we would do that. It’s a movie that’s endlessly questioning itself. Beyond that, the last moments aren’t her saying, “You’re a bunch of fucking sadists.” The last moments are the credits. That’s the end of the movie. The end of the movie is: she points the gun at Sean and I, she says, “You’re sadists,” and the movie ends and continues with more. It never stops; the movie never settles on the message. It keeps going and could keep going forever. Do you think of the end of the movie as that moment or the credits?
Sheil: The credits.
Greene: The credits are definitely the end.
Sheil: But I mean, again, I didn’t know that you were going with that. That’s where the documentary element of it comes in, because I really did think it was over.
Greene: Yeah, the moment was passed where you said, “You’re a bunch of faking sadists.” I feel like that was a little bit… I think it’s fair to read that as you, “I want to say this line. I feel this right now,” but also, “Robert could just cut this,” and it was important for me to include it all. It was an electric moment for me, and it still feels dangerous to watch it now. Because I feel awful.
Given your film-literacy, I’m curious if either of you have an idea of what Kate Plays Christine could be double-billed with. If you had to choose, what movie makes a good partner? I don’t know if ideas were in place when directing or performing.
Sheil: Sure. I mean… Edvard Munch, probably.
Greene: Yeah. Edvard Munch, my favorite movie, would be a good one. Or several Fassbinder movies. Maria Braun would be an amazing one.
Sheil: That’d be really rad.
Greene: Someone else had a recent one… oh, I can’t remember the name of it. I’m intrigued by the question because I do feel like it’s speaking to movies. I mean, obviously, Gena Rowlands’ birthday was yesterday, and A Woman Under the Influence would be an amazing double-bill. So much of when you’re talking about how women are perceived in movies in the movie, I just cut out references to Gena Rowlands so it wasn’t so specific. But, literally, it’s you talking about Gena Rowlands, so that would be perfect. Or even just documentaries about performers, like Portrait of Jason, or something. There’s so much Portrait of Jason in everything I do — just a more stripped-down, perfect version of that questioning.
Sheil: It’s true.
Greene: Well, it’s funny, because I was reluctant to make another movie that was so much about acting and an actress, but I think they’re very different movies, and, for a while, I struggled with that, because I think Actress feels materially more grounded than this does, and I was always worried about that — but I’m really proud of how the film turned out.
Kate Plays Christine will begin its theatrical run at the IFC Center on Wednesday, August 24 and expand from there.
When I last spoke with Travis Knight he was juggling the responsibilities of CEO and lead animator at his Portland-based animation studio, Laika. Now, with the company’s fourth feature, he is adding another to his resume: director. Kubo and the Two Strings, the year’s most gorgeous-looking animation thus far, arrives in theaters this week, and I had a chance to speak with him about his debut.
We discussed the wide-ranging influences on the film — from Kurosawa to manga comics — as well as his thoughts on voice acting, Studio Ghibli’s legacy, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: In the film, I saw inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress with this ragtag group of characters and the unlikely hero — and obviously that was inspiration for Star Wars, which I heard was one of your first movie-going experiences — so I’m curious if you talked about developing that dynamic, and the influence Kurosawa had on this story.
Travis Knight: That’s absolutely true. Kurosawa was a towering influence — over me, personally, and over the film, specifically. It’s interesting you picked up on some of those nods; we have them scattered throughout the film. Kurosawa is a towering figure in cinema — he’s one of the pillars. In fact, I think the modern cinematic epic started with Kurosawa and he’s been so influential on so many filmmakers that I loved. That’s actually how I discovered him: when I was a kid — as you said, the first film that I remember seeing in the movie theater was Star Wars — and the first film that moved me to tears was E.T. Both were heavily influenced by Kurosawa, and so, when I discovered that, I went back and started to look at his films — and of course I was blown away, and I think you see threads of that woven throughout the film.
It’s not just that he’s a brilliant artist — I think Spielberg called him a Victorian Shakespeare, just in terms of his filmmaking: the cutting and the composition and the staging and the light. The way he made films was extraordinary, but he was more than that. It was what he made films about, which were these really powerful, potent themes, like humanism and existentialism and the heroic ideal. Even though those films weren’t his better-known Samurai films, in these smaller films, like No Regrets for Our Youth, you still see those big ideas you see woven throughout. So those were some of the core ideas we explore in Kubo and the Two Strings, and they are a nod to Kurosawa.
But the film really is inspired by a great number of different artists and different forms of classic Japanese art, including origami — [I can’t catch the name] brings origami to life with his art; effectively, he’s an animator on some level. So not only when we see origami in the film, but just in the design of his kimono, and some of the buildings and the ships — and even the the mountains he lives in with his mom — those are perfect geometric shapes, and that’s inspired by the origami. Then there are things that give nod to, like ink wash paintings and noh theater; our characters were heavily inspired by late-Edo-period doll making. Probably the biggest single visual influence you see on the film, outside of Kurosawa, was Ukiyo-e, which is literally these pictures of a floating world. The most important form of Ukiyo-e is the woodblock print, and I think the most famous woodblock print ever is Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” and you see a nod to that in our film: the opening sequence of the film, we have a massive towering wave that dwarfs our hero, and that was very much a nod to that incredible woodblock print. So you see a lot of those things woven into the movie. In some ways, what we tried to do, the movie looks like a moving painting, so that’s a nod to some of that beautiful Ukiyo-e art.
Probably the biggest visual influence on the movie is an artist named Kiyoshi Saitō, who was a brilliant graphic artist and wood block print painter in Japan in the 20th century. The thing that was interesting about Saitō was that he comes from a great tradition that goes back hundreds of years of woodblock printmaking, but he kind of threw that off his shoulders. It was still kind of in his bones, but he decided to try a new way of making this thing where he was essentially the author of all the art, as opposed to being one part, one cog of the process. So the work you’d see that he would do was his pure, undistilled vision of his subject. What’s more, he was heavily influenced by Western painters — European painters like Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin. So he takes all these incredible influences and he internalizes it, he synthesizes it, and he weaves it into his art — and then you see this incredible thing come out that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. That was, in turn, a huge influence on us, on this movie — not only stylistically, but just his approach: this fusion of East and West, and old and new, the real and the imagined. That was something he did in his work, and that is something we tried to do in ours as well.
There’s sort of a debate online about whether it benefits the film itself to have famous voice actors — if it helps the marketing and such. I was curious about Matthew McConaughey, because, at the beginning, he keeps the persona that he’s had in different movies, but then you kind of get lost in his character after his first scene. So, as a director, did you have any guidance for him?
Well, I know that the casting process is pretty opaque for people who weren’t a part of it — and there is a logic to it, there are reasons behind every single decision that we make. Casting live-action is very different than casting animation. When you’re casting live action, there are two parts to the performance: there’s the performance that you see and there’s the one that you hear. Those things are bound together. In animation, however, those things are completely separate, and really the actor is the performance that you hear. So what you want is an actor who can convey the complexity, can convey the full range emotions with the one instrument they have available to them, which is their voice. Some great actors, that’s not their most powerful instrument; their voice isn’t the most expressive part of their tool kit. So often times when you disentangle what an actor looks like versus what they sound like, it leads you to some interesting revelations.
So that’s part of our process, we pull clips from movies and interviews to hear how an actor’s voice actually sounds to try and see if they’re right for the movie. Because, in the end, it’s almost like a band or an orchestra: you want each actor to occupy their own unique space of the sonic spectrum — just like you got your violas and your violins and your cellos, etc — each of them occupy their own section, which comes through in the mix. You want the same thing for your actors, so every time you cast a new actor you basically have to recalibrate — you start to play clips from other actors and think, “Does he play well with them?”
So for McConaughey, for what that character was, we wanted a great actor; we wanted someone who is warm and engaging — but also has bluster and bravado — but ultimately had this really warm, beautiful, earthy quality and can play vulnerable and sensitive. With Matthew, going back three years, when he was cast in the movie, we’d seen Mud and Killer Joe and especially Dallas Buyers Club, where he showcases incredible range of performance. That’s exactly the kind of thing we wanted in our movie, so we reached out to him — and of course we’re just a dinky little operation in the armpit of the Pacific Northwest — we reach out to him to see if he’s remotely interested in our film, because he has all the options in the world in what he can be involved in. But it resonated with him in a meaningful way, and I think it’s because of some of the core elements of family. In fact, he read the script to his children in chapters as a bedtime story, which was really meaningful for us.
So yeah, with a director and an actor, you’re collaborating and trying to bring life to the character in the best possible way. So you capture the scenes in as many number of variations possible, because often times you’re recording the actors not together; you don’t always have them together. So you don’t always know what the other actor is going to do, so you have to get a lot of variations to the scene. It can be a weird process for an actor, but I think all of our actors were game and I think they all gave amazing performances.
What drew you to the film’s story, where you’re opening with a fable, and then Kubo kind of recreates the fable in the town square, and then there’s a lot of talk about mythology and fables, and then the film itself can kind of be a fable that will live forever? And can you talk about that sort of nesting-doll structure?
So we started developing about five years ago — when we were knee-deep in the production of Paranorman — and the original idea for the movie sprang from the fertile mind of our brilliant character designer, Shannon Tindle, and, even at its most raw state, there was something really exciting about it. You know, the idea of making a sweeping, stop-motion Samurai epic was just a cool concept, and it spoke to me on a number of different levels. When I was growing up, I was into enormous fantasy epics: I absolutely loved Tolkien, I loved Star Wars, I loved Greek and Norse mythology, I loved L. Frank Baum, and manga comic books like Lone Wolf and Club; I love the films of Spielberg and Kurosawa and Harryhausen.
So with Kubo, it was as if we had a blank canvas with which we could paint in those same colors, with which we could aspire to that epic pantheon of fantasy — that was at the core. When you follow a typical Joseph Campbellian Hero’s Quest structure, it’s a pretty well-trod path, but it’s a very solid foundation which you can use as architecture, for which you can layer on ideas and personal experiences and personal stories, and you can then give the film resonance and meaning. By following that structure, I think it allows us to do a lot of different things within this fairly well-known archetype of story. I’m incredibly proud of the way it all came together.
The timing of the film is interesting. Last year, Studio Ghibli did their last full-fledged feature — for the time being, at least — and this film… I don’t want to say it takes up the mantle, but if someone wanted to see a movie that had some similar qualities I would direct them to Kubo, with the magical realism and sense of adventure and escapism. As a director, obviously you didn’t know Studio Ghibli might not be making movies anymore, but how does it feel to have a film that has some of those qualities that obviously people are very interested in?
Well, I refuse to believe that Ghibli’s not going to make films anymore. I refuse it. Yeah, I mean, you can probably see in the film what enormous influence Miyazaki’s had on us as artists. So, for us, for our film to be spoken in the same breath as Ghibli is an incredible honor. I do think that we are kindred spirits. When I look at the kind of stories that Ghibli is drawn to — the kind of films that they make and the things that we do as well — it does feel to me like we have the same sorts of obsessions and fascinations, and interest in exploring different aspects of the human condition.
So that’s always been a part of what we do, to tell meaningful stories that are resonant and thought-provoking, that speak to something thematically and hopefully take the medium to places it hasn’t been before — and do it in a visually stunning way. That is, of course, something we’ve seen in all the Studio Ghibli films. Again, I refuse to believe they’re done, but we’re very happy if we can, in some small way, carry on that tradition that we’ve been inspired by with Miyazaki’s work. It’s a great honor for us.
Kubo and the Two Strings opens on Friday, August 19.