Latest Features

‘The Cakemaker’ Director on the Jewish Community’s Reaction and His Upbringing as a Gay Teen

Written by Joshua Encinias, November 13, 2018 at 1:13 pm 

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“With a gentle approach, [The Cakemaker] portrays a journey towards acceptance and the pursuit of love. The unique bond formed between the characters strengthens a healing process that brings them a new life. It allows the viewer to connect to the most important of human values, something that overcomes all prejudices: love.” – The 2017 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival’s Ecumenical Jury

One of the biggest indie breakouts of 2018 was Ofir Raul Graizer’s The Cakemaker. The film kicked off its festival run at the 2017 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and won the Award of Ecumenical Jury. When the film debuted stateside last summer, it played for 19 weeks and became one of Strand Releasing’s best performing titles of the last decade, making $875,000. Despite receiving little attention from American press, it was certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a 98% rating, which clearly helped with word of mouth.

Prior to the film’s release, producer Uri Singer acquired remake rights for the film, not unlike other festival hit Toni Erdmann, which is also being developed for an American remake. Graizer gets to have his cake and eat it too because his film won best picture at Israel’s Ophir Awards in September, which automatically makes it the country’s submission to the foreign-language category at the 2019 Oscars.

With the film now available on Blu-ray/DVD/VOD, we’re sharing our conversation with Graizer from earlier this year. We discussed his upbringing as a gay teen with a religious father and secular mother, how the film was created after eight years of delays, and the positive response he’s received from conservative Jewish audiences.

The Film Stage: During the film’s Q&A at the New York Jewish Film Festival, an audience member couldn’t grasp that Tim Kalkhof’s character Thomas could be bisexual or sexually fluid. Do you get that question a lot?

Ofir Raul Graizer: Yeah, actually it’s funny, people do ask this question. They see the gay option then they see that he’s a gay man sleeping with a woman, but they don’t see the bisexual option. I think they ask it because the film tells the story of Thomas’ journey to Jerusalem, so it makes sense something in him would change. I think people say it’s not about him being bisexual, it’s about him changing because of his journey. For me he’s not bisexual. I think he’s gay. I would say he’s gay but it doesn’t matter. It’s not an issue for me. On the contrary, for me it was always important to say this is not about sexual identity. It’s not about sexual definition. It’s about something which is undefined, something that doesn’t want to be defined.

The audience at the New York Jewish Film Festival is decidedly more liberal than, say, the Hasidic community in Brooklyn. Has the movie played for a more conservative Jewish audience, and how did they respond to it?

I’ve shown the film to two conservative audiences. One was at the Jerusalem Film Festival where the film played in front of an audience which was mixed. Some of them were religious people. The other place was the Czech Republic. It’s a quite conservative place and I screened the film in front of an audience that included nuns. In both of the situations I saw people who come from religious backgrounds, people who have faith, they managed to connect to the film. I did get some criticism also, of course. In Israel some reviewers said, “How can it be that the film was criticizing the kosher?” But most people have managed to see that the film is at least trying not to be judgemental of the religious community or the people. There is a criticism towards the institution of religion making restaurants in Israel have kosher certificates, but not about the people. All the people in the film, the brother-in-law and the grandmother, they both represent society in a way, but they don’t represent anything. They have their own open-minded perception.

In Israel I was quite surprised. I had a screening at the festival where eighty-percent of the audience was religious. They were excited about the film, touched by it. A lot of people came to me after the screening and told me how excited they were, that they loved the film. None of them specifically asked me why I was doing this.

What is helping religious people appreciate the film?

I don’t know. I can’t say because I’m not objective. I think what I tried to do—whether I succeeded or not is not for me to say—to place all these elements: religion, secularism, German-Israel sexuality in the film, but to put them in the background, not the foreground. In the foreground it’s a story about two people who share grief, who share loss, who have secrets and they try to find, unconsciously, each other in order to heal this pain. People connect to the loss, the mourning, the fact of losing somebody and how you overcome the grief and pain.

Did you grow up religious?

I’m Jewish. My father came from a religious family and my mother from a secular family. So we grew up in a home with the question between religion and secularism as part of everyday life. On weekends, on Friday, we would do the Shabbat ceremony but I would go to a regular secular school. My friends were all secular, but I couldn’t do things with them sometimes. On Yom Kippur I couldn’t ride bicycles with them. When I became a teenager I started to realize I’m gay. It became an issue because I had to respect my father and my family, but I didn’t. I came out and I was very open about it, which was problematic at that time. I was a teenager; I didn’t think about my parents. I thought about my ego–it’s what you do when you’re a teenager. You’re the center of the world. Then being gay was a religious and moral issue. Being gay and being connected to religion didn’t work. Today we can say it works. It’s much more open. Today you have openly gay rabbi. But back in the mid-90s it was different.

How did you find Tim Kalkhof, who plays Thomas?

I was looking for him for quite a long time. The actors I had for other parts were very famous in Israel, but Thomas, I had no idea who was going to play him. I had some idea in mind but it wasn’t clear to me. In Berlin I did a lot of auditions. I saw twenty actors and I watched at least another eighty showreels online. I narrowed it down to two actors and I wasn’t sure if either should be the one. So I looked for actors on agency websites and by chance I saw Tim’s photo and I saw his showreel, and I was really impressed by a monologue in it. Monologues are the most difficult thing for an actor, it’s more difficult for an actor than crying. I wanted to see him because I knew there was a moment in the film where Thomas would sit down in the living room and talk about his childhood, about his grandmother, which is one of my favorite scenes in the film.

I heard several audience members say the movie felt like a documentary.

When people say it, for me it’s a compliment. When fiction directors do scenes, if people tell them it looks like a documentary they get insulted. For me it’s the biggest compliment because that’s exactly what I wanted it to be. The film is very planned, every scene, every image, every camera angle. Nothing is arbitrary, nothing. But when shooting the actors in the kitchen together, when they made love, I shot it like a documentary. I knew where the camera was standing, they knew their limits, but I said do it at your own pace, your own way. Whenever you want to start, start and I just rolled it like a documentary and they just did it. It’s about giving actors the possibility to really become the character. We only had technical make-up on the actors for the reflection, but no make-up to make them look good. The only person who got make-up was the grandmother. Her character is an elegant, strong woman. She has an appearance, she has class.

Why did it take eight years to make the film?

We just couldn’t get the film financed. We had a low budget and we were rejected constantly by all the film funds. In order to make a film in Israel you need the funds, they’re the ones who finance a film. And we could not get their support. We had one small fund, the Jerusalem Fund, but it was not enough. In the end we tried to raise the money to make the film. It took five years. We said we’re going to shoot it with this amount of money we have or we’re not going to shoot it at all. We did it in a very guerilla style. We shot it in twenty-one days, extremely low budget with volunteers. I did a lot of things myself. We had a crazy, amazing crew working around the clock and we got it done. But to get to the point where you make the decision of either give up or do this thing took a long time.

What kept you going for eight years, after facing five years of financial rejection? What did you do in those eight years to support yourself?

To support myself I did and I’m doing all kinds of things. I worked in kitchens and in catering, teaching cooking classes in Berlin, I edited some documentaries. I always found things to keep me afloat. But what kept me going was a combination of two passions. The first passion is to make films. To be on a film set, I want to tell stories. All my life I’ve wanted to do it. It’s my greatest passion. I don’t want to do anything else. The other thing is specifically this story. I love this story, I wanted to tell it. I wanted to tell about these characters. I believed this story deserved to be out there. I believe it’s worthy to be out there. It did not deserve to stay hidden on my computer. This should come out. It’s worthy. These are my feelings, my instinct. I had to fight for it.

The Cakemaker is now on Blu-ray/DVD/VOD.

Tim Blake Nelson on How the Stories of ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Tie Together and His Character’s Morality

Written by Joshua Encinias, November 10, 2018 at 6:09 pm 

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Tim Blake Nelson has worked with Steven Spielberg, Terrence Malick, Ang Lee, and more, but his two most recognizable roles were written and directed by the Coen brothers. Nelson played Delmar O’Donnell in Odyssesian musical O Brother, Where Art Thou? and eighteen years later he plays Buster Scruggs, the singing cowboy in the Coen’s new anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

We interviewed Nelson at the 2018 New York Film Festival about Gene Autry’s influence on his character, how the Coen’s thread together six disparate stories of mortality, and Buster’s unique way of shooting fellow character actor Clancy Brown in the film.

The Film Stage: Is Buster, the character, inspired by those old, pulpy, Western dime store stories?

Tim Blake Nelson: I suppose in part, it’s inflective with that, with the “pulpy-dime store-Western” in terms of the provocation and violence and the responding violence and rough justice. But he’s more of a singing cowboy. And the “pulpy-dimestore-rough justice” element comes in as an inflection that’s a surprise, and ends up being part of the wonderful mashup that they wrote.

I think it has to hang its hat on that. I really embraced the notion of “singing cowboy” so when they bring the other surprises in, the violence and the pistol twirling; but mainly the violence, so that when the violence comes in, it’s all the more surprising, because the film has really sold itself as something that’s the opposite of that.

Were you watching Gene Autry movies to prepare?

Yeah, I’ve seen all of them.

Anthology movies often have one director per story, but this is unique because it’s six different stories by the same two directors. Do you think that makes Buster Scruggs different from other anthology films?

Because Joel and Ethan directed each of them, by the time it all ends and you’ve seen the last one, they tie together to me in a very coherent way. It even supplies a take on life that’s probably more important than the film’s storytelling. Because you have this reaper character at the end saying, “We like stories because they distract us from our mortality” and each story in the film does involve, to a degree, mortality. So to me, “The Mortal Remains” story ties them all together in a way they wouldn’t have if each were written and directed by a different filmmaker. Another anthology film that’s made by the same filmmaker is Wild Tales, the Argentinian movie by Damian Szifron.

Were you involved in any capacity with the other stories? I know you weren’t in them, but were you on set?

I was on set a little bit during James Franco’s. Just because we overlap and he and I are close friends. But no, I wasn’t around for the other ones. I think I had dinner with  “The Mortal Remains” cast one night when they were down there rehearsing. So I overlapped a little bit. With reshoots, I was with Liam Neeson for a day because we are both reshooting stuff on the same day and doing some additional photography. I read them all.

I was going to ask, did you receive the entire script?

I did and that was very helpful for me because it underscored that I was really going to responsible for making sure I was right there inside the genre of the one I was in. Each one is so distinctive; it reminded me that you gotta, in terms of the acting style, fit with what they’re after in your segment.

How did the Coens film the scene where you shoot Clancy Brown’s character by kicking the table?

Well, in pieces, first of all. That side shot is all practical. There’s no digital. Except for the gunfire, there’s no digital effects. So I’m literally standing there, perfectly still, and doing that. [Nelson mimes the tabling stomping scene from the film]. So it was real.

It’s such a shock. There’s such a twisted delight in what happens.

Moving a little bit away from the character of Buster, the environment and the vistas in the film come off as important, if not more important, than the characters, and I think that’s the most apparent in Tom Waits’ segment. Their nature has a life of its own and he comes to run them out and it returns when he leaves.

The Western genre, because it is definitely caught up in Western expansion, is effectively our version of the romantic landscape, and that’s always going to involve man’s place in nature. How man is either destroyed by nature or taints nature. I think that Joel and Ethan, in embracing the Western genre and dealing with that, and since they’re such breathtakingly visual filmmakers, it’s one of the outstanding features of this movie.

Narrowing in on it, do you think there’s anything in Buster’s story about man and nature?

They do have that classic shot of the guy on his horse, tiny, and in a vast landscape. And that’s always going to end up being a philosophical statement. It’s just like a 19th-century romantic landscape painting.

Do you think Buster is misanthrope?

No, as he says, he doesn’t hate his fellow man, even when they cheat at cards. [Laughs.] But Joel and Ethan wrote a character who only kills in response to a mortal threat to his own life.

So you don’t think his upright appearance and moralism masks anything?

I don’t. He is who he is. As an actor you advocate for your character. And so of course I love Buster, and that was the only way to play a character like that. They did write a guy who doesn’t ever just walk in and kill somebody. Somebody is always pulling a gun on him. He never initiates gunplay.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now in select theaters and hits Netflix on November 16.

Richard E. Grant on the Authentic Queerness of ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ and the Intimacy of a Female-Centric Set

Written by Joshua Encinias, November 6, 2018 at 8:37 am 

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Before Richard E. Grant goes to a galaxy far, far away in next year’s Star Wars: Episode IX, his career deserves revisiting. He starred in two late-career films by Robert Altman; The Player and Gosford Park. His character work continued with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Corpse Bride, and The Age of Innocence. But his most celebrated character is the title role in Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I.

Grant’s Withnail is a young alcoholic who drifts and grifts his way across the English countryside, not unlike Jack Hock, the character he plays in Marielle Heller’s new film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?. With his cigarette holder in tow, he’s the gay Norma Desmond to Melissa McCarthy’s Lee Israel. Together, the two trek across Manhattan, committing one literary forgery after the next. And Grant delivers a magnificent performance in one of the best New York City-set films of the 2010s.

We spoke with Grant about playing a grifter with a big heart and small conscience, developing his character despite the lack of research material, and the contrast of going from Logan’s hypermasculine set to the almost-entirely female set of Can You Ever Forgive Me?.

The Film Stage: Jack Hock is such a loveable character. He reminds me of Fagin from Oliver Twist.

Richard E. Grant: Certainly someone who’s a grifter and lives on the street is out there scamming whatever he can. I think essentially he’s a hedonist who is out to have a good time. Also, as the audience discovers at the end, he is already HIV positive and on the way out. But he’s someone who lives for the day, in the moment, and he’s got ten bucks in his pocket and he has to burn out; buy a drink or do something with it. I think that’s a very attractive way of living. I know people like that, but you just don’t want to lend them money, keys to your apartment or your car, because you’re likely to never see them again.

How did you develop Jack without having much of his backstory?

I knew from Lee’s memoir, which was very scant on information about him particularly, he died at the age of 47 in 1994. He’d been in jail for two years for taking a knife to a cab driver, refusing to pay the fare. They had a disagreement about that. I knew he had been in jail. He had been running a bar and he was also very good at selling the letters once Lee was tapped by the FBI and wasn’t allowed to do it. They knew what she was up to. When she thought he might get $500 bucks for a letter, he would come back with two-grand. I knew from that he must have real charm or conviction, that he could fleece people who were in the know. He was also incredibly promiscuous. The other thing is he had this stubby cigarette holder. He was a chain smoker and thought that he would not get cancer by using that to smoke. I asked the prop department and Marielle Heller, the director, if I could have that little cigarette holder, because there had been no photographs of him, and they agreed. It gives a kind of loose affectation, a prop you can play with. That’s as much as I had to go on.

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The queerness of the characters is essential and built into the movie. It’s a story about outsiders, but it doesn’t emphasize their otherness for dramatic effect.

Marielle was very determined that it didn’t become an issue-drive movie where we’re looking at a lesbian and gay character who are the main people in the story. That just happened to be who they were. It was the story of their friendship; a sort of oddball, platonic relationship in this kind of road movie through Manhattan. Except the motorways are from bar to bookshop, bar to bookshop to seedy apartment. That was the focus of it. And the fact that you then find out in the penultimate scene Jack Hock is actually dying of AIDS, that again, isn’t made a big deal of. It’s not pushed in your face. It’s just the reality of what these people’s lives were. Lee was a curmudgeonly, porcupine lesbian writer who valued her privacy. She was one of the few women who sought refuge and anonymity by wearing Walkman headphones and drinking scotch in the Julius bar. Because we were in the bar and bookshops where they were regulars where these scams took place, that still exists–you felt you were authentically in the footsteps of these people. You felt at once responsibility and gratitude as an actor because it wasn’t a studio recreation of their haunts. The fact that Julius was so generous to allow us shoot there, considering the character’s reputations weren’t exactly model citizens, I thought was a testament to their generosity.

Julius is predominantly bar frequented by gay men, but Lee would hang out there. Do you know why she was so comfortable there?

No, and we surmised if she had been in a straight bar, the chances are she would have been harassed by somebody. A woman on her own. Whereas, being the Julius bar, no one was going to harass her. She made herself a regular there. There was a guy hanging around the set one day and we couldn’t work out quite what he was doing, because he wasn’t in period clothes and he wasn’t part of the security unit. Melissa spoke to him and said, “Hi, who are you?” He said he was a great friend of Lee’s and he used to sit to the left of her in the place she’s sitting. She said, “While you’ve been watching, how do you think I’m doing? Do you think Lee would have been happy with what I’m doing?” He very pointedly said, “Well, happy wasn’t really Lee’s thing.” But he was greatly admiring of Melissa and he said, “You’ve appropriated the look, the costume and the whole gravitas of her personality.” That was a great compliment because Melissa never met Lee. There’s no video of her on YouTube and there’s very few pictures of Lee. The fact that he said that and felt like he was seeing the ghost of Lee was very poignant. She’d been resurrected by Melissa McCarthy.

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Did you and Melissa test for chemistry?

There were no screen tests. I hoped he would have some rehearsal time the week before we shot, but Melissa was on so many other projects. She lives in L.A. and I flew in from London for a costume fitting on a Wednesday knowing we were starting shooting on Monday. I said to Marielle, “When am I meeting Melissa?” She said, “You’ll meet her on Monday.” It’s such an important relationship, from my point of view of the story, that going throughout a seventy-two hour period of the weekend without meeting her I would be so paranoid. I didn’t know what level she was pitching playing this part. I asked if there was any possibility we could meet for even ten minutes to discuss the script or how she’s approaching it. Melissa, turns out, felt the exact same way. So we managed to get half a day out of the schedule of her fitting and make-up tests on that Friday. We went through the scenes and discussed what the motives were, how we saw them. We had such an instant connection. I know people say this, but you have no idea. It’s like going on an internet date or whatever, if you are actually going to have a real connection with another human being in a story like this, and we just did. We hit it off. Even on the days I wasn’t shooting, out of the six-week shoot that it was, I inevitably came and had lunch with her on the set. We hung out a lot and that was out of a mutual desire to do that. I couldn’t have anticipated that beforehand.

What happened to Lee’s cat? Maybe I missed something, but it appeared Jack gave it the medicine. Did he give it too much?

The cat was dying. It just so happened to coincide the cat died on Jack’s watch, and maybe hadn’t given the pill at the right time. That cat was on the way out anyway. But she blamed him because it was kind of neglected. If he had seen the cat was ill as it was, he would have had the presence of mind to take it to the vet. But he was taken up with his trick that he picked up; the server from the diner.

Will you talk about working with Marielle Heller?

Marielle is somebody once you know precisely who’s in charge, she also wears her authority very lightly. She’s collaborative, encouraging, nurturing, open to suggestion, which is the ideal environment for actors to work in. It was predominantly female-centric: lead character, director, producer, co-writer, crew. The contrast couldn’t have been more extreme because I had just come off doing Logan, which was a crew of three hundred guys. [Laughs.] With stuntmen with arms the size of my thighs. Hardware, trucks and machine guns. Where this was an incredibly intimate, where usually in the scenes it was a conversation or interaction between two people.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is now in limited release.

Frederick Wiseman on Capturing the “Backbone of American Life” in ‘Monrovia, Indiana’

Written by Joshua Encinias, November 3, 2018 at 8:59 am 

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After recent projects focusing on major public institutions like London’s National Gallery, California’s University of Berkeley, and the New York Public Library, Frederick Wiseman made his 47th documentary about the town of Monrovia, Indiana. It might appear Wiseman narrowed his scope, but in actuality, he treats the slower pace of Midwestern life no different from communities in Jackson Heights.

In our interview with the filmmaker, Wiseman discusses his editing process, which he calls a rational and free-associative process. We talk about the full immersion his crew of three made in the town and the coincidences he happened across that become the film’s most memorable scenes.

The Film Stage: What drew you to Monrovia, Indiana?

Frederick Wiseman: I told a friend of mine, a law professor in Boston, that I wanted to make a movie about a small town in the midwest. She said she had a friend who taught at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. His family came from a small town in Indiana and had lived there for six generations. By chance I was going to Bloomington to show some movies and give a talk, so I called up this man and told him what I was interested in. He said come a day early, I’ll take you to my hometown where my first cousin still lives. His first cousin was the town’s undertaker so he knew everybody. They liked the idea of the film and offered to introduce me around. So I looked around Monrovia that day and said this would be a great place to do a film. While I was away they got in touch with some business owners, the veterinarian, head of the school board, the fire department, the police department and they were all very friendly. Then I showed up six weeks later in the first week of May 2017 to start shooting.

I’ve made movies in seventeen states and the only movie I’d made in the midwest was Chicago at a public housing project. I thought it would be interesting to make a movie about a small town. They’ve traditionally been the backbone of American life. There’s still 23,000 of them. I basically took the gamble, that I always do, that it might be a good subject.

How did you decide what to focus on in the town?

It’s all by chance. I knew I wanted to cover the businesses on the main street, a pizza parlor, and two restaurants. The tattoo shop, barbershop and beauty salon. There wasn’t that much to choose from! There’s maybe one or two of each place and that was it. They’re a farming community so I knew that would be important. It was useful to go to the town council meeting, although I had no idea what they were going to discuss. I also had the experience of making the other movies so I knew a little bit about what places would be useful to visit to get a sense of daily life in the town.

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Will you talk about the shoot?

The camera was an Arriflex AMIRA, which was a new camera last year. Sound was recorded on a 633T, sometimes they used radio mics, sometimes they used boom. No lights. Most of the film was shot on 4K and color graded and mixed. We used a variety of lenses, depending on the situation. It’s just three of us. John Davey, my DP, operated the camera. I’ve worked with him for more than thirty years. I would pick out what was to be shot and then John and I are constantly looking at each other during the filming. We looked at the rushes together every night. It’s a total immersion experience.

We ended up with 120 hours of footage. The shooting ratio was close to 60:1. The first cut of the film was maybe thirty minutes longer. I don’t even begin the editing until I’ve edited all the sequences I might use without thinking much about structure. I usually come up with the first assembly in three or four days, but it’s after six or eight months of editing. The edit is thinking your way through the material. I have to think that I understand what’s going on in each sequence to make the choice if I want to use it. Secondly, if I do want to use it, how do I cut it into a useable form. Third, after it’s cut, where do I place it and what’s its relationship is to the other sequences I’ve chosen and edited. It’s in one sense a highly rational process. At the same time, it’s an associative one. You learn to pay as much attention to the thoughts in your head as you do the formal, more deductive aspects.

Was it just by chance a dog was having its tail removed when you visited the veterinarian?

It was just by chance! I went to the clinic and the vet said I’m about to do an operation.

How did the citizens of Monrovia respond to the film?

I showed the movie to them at the end of August because I wanted them to see it before it was shown anywhere else. About 600 people came to see it and they seemed to like it. At least the ones who spoke to me like it. I hope that in seeing the film, people see the town council that takes pretty seriously the issues presented to them. It’s representative democracy at the community level. The level of a town, which is the smallest unit of government.

Do you have another project lined up?

At the moment I want to direct an American play in French translation in France. It’s called The Realistic Joneses by the very good American playwright Will Eno.

Monrovia, Indiana is now in limited release and expanding. For more, watch Wiseman discuss the film above at the 56th New York Film Festiva.

Inside the 40-Year Journey of Resurrecting Orson Welles’ Final Film ‘The Other Side of the Wind’

Written by Joshua Encinias, November 2, 2018 at 11:57 am 

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In an era of dime-a-dozen remakes and sequels, it’s a miracle that Netflix would gift to the world a lost Orson Welles film. Rest assured, 137 million-plus Netflix subscribers, reruns of The Office have not prepared you for the experience that is The Other Side of the Wind.

Wind follows director Jake Hannaford’s (John Huston) last night on Earth, and he snarks at anyone who dares speak his name. With whip-speed editing and Welles’ kinetic eye, we follow Jake from the studio to his 70th birthday party, where he attempts to show the latest cut of his latest film. Featuring a film within a film, with long takes inspired by Antonioni, Wind contrasts the laborious art of filmmaking with the high-stakes grifting of Hannaford and his long-suffering crew.

The Film Stage spoke with the team behind The Other Side of the Wind’s resurrection. Producers Frank Marshall–who was an accountant and production manager on the shoot–and Filip Jan Rymsza tell us about bringing the film’s three rights holders together for the first time. The producers along with editor Bob Murawski agree that Norman Foster delivers one of the film’s greatest performances. That came as a surprise to everyone because Orson only developed the character on set. Foster’s performance is one of the many gems to emerge from the production’s four-month edit.

There’s much more in our lengthy interview with the principal collaborators of The Other Side of the Wind, so dive into this journey, 40 years in the making, below.

Bob Murawski: So you basically like it?

The Film Stage: Yep.

Murawski: Okay, good. That’s a relief to me because it’s been a lot of pressure, if you can imagine editing a movie by Orson Welles–the greatest filmmaker of all time.

Orson talked about taking advantage of accidents when making a film. Were there any happy accidents in assembling The Other Side of the Wind?

Frank Marshall: That is one of the things I learned from Orson: as a director you’re presiding over happy accidents, if you can, and you go with those. As a magician I think you see that from him too. He loved the unpredictableness of shooting. He let the actors be comfortable in maybe doing their own thing. Maybe he wouldn’t agree with it, but he would guide them in other ways. Those accidents happened a lot.

I think our ‘accidents’ were the little discoveries along the way. There would be a shot or a line that was in a location it didn’t belong in that Bob Murawski (the film’s editor) would discover. “Hallelujah!” we’d hear him yell and we’d run in. For example, we didn’t have the pink lobster, but there was a moment he found it in another scene where he was reviewing the footage.

Filip Jan Rymsza: The editing process was a very different exercise from what production would have been like with Orson. A lot of the editorial process was simply trying to figure out the method, rhyme and reason for why we found things the way that we did. It’s more forensics. Finding evidence of little things within the assemblies. So it was a different process. Sometimes we would get lucky by moving things around. Bob would have a short sequence which we knew we would cut together, but we weren’t quite sure because those were pickups and reshoots. If there was such a thing as a happy accident in editing, we would simply shift it over in time somewhere and it would be totally self-evident that that’s where it belonged. For instance, Norman Foster would now be holding a drink, which he has toward the latter part of the story, so another part of the film would suddenly reveal itself to us.

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How did the project finally come together?

Marshall: Beatrice Welles, Oja Kodar, and Les Films de L’Astrophore had the film rights, and L’Astrophore had the rights from Mehdi Bushehri. Filip Jan Rymsza (the film’s producer) started to pursue this on the European side because that’s where Oja was. I had already obtained the L’Astrophore rights from Showtime. Beatrice was involved because in French law, the family has rights even if they weren’t in the will. Filip would get one and I would get one, then one would drop out. Finally, in 2013, we met at the Telluride Film Festival—which is wonderful and why we premiered there this year because that’s where the film came together—and we said why don’t we team up and try to do this together? We eventually had all three rights holders to sign on and then Netflix came on board.

Rymsza: A lot of this was learning from past mistakes. I was hoping to do it quietly. I knew that Frank and Peter were still involved in some way. They had a relationship with Showtime who wanted to make it. I felt the best strategy was to begin on my own without engaging anybody else to figure out what was holding up the negative in Paris. To come to it very well researched and having already secured some of the rights, by the time I came to Frank I already had a good idea how the rest of it should fit together. I felt like partnering with Frank would be very important because he had a history with the production, he and Peter remained great friends, and being a player as a producer. I made an invitation saying I have these things, come join me. In retrospect, it was very audacious to show up at Frank Marshall’s house at Telluride and say, “I’m the guy who’s been competing with you on this project. This is what I have. I think this is the right time. Come join me on it.” Within a few months of that we flew jointly to meet with Beatrice Welles. I had learned that everyone feared Beatrice and nobody engaged her directly. I said, “Let’s do what nobody else has done. Let’s reach out without attorneys. Let’s fly to her house and sit down with her and just have a conversation.” Frank said, “We’re going to do what? No, you don’t meet with Beatrice Welles!” I said, “Let’s not do the same thing everybody else has done. Let’s engage everyone and have them believe in it because we believe we’re doing something great.”

Murawski: I found out about it years ago because I was friends with Gary Graver, Orson’s cinematographer. He was my neighbor in Studio City in L.A. He has this lost Orson Welles movie in his garage. We always talked about getting together and getting the movie finished. I think it was more my fantasy than the reality, because knowing what I know now, it would have been impossible to work on it on weekends in his garage. Then unfortunately Gary died in 2006, but then last year I heard the movie had been resurrected. It turned out my first assistant editor got on the movie but the original editor they hired couldn’t wait any longer because it took so long to get the footage together. I called my agent and said get me a meeting with these guys, I need to get on this movie. They hired me the next day. I originally thought they would think I was too mainstream or too Hollywood because I did all these Spider-Man movies.

Frank’s pretty mainstream, too.

Murawski: Frank is very mainstream. I clicked with him but I thought I didn’t click with Filip because I knew the kind of people Filip was trying to hire and his background was more in artiser movies. It was super intimidating after getting hired.

Bob, how long was it from the time you were hired until the final cut?

Murawski: Not enough time. [Laughs.] I was hired in August of 2017 and I said I need to start immediately. I couldn’t because they had just received the footage from France and were digitizing it. I was supposed to start in the beginning of October. It ended up being delayed another couple of weeks. It was about four months of editing, which was not enough time. But of course, you compensate by working as many hours as you can. I was working day and night. I was there until after midnight every day. By early March it was pretty much done in terms of picture cutting. We still had to do the music and the sound. For a movie that took 45 years up to that point, the post was way too short. If they had given me a year I would probably still be complaining about the amount of time. At the end of the day we were pretty thorough and I had a great crew of film assistants who had it organized in a way that let me get the job done.

Why did you open the film with Peter Bogdanovich doing voice-over as Brooks Otterlake circa 2018?

Marshall: Well, we had the script, and the opening said “OW voice,” and unfortunately Orson never voiced it, but it was crucial to the story because it set everything up. I asked Peter originally if he would do it, and he suggested he do it as Otterlake. That’s it. Then Peter wrote a small paragraph that talked about why he was doing the narration and it kind of brought the movie into the present day. He told the story as Otterlake and I think it really worked. It puts Otterlake in the role we were in assembling the movie, and makes sense given the fact that Jake Hannaford [John Huston] died.

How do you respond to negative feedback about the movie?

Marshall: I think there are people who don’t understand the movie, but it’s not my movie. We didn’t shoot anything. The only thing we did were some effects shots because we didn’t have the movie projected on the screen at the drive-in or in any of the screening rooms–it was just blank. Obviously, no one from the production’s around so we couldn’t shoot anything. This is Orson’s movie. You take it for what it is. Some people don’t like Steven’s (Spielberg) movies. I just say, “Look, see it again.” It’s a really complex movie, it’s a complex story. It’s a comment on what Orson was going through. His comment on Hollywood, machoism, friendship, betrayal. Someone said to me, “It’s not Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons.” Well, he wasn’t trying to make those. He was pushing the envelope. He wanted to do with the picture and sound what hasn’t been done before, and I think he did it. You may not like the themes of it or think it’s crass and impossible to understand, but you’ve got to look at it from this filmmaker’s viewpoint. This is one of our greatest filmmakers and now we have Citizen Kane and The Other Side of the Wind to bookend his career.

Murawski: Rex Reed wrote a scathing review. He said it was the worst movie ever made and then he said since it was never finished, it was the worst movie never made. Which I thought, of course Rex Reed is going to come up with a funny way of looking at anything. Plus, it made me feel bad. Any project you work on, you want people to like it, or at least be fair to it. It was a difficult movie to make and I know it’s not for everybody, but so far the response has been incredibly positive. People are giving it the benefit of the doubt because they realize what a Herculean task it was to get it done while trying to make something out of it without having Orson with us. In my heart I’m happy with the way the movie came out. It feels like a complete movie. Going in I was worried it would feel like an oddity, like an incomplete project we were putting together as a historical piece to show what he was doing at the time. We didn’t know until we put the movie together that there was actually a movie in there. Orson would lie every time he did an interview. At one point he said he was finished editing the entire movie and only needed to do the negative cutting and the sound. As we got into it, we realized that was the farthest thing from the truth. He had only really edited about a third of it. A lot of it was never touched. But once we got it together and saw there was a story that kind of made sense with dramatic arc to the characters. It felt good. It felt emotional. It felt like a real movie to me.

Will you talk about Norman Foster’s performance as Billy Boyle?

Marshall: Oh! I loved all of the repertory company. Of course, I was familiar with in. I was 25, but Norman Foster was a wonderful actor. When you watch his arc in the movie and the character at the end says we all need people like Billy because those are the soldiers that take us over the mountain. That’s who Billy was–he would do anything for Hannaford. He went and pitched and then he came out and he was hurt because he revealed to Otterlake they were broke. He was that disciple of Hannaford’s, but his arc ends with him starting to drink again and then you see him go off the deep end. What an amazing arc that he was brilliant in! Norman wasn’t really an actor in trade, he was a director too, but Orson loved him. Orson adored all of those actors, but Norman Foster in particular gives this incredible performance.

Rymsza: Absolutely. It’s that blind loyalty. It’s an incredibly harrowing performance because he’s the hero in support of a despicable guy in Hannaford. It’s densely bittersweet. My favorite character is the baron, one of the strange character that circle and support Hannaford, who they call the Hannaford Mafia. All of us in the edit had a different favorite secondary character. We would always talk about what their purpose is terms of the story. You really want to stay with Hannaford and Otterlake, but when you cut away to something else at the party it has to be very meaningful to support the rest of it.

Murawski: Norman Foster’s great because he was a non-actor. One of the coolest things about editing the movie was hearing Orson direct. He would shoot many takes, especially when he was dealing with non-actors. He would shoot a couple lines with Norman and he would say, “Okay, Norman, let’s try it again. Less movement in the face.” Orson really worked with him, he was super patient. The story of Billy and his alcoholism is really moving. Ironically, that was the part of the movie that none of us had ever seen. It wasn’t in the script that much. It was something he developed as he was shooting and he had never really edited any of that material. That’s some of my favorite stuff in the movie.

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Bob, did F for Fake inform your editing?

Murawski: I had seen parts of F for Fake from my friend Gary Graver, who was a cinematographer I knew and originally told me about The Other Side of the Wind in the early 2000s. Gary showed me that 10-minute trailer they cut for F for Fake. It was so choppy and off-putting that I put off seeing the movie but then when I finally saw it I loved it. I like what he was trying to compensate for fancy camera moves with editing. It made sense of this movie for me. But even if you go back to The Trial and Othello, he was developing a style that was more about editing than fancy, fluid camera movement. It’s a style that’s cool and very cinematic. It was a new grammar he was exploring to create movement through editing.

Why do you think we never hear Oja Kodar’s nameless character and John Dale (Robert Random) speak in the film?

Marshall: It made it easier for us because we didn’t have to find the sound! [Laughs.] No, it’s Orson’s send up of those kind of European art films from those days and what they were all doing. Why there’s no dialogue I really can’t tell you. I think Orson thought the European filmmakers were pretentious to think they could tell the whole movie visually, maybe. I don’t know.

Rymsza: There’s no dialogue in the treatment. Antonioni movies have long period with no dialogue. Orson said Antonioni was an architect of empty boxes, which I totally disagree with. I love his films. I think there’s a depth and a wealth of meaning behind the ennui of actors just walking around a landscape. I think Orson was trying to tell a movie that was purely visual and Hannaford was trying to do something very arty, very different. If that character’s based on a John Ford or Howard Hawkes, talk about a crazy departure to do something that hypersexualized. Both the sexual politics and the politics of what were going on in the 1970s, for the film within a film to have this form, having no dialogue, makes a lot of sense. It also breathes because you have this non-stop chattering at the party. The Hannaford story is constant dialogue. People overlapping, talking over each other. To contrast with this documentary-type film with a lot of cuts with the long shots of Hannaford’s film.

What do you think Orson is saying about his relationship with Hollywood in the film?

Rymsza: I can’t really speak to New Hollywood and what Orson’s relationship was with Hollywood. But I think him coming back and being celebrated after he was away for ten years; when he saw these indie filmmakers doing things the way he was doing them, to do things yourself. I’m sure the way that Peter talks about Orson being influenced by The Last Picture Show, he was reinvigorated.

Orson was shooting the film within a film anywhere that was available to him. He wanted to have the production value so they shot on the MGM lot. He hid in the back of a car because he was shooting under the guise of a student film. Gary Graver (the film’s cinematographer) was the one on the slate in all those stolen shots, it wasn’t Orson Welles. It was Gary Graver Productions anytime the film the printed. Orson hid from it because he didn’t want to be exposed. If all of a sudden you find Orson Welles stealing shots on the MGM lot, you know it’s going to send up red flags. What is Orson Welles doing out here? But if it’s just some student filmmakers with Orson hiding in the back of a car, you don’t draw as much attention to yourself.

What percentage of the film had Orson actually completed?

Marshall: In the finished product, I’d say there’s 35-40% of the movie he cut, which is pretty good. And they were in different parts of the movie so it’s not like he cut a party scene and we didn’t know what happened at the drive-in. The other sequences in the film had strung together setups. So he had chosen the order but he didn’t choose which take to use. We had a pretty good guideline of what he was looking for; we had his notes and scripts and him on camera before a take, telling the actors what to do. But we didn’t have scene numbers on the slates so he would just call a scene something like “wagon master” and you’d go, why did he name it that? And then eventually Bob would find a poster for the movie Wagon Master in the background of a scene. It was a real treasure hunt in how we put things together because he also re-shot a lot of lines with other characters saying them. We went with the last character to say the line, thinking that must be what he wants. In the making-of documentaries you’ll see that Orson replaced Rich Little with Bogdanovich, so that was a treasure hunt too. There were a couple of scenes that Peter didn’t actually do. We left Little in as a partygoer, sort of for sentimental reasons. Both that and keeping Orson doing the interview with Lilli Palmer. That was a tip of the hat to what was there. And how about those scenes with Henry Jaglom? I’m telling you, Joshua, I still see something new every time I see the movie.

Rymsza: Our first assembly was based on the script. Purely an A to Z production. We knew where the film within a film was, because it was actually noted and Orson had already cut some of that stuff together. We had a feeling of where these things would go. The L.A. pages we weren’t quite sure about. We knew what the narrative was; stylistically we had some ideas based on what Orson had already cut, but there was still a great deal of discovery in the way he shot certain scenes and how those things were going to come together because in some cases they were shot over a period of four years. We would need to find a way into a scene and in some cases Orson wouldn’t reshoot something, we would only have Rich Little footage when we would need Peter, but he had attempted to cut around Rich in those scenes. It looked like he hadn’t figured it out so we needed to step back into it and we felt that was narratively very important for these things. They were in the script, and without it, you wouldn’t carry a throughline. We were trying to come up with creative solutions, trying some of the stuff he was trying, to cut around things he hadn’t shot.

Murawski: A lot of it was shot by multiple cameras, people at the party all shooting in their own formats and styles. There were multiple takes of trying to get it right, like any director would do. It wasn’t like there were 100 hours of story. Once we put it all together there were probably less than two and a half hours of movie. From there we cut it down to what we thought would be a good length, slightly under two hours, plus credits. We had 45 years of credits, so we had a long credit sequence he wouldn’t have had back in the day. Orson basically had a plan. He deviated from it quite a bit, but it was still a pretty self-contained plan. We had a lot of versions of the script, we knew what the story was supposed to be. Every draft of the script were pretty much the same. The treatments I wrote were pretty much reflected in the script. We knew the order the story was supposed to be in. It was about putting it together and making it work dramatically.

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It sounds like Filip and Frank were very involved in the edit.

Rymsza: Extremely. Bob and I would be there every day going through all the material and then we would ready something and have a few choices. Then Frank and Peter would come in and we would watch everything that we’d been working on and the four of us in the room would make the editorial decisions.

Is there some cool stuff that didn’t make it into the movie?

Murawski: There’s so much stuff! As I was editing, I was always pulling out the stuff of Orson directing or any shots where you could see him. The documentary guys were working concurrently with us so I felt it was my duty to find stuff for them as well and they found stuff that wound up in the movie. There was a lot of great footage of the film within a film we couldn’t use, but it’s not like Orson had shot the entire film Jake Hannaford was making, but there was a wealth of riches we couldn’t use. I hope at some point we do a Criterion edition.

Do you plan on releasing the film for non-Netflix home viewing?

Rymsza: I’ve had those conversations with Netflix. I have an obligation to my crowdfunders and Netflix said I can do a fairly limited run of a Blu-ray with the two documentaries and some other assets. We have this incredible Q&A from the New York Film Festival that we shot with Martin Scorsese. There’s also some hope that later on we can do a larger volume run for the completionists.

The Other Side of the Wind is now streaming on Netflix and in select theaters.

Doug Liman and Valerie Plame on Why the World Needs a ‘Fair Game’ Director’s Cut Now More Than Ever

Written by Dan Mecca, November 1, 2018 at 7:00 am 

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Eight years ago, Fair Game came and went with little fanfare, despite a pair of stellar lead performances and sharp direction from Doug Liman. Based on the book of the same name, Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame, a real-life CIA agent whose identity was exposed in 2003 after her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times contradicting the Bush White House’s claims that Iraq was building nuclear weapons. The new cut, though only a few minutes longer, feels improved, necessary and refreshing for the current moment. Watts has rarely been better, and Liman does well in keeping the focus on a marriage in turmoil as much as it’s on a political crisis. The Film Stage got the chance to speak with both Liman and Plame, reflecting on the first cut of the movie many years back, the need for a fresh take on the material, and everything in between.

Why now for a director’s cut?

Doug Liman: You know, the world’s changed both in terms of the politics of what’s happening there but also, with the advent of streaming, the idea of a movie being finished doesn’t mean what it meant before. It used to mean when you finished a movie there was a photographic process you went through and the thing was really cemented. It was done. But honestly with today’s technology there’s no reason why a movie being done really means it’s done. And that happened to coincide with the fact that I felt the film wasn’t done creatively.

Interesting.

DL: There was a better movie there and as a filmmaker you’re faced with two choices when you’re looking back and going ‘I could’ve done a better job:’ In the case of Jumper, I went and re-did it as a TV series called “Impulse.”

Right.

DL: In the case of Fair Game, I said, “I have the footage to make the better movie, I’m going to go back and re-cut it.” And I’m not sure that’s allowed. No one even knew I was doing this. I just did it on my own…

Valerie Plame: That’s how you always work!

DL: Yeah, I’m more of an ‘act first and ask permission later’ kind of person. And it just sort of coincided with Netflix, who can put it out and…

VP: …and the moment, the political moment.

DL: And then separately, while this all happened, Trump pardoned Scooter Libby. So suddenly I realized actually the story wasn’t done. The story wasn’t done eight years ago. The story actually finished this past spring. So I went back in and tweaked [the movie] one more time to reflect that and now the film really is done and I promise the audience, you know, at least this Doug Liman in 2018 feels the film is done. But, you know…

(Laughter)

VP: It will change again.

DL: And I changed as a human being in the making of the movie so I think part of why the film wasn’t done the first time is because the experience of making the movie had a profound impact on me. Because I went to Baghdad and filmed, and I don’t think I really processed being in that war zone for a few years. Long after the film was done I think I finally processed what that war meant and what it means to declare war. I know what [Operation] Shock and Awe looked like on TV with all of those bombs falling. It’s a very different thing when you’re there on the ground. And bombs were still falling when I was there. I think I needed time, emotionally, to make the best possible film that I could. So I’ve done that.

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Valerie, the film is based on your book of the same name, which is about everything that happened to you and your husband [Joe Wilson] in 2002 and 2003. How was the collaborative process then, nearly a decade ago, working with Doug and making the movie? And now, as a creative person yourself and author of a couple of novels, how is it revisiting everything especially with the Libby pardon this year as well?

VP: Well, I feel so fortunate that Doug invited me in. Joe and I spent, at different times, quite a bit of time on the set. And we were apprehensive because you never know how your life is going to be treated. I think the original movie absolutely captured the essential truth of what happened and I was proud of it. But I saw the director’s cut–Doug’s newest version–this summer and I hadn’t seen it in eight years and it had a deep impact on me. First of all, it’s a better film. And he draws out some themes that were just beginning to be teased a little bit [in the original film]. It just hangs together better, which is amazing to me knowing that it’s only six minutes longer. But it makes a huge difference.

Yes, it does.

VP: As Doug pointed out, we’ve all had some time and distance to process everything that happened and the political environment and where we are today. Seeing Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford testify in the Kavanaugh nomination hearing really resonated because it’s the theme of speaking truth to power and the consequences thereof.

And as you said, with this current political climate the time of the cut is very powerful. From a creative standpoint, rewatching the original film and then watching the director’s cut, one thing that jumped out at me that I felt got lost or not given enough credit in the general reaction eight years ago was that, despite the espionage and action elements within the story, this is a story about a marriage trying to survive.

VP: I have to say this takes me back. When it first came out in 2010, Joe and I and Doug and the others involved in this project spent a lot of time beating back the narrative put forward by the Bush Administration. You know, fighting that fight all over again. And now, that’s not what it’s about. It’s the themes that drew Doug to tell the story in the first place are allowed to come out upon release, of speaking truth to power. The importance of holding your government to account. The reckoning of the Iraq War. And, as you point out, the personal aspect.

DL: Yeah, the personal aspect is actually the reason I’m shocked that Valerie and I are sitting here side by side doing an interview!

(Laughter)

DL: No one can really know what’s happening inside someone else’s marriage but we really took a critical eye to this relationship. As much as I was interested in the international events, what I thought was so powerful about this story and [screenwriter] Jez Butterworth, who really finds amazing characters in history and tells amazing stories. You have a husband and wife who are at the center of the White House’s deception behind the War in Iraq. A husband and wife who are armed with the knowledge that the President is lying to the American people and one of theme chooses to speak out. And the havoc it wreaks on their relationship is such an amazing story in and of itself. Even if you made it up, and it happens to be true. Joe Wilson, played by Sean Penn, is such a…

VP: Intense.

DL: Intense and amazing character, who’s not necessarily the hero of my story. Even though he’s a hero to me as an American because we wouldn’t know the truth about the War in Iraq if it weren’t for Joe Wilson. Nobody else spoke up. There was one person who spoke up and said, “The President is lying. He knew there were no weapons of mass destruction. There we no nuclear weapons in Iraq. And he’s lying to the American people.” There’s one person who told us that and then everything came unraveled and now we just know there were no weapons–

VP: But we didn’t know it then.

DL: We didn’t know it then and it all started with Joe Wilson. So as an American Joe Wilson is my hero, but as a filmmaker Joe Wilson is a far more complex anti-hero than he is hero.

What’s next for both of you?

VP: I’m putting together a spy seminar called “Spies, Lies & Nukes: Inside International Espionage” with some of my summer colleagues. These are highly-decorated officers and this will be coming up in a couple of weeks and I’m really excited. This is unique as far as I know. Nothing quite like this has been put together. If it goes well I want to partner with some academic institutions and take it around and try to explain to people: ‘how did we get here?’ That’s what I’m doing.

DL: My stuff sounds pretty petty in comparison. I’ve got a couple of TV shows and movies that I’m working on.

Fair Game: Director’s Cut is now on Blu-ray/DVD/VOD and hits Netflix on Friday.

Steven Yeun on the Mysteries of ‘Burning,’ Korean Christianity, Nihilism, and ‘RoboCop’

Written by Joshua Encinias, October 29, 2018 at 9:15 am 

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Burning, director Lee Chang-dong’s long-awaited return to the cinema, is brimming with the Rashomon effect. The film will have you questioning what you see, and what you think you know. Many facts appear as objective in the film to justify a personal reading of the narrative. But to reduce Burning to its connective tissue is a disservice to the experience of shutting up, letting go, and enjoying the new work from the master filmmaker and his newest collaborator, Steven Yeun.

Yeun’s imprint is expanding beyond The Walking Dead into films like Okja, Sorry to Bother You, and now Burning. Through one lens, Yeun plays Ben, the cosmopolitan who burns down greenhouses for the thrill of it. Another take on Ben could be the sex-trafficking globalist. There’s more than a binary choice to understand Ben, like all people and all characters. However you interpret him, Ben is a nihilist with fuzzy motives. He’s creepily at home anywhere he is and is always the consummate host.

We spoke with Yeun about working with director Lee, growing up in a Korean Christian family, and existing in a place between motives and narratives to understand the world around you.

The Film Stage: At the New York Film Festival Q&A you said having a son sent you on an existential crisis and Burning helped you through it. Will you elaborate on what happened?

Steven Yeun: It was a lot of things converging at the same time in my life: leaving a show that I’d been on for a long time, becoming a father, and just being 30-something was all converging on me in this way… I think existential crisis is a little too intense. It’s closer to that feeling of angst or re-accepting who you are, what you are attempting to do on this planet. In that moment I wasn’t necessarily lost but kind of treading. I remember Burning coming along and the experience rationalized a lot of the feelings that I was having. It allowed me to explore them.

How did you come about working with director Lee?

I was in London and I mentioned that I wanted to work with him during the press conference of Okja, which I never expected to turn into anything. I got a call from director Bong in the middle of the night saying director Lee wanted to meet me and I was fortunately going to Korea anyhow the next day. I ended up meeting him in Korea to talk about this project and we started a couple of months later, last fall.

I have a theory that the movie is a story Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) wrote.

I think that’s a very applicable take on the film. You’re getting into the idea of the mysteriousness of this world. Our stories and perceptions of what we think is correct, wrong or right; the way we see the world is uniquely our own. We build our own narratives to fit whatever our mind wills itself to be. In the first viewing, you’re looking at Burning through the lens of Jong-su, and so a lot of these little keys point to a specific understanding of what you think Ben is. In the second viewing you’re able to take those down and objectively look at the facts and question what you thought it was. You are being taken through Jong-su’s point of view. Is he writing it? Who knows? Maybe.

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In your Film Comment interview you said, “The Western world is trying to find more collectivism and the East is trying to find more individualism.” Will you elaborate how that manifests in the film?

Ben is the perfect example of someone who has touched and experienced individualism while he lives in a collectivist society. There’s this freeness to him, this ability to move about where he pleases. A consistency to his being wherever he is. Whereas a lot of us, even in America, submit ourselves to code-switching based on whatever scenario you’re in. For me it’s always been about balance and East and West are the poles.

Everytime a guest is at Ben’s house they wear slippers. Is it common in South Korean households to have enough slippers on hand for guests?

Yes. [Laughs.] Or people wear their socks. No shoes in the house, that’s rule number one. Have you been in an Asian person’s house? No shoes in my house, my mom will kill you. Where the Western part of me comes in is if I need to quickly grab something I’ll run through the house in my shoes. I’m not going to knock on Western values, but, I think at the least everyone would benefit if they didn’t bring their shoes into the house.

I have to agree.

In your GQ profile you talk about growing up in a Korean Christian household. The only recent depiction of that experience in popular culture I can recall is Andrew Ahn’s movie Spa Night. Have you seen it? How true is the faith element in that movie to your experience?

I have! With Korean Christians you’re talking about two sets of collectivist ideas. Christianity can lead itself to have this monolithic idea of what a general Christian should be and how they should behave. Being Korean also has that collectivist nature of submitting yourself to what the whole wants. You have a double dose of that. And if you’re like David in Spa Night and wrestling with your sexuality, that’s sometimes a hindrance because you have a lot of guilt.

How have you been able to reconcile your experience as a kid in the church and where you’re at now as you re-engage it?

I think it’s this healthy questioning of the choices we make in our lives. You’re growing up and your parents work out a safe space for you or instill some of their own values in you. There’s this sense when you look back in the rearview, you ask yourself how many of my choices are because people told me what they were supposed to be and how many of my choices are truly what I feel? I’ve been able to healthily unpack these things and rebuild them for myself. Sometimes they’ve remained consistent but have a deeper understanding of purposefulness.

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Director Lee left much of your character’s motivation up to you to internalize and keep secret. Can you talk about how you came to those motives?

I tried to build the character out from his core, basic philosophy. In doing so you build on that through his understanding of nihilism and acceptance of that idea. You read something like The Pillowman, where you think maybe he’s altruistic in his nihilism, maybe he’s helping these women. Maybe he even thinks while he’s doing something nefarious to the outside world it’s actually a benefit to these women in the end. Whatever weird place this person is in, or not, those are things I built upon. Through my journey in the process of this character, my decisions changed as we went. Sometimes the choices exist on this paper-thin line of I made the choice, but also that choice is teetering on the edge of both things.

Did you ever feel your choices didn’t make a difference when it came down to performing, since you were the only one who knew Ben’s motives?

We were trying to maintain the in-betweenness and mysteriousness of the character. Director Lee and I would choose certain moments to play toward a specific way, depending on how we wanted the perception of Ben to serve the narrative. There were moments where he would direct me to push it a little further in one direction, and in another scene in a different direction. We found a natural ebb and flow.

Why did RoboCop land on your Criterion top 10 list?

It’s a story about capitalism. What unchecked power can do when you can justify every decision to be about sales or money. It gets this perverted sense of itself where you’re building crazy things like a massive robot to keep people in check. That era of Verhoeven, Carpenter, when I watched their stuff when I was a kid I thought I was just watching robots fight each other. You missed all the adult themes and ideas it’s trying to tell you about the way our world works.

A lot of times people try to distill a movie down to its basic function or how they perceive its basic function. With Burning there’s this thriller aspect that’s tied to it which I agree with. But sometimes there’s this penchant for people to get obsessed with what the plot is attempting to say and what the plot is doing. Did Ben do these things or did he not? It becomes this battle in your mind of trying to understand something very concrete but the film is really trying to talk about the in-between things. The things you can’t see. The feelings and mysteries of the world that we don’t understand. You have to let go to those feelings and let go to that idea for the film to process fully.

Burning is now in limited release and will expand in the coming weeks. See showtimes here.

Tamara Jenkins on Capturing the Survival of a Marriage in ‘Private Life’ and Finding Kayli Carter

Written by Joshua Encinias, October 8, 2018 at 8:42 am 

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Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life opened an unusually strong Sundance, one that produced the top-grossing documentaries of the year and award-season contenders. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti play Rachel and Richard, a middle-aged, New York-bohemian couple being pushed out of the city by their own changing interests and crushing fertility crisis. Things go from bad to traumatic when their loving niece Sadie, played by Kayli Carter, promises to be a surrogate for the child.

We spoke with Jenkins about Sadie’s plan to save her aunt and uncle’s dream to be parents and its unexpected consequences. Jenkins jokes about being an “Old Testament God” kind of storyteller, who inflicts reality on her characters, coating the brutal outcomes of their expectations with humor and grace. And Jenkins talks about age winnowing one’s tolerance for a chosen, lower-class, artist’s life in New York City. 

The Film Stage: I want to talk about Kayli Carter’s character, Sadie. She’s the truth-teller in the family and she doesn’t really know when she’s telling it.

Tamara Jenkins: I think one of the things that’s sort of interesting about her function within the story, is that she appears in these people’s lives and the people, she appeared in the life of Richard and Rachel, who are kind of in the middle of some form of mid-life crisis. It’s like a mutual mid-life crisis and it happens to be informed by their fertility crisis. I think they have so many doubts about where they are in their lives. And then this person shows up and the way she sees them is so the exact opposite. She completely romanticizes,  everything’s exciting for her. She’s in New York, which is sort of pounding these people down, but she finds the idea that they’re living outside the mainstream as an artist couple in a very positive light. It’s kind of an interesting impact she has on them, she almost refreshes them. Obviously, she’s young so she injects this kind of energy into their lives.

Casting Sadie was interesting because an actor fell out of the movie very close to production and we were in a crisis where we didn’t have an actor. Our casting director went on a search for an actress and it was very hard. Obviously, there were great actors but no one was really clicking and Kayli Carter was almost the last person we saw. The story is Kayli was doing a play in London, she was acting with Mark Rylance. She had just got back to New York, like very close to that end of line for us. She went in and she read her and when I saw the audition tape I got really excited. We saw her a bunch of times because she didn’t have a body of work that I could refer to.

I was so excited but also nervous because she was a new kid. I really liked her and it was very clear she was our favorite person. And then we had to tell Netflix she was our favorite person and I think we were worried they would want somebody who was more well known or known, period. Because that’s what normally what happens. It ended up they thought she was great and she had a part in a Netflix series called Godless which was in post-production. So it hadn’t come out yet and I hadn’t seen it. The word at Netflix was she did a good job on that show in a smaller part and so we got to go with her.

There was some mirroring that was happening because Kayli Carter herself had such admiration for Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as veteran actors, and she was a new actor. There was something that was almost reflecting the dynamic happening inside the story and outside of the story. Her casting was something that really fed into the story that helped make it work.

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Why is that you think Sadie, with her openness and willingness to help her family, has such a devastating experience?

Well, I don’t know. I mean, I think that she’s hurt, there’s a lot of things going on. But that’s an interesting question. You’re saying from an author point of view, “why did you not let her have a happy ending?” I think she has a happy ending, ironically, but I do think the process, the whole chain of emotional stuff that’s going on in terms of her realizing how much it means to them to have this thing work out, her discovering that it’s not happening.

She flies in and thinks she has to be this great savior and it’s going to be this beautiful thing, but life is very complicated and it doesn’t work out that way necessarily. Her eggs weren’t developing on schedule, so it’s not so easy to swoop in and I think that’s honest. She tries to overcompensate by almost endangering herself for sure. She really puts herself in a bad situation and she really is a young kid. It’s a complicated arrangement with this older couple and what they’re doing. I don’t think it’s like oh, she’s being punished, I think it’s reality. It’s not like I’m a mean God [Laughs] playing this puppeteer.

An Old Testament God.

Yeah, exactly. “This hopeful creature will be bashed down!” In the end she’s pursuing her art and she kinda gets this great gift at the end, going to this artist colony and getting this beautiful room and being taken seriously, which is really what she wanted all along, no one was taking her seriously as an artist. I mean her mother for instance. The only people that did take her seriously were Richard and Rachel.

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It seems Richard and Rachel are working out the problems in their relationship via this vehicle of having a baby, but it really doesn’t feel like they’re working it out. And then at the end, they’re still going for it. In the way that Sadie wanted to be the savior to this couple, they’re thinking the baby is going to be the savior of their relationship.

I think it’s interesting that you’re also talking about the end of the movie. It’s like a Rorschach test because people respond to the movie in very different ways. You feel like it’s “Oh, my God, it’s just this cycle of the same thing over and over again.” But I actually don’t think it is.

I think that the end of the movie is actually a very different place. First of all, I think their lives are definitely hijacked by this experience, which is very typical of people that go through assisted reproductive technology. I think that it lures you deeper and deeper and you might draw a line in the sand and think, “okay, I’m not going to the next step” but then they do because there’s a chance, just like the doctor said, all you need is one good egg. It’s like compulsive gambling. Maybe if you try this one time it’ll work. I think that’s really honest and true.

At one point the doctor said, “We can try a donor egg,” and then they walk down the street and she says there’s no way in hell I’m going to do that. He says we might want to just think about it and she’s like what are you talking about?. We said we would never do it. He said, no, you said you would never do it. I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to make you do something you didn’t want to do. But it seems like statistically it’s kind of a good idea. He’s being realistic and saying let’s put our odds on the better odds, we should do this, let’s put our money on the debt and we should do them so that. About him saying I don’t want it. Then there’s a later scene where he says I’m glad the egg didn’t work.

And then at the end of the film when they get a phone call from a birth mother who wants to meet them, that they’re having some kind of relationship with. I always feel like the scene at the diner when Paul gets up and crosses from the other side of the booth and he lives down with Rachel, to me that’s the happy ending of the movie. It’s a muted happy ending, but it’s a happy ending, that this thing that really feels like it’s fracturing this couple and destroying their marriage didn’t do it.

Baby or not baby to me is almost irrelevant because the movie is about a marriage and it’s about the survival of a marriage. When we were shooting the movie Paul Giamatti said this isn’t even about the baby, this is Waiting for Godot. They’re journeying through the world of infertility and it pushes all of these buttons and it’s a very intense kind of trial and it puts their marriage in an extreme state.

Were you watching the movie alone, streaming it?

I was.

It’s a bad way of seeing the movie because it’s really funny and you probably didn’t feel any of that.

Oh, no, I laughed so much. More than at any movie this year, to be honest.

Oh, my God, that’s so crazy! I was thinking, oh, my God, something hit him and he was going down a dark hole of pain. I’m glad it made you laugh.

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Richard and Rachel are a pretty open, progressive couple, right? But they have this desire for a baby at all costs, which seemed very traditional.

I have a question for you: How old are you?

Thirty-one.

I think that something happens to people… it’s true, I wouldn’t be like that at thirty-one either. When you have this sense that your entire life is in front of you and you’ll have a baby one day… these are people are in a very specific socio-economic kind of reality and they’re very much like all the people in my world, who had very unconventional lives, and have freelance lives, probably not unlike yourself, journalists, writers, artists that don’t have a kind of secure, regular way of making a living. Their lives are very insecure. They don’t have health insurance, they’re living by the skin of their teeth, and the only reason they’re staying in the city is because they have a rent-stabilized apartment and their life has always been about their work.

Then suddenly they wake up and they’re having some sense, which you will probably have — I’m not saying everyone has this — almost like they’re outgrowing their original placement in New York. Like way they got there when he says, “Oh my God, I don’t want to walk the dog at night, it’s all party people. All the bars are opening and I don’t want to find myself fifty at some block association meeting trying to prevent the opening of a new bar.” Rachel says we’re not going to turn fifty in this apartment and he says “I’m forty-seven!” Like what is going to change in three years? Nothing. It’s almost like they’re being pushed out of the life they set up themselves, kind of like what you were saying, this unconventional life, they’re kind of pushing up against the edges of it and being uncomfortable, like they’re outgrowing it on a certain level.

Sometimes there’s an irrational thing that happens to people that it’s completely… it’s irrational that anybody would want to have a child, they just want to. There’s nothing rational about wanting to have a kid and normal people have sex and have a kid, they don’t have to talk about it, they just do it. But when it becomes something that has to be brought to consciousness and you have to parse out every detail of it, it becomes very different and very strange, and you’re witnessing that. Normal people just fuck! And then it’s like, oh we’re having a kid like it’s this accident. But if you’re not getting it that way it just becomes a much more tortured, weird, self-conscious process, and I think that’s a little bit of what you’re talking about.

Private Life is now in limited release and on Netflix.

Paweł Pawlikowski on ‘Cold War,’ the Divinity of Absolute Love, and the Political Backlash to ‘Ida’ in Poland

Written by Ed Frankl, October 8, 2018 at 8:24 am 

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Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, a sweeping saga of a doomed romance that crisscrosses 1950s Europe, comes five years after the release of his Oscar-winning Ida. Two superb films in, Pawlikowski has found a niche in black-and-white historical drama set in his native Poland, where he moved after spending his career in the UK. But Cold War’s rich, jazz-soaked love story has a different beat to the relatively austere Ida, and it’s notched up rave reviews since its premiere in Cannes.

The former academic, dressed in a suit, jeans, and sunglasses hanging from the top of his T-shirt, is erudite but combative as we meet at the San Sebastián Film Festival, pushing back on what he calls simplistic interpretations of Ida and Cold War, as well as offering his thoughts on populism in Europe and Poland’s controversial Holocaust law.

The Film Stage: Cold War won Best Director at Cannes. What would you say has connected audiences and critics with it?

Pawel Pawlikowski: It’s hard to say, but I imagine it’s a powerful story in all its ambiguities and contradictions. It’s a very unusual, eccentric story, so I didn’t realize how many people would still find their way into it. A lot of people have come up to me and said “It’s exactly like my story.” But no it isn’t — it’s Cold War, it’s communism, it’s exile. But they still find something of their own fragmented love story, perhaps of the impossibility of love.

So is Cold War a metaphor that says love is ultimately doomed?

No. This is a very specific story. It’s not that doomed, you know. There’s a kind of happy ending! But the fact is that we expect something absolute to come out of love–traditions from the troubadours to 19th-century literature. It’s an interesting dramatic problem because love never is absolute; it always goes through stages–different contexts, different people. We’re always disappointed. Time corrupts things. Absolute love is the domain of the divine and in human terms the quest for something absolute always leads to comic and tragic effects.

Even today, internet dating trains us to think perfect love is achievable…

This is an era when so much of the emotional life happens in the digital sphere. A lot of people don’t look at each other–only on telephones and they meet on the internet. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t love. But it’s difficult to capture and show it in a form. Whereas in a time when there were fewer distractions and people had to face each other it’s slightly more interesting to show.

I think that these days couples don’t last very long. So it’s so difficult for that couple to survive all the twists and turns and the obstacles thrown in their way — political, technical, exile, absence from each other. They kind of enhances this thing. Love.

The thing is I’m not sure what love is in Cold War–at no point are they very happy! There are moments where it’s nice, but nothing is ever satisfying and pure. It immediately gets corrupted and veers off into something else. It’s only at the end of the story when they have no more strength to fight that they find themselves alone and nobody can understand them as well as each other and you can say that was a great love story. That was love. But it didn’t look like love.

But you do structure it in a way to glimpse at what looks like love…

It’s a little bit of an experiment to make a film that’s so elliptical. I’m going to appeal to some audiences and not others because some people want to have explanations and to fully understand what the author had in mind and why this person did exactly this. It’s a little bit tiring in especially big films like a biopic. They have fifty years explaining how you get from A to B, and they introduce artificial cause and effect just to make sense of what happens. She did this and this led to that. I always get frustrated by that. Because I know in life there’s no one motivation for anything and everything you do has many different consequences. But I’d rather not go into that and show you elements you can feel the truth of it. You fill in the missing links.

I think I would like such a film–that’s why I make it. Exactly the film I like where a lot is left unsaid but it’s suggested. Where there are gaps for me to imagine. When everything there is not there to explain but to make you experience–and the explanation you have to provide.

What was the process of bringing those strands together and of constructing a movie out of it?

I had this notion of this couple splitting up, fighting, and moving countries–I’ve had this idea for years. But I didn’t know how to do it. I wrote several treatments on my laptop in about 2006, but it was a bit close to my parent’s real story.  I could never do that because it’s too messy and I know too much about them.

So it was slowly maturing and I wrote another version and put it aside–which I did with Ida by the way. I stared at Ida ten years before [it was released] and put it aside. And then there’s a moment when you’re ready to do it. I’ve got the tools to tell the story. And that moment occurred after Ida, when I realized you could tell a complicated story quite elliptically. Because Ida is quite elliptical too but not as extreme as this one.

When I was shooting it I cut a lot of scenes from the script [like Ida] and it still made sense. You could trust the audience to make sense of it. And also I came across the folk ensemble and music became the integral part. I thought “OK, I’ve got the framework now–they meet through the folk ensemble. They fall in love with the music, the music keeps them together.” And suddenly it started falling into place.

Surprisingly, it didn’t limit the audience too much. And what really surprised me is in Poland masses of people went to see it, even though it’s black and white and it’s elliptical.

But you’ve had problems in Poland and been criticized by politicians there, how are you and other artists coping with increased populism?

The position of artists in a little bit under pressure. But it’s not terror. Nobody gets arrested or stopped from making films if you can find the money. Populism anywhere is anti-culture, reducing everything to primitive narratives which is the opposite of what art should be. Art should be showing the beauty, the complexity, the ambiguity the paradoxical ambiguous nature of the world. And find form for it. So inevitably populism–and most politicians are at some level populists–they try to co-opt art often.

Ida was an international success, won the Oscar [for Best Foreign Language Film], and it coincided with an election campaign where the right-wing party [current President Andrzej Duda’s Law and Justice Party] was trying to galvanize support. So they used Ida quite cynically as a tool. They said: “Look there’s this film, it’s very anti-Polish. You haven’t seen it ‘cos it’s black-and-white but we’ll tell you it is very boring. There’s a Polish guy who kills Jewish people.”

But the film isn’t about that. They took one element one of very complex situation and said: “Don’t bother to see the film, but believe us, it’s very anti-Polish. And why is it doing very well? Well, there’s a huge conspiracy against our country. And why is it doing well in Hollywood? Well, look at who’s in charge in Hollywood, nudge nudge.”

So suddenly it became like an election campaign tool. And they started this petition against the film which was signed by more people than saw the film in Poland. When they came to power it won the first Polish Oscar so they had to deal with it. But the prime minister said, “We don’t know why it won the Oscar, it’s a shitty film.”

State TV invested in the film so they had the right to show it a few times. And then one day they took it off the schedules. And there was an outcry from the filmmaking community, so they put it back on the schedule, but they preceded it by a 15-minute discussion by two right-wing guys. One of them said, “this Pawel should be stripped of Polish citizenship.” And, by the way, the film you’re about to see which we have to show, is anti-Polish film. And it’s a Jewish point of view. So everyone who watches this film will know how to watch it.

Now they’re probably going to win the next election, so they don’t have to be so aggressive. But this film [Cold War] has done incredible box office and it’s got [Poland’s submission for] the Oscar nomination so they’re kind of nicer to me… But I try to stay clear of any kind of politics.

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Do you condemn the government’s controversial “Polish death camp” law?

I thought the formulation “Polish death camps” was moronic. I was fighting against it myself. What the fuck? They were German death camps in Poland. So I understand certain irritations totally with the misrepresentation — not that there were any ideological reasons, I think there was just stupidity. People say that stuff because in America they have no idea about history anyway.

But Ida is a film about showing that Poland had a role in the Holocaust…

Not Poland, just this one guy. It shows all sorts of other things. The communist state prosecutor [played by Agata Kulesza, who also stars in Cold War] has a role in condemning people to death. And I didn’t say Poland I was saying this one guy killed — but also he saved someone. He took this girl, Ida, to the monastery.

I never do anything one-to-one. Life is full of mysteries and paradoxes and I want that to be known and to be shown. People in the West who interpreted my film as a film about Polish guilt they’re as stupid as people in Poland who interpreted as an anti-Polish film–it’s reductive. As a state, Poland didn’t cause the Holocaust. Ida is also about an existential side of life, morality in general; what does it mean to be Catholic, to be guilty? You know, I didn’t phrase it in journalistic terms; I didn’t phrase it as a simplistic narrative. I was as pissed off with some Western journalists who reduced it to that as I was with Polish politicians.

Your use of Polish history begs comparison to Andrzej Wajda…

With Wajda, I still feel he’s teaching me about history, whereas I’m trying not to do that. Even in Ashes and Diamonds, which I love, I know what he’s trying to tell me. But yes, I mean if you tell a Polish story set in the 50s or 60s, inevitably you talk about history. I’m trying not to foreground history, I’m trying to show how history affects people but I’m not trying to fill in any historical gaps or inform people.

That’s why in Ida with that peasant killing — it’s not like I want to draw attention that it happened. Of course it happened. It would have happened in most countries, to be honest. But I wanted to deal with other existential problems–and by the way this occurs. And the same in Cold War, dealing with the mechanics of the love story, which is very complicated Two people, very ill-suited to each other: temperamentally, socially, culturally, but all the time history affects them. It affects the relationship. So definitely I like telling stories that are steeped in history.

That’s why I stopped making films in Britain because I didn’t feel historical context. Whereas Polish history, my history, my parents history is always in the back of my head as something I have to deal with at some point. But I don’t want to make a film about history because that inevitably leads to a reductive thing — characters become illustrations of something.

That sounds like a criticism of British cinema…

No, British cinema is great. But it’s very sociological. It’s about class. It’s history in terms of furniture and costumes and royal family. The royal stuff is actually interesting. But what I mean [I want to talk about] is more immediate history, not the royals or an Upstairs Downstairs kind of thing.

I want to make films about people who were crushed by history, who had to behave decently when it was impossible to be decent. Or they had to make compromises. History that strangles you. History of exile. In exile how does a relationship survive exile? How do you find your bearings? How do you not lose your character?

Cold War screened at the San Sebastián Film Festival and will be released in on December 21.

‘A Land Imagined’ Director Yeo Siew Hua on the Philosophies of Dreams and the Reinvention of Singapore

Written by Zhuo-Ning Su, October 5, 2018 at 9:11 am 

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Chances are you haven’t heard the name Yeo Siew Hua before this summer. The young filmmaker from Singapore had had only one narrative feature to his name after all. But Yeo broke out in a major way in August, when his sophomore narrative feature A Land Imagined won the Golden Leopard at the 71st edition of the Locarno Film Festival, one of the oldest and most prestigious of its kind, from a jury chaired by none other than Jia Zhangke that also included Sean Baker. (See our review here.)

The winning streak of the film continued as it again picked up the top prize at the second annual El Gouna International Film Festival in Egypt last week.

We spoke with the writer-director of this narratively and stylistically entrancing film at the third stop of its festival tour in Hamburg (it has 17 more destinations to cover in the next two months), where we talked about filmmakers that he’s a fan of, different philosophies of dreams and the part of Singapore where you won’t find any Crazy Rich Asians.

Where did the initial idea for the film come from?

It has a lot to do with my own fascination with land reclamation. Singapore is a country that has been reclaiming land since its founding some fifty years ago, and even further back during the colonial period. Once upon a time, there used to be hills and mountains in Singapore. Now it’s completely flat. We literally took out all the mountains to create land space. If you think about it, this whole island is engineered, contrived. For me it feels like I live in a country that’s constantly reinventing itself. So that was the starting point.

Singapore also buys sand from a lot of South East Asian countries. It has the money, and spends it on soil and sand in order to further extend its territory. So this practice doesn’t just change Singapore, but also these other countries.

Also, in terms of the makeup of the Singaporean population, technically speaking we’re all migrants. I’m only a second-generation Singaporean. We all came from someplace else. So you could say even our demographic is imagined.

And you decided to make the film about a very specific part of the demographic.

When I really started to research land reclamation, I realized 99.9% of the construction industry consist of work force from other countries in the region, particularly Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and Thailand. On my trips to the western part of Singapore, which is this industrial area that most Singaporeans never go, I encountered these migrant workers. Once I got to know them, befriended them, I realized there’s no turning back, this story had to be about them, the difficulties they faced and also their dreams and hopes. So I think that opened up the drama aspect of the film.

But at the same time, I did not want to just make a harsh, dark drama, because then I would just be feeding back into the simplistic rhetoric of migrant workers being oppressed. For me it should be much more than that. The point is to see them as humans, just like me and you. We’re all here to live our lives.

Presumably you shot on location?

Yes, we shot on location.  There are two main locations. One is the industrial west, where most of the Bangladeshi dormitories are. And then there’s this place called Geylang, which is not in the west but where many of the Chinese workers live. It’s also the red-light district, where a lot of activities go on at night, including these cyber cafés. The story took off for me after I’ve been to and experienced these locations.

For example, I was trying to write a character who’s having anxiety problems and cannot sleep. I knew I didn’t want the film to be another sleazy urban film about sex but about someone trying to connect. So this character ended up finding other people at this cyber café, which is the only place that’s open 24/7.

And isn’t cyber space itself also “a land imagined”?

Yeah, the virtual space is a part of all our lives now. A space that is even more malleable and illusory. At its heart this film deals with a certain social detachment. The connection this character finds at the cyber café is also a kind of disconnection because it’s an alienating experience. So conceptually this space is a liminal space. It’s neither night nor day, it’s somewhere between connection and disconnection.

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Coming back to the physical locations, you mentioned one being in the west of Singapore.

Yes, that’s where most of the constructions sites, sand quarries, and the Bangladeshi dormitories are.

From the looks of it, that’s not where the Crazy Rich Asians of Singapore live?

No, it definitely is not. It’s hidden even from the Singaporeans themselves. After I became friends with the workers living there, I went back regularly to visit them, to spend time with them in the middle of nowhere. I later decided to start a little tour and invite my artist friends to go there and join me on the weekends. People generally have no access to that part of the island and, unless you’re doing a project, have no business being there at all.

For me it’s important to show this side of Singapore, which is, on many levels, deliberately kept from the world so that the tourists only see the sleek, pretty side. Cinematically you never see that other side.

 

What was the biggest challenge in writing the screenplay?

The fact that the characters in this film are contextually so far removed from myself. I’m a filmmaker from the upper-middle class and belong to the ethnic majority of the country. I’m very privileged on many levels. But now I had to represent and give voice to people whose lives are nothing like mine. Finding out a way to do it authentically really took time.

The character of the police detective, who’s middle-class himself and probably more relatable to the general audience, eventually became a vehicle for me to find my way into the film.

Also, I’m someone who likes to experiment with cinematic forms. I didn’t want to tell this story as a straight, social-realist drama or a documentary – although my previous film was a documentary so there’s definitely a documentarian in me as well. But for this project I tried to infuse these different elements and create something new.

Speaking of documentaries, the film features news footage of a Chinese worker threatening suicide to demand payment owed by his employer. Was that actual news?

We reenacted and shot the scene for the film but the incident really happened. It was not widely reported in the mainstream media, because it goes against the conventional rhetoric of “Look, all these migrant workers who come to Singapore earn so much more here than where they came from. They ought to count themselves lucky.” But I was like “Wait up, there’s a lot more going on.” So this incident was also a big inspiration for me.

 

Is it easy to get a film made in Singapore?

Financing is difficult. Even though Singapore is an overall affluent country, it doesn’t have that much cultural funding. I did manage to get some talent development money for this film, but we still needed to do a co-production, meaning pitching it to the French and the Dutch to slowly get the financing in place. There’s probably more local funding that goes into “commercial” films – for whatever reason.

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Would you say there’s a film industry in Singapore?

It’s hard to say that about most Southeast Asian countries. The markets are at least bigger in Indonesia and Thailand. Singapore, by comparison, is a very small market. So if you do a Mandarin-language film, you’ll still be dependent on the whole Mandarin-speaking market. If it’s a Malay-language film, the larger Malay-speaking market. So there isn’t a self-sustaining commercial industry and it’s of course even harder to do non-commercial films.

What about the infrastructure? Were you able to find cast and crew locally?

Partially. A lot of my cast are from China or Bangladesh. But the two male leads are both local actors. The actor Liu Xiaoyi, who plays Wang in the film, is originally from China but moved to Singapore more than ten years ago and is doing theater work there. So he also has that experience of being a migrant. And Peter Yu, who plays the detective Lok, is a TV actor who’d stopped acting for a long time, this was kind of his comeback role.

You can also find crew in Singapore, I mean there’s work in TV, internet and other media, it’s just less in terms of film.

What about the state of arthouse cinema there? I remember when Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo won the Camera d’Or in 2013.

I belong to a film collective called “13 Little Pictures” and we make small-budget, experimental films. So smaller films are being made but they don’t travel as much. And there are also some mid-budget films, like the two that went to Cannes in 2016: The Apprentice and this other one that went under the radar a little bit but to me was an amazing Singaporean film called A Yellow Bird. Both of which were done by my producer. So some films are still getting made, but whether they can make headlines or be seen and distributed, that’s a whole different story.

Which filmmakers would you call your influences, in general and on this film?

I don’t think I had any point of reference when I was making this film. I mean I’m a follower or fan of filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and, from Singapore, someone I really look up to, Ho Tzu Nyen, whose film Here also screened in Cannes. But I don’t know if any of them had any direct influence on this film. I do think the film is steeped in the general tradition of noir.

Numerous reviews noted a touch of Lynch in A Land Imagined. I guess that wasn’t a conscious reference either?

No. I mean of course I’ve seen his films and I take this kind of comparison as a huge compliment. But it was important to me that the film didn’t become an overly artistic construct where the viewer might go “Oh, what is that all about?” Ultimately, I wanted to say something with the film. If people don’t get that, then I’ve failed. So I guess you can call the shifting of identities between the characters or the blurring of dream and reality a Lynchian effect. But the film should communicate something specific.

Specifically about the way you approached dreams versus reality, I noticed something quite different from what we are used to seeing in films of a similar nature. Can you talk about that?

Oftentimes when we talk about the blurring of dreams and reality, we approach it from a Western conception of dreams, or questions like “Is this real or not? Is my reality what it seems?” It’s based on a skepticism about what is real. About whether one can trust or believe this illusory world. You see a lot of this in Western literature or films.

I studied philosophy and subscribed to the teachings of Zhuangzi (4th century BC Chinese philosopher). And the way I understood Chinese philosophy of dreams, it’s really quite different. It’s not about “Am I dreaming?” but about the ability to dream, or more precisely, the ability to dream that which is beyond and outside yourself. The dream that feels so real is our ability to go beyond ourselves, to transcend. The philosophy of Zhuangzi is always about dreaming outside the confines of your context. And that, to me, is also the ability to transform.

This film also deals with the transformation of people. When you finally understand the “other”, you lose yourself and momentarily become them. Those scenes of the workers singing and dancing reflect my experience having fun with them. Sometimes while we were dancing, I didn’t feel like “me” and they didn’t feel like “them”. We were just bodies. We’re all the same. Whatever divide that existed between us fell away. That was the most beautiful thing to me.

So that was the philosophical element behind the film, which I tried to include even with this three-act structure. We start with this detective who, at first we don’t really understand why he even cares about finding these two missing workers. Then we see the lives of these people and by the time we come to the third act, we start to see the two come together, or fold into each other. My hope is that by that time, the audience will be in on it. They will start to root for the detective and want him to solve the case.

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What was it like to win Locarno?

Truly shocking (laughs). It was the first time a Singaporean film was even in the main competition at Locarno, so we went with no expectations. And there were heavyweights in the lineup, people that I’m a fan of. So I really was not expecting to win. When I heard about it, I was overjoyed of course.

Did you get to hang out with the jury? You know, folks like Jia Zhangke and Sean Baker.

Yeah, they all came up to me and said encouraging things like “Good job” and that they looked forward to my next project. It was a very nice recognition for the film.

Do you have your next project lined up already?

Yes, it’s already in the works. It’s something that was developed concurrently with A Land Imagined called Stranger Eyes and it will be at the Busan Asian Project Market next week. I developed it in this new lab called the “South East Asian Fiction Film Lab”. Roughly it’s about surveillance, or the subjectivity of the gaze. It’s about the ability to see others and how seeing is not just a passive activity, that oftentimes in seeing others you end up seeing yourself.

Will it also be a thriller or more of a straight drama?

I think there will always be some genre element in my films. I like to play around with boundaries, with different forms of cinema.

Before we go: what types of films did you watch growing up in Singapore? Did you watch more Hollywood or Asian films?

I consume a lot of films and I don’t discriminate. I watch Marvel films just as I watch Ozu films and I pay the same amount of attention to each of them. In Singapore we do get a lot of films coming our way. There are a lot of festivals. There used to be a very nice cinematheque in Singapore which unfortunately has closed down – I’m very angry about it – that’s where I first saw Parajanov’s films. So I don’t necessarily make that distinction between Hollywood films and Singaporean films. Ultimately we’re all part of world cinema. So what’s important to me is to see what we can offer to this larger cinematic conversation. Masters from South East Asia like Trần Anh Hùng, Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Lav Diaz have already started it, so now the question is how do we make the landscape interesting and expand the horizon for cinema from this part of the world.

A Land Imagined screened at the Hamburg International Film Festival.