In the time since I last spoke to Arnaud Desplechin — nine months, to be exact — his latest feature, My Golden Days, has gone from a celebrated theatrical release here in the U.S. to, on this very day, a title anyone can access via VOD services and DVD. Just as important, I think is word of his next feature, Les Fantomes d’Ismaël — though American press and Magnolia, its future distributor, use Ismael’s Ghosts in writing, the man himself calls it The Ghosts of Ismaël when speaking in English — a Sabbath’s Theater– and Vertigo-inspired drama concerning “a filmmaker whose life is sent into a tailspin by the return of a former lover just as he is about to embark on the shoot of a new film.” This sounds great on paper; that it’s to star Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Louis Garrel doesn’t make matters much worse.
Only one question in this interview directly concerns My Golden Days, being that we’ve already discussed it rather extensively, and what’s asked firmly takes advantage of our retrospective stance. What follows is, I think, as relaxed as it is focused, offering strange surprises and revelations along the way — including his love for both an acclaimed American rapper and controversial young auteur. (You can make a guess as to the latter if you know what festival he was just intimately involved in.) There’s always more to talk about with a man this experienced, wise, and open to the directions of discourse, and I hope it won’t be our last conversation. For now, this should do.
Where are you with this new film?
Arnaud Desplechin: The new film is called The Ghosts of Ismaël, and the next step, actually… I’m right in the middle of the production. I’ll start shooting it at the end of August; that’s the stage where I am. Shooting in August, September, and November.
Having moved from My Golden Days to that at a fairly efficient clip, I wonder if it could, in any way, play as a reaction — if one grew from the other, I suppose.
I guess I was carried by the fact that My Golden Days is dealing with young people and is about youth. This time, as a reaction to My Golden Days, it’s about middle characters, and I think all the character that I depicted in Ismaël are dealing with what you call in America “a second chance.” They are not that young; they are in their ‘40s. They are fighting for a new life, to reinvent themselves. It seems to me that, in My Golden Days, they were inventing themselves. But this time, it’s about the second chance — when you have to reinvent yourself. So it’s a different plot. The plot is quite different.
Also, I’m talking about the fact that what was so delightful in My Golden Days is that I was working with inexperienced actors, who are all so wonderful and fresh. This time, I’m working with major French movie stars, and so it’s quite different, to think that I’m dealing with people who are quite experienced. In the previous film, it was with younger guys and girls. It’s a big shift.
What effects could that have on you as a filmmaker?
I guess, in an odd way, I learned a lot from the young guys and girls — precisely because they were inexperienced with stage fright. They taught me a lot. This time, because I’m working with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Cotillard, I’m eager to learn from them. You know, I started not to rehearse, because I don’t do proper rehearsals, but I had to have some readings-through with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and I was so eager to know the way she works with Lars von Trier, which is so different from the way she works with other directors. To learn from that, and to learn from her experience is a real favor for me.
It’s different, also, because Louis Garrel will be in the film, and, with his way of working with his father, he asked me to rehearse a lot. As I told you, I never rehearse on my films. This time, I rehearsed a lot with Louis because he had to catch his character — that’s his way of working — so I guess I’m learning from all these actors who have all different backgrounds, and I’m trying to listen to them and to discuss their performances.
We’ve had more than a year between My Golden Days premiering and now. How, if at all, has it changed for you in this time?
It was a big change. I guess… I was saying that the film I wrote is about people who are trying to reinvent themselves after they’ve had a tough life. They are trying for this last chance. For me, My Golden Days allowed me to reinvent myself as a director, because of the youth of this cast, and the fact that I was working three plots. I had to go faster in my storytelling, so it helped me a lot. After that, we had this award in France, which is called Le César, and we had so many nominations. It was so gratifying for me, and I had the Best Director. I’m so happy to have this from the provisional of France, for this work that I did; it was really moving. I say that because all these actors that I will work with, Charlotte and Marion and Louis, I met them. Even if I knew them — France is not that big a country — I met them through My Golden Days. It opened to me a lot of doors, so it was pretty gratifying.
But I guess I learned a lot from the experience. It’s a little too complicated for words. It’s the fact that I was able to be — I guess; I hope — harsh in my writing. I’m harsh, and sometimes cruel, but everything is enlightened with the youth of the actors in My Golden Days. There’s no bitterness because they are so young and so fresh. I approached it in the same way in my new film: it’s trying to have hard lines and to be brutal with my characters, and the bet is that the actors will transform that dramatic material into something which is alight.
When we spoke last year, you said you expected the main character not to be named Ismaël later on. You said, “I’m calling him Ismaël right now, but I will change it later.”
First: why did you want to change it? Second: why did you keep it?
I wanted to change it because the film is not at all a sequel to Kings & Queen; the film has no relation to Kings & Queen. The name works. This first name works for so many reasons. Melville would be one — a great thing. For a hero, it’s a good name — you can remember that name— and also, perhaps it works because, on Kings & Queen, the main character was an artist, and it was my first attempt to depict an artist as a main character, when usually I prefer to have doctors or something.
This time, you know, it’s a portrait of a director, which can be absolutely insulting for the audience, and which can be funny, too. I thought that this name, Ismaël, gave him something brash and arrogant, and that I liked. I just kept it. I proposed the part to Mathieu, and I asked to him the question, “Do you mind if we still go with this first name, Ismaël?” He said, “No, I’m fine. Let’s go forward with it. This will be a new adventure of Ismaël.” The film is not linked to my previous work.
Mentioning Kings & Queen reminds me of how you use rap music. What’s the thinking behind its presence in your work?
Because, I guess, hip-hop is the music of my generation. I know all the kids are listening to hip-hop music in France now, but I thought of hip hop, and I remember so vividly when we were listening to the first records of hip-hop that the older generation would call it “a fashion.” “In six months, it’ll be gone.” And, actually, we are still listening to hip-hop. There was a big revolution of that. I was in New York and the audience asked me questions about using French songs in my films, and I thought, “I’m not a great fan of the French popular music.”
Actually, we have good hip-hop — music where we are inventing new songs and we have good guys; good DJs. It’s a thing of imagination because it goes against everything — the melody, it broke the concept of the classical songs — and I love that break so much. I guess that the generation before mine had put everything in the concept of melody. It was not melody any longer; it was just notes. And, this time, there were no notes any longer; there was just rhythm and words. I love that. I just love that. It’s so difficult to use it in films, because it can fight against the dialogue, so you have to find the right track. Yeah. But it’s a commitment for me.
Do you have any hip-hop in mind for The Ghosts of Ismaël?
I will have a real hard time not to use any songs of Kendrick Lamar, because he’s a God to me — so I will just try to find something else, because Kendrick Lamar will be too obvious. But I will have a hard time not to use one song of his.
Do you have a favorite Kendrick Lamar song?
Oh, “King Kunta” for sure.
You served on the jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I’d love to know what you took away from being on the other side of that life for a bit.
I had this experience once in my life, and it was with Quentin Tarantino in Venice. I already served on a major jury in Venice, but obviously Cannes is a lot bigger than them. It was really great for me to stop the prep of my film and to see what worldwide cinema is about today, to have a picture of what film is today — all these films that come from many countries — and to see them. The experience of seeing the films and to discuss them… it was fascinating. It was really fascinating.
I learned a lot from George Miller. He’s so great; he’s a master. I was so happy to meet László Nemes at last, when I loved his film so much. If I had to say one thing that I learned from this experience, it would be the fact that the two main prizes we gave in Cannes… one was to a certain form of nakedness, of simplicity, which is the Ken Loach movie. When cinema is not hiding behind anything — a naked art. On the other hand, we gave the second prize to the Xavier Dolan because of his craft, because the film is so well-done, so impressive — the way it’s shot, the way it’s lit, the sets, everything. The art is so brilliant.
So we gave one award to nakedness and the other one to the pure craft and obvious talent of Xavier Dolan. It was wonderful to give these two prizes to two films which are so surprising in two different perspectives within cinema. Ask cinema to be simple or ask it to be complex; if it breaks your heart, it’s good. The film, the English film, was heartbreaking because of its simplicity, and the Xavier Dolan was heartbreaking because of its complexity, and it was great to reward these two films.
You’d told me about wishes to adapt Philip Roth’s Deception. Is that still sitting in your mind?
Mmm. I know that I’m reading this book again and again, and I read it after my trip in New York. Last time I was there, we discussed it, and friends of mine have spoken to me about it again and again, and this book fascinates me because it’s just pure dialogue — the most beautiful dialogue I’ve read between a man and a woman. Now, from the filmmaking perspective, the difficulty is that this film is dealing with the fall of the Wall, of this thing between eastern countries and western countries, and the love story is going through that. You have the character, this writer, meeting his lover in his apartment. You have one chapter with his lover, and the next is about some woman coming from the eastern countries — depicting the oppression in eastern countries and how they are lost after the fall of the Wall. Which means that it would be a period piece.
Which is difficult because the film, it’s about intimacy — so how are you dealing with a worldwide political issue when the film is dealing with intimacy? So today, I guess, my perspective is that it would be a wonderful thing, but I’m not sure the screen would be the perfect tool. I’m always wondering if it would not be a perfect theater play. I did this production for the stage in France last year. I’m wondering if I could transform it into a show, but onstage rather than onscreen. So I’m still dealing with that.
My Golden Days is now on Digital HD and DVD.
It would not be unfair to call Swiss Army Man “the movie about the farting corpse with the boner,” because that is the perfect description of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), one of its two lead characters (the other is love-torn Hank played by Paul Dano). What would be unfair is to only call it that, because it’s actually one of the most unexpectedly sensitive films of 2016.
As directed by the Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert) the film combines the best of buddy films, mumblecore aesthetics and unexpected romance to become something that defies genre and what’s politically correct on film. Needless to say so, it’s a delightful surprise and perfect counter-programming for a season so marked by how alike everything looks. Whether you like the film or not, the true thing is that you won’t be able to get it out of your mind for quite some time.
The Daniels first gained notoriety with their music videos, particularly DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” which featured yet another prominent penis attempting to free itself. If describing their work makes them sound like teenagers who happened to make it big, it’s not only important to deny that notion, but also to avoid making joyless interpretations of their oeuvre. Strangely enough they have mastered the balance between work that feels silly and playful, without ever disengaging from the intellect. The massive conference table where the three of us sat to talk about Swiss Army Man was the perfect setting, since it served a slice of great film talk with a pinch of poetic irony.
How do you go and pitch a movie about boners and farts?
Dan Kwan: It’s really odd. Normally it’d be impossible to even talk about it without people deciding they didn’t want to talk to you anymore, but we did so much experimenting with our short films and music videos that people started to trust us. The more people saw our work, the more they knew we had crazy ideas that sometimes worked. It’s basically all about having something to show. The first years doing music videos we pitched things and got a lot of no’s, because on paper they just seemed like bad ideas. We’re attracted to those in a way, because we like to prove people wrong. If your gut reaction is “this is a terrible idea, it’ll never be worth anything.” we will build that idea into something beautiful and prove them wrong.
Daniel Scheinert: Almost every film is like a little project.
Dan Kwan: We want to make things people can connect to — the ultimate goal is to make something someone will connect to emotionally.
Daniel Scheinert: Also, this movie was the most fun thing to pitch. I don’t know how people pitch boring movies. You have to pitch to people so many times. I never got bored of pitching this to people. Even when they said no, at lunch they would probably still talk about it.
I shouldn’t be dissing other movies…
Daniel Scheinert: I love dissing movies [laughs]
….in that case, let me say that I wish this movie was like I wish The Revenant had been like.
Daniel Kwan: That’s a great compliment though.
They’re both survival movies, but Leo needed more boners. But also there’s a very special element to this one and it’s that it explores something quite prevalent in your work which is the special bond between men. Other than you being guys, what makes you so fascinated with exploring the way men bond onscreen? I really wasn’t expecting to be so moved by this film.
Daniel Kwan: Because we are two guys and a directing duo, we do come up with ideas related to our personal experience, but at the same time I find myself kinda self conscious when it feels we’re making something with familiar tropes. So we compensate by going for those strange, grey areas we haven’t seen portrayed in the media.
Daniel Scheinert: Growing up, my friends in high school were very sensitive guys who liked to have sleepovers and talk about life. It’s the opposite of what most guys are supposed to do, but I feel there is something both fun and terrifying about putting that sort of soft masculinity out into the world. I think this film accidentally became the opposite of The Revenant, which is a survival film about brute force overcoming nature, men against men, revenge…it’s a very hard, traditional film about masculinity. Ours is the other spectrum of what men can be. I think it’s made some guys uncomfortable because it’s way too earnest and sincere about guys feeling uncomfortable with themselves and their shame. We were just talking about how this film rests in so many grey areas, both in genre and other aspects. It’s somewhere between an indie and a studio film, it first about four different genres, and then the relationship the main characters have spans many different types of relationships, they go from being strangers, to a parental-child thing, to a buddy comedy, to straight up lovers and then it transcends that.
Speaking of things guys aren’t supposed to be doing growing up, Daniel you did musical theatre in school, and I thought the aesthetics of Swiss Army Man were very DIY/let’s put on a show. You’ve mentioned wanting to work in as many mediums as possible, so is theatre on your list next?
Daniel Scheinert: I definitely miss theatre. Good theatre is probably my favorite artistic experience I’ve ever witnessed, but bad theatre, oh man. [Laughs] But, yeah, I would love to make theatre. For a long time our dream was to make a feature film, so it’s time to make some new dreams. We love the idea of new challenges, so a video game, or a play…
Daniel Kwan: …children’s books, an interactive video piece.
Daniel Scheinert: …a toy line!
If you could pick a classic musical to get your hands on and do in your style what would it be?
Daniel Scheinert: I’ve always wanted to steal an album by a band and make a musical. No, actually nevermind that, I don’t want to make Across the Universe.
Daniel Kwan: I was just listening to NPR the other day and they were doing a breakdown of West Side Story and it reminded me how beautiful that musical is.
Daniel Scheinert: I think maybe Bat Boy, that’s an old style musical and I love it. It’s so crazy.
There is a moment in the movie…
Daniel Scheinert: Wait, you know what musical we really want to make? Years ago we came up with this idea to make an Off-Broadway show called Spider-Man: The Musical: The Musical, and it would have Julie Taymor, Bono and The Edge trying to make the musical, while their lives are falling to shit in this impossible thing. People just dying and getting injured, and everyone blaming them. It’s like a dramatic musical retelling of the behind-the-scenes drama, and it’s narrated by a Spider-Man actor caught in the rafters above the audience. So he whispers, asks for help and tells the audience what happens next.
I love the moment in the film when Hank is trying to recreate moments from his life so Manny can learn about them. In a way it makes it a movie about making movies, have you guys thought of teaching young people about your aesthetics?
Daniel Kwan: We actually helped start a summer camp for kids who get to come for free and then we make music videos for real bands. The band comes in, the kids come up with the idea and we just film it there. We actually met in a summer camp originally during college. We had so much fun creating that we both were drawn to, and I can see how that bled into our work, the whole thing about making things real, and using your imagination.
Daniel Scheinert: We don’t really “teach” the kids though. It’s all about collaboration. Kids and adults become friends, everyone contributes ideas and the best way to learn is making shit together. We get a kick out of being collaborators rather than teachers.
In terms of special effects gone wrong, what’s the “one that got away” or that crazy thing you’ve never been able to master?
Daniel Scheinert: Oh there’s a whole lot. Our process is to just come up with images that make us laugh or sound cool, so we have this backlog of things we want to do, like “what if we put the camera here?” or “let’s do something underwater,” a lot of our work starts from that grab bag. But we got a lot out of our system in this movie.
Daniel Kwan: Yeah, a lot of dream fulfillment happened.
I hope you guys get to speak to Terry Gross about the importance of boners in terms of representation. I’m not even joking, but it’s insane we live in a world where people are uncomfortable talking or seeing erections and have no problem with guns and rifles.
Daniel Scheinert: I didn’t consciously think about it when we made the movie, but even the word “boner” is right on the line of whether you have to bleep it or not. On late night, Daniel and Paul are making the rounds and Colbert said “erection” not “boner,” but then I think Jimmy Fallon said “boner.” It’s great to push that angle, not in a jokey way, but more like let’s all talk about this. We’ll start a campaign to talk to Terry Gross though.
Swiss Army Man is now in theaters nationwide. Watch the Daniels analyze a scene above.
The Neon Demon will eventually elicit some strong reaction from every viewer, and Nicolas Winding Refn has made clear that it shouldn’t be any other way. Our review was among the most negative we posted at Cannes, speaking for both its immediate grade and the force of its criticisms, and our own Brian Roan experienced something that, had it gone just a bit further, would be plastered across every one of the film’s TV spots and Blu-ray cases. Winding Refn seemed rather amused when I showed him the tweet on my phone, though his verbal response was terse: “I have two kids, so I know what it’s like.”
Despite the stated desire to provoke, there’s a clear humility when discussing The Neon Demon‘s development, and this writer-director — one who’s often held as a symbol of masculine-artist impulses run rampant — often admits that his film wouldn’t exist without female input in every direction. If you’ve seen his wife’s documentary, My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn, you’ll know he’s hardly as brash behind the scenes as his work and public image would often suggest — so what better place to start than there?
The Film Stage: I recently watched My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn, in which your wife, Liv Corfixen, documents the troubling process of making Only God Forgives. Being that your doubts about creative choices and their final result are very clear therein, I wonder how moving away from that troubled project affected The Neon Demon.
Nicolas Winding Refn: Well… the reality is the same thing on every movie. It’s, like, the same process. For Liv, it’s, “Well, here we go again.” [Laughs] The closest thing I’ll ever get to going into labor.
Years ago, there was word that you were working on a Miami-set, Carey Mulligan-led horror film called I Walk with the Dead. A lot of people believe The Neon Demon is an outgrowth of that.
Other than, say, the changing of a lead actress and location, how did it clearly evolve from that original concept?
Because I realized I wanted to make a teenage horror film, and it had to be about beauty. Suddenly, from that perspective, I Walk with the Dead was no longer interesting to me. It needed a new cast; I needed a sixteen-year-old girl. So… [Laughs] there were some practicalities as well. You know, I like to say one thing and see where it takes me, because it’s usually somewhere else.
It’s like… I love television. Not so much what’s on the television, but I love the concept of the television. I thought, “God, I wonder what it would be like doing ‘an Internet movie’ that would be chopped up into small pieces, because the television allows that possibility.” “The digital link.” The iPhone; the iPad. Whatever. The idea of a screen. Those kind of ideas, of a screen, the different things can inspire me to want to indulge in it.
Here, there’s the new process of working with these co-writers: Polly Stenham, an experienced playwright, and Mary Laws, a Yale graduate who’s a relative newcomer. What do they each bring as experienced and nascent voices, and how do you interact with those?
I wrote the story, to begin with, because I had this idea. When I was done figuring out where I wanted to start and wanted to get to, which is the basis of structure, I felt that, along the way, I should feed off as many women as I could. So I first went to the U.K. and hired a very famous playwright called Polly Stenham, and I worked with her for a number of months — and that was cool. Very interesting. But then I kind of felt, “Now I should continue to feed.” So I left the U.K., because, at this time now, L.A. became the place to shoot the movie, and I hired an unknown student at Yale called Mary Laws, who’d never written a screenplay and was also a playwright. Then I worked with her for a number of months.
And then I kind of just moved on. It’s like going through people and making what you want — and then you leave. But it wasn’t really until I hired Elle Fanning that it kind of became clear what it was going to be. Like, everything of the journey of starting in my kitchen in Copenhagen, ending with meeting Elle Fanning in my house that we were renting in L.A. [Makes arc with forefinger] There to here. It had been this kind of arc, but it had never been more clear what it was going to be to me until I met her. Then everything from the past was erased, because now I knew what the essence was going to be. I knew who my alter-ego was going to be. I knew, at the beginning — over here — that this is where I wanted to start and this is where I wanted to get to, and I’d gone through this journey of figuring out the best possible way, but never really finding the solution — until I met Elle Fanning. Does that make sense?
It does, and it leads into what I wanted to ask about your cinematographer, Natasha Braier, who you’ve never worked with before, and who is your first female DP.
With that in mind, talk about what she, specifically, brought here that would’ve otherwise been missing.
Well, it’s hard because I don’t know. [Laughs] But I think that what she very much came with — besides just being a fucking great photographer — was the attention to female detail that was very much… that I don’t think a lot of men would obsess about. Which was great. Or from a different perspective. But, I mean, in terms of work: I set up the framing — I compose the image — and then she lights it. But I loved working with her — so much that I want to do it again. I’ve used her on commercials ever since. But you can kind of say that, with Elle and Natasha, we were off to the races.
Can you name some specific examples, images, that have her signature? It might be all of the images, for all I know, but do any particular moments that immediately jump out as something that she “got” more than anyone else might have?
The great thing about Natasha was that, when I hired her, she very quickly went to the lens houses and got special lens made. I make very inexpensive movies, so it was, like, the most expensive thing I had on the camera crew. [Laughs] They were these special lenses. I wanted to shoot digital, because I love the digital feel, and so that was great, because it was all about the close-ups, that would really help us with our close-ups of the women. So that was a very huge contribution.
I’m colorblind, so it had to be in my color palette — which I knew was new to her, because I can only relate to colors that I can see. And then we started playing with a lot of flares. That became, like, an obsession of ours. “How many flares can we get in?” We were very similar, very quickly, about, “Oh, look at the curtain. We need to look at the curtain. Check the curtain! Don’t start until the curtain is correct.” We both had obsessiveness [Laughs] about the smallest elements. It was just a really wonderful relationship, to work together.
You’ve said in interviews, as you’ve said here, that The Neon Demon presented an opportunity to indulge in your desire to be a sixteen-year-old girl. When did you struggle or fail to connect with that desire? Where did you feel the clear distance between yourself and that idea?
Well, of course, there are obvious things that are, you know, very different — but, at the same time, really not. That’s why I needed Elle Fanning: I needed Elle Fanning and me to become one person. Just like I’d done with Ryan [Gosling]. It was like a mutation: you become your alter egos and you live out your fantasies through it — but with a woman, of course, it’s more… strange. Especially a teenage girl — it’s even more strange. But coming up with this mutation between Elle and myself, you learn all the things you needed to know and understand.
This is one of the reasons I like this movie: it feels alien and foreign in that way, and ultimately is rather effective.
The idea is that the film would eventually become a science-fiction movie.
Which I think you fulfill with the… I wouldn’t say it’s “a blood”… I’m sure you know what shot I’m specifically referring to.
[Nods head] Mmm hmm.
I think you reached some unique point there.
Creativity is about an experience. Like what your friend tweeted: “labor time.”
I’ll be sure to tell him that, and I’m certain the child will have a good story to tell when they grow up.
Oh, absolutely! That’s got to be a part of it.
The Neon Demon opens on Friday, June 24.
Penny Lane‘s Nuts!, following the life and chronicles of quack doctor, politician, and radio broadcaster John Romulus Brinkley — who skirted the FCC, medical establishment and international law as he was run out of Kansas — was one of many highlights this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Hilarious, yet strangely sympathetic, the film’s story is so absurd, Lane (known best for her intimate look at happier days in a troubled presidency, Our Nixon) deploys animated reenactments alongside archival materials creating a character study that both plays into Brinkley’s spin machine while pushing against it.
We spoke with director about the evolution of the film, an eight-year process kickstarted by stumbling across the story in a public library, leading to the film’s theatrical release right in the middle of a heated presidential election year. Check out the conversation below, along with an exclusive clip from the film.
Congratulations on the film. I like it because it tells a true story that really is stranger than I think even the Coen brothers could have fictionalized. How did you stumble across the saga of John Romulus Brinkley?
Yeah, I like that reference. Thank you. I found the story in the public library around 2008. I read a book called Charlton, which is a biography of Brinkley written by Pope Brock who is one of the main interview subjects in the film. And, as you said, it has a kind of instant appeal in that sort of feeling of like, the story is so great, how have I not heard it before and more specifically how has no one made this movie yet? And you look for that as documentarian, you’re always kind of scanning for that feeling. I get that feeling a fair amount. What made this subject appealing to me is to play formally with the idea of a documentary about this inveterate liar. Initially, it was all archival and I realized early on in the process that the archival material was really all promotional for him, and it wasn’t typical archival material. It was really all authored by him and his business machine, his PR agents, his marketing people. The archival was really fun, but it was also really specific, so as a documentarian who works a lot with archival material, I’ve never seen an archive like this. It’s all one-sided and from his point of view — all designed to make you vote for him or come to his hospital. So that was part of what was so appeal early on.
I think the animation works so well because you’re able to take back part of that narrative from his spin machine. Was that a decision that was clear once you started the project?
Exactly. That’s why I had to do it. Without that I wouldn’t have had a movie. I didn’t have a character. All I had was his ads, which are interesting but they couldn’t direct a storyboard, so I knew I had to create the character somehow. The idea of animated reenactments came in about two years into the project and that was in collaboration with Thom Stylinski, who wrote the film. Initially, he came on board specifically to help me write these reenactments because initially I said, “I have no idea how to write a script. I don’t do that. I don’t know how to write dialogue.” So that’s how that started, but then it took five years to get it done. We were like, “Okay, we’re going to use animated reenactments because we need some way to create this character because we need people to like this character and fall in love with him, and root for him and the archival wasn’t going to do that.”
See an exclusive clip from Nuts! below.
It’s quite interesting you say that because the film is strangely sympathetic to Brinkley, especially during his trials and the folks that testified his cures worked for them. Was that surprising to you to find? Was that an organic thing or were these folks paid off?
Well, there’s a lot of questions there! And I share all those questions. It didn’t surprise me. That’s how these people operate, they have the ability to amass the support of the public and that’s their fan base. They don’t have the blessing of the establishment or real degrees for fancy institutions, but what they have is the ability to get the fans and bring the fans out. So that didn’t surprise me. But you’re right: the film is sympathetic to him to a certain extent, but in the end it does feel quite complicated because the film asks you identify with him and root for him. Most people report back to me tell me that works, but in the end you are put in a tough spot intellectually because on one hand you’re rooting for him and on the other hand you know he’s a bad guy — he’s a con man whose entire career is spent fleecing people. But you care about him, so there’s some tension and confusion around who he was. I don’t know why he did what he did, but we can only guess.
You couldn’t have picked a better a time for the film to come out: a Presidential election year!
There’s no way I could have predicted these things 8 years ago.
This year, too, we also saw another documentary about medical quackery that was called in to question at Tribeca, Andrew Wakefield’s Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. Your response to that film was shared quite widely.
I think I was so quick to have such a strong reaction to that film is because I spent so many years wrestling with questions about documentary film, ethics thereof, and specifically issues of medical charlatans who sometimes use the thing I do — the thing I love — to promote their own nefarious ends. So that film to me had a lot of red flags, and I don’t usually particularly feel qualified to speak up publicly on many issues, but this something that I felt so strongly about and I felt like I had the right to speak up about the issue because I had thought a lot longer about it than most people I knew did on this issue.
I think what’s quite interesting though about Nuts! and Our Nixon is you create your own path through a kind of history that could be a little dry or complicated and find a way to bring us into these stories. With Our Nixon, you were remixing archival materials. How do you approach these larger, unapproachable figures and make them personally engaging?
It was pretty different because on the last film I had either the blessing or the curse that everyone already knows a lot about Richard Nixon, so they come to the subject with a lot already. It’s a very different process than having to say, “Here’s this guy – you haven’t heard of him,” and feeling the film might be a definitive text on him versus, “Here’s another film about Nixon.”
I think most people don’t realize documentaries have directors and that the stories on screen were created by directors. They might be obeying certain types of rules of needing to be true or factual. One of the contracts you make with your audiences is that you’re not going to lie and there’s a lot of ways a director negotiates that, because they do have to shape a story. I just that with Nuts!, I wanted it to be so clear, if not by the beginning but certainly by the end that the story of John Romulus Brinkley is a very different story depending on who is telling it. It gets to the point in the film where you see archival materials like the photographs: you literally see my hand holding those photographs and moving them around. That’s a very obsessive, subtle detail but that’s exactly the goal I had with every one of these decisions. To say this isn’t a story I just found in the street somewhere, but this is a shaped, crafted experience.
Nuts! opens on Wednesday, June 22nd and will expand in the coming weeks.
An impressive feature film debut from filmmaker Felix Thompson, the understated King Jack follows a day in the life of Jack aka “Scad” (Charlie Plummer), a summer school attendee embroiled an economically impoverished war amongst families that started years ago. Filled with dark, unexpected turns, the aestheticized yet rough and tumble Hudson Valley drama proudly displays its scars without venturing into the extremes of Larry Clark.
Following the film’s debut at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, we spoke with director Felix Thompson. Check out the conversation below for the film now in limited release and available on VOD.
The film seems quite different from your personal biography. How did King Jack come about?
So, I’ve grown up a lot of different places and met a lot of different kids. I think every story that I tell is normally sparked from someone that I knew or a story that I came across and for me I think this film was inspired by a lot of the kids I knew growing up. And I think what was important to me is I wanted to tell a story about some of those kids I knew and I really wanted to tell a story about some of those towns you pass by on the highway and never think twice about.
It’s like what Lorde said, “we live in cities you’ll never see on screen.”
Exactly. I wanted to tell a story a story about those sorts of places that I don’t think is represented enough on screen. But I wanted to tell the story in the way I had experienced them and I knew them. As a kid it doesn’t matter what your town is like. You’re always looking to have fun and find some joy whatever your surroundings are. We were very conscious. We didn’t want to make this a heavy-handed kind of poverty porn type of film, it was about finding that joy and wonder.
How did you develop the screenplay? What was that first spark?
I had been taking notes on sketches of ideas and characters in this world for a few weeks, maybe a month or so – filling up these journals with it and I just went away to this house in the middle of nowhere and wrote for two weeks. I just gave myself a task of six pages a day and we’ll see where things are at the end of 14 days. That draft ended up close to where the film is – I felt that those characters were telling me where they wanted to go. It was a wonderful creative process. It didn’t feel like dictating; it felt like creating. Then once we had the screenplay I bought it to our producer, Gabrielle Nadig. I had other screenplays, but nothing I felt like I wanted to make my first feature and I brought it to Gabby, she read it in two hours and said, “Yes – this one.” She applied to the Sundance producing labs and they accepted her and that was awesome because the Sundance labs took her and this project under her wing and they shepherded us through pre-production. I don’t think we would have been able to make this film in that way without them.
I like that the film doesn’t feel like a lab film. Too many of them feel like the rough edges are sanded down for narrative economy. I like that it’s still raw and it works. How did you cast the film?
They’re phenomenal. We had an amazing casting director, Avy Kaufman, came on board — which blew me away she wanted to do the film. She was our reach pick and she said yes — it was fantastic.
She’s got great experience working with children actors.
She’s got great experience finding young talent and we saw Charlie [Plummer]’s tape and we just knew. You just knew within 10 seconds – he hadn’t even finished the sides – he was so fascinating to watch and engaging. We were gonna build the whole film around him – we spent all this time looking for Jack. Then when we found Danny [Flaherty]. He was great because we were looking for someone physically imposing character for that antagonist with that mean kind of snarl about him – and Danny came in with this sort of lean kind of shuffle and snarl about him, this mean scrawny guy who was terrifying. He brought something that just brought me back and I knew that character was him. Corey [Nichols] came in and he and Charlie got along so well and Corey was just like, “You’re Ben, you are Ben.” And Christian [Madsen], we wanted someone with that kind of masculine presence and he was that.
Any challenges working with kids? They give really solid, beautiful performances throughout the film.
Yes, thank you. They say never to work with kids, but I think if you cast them right they are the most wonderful actors to work with. They have a sense of play, they’re so grounded, ready to do anything, and they surprise you. I say kids but Danny’s been doing it for a while and he had a crazy spontaneous energy about him that was unpredictable.
Did you have a long prep time to rehearse?
No. I think the most important decision you make as a director is who you cast, and we knew we weren’t going to get a lot of time to rehearse, so I got everyone who was local in town together and we had a meet and greet and we played games. So it was about getting everyone comfortable with each other and instilling a sense of what I expected from them as the young cast – that was instilling in them a sense of honesty, being grounded and having a good bullshit detector. Not being afraid of saying if a scene didn’t feel right to speak up and say, “That didn’t feel right that time.”
Your cinematographer Brandon Roots, you’ve worked with him closely on other projects. Did how you work change at a feature scale?
Gabriella, Brandon and I have known each other now for about ten years so we have a complete shorthand in how we work together which is really wonderful. We say very little but so much is said – it made the set a wonderful experience. Taking on this film felt like a logical extension from the shorts. We had been honing these shorts and honing this voice over the course of three short films previously and getting to do this feature was the culmination of that.
Any unique challenges to shooting in the Hudson Valley? The town has kind of a rustbelt vibe – how did you challenge yourself to see that experience through the lens of childhood?
We did a lot of location scouting, we went over all over upstate New York – Syracuse, Binghamton. We ended up in Kingston, but we also went to Pennsylvania and for me it was about finding a town in the area that I felt connected to. I felt connected to a lot of those towns: they have a beauty to them, even in the more derelict parts of town there was a beauty to there. I think once we found Kingston and we found the streets that really spoke to us, we just knew it was the best place to be. There’s a freight train that rolls through town and you just feel it’s like a part of America you never get to see that often.
The music, too, effectively conveys both the beauty and the terror.
Yeah, the music does so much to help the film and that was Brian Senti and Meghan Currier, who I don’t think I have any right to be working with. Meghan did Boyhood and Brian composed for Experimenter.
That’s interesting because this film is a lot darker than Boyhood, where as danger always loomed in the background there. In this picture it’s up front, especially the paintball scene – this film really went there. Was there any concern about that?
I think funny enough, I remember any early draft of the script, the paintball scene didn’t exist yet – there was something else. And my dad read it and he said, “Ah – that didn’t seem so bad” and that was an inspiration to say, “That needs to be a moment where you’re really worried,” but we had written these things and it was a little crazy to write a script with some violence in it concerning young kids. But we had a really awesome stunt coordinator Drew Leary. So the funny thing is one of Corey’s first days I think was paintballs, fire tracker, getting knocked around and his mom is rightfully so concerned because as an acting parent, you never know who you’re giving your kids to. And Drew made that so safe and so wonderful. That was the day Corey was most afraid of and he came out of it saying, “Bring it on, what’s next – let’s do it.” There was stopping him.
The sense of family here is so strong with Jack’s family. Was there anything special to prepare for that?
Christian only had a day to meet Charlie, so we did brotherly activities like go-carting, batting cages, and things I thought a good older brother would do with a younger brother. Then now that they had that experience, I said we’re going to take this another way because that’s not what this relationship is, because they needed to have that bond. Erin [Davie] was so open and so giving. She connected with Charlie right away and it was all in the casting. We just knew it was going to work.
King Jack is now in limited release and available on VOD.
To interview the directors behind a film that is itself a feature-length interview presents some interesting challenges, not least of which because said film makes for so engaging and revealing a discussion — but so it is when the subject possesses as much experience and honesty as Brian De Palma, an artist about whom people are never lacking opinions. The directors are Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, who I spoke to in the main theater of New York City’s Metrograph — the site of a full, ongoing retrospective — about the form and function of De Palma, film and filmmaker alike.
This was not my first time speaking to them — only the first in a truly “official” capacity. Our previous experience helped start off the interview, which I’d like to get into now, since you, fan or skeptic, should be planning a trip to soon see their great film. And believe me: this is far from the last thing we’ll have to say about Brian De Palma.
The Film Stage: We’ve sort of spoken before. At last year’s NYFF press conference, I asked what De Palma movies you tend to defend the most —
Jake Paltrow: Oh, yes.
And you, Mr. Baumbach, said something about loving the bit in Wise Guys where they say, “Thank you, Mr. Acavano.”
Noah Baumbach: “Thank you, Mr. Acavano.”
You, Mr. Paltrow, couldn’t come up with one, and I was hoping that perhaps you can sit on it a bit and, when we come to this interview’s end, you’ll have an answer.
Baumbach: You should’ve said that then to him. “I’m gonna come interview you in six months, and…”
Paltrow: “Come June, you better have an answer.”
At that same press conference, you, Mr. Baumbach, made a comment I found really interesting: that what we see in this movie is “a version” of the conversations you often have with De Palma. I’d like to know how what we see here changes from when the two of you talk in private. What about the comments here might be more fitting for a film?
Baumbach: It’s organized, because we went in order: we started at the beginning and went through every film chronologically and let him kind of tell the story of each movie. We’d ask follow-up questions and things, but there were things we knew we wanted to cover, stories we knew we wanted him to tell again, but it really was a kind of free-ranging conversation that had a structure to it. We always knew where we were going to go, because we had to get to the next movie.
I think something we discovered, too, is that Brian, in agreeing to do it, also kind of knew what the task was an actor in a movie. So he was telling things, I think, in more concise — or trying to — ways. The timing on many of the stories is often very funny. It’s very much Brian being himself, but he’s also aware of, “This is the version that’s being filmed and I’ve got to do it.” I think having a filmmaker as the subject, in a way, he knows what’s needed to tell the story properly.
I’m wondering how you, Mr. Paltrow, might have brought something to the Noah-Brian dynamic that helps give this movie its ultimate shape.
Paltrow: I don’t think… this all grows out of our sort-of-shared experience of talking with Brian. Before we filmed the movie, there were several years of having access to him in this unusual way, of him being open to tell these stories or versions of stories that aren’t necessarily in the film, and also recognizing this isn’t the way that people talk, who’ve had his experience or success or these sorts of things about movies, and if he’d agreed to do it on camera, the way he does at dinner, it’d probably seem very valuable. So that part of it’s really just an extension of our friendship with him.
And I guess there’s a real give-and-take with the two of us on one side of the table talking to Brian, just in life, that translated sort of seamlessly to doing it. Like, there’s no version that’s really just, like, co-directing on the floor with Brian, beyond us talking the way we normally talk. I think if there’s any sort of us “directing it together,” it’s us in the editing room — going through the footage and agreeing, and, when there are disagreements, sort of talking those things through. But it was very… yeah, I don’t think there was anything that would really be different.
You shot tens of hours of footage, but the final film is a pretty lean 100-or-so minutes. How much did you know, from the moment it was said, would be included in a final cut?
Paltrow: I mean, probably there were, but that’s the directing of the movie: the editing of it is the place where you go, “Well, you want to cast the same spell in a movie of Brian talking about his experiences as you would in a narrative fictional movie.” So all those same things apply, and that’s when you’re relying on creative intuition to make this movie work and have a certain pace and timing and everything else. Like Noah said before: Brian brings a screen presence. He knows what the task is. He’s not, you know, meandering through the ideas and figuring out what he wants to say. He’s concise and sharp and he’s funny and he knows timing, and he knows how to do it. So I’m sure there were things he said while we were filming that we thought [snaps fingers] “That goes in.”
Baumbach: But you knew… there are certain things that you’re not going to make a De Palma movie and not include. Like when he’s talking about split-screen or —
Paltrow: And we’re leading that. That doesn’t just “become a topic.” Those are things we know we want to discuss, like, “How do you come up with these sorts of screen techniques?”
One of my first impressions and most pleasant reactions is how this “looks like a movie,” which is to say it’s not as if you took a cheap camera, set it up on a stool, and hit record. Cinematographically, it’s quite pleasing — and you said, Mr. Paltrow, that it was shot in your apartment — so tell me about deciding on matters of lighting and camera distance.
Paltrow: Well, it’s all natural light, and so the day would start with a bounce card over there [points at wall], and as the light would go down, we’d end the day. We’d stop when the bounce card was basically in the shot. [Baumbach laughs] So we wanted a naturalistic sort of look to it, and not bring a sort of studio light to it. And also, because we were trying to approximate the intimacy of the way we talked to him at dinner or something, it seemed like a good idea to talk to him in our apartment, which is easy, and in terms of the shot —
Baumbach: I think also to keep it simple. If you brought in all this studio lighting, it makes it, immediately, “a movie.”
Paltrow: And requires people in the room, which we didn’t want to have. The one thing we knew we didn’t like is when you have one camera here, and some sort of profile or off-access shot only so you can slip in edits. Our feeling was like, “We’ll figure it out another way.” And we did.
Baumbach: We didn’t shoot coverage. We occasionally did different sizes, but…
Paltrow: Right. We’d pick up the camera and say, “So, for this section, we’ll do a medium shot,” but that became sort of intuitive, too. “Well, we’re going to get into this stuff, so maybe we’ll get into close-up.” There are not a lot of close-ups in it, but the cameras picked it up. It was all one lens.
Given his previously expressed distaste for coverage, I’m sure he’d appreciate that.
Baumbach: Yes. Definitely.
I remember a comment he made, Mr. Baumbach, in your Blow Out Criterion interview about coverage being a dirty word. His presence and tenor there is similar, but the overall feeling is different because we don’t see you at all. I wonder if you thus felt a relief and freeing-up in your conversation.
Baumbach: Well, I think it was something we knew very early on, that we were going to take our voices out — that it was just going to be Brian. it was a way to capture an intimacy in our friendship and ongoing relationship, but not for it to be about the friendship or to put ourselves as character, or anything like that. It’s a kind of given, in the movie, that he’s talking to somebody that he knows well, and he refers to us at a few different points, and we made the movie… so you can assume that we were there, in some way. But it felt like the right way to do it: to take ourselves out of it and not to muddy it up. It gives the viewer the experience, at least an approximation, of what it would be like to hang out with Brian.
There aren’t many De Palma movies I don’t have a solid opinion on, and so, naturally, I have disagreements at certain points when he assesses the work. I’d love to hear where, if anywhere, you found yourselves differing in what he particularly likes or dislikes.
Paltrow: He probably underrates The Fury a bit. It’s probably more accomplished, or something.
Baumbach: But in terms of the movie, we were letting him tell the story. It doesn’t even have to be entirely accurate, some of his recollections. This is how Brian remembers. This is the story as he knows it and understands it, and these are his feelings about what he did and why he did them. It isn’t journalism. I think to be open, as friends, to letting him tell it, it doesn’t mean we don’t have… Jake’s example, I agree with. You can have different feelings about the movies and disagree, but I think that, in some ways, makes it more like your experience. The movie is open to that, to disagreement, to feel like either, “I don’t like like that one,” or… it doesn’t matter. It’s Brian’s experience of it.
Metrograph is doing this big retrospective of his work, and I’d like to know how and why you value seeing his movies in a theatrical setting.
Paltrow: I mean, that’s a bigger-than-Brian sort of thing. Obviously, they were composed for the big screen at the time, sort of pre-dating the video assist and these sorts of things that can approximate a TV screen. I can’t imagine that’s something Brian was ever thinking about through the first half of his career — about how these movies look on a TV screen. So when you’re composing for that, it’s seeing it in its, like, natural habitat, so to understand them fully, it’s probably integral to seeing them in their format.
I guess that’s all the time I have. I don’t know if you came up with an answer to the noted question…
Paltrow: Oh! Well, I don’t know about “favorite,” but you were saying one… in thinking about that, when Brian says in the movie [does De Palma impression] “You know, it wouldn’t necessarily be your first choice,” in talking about The Fury. He talks about being an interpretive director and he doesn’t like doing car chases, but all those sequences are pure De Palma, and I think that’s something he just can’t get away from, even in something he thinks is less successful.
De Palma enters a limited release on Friday, June 10.
Legendary American independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been a frequent visitor to the Cannes Film Festival ever since winning the Camera d’Or for Stranger Than Paradise in 1984. He took the Grand Jury prize in 2005 for Broken Flowers but has never managed to nab the Big One. His latest film, Paterson, which premiered last week in competition here, is the story of a bus driver (played by Adam Driver) named Paterson who lives in Paterson NJ, walks his wife’s bulldog, Marvin, and writes poems in his spare time. We sat down with the great silver-haired Son of Lee Marvin to talk hip-hop, Tilda Swinton, and the poetry of everyday things.
Some critics have called this your most personal film. How do would you respond to a statement like that?
I don’t know. With our last film, Only Lovers Left Alive, everyone said “Aha! His most personal film!” I don’t know. I remember that with Broken Flowers. “Finally, his most personal film.” They’re all personal to me or not. I don’t know how to respond. I just follow my instincts. So I have a really hard time comparing the things I’ve done.
It’s a harmonious film in many ways. Can I ask what harmony means to you?
Gee, I don’t know. Harmony and music are kind of complicated because there are certain tonalities that, to some ears, are harmonious and, to others, are not (certain scales or modes of music). I guess, partly, harmony is subjective to a degree. But I will say what it kind of means to me as a kind of pseudo-Buddhist. I’m not a practicing disciplined Buddhist but I do tai chi and I do read a lot of Buddhism. I would say harmony has something related to the idea that all things are one thing. And the harmony of those things is everything. Whatever that means, I don’t know — good luck with that.
It’s as if Paterson is structured like a poem, with the daily routines and days of the week like a series of stanzas, and then the various patterns and repetition. Was this your intention?
Yes, maybe in a way. You know, I love variation and repetition in poetry, in music and in art. So I love repeated things, variations, whether it’s in Bach or Andy Warhol. In the film I wanted to make this little structure to be a metaphor for life, that every day is a variation on the day before or the day coming up. They’re just variations.
Is it the poetry of everyday things?
Yes. William Carlos Williams said “no ideas but in things,” which Method Man quotes. I didn’t tell him to do that. He wrote that rap and he included William Carlos Williams. That means to say that you start with the imperial world and things come from the small details of life.
How early in your life was poetry an influence on you? And has it always remained an influence?
Well, when I became a teenager I started reading French symbolist poets — translated, of course. And I discovered Baudelaire — and, consequently, Rimbaud — and I started looking at American poets; Walt Whitman first. And then, when I escaped Akron, Ohio, where I was born, and eventually ended up in New York. I got to study in the New York school of poets and I got to study with Kenneth Koch, a great poet of the New York school and David Shapiro. Ron Padgett, who wrote the poems for our film and David Shapiro, who was my teacher, they both edited a book called the Anthology of New York Poets in 1970. I didn’t discover it until the mid-1970s, but it was kind of a bible for me.
I always wish that I could someday be considered, if there was a cinematic equivalent of the New York school. And the New York school is defined a lot by a little manifesto that Frank O’Hara wrote. He was also the curator of the Museum of Modern Art, so he had a real job and wrote poems on his lunch break, similar to Paterson. And he had a manifesto called Personism, in which he said, “Write a poem to one other person. Don’t write it to the world. Write it as if you’re writing a letter or a note.” William Carlos Williams’ great poem that is read in the film, This Is Just to Say, which is literally one note to one other person. The New York school of poets are also funny — they’re celebratory. Frank O’Hara used a lot of explanation marks. One poem started with, “New York, how beautiful you are today. Like Ginger Rogers in Swing Time!” They are my guides in many ways.
How much do you see your films as a kind of poetry?
I’ve made lots of references to poetry in my films. In the film Down by Law, they talked about Robert Frost. I used a quote from Rimbaud in the beginning of the The Limits of Control. So, I don’t know. I love poets because I never met a poet that was doing it for the money. William Carlos Williams was a full-time doctor and pediatrician. Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company. Frank O’Hara was the curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art; Charles Bukowski worked in the post office. They don’t do it for the money. So you know they mean it. They love the form.
What came first, the story for Paterson, or his poetry?
I don’t know, because I wrote a treatment almost 20 years ago, so I don’t know where or what came first. And then I started becoming very interested in the history of Paterson just as a very odd city near New York that was sort of forgotten. In New York they don’t care and no one talks about Paterson. The most famous person right now from there is the rapper Fetty Wap, because he had a huge single, “Trap Queen,” which was a huge rap hit last summer. I’m a huge rap fan, but it’s not my particular style. He’s not my style; he’s too slick and commercial.
What is it about hip-hop that you like?
Hip-hop is a beautiful extension of blues and soul music. It’s related to calypso, in a way, with battling DJs and toastmasters. Kool Herc, one of the originators of hip-hop, was born in Jamaica. His father had sound systems, so it’s definitely related to that type of music. And the lyrics can be incredibly complex and amazing. I once had an argument years and years ago with a friend of mine who was a rock critic for Rolling Stone and he was a big blues fan. He said, “Jim, what’s your deal, man? You’re, like, a white boy from Akron. Why are you into this ghetto music about drug dealers?” Well, you listen to blues and you never drove a mule to the levy to fix the flood? You never put cotton in an 11-foot sack on your back? This is storytelling. I embrace all these types of music. Hip-hop is very rich, I love hip-hop as a culture, too, but there’s a lot of it I don’t like. I don’t like everything about the money and the bling and the treatment of women.
Any favorites right now, from the modern era?
Nothing so close, but I like some of this west coast stuff. I like Earl Sweatshirt; I like some of his less commercial stuff. But Kendrick Lamar is obviously a brilliant genius of music.
You once said in an interview that you’d rather make a film about a guy walking his dog than a film about the emperor of China?
Wow, I don’t remember that. Next I’d like to make a film about the emperor of China walking his dog.
So you settled for a film about Adam Driver walking a bulldog instead?
Yes. In the script it was a Jack Russell, but Adam Driver is a large guy; a Jack Russell is a 20-pound dog. It’s not going to look like he’s pulling him along. A little 40-pound muscular bulldog would be much better. She was fantastic.
Is it true she’s no longer with us?
Yes, she’s gone; she died two months after we finished filming.
There’s also a suggestion in the film that Paterson might be ex-military. Why didn’t you elaborate on that more?
I just didn’t think it was necessary. It’s like Malcolm X said: don’t shoot the puppets, shoot the puppeteers. I’m very anti-war and anti-American-policy and policies around the world that are war-like and murderous and just stupid. But I’m not against someone being a soldier. Adam Driver was a marine and went to Juilliard. That’s very interesting to me. I wasn’t referring to him; I just wanted it to be mentioned in there. He seems kind of disciplined in his job. I didn’t want to tell you what to think of any of it; I just wanted to say, “OK, he was once a marine when he was younger,” but I’m not judging whether that’s good or bad. It’s just part of who he is. I think it’s important to not be against people in the military. It’s the people who tell them what to do that should be fucking held for war crimes.
You have two films in Cannes this year. How did Gimme Danger come about?
I’ve known Iggy Pop for a long time and, maybe 8 years ago, he said, “You know, they’re gonna make movies about me, and somebody might make a film about The Stooges. Damn it, I hope it’s you.” And I said, “Man, are you asking me to make a Stooges film? Because I will start tomorrow.” And he said, “Man, I would love that because I want you to make a Stooges film.” I love The Stooges, so I said I’m starting.
How did you decide on that song for the title?
Well, I love that song. It’s one of his greatest songs, lyrically, and it seemed appropriate when you know the history of The Stooges and all the hell they went through.
Tilda Swinton described you as being a rock star yourself. Would you disagree?
I would disagree with nothing Tilda Swinton ever says. She is my fearless leader; I will do whatever she says. I wish she were the queen of the world.
How do you experience aging now that you’re in your early ’60s?
Gee. I don’t know. I don’t know how to even answer that. It was funny: I was getting in the car two days ago in New York to go to the airport, and there was a lot of traffic so we couldn’t go on the highway. The driver wanted to go through the back streets of Brooklyn and Queens and it was a Saturday afternoon, a very beautiful day. And I’m riding there and possibly going to be late and I didn’t worry. I don’t know why. And I was just watching people doing little things — a guy fixing his door, little kids chasing a ball and adults chasing children that were laughing, people that were going shopping, a couple arguing on a corner — and I just felt like, sometimes, the world is perfect just because this is what it is. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt exactly that same thing some years ago.
I don’t know. I’m more resigned to accepting the world and, of course, I don’t like a lot of things in the world, the way people treat each other. Maybe it’s because we humans are very limited with our time on this planet. It’s just very obvious. There are too many people and nature is going to rectify this very soon and take a lot of people away and it’s going to be very difficult and tragic. We have to be very grateful for the tiny details of life. Like that we’re here talking together about a film that’s really just some ridiculous thing. We have to remind ourselves of this because, when we’re shooting a film, it’s so important to all of us and we’re so tired and we’re fighting to make our film. And it’s the most important thing. And every once in a while I stop and say to our crew, “OK, everybody, let’s just think for a minute.” We’re just making a movie. What difference is it really going to make? Maybe that’s something that’s changed in me.
Paterson and Gimme Danger premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released by Amazon Studios. See our festival coverage below and the press conference above.
Marking his return to the female-centric dramas with which the director made his name, Pedro Almodóvar stopped by Cannes Film Festival with Julieta. Adapted from a series of short stories of Canadian Nobel prize-winning author Alice Munro, the story follows a woman who recalls the pivotal moments of her adult life. We said in our positive review from the festival, “It’s charmingly self-aware in its use of kitsch and melodrama — almost to the point of self-parody — and, while small in scope, it’s also one of his lusher and leaner offerings.”
While at the festival, we got the opportunity to speak with Emma Suarez, who plays the older version of Julieta. We discussed shooting chronologically, only meeting her co-star once on set, the wide range of inspirations for the film, what the film means to her, and much more. Check out the conversation below and our interview with Adriana Ugarte here.
You and your co-star Adriana Ugarte both play Julieta, at different stages of her life. Did you work on the character together?
No, Pedro actually wanted to work with us independently. For one, the movie is supposed to be an homage to Luis Buñuel, specifically to That Obscure Object of Desire, in which Ángela Molina and Carole Bouquet also play the same character at different stages in life. Also it was our intention to show the passage of time. You have to keep in mind that this is a character who suffers a rupture in her life which became one of the defining experiences she’s had and transformed her into a different woman. So Pedro worked with us separately. The shoot took 12 weeks — we shot it chronologically. The first six weeks of shooting was done with Adriana Ugarte, while I did the next six weeks. Through it all, Adriana and I only met on one day.
For which scene? How do you think this approach worked out for the film?
It was for the scene on the train. At that point Julieta’s voice appears in the off, so they had to measure it to make sure the voice corresponds to the footage shot. But that was the only time we met together. I never met with her to observe the way she moves, walks or talks. I think that’s actually one of Pedro’s masterstrokes because you leave the film with the impression of having seen one Julieta and not two different actresses. It’s actually funny that someone said to me, “And in that scene with you on the train…,“ but it was not me they saw in that scene. I think that’s quite magical.
How did you feel when you found out you got the part?
I feel very grateful to have been part of Pedro’s world, to be able to see him work up-close. It feels like a gift to me at this point in my life. I’ve been working since I was 14, which means my professional career has run parallel to Pedro’s filmmaking career. I’ve been seeing his films along the way. When he gave me a call to say he’s interested in working with me, my first thought was actually how lucky of me to finally be in one of his comedies. Of course then they sent me the script and I realized that wasn’t the case. It just so happens that at that time I was reading these stories by Alice Munro (on which the film is based), so one might say there’s some serendipity too.
As for the role itself, I was very affected by the stories when I was reading them. So I felt a sense of responsibility when I knew I was engaged to take part in this voyage into complex regions of the soul. It’s quite a challenge for an actress. But when I’m able to perform and develop characters who are this complex, I believe I also grow in the process, both as an actress and as a human being.
What do you think the movie’s about?
I think Pedro has made a film that’s very complete. It deals with death, loneliness, abandonment, and the relationship between mothers and daughters. It talks about why we might end up abandoning someone and what it means for us when we abandon someone in our lives. It talks about the failure of love, about dreams that are not realized and powerlessness. We tend to think that we call the shots in our lives, but oftentimes life makes those decisions for us.
Have you been able to draw upon your own experiences to play this role?
I am a mother of two and I think if I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t have been able to play this role the same way. Because that experience really allowed me to imagine what it would mean to me if one day my children abandoned me. For a mother to be abandoned by her own children without knowing why, there’s an intense sense of anxiety that I can totally relate to. I think the film deals with this generational gap between parents and their children as well as the lack of communication. Julieta is a fragile, vulnerable woman, someone who’s in mourning for the loss of her husband and wrecked by guilt because of that last conversation they never had. All that caused her dependence on her daughter, so eventually we see a change of roles where the daughter assumes the role of the mother.
Can you talk about the experience of working with Pedro Almodóvar?
Well, first of all, I’ve worked in cinema, theater, television since I was young and I’ve always enjoyed working on alternative or independent projects, things that challenged me. To work with Pedro feels like a recognition to me. I felt thankful when he called me for this part. But working with Pedro can be difficult as well, because he’s someone who’s very demanding. He’s not easily satisfied. Which is good, because it means you can trust the fact that he’s going to require more and more of you until he finds what he wants. Even then he sometimes keeps asking for more, because he’s trying to see what else he can get from you. It’s a marvelous way of working but you have to make sure you have a lot to offer, because he’s insatiable and you don’t always know what he’s looking for from the outset. So I made sure that I was extremely prepared. I didn’t want to disappoint him or myself, as his films are seen internationally. I asked him for references and read books like The Year of Magical Thinking, Other Lives But Mine, Alice Munro’s stories themselves. I’ve also watched movies like The Hours, Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, Rossellini’s films. I’ve studied the works of painters as well, and the film score by Alberto Iglesias also helped a lot. I did all that in an attempt to dig deeper into the world of anxiety and emptiness that Julieta lives in.
Marking his return to the female-centric dramas with which the director made his name, Pedro Almodóvar stopped by Cannes Film Festival with Julieta. Adapted from a series of short stories of Canadian Nobel prize-winning author Alice Munro, the story follows a woman who recalls the pivotal moments of her adult life. We said in our positive review from the festival, “It’s charmingly self-aware in its use of kitsch and melodrama — almost to the point of self-parody — and, while small in scope, it’s also one of his lusher and leaner offerings.”
While at the festival, we got the opportunity to speak with Adriana Ugarte, who plays the younger version of Julieta. We discussed the audition process, her background, what it was like playing the same character as Emma Suárez, the meticulousness of Almodóvar, and more. Check out the conversation below and our interview with Emma Suarez here.
What did working with Pedro Almodóvar mean to you?
I’m from Madrid and, growing up, I went to the cinemas with my parents a lot. I saw many of Pedro’s films in my teenage years and I’ve wanted to be an actress since I was little, so of course it’s a dream to work with him. When I found out he wanted to work with me, at first I thought there must have been a mistake.
How did you get this part? Was it through a regular casting process?
Yes, it was the usual casting process. The only difference was that the casting directors wouldn’t tell me who the director of the film was. They asked me to prepare a text and said it’s for a film by one of the most important directors of the country. Of course I went to the first audition with some possible names in my mind but I honestly didn’t know for sure. Considering Pedro is known for working with the same group of actors again and again, I didn’t think it would be him. After the first audition, the casting directors got back to me to say the director liked what he saw and asked me to do the same text again, but in a different way. Which I did at my second audition, still not knowing who I was doing it for. This secrecy actually excited me. After the second audition, they told me the director was satisfied with my work and that his name was Pedro Almodóvar. I was very grateful that I hadn’t known about it until then! After that I went in for a third audition, doing again the same material, but in yet another way. It’s how Pedro normally works by the way. He can shoot the same scene with the same lines in 20 different ways. After that they sent me to meet Pedro at his house. I was extremely nervous but I went and fell in love with him pretty much the moment we saw each other.
And how was it playing the same character as Emma Suárez in the same movie?
I love Emma. I remember meeting her for he first time six years before Julieta at a festival. Now you should know that I eat a lot, especially when I’m nervous. Because of that I got myself into the hospital one day. Emma was nice enough to accompany me to the hospital and spent the whole day with me. She really took care of me. We chatted about maybe working together someday – I had been an admirer of her work forever – and crazily enough, six years later, Pedro Almodóvar asked us to play the same role in his movie.
Almodóvar’s movies always look amazing. Does it just look that way to the audience or did you also feel it as an actor?
Oh, for sure. It’s completely different from all my other acting experiences. Even if you have worked in very fancy productions, the process is different on an Almodóvar film because his vision is so detailed and he can actually realize that vision for he knows every department inside out. He values all departments the same and decides on every single detail, from the accessory you wear to the ornament on the table. He cares about your soul, your smile and your eyebrows equally. That’s why he has such a personal and distinct style. At the same time, he’s also someone who’s always learning. He observes everything around him with curiosity. When he looks at you, you can feel how he’s studying you, which can be a little scary at first. But then you realize he’s such a lover of life in general that you can give yourself to him and feel totally secure.
You look quite different in person than how Julieta looks in the film. Can you talk about the transformation?
Well I am not blonde to begin with. I had very dark, almost black hair. It took a long, delicate process to get my hair that blonde. For Pedro it’s critical to find this perfect blonde color, and I agree. One might say that’s such a superficial aspect of the character, but your hair also talks and says things about you, just like your lips, your hands, your skin. Your body is always talking. To understand the importance of this physical form of expression has been a huge discovery for me.
How did you get into acting? Did you come from an acting family?
No, my parents respect and are happy about what I do right now, but they didn’t want me to become an actress initially. My mother is a lawyer and my father is a judge, but they’ve always been very interested in culture and especially in cinema. Starting at a very young age, they’ve taken me and my brother to the cinemas both in and out of the country. But I guess in the end it just came down to the fact that I needed to be an actress. I knew that when I was five. Maybe that has something to do with how shy I am as a person. I think around the age of five, I found that I’m most comfortable and free when I’m playing someone else.
Part of this year’s New Directors/ New Films showcase in New York and the winner of Best Emerging Director at the Locarno Film Festival last year, Bi Gan has established himself as a talent to watch with his feature debut, Kaili Blues. Set in the Guizhou province of China, the film is softly enigmatic, shifting perceptions of space and time with deftly precise compositions that transform the mundane and meditate on humanity’s relationship to the areas around them.
Interspersing miasmatic narrative threads with spoken-word poetry, Kaili Blues happily exists in a place of rarefied naturalism as its characters circulate around each other with ghostly glides. Gan is primarily a poet before a filmmaker, and it’s a welcome reminder to see how artists familiar with other mediums approach cinematic language. Kali Blues rests in a near-limbo, but it’s not a ghost story. Like Gan’s prose, the unreal and real are placed completely adjacent to each other to the point where even affected dialogue or performed actions could be interpreted as either ritual or divine.
In time for its theatrical release at New York City’s Metrograph, we sat down with Gan and talked to him about the inspirations for the imaginary city, Dangmai, his decision not to tell the actors about the story, and why the experience taught him that he needs to be a good drinker.
This interview was translated with the help of Beier Zhong.
The Film Stage: I’m very interested in the notion that you were a poet before you became a filmmaker. In both Kaili Blues and in your poetry, there’s a really strong blending of organic and inorganic ideas. The architecture, for instance, seems to almost grow out of the land, or there’s random objects that just exist in a grassy space. What did you have in mind when you were blending those organic and inorganic ideas together?
Bi Gan: I began to write a poem in the early stages, and at that point, I don’t know exactly. It’s kind of like a poem. I just posted it on a Twitter-type thing. They call it Qzone in China. After I shot my first film called Tiger, I found that the structure was like really loose. And then I tried to connect the film with using poems to construct the structure of the whole film. Then I felt like it made the whole thing interesting, which makes the whole audience, the film parts, and the audience connected. I thinks poems are like music. They have the same rhythm, and that pushes the film together — all the story rhythms together.
So in that sense, how much of a script was there before, and how much came together in the actual filming process?
With 2001’s Tiger, at first, I shot that film. I think I made a mistake, which is that I can’t edit the film together. And then I began using poem to connect the film. Meanwhile, I like writing poetry, but I was also writing the script, and making the movie. It’s kind of a continuous thing happening. I was not thinking about writing a poem for the film, but making the film and writing the poem at the same time. And after I shot the film, I collected all of those poems that I wrote and tried to put it into the film.
Does writing poetry and filmmaking feed off each other for you then?
I think of poetry and filmmaking differently. Poetry exists by itself, but cinema is something you share with others.
I know that you grew up in Kaili, but i’m wondering about these other places that you’ve conceived. There’s Dangmai and Zhenyuan, which I believe is a real place, but how did you imagine these locations?
In terms of different locations, like Zhenyuan is my grandma’s hometown. And there’s this interesting story about Dangmai. I asked my Miao friend because I wanted to find this sort kind of like secret location. So I asked my friend, “How do you say secret location in the Miao language?” And then the friend said, it’s called Dangmai, which is the location. And later on, I found out that it’s not Dangmai in the Miao language for a secret location, but I still used it. I wanted the locations to have some similarities, but also have some differences. Like they all have water, but the architecture isn’t the same. Some of them are made of wood, some of them are using rocks or stones, but they have a similar atmosphere.
And related to that, in the second half of the film, there’s a long take where the camera just follows different characters in circuits around the Dangmai village. Did it take a lot of preparation or a lot of tries to get the motion right to be able to follow everyone?
For that long take into the woods where he goes all around the village, I had that on paper. I wrote something for the space. All the extras and all the actors have their paths, but they don’t know that they’re acting because they don’t know the script, and I would tell them certain tasks to do rather than tell them about the story. I wanted to construct something strange in this village. All the things are prepared and planned, not improvised. And that way, the audience will get a feeling that’s really dreamy, but also really realistic.
And related to that, I was reading an interview in Libération about how you said that you had imagined yourself as an alien coming down from the moon while you were writing the script. Did you think about that in terms of your camera movement as well?
Most of the actors — even the protagonist, really — don’t know the meaning of their characters. For example, the protagonist, Yongzhong Chen, he began to know what the meaning of his character was at the Locarno Festival when he got to see the whole film. My relationship with all the actors and actresses is really, really close. It’s like a family. But I’m distant with the actor as the director. And for some reason, I think I can get the most powerful and most beautiful things from those characters because it’s like real things. Because it’s like the script happening.
There’s a very interesting duality of dreams as both a comfort, and as something haunting in the film. Did this come from a personal experience?
For the meaning and stories in the dreams, some directors have those dreams, so it’s not a dream from his personal life. But I really know what dreaming is like. I know in a dream sequence, people are really depressed, and not walking or running, but like floating on the land. For cinema, cinema is a really realistic thing. And I found in the previous cinema, dream sequences are really kind of phony because it’s like too realistic in a way. And so, I want to reach the border of film to shoot the dream sequence, and I like the leaps between dream sequence and reality.
What can you tell me about Last Night on Earth, your next film?
My next film is about a detective in a village, and it will have a really new film language. The atmosphere is really similar to Kaili Blues.
What did you learn from Kaili Blues in making this new film?
I think I learned from Kaili Blues that you have to be a really good drinker. [Laughs] Like, you also really need to learn how to cry. While shooting this film, we had some bad moods or bad things happen, and we were desperate in the moment. And you have to acknowledge those failures. When you’re crying, it’s kind of a relief, for sure. And also, it’s kind of like, “I did my best, and that’s all that I can do.” And for drinking, people are fearful of a lot of things, but alcohol can make you brave.
Kaili Blues is now playing at New York City’s Metrograph. See more playdates here and a video discussion above.