Latest Features

Regina Hall on the Humanity of ‘Support the Girls’ and the Integrity of the Working Class

Written by Joshua Encinias, September 15, 2018 at 10:19 am 

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Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls follows a day in the life of Lisa (Regina Hall), manager of Double Whammies, a Hooters-like sports bar. Lisa acts as manager/mother superior to her all-female wait staff. The story understands the none of the women are exactly upwardly mobile, and the chance of a better life comes with the risky gamble of negotiating their sexuality and dignity for a paycheck.

Bujalski and Hall teamed to bring the working-class restaurant Double Whammies to the screen. Hall overcame her own judgment of “breasturants” to find the supportive communities among employees behind the scenes. She told Build, “They’re mothers. They’re just trying to work. And when you get to know them … [they] have dreams, and aspirations,” she said. “And unless we can provide other opportunities that help people survive, then I say thank you to anyone who serves us anywhere.”

In our interview with Hall, the actress talks about going from the sets of Girls Trip to Support the Girls (before the former was a box office hit), the spirituality of breasturant management, and the dignity of working class people.

How did you get involved with the movie?

Regina Hall: I read the script and met with Andrew and thankfully he was like, “Let’s make it together.” About seven months later we started shooting. We met while I was shooting Girls Trip. He came to New Orleans. He said he wandered into a Twin Peaks restaurant once and he didn’t know why. He looked at it and what was going on. He was quite curious and from there he started to go to different locations. He felt like there was a story there and kind of discovered what it was.

Did he write the part to be played a black actress?

I did hear him say in an interview that he wanted it to be played by a black actress. I don’t know if that came after he wrote it or what that thought process was. When you read the script it was not written that way. Sometimes a script has character descriptions but his didn’t have African-American in there. It just said Lisa–it didn’t have a racial description. He didn’t write the script using any racial stereotypes. Her race comes up once or twice but it really wasn’t part of the story.

What was it like to go from Girls Trip to Support the Girls? What’s the big differences between a Hollywood and indie set?

The biggest difference is budget. The amount of days on set is different which affects the amount of takes which effects the number of set up in a day, which also effects craft services. [Laughs.] How the crew moves is different and I think you kind of know that as an actor. It’s also the way Andrew shoots, it has an indie feel to it. They’re both great, they’re different. You know, I think the two kind of sets have goals that are so different. I really have such an appreciation for both. It was great to be able to go from Girls Trip to my next job being Support the Girls.

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Did you get a feel for the filmmaking world in Austin?

Yeah! We premiered at South by Southwest—that was also really fun. I had never been to Austin before. I must say I really did love it. I had so much fun there, it’s a very warm and inviting place.

Your character Lisa is almost like the mother superior of Double Whammies.

I love the idea of using a nun with Double Whammies! [Laughs.] That’s great, the mother superior.

I bring it up because in your Seth Meyers interview you talked almost becoming a nun. What do you think of Lisa keeping the girl’s lives in line so they don’t get taken advantage of?

I mean, she definitely demands integrity from her customers for her girls. I think she sees the necessity, especially in that environment. Having clear lines and boundaries and not allowing those boundaries to be crossed and feeling like that’s her responsibility. The place functions well with her understanding the girl’s emotions and allowing them to know they’re valued and creating a familial setting.

I don’t know much about Catholic theology, but I know there’s an emphasis on people’s value and one’s inherent worth as a human being. When I saw your interview I felt like maybe your spirituality drew you to this role.

I definitely agree. Lisa has such an inherent goodness, inherent care for humanity. I just thought it was beautiful. I thought there was nothing twisted or sordid in her. I read it and was waiting for that to happen. So many times you see that but it never happened in Andrew’s script. That wasn’t part of Lisa, that wasn’t a part of her character. It was great. it was actually surprising.

Were the waitresses you meet feel judged and shamed for working in a place like Double Whammies?

In doing research I found that I had some shame about it. I don’t think that you realize it, but I’m sure I had some. When I visited these restaurants, I was very surprised at how easy-going it was. I got why people go there regularly. It felt a lot different from what I thought, “Oh my goodness that would be hard to do!” But I didn’t feel like that at all. Once I was in Austin I went to Twin Peaks every day. I didn’t even notice their breasts. That what was so great, to meet them as people. That’s what I like about the backdrop of the movie.

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How do you think we can support people who are in service jobs but also have a desire to do something different?

What I found is that many of them have that desire anyway. How do we have a world that expands opportunities in places where people don’t see them? I found that a lot of the girls who work there, they really do. I never felt in speaking to the waitresses they felt this was their final destination. They would say it was great money to get a portfolio or take an acting class or go to modeling school. I think as people have more information and access, people can transition. I worked as a waitress before and I enjoyed it. I made good money and then I got to take my classes and have my days free to go to auditions, but then I could work at night when I was cocktail waitressing. I think when people see bigger than the place they’re in, their ability to dream is bigger and their ability to achieve grows.

One thing you’ve talked about in a few interviews is the inherent goodness of just getting up and doing the work even if it’s not fun or not where you want to be. Will you talk about your philosophy of work?

I think there’s a lot of integrity in people that we forget. People get up everyday and make an honest living and they serve us and they earn their money. That can’t be neglected. I don’t think it can be judged because even at a place like Hooters people have to feel valued and valuable. It’s apart of being alive, of humans, having worth and self-worth. When I worked those jobs I really felt that, felt that from the people who went there, the regulars. What we brought to people who came along. They might be lonely and came for the company and the food. Families came to have a great time. I think there’s something beautiful—that’s what most of us are doing day to day. There may be jobs that look more glamorous on the outside but the truth is that’s what we’re all doing day to day.

Support the Girls is now in limited release and on VOD.

Panos Cosmatos on His Phantasmagorical Rock Opera ‘Mandy’ and the Tender Side of Nicolas Cage

Written by Mike Mazzanti, September 11, 2018 at 10:43 pm 

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Beyond the Black Rainbow, the first feature from director Panos Cosmatos, quickly established the Italian-Canadian as a name to remember. With his follow-up Mandy, Cosmatos raises the bar. Anchored by a central performance from Nicolas Cage that is equal parts tender and furious, Mandy doubles down on Cosmatos’ firm commitment to tone, while strengthening the emotional foundation amidst the swirl of colors and mayhem. Oozing like a dream that goes south, Mandy is a hallucinogenic vision of vengeance.

Ahead of the film’s opening this week, we sat down with Cosmatos to discuss crafting a tone and steady pace for Mandy to build emotions, recognizing different sides of Nicolas Cage to show on screen, finding commonalities with the late Jóhan Jóhansson during their collaboration, and shattering the delusional self-image of egomaniacal men.

The Film Stage: So, I read that Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) is based partially on a police officer from your childhood, and in the film he has this gruff, kind of salt-of-the-earth aesthetic, but he’s also very tender, especially with Mandy. How did you craft the two sides of Red?

Panos Cosmatos: Well, the cop was an undercover, or like a plainclothes drug cop when we lived in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1981. He lived in the same bungalow complex as us, and he would have a gang of these very shady-looking men hanging around and they’d practice firing their chrome-plated magnum .44 at the outer wall of the complex. One evening, I was playing on the lawn in front of our bungalow and he came burning around the corner on his Harley — well, it was a full-on Chopper, actually — with his girlfriend clinging to him, with her hair blowing in the wind, and above a lightning storm was brewing, and the sky was broiling with Poltergeist clouds. So, thunder and lightning were going off and he saw me, and he drove right towards me and tore up, doing a 360 on the lawn right in front of me, and then he burned off while thunder and lightning were striking and that moment always stuck with me. [Laughs.] So, I sort of used that as a template for Red early on. As far as the flip side of that goes, I just wanted him to be a simple, emotional, caring person. He and Mandy both are damaged people that have sort of found a lot of comfort in each other.

Similarly to Red, Mandy as a film has two sides. The first half is a love story that’s turned to suffering, and then the second half is this psychedelic tale of vengeance. Yet it’s all very cohesive in its tone and its mood throughout the entire piece. How did you decide to pace and structure the film?

That’s the sort of thing that just kind of builds up over time. I think that when I start creating something, I start with a genre, and then I start building layers onto that stripped-down thought of the genre at its very simplest possible form. Then these things kind of present themselves over time. You start building in sequences and characters, and over time you just work this model kit, essentially, until you feel like it is shaped properly. It ended up being shaped like two halves, and one half is gentle and the other half is savage. I think it reflects Red and Mandy perfectly, in a sense.

A lot of people complain that modern horror films have no emotional core to justify their gore. Mandy is really spectacular in how it gives itself an hour to establish motivation and empathy, and really take its time. I think that pacing is really special.

Thanks, man. I think it’s incredibly important that you not only get to know, but live with these characters in a way where we sort of soak in the feeling of being around them. So when that’s destroyed, you feel it in a sensorial and emotional way, not just as a story beat; you really feel like something’s been torn out of your reality.

Like in your first feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow, I feel as though Mandy has a lot to say about power structures, and about false gods and false prophets.

Yeah.

Can you talk about what draws you to those models and what inspires them?

I am kind of fixated on this idea of male gods who present an image of absolute power, or even just power in a small scenario, but are actually just insecure people. I think originally the idea for that, where I started noticing it, was in spurred in part by the villains in Stuart Gordon films, who are always these obsessive, sexually perverse, egomaniacal men. That idea was interesting to me, but then the idea of deconstructing them, and tearing down their image of themselves was even more interesting to me. Like with Barry Nyle (from Black Rainbow) and with Jeremiah having Mandy shatter his delusional self-image. There’s something about shattering the delusional self-image of an egomaniacal man that’s endlessly hilarious and disturbing and interesting to me.

Another way you establish tone and a cohesive feeling for the entire film is through the score. It combines drone elements, metal riffs, and some really gentle, tender melodies. What was it like working with the late and incredibly talented Jóhan Jóansson?

It was wonderful. It was a very fluid, creative relationship. I didn’t know what to expect from him because I kind of perceived him as this very academic person. I mean, I loved his music but my perception of him from afar was of a very cold person. But he was very warm and kind of gruff, and had a lot of the same loves and interest as I did growing up. I realized that at heart, he was kind of an Icelandic metal head.

So, we kind of went from there. I told him that I wanted to make a phantasmagorical rock opera and I think he really got into that idea. We were intent on this idea that we were going to draw on our influences from our youth, but not ape them but instead interpret them from the present.

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This film really stands alone. With that being said, were there any films you screened for the cast and crew to prep them for the experience or for the vibe you were going for with Mandy?

I’ve never done that. You hear about people doing that but our schedule and our budget tended to be such that there was literally no time to do anything like that. But, one of the benefits of building a film visually and with reference images over time is that you have a lot of material you can give the cast and crew to absorb on their own. I’m not really big on group gatherings and screenings. [Laughs.] So maybe I’m a little more comfortable with just giving people a bunch of movies and pictures and music to listen to and let them absorb it at their own pace.

Nicolas Cage is known for releasing his rage, and getting these really iconic angry moments, and you have these amazing moments of rage with him. But you also get a real, great tenderness out of him, and a lot of empathy. What was the collaboration like, in terms of your experiences with a police officer that you were drawing on for Red, and then Nicolas Cage coming in with his own ideas?

One of the first things I noticed about him when talking to him was that he was an incredibly likable, warm person. I felt like that was rarely exposed in his films, especially as of late. I was excited by that because I realized there’s this whole side of him you don’t really get to see in a film, where he’s just kind of being more like he is in reality which is a pleasant, chill guy to be around. So you start with that, which is that he’s a normal guy, and then after Mandy’s experience [Red] kind of becomes a stripped-down animal, and from there we wanted him to transmogrify into this sort of Jason Bourne; he’s sort of a demigod. And that was the path we charted together, sitting there talking about the script.

Alright, this is a bonus question. Something I noted about Black Rainbow and Mandy is that both of your films feature blades jammed into mouths, and I’m wondering if that’s an intentional director signature of yours? Can I expect that in your third film as well?

Probably. [Laughs.]

You should keep it up, because it’s really startling every time.

Thanks. [Laughs.]


Mandy screens nationwide in a special one-night-only event on September 13, followed by a limited release on September 14.

Tsai Ming-liang on ‘Your Face,’ the Cinematic Power of Close-Ups, and Teaming with Ryuichi Sakamoto

Written by Zhuo-Ning Su, September 8, 2018 at 11:48 am 

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Renowned Taiwan-based filmmaker and Venice mainstay Tsai Ming-liang returns to the Lido this year with his latest, uncategorizable offering Your Face. Premiering out of competition in the non-fiction section, the 76-minute picture consists of unbroken close-up shots of 13 unidentified, seemingly unrelated people, including Mr. Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-sheng.

In signature Tsai style, the camera calmly, unquestioningly observes its subjects, some of which share stranger-than-fiction life stories, others appear deep in unknowable thought while still others simply doze off. Without the aid of title cards or voice-overs, the viewer is left to arrive at their own conclusion about what they’ve witnessed.

It’s our third encounter with Mr. Tsai on Lido following 2015 for the doc-narrative hybrid That Afternoon and 2017 for the VR-trip The Deserted.

Could you talk about the initial idea for Your Face? What made you to want to do a film in this particular way?

When I was making the VR film, one thing I could never get used to was I had to do without close-ups. For me close-up is part of the aesthetics of cinema. You lose that in VR, which gave me the desire to do it. These days when I start a project it’s less and less about achieving certain objectives. If I feel like doing something, I’ll just do it. Kind of like the way I write. Obviously there’s a whole process to filmmaking. But I try to simplify that process and then it wouldn’t seem so hard. By not focusing on a plot, for example, that already makes it simpler.

In this case, a cosmetics company approached me by chance and asked me to do something for their new product in China. I told them I don’t know how to do commercials but then it occurred to me to ask them whether they’d give me some money to do my project, which can carry their name to serve promotional purposes. I told them I wanted to make a film of close-ups and, being a cosmetics company, they thought it’s a good idea and said yes.

Of course what I shot might be the opposite of what they had in mind, as it only featured people who didn’t use any cosmetics. But they were happy with the result nonetheless.

What’s the appeal of close-ups to you?

With close-ups you not only see, you see clearly. And for me close-ups are about the human face, and they should be seen on a theater screen. There are many films you remember for their close-up shots. Sometimes you forgot about what happens in a film but would still remember the actors’ faces in them. So after the VR experience, I thought: well, this is certainly a form of cinema, but it has lost some of cinema’s charms too. Like I said earlier, this inspired my desire to make this film.

I’ve always approached filmmaking based on my own desire. The fact that I want to keep shooting Lee Kang-sheng is also a desire. That’s what motivates me to make films, not for business reasons or I’ve been moved by some story. Many people believe that cinema has run out of places to go but that’s not true. There are still many possibilities to be explored.

Where are how did you find the subjects?  

I like looking at people’s faces in the streets. Some faces appeal to me immediately but there’s nothing I can do but to see them go again. After a while, you realize you can always find that one face in the crowd that you particularly like to look at. It could be a stranger’s face, or a face not conventionally considered to be pretty, which, incidentally, often has to do with age, or time.

As for the subjects of this film, I knew I would shoot Lee Kang-sheng, otherwise I had no one in mind. So my cinematographer and I just started looking in the streets, it took us more than two months. We went pretty far, but ultimately the subjects were mostly from Taipei. We also looked outside of Taipei, among fishermen and factory workers. Our focus was on what the faces made us feel. Eventually we came back to the city though, because logistically it’s just easier. We would be excited to find one or two faces on a day, but then you still had to convince them to be part of this project.

I talked a lot with my cinematographer, a young guy who was shooting for me for the first time. Gradually he came up with a few criteria of the kind of faces that would draw my attention. People who are still working, who are not having an easy life, and not people who just idle around. But ultimately it was still a very instinctive process.

So none of these 13 subjects knew each other?

Except for Lee Kang-sheng and his mother and another father-son duo, none of them knew anyone else.

How did you make the non-actors appear so relaxed and open on camera?

The biggest challenge for me was not how to get their appearance right, but how to get them to be in front of the camera at all. To convince them to come to the studio, sometimes that means to convince their family. In one case the old lady didn’t want to be shot, saying she’s old and ugly. It was her son who convinced her to do it. None of them knew exactly what I was going to do but I felt there was some respect and trust for me on their part.

That was the hard part. Even on the day of the shoot you get worried whether they would show up. But once they’re there, sitting on the chair in front of my camera, I think what you get is what you get. I didn’t care if they felt uncomfortable, I just shot and didn’t ask them to do anything specific. That said, I think time also plays a part. You let them sit there long enough, it just became a natural state to them. So even if they were being curious, looking around or trying to suppress their discomfort, that’s also their natural state.

So you didn’t direct them at all?

I only gave two instructions. Let’s chat for the first half-hour, about whatever you like. The second half-hour I asked them to simply be shot by me, like in a photo studio. No talking but otherwise they could do whatever they wanted. Some of them fell asleep. So I didn’t really give any directions per se.

I guess there was no overall theme then when you approached the project?

Not at all. It was impossible. It was just about looking at these faces.

How much footage did you shoot?

We shot each of them for one hour.

And you only shot these 13 people we see in the film?

There were two others that I eventually did not include in the film.

What was the editing process like?

It was hard. The reason is that every one of them was exciting. So you had to decide what kind of film this should be. I hate to have my films categorized, in terms of being narrative features or documentaries. I’ve always asked, why such categorization? In my mind there should only be the distinction between feature and short films. I feel that I have to persuade others of my view each time around.

Take The Afternoon as an example, why does it have to be a documentary? You can just as well call it a narrative feature. Knowing that people like to put labels on things, I always try not to let that happen with my films. So I kept reminding myself to make something that would not fit any such preconceived labels.

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Did you end up with different cuts?

We had three, four different cuts. It kept getting shorter. But it was an organic process. You have to see how the film plays, in terms of fluency, power, such considerations.

You seldom use music in your films. Can you talk about why you made an exception here?

This film could also be music-free. But it just worked out that way. Last year when I was in Venice for my VR film, I met Ryuichi Sakamoto on the beach. We first met four, five years ago when he was on the Venice jury and Stray Dogs competed, but only briefly back then. He only told me his whole family loved my films, especially his kids. But I never imagined collaborating with him. You know it’s always risky when you ask someone to collaborate on a project. What if you don’t like what they come up with? But I’ve always liked Ryuichi’s work. I know his approach to music has changed a lot over the years. But even when he worked on commercial pictures, they tend to be the good ones, like The Last Emperor. It really surprises you that he came up with such a score for a Chinese-themed movie.

So I asked myself whether it would work to have his music for this film. I wrote him and he agreed right away. I sent over the film and after one month he sent back 12 compositions. I didn’t know what to expect and was particularly afraid he would do something too… “melodic” because my films do not go well with explicit musical cues. But when I heard what he sent over I was blown away, it was like he knew exactly what I was thinking. We didn’t talk about it at all. I did not ask for his opinion either when I placed the music in the film. He wrote in his email that I was free to choose not to use any of it. That it was completely up to me. He really is a nice, generous person. I feel like at this stage in our lives, collaborating with each other is a purely pleasant experience. And I ended up using almost everything he wrote. That process was exciting too, because you don’t know what he was thinking when he wrote these pieces. They were not put in chronological order. But I finished it very quickly.

Obviously I broke some of my own rules by using music but I think it adds a sense of presentness to the film. When you watch it, it’s like Ryuichi himself is conducting the pieces right next to you. In that sense it’s less than a score to a film than a performance of imagery and sound.

Do you have plans to make another … “conventional” narrative feature?

I do have some ideas for a … how should I put it, a film that would more easily be included in a competition lineup! All jokes aside, I do think I’m changing the way people think about these things, especially here at the Venice Film Festival. Obviously people tend to play by the rules of the mainstream, but mainstream can be guided.

So as a filmmaker, you don’t approach narrative features, documentaries or VR films any differently?

No. My only hope is to do something different. Something that not everybody is doing.

Your Face premiered at Venice 2018.

Follow our Venice 2018 coverage.

Robert Greene Talks ‘Bisbee ’17,’ the Need for New Documentary Forms, and ‘Her Smell’

Written by Nick Newman, September 6, 2018 at 2:28 pm 

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Every two years or so, there comes a new Robert Greene film whose beautiful images, fascinating subjects, and thorough investigation of both immediate and surrounding concepts become overrun by the true-false question — what control Greene wields, where the spontaneous and constructed do or don’t collide. His latest, Bisbee ’17, sometimes plays like a provocation towards those assumptions, heavily relying on the reenactment of a horrific, little-known strike against working-class citizens (as our admiring review handily summarizes), parlaying the filmmaker’s strengths for documentary portrait and narrative whats-it into what may be his densest work to date.

Catching up with Greene a few weeks before Bisbee ’17 opened at Film Forum –where it just began a theatrical run in advance of an ambitious, cross-country tour — I found myself, as usual, in a long, long conversation that easily branched from the work at hand to the conversation that’s surrounded it. (And, yes, a bit about Her Smell, his fourth editing collaboration with Alex Ross Perry.) In his world, they eventually become one and the same.

Robert Greene: How’d you see it?

The Film Stage: Just a link.

It’s a terrible way to watch this movie. It’s really good for the big screen.

I know, and I got that sense, basically, from the first shot — the wide view of the guy standing, slightly bemused.

Works really well very big. Very big screen. Probably looked a little boring. [Laughs]

If anything, it may have been more intriguing. Because the figures seem even smaller, I had this response of, “Oh, he’s really reaching for something here.”

Yeah, the tininess of the guy and then the silence of his 10 seconds before he starts speaking is pretty crazy in a theater. People don’t know what to do with that quiet right at the beginning of a movie of just so, so much silence — which is great because I would basically tell everybody… I was like, “I’m gonna say action and then wait 10 seconds, and then you start talking.” Which had that nice effect of having people just being a portrait or whatever, and he was just having that conversation and the guy walked off and I was like, well, he’s going to say, “Okay, are you ready now?” And he never said that. So it looks kind of manufactured, but it’s not; it’s totally real and natural.

Of course, whenever I see something you make and these very deliberate decisions present themselves, the question emerges: from where is it coming? Not necessarily about one side of the fiction-nonfiction divide, but it’s funny. How aware are you of the idea that somebody could start perceiving things in that one-or-the-other key?

Well, that’s the whole point. If you’re questioning that, something’s working on some level to start, right? Because, to me, that questioning of what’s real and what’s fake, it should be in every documentary. First of all, everyone should be watching every documentary wondering what was staged — and “staged” might be a word that most people would use, but there’s degrees of staging. I’m very happy on a sort of basic aesthetic level or basic ethical level that that’s a question that people have to start. Furthermore, I would say that what I’ve tried to figure out in the last several films is how you make that question dramatic. How do you make it have an energy that’s not just cerebral but also emotional, right? If you’re wondering, “Oh, was that intentional? Is he aware of the weighting? Did he approve of this waiting?” All that stuff sets you up to think about the relationship between the camera, the subjects, then you’re activated to think about other things down the line. Right? So it activates your brain. It’s something that I not only don’t shy away from, but embrace actively.

You recently said the true-false thing is not very unconventional anymore — that people need to be unconventional in a different way.

It was never that unconventional to start. I mean, the history documentaries in this history of true-falseness. Right? Nanook of the North was staged, so on and down the line. It’s just gotten extremely uninteresting, lately, for people to just think mixing fiction and nonfiction and think it’ll be revelatory. To me, for my thinking, the direction for into Bisbee is more: how can use that sort of method to get at historical mythologies, basically — the performance of mythologies? How can you use performance and documentary to get someone to think about how we get locked in stories and those stories that have horrible repercussions. Right? And that we need to understand the stories. So you could use the same method to get at something. But I really find a lot of these things to be usually personal. It’s like everyone wants to make something like Actress, which I was proud to make, but it’s where it’s like, “Oh, it’s mixing fiction, nonfiction because it’s about how our personal identities are wrapped up.” And I think that’s just been played out.

So to me it’s like: yeah, younger filmmakers should not be making hybrid films. I mean, no one should make hybrid… all films are hybrid films, first of all. So it’s a meaningless distinction. But basically, if documentary is a form that can be pushed forward continuously, how do you use this to pry open other thinking? I think the western, wild wild west, good guy with a gun mythology is incredibly damaging on a day-to-day basis in our lives. Americans use this mythology to help sort of make ourselves feel good about all kinds of shit, including now. Like separating children at the border — this is in news stories about this stuff. So we can use this stuff to see something else. But that, to me, is like finding a form that I feel excited about still and using that form to get at something much deeper than the formal questions. But yeah: young filmmakers need to abandon that shit and do something else as soon as possible — like, please, for God’s sake.

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Actress never felt too much like a double-faced film, honestly. One could take it as a very straightforward story and depiction, and I sometimes suspected that the way people talked about it was grafting true-false concepts onto that.

That’s what people do with documentaries. The thing I tell my students that I think is really important is that, when you’re watching a documentary, what’s happening outside the frame is as important as what’s happening inside. What I mean by that is: people read into it. She’s an actress, so she’s doing this to get back into acting. She’s using the camera and playing to the camera and taking it back to that. That’s not in the movie per se, but it’s definitely in the way people watched the movie — and with Kate, the idea was to not only embrace that questioning but use it to basically talk about depression. Use it to really get inside Kate’s head in a way that I was hoping would be unique and dark. Kate was like basically like, “Let’s just burn the whole fucking thing down.” My idea was that we shouldn’t even tell stories anymore. Like, you shouldn’t tell stories about real people. Nothing is good; it all needs to be leveled. Bisbee is an attempt to build back up from those ashes, to make something out of what I think we’ve rediscovered as filmmakers, you know what I mean?

The reenactments surprised me in how much it felt like you were, frankly, going for it — the level of effort in staging environments, dressing up the actors, the western-esque lighting. The idea of reenactments typically recalls the History Channel or Errol Morris — and I was saying this leans more towards the latter, but it’s not in the same style. It’s a bit more, as much as I hate this word, cinematic. I have to wonder how much that came from Kate, whose constructed sequences also resembled an actual narrative feature that you might see, albeit with this same kind of distance.

This is a big conversation, because in Kate the reenactments are meant to be so bad that they’re depressing, right? Like there’s so depressingly bad and they feel like this is an empty exercise and it’s meaningless and you can’t do this. They re not just bad, not just amateurish, but garish. And we wanted them to be garish and awful because they were critiquing the idea of reenacting it while reenacting it — the colors had to be sensationalistic, and things like that. And this was different. I was like, we don’t really want to do that again because this is about people coming together to understand something deeper through the reenactment. Right. And, for me, one of the things they’re understanding is that they’re… one of the things I think the movie is doing is that so many different characters are in different movies. The guy, Richard, playing Sheriff Harry Wheeler, is in a western and Fernando’s in a musical, music video kind of thing. And Mary Ellen is in a Telenovela, and Laurie’s in a real artsy, sort of like John Sayles movie or something. Everyone’s in their own thing.

What do I mean by that? I mean that the images that we’re using are meant to connote the mythologies that lead to those images. Right? And so musicals and Westerns have deep mythologies that are about sort of replicating and reproducing ideologies and all that other stuff. Right? So the idea is that you’re kind of looking at a movie about all kinds of different ways of seeing stories — and to do that, you have to conjure those real feelings, you know? So working with Jared Alterman, it wasn’t, “This a bad western.” It was like, no, it needs to look like a western. This isn’t a bad musical. No, it’d feel like a real moment, like a musical moment.

So it’s not meant to be undercut the same way, that Kate is. But the same time, I don’t even think of them as reenactments. Are they performance pieces? That’s what they are as much as that, but I have too much respect for the history of performance art to call them performance art. But there’s something else; I don’t know what they are. I mean, there’s just as much in common with Tombstone reenactors as there is with anything else. I’m really excited by cars passing and cheesy acting and cheap sets and all that other stuff. But if it evokes the deeper feelings of that genre stuff, then we’re working on another level, too.

You stress the idea that, in documentaries, there’s as much importance with what’s happening outside the frame as inside. I was thinking about this throughout — these little moments where, and this is kind of a big word, it felt like you were editorializing, in terms of what you’re retaining and how it’s included.

Yeah, yeah, yeah,

I think the first thing that suggested it was the Tombstone reenactment: it’s revealed that we’re watching a Second Amendment celebration  only because you’ve made sure a clarifying line is included, and it slips in right before you cut away.

Well, Tombstone is a Second Amendment city; they’re proud to be. And that’s important to understand because Bisbee is a blue dot in a red sea. Like the minute men a few years ago, which were doing horrible things at the border, they came from tombstone. So it’s important. That’s that. That’s editorializing. Sure. Yeah. But it’s as important to me that you realize that the place that reenacts the “good guy with a gun” mythology every single day, the OK Corral mythology — which is not true; it’s a made-up story — that’s reenacted every single day. And guess what? They’re a Second Amendment city today. It’s not like, “Look at this cute history, but here’s why it was wrong.” It’s like, “No, cowboys were good and cowboys are good today.” And that also contrasts a lot with what Bisbee is — a different kind of place. So certainly editorializing. Also, Tombstone’s a fucking crazy place. And I mean, I love it. I mean, I really love it. I love that, in the middle of town, someone would fire a gun in the air and be like, where’s the second proud to be a second amendment city, go fuck yourself. It’s a crazy place considering what that means to be pronouncing that, you know, in 2017. So I’m editorializing, but they wouldn’t see it as that. They would be like, “Yeah, I’m proud to express that.”

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That’s the thing: it was underlined, but almost felt like it was underlined for not being underlined. The fact that you have people who are presented as they offer justification for the deportation. My favorite interview is the woman whose father is what she calls “a company man” — she seems conflicted about it. She says she loves her father and knows that he’s a company man. And at the same time she’s uncomfortable with how these things played out.

She says, “I’ve heard a lot of stories about stuff. People tell those stories were the ones who did the deporting.” And it’s important. I mean, it’s still a divisive issue in Bisbee because you’ve got to understand that Bisbee is a company town, but a company town means is there is no town without the company and, in this case, a series of companies. And the truth is, in Bisbee, if you worked for Phelps Dodge, you were taken care of. I mean, people grew up thinking about the PD hospital as a great place to have a baby because they took care of you, and etc. Right? The schools were good. Everything was good because if you worked for the company, you are in this thing. And then you add the trauma of 1975 — the mines left town.

So there is a longing for the company-town mentality because it’s way better than being an impoverished town. Like, from the richest town in Arizona to the poorest. A company town might have some dark sides to it, but, “I love Bisbee and I wished we had some money here now.” So it’s not even just like people were all on this side of the company — it’s also just this idea that the IWW could come into town and say, “We’re going to shut your whole system down” and people would be okay with it. Of course they weren’t okay with it. No. Once you learn the story, what we’re trying to do with the film is to try to get people to understand that you go from defending the existence of your town to five steps away from xenophobia and a genocide, and it only takes, like, five steps to get there. That’s what’s crazy.

It’s like when we’re hearing about children being ripped from their families. There’s one way to look at that, which is like, “God, Trump’s a monster and this is bad.” That is a step-by-step story of the border that has led us to this moment of new internment camps on the border right now. It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen over 10 years. It’s a long process of people justifying policy decisions and ideologies. Part of the whole performance thing, too, is: the IWW was a performance; the fucking wild west mentality of the sheriff was a performance. The capital being out for its own sake. They’re embracing ideology in a way that is, “This is what we believe in, this is what we stand for.” And they propagandizing themselves into these camps, and then something like this happens.

I’ve seen you asked more than once about “the newfound relevance of the film” and “the ways that it can reflect upon our situation today.” But even if I hadn’t detected a trend I wouldn’t have been interested in asking you.

Yeah, yeah, sure.

Isn’t it just too obvious?

Someone was like, “What’s the relevance of the film?” And it’s like, it’s so obvious that you don’t have to say. The day we were editing the scene where Mel from the bodega gets ripped out of his… the day I locked picture on that scene, I really struggled with that scene and where it was going to be placed 100 7-11s were raided and people were being pulled out of 7-11s. So it’s like, it’s so obvious that we don’t have anyone saying the name Trump. I mean, the thing to me that is important about the relevance and so much about experience with the companies is that everybody who did the reenactment was thinking that as well.

The reason why hundreds of people came out that those days is because they realized that creating those images was important for them as a community, but then for people to see for the bigger picture. Because it’s a border town. They live with these stories every day, so something that had been long buried was suddenly so important. So what matters is that when you see people grabbing people, they’re thinking about the political situation; they’re thinking that. Then you understand the urgency in their performance.

All of your movies have these weird moments where life throws you these circumstances that are so on-the-nose that, had it been fictionalized, you would have kind of rolled your eyes at its presence. I know it’s been brought up more than once, but I think it’s because it’s actually worth bringing up: maybe one of the only times when your voice comes on the soundtrack is clarifying the word “solidarity” to somebody. From the first Sundance reviews, people were saying, “Greene doesn’t show up often, but when he does…”

Yeah. But what’s underlying that moment is that I’m correcting. I’m a white guy correcting a Mexican, a Mexican-American, on the word solidarity. That should not be a one-to-one sort of relationship between… I usually use my voice in movies to bring up how shitty it is to make films about people, like my voice is always like the villain, sort of prodding people along. And I don’t think it’s so much here, but the other time that you hear me is, I’m looking at a picture of someone riding a bull and I say, “What’s that?” And he says “bull riding,” and it’s like, you can’t get more… somebody would be like, “Why do you have that in the movie? You just looked stupid.” It’s like, “Yeah, because I didn’t know what that was!” You should know that the person making this film didn’t know that a picture of someone riding a bull could just be described by the term “bull riding.” It’s a limited perspective. You should think about the filmmaker having a limited perspective going forward, and you don’t have to put a lot of that in there for it to get across.

But in that particular moment, like the thing about the Fernando storyline in the movie is: he’s apolitical. We drag him into this thing. He’s not kicking and screaming so much, but a little unsure of himself. And then, in the end, he transforms into this other thing, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. So for me, me correcting him saying “solidarity” is not just, good-guy filmmaker opening the eyes of a poor kid who doesn’t know anything. It should make you feel a little weird. And I think it does. I think it makes people go like, “Oh, you know, he’s a little mansplaining right there, a little whitesplaining,” and then that pays off so nicely later when James is trying to explain the history of people coming to this country and Fernando puts him in his place — like, at that point he has the moment to shut the white guy down.

So I use my voice in a very specific way because it’s to get at that kind of stuff because I think it, in a way, it helps you. I mean, it helps you see through what we’re doing and less present than the more recent films. Certainly Kate. Not Actress. I mean, you don’t hear my voice at all, but I’m holding the camera. I’m holding the camera. So that’s important. You don’t hear my voice at all, but I’m holding the camera in a very specific entry point. I think I’m slightly less than in Kate, but I didn’t need it to be like Kate. I’m reminded of the great J. Hoberman reviewing a Frederick Wiseman film and he didn’t like this movie very much and he was just like, “You don’t get the sense of the filmmaker at all.” And he was basically saying that Wiseman was another unethical filmmaker because he was not in his films and I’m like, “You cannot watch a Frederick Wiseman film knowing that Fred Wiseman edits them without thinking of his decision making.”

Of course the filmmakers are in the film and it’s always a fine line because you see me in a couple shots — you see me, you hear my voice, you should be thinking that the whole time, especially as far as framed and portrait shots — those weird, long portrait shots. That’s me. I mean, I’m the one obviously creating those scenarios. The movie is an intervention. It’s not an observation, so you have to have to have an intervention, so I just don’t even think it’s necessary to go further.

You, more than many documentary filmmakers — even documentary filmmakers who actually get distribution, with head-above-water exposure — have a decent number of viewers, and people who personally know you.

Yeah. Probably less. Hopefully we’ll find some people who don’t know me to watch the movie.

You’ve written a lot about documentary criticism; you’re talking about it now. I’m wondering how you feel about it lately, if you think there’s been any shift.

I think the positive is that certainly the review that’s like, “Here’s a paragraph about what the story’s about and then nothing else like that” — that review is pretty dead in the water. I mean, it’s shocking when it happens. It still happens all the time. There’s so many outlets, specifically the ones that make a difference in people’s lives, that still don’t know how to review a documentary. I’m still shocked at some of the reviews in major outlets, but in general I think that it’s not as bad as it used to be. There’s only so much you can do in that realm about getting people to write about films better. It’s up to filmmakers to make more interesting films and I’m like, to me that’s the fight has gone from, “Critics don’t get what we’re doing” to, “Well, you need to do something interesting and force them to get it.” With this film, we’re particularly trying to work on a scale that’s sort of undeniable.

The last few of my films are all — really except for the first one — small portraits of people, and very intimate situations. You can deny that if you’re not interested in that person. But here we’re trying to work on a bigger scale. And I think that part of that is to be like, “You can’t not watch this movie and think about the ideas that I want you to think about.” But also I want to be entertaining and big enough for you to give a shit. So when you were saying “going forward,” that’s also conceptually different than Kate, but cinematically I wanted it to feel like a big movie, because I think not necessarily just critics, but critics and viewers can latch onto more pleasure and there’s more pleasure, there’s more excitement, more entertainment, more all of it, if we’re “going for it.” Which I like because we certainly went for that true-false tone.

I can recall even five years ago when True/False was definitely a niche festival — there was a thing where obviously smart people were going, but the profile keeps going up. I have to think that’s crucial to the story of that kind of filmmaking becoming more understandable, by and large.

Absolutely. And it’s just because it’s so fun. Maybe that, too. That’s a great follow-up to what I’m saying because True/False is fun. I think there’s great fun in mixing these things and getting people to think in certain ways and, like, making a western-musical-documentary-weirdo ghost story that’s fun. As dark as the story is, the movie’s meant to be fun to watch, and then when those emotions hopefully hit you, when it’s all happening at the end… the one thing about Kate was it was so unfun. [Laughs] It was a very unfunny movie, and I remember it was Nick Pinkerton — who I can mention by name because he’ll never write about my movies ever again — who was just like, “Yeah, I like it. It’s fine. But boy, it’s humorless.” And I was like, that’s not what I mean. Actress has a couple of funny moments and Fake it So Real was a comedy, basically. You can do other things, and there’s moments in Bisbee that I think are fun because Bisbee is a fun place. I guess I’m trying to capture that town and you walk the streets, you feel ghosts, you feel trauma, and then you’re like, “This is the weirdest place I’ve ever been.” Like, it’s, it’s a mixture of things. It’s what the hero David Lynch is doing with Twin Peaks. How can you mix those tones in the way that he does? It’s like that. That’s just heroic to me.

The German hairdresser in Kate was funny.

Amazing, yeah. She was incredible. That wig. The wig was funny, but no one knew to laugh; that was the problem. The wig was purposefully this ostentatious, ridiculous thing, like the tan, but no one knows to laugh in that movie because it just seems so dreadfully serious. I just didn’t execute the comedy in Kate very well.

I chuckled.

I wanted people to go, “Ooh, this isn’t gonna work!” [Laughs] Nope. Sure didn’t. It did not work.

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Did you like Bisbee immediately?

Yeah. When I got there in 2003, my mother-in-law bought a house — a summer house kind of thing for family to visit and that was before I was married — and I just loved it. I went to work on the house with her, like, strip the paint off the floors I’d never been in the desert and it reminded me of New York in some ways — like the survival mentality and that it takes a tough creature to live in Bisbee. It’s too weird to be boring ever. It’s just weird all the time, and then I felt ghosts. I mean, I legitimately feel spirits in the town. The only other place is my other favorite place besides New York — New Orleans. I feel just this weird energy in Bisbee, and it makes sense because it’s like the first short film that we released at all. Have you seen those?

I have.

The first short film is all about the energy for the mine. So that’s a real thing. There is actual energy actually coming from minerals, from those mines, and it’s an intense place and I love it. I love it very much.

It was initially difficult to understand how you’d approach the town — if it was going to be from a place of like disdain, disgust — and then the tracking shot of Fernando, when he’s walking on the street and he goes into the theater, was the first moment where I thought to myself, “Okay, maybe he actually likes this place. That feels affectionate.”

Oh, it’s in love. I mean, it’s an in-love shot. I mean, that’s what that shot is: can you believe that you could walk out of the Vietnamese restaurant and walk through a travel agency or whatever it is, into a theater that was open in 1917 and has never been renovated or whatever? Can you believe that exists in a town? I can’t. I can’t. I mean, that’s the kind of place where you’re like, Oh, you should see this,” and it’s just like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a movie theater that was open in 1917.” I can’t believe that that exists and there’s so many places like that in Bisbee. We filmed in the corner hotel, the scene where Fernando goes and meets the guy, a doorman who’s an IWW organizer and that’s filmed in the Warner hotel, which is this abandoned hotel that we got access to film in. That was for Warner Bros., where they housed cowboys for Westerns. So it was like, “How does that place exist? How is it that it’s a ghost town? I mean, it feels like a ghost, like the things that were left there forever, but instead a business is literally working in the front lobby. I love that Bisbee is a place where no one gets their mail delivered; they all go to the post office every day. So the post office is like a center of the place. It’s just really, really important to feel in love with the place. Definitely.

It’s definitely more expansive and excitable than, say, Beacon’s depiction in Actress.

Oh, because I hated Beacon. I mean, I liked the people fine. I love the interiors; I love Brandy’s house. Freddy’s house was like a magical place to film in — but I felt depressed being in what I felt like was a suburb of New York. Sarasota is a deeply alienated pace. I happen to love Sarasota, too, but for Kate. Sarasota feels like a place that’s so shimmery — a sort of mirage of a place.

When it was announced for Sundance, Bisbee was first listed as running 138 minutes.

It played at Sundance at 124. We immediately had them change the runtime because that’s wrong. That was what we submitted. Or we actually submitted a three-hour cut of the movie. But we cut down. I remember desperately getting a call from a programmer asking, “It is any shorter?” It’s half an hour shorter; that’s what we finally got. And that was probably what locked into. But we screened Bisbee at 124 minutes, then I cut it down. So the shorts are not just things that are cut out of the movie, although it could be a five-hour movie. It just ultimately wasn’t. I mean, I would be fine to make a five-hour movie; it just ultimately wasn’t what we thought was the best way to get the impact of the last chapter. So they’re also characters that we knew could never be in the film that I wanted to explore a little bit. And so it’s just a cool opportunity to do something different than that.

Could you talk a bit about those decisions?

The 112-minute cut first played at Hot Docs in April.

So that’s about a three-month span between 124 and 112. So what was the thinking there?

I saw it at Sundance. I felt like, “This is good.” And then I felt like we dodged a bullet with the reviews not all saying it’s really long, and I was happy about that. And I think people got the bigger point. I think in Sundance, actually, no one talks about how long movies are at Sundance because everyone sort of knows that people keep working on the movies after, a lot of times. So you hardly ever get people talking about the edit, for example. But then I was sure that it needed to be shorter and it was just a breakthrough. But what’s funny is that it was like a note that I’d been given by Doug, one of my producers, and he gave a note early that the scene where they go to the parade, which is the July Fourth parade, which was in the cut, the original. It’s like, I love it, but “I think we should keep it for these reasons, I think we could lose it for these reasons.”

And ultimately he was right. And I just knew he was right the whole time — but keep in mind, we edited the movie, we wrapped picture July 20th or something like that, and two-and-a-half months later, submitted to Sundance. That’s insane. That’s insane for a film of this scope and size and scale and all that stuff. So yeah, the process was basically: continue to watch it, continue to think about it, and continue to want to. I just want to make the best movie so I don’t care about… I know that the most important audiences are the ones going to come up here in September. So yeah, we just kept going and eventually I think we found the right balance. It’s also good. I knew it was never gonna be an 80-minute movie and I didn’t think it needed to be. So it seems kind of impossible for this movie. It’s impossible. I mean, it’s very possible for a lot of movies — and for this movie, 100% impossible. I would just embrace that. It’s not only four minutes longer than Kate Plays Christine — I think it feels a lot shorter. Did it feel long to you?

I felt like it was lengthy, but it’s like the way you can affectionately describe a movie as slow.

The structure of the film is chapters, so that has its own sort of thing. But the idea there they’re not self-contained in terms of each chapter having its own direct point, but they do move to a certain moment and then the story sort of restarted itself. And so there’s a little bit of that that happens again, again, again, which I like. I like telling a film of that sort of structure, like things crescendo and then you go into another place. And that’s why I like musicals: musicals can go to this epic place like Mary Poppins. I’ve written about this, about how documentary filmmakers could learn a lot from Mary Poppins as a structural thing. It’s not plot-driven. It’s big, big sensations of feelings and then through those sensations and feelings you understand where the characters are, what they’re doing, and then it switches gears into another big sensation of feelings and so that’s kinda what I’m excited about. But also it’s an epic tale and it’s a whole town and it takes time.

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Can I ask some questions about Her Smell?

It’ll be in the world, in some capacity, whenever this comes out. I may not answer it all, but go ahead.

It seems like that happened quickly.

Listen Up Philip, I’m proud to say, was wrapped in October and was seen by Sundance folks like three or four weeks later. I mean, we work pretty quickly because Alex and I know exactly what we want to do and we’d go for it. I’m quick; I like being quick. I like making decisions and living with them and Alex likes that too and there’s an energy that comes with that, and we work really well together. There’s plenty of people could watch Bisbee and Her Smell and say, “Yeah, well, maybe you should have taken longer,” [Laughs] but I don’t care about those people because there’s a vigor to those two. Even the structural sort of slow-moving aspects of Bisbee, I think it feels unwieldy in a way that I’m excited about. I just think movies… we’ve gotten too used to this idea that we’ve got to take forever and pulverize the life out of things. We’re interested in going quick. Her Smell is an epic film. I mean, it’s epic in its own way. It’s also got a similar structure. actually: it’s like five acts versus six acts. A very different film, obviously, but doing similar structural things with the way you see a story play out over time.

Well, recent movies that you’ve done with him, it feels like so much information can be conveyed from one scene to the next and it moves quick. Like, Golden Exits is not a fast-paced movie necessarily, but it moves in the way it’s written and it’s edited.

Sure. And that film, specifically, we gutted a lot of stuff. There was a whole monologue, conceptual thing that’s still in the film very much, but which we worked at in the edit. But that’s just what we do. I mean it. Her Smell we didn’t have to rework much because it was pretty locked in, and now I think Alex takes it as a challenge to write something that I can’t rework. [Laughs] I think his writing and my way of thinking about scenes work extremely well together. Of course with Sean as the foundation. It’s just a really, really graceful, easy collaboration. And he very much values what I bring to the table, which is nice, and he knows I very much value what he brings to the table. So it’s great and it’s also so much easier to Her Smell that it was Bisbee ’17 — like, infinitely easier — and people are like, “How could that be?” It’s because people just tend to tend to think of fiction as bigger stakes and more money. And so it must be harder. Bigger stakes, more money makes it easier. Bisbee is a thing where, at any point, I could say, “That’s the beginning of the movie, but now it’s the middle of the movie,” whereas you can’t do that with Her Smell. You can a little bit, but you can’t.

And so I love editing those movies. Documentary filmmakers, even when we’re making something like Bisbee that has no actors and set design, all this stuff, it’s still not Elisabeth Moss and the team that Sean has doing the lighting. Jared just simply didn’t have those resources — because he can do that stuff too, but it’s just like we were working at a smaller scale, so it’s so much easier to edit. Every shot looks fucking great, so let’s have fun with that. And in Bisbee, every shot looked great too, but it’s just much more of a conceptual piece where the truth and people’s real feelings guide just as much as Jared’s brilliant cinematography. So you’re always balancing all these other things that you don’t have to balance. No one cares about Lizzie Moss’s truth. [Laughs] They care about how good of a performance she’s given. So it’s much, much more fun.

So people need to be unconventional in a different way. Do you see Bisbee as a conscious attempt to be unconventional in a different way?

No, it’s an attempt to be conventional because it’s an attempt to make something that can be radical and understandable at the same time. And to me it’s radical and it’s layered. It’s radical in its shifts of genre. It’s radical in its tone shifts. It’s radical in its politics, I think — not just being a leftist but it’s radical in all these ways and it’s also radical in totally not caring at all about fiction-nonfiction divide, whatever that means. I don’t care at all about that, and so that’s radical, but I think that an audience can be brought to the table. That doesn’t mean like, oh, I made decisions in order to be conventional. No. I want the story to be told and I want people to see this film and I want people to look at it and go, “Wow, that’s an interesting way into the story and it adds layers of meaning to something that would otherwise be straightforward bad.”

“Layers of meaning” is not just to say there are several sides to this story; layers of meaning also means the performance of mythology. Things like that that I think are very clear; and I think I made them clear. I guess I don’t necessarily believe that it’s an attempt to be conventional because I don’t think it’s conventional in a lot of ways, but it is an attempt to be understandable and comprehensible. I think Kate was very comprehensible to some people and totally baffling to other people, which I love; I’m proud of that and it’s baffling to me. But that’s what I mean by Kate was like, “Let’s burn it all down,” and this is like: maybe we can build something out of the ashes. Maybe we could create meaning that’s understandable with these tools that have previously been used to burn it all down. There’s a nihilism to Kate that does not exist in this thing. This film is idealistic in some ways. I felt that it’s hopeful that people will come together to try to do this together; I want it to be.

There’s something kind of fucked-up about the path towards it. But not in a bad way.

The question is: do you conjure ghosts or do you but them forever? It’s a huge question about how we collectively handle our history, and I don’t know how I feel about whether we should conjure them or bury them. I hope my own ambivalence towards that… it’s not even ambivalence. It’s more like fear of doing the wrong thing is felt in the movie. I hope that’s how you feel, but in the end it felt hopeful to do it, but it could have easily been very dark and that would’ve been the movie. This is why I cling to the idea that these are nonfiction films because I didn’t script that ending. [Laughs] Well, I did script the ending, but just the pay off of everything that we were doing was totally unscripted — in terms of how people were actually going to react to it.

You had me expecting something darker going in — very profoundly unpleasant places.

Was that a weakness, do you think?

No. It didn’t feel like the movie’s intent and didn’t seem necessary. Given how you got there, the idea is already present — knowing that it was terrible.

The story itself is so dark.

Even the people who do try to justify it cushion the whole thing with, “Yes, but…”

Yeah. Having Dick Graham be in that, get up and have those people singing to him “Solidarity Forever” to him has got as much in common with a Christmas Carol as it has me holding his feet to the fire. Because ultimately, the darkest thing in the movie is that it happened. Then it happened before. It’s kept happening. When Dick Graham says, “That’s why in the Vietnam War, I was against the protests.” That, to me, is a signal — not unlike a bunch of other things in the film — that this movie’s not about 1978; it’s about everything between 1917 and 2017. The entire history of the 20th century is the company mentality versus the workers mentality. And those narratives are used again to divide us, and it’s embedded in everything that’s in that movie. So that’s a different kind of darkness. It’s not like shock; it’s like a resignation. Hopefully what we did, at least within the town, feels like it’s breaking out of that loop, somehow creating another loop — like there’s something else.

Bisbee ’17 is now playing at Film Forum and expands around the country in weeks and months to come.

Terence Davies Reflects on ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives,’ Music’s Communal Power, and His Next Films

Written by Joshua Encinias, August 31, 2018 at 6:04 pm 

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Terence Davies’ debut feature film Distant Voices, Still Lives premiered to universal acclaim in 1988. His singular vision of domestic life in 1950s Liverpool was followed by seven features, with two more on the way. The BFI marks the thirtieth anniversary of Distant Voices with a new restoration, now playing in the U.K. and at Metrograph in Manhattan, followed by a Blu-ray release via Arrow Academy in October. We spoke with the director about why audiences love his work, communal life as depicted in his earliest projects, and two films he hopes to complete by the decade’s end.

What do you think about the film thirty years later?

Terence Davies: I was very touched someone in America wanted to release it. It was a lovely surprise. I can’t believe it, thirty years have gone by. My God. [Laughs.] Where has it gone? I never watch it, you see, because I made it. It’s just very odd. I just think, to be honest with you, what do people see in it? [Laughs.] I culled my family history together and made it into a cinematic narrative. I never thought it would go beyond England–I just didn’t. The fact people can respond to it in other countries is still a bit of a wonder for me I’m afraid.

Do you have any theories about why audiences and critics respond to your work so positively?

God, not at all! Absolutely not. I don’t know what they see in it. It’s people beating each other up and then singing. It’s not foot-tapping, is it? I’m proud that I celebrated what that culture was like in the 1950s, and it was rich even though we had no money. We were living in Liverpool slums, but the richness of life seemed wonderful. You know, people getting together, people sing together. They don’t do that now. But it was so life-affirming. That’s what I loved about it.

Will you talk more about the intimacy of your characters singing together?

That was just direct autobiography. The sort of ritual was—and life was very ritualistic in that period because people did certain things on certain days—you went to the pub on Saturday, you came back, you brought some beer back, you had a dance, played some records, and had a sing-song. People knew the group songs and the individual songs. One of my neighbors always used to sing “Ghost Riders in the Sky”! [Laughs.] They were quite extraordinary and you can’t forget those things because they seem so rich–even now they seem so rich. And it was a sort of given, a wonderful feeling of… camaraderie doesn’t really describe it, but a feeling of being one with each other.

How did everyone know these pop and traditional songs?

Some of the songs mum sang when she was a young woman. But also what happened in those days when you bought 78s you had the lyrics on the back of the sleeve and that’s how you learned. Sometimes, if you couldn’t get the record, you would listen to the songs and write it down and then you would learn, but that was common and it was just part of the culture of our period. Pop songs in those days were meant to be sung by other people and you must remember that the Great American Songbook was the poetry for ordinary people. In 1956 Cole Porter was still alive. So when someone like Stephen Sondheim dies, the book will close on that Great American Songbook because there’s no one to fulfill his place anymore. There’s no one of that caliber and stature. These were songs that people loved but they also were the poetry for ordinary people. One of my brothers, who is now dead, I always think of him when I hear “Send in the Clowns.” He was just an ordinary working class man but he loved that and it is a great song. I mean it is a truly great song. That became part of the fabric of how you felt about the world and yourself. But that wasn’t conscious, none of that was conscious, it was felt. It was visceral and it was felt.

What was your experience screening the film at the 26th New York Film Festival?

Unfortunately, they got the reels mixed up. It’s not a linear narrative so to get the reels in the wrong order made it incomprehensible. [Laughs.] I don’t think it was deliberate but that’s what happened. I was terrified. That was the first time I’d been to America and when I was growing up that was very much the land of magic, and it really was! Steamers would bring back records from America and one of my sister’s friends brought back a copy of Sammy Davis Jr. singing “That Old Black Magic.” The record went around the whole street because it was the only American record we actually had.

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How did you decide to make the narrative non-linear?

When I was growing up my family would talk about my father because he was very, very violent. I heard the stories piecemeal, if you like. When I was writing it I just knew I had to follow that strain of the way in which those stories were told. I didn’t realize it was non-linear because I had only made a trilogy, which was my apprentice work and I was still very much a learning. Like everything else, I wrote it as I felt it. One of the great influences has been and always will be “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot, which is also about the nature of memory.

Memory isn’t linear–it’s cyclical. And I felt rather than knew it and I just followed that. We shot it and when we were putting it together on the cutter that was the template: what prompts another memory? It’s like dropping a pebble in a pond and all the ripples are memories. They’re all different so it’s just a question really of trying to be true to how memory works. I didn’t know that I was doing that at the time. It’s only in hindsight that I knew that but it was something that I felt rather than knew.

How did you achieve the film’s rich brown hue?

Humphry’s Laboratory would take the silver oxide out of the film and then you could alter it with filters when you shoot it. I wasn’t the first to use it. Michael Radford did for “1984,” but the bias there was for blues, reds and deep greys. I didn’t want that look, I wanted it to be on the spectrum of brown and that can go from anything to pink to really dark brown. So we just did some tests and warmed up the image with coral filters just to give it that warmth. That’s how I remember our house being. In fact, when we were constructing the set they found this wallpaper and it was little roses against a sort of grey background. That was exactly the paper we had our parlor, which was incredible to walk in a room to see what it was like when I was a kid. But that was how we achieved the look. The BFI did a new digital restoration and they did a wonderful job. There were only two places where I asked if they could make it a little darker or lighter. It really looks lovely, if I do say so myself.

Are you working on any upcoming projects?

Yes, I am! I’ve written two scripts and trying to get money for them. One is about Siegfried Sassoon, who was one of the great World War I poets from England. Another one based on a lovely American novel called “Mother of Sorrows” by Richard McCann. We’re hoping to have those made in the next two years.

You’re you’re going to make two films in two years?

I hope so. Fingers crossed!


Distant Voices, Still Lives is now playing at NYC’s Metrograph and in the UK, followed by a Blu-ray release on October 23 via Arrow Academy.

Ethan Hawke on Dreaming of a Fourth ‘Before’ Film, Why He’s Not Having a McConaughey Moment, and the Necessity of Film Festivals

Written by Rory O'Connor, August 23, 2018 at 8:58 am 

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Despite first appearing on screens a whopping 33 years ago in Joe Dante’s Explorers, the formidable actor and filmmaker Ethan Hawke seems busier than ever these days. We met up with him at the Locarno Film Festival this summer (where he was being honoured with a somewhat premature lifetime achievement award) for a lengthy chat about First Reformed, Christian Bale, River Phoenix, Boyhood pride, where the Before films might be headed next, and how this is certainly not his McConaughey moment.

Decked out in a Hawaiian shirt in a room looking out to the sun covered Lugano Prealps, we found him in a fittingly blue skies mood. The relaxed Texan was first to draw…

Ethan Hawke: Is the festival going well?

The Film Stage: It is! It’s hot.

It’s really hot! I was introducing Seymour today and I felt bad. Before the movie even started everybody’s got a fan and they’re fanning themselves.

How does it feel at this stage to be getting a lifetime achievement award when you’re seemingly busier then you’ve ever been?

Well, I feel several things. I remember Sidney Lumet, at the end of his life, kept saying, “Everyone wants to give me a lifetime achievement award, but they don’t wanna let me make another movie.” You know, they all want me to be out to pasture, grazing at the film festivals of the world. So on one level I feel completely undeserving and on another level I feel like… well, Linklater told me, “Don’t get too high on yourself. These are what you call midcareer check-ins. It means that you’ve made it to this one stage and now in the next round everyone will hate you again very soon and they’ll say you’re washed up and then you have to survive long enough to get to the next round, where they invite you to be the head of the jury.” So I’m in the front tier of the second row.

You mention “midcareer check-ins” but it seems as if you’ve had a charmed career. You’ve never really had the bumps that everybody else has had.

Well, thank you for saying that. I hope that that’s true. I’ll tell you something funny. There was some article written in a magazine that was talking about, with the success of First Reformed and the reception of Blazed, that I was poised to have the best year of my life at that I may be having my “Matthew McConaughey moment.” And my friend Richard Linklater left me a message that was so sweet and charming, because he loves both of us, that said, “But you can’t have a Matthew McConaughey moment, because for you to have a Matthew McConaughey moment you would have had to be washed up. What they can’t write is that you’ve actually kind of consistently done the same thing for you’re whole entire life and sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t.”

So yeah, I’ve been lucky that way. But I think that one of the reasons why luck has given me that charm is because really early on I’ve tried to solve all my problems with working. When my first marriage fell apart, one of the saddest darkest times of my life, I just worked harder than ever. That’s when I went back to the theater, and the theater for actors is a great healer. Because it’s incredibly hard and I think that whenever you really apply yourself humility naturally arises because you meet your own walls, you come up against them.

So I hope that that’s true. It’s also strange to be 47 and also have been making movies for over thirty years. It’s a little rare actually. The other day I saw Christian Bale in a movie and I felt this sense of pride for him for how talented he is, what a good actor he is. I realized that the first time I was jealous of Christian Bale, I think I was 19. Because I had been the youngest client at my agency until they signed Christian Bale. There was this huge list. They represented Robert Redford, Paul Newman, blah blah blah, you know, Warren Beatty. And I was really proud to be on it, I was the youngest one. And the next year there was this other guy, younger guy, “Christian Bale,” who the hell’s that?! And I was like: aw shit, I’m never gonna forget him.

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Andrew Niccol said recently that what he values most in you is this inherent goodness, a sort of decency that immediately shows, and that you would hate him for saying that.

Well, being proud of being good doesn’t really make any sense because if you’re good you’d realize that pride would be an obstacle. We’re always failing ourselves all the time and there are so many ways that I’m not good and when I was younger, first meeting Andrew, the truth is you don’t want to be perceived as being good cause you feel that’s not gonna have an edge or be cool or be interesting, the way young actors like to be interesting, right?

One of the things that is most interesting to me in my age right now is that I have a 20-year-old daughter and she would love to be in front of you right now, that is her dream: to have a movie that she felt proud of and that she could be here and talk to you guys and be asked these questions. It’s fascinating for me to have somebody that looks at life like that. So all of a sudden I’m aware of what a wonderful seat this is to be in. She thinks I’m a little bit better than I am, right? And you start wanting to be that person.

One of the problems with contemporary culture is that there is a tremendous amount of energy put into trying to help 18-year-olds be 35 or, you know, 22-year-olds be 40. But there’s not a big amount of energy put into helping 40-year-olds become 80. You know, there’s no university for it. One of the ways I do it is to make a documentary like Seymour, one of the ways is to work with people I admire, like Andrew Niccol and Antoine Fuqua.

One of the great things about being an actor is that… Antoine is never on anyone else’s set, really. Richard Linklater hasn’t spent much time on anyone else’s set. He thinks making a movie is being Richard Linklater but being in a Richard Linklater film is very different from being in an Antoine Fuqua film and that’s very different from being in an Alfonso Cuarón movie which is very different to being in a Sidney Lumet movie and I’ve gotten the opportunity to see how different sensibilities attack a film set and how they can be different. And there isn’t one right way to make a movie. Paul Schrader gave me one of the best parts of my life and it’s very different than being on the set of Before Sunrise. It’s hardly the same job almost.

I think that Gattaca is one of the best first films of all time. [Andrew Niccol] came out of the gate with something powerful to say. Studios don’t make movies like Gattaca anymore. That movie was made by a Hollywood studio, with money! Now, if you had that script you’d be making it for one-half the time, one-eighth of the price and all the actors would have to have a back-end deal, where you make money if the movie makes money. The movie wouldn’t make any money because it didn’t at the time. I miss that. What I was trying to say was that Andrew thinks I’m good because we’ve been good to each other. The weekend that movie came out I went for a walk around Brooklyn with him and he was so sad. He said the studio couldn’t find one quote to put for next week’s ad. It was already being pulled from theaters because they didn’t have one superlative. You know: Uma Thurman is excellent. A sci-fi thriller that thrills and chills. Not one quote! His eyes were on fire. “We can’t get one quote. The movie came out in 50 fucking cities and we can’t get one quote.”

Of course, in a couple of weeks there were things but it was already too late. And when Before Sunrise came out everybody wanted it to be Reality Bites 2. They were all just completely disappointed. It was like what is this? You know? And 30 years later they’re still talking about that movie. I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say but at a midcareer check-in I’m seeing the values of that.

Are we allowed to ask if there’s going to be another Before film?

You’re definitely allowed to ask. I don’t have an answer. I know that there’s a symmetry to those three movies that I really like. At the beginning of Before Sunrise it starts with this couple in their 40s fighting on a train and you pan over and see two young people listening and we turn into that couple. And there’s something beautiful about that. And the joke Julie makes at the end of Before Midnight that maybe we’re caught in some space-time continuum. You do get the feeling that that circle’s gonna keep going around. So it has a sense of completion to me as a trilogy, but I could imagine revisiting Jesse and Celine in some totally different way in some different kind of movie. I can’t remember the name of it right now but there was a movie about four years ago… great older actors, they’re dying…

Amour?

Yes, Amour! Julie wrote me and said, “Dammit, they already made the sequel!” [Laughs]

I wrote her the other day; I hope she doesn’t mind me saying. I had a dream the other day about the fourth movie and it was entirely erotic. It was full-blown erotic cinema. It would make Bertolucci blush. And she just wrote back “too late.” [Laughs] So we’ll see…

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You were saying before about the spiritual background that you have and also that sense of what it means to be good. How did those thoughts feed into First Reformed?

Well, when I started First Reformed, Paul sent me the script, and on the first pages it talks about all the books that are on Reverend Toller’s desk and they were almost all books my mother had given me. This list of Thomas Merton, this book, that book and, like, I felt like I’d been prepared for this role.

It’s funny, Merton was writing in the ‘60s and he was already seeing an obsession with celebrity starting to happen and how a public self creates a fake self. And now with social media everyone has a public self and it’s all these things TS Elliot or Andy Warhol said that are all kind of coming true about this false self. One of the last times I spoke to River Phoenix he was talking a lot about how people perceived him and how hard it was to even know who you are if you’re constantly just trying to tell people what you’re not because whenever somebody tries to label you its inherently false because you’re definitely more than that or that might be flat out wrong or at least only partly right at best. And how hard that was to deal with and I realized that I wasn’t having that problem because I knew that was fake.

He’d just gone to the Oscars with that Sidney Lumet movie and he couldn’t believe how fake the Oscars were. “You’re not gonna believe, man, they’re so fake! It’s like you can knock these things over.” Meaning like: you think the statues look golden, they’re not gold they’re paper. “They go to the bathroom when they cut to commercial, it’s so fake you wouldn’t believe it! Most of these people are voting on movies they haven’t seen!” And I’m like: I know that. I remember actually thinking: if you’re trying to make me feel bad for you for going to the Oscars, fuck you!

[Laughs] But I realized now that understanding and accepting the phoniness of the world, you know, you gotta do it. You gotta accept it and move on and take it as a truth and not be hurt by it every time it happens.

Were you disappointed when Boyhood didn’t win that year?

That’s exactly my point, not at all! You want the work to be worthy but if you get caught up in seeing other people’s definitions… it wouldn’t affect the final cut of that movie one bit. In fact, I always tell people it’s always a little better if you don’t because if you don’t, for the rest of your life, people will tell you how it should have but if you do people, for the rest of your life, will tell you how it shouldn’t have.

I hate it when life always moves the goal line. We made a movie with our closest friends, for nothing, for over 12 years, about the subtle movements of growing up and actually, it found its way in the commercial marketplace, that’s a miracle. To then turn that into salty tears because you didn’t win the top prize… don’t give up your heart so easily. I wasn’t disappointed. I was so proud. I was so proud of Patricia for winning. I was so proud of us for being there. It was a miracle that we were there at all. I spent my life making little indie movies that nobody even hears of. And so, to turn that victory into a defeat would be a waste of time.

When you make The Purge or the Spierig brothers films, like Predestination, what’s the particular challenge in doing those?

Well, my first teacher was Joe Dante. And so by the time I was 20 years old I’d had these two great mentors. Peter Weir, who is a total art film connoisseur. I mean Peter Weir is like, “Have you seen Bresson? Come on get with it! You don’t even know who Fassbinder is? Wake up!” And Joe Dante is showing me The Howling and he was talking about how drive-in movies, if done with art and love, are actually like the Trojan horse. You go see a werewolf movie and secretly it’s a PTSD movie about the Vietnam War.

Get Out is a great example. Jason Blumhouse did both those movies, The Purge and Get Out, and I think Get Out is the completion of something Jason has been working towards for a long time, these Trojan horse movies. If I told you I was making an important film about race relations in America you definitely don’t want to come, you definitely feel like you’re being preached to and you start yawning immediately. The Purge is the same way. In the future, when rich people don’t care about poor people, they’re on their treadmills just watching people get burned alive on their TV, they flip the channel to find something more entertaining. “In the future…”

I love that because there’s something punk rock about it, it’s not what it seems. There’s a Cassavetes quote I love, “There’s no such thing as high art and low art, there’s good movies and bad movies.” The definition is: did the people who made it put their best love and ideas, did they work hard to complete what that thing is trying to be? If you spent time with James DeMonaco when he’s making The Purge, it’s an awful lot like being on a set with Richard Linklater making Boyhood. Paul Schrader is a great example. First Reformed gets put in the high art box but this is a guy who made Cat People and American Gigolo. He’s a sensationalist. He’s in love with the sex and violence of movies but that doesn’t mean that that’s only him. That doesn’t mean that if he makes a movie with sex and violence that there isn’t art put into it. A lot of people just put the sex and violence and they forget about the art.

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Austin is a large part of your career and Blaze is another tale about Austin. The Karlovy Vary Film Festival recently honored the Austin Film Society.

Did Linklater show up?

He did! Do you think there are other stories to tell, more characters like Blaze perhaps?

The thing about certain cities is they become focal points. People from all over the world come there because they’re hearing about the legends. The short answer is: yes. But the long answer is: the whole world is like that. All these stories need to be told. We’re at this weird in-between place in time right now where it’s very possible for anybody in the world to make a good movie. You can shoot it on your phone. We’ve gotten to the place that Coppola was talking about when he was making Apocalypse Now, where if you have something to say, it’s like a novel. If you’ve been taught to read and write and you have some paper and a pen you can write a great novel. You can do it from jail; you can do it on a boat. And now the same is true with a movie. You can edit it on your computer; you can score it on your computer. And that’s changed the game.

Linklater loves to talk about when Slacker came out and 75% of the event of Slacker was, “Did you hear this kid from Austin made a movie for 16 grand?” And you kind of go: let me see that! It’s not like the movie’s so great–this is Rick talking by the way, I love the movie—but there was something incendiary about making it. It was an act of rebellion to the system of making movies in the early way, same as Robert Rodriguez when he made El Mariachi. That whole spirit was happening then and those guys all fused and then Tarantino found himself being drawn to that energy, and John Sayles, there was a lot of things that were cross-pollinating that didn’t organically come from there but that found their way there. Movements are always gonna happen and likeminded people are always gonna find likeminded people. We’re living in a moment now where the hard part is how to distribute it and how we all can know what to see because there’s so many Slackers out there now and most of them are terrible, so how do you find them?

I’m always astonished, I’m sure you are too, you can go on Apple TV now and see that Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow made a movie together that I never heard of. What? And like, Matt Damon’s in a Clint Eastwood movie I never heard of? So many things get lost in the cracks and if those big names are getting lost, where are the Gattacas of right now? It might be like other art forms where it might take 50 years to curate what’s happening right now. That’s why film festivals have become so important because you guys at film festivals are like curators of, like, what does the world need to be paying attention to. What should be seen? If we didn’t have these festivals, big business would crush all these smaller movies.

Now we have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is. I went to see Logan cause everyone was like, “This is a great movie” and I was like, “Really? No, this is a fine superhero movie.” There’s a difference but big business doesn’t think there’s a difference. Big business wants you to think that this is a great film because they wanna make money off of it.

Follow our complete Locarno 2018 coverage.

‘We the Animals’ Director Jeremiah Zagar on His Story of Queer Awakening and the Nuance of Abuse

Written by Joshua Encinias, August 19, 2018 at 6:54 pm 

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Without hesitation, director Jeremiah Zagar explains the delicate process of dramatizing a ten-year-old’s queer sexual awakening: it’s a combination of non-exploitative material (adapted from Justin Torres’ novel We the Animals) and collaboration with the parents of child actors. The queer storyline is so integrated with the film’s other important elements that some critics relegate Jonah’s (Evan Rosado) awakening to subtext. But Torres was adamant that, with his adaptation, Zagar make queerness the hermeneutic through which Jonah would see and interpret his world in upstate New York.

We spoke with Zagar about We the Animalsthe economic struggles leading to Paps (Raúl Castillo) and Ma’s (Sheila Vand) physical and emotional abuse, the film being greenlit based on casting first-time performer Evan Rosado, and collaborating with the parents of child actors to bring this young, explosive family to the screen.

Will you talk about the baby boy used for Jonah’s birth?

Jeremiah Zagar: That’s my son. I had about an hour of footage. In the footage he’s born then there’s a lot of stuff like being in like in the incubator and there’s a lot more stuff between me and my wife that’s not going to make it into the movie. [Laughs.] I always knew that I wanted that to be part of the movie. My wife got pregnant right after the Sundance Labs and I knew that we’re going to make the movie no matter what. So my producers, who I’ve worked with since I was thirteen years old–Jeremy Yaches and his wife Christina King is also one of our producers–they brought me the camera in the morning when she went into labor. And so I had this camera. I was able to shoot it. I shot the whole birth. That was one of the first things I sent Cinereach to show them the kind of movie I intended to make.

jeremiah-zagar-1There’s this line where Paps goes, “I’m never going to escape this. Nobody. Not us, not them.” When he says that line, I thought I know how to think about this film. It’s a coming of age story but it’s also a story about class without being overt.

That’s what’s so beautiful about what Justin Torres did and that’s what I really loved about his book; that he dealt with race and class without prescribing solutions or explaining the problems. He said this is the world we live in and this is how it exists and this is the emotional ramifications of that world and that world is real for these people. You can understand it in their context but you can put it in your context too. It’s not that they are apart from you and I think a lot of times when you talk about race class we talk about it as other. And I think what’s so beautiful about Justin’s book and what we tried to convey in the movie was the universal feelings associated you know with those things and that was really important to me.

I think you can probably link almost all of Ma and Paps’ behavior back to their economic struggles. Paps is physically abusive, but Ma is emotionally abusive.

We tried to convey the nuance of abuse in the movie. I think abuse gets framed very much in black and white terms. It’s either abusers are evil and awful and people that don’t abuse others are good. But the truth is we’re all a little bit abusive, we’re all a little bit evil, we’re all a little bit good. The reason abuse perpetuates is because the people are not only abusive. If they were only abusive they wouldn’t stay in those relationships, they wouldn’t continue. So it doesn’t make sense. I think we carry with us—all human beings—a lot of pain. What we do with that pain is different for all of us.

The people I know who did the most brutal things to other people were also the most charming and wonderful, you know what I mean? They were also the people who did the most wonderful things. It’s sort of how they could get away with it. I think that one was to compensate for the other. These are these are very flawed and real people. They’re full characters, they’re three-dimensional characters and they’re not good and they’re not bad and there’s just so much gray and everyone in this story. And that’s why I related to it. It reminded me of my family who some might consider abusive. [Laughs.] But I never saw it in that light. I saw the difficulties that my family went through as part of the nuance of what made me who I am and that’s all.

How did you get the parents of non-actor kids to trust you?

A lot of that’s about the parents. Like a lot of that’s about the kind of people that we found. I sort of feel like it was a miracle. We found the most open-minded, wonderful parents that came along with these kids. We cast for the kids and we got these incredible parents. I think they were so open to the script and so open to the experience. I was constantly worried that it would be impossible to get parents who would let their children be in a movie like this, but then we found these very artistically minded, very beautiful people. I think it’s a testament to their children who the parents are. Their children are incredible and they’re not only incredible actors, they’re incredible people and I think the parents created that and they are the same.

How did you tastefully depict a ten-year-old’s emerging sexuality?

It was a long process. One of the first things Justin did is he sat down and said, “I want to make sure this is a movie about queer awakening, that we have that in there. It’s not just a movie about childhood.” Now, in the book it’s very unclear that the character is queer. Not until the very end of the book when he ages about ten years. And in our case we were never going to do that because we wanted you to live in the face and in the eyes of this young boy. So we had to figure out a way to create that queer reality for this young boy throughout the film. We had to figure out when to begin it. There are moments and hints of it in the book so we used those hints and sort of made them bigger. That was the Dustin character in the book, but he was a very small part of the book and we made him a little bigger. And the pornography is definitely in the book, but we made the ramifications of that pornography with the artwork larger. In those ways we tried to bring his queer awakening a little earlier.

Will you talk about the grave and flying imagery in the film?

That’s all in the book. The lake scene is almost as written. Almost exactly as written; down to the birds in the sky and the and the hands in the water. The flying out of the grave scene is something we added, we would do this intermittently throughout film. We would take pieces of the novel and sort of ‘cinema-ized’ them, translate them visually. It was like how do we take what’s written and make it a more explosive visual image. And so that’s where the flight came from, but there’s this constant push and pull in the book between drowning and flying and how close those two things are actually. I was saying this to an audience the other day, it’s that when you make a film, if you’re not willing to drown then you can never fly. The film has to be so on the brink of being terrible for it to be any good, you know what I mean? You have to be risking so much in order to transcend. And that’s what this young boy’s life is and the drowning and the flying is the metaphor we chose to express it.

I would describe Jonah as a truth teller, and he’s punished in myriad ways for telling it.

That’s very astute. That’s very true. And it’s sort of like one of the things that the book is that the movie is not is the book is a testament to that idea. It’s like this person who has seen these things then translates it to the world and derives meaning from it. Because the movie is not a written document it doesn’t have that same quality. However, the fact that you got that from the movie means we succeeded.

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What did you see in Evan Rosado that told you he could show these emotions, tell these truths?

I think it’s very interesting because we saw a thousand kids and I think that the camera is what doesn’t lie. The camera tells you what you’re seeing and if that person can actually achieve what you believe they can achieve. So in his screen test, even in his first screen test, you could see that the camera didn’t want to let go of him. All three of the boys had that quality where the camera and Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand, too. I saw a hundred actresses for Ma, I saw you know not as many for Paps because we sort of knew Raúl would be right from the beginning. They all have that quality where they grab the screen and hold the screen and that’s a quality that can’t be trained. You can’t teach that it’s just innate. So Evan has that, he has that maybe more than everybody else. He has that quality. But we didn’t actually know that he could definitely achieve the range of emotions that he needed to express. But we brought in an acting coach named Noelle Gentile who works with kids and Daniel Kitrosser, my co-writer, also works with kids and they were able to bring it out in him. They were able to show us what he was capable of. And once we knew what he was capable of we knew that we were one-hundred percent. That’s when we greenlit the film. We didn’t greenlight the film until we had Jonah. I think we cast for a year and a half before we were able to green light up based on him.

What was it like working with Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand on your first fiction movie?

Raúl and Sheila taught me so much about acting. I’m not an actor’s director yet, I’m a documentary filmmaker who’s ventured into this world. But what Raúl and Sheila did is they immersed himself in the novel first of all and then immerse himself in the script and then the character and they fell in love with that. When you make a movie like this you don’t do it for the money because there is no money. So a lot of it is based on the love of the material. I can’t speak for Raúl, but what I liked about having him in the role is it was so different from the character he played on Looking. It was so different from any of the characters he played before. He has this quality which was important,of being likable despite his faults. He’s just a wonderful guy and you just love him and you love him on screen and in person and you know in real life he’s just a wonderful person.

Was making this movie unusually difficult?

I mean, most of filmmaking is a horrible experience… for me at least. I think some people revel in the experience. I have a deep need to make movies, but I find the process incredibly difficult. I’m not saying that difficulty doesn’t give me meaning. It does. And I derive a tremendous amount of pride from going through those difficulties. But if I went through all the tremendous disasters we experience on this film… I think it’s Scorsese who said if your rough cut or your assembly doesn’t make you want to vomit then you failed. [Laughs.] Every bit of the filmmaking process–because you’re putting so much of your own self, life and heart into it–is very, very painful. You’re putting in a tremendous amount of money and your whole life on the line to do this thing and it all could depend on somebody not wanting to do it with you. Or someone getting sick or something collapsing. All of that stress, it’s just a very hard experience. [Laughs.]

It’s rewarding because you’re able to take something that’s in your mind and put it on the screen and you’re able to watch it transform and you’re able to bring something to life and there’s nothing better. There’s nothing better than that.

We the Animals is now in limited release.

Josephine Decker and Helena Howard on the Art They Love and Breaking Creative Barriers in ‘Madeline’s Madeline’

Written by Jose Solís, August 10, 2018 at 6:21 pm 

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At a time when movie theaters are shaking your seats, spraying you with water, and adding numbers and X’s to enhance your film-going experience, Josephine Decker is here to remind them that sometimes making a great movie is more than enough. In Madeline’s Madeline, the writer-director delivers her most exhilarating work to date as she tells the story of Madeline (Helena Howard) a teenager who wants to become the star of her drama class. Surrendering to the idea of truly becoming someone else, the young woman also finds herself in the midst of a battle of sorts between the two women in her life, her sometimes neglectful mother Regina (Miranda July) and her acting teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker).

Even though the film has elements that make one think of Carrie, Superstar, Persona and myriad other works, it is by its very nature so undefinable that all one can do is also surrender to the experience. Decker’s imagery flows from the screen and almost seems to jump into your eyes (the soundscape is magnificent) while Howard’s star-making performance anchors the audiovisual elements so that we never forget the humanity within them. Talking too much about the film almost feels like a disservice given how unique, exciting, and necessary its many pleasures are.

With that said, it was extremely fun and enlightening to talk to Decker and Howard about how they met, the art they love, what it was like to work together, and what the future might hold for them next.

The Film Stage: What was your first meeting like?

Helena Howard: I was at a performing arts high school and every year we went to a festival in Union County. For some reason on this day the universe decided to place Josephine in this room adjudicating actors. Everyone’s doing scenes from Frozen, some people did A Streetcar Named Desire — they broke a bottle, there was shattered glass everywhere and people thought they were so intense. I came with a monologue from the play Blackbird by David Harrower, and Josephine made a remark saying it was the best performance she had seen in her life.

Josephine Decker: Her monologue was the most beautiful live performance I’d ever seen and I burst into tears in front of all these 15-year-olds, and then she burst into tears. I think we both knew we’d be connected from that moment on. I always knew I wanted to make something about actors, but when I met Helena I knew she was the person I needed to build this film around. I didn’t know anything about the movie, except that she needed to be the center of it. When I was flogging along, editing the movie for like fifty weeks I’d remind myself when I was lost, “You’re doing this for Helena!”

Helena, did you ever feel out of place among your classmates? Here they are doing scenes from Disney, and you show up with Blackbird.

Helena Howard: I was a bit nervous, yeah. I was concerned my peers would think I was doing something that was not in the norm, but at the end of the day it was something I wanted to do, something that brought truth to me. I would never do anything that doesn’t speak to me.

Helena, there are elements of Una from Blackbird in Madeline, especially in her precociousness and how she sees herself as more mature than she is, which leads to adults taking advantage of her. Did your love for Una in any way shape Madeline?

Helena Howard: I believe every performance or portrayal helps the next. So, possibly.

Did you give Madeline any of your own traits?

Helena Howard: No. I didn’t want to give too much of myself to Madeline. I was the passenger in the car and Madeline was the driver. Subconsciously it becomes method acting, I’m unaware that I’m feeling it while I’m in the process of creating. I didn’t want to take personal things of my life and give them over to Madeline. Those things are mine, not hers.

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In many ways the film shows the sometimes dehumanizing rituals actors go through to find the performance within. Josephine, were you interested in demystifying this sacred idea of “the process?”

Josephine Decker: It’s funny cause I would say it’s the opposite, it was more like “mystery-fying” the process of acting.[Laughs.] I feel acting troupes are one of these last sacred spaces in our culture. They are a space where people transcend themselves and hold the space to let each other try being someone else which is a beautiful spiritual act. In some ways I wanted to see what is this gorgeous, mysterious process actors take themselves on when they leave their bodies and become someone else? When is that done in a safe way? When does that become dangerous? We worship celebrities and I think we worship actors because they are spirits, transforming themselves constantly. There are ways that power can be used in one’s body in a healthy way, but it can also be a dangerous art form. I wanted to look at how magical and terrifying it can be to lose yourself in another person or creature.

Josephine, whenever people write about your movies, and the ways in which you deal with mental illness, they often seem frustrated by how impossible they are to categorize. I find it really funny, cause it shows how much we’ve come to want everything to be digested for us, but I wonder what that feels like for you as an artist?

Josephine Decker: I find it very funny because I just spent a whole day answering lots of questions like that. [Laughs.] Mental illness is a loaded subject for many people, but sometimes people don’t even know how to start the conversation about it. The irony is that mental illness is so slippery and hard to define — a person’s mental illness might have ten different diagnoses in the course of ten years — so it’s ironic that’s the one thing people want to pin down in a film, because it’s the one thing that’s “un-pin-down-able.” Maybe that’s why I get asked a lot about it. My decision to keep Madeline’s relationship with mental illness as open-ended as possible was deliberate. I wanted to allow her the space to craft her own story around it, but also to see clearly how people around her have their own stories, their tales about what’s happening with her.

When the characters are male you’ll read descriptions like “complex,” “profound,” or “troubled,” with women we get “hysterical.”

Josephine Decker: Wow, that’s a very good point. “These moody women…” [Laughs.]

What was your actor-director relationship like?

Helena Howard: Josephine gives very free structured direction. There’s a lot of creative freedom, but she doesn’t tell you what emotion to feel, she just gives you an idea of the direction you should go to. She’d never say anything like “now be depressed!” or “cry!” that would make a bad direction I think, it would be dictatorial. Josephine guides you.

Josephine Decker: Helena hadn’t done film before, so we talked about that. She holds a lot of power as a performer, she knows how to act. A lot of my notes were about reconnecting with the story, bringing out certain aspects of the storytelling, so I mostly had to make sure all her choices were supporting the story at that moment, while giving me a range of options for the editing room. She has very good instincts, she was very open to my direction.

Josephine, are your scripts already full of the imagery we see in the final version, or does that come after you work with your DP?

Josephine Decker: Sometimes it’s both. This movie started with this image of a sea turtle starting in the ocean and then she comes out of the ocean and you realize it’s a woman in a sea turtle costume, and then you realize it’s a woman in an acting studio pretending to be a sea turtle. I said to myself: you have to put this image into film. It was about transformation, not achieving transformation, whether you’re successful or whether you’re not quite there. Ashley Connor, our cinematographer, was involved in this starting in the two-year-long incubation process we went through with actors, for seven months we would get together once a month to improvise with this group of actors. That’s why the camera feels so alive in this film. It was a bit of letting the process of the film create the product.

Movies about teenagers or coming of age films tend to have very romantic views about adolescence, but in this one we see the inner turmoil a teenage woman goes through, rather than worrying about whether she has a date for the prom or not. Are there any other films you can think of that made justice to these feelings you went through growing up?

Helena Howard: A movie that kinda did that was Camp. It’s such a good movie. Was it executed the best? No. But it showed us what it was like to be a teenage performer. It’s truthful. It didn’t fluff it up. Perks of Being a Wallflower also, Charlie has some mental issues he’s battling internally and dealing with life as a teenager as well, and how hard it is.

Josephine Decker: You know what’s so funny, my favorite film I saw in my teenage years was Babe, and in many ways it’s very similar to this movie. [Laughs.] It’s about a young person learning who they are, that they can stand up to authority and be their own person, make their own rules and hold themselves to a higher ethical standard than the “adults” around them. I fucking love Babe so much. I also loved Amélie and The Last Unicorn but a lot of teen films didn’t speak to me. I loved Clueless, I was obsessed with Dirty Dancing, but Babe — which has been my favorite movie for 20 years and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be displaced — it’s about the triumph of a single human spirit against all odds. I would never in a million years say Babe inspired this movie, but it’s one of the deepest influences in my own life. I’ve seen it over 100 times.

Your love of Babe makes the cow in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely suddenly make total sense.

Josephine Decker: [Laughs.]

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I was so happy watching the film because it’s about a young woman of color, which is something we don’t get to see very often. I can not wait to show it to my sixteen-year-old niece, for instance, because few things in 2018 are as empowering as this. I’d love to hear more about what this means for each of you, and Helena I’d love to hear who were some of your idols growing up.

Josephine Decker: Thank you for mentioning that. Truthfully I was blown away by Helena and her power. It was like, “You–let’s do this!” I think those subtle power and racial dynamics were involved even in the creation process. I had to learn what it was like for me to tell her story, instead of a white teenage girl’s story. I was worried I wasn’t able to do it justice, and I think that’s why the film is what it is. It asks: how do you tell a story that’s not yours? We spent two years working on it before we shot it, then I spent a year and a half editing it, and in a way, weirdly, race is a part of the film. It’s also about the connection between these two women and how that could be destructive or deeply moving and creative. It’s so exciting for me to hear you bring it up. This movie would not be as meaningful without this specific person as the lead. I am so happy it was Helena.

Helena Howard: Growing up I didn’t look at people like that, I came from a household where I grew up very open-minded. I see people as human, that’s their race, and then they happen to be multiethnic. My whole life I would always have to check off “other” in race, so having to identify as “other” really hurt when I was at a young age. I used to watch old films, classics, the types of dramas I watched weren’t cast with African American or Latin actors, so I don’t know. I didn’t have that idea of idols growing up. Instead I was teased for being multiethnic, so I didn’t really want to be black, Cuban, or Cuban American. Even though I was trying to make people see me as that part of myself, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Helena, what roles are you looking forward to playing at some point?

Helena Howard: One day I would love to play Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. I love ‘Night Mother, Ruined by Lynn Nottage, I’d love to do Blackbird. [Laughs.] I have so many plays…oh my gosh, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Martha or Honey?

Helena Howard: Either? Both? I’d also love to do Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, and one of Tennessee Williams’ one-act plays This Property is Condemned.

Josephine, maybe one of these is your next project together?

Josephine Decker: One of her favorite plays I’d never read until she told me she was really into it was Equus, and that is the craziest, most interesting play. It would be interesting to look at that play with her maybe playing the boy’s role.

More farm animals!

Josephine Decker: Yes, there’s a theme [Laughs.]

Madeline’s Madeline is now in limited release.

Note: These interviews were conducted separately and combined for clarity.

Dominga Sotomayor on ‘Too Late to Die Young,’ Growing up in a Chilean Commune, and Cinema as Recollection

Written by Leonardo Goi, August 10, 2018 at 7:16 am 

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Six years after her debut feature and 2012 Rotterdam Tiger Award winner Thursday Till Sunday (De Jueves a Domingo), 33-year-old Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor attended the 71st Locarno Festival for the world premiere of her new feature, Too Late To Die Young (Tarde Para Morir Joven). A subtle, tender coming of age set in a commune nestled atop Santiago’s cordillera in 1990s Chile, Too Late To Die Young entered the Swiss fest’s official competition, and just landed a spot at this year’s New York Film Festival.

A multi-character portmanteau of a self-sufficient, environmentally friendly community of hippie-like adults and kids, Sotomayor’s work zeroes in on three young commune members, Sofía (Demian Hernández), a 16-year-old itching to leave the place to move in with her estranged mother, Lucas (Antar Machado), a teenager helplessly besotted with Sofía, and Carla (Magdalena Tótoro), a 10-year-old way too smart and mature for her own age. Having watched it in a packed public screening at Locarno’s Palavideo – and stunned by its gentle and deeply nostalgic vibe – I caught up with Sotomayor to talk about growing up fast in a commune, cinema as a means to rescue one’s memories, and Chile’s own adolescence.

You grew up in a commune yourself, the Ecological Community of Peñalolén in Santiago’s cordillera, so the first question that comes to mind is: just how autobiographic is Too Late to Die Young?

That’s something I’m often asked about my work in general. The truth is, I just can’t imagine making anything that isn’t autobiographic. A lot of what I show in Too Late to Die Young comes from direct experience, it’s stuff I’ve seen myself. I lived in that place, so I patched together images that haunted me. That’s just how I work. But I also find it interesting to be able to shift the whole thing to another level. This is not a documentary about my childhood, nor did I want to turn it into something like that. And I think the film slowly hits a more strange terrain, a more fictional place. There’s always a certain frustration in what I do, which I think is something intrinsic in any sort of artistic expression, and it comes from the gap between what you lived through and how you try to reproduce it. I began working on this film thinking about places I knew, but shot it at a time when those places no longer existed.

Where exactly did you shoot?

Well, I would have loved to shoot in the commune I lived in, but the place had changed dramatically. We lived away from Santiago, in this arid place where there were only ten houses and massive pastures all around us. No electricity, no phones, and you had to drive for an hour to reach the city. Now there’s about 400 houses, and the city swallowed the whole community. It’s crazy. You can only imagine how tougher the class divisions have gotten. It’s like a ghetto! Some of the people who decided to abandon their urban lives and settle in the middle of nowhere thirty years ago are now wealthy hippies living in 3000 square meters estates, while around them low-income people live in much tinier plots. We could have filmed in a completely different place, far away from there, but I decided not to, and told our location scout and art director that we had to film in the commune, and find a way to make it work. We looked around the cordillera for areas where the landscape would still look quite rough, and we built the houses we shot in.

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That sounds like a very lengthy process.

Well, we were lucky a few buildings we used were available for us to rent, and looked somewhat unfinished, derelict. Sofía’s house, for instance, is a place I knew from my childhood – and we managed to use it. But Clara’s house did not exist, so we had to create one. We played with what we had. And I really wanted the audience to get lost in that environment. I didn’t want people to get a clear sense of where the houses were, and how far away from each other.

How did you go about writing your script?

God, it’s been so long I honestly can’t quite remember how I began [laughs]. I got to the community when I was four, and lived there until I turned twenty. There were times I’d live with my father, others with my mother only, in two different houses. I traveled in between, left for Europe for a while. And I returned when I was already 26. I got myself a tiny house in the commune, around the same place I had lived in with my mum. And it was there, when I returned to my childhood’s place as an adult, that I began feeling the need to write about my childhood. It’s like I needed the distance. I never really just decide to make a movie, it’s more like images come to me, impulses, and it becomes clear that I need to make that movie happen. The commune shaped the way I am today, I know the place so well still, and I felt it very close to my heart. And when I was living there as an adult I sensed a great deal of nostalgia – you know, I had come back to the place I had lived in as a kid, but everything had changed. And that’s when I began writing.

It was a very long process – I think it took me about four years to finish the script. Of course, I did other things in between – including my debut feature – but I’d always come back to that story, one way or another. It was not an easy script to write, as it zigzags between different memories of my childhood. But that’s how it works for me: I write scenes and let them take me, I see how they develop, and they lead the way. I work a lot on characters, at first, and their relationships. To an extent, Too Late to Die Young began the way Thursday Till Sunday did. I found an old photo of my cousin and I, as kids, tied to the roof of a car during a family road trip. And I suddenly remembered how crazy that journey had been, and how standing on that car’s roof meant the world to my 8-year-old self, and I thought of how crazy it was that my parents had tied us up that way. That powerful sense of ridiculousness, sheer madness, weirdness, danger… I really like how very familiar and cozy [in English] atmospheres can suddenly turn into strange and troubling experiences. As for the community, I loved the idea of being free, so in synch with everything and everyone. We lived with no walls, and I mean this in the truest sense of the word: we had no physical or mental boundaries. We witnessed and were exposed to everything, whether it was our parents fighting, or debating serious stuff. Which meant we grew up fast.

And that’s something you notice in the way the commune’s kids behave. I’m thinking of Clara and that brilliant line, when she tells Sofía that she’s only little “on the outside”.

And the adults are not that mature either. It’s something that has definitely become clearer to me now that I’m older. You’re an adult, but you keep having the same worries you had as a kid. I hate the idea that a certain age should dictate a certain behavior and certain character on people, so I’ve worked to debunk that generalization.

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Thinking of kids and adults, there are three demographic cohorts you follow closely: the 8 to 10-year-old kids, the teens, and the grownups. You seemed to have lived in the commune as a member of all three groups.

Yes, and the community certainly did shape me in many different stages of my life. From running around barefoot and swimming in the river as a 4-year-old, to falling in love and itching to drive around in your teens, all the way down to realizing, as an adult, that the utopia you wanted to create may never truly happen, because you’re still going to have some petty quarrels with your neighbor. And that’s another thing I loved about that place: nothing was taken for granted. It was never a case of: “we have water,” but more like: “there will be water… at some point.” I genuinely think that whole sense of precariousness made the place even more alive.

Watching your film, I kept wondering whether Sofía was your own alter-ego. If anything because of the endearing way she seems to treat her memories – as something precious, to be rescued. It kind of struck me as an attitude very similar to your own way to approach the past in your writing and directing.

Well, memory is pivotal to the whole movie. For me, Too Late To Die Young is a big act of recollection, a memory told in the present tense. And I fear I have bad memory [chuckles], so the idea of recollecting and patching memories together helped me a lot. In Sofía, her need to listen to her mum’s voice in those old tapes is a way to go back in time, and speaks to a certain existential angst. Mind you, her relationship with her mother has nothing to do with mine. It’s strange. Whenever I think about it, I feel like I am neither Clara, nor Sofía, nor Lucas, yet they are all part of me, to an extent. I wanted to capture a collective mental state. I belong to Sofía even though I don’t share much with her. And when I started writing, I began with Clara and Sofía, who were meant to serve as my aliases in different stages of my life – Lucas only came later to the script. And I remember the fear of death I had as a kid. You know when, as a child, you’re afraid of going to bed, of not waking up? I thought of that, and of the type of obsessive, all-encompassing infatuations you experience when you fall in love for the first time in your teens. And the two feelings eventually mixed up. The fear of death, on the one hand, and the first-love obsession, on the other, eventually became a sort of organic whole.

You found some extraordinary young actors in Damien Hernández [Sofía], Magdalena Tótoro [Carla] and Antar Machado [Lucas] – among several other pitch-perfect casting choices. I was wondering how you select your actors, and how that played out in the case of Too Late to Die Young.  

I was actually helped by my mother, who’s an actress and had already helped me find actors for my debut feature. I trust her taste, plus I don’t really like traditional casting, so to speak. I don’t do open calls. I ask around, to friends and family. And it was clear to me that there would have to be one key prerequisite: the kids we would cast had to come from the commune. I think that life there shapes you so much, and I wanted to dig up that collective memory. Antar Machado was born in the commune, and you can tell that by the way he jumps around from one tree to another, how idealistic and mature he is. Damien was one of the few who we found outside the commune. We organized two workshops, one for the kids, and one for the teenagers. I chose Clara as the lead kid, and the children got secondary roles. Same deal for the teens. It was an inclusive casting – everyone I called in was going to be cast, but I wanted to see which ones would take on more prominent roles.

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And how did you go about choosing your protagonists?

When I wrote Sofía’s character I really did not have someone like Damien in mind. But the criteria – well, I guess it is something we were mentioning earlier: I wanted kids who gave me the impression of having complex, multi-faceted personalities, who had lived through more than kids their age normally do. I don’t think you can ever make up that inner complexity. I’m 33 now, and I find myself endlessly fascinated by carefree, free-spirited people. I think there’s a bit of envy in that penchant, too [laughs]. I just learn a lot from them. And with Damien, that’s how it worked. He’s currently transitioning, and identifies as a man, and that too added a certain degree of ambiguity to the character, and I was drawn to that. I found in Damien a lot of what I was looking for – this idea of indefinite, unlimited characters. And their looks were also crucial: I loved the fact that you couldn’t quite tell whether they were 18, 15 or 12.

Was being able to sing and play an instrument another prerequisite? I’m asking because your film is so musical, from the Sinéad O’Connor’s soundtrack down to the songs Lucas and his mates sing to the community.

Oh yes! We wanted people who’d be able to sing, and the kids and teens began to come up with songs during the workshops. And we pushed them a lot, too. Take Antar, for instance. We’re very close now, but at first he was a little skeptical of the whole project. He said he was a musician, that he wasn’t very interested in films… but I told him that he’d be able to perform and play his own music, and I think that did the trick.

So the songs Lucas and his band play at that New Year’s Eve party – did they compose them?

Yes. They came up with them as we shot. And Damien too studied music, and knew how to play the accordion. They were all very multi-talented people.

You mentioned that you wanted to capture a collective mental state. To me, Too Late to Die Young seems to work as an allegory: it’s 1990, Chile is waking up to the beginning of its post-Pinochet era, and the whole country is undergoing a series of changes not unlike the ones experienced inside the commune.

I knew from the very start that I was going to make a film about adolescents, but also about a country’s adolescence. It’s not just these kids who are transitioning into adulthood, the country too was entering a stage of major changes – the idea of democracy, the illusion that there’d be a massive paradigm shift after Pinochet. And well, those few months in 1990, that window of time when Pinochet was ousted and Patricio Aylwin assumed office as the first democratically elected president in the post-dictatorship era – the country was replete with dreams! It was a whole new world, a new year, a new Chile. But it was also clear to me that I had to be careful not to make those political commentaries very explicit. Like I didn’t want Pinochet to be mentioned, I didn’t want the whole critique to feel heavy-handed. So the whole commune, a place that had become a home for people living through a self-imposed exile, turned into a mirror for the country at large.

I was amazed at the way you managed to parcel out a sense of class struggle inside the community. It’s a utopic place, but there are clear clashes between different people from different backgrounds, which you still treat with great subtlety.

I guess I always lived a life full of contrasts – for one thing, I lived in a commune, but went to Catholic school. Chile itself always struck me as quite contradictory, and I wanted to reproduce that. I mean, some of the families in the commune didn’t even have walls in their homes, but still had nannies. I personally never start a project with the idea of making an explicit political point. In Too Late to Die Young, I did not make it a goal to talk about class divisions, for instance. Social frictions are part of the reality I live in, and my job is just to capture what happens around me. That’s it. Take Raul, the man who works in the commune and is still struggling to finish his own house. When he’s asked to help rescuing the dog of a far wealthier family, who claims a lower income household stole the pet from them, he has to put himself against his own people. It’s a dramatic scene. But they’re all subtle details, and they’re never too explicit. As for what happened to the commune throughout the years, the place recently began accepting poorer families, which led to a split among the oldest residents. There are those who agree with the new policy, and those who fear a massive intake of new members could undermine the environment and the community’s equilibrium. It’s a really difficult subject.

Do you still live there?

No, I live in Santiago now, down in the city. It was hard to leave the commune, and I miss it. But it changed a lot. I think ultimately that’s what the movie is all about: the longing for a place that changed dramatically, and the illusion that it could revert to what it once was.

Too Late to Die Young premiered at the 2018 Locarno Film Festival.

Topher Grace on Portraying the Racism of Today in ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ Spike Lee’s Brilliance, and the ‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ Cameo He Couldn’t Shoot

Written by Jordan Raup, August 8, 2018 at 8:54 am 

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In portraying the true story of Ron Stallworth–an African American detective who infiltrated the KKK in Colorado Springs in the 1970s–Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman also captures the leader of the white supremacist organization David Duke, played by Topher Grace. Depicted with a sense of queasy menace and also the target of some deserving laughs, Grace handles the difficult challenge with a subtle confidence as he eventually goes toe-to-toe with Stallworth and his team. He’s also the only real-life person portrayed that we actually see in the film during an emotional, enraging finale–one better discussed in greater detail after you see the film.

I spoke with Grace about preparing for the role, Spike Lee’s precision, working with auteurs, the recent films he’s enjoyed, and the Ocean’s trilogy, including the cameo he couldn’t shoot.

The Film Stage: I was going over the Wikipedia page of David Duke, and just that made me queasy. How did you feel after your extensive preparation for the role? I read you listened to his radio show.

Topher Grace: I did listen to his radio show, because that’s just his voice, and I think people are ageless on radio, and I do some of the radio programming that you hear in the film. I’ll go into what I did, but I got this amazing call from Spike [Lee] saying “You got the part!” And it’s just this really delicious, juicy role. And then I went into the worst month of my life which was all this research on him which was the radio show, reading My Awakening which was his autobiography and is kind of a thinly veiled Mein Kampf, and has his belief system in it. It’s a thick book, and it’s overwhelmingly negative and just hard to read. And then I watched just a bunch of Donahue, which was kind of one of the few shows on the air which had controversial figures on it, and that was the best in terms of information because then I could see a lot of his mannerisms, see how he played off a crowd. Eventually, he went into politics, and you can kind of see it on that. And then I watched a bunch of interviews with him from a little earlier, cause a lot of Donahue was in ‘83 and this takes place in ‘73. But it was just the worst month of my life… by the way it was the best month of my life because I was having a kid too. But my wife was sitting there nursing and was like, “Hey, can you stop practicing hate speech?” I love the role, but I hate the man.

When you first meet the first KKK members we’re introduced to they are kind of in your face and more direct, and when we meet you, it’s almost scarier because of how subdued and quiet you are, and it just builds and builds. Can you talk about playing that kind of psychological game?

Well, a lot of that was in the script. A lot of that Spike had told me about, which is that the first half of the film is more of an introduction to America at the time, kind of what the common conception of what a racist was, like a beer belly, redneck dude. Then the second half of the film focuses more on what racism became, and sadly, what David played a big part in helping it become, kind of the face of racism that is still around today, which is kind of more palatable. I mean, it’s still evil but it’s more palatable racism, which is David. And they say this in the movie, but he always wears three piece suits and he’s always well spoken. The most evil part of him I realized in doing all that research was seeing how intelligent he was.

I love the way Spike Lee shot your scenes, at least for the first 80% where we see you because you’re just in this lonely, isolated room and it’s kind of this perfect encapsulation for racism today. Did he talk to you at all about that element of loneliness and isolation?

Spike doesn’t walk you through his process. But I’ll tell you what we did you–which you have on very few films–is that he had John David Washington and me up to NYU to his office–and by the way is amazing, there’s like students popping in and asking him questions and then you’re rehearsing–but we had a lot more rehearsal time than most films, especially to be doing face to face. Those phone calls, to have rehearsed them with John, and also when we shot them, he built the sets next to each other so we were actually on the phone. Like, I didn’t know he gave the phone the middle finger. I didn’t know there were so many people around the phone laughing, so it was kind of separate in that way. I think he did that in Inside Man because with a lot of those phone calls you want to be able to cut at any time, so I think he did that there. I guess a lot of people don’t think about this with filmmaking, but sometimes when you’re on the phone there’s nothing there. You’re on a dead phone and there’s someone off camera that’s just like reading the sides. So you’re not even doing it with the guy, let alone not even doing the actual performance, but this was live.

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I feel like it’s almost a prerequisite at the end credits in based-on-a-true-story movies nowadays to show the real-life people.

And then you’ll see like ”This is the real Babe Ruth!” But I’ve never seen it jump to the present, and still have the same person and say something that powerful.

Yeah, you’re just in tears at the end. Because you didn’t shoot with a lot of cast until the finale, what was your experience seeing the film in full and then that emotional experience at the end?

Oh man. The first time I saw the movie was in Cannes because I had been doing a movie in Canada before that. So if I saw this movie at the Focus Features screening room I would have been thrilled to have been in such an amazing movie, but to see it at the Cannes Film Festival where we got like a 10-minute standing ovation, was easily one of the best experiences I’ll probably ever have in my career. It was thrilling to hear, especially with some of the stuff with David was very risky, and to see it pay off, both in terms of getting laughs–I mean real solid laughs in what is a dramatic film–and then feel the impact of that ending. Just as a viewer of the film, forgetting I was in it was an amazing experience. For lack of a better word, I’ll call them jokes, they’re not exactly jokes, but some of the humorous moments we went for, some of them Spike and I talked about and figured out on the set. They’re so dangerous, not in terms of me caring about how I’d come off, but you wanna make sure with this kind of material it’s only taken one way. For me, before I did it I thought, “There’s only one human you can do this with: it’s Spike Lee.” When you play a role like that it’s gotta be with the greatest black director of all time, the end.

Speaking of Spike Lee, what was your first experience of seeing one of his films?

Do The Right Thing. A teacher showed it to us at a boarding school I went too for high school and it blew my mind. And then to be a part of something that he’s doing that is so vital and part of our society and about our society right now, it’s mind-blowing. I don’t know how many experiences you have where you experience the person and you’re such a fan as a young person and then you get to work with them, and he did not disappoint.

At Cannes, you also had Under The Silver Lake there.

I have a much smaller part in that, a couple scenes. It was a fun Cannes. Actually, that was the next night, so it was a really heady experience. I called my mom, because in her time zone my mom was up, and I was like, “This is what I thought Hollywood was gonna be, when you were taking me to Planet Hollywood, and you know, MGM Studios.” And then when I moved to Hollywood it was not at all what was advertised. But at Cannes everyone really loves cinema, and it was like palm trees and yachts. It was what I imagined Hollywood would be like.

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It’s been exciting to see you in this movie, and the David Robert Mitchell movie, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

Chris was there. I saw him on the way out. I mean he’s a great guy. He was there to support Spike, and I love that community, especially in Cannes, that everyone really cares about cinema that much.

It seems based on these recent choices, you do know the auteurs that are out there. Are there any recent upcoming directors that you’ve been blown away by?

I mean I love Matt Spicer. I loved Ingrid Goes West, I thought that was like the funniest movie of the year. Love the Daniels. I love David Lowery. I thought A Ghost Story was like the best movie I’d seen in ten years.

Me too.

I don’t think that movie got it’s due. And I just saw the trailer for his Robert Redford movie [The Old Man and the Gun.] He accessed Robert Redford from the time he was Robert Redford.

I can’t even list them because there’s a ton of people I want to work with. For me, it’s not about having a list of people I wanna work it. It’s about saying no to things I might have said yes to a couple years ago. I kind of announced to my agents that they are no longer my agents. I won’t be making money. That’s essentially what you’re saying to the corporation, “Hey I just wanna do things that get me really excited on set.” I’m very happy with the reception of this movie. I loved being in Truth, I loved being in Interstellar, even though people were like, “What’re you doing in here? It’s such a small role.” To me, being on set with geniuses like that, working on material like that–I don’t know how to describe it. I think I’m relatively young, but I’ve been doing it for a while and after a while, you go, “Well, what’s the point if not to work with people that get your pilot light lit?”

It does seem that with A Ghost Story and movies on that budget level, that is where the most interesting projects are being made. This film was produced by Jason Blum and Jordan Peele. Did you speak to them at all during the process or was it mostly just Spike Lee?

Jordan, oh my God. Jordan is the number one filmmaker I wanna work with. I mean look, it’s really Spike’s film. I mean they were really fantastic, you can’t get a better producing team. Spike’s an auteur. It’s funny, we were walking up those steps at Cannes and he had these coattails on his tuxedo and I was like “Yup, we’re all riding literally on his coattails onto the top of that red carpet.” That’s what I felt watching the film, that there was a really sure hand. Especially tonally with this film. When I was reading the script I was like, “If this could work, it could be amazing.” But there are like zero other people I’d do it with besides Spike.

Spike Lee is known to move fast on movie sets because he knows exactly what he wants. Was there any hesitation on your part because you’re playing a real-life character, you want to get it right or did you feel after every take that you were like “Alright, I’m good with leaving it here?”

First of all, I never feel at the end of any take, “Done, in the can, perfect.” [Laughs.] I did feel the same assuredness that the audience feels being taken through the film. By the way, I felt the same way working with Chris and David and lots of really great filmmakers. Here you feel these people really know what they want and it makes me so sure I don’t wanna direct because I have no idea and these people really know. That said I did a play, here in New York five or six years ago and I never rehearsed that much. Something like this, where he gives a lot of speeches, which are essentially rehearsed for the character, I hired someone to come to my house and on day one I was ready to go on each scene. I think because rehearsing sucks so much it’s just a pain in the ass, it’s really about memorizing. But that’s what I do on all these films now, rehearse it like it’s a play performance.

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To jump back a few years, I think Ocean’s Twelve is a masterpiece.

It’s just getting its due now.

Well, that’s what I’m wondering.

Why is that happening just now?

I think the meta aspect turned people off initially, but now people are more accepting of it. But that opening scene you have is just incredible. I was wondering your process with coming up with that and improvising perhaps?

Ocean’s Eleven was because I was in Traffic, which was my first film. So I was in ADR and Steven was just like, “Wanna come and do Ocean’s Eleven?” And I was like “Let me think about that, yeah!” And it was great, I think I was only 21 and it was like George Clooney and Brad Pitt and by the way, quick aside, the plane we’re in War Machine is called Ocean’s Eleven and I did those scenes with Brad.

So when the next film came around I really knew Steven. The scene was always gonna be in this hotel room that I wasted but I remember on the day we figured out I was telling him about this Dennis Quaid movie and Dennis Quaid had been in Traffic. We realized that the trailer for In Good Company would be playing before Ocean’s Twelve which is a really good experience viewers probably don’t even get today. And the thing I can tell you that no one else knows is that in Ocean’s Thirteen, which I couldn’t do because of Spider-Man, I was gonna see Rusty [Pitt’s character] going into a casino and I was gonna stop him and the whole time I was going to be holding an Asian baby but we weren’t gonna say anything about it. The first was one was cars, second was wreck a hotel a room, and the third one was that.

Thank you. That is great.

No, thank you. God, I haven’t talked about that in forever.

BlacKkKlansman opens in wide release this Friday, August 10.