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John Chester on ‘The Biggest Little Farm,’ How Fear Fuels the Climate Crisis, and Editing Inside a Barn

Written by Joshua Encinias, May 14, 2019 at 5:44 pm 

The Biggest Little Farm follows John and Molly Chester on an eight-year-and-counting journey to create a farm of their own. The documentary is less a return-to-nature story and more about learning to love your place in the bigger picture. That picture is our planet’s ecosystem, and the Chesters’ place is connecting the environmental dots for creative solutions for their farm’s growth.

We spoke with farmer and filmmaker John Chester about finding a story in his farm’s development. Chester talks about the chaos of editing a movie while covered in cow afterbirth, finding purpose in the repulsiveness of nature, and treating the environment’s harsh elements not as working against a farmer’s work, but as a response and outgrowth of its complexities.

The Film Stage: In the first five years were you filming the farm as you grew the ecosystem?

John Chester: Yeah, some of it was filmed on the 5D, some of it on my phone. I realized what the story was around year five and I looked back on some of the footage I recorded of the interns and realized that there was this thread, this nature thread, of watching the rebirth of the land and the return of nature. Then I spent the next three years making sure I was really getting those beats to cobble together that story. But it wasn’t until around year five that I had the confidence to say, “Wow, we have something really unique to tell.” Who’s going to spend eight years as a filmmaker inside the engine of their own misery, fear, and despair? That’s the whole thing in nature–every year those things repeat. I was seeing these things happen and I would be able to shoot them over the period of eight years and tell them in a condensed way.

Into year five when you realized your story, did you have to shift your focus to the documentary and away from farming?

The editing room was inside the barn, so I would be running out and suturing the leg of a pig, helping a troubled calf be born and run in covered in all that stuff and work with the editor. But what I had at that point was a trusting team who had been through the rhythms enough to allow that sort of day-to-day stuff be decided by them. But there’s still also learning too. It wasn’t healthy. I grew up in a chaotic childhood, so I’m kind of unfortunately a bit more comfortable in chaos, but it’s not always healthy for the people around me. I get calmer in that situation. I had an outspoken family and there was always a lot of chaos and I think, in some weird way, it makes me feel calmer when I’m in the middle of a tornado. But I realized that’s not something I could sustain as I get older.

Talking about the more tornadic things on the farm, for example, you’ll get an infestation of snails and it’s like, “How do we deal with this?” At what point are you like, “It’s gonna be really cool to have this time-lapse of this snail eating our crop” and also say, “Get rid of them so we can make sure that the crop doesn’t die?”

That’s happening every single year. In different parts of the farm you’ll heal something and in another spot, something that was happening in year one is now happening in year three, so I had the chance to shoot some of those things, to capture what an infestation looks like. We spent a couple of years shooting time-lapse photography of snails moving, you know, they’re always there. But the epidemic-level that we captured in some footage wasn’t as prevalent in later years, so we could bring the two together.

Some comments made off-screen sound scripted or re-recorded later, is that right?

We had 90 terabytes of footage. So most of the stuff that was grabbed off-screen may not have been in that exact shot, but probably from that scene. I’m sure that there’s somewhere in the film, sometimes you have to do an O.S. [off-screen audio] to piece something together because you’re cobbling together eight years and not thinking about the narrative over those eight years. It was only in the last three years I was thinking about the narrative and what it’s going to be.

I had an editor who worked on this for a year and a half, and it was amazing what she was able to pull out of actual natural sounds. It wasn’t easy for me to re-record stuff because I’m an active farmer and a lot of the people who were there in those scenes were no longer on the farm because some of them were interns or volunteers. If it was me, then it might be an easier thing to grab a line or something like that.

What do you say to people who aren’t antagonistic towards the environment or farms, but they prefer city life?

Well, I think that the entire planet’s ecosystem is based on a massive level of diversity. Even the way we interact with the planet is part of the plan. There’s an important role for the vegan, vegetarian, the meat-eater, the nature lover, the nature hater. There’s a role for everyone. I think so much of nature is figuring out how to get all of these things to come together to make a cohesive thing. How to harness these disperse creatures with these needs and create a mutualistic environment. That mutualism has to be a bit manipulated by us as farmers, so we’re looking for ways in. The gross stuff becomes less gross because you start to see the purposes in these things. Sometimes I think when it’s so hard and so scary, allowing your brain to try and figure out how it all works together sort of gets you through that knee-jerk reaction to repulsiveness.

In the movie, there will be ten seconds of contemplation to come up with important solutions. How long does that take in real time?

Months! Months. When that stuff happens, we were novices. But the first reaction to when there’s some sort of failure or tragedy on the farm is embarrassment. And then fear. It’s kind of strange. With embarrassment you want to find some kind of solution and work through it quickly and often times you’re putting a bandaid on it. The trick we found in those eight years was to slow down in those moments when you feel that fear and embarrassment and take that whole thing apart, figure out what fuels it and what challenges it, and figure out how to weave it together with different solutions that compound it because that’s how the ecosystem responds to different problems. The ecosystem is essentially an immune system and it just doesn’t fix a problem with one solution. The quick fix in a week might cost you a lot of money and may not last very long and that’s what we learned.

There’s a line where you talk about learning to love the land unconditionally in the way we have to love people unconditionally. Can you talk about the practicality of that?

I think if you have a child and that child eventually drives your tractor into the pond, and you’ve had enough time to understand the full complexity that child has as a person, so when he does his first bad thing, you don’t suddenly take the totality of his experience in life and base it on that. You know there’s more potential and you just don’t see him for that one moment. With nature, the more you see the complexity of it, the more opportunity you have to co-exist with it. Even when it appears to try and kill you or take something from you. I think that’s what Wendell Berry means when he says it all turns on affection: we can try and make people scared of the environment in order to protect nature, but it’s not going to change unless we can fall in love with the complexities of it. Then we can find more opportunities to collaborate with it.

Do you think that might be the messaging problem we have with the climate crisis?

Absolutely. I think we work it all based on fear and people will only short term change how they act based on fear, but if you get them to see differently, then you’ll change everything. I don’t think people see nature in the most productive way for us as a species to interact with it. Unconsciously, over the last 200-something years, we’ve wiped 46 percent of trees, we lost one-third of the topsoil and we’ve done all that unconsciously. We’ve doubled the amount of C02 emissions in the atmosphere. We’re a very powerful force of nature. Imagine what we could do if we were conscious of that force? Whether there is a climate crisis or not, there is an ecosystem response to our being here. That’s indisputable.

What do you think about the high carbon footprint of streaming music, and therein movies too?

I have no idea. I’m a farmer! [Laughs.] I don’t think there’s a perfect answer to any of this stuff. There’s imperfection in all of our solutions. I mean, I’m promoting this film and I had to fly here. It’s ridiculous, but I think when you become conscious of how to interact with it, I think we will find more sustainable ways to prolong our existence so we can continue to change these things. Do you stream music?


You hate the earth! [Laughs.]

In the documentary you say that after so many seasons on the farm you start to anticipate things. Eight years in, what’s next?

That’s an interesting question. I didn’t mean to imply that every year we can predict the problem, but every year is the year of something. There was the year of Morning Glory, the year of Bermuda Grass, the year of goffers. What we know is there will be something this year that will feel like an epidemic and now we spend less time panicked over that. In the beginning we used to think every single thing was going to be the thing that killed us. Now we learn that it’s just part of farming.

The Biggest Little Farm is now in theaters.

Andrew Ahn on ‘Driveways,’ Queer Sensibilities, Uncynical Filmmaking, and the Art of Acting

Written by Joshua Encinias, May 8, 2019 at 7:44 am 

Following his acclaimed debut drama Spa Night, director Andrew Ahn has expanded his circle of collaboration on his newest film Driveways, including: James Schamus, Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen, Avy Kaufman, Ki Jin Kim, Hong Chau, Brian Dennehy, and Christine Ebersole. With Driveways, Ahn is poised to grow his audience beyond industry admirers to include audiences who long for soulful filmmaking.  

Driveways debuted in February at the Berlin International Film Festival where it was nominated for Best Feature Film Teddy Award. Written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, Ahn directs Hong Chau as Kathy, a woman who learns her late sister was a pack rat when cleaning out her home. While Kathy cleans and works remotely as a medical transcriptionist, her eight-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) befriends Del (Brian Dennehy), a retired man who lives next door and watches each day pass from the loneliness of his empty home.

Ahn’s film was chosen as one of five for the Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural Critics’ Week. We spoke with him about his first time not writing his own script, working with Hong Chau and Brian Dennehy, and the likelihood of directing a queer take on Bambi for Disney.

The Film Stage: How was directing Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s Driveways screenplay different from directing your own?

Andrew Ahn: Directing something that I hadn’t written is something that I practiced a little bit before on the TV show Disclosed, but it is different when it’s a film. There’s a certain kind of objectivity that you can have with the material when you haven’t written it. But I also experience the opposite in a way where sometimes I was more generous with the material, where if something was confusing to me I would really try and find some reason behind the confusion. I would really investigate the material. If I had written it myself, I might just be like, “Oh this doesn’t work, let me just rewrite it.” I think I was, in a weird way, both more generous and more critical of the work at the same time. It’s definitely a process. What I love about Hannah and Paul’s writing is that they understand characters so well and the dramatics of a scene. There’s a real tension to their work but in a beautifully subtle way, and they are doing things that I wouldn’t be able to do. I never would have written Del’s (Brian Dennehy) monologue because I would be too intimidated by it. But they wrote it, and it was beautiful. So that was such a pleasure, to direct things I never would have written for myself.

I was keeping an eye on the movie at Berlin, and wasn’t it up for a Teddy?

I don’t even know exactly. [Laughs.]

I was watching the movie and I was like, “Why would this be up for a Teddy?” I mean, just because you’re gay?  

I think it’s an interesting aspect of the film, that is dealt with very subtly.

Even more so than We The Animals.

Oh, yeah. I’ll say that I think if a straight director were to direct the same script, it might not even register that there’s anything queer about it. I think it’s a little bit a blessing and a curse that everything I make is going to be seen through a queer lens. I think actually it’s totally cool, but it’s something that I kinda don’t have control over. It’s how an audience understands every movie I make it’s going to be in the context of my career, if they are familiar with it, and the context of my identities. For me, I would love to call this a queer movie, but it’s also kind of not up to me. It’s more queer in sensibility than it is in storyline. Cody (Lucas Jaye) is 8, turns 9 in the movie. Does Cody grow up to be queer? I kind of hope so. But it’s also really not up to me. It’s not my call. Is Cody a sensitive kid? Yes. That sensitivity is something I really connected to was part of my coming of age as a young gay man. So it’s an interesting thing. It’s one of those elements of the film that’s going to change from viewer to viewer.

Kathy’s (Hong Chau) tone in the movie is worried. Worry is her life. But there’s that one scene where she’s like “I want to take a break.” So she goes to the bar and a guy invites her home she but says she has surgery in the morning. It’s how she fends off the guy, but I feel like it reveals a desire for a better life.

That is a brief moment, it was a later addition to the script, and I really love it because it just feels so real in the situation where Kathy’s cleaning out this house and her son is independently navigating this new environment. I feel like she would get a phone call that would trigger her to go, “I need a fucking drink,” and go to this shitty dive bar. It felt really authentic to this moment in time. It’s a really interesting episode because it can be read so many ways. Does she go home because of some sense of responsibility? Does she go home because she doesn’t want this getting drunk, flirting with guys life anymore? There’s so many ways to look at it but to me, it’s important she exercise a sense of agency. That this is her life and that line that you mentioned where she mentions “I have surgery” in the morning, whether or not it’s true or that it’s a joke, she can say it with conviction and be the one in charge of her path. So, I really love that sequence for that little bit of seeing a woman’s independence, a mother’s independence. I also love the sequence because Hong Chau is surprisingly good at Big Buck Hunter. I kind of want to write an action film for her because she is so badass with that shotgun. I’m really glad you mentioned that sequence because I think it is really special.

Brian Dennehy said he played Del cynically, but I read it more that Del is tired and he’s hurt. Was that cynical/wounded person clear in the script or was that was Brian brought?

That was something that was very inspired by the script. I think it was really organic to this character and his journey. I think Del at the beginning of the film is really closed off and slowly allows himself to be vulnerable through his friendship with Cody. Even when we were thinking about who to cast, we wanted to find someone who could physicalize that journey the best. What I love about Brian is that he looks like a man who is closed off and has a pretty tough exterior. What makes Brian an amazing actor is this intense emotionality. So for me, it was about modulating those two aspects of Brian as an actor to carve out this transformation. I think what Brian did with the role was so extraordinary, making that journey not feel one dimensional but truly layered and I think it’s so great that this opening up is not without its hitches in the movie. At the end of the film I love how Brian gives us access to Del in ways we haven’t seen before, but we can still see he’s holding something back which makes it more tragic. It’s such a beautifully modulated performance. He deserves roles like this on film and hasn’t always had the opportunity. So it was a real honor to work with him.

The movie feels like you’re watching a documentary of some people’s lives. You could have added thirty minutes of plot to move things forward, to hold the audience’s hand. But the way Ki Jin Kim shot it, it’s so full bodied, that you had enough to explore in each scene. It felt like it’s the viewer’s job to put the pieces together, but that kind of stuff works so well in movies.

I’m glad that you appreciate that aspect of the film. I think that hand-holding would only make this film feel more cliche or make it feel like other movies that we’ve seen before. I think what makes this film feel special is it’s kind of intense focus on these humans and not necessarily a plot. I do think that there’s a plot in here that is very satisfying. I think it’s more of a plot than Spa Night in a way, but I think it’s one of those things that as filmmakers, we all agree that the priorities should be these people, these human beings, the situation. I think that’s what gives the film that kind of quality of watching real life. Having it feel like a documentary in ways. I think the work that my editor Katie Mcquerrey did in the editing room was so special. There were many things we could have done to modulate the plot in the edit, we had shot stuff that would have explained something sooner. In watching the movie, it was like, “It doesn’t matter.” Because we are interested in Cody and Kathy and Del, we don’t need to know too much about Cody’s father. You get one phone call and you get everything you need to know in the tone of his voice. It was a real treat to focus on emotion and character and make a really narratively economical movie.

What makes this so great for you is that actors really yearn for these kinds of parts. I mean, Hong Chau saw Spa Night and she said, “I’ll do anything you want to do.” Maybe working with these folks you could land Disney’s live-action Bambi. Queer Bambi.

Oh, I would totally do that. I would totally make queer Bambi. [Laughs.] That was one of the really cool things about Hong is that she saw Spa Night in the theaters. It’s not like she watched it when she got my letter and was like, “Who is this guy?” She is very aware of what is happening in American independent cinema, international cinema. When we were in Poughkeepsie shooting Driveways she was at the theater every weekend seeing like, Eighth Grade and these indie films that I think a lot of actors overlook. So the fact that she’s seeking that material out as an audience, it really gives you a feeling of her taste as an actor. She’s amazing, and I love working with her.

Brian refers to Lucas as “the kid.” I know he doesn’t mean it in a bad way, but he calls him “the kid” and it’s so funny.

Brian and Lucas’s friendship on set was so authentic. I was really scared that they wouldn’t like each other and that would reflect in the movie but they were fast friends. I could tell from the first scene that Lucas shot with Brian that Brian was really impressed with Lucas. Brian made a joke about how Lucas knew his line better than Brian did. That respect for a young actor was such an asset to the film. That this friendship feels authentic and heartfelt and that’s really the core of the movie. There was one scene when Del tells Cody he’s moving to Seattle, we had shot Brian’s coverage first and then we shot Lucas’s coverage. After we finished, Brian came up to me and said, “The kid was so good. He was giving me so much. Can I shoot my side over again?” The fact that he was inspired by this young actor and motivated to do better after a decades-long career: he wasn’t going to phone this in, he was really going to try. To me that was astounding. That’s so special.

Brian saying “the kid” that’s Brian-isms. I really love every time in the film he says, “My daughter and her lady friend,” and that’s the kind of line where if most actors tried to deliver that it would look really bad and fake, but you believe Brian Dennehy. He’s a man of a certain age, and that’s a real asset to the film. I’m so glad that we didn’t cast a younger actor and try to age them to the eighty years old we needed Del to be. It’s in his experience, it’s in his face, it’s just a real portrait of an elderly person that isn’t romanticized or made cute.

Brian made a joke that Disney made an offer to Lucas but they low-balled him. Was that real?

I’m not totally sure. [Laughs.] I love that Brian mentions that. Lucas is definitely such a special talent. I saw his self tape. Our casting director Avy Kaufman sent me his tape and immediately I was like, “Ooh, this kid has got something.” We did a callback with him, and then we did a chemistry read between him and Hong and I threw a challenge his way where I made him do a scene with Hong that he only had 5 minutes to look at before and he nailed it. I really think that his career is gonna take off and that he’s a real actor for life. He’s got the skills to transition from being a kid actor into being an adult actor. I was so impressed. A lot of kid actors when they finish a scene they will look at the camera or look at me, like “Oh, did I do a good job?” What I loved about Lucas is that he would stay in the moment until I yelled cut and that’s really hard to do. A lot of kids are really uncomfortable staying in the moment. They get uncomfortable looking at another actor’s eyes. But that was something I could see between Hong and Lucas that they were really affecting each other. I think he is going to have a great career, but I don’t know anything about a Disney offer. [Laughs.]

What’s the life of this movie? Where does it go next?

We’re going to play a couple more festivals. I think this is a film people will love to see on the big screen. Just to hear it and be absorbed by it, it will be a special experience. It’s interesting how you mentioned earlier how Brian said he played Del kind of cynically. We can kind of argue the definition of what cynical is, but I think the film’s point of view is not cynical. I think there is a lot of filmmaking that is cynical, that is made just to shock, to look cool, that’s afraid to be emotional. This is a movie that I really wore my heart on my sleeve and I wanted it to feel human and respectful, and I think that’s filmmaking that will touch people’s hearts. I think that it will resonate with people in a way… other films might superficially entertain, but I think Driveways will stay with people. We are figuring out distribution now. I hope to do more travel, talk to more people, do more press. I really want the best for the movie.

Driveways played at Tribeca Film Festival.

Abel Ferrara on Finding Light in the Darkness, NYC Post-9/11, and the Realities of the Film Industry

Written by Nick Newman, May 2, 2019 at 9:55 am 

There exists a devoted, vocal cinephilia around Abel Ferrara, treating every film that invariably misses U.S. distribution–barely earning an ounce of critical attention all the while–as an event: a finely tuned expression, a spurning of standard sensibilities, his latest chapter in an ongoing examination of the very stuff of man. Watch them–bear witness to their full-throated independence–and you might see where they’re coming from. Mileage always varies. Just look through an interview with him, though, and the perspective can’t help but clarify. Only the dullest sensibility would hear his expletive-laced philosophy-of-the-world lingo and not fall under this spell at least a bit.

So it was when talking to Ferrara about his new film, The Projectionist, a selection of this year’s Tribeca. It continues his line of wonderfully generous documentaries, ones clearly interested in communities with distinct interests and universal desires–here it’s movie theaters, owner Nick Nicolaou, and the need for entertainment. Now happens to feel like a watershed moment: as it premieres, the Museum of Modern Art kicks off a massive retrospective, the Willem Dafoe-led Tommaso comes to Cannes, 2014’s Pasolini finally gets a U.S. release, and another Dafoe-led picture, Siberia, which could mark a distinct point in a sui generis career, is in post-production.

All of which is covered in a pretty wide-ranging interview, which kicked off with a note about the Roxy Hotel’s insistence on musical accompaniment:

Abel Ferrara: New York City is nonstop music every-fucking-where you go. Like you’re in a disco. You want to buy a t-shirt, you’re assaulted by fucking dance music.

The Film Stage: You’ve talked about the cultural difference in New York post-9/11, which played a part in your leaving. But you’re here for a while, at least with the retro running, and I find it interesting that we’re talking close to Mulberry St. and, really, the location for many of your films.

I mean, I lived in this town since 1975, so every block has a story—every corner, every person. I’m a real New Yorker. We lived out on the streets; we weren’t hidden away. I mean, there’s a lot of good memories, but there’s a lot of dark and bad memories from here. It’s mixed, you know? It’s good, some—a lot— not-good. But the conversation about 9/11 was… were you here when it happened?

I grew up a bit north.

Yeah, that’s where I’m from. I’m from Peekskill.

I’m from Poughkeepsie.

All right, so we’re soul brothers. So you have a different feeling about here. When you’re from Peekskill, it’s “the city.” “The city,” to me, was White Plains. I was born in the Bronx, but I left at a young age.

And we both went to SUNY Purchase.

Oh, really? In that period, you’re going to Purchase, New York is still the Emerald City, you’re not coming in, you’re getting your shit together—putting your game together—but at a certain point you’ve got to come to New York and go for it. That, for me, was 1974, 1975. It was a violent, crazy city. You know what I mean? I miss a lot about New York; getting mugged isn’t one thing I miss.

I love The Projectionist’s before-and-after between archival material and what you recently shot. Some locations really shift, while others just don’t.

The fact that they’re there. These movie theaters were there. They’re present, like churches. You walk around Rome, the churches are all there. You walk around here, there are none. There’s a movie theater disguised as a hotel here; you wouldn’t even see it. With those shots of 42nd, they were movie theaters after another. He’s still holding out; there are movie theaters. Those kids we were talking to in the movie, they’re going to movies. For them, it hasn’t changed from when I was a kid in the Bronx. We’d go to see The Blob, House on Haunted Hill—we waited for those movies. We waited all summer long for some of those fucking movies. It’s not like it’s a gone experience. There are kids that want to get out of the house, be with their friends, rumble it up in the theaters.

When I was talking about the 9/11 thing… one of the greatest moments of being in New York, because I was just here with De Niro talking at the lunch he gave, they had that festival because of what happened, and it was like a desire, a need. Robert stepped up and did that. I mean, this city really came together. The tragedy was a shock, but people came together as natives, as, “Okay, we’ve got to get shit straight.” There was a great feeling about that and that feeling went away quick. Then it became, I don’t know, an excuse for a land grab. I don’t know why it changed so drastically. I also had opportunities to shoot in Europe because most of our films, one way or another, were financed partially, completely, by foreign entities. Our films play in other countries.

It’s obvious that you have a strong connection to this material. I love how your documentaries make you a presence; you’re on-camera so much. Some filmmakers have hesitations. What’s the inclination?

In the end, even when we’re getting into the theatrical thing, I tell actors, “Just talk to us. Just talk to the other actor. That’s where it’s at. Don’t think about nothing else. Just talk to us like you’re really talking to somebody.” That’s really the key: you’ve got to talk to somebody. You’re asking people a fucking question. I mean, it’s almost ridiculous if you’re not there, right? I mean, who’s asking the question? What’s the thing where… when you study something and the tool of the research… the phenomenon which you discovered is more about the tool you used to examine it than the phenomenon itself. How could you not really do that? Once you bring the camera in—as cool, natural, credible, how astute people are—the camera’s there. They’re talking to somebody. Not always me—especially in Italy. A lot of these interviews are done by people who can speak better Italian than me, but that interchange is… I mean, listen, there’s a million different ways to make any kind of film, but I think, for me, you want to hear the question sometimes.

The Projectionist

You have a pretty outstanding screen presence. Could that at all relate to some of your past as an actor? Even though it’s limited.

Yeah, to one role.

Driller Killer and, I guess, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy.

Well, Ms. 45. Yeah, no, we can play a rapist. We just try to get a good vibe going. When I’m talking, it kind of breaks down like, “I’m the director listening to you. We’re going to have a formalized question, you’re going to give some kind of opinion.” We’re just trying to capture life. In the films, too; not just the documentaries. Like here: we’re talking now. Sure, we could just film me. We could just film the questions. That’s another way of doing it—not hear the answers. [Laughs] That might be better. I don’t want to go through the whole rigamarole of when we shoot a movie: you can’t see the equipment, we’ve got this whole space. We’re doing these things to chill out, in an alternate universe. It’s easy, it’s simple, we can see the equipment, who wants to talk talks. If somebody doesn’t have anything they want to say, that’s fine — whatever’s going’s going. We just shoot a lot of stuff.

We don’t know what we’re doing, absolutely don’t. In this day and age, they want scripts for documentaries; I wouldn’t waste my time doing it. I didn’t know Nic. I didn’t know Nic owned any of these theaters. I didn’t know his story at all. I just knew this was an interesting guy and he played our movies. It just sounded cool, we got the financing, we’ve got a cool producer who’s his friend and my friend. Then we just went out and found the fucking story—which is what we’re trying to get with the theatrical features, but it’s hard to tell producers, even when I produce myself, “We’re just going to go out and wing the fucking thing.” We’ve got them scripts short. Just flying by the seat of our pants? That we haven’t done.

There’s a lightness and happiness in your docs that isn’t always characteristic of your narrative features. Earlier this year, battling a fever, I wanted to put on something that I thought would be good while prone and a bit out of it, so I tried Mulberry St.


I’m not joking when I say it was so mood-lifting it might have helped cure my fever.

That’s the best compliment we ever got.

Meanwhile, as much as I love your narrative features, there aren’t many I’d put on while sick.

Yeah, right. They’d just make you worse. Definitely.

Is there something to be said for trying to capture life in the moment that, for you, is incompatible with the darkness of the other films?

Well, it’s not the darkness. It’s the form of it, the form and style. We’re trying to bridge that gap, because what is the difference when we’re shooting? The moment that you shoot, that moment exists one time. No matter how much you rehearse, that’s a documentary you’re shooting, and you might as well accept it, however much you think you can manipulate it. Mulberry St., Piazza Vittorio—I’m just filming my neighborhood. Then we find out there might be another theme to it.

You have this film premiering, the retro, Pasolini, and Cannes all within a month. How do you feel about U.S. distribution at the moment? Were you happy when Pasolini was picked up, years later?

Willem was so happy. Listen: it’s all changing. It is what it is. Ms. 45 opened in 96 theaters in this city, and we had to hand-carry every fucking print to those theaters. Okay? That’s what it was. I’m not going to compare Ms. 45 to Pasolini, who am I, how does that change what I’m doing, what’s my next film. That’s the reality. Pasolini means anything whether it came out today, tomorrow, 20 years from now. What does it really matter? It does get played. I mean, the film was shot in Italy—it’s an Italian movie—and how many Italian movies are in theaters here? Sure, it’s in English and we’re “Americans,” but in Italy it played. It played in France. It was in competition at Venice. What more do you want?

The other side of it, too, is that things I loved, that have meant anything to me, we had to search them out. I’m not comparing myself to Sonny Boy Williamson, but he’s not playing on a.m. radio. You want to hear Mississippi John Hurt, you got to go find it. When we went to see those movies that we loved, it wasn’t just seeing Seventh Seal or Touch of Evil. You know? Touch of Evil: is that any less of a film because it came out as a third film on a triple-bill? The greatest American film ever made, arguably. So I see the perspective. I’m not in it for that; we’re in it for making movies. We get these movies made, they’re already a fucking big hit in the family. It’s a struggle just to get them made, so when we get them done, we put them up. Yeah, sure, we’re following. What can I tell you? I wish we did a billion dollars internationally the first weekend. It sounds ludicrous even discussing something like that.

I work in independent film distribution. We’ve played movies at the Cinema Village and the Roxy, so I have a connection to the movie past appreciation.

You’ve got to pay $10,000 to get your movie in the movie theater. That’s where his theater is at, and he’s very honest in the movie: he’s saying the reason why. Because you’re not getting enough play to pay for the fucking lights in the theaters, nevermind making a fucking movie. So what are you going to do, not make the movie? No, you’re going to make the movie, anyway. You got to figure out how the fuck to do it, and if you’re going to pay 10 grand to fucking put it in a theater, you better fucking figure out where you’re getting that fucking 10 g from—if you want to play it in a movie theater.

You have to be pragmatic about so many things.

And people aren’t so crazy about going to the movie theaters to see something like that. That’s the reality. So what are you going to do? Yeah, “pragmatic” is the right word: this is the way it is. You want to live in the world the way it is or live in a world the way you want it to be? I’d rather live in the real world or just try to understand the world as it really is.

And ones that don’t get past festivals, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned, we’ll just download.

Yeah, right.

Because we want to see it and the option isn’t otherwise presented. Then a small conversation springs up around the movie.

If they’re any good. If they’re no good, nobody’s going to download them or talk about them. It’s up to the quality of the movie—if the film is viable, has any value to it, then someone’s going to find it.

We’d probably watch them no matter what, though.

Thank you. What can I tell you? Thank you.

The Projectionist is now. Tommaso is at Cannes. Siberia

We just shot.

Is that still Isabelle Huppert and Nicolas Cage with Willem Dafoe?

No, just Dafoe. [Laughs] Dafoe is playing three or four parts in the movie. We’re getting very interior. We’ll look for another actor to have Willem play.

When did you begin practicing Buddhism?

About five, ten years ago. I was a big practitioner, meditation, going on retreats—but I was using drugs and alcohol. You can’t do a line of heroin and think you’re doing great meditation. That’s not how it works. So when I became sober, like, six-and-a-half years ago, then I had my first real meditation. And I knew it, I felt it, I understood it. But the philosophy of it, I think I started… so I would be a Buddhist, I know exactly, from the day I became sober. I think what got me, when we shot the film about Mary Magdalene and Jesus, when we went to Jerusalem. Have you ever been there?

I haven’t.

That’s a real… that’s a place to go. When you’re actually there, where he got crucified, when you’re seeing the Arabs and Jews, when you’re seeing the world as it really is—which is nothing like what you hear about or what is taught about. You can physically feel the presence of… you see the Bible, the New Testament, as a revolutionary doctrine, almost. And you sense Jesus as a man against an oppressive society and realize that he came 800 years after the Buddha. Sermon on the Mount is basically a Buddhist tract. Jesus was there. Medicine was being taught; Buddhism was being taught.

If you know how to cure somebody’s cataract with medicine that the Egyptians had, are you just a good doctor or are you bringing eyesight to the blind and now you’re a messiah? You’re in a coma and I can bring you out of it using medicine that’s taught to you by the Egyptians, are they going to nail you to a cross, create a church around you, or are you just a good doctor? When you preach a philosophy that’s 800 years old, what’s the real difference between any of these when you talk about compassion and turning that egotistical thing out? You’re part of every person on this planet. That’s where it’s at. And if you think you’re any different or any better or there’s some dividing line between you and other human beings, I think you’re misguided.

I can sense this worldview in the docs: it’s being interested in the people and giving them this forum to speak. Do the benefits of Buddhism — whatever clarity or balance it brings you — play a part in how prolific you’ve been lately?

You know, the meditation, being sober—all that—yeah, it brings you focus. I don’t know how prolific we’ve been. What’s happening now is the end result of five years, so it’s not like we kicked back for three, four years, now, all of a sudden—no. We finished Pasolini, we finished Welcome to New York. Two films back-to-back. I don’t know what prolific means. You know what I’m saying? Then we begin putting together the documentaries, and we’re not getting financing. These documentaries are also research projects. The documentary we did on Padre Pio was important for us because we want to do a feature now. I should’ve shot the documentary, our research, on Pasolini. That was a big mistake because we interviewed a lot of people; it would’ve been so simple and I let it go, and I’m not going to make that mistake again. As we do it, we’re putting the films together, and the financing on these can be complicated. Sometimes they’re not. Something like Tommaso—bang. I had an idea, we had the money, we took our documentary game, and we shot it. Now we’ve got that film, and we’ve got the money for Siberia.

And it wasn’t we were more prolific in the ‘90s, except, in the ‘90s—the independent thing in New York—it was like all the planets lined up. Including the banks. A handshake from Wild Bunch—somebody saying, “Yeah, we can do it”—and a bank would bankroll. Now, forget it. You’re not going to get one penny from anybody to finance a truly independent film. Yeah, you can. In the states, it’s a fucking uphill fucking battle, man. In Europe, there’s all these things: the ministry, tax money. It’s helping the artistic community, which doesn’t happen here. We’re basically going to the government in these countries to help support my group, who are all Italians and French guys. In Siberia, it’s Germany and Italy and Mexico. You dig? It’s not like we’re raising investment money, Wall Street capital. They’re investing in the children of their country to work. But they believe in art. They believe in film, man. Here, to think that I would call Obama or Trump and ask him for money to make a film, ha! I wouldn’t ever think, coming up as an American, “Call the government and ask them to put money into a film.” It took me a while living in Europe to come around to that.

To go back to The Projectionist: some documentaries establish a rhythm that’s clip-heavy. But when you have a clip from Putney Swope or Ken Russell’s The Devils, it’s kind of a surprise. How do you lean towards them of the many that get mentioned?

Those are films I fucking adored. When we saw them, it’s the feeling you have right here. And when I saw them last night, I was like, “Whoa.” Although The Devils is not in the final cut, unfortunately, because Warner Bros. is not giving us that clip, and that was heartbreaking.

Is something replacing it?

How are you going to replace that film? [Laughs] I mean, you can’t replace that fucking film. Oliver Reed in that film is an irreplaceable performance. Vanessa in that film… I mean, that film is a film that rocks. So as a young film student, in Purchase, coming from suburban America, I’m watching those films. They’re mind-blowing. But at the same time I was watching Stan Brakhage. I love Stan Brakhage. Forman. Those guys. Whose the guy who just died? The one in Anthology?

Jonas Mekas.

Not only those films. You’re watching flash frames. You’re watching crazy, off-the-hook shit, but that was, to me, the cinema. So when I see these kind of films, they’re mostly the films that meant the most to us at the period we were watching them. Some were mirroring his story. And then just the images from those porno films, you realize how freewheeling and off-the-hook when you see Behind the Green Door. Right? That’s some fucking cool shit, that crazy film with the guy with the bird’s head on.

It’s still shocking. You see it in the film and there’s this flash of “oh my God.”

Yeah, I know, because it is shocking. Especially now, it’s even more shocking. What are these fucking guys up to?

Do you still have ambitions to make Jekyll & Hyde?

I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it with Forest Whitaker and 50 Cent, and if it ever came up I would do it, but… I would do it. I think it’s such an amazing story, and it’s right in the groove of what we’re doing. Stevenson, when they asked him why it was such a short book, he said, “Because my wife woke me up.” You dig? That was, like, one dream he had. It was a short book because his wife woke him up — that’s such a fucking killer line. But it’s such a dream thing. It’s written like the perfect script, and it’s been made a hundred times and no one ever made it, because it’s not one guy turning into the other. Jekyll turning into Hyde, that’s the Wolf Man. Okay? He don’t turn into Hyde; Hyde is another person.

It’s a father-son story, really. He’s younger, he’s just a different guy than the distinguished doctor. He’s not a 52-year-old distinguished doctor. He’s a 30-year-old maniac kid who’s going out to rock-n-roll and fucking hurt people. These are two different people. You dig? You can’t do this with the same actor, and no one’s ever done it with two different actors. But that’s not the only reason I want to do it: I love the beauty of it, I love the father-son thing of it, I love the fact that he wrote it out of a dream. I just love the precision of the fucking book. I would do it line-by-fucking-line.

I would love it.

I would too, but don’t hold your breath. [Laughs] Read the book. Imagine my movie.

The Projectionist premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Ferrara’s MoMA retrospective is now underway, Pasolini opens on May 10 at Metrograph, and Tommaso will premiere at Cannes.

Sam Green on ‘A Thousand Thoughts,’ Kronos Quartet, and the Details of Live Documentary Filmmaking

Written by Dan Mecca, April 23, 2019 at 11:49 am 

Sam Green has been making documentaries for over two decades and, to hear him tell it, he’s really hitting his stride right about now. For the past few years, the filmmaker has produced live event documentaries in which he will narrate the action in person and on stage while music is played and media is presented on a screen above.

His most recent endeavor is A Thousand Thoughts, written and directed by himself and Joe Bini. The subject here is the Kronos Quartet, the accomplished music group that’s been around since 1973, founded by violinist David Harrington. While you may know their work best from their collaborations with Clint Mansell (who can forget the score from Requiem For A Dream?), they’ve done so much more.

Ahead of the New York premiere this Thursday at The Town Hall, we had the chance to speak with Green about his work with Kronos, the process of putting together a living documentary like A Thousand Thoughts and how each show is different than the last.

The Film Stage: How did this project with the Kronos Quartet come together?

Sam Green: This particular project happened because about four years ago [the Kronos Quartet’s] manager Janet got in touch with me completely out of the blue to make a historical video, a five-minute video, that could play at Carnegie Hall before their fortieth anniversary concert there. I didn’t know a lot about them but I was curious so I said, “Sure I’ll make it.’”And I listened to all of their records and I went through their archives as part of that project and I was super taken with Kronos. For a lot of reasons: from just the fact that they’ve been doing it for forty-plus years and they’re still great and they’re still taking risks and adventurous. I love that they’ve collaborated with a million people. They’ve just had such an interesting and inspiring career–and, on top of that, their music is fantastic. So I really was taken with them.

I made this video and it showed and afterwards in the green room Janet said, “Hey, if you ever want to do something longer, we’d be happy to.” And my heart sank. It was a really funny moment. Because I hate music documentaries. Most of them are so formulaic. They’re almost cliches, almost parodies of documentaries. They’re so bad. And usually it’s mostly the story of the group with a little bit of music here and there. So I said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” But it just weighed on me because there was something I really was taken with Kronos and a month or two later I had this light bulb go off over my head and I said, “Wait a minute, I’ve been making these live cinema pieces, what if I did something like that with them?’ The music then could really be at the heart of it. So I pitched it to David [Harrington] and Janet and David said, “Is it a movie or a concert or a lecture?” And I said, “It’s all three of them,” and he said “Let’s do it.”

I love the mention of “Black Angels” by George Crumb as the inflection point for David and the formation of the quartet. When you’re talking with them about how you’re going to approach this live documentary, does it all start with “Black Angels?”

Once we decided to do it, it was pretty clear I didn’t want to make a tribute to them and they didn’t want a tribute. I knew that it was really important that this be made independently of them so I said, “Okay, I’m going to make this piece and I’ll talk to you in a year and a half and I’ll show you and we’ll go from there.” Which is what happened. But from the beginning I knew there were certain pieces of music that were really important to the story of Kronos and so it would be great to have that story wrapped around them performing these pieces of music… “Black Angels” is this fantastic, really avant-garde piece of string quartet music that [David Harrington] heard on the radio and formed the group to play that. So it had to be in [the film] and it’s great to hear too. So that was an obvious one and I knew I would have him tell that story and they would play it, which is a great moment I think.

Agreed. One pleasant surprise was that Kirsten Johnson is credited as the cinematographer on this. Cameraperson is a movie that I love so deeply.

Me too!

What is she bringing visually to the table, given all of the different points of media, etc.?

Well, I’ve been friend with her for many years, and when I saw Cameraperson I was so knocked out by it. It’s one of my all-time favorite films. It’s a masterpiece. It’s formally so sophisticated and elegant, but there’s also so much humanity in it. It just deeply moved me. I saw that and I thought, “I want her and her sensibility to be part of the mix.” I asked her if she’d work on it and she filmed all of the interviews and everything that’s contemporary she filmed. Not only does it look gorgeous, I think. I mean a lot of the time during the piece I’m just sitting there watching on stage. So I do three things: I marvel at how good Kronos sounds and how nice it is to be close to them while they’re playing; I am struck each time by how fantastic Kirsten Johnson’s cinematography is; and then Joe Bini, who worked with me and edited, a lot of the times I think, “Goddamn that’s a good edit!” But not only did [Kirsten] make it look good but her energy–and I don’t want to sound to New Age-y here–but when you show up in somebody’s house and have a crew the energy in the room is important and she brings a wonderful energy with her anywhere she goes. And so that was important to get people to feel good and relaxed and open up. Her presence helps with that a lot.

Yes, and you’re diving into some very personal elements here, especially with David, so that makes a lot of sense. You’ve performed this piece a bunch at this point, are there adjustments you make after each performance? Are you coming off the stage in Detroit with notes for the next show?

Yeah, for sure. Not in major ways, I mean the basic architecture of the piece is set at this point. Although the first couple of shows we did change things, we made some nips and tucks. Now it’s pretty much set but you’re right, we come off the stage in Detroit and say, “Oh man, next time can you start this piece just a second earlier?” For many people that would seem like no big deal but those little pacing [adjustments]–the way you show something–are so important. It makes a huge difference. And no audience member will say “Oh. I love that way you hit that cue. It made me like your piece.’ But if you can get everything hitting just right it’s like a poem or a joke. It’s constantly different and we’re constantly adjusting it. It’s like a comedian who goes on the road and does three shows a night and really hones their act by doing it.

To that end, I love that you have [composer] Philip Glass in the film saying “Music is a place.” It fits so well, of course, with the you and the quartet performing at specific venues. Do you have any specific memories of a performance where there was a different crowd or you paused longer than usual one piece?

We did a show last Friday at the Detroit Institute of Art. It was the most engaged audience we’ve ever had. We’ve done maybe twenty shows. Twenty-five. It’s always very interesting because I don’t want people to clap after the pieces of music in the film. But in a concert, when Kronos plays in concert, people clap after each piece. It’s a little weird, people don’t know whether to clap or not. In Detroit, people clapped three different times within the piece. They just stopped and clapped and there was a lot of applause and that was neat. I don’t know why that audience. Maybe everybody was having an especially fun night. Or maybe there was bar in the venue and people drank more! I don’t know. So every show is different. We were in Nashville a couple of weeks ago and we did two shows in one night. And the second show was–both were good–but the second show was the best I’ve ever heard Kronos play. I don’t know why. It’s always sort of a mystery but each show is different.

A cool thing about A Thousand Thoughts being fully realized like this is you have someone like Francis Ford Coppola who has talked about wanting to do something like what you’re doing. I’m watching your film and thinking ‘Somebody should call Francis and let him know!’

[Laughs.] It’s funny because he wrote a book recently about live cinema (Live Cinema and Its Techniques) and lots of people sent me links to it saying, “Oh my God! Have you heard of this guy?!”

That is great. Alright, so I’ll wrap it with the future. As mentioned, you’re an accomplished documentarian, Oscar-nominated and so forth. Are you planning to be touring with Kronos for a while longer or do you have your sights set on something new on the horizon?

The funny thing about [the live performance] world is that you book things way in advance. So we’re booking shows for 2021 now.

Oh, wow.

I think it’ll go on for a long time. The piece has been very well-received and they have a lot of fans out there. For me, I really enjoy doing it. They’re great. They’re great to travel with. It’s fun to do, it’s always scary. I get very nervous so there’s a kind of thrill that comes with it. And, more than that, with this kind of work the only way it exists is when you’re out there showing it. So I work very hard on this piece and, honestly–I don’t normally say this–but I think it’s the best film I’ve made. So I want people to see it and the only way to do that is to travel around and bring it to them. So I like doing it, I have only enthusiasm.

A Thousand Thoughts comes to New York City this Thursday at The Town Hall. Get tickets here.

‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ Director Bi Gan on Deconstructing the Noir Genre and Subverting Expectations

Written by Ryan Swen, April 11, 2019 at 1:18 pm 

With just two feature films the young Chinese director Bi Gan has established himself as one of the true new masters of world cinema, melding a preternaturally assured knack for technical direction with a legitimate sense of evoking dreams and memories. While staying firmly rooted in his home province of Guizhou, his films slip in and out of reality, despite and in many instances because of their wondrous tactility. Both a cinephile and a poet, he exists at the crossroads of many influences, yet his films have a daring and alluring elusiveness all their own.

On the occasion of the release of his new film Long Day’s Journey Into Night–which boasts an already acclaimed 59-minute long take in 3-D–we spoke with Bi on engagement with the audience, working with genres, consistently generating innovation in the smallest and most vital of ways, and more.

Special thanks to Vincent Chang for his live translation.

The Film Stage: The best place might be to start with the actual titles. As with Kaili Blues, there is a difference between the Chinese and English titles, so I was wondering if you could talk about the differences between the two, and if you’re heavily involved in picking the English title.

Bi Gan: It’s very common for a lot of films to have the English title be very different from the Chinese title. For me, it is also very fitting for this particular film, since it is designed and structured in this two-part structure. I thought it would be very interesting to have, for example, the first part (the 2-D part) as the Last Night on Earth [the film’s original Chinese title], and the second part (the 3-D part) as the Long Day’s Journey Into Night. That’s sort of a little game I play with the audience, and hopefully they will find it witty and funny, and also it’s a good way to actually have that kind of interaction with the audience, even before they watch the film just by understanding that there are two different meanings for the title.

Speaking of the two-part structure, this is definitely in some ways a mirroring or an extension of the structure and device that you employed for Kaili Blues. Did you have this idea after you made your previous feature, or was this something that you had in mind before, and how conscious were you of the previous film while you were conceiving and making this?

In terms of Kaili Blues, actually I was going for this three-part structure: before the long take, the middle part, and after the long take. Whereas for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I conceived of this particular structure of two parts, and then I wanted these two parts to have very different styles, in terms of the first part as the noir genre and the second part as a fairy tale. Even though stylistically speaking they are very different, I wanted these two parts to have these very close connections in terms of the narrative and how the narrative develops. Even though it is told in [two completely] different styles, and also two completely different formats, from 2-D to 3-D, there will be that interwoven, interconnected plotlines from the first to the second. I think the way that I made Long Day’s Journey Into Night has very little to do, if anything, with the way I made Kaili Blues, but I do think that because these two films are from the same filmmaker, there are certain characteristics or styles or ways of speaking or visual expression that you tend to see some kind of commonalities or common threads throughout.

There is definitely this very different shift in genre; the second half might be closer to your previous feature and your short films (The Poet and Singer and Secret Goldfish), whereas the first half is very much in the noir template—of course there’s elements of this in The Poet and Singer—but this is definitely even more closely tied to noir’s capacity for memory. Could you speak about how you decided to tackle the noir genre in this manner?

The way that I conceived the first part in the noir genre is because I have seen a lot of noir films in the past, and usually when they introduce the femmes fatales, these female characters tend to be very flat in terms of them not being three-dimensional, that in a way lack human complexities. In a way, they are really awful people with a lot of ill intentions that deserve to die, without any redeeming qualities at all.

So I thought, “what if I can create a femme fatale in this style or genre of noir that is somehow lovable, that the audience can actually empathize with?” That’s the reason why I created this first part in the neo-noir style, as the pretext for me to somehow tease out, is it possible that this character can be lovable, what led her to become this femme fatale in the first part of the film, whether or not there is a certain lovable quality to her, and I intentionally created that in the dream sequence, the 3-D sequence, the fairy tale sequence, to tell the story of what led her to become who she is now, in the first part.

Speaking of this fairy tale quality, would you say that your films are not only about the journeys and quests that the main characters undertake, but also about the bridging of multiple realms, multiple genres, or multiple levels of reality, for lack of a better term?

I think it has something to do with my working methods, in terms of how I write my scripts, and I do think that I’m not that great at writing screenplays and I’m just starting as a filmmaker. So to me, this is almost something I’m accustomed to, it’s just the way I function and the way I work when I’m trying to put together a script. I usually start with a genre, and for Kaili Blues the starting point was to appropriate the genre of the road movie as the starting point of the story I want to tell.

For this particular film, of course I should mention that I started with this particular genre when I wrote this script by appropriating elements from the film noir genre. But to me, that particular style and genre is not the end or the goal. I’m not making a noir film; for me, this is just a starting point. What I do is then I deconstruct, I disrupt, and I subvert that type of film genre in order to lead to the actual stories that I want to tell, and that’s how it evolves into the second part. To me, it’s just a way of how I operate as a filmmaker. When I write scripts, I’m used to this way of starting with one particular genre and then somehow disrupting it, deconstructing it, and subverting it in order for me to get to what I really want to say.

Could you speak about the way you work with actors, not only the more well-known actors like Tang Wei or Sylvia Chang, but also some of the lesser-known actors, including and especially your uncle Chen Yongzhong, because he has such a different character from your previous film to this?

I do think that of course they’re very different in terms of how I work with them and collaborate with them. For the professional actors, they tend to know the script very well, we don’t need to talk much about the script, and they know how to develop the characters well. Whereas for the nonprofessional actors, I definitely need to somehow create certain scenarios, atmospheres, or feelings and emotions I want them to emulate, but I do think they have this particular natural quality about them that is very precious and also goes very well with the films that I am making.

But at the same time, there is this challenge of continuity: if this is going to be a very very long take, they don’t have the ability to maintain character for a long period of time and then have to somehow also deal with dialogue, movement, a lot of gestures and moving around, and then knowing the space they want to go to in terms of blocking. I do think that those are the challenges for a lot of the nonprofessional actors that I’m using, and that’s also the reason why for Long Day’s Journey Into Night for that second half, the long take of almost an hour, I need to rely heavily on professional actors, just because they can deal with that type of dialogue with choreography with movement with blocking, in such a way that they can help me complete the sequence in such a way that I can actually finish it, or I can actually bring it to life. So that’s the reason why I rely moreso, especially in the long take, on professional actors.

But I have to say that my uncle and also my half-brother (Luo Feiyang), who’s in this as the kid who plays ping-pong with the main character (Huang Jue), they actually are semi-professional, so to speak; even though they are not professionally trained actors, we have been working together for such a long time that there is this ease of collaboration with them just because they know how I operate as a filmmaker and they know what kind of films I am making, so working with them is actually quite easy.

Speaking of continuity, I think one of the most remarkable things about the film is the way in which, within this flow of images and very smooth movement of scenes, you are able to create these particular sensations and connections. Could you speak about how you create those, and if you have a particular approach to those scenes that are very well-integrated into the whole yet have a slightly different energy?

The way I imagine different scenes and how I’m going to connect them is always thinking about how I’m going to create a way to distort people’s anticipation of what it should be. For example, in the opening sequence, when I was writing it I was thinking about, “I want to create a story about two characters in passionate desire; in the midst of it or right after, this particular male character starts to think about another female character, so how am I going to create something like this?” If I use a conventional way of doing that, I can just interject a flashback of the other female character into the narrative, but I didn’t want to do that because it’s not experimental, it’s not new, it’s not fresh.

So what I wanted to do is to somehow distort the spatial orientation for the audience right from the beginning, and that is to introduce that particular third character without using the traditional, conventional flashback. The opening sequence starts with the hand of this female character, and then introduces the music, and then pans the camera to the ceiling, and then the next thing you see is the face of the male character. So I think that particular sequence, from the hand to the music to the ceiling to the face already distorts spatially how people expect how the orientation of the room is positioned. That is one way for me to actually introduce this third character without relying on the traditional flashback, and that’s how I conceptualize not only the different scenes, but also between scenes, how I’m going to connect them scene-by-scene.

I’m curious, was the apple-eating scene perhaps inspired by Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth?

It didn’t have anything to do with the Japanese film. It was all a result of the interactions I had with [Lee Hong-chi], who is really a genius and really natural in terms of how he evolved emotionally through facial expressions. We were trying to capture what this particular character would be like when he’s emoting, when he’s going through certain emotions, so we tried to find a way of doing that by playing around with different devices, such as the butterfly knife that he plays with or just by smoking, to see whether or not that would be a way to emote or to really express very intense but very internalized emotions. I thought of having him eat something; we thought maybe it wouldn’t go well if he ate a chicken leg, so we decided to try some fruit. We then introduced an apple for him to bite on and start eating; I didn’t say cut, he kept going, and after one or two bites he kept on eating and the tears started to well up, and you see how the emotions progress and evolve. I was so close to him at the time because we were in a very confined space, in the back of a pickup truck I believe, and it sort of just happened, it wasn’t planned, and I let the camera run, and you realize that that was where we going, and that I as the filmmaker am enjoying whatever direction he was taking as an actor. That kind of tacit understanding that this is going well, this is something I want as he finished the whole thing, was unplanned, but at the same time because of that interaction, trust, and tacit understanding between us, we captured it on film, and I thought that was very effective.

As a final question, do you have any new projects in the works that you’re willing to talk about?

I have been just playing video games and taking care of my kids, so nothing is actually in production right now. I am in the stage of writing the next script, and I don’t have something very complete yet; it’s just a couple of scenes that I have written down, so it is a work in progress.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night opens in New York and Seattle on April 12 and expands in the weeks to come.

‘Missing Link’ Director Chris Butler on Flawed Characters, Spielbergian Setpieces, and 3D Printing

Written by Jordan Raup, April 11, 2019 at 8:30 am 

Missing Link, the fifth feature film from Laika, is another wondrously detailed animation feat and certainly their most epic outing with its globe-trotting story of mythic proportions. Returning to the director’s chair after ParaNorman, Chris Butler switches up his palette with a buoyantly colorful design and flawed characters which buck the trend of most family animations.

We spoke with the director about the influences behind his grand adventure, nesting important themes into the story, crafting the epic action setpieces, advancing 3D printing technology, 10 years of Laika, what he thought of Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, and more.

The Film Stage: I wanted to start out by discussing your approach to color in this film. It’s such a grand adventure and with that also comes this beautiful palette. Can you talk about how early on in the process you knew you wanted that color scheme?

Chris Butler: Well, at the end of ParaNorman, which was a long time ago, I knew that the next thing that I wanted to do needed to be radically different. I’m not interested in repeating myself and I thought: How can I step out of the shadows? ParaNorman was a pastiche of 80s horror movies, and it took place at night time, and I thought I had done the “dark: thing. So, it was a purposeful choice I picked a project that had the opportunity for us to explore a much bolder, more colorful palette. It’s a journey around the world, so I knew it needed to be this big, bright travelogue. I said to Travis [Knight] originally I wanted to do if David Lean directed Around the World in Eighty Days, starring Laurel and Hardy. That was the original idea. I knew it was going to be a more playful movie, so that was also a reason to explore a more vibrant color palette, and one of the big inspirations at the very start of the movie was National Geographic photography. And then we started pulling reference from mid-century National Genographic photographs. The striking colors were one of the things that me and the production designer was very keen on getting into the movie. Because we are traveling a lot in the movie, we wanted these locations to have their own color signature. So, for example, the woods and the Pacific Northwest are not just green, they’re kind of blue-green. But then the jungle in India, it’s kind of a yellow-green. So, each location on this journey has a signature that carries you through.

Speaking of your influences, have you seen James Gray’s The Lost City of Z? At least the set-up of this film reminded me of it.

Yes, I have, and I think I was obviously influenced by a ton of Victorian-set adventures. Lost City of Z is in there, but I think there’s a lot of Jules Verne in there, a lot of [Arthur] Conan Doyle. There’s this subgenre of adventure movie and they’re all about these robust, barrel-chested males exploring the world. I kind of wanted to poke fun at that a little with Lionel whose such an interesting character.

There’s this playful, funny adventure, but you do nest themes of the dangers of colonialism and protecting the environment if you want to look deeper. How important is it to have a foundational backbone of these more important issues?

I think it’s vital, personally. I think you can have something to say in a movie, whether it’s a kids movie, a family movie, an adult movie, whatever. I think it’s good to have something to say. You should never be didactic. You shouldn’t shove it into people’s faces, but I think it adds layers to a story that just makes it more compelling. For me as well, I think it’s good that kids movies have some kind of message. That’s certainly the kids movies, the animated movies that I grew up with, that had the biggest impact on me in my life, they all had something to say. I’ve never been fond of animation as just as a babysitting device. You know, something you can just plop the kids in front of and walk away. I want there to be a little more to it. And for me, this movie, I want kids and adults to get something out of it; not just the laughs and the fun of it, but also something to even talk about or think about after they’ve left.

Hugh Jackman’s Frost is not your typical family film adventure lead. He’s not the most likable character. He doesn’t have this huge arc where he completely becomes less self-centered. He’s a little bit of an asshole in the beginning–


Which I loved, you just don’t see that a lot in animated films. Were you met with any kind of resistance to that, or that idea of a character?

For me, the most interesting protagonists are the ones that are flawed. If I look at the big influence on Sir Lionel which was Sherlock Holmes, who is eccentric and borderline sociopathic, he’s compelling because he’s an awkward fit. When you have this character who’s lacking certain social graces and you put him into conversations with another character, you immediately have an interesting dynamic. I always found those characters more interesting. I think the key for Lionel was that he remains entertaining. Like, he does a lot of bad things. He’s certainly selfish, but I think that’s why Hugh [Jackman] was so important, because I still wanted the audience to go along with him on this ride, and I think he does have redeeming features.

I remember it was a similar thing there where at the end of ParaNorman, the world isn’t completely changed; there are still assholes in it, but maybe a few people have changed. That’s important to me. It’s not a light switch. You don’t flick a switch and then suddenly, he’s 100% a great guy, but he’s trying. He’s working on it. And I think that’s important, is that he’s recognized that he is flawed and he’s trying to be a better person, and I think that is more relatable.

The setpieces are pretty incredibly conceived and executed, there’s a midway sequence with an Inception meets The Perfect Storm feeling. Can you talk about pulling it off? My mind was kind of racing how you actually animated it.

Well, I must admit when I was writing it, I was at times thinking, “I’m not sure we can do this.” But we’ve always liked a challenge. I think in terms of the genre here, I knew it needed big action setpieces, and I was very much influenced by the Spielbergian school of having an action sequence with a narrative to it. It’s got a shape. It’s got a beginning, a middle, and end, and there are events within that sequence. There’s jokes, dramatic moments, but it’s almost like a mini story. I wasn’t interested in it just being some chaotic fight montage. I wanted it to have more narrative interest and that was very much influenced by the Indiana Jones movies.

When you start writing something like that, the fact that we’re doing it in animation is that you don’t just do a regular chase. You have to find something bigger than that–something that’s more unusual, more absurd, that makes it worth animating. And that’s where the Inception thing came from. Technically, it does blow your mind, but you start off with storyboarding very early on, you talk through it. You’ve got your camera guys, you’ve got your VFX guys. We’re all in the room at the very start, talking about these things, and trying to break down how we set it up. And we will use every trick in the book.

The truth is it’s always going to be difficult for the animator, and that particular sequence was incredibly difficult. We had a guy who is really good at action stuff but all of that moving corridor thing, we couldn’t physically move the set. So, we had to move the camera to create that sensation, which meant that the animator was faking this movement just in his puppet performance. And it’s hugely difficult to do, but this our fifth movie and I think we’ve been refining our skills and we’ve been innovating, so it felt like now we have the talent to do a movie like this, we could achieve this movie.

It has been ten years of Laika feature films, and you are definitely setting the bar in terms of the level of beauty and wonder in animation. I’m curious as animators, where do you look towards for inspiration?

A bunch of different things, but I always say that I am an animation fan. I love all animation in all its forms. I will greedily drink in all of the stuff that’s put out by the other studios. I will like some of it, I will love some of it. I think what’s important is that there is diversity in this movie, and I think that is where we’re special. I want to do stuff that’s different. I want us to have our own voice, and part of that comes with the look as well. I don’t want to make movies that look like animated movies, other animated movies. So I think we draw inspiration where we can, from other things, like photography or live action movies or illustrators. There is such a vast world of influence out there that can be tapped into and I think it’s only right that we try to do something that you can’t see somewhere else. I think that’s what it comes down to in the end is that every time we make a movie, it’s gonna look different from the last. And I think that’s important to us as a brand.

It made a lot of headlines when Travis Knight signed on for Bumblebee, but I’m just curious if you saw that film and your thoughts on how he was able to help reinvent that franchise, and if you had any interest yourself in going a live-action route.

I mean I love live action, so who knows? I mean I’ve only just finished this movie so I don’t know exactly what’s next, but I loved that movie. I loved what he did. I grew up with those toys, so it felt truer to my childhood idea of what Transformers were. I thought it was a gleefully good time. Travis is a polymath; he is just able to do stuff and succeed at it. He’s a fantastic animator, he’s a great director, he’s just one of those annoying people who’s really good at anything he puts his mind to.

Going back to the more technical aspect of your film, I was reading that there was this 3D printing technology you guys helped develop with this film. Could you talk more about it from maybe a layman’s point of view and the logistics of integrating that into your work process?

So way back on Coraline, we wanted to pursue this replacement face idea. So, the puppet is on set and it’s manipulated by the animator, but we wanted more out of our facial performances. And that’s difficult if the face of the puppet is just armatured, which means it’s manipulated by the animator on stage. So, Coraline is the first one where we used the 3D printer, and it enabled us to open up that world where you can create a performance in the computer, and then print that out, and then each individual face is plugged on top it for every frame of the movie.

Now, over the years, we’ve continued to push this idea. It had never been done before. We went from the black and white printed photos–they would have to be founded and hand-painted. We went to natural color prints in Paranorman. And each time we’re using new prints, and we’re advancing the technology. I think the difference on Missing Link was that in the past, we created kits; thousands and thousands of little faces, and we would construct dialogue or performance almost out of a library of faces–and we didn’t do that on this movie. Every single shot is bespoke. Every single shot is animated purely for that shot, so there was no reusing the faces. What that allowed us to do, I think, is achieve a level of nuance and sophistication in the facial performances that’s never been done before. It’s certainly the best we’ve ever done. That’s what I’m after–I want people to watch these movies and not think that they’re watching a cool puppet, but think that they’re watching a living, breathing character. And the more we push these technologies, the closer we get to that.

When you go to watch the final film, can you kind of sit back and relax and enjoy the adventure it takes you on, or are you kind of overwhelmed by all the work that went into it and thinking about every little frame?

[Laughs] It’s a little bit of both. There’s still stuff that I would change or redo. I still see little faults. I don’t think you ever really finish a movie. I mean it finishes you, probably. I think what was always important to me over the last five years was being able to watch the movie and enjoy it. Most weekends I would take a version of the movie home with me and watch it and that’s going back to when it was all storyboards. I would watch every movie, and just being able to sit back and look at it as a piece of entertainment and enjoy it was very important to me. So yeah, I can watch it and I can enjoy it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be done with it.

Missing Link opens on April 12.

Terry Gilliam on the Evolution of ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ and the Weight of Expectations

Written by Joshua Encinias, April 10, 2019 at 1:36 pm 

Terry Gilliam wonders if The Man Who Killed Don Quixote can live up to its larger than life production trouble. The trouble is due to the insecurities Quixote faced being an independent production, but that independence is also how Gilliam’s kept the project alive long after a studio would have scrapped it.

The movie’s storied production history is well-documented, including Amazon’s last-minute decision to pull out of the project when producer Paulo Branco claimed rights to the film, which nearly derailed their 2018 premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

In our conversation with Gilliam we discuss how Jonathan Pryce’s Don Quixote built his own ramshackle armor, how directing is like being “an ignorant peasant who knows no better,” and his feelings about Fathom Event’s one-night-only screening strategy.

The Film Stage: I found Quixote’s costume so beautiful. It looks like a leftover costume from the movie within a movie, or he made it out of trash. Will you talk about its design?

Terry Gilliam: The idea was Quixote bumbling around this place and finding bits or armor he assembled. That costume is the costume Jean Rochefort wore in the original version in 2000, and what was interesting is that we started work with Jonathan Pryce on the costume and it wasn’t working. We didn’t have the money in the budget, there’s no way we could make something as good as what was on screen. Nicola Pecorini was on the phone with Gabriella Pescucci who designed the original costume, who was about to do an opera in Italy and pulled that costume out to see if they could use it in the opera. The timing was designed by some deity, I’m not sure which one. And we said, wait, could we have it for the film? Gabriella said yes to us and we got it. Luckily it fit Jonathan, so there was no way we could not use it. The amount of work that’s involved in making what you see, you can’t afford to do that now unless you have a much bigger budget. It just requires a lot of work.

You’ve worked with Jonathan Pryce for as long as you’ve been trying to make this movie. At any point, besides the last few years, was Jonathan considered to play Don Quixote?

Well he wanted to, he always asked when we were going to do this film. I was always stalling because I felt Jonathan wasn’t old enough. He became 70 years old, magically just in time. I guess Jonathan should thank Michael Palin because he was the Quixote prior to Jonathan’s version. But he got tired of waiting through all the nonsense we were going through with a producer for a brief while. Michael said, “I can’t deal with this man anymore.” He left and Jonathan was waiting in the wings.

Much of the film is about how Toby’s (Adam Driver) student film changed the village where he shot it. There’s a line Quixote says about Sancho (note: Quixote thinks Driver’s Toby is Sancho Panza): “He’s an ignorant peasant who knows no better.” Is Toby’s effect on the village an isolated story or are you saying something about the nature of filmmaking?

Films are dangerous things and they have to be dealt with carefully. When we made Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we were in a little village in the Highlands. All of us came pouring up from London, the whole film unit; film units are very exotic, I suppose. It’s basically like vikings raping and pillaging across a landscape. When we returned to London there were so many marriages broken up. So many people followed us down to London in hopes of getting into films. They probably never did, or some did, we don’t know. That’s the effect you have on the community on a film. On the other hand, it’s about what film can make and the power of cinema to the public. It’s about taking responsibility for the stories you tell. Toby is caught in a situation where lives had been shattered, destroyed, changed. He has a sense of guilt, which is the beginning of his becoming a decent human being. [Laughs.]

As a filmmaker, what does it take for you to justify the potential harm your work could do to a community?

I suppose all I try to do is make people look at the world differently. I’m not trying to tell people what they should or shouldn’t think. I’m just offering alternatives, different windows to look through. I always try be reasonably responsible with what I talk about in our films, about reality or a version of reality. Maybe it’s useful to an audience, I don’t know. Doing something like doing a big waltz in Grand Central Station where people fall in love and then you discover subsequently some years later that on New Year’s Eve people would waltz in Grand Central Station. It’s nice to know you can make the world better. Maybe not better, but more enjoyable.

Are you ever worried the making of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote overshadows the movie itself?

What’s always worried me was people’s expectations. They’re waiting and they’re waiting and they’re reading about more things going on. I always worry about people’s expectations being greater or more interesting than the actual film we were able to make. I think that some of the press are spending an awful lot of time trying to discuss the history of the film and how that affected what the film is. I don’t think that way. Yes, we made changes along the way, but we weren’t trying to comment on the history of the film at all. We made the script more interesting over time, but when you go into shooting, this movie only came into existence two years ago, once you start shooting. And that is what the film is. What you are able to achieve in the time behind the camera. It’s not exactly the film I set out to shoot, it changes along the way. A film is an organic creature, at least in my way of making them. Sometimes what comes out is surprisingly different from what you set out to do.

I know you could never compare the final movie to what you initially planned, but is there anything about the final movie that made you glad you were only able to film it two years ago and not twenty years ago?

I think it’s much better. I think the script and the idea of what we we’re doing is far more interesting than what we were doing then. Because back then is was more A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court situation, with a modern guy being bumped on the head and ending up in the 17th century. These were moments where I feel like the film was making itself or was busy waiting for the right cast turned up. I think Adam and Jonathan, with all the actors I worked with along the way, they both brought something new and different from what I think I was doing earlier. It’s much funnier, more touching. I think Adam and Jonathan make a wonderful double act, it was constantly surprising.

Did you have a visual basis for the film within a film?

Visually I wanted it in black and white and use wide angle lenses like I used too. [Laughs.] In the main story I’m not using wide angles in my normal way. I didn’t know exactly what the film within a film was until we shot it. I just had a few little scenes in my head.

Is there a complete version of the film within a film?

No, we never wrote it! [Laughs.] We only wrote a couple moments. What we did in the student film, in our previous scripts we never had a way of creating a good Dulcinea and Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) becomes Dulcinea in the movie. The idea that you got a fifteen-year-old girl, who’s sweet and innocent and full of life, but because she’s in a movie, because a young director says you’ll be a star, her life gets turned upside down. Angelica winds up as an escort. She finally winds up finding a rich guy who might be bastard, but he’s providing her with all the things Toby put into her head what success should be like. She just happens to be a kept woman and she’s treated rather badly. It makes her a good Dulcinea and let’s Toby rescue her from the fate he effectively triggered.

What do you think of Fathom Event’s release strategy of putting the film in 700 theaters for one night? Except for that Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, I’ve never seen such a high profile movie being released for one night.

You don’t always get what you want. [Laughs.]

For a variety of reasons, this winded up being the way the film is released. I wasn’t able to have much influence in that because I’m not a producer on the film. I don’t know, we’ll see how it works. I talked to other people, and this may be the blueprint for what films are going to be in the future. I mean, small independent films. We are an independent film. It didn’t help that Amazon pulled out after we shot the movie because of legal problems with a former producer. It left us rather vulnerable and this is the result. But I hope it works. Independent films are never going have the kind of money to compete with studio movies. By focusing it on one night, hopefully the fans will see it on the big screen, and if it does well hopefully other cinemas will be picking it up later. It’s one way to get attention. I’ve always known that more people see my films on DVD than they do in the cinema. But I make movies for the big screen and I hope this allows those who really want to experience what it’s like on the big screen and with the audience.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote plays tonight nationwide and expands on April 19.

Mike Leigh on ‘Peterloo,’ Revolution, Agnès Varda, and the Disease of Trump

Written by Joshua Encinias, April 8, 2019 at 8:55 am 

Mike Leigh spent much of his time since the release of Mr. Turner in 2014 discussing, researching, and filming the nature of political protest via the story of Peterloo. Political unrest is nothing new and the powerful have amazing resilience, as shown by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry’s ability to slaughter 15 people and injure hundreds more at Peterloo, and in the process quell the chance at English revolution.

Why the United Kingdom didn’t have a revolution comparable to France, Italy or the United States was up for discussion when I recently sat down with Mike Leigh. In Peterloo, his career-long interest in class division meets the usually dry discussion of taxation. Leigh dedicates one scene to the Corn Laws, which lit the fire of revolution, and spends the rest of the film following the working-class political convergence that lead to the rally at St. Peter’s Field and the machinations of monarch who quelled it.

We discuss why it would be reductionist for Peterloo to have a central character, how the terms freedom and liberty were used in the 19th century, why the United Kingdom still has a monarch, and his relationship to Agnès Varda’s work.

The Film Stage: The message of freedom and liberty is repeated throughout the movie, but today the right wing own that message in Europe and America.

Mike Leigh: There’s a perversion of those words now. “Liberty or death” is in fact a phrase that originates from the American Revolution. There were a lot of slogans that were bandied around on the banners at Peterloo and things that were chanted at meetings. We have to remember we are looking at a society at a time where people did not enjoy the natural freedoms we do. There was no education. Two percent of the population had the vote. To put ourselves back in the population of those people, these are people at rock bottom. These people are passionate for liberty, freedom, the truth, and the voice to be heard. We can only really decode my movie in terms of how we are now and how we live now. When you see those working class young radicals in the film–those three lads, who are dramatized real people–those are guys with no formal education. They would have learned to read by being self taught or in Sunday Schools. Not only are they literate and articulate, they’re also quoting the Classics. They would be appalled to jump into a time machine and come forward to a time when people have the vote and don’t use it. Or have the vote and are cynical about it. Have education and flout it in the way literacy is being perverted.

The movie is about the peasants of two hundred years ago, but the political resonance of Peterloo continues in stories like Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. Did you know Varda and her work?

I knew her personally, we met a few times. I loved her work. In fact, I remember in 1962 when I was very young and getting into movies, there was a whole season at the National Film Theatre in London called Left Bank, Right Bank, which included all of her stuff until then. I’ve followed Agnès’s films throughout. I think she’s great and I really, really regret her going. But she was ninety and she wasn’t very well.

For people unfamiliar with Peterloo, would it be helpful to see the movie through Joseph’s (David Moorst) experience?

No. I think the viewer has to go in and watch the film as he or she experiences it. Joseph is one narrative thread, therefore one perspective of what’s going on, but you can’t see the whole thing from his eyes because a great deal of what happens in the film is something he knows nothing about. He isn’t there, he doesn’t know what’s going on, and he wouldn’t understand it if he was there. I think it would be reductionist and distracting for anyone to try and look at the whole film as if it were from his point of view. That wouldn’t stack up.

Do you think the criticism that the film needs a central character to follow is incorrect?

It’s irrelevant. All of my films have been carried by one or two, or several characters. That’s what I naturally do. This film isn’t because, simply, that isn’t what the film is about. I haven’t made a decision not to have a central character because if I decided to have one I have no idea how I’d make that work. Of course, there are more central characters, and there are a few well-known actors playing the parts. But that’s neither here nor there. I don’t think it’s helpful to worry about that one way or another. It’s just a red herring, it’s irrelevant.

How do you dramatize the Corn Laws and taxation?

It’s a tough one, that’s a very good question. In fact, the actual principle of the Corn Laws and taxation are dealt with in one scene when the family is talking. It’s laid out very clearly, and it’s not laid out by people in Parliament making pompous, which might’ve been another way of doing it. It’s not laid out by journalists talking in educated language. It’s laid out in the kitchen with working class people at a very basic level. That’s how I dramatize it. As English school kids you learn about the Corn Laws and it’s dry stuff. Even though it’s not dry to understand people couldn’t eat properly.

Has the history and symbolic nature of Peterloo been utilized?

It hasn’t really. In the 19th century it resonated to those who knew it or were concerned with political matters, concerned with reform, concerned with unions and socialism. As the 19th century developed it resonated right through. It has got lost. I grew up in the area where it happened and I didn’t really know about it as a kid. I think it’s getting quite a revival because it’s bicentennial this August. There’s a growing awareness of it and its meaning. One of the reasons I made the movie to contribute to that… but I don’t really know the answer to the question.

Are you participating in the bicentennial?

The other day I went to Manchester and opened a Peterloo exhibition at the so-called People’s History Museum, which is fantastic actually. They have a lot of artifacts, banners and stuff. There’s only one surviving banner that’s actually there. It’s kept in a refrigerated unit. This exhibition is interesting because they’ve allocated a large space for current protests to put stuff up and discuss. They show a section of my film but that’s my only contribution.

The phrygian red cap shows up in Peterloo, as it did at the French Revolution, and it’s on the seal of the U.S. Senate. You see it used all over the political map. Why is there a universal resonance?

My reading of it is limited to being a symbol of the French Revolution, which was a massive inspiration to the radicals at Peterloo and it terrified the hell out of authorities, not the least the royal family. They feared an English revolution. There has not been an English revolution, thought I suspect there’s about to be one any day now.

Why do you think the revolution that was building at Peterloo was quelled so easily whereas the American Revolution was not?

Apart from the fact that’s a good question [laughs], to which at some level there isn’t an answer, I don’t think we can quite… that’s a complicated question actually. The inevitability of the colonial war being lost is a much clearer and straightforward thing than the inevitability of an English revolution. The French Revolution, as we know, in the immediate moment it happened it was successful in the sense that they overthrew the monarchy, but it was followed by the Reign of Terror and that was followed by, effectively, the reinstatement of the monarchy, i.e. Napoleon and subsequently and actual monarchy which lasted for quite a long time. I don’t think you can compare the success of American independence with the aspirations of what was happening in England. In the film you see gradual levels of sedition by the radicals. At first they want one man one vote, then later a young man says they should assassinate the king. They were banged up and in prison far sooner than anybody else and were kept there for quite a while.

Why do we still have a monarch? I don’t fucking know. I think it’s ridiculous.

There’s so many large political movements lately. The revolt against Brexit and in France people on the left and right have joined together in Yellow Vests movement.

I think mass media has a lot to answer for, the internet has a lot to answer for. The dissemination of instant ideas both positive and negative, I think has got its upside and downside. I think what you can unquestionably call the general rise of fascism, which you could never have anticipated. Certainly in 1945 it would have been unthinkable and it was for quite a long time after that. How easy it is for draconian, destructive, negative, right-wing ideas to be disseminated. I think that accounts for Brexit, I think it accounts for the Yellow Vests, it accounts for what’s happening in Italy, and it could well account for the disease we call Trump.

Peterloo is now in limited release.

Dick Pope on ‘Peterloo,’ Drones, ‘The Favourite,’ and His Distaste for Celluloid Projection

Written by Nick Newman, April 3, 2019 at 12:00 pm 

Throw Dick Pope a question about cinematography and he’ll be able to answer. Even if the aspect in question isn’t an area of expertise–just as likely not a preference–something well-formed comes back to you. I learned as much when we talked about jury work in 2016, and at last fall’s EnergaCamerimage found us at it again–this time on the subject of Peterloo, both the latest in a nearly 30-year collaborations with Mike Leigh and a continuation of their experiments with digital filmmaking.

“Filmmaking” is probably Pope’s preferred, set-and-done term, though there were complications, catches, and innovations shaping this approach to an infamous massacre. Thus the inevitable set of discourses on his art’s current state, why we should be optimistic, and what, if you ask him, fetishists are getting terribly wrong.

The Film Stage: In a British Cinematographer interview, you proved very open to discussing the process. Do you find that putting the work into words is futile–that there’s something more elemental at play?

Dick Pope: I don’t mind being direct about it, because there’s quite a lot of bullshit attached when people talk about it; there’s quite a lot of hype. Somebody last night asked me about Vermeer and lighting for paintings–”that painterly look” in the films, right? I said, “Well, the thing is: if you’ve got somebody in a period costume–especially a woman–and you have a window, and that window through which you put soft, diffused light, it comes through the window and kisses the person standing there in a period costume, and people say to me, ‘God, it’s so Vermeer-like,’ my thing about that is, well, we can all do that. We can all be Vermeers; you just need the right quality of light and staging of the scene so that you’re using that light in that way.” But it’s not always beautiful. Sometimes it’s good to create ugly light. So it just depends what I’m doing. But I don’t mind talking about what I do, because my thing is: sometimes people ask me and they don’t really listen. It’s almost like they’re asking me for the sake of asking me, because then they go off and do their own thing–like I do, too. I might listen to somebody for hours, but I still do what I want when I’m working. I do have things I remember from what DPs said. I’ve read it in, like, the ASC magazine. I remember doing a film and reading this article about a system of lighting and I tried it–I read it straight out of American Cinematographer. I became very captivated about using it. Sometimes you read things, hear things, and think, “Oh, yeah, that’s good. I could use that.” But not all the time.

The movie feels hard to place on a continuum: there are the period dressings, but also a clean digital quality to the image. Throughout I kept asking about accuracy to the period vs. wanting to express something else. One of my favorite shots, for instance, is the prisoners being taken through the hallway.

Oh, yeah.

And lights above them every ten feet or so. Its visual impression is astonishing, and all the while I ask if it was accurate to the era. I don’t particularly care, but from your perspective…

No, it wasn’t. It was a cheat. Funny: you’ve honed in on something that I didn’t know what to do with. We had this long tracking shot down this corridor where I was handheld, and I was sitting on a dolly, I think–I sat on a dolly with a camera and they pulled me down this long corridor, because we had a terrible floor where you couldn’t lay anything on the floor. Pulled me down this corridor, and there were these fixtures that the people… we did it where we did the main massacre at the end, in this place outside London. where we did a load of stuff. There was a floor, and there were these dungeons used, basically, for munitions right from the 17th or 16th century. The people who ran this facility were really tricky about no smoke being used, so when we did all the family stuff in the poorhouse where they lived, they wouldn’t allow me to use any atmosphere in there. I tried and tried to get them to let me use atmosphere; I would try to get atmosphere with smoke from the candles to cheat them. So that corridor had lighting fixtures all the way down it; they would not let me remove them, they would not let me cover them. Oh, it was a whole thing. So, in the end, my guys went up there and took out the bulbs–that was a big thing for them, just taking out the bulbs. Then we found a small bulb that we could hide in the ceiling and dim it right down, as if it’s some sort of oil. It’s never specified, but we dimmed it so it had a glow to it–and that’s how we went. I was forced to do it just from the practical aspect of: it’s not a studio. We’re not on a stage. That was a real location, so I had to go with what was there, and I adapted it. It’s not authentic, really. But, in the end, who the hell cares? There comes a point where you’ve got to just get on with it. I struggled with that for days and weeks, trying to get them to take it down and do something else.

I was surprised that you had to use a number of lights at the climax, which I could have sworn was natural light, or close to.

It does look natural. Realistic rather than natural. I think that’s what I used in the interview, but he used “natural” rather than “realistic.” But, really, it’s not “natural” natural; it’s realistic. A “tilted realism” I could call it. The number of lamps I had playing on days that were quite dark were big, substantial units basically giving me a backlight, as if the sun were still there while we didn’t have any sun. It was dreadful weather we had.

I’m interested in this line between natural and natural-seeming light, how we can be fooled. Some things announce themselves more vividly as techniques–such as drones, which were a surprise. Talk to me about getting involved there.

We first talked about having drones for the film in the riot itself. There was quite a lot of dialogue that Mike and I had, but then we thought, “No, it’ll be a nightmare flying them above people’s heads–men, women, and children. Why are we doing that?” We rejected that because we thought it was a very modern touch, but the idea of the Moors was a very lyrical interlude in the film. We used them there, with the coach going away, which wasn’t so apparent, but more apparent where they were practicing marching on the Moors themselves. I don’t know… I’m mixed about it, really. I don’t know whether they worked or not, but it seemed like a fun thing to do. It was a good way to see the Moors and be moving. I look at the film sometimes now and think, “Oh, I’m not sure about that,” but we made that decision and went with it. [Laughs] You could say it’s a modern affectation, but then you also look at The Favourite, what Robbie Ryan did on that, and he was using super-wide-angle lenses on a period film, which feels like you can’t do, but of course you can do that — you can do anything you goddamn like. It was a completely fresh take on the convention, which is definitely not wide-angle lenses and waving it about in a sort of rock-n-roll, music-video-type style. I suppose that’s the joy of cinema: you can do what you like.

Peterloo does what period pieces should: it made me think about the interplay between departments, how much coordination was necessary. Because of Leigh’s well-known process of writing for the day, does it feel especially arduous?

When he’s rehearsing with actors for five months or so, I’m also doing quite a lot of prep in the background. I’ll go back with my team over and over locations where we know we’re going to film and don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. I will have a number of different ideas that I can call upon without causing big delays. I’ll have prepped, and by the time I get there I’ll have lighting “plots,” say–a sort of game plan. Because we’ve worked together so many times, I have a really good idea of what we’ll be doing. I’m also able to prepare with the art department, and if he says to me, “Well, what do you think about having something there?” I’ll have something there. It might be hidden away from him so he’s not distracted by it, but I’ll have those units there, ready to pull out of the hat. So that’s not quite what you asked. Do you mean while he’s doing his rehearsal period?

I was thinking of the day for shooting.

Oh, sorry. When he shows us the scene?

Yeah. Of course you don’t just do period pieces, and I have to wonder if the transition from a period piece to something contemporary brings some relief–loosening the belt, so to speak.

You can’t point that camera anywhere on a period film; you can’t wave it around unless you’re in a completely controlled environment. The outside is a nightmare. That’s why that fort worked so well on Peterloo: they were able to take that space, augment it, and make the buildings higher in VFX and crowd augmentation. It was our place that we took over for three months. There was nothing of modernity in there–it was all period from the 18th, 17th century. Yeah, it is liberating. I went straight from Peterloo to a contemporary film in Africa. It was amazing. I spent eight months, probably, on Peterloo, and suddenly I was in Africa and you can point the camera anywhere. It was fantastic, fantastically liberating to have the freedom of doing that. You can’t do that in a period film. It was all good because it was contemporary. And then I went to New York immediately after that and did a film there. So it was three in a row: one set in 1819, one contemporary in Africa, and then in New York last winter for a film I did with Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn. Again, I couldn’t photograph anything apart from what had been dressed, because it was a ’50s / ’60s kind of noir film where streets had to be dressed and dealt with. Again, I was restricted with where I looked. So yeah, I look forward to doing another contemporary film where obviously there isn’t the restriction. The Edward Norton film is sort of a noir-ish thriller, so it’s fantastic fun but very constricted.

And the DI on Peterloo was handled remotely.

That’s the first time for me. I did the film which I wanted to do–I’d been talking to Edward Norton for years–and it was really good, because I wasn’t bogged-down in the DI suite for week after week. I was going there for my day off on Saturday or Sunday and looking at it with fresh eyes. It was really very good: I did a Voice Memo tape, made notes, and then we’d have quite a few discussions on the phone back to the UK on a Sunday, and we talked through it. So slowly the film evolved, and I was there, in the background, every week. I enjoyed it.

Do you think one informs the other that way–looking at one on days off, then back to the other? Motherless Brooklyn sounds very different.

It is very different, very different indeed.

But maybe one bleeds into another.

It might, but that’s because I’m the connecting factor–so it likely does in terms of shooting style and lighting, because I have a way that I do things and a way of lighting that’s not signature by any means, but it’s the way I go about things. That crossover is on everything I do. It’s there on the African film because, there, we had lots of night interiors–candle-lit, because they didn’t have electricity. I used the same techniques that I used on Peterloo and Motherless Brooklyn.

Can you think of ways candle-lit and naturally framed sequences changed with the switch to digital?

Yeah, sure. It’s a tricky one, this, because… film is great, right? Film is really good. There’s two things to my answer. One is: I don’t think that either Peterloo or Mr. Turner looks digital. Now, that’s my own opinion because I spent absolutely ages and ages to take that digital curse off the films. I put grain on them, I used old lenses. When I first showed Turner–and I feel the same way about Peterloo–a lot of people said to me before they saw the film, “Oh, my God, you’re doing a thing from the 19th century and you’re doing it on digital as opposed to film?” To me, it’s a lot of bullshit, actually, because they didn’t have either in those times. So what you record it on is another matter. When I saw The Favourite the other night, I thought it looked absolutely fantastic, absolutely brilliant, and that was on film–it was on Panavision. It kind of inspired me. Perhaps I’ll do another one on film. I haven’t been asked, really, in the last few years to do another one on film. Most companies don’t want you to. Robbie did a film with Ken Loach, and they suddenly wouldn’t allow them to shoot on 35mm–and this was two days before they shot. Ken Loach didn’t like the idea of three-perf pulldown, so, in the end, they did Super 16 as opposed to digital. It’s partly the way Ken Loach edits; he edits on a Steenbeck, so it had to be film. I don’t quite get it, what the attraction of that is.

I saw The Favourite at NYFF, where projection specifications are pretty adhered-to, and I was surprised it was shot on film, because it looked so bright. Peterloo is a case where I wouldn’t be 100% sure.

I’m rather obsessed by it, you see–by it not looking digital. I hate that clean, textureless quality, which is another thing I have about digital cameras: people are always saying, “Oh, you should try this, it’s so fast and you can shoot in the middle of the night.” I find that another problem these days, of people shooting darker and darker and darker. There’s a lot of it around and not being able to see anything. A few years ago, DPs wanted to go darker and the directors and producers wanted it to be brighter so they saw more; now it’s the other way around and directors really want it to be dark, and DPs are going, “We should have some definition and bring it up a bit.” It’s changed from what it used to be, but I do see a lot of very flat, muddy images, which I don’t like at all. Dark like they’re trying to hide something.

People who aren’t film-obsessive just tend not to notice. They might think of it as odd-looking, but not in terms of formats. 

No, they don’t. That’s right. Say The Favourite, for example: you kick off with this real desire to shoot on film for the texture, the look of film, but then once you take that negative and scan it, digitally, into the digital domain, you’ve already taken it away from that world. So you talk about The Favourite not looking like film as much–that’s a symptom of the process. Then, once you’re in a digital world, you can do all sorts of things with it that you couldn’t do before on film because, before the advent of scanning onto digital, you couldn’t do that. So, in a way, if you want to be really purist, you wouldn’t do that; you would just shoot it straight and not go through a digital analogue.

A lot of movies shot on film are projected digitally. It’s not often new ones are also shown that way.

I went to NYFF a few years ago and saw a film there which the director came on the stage and announced, like it’s fantastic, “We shot on film and we’re going to project on film.” And everybody in the audience clapped. But when it came on it was, like, fucking awful. It was so scratchy, jumpy in the gate. It didn’t really work. I hated film projection. Hated it. I don’t know many DPs who liked film projection. All that stuff about “authenticity” and “the shutter” can all crap off for me. The truth of that matter is [Laughs] you never knew how it was going to be. Even if you’d done the test it might be scratched now. Such a lottery. A lottery. And you go into where cinemas were showing a film: one cinema looked bright, the other scratched, this, that. Horrible. Horrible, all of it. Something that’s really, really good is the consistency of the prints on digital; that side is done. I did a test last night in the Opera Nova here for Peterloo. I walked in, they put on the first five minutes, brilliant. Didn’t touch anything–just brought the sound up a bit–and that was it. I’ve been here at this festival with prints, head holding in your hands. And in cinemas as well, they’d show it in the wrong formats.

New York’s lighting, for me, is so anemic, but the light in Bydgoszcz is intoxicating. Do you have an inclination to shoot in a place like this?

Yeah, it’s very evocative; there’s no doubt about that. You wake up in the morning and have this misty autumn, with the leaves falling off the trees, and this Eastern European feel of misty mystery. It’s very lovely, the river and all that. The sun’s coming up over the river. It really is great. But I’ll go to New York and I’m turned-on as much there because it’s not like London. When London comes up, “Ugh, here we go again–a London location.” But I feel very excited when I’m in New York because it’s so different.

I’ve never been to London, but I’m sure that if I went there I’d find it exotic.

Oh, yeah, you would. So I feel the same way about everywhere that isn’t London: it’s like a great opportunity, in a way. You go back and it’s so drab, but for people who come back in, they love it. It’s in the eye of the beholder.

Peterloo opens on Friday, April 5.

Kent Jones on ‘Diane,’ the Misconceptions of Making a Film, Criticism, and His Female-Led Cast

Written by Michael Snydel, March 27, 2019 at 9:35 am 

Talking to directors, there’s a common interviewing misconception to overcomplicate the filmmaking process, to assume that the process is the execution of reams of premeditated notes as opposed to felt out in the moment. And while there are certainly filmmakers whose reputation of procedural perfectionism precedes them, more often than not, filmmaking is a matter of doing rather than the thinking.

And yet, it’s a somewhat understandable assumption to make with Diane, the narrative feature debut of prolific film critic and programmer Kent Jones. Best described as a character study with a metaphysical lean, the autumnal Diane’s life is defined by routines; regular reminiscing breakfasts with her dwindling friends, visits to a coterie of relatives and grandchildren, check-ins on her in-and-out of recovery son, Brian (Jake Lacy), and volunteer shifts at the local soup kitchen.

Led by the great character actress Mary Kay Place, her performance is one of profound unification or at least the illusion of this inner peace as she holds together for those around her before letting her guard down for one of the most memorable cinematic renditions of a Bob Dylan song. It’s a film of quiet pleasures in its keen understanding of not only the way older women speak to each other but the lingering mental effects of aging.

In a richly allusive conversation, we talked to Jones about his newfound appreciation for costume design, Olivier Assayas’ filmmaking advice, and how he built such an intimately relatable family dynamic in the film.

The Film Stage: I’ve interviewed a number of directors, but there’s not many that have a long critical history. Reading a few interviews that you’ve done after Diane, it’s humbling and fascinating to hear how you were surprised how much different this experience was than what you expected. Along those same lines, after making the film, has that subsequently changed anything about your critical approach?

Kent Jones: I mean I haven’t really written criticism of newer films per-say with exceptions here and there…

Didn’t you do a Cannes round-up for Film Comment?

I do Cannes coverage and every once in a while when there’s something like Horse Money that I’m moved to write about. I was just talking to someone else here about this. I don’t find it all that rewarding just because I think that when you’re in the middle of a moment there’s so much stuff swirling around that it’s always great to let it sit there for a while. It obviously goes against the grain of the way people conduct themselves for the most part. It’s just like, “Did you get the new record? What did you think of this or that? Wasn’t it awesome. Doesn’t it suck?” Years ago–this is 24 years ago now–I met Olivier Assayas for the first time. He and I corresponded before that by letter and then by fax because I’d been very moved by his films. They seemed very new to me, they really spoke to me. When we met in person, the very first piece I had published in Film Comment was really about him but I was writing film criticism and his very first question to me was, “What kind of film do you want to make?” And so I asked, “Well, why do you ask that?” And he said, “If you’re writing criticism, I’m assuming that’s what it always leads to.”

And of course, in France–in many cases–that’s true. Here, not so much. There’s a lot of cases of film critics who became writers like Frank Nugent for John Ford, but more often than not, it was not the case. [Paul] Schrader actively said, don’t be a critic if you want to make movies because then if you do, if you want to cast somebody, they’re going to remember the terrible things that you said about them and none of the good things. If you’re a critic, you’re a pathologist trying to figure out how the patient died and if you’re a director, you’re trying to keep the baby alive. I could quibble with some of that stuff, but he’s more or less right and I think I was always oriented toward making films. I took an interesting route toward it. I guess I would say I couldn’t have made the film the way I did or even the film that I did had I been younger. And then other than that, it’s a completely different universe.

That’s totally fair. As someone who has written a lot about the nature of a filmmaker’s growth, were you self-consciously thinking about what your debut look like or what it meant?

No, and when I say that, I’m not giving you false bravura or anything like that. I couldn’t think about that. Like, if you take critical terminology such as ‘mise-en-scène’ for instance…. And by the way, as a critic, over the last few years, I became more and more invested in trying to describe the actual fact of filmmaking and how divergent it was from what I was reading in criticism. And even then, when it came time to make the movie, there was a production designer I was talking to who ultimately did not work on the movie and I said to her, “Look, I am happy to admit that I do not know the difference between a production designer and an art director.” And she was like, “Great, I’ll break it down for you. Whenever people think about costume design, they think about sewing and [Luchino] Visconti movies. That’s not costume design. It’s something very different.”

I learned about it as I was making the movie with a great costume designer who I am getting married to in six days. We worked very well together and responded to each other’s work first before anything else. It’s like when I was acting years ago and I took acting classes and I remember I had a monologue from Richard III. And my acting teacher said, “If this doesn’t feel right, that’s great and that’s why it’s perfect for you.” And I really struggled with it. And I remember doing it once and he said, “Oh, all the choices were very good but it just doesn’t ever come off the page.” And I spend a lot of time fretting about it publicly and people got really sick of me talking about it in the group. And then one night I just went back to it and I did it and after it was done, everybody was like, there you go. And I was like, I don’t remember what I did and the teacher said, “That’s the point.”

So the point in filmmaking is not to come armed with like all kinds of ideas about Fritz Lang and [F.W.] Murnau or Paul Thomas Anderson and Pedro Costa or something. The point is to make the movie. Now, having seen movies, obviously it gave me something. And there’s things in it that I stole wholeheartedly. And I mean, stole. It’s not a matter of homage. I stole something from The Magnificent Ambersons and that was helpful in that way to have that kind of visual language. But to make the movie is just pure engagement. As Olivier [Assayas] says, you’re just making decisions.

At first glance, Diane is not necessarily a humdrum character study. There’s a keen sense of observation and a sense of rhythm, but I do think there’s a sense of not deception. I don’t want to make it sound like a trick or gimmick, but in the sense of the way that it expands that does feel pretty conscious. From a script sense was that something that was present in the project from early stages?

Sure, sure. Well, I only had twenty days.

The script had been kind of knocking around for years, right?

Well, the script hadn’t been knocking around for years–the idea had. It started in a very different way. It was just sort of something about my aunts and great aunts. Transmitting that world. Then, at some point, I saw The Rainmaker by [Francis Ford] Coppola and that was like, it has to be for Mary Kay Place. I read The Professor’s House by Willa Cather which is about a professor in Michigan who died out in the pueblos in New Mexico and the second half of the book is largely comprised of excerpts from the student’s diary but the student really became a close friend. And I sort of had an idea of something along those lines and maybe that was what led me to the son and then the son and what he goes through is very rooted in the experience of my closest friend. Not the born again part but the addiction part and the way that it played out. And of course it’s conscious but it’s just sort of like we had 20 days and I knew that the structure, the momentum, the movement of time was very pre-meditated. But that’s not a matter of any kind of film as much as it’s a matter of just making the movie.

You have such a strong ensemble cast of particularly women, who you remember from so many different bit parts but rarely get the screen time they deserve. Going along with conversation about making decisions, how much of those main table conversations were improv and how much of that was creating an environment for the dialogue to emerge.

There’s no improv to speak of.

I guess improv is a bit of a dirty word in some circles.

No, I know what you’re saying. The language was very precise. That was very important to me. It was a certain way of speaking that I remember the people had. “Thank you all to hell,” stuff like that. Things you don’t hear anymore so I wanted that to be a part of the movie.

The way [Mary Kay] Place punctuates so many phrases with “goddamn” is just wonderful.

Oh, thank you. “I wish I could just slip her a pill.” Things like that. I also felt like if you’re an actress over a certain age in this country, obviously a moment is going to come where you’re either going to be Meryl Streep and you’re going to have the opportunity to play Margaret Thatcher and whoever or you’re going to be playing aunts and grandmothers. So that becomes a kind of camaraderie right there. Then there’s the camaraderie of just people. Mary Kay and Andrea are both comedians. I knew that Mary Kay would love Dee Dee O’Connell right away. And then when I had those people in that kitchen. I knew the way I wanted it to feel and I knew the way that I wanted the room to feel. Here’s who everybody is in relation to each other. And we shot for a day and a half and that was the only scene with two cameras for obvious reasons. And you just work to create the environment.

Diane opens on March 29.