Latest Features

‘Woodshock’ Directors on Creating Their Hallucinatory Directorial Debut

Written by Jose Solís, September 22, 2017 at 7:51 am 

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Although until now they’ve only been known as fashion designers, cinema has always been part of Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s work. The siblings often use films as inspiration for their collections and have delivered runway shows dedicated to the likes of Japanese horror movie Kuroneko among others, their elaborate, stunning designs are also staples of awards season red carpets with actresses like Kirsten Dunst and Natalie Portman wearing them to festivals and ceremonies. In fact, Portman collected her first Best Actress Oscar in a purple Rodarte gown, after Kate and Laura had designed many of the costumes for Black Swan. After being so immersed in the world of cinema, it seems that making a film was the logical next step, and so they’ve done with Woodshock, a hallucinatory journey into the mind of Theresa (Dunst) a young woman battling depression after the death of her mother.

The universe the film takes place in seems straight out of Steve Klein photography, and Lars von Trier’s cinema with some dashes of Hitchcock thrown in for good measure, a gothic neon playground in which Theresa’s fears are manifested through the threatening indifference of nature. Dunst gives a marvelous performance and considering she’s featured in almost every scene, she’s the Alice guiding us in this wonderland. I spoke to Kate and Laura Mulleavy about how their work in fashion shaped their film, their influences, and how Dunst almost became the third sibling.

You’ve done music videos with Beach House and other artists, so you’re no strangers to audiovisual work.

Laura Mulleavy: Yeah, with our company Rodarte we worked with Todd Cole, who’s a dear friend of ours. We did three shorts, he was the director and basically what we did was take the idea of the collection and map out the feeling of that which we turned into short films. Those were fully Todd’s vision, we worked with Beach House on one, No Age on the other, and also Deerhunter.

One of my favorite things about Rodarte is that magical juxtaposition of materials you use to make clothes. You bring this sensibility to Woodshock and I hope this doesn’t sound too mystical, but I wondered if writing the screenplay you first envisioned the images and then transformed that into a screenplay?

Laura Mulleavy: The script was actually very descriptive. I don’t know if we would have known it at the time, but looking back on it I would say “this is what it means that this was meant to be.” The script could’ve looked any way, if someone else had directed they might have used a more straightforward visual language, but to us the idea of turning this internal world external, made it very important that the language of the film had to be descriptive to the audience. In order to do that, if Theresa is communicating through touch, or what she’s hearing, she’s communicating to the audience by the way we portray her emotions, that needs to be in mental landscape you guys can hop into and see as her own world. We didn’t want it to feel objective. The movie is about what she’s feeling. Based on your own experience, hopefully you can latch onto some parts of the story, the idea was to say Theresa undergoes an extreme form of death at the beginning and she is reactive to that. The story unfolds as she internalizes and looks inward, that asks questions of the audience about themselves. It’s a very immersive, interactive story.

Kate Mulleavy: From the script writing process we were also very descriptive. We took description further, we described light for instance. Then we shot the whole film on camera except for the scene where the house floats which was the only thing we did in post-production.

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Even the scene where Theresa floats is real?

Kate Mulleavy: We actually rigged Kirsten and had her go up 100 feet through the air.

That’s so scary!

Kate Mulleavy: I wish she was here to tell you some stories. I think that like you pointed out there is something mystical, because Laura and I grew up on the edge of a beautiful old, redwood forest. Where we shot the film was north of where we grew up, the trees there get to be bigger than the Statue of Liberty, they’re the largest living organisms on the planet. I feel when we were kids in some of these forests. There was something that stayed with us our whole life. Being in the presence of those trees makes you think how small you are in the whole scheme of life. We have so much impact and there are so many opportunities for humanity to achieve beauty, but there’s the flipside where it can be very destructive.

Laura Mulleavy: The trees inspire, that river you see in the movie for instance made me think of something like a great mythical Greek birth. You see Theresa become part of the landscape. I always think those trees make you feel there is another presence. What does a tree that’s 400 feet tall, four thousand years old, say to you? It’s not just an object, their power speaks to Theresa, she is aware of their energy.

Kate Mulleavy: In a way the film that came to life onscreen comes from that feeling. What we were trying to do is say if she’s born out of this landscape. There is a psychic vibration to this place. We go on a journey with her and Kirsten had a tremendous task as an actor, which was to take the things in her mind, heart, and soul and just get that onscreen with not a lot of dialogue. What was exciting for us as women, was to have these huge existential ideas of man as an artist or creator, questioning the meaning of life, and we responded to the idea of creating a female character who would go through those emotions.

Laura Mulleavy: That’s interesting Kate, because elements of creation like Mother Nature are described as women. In this day and age there is a complicated dialogue about gender, but I felt this could be explored in a mystical way, and that’s why this voice had to be Theresa’s.

Kate Mulleavy: There’s no good or bad in the film. We wanted to explore sides of humanity we don’t always connect to. In an interesting way Theresa always interacts with characters who ask her questions.

The trees are also in films like Vertigo, so people know them well.

Laura Mulleavy: Yeah! We wanted to explore this mystical realm with them.

Kate Mulleavy: If you ask me what I feel when I’m there I can’t give you logic, and as human beings we often want that. I can only give you the poetic.

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I’m always fascinated by people who go into art after having done something else in their lives. Kate, you were an art history major and Laura you started off in biology, so in a way the movie is a perfect marriage of both your visions.

Kate Mulleavy: Cinema to me is communication through narrative which is a traditional form coming from novel, plays, and picture making which comes from art. Historical paintings told a story, someone would go to watch them, that was their cinema.

The movie starts off with what I think is our biggest fear which is losing our mothers. Did putting this fear onscreen make it feel less scary?

Kate Mulleavy: That’s such a poetic thing, because I think something this film does is show what our fears are. I don’t think we knew when we were doing it that this was what it was about. I wouldn’t want to even think about that, but when it happens people say your world stops. That’s the feeling we wanted to capture in the film. I think the two of us as partners making something together makes us work in an intuitive way. Laura and I have a shared memory bank. When she says something I immediately understand it, we both have a real sensitivity to the things around us. Working with Kirsten added to that level; she’s almost a third sister in the process. Sometimes she’d pull something she knew about us to put in Theresa. We got to open up to her which made for a very creative process.

Laura, you mentioned touch earlier. Watching the film I kept being hypnotized by the textures of the fabric, the tree barks, hair etc. I wanted to touch into the screen.

Laura Mulleavy: I love that so much. I hoped that would translate to the audience, because one of the ways Theresa feels grounded is through her connectivity with things. Kirsten’s acts of touching are incredibly performed but we needed to add a layer to make you feel what she felt. Everything in the film is about textures. Her sweaters are angora. We had layers that made you feel you were part of a tridimensional world. All those things allow you to be part of something immersive, that feeling of wanting to touch is what you feel when you see a redwood. Touch is a great way of communication. The first paintings were done with hands, language started as hand signs. We wanted the film to feel like you could touch it because it was made by someone.

Kate Mulleavy: The house in the movie was built from those trees, we don’t need to tell you that because when you watch the house you can feel it.

Laura Mulleavy: I can’t think of many films that use texture that way. I wondered where that came from and I don’t know. I don’t even have a reference, maybe just in art. The idea of Gerhard Richter is where we started — he smeared his canvases and wipe out this history, I think even the idea of rubbing your hand on something came from his paintings.

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Watching the film’s textures made me think of a couple of things, John Waters’ Polyester with the Odorama cards you’d scratch and sniff…

Kate Mulleavy: They reissued it when I was in school. They did a screening with the scratch and sniff, so I went to see it in San Francisco.

Laura Mulleavy: I love that!

Also those books for little kids with the different textures. Also, how in fashion sketches you have little fabric samples. Cinema itself has a very “designery” lingo, people cut film like fabric, we hear about threads too. I thought maybe that’s where that came from, so I’m curious: where did you feel that fashion and film intersected?

Laura Mulleavy: I thought they intersected in two ways: we’ve always maintained our company as independent. We did that in order to protect our creativity and to say this is our vision and this is what we want to do, we want to share with the world what we have to say. That’s what we wanted to carry into the film. A runway show for instance is like pure theatre. We do it once and whatever happens happens. Working on a film is about perfection. The thing that we were trained is to go on set, have a voice, and let people know we were 100% there to protect our vision. That I learned from design, that our voice is the voice we have to offer. I don’t need to be that other person’s voice, because there’s that other person making it. I need to be us, hopefully that can create an idea people connect to, but I learned it’s important to protect that space. Our purpose is to guide the ship and make sure the people on board care about the project as much as you do, and that their language matches yours.

Kate Mulleavy: You find a way to tell a story and you learn to use all the elements. Coming from design I learned that you can do so much in the smallest gesture. I think that’s thrilling. With the smallest gesture you can make people cry. I’ve seen it in our shows. I felt taking that and expanding that into filmmaker made me realize it’s as much about the biggest understanding as much as the small moments. We lived in those details.

Woodshock is now in limited release.

Frederick Wiseman on ‘Ex Libris,’ the Democracy of Libraries, and Why His Films Would Never Work as a TV Series

Written by Jose Solís, September 19, 2017 at 9:21 am 

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The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, also known as the “Main Branch” of the New York Public Library, is located at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, next to Bryant Park. Almost 150 years ago that was the setting of the Murray Hill Reservoir, which supplied drinking water for most of the city through the end of the 19th century. It’s perhaps no coincide that the NYPL’s headquarters are located there, since they have taken on the duty of supplying the city with knowledge and culture, elements which are as essential to New Yorkers as water. The iconic building is at the center of Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris, an enthralling documentary that chronicles the work the NYPL continues to do since its inception in 1911.

Wiseman’s enlightening, often quite moving film, explores the NYPL’s reach beyond 42nd Street, through its almost 90 branches, which provide courses, talks and, of course, books to the boroughs of the Bronx and Staten Island. In the film Wiseman showcases several aspects of the NYPL including its archives and the arduous work of preservation, master classes in which intellectuals challenge New Yorkers to see the world around them in a different way, and practical courses like job interview prep, and technology lessons. The film arrives at a time when knowledge is under constant attack at the hands of an administration which seems keen on dumbing down Americans in order to maintain the status quo. Wiseman’s generous film then might be also unwillingly be his most political, as it’s impossible to watch Ex Libris and not feel the urgent desire to act.

I sat down with the idiosyncratic filmmaker to discuss the reasons why he wanted to tell the story of the NYPL, how his films are influenced by literature, and how he’s developed an eye for discovering larger than life characters.

Can you recall the earliest experience you had at the public library?

My mother used to take me to the public library by our house in Boston, when I was six or seven years old. I went to the library a lot as a kid. I’m not sure I remember the first one. My mother taught me how to read a lot.

I grew up in a country without libraries, so I was in such awe when I first realized the richness of the experience waiting for me at the NYPL. When did you realize a library was more than just a collection of books as the film shows?

I don’t know when I first felt it, but when I was in school and started writing papers in the 6th or 7th grade — I’m not sure if I knew how to use words like “richness” back then and I probably took it for granted — but I knew that the library was a treasure trove of things I wanted to read.

How much about making Ex Libris had to do with you wanting to know how the NYPL worked?

Well, I’m not aware if I thought that. I really had no experience with libraries since the time I left college or law school which was a very long time ago. I hadn’t thought much about libraries since. I started off with the thought that maybe a library would be a good addition to the institutional series that I’ve been doing. I had no real knowledge of what libraries were currently doing. The president of the NYPL was good enough to give me permission to make this. I spent maybe half a day working on the main branch on 42nd street and another day visiting various branches in Staten Island, the Bronx and Manhattan, and then I started shooting. The shooting of the film is the research, which is a perfect example of the method I use when I make my films. During the shooting I accumulate a lot of material with no particular idea of how I’m going to use it, and no knowledge of what the point of view or the structure of the film will be. It’s only in the editing that it all gets figured out, so the final film is a response of being at the place and then spending a year thinking about it.

The structure of the film made me think of the solar system with the main branch serving as the sun around which all the smaller planets revolve. How did you settle on this in the editing?

There are more locations in this movie than in any other film I’ve done. I think the movie takes place in 13 or 14 different sites, and in the editing it was a problem to figure out the links and how to suggest the geographical differences in the location of the libraries. As you see in the film I did it with transitional shots, suggesting we’re no longer in midtown Manhattan but in the Bronx. Those transitional shots also serve as pauses between mayor sequences. Each movie presents a different series of challenges, because the locations are different and the kinds of transitions you need as a result are also different.

I loved how you also crafted a story about the importance of immigrants in creating the fabric of America. You show scenes in which Asian immigrants go to the library to get help with their computers for instance. Did the aftermath of the election have anything to do with your wanting to highlight this?

I finished the editing two days after the election so the election didn’t guide me, but I think Trump did me a great service because everything he represents is the opposite of what the NYPL represents. The library represents democracy, openness, inclusiveness, diversity, educational opportunity regardless of race, ethnicity, or social class. I don’t need to outline what Trump represents. The consequences of Trump’s election underline the importance of the library, which in a sense, not deliberately, represent the opposite of what he is. The library is perhaps the most democratic institution. It’s open to everyone.

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Watching the film I kept thinking “I hope the president never watches this movie because then he’ll try to shut down the NYPL.”

[Laughs] I don’t think he’d have the patience to watch three hours and 17 minutes.

He’d realize the government is funding his nemesis.

There is an effort on the part of the right to dumb down American education. The budget for the humanities is often the first thing that gets cut. Sometimes it’s necessary, but sometimes it’s a political motive, a wish to create a society of technocrats, people who don’t know how to think clearly about social issues. There are well-financed groups on the far right, the Koch brothers being one of many, who are trying to do that.

By the end of the film you’ve showed how despite the majesty of the main branch, it’s not an intimidating place at all.

I hope people aren’t intimidated. In my experience it’s a place that welcomes everybody and people help with your questions. In one sequence in the film we have one woman who is trying to find the town her father and grandfather came from. You can call the NYPL and have questions like that answered on the phone. It’s an institution with very deep roots in the community, which is impressive in any age, but especially now. The only condition is you can’t disrupt, but other than that you don’t need an ID, you can borrow a book with a driver’s license, it’s very easy to take books out, and everybody can use the facilities. That’s one of the many reasons it represents the idea of democracy at its best.

In the film we hear a discussion about how NYPL employees should deal with the homeless people who come into the building to sleep. I was quite moved by the way in which the executives spoke about the issue with such humanity. We don’t find out what they decided to do in the end, but it made me wonder if you go back to find out what happened to unfinished storylines in your films?

No, once I finish a movie I’ve exhausted the subject from my point of view. I rarely watch the movie again because it’s more interesting for me to go on to something new. By the time a movie’s finished I can recite all the dialogue by heart; maybe I watch them 10 or 15 years later. There’s movies I haven’t looked at for over 30 years — not for lack of interest, but because I have them in my head.

Can you talk about the experience of turning Titicut Follies into a ballet?

I worked very closely with the choreographer. I spent about six-to-seven weeks in rehearsal. I’m not a choreographer but I offered my comments on the dramatic aspects all the time. I enjoyed the process, because I’d made a couple of ballet movies and I go to the ballet. I was struck by how many of the ballets that I saw were either re-doings of 19th century ballets or 20th century ballets that echoed the 19th century ones. I didn’t see many dances that dealt with contemporary lives other than ballets about relationships. As important and interesting as relationships can be, there are other things going on in the world. I thought a prison for the criminally insane was an extreme aspect of contemporary life that hadn’t been touched on, and also the movements of psychotic people – their tics and obsessional behavior – might be transformed into dance. I wanted to see how all of that could be transformed into dance using classical ballet technique.

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Did this make you want to make more ballet films?

No, I’ve had the privilege of making movies about two of the greatest dance companies in the world, the American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opera Ballet. I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to do another one, but it’s not in my plans.

Would you say that the structure of the NYPL remind you of any other of the institutions you’ve covered?

I hadn’t thought about that. Only in the sense that any institution of any size has a structure, but I think the NYPL, of all the movies I’ve done, is the most complex organizational structure because it’s so big. There’s the main branch and around 90 subsidiary branches of varying sizes — the NYPL at Lincoln Center is enormous, there’s a special library for the blind, in addition to all the other branches. The principal administrators who work out of 42nd street are supervising and devising strategies for such a wide range of activities. I was interested in suggesting that complexity.

You could’ve made a whole movie about the branch at Lincoln Center.

You could’ve made a whole movie about any of the branches!

With so many potential roads to take, how do you restrict yourself when trying to find the story you want to tell?

It was the challenge of the editing, to find a rhythm that would suggest the variety of activities taking place within the system as a whole and not concentrate on just one place, but also to suggest how it’s all planned from a central place and implemented in the branches. It’s a two-way collaboration. Obviously the branches are sort of the front. People running the branches know things the administrators don’t, but the administrators are the ones dealing with the whole picture and they encourage the people in the branches to participate and provide input that will help influence decisions that are made centrally.

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I think that in this film, more than any other you’ve done, you’re expecting a direct reaction from people. After watching the movie I spent the rest of my afternoon working from the branch on 42nd street for instance.

Oh, that’s great! I don’t make the movies with that in mind, but I’m delighted to hear the movie had that effect on you. It’s a great place for learning and to hang out, everything is there. If you’re a curious person you can spend your whole life in that reading room.

I love the processes you show, like the preservation of huge images and the recording of audiobooks. Were there any processes you shot but simply couldn’t fit in the final cut?

Usually what ends up in the movie is naturally what I think are the best of the rushes. On the other hand, a place as vast at the NYPL you can’t cover everything. I don’t believe any of the movies I made are comprehensive in a sense of me covering all the bases. With the NYPL I only begin to suggest the complexity of the place.

I feel that by now you’ve made a movie for almost every kind of person in the world.

I’m glad to hear you say that but it was certainly never a formal goal. I’m interested in making movies about as many topics as I can. I like the idea that cumulatively I’ll have made movies about as many different aspects of contemporary life as I can during the time I’m alive and can work.

What are some topics you’ve never been able to cover but would love to?

The CIA, the White House, the FBI. But somehow I doubt I’ll get permission.

Your last few movies have mostly focused on the arts, which is beautiful in a twisted way, because especially right now you’re helping us remember that the arts are pillars of society.

Exactly.

Going back and thinking about National Gallery and Ex Libris, for example, do you feel more excited to be making these movies when the world really needs them?

It’s funny, I don’t think about it in those terms, but rather subjects that interest me and I’ve never covered before. I’ve repeated myself a little bit with dance movies and films on schools, but the movies aren’t made out of formal analysis but more what interests me at the time for many reasons. It also has to be a subject I can spend a year on, it’s a total immersion so it has to be something that really interests me.

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You’re notoriously never in your movies, but you also must be in them.

A couple of times in the past as a joke I’ve been physically present in a shot.

Like Hitchcock. Would you feel comfortable giving any clues of how we can find your ideas in the films? I keep hearing the word “Wiseman-esque” and thought you could help me decipher what that means.

I have no idea what that means. One critic I know of, but won’t identify, uses that phrase, but to him that means movies about poor people in relation to the state. He doesn’t like the movies I make about cultural institutions because they’re not “Wiseman-esque,” but that shows a misunderstanding of what I’m trying to do. I think ballet is as Wiseman-esque as welfare because the technique is the same and it’s the same effort in trying to understand what’s going on in the place. Also, I hope one of the things that characterizes the work as a group of films is that it’s just as important to make movies about a group of people who are doing a good job and trying to do one, as it is to show people exploiting other people and taking advantage of them. For example in ’86 or ’87 I made a movie about an intensive care unit at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and the nurses and doctors there are busting their asses to help people. Similarly when I made Hospital in 1968 the doctors and nurses would work 24-36 hours without resting because they wanted to help people, but there was a Marxist critic who wrote about the movie and said it didn’t show the doctors and nurses exploiting blacks and Hispanics. Clearly he’d never spent any time in an emergency room because it wasn’t the case. It was an argument from an ideological position. Similarly the people in the NYPL and the staff is really interested in helping people. That’s nice to see in any day and age but particularly nice to see now.

It’s so interesting that this critic would say that about your movies about art, because even in Ex Libris we see the differences between social classes and ethnicities. People get different things out of the NYPL according to their social status. We see white people attending lectures with big stars, while people of color come for help with job interviews and practical lessons.

One of the themes of the movie is the experience of blacks in America.

One of my favorite moments in any of your movies is the fashion show in High School.

[Laughs] When the teacher says her legs are too thick for the stuff. It’s funny and sad. It’s ridiculous too!

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Sadly I’ve never watched Model, but I wondered if this sequence was on your mind when you shot it years later?

There’s no direct connection really. Model happened through a very funny sequence of events. I was sitting at my dentist’s office and the dentist is the only place where I’d read People magazine and they had an article about a modeling agency. I was 48 at the time and figured it was the right time in my life to make a movie about models, so I did.

And yet no movie about the dentist.

W.C. Fields has done that brilliantly.

Nowadays we often see people from nonfiction films and reality television become stars of sorts. Your films are filled with incredible people, how come none of them have really had a “breakthrough” in this sense?

The taxi prof in In Jackson Heights was great! That’s one of the funniest scenes in any of the movies. He’s a great teacher and has a great presence, but fortunately for him he didn’t become a reality TV star.

Going through the rushes how do you know when you’ve found this star?

I never think of it in those terms. I just respond to whether they are good sequences. The verbal and visual content have to be interesting, At Berkeley is more dependent on talk, Model is more dependent on pictures.

Are you interested in dividing your movies and making television series?

No. Sometimes I’ve been asked to break the movies up but they wouldn’t work. From my point of view they have very carefully thought out dramatic structures. If, for instance, I made Ex Libris into three movies it wouldn’t work. It would be a different movie because each time I’d have to start all over again and establish the characters, the place, the interrelationship with the themes would be impossible to explore. In addition, sometimes the films are long, but they’re long not out of any perverseness on my part but because the subjects are complicated. I have a greater obligation to the people who gave me permission to make the film and the people in the film, than I do to the needs of a theater or television chain. I’m grateful to public television because they always show my films as I made them without any interference for primetime.

Ex Libris more than any of your other films made me think of an epic novel like War and Peace…

I like your association.

I wondered if you felt your films had more in common with literature than any other artform.

My approach to making these movies is much more novelistic than it is journalistic, I still read much more than I go to the movies. I’m aware of influences, but I think I’m more influenced by the books I’ve read than the movies I’ve seen. Whatever form you work with, in an abstract sense you’re dealing with the same issues: characterization, the passage of time, metaphor, abstraction, etc. That’s the kind of thing I have in mind because the structure of the movies is very carefully worked out. For me the editing is much more like writing than anything else, I have to think about the way I introduce characters and what I say about them. For a movie to work it has to work in two ways: as a literal track and an abstract track. The real movie is created in the relationship between the literal and the abstract.

Why don’t you go to the movies more often?

After 10 hours in the editing room it’s hard. When I go to the movies I like seeing old, classic movies. Often when I go to the movies they’re terrible. Maybe I just pick the wrong ones?

Ex Libris is now in theaters.

Kelly Reichardt on Nature, Politics, and What She’d Change About Documentary Filmmaking

Written by Jose Solís, September 19, 2017 at 9:15 am 

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Kelly Reichardt’s ability to capture the plight of everyday people is evident in works like Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy, and Certain Women, all of which perfectly capture the heightened feeling of isolation propelled by the modern world. Her brilliant observations on the ways in which we try to reach out to one another, and our desire to connect are at the center of a mid-career retrospective taking place at the Museum of Modern Art, where they are screening the six films she’s made since 1994. Reichardt is an American auteur in the tradition of mavericks like John Ford and John Cassavetes, who worked outside the system to make sure their visions were never compromised by studio interference.

In the two decades she’s been making films, Reichardt has also become an excellent chronicler of our times. Like the journals kept by the characters in Meek’s Cutoff, in her films one can find an insightful history of modern America, that’s often more accurate than what we see in the news. I spoke to Reichardt about her work to date and looked back at some of her key works, before wondering what’s next for her.

Congratulations on your mid-career retrospective at MoMA. How does looking back on your films make you feel?

Old! [Laughs] But also grateful.

I love how most of your films show us how nature can be scary. In films like Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy it becomes the source of pain, while in something like Night Moves it becomes a political motivation.

Nature is scary. Have you seen what’s going on in the news right now? There are hurricanes, earthquakes every day. All parts of nature are scary now. Night Moves had a script I co-wrote with Jonathan Raymond and he’s very good at writing about nature. We wanted to make a film about our relationship to nature, but we have Jesse Eisenberg’s character who becomes an extremist which we see was perhaps not a very good idea for him. We identify with his character for a while. The film focuses more on the characters and their plan, so you know what the agenda is and the next thing that needs to be done. The bigger question becomes the action, and if what the characters have done resonates. It opens up a different perspective. That was a different kind of filmmaking for me. It was more genre-centric.

Meek’s Cutoff was such a great representation about the early years of the Obama era. When you’re making films you probably don’t think in such blunt terms about their meaning, do you often find that your films tell more about the time than you expected them to?

It wasn’t really Obama era. It was Bush era when we started working on the film, that was another film from a John Raymond script. Meek was a real person, but the script is fictionalized. Meek was this guy who was leading these people and didn’t know how to get them out of where they were. It’s a character-driven film as well. We got very deep into women’s journals from the period and the bigger ideas we started from faded into the background. The first seed of the idea was about this guy who claims to know what he’s doing,. It wasn’t Obama. He wasn’t on the scene yet.

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I always thought it was more about Obama trying to get the country out of the mess Bush left it in.

Well, it takes a while to get a movie made. [Laughs]

Do you feel that the Trump era might deliver exciting art? Is this maybe one of the good things that will come out of this administration?

Gosh, I’m not worried about there being more artists I guess. I worry about there being more scientists. This morning I’m watching the hurricanes and the forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, and yeah, I don’t feel that good art will be enough to get us out of the current situation. There’s nothing I can really articulate about our times. It’s a little overwhelming.

Is there any art giving you solace when CNN gets to be too much to handle?

Oh, I never watch CNN anyway. Art, film, and music are always the place to go. I finally got a turntable again and I borrowed some of my dad’s records. The only way to survive Trump is maybe through jazz; maybe eight years of Coltrane will help us. You’re asking me about the glass being half full and I’m not that kind of person. Sometimes when I listen to the rhetoric going around I think if only art would enter people’s minds a bit more, it’s good for the brain. Although there’s also a lot of bad art out there in the world.

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You often work with movie stars, but in your films they truly become embodiments of everymen and women. Have you ever been interested in the idea of doing nonfiction work?

That’s because those actors are very skilled, that’s about them. Maybe the circumstances they find themselves in are more relatable. They’re films that deal with the nitty gritty of life, so I think that offers more space for actors not to make grand gestures. They’re not really called for. I love watching documentary filmmaking, but it’s not a draw for me. I don’t shoot like a documentary filmmaker. I’m a very traditional formalist. The idea of letting the camera just follow the action is not really what I do. I do want to say one thing though, if I got to be Queen for a day and could change something about documentary filmmaking, I would pass a law saying that if you’re a documentary filmmaker you’re not allowed to put yourself in your own documentary. I can’t wait for that phase to be over. I sound like my grandmother when she said she couldn’t wait for the “blue jeans phase to be over.” I’m very hopeful.

When in 20 years we see another retrospective of your work at MoMA what do you think we’ll see then?

Oh my gosh, that’s counting chickens isn’t it? Rather than documentaries I’m keen on challenging myself in the opposite direction. The next film I’m making isn’t exactly a fairy tale cause there are no fairies in it, but there’s a bit of that in there, let’s put it that way.

Kelly Reichardt: Powerfully Observant is now underway at MoMA through September 25 and Certain Women is now available on The Criterion Collection.

John Woo on Getting Back to Action with ‘Manhunt,’ the Symbolism of White Doves, and James Bond

Written by Zhuo-Ning Su, September 11, 2017 at 8:48 am 

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Premiering out of competition at the Venice Film Festival last week before traveling to Toronto, John Woo’s breezy, tongue-in-cheek actioner Manhunt sees him return to his roots in genre filmmaking and delighted fans on both continents, including our own reviewer out of TIFF.

We had the honor of speaking with the iconic director in Venice about making a movie in Japan, how he collaborates with action choreographers and, of course, those white doves.

How does it feel to be regarded as a legend of action cinema?    

John Woo: I’m not a legend. I’m just one of many filmmakers. I know I love film. I love being part of the filmmaking world. I’m not trying to be humble when I say this but I’m very much still a student. I still like to learn from my fellow filmmakers, from world cinema. I learn so much by watching other people’s work.

May we conclude from the beginning and ending of Manhunt that you’re feeling nostalgic about classic cinema?       

john-wooWell, the film Manhunt itself is a tribute to Ken Takakura [the iconic Japanese actor who starred in the 1976 film adaptation of the same novel]. It’s also a tribute to the oldies.  You can tell from the style of the movie, how it almost feels like an old Japanese film. Even some of the colors we tried to tune into old-time Fuji colors.

Personally, I love old movies. For me the 1960s and 70s were the best years of cinema. So many masters, so many great films. I’m still inspired by them. In comparison, today’s movies seem emptier.

The 1976 original is very serious, masculine film. In comparison you put a lot of humor into this one. Can you talk about staying true to and deviating from the original film?   

Because we didn’t get the rights, we could not remake the 1976 film but only make another film based on the same novel. It has the same storyline but we had the freedom to add in new scenes, new characters. In any case, I like to tell stories in my own style. For me the original film was too serious. That’s not my style. I like my action scenes to have more of a comic book sense of lightness.

With Manhunt you seem to be looking back quite self-consciously at some of your earlier films. Is this meant to be one for those fans?

It’s definitely for the fans, but also for myself. I had made too many big-budget movies and I got fed up doing that. A few of these big-budget films I did went on to become hits, so I got labeled a blockbuster director and I never liked it. As you can imagine, the more money you get for a project, the bigger the pressure. It takes away some of the joy of the creative process, the fun of making films. You have to deal with numbers all the time. I hated that and wanted to go back to making smaller films, something like The Killer, if only for the creative freedom.

Manhunt feels a bit like a John Woo greatest hits collection, with car chases, fist fights, sword fights, and massive shoot-outs. Did you enjoy creating any particular action scene the most?

I like the jet ski chase and also the scene where the two male leads are handcuffed together and both shoot with their free hand at the same time. It looks pretty much like a man holding guns in both hands.

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Speaking of that amazing scene, was that your idea or the idea of the action choreographer? How do you work with the choreographers in general?

Most of what you see is my idea. When I was younger, I used to choreograph all the action scenes myself. I would jump on a table, dive onto the ground and shoot this way and that. Those days many Hong Kong directors didn’t know how to shoot action sequences and had their choreographers shoot them. So you notice two different styles within the same film. I didn’t want that. So I controlled everything, designed everything, and even operated the cameras and did the editing all by myself. Of course I need a stunt coordinator, but mostly I provide them with the ideas.

Also I care deeply about how my actors look on screen. None of the actors I’ve worked with were trained fighters, including Chow Yun-Fat, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage. Tom Cruise is a special case. He’s so good at it. But you do have to tell them how to hold a gun, how to fight, how to react, so I did it all myself, because I know how to make them look good. I know how to create a hero on screen. Even the heroines in Manhunt, it was me who designed the action specifically for them.

Can you talk about what inspired you to use white doves in your films in the first place?

When we were shooting the final scene of The Killer on the church set, I was trying to find a way to show the true spirit of the two protagonists – the cop and the killer – in a movie this heroic and romantic. Both have been misunderstood by the world and I wanted to figure out a montage or a shot that would somehow reveal their true character. It suddenly occurred to me to put some white doves in the scene. When our hero was shot, I cut to the white doves flying over and it looked beautiful. When those two shots were edited together, somehow the viewer could feel the heart of the movie. Also, these guys have done some bad things in their lives but their souls got saved in the end, which I also wanted to express through this image.

It wasn’t easy to shoot the pigeons though. Obviously they never did more than one shot and kept flying away. So we had to buy some new ones every day. But anyway, since it worked out well, it somehow became one of my trademarks.

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Are there advantages to going back to working in Asia?

I like to shoot movies in different countries. I’m so happy to have shot Manhunt entirely in Japan, which was a great learning experience for me. Also the volatile relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese people is well-known. I hope by doing this I can send a message that we can still be friends and work together. That’s another reason why I did the film in a humorous, fun way. I try to not take things too seriously. Life is too short. We should try to find ways to appreciate and not hate each other. My next project, also a killer-themed movie, will be shot in Europe, which is something I’ve never done before.

What was the experience like shooting in Japan?

I love the Japanese crew. 90% of the crew working on this movie were Japanese. They were very professional and could work 12 to 16 hours a day without any complaints. They enjoyed the filmmaking process. Also the Japanese people really amazed me. All those crowds you see in the big set pieces, none of them were extras. They were all volunteers. And they brought their own costumes too. They came, participated in the scene, and just went back to work the next day. Some students also worked on the film for free, they just wanted the experience. That really moved me.

On the other hand, I must say it’s not always easy to shoot in Japan, because there are so many rules. It’s hard to shoot any scene on a business street, for example. But the local government did give us as much support as they could.

On a personal level I was very happy to finally shoot a film in Japan as I’m a huge admirer of Japanese cinema.

The use of CGI has become standard in action films these days. Do you prefer CGI or physical stunts?

I still prefer physical stunts. Unless we can’t get the actors together on set, then we’ll have to shoot them separately with a green screen.

Will we ever see a James Bond movie by John Woo?

I met the producers many years ago and they expressed interest in having me do it. But somehow that never came about. I look forward to doing it someday. I really love James Bond.

Manhunt premiered at Venice Film Festival.

Follow our complete Venice 2017 coverage.

Tsai Ming-liang on Confronting Death in ‘The Deserted’ and the Future of Virtual Reality

Written by Zhuo-Ning Su, September 8, 2017 at 8:08 am 

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This year the Venice Film Festival is hosting a separate competition section dedicated to VR cinema – a first worldwide. Among the projects shortlisted, one name probably jumped out more than the others: Taiwan-based filmmaker and celebrated master of slow cinema Tsai Ming-liang.

Not necessarily the filmmaker one associates with pushing technological boundaries and crafting effects-enhanced spectacles, Tsai gave us the typically quiet, artfully designed The Deserted (at 56 minutes by far the longest-running title in the section).

After we last checked in with Mr. Tsai two years ago in Venice, we had the pleasure of sitting down with him again to talk about VR filmmaking, control and what kind of movies he likes to watch.

The Film Stage: Did you know that the location for the festival’s VR section, the island Lazzaretto Vecchio off the coast of Lido, used to house a hospital during the plague epidemic from the 15th to the 17th century and that they later found more than 1500 skeletons there?    

Tsai Ming-liang: Yes, I knew about this.

Travelling there, I was thinking how appropriate a place it is to screen The Deserted (the Chinese original title refers to the temple Lanre Si, made famous by the most widely read supernatural tale in classical Chinese literature).     

Yeah, I guess it’s meant to be.

You have used the theme of ghosts in your previous film Goodbye, Dragon Inn and again in The Deserted. Can you talk about this thematic choice?   

As always I approach my films from a human state of mind. When you reach a certain age or fall ill, you can’t help but think about things like death and the past, including ghosts and dreams of the past. For this project I’d also been thinking about the question of healing. Coincidentally, the hospital you mentioned, it was likewise a place that housed patients to be healed.

The whole project started when [Lee] Kang-Sheng [career-long collaborator/lead actor] was ill for a couple of years and I was taking care of him. During that time we felt a special connection to the ruins we lived in and the natural environment surrounding it in the mountains.

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Did you choose to move there because of the illness?

That’s correct. Living there, you realize that healing takes many forms, sometimes it happens intangibly. The company we offered each other, for example, and nature itself also played a part. You notice life in its natural state, things you completely forget about when living in the cities. Since last year I’ve been meaning to write a script about this – being ill while living in the mountains. When I was approached to do a VR film, I took a part from that story and turned it into The Deserted.

What convinced you to do a VR film?

About one year ago, the former director of the Venice Film Festival, Marco Müller, contacted me about making a VR film. He wanted to start an international film festival and to open it with a VR film, which he would like me to shoot. While this eventually didn’t work out, I managed to do some research on and got a rough idea of the technology. At that point I was feeling conflicted about it because the technology obviously wasn’t ready and it seemed like very complicated, cumbersome work. Then came the offer from (Taiwanese tech company) HTC. They wanted me to do their first VR narrative film. I learned more about the technology and checked out what had been done with this new medium. The technology wasn’t perfected then either – nor is it today – people are still in the process of figuring it out. So I saw it as an invitation to experiment.

Did this new medium make you approach filmmaking in any differnt way than you normally would have?

Basically I still approached it the same way I did all my films. I use the same actors I’ve always worked with, and thematically it’s related to my previous films. It’s just done with a different form of expression. For example, you can’t do close-up’s anymore. Also, as the frame falls away, the traditional notion of composition doesn’t apply anymore. The equipment also posed limitations. The actors can’t be too far apart from one another.

After learning about these rules, I realized it’s in a way similar to doing theater. Only it’s not your traditional theater, but one that is for yourself alone and one where you can choose the angle from which to view the performance. So I see myself in the role of the viewer and what I ask myself first is not “What should I be seeing in this other space?“ but “When I enter this other space, seeing what would calm me down?“ What counts for me is how to achieve a state of calm in order to really see something. The creation of many stimuli to be looked at simultaneously is not something I aspire to because that’s not how I live.

Then came the question of how we can create the most comfortable visual experience for the viewer. I got my cinematographer on board in the hopes that the picture quality of the VR film will be as good as my regular film work. However advanced the VR technology is, these remain my concerns and all the technical stuff comes later.

And how was the post-production process?

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Very complicated. A lot of things we had no control over. Not even the technicians knew exactly how far they could go, so it was a process of constant experimenting.

Your films are known for their stillness. VR as a new medium seems to be dynamically oriented as it encourages motion and interaction. Do you see a conflict in that?

I believe the very common claim in film that “You must offer many things to the viewer to be looked at“ is a simplistic supposition. Also I don’t think VR as a medium is limited in this way. There are many possibilities to be explored.

For example, VR could be used for educational purposes. Once you think of it that way, you realize that a VR film can also have a single focus. It’s not just about gaming or stimulation. The essence of VR should be the creation of a different space which, upon the viewer’s entry, feels real. It should be a space you can observe more freely and in a variety of ways. In my opinion, to think that VR is a strictly dynamic medium would be underestimating its potential. So my initial thought was actually how to make the viewer not feel the need to keep moving about. I want the viewer to re-examine these common assumptions. Of course they can still freely move about, but gradually they would cease to do that just for the sake of it, but do it purposefully. Which means, if they wish to look at the wall, they would turn their head and look at the wall. If they wish to see outisde the window at the back, they would know to turn their head to do so. They are free to choose where to look and for how long. Ultimately it still comes down to what you’re trying to express through the content.

Directors are more or less obsessed with control. In your work, one has the particular impression that every single detail of every single frame is micro-managed to be presented to the audience. With VR, the viewer is tempted, encouraged to keep exploring and not necessarily look at the place you want them to when you want them to. Are you fine with this way of viewing your work?

I feel like I’m still very much in control. At least those audience members I want to control would still be controlled. Of course many people are not interested in my work, there’s no controlling them. As for those interested in finding out what I have to say, their viewing experience is actually still controlled in the sense that they perceive themselves to be in a space conceived by me. It’s not just about what they see anymore, but where they are.

The time element is also very much controlled by me in the sense that I decide – through editing – how long the viewer stays in one particular space. During that time, even if the viewer closes their eyes, they are still there and they can feel it.

For your many fans, the biggest appeal of seeing a VR film by Tsai Ming-liang might be the possibility to inhabit a space that you inhabit, the way as you experience it. Do you think VR offered a better approximation of your world than traditional film?

I think those are two different things. You can’t think of them in terms of one being more or less than the other in any way. You get a different experience with each, that’s all. Whether in regular 2D or in VR, what the viewer sees or feels is my experience. It’s not my intention to pursue a more advanced or evolved Tsai Ming-liang experience with VR.

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As we’ve come to expect from your work, there are long takes in The Deserted where the actors perform seemingly simple tasks or do not appear to be doing anything at all. What directions do you give them for such singularly challenging scenes?

Over the years I’ve started giving fewer and fewer directions. The way I direct my actors is usually done before shooting begins. We would discuss their roles and the state of mind they are in. For example: you are a fish. The relationship between you and [Lee] Kang-Sheng is that you’re his fish. Or: in this scene you should laugh. It’s up to you to decide how to laugh but you should communicate genuine happiness and a sense that the world is beautiful. Usually that’s all the directions I give.

Take the lovemaking scene in this film as example, you cannot tell them how to have sex. The actors, once they’re placed inside a particular context, they would figure out and respond to the circumstances themselves. If you give them specific directions, they would have no choice but to do it exactly as described. I usually don’t like what comes out of that.

Also, a performance is not provided by the actors alone. There’s also a spatial element. The atmosphere plays a part too. When all these elements come together, the performance is the natural result. In the case of my movies, which are not dialogue-driven, the performance must look like something that happens most naturally. My way of achieving that is to put the actors in the right space and situation.

Does Tsai Ming-liang the auteur filmmaker also like to watch movies?

I love watching movies and watch all kinds of them. Oldies, current releases, commercial movies including horror flicks… I watch them all.

So you don’t just like avant-garde art films.

No, I actually watch more commercial movies, but of course I enjoy only the ones that are well-made.

Are there any directors you particularly admire?

Hmm… I like many filmmakers, but Ridley Scott comes to mind first. I really admire his work.

The Deserted premiered at Venice Film Festival.

Follow our complete Venice 2017 coverage.

Dardenne Brothers on Finding the Rhythm of ‘The Unknown Girl’ and Forgetting the Past

Written by Nick Newman, September 6, 2017 at 3:15 pm 

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Those with any standing interest in the Dardenne brothers are well aware that The Unknown Girl is not a standard project, at least in how it’s traveled from creation to release. Breaking their long-standing one-every-three-years tradition, premiering but two (two!) years after Two Days, One Night, is one thing, and a forgivable thing at that had it earned the critical plaudits and awards handed them every single go-round. That it hobbled out of Cannes with, at best, “friendly” notices (if that) and nothing else in tow is, in and of itself, enough, but then the perfectionist pair went and reedited the film on account of these issues. Are some of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers handing us a damaged object?

To my mind, no. The Unknown Girl is über-Dardenne brothers, a seemingly slight detective story collapsing nearly innumerable aesthetic, formal, and thematic interests into a warm embrace, reminding us yet again why their voices are indispensable. Speaking to them at last year’s New York Film Festival, I found myself asking more about the strange contexts surrounding this project — a process that initially left them uneasy, but which led to an open, honest discussion of where they went wrong before steering back on the right course.

A great thanks to Dominique Borel, who provided on-site translation.

The Film Stage: I’m fascinated by the clockwork-like practice of showing up at Cannes every three years — but now, with The Unknown Girl, we’re two years out from Two Days, One Night. I have to assume the film’s screenplay being written years before plays a big part in this shift.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Yeah, a few years ago. It wasn’t complete when we were shooting Two Days, One Night — but it had been broached many, many times, and it’s because we, sort of by chance, met Adèle Haenel that we started working on the screenplay again.

Did the thought of breaking this tradition ever cross your mind, for any reason whatsoever?

Luc Dardenne: No. We were done with the screenplay earlier, so we moved faster.

What we have now is a post-Cannes edit where several minutes were cut and 32 changes were made, partly because of the mixed response from European critics. I wonder if you were at all concerned about having too much outside influence — even though the film is ostensibly complete, something outside shapes what we now see.

LD: We had already decided, even before going to Cannes, that we wanted to eliminate about a minute from one of the scenes in the film, and when we started to go back into the editing room, it was only to do that — initially. So then the editor said to us, “You know, we can cut it this way, but we can also cut it this way by cutting over here and over here.” [Bangs table] So we said, “Okay, we’re going to look at the whole film all over again.” And in one day we just went, “We’re cutting here, here, here, here,” and we never even went back over it; we just did it. The next day, we viewed the film again, and we were happy. We found the rhythm of the movie, and we didn’t find the rhythm before Cannes — and the critics were right. It’s not very fun, but they were right.

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For artists of your precision, I’d imagine it’s rather difficult to enter Cannes with a cut not entirely to your specifications.

JPD: No! Because we went there like that, or we wouldn’t have. I mean, if we were so sure of those cuts, we would have done it before Cannes. I mean, you can’t go back and rewrite history, but normally, when we finish shooting a film, we wait two weeks before starting to edit; this time, we didn’t do it that way. We ended our shoot on Thursday, and Monday, we were in the editing room. And that was a terrible mistake, because we didn’t give ourselves enough time to free ourselves from the shoot. So, as you saw, we have long, sequential shots — as you can see from the movie — and they can bewitch you, those long takes.

And, at that point, we’re still completely fascinated and mesmerized by the work that we’ve done, and it’s hard to start making cuts immediately. As Luc said, when we did decide to make the cut, it happened in one day. After that, people either like or don’t; that’s another question. Because, from the beginning, the challenge for us in the movie was finding the right balance between her job as a doctor and her quest for the name of the girl. In the second editing, we felt that we were better able to do that because we were able to get more in Jenny’s head and not in the chronological order.

Why did you start editing at a quicker pace?

LD: Well, it’s true that Cannes was coming up. We knew that we were probably going to spend a lot of time in the editing room; furthermore, we had the composition and the music with the boys singing, and we had to integrate all that, and we knew that was going to be a long process. The composer that did the song which the boy sings, he also had written other music for the film, and we were thinking how to integrate that; we ended up not using any music at all. So we pressured ourselves a little bit, and we shouldn’t have.

JPD: We learn every day. At every age.

I love this as an über-Dardenne film, e.g. the narrative recalls La Promesse, and this woman’s journey brings to mind Two Days, One Night. Are you especially conscious of narrative overlaps and echoes with your other films?

LD: I don’t think so. I think that, when you create something new, you have to forget what preceded it. So if you don’t let all that go, you start repeating things, and we know that there are certain things that are our own personal obsessions, but just because we talk about those things all the time. Sometimes we say, “Watch out. Here, we’re clearly doing something that’s a little too identical.” So we do recognize that. We think about it. But you have to sort of throw yourself into the void and just move forward, and we know the obsessions are going to come back to haunt us. Here, of course there is a similarity between Two Days, One Night and our character in this movie, because in one, she goes from house-to-house; here, she goes from person-to-person. It’s not the same, but there’s an echo.

Being a Dardenne brothers film, The Unknown Girl features appearances by Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet; and their casting will, I think, signal certain things about their characters. I wonder if, first, you know who they’ll play while in the writing process; second, if you worry about them possibly signaling too much.

JPD: First, no. But for the second: it’d be wrong to say we never think of it. We always thought, in the case of Jérémie — because, with Olivier, it’s a much smaller part — that he would never be giving a sign of where the character was going to go in the film. We did think, when people saw Jérémie appear in the film, they would think, “A-ha. Here’s someone who’s going to have an important part.” See, we were pretty sure that once you saw Jérémie appear on the screen, the audience would know he was guilty of something — but we were less interested in that than how Jenny was going to discover that he was guilty, and that process. But it’s a very pertinent question that you’re asking; it’s a very good question.

There’s a single shot where Jenny is driving, stops, rolls down her window, her car’s hood gets smashed, she resumes driving, and almost gets into an accident. It’s as technically impressive as anything you’ve done, and I’d like to know about the preparation and execution.

JPD: A long take. Just one shot. First, you have the camera with Jenny sitting, so we worked out the other car arriving and rolling down the window. So Jenny doesn’t slow down, and the bad guys’ car takes off and we stay with Jenny. They really did go and stop her in the other direction, but it’s off-camera. So then she brakes. Then, with the camera movement, we rediscover the guy coming, the whole thing with rolling down the window. So we decided that everything that happened after that would be off-camera, and it’s the car that comes back into the frame and then takes off again, and that we would remain with Jenny. It just seemed to us that it was more violent to be near Jenny’s face and to see the car that just backed up and took off. And then Jenny takes off again, following the motorbike, and then the camera turns a little to be on the motorbike. The camera stayed in the same place all the time.

LD: Everything that happens outside of the car is just a question of timing: when is this car going to take off, when is the bike going to take off, when is it going to move this way, etc., and having great confidence with the driver of the car that passes Jenny, because he really stops short in front of the car. Since we’re in a long take, we have to see, when we discover the other car, that it did block Jenny’s car. And we had one small technical glitch, which was related to the BMW: we thought that if he left the key in the ignition, when he goes to open the trunk, eh could just open the trunk. It’s not possible, so he just needed the key. So he had to take the key, but when he comes back to the trunk with the key, if he presses the button to open the trunk, he has to wait three or four seconds for it to open. So what we had to do was place him behind the black actor, who was in front of Jenny’s window, and what we had him do was: he went to get the key in the guy’s pocket, and he clicked on it to open the trunk then, so that by the time he got to the car, it could open easily. If you see the film a second time, you will see. [Laughs]

The Unknown Girl opens on Friday, September 8.

Aesop Rock on Injecting ‘Bushwick’ with Haunting, Gritty, and Emotional Hip-Hop

Written by Marc Ciafardini, August 27, 2017 at 10:13 am 

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For his first-ever film score, hip-hop artist Aesop Rock provides an exhilarating beat-heavy backdrop to Bushwick, the thriller directed by the Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott, and starring Brittany Snow and Dave Bautista. “The score is gritty, emotional, unnerving and triumphant, taking us on a journey as we weave through the streets of Brooklyn,” the directors note. We had the opportunity to speak with Aesop Rock about scoring the film and bringing an added level of intensity to the thriller.

This movie was intense, following the amazing music in the opening credits, the film was void of music for more almost 20 minutes. Talk to us about some of the discussions that limited the music.

There were many phases. There were times when there were stripped-down drums playing in some of that stuff, and various other pieces were tried. I think ultimately their decision to leave the top of the movie somewhat bare works as a tension-builder. Tension happens when you’re waiting for something that’s taking just a little too long to happen. By the time the music is in there, shit’s all f’d.

Bushwick is an intimate thrill ride and the beauty of the film was that is felt like one long sequence (thanks to the seamless editing and fantastic choreography). How did the pace of the story and the tone help you with the themes?

I knew from the script that they were shooting it as one long sequence. They would send me these long shots as they were filming. I was just trying to make sketches, find the right mood for each moment, and then decide with Cary and John if it felt like more of a backing mood piece, or something more syncopated with what specifically was happening on the screen. But the fun thing about the movie is that plot-wise it already has a ton of momentum. They are here, they need to get there, these are the obstacles. It’s all forward motion, which informed the music.

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Being that this is your first score, you now get to call yourself a “film composer.” What were some of the biggest hurdles and challenges?

I was just nervous. I wanted to do a good job and had all these doubts swirling around in my head. I certainly had a meltdown at least once or thrice. There were just moments when I was thinking, “Man, this is outside the realm of what I even know how to do.” I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get as grandiose as something like this requires. Some of the later scenes are really unlike anything I have put together, running through tempo and key changes, stops and starts, etc. it’s a lot different than making a beat to rap to — which is most of what I’ve done.

What was the first thing you clued into when writing this music, and did the input from the directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott help or change the way you worked?

After I read the script, I quickly started making scraps and sketches of things that I felt matched how I was envisioning the movie in my head. In the beginning there was a “yes” and “no” pile, well before we knew what would go where. The input from the directors was amazing – I needed guidance and they were there. They are familiar with my music so that really helped, they knew what I could do, and their requests were always reasonable. It is a different way of working for sure, the goal is different, and the process adapts to a lot of the trial and error that has to occur.

I know you have a career as a musician, but I have to say that the film and the score came across like collaboration between seasoned professionals – like Tony Scott and Harry Gregson-Williams – so how comfortable were you with the project? What were some of your concerns coming on board originally?

I was mostly concerned with the fact that I had never done anything like this. My music is primarily lyric-driven, and while I have produced much of my own stuff since the 90s, I don’t put myself out there as a producer really. I make what works for my rapping and that’s about it. But really, Cary and Jon were amazing the whole way through, and talked me off a cliff a couple times.

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What were three of your favorite cues/tracks?

Ah, cues what you call songs in this world? [laughs] I like “Corner Store”, “Jaguar”, and…I’ll say “Riot Riot” only because that was sort of the last piece we worked on, and it required extensive tailoring to hit the cues. I felt pretty free – they had a list of songs I had produced previously, and I felt like they knew what I did and what my strengths are. It was just a matter of finding our groove and what sounds they wanted in the movie. Most of it feels like it have my signature on it though. I definitely didn’t feel pulled to make songs that aren’t my norm.

Beyond the themes in the script, some composers build a theme around a noise, rhythm, or something evident in the film. What do/did you draw from?

For the most part I just wanted everything to move. Forward momentum descending into chaos. I was certainly drawing on the vibe and plot of the film more than any particular sound. It was all bursts of action mixed with intense scenes of creeping and hiding. A lot of stop and start.

Recently, I spoke with Brian McNelis (Senior VP of Music at Lakeshore Records), and he thinks your work is phenomenal. He described it to me as, “imagine DJ Shadow scoring The Warriors.” Who were your influences for this film, both musically and cinematically?

At this point I’ve been producing music for 20 years, so while obviously I have influences, I don’t know that I can name specifics. I do love the Warriors so that’s a good take. I think a couple times I may have gone too far in that direction, vintage synth arps and stuff like that. I had to be reeled in slightly. But knowing what songs in my catalog were specifically inspiring for them was really the most help.

I have to agree with Brian, and I want to hear more of your work in films. What’s next for you?

I’ve been working on an upcoming film Infinity Baby directed by Bob Byington. That’s just about done. I also have a few lyric-based projects on the horizon. Mostly just keep working, and see what comes down the line.

Bushwick is now available on VOD and in limited release. Listen to the score above.

Todd Haynes on Campaigning for ‘Carol’ and the Historical Appeal of ‘Wonderstruck’

Written by Rory O'Connor, August 17, 2017 at 1:40 pm 

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26 years, 6 movies, and 1 miniseries since winning the grand Jury Prize with his debut film Poison at Sundance, Todd Haynes remains a remarkably difficult auteur to pin down. He made his first short while still in high school but decided to focus on semiotics in university instead. That knowledge would nevertheless bleed into the fabric of his work, becoming a director of significant gestures and homage. He soon became a major — and quite radical — player in both the American independent and queer film scenes of the early ‘90s before channeling that spirit to produce experimental works on Bob Dylan and Glam Rock. His period films, those great sweeping odes to Golden Age Hollywood, were radical in their own subtle way, if less avant-garde. He recently peppered that remarkable back catalogue with Wonderstruck, his first family-oriented outing.

The Locarno International Film Festival decided to acknowledge that diversity and radicalism this year by awarding the great man with their Pardo d’Onore Manor, the festival’s equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. While it might just be a little early for that, it’s nonetheless deserved, and we had the opportunity to speak with the director during the festival.

You’ve always been a wonderfully eclectic director when it came to choosing stories; if anything, since you began making films, what has changed with regards to what you look for in a script and what you hope to achieve when you make a film?

Todd Haynes: It’s relatively new for me to open the door of stuff that’s out there in the world that I haven’t generated myself. For many years, that’s really what I did. I sort of developed and wrote my own material, and my agent would tell people, “No, he doesn’t read scripts, stay away,” and it was a great experience and process to do so. It took a lot of time to do so, to generate, research, produce, write, finance your own work one after the next, and it meant that I was extremely single-minded one thing at a time, and I would see other directors balancing different projects in different states of development, and it’s only recently that that was something that I was like “that would be interesting, I would like to do that.” I also wouldn’t mind working more, having more projects come into my life more quickly. I think it was since Mildred Pierce, which was also a different process; I did originate that and adapted it from a novel with a friend, but since Mildred I have directed two films that were not my scripts.

Have you fallen out of love with writing, temporarily?

No. I don’t know if I’ve fallen out of love with it, but it’s been a new part of the creative process, and I get involved with the scripts that I take on, like Carol or Wonderstruck, and work with the writers and make it into something that feels like it’s my work. But what’s funny is even when it is your script, there’s a funny way in which it becomes something other once you embark upon it. It’s an assignment that you give yourself, and then you kind of need to work yourself through it and discard, and once you’re shooting, the script is history. And even more just filming the script, what’s happening in production means that the script is just a blueprint for what you’re doing with the camera and with your actors and with your locations. Once you’re done shooting, it’s over, and you’re in the editing process and you have to be able to keep discarding and not hanging on to the imprint and the expectations and the assumptions that you have conjured at each stage. I think it’s the only way to really see what you have in front of you, and to also let it become what it is to a certain point. You can do everything you can to manage that process but ultimately it is what is in front of you.

What hit you about Wonderstruck? Was it the fact that it could be a kids movie, something that you hadn’t done before?

It was that; it really was that initially. I mean, it was obviously this script was so film-fluent. It had such a rich cinematic language, series of references, historical material. Brian [Selznick]’s adaptation of his book was intensely intercut on the page, so you felt the editorial rhythm of what it could be, and so it felt already like it had moved into a different medium from a book into something else, and that was enticing and stimulating from a cinematic perspective. But yeah, I wanted to feel like I could create something with as much love and attention to detail and history and character as I’ve given to my adult dramas, but something that kids could be able to experience. I went back and I saw movies that had meant a lot to me as a kid, and I found that they were mature films that weren’t necessarily catering to a different audience. The movie Sounder, I hadn’t seen since I was twelve — the age of the kids in Wonderstruck — and I thought, “oh, it’s going to be kind of manipulative.” Do you guys know that movie Sounder?

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No, I can’t say I’m familiar with it.

It’s a beautiful film from 1972 with Cicely Tyson and nominated for Best Picture, but it was very well received at the time, a Martin Ritt film, and I thought it was going to be kind of a tearjerker about a dog. The dog’s name is Sounder, it’s about a sharecropping family in 1930s America, and the story of the boy going after the father once he gets imprisoned and trying to find him. And the movie is so sophisticated and so subtle, and I was so astonished at how restrained it is, and mature it is. I don’t think it was even marketed as a family film, but we all went as a family to the film and it’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking. And I was like, “Yeah, you can really treat kids like anyone else, and assume they have a range of experiences and emotions and responses that can handle complexity.”

Twenty years ago you made films like Velvet Goldmine, that were pretty wild. Is there a logical line from Velvet Goldmine at your young age then to Wonderstruck in your age now?

No, it’s funny. The last time I saw Poison it shocked me, and it had been years since I had seen the movie, and it demonstrated to me a different side of myself, of my history, of our history as a culture, as a kind of radical, fierce, almost terrorist approach to the language of movies. I think yes, we completely evolve and change as we mature and grow, and I don’t have that same radical child who made that film, is no longer who I am.

I miss that person somehow.

I do too, but I also miss a queer culture that was not getting married and wanting – I mean I appreciate and I am fully supportive of all the legislative progress that gay people have made and trans people have made, and the sense of having choices in our lives, but when you are fighting to be alive, let alone be accepted at the table of the normal status quo, you have a different kind of critique, and I think it sharpens your wits and you are more weaponized to change the world and alter the world. I don’t know that that’s sustainable through one’s entire life, and you win victories. I mean now people don’t die of AIDS. That is an uncontested victory. There’s so many people that I lost that had they survived past a certain number of years would not have been the case. So you look back at – we fought that fight, and we actually had a victory.

But I think you lose things along the way as well. I think being excluded from the society teaches you things that you don’t learn when you’re included in the society. We have big questions about what is outside the society today, what is the counterculture, what is the critique, where is the critique, where is the activism, you know, and it’s almost too easy to have the target be Donald Trump. It’s disappointing and enraging, and it’s essential to be focused on that conflict because it’s so profound and in-your-face, and extreme and verbose, but the nuance of discussions about representation are no longer the things we are discussing. We have much more urgent matters that are extremely black-and-white, as they were during the AIDS crisis. They were black-and-white, they were survival issues, and we now have nuance to deal with. I was talking to a kid in college who was coming out of his philosophy class, and he felt like, “Yes. I’m ready to take on the world” and I was like, “Yeah, that reminded me of myself,” and that’s what I want to hear. It’s something that needs to happen, and I think we get inspiration from our elders and the people who came before us, as I did.

On the next page, Todd Haynes discusses Oscar campaigning for Carol, his upcoming Velvet Underground documentary, and more.

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Previewing TIFF 2017’s Boundary-Pushing Wavelengths Program

Written by Ethan Vestby, August 16, 2017 at 9:32 am 

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The true highlight of Toronto International Film Festival every year is the Wavelengths program, an expertly curated selection of the most boundary-pushing cinema from around the world. Led in particular by the programming vision of Andréa Picard, also known for her contributions to Cinema Scope since its inception, it acts as its own mini-festival of sorts. We were lucky enough to receive a personal preview of this year’s exciting looking batch of films from her.

Can you talk about some of the pairings; for example Blake Williams’ Prototype with Erkki Kurenneimi’s Florence or Denis Côté’s A Skin So Soft with Kazik Radwanski’s Scaffold?

I’ve always tried to curate the program as much as possible. There are infinite possibilities out there and sometimes I’m not even looking for a theme, but a theme will emerge. Sometimes things lend themselves to make a really great programme. In the case of Blake Williams’ first feature Prototype, which is a 3D work, it’s very abstract but it also has a chronology and it deals with proto-cinema and sort of cinematic devices in some ways. I think there’s probably references to Godard’s Numero Deux in its split-screen and then he sort of shoots off different monitors that look like windows onto the world. Erkki Kurenneimi, he was sort of a master futurologist filmmaker and electronic music composer. He passed away earlier this year so there’s been a lot of tributes to him and there’s a Finnish distributor that’s started carrying his body of work. But he was very influential and he’s influenced other Finnish filmmakers, especially avant-garde filmmakers who I’ve shown before in the program.

So I took a look at some of these works and Florence is just this really amazing film that’s sort of a travelogue where he goes to attend a music conference and it’s got these kind of hippie summer of love images but matched over his trip on a train through the alps, but what he did was re-filmed over the film stock again and there are these superimpositions and then he added a electronic score to it. Blake’s film is all about these proto-cinema devices as well so when I saw the two, which was probably within a three week period, they immediately spoke to each other in terms of technology and chronology, because Blake’s film is also a travelogue and they’re both tied to their own personal histories and professions as well. So that was sort of a natural pairing because one is really short and why not round out the programme for the audience with another discovery. Also with Wavelengths, we like to include one or two historical films to speak to the contemporary films as well.

In the case of Denis Côté  and Kaz’s films, they’re two of Canada’s most talented filmmakers, and although they’re quite different, one’s fiction and one’s documentary, Denis’ is about bodybuilders in Quebec and very much about bodies, so there’s the rigour and the regimes, the upkeep of their physique. Whereas Kaz’s film is about bodies and construction workers in Canada, but the way that he frames it is everything is shot through the scaffold. I don’t want to give it away too much but it does become about bodies as well and gestures and points of view where bodies are cut off. So both programmes are about men at work. Men working and their point of view and our point of view of the body and the work that they do. So those were two that were also a natural pairing.

The other one I’m very excited about is called Beyond the One which is paired with Strangely Ordinary this Devotion. Beyond the One is a brand new film that hasn’t showed yet, it’s a world premiere directed by Anna Marziano and she’s an Italian artist living in Berlin, I’ve shown two of her previous short films before. She studied in France and she mainly works with celluloid, so this was filmed on 16mm and Super8. She’s been working on it for a number of years and it’s a sort of mysterious essay film that deals with love, with coupledom and how the nuclear family doesn’t really exist anymore and maintaining bonds of love after people die. There are these really abstract passages with testimonies from people in relationships, touching on issues like domestic violence and radical forms of intimacy, desire and longing, it’s a really beautiful meditative work. We’ve paired it up with a film that’s very different in tone but similar in themes. Strangely Ordinary this Devotion is a collaborative project between two women and it includes their daily lives together in raising a child. It includes them maintaining clear desire and intimacy while raising a baby and it’s quite graphic, it reveals a lot about their relationship even though parts of it are scripted. You’re witnessing a relationship and you’re in it. So those two films together deal with similar topics about being alone and being together.

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The first shorts programme is titled Appetite for Destruction, is that title particularly relevant to now?

You mean Guns ’N Roses? [laughs] For sure, you can’t look at the news and not feel like the world’s falling apart. Everything is just depressing, alarmist, out of control. We have leaders who are destroying the world, our environment is being destroyed and I think that we’re perhaps destroying ourselves with our use of technology. I think it’s exceedingly relevant actually.

There’s a note that Anne Charlotte Robinson’s [Pixillation] film launched the second programme. With the shorts programmes do you ever make a particular film a centre that inspires the other programming?

It’s a real big puzzle piece. We get so many submissions and to make sense of hundreds of films is difficult but obviously really strong work rises to the top. The challenge becomes putting them together in a way that’s meaningful but allowing a lot of breathing room for each film to be resonant on their own because they were obviously made individually and then to have a cumulative effect through the programme.

It’s always been a priority of mine to include some historical work. There’s not a lot of space for it and you do have the cinematheque programme that is there for that as well but I think all really good festivals include some historical work in dialogue with the contemporary work.

I’m a big fan of Anne Charlotte Robinson and the Harvard Film Archive has been restoring her entire body of work and they hold the collection. I’ve just noticed that given what we were just talking about, the grander politics of life being out of control, that there are a lot of filmmakers countering that with really localized stories, portraits or testimonies. I think just listening to individuals becomes very important in the world today and that’s the way we can foster empathy in a world that’s become so noisy and superficial. So Anne Charlotte Robinson was a filmmaker in the Boston area who was afflicted with a mental illness and in order to deal with that as a sort of self-preservation she made self-portraits and her big project was a five-year diary which actually took much longer. But this is a really brand new short that just premiered at the Documenta, which is a big arts manifestation in Athens. It’s a very short three-minute work of just her face that doubles and it’s disarming because she looks at you in a very intense way. It’s a perfect way to open up a programme that’s about portraiture and testimony or localized films that are extracted from the grander politics in a way.

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This year’s Straub/Huillet retrospective at the Lightbox drew surprisingly high attendance and seemed to show that there’s an audience for challenging cinema in Toronto. Was that and other Lightbox programming a good primer for this year’s Wavelengths?

Absolutely, I mean a number of those Straub/Huillet films I’d shown in Wavelengths over the years and James Quandt has been programming their films for a long time. One of the films in the retrospective I’d even shown last year as one of the restorations. There always has been a dialogue between the cinematheque programming and the Wavelengths programming. In fact Wavelengths was started by the director of the Cinematheque Ontario seventeen years ago, so Wavelengths grew out of cinematheque programming and it very much has the same ethos and it’s why I put so much emphasis on history. Also experimental film has been very important to the cinematheque as well like in the section called The Free Screen which used to be every Wednesday and for free would screen experimental film. We’ve re-branded that section and it’s curated by Chris Kennedy who’s a local filmmaker and also the executive director of Lyft, so that takes place at the Lightbox and it’s actually called Wavelengths.

Two films in the program, Jeanette and The Nothing Factory seem to be genre-hybrids, in that case the genre being the musical. Is that a trend you’ve noticed?

I don’t think it’s a La La Land effect, I think that filmmakers have always explored sort of radical ways of dealing with older topics or topics that have been in cinema for a long time, and Bruno Dumont was in the process. I mean Bruno Dumont’s career has changed radically, he started off as a very Bresson-ian filmmaker and in the last number of years he’s discovered television with Petit Quinquin, which was also a pseudo-comedy, then last year’s Ma Loute was a full-blown comedy and also a parody of the upper bourgeois-life. But then Jeannette is completely radical, I mean it’s a musical made with an 8-year old and it’s based on two Peguy texts about Joan of Arc, and that’s sort of an enshrined story in French history. And to be so radical in its undertaking shows an evolution on a filmmaker’s part in a really dramatic way, and it’s a really fascinating career. To say a film is category-defying is cliche, but there really hasn’t been a film like this. There’s a ton of Joan of Arc films, it’s kind of a genre itself. From Bresson to Carl Dreyer and Rivette there’s been a number of amazing Joan of Arc films. But this film is all-sung and it’s really abstracted in its landscape, and he always shoots in the north of France so that’s very Dumont-ian. But he uses this score by the French electronic artist Igorrr which has a heavy metal bent to it, and basically Bruno is equating religious ecstasy with head-banging. So it’s funny, really anarchic and inventive. I don’t think it would be a response to any trend I just think it’s a trend he’s following and he realized he made a certain amount of films and at a given point in time decided he was going to try something new, which is exceedingly courageous on his part.

The Nothing Factory has also been compared to something like Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes, which we showed a couple of years ago and was a direct response to the austerity measures in Portugal and austerity in Europe in general. It’s still going through a very difficult time and there’s very few resources for art-making, and filmmakers have responded by making really incredible works of art. It’s not a huge country with a lot of money but their national cinema I think is one of the best. This film is definitely a mix, it’s shape-shifting. It’s about men in a factory and the factory is about to become obsolete and sold so they’re trying to put up a collective effort to have a musical arrangement and a rock and roll band. It’s a very furious topic but it’s dealt with in a very anarchic way. I think filmmakers are looking at a new way to grapple with the politics of today so it’s not didactic and doesn’t hit you over the head, it’s really inventive and makes you think about different things while also being entertaining to a certain degree.

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Are there any particular films by lesser know filmmakers that you would like to highlight?

The thing about Wavelengths, why I enjoy doing it so much, is because it’s really a combination of unknown filmmakers and new talents. I’m really fond of Cocote by Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, it just won a prize at the Locarno film festival. And I showed his previous film two or three years ago. He’s from the Dominican Republic and it’s somewhat based on Bolano’s book 2666. It deals with religion and religious fervour in the Dominican Republic, and that’s a national cinema I don’t know much about to be honest, we don’t see many films from there each year. So to see this film which makes such a strong statement and also Nelson is such a wonderful guest, he’s going to come and I’m sure give one of the best Q&A’s, he’s so passionate about what he does and passionate about having local stories. The film is a mix of video and Super 16 and even if you just look at the trailer, visually it’s super stunning.

I would also mention Narimane Mari’s Le fort des fous which is a three-part film. Narimane Mari was in Toronto last at the Images Festival, where she showed her feature Bloody Beans. She’s an Algerian/French artist who lives in Marseille and she’s very much a political artist who deals with the history of colonialism, particularly with the French and Algeria. This one continues that work and grounds it in a localized continuation and this sort of cycle of colonialism in Europe. It’s told in these three parts where she has these re-enactments of legionnaires who are taking part in the colonialism of Algeria and then it ends up in Greece with activists and riots because she’s basically showing us that’s what’s happening today. So both these are manifestos in certain ways to use a loaded word, but she’s also cunning and very energetic so I’m excited about the films but I’m also very excited about the guests and having them engage with the audiences.

TIFF 2017 runs from September 7-17. See more about the Wavelengths program on their site.

Aubrey Plaza on the Popularity Contest of Social Media, Her Dream Project with Bette Midler, and ‘Ingrid Goes West’

Written by Jose Solís, August 14, 2017 at 8:51 am 

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Even though she’s widely considered to be the Queen of Dry Wit, sitting in the hotel room where we’re about to talk about her latest film Ingrid Goes West, there’s an unexpected innocence to Aubrey Plaza that makes her seem more like Sandy from Grease before the makeover. She’s wearing a dark baseball jacket over a lovely plaid dress in blush tones, and rather than welcoming me with a raised eyebrow, she smiles. I reach out my hand to her to say hello and apologize because it’s cold, she raises the eyebrow and explains, “I’m sorry too because my hand is warm.” And suddenly Sandy has given path to the sardonic Rizzo. Since her breakthrough in Parks & Recreation, Plaza has become one of the funniest people in the industry. Period. Few actors can accomplish so much using so little and making it seem so effortless, but Plaza can make your tummy ache from laughter with a simple look, or a deadpan retort.

Those who are only used to seeing her play cynical sidekicks might be surprised by the depth she brings to the title character in Ingrid Goes West, a troubled woman who unable to cope with the death of her mother, becomes fixated with an Instagram influencer (played by Elizabeth Olsen) who she manipulates into becoming her friend. Rather than going the Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction route, Plaza is more like Anne Baxter in All About Eve, her determination always overshadowing her inadequacy. While the film is hilarious, Plaza also breaks your heart when you least expect her to, which makes for a promising future as one can imagine her in parts where humor wouldn’t be the main draw. Talking to Plaza is easy, she’s friendly, warm and upon noticing my Sex and the City t-shirt throws me a curveball by asking me something before I sit down for our interview: “So are you a Carrie?”

Yeah, that’s who I pretend I am at least. How about you?

Hmm… I don’t know, probably Cynthia Nixon’s character.

Miranda.

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s who I identify with the most.

You first realized you wanted to become an actor when you saw Bette Midler in For the Boys. So, what did you think of Hello, Dolly! ?

She was amazing. I love her so much, I took my mom for Mother’s Day. When Bette Midler’s onstage I am so there, I will see anything she’s in.

Were there any moments when you wanted to jump onstage and be like, “I wanna be in the show with you!”?

Yeah! Actually I met her one time, she was doing I’ll Eat You Last on Broadway and I got to go backstage. It was so crazy. I took my mom that time too. We’re both obsessed with her. It was so funny because I was so excited to talk to her that I think she got scared of us. She thought we were freaks or stalkers. She came out, I was like “Hi”, and my mom was like “We’re stalking you,” it was a joke but I think Bette Midler was like [frowns] “oh, you are?” and then Lily Tomlin walked in. The two of them, big business style were talking and catching up, while my mom and I just stood against the wall thinking we couldn’t compete with Lily Tomlin. So we ran away.

So did going from being a fan to now being someone who has fans help you prepare to play Ingrid?

Yeah, I think so. I definitely relate to being obsessed with someone. I was also really obsessed with Judy Garland growing up.

Did the Judy love transform into a Liza obsession as well?

Not really. I love Liza, but I was actually really interested in Lorna Luft though. I read her book and I saw the movie they made out of it with Judy Davis. I own that movie on VHS and DVD.

Do you still have a VHS player?

I think so, yeah. I don’t use it anymore though, but I was obsessed with my VHS tapes. I used to watch them over and over again.

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I keep hearing people call Ingrid “unhinged”, “lunatic” and other harsh adjectives. I can see where they’re coming from but it made me think that if she was a guy he would probably be a romantic hero doing quirky things to win the girl.

Right, I never thought of that. If Ingrid was a guy, yeah, that is really interesting.

It bothers me because I liked the character a lot. Did you feel the need to understand and like her in order to play her?

Yes, I needed to understand how someone that has that kind of chemical imbalance or mental illness behaves. I read a lot about borderline personality disorder and things in that area. I also just related to the feeling of being insecure and misunderstood. Wanting to connect to someone and wanting a friend reminded me of middle school. I tapped into that a lot too.

Another aspect of social media is how people who don’t have any special skills or talents become famous. You have been working all your life to become an actor. How do you feel about Instagram and YouTube celebrities who become famous just because?

I would have to say they know how to do something. They know how to do that, and I don’t know how to do that. I can’t even take an interesting picture. My Instagram is so lame. I’m always shocked by people that happen to have Instagram accounts with so many followers. It must be a skill. I think it’s a skill to gain popularity that way, but it’s not a skill that’s interesting for me as an artist. There are artists who do it also and that’s cool, but as an actor it helps me build awareness for my projects, which I really like — you have access to people who like you and care about your work — but as an artist it doesn’t connect with me.

We’re back to repeating high school structures: the popular people and all the theatre kids and the nerds.

I know, it’s a total popularity contest on a crazy, big global level.

Do you ever get used to people crying and shouting when they see you?

No one cries when they see me. It’s so not normal. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. I didn’t grow up like that. Maybe it’s normal for people who grew up around that, but I’m from Delaware. I didn’t grow up around famous people. It’s always shocking for me when people recognize me out in the world. It’s like I forgot I was on TV.

Are you good at watching your projects on TV or at the movies?

No, I don’t like watching things that I’m in. I’ve had enough time away from Parks & Recreation that now I do enjoy watching it. It feels like it was so long ago and it’s comforting to me because those are my good friends. Sometimes I watch the show to feel like I’m close to Chris or Amy.

One of my favorite things you’ve done was the RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars special.

Thank you. That was so fun.

You looked so excited to be there!

I was.

Has being a celebrity and a famous actor helped you achieve dreams of meeting icons you had when you were a kid?

I still can’t believe that I’m friends with Amy Poehler or Molly Shannon. There’s people I grew up watching who were my heroes, especially comedians; the fact that now I get to work with them blows my mind. The fact that I get asked to be on Conan’s show, who I think is the best show host ever. Every time I’m a guest on his show I have an out of body experience. I can’t believe I’m here: What does this mean? What does this all mean?

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You have two producing credits this year. Has that helped you find characters like Ingrid and avoid being cast in April Ludgate-like roles all the time?

Being a producer is so helpful. As an actor you don’t have a lot of control over the end product of a film, so being a producer allowed me to be involved in making the movie that I saw in my head when I read the script. I think it’s rare for people to take risks on actors. When you do a part like April Ludgate for so long, it’s ingrained in people’s minds and they don’t offer you different parts. It happens sometimes, like when Noah Hawley offered me Legion which was a very big risk and I’m so grateful for. Being a producer is another way to find interesting roles you wouldn’t get otherwise, and to just fucking make it happen yourself. At the end of the day it’s your career and it’s time for me to take more control and say, “No, I’m not going to play the sarcastic best friend anymore.” I’m gonna show people what I can really do and I have so much more to offer than that.

You also produced The Little Hours. Did Pasolini’s Decameron serve as a reference at all?

I watched it, although I would say the director didn’t want us to imitate anything else we’d seen. He wanted it to be its own thing, but just for educational, research purposes I watched it again and also listened to The Decameron on tape. I think Alison Brie and Dave Franco also watched the Pasolini version to get you in that mindset of 14th century clergy life.

If you had the opportunity to have a do over with Bette Midler and work with her what would you want to do?

Oh my God. I have the best idea for me and Bette. It’s a movie called Like Mother Like Donna, where she plays my mom. I play her adopted daughter she has never met because she gave me up for adoption when I was a baby, and then I come back and try to find out who my biological mom is. But because she’s like this unapproachable, rich bitch that works in a country club I dress up as an old lady and go in disguise as a character named Donna and become friends with her. That’s my pitch for Bette Midler.

I hope you get to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings” then.

Yes, but I did that in The To Do List already. My character was obsessed with Beaches so at the end of the movie we sing that.

I don’t remember that part. I’ll have to rewatch it.

Yes, go watch all my movies.

Ingrid Goes West is now in limited release and expanding in the coming weeks.