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‘The Death of Dick Long’ Director Daniel Scheinert on the Explosion of the Nuclear Family & the Emotion of 2000s Rock

Written by Mike Mazzanti, October 6, 2019 at 10:29 am 

After a string of shorts and music videos, writer-director Daniel Scheinert—along with his frequent collaborator Daniel Kwan—broke into feature films with Swiss Army Man. Casting Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse alongside Paul Dano’s depressed loner, the film carved out a slew of fans who were intrigued, repulsed, and delighted in equal measure.

Now, Scheinert has branched off on his own for The Death of Dick Long, a darker venture than his last. It’s one steeped in sadness and anxiety, despite, or perhaps, in part, because of, its close relationship to comedy. The result is a film that has viewers follow characters who are both reprehensible and highly relatable in equal measure, with the narrative around them weaving between buddy comedy, bumbling police procedural, and severe familial breakdown.  

With the film now in theaters, we sat down with Scheinert to talk about establishing character dynamics, working once again with members of Manchester Orchestra, the terrors of nuclear families and faking it, and getting to do your own version of a Quentin Tarantino scene. Also, trolling fans of the long-forgotten band Hinder.

The Film Stage: The first thing I noticed with this film, with some of the marketing and anticipation, there is a certain level of, ‘from one of the directors of Swiss Army Man,’ and I think for some people, there’s this idea that there will be an emphasis on this kind of ‘whacky comedy’ element. Despite Swiss Army Man having a very emotional center.

Daniel Scheinert: Yeah.

The Death of Dick Long does use comedy in a lot of ways—it deescalates tension, it subverts scene structures, it creates humanity—but at its core, it’s a deeply sad film.

[Laughs] Yeah.

Can you talk about what the process was like for figuring out the film. It starts off as a goofy idea, but when you chew it over, it becomes something quite sad.

Yeah! I would say the same about Swiss Army Man. It’s funny when people are like, ‘Oh, Dick Long is not as funny as that one,’ because such a huge chunk of Swiss Army Man is about a suicidal man thinking about mortality, and there’s just a lot of farts.

 [Both laugh]

With The Death of Dick Long, it’s a different movie because I fell in love with the script that my good friend Billy [Chew] wrote, as opposed to writing it for three years with my buddy Dan [Kwan, who co-wrote Swiss Army Man]. I was just talking to my friend yesterday and she was like, ‘I’m kind of scared of you,’ because she just finished the movie. And I’m like why? We can talk about it!

[Both laugh]

But, I really love going to the darkest places I can go, and then still trying to have a sense of humor about it. A lot of my art does that: kind of giving you permission to laugh at the scariest things in life. So yeah, this is a movie that’s kind of trying to be a horror film, of sorts, about keeping a secret from your wife and family; but I’m still trying to inject as much humanity and humor in there as possible. Because life’s funny.

One of the ways that humanity comes out, in its most obvious form, is in the dynamic between Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland). There was something so great about their dynamic in the way that, at one moment—like in the scene in the lake—they’ll be roughhousing, but in the very next, they’ll be extremely sensitive with each other. It’s like they switch this kind of front on and off.

Totally.

Was it a lot of working with the actors to get that? Or was it all written? How did you go about establishing their back and forth?

It was both, working from the script and with the actors. Michael and Andre both agreed to just live in a house together, which was what I asked them to do.

Wow.

So, for like a month and a half, Andre and Mike were just living together. So, any days that they had off, they’d just get breakfast or lunch or just hang out. I think that really created a comfortable rapport between them, which paid off in scenes like that one in the lake, when Andre really did bite down on his tooth and they both just didn’t break character. That moment in the lake is real life.

[Both laugh]

We just kept filming! And then after the scene was over I was like, ‘Guys, as long as you’re both okay, can you reenact that for the wide shot so we can put it in the movie?’ And they were like, ‘sure, sure.’

They were really just that familiar with each other. Mike really did just swim over and start digging around in Andre’s mouth to see if he was okay, which just blew my mind. And that dynamic is also just based on real life; with my closest guy friendships, one moment you’re pranking each other and throwing each other into the bushes and the next moment you’re having really deep heart-to-hearts. There really is this kind of masculine code-switching that goes on that’s like…so weird when you take a step back and photograph it.

Definitely.

Like, what is this thing we do? [Laughs]

Sticking with the dynamics, but between Zeke and Lydia (Virginia Newcomb), there was a scene that really struck me that takes place in the kitchen of their home. It was a very emotionally intuitive scene for me to watch, and it really captures the seesaw of feelings you go through when you’re having a revelation about someone you’re spending a lot of time with.

Yeah.

What was it like working out the emotional arch of a scene like that?

Yeah! That central scene in the kitchen we actually rehearsed very little, and we sort of rehearsed everything else. On one hand, I love having tons of forethought in getting a shot just right—which Dan Kwan and I do a lot with our visual effects-heavy things—but I also really love capturing those raw moments with actors. This movie gave me a chance to do a lot of that.

So, we rehearsed very little and the very first take was just Virginia staring down the lens and reacting how she would react. So, to prepare, it was more about building the scaffolding of their relationship and then just letting the scene happen, than it was about like, ‘let’s talk about what kinda face you’ll make here!’ Or, ‘what are you thinking about when he says this?’

Mike and Virginia both just really naturally fell into the scene and they both murdered it. My job as a director was just to make sure we pointed the camera in the right place.

Yeah, Virginia is just a knockout in that scene, it’s kind of unbelievable to watch.

Yeah, I was so thrilled. She’s like, such a happy person, like a really goofy, happy person 99% of the time. So when she does a really dramatic, emotionally-wrought role, there is still so much humanity in it. I just love that and I think it’s one of the reasons that when comedians play a dramatic role, it’s so watchable. They can’t help but keep the silly humor in there. There’s something so watchable about Punch-Drunk Love or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when these funny people play melancholy roles. I think Virginia is a little bit like that.

Regarding the music, Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, two wildly talented dudes.

Yeah!

You worked with them on Swiss Army Man. The way the music functioned in that movie was very integral to every other part, like with the actors having to learn the lyrics. What were the conversations like this time around, when you’re working with them again, but on a more traditional film score?

They just read the script and we chatted about their reactions, and what the role of the music would be. We had a blast doing a more traditional score together; we’d talk about what the key themes would be and when they’d reoccur, then we’d try to crack those themes and thread them throughout the movie. We’d also talk about the score fluctuating between being, ya know, these guys [in the film] are in a shitty garage band, so we wanted the score to be inspired by that. 

[Both laugh]

So that was really fun, but then we also wanted the score to work on a Shakespearian level as well, as a bottle drama, and take itself seriously at times. We tried to use the music to balance out where the audience might be [emotionally] in a given scene, and either add weight to something that could be mocked, or to ground it in this shitty garage band world—without getting too melodramatic. Andy and Robert are so good at both of those, being part of a rock band themselves who do operatic, insane, epic music. So we got to take advantage of their range there. 

This might sound crazy, but sticking with the music, there’s this needle drop in the movie from the band Hinder.

Yeah!

Which I had literally not heard since I was maybe 12?

Oh yeah!

The song is talking about how, ‘You can do much better than me,’ and the needle drop alone just made me laugh, especially contrasted with the images it was playing with.

 [Laughs] Yeah.

But then the fact that, lyrically, the song resonated as the film developed was just…astounding to me. I don’t necessarily have a question there, but I was blown away at the audacity of that choice.

[Laughs] I’m so psyched! You’re the first person who’s brought up Hinder. Everyone wants to talk about Nickelback and Staind.

[Laughs]

In college, Billy and I had a shitty hobby of trolling Hinder fans on YouTube. We’d go on there and we’d say something that would get them riled up, and then we’d get into a comment war.

[Both laugh]

Such a shitty thing to do…But, when we were working on the movie and started putting all these songs in there, on one level it’s kind of a way to develop the characters in a way that’s winky and kind of funny. But also, with every song, the lyrical content is on point. This rock and roll music from the ‘90s and early 2000s is just so emotionally wrought! People make fun of emo for being lyrically so wrought, but the lyrics are the same with these rock bands! It’s just the instruments that change… the voice got a little more nasally. 

But… Nickelback songs are emo as shit. [Laughs]

What became so interesting about those needle drops in the film, versus the score and The Avett Brothers song that plays late in the film, what I started to notice was the way the poeticism of the score contrasts with these early 2000s, alt-rock, post-grunge-but-really-emo songs. The rock songs feel like the surface-level emotion that reflects the lie that these two guys are trying desperately to keep spinning. Then the score feels like it cuts through that and get to the truth, the gooey center of what’s actually happening. I thought that was a fascinating contrast to have playing throughout the film.

 Yeah! Well put. I love when a movie’s music doesn’t just do one thing, doesn’t just hit the nail on the head for an hour and a half. If it can create contrasts, then that’s so fun. To be able to, in one scene use music to continue a lie and in the next, to poke through it. Obviously, people who watch this movie will be like, ‘holy cow, the music is all over the place!’ Which is kind of just my taste, but also, it’s a way to try to use music to tell the story and not to just pace up the film. Sometimes, scores just feel like they’re trying to pace the movie up and keep it pleasant.

Yeah, you’re not trying to just sell records. Sometimes, it feels like people curate soundtracks to be like, ‘Oh this is a great album and I want to listen to every song, regardless of the movie.’

Yeah, I actually wanted to put out a soundtrack with all of it on there, but Andy and Rob don’t want to. They’re like, ‘yeah, can you put our music out on its own, please?’

[Laughs] Are you telling me that the people behind Manchester Orchestra don’t want to be contrasted with Creed?

[Both laugh]

 I guess not. They’re just like, ‘I just want people to be able to hear the music we made.’ I’m like, fair.

[Both laugh]

Yeah, it’s pretty all over the place. Brenda Lee, Gucci Mane, and Hinder…

Wen ‘With Arms Wide Open’ [by Creed] dropped when they’re in the trailer. That was such a perfect encapsulation; it hit this very unique feeling for me and really worked with the betrayal Zeke is feeling in that moment. It was so interesting to contrast those two things.

[Laughs] I’m so glad you liked that bit. When we plopped that in there we were like, ‘There’s no way we can afford this [song],’ but… we got it. So thrilled.

In another very charged, very crucial moment of the film, there’s this really extended zoom that you do. It’s coupled with this almost elevator jazz tune, and it felt like the apex of the film. It’s extremely captivating to watch and it feels like everything piling up, every little bit from the movie, piling up into one moment. Can you talk about coming up with that decision?

Yeah! It evolved along the way. The song playing there at the climax is the same one that opened the film. When Ashley Connor (the cinematographer) and I were working on the look of the film, we came up with a few scenes where we were excited about plopping a zoom in. So, we had a zoom lying around and, as we started shooting a scene, found it to be a such a really fun way to photograph a noir or a mystery; to just go from a wider frame to just really zeroing in on something.

So, we got to that scene and I think we discovered that shot on the day—I can’t remember if we knew we were going to a long zoom [on Mike] or not. But it had been successful in so many other scenes, we were like, let’s try it! Mike Abbott just does such a good job, and we knew the rest of the scene was going to be so cutty, we were like: let’s just do one long, brutal shot, if possible. I was so happy with how it turned out. Just trying to do our Quentin Tarantino scene, our Inglourious Basterds scene; a bunch of people chatting around a table for five or six minutes.

I think what makes that zoom land even harder is because before it, there’s this absurd level of hysteria around the way it’s cutting and the way the sound design is coming in and being lifted up. It’s the most muscle-tensing sensation to watch that scene, because you are so cued into what every person is doing; everyone is reading each other’s dynamics and these little tics—people rubbing their hands together or scratching anxiously. So, to contrast the way that whole scene is cut, in a very frenetic way, with that extended zoom at the end is such a perfect way to culminate that moment.

Dope! Yeah, thank you! I’m so glad it worked so well for you. The movie has so many bottled up, tense scenes that we tried real hard to makes sure that they wouldn’t all be photographed the same way. That scene, in particular, it was a goal of ours to be like, ‘Okay, let’s make sure that doesn’t look and feel like the other ones.’ So, we planned to aim straight at their faces and get tons of coverage, and make it really not subtle, filmically, and just have it be all about their reactions. I was real happy with how it came together.

Going back to the theme of the film, when Zeke presents this idea of how, if you’ve gone through a period of your life where you’re lonely, it doesn’t necessarily go away when you find someone; you still carry those habits and feelings with you. I thought that was an interesting way to illustrate how habits and experiences linger with you, even after your circumstances have changed.

Yeah. I think the line is, ‘Sometimes when you’re lonely, it doesn’t go away when you get married.’

Yes, that’s exactly it. On one hand, I feel like he’s kind of spinning shit off the top of his head, because he’s in a very vulnerable situation, but I still thought it had an impact. Even if it’s scummy and sleazy, there’s still a truth behind having things that stick with you from childhood, from when you’re younger. Was exploring those ideas something you were trying consciously to tackle?

Absolutely. In that moment, I feel like he says something way more truthful than he meant to say right there. The whole movie is a nuclear family kind of exploding. We all talked about our own families and when they almost fell apart or when they did fall apart. I personally find nuclear families pretty terrifying, in a weird way. 

[Both laugh] 

I feel like there’s so many husbands and wives, and moms and dads, who feel like imposters. You kind of start playing a part of who you’re supposed to be. That can be a really brutal thing to do for 40 years of your life, ya know? This movie’s obviously a ridiculous hyperbole of it, but I think everybody feels a little bit like an imposter sometimes in their relationships. Whether it’s pretending to know what’s going on as a parent or as a significant other. But for Zeke, his imposter syndrome is out of control.

 [Both laugh] 

But, I wanted to kind of make a point about something that I think a lot of people can relate to. The goal of the whole film is to sort of fluctuate between these characters being the least relatable people imaginable and then being extremely relatable, as a way to test people’s empathy and their prejudice back and forth throughout the film. 

I know we have to wrap up, but I just wanted to say that seeing Swiss Army Man in the theater with some of my best friends was one of the greatest movie-going experiences of my life, and I really dug this movie.

Dope! Thank you so much.

Keep doing stuff.

I will! I got more I want to make. I’m glad you got to catch that one in the theater.

I wish I got to catch The Death of Dick Long in the theater, too, because I feel like it would play crazy well with an audience.

It’s very fun with an audience. I talked to a couple festival programmers who were like, ‘I really loved your movie, but watching it with an audience was way better!’ Especially if you watch the movie and have a couple of nervous husbands and wives, or moms and dads in the theater. They become the most entertaining part, watching people gasp or whisper; especially nervous laughter. Nervous laughter is really contagious, when you’re like, ‘that guy’s nervous!’

[Both laugh]

So, I keep telling people, even if you watch it at home, watch it with somebody. Because then you go on a journey with a friend.

The Death of Dick Long is now in theaters.

Jim Mickle, Boyd Holbrook, Michael C. Hall & Cleopatra Coleman on Crafting Sci-Fi Thrills in ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’

Written by Marc Ciafardini, September 26, 2019 at 7:58 am 

Director Jim Mickle is no stranger to genre filmmaking. He’s made films about cannibals, vampires, and psychopaths, and won plenty of fans along the way with We Are What We Are, Stake Land, and Cold in July. In his latest, the upcoming Netflix title, In the Shadow of the Moon, he explores the concept of obsession in a multi-generational familial drama. It’s also a murder mystery detective story that has an element of time-travel. So, yes, it’s ambitious to say the least, and it’s also Mickle’s largest production to date.

The film stars Boyd Holbrook, Cleopatra Coleman and Michael C. Hall who all play a part in this massive storyline. While at Fantastic Fest, we sat with Mickle to talk about the film’s moving parts, how he loves getting his actors dirty, and staging large-scale action. We also spoke with the film’s stars about the themes and concepts at play in this high-concept familial drama.

Check out both interviews below.


In the Shadow of the Moon hits Netflix on September 27.

Kazik Radwanski & Deragh Campbell on the Adventurous, Introspective, and Collaborative Process of ‘Anne at 13,000 ft.’

Written by Ethan Vestby, September 11, 2019 at 9:02 am 

Both stars of Canadian independent cinema, actress Deragh Campbell (Fail to Appear, Stinking Heaven) leading a film by Kazik Radwanski (Tower, How Heavy This Hammer) seemed bound to happen. The result, Anne at 13,000 ft. feels like a potential breakthrough for both of them. The Film Stage was lucky enough to sit down with the two during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival to discuss crafting the film together, and how personal it was for both of them.

Watching the movie, I sort of can’t imagine it without Deragh in it. It almost feels like you two collaborated in writing it. Can you two talk about the genesis of the film?

Kazik Radwanski: Yeah, it was always Deragh. I wrote it for her. People say, “What’s the inspiration for the film?” I would say Deragh is the inspiration. It’s not based on her life at all or anything like that, but I was always thinking of her when I was writing it and conceiving it. And I normally don’t show screenplays to actors, but I did show it to her very early in the process. And, so we had a lot of conversations–maybe you can see that too–but Deragh did a lot of research of her own too in different ways. We shared certain memoirs to read, and video clips very early, and then we worked at the daycare for a while. So, it transitioned. I kind of broke this more than usual and then it was a process of cutting that all away slowly and sort of reinventing it through us having conversations and trying scenes out. And then also working at the daycare and picking up on dynamics there and things like that.

Deragh Campbell: We both live in Toronto. We both participate in going to see screenings and everything like that. And both of us are aware of each other’s work and it were interested in working together.  We had very early conversation about Kas’s method of working and if that’s even like tenable for me because it’s a longer shooting process and making sure that that was something we were up for. While there’s a screenplay as Kaz said, it’s seeing what rings false and what rings true and adapting as you go as well. So, it’s true the film couldn’t be with another person because it is Kaz’s’ way of working plus my way of working and seeing what the result of that is. That’s a really interesting kind of mathematics I think. You don’t know exactly what will come out of it.

Well, you mentioned the extended production period and it started shooting in the summer of 2017. Is that about right?

KR: Yeah, yeah late summer. 

Is there specific ways the film maybe grew or the character changed over this extended production period?

KR: Definitely. Just from trying different things to put on the character and building off of different things and narrowing things. It was a constant evolution. There were different dynamics that merged so the conflict with the other teacher, for instance, is definitely something in the script that tension was somewhere else. And then also just the nature of the relationship with Matt [Johnson]. Matt initially had much fewer scenes in the film. We were a little nervous about working with Matt, but it worked out so well that we kept sort of following that lead.

DC: And I really enjoyed working with Matt too so that was something we wanted to keep.

KR: It was hard to think about what in particular we learned about the character.

DC: Learned about the character?

KR: Or sort of what was created through the process.

DC: Well, yeah. We had a bunch of ideas about her, a bunch of backstory about what she’d be like, and when you’re sort of improvising something you can’t really just be like, this person is this way, and I need to make decisions that reflect this. You actually just need to be in the scenarios and what the reactions end up being kind of becomes what the character is.

DC: So for me, performing this character was just about how it was a matter of pushing past. For instance, when I’m nervous, I shut down and I don’t say anything. So it had to be an opposite of action of being nervous and saying everything that comes to my mind. Like purposefully saying the wrong thing and just seeing how that changed the scene and Kaz was really good at that. For instance, in the wedding scene you would say something like, “Just keep telling Dora that you love her. Like no matter how awkward it gets just keep saying it.” Then it would become about creating a kind of energy, and a bit of madness.

KR: Or really it’s just a contrast into my other films (Tower and How Heavy This Hammer) which were, working with Erwin [Van Cotthem] or Derek [Bogart] and a lot of the process was learning about them and kind of tailoring the film to them and sort of learning how they behave in certain situations and following it. The difference with this is, it was a similar process, but with a character and then also having Deragh as a collaborator, so that she was also pushing the character. I would take my lead from Deragh quite often so that a scene would be sort of conceptualized and be kind of small and then it would explode. And I would just trust that Deragh had found something there and just sorta take a step back rather than try to pull it back to the script that I’d written.

Did she kind of dictate like where even you would put the camera in a way?

KR: No, I wouldn’t say that. But at the same time, the camera follows the actors–just the way cameras work now that we can really follow the performance that I don’t have marks or cues in particular. Sometimes I will give slight direction, but it’s more for performance that urges something that can sort of create a conflict or dynamic between people. It’s funny, too, just from talking about cameras and stuff and also back to how long we’ve been developing this. We did like a camera test for this film essentially with How Heavy This Hammer. Deragh has a cameo, so since 2015 we’ve been working on this. We did a screen test and were kinda thinking about it.

Isn’t Deragh’s scene in How Heavy This Hammer also at a school?

KR: It’s also at a daycare. It’s the daycare where we shot this film, it’s the same place.

DC: I guess it’s sort of the same, I mean, she’s called Ms. Campbell.

KR: Or Ms. Cam… [laughing]. Well, yeah, we didn’t decide on the name until very late in the process.

DC: Yeah, and [cinematographer] Nikolay Michaylov was very good at this. I’ve worked with lots of really good DPs, but one thing that’s really special about him is even though he’s so close, he actually has like a really quite uncanny awareness about everything that’s going on around him. I have this moment in another film where it was also like a handheld thing and I just started spontaneously crying, like crying in character and went under the table, and when the director said cut I realized that the camera just hadn’t been on me–like, the entire time, and I’d had this like really genuine emotional experience that just like was not captured. Whereas Nikolay is very good at knowing where the thing that has to be captured is.

I had a friend who was a stage actor, and he told me that he really hated doing screen acting like commercials or television, because he felt he was always very restricted. He couldn’t really use his body to his full extent. I mean, with a film like this, where really you’re shot very tightly. Did you find that a challenge? 

DC: Yeah, I mean maybe it’s a testament to Nikolay again but he was such a moving part; he moves similar to another actor moves or something like that so it doesn’t feel like this one-sided thing of like a camera that’s watching you and capturing you. It’s kind of an interaction, which I think is really nice. It’s a blessing that I just don’t think about what I look like, or what I’m appearing like when I’m on camera. And I can’t imagine trying to produce a certain effect or something or look a certain way. So it’s a much more straightforward thing of just trying to not think, “I am Deragh making a movie with her friends.” I try to think more like I am paying attention to this person that’s being mean to me. Just try and be as focused as possible because I think that that’s when your face and your body say so many things that you don’t even know. 

KR: Our process is that it’s just such a small crew. And quite often Nikolay has no gaffer or assistant or anyone working with him–he does it all on his own too. So just that amount of intimacy is also what I think what helps preserve it. But yet, a camera’s always on, I mean, it’s on for two years. Every time we rehearse something, we’re camera ready. So, I hope it just becomes invisible. I feel like it encourages less talking and we just start filming and sort of getting in the moment. And then also, some of the scenes we’re shooting in sort of a live daycare classroom. Half the scenes were with children, like child actors. We signed a bunch of permission forms and Deragh would just come into a room with 30 kids and Nikolay would just follow and we would just kind of ease our way in there.

DC: I had to get a criminal background check.

The thing they always say is don’t work with children or animals right? Was working with children kind of a challenge or was that …

DC: Working with children is great.

It’s energizing, right?

DC: Yeah.

KR: I think it just creates chaos or energy or something to respond to in the scene so it’s something I gravitate to. All my films have dogs in them. And it will be like that scene with Matt visiting the surprise dinner where he’s not invited and it’s like, let’s throw a dog and a kid in there too and really get everyone disoriented.

DC: That’s a great method because as an actor you have to pay attention to a dog and a kid, and a weird boyfriend character and your mom. Like you’re not going to be thinking, “Is my arm weird?” because you have so many other things to pay attention to.

KR: Sometimes it’s really just an atmosphere. Like a morning with just a dog wandering around the house, just makes it for me feel more like a house or something familiar. But then yeah, other times it’s great for chaos or for tension.

DC: It’s also your mom’s house.

KR: All the films have been shot at my mom’s house.

You talked about working on the script and sculpting what comes in at a very trim 75 minutes. Are there any scenes you cut that you kind of miss?

KR: We talk about Nicolak, but [editor] Ajla (Odobasic) and I have been working together even longer–since 2007 she’s done all my films. When I work with Nikolay, Ajla, and Deragh, it’s a true collaboration and I’m not micromanaging them. It’s very much like: give Ajla the footage and she’ll work with it for a bit then we’ll work on it together. But yeah, the more we cut, the more we cut. This is I think out of all my films the tightest. We just hacked so much away that there was an hour and forty-minute cut for sure. 

I feel like we don’t see female leads like Anne in many English-language movies, at least in terms of a character that’s indecisive. What that something a purposeful decision with this character?

KR: All my films are kinda in conversation with each other and just coming back to root influences. Some talk about portrayals of female protagonists in films. All the way back to when I made Princess Margaret, which was my thesis film, certain films always struck a cord for me. Like, Passion of Joan of Arc or Wanda or A Women Under the Influence

DC: Breaking the Waves

KR: Yeah. 

DC: I mean, she’s indecisive. I think that she has a lust for life, but is easily destabilized, which I think is an interesting or I guess tragic set up for a person. Because she wants to be connected to people. She wants to have experiences kind of beyond what she can really handle. Right? Sure she has an apartment and a job, but that’s kind of not enough for her. She sort of wants more, but by kind of wanting more, it is kind of what makes the rest of her life fall apart. So what you have set up is that she’ll kind of always probably perpetually keep rebuilding and destroying and like rebuilding and destroying.

KR: It’s hard to know how since learning what people pick up on. With this film people at least feel that there was some trauma or that she had a major episode at some point. She wants to rebuild herself or wants to sort of reach out, but there’s this certain suggestion that there are real stakes. That it’s not just apathetic state or like my other protagonists, that’s it’s more like existential baggage or something. But with this, there’s almost the feeling–and maybe that’s because it’s a female character that it just felt less interesting if it was all self-created–that there was a real sort of a risk and I suppose that’s also why I set it a daycare. She’s working around children, there’s always kind of that question, should she be with them? Or just how protective parents are. And, so yeah there’s sort of this indecisiveness and elevated stakes.

DC: That’s nice, the idea of elevated stakes. Because it’s like when she makes the decision to jump out of a plane or, try to fall in love or anything like that, she’s putting herself in harm’s way. There’s the hope of something incredible happening. 

Do you see this as a really personal film for both of you?

KR: For me, yeah. All my stuff is incredibly personal. I mean, it’s shot at my mom’s. My mom’s in the film, she plays the supervisor. I went to that daycare as a kid. And so yeah, there’s a lot of biography just in that. But in terms of the crisis, I think it’s pretty clear that I’m returning to something in my films.  So I always start with something incredibly personal and sort of fractions of things that have happened to me or, or people close to me and then it becomes this process of grounding something else and sort of this collaborative thing of working with Ajla, Nikoaly, [producer] Dan [Montgomery], and Deragh and over two years it grows into something else. The film almost starts embarrassingly introspective and then gets grounded them into somebody else. 

DC: Yeah, certainly it’s personal. I definitely started off the film thinking that Anne was very different than me, and I’m a tiny bit disturbed by the ways that she’s similar to me. I’ve become a much more socially anxious person as I’ve gotten older somehow. And the way that she experiences social anxiety is very different from mine, like that kind of becoming super overbearing. When I get anxious I withdraw. But, just kind of seeing this intense desire to connect with people, but kind of wanting the connection so badly that you kind of make it impossible. I think is something that’s really depressing.

KR: Yeah, we’ve both been there.

DC: I don’t know. Despite the fact that she will put other people in uncomfortable situations, I think she’s really sympathetic as a character.

KR: Yeah. I mean, I hope all the characters are sympathetic.

DC: Yeah.

KR: There’s no villain or antagonist. The villain is society. [Laughs.]

Anne at 13,000 ft premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

See our complete TIFF 2019 coverage.

‘End of the Century’ Director Lucio Castro on His Intimate, Epic Vision of the Bonds Across Time

Written by Joshua Encinias, August 26, 2019 at 8:13 pm 

Most discussions about movies that examine time and space are reserved for those doing it on a grand scale–2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar, films known more for their visual exploration of these ideas. Lucio Castro’s feature debut End of the Century, following lovers Ocho (Juan Barberini) and Javi (Ramone Pujol) over twenty years, shows the nimble yet affecting inventiveness at which these ideas can be explored. Time shifts at a moment’s notice without much in the way of visual cues. We know time changed by Ocho’s reaction and quick adaptation to every new scenario. He is the connective tissue between hook up, forgotten rendezvous, and childbirth. These are tactical moments in the course of a twenty-year relationship so clearly delineated the actors don’t need make-up to show the passage of time. 

We spoke with director Lucio Castro during Outfest in Los Angeles to discuss his small-scale epic of the passage of time. Castro discusses End of the Century’s taut development and strong vision, using contemporary gay sex mores to date his movie in our time, and using a unique kind of time travel to examine how relationships change, along with asking the question, “What is time, what is a story?”

The Film Stage: Is any of your own story in the movie? 

Lucio Castro: There’s definitely a lot that is related to my own experience, especially with my relationship life. I’m not any of the characters. It’s not based on my life directly and it’s not really my story. But there are things I’ve lived or heard, or some things I just made up. Even the character of Sonya (Mía Maestro), when she tells that story about a breakup, that’s something that happened to me as well. There’s definitely a lot of things that refer to my life even though it’s not really autobiographical.

The movie is under 90 minutes, it debuted at New Directors/New Films, and you had a pretty short festival window. It’s almost like you really know what you want from the film. How did you develop such a strong vision for what you want, for both the film and the journey it’s taking? 

It’s an interesting thing. I’ve written full feature films in the past, I’ve done shorts and watched a crazy amount of films. This one I wrote very fast and I started writing without knowing where it was going. As I wrote it, I felt like I was reading the story. I never really rewrote it. I just did a few scenes, maybe, but there wasn’t really a big rewrite in any sense. The actors added a lot of stuff and some things have changed but not much, then the editing was exactly like the way I wrote it. Being edited as written, there weren’t a lot of people involved. This one for some reason I didn’t want too–not that I didn’t need feedback, but I did feel very confident that this was the movie I wanted to make. In the end, it felt like something you could connect with or can’t. I feel like people would say it has its own world and that world feels determined. There was not a lot of exterior influence in End of Century. That’s why I think it feels very connected to one world or one spirit or one vision. 

When you’re directing actors, specifically when you were directing Juan Barberini and Ramone Pujol, was it necessary for them to have a certain chemistry or was their acting enough? 

When I cast them I did not try out their chemistry. So, I guess the answer to that question would be that the acting is enough. I wanted to work with two very intelligent actors for these parts. Because it’s a movie done with so few people I wanted the actors to be really, really smart. Not only to be able to say lines really fast, but to be sensitive to the story. The reality of the movie starts breaking up at a certain point, and I wanted actors who didn’t want me to give answers all the time. I feel like the two actors, after they read the script, I talked to them and I knew they were people I could work with and would be great for the characters. I started with Juan then I found Ramone. 

Was the story designed to reflect how people change over the course of a relationship, when you don’t recognize the person you first met?

That’s definitely a good interpretation of it. I totally agree Ocho (Barberini) changed over the relationship. Realistically, the first part of the movie which is very straight, was inspired by a friend of mine who met this guy three times and the first two times he didn’t remember they had sex and on the third encounter they became boyfriends. That was over a three year period. I liked that idea. I feel like when you are with someone for a long time, sometimes you feel like you were doing something yesterday, but it was actually ten years ago, because you’re with the same person all the time and you both change. Time becomes very fluid in a relationship. 

You do some things that ground the movie in 2018/2019. Why did you have Ocho and Javi stop to get a condom before having sex? One of the characters is on PrEP and he’s confident in his HIV status. 

The other guy is not on PrEP and doesn’t trust that the other guy is on PrEP and that is something that has always fascinated me with gay people, the idea of trust. Sex can be happening very easily, but they might be very mistrustful of what each other says about their HIV or STI status. So with gay sex, it may be easier to trust yourself with the protection of your body than trust someone else. 

You ground your movie in this relationship between Ocho and Javi and the nature of sex in our era, but it’s also about time and space. It’s also a journey asking, “What is a movie, what is a story?’

That’s something I totally love and care about and want to explore more. My next movie is actually a lot of that too. The idea of time in a movie is fascinating–it’s the only art where time is a thing. You look at a painting and you can see the whole painting. In film, it’s always given in some sort of timeframe. It can be an hour and a half that is actually an hour and a half in someone’s life. It could be an hour and a half over 100 years, or one minute. I always loved the idea of playing with that. Film has a lot of rules but also flexibility. My movies are actually very simple. The way I add time is in a really simple way. I do feel that there is so much to play with and explore. That this film is about space and time. I totally and completely agree. 

End of the Century is now playing at NYC’S IFC Center and expands in the coming weeks.

‘American Factory’ Directors on Capitalism, Communism, and Capturing a U.S.-China Culture Clash

Written by Joshua Encinias, August 24, 2019 at 11:11 am 

In a letter to the editor of The Atlantic, Penelope Gristelfink wrote: “China is the new America. America is the new Soviet Union, and the walls are closing in.” Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s new documentary American Factory, through no intent of their own, makes a strong case for the former. 

American Factory picks up seven years after their Oscar-nominated short film The Last Truck, which documents the closure of GM’s plant in Moraine, Ohio in 2008 and the social, economic and spiritual decimation left in its wake. Flash forward to 2015, and Chinese glass company Fuyao owned by Chairman Cao Dewang redeveloped the property to open Fuyao Glass America. Factory follows what was supposed to be a harmonious merging of cultures but resulted in an ongoing culture clash of the Chinese work ethic and labor expectations of the average American worker. 

We spoke with Reichert and Bognar the weekend after the deadly mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. Moraine, Ohio, where the factory is located, is just outside Dayton and we discussed the killing’s impact on the wider community. We also discuss the irony of Chinese communist success at global capitalism and how the filmmakers learned to depict management and employees fairly by not picking sides. 

The Film Stage: How did you find out about the plant’s redevelopment? How did you get such intimate access?

Steven Bognar: Well, it was big news. We live in Dayton, Ohio. We are very proud to be from this little town. It’s a scrappy, little, industrial town. Everyone in Dayton knew someone who worked at the old General Motors factory. For generations people worked at that plant. 6,000 people worked there. It was a good job, it built a middle class in that whole region. Just as Youngstown and Pittsburgh and all these other towns had blue-collar, working-class communities. Multi-racial too, not just the white folks in the suburbs. These were folks who didn’t go to college but who sent their kids to college, who could afford a home. The GM plant in our town closed in 2008 and it was devastating. That plant sat empty, rusting for six or seven years. Then a Chinese billionaire entrepreneur bought it and it was huge news. It was like, “Okay, what?” The word went out that manufacturing jobs were coming back to Dayton, Ohio, and it was very exciting. Pretty soon, someone started saying this should be documented and our names came up because we had done an earlier film there. We had done a film about the closing of the GM plant. It’s on HBO. It’s called The Last Truck

Julia Reichert: It’s a short. It’s actually like a prequel to this film. This film actually has some of the footage comes it. It’s only a 40-minute short. It was an Oscar nominee and it was a good film. It’s sad. It’ll make you cry. 

Bognar: As an aside, it’s weird being in New York these days given the mass shooting that just happened. We’ve been talking to our friends and family back home and keep our pulse on how people are doing. 

Do you know anyone at the factory who was personally affected by the shooting over the weekend? 

Bognar: Not yet, we are still asking people. We know a lot of people at the factory. We don’t know anyone impacted. But it’s not like we couldn’t hear tomorrow, “Oh, so and so…” Dayton is a small town. Our grandkids go to a school where one of the other kids lost their mother–their mother was killed in the shooting. The degrees of separation are quite a few in a community like that. 

Getting back to the movie, we had done this earlier film. Our names are suddenly being talked about. “There’s these local filmmakers, maybe they could document the birth of this factory.” We started talking to the company, and the original idea was the company would pay us to do it, but then we didn’t want to do that. [We said], “If you let it be an independent film that we can have total control over, then we’ll do it. But you have to give us access and you have to trust us.” The person who greenlit it was Cao Dewang, the chairman. He runs the show there and he said, “Let’s do it.” So there we were, filming. This was in the early days when there was a hole, and it was still hugely empty and there were just cement mixers there and it was coming back to life. We started filming in 2015 and we basically filmed for almost three years. It got more and more intense. The more we filmed, the more things started happening. 

When the chairman and the Chinese workers on site become suspicious of their American co-workers did your jobs become harder? Did they become suspicious of you at any point? 

Bognar: The leadership of the company did not get suspicious of us but there were issues of whose side we were on. The plant is huge, and in the early days, we were walking with our heavy tripod, you’re literally walking miles a day. We’re walking and suddenly one of the management folks stops us and says, “Hey, you want a ride?” So we got on the cart and we got a ride to where we were going. But the people on the assembly line start looking at us and seeing us riding with the management guy. They start thinking, “Are the filmmakers with management? Are they working for the company? Are they independent?” We pretty quickly realized that we have to walk, we can’t take rides on the golf cart. Even though our cameras and tripods are heavy, we have to walk because we can’t be aligned with anybody. When the union battles started flaring up, people start wondering if we were in cahoots with the union–people in management started wondering that. Then people in the unions thought we were company spies. So it got complicated.

Reichert: If someone talked to us and said, “Yeah, there should be a union here” or “I went to a meeting” they wondered if we were gonna report back to HR or management. 

Was there a specific instance of your loyalty being questioned?

Reichert: I went to three or four union meetings, and we made The Last Truck, and if people hadn’t seen it we just gave people copies and pass them out. A lot of people had seen it. I just went to observe, I didn’t ask to shoot or anything. At one point the union organizers said, “We don’t want you to come to any meetings at all because people are afraid to speak in front of you. They don’t know what side you are on.” It’s very intimidating as you can see. People got fired for being union supporters. 

Bognar: There were certain company meetings we wanted to be in, and they wouldn’t let us attend.

Reichert: Especially once the Labor Relations Institute, the anti-union people, they really kept us away. They pushed us away, even saying,  “You can’t shoot our signs.” We had to sort of pretend they didn’t exist. They were extremely impactful in that factory. We did film some of their stuff. We just had to shake that off. 

Bognar: It was a delicate situation in that we would often hear things that could impact the course of events. We tried to have a Star Trek philosophy of don’t change the course of events. If you go down to a planet, don’t alter it. Now with cameras in the room it changes something. It changes how people act. It makes them self-conscious. But we didn’t want to inadvertently reveal information that would change how things were going down. We would things on the factory floor that management would probably want to hear. We would hear things from management that people on the factory floor would want to hear about policies that were going to change. We realized we can’t be revealing stuff. We had to be careful because we were kinda everywhere. It was delicate. 

Was the mass wedding at the company party in China real?

Bognar: Yes. There were like six or seven couples. 

Reichert: That’s a whole, long evening. Those people who danced or who were in costumes are workers. They rehearsed and all that stuff on their own. 

What about the children who performed? 

Reichert: The children were children of workers. 

Bognar: The little chickens? Weren’t they amazing? Our jaws dropped. When we saw that we were like, is this really happening? 

Reichert: That night was extremely… one thing after another, we just couldn’t believe it. Then when we got the translation and we learned what they were singing about we just couldn’t believe it again. The weddings, they were real. There were couples that got married that night. Because it was so odd to us, we asked our Chinese colleagues about it and it’s actually pretty common. It’s pretty much the company offering them a free wedding. They don’t have to spend the money on the clothes and the party. They give it to them. They’re very happy to get a free wedding. 

Bognar: It shows on some level the sense of unity that is prevalent in some Chinese companies that is not present in the U.S. anymore. Maybe in the 1950s people had an allegiance to their employers. Like if you worked for Ford or GM, you might say “I’m a Ford person” or “I’m a GM person.” But that bond between employer and worker is broken. But we felt a lot of loyalty between worker and company in China. 

Reichert: It’s a different culture. We are made up of individuals. We’re individualistic. We all came from somewhere else. It’s that cowboy/cowgirl culture. It’s much more collective over there. You keep hearing the words harmonious society–they are striving for a harmonious society. Now maybe that’s fluffy word for conformist. But there’s a sense that they all really support the company happy, they’re having a great time. Even on the factory floor. Even with the long hours there’s a huge sense of “We’re trying to make this happen.” They are much more patriotic in a real way. If you think about it, China only started pulling out poverty and starvation in the 1980s. That’s not very long ago. People’s parents were living in rural poverty as opposed to our grandparents, who had good jobs. 

Bognar: Better jobs than what we can get now. As the quality of life and standards of living for blue-collar Americans has gone down, they have actually gone up dramatically in China. One thing we’re trying not to do with the movie is not judge that. Not view that through some kind of lens of American anxiety. What’s happening in China is lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and you can’t say that’s a bad thing. Yeah, there are problems, there are environmental problems, there are global problems…

Didn’t China buy most of the carbon emission credits under cap and trade? There are some big problems. 

Reichert: I didn’t know that. 

Bognar: It’s not without serious issues, but the fact that hundreds of millions of people aren’t starving is a good thing. We want the film to be this sort of neutral space. We don’t believe in objectivity, but there’s fairness. You can be fair to oppositional sides and we try to do that in this movie. 

Is what you’re talking about–the integration of a person’s life, government, business, culture, entertainment–is that the gist of Chinese communism? 

Bognar: We aren’t specialists on this…

Sure, but you are specialists of your movie. What do you think?

Bognar: We saw a lot of integration of work life with personal life. You see this with Wong He. Wong works in Dayton. He’s in Dayton for two years without seeing his kids, and he’s in that factory 12 hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes on Sundays he goes in. It’s a deep dedication of his personal life and his professional life. 

It makes sense because the film shows Fuyao’s headquarters is also the Communist Party’s headquarters. 

Reichert: I think what you’re asking is more about the Communist party over there. This was again, one of those things as Americans that we were shocked by. We thought this is wrong. But as you meet people over there and you talk to them… Yes, there’s communist party headquarters and union headquarters right on the company ground. This is very common with any kind of big factory in China. It’s more of the union headquarters with a communist party office inside it. But what that means is something different from what you might expect. People can go there for basketball teams, to learn calligraphy, to have meetings, to learn, there’s a library there. It’s more of what you would think of as social support and team building. There are people who join the party because they want to get ahead. It’s like here. You might become an activist in the Democratic party, partly because you want democracy, but also you see that as a way of becoming a leader in your county or state. My understanding is if you want to get ahead in China you join the party. The chairman is not a member of the communist party as far as we’ve ever heard. We’ve been told he’s not. 

He’s the CEO but they call him chairman. 

Reichert: Chairman Cao. 

Bognar: Like Chairman Mao. 

Reichert: Some of the top management around him are in the Communist party, but he’s more of a maverick. The communist party means something different than it does to us as outsiders.

Bognar: It’s fascinating to us. We still want to learn how this is working. China has state-sponsored capitalism. In many ways, these communists are the best capitalists in the world right now. 

It’s like authoritarian capitalism. 

Bognar: There’s power in centralizing everything so you have more resources to buy more, so you can do more. Think about the huge infrastructure projects China is doing. If China invests hundreds of millions of dollars in Zambia or in the ports in Greece, that gives them measures of control over resources, expands their reach, all in large part because they have this state-sponsored capitalism that has lots of deep pockets.

American Factory is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the directors’ conversation with the Obamas above.

Simon Bird on his Feature Debut ‘Days of the Bagnold Summer,’ Comparisons to ‘The Inbetweeners,’ and Belle and Sebastian

Written by Leonardo Goi, August 24, 2019 at 10:03 am 

If you were anywhere in or around the United Kingdom during the last stretch of the noughties–or anywhere else with easy access to Channel 4’s streaming platform, for that matter–chances are you witnessed the pandemonium stirred up by a cult TV comedy series, The Inbetweeners. From the minds of creators Damon Beesley and Iain Morris came a show that chronicled the banter, mess, joys, and sorrows of four high school students stranded in an unidentified stretch of British suburbia–an endlessly watchable, endlessly quotable sitcom that later birthed two spinoff features (The Inbetweeners Movie, 2011; The Inbetweeners 2, 2014) and crystallized the show’s acting quartet as household names. 

I am sitting in the lounge room of Locarno’s Belvedere Hotel waiting to interview one of them, actor-turned-director Simon Bird (The Inbetweeners’ put-upon Will McKenzie), moments before the Locarno Film Festival will draw the curtains on his Days of the Bagnold Summer. This is not the first time Bird has taken a seat behind the camera: in 2016, he traveled to SXSW with his short Ernestine & Kit, the road trip chronicles of two cantankerous seventy-something women, but it is the first he grapples with a feature-length project.

Days of the Bagnold Summer is a gentle, heartfelt portrait of a preternaturally shy middle-aged mother, and her moody, laconic metalhead son. It’s a chronicle of the summer they’re forced to spend together once the boy’s much-awaited trip to the States falls through, and it unfurls as a twofold coming-of-age tale, zeroing in on both leads with equal affection, crafting each as loners struggling to open up to the world. A quirky and endearing first feature enriched by the terrific performances of co-leads Monica Dolan and Earl Cave, Nick’s son, and graced with original tracks by Scottish band Belle and Sebastian.

By the time I sit down with Bird, it’s been a few hours since Bagnold bowed for its first press screening, stirring chuckles all throughout its brisk 86-minute running time. “It’s weird to know people have now seen the film,” Bird smiles as we begin chatting. “I almost forgot that happened.” 

The Film Stage: How long ago did you shoot it?

Simon Bird: We filmed it in September last year, which I guess it’s not too long ago, in the context of how long it normally takes to make films. 

This is not the first time you sit at the director’s chair, and I was wondering if there was a specific moment during your acting career in which you sort of felt: I want to switch, and embrace directing instead.

I think I’ve probably always known. Everything I did before I started acting on TV, when I was doing comedy shows at university–it was always somewhat collaborative: we were always involved in every aspect of the show. We’d write them, and cast them together, and think about what the set design would look like, and we would direct ourselves. You were always involved in everything. And once I got the job with The Inbetweeners I sort of realized: oh, right, I was only really involved in this tiny slither of everything that happens around you, as an actor, you just show up and that’s it. Being on set made me realize that I was much more interested in–or maybe just a lot more jealous of–people who got to be a lot more involved in the overall process than I did. The edit, for instance: that’s where the show actually happens! You can totally re-write something in the edit room. And it was just amazing in The Inbetweeners, working with [series creators] Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, who had this vision and were able to see it through. It was their production company–and they were certainly involved in every aspect of it. I got to see what that looked like, and realized that’s what I wanted to do.

How much do you reckon your work in the TV show helped pave your directorial career?

I’m sure it did help, I’m under no illusions here [laughs]. I think it helped me get a meeting with Matthew James Wilkinson, who then went on to produce my short. It probably helped us raise money for that short, too, and beyond that–it just opened all the doors for those initial meetings. That said, I hope that the short was good and interesting enough that people would have thought: ok, we will back this person, even if he wasn’t semi-famous. 

When did you come across Joff Winterhart’s graphical novel?

I think it was the year after it came out. It came out in 2012, if I’m not wrong, so it must have been 2013. 

And what brought you to it? What made you think that it was something that could be turned into a film?

Well, it wasn’t a case of me reading it and going: this has to be turned into a film. It was much more cynical than that. Once I made the short, the natural next step was to make a feature, and I was sort of going around looking for what that may be. I knew that I didn’t want to write it myself, or come up with an original story. I read a lot, so the next step was to sort of go back to all the novels and short stories I’d read in recent years and see which ones had stayed with me. And initially, when I was looking through my library, I sort of glossed over it, and it was actually my wife [Bagnold’s script writer Lisa Owens] who went, “Oh, there could be something there.” I just dismissed it because it was so small, and I thought there wasn’t a story there. It just didn’t feel filmic. But Lisa, to her credit, thought there was plenty already, and she ended up writing the screenplay. And I think she did a pretty good job–I mean, there isn’t much of a story in the film. That’s something I love–films that are very small, more character-driven than heavy on narrative. But really, the story that’s in the film, tiny that may be, is gigantic compared to what’s in the book. The book really has no story–it’s just this series of vignettes, with no real arc. And Lisa’s done a great job at drawing a story out of it. So yeah, it definitely wasn’t a case of me reading it and going: yeah, this has to turn into a film, but the more I thought about it the more I realized there was lots of it that felt right. It was small, but also practically very manageable for a first film. And there was an element of The Inbetweeners to it, which could convince the financiers who may have only gotten aboard because of that link to the show. There are definitely things in common, but hopefully people will notice different elements, too. 

I came in thinking you’d served as director and writer, and I was genuinely surprised when the end credits told me otherwise. I say this because there was so much harmony between your direction and the script, the kind of synch you’d normally register in a one person’s show. Which makes me wonder, ever toyed with the idea of writing your own scripts?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I never really considered it for this feature, or for the short, just because directing is still so new to me, and I wanted to approach it in its own terms, and not be worried. I wanted to be sure that if the film was terrible it’d be because I directed it badly, not because I wrote it poorly! [laughs] That said, I instinctively felt like I’d be able to direct, as though I had the necessary skill set for that. Whereas I didn’t necessary feel that for writing. I’ve written stuff in the past, and will definitely write again in the future, but it felt natural to me to work with someone whom I know is a great writer–and in this case, it was my wife. It was a very enjoyable process, and I’d definitely be up for working with writers again in the future. 

Days of the Bagnold Summer essentially unfolds as a twofold coming of age tale. By that I mean, both mother and son struggle to overcome their insecurities, and open up to the world. 

Yes, and I thought I hadn’t really seen that before. Again, that’s all from the book. I knew when I read it that it felt very interesting and unique, and I was very aware that we wanted to retain that. And again, it would have been really easy to ditch that and say: this is Daniel’s story, or: this is Sue’s story–which would have made it much more of a genre film, something people could understand, and would be easier to sell. But we were very careful to ensure it stayed even-handed. Even down to the script: we actually counted how many pages were Dan’s scenes, and how many were Sue’s scenes. Just to make sure. Just because we’ve all been through teenage years, and a lot of us will go through the parental admin as well. 

You said you hope this new work will be somewhat different from The Inbetweeners, and I remember you stating that Bagnold is a “celebration of life in the suburbs.” To some extent, The Inbetweeners felt a bit like that too: a tale set in an ostensibly ordinary, uneventful world, far away from the hype and thrills of the city. Why this fascination for suburbia?

I don’t know, really. I think you’ve hit it on the head: that’s the big similarity between the show and the film. I guess the fascination must be there, somewhere in my consciousness [laughs]. But like I said, this was the book that jumped out at me. It could have easily been another text, not set in British suburbia. It wasn’t a case of: oh, I have to make a film in the British suburbs, what stories can be set there? But at the same time, I grew up in the suburbs, it’s a world I know, so it felt like a story that was relevant to me. Again, much like I felt for The Inbetweeners at the time, I felt like it filled a niche. And, perhaps on a cynical level, I thought there was an opportunity to say something new. 

Both Earl Cave and Monica Dolan are pitch-perfect choices as Daniel and Sue. How did the casting process go?

Well, the casting of Sue, Monica Dolan, was pretty easy and effortless. I’ve been following Monica’s career for years, I’m a huge fan of hers. And there’s something about Sue, in the book as much as in the script, that made Monica stand out as the first person I thought of. I just knew she’d be perfect. I offered her the role, and I met up with her, and it all happened very easily. Daniel, on the other hand, was a lot harder to cast. Purely because, you know, you’re casting a teenager and you’re bound to find fewer experienced teenage actors out there. But also because I think his is a very hard part. You’re playing someone who’s very introverted, and very quiet. Much as he may share the lead role with Sue, he doesn’t have many lines, so it’s like having to do quite a lot with quite little. And it’s also an inherently unlikable character, you know. I think Daniel’s lovely, but he’s obviously going through a tough phase in his life. He’s very rude to his mom, he shouts a lot, hides behind his hair, but I needed someone whom the audience could root for, as well. 

Still, he’s not a one-note teen. He’s never really a stereotype, as much as he may sometimes veer into the “grumpy, frustrated teen boy” archetype. 

Totally, and that’s all down to Earl, and probably why the casting process took so long: it was very hard to find someone who could do that. And he was brilliant–he can definitely do the moody stuff, but he also has a screen presence, and a magnetism to himself. 

And a certain vulnerability.

And a sense of humor. It’s all in there. You watch Daniel and you think: he’s definitely going to be fine in the future. He’s going to be likable, and will have friends, and will have a nice life once he gets through this tough time. And that’s really important, I think. For it to be uplifting, you have to be likable underneath it all. 

Another brilliant ingredient to your feature is the score. You were blessed to count with original tracks by Scottish band Belle and Sebastian. 

Oh, it was just amazing when they joined. I mean, I’d spoken to the music supervisor, and he asked me what composer I had in mind, and I said I didn’t really know any, and he told me to think big: if you could have any major band or artist in the world, who would you go for? And I said Belle and Sebastian would be perfect a fit for the kind of vibe we were going for. And he spoke to them, and well, three days later they got onboard. We were very lucky–they had a break in their schedule, and were very keen to work on a film, and do some instrumental stuff. So that all happened very seamlessly. The challenge with the music was to balance that style with the kind of heavy metal tunes Daniel likes, just because music is such a big part of his character. 

And yet the juxtaposition never really feels too strident, in the sense that Belle and Sebastian’s score somewhat meshes with the metal soundtrack, and both morph into a whole just as complex and multifaceted as Daniel’s persona.

I’m glad to hear that! It was a bit of a challenge–getting that balance right was something we were hoping to achieve. There are two sides to Daniel, and overdoing the heavy metal part would have been detrimental. That side, after all, is also partly just a show he puts on.

Days of the Bagnold Summer world premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.

Into Foreign Lands: Kiyoshi Kurosawa on ‘To the Ends of the Earth’

Written by Leonardo Goi, August 21, 2019 at 11:03 pm 

Photo by Ottavia Bosello

From the mezzanine level of Caffè Verbano, Locarno’s Piazza Grande glitters under the scorching sun, the army of black and yellow chairs sprawling below the festival’s biggest screen and iconic open-air theatre. At a table overlooking the piazza, Kiyoshi Kurosawa sits for the last few interviews ahead of the premiere of his new feature, To the Ends of the Earth

It’s the Japanese horror master’s second time in Locarno–in 2013, his Real found a slot in the Swiss festival’s international competition–though the first in the non-competitive sidebar for which the fest is possibly best known for, the programme named after the square where, every night, an 8,000-strong audience enjoys some of the best in the year’s world cinema. 

Assuming one can still find a leitmotiv in an oeuvre that’s as vast as it is growing increasingly protean, To the Ends of the Earth may not strike as your traditional Kurosawa film. Closer to his 2013 Seventh Code than to the works that earned him the title of J-horror master (Cure, 1997; Pulse, 2001) it is the second film the Kobe native shoots entirely outside Japan. Where the 2013 thriller had been filmed in Vladivostok, Russia, Ends takes place in Uzbekistan; here again, Kurosawa’s muse Atsuko Maeda serves as lead. Now with her third collaboration with the director–after Seventh Code and the cerebral sci-fi Before We Vanish (2017)–the singer-turned-actress plays Yoko, a TV reporter who travels with her crew across the steppes of Uzbekistan, ostensibly to film a 2-meter long fish that may or may not even exist. 

A failed quest turns into an opportunity to grapple with an unresolved longing, a lingering and all-pervasive solitude. Thin in plot but not uneventful, free from jump scares but still perturbing, To the Ends of the Earth is a gentle-paced, melancholic ride, a frustrated tale of belonging graced by Maeda’s mercurial performance.

I took a seat in between Kurosawa and Locarno programmer-cum-interpreter Julian Ross, and spoke with the director about his latest feature, his horror master credentials, the fascination for Atsuko Maeda, mythical animals, and Edith Piaf. 

The Film Stage: After Seventh Code, here’s another film shot a whole world away from your preferred turf, Tokyo. I was curious about your fascination for foreign lands.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Well, I always set out to make a different film, every time I begin a new one. I guess that’s just the kind of director I am. I am always drawn to new challenges, and to be able to work in different types of films feels like a dream to me. All that said, somehow I always end up shooting around Tokyo, the budget being the primary reason for that. Rarely do I get opportunities to shoot outside the city, let alone outside Japan. I never ask for those myself, but when I’m approached with a project such as To the Ends of the Earth, I am naturally drawn to it. There was Seventh Code, in Russia, and this one, in Uzbekistan. The producer came up to me and asked if I wanted to shoot a film there, and I said yes, thinking I’d be able to make another type of film if I were to do it over there. 

I also read that part of your fascination with the country stemmed from your interest in the Timurid Empire, which comprised modern-day Uzbekistan. 

Oh, I certainly do have an interest in that, but of course, that’s something beyond cinema. When I was young I was particularly interested in world history, and history outside of Japan, and I read plenty of books–and yes, I was particularly drawn to the rise and fall of the Timurid empire. Except–I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know this from before–it was only when I was approached and asked to shoot in Uzbekistan that I came to the realization that the center of the empire stood on what is now the country itself. I guess it was some sort of destiny. 

Going back to one of the points you raised earlier, the idea that you never really want to make the same film twice, I was wondering how you feel about being revered as a master of genre–J-horror, in your case. How comfortable do you feel with that label?

It doesn’t really make me feel uncomfortable. I have made several horror films, or at any rate, films that could be categorized as horror films, though it’s not like it was me who started the genre–and of course, I’ve also shot many other kinds of films, too. I guess it would be disconcerting if people thought horror films was all I did, and that I was just this expert on all things horror. I mean, I love horror films, and if there will be other opportunities in the future, I would love to work in horror again, because it is the kind of genre that offers many things, and many opportunities to explore.

A while ago, reading one of your statements before To the Ends of the Earth traveled to Locarno, I remember being intrigued by you describing its theme as “very personal” to you. How so?

I’m trying to recall in which context I said that, and what I meant by it. But sure, as far as the protagonist’s experience goes, the fact that she travels to another land and suffers from all sorts of small details, that’s something I’ve experienced myself too, anytime I’ve been invited to international film festivals. The experiences I went through form the basis on which I shaped the events in the film. I think a particularly representative scene is when Yoko sees a glimpse of Tokyo on fire broadcast on an Uzbek TV channel. I had a very similar experience myself, in March 2011, when that great earthquake struck Japan. I was in Paris, and I remember undergoing a similar experience as I watched Tokyo break down from afar on a television screen. That was how I was getting all my information. I was shocked–I kept calling people all over, but it turned out it wasn’t Tokyo on the screen, it was a town in the north east of Japan. And then of course, the big tsunami waves, and then the breakdown of the nuclear power plant. I have this memory of watching all these tragic events as they unfolded in Japan, but all from afar, and I feel the feeling is echoed in the film. 

There are two near-mythical creatures Yoko and her TV crew are after. One is the “bramul,” this gigantic, two-meter long fish, and the other is the “markhor” described to us as a goat-like “beast with huge horns and long hair.” I use the word described because we never actually see the two animals, which dons them this sort of Beckettian aura. How did these two creatures come into the script? And how exactly do you imagine them?

I must confess this is the first time I’ve ever been asked this question (laughs). These two creatures, well, it’s not that they don’t exist–they do. Apparently the fish really does live in that lake we shot in [Aydar], and apparently it really can reach up to two meters in length. Same with the goat, the markhor: there are only a few hundreds of them now, they’re very much on the brink of extinction, and they’re so majestic they’re referred to as the “kings of goats.” And sure, as you said, we may not see them on the screen, but this the story of a TV crew that go out looking for them, and never find them. It’s a story about people traveling abroad, and people often travel with a certain goal in mind, but as far as I’m concerned, experience tells me those goals are never achieved the way you imagine they would. Things happen, things that go beyond your expectations, and that’s what special about traveling. At any rate, that’s been my experience in life, and that’s something reflected in the characters and their own struggles in the film.

There’s definitely a lot of irony in that depiction, of a TV crew’s failed quest, a satire of sorts. 

Sure, but it wasn’t my intention to depict the TV crew in any ironic way. In a sense I go through the same they do in the film. I mean, they may go about shooting stuff for a TV programme, and I make films: like them, I have some goals and preconceptions in mind anytime I embark on a new project, but it’s always the case that I don’t achieve them. And I think in a sense this is the essence of filmmaking. These goals are rarely accomplished, but nevertheless there’s always something, something beyond your initial plans and expectations, that appears on screen, and that’s what makes cinema so special. These coincidences, serendipitous things, if you like. In a sense, what I wanted to depict was a TV crew going about doing their job, and that turned out to mirror my own work as a filmmaker, in that not everything I plan works out, much like in their own frustrated search. 

After Seventh Code and Before We Vanish, this is your third collaboration with Atsuko Maeda. What is it that attracts you about her craft?

Simply put, she’s always left a great impression on me. Of course, there are many other great Japanese actresses out there, but she’s distinct, she has some qualities unique to her. Especially when she’s on her own on the screen, and she doesn’t share the shot with other people: she’s able to exist by herself. And as Yoko, despite having to face so many miscommunication issues with the local people, she pursues life, and pushes forward. As I began writing this role, I immediately thought of her. 

Maeda is a renowned singer, which is the sort of career her Yoko wants to embark on. And while To the Ends of the Earth is certainly not a musical, music plays a crucial role here–most evidently in the two scenes where she bursts into a Japanese rendition of Edith Piaf’s classic, L’Hymne à l’Amour. Did you always envision music would play such a key role, or did the presence of actress and singer Maeda influence the decision?

I think it was both, really. There’s a scene we shot inside Tashkent’s Navoi Theatre–I really wanted to use this location, it’s so gorgeous, I wanted it to be in the film. I asked myself how I could fit it in the story, and I came up with the idea that the protagonist was pursuing a singing career, and there’s a moment in which she sort of hallucinates and imagines herself singing in that theatre. At the same time, I sensed Maeda would be perfect for the kind of scene I had in mind. So it was sort of simultaneous: on the one hand I wanted to exploit the setting, on the other I knew she was the best actress who could help me do so.  

That choice of Edith Piaf’s piece was most interesting, it’s another foreign element in a story of alien things. Why that song?

To be honest, I really didn’t think too deeply about the question. In all fairness, I really just liked the song a lot, and thought it would suit Atsuko Maeda very much. I knew it’d be difficult for her, but I believed she could do it if she practiced hard enough. And of course, the other major factor was that as I started looking into the song I realized the copyright was free! (laughs) You know, when you use famous songs from relatively recent times you’re always bound to face copyright issues, but in this case, we overcame that obstacle fairly simply. As to why I included that scene in the end–well, this is a film that marks a departure from the idea of a genre, in the sense that, you know, when I make a horror film I want the audience to be scared, and therefore I use certain things such as scary music to instigate that. But this one here is an original story, and I wanted its interpretation to be completely free, and up to the audience to elaborate. In that sense, it’s fine for the audience to have different responses–to laugh, to be scared, and so on–which is why I didn’t want the music to dictate this or that feeling. But I did want to use music in the last scene. You can read the image anyway you want, but I wanted to ask the audience to just look at Maeda, at Yoko: all eyes on her. And one of the ways to ensure this would happen was to make the character sing a song–in this case, a whole song. And as beautiful as Uzbekistan’s mountains may be, my hope is that the audience won’t be able to take their eyes off her. 

To the Ends of the Earth premiered at Locarno Film Festival and screens at TIFF and NYFF.

Bong Joon-ho & Song Kang-ho on ‘Parasite,’ Mixing Darkness and Comedy, and Cinematic Influences

Written by Rory O'Connor, August 19, 2019 at 8:56 am 

In a recent, some might say premature, list of the top 100 films of the decade, South Korean master filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s latest Parasite, starring his regular collaborator Song Kang-ho, placed 48. It had premiered at Cannes just two months earlier.

Recency bias can help as much as it can hinder, especially in polls such as these that tend to reflect better on films that have already stood some test of time. The fact that Parasite has resonated so rapidly with audiences and critics, its brilliance almost a given, speaks to the diamond-cutter perfection of Bong’s screenplay and the riotous, gripping manner in which he and his team have executed it.  Bong was awarded the Palme d’Or in Cannes for his efforts, becoming the first South Korean filmmaker to do so.

The director and star landed at the Locarno film festival to present a screening of Parasite and, last Monday, the festival awarded Song with its Excellency award. We found them in an understandably amiable mood.

The Film Stage: Congratulations on winning the Palme d’Or. What is the significance of awards like these, and of being the first Korean filmmaker to do so?

Bong: Coincidentally it’s the 100th anniversary of Korean cinema this year, so when we won the prize it was incredibly dramatic. Personally, I’m trying not to make it dramatic as much as possible for me and to just work in my usual way with my usual flow–a very measured way of working–and continue my working process.

Song: It’s an incredibly big prize that I didn’t expect. It’s incredibly valuable for us and the Korean audiences to feel a sense of pride in Korean cinema and a sense of achievement, and I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding than that.

Where do you see yourself in the Korean cinema?

Bong: It’s not easy for me to say that for myself, with my own mouth. What you’re asking needs to come from someone outside the work who will be able to see it much more clearly and objectively. In terms of this film, and of course in terms of genre, it’s entertaining. The brilliant actors have a very vibrant energy that appeals to audiences and these things can really help. At the same time the film has very dark elements. It’s showing in a very clear way the gap between the wealthy and the poor. That can be very uncomfortable for audiences to watch, I think. So it was very unexpected that it did so well at the box office because the audience might find that difficult to stay with, so I’m very grateful that it’s done so well.

It’s different from your two previous films, which included English-language characters, and very different atmospheres. Are there aspects that you like to repeat in your films or do you always want to express something different?

Bong: So I don’t really think too hard about how I can connect my next film with my previous films. In fact, I think hard about how I can make my next film as different as possible. However, because I’m one person, you inadvertently repeat similar things, so my obsessions with stairs or basements for example.

There is a very strange mix of darkness and comedy. There’s violence and everything, but at the same time we laugh. How do you mix the two so well?

Bong: My wife says: “That’s just your personality, it’s just so weird and that’s why your films are like that.” Normally my personality is a bit split–that’s what she says. I think for me, to have two hours of just dark tragedy or two hours of just comedy is actually more difficult and more weird, because real life isn’t like that. Real life is a mixture of both. Even when we’re going through very terrifying things there are always unexpected pockets of comedy that we can find. And because for me life and reality is like that, that’s just naturally expressed in my films. I think also it comes due to working with actors who have similar tendencies like this. For example, actor Song, he is really able to express very well the complex and multi-layered aspects of life in order for the films to have this unique tone in the end.

You’ve made four films together at this stage, what is your opinion of one another?

Bong: I’m going to specifically discuss a very limited example to answer that question. When I was writing the script for Parasite there was a point that I was very concerned about and thought a lot on. In the latter half of the film there is a climax. In order to avoid spoilers I won’t say in detail what that is, but during the climactic point there is this one moment, and while I was writing it I was really concerned whether I could persuade the audience in this moment. However, because in this scene actor Song would be playing it I could write it with confidence and I did. If it was another actor I don’t think I could have written it in this way but with him I trusted that he could persuade the audience and he did, which I’m very thankful for.

So as a creator, director, and scriptwriter—the meaning of having an actor you can rely on in this way, it really made me think of this again. In a way it could be very irresponsible as a director, what I did, but with this part I thought I would rely entirely on his talent, being able to portray this.

Song: So it’s been almost 20 years that we’ve worked together–precisely 18. It’s a very long time that we’ve worked together. And also lived together in Korea as both people working in film. For me the most surprising aspect of Bong Joon-ho as an artist is that the end point for him is not the pursuit of cinematic pleasure, but through the cinematic pleasure that you conversely then reflect on life. And I think that was always surprising for audiences and that’s why they like his work so much.

You also made four films with Park Chan-wook, what is the difference when working with these two directors?

Song: I did three feature films and one short with director Park so, yes, four films. He has a very intense, unique creative world and he is loved by audiences and fans, and he is very representative of Korean cinema and he is incredibly different from director Bong Joon-ho. So as an actor, for me it is very happy but also very challenging to work in this way. That the directors are so aware of their own artistic worlds and pursue that, for me as an actor, how I can express this as closely as possible is always a challenge and always homework and always a little bit lacking. So it’s a very difficult but also a very happy dilemma to have as an actor.

 (To Bong Joon-ho) Are there many filmmakers that have influenced you?

Bong: My mentor is a Korean master from the 1960s and ‘70s; his name is Kim Ki-young, who made The Housemaid. He is really a genius. He depicts class and sexual desire within Korean society very well. I also like Claude Chabrol’s crime films. I also like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror films and I heard that this year he has the closing film at Locarno.

What do you think about the idea that there is a secret dialogue between your films and several films of Lee Chang-dong? Memories of Murder and Peppermint Candy; Mother and Poetry; and now Parasite and Burning.

Actually, when I was making Memories of Murder I was inspired by some aspects from Peppermint Candy, the description of the detectives in the movie… also, in the case of Poetry, Mother was released one year before so I don’t know if Lee Chang-dong inspired me or not. In the case of Parasite and Burning, while Burning was being shown at Cannes we were filming Parasite so it was only after we finished filming that we were able to watch Burning. In Burning you have these very wealthy and poor characters as well. At the same time having these very similar themes, our approach is very different. To share this with director Lee, whom I very much respect, is a very fascinating point for me.

You could almost include Shoplifters or Jordan Peele’s Us in that conversation.

Bong: Similarly with Shoplifters, I watched that after filming Parasite. During the filming I’d heard that he had won at Cannes, Kore-eda Hirokazu, and I was very pleased for him. I know him very well and I thought that Shoplifters dealt with characters that are outside the conventional Japanese society system and in a very interesting and unusual way.

Jordan Peele’s Us I haven’t watched yet but there was a moment in the trailer that I found very interesting. There is an image of the Rorschach–in fact the title for Parasite originally was [Rorschach]–referring to this, with the underlying meaning of the wealthy and the poor, two families reflecting on each other, and when I saw that at the ending of the trailer of Us I became very curious about it. So I’ve been telling everyone around me who watched the film: “Don’t tell me anything and don’t spoil anything for me.” But I’ve heard a little bit so I know a little bit already.

Parasite screened at Locarno Film Festival and opens on October 11.

This interview was conducted in English and Korean, via an interpreter.

Richard Linklater on Architecture and Filmmaking, the Challenges of Motherhood, and ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’

Written by Jordan Raup, August 13, 2019 at 9:31 am 

A witty portrait of a deferred career, marriage, motherhood, and a missing matriarch, Maria Semple’s hit novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette is prime material for Richard Linklater to adapt, and he found the perfect actress to take the lead. Cate Blanchett’s Bernadette Fox lives by the beat of her own out-of-tune drum. A once-heralded architect, for the last few decades she’s given up her creative passions, living in a bubble that ignores the fellow parents (aka “gnats”) at her daughter’s school and relying on a panoply of prescriptions to get by. When a family trip to Antarctica is planned, a series of unfortunate, perhaps self-precipitated events result in Bernadette’s further ostracism from those closest to her.

Ahead of the release this Friday, we spoke with the director about the desire to create, the similarities between architecture and filmmaking, the Up series, finding the perfect project, the struggles and unequal burdens women have to go through to balance career and family, as well as an update on his planned 1969-set film.

The Film Stage: So, a big part of Where’d You Go, Bernadette is how the opportunity or desire to create can be stifled in a person. Throughout your career, have you ever come across or felt something like that? 

Richard Linklater: Yeah, I’m highly offended and freaked out when the movie I want to make doesn’t get made–like I can’t get money for something–it’s really unnerving. So, Bernadette is kind of a portrait of that. I’m so blessed. I don’t have anything to complain about, really, but I can imagine it getting worse. You know, architecture and filmmaking aren’t that different; they’re art forms that require a lot of support. You need a budget, you need a client. They’re expensive artforms. So there’s a lot of architects who design things that never get built and filmmakers write scripts that never get made. It’s a very frustrating medium. No one can tell a songwriter “Oh, you can’t write another song,” or can’t tell a painter, “No, you can’t paint anymore,” or a writer, “You can’t write a book,” But, these things that require a lot more capital and bigger undertakings, they are that much more volatile. So, to me, it was a nightmarish scenario of not being able to do what you feel like what you’re most happy doing, and it’s kind of a toxic environment. 

That can be anyone whose either lost their muse, or is not doing it anymore. But, in [Bernadette’s] case, there’s very complex reasons we find out about what personally and professionally has kept her from doing anything for twenty years. The whole movie is a portrait of her slowly reconnecting with herself and getting back to work. You know, parenting can push life into a new direction, especially for women. 

One decision you made that I loved in this film was that there’s this theme of marriage and how hard it is to have a successful one over the years. You choose to cross-cut a scene with Billy Crudup and a scene with Cate Blanchett, both revealing quite personal things that have been bottled up over the last twenty years. It reminded me of the hotel scene in Before Midnight, except these people aren’t next to each other. I’m curious about your choice to have the scene play out like and how it drew you to the story.

Another thing is, yes, it’s a portrait of a long-term relationship. At the beginning of the movie, Bernadette and Elgin are on autopilot as a couple and a parenting unit; they’re pretty stagnant as far as their relationship goes. They’re not really seeing each other much in the way where these other things have crept in and it has a negative slant. That idea of the cross-cut scene kind of acts as the centerpiece of a movie in a certain way. It’s very important because they’re reaching extremely different conclusions. On her side, [Laurence Fishburne’s Paul Jellinek] is an old friend that she’s going to be very honest with and who’s going to be very honest with her. She keeps everyone in Seattle at arm’s length, but she’ll be honest with him, and he assesses her situation quite accurately. It’s like, “You just need to get your ass back to work.”

And he’s right! So many people need to do just that. But meanwhile, her husband, the person closest to her, is misreading her. He’s got a grievance list and doesn’t know what to do. He’s busy, so he does that thing that so many do: they sort of outsource their family health to professionals, who are very quick to pathologize. Really by the time they’re doing this little intervention, it’s a mini horror scene in my opinion. A collision of misinterpretation. It’s frustrating and horrible, and I think she does the right thing escaping… [Laughs.]

They really do force her out that window. In my opinion, it’s a survival technique, but she’s driven toward it. I think it’s a good move on her part. That’s just one of those big ideas. There’s all this information in the book about how to have it find some kind of cinematic form was always a challenge in the adaptation.

Speaking to the original book, I was reading a few interviews with the author, Maria Semple, and she mentioned one of her favorite films of all time is 56 Up… which of course, when Boyhood came out, people compared the two. Did you talk to her at all in the process? And did you talk specifically about that film and your shared of love for those movies?

Yeah, I went up there initially. She showed me everything, like, “Oh here’s the school [Gaylor Street] is based on, here’s the Queen Anne neighborhood.” You know, looking around, all that. I got a really good feel for it. I was in touch with her, and she came in right before we started. Cate [Blanchett] spent time with her. She was kind of busy on a couple of other projects, but she was around, which was nice. Very supportive.

The resonance with [56 Up and] Boyhood, I think it’s just anytime you show what the years do to somebody. With the Up series, obviously it’s a documentary and they film every seven years. With Boyhood, it’s fictional, and we filmed every year. It’s different; fictional versus documentary. But, I think the relation is that you see how powerful the passage of time is when you can see it and feel it. It’s a powerful relationship we all have with time, whether we like it or not. We’re all changing and we’re all passing through… I agree, though. I find those films similar. 

56 Up, however, they’ve all become so self-conscious. It’s so meta at this point and they’re so embedded in the process of the documentary itself. It kind of takes on a whole other zone, but I do love it and appreciate it. 

Even though the movie is an intimate and emotional story at its center, it is one of your more ambitious projects. There’s this crazy mudslide that comes through a house, there’s the gorgeous Antarctica sequence. What was the pre-production process like? Was it daunting at all?

Well, you’re always looking for challenges within the stories you’re trying to tell, and this story just required it. It’s like, oh gosh, how are we going to do that mudslide? Like Bernadette says, you want to get inside something, you gotta know what problems there are. She calls herself a “problem solver.” I feel like a film director can call themselves a “problem solver,” even if they’re not problems, there are definitely systems to be worked out, things to overcome and figure out in a tangible, physically manifested way. It’s one thing to have words on a page, but like, what’s the shot? How are we going to do that? 

This [film] kind of presented those fun challenges. Oh, we’re going to be around icebergs in Antarctica… how do you do that? So, you put in your years and you figure it out. You try to make it work and you have fun doing it. That’s kind of what the process is. 

I was impressed by your casting choices in Bernadette. Obviously, Cate Blanchett carries the film, but I also loved Billy Crudup. He’s so empathetic and is almost a grounded center and an emotional anchor for the audience. I think he is having a real resurgence; he was so great in 20th Century Women as well. I’m curious about your choice to cast him.

You know, it’s such a treat. The best thing about making movies is that you get to work with these actors. In Billy’s case, I saw him on stage in New York at Lincoln Center in the ’90s doing a Tom Stoppard play. It was kind of like, who’s this guy? He was just out of NYU, so that’s how much I’ve been a fan over the years. And it finally just worked out that we could work together. So, you know, it’s a great opportunity. I can also say that about Kristen Wiig, I was a fan of hers. That’s the wonderful thing about this; you get to work with these great artists and have fun and dig into their characters. It’s great when it works out. And also, Emma Nelson. Thirteen-year-old kid comes in and you feel she’s perfect to be young Bee… and that’s a huge backbone of the movie. And I was lucky Cate was in the air since the beginning. 

One big thing that comes through in this film is the struggle of women having to give things up in their career. Do you think that resonates now more than ever as we see Bernadette’s life and backstory?

I think the film portrays just how tough parenting is: it is a challenge, it is a compromise. Every parent kind of feels like they’re failing. But I think it’s so much more acute for women, for the mom. I think it’s just a fact, and it comes from various directions. It’s not only societal expectations, but it’s also that having a kid transforms a woman’s life more than it does with a man’s life. Quite often, they’re more likely to make a career choice in relation to that. I can’t say if that’s a nature/nurture, societal, or gender-based thing. Though, it’s a real thing. My whole life, my mom had kids and struggled to come into her own. We did it kind of backwards when I portrayed it in Boyhood: a mom who had the kids and is now going back to school. 

With men, kids interfere less with their careers. Cate said, even when she’s working, she gets asked all the time, “How do you balance parenting and being a mother at work?” Whereas, no one asks the guy next to her, who has kids that are the exact age as her kids. People know it’s a tougher thing for women to do, but I personally think parenting is tough. You never quite get ahead of it. You’re always kind of behind, you’re always flailing a little bit, you’re always unsure if you’re making the right choices and decisions. It’s a tough thing, and it’s that much tougher for women with lots of stuff. It’s tough to be a human and negotiate roles. [Laughs.] But [the film] is definitely an accurate picture of that for sure, and the mother-daughter nature of it is strong.

Last year it was reported that you were working on a movie in Houston about the 1969 moon landing. Since the 50th anniversary just happened, I would love to hear if you had any details about it, and for you, as a child at that time, how it feels to look back on the 50th anniversary.

It was kind of bittersweet for me. I did have this project, and I think I will get to do it eventually, but no one took the small step–or the great leap–at that time for me to have it out by the anniversary. No one cared enough. I didn’t get to get the project off the ground… but someday!

It was kind of a magical time to be a kid living in the Houston area. That’s what was going on, NASA was right down the road and we all wanted to be astronauts. It was just a whole different world we were living in at that moment. I thought that’s worthy of exploring from the kid’s perspective. You know, they’re always making movies about the astronauts, how about the citizens’ perspective? We just celebrated the 50th anniversary, and it’s certainly worth celebrating. It’s like, oh my god, this is the biggest non-military undertaking in human history apparently? 400,000 people worked on it, 20,000 corporations? Incredible. That’s a big circle of people who got to share that triumph as everyone did, just as citizens of the world. I mean, it was special. There’s been nothing like it.

Since we’re at the end of the decade pretty soon, people are talking about which films have resonated with them the most in the 2010s. Of course, a few of yours are on that list. I know it’s kind of a big question, but I’m curious as to what you see as the most impactful or touching films of the past ten years?

Oh gosh, I never think in terms of decades. I mean, if a film touches you and it continues to touch you… I don’t know. I guess we are heading to the end of the decade. I think in terms of centuries. I personally feel good, I’m lucky I made a lot of films this century. And for this decade, I can’t complain, I’ve had a good decade. But gosh, so many every year, there are so many great movies. I don’t know, I’d have to look at lists. But you know, Quentin [Tarantino]’s latest film is right up there, though. That’s something I really, really loved.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette opens Friday, August 16.

‘For Sama’ Directors on Capturing Assad’s Barbarism in Syria and How to Fight Back

Written by Joshua Encinias, July 30, 2019 at 9:27 pm 

The Battle of Aleppo ended three years ago with Bashar al-Assad strangling the rebel’s supply line. Waad Al-Kateab joined the civil uprising in 2011 shortly after graduating with a degree in economics. Al-Kateab documented the experience using her phone, the go-to device for capturing underrepresented voices in documentary and fiction. Her film For Sama resulted from years of footage, co-directed by Edward Watts, who helped to compile the footage.

Sama is Waad and Hazma’s daughter, who was born in the Battle’s final year. Waad narrates and reflects on the world Sama was born into; she wants the best for her daughter and her country, but as friends from the rebellion die and Hazma’s hospital is destroyed by a bomb, hope is in short supply. For Sama is a diary of Sama’s first year and Waad’s experience marrying and having a child during the civil war. Waad’s documentary is a female voice bursting through violent oppression as a signal flare to freedom fighters in Syria and allies around the world. 

We spoke with co-directors Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts about Assad making Aleppo unlivable by destroying hospitals and homes, why Westerners have difficulty believing the extent of his barbarism, and how Al-Kateab’s footage went from home video to a documentary playing at Cannes.

The Film Stage: There are competing ideas about what Bashar al-Assad has done to Syria. I want to hear from you what he’s done to your country.

Waad Al-Kateab: We’ve been beaten and displaced because we were protesting. Our people have been killed by violent shooting at the protestors. We’ve been arrested and kidnapped and no one knows even where are the prisons and we have been tortured to death. They have destroyed whole cities. We have been bomb-shelled by all the weapons you can imagine and none you can imagine. 

Edward Watts: And that’s just the citizens. As for the country itself, destroying all the infrastructure. Agreements and contracts are being signed with Iranians and Russians that no one knows about. Not even Assad’s supporters know what’s going on with those.

What does Assad gain from destroying the country?

Al-Kateab: Controlling Syria, being the great dictator. You can hear now what the locals and media are saying about the next generation of Syrian rulers: his sons will be ruling next. They believe in an idea that Syria belongs only to this family. That nothing is out of their control. 

Why did you start filming the Aleppo revolution in 2011? 

Al-Kateab: When I was a student in 2011 we know Syria was full of corruption and injustice and we are just the animals of Assad’s farm. All of our dreams before were to leave Syria and begin to start our own lives individually without any care of the public, but we are Syrians and we want to live in our own country the way we want.

Toward the end of the documentary, the bombers targeted your second hospital. Why were they targeting the hospital? It’s one thing to control the infrastructure, but it’s another thing to kill those who are already victims. 

Watts: They bombed hospitals to make it impossible to live in that area, and to break the will of the people to live there. For example, losing the hospital made it impossible for a woman to receive gynecological care, much less general medicine. It’s just impossible to live without a healthcare system. There are so many interviews I have done as a doctor and I have been asked several times if we were sure we were chemically attacked. I tell them come investigate for yourself.

It’s hard for us in the West to see the unrepentant and relentless violence of the Assad regime. They say there must be a rational reason for it or a way for us to explain it. But the simple truth is, and this was told to me early on by somebody in the American government: the Assad regime made the decision right at the beginning of the revolution, they would torture old ladies and destroy embassies and hospitals. Do anything in the world to stay in power. There’s a famous phrase said by the thugs in the regime “Assad or we burn the country.” That is the explanation for everything you see. 

Will you talk about turning Al-Kateab’s footage into a documentary? Was it always intended to become a documentary?

Al-Kateab: I was just going about day by day, I had no idea if I was going to survive. I was just trying to capture as much footage as I can, and hopefully one day somebody will take these photos and use them for a documentary or just as evidence of what was happening on the ground, to counter the propaganda from Russia and Assad regime. In 2016, I was working with a daily news program on Channel 4 and we did over twenty reports about Syria. When I left Aleppo, I went to London and we talked about making a longer story about what’s going and what I went through. At that time they introduced me to Edward and I showed him all the footage I had. It took two years before we finished the film as you’ve seen it. 

Have you received negative pushback about the documentary? 

Al-Kateab: Not so far. 

Watts: The Russian regime has a history of trying to discredit films and pieces that show the truth of what they’ve been doing, but so far nothing. 

How can interested viewers help your cause?

Watts: We’re building and impact campaign. The first thing to do is spread the word about the film, follow us on social media, we have a website. We are putting together a campaign which will offer a range of actions for individuals to take which will hopefully be launching in September. But for now, talking about the film, spreading the word about the film, following us, it would be a great first step. 

Al-Kateab: I want mothers and women who clearly have something to share to record it. Whatever the story is, everything is important in this life. Anything could inspire other people and encourage them. As a female filmmaker, I want to see more stories about women in their own words. Also, I want journalism come back to the point of its existence: to make a difference in this world.

For Sama is now in limited release and expanding.