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Paweł Pawlikowski on ‘Cold War,’ the Divinity of Absolute Love, and the Political Backlash to ‘Ida’ in Poland

Written by Ed Frankl, October 8, 2018 at 8:24 am 

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Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, a sweeping saga of a doomed romance that crisscrosses 1950s Europe, comes five years after the release of his Oscar-winning Ida. Two superb films in, Pawlikowski has found a niche in black-and-white historical drama set in his native Poland, where he moved after spending his career in the UK. But Cold War’s rich, jazz-soaked love story has a different beat to the relatively austere Ida, and it’s notched up rave reviews since its premiere in Cannes.

The former academic, dressed in a suit, jeans, and sunglasses hanging from the top of his T-shirt, is erudite but combative as we meet at the San Sebastián Film Festival, pushing back on what he calls simplistic interpretations of Ida and Cold War, as well as offering his thoughts on populism in Europe and Poland’s controversial Holocaust law.

The Film Stage: Cold War won Best Director at Cannes. What would you say has connected audiences and critics with it?

Pawel Pawlikowski: It’s hard to say, but I imagine it’s a powerful story in all its ambiguities and contradictions. It’s a very unusual, eccentric story, so I didn’t realize how many people would still find their way into it. A lot of people have come up to me and said “It’s exactly like my story.” But no it isn’t — it’s Cold War, it’s communism, it’s exile. But they still find something of their own fragmented love story, perhaps of the impossibility of love.

So is Cold War a metaphor that says love is ultimately doomed?

No. This is a very specific story. It’s not that doomed, you know. There’s a kind of happy ending! But the fact is that we expect something absolute to come out of love–traditions from the troubadours to 19th-century literature. It’s an interesting dramatic problem because love never is absolute; it always goes through stages–different contexts, different people. We’re always disappointed. Time corrupts things. Absolute love is the domain of the divine and in human terms the quest for something absolute always leads to comic and tragic effects.

Even today, internet dating trains us to think perfect love is achievable…

This is an era when so much of the emotional life happens in the digital sphere. A lot of people don’t look at each other–only on telephones and they meet on the internet. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t love. But it’s difficult to capture and show it in a form. Whereas in a time when there were fewer distractions and people had to face each other it’s slightly more interesting to show.

I think that these days couples don’t last very long. So it’s so difficult for that couple to survive all the twists and turns and the obstacles thrown in their way — political, technical, exile, absence from each other. They kind of enhances this thing. Love.

The thing is I’m not sure what love is in Cold War–at no point are they very happy! There are moments where it’s nice, but nothing is ever satisfying and pure. It immediately gets corrupted and veers off into something else. It’s only at the end of the story when they have no more strength to fight that they find themselves alone and nobody can understand them as well as each other and you can say that was a great love story. That was love. But it didn’t look like love.

But you do structure it in a way to glimpse at what looks like love…

It’s a little bit of an experiment to make a film that’s so elliptical. I’m going to appeal to some audiences and not others because some people want to have explanations and to fully understand what the author had in mind and why this person did exactly this. It’s a little bit tiring in especially big films like a biopic. They have fifty years explaining how you get from A to B, and they introduce artificial cause and effect just to make sense of what happens. She did this and this led to that. I always get frustrated by that. Because I know in life there’s no one motivation for anything and everything you do has many different consequences. But I’d rather not go into that and show you elements you can feel the truth of it. You fill in the missing links.

I think I would like such a film–that’s why I make it. Exactly the film I like where a lot is left unsaid but it’s suggested. Where there are gaps for me to imagine. When everything there is not there to explain but to make you experience–and the explanation you have to provide.

What was the process of bringing those strands together and of constructing a movie out of it?

I had this notion of this couple splitting up, fighting, and moving countries–I’ve had this idea for years. But I didn’t know how to do it. I wrote several treatments on my laptop in about 2006, but it was a bit close to my parent’s real story.  I could never do that because it’s too messy and I know too much about them.

So it was slowly maturing and I wrote another version and put it aside–which I did with Ida by the way. I stared at Ida ten years before [it was released] and put it aside. And then there’s a moment when you’re ready to do it. I’ve got the tools to tell the story. And that moment occurred after Ida, when I realized you could tell a complicated story quite elliptically. Because Ida is quite elliptical too but not as extreme as this one.

When I was shooting it I cut a lot of scenes from the script [like Ida] and it still made sense. You could trust the audience to make sense of it. And also I came across the folk ensemble and music became the integral part. I thought “OK, I’ve got the framework now–they meet through the folk ensemble. They fall in love with the music, the music keeps them together.” And suddenly it started falling into place.

Surprisingly, it didn’t limit the audience too much. And what really surprised me is in Poland masses of people went to see it, even though it’s black and white and it’s elliptical.

But you’ve had problems in Poland and been criticized by politicians there, how are you and other artists coping with increased populism?

The position of artists in a little bit under pressure. But it’s not terror. Nobody gets arrested or stopped from making films if you can find the money. Populism anywhere is anti-culture, reducing everything to primitive narratives which is the opposite of what art should be. Art should be showing the beauty, the complexity, the ambiguity the paradoxical ambiguous nature of the world. And find form for it. So inevitably populism–and most politicians are at some level populists–they try to co-opt art often.

Ida was an international success, won the Oscar [for Best Foreign Language Film], and it coincided with an election campaign where the right-wing party [current President Andrzej Duda’s Law and Justice Party] was trying to galvanize support. So they used Ida quite cynically as a tool. They said: “Look there’s this film, it’s very anti-Polish. You haven’t seen it ‘cos it’s black-and-white but we’ll tell you it is very boring. There’s a Polish guy who kills Jewish people.”

But the film isn’t about that. They took one element one of very complex situation and said: “Don’t bother to see the film, but believe us, it’s very anti-Polish. And why is it doing very well? Well, there’s a huge conspiracy against our country. And why is it doing well in Hollywood? Well, look at who’s in charge in Hollywood, nudge nudge.”

So suddenly it became like an election campaign tool. And they started this petition against the film which was signed by more people than saw the film in Poland. When they came to power it won the first Polish Oscar so they had to deal with it. But the prime minister said, “We don’t know why it won the Oscar, it’s a shitty film.”

State TV invested in the film so they had the right to show it a few times. And then one day they took it off the schedules. And there was an outcry from the filmmaking community, so they put it back on the schedule, but they preceded it by a 15-minute discussion by two right-wing guys. One of them said, “this Pawel should be stripped of Polish citizenship.” And, by the way, the film you’re about to see which we have to show, is anti-Polish film. And it’s a Jewish point of view. So everyone who watches this film will know how to watch it.

Now they’re probably going to win the next election, so they don’t have to be so aggressive. But this film [Cold War] has done incredible box office and it’s got [Poland’s submission for] the Oscar nomination so they’re kind of nicer to me… But I try to stay clear of any kind of politics.

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Do you condemn the government’s controversial “Polish death camp” law?

I thought the formulation “Polish death camps” was moronic. I was fighting against it myself. What the fuck? They were German death camps in Poland. So I understand certain irritations totally with the misrepresentation — not that there were any ideological reasons, I think there was just stupidity. People say that stuff because in America they have no idea about history anyway.

But Ida is a film about showing that Poland had a role in the Holocaust…

Not Poland, just this one guy. It shows all sorts of other things. The communist state prosecutor [played by Agata Kulesza, who also stars in Cold War] has a role in condemning people to death. And I didn’t say Poland I was saying this one guy killed — but also he saved someone. He took this girl, Ida, to the monastery.

I never do anything one-to-one. Life is full of mysteries and paradoxes and I want that to be known and to be shown. People in the West who interpreted my film as a film about Polish guilt they’re as stupid as people in Poland who interpreted as an anti-Polish film–it’s reductive. As a state, Poland didn’t cause the Holocaust. Ida is also about an existential side of life, morality in general; what does it mean to be Catholic, to be guilty? You know, I didn’t phrase it in journalistic terms; I didn’t phrase it as a simplistic narrative. I was as pissed off with some Western journalists who reduced it to that as I was with Polish politicians.

Your use of Polish history begs comparison to Andrzej Wajda…

With Wajda, I still feel he’s teaching me about history, whereas I’m trying not to do that. Even in Ashes and Diamonds, which I love, I know what he’s trying to tell me. But yes, I mean if you tell a Polish story set in the 50s or 60s, inevitably you talk about history. I’m trying not to foreground history, I’m trying to show how history affects people but I’m not trying to fill in any historical gaps or inform people.

That’s why in Ida with that peasant killing — it’s not like I want to draw attention that it happened. Of course it happened. It would have happened in most countries, to be honest. But I wanted to deal with other existential problems–and by the way this occurs. And the same in Cold War, dealing with the mechanics of the love story, which is very complicated Two people, very ill-suited to each other: temperamentally, socially, culturally, but all the time history affects them. It affects the relationship. So definitely I like telling stories that are steeped in history.

That’s why I stopped making films in Britain because I didn’t feel historical context. Whereas Polish history, my history, my parents history is always in the back of my head as something I have to deal with at some point. But I don’t want to make a film about history because that inevitably leads to a reductive thing — characters become illustrations of something.

That sounds like a criticism of British cinema…

No, British cinema is great. But it’s very sociological. It’s about class. It’s history in terms of furniture and costumes and royal family. The royal stuff is actually interesting. But what I mean [I want to talk about] is more immediate history, not the royals or an Upstairs Downstairs kind of thing.

I want to make films about people who were crushed by history, who had to behave decently when it was impossible to be decent. Or they had to make compromises. History that strangles you. History of exile. In exile how does a relationship survive exile? How do you find your bearings? How do you not lose your character?

Cold War screened at the San Sebastián Film Festival and will be released in on December 21.

‘A Land Imagined’ Director Yeo Siew Hua on the Philosophies of Dreams and the Reinvention of Singapore

Written by Zhuo-Ning Su, October 5, 2018 at 9:11 am 

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Chances are you haven’t heard the name Yeo Siew Hua before this summer. The young filmmaker from Singapore had had only one narrative feature to his name after all. But Yeo broke out in a major way in August, when his sophomore narrative feature A Land Imagined won the Golden Leopard at the 71st edition of the Locarno Film Festival, one of the oldest and most prestigious of its kind, from a jury chaired by none other than Jia Zhangke that also included Sean Baker. (See our review here.)

The winning streak of the film continued as it again picked up the top prize at the second annual El Gouna International Film Festival in Egypt last week.

We spoke with the writer-director of this narratively and stylistically entrancing film at the third stop of its festival tour in Hamburg (it has 17 more destinations to cover in the next two months), where we talked about filmmakers that he’s a fan of, different philosophies of dreams and the part of Singapore where you won’t find any Crazy Rich Asians.

Where did the initial idea for the film come from?

It has a lot to do with my own fascination with land reclamation. Singapore is a country that has been reclaiming land since its founding some fifty years ago, and even further back during the colonial period. Once upon a time, there used to be hills and mountains in Singapore. Now it’s completely flat. We literally took out all the mountains to create land space. If you think about it, this whole island is engineered, contrived. For me it feels like I live in a country that’s constantly reinventing itself. So that was the starting point.

Singapore also buys sand from a lot of South East Asian countries. It has the money, and spends it on soil and sand in order to further extend its territory. So this practice doesn’t just change Singapore, but also these other countries.

Also, in terms of the makeup of the Singaporean population, technically speaking we’re all migrants. I’m only a second-generation Singaporean. We all came from someplace else. So you could say even our demographic is imagined.

And you decided to make the film about a very specific part of the demographic.

When I really started to research land reclamation, I realized 99.9% of the construction industry consist of work force from other countries in the region, particularly Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and Thailand. On my trips to the western part of Singapore, which is this industrial area that most Singaporeans never go, I encountered these migrant workers. Once I got to know them, befriended them, I realized there’s no turning back, this story had to be about them, the difficulties they faced and also their dreams and hopes. So I think that opened up the drama aspect of the film.

But at the same time, I did not want to just make a harsh, dark drama, because then I would just be feeding back into the simplistic rhetoric of migrant workers being oppressed. For me it should be much more than that. The point is to see them as humans, just like me and you. We’re all here to live our lives.

Presumably you shot on location?

Yes, we shot on location.  There are two main locations. One is the industrial west, where most of the Bangladeshi dormitories are. And then there’s this place called Geylang, which is not in the west but where many of the Chinese workers live. It’s also the red-light district, where a lot of activities go on at night, including these cyber cafés. The story took off for me after I’ve been to and experienced these locations.

For example, I was trying to write a character who’s having anxiety problems and cannot sleep. I knew I didn’t want the film to be another sleazy urban film about sex but about someone trying to connect. So this character ended up finding other people at this cyber café, which is the only place that’s open 24/7.

And isn’t cyber space itself also “a land imagined”?

Yeah, the virtual space is a part of all our lives now. A space that is even more malleable and illusory. At its heart this film deals with a certain social detachment. The connection this character finds at the cyber café is also a kind of disconnection because it’s an alienating experience. So conceptually this space is a liminal space. It’s neither night nor day, it’s somewhere between connection and disconnection.

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Coming back to the physical locations, you mentioned one being in the west of Singapore.

Yes, that’s where most of the constructions sites, sand quarries, and the Bangladeshi dormitories are.

From the looks of it, that’s not where the Crazy Rich Asians of Singapore live?

No, it definitely is not. It’s hidden even from the Singaporeans themselves. After I became friends with the workers living there, I went back regularly to visit them, to spend time with them in the middle of nowhere. I later decided to start a little tour and invite my artist friends to go there and join me on the weekends. People generally have no access to that part of the island and, unless you’re doing a project, have no business being there at all.

For me it’s important to show this side of Singapore, which is, on many levels, deliberately kept from the world so that the tourists only see the sleek, pretty side. Cinematically you never see that other side.

 

What was the biggest challenge in writing the screenplay?

The fact that the characters in this film are contextually so far removed from myself. I’m a filmmaker from the upper-middle class and belong to the ethnic majority of the country. I’m very privileged on many levels. But now I had to represent and give voice to people whose lives are nothing like mine. Finding out a way to do it authentically really took time.

The character of the police detective, who’s middle-class himself and probably more relatable to the general audience, eventually became a vehicle for me to find my way into the film.

Also, I’m someone who likes to experiment with cinematic forms. I didn’t want to tell this story as a straight, social-realist drama or a documentary – although my previous film was a documentary so there’s definitely a documentarian in me as well. But for this project I tried to infuse these different elements and create something new.

Speaking of documentaries, the film features news footage of a Chinese worker threatening suicide to demand payment owed by his employer. Was that actual news?

We reenacted and shot the scene for the film but the incident really happened. It was not widely reported in the mainstream media, because it goes against the conventional rhetoric of “Look, all these migrant workers who come to Singapore earn so much more here than where they came from. They ought to count themselves lucky.” But I was like “Wait up, there’s a lot more going on.” So this incident was also a big inspiration for me.

 

Is it easy to get a film made in Singapore?

Financing is difficult. Even though Singapore is an overall affluent country, it doesn’t have that much cultural funding. I did manage to get some talent development money for this film, but we still needed to do a co-production, meaning pitching it to the French and the Dutch to slowly get the financing in place. There’s probably more local funding that goes into “commercial” films – for whatever reason.

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Would you say there’s a film industry in Singapore?

It’s hard to say that about most Southeast Asian countries. The markets are at least bigger in Indonesia and Thailand. Singapore, by comparison, is a very small market. So if you do a Mandarin-language film, you’ll still be dependent on the whole Mandarin-speaking market. If it’s a Malay-language film, the larger Malay-speaking market. So there isn’t a self-sustaining commercial industry and it’s of course even harder to do non-commercial films.

What about the infrastructure? Were you able to find cast and crew locally?

Partially. A lot of my cast are from China or Bangladesh. But the two male leads are both local actors. The actor Liu Xiaoyi, who plays Wang in the film, is originally from China but moved to Singapore more than ten years ago and is doing theater work there. So he also has that experience of being a migrant. And Peter Yu, who plays the detective Lok, is a TV actor who’d stopped acting for a long time, this was kind of his comeback role.

You can also find crew in Singapore, I mean there’s work in TV, internet and other media, it’s just less in terms of film.

What about the state of arthouse cinema there? I remember when Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo won the Camera d’Or in 2013.

I belong to a film collective called “13 Little Pictures” and we make small-budget, experimental films. So smaller films are being made but they don’t travel as much. And there are also some mid-budget films, like the two that went to Cannes in 2016: The Apprentice and this other one that went under the radar a little bit but to me was an amazing Singaporean film called A Yellow Bird. Both of which were done by my producer. So some films are still getting made, but whether they can make headlines or be seen and distributed, that’s a whole different story.

Which filmmakers would you call your influences, in general and on this film?

I don’t think I had any point of reference when I was making this film. I mean I’m a follower or fan of filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and, from Singapore, someone I really look up to, Ho Tzu Nyen, whose film Here also screened in Cannes. But I don’t know if any of them had any direct influence on this film. I do think the film is steeped in the general tradition of noir.

Numerous reviews noted a touch of Lynch in A Land Imagined. I guess that wasn’t a conscious reference either?

No. I mean of course I’ve seen his films and I take this kind of comparison as a huge compliment. But it was important to me that the film didn’t become an overly artistic construct where the viewer might go “Oh, what is that all about?” Ultimately, I wanted to say something with the film. If people don’t get that, then I’ve failed. So I guess you can call the shifting of identities between the characters or the blurring of dream and reality a Lynchian effect. But the film should communicate something specific.

Specifically about the way you approached dreams versus reality, I noticed something quite different from what we are used to seeing in films of a similar nature. Can you talk about that?

Oftentimes when we talk about the blurring of dreams and reality, we approach it from a Western conception of dreams, or questions like “Is this real or not? Is my reality what it seems?” It’s based on a skepticism about what is real. About whether one can trust or believe this illusory world. You see a lot of this in Western literature or films.

I studied philosophy and subscribed to the teachings of Zhuangzi (4th century BC Chinese philosopher). And the way I understood Chinese philosophy of dreams, it’s really quite different. It’s not about “Am I dreaming?” but about the ability to dream, or more precisely, the ability to dream that which is beyond and outside yourself. The dream that feels so real is our ability to go beyond ourselves, to transcend. The philosophy of Zhuangzi is always about dreaming outside the confines of your context. And that, to me, is also the ability to transform.

This film also deals with the transformation of people. When you finally understand the “other”, you lose yourself and momentarily become them. Those scenes of the workers singing and dancing reflect my experience having fun with them. Sometimes while we were dancing, I didn’t feel like “me” and they didn’t feel like “them”. We were just bodies. We’re all the same. Whatever divide that existed between us fell away. That was the most beautiful thing to me.

So that was the philosophical element behind the film, which I tried to include even with this three-act structure. We start with this detective who, at first we don’t really understand why he even cares about finding these two missing workers. Then we see the lives of these people and by the time we come to the third act, we start to see the two come together, or fold into each other. My hope is that by that time, the audience will be in on it. They will start to root for the detective and want him to solve the case.

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What was it like to win Locarno?

Truly shocking (laughs). It was the first time a Singaporean film was even in the main competition at Locarno, so we went with no expectations. And there were heavyweights in the lineup, people that I’m a fan of. So I really was not expecting to win. When I heard about it, I was overjoyed of course.

Did you get to hang out with the jury? You know, folks like Jia Zhangke and Sean Baker.

Yeah, they all came up to me and said encouraging things like “Good job” and that they looked forward to my next project. It was a very nice recognition for the film.

Do you have your next project lined up already?

Yes, it’s already in the works. It’s something that was developed concurrently with A Land Imagined called Stranger Eyes and it will be at the Busan Asian Project Market next week. I developed it in this new lab called the “South East Asian Fiction Film Lab”. Roughly it’s about surveillance, or the subjectivity of the gaze. It’s about the ability to see others and how seeing is not just a passive activity, that oftentimes in seeing others you end up seeing yourself.

Will it also be a thriller or more of a straight drama?

I think there will always be some genre element in my films. I like to play around with boundaries, with different forms of cinema.

Before we go: what types of films did you watch growing up in Singapore? Did you watch more Hollywood or Asian films?

I consume a lot of films and I don’t discriminate. I watch Marvel films just as I watch Ozu films and I pay the same amount of attention to each of them. In Singapore we do get a lot of films coming our way. There are a lot of festivals. There used to be a very nice cinematheque in Singapore which unfortunately has closed down – I’m very angry about it – that’s where I first saw Parajanov’s films. So I don’t necessarily make that distinction between Hollywood films and Singaporean films. Ultimately we’re all part of world cinema. So what’s important to me is to see what we can offer to this larger cinematic conversation. Masters from South East Asia like Trần Anh Hùng, Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Lav Diaz have already started it, so now the question is how do we make the landscape interesting and expand the horizon for cinema from this part of the world.

A Land Imagined screened at the Hamburg International Film Festival.

Jeremy Saulnier on the Catharsis of Making ‘Hold the Dark’ and Creating Conflict Through Performance

Written by Mike Mazzanti, September 27, 2018 at 11:27 pm 

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After his first feature Murder Party did not attract the attention it deserved, Jeremy Saulnier spent time away from the director’s chair, spending seven years as a cinematographer. For his next film, Blue Ruin, he took a big and quite literal gamble: he and his wife mortgaged their home to fund the subversive, stripped-down take on the revenge thriller. Unlike the bumbling, all-too-human characters at the center of his work, Saulnier came out of the experience on top, with the film premiering at Cannes and taking home the FIPRESCI Prize. With a newfound momentum, he followed up Blue Ruin with Green Room, a savage and barebones thriller which carried over his love of very human characters who are very out of their element–along with further exploring his gag-inducing special effects, coal-black humor, and tension.

With Hold the Dark, Saulnier widens his canvas in exciting ways, tackling his first adaptation and embracing a unique narrative propulsion seldom found in genre cinema. Melding elements from a number of genres, Saulnier creates his most dense work yet in a film all about dichotomies–in codes of life, men and nature, knowing and unknowing. These differences lead to conflict, and perhaps, truth. The awkward and savage nature of the characters always found in his films are now contrasted with an ominous mysticism and otherworldliness, effectively evolving his thematic concerns and, by extension, his lexis.

Ahead of the film’s release on Netflix this Friday, we sat down with Saulnier to discuss working with words that were not his own, expanding his scope, and creating conflict through performance. We also discuss new technical challenges, the differing codes of man, and trying to make sense of the world.

The Film Stage: So, your first three features (Murder Party, Blue Ruin, and Green Room) are all very stripped down; the characters and the plotting come out in the midst of a maelstrom of moments, but with Hold the Dark there is a sense of delving into things more. You’ve always let scenes breathe when they need to, especially in Blue Ruin before this, but here the whole film is able to breathe while still maintaining a real sense of forward momentum. How did you determine the pacing?

Jeremy Saulnier: Yeah, it’s something we certainly had to find in the edit. There’s a wealth of material there from the novel and we shot a bunch of extra dialogue and exposition, and parts of the mythology of the iconic masks that are featured in the film. But you know, when you’re doing a literary adaptation–as I learned–sometimes you really have to focus on that experience; the sight and sound of it all, and pull back on exposition and not always defer to the literary depths that you’re going for as far as having it all on camera. When you pull back, and let it breathe and function in a more enigmatic way narratively, you then regain the weight of the novel without spelling everything out.

The pacing is certainly unconventional, and that is what I embraced. For Green Room especially, that was an exercise in tension-building. That was my goal: I want to do a nightmare scenario as I see it unfold, and just keep ratcheting up the tension. People responded to that quite well. But for Hold the Dark, I was able to break out of the box I put myself in. Because, when I write, it’s not always just because it’s a narrative I’m attracted to. It’s also because it’s at a certain scale that if I really had to, when all the Powers-That-Be say no to me, they’re not making my movie, I could get my credit card out and make it myself.

And so there’s a very particular engineering to my stories, from Murder Party to Blue Ruin to Green Room. But for Hold the Dark, I didn’t have to go through the seven or eight drafts to get this in shape, or go pitch it around town as an original story. The writers—William Giraldi who did the novel and Macon Blair who adapted the screenplay—did the heavy-lifting, and it was way beyond any scope or scale that I would write for myself, out of mistrust of the industry. So, it was a playground for me! It had a lot more atmosphere and weight to it, and there was a reverence for the material and the story being told. But also, the cinematic landscape was expansive compared to my other films and I was able to really challenge myself, to flex new muscles, and to explore practical and narrative challenges that I hadn’t before: aerials, animals, war scenes, deserts, and really protracted dialogue scenes that had their own weight. So, it was all good for me.

I think it’s smart to make sure you understand the medium you’re working in and not try to emulate the novel at every turn, but just sort of be conscious that overall you’re getting the impact of it. As you said, this is your first script where you haven’t written it, and it sounds like it was kind of freeing to work with material that wasn’t initially from your own mind.

Oh, certainly. Giving up a little bit of control here and there, not only with second or third unit doing some additional photography, but me not being the sort of all-knowing author of a work. You know, any actor or crew member or collaborator that would come to set having read the novel, would have an interpretation of the material that was as valid as mine. But I welcome that, in that collectively we had to figure it out together and make sure we were all telling the same story, and doing the source material justice.

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I know that you said on Green Room, some of the more difficult technical elements were handling a lot of actors in the space.

Yeah.

Here, as you said, the scale is much bigger. So what were some of the newer elements in Hold the Dark that challenged you?

Yeah, I’d never been up in the air scouting in a helicopter, in high winds and snowstorms trying to design the aerial sequence. I’d never shot a war sequence with armored personnel carriers and helicopters. I’d never worked with so many animals on set. A lot of the pitfalls they warn you against, we dove right into. And that was cool, but I’m also very technically-oriented as far as practical effects, make-up, action, camera movement. So, shooting the centerpiece action sequence was actually more of a fulfillment of a childhood dream in that I could tackle something big and menacing, and narratively of course, really devastating and impressive. But behind the camera, the act of making it was what I’d be waiting for my whole life. Which is: enough time, enough money, and the resources to dial in an action sequence as I envisioned it without any compromise. So, some of the most challenging stuff was actually easiest because we were so scared during prep, that we did extensive previsualization and rehearsals with the stunt team and the armorers to make sure it was safe to execute the scenes. Other than that, it was relatively easy.

But, when you’re trying to fine-tune Alexander Skarsgård, we sat there for just a few extra minutes before our first take of Alex on camera as Vernon Slone, just trying to fine-tune the pitch at which he should perform because it was almost a wordless performance. How do you direct that? How do you find that on camera without a lot of rehearsal? So that was a challenge too, directing the physicality of some of the actors, not just the intonation of their words.

Speaking of both of those action scenes—the war scenes and then the later, central setpiece—I think it’s really interesting and effective where you put the camera. Because in the war sequence, there’s a perception of emotional distance and detachment for the character that’s in it. That’s contrasted later with the central action piece, which is much more hectic and doesn’t sensationalize any of the bloodshed, and I think it’s really clever the way that progression takes place visually in the story.

Yeah, for the Iraq war footage, the whole directive there was to have this kind of removed, Kubrickian following vibe. You’re definitely with Slone, in close proximity, but he is very clearly governed not by the laws of the land or the U.S. government or the armed forces. He’s sort of carving his own path, somewhat literally; it’s surreal, and we let the trappings of war and all the background bullet hits and fires and fighter jets really recede into the background. You know, later in the film, everything gets a little more up close and a little more personal.

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Diving into some of the more thematic elements, I think Hold the Dark continues an interest from Green Room about codes and different ways of life, and how for certain people there’s no disputing these codes and how they’re just sort of the blood that’s running in people’s veins.

Yeah.

These codes are always causing conflict, at home and at war, and with each other. What intrigues you about the moral codes and the rituals of certain lifestyles?

Hold the Dark is certainly about the power of observation and non-intervention. And about not understanding, just knowing. And that was what I was going through. I don’t want to sound like an old man but, in this day and age, it’s hard to figure out what humans are doing and why they’re doing it. It’s very frustrating because we want to know, we want to identify, and to put things in boxes and analyze it. But, Hold the Dark let me, as a filmmaker, find the cathartic release in not trying to figure it out, in the power of observation and letting go, and actually bowing to the forces of nature and the wild, and embracing the fact that humans are animals. That the intellect by which we’re governed is a construct and it can be confusing, and an obstruction to true understanding; in that, you know, just breathe fresh air and just watch and when something dangerous happens, run away. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

It’s pretty simple, intuitive nature. And the code is an aboriginal thing. With Vernon Slone, like you said, it’s in his veins, he’s governed by that. We don’t know exactly what’s going on in his head, and the characters in the film even make that mention: they’re never gonna truly understand Vernon Slone, but you can observe behavior and again, know it but not really understand it.

Hold the Dark continues your fascination with the awkward humanity element. Like your previous films, it creates tension and humor, but it also keeps the human beings at the heart of the story; someone falling down a hill or struggling to count the rounds in their gun. Do you always look for ways to humanize the narrative and keep it feeling grounded, despite the more heightened genre elements?

Absolutely. I think the reason why my films have an impact on people as far as the level of violence and tension [is concerned] is because my focus really is narrative conflict through performance. I really, not only as a filmmaker but as an audience member, I just want to see people that I can relate to. But not in the traditional pet the dog, save the cat kind of way. Just people that are vulnerable and flailing through these situations. Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is actually more of an experiment than I’m used to dealing with. He’s not completely out of his depth in the Alaskan outback, but he’s a retired naturalist. He’s not a typical action hero. So, while he has an expertise, I find I always gotta have someone that’s in over their head to really connect with them.

Hold the Dark hits Netflix on Friday.

David Lowery on His Favorite Robert Redford Roles and the Optimism of ‘The Old Man & the Gun’

Written by Josh Lewis, September 27, 2018 at 7:30 am 

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David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun is a tender swan song for Robert Redford, a nostalgic look back at the outlaw characters played by him in the 60s and 70s through the lens of the real-life Forrest Tucker, a career bank robber that hit hundreds of banks and broke out of dozens of prisons in his lifetime. We sat down with the generous, unassuming Lowery to discuss the joy and melancholy of writing the film and working with Redford, as well as his own personal favorite Redford films, and tricky emotional attachment to Tucker and his story.

The Film Stage: There’s an unspoken melancholy that hangs over The Old Man & the Gun, not dissimilar from your previous feature A Ghost Story, in that there’s a collective acknowledgement of the passage of time—especially inherent here in seeing an aged Robert Redford walk through a convincingly rendered aesthetic we associate with his younger self. I don’t mean to get started off too heavy but is the passage of time something weighing heavily on you?

David Lowery: Always. I mean I think it has my entire life but especially as I get older it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. And also, as an editor you know, I spend a lot of time working as an editor and I love editing, and you just spend so many hours looking at a timeline and just thinking about how time marches by in increments from shot-to-shot.

Right, with the specific timecode and everything.

Yeah, you start to think about the plasticity of it. It just starts to not only weigh on you, but you think about the possibilities of it and so it’s both an existential crisis of mine but also a cinematic fascination, and those two things will meld together and continue to meld together probably everything movie I make.

That first question maybe made Old Man sound a little sadder than it actually is. Ultimately a lot of films that try to pastiche a previous decade can sometimes get lost in the “importance” of period, but I was glad to see this was a lot more breezy, a lot more laid-back than I had anticipated. Was that something you considered a lot in the writing or did it just naturally come out through the character of Tucker as applied by Redford?

It was both. I would say the latter influenced the former because there’s Forrest Tucker in the article who is a self-mythologized outlaw who sees himself in that dapper, breezy fashion. Then you apply Robert Redford to that character and you instantly see the twinkle in the eye and you also see the vestiges of all the classic Redford outlaws in cinema history that certainly are the forebearers for this role. On top of that you have Bob telling me that he just wanted to have fun with this movie. He wanted to make a movie that was fun, that was optimistic and light-hearted, and my natural tendency is to move towards melancholy. To move towards the heavier side of a narrative. So, it was a really fun and terrifying challenge to veer away from that and engage in a more light-hearted approach. To let things be breezy, to let things be delightful. That ended up being my rule on set every day. I just told everyone from the cast on down that I just wanted to be delighted every single day and that if everyone could make me laugh behind the monitor we’d probably have a movie that worked the way it needed to work.

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Obviously, Redford is a huge part of the feeling you get from that. You previously worked with him on Pete’s Dragon, which was a film just chock full of warm performances but his especially lingers. When did you first meet and first decide you want to collaborate? And what drew you to each other to want to do it again?

It began with The Old Man & the Gun because he saw Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at Sundance–I think he was aware of it because we went through the writing labs there–and after that film premiered a few weeks later I got a call from his producing partner at the time wondering if I would be interested in talking to him about this New Yorker article he wanted to  adapt and star in. And when you get a phone call from Robert Redford saying do you want to work on a movie together…

You gotta take it.

You’re just like “sure,” of course. So, I read the article, read it with him in mind, and just thought, well this certainly would be a classic Redford movie if ever there was one. A true spiritual follow-up to some of his greatest hits as it were. I went in and met with him and talked about my approach to the film, what I would try to do with it, and he liked that approach and liked me and asked me if I would write the script. Now, earlier that same day I had been over at the Disney lot pitching Pete’s Dragon. [Laughs.]

One hell of a day.

It was a real heck of a day, and that was five years ago, so that one February morning sort of set me on a path that is now almost complete. So, I started writing both scripts at the same time but Pete’s Dragon reached the finish line first and as a result made it the starting line of production first but there was this character in it that was the older, wiser, dragon-savvy character that… I can’t remember if it was my idea or my producer Jim Whitaker’s idea, but everyone knew I was working with Redford on this other project and we were just thinking, “Okay, who do we get for this part?” You just get a list of actors who are from 50-70 and he wasn’t on that list.

It suddenly occurred to us that if we had Robert Redford in this movie not only would he be great in the part, but he would change what the movie is, change the perception of it and elevate it. It already had an environmental aspect to it and adding his credibility in that area was really exciting to us. So anyway, I went to New York and had a script meeting about Old Man and at the end of that meeting I mentioned that Pete’s Dragon was getting ready to go and that we’re gonna go to New Zealand and it was going to be fun and that maybe he should think about joining us. [Laughs.]

It took a little while but eventually he said yes and the thing I remember the most about working with him there–aside from just getting to know him and what it was like directing a legend–was watching him have fun. If you watch the movies he’s acted in over the past, you know, let’s say ten years, he hasn’t had that much fun. He’s doing very serious, heavy roles and when he was hanging out with these kids telling stories or when he drove a truck through a wall—like we put him in the cab of an 18-wheeler and literally had him drive through a wall–the camera’s on his face and the shot’s in the movie, you just see this glee in his eye. That really was instructive to me when I went back to The Old Man & the Gun after we finished Pete’s Dragon. So, I just rewrote the entire script from scratch having worked with him. I was now able to write it specifically for him and specifically for that look of glee that I saw that day when he drove that truck through the wall.

That’s awesome. You certainly feel that coming through the movie, that experience you had with him. Obviously when you’re making this film you’re going through older Robert Redford movies for inspiration. Was there a more underrated Redford performance that stood out to you? Something you saw and knew you wanted to bring out of him as well?

Do you think Downhill Racer is underrated?

Sure. I think that a lot of people would overlook it over something like All the President’s Men or Butch Cassidy.

Well, that one’s maybe my favorite. That and Jeremiah Johnson.

Oh, Jeremiah Johnson is excellent.

Downhill Racer was a big point of reference for me with Old Man because it’s a really mean movie. [Laughs.] He’s a terrible person in that movie. You still like him but he’s like a misogynistic asshole through and through, but the shape of it is so strange, so single-minded, so simple and so rough around the edges. I know he loved that movie. He basically distributed that movie himself and I wanted to kind of capture that anarchic spirit that he had in that film. So that’s one of them and then The Chase, the Arthur Penn movie that we sample in Old Man is an amazing film with Redford, Marlon Brando, and Jane Fonda, and almost no one has seen it. It’s terrific and something Casey [Affleck] actually recommended to me when we made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s also written by Horton Foote who is amazing, so if I could shine a light on an underseen Redford performance it’d be that one.

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Speaking of Casey, a smaller angle you take with the film was the day-to-day, blue-collar lives of regular people in Tucker’s orbit. I’m thinking in particular some of the people that he hurts in a rippling sense while robbing banks. You spoke about that melancholy and that definitely comes to the fore in those scenes but it’s also more than that for Affleck’s Detective Hunt who is ultimately kind of inspired by Tucker—a sort of domestic passion that rings true. Could you speak to fleshing out the lives that are in the peripherals of Tucker?

That’s definitely part of the original article. He never quite acknowledged how bad he hurt people, but he did admit finally that he could’ve been a better person, a better father. He abandoned his family, his children and the character that Elisabeth Moss plays isn’t based specifically on his real daughter, but I think the sentiment there–if you read the article–is that his children have very mixed feelings about him because on the one hand, yes, he did what he loved and that’s admirable. Anyone can say, objectively speaking, someone dedicating themselves to something they truly love is admirable but when it hurts so many people it gets a lot more complex. It’s harder to appreciate the qualities that that person might have. So, I didn’t want to overwhelm the film with the more scabrous side of Forrest Tucker but I wanted to acknowledge it. I wanted to make sure that the people that he hurt had a voice, and when he walks out of a bank with a twinkle in his eye leaving a teller in tears that we end on the teller. We let her have that final moment, linger on her just a little bit longer just to acknowledge that…

There’s a cost to it.

He is doing something destructive, yeah. Something I do not approve of even if I approve of the spirit in which he does it. At the same time… in spite of my disapproval… It’s very inspiring to me. [Laughs.] And for the John Hunt character I really had trouble figuring out what he should do in the movie. He’s a real character, the real John Hunt is in the movie, in fact. He never caught Forrest Tucker, he loved him and admired him, but he never caught him, so I had to find a way to make that narratively compelling. I could’ve fudged the facts and had him actually catch Tucker or play more of a part in his arrest but I kind of loved the unexpected turn that he just never succeeds. He’s a detective who does not succeed at his job and I was like, “How do I make that a success in its own right?” And then I just looked at myself and thought I really like Forrest Tucker, I kinda don’t want him to get caught, so maybe I can get John Hunt to that same place. John Hunt is basically me writing the film. In writing the film I fell in love with this character, fell in love with his legend, fell in love with his passion for what he does and did not want to see him get caught for it. And as erroneous as that may be–as incorrect on a cultural/sociological level as that might be–I truly wanted him to get away with it. And so, the angle I took with John Hunt was to let him arrive at that same place that I was at, where he felt the right thing was to let Forrest Tucker walk out that door.

There’s almost a lingering feeling of: I wish he could continue to do it so that I could continue to chase him.

Exactly. That’s something that the real John Hunt told me. He said there was always a melancholy when the chase was over. The really good bank robbers made the really good cops even better at what they did. They had to step up to the challenge. It was like a symbiotic relationship and one he told was full of mutual respect and that’s impressive to me. I feel like that’s something that doesn’t exist now. I don’t know but it feels like a very old-fashioned and honest sentiment for a cops-and-robbers drama, that mutual respect, and I wanted that to exist here.

The Old Man & the Gun opens on Friday, September 28.

John C. Reilly on the Bond Between Man and Horse, ‘The Sisters Brothers,’ and the Enduring Legacy of ‘Walk Hard’

Written by Vikram Murthi, September 26, 2018 at 7:05 am 

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In Jacques Audiard’s new film The Sisters Brothers, John C. Reilly plays Eli Sisters, a sensitive hitman and a foil to his more aggressive brother Charlie, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The two brothers are on the trail of a chemist (Riz Ahmed) with a secret formula for prospecting gold, as well as a turncoat detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) who was initially hired to secure the chemist but betrayed his duties for financial gain. Their shaggy-dog journey leads them down many roads, but throughout the film, Reilly stands out with his perceptive, gentle performance as a violent cowboy looking to finally give up the gun.

I sat down with Reilly to discuss the film and what it was like working as a producer for the first time. However, the conversation eventually detours into the special bond between man and horse, as well as the enduring legacy of his satirical music biopic Walk Hard.

The Film Stage: You bought the film rights to The Sisters Brothers in 2011. What initially drew you to Patrick DeWitt’s book and what made you believe it could be a good film?

John C. Reilly: Well, anyone who reads the book tells me, “Oh my God. This is such a page turner!” It’s a very compelling story. So there’s that, but at the time I was working on a movie called Terry, an independent film that my wife Alison Dickey produced, who also produced this movie. That movie was based on a manuscript of Patrick’s that was supposed to be a book, but was turned right into a screenplay. So when we finished that movie, we asked Patrick, “What else are you working on?” He had the manuscript for Sisters Brothers, it hadn’t been published yet, and he let us read it, and we bought the rights before it was a book.

What drew me to it…I mean, obviously, I already thought Pat was a brilliant writer, but it was such an original story. For a western, it did so many things that westerns don’t normally do. All this emotional life in the story, all this stuff about brothers. I have some brothers myself. This character just really jumped off the page for me when I first read it. That said, we went to Jacques [Audiard] and said, “We want you to direct this, we want you to make it your film, we want you to tell a personal story,” because that’s more important to us than just having some flashy director. We want someone who’s going to take this very moving book and make a personal story. All of our favorite films are stories like that, whether it’s Paul Thomas Anderson, or Martin Scorsese, or Terrence Malick, or Jacques: they all end up telling these stories. There’s the subject matter, and the source material, but then there’s this other thing going on where the filmmaker is saying, “This means something to me.”

It’s definitely an Audiard film.

Yet, it was a DeWitt novel, and now it’s an Audiard film, both are true. It just landed in my lap. Alison asked Patrick for it, she read it, just whipped through it, and then she gave it to me, and I was like, “Oh my God. Yeah. I guess this is when you do that thing called, ‘buying the rights for something.’” I had never done it before, I haven’t done it since, but it was just this perfect moment. It took quite a few years to make it happen, but it’s a miracle that it did.

This is your first film as a producer. What was it like splitting the duties between being a producer and an actor?

I had been involved in writing things, and part of a creative team on things before, but I had never produced something, been responsible for securing the financing and getting other people involved. I really liked it. At the point that we got the rights to this, Patrick had become a friend, and I respect him so much, and I think he’s such a brilliant writer. I was like, number one, I want to do right by this guy who’s my friend, and number two, I want to honor this beautiful piece of writing that he has. So it was more than just, [old-timey producer voice] “We gotta make a successful picture here!” It was like this mission, this labor of love.

To answer your question most directly, my wife was the producer. Alison Dickey is really the producer of this movie. Of course, she and I worked as a partnership, especially early on, before Jacques was involved, developing the profile of the film. But once I started acting, then Alison really took over. Also Jacques’ production company—there’s this guy Pascal Caucheteux, his long-time producer partner—once Jacques’ company took over, and we gave him this piece of material, then his apparatus took over, especially since it was a European production. We shot it in Spain and Romania and France, so…

But that said, all along the way I kept having people come up to me, the other actors would come up to me, and say, “Hey man, you’re a producer on this. There’s no toilet paper in my trailer. What the hell?” So, I definitely stayed involved, and then I was also getting reports from Alison about, like, this is what the dailies look like, these are our concerns, we have this and that, could you write an email so and so. We all had our strengths. The relationship I had with Joaquin [Phoenix] in the movie was so intense and all-encompassing. At different points in the filming, Joaquin and I were living together. I was so immersed in that, I wasn’t thinking like a producer most of the time, but it felt good. It’s a lot of responsibility, and if things go wrong, I would imagine it feels really terrible to be the producer of something, but in this case, it was a big success and we pulled it off. It’s really satisfying to know I and some other people did that. First Pat had these thoughts, and he turned it into a book, and we took that and turned it into this thing. That’s gravestone stuff right there. I’m very happy to have pulled that off.

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This is your first true-blue western. Were you a fan of the genre growing up? Did you like cowboys?

I’m not made of stone! I don’t know anyone that doesn’t really love a western, even if you don’t like the trappings of westerns, the core elements of story in westerns are so pure and so compelling to watch.

People always ask actors, “What part do you want to play? What project would you like to be involved in?” The truth is so much of an actor’s life is just jobbing into things that other people are setting up, that I don’t bother disappointing myself by saying, “I must play a priest by 2019!” If you were to ask me before this all started, “Would you like to do a western?” Yeah, of course. I love horses. I love to ride. That would be really cool. Every little boy has a fantasy of being a soldier, of being a cowboy, of being a fireman, and all these things. I’m no different in that way.

I definitely wanted to do a western, but that said, there are a lot of clichéd westerns out there. There’s a lot of stories…the research they use is past westerns, and I feel like the research that Patrick used and Jacques used was this time period. What was actually going on, who was there, what were their concerns, what was life like for people that had never heard of a toothbrush before, or people who had to reload their guns by hand. All these physical details of life at that time.

The tooth brushing was fascinating. I did some research on the actual powder after the movie. It’s been around since the Roman Empire, but it became a codified product around the 19th century.

It’s hard to believe! But health-wise, there was just so much about that time… You get an infection? Cut it off. Teeth smell bad? Pull them out. It was sort of barbaric in that way.

All these trappings—brushing your teeth, treating a woman with care and respect, being open to a woman who might be a man or might be a woman. There are challenges to this old, brutal way of thinking, and they point to a new future. We can do this differently. I think those are some of the ideas that Jacques was playing with.

You mention that you’ve ridden horses before. What was your first experience riding?

I had been riding horses since I was a little kid, but just recreationally. You go for an hour, and basically those horses…

They go in a circle?

No, they go where they want! They know the trail. You get halfway through and suddenly the horse starts going faster and faster because it knows they’re almost back.

I have had a pretty strong connection with horses and animals over the years. But what you come to realize when you ride a horse, it’s not horse riding. It’s riding that horse. I realized, oh my God, I’m going to have a relationship not only with Joaquin, and Jacques, and Jake [Gyllenhaal], and Riz [Ahmed], but also this animal. I’m going to see this animal every day.

I don’t think I’ve told anyone this, but this was a very emotional journey making this movie, and it was at the end of a long road of working on others things that led to this period. I had imagined, “Wow, when this ends, I’m just going to be so emotional.” You start thinking before it ends, “Wow, how am I going to say goodbye to Joaquin? That’s going to be so hard. I love him so much.” Then the last day came, and the only time I cried was when I was saying goodbye to the horse. There are all these pictures of me hugging him and talking to him. On our last day of shooting, that horse is being retired. He was one of the oldest horses working on the movie because they needed a horse that looked beaten down. Pollito was his name, Little Chicken, and that last day of shooting was his last day of work. He was just going to be in the pasture after that somewhere in Spain. So, I dunno…

That’s really touching.

It was a very, very moving moment. I’ll show you a picture. [He pulls out his phone and starts looking for the appropriate picture.]

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I’d love to see that. While you pull that up, you worked with Thomas Bidegain on The Cowboys, and he’s collaborated with Audiard pretty much since the beginning. I was wondering how their styles differed, or were their approaches in simpatico?

That’s interesting. I think, in terms of story and insights into character, they’re very close, but Tom is much more affable. [Laughs.]

[Shows me the picture of him and Pollito on his phone.] This is me saying goodbye to Pollito on the last day. It was on the beach. You can’t really see me, but…

That’s a beautiful horse.

It was the sweetest horse, too. I’d go visit him on the weekends and bring him apples and stuff, because I realized my safety depends on this animal and its feelings towards me. What you realize riding horses is that you can’t treat it like a machine. You have to be in connection with it. They are very sweet animals. In a way, they have this childlike quality, even though they’re stronger than you and kill you like [snaps] that. They can step on you and that’s that. I dunno, I just ended up with this really deep connection and understanding of horses. It sounds corny…

Nah, man. I think it helps the movie.

If you think about it, in terms of man’s relationship with animals, if we hadn’t made the agreement that we made with horses, we would have nothing at all. We’d still be in fucking skins and knocking each other with bones. It’s almost like a gift from God or something, this mystical thing that happened, that this enormous, powerful animal said, “I’ll let you ride my back. I’ll pull this thing for you.” Once you tap into that, you realize, “Wow, we owe a lot to horses.”

It’s not just, “I’ll let you ride my back,” it’s also, “I’ll control the transportation of an entire nation.”

Yeah!

Your character in The Sisters Brothers has all these rituals—I was thinking about the tooth brushing, and the scarf—that sort of ground him in contrast with the violent nature of his job. I’m curious if you have any rituals in your own life that ground you in a reality beyond the trappings of the film industry.

Interesting.

You might not have an answer for that.

Well, I’m not a very habitual person. I’m a Gemini. I do get superstitious on specific projects. I’ll do the same thing in the morning every day. I’ll listen to the same song every day in the car on the way to set. That helps me stay focused and brings me into a familiar place, but I think I do it for reasons other than why Eli was doing it. I think the story of Eli and Charlie is really the story of two children pressed into this traumatic life without a real choice in the matter. If you look at immigrant kids on the run, or runaway kids, or kids going through foster homes, you’ll see similar things, where a kid will be like, “If I fold my shirt like this, nothing bad will happen to me today.” It’s the little things you hold onto for stability. I really loved doing those things in the movie. I loved all the rituals of them going to sleep—hold the thing, fold the thing, hand on the gun. I could relate to it very much, but I don’t have things that I do like that continually.

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I’m an enormous fan of Walk Hard. I’m curious if it bothers you that biopics are still doing all the things that that film ruthlessly parodied.

[Laughs.] I just did one. I have a lot of nerve. In a way, I thought, well, this cuts down my film roles because I can never do a biopic now that we’ve taken the piss out of biopics so much in this movie.

I just feel like that should’ve been the end of a certain kind of movie, and it’s still…

Well, yeah! You know, film is somewhat disposable. It’s a cultural thing. Certain stories mean certain things to us and then we need new stories. But for some reason…

[Laughs.]

In the same way, when you watch a detective story, even if it’s bad, you’re like, I gotta know what happens. I need to know who the killer was by the end. I hate this movie, but I need to know. So, I think there’s just certain things about human beings…

The reason why there are all these tropes that occur in biopics is because that’s what happens when you take a life and smash it into two hours. Everything becomes a cliché. Jake Kasdan had this great line, “Look, in biopics, literally every time you open a door, it’s a new era.”

I’m really, really proud of that movie. We worked really hard on it. We did six months of music recording and songwriting even before we started shooting. We really poured our hearts into it, so many people did, a whole group of songwriters that I’m still friends with as a result of that movie. But at the end of the day, I was like, “Well, you can have a cult movie or you can have a box office success, but you can’t have both.” I’m not sure which one I would pick, but a cult movie is pretty fucking cool. Every musician I talk to, and I’ve met some big, famous musicians, the first words out of their mouth, “Oh my God. Walk Hard! We watch it obsessively on the bus!” I saw Don Henley at a Lakers game, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Walk Hard, man. Dewey Cox. I lived that!” You realize, to a lot of these guys, it’s like a documentary. It’s not a satire.

It’s a Spinal Tap thing.

They say, “Fifty didgeridoos in a recording studio? That’s nothing! We went so much crazier than that!”

The Sisters Brothers is now in limited release and expands Friday.

Peter Bogdanovich on How Art Reflects Society, ‘The Sopranos,’ and His Darkly Prophetic ‘Targets’

Written by Eli F., September 25, 2018 at 7:00 am 

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Peter Bogdanovich loves Hollywood. For well over half of his life, the 79-year-old actor/director/film historian has been an insatiable participant in the American film industry on all sides of the camera. An icon of the 1970s New Hollywood movement, Bogdanovich’s unbridled enthusiasm for the achievements of Tinseltown’s 1920s to 1960s “Golden Era” informs a truly chameleonic and deeply influential filmmaking aesthetic. As an artist, his projects have consistently defied pigeonholing. His directorial work spans a host of genres – from screwball comedy in 1973’s Paper Moon to tragic drama in 1971’s The Last Picture Show to unnerving postmodern thriller in 1968’s Targets, among many others – all informed by a layered reverence for the past. As an actor, his sardonic, witty screen persona and sonorous New York drawl are forces to be reckoned with, appearing in films by Orson Welles and Quentin Tarantino and landing a memorable recurring role on HBO’s epoch-making TV drama The Sopranos.

This year Bogdanovich turns his directorial attention (and melodious narration) to The Great Buster, a brand new documentary on the legendary screen comic Buster Keaton, intended to introduce Keaton’s artistic accomplishments to a new generation of filmgoers. In honor of the new film’s release and Bogdanovich’s long and rich career, the Quad Cinema in New York City will be holding a special Bogdanovich retrospective series starting this week, featuring his greatest hits from over five decades of filmmaking, with the director present in person. We took this opportunity to speak with Mr. Bogdanovich, asking him some choice questions about his favorite projects, the virtues and vices of the past, his darkly prophetic Targets, and his role as a psychiatrist’s psychiatrist in David Chase’s TV mob masterpiece, including an unused scene from the controversial final episode.

What is your favorite project that you’ve worked on as an actor or director?

Oh, boy. As an actor, I would say Orson Welles’ film, The Other Side of the Wind. It’s opening this year.

It’s on Netflix.

Yes – which I acted in in the 70s, and it’s now coming out when I’m in my 70s. I saw the film for the first time recently, after I worked on it for the last couple years. When I saw it, there was a guy in his 30s acting. I thought I was pretty good, but… [laughs] What happened to that actor?

[Laughs] Who’s to say?

I also very much enjoyed The Sopranos experience. That was great.

I was actually going to get to that later! But first: What are some of your favorite films or TV projects of recent years? Are there any younger filmmakers or creative talents you have an eye on?

Well, I’ve liked Wes Anderson’s pictures, and I’ve liked Noah Baumbach’s pictures. They’re both very good directors. I like Quentin [Tarantino]’s pictures. Noah and Wes call me “Pop.” I call them my sons. They’re both interesting filmmakers, and Quentin as well.

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Peter Bogdanovich and John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind

Nostalgia for the Golden Age of Hollywood has been a major motif in your films from very early on. In the last few years, it seems as though cultural trends have leaned towards an attitude of being much more intensely self-critical of Hollywood, past and present, and American history in general. Audiences and critics seem to be much more skeptical of romanticizing the past, particularly that “golden age” of the early-to-mid 20th century. Is this something that you’ve observed or encountered? Do you have any particular thoughts or feelings towards younger people who are ambivalent or cynical towards America’s past and cultural legacy?

Well, most of them are ignorant. America’s history in filmmaking is extraordinary. It all sort of fell apart in the early 60s. But prior to that, it was a pretty extraordinary period. It’s not nostalgia I have; it’s respect for the fine work done by a lot of people. Young filmmakers, if they paid more attention to it, would be better filmmakers. And it’s not just the movies, but all the arts are in decline. Decadence, actually. You don’t have people writing novels like they did in the 18th or 19th century. You don’t have people painting pictures like they did in the 19th century. So it’s not just movies that have fallen into decadence–it’s all the arts. But that’s a reflection of the society that produces them. This is not the America of the 40s, or 30s, or 50s. I don’t know where we are, but it’s not good.

Looking back at one of your very first films, Targets: now that’s a movie that is really provocative and shocking to watch, particularly in today’s climate – moreso, I would imagine, then when it debuted in 1968. The two parallel storylines – one slightly comedic, about an aging actor from that Hollywood Golden Age played by Boris Karloff, and the other deadly serious, about a psychotic spree killer played by Tim O’Kelly – feel very discordant. And of course, the concept of a deeply disturbed young man shooting up a movie theater is no longer fiction; it’s something that’s happened in recent memory. You’ve never made another film as dark and disturbing as that one. How do you look back on that movie now?

Well, let me put it this way: I wish the film was more dated. We haven’t progressed in terms of gun control; we haven’t progressed at all. That boy could pick up as many guns as he wants. In Congress, the NRA has everybody in their pockets. It’s disgusting. We’re the only “civilized” country in the world that allows people to go out and get guns willy-nilly. People talk about the Second Amendment; back then, guns were single-shot. It took five or six minutes to reload one shot! They didn’t mean machine guns; that was not the intention of the Founding Fathers of this country.

The killer in the movie doesn’t even use assault weapons. He just uses pistols and hunting rifles. He almost seems tame compared to the real-life successors to that fiction.

There had been a couple of things at that point that inspired it. The University of Texas tower shooting [in 1966] was where we got the idea. We had Boris Karloff, because Boris owed [producer] Roger Corman two days’ work. He wanted a picture for Boris.

And did it in fact take two days to shoot his part?

No, it took five days.

[Laughs] Pretty close!

[Corman] paid for the extra few days.

What do you see as being the connection between Karloff’s storyline and the storyline of the shooter character?

Well, in connection with the death of fiction: Victorian horror isn’t horror anymore. What is modern horror is, a guy going and shooting a bunch of strangers. We’ve had a lot of that recently… I wish I hadn’t been so prescient. Well, I don’t know that I was prescient; I picked that story because it was the diametric opposite of the kind of Victorian idea that Boris incarnates. We had to make this picture with Boris, and we felt that his style of Victorian horror had been outdated by things like [University of] Texas.

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Peter Bogdanovich in The Sopranos

I have to ask about The Sopranos. That series transformed American television. How did you come to be involved with it? Why and how did you get the role of Dr. Elliott Kupferberg?

Well, it started when I did a guest shot on a show called Northern Exposure, for which the showrunner was David Chase, the guy who conceived The Sopranos. He saw [my] dailies, and he said to me, “Have you acted before?” And I said, “I started as an actor – at 16 I was acting professionally! Why?” And so I had a couple days in Seattle playing myself for an episode, basically, and I met him there. And then seven years later he calls me and says, “We’re doing a second season of a show called The Sopranos. We’ve got a therapist character [Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Jennifer Melfi] who’s having so much trouble with Tony Soprano that she needs a therapist, and we were wondering if you could do that.” I told him I’d love to. So he said, “Come on down and meet the writers,” and so I went on down and met the writers, auditioned, and got the part. They wrote me into sixteen episodes, and I loved it! I also directed one of the episodes – one that I wasn’t in. It was great fun – David wrote it [with Matthew Weiner], and I loved doing it.

So the part was written specifically for you?

Yeah.

It’s hard to imagine it being played by anybody else.

Well, thank you. The writers were very good. We weren’t allowed to change any dialogue. It’s funny, because for the last episode we shot a scene which had no dialogue written. I was instructed to give [Lorraine Bracco] some Kleenex, and so on. David [who directed the series finale] was sitting there and he yells, “Ask her a question!” And I’ve done sixteen shows not being allowed to even change a word. “Ask her a question” is quite an injunction. So I asked her a question, and David says, “Ask her a better question!” So I said, “Fuck you, David! You tell me what to say! You’re the writer, I’m not going to do this!”

[Laughs] This was for the dinner party scene?

No, a different scene. For the dinner party scene – [Elliott]’s a bit of a shit at the dinner party, but he’s also right! Because he does say that a sociopath is actually aided and abetted by therapy.

So you think he basically had good intentions?

Yes, I do think so. Yeah.

The show seems to leave open the question of whether Tony is a true, textbook sociopath, and it doesn’t ever really resolve that. One of the things I love about it is that the show makes it very difficult to get an easy, two-dimensional read on any of the characters.

Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s very complicated that way. It was a great show.

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Our exclusive poster premiere of The Great Buster.

The Great Buster opens on October 5 at NYC’s Quad Cinema alongside restorations of Buster Keaton’s work and following a Peter Bogdanovich retrospective.

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

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

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

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

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

How did you get involved with the movie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably. [Laughs.]

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

Thanks. [Laughs.]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are how did you find the subjects?  

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

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

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

So none of these 13 subjects knew each other?

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

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

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

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

So you didn’t direct them at all?

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

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

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

How much footage did you shoot?

We shot each of them for one hour.

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

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

What was the editing process like?

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

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

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Did you end up with different cuts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Face premiered at Venice 2018.

Follow our Venice 2018 coverage.

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

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

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

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

Robert Greene: How’d you see it?

The Film Stage: Just a link.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, yeah, yeah,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, yeah, sure.

Isn’t it just too obvious?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The German hairdresser in Kate was funny.

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

I chuckled.

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

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Did you like Bisbee immediately?

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

I have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could you talk a bit about those decisions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

her-smell

Can I ask some questions about Her Smell?

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

It seems like that happened quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was that a weakness, do you think?

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

The story itself is so dark.

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

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

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