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Dan Gilroy on Roughing Up His Heroes and How Denzel Washington Helped to Craft ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’

Written by Jack Giroux, March 26, 2018 at 8:12 am 

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While his first feature set in the city of angels showed what sort of animals lurk around at night, writer-director Dan Gilroy’s sophomore effort Roman J. Israel, Esq. shows a hero who works in the day. The titular lawyer and civil rights activist played by Denzel Washington is the type of well-intentioned and, with the exception of one major mistake, selfless and righteous protagonist perhaps we don’t see enough in dramas.

Like Nightcrawler, Gilroy puts more emphasis on character than plot. Roman J. Israel, Esq., is an old-school, thoughtful studio drama with completely engrossing performances. The spectacle doesn’t involve car chases, corporate espionage, or Roman taking on the big evildoers of LA. The spectacle of Gilroy’s second feature is Denzel Washington, who gives a deeply sympathetic and hypnotic performance as the titular character. Watching him deliver Gilroy’s dialogue along with Carmen Ejogo and Colin Farrell is all the fireworks a drama needs.

The Film Stage: Lou Bloom and Roman J. Israel couldn’t be more different, but they do both share many contradictions. 

Dan Gilroy: Yeah, that’s true. They’re very… they are complicated characters. But I think that’s a reflection of how I see people in general and think we’re all complicated. I think we all have these contradictions that if we dug down a little bit we’d find. They’re extreme to a degree, and you could certainly make that case, but I like to think that they’re representative in some way of the rest of us.

Just because of how authentic the depiction of L.A. is in both movies, I like to imagine them running into each other at some point in their lives.

Isn’t that funny? Wouldn’t that be funny if they ran into each other or got stuck in an elevator together? Who would be the one to get out? Don’t underestimate Roman with that briefcase. Who knows what he’s carrying around in there? You never know.

[Laughs] Was this always an L.A. story?

It was always an L.A. story for me because the idea really came from remembering the ’60s and the nationwide spirit of activism. I became really interested in what would happen if somebody had never really left that time because so many people did leave. As I started to look at the research, the people who didn’t leave went into civil rights law with criminal law on the side. The L.A. criminal court system and judicial system is such a massive, out of whack system that I thought it’d be an interesting backdrop, so L.A. became the natural choice.

You took a year off after Nightcrawler to write Roman J. Israel, Esq. What was the timeline? How much time did you spend researching, outlining, writing, and rewriting in that year? 

So, and this is true of most of the time I write, if you give me 11 months to write a script, I probably spend six to seven months researching it, five days a week. That’s learning about law, learning about civil rights law, researching activism, researching the roots of activism, researching the roots of racial inequality going back to the Civil War, and really trying to understand all the players and all the pieces of it. Then collating it into a usable outline, and then spending eight weeks writing. For me, it’s all preparation. By the time I start writing, I’m sort of pulling pieces of my various outline in place. I know very much what I’m going to do by the time I start to write.

It’s refreshing to hear your approach. Some writers say write every day, and it seems like some who don’t do that can feel guilty but your attitude, waiting until it feels right, sounds much healthier. 

The biggest thing is that people rush. Ideas are everything. You can take a great idea and write it in fingerpaint, and you might be able to sell it. But if you take a marginal idea, you can polish it for five years and get the same sort of glazed over, “Well, it’s got some good stuff in it…” Everything is the idea or the ideas, something that intrigues you, feels fresh, and something you feel passionate about, something you wake up in the morning and go, “Oh my God, I gotta work on this.” Don’t feel bad for not writing every day. Thinking about ideas is writing. I think writer’s block, in many ways, is trying to write a script before the idea is ready because I can get blocked doing that. I don’t try that, that’d be too demoralizing. I don’t sit down to write until I really love the idea, then I don’t feel guilty about it.

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You said you felt you found your voice on Nightcrawler. How did that effect Roman J. Israel, Esq, and your writing and directing?

It made me want to recreate what happened on Nightcrawler in terms of the process and the effect. Nightcrawler was so exciting to me because there are so many themes and ideas in that movie that I believe in. I believe that we’re in a world of hyper-capitalization, and I believe that the Lous of the world are winning. I made an entertaining film that I liked, but I loved having people come up to me afterward saying it really made them think and they felt that.

I’m old enough to remember the ’70s, and in the ’70s, if you didn’t make a movie that had thoughts and ideas behind, people would ask, “Then why’d you make the movie?” Now it’s a rare thing. I know with anything I do now it’s going to have some personal point-of-view in it, and that excites me. It’s a tremendous medium you can entertain and divert, yes, but you have an inclination to–not make a message movie–say something that makes people think, and it’s this amazing value added. I love being able to talk about a film and hear what others were thinking rather than, “That was a great ride.” That’s fun, but I’m sort of right now into other things.

That was something I enjoyed about mother! recently. Love it or hate it, everyone had something to say about it. Those sort of long conversations after a movie sometimes feel rare.

Don’t you love that? I know, man. Anyone with a voice of any kind out there, right away I’m already 90% your fan. You’re trying to do something that’s relevant to you, I love you for that, whatever it is. It can be a horror movie or anything. If it’s unique and people are trying to get their voice out there, I love.

Horror, absolutely. Get Out is a horror movie and it’s probably one of the most talked about movies of the last few years.

Look at that, I know. It’s a horror movie but so much more; it sparked so many great conversations, and it’s utterly thrilling.

What else did you learn from Nightcrawler as a filmmaker?

I learned that people look at a page as a minute, but I think it’s much more than a minute. It’s funny, Nightcrawler was 104 pages, and we probably cut seven pages out of what we actually shot, and it was still a two-hour movie. This movie was a 108-page script, and I think I probably had to cut, in addition to 12 minutes, like 15-20 minutes. If you write a 120-page script, you’re probably going to have a two and a half-hour movie, that’s one thing I learned.

The other thing is just my style. I’m underwriting now. I’m not putting in as much description. I’m sort of giving the barest bone description of what people need to know because I realized I like having department heads and actors come in and fill in the blanks. I’m very much into having very talented people come in and telling me what they think should go there. I like that collaboration, particularly with the actors. I mean, Denzel really created this character in every way.

What were your earliest conversations with him about when it came to how to play Roman?

Denzel’s process, as I understand, is a very private process. He has to start from the inside and have to build out, so it wasn’t about him asking questions or talking about what he’s thinking. It was generally more talking about the script, like a scene, what’s going on in a scene, or what’s happening in the whole movie.

Sometimes it was putting on music and talking about baseball and life and building trust. A lot of it was about building trust that I was going to do a good job directing, and I could trust that he’s going to do what he’s going to do without a tremendous amount of input from me. I wanted that. I did that with Jake, too. I very much encourage an actor to come in, fill in these blanks, and create something from the inside out. When you have actors of this caliber, it’s just a tremendous plus.

Towards the end the process became Denzel coming in and going, “These are the clothes I’m thinking of wearing, this is the look of the hair, and these are the glasses.” One day he came in and said, “My character only eats peanut butter sandwiches over the sink.” I’m like, “I’m down with that, man. Do you want creamy or chunky? Which one?” He knows which one. There you go, man. These are great things, that he’s suddenly thinking about things like that.

Those small touches, like the sandwiches, tell you a lot about him. Even his apartment gives you a better sense of who he is. 

I know. Denzel would go into that apartment for hours, and nobody else could go in. He’d go for hours, and hours, and hours. He just made the place his own, moving things around and saying, “I want to get this here, I want to get this here.” He really made that space his place, and it was cool to watch.

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I think how much he listens to music is another subtle and telling touch: he wants to help people, and yet he’s usually disconnected from them. Was Denzel Washington generally listening to music on the iPod? What was he usually listening to?

All the time. He’s an enormous music fan. He has several iPods, and on his bigger one, he has 28,000 songs on it. He listens to all kinds of music. As an example, after he got mugged and comes back and puts the earphones on, when we were shooting that scene, I couldn’t hear what he was listening to in the earphones, but you could hear it playing loud. After two hours I asked him what he was listening to, and he goes, “Cosmic Slop.” I thought what a perfect song for this scene. He picked the Pharaoh Saunders’ song “Elevation” you hear in his apartment. He was like, “In the ’70s, this was a song I listened to for like a year, repeatedly.”

When he walks up to the metal detector, and he goes the bass range is gone on Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America,” that’s him, that’s Denzel. He said, “Is that too far?” I went, “No man, I now hope a million people download ‘Winter in America,'” one of my favorite Gil Scott-Heron songs. God, I wish that was being played everywhere. Musically, he was involved in all of it. It was great to have him because his musical instincts are so strong.

How early on did you know you wanted to use The Spinners “I’ll Be Around” for the final shot? It fits perfectly.

I picked that song. It was literally “I’ll be around,” “I’ll always be around.” I’m trying to go out on a bit of an upbeat note. Plus, I love that song. Such a beautiful, unique song.

I want to ask about Colin Farrell. He does really strong, unshowy supporting work here while still leaving an impression after scenes with Denzel Washington. 

Tough role. I mean, he’s Denzel’s boss in the movie, and you buy it. How many actors can stand up to Denzel? You believe he’s the boss over Denzel. Right away, there’s this tremendous power. Something Colin and I talked about a lot was how real that character is. He’s not all bad; he’s like most of us. He had instincts in the past to want to do well and good for people, but he’s been diverted by success and money. Through the course of the film, it was something that never quite left him and is coming back to life. I love watching that in him.

You can really see this progression of, “Oh wow, the money is great, and the success is great, but what you’re doing to me is so incredible. This is a better feeling.” It’s funny, a year ago I read about a guy giving away his 18 or 20 billion dollars. Basically, he wrote this article like, “Of all the highs I’ve ever had, nothing beats helping other people.” It feels good to do it, and I think Colin’s character feeling good is the progression.

In any other movie, though, with his slick car and suit, you’d expect him to be the villain or some sort of antagonist when he shows up.

My rule of thumb is, if I have to write a villain, I don’t think of them as a villain, and I try to think of everything I can to make them human. If I’m writing somebody as a hero, I try to do everything I can to rough them up. That just feels more real. I don’t know if I’ve ever met any villains. I’ve met people who I really despise what they do, but sometimes even when you find out about their upbringing or life, you go, “I kind of understand a little.” Villains are mostly a story construct that I don’t abide by too much. I’m glad you said that because that was definitely the idea.

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In Nightcrawler and in this film, you don’t have any central antagonist. Are you also just more interested in sticking to your protagonist’s point-of-view?

The world is sort of the antagonist. The world is what we’re fighting against in Nightcrawler. Is Lou the problem, or is the problem we’re addicted to the stuff he shoots? What part do we play in it? I like to involve the whole audience in a conflict, that we’re a part of it as well. It’s not like the viewers are separate from the world we’re hopefully showing on screen. So yeah, I’m not interested in having people playing the villains, not in these films. I just don’t look at people that way. I’ll think, “I don’t like what you’ve done, but I’ll take time to figure out why you did it.”

For Nightcrawler, you said you wanted to treat downtown Los Angeles as Emerald City, a place in the distance. With Roman J. Israel, Esq. a lot of the story is set downtown. How was shooting downtown? 

Much more difficult to shoot in downtown. It is not easy getting around downtown. You know what worked really well for us? Roman is a character in transition in a world that’s changing, and there’s more construction going on in downtown right now than any other place in the country. It was great while we were shooting to have this sense that the city was changing around this character, with luxury apartment buildings going up beside him. Things are changing. From a symbolic standpoint, it was a great time for us to shoot down there.

I’ll tell you one thing when you shoot down there, you realize the horrendous extent of the homeless problem. It’s a massive problem not being dealt with on a meaningful level. You go down there at nighttime, anywhere a few blocks from Skid Row, and you can’t believe you’re in one the wealthiest cities in the world. It’s just outrageous what’s going on down there, and it’s not being addressed or looked at.

Yeah, at night especially, it feels like a problem almost everywhere. 

Everywhere, everywhere. It’s not just Skid Row, it probably starts half a mile out. I can’t imagine all the thousands of people down there. We saw them. Our politicians really need to address this issue, quickly. Lives are on the line.

You shot the city again with Robert Elswit. How did you two want to capture downtown?

We decided to do it all on film, and that was one of the big conversations. Film has a grain to it. With digital cameras, you can sort of put an artificial grain over it, but it doesn’t really feel the same to me. Robert is a big lover of film, so we used film and single-camera. We weren’t ever using multiple cameras. A lot of times people use multiple cameras and think here’s my A and my B, and think you’ll save time doing that, but you cost yourself something in composition and lighting because your A lighting will change if you’re trying to accommodate your B camera as well.

We went old school doing single camera film. We decided early on the film was going to have a warm look, because there’s a lot of emotion in the movie, and we wanted those emotions to live in the frame. We got very intrigued with drones. We have at least half a dozen drones shots. They have great utility. You can really go to a lot of places a crane won’t allow you to do. These shots have a real sweeping sense to them, and we used them sparingly.

When you were writing the script, were there any significant shots you already had in mind?

There were some. The one that leaps to mind, I always knew at the end when Roman says, “Of course I remember you, that’s why I gave you my card,” I knew that last shot we’d see of him in the movie, we’d look up from him below, and he was going to have a halo of light above his head. I knew that shot. I knew the end was going to have this transcendent look to it. There were many other shots, like having a deep focus sense in the old law firm, so you can sense history and going back. There were a lot of shots, but a predominant number of shots were really Robert and I found on locations.

For a movie without a lot of plot, it has an efficient pace. You cut some scenes after Toronto, right? 

In post before we went to Toronto, it was great. We both very much felt the version we took to Toronto was amazing, and I still feel it, but at the same time, it was 13 minutes longer. After Toronto and realizing it was a little slow and maybe the pace wasn’t right, Denzel came into the editing room. Not because he asked to, but because I asked him to because he’s directed three films and his instincts are brilliant. We worked for three weeks together. Actually, Denzel’s son, Malcolm, came in at times and helped us a little bit. It was accelerating things, pulling out things we loved, dropping a subplot, moving some scenes around, changing music here and there. We loved it at Toronto, but I absolutely feel this is the better version of it. This is the director’s cut. Sony was great to allow us to do it.

Denzel Washington is such a good filmmaker, so even on the set, was working with him a different experience compared to other actors? 

It’s different, and it’s brilliant. His process is supernaturally strong. I don’t fully understand his thought process. He arrives at ideas that take me a few minutes to get my head around, and then go, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” Your first instinct is to go, “What? What are you saying?” Suddenly you realize, of course, that’s incredible. He doesn’t explain how he got there, but he does it repeatedly. It’s an absolute joy to collaborate with him, and I mean that, honestly. He’s very objective. He looks at the entire film while you’re making it.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is now on Blu-ray/DVD and Digital HD.

Arnaud Desplechin on Hitchcock and Bergman’s Influence on ‘Ismael’s Ghosts,’ Catholicism, and Vaping

Written by Nick Newman, March 22, 2018 at 9:44 am 

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That each Arnaud Desplechin film has a way of responding to the one before it (and the one before that, and the one before that, and…) might account for the doubling- and tripling-back nature of my third conversation with the writer-director, who was in town this past October for a New York Film Festival screening of Ismael’s Ghosts, one of his knottiest works: a love story, a tragedy, a comedy, an overcooked movie-within-a-movie about espionage, Mathieu Amalric doing his bug-eyed thing that nobody does better. But Desplechin first told me about the film in 2015, describing it then as, essentially, a cross between Vertigo and the later novels of Philip Roth — both of whom come up herein — so where else would my mind travel but to where we’ve been? The length and direction of what follows should be evidence enough, or so I hope, of why I keep coming back.

A special thanks to Lilia Pino-Blouin, who provided on-site clarifications in Desplechin’s native French.

The Film Stage: When we last spoke, you said that to make a film about a director has a way of being “absolutely insulting” for an audience.

Arnaud Desplechin: Yeah. [Laughs]

Why is that?

I don’t know if it’s for the audience, but I know that all the producers are terrified each time that you’re starting and saying, “Actually, my character is a director.” And you can see all the producers in the world saying, “Oh, no, please don’t do that; it’s too risky.” Because it’s a privilege, too, as an artist, and, as a member of the audience, I don’t like people who have privilege. You know why? It would be cleverer than me, it would be a lot to think that I’m not allowed to, because I’m not an artist — so there is a sort of competition between the audience and the character.

And the solution I found is a joke that’s slightly funnier in French than it is in English, but it works in English: Mathieu is not a director; he’s a filmmaker. He’s just making films. That’s what he’s doing. The God that’s Henri Bloom — Bloom is the director. Mathieu is quite humble with his work. So the fact that the character was humble with what he was doing was what I’d like to show about the fact that Mathieu is a director, like you could be a doctor or teacher or whatever. He’s just doing it with all his heart, and you can see it when he’s mad in the attic: he takes his job very seriously. It’s a job; he’s a filmmaker. He’s not a great director. The great director is his father-in-law that he worships so much and who’s he’s paying the confidence in Tel Aviv.

Are you familiar with the work of Hong Sang-soo?

Yeah.

I thought of that: the characters in his movies are directors, but nothing about it is too specific to that profession.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is a thing that I like in Hong Sang-soo’s movies: the fact that you can be a director doesn’t make you special at all. You’re just a common guy whose work is to work in the movie business. Why not? It’s not a stupid business. You can work in another business — in food or whatever. His business is films. I like the Hong Sang-soo movies, as you mention.

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I’m interested in you as a screenwriter, and how you create both characters and their scenarios. You’re also technically writing as another person when we see this film-within-the-film. What is it like to sculpt as another creative mind, to inhabit another headspace?

Sorry, but I will answer with two ways — one that I will try to make brief. One way is that I knew, sending the script to Mathieu, the character is called Ismaël Vuillard, like in Kings & Queen. We both know, Mathieu and I, that Ismaël Vuillard is doing everything that never Mathieu would allow ourselves to do, that the guy is wild. Ismaël Vuillard is wild. Everything he’s doing is with all his heart, but in a very extreme way, and I guess it’s funny for the two of us because we are not that wild. We’d love to be that wild, but we don’t dare to be as outrageous as Ismaël Vuillard could be. So it’s a pleasure to allow yourself to misbehave as our character was misbehaving in the movie.

Another thing I could pay you is: I was struck by this line of Louis Garrel when we were in Cannes. We had a question — not that question, less a creative question which was more vague during the press conference. We’ve known each other a while, but it was the first time we were working together, Louis Garrel and I — and he was saying, “The films of Arnaud Desplechin are so autobiographical because each character is autobiographical. Ivan, the little character, the lady in the room, Ismaël, each one of the girls is a self-portrait.” So I can’t say that because my character is a director it’s a self-portrait, because obviously the character… I was saying that Ismaël is outrageous, and I love the fact that Sylvia, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is restrained, and allows herself to be a part of life and slightly restrained.

I guess, in life, sometimes I’m as wild as Ismaël, and, sometimes, I’m restrained as Sylvia. But I’m trying, even in my world of directing the actors… the fact that I love to play the parts for the actor, which is something that is forbidden in cinema school. All the books about acting, they say, “Never play the parts in front of the actors.” Actually, it’s the first thing I do on the set. I say, “Okay, give me the part, and I will show you what we can do with that.” And I’m not asking them to compete with anything that I offer them; but I love to offer them several propositions, and that way they can pick the proposition which interested them. So I like this idea of Louis Garrel, that the characters are a self-portrait but implicated in so many figures.

You told me this presented an interesting challenge, because your habit of not rehearsing ran counter to Louis Garrel, who is used to doing so with his father. Are there clear ways that rehearsals affected this film, and how you worked?

Not that much. Not that much. I know that, for Louis, it was very important because of the way he has been raised, the way he practices his work, so we did it — and I hope that, perhaps, I had changed him. Because I still think that to rehearse on films is a waste of time. I did one theater play in France, La Comédie-Française, which is the national theater. I did try and had such a wonderful pleasure to rehearse with the actors I work with; it was great. Everything is about rehearsal. But the magic of cinema is that you will catch moments, and you will propose these moments to the audience. These moments, they just appear once while you are shooting. It’s just magic. It happens because it’s an accident — because it’s bizarre, because it’s strange, because it’s whatever it is.

So the fact of not rehearsing doesn’t mean that we don’t work. We work before, around the character — mainly during the costume sessions, when you try to find your appearance of the guy. In this case, I’m trying to nourish the characters. We had a flat reading with Charlotte Gainsbourg, because she was scared to death of the lines, so she asked me for a flat. We call it “flat reading” in French, which means just to read the lines. But she was nervous because of my way of writing, and she said, “When I’m working with Lars von Trier, we can improvise anything. Am I allowed to improvise?” “You’re welcome. Whatever you want. We’ll see.” I propose to her: “Do you want to have Mathieu and you? You have a simple reading, just to see if there are some lines that I can embellish, that I can improve, or are you fine with it? I like that you will change because of your own idiosyncrasies.” So we had a flat reading, but never to act too much — because you have to save this energy when the camera will be here and catch the performance you have to deliver.

I think the magic of cinema, which is so different from theater, is the meeting of the actor and the character — and it happens [snaps finger] you know, in a glimpse, in a spark. And the camera is catching it. So I still stick to my method. If I’m making a new film with Louis Garrel, I will propose to do it with him without rehearsal. [Smiles]

There’s a pretty graphic gore effect here.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. [Laughs]

I can’t think of any films where you have something quite like that.

I made one film for French TV that I really loved because I had scenes in a submarine, and, at one point, one of the main characters was poking another character, a sailor, in the eye with a knife. Wow, it was vivid! It was gore! And I loved to do that. It’s the kind of film that I love to see, and I’m not used to doing. It was fun to have that. There was also a sort of small rhyme that I liked. I will sound obscure, but Ismaël doesn’t have a cell phone. Later in the film, when Bloom is trying to reach him, he’s calling Sylvia’s phone; and, later in the film, when you see Louis Garrel, he’s saying, “My brother still hates the phones, because he’s so sensible, he can’t have a cell phone like everyone.” In the story that he’s inventing, the cell phone is a sort of devilish object which can kill you! And I like the fact that the guy in real life has a cell phone and, in fiction, the cell phone can kill. I thought it made sense.

At Cannes, you said that you like an espionage story. I wonder if this gave some incentive to go fully into that — if you could see yourself branching out and “simply” making something along the lines of Ismaël’s movie.

No, I wouldn’t. I’m sure that I wouldn’t, because the project was born on that. I had bits and pieces on this character, Ivan. I had this scene that I wanted to film: I like this idea of a character who is like in, what’s the name of, I forgot the name of the short story be Melville. Bartleby?

Bartleby, the Scrivener.

Yeah. A guy starting his life so late — he’s not that young — who has no will, looks empty or whatever. Is he stupid or absolutely clever? Is he a spy or naive? You just can’t say. Until the end, you can’t say. When the other guy is grabbing Jacques Nolot and saying, “Are you guilty? Are you a spy?” “I don’t know who I am.” So to depict such a character, which is childish and adult at the same time, I think was interesting for me. But as soon as I wrote these scenes, I knew that I would tell the story of his brother telling the story, that it would be bits and pieces — that I didn’t want to have one novel, but just bits and pieces of this novel.

As a spy movie, I would be bored. If it’s bits and pieces, I would be fine with that, but one fiction about just that, I don’t think I would be the proper director. As a spectator, I love that. I love that. As a reader, I love that. Ismael’s Ghosts is a tribute to… what’s the name of this writer? The Ghost of… you know this famous American writer who wrote about the CIA, which is called Harlot’s Ghost. It’s an epic about the story of the CIA. I love every book about the CIA. I love John le Carré. It’s a Norman Mailer book which is not that well-known, and which is wonderful. So there was sort of a gesture to this book throughout the title of the film, knowing that the title of the film would be close to Norman Mailer’s book.

Speaking of: I love the way the title comes across the screen at the beginning. It’s so overwhelming. How did you arrive at that decision?

On the editing table. So many things I invented on the editing table. Today, the habit is not have to an opening title any longer; you just plunge into the movie. But I thought, on the editing table, because the shot is tracking — which is so parallel to the actor — it reminded me of the films of a director who I worship, Wes Anderson. You have this tracking, which is like that, so I was thinking of the opening credits of, I don’t remember which movie, the wise guys with the title running through the streets like that. It’s in CinemaScope, so it was nice. There was also a storytelling reason, which is that what you are looking at is not the film — it’s the film in the film.

So it was helpful for me, for the audience — you — to have this title, to say, “Hey, it’s not the film. It’s the a film, but it’s a film in a film.” So to have the title upon these images, permit me to suggest to the audience that the following scenes will be different from this opening scene, which is more of a comedy. So you have this tribute to Wes Anderson, but as soon as the camera is moving like that, when you see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it’s a Desplechin movie, because Wes Anderson would never turn the camera like that. He would go on with the tracking, parallel to his characters.

At the press screening, many of us were laughing during those scenes — but I think laughing with it, because so much, from the marching to the editing, is ridiculous. But it’s not a spoof in the register of Airplane! I wonder about finding the tempo of that — how much it’s in writing, directing, and editing.

I think, if I remember correctly, we already discussed that once, but it’s exactly what you say: the thing that is funny and awfully difficult is that the three arts are absolutely different — the art of writing for cinema, the art of filming a story on the set, and the art of editing. So you have to have enough energy inside of you to tell the story three times, in three different ways. When I’m writing, I’m trying to have good punchlines — ambitious enough and funny enough and tragic enough. To have these kinds of lines is a trial. On the set, we have to kind of reinvent everything — we have to find another way to make them alive — and, after that, on the editing table, I have to cut, and I suppress a lot of material to reach the very heart of the scene as fast as I can.

This mixture of the different tones, also, to find the right balance between tragic scenes — which is Charlotte Gainsbourg being pregnant — and you have to find the right balance and to say, “Okay, when am I allowed to jump? Will they follow me?” On this film, it was quite challenging because of the journey I was asking the audience to take was really bold. So you have to be very careful about the jump between one tone and the other tone. How can I say that? It’s strange. When I’m making a film, I think I want the audience to be a little bit lost, but, at every second, I want them to feel that I am holding by the hand and saying, “Don’t worry. You’re not that lost. I know where I’m going.” So it’s two movements at the same time: the pleasure to be lost and the pleasure to have the storyteller grab you by the hand and say, “You’re not lost. You’ll find your way out of this maze.”

I know you like the Truffaut quote about directing against writing and editing against directing. This, to me, feels like the movie of yours that most fully embodies that. You also once told me that, when you started writing this film, you thought about the part of Sabbath’s Theater where Mickey’s wife disappears and he can’t find her. I had that on my mind throughout. Do you come away thinking about conscious influences differently?

I can’t say that it changed my experience, because I jumped from this myth, which is so wonderful in Sabbath’s Theater, about the wife who disappears so young, the guy who can’t recover, and is a widower. Sabbath used to be a widower, and, in a way, it was comfortable. Then arrives Charlotte Gainsbourg, so he’s a widower no longer. During 20 years, he was a widower; it was a part he was used to acting, so he has to move from one part to a second part. So this theme was coming, surely, from Sabbath’s Theater, but there is another book of Philip Roth: American Pastoral, when you have the daughter of Levov, Merry. This girl was missing, and we discover that she was still alive — that she disappeared on the other side of the world, or whatever. So this other book nourished me, too.

I can say that, on the set, during preps and on set, each time I would take another reference, I was using this myth of Vertigo, which is nourishing the movie. Each time I was too close to the comedies or spy stories of Hitchcock, I was thinking, “No, no, no — it’s a remake of a Bergman movie, of Persona.” So when I wanted to escape from Hitchcock, I was jumping into the arms of Bergman; and when I wanted to escape the arms of Bergman, I was jumping into the arms of Hitchcock. So it’s a game of references and inferences, to jump into some other arms, to escape the influence of the previous one. So I escaped from Sabbath’s Theater by jumping into the arms of American Pastoral.

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If one film is usually a response to the last — My Golden Days is about youth; this is about people seeking a second chance — do you know what runs counter to Ismael’s Ghosts?

Oh, yes. Also, My Golden Days was about absolute newcomers who’d never appeared onscreen; this time, it was with big French movie stars. So it was lovely, but it was not the same world of directing at all when you are working with Cotillard and when you are working with Lou Roy-Lecollinet, because they don’t have the same experience in life. So it was great. Actually, the same business, the same art, but it’s not the same. It’s nice, because the jump is big. On this one, I was so happy to arrive for the New York Film Festival. Before my trip yesterday, I wanted to finish a first draft of something, and I know it’s a tribute to a film which is very, very important for me, which is The Wrong Man.

Would I be able to make a film… I could say that Ismael’s Ghosts is a tribute to imagination, a tribute to fiction. Ismael’s Ghosts is a stream of fictions, each fiction intricate with the other one. What if… and sometimes I’ve heard people say I was doing a cinema that was quite novelistic. I thought, “What if I get rid of all the fiction and I will just say the facts? Just the facts.” So I found this story that I started to work on, which is very dry and austere while Ismael’s Ghosts is so generous. Would I be able to make a film as restrained as The Wrong Man is? If you compare The Wrong Man with other works of Hitchcock, and so I think of films like Pickpocket, that kind of film where you just see the facts. After this tribute to imagination, to make a film just about imagination — to stick to reality. So I think it’s my next jump.

I’ve never seen The Wrong Man.

Never saw The Wrong Man? [Exhales] Hitchcock is a Catholic director. Deeply Catholic; English-Catholic. This idea of original sin is strong underneath all his work — even The Birds. That was the theory of the New Wave, of Truffaut and Chabrol, etc. On this film, it’s like a manifesto. Yes, I’m a Catholic: that’s my strength, that’s my weakness, that’s who I am.

It’s a self-portrait, and the performance of Fonda is one of the best… I can’t say “one of the best from him,” he’s such a great actor, but the performance is really devastating. Devastating. It’s so close to this story of this little-boy Hitchcock going into jail, how he starts in the Hitch book, but it happens to a grown-up guy. It’s a wonderful film.

If you don’t mind me asking: are you Catholic?

I’m deeply Catholic.

You’re deeply Catholic.

Oh, yes. I am.

Have you considered yourself a “Catholic filmmaker”?

I’m not sure. It’s strange: when I say I am Catholic, I don’t know what I’m saying, Catholicism being so complicated. When I was 11, I started to think, “It’s so absurd. This religion is so absurd. I want to convert to be a Protestant; it makes more sense. I can’t buy this story of the Virgin Mary; it’s absurd.” So I started going to the temple instead of going to the church, and my parents were quite upset about that. Later in my life, I read some books about the Talmud which influenced me a lot. All the philosophers I’m thinking about — mainly Emmanuel Levinas, who was a French, well-known philosopher. He was actually from Switzerland, but writing in French. He wrote all these things about the Jewish culture and the Jewish religion, too, which influenced me a lot.

After a while, when I started being 20-25, I was reading Joyce and stuff like that — French writers — and thought, “Yeah, the sense that life can be magic, that magical things can happen, it’s a beautiful part of my inheritance, and I have to embrace it instead of refusing it.” So I guess I was raised as a Catholic boy — so I guess I’m not a good Catholic. I don’t have the faith; I have no faith. Sorry about that. So I’m not a good Catholic, but I’m definitely a Catholic.

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While I still have time, maybe I could ask about —

[Desplechin begins vaping]

What flavor vape do you use?

Sorry. It’s gross to do that.

No, it’s fine!

Just tobacco. Tobacco and chocolate.

Did you give up smoking cigarettes?

I would like to reach five a day. That’s my maximum. But I have a hard time, because it depends, at the moment, on my work. Some of my gestures are so linked to tobacco. Hopefully, I can write without cigarettes. E-cigarettes are enough, but it’s still difficult for me, and I have to learn how to daydream without cigarettes; that’s difficult. I can read with cigarettes, I can work alone with cigarettes, but when I’m sharing with my co-writers, I deprive myself. When I’m daydreaming after my work session in the morning. It’s difficult, but sometimes I succeed. In six months, I will be at five cigarettes a day, not more. Five? Four. Three.

Were you writing the new film with this?

Yeah. Because it’s a thing which is… we are not from the same generation. It’s difficult because you are American, I am French — it’s not the same culture. But there is another thing: you are young and I’m old, and I think that, at a certain point, it’s self-indulgent to smoke that much. I thought, at my age, it would be more elegant if I would be able to reduce the mode of cigarettes. I smoke widely, and I don’t regret it. I smoked widely when I was in my 30s and 40s, and I thought, “Okay, now it would be more reasonable to be more elegant.” I’m able to restrain myself. So I want to achieve that, but I will have a hard time.

I know that Louis Garrel is big on it.

Yeah, yeah. He’s always doing that. I stole that from him, because he’s doing that all the time, and Philippe Garrel told me to quit; he’s told me that many times. So I’m following him. I always listen to Philippe Garrel, always.

Have you seen his new movie?

Yeah.

Is it good?

Yeah. It’s good. Did you see it?

No. I missed it while it was at the festival.

I’m quite proud. He said it publicly, so I’m allowed to say it: he paid a tribute to me. He said, “Actually, I did this film because of one note of Arnaud.” He said that in public. Because he’s God for me, it was so important that he said that. How come? It’s because when I saw his previous movie — which I loved — I said to Louis to transmit to his father the fact that it was not serious, because it was a love story, and it was a sex affair between the guy who’s having an affair with his mistress, because he loves to get laid with her in the afternoon; after that, he’s back with his wife. And you have no nudity in the film.

Very often, Philippe Garrel is saying, “I’m not a cinematographer; I’m a painter.” I thought, “Yeah, but if you are a painter, you have to face the question of nudity.” He sought that out in the new film. He found a way of being so discerned and so cautious and so beautiful, and to see the body of this woman — but in a very subtle way. “How would I be able, as a painter, ask a woman to be naked in front of me, and how I could paint her not in an obscene way, but in a delicate way?” So, yeah, I loved his film.

Do you shoot with multiple cameras?

No.

The performances have such a powerful relationship with the visual scheme, how you cut on lines and return to an actor’s face as their character is reacting to what’s been said. What do you do to maintain the rhythm and consistency of a performance?

Usually, in the morning, I try not to pertain the performance; that’s the trick. What I mean is: in the morning, I’m so nervous before the arrival of the technicians and the actors. I’m very early on the set — 5:30 on the set — and I’m working alone. I’m acting the scene again and again and again, and I want to impress them — I want to impress the technicians; I want to impress the actors — so I have the idea, the concept, of a one-er. Clever, well-done. After that, in the morning, we are shooting that one-er. I’m trying to reach not the perfect performance, but to see, “What if we are playing the scene with a smile? A cry? As a whisper? As yelling?” We try different options like that. As we finish my morning, I think, “Yeah.”

But, at this point, I was on Charlotte and I couldn’t see what Mathieu was giving. I was looking at the two of them, so I’m filming what I’m calling “specials.” And I have a “special” which is a little moment that Mathieu gave me that I didn’t film. I’m hiding these small, bizarre shots which are played not in the same range as the rest of the performance, and the thing I’m trying to assemble on the editing table are different facets about the same lines. Not to have one proper way of playing the scene, but to show that the art of the actors is so huge that they can play all the facets of the actors; not one way of acting, but several facets of them. That’s why I don’t care that much about continuity of acting.

It just feels very real.

Because in real life, that’s what’s happened. In real life, you’re full of anger — and during the same time you’re full of anger, there is another feeling, which is, “I’m a little bit ridiculous now.” You feel ridiculous at the same time. “I’m slightly laughable.” Which doesn’t mean that you are not full of anger! But, at the same time, you have a set conscience of yourself that you are slightly ridiculous. You know? So you have two ways of acting the same scene.

At a certain moment of this anger, which is in you, you start to love it, because the situation is absurd. So to try to catch all these dimensions of one scene, to me, is richer than to say, “Okay, no, full of anger, which means that you have to be full of anger.” No. In the anger, you have also the laughable aspect, the absurd aspect; you have the feelings, the memory of the fact that you love the people that, today, you hate. You have all these feelings which are mixed, and that’s what I’m trying to catch from one take to another take.

Ismael’s Ghosts enters a limited release on Friday, March 23.

Connor Jessup on His Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and the Profound Impact of His Films

Written by Adam Cook, March 20, 2018 at 8:14 am 

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As part of the Meet the Filmmakers series, A.W. A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is now screening on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck. Directed by Connor Jessup, who will be most familiar to viewers as a cast member on Falling Skies and American Crime as well as his breakthrough lead performance in Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster, he is also a filmmaker in his own right with two short films under his belt, Boy and Lira’s Forest. Jessup is influenced by the work of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, for whom his admiration runs very deep. A mid-length documentary that leans neither towards behind-the-scenes nor bio formats, A.W. is a leisurely and meditative piece that matches the filmmaker’s easygoing personality and patient rhythm. Made well ahead of the production of his next feature, Memoria, which will be set in Colombia and star longtime friend Tilda Swinton, Jessup catches the director at the writing stage as he immerses himself in the surroundings that will shape the film.

I spoke with Connor about the project and his experience in Colombia with one of our great contemporary filmmakers.

How did this project come together?

A few years ago, I blindly sent Joe a short film I had made and basically said: you don’t need to reply, but your movies are important to me, so I wanted to share. He got back right away and was really kind. I felt like I was floating. We met up in a few different places after that and became friends, or at least became friendly. Again, I felt like I was floating. Like Joe says in the film, he’s very approachable. When Criterion decided they wanted to make this documentary, they reached out to his longtime distributor, Strand Releasing, who I know from my work as an actor, and it was their suggestion that I should be the one to do it. It was really just a series of interlocking coincidences and good luck. I felt like a child among heroes. I’m still suspicious about the reality of the whole thing!

What’s your relationship with Apichatpong’s cinema?

The first I heard of Joe was when he won at Cannes, when I was fifteen. I remember his acceptance speech, in that terrific white tux, when he complimented Tim Burton’s hair and talked about the mystery of movies. I saw Tropical Malady right after that and it had a profound impact on me. It was so much fresh air. It was like seeing the culmination of some alternate history of cinema, a history divorced from theatre or something, where sound had always meant more than story. It was a great release. Like: You can do that, too? What really moved me most, and still does, is the warmth of the mystery in his films, the sense of love and sweetness, the rejection of cold austerity, the total rejection of cruelty and despair. To be able to make movies that are that strange and deeply ambiguous, but still so friendly…

What was it like spending time with Joe in Colombia?

We were in Colombia together for about a week, the two of us, my cinematographer Josée Deshaies, and our little crew. We spent a few days in Medellín, and a few on the coast near a town called Nuquí. It was the most difficult and moving experience I’ve ever had working. I mean, I was totally in over my head, and time was tight. I traveled between abject horror at my own insufficiency and real, deep hope for the future. Joe was so generous, and not just with his time. He takes friendship seriously. There isn’t a condescending bone in him. I had a sense of all that going in, but what really got me on that trip was the depth of it. I love him very much. He’s taught me a lot.

It’s neither a behind-the-scenes nor bio doc — could you talk about the unique approach?

We never had much interest in taking a biographical or critical approach. I’m not a structural thinker, so the idea of creating a comprehensive profile of someone’s life or work is horrifying. Also, I usually find those sorts of A-Z docs about artists a little bizarre, personally. The old Cinéastes de notres temps pieces are really amazing, so those were an inspiration; that sort of minor, casual style. Beyond that, honestly, the form of the film was due more to circumstance than intention. For example, the idea of Joe shooting me, which ended up being central, wasn’t planned at all. It came about once we were all there together. He suggested it almost teasingly, because he had an exhibition the next month that he needed to fill out, and I could’ve leapt for relief.

Could you talk more about the collaborative nature of A.W. and Joe turning the camera around on you?

Joe is always filming. It’s one of the first things you notice when you spend any time with him. He has a little Harinezumi video camera, and a Leica still camera, and a notebook – between those three things he’s almost always recording in one way or another. So there’s an extent to which him filming me was unavoidable. And collaboration, friendship, boundaries––that’s what Joe’s work has always been about. That’s why he was in Colombia, too. So, it felt right to center the film on that. Actually, if we had had more time, I would have loved to wander more and include all the people he met along the way in his time there.

At what stage in development was the new feature?

When we joined him, he was just finishing a two-month zigzag through Colombia, writing the treatment for the new film, Memoria. From what I understand, he had some sense of theme and plot before the trip, but really the majority of the film came during those months. He kept saying that he needed memories, that he needed to borrow and collect memories. Unlike in Thailand, he had no history in Colombia, no sense of geography or politics or how any of that intersects with individual and collective memory. So, he was on a Pokémon hunt for memories there, I think. He’s intimidatingly curious.

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You talk about it candidly with Joe in the film and he expresses a little uncertainty…What do you think of him making his first feature outside of Thailand?

I think it’s going to be beautiful, as a movie and for him personally. I just read a draft of the script a few weeks ago, and it’s astonishing. I mean, I cried and cried. Half from its crazy sad beauty and half from how funny it is. It was a catharsis I didn’t know I needed, reading that after this experience. But I also understand Joe’s uncertainty, and it fills me with hope. It’s a really alive form of uncertainty. It’s very exciting. And Tilda! I’m excited for Tilda. This has all been a long scheme for me to get to her.

Documentary is a departure for you, is it something you would explore again and did it open any new doors for you creatively?

It opened too many doors, maybe. It was a bit of a shock at times. My background is entirely in fiction, so I had a lot to learn. I would love to do more in the future, though. Documentary is huge with possibilities, and this film has given me so much, on a personal and technical level. That said, I’m looking forward to getting back to fiction, at least for a bit. It will probably help me process everything I’ve learned on this.

A.W. A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul is now streaming FilmStruck, along with a collection of his films.

Armando Iannucci on the Tragedy and Comedy of ‘The Death of Stalin’ and Needing to Dial Down History

Written by Michael Snydel, March 19, 2018 at 8:00 am 

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Armando Iannucci has spent the last decade of his career lampooning the contemporary politics of America and the United Kingdom in projects like Veep, The Thick of It, and In the Loop, but his new film directs his considerable satiric skills at a simultaneously perversely appropriate and unlikely target: Stalin-era Soviet Union. An adaptation of Fabian Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel dramatization of the same name, The Death of Stalin is filled with Iannucci’s trademark barbs at institutional efficiency and labyrinthian insults but also freighted with a newfound urgency in his filmmaking.

With an unimpeachable cast of movie stars, TV stars, and even stage legends, The Death of Stalin makes a feast of the banal and horrifying absurdities that were commonplace during the period without losing the persistent undercurrent of tragedy and anxiety. Less a historical recreation than a comedic channeling of the spirit of the time, the film even has the actors speak in their native accent, leading to a motley collection of voices all fighting to get the upper hand in the race to fill Stalin’s role. Even as the film is very clearly a comedy, it’s also a tightrope act of tonal balance with scenes like David Zucker-style sight gags of executions happening in the background as characters walk by blissfully ignoring the consequences of their minute-to-minute choices.

In time for The Death of Stalin’s theatrical expansion, we talked to Iannucci about finding that balance between historical accuracy and comedy, replicating Russia in London, and why he’s removing himself from the present to make sense of it.

Your other work –things like The Thick of It, Veep–they’ve drawn on real political and social contexts, but The Death of Stalin was arguably your first time adapting. What was your experience like drawing from a source material, specifically a graphic novel in presenting history?

 Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I never thought that my next movie would be this. I’m so used to just generating my own projects, but the moment I read the book, it was just instant. I had absolutely no hesitation. And in terms of adapting, I wanted to preserve what it was about this story that made me want to dramatize it anyway. The structure of the graphic novel is kind of more or less reflected in the film. You know we open with the concert, Stalin collapses, the Poliburto arrive. That’s all as it’s laid out in the graphic novel. I knew we were going to do our own dialogue because there’s not much dialogue in a graphic novel. It’s more kind of visual, I think. And also although the characters of [Lavrenti] Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and [Nikita] Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) were very strong in the graphic novel, the others were more sort of shadowy figures. But once you’re doing this on screen, and you’re getting a great cast together. You have to make sure that all the other characters are three dimensional and rich and well-written. And there’s that, and then a bit of structure in the graphic novel. They have the funeral, then they leap through three months, and there’s a series of meetings. I didn’t feel that would work in the film, so I telescoped everything so that the funeral is the climax of the movie. But we try to remain as faithful as possible to the spirit of the original.

With such sparse source material, was it a more difficult to create these characters, or did it allow more room to invent?

Yeah, it was a slightly different discipline. But I didn’t find it harder. I just think you just work as equally hard on an adaptation as you do on an original really. I just felt that what I wanted to do was do a bit more of my own research. So we went out to Moscow, we looked at Stalin’s statue, we went around the Kremlin. I just wanted to get the details absolutely right visually. And then try to recreate it. We shot it mostly in London, but a lot of Russian audiences have said, “Where in Moscow did you film this?” And I say, “Well, in London.” We tried very much to get it to feel as true to what things were like in 1953 as possible, partly because we’re dealing with really serious themes, and also comedy. And I wanted both of them to kind of develop out of the same thing, which is the true incidents. That was the only way I think you could make the comedy and tragedy work and sit alongside each other. It’s both arisen from the same thing.

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We’re societally at a point where a lot of creators are worried about exaggerating history, even in the case of satire. You look at, for instance, the reaction to Quentin Tarantino’s next film, which takes place around the Manson murders. Did making this film influence your own view of dramatizing specific historical events at all?

Two things: one is, I knew that I didn’t want to put at the beginning, this is a true story, because I knew I wanted the audience to feel, it is what it is. It’s a film that’s funny, and it’s our telling of something. And it’s our response to something. It’s our being creative with something. But on the other hand, I knew that as close as we could get to the fact as possible would be helpful because it would just make the comedy work. We could be accused of making things up in order to get a laugh when in fact what we would be doing is delving even deeper into what actually happened to find the absurdity. And the other thing is because it’s a comedy, I think people aren’t expecting it to be like a historical reconstruction because there are jokes in it. And therefore, from the work, you know that this isn’t meant to be literal. It’s not a documentary. I think where people have problems is where something is projected as true, but then liberties have been taken with it in the narrative for dramatic effect. So I think you have to be very clear about how you signpost these things.

You’re obviously taking occasional liberties with this story, but did you find that you had to tune the film to find that balance between cartoonishness and fealty to history?

Actually, sometimes it involved dialing it down. Like the opening concert, which is true, but in reality, they got through three conductors because they got someone in the middle of the night. So the first conductor fell over, knocked himself out. And the second conductor they brought in, but he was drunk so they had to get a third conductor. But I thought if you put three conductors in the movie, people wouldn’t believe it. [Laughs] They’ll think that I’m making it all up. [Laughs] I mean there were other instances we found that were equally bizarre that there just wasn’t time to put in. I think people understand that what it is is a comic telling of the story. You know you don’t read the Shakespeare history play thinking, well, did he really say that? It’s because you know it’s a dramatist that created with imagination responding to a story rather than here is an accurate account of the story?

I saw you recently say that people like John Oliver, Samantha Bee are perhaps the best satirists of the moment because they’re letting the story speak for itself. At this moment in your career, do you think the past is maybe a more fertile place for traditional satire right now?

Oh heavens, I don’t know. I just find that it’s more a product of my having done it for ten years with In the Loop and then Veep that I kind of feel like I’ve said what I want to say on the nature of politics, so I’m just moving on to other things. So it’s interesting though that I looked at 1953 for this film and then 1840 for my next film, David Copperfield. And then I’m doing a thing for HBO, which is set in the future. Maybe I’m just removing myself from the present for a while partly to make sense of it. I may well come back and do something about it. But it wouldn’t be for a number of years because if you’re going to make a fiction, I think it takes a while for you to assess what the real story actually is. I mean, there Trump is today or last night boasting about how he just made stuff up to Justin Trudeau because he’s not concerned with the facts. He’s not concerned with the truth. He doesn’t see it as lying, he just sees it as gamesmanship. As a bit of fun.

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Speaking as well about your future projects, I know that you’re filming David Copperfield this summer. You’re a big [Charles] Dickens fan, and there is a level of satire to his work, but was it a very different challenge to approach this project compared to other recent ones?

Yeah, the challenge is taking something that’s 900 pages long and is very rich, and not falling into the trap of just sticking to the story and jettisoning all the color, the language, the personality, and the depth and complexity. So that’s been the challenge in terms of how we script it. And we’ve arrived at something that I feel very confident that it captures the spirit of the whole book, but allows a story to be told at the right pace at the right length. And the challenge is also deciding what you can’t put in just because there isn’t going to be time, but also what you want to put in that has never been done in an adaptation before. Finding those moments. I mean, there’s a great moment in it where David Copperfield at 18 gets drunk for the very first time. And it’s a hilarious description of someone with the whole world swirling around him, and him not being able to stand up. And it’s a very kind of honest account of someone being drunk for the first time. You don’t see it in any of the adaptations because it’s not part of the story, but that’s what people want to take away from the book, those kind of moments really. So it’s about that.

What was your thought process for replicating Russia in London with your director of photography, Zac Nicholson? In the film, the camera kind of brings across a large scope, but there’s also a persistent claustrophobia.

What I wanted to do was recreate the low-level anxiety that people must have felt at the time, and I wanted to try to provoke that in the audience. So that was about getting the background to look as authentic as possible, and then it was about just scripting elements of unnerve, and not knowing quite what was going to happen next. And also there’s a gradual descent into a kind of frenzy toward the end. Very unconsciously, I’m not expecting the audience to notice, but actually the way we shot it, it was much more precise and staid and stable at the beginning, and more colorful. But gradually as we process, it gets more choppy and handheld. Colors start getting a bit darker, and by the time you’re in the concert hall at the end, all the color is gone from that concert hall. So it’s beautiful at the beginning, and then it’s cold at the end. And that was just really… I’m not expecting the audience to pick up on that, but it was just a way of marking that degeneration into behaving like an animal.

I won’t obviously get into specifics, but I want to speak a bit more about that formal and tonal shift at the end where things start to feel more urgent and chaotic. Was that change in the scripting stage?

It was very much the scripting stage. I was writing it, and kind of working as a director on it simultaneously thinking, how will we illustrate this? How can we convey this? How can I draw the audience in more and more? To that extent, I’m also dealing with the storyboards, with the design, and the director of photography, and having those conversations very early on. In fact, I was also having that with the composer early on, so we’re kind of agreed at all points what it is that we’re going to make and what we’re going to end up within the final version.

The Death of Stalin is now in theaters.

Christian Petzold on ‘Transit,’ the Refugee Crisis, ‘The Sopranos,’ and Cinematic Rules

Written by Zhuo-Ning Su, March 13, 2018 at 8:52 am 

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Barbara and Phoenix director Christian Petzold returned to Berlinale this year with Transit, without regular muse Nina Hoss for the first time since 2005’s Ghosts. Rather, the drama centers on Georg (Franz Rogowski), an escapee of a concentration camp who flees Paris just as the Nazis march in as the film depicts his few weeks in the French port city of Marseille before his final trip out of the continent. Despite the film taking place during the era of the Second World War, Petzold boldly decides to ignore the historical setting, costume- and production-wise, rather having the feel of the present day.

“Local boy Christian Petzold’s audacious retelling of Anna Seghers’s World War II-set novel about refugees escaping Nazi-controlled France is a strange, beguiling creation that will be hard to beat in the competition line-up, and ranks as a rare period piece that utterly gets under the skin of contemporary concerns,” Ed Frankl said in his review. “It’s an engrossing, uncanny and somewhat disturbing film, and completes something of a trio of historical melodramas after Barbara and his worldwide hit Phoenix, but develops the themes of those in an adventurous, if oblique, way.”

We spoke to the director below about commenting on the refugee crisis without making it the message, why he doesn’t deceive his audiences, the brilliance of The Sopranos, Harun Farocki, and more.

This film is dedicated to the late Harun Farocki with whom you’ve collaborated on many films over the years. By staging the WWII story in the present and not in the past, it feels like you’re taking a leaf out of his book. Do you think this is something he would have suggested?  

It was my decision to shoot the film that way. And now I will tell you a story that might seem a bit corny, but I actually went to the grave of Harun and placed a tiny twig on it. I said to myself, if it falls to the left, then I won’t do it this way, if it falls to the right, I will–then, of course, I gave it a little push to the right.

I had actually never planned to make this movie together with Harun because the book, the novel by Anna Seghers, had been a reference for almost all the projects we ever did together. It was a constant reference.

If the book has been a constant reference, why are you only adapting it now?       

By reference I mean Harun and I had a couple of fixed rules, the basic laws of our collaboration so to speak. One of which was that in our projects all characters must always be in transit, moving from place to place. As with the work of Gilles Deleuze, it’s always about becoming and never about being. Also, we always tried to tell two different stories in a film that counterbalanced each other. One year before Harun’s death, we decided to give it a go and try to turn this novel into a film. We wrote a first treatment which was a period piece. Then the World Cup happened and Germany became the soccer world champion. A week later Harun died. But during those seven days, I told him that after Phoenix I didn’t feel like making another historical movie. So we decided to put the project on hold.

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How do you go about adapting a book you love for the big screen?   

Hitchcock famously said one can only adapt bad books. An absolutely correct observation in my opinion. The books that I love–Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or books by Hemingway–I would never try to turn them into films. Transit is not just one of the greatest works of world literature, it’s also one of my favorites. It would have been absurd for me to make a direct screen adaptation. The only thing I could try is to make a film based upon my love and passion for the book, my own reading of the book. That would be something I could do.

And I brought a second book into the project–going back to that rule about counterbalance shared by Harun and me–Georg K. Glaser’s autobiography Secret and Violence. This is the second component of the film, which is also why the protagonist’s name is Georg. His journey by train and arrival in Marseille, that’s taken from Glaser’s book and not from Seghers’. I used this story of a pickpocket who changes over time and combined it with the love story and the visa story in Seghers’ novel.

The movie has a strong literary feeling to it. There’s a voice-over that narrates the story like it’s writing it. Would it be fair to say the film plays out like a novel?

That would be totally right. Harun and I have always had a rule about never using voice-over. There are a couple of voice-over films that I love: Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, for example. Anna Seghers’ book is written in the first person, and I find a first-person voice-over in a movie almost always cons the audience. Fight ClubThe Usual Suspects, etc. The narrator is screwing with us, he deceives us. And I don’t like that. I’m a disciple of Hitchcock. I don’t con the audience. In Hitchcock’s films, the viewer would shout to the characters “Don’t do it!” because they know more about what’s going on than the characters themselves, and the suspense comes from that. Audience deception is an established approach to filmmaking, but I don’t subscribe to that.

At the same time, I don’t like it when the voice-over seems to be above everything else and in a God-like position as if it could–like the author–do anything it pleases to the characters. That’s why I decided to have the story narrated by the barkeeper in the third person. He doesn’t con us so much as he tells the story like a bad witness would. For example, he says “Then they kissed” when in reality they did not kiss at all. He remembers things incorrectly, but by doing so he himself becomes part of the narrative. That was my idea–to also show the narrator’s longing and desires.

TRANSIT Regie Christian Petzold

Why did you go with the song by Talking Heads in the end credits? Atmospherically speaking, it’s not the most obvious choice.

I must make another confession. Before I went with the Talking Heads song, I didn’t know exactly how I should end the film. One day, I remembered the wonderful ending of The Sopranos, my favorite TV show. Tony Sopranos’ daughter enters a restaurant. You see a shot of her and expect a reverse shot of her father. Instead, we get blackness. Which could symbolize death or the void, but it could also symbolize the constant transit of this family that never arrived.

I told the actors and the crew about this and they found it a great idea. So I have this image of darkness at the end for about seven, eight seconds. And I thought, there has to be something else that comes to the rescue of all these people, these refugees. This led me to gospel music and the song by Talking Heads, which starts off like a gospel song. Gospel music picks us up and tells us we’re all on this road to nowhere but it’s ok. Maybe we’re better off believing that there’s no ending, no such place as homeland, realizing that we’re always in transit and it’s not such a bad thing at all. That was the idea behind the song choice.

I told the producers about this as we shot the scene where Georg finds out [something about Marie’s ship]. On that day I heard this song and played it for the cast and crew. Everyone said, “This is THE song!” So I called up the producer and he said “Are you crazy? This would cost us 45,000 Euros!” I promised to cut one scheduled day of shooting and he said that’s not gonna cut it. But eventually I was able to convince him. He’s a musician himself, and when he heard the song, he admitted: “You’re right.”

Is this a divorce from Nina Hoss or just a temporary separation?

There was a press day during our shoot in Marseille, and many journalists from Libération, Le Monde and other outlets dropped by. They asked me the same question when they couldn’t find Nina Hoss anywhere. She’s obviously well known in France. We just had a joint retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in December. And because Paula Beer is also famous in France after starring in François Ozon’s Frantz, they asked me if Paula Beer is the new Nina Hoss. I was made a bit uneasy by the question, which implied that I went for someone younger when my actress grew older, Weinstein-style. I found it unfair to me, to Nina and to Paula. So I said “No, Franz Rogowski is the new Nina Hoss.” and got myself out of the situation.

But obviously, the question wasn’t entirely baseless. The fact is, on this project, there’s no suitable part for Nina–and unfortunately there is none on the next one either–but this is not a divorce. We will certainly work together again. With Transit my focus is on young people who don’t know who they are yet and who must grow up in the most painful way. Whereas Nina, with whom I’ve made six films already, is someone with a full-fledged identity, and not like the two main characters in this film who are still searching for theirs.

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This is a timely film considering the current refugee crisis Europe is facing. Are you consciously contributing to the debate with this film?

In Germany we have the Basic Law with an asylum clause which grants asylum to anyone who’s fleeing persecution for their political beliefs, religion, sexual orientation, etc. It’s a responsibility that we as German must assume because of our history. Said history is the history of Anna Seghers and it includes the experiences of German immigrants and refugees who were rejected by just about every nation besides–to a limited degree–Mexico, Turkey, and China I believe. Such experiences were the basis for the asylum clause. Now we have refugees seeking asylum in Europe and–I don’t know about France, Poland or other countries–but in Germany, we just did away with the asylum clause. At a time when it is needed, we destroy it.

At the same time, we’re seeing a rise of the very same vernacular and rhetoric that led to disasters in the 1940’s like “nations,” “borders,” “identity,” or “we cannot afford to accept every person in this world into our country,” “we’re not the welfare office of the whole world,” etc. This kind of discussion is present in Transit without it being the message. I’m confident enough about the movie to let it to speak for itself on these subjects.

Transit premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.

See our complete Berlin 2018 coverage.

Ruben Östlund on Criticizing Liberal Politics and Seeing Himself in ‘The Square’

Written by Joshua Encinias, March 3, 2018 at 6:36 pm 

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It’s very seldom that a Palme d’Or winning film should also win Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but Ruben Östlund’s The Square could buck the trend this Sunday. If his film wins, it would be the fourth Oscar for Sweden. (Ingmar Bergman won the previous three statues.)

The Square posits ideas about liberal democratic social contracts through a controversial but ultimately banal art exhibit at a museum in Stockholm. The museum’s chief art curator Christian (Claes Bang) goes through a series of personal and professional crises that leave him jobless. Once jobless, Christian is finally free of the social structures finally that didn’t award honesty.

Often funny and simultaneously depressing, The Square is a Buñuelian satire of the West’s flexible social values and specifically the patrons of high art. It turns a mirror on the affluent milieu who award themselves for giving lip service to helping their fellow man. We spoke with director Ruben Östlund about the film’s political underpinnings.

Do you get subversive joy when your movie screens for the very art patrons you satirize in The Square?

Yes, definitely. One reason I made the monkey scene with a tuxedo-dressed audience because it was going to screen at Cannes in front of a tuxedo-dressed audience looking at themselves. That’s a way to put a mirror up to the audience and the kind of social class that’s going to Cannes. We’ve screened the film at all of the major festivals for the same reason.

One of the hallmarks of white liberal enlightened people is to point out the hollowness of other people’s virtue. So as someone who works with the tuxedo-dressed audience you mention, what is The Square saying about them?

Shame, shame on you! [Laughs.] No, but I look at Christian (Claes Bang) also the same way I look at myself. I don’t think that Christian is hypocritical, I think he actually believes in the kind of questions that the square exhibit poses and he thinks it’s good to promote that. For me, I don’t think we should put that much judgment on an individual when they are behaving badly because we have to look at the situation that is creating the behavior. I think there’s a lot of situations in which we can do something that is kind of stupid and it’s knowledge about the situation that can cause us to behave in a different way. Being a good person is not about character–it’s about education. Or if you have experience with a situation that is similar. I wonder when it is possible for me to behave in the same way as Christian. I try to imagine a set up where it is possible to behave in the same way, even though he’s doing quite stupid things. I never want to make the character someone who is bad or unbelievably stupid, even though we’re dealing with satire. I’m twisting the reality a little bit.

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If you’re not critiquing Christian, but a milieu of people, is your criticism that liberal politics are an abyss and the only ones who can make it out alive are the ones in charge?

Liberal has a different meaning in Europe than it has in the United States. Liberal in Sweden means everyone has the same possibility in life but seeing people in their context and seeing how the context is limiting them or making things possible for them. When my country was exposed to Romanian beggars a few years ago we were kind of shocked because we haven’t dealt with this issue that much before. I think in the beginning our feeling was: is it my responsibility as an individual to deal with this or is it the state’s? Very quickly we took the responsibility and put it on the individual level. The discussion was: do you give money to beggars or don’t? And should you feel ashamed if you didn’t do it? At the same time, you’re only feeling powerless, you don’t feel like you have any possibility to change a beggars life by giving them a couple of coins. This is a problem we should solve as a community together. I thought it was a little scary we didn’t talk about raising taxes to deal with it. Instead we talked about it on an individual level. But that isn’t a realistic way of looking at the world because that isn’t the way to solve these problems. Why are we putting the responsibility on the individual and taking away the ability to organize ourselves and doing things together? I feel a lack of the common project in our time.

That reminds me of the scene where Christian is on the phone and takes blame for the letter he wrote but changes gears to blames society.

I can relate it to something I’m close to. My mother was a teacher and she was telling me Swedish schools have not been that good in the last year. They have less money to provide a good education, the teachers have too many pupils in the classroom, etc. She described the breaking point as the teachers receiving individual salaries. When that happened they couldn’t organize as individuals and tell their bosses if their work circumstances became worse they would strike. Because they each received different salaries, they didn’t want to be considered troublemakers in front of the boss. I think the economic system is making us very lonely and scared. In the end, when Christian decided he’s going to do the right thing and apologize for what he’s done, that only happened after he lost his position at the museum. He has already lost what he was afraid of losing.

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The Square is now on Digital HD and DVD.

Sebastián Lelio on the Splendor of ‘A Fantastic Woman,’ Subversive Casting, and Embracing Resistance

Written by Joshua Encinias, March 3, 2018 at 6:01 pm 

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Sebastián Lelio could become the first Chilean director to win Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards this Sunday. A Fantastic Woman stars Daniela Vega in what Lelio calls a “transgenre” drama about a transgender woman’s struggle to grieve her lover Orlando’s (Francisco Reyes) death.

The film chooses classical cinematic storytelling over the gritty, social realism used for documentaries like The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. In the film, after Orlando dies, his family mistreat and abuse Vega’s Marina, barring her from his funeral. Instead of using Vega’s transgenderism to move the plot, Lelio focuses on the inhumane treatment Marina receives from characters on-screen and a mythic fight against gravity.

In our conversation, Lelio discusses the subversive casting of Chilean actor Francisco Reyes as Orlando, Daniela Vega’s influence on his script, and pushback against the film.

I read you shied away from the social realist approach that is often used for transgender characters. How did you come to that decision?

I think there is a moral behind every aesthetic choice. I wanted to change the aesthetics around a narrative that serves a transgender character. Usually it’s like handheld, raw light. There’s a roughness to it. And I think it’s perfectly valid to try to provide a different angle and one of my first intuitions was to change the aesthetics with which the subject has been explored before. That’s why the film has that attempt to have splendor and be classical. It’s almost like you sit down and you start watching a 1940s melodrama. Then the film keeps changing and changing and it has something hidden inside that is not classical at all. It’s the character, maybe more importantly the gesture, that your character is interpreted by a real transgender woman.

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How did you come to cast Francisco Reyes as Orlando? It was great to see him appearing as this apparition throughout the film.

Well, he’s a well-known actor in Chile and a symbol of heterosexual masculinity. I admired him as an actor in the first place but it was a bit of a provocation to cast him because he’s so beloved and an icon of heterosexuality. I think he was very graceful in presenting a different way of masculinity. It probably would have been more acceptable to present a less classical type of masculinity. His normality makes everything about his relationship in the film with Marina subversive.

Will you talk about filming the dance sequence?

In the writing process, this idea of creating a transgenre film about a transgender character was very important because suddenly this device was capable of shifting everything. It has that sentiment of social portrait; it’s a film about a woman, it’s a ghost film. There was even room for these enhanced reality moments, or surreal moments. I hate to call them magical realism moments because that’s a concept we are very careful with in Latin America. Then I decided to take on the pressure to pay homage to films I love. So the windstorm sequence is a salutation to Buster Keaton and then the dancing sequence, we were watching a lot of the Busby Berkeley films and how he created his choreography with women. In one of his films a few of them fly meters away from the camera so we were playing with that idea. It was available to me to bend the limits of what was possible in the film and to push things forward.

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The movie deals with a lot of ideas about humane and not-so humane treatment of transgender people. Will you talk about your thoughts on the changing conceptions of transgenderism?

It’s hard to put everything in the same bag, but I think the limits of what’s possible are expanding. The mindset of what being a human means is expanding in many different ways and different areas. So I think that things are changing and we are shifting landscape in terms of identity or in terms of what identity means. So the old conceptions of male, female, even class, race and gender are somehow not enough anymore. But most importantly it will shake up things and create more space and ways of existing.

Daniela Vega’s life informed much of the script. In a sense, it blurs the line of fiction and non-fiction. How do you interpret it when someone doesn’t understand or doesn’t like the movie? Are they saying they don’t agree with transgenderism?

When you are on the side of the people who create things, you have to know you will find resistance and friction. I consider that healthy. If the film didn’t find any kind of resistance it would mean that the film has no urgency at all. Although it wasn’t our idea to offend, but to create something that is alive and complex, that can be seen from many different angles. It’s a film that is presenting a problem and fighting to deal with it. So just like with anything, there will be people going in different ways with this phenomena. Some people say God created man and woman and that transgender people should be locked up. A percentage of the population think this and that’s precisely why the film is urgent. Another attitude toward the film is Daniela’s character is presenting something we will learn so much from and it’s beautiful to try to attempt to learn how to live together. I want the negativity. I think it’s a sign that the image alive.

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A Fantastic Woman in now in theaters.

Zellner Brothers on Deconstructing the Genre and Creating a Mythic, Humorous Western with ‘Damsel’

Written by Jordan Raup, February 5, 2018 at 2:15 pm 

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The stunning vistas aren’t the only signifiers of the western genre in Damsel, yet we quickly grasp that David and Nathan Zellner have crafted revisionist take on the genre, lovingly poking fun at its foundation while slyly pulling the rug under the audience in humorous, forward-thinking, and genre-redefining fashion.

Following Samuel (Robert Pattinson) as he goes on a rescue mission to save his true love Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), we won’t spoil anything beyond that, but rest assured, it’s a humorous, inventive western that could only come from the brothers who last gave us Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

Following the Sundance premiere, I spoke with them about balancing the perfect tone, the formation of Pattinson and Wasikowska’s characters, playing with tropes and archetypes of the genre, capturing a vibrant, mystical landscape, themes of feminism and cultural reappropriation, and more.

Was Damsel at all a response to Kumiko? There’s an underlying darkness to that movie and this is more comedic.

David Zellner: Definitely, but I guess everything we do is somewhat informed by what we’ve done previously though. At one point we were going to do Damsel before Kumiko. It changed significantly, but it was kind of just the way things went in terms of what got off the ground. That would have been very different if we made it now.

One of the shots I love in the film is when they guy gets shot in the head and then he’s pissing at the same time. I’ve never seen that in a western before.

David Zellner: [Laughs] Us either! That’s why we wanted to do it.

If I told someone about that shot they might think it’s a dark gratuitous film, but it’s really not. There’s a lightness running through it. Can you talk about balancing that tone?

David Zellner: Yeah, it just something we feel as we go and try to find a tonal sweet spot. Yeah, like that it just seemed like something we hadn’t seen in a western. And it that is something where you’re the most vulnerable.

Nathan Zellner: And when we were setting up Anton’s death and Parson Henry’s involvement in it, we had to make it the just one of the cheapest, worst ways to clock out. It just kind of added to how pathetic and how just sloppy the situation was. That image is what we went for.

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One thing I love about the film is how it sets up these western archetypes–the beautiful vistas, one guy coming into town (though with a mini horse, which is different)–and then it challenges them so much by end that if revisited a classic western I would view it in an entirely different light. Can you talk more about these archetypes and what westerns you liked the most growing up?

David Zellner: We’ve seen the most famous ones, the John Ford and John Wayne type of stuff, The Searchers, and things like that. We’re not as schooled too deeply on that. The stuff that came shortly after that, where it started to deviate from the John Wayne kind of hero. Budd Boetticher and the westerns he made in the ‘50s with Randolph Scott, we really love those because on the surface they can seem almost saccharine, but there’s this real underlying darkness and always a real heavy ending that has all the more of an impact because the rest is light.

Nathan Zellner: There’s some comedy in there too. Not overt comedy or slapstick, just funny little sayings here or there, little quips and like David said, there’s always this downer of a twist or an ending that feels different.

Robert Pattinson’s character in Damsel feels like he could be ancestor of his Good Time character Connie.

[Both laugh.]

Just manipulating anyone to get what he wants, even though he’s more sweet-natured in this film. Can you talk about forming that character? His introduction at the bar and the dialogue there is amazing.

David Zellner: Yeah, we just wanted to use the hero archetype as a foundation and then deviate from there with it. So much of the information you are getting is through his perspective and his image of himself or what he wants to believe or what he’s trying to project. It makes him not the most reliable narrator.

Speaking about the structure, I heard that it was one of your first ideas. You don’t have to go into spoilers, but just talk about coming up with that and how you guys are always one step ahead of the audience. Even though we think we’ve figured things out, we really haven’t.

David Zellner: Yeah, that’s part of the fun of it. We wanted to play with structure and things that might be a climax don’t necessarily take place at the climax and we’re left dealing with the aftermath of a certain situation. The middle was kind of the impetus for it everything grew out in each direction from there. We always knew we wanted that to be the kind of centerpiece and build from there.

Nathan Zellner: And technically we talked a lot about–when shooting it and especially in post-production–shifting the point of view and which character was where we wanted the audience to side or see through. That really helped with the unreliable narrator of Samuel [Pattinson’s character] because as soon as you introduce him you’re on his side and we’re watching things unfold with him. Then with the middle part it becomes…

David Zellner: …more complicated. [Laughs]

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Yeah, it definitely keeps you on your toes. You guys worked with cinematographer Adam Stone for the first time, who worked on all of Jeff Nichols’ films before. How did you guys meet?

David Zellner: I’ve known him about ten years. Jeff’s a friend of ours and I’ve just known him socially for a long time. We had never worked together, but liked him as a person and liked his work, so everything lined up.

Was there any specific qualities in perhaps his work with Jeff Nichols that attracted you to working with him?

David Zellner: Well, no one works harder than him. This was a very tough shoot and we’re out in the wilderness and have limited resources. He doesn’t settle.

It reminded me a bit of Robbie Ryan’s work in Slow West. Did you guys see that?

David and Nathan Zeller: Oh, yeah.

It’s rare to see those vibrancy of colors in a western. It feels like most of today’s westerns are super brutal and stark.

David Zellner: Yeah, we wanted it to be vibrant. That’s why we didn’t shoot it in the desert, outside of the opening. We wanted it to be vibrant and lush and not like the desert, kind of brown.

You guys probably get asked this question a lot, but what is your dynamic on set as directors, especially when one of you is front of the camera acting?

David Zellner: I guess it kind of depends. We do a lot in prep and we do a lot together talking through shots and character motivations. Especially the stuff we’re doing in front of the camera to make sure when we’re acting, we can switch off really easily between roles and we’re not holding up the crew and the other actors with the stuff that we’re doing. If you’re going to put yourself in front of the camera it’s kind of essential because you don’t want to waste anyone’s time. You want them to trust your instincts and abilities as well. Because we’ve had much more time together than we can with the crew and the cast. So it’s more about making sure we’re all on the same page with everything prior so then we just work together and have a shorthand.

Speaking about Mia Wasikowska, it would be more interesting if she never had any rehearsals with Robert Pattinson, just because of the relationship of their characters. But I’m curious, was there anything like that?

David Zellner: Well, they are old friends and have been in a movie together before. So they already had a comfort with each other. We did some rehearsal, not days and days, but we did some, just to work out some kinks in the script for flow. We also didn’t want to beat it death and overdo it. We wanted to leave some room for it to be fresh.

Nathan Zellner: Yeah, it was good to do a rehearsal and it was good they had some familiarity with each other. Because consciously or subconsciously, they are people who have a history on screen, so there has to be some sort of connection. The situation they are in is heightened and we have to feel like the things they are saying have that history behind it and has brought them to the point they are today.

I want to talk about the breakthrough actor of the film, Butterscotch, the miniature horse.

[Both laugh.]

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I love her introduction on the boat. You think you’ll be in the desert because it’s a western, but it you are on a beach and feels almost mystical and otherworldly. Can you talk about the fairy tale aspect of the film?

David Zellner: Yeah, we wanted it to be the mythic west. Different drafts of the scripts talked about geographical settings, but as we revised it, we liked the ideas of the mythic west and not bound to a particular region or anything. So that’s why we were happy to cherry pick completely different types of landscapes, whether it’s a desert or mountains or rocky coastlines and create its own world from that.

Then with Butterscotch, we called her that in the script and she has a certain look, so it was pretty extensive to find the right miniature horse. Not just in terms of the period, but the appearance, with the flowing blonde locks. The Farrah Fawcett of mini horses is what we were going for. And also the right temperament. We wanted a horse that was happy to hang out a lot.

I hope it’s there’s another Team Bunzo campaign. [Laughs] There’s also the song Robert Pattinson sings, “Honeybun.” Did you see Hail, Caesar!? Samuel reminded me of Alden Ehrenreich’s cowboy character a bit.

David Zellner: Yeah, we liked the idea of a cowboy ballad in the movie. I like Ricky Nelson a lot and I love his song in Rio Bravo, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.” That movie is crazy because they play like two songs in a row. They play the whole song and you are surprised they play the complete song, and then they are like, hey, let’s play another one and they play a second song! And it’s so entertaining. I just love that kind of vibe so it seemed like a fun thing to put campfire song in there. And it fit into all the things he was doing for Penelope.

Nathan Zellner: It’s another cliche of two guys on the trails talking around a campfire. I love David’s expression as he’s watching them because this connection between the two character and everything sets up what’s to come later.

I love the themes you guys touch on. There’s this female empowerment running through the back half of the movie. There’s also the scene with the Native American character and your character [David] with this idea of cultural reappropriation or vampirism. Do guys start with those ideas then whittle them down to fit the script or is it the other way around?

David Zellner: Well, it’s hard to say. It all just happens organically. I remember the middle of it came first. With that scene, even some movies that people love that have the best intentions, they still end up playing up the white savior thing, which is so tiresome. They just kind of deal in extremes where if there’s a Native American character it’s a savage or a noble sage instead of being a regular human somewhere in between. They are both equally offensive, so making fun of that whole white savior thing and cultural vampirism or the way that people mix up appreciation with appropriation and think they are doing them a favor. That’s the thing that’s so condescending too. It’s like, “You are so lucky to have me.” Also, one of the funniest short stories I ever read is this Mark Twain one called A Day at Niagara. It’s so ahead of its time. It was written in 1888 or something like that. It has a similar thing where it has a guy that goes to Niagara Falls and what he perceives as Native Americans selling trinkets, he has a similar kind of expectation of them appreciating him. It’s very funny.

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Talking about audience reaction, I was laughing a lot during the movie, but it also seems like some people are more amused than laughing a lot. As directors, are you hoping for a certain reaction people or it’s whatever comes?

Nathan Zellner: Well, certain shots for sure.

David Zellner: Yeah, there are certain parts where you are hoping for a big laugh.

Nathan Zellner: Some of it is just some details and stuff that it’s great if people react to it really broadly, or if it’s something subconsciously that leads to a bigger laugh later, or what would be a win reaction for us, when people start thinking back at the end of the movie and they start thinking about how things added up and little things…

David Zellner: The cumulative effect.

Nathan Zellner: Yeah, something that might have been small or not highlighted, [you think] “Oh, that’s why they said that earlier” and that’s ridiculous or funny.

Yeah, I was laughing the next day about the shot of Robert Pattinson going behind the outhouse and just staying back there the whole time.

[All laugh.]

David Zellner: Yeah, elements of physical comedy and sometimes it’s just funny when there’s stuff happening off screen and you don’t know exactly.

Nathan Zellner: Yeah, where there’s this huge action moment with Parson Henry and then you realize, yeah, Samuel is just checked out for a little bit. He’s just frozen in fear, but the’s definitely doing what he’s supposed to be doing.

Is there any other genre that you think is deserving of a revisionist take on it?

David Zellner: Oh, it’d be fun to do more westerns. Each thing we’ve made it’s as if it’s going to be the last thing we do. There’s some sci-fi projects we’d like to do. It’s fun to not always play with genre, but it’s great to use that as a foundation and deviate from it. Some of it is intentional and some of it isn’t. We love westerns and as you’re writing things just end up naturally going a certain direction. Some of it is calculated and intentional and some of it just gravitates based on our sensibilities.

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Damsel premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

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Matt Walsh & Thomas Lennon on the Peculiar State of Comedy, Their 20-Year History, and Auditioning for Clint Eastwood

Written by Joshua Encinias, February 1, 2018 at 4:09 pm 

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Neither a pun-based title or hagiography, A Futile and Stupid Gesture follows the caustic rise of National Lampoon from Harvard to newspaper stands to radio, TV, and film. Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) and Douglas Kenney (Will Forte) nurtured a new generation of comedians who found their way to Saturday Night Live, including Michael O’Donoghue (Thomas Lennon), the show’s first head writer. The Lampoon’s shenanigans were bankrolled by Matty Simmons (Matt Walsh), the American entrepreneur behind Weight Watchers.

We spoke Lennon and Walsh during this year’s Sundance Film Festival where the film debuted. The actors talk about competition between their comedy groups (Lennon was in The State and Walsh in the Upright Citizens Brigade), Walsh’s SAG awards speech for Veep and capturing the essence of O’Donoghue and Simmons.

For a majority of the conversation, the pair tackle National Lampoon’s un-P.C. humor and why it’s worth celebrating in 2018.

Matt, congratulations on Veep’s SAG award. Did you make your speech up on the spot?

Matt Walsh: No, that was a whole to-do. They told me that if we won, which of course we didn’t think we were going to, I was going to be the spokesman. So there was a bunch of back and forth between me, Dave Mandel, and Julia, who was at home. Just running it by her and making sure she was good with it too. So there was a lot of nervous energy that went into that. I give myself a B.

Lennon: I’m giving it an A. I’m familiar with your oeuvre and I love it.

Walsh: Nothing new. It was my oeuvre.

Thomas, in the movie you’re clearly doing an impression of Michael O’Donoghue. But Matt, most people wouldn’t know what Matty Simmons looks like, much less what he sounds like. How did you come up with him as a character?

Walsh: I read a tremendous of source material once I knew I was doing it. There’s documentaries and books, so I read all that. But I had a two-hour phone call with him when I had a layover in an airport. I tried to play him as described in the script, as a macher, which is a yiddish term for a mover and a shaker. So after talking to Matty, I think he fancies himself very funny because he wrote jokes for the old comics back in the day. So I tried to play him as the adult in the room but also somebody who felt he was as funny as these young whippersnappers.

When I was watching the movie, I was like oh my god, these National Lampoon jokes would be crucified today.

Lennon: It was interesting because here at Sundance we did a live National Lampoon Radio Hour last night. We were going through all of the scripts and there was a lot of times we’re like, ‘Oh wow, this just won’t play right now, we can’t do this.”

Walsh: Obviously it’s a historical story. So, there was a time when things were like that.

I mean, isn’t the whole thing about National Lampoon is that there was a time where their humor was uncouth, but they did it anyway?

Lennon: I think they were trying to push people’s buttons and almost all the time. I think that’s why I was not really permitted to see it very much because I think the magazine fell in the category of like Playboy. There’s actually a lot of nudity and the humor, especially the O’Donoghue stuff when we were recreating it, like the Vietnamese baby book, that was one of the bleakest scenes. I think some sort of stuff was like just very explicitly to push buttons first and then to be funny later.

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Do you think there’s a place for that kind of un-P.C. humor on a mass scale today?

Lennon: You know, I think everything like this tends to fall on a case by case basis. Funny stuff will survive if it’s inherently really funny. And I also think it has a tremendous amount to do with the tone. Some of the 70s stuff in tone feels pretty unenlightened, would be the best way to describe. It feels little unenlightened sometimes. And yet, I feel for the most part, even when they’re doing and saying things we wouldn’t say now, generally the tone is meant to be upbeat and not hateful. But it doesn’t all hold up some and of it does.

Walsh: I feel like the comedy now… my kids make fun of things they’ve never seen. So they’re seeing a parody of Casablanca. So they already assume Casablanca is no good. It’s a weird time for comedy for me. What I see kids watching is like a mini parody or everything is turned into a meme, but they don’t know the source material. It’ll be interesting. When we were little kids, Bugs Bunny would often go meet Peter Lorre for some reason and I never knew what the fuck was going on.

The movie is interesting because it straddles being a narrative comedy but it’s also like, ‘Just put some wigs on an actor and pretend it’s a documentary’. How do you think David Wain weaved these different ways of making the movie?

Lennon: I think the cleverness of Martin Mull playing an older, fictionalized Doug was the secret to cracking the whole movie because with a lot of this stuff you have to be able to step outside of the narrative to explain things. I think brings both a lot of honesty to the movie and also it adds a whole other level of funniness.

Walsh: I think David’s sensibility is always about breaking the fourth wall and breaking things down or commenting on things a little bit. So I think it plays into his strengths as well. Not a great answer.

Lennon: It was a pretty good answer. Let the people judge.

When The State and Upright Citizens Brigade were starting out, did you guys know each other?

Lennon: Yes, and it’s interesting because there were a lot of other sketch groups around the time and the State, certainly, we actively behaved like a gang. I mean we were rough. I mean, in the State, there were punches thrown in group meetings, chairs were smashed. We were really were really high on ourselves. So we loved see other groups come and go and then the Upright Citizens Brigade came by and it was unfortunate that we would all become such good friends because they were so fucking good and we were like, oh man. Generally when you see somebody like that, your first feeling isn’t ‘I’m so happy for them that they’re they’re amazing.’

Walsh: You would be like, who are these guys, they’re not very good. It is very competitive.

Lennon: We had to be friends with you because you were so good.

Walsh: We ended up doing dumb shows together.

Lennon: I’ve known Matt Walsh here since 1996. By the time I met him, I knew David Wain for eight years already. Yeah, we were certainly very curious about the UCB, a little bit envious, a little bit competitive with others. There were groups that you could tell the dedication levels of each member was one million percent. That they were either going to do this or nothing.

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By the time you guys were in your respective groups, I think Michael O’Donoghue was ill. Had you followed his career?

Lennon: He had almost passed away when I met Matt. I knew remarkably little about him until the film came up. I was a tiny bit aware of Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video special that he did, I guess I’d seen it one time, but I thought it was kind of scary. He loved to do stuff that was scary and disarming and inappropriate and weird, but I was not super aware of him. I studied them a lot for the movie obviously. I’m trying to do his physicalities and his voice as closely as I can. I learned he suffered from terrible terrible migraines his whole life, which eventually he died of an aneurysm. And I think if you look at his career and you think this guy had a horrible, painful ringing in his head most of the time, it underscores the work in an interesting way. But I also I’ve been told he was an incredibly sweet guy if you knew him. Martin Mull knew him, Lorraine Newman said he was one of the sweetest people to her. I think he also loved to cultivate a persona of being a totally volatile crazy person.

Matt, the scene where Doug pushes Matty through the glass door, did happened in real life? And did you do that stunt?

Walsh: It did happen and I wanted to do the stunt but David said no.

Lennon: It was crazy dangerous. You would have died. But rightfully so they didn’t let you do it because it gave a stunt man a job. I was stressed out because I was standing in front of the door when they did it.

Thomas, what was it like working with Clint Eastwood on The 15:17 to Paris?

Lennon: Oh my God. So I was certainly nervous about it because he has this much larger than life persona. I auditioned for that film like every other actor who’s in it. That’s what everyone does for a Clint Eastwood film. You go into his office with his casting people and there’s a the giant poster on the wall of the barrel of a .45 that says “Go ahead, make my day.” There’s a gun barrel pointed at you while you’re reading for Clint Eastwood. I was certainly very nervous and got to set and we laughed all day long. It was so fun and funny.

Walsh: Really?

Lennon: Yeah. I always bring my guitar to set because there’s so much downtime. So there was a turn around and we were sitting in this office and Clint came in and it was only me and him. And so I was guess I’ll keep playing guitar. And then he bobbed his head for a little bit and then we talked about music for about twenty minutes and his son who’s a bass player in Paris. Then I played him The Smiths’ “The Headmaster Ritual.” I got to play a Smiths’ song for Clint Eastwood and he seemed to really enjoy it, but I never thought I’d spend any part of my life playing The Smiths for Clint Eastwood. He was a pure delight to work with.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is now on Netflix.

Bill Morrison on ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time,’ Primitive Cinema, and the Theatrical Experience

Written by Dan Mecca, January 30, 2018 at 2:11 pm 

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Make no mistake, filmmaker Bill Morrison is not a man trapped in the past. Though he deals in celluloid from another time, his work bridges the gap between then and now. Dawson City: Frozen Time, Morrison’s critically-acclaimed documentary, tells the story of a treasure trove of lost silent cinema discovered in Dawson City, Canada under a swimming pool. From these slivers of nitrate film comes something grand. Aided by a remarkable score from Alex Somers of Sigur Rós, Morrison connects the history of film with the history of life in North America. Political movements, sports scandals, heinous fires (some caused by the flammable celluloid itself), and countless other moments captured in time. It appeared on multiple Top 10 of 2017 lists for us here at The Film Stage, sitting atop my own. Compelled to have a conversation with Morrison, the filmmaker was kind enough to chat with us for a good long while on his artistic beginnings, creative motivations and making “real” movies.

The Film Stage: How do you find yourself doing what you’re doing? Recovering and researching film, then making your own work from these discoveries.

Bill Morrison: Yeah, how did we get here, right? I guess I went down my own rabbit hole, you know? It started with a fascination with how early cinema could… we have early cinema. You can’t say we have early literature, or early painting. From that, I became interested in first how is primitive man depicted in primitive cinema, and the idea is that we’ve grown with cinema, we’ve changed with cinema, and cinema has changed us. The way we talk, and the way we dream, and even tell stories and think. What does the modern cinema man look like versus the primitive cinema man? I guess that got me into trying to collect as much, and I started working with a theater company relatively early… building out cinema backdrops for theater. Which I had very loose guidelines, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted, which often comes hand-in-hand with no budget, you know? It’s like you can do whatever you want, we’re just not going to pay you for it, but it did have a structure, a deadline, a context, a community of people to go out with for beers after the opening of shows. It was a devoted amount of people. It was good especially coming out of art school to jump in with a community and get my stuff out there, and very quickly it happened that this theater group that I was working with, Ridge, was working with a composer who fancied himself a protégé of Philip Glass, and I very quickly met Phil, and then [became familiar] with the entire New York downtown music scene within a matter of years.

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I was doing my early stuff with Ridge [Theater] in 1990…I was looking for found footage and public domain footage for the theatrical pieces, and so I started grabbing whatever was cheap and free, and rights-free.

Where were you going for the footage?

For primitive cinema, I went to the Library of Congress. That stuff is so cheap to get 16-millimeter prints made that it was easier to just look at a title and hope that it was cool and order it rather than try to go through any kind of a pre-screener thing.

Back then it was even more of a process to research I imagine, right?

You’d have the brown book with the Kemp Niver book, and then you’d fax the number and send a money order or something to Washington D.C., and some six weeks later a stack of prints, some with this god-awful footage, stuff that nobody had looked at.

Fascinating.

I was interested that it had gone through this intermediary stage. That it had been shot God knows how long ago, and then transferred to paper, and then sat in a vault in the Library of Congress where it was actually exposed to the elements.

There probably wasn’t proper storage happening…

No, certainly not. If it was paper [storage], but I guess rats were in there, and it was rain and stuff. Eventually, poorly transferred to 16mm frame by frame in the mid-century, and this is what we were looking at however. At that point, I think there was no love lost between the technician doing that job, though I think some of it they’re tough original source material to work with, but I think to their credit Library of Congress is trying to go through and scan the stuff. But that was a real crapshoot back then, and sometimes we got crazy stuff, and sometimes we got terrible stuff.

You found some gems, I bet, too.

We found some gems too. I worked with that with Ridge for a few years, and around that time Lyrical Nitrate [by Peter Delpeut] came out, I was like, ‘Wow, so nitrate’s the gem, it’s going to keep moving and changing on its own.’ I didn’t get my hands on it probably for another seven or eight years, but eventually I made The Film of Her, which was about the paper print collection, and kind of a predecessor to Dawson City in terms of just being a kind of a proof of theory that you could use an ancient collection to tell its own story.

It does feel like Dawson City is what you’ve been working towards in a way, some kind of culmination.

It contained a lot of ideas that I was interested in all along, and I certainly always thought I was going to make a Dawson City movie. I didn’t know it would take me this long to make it, but I’m glad it did because I’ve made a lot of movies since [1996], and the technology has caught up so there’s such a thing as a 4K scanner, and I can see all of these incredible films.

Music is so essential in all of your films. I read somewhere that you will sometimes let the composers make the music and then you’ll edit to what they do?

It’s true, but I think what gets overlooked is the original idea is mine. I’m saying [to the composer] to go off and write music about X, I’m going to go off and make a film about X, and I’m not going to tell you how to write music because you’re a genius, and I want you to do it completely on your own terms, but this is roughly the amount of time we need, and I’m going to go off and make the film I’m going to make, and you’re not going to say anything about that. Then at the end, when your music is organically fixed, then I feel like I have a more malleable medium to work with, and I can cut to the beat. Sometimes I feel it to be lost when people say dismissively that I cut to music, because in fact the original idea is mine, and that’s what’s driving the project, so I am the director. With all these projects the seed idea, the title, all of it–well, not always the title because sometimes the title’s theirs–but the seed idea and the meaning I feel like at least the literal narrative meaning that people are going to take out of it is derived from the film, whereas the emotional meaning could be derived from either.

It’s interesting after going back and watching everything and then re-watching Dawson City, the tone of the film feels so unique to the rest of your work. As much as it feels like a culmination and something you’re driving at, it feels meditative almost.

I think Alex and Jonsi, who was originally part of the project, were fans of Decasia and decayed film. That’s what they knew, and they were hoping I was making another Decasia basically. I said there will be decayed footage in this, however that’s not the point. I don’t think they ever really believed me until they saw a rough cut. Very early on, and this was just pure coincidence because I had been in touch with their management, there had been some talk about bringing Decasia out on tour with Sigur Ros like in 2013. I think what they had hoped was that they could bring in another electronic artist who would re-score Decasia as a pre-show thing. The deal I have with [Decasia composer] Michael Gordon is that people can’t do that. When I put my foot down, they were like okay, then maybe we’ll show it before the live act that would have re-scored it, and then have the concert. I was like that’s probably not going to happen, but let’s go down that road together and sure enough it didn’t happen. As with things that don’t happen, you say amicably maybe something else is out there.

What they probably didn’t count on is that I was going to come back and say how about this. Their management said maybe not for the whole band, but Jonsi and Alex are looking for something. As it happened, Sigur Rós was on tour, and they did a stop at the Ottawa Senators’ hockey rink while I was in Ottawa researching Dawson City, maybe during the first days. I described to them what I saw, and maybe a month later they came over to my place [in New York City] and they looked at it. Now two years went by before I had a rough cut, but they in a very short time turned around 20, 25 minutes of this beautiful spec music, really inspirational and guiding. It changed how I thought of the mood and pacing of the film in a certain way. I cut to that and repeated it, and used their 2009 record Rice Boy Sleeps as scratch track… I think if you put Rice Boy Sleeps on [with Dawson City] you might see something interesting. Ultimately Jonsi had gone off on tour again by the time 2016 rolled around, and Alex was good to go.

Oh, okay, so then Alex just kind of owned it.

Yeah.

So this is very specific, but of all of your films that I’ve been catching up with in preparation for this interview, the one that I’ve loved the most is The Mesmerist. It’s short, fifteen minutes or so, and is fascinating on its own, and then after I watched it I went back and I watched The Bells [the original film from which The Mesmerist is based].

It’s in parts on YouTube.

You can find it, yeah. So I did try to watch some of it, and I know that Light Is Calling also comes from a scene from The Bells, and what I can’t help always thinking about when I watch your films is this perspective that’s so interesting where I’m watching The Mesmerist and I love it because I’m watching a movie that feels new to me because it is, and it’s with [Lionel] Barrymore, and [Boris] Karloff. I’m watching it, and it is its own new thing, but then I think that it’s part of this other movie that’s barely available. And then you read what that movie [The Bells]  is and you try to watch it, and you learn that [the character of] the mesmerist (played by Karloff) is the climax, but in your movie, it’s the wraparound story, it’s the framework. It makes the whole narrative different, and informs everything…which brings me back to Dawson City and why it feels like a time machine, but also so current. You’re watching the young actress dance at the end of [Dawson City], and it feels so fresh.

She’s actually dancing in support of the suffragist movement, so she’s dancing in support of women’s rights, which it could be incredibly timely. It’s the “Me Too” moment, you know?

It’s so amazing. With The Mesmerist, your film feels like such a stark introspective guilt-ridden thing with Barrymore’s character. I feel like The Bells, from what I’ve seen of it, it’s more traditional…

Ultimately, [The Bells] has a happy ending. Despite the fact that [Barrymore’s character] killed a Jewish guy, his house’s problems are solved in the end. Even if he’s wracked with guilt, the daughter is married off happily, the couple that you see in Light is Calling, and then the oppressive landlord’s out of the picture. He’s set everything right through this murder, which is wrong.

It’s so wrong.

It’s so wrong, right? And there’s something very dark about that because he also drags this Jewish corpse into an incinerator in 1928.

Unbelievable. That movie really just hit me watching it. And is that something that you just find while researching? The Bells I mean?

Yeah, absolutely. The Mesmerist and Light is Calling came out of this same brilliant print from the Library of Congress.

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