Few working DPs can boast as muscular an interplay between feature films, commercials, and music videos as Natasha Braier, whose art-house creds run from the exalted (In the City of Sylvia) to the debated (The Neon Demon), whose more mainstream endeavors (Honey Boy, Gloria Bell) don’t even slightly ring as sell-out gigs, and whose shorter-form works pair her with some of the biggest brands (Hennessy, Nike, Apple) and most-respected major-label artists (FKA twigs, Rihanna, James Blake). It is, frankly, exhausting to weigh, and a conversation with her appropriately expands and contracts from moment to moment.
Present at this year’s EnergaCAMERIMAGE as head of their music-video jury, Braier leads one of the festival’s most in-demand events. We sat down for an interview on the nature of shooting videos, commercials, films, and why putting anything–people or forms–into boxes only breeds trouble.
Tell me about the prep process on a video vs. prep process on a film, and how the compression of time affects you.
You usually don’t have any prep on a video. You go one day to the location scout, and that’s all the prep you get. Most of the time, I find that, in music videos, we have a prep, we figure something out, and it’s a great playground to experiment on the day, new techniques, be a lot more playful because of the nature of the format–it wants different textures and colors to feel like you’ve shot as many situations as possible for cutting–so you have a lot more room to try different stuff and be bolder, more experimental. I love that, to get to play.
What’s the interplay, typically, between a director and artist on crafting a sensibility, and how do you factor in as a third piece?
Most of the time, the musician made their choices, in terms of the visual style or whole concept of the film, beforehand by choosing a specific director, by conversations with the director, so when I get involved, it’s really just me and the director. The musician will just show up on the day and do their thing. It’s not a three-way conversation so much–definitely not in terms of the visual. I am, of course, working with the director for whatever is the vision they had, but when people call me for something, they are calling me because of my work and imagining what I can do with that material, giving me total freedom to come in as an artist and I do my thing.
I’m working for them, of course, at the service of that original vision, but bringing my take on it. Once I’m doing that I’m very free to experiment and bring my thing to the game. I’m not “in service” like I could be on a commercial, where I have to do something very specific where everyone is happy. It’s always more exciting in that way, because it’s that playground of experimentation and having a play date with that artist–I’m bringing this to the table, you’re bringing this, being experimental and poetic and not have to worry about reality or narration. After Neon Demon, when I’m doing music videos, it’s a feast of color and crazy shit because they want me to do all that stuff. I can try all my new ideas and over-the-top stuff that I maybe won’t do in a movie.
This is possibly a superficial response to that, but it seems, plainly, more fun.
Yeah. It’s not a “grown-up” thing. On film, everyone has to survive the shoot. It’s like a marathon: four-to-eight weeks, or ten weeks; you have to tell a story; you have certain responsibilities. A music video is, “Get all these tools, let’s just do something great.” It’s usually challenging in terms of: you don’t have a lot of money or time… which, most of the movies I choose also, because I choose “the artist” that has the stories I’m attracted to. Videos are getting less and less money because, of course, artists are not making money with selling records like they used to, so it’s changing a lot. It’s still been the playground. I think you could compare it with poetry: if you have to write a novel, it’s hard work because it has to have a coherence. But if you’re just having a coffee here and I’m just writing a poem in a few hours, it’s a totally different way of expressing yourself.
Every prep is very different. I like to analyze the script a lot. Argentinians, we’re very intellectual, we like to analyze, everyone goes to the shrink, and my parents are both shrinks, so I really love to understand the script and understand the director’s point-of-view in every scene, so I can see it from all possible windows. Where are they standing? What is this scene for you: anger, abandonment? I like to go through the script and ask if they can define each scene in a line. Before we talk about shots or anything, to talk about the feelings and emotions. Why is this scene here? Why is he talking from here to there? In that process, I kind of get to know them, their lives.
It’s pretty painful to discover a terrible video for a song you love–it feels like you had an entirely different connection than the artist. So when you’re commissioned, how do you start imagining a video?
Because I come late in the process, I get the song and director’s treatment, so the director already thought about the world. I’m bringing my light and camera, and they’ve invented the world that goes with the song. So that translation thing is really happening with them. If I get the package and feel something with the song, with the visuals–I can see how they go together, what I can bring to the table–then I’m like, “Yeah, I want to do it.” If I don’t feel inspired by it–the visual proposal, the song, how they go together–I will say no. You can’t force these things. You can’t force yourself to write a poem if you’re not inspired. You normally just get an email with the elements: this director, this song, this world they presented.
So you’re on the music-video jury.
Yeah. Well, today. Like, I haven’t done any work yet. Today we’re going to see anything.
Oh. You haven’t seen them yet.
Which is obviously so different from the standard day-to-day, let-it-germinate process.
But music videos are different, right? They’re short and you don’t need to reflect too much.
Is there anything you might especially value when you’re watching everything in a theater tonight? What will help you decide quickly?
The “deciding” thing is so weird because I’ve been on juries before and judged many, many times, and it’s so subjective, and most of the time you don’t agree with the rewards. That’s the more uncomfortable part: you go in a room, decide, compromise, and think differently. It’s not so pleasant, actually, but what is super-nurturing is sitting down in a cinema now and seeing the best work of this year’s poetry: people who were painting with light and being quite free to do a very pure, artistic expression. It’s like going to a very nice restaurant where they offer you new dishes to try and taste. I think that’s going to be a good feast.
You’ve implied commercials are limiting.
Some of them.
Can you name some examples where the expressions were freer?
Yeah, lots. I mean, I try to choose the ones that are still inspiring and where I can still do cool stuff–it just doesn’t happen every week. Sometimes you have amazing artistic options with commercials, sometimes you’re just going to be, like, flexing your muscle and making money and helping your crew to make money so they can come to do Honey Boy with you for very little fee. It’s a balancing act, but you always try to find what is more exciting for you because you want to be excited every day you go to set. So half of the stuff I do is very exciting, still.
For example, right after Neon Demon I did this Hennessy commercial with Nic. It was a very open brief because people want to work with Nic and let him do whatever he wants. After Neon Demon, we spent two years doing commercials around the world and having a lot of fun. So all the money we didn’t make with Neon Demon, we’re like, “Okay, now we’re getting paid to have fun. This is good.” So Hennessy said, “You have these five flavors. Find whatever images.” It was fire, flame, wood touches, so we sat down in Italy, in Cinecitta, and said, “Let’s brainstorm what we can do. ‘Wood touches’… okay, let’s explode some trees. Awesome.” We just came up with images inspired by the flavors and what we could do with resources we had. It was amazing and we had so much time.
I feel like a commercial is a piece of poetry. Nic’s mind and my mind after dancing together in Neon Demon for a few months, just going and having this playground like, “Okay, kids, you can have any toy you want.” Sometimes you get those and it’s amazing and like, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid so much per day to do this.” And sometimes you’re doing, whatever, an insurance commercial, because you have one week off and you want to come back to your own bed at night and work with your friends.
Did you get free Hennessy?
That’s a shame.
Yeah. I don’t drink alcohol, anyway.
Oh, so that works out fine.
Sometimes you get Nike shoes.
Are you wearing Nikes right now?
Winding Refn has a reputation for being very serious and self-involved, but I tap into the work almost entirely through a comedic lens. I’m curious if, as a close collaborator, your impression of his work squares with that at all.
Yeah, totally. I think a lot of people don’t get him, and definitely a lot of people didn’t get Neon Demon. It was quite disappointing, because we were very proud of the process and it was sad to see… in Europe, it was seen as a masterpiece. In America, they didn’t say “I didn’t get it.” They said, “I didn’t like it.” Also, Nic is always interesting in polarizations, so it’s the best thing that could happen, having people who really love it and people who really hate it. This is the one thing that he hates, the middle ground. In that sense it was still a good response. But yeah: it’s just fascinating how many in America didn’t get the humor, the irony that we were using those things of the fashion world in a sophisticated way to criticize themselves and laugh about it, and they are just so “in it” that they couldn’t see that. That’s the reality.
Last year you presented The Neon Demon at Film at Lincoln Center’s “Female Gaze” series, which focused on women DPs, and your filmography shows a fascinating interplay between male and female creative roles. Honey Boy, your newest film, is a woman directing a man’s autobiography.
Neon Demon is by a man and about women.
In the City of Sylvia is a movie by a man and about a man who, seemingly, only looks at women.
So a) how important are these concepts when choosing a project, or b) do you just not want to make that a thing, and you’re an artist who wants to work without being put in a box?
I definitely don’t make my choices based on that; I just resonate with artists. It’s interesting, the projects you mentioned. The Rover is by a man and about men; Somers Town is about men and directed by a man. Maybe if you deeply analyze each choice–in therapy or by a film critic–you might see an underlying, common thing, and you might say, “Well, because she’s a woman, Jewish, Latina, immigrated to different countries since she was a teenager, she resonates with all these specific things,” then you might find a common thing and it would make sense. But it’s an unconscious thing. Nothing consciously drives me, like, “Yeah, she’s a woman doing a male-toxicity story.” I just read a script and either feel it in my stomach or not, and I resonate with a director or not. The intrinsic mechanics of why that happens are not something I control or manipulate.
I feel like my connection with directors goes beyond gender. At the same time, you could say that Sebastián Lelio and Nic Refn are, in very different ways, connected with their feminine energy, with a feminine side, so they have a special sensibility. Sebastián has that in all his films about women and grew up surrounded by women, so he’s an amazing artist in terms of portraying female characters. Nic’s filmography has been about men, and been very masculine and violent–except Neon Demon. But as a human, he’s a very sensitive artist, so we resonate in that level. David Michôd also: his films are all very masculine but he’s a very sensitive soul. I just resonate with people. I don’t care about their genitals. [Laughs.] Or sexual preferences.
I think people need to classify things, still. We think we’re very advanced as humans, but we’re not, and people need to put things in boxes to understand and decodify the experiences of people. So you can always do that game and find boxes that make sense, but I think we’re more complex than that. You can always find 20,000 reasons for me to resonate with you or 20,000 reasons for me not to resonate with you. So I don’t know. Tomorrow we’re having the “Diversity Panel” and I’m there with Bradford [Young], who’s probably the contemporary I respect and admire the most, and I think this love is very mutual between us. He’s a black man, I’m a Latina woman from South America–our struggles we carry in our DNA are totally different, yet probably the same struggle for freedom for generations and generations. Maybe we resonate on that level, but I also resonate with a lot of white males [Laughs] which are very close to me on a soul level.
I think we’re all just humans, and humans have an open heart and empathy for other humans, and as an artist in this business, there’s a lot of chances we’ll resonate with each other. It’s not an accountant or police officer; it’s just an artist trying to express something, so it’s putting a lot in the cocktails for us to have together.
Honey Boy is now in theaters and screened at EnergaCAMERIMAGE.
Parasite is a film about families as much as it is about class resentment. As avatars of capitalism, the Parks and the Kims’ codependence sheds light on its systemic mutual toxicity. Yet just as compelling as the parasitic relationships in these families—and what they reveal about the greedy instincts that have been socially programmed into our psyches— is how the distinct nature of their intra-familial dynamics also speak to the larger social forces they exist within. In this light, director Bong Joon-ho is asking us to consider the extent to which capitalism itself cleaves or fortifies the bonds of familial love—suggesting that the greater the class resentment, the stronger the bond.
And strong are the Kim family ties indeed. Their scruffy and clamorous energy invokes a kinship that’s weathered its fair share of hardships, and whose resilience functions as a suit of armor against a ruthless and obscenely unequal social landscape. At the same time, the Kims’ place at the bottom rung of the economic ladder shouldn’t be taken as a lack of skill or talent on their part—we see, in fact, that Mrs. Kim used to be a prize-winning runner, not to mention brother Ki-woo’s university-level English proficiency and sister Ki-jung’s creative instincts (in addition to her surprising aptitude as an art tutor). The Kim siblings put these skills to good use when they are hired by the nouveau riche Parks, and their mix of competence and con-artistry humorously exposes the hollow fallacies of a credential-obsessed workforce (after all, who hasn’t been frustrated with the conundrum of needing experience to get a job, only to need that job to get experience?). Perhaps, Bong posits, the only way this impossible, maddening and rigged meritocratic cycle can be broken amidst a storm of dejection is by supplementing skill with sheer luck, steadfast resourcefulness, and savvy hustling.
Ki-woo and Ki-jung possess these qualities in spades—qualities that incidentally bear resemblance to the real-life professional trajectories of the young actors who play them: Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam, respectively. Born in Seoul, Choi moved with his family to Canada at the age of 11, and as a young man, he set his sights on pursuing a career as a theater director. A friend of his suggested he try his hand at acting as a primer, though Choi faced his fair share of rejection. It wasn’t until he returned to Korea with his family 10 years later that his luck began to change, and soon enough he landed the first part he auditioned for, on the 2011 series The Duo. For the next 6 years, Choi would go on to act mostly in Korean television dramas, until a starring vehicle came along that cemented him as an actor to watch out for; 2014’s Set Me Free (directed by Kim Tae-yong), a gritty and tortured turn for which he won the Blue Dragon award, as well as Actor of the Year at the Busan International Film Festival. Parasite marks the 29-year-old’s second collaboration with Bong following 2017’s Okja, and his second collaboration with co-star Song Kang-ho following Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016’s zombie drama Train to Busan.
Park So-dam also saw her career take off following awards recognition, though it too was a bumpy road to get there. In 2004, she began acting in small roles here and there, facing 17 rejections before her big break came along in 2015’s The Black Priests; the tale of a schoolgirl’s demonic possession that won Park the Newcomer Prize at the 52nd Baeksang Arts Awards. The 28-year-old’s filmography has earned her the nickname “The Jewel of Indie Films” in her native South Korea—a filmography that like Choi, includes a previous collaboration with Mr. Song, in 2015’s The Throne, for which the two played husband and wife (!).
Here, Choi and Park—who like Ki-woo and Ki-jung, have an intimate understanding of what it’s like to take rejection with a grain of salt in a competitive labor market—reflect on how they became involved in Parasite, their on and off-screen relationship with “Papa” Song, and learning to navigate Korea’s strict culture of generational respect in preparation for this project.
How did you each come on board this project? Woo-shik, I read somewhere that you agreed to do Parasite before even knowing its premise? I imagine there was a lot of trust and good faith between you and Mr. Bong following Okja.
Choi: One day on the set of Okja, Bong came up to me and told me to “stay in shape.” Confused, I initially thought he meant for me to stay muscular, but he was actually telling me to maintain a thin frame. It didn’t occur to me that Bong had me in mind for another project. Even when he approached me with the offer to be in Parasite, I was never actually told whom I would be playing, or anything about the film’s story—I was instead only given a hint, and had to wait for the script. When I finally read it, I remember feeling like I had just gotten off a rollercoaster. I especially loved the dramatic tonal shifts, which are even more dramatic when you consider how most Korean films and shows are written.
So-dam, is it true you thought Mr. Bong was joking when he expressed interest in meeting you?
Park: When I was first approached for this project, I was going through a professional slump and didn’t have representation. I was in the middle of taking a yearlong break from acting, trying to figure out my career, when I received a text from Parasite’s costume designer telling me that Bong was interested in meeting me. At first I didn’t believe it, so much so that I don’t think I even replied to the text. When I finally did meet Bong for the first time, I remember him asking me why I was so suspicious and couldn’t just trust people when they say they want to meet me. [Chuckles.]
Woo-shik, you briefly touched on your initial reaction to the script. Can you both elaborate on what it was like to go into a story like this blindly? As you were reading, what came to mind in terms of how you would navigate the film’s curveballs, tonal shifts, and individual character arcs?
Choi: You know those moments where you say to yourself, “Okay, I have to do this”—kind of like a pep talk? At first I didn’t realize Ki-woo played such a big role within the family, and I had to try to make [pauses]—okay, in Korean culture, younger generations have to be really polite to their elders, almost to the point where the politeness becomes uncomfortable. For this reason, it’s often really difficult for younger Koreans to approach older generations, and preparing to play Ki-woo meant learning how to break down those barriers in order to flesh out the character with Song, and our father/son relationship. Thankfully, it actually wasn’t very difficult, because in Korea, there are no trailers on movie sets, and actors are grouped into one green room. So we would just stay in the same room, bonding and developing our characters together over casual drinks, like a family. Every time I came across a problem or question in the script, Song Kang-ho was right there to give me advice, and I think that worked well.
Park: The script’s speed and the fast-paced velocity of its different scenarios were definitely most impressive, but the tonal shifts also felt very true to life for me. Life isn’t just a comedy or a single genre, and you really don’t know what’s going to happen in the next five minutes. This is why Parasite’s story felt very life-like, and I really wanted to talk with the other actors to discuss how they felt about it. I was also eager to discuss the film with audiences, to learn what their experience with the story was, and what they thought after watching it.
What’s it like to work with an actor like Song? To what extent did acting with him inform your own craft?
Park: Song and I had previously worked together on a film called The Throne. In fact, we played a married couple with two kids together! [Laughs] Our characters actually had a very deep relationship, and I remember how amazing it was getting to learn from Song first-hand. He made it clear that he wanted me to continue acting, to get more work and further develop my craft and individuality. To be honest, The Throne didn’t provide much opportunity for us to bond one-on-one with eye contact, due to the mandates of the script and the lack of time we had together on set. But with Parasite, we were able to make a lot of eye contact during most of its shooting, and it all felt so unreal and cathartic. Just seeing him as a three-dimensional person standing in front of me in real life was unreal. The way Song acts, no two takes are ever the same. He always brings something different, and I saw how he experiments and tries everything out even in a single scene, which was very professional and something I looked up to.
Woo-shik, you and Song previously worked together on Train to Busan, and I’m curious how that experience informed your collaboration in Parasite. How did your dynamic as screen partners evolve, and what did you learn from him as an actor?
Choi: Even now, So-dam and I still call Song our papa. We’ll call him on the phone and say, “Papa, did you have dinner?” [Both chuckle.] As I said, in Korea it’s really difficult to establish inter-generational relationships, because of cultural age differences and the social code that requires unconditional respect towards one’s elders. But Song is really genuine, and not at all strict with these customs. For him, it’s all about the acting, and he really cares about younger Koreans succeeding. Parasite was the ultimate lesson in acting [chuckles]—just by being there with him I learned more on set than I would from any drama school.
Was there any improvisation in the film? Song and I discussed his affinity for improv, so I’m wondering if there were moments where Bong gave you freer reign to experiment with the script?
Choi: Bong wasn’t particularly strict with the script, but once on set, we realized that we didn’t really need to improvise, because the storyboard was so compact that doing anything extra was unnecessary. But even if that had not been the case, Bong wouldn’t have minded that looseness.
Park: I agree with Woo-shik, I found that I didn’t need to improvise anything because of how tight the storyboard was. Bong made it clear that we could have that creative freedom, but every take, detail, conversation, and sentence was so meticulously built into the storyboard that it wasn’t even necessary.
What do you want audiences to know about the Kim family, specifically Ki-woo and Ki-jung?
Choi: Parasite presents very different social classes. There’s a lot of poverty and problems suffered by the Kim family, but their lack of economic security doesn’t stop them from really loving and caring for each other. Yes, we do commit some cons, but they are done in the best interest of the family’s survival. Ki-woo’s family is really loving and always positive. [Chuckles.] And they don’t really think that much about their actions. [Laughs.] I mean, they think about them, but that guilty conscious isn’t quite there, because they don’t really see their actions as “bad” if they’re necessary.
Park: You see that my brother in the film Ki-woo, doesn’t even have his own room and instead sleeps in the living room. I really feel that even if the Kim family had lived in that small basement house all their lives, they’d never be the ones to complain about their situation, or compare themselves to other people. They’re happy with what they have, and don’t think they should necessarily feel bad or ashamed about where they fall within society’s economic scale. I strongly believe that mentally, they’re very independent and healthy. When they first walk into the wealthy Park household, for example, they don’t think, “Wow, we have to be that way, like them.” Rather, it’s more like; “They’re the Parks and we’re the Kims, and we’re very different from each other. It’s not necessarily bad or good, just different.” In that way, I feel like the Kims are much more mentally healthy and emotionally wealthy than you would expect them to be.
How has the film been received in Korea? Have Korean audiences embraced its social themes, and how do you hope Parasite resonates on a global scale?
Choi: Because Parasite takes place in Korean society, and is told through the lens of the country’s distinct social dynamics, I thought, “Would non-Korean audiences understand these cultural differences?” It turns out, most of the film’s problems and messages actually represent global issues, so people just understand and embrace it. However, there were some small differences among audience reactions in Korea relative to other countries. Native speakers, for instance, understand the film’s wordplays since many Korean dark comedies heavily toy with similar wordplay, but about 5 percent of those nuances are lost in the translated subtitles. Still, there’s a global recognition and understanding to the movie’s ideas, which is why I want people to come and enjoy it for themselves. On an individual level, people will respond differently to the various messages it communicates, so it’s exciting to think about the conversations Parasite will inspire for those who see it.
Park: I don’t think there’s one specific message or emotion that everyone should feel as a cohesive group, it’s more about everyone relating to certain parts that feel true to their own life. Like I said, I couldn’t wait for people to watch it and talk about it, so I actually went on my own the day it was released in Korea—I paid for a ticket and everything. [Chuckles.] On my way out, I could hear audiences chat about how they felt, and everything they couldn’t wait to discuss. It was then I knew we had something special, and I felt deeply proud to be a part of it.
Parasite is now in wide release.
Cinematographers collaborating with Martin Scorsese wouldn’t expect a brisk assignment, but even a veteran of Rodrigo Prieto’s sort had plenty to handle with their latest, The Irishman. A 209-minute epic with numerous locations, multiple shooting formats, and, you’ve probably heard, distinct visual effects–it’s tiring just to think about. Prieto is nevertheless casual in his assessment, and our interview at this year’s EnergaCAMERIMAGE covers its scope from both the most specific angle and on a gut level.
For that–and an obligatory question about the short he made with Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Brad Pitt that was never officially released–read on.
The Film Stage: Let’s start at the beginning: The Irishman opens with a tracking shot set to vintage music—not exactly unknown territory for Scorsese. But it surprised and excited me because there’s a jankiness at play: we can detect the footsteps of whoever’s holding the camera, giving this sequence a homemade quality. When and how did that creative decision emerge?
Rodrigo Prieto: It’s interesting you’d say that, because some cinematographers have complained to me about that–well, a cinematographer. I think the intention of that shot, certainly that rhythm, was important to Scorsese. As we were shooting it, he already had the music in his mind, and I believe he was actually listening to it as we shot it. It was tricky for the operator–it was Steadicam–in the sense that when it’s a very linear shot, like the whole beginning down the hallway, it’s very hard to maintain the horizon and all these things. And getting into the second area was technically complicated to get to; we had to build a little ramp. The sort of weaving aspect–or the word you used, “jankiness”–was not totally purposeful, and Scorsese usually complains about Steadicam not being really steady, like a dolly shot, so he’s not a fan, even though he’s used Steadicam classically in some unforgettable shots.
On this one, when we were rehearsing it and it had that quality, he liked it, even though it wasn’t the intention. Even in post-production, as I was color-timing the movie, I remember looking at it and saying, “Maybe we could stabilize it.” Pablo Helman, from visual effects, was there and said, “Yes, I suggested from the very beginning, but Scorsese said, ‘No, I like it.’” He refused to stabilize the shot, and I think it’s because of what you’re describing, precisely: it does feel like someone witnessing this, and the whole narration of the movie is Frank Sheeran talking to someone. Originally, in one version of the script, he was going to be talking to a priest that went out, and as we were shooting it wasn’t clear–because we shot that towards the end of the film–to me who he was talking to. It was only two or three days before we filmed it that Scorsese explained he’d talk to the camera. I think it’s inspired, maybe, a little bit by how the book is written: Frank Sheeran confesses the whole thing to Charles Brandt, the writer of the book, so I think that’s the notion: like he’s talking to the author of the book.
You’ve described Scorsese as non-technical, in the sense that he isn’t specifying, e.g., what lens to use–that it’s more about feeling. After a number of collaborations, are you able to easily discern what onscreen is you and him?
Oh, I can definitely know exactly what was what. Absolutely. To me, in the end, it doesn’t matter so much because I strive to participate in great movies, and whatever contribution I can make–even if people don’t know that’s what the cinematographer proposed–it doesn’t matter. One pet peeve is when people tell me, “Oh, I didn’t like the movie too much, but I loved your cinematography.” What was the point? I was trying to make this cinematography for that movie, not a thing of my own that’s separate. So that collaboration with the director and finding the lens or movement or lighting or color or texture with all the other departments as well, it doesn’t matter who, in the end, had the idea. What matters is the result.
Every director’s very different. For example, Ang Lee is very specific about focal length and exact position of the camera–everything. So that’s his comfort zone. I remember at the beginning, when we did Brokeback Mountain, it was odd; I wasn’t used to that. I was used to, let’s say, more freedom. That’s fine because he has very good taste, so he wasn’t going to propose shots that were bad. With Scorsese, he really does design the movie. He has a very clear sense of the shots, how they will cut together. He really thinks a lot about the editing, and the movement of the camera is really determined by the energy he’s trying to give to that moment and the arc of the drama–again, thinking about how it’s going to be edited. So he really is specific about that, but, within it, I propose the exact shot. I show him with the viewfinder; sometimes I record it on video and show him the first position, the second, “Is this what you’re thinking?” But he won’t say, “Okay, if that’s a 25, give me a 27.” He won’t be like that. He’ll just say, “Give me more energy, be slower, faster, more extreme,” whatever it may be. But he uses that language rather than technical specifics.
One specific talked about much is the “de-aging.” I don’t know if there was a specific term used to describe it.
I would say “de-aging,” probably.
Sequences requiring that are shot digitally.
On the RED Helium.
And others are 35mm.
I was surprised to learn this–after seeing the film, because it felt pretty seamless during. Kind of as The Wolf of Wall Street’s blending of digital and celluloid did, actually. Tell me a bit about the processes of ensuring this.
That certainly was a very important factor in the whole design of the movie. Very early on I felt it had to be shot on film negative. But also, extremely early on–like, the first conversation–was with [visual effects supervisor] Pablo Helman, and he explained how he needed to shoot digitally the visual effects, because with the witness cameras, it’s three cameras to be perfectly synchronized. Also, we had to have them move exactly the same. Three film cameras would’ve been too big for this, so there was kind of a push to do the whole thing digital, but I really insisted the look of the movie had to be film because of the memory aspect of it. Also, Scorsese told me early on that he envisioned a feel of home movies, but he specifically said, “I don’t want it to be shaky handheld or grainy Super 16, that sort of thing.”
So I felt it had to be on film, first of all. Then my discussion with Pablo was, “If we shoot just the visual effects scenes digital and the rest on film, you have to guarantee to me that ILM will help me make them match.” He guaranteed it, and ILM has, obviously, much experience in “graining” CGI for movies, so he had all that. But color was of the essence to me. I came up with a design, because of what Scorsese said of the memory and home-movie aspect, that instead of emulating home movies, maybe we can emulate still photography–amateur still photography. So I did deep research into Kodachrome and Ektachrome. Kodachrome, to me, feels more like the ‘50s–even though it’s been popular for many years beyond–and its colorization is very ‘50s. Ektachrome felt a bit more like a more modern still-photography emulsion. So I thought, “Let’s give the ‘60s an Ektachrome feel.” We developed look-up tables to very closely match the way these emulsions track the color. The trick was to map those colors into the digital camera, the look-up tables, and the dailies of the film camera. It’s color-mapping, and a color scientist, Matthew Tomlinson at Harbor Picture Company. With them I also did the digital intermediate.
So when I tested different digital cameras, the one that reproduced the look-up tables the best and matched color the best was the RED Helium. That’s why I went with that one specifically. Maybe if it had been a different look-up table it would’ve been another camera, but these particular tables match that. Then I changed in the ‘70s and beyond: instead of the memory thing, I decided to go with a look that was a little desaturated color. For that we used an emulation of a process called ENR that was developed in Rome, at Technicolor. It’s a process done with the printing of certain movies; Vittorio Storaro did it on one movie, and I did it on another in Mexico. What you do is skip the bleach process and printing of the film. The result is less color saturation and more contrast. So I did two versions of that. In the early ‘70s it was a light thing–even when they’re in the car on the road trip, it’s an ENR lite, so a slight desaturation but pretty natural. But right after Hoffa was killed, we went to ENR extreme. You remember the scene where the family is watching TV?
That’s kind of drained of color, and so is everything else after–even the nursing home. All of that is very colorless. So, for me, it made sense that the movie, the journey of this guy, is learning about these guys, the mafia, the union, all that. Then, once Hoffa’s dead, all that color goes away.
With all these different formats, effects houses, and processes, how much does Netflix affect post-production? Are you using their resources at all?
Actually, Netflix was very flexible with what we wanted and needed. There was absolutely no intervention in terms of, creatively, notes or anything like that. In the beginning there was this thing about 4K–that’s a requirement–and that’s one reason I tested the Helium, because I hadn’t used that camera and was a little skeptical, frankly. But I said, “Okay, that camera is 4K; let’s see what it looks like.” And I was surprised: it worked very well with the look-up table. Film, of course, is beyond 4K, so that wasn’t an issue. Although, in the beginning, they were, “We don’t do film negative,” but then they were totally okay with it. I definitely think it was worth it.
In post-production, the only thing was: when we were doing the version for television, we did two versions: one is high-dynamic range, and, from that, the regular arrives. I must say it’s pretty exciting. To see the film in high-dynamic range is amazing. You see the richness of the highlights and lowlights; it’s very beautiful. For screen, we did a version–and I don’t know if they’re going to project with this–that’s Dolby Vision, similar to HDR but for the cinema. It’s amazing. I think those are my favorite versions. You really get the rich, deep blacks and the highlights have much more detail. That was the only thing.
Apart from that, we worked at Harbor Picture Company, which I chose, and Yvan Lucas, who I’ve done many movies with, was my color-timer. He approaches color-timing in a sort of simple way, because he started as a photochemical color-timer in France, at Eclair, and that’s how I met him. I try to keep to that philosophy. Once I set up a look-up table, which is equivalent to a print, then, within that, I just do brighter, darker, red, green, blue–the basics of primary color-correction. Then I’ll do some windows and things like that, but I very much try to approach it as if it were photochemical.
Most seeing The Irishman won’t be at the mercy of a theater and projection system, but many home set-ups are especially inadequate. I wonder if you’re concerned about people seeing it on TVs with motion-smoothing, bad calibration, and the like, and not having any control over it.
No, it is a concern, and unfortunately there’s not much you can do about it. Except that there is a push now, when the ASC is participating in that, to be able to have the option on your TV to have an actual cinematic control–a button, basically, where you can see it the way the filmmakers intended. So that takes away all these smoothings. Hopefully that’ll come into play, but it’s always been a tricky thing–even with projection, especially when it was film. The prints are all different, so one reel may be a little green, etc. You maybe will do two or three perfect prints, but beyond that, it’s really hard to control, and it’s kind of frustrating.
But you try to have your control, your main thing, be as accurate as possible. Hopefully all the other monitors and screens will be relatively… but you can’t chase that. I remember, when I was in Mexico, the color-timers would say, “Let’s make the movie the way you like it, and the prints will be three points brighter because all the projectors are dim.” It’s like, “What?! But what if not? Then you have a good projector and it’s super-bright!” So my philosophy is: do your master at your liking and hope for the best.
EnergaCAMERIMAGE is especially good with presentation.
Yes. I just did a little test before the screening and it was great. My wife was here, so I said, “You know what? See it again.” Because we saw it at the premiere and, actually, the premiere at the Chinese Theater was a little dim. So I saw it here and I said, “Monica, see it here.”
What happened to The Audition, the short you made with Scorsese? I thought it was great, but could only ever see it on a horrible YouTube rip.
It’s a mystery to me–partly a mystery–but I do know we made it for this casino. The intention was always kind of internal use for them. It wasn’t, like, a commercial for the audience, but it’s bizarre. There was even a moment where it was going to show in the Venice Film Festival, then they canceled that, so it was kind of mysterious. But it was so much fun, just seeing all these people. And I’m in it. I enjoy acting and I had this little cameo where I go around with a viewfinder and try not to laugh. It was incredible. I mean, I’ve just had so many incredible experiences with Scorsese. I’ve been really lucky with Oliver Stone, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and now Julie Taymor; I just finished a movie with her. So it’s been great to collaborate with these people.
The Irishman is now in limited release and hits Netflix on November 27. See Prieto and crew at work in the b-roll footage above.
Over just four feature films to date, London-born writer-director Joanna Hogg has become a distinct voice in contemporary cinema, crafting quietly austere and deeply personal works that observe the vagaries of the British upper-middle class. Starring Honor Swinton Byrne alongside her more famous mother, Tilda, her latest, titled The Souvenir, picked up the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year and arrived in theaters this past summer via A24. Backed by executive producer Martin Scorsese, the film has already introduced Hogg to a much wider audience and a new legion of fans.
Since the premiere in Park City the director has traveled with the film to festivals in Berlin and, just recently, the 2019 Thessaloniki International Film Festival, while simultaneously working on a follow-up due for release sometime next year. Time, indeed, was at a premium, however Hogg somehow found a few minutes to sit down in the northern Greek port city to talk about her distaste for nostalgia, the movies that influenced her as a young filmmaker, replacing Robert Pattinson, and where she’s at with her much-anticipated sequel.
The Film Stage: I was lucky enough to speak with Albert Serra this week and he mentioned that even though his films are set so far in the past he tries to “work in the present, psychologically.” And it was something I thought about when I watched The Souvenir again yesterday. Is that something you would relate to?
Joanna Hogg: Yes, very much. It’s a nice way of putting it actually. Yes, because of the way that I work I’m open to so much that’s happening in the present, it’s not possible to bring something from the past. And I’m not interested in something past; something past is not alive anymore. I want something alive, in the moment.
Does it make it more challenging in that way?
It does, because there’s sometimes a conflict between my idea of the past and how it was and a memory of something and what’s presented in front of me. And then I think it’s that tension between the two–my memory and having to grasp something new–that’s interesting.
In your earlier film Exhibition, the main character is asked by a friend if she’s worried about selling her house because she is nostalgic for it, to which the character kind of balks. Would you say you’re not such a fan of nostalgia?
Exactly, it’s something I’m always trying to avoid–which is obviously challenging with a film like The Souvenir which sort of suggests a certain nostalgia, but I didn’t want to be nostalgic in my approach. And in my approach to the aesthetic of that time I wanted to feel very much rooted in the present but I was using, actually, footage and images from that time.
Despite the period setting and the personal nature of the story, a lot of the topics touched on in the film resonate today. Even, in a strange way, the English consciousness of what was happening in Northern Ireland, which is very much in the news right now. How intentional was all that?
Well, it was very much a part of that time so I wanted to weave the tapestry of the events that I remember in the early 1980s into the film. Then there’s also a suggestion that the character Anthony is in some way involved. We never know that.
Was it similar in the way the film is attuned to the difficulties faced by female filmmakers?
I decided to make this film some years ago and the fact that in the interim we’ve had a bit of a shakeup, with MeToo and TimesUp, in terms of just a female viewpoint. That wasn’t happening when I conceived the film and certainly when I experienced a version of that relationship myself back in the early ‘80s, and was beginning to be a filmmaker, my career choices weren’t framed by being a woman and maybe the difficulties of that. I never thought about the difficulties of that. I saw myself as another filmmaker. I don’t think I saw myself as a feminist, but I didn’t see a block between what I wanted to do and getting to do what I wanted to do. I had that confidence I think many people, male or female, have in their twenties where you feel you can do anything you want to do.
What filmmakers would you say have had the biggest influence on your work?
Well, it’s different for each film. My taste has probably changed from when I made Unrelated to now. Certainly with The Souvenir I decided that my influences would be influences that I had when I was a film student, so essentially when I was Julie’s age at the beginning of The Souvenir Part I. And in fact it’s not difficult, because a lot of the films that inspired me back then still inspire me now. So there are films like Radio On (Chris Petit); New York, New York, the Martin Scorsese film; Ticket of No Return (Ulrike Ottinger); then also my own work, because I incorporate my own work into the film. I’m looking back at ideas that I had, Super 8 film, I thought that was a way of entering that time period, by being inspired by the same things that I was inspired by as a younger filmmaker.
And what about these days?
Well, actually right now I’ve had a desire to watch Stanley Kubrick’s early films so I’ve been going through them. Paths of Glory is particularly wonderful and I hadn’t seen it for many years. I quite like having my own seasons of films. Like Max Ophuls, I’ll watch all of Max Ophuls.
I’m legally obliged to ask about the sequel. Can you say what stage you’re at?
Well, I’m editing it at the moment, quite near the beginning of the edit. I always take a while cutting a film. We shot it in the summer and it starts where Part I left off.
So directly after?
Yes, so directly after and it goes forward in time almost to the end of the ‘80s decade. And it’s focusing very much on Julie again, so she’s a through-line for the whole project, and it’s Julie at film school and the next stages of film school and the work that she does and how her life experience is fused with her creativity.
Was it a big headache to lose Robert Pattinson at that point?
At the time it was, but I recovered quite quickly. I changed the role, actually. It was one role he was going to play and I decided–since it was very much written with him in mind–to reconceive the idea of that character and in fact split that character into two so there are two young actors playing versions of the original character. [Editor’s note: Harris Dickinson and Charlie Heaton will play these characters, and Joe Alwyn also joined the cast.]
Do you have any idea about the release date?
Not yet, no. It’ll be some time later next year I think.
The Souvenir is now on Blu-ray/DVD/VOD and arrives on Amazon Prime on November 13.
A day after celebrating Motherless Brooklyn’s closing night screening at the 57th New York Film Festival, Edward Norton was back to work promoting his movie. As Norton describes it, he tried making the movie for twenty years and was involved at every level: he wrote the screenplay, directed, and played the lead role.
Norton’s Lionel Essrog is obsessed with solving the murder of his best friend and boss, private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Essrog has Tourette’s Syndrome and uses it along with his eidetic memory to find connections where others don’t. Lionel’s pursuit leads him to Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a Robert Moses-like character in 1950s New York, who works in secret to turn the city into an industrialist’s playground.
We spoke with Norton about the long process of bringing Motherless Brooklyn to theaters, how he used Lionel’s Tourette’s Syndrome for comedy without being cruel, Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression, and using Star Wars a model for his character’s relationships.
The Film Stage: The story goes it has taken nearly twenty years for you to make Motherless Brooklyn. What happened to get the movie off the ground?
Edward Norton: I think the people who came together around the movie in early 2017–I can’t say there was ever a definitive tipping point, but I felt that part of what was strengthening people’s resolve and enthusiasm to take a chance with it–it was a function of the urgency they were feeling around the themes of the movie. With the cast I think it was the substance of the piece and our relationships, but it was allowing us to get the resources at just enough of the right level with the right people whom what it was about validated the risk.
Toby Emmerich [the chairman of Warner Brothers] had always been a champion of it. I think it was happy, karmic coincidence that he called me in early 2017 and said, “God, this story feels white-hot to me.” And it was in that timeframe his own star ascended, deservedly, to where he was a decision-maker about what a big studio like Warner could include in the portfolio of what they’re getting behind. He said to me, “I’m not going to have this job and not do at least one movie a year that is the type of movie Warner Brothers used to make and we all came up on.” He did A Star is Born with Bradley Cooper last year and he did mine this year. He’s got a rare strength of conviction to make room within the demands of what they have to do with the media company and now the phone company to still sustain what their studio has traditionally been. It’s cool that he’s not just crunching the data in a way where something has to be a pretty big success, if there ever is such a thing.
In the movie, you play Lionel’s Tourette’s Syndrome for comedy, but it’s never punching down at him or the disorder. How did you accomplish making it funny without making fun of him?
Everyone’s told a story about themselves where they’ve tripped themselves up and it’s hilarious and self-effacing. That’s why there’s an emoji of the face slap, right? We can all relate to the “I can’t believe I just did that” moment. There’s a difference between a character being laughed at despite them being in real pain–that’s cruelty. If you’re laughing with someone who has the capacity to be bemused and rueful things then it’s affection.
It has a lot to do with the opening scene with Bruce Willis. When he comes and you see he and Lionel can have an affectionate relationship around winding Lionel up. That there’s pleasure in the intimacy with the condition and that it can be a laugh and a smile between him and his best pal, you already know the ground rules include humor. It doesn’t give Lionel a pass to deal with his own limitations as a person. He still has to grow up, decide if he’s going to engage with the larger world and care about other people. I think the most insulting thing you can do in depicting a condition is to make the person a saint only because they have a condition. Dealing with a complete, faillible, evolving person is the best way to respect any character.
It would have been easy for Alec Baldwin to play Moses Randolph the way he plays Trump on SNL, but he plays him as a nuanced person with reasons for what he does that goes beyond a surface-level understanding.
Let me be clear, I never had a concern Alec was engaging in this act of satirical subversion. I don’t think that what he’s doing in satirizing Trump is a light or small thing. I think it’s a really big thing because in many ways people like Trump, real tyrants and bullies, the thing they hate the most is to be teased. Sophisticated debate is exactly what they evade so they despise being teased. What you see in Trump’s response is what a total snowflake he really is. I think what Alec has done is a really effective knife attack on a bully. Trump’s not big-minded enough to tolerate being mocked and that’s why it’s the right approach to that character.
I came up on Alec the dramatic actor: Stanley Kowalski on Broadway and in Glengarry Glen Ross. To a lot of us he’s always had this incredible straddle of lethal charm and lethal intimidation. He’s got this double-punch of being so seductive and yet so capable of being frightening in the force of his intellect, his way with words, and his physical heft. I was looking for an actor with those qualities who could also handle the soliloquy at the end, and an old school New Yorker… it’s not a really long list. He’s at the top of it.
We never even discussed Trump. Never once. We talked about Lee J. Cobb in 12 Angry Men. We talked about Darth Vader, meaning Paul (Willem Dafoe) as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Moses Randolph as Anakin Skywalker, who as Paul says, they were going to fix the world together. They were geniuses and Moses went to the dark side and now his awesome talent is being applied in a dark way. We discussed the scene in the model room in the office as Luke with Darth Vader saying, “Join me.” We talked about power that cloaks itself and Alec was pulled in because it’s the antithesis of his Trump satire. To me the two parts are practically unrelated, it’s just that Alec is one of the few actors who has the chops. It’s not like his pal Jerry Seinfeld is also doing the Tom Hanks part in Philadelphia.
Motherless Brooklyn is now in theaters.
Veteran South Korean actor Song Kang-ho carries himself with a quietly measured poise that stands in sharp contrast to the brusque and hapless working class types he’s often played throughout his illustrious career. On this unseasonably balmy mid-October morning, he’s sporting a sharp black turtleneck under an even sharper dark blue blazer—his jet-black hair perfectly gelled and coiffed to the side in the dapper likeness of a Brooks Brothers model-meets-vintage-Hollywood leading man. Sitting across from him, one immediately takes stock of Song’s distinguished presence and gracious demeanor, to say nothing of his casually intellectual manner of speaking, in which he thoughtfully and deliberately articulates himself with a conversational lyricism that’s inviting, if not a little intimidating.
Yet Song also grounds his affable regality with a humbling and generous dose of self-deprecating humor; harmonizing his unpretentiously dignified comportment with an earthly humanism that radiates through warm glints of eye contact, and infectiously beaming, toothy smiles that further accentuate his full cheeks. It is this open humility and warm humanity that shine through Song’s characters, particularly his portrayals of struggling, flailing and fallible men on the periphery of society whose lack of privilege puts them in situations that challenge their moral compass. Despite the 52-year-old’s calm and courtly off-screen confidence, time and again Song has shown his prowess in accessing the gritty and tempestuous emotional reserves needed to play such impulsive, wounded and eccentric protagonists, and he does so with bruising self-effacement and intuitively layered agility.
Such is the case with Kim Ki-taek, the disheveled and impetuous, poverty-stricken patriarch in Parasite; director Bong Joon-ho’s latest genre-bender that made waves when it won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival. Parasite functions as an elevated extension of the director’s cinematic modus operandi, signaling yet another level of daring craft in a fifteen-year film career that’s become defined by an almost contrarian aversion to genre orthodoxy. The film tells the story of the Kim family, a lovingly close-knit, though unemployed and impoverished, clan struggling to barely make ends meet through odd jobs that include folding pizza boxes. Perpetually down on their luck, the Kims’ fortunes seem to change when Ki-taek’s son Ki-woo lands a job as an English tutor for the teenaged daughter of the wealthy Parks, an impossibly handsome family of new money acquired through the father and husband Dong-ik’s (Lee Sun-kyun) tech entrepreneurship. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film that centers the conversation around society’s haves and have-nots, class politics serve as Parasite’s fulcrum; and they are embedded into each and every frame and line of dialogue. The less said about the film the better, though it should be noted that Song brings a haggard gregariousness to Ki-taek that injects Parasite with vibrant and earnest levity, as the Kim household’s rich solidarity provides a humorous and comforting salve to their destitute trappings and dangerous hijinks.
Mr. Song’s filmography is saturated with projects helmed by masters of contemporary Korean cinema: Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst), Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) and Hong Sang-soo (The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, the actor’s 1996 debut), to name a few. Parasite marks the actor’s fourth collaboration with Bong (having won a Best Actor Award at the Asian Film Festival for 2006’s The Host), following the 2013 sci-fi action film Snowpiercer, a socially charged dystopia and Song’s second English-language crossover.
Here, the prolific screen actor, who in August received the 2019 Locarno Film Festival Excellence Award, discusses why Parasite marks a career-defining collaboration for him and Bong, the reason he gravitates towards everyman roles, and the existential influence actor Steve McQueen had on him.
Congrats on your Locarno Excellence Award!
[Chuckles] Thank you!
Parasite marks your fourth collaboration with Mr. Bong. How has your working relationship changed over the years? In what ways, if any, was your creative dynamic in this film different than with your previous three?
If you look at Bong’s previous films like Memories of Murder, The Host, or Snowpiercer, which we worked on together, but also other films of his like Mother or Okja—if you look at them as a whole, I think Parasite is the ultimate product of these works. They represent the collective result of Bong’s aspirations. If I were to speak more specifically, and with regard to Bong’s perspective as an artist, all these views he has towards society and life that he’s thoughtfully considered and challenged throughout his career have been collected and brought together in Parasite.
Is it important for you to work on a project that has some degree of social commentary or political message? Your acting resume would suggest so.
I would say no. I don’t really particularly choose those projects, but as it turns out, I’ve appeared in these kinds of films that have a strong social message.
I read somewhere that you prefer improvisation to rehearsal, is that true? Was there any improv in Parasite? If so, what was explicitly in the script, and where did Bong give you more latitude to stray?
Actually, I don’t specifically prefer improvised performances. It’s true that those kinds of performances have a certain vitality to them, whereas in a rehearsed performance those impulsive emotions disappear. If possible, then yes, I do seek out improvisational performances, but I don’t necessarily exclusively prefer them, per se. You could say Ki-taek certainly possesses that vitality.
Speaking of, can you talk a little bit about your character and the Kim family as a whole? What do you want audiences to know about them?
I don’t see Parasite as a character-based film—rather, the desire to adapt is its most important focus. If you look at the specific events of this story, it’s true that the Kim family members are criminals, but I think their criminality really comes from a desire to adapt in society. Ultimately, the film’s primary goal is to show its take on this kind of society.
As the head of his household, Ki-taek certainly possesses the survivalist instincts of someone who must look out for the well-being of his entire family. How does this parental, or paternal, instinct differ from your Snowpiercer character Namgoong, for instance? You seem to play a lot of fathers. [Chuckles]
Yes, that’s true, but I think there’s a sharp contrast between those two films. In Snowpiercer, the character of Namgoong tries to strive for the survival of him and his daughter in an extreme environment, whereas in Parasite the father figure is not really in an extreme environment—though he tries, with difficulty, to adjust to society as well as he can.
Is it difficult navigating the different tones in a Bong film, especially with this one? How did you tackle Parasite’s different tonal and emotional registers—its absurdity, pathos, tragedy, black comedy, element of horror and satiric humor?
It’s not always easy to work with director Bong. [Laughs] As you know, the character of Ki-taek does not have a plan. The same goes for myself as well. As an actor, my principle is to never have a plan when working with Bong, and this actually helps me a lot. [Chuckles]
You’ve amassed a critically acclaimed filmography playing ordinary, working people. What draws you to these Everyman roles, and why do these characters resonate with Korean audiences the way they do?
It’s true that a lot of these characters that are suggested to me are everyday men. I don’t have a kind of fantasy visage or good-looking face to deliver audiences, but I think my characters are more familiar to Korean audiences because they’re very ordinary. If you look at director Park, who casts me in these completely opposite roles that are quite shocking, it forms an interesting contrast.
Speaking of your other collaborations, you’ve worked with a venerable slate of heavyweight Korean auteurs throughout your career. Is there a particular director whose creative and artistic sensibilities most closely align with yours?
[Breaks out laughing] I like director Bong, but I would say that directors Park [Chan-wook], Lee [Chang-dong] and Kim Jee-woon all have unique traits to them and they have different ways of using me as an actor. I can’t really say that one of them clearly aligns with me in terms of creative taste, because all of these directors have their unique charms and traits. But I do find it very interesting that these directors use me in different ways to draw out very different performances.
You’ve said in previous interviews that Steve McQueen had perhaps the most formative influence on you as an actor. Could you talk a little bit about that? How did you draw from his craft with regard to your own techniques as an artist?
Ever since my childhood I’ve really liked Steve McQueen. I’ve watched a lot of his films throughout my life, including Papillon, which is one of my favorites. I think it’s really his nonchalant coolness that I was attracted to growing up, as well as the sort of cynicism he brought to his roles. While it’s not true that I became an actor because of McQueen, I will say that he had a considerable influence on my decision to become one.
How have Korean audiences received Parasite? I imagine there was a swell of national pride following its Palme d’Or win, given that it’s the country’s first film to boast the highest Cannes honor. Awards aren’t everything, but surely that international recognition cements Korean cinema’s embrace and celebration on such a global scale?
I think a lot of people were very amicable towards this film, and I did not expect that so many would understand the deep charm it possesses. I don’t really think it’s the Palme d’Or that’s the cause of all of this, but it’s true that a lot of Korean audiences feel a certain pride towards the film’s win.
What does satire offer that other genres don’t? As an actor, what excites you about performing satire specifically?
I think there are pros and cons to all these characters I’ve played. There’s a very satirical streak to Parasite as you describe, and playing a satirical character like Ki-taek is extremely challenging and difficult. Yet at the same time there’s a certain amusement I get from those kinds of roles, whereas playing characters with a bit more reality to them—or who are more grounded in reality, I should say—may be easier, but perhaps less entertaining.
What feelings, thoughts, or reactions do you hope Parasite elicits in audiences?
I don’t think there’s a clear single way to watch this film. Every viewer has different emotions towards the dark and tragic aspects of society that are depicted in this film, as well as its entertaining factors. So I don’t really think there’s one way to watch Parasite, and everyone will have their own takeaway from a daring project like this. What I can say is, don’t come into Parasite with any expectations, or a plan.
Parasite is now in theaters.
Halloween is upon us and if you are looking for a ghost story with an immense sense of humanity, you can do no better than Paul Harrill’s second feature Light From Light. A standout at Sundance Film Festival, the film follows Shelia (Marin Ireland), a single mom living in rural Tennessee, working at a car rental service by day and a paranormal investigator at night. She takes on a new case involving Richard (Jim Gaffigan), whose wife Susanne died a year prior in a plane crash but may still be around to communicate.
“There’s a palpable tension to this story of paranormal investigating, but rather than injecting the expected terror, the film’s power lies in never seeing ghost hunting depicted so grounded and character-driven before,” I said in my review. “This is the kind of film where the minutiae of insurance policies are discussed before any haunting may begin. Those going into Paul Harrill’s second feature looking for frights will be rewarded with something more substantial: an experience rich with atmosphere and humanity, and drama ultimately more enlightening than the cheap thrills that pervade the dime-a-dozen ghost stories we’ve seen before.”
Ahead of a theatrical release starting this Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Harill about how horror has conditioned our minds, the emotional themes the film explores, casting Jim Gaffigan, working with A Ghost Story team and how his film tells a different specter tale, his approach to screenwriting, and what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.
The Film Stage: Our minds have been so conditioned by horror films that when you experience stillness it can be more intense without even seeing anything necessarily horrific. Can you talk about breaking the mold in that way with this film?
Paul Harrill: From the start, when I started thinking about it and developing it, I knew I was after something that wasn’t horror. I wanted to tell a different kind of story and that about regret and grief and loss and hope. And that’s how it emerged for me. It was never really a consideration of taking it into more traditional horror territory. But I will say, as I started developing the project further, there were these moments where I thought this might be suspenseful and that is okay. You know, walking around the house in the dark with a flashlight, whatever you believe or don’t believe in, can be a little eerie or spooky of an experience. I wasn’t going to shy away from those moments if they were organic to the story I was telling.
All these characters have been through a lot and one of the themes I was drawn to is this hesitation of commitment. Owen [Josh Wiggins] says, “What’s the point of getting together if you know it’s going to end?” and Shelia [Marin Ireland] says, “Things only matter if they last.” Can you talk about grounding the film with these ideas?
I knew from the beginning that Shelia’s character was going to be a single mom and that was there from the very, very beginning. Where that started was seeing that she was going to be struggling with her son leaving home, which comes in pretty late in the film actually. But that sense of the impermanence of things or, in Shelia’s case, the one thing that is steady in her life is the relationship with her son, and for that to be changing. Then talking about a ghost story of any sense you’re talking about impermanence. So it started from those two strands and then it felt natural for there to be an extension of that theme with Owen and Lucy then, about a young relationship–a kind of inverse with the adults. With Richard, who has recently lost his wife and with Shelia, who has had relationships that have ended and sort of shield herself off from having more.
Your film feels grounded in that you are showing this paranormal investigating realistically, but also the economic realities. Sheila is working another job as well and you are seeing the “mundane” aspects, like they just have to watch hours of footage at a time. Can you talk about focusing on these things and how it helped the story?
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s just something I’m drawn to in movies, just grounding things in the real. The reality of my daily life is that I have a day job and everyone I know, we all have day jobs. I just wanted to acknowledge that and represent that on screen because that’s the economic reality of the world we live in. That can be a source of obstacles and conflicts, but it can also be something that grounds us. The other part of it, the hours of footage, is whenever I’m working on a script, I always do a lot of research about the kind of work the characters do, to feel like I can write about it confidently. So for the paranormal investigation stuff, which I knew nothing about, I read so many books about that. I watched a lot of documentaries. I became so interested in the process and the meticulousness in which these investigators would take on this work. There’s not a ton of that in the movie. I could have made a movie that went far, far deeper into all of those procedures. That’s not the story I was telling, but I was interested in that. Our immediate reaction to ghosts is they are spooky, but for these investigators, they do it very sincerely. A lot of it is pretty mundane work.
In recent years there have been some other ghost tales that have dealt with the idea that ghosts could actually bring a sense of comfort and not terror. I think of Personal Shopper as well as A Ghost Story, whose team I know you collaborated with for this film. What are your thoughts on those films and the cathartic spirituality in all three of these films?
Well, I haven’t seen Personal Shopper. I’m really looking forward to finally watching it.
I was aware of the film and I was starting to develop the very earliest ideas of this and I just thought I wanted to stay away from that right now. Then I asked a friend who had seen the film and who knew a little bit about my project, “Do you think I should watch it?” They were like, “No, I don’t think you should watch it.” [Laughs.] So I avoided it and it’s been on my watch list for so long. So I’m really looking forward to watching some Kristen Stewart.
With A Ghost Story, it’s funny a little bit of the story behind that. James Johnston, who is one of the lead producers on this film, he’s one of the first people I talk to when I’m developing a new script. We’ve been friends for a long time. I remember this really photographically: I called him in 2016 and said, “Hey, I just finished the first draft of a new script. Would you be willing to take a look at it? It’s kind of a ghost story.” He said, “That’s so funny! We all just finished wrapping A Ghost Story here in Texas.” I was like oh, great. I guess I’ll never make this movie.
Because of David Lowery–who I’ve known for a while too and I’m such a fan of his work and his sensibility–I thought no one will need to make another ghost story because it will be the definitive film. James was like, “No, no. I promise you. I’m sure it’s different. Whatever you’ve written, I’m sure it’s different from what we just made.” So I saw the film finally in 2017 at BAMcinemaFest here in New York and I felt this enormous relief. First of all, it was a beautiful film and a cathartic film, but also, wow, we were going in really different directions in how to tell a story that’s about these more human dimensions of loss and spirituality.
They definitely are a great double feature, but certainly different.
I’m not sure which you should watch first. [Laughs]
I feel like A Ghost Story might better after you see your film since it’s more expansive?
Yeah, you are probably right. [Laughs]
I also wanted to take about casting in the film. Especially Jim Gaffigan, his presence is undeniable and the weight of loss his character is going through. I love the scene where paranormal investigating is going on but he’s just on the porch with Marin Ireland’s character as they are digging up the past.
With regards to Jim, I actually wrote the role of Richard with Jim in mind. I heard a radio interview with him that was very much Jim as a person, not Jim as his comedic persona. He was talking about his life, his own personal beliefs, his family, and he’s a really thoughtful guy. Yet he has this physical presence and that combination was very much on my mind when I was writing Richard. Jim is also from the midwest and while that’s east Tennessee, I thought that element of his own life, he could relate to the regional element of the film. So, that went into the thinking about Richard. When he read the script, our first conversation we talked about how he connected to the material personally because he almost lost his wife. She went through a very scary health crisis, which she has written a book about now. He connected with that.
Speaking about the porch scene, sometimes to trick myself into starting the process of writing–because it is difficult–I’ll come up with a guiding principle that usually I’ll later abandon as the script and the story develops and I kind of know where it’s going. For this film I initially thought of it as a film that was going to alternate between a wordless sequence and then a sequence where characters had some kind of conversation. The two main conversations that remained from that initial structure was the conversation between the two teenagers on the couch when he says “What’s the point in getting into a relationship if it’s just going to end” and this porch scene. And that was a scene that as I’m writing, I really just let the characters go where they wanted to go and I tried to let go of these kinds screenwriting principles like a scene is only supposed to be four pages or less. Let’s just see what happens with these characters talking. I rewrote that scene countless times and we rehearsed that scene a lot. I continued to work on the text of the scene as we rehearsed it and then it obviously went through another pass while editing. There was always a feeling that the film would have this kind of centerpiece moment where these two characters who are dealing with loneliness in very different ways would drop their guard and be vulnerable with each other.
Just wrapping up, you read my review so you know what I thought about the film, but I’m curious what you hope others will take away as the film?
When I was at Sundance, there was a really remarkable thing that happened at one of the screenings. A woman stood up and talked about the loss of a loved one and how the film had given her a kind of closure and made her feel very hopeful about the loss she had suffered through. That’s not something I even sort of imagined would happen with this film. I think some people will watch the movie and want it to be something it isn’t, like a horror film, and I think those people will be disappointed. But if people can watch it with a kind of openness I hope that they’ll find something in it, whether that’s hope or catharsis or closure or a sense of possibility.
Ira Sachs’ new film Frankie features his largest ensemble to date, featuring newcomers to his world, including Brendan Gleeson and Isabelle Huppert (playing the title character), while also collaborating once again with Marisa Tomei and Greg Kinnear. Through little more than a change of locale–as Frankie’s family vacations in Sintra, Portugal–change is instigated for everyone involved. A marriage on the rocks crumbles, a relationship moving toward engagement stalls out, a first kiss is experienced, and the loss of a partner is mourned.
We spoke with Sachs about the character of Frankie being closer to Isabelle Huppert’s real personality than the characters she is known to play. Sachs also discusses his view of a tangible faith (compared to a faith in things we cannot see) in his movies. Finally, we talk about the influence of Satyajit Ray’s film Kanchenjungha on Frankie and his recently scrapped television projects.
The Film Stage: In Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, there’s a line “Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die.” Frankie (Isabelle Huppert) has come to similar terms with her terminal illness and that’s the through-line of the movie.
Ira Sachs: I think Frankie is a lot like Isabelle in certain ways. The character was written for Huppert. I met her soon after Love is Strange, which she had seen and responded to so we were talking about working together. I think Isabelle has a kind of honesty and directness. I discovered a warmth she has in person but often hadn’t been seen in her movie roles, so it’s a big part of Frankie. In some ways she’s the director of the film, meaning she’s a character who’s trying to orchestrate the lives of others around her. Part of her journey is understanding the future is out of her control.
There’s that scene where Frankie is watching Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson) and Ilene (Marisa Tomei) from a panopticon, ghost-like view.
To me, it’s a movie that moves between characters and stories, but ultimately it comes to a crescendo where the family has gathered together. The personal reckoning that Frankie goes through with the audience, in a way, as her most intimate relationship. In that moment you’re talking about she’s very much alone. The audience witnesses that loneliness and I think becomes a part of it.
There’s a moment where Frankie rejects healing water offered to her at a Catholic chapel. I couldn’t help but think of how that bookends with Love is Strange, where the Catholic church rejects George (Alfred Molina) because he married his long-time partner Ben (John Lithgow).
I wouldn’t say it’s exactly the Catholic faith in Frankie because the history of her family’s religion isn’t really defined. I think faith in general, in an organized fashion, is something Frankie shares with me in a direct way. I believe in what’s in front of me. I also believe in beauty and I think that’s one of the elements of Frankie as a character, that there are things that are divine but they aren’t necessarily separate from the real. Like a sunset, a forest.
This film is set in one day but we shot for six weeks. There was this need for me to accept the variations of nature and whatever might come. In some ways you’re resisting it because you write a scene for daylight and sunlight, and you hope it’s going to be sunny. Then you arrive at the set that morning and there’s a hurricane, which there was during one day of our shooting. Instead of resisting what came I tried to really accept the part of this place and landscape, and I think that’s what Frankie is asked to do ultimately, to accept.
Frankie shows the ends of various relationships: the beginning of a divorce, you see a dating relationship end, and ultimately the death of a partner. What was on you and Mauricio Zacharias’s mind in writing this story?
Everyone is searching for some sort of connection in an intimate way. I think the variations have to do with different generations. How at different ages we experience the most important things in life in very different ways. There’s a first kiss in this film. You could say this film is a coming of age movie. You could say it’s a film about a marriage in trouble. You could say it’s a film about a marriage in its last chapter. Or a film about a woman trying to figure out who will be her life partner. All those things for me were part of the exciting thing that gives cinema its dynamic nature. For me, the dynamic is the conflict of different genres that occur in any one moment where you have comedy played right up against tragedy. In this case, a film about love is also a film about money. In particular, this film was inspired by a very good friend of mine who went through a long, terminal illness. In advance, I would have thought that was only about sadness, but everything else in life seemed to come up in the course of her illness. Every other question that seems significant. So for me, this film is very much about life.
Little Men has elements of Ozu’s I Was Born, But… and Love is Strange has elements of Make Way for Tomorrow by Leo McCarey. Did anything similarly inspire Frankie?
You’re not wrong, you’re not wrong. [Laughs.] Specifically there’s a film by Satyajit Ray, Kanchenjungha, a film he made in 1962. It’s a film about a family on vacation in the Himalayan mountains. It takes place in one day, there’s a central drama that brings them all together and there’s nine stories of each family member told within the course of the film. For me, seeing that film and the relationships between the characters and the landscape of the mountains was impactful. I’d been thinking and reflecting on that movie for a decade and it very much was an inspiration.
Are you still making a TV series based on Tim Murphy’s book Christodora?
No, no green lights. I was working on two projects: a film about Montgomery Clift for HBO and the other was for Paramount, an adaptation of Christodora. I think I’m not meant for TV. It’s a different medium, it turns out. Whatever people tell you, it’s a very different medium. I didn’t have any personal difficulty of collaboration but I don’t work by committee. When you work for a studio it is a committee decision process. I think that was maybe not the best space for me as a creative person. I think my taste doesn’t align with commercial cinema or at least commercial television.
Are you working on anything else?
I’m writing a new script with Mauricio for a film set in New York about a father with three daughters.
Frankie is now in limited release.
Known for his epic–and epically long–films that examine the woeful past and troubled present of the Philippines, Lav Diaz has established an unmistakable name for himself and become a staple at A-list film festivals worldwide over the last decade.
He was awarded the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlinale for his 8-hour opus A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, the Golden Leopard at Locarno for the 5.5-hour From What Is Before, and won over Sam Mendes’ jury to take home the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2016 for The Woman Who Left.
His latest feature, The Halt (4 hours and 36 minutes in case anyone is keeping score), premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar in Cannes earlier this year and screened recently at Filmfest Hamburg. It’s set in 2034, when volcanic eruptions have plunged Southeast Asia into darkness and the Philippines is ruled by a ruthless dictator bent on eliminating his political opponents.
We had the chance to speak with the celebrated filmmaker in Hamburg about his approach to filmmaking, streamers versus cinema, and his experiences at film festivals.
Your films often deal with the past and current troubles of the Philippines, but this time you look into the future. Can you talk about where the initial idea for The Halt come from?
While I was shooting Batang West Side in New Jersey and New York in 2000, one of my actors asked me for materials he could work on as a filmmaker, so I wrote this piece called 2019. I gave it to him and told him that it’s a science fiction story set in 2019, then I forgot about it.
Fast forward to the first quarter of last year, my cinematographer Larry Manda texted me and said he found this very interesting story I wrote. So I read it again, it was just a 15-page treatment. But it deals with so much of what’s happening right now in the country, including a dictator and people who are fed up and plotting his assassination, so there is an urgency to the story. The actor Piolo Pascual, who plays the assassin Hook in the film, then helped me find the investors and we just started pre-production. It came together organically.
For obvious reasons, I pushed the setting back to 2034. I mean, I could be accused of sedition if I set it in the present.
Do you mean there’s an official censorship?
It’s not censorship, but they have ways to make your life difficult.
Filmmaking has become increasingly difficult in countries which are turning authoritarian like Thailand, Brazil, and obviously China. Is it also getting trickier to make films the way you want to in the Philippines?
No. So far it’s not been a problem, because this government is so ignorant, they don’t really care about artists. They don’t think our work has any effect on people. So we’ve been spared thanks to this ignorance.
And at this point in your career, I guess finding financing is not a problem anymore.
That’s true. It’s kind of crazy that I have distributors in Europe now, they show my films in cinemas here, especially in France and Germany. So there’s a little money, and I don’t need big budgets for my films.
One of the themes you keep coming back to in The Halt is that the Filipino people don’t want to remember, that this is a nation with no memory. Can you talk about that?
It’s trauma, you know. More than 300 years of Spanish colonization, then came the Americans, then the Japanese and World War II, followed by 24 years of martial law under the Marcos regime and nine years under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, all very corrupt governments. And now we have [Rodrigo] Duterte. So you can see how people might react.
It’s CPE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) really, where people get so numb they just forget things. They don’t want to confront the past or examine it. Nowadays the public actually has a very positive view of Marcos, they believe the best years of their lives were the Marcos period. You tell them that’s the darkest period of our history and they’d look at you like, “What are you talking about?”
And the new president is studying that. He’s always propagating that Marcos is the best president the Philippines has ever had, that the country’s economy was the best during those years which can’t be farther from the truth. It’s been a very successful rehabilitation of Marcos’ name. That’s a classic example of how people forget.
Another major theme of the film is religion…
Yes, in places like South America or the Philippines religion is still very powerful, it’s a big part of our lives.
Where do you stand personally on religions? Are you suspicious of them?
Yes. If it’s up to me they would be eradicated. I mean religion gives people hope, it makes people believe in things they don’t understand by way of mythologies it creates. And people like Marcos, they take advantage of that. They realize myth-making is a powerful tool and people are susceptible to it. Of course religion has a very positive side, but the negative side is so overwhelming, especially now, when you can see clearly how the practice of myth-making is connected to religion.
Coming back to the filmmaking part, you are the writer, director, cinematographer, editor, and designer of The Halt. Do you prefer having this kind of comprehensive creative control or collaborating with others?
I would like to collaborate with other people but in the Philippines they are not always available. Everybody’s shooting all the time and I can’t offer them big money to make themselves available for me. So you learn to work on your own with the budget you have. I work with a small crew, there’s more mobility and flexibility that way and they understand my vision.
I don’t think the title The Halt is expressly referenced in the film. Can you talk about what it means?
Well, the Malay word I chose for the film’s title is “Hupa,” a word with a broad meaning. It means to stop, or to ebb like the waves, or to deafen something. So I chose that word to address the death of truth and morality. Or also the death of light, the ceasing of movement, the numbing of the mind, the death of everything. We couldn’t find a better word in English that approximates “Hupa,” so I agreed to calling it The Halt.
Are your films very scripted?
Yes, very much so. I mean we improvise on the set too. Sometimes the actors try to rephrase the lines on the set, that’s fine as long as the essence is still there. I write the script every day. I wake up at dawn and write the script for the day. When the rest of the team is up, they get their script at breakfast.
So when you talked about the early script for 2019, that was not a full script.
Yeah I expanded on the original story I wrote. The final script is so different from the original one. The same happened with Norte, the End of History. It was originally written by a friend, but I revised and made changes to it every day. All my co-workers know that’s how I work. The costume designer and the actors would wait in the morning for that day’s script. They call it the “Flying Paper.”
Why do you prefer to write this way?
What I look for is fluidity. And also this is an approach I developed through the years for financial reasons, because shooting often got protracted on my films. The 10-hour film Evolution of a Filipino Family, for example, I shot over 10 years. I worked two jobs to buy the 16mm film rolls. When I had enough money to buy 10 rolls, I would call my team and say “We can shoot now.” Then we would shoot for three days, and they’d have to wait another six months.
So every time we resumed shooting there’s a gap, the whole set-up was different, and you just had to revise and adapt. At some point this became my process. And I do like this spontaneity. Even during shooting, if I see something open up, I would stop the shoot to write some more. I like this flexibility. Of course, that involves a lot of waiting, which is also why I have to contain my crew on islands.
You always shoot on islands?
Well, I should say far-flung places. Part of it is also to try to better understand our country, our culture. In the Philippines, most films are made either near Manila or in the regions where the filmmakers come from. For me, I’d like to explore other parts of our culture. Every time we shoot on an island, I would go there first, explore the island and try to understand the place. My co-workers and I came to understand more about the Philippines through our shoots, because you see how people really live in these remote areas.
In your capacity as cinematographer, do you have a preference between film and digital?
I’ve struggled with that before, this purist thing. I passed that phase in the early 2000s. Before then, I couldn’t accept digital. But the fact is I didn’t have any money, and digital offered this chance to be emancipated from the tyranny of money. It’s how I could afford to do the long films. At the same time, I feel like filmmakers shouldn’t be dependent on such materials concerns, it should be the other way around. At the end of the day, cinema should be about the filmmakers and not the camera or the lights.
What about always shooting in black and white? Is that an aesthetic choice?
Yes, that is an aesthetic choice. I grew up watching a lot of black-and-white films. Eight movies a week in black and white from Hong Kong, the Philippines and Hollywood. I immersed myself in the universe of cinema that way when I was a kid. It was my form of escape.
Who would you say were your cinematic heroes or influences when you were growing up?
Well, back then it was just about enjoying the movies or escaping to another world for me. You watch these movies and imagine being in places likes Hong Kong, America or Italy. But it was just that, escapism.
When I got into college, I discovered Lino Brocka, a great Filipino filmmaker from the second golden age of Filipino cinema. Our teacher assigned us to watch his film Manila in the Claws of Light–it’s a politically charged, socially conscious film. And it made me realize that, oh, we can use cinema as a tool for change, for education. That’s when I realized cinema can be much more than just entertainment and started discovering the work of Ishmael Bernal, Mario O’Hara, other great Filipino filmmakers from that era.
Then the German Goethe Institute started inviting German filmmakers to the Philippines to conduct workshops and show us films from Europe. That was also the first time I was able to hold a 16mm camera in my hand. After college, by chance I was able to go to New York and work there, and I started digging deeper by watching more films in the libraries, at the Film Forum, the Anthology Film Archives. That was when I was really opened up.
What about your contemporaries? Is there anyone whose work you particularly admire?
I like the works of Pedro Costa, Jia Zhangke, Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Edward Yang as well. I see in them the commitment to filmmaking the way that I’m committed.
Your films are known for their length. Is time itself an element of your storytelling? Is the experience of time part of the design?
Yeah, I don’t want the storytelling to obscure the flow of life, the flow of time. Because cinema as we know it is more going from cut to cut, a montage. I want to work more like a novelist, where you can experience the expanse of time without manipulation, without obstruction. Kind of like jazz, where you can play the same motif forever in a fluid way.
Also, in the Southeast Asian culture, waiting is very important. We sit under the trees or lie in our beds the whole day, waiting for something to happen. That’s the Malay way. It’s not laziness or indolence at all. It’s part of our lives, because we’re so connected to the ways of nature, including the hot weather, the humidity, the storms, typhoons, floods and landslides.
Do you set out to do a project with an idea how long it should be?
No, I don’t think about the length. That comes during editing. After I finish a first cut, I’d think “Oh this one is going to be six hours.”
You are a very productive filmmaker. How much time do you typically spend on pre-production, shooting and post-production?
My production schedule used to be very protracted like I said. Nowadays, it’s usually three to four months for pre-production, plus another two months for shooting. Post production depends on the material. Some films are easy to cut. Others are more demanding. Sometimes you realize during editing that you have to go back to shoot some more. So that depends on the project.
Streaming services have become increasingly popular…
So you don’t think streamers are hurting cinema.
No. I always go back to what Bazin said: “We will use technology to understand the nature of cinema.” Cinema is still evolving.
I guess you are not a traditionalist in this regard.
No, for me that would be the death of cinema–if you’re a traditionalist and don’t want to move forward. Technology is there for the taking, why not use it?
Now something completely unrelated: I read that you’ve been invited to join the AMPAS in 2017. Are you an active voting member?
I’m a member but I didn’t vote.
Why not? Did they send you the screeners?
So many. My place was flooded with screeners. And I received invitations to events in New York and Hong Kong. But I’m lazy that way… and I also don’t believe in competition.
Film festivals are also a form of competition. Do you like them?
I love film festivals because it’s about propagating cinema. Some may say it’s elitist, but the culture of supporting art cinema comes from film festivals, so it’s good.
You’ve been to the biggest film festivals in the world…
I like the small ones better. I went to this film festival at a village with a small university in Croatia. Everyone was just hanging out and watching films. I like that.
No red carpets, I guess.
No no no, we were just hanging out, having coffee and beer, talking to the students. It was great. The discourse was great. I also went to Málaga two years ago, I like these small-scale festivals where it’s so intimate, you can actually talk about cinema.
You say that as someone who has won the Golden Lion and the Golden Leopard…
Yeah I appreciate those things, but sometimes big festivals can be dangerous, because people can forget about cinema and it becomes more about celebrity. It gets obscene at some point.
I love Venice, Berlin, Cannes for showing my films, but what I saw there is dangerous. It’s about celebrity and power. The big festivals capitulate too much to Hollywood, they feel pressured to put a certain percentage of Hollywood films in competition. Of course they have sidebar sections like Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight, Orizzonti and Forum, but at the same time, there’s this hierarchy between the sections. It’s unfortunate. Guys like me or Jia Zhangke got lucky. But there are other great filmmakers out there who need the exposure. I know a lot of great filmmakers who can’t get a chance to show their work anywhere. It’s a pity.
The Halt screened at Filmfest Hamburg and is seeking U.S. distribution.
Photo by Richard Jopson
Having hailed from Alexander Sokurov’s directing school, Russian auteur Kantemir Balagov made a name for himself on the international film stage with his 2017 debut feature Closeness, which screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, and took home the FIPRESCI prize. Beanpole, his second feature film and one that also premiered at this year’s Un Certain Regard, is set in 1945 Leningrad in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The film tells the story of Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), two former combat pilots who attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives amidst the devastating wreckage of war. As Iya and Masha grapple with the personal and national trauma left in its wake, Beanpole examines the ebb and flow of their knotty and at times toxic friendship—testing the strength of their bond, the weight of loneliness, and their resilience of spirit in a world of grief and ruin.
At just 28 years old, Balagov is a wunderkind whose talent and accomplishments dwarf his humble age. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Balagov during Beanpole’s run at the 57th New York Film Festival—where I picked his brain on his collaborative process and cinematic influences, the legacy of war, and what it was like to work with such a poised toddler.
According to Beanpole’s production notes, the film was inspired by a book you read called “The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in WWII,” by Svetlana Alexievich. What was it about the book that made you want to adapt it for the screen, and why tell this story now?
There’s so much material about the war in Russian movies—nowadays in the Russian film industry there’s a pseudo-patriotic movement that seems to imply that as a country, we can replicate and repeat everything we did during WWII, which completely forgets its toll on the country. I was so moved and blown away by Svetlana’s book because it showed me that I knew nothing about the war’s history, and I was really curious about the idea of a human being who’s biologically able to give birth—the organic creator of life—going to war and being surrounded by death. How do these women go about trying to be normal people once the war is over? That was a very meaningful concept for me to explore.
Is that why you chose to specifically focus on female trauma, as a way of exploring this idea of fertility in a unique post-war context?
I don’t think so, because the idea of fertility came when we already started to work on this film. Originally, the main focus was female loss—personal loss, but also feeling complete psychological loss once the war is over. The most important thing I wanted to highlight for my generational peers was the undervalued role that females played during the war, which has never really been highlighted or talked about in Russia.
Can you elaborate on the female dynamic at the heart of this story? There’s a kind of power play going on between Iya and Masha, this desire for control—being the other’s “master,” as one of them puts it—coupled with a mixture of envy, co-dependence, betrayal, genuine love and resentment. You don’t often see this kind of uniquely dysfunctional and complicated female friendship in cinema. What was it about their relationship you wanted to emphasize?
I wanted to emphasize the wild co-dependency between these women, who are two very lonely human beings. At the same time they’re internally eating each other, they’re externally feeding off of each other.
The film’s vivid use of color is so conspicuously rich. The prevalence of different shades of green particularly stands out—from the interior décor, to the wardrobe, to the cinematographic color palette. Why did you decide to focus on green? Were you trying to invoke fecundity?
Yes. Green represents the possibility of birth, the ability to bring life into the world, and the hope for a new life. Whereas the ochre color scheme, also prevalent in the film, represents loss and trauma. I wanted to juxtapose the two.
What are the challenges in shooting a period piece?
The main challenge for me was the level of research involved. It was very tiring, and I was afraid that being so exhausted, I would miss a crucial detail. For example, you think “is this chair supposed to be here? Was this particular textile pattern even introduced yet?” I wanted to pay respect to the reality of those times, but on the other hand I wanted my use of color to transcend this reality.
Both Beanpole and Closeness tell specific stories about Russia. The sense of place is always felt, and Russia’s history, politics, and culture become fundamental parts of these films’ DNA. Is it important for you to honor your homeland in this way, to show the rest of the world the resilience of the Russian people?
Of course, of course. For me it’s really important to reflect my homeland. I was struck with this realization while on the set of someone else’s film, which was shot in the Russian countryside. When I saw the faces of the locals, I knew I had to make films about my homeland.
Why is social realism the best genre for you to tell these stories?
To be frank, I’m trying not to divide the films I make by genre because the genre ends up dictating the content. Rather, I want my heroes [my characters] to be in charge of the content.
In what ways is the collective national trauma of WWII still felt in Russian society today? It’s hard to conceptualize the scope of Russia’s sacrifices; the loss of 25 million lives. Surely the lingering effects of such wide-scale devastation are still felt today?
Ooh, that’s a hard question to answer.
I ask because it seems as though in the context of WWII history, the breadth of Russia’s contributions to the Allied cause are very underappreciated.
Yes, I think that’s true. To answer your question, I think this trauma is mainly felt in the culture of aggression that people exhibit in today’s Russia. It’s hard to find the right word, but I guess you could say there’s a level of dissatisfaction felt among the people. [Long pause] It’s a very difficult question to answer…
…And also one that’s very open-ended.
Yes, exactly. In Closeness, there’s footage of Chechens being executed by Russian soldiers. One of these Chechens asks a Russian soldier why Russia is always fighting in wars. This war mood—or war mode, I should say—I think it came from the second World War. It’s like we’re always trying to fight someone, or something—but that something is actually inside of us. It’s a very complicated question.
It’s quite remarkable that your two lead actresses are newcomers, considering the stellar and assured performances they turn in. How did you find them?
We had a great casting director, who also worked with us on Closeness. It was actually very easy, because they both came on the first day of auditions, so I knew from the first day that I had my main actors.
What was their chemistry like on set? Can you talk about your collaborative process with them?
To be honest, I was playing around with different methods. I had considered other actresses for the role of Masha, but Vasilisa was the only one who had a strong chemistry with Viktoria, the actress playing Iya. We did lots of rehearsals and pre-shoots, and I had everyone move into the same apartment building during the film’s production, so for several months Vasilisa and Viktoria lived together. We were trying to tap into the language, and the voice of that time period. To do that, I had them read relevant historical and dialectical literature, as well as watch films like Aleksei German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. It was a typical method approach to finding these characters, because the goal was to erase the identity of Viktoria and Vasilisa, and slip into the headspace of Iya and Masha.
In the Russian language, the word “beanpole” refers to clumsiness. I’m interested in the film’s application of this word—the physical clumsiness of Iya’s stature, but also these characters’ clumsiness.
That’s exactly right. This is why the film is called Beanpole—because everyone in the film is a beanpole. They feel clumsy, they speak clumsily, they’re kind of just lost in the space of their lives following the war.
As a director who studied under Alexander Sokurov, what were some of the most valuable lessons you took from his workshops? You said in a previous interview that Mr. Sokurov helped you achieve “self-consciousness,” and that self-consciousness is intimately linked to literature. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Well, I didn’t have the opportunity to analyze my actions or myself when I was his student, because I was just going with the flow. So literature helped me understand the importance of self-reflection in one’s life. It’s really emotional—have you met Sokurov?
I haven’t, but I imagine being under his tutelage was a very personal and perhaps even spiritual experience.
Yes. Anyone who’s been around him understands that this is such a big person, a big figure. His huge voice, his presence, it’s very commanding. He’s an extremely decent human being, and you want to be like him. I think that’s why he has such an influence on me.
Speaking of influences, you’ve also credited Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket and the Dardennes brothers’ Rosetta as being some of the films that had the greatest impact on you as a filmmaker.
Fists in the Pocket is my favorite film!
How does it feel, then, to have Beanpole play at the same festival, in the same year no less, as Bellocchio and the Dardennes brothers’ latest films? Talk about auspicious timing!
That was so surreal! It was really inspiring for me, because dreams do come true [chuckles]. When Beanpole was showing in the Un Certain Regard selection at Cannes, there was another film about Elton John that played at the Lumiere theater. I grew up loving Elton John’s The Lion King soundtrack, so it was just an emotional mess [chuckles].
What was your working relationship like with the film’s producer, Alexander Rodnyansky? Beanpole shares much of the raw humanity and character-driven sensibilities as Leviathan and Loveless. What did he bring to this film?
That was a great experience, getting to work with him. I felt very protected under his guidance, and he gave me everything I asked for. There was no pressure at all, because Alexander trusted me. My first cut was about three hours long, and we were trying to make it shorter. He would say, “If you feel that something doesn’t work—it’s okay, at the end of the day, it’s your decision what to leave in the film and what to take out—but just try removing it and see what happens.” I really appreciated that he didn’t push me, and in many ways that was a new experience for me. Okay, maybe new isn’t the right word, but it was wonderful getting to work with the strongest producer in Russia. I have nothing to complain about.
How has the film been received by Russian and international audiences?
As usual, some like it, some don’t. I don’t keep track. [Chuckles]
Having come from documentary filmmaking, do you prefer one genre over the other? What are the strengths and weaknesses of non-fiction vs. conventional narrative films, like historical fiction?
I like both formats, because it’s all about the message that’s being conveyed.
Speaking of message—although art is open to interpretation, are there any particular thoughts or feelings you want audiences to come away with?
That’s a tricky question because freedom from meaning allows you to create your own meaning. I don’t want to be a dictator and tell people what they should get out of the film. Understanding Beanpole through the lens of your own experiences is much more meaningful for me.
What are the challenges in working with toddlers, and how did you find the young actor who played Pashka? He’s incredibly adorable and has such a strong and infectious screen presence in the film. There’s a kind of closeness, an emotional intimacy, between him and the camera, and he hold his own.
I think it was such a miracle getting to work with this actor, Timofey Glazkov. He’s completely comfortable and poised on set—he doesn’t act like a child—so all I had to do was just stand behind the camera and give him little notes now and then.
It’s hard to take your eyes off him.
A lot of it is because of his age. Unfortunately, I think the situation will be different in two years’ time.
One of the most striking, and heartbreaking, moments in the film comes when Pashka is playing a game with recovering soldiers that involves mimicking the various sounds animals make, and when it’s his turn he doesn’t have a point of reference for what a dog’s bark sounds like, because they had all died during the war’s famine. It seems like this game was a way to drive home not just the physical death of war, but also the death of imagination felt by children of war?
Of course, that’s a great point. The death of imagination. I like that.
Beanpole screened at the 57th New York Film Festival and opens on January 29, 2020.
Follow Demitra Kampakis on Twitter at @DemionFilm.