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Stephen Cone on ‘Princess Cyd,’ Film Twitter, and the Economics of Indie Filmmaking

Written by Joshua Encinias, November 3, 2017 at 11:24 am 

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Stephen Cone has the tenacity of first-time director, yet he has eight feature films and dozens of shorts to show for it. His vision for filmmaking, grit in self-fundraising, and ability to collaborate with fresh faces (like Joe Keery of Stranger Things fame) and veteran actors alike results in nimble productions with a quick turn-around.

The Film Stage’s Jose Solís reviewed Cone’s newest film Princess Cyd, which opens today in NY and Chicago, saying: “With this, Cone also continues to be one of the few directors who has chosen to contextualize faith rather than demonize it. He shows greater interest in the places where we are like each other, all while celebrating what makes us different.”

Offering a look into his still-young career, Eric Hynes, Associate Curator of Film at the Museum of the Moving Image, programmed Talk About the Passion: Stephen Cone’s First Act, going from November 3 – 12 to celebrate their New York theatrical premiere of Princess Cyd. The First Act includes screenings of Cone’s The Wise Kids, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, In Memoriam, This Afternoon and Black Box, with cast and crew Q&As at various screenings both weekends.

We had a long conversation with Cone about his filmmaking process, Marilynne Robinson’s sex life, and learning from (and disagreeing with) Armond White.

The Film Stage: Princess Cyd respects its characters. In a banner year for ideological warfare in America, it’s nice to see people love each other even when it’s difficult.

Stephen Cone: I’m sure in Miranda’s (Rebecca Spence) soiree they don’t all have the same political views. I’m sure some people would watch that sequence and go, oh it’s a bunch of liberals or whatever. I think Miranda is an open-minded character with an open heart who allows different points of view in her sphere. This thing of respect for characters is always so interesting. There’s never a point at which I’m consciously thinking I respect these characters, to give them their due and create them in a three-dimensional way. It’s funny to me that anyone would write a character they didn’t respect. It’s funny this is considered a thing of note that I like my characters. The gentleness is not strategic, the openness, the heart. We just do what we do, we paint what we paint. But I like seeing that it’s somehow notable to make a movie like that.

I read an interview with Pedro Costa about today’s filmmaking and he said its ethos is to avenge, to revenge. I think that’s why your filmmaking stands out.

Yes. I’m glad it stands out and I’m glad people are eventually willing to showcase something like this that doesn’t necessarily have a powerhouse, in-your-face third act twist. Otherwise this movie would be sitting in my apartment. So kudos to programmers for wanting to include that sort of feeling in the mix.

Is Miranda at all based on Marilynne Robinson?

One hundred percent. I joke that this movie came about by wondering about Marilynne Robinson’s sex life. She’s so confident and so brilliant, insightful and deeply connected to spirituality and nature and science. But I often wonder, when is the last time she had sex? [Laughs.] I think she’s divorced, so she’s alone in that house. What would happen if a horny young teenage came and stayed with her? What would that physical dynamic be? What would the spiritual dynamic be? In fact, in the screenplay the character was fifteen years older than the actress who plays her. So she used to be even closer to Marilynne Robinson in age, but Rebecca is incredible and fifteen years younger than anyone who came in. It was a controversial decision in the casting office to do that because we saw so many beautiful, mid-fifties and even sixty-year-old Miranda’s. It was hard to say no to them because I know what they were thinking, of course he went with someone younger. But Rebecca understood people like Marilynne Robinson. She had a beautiful spirit about her. She just got the sensibility. She was utterly shocked to get it. She said she just came in to audition to meet me and say hi so she would be on my radar. It didn’t occur to her that I would actually cast her. She sort of ages herself from within. It’s quite remarkable. We put a little grey in her hair because she’s very early forties, but to me she comes off as fifty years old in the film. But in many ways, Cyd’s body is more weathered because of playing sports.

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Why base Miranda on Robinson?

God, her mind. I don’t see eye-to-eye with her on spirituality. She’s interestingly skeptical of science and I certainly prefer her to someone like Richard Dawkins, who’s just an awful arrogant person. But she goes a little far in her ‘we should also be skeptical of the scientists.’ I understand what she’s saying but she remains my intellectual hero. I love her thought. I love how she in her mind integrates community and spirituality. I don’t think she sees the cosmos as separate from theology. It’s this beautiful joining of world, matter and spirit.

You definitely see Robinson’s way of intermingling of spirituality, intellectualism, and sexuality in the film.

I talked about the things before that weren’t conscious, but all of this is conscious. This is the movie. Because once you start thinking about Marilynne Robinson’s sex life, it just takes you there, right? Asking yourself what is the world, what is the yard? What is she experiencing, does she see her body as separate from her soul? You know, I’m curious. Marilynne Robinson – what is the soul? I think I’m more a materialist than Marilynne Robinson. On my most spiritual days, which are few, I get caught up in the complications of evolution. When did the soul suddenly appear in our journey from neanderthal to now. That’s where it trips me up. Was there literally a day when the soul started or did our animal predecessors also have souls? The thing about Marilynne Robinson is I think she’s more conflicted than she lets on. Now we’re off the movie… but it’s always interesting to me when Marilynne Robinson criticizes Richard Dawkins for his arrogance because she has her own very healthy dose of arrogance. I don’t know many writers who write more confidently than she does. Even when she’s asking questions she’s really confident in her thoughts. But that’s also where Princess Cyd comes from. What is Miranda thinking about when she’s not dressed in a beautiful dress at a book conference?

Tyler Ross is your lead in Wise Kids, then he plays a lame boyfriend in Henry Gamble and in Cyd he plays a total sleazeball. Why are his characters devolving in your films?

He’s just someone I want to keep working with forever. I think he’s wonderful. I love what he does in Cyd, it’s really strong. I just have roles that I’m casting, I’m not thinking of him for them. I hope he’ll play a lead for me again one day. A lot of it too is how he’s aging. He’s turned into a kind of husky, masculine soul. That said, he could have played the youth minister in Henry Gamble, which is weird because it’s only three years after Wise Kids. This is making me want to see three stills of him in each film.

Richard Brody called Twitter a ‘salon’ for contemporary film discussion. What’s it like for you as a working filmmaker?

That seems to be true for cinephiles and critics but not for filmmakers. I feel like an outlier, a little bit. It’s starting to get a little complicated to be mutual Twitter friends with people who are reviewing the films. Not bad, but more complicated than when we debuted Henry. At that time, Film Twitter didn’t know about The Wise Kids. It’s like a salon, sure, but it’s also narrow in its maleness, its whiteness, its Brooklynness, so yeah. Salon is a very generous way of putting it.

He loves it.

He loves it. Nick Pinkerton hates it and he loves it.

I read that when you were learning about film, you read a lot of Armond White and received a lot of ideas about movies to watch. He has the column at Out Magazine, so have you ever wondered why he hasn’t reviewed your work?

I don’t think there’s any consistency in his decisions to watch a film. I actually don’t think he’s actively seeking out movies anymore. That’s my theory. I don’t think he watches movies with an open mind and an open heart. I say this as someone who’s been a fan: at his best he’s still great. In the 90s, people said he was a fluke. I thought then he was only ten percent the kook people said he was. Now I think he’s sixty percent. A lot of it is older age, I think. Becoming defiant, stubborn, arrogant, rebellious. I’m still a fan and certainly his prose, when he’s spelling things correctly and is naming things accurately, is still beautiful. I think there’s a lot of queer films he doesn’t review. He’s probably never heard of my movies. Maybe he will one day. God knows, with the Logan character in Henry Gamble, he would either loathe it or hate it. He used to be in my head when watching movies but I can’t take a lot of what he’s been saying. But I love when classic Armond comes out. It’s important to question these people too. There’s a way to be almost too swayed by a critic. It took me a few years to push back. He was so powerfully persuasive in his writing that it was only in the last decade that I’ve been able to push back. Sometimes a critic can be too persuasive, Pauline Kael was that way… I love that our conversation has been preoccupied with Marilynne Robinson and Armond White.

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You didn’t plan on doing Princess Cyd after Henry Gamble. How did it come together?

We could do a whole interview about it. But the long story short is I’ve been making movies for over a decade, movies for under two-hundred thousand dollars. I have no family money. I raise them entirely from dozens of individuals. There’s no magic to it. I have no single source of funding. There’s been this issue over the last couple of years that I’m so comfortable and safe in this two-hundred thousand dollar bubble. How do I expand? Because I’m entirely self-reliant. That becomes a problem eventually because if you haven’t built a wide organization of people to help you, then you end up the powerful, most connected person on your project and there’s no one to help you take the next step. I spent the first six months of last year attempting to make my first over-two-hundred thousand dollar project. The script wasn’t ready. I was stubborn. I tried to rush it. I was basically treating a half-a-million dollar project just as a smaller project. Around July 4th, I came to my senses and I had the discipline I wouldn’t have had three years ago to say, “No Stephen, don’t just force this movie with your bare hands.” And then two weeks later I lost the sense and decided to make another smaller film eight weeks from that point. I had the story in my head, but the whole thing, from conception to shooting was eight weeks. No sources of funds were available. I had to raise it in eight weeks. So basically I made a quick decision of going back to my old way of doing things because I wanted to make a movie. But I didn’t want to make a movie just to make it. I only wanted to make it if I could very quickly make something that actually was a step forward for me. I know that some people will prefer Henry, some people will prefer Cyd. I wanted to give myself the opportunity to grow. I thought I could pull it off by making the budget a little bigger while simultaneously narrowing the characters. I could give myself a canvas to focus on a couple of narratives instead of twenty at once. I needed to give myself the gift of seeing what it’s like to tell the story of a few people.

I think Princess Cyd is going to have a different life from your other films.

It’s already being more warmly received than Henry was. Wise Kids may have been as warmly received as this but no one really saw it. Everything’s been slow for me. But I’ve had prominent filmmakers who’ve said they don’t know how I do this. I want to say, I don’t know how you do that. One thing I’m trying to do is nurture some mentorships. Some with people who are younger than me!

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Would you ever do the Sundance Labs?

That’s another discussion. Because there’s such an obsession with discoveries and debuts in this country, I long became ineligible for those. They’re almost entirely for first- and second-time filmmakers. There are very few opportunities for development for people who’ve been working at it for a really long time. It’s really sad. But can you imagine if The Wise Kids went through a screenwriting lab? I can imagine being told to cut three characters out of Henry Gamble. So I’m also grateful for the way I’ve gotten here.

What are you doing next?

I want to keep making the films but I need to expand the audience. That said, if someone said I’ll give you five million dollars to make a movie, I don’t know if I could come up with a five million dollar movie because that’s not where my brain goes. Bigger for me is still almost too cheap for some producers. I can do it but I’m giving myself time to figure it out. I can get any role filled on set, but no one raises money for me but me. One of the downsides of working very quickly is you don’t nurture the broader connections that help you take the next leap because it’s entirely utilitarian. It is: who do I need to fill these tasks? Not a slow burn of developing a relationship with a very well-connected person. I’ve never given myself that gift because my priority has been make movies. But I don’t want to feign isolation. There are people I have access to so I don’t want to pretend I’m making movies on a farm in the midwest. Of course I have people who will respond to my emails, but in terms of making stuff, it’s all been friends.

Princess Cyd is now playing in NYC and Chicago and opens in LA on December 1. Museum of the Moving Image’s Stephen Cone retrospective is also underway through November 12.

‘Lady Bird’ Cinematographer Sam Levy on Greta Gerwig, Frank Ocean, and Éric Rohmer

Written by Jordan Raup, November 1, 2017 at 2:56 pm 

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After working under Harris Savides for many years, in the past decade, Sam Levy has emerged to bring a distinct visual style to the face of American independent film. With his collaborations with Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, While We’re Young, Mistress America), and more, there’s a energetic dexterity and understated beauty to his images that is among the finest of his contemporaries.

His latest work finds him re-teaming with frequent collaborator Greta Gerwig, but this time for her directorial debut, Lady Bird. I spoke with Levy about his part in capturing a film of enormous amiability and vitality, as well as his early days studying under Éric Rohmer, working with Spike Jonze on a secretive Frank Ocean project, and his favorite film of the last year.

The Film Stage: You’ve worked with Greta Gerwig on a handful of films. How early on did she start talking with you about Lady Bird?

Sam Levy: Greta first mentioned Lady Bird to me at the premiere party in New York for Mistress America, which we both worked on with Noah Baumbach. So it was a gala event and we were relaxing and having a great time at this lovely premiere and that’s when she first mentioned it. I knew that it had existed, but I didn’t know how real it was or not. She brought it up in this great way. She said, “I have this project. Don’t feel like you have to do it, but if it’s okay, I’d like to send it to you. You don’t even have to read it.” I said, “Of course I want to read it! Of course I want to do it! Yeah, I’ll read it. I’m sure it’s amazing.” And we just went from there. That was probably about a year-and-a-half before we started shooting.

One of the things that struck me most about the cinematography is that it has a very lived-in feel to it, almost like you’re watching a memory. How did you come up with that approach?

Well, I’m glad you said it looks like a memory. That’s exactly what Greta said she wanted it to look like. She said, “I want this to look like a memory.” So my job was to figure out what that means and then how to do it. As soon as she said it, I understood on a visceral level what she meant, but then how to execute it… So, we started looking at photographs from the era. The movie is set in the early 2000s and we looked at different photographs and we looked at paintings from this amazing Sacramento-based artist named Wayne Thiebaud and just started a visual conversation. We very quickly found that we were on the same page and we liked the same things. I would say a great eureka moment was we were in the production office and I took some photos we’d both been looking at and I wanted to put them up on our wall, so I color-Xerox’ed a bunch of them. We had this really inexpensive color copier in the office, so they were these crude facsimiles of these great photos and paintings.

We tacked them up on the wall and we really loved the quality that these photocopies had. And it spurred on this great intellectual conversation between Greta and I about how, in the early 2000s, it was still very much the era of people going to Kinko’s and making color copies–just making copies of all kinds– but it was a big heyday for zines, which still exist now, but it was just before everything became hyper-digital. Kids and adults would color copy things, put them on their wall, use them to decorate, and just use them in different ways, so it was very evocative for us to look at these color copies. On top of that, we loved how the image looked and felt, so I wanted to capture something about this facsimile of an image–a generation removed from a sort of high-quality image.

So I begin testing with the ALEXA, the digital camera we were using, to try and get at this quality. We came up with a technique to utilize the native grain that the ALEXA has. All video cameras have grain or noise to them, from VHS cameras to Hi8 cameras from the early 2000s to the high-end digital cameras we have now. They all have some kind of noise or grain to them, so I wanted to tease out that grain that they have. So we came up with a technique to do that, to create this generation removed quality of the early 2000s, but still have it be rich.

There’s a style to the cinematography, but it never feels overstylized. There’s a sense you’re moving through Lady Bird’s world with her with your camera movements. Can you talk about that decision?

Yes. I’m glad you picked up on that. It was very deliberate to have the movement respond to Lady Bird. So if she’s moving, we’ll move with her, to respond to her movement, and not have movement just for the sake of movement when the characters aren’t moving. There’s a shot when her and the Jenna character [played by Odeya Rush] are at The Deuce, which is this parking lot where the cool kids hang out and they get out of the car and they walk over to Timothée Chalamet and the camera just follows them and it’s one of the longer tracking shots in the movie. Because Greta brought the project up a year-and-a-half before we started, we’d take a day like every weekend to hang out and start shot listing and start talking about the kind of movement, the kind of blocking that we wanted, the cinematography we wanted to have. Everything comes out of that. How the characters move and how the camera moves in response to their blocking. We decided we didn’t want to use a Steadicam. We didn’t want to use a handheld camera. We wanted to be on a dolly. We wanted to always use dolly track and if that wasn’t possible, we would figure out a new blocking. Luckily, we spent so much time shot listing and discussing beforehand that we worked out the methodology and we could just execute it. There’s always certain surprises when you get on set, but we had our playbook with rules.

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The location of this, in Sacramento, gives such a foundation for your cinematography. It feels like it’s always glistening, perhaps in the magic hour. Can you talk about how important the location was to aid your cinematography?

The location was… I wouldn’t say everything, but it’s total paramount. For example, Lady Bird’s house. So much happens at her house. It’s so central to the story and her character, her mom, dad, brother, sister. It was a practical location. We didn’t shoot anything on a stage and we didn’t build anything. So much of the filmmaking came from location scouting and finding places that had great bones, that had great light, that had enough space, but weren’t too big related to the socioeconomics of this family, who don’t have a lot of money. Once we did find the house, which took a long time, it was important for me to spend a lot of time there, to look at what the light did at the house, and I made a lot of tests, which was very important to the process. To look at the light, to spend time there, to do light studies, then to actually take the ALEXA there and to try out some different lenses I was considering to get that photocopy feeling that I referenced, and just to spend as much time there as possible, so when we were actually shooting with the actors we could just plug in and get to a zone and move.

Saoirse Ronan is incredible and she has been in the last decade or so since she’s been working, but you also worked with a number of up-and-comers, including Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, and Beanie Feldstein. What was your experience on set seeing their performances come to life?

It was amazing and astounding to work with all of these different actors. Every single one was completely brilliant. Saoirse, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Stephen Henderson, who plays Father Leviatch, who is just brilliant, Lois Smith, who plays the school principal, the head nun, Beanie Feldstein, who is just genius, Lucas Hedges, Timothee, Marielle Scott, who plays the adopted daughter, Shelley, and Jordan Rodrigues. Every single one of those actors is brilliant and Greta was so masterful at communicating with the actors, but not just talking to the actors, synthesizing everything they had, and it was all her words. She was in complete control of the dialogue and the arc. She was her own dramaturge while we were shooting, in addition to having written all of this great dialogue. She just created a wonderful environment on the set. What was great as her collaborator — and we had worked together a number of times, so we had a great shorthand — was that I could be instrumental in the blocking conversation.

So while she was sometimes, say talking to Beanie about something, I could give a note to Saoirse, like “Hey, instead of turning to your left, why don’t you turn to your right and then move over here. Let’s try that.” Of course, I try always to give blocking notes to Greta, because it’s her set, but sometimes if it was simpler for me to speak directly with the actors, that’s pretty much all I would say. I would just talk about blocking, and all of these actors have theater backgrounds and I had some great talks with Laurie and with Tracy about their theater experiences and blocking for the theater and how actors make tweaks to the blocking, which isn’t so much the case with film because all we’re doing at the end of the day is capturing the blocking that’s in front of the camera. But in some scenes I was able to have a lot of input about what their blocking should be, many times in service of the story and in service of keeping the filmmaking approach simple and in connection with what we were talking about before, with camera movement. We’re always trying to streamline things as much as we could. Not to make things but to make them easy, but to make them dynamic and interesting and engaging and to have a spark, but in synthesis with the performances and the story and all with the greater goal of keeping the viewer so engaged that they never feel like they are on the outside of the movie. I don’t know if it worked or not, but that was the goal.

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Greta Gerwig on How ‘Lady Bird’ Represents a New Kind of Coming-of-Age Tale

Written by Joshua Encinias, October 30, 2017 at 12:55 pm 

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Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s new film Lady Bird is packed with the ‘brain trust’ of American theater: Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Lois Smith. Joining them are some of the finest young actors of their generation with Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird, Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet as her two love interests, Danny and Kyle, respectively, and Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s doting best friend, Julie.

With the film now arriving in limited release this week, we’re returning to the 55th New York Film Festival, where Greta did a public talk with Thelma Adams and a press conference hosted by Kent Jones. Gerwig talks in depth about exploring the personhood of a young woman, the sometimes volatile love between mother and daughter, and sneaking into NYFF during college. See highlights below.

Why Lady Bird isn’t a typical coming-of-age story

Usually movies about teenage girls, even if it’s not the primary story, it tends to center around one guy. That’s the love story. In my story there’s not one guy, there’s two guys and they’re both wrong, because that’s not the love story. The love story is between her and her mother. I think it’s an incredibly rich and vivid time and I think when I was looking back, I thought what is Boyhood but for a girl, or what is 400 Blows but for a girl, what are these stories? And not does she date the guy, but what is personhood for young women? I just felt like there was a dearth of it. Romance seems to be the thing that women primarily do in movies. It’s not that I don’t like that; it’s not that I’m not interested in it–it just can’t be the only story we’re telling about what women do.

Greta Gerwig’s goal as a director

Most directors are only ever on their own set. They don’t actually know how anybody else does it and I’ve seen so many ways of working with crew and actors and department heads, I feel like the biggest thing a director can do is create a bubble of magic safety for their actors and for their department heads and hold the perimeter. So that they feel safe to play and bring their whole selves. Also with the actors, that they feel that they own those roles. The minute that we start rehearsing they know more than I do. I do not hold a secret key of who the person is — they do. They should be able to take it into themselves so they can be the guardian of the person. Even to the point of… the way I had my actors work with my costume designer, I had them build wardrobes instead of costuming each scene. Because it goes over a year, I wanted Saoirse to be able to say I think this is what she would wear in this scene. This is what’s in her closet and what does she want to wear today. That’s actually something I innovated. [Laughs] I think the thing you don’t want actors to feel is they always have to look to you for permission, because I think that limits the work they can do. When they think, “No, it’s mine and I understand it,” it opens up. I always wanted the actors to have secrets from me with each other. I also wanted them to have little things they knew and they came up with that were their codes with each other. Because the truth is I’m not in the make believe world with them. I’m capturing it.

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Working with playwright-actor Tracy Letts

I absolutely adore him. He’s so kind, but he’s intimidating. If I would give him a note he would always say, “I understand” (Gerwig says stoically). I would be like, are you gonna do it? He always would. Obviously he’s one of our great playwrights. I also felt in the course of this film, I had Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Laurie Metcalf. I was like, nothing better happen to them because this is the brain trust of the American theater. He’s such a great writer, but he’s also an incredible actor. For me to see those two things go together, he just brings his intelligence as a writer, but he also has what all actors have and it’s an enormous empathy machine inside. He has so many good, small things in the film. When his wife and daughter start fighting I think he just wants to go somewhere else because he loves them both and it’s so painful to watch them fight, so he just kind of leaves the room.

The first draft of the screenplay was 350 pages long

It’s always a little hard to know exactly how long it takes me to write something because I’m constantly writing and I don’t know what pieces become something. What I do know is that I have a draft, a very long draft, of this movie from the end of December 2013. So at least a couple years. It was about three hundred and fifty pages. There were a lot more dances. Some of the scenes didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t like three hundred and fifty pages of something narratively cohesive, it was three hundred and fifty pages of stuff. Then I looked at it and felt what was essential and what was the core of the story to me. I don’t really decide what the core of a story is before I write. I write to figure out what the story is. I think the characters end up talking to you and telling you what they want to be doing and what’s important to them. In some ways your job is to listen as much as you write, to listen to what they characters who are coming through you tell you.

Casting Saoirse Ronan at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival

I didn’t have her in mind while I was writing, but in 2015 I met her at the Toronto Film Festival. She read the script and she really responded to it. I was going to be there with Maggie’s Plan and she was going to be there with Brooklyn. We met and we sat in her hotel room and she read all of Lady Bird’s lines and I read everybody else’s lines and I knew within the first two pages that she was Lady Bird and that she had the part, but I just selfishly wanted to hear it all outloud said by her. She’s such an incredible actress. I can’t really say enough about her. There was something about the way she did it that was instantly different from the way I heard it in my head, and so much better, unique and specific to her. And she has a quality of being always emotionally at a ten, which made it that much funnier. Because it was all out of a place of sincerity. She never played the joke with quotes around it, she always played it from the inside. It made everything vivid in a way I always hoped for, but you just never know if you’re going to be able to find the exact person who’s going to be able to capture that. And she just instantly did.

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On Ronan channeling Barbra Streisand

I’ve always loved that song [Everybody Says Don’t from the Broadway show Anyone Can Whistle] and I think it spoke to where her character was at that point. Of always feeling like everywhere she turned she couldn’t move. As soon as I heard her sing it she was so funny and committed. Barbra Streisand made a recording of that song and it’s a really great recording, so she was listening to that version. So in a way this was her channeling Barbara. Which, that’s enough to make a movie.

“Discovering” Laurie Metcalf

Really, all of the actors in the film, I am so blessed and they are so wonderful. And Laurie in particular, I knew I wanted an actor who could hit a home run. It felt exciting and like a discovery even though she, to anyone who’s been paying attention, she’s not a discovery. But I felt like I knew she had this enormous power, of this enormous skill set of empathy and everything she brings to the character she plays. And I had seen her on stage more than anything else, and I when I left the theater I thought to myself, I have never seen anything in my life like that unfolded in front of me. When we were thinking about the part, I had already written the script, and as soon as her name came up as a possibility I thought she’s a genius. We talked on the phone and she’s a bit like a great athlete. She didn’t have to spend a lot of time going on about the character. She just said that I think this is something I need to do and sometimes things come into your life at the right moment. She said I currently have a seventeen-year-old child who is trying to kill me, so I think this is exactly what I need to be doing right now. Working with her was extraordinary and I learned so much from her. Getting to watch her and Saoirse work together, it was like watching a match of two greats. Each one of them had different ways of getting into it, but when they were in scenes together, it was like watching two heavy weights.

Gerwig’s next career move

I always wanted to direct but I didn’t go to proper film school. I went to Barnard College for women uptown. When I started production on this, I’d been working in film for ten years, and I’d done every job I could do. I was lucky to act a lot and be on a lot of great director’s sets. I had written, I had co-written, I had held the boom mic, I had edited, costumed, applied powder. I was using that to gather my ten thousand hours, whatever Malcolm Gladwell’s requirement is. When I finished the script, I said, “You always wanted to do this, you’re not going to get any more information, you’ve just got to jump, you’ve gotta go do it.” I loved doing it. It was a very wonderful experience of making the film and I hope I continue to be able to act in projects that I love with directors that I admire. Now that I tore the band aid off, I think I’m going to keep making movies, I’m going to keep writing and directing films. Hopefully continuing to do all of it.

Lady Bird’s depiction of working class America

Class is a very difficult thing in America. One of my favorite filmmakers is Mike Leigh. He’s British, and I think the British class system is very clear of who’s where. I think in America I think 95% of people describe themselves as middle class. That’s people who fall into the poverty spectrum and also people at the very top. We are very uncomfortable with class and how that works. I think it’s an invisible force that shapes a lot of people’s lives. I’ve always thought life is not fair and resources are not divided fairly, either in talents or in economics. I think one thing I wanted to explore is Lady Bird’s always looking up at other people, people who she thinks have more, have it all together. Meanwhile, those people are looking up at other people and she also doesn’t see what she has because in a culture of more, more, more and I always need to get to the next level, there’s no way to appreciate what you have. It’s not explicitly stated, but I think her best friend Julie looks up to her, she’s got a house, she’s got two parents, she’s okay. It’s that disease of looking up combined with the way these things are very real and untalked about. It’s something I wanted to explore and have a reality to.

Sneaking into NYFF during college

New York Film Festival is the festival. I went to college in town and I used to get dressed in a fancy dress and go to Tavern on the Green and try to sneak into the opening night party and I succeeded for three years. Someone would always leave a side door open and you just act like your drink is inside or you see someone. I probably shouldn’t give that away but it’s just true. It’s what I did, because I was a nerd and I wanted to see Isabelle Huppert.

Lady Bird screened at the 55th New York Film Festival and opens on Friday, November 3.

‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ Director and Producer on the Heritage of Studio Ghibli and the Birth of Studio Ponoc

Written by Daniel Schindel, October 30, 2017 at 7:30 am 

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower, based on the 1971 children’s novel The Little Broomstick, is the first film from Studio Ponoc, a new Japanese animation studio founded by Yoshiaki Nishimura. Nishimura previously worked at the revered Studio Ghibli, where he produced The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There. To build Ponoc, he brought along other Ghibli veterans, including Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who helmed Mary. In his time as an animator, Yonebayashi worked as an artist on such films as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Ponyo, eventually progressing to directing The Secret World of Arrietty and Marnie. With the help of a translator, we spoke to Nishimura and Yonebayashi about Mary and the Witch’s Flower and their new studio’s growing pains.

The Film Stage: What made you pick this project as the first feature for Studio Ponoc?

Yoshiaki Nishimura: At the end of 2014, Studio Ghibli closed its production division, and we who wanted to continue making animated feature films founded Studio Ponoc. For the first film that we would make as a new studio, I wanted to make sure that we featured director Yonebayashi’s specialty, which he learned under director Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli, and which he then developed on his own: His ability to do dynamic action animation.

When Marnie Was There was a very quiet story of the internal struggles of a young girl. I thought that for [Ponoc’s] first film, it would be great if we could feature an energetic girl who moves around a lot, and then also use a lot of fantasy as well. And I thought this would be handled best by choosing a witch as the main character.

FS: Why did you pick The Little Broomstick as the source material?

YN: As a producer, I read many children and young adult books to try to find good subjects for film production, and a lot of those stories deal with magic and witches. In those, when the main character confronts a very difficult situation, they use magic to solve it. But in The Little Broomstick, the main character chooses not to use magic at that crucial moment toward the latter part of the story. She says, “I’ll open this door without using magic, no matter how long it might take me.” And I thought that concept would be a great one to make a film with.

Both director Yonebayashi and I, and other creators from Studio Ghibli, have now lost the magic of being at Ghibli, and we have to stand on our own two feet. So this concept relates to the fact that we hoped to be able to complete a film on our own. That was the original story that I took to director Yonebayashi.

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FS: How much of the production process or style from Studio Ghibli did you retain, and how much did you invent on your own for this film? Was there anything you did which you might not have done at Ghibli?

Hiromasa Yonebayashi: Rather than saying that we had to have [something] look [a specific] way, I wanted to hear the opinions of and have discussions with the many different people who gathered to create this film. I think we were able to accommodate and take in those different aspects as well.

Background art is a very significant example of the kind of quality and taste that Studio Ghibli films have shown. When the production division at Ghibli was closed, we were concerned that all the background artists would scatter. Hideaki Anno, who has a company called Khara, the company Dwango run by [Nobuo] Kawakami, and Studio Ponoc all gathered together to create Dehogallery. It’s for background artists to have a company that they could work from. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is also the first feature film that Dehogallery artists have worked on.

FS: For the settings, especially the magical college, what influences were there on the designs, and what else shaped the style of the backgrounds?

HY: I wanted to make sure that the contrasts between the English countryside and the fantasy world was very clear. The countryside shows a great reverence for nature. We actually went location hunting in England, and I was very much educated by the plants, the clouds, and the houses, the interiors that we saw there. Those are the things that I think that gave a realistic and beautiful feel to the nature settings, the scenes in the red manor house, and other scenes in the “real” world.

For Endor College in the fantasy world, I wanted to make it a little bit more artificial-looking — for example, the garden in the courtyard. The colors are unnatural, and I didn’t want to have just one type of architecture. I thought we should mix up many different styles from around the world, because it is a fantastical place. It was difficult to think up and have all those different aspects all merge together, but that is the kind of fantasy world that I wanted to create.

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FS: What guides the designs of the fantastical characters, like the shapeshifting servants or transformed animals?

HY: It was interesting and fun to create all the different fantasy land creatures. It was an enjoyable task. [The servants] are gray and have holes in their chest areas. It shows that they are kind of like robots, without any heart. They act as subordinates, only doing others’ bidding. But I didn’t want to make them look too menacing or serious, so I made them a little bit comical. Similarly, the transformed animals were poor innocent animals that have become laboratory experiments. I wanted to have them be a little sad-feeling, rather than be weird and scary.

FS: Did you encounter any significant difficulties as a brand-new studio?

HY: Many animators and creators who worked on the film were also people who had been at Studio Ghibli, and I was able to use their talents and specialties because I knew what kind of work each of them was capable of doing. We also had many people who were not former Studio Ghibli staff. Their ways of showing movement and expression are mixed in with the Ghibli heritage. I consider this [project] an accumulation and an addition of abilities, which made the film much richer than it might have been otherwise.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower screened at the Animation is Film Festival and opens on January 18, 2018.

‘The Square’ Star Claes Bang on Ruben Östlund’s Intensity, Winning the Palme d’Or, and Condom Fights

Written by Josh Slater-Williams, October 25, 2017 at 12:39 pm 

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A late addition to this year’s Cannes competition, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s satirical drama The Square ended up a surprise winner of the Palme d’Or. The follow-up to his well-received Force Majeure, the film’s cast includes Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West and Terry Notary, best known for his motion capture work in Kong: Skull Island and the recent Planet of the Apes films.

The main star of The Square, though, is Danish actor Claes Bang, who plays Christian, the respected curator of a contemporary art museum. His next exhibition is “The Square”, an installation that invites visitors to remember their role as responsible human beings, inviting them to be altruistic (“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring, within it we all share equal rights and obligations”). Despite the thesis of his show, and his public commitment to good causes, Christian finds it difficult to live up to those same ideals in his personal life. Following a misguided response to the theft of his phone, he’s dragged into a series of strange and shameful situations; some of which are brought on by him, others by outside forces like a PR agency creating a disastrous viral campaign for “The Square.”

While he was in London for the film’s UK premiere, I spoke to the charismatic and entertaining Bang about Ruben Östlund’s intense direction, how he thinks he’d react in a Force Majeure situation, the feeling of being part of a Palme d’Or winner, having to share a scene with an intimidating ape, and filming a particularly funny sex scene with Elisabeth Moss.

Considering that The Square opens with a very awkward encounter between your character and a journalist, I was wondering if you’ve had any similar experiences while on the press tour for this movie.

Yes, actually, there was one, because there was a guy in Germany and that was a little bit stupid of me. He started talking to me about an artist called Malevich who actually is into squares, as well. Do you know anything about him? I actually looked it up a little bit because I was, like, what have I been talking about? And I tried to answer him because he was, like, “How can we sort of compare this Malevich to this thing?” And what I should have said is, “I don’t know what this Malevich is, so I can’t answer that question.” But I actually tried to, so I actually did what the character in the film does and I’m not sure if I made a mess of it, but we’ll see when that comes out in Germany at some point. But apart from that, where he was obviously on a quite different level than me in terms of comparing art, I haven’t had any really weird questions, no.

Well, now I’m probably about to change that. So, we’ll address the most important question I have: tell me about acting with the monkey [actually an ape].

Tell you the truth, I was scared shitless of that animal. And for a reason, because it’s a wild animal. Obviously, it’s living with people and it’s used to people somehow, but if you upset the monkey it might react in a way that… I mean, it comes with a manual…

The monkey comes with a manual?

The monkey comes with a manual of what you can and can’t do. You can’t run. You can’t sing. You can’t be loud. There are so many things you’re not allowed to do around the monkey because it might upset the monkey and you don’t know if the monkey might attack you. We just tried to be around it as little as possible, but you know, obviously, when the monkey is passing through the room I’m like three metres away from it or something. So I didn’t feel good about that, to be honest. And I didn’t have my photo taken with the monkey or try to shake hands with it or anything. I just wanted to stay clear of it.

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I’ve heard Ruben has intense casting sessions.

Yes, my God, yeah. Really long ones and I think I actually went to three casting sessions for this one. And the first one was something like two and a half hours, and then the next two ones were probably two hours. For the first one, I hadn’t read the script or anything. Well, I think that’s probably quite normal, that they won’t give you the script. But I didn’t even really know what it was all about. For the first casting, I was just asked to prepare the speech that I do in the museum to the audience. I was told it’s about this square and “The Square” is a place of trust and care, and then I was supposed to just write a speech myself and present that speech. I actually think that a good deal of what I came up with ended up in the film.

So I prepared that and I got to the casting, and then instead he sat me down on a chair and said, “Nah, I’m gonna talk you through all this. I’m gonna tell you what the film is all about.” And then he talked me through it from beginning to end, and then we stopped here and there and we improvised some of the scenes. And then at the end he was like, “Okay, super, good, thank you for coming.” And I was like, “Well, I did prepare this speech, don’t you want to see that?” And then I did that, and then a month and a half went by and he asked me to come back to do a casting session with some of the other actors that are in the film. And then one more casting session the next day and that was it.

It all came back very well. I didn’t read the script until after I got the part, actually, but that was such a huge part of getting into the project that it was a good thing to spend that many hours on it in terms of preparing for it. For the second casting session, he phoned me and he asked me if I wanted to read the script before and I was like, “Well, I think that the way we worked for the first casting session was actually quite good.” Sometimes if you become too conscious of something, if you know this is what the story is and this is where it goes, you as an actor want to help it. Do you know what I mean?

You want to push it in that direction?

Yeah – we are going here and now I’m gonna do this. What he’s really after, all the time, is just staying in the situation. I might know that at the end of this scene [my character]’s not gonna be very happy, but he wanted it to evolve. He doesn’t want me to start playing unhappy before it’s there. And therefore I think it’s quite good not to really know, because if I’m gonna be unhappy in two minutes because you ask me a question I can’t answer, I don’t know it now, so there’s no reason for me to play it before it’s there. Sometimes as an actor you can get a little bit too aware of where you’re going and trying to help it too soon. Does that make sense?

It does. I guess it’s getting to a point where you’re almost not acting in a way.

And that’s what he wants, I think. He does very long takes and he does a lot of them. In that way, he sort of exhausts you as an actor into a state where you lose your consciousness of what you’re doing in terms of producing something. You’re just there, that’s what he wants. For instance, in the scene with me and the assistant where we’re writing the note, when I see it it’s like those two actors don’t know there’s a camera in the room. They’re just two little boys playing with this forbidden toy or something.

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What was it like shooting the condom argument scene with Elisabeth Moss?

That was so much fun. That was a hard scene to shoot because we were laughing a lot. For the actual sex, I’m not there. She’s on top of the camera, jumping up and down, and when I’m there the cameraman is on top of me jumping up and down. So she could have been in another country or something. The part where we’re fighting over the condom took forever because everything takes forever with Ruben. Even though you’ve definitely got the feeling that we’ve got it now, he wants to do fifteen more takes, always. But because it was so bloody hilarious, we had a really hard time getting through it.

I think it was probably because it was too much, but at the end of the shoot he was like, we’ve gotten so many directions with it and done this and that, but now, in the middle of a take, he said, “Now you’ve only got one option and that is to eat it. Eat the condom.” And so I put it in my mouth and I would play the whole scene with the condom hanging out and her trying to get it out. But, obviously, that was too much so he didn’t put that in the film.

I was thinking watching it that it’s one of the sweatiest sex scenes I can recall seeing of late, but now I’m wondering if that’s due to the long takes.

No, they poured sweat on us. I was like, seriously, isn’t it too much? And it is too much, but it’s quite funny.

Relating to a question posed as part of the exhibition in the movie, would you say that you, in general, trust people?

Yes, I would say that I do, and I would press that button saying ‘I trust people.’ But then, I think Ruben actually asked me, if I knew that coming into the exhibition and pushing that button would mean I’d have to leave my phone and wallet… if I knew that, which button would I push? And then I would probably push ‘I don’t trust people,’ because I couldn’t imagine just putting that down somewhere for anybody to take it.

Do you think the film’s thematic and satirical concerns could work in the setting of a different art world – possibly in the context of filmmaking?

That thing with that art exhibition, that square and the sort of basic human value that tries to shine a light on… even though there are so many other things going on in the film, it’s so much at the centre of it. Everything is bouncing off that thing with “The Square.” I think it’s really hard for me to imagine that you could take that away and have the same film. I’m not sure, but I suppose it could work, but then… no, I don’t think it would. Don’t you think it would be something quite different? I’ve actually thought, could this have happened if he was a dentist? And probably not, because why would we hear him say all these things about trust and care from this marvelous exhibition? It’s because he goes out and then he goes and does something quite different in his private life. That is where the tension is in the character, I think, and I don’t think you would get that if he was a dentist or a filmmaker. I’m not sure.

Regarding Ruben’s previous films, how do you feel you would do in a Force Majeure situation?

When I saw that film, I probably felt what a lot of people felt; that I’m dead scared that I might do the same thing as the man does. Just grab my phone and wallet and run. I definitely cannot say that I wouldn’t do it, but that’s probably why that film hit people so hard, because you felt that shame in yourself because you were like, oh fuck, that might have been me. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done it, not for sure.

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How does it feel now to be part of a Palme d’Or-winning film?

Amazing. I never ever thought that would happen. I was almost the only Danish contribution to Cannes this year, so it was quite a big thing in my home country that the film won and that I’m the lead in it. So when I came back, I did a lot of television and stuff. I came straight from the airport, I was late, and I sat down with this journalist and he’s like, “So, congratulations on winning the Palme d’Or.” And I was like, fuck. I never ever thought anyone would say those words to me. I suppose we did dream. We’ve got dreams, all of us, but I suppose you tend to keep your dreams realistic; something that you can achieve. You know, I am actually the only Danish person ever in a leading role in a Palme d’Or winner.

Oh wow.

The last von Trier film that won and the Bille August films that won, they had foreign actors in them. So, male or female, I’m the only Dane ever. I am pretty amazed, I have to say.

They should put that under your billing on the poster.

They should! Listen, I can’t tell you how proud I am of it. I’m really, really happy with my performance. I really think that I’m at my best here; he’s gotten all the best out of me. And I really enjoy the film, and also it’s such a pleasure talking to people that have seen it because it seems that people really enjoy the film and it affects them. I can’t say enough good about the movie. I’m really, really dead proud of it.

A couple of months on from the win, do you feel it’s opened doors for you in any way?

Well, yes, I’ve never had so many scripts thrown at me from the U.K. and the U.S. as I have over the last few months. We’re not talking about concrete offers, but scripts for me to do a self-tape for or do a casting for. Something is going on and I do hope this film can open up these markets for me a bit, but I never really had that sort of thing where I just wanted to go to Hollywood. It’s not really important to me.

I can be perfectly happy working just in Denmark if the work is there and if it’s good. And right now I’m rehearsing a play in Denmark, and all my agents have told me to get out of it because they want me to just do this, do promotion for the film because that would be good for me. I’m just trying to fit it all together because I don’t want to quit that play. It’s a Martin Crimp play called The City and it’s amazing. So it’s not like I’m just dying to get out of Denmark and do something somewhere else. But I definitely do dream about doing great stuff with great people, but it’s not all that important if it’s here or there or wherever.

No temptation to join your co-star Terry Notary in the next King Kong movie.

Is he doing that?

I presume he is. They’re doing Godzilla vs Kong, aren’t they, and I guess he’ll be back as Kong.

Is he the one that was in Kong?

He’s credited as playing Kong, yeah. He has a part in the recent Planet of the Apes films, too.

My God.

The Square opens in limited release on Friday, October 27.

‘BPM (Beats Per Minute)’ Director and Stars on Sex, Realism, and the Fluidity of Cinema

Written by Joshua Encinias, October 21, 2017 at 2:17 pm 

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Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!

You don’t hear the United States branch of ACT UP’s (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) famous slogan in Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute), but its ethos courses through the film’s powerful love story.

Campillo spent his late twenties debating, organizing, and protesting as a member of ACT UP Paris. A quarter of a century later he’s telling a fictionalized account of their story. BPM won the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival in May and swept through the New York Film Festival earlier this month, receiving standing ovations at both screenings.

The film, which is France’s Oscar entry, excels at rooting history in a relatable love story between Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a firebrand ACT UP activist living with the virus and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a latecomer to the movement who ignored the plague throughout the 1980s. Set in the early 1990s, BPM dances between ACT UP members debating the ethics of their actions, the developing relationship between Sean and Nathan, and the club culture that gave LGBT people moments of relief.

Robin, Nahuel, and Arnaud spoke to us at length about the film and its strange, albeit welcomed, reception by American critics.

During Nathan’s ACT UP orientation, he’s told that even if he isn’t HIV positive, he’s going to be associated with the disease in the eyes of the public. When presented with this film, did either of consider repercussions of being associated with the disease?

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart: That’s a very American question. It’s crazy, right? All the questions about being out, being identified as positive. All those questions, it’s so strange, they all come from the States. And I think it’s because people and careers are so mixed. In France I never ask myself that question. Never. You’re just playing fiction. In film projects we don’t think in those terms.

Robin Campillo: We don’t care. And I think it’s even better if you’ve been playing a gay or HIV positive character.

Biscayart: It’s like, woah, you really went for it!

Arnaud Valois: For me it was a bit different because I was not acting anymore. When the casting director explained the project to me, I said why not try, because it was a good subject. Because it was really intense and engaged. That was really interesting for me.

That’s interesting, because the actors in Call Me By Your Name were critiqued by their own screenwriter James Ivory because they wouldn’t do full frontal nudity.

Campillo: The funny thing is I put a quite pornographic scene in my script which we didn’t shoot. But it’s very important to say to the actors that we will be at this level. [Everyone laughs.] It’s very important to be clear to each other. If they had told me during the shooting “I’m not going to do it. In fact,” I would have accepted because I could not oblige them to do what I want to do. It’s not possible. But we had this kind of agreement about what we were going to do and we talked. I wanted the film to be very sensual and of course sexual. I wanted to be really clear with them about that. It’s a very important thing, especially when you’re talking about AIDS. You want people to use a condom. All these details are important because that was our lives. We were having sex and talking about AIDS.

Valois: The main deal was not protecting yourself, just give everything in the scene.

Campillo: I told them it won’t be pornographic, you won’t see any sex. But I told them because you won’t see any sex they have to play the sexual act a lot. You have to be really involved in this moment to make us believe you are actually having sex.

Valois: Which is the case in your previous movie, Eastern Boys. You can’t see anything but it feels like you’re seeing something. That’s really strange.

Biscayart: What I like about the sex scenes in our film is also that they’re not like the typical performative sex scenes in which everyone gets beautiful and everything is all about giving a great performance. And that’s hard to play because you have to expose yourself in those awkward moments of having sex with somebody that isn’t idealized.

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The first sex scene where Nahuel’s character recounts his sexual encounter with a teacher was kind of spooky, with the teacher emerging in the scene.

Campillo: I thought it was kind of like a seance. And personally, when I have sex, it makes me think of the others I’ve had sex with. It’s like I’m connecting to a lot of people… oh, I shouldn’t say that. [Everyone laughs.] For me it’s like a natural thing. It’s like, when you’re French, when you go to a restaurant, go to dinner, you’re talking about food. So when you have sex you’re talking about sex with others. It’s like of like this… I shouldn’t say that.

What you’re saying makes me think of the final sex scene when Nathan is having sex with Thibault. Why are they having sex? Nathan’s lover just died and he’s having sex with the guy his lover had conflict with the entire film.

Campillo: For me it’s like friendly sex. After this kind of moment you need to connect with someone because you miss the body of the person you just lost. Of course, Thibault is waiting for that. At first in the script he was saying, “Oh my God, it’s my lucky day.” Something horrible to say. I loved the idea but I decided not to put it in the film. First of all, this kind of thing happened a lot. This scene is a little connected to a real thing I lived through. I remember a guy who lost his boyfriend made love with another guy and they slept on the same bed where he died. But that was the way were living. It was not like Nathan was shitting on Sean. It’s something else. They want to stay connected to life and to sexuality and to sensuality, especially in this moment.

Were Sean and Nathan based on real people?

Campillo: A little bit; some of the characters are connected to real people. I did a fiction with very realistic elements and very historical ideas I had in my head for many, many years. I think when I was in ACT UP I was recording everything. In order, maybe, to do a film about it a few years after. Like a quarter of a century after. There’s a part of me in Nathan but you know, as I say to my actors, I don’t have a “master plan” frame of mind. It’s just people I create with the actors because I don’t want the characters to be what I was thinking of when I was writing the script. I want the characters to become the actors. That’s the main thing for me. When Nathan’s talking about his past, it’s my story. But the rest, we are so different. He was inspired by a real character but not so much because they don’t exactly have the same history. It’s a fiction.

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Nathan isn’t HIV positive but he joins ACT UP. Is he doing so for solidarity?

Valois: I had a small conversation with Robin before shooting. Maybe Nathan has seen an action of ACT UP on television and his past came back to him. Saying, maybe the time is now, I need to face the disease and I need to act. I think he’s entering the group because of that.

Campillo: I think it’s not only a question of being guilty. It’s a question of not being synchronized with what happened in the 1980s. Because he was so protecting himself from the epidemic, that it took some distance. And because he took some distance, he didn’t live his life. The fact that he’s going to ACT UP is a way of being synchronized again to his own life. And he’s synchronized because of this relationship with Sean. For me that was the more important thing, to talk about a character who is very open when he gets into his groove because he wants to be synchronized with this effort which is the AIDS epidemic.

Valois: The time is now. No protection.

Why is so much of the film about ACT UP’s group debates over the ethics and morality of their actions?

Campillo: For me it’s like a science-fiction film, in a way. I’m revisiting my past. It’s like I think of the scene in very different space and times, different dimensions. The first dimension is this kind of brain which is the amphitheater. You have no windows, it’s all white and people are talking and imagining things or talking about an action that some of them did that was a little too violent. They are caught and trapped in this place and they are talking and the words are creating images, pictures. The other dimension are the actions. In the first scene for instance, they are talking about this action they’ve just done which was a little bit violent. Germain is talking about the way he sees that action. In the end, Sean, because of his rhetorical agility, convinces everyone that it was a good action and it was successful. I love this idea that you have dimensions which are very different. Another dimension is the club, which is another way of looking at the world because you’re in a dark place and nobody’s talking. They’re just dancing in the dark — it’s like the antithesis of the discussion scenes. I wanted to talk about the possibility of the words to be political, be powerful. The debates in ACT UP were very efficient. We were very good at deciding things, at dreaming action, creating a new political happening. It was like this because you had all those people who were coming from very different social worlds all together having this discussion. That was like collective intelligence was going on in this place. That’s why I chose this different dimension.

The film looks like a documentary. You had three cameras going at once, so did you actors feel like they were actually protesting and having debates?

Biscayart: Totally. Actually, the first rehearsal we had one month before principal photography, we were rehearsing for three days and I had this very weird feeling you have when you’re a kid. When you go to the theater and you just believe it all, just take it as real life. I was so shocked because it was not the first time I played in a film, but realness was in the air. When we were shooting, the fact that having to talk in front of a hundred people being an actor, not knowing everyone around you just put you in a very effervescent state. All of a sudden everyone would just look at you as an actor, not only as an activist. All the time I think it was very mixed. We being actors, activists, that excitement and that pressure of being an actor and also being able to create a discourse that would appeal to everyone around you.

Valois: We were very free. No marks on the ground, no you have to do this, stay here. He told us just do whatever you want and the camera would be on you. It didn’t feel like we were on set. It felt like real life.

Biscayart: At some points we were playing and the monitor was just like one meter away. It felt even that they were part of the debate.

Campillo: I must say that I don’t agree with this opposition of cinematic and naturalism. It’s like I put mice in a cage and say, oh these mice are very naturalistic. For me the film, the actors are so theatrical. I don’t know which director in France said “a film is a documentary of actors.” I think I felt it like this. For me, the actions are a little bit surreal. It’s not something very realistic, it’s like a hallucination. I love to talk about this opposition because most of the time when I see a film, I have a feeling that when you see a quarter of the film you know exactly what will be the aesthetic background of the film. When I talk about dimensions, I’m talking about the fact that I come from this form, there’s a kind of mutation and I go to another form. I like the idea of the cinema to be a little more fluid aesthetically than just be a way of doing this. When you are talking about naturalism, when Nathan’s talking about his past, you start with a scene that’s very realistic. People are around him. After a moment you are so focused on him you don’t hear people.

Biscayart: It’s not at all a documentary.

Campillo: It’s something else. I like this idea to change the emotion and form and the perception of the scene during a scene. For me that’s the most important thing about cinema.

Biscayart: Even the strobing light, nobody sees the artificiality of that. It’s like when we see animal documentaries and you see ants and you hear what they do. It’s just impossible to hear what ants do with their legs. Because you’ve got the sound you think it’s even more realistic and it’s absolutely fake.

Campillo: It’s artificial.

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Most of the actors are high energy all film, but Nahuel’s character has to decline. And for a large chunk of the film you’re playing a corpse. How did you play a dead body?

Biscayart: It’s so difficult! It’s funny because some people are like, okay, now you’ve got fun days. You’re just going to be laying down in a bed. I was like, I’m sorry, but this is very exhausting, even if you think I’m just relaxed. You’re not sleeping – you’re dead. And the body that’s dead is a corpse which has a certain rigidity you have to play. In order to play that you have to be very alive. But if you’re too alive and you start breathing and moving it’s going to be a contradiction. It was tough to be very active and tonic in my body to be dead. It’s such a contradiction. You’re not just relaxed. You’re exposing yourself, you’re creating stiffness.

Thinking of the long-term impact of BPM: John Waters’ early films were controversial and inspired people. But now he says he’s an institution. Do you think recreating the actions of ACT UP Paris will inspire people, or will people in power see it and go, “Oh, whatever, now we know what protesters are going to do”?

Campillo: Yes, the pharmacy people are going to say that anyway. They don’t mind what we are doing. I know them a little bit and it’s good advertising for them anyway. Even though they are the bad guys, we are talking about new drugs. For that it won’t change anything. I don’t do films hoping I’ll make a political difference. I’m not sure of that. I’m doing things because I’m having an intimate dialogue with one spectator in the cinema. Even if the film was a success in France, I’m just trying to connect people to this history, not in just a historic way. I’m trying to connect this story emotionally, sensually. I want them to feel. It’s like an emotional intelligence of what we were living. Of course because you make this connection of the past and this emotional history, people will think differently. I’m not trying to lecture people. I’m not trying to say I was such a good activist. I was not so much. I did what I thought was important for me to do. In a way, I wouldn’t have been a militant if there wasn’t this epidemic. I was obliged to do it. So I don’t want to give license to people, I just want people to get connected to this history and to understand emotionally.

Biscayart: I think that’s even more political than giving a lecture because it’s not intellectual.

Campillo: It’s another way to convince people politically. I was meant to be a director and not a militant. I did my militant time and I want to come back a director. So that’s my way to pay tribute to these moments. In France the film was a big success so that changed a lot of things. People took the film and put it on a political level to say to the government you should do that you should do this, and that’s important. But to be honest I didn’t do this film thinking of that, honestly.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is now in limited release.

François Ozon on the Playfulness of ‘L’amant double,’ Criticism, and Jury Fights

Written by Zhuo-Ning Su, October 18, 2017 at 8:42 am 

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Ever since making his feature debut with the darkly comical Sitcom, French writer/director François Ozon has been making the world feeling horny and shocked with his films, often at the same time. With a body of work that also includes Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Under the Sand, In the House and the glorious one-two punch of 8 Women and Swimming Pool, you’d think the prolific provocateur might soon be running out of tricks.

Think again. His latest erotic thriller, L’amant double, which premiered in competition at Cannes this year, proved to be the film scandaleux of the festival. Starring Marine Vacth as Chloé, a young woman who one day discovers her psychiatrist partner Paul (Jérémie Renier) might have an evil twin brother and gradually loses herself in a web of deceit and kinks, it’s the kind of dangerously sexy farce at which Ozon excels.

We had the pleasure of sitting down with the ever-exciting auteur at the 2017 Hamburg Film Festival to talk about his latest work, the state of queer cinema, and his experiences at film festivals from Cannes to Berlin.

The Film Stage: Identity is a recurring theme in your films, from Swimming Pool, The New Girlfriend to Frantz. What does Joyce Carol Oates’ story, on which L’amant double is based, say about identity that intrigued you?  

François Ozon: I like to follow a character who changes during the course of a film. I like to start a film with a character in a bad situation who tries to be in a different place by the end. Which is the case of Chloé, who finds herself on a journey in this story. At the beginning she doesn’t know what she’s got inside of her or what’s wrong with her. At the end she realizes that and her true self becomes clear.

I saw the film in Cannes and the experience was one of my festival highlights because, in contrast to watching most other competition films, it was so much fun. Was it also more fun to make a movie like this than say, other more “serious” films?

Yes, the filmmaking experience was very playful – definitely more so than Frantz, which was a more classical movie where the mise-en-scène happened behind the movie. In the case of L’Amant double, I felt with this material it would be a good opportunity for me to play with many effects of mise-en-scène I’d never tried before. To play with horror, comedy and this mix of different genres. So yes, it was a playful experience, we had a lot of fun making the film.

Was it a quick shoot?

We shot for about eight weeks, which is actually not that different from Frantz, which took about nine weeks. The shooting of my films is usually quite short.

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Apropos Cannes, have you heard that Thierry Frémaux is thinking of reforming the screening schedules in Cannes so that the press screenings would coincide with the gala premieres?

I didn’t know that.

The main reason he offered is that bad press reactions often ruin the atmosphere at the premieres.

That’s a good idea. I think that also has to do with the internet, Twitter, Facebook and the fact that very often, journalists tweet about a film right after watching it. So that while the credits are still rolling, you already know what important critics or some stupid person thinks about a film. It can be dangerous for the fate of that film. It’s like les jeux Romains [thumb up/down motioned by the Roman emperor]. Of course everyone is allowed so say if they enjoyed a movie or not, but if the critics don’t take the time to consider their words, they are no longer critics, they’re just regular audience members. So I think this is a good idea.

I also know Xavier Dolan was totally destroyed by the early press screening reactions. A film is the result of a lot of time involving many people, and in one minute all of it could be destroyed. And you know the reactions from Cannes are very different from those of a real audience. Sometimes you have the impression a film in Cannes is a masterpiece, but when you see it later in a cinema, you go “Heh?” It’s normal because at a festival you see so many films you don’t always make the right judgment call. Just like everybody else, critics can make mistakes too.

Generally speaking, what’s your relationship to criticism? Do you read reviews?

Yes, I’m very interested in what critics have to say. You know I make films for people to see and not only for myself. But I think I have a lucid attitude about these things. I know the work I’ve done, I know the mistakes I’ve made, so I’m interested to read carefully considered opinions. And I’ve known for a long time that my work is often controversial, that some people will like and other will hate my films, I’m used to having this kind of polarized reaction. For me that’s a good thing, because it means my work doesn’t leave the audience indifferent.

So you won’t be destroyed by negative tweets I guess.  

No, I’m quite philosophical this way. I know the real critic is time. So we’ll see in twenty years whether something I’ve done is good or not. It happens so often that movies considered to be bad turned out to be masterpieces. That’s why it’s important to take time to think about a film.

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How do you make a film as sexy as L’amant double?

I need to create desire. It’s about creating desire between the actors and about what to show or not to show the viewers. This is what I have to play with as director.

Have you seen Fifty Shades of Grey?

No, but I should have! Some American friends said to me, “You have to see it. Your film is a trash version of Fifty Shades.” So I have to watch it.

You first worked with Jérémie Renier on Criminal Lovers in 1999. What’s it like to have a work relationship with an actor for almost 20 years?

For me it’s a great pleasure.  When I met Jérémie for the first time, he was 16 years old. I had seen him in La promesse by the Dardenne brothers, which I consider to be a masterpiece. He was very young and we became friends. We made Criminal Lovers when he was still a teenager. Then we made Potiche when he was 28.  And now he’s 35. So I said to him: “Let’s make a movie together every ten years.” It touches me to follow an actor as he grows up, to see him become an adult and now a father. For me it’s a beautiful story we share.

You have worked with many of the world’s best actresses: Deneuve, Huppert, Rampling, just to name a few. You’ve now worked with Marine Vacth twice. What is it about her as an actress that makes her special?

She has a mystery about her. The camera loves her. She has what the Americans call star quality.  When we made our first film Young & Beautiful together, it was a film about the secret of a girl. You don’t really understand her character and can project many things onto her. With Marine she’s like this beautiful white page, on which you can project many fantasies and desires. I thought she was perfect for the part. The movie was almost like a documentary on her. In the case of L’amant double it was quite different, because it’s about the inner world of the character. I wanted to reveal a secret at the end so that you know what’s been inside her. So the work was quite different. She had to really compose the character. That’s why I decided to cut her hair, as if turning a page on Young & Beautiful and showing that this is a new Marine.

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Are there any particular actresses you’d like to work with?

I love actresses. There are many actresses I’d like to work with but I’m still waiting for the right parts. First and foremost it has to be about the part, after that I try to find the best actress for that part.

These past years we’ve seen a tremendous supply of quality LGBTQ films from all over the world. As an icon of queer cinema, do you think it’s still necessary to keep this label of queer/LGBTQ cinema at all?

I think it’s always necessary to help films find an audience which might otherwise have a hard time doing that. I can’t say I’m for having this label “queer cinema” but I’m definitely not against it. For me, when I won the Teddy at the Berlinale for Water Drops on Burning Rocks, it was very helpful because I wasn’t well-known then and the fact that the film won the Teddy probably sold it to the queer audience.

Are there any new filmmakers from queer cinema that caught your attention in recent years?

Some weeks ago I saw BPM by Robin Campillo in Paris and I really enjoyed it. It was very strong because I actually lived through that time. I’ve gone to some of the meetings of ACT UP and can say this film really succeeded in bringing the spirit of this period to life. I also really loved his last film Eastern Boys. I think he’s one of the best and most interesting directors working in France today.

I read that your first foreign language was German and that, in your youth, you used to come regularly  to Hamburg to visit your pan pal.

Yes, that’s true.

Has the German film culture informed or influenced your own filmmaking?

I think the discovery of Fassbinder was very important to me as a student of film. I saw all his films at a retrospective in the Latin District of Paris and I was amazed by such a strong body of work. The stories they told about his country, the German society after the Second World War — I found them to be so honest and powerful. And he was not afraid to mix genres. Even though always working with the same actors, he went in so many different directions with his films. In terms of role models, he’s definitely one of mine.

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In 2012, you were part of the competition jury at the Berlinale. After seeing the competition films, I remember thinking to myself: François Ozon would probably like Christian Petzold’s Barbara and Miguel Gomes’ Tabu. Of course neither won the Golden Bear…   

There was a big fight. Those were my two favorite movies. Actually I suffered a little because of this experience – I realized a jury is a democracy and I wanted to be a dictator! I can say today that I was the only one who supported Tabu. I told Miguel Gomes this because he was quite upset to have only won the Alfred Bauer Prize for Artistic Contribution. I told him that without me, he would have won nothing.

No.

Of course. And for Barbara I also fought because I wanted to give it the Golden Bear. Well, for me it was between those two films. But that was not how the other members of the jury saw it. So what can you do? At the end of it I was sick – well, we were all a bit sick because Berlin’s so cold – but overall it was a very good experience. Usually I always refuse to be on a jury, but that year I was in the company of very interesting people who I admire. But we were not on the same page and sometimes you realize that people you admire don’t necessarily have good taste.

The Golden Bear eventually went to Caesar Must Die.        

That was Mike Leigh’s favorite, who was of course the president of the jury. That’s why I said afterwards that next time, I would only be the president of a jury.

You do notice that, even in Cannes, filmmakers you greatly admire sometimes make… “curious” choices when they preside over the jury.

I think this year in Cannes the winner was not Almodóvar’s favorite, but some jury presidents succeed in imposing their choice. It’s a fight, you know. You think it’s pure pleasure to be on a festival jury. Actually, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of discussions and fights. I remember with Jake Gyllenhaal we were often of the same opinion about things. I was quite surprised because he’s a Hollywood actor but we would fight together, you know, against the others.

Speaking of Barbara, do you know Nina Hoss? I think it would be amazing if you work with her someday.

Yes, I know her. She invited me to see her in a play by Thomas Ostermeier in Paris. We see each other sometimes. She’s great.

You’ve adapted Fassbinder (Water Drops on Burning Rocks) and shot a half-German film (Frantz). What’s the experience like working with German material or with a German team?

Well, with Water Drops on Burning Rocks it was very much a French picture. We shot in France and the idea was to do a film like those Hollywood movies from the 40s and 50s where Americans pretended to be French, only with French actors pretending to be Germans. As for Frantz, it was a great experience to work with a German crew. I think the Germans were quite surprised to see how the French worked. In France, what counts is really the vision of the director and everybody works in one direction. I have the impression that’s not always the case in other countries.

You’ve also worked with some crew members multiple times over the course of your career, for example the great cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. I noticed you made your respective feature debut as director/DP on Sitcom.

Yes, that’s right. He’s a very good cinematographer. He’s shooting now with Claire Denis – in Germany, I think. We met in film school, became friends and made several films together. Hopefully more to come.

L’amant double screened at the 2017 Hamburg Film Festival and will be released by Cohen Media Group.

Todd Haynes on ‘Wonderstruck,’ Perceptions of Childhood, and David Bowie

Written by Nick Newman, October 17, 2017 at 11:55 am 

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It’s no small testament to Todd Haynes that this is the second interview this website’s conducted with him since August. Although the opening of his newest film, Wonderstruck, is a proper excuse, that’s only ostensibly the occasion; the truth is that we’d gladly go over his decades- and genre-spanning filmography any day of the week and still have plenty of ground to cover.

So it’s doubly to our fortune that Wonderstruck befits multiple rounds of discussion. A children’s adventure movie wrapped in a two-pronged period piece that can hardly conceal the tragedies this kind of work so often doesn’t want you to think about, it finds Haynes and the usual band of collaborators — DP Ed Lachman, composer Carter Burwell, and costume designer Sandy Powell among them — working on their biggest canvas yet. For recalling the director’s artistic history as much as anything else, it’s only natural that the film would act as the springboard for a one-thing-after-the-other chat.

The oldest available work of yours is a 1978 short, The Suicide, that surveys unbearably severe trauma inflicted upon a child; about fifteen years later, there’s Dottie Gets Spanked, another consideration of how childhood is so often a scarring experience; and now there’s Wonderstruck. Similar traumas abound therein, but, as evidenced from the title on down, it’s also more wondrous, even lighter. Can you chart this long arc of depicting childhood, as well as any (possible) perception of the projects as connected entities?

I haven’t thought about The Suicide in the context of Wonderstruck until this question, although we put it in the Safe extras because it just came back to me through friends at the time, and I was just like, “Oh, wow! Weird. An artifact from my life.” And I recently saw Dottie in Vienna — actually just a few days ago, when I was there for a retrospective, and it preceded a masterclass that I gave. That, probably in a way that is quite different from either The Suicide or Wonderstruck, is probably the most directly autobiographical of the three films we’re talking about. And that film, although I think it’s full of tensions between the sense of social law and limits that children, invariably or usually or normally, have to confront at some level — in some kids, it’s more of a conflict than for others — it’s full of so many expressions of desire that are played out in a creative practice that the kid has in the movie, where he kind of reveals who he is through the drawings that he makes and fixations he has in popular culture.

In that way, I think there’s a direct line to Wonderstruck, which, of course, is something I did not write; it did not come from my own life in the way that, maybe, no film does more so than Dottie, because it’s full of my own drawings and my own obsessions with Lucille Ball, and was occasion to bring those things together in this thing made for public television. But I did really feel that there was something that made tremendous sense, that I liked saying for a film about kids. Maybe there is more hope in Wonderstruck… I mean, there is, because he kind of finds a family. At the end of Dottie, he’s preparing this… he’s sort of repressing his own desires, but you feel like it’s in the interest of the future.

He’s literally burying it.

Literally burying it, but taking very good care with it. It’s almost like, “I’m going to be able to get back to this at some safer time, when I have more agency.” But for Wonderstruck, these kids also have creative practices. They’re also isolated, also confronting limited freedom due to circumstances and disability, but they figure out the value of how those creative practices get you through life and help you navigate finding the answers to your stories. It’s structured like a mystery, and so it’s structured in such a way that the questions need to be answered by the structure itself, by the genre of the mystery, and so they are. So it does have that sort of satisfaction of questions being answered, families being found — even if it’s not the family that he thought he was going to find. He ends up having to, sort of, find a different family.

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And your tastes are clearly sprinkled throughout. Looking at this through an auteurist lens, as your fans are wont to do, there’s some additional interest in (as far as I counted) four references to Bob Dylan: the silent-movie intertitle that uses the phrase “shelter from the storm”; the two album covers in the book shop; and, my favorite, the sign for a bus station in Duluth, Dylan’s birthplace. I assume those are intentional.

They actually weren’t. They were all inherited — except for the set dressing in the bookstore. Oh, yeah, and the bedroom, because there’s also a Dylan… one is in the bedroom and one is in the bookstore, I think. Or both of them are in the bookstore. There’s Blonde on Blonde in the back of the bookstore.

And Bringing It All Back Home somewhat obscured behind the top of the staircase.

That’s right. Further up on the stairs. Those were the only things that I, myself, inserted into this story, but they were not meant to be overly stated — in fact, there was actually Paul McCartney, one of the photos from Let It Be, on the wall where Blonde on Blonde was. We shot half the scene with the Paul McCartney photo where the Blonde on Blonde was, and we were like, “Oh, shit — that’s going to cost way too much money. We have a good relationship with Jeff Rosen and the Dylan estate, so let’s quickly swap out for some Bob.” It’s all quite relevant for somebody who does come from Minnesota, and the Duluth bus station is in the script because it’s all part of that.

But it was brought up in the press conference after the screening: someone said, “Oh, yeah, you put the Oscar Wilde quote in the beginning of the movie” — and, again, that was from Brian Selznick’s book and script. Because I had a friend who saw a cut of Wonderstruck and he said, “Yeah, I think it’s working well, but I really don’t think you need to impose your own stuff in it, like the Oscar Wilde quote and the David Bowie song.” And I’m like, “Actually, Greg, check out the book. They’re both there.”

Yet “shelter from the storm” was my “game on” moment.

Right, right, right! Right.

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I’m also a Dylan obsessive, so any little thing will make the antennas spring up.

Exactly. Well, he’s omnipresent, and I have to carry that as a legacy.

Worse things.

I’ll say. There are moments in my life where my name will come up in the lineage of “Sirk to Fassbinder to Todd Haynes,” or “Todd Haynes and David Bowie” in the same sentence, or “Todd Haynes and Bob Dylan” in the same sentence. It’s… yeah. The impact is not lost on me.

I imagine there’s gratification in using a Bowie song, given the somewhat legendary story of him reading Velvet Goldmine’s script and wholly rejecting the project. There’s no Bowie music there.

There’s no Bowie music in the movie, and I know that the movie is, I think, a better film for that. I do think that that concept of the parallel universe that we set up — that I kind of took from the language and discourse, or the elevation of artifice that was the mandate of the glam era that I found so contrary to what we often expect from music and art — made it better to have those songs that replaced those sort of spaceholders. And they were: they became structuring devices for how I wrote the script and how I conceived of the story. They were lifted out and replaced by other songs — often Roxy Music songs, a lot of Eno songs, and some Cockney Rebel songs — and so it was also music that was just lesser-known, and maybe freer for associations that one could then bring to the film and still fix back to Bowie, of which there are so many references and to which it is so indebted.

But yes: I have regrets that Bowie didn’t see I was taking his own invitation to kind of play with fictionalizing one’s self and creating parallel narratives and aliases and all of that stuff, and that I was just taking it to what I thought was the next logical place. But yeah, it’s certainly cool to now have it. And when he passed away — because it was sort of after I had started to think about doing this film — we were hearing a lot of Bowie music and I thought maybe “Space Oddity” would be too worn-out and feel tired and exhausted by that process, but it lives on with new associations.

I must be honest: initially, hearing “Space Oddity” made me groan a bit because I thought, “The guy who named a movie after ‘Velvet Goldmine’ is going to use the Bowie song from car commercials?” Then it connects to the characters and incidents in a way that, by the end, I found very moving, and in a way the song has pretty much never moved me. I love Bowie dearly, but that’s one of those songs towards which I have very few feelings.

Yeah. It’s not my favorite Bowie song or the one that blows my mind when I hear it again. It does feel like it belongs to an early… it’s almost like a one-hit wonder for David Bowie. It could be that guy who never made another song. It was essentially an attempt to finally get his foot in the door, because he made many attempts at incarnations before that moment, and it didn’t really hold and that one did.

But then there’s just another sort of metonymical, funny, internal riff that it’s “Space Oddity” — a riff on “space odyssey,” of course, because that was what inspired it initially. Then the Deodata song that comes in later in the movie, that’s obviously playing with “Also Spoke Zarathustra,” that’s a riff on “Space Oddity,” that also is, within the context of Wonderstruck — which is talking about the ‘70s and movies from the ‘70s — a riff on Being There, where the song was first used, that I know of, in the scene of Peter Sellers leaving his weird, sanctioned, early life.

Which maybe leads to something that was on my mind: when preparing for Carol, your actors studied the particulars of ‘50s speech patterns. Was a similar process undertaken for the ‘70s segments? I wonder if you’d be especially conscious of this, since you were alive at that time.

Not to the same degree, where a kind of codified idea of femininity that was so… this documentary, Lovers and Lollipops, had this female character who had a poise and a sort of self-conciousness in the way she presented herself as a woman. She was sort of middle-class, and it was such a specific way of self-presentation and speech, and felt like, really, a lost vernacular or practice. In a way, I do think codes of femininity have been exploded maybe more radically than the way people spoke in the 1970s, which I think has been incorporated — except for specific slang, where the kids would say certain things, when they would improvise, like, “Awesome!” And we’d be like, “No, you can’t say ‘awesome.’ You can say ‘neat’ and ‘cool.’”

I think more what we were trying to pay attention to was practices of non-speech, and the way that — and it had everything to do with Millie’s story — kind of vernacular, coming out of movies that was not about naturalism, but was kind of trying to find the correct lyricism, I think, to allow for some moments of acceleration and almost expressionistic little touches. But mostly to honor something that we don’t think of in silent film, which is an understatement in how people perform and how much you have to watch.

I was so surprised when I saw The Crowd — which I had actually never seen; it was hard to locate — how much key emotional moments were performed without intertitles. And it expected the audience to watch the performances acutely. They were very naturalistic performances, but they were expressing extremely serious, dire situations — or domestic situations, but they were dire to the people involved. And they were about how visual gesture and the face conveys the information and how we perceive it in ways that I think we don’t necessarily train, that way of perceiving, anymore. Not as highly fine-tuned as it was.

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Tom Noonan: great American actor or greatest American actor?

That’s the question?

Yes. I was so happy to see him show up here; I had no idea he was in the cast.

He also plays such a kind… just something I don’t associate with Tom Noonan, so I think we were asking of him something quite different than we expect of Tom Noonan in the amazing panoply of evil characters he’s played in movies over the years. Always unexpectedly, the way he conveys evil, because he has the sort of gentle, sweet giant quality.

A very soft voice.

A very soft voice and kind of a tenderness that he uses to trick us with his sinister characterizations. But Tom actually spent time in Massachusetts in the ‘70s, and he learned sign language a little bit and he remembered some of it. And he has these hands that are, like, this long [expands arms], so the physicality that Tom Noonan brings, I think, to everything he does was, in this role, asking, yet again, something unique from him. And then those sort of huge, wafting fingers that you literally felt the wind off of as he communicated with Julianne Moore. Yeah, he brought something that I hadn’t seen him do before, and that’s saying quite a lot in this film.

He’s one of my favorites, so it was a pleasure.

Yeah, it was amazing — one more little touch in the movie that I can’t imagine not being there.

Wonderstruck opens on Friday, October 20.

‘Félicité’ Director Alain Gomis on Morality, Musicality, and Modernity

Written by Murtada Elfadl, October 16, 2017 at 9:34 am 

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Set in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Félicité is the new film from Alain Gomis, a French director of Guinea-Bissauan and Senegalese descent. It tells the story of its eponymous heroine, a singer trying to put a life together and barely making it work. It is a poignant portrait of a woman in crisis but is also about Félicité’s search for herself, for peace, for a contented soul. The film, which will represent Senegal in the Foreign Language Oscar category, recently played at the New York Film Festival and will open in limited release on October 27. We had the chance to talk to Gomis about his film, and you can read our conversation below.

I’m curious about the inception of the project. How did you come about it?

It was a mystery! I had this character, this woman I knew in Senegal. And her son, this kid with an amputated leg. It was something that happened to a young cousin of mine. And at some point the music came, I don’t really remember how. But it was also clear to me that I wanted to make a film about the city, an African city, about a working class neighborhood. Trying to capture something that’s sometimes hard to show, a dignity. That, yes, it’s hard but in fact we are doing it, we are making it through.

Was Félicité always a singer?

She wasn’t a singer at the beginning. She became a singer because I don’t like to explain too much with character and dialogue. Making her a singer allowed me to have an internal voice, with her real singing. I could have this character that sometimes would remain silent but you have the other side when she sings.

There’s a duality in the film. Two parallel stories; one a ticking clock structure — to find money to try and save her son. The other more fanciful to find peace within herself.

I wanted an easy entrance into the film. I wanted people from this neighborhood we are depicting to see the film. So we have a character with a problem, with a goal. But for me what I really wanted to share was the second part. Sometimes it’s fair, sometimes it’s difficult, but we can come back from this. The first part is like a mechanical drama then you reach an orbit that’s more about sensation with a more musical structure.

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There is a lyricism to the second part movie that I particularly enjoyed. Can you talk about that aspect and how you managed to hold the balance with the very real dilemma at the center of the story?

It’s something that you can’t really explain. I want you to feel the movie, to have an experience with the movie. It’s more than a movie to see; it’s a movie to live. It’s about sharing a moment with the audience.

Can you talk about your casting process. Your lead actor, Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu, is tremendous and I understand this was her first filmed credit.

I’ve seen a lot of different actors. She came by chance when a friend of hers told her she should try auditioning. Immediately she was powerful, she surprised me a lot. Even though I imagined that character as a little skinny woman, I had to cast her. She had this powerful talent that made every situation concrete. This ability to remain extremely powerful even when silent. In the end I had to follow her because she knew the character better than me.

Part of what struck me about her performance was how highly performative it is. Félicité is a performer so that’s gives all her scenes a heightened reality. Can you talk about your collaboration with your lead actor?

The only thing I said to her was that, you don’t have to beg. These people owe you this money. Félicité is a character that doesn’t compromise. She has the moral authority. In our first improvisation she was begging, pleading so I asked to remain to always be proud. She got it, I didn’t have to say it twice.

A favorite scene is the one set in the market where Félicité has an altercation with another character from whom she’s trying to collect a debt. It’s funny but also full of drama.

This scene was at first supposed to be just between Félicité and the other actress. We filmed in a market in Kinshasa, and during the first take someone in the background interjected. It wasn’t scripted but made the scene more powerful. We were always trying to make the situation real, to interact in a real way. So we kept it in.

Was that why you filmed in real locations in Kinshasa?

I think Kinshasa is a perfect image of our modern world. 20 years ago if you wanted to have an snapshot of this modern world, maybe you filmed in New York. Today you have to do it in Kinshasa or in Lagos. This is our modern world without the makeup. You can see all the forces struggling together. It’s a powerful city, it was incredible to shoot the film there.

This film has a density that is sometimes found in movies but more often found in literature. Who were your influences in literature?

Do you know the Congolese writer, Sony Labou Tansi?

No, I’m afraid I don’t.

He’s a Congolese writer who died several years ago. He wrote a few wonderful books in the 1960s and 1970s. But somebody like James Baldwin is also a big influence. I can say that the first sequence in the film is a homage to a few pages of his Harlem Quartet.

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The film won the grand jury prize at Berlin. How was that experience?

Berlin made it possible for the film to reach a wider audience. It gave us visibility. So it was important.

How was the reception at the New York Film Festival?

The screening was beautiful. I felt a deeper connection with the film. It surprised me. The audience got the film. It was a really strong, really intense feeling.

I read a quote from you about cinema prevailing in Africa without having cinemas to go to: “The young generation of filmmakers have grown up without ever having gone to the cinema because there are no more cinemas in Africa.” Can you elaborate on that?

I had the chance to go with this film to a lot of places in Africa: Congo, Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal. We’ve been with the film in places where people are not used to going to the cinema and not used to seeing this kind of movie. But still we had wonderful experiences. It’s not because we don’t have cinemas anymore that we have to make simple films. There is a need for dialogue with images. Making films is not about trying to project the right image, but about being able to be part of it, to expand the constriction of our images of ourselves. This is just our little contribution to this huge work we have to do.

Félicité screened at the New York Film Festival and opens on October 27.

Agnès Varda and JR on Friendship, Life, and the Communicative Power of Cinema

Written by Jason Ooi, October 13, 2017 at 7:42 am 

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“We kind of like each other… It’s hard every day — I’m counting the hours and the minutes but we are under contract so we have no choice,” the bespectacled JR jokes about his friendship with legendary French director Agnès Varda, who quickly fires back, “When do we stop the contract?”

Immediately upon entering the room, before questions are even on the table, the friendship between Agnès Varda and JR is clear; they tease each other about their contractual friendliness lasting only the publicity campaign and the two years of shooting — they’re on that level already.

Varda gives up the joke fairly quickly: “The thing is, we could work together because we have the same way of appreciating people. I’m curious about people and [JR] is, and so when we meet people it becomes easy to start a conversation. It’s not a Q&A. It’s also about what we can share about our own lives. We try to establish something so that we’re not quite stealing something from other people’s lives.”

Their friendship originates from a place of mutual respect, JR explains in discussing how they met in the first place: “Rosalie, the daughter of Agnes and also the producer of the film, realized that we had a lot in common but had never met. Agnes had books of mine, and she wrote me, and of course I had seen her films and so I took my bike and went to her house and had tea and pastries. I left, and the next day she came back to my studio — it was really like an arranged meeting, like trying to marry off an old cousin, except that we had already known of each other.”

The conversation shifts to incorporate the film, and its humanist approach to the working class. They recall a variety of their subjects, discussing their lives in great detail. “The farmer that takes care of the land runs a sort of small company. He used to run a lot of people, but the machines took over and now he is by himself, alone with hectares and hectares,” JR starts before Varda finishes, “instead of having friends he has his computer. We wanted to share that because we still have in mind the concept of farmers doing things with their hands, but he said that he no longer touches tools. We were learning through making the film, discovering the things of today with the spirit of the past.” They recall Jeannie, a local bartender whom they pasted on the side of a house with an old parasol, and the path to which they discovered her, after two other locals on neighboring streets refused to talk to them, among many other members of the working class included in the film. “We completely let the film be dictated by chance,” JR starts, before Varda interrupts: “Preorganized, so that chance could help us.”

The aloofness of the structure eludes a lack of preorganization, and JR clarifies: “Agnes being very, very curious, we constantly asked everybody what they do, and got them involved in the film. We would stop and talk and question…” In continuing to share scenes founded on coincidence without being prompted to — their shared connections to the beach at Calais; their sheer luck in visiting the dock at Le Havre while its workers were on strike, so that they could borrow equipment and workers — the pair fill the room with a magnificent sort of energy — palpable, sincere.

Varda declares her love for that lucky scene at Le Havre, in which the wives of the dock workers become part of the artistic process, and furthermore explains the aloofness of structure:  “Comment ca-va Lego?” before continuing, “It was such a big production, building from the bottom up so that the women could feel proud. I love that scene because it started from just saying “let’s meet your wives!” and that built and ended up with them in the boxes where their hearts would have been. This is really documentary — inventing a way to put people in light, listening to what they feel or what they say. We could have done more — we could have done half an hour. Everywhere, we could’ve done half an hour — we had enough material. We chose to go lightly, because we didn’t want a sociological thesis.” With this being said, Varda continues to champion more casual audiences. “The people who pay ten, twelve dollars don’t want to get bored, they don’t want to listen — they want to meet people. So we travel between being very serious about the subject and making it light with asides, including some of our little jokes.”

Varda deflects a question about the state of politics with a sentence on Donald Trump’s irrevocable influence on the world, before speaking on cinema as a whole instead: “I think cinema should exist regardless of whatever is happening because cinema is a very good tool for communication. The world is so shitty in terms of who is free and who is not. We should decide that cinema is a language to make links with people who are interested. It is about sharing, with no violence, no guns, no suspense — nothing that is supposed to make cinema work, that will bring money to the producers. We would love the film to be successful but that is not our aim… It has nothing to do with heavy entertainment or even good entertainment. I picked up a paper and the two films you can see are Blade Runner and Faces Places. We are in another category in terms of budget, and our aim is really to just meet people and touch audiences. I’ve done this all my life, and I’m still working on it. What JR does as a street artist is similar: to meet people and put them together.” She describes JR’s most recent project, in which he put a photo of a child over the Mexican border.

At one point, JR breaks off from the conversation and begins to film Varda (“I love recording you talk! I will watch it before I go to bed!”) to which she goes off: “Don’t you have anything better to do!” I take my phone out to take a picture of JR recording Varda, who, in turn, looks at me and shakes her head jokingly. I inquire about the more personal sequences, in which the camera is pointed inwards at the directors rather than outwards towards others, and how she finds her balance between her own life and the lives of others. Varda simply rebuts: “It is part of life!”

Faces Places is now in limited release and expanding.