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Terence Davies Reflects on ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives,’ Music’s Communal Power, and His Next Films

Written by Joshua Encinias, August 31, 2018 at 6:04 pm 

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Terence Davies’ debut feature film Distant Voices, Still Lives premiered to universal acclaim in 1988. His singular vision of domestic life in 1950s Liverpool was followed by seven features, with two more on the way. The BFI marks the thirtieth anniversary of Distant Voices with a new restoration, now playing in the U.K. and at Metrograph in Manhattan, followed by a Blu-ray release via Arrow Academy in October. We spoke with the director about why audiences love his work, communal life as depicted in his earliest projects, and two films he hopes to complete by the decade’s end.

What do you think about the film thirty years later?

Terence Davies: I was very touched someone in America wanted to release it. It was a lovely surprise. I can’t believe it, thirty years have gone by. My God. [Laughs.] Where has it gone? I never watch it, you see, because I made it. It’s just very odd. I just think, to be honest with you, what do people see in it? [Laughs.] I culled my family history together and made it into a cinematic narrative. I never thought it would go beyond England–I just didn’t. The fact people can respond to it in other countries is still a bit of a wonder for me I’m afraid.

Do you have any theories about why audiences and critics respond to your work so positively?

God, not at all! Absolutely not. I don’t know what they see in it. It’s people beating each other up and then singing. It’s not foot-tapping, is it? I’m proud that I celebrated what that culture was like in the 1950s, and it was rich even though we had no money. We were living in Liverpool slums, but the richness of life seemed wonderful. You know, people getting together, people sing together. They don’t do that now. But it was so life-affirming. That’s what I loved about it.

Will you talk more about the intimacy of your characters singing together?

That was just direct autobiography. The sort of ritual was—and life was very ritualistic in that period because people did certain things on certain days—you went to the pub on Saturday, you came back, you brought some beer back, you had a dance, played some records, and had a sing-song. People knew the group songs and the individual songs. One of my neighbors always used to sing “Ghost Riders in the Sky”! [Laughs.] They were quite extraordinary and you can’t forget those things because they seem so rich–even now they seem so rich. And it was a sort of given, a wonderful feeling of… camaraderie doesn’t really describe it, but a feeling of being one with each other.

How did everyone know these pop and traditional songs?

Some of the songs mum sang when she was a young woman. But also what happened in those days when you bought 78s you had the lyrics on the back of the sleeve and that’s how you learned. Sometimes, if you couldn’t get the record, you would listen to the songs and write it down and then you would learn, but that was common and it was just part of the culture of our period. Pop songs in those days were meant to be sung by other people and you must remember that the Great American Songbook was the poetry for ordinary people. In 1956 Cole Porter was still alive. So when someone like Stephen Sondheim dies, the book will close on that Great American Songbook because there’s no one to fulfill his place anymore. There’s no one of that caliber and stature. These were songs that people loved but they also were the poetry for ordinary people. One of my brothers, who is now dead, I always think of him when I hear “Send in the Clowns.” He was just an ordinary working class man but he loved that and it is a great song. I mean it is a truly great song. That became part of the fabric of how you felt about the world and yourself. But that wasn’t conscious, none of that was conscious, it was felt. It was visceral and it was felt.

What was your experience screening the film at the 26th New York Film Festival?

Unfortunately, they got the reels mixed up. It’s not a linear narrative so to get the reels in the wrong order made it incomprehensible. [Laughs.] I don’t think it was deliberate but that’s what happened. I was terrified. That was the first time I’d been to America and when I was growing up that was very much the land of magic, and it really was! Steamers would bring back records from America and one of my sister’s friends brought back a copy of Sammy Davis Jr. singing “That Old Black Magic.” The record went around the whole street because it was the only American record we actually had.

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How did you decide to make the narrative non-linear?

When I was growing up my family would talk about my father because he was very, very violent. I heard the stories piecemeal, if you like. When I was writing it I just knew I had to follow that strain of the way in which those stories were told. I didn’t realize it was non-linear because I had only made a trilogy, which was my apprentice work and I was still very much a learning. Like everything else, I wrote it as I felt it. One of the great influences has been and always will be “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot, which is also about the nature of memory.

Memory isn’t linear–it’s cyclical. And I felt rather than knew it and I just followed that. We shot it and when we were putting it together on the cutter that was the template: what prompts another memory? It’s like dropping a pebble in a pond and all the ripples are memories. They’re all different so it’s just a question really of trying to be true to how memory works. I didn’t know that I was doing that at the time. It’s only in hindsight that I knew that but it was something that I felt rather than knew.

How did you achieve the film’s rich brown hue?

Humphry’s Laboratory would take the silver oxide out of the film and then you could alter it with filters when you shoot it. I wasn’t the first to use it. Michael Radford did for “1984,” but the bias there was for blues, reds and deep greys. I didn’t want that look, I wanted it to be on the spectrum of brown and that can go from anything to pink to really dark brown. So we just did some tests and warmed up the image with coral filters just to give it that warmth. That’s how I remember our house being. In fact, when we were constructing the set they found this wallpaper and it was little roses against a sort of grey background. That was exactly the paper we had our parlor, which was incredible to walk in a room to see what it was like when I was a kid. But that was how we achieved the look. The BFI did a new digital restoration and they did a wonderful job. There were only two places where I asked if they could make it a little darker or lighter. It really looks lovely, if I do say so myself.

Are you working on any upcoming projects?

Yes, I am! I’ve written two scripts and trying to get money for them. One is about Siegfried Sassoon, who was one of the great World War I poets from England. Another one based on a lovely American novel called “Mother of Sorrows” by Richard McCann. We’re hoping to have those made in the next two years.

You’re you’re going to make two films in two years?

I hope so. Fingers crossed!


Distant Voices, Still Lives is now playing at NYC’s Metrograph and in the UK, followed by a Blu-ray release on October 23 via Arrow Academy.

Ethan Hawke on Dreaming of a Fourth ‘Before’ Film, Why He’s Not Having a McConaughey Moment, and the Necessity of Film Festivals

Written by Rory O'Connor, August 23, 2018 at 8:58 am 

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Despite first appearing on screens a whopping 33 years ago in Joe Dante’s Explorers, the formidable actor and filmmaker Ethan Hawke seems busier than ever these days. We met up with him at the Locarno Film Festival this summer (where he was being honoured with a somewhat premature lifetime achievement award) for a lengthy chat about First Reformed, Christian Bale, River Phoenix, Boyhood pride, where the Before films might be headed next, and how this is certainly not his McConaughey moment.

Decked out in a Hawaiian shirt in a room looking out to the sun covered Lugano Prealps, we found him in a fittingly blue skies mood. The relaxed Texan was first to draw…

Ethan Hawke: Is the festival going well?

The Film Stage: It is! It’s hot.

It’s really hot! I was introducing Seymour today and I felt bad. Before the movie even started everybody’s got a fan and they’re fanning themselves.

How does it feel at this stage to be getting a lifetime achievement award when you’re seemingly busier then you’ve ever been?

Well, I feel several things. I remember Sidney Lumet, at the end of his life, kept saying, “Everyone wants to give me a lifetime achievement award, but they don’t wanna let me make another movie.” You know, they all want me to be out to pasture, grazing at the film festivals of the world. So on one level I feel completely undeserving and on another level I feel like… well, Linklater told me, “Don’t get too high on yourself. These are what you call midcareer check-ins. It means that you’ve made it to this one stage and now in the next round everyone will hate you again very soon and they’ll say you’re washed up and then you have to survive long enough to get to the next round, where they invite you to be the head of the jury.” So I’m in the front tier of the second row.

You mention “midcareer check-ins” but it seems as if you’ve had a charmed career. You’ve never really had the bumps that everybody else has had.

Well, thank you for saying that. I hope that that’s true. I’ll tell you something funny. There was some article written in a magazine that was talking about, with the success of First Reformed and the reception of Blazed, that I was poised to have the best year of my life at that I may be having my “Matthew McConaughey moment.” And my friend Richard Linklater left me a message that was so sweet and charming, because he loves both of us, that said, “But you can’t have a Matthew McConaughey moment, because for you to have a Matthew McConaughey moment you would have had to be washed up. What they can’t write is that you’ve actually kind of consistently done the same thing for you’re whole entire life and sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t.”

So yeah, I’ve been lucky that way. But I think that one of the reasons why luck has given me that charm is because really early on I’ve tried to solve all my problems with working. When my first marriage fell apart, one of the saddest darkest times of my life, I just worked harder than ever. That’s when I went back to the theater, and the theater for actors is a great healer. Because it’s incredibly hard and I think that whenever you really apply yourself humility naturally arises because you meet your own walls, you come up against them.

So I hope that that’s true. It’s also strange to be 47 and also have been making movies for over thirty years. It’s a little rare actually. The other day I saw Christian Bale in a movie and I felt this sense of pride for him for how talented he is, what a good actor he is. I realized that the first time I was jealous of Christian Bale, I think I was 19. Because I had been the youngest client at my agency until they signed Christian Bale. There was this huge list. They represented Robert Redford, Paul Newman, blah blah blah, you know, Warren Beatty. And I was really proud to be on it, I was the youngest one. And the next year there was this other guy, younger guy, “Christian Bale,” who the hell’s that?! And I was like: aw shit, I’m never gonna forget him.

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Andrew Niccol said recently that what he values most in you is this inherent goodness, a sort of decency that immediately shows, and that you would hate him for saying that.

Well, being proud of being good doesn’t really make any sense because if you’re good you’d realize that pride would be an obstacle. We’re always failing ourselves all the time and there are so many ways that I’m not good and when I was younger, first meeting Andrew, the truth is you don’t want to be perceived as being good cause you feel that’s not gonna have an edge or be cool or be interesting, the way young actors like to be interesting, right?

One of the things that is most interesting to me in my age right now is that I have a 20-year-old daughter and she would love to be in front of you right now, that is her dream: to have a movie that she felt proud of and that she could be here and talk to you guys and be asked these questions. It’s fascinating for me to have somebody that looks at life like that. So all of a sudden I’m aware of what a wonderful seat this is to be in. She thinks I’m a little bit better than I am, right? And you start wanting to be that person.

One of the problems with contemporary culture is that there is a tremendous amount of energy put into trying to help 18-year-olds be 35 or, you know, 22-year-olds be 40. But there’s not a big amount of energy put into helping 40-year-olds become 80. You know, there’s no university for it. One of the ways I do it is to make a documentary like Seymour, one of the ways is to work with people I admire, like Andrew Niccol and Antoine Fuqua.

One of the great things about being an actor is that… Antoine is never on anyone else’s set, really. Richard Linklater hasn’t spent much time on anyone else’s set. He thinks making a movie is being Richard Linklater but being in a Richard Linklater film is very different from being in an Antoine Fuqua film and that’s very different from being in an Alfonso Cuarón movie which is very different to being in a Sidney Lumet movie and I’ve gotten the opportunity to see how different sensibilities attack a film set and how they can be different. And there isn’t one right way to make a movie. Paul Schrader gave me one of the best parts of my life and it’s very different than being on the set of Before Sunrise. It’s hardly the same job almost.

I think that Gattaca is one of the best first films of all time. [Andrew Niccol] came out of the gate with something powerful to say. Studios don’t make movies like Gattaca anymore. That movie was made by a Hollywood studio, with money! Now, if you had that script you’d be making it for one-half the time, one-eighth of the price and all the actors would have to have a back-end deal, where you make money if the movie makes money. The movie wouldn’t make any money because it didn’t at the time. I miss that. What I was trying to say was that Andrew thinks I’m good because we’ve been good to each other. The weekend that movie came out I went for a walk around Brooklyn with him and he was so sad. He said the studio couldn’t find one quote to put for next week’s ad. It was already being pulled from theaters because they didn’t have one superlative. You know: Uma Thurman is excellent. A sci-fi thriller that thrills and chills. Not one quote! His eyes were on fire. “We can’t get one quote. The movie came out in 50 fucking cities and we can’t get one quote.”

Of course, in a couple of weeks there were things but it was already too late. And when Before Sunrise came out everybody wanted it to be Reality Bites 2. They were all just completely disappointed. It was like what is this? You know? And 30 years later they’re still talking about that movie. I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say but at a midcareer check-in I’m seeing the values of that.

Are we allowed to ask if there’s going to be another Before film?

You’re definitely allowed to ask. I don’t have an answer. I know that there’s a symmetry to those three movies that I really like. At the beginning of Before Sunrise it starts with this couple in their 40s fighting on a train and you pan over and see two young people listening and we turn into that couple. And there’s something beautiful about that. And the joke Julie makes at the end of Before Midnight that maybe we’re caught in some space-time continuum. You do get the feeling that that circle’s gonna keep going around. So it has a sense of completion to me as a trilogy, but I could imagine revisiting Jesse and Celine in some totally different way in some different kind of movie. I can’t remember the name of it right now but there was a movie about four years ago… great older actors, they’re dying…

Amour?

Yes, Amour! Julie wrote me and said, “Dammit, they already made the sequel!” [Laughs]

I wrote her the other day; I hope she doesn’t mind me saying. I had a dream the other day about the fourth movie and it was entirely erotic. It was full-blown erotic cinema. It would make Bertolucci blush. And she just wrote back “too late.” [Laughs] So we’ll see…

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You were saying before about the spiritual background that you have and also that sense of what it means to be good. How did those thoughts feed into First Reformed?

Well, when I started First Reformed, Paul sent me the script, and on the first pages it talks about all the books that are on Reverend Toller’s desk and they were almost all books my mother had given me. This list of Thomas Merton, this book, that book and, like, I felt like I’d been prepared for this role.

It’s funny, Merton was writing in the ‘60s and he was already seeing an obsession with celebrity starting to happen and how a public self creates a fake self. And now with social media everyone has a public self and it’s all these things TS Elliot or Andy Warhol said that are all kind of coming true about this false self. One of the last times I spoke to River Phoenix he was talking a lot about how people perceived him and how hard it was to even know who you are if you’re constantly just trying to tell people what you’re not because whenever somebody tries to label you its inherently false because you’re definitely more than that or that might be flat out wrong or at least only partly right at best. And how hard that was to deal with and I realized that I wasn’t having that problem because I knew that was fake.

He’d just gone to the Oscars with that Sidney Lumet movie and he couldn’t believe how fake the Oscars were. “You’re not gonna believe, man, they’re so fake! It’s like you can knock these things over.” Meaning like: you think the statues look golden, they’re not gold they’re paper. “They go to the bathroom when they cut to commercial, it’s so fake you wouldn’t believe it! Most of these people are voting on movies they haven’t seen!” And I’m like: I know that. I remember actually thinking: if you’re trying to make me feel bad for you for going to the Oscars, fuck you!

[Laughs] But I realized now that understanding and accepting the phoniness of the world, you know, you gotta do it. You gotta accept it and move on and take it as a truth and not be hurt by it every time it happens.

Were you disappointed when Boyhood didn’t win that year?

That’s exactly my point, not at all! You want the work to be worthy but if you get caught up in seeing other people’s definitions… it wouldn’t affect the final cut of that movie one bit. In fact, I always tell people it’s always a little better if you don’t because if you don’t, for the rest of your life, people will tell you how it should have but if you do people, for the rest of your life, will tell you how it shouldn’t have.

I hate it when life always moves the goal line. We made a movie with our closest friends, for nothing, for over 12 years, about the subtle movements of growing up and actually, it found its way in the commercial marketplace, that’s a miracle. To then turn that into salty tears because you didn’t win the top prize… don’t give up your heart so easily. I wasn’t disappointed. I was so proud. I was so proud of Patricia for winning. I was so proud of us for being there. It was a miracle that we were there at all. I spent my life making little indie movies that nobody even hears of. And so, to turn that victory into a defeat would be a waste of time.

When you make The Purge or the Spierig brothers films, like Predestination, what’s the particular challenge in doing those?

Well, my first teacher was Joe Dante. And so by the time I was 20 years old I’d had these two great mentors. Peter Weir, who is a total art film connoisseur. I mean Peter Weir is like, “Have you seen Bresson? Come on get with it! You don’t even know who Fassbinder is? Wake up!” And Joe Dante is showing me The Howling and he was talking about how drive-in movies, if done with art and love, are actually like the Trojan horse. You go see a werewolf movie and secretly it’s a PTSD movie about the Vietnam War.

Get Out is a great example. Jason Blumhouse did both those movies, The Purge and Get Out, and I think Get Out is the completion of something Jason has been working towards for a long time, these Trojan horse movies. If I told you I was making an important film about race relations in America you definitely don’t want to come, you definitely feel like you’re being preached to and you start yawning immediately. The Purge is the same way. In the future, when rich people don’t care about poor people, they’re on their treadmills just watching people get burned alive on their TV, they flip the channel to find something more entertaining. “In the future…”

I love that because there’s something punk rock about it, it’s not what it seems. There’s a Cassavetes quote I love, “There’s no such thing as high art and low art, there’s good movies and bad movies.” The definition is: did the people who made it put their best love and ideas, did they work hard to complete what that thing is trying to be? If you spent time with James DeMonaco when he’s making The Purge, it’s an awful lot like being on a set with Richard Linklater making Boyhood. Paul Schrader is a great example. First Reformed gets put in the high art box but this is a guy who made Cat People and American Gigolo. He’s a sensationalist. He’s in love with the sex and violence of movies but that doesn’t mean that that’s only him. That doesn’t mean that if he makes a movie with sex and violence that there isn’t art put into it. A lot of people just put the sex and violence and they forget about the art.

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Austin is a large part of your career and Blaze is another tale about Austin. The Karlovy Vary Film Festival recently honored the Austin Film Society.

Did Linklater show up?

He did! Do you think there are other stories to tell, more characters like Blaze perhaps?

The thing about certain cities is they become focal points. People from all over the world come there because they’re hearing about the legends. The short answer is: yes. But the long answer is: the whole world is like that. All these stories need to be told. We’re at this weird in-between place in time right now where it’s very possible for anybody in the world to make a good movie. You can shoot it on your phone. We’ve gotten to the place that Coppola was talking about when he was making Apocalypse Now, where if you have something to say, it’s like a novel. If you’ve been taught to read and write and you have some paper and a pen you can write a great novel. You can do it from jail; you can do it on a boat. And now the same is true with a movie. You can edit it on your computer; you can score it on your computer. And that’s changed the game.

Linklater loves to talk about when Slacker came out and 75% of the event of Slacker was, “Did you hear this kid from Austin made a movie for 16 grand?” And you kind of go: let me see that! It’s not like the movie’s so great–this is Rick talking by the way, I love the movie—but there was something incendiary about making it. It was an act of rebellion to the system of making movies in the early way, same as Robert Rodriguez when he made El Mariachi. That whole spirit was happening then and those guys all fused and then Tarantino found himself being drawn to that energy, and John Sayles, there was a lot of things that were cross-pollinating that didn’t organically come from there but that found their way there. Movements are always gonna happen and likeminded people are always gonna find likeminded people. We’re living in a moment now where the hard part is how to distribute it and how we all can know what to see because there’s so many Slackers out there now and most of them are terrible, so how do you find them?

I’m always astonished, I’m sure you are too, you can go on Apple TV now and see that Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow made a movie together that I never heard of. What? And like, Matt Damon’s in a Clint Eastwood movie I never heard of? So many things get lost in the cracks and if those big names are getting lost, where are the Gattacas of right now? It might be like other art forms where it might take 50 years to curate what’s happening right now. That’s why film festivals have become so important because you guys at film festivals are like curators of, like, what does the world need to be paying attention to. What should be seen? If we didn’t have these festivals, big business would crush all these smaller movies.

Now we have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is. I went to see Logan cause everyone was like, “This is a great movie” and I was like, “Really? No, this is a fine superhero movie.” There’s a difference but big business doesn’t think there’s a difference. Big business wants you to think that this is a great film because they wanna make money off of it.

Follow our complete Locarno 2018 coverage.

‘We the Animals’ Director Jeremiah Zagar on His Story of Queer Awakening and the Nuance of Abuse

Written by Joshua Encinias, August 19, 2018 at 6:54 pm 

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Without hesitation, director Jeremiah Zagar explains the delicate process of dramatizing a ten-year-old’s queer sexual awakening: it’s a combination of non-exploitative material (adapted from Justin Torres’ novel We the Animals) and collaboration with the parents of child actors. The queer storyline is so integrated with the film’s other important elements that some critics relegate Jonah’s (Evan Rosado) awakening to subtext. But Torres was adamant that, with his adaptation, Zagar make queerness the hermeneutic through which Jonah would see and interpret his world in upstate New York.

We spoke with Zagar about We the Animalsthe economic struggles leading to Paps (Raúl Castillo) and Ma’s (Sheila Vand) physical and emotional abuse, the film being greenlit based on casting first-time performer Evan Rosado, and collaborating with the parents of child actors to bring this young, explosive family to the screen.

Will you talk about the baby boy used for Jonah’s birth?

Jeremiah Zagar: That’s my son. I had about an hour of footage. In the footage he’s born then there’s a lot of stuff like being in like in the incubator and there’s a lot more stuff between me and my wife that’s not going to make it into the movie. [Laughs.] I always knew that I wanted that to be part of the movie. My wife got pregnant right after the Sundance Labs and I knew that we’re going to make the movie no matter what. So my producers, who I’ve worked with since I was thirteen years old–Jeremy Yaches and his wife Christina King is also one of our producers–they brought me the camera in the morning when she went into labor. And so I had this camera. I was able to shoot it. I shot the whole birth. That was one of the first things I sent Cinereach to show them the kind of movie I intended to make.

jeremiah-zagar-1There’s this line where Paps goes, “I’m never going to escape this. Nobody. Not us, not them.” When he says that line, I thought I know how to think about this film. It’s a coming of age story but it’s also a story about class without being overt.

That’s what’s so beautiful about what Justin Torres did and that’s what I really loved about his book; that he dealt with race and class without prescribing solutions or explaining the problems. He said this is the world we live in and this is how it exists and this is the emotional ramifications of that world and that world is real for these people. You can understand it in their context but you can put it in your context too. It’s not that they are apart from you and I think a lot of times when you talk about race class we talk about it as other. And I think what’s so beautiful about Justin’s book and what we tried to convey in the movie was the universal feelings associated you know with those things and that was really important to me.

I think you can probably link almost all of Ma and Paps’ behavior back to their economic struggles. Paps is physically abusive, but Ma is emotionally abusive.

We tried to convey the nuance of abuse in the movie. I think abuse gets framed very much in black and white terms. It’s either abusers are evil and awful and people that don’t abuse others are good. But the truth is we’re all a little bit abusive, we’re all a little bit evil, we’re all a little bit good. The reason abuse perpetuates is because the people are not only abusive. If they were only abusive they wouldn’t stay in those relationships, they wouldn’t continue. So it doesn’t make sense. I think we carry with us—all human beings—a lot of pain. What we do with that pain is different for all of us.

The people I know who did the most brutal things to other people were also the most charming and wonderful, you know what I mean? They were also the people who did the most wonderful things. It’s sort of how they could get away with it. I think that one was to compensate for the other. These are these are very flawed and real people. They’re full characters, they’re three-dimensional characters and they’re not good and they’re not bad and there’s just so much gray and everyone in this story. And that’s why I related to it. It reminded me of my family who some might consider abusive. [Laughs.] But I never saw it in that light. I saw the difficulties that my family went through as part of the nuance of what made me who I am and that’s all.

How did you get the parents of non-actor kids to trust you?

A lot of that’s about the parents. Like a lot of that’s about the kind of people that we found. I sort of feel like it was a miracle. We found the most open-minded, wonderful parents that came along with these kids. We cast for the kids and we got these incredible parents. I think they were so open to the script and so open to the experience. I was constantly worried that it would be impossible to get parents who would let their children be in a movie like this, but then we found these very artistically minded, very beautiful people. I think it’s a testament to their children who the parents are. Their children are incredible and they’re not only incredible actors, they’re incredible people and I think the parents created that and they are the same.

How did you tastefully depict a ten-year-old’s emerging sexuality?

It was a long process. One of the first things Justin did is he sat down and said, “I want to make sure this is a movie about queer awakening, that we have that in there. It’s not just a movie about childhood.” Now, in the book it’s very unclear that the character is queer. Not until the very end of the book when he ages about ten years. And in our case we were never going to do that because we wanted you to live in the face and in the eyes of this young boy. So we had to figure out a way to create that queer reality for this young boy throughout the film. We had to figure out when to begin it. There are moments and hints of it in the book so we used those hints and sort of made them bigger. That was the Dustin character in the book, but he was a very small part of the book and we made him a little bigger. And the pornography is definitely in the book, but we made the ramifications of that pornography with the artwork larger. In those ways we tried to bring his queer awakening a little earlier.

Will you talk about the grave and flying imagery in the film?

That’s all in the book. The lake scene is almost as written. Almost exactly as written; down to the birds in the sky and the and the hands in the water. The flying out of the grave scene is something we added, we would do this intermittently throughout film. We would take pieces of the novel and sort of ‘cinema-ized’ them, translate them visually. It was like how do we take what’s written and make it a more explosive visual image. And so that’s where the flight came from, but there’s this constant push and pull in the book between drowning and flying and how close those two things are actually. I was saying this to an audience the other day, it’s that when you make a film, if you’re not willing to drown then you can never fly. The film has to be so on the brink of being terrible for it to be any good, you know what I mean? You have to be risking so much in order to transcend. And that’s what this young boy’s life is and the drowning and the flying is the metaphor we chose to express it.

I would describe Jonah as a truth teller, and he’s punished in myriad ways for telling it.

That’s very astute. That’s very true. And it’s sort of like one of the things that the book is that the movie is not is the book is a testament to that idea. It’s like this person who has seen these things then translates it to the world and derives meaning from it. Because the movie is not a written document it doesn’t have that same quality. However, the fact that you got that from the movie means we succeeded.

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What did you see in Evan Rosado that told you he could show these emotions, tell these truths?

I think it’s very interesting because we saw a thousand kids and I think that the camera is what doesn’t lie. The camera tells you what you’re seeing and if that person can actually achieve what you believe they can achieve. So in his screen test, even in his first screen test, you could see that the camera didn’t want to let go of him. All three of the boys had that quality where the camera and Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand, too. I saw a hundred actresses for Ma, I saw you know not as many for Paps because we sort of knew Raúl would be right from the beginning. They all have that quality where they grab the screen and hold the screen and that’s a quality that can’t be trained. You can’t teach that it’s just innate. So Evan has that, he has that maybe more than everybody else. He has that quality. But we didn’t actually know that he could definitely achieve the range of emotions that he needed to express. But we brought in an acting coach named Noelle Gentile who works with kids and Daniel Kitrosser, my co-writer, also works with kids and they were able to bring it out in him. They were able to show us what he was capable of. And once we knew what he was capable of we knew that we were one-hundred percent. That’s when we greenlit the film. We didn’t greenlight the film until we had Jonah. I think we cast for a year and a half before we were able to green light up based on him.

What was it like working with Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand on your first fiction movie?

Raúl and Sheila taught me so much about acting. I’m not an actor’s director yet, I’m a documentary filmmaker who’s ventured into this world. But what Raúl and Sheila did is they immersed himself in the novel first of all and then immerse himself in the script and then the character and they fell in love with that. When you make a movie like this you don’t do it for the money because there is no money. So a lot of it is based on the love of the material. I can’t speak for Raúl, but what I liked about having him in the role is it was so different from the character he played on Looking. It was so different from any of the characters he played before. He has this quality which was important,of being likable despite his faults. He’s just a wonderful guy and you just love him and you love him on screen and in person and you know in real life he’s just a wonderful person.

Was making this movie unusually difficult?

I mean, most of filmmaking is a horrible experience… for me at least. I think some people revel in the experience. I have a deep need to make movies, but I find the process incredibly difficult. I’m not saying that difficulty doesn’t give me meaning. It does. And I derive a tremendous amount of pride from going through those difficulties. But if I went through all the tremendous disasters we experience on this film… I think it’s Scorsese who said if your rough cut or your assembly doesn’t make you want to vomit then you failed. [Laughs.] Every bit of the filmmaking process–because you’re putting so much of your own self, life and heart into it–is very, very painful. You’re putting in a tremendous amount of money and your whole life on the line to do this thing and it all could depend on somebody not wanting to do it with you. Or someone getting sick or something collapsing. All of that stress, it’s just a very hard experience. [Laughs.]

It’s rewarding because you’re able to take something that’s in your mind and put it on the screen and you’re able to watch it transform and you’re able to bring something to life and there’s nothing better. There’s nothing better than that.

We the Animals is now in limited release.

Josephine Decker and Helena Howard on the Art They Love and Breaking Creative Barriers in ‘Madeline’s Madeline’

Written by Jose Solís, August 10, 2018 at 6:21 pm 

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At a time when movie theaters are shaking your seats, spraying you with water, and adding numbers and X’s to enhance your film-going experience, Josephine Decker is here to remind them that sometimes making a great movie is more than enough. In Madeline’s Madeline, the writer-director delivers her most exhilarating work to date as she tells the story of Madeline (Helena Howard) a teenager who wants to become the star of her drama class. Surrendering to the idea of truly becoming someone else, the young woman also finds herself in the midst of a battle of sorts between the two women in her life, her sometimes neglectful mother Regina (Miranda July) and her acting teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker).

Even though the film has elements that make one think of Carrie, Superstar, Persona and myriad other works, it is by its very nature so undefinable that all one can do is also surrender to the experience. Decker’s imagery flows from the screen and almost seems to jump into your eyes (the soundscape is magnificent) while Howard’s star-making performance anchors the audiovisual elements so that we never forget the humanity within them. Talking too much about the film almost feels like a disservice given how unique, exciting, and necessary its many pleasures are.

With that said, it was extremely fun and enlightening to talk to Decker and Howard about how they met, the art they love, what it was like to work together, and what the future might hold for them next.

The Film Stage: What was your first meeting like?

Helena Howard: I was at a performing arts high school and every year we went to a festival in Union County. For some reason on this day the universe decided to place Josephine in this room adjudicating actors. Everyone’s doing scenes from Frozen, some people did A Streetcar Named Desire — they broke a bottle, there was shattered glass everywhere and people thought they were so intense. I came with a monologue from the play Blackbird by David Harrower, and Josephine made a remark saying it was the best performance she had seen in her life.

Josephine Decker: Her monologue was the most beautiful live performance I’d ever seen and I burst into tears in front of all these 15-year-olds, and then she burst into tears. I think we both knew we’d be connected from that moment on. I always knew I wanted to make something about actors, but when I met Helena I knew she was the person I needed to build this film around. I didn’t know anything about the movie, except that she needed to be the center of it. When I was flogging along, editing the movie for like fifty weeks I’d remind myself when I was lost, “You’re doing this for Helena!”

Helena, did you ever feel out of place among your classmates? Here they are doing scenes from Disney, and you show up with Blackbird.

Helena Howard: I was a bit nervous, yeah. I was concerned my peers would think I was doing something that was not in the norm, but at the end of the day it was something I wanted to do, something that brought truth to me. I would never do anything that doesn’t speak to me.

Helena, there are elements of Una from Blackbird in Madeline, especially in her precociousness and how she sees herself as more mature than she is, which leads to adults taking advantage of her. Did your love for Una in any way shape Madeline?

Helena Howard: I believe every performance or portrayal helps the next. So, possibly.

Did you give Madeline any of your own traits?

Helena Howard: No. I didn’t want to give too much of myself to Madeline. I was the passenger in the car and Madeline was the driver. Subconsciously it becomes method acting, I’m unaware that I’m feeling it while I’m in the process of creating. I didn’t want to take personal things of my life and give them over to Madeline. Those things are mine, not hers.

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In many ways the film shows the sometimes dehumanizing rituals actors go through to find the performance within. Josephine, were you interested in demystifying this sacred idea of “the process?”

Josephine Decker: It’s funny cause I would say it’s the opposite, it was more like “mystery-fying” the process of acting.[Laughs.] I feel acting troupes are one of these last sacred spaces in our culture. They are a space where people transcend themselves and hold the space to let each other try being someone else which is a beautiful spiritual act. In some ways I wanted to see what is this gorgeous, mysterious process actors take themselves on when they leave their bodies and become someone else? When is that done in a safe way? When does that become dangerous? We worship celebrities and I think we worship actors because they are spirits, transforming themselves constantly. There are ways that power can be used in one’s body in a healthy way, but it can also be a dangerous art form. I wanted to look at how magical and terrifying it can be to lose yourself in another person or creature.

Josephine, whenever people write about your movies, and the ways in which you deal with mental illness, they often seem frustrated by how impossible they are to categorize. I find it really funny, cause it shows how much we’ve come to want everything to be digested for us, but I wonder what that feels like for you as an artist?

Josephine Decker: I find it very funny because I just spent a whole day answering lots of questions like that. [Laughs.] Mental illness is a loaded subject for many people, but sometimes people don’t even know how to start the conversation about it. The irony is that mental illness is so slippery and hard to define — a person’s mental illness might have ten different diagnoses in the course of ten years — so it’s ironic that’s the one thing people want to pin down in a film, because it’s the one thing that’s “un-pin-down-able.” Maybe that’s why I get asked a lot about it. My decision to keep Madeline’s relationship with mental illness as open-ended as possible was deliberate. I wanted to allow her the space to craft her own story around it, but also to see clearly how people around her have their own stories, their tales about what’s happening with her.

When the characters are male you’ll read descriptions like “complex,” “profound,” or “troubled,” with women we get “hysterical.”

Josephine Decker: Wow, that’s a very good point. “These moody women…” [Laughs.]

What was your actor-director relationship like?

Helena Howard: Josephine gives very free structured direction. There’s a lot of creative freedom, but she doesn’t tell you what emotion to feel, she just gives you an idea of the direction you should go to. She’d never say anything like “now be depressed!” or “cry!” that would make a bad direction I think, it would be dictatorial. Josephine guides you.

Josephine Decker: Helena hadn’t done film before, so we talked about that. She holds a lot of power as a performer, she knows how to act. A lot of my notes were about reconnecting with the story, bringing out certain aspects of the storytelling, so I mostly had to make sure all her choices were supporting the story at that moment, while giving me a range of options for the editing room. She has very good instincts, she was very open to my direction.

Josephine, are your scripts already full of the imagery we see in the final version, or does that come after you work with your DP?

Josephine Decker: Sometimes it’s both. This movie started with this image of a sea turtle starting in the ocean and then she comes out of the ocean and you realize it’s a woman in a sea turtle costume, and then you realize it’s a woman in an acting studio pretending to be a sea turtle. I said to myself: you have to put this image into film. It was about transformation, not achieving transformation, whether you’re successful or whether you’re not quite there. Ashley Connor, our cinematographer, was involved in this starting in the two-year-long incubation process we went through with actors, for seven months we would get together once a month to improvise with this group of actors. That’s why the camera feels so alive in this film. It was a bit of letting the process of the film create the product.

Movies about teenagers or coming of age films tend to have very romantic views about adolescence, but in this one we see the inner turmoil a teenage woman goes through, rather than worrying about whether she has a date for the prom or not. Are there any other films you can think of that made justice to these feelings you went through growing up?

Helena Howard: A movie that kinda did that was Camp. It’s such a good movie. Was it executed the best? No. But it showed us what it was like to be a teenage performer. It’s truthful. It didn’t fluff it up. Perks of Being a Wallflower also, Charlie has some mental issues he’s battling internally and dealing with life as a teenager as well, and how hard it is.

Josephine Decker: You know what’s so funny, my favorite film I saw in my teenage years was Babe, and in many ways it’s very similar to this movie. [Laughs.] It’s about a young person learning who they are, that they can stand up to authority and be their own person, make their own rules and hold themselves to a higher ethical standard than the “adults” around them. I fucking love Babe so much. I also loved Amélie and The Last Unicorn but a lot of teen films didn’t speak to me. I loved Clueless, I was obsessed with Dirty Dancing, but Babe — which has been my favorite movie for 20 years and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be displaced — it’s about the triumph of a single human spirit against all odds. I would never in a million years say Babe inspired this movie, but it’s one of the deepest influences in my own life. I’ve seen it over 100 times.

Your love of Babe makes the cow in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely suddenly make total sense.

Josephine Decker: [Laughs.]

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I was so happy watching the film because it’s about a young woman of color, which is something we don’t get to see very often. I can not wait to show it to my sixteen-year-old niece, for instance, because few things in 2018 are as empowering as this. I’d love to hear more about what this means for each of you, and Helena I’d love to hear who were some of your idols growing up.

Josephine Decker: Thank you for mentioning that. Truthfully I was blown away by Helena and her power. It was like, “You–let’s do this!” I think those subtle power and racial dynamics were involved even in the creation process. I had to learn what it was like for me to tell her story, instead of a white teenage girl’s story. I was worried I wasn’t able to do it justice, and I think that’s why the film is what it is. It asks: how do you tell a story that’s not yours? We spent two years working on it before we shot it, then I spent a year and a half editing it, and in a way, weirdly, race is a part of the film. It’s also about the connection between these two women and how that could be destructive or deeply moving and creative. It’s so exciting for me to hear you bring it up. This movie would not be as meaningful without this specific person as the lead. I am so happy it was Helena.

Helena Howard: Growing up I didn’t look at people like that, I came from a household where I grew up very open-minded. I see people as human, that’s their race, and then they happen to be multiethnic. My whole life I would always have to check off “other” in race, so having to identify as “other” really hurt when I was at a young age. I used to watch old films, classics, the types of dramas I watched weren’t cast with African American or Latin actors, so I don’t know. I didn’t have that idea of idols growing up. Instead I was teased for being multiethnic, so I didn’t really want to be black, Cuban, or Cuban American. Even though I was trying to make people see me as that part of myself, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Helena, what roles are you looking forward to playing at some point?

Helena Howard: One day I would love to play Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. I love ‘Night Mother, Ruined by Lynn Nottage, I’d love to do Blackbird. [Laughs.] I have so many plays…oh my gosh, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Martha or Honey?

Helena Howard: Either? Both? I’d also love to do Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, and one of Tennessee Williams’ one-act plays This Property is Condemned.

Josephine, maybe one of these is your next project together?

Josephine Decker: One of her favorite plays I’d never read until she told me she was really into it was Equus, and that is the craziest, most interesting play. It would be interesting to look at that play with her maybe playing the boy’s role.

More farm animals!

Josephine Decker: Yes, there’s a theme [Laughs.]

Madeline’s Madeline is now in limited release.

Note: These interviews were conducted separately and combined for clarity.

Dominga Sotomayor on ‘Too Late to Die Young,’ Growing up in a Chilean Commune, and Cinema as Recollection

Written by Leonardo Goi, August 10, 2018 at 7:16 am 

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Six years after her debut feature and 2012 Rotterdam Tiger Award winner Thursday Till Sunday (De Jueves a Domingo), 33-year-old Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor attended the 71st Locarno Festival for the world premiere of her new feature, Too Late To Die Young (Tarde Para Morir Joven). A subtle, tender coming of age set in a commune nestled atop Santiago’s cordillera in 1990s Chile, Too Late To Die Young entered the Swiss fest’s official competition, and just landed a spot at this year’s New York Film Festival.

A multi-character portmanteau of a self-sufficient, environmentally friendly community of hippie-like adults and kids, Sotomayor’s work zeroes in on three young commune members, Sofía (Demian Hernández), a 16-year-old itching to leave the place to move in with her estranged mother, Lucas (Antar Machado), a teenager helplessly besotted with Sofía, and Carla (Magdalena Tótoro), a 10-year-old way too smart and mature for her own age. Having watched it in a packed public screening at Locarno’s Palavideo – and stunned by its gentle and deeply nostalgic vibe – I caught up with Sotomayor to talk about growing up fast in a commune, cinema as a means to rescue one’s memories, and Chile’s own adolescence.

You grew up in a commune yourself, the Ecological Community of Peñalolén in Santiago’s cordillera, so the first question that comes to mind is: just how autobiographic is Too Late to Die Young?

That’s something I’m often asked about my work in general. The truth is, I just can’t imagine making anything that isn’t autobiographic. A lot of what I show in Too Late to Die Young comes from direct experience, it’s stuff I’ve seen myself. I lived in that place, so I patched together images that haunted me. That’s just how I work. But I also find it interesting to be able to shift the whole thing to another level. This is not a documentary about my childhood, nor did I want to turn it into something like that. And I think the film slowly hits a more strange terrain, a more fictional place. There’s always a certain frustration in what I do, which I think is something intrinsic in any sort of artistic expression, and it comes from the gap between what you lived through and how you try to reproduce it. I began working on this film thinking about places I knew, but shot it at a time when those places no longer existed.

Where exactly did you shoot?

Well, I would have loved to shoot in the commune I lived in, but the place had changed dramatically. We lived away from Santiago, in this arid place where there were only ten houses and massive pastures all around us. No electricity, no phones, and you had to drive for an hour to reach the city. Now there’s about 400 houses, and the city swallowed the whole community. It’s crazy. You can only imagine how tougher the class divisions have gotten. It’s like a ghetto! Some of the people who decided to abandon their urban lives and settle in the middle of nowhere thirty years ago are now wealthy hippies living in 3000 square meters estates, while around them low-income people live in much tinier plots. We could have filmed in a completely different place, far away from there, but I decided not to, and told our location scout and art director that we had to film in the commune, and find a way to make it work. We looked around the cordillera for areas where the landscape would still look quite rough, and we built the houses we shot in.

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That sounds like a very lengthy process.

Well, we were lucky a few buildings we used were available for us to rent, and looked somewhat unfinished, derelict. Sofía’s house, for instance, is a place I knew from my childhood – and we managed to use it. But Clara’s house did not exist, so we had to create one. We played with what we had. And I really wanted the audience to get lost in that environment. I didn’t want people to get a clear sense of where the houses were, and how far away from each other.

How did you go about writing your script?

God, it’s been so long I honestly can’t quite remember how I began [laughs]. I got to the community when I was four, and lived there until I turned twenty. There were times I’d live with my father, others with my mother only, in two different houses. I traveled in between, left for Europe for a while. And I returned when I was already 26. I got myself a tiny house in the commune, around the same place I had lived in with my mum. And it was there, when I returned to my childhood’s place as an adult, that I began feeling the need to write about my childhood. It’s like I needed the distance. I never really just decide to make a movie, it’s more like images come to me, impulses, and it becomes clear that I need to make that movie happen. The commune shaped the way I am today, I know the place so well still, and I felt it very close to my heart. And when I was living there as an adult I sensed a great deal of nostalgia – you know, I had come back to the place I had lived in as a kid, but everything had changed. And that’s when I began writing.

It was a very long process – I think it took me about four years to finish the script. Of course, I did other things in between – including my debut feature – but I’d always come back to that story, one way or another. It was not an easy script to write, as it zigzags between different memories of my childhood. But that’s how it works for me: I write scenes and let them take me, I see how they develop, and they lead the way. I work a lot on characters, at first, and their relationships. To an extent, Too Late to Die Young began the way Thursday Till Sunday did. I found an old photo of my cousin and I, as kids, tied to the roof of a car during a family road trip. And I suddenly remembered how crazy that journey had been, and how standing on that car’s roof meant the world to my 8-year-old self, and I thought of how crazy it was that my parents had tied us up that way. That powerful sense of ridiculousness, sheer madness, weirdness, danger… I really like how very familiar and cozy [in English] atmospheres can suddenly turn into strange and troubling experiences. As for the community, I loved the idea of being free, so in synch with everything and everyone. We lived with no walls, and I mean this in the truest sense of the word: we had no physical or mental boundaries. We witnessed and were exposed to everything, whether it was our parents fighting, or debating serious stuff. Which meant we grew up fast.

And that’s something you notice in the way the commune’s kids behave. I’m thinking of Clara and that brilliant line, when she tells Sofía that she’s only little “on the outside”.

And the adults are not that mature either. It’s something that has definitely become clearer to me now that I’m older. You’re an adult, but you keep having the same worries you had as a kid. I hate the idea that a certain age should dictate a certain behavior and certain character on people, so I’ve worked to debunk that generalization.

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Thinking of kids and adults, there are three demographic cohorts you follow closely: the 8 to 10-year-old kids, the teens, and the grownups. You seemed to have lived in the commune as a member of all three groups.

Yes, and the community certainly did shape me in many different stages of my life. From running around barefoot and swimming in the river as a 4-year-old, to falling in love and itching to drive around in your teens, all the way down to realizing, as an adult, that the utopia you wanted to create may never truly happen, because you’re still going to have some petty quarrels with your neighbor. And that’s another thing I loved about that place: nothing was taken for granted. It was never a case of: “we have water,” but more like: “there will be water… at some point.” I genuinely think that whole sense of precariousness made the place even more alive.

Watching your film, I kept wondering whether Sofía was your own alter-ego. If anything because of the endearing way she seems to treat her memories – as something precious, to be rescued. It kind of struck me as an attitude very similar to your own way to approach the past in your writing and directing.

Well, memory is pivotal to the whole movie. For me, Too Late To Die Young is a big act of recollection, a memory told in the present tense. And I fear I have bad memory [chuckles], so the idea of recollecting and patching memories together helped me a lot. In Sofía, her need to listen to her mum’s voice in those old tapes is a way to go back in time, and speaks to a certain existential angst. Mind you, her relationship with her mother has nothing to do with mine. It’s strange. Whenever I think about it, I feel like I am neither Clara, nor Sofía, nor Lucas, yet they are all part of me, to an extent. I wanted to capture a collective mental state. I belong to Sofía even though I don’t share much with her. And when I started writing, I began with Clara and Sofía, who were meant to serve as my aliases in different stages of my life – Lucas only came later to the script. And I remember the fear of death I had as a kid. You know when, as a child, you’re afraid of going to bed, of not waking up? I thought of that, and of the type of obsessive, all-encompassing infatuations you experience when you fall in love for the first time in your teens. And the two feelings eventually mixed up. The fear of death, on the one hand, and the first-love obsession, on the other, eventually became a sort of organic whole.

You found some extraordinary young actors in Damien Hernández [Sofía], Magdalena Tótoro [Carla] and Antar Machado [Lucas] – among several other pitch-perfect casting choices. I was wondering how you select your actors, and how that played out in the case of Too Late to Die Young.  

I was actually helped by my mother, who’s an actress and had already helped me find actors for my debut feature. I trust her taste, plus I don’t really like traditional casting, so to speak. I don’t do open calls. I ask around, to friends and family. And it was clear to me that there would have to be one key prerequisite: the kids we would cast had to come from the commune. I think that life there shapes you so much, and I wanted to dig up that collective memory. Antar Machado was born in the commune, and you can tell that by the way he jumps around from one tree to another, how idealistic and mature he is. Damien was one of the few who we found outside the commune. We organized two workshops, one for the kids, and one for the teenagers. I chose Clara as the lead kid, and the children got secondary roles. Same deal for the teens. It was an inclusive casting – everyone I called in was going to be cast, but I wanted to see which ones would take on more prominent roles.

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And how did you go about choosing your protagonists?

When I wrote Sofía’s character I really did not have someone like Damien in mind. But the criteria – well, I guess it is something we were mentioning earlier: I wanted kids who gave me the impression of having complex, multi-faceted personalities, who had lived through more than kids their age normally do. I don’t think you can ever make up that inner complexity. I’m 33 now, and I find myself endlessly fascinated by carefree, free-spirited people. I think there’s a bit of envy in that penchant, too [laughs]. I just learn a lot from them. And with Damien, that’s how it worked. He’s currently transitioning, and identifies as a man, and that too added a certain degree of ambiguity to the character, and I was drawn to that. I found in Damien a lot of what I was looking for – this idea of indefinite, unlimited characters. And their looks were also crucial: I loved the fact that you couldn’t quite tell whether they were 18, 15 or 12.

Was being able to sing and play an instrument another prerequisite? I’m asking because your film is so musical, from the Sinéad O’Connor’s soundtrack down to the songs Lucas and his mates sing to the community.

Oh yes! We wanted people who’d be able to sing, and the kids and teens began to come up with songs during the workshops. And we pushed them a lot, too. Take Antar, for instance. We’re very close now, but at first he was a little skeptical of the whole project. He said he was a musician, that he wasn’t very interested in films… but I told him that he’d be able to perform and play his own music, and I think that did the trick.

So the songs Lucas and his band play at that New Year’s Eve party – did they compose them?

Yes. They came up with them as we shot. And Damien too studied music, and knew how to play the accordion. They were all very multi-talented people.

You mentioned that you wanted to capture a collective mental state. To me, Too Late to Die Young seems to work as an allegory: it’s 1990, Chile is waking up to the beginning of its post-Pinochet era, and the whole country is undergoing a series of changes not unlike the ones experienced inside the commune.

I knew from the very start that I was going to make a film about adolescents, but also about a country’s adolescence. It’s not just these kids who are transitioning into adulthood, the country too was entering a stage of major changes – the idea of democracy, the illusion that there’d be a massive paradigm shift after Pinochet. And well, those few months in 1990, that window of time when Pinochet was ousted and Patricio Aylwin assumed office as the first democratically elected president in the post-dictatorship era – the country was replete with dreams! It was a whole new world, a new year, a new Chile. But it was also clear to me that I had to be careful not to make those political commentaries very explicit. Like I didn’t want Pinochet to be mentioned, I didn’t want the whole critique to feel heavy-handed. So the whole commune, a place that had become a home for people living through a self-imposed exile, turned into a mirror for the country at large.

I was amazed at the way you managed to parcel out a sense of class struggle inside the community. It’s a utopic place, but there are clear clashes between different people from different backgrounds, which you still treat with great subtlety.

I guess I always lived a life full of contrasts – for one thing, I lived in a commune, but went to Catholic school. Chile itself always struck me as quite contradictory, and I wanted to reproduce that. I mean, some of the families in the commune didn’t even have walls in their homes, but still had nannies. I personally never start a project with the idea of making an explicit political point. In Too Late to Die Young, I did not make it a goal to talk about class divisions, for instance. Social frictions are part of the reality I live in, and my job is just to capture what happens around me. That’s it. Take Raul, the man who works in the commune and is still struggling to finish his own house. When he’s asked to help rescuing the dog of a far wealthier family, who claims a lower income household stole the pet from them, he has to put himself against his own people. It’s a dramatic scene. But they’re all subtle details, and they’re never too explicit. As for what happened to the commune throughout the years, the place recently began accepting poorer families, which led to a split among the oldest residents. There are those who agree with the new policy, and those who fear a massive intake of new members could undermine the environment and the community’s equilibrium. It’s a really difficult subject.

Do you still live there?

No, I live in Santiago now, down in the city. It was hard to leave the commune, and I miss it. But it changed a lot. I think ultimately that’s what the movie is all about: the longing for a place that changed dramatically, and the illusion that it could revert to what it once was.

Too Late to Die Young premiered at the 2018 Locarno Film Festival.

Topher Grace on Portraying the Racism of Today in ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ Spike Lee’s Brilliance, and the ‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ Cameo He Couldn’t Shoot

Written by Jordan Raup, August 8, 2018 at 8:54 am 

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In portraying the true story of Ron Stallworth–an African American detective who infiltrated the KKK in Colorado Springs in the 1970s–Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman also captures the leader of the white supremacist organization David Duke, played by Topher Grace. Depicted with a sense of queasy menace and also the target of some deserving laughs, Grace handles the difficult challenge with a subtle confidence as he eventually goes toe-to-toe with Stallworth and his team. He’s also the only real-life person portrayed that we actually see in the film during an emotional, enraging finale–one better discussed in greater detail after you see the film.

I spoke with Grace about preparing for the role, Spike Lee’s precision, working with auteurs, the recent films he’s enjoyed, and the Ocean’s trilogy, including the cameo he couldn’t shoot.

The Film Stage: I was going over the Wikipedia page of David Duke, and just that made me queasy. How did you feel after your extensive preparation for the role? I read you listened to his radio show.

Topher Grace: I did listen to his radio show, because that’s just his voice, and I think people are ageless on radio, and I do some of the radio programming that you hear in the film. I’ll go into what I did, but I got this amazing call from Spike [Lee] saying “You got the part!” And it’s just this really delicious, juicy role. And then I went into the worst month of my life which was all this research on him which was the radio show, reading My Awakening which was his autobiography and is kind of a thinly veiled Mein Kampf, and has his belief system in it. It’s a thick book, and it’s overwhelmingly negative and just hard to read. And then I watched just a bunch of Donahue, which was kind of one of the few shows on the air which had controversial figures on it, and that was the best in terms of information because then I could see a lot of his mannerisms, see how he played off a crowd. Eventually, he went into politics, and you can kind of see it on that. And then I watched a bunch of interviews with him from a little earlier, cause a lot of Donahue was in ‘83 and this takes place in ‘73. But it was just the worst month of my life… by the way it was the best month of my life because I was having a kid too. But my wife was sitting there nursing and was like, “Hey, can you stop practicing hate speech?” I love the role, but I hate the man.

When you first meet the first KKK members we’re introduced to they are kind of in your face and more direct, and when we meet you, it’s almost scarier because of how subdued and quiet you are, and it just builds and builds. Can you talk about playing that kind of psychological game?

Well, a lot of that was in the script. A lot of that Spike had told me about, which is that the first half of the film is more of an introduction to America at the time, kind of what the common conception of what a racist was, like a beer belly, redneck dude. Then the second half of the film focuses more on what racism became, and sadly, what David played a big part in helping it become, kind of the face of racism that is still around today, which is kind of more palatable. I mean, it’s still evil but it’s more palatable racism, which is David. And they say this in the movie, but he always wears three piece suits and he’s always well spoken. The most evil part of him I realized in doing all that research was seeing how intelligent he was.

I love the way Spike Lee shot your scenes, at least for the first 80% where we see you because you’re just in this lonely, isolated room and it’s kind of this perfect encapsulation for racism today. Did he talk to you at all about that element of loneliness and isolation?

Spike doesn’t walk you through his process. But I’ll tell you what we did you–which you have on very few films–is that he had John David Washington and me up to NYU to his office–and by the way is amazing, there’s like students popping in and asking him questions and then you’re rehearsing–but we had a lot more rehearsal time than most films, especially to be doing face to face. Those phone calls, to have rehearsed them with John, and also when we shot them, he built the sets next to each other so we were actually on the phone. Like, I didn’t know he gave the phone the middle finger. I didn’t know there were so many people around the phone laughing, so it was kind of separate in that way. I think he did that in Inside Man because with a lot of those phone calls you want to be able to cut at any time, so I think he did that there. I guess a lot of people don’t think about this with filmmaking, but sometimes when you’re on the phone there’s nothing there. You’re on a dead phone and there’s someone off camera that’s just like reading the sides. So you’re not even doing it with the guy, let alone not even doing the actual performance, but this was live.

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I feel like it’s almost a prerequisite at the end credits in based-on-a-true-story movies nowadays to show the real-life people.

And then you’ll see like ”This is the real Babe Ruth!” But I’ve never seen it jump to the present, and still have the same person and say something that powerful.

Yeah, you’re just in tears at the end. Because you didn’t shoot with a lot of cast until the finale, what was your experience seeing the film in full and then that emotional experience at the end?

Oh man. The first time I saw the movie was in Cannes because I had been doing a movie in Canada before that. So if I saw this movie at the Focus Features screening room I would have been thrilled to have been in such an amazing movie, but to see it at the Cannes Film Festival where we got like a 10-minute standing ovation, was easily one of the best experiences I’ll probably ever have in my career. It was thrilling to hear, especially with some of the stuff with David was very risky, and to see it pay off, both in terms of getting laughs–I mean real solid laughs in what is a dramatic film–and then feel the impact of that ending. Just as a viewer of the film, forgetting I was in it was an amazing experience. For lack of a better word, I’ll call them jokes, they’re not exactly jokes, but some of the humorous moments we went for, some of them Spike and I talked about and figured out on the set. They’re so dangerous, not in terms of me caring about how I’d come off, but you wanna make sure with this kind of material it’s only taken one way. For me, before I did it I thought, “There’s only one human you can do this with: it’s Spike Lee.” When you play a role like that it’s gotta be with the greatest black director of all time, the end.

Speaking of Spike Lee, what was your first experience of seeing one of his films?

Do The Right Thing. A teacher showed it to us at a boarding school I went too for high school and it blew my mind. And then to be a part of something that he’s doing that is so vital and part of our society and about our society right now, it’s mind-blowing. I don’t know how many experiences you have where you experience the person and you’re such a fan as a young person and then you get to work with them, and he did not disappoint.

At Cannes, you also had Under The Silver Lake there.

I have a much smaller part in that, a couple scenes. It was a fun Cannes. Actually, that was the next night, so it was a really heady experience. I called my mom, because in her time zone my mom was up, and I was like, “This is what I thought Hollywood was gonna be, when you were taking me to Planet Hollywood, and you know, MGM Studios.” And then when I moved to Hollywood it was not at all what was advertised. But at Cannes everyone really loves cinema, and it was like palm trees and yachts. It was what I imagined Hollywood would be like.

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It’s been exciting to see you in this movie, and the David Robert Mitchell movie, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

Chris was there. I saw him on the way out. I mean he’s a great guy. He was there to support Spike, and I love that community, especially in Cannes, that everyone really cares about cinema that much.

It seems based on these recent choices, you do know the auteurs that are out there. Are there any recent upcoming directors that you’ve been blown away by?

I mean I love Matt Spicer. I loved Ingrid Goes West, I thought that was like the funniest movie of the year. Love the Daniels. I love David Lowery. I thought A Ghost Story was like the best movie I’d seen in ten years.

Me too.

I don’t think that movie got it’s due. And I just saw the trailer for his Robert Redford movie [The Old Man and the Gun.] He accessed Robert Redford from the time he was Robert Redford.

I can’t even list them because there’s a ton of people I want to work with. For me, it’s not about having a list of people I wanna work it. It’s about saying no to things I might have said yes to a couple years ago. I kind of announced to my agents that they are no longer my agents. I won’t be making money. That’s essentially what you’re saying to the corporation, “Hey I just wanna do things that get me really excited on set.” I’m very happy with the reception of this movie. I loved being in Truth, I loved being in Interstellar, even though people were like, “What’re you doing in here? It’s such a small role.” To me, being on set with geniuses like that, working on material like that–I don’t know how to describe it. I think I’m relatively young, but I’ve been doing it for a while and after a while, you go, “Well, what’s the point if not to work with people that get your pilot light lit?”

It does seem that with A Ghost Story and movies on that budget level, that is where the most interesting projects are being made. This film was produced by Jason Blum and Jordan Peele. Did you speak to them at all during the process or was it mostly just Spike Lee?

Jordan, oh my God. Jordan is the number one filmmaker I wanna work with. I mean look, it’s really Spike’s film. I mean they were really fantastic, you can’t get a better producing team. Spike’s an auteur. It’s funny, we were walking up those steps at Cannes and he had these coattails on his tuxedo and I was like “Yup, we’re all riding literally on his coattails onto the top of that red carpet.” That’s what I felt watching the film, that there was a really sure hand. Especially tonally with this film. When I was reading the script I was like, “If this could work, it could be amazing.” But there are like zero other people I’d do it with besides Spike.

Spike Lee is known to move fast on movie sets because he knows exactly what he wants. Was there any hesitation on your part because you’re playing a real-life character, you want to get it right or did you feel after every take that you were like “Alright, I’m good with leaving it here?”

First of all, I never feel at the end of any take, “Done, in the can, perfect.” [Laughs.] I did feel the same assuredness that the audience feels being taken through the film. By the way, I felt the same way working with Chris and David and lots of really great filmmakers. Here you feel these people really know what they want and it makes me so sure I don’t wanna direct because I have no idea and these people really know. That said I did a play, here in New York five or six years ago and I never rehearsed that much. Something like this, where he gives a lot of speeches, which are essentially rehearsed for the character, I hired someone to come to my house and on day one I was ready to go on each scene. I think because rehearsing sucks so much it’s just a pain in the ass, it’s really about memorizing. But that’s what I do on all these films now, rehearse it like it’s a play performance.

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To jump back a few years, I think Ocean’s Twelve is a masterpiece.

It’s just getting its due now.

Well, that’s what I’m wondering.

Why is that happening just now?

I think the meta aspect turned people off initially, but now people are more accepting of it. But that opening scene you have is just incredible. I was wondering your process with coming up with that and improvising perhaps?

Ocean’s Eleven was because I was in Traffic, which was my first film. So I was in ADR and Steven was just like, “Wanna come and do Ocean’s Eleven?” And I was like “Let me think about that, yeah!” And it was great, I think I was only 21 and it was like George Clooney and Brad Pitt and by the way, quick aside, the plane we’re in War Machine is called Ocean’s Eleven and I did those scenes with Brad.

So when the next film came around I really knew Steven. The scene was always gonna be in this hotel room that I wasted but I remember on the day we figured out I was telling him about this Dennis Quaid movie and Dennis Quaid had been in Traffic. We realized that the trailer for In Good Company would be playing before Ocean’s Twelve which is a really good experience viewers probably don’t even get today. And the thing I can tell you that no one else knows is that in Ocean’s Thirteen, which I couldn’t do because of Spider-Man, I was gonna see Rusty [Pitt’s character] going into a casino and I was gonna stop him and the whole time I was going to be holding an Asian baby but we weren’t gonna say anything about it. The first was one was cars, second was wreck a hotel a room, and the third one was that.

Thank you. That is great.

No, thank you. God, I haven’t talked about that in forever.

BlacKkKlansman opens in wide release this Friday, August 10.

Bruno Dumont on His Sequel to ‘Jeannette,’ the Spirituality of Cinema, and the Myth of Freedom in Filmmaking

Written by Leonardo Goi, August 6, 2018 at 8:06 am 

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Bruno Dumont attended the 71st edition of the Locarno Festival to pick up a Lifetime Achievement Award and present CoinCoin and the Extra Humans, the follow-up to his sci-fi 4-part comedy series (and arguably biggest mainstream hit), P’tit Quinquin. But the buzz around the French maverick auteur owed as much to Quinquin’s new extra-terrestrial encounters as to the news that his last feature film, the 2017 Joan of Arc-themed musical Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, will soon have a sequel of its own. Jeanne, the second and last chapter in the life of The Maid of Orléans, started shooting today, August 6. Based as its predecessor on the play by Belle Époque writer Charles Péguy, “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc,” Jeanne is set to follow the eponymous heroine as she triumphs over the English in the Hundred Years War, and is later put on trial for heresy and burnt at the stake.

Tucked away from the sun inside the Belvedere Hotel’s bar, Dumont spoke with me about his fascination for Joan of Arc, the crucial changes between Jeannette and Jeanne, and some unconventional methods to direct his actors.

Your films have always struck me as rather singular “closed chapters,” so to speak. After CoinCoin and the Extra Humans, you’re adding another sequel to your filmography. Why the fascination for Joan of Arc, and what should we expect in this follow-up to Jeannette?

For one thing, the lead character has certainly changed a great deal. What fascinates me about Joan of Arc is her spiritual strength. In Jeannette, I followed her when she was very little. Her childhood interested me: I loved the idea of studying how her vocation began. And now in the sequel my interest has shifted to the question of how that vocation evolved, and how it all ended for her. I found it to be an appealing story, it had a good subject. But the question then was: how do we make it work? They were all issues we also faced with CoinCoin: how to develop and approach a continuing narrative. Of course, we’re still talking about Joan of Arc, but she’s changed. So I wanted to change and adapt my means of expression as a way to try capture her interiority, if you like. It’s a question of entering a body and representing it. I do not think that cinema shows what is real; I think cinema shows our spiritual life.

That said, we also had to deal with a few logistical concerns. When I asked the actress who in Jeannette plays the older Jeanne [Jeanne Voisin] if she wanted to star as the lead character in the sequel, she said yes. But she soon started to complain about all sorts of problems – she said she had some issues with her teeth, that she did not want to cut her hair short, did not want to ride a horse… I just felt that something was wrong, and I lost interest. But as we eventually gave up on her, I found myself in trouble: I had no actress, and didn’t really know where to look for one. And then I realized, [snaps his fingers] we had one already! The actress who plays the 8-year-old Jeannette [Lise Leplat Prudhomme], I was going to work with her!

I thought the idea was terrific: having a little girl to star as a near-adult character meant revising the whole story. The girl was 8 when she starred in Jeannette, and she’s going to be 10 in Jeanne. And the very idea that you could have a 10-year-old burn on a pile of wood, well, the audience’s interest in the whole myth could be revamped. And that’s what’s important. Remember there’s about 600 films on Joan of Arc. We’ve seen everything already! So I think there’s lot of strength in the whole idea, and I think it’s going to change it all. Just imagine a little girl riding a horse, leading men to the war, confronting old sirs, members of the clergy… That to me is extraordinary. And it gives me so much enthusiasm. It’s a risk, of course, but you have to take a few in life.

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I remember you claiming that one of the most original renditions of Joan of Arc you’ve ever seen was the one by Cecil B. DeMille, Joan the Woman [1916], because he made her look like she was 40. I was thinking about that earlier, when you were talking about the casting of 10-year-old Lise Leplat Prudhomme. It just strikes me as equally original.

Yes, but remember the decision was pure coincidental – a matter of sheer chance, really. And there’s a sense of extravagance in the choice, too. Whenever you look at Flemish paintings, you can see perfectly proportionate characters, and others whose proportions are completely off. And that to me makes sense. In the case of Jeanne you sort of need the proportions to be off to give a sense of rhythm, to reawake the story, so to speak. I think that’s going to place us in a position to start feeling again for Joan of Arc, to increase our sensibility toward her story.

What about the score? Part of what made Jeannette so memorable was your partnership with  electro-death metal composer Igorrr, but it looks as though you’ll no longer be working with him in the sequel: you have recruited French pop singer Christophe instead.

Well, I loved the electronic score we used in Jeannette, but I felt like we had to change it. I think the idea of relying on electronic music worked well for that first half of Jeanne’s life, but does not quite fit with the way she evolves. As she grows older, we hit on a certain sadness. She is abandoned by the King, by the Church, and eventually condemned. How do you express that? How exactly do you capture the feelings she must be going through as she waits to kick the English out of France, the feelings of someone who’s abandoned by everyone? I think romantic music is far better suited to capture that feeling. And it’s important the audience gets that. Remember Joan of Arc is a mystical figure, but we can’t be too obscure about her. So I looked for a singer able to capture that melodic vibe. And Christophe… do you know him?

I’m afraid I’m not too familiar.

Oh, he’s a very interesting artist. He started off as a singer in variety shows in France, back in the 1960s, but his music has evolved dramatically. Such incredible melodies – to cry for, really. And I think it’s fine. It works. You need a little “mélo” and that’s what it’s going to be – a bit of a melodrama. It’s like in CoinCoin. There we laughed, here we’re going to cry. After all, it’s quite a tragic story, and I don’t need to tell you that.

The score will change – will the choreographies do too? Will you be working with the same choreographer you recruited for Jeannette, Philippe Decouflé?

Yes, we’ll keep working together, but this time he’s going to focus largely on the battle scenes. It’s just that our budget is tight and I can’t have three hundred horses, so I’ll have to figure out something different. I’m going to try with a few ones – and to “poetically express” the battle, if you like. Expect the girl to dance a lot less. In Jeannette, many of her gestures and dances involved hands and arms. Here the task will be different, perhaps less spectacular than it was before, but nonetheless necessary. She needs to be able to act, stand, ride a horse and fight like a man! Remember she’s going to look like one: her hair will be cut, her clothes will be a warrior’s. A little girl who plays a guy’s part. And that’s really not a small feat. It’s a lot of work. So the key task for the choreographer this time won’t be teaching her how to dance, as much as helping her to get used to her body – to walk, march, and so on.

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I remember watching Jeannette and feeling entranced by the relationship between characters and the space they inhabit. It’s a near-symbiotic dynamic that comes to full light in the choreographies. I was wondering how exactly do you prepare for those dances, those gestures.

Are the choreographies prepared before or after you’ve chosen the locations you’ll be shooting in?

Locations, to me, come before anything else. The location where you operate shapes your whole work – your cinematography, the staging of scenes, and so on. In the case of Jeanne, I will be shooting in a dune region, and inside the Amiens cathedral. So I went to Amiens, paid a visit to the cathedral, and looked carefully at the grounds. As soon as I get a clear sense of what the grounds will look like, I liaise with the choreographer, speak with my camera operators, and figure out how to proceed, what movements we can try out, etc. But all my ideas come from the location. The Amiens cathedral was not going to close its door to the public to let us shoot, so we’ll be shooting with tourists inside the church. And that’s fine, they’re tourists inside a cathedral, and tourists in places like that won’t be speaking loud anyways. Of course, it’s a risk, as people may always just shout in the middle of a take, but it’s a risk worth taking.

Speaking of the importance of locations – I was wondering if you could elaborate on your tendency to cast local actors, people who live in and around the places you shoot in.

Well, my job is to forge relationships. Anywhere you go there are harmonies between places and people. There’s like a mystical relationship, if you like, between people and the vegetation that surrounds them. Cinema is often so fragmented that it is crucial to have some elements that help things stick together. To me, casting local people is a necessity. Because if you don’t, well… there’s all sorts of films I just don’t believe. You see Parisians playing people from the south of France, and I don’t believe that for a second. It’s a question of verisimilitude. I know there’s some directors who really can’t be bothered to even try, but I can’t do it that way. I just can’t. I need to have in my hands people and things that are perfectly in synch. That’s it.

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I recall you said working with a professional actor is like working with a Boeing 747, you have plenty of buttons are your disposal and just have to choose which ones to click, but you’ve worked with so many non-professional actors already, and I wondered what the dynamic between nonprofessionals and professionals has played out for you.

The biggest concern for a professional actor is to do a good job. A non-professional just doesn’t care. And that changes everything. Sure, a professional can offer you different options, different variations on the stuff you expect from them, but I don’t want that. I prefer people who resist me, who expect nothing and have nothing to give. I prefer people who are a little lost, and that’s because movie characters to me always feel that way. After all, we’re all non-professionals whenever we act in life. When we walk, when we interact with other people… there’s something authentic, something true in the way we perform those actions. And I need that sense of authenticity to work with. It’s like if I were a sculptor: I need some good material to work with. If the material I have isn’t good I can’t do anything. A professional would ask me: “do you want me to say it this or that way? Do this, or do that?” And you always have to govern them. There are people who know how to deal with that, but I just can’t. My actors are not free, and I don’t care about their freedom. There is no such thing as freedom in cinema. There is a script, and your actors must follow it.

You’ve begun relying on a few unconventional techniques to direct your actors. Apparently you’ve designed a method whereby they wear earphones, which you use to give them stage directions. When did this start, and why?

Actually it all started during Jeannette. And it was a necessity, really. We had to make sure the girl would wear earphones because she was singing, and she needed to hear the music. And I’d help her, a bit like in theater. Anytime she forgot the words I’d be there to help. And I quickly realized just how much precision the method could grant me. I could intervene and suggest changes as we shot. Turn around. Wait. Slow down. Move. Look at the camera. Turn your eyes to your left, to your right. Turns out I could cut down on the number of takes because I was giving far more directions. This forces me to stay away from the stage, and lets me oversee the whole thing from the comfort of my car. And it’s worked so well I now got all the actors from CoinCoin to wear earphones, too. I can talk to them, give real-time instructions – faster, slower – and this makes for greater intensity, better precision in their performances, which would be difficult to elicit in other ways. And mind you, it really does not undermine their creativity. It’s not like they wear earphones and turn into marionettes. Quite the contrary. It frees them of certain constrictions, and helps their performances feel more natural.

CoinCoin and the Extra Humans premiered at the Locarno Film Festival and Jeanne begins production today.

‘Eighth Grade’ Star Elsie Fisher on the Permanence of Social Media and Her First Reaction Seeing Bo Burnham’s Directorial Debut

Written by Joshua Encinias, August 2, 2018 at 9:12 am 

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20th-century poet W. H. Auden called the industrialized world anxiety-inducing and, in 2018, social media is the nub of our very angst. Instagram and Snapchat turn picture sharing into a competition, reversing the words of Fred Rogers: “You don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you.” Great becomes an enemy of the good, quiet moments are choked of their meaning. The struggle isn’t new and it’s experienced by teenage girls and famous male comedians alike. Written and directed by 27-year-old comedian Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade explores a teenage girl’s quiet desperation.

“I felt like my anxiety was very specific to me being a comedian with an audience. Then I would do my shows, and like young kids would come up to me and said they felt like me,” said Burnham. Eighth Grade is about the anxiety once experienced by performers, now ubiquitous, democratized by social media.

15-year-old actress Elsie Fisher portrays Kayla, a normal middle school girl. It’s her last week of middle school and her burgeoning social life is in view. But the gap between who she was in middle school and who she’s becoming is a ravine made wider, not winnowed, by technology. Kayla’s stuck in her room like any other kid, but watching schoolmates on social media drives her FOMO to parrot self-help platitudes on her YouTube channel. It makes her actual social interactions cringy, but hilariously relatable.

Eighth Grade makes the case for everyone—from teenage girls to hugely successful comedians—to exhibit and experience niceness without a catch, and we talked to Fisher about making the film.

As an actor, do you relate to your character Kayla having her internet self and her real self?

Elsie Fisher: I definitely relate as an actor, but I can also just relate to it as a person. I think really anyone who has social media is performing because you have to worry so much about the permanence of what you say on it. You know, you only want to show your best self.

Do you have anybody like Emily Robinson’s character Olivia in your life? An older teen who introduced you to this high school world.

Yeah, I have three friends in high school who are all juniors. They’re pretty much like Olivia to me. I think Olivia’s character can be summed up in “nice, without a catch.” I think a lot of people assume, “Ih yeah, Kayla’s going to call her and Olivia’s going to be mean. It’s like, oh God!” I’m lucky enough to know people and if we’re being honest it’s more than three, I’m just singling out these friends.

You talked about having to perform online. Do you think as a young adult actor you have to perform a maturity beyond your years, or grow up a little faster?

I feel like it’s beneficial, that’s for sure. I don’t think it’s something you have to do. I’ve met so many child actors who are just doing fantastic. They’re still kids and it’s awesome. I don’t regret growing up faster. I think I was just raised right by my parents. It is beneficial though, it helps me observe the workings on set.

Jake Ryan is so funny in this movie. Were you laughing on set?

It was pretty professional. There were some things, I mean in the moment it’s really awkward and it is a funny scene even when you’re in it. It was pretty professional, we treated all the pretty seriously. The banana scene, when you go and watch it now it’s a pretty funny scene, but on set it was treated just as seriously as something like the car scene because both are part of a truthful narrative.

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The movie has so many heightened emotions and the soundtrack amplifies it. Did you hear the music beforehand or did Bo set the tone for how intense it would be?

No, a lot of the tone was set by the wonderful environment created by the cast and crew. I heard the music for the first time when I watched the movie for the first time at the Sundance screening. I was just blown away. I can’t imagine the movie without it. It’s insane.

What was your first response to seeing the film?

I immediately started crying. Not because I was embarrassed to have my face on screen. It was a proud kind of crying, you know?

How was it working with Bo as a director?

It was amazing. He’s a very fantastic director. He’s in the scene with you and I think that’s just wonderful. He was there. It’s hard to point out one specific story but if you ever had a thought, he would want to listen. He would want your input. He was very aware that he was a man writing about a teenager. To me especially and I think all the other kids, he was like, “You guys are the teenagers, you know what’s happening. I don’t. You take the lead.” He was very willing to collaborate. I think that’s beautiful.

Eighth Grade is now in theaters and will expand nationwide this weekend.

The Making of ‘McQueen’: The Emotional Journey of Honoring a Fashion Legend

Written by Jose Solís, July 29, 2018 at 9:05 pm 

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In their documentary McQueen, directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui craft a lovely portrait of idiosyncratic fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Through archival footage, interviews with friends and collaborators, and elegant filmmaking techniques, the filmmakers in many ways evoke the emotions provoked by McQueen’s art. The film is filled with moments where violence and beauty become partners in a sensuous dance, and they study the late designer’s ascent within the English class system in a manner that would make Ken Loach proud. At the center of McQueen’s work was a constant battle between life and death, and in the documentary we learn about the pivotal moments in the designer’s life that might have inspired most of his work, but rather than going for facile psychological interpretations, the filmmakers let the art speak for itself, directly to us.

We spoke with self-proclaimed, fashion non-connoisseurs Bonhôte and Ettedgui about what attracted them to McQueen’s story, their relationship to nonfiction filmmaking, and Michael Nyman’s breathtaking music.

The Film Stage: Do you remember when you first became aware of Alexander McQueen?

Ian Bonhôte: I moved to the UK in September 1997 and by October he had taken over Givenchy, so he appeared everywhere in the news. So I became aware of him as my own creative career got started in my late teens, early 20s.

Peter Ettedgui: For me it was around 1994 or 1995 when McQueen was starting to get headlines about the bumsters and the shopping shows and all that. He was a very controversial figure in the press. My father, who was a fashion designer and retailer in London, worked with him for a bit and knew him and he told me “this guy is a genius.” He told me how Lee [Alexander McQueen] was a very talented tailor who came from nowhere from the East End, made an apprentice on Savile Row. Even though back then I didn’t think of making a film about him, I was very intrigued.

Lee was always in the tabloids and we all have a media-made idea of who he was. What was the biggest challenge for you as filmmakers when trying to show a different side of him in your documentary?

Ian Bonhôte: Our challenge was to ignore all that sensationalistic side of him and go back to refocus on his work. Lee said, “If you want to know me look at my work,” so we took him to his word. That was our main interest, we wanted to go behind the person, behind the genius in a respectful way. We felt that him taking his life still is very new in a lot of people’s minds, so we knew if there was any other direction we took we would alienate people and they wouldn’t collaborate with us. So we wanted to put the work at the center.

Peter Ettedgui: I would only add that to some extent the portrait that you make is conditioned by the interviews, archive and what that gives you. What we found when we interviewed people is that there was this extraordinary well of love for him. When we looked at the archives we saw him having fun, with this ebullient character, with his dogs, with his parents. We knew there was another Lee beyond the one presented by all of the controversial press.

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During the studio era women were editors because studio heads thought they were like seamstresses who were great at sewing film together. In many ways I believe fashion is the art form that most resembles filmmaking: you have this visionary who recruits a team to make it come to life. Did you find any parallels between fashion and filmmaking while making McQueen?

Ian Bonhôte: I really like this question. I agree with you, there’s a conductor, a director at the center. Making the film we came up with the metaphor of Lee being the tip of a spear and right behind him were all the collaborators including the people in the atelier who helped push that single vision forward. Lee was a great talent spotter. He also combined lots of influences and I agree his work was like that of a director. As a director you take inspiration from music, photography, a show, another movie, nature, movement, dance… I get inspired by choreography all the time. The way we approached the documentary was not as journalists but as filmmakers. We wanted to put emotion over information. We wanted to create an emotionally involving experience.

Peter Ettedgui: We looked very carefully at Lee’s work and what we really responded to was the juxtaposition of classical structures with rule breaking details. We wanted to bring that approach into the film, a classical five-act structure, with a spirit of improvisation found by stitching together very violently different kinds of archival material: home movies, photography. We thought we could make the sequences iconoclastic and great fun, within this structure. I love your analogy of film and fashion.

You mentioned Lee used to say he was in his work, can we say the same about your work? If people look at McQueen can they see Ian and Peter?

Peter Ettedgui: I think it does because inevitably you gravitate towards the subject because it speaks to you. In the case of Lee’s story we were moved quite profoundly, but there were things within it that we responded to. For example, the way he scraped his way to the top of the industry and broke all the rules. Also the spirit of him being the tip of the spear but this group of friends all coming together like a movement and taking Paris by storm together. That’s not something we’ve done but something we dream of doing, establishing yourself on that kind of stage with a group of close friends who are genius collaborators. It also spoke to us because it’s such an emotionally profound story and we’re both emotional filmmakers. We want audiences in the cinema to go on a bit of a rollercoaster ride. We’re attracted to stories where you’re laughing one minute and welling up the next. That’s the kind of stories we want when we’re in an audience, and with McQueen we thought we could express that side of ourselves.

Ian Bonhôte: Our collaboration happened naturally too. We didn’t set out to make the film together. So that similar strong sense of emotions brought us together and whatever decision we had to make we always put the audience first. When you make films they can be an extension of yourself, but they also have to respect who you’re working for in a way. We don’t want to tell stories that are just us. We want to reach out, break out and touch people.

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Lee himself said that he wanted people to be exhilarated or repulsed by his collections. As an audience member there’s nothing worse than films that just make you go “eh.”

Peter Ettedgui: In a sense this was a film we weren’t supposed to make. Lee broke all the rules and our experience was uncannily similar in that nobody in the fashion world wanted us to make this film.

Ian Bonhôte: We were not granted permission by fashion insiders. There’s a sense if you do something about a fashion designer you need to be knowledgeable of fashion. We thought it was better we didn’t know anything, so we saw Lee as a man first, very much like an audience who didn’t know about fashion.

Peter Ettedgui: We had to be guerrilla filmmakers and use our charm and begging abilities to have access to archives, to convince people to come on board and do interviews, and we had to do it very quickly because those people were prohibited from being part of our journey.

In terms of the cinematic elements of Lee’s work, I knew he liked Michael Nyman’s music but I never imagined I’d get to see his collections set to Nyman’s scores. The way you use “Fish Beach” with McQueen’s “La Dame Bleue” collection was probably the saddest any movie has made me this year.

Peter Ettedgui: Well, thank you–that was our intention. There’s also one piece of music Michael composed for a Lee show that Lee never actually used. When we first met Michael he played it for us and we used it three times in our film. It’s called “Lee’s Sarabande” and we were so moved by it we knew we needed to have it in the film. Lee’s music choices for his shows were great, but they don’t work in a movie. Some of the music has been dated a little bit, but as soon as we started experimenting with Michael’s music the material came to life. Even if the archival footage wasn’t great, as soon as you paired it with Michael’s music it felt like a movie.

Ian Bonhôte: Sometimes due to budget restrictions filmmakers forget how important music is to the process. What I love with Nyman is that many people might recognize the tracks but they don’t know where they know them from, so they’re comforting but also throw people out of their comfort zones. When people find out every single track in the film is by Michael Nyman they’re surprised. At one point we tried getting a Sinead O’Connor song, but they made it quite difficult for us, but the minute we tried that scene with Michael’s music we asked ourselves why did we even bother with Sinead?

Peter Ettedgui: I think Michael was absolutely thrilled with how we used his music. He was a fantastic collaborator. Even though it was all pre-existing material he made suggestions, criticisms and as he said himself, “The final film is as much a portrait of Michael Nyman as it is of Lee McQueen.”

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Annabelle Neilson, another of Lee’s muses, passed away the week the movie opened in the States. She’s not really in your film much, but I wonder if you have any insight on what their relationship was like?

Ian Bonhôte: They had a very strong relationship, she was a very important part of his life. She’s also in the film more than you can imagine. The Fairlight section was actually filmed by Annabelle’s then boyfriend, she spoke to us about Lee and granted us permission to use the footage. We had some conversations with her while we were making the film, but she never felt comfortable enough to sit down for an interview. She said the emotions were too raw. She was supportive of the film without taking part. We were sad to hear news of her passing. We hope she rests in peace.

Peter Ettedgui: I’m sure she’s up there with Lee. She was actually introduced to him by Isabella Blow, and a big element of the story is her friendship with Lee. Perhaps it would’ve been difficult for us to also incorporate his friendship with Annabelle. We wouldn’t have been able to make it full justice. We would’ve needed another film just about their relationship. Her presence is in the film. She gave us her blessing and that was very important to us.

Peter, when I realized you co-wrote Listen to Me Marlon, I thought it made perfect sense that you directed McQueen. They both challenge what nonfiction films look like. What are some tropes of documentaries that you wish would disappear altogether?

Peter Ettedgui: In a sense Ian and I are the same. This is his first documentary and I’ve come to the form recently. Five years ago we probably would have said we’re not interested in making documentaries.

Ian Bonhôte: I would’ve said that a year and a half ago.

Peter Ettedgui: I suppose the association people make is of a bunch of people sitting in a chair talking to a camera, or historical reconstructions, it’s kind of putting information over emotion in storytelling.

Ian Bonhôte: There’s a lot of documentaries that go for the journalistic side, while I tend to really fall in love with people. All the people in our documentary shared these experiences with Lee, so even though he’s our protagonist, they are actors in it. The other thing I liked about doing this film was that it’s like a mosaic of the arts. I could only suggest that new filmmakers experiment with the art form. It seems to me the only kind of films where there are no rules whatsoever. You can do a film only with archival footage for example. If you do interviews the right way, like with extreme close-ups, you can read so many emotions. All those elements are very exciting.

Peter Ettedgui: Working on Marlon was a revelation to me. We had his voice, so you have a certain authenticity. This is when I first started experimenting with documentaries. In the old days of editing you couldn’t do this, but with a non-linear timeline you can put together all these different kind of imagery that collide and contrast. Happy accidents often occur during this. Sometimes by juxtaposing images like this you can get results more powerful than in traditional storytelling.

Can you each pick your absolute favorite piece McQueen designed?

Ian Bonhôte: All the looks in “Plato’s Atlantis” are extraordinary. McQueen made a sci-fi movie almost. He created aliens. The shoes, makeup, how he transformed the girls is extraordinary. In terms of clothes though, some of the looks in “Highland Rape” are amazing. They have that punk, iconoclastic, anarchist style of Lee that spoke to everyone.

Peter Ettedgui: This is quite difficult. I might answer this a million different ways on a million different days, but as soon as you asked today I thought of one particular dress in the “Voss” collection. It wasn’t meant to be worn, it was a showpiece made out of razor clamshells that he and his then-boyfriend found on a beach in Norfolk. It’s just an extraordinary dress that shows his imagination. It goes into that love of the sea and nature that’s also present in “Plato’s Atlantis.” The way the dress is almost destroyed in the show has that taste of decay and death in it, that makes this less about the dress and more about the moment. There was another dress he made out of flowers that decayed during the show. It was from “Saraband,” and I’m not a great lover of fashion per se…

Ian Bonhôte: …that’s true, I have to tell him what to wear every day.

McQueen is now playing in limited release.

Shirin Neshat on Western Culture’s Discrimination Towards Female Narratives and How Iranian Cinema Should Evolve

Written by Soheil Rezayazdi, July 26, 2018 at 9:27 am 

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“I’m very sweet,” Shirin Neshat tells me, “but I’m also very domineering when it comes to my work.” Few who meet Neshat can doubt either part of that sentence. By turns fragile and forceful, Neshat operates these days out of Bushwick, Brooklyn, where she lives in self-imposed exile from her home country of Iran. Her new film, Looking for Oum Kulthum, debuted at the 2017 Venice Film Festival and begins its theatrical run in New York this week.

Oum Kulthum is Neshat’s first film since Women Without Men, which won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2009. Since then, she’s continued to work as a visual artist in photo, video, and film (as she told Artforum in 2015, “I have been unfaithful to any one medium”). Among other projects, she received her first major retrospective at the Detroit Institute of Art in 2013 and directed a trailer for the 2013 Vienna International Film Festival starring Natalie Portman. Neshat’s work has long explored issues of female resilience in the Muslim world; her iconic “Women of Allah” series from the 1990s confronts the viewer with stark images of Neshat herself, gun in hand, skin obscured by a chador and the calligraphic writing of Iranian women poets.

Her new film is a dreamy non-narrative portrait of Oum Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian singer. Few Americans will recognize that name, but in the Arab world Kulthum was a peerless force of 20th century music. She sold more than 80 million records; her fans included Robert Plant, who once said Kulthum’s voice had “blown a hole in the wall of my understanding of vocals.” Far from a straight biopic, Looking for Oum Kulthum tells the story of a female Iranian filmmaker (Neda Rahmanian) as she attempts to make a film about Kulthum. Neshat’s feature toggles between the filmmaker’s story, her film-within-a-film, dream sequences, archival footage, and moments of pure surrealist fantasy. Abstract and arresting, the film has few forebears, though one can detect traces of experimental musical portraits like I’m Not There or Miles Ahead.

The film will have its New York debut this Thursday at the Museum of Modern Art’s Future of Film Is Female series, which runs through August 2 and includes features from Coralie Fargeat (Revenge), Gillian Robespierre (Landline) and a shorts program from NoBudge. I spoke with Neshat, a fellow Iranian dwelling in Brooklyn, prior to the film’s run at MoMA. A cheerfully undisciplined interview subject, Neshat takes carefree shots during our talk at fellow artists like Ai Weiwei, Kathryn Bigelow, and Jafar Panahi. Below she shares her thoughts on the #MeToo movement, balancing her roles as filmmaker and mother, and the film’s unlikely genesis (it involves smoking hash in Amsterdam with Abbas Kiarostami’s son).

So how long has Looking for Oum Kulthum been a part of your life?

Too long. We started in December of 2010, if you can imagine. I was always working on it, but I was of course also working on art exhibitions. There were many moments where I felt that it would never happen. Artistically, we began with a biopic script, and after three years we changed the whole direction of the film. I had a meeting Jean-Claude Carrière, and he said, “I think you’re making a big mistake.” Anyway, they’re very boring – biopics. You have to bring it to today. That started the discussion “Why don’t you ask yourself why you’re so obsessed with Oum Kulthum?” So I thought why don’t I make the film more about my experience and how difficult it is to make this film.

And how long have you been a fan of her music?

I have to be honest. When I grew up in Iran, my parents listened to her music the way you probably think about classical music. As young people, we tend to go for the more pop music. But I knew about her. It was really funny, I was in Amsterdam for Women Without Men in 2010 with Bahman Kiarostami, the son of Abbas Kiarostami, who also had a film at the Amsterdam festival. One night we were smoking hash and drinking wine and listening to Fairuz and Oum Kulthum. He looked at me and said, “You need to make a film about Oum Kulthum!”

Wait, the movie came about from you smoking hash with Kiarostami’s son?

And listening to her music! It was really odd, and I never saw him again. But then slowly I thought, “You know, maybe I should read up about her. She’s an untraditional woman, an interesting subject.” So we went to Cairo with some Egyptians who helped us meet experts on Oum Kulthum. We went to the village where she lived, we met her family, her adopted son, her cousin. We went three times because we were thinking we would shoot in Egypt, but after the Arab Spring it was just impossible.

So you wrote the script as a straight biopic. How much of that script is still in the final film?

In the original biopic, we wanted to focus on two periods: When she lived under the monarchy of King Farouk, and when she was older when [Gamal Abdel] Nasser was in power. There’s a lot of conversation about how she used people in power and how they used her. There’s also the fact that she’s known to be gay; her sexuality was very obscure. The poet who wrote for her was absolutely in love with her. She lead him on – that’s what people say – so there was an incredible amount of longing and love. Our story was a lot about her relationships to these men that worked with her. In a way she was surrounded by and used men, but she was gay – she loved women. So in the end, that biopic is the film that the Iranian filmmaker character is trying to make.

What were some visual references you had in mind for the project?

I looked at other films that have films inside of a film. 8 ½ is a great example. I love the way that Fellini was able to integrate dreams, fantasies, and the reality of the production. Our film begins with, I don’t even know – is it a dream, is it a fantasy, is it surreal? The transitions were very interesting to think about. It could have been just really disorienting and confusing, or it could’ve been beautiful. I think we did a pretty good job. These kinds of untraditional films are never going to be huge. I think there is a small audience for it. It’s full of flaws, but it’s quite original.

Did you draw upon your experiences making Women Without Men for the Iranian filmmaker character in the film?

Ever since I started to make videos, I have been working with a team of Iranian people – all men. I always find that the females are the actors, but the people making the films are all men. I’m a mother, and when we were shooting Women Without Men it was really painful because I was a single mother. [My son] was always alone, and I felt really bad because I had to ask friends to take care of him. I often really felt distracted. My collaborators, they’re all married and have kids. They just leave the kids with the wife, they have affairs the whole time. So that was brought into Oum Kulthum: both being surrounded by men and also the fact that being a mother and being a 100% dedicated filmmaker is very difficult.

In the film the female filmmaker encounters sexism from the producers and one of the actors. How much are you drawing from your own experiences here?

I feel, if I could be honest, discriminated somewhat in the western film world. In terms of festivals or distributors, with a female narrative such as this, I think they don’t feel like they can embrace this sort of film because they don’t believe there’s enough interest in them, especially if it’s not a western story. There aren’t a lot of people who are willing to put us in the forefront. Whereas, if you’re from Israel and making a film about soldiers and guilt, that always does really well. Or if you’re Jafar Panahi, who takes an Iranian story and adds this twist that is very interesting. I do a very artistic type of filmmaking with a real female voice. It’s not often very embraced. They don’t know what to do with it.

I’m curious about your thoughts on the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. How do you think the issues faced by women artists in America compare to those faced by women artists in countries like Iran or Egypt?

I have to say, part of me thinks it’s really great that this whole thing came up. The fact that people have been holding back these horrible truths about major people with all the power, it’s amazing. They deserve it, but I think we are going overboard as well. It’s destroying a lot of people’s careers. I know some of them, and they really are not guilty so much. I think this is an overreaction, and it’s become like a trend. I support it, and I think it will do some good. At the same time, I think it’s going overboard with certain characters I don’t want to name. If you look at Iranian, Egyptian, or Palestinian society, there are so many women directors. They are so encouraged. Look at Iran – there’s such an audience for their films, and they do well. It’s very odd that for countries that are supposed to be repressive when it comes to women, they’re much more vocal and confrontational. If you go to an Arabic film festival, you see a lot of Arab women there. I think it’s really been western culture that’s been cautious about the female narrative.

Or maybe they think it’s a bigger risk for them to invest in women-made films?

I think so. You see women as main characters, but it’s directed by men. Of course then you have Kathryn Bigelow, who’s a woman but her films don’t even have women in them! [Laughs.] She’s very successful, because [her films] are all about men. In my case, my artwork has always been about women.

I haven’t been able to visit Iran since 2004, which often makes me wonder how much I really know about everyday life there. Do you ever have a similar feeling?

To be honest, that’s one of the reasons I gravitated toward making a film that isn’t about Iran. I reached a point after 2009 with the Green Movement, when I was sure that I wasn’t going to go back, that I just felt like why would I continue to make work about Iran? I subconsciously had this urge to move on, to cut out that feeling of nostalgia. Obviously people in Iran are always in touch with me, my family lives there, but somehow I just want to get over this. So now I feel a lot better about it. People say, “You have no idea what you’re missing, it’s so interesting.” It is, it sounds fascinating, but what can I do? I can’t go back. Am I going to sit around and feel sorry? You can go back, I’m sure.

But there’s the issue of mandatory military service.

Oh, then don’t go. It’s not worth it to mess around with the Iranian government.

So my parents tell me. [Laughs.] I’ve heard people argue that negative depictions of Iran only help to reinforce western viewers’ impressions of the country. This is an argument I’ve heard against Women Without Men. How do you respond to an argument like that?

In Women Without Men, those characters are very allegorical. Some of them are not even real; they die and resurrect. You can’t discuss them in a purely realistic way. I took Shahrnush Parsipur’s female characters and tried to make them into mine. Every one of those women was extremely rebellious. Every one of them turned their back on difficult times and went off to that orchard to live their own life. They were not at all passive. I don’t see how this can be anything but positive. So I don’t understand that criticism. These people were tough. They could have stayed where they were forever, like most women do. But they didn’t, and that’s the nature of all my characters. They’re outcasts, they’re rebellious. Every video, everything I’ve ever done is about rebellion and not standing stagnated.

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I remember reading this type of argument against Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Oh my god, people really destroyed [Azar Nafisi].

I often think about distribution when it comes to this issue. Do you think stories of Middle Eastern oppression are the ones we see in the west because they’re the stories that attract distributors and publishers?

I always criticize films that reiterate the cliche. I’m upset sometimes with Ai Weiwei in using this idea of repression in a very scandalous way, to make money and success out of it. Even Jafar Panahi, to be honest, he gets on my nerves. And even Asghar Farhadi with these moral thrillers. I am a complete “fictional” person. You could never, ever take my work down to the realm of truth. It just doesn’t gel. I’m interested in women’s oppression in my photographs and videos, but what I’m really interested in is what happens to women once they’re like that. I take off from this point of hardship, but I always show how the crisis makes you discover your own strength. This is how I see women in Iran. I think the next president should be an Iranian woman [laughs].

So can you tell me about your next film?

I’m really excited. I’ve never done a funny movie. I’m working with Sheila Vand from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s about Iranian people spying on American people’s dreams. It’s about a girl who lives in a poor town somewhere in the middle of America. She goes to work every day as a census worker. The people are working-class or poor – all Republicans. She ends her questions with, “And what was your last dream?” very casually. Whoever tells her a dream, she writes it down and says, “I have to take your photograph.” Then she goes back to her office, she gives back the documents, but she keeps the photos and the dreams. She heads back on the same highway, but then the landscape becomes more Middle Eastern. In the middle of the desert we see this high fortress. It looks like a refugee camp. Inside there are all these Iranian people, and the walls are covered with American people’s photographs. And she brings the dreams. It’s a room of dream interpretations, and she’s the dream catcher. She’s a spy.

Looking for Oum Kulthum opens The Museum of Modern Art’s The Future of Film Is Female tonight and screens through August 2.