Latest Features

Chiwetel Ejiofor Talks First-Time Directing, Finding the Right Frame, and Pacing a Narrative

Written by Jordan Raup, March 1, 2019 at 1:52 pm 

Over two decades since he was cast in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad off an audition given while he was attending the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and only nineteen years old, Chiwetel Ejiofor has worked with several master filmmakers, earned an Oscar nod, and now directed a feature film. Arriving on Netflix today, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind tells the true story of William Kamkwamba, a young boy in Malawi who saved his family and his village by building a wind turbine using bits and parts from a nearby scrapyard.

The Film Stage spoke with Ejiofor about directing and acting simultaneously, how to decide what part of a true story to focus on, and what he hopes to focus on in the future.

The Film Stage: On this one you are acting and directing. That’s a lot, especially given that it’s your feature directorial debut. How do you approach logistically?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: Well, it’s sort of complicated. You have to just dive in. It was something I was definitely thinking about beforehand and concerned about. Like how was I actually going to do this on the day… you’re trying to capture everything in terms of what you’re trying to shoot. But you’re also trying to give a performance. I got a piece of advice, which somebody told me, which was basically to make sure you take the time to look out for your character as well. Don’t succumb to the pressures of directing. If you need another [take], take another one. Even if you’re supposed to be on the next location and you’re running behind and it’s going to go into overtime, you know? All of those other directorial thoughts that can be part of the filmmaking process. Asking of yourself what you would ask of any director you work with: to have the space to pursue the character. It’s really trying to take off the director’s hat and put on the actor’s hat and occupy that space.

A big standout is the cinematography. You worked with the great Dick Pope on this. How did you end up getting involved with him and how did you collaborate on these beautiful shots?

We just spent a lot of time in pre-production walking through absolutely everything. We had very, very detailed shot lists, Dick and I. And long conversations about the look and the feel of the film. And how we were going to capture this emotional internal quality, as well as this kind of… big lives nature of the people there. I felt that this story was a story about people who had very big lives. Big, epic lives. And representing that cinematically was very crucial. As well as the beauty of the place (Wimbe, Malawi). A lot of it was communication. Going around to all of the locations and going through, very specifically, all of the shots. Which meant we could move very quickly on the day.

It also allowed me to stay in character as well. We knew where we were moving the camera so we could move quite fluidly from set-up to set-up. All of those things having been worked out before in and a very specific, full pre-production period was really what Dick was brilliant at, as well as dealing with all of the logistical issues we were facing and absorbing that and me not having. So he was a brilliant collaborator as well as an extraordinary cinematographer.

The movie is very accurate to the real story of William Kamkwamba. To the point where the actual moment of William building the device comes rather late in the picture. From a screenwriting standpoint, it’s a bold choice. But the benefit is a strong middle section that builds tension between your character, the father, and William the son. Was there ever a temptation to adjust the story to the wind turbine a bit sooner?

I suppose the truth is that I was totally fascinated by the family dynamics and how they could be related on screen. The story is talking about the macro problem, which is obviously this famine, this pending danger, this bad harvest but equally at a secondary and a, sort of, tertiary level all of these other stories are coming through. About the dynamics of the family. About how they are interacting with each other and the personal dynamics. And how the relationship between the generational pitch is becoming more and more fraught. It’s happening almost without us knowing it’s happening until it’s come to the point where it’s got to bubble over. How it takes over the rest of the story.

So playing with that layering of narrative was a way for me to try and explore different ways of pacing the film. And hopefully surprising the audience with different avenues, ways into storytelling, which isn’t necessarily how you traditional tell stories, especially in the second act. But it definitely felt like this story–because it’s a Russian doll in a way–has that sense of a macro and then you start to bury deeper into the family unit and then there is this very central unit of father and son… it felt like there was a way to tell that story and keep a pacing to those stories so that the tension could operate at a larger level but also the relationships could ripen as the story developed.

So you’ve directed your first feature, is the next one already in your mind or is it back to acting for a while?

Well, no. I think it’s going to be hopefully a real strong combination of that. Of films I write and direct and then films I act in. That is definitely the goal. Let’s see how it all shakes out. It was a challenging experience but such a rewarding experience over a long period of time. And falling deeply in love with the story and the characters and the nature of William Kamkwamba and what he did. It allowed me to sit with it for so long. I feel very spoiled in a way that I had such a long process in pre-production and I could really invest, going back and forth from Malawi and spending all of that time and having this rich, artistic journey with this film.

Last question, you gave us three great villain performances in the mid-2000s: Four Brothers, Serenity and Children of Men. Do you miss playing the villain? I know I miss seeing you as the villain though I’m happy seeing you do all this other stuff!

Oh yeah, the bad guys!

Is there ever an urge to go back to that world, just for kicks?

Always. There’s always an urge to go back into that phase. It’s fun to step into that world. To step into that mindset. I’m always on the lookout, so you never know. Watch this space.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is now streaming on Netflix.

Isabelle Huppert on Playing a Psychopath for the First Time, Flipping Tables, and Her Favorite Films of 2018

Written by Joshua Encinias, February 28, 2019 at 8:42 am 

You’ve seen Isabelle Huppert play a character who sliced her genitals in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, but as the actress explains it, in that film and others she wasn’t playing psychopaths, but women pushed to the of desire and their limits. In Neil Jordan’s new film GretaHuppert plays a mysterious Parisian expat in New York City. Chloë Grace Moretz plays Frances, who moved to the city after the loss of her mother. When Frances finds a lost bag on the subway, she falls under Greta’s spell in this fairytale-esque thriller.

Huppert spoke to The Film Stage about Greta’s hidden motives, her favorite movies of 2018, the #MeToo movement, and Frankie, her upcoming film by Ira Sachs.

The Film Stage: The Oscars were last night. What was your favorite movie last year?

Isabelle Huppert: I had many favorite movies last year. I loved RomaI loved The Favourite. I also love movies that were not in competition. I loved Wildlife. I loved Paul Dano’s movie. I thought it was great.

Greta is one of the first times you’re playing an actual psychopath, as opposed to the disturbed characters you often play.

Exactly. I’m happy to hear you say that. I keep hearing, “She’s like the monsters you’ve played before.” But she’s very different, this time she is a monster. I’ve never played monsters before.

It’s interesting because she’s poised. She dances when she kills. She’s such an interesting combination of being in control but doing these really horrible things. Who is Greta?

That’s the way she has to be, because it’s not about trying to explain things or trying to understand her. It’s supposed to be taken like a fairytale and in a fairytale it’s the bad and the good and you just have fact. And you just push people to think about what it means to be good and be bad and how evil grows in someone’s soul and that’s it. It’s quite enough, actually. It gives a lot of work to people’s imagination, I think.

The movie gives this sense that Greta’s like this because her daughter is missing. Do you think that’s the whole story or is there more to it?

Well, it’s possible because you can also imagine that it’s completely invented. At some point you can imagine the daughter has probably existed. But it’s just to create a possible background around her. She’s also shown like a very lonely person and this loneliness is very important. Because being so lonely, she creates all the fiction in her life, which unfortunately isn’t fiction because she does what she does. I think it’s interesting when you see the bags in the cupboard because she’s done this so many times before, it’s horrible. All of that is given to add to the mystery because you can’t take it as the main reason she does what she does. The movie does not tell you that she had this major conflict with her daughter that finally brought her to become that monster. It’s one element among others. You don’t know exactly; she keeps her mystery to herself right until the end. What is for sure is there is this morbid attraction and bond she kept with childhood. I was really struck, and it’s not always the case when I make movies, when I saw the apartment in the movie where we were going to shoot. I thought the design was really inspiring, it looked a bit timeless, you don’t know exactly in what time she lives. But when you discover the room where she keeps her victims I thought that was really telling. It’s all these little teddy bears and dolls everywhere, like a frozen image from the past. Like the time has been frozen since the 19th century and it’s really terrifying, I think.

The room is where she keeps her victims, but it also seems like a place inside of her psyche.

Absolutely. It’s a metaphorical place, where she keeps her victims but it’s a metaphor of where she’s locked in herself. She remains in that mental imaginary space from the past, from her childhood. All of a sudden it makes it seem very universal in a way. You always deal with who you were, in your past. That’s what life is about, you know? The whole journey of your life is about dealing with that dimension of your life. I think it makes the film really telling and universal. It’s not trying to excuse her or make you understand–no, it’s trying to reflect what it means to be a human being.

Will you talk about working with Chloë Grace Moretz?

That was really lovely, only with someone like her who you could really create something with, you can achieve these journeys and it was really possible with Chloë. First of all, she has a very healthy distance to what she does, which every actor should have distance from the material and she’s smart enough to keep the distance. She’s very collaborative and very funny. We had a lot of fun. We laughed a lot which is nice.

In the restaurant scene, when you flip the table, it’s frightening. But when you performing these kind of scenes do you feel the kind of tension that the audience feels, or is it different because you’re creating that moment?

To be honest, it’s very often the cause when you make movies, whether it’s this moment or the scene when I dance, you never anticipate people’s reactions. Let’s take the scene at the restaurant. I had no idea it was going to strike people the way it does. When I did it I just flipped the table and that was it because it’s in the script. I never expected that scene to become almost iconic. For me, it was scene thing among others. But I just needed a little bit of strength to lift the table to make it go where it went.

I interviewed Neil Jordan and he gave me this great quote and I want to read it to you and get your response: ”Motherhood is a great maelstrom of psychosexual problems and issues, and I thought that was at the heart of Greta in some way.”

It could be, for sure. It’s interesting because I’m on stage right now and I just started previews of this play called The Mother at the Atlantic Theatre in New York. It’s funny because the more I’m doing interviews, the more I find more ties between the two projects. They both deal with this almost poisoned feeling of what motherhood in the worst places can lead you to. In The Mother, it leads her to insanity, where she kills herself. In the case of Greta, it’s another kind of insanity which is killing other people. It’s why it’s so universal. You have this in Madea, you have this in Hamlet, in so many great writings and paintings you have this subject. Fair enough, it’s where we come from and it’s our main bond. Hopefully you meet a man or a woman and create some new bonds, but it’s the first one you have to deal with all your life.

Just before the #MeToo movement started, you were in Elle, which you described as a post-feminist movie. With the thrust of ideas from second and third wave feminism roaring back into public consciousness, what are your thoughts on the movement?

I think it’s a major thing that happened. I still don’t know if it’s going to really modify, deeply, the relationships between men and women, as sometimes I wish it should. It already did change most extreme aspects of all of this, which is sexual harassment. Now when it comes to really modify the basic relationships between men and women, I wish it could, but I have to say sometimes I still feel occasions to admit that it doesn’t. Sometimes in the way men behave, I don’t think the lesson is learned. I think it’s going to take a long time, but, maybe it’s on a good path, I hope.

What was it like working with Ira Sachs on Frankie?

I loved it. He is such a wonderful director. Ever since I saw Love is Strange, I think he is just a really interesting director. I was really happy we had this collaboration together in Portugal. Ira Sachs is really searching for a truth about people, and maybe it’s something I didn’t do so many times before. Even if you are as true as possible in a scene, it’s always a character, whether it’s murder like I did in Gretabut here, given the story, and given the way Ira Sachs shows characters in his movies, he’s really about finding the evident truth of people.

Greta opens on March 1.

Béla Tarr on Restoring ‘Sátántangó,’ the Perfect Film School, and Completing His Filmography

Written by Rory O'Connor, February 27, 2019 at 2:04 pm 

Eight years on from announcing his retirement from filmmaking following the release of The Turin Horse, Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr is keeping busy. In 2013 he opened a film school in Sarajevo and ran it for three years. In 2017 he contributed a multi-room video-art installation to the EYE film museum in Amsterdam. This year sees the opening of a new experimental theatrical work in Vienna as well as the release of a 4K restoration of his 1994 opus Sátántangó.

Tarr attended the Berlin Film Festival earlier this month for the first public screening of that 432-minute epic’s new iteration. The event took place in the Delphi theatre in Charlottenberg, the very same cinema where it had its German premiere a quarter-century ago. We caught a moment with him, in-between smoke breaks, just across the road in the Savoy hotel. His mood was terse, fraught, a little gloomy. One wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Film Stage: When was the last time you watched Sátántangó through?

Béla Tarr: Last month. Because I was sitting in a film lab and I watched it take-by-take and I did the grading.

Do you think there is a significance to it being released again in this moment? The images it contains of people on the move, leaving their homes, seem particularly resonant.

I think yes. It’s never late or never early. And you know, during these 25 years, this film is somehow still alive. People are still going to see it. The new generation is coming and watching.

You know, this movie is talking about the human being. And if it is still capable of saying something about the human condition, or conditions of life, or just about the reactions and emotions and relationships, it is still valid.

There is a universality.

This stuff is universal. It’s not temporary shit. It survived the times and it’s still true now.

I wanted to ask about your film school.

My film school is closed. It was four years of my life in Sarajevo and it was a wonderful experience. We had young people from Japan, Korea, Singapore, India, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, the States, and Iceland. One guy from the Faroe Islands. Poland, Spain, France, Portugal. It was really a bunch of young filmmakers and we were working all the time. And I said all the time, “No education, just liberation.”

And my goal was to make you free and to give you the chance to be yourself. You find your own way, how you can articulate how you see life, and you can react in your own way. And you have to find your personal style, your way of thinking, and your point of view. That was my goal.

Was it your decision to close it?

No no no, it wasn’t. It was part of a private university and the private university has a goal for benefit. And the last half-year was a kind of hell for me, because to go every day to the director, who is asking me “where is our profit,” because of course my young people weren’t capable of paying the tuition and we wanted to shoot all the time. By the end they decided I had to leave. Plus, you know, even if we were registered as a kind of faculty of this university, I had trouble all the time with the curriculum and these kinds of stupid things because it was based on the workshops and personal work.

With the workshops I invited some friends, like Apichatpong, like Carlos Reygadas, Pedro Costa, Guy Maddin, Gus Van Sant, a lot of guys came. Tilda Swinton, Juliette Binoche, and Gael García Bernal—because I invited actors too, not only filmmakers. I invited philosophers. Because you had to see how big the planet is and how we are different and how our power is in our differences and this was the goal. And how can I write in the curriculum today: “Apichatpong will go with them to the forest for meditation”?

And fuck! Gael García Bernal created a football team and they were playing with the Sarajevo street kids and, fuck, they lost all the time. The street kids were way better than my fucked-up filmmakers.

No surprises there.

But how can you write this in the curriculum? You have to learn the life and then you are transforming yourself and sharing with the people. This is the real filmmaking. To learn it, to learn “filmmaking,” is stupid. But to learn the life, it’s reasonable, because afterwards the way of the filming will find you. It’s true. That’s why my school was a little different than the other schools. That’s why I had some trouble. But in the end it was wonderful because those guys made some really good stuff. They’re appearing slowly in the world.

Anything we might have seen?

Yeah, it was last year that three of my guys had movies here, in the Berlinale, in the official program. I like to work with young people and they like to work with me and that’s nice.

Your old assistant László Nemes is doing very well. Have you seen Sunset?

I haven’t seen Sunset. You know, I’ve done 35 years of this fucking film shit. I just want to protect them, not to do any stupid things. They can take risks and they have to be brave. This is the main issue. I want to be with brave people. The other people are very boring for me. I hate the conformists.

Do you still watch a lot of movies?

Less and less. Of course I am watching some of my friends when they do something new.

You mentioned that Gus Van Sant was one of the visitors to your school. Some people say his use of long takes was directly influenced by your work.

Yes, he came to Sarajevo three times. Long takes… you can do it, everybody can do it. It’s not a big deal.

They’ve become quite ubiquitous now; I’m just interested in what you think about it.

I don’t like to speak about my colleagues’ work. Because we are different. He’s doing it his own way. We have a different cultural background, different social background, we have different history. I cannot measure his work to my way, because it’s so stupid. Primitive. You are a very stupid person if you say this is good or this is bad. It’s up to you. I’m not sure if you are right but you have a right to do this. That’s why I never do.

I saw your installation in the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam a couple of years back. It was incredibly moving. Would you be interested in doing more of this kind of work?

Yes, I loved this very much and it was a big joy to do. Now I’ve just started a project in Vienna for the Wiener Festwochen. There is a cultural festival with theaters, music, dance. I will do a kind of performance which is a mixture of the theatre, installation, motion picture, plus live music. It’s a kind of, I don’t know what, but I’m preparing now and will start work on it. We have only six performances, six days. Just in Vienna in mid-June.

Is there a theme?

I don’t want to say anything yet. First I want to do, then afterwards I don’t care, but before not. Because in this case, why am I even doing it?

Do you ever feel an itch to make movies again?

No. I am doing a lot of things. I’m not bored and I’m not retired and I still want to go ahead. I think, after The Turin Horse, I cannot say anything. It was about the death of everything. The work is complete. Done.

Do you think cinema still has the same cultural significance?

Until the human being stops existing, I think yes.

Regardless of the format?

Go and shoot something with your phone and find your own way and that’s all. Who cares? Fuck off this shitty film industry. Fuck all those guys. Fuck off the market. Because now you have a different way and the technology is different. Everything is different. You don’t need money now to do the perfect movie. Let’s say “perfect motion picture.” For me, this digital stuff is not the film. It is a motion picture, but different. You can express yourself. You can express your emotions. You can say everything.

You were involved with the Sarajevo Film Festival for a while. Is that something you would consider returning to?

I was doing a lot of things for them. I was president of the jury, I got a lifetime achievement award, they had my tribute. I was living there so of course I had a strong connection with the people, but I don’t know. For me, the festivals are less and less important because I’m out of this business. I’ve been to all the festivals in my life and to go somewhere and meet the same people all the time and talk about the same topics all the time. It’s somehow getting boring.

And answer the same questions from people like me.

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah… and you know what? When you get older and older, the subjects are getting more and more simple and, by the end, you’re just talking about your medicines and your blood pressure.

Do you still like to discuss your films?

Not much anymore. Not much.

Mica Levi on Psychedelic Compositions, Jackie O’s Style, and the Textures of ‘Monos’

Written by Rory O'Connor, February 22, 2019 at 4:02 pm 

With her landmark scores for Under The Skin and Jackie, Mica Levi has quickly made a name for herself as one of the most significant cinematic composers of the 21st century thus far. Good luck telling her that.

Colombian filmmaker Alejandro Landes’ new work Monos is the latest to receive the composer’s Midas touch, opening to raves in Sundance in January and, just last week, at the 69th Berlinale. We met the inconceivably humble artist in the German capital, over a plate of edamame, to discuss Jackie Kennedy’s style, sound-tracking psychedelics, and the EDM roots of her score for Monos.

The Film Stage: Each of the films that you’ve done has been so distinctive. I was wondering what draws you to a particular project, and especially to Monos?

Mica Levi: Well, actually I saw a cut of it and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t, like, have a synopsis. I just watched it and I thought it was really good and I really liked the spirit of the film and I liked all the characters and I guess I thought it was really good without music. So I started making some and it seemed quite natural, cause I was excited about the film.

Is that how you usually work: that you would get a copy and work from the finished cut?

I’ve had different experiences each time but for me that’s really helpful, although you can get quite a strong sense from a script about how the film’s going to go. Obviously, when you see the images and the pictures it’s more instinctive–for me, anyway.

You once said that the challenge of scoring Jackie was that you were essentially sound-tracking grief. I wonder if there was something equitable to that with regards to Monos.

It’s funny with Jackie, because the story has started to mean a bit more to me as time’s gone on. How much she went through was really difficult. Really the way I got music together for that wasn’t about her grief, it was about her taste. I started writing music before I’d really seem that much of the film. Because she’s a really distinct character and it’s a very specific time period. I was trying to make music that I thought she’d be into, that she would enjoy in her state of mind. She was quite kind of out of her face all the time. She was taking a lot of prescription drugs, she was drinking a lot, to get through this bizarre situation she was in which was also traumatic.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is, in a way the music was written just based on her taste, not to do with her story of grief but more like what music would she put on. And Monos was more thematic and also bare resources. It’s pretty minimal. They had minimal resources out there. They’ve got different textures: there’s plastic, there’s metal, and then you’ve got like natural resources. There’s a big clash of materials going on in there: electronics, no electronics. Building a fire but then having a video camera.

The textures of the forest itself.

Yeah, it’s all kind of like a mash of different things and I guess the music’s kind of reflective of that. Very minimal, you got like high pitch whistles and low drum rumbles. The whistle is one of the most basic airwave sounds you can get because it’s like passing through a pipe like that [makes a sound wave with her finger] so like shouting down a tunnel.

And then there are these rises that are derived from a lot of EDM music. All kinds of music have big rises in them before drops happen. And that’s kind of the adrenaline. For me that was representing the kind of endless adrenaline you get when you’re a teenager.

Whenever I hear drum rolls like that in a war film I immediately think of Kurosawa. Are there any filmmakers that influence you? 

No doubt. I don’t look to film for inspiration directly because it doesn’t feel very good to do it. It’s not very fun. I’ve definitely heard Timpani rolls in films before. If I really think about it–and I realize because it’s a minor third–that Timpani roll is inspired by Rothko’s Chapel. I didn’t intentionally do that but then I recognize that I’ve drawn a connection to that. It’s much more enjoyable to look to other music or other things for inspiration. If you look at other films it’s just the wrong place to look. I don’t know how to say it. You’ve got to go to the source, you’ve got to try and find the source of the feelings that you’re getting. That’s why I go to dance music that is made to be really adrenaline-fueled as opposed to a really adrenaline-fueled scene in a film.

Like Jackie, the kids in Monos are off there heads in a way, too. Especially in this incredible mushroom sequence.

Yeah, they’re dancing without music. So instead of having the full music really there, I kind of just got into the rises on their own. I’ve been using it in other music I’ve been making for a couple of years now, to create those peaks and troughs and stuff. But on their own they’re different… but anyway, I’m rambling.

It’s such a tactile piece of music; you really get the character’s heightened sense of touch.

That’s it! I mean it’s quite easy to go into a hallucinogenic drug scene and make everything all blurry when sometimes that’s not always the effect with certain kinds of drugs. It felt more trippy to do these little fairy farts.

So Jackie was this total success, you went to the Oscars and so on. I was wondering if you received a lot of offers after all that?

Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know. I mean, I guess I’m a particular kind of something. There are so many people writing music, there are so many films.

Could it be that your style is so distinctive?

It’s one of those things. I like to get involved a bit later on in the film. Some want you to be there earlier and I don’t want to commit to that, so I don’t know. I’m learning as I go.

You were still quite young when you did Under The Skin. How did Jonathan Glazer approach you for that?

He’d heard a record that we’d done. It was basically a project with a contemporary orchestra. That was an album that we’d made in 2010 and it was based on the most psychedelic kind of style of music that I could think of at the time, which was “chopped and screwed” music so we called it ‘Chopped & Screwed’ and he’d heard that. It was inspired by the technique of slowing things down and speeding things up. It’s a way of distorting reality with harshening sounds.

It’s like very psychedelic because of that but also it’s quite a modern technique because it’s something that’s only been possible recently, to warp things like that, time warping… so anyway we did that, he heard that. I think he liked it and also they had quite small resources as well so I’m sure there was a lot of luck. I mean, I was very lucky. They wanted someone who’d not done it before as well. These were all the things they said, I don’t know though. [Laughs.]

When it premiered in Venice, Ryuichi Sakamoto was on the jury. Did you get to meet him?

I didn’t get to meet him then, but what an amazing composer! I did meet him recently because he did a gig in London and a group I’m in called Curl supported him so I met him then.

Pablo Larraín was also on the jury that year. Was that how Jackie all started?

I think so yeah. Must have been.

Did you talk to him at the time?

I didn’t know there was a jury.

So the film festival world was a whole new thing?

Yeah, I didn’t even know the red carpet was the whole of the floor. It’s not just a little strip, it takes you from one end to the other end.

How does it compare to the music festival world?

It’s a different headspace. When you go see music you kind of let go of your mind entirely, hopefully.

More substances involved?

Well, yeah. Although not exclusively. [Scans the room and laughs.]

Monos screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and will be released by NEON.

Kamasi Washington on Creating a Visual Companion to ‘Heaven and Earth’ with His Sundance Premiere ‘As Told To G/D Thyself’

Written by Dan Mecca, February 18, 2019 at 11:25 am 

On the festival circuit, one section that often goes overlooked is the short films that are presented, sometimes in their own, curated block and sometimes at the top of a programmed feature. It is a tragic product of the fast-paced, over-saturated environment that is film journalism. So when one catches some attention, it’s a welcome moment.

This year at Sundance Film Festival, a creative collective calling themselves The Ummah Chroma premiered a short film entitled As Told To G/D ThyselfIt’s a piece of art inspired and built from the music of jazz master Kamasi Washington’s recent album Heaven and Earth. Washington is part of The Ummah Chroma, along with editor Marc Thomas, cinematographer Bradford Young, director Terence Nance, and producer/director Jenn Nkiru. Together, this quintet directs an engaging short that explores multiple visual mediums (animation, live action in color and black-and-white) accompanied by re-arranged audio from the aforementioned album. The throughline of the short concerns each person’s relationship to God, or god, or G/D. What does your faith (or lack thereof) mean to you?

The Film Stage spoke with Kamasi Washington and Marc Thomas at Sundance, talking through these themes, the process of marrying music with visuals and the universal truths that can come from experimental cinema.

The Film Stage: I watched the short a couple of times and find it really interesting. My first question would be how does the group form? The Ummah Chroma? How does that come together?

Kamasi Washington: Well, so, when I was making the album (Heaven and Earth) even as I was recording it felt really visual. Even though I was recording with musicians, a lot of the time I was using more visual references than musical ones. And so, with that, I was really planning to do something–to have an expressive visual representation of the music.

And this is while you’re recording the album?

KW: Yeah. And I had already met Brad[ford Young], and we just vibed. I loved his work. And I was looking for a reason to do something with him. So I hit him up and told him that I was working on the new album, sent him some of the music, and he was on board. He and I started having conversations… just about the music, what it meant, and about what we wanted to create visually to represent those same feelings and emotions. In those conversations, he brought up the other members of the group. I was already familiar with Terence’s work and had actually met with him and we had talked about maybe doing something together. Brad introduced me to Jenn [Nkiru] and Marc [Thomas]. It was kind of one of those things where as we figured out what we wanted to do we would think of people who could help us do that.

So basically you were looking to work with these people to make this thing that you’re thinking of visually, and then the team forms to some degree. Is there an initial nugget for what becomes the short, creatively?

KW: We had a lot of conversations about the music and what it meant.  The first person to have a concept of something to do was Jenn actually. And Jenn kind of created her visual components first. We wanted to have some momentum going into it so we got the funding we had from Young Turks and we put that into Jenn and Jenn kind of set the tone for where we were going to go with it. And then we started talking more about what we were going to do with the rest of the film. Terence was the one who was able to cultivate all of these talks and ideas into something that was like a story. Or a treatment.

Did you have a traditional script going into filming?

KW: There was talking about the ideas. That turned into a thing that was pretty loose. And then Terence came in and turned that loose thing into something that we could really see. Read it and go like, “Oh, we can make a shooting plan.” Plan shots and scout locations. And then we shot it and that was different. Then we gave it to Marc and it became something different again…which actually had been closer to what we were talking about [at the start]. It was weird. It kind of went through this journey of like… we had a plan for something and then when we made it, it became closer to the album…

Now that the short is done and out, how does it play to you in comparison to the album? Like a visual companion?

KW: Yeah, it’s almost like a brother to the album… [all the music] you hear in the movie is from the album but a lot of it is repurposed. So I took the strings from this song, the bass from this one, songs that are overlapping.

Marc, you were overseeing the post process, then. Can you talk about that a bit?

Marc Thomas: Yes, I was the editor. But Terence also. I also tend to do a lot of sound [mixing]. I have a music background as well so…

KW: [Marc] was with us, with me and Russ Elevado, when we were repurposing the music…

MT: Right, right.

There’s a lot happening in this short where you’ll have moments that feel very personal. But on a macro level it’s this piece about how we relate to the stuff we believe in–the praying at the end feels like a nice period at the end of a sentence that helped me as a viewer go, “Okay, I see what we’re talking about here.” Does that get discovered in the edit? You capture the moments and then place them where it feels right in the edit?

MT: This very much felt to me like a collage. So the pieces start coming together and you start playing and asking, “Hey, what does this mean with these pieces next to each? and, wow, what does this mean?” Obviously that’s always the case in the edit but also we’re working with music that was both inspiring and fulfilling a role where there’s this kind of cycle that’s happening. We had shots that were also being repurposed, to give a third meaning that we had not really thought about. We started to try and paint with emotion and with what felt strong. We were able to move away from the more narrative approach and create a feeling and a punctuation and movement. That’s something that you really can’t anticipate until we were the lab, you know? [Laughs]

KW: Because the genesis came from an album that is mostly instrumental. We hear an instrumental record and there’s a feeling in it like, you listen to an album and everyone gets something different but everyone also gets something that’s the same… and I think this process was the same thing. Each one of us had a different relationship to it and what it is. So for me there is a kind of story. I wasn’t there [when they were editing]. I knew they had a connection to the music and if I’m in there when they’re doing that it’s going to make it a little more mirrored to the music?

You want to let them do their thing.

KW: I knew that they felt that core that I felt. And once we put music to it we felt like “Oh, this is that complete, two pieces of a whole.” Like I said before, the treatment, the story, all of those things were bending and changing at every stage but the feeling you got from it was constant. We all wanted it to feel like a piece that, each person that saw it could create within it. That’s part of the energy of it and that’s definitely within the energy in instrumental jazz music, improvisational music. There is not one way. But there is a way. [Laughs]

When we’re in the forest scene [in the short], those designs, those wardrobe designs, and character designs, do they come from a specific religious reference of some sort? Is it totally original?

KW & MT: That was Jenn!

KW: So we talked and then I sent [Jenn] the music and then like two or three weeks later her head was just going. So she created those [designs] from the feeling the music had. As a musician, emotions and feelings are not as elusive as some people think they are. I can see a feeling. And I think that she heard the music and saw the feeling. And then as we do the project the feelings take on personalities. That’s why the character [in the forest] that you see in red, we call him God.

Sure, well that comes through watching it.

KW: I don’t know that she always intended that to be that but it’s the same thing. It’s like, “What is D-minor?” It means something different depending on what you’re doing with it.

I suppose the way that scene and character is introduced he feels like an omniscient force of some kind…

MT: A significant part of that is the music playing behind that. If you were to have that shot on a completely different kind of track again it might take on a totally different kind of meaning. He’s still a very regal figure but I think that was part of what was an interesting process of discovery.

Right, traditionally you would film something and then approach a composer to make the music to match the visuals. Here it’s kind simultaneous almost, it seems?

KW: Well, it’s a give and take. You have the music and then you say, “Okay, I’m going to create something to go with this.” It’s almost like twin brothers but one came out the womb first. As they grow up they affect one another.

As Told To G/D Thyself premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Follow our festival coverage here.

Christophe Honoré and Vincent Lacoste on ‘Sorry Angel’ and Responding to a New Wave of Homophobia

Written by Joshua Encinias, February 14, 2019 at 3:28 pm 

“I mostly read dead writers,” Arthur says. Jacques teases back, “You won’t need to wait long.” The many types of relationships, friendships, and the ways the two transform are explored in Christophe Honoré’s new film Sorry Angel. In this scene, the two lovers discourse as if they were student and teacher, weaving multiple aspects of their relationship: their age difference, common interests, and Jacques’ known status as H.I.V. positive into two lines of dialogue.

We spoke with filmmaker Honoré and one of his lead actors, Vincent Lacoste at the 56th New York Film Festival. Honoré discusses Sorry Angel’s aesthetic manifesto and the new wave of international homophobia that influenced him to tell this story now. Lacoste discusses his character Arthur’s relationship with Nadine (Adèle Wismes), his lover prior to Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps) and the idea Honoré presents that Arthur, Jacques and Mathieu (Denis Podalydès) are the same character but at different stages of life.

The Film Stage: Many shades of the color blue show up in the film. Will you talk about your color palette?

Christophe Honoré: The blue is first and foremost the result of a financial constraint. The story takes place in the 1990s and it demanded a period look, but we were working with a relatively tight budget so I had to find ideas to deal with this. There was something in my memories about France in the 1990s. Streets in the cities were lit by mercury bulbs so they gave off blue light. Today lighting of cities in France is very different. We have sodium bulbs which have an orange light. My director of photography and I talked about how we could have blue light in the film. We decided to move the blue into the sets and costumes. I don’t mean to say this pretentiously, but we came up with this aesthetic manifesto, which was to make a summer film in winter.

Will you talk about Arthur’s relationship with Nadine?

Vincent Lacoste: He likes Nadine and it was a relationship he liked, but he is someone who is discovering his sexuality and he’s discovered it’s not his sexuality. No matter how much he might like her she’s not the present for him. It’s not right to say she’s a pastime for him now–it’s that the relationship is over. It’s something that’s transformed into a friendship.

And will you talk about Jacques’s relationship with Mathieu?

Honoré: Is the reason you’re asking such similar questions back to back that you think they’re similar or the same type of relationships?

Jacques and Mathieu’s friendly intimacy seems worn, like they used to be in a relationship, so yes.

Honoré: It’s certain that something that was very important to me in the film is that while the main story is a love and sex story between Jacques and Arthur, it was also very important there were satellite stories that are stories of friendship. So we have the friendship between Jacques and Mathieu, Arthur and Nadine, but also the friendship between Arthur and the mother of his child. Or Arthur and his fellow students. Friendship was an essential theme of this film.

At your New York Film Festival Q&A Christophe said that Jacques, Mathieu, and Arthur are almost like the same character but at different stages of their life. I would love to hear Vincent’s perspective on it.

Lacoste: It’s not something I thought about on the shoot. It wasn’t something I could play. It was more of the realm of what was unsaid on the shoot. Of course these three characters do have a lot in common but for me each character is different. I think it’s more of an idea Christophe has of the film rather than the reality of the film. From a concrete point of view, I don’t think Arthur will be like Mathieu one day.

You’ve been making movies for two decades. Why did you choose to tell the story now?

Honoré: In the 1990s I was a student. I am older now and there’s a temptation for filmmakers or writers who are approaching fifty to turn to the past and youth. I think this is a usual theme or habit of artists nearing fifty. It’s also true that cinema offers this possibility of achieving time regained, of returning to a certain time. Cinema can give us this illusion that the past returns. This is something I’d never done in my earlier films. In this case I felt the temptation to do it. It’s also true that in France, but Europe in a more general way, you see what’s going on in Poland, Russia and Chechnya, I have the impression there’s a very brutal expression of a new homophobia. I thought it was important as a gay filmmaker to propose this film today.

Sorry Angel opens on February 15 at NYC’s Quad Cinema and will expand in the coming weeks.

Matthias Schoenaerts and Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre on ‘The Mustang,’ the Freedom of Chaos, and Prison Reform

Written by Dan Mecca, February 7, 2019 at 10:38 am 

Tucked in the back corner booth of a nice restaurant up in the mountains of Park City, Matthias Schoenaerts and Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre recount their days in Nevada filming The Mustang, a top-notch prison drama premiering at Sundance and due to hit theaters in March. Words like “chaotic” are tossed around, but the duo qualifies the chaos. What can you expect when your co-lead is horse? The Film Stage sat down with the two to talk through it all.

The Film Stage: In preparing for this interview, one of my main takeaways from the film was that even though it’s such intense subject matter being dealt with, the movie is so calm. The pace of it and the style of the trust that comes through; the two of you working together. And of course the lead performance. How do you get to that place? Where it’s so calm and confident?

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre: It’s funny because I would say that the shooting was not calm at all.

Matthias Schoenaerts: I think we were looking for an antidote! The shoot was crazy.

Clermont-Tonnerre: The shoot was crazy and actually the energy and intention came from [being] so compressed by the short [filming] schedule. [Matthias and I] were talking a lot together and we were doing research together. I think it allowed us to liberate our instincts. We were on the run all the time. And it felt that it was the right tension and energy for this film. How do you feel it was calm, in the pacing?

Yes, and it is a positive note. You have these other subplots in the film but the majority of the story is Roman and the horse. And that felt very focused, very lived-in. I think that will often happen where it is a crazy shoot but it won’t come across in the final product.

Schoenaerts: I think that’s because you [Clermont-Tonnerre] have been working on it for five years. My take on the material probably is that it’s so anchored in your being that you’re not thrown off by a hectic shoot or whatever. And also the cadence of that life in prison, it’s pretty… there’s a heartbeat to it. It’s very repetitive and it’s very monotonous and it’s also slow. That’s my perception. You’re the director. You explain it! [Laughs.]

Clermont-Tonnerre: I think the triangle between the DP Ruben [Impens], Matthias, and I worked so well, in fact. We knew it was a very tight point of view on Roman that we wanted to follow on this trajectory and this man from this prison to this connection yielding trust and respect with that horse. That was our focus and we knew we had our tracks to make sure the story was told in a specific, precise way. Even though it was chaotic, I liked this chaos. To be honest, I really liked it. In some respects, it was hell but–

Schoenaerts: Sometimes it was hectic but every time we would say like, “Yo, let’s not blow this out of proportion.” It’s not Apocalypse Now, when we talk about going crazy. Sometimes it was nuts but then we would look at each other and say, “Hey, we’re still good.”

How long was the shooting schedule?

Schoenaerts: Four-and-a-half weeks. Five weeks.

Wow, that is quick.

Schoenaerts: Especially with all of the horses.

Working with horses, how was that? That’s a whole thing and I was so impressed by what you were able to get on screen.

Schoenaerts: It’s intense but then I think we definitely owe credit to one man who is like a legend in the field. His name is Rex Peterson. Without that guy we would have never… that guy is a legend. The stuff he made happen with the horses, the magic, it’s unbelievable. Without that guy, we’d still be shooting! [Laughs.]

Clermont-Tonnerre: The thing is it’s always choreographic between the camera, Matthias, the horse, and Rex. Rex has to be there because he has to make sure that the horse responds to direction. So that was rehearsed, but because of the tight schedule obviously Rex really knew how to make this choreography work.

Schoenaerts: Rex, he wakes up at four in the morning. He would be working with the horses for hours before we came in. And then at the end of the day, the guy would still be working with the horse for five hours. Getting them ready. The amount of passion, dedication, perseverance… impressive, for real.

So what about this story engaged you and how did it all happen?

Clermont-Tonnerre: I read an article, by coincidence, in a French paper about five years ago about animal therapy in prison. It was this prison in France and this therapist entrusting small animals to inmates: birds, mouses, chinchillas, rabbits. I thought it was a pretty funny. I said, “What’s going on there? I want to see that.” I was very intrigued. And so I went there, I spent a day, and I was very heartbroken by what I could witness. The presence of those small animals were calming down those men, helping them to open themselves to reconcile with their emotions. To get trust and more confidence. So I wrote Rabbit, my short film that premiered here [at Sundance] four years ago and then I was very obsessed by this subject so I kept searching about it. I found out about this program in Nevada with horses and I said, “That’s a future film.”

Schoenaerts: You always told me you were in love with horses since you were a kid and that you wanted to make a movie about horses but then you were like, “there are so many movies about horses already!” And then you read this article and that article came together with your fascination from the very beginning. Two things coming together.

Clermont-Tonnerre: Completely, two fields that combine together. I always got fascinated as a kid by the sense of punishment, what’s happening in prison, what’s the meaning of punishment. What are men like after prison? What’s this unknown and kind of secret prison life? And I wanted to see the education within incarceration…

Schoenaerts: And also what is very important to know is that very program [depicted in the movie] is the most successful. I mean it has the lowest percentage of recidivism.

Right, you put that statistic at the end of the movie.

Clermont-Tonnerre: Yeah, it really helps them with recidivism. Obviously it’s not one-hundred percent but it’s a lot of men who find a sense of their life and reconcile with their families because they get used to taking care of an animal.

Schoenaerts: Yeah, basically the program is re-humanizing individuals. The prison system is a multi-billion dollar industry, so people are reduced to numbers and statistics and what not. And so I think that’s part of the importance and the relevance of this movie–to portray that universe and that reality.

Clermont-Tonnerre: And also this huge contrast. This country is one of the most incarcerated and you have to keep inmates busy so you have to come up with these programs.

Schoenaerts: But many of these prisons don’t have any programs. We visited four maximum security prisons. We visited San Quentin, which is kind of a model prison in terms of rehabilitation programs and what they do. They have such a wide variety of activities that inmates are allowed to participate in. And then we went to Solano Prison, we went to High Desert State Prison to sit down for five, six hours to have proper interaction, proper conversation.

And I imagine that helps as a performer. Any specifics you took any from those visits?

Schoenaerts: It’s just to feel energy. I’m not looking for specific information. I’m just trying to feel energy from people, trying to feel out people and body languages and all of that….

Clermont-Tonnerre: …and absorb it.

Schoenaerts: Yeah, absorb at a conscious and subconscious level. If there’s something that you see, you know, a lot of facilities they perpetuate a hurt culture… it’s just very vicious and that can be improved. The prison system is a dehumanizing facility. It’s not empowering you to be a better version of yourself–it’s punishing.

And this movie is addressing that. For me, watching this movie was enlightening. I don’t know that I knew about these programs beforehand. Question in regards to the schedule. As a director, when you are under the gun, working with animals, timeframe, creatively are you making hard decisions like, “Okay, let’s scrap this scene” or “shorten this sequence,” “let’s kill this subplot”?

Schoenaerts: Probably we did. But now we forgot about it. In the moment you have to!

Clermont-Tonnerre: We also did improvise some moments and scenes. Scenes like when you’re [to Matthias] inside the pen with the horse, we had to trust each other, like, “Okay, let’s do that!”

Schoenaerts: Yeah, the scene with the horse, where Roman is yelling… when the horse comes to him and makes the first contact. The scene before that is not written. I loved those moment.

Clermont-Tonnerre: There were some moments that we were very precise about and together we knew exactly what we wanted to achieve in terms of emotions and some of them where–because we were prepared–we allowed ourselves to be free and really try different things.The speed of the shoot sometimes liberates instincts. And intuition that is inside but you need this kind of push.

What’s next for both of you?

Clermont-Tonnerre: I just directed a TV show for Hulu. It’s called “The Act,” and it’s actually going to release five days (March 20th) after The MustangAnd my second feature I am writing with my co-writer Mona Fastvold.

Schoenaerts: Well, there’s a couple of things on the table. New things. The one that is already set is Ruin, with Justin Kurzel. Set in like a post-Second World War era. Kind of a revenge story. Together with Margot Robbie. Super good script. Very excited about that one. The Sound of Philadelphia with a French director [Jérémie Guez]. It’s like a family crime drama set in the city of Philadelphia.

The Mustang premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opens on March 15.

Follow our festival coverage here.

‘Love, Antosha’ Filmmakers on Celebrating the Life of Anton Yelchin

Written by Joshua Encinias, February 6, 2019 at 8:55 am 

From international stardom with Star Trek to roles in films from Jeremy Saulnier, Paul Schrader, and Joe Dante, Garret Price’s new documentary Love, Antosha, covers all sides of Anton Yelchin, an actor taken too soon. We spoke with Price and producer Drake Doremus, who collaborated with the actor in Like Crazy, at the Sundance Film Festival about making their documentary shortly after Yelchin’s death. We also discussed the ethics of sharing his private diaries and erotic photos he took, along with industry-wide contributions of Yelchin material for the project.

The Film Stage: Why tell Anton’s story now?

Garret PriceI think Martin Landau said it best: we live in a world that moves on very quickly. We didn’t want Anton to be forgotten. We wanted to get it out as soon as possible.

How did Nicholas Cage get involved in narrating Anton’s diaries?

Price: As I discovered I wanted to frame the film with Anton’s words, the letters to his mom, I knew I wanted Anton’s voice out there in his writings and I asked Irina, his mother, if she could recommend someone with gravitas, but also someone who was emotionally connected with Anton and who wasn’t already a talking head in the film. The first person she mentioned was Nic and it was perfect. Their careers are kind of similar and I think Anton became kind of a Nic Cage’s in his career and it was perfect. We reached out to Nic and he was on board the moment we called. They did Paul Schrader’s film Dying of the Light together. We went up to Las Vegas spent a day with him and he was, it was very emotional for him. He cared greatly for Anton.

One of the last lines that Cage reads in the film, it sounds like he’s choking up.

Price: Absolutely. How did he describe it… it was a very verklempt experience for him. He would just stop in the middle of his recordings. He got choked up many times reading Anton’s words. It was a really profound experience for him, for all of us.

Aside from the work of putting together his diaries and stuff from his parents, this seems like a massive undertaking because you had so much behind-the-scenes footage from most of his movies.

Price: I had a great team of assistant editors and researchers with me and everyone wanted to give whatever they could to help this project come about. So many people really cared for Anton. I’m talking studios, independent films, producers, directors. Whatever we needed, they would go above and beyond to get us material. It’s pretty remarkable. To the credit of Anton’s parents, after he passed, they started gathering and archiving this material with the hopes of one day finding a filmmaker to tell the story. I’m an editor by trade before this and so to have all this material in my hands to shape this story was more than I could ever ask for.

How did this project start for you?

Price: I’ll let Drake answer this one because that’s where it started for me.  

Drake Doremus: The Yelchins’ reached out and wanted to make a documentary and I felt I was a little too close to Anton to really look at the film from an objective point of view. I went to film school with Garrett seventeen years ago and he’s a great documentarian and this would be a great directorial debut for him.

Working with his private diaries and behind the scenes footage, how would you describe Anton’s public and private self?

Price: I don’t think there was any difference at all and that’s what made him so special. You know, he was the same with everybody.

Doremus: He was very open and honest in his work. He constantly searching for meaning and digging deeper into everything and every interaction trying to find the truth in everything. If there’s anything he kept private it was his cystic fibrosis. I knew him for years and I never knew that. He just coughed all the time and I had no idea until he died what he had. But he didn’t want people to feel sorry for him, honestly.

There’s a line in the film where Anton’s mother says, “We have to believe acting is the best medicine for him” and because you know he accomplished so much work in his short life, Drake, will you elaborate on how that manifests in the work you’ve done with him?

Doremus: I think it made him have a greater work ethic because he knew the fine line between being sick and being able to do his job. I think it made him more driven, more voracious, and gave him an appetite to do more.

The film highlights how great Anton was at analyzing film. Is this something he picked up by watching movies?

Price: I think his parents ingrained the power of cinema at an early age and he just connected to. Once he was hooked, he was hooked. He wanted to learn everything and anything about cinema and filmmaking. It’s remarkable. He puts us to shame.

His private diaries and his erotic photography made it into the film. How did you come to the decision say include that?

Price: It was incredible working with Anton’s parents because they gave me complete autonomy to tell Anton’s story. I’ve done projects where the estates or families are involved and it’s a little more difficult. You want to show both sides of the coin, warts and all. It humanizes, people relate more to your subject and this is one of those areas of his life I could show things people weren’t expecting in a film like this. But again, people relate to those darker parts of humanity–if you can even call that dark. Anton just loved exploring and loved people and their stories and it was just part of it all.  

Were there any narrative threads you wanted to include but they didn’t fit?

Doremus: I think the film works on so many levels; it’s an immigrant story, coming of age story, it’s a love letter to film, a love letter to family, a story about overcoming obstacles. Those were all the main themes I wanted to get in there. He packed so much into 27 years, I wanted to really try to analyze all those meaningful plot lines. In the end, in its simplest form, it’s a love letter to his mom and dad. That’s the way it’s framed.

Will you talk about his parents attending the world premiere screening at Sundance?

Price: Yes, and they both received a standing ovation when they came on stage. It was really an emotional, incredible moment. Having been here six or seven times, it was one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced here.

How did his parents react to seeing the movie?

Doremus: The film’s not bringing them any closure by any means. It’s something they deal with on a daily basis, but I think sharing their son’s story and sharing his life and inspiring others, helping others and setting up a foundation to help others. All the things they’re doing gives them a purpose in life and that’s what’s so great about the film: it’s a tool for them to be able to spread that message.

Love, Antosha premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Follow our festival coverage here.

Jim Gaffigan on Faith, Ghosts, and Seeking a New Complexity in His Career

Written by Joshua Encinias, February 5, 2019 at 3:03 pm 

Jim Gaffigan is ready for his Lost in Translation moment. The actor is known for his comedy but he’s been trying to break into dramatic roles for a while. He thought the break might come in 2005 with The Great New Wonderful. Just last spring he had a substantial part in Chappaquiddick and this year he brought two dramas and one comedy to Sundance Film Festival 2019. We sat down with Gaffigan to discuss this new territory in his career and specifically Light from Light.

Throughout our talk, Gaffigan showed tempered expectations about his career and personal life. When asked about the sexual abuse crisis in Roman Catholicism (he’s openly religious), you can trace the logic of his faith to a belief in human fallibility matched with divine forgiveness, regardless of who’s in charge of the institution. Similarly, Light from Light asks what’s the point of going on, or forging ahead, knowing that bad things will happen. Gaffigan’s personal leaps of faith provide clues to the answer.

In our review, we highlight that “Gaffigan brings a dynamic presence to the film, conveying both the weight of a year of grief and an affectionate openness in his desire to find any sort of resolution.” Gaffigan’s character Richard, like the entire movie, is haunted by ghosts that never manifest, but haunt nonetheless. Read our discussion with the actor about Paul Harrill’s new film and more below.

The Film Stage: What do you think about your character Richard receiving religious care before finding a paranormal investigator to deal with his ghost?

Jim Gaffigan: I think it is so telling that it was Richard’s wife that went to church and he was at such at wit’s end that he was forced to embrace the only helper he knows, which is his wife’s minister and then it leads to this paranormal thing. I think that Richard definitely gets to the point where he’ll try anything. He’s gone to the doctor and they say, “He’s tired, he’s just depressed,” which he is, but he knows there’s something more.

What was it that brought you to this project? I mean you do so many different things from like CBS Sunday Morning to stand-up.

I am a comedian. I don’t shy away from the fact that I’m a comedian. I think it’s a big part of my identity but that’s also the one that I’ve had more success at. I’ve always loved acting and have wanted to do a role exactly like this character in exactly this type of movie and it’s just a matter of the opportunity. I did this movie The Great New Wonderful, and it was about the year after 9/11. It’s a film that leaves you with more questions than it answers. Which is what I think intellectually curious people want. So I’ve always been hoping to prove that I’m a good fit for these kind of things.

There’s this kind of stillness in Paul Harrill’s style of writing and editing that is almost impractical, but as an actor it’s a blast. The movie has all these scenes and then it has like one random, absolutely non-random scene that’s like 8 to 12 pages. When you’re studying and doing research on the character all the meat is in there.

When I first heard the title Light from Light, I recognized it’s inherently religious because the that’s a line from the Nicene Creed. Was that was intentional? 

What’s so interesting about Paul and the geography of this film is Eastern Tennessee is a pretty religious place. It’s like if there’s a Bible Belt, we’re one notch over. Even if people aren’t of faith that kind of informs the whole being. Even the Smoky Mountains feel kind of… you can look at it as haunted, but it’s obviously not smoke. [Laughs.] It’s fog. The religious aspect is very interesting because I think there are far more people that will watch this movie and have maybe an attachment to Father Martin (David Cale’s character) like Richard does. People of faith who may not go to church regularly but did in the past. Paul’s said that religion or spirituality is always a character. The whole paranormal thing is fascinating; the fact that the paranormal thing lines up with the geography of the Bible Belt is no coincidence. It’s people searching and longing for meaning. When we were doing press for this, Paul would give the description of this paranormal investigator, in her second job as a paranormal investigator, but the movie’s not about the paranormal.


Paul draws an interesting line between belief in religious ghosts and spirits in a secular sense. In the script when Shelia (Marin Ireland) was a kid, she had this prophetic dream and people in her community said she had “the gift” and she becomes a paranormal investigator later in life. Culturally, Pentecostals are not pro-ghost hunting, but they believe in prophecy and the Holy Spirit. While the line of connection isn’t there culturally, Paul is making one in the story.

There’s a point in the story where Shelia’s son Owen [Josh Wiggins] said his mom’s boyfriend got her into it but then she says, “I would have gotten into it anyway.” I feel that the paranormal and the spirituality, all the elements in this movie, are moving parts because people are not just made up of blanket-statement identities. The characters are not just from a Pentecostal family, Shelia’s not just a paranormal investigator. There are people who are paranormal investigators that fit into our preconceived notions, but it’s probably unfair of us to describe all of them that way.

 There’s so many things I can say about this film, but one thing I can say is that we’re all wounded. Like Owen says, “What’s the point about a relationship?” What is the point? It’s risky, your partner leaves you, dies, whatever. But his character eventually comes to the point of ‘it’s better than nothing” and that’s the same with taking the leap of faith and that same with even with the symbolism of the ending. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but when I read the script, I wasn’t sure how Paul was going to do the page turning. The passage that she’s reading makes perfect sense for Susanne [Richard’s deceased wife], but I think that people, we have a tendency towards cynicism, so one of the questions I would have is six years from now does Richard and Sheila remember that situation in the exact same way? There are moments when people get the opportunity of a lifetime and think “it’s a miracle, I’ve been blessed” but after time goes by people go “well you know, science explains it,” but I think the core relationship putting yourself out there when inevitably it’s going to fail versus the logic of why pursue is… which one’s more is more insane?

Talking in terms of making a leap of faith, is it difficult for you as a Roman Catholic to continue to make that leap of faith every Sunday when you hear about hundreds of new sex abuse cases in the church every week?

Oh my god. My faith, like everyone’s, is individual and my path to it was not constructed on the perfect community of the Catholic Church. It’s about the teachings and I should say even more of my understanding of the teachings. I do believe that many human beings are pretty bad. I’m shocked at the horrible things that have happened… you know there’s going to be more bad news. But I also think that my individual faith is not constructed around even man’s interpretation of these teachings or some authority. Every generation of human beings has this arrogance, “We figured it out. This is how medical science works: we use leeches.” And they were convinced that it worked and it’s insane. Even in our lifetime there was this thing saying you should have your kids playing on an iPad; it’s good, it’s interactive, it’s better than passively watching television, it’s better. No, I’m not saying that’s not valuable, that there isn’t some value in it, but it’s naive. It’s like we have this new technology and human beings arrogantly think they have it figured out. And I think that’s a question that’s brought up in this film. The paranormal is such a classic example of something where I’m personally like, no, I’m not interested in jumping on board. I don’t care if people pursue it. I’m not 100% sure. So the journey of this, where you think the widower is going to come to the conclusion of “alright, I’m through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief” and that this paranormal investigator is going to realize that her pursuit of the paranormal is similar to all these men that have betrayed her, but life isn’t that simple. Maybe I’m making sense?

In the movie Sheila’s character she asks the priest, “Do you believe?” and he says, “Well some people say that Jesus was a ghost.” So what is your take on spirits?

It’s weird because I need to believe there’s something that can forgive me. That’s the crux of it: is that I need to believe that I’m not in control. I need to believe that not only am I not in control and that something will forgive me, but that something’s on my side. That’s not that foreign from the belief of karma, you know what I mean? So how that’s navigated in everyday life with spiritual people that guide you through life, whether they be a priest, a nun, or a rabbi, in some ways they’re kind of like professional friends. They’re like, “No, I promise I’m not trying to sleep with you, I’m a rabbi.” It’s an ongoing question and I would be lying if I said I had it all figured out and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts. I mean I have doubts. Even Mother Teresa doubts all the time and I think there’s an inherent hypocrisy in Christianity. None of you are behaving like this guy Jesus, you know what I mean. Didn’t he say “give up everything and follow me?” and you guys are like, “Yeah you know, but I need this second home.” So I think you can get caught up in the hypocrisy, and by the way, Them that Follow is all about this different interpretation of just one line in the Bible. I think it’s Matthew 6 or something, so human beings, we’re animals, we’re just trying to figure it out right?

It sounds like you’re describing the Christian concept of grace, that’s sort of the predominant thing you’re looking for in spirituality.

Yeah. It’s grace, but here’s where I lose everyone. I also think that these teachings, going to church, this time of meditation, communal mediation are positive. I know that going to church with my kids… I don’t really like leaving the apartment, do you know what I mean? But I like the idea of standing there with my children, getting the time to look at them, and you know, it sounds corny but could I do that in another place? Yes, but every Sunday I get to do it.


You have a few out-of-character movies at Sundance.

It’s so funny because when it comes to acting I’m always looking for the best opportunity but also… I brought up The Great New Wonderful… there are moments in my acting career where I’ve felt like now people are going to know I can do this. When I did a Broadway play, I thought I was going to prove to people that I can act so that I can be considered for really interesting and compelling characters. As a guy with a comedic background I get characters where the guy has no distinction, he’s just pushing the plot along. He has no complexity and I don’t want to do those roles, those characters. I want to be considered for more complex ones and with The Great New Wonderful I was like, “Here’s the thing, this is gonna change it” and then I did the Broadway play and I was like, “This is gonna change it, here we go.” And so I’m hopefully not as naive, having three films at Sundance. Part of me’s like, “Here we go,” but I’m also hopefully older and wiser to know that even I could convince one guy or one woman who’s doing a film that’s really interesting that has a character that they’ve seen in Light from Light that they’re gonna go, “You know what? I bet he’d be great as this fascinating character.” That’s the whole thing from an acting standpoint.

Whereas stand-up, this will be my seventh special, and similar to the indie world it changes every year, you know with Amazon this year versus Netflix two years ago changing the dynamic, the stand-up special. It’s about new audiences and also partners with getting it out there. So we might look at a film with Amazon and think, “Well, how does that make sense?” But with a stand-up special that makes perfect sense. I always think of my stand-up comedy as… I was thinking if I was running Amazon, I don’t think Jeff Bezos is gonna let me, but that Amazon Prime’s brilliant. The problem is getting people to this terrific content. And so rather than Netflix, their plan of getting subscribers. Amazon has the subscribers, it’s getting people into their Amazon Prime community cause there’s great content there, and so I’m excited there’s packages that show up at my house from Amazon twice a day. So when people are ordering things they can say, “Watch this Jim Gaffigan special” and that’s simple as a click. That’s what I want. I want people to see my stuff and for me stand-up is motivated by self-assignment. With each special, I’m kinda evolving and constructed on self-assignment.

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‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’ Director Matt Tyrnauer on How His Documentary Illuminates the Rise of Donald Trump

Written by Joshua Encinias, February 4, 2019 at 9:04 am 

The day Roger Stone was arrested by the FBI, Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about Stone’s mentor Roy Cohn debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Stone appears throughout Where’s My Roy Cohn? to talk about his mentor.

Trynauer began work on his documentary after the 2016 election, when it became apparent that Cohn’s style of politics led to the election of the president. Cohn was friends with Donald Trump’s father and he mentored Donald.

We spoke with Trynauer about Cohn’s depiction in Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America, how he convinced one of Cohn’s ex-boyfriends to participate in the documentary, and the Freudian underpinnings of Cohn’s upbringing.

The Film Stage: Did Roger Stone reach out to after his to try and remove him from your documentary?

Matt Tyrnauer: No, I haven’t heard from Roger or anybody.

Why do you think Roger, like Roy Cohn, lays himself out there so plainly to be judged?

I think like Roy Cohn, Roger Stone is very performative and you might even go as far as to say that he is a performer. I think the same could be said of Roy Cohn. I think the truth that the movie traffics is that Cohn, Trump, and their mutual mentor Cohn were all in their own way very effective performers. Once you realize that, I don’t think it becomes any more reassuring or comforting.

My first introduction to Roy Cohn was the HBO movie of Angels In America, and I just wanted to see what Meryl Streep and Al Pacino had to say about Roy Cohn. Streep said we love characters like Roy Cohn; they’re like Richard III or Hannibal Lecter. Al Pacino said we receive and understand characters that express “what’s reckless in me, what’s murderous in me, what’s cowardly in me.” Twenty years later, do you think that’s an accurate depiction of a Roy Cohn? Do we have a little Roy Cohn in all of us?

I’m not so sure I would put it that way. I agree on a metaphorical basis. There’s a great line from Gore Vidal about Richard Nixon which is “we are him and he is us.” I would amplify it like that. Roy Cohn, as his cousin says in the film “he’s an evil who comes from certain parts of the American culture.” That’s why I made the film, to show the kind of very dark, ruthless and transactional politics and style of a Roy Cohn are endemic in the American culture and we need to be aware of what that is and know it when you see it and we’re certainly seeing it now. And I’m not sure if enough people are fully aware of what it is, where it comes from, and how much damage it can do.

What do you think of Cohn’s depiction in the play?

 I think it’s brilliant and ahead of its time. Angels in America was written, if I’m not wrong, in the 80s, so Kushner in his immortal work deploys Roy Cohn as a trope or metaphor for the first time and knocks it out of the park. It’s still relevant. I would go as far as to say it’s more relevant than ever, but that play which is firmly in the canon is a depiction of Cohn from an earlier period and its a sliver of the character. He’s operating in that work as a particular type of literary or dramatic trope and this movie is about Roy Cohn and the full spectrum of the American political saga. It’s a recontextualization.

How did you get Wallace Adams, one of Cohn’s boyfriends, to participate and why did he want to?

I did a search for surviving boyfriends of Roy Cohn, and there are a few to my knowledge. We discovered Wallace Adams in Southern California, and then began a dialogue with him. At first he was reluctant, and then we eventually got to a place where he was willing to participate, and he very generously agreed to do so and give his perspective on this relationship with someone who frankly people weren’t talking about very much for decades but whose relevance changed suddenly with the election in 2016. I don’t think there are that many figures whose relevance and importance to our society transformed so radically so long after their death.

I think he got to thinking about Roy Cohn and he realized he had something to say. The man he knew became important in another way and I think he knew that it would be a contribution for him to speak.


Was Wallace aware of who Roy Cohn was in his public life?

Oh, yeah. He’s from a New York family that knew all about Roy Cohn, even though he was a younger man at the time. I think he said his mother asked him not to see Roy Cohn and that Andy Warhol warned him not to.

There’s a section where it says his mother instilled shame in him and his father gave him the language to instill that shame into law. Will you elaborate on what that means?

Someone so dark and so evil in his actions clearly had some parental issues. [Laughs.] We all do, but he seems to be an extreme case, even if you’re a casual Freudian. Cohn’s mother was a difficult woman who had a lot of issues that members of her family highlight from interviews, among them she was known to be unattractive both physically and in her personality. She was known to be overbearing in her child’s life, and she instilled a certain shame in him because he apparently had an interesting shaped nose. There’s a trope in Jewish society of the large nose as an object of shame and discussion because Jews were stereotyped particularly by the Nazi’s for having prominent noses.

In this period it was a point of shame; this is pre-Barbara Streisand, who embraced her prominent nose and who changed people’s perspective on that. You’ll notice in the later archival film that Cohn has a scar on his nose which he bore because his mother, as best we could understand from the family, forced him to have a nose procedure that was botched. There are a lot of Freudian markers here that lead to issues of shame and anger and maybe guilt that were transferred from mother to son. Al Cohn, as best we could tell from interviews was a different kind of character, kind of gentle. Him being a judge, and a competent lawyer who took an interest in his son, instilled an interest of law in him at an early age. Adding these developmental traits together is a certain insight into what people want to know: how does someone turn into someone like Roy Cohn?

Where’s My Roy Cohn? premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

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