Latest Features

‘Missing Link’ Director Chris Butler on Flawed Characters, Spielbergian Setpieces, and 3D Printing

Written by Jordan Raup, April 11, 2019 at 8:30 am 

Missing Link, the fifth feature film from Laika, is another wondrously detailed animation feat and certainly their most epic outing with its globe-trotting story of mythic proportions. Returning to the director’s chair after ParaNorman, Chris Butler switches up his palette with a buoyantly colorful design and flawed characters which buck the trend of most family animations.

We spoke with the director about the influences behind his grand adventure, nesting important themes into the story, crafting the epic action setpieces, advancing 3D printing technology, 10 years of Laika, what he thought of Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, and more.

The Film Stage: I wanted to start out by discussing your approach to color in this film. It’s such a grand adventure and with that also comes this beautiful palette. Can you talk about how early on in the process you knew you wanted that color scheme?

Chris Butler: Well, at the end of ParaNorman, which was a long time ago, I knew that the next thing that I wanted to do needed to be radically different. I’m not interested in repeating myself and I thought: How can I step out of the shadows? ParaNorman was a pastiche of 80s horror movies, and it took place at night time, and I thought I had done the “dark: thing. So, it was a purposeful choice I picked a project that had the opportunity for us to explore a much bolder, more colorful palette. It’s a journey around the world, so I knew it needed to be this big, bright travelogue. I said to Travis [Knight] originally I wanted to do if David Lean directed Around the World in Eighty Days, starring Laurel and Hardy. That was the original idea. I knew it was going to be a more playful movie, so that was also a reason to explore a more vibrant color palette, and one of the big inspirations at the very start of the movie was National Geographic photography. And then we started pulling reference from mid-century National Genographic photographs. The striking colors were one of the things that me and the production designer was very keen on getting into the movie. Because we are traveling a lot in the movie, we wanted these locations to have their own color signature. So, for example, the woods and the Pacific Northwest are not just green, they’re kind of blue-green. But then the jungle in India, it’s kind of a yellow-green. So, each location on this journey has a signature that carries you through.

Speaking of your influences, have you seen James Gray’s The Lost City of Z? At least the set-up of this film reminded me of it.

Yes, I have, and I think I was obviously influenced by a ton of Victorian-set adventures. Lost City of Z is in there, but I think there’s a lot of Jules Verne in there, a lot of [Arthur] Conan Doyle. There’s this subgenre of adventure movie and they’re all about these robust, barrel-chested males exploring the world. I kind of wanted to poke fun at that a little with Lionel whose such an interesting character.

There’s this playful, funny adventure, but you do nest themes of the dangers of colonialism and protecting the environment if you want to look deeper. How important is it to have a foundational backbone of these more important issues?

I think it’s vital, personally. I think you can have something to say in a movie, whether it’s a kids movie, a family movie, an adult movie, whatever. I think it’s good to have something to say. You should never be didactic. You shouldn’t shove it into people’s faces, but I think it adds layers to a story that just makes it more compelling. For me as well, I think it’s good that kids movies have some kind of message. That’s certainly the kids movies, the animated movies that I grew up with, that had the biggest impact on me in my life, they all had something to say. I’ve never been fond of animation as just as a babysitting device. You know, something you can just plop the kids in front of and walk away. I want there to be a little more to it. And for me, this movie, I want kids and adults to get something out of it; not just the laughs and the fun of it, but also something to even talk about or think about after they’ve left.

Hugh Jackman’s Frost is not your typical family film adventure lead. He’s not the most likable character. He doesn’t have this huge arc where he completely becomes less self-centered. He’s a little bit of an asshole in the beginning–

[Laughs]

Which I loved, you just don’t see that a lot in animated films. Were you met with any kind of resistance to that, or that idea of a character?

For me, the most interesting protagonists are the ones that are flawed. If I look at the big influence on Sir Lionel which was Sherlock Holmes, who is eccentric and borderline sociopathic, he’s compelling because he’s an awkward fit. When you have this character who’s lacking certain social graces and you put him into conversations with another character, you immediately have an interesting dynamic. I always found those characters more interesting. I think the key for Lionel was that he remains entertaining. Like, he does a lot of bad things. He’s certainly selfish, but I think that’s why Hugh [Jackman] was so important, because I still wanted the audience to go along with him on this ride, and I think he does have redeeming features.

I remember it was a similar thing there where at the end of ParaNorman, the world isn’t completely changed; there are still assholes in it, but maybe a few people have changed. That’s important to me. It’s not a light switch. You don’t flick a switch and then suddenly, he’s 100% a great guy, but he’s trying. He’s working on it. And I think that’s important, is that he’s recognized that he is flawed and he’s trying to be a better person, and I think that is more relatable.

The setpieces are pretty incredibly conceived and executed, there’s a midway sequence with an Inception meets The Perfect Storm feeling. Can you talk about pulling it off? My mind was kind of racing how you actually animated it.

Well, I must admit when I was writing it, I was at times thinking, “I’m not sure we can do this.” But we’ve always liked a challenge. I think in terms of the genre here, I knew it needed big action setpieces, and I was very much influenced by the Spielbergian school of having an action sequence with a narrative to it. It’s got a shape. It’s got a beginning, a middle, and end, and there are events within that sequence. There’s jokes, dramatic moments, but it’s almost like a mini story. I wasn’t interested in it just being some chaotic fight montage. I wanted it to have more narrative interest and that was very much influenced by the Indiana Jones movies.

When you start writing something like that, the fact that we’re doing it in animation is that you don’t just do a regular chase. You have to find something bigger than that–something that’s more unusual, more absurd, that makes it worth animating. And that’s where the Inception thing came from. Technically, it does blow your mind, but you start off with storyboarding very early on, you talk through it. You’ve got your camera guys, you’ve got your VFX guys. We’re all in the room at the very start, talking about these things, and trying to break down how we set it up. And we will use every trick in the book.

The truth is it’s always going to be difficult for the animator, and that particular sequence was incredibly difficult. We had a guy who is really good at action stuff but all of that moving corridor thing, we couldn’t physically move the set. So, we had to move the camera to create that sensation, which meant that the animator was faking this movement just in his puppet performance. And it’s hugely difficult to do, but this our fifth movie and I think we’ve been refining our skills and we’ve been innovating, so it felt like now we have the talent to do a movie like this, we could achieve this movie.

It has been ten years of Laika feature films, and you are definitely setting the bar in terms of the level of beauty and wonder in animation. I’m curious as animators, where do you look towards for inspiration?

A bunch of different things, but I always say that I am an animation fan. I love all animation in all its forms. I will greedily drink in all of the stuff that’s put out by the other studios. I will like some of it, I will love some of it. I think what’s important is that there is diversity in this movie, and I think that is where we’re special. I want to do stuff that’s different. I want us to have our own voice, and part of that comes with the look as well. I don’t want to make movies that look like animated movies, other animated movies. So I think we draw inspiration where we can, from other things, like photography or live action movies or illustrators. There is such a vast world of influence out there that can be tapped into and I think it’s only right that we try to do something that you can’t see somewhere else. I think that’s what it comes down to in the end is that every time we make a movie, it’s gonna look different from the last. And I think that’s important to us as a brand.

It made a lot of headlines when Travis Knight signed on for Bumblebee, but I’m just curious if you saw that film and your thoughts on how he was able to help reinvent that franchise, and if you had any interest yourself in going a live-action route.

I mean I love live action, so who knows? I mean I’ve only just finished this movie so I don’t know exactly what’s next, but I loved that movie. I loved what he did. I grew up with those toys, so it felt truer to my childhood idea of what Transformers were. I thought it was a gleefully good time. Travis is a polymath; he is just able to do stuff and succeed at it. He’s a fantastic animator, he’s a great director, he’s just one of those annoying people who’s really good at anything he puts his mind to.

Going back to the more technical aspect of your film, I was reading that there was this 3D printing technology you guys helped develop with this film. Could you talk more about it from maybe a layman’s point of view and the logistics of integrating that into your work process?

So way back on Coraline, we wanted to pursue this replacement face idea. So, the puppet is on set and it’s manipulated by the animator, but we wanted more out of our facial performances. And that’s difficult if the face of the puppet is just armatured, which means it’s manipulated by the animator on stage. So, Coraline is the first one where we used the 3D printer, and it enabled us to open up that world where you can create a performance in the computer, and then print that out, and then each individual face is plugged on top it for every frame of the movie.

Now, over the years, we’ve continued to push this idea. It had never been done before. We went from the black and white printed photos–they would have to be founded and hand-painted. We went to natural color prints in Paranorman. And each time we’re using new prints, and we’re advancing the technology. I think the difference on Missing Link was that in the past, we created kits; thousands and thousands of little faces, and we would construct dialogue or performance almost out of a library of faces–and we didn’t do that on this movie. Every single shot is bespoke. Every single shot is animated purely for that shot, so there was no reusing the faces. What that allowed us to do, I think, is achieve a level of nuance and sophistication in the facial performances that’s never been done before. It’s certainly the best we’ve ever done. That’s what I’m after–I want people to watch these movies and not think that they’re watching a cool puppet, but think that they’re watching a living, breathing character. And the more we push these technologies, the closer we get to that.

When you go to watch the final film, can you kind of sit back and relax and enjoy the adventure it takes you on, or are you kind of overwhelmed by all the work that went into it and thinking about every little frame?

[Laughs] It’s a little bit of both. There’s still stuff that I would change or redo. I still see little faults. I don’t think you ever really finish a movie. I mean it finishes you, probably. I think what was always important to me over the last five years was being able to watch the movie and enjoy it. Most weekends I would take a version of the movie home with me and watch it and that’s going back to when it was all storyboards. I would watch every movie, and just being able to sit back and look at it as a piece of entertainment and enjoy it was very important to me. So yeah, I can watch it and I can enjoy it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be done with it.

Missing Link opens on April 12.

Terry Gilliam on the Evolution of ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ and the Weight of Expectations

Written by Joshua Encinias, April 10, 2019 at 1:36 pm 

Terry Gilliam wonders if The Man Who Killed Don Quixote can live up to its larger than life production trouble. The trouble is due to the insecurities Quixote faced being an independent production, but that independence is also how Gilliam’s kept the project alive long after a studio would have scrapped it.

The movie’s storied production history is well-documented, including Amazon’s last-minute decision to pull out of the project when producer Paulo Branco claimed rights to the film, which nearly derailed their 2018 premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

In our conversation with Gilliam we discuss how Jonathan Pryce’s Don Quixote built his own ramshackle armor, how directing is like being “an ignorant peasant who knows no better,” and his feelings about Fathom Event’s one-night-only screening strategy.

The Film Stage: I found Quixote’s costume so beautiful. It looks like a leftover costume from the movie within a movie, or he made it out of trash. Will you talk about its design?

Terry Gilliam: The idea was Quixote bumbling around this place and finding bits or armor he assembled. That costume is the costume Jean Rochefort wore in the original version in 2000, and what was interesting is that we started work with Jonathan Pryce on the costume and it wasn’t working. We didn’t have the money in the budget, there’s no way we could make something as good as what was on screen. Nicola Pecorini was on the phone with Gabriella Pescucci who designed the original costume, who was about to do an opera in Italy and pulled that costume out to see if they could use it in the opera. The timing was designed by some deity, I’m not sure which one. And we said, wait, could we have it for the film? Gabriella said yes to us and we got it. Luckily it fit Jonathan, so there was no way we could not use it. The amount of work that’s involved in making what you see, you can’t afford to do that now unless you have a much bigger budget. It just requires a lot of work.

You’ve worked with Jonathan Pryce for as long as you’ve been trying to make this movie. At any point, besides the last few years, was Jonathan considered to play Don Quixote?

Well he wanted to, he always asked when we were going to do this film. I was always stalling because I felt Jonathan wasn’t old enough. He became 70 years old, magically just in time. I guess Jonathan should thank Michael Palin because he was the Quixote prior to Jonathan’s version. But he got tired of waiting through all the nonsense we were going through with a producer for a brief while. Michael said, “I can’t deal with this man anymore.” He left and Jonathan was waiting in the wings.

Much of the film is about how Toby’s (Adam Driver) student film changed the village where he shot it. There’s a line Quixote says about Sancho (note: Quixote thinks Driver’s Toby is Sancho Panza): “He’s an ignorant peasant who knows no better.” Is Toby’s effect on the village an isolated story or are you saying something about the nature of filmmaking?

Films are dangerous things and they have to be dealt with carefully. When we made Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we were in a little village in the Highlands. All of us came pouring up from London, the whole film unit; film units are very exotic, I suppose. It’s basically like vikings raping and pillaging across a landscape. When we returned to London there were so many marriages broken up. So many people followed us down to London in hopes of getting into films. They probably never did, or some did, we don’t know. That’s the effect you have on the community on a film. On the other hand, it’s about what film can make and the power of cinema to the public. It’s about taking responsibility for the stories you tell. Toby is caught in a situation where lives had been shattered, destroyed, changed. He has a sense of guilt, which is the beginning of his becoming a decent human being. [Laughs.]

As a filmmaker, what does it take for you to justify the potential harm your work could do to a community?

I suppose all I try to do is make people look at the world differently. I’m not trying to tell people what they should or shouldn’t think. I’m just offering alternatives, different windows to look through. I always try be reasonably responsible with what I talk about in our films, about reality or a version of reality. Maybe it’s useful to an audience, I don’t know. Doing something like doing a big waltz in Grand Central Station where people fall in love and then you discover subsequently some years later that on New Year’s Eve people would waltz in Grand Central Station. It’s nice to know you can make the world better. Maybe not better, but more enjoyable.

Are you ever worried the making of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote overshadows the movie itself?

What’s always worried me was people’s expectations. They’re waiting and they’re waiting and they’re reading about more things going on. I always worry about people’s expectations being greater or more interesting than the actual film we were able to make. I think that some of the press are spending an awful lot of time trying to discuss the history of the film and how that affected what the film is. I don’t think that way. Yes, we made changes along the way, but we weren’t trying to comment on the history of the film at all. We made the script more interesting over time, but when you go into shooting, this movie only came into existence two years ago, once you start shooting. And that is what the film is. What you are able to achieve in the time behind the camera. It’s not exactly the film I set out to shoot, it changes along the way. A film is an organic creature, at least in my way of making them. Sometimes what comes out is surprisingly different from what you set out to do.

I know you could never compare the final movie to what you initially planned, but is there anything about the final movie that made you glad you were only able to film it two years ago and not twenty years ago?

I think it’s much better. I think the script and the idea of what we we’re doing is far more interesting than what we were doing then. Because back then is was more A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court situation, with a modern guy being bumped on the head and ending up in the 17th century. These were moments where I feel like the film was making itself or was busy waiting for the right cast turned up. I think Adam and Jonathan, with all the actors I worked with along the way, they both brought something new and different from what I think I was doing earlier. It’s much funnier, more touching. I think Adam and Jonathan make a wonderful double act, it was constantly surprising.

Did you have a visual basis for the film within a film?

Visually I wanted it in black and white and use wide angle lenses like I used too. [Laughs.] In the main story I’m not using wide angles in my normal way. I didn’t know exactly what the film within a film was until we shot it. I just had a few little scenes in my head.

Is there a complete version of the film within a film?

No, we never wrote it! [Laughs.] We only wrote a couple moments. What we did in the student film, in our previous scripts we never had a way of creating a good Dulcinea and Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) becomes Dulcinea in the movie. The idea that you got a fifteen-year-old girl, who’s sweet and innocent and full of life, but because she’s in a movie, because a young director says you’ll be a star, her life gets turned upside down. Angelica winds up as an escort. She finally winds up finding a rich guy who might be bastard, but he’s providing her with all the things Toby put into her head what success should be like. She just happens to be a kept woman and she’s treated rather badly. It makes her a good Dulcinea and let’s Toby rescue her from the fate he effectively triggered.

What do you think of Fathom Event’s release strategy of putting the film in 700 theaters for one night? Except for that Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, I’ve never seen such a high profile movie being released for one night.

You don’t always get what you want. [Laughs.]

For a variety of reasons, this winded up being the way the film is released. I wasn’t able to have much influence in that because I’m not a producer on the film. I don’t know, we’ll see how it works. I talked to other people, and this may be the blueprint for what films are going to be in the future. I mean, small independent films. We are an independent film. It didn’t help that Amazon pulled out after we shot the movie because of legal problems with a former producer. It left us rather vulnerable and this is the result. But I hope it works. Independent films are never going have the kind of money to compete with studio movies. By focusing it on one night, hopefully the fans will see it on the big screen, and if it does well hopefully other cinemas will be picking it up later. It’s one way to get attention. I’ve always known that more people see my films on DVD than they do in the cinema. But I make movies for the big screen and I hope this allows those who really want to experience what it’s like on the big screen and with the audience.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote plays tonight nationwide and expands on April 19.

Mike Leigh on ‘Peterloo,’ Revolution, Agnès Varda, and the Disease of Trump

Written by Joshua Encinias, April 8, 2019 at 8:55 am 

Mike Leigh spent much of his time since the release of Mr. Turner in 2014 discussing, researching, and filming the nature of political protest via the story of Peterloo. Political unrest is nothing new and the powerful have amazing resilience, as shown by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry’s ability to slaughter 15 people and injure hundreds more at Peterloo, and in the process quell the chance at English revolution.

Why the United Kingdom didn’t have a revolution comparable to France, Italy or the United States was up for discussion when I recently sat down with Mike Leigh. In Peterloo, his career-long interest in class division meets the usually dry discussion of taxation. Leigh dedicates one scene to the Corn Laws, which lit the fire of revolution, and spends the rest of the film following the working-class political convergence that lead to the rally at St. Peter’s Field and the machinations of monarch who quelled it.

We discuss why it would be reductionist for Peterloo to have a central character, how the terms freedom and liberty were used in the 19th century, why the United Kingdom still has a monarch, and his relationship to Agnès Varda’s work.

The Film Stage: The message of freedom and liberty is repeated throughout the movie, but today the right wing own that message in Europe and America.

Mike Leigh: There’s a perversion of those words now. “Liberty or death” is in fact a phrase that originates from the American Revolution. There were a lot of slogans that were bandied around on the banners at Peterloo and things that were chanted at meetings. We have to remember we are looking at a society at a time where people did not enjoy the natural freedoms we do. There was no education. Two percent of the population had the vote. To put ourselves back in the population of those people, these are people at rock bottom. These people are passionate for liberty, freedom, the truth, and the voice to be heard. We can only really decode my movie in terms of how we are now and how we live now. When you see those working class young radicals in the film–those three lads, who are dramatized real people–those are guys with no formal education. They would have learned to read by being self taught or in Sunday Schools. Not only are they literate and articulate, they’re also quoting the Classics. They would be appalled to jump into a time machine and come forward to a time when people have the vote and don’t use it. Or have the vote and are cynical about it. Have education and flout it in the way literacy is being perverted.

The movie is about the peasants of two hundred years ago, but the political resonance of Peterloo continues in stories like Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. Did you know Varda and her work?

I knew her personally, we met a few times. I loved her work. In fact, I remember in 1962 when I was very young and getting into movies, there was a whole season at the National Film Theatre in London called Left Bank, Right Bank, which included all of her stuff until then. I’ve followed Agnès’s films throughout. I think she’s great and I really, really regret her going. But she was ninety and she wasn’t very well.

For people unfamiliar with Peterloo, would it be helpful to see the movie through Joseph’s (David Moorst) experience?

No. I think the viewer has to go in and watch the film as he or she experiences it. Joseph is one narrative thread, therefore one perspective of what’s going on, but you can’t see the whole thing from his eyes because a great deal of what happens in the film is something he knows nothing about. He isn’t there, he doesn’t know what’s going on, and he wouldn’t understand it if he was there. I think it would be reductionist and distracting for anyone to try and look at the whole film as if it were from his point of view. That wouldn’t stack up.

Do you think the criticism that the film needs a central character to follow is incorrect?

It’s irrelevant. All of my films have been carried by one or two, or several characters. That’s what I naturally do. This film isn’t because, simply, that isn’t what the film is about. I haven’t made a decision not to have a central character because if I decided to have one I have no idea how I’d make that work. Of course, there are more central characters, and there are a few well-known actors playing the parts. But that’s neither here nor there. I don’t think it’s helpful to worry about that one way or another. It’s just a red herring, it’s irrelevant.

How do you dramatize the Corn Laws and taxation?

It’s a tough one, that’s a very good question. In fact, the actual principle of the Corn Laws and taxation are dealt with in one scene when the family is talking. It’s laid out very clearly, and it’s not laid out by people in Parliament making pompous, which might’ve been another way of doing it. It’s not laid out by journalists talking in educated language. It’s laid out in the kitchen with working class people at a very basic level. That’s how I dramatize it. As English school kids you learn about the Corn Laws and it’s dry stuff. Even though it’s not dry to understand people couldn’t eat properly.

Has the history and symbolic nature of Peterloo been utilized?

It hasn’t really. In the 19th century it resonated to those who knew it or were concerned with political matters, concerned with reform, concerned with unions and socialism. As the 19th century developed it resonated right through. It has got lost. I grew up in the area where it happened and I didn’t really know about it as a kid. I think it’s getting quite a revival because it’s bicentennial this August. There’s a growing awareness of it and its meaning. One of the reasons I made the movie to contribute to that… but I don’t really know the answer to the question.

Are you participating in the bicentennial?

The other day I went to Manchester and opened a Peterloo exhibition at the so-called People’s History Museum, which is fantastic actually. They have a lot of artifacts, banners and stuff. There’s only one surviving banner that’s actually there. It’s kept in a refrigerated unit. This exhibition is interesting because they’ve allocated a large space for current protests to put stuff up and discuss. They show a section of my film but that’s my only contribution.

The phrygian red cap shows up in Peterloo, as it did at the French Revolution, and it’s on the seal of the U.S. Senate. You see it used all over the political map. Why is there a universal resonance?

My reading of it is limited to being a symbol of the French Revolution, which was a massive inspiration to the radicals at Peterloo and it terrified the hell out of authorities, not the least the royal family. They feared an English revolution. There has not been an English revolution, thought I suspect there’s about to be one any day now.

Why do you think the revolution that was building at Peterloo was quelled so easily whereas the American Revolution was not?

Apart from the fact that’s a good question [laughs], to which at some level there isn’t an answer, I don’t think we can quite… that’s a complicated question actually. The inevitability of the colonial war being lost is a much clearer and straightforward thing than the inevitability of an English revolution. The French Revolution, as we know, in the immediate moment it happened it was successful in the sense that they overthrew the monarchy, but it was followed by the Reign of Terror and that was followed by, effectively, the reinstatement of the monarchy, i.e. Napoleon and subsequently and actual monarchy which lasted for quite a long time. I don’t think you can compare the success of American independence with the aspirations of what was happening in England. In the film you see gradual levels of sedition by the radicals. At first they want one man one vote, then later a young man says they should assassinate the king. They were banged up and in prison far sooner than anybody else and were kept there for quite a while.

Why do we still have a monarch? I don’t fucking know. I think it’s ridiculous.

There’s so many large political movements lately. The revolt against Brexit and in France people on the left and right have joined together in Yellow Vests movement.

I think mass media has a lot to answer for, the internet has a lot to answer for. The dissemination of instant ideas both positive and negative, I think has got its upside and downside. I think what you can unquestionably call the general rise of fascism, which you could never have anticipated. Certainly in 1945 it would have been unthinkable and it was for quite a long time after that. How easy it is for draconian, destructive, negative, right-wing ideas to be disseminated. I think that accounts for Brexit, I think it accounts for the Yellow Vests, it accounts for what’s happening in Italy, and it could well account for the disease we call Trump.

Peterloo is now in limited release.

Dick Pope on ‘Peterloo,’ Drones, ‘The Favourite,’ and His Distaste for Celluloid Projection

Written by Nick Newman, April 3, 2019 at 12:00 pm 

Throw Dick Pope a question about cinematography and he’ll be able to answer. Even if the aspect in question isn’t an area of expertise–just as likely not a preference–something well-formed comes back to you. I learned as much when we talked about jury work in 2016, and at last fall’s EnergaCamerimage found us at it again–this time on the subject of Peterloo, both the latest in a nearly 30-year collaborations with Mike Leigh and a continuation of their experiments with digital filmmaking.

“Filmmaking” is probably Pope’s preferred, set-and-done term, though there were complications, catches, and innovations shaping this approach to an infamous massacre. Thus the inevitable set of discourses on his art’s current state, why we should be optimistic, and what, if you ask him, fetishists are getting terribly wrong.

The Film Stage: In a British Cinematographer interview, you proved very open to discussing the process. Do you find that putting the work into words is futile–that there’s something more elemental at play?

Dick Pope: I don’t mind being direct about it, because there’s quite a lot of bullshit attached when people talk about it; there’s quite a lot of hype. Somebody last night asked me about Vermeer and lighting for paintings–”that painterly look” in the films, right? I said, “Well, the thing is: if you’ve got somebody in a period costume–especially a woman–and you have a window, and that window through which you put soft, diffused light, it comes through the window and kisses the person standing there in a period costume, and people say to me, ‘God, it’s so Vermeer-like,’ my thing about that is, well, we can all do that. We can all be Vermeers; you just need the right quality of light and staging of the scene so that you’re using that light in that way.” But it’s not always beautiful. Sometimes it’s good to create ugly light. So it just depends what I’m doing. But I don’t mind talking about what I do, because my thing is: sometimes people ask me and they don’t really listen. It’s almost like they’re asking me for the sake of asking me, because then they go off and do their own thing–like I do, too. I might listen to somebody for hours, but I still do what I want when I’m working. I do have things I remember from what DPs said. I’ve read it in, like, the ASC magazine. I remember doing a film and reading this article about a system of lighting and I tried it–I read it straight out of American Cinematographer. I became very captivated about using it. Sometimes you read things, hear things, and think, “Oh, yeah, that’s good. I could use that.” But not all the time.

The movie feels hard to place on a continuum: there are the period dressings, but also a clean digital quality to the image. Throughout I kept asking about accuracy to the period vs. wanting to express something else. One of my favorite shots, for instance, is the prisoners being taken through the hallway.

Oh, yeah.

And lights above them every ten feet or so. Its visual impression is astonishing, and all the while I ask if it was accurate to the era. I don’t particularly care, but from your perspective…

No, it wasn’t. It was a cheat. Funny: you’ve honed in on something that I didn’t know what to do with. We had this long tracking shot down this corridor where I was handheld, and I was sitting on a dolly, I think–I sat on a dolly with a camera and they pulled me down this long corridor, because we had a terrible floor where you couldn’t lay anything on the floor. Pulled me down this corridor, and there were these fixtures that the people… we did it where we did the main massacre at the end, in this place outside London. where we did a load of stuff. There was a floor, and there were these dungeons used, basically, for munitions right from the 17th or 16th century. The people who ran this facility were really tricky about no smoke being used, so when we did all the family stuff in the poorhouse where they lived, they wouldn’t allow me to use any atmosphere in there. I tried and tried to get them to let me use atmosphere; I would try to get atmosphere with smoke from the candles to cheat them. So that corridor had lighting fixtures all the way down it; they would not let me remove them, they would not let me cover them. Oh, it was a whole thing. So, in the end, my guys went up there and took out the bulbs–that was a big thing for them, just taking out the bulbs. Then we found a small bulb that we could hide in the ceiling and dim it right down, as if it’s some sort of oil. It’s never specified, but we dimmed it so it had a glow to it–and that’s how we went. I was forced to do it just from the practical aspect of: it’s not a studio. We’re not on a stage. That was a real location, so I had to go with what was there, and I adapted it. It’s not authentic, really. But, in the end, who the hell cares? There comes a point where you’ve got to just get on with it. I struggled with that for days and weeks, trying to get them to take it down and do something else.

I was surprised that you had to use a number of lights at the climax, which I could have sworn was natural light, or close to.

It does look natural. Realistic rather than natural. I think that’s what I used in the interview, but he used “natural” rather than “realistic.” But, really, it’s not “natural” natural; it’s realistic. A “tilted realism” I could call it. The number of lamps I had playing on days that were quite dark were big, substantial units basically giving me a backlight, as if the sun were still there while we didn’t have any sun. It was dreadful weather we had.

I’m interested in this line between natural and natural-seeming light, how we can be fooled. Some things announce themselves more vividly as techniques–such as drones, which were a surprise. Talk to me about getting involved there.

We first talked about having drones for the film in the riot itself. There was quite a lot of dialogue that Mike and I had, but then we thought, “No, it’ll be a nightmare flying them above people’s heads–men, women, and children. Why are we doing that?” We rejected that because we thought it was a very modern touch, but the idea of the Moors was a very lyrical interlude in the film. We used them there, with the coach going away, which wasn’t so apparent, but more apparent where they were practicing marching on the Moors themselves. I don’t know… I’m mixed about it, really. I don’t know whether they worked or not, but it seemed like a fun thing to do. It was a good way to see the Moors and be moving. I look at the film sometimes now and think, “Oh, I’m not sure about that,” but we made that decision and went with it. [Laughs] You could say it’s a modern affectation, but then you also look at The Favourite, what Robbie Ryan did on that, and he was using super-wide-angle lenses on a period film, which feels like you can’t do, but of course you can do that — you can do anything you goddamn like. It was a completely fresh take on the convention, which is definitely not wide-angle lenses and waving it about in a sort of rock-n-roll, music-video-type style. I suppose that’s the joy of cinema: you can do what you like.

Peterloo does what period pieces should: it made me think about the interplay between departments, how much coordination was necessary. Because of Leigh’s well-known process of writing for the day, does it feel especially arduous?

When he’s rehearsing with actors for five months or so, I’m also doing quite a lot of prep in the background. I’ll go back with my team over and over locations where we know we’re going to film and don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. I will have a number of different ideas that I can call upon without causing big delays. I’ll have prepped, and by the time I get there I’ll have lighting “plots,” say–a sort of game plan. Because we’ve worked together so many times, I have a really good idea of what we’ll be doing. I’m also able to prepare with the art department, and if he says to me, “Well, what do you think about having something there?” I’ll have something there. It might be hidden away from him so he’s not distracted by it, but I’ll have those units there, ready to pull out of the hat. So that’s not quite what you asked. Do you mean while he’s doing his rehearsal period?

I was thinking of the day for shooting.

Oh, sorry. When he shows us the scene?

Yeah. Of course you don’t just do period pieces, and I have to wonder if the transition from a period piece to something contemporary brings some relief–loosening the belt, so to speak.

You can’t point that camera anywhere on a period film; you can’t wave it around unless you’re in a completely controlled environment. The outside is a nightmare. That’s why that fort worked so well on Peterloo: they were able to take that space, augment it, and make the buildings higher in VFX and crowd augmentation. It was our place that we took over for three months. There was nothing of modernity in there–it was all period from the 18th, 17th century. Yeah, it is liberating. I went straight from Peterloo to a contemporary film in Africa. It was amazing. I spent eight months, probably, on Peterloo, and suddenly I was in Africa and you can point the camera anywhere. It was fantastic, fantastically liberating to have the freedom of doing that. You can’t do that in a period film. It was all good because it was contemporary. And then I went to New York immediately after that and did a film there. So it was three in a row: one set in 1819, one contemporary in Africa, and then in New York last winter for a film I did with Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn. Again, I couldn’t photograph anything apart from what had been dressed, because it was a ’50s / ’60s kind of noir film where streets had to be dressed and dealt with. Again, I was restricted with where I looked. So yeah, I look forward to doing another contemporary film where obviously there isn’t the restriction. The Edward Norton film is sort of a noir-ish thriller, so it’s fantastic fun but very constricted.

And the DI on Peterloo was handled remotely.

That’s the first time for me. I did the film which I wanted to do–I’d been talking to Edward Norton for years–and it was really good, because I wasn’t bogged-down in the DI suite for week after week. I was going there for my day off on Saturday or Sunday and looking at it with fresh eyes. It was really very good: I did a Voice Memo tape, made notes, and then we’d have quite a few discussions on the phone back to the UK on a Sunday, and we talked through it. So slowly the film evolved, and I was there, in the background, every week. I enjoyed it.

Do you think one informs the other that way–looking at one on days off, then back to the other? Motherless Brooklyn sounds very different.

It is very different, very different indeed.

But maybe one bleeds into another.

It might, but that’s because I’m the connecting factor–so it likely does in terms of shooting style and lighting, because I have a way that I do things and a way of lighting that’s not signature by any means, but it’s the way I go about things. That crossover is on everything I do. It’s there on the African film because, there, we had lots of night interiors–candle-lit, because they didn’t have electricity. I used the same techniques that I used on Peterloo and Motherless Brooklyn.

Can you think of ways candle-lit and naturally framed sequences changed with the switch to digital?

Yeah, sure. It’s a tricky one, this, because… film is great, right? Film is really good. There’s two things to my answer. One is: I don’t think that either Peterloo or Mr. Turner looks digital. Now, that’s my own opinion because I spent absolutely ages and ages to take that digital curse off the films. I put grain on them, I used old lenses. When I first showed Turner–and I feel the same way about Peterloo–a lot of people said to me before they saw the film, “Oh, my God, you’re doing a thing from the 19th century and you’re doing it on digital as opposed to film?” To me, it’s a lot of bullshit, actually, because they didn’t have either in those times. So what you record it on is another matter. When I saw The Favourite the other night, I thought it looked absolutely fantastic, absolutely brilliant, and that was on film–it was on Panavision. It kind of inspired me. Perhaps I’ll do another one on film. I haven’t been asked, really, in the last few years to do another one on film. Most companies don’t want you to. Robbie did a film with Ken Loach, and they suddenly wouldn’t allow them to shoot on 35mm–and this was two days before they shot. Ken Loach didn’t like the idea of three-perf pulldown, so, in the end, they did Super 16 as opposed to digital. It’s partly the way Ken Loach edits; he edits on a Steenbeck, so it had to be film. I don’t quite get it, what the attraction of that is.

I saw The Favourite at NYFF, where projection specifications are pretty adhered-to, and I was surprised it was shot on film, because it looked so bright. Peterloo is a case where I wouldn’t be 100% sure.

I’m rather obsessed by it, you see–by it not looking digital. I hate that clean, textureless quality, which is another thing I have about digital cameras: people are always saying, “Oh, you should try this, it’s so fast and you can shoot in the middle of the night.” I find that another problem these days, of people shooting darker and darker and darker. There’s a lot of it around and not being able to see anything. A few years ago, DPs wanted to go darker and the directors and producers wanted it to be brighter so they saw more; now it’s the other way around and directors really want it to be dark, and DPs are going, “We should have some definition and bring it up a bit.” It’s changed from what it used to be, but I do see a lot of very flat, muddy images, which I don’t like at all. Dark like they’re trying to hide something.

People who aren’t film-obsessive just tend not to notice. They might think of it as odd-looking, but not in terms of formats. 

No, they don’t. That’s right. Say The Favourite, for example: you kick off with this real desire to shoot on film for the texture, the look of film, but then once you take that negative and scan it, digitally, into the digital domain, you’ve already taken it away from that world. So you talk about The Favourite not looking like film as much–that’s a symptom of the process. Then, once you’re in a digital world, you can do all sorts of things with it that you couldn’t do before on film because, before the advent of scanning onto digital, you couldn’t do that. So, in a way, if you want to be really purist, you wouldn’t do that; you would just shoot it straight and not go through a digital analogue.

A lot of movies shot on film are projected digitally. It’s not often new ones are also shown that way.

I went to NYFF a few years ago and saw a film there which the director came on the stage and announced, like it’s fantastic, “We shot on film and we’re going to project on film.” And everybody in the audience clapped. But when it came on it was, like, fucking awful. It was so scratchy, jumpy in the gate. It didn’t really work. I hated film projection. Hated it. I don’t know many DPs who liked film projection. All that stuff about “authenticity” and “the shutter” can all crap off for me. The truth of that matter is [Laughs] you never knew how it was going to be. Even if you’d done the test it might be scratched now. Such a lottery. A lottery. And you go into where cinemas were showing a film: one cinema looked bright, the other scratched, this, that. Horrible. Horrible, all of it. Something that’s really, really good is the consistency of the prints on digital; that side is done. I did a test last night in the Opera Nova here for Peterloo. I walked in, they put on the first five minutes, brilliant. Didn’t touch anything–just brought the sound up a bit–and that was it. I’ve been here at this festival with prints, head holding in your hands. And in cinemas as well, they’d show it in the wrong formats.

New York’s lighting, for me, is so anemic, but the light in Bydgoszcz is intoxicating. Do you have an inclination to shoot in a place like this?

Yeah, it’s very evocative; there’s no doubt about that. You wake up in the morning and have this misty autumn, with the leaves falling off the trees, and this Eastern European feel of misty mystery. It’s very lovely, the river and all that. The sun’s coming up over the river. It really is great. But I’ll go to New York and I’m turned-on as much there because it’s not like London. When London comes up, “Ugh, here we go again–a London location.” But I feel very excited when I’m in New York because it’s so different.

I’ve never been to London, but I’m sure that if I went there I’d find it exotic.

Oh, yeah, you would. So I feel the same way about everywhere that isn’t London: it’s like a great opportunity, in a way. You go back and it’s so drab, but for people who come back in, they love it. It’s in the eye of the beholder.

Peterloo opens on Friday, April 5.

Kent Jones on ‘Diane,’ the Misconceptions of Making a Film, Criticism, and His Female-Led Cast

Written by Michael Snydel, March 27, 2019 at 9:35 am 

Talking to directors, there’s a common interviewing misconception to overcomplicate the filmmaking process, to assume that the process is the execution of reams of premeditated notes as opposed to felt out in the moment. And while there are certainly filmmakers whose reputation of procedural perfectionism precedes them, more often than not, filmmaking is a matter of doing rather than the thinking.

And yet, it’s a somewhat understandable assumption to make with Diane, the narrative feature debut of prolific film critic and programmer Kent Jones. Best described as a character study with a metaphysical lean, the autumnal Diane’s life is defined by routines; regular reminiscing breakfasts with her dwindling friends, visits to a coterie of relatives and grandchildren, check-ins on her in-and-out of recovery son, Brian (Jake Lacy), and volunteer shifts at the local soup kitchen.

Led by the great character actress Mary Kay Place, her performance is one of profound unification or at least the illusion of this inner peace as she holds together for those around her before letting her guard down for one of the most memorable cinematic renditions of a Bob Dylan song. It’s a film of quiet pleasures in its keen understanding of not only the way older women speak to each other but the lingering mental effects of aging.

In a richly allusive conversation, we talked to Jones about his newfound appreciation for costume design, Olivier Assayas’ filmmaking advice, and how he built such an intimately relatable family dynamic in the film.

The Film Stage: I’ve interviewed a number of directors, but there’s not many that have a long critical history. Reading a few interviews that you’ve done after Diane, it’s humbling and fascinating to hear how you were surprised how much different this experience was than what you expected. Along those same lines, after making the film, has that subsequently changed anything about your critical approach?

Kent Jones: I mean I haven’t really written criticism of newer films per-say with exceptions here and there…

Didn’t you do a Cannes round-up for Film Comment?

I do Cannes coverage and every once in a while when there’s something like Horse Money that I’m moved to write about. I was just talking to someone else here about this. I don’t find it all that rewarding just because I think that when you’re in the middle of a moment there’s so much stuff swirling around that it’s always great to let it sit there for a while. It obviously goes against the grain of the way people conduct themselves for the most part. It’s just like, “Did you get the new record? What did you think of this or that? Wasn’t it awesome. Doesn’t it suck?” Years ago–this is 24 years ago now–I met Olivier Assayas for the first time. He and I corresponded before that by letter and then by fax because I’d been very moved by his films. They seemed very new to me, they really spoke to me. When we met in person, the very first piece I had published in Film Comment was really about him but I was writing film criticism and his very first question to me was, “What kind of film do you want to make?” And so I asked, “Well, why do you ask that?” And he said, “If you’re writing criticism, I’m assuming that’s what it always leads to.”

And of course, in France–in many cases–that’s true. Here, not so much. There’s a lot of cases of film critics who became writers like Frank Nugent for John Ford, but more often than not, it was not the case. [Paul] Schrader actively said, don’t be a critic if you want to make movies because then if you do, if you want to cast somebody, they’re going to remember the terrible things that you said about them and none of the good things. If you’re a critic, you’re a pathologist trying to figure out how the patient died and if you’re a director, you’re trying to keep the baby alive. I could quibble with some of that stuff, but he’s more or less right and I think I was always oriented toward making films. I took an interesting route toward it. I guess I would say I couldn’t have made the film the way I did or even the film that I did had I been younger. And then other than that, it’s a completely different universe.

That’s totally fair. As someone who has written a lot about the nature of a filmmaker’s growth, were you self-consciously thinking about what your debut look like or what it meant?

No, and when I say that, I’m not giving you false bravura or anything like that. I couldn’t think about that. Like, if you take critical terminology such as ‘mise-en-scène’ for instance…. And by the way, as a critic, over the last few years, I became more and more invested in trying to describe the actual fact of filmmaking and how divergent it was from what I was reading in criticism. And even then, when it came time to make the movie, there was a production designer I was talking to who ultimately did not work on the movie and I said to her, “Look, I am happy to admit that I do not know the difference between a production designer and an art director.” And she was like, “Great, I’ll break it down for you. Whenever people think about costume design, they think about sewing and [Luchino] Visconti movies. That’s not costume design. It’s something very different.”

I learned about it as I was making the movie with a great costume designer who I am getting married to in six days. We worked very well together and responded to each other’s work first before anything else. It’s like when I was acting years ago and I took acting classes and I remember I had a monologue from Richard III. And my acting teacher said, “If this doesn’t feel right, that’s great and that’s why it’s perfect for you.” And I really struggled with it. And I remember doing it once and he said, “Oh, all the choices were very good but it just doesn’t ever come off the page.” And I spend a lot of time fretting about it publicly and people got really sick of me talking about it in the group. And then one night I just went back to it and I did it and after it was done, everybody was like, there you go. And I was like, I don’t remember what I did and the teacher said, “That’s the point.”

So the point in filmmaking is not to come armed with like all kinds of ideas about Fritz Lang and [F.W.] Murnau or Paul Thomas Anderson and Pedro Costa or something. The point is to make the movie. Now, having seen movies, obviously it gave me something. And there’s things in it that I stole wholeheartedly. And I mean, stole. It’s not a matter of homage. I stole something from The Magnificent Ambersons and that was helpful in that way to have that kind of visual language. But to make the movie is just pure engagement. As Olivier [Assayas] says, you’re just making decisions.

At first glance, Diane is not necessarily a humdrum character study. There’s a keen sense of observation and a sense of rhythm, but I do think there’s a sense of not deception. I don’t want to make it sound like a trick or gimmick, but in the sense of the way that it expands that does feel pretty conscious. From a script sense was that something that was present in the project from early stages?

Sure, sure. Well, I only had twenty days.

The script had been kind of knocking around for years, right?

Well, the script hadn’t been knocking around for years–the idea had. It started in a very different way. It was just sort of something about my aunts and great aunts. Transmitting that world. Then, at some point, I saw The Rainmaker by [Francis Ford] Coppola and that was like, it has to be for Mary Kay Place. I read The Professor’s House by Willa Cather which is about a professor in Michigan who died out in the pueblos in New Mexico and the second half of the book is largely comprised of excerpts from the student’s diary but the student really became a close friend. And I sort of had an idea of something along those lines and maybe that was what led me to the son and then the son and what he goes through is very rooted in the experience of my closest friend. Not the born again part but the addiction part and the way that it played out. And of course it’s conscious but it’s just sort of like we had 20 days and I knew that the structure, the momentum, the movement of time was very pre-meditated. But that’s not a matter of any kind of film as much as it’s a matter of just making the movie.

You have such a strong ensemble cast of particularly women, who you remember from so many different bit parts but rarely get the screen time they deserve. Going along with conversation about making decisions, how much of those main table conversations were improv and how much of that was creating an environment for the dialogue to emerge.

There’s no improv to speak of.

I guess improv is a bit of a dirty word in some circles.

No, I know what you’re saying. The language was very precise. That was very important to me. It was a certain way of speaking that I remember the people had. “Thank you all to hell,” stuff like that. Things you don’t hear anymore so I wanted that to be a part of the movie.

The way [Mary Kay] Place punctuates so many phrases with “goddamn” is just wonderful.

Oh, thank you. “I wish I could just slip her a pill.” Things like that. I also felt like if you’re an actress over a certain age in this country, obviously a moment is going to come where you’re either going to be Meryl Streep and you’re going to have the opportunity to play Margaret Thatcher and whoever or you’re going to be playing aunts and grandmothers. So that becomes a kind of camaraderie right there. Then there’s the camaraderie of just people. Mary Kay and Andrea are both comedians. I knew that Mary Kay would love Dee Dee O’Connell right away. And then when I had those people in that kitchen. I knew the way I wanted it to feel and I knew the way that I wanted the room to feel. Here’s who everybody is in relation to each other. And we shot for a day and a half and that was the only scene with two cameras for obvious reasons. And you just work to create the environment.

Diane opens on March 29.

‘Leaving Neverland’ Director Dan Reed on Refuting Michael Jackson Defenders, the Psychology of Child Sexual Abuse, and a Potential Sequel

Written by Joshua Encinias, March 17, 2019 at 9:59 am 

After shocking and disgusting audiences at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Leaving Neverland aired in two parts on HBO earlier this month. Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s damning accusations of years-long sexual abuse by Michael Jackson became one of the most successful documentary premieres in the network’s history.

Directed by Dan Reed, known for helming the documentaries The Paedophile Hunter and Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks, Leaving Neverland is told exclusively through people who had a direct role in the story because he believes that gives his documentaries a “real power.” He reiterates this documentary is about Wade and James, not the superstar. All footage and comments from the Jackson estate come from archive footage.

In our interview with Reed we discuss what Leaving Neverland did to his psyche, the process of turning hours of first-person interviews into a complete narrative, the overwhelming negative response from Jackson fans to the documentary, and if he plans on making another documentary about the singer’s 2005 trial.

The Film Stage: You’ve spent hundreds of hours hearing Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s stories and sorting through footage of Michael Jackson. Who would you say Michael Jackson is beyond his celebrity?

Dan Reed: That’s an interesting question. You probably heard my stock answer that I preface this with, which is this isn’t a film about Michael Jackson–it’s about Wade and James. But the question you ask is an interesting one. I might be the wrong person to answer it because my knowledge of Jackson’s biography is so restricted and my interest in his music and in his career was pretty much non-existent before I began the three-year journey of this film.

I can see that in relation to his fondness for little boys, my feeling is that he didn’t believe he was doing anything wrong. When he said, “I love little children and I would never harm them,” I suspect that he believed he was telling the truth. In common with many pedophiles out there, he believed that pedophilia is a valid sexual orientation and that the world simply doesn’t understand that and they haven’t caught up with it yet. I don’t know. That’s speculation of course, because he never discussed the subject in public, perhaps never articulated it himself. There were so many people around him enabling him and very rarely challenging him that he found it very easy to sneak in little boys, so maybe he thought he had a God-given right to do so. I think the weight of celebrity crushed his judgment, distorted his personality. He was certainly a victim of his own celebrity in many ways, but he was so ruthless and manipulative when it came to abusing little children and grooming their families that I can’t really exonerate him.

What do you think it’s done to your psyche, having spent three years on this project?

[Laughs.] I think my psyche has a pretty good workout the last thirty years, exploring war zones and crime and terrorism, and being confronted with the worst of human behavior, and also the best, but I’ve seen a lot of unpleasant things. There’s probably quite a few scars on the old psyche, but I’ve learned to compartmentalize the bad things. I keep my distance from that.

I haven’t seen any signs of psychological damage or some kind of post-traumatic symptoms. I’ve had that in the past, I think, when confronted with a lot of violence over a long period of time. But in this case, I got a lot of support from Wade and James and from working with their families. Making the film, we had the chance to do a really good thing which is to create a reference point that people can use to talk about childhood seuxal abuse. Make people aware of how it goes down, that it’s not like a violent rape and seduction. I think the psychological attrition was mitigated by the fact I thought we were essentially doing a good thing and the excitement of doing a good thing. I guess I’m pretty sort of hardened as well. To be honest, I never know how to answer that question.

Some common threads in your work are terrorism and sex crimes, but then you have a Biblical story and a few episodes of Waking the Dead. What draws you to a subject?

I think the work that I’m the most legitimately associated with and had the most creative input is my documentary work. And it’s always about revealing hidden sides, hidden complexities behind stories we think we’re familiar with from the news media. Take for example, the terrorist attack in Nairobi or Mumbai: you think you know what happened, but when you start to unravel behind the scenes of what happened and try to understand the complex way in which people have reacted, or a city or an institution have reacted. I like to deal with complexities. I like to also show that people’s reactions to these traumatic events can be very complex. All of my stories are told in a very intimate, personal register. When I tell a story about a violent incident, it’s not an expert or a journalist who comes up and tells the story. It’s pretty much exclusively the people who were there or had a direct role, and who are protagonists and participants. I think psychologically that’s a redeeming thing. There’s a certain power in a whole cast of people who were involved in a traumatic event, deciding to sit down and speak about it in a very open, vulnerable way, I think that has a real power. It becomes a collective act when I collect them all together. So that’s been a very important thing to me. Telling the inside of these big stories, using very personal accounts. It’s a mode of storytelling I specialize in and have developed. I think that’s what you see in Leaving Neverland, the techniques that I’ve used in Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks–everything from the camera angles, the lighting, the manner in which I interview people. That has all been incredibly useful in Leaving Neverland. You see the same techniques being repurposed from one subject matter to another.  

Was there ever a cut of Leaving Neverland that was longer than four hours?

The longest cut we had was under five, and that was the first cut we sent to HBO. That was still at the point when we only had the families in the cut. I shot interviews with LAPD and Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department who investigated. I had a great interview with the main prosecutor, the deputy DA from the 2005 trial. We hadn’t put those in because I had a strong feeling it needed to remain a claustrophobic story about two families. This was unseen and unheard and the first time Michael’s victims had really spoken out in any detail to the press about what happened. I thought that was an extraordinary new thing we have, and the other extraordinary thing we have is this sort of 360-degree insight into the family’s ordeal once the information about the abuse was disclosed. It becomes a drama. That’s why I think the last half hour is so powerful. It becomes a drama about relationships and a family that have been woven together over the last three-and-a-half hours. Everything kind of lands in that last half-hour of drama, which consequences in Wade’s life are a bomb exploding in the family. 4 and 3/4 hours felt like a complete story and HBO agreed, and then it became a case of what do we take out and get it down to four hours, because we were all in agreement it shouldn’t be longer than four hours.

Is there a type of child or family that Michael would choose, or did you notice that either Wade or James’ economics had anything to do with their vulnerability?

There were patterns. Typically the grooming pedophile picks families that are in some way vulnerable, and the child is a bit isolated, and when mom and dad aren’t a solid family unit. That doesn’t mean to say that pedophiles never pick on well-adjusted families, but in this case, the families that allowed their children to get close to him were often families where mom and dad are having problems and maybe the mother was drawn to Michael’s charisma, his wealth, fame, and saw proximity to Michael as an opportunity for herself and particularly for her child. So these were not wealthy families in their case. Wade’s dad was grocer and mom worked in a department store. James’s father had taken over the family business and his mom worked in a hair salon, so these were relatively modest people. You can see in the drone shots of their house that they lived modestly, not some kind of glacial, suburban residence. Just an ordinary house on an ordinary street in an ordinary American suburb. He picked on these two ordinary families. I think the characteristics the little boys always had is they are incredibly good-looking. Very, very pretty little boys. Not always the same type, but he seemed to go for the same type for a little while and then change types. James and Wade are a fairly similar type. But they are strikingly good-looking children. So those patterns are all there, and as you can see in James and Wade’s narrative they are strikingly similar. They both married very strong women and that has helped them immensely.

What is your response to the overwhelming negative feedback from die-hard Michael Jackson fans?

Well, I’m astonished that people’s first response to “I was raped as a child” is “Well, you must be lying” or “You must be out to extort money from Michael Jackson’s estate.” I think that’s kind of an astonishing and bizarre response. I wonder if they were conditioned by decades of Jackson’s propaganda. So these people don’t even seem to think independently for five seconds because if they did so they would realize what they were saying makes no sense at all. Even with the mere dusting of common sense those ideas fall apart. Just because you sue doesn’t mean you automatically win, you have to go to court. Anyone who has even watched TV knows that you don’t get money simply by suing. So I don’t know where these people spend their lives, but they have an astonishing ability to ignore reality and common sense.

They say that Wade is an admitted liar. That doesn’t make any sense either because when was he lying? They have to decide was he lying in court in 2005 or is he lying now? Presumably they mean he’s lying now. He’s the one admitting to lying in court. Presumably what the Jackson fans are saying is that he told the truth in court and that’s why he’s not a perjurer, right? Because what Wade said in court is that Michael never touched him. If that isn’t true, then he’s not a perjurer and not an admitted liar. He’s the one who said that he lied. They should be saying that he’s a man who told the truth in court.

The astonishing thing is also when you go online on Twitter and stuff, which I try not to do too much, there’s people who spend a great deal of time and care into creating videos exposing the lies of Leaving Neverland, and pretty much everything they are saying have been contradicted by the documentary itself. All you need to do is watch the documentary. There’s this thing around of “Oh, well how come Stephanie knew about the abuse, how come she was dancing when Michael Jackson died when James told her about the abuse in 2013?” Well, that’s not the case. James told his mother about the abuse in 2005, and that’s clear in the film. He told her “Michael abused me” in 2005. If you watched the film with both eyes and ears open, that’s incredibly obvious and plain. That’s the bizarre thing; they don’t even seem to watch the film. A lot of what they’re saying is based on the letter the Jackson estate’s lawyer wrote before he watched the film. So it’s not a dialogue between the Jackson truthers and my documentary, it’s an internal dialogue within the community of Jackson truthers kind of convincing one another that “we gotcha!” when in fact, none of it relates to my documentary. It’s like people shouting inside some kind of cult temple and none of them ever look outside.

How does it feel to have you and your work under this scrutiny?

I feel pretty comfortable because I subjected James and Wade’s accounts to such scrutiny before we even began editing. We fact-checked and re-fact checked and re-fact checked and scrutinized. I feel pretty comfortable with the amount of preparation we did and therefore I don’t think there’s anything anyone can say that cast any real doubt on it. I’m very comfortable with my work being scrutinized as much as it is and I welcome the scrutiny because a story shouldn’t be accepted at face value, anything anyone can say to challenge a story should. Most of the challenges that have come from the Jackson fan community are not valid. They are based on false information. Personally, how do I feel about it? I feel great about having my work scrutinized. I pride myself on my reputation for good journalism and complex stories and great details but never deviating from the highest journalistic standards. I feel quite satisfied.

Was it intentional to have James and Wade not be emotional in the film? They never became too emotional. There’s maybe one or two moments where Wade cries, but it’s very subtle, they’re not showing a lot of emotion.

No, there was no intent. I mean, Wade does cry rather a lot, I thought. Maybe I’m being a stoic Englishman, but he does shed quite a lot of tears for my taste. I think it’s fine that he’s emotional. James is not at all emotional. You can see how perturbed he is and how upset he is within himself but he doesn’t let that emotion surface. I thought Wade showed a lot of emotion but James sort of held in. He didn’t want to break down. That’s a criticism that is thrown at these young men, like, “Why are you not more upset when you talk about this stuff?” I think that displays the ignorance of how people actually process the kind of long term psychological impacts of child sexual abuse. Remember, neither of these guys are saying Michael pushed me down or threw me in a corner and violently raped me. That’s not what they’re saying. But what’s the way most people imagine child sexual abuse.

The damage and the pain of the abuse is much more subtle than that. For them the sexual abuse at the time was not traumatic. They say it in the film that it was pleasurable, a loving, gentle, caring experience. Child sexual abuse is a criminal act, we know that. It’s not like they are remembering something that really upset them at the time. The psychological consequences play out during adulthood because your life is built on a lie, your childhood is built on a lie. You have to lie to everyone: your mother, your father, your sister, your brother. And that takes a toll. This is not somebody remembering being raped or someone attempting to murder them or someone killing someone close to them. It’s not that kind of trauma. People have to take that on board. People still don’t understand, even when they watch my film they still haven’t fully taken it on board. That’s why Wade was more upset when he recounted the impact on his family. That’s trauma. That’s stuff that he experiences as a bad thing. The remembering of it is upsetting. But for these guys, this is what conflicts them so much, this is what they grappling with. Remembering the abuse is this weird mix of the hindsight that this was abuse and someone taking advantage of them when they were children, but also the print memory of that moment of how good it felt. And that’s the headfuck.

Have other accusers contacted to you?

No one has come forward yet. This is not a decision that anyone makes casually. To break the silence of years or decades then type an email to a documentary producer, that’s not an easy thing to do. You have to tell your mom, tell your dad, tell your wife or partner. People who have been molested by Jackson haven’t just come out of the bushes running. It’s not that kind of party. It’s gonna take a long time. If anyone does come forward, to reconcile and make peace with their own families and themselves and they may not want to do that in public. It’s not like a plane crash where people are like, “Hey yeah, I was there too.” The constant theme of this is trying to understand the psychology of child sexual abuse. It’s really complicated and difficult to understand. My film over the course of four hours tries to elucidate that, but it’s an uphill struggle, especially when people have a preconceived prejudice against these young men and their families.

Is there any talk of a sequel using the footage of the D.A.?

Oh yeah, I would love to do that. The film I would really like to make following this one is the trial of Michael Jackson. I could only do that if the victim and his family participate. It would be a much weaker film [if they didn’t.] I don’t want to follow Leaving Neverland with a weaker film. If Gavin Arvizo and his family would agree to participate, I would very much like to tell the story of that trial. I think it’s fascinating and astonishing that Michael was acquitted. The way that happened is an amazing story and one that should be told. But no, I’m not going to just carry on making Michael Jackson films, that’s not my thing. Like I said, this wasn’t a film about Michael Jackson.

Leaving Neverland is now streaming on HBO Go.

J.C. Chandor on Refuting the Auteur Theory, the Scope of ‘Triple Frontier,’ and Oscar Isaac as Donald Rumsfeld

Written by Joshua Encinias, March 14, 2019 at 10:51 pm 

J.C. Chandor has the same energy as the squad on screen in Triple Frontier. You can read his thoughts giddily bouncing around his head before they can spill out. It doesn’t matter if you ask him about stunt helicopter crashes or character psychology, he taps into wells of energy when talking about his cinematic work. This story by Mark Boal and executive produced by Kathryn Bigelow covers familiar territory within the masculine heist film but is visually distinct, courtesy of cinematography by Roman Vasyanov.

Although the movie is attributed to Chandor, it’s clear from our discussion that Triple Frontier belongs to the non-auteur tradition in Hollywood, but it also doesn’t come across as generated by Netflix’s algorithm. We discussed his writer, cast, and cinematographer’s contributions on the biggest project he’s helmed to date. Chandor talks about creating a nearly CGI-free, stunt helicopter crash that kicks off the movie’s spectacular second half. And he discusses Oscar Isaac’s character as a Donald Rumsfeld-type whose get rich quick plan is thwarted by human frailties from the madness of war.

Is this the first time you didn’t direct a story of your own?

J.C. Chandor: I have a career as a writer so I’ve definitely worked on collaborative stories. I worked on the Deepwater Horizon movie for years as a writer, and was gonna direct that, so as a writer I had picked up things, but as a director, yes, it was the first time. That was on purpose. I had done the exact same process three times in a row and I was very humbled to be able to do that, but I did feel it sort of atrophying some of my directing, because when you write something from scratch, it’s cemented in your head from the minute you think up the idea, and you’re not able late in the process as a director to sort of throw out your emotional attachment. It can kind of atrophy you as a storyteller. You also just don’t tell as a wide a scope of stories because the human brain can only have certain strengths as a writer. So I think it was fun to take on a story I would have never thought up. Mark Boal’s take on the story is one of the things that drew me to it when I first read it. It’s not to say that I won’t go back and do the other thing because if I get the chance I certainly will, but it was definitely an on purpose decision to try and free myself up as a director a little bit.

That’s interesting because there’s such an emphasis on the writer-director auteur. It’s cool to hear you say that directing someone else’s story actually frees you up as a director.

Some of the auteur writer-directors I based my career on, who are my heroes—7, 8, 9 movies in—there starts to be limitations. If you compare it to what David Fincher does, which is not really what I’m aiming for either because he doesn’t really write anything, but the freedom he feels to just throw things out and rewrite the whole thing and put the beginning of the movie at the end, he has sort of a willingness to try different stuff. He’s been kind of a mentor to me. When you are so in your own head it can be limiting. Trust me, from an ego standpoint I’m like, “I’m the writer/director guy!” and that’s my whole schtick, but I realized especially on A Most Violent Year, there were certain orthodoxies, certain rules I was afraid to mess up with my own writing and when I analyzed it, it was because I was so personally invested in every little cranny. I wanted to make sure I stretched myself earlier on.

Roman Vasyanov’s visuals of the jungle are spectacular. Especially the scene that transitions from Garrett to the top of the jungle.

Roman is so awesome. He’s stuck with this movie. He signed on and then the movie got moved and he stayed with me. I love him dearly as a person, but he’s also one of those brains that’s like a genius. He’s literally a visual genius, and so he’s the exact kind of person I love hiring cause they make you look good! And he’s so engaging in storytelling. It was a great combination because I had never done this level of action, and to have him there with his amazing experience, and he’s though so young and kind of fell into all that action. He’s a quite sophisticated guy from Russia. He grew up in that Soviet artistic system where he’s so well educated. He has the smartest film knowledge of any person I’ve ever worked with. So having someone who’s capable of going to battle and walking up mountains and put the camera in crazy places and know how to blow things up, but also be interested in creating a character study and having the visuals tell that story, it was a pretty cool combination. He kind of protected my weak side and he was trying to learn more and more about storytelling for me. It was a pretty dreamy collaboration.

How much of the helicopter crash in the movie was a real stunt?

[Laughs.] A lot of it. We had the most amazing stunt and air stunt, the aerial guy is this Frenchman whose one of the most famous stunt pilots in the world. That real helicopter, which we fought for, it would have been a lot cheaper to use a different helicopter but those crazy Russian MI8’s… I think the first time I saw one of them was in one of the Rambo movies, so it’s actually one of the most common helicopters in the world. But because of the Cold War, they don’t allow them in the U.S. really, so we had a really tough time getting it. I visualized when I read that sequence, I wanted it to be this sort of this hulking thing that shouldn’t be flying. Once we actually found one and got it in the country, we were able to buy a second one which was the dummy you see at the end that’s all mangled. So between the real crashed helicopter and the one that flies, 80-85% of those shots are this stunt guy just doing crazy stuff. Luckily, I was not in the airplane for most of it, and then the flying stuff with the actors inside were certainly done with trickery and stagework, but the actual crashing sequence where they come down the mountain and circle the howl valley, that’s actually the Jurassic Park valley in Hawaii that we digitally changed the mountain range, but the actual village and the plane flying over it and Garrett Hedlund’s character hanging out–it wasn’t always Garrett hanging out, it was a stunt man, but it was all real, and obviously I’ve never had the resources before in my career to really play with that, but when I read the sequence I wanted it to.

A lesson I learned on All is Lost is, I think what’s so neat about where computer-generated imagery is right now, is that audiences are so used to seeing it taken into sort of the fantasy realm, superheroes and things that don’t exist on Earth, that when you use the CGI on things that do exist but we’ve never been able to show from different visual perspectives. Redford’s point of view in All is Lost is an old man in a boat. In the old days, no one’s gonna spend $100 million dollars. It had to be The Perfect Storm to represent that storm, but the storm technology has become so more affordable that for a $10 million dollar art film, we were able to use it, and what was cool is that most people have never felt what it was like to be in the middle of a storm like that. So the hope with the helicopter crash was to do the same thing, to show the story element in real practical terms of what it feels like to be in a helicopter crash.


Will you talk about the madness that takes over Tom ‘Redfly’ Davis (Ben Affleck) character?

Yeah, it’s intense. The film kind of operates on two levels. One level, we have this classic, testosterone-driven action film. I wanted to make sure I serviced that because that’s the foundational element of the story, that it’s a good old-fashioned heist picture. But what’s great about Mark’s original story–and I helped over the years to flesh it out once the actors got involved–was to bring this sort of subtextual element, which was that these characters had been fighting a war for like twenty years. America’s has been fighting this war for twenty years and there has been this whole group of people that had to fight that war for us. Frankly, and not to bring it into the current political climate, but certainly one of the reasons we have the political situation we do is that so many of those Republican voters felt misled by getting involved in these wars that essentially never ended. That was not the original intent. The original intent was shock and awe: we were gonna kill the bad guys, set up some oil companies, get rich while we’re doing it and wave some American flags and send us home.

In a fun way, Oscar Isaac’s character is the Donald Rumsfeld here, he’s got the plan that’s too good to be true: we’re going to get revenge and kill this bad guy and make the country a better place and we’re going to get rich. That’s not the way the world works, as we’ve learned, and the film kind of mirrors that without ever having to speak to it. It’s sort of who the characters are. Ben’s character who is the oldest and is the leader—and this is all backstory and I’m sure he played it in his own way—but for me as the storyteller, I felt that he towards the end of his career had probably been driven a little bit mad by the assignment. “Go into this country, act like a policeman, kill the bad guy” and six months later the “bad guy is the good guy and he’s on your side and now go and kill these other people.” If you look at what a 45-year-old professional, 20-year soldier has been through, it’s pretty maddening when you talk to the guys who have done this work on our behalf. They’ve been asked to do a lot of things and none of it has amounted to too much, and I think it’s very maddening for them.

While the film was always intended to be like a parable and certainly we weren’t saying there’s tons of veterans out here doing this, the film was always meant to operate in this fun, metaphoric place, but as it relates to his personal character, I think he lost his breaks. It is about money for me, but in a weird way so much, and I think this is true for money for all of us… I’ve been pretty damn broke in my life and I’ve had times when I felt I had money in my pocket, but once you’re past a certain level of comfort it’s not so much about the money, it’s about the ego and the feedback that your worth something and that society judges you by it. So in a cool way, what I like to play with the Redfly character, while the greed of money is there, it’s the feeling of being alive again. In that moment what you’re talking about where he kind of turns, it’s almost as if he doesn’t want it to be over. If they run into the forest and go home, the saga is over and he’s back in his old life by Tuesday morning. I thought that moment was about a person feeling more alive than they had in four or five years. I mean there’s no way you can draw a comparison between the life and death shit these guys go through and making a movie, but the thrill you get from making a movie and going to back to your old life. it can be a difficult transition. I think on a much, much more serious level that’s what these guys deal with. It’s a sort of like a retired professional athlete and after three or four years they ask the guy to be a wide receiver in the Super Bowl. It’s a tall order, so I think he just started making mistakes.


Psychologically, I felt such a resonance between this movie and William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. It’s basically guys in a jungle doing a really tough mission for some money. I was wondering if that movie or any other movie served as inspiration?

I appreciate the reference because a couple of really smart film people, smarter than me, have drawn that comparison. And I used to watch a ton of movies. While writing or directing I have a really hard time… a lot of directors I really respect, if they were gonna make All is Lost they would watch the ten best survival movies before they go into it and realize what they wanna do and wanna change, but I’m sort of the opposite. I never watch anything remotely similar while writing or directing. [Laughs.] I don’t know what it’s from, it’s just a fear of feeling insecure that you’re ripping something off. I think I saw Sorcerer probably 15 or 20 years ago, I’m embarrassed to say. The answer is sort of no. [Laughs.] I wish I was enough of a cinephile to have great references. I think the reference you’re picking up on, which is exciting for me, is that there aren’t a lot of these movies that are trying to be two things. It feels like in the last 10 years the marketplace has moved to $200 million dollar pure fantasy or it’s moved to under $15 million dollar hyperreality, and there’s sort of very few film getting made in the in between. And those are the movies I love as a viewer. Sadly, I think right now those movies in the middle are very few and far between. When you take a classic period like the 70s when that movie was made, that’s what the entire industry was built around.

Triple Frontier is now on Netflix.

Jia Zhangke Talks ‘Ash is Purest White,’ the Village People, and Crafting a New Kind of Wuxia Movie

Written by Nick Newman, March 13, 2019 at 2:33 pm 

Jia Zhangke is one of contemporary China’s certified masters, and his newest work Ash is Purest White marks a key point in an ongoing dance between social-realist drama and genre exploits, starring (you guessed it!) Zhao Tao as a woman whose scorn launches a 17-year redemption jag populated with observations of her changing nation and a desire not unlike revenge.

“A lot going on here,” to use today’s parlance. More than most native-born American audiences are liable to pick up, actually, which is okay: the pleasures of Zhao’s gangster life and subsequent, Remember My Name-esque reintroduction to a world she tries to once again make her own are so intense that both viewings left me thinking, even if only for certain stretches, that I was watching the most entertaining film ever made. To say I anticipated this interview is an understatement.

Special thanks to Vincent Chang, who provided on-site translation.

The Film Stage: Ash is Purest White‘s use of “YMCA” got a huge response–one of laughter and jubilance–from the NYFF crowd, which made me wonder about your taste for popular music (e.g. “Go West” in Mountains May Depart). Are you courting humor with outlandish songs, sincerely expressing nostalgia and generational documentation, or maybe something in-between?

Jia Zhangke: Pop culture plays a very important role for my generation. In the formative years for most people in our generation, you’re right on the cusp of after the cultural revolution; then comes the reform and open-door policy. I think that’s the juncture–that, before that, you didn’t have anything in terms of pop culture. In entertainment, everything is propagandized or about the collectives. Whereas, at the end of the cultural revolution, and with an open-door policy, we started to have this influx of pop culture from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States, and the music that we were listening to really reflected on the rebellious nature of the generations.

These are people in their youth, and they are carrying that kind of rebellious nature. They are craving freedom and individuality because they have been listening to propaganda for such a long time and are thinking about the group, the collectives, during the cultural revolution. Now, suddenly, they will be able to express themselves and their individuality against what was before. So I do think that, during that time, every year you would have one or two songs that really capture that collective emotion, collective psyche, and collective memory. “YMCA” and “Go West” happened to be songs that really trigger people’s collective memories about where they were at the time.

The movie opens with digital footage you shot in 2001 or 2002. Does incorporating such material make you think about the ways you’ve changed between 2001 and 2018– itself the span of Ash‘s story–and, if so, what was gained from that assessment?

In terms of the changes I experienced in the past 17 years as a filmmaker: in the beginning, I was very much about “the here and now”–very much about shooting everything on-location, in real-time, to really capture what’s going on. Whereas the recent films I tend to start with something that’s a very long timespan; it could be from 2001 to 2018 or, in the case of Mountains, that vast timespan that I wanted to really examine. So, basically, instead of focusing on “the here and now,” I now bring in the historical perspective to examine. In order for me to see “here and now,” I not only need to see it right here. I also need to see it beforehand; I also want to know what happened after that.

That’s the reason why, in terms of the historical-temporal timeline, I’m trying to move back or move forward with the films, as you see with Mountains or Ash. With Mountains, you also move to the near-future of 2025. So I think that will give me a different perspective to examine what’s going on, in terms of society, individuals in these different historical contexts, as a way to tell my story. But also–I think more than before–I focus on the abstract idea of who human beings are in terms of seeing human beings as a humanity or a system, and then examine that in a very macro, abstract way. In the past, I tended to think of things in a more concrete, practical way, in the day-to-day life they’re dealing with. But now I’m seeing something transcend “the here and now” to something more historical and abstract.

I imagine it’s also a symptom of getting older.

And experiences–the accumulation of experiences. And of course, when I was young, I didn’t experience a lot of life; therefore I didn’t have much frame of reference. Whereas now I’m older and more mature, and it’s not that I need to build it into my narrative to see things from the past, the present, and the future. I think it’s a way of thinking, of understanding the world, when I’m middle-aged — the way to think about everything.

Its Chinese title, Jianghu Ernü (roughly Sons and Daughters of the Jianghu), is very complex:”jianghu” could refer to rivers and lakes, as well as the criminal underworld at this movie’s center. The first-reported English-language name was Money and Love

[Laughs]

…which is great. Then it became Ash is Purest White, both a line from the film and an amazing title. Do you feel a distance from it? Is it not a proper way for you to think about your film?

I think, definitely, it’s very different how we interpret, understand, and feel Chinese and English titles, based on the audience it speaks to. For its Chinese title, Jianghu Ernü, especially as a phrase, it’s a set phrase that isn’t very well-known, has a very long history; it’s from ancient cultures. That particular phrase will immediately trigger any member of the Chinese-speaking audience about “the good old days” or how people lived in the past. They have very clear values in terms of what the interpersonal relationship should be like–how they think about loyalty, about certain core values to hold onto.

So I do think that particular phrase immediately triggers that connection with the traditional value and codes of conduct for many, many Chinese people, and that coincides with what I’m trying to express with this particular film. It’s to say “that was what we had before,” and because of the current society and rapid change and economic changes you are seeing in current Chinese contemporary culture, there’s a very dramatic erosion of these core values and the interpersonal relationships that are quickly disappearing. So that is the reason why I think it’s perfect to tease-out when they listen to Jianghu Ernü: they can immediately make that connection of what we had before and no longer have now.

In terms of the English title, since the translator told me early on that “jianghu” is very hard to convey and translate into English that can be understood by a non-Chinese-speaking audience. We had to find a different title; I thought about Money and Love. It’s not until thinking about the whole sequence involving the volcano ash that I realized it actually, also, has a very symbolic connection with the characters in this film, the sort of fate that they have to deal with–the essence of a life is something that can just disappear and no one would notice. They are irrelevant on the grand scale of things. That very much echoed and evoked this concept of ash, or a dust in the air, that is just so insignificant, and you are under so much pressure in this heat of being incinerated into ash and dust. I thought that was a great way to bridge that concept.

Ash has an astonishing fight sequence that’s unlike anything in your filmography. Talk to me about the coordination and inspiration, as well as how it might lead into your next film, In the Qing Dynasty.

So I love action films in Chinese cinema, including gangster films and mobster films. There are a lot of masters in this world–John Woo, Johnnie To–but, for them, these sequences tend to be more attuned to the choreographed dance than the actual violence that you observe in the street. For me, as a filmmaker, I really want the action sequence to be very naturalistic, very realistic, and that’s why I chose to somehow stage that particular fight sequence in such a way–with the long take, uninterrupted, to depict the violence in a very realistic and naturalistic way.

Do you expect Qing Dynasty, produced by Johnnie To, to be action-heavy?

I do think it won’t be as realistic or naturalistic as the one you see in Ash is Purest White. It’s a period piece and very much paying homage to the wuxia genre, so it’s almost as if most of the people with that kung-fu, wuxia ability have supernatural powers. So it’s not going to be as realistic as this movie’s fight scene, but how am I going to put out something that is not the same-old, same-old as other wuxia films? It’s something I’m still thinking about. How can I distinguish myself from the rest of the filmmakers?

Mountains almost had an explicit sci-fi angle by featuring, in its last segment, a romance with an alien. Ash is a tribute-of-sorts to the Hong Kong films you loved in your youth. Next it’s the wuxia picture. As you get older and accumulate more experience–and, of course, more money; word has it Ash is your most expensive film–is there a sense of being able to tick off the boxes of beloved genres that you may not have been able to explore before?

I don’t think it’s about whether or not I have the resources or funding to make the films I love and want to make and didn’t get to make in the past. If you think about the funding part–because of the film industry and my connection with that, and also the resources I had in the past ten years–if I wanted to make these films, I could. It’s not about the lack of funding; I think it has to do with the issues I wanted to examine, the reality I wanted to examine, and I just wanted to find a new perspective, a new way to examine the things I want to examine now.

So the issues are still very much “here and now”; I just want to find a different way to examine it. Whether it’s going back a hundred years with In the Qing Dynasty, my focus is still very much “how did we get here now from where we were?” The focus of all my films is very much the same: it’s about the issues and problems in society. At the same time, I want to find a different way to examine them.

Ash Is Purest White opens on March 15.

Rupert Wyatt on Crafting a Realistic Alien Invasion, Jean-Pierre Melville, and ‘The Battle of Algiers’

Written by Jordan Raup, March 13, 2019 at 9:07 am 

Captive State could very well be set in an alternate timeline of Arrival, one where the communication tactics of Louise Banks (Amy Adams) failed and the aliens stayed put to govern over humans. While this has happened worldwide, Rupert Wyatt’s grounded new sci-fi thriller specifically hones in on Chicago, where top government officials work with the alien forces in hopes of eventually getting off the “dying rock” that is Earth. Meanwhile, nearly-eradicated factions of the resistance aim to hold on to a semblance of hope that humanity will prevail as they fight back.

We spoke with the director–who broke out in Hollywood with another sci-fi film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes–about crafting this sci-fi world, being influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville and  Gillo Pontecorvo, how the film looks at timely issues, some ingenious casting, the film’s unusual structure, and more.

The world-building in this film is impressive. I was wondering what your initial ideas were and if you had a Bible of sorts to keep track of all the characters and storylines that you could reference?

Yeah, like any form of science fiction it really good to figure out the logics of the world and the backstory and sort of build those foundations upon the emotional and human narrative, which should be the priority of course. So, for sure I definitely conceived how the invasion happens, when it happens, the intentions and ulterior motives. I sort of followed recent history–20th century history–in terms of the Nazi and the terms of armistice and the very quick capitulation to form a collaborative government–so all of that was rolled into the backstory and then I made choices for how much of that we were then going to actually put into the real kind of storytelling.

I heard you were inspired by the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, specifically Army of Shadows, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Can you talk about those influences?

Yeah, they are really formative films for me. I love them. They are different breeds. I think The Battle of Algiers is a more emotive film than Army of Shadows. Army of Shadows is dry and deft in many ways, but it has this emotional impact at the end. It’s similar in the sort of hybrid narrative nature I was trying to do in Captive State insofar that I was following many characters. We’re really following them in a kind of real-time way so we had many opportunities to sit with them and reflect upon situations they found themselves in or decisions they had to make. So what’s challenging about that is it’s because you can really empathize with the character and get under the skin of a character in an emotive way. You don’t have your traditional backstory. You don’t have the high dramatic stakes of emotion.

But what it can do, which I hope I’ve achieved in this film–and I think Army of Shadows does this–by the end once you see the full jigsaw puzzle in front of you, it has a real emotional weight to it because you understand the full picture and the spider’s web that has been created as it was. Battle of Algiers is a really key influence because it’s a film that really analyzes and investigates this idea of occupation. He tells the story from both sides in a very impartial way. You really empathize with the French occupiers through the general character and then of course you really get under the skin of those occupied and you understand their trials and tribulations as well. To me, it was a pretty even-handed way to study what it means to be an occupier versus someone under the hands of occupation.

Speaking more to that, there’s a lot of parallels to today’s world. There’s this totalitarian rule. You can imagine this could be our future in nine years, perhaps without the aliens. There’s extreme government surveillance, wiretapping, a wall, detainment, and more issues. Can you talk about playing those issues up without being too on-the-nose?

Yeah, it’s interesting because the issue of being on-the-nose is somewhat out of our hands because we actually wrote it before many of these conversations sort of came into the White House. I’m pleased in some ways that the view reflects some of the discussions that are happening. It was never our intention to make it polemic. We didn’t want to make it an overtly political film. I’m no liberal or am I the right-wing. As a storyteller, my intentions are to tell a human story. What I would say is that the most political aspect of this film for me and just how it relates to today–in what I would believe is an important way–is how we let capitalism and the economic interests of a select few of the big businesses to put those priorities ahead of our environmental needs and what is happening to our planet as a whole. I think there has to be a sea change in the coming years in terms of how we are governed in that way in order to really do right by this climate and ultimately by ourselves.

There’s some ingenious casting here, with Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne sharing a scene. Was that a nod to their work with Barry Jenkins or unintentional?

No, funny enough we shot this before Ashton went off to do Native Son and KiKi went off to do Beale Street. I actually remember we were on set when KiKi heard she had been cast in that. I think we had just wrapped. Funny enough, they knew each other. They had both been in drama school together. Again, that was a coincidence. I had no idea. When I first cast Ashton, he had came into an audition and I had not seen Moonlight. I had seen another, very early film of his and thought he was interesting. He came in and Sheila Jaffe, my casting director, who is someone I love to work. She has an amazing eye for finding the right actor for the role and really helped me populate this ensemble. She was a huge champion of his and he has a very old soul, Ashton. He’s very still for somebody so young and that’s exactly what I was looking for. And then I went away and watched Moonlight and saw what he was capable of. Yeah, it’s a funny fact that Barry Jenkins world is there. [Laughs.]

I thought it was an interesting structure, how you follow Ashton’s character then get into this almost 40-minute sequence of this plan other characters are trying to pull off. Can you talk about that structure you envisioned?

Yeah, to be honest it’s my favorite section of the film. It’s a challenging and exciting task to try and create a hybrid narrative. Many people’s idea of a film–especially a genre film like this–could be telling the hero’s journey story and that would be Ashton. So then to leave him in this incapacitated state for 20 or 25 minutes as one goes off and explores something else. Maybe it didn’t quite explicitly land, I don’t know. You can be the judge of this, but when I was in the edit, I was really trying to make it clear that the action of what happened in the stadium actually lead to the freeing of Ashton in his prison state in the subway, without giving too much way. I wanted to try and relate to the cause and effect nature of the storylines going on.

But yeah, I loved this idea that we pick up and green light this cell–this group of militants that are hiding in plain sight from everyday walks of life and really disparate characters. There’s an ex-Catholic priest because his religion has been banned. There’s a member of the trans community who is in this marginalized state. A group of people who have been forced to go underground because their views are opposed. A female auto-worker who is a great driver. Really trying to color them in in very brief opportunities in terms of how we find them. In a way, you kind of get to empathize with them more and relate to them by the very nature of how they then bounce off each other. It’s a heist movie in a way, putting together a group of criminals and how they interact. I found that really interesting. It’s also part of the film that has very little dialogue so the storytelling is intended to be purely visual and we get to know them through their actions. I love that kind of storytelling. It’s something I’ve tried to do in the past and I think it’s a lot of fun.

There’s all these little details in the film: invisible bombs and tracking devices implanted in necks. What was it like coming up with these things that are one step out of reality but still have this grounded sci-fi aspect?

It’s an interesting thing because those alien tech aspects might be normally seen in a world that’s a little more heightened. We went with the kitchen sink approach to the sci-fi. So everything had to be grounded, a natural feeling. The dressing of the apartment is very contemporary. So to then put these aspects of sci-fi tech or alien tech into the world, it can be quite jarring. I quite liked that. I thought it was so extraordinary. The way they are handling it and using it is so tangible and grounded. It was really my intention to tell the story as if looking through the window of our home and what we see outside the window is how the film then plays out. It’s low-tech sci-fi and I like that. It’s very analog.

Captive State opens on March 15.

Franz Rogowski on Playing a Ghost in ‘Transit,’ Disorienting the Audience, and Terrence Malick’s ‘Radegund’

Written by Murtada Elfadl, March 9, 2019 at 12:52 pm 

In Christian Petzold’s Transit, Franz Rogowski plays a hollowed-out European refugee who has escaped from two concentration camps. He assumes the identity of a dead novelist as he tries to escape to safety through Marseilles in 1942. Rogowski’s posture and sunken eyes, aided by makeup and Petzold’s distinct lighting, give us the impression of a man withered in a world of crisis. It’s a quiet performance yet it fills the screen with grandeur, thanks to the physicality and commitment of the actor. In a New York Times feature, Petzold called him “a great actor who is able to balance sadness and confidence, coldness and empathy like a dancer.” Before Transit, Rogowski was seen in Victoria (2015) and played Isabelle Huppert’s son in Michael Haneke’s Happy End (2017).

On a recent visit to New York to promote Transit, we got the chance to interview the actor. He is mild in manner and quiet in voice, yet maintained intensity as he passionately spoke about Transit, how he chooses projects, and when Terrence Malick’s Radegund might come out.

The Film Stage: Were you fan of Petzold’s ’s work before Transit came your way?

Franz Rogowski: I was aware of his work. My parents had all his movies. He was my father’s favorite German director. I was curious to meet him but also very nervous somehow. When we met, we smoked a packet of cigarettes and talked for more than an hour and agreed that we have to do this movie.

You got along immediately. How was it on set with him?

He’s a guy that likes to prepare with deep and profound research. He gives you a lot of references. He’s like a walking encyclopedia of cinema, kinda freaky actually. It was very inspiring. And at least once a week we would have a cinema evening: we would all sit down on a roof terrace and watch a movie, usually one of his favorite movies. All of these movies had something to do with the work we were doing.

What were some of the films that you watched?

Casablanca was one. To be honest I remember moments from the movies but I don’t really remember the names. I’m really bad with names.

Your character is a cipher with unclear allegiances. We are never sure of his motives. How did you prepare to play that?

I told Christian in the beginning I can’t play a refugee or pretend to know how refugees really feel. I grew up in the 1990s in West Germany; there was no border, no war. I was in a safe environment. It would be wrong to pretend that I know how a refugee feels. Christian agreed; the character we created is based on the novel. The great thing about him is that he’s a drifter. He doesn’t leave a home or lose a job, a girlfriend or a boyfriend. He has no roots. How did I prepare? We talked about these things and how we wanted to create a character that is a bit like a ghost, like a figure lost in time.

How do you play a ghost? Is there something physical that you do?

You gotta look deep inside. We all have a ghost inside. [Laughs.] Then you to tickle it to come out. The thing about being in a good movie is that the actor doesn’t do it on their own. It’s the script, it’s how Christian combined figures from the novel born in 1930s and puts them in today’s Marseilles, a city on the edge of Europe dealing with immigration. This already creates a ghost situation where this character has lost his own time. I tried not to comment too much on the fact that the character is a refugee. I tried to play a person and not a refugee. I didn’t try to play a ghost, but I tried to be in the zone being there, staying there, wanting to flee, coming from somewhere, wanting to leave, loving this woman but at the same time not really needing her and that creates a certain feeling of being lost in time and space. Maybe ghost-like.

What did you think of juxtaposing the contemporary setting with the period story? How did that dissonance affect your performance?

That was the reason I wanted to do the movie. Christian’s work and the idea for this new movie was what convinced me. It inspired me and I think it inspired him too. To play this old character in today’s Marseilles. But it was so hot in Marseilles, 40 Celsius, how do you say in Fahrenheit?

90 degrees probably.

Like really hot, that was tough.

It makes the film different and gives it this topicality to current events but it also would have confused the audience. Did you think about that or talk about it with Petzold?

I think we liked confusing the audience. It’s good to be a bit confused and then to start thinking.

It disorients the audience like the character.

Yes, everyone has their personal moment of discovery. When they see a skyscraper or a mobile phone. For me it was when they are at the house by the harbor with Marie and her doctor boyfriend and you see a skyscraper in the window. It was so weird but at the same time it was okay. It’s a little bit scary because it could all happen today.

It is happening.

Yes, it is happening. People were trying to escape Europe then and now they are immigrating there.

You’ve made this movie a while ago. At the time you’ve made choices on set but didn’t actually see how they looked. Were you surprised by the final film?

I was surprised by the combination of these fruity Mediterranean colors and a voiceover that was rather dry and down to earth, almost like reading a manual. I think it was the first layout that they used, recorded with an iPhone. It was not meant to be the final version. I’m surprised they chose it. There is this music motif that keeps coming back, the composer arranged it with 20 musicians. Christian chose the first layout which is very fragile. I was surprised and touched by that decision.

What do you look for in choosing a project; the director, the part, or the story?

It’s a combination of the three. I’m looking for parts that I can embody and want to embody, within stories that inspire me. That’s what I try to do. I try to read and meet people to understand their vision and see if it could be me or if it should be me. I spend more time reading scripts and thinking about stories than acting.

I understand that you were a dancer and have a thriving career in the theater. Do you prefer theater or film?

I don’t have a preference. I don’t have favorite things. There are different realities and different contexts. I want to grow and interact with people and have different experiences. I come from the stage, from performing arts, from contemporary dance, but for right now making movies is the most important.

English-language cinema or Hollywood can expand your distribution footprint. Are you interested in making movies here?

It could happen, it may not happen. Honestly, if I get a script for the next Marvel movie I would read it like any other script and see if I like it or not. I’m very thankful that our movies are seen in the United States. People saw Victoria and Happy End came here. I love being in  New York, the culture of moviemaking comes from the United States. In the beginning, it was propaganda. It’s still propaganda but there’s some amazing stuff and there are some American directors that of course I’d love to work with, not because they are American but because they make incredible movies.

Like who?

Harmony Korine. Good Time by the Safdie brothers is great. Tarantino is great. Lost in Translation, I love Sofia Coppola’s work.

I read that you choreographed your karaoke scene in Happy Ending. Is it true and how did you do it?

I tried to. I dd it with a friend of mine. But when Michael saw it, he became a choreographer and did it himself. It is the material from the original video. It is a karaoke bar and Pierre is not a dancer so it makes sense that he’d get his moves from the original Chandelier music video. The drunken interpretation of someone who has seen the video a couple of times and prepared a little bit at home. I have to admit it was Michael’s choreography though.

You are in Terrence Malick’s Radegund. What can you tell us about it?

No one knows what it is going to be. It has been two and a half years since production. I’m not sure. It might finish tomorrow, it might take another two years of post-production. No one knows. He doesn’t feel the pressure. I think he works with several editors who make different versions. He’s a director who creates spaces rather than produces scenes; his editing style is like that. A bit like music. He needs the time that he needs.  

To end, can you tell us a story from the set of Transit?

There was one day when we had a very good day filming. I bought myself a bottle of wine and went to the harbor. I found a good spot, opened the bottle, and started drinking the wine. In the distance, there were some guys doing acrobatic tricks. I got really fascinated by them. Then a terrible thing happened, their dog died in the water. A pitbull. It was a big drama, they took him out. They tried to resuscitate him. It was horrible but I couldn’t do anything since I was on the other side. In the end, the owner left crying and carrying his dog. I was in shock. I needed to smoke a cigarette. Then I found out my cigarettes are gone, my money is gone, my bag is gone. Everything is gone. This dog dying scene turned out to be the best theater piece I ever saw in my life. They probably just put a dead dog in the water, got everyone’s attention and stole their stuff. I found myself that night in the embassy and at the police station without papers, without identification. I was in the same situation as Georg. The movie became reality.

Transit is now in theaters.