Latest Features

Sebastián Lelio on Identity, ‘Disobedience,’ and Avoiding Simplicity

Written by Jose Solís, April 27, 2018 at 1:51 pm 

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Director Sebastián Lelio arrived at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival with two new works: A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience. The former, a melodrama with surreal touches about the grieving process of a transgender woman (played by the incredible Daniela Vega) dealing with the death of her lover. The latter, a naturalistic look at an Orthodox Jewish community in London, disrupted by the arrival of the self-exiled rabbi’s daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) who comes to pay tribute to her late father.

At first glance, the films couldn’t seem more different from each other if they tried, but a closer look reveals common themes that are becoming identifiers of Lelio’s oeuvre. The Chilean director has become a master at telling the stories of women living on the edge; whether it’s the middle aged divorcee of his international breakthrough Gloria, or the fearless Marina of A Fantastic Woman, Lelio is in his element when his camera becomes the medium for these women to remind the world that they’re still here and that they’re forces to be reckoned with.

Even though the women in Disobedience, Ronit and her former lover Esti (Rachel McAdams in a career-best performance), are much more subdued in the reclaiming of their power, the ripples of their awakening send their quiet community into chaos. The plot sees them rekindle their affair, even though Esti is married to the future rabbi Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), and the film’s twist lies in the realization that the women first need to discover who they are, before embarking in a relationship. Lelio, who co-wrote the screenplay with playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, imprints the film with his love of texture and sensual cuts creating a sense of melancholy and longing in every scene.

We spoke to the director during the Tribeca Film Festival where Disobedience made its U.S. debut. In the interview Lelio discusses the themes that attracted him to the story and the effect of his Oscar-winning Woman in his native Chile.

First of all, congratulations on the Oscar for A Fantastic Woman. I’d love to hear you talk about the social movement the film began in Chile and what it’s like for you as an artist to see your work create real change in the world.

That was something we wouldn’t have been able to calculate. It’s been thrilling to see the film spill out of the screen and become part of the social fabric and collective imagination all over the world, but especially in Chile. The film began a movement in my country that woke up members of Congress to talk about the Law for Gender Identity. They’re currently discussing it and we hope it becomes law. It’s what Chile deserves. To have a film trigger, or push a movement like that is impressive.

With Disobedience and your upcoming remake of Gloria, you will have done four back-to-back films focused on women who have become exiled within their own world. What attracts you to telling their stories?

Precisely what you’re saying, taking a character who lives on the edge of society and prevailing narratives, and putting them at the center where we can observe them in portraits that are both exaltation and examination. I like to capture these women from all possible angles to make something resembling a cubist portrait. There’s something in watching them fall and lift themselves up that has truly moved me. It’s hard for me to intellectualize it, but I tend to pursue what moves me, and I’ve been going through a phase where following these female characters who seem to not deserve movies of their own, and to make them leads in my films, has mobilized me.

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Disobedience is your first film in English, and it’s also about a culture not many people are familiar with, so it’s like a foreign film times two. What was your approach in dealing with two completely new worlds to you?

It was interesting to go to England to make a film about a world not even the English know about. It was like making a contraband foreign film [Laughs], but I also loved the novel, its approach to characters, and I also wanted to work with Rachel Weisz who I admire deeply, and who owned the rights to the novel. I appreciated the invitation to direct and write, which provided me with more freedom than other opportunities I was being offered to direct films in English based on screenplays written by other people. Disobedience gave me an opportunity to leave my mark on the screenplay, and allowed me to find familiar elements in a world that seemed to be so remote. At the end of the day, we’re telling a human story about law vs. desire or individual liberty vs. social expectations, which are recurring themes in my films.

Ronit is a photographer and she comes back to England to pay respects to her father, but she doesn’t feel she’s returning home. I read that when you were growing up you moved a lot, so I wonder if this sense of a displaced home was something you shared with Ronit?

Perhaps? But perhaps there’s also an element of having grown up in a Chile that was so defined by Catholic morality and during the dictatorship, which made the country feel very isolated. Those elements also resonated in Chile. I’m not saying that the Orthodox neighborhood in the film is a dictatorship, but there are certain elements that I felt I understood. I know what it’s like to live under religious influence, and I also know about the power of disobedience as a basic human right. The idea of disobedience as duty was what attracted me most to the story.

It’s also a world where a wig changes who you are. I really liked the contrast we see first when Esti doesn’t recognize Ronit when she sees her wearing a wig, and then during the love scene when Ronit takes Esti’s wig off, making her feel more exposed than any other form of nudity. Can you talk about elements like the wigs that helped shape the characters in the film?

The film is focused on the idea of the individual identity vs. the identity imposed by the community, so the idea of a person in the epistemological sense, as a mask, is very strong. These are the layers we use to hide and function in society, in a way each of these layers fall apart in the film. We see wigs fall off, then clothes, and we ask who is behind all of that? The love scene is striking because it’s the first moment we truly see Esti, with the simple removal of the wig, the scene achieves that power because of the context.

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Usually when we see love triangles in movies there’s always a villain, but in the triangle in the film they’re all simply people. It made me think a lot of what Truffaut did in Jules and Jim, were you thinking about the movie, or any other famous love triangles, by any chance?

More than being inspired by, and as much as I love Jules and Jim and The Woman Next Door, I wanted to avoid turning the community into the antagonist. I wanted the antagonic force to be within each of the characters, they’re their own biggest obstacle, of course taking into consideration that the community does play an important role because voluntarily or involuntarily they each allowed the community’s ideas to blossom within them. Each of them, including Ronit, is their own worst enemy. Turning the community into the antagonist would’ve been simplistic.  

I was very moved by the scene in which Ronit takes a picture of her father’s grave. We never meet the father in the movie, but this intimate moment was almost like watching a conversation between them. I wonder if this scene involving a camera is also the way you see art as a tool to preserve the essence of those who leave us?

What I love about that scene is that she’s taking a picture of “nothing.” She’s photographing a grave but she sees much more than that. She’s taking a photograph of her father, her childhood… and I believe cinema has that power, to see and capture all the meanings that reality can possess. Cinema does what Ronit does; through a camera you shoot an object, but you also shoot everything that object could represent, of course depending on the sophistication with which the film is constructed.

Disobedience is now in limited release.

Olivier Assayas on the Extremity of Cannes, Piracy, ‘Non-Fiction,’ and Restoring ‘Cold Water’

Written by Nick Newman, April 24, 2018 at 10:39 am 

Olivier Assayas presenting 'Après mai' at Viennale 2012

I’d spoken to Olivier Assayas four previous times in almost as many years, and last month was the first time I caught him at a funny moment. Though the writer-director remains as intelligent, enthusiastic, and friendly as ever, this latest promotional run not only concerns a film that’s about to turn a quarter-century — Cold Water, his semi-autobiographical 1994 feature restored by Janus and now getting a U.S. theatrical release for the first time — but interrupts post-production on his latest feature, Non-Fiction. (A vast improvement over the originally reported E-Book.) Though the good fortune of seeing it at Criterion’s office had enlivened my memory of his alternately spare and fulfilling tale of love, rock, and radicalism in a post-68 landscape, the inherently in-between nature of our conversation often took us away from there and towards specific musings on what’s happening with film culture today. Needless to say, Assayas has many a thought.

The Film Stage: Where are you with Non-Fiction?

Olivier Assayas: I’m finishing editing. I’ve almost locked image, after months of post-production.

How do you usually feel late into editing? Is there a serenity, calm in getting there?

[Pause] I start to get impatient to know exactly how it will play. In this case, it’s kind of a comedy. I didn’t write it as a comedy, but, in gradually putting the elements together, I kind of realized that was the closest to defining it, even if it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever done. It’s a series of dialogues, really. It’s a series of dialogues about the modern world — or, I guess, something like that. [Laughs]

Is it strange to do interviews about an old film while working on a new one?

Yes. It’s strange. But the thing is: it’s a movie I care a lot about, and it’s been such struggle just to get it, to get it out of the clutches of Universal, first — who sat on the film, who had the old rights and sat on it for, like, ten years — to solve the music-rights situation. It’s been a long process. Plus, restoring it — the image, the sound, ah! It’s been an ongoing project for quite a while, so I’m just, at least in talking about it, relieved, because it’s the end of the ordeal.

When did you last see the film?

I had to see it over and over again when we were restoring it, but I was just so focused on the technical side that I was not watching it. When the film screened in Austin, I did something I never do: I stayed for the screening and I watched the whole film with an audience, just being able to sit back and look at as a viewer — which is obviously completely an illusion, but at least I could kind of have a notion of what the film is about.

Is Cannes usually the one time you watch a film with an audience?

With the recent one, the one time I watched it with an audience was Cannes, yes. Absolutely. Totally. In Cannes, I don’t really see the film. I mean, Cannes is… it’s great. I’m always very happy my films are shown there, but it’s such a tough experience in the sense that that’s not what you make movies for. The tension, the pressure in Cannes, it’s so violent, so extreme. It’s a very violent experience. It’s not about it being positive or negative both ways; it’s just too much. It’s really hard to keep some kind of cool head in the context.

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Well, Personal Shopper immediately had sprung upon it this narrative of “booed at Cannes,” yet reports indicate it was really an isolated incident.

Yes, yes, yes! I know. And I more or less know who the people are, so it has to do with French politics. It was absolutely not important, but that’s also the Internet age; it’s the Twitter age. People don’t know what to say about the film. The thing is, anybody — myself included — needs… a moment, a few hours, a day, two days, I don’t know — some people less, some people more — to know just what you’ve seen and how to react to it. How it stays with you or does not stay with you. Just to analyze your feelings to a film.

Now, with Twitter, people… the credits are rolling, they want to be the first to say something, anything. It’s not the reason why I make movies. I don’t like that relationship to the medium; I think it kind of twists, in a bad way, the perception we have of cinema and movies, because it becomes competitive. It’s kind of absorbed by the worst, evil energies of the modern world, in a certain way, when movies should… it’s an art, so it should not exactly be happening in a bubble. It should be a moment of quiet in the media age. That, to me, is what movies are about.

It’s interesting to hear you say this since you started out as a critic, most notably for Cahiers. Do you find yourself still participating in discourse, even privately?

No, I do not. But it’s because I think I’ve been moving away from the logics of the ascetics of cinephile culture. I mean, I think that something of the cinephile culture has become fossilized in film theories of the 1960s and ‘70s. As much as cinephile culture has been a very relevant tool, in the ‘60s, for the New Wave and post-New Wave writers to make sense of cinema, to make sense of what had been happening — including in Hollywood; it was kind of a road map for what had been happening — I don’t think it works anymore. I genuinely don’t think it works anymore, because it creates some kind of closed, limited film world. I think it’s much more exciting and much more interesting to think about movies in terms of art theory, and I think that you can’t deal with cinema — with what is going on in cinema — if you don’t use the best tools that have been defined by writers through the ages to deal with images!

I suppose it’s one of the reasons I admire David Hockney so much and I think he’s one of the great theoreticians of modern images. He kind of uses the best tools of classic art theory to deal with how you can capture the world, analyze perception, and capture some notion of our experience of the world with the new, modern tools. You know, making paintings with iPhones or iPads or whatever, but trying to use them in relation with recreating the experience of watching a tree, a landscape, the view out of your window — very simple, basic things. So what I am saying is: I am much more excited by writers who think about analyzing perception and how reality is subjective and how moving images — including movie images — transcribe that in cinema. I think that’s where my concerns have been, as opposed to the cinephile debate, which I find extremely limited and frustrating and, in a certain way, out of touch with reality.

Not to bring up a cinephile debate when I note, nevertheless, that Cahiers caused a stir by having Twin Peaks as their best “film” of 2017 —

Yeah, I kind of refer to Cahiers as “post-Cahiers.” I think they have moved in a direction that is basically the opposite of what this magazine is about. Because I think it’s André Bazin’s magazine. I’m extremely conservative in that sense. I really believe that the framework that André Bazin designed — meaning: its relationship between filmmaking, ethics, morality, and representing reality — is basically the identity, the DNA, of what Cahiers is about. If you move away from that… and I’m not discussing Twin Peaks. I admire Twin Peaks; I think that David Lynch is a genius. But I think that Cahiers has been moving away from the Bazinian aesthetics in ways that I find disturbing.

The first time I saw Cold Water was in 2012, off a file I downloaded from The Pirate Bay.

Yeah, of course. Absolutely. For sure.

Do you have particular stances about the age where people are sharing rare, out-of-print films?

No! No. I am perfectly comfortable with that. I’m extremely honored, you know, when guys [Laughs] kind of struggle to get my films wherever they can get them. I think the relationship to a film, often — with any artwork — ultimately is made by the effort you made to access it, and that effort is not necessarily with money. It’s movies I made a long time ago. No, my concern is that people access them in a better shape, form than possible. So that’s why I’ve been struggling to restore this film, image, sound: so next time someone gets the film from the Pirate Bay, it will be a better standard. [Laughs]

I would never illegally download any film of yours I could easily buy.

Yeah, no! I don’t… well, “I don’t have to.” I don’t need to download stuff from a pirate site. I buy DVDs, and I like watching movies on a big screen, but again: I’m perfectly okay with the process. I’m just so happy when I find pirate versions of my films in China, on the street. I go, “Oh, wow, they went through the trouble of printing a jacket, putting it into the case, and now it’s on the street. Maybe someone will bump into the film and had never had a chance to see it.”

I’d just worry about the translation.

We fixed all the subtitling. Criterion helped us with that kind of stuff.

Were you looking closely at the screenplay and previous translation?

I always supervise the subtitles, the English subtitling. So they used the original subtitling, except there were a few mistakes. They made it better.

Speaking of at-home viewing, I’m sure that Criterion has you in mind of who sees this on Blu-ray.

Mmm-hmm.

Do you see most films at home now?

I like to… I have this fetish with silent films. I love silent films — I’m just obsessed — so I watch silent films at home. But I don’t know. For the last couple of years, I vote for the Academy Awards. So I get screeners, and I get screeners of movies I want to see because they are new films by directors I like. They are not accessible in Paris, so I end up watching screeners on my TV. A lot of recent American films — all the movies that were in the Academy Awards — I’ve seen on DVD. It’s a bit frustrating because, especially for the movies I like the most — like Phantom Thread, which I was just amazed with, I loved — I wish I had seen them on the big screen. Now I will be lazy, because the film has opened in Paris and, I noticed, I didn’t gather enough energy to go and see it again on the big screen.

When you watch silent films at home, do you soundtrack them?

No. I’m extremely respectful. [Laughs] And I’m not so fond of the guys who experiment on silent films. Once in a while, something decent comes out of that subculture, but, usually, it’s abusive. I remember when they had fully restored version of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc — all of a sudden, the full, original cut of Dreyer with 15 minutes more, at least, than the version we usually know — they gave the score to that modern composer. I went to see the film, and, at some moments, the sound level was like heavy metal, which made, like, zero sense. It was an unpleasant experience because, as much as I loved the image, I hated the soundtrack. [Laughs]

I was thinking of Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis as the gold standard.

Yeah. I like Giorgio Moroder, but… I prefer more conservative versions of the soundtrack to Metropolis. But I have it. I have it somewhere.

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You still buy films regularly?

Yeah. I’m not a streaming person.

You would’ve been in your late 30s when you made Cold Water. You’re now in your early 60s. When I was younger, I was really fond of movies about kids because I could identify, and now I’m at an age where I’m not interested in that. But I wonder if I’ll feel differently about that when I’m older, especially if I have children of my own. Has there been a change in how you perceive youth in cinema?

Cold Water was about looking back on the ‘70s, which is something that I rejected. In the sense that, for my generation, you had politics — leftism, radicality — in the years between ’68 and ’72, ’73, and, gradually, whatever had been fascinating, exciting, energizing in those years became oppressive, became burdensome, became cut off from reality. That’s when punk rock happened and, all of a sudden, it’s like you had turned on the light in a world that had become dark. So I was very much part of that, and I left the early ‘70s behind. I think it’s been rushing ahead, and, at some point, I had to turn back — and that was Cold Water, in a certain way. Accepting the ‘70s again and remembering the energy.

The thing is: I’m the least-nostalgic person. I don’t like looking back on the past, and I get no emotion out of that — or if I get some sort of emotion, it’s a melancholy, anxiety, depression. But still, I think I had to reconnect with myself. It’s like I had been cut off from a part of myself that was essential, and who was the person I grew up as. I think it opened the door to my following film, Irma Vep, where I also tried to deal with stuff I had left behind — including film theory, my love of Chinese cinema, and so on. It’s stuff that I had left behind because, when I started making films, I was just so mad that everybody would ask, “Okay, so how does it feel to start as a film critic and become a filmmaker?”

But I never defined myself as a film critic. I was a kid trying to get myself as close to movies as I could, and writing about them was one of the paths. But I had been a screenwriter, I was an assistant, I was a trainee on movies, I was a trainee in the editing room — I did any job that would get me to there. So I was so reactive against that that I kind of repressed the part of my life that had been about writing about movies and loving movies and experimenting — the cinema’s geography. Irma Vep was a way of getting back there, of reaccepting, of saying, “Yes, that’s also part of what defined me,” because it’s this weird kind of autobiographical moment.

Many studies of your filmography treat the pre-Cold Water titles as a prelude, which I find odd.

Well, for some reason, Cold Water is my first movie that had any kind of international recognition. The other ones did really well in France, but they were made in the framework of French indie filmmaking. But I’m better-known in France for my early films, in a certain way. Disorder and Paris Awakens were successful films, were much-lauded, at the time, in France, and they were released not so much in the English-speaking world. They were released in Italy, in Germany. They had some kind of European audience. But I genuinely think that I became, also, a slightly different filmmaker after Cold Water. Before making Cold Water, I had consciously tried to transform my approach to cinema when I did A New Life. A New Life, it’s like: you follow the wrong path. You want to move on, but I took a wrong turn somewhere. Instead of defining something new, I think I kind of pushed to the extreme what I was doing, into some strange, abstract area.

I love the film — I’m very happy I did the film — but it’s very much a transitional film. Whereas the change I needed, I longed for, was the change I found in Cold Water. I made this string of movies using the Super 16 format, which is more like a Dogme moment. It was Dogme before Dogme, where I realized, “If I use non-professional actors, if it’s handheld, if it’s Super 16, if I shoot it faster than I used to — if I kind of break all the formalities of filmmaking, get rid of the weight of filmmaking — maybe I can move on and go further in the direction I went for, and I think that’s what happened. Cold Water was the turning point.

You have Non-Fiction next, but there’s already word you’re developing another title.

Wasp Network. It’s the story of the Cuban Five, who were Cuban spies in Miami in the early ‘90s. That, I think, will be my next film. Most of it will be in Spanish.

And Idol’s Eye?

Idol’s Eye can happen; it still can happen. I actually had an offer to make it this summer, and I’ve written Wasp Network; I want to do Wasp Network first. If the offer is still around, I will do it next year.

Hopefully Non-Fiction shows up at NYFF so I can see it ASAP.

It’s a weird film. But I’m very curious to see how it plays abroad, because it’s a dialogue. Subtitling will be an issue. [Laughs]

Cold Water opens at IFC Center in New York starting Friday and at the Laemmle Royal Theater in Los Angeles on May 18, 2018, to be followed by a nationwide rollout.

50 Years Later, Douglas Trumbull Reflects on Stanley Kubrick’s Vision and the Technological Breakthroughs of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey

Written by Sam May, April 16, 2018 at 9:01 am 

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With its cosmic ambitions that still somehow achieved a universal appeal, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that has immersed audiences in its unique and singular vision for fifty years, and few were more immersed in the pioneering film than lifelong visual effects wizard Douglas Trumbull.

Working as a contractor on preliminary design work at production house, Graphic Films back when the film was still called Journey Beyond The Stars, Trumbull stayed with the film even as Graphics Film was let go by necessity, and the production moved to England. “I cold-called Kubrick from a telephone number I found in the (Graphic Films) office and I think he was impressed with what I had to say,” Trumbull said. “He contacted my boss (Con Pederson) and he helped arrange my flight tickets to England. I was never actually contracted for the film. I was originally told I would only be needed for about nine months, but obviously it turned out to be a lot longer than that.”

Despite being in his early twenties with no feature film experience at the time of the production, Trumbull’s ingenuity and perseverance made him a valuable member of the crew. “I was part of the team that had to design all these computer readouts, sometimes there would have to be sixteen projectors running at once so it was thousands and thousands of feet of film that was required,” Trumbull said. “I came up with a solution that could automate large parts of the process.”

douglas-trumbull-1Trumbull found a way to take graphics – often sourced from scientific journals – and animate them on a grand scale, eliminating an otherwise impossible hand-drawn process. “I think after that [success] I had gone up in Kubrick’s estimation. Before I knew it, I was shooting the Moonbus scene on the soundstage,” he tells us.

Trumbull was not the only inexperienced crew member on the film. Andrew Birkin (who ended up shooting the African location footage for the Dawn Of Man sequence) and Ivor Powell were also promoted to roles of greater responsibility despite limited knowledge. But it was also Kubrick’s own experience as a young filmmaker that dissolved the usual filmmaking hierarchy that exists on sets. “There were plenty more seasoned professionals on the film, but they all came from a particular way of working and Kubrick didn’t want to work like that. He encouraged a much more experimental process,” explained Trumbull.

With more responsibility in the effects department, Trumbull was working on the film’s iconic models, but Kubrick’s editing requirements often meant that arduous effect shots would get left on the cutting room floor. “It wasn’t an efficient way of working, but as we were watching the images on the giant, deeply curved Cinerama screens – it became clear that any fast motion or cutting would be objectionable. And you would [see the] blurring and strobing of stars, so Kubrick wanted to slow everything down and have a more editorial pace. He wanted to be able to pick and choose footage like live action.”

With all the film’s imagery being created ‘in-camera’ it would often be a nerve-wracking process waiting to see if a shot had been completed successfully. “It could be anything from a week to a month. The longest shot was the [Tycho crater shot] where they walk down into the excavation site; the rest of that shot wasn’t completed for over a year. The film would be put in a freezer and wait to be loaded back into another camera to be completed,” Trumbull said. “We tried to create a process that we dubbed ‘the sausage factory’ that would be able to churn out shots a lot quicker, but needless to say it didn’t actually end up saving a lot of time. I would say for every successful effects shot, there would be five or six failed attempts.”

Many involved have discussed being in the dark about what they were doing at the time, but Trumbull doesn’t believe it was because Kubrick was trying to be secretive, but it was rather a reflection of his directorial spirit. “I don’t think it was a deliberate move by Kubrick. You often got the sense that he was making it up as he went along. He was rewriting the script every day. He wanted to stop talking and have it be a visual experience. There was originally a narrator and he cut that out completely. Performers like Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea would come onto the set and [were] given new pages all the time, and there was HAL, who was originally supposed to be female and called Athena, which was based on a study that male pilots would respond quicker to a female voice. Douglas Rain was only really a last-minute choice.”

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While filming, and Arthur C. Clarke optimistically stated in ‘65 that they were aiming for a Christmas ’66 release, but production ended up stretching on for three years. Still, primarily shooting at MGM’s Borehamwood studios, Trumbull never noticed much of a studio presence, saying, “We were the only production shooting there at the time so we took over the whole studio, we were on every stage. Kubrick knew he would have to come here to get his way, he had already shot Dr. Strangelove (at Shepperton Studios) so he was comfortable working there. It really was a great place to work. It was a beautiful studio in the middle of nowhere surrounded by farmland; it wasn’t until I saw and worked in more film studios that I realized what a great place it was.”

While the model-based effects work required a painstaking amount of work, they at least drew from pre-production sketches and technical writing. But what eventually became known as the ‘Stargate’ sequence had to be completely imagined. The original script ended with the line, ‘In a moment of time, too short to be measured, space turned and twisted upon itself,’ and another variant mentioned a ‘slot tunnel’, but beyond that, it was up to the production to decide how to visually articulate the sequence.

“It had been alluded to as a tunnel in one of Jupiter’s moons that when you looked through it you could see through to another part of the universe, but no one really knew what to do about it. Initially, it wasn’t my job to create a solution but I was watching what others were doing and you could see it just wasn’t working. I had seen John Whitney’s work (part of the avant-garde animation crowd of the 60’s) where he had moved the camera around while the shutter was open to create a streaking effect and I thought it was promising. So I did a Polaroid test putting the camera on an animation stand and moving it with the shutter open as I moved around some artwork underneath. I showed it to Kubrick and he said, ‘What do you need to build the real thing?'”

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The resulting creation was the ‘slit-scan’ machine, which in layman’s terms, moved colorful artwork behind a slit while the camera was focused on the same point with the shutter open and moved away from the slit. This combination of techniques created the streaking effect. “Kubrick was very enthusiastic about the results; he just said ‘keep shooting, keep shooting.’ It took four minutes a frame, so it was running twenty-four hours a day, and the stuff that is in the film was probably only about a quarter of what we produced. It was always aimed to be subjective. We tried some shots with the pod, what would be described as an over the shoulder shot, but it was clear it wasn’t going to work. All Kubrick did was cut back to Keir’s face.”

The most complex aspect was a shot dubbed the ‘mindbender,’ which combined seven octahedrons arranged in the top half of the frame and the slit-scan process. Trumbull said, “We had exhausted the slit-scan, shooting vertically and horizontally, so I came up with the idea of shining the light onto Plexiglas to create this kind of pulsating effect. Each [octahedron] had four visible sides, each needing 3 passes, so as you can imagine it was incredibly complex. In total, [there were] eighty-five passes, all on the same piece of film.”

A complex process at the time, the slit-scan was still relatively inexpensive compared to modern CGI methods, which have become one of the most expensive elements of modern filmmaking. “Once it got going, it was a fully automated process. It would run twenty-four hours a day, all it needed was someone to watch for pieces breaking and flying of the machine, as they often would. I don’t dislike digital imagery, there has been plenty that I have been very impressed by, but if you look at the credits of any [effects heavy] movie now, the amount of manpower required is incredible.”

The Stargate wasn’t the only aspect of production that was difficult to visualize. The figure of the alien Monolith is one of the most iconic images, but creating convincing aliens was an altogether different challenge requiring extensive testing and trial and error. “For about the first year and a half of production we tried to avoid it, but Kubrick’s wife (Christiane) was doing concepts and sculpting alien designs, I think that was kind of a back-up project on Kubrick’s part. He adds, “Dan Richter also experimented with something that was dubbed the polka-dot man, where he was covered in dots and shot against black from above, and he would twist and contort his body.”

Then there were Trumbull’s own efforts to create the otherworldly beings.

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“After we had finished the Stargate, I adapted the slit-scan into what I called the ‘Jupiter machine’ which was able to create a believable vision of Jupiter. No one had been able to do [that] until then, so after that I began to experiment. I tried using video feedback by shooting its own feedback image to create this kind of undulating effect. Then I experimented creating aliens using just light. I put a light on the floor and moved a camera with the shutter open to create a figure composed entirely of light that only existed when the camera was running. And I also tried something I called ‘cities of light’ where I used dots of light and streaked the camera to create the illusion that they could be structures created out of light. The results were promising, but we just ran out of time. Kubrick made a decision at some point that ambiguity was better, that less was more and any kind of alien was never going to be convincing.”

Even though 2001 took years longer than expected to complete, it was still rushed to be finished. But in a perfect world, it would have been an even longer production. “I think Kubrick could have gone on another year; certainly, the film would have ended up three and a half hours long!,” exclaimed Trumbull. But even after the production consumed the lives of everyone involved for years, Trumbull had no interest in an extended vacation. He went right back to work.

“I went back to Los Angeles and set up my own studio, making animations for the NBC network and other places, which led to creating effects for The Andromeda Strain and eventually directing Silent Running.” And with Kubrick, the legendary perfectionist editing the film up until its release date, Trumbull didn’t even see the finished product until its premiere, albeit in an extended form before Kubrick cut nineteen minutes for its theatrical run.

“There were a few surprises, musical cues and editing choices, but otherwise it matched up to what I thought we were making. It was great to see it all completed up there on the giant screen. The scenes that were cut, I don’t think they added anything to the film, I think Kubrick was wise to cut them,” he said.

Though the film lived up to Trumbull expectations, early reviews were not so enthusiastic. “I was surprised, they (Pauline Kael and other New York critics) didn’t like it. It took about a month until the film was rebranded as ‘the ultimate trip’ until people started to get it.”

Even inside the production, they were those who didn’t ‘get it.’ Scientific consultant Frederick Ordway even wrote a detailed letter to Kubrick outlining his problems with the film. “The thing about people like Ordway and Harry Lange (production designer) was that they were scientists, and I’ve come to the opinion over the years that when scientists get involved in a film, they’re going to end up disappointed. They want science, but a movie is a movie.”

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Trumbull was one of four credited as a ‘special photographic effects supervisor’ on the film, but he was unfortunately not given credit by the academy when 2001 won Best Visual Effects. In an unpopular decision, Kubrick accepted the Oscar alone.

“We didn’t feel that was a good move on Kubrick’s part. I don’t think it would have taken much effort on his part to lobby for the rules to be changed to accommodate us all. I didn’t get to see the Oscar until after Kubrick’s death, when I went to his memorial service, so it was a very long time before I got to see it.”

The fate of 2001’s incredible models have long been debated, with rumors of Kubrick wanting to destroy them to stop others using them. And with the film’s completion coinciding with MGM’s closure, they may have been accidentally destroyed, but Trumbull sees little truth in these speculations.

“I believe Kubrick had planned along with Ordway and others to take the models and props on a Roadshow and take it around Europe, but at some point he decided against it,” Trumbull says. “Then there was a fire where all the models were being stored so lot of the stuff got destroyed, though Kubrick may have kept the Moonbus model in his office and he had given the Aires-B (lunar-lander) model to his daughter’s tutor in exchange for payment. And it was only recently bought by the Academy.”

Arthur C. Clarke went on to write three sequels to 2001, the first – 2010 – was adapted in 1984 with returning stars Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain, but also with the conspicuous absence of anyone behind the camera from the original film, including Trumbull. “I cannot remember if I was asked to do the film, but my studio that I had started along with Richard Yuricich (Blade Runner) was used to shoot all the effects for the film. I didn’t care for the film, I thought it was more standard action fare and it didn’t understand what 2001 was.”

2010 achieved little in comparison to its predecessor, and in an age of franchises and sequels, where many old favorites are looked to be revived, it remains a testament to 2001’s singular vision that its two remaining sequels – 2061 & 3001 – have remained untouched.

Even despite owning a pilot’s license and demonstrating an evident passion for space travel, Trumbull doubts that Kubrick would have pursued real space travel. “I don’t think so,” he answers. “There was part of Stanley that was very risk-averse, physically. If someone had a cold he wouldn’t shake their hand and he would put a mask on. It has become a lot safer now, and its becoming more commercially viable. Perhaps if were a younger man I would be interested, but I am always interested in the beauty of the universe. I am doing an anniversary event at MIT where they are going to show the recent images taken of Jupiter accompanied by Ligeti’s (whose compositions signal the appearance of the Monolith) music, and Keir and Gary are going to do a reading of Kubrick’s (September ’68) Playboy interview.”

For its 50th anniversary, 2001: A Space Odyssey will get a 70mm unrestored theatrical re-release, overseen by Christopher Nolan, starting May 18. See a trailer above.

Bruno Dumont on the Rhythm of ‘Jeannette,’ Evolution of Style, and the Actor’s Interpretation

Written by Nick Newman, April 12, 2018 at 5:45 pm 

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At a distance, Bruno Dumont seems hard to pin down — a filmography alternately hilarious and horrifying, marked by a sense of humor as stone-faced as the bodies that litter it. Get closer, though, and the pleasure is in the clarity. Case in point: we ended our review of his latest film, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, by noting that the Frenchman had “made a gesture towards complete reinvention, both for a tale told many times and the boxes he’s been checked in as an artist” — seemingly big as far as these claims go, but one for which he has only absolute agreement. So I learned when we sat down to discuss his Joan of Arc heavy metal musical, a film I kind of had to ask him about because (and I know this directly contradicts what’s written right above) I have questions about the fact that I’m not even sure how much I like it.

Thanks to Nicholas Elliott, who provided on-site translation.

The Film Stage: In my research, I come across your great admiration for Péguy. You speak of him in very laudatory terms, the essential part his writing played here; but I think of Bruno Dumont as a very singular figure. So is there a sense of giving yourself over fully to an artist, or more than you’re used to?

Bruno Dumont: With Péguy, really, there’s a discovery that goes beyond the artist and poet. What really moves me most is the philosopher Péguy. It’s an extremely contemporary thought of the human condition, and there’s no correspondence among philosophers today. I really see his thought as a thought of the present, the instant, and grace which has no lineage in western philosophy, so he’s completely in the metaphysics of Bergson, but he’s also embodying philosophy in art – or art is the embodiment of philosophy. Bergson remains a philosopher, whereas Péguy takes this additional step – he’s the artist as philosopher, and he really describes, defines, cinema. Cinema is the overwhelming, lightning-like expression of the present through a heroic figure, and Joan of Arc is a heroic figure. The fact is, you can have the experience of God in cinema and in the location of the simulacram of cinema.

Do you share these ideas with your performers?

So, if I talk to the little one about all this stuff, she’s not going to understand anything. Once the director has the understanding, then the actor has the action. The actor is only in action. It’s an error to talk to the actor about thought. The actor is an interpreter. He’s not there to meditate; he’s only there to act, as in “do things.” Otherwise, it would be unbearable.

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You said the young Joan, in auditions, was wild and impulsive. How do you know that will be good for a production?

In fact, I filmed the casting. I make my choices based on seeing the rushes of the casting; that’s when I say “yes.” It’s not the interview with the actor; that’s quite banal. “Cinegeny,” or whether someone reads well on film, is something that I see, and something that some people have and other people don’t. I don’t know why that is, but that’s what I see when I look at the rushes.

You described her recitation of the material as obscure. What are the specific pleasures of obscurity in performance?

What’s obscure is the meaning; what is not obscure is the rhythm. The little girl understands the rhythm of Péguy’s text; she doesn’t understand the meaning. Myself, there are passages that I do not understand at all. Péguy’s poetry is rhythm. The meaning is not important. It’s a theologically obscure text, and what’s important is something that’s tonal, musical. There’s a kind of knowledge there that takes us towards a mystical, ecstatic level. It’s like when you listen to music there. There’s no meaning there; there’s something there that has nothing to do with thought, that has just purely to do with the domain of music. And I just want to correct something that I said earlier, for your tape: I said he’s tonal, music etc. It’s not that there’s a knowledge; there’s no knowledge, whereas there’s something mystical and ecstatic.

I’d like to know about the key differences between shootings on sets and locations.

The huge advantage of shooting on location is that everything is there. It’s like the sheep: I don’t order up the sheep. I like these accidents, this happenstance. It’s like the sound of the trees, the birds, the wind. All these things are happenstance, and they’re very important. Because cinema is such an artificial form: you have to set up your camera, you have to set up your frame, you have to go in search of the happenstance; you have to go in search of the breath. The countryside has this breath, this spirit to it.

And I accept the happenstance; I need it. It gives the film texture, and that’s why I use direct sound: I take what happens, whatever comes. In those circumstances, what wasn’t planned for is part of what was planned for. I can always cut, after all. I have this little girl’s breath, I have her heartbeat, and these take me back to something that is non-thought, and is a kind of counter-balance to the artificiality. As I was saying earlier, there’s an equilibrium that needs to be found. If we did all these things inside a room, it would very quickly become unbearable. That is Bergson. That idea is Bergson.

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It was recently announced that you’ll be doing a sequel to the film, titled Jeanne. This follows your upcoming sequel to Li’l Quinquin. Your movies often feel closed-off, singular, so what is your particular attraction to continuing narratives?

I find the subjects so unimportant. It’s like in painting: you can make something grand, major, with just a little crossroads in the countryside. The subject is so unimportant. I was very interested in a series, to come back to something. So, in Quinquin, I come back to my characters four years later. So there’s the same actors, the same characters, then something else. That’s exactly what I think of cinema: it’s always the same director making another film, so there’s always some same and some other. I’m always making The Life of Jesus, actually. But my style has evolved, my sensibility has evolved, so now, when I see The Life of Jesus, I want to recut it. We continue making films because we evolve. There’s no reason to say “I’m going to stop” because we’re constantly evolving.

You’ll be making a film based on the period that we do know. What material, in particular, do you look at when going there? Are you particularly conscious of the many great filmmakers who have explored it?

The second part is the battles. What I’m interested in is finding a way of renewing the battles, a new approach to the battles. We’ve seen lots of films that deal with the battles – most of them start there and then go to the trail – so what I’m looking for is renewing it, a new way of showing this part with a contemporary sensibility and make Joan of Arc felt today. I think I’ve found a new way to show these battles. I’m not going to shoot like Cecil B. DeMille, that’s for sure – but I do like Cecil B. DeMille.

Do you have a favorite of them?

[Laughs] I really like Cecil B. DeMille. His Joan of Arc looks like she’s 40. That makes it very original, actually.

While I’m here, I should mention that I’ve long been fascinated with the song from L’il Quinquin. Did you write it?

No. The actress wrote it, music and lyrics. I kind of held her in as far as the genre of the music – I steered her.

Admittedly, there’s not much of a question. I just feel that, if I sit before the man who directed those sequences, I should mention it.

Then you’ll be surprised by version two. Specifically in regards to what you’re mentioning, the song – and the singer. [Laughs] She’s dead.

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Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc opens on Friday, April 13.

Andrew Haigh on Keeping Secrets, the Political Landscape, and Eluding Romanticization in ‘Lean on Pete’

Written by Jose Solís, April 4, 2018 at 9:18 am 

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Andrew Haigh’s partner gave him a copy of Willy Vlautin’s Lean on Pete shortly after he finished making Weekend, and after falling in love with the way in which the author portrayed a sensitive, resilient teenage boy, he decided to turn it into a film. It would take Haigh roughly another six years or so to turn the novel into a film, in the meantime working on HBO’s Looking, and directing 45 Years which earned him critical acclaim. Perhaps the wait was for the best, since the years in between where the same during which actor Charlie Plummer broke out into the business, and given his work as Charley in Pete, it’s hard to believe any other actor could’ve been better. Haigh’s conversations with Plummer, which focused on Charley’s sensitivity and why this boy who steals a horse to rescue him from the slaughterhouse, is a kid who rarely gets portrayed this way in movies.

“The book felt like an old style fable grounded in a very gritty reality,” said Haigh during a recent meeting in New York City, and Plummer anchored it with a naturalism that at times makes one think of James Dean in Giant. Pete is also a great showcase for Haigh’s evolution as a writer and director, his economy in dialogues always making a great contrast with the amount of visual information in each of his frames. The way he and cinematographer Magnus Joenck know what to show and when, to elicit the most unexpected emotional reactions. We spoke to Haigh about film rhythm, secrets and why he didn’t want to make another Old Yeller.

You’re a J.M. Barrie adaptation away from having your own “Pete trilogy.”

It’s gonna happen one day. Maybe I’ll do a mixture of both my Pete movies, which will be a very strange combination, I don’t think it will be a big hit.

Thinking about the lead characters in your films, I was struck by how you’ve created a body of work which showcases the different stages of being a man. A kid in Lean on Pete, a 30-something in Weekend, and then a 70-something in 45 Years. Were you consciously interested in doing this?

Self-consciously possibly. Most filmmakers when they make movies are trying to understand themselves and how they fit into the world. Even if the story of Lean on Pete might not seem like it’s a personal story, to me it is just as personal as Weekend, oddly. It says just as much about me as Weekend.

Is it weird to think that you’re letting audiences in on your secrets?

The weird thing about making films, especially if you make films that are personal to you, is you’re giving something of yourself to the world. It’s a strange feeling, filmmaking to me is anxious, emotional and stressful.

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Lean on Pete felt like a big “fuck you” to Old Yeller and all those romantic movies about kids and their animals. Why did you want to show that adolescence isn’t bucolic and full of melancholy as those movies suggest?

I’m not a fan of those movies that romanticize boys and their horses, I think if there’s an animal movie that spoke to me it was Kes by Ken Loach. There’s a version of these stories that aren’t about the animals, this one is about Charley and his feelings, wanting to be cared for, caring about something and all that. I understand that my movie creates a marketing challenge, because you go in expecting something that it’s not.

No Lean on Pete plush animal then.

[Laughs] That would be weird.

Charley’s story feels like the kind of thing a person would keep in their heart and only tell certain people about. I could imagine Charlotte Rampling’s character in 45 Years finding a picture of her husband as a young man with a horse, or Tom Cullen’s character from Weekend telling it to the guy he knows he won’t see again. I’d love to hear you talk about secrets and what we keep.

If you grow up gay you’re always keeping secrets. They’re secrets that could change people’s understanding of you. If you’re gay, you think your parents will stop loving you for instance. As human beings we’re always one centimeter away from falling into loneliness and despair at any given point. You’re scared of being alone. Charley in the film is a very lonely kid, he keeps these secrets and doesn’t tell authority figures, he’s afraid of being put into foster care. Those kinds of secrets are painful and the only one he can talk to about this is the horse. I always found that tragic, rather than cute or adorable.

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You lived in the liberal paradise of San Francisco while doing Looking, while Lean on Pete focuses on people living at the margin of society, people who might’ve voted for…

Trump.

…exactly. Lean on Pete reminded me of American Honey which is another film by a British director who was able to see America right in the eye without any of the romanticism artists often use to portray poverty. What insight did you get into America by exploring these contrasts?

I filmed this before Trump, but there’s no escaping the fact that some of the characters in the movie would’ve voted for him. From my personal and fiscal views I would call myself a democratic socialist. I’m not on Trump’s side whatsoever, but one of the needs of being left wing is to find a world where people who are suffering economically are helped. You can disagree fundamentally with who people have voted for. I don’t think voting for Trump was a great solution at all, but you can also have sympathy for the fact that these are people who are really struggling, socially and economically. In the film I had to take out the notions of left or right wing. You need to understand people at a base level. You need to understand people are suffering and need to be compassionate. Kindness and understanding should be where politics are seen from, but on the left and the right that’s rarely the case. I don’t wanna go on a big rampage, but I get angry with the left wing media because they don’t seem to care about the people who were left behind by globalization. They don’t care about people struggling economically. We live in a world where identity politics is more important than economic inequality.

At the beginning of the movie, Charley’s father tells him something along the lines of “all good women are waitresses at one point” and later in the movie this becomes true so to speak. Do you find as an adult that something your mom or dad told you, was true?

I love in films when little bits of information are echoed later. It’s true though: our parents give us our understanding of the world. I like that about this story. Even though Charley’s dad isn’t great, he loves his son. I didn’t want the characters in the film to be one thing. The Del character could’ve been an angry horse owner or a father stand in, and he’s all and none of those things.

It was so great to see Chloë Sevigny and Travis Fimmel playing outside of their type too.

The thing I love about Chloë is that she’s a great character actor. She can fit well into a working class environment more than many other actors. She says she sees herself as a character actor, but a lot of people in the industry don’t want women to become character actresses.

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Can we talk about how you use time in your films. Weekend feels like it takes place in a matter of seconds, 45 Years has a more languorous feel, Lean on Pete feels slow because we’re always dreading something bad happening to Charley. How do you define the way in which you’ll shape time?

It’s a very instinctual thing, my films have a certain kind of pace that you either sign up to enjoy or not. In Lean on Pete I knew I wanted it to feel like it had a slow dread that keeps going on and on, like a horse’s feet constantly marching forward. Everything fit into that, once you know the rhythm everything else falls into it.

What animal would you steal?

Something very small I don’t have to feed often. That’s what’s interesting about the film. Charley feels capable of looking after this horse, but he isn’t. That element spoke to me about how we all want to be compassionate, but we don’t have the ability. We don’t always have the time, energy, or money to be good people.

Charley is very selfish too, which was refreshing.

He makes wrong decisions. He’s not always wise. He’s on the cusp of being a kid and an adult. I don’t even wanna talk about all the bad decisions I made when I was 15.

Lean on Pete opens on Friday, April 6.

Aaron Katz and John Cho on ‘Gemini,’ Gun Violence, and Finding the Heart of Los Angeles

Written by Jose Solís, April 4, 2018 at 8:42 am 

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In Gemini, Aaron Katz weaves a neo-noir mystery so provocative that you wish it went on far longer than it does, and that is because as with all good mysteries, the suspects, alibis and investigation become much more fascinating than solving the case. In the film, Zoe Kazan plays Heather, a young, rebellious superstar who is shot dead in her mansion one night, leaving her personal assistant and best friend Jill (Lola Kirke) as the prime suspect. Jill easily slinks away from Detective Ahn’s (John Cho) sight, and a pursue ensues as they both try to find the culprit.

Using stylized cinematography and some truly inventive art direction, Gemini takes place in a Los Angeles of movie dreams, a tempting but slightly menacing location where sex, intrigue and deceit ooze from each turn. Gemini is also endless entertaining, as Katz gives into genre tropes which he manipulates to create a sense of dread and mystery. We spoke to the writer-director, and his star, Cho, about creating the moods of Gemini, and how a tale of gun violence lands differently in the current political era.

Can you talk a bit about the Los Angeles in Gemini? It’s clearly a movie L.A., not necessarily a very realist version of the city.

Aaron Katz: When I wrote the movie I’d been living in Los Angeles for two-and-a-half years. I was very new to the city, so I wanted to show that I was approaching the city from a place of curiosity and wanting to understand what the city was. John, how long have you lived in L.A.?

John Cho: 27 years.

Aaron Katz: So for someone who knows the city that well, I wanted the film to feel like it represented the city well.

John Cho: I definitely felt that reading the script. You can see L.A. from any number of viewpoints, that’s what makes it so tough to pin down. There are cliché things about L.A. that are true though, like the vehicle fetish. Greta [Lee] was pregnant when we shot the movie, so we used vehicles to cover her tummy, which was so perfect. As an Angeleno watching something about L.A. I also saw me clocking the cars.

Aaron Katz: L.A. has a strange currency of fame and perception of ease. In the movie there’s a line Michelle Forbes’ character says, “I know we kind of hate each other, but I actually really like you.” That to me encompasses the philosophy of L.A. which is about all those other things, but also competence.

Were you trying to find “heart” in the city then?

Aaron Katz: Jill and Heather’s relationship has a lot of real love in it. It’s a complex relationship. I don’t think they’re pretending to like each other. I hope the movie has a lot of heart. I don’t want it to be a satire of Hollywood.

John Cho: There’s a whole Oz relationship with Heather and Jill, as to who is the one behind the curtain controlling everything. There’s also a difference in how people socialize in N.Y. and L.A. In N.Y. people do it in public. They meet in restaurants and bars, but in L.A., parties happen at people’s houses. Almost every party in L.A. feels like a business.

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Real estate in N.Y. is also super small though, so it’d be tough to have as many parties in homes. This reminds me of your work in Columbus too, watching both movies made me realize you’re the guy to get…

John Cho: cheap.

No, for very architectural movies. Both movies have a very uniquely defined sense of place.

John Cho: That’s so interesting, I hadn’t thought about it but you’re right.

Aaron Katz: When you said architectural I thought about how one is literally about architecture, but in Gemini the architecture is such a key too.

John Cho: What I learned about architecture in Columbus was that instead of appreciating buildings like “this looks beautiful or magnificent” is to ask “how is this space making me feel?” Standing in some of these spaces I could think about what the architect wanted me to think by being in this space. They encourage different things too, depending on the space they have. Looking back at Gemini each of those spaces had data, and selecting locations for a movie is like building a stage.

Aaron Katz: The places really impact how the conversation feels. We’re in a swanky hotel right now, but we’d be talking differently if we were in an ancient barn. John, you revisited the diner from the movie recently, how was that experience?

John Cho: It was at 2 or 3PM so it was less inhabited. I particularly remembered Detective Ahn’s posture in that scene, which was about not wanting other people to hear what he was saying. It was always interesting to go back on location to see what was us and what was them.

Aaron Katz: When you walk on set you don’t see what the art department does, it’s just there. It’s interesting to see two movies with the same spot. Ingrid Goes West shot in the same tiki bar we shot in. We didn’t dress the set at all, but in Ingrid they put a lot of stuff that deemphasized the tiki aspect of it.

Detective Ahn is always one step behind Jill, what’s it like to play a character like that?

John Cho: [Laughs] You just take a scene at face value and try to stick to it.

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You don’t get to decide when your films come out, but seeing Gemini in the aftermath of the recent school shootings, made me think of Jill as someone who figures she needs to take justice on her own hands, because no one else will. Has watching the movie and how the country reacts to gun violence different now?

Aaron Katz: Thinking about the gun violence aspect, I don’t think the movie is meant to be overly political in any way. But the act of violence in the film happens because there is a gun, what could have been something smaller becomes bigger. In that way I think the movie is a bit of a reflection of what’s possible when a gun is around. I didn’t grow up around guns, so there’s very little gun action in it, did you grow up around guns, John?

John Cho: I grew up in the church and when I was in junior high I was an awkward kid, so this couple who taught at Sunday school invited me for a sleepover and they were being very caring. I remember we had dinner, went to a movie and the next morning they took me to a shooting range where I used a pistol and a rifle for the first time. I think they were trying to teach me about personal responsibility and focus. I don’t even think they told my parents, which is weird in retrospect.

Aaron Katz: I don’t think I’d handled a gun before the one that was on set. It made me feel so nervous being around it.

John Cho: My dad told me he was a courier for the army in Korea. He was in a restaurant once and as a courier he was required to carry a pistol. Guns aren’t available to the public in Korea, and my father says there was a drunk man making a scene and he remembers being overwhelmed by the desire to use the gun to threaten him to shut up. He was so frightened by that feeling that he realized no one should have guns. Because, what if?

Gemini is now in theaters.

Courtney B. Vance on Narrating ‘Isle of Dogs,’ the Power of Failure, and Clint Eastwood’s Filmmaking Philosophy

Written by Joshua Encinias, March 30, 2018 at 11:17 pm 

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I didn’t know what to expect before interviewing Courtney B. Vance. He sat in front of me earlier this year at a Black Panther screening and jumped for joy every time he saw wife Angela Bassett on screen. Vance’s team was just as energetic at the Isle of Dogs press day in Midtown Manhattan. They were taking photos of Courtney and cast throughout the press conference, then Courtney would take pictures of the cast and press.

One-on-one, he’s quiet but loquacious. Vance chooses every word carefully but not in a contrived, political way. He talks about meeting Wes Anderson at Sundance in 1993, not knowing Isle of Dog’s story until seeing the film, and the project’s mysterious political parallels. We close out the conversation discussing transparency in failure, his thoughts about God’s use of human failure, and Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking philosophy.

How did you link up with Wes and his crew?

You know, Josh Encinias, I didn’t really see any of those guys. I just saw Wes. And we worked together years ago when we were young whippersnappers at Sundance and someone suggested it, so why not? He jumped in and called me and I said of course. Does voiceover narration work with you? Oh yeah. And so we really had a great time, but it took us minute just to find the rhythm of the narration and what kind of narration he wanted. I mean you have the narrator voice kind of thing. The typical narrator voice. This was not that, so, but I didn’t know… is it my rhythm or if it’s not my rhythm, there’s another rhythm, what is the rhythm that you want? So it took us quite a while to figure that out. Once we did then we started to really click.

When you were talking about working together, were you always going to be the narrator?

Oh, I hope. I hope for my ego, I hope I was always in the forefront of his mind. It’s a good question. We’ll have to ask him.

When did you record your part?

They’ve been making this movie forever. I recorded it in the middle to end of 2015. That’s why when people ask me, what do you remember? I don’t remember much about our time together because it was so long ago. And then there were two or three or four sessions after that, maybe like four or five lines he just wanted to grab. So you know his projects go on for a while.

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Most of the cast recorded separately, so what’s it like to be with this massive ensemble for the first time at the film’s premiere?

It’s kind of fun, just like a little homecoming of sorts. There’s some voiceover work where they recorded everyone sitting around in their high chairs together. This is not that. So I have a feeling that everyone did their own little solo thing themselves in their respective towns and then sent it in and then maybe Wes got on the phone with them threeway and gave them some direction.

What drew you to the story?

I don’t think there was a script when we started talking. I saw my dialogue just to get a sense of how long it was going to take me, but I don’t think there was a script because when I saw the film I was shocked. I didn’t know what I was seeing. I didn’t know what it was about and even if you try to describe it you really can visually see… some of those images were just in his head.

If you recorded in late 2015, they couldn’t have anticipated the way politics would be in 2018, but there’s so many parallels.

I think that Wes has his finger on the pulse and sometimes you fall into it, sometimes you don’t. I did a project sitcom the year before last, just when Trump was coming, the election happening. We thought ‘this project is so perfect, we just know that ABC is going to pick it up because it’s good.’ It’s the perfect sitcom to talk about all these huge issues and get people to laugh and still be able to deal with stuff. So we know what’s going to happen. ABC did not go for it. All of us were just in shock. You just don’t know that you’ll be given the opportunity to.

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When you look at this character Mayor Kobayashi, he’s a guy who’s really fearful. He’s afraid of being seen having any kind of failures or having any doubts. It made me think of this interview where you talk about your vulnerabilities being the place where you sow seeds, where God does his thing.

I did a clown workshop years ago and for an exercise we all sat in a circle on the floor was and there was an opening, so one by one, you get up and go into the circle. You couldn’t leave the circle until you made everybody laugh, made everybody cry. We all failed. You couldn’t use profanity, you couldn’t use gentlemanly humor. We tried red noses, fat suits and nothing worked. After a week the teacher said that’s it, let me tell you what the secret is: going into circle one by one, you have to try to do something and you fail and you have to acknowledge the failure and after you’ve acknowledged failure in front of everyone, that you’re a failure, and you have to acknowledge it. You have to do something and try to do it and fail big time. And then, at that point, you can make people laugh and make people cry. You can do whatever you want to do. It will go wherever you want to go. And it’s that fine line that as a performer, as in life, if you want to lead somebody, people have to have to be behind you. They have to say we want him for our leader because we know that they stand for something. They have gone through it. I mean, from a biblical standpoint, I’m a Christian man. We follow Jesus because he did everything that we would have gone through. So you follow somebody who acknowledges what you’re going through. If somebody doesn’t know what you’ve gone through, you’re not going to follow them. Who are you? Larry Bird said it best. He said they pass me the ball at the end of the game because I’m the first one in the gym, two hours in the gym before anybody comes in. I’m here two hours after everyone goes home. So everybody knows the play when it’s two seconds left in the game. Some people don’t want the ball when it’s two seconds to go. They don’t want the pressure because if you don’t make the shot then you failed. But I’d rather have the ball in my hands. That’s a special kind of person. Some people can’t handle the truth, Jack Nicholson said.

What’s Wes like as a leader?

We were talking last night. I sat with him and Harvey Keitel and I haven’t sat with Wes a lot. I barely remember our time back in 1993 at the Sundance lab. I was sitting with him last night and he was telling me about a prominent actor he had a really difficult time directing and I just listened. Harvey told a story about a prominent actor-director he worked with and the abuse the actors received from this director. I said people are just clamoring to be in this business and do what we do. But people get in the business for many different reasons and some people, based on how they were raised, they’re trying to work out stuff as a director with other other actors or a leading actor trying to impose their will. It’s just… you come in. I think Clint Eastwood said we’re going to come to, going to say some lines, we’re going to hit some marks. That’s what it is. And you get paid a great deal of money to say some lines and hit some marks. Don’t make it complicated. And if we do it that, we do it right, we change people’s lives. When people feel they’re so, so special because they can say some lines and hit some marks, they started messing with people. Don’t mess with people. Just do your thing and go home. That’s what I try to do. I do my thing and go home.

Isle of Dogs is now in theaters.

Production Designer Adam Stockhausen on Crafting the Worlds of Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg

Written by Nick Newman, March 28, 2018 at 3:56 pm 

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If Adam Stockhausen does the job well, you won’t notice — and he’ll have made Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Steve McQueen, and Noah Baumbach happy. The production designer’s CV is among the most enviable and, per the Academy, acclaimed in contemporary film, but this year is an especially notable month, seeing as it does the release of Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Having seen one and seen material from the other, surely there’d be a lot to ask… except for the fact that this interview was conducted at Camerimage in November, months before either even screened. But more than a good overview of how those directors do what they do so well, the following details his alternately painstaking, exhausting, and, sometimes, invisible contributions to the art.

The Film Stage: Do you have a “production design” eye for everywhere?

Adam Stockhausen: You’re kind of looking. It’s either in terms of how the place is either really interesting or, in this case, not so interesting. You’re always looking around; but then also just details. You see bits and pieces of amazing things.

I wonder if people are self-conscious about having you over.

I hope not! But it’s not even really that. It’s more… well, sometimes it is that a little. [Laughs] But also, last night, I was looking around, and [Pulls out phone] there was the most amazing stairwell.

Where is that?

It was just right here! It’s, like, next to us. There’s stuff everywhere. It’s amazing.

I’m usually only in Europe for this festival, but, each time, I think about how people who live here are probably sick of the day-in, day-out. I say, “Oh, this building is so cool” — even if it’s just a building.

It’s cool, isn’t it? My favorite: have you seen the building with the big typeface on it? It’s on the river, and it’s so cool. It has this gigantic, 30-foot-tall… it’s so beautiful! But it’s fun. The gold duck that’s on the building across the street from us? It’s so great!

You just showed me pictures for both things you referenced. Do you take photos of every building you like?

Yeah.

Does it often work into your job?

Often. Always. Always. I mean, it does in an incredibly literal way with Wes. We’ll go around, we’ll go scouting, and we’ll find amazing stuff, and I’ll go back and get it, bring it, and put it on the set — the actual thing. For Moonrise Kingdom, we scouted this amazing house in the Narragansett Bay called “Clingstone.” It was built upon a rock and had the most incredible details; there was this ping-pong paddle with these paddles that were all faded from the sun, and we got a ping-pong table and paddles and put them in the movie. Those kind of details are so exciting, and it’s nice to go grab them and use them. But also in a more broad way of just getting inspired by your general surroundings and letting it bleed in and inform the stories — and become the primary inspiration for a lot of them, the visual design.

Do you find yourself still doing work on Widows and Isle of Dogs, even thought they’re in post-production?

Widows is in edit right now, so it’s pretty quiet from my end — they don’t really need very much. There will probably be a little bit of additional photography, would be my guess, and I’ll get back involved for that. Isle of Dogs has ongoing questions and small stuff as it finishes up, but that, too, is getting done.

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Talking to Robert Yeoman last year, I was told they were already well into shooting. I feel a little sheepish saying this to the person who does it, but I sometimes get stressed-out just thinking about the process of a stop-motion film. It sounds exhausting in a way I can’t compute.

I do, too. But it’s important to know that I wasn’t really there for the actual animation process because I was with Wes at the very beginning of the film, looking at images and sketching through various, different sets for the film. Then Paul Harrod came on and was designing through the animation process; then I went off, because I was getting ready to do Ready Player One with Steven. So I feel the same way you do: it totally stresses me out. [Laughs] But it’s an incredibly complicated machine. It’s amazing and impressive, and every time I would go and visit the set, it’s kind of overwhelming what they’re doing. It really blows you away. I just found it inspiring. I found it really inspiring to watch what they were doing and see the different states of animation on 30 different sets all at the same time. It was really unbelievable.

Do you know how many seconds per day they tend to get?

I don’t know the exact number, and it depends greatly on how many animators are working. Each set-up is going to get approximately this — and then, depending on complexity, it could be a little above or below. Then there’s a multiplier factor by how many different people are going at the exact same time. It’s shockingly small, though — that I can guarantee. [Laughs]

What was looked at for Isle of Dogs?

Kurosawa, like High and Low. We looked at loads of Japanese films. Just the whole catalogue, really.

How often are you on set for a live-action feature?

Every day. My typical day on a shooting day would be that I would open the set in the morning — so I’ll be there before call in the morning. “Open the set” is kind of just a term for being there when the shooting crew arrives. Because every set that you go to, I’ve been there with my people for days or weeks or whatever ahead of time getting it ready, but then the actual day, when filming occurs, I’m there for that as well. Then, once they’re up and running, I’ll stay there through at least the first couple of shots, and then I walk away, and go off and visit the set that’s shooting the next day. Then I will probably swing by the art department or construction shot or both, and check on things that are coming multiple days out. I’ll go visit another location that shoots in three days or a week or whatever — in a much earlier stage of its process — and ask questions there. Meet with the painters at that location; go back to the location for the next day’s shooting, meet my set decorator who’s there, finishing that up. Work on all those things, get it ready.

Hopefully the thing that’s shooting the next day is actually done, and I’m visiting the thing that shoots the day after that — with the goal being to take photographs of it early enough in the day. Then I get back to the original set where we’re shooting and I stand around and annoy everybody. In-between shots, I’m like, “Hey, can you look at my computer? I’d like to show you photographs for tomorrow and the next day and the next day.” I say “annoy” because it actually does annoy them sometimes, when they’re trying to focus on one thing and I’m there literally annoying them, but it’s actually great because, if you can manage to do that, then everyone’s on the same page.

My goal is that everyone is walking onto set every single day feeling, “Yeah, I saw pictures of this. I knew exactly what I was getting. No surprises here. If there was an issue, we fixed it.” And sometimes things comes up. “Oh, God, I didn’t realize. Can you do this to fix it?” And that’s not a problem; it’s just normal if you can get it in time to work through anything that will come up. If you do, then boom — and you try to avoid “boom.”

I found a quote about working on Bridge of Spies that got at something I’ve always wondered about Spielberg: you made note of how fast he shoots, perhaps evidenced by how many films he has coming out. I’ve heard that he gets very shark-like. Talk about the intensity of that — even if you’re very good at your job, is it, “Oh, I have to keep up?”

Yes. Literally. We’re working on Bridge of Spies in New York, and we shot 30-something days before we came to Berlin. It just moved so quickly. The amount we shot at that speed was really head-spinning. So you take what I was describing about what my day was like to get ready for the next day. That’s one thing, when you’re just in this bizarre-looking room today, another tomorrow, and one at a time, slowly and methodically. Bridge of Spies: we did a day where we were shooting at a park in Astoria, where he’s painting the bridge and cars are going by.

Then we moved to do the hotel, where he gets arrested, and the cars pull up to the hotel; that was deeper into Astoria. Then we moved from there to Dumbo, where we did a shot of Abel coming out and walking down the street — all in one day. That was a lot of scenery in one day. Trying to stay in front of that is like a steamroller coming in: as fast as you possibly can. It’s intense. At that point, I’m doing all the same things I described — it’s just running.

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What do you think it is? He has a number of collaborators (e.g. Janusz Kamiński) with whom there’s a shorthand. Maybe it’s actors rehearsing, not doing a lot of takes.

I think it’s all of the above. But it’s also incredible decisiveness about, “This is the shot. We’re going to do it from here. It’s going to be like that, that, and that. We’re going to do this and probably need this to turn around, but we’re not going to need these four other things. These are the shots. Go.” Janusz goes and everyone goes, and, of course, there’s an incredible team of people who are just totally at the top of their game. They all click in and boom — it all happens, and it all happens very quickly. In all respects. From the decision-making of what the shots are to the execution, it’s all seamless and it’s all fast.

Can you confirm if Isle of Dogs’ title is a pun?

You’ll have to talk to Wes about that. As in… similar to the actual island?

No. “I love —

“Dogs.” Oh. You should call Mr. Anderson.

Maybe he has Google Alerts that will direct him here. I’d like to hear about the difference in creating objects for animation. It’s not just size.

It’s funny, because I’ve been working on Isle of Dogs, which is animated and stop-motion, and Ready Player One, which is computer-animated — but also an animated film — and you could answer the question the same way for both, which is: you can’t, unfortunately, just grab real objects and use them. I can’t say, “I love that fire extinguisher; let’s put it in the movie.” You can say, “Do you like that fire extinguisher or one of these 20 others?” You say, “We know we need one. Let’s look at the history of fire extinguishers. Let’s pick some really interesting ones and find one we like.” The difference is: you can’t just go grab it; you have to make it. So either you’re making a tiny little version of it, by hand, painstakingly; or, just as painstakingly, making a 3D digital file of it and custom doing it. So we did that on Ready Player One. The objects are very “designed,” but executed in a fundamentally different way.

How proficient are you with 3D animated design? When did you get into that realm?

“Proficient at it” is difficult to say because, I mean, I’m proficient at it now in that I certainly know how it works, and I’m able to talk about the different aspects of it — with executors of the different aspects of it — proficiently. I guess I kind of learned on the job with that. The stuff that’s going on in Ready Player One isn’t common enough now that it’s everyday; it’s still pretty new. We were definitely having some discussions on that film where it was like, “Well, that thing you were talking about doing — this film did it this way, and this film kind of did a similar thing, but they did it this way. This other thing that you’re talking about, I don’t know if anyone’s done that before.”

So it’s not like there’s a huge standard practice space for any of this stuff, and I think I got comfortable with it right along with everybody else. But then I should say, in terms of the actual process, these people — and I mean the illustrators working for me, and animators at ILM, and environment artists at ILM — are incredible, and the technical stuff they can do on the computer just so, so does circles around everything that I can do. They’re really amazing artists.

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When you’re looking at visual effects in both nascent and completed forms, are you observing on a theater-sized screen? You often hear technicians express a preference for that. Is that the case for you?

It is. You look at things… I think the quick version of that is, “You look at things on the best screen you possibly can, in the best situation you possibly can. So if the best thing you have is a computer screen, at least try to close the blinds and get the glare off your screen. But I end up seeing stuff on all different-sized screens, and I’ll be in reviews and looking at stuff on my computer screen or on a large computer screen or whatever when I’m on the road and joining remotely. At other times, I’ll be at one of the vendor’s locations or in a room with the director or something like that, and I’ll be looking at something on a bigger screen. It’s for sure better on a bigger screen, and then I try to pay attention to what the differences are. I go, “Well, I looked at that last week on a small screen. Now I’m seeing it on a big screen. What am I seeing that’s different?”

And try to keep in mind those differences next time I’m looking at the smaller screen so that I’m not fooling myself or not responding to phantoms that aren’t really there, or make them into a list of notes like, “Huh. Not sure. Will have to check those details next time I’m on the big screen.” But you’re always kind of crouching around, because life isn’t perfect where you walk into a screening room every day and there’s a magnificent… so you’re always trying to leap around, look at it from multiple sides, and be aware of what you’re missing.

This relates to the fire extinguisher: a pet peeve I have is seeing a film set in a certain year, and every period-specific thing looks like it was brought the previous day.

Like things look brand-new and sparkly? Yeah. It’s tough.

Do you have particular pet peeves?

No, I mean… I do and I don’t. Yes, there’s stuff I see, and yes, I can’t stand when there’s the brand-new cookware that’s clearly never been used. Sure, it drives me crazy. But I will say that my experience watching films… if there’s 1% of that, for me there’s 99% of being kind of overwhelmed with the amazing work that other people are doing.

You probably pick up on things others just won’t.

Yeah. And it’s amazing. I see good work and just get completely energized by it. Overwhelmingly, that’s my experience. So, no, I’m pretty easygoing.

What are some things about the processes of Anderson and Spielberg you might only know from intimately working with them? How they behave, operate on a set.

I don’t know what’s known and what’s unknown. We were talking, just now, on the process of making Bridge of Spies, and how fast Steven talks about. I know it’s talked about, but I don’t know how widely it’s talked about, working with Wes and the careful arrangement of these frames — just the process of looking at it in a storyboard sense, then finding it in a more-developed sketch, and an even more-developed sketch, then mocking it up and seeing it, and being there with Bob Yeoman — putting an actual lens on it, seeing if it works, move it again.

Oh, one really particular story: there’s this sequence in Moonrise Kingdom where we are introduced to the Bishop house for the first time, and it’s a series of these tracking shots dollying through the first floor of the house, then the second floor of the house, then a whip-pan to look at Suzy. That whole sequence, even though there was a set for each one of those pieces, was a whole set. Pulling back was a set. Pulling up was a set. Going left-right was a set; going right-left was a set. And it was really an amazing process of, first, a million sketches and a million ground plans with a little camera, a line, and a turn, and building it up into sketches, and really rough animatic, and then when you start building it and it’s all really rough — unpainted, raw plywood walls where we’re laying out the footprint of what we’ve talked about in the sketches and lining it up.

Then you do the same thing, and now you get out a real lens and you can kind of slide along and see if it’s working. And we made a lot of changes because an actual lens just behaves a lot differently than the little lens tool in whatever program you’re using to handle it; it’s just different. Those in particular, we said, “Nope, can’t see the ceilings; they’re too high.” So we chop it all down, and slide the ceilings down before we paint it and finish it and get too far down the road to make a change like that. That process was sort of curated, and each of those frames was really fun and enjoyable — an amazing thing, before you get to the final shot that everybody sees in the movie.

As a big fan, I find it frustrating when people say one movie is just like the last. You can tell there’s a lot of thought.

Some people are saying that because he has a visual style, that represents a lack of effort? Really?

Because it’s recognizable, that means it’s not distinct.

I obviously beg to differ, but…

Isle of Dogs is now in limited release and Ready Player One opens tonight.

Dan Gilroy on Roughing Up His Heroes and How Denzel Washington Helped to Craft ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’

Written by Jack Giroux, March 26, 2018 at 8:12 am 

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While his first feature set in the city of angels showed what sort of animals lurk around at night, writer-director Dan Gilroy’s sophomore effort Roman J. Israel, Esq. shows a hero who works in the day. The titular lawyer and civil rights activist played by Denzel Washington is the type of well-intentioned and, with the exception of one major mistake, selfless and righteous protagonist perhaps we don’t see enough in dramas.

Like Nightcrawler, Gilroy puts more emphasis on character than plot. Roman J. Israel, Esq., is an old-school, thoughtful studio drama with completely engrossing performances. The spectacle doesn’t involve car chases, corporate espionage, or Roman taking on the big evildoers of LA. The spectacle of Gilroy’s second feature is Denzel Washington, who gives a deeply sympathetic and hypnotic performance as the titular character. Watching him deliver Gilroy’s dialogue along with Carmen Ejogo and Colin Farrell is all the fireworks a drama needs.

The Film Stage: Lou Bloom and Roman J. Israel couldn’t be more different, but they do both share many contradictions. 

Dan Gilroy: Yeah, that’s true. They’re very… they are complicated characters. But I think that’s a reflection of how I see people in general and think we’re all complicated. I think we all have these contradictions that if we dug down a little bit we’d find. They’re extreme to a degree, and you could certainly make that case, but I like to think that they’re representative in some way of the rest of us.

Just because of how authentic the depiction of L.A. is in both movies, I like to imagine them running into each other at some point in their lives.

Isn’t that funny? Wouldn’t that be funny if they ran into each other or got stuck in an elevator together? Who would be the one to get out? Don’t underestimate Roman with that briefcase. Who knows what he’s carrying around in there? You never know.

[Laughs] Was this always an L.A. story?

It was always an L.A. story for me because the idea really came from remembering the ’60s and the nationwide spirit of activism. I became really interested in what would happen if somebody had never really left that time because so many people did leave. As I started to look at the research, the people who didn’t leave went into civil rights law with criminal law on the side. The L.A. criminal court system and judicial system is such a massive, out of whack system that I thought it’d be an interesting backdrop, so L.A. became the natural choice.

You took a year off after Nightcrawler to write Roman J. Israel, Esq. What was the timeline? How much time did you spend researching, outlining, writing, and rewriting in that year? 

So, and this is true of most of the time I write, if you give me 11 months to write a script, I probably spend six to seven months researching it, five days a week. That’s learning about law, learning about civil rights law, researching activism, researching the roots of activism, researching the roots of racial inequality going back to the Civil War, and really trying to understand all the players and all the pieces of it. Then collating it into a usable outline, and then spending eight weeks writing. For me, it’s all preparation. By the time I start writing, I’m sort of pulling pieces of my various outline in place. I know very much what I’m going to do by the time I start to write.

It’s refreshing to hear your approach. Some writers say write every day, and it seems like some who don’t do that can feel guilty but your attitude, waiting until it feels right, sounds much healthier. 

The biggest thing is that people rush. Ideas are everything. You can take a great idea and write it in fingerpaint, and you might be able to sell it. But if you take a marginal idea, you can polish it for five years and get the same sort of glazed over, “Well, it’s got some good stuff in it…” Everything is the idea or the ideas, something that intrigues you, feels fresh, and something you feel passionate about, something you wake up in the morning and go, “Oh my God, I gotta work on this.” Don’t feel bad for not writing every day. Thinking about ideas is writing. I think writer’s block, in many ways, is trying to write a script before the idea is ready because I can get blocked doing that. I don’t try that, that’d be too demoralizing. I don’t sit down to write until I really love the idea, then I don’t feel guilty about it.

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You said you felt you found your voice on Nightcrawler. How did that effect Roman J. Israel, Esq, and your writing and directing?

It made me want to recreate what happened on Nightcrawler in terms of the process and the effect. Nightcrawler was so exciting to me because there are so many themes and ideas in that movie that I believe in. I believe that we’re in a world of hyper-capitalization, and I believe that the Lous of the world are winning. I made an entertaining film that I liked, but I loved having people come up to me afterward saying it really made them think and they felt that.

I’m old enough to remember the ’70s, and in the ’70s, if you didn’t make a movie that had thoughts and ideas behind, people would ask, “Then why’d you make the movie?” Now it’s a rare thing. I know with anything I do now it’s going to have some personal point-of-view in it, and that excites me. It’s a tremendous medium you can entertain and divert, yes, but you have an inclination to–not make a message movie–say something that makes people think, and it’s this amazing value added. I love being able to talk about a film and hear what others were thinking rather than, “That was a great ride.” That’s fun, but I’m sort of right now into other things.

That was something I enjoyed about mother! recently. Love it or hate it, everyone had something to say about it. Those sort of long conversations after a movie sometimes feel rare.

Don’t you love that? I know, man. Anyone with a voice of any kind out there, right away I’m already 90% your fan. You’re trying to do something that’s relevant to you, I love you for that, whatever it is. It can be a horror movie or anything. If it’s unique and people are trying to get their voice out there, I love.

Horror, absolutely. Get Out is a horror movie and it’s probably one of the most talked about movies of the last few years.

Look at that, I know. It’s a horror movie but so much more; it sparked so many great conversations, and it’s utterly thrilling.

What else did you learn from Nightcrawler as a filmmaker?

I learned that people look at a page as a minute, but I think it’s much more than a minute. It’s funny, Nightcrawler was 104 pages, and we probably cut seven pages out of what we actually shot, and it was still a two-hour movie. This movie was a 108-page script, and I think I probably had to cut, in addition to 12 minutes, like 15-20 minutes. If you write a 120-page script, you’re probably going to have a two and a half-hour movie, that’s one thing I learned.

The other thing is just my style. I’m underwriting now. I’m not putting in as much description. I’m sort of giving the barest bone description of what people need to know because I realized I like having department heads and actors come in and fill in the blanks. I’m very much into having very talented people come in and telling me what they think should go there. I like that collaboration, particularly with the actors. I mean, Denzel really created this character in every way.

What were your earliest conversations with him about when it came to how to play Roman?

Denzel’s process, as I understand, is a very private process. He has to start from the inside and have to build out, so it wasn’t about him asking questions or talking about what he’s thinking. It was generally more talking about the script, like a scene, what’s going on in a scene, or what’s happening in the whole movie.

Sometimes it was putting on music and talking about baseball and life and building trust. A lot of it was about building trust that I was going to do a good job directing, and I could trust that he’s going to do what he’s going to do without a tremendous amount of input from me. I wanted that. I did that with Jake, too. I very much encourage an actor to come in, fill in these blanks, and create something from the inside out. When you have actors of this caliber, it’s just a tremendous plus.

Towards the end the process became Denzel coming in and going, “These are the clothes I’m thinking of wearing, this is the look of the hair, and these are the glasses.” One day he came in and said, “My character only eats peanut butter sandwiches over the sink.” I’m like, “I’m down with that, man. Do you want creamy or chunky? Which one?” He knows which one. There you go, man. These are great things, that he’s suddenly thinking about things like that.

Those small touches, like the sandwiches, tell you a lot about him. Even his apartment gives you a better sense of who he is. 

I know. Denzel would go into that apartment for hours, and nobody else could go in. He’d go for hours, and hours, and hours. He just made the place his own, moving things around and saying, “I want to get this here, I want to get this here.” He really made that space his place, and it was cool to watch.

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I think how much he listens to music is another subtle and telling touch: he wants to help people, and yet he’s usually disconnected from them. Was Denzel Washington generally listening to music on the iPod? What was he usually listening to?

All the time. He’s an enormous music fan. He has several iPods, and on his bigger one, he has 28,000 songs on it. He listens to all kinds of music. As an example, after he got mugged and comes back and puts the earphones on, when we were shooting that scene, I couldn’t hear what he was listening to in the earphones, but you could hear it playing loud. After two hours I asked him what he was listening to, and he goes, “Cosmic Slop.” I thought what a perfect song for this scene. He picked the Pharaoh Saunders’ song “Elevation” you hear in his apartment. He was like, “In the ’70s, this was a song I listened to for like a year, repeatedly.”

When he walks up to the metal detector, and he goes the bass range is gone on Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America,” that’s him, that’s Denzel. He said, “Is that too far?” I went, “No man, I now hope a million people download ‘Winter in America,'” one of my favorite Gil Scott-Heron songs. God, I wish that was being played everywhere. Musically, he was involved in all of it. It was great to have him because his musical instincts are so strong.

How early on did you know you wanted to use The Spinners “I’ll Be Around” for the final shot? It fits perfectly.

I picked that song. It was literally “I’ll be around,” “I’ll always be around.” I’m trying to go out on a bit of an upbeat note. Plus, I love that song. Such a beautiful, unique song.

I want to ask about Colin Farrell. He does really strong, unshowy supporting work here while still leaving an impression after scenes with Denzel Washington. 

Tough role. I mean, he’s Denzel’s boss in the movie, and you buy it. How many actors can stand up to Denzel? You believe he’s the boss over Denzel. Right away, there’s this tremendous power. Something Colin and I talked about a lot was how real that character is. He’s not all bad; he’s like most of us. He had instincts in the past to want to do well and good for people, but he’s been diverted by success and money. Through the course of the film, it was something that never quite left him and is coming back to life. I love watching that in him.

You can really see this progression of, “Oh wow, the money is great, and the success is great, but what you’re doing to me is so incredible. This is a better feeling.” It’s funny, a year ago I read about a guy giving away his 18 or 20 billion dollars. Basically, he wrote this article like, “Of all the highs I’ve ever had, nothing beats helping other people.” It feels good to do it, and I think Colin’s character feeling good is the progression.

In any other movie, though, with his slick car and suit, you’d expect him to be the villain or some sort of antagonist when he shows up.

My rule of thumb is, if I have to write a villain, I don’t think of them as a villain, and I try to think of everything I can to make them human. If I’m writing somebody as a hero, I try to do everything I can to rough them up. That just feels more real. I don’t know if I’ve ever met any villains. I’ve met people who I really despise what they do, but sometimes even when you find out about their upbringing or life, you go, “I kind of understand a little.” Villains are mostly a story construct that I don’t abide by too much. I’m glad you said that because that was definitely the idea.

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In Nightcrawler and in this film, you don’t have any central antagonist. Are you also just more interested in sticking to your protagonist’s point-of-view?

The world is sort of the antagonist. The world is what we’re fighting against in Nightcrawler. Is Lou the problem, or is the problem we’re addicted to the stuff he shoots? What part do we play in it? I like to involve the whole audience in a conflict, that we’re a part of it as well. It’s not like the viewers are separate from the world we’re hopefully showing on screen. So yeah, I’m not interested in having people playing the villains, not in these films. I just don’t look at people that way. I’ll think, “I don’t like what you’ve done, but I’ll take time to figure out why you did it.”

For Nightcrawler, you said you wanted to treat downtown Los Angeles as Emerald City, a place in the distance. With Roman J. Israel, Esq. a lot of the story is set downtown. How was shooting downtown? 

Much more difficult to shoot in downtown. It is not easy getting around downtown. You know what worked really well for us? Roman is a character in transition in a world that’s changing, and there’s more construction going on in downtown right now than any other place in the country. It was great while we were shooting to have this sense that the city was changing around this character, with luxury apartment buildings going up beside him. Things are changing. From a symbolic standpoint, it was a great time for us to shoot down there.

I’ll tell you one thing when you shoot down there, you realize the horrendous extent of the homeless problem. It’s a massive problem not being dealt with on a meaningful level. You go down there at nighttime, anywhere a few blocks from Skid Row, and you can’t believe you’re in one the wealthiest cities in the world. It’s just outrageous what’s going on down there, and it’s not being addressed or looked at.

Yeah, at night especially, it feels like a problem almost everywhere. 

Everywhere, everywhere. It’s not just Skid Row, it probably starts half a mile out. I can’t imagine all the thousands of people down there. We saw them. Our politicians really need to address this issue, quickly. Lives are on the line.

You shot the city again with Robert Elswit. How did you two want to capture downtown?

We decided to do it all on film, and that was one of the big conversations. Film has a grain to it. With digital cameras, you can sort of put an artificial grain over it, but it doesn’t really feel the same to me. Robert is a big lover of film, so we used film and single-camera. We weren’t ever using multiple cameras. A lot of times people use multiple cameras and think here’s my A and my B, and think you’ll save time doing that, but you cost yourself something in composition and lighting because your A lighting will change if you’re trying to accommodate your B camera as well.

We went old school doing single camera film. We decided early on the film was going to have a warm look, because there’s a lot of emotion in the movie, and we wanted those emotions to live in the frame. We got very intrigued with drones. We have at least half a dozen drones shots. They have great utility. You can really go to a lot of places a crane won’t allow you to do. These shots have a real sweeping sense to them, and we used them sparingly.

When you were writing the script, were there any significant shots you already had in mind?

There were some. The one that leaps to mind, I always knew at the end when Roman says, “Of course I remember you, that’s why I gave you my card,” I knew that last shot we’d see of him in the movie, we’d look up from him below, and he was going to have a halo of light above his head. I knew that shot. I knew the end was going to have this transcendent look to it. There were many other shots, like having a deep focus sense in the old law firm, so you can sense history and going back. There were a lot of shots, but a predominant number of shots were really Robert and I found on locations.

For a movie without a lot of plot, it has an efficient pace. You cut some scenes after Toronto, right? 

In post before we went to Toronto, it was great. We both very much felt the version we took to Toronto was amazing, and I still feel it, but at the same time, it was 13 minutes longer. After Toronto and realizing it was a little slow and maybe the pace wasn’t right, Denzel came into the editing room. Not because he asked to, but because I asked him to because he’s directed three films and his instincts are brilliant. We worked for three weeks together. Actually, Denzel’s son, Malcolm, came in at times and helped us a little bit. It was accelerating things, pulling out things we loved, dropping a subplot, moving some scenes around, changing music here and there. We loved it at Toronto, but I absolutely feel this is the better version of it. This is the director’s cut. Sony was great to allow us to do it.

Denzel Washington is such a good filmmaker, so even on the set, was working with him a different experience compared to other actors? 

It’s different, and it’s brilliant. His process is supernaturally strong. I don’t fully understand his thought process. He arrives at ideas that take me a few minutes to get my head around, and then go, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” Your first instinct is to go, “What? What are you saying?” Suddenly you realize, of course, that’s incredible. He doesn’t explain how he got there, but he does it repeatedly. It’s an absolute joy to collaborate with him, and I mean that, honestly. He’s very objective. He looks at the entire film while you’re making it.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is now on Blu-ray/DVD and Digital HD.

Arnaud Desplechin on Hitchcock and Bergman’s Influence on ‘Ismael’s Ghosts,’ Catholicism, and Vaping

Written by Nick Newman, March 22, 2018 at 9:44 am 

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That each Arnaud Desplechin film has a way of responding to the one before it (and the one before that, and the one before that, and…) might account for the doubling- and tripling-back nature of my third conversation with the writer-director, who was in town this past October for a New York Film Festival screening of Ismael’s Ghosts, one of his knottiest works: a love story, a tragedy, a comedy, an overcooked movie-within-a-movie about espionage, Mathieu Amalric doing his bug-eyed thing that nobody does better. But Desplechin first told me about the film in 2015, describing it then as, essentially, a cross between Vertigo and the later novels of Philip Roth — both of whom come up herein — so where else would my mind travel but to where we’ve been? The length and direction of what follows should be evidence enough, or so I hope, of why I keep coming back.

A special thanks to Lilia Pino-Blouin, who provided on-site clarifications in Desplechin’s native French.

The Film Stage: When we last spoke, you said that to make a film about a director has a way of being “absolutely insulting” for an audience.

Arnaud Desplechin: Yeah. [Laughs]

Why is that?

I don’t know if it’s for the audience, but I know that all the producers are terrified each time that you’re starting and saying, “Actually, my character is a director.” And you can see all the producers in the world saying, “Oh, no, please don’t do that; it’s too risky.” Because it’s a privilege, too, as an artist, and, as a member of the audience, I don’t like people who have privilege. You know why? It would be cleverer than me, it would be a lot to think that I’m not allowed to, because I’m not an artist — so there is a sort of competition between the audience and the character.

And the solution I found is a joke that’s slightly funnier in French than it is in English, but it works in English: Mathieu is not a director; he’s a filmmaker. He’s just making films. That’s what he’s doing. The God that’s Henri Bloom — Bloom is the director. Mathieu is quite humble with his work. So the fact that the character was humble with what he was doing was what I’d like to show about the fact that Mathieu is a director, like you could be a doctor or teacher or whatever. He’s just doing it with all his heart, and you can see it when he’s mad in the attic: he takes his job very seriously. It’s a job; he’s a filmmaker. He’s not a great director. The great director is his father-in-law that he worships so much and who’s he’s paying the confidence in Tel Aviv.

Are you familiar with the work of Hong Sang-soo?

Yeah.

I thought of that: the characters in his movies are directors, but nothing about it is too specific to that profession.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is a thing that I like in Hong Sang-soo’s movies: the fact that you can be a director doesn’t make you special at all. You’re just a common guy whose work is to work in the movie business. Why not? It’s not a stupid business. You can work in another business — in food or whatever. His business is films. I like the Hong Sang-soo movies, as you mention.

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I’m interested in you as a screenwriter, and how you create both characters and their scenarios. You’re also technically writing as another person when we see this film-within-the-film. What is it like to sculpt as another creative mind, to inhabit another headspace?

Sorry, but I will answer with two ways — one that I will try to make brief. One way is that I knew, sending the script to Mathieu, the character is called Ismaël Vuillard, like in Kings & Queen. We both know, Mathieu and I, that Ismaël Vuillard is doing everything that never Mathieu would allow ourselves to do, that the guy is wild. Ismaël Vuillard is wild. Everything he’s doing is with all his heart, but in a very extreme way, and I guess it’s funny for the two of us because we are not that wild. We’d love to be that wild, but we don’t dare to be as outrageous as Ismaël Vuillard could be. So it’s a pleasure to allow yourself to misbehave as our character was misbehaving in the movie.

Another thing I could pay you is: I was struck by this line of Louis Garrel when we were in Cannes. We had a question — not that question, less a creative question which was more vague during the press conference. We’ve known each other a while, but it was the first time we were working together, Louis Garrel and I — and he was saying, “The films of Arnaud Desplechin are so autobiographical because each character is autobiographical. Ivan, the little character, the lady in the room, Ismaël, each one of the girls is a self-portrait.” So I can’t say that because my character is a director it’s a self-portrait, because obviously the character… I was saying that Ismaël is outrageous, and I love the fact that Sylvia, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is restrained, and allows herself to be a part of life and slightly restrained.

I guess, in life, sometimes I’m as wild as Ismaël, and, sometimes, I’m restrained as Sylvia. But I’m trying, even in my world of directing the actors… the fact that I love to play the parts for the actor, which is something that is forbidden in cinema school. All the books about acting, they say, “Never play the parts in front of the actors.” Actually, it’s the first thing I do on the set. I say, “Okay, give me the part, and I will show you what we can do with that.” And I’m not asking them to compete with anything that I offer them; but I love to offer them several propositions, and that way they can pick the proposition which interested them. So I like this idea of Louis Garrel, that the characters are a self-portrait but implicated in so many figures.

You told me this presented an interesting challenge, because your habit of not rehearsing ran counter to Louis Garrel, who is used to doing so with his father. Are there clear ways that rehearsals affected this film, and how you worked?

Not that much. Not that much. I know that, for Louis, it was very important because of the way he has been raised, the way he practices his work, so we did it — and I hope that, perhaps, I had changed him. Because I still think that to rehearse on films is a waste of time. I did one theater play in France, La Comédie-Française, which is the national theater. I did try and had such a wonderful pleasure to rehearse with the actors I work with; it was great. Everything is about rehearsal. But the magic of cinema is that you will catch moments, and you will propose these moments to the audience. These moments, they just appear once while you are shooting. It’s just magic. It happens because it’s an accident — because it’s bizarre, because it’s strange, because it’s whatever it is.

So the fact of not rehearsing doesn’t mean that we don’t work. We work before, around the character — mainly during the costume sessions, when you try to find your appearance of the guy. In this case, I’m trying to nourish the characters. We had a flat reading with Charlotte Gainsbourg, because she was scared to death of the lines, so she asked me for a flat. We call it “flat reading” in French, which means just to read the lines. But she was nervous because of my way of writing, and she said, “When I’m working with Lars von Trier, we can improvise anything. Am I allowed to improvise?” “You’re welcome. Whatever you want. We’ll see.” I propose to her: “Do you want to have Mathieu and you? You have a simple reading, just to see if there are some lines that I can embellish, that I can improve, or are you fine with it? I like that you will change because of your own idiosyncrasies.” So we had a flat reading, but never to act too much — because you have to save this energy when the camera will be here and catch the performance you have to deliver.

I think the magic of cinema, which is so different from theater, is the meeting of the actor and the character — and it happens [snaps finger] you know, in a glimpse, in a spark. And the camera is catching it. So I still stick to my method. If I’m making a new film with Louis Garrel, I will propose to do it with him without rehearsal. [Smiles]

There’s a pretty graphic gore effect here.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. [Laughs]

I can’t think of any films where you have something quite like that.

I made one film for French TV that I really loved because I had scenes in a submarine, and, at one point, one of the main characters was poking another character, a sailor, in the eye with a knife. Wow, it was vivid! It was gore! And I loved to do that. It’s the kind of film that I love to see, and I’m not used to doing. It was fun to have that. There was also a sort of small rhyme that I liked. I will sound obscure, but Ismaël doesn’t have a cell phone. Later in the film, when Bloom is trying to reach him, he’s calling Sylvia’s phone; and, later in the film, when you see Louis Garrel, he’s saying, “My brother still hates the phones, because he’s so sensible, he can’t have a cell phone like everyone.” In the story that he’s inventing, the cell phone is a sort of devilish object which can kill you! And I like the fact that the guy in real life has a cell phone and, in fiction, the cell phone can kill. I thought it made sense.

At Cannes, you said that you like an espionage story. I wonder if this gave some incentive to go fully into that — if you could see yourself branching out and “simply” making something along the lines of Ismaël’s movie.

No, I wouldn’t. I’m sure that I wouldn’t, because the project was born on that. I had bits and pieces on this character, Ivan. I had this scene that I wanted to film: I like this idea of a character who is like in, what’s the name of, I forgot the name of the short story be Melville. Bartleby?

Bartleby, the Scrivener.

Yeah. A guy starting his life so late — he’s not that young — who has no will, looks empty or whatever. Is he stupid or absolutely clever? Is he a spy or naive? You just can’t say. Until the end, you can’t say. When the other guy is grabbing Jacques Nolot and saying, “Are you guilty? Are you a spy?” “I don’t know who I am.” So to depict such a character, which is childish and adult at the same time, I think was interesting for me. But as soon as I wrote these scenes, I knew that I would tell the story of his brother telling the story, that it would be bits and pieces — that I didn’t want to have one novel, but just bits and pieces of this novel.

As a spy movie, I would be bored. If it’s bits and pieces, I would be fine with that, but one fiction about just that, I don’t think I would be the proper director. As a spectator, I love that. I love that. As a reader, I love that. Ismael’s Ghosts is a tribute to… what’s the name of this writer? The Ghost of… you know this famous American writer who wrote about the CIA, which is called Harlot’s Ghost. It’s an epic about the story of the CIA. I love every book about the CIA. I love John le Carré. It’s a Norman Mailer book which is not that well-known, and which is wonderful. So there was sort of a gesture to this book throughout the title of the film, knowing that the title of the film would be close to Norman Mailer’s book.

Speaking of: I love the way the title comes across the screen at the beginning. It’s so overwhelming. How did you arrive at that decision?

On the editing table. So many things I invented on the editing table. Today, the habit is not have to an opening title any longer; you just plunge into the movie. But I thought, on the editing table, because the shot is tracking — which is so parallel to the actor — it reminded me of the films of a director who I worship, Wes Anderson. You have this tracking, which is like that, so I was thinking of the opening credits of, I don’t remember which movie, the wise guys with the title running through the streets like that. It’s in CinemaScope, so it was nice. There was also a storytelling reason, which is that what you are looking at is not the film — it’s the film in the film.

So it was helpful for me, for the audience — you — to have this title, to say, “Hey, it’s not the film. It’s the a film, but it’s a film in a film.” So to have the title upon these images, permit me to suggest to the audience that the following scenes will be different from this opening scene, which is more of a comedy. So you have this tribute to Wes Anderson, but as soon as the camera is moving like that, when you see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it’s a Desplechin movie, because Wes Anderson would never turn the camera like that. He would go on with the tracking, parallel to his characters.

At the press screening, many of us were laughing during those scenes — but I think laughing with it, because so much, from the marching to the editing, is ridiculous. But it’s not a spoof in the register of Airplane! I wonder about finding the tempo of that — how much it’s in writing, directing, and editing.

I think, if I remember correctly, we already discussed that once, but it’s exactly what you say: the thing that is funny and awfully difficult is that the three arts are absolutely different — the art of writing for cinema, the art of filming a story on the set, and the art of editing. So you have to have enough energy inside of you to tell the story three times, in three different ways. When I’m writing, I’m trying to have good punchlines — ambitious enough and funny enough and tragic enough. To have these kinds of lines is a trial. On the set, we have to kind of reinvent everything — we have to find another way to make them alive — and, after that, on the editing table, I have to cut, and I suppress a lot of material to reach the very heart of the scene as fast as I can.

This mixture of the different tones, also, to find the right balance between tragic scenes — which is Charlotte Gainsbourg being pregnant — and you have to find the right balance and to say, “Okay, when am I allowed to jump? Will they follow me?” On this film, it was quite challenging because of the journey I was asking the audience to take was really bold. So you have to be very careful about the jump between one tone and the other tone. How can I say that? It’s strange. When I’m making a film, I think I want the audience to be a little bit lost, but, at every second, I want them to feel that I am holding by the hand and saying, “Don’t worry. You’re not that lost. I know where I’m going.” So it’s two movements at the same time: the pleasure to be lost and the pleasure to have the storyteller grab you by the hand and say, “You’re not lost. You’ll find your way out of this maze.”

I know you like the Truffaut quote about directing against writing and editing against directing. This, to me, feels like the movie of yours that most fully embodies that. You also once told me that, when you started writing this film, you thought about the part of Sabbath’s Theater where Mickey’s wife disappears and he can’t find her. I had that on my mind throughout. Do you come away thinking about conscious influences differently?

I can’t say that it changed my experience, because I jumped from this myth, which is so wonderful in Sabbath’s Theater, about the wife who disappears so young, the guy who can’t recover, and is a widower. Sabbath used to be a widower, and, in a way, it was comfortable. Then arrives Charlotte Gainsbourg, so he’s a widower no longer. During 20 years, he was a widower; it was a part he was used to acting, so he has to move from one part to a second part. So this theme was coming, surely, from Sabbath’s Theater, but there is another book of Philip Roth: American Pastoral, when you have the daughter of Levov, Merry. This girl was missing, and we discover that she was still alive — that she disappeared on the other side of the world, or whatever. So this other book nourished me, too.

I can say that, on the set, during preps and on set, each time I would take another reference, I was using this myth of Vertigo, which is nourishing the movie. Each time I was too close to the comedies or spy stories of Hitchcock, I was thinking, “No, no, no — it’s a remake of a Bergman movie, of Persona.” So when I wanted to escape from Hitchcock, I was jumping into the arms of Bergman; and when I wanted to escape the arms of Bergman, I was jumping into the arms of Hitchcock. So it’s a game of references and inferences, to jump into some other arms, to escape the influence of the previous one. So I escaped from Sabbath’s Theater by jumping into the arms of American Pastoral.

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If one film is usually a response to the last — My Golden Days is about youth; this is about people seeking a second chance — do you know what runs counter to Ismael’s Ghosts?

Oh, yes. Also, My Golden Days was about absolute newcomers who’d never appeared onscreen; this time, it was with big French movie stars. So it was lovely, but it was not the same world of directing at all when you are working with Cotillard and when you are working with Lou Roy-Lecollinet, because they don’t have the same experience in life. So it was great. Actually, the same business, the same art, but it’s not the same. It’s nice, because the jump is big. On this one, I was so happy to arrive for the New York Film Festival. Before my trip yesterday, I wanted to finish a first draft of something, and I know it’s a tribute to a film which is very, very important for me, which is The Wrong Man.

Would I be able to make a film… I could say that Ismael’s Ghosts is a tribute to imagination, a tribute to fiction. Ismael’s Ghosts is a stream of fictions, each fiction intricate with the other one. What if… and sometimes I’ve heard people say I was doing a cinema that was quite novelistic. I thought, “What if I get rid of all the fiction and I will just say the facts? Just the facts.” So I found this story that I started to work on, which is very dry and austere while Ismael’s Ghosts is so generous. Would I be able to make a film as restrained as The Wrong Man is? If you compare The Wrong Man with other works of Hitchcock, and so I think of films like Pickpocket, that kind of film where you just see the facts. After this tribute to imagination, to make a film just about imagination — to stick to reality. So I think it’s my next jump.

I’ve never seen The Wrong Man.

Never saw The Wrong Man? [Exhales] Hitchcock is a Catholic director. Deeply Catholic; English-Catholic. This idea of original sin is strong underneath all his work — even The Birds. That was the theory of the New Wave, of Truffaut and Chabrol, etc. On this film, it’s like a manifesto. Yes, I’m a Catholic: that’s my strength, that’s my weakness, that’s who I am.

It’s a self-portrait, and the performance of Fonda is one of the best… I can’t say “one of the best from him,” he’s such a great actor, but the performance is really devastating. Devastating. It’s so close to this story of this little-boy Hitchcock going into jail, how he starts in the Hitch book, but it happens to a grown-up guy. It’s a wonderful film.

If you don’t mind me asking: are you Catholic?

I’m deeply Catholic.

You’re deeply Catholic.

Oh, yes. I am.

Have you considered yourself a “Catholic filmmaker”?

I’m not sure. It’s strange: when I say I am Catholic, I don’t know what I’m saying, Catholicism being so complicated. When I was 11, I started to think, “It’s so absurd. This religion is so absurd. I want to convert to be a Protestant; it makes more sense. I can’t buy this story of the Virgin Mary; it’s absurd.” So I started going to the temple instead of going to the church, and my parents were quite upset about that. Later in my life, I read some books about the Talmud which influenced me a lot. All the philosophers I’m thinking about — mainly Emmanuel Levinas, who was a French, well-known philosopher. He was actually from Switzerland, but writing in French. He wrote all these things about the Jewish culture and the Jewish religion, too, which influenced me a lot.

After a while, when I started being 20-25, I was reading Joyce and stuff like that — French writers — and thought, “Yeah, the sense that life can be magic, that magical things can happen, it’s a beautiful part of my inheritance, and I have to embrace it instead of refusing it.” So I guess I was raised as a Catholic boy — so I guess I’m not a good Catholic. I don’t have the faith; I have no faith. Sorry about that. So I’m not a good Catholic, but I’m definitely a Catholic.

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While I still have time, maybe I could ask about —

[Desplechin begins vaping]

What flavor vape do you use?

Sorry. It’s gross to do that.

No, it’s fine!

Just tobacco. Tobacco and chocolate.

Did you give up smoking cigarettes?

I would like to reach five a day. That’s my maximum. But I have a hard time, because it depends, at the moment, on my work. Some of my gestures are so linked to tobacco. Hopefully, I can write without cigarettes. E-cigarettes are enough, but it’s still difficult for me, and I have to learn how to daydream without cigarettes; that’s difficult. I can read with cigarettes, I can work alone with cigarettes, but when I’m sharing with my co-writers, I deprive myself. When I’m daydreaming after my work session in the morning. It’s difficult, but sometimes I succeed. In six months, I will be at five cigarettes a day, not more. Five? Four. Three.

Were you writing the new film with this?

Yeah. Because it’s a thing which is… we are not from the same generation. It’s difficult because you are American, I am French — it’s not the same culture. But there is another thing: you are young and I’m old, and I think that, at a certain point, it’s self-indulgent to smoke that much. I thought, at my age, it would be more elegant if I would be able to reduce the mode of cigarettes. I smoke widely, and I don’t regret it. I smoked widely when I was in my 30s and 40s, and I thought, “Okay, now it would be more reasonable to be more elegant.” I’m able to restrain myself. So I want to achieve that, but I will have a hard time.

I know that Louis Garrel is big on it.

Yeah, yeah. He’s always doing that. I stole that from him, because he’s doing that all the time, and Philippe Garrel told me to quit; he’s told me that many times. So I’m following him. I always listen to Philippe Garrel, always.

Have you seen his new movie?

Yeah.

Is it good?

Yeah. It’s good. Did you see it?

No. I missed it while it was at the festival.

I’m quite proud. He said it publicly, so I’m allowed to say it: he paid a tribute to me. He said, “Actually, I did this film because of one note of Arnaud.” He said that in public. Because he’s God for me, it was so important that he said that. How come? It’s because when I saw his previous movie — which I loved — I said to Louis to transmit to his father the fact that it was not serious, because it was a love story, and it was a sex affair between the guy who’s having an affair with his mistress, because he loves to get laid with her in the afternoon; after that, he’s back with his wife. And you have no nudity in the film.

Very often, Philippe Garrel is saying, “I’m not a cinematographer; I’m a painter.” I thought, “Yeah, but if you are a painter, you have to face the question of nudity.” He sought that out in the new film. He found a way of being so discerned and so cautious and so beautiful, and to see the body of this woman — but in a very subtle way. “How would I be able, as a painter, ask a woman to be naked in front of me, and how I could paint her not in an obscene way, but in a delicate way?” So, yeah, I loved his film.

Do you shoot with multiple cameras?

No.

The performances have such a powerful relationship with the visual scheme, how you cut on lines and return to an actor’s face as their character is reacting to what’s been said. What do you do to maintain the rhythm and consistency of a performance?

Usually, in the morning, I try not to pertain the performance; that’s the trick. What I mean is: in the morning, I’m so nervous before the arrival of the technicians and the actors. I’m very early on the set — 5:30 on the set — and I’m working alone. I’m acting the scene again and again and again, and I want to impress them — I want to impress the technicians; I want to impress the actors — so I have the idea, the concept, of a one-er. Clever, well-done. After that, in the morning, we are shooting that one-er. I’m trying to reach not the perfect performance, but to see, “What if we are playing the scene with a smile? A cry? As a whisper? As yelling?” We try different options like that. As we finish my morning, I think, “Yeah.”

But, at this point, I was on Charlotte and I couldn’t see what Mathieu was giving. I was looking at the two of them, so I’m filming what I’m calling “specials.” And I have a “special” which is a little moment that Mathieu gave me that I didn’t film. I’m hiding these small, bizarre shots which are played not in the same range as the rest of the performance, and the thing I’m trying to assemble on the editing table are different facets about the same lines. Not to have one proper way of playing the scene, but to show that the art of the actors is so huge that they can play all the facets of the actors; not one way of acting, but several facets of them. That’s why I don’t care that much about continuity of acting.

It just feels very real.

Because in real life, that’s what’s happened. In real life, you’re full of anger — and during the same time you’re full of anger, there is another feeling, which is, “I’m a little bit ridiculous now.” You feel ridiculous at the same time. “I’m slightly laughable.” Which doesn’t mean that you are not full of anger! But, at the same time, you have a set conscience of yourself that you are slightly ridiculous. You know? So you have two ways of acting the same scene.

At a certain moment of this anger, which is in you, you start to love it, because the situation is absurd. So to try to catch all these dimensions of one scene, to me, is richer than to say, “Okay, no, full of anger, which means that you have to be full of anger.” No. In the anger, you have also the laughable aspect, the absurd aspect; you have the feelings, the memory of the fact that you love the people that, today, you hate. You have all these feelings which are mixed, and that’s what I’m trying to catch from one take to another take.

Ismael’s Ghosts enters a limited release on Friday, March 23.