Latest Features

Joe Berlinger Wants You to Feel Betrayed by His Ted Bundy Film

Written by Joshua Encinias, January 31, 2019 at 3:11 pm 

Director Joe Berlinger hopes viewers have one take-away from his new Ted Bundy film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile: that killers are not guys who come out of the shadows with long teeth and blood dripping off their chins; they are three-dimensional human beings. Whether his film sends that message is the cause of debate out of Sundance.

We sat down with Berlinger to discuss his psychological well-being after spending years with Bundy and his crimes, both for the film and his Netflix show Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. We also discussed why Bundy’s double life included going to law school and how the killer kicked off the era of dubious men using mass media to build fanatical supporters.

The Film Stage: What do you think it’s done to your own psyche to spend this many years with Ted Bundy and his crimes?

Joe Berlinger: My wife is laughing, because you know this is not the first time I have taken on dark subjects. but I think doing the unscripted and scripted project that was basically in the same time period of such a disturbing time and dark story, it’s taking a bit of an emotional toll. I jokingly say to my friends that if you look at my filmography it basically splits out into two buckets: murder and music. And I think it’s time to go make a music film to remind me of the heights of human achievement versus the depth of human depravity.

Coming from a social activist documentary tradition is what I’m mainly known for. I generally want to make a film about something in which I feel there is something to say and there’s a lesson to impart. And obviously this is my first scripted film in a very long time and the lesson I wanted to impart to young people is: I have daughters who are the age of Bundy’s victims. I think it is an important to understand that people really need to deserve your trust. That the people who do evil in this world are often the people you least expect, and often the closet to you whether it is a priest who commits pedophila, or your loving boyfriend who is a great surrogate father to your daughter from another relationship, but when you’re not together, he’s off killing people. You know, I think that is a lesson that’s valuable for people to hear.

So the long answer to your question is as long as I feel like there is a purpose to this storytelling that will help people and reach people in some way, and then even though I have spent a lot of time in some of the dark recesses of the worst behavior one person could do–actually the worst behavior a human being can do to another human being–I think it saves me from going down the horrible dark mental rabbit hole, because I believe that for those for whom this film works, it’s not just a piece of entertainment. I think it’s got a deeper social message to it.

Your documentary is about Bundy’s crimes. Why did you make the film about Bundy’s relationships?

Well look, the documentary series came first. These tapes landed on my desk from a guy named Stephen Michaud, who is the author of the book Conversations with a Killer, and he and Hugh Aynesworth relied on these Bundy interviews to write the book several decades ago. He reached out to me in early January 2017 and said: “Hey, you know the tapes that I based the books on, we never really used for anything. Do you think there’s a series there?” And I did. I found that the tapes were this chilling entry into the mind of a killer to understand how we operated and to tell a full story of the horrible acts that Bundy perpetuated, which that felt right for the documentary format. The script landed on my desk two months later in just some strange coincidence and I thought it was a script that would take forever to get off the ground, but it came together very quickly, much to my surprise. Within weeks of me reading the script, Zac Efron and Lily Collins signed on and within weeks of that the movie was sold at Cannes. It was so blindingly fast and that actually never happens, so when I read the script I thought this is going to take years to get off the ground and it came together within weeks.

So the fact that it came together provided two interesting and very different ways to get into the stories. Whereas The Conversations with a Killer doc series is this journey into the mind of a killer, why I was attracted to this script for Extremely Wicked is this is a deep dive into the mind of the victim and how somebody like Bundy operates and how somebody can deceive and manipulate and successfully avoid detection for so long. Obviously a scripted format and documentary format is different: different amounts of screentime, different objectives, and I thought that there have been many, many great serial killer movies and then you got bad ones that are a cataloging of the extreme violence, and that was so uninteresting to me. What was interesting to me was giving the audience the same experience that Bundy’s friends and protectors had because they thought he was innocent, and the women who loved him knew what it’s like to be betrayed by someone whom you invested all this trust and love with. That required not showing the audience any violence until the end of the movie. Because the moment you see that stuff, then you are not emotionally invested in that relationship.

You don’t make a movie for everybody. Some people don’t like the movie, but if it’s working for you I think it works for you because the experience I’m trying to give you is what it is like to believe in somebody who is not worthy of our trust and to give the audience that same journey his victims had. When you come into the film, you know it’s Bundy, you kind of suspend that intellectual knowledge and you invest in the relationship, and when Bundy jumps out the window, I want the audience to feel conflicted like, “Oh my god! I thought that relationship would succeed!” And only by waiting and withholding the violence until the final scene in the movie, what people have told me and the reaction I want is people to feel revulsed and betrayed that they invested their emotion in the success of that relationship when they finally and emotionally realized the truth. That’s the journey I wanted to take; portraying deception and betrayal. With the movie I’m not portraying the biopic of a serial killer. At least that was the creative intent.

Trump and Bundy used the media to grow their fanbases in in similar ways. What do you think about that kind of mindset that manipulates people using mass communication?

Yeah, I think that’s one of the dangers of… well, one of the reasons I was so interested in telling the story is because Bundy is kinda the big bang that led to our current insatiable appetite for all things true crime. He so successfully manipulated the media and cameras were allowed into the courtroom for the first time ever. In the same way I think today, attacks on journalists, today’s attack on the truth, and the demagoguery involved are like playbooks from Bundy. Just the deny, deny, deny and tell another story until people believe you. The relationship between denial and charisma is not just a playbook from Trump or Bundy or Adolf Hitler. It’s the classic playbook. Deny and persuade.

Do you know if Bundy was getting into law school so he could do exactly what he did–speak and defend himself–or did he have an alternative path he was taking?

I think that what’s scary about Bundy, because exactly as Bundy himself says, “Killers are not guys who come out of the shadows with long teeth and blood dripping off their chins. They are three-dimensional human beings.” I think Bundy had this conflict for his need for normalcy and his ability to compartmentalize his evil acts. Part of that normalcy is that I do think he saw himself as a rising student or a rising star in Republican politics. He had this relationship with Liz. I believe he needed a sense of normalcy, but it’s that voice he called the entity, as seen in the doc, this compulsion to kill that’s inexplicable for a man who had everything going for him. So I think he was going to law school because he wanted to be a lawyer, but the compulsion to kill, that inner voice overpowered anything that put him into a frame of mind than just having a normal life and that’s what’s so fascinating to me about the entire story.

Here’s a guy, who escaped from prison not once but twice. I mean who escapes from prison once, let alone twice? And while he’s on the lam in Florida you would think he would have the presence of mind to control himself, but no just the opposite. His most vicious killings happen in Florida. He bludgeons four women at the Chi Omega House killing two, and really hurting two others, runs down the street and attacks a fifth woman leaving her for dead, but she survives as well, this horrible attack. Then a few weeks later he goes and he realizes that he’s going to snatch younger people and kills 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, which we don’t show in the movie. That just speaks to this compulsion to kill out-doing all other aspects of his personality. As to why it is that we’ll never know why, that’s the enduring lesson of Bundy. He defies all stereotypes we have that makes us feel safer about what a serial killer is supposed to be.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Follow our festival coverage here.

Steven Knight Discusses ‘Serenity,’ Big Twists, and Living in a New Reality

Written by Dan Mecca, January 23, 2019 at 8:00 am 

Steven Knight is a busy man. An incredibly accomplished screenwriter (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) and director (Redemption, Locke), he’s got several projects in, or about go into, production. There’s also Peaky Blinders, a show he created, and his new thriller Serenity, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, which The Film Stage was lucky enough to speak with him about. We talked through the risky twist in the movie (some spoilers ahead!), the motivations that come with challenging yourself as a director, and the unfortunate underperformance of Allied.

The Film Stage: This movie is framed as an old-fashioned film noir at the start, which is very refreshing because you don’t get a lot of those anymore, at least on the big screen. And then, without jumping into huge spoilers, you make a crucial narrative decision that’s pretty radical. It’s hinted at throughout but when it happens it’s surprising and fairly fascinating. How did you get there from the development of the idea?

Steven Knight: Yeah, the original idea came when I went out on a fishing boat some years ago with a captain who was very accommodating and polite with tourists… but as soon the fish came on he changed and was completely obsessed with catching this fish. And his whole life was this obsession with catching a fish every day. He lived in this beautiful place and yet it seemed like the beauty of the things around him he didn’t see. He was just obsessed with this one thing.

So I started to construct a character who was that person and I started to find reasons why he would be like that and why he would be living there. But, at the same time, whenever I direct a film I try to set myself a challenge. So with Locke it was: “Could you make the most ordinary man in Britain doing the most ordinary job, driving in a car on a motorway. Could you make that, just that, into a film?” And with [Serenity], what I wanted to do was construct a story with characters that hopefully engage an audience and then, at the most inconvenient time in a conventional narrative, remove everything. And make it not what you thought it was. That offered the possibility that since, in retrospect, you realize that this situation and these people had been created that you could start to mine some of the tropes and genres of fiction. And I wanted Baker Dill [Matthew McConaughey] to be the in the tradition of The American Hero–starting with Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. That sort of closed-down wanderer who is not in the place where they should be and has secrets. There is something very heroic about them and that’s what I wanted Baker Dill to be and then, when you’ve paid homage to that fictional tradition, pull it apart and have that character question their reality and their obsession and ask, “Why am I obsessed with this? Is it because it’s a game or is it because it’s real?”

I wanted to do that while fully aware that the challenge of doing that would sort of contradict a lot of the rules of filmmaking; where you set up the stakes and then there are no stakes. So I hope that audiences come away with questions and it was my way of trying to deal with lots of different things. The way that my kids play computer games, how their suspension of disbelief is so radically enhanced by the fact that they’re part of it. That they’re playing it, that they’re creating it. [It’s a] new form of fiction… I wanted to break up the normal narrative structure of a film.

It’s definitely a bold choice and while watching it it’s hard not to respect the reveal and roll with it. Going back to Locke in reference to this new film, it sounds like it started like it was going to be something more of a chamber piece and then evolved? Like you said, to challenge yourself?

Yeah. What I wanted was the story itself–the ex-girlfriend showing up saying “I want you to kill my husband”–sets you up for what would be a 1940s, 1950s thriller, if you like. And then, having done that, to then put a wrecking ball through it was what I wanted to do.

For the past two decades you’ve been one of the most talented and sought-after screenwriters working. Now that you’ve been directing, how does that writing career inform you when you’re behind the camera? How does the creative process expand when you are writing and directing?

Well, I consider myself to be a writer who occasionally directs. Directing is a physical, structural act of construction. It really is brick by brick. It’s hard work. Sometimes I feel compelled to do it partly because some of the things I direct I don’t think anybody else would want to direct. [Laughs]

In terms of how the career works you obviously take some time off for writing but I consider myself to primarily be a writer and, at the moment, I’m doing a lot of television. And I have screenplays that I’ve written in the past year or two years that are just coming to fruition.

There is one movie you wrote that I wanted to ask about because I have a deep appreciation for it and it seemed to get a bit lost during its release. The movie’s Allied and I’m wondering when that releases and then comes and goes without much fanfare is that something you’re surprised by? Or are you mitigating expectations?

I think in the movie business it’s best not to have expectations [for a film’s reception and performance] because you never know what is the thing that it is going to be judged on, strangely. Allied came out at a very odd time in terms of what was going on. I strongly believe, whether it’s Serenity or Locke or anything else, what I hope to create is films that when they’re watched ten years from now they won’t be identifiable as from the period they’re from. That they’re not the products of the zeitgeist, if you like. I think that can be problematic but I think it’s really worth making sure what you’re doing is what you want to do and not what the times sort of dictates.

It’s an interesting point looking back at a lot of your scripts. There is a timelessness there that speaks to what you’re talking about. Now then, I would imagine, in bringing it back to Serenity and the elements revealed, that there is a risk of dating the material given the tech, let’s say, that is in there.

Yeah, I mean, the tech side of it I took advice on and obviously that will change. The thing that interests me is the way that the kid in the film is in a different reality and I look at my kids and other people where, just lately, the amount of engagement with human beings and their screens–in other words, within a reality that isn’t physically present–is astonishing. It’s absolutely astonishing. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m saying it’s a new reality and I think it’s exactly that. Because people know that the thing in the screen is not physically real but then what’s real? If it’s real in that moment to them then that’s the reality that they’re in. So you can go into a cafe and there will be twenty people all existing in their own reality. They’re not really in the cafe anymore. That’s good and bad and that’s what I wanted to explore with Serenity. We go into a reality being created our screen. It sounds outlandish that there would be such a thing but the truth is if you walk into a cafe and someone’s wearing headphones, staring at a screen and playing a game, if you tap them on the shoulder for a split second they are between two realities. They have to come out of the one and come into this one. The reality is much boring than the stuff on the screen. [Laughs]

What’s next in the immediate future, you mentioned you were jumping back into some writing?

We’re shooting a TV thing, quite a big series for Apple [the television series See starring Jason Momoa], which is being shot at the moment in Vancouver. And I’ve got a movie with Jake Gyllenhaal going into production (the psychological thriller Rio also starring Benedict Cumberbatch] and an untitled movie also going into production hopefully late spring of 2019.

Serenity opens Friday, January 25.

Cinematographer James Laxton on Capturing the Romance of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ Close-Ups, and Errol Morris

Written by Jordan Raup, December 31, 2018 at 10:20 am 

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Continuing their collaboration since their film school days, cinematographer James Laxton and Barry Jenkins once again create one of lushest, most vibrant films of the year with If Beale Street Could Talk. Bringing the world of James Baldwin to the screen, their Harlem is one of bright beauty and swoon-worthy colors, a cacophony of visual delight to match the emotional exuberance of the story’s foundational romantic center. Along with the colorful palette, Laxton’s camera movement is something to behold, particularly in the film’s best scene as Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan James’ characters reconnect over a meal and we feel like we’re another member of the table as the frame gracefully glides back and forth.

We talked with the cinematographer about bringing a vibrant romanticism to the film, how they achieve the Jonathan Demme-esque close-ups, being inspired by Errol Morris, seeing KiKi Layne and Stephan James blossom on set, his favorite cinematography of the year, and more.

The Film Stage: I read James Baldwin’s book before seeing the film and in these apartments, there’s definitely a way this could have been shot where it could have been more play-esque and a little more static, but you breathe a lot of life into these scenes. Could you talk about the setups for those shots and conceiving those apartment shots?

James Laxton: Well, thank you very much, that was definitely a goal for us. Barry and I are always trying to focus on immersive language with the camera, trying to bring the camera within conversations and not have it just be a fly on the wall in a scene but sort of engage with the audience by placing the camera particularly in POV shots or right over the eye-line of someone’s close up. Especially in those scenes with the two families in the same room, where there’s eight different people talking to eight different people, it’s definitely challenging. It’s an amazing scene with some great challenges of course, but definitely something we were, not concerned per say, but we know would be challenging, truly based on how much coverage we knew we needed to get. I think the actors were very patient with us through those couple of days in giving us what we needed to do. It was important to not have the film feel too much like you were reading the novel and more so that you are experiencing the novel, and I think that’s something Barry and I are always sort of obsessed with, trying to bring the audience inside the experience so they can relate to the characters. For example, I’m a white guy from California–I don’t know what it’s like to be Tish and Fonny in that space, but if I can place the camera in a certain way, maybe I can feel like I am experiencing something that culturally I’m not familiar with and that is one reason we try to do our best immerse our audience into those spaces and into those scenes and into those characters.

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From the opening scene, there’s this rush of color. The opening shot reminded me of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I was curious if you talked about that at all?

I wish, that’s a rad reference. The opening shot and sequences in films for Barry and I are really critical. It’s a time where we get to clue the audience into what the visual vocabulary of the film will be. The opening shot where the camera rotates around and follows them with this big crane movement quickly establishes the patience in which the camera will be moving for the next two hours; more precise, delicate framings and how the light plays within those early scenes. This had a lot to do with how we wanted to establish a certain language that is particular to the film and to the story and allowed us to be creative and sort of present maybe a heightened sense of love and romance.

We interviewed you for Moonlight and you mentioned how you guys had the shared folder of images going back for years that were from Wong Kar-Wai or Claire Denis or photographs, but Barry Jenkins has said that for the references here was just going back to James Baldwin’s descriptions. I was wondering if you could illuminate that process?

I think what he’s talking about there is the sort of literary aspect of it all, coupled with how Mr. Baldwin is so specific at times with a certain jacket or cup or pouch. He can be very descriptive of these environments, and that’s sort of what Barry’s alluding to. Those things don’t particularly reference photography, but Mr. Baldwin’s writing was hugely influential just cinematically as well, but I would say more stemming from this use of language and less from his particularly descriptions of space –that was probably more discussed from a production design or costume design perspective, or maybe even performance. But the way Baldwin writes and speaks had a lot to do with how we wanted to move the camera, the kind of camera we used which was the Alexa 65. A lot of sort of shaping decisions had a lot to do with this novel specifically and even more broadly Mr. Baldwin’s writings and works at large.

I love that there’s so much color in this film. You talked a little bit about that with the opening, but sometimes there can be a bleakness when you’re portraying communities that might not be middle or upper class. Yet in the film, you give this kind of love and life and bring people’s awareness to how much joy there can be along with the hardship. Can you talk a little bit about this from a cinematographer perspective and the kind of awareness you brought to that?

This movie and this book takes on quite a lot of subject. I mean, we’re talking about race relations in the U.S., we’re talking about the prison system, and sexual assault issues, but at the heart of all these things in my mind is the love between Tish and Fonny, and it’s that love connection that seems to be the spine of the story, and the spine of how we viewed every other aspect that the story is discussing. When I think of love and family love or romantic love with Tish and Fonny, it was all about the tones and romantic sensibilities. I think about the iconography of romance that’s in my mind and most likely in a lot of people’s shared visual sensibility. The scene where Tish and Fonny exit the restaurant and have this romantic walk down the road with the umbrella, and the light is sort of backlighting it in this 1950’s cinematic vocabulary, that was very much a part of this depiction of romance of love and affection for one another. I think you see that in the sensuality in their relationship and in the family love, and shared within those scenes of Tish in the family apartment.

So while the movie is about a lot of tragic subjects, I think if we can view that tragedy through a sense of strength and love that the family and characters bring to the story, it’s through that love that all of the other subjects seem to impact me more in a way I can identify with. I mean, I’m a white guy from California. I may not know exactly what it’s like to be black in Harlem in the 1970s, but I do know what love feels like, and I think if we can connect the audiences in that love Fonny and Tish are sharing, and hopefully at some point in our lives we’ve felt that first love that may have meant so much to us, and if we can sort of sense that sensibility, maybe we can empathize at the very least or understand what it’s like to be in Fonny’s shoes or in Tish’s shoes.

Barry Jenkins did an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson and the latter said that since he started his career he’s been trying to do these Jonathan Demme-esque close-ups and Barry Jenkins has done it perfectly in just a few films. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and what you think of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, and speaking a little about the execution of these shots.

Well, it’s very flattering, as you can imagine. I’m a big PTA fan and have been for a great deal of time. I think the world of his films generally and visually to be pretty spectacular, and I have to say let’s not forget his ability for cutting such powerful and unique close-ups as well. So I’d like to write back to him and say his work is clearly amazing. It’s flattering, I don’t know what else to say about it besides that.

You know, those close-ups are really amazing, and the way they happen, which Barry sort of talked about in that interview, is that they are pretty spontaneous. I think that maybe a reason as to why they might work is that even though they might be quite stylized at times to have a character look into the lens, it isn’t so necessarily so thought out, and it’s just moments where Barry and I realized we’re getting something that is almost like a crescendo of heightened sensibility, where we get sucked into the monitor and you can see our faces six inches from the monitor because we want to be close. And it’s one of those moments where we look each other and decide that this may be deserving of one of those moments and then we end up shooting it, and we take a moment before we move on to make sure we get something like that. I don’t find what we do in those moments to be any more unique than other aspects in our process. Of course we’re not spending six hours on one of those close-ups but maybe 20 minutes or something like that if we’re lucky. It’s hard to know or even discuss what’s going on there but it’s probably just Barry and I–and more simply Barry–just deciding these are moments that can stand up that level of stylization. I think that is something that Barry navigates very well. If it’s a scene or it’s a moment that was maybe not ringing with as much strength, I’m not sure if those moments would work. It’s about realizing what moments can stand up to that level of stylization.

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Speaking of the actors, you mentioned how you used for the prison sequence an Interrotron. Can you talk about your idea to do that and how you were pleased with the results?

Well, those scenes aren’t just brief moments, they are long five or so minute sequences where we’re asking KiKi or Stephan to perform the entirety of the scene into the lens. We realized early on that would be a pretty inappropriate request from a filmmaker to the actors so we had to find some way to still achieve these heightened, visual voices while still getting performances that are as meaningful as they ended up in the film to be. So how to do that, I can’t remember how it exactly it happened but I think Barry and I are aware of how Errol Morris was making documentaries for a long time. I’m not sure if he still is using that system, but he had used it for a very long time, and it felt like what a great tool to bring those performances into those close-ups. It just seemed to be a perfect tool for us to still get a scene with this visual approach.

With Moonlight and this film, it must have been pretty amazing for you to witness all of these new actors to blossom on set. I’m curious about when you first saw or talked to KiKi or Stephan on set.

I’m not a director so it’s a little challenging for me to comment on too much, but my role is unique. I’m not talking to them in the same way Barry is, but even as an observer, watching the process happen with each of those young people, they were sort of embodying these characters where there was a sense that when they walked onto the set, I wasn’t really sure I was watching KiKi anymore. I was watching Tish. It was something they took very seriously and they really cared for the process and it’s just that diligence and that professionalism mixed with a real passion and care for the material. I think I realized quickly that these were going to be some great performances and some really talented people were creating this world with us. It was sort of effervescent. It wasn’t complicated. It wasn’t process driven. It was immediate that these two actors had chemistry very quickly.

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One of my favorite scenes is with Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan over dinner. I haven’t seen a movie in a long time where you feel like you are a part of the conversation, you are just gliding through and you feel like it could have gone on for another hour if you wanted it too. Could you talk about pulling that off?

Man, it was scary. I think that’s a technique that Barry and I have been trying to do for a while. There’s a couple moments of it in Moonlight and I think we finally figured it out, but you know it’s very much all about listening and being in concert with the performance as a camera operator.  I know it’s a technically challenging thing to do. You not only need to be moving the camera in a certain way but you also are reacting and listening almost like another actor or character might be within the scene and to do that you need to be quite sensitive and emotionally available to sort of feel the performance a certain way and engage with the process in a different way that isn’t just technical, but emotional. Just again, listening to the performance, really connecting with Brian, really connecting to Stephan and engaging with them on a much more sort of spiritual level than a cinematographer or camera operator might be used too. It’s asking a lot of everybody and I think in that scene particularly all of these things sort of gelled in a way that I think was perfect or close to it anyway.

There’s two montages that bookend the film. Can you talk about as cinematographer, do you have a say in the visual feel of how those images come across, or do you just see it at the end of the process?

No, I wasn’t involved in choosing what photos go in there. There were a couple of photos in the screenplay, I think Gordon Parks was, and the others were largely found in the post-production process. I love them and the choices they made. They are tragically, tonally powerful, but it wasn’t me behind those choices. I wish I could say I was though. They are really strong choices and just wonderful for the film. But no, that wasn’t part of my role.

I was wondering if there’s any films you’ve seen this season or throughout the year that have impressed you?

I’m guessing you are going to give a lot of the same answers. I mean, Roma is stunning I think. What Cuarón does in that film is just really touching in a way that finds such a human spirit behind the visual choices he’s creating in that film. It’s a piece of work I’m inspired by no doubt about it. I also really love The Favourite. I thought Robbie Ryan’s work was really perfect for that film. The energy that he brings with the movement and lens choices and lighting, it just feels part and parcel to the story and to the energy of the film. So I think those two for me are quite standouts. There are so many more, there are so many more to talk about, but I would say Roma and The Favourite are mine.

If Beale Street Could Talk is now theaters.

Continue: The Best Cinematography of 2018

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Morgan Neville on the Multitudes of Orson Welles and How ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ is a Critique of Machismo

Written by Joshua Encinias, December 26, 2018 at 8:00 am 

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Twenty years after making the TV documentary The Hustons: Hollywood’s Maverick Dynasty, Morgan Neville returned to Huston and Orson Welles lore with They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about the making, unmaking, and resurrection of The Other Side of the Wind.

Neville joined the producing team of Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich, and Filip Jan Rymsza sometime before the project’s crowd-funding campaign. The producers promised to finish the film and Neville committed to telling this part of Orson’s story.

In our conservation with Morgan Neville, we discuss Hollywood’s abandonment of Orson Welles; even mega-producer Frank Marshall’s involvement couldn’t procure the necessary budget to finish the film for decades. He also talks about the multitude of contradictory personalities Welles held throughout his life, and he comments on the stark contrast between Welles and Mr. Rogers, the other person of interest in his hit documentary.

The Film Stage: I think F for Fake and your documentary help contextualize The Other Side of the Wind.

Morgan Neville: Wind is incredibly dense, and even my approach to the documentary is not that it’s an explainer; it’s me trying to pay homage to F for Fake. How do I honor Orson’s matter of storytelling in telling a story about him? For me I saw it as Orson had shot 100 hours of his movie within a movie about a filmmaker who can’t finish a film at the end of his life. To make a film about that, it’s the most perfect meta-text of all time, to have all that material, and it’s not just the film, it’s all that other stuff that was going on and understanding what Orson was working out in his life through the movie. I feel like in some ways when it came finances and to studios, he felt that he didn’t a lot of agency, but by putting it into the movie he could control the narrative. It gave him a chance to seize the reins over these characters who were vexing him; the Pauline Kael’s, the studio chiefs, the Robert Evan’s and all these other characters.

The Robert Evans character was much more subdued than the real Robert Evans.

[Laughs.] The real Robert Evans was much more over the top, but it was also just… with Orson, what’s interesting was having just interviewed over 40 people about Orson and having just read and studied Orson my whole life, that people disagree completely about what Orson thought or did. People would say “he was absolutely like a father to me” or they’d say “he was absolutely not a paternal person” or he was loving or cruel or creative or all these things that seem contradictory and I think that he really is somebody who, more than any person I’ve ever come across, contains multitudes. He is somebody who I think all these things are actually true. I think Orson was like the hall of mirrors in The Lady From Shanghai; he was all of these reflections of different sides and I think, depending on if he sat in this chair or that chair he would be a different person. He was constantly readjusting who he was and I know examples of when he would say something and immediately after would say “I never said that” and he was completely comfortable contradicting himself, more than almost anybody I ever met. In a way I feel like he’s somebody who contains many truths and to reduce it to a rosebud is not doing him any favors—it’s selling him short.

In framing your documentary as an homage to F for Fake, why did you choose Alan Cumming to be your Orson stand-in?

The first thing is that I felt we had to have a narrator because Orson loved narration. Not only did he narrate F for Fake, but from the Mercury Theatre through many of his feature films to some of the trailers for his feature films, he always narrated. He loved the narratorial voice and he felt that the narrator is the character in a way and not just a voice of God or just an objective voice. I felt that like it would be great to integrate a narrator who is helping to guide us. I think the Alan Cumming choice was just trying to find someone who occupied a similar space between comedy and drama, between stage and film, between England and America. This kind of theatrical character, there aren’t that many actors who check all those boxes. He felt right to me.

In the documentary there’s talk of Jake Hannaford’s (John Huston) latent homosexuality. When I heard that in the documentary, it made me think Hannaford does have an interesting relationship with Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich). Almost a socratic relationship with a pupil. Also, if you want to talk about the male gaze, Gary Graver’s camera is obsessed with John Dale (Robert Random) and his body in the film.

Without a doubt, the Hannaford character is pining in someway for the John Dale character. Even in the script or in the outtakes, Orson was kind of reinforcing that this was a pattern that Hannaford had; have a young man and kind of obsess over him in some way and that would lead to that person running away which is what John Dale does. So I think that is absolutely there. The film, it’s interesting when I see people referring to the film in the context of Me Too, I feel like Orson’s made the whole film because he hated machismo. I mean he really did. The seed of the idea originally stemmed from when he met Hemingway in the late 30s and they ended up getting into a fight because Hemingway said Orson was speaking with a queer voice or something to that effect, so Orson starting hamming it up and talking more effeminately and then he and Hemingway ended up getting into a fight.

A physical fight?

A physical fight. This was when he was doing the narration for The Spanish Earth in 1938. Hemingway ended up narrating the film himself though Orson’s narration survives too in a separate track if you want to hear it. But I think Orson never really understood or found that people who were excessively macho were people who were hiding something underneath and were overcompensating by acting as He-Men. He just hated it and I think that’s the main distinction between Hannaford and Orson is that that was not a part of Orson. I think everything else about Hannaford is about Orson, but I think that character profile was not Orson at all.

How did it come together for you to make the documentary?

There’s a book that came out called Orson Welles’s Last Movie that Josh Karp wrote maybe four years ago and I read it when it came out and loved it and I thought if I could ever get my hands on this footage I would love to make a film about Orson using his own footage. At that point, I ended up connecting with Josh and he told me that Frank Marshall and Filip Rymsza were trying to get this footage out and was on the cusp of happening and we made this pact that “when you get the footage, I’ll make a documentary” and that was great and it should happen imminently and it didn’t. It took another three years of trying to find the money and trying to negotiate, and there was no assumption that our films wouldn’t be happening at the same time either. When Netflix came on board they heard about both films and they said “we’ll do it all” and that was amazing because nobody else would have done that. What it really took was somebody to write a check big enough to pay off all the stakeholders who claimed some ownership of the film and literally no one else would write that check because Frank and Filip spent years; Frank spent decades trying to find someone to do that.

That’s unbelievable. There aren’t many bigger producers than Frank Marshall, and if he can’t find anyone…

I know, and I feel confident in saying there’s nobody but Netflix who would have funded this and make it happen. After a few years I didn’t believe it was going to ever happen and then one day a year and a half ago I got the call saying “we’re gonna close the deal and it’s really gonna happen this time.” So we started making the documentary before we even had the footage and they started ramping up too. I started the interviews and footage was being shipped from Paris and it had to be cleaned. Mo Henry, this legendary cutter, came out of retirement to cut it so then the footage was coming in dribs and drabs and there was no rhyme or reason so when we were making the film there were these batches of dailies that was like one puzzle piece a day and then day after day the picture starts to emerge. What I was doing was different too. I wasn’t trying to reconstruct the original photo, I was trying to pull it apart and look at pieces and listen to Orson’s directions and all these things in a scene and then say “what am I getting out of that?” which was great. That was really complicated but really fascinating to do and then we didn’t look at each other’s films until we were almost done. When I finally watched the feature, because I wanted to make my film first, and then near the end I was like “I know what my film is, I wanna see what their film is” and I was just really pleased at how kind of distinct they both were but also complimentary.

Your two most recent documentaries have been about one person. Having spent so much time, so to speak, with Orson and Mr. Rogers, how would you contrast the two? I know they couldn’t be more different.

They’re so different. I’ve thought about this, I mean the similarity is that they are both people who could care less about what is popular and what society thought. They were people who had their own inner direction and never wavered. In that way to me, that’s the definition of a heroic artist; someone who is able to perceive when the rest of the world tells them they’re wrong. I find that inspiring and romantic and everything else, so in that way, they both had a significant impact on my life, one as a filmmaker, one as a person.

Colman Domingo on His Spiritual Connection to James Baldwin and the Power of Family in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

Written by Joshua Encinias, December 25, 2018 at 8:00 am 

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If Beale Street Could Talk is Colman Domingo’s first time acting for Barry Jenkins, but it’s his second time performing James Baldwin’s work. He adapted Baldwin’s essay Nothing Personal with Patricia McGregor into 30 pages of dialogue and performed it on stage as James Baldwin-type character in celebration of the author’s 90th birthday.

In Beale Street, Domingo plays Joseph Rivers, husband to Sharon (Regina King). He’s the patriarch of the Rivers family, but spiritually, he’s Moses to his children’s generation in Harlem; making a way where there was none. (See our interview with director Barry Jenkins about the spiritual themes in his film).

We spoke with Domingo about developing Baldwin’s work for the stage and how it prepared him for playing Joseph in the film. Domingo talks about the real blue-collar men who inspired his performance, from Joseph’s voice to his smoking habit. He also engages with a recent speech given by Cornel West. While unrelated to the Beale Street, a stand-out quote from West’s talk has striking resonance with the spirit of the film.

I was doing some research for our interview and realized my introduction to your work was Beautiful Something.

Oh my god! Wonderful. It’s a beautiful movie isn’t it?

Will you talk about the development of your elocution? You just have such a great acting voice.

Oh, wow. That’s a beautiful thing to hear. I’m from Philadelphia and I started in the theater in San Francisco and I was there for about ten years. And whether it’s being part of major Shakespeare companies or the circus, I just always had a love for language. My journey started out with a speech impediment. I had a lisp until I was like 10 years old. I would go to speech classes so I think that gave me an appreciation for elocution. I love the sound of what you can do and how you tell a story. I’m someone who with each role I try to make decisions about where they’re from, how it’s conveyed in the way they speak, even where in my octave range their voice is. Mine is somewhere in the middle, but sometimes they go deeper or they go higher. It is character based because I’m a character actor. It’s keeps shifting. It’s all decisions that we make for the character.

If I remember correctly, your voice for Joseph in Beale Street was a bit lower than your natural voice.

Yes, yes, absolutely. I made decisions based on Joseph’s education. I made a decision that he was a smoker and also that he was a chain smoker. [Laughs.] The kind of man’s man he was in his life experience led me to his voice. So all of that goes into play when I am creating a character.

Had Barry Jenkins seen your one-man show before you were cast? Playing every family member on stage seems like the perfect preparation to play the patriarch of the Rivers family.

Oh, thank you so much. He had not seen my solo show. I think Barry may have known my film work from Selma or The Butler, but I don’t think he hadn’t known my stage work at all, and on stage, I think that’s where maybe I got my chops for doing voice work. I was always the character actor who played four or five different roles in one show, so I had to make sure everyone was as specific and unique as possible. And in my solo show, I played up to nine characters and up to five at one time, so I think he did not see that, but he had seen some of my film work.

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Do you think your show was good preparation for playing the patriarch?

I think it’s all been preparation for it. I think more than anything, in preparation for Joseph, has been being such a fan of Baldwin’s men and the complex men that James Baldwin writes and about the bonds of brotherhood. So I think for a long time I have been a fan of James Baldwin’s work and actually just about four years ago I played a version of James Baldwin for at a festival for James Baldwin’s 90th birthday. Me and Patricia Mcgregor, we adapted one of Baldwin’s essays called Nothing Personal, which is about 30 pages of dialogue and I learned all of that and I tried to convey the heartbeat of James Baldwin and what he’s wrestling with and our humanity. I think if anything, doing that piece prepared me to play the patriarch in If Beale Street Could Talk. Just understanding Joseph and these blue collar men who are very much ordinary human beings who are extraordinary by the way they take care of their families, put food on the table, and make a way out of no way. I wanted to lean into people that I understood and that I knew, like my stepfather, my brother, my uncles, my cousins; it’s a homage to them, to these men who don’t usually get screen time.

Having adapted that monologue and having worked on Beale Street, what can you say your relationship is with Baldwin’s work?

Oh my God, it’s gotten even richer. The other day I was unloading some books because I’m moving to a house and I was unloaded my stack of James Baldwin books and essays, and something about even touching the covers of those books I feel so much pride, because he was always my go-to when it comes to wrestling with questions about America, and being a black man in America. He gives me words where I have none at times. No one phrases something like James Baldwin, no one can talk about the light and darkness like James Baldwin. I think he’s become even more so a kindred to me; knowing his family now, his nephews and his sister, I feel even more so like I am part of the family. So much so I was just at Saint-Paul-de-Vence about three weeks ago, I was on my way to a camp and I made a little pit stop to the place where James Baldwin lived for about 17 years, and on trip there I was Googling and I learned the only piece of work he finished there at Saint-Paul-de-Vence was If Beale Street Could Talk. So I do feel like there’s some kindred, some spirit that’s connecting us, because else why would I be anywhere near Saint-Paul-de-Vence? I’m in the middle of this press tour, and I made a pilgrimage just to feel the air and to look at the views and the vistas where he was inspired to write this story and have this really acute eye towards America.

Will you talk a little about the Rivers family and the kind of family they are; especially given all they went through to keep Fonny out of jail?

I think the Rivers family… there’s something special about this family in the way they take on Fonny’s plight as their own, and Fonny is no way a blood relative to them, but it’s important because he is connected to their daughter and he is apart of the family. It’s about showing how much larger the community is than just blood relatives. Sometimes people who aren’t blood can do more for you than your family, and that’s what exhibited between the Hunt and the Rivers families. There is so much joy, grace, and love in the Rivers family, and humor and goodwill. They’re just an ordinary family, just trying to make it through. The matriarch and patriarch are just trying to provide and make sure their children have it just a little bit better than they did. They are a very simple, ordinary, blue collar family just trying to do some good, and put some good humans into the world. They are a family that when things like systemic racism is just so apparent, they don’t fall apart, they pull closer together. I think that’s a great message for families these days, as we are grappling with the consciousness of America to hold to each other a bit more, try to find a way out of no way, and to lean on your brother even more so, and lean on your family in a way you never knew was imaginable.

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How was working with Regina King in the film?

Oh my God, Regina is so much fun and so inquisitive, and she’s fierce. She’s got so much love and grace; she gives so much, just with one glance, with one look in her eye, she’s giving me my entire performance. I hope in some way I gave her her performance as well because that is what actors share with one another. When it’s a generous room, you get to fly, and I felt like I was flying the entire time because all I had to go was look left and right and every actor was holding me up. I think that’s the same for Regina; we wanted to make sure her journey as Sharon was so well lifted, and that she could be spirited, and open, and raw.

She’s done some directing work and you have as well. what’s it like to go back and forth between being directed and directing people and how do those different roles inform your performances?

I really enjoy it. I think my better self is a director. I’ve always been an actor who asks a lot of questions. I’ve always been interrogating work from all points of view, it’s always been hard for me to just to receive as an actor. As the director, it just fulfills me in the most extraordinary way. It’s a lot of problem solving, but then I’m able to go back as an actor and understand the director’s journey and be a more supportive actor, so I think it just really flows in such a great way. I encourage all actors to do some directing if they haven’t and also some writing as well because it makes you a more multifaceted artist. You’re not just in your own lane; you’re looking at the sum of all parts.

Recently I was watching Cornel West introduce Colin Kaepernick at Harvard, and he said this quote… it’s like, this line is what the of world is Beale Street is begging for. I’ll read the line and tell me what you think about it: “Justice is what love looks like in public. Tenderness is what love feels like in private.”

Wow. That’s exactly the spirit of this film. That could actually be underneath If Beale Street Could Talk, because that’s exactly what we’re wrestling with. We’re looking at all that tenderness in private that will help you and prepare you for the world outside, which we’re all struggling to find justice for all. It’s absolutely right on and it’s really the state of America right now.

If Beale Street Could Talk is now in theaters.

Karyn Kusama on Capturing a Broken World in ‘Destroyer’ and Nicole Kidman’s Revelatory Performance

Written by Jose Solís, December 24, 2018 at 10:09 am 

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Ever since she made her feature-length directorial debut almost two decades ago with Girlfight, Karyn Kusama has given cinema some of its most memorable female characters. From Michelle Rodríguez’s fierce Diana in Girlfight to Megan Fox’s devilish Jennifer in Jennifer’s Body, Kusama showcases women from all walks of life, and in all kinds of genres, leaving a mark that the movies usually reserve for men. And yet, watching her latest film Destroyer–in which she tells the story of damaged LAPD detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman)–it becomes quite clear that Kusama wasn’t just giving us memorable female characters. She was creating some of the best characters, period.

As played by Kidman, Bell is a haunted creature, a specter almost, who roams the streets of Los Angeles trying to avenge her former partner, bring a crimelord to justice, and atone for her current sins. Kusama guides Kidman through a transformation that puts her at the level of iconic turns in films like Chinatown and Dirty Harry. Bell’s story is not only a window into loss and regret, but also a study of class, race, and gender in Los Angeles, a city where dreams are created and just as easily shattered.

We spoke to Kusama about the genres that influenced the style of Destroyer, her revelatory work with Kidman, and what she wishes men would ask her during interviews.

Watching Destroyer I kept thinking about High Noon, and how great it would have been to have another version of it told from the perspective of Grace Kelly’s character, who essentially becomes the hero at the end. Destroyer looks like a detective story but I think it’s very much a western. Is there any truth to that?

I love that you noted that, because something Phil [Hay] and Matt [Manfredi], my collaborators and screenwriters, had always talked about was this idea of Erin Bell as a broken down cowboy in a lawless Los Angeles. There’s something about going back and forth from the past to the present that’s this kind of psychological wilderness that she travels across. I do think the film should feel like it’s related to these beloved genres: crime thrillers, westerns, cop dramas, that in my hope allow us to feel some sense of orientation, that might allow us to relax into the movie. And then I hope the movie pushes back and says it’s not simply a cop drama or a reinvented cop character, but that we’re getting closer to watching a singular human.

There’s also something else that’s important to note and it’s that even though if your films are often reduced by some critics as being only about gender-swapping and having women play traditionally male characters, there’s absolutely no truth to that.

I resist the idea that complicated, morally ambiguous characters are reserved for men, as if that’s a space only they can occupy. But I also resist the notion that we see so many of those roles for men, because we don’t. I’d like to see more, actually.

And sometimes when we see the tortured cop or the cowboy on his last ride, that’s usually all they are. While Erin Bell is so much more than that. She lost the person she loved. She doesn’t know how to love new people. She doesn’t even know how to show her own daughter love. She’s a reminder of all the richness that being a woman brings to a character.

Yes, I hope it also challenges our fantasy that women are by their very nature emotionally available, and men are not. What the film reveals is that Erin’s greatest struggle is in reconciling her own emotional life to the world and herself. Nicole said something really interesting about Erin after we finished the shoot, that what animates the character is that she’s so shut down. I hadn’t realized while we were working that that’s what drove her, but of course that’s what most present to her, that Erin doesn’t even know sometimes that she’s in a feeling state. I identify with that, there are moments when I go, “Wait a second, I’m really feeling a lot right now.” And it takes over other aspects of my life I’m not even aware of. That’s very human. I hope women and men can identify with it.

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One of the first things that impressed me was when I noticed Erin’s walk. It’s steady but slow, slightly hunched, as if she’s carrying the entire weight of the world. In an interview you did you mentioned that making the film you were thinking a lot about all the shit going on in the world and how the news is so horrible. Reading the interview made me realize the reason why I was struck by Erin’s walk was because that’s how I feel I walk every time I think about the world as well.

[Laughs] Totally! I empathize. I’m right there with you. I also had said this to her offhandedly, and that’s the brilliance of Nicole: she takes in all these details, files them away and only later do I understand how much she was absorbing of our conversations and truly listening, which is such a skill. Anyway, I told her that sometimes when I walk people ask me why I was limping. And I’d say, “Am I limping?” It doesn’t happen often, but people sometimes do ask me if I broke my ankle or something. I’m sort of in a broken state and I don’t even know it. I wanted her to understand I see myself as someone so hobbled and imperfect, and I was really struck by that walk feeling half like a wounded animal, and half sort of like an iconic cowboy. This is what the war of one’s own life can look like after a while, it shows up in their face and throughout their body. It vibrates through every part of their physical being and Nicole really found that instantly.

Which is why it bothers me that so many people only talk about Nicole’s makeup and the look.

I know.

One of the things I found really beautiful about what you did was that, like Kubrick and Glazer, you do so much with her eyes. You look right into Erin’s soul.

I’m really happy that’s how you experienced the act of looking at and communing with the character. I feel like the goal of the film was to get closer to this woman and to evoke the feeling of intimacy with the character, and that by the end of the film the mystery of her life isn’t entirely figured out or unraveled, but that we get a little closer to answering the question of what happened to her. How she’s really hunting herself and the audience is investigating her. I hope it leads to a bigger question of what precipitates our greatest downfalls and our best moments. How do we get there?

I was very happy with the Los Angeles you portrayed. You showed us a city with such cultural richness in such a way that we understand that Erin is just a little piece in a huge system.

Exactly, you bring up the point that she is just one person, and yet part of her job demands this sense of understanding neighborhoods, communities, and geography. I’ve lived in L.A. for 15 years, Phil has lived there for 25, and Matt was born there, so to us, it’s one of the most culturally/ethnically diverse cities we’ve ever experienced. It’s so vast and there’s so much getting represented there. The movie wouldn’t make sense if we didn’t see Erin keeps entering these private worlds that are going about their business, whether it’s Chinatown, Compton, Filipino town, or Echo Park–there’s so much richness in that environment. My one regret was I wasn’t able to penetrate the Armenian community in Los Feliz which is where I live, because it’s such a fascinating community.

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Given the richness of the communities you show, was it hard to go back to Erin rather than follow someone else in their story?

That’s a really interesting question because I think the best movies have that quality of feeling like there’s a story with every character that maybe you don’t get to see, but you lean in and your interest is piqued. For me, it was in post-production that I discovered how important it was that we stayed with Erin. There were threads in the film that aren’t on the screen now that gave us more detail about Petra (Tatiana Maslany), Arturo (Zach Villa), Toby (James Jordan), Silas (Toby Kebbell) and about Erin’s partner (Scoot McNairy). But the movie felt overwhelming and disconnected when I gave them too much weight. I realized the purest expression of the movie was introducing Erin Bell, a series of questions that point to a larger mystery and then attempting to answer them, and that required being with her in a very intense way. My editor, Plummy Tucker, said as she was getting the dailies as the editor what she wanted to watch was Erin. That really guided the process.

Destroyer is so class-conscious. The Bradley Whitford rich, corrupt lawyer character made me think he’d fit in right into The Invitation and be one of those people who light the lanterns and kill people for sport.

He does probably.

You’ve mentioned wanting to do an L.A. trilogy, so what would follow The Invitation and Destroyer?

If I were to do a third part it would be about Hollywood, and about the business of manufacturing our fantasy life. I feel so much of what Los Angeles offers, in good and bad ways, is the promise of reinvention. There’s a monstrosity to that, and we’re also at the center of movies that have given the world so much access to deeper expressions of our unconscious, so how do we deal with the power of these sometimes adversarial elements? How do we deal with this concept of manufacturing dreams? What do we do with the reality of sometimes having artists bring these dreams to life on the screen? For me Destroyer was about the act of witnessing a slow process towards the act of looking inward, and it comes at a very high price. Part of The Invitation was focused on narcissism and self-empowerment obscuring a larger question that needs to be investigated which is the denial of feeling. That’s a big part of what animates Destroyer too, how we crumble when we deny ourselves our emotional life.

Journalists always ask female filmmakers the same questions–what’s it like to be a woman in Hollywood? Can you talk about the #MeToo movement?–and it’s usually white men asking you the questions.

Yes.

I’m sure it gets exhausting having to answer the same things over and over again. So what do you wish white male journalists would ask you next time?

I don’t feel I’m being asked the important questions and I often need to insert myself into the process to remind them we’re here to talk about the work itself and what are the aims of the work. I feel a sense of rising panic and fury about the state of our world and I need to find constructive ways to deal with these feelings of helplessness and a lack of control. I hope part of why my work is the way it is, is informed by the fact I’m attempting to make sense of corruption, depravity, and maybe even the presence of evil. I’m trying to understand how we get ourselves out of this mess. I wish we could be talking more about this idea that the personal is political. Destroyer is highly personal and political, it talks about the nature of personal corruption and how inevitably leads not only to personal downfall but also to the downfall of those around you, who are also affected by moral laziness.

Destroyer opens in NY/LA on Christmas Day and will expand in the coming weeks.

Cristian Mungiu on Palme d’Or Glory, Gaspar Noé’s ‘Climax,’ and the Romanian New Wave

Written by Rory O'Connor, December 19, 2018 at 9:08 am 

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The defining moment of the Romanian New Wave came in 2007 when a 39-year-old filmmaker named Cristian Mungiu won the Palme d’Or in Cannes for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It was only his second feature film.

Since then Mungiu has been on a streak at that French festival, winning best screenplay for Beyond The Hills in 2012 before splitting the best director prize with Olivier Assayas (competing with the Kristen Stewart starring Personal Shopper) for Graduation two years ago. He was at the Marrakech film festival earlier this month to give a master class and we sat down with him to talk about why festivals and awards still matter.

What do you look for in films now when you attend a festival?

Whenever I’m in a jury, you want to like the films. You look for some freshness and some honesty. In the sense that, if you are a filmmaker you are trained to see how somebody manipulates you and whenever I see the manipulation I think it’s not good enough. I like to see some finesse in the storytelling somehow and besides this I like watching the kind of films where people know what they’re talking about.

Tell me a small story about something that you know well, something that happened to you, A personal story about something that I don’t know much about. For example [points to the olive pickers behind us], I don’t have access to the life of these people who are working with the olives now. I would be interested to know what they have done before coming here. What will they do afterward? Whenever filmmakers try to be very general it is not really something interesting. But of course, when you are in a jury it’s complicated. You are with some other people and sometimes it’s easier to find things in common and sometimes not.

Has there been anything in Marrakech or elsewhere this year that has particularly stood out?

I’ve been to Cannes this year so I saw some films there. We screen in October most of the films that are in the official selection in Cannes. I’m not sure I can name full films but portions of films. Yes, I’ve seen a lot of interesting things and I think one of the most interesting films that I’ve seen is this new Gaspar Noé thing [Climax] and I like it precisely because it’s not round, it’s not smooth, it’s not well-crafted from the beginning, or maybe it is…

My feeling, what I like is that it’s raw. And it’s bad in a sense; you know the same way he always is. But at the same time there’s something coming from the gut. With his films and with this one and the way it’s shot and of course it’s horrible at the same time but he does it in a very natural and crafted way. You can see that he’s never bullshitting you. This is who he is; this is what he wants to tell you. It’s not a fairytale world. It’s the way it is. You know; hell on earth and he’s going to show it to you.

And the music…

And the music and the choreography. I have to say that that’s an accomplishment in itself. The scenes at the beginning and all this dance that’s, you know, beautiful in itself.

You won the Palme d’Or in 2007 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and were the first Romanian director to do so. What did that prize mean to you?

Of course it can really help you in your career. All of a sudden it’s a huge leap forward. It was just my second film and it was already a happy accident that they allowed me in competition. You know, for such a thing to happen you need to have a lot of things happening in the right time. First of all you have to have a good film and I started understanding that I was having a good film when I started showing it a little bit in late January, early February to some people in festivals but then you need a lot of other things. You need them to like the film and you need them to place the film in the right spot.

The film was not in competition from the beginning. The film started in Un Certain Regard–as most of the films start at the beginning. They won’t tell you at the time but they wait for the masters and it was an edition with a lot of masters, I have to say. It was the 60th anniversary and everybody was ready for Cannes. So somehow in the last minute, like the last 24 hours before announcing the decision they see what they have and they promote 3 or 4 films from Un Certain Regard into the competition. And then you need to have the right jury. Probably with a different jury it would have been a different Palme, who knows?

But it makes all the difference. It makes all the difference because the popularity; the notoriety of this award is so big that for a period this comes to you as well and you are like holding the holy thing for one year and moving from here to there… You know, things happened to me in that year miraculously because I was the Palme d’Or winner so I was like, “Whoah, this really has a strength this thing.”

And yes, I have to say that was the peak of this Romanian New Wave somehow but this has started before. But it shed a light on this generation of filmmakers who have very radical ideas about cinema and coming from a country where there were no spectators whatsoever and cinemas when we started. We just thought directly to the history of cinema. Let’s not do this kind of film for audiences today, you know it’s always the context and for us the context was like this: we work with very very little money but we had to become not only the writers, directors of the film but also the producers and after that I will just release my films and sell my films so it’s a way of doing everything because it’s coming from a very very small industry.

And it shed a lot of light on the Romanian cinema and some people call us the “Romanian New Wave” but honestly we didn’t have an earlier wave like this; never in history. The Romanian cinema was never considered to be like a school with some principles. We had a film here and there but we didn’t have this kind of status like the Polish cinema or the Hungarian cinema–just to refer to people from the region. So all of a sudden this small miracle happened–a lot, of course, I have to say because of Cannes because it is such an institution that they have this power of touching you and saying, “This is valuable.” Also because of the Palme d’Or, all of a sudden things are not relative anymore. It’s like: yes, you qualify; you are ok.

And I think this was a good thing for the whole generation of Romanian filmmakers but of course what’s difficult is to continue. For me, and for “us” as well because it lasts for a period and it really lasted and it’s still more or less valid today and it’s like 12 years later, 15 years later after it started so it set, I hope, the ground for people thinking more about what they do and about their kind of cinema.

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Was there a sense of camaraderie between you and the other filmmakers that were recognized there? Cristi Puiu, Radu Muntean and so on…

Not with all of them, but of course we all know each other. We had our great, gracious moments of solidarity way behind and I am very good friends with some of them, even today, but you know how this relationship between artists, filmmakers, whatever, people, can be sometimes… you know some people are more difficult. The context is more difficult.

But we had a very good moment, I think it was 2006–when we stood up as a generation at a table like this and we said, “Look, we need to change the legislation in this country about cinema because the rules of the game aren’t fair and especially for us.” And then we behaved like a generation, a group of people sharing the same values and based on that change we made it so all the other generations of Romanian younger filmmakers are still making films today because it was a major breakthrough and from that moment on there was always some money for people to make their first one or two films and there were some rules because, you know, people used to say that making films everything is very subjective. Well, it is and it is not, especially after you’ve made one or two films it’s easier to say that I might bet on this guy, I might lose less money with this guy because he did these things then that guy, because he made only a lot of shitty things that nobody watched.

And that was the principle. There needs to be some priorities based on what you did. That’s all.

You’ve been doing a lot of work as a producer recently, including your first involvement with an American production with The Sisters Brothers. There seemed to be an enormous amount of companies involved with it, was it a difficult one to get made?

That’s a very special situation. In the sense that, I have created this production company a while ago but I’m not chasing work. I created it just for myself to produce my films. But it happened like this, in the last years I also created some festivals in Romania. I’m inviting a lot of guests and I had invited Jacques Audiard for this festival.

He doesn’t really travel too much and when he came to Romania he asked us to organize [location] scouting for him because we have the same coproducer in France. His producer in France is my co-producer so I knew him and somehow it was a special situation because he scouted in the States and he decided he didn’t want to work there. He wanted to make his “American film” in Europe and he decided to split this between Spain and Romania and this is finally how we got to build pretty much all the interiors of this film.

Are you also working on something new at the moment as well?

I’m producing a but more now. And last year we started doing something that wasn’t foreseen and expected. There is something called HBO Eastern Europe and they started a while ago, way before Amazon or Netflix and there is some local legislation that encourages the need to produce some local content. This is the idea. And after years and years of adapting foreign content they wanted last year to produce something original and they hired us to be like the executive producers of this TV series and also because I was having a small creative input on their work. I’m also producing some Romanian younger directors. I’m also producing the second season of this TV series and I will probably offer them a screenplay for another TV series based on one of my screenplays so this is what I’m doing.

Barry Jenkins on the Biblical Language of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ Jean-Luc Godard, and ‘BlacKkKlansman’

Written by Joshua Encinias, December 15, 2018 at 9:31 am 

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Bringing James Baldwin to the big screen is no easy task, but two years after the success of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins does so vividly with If Beale Street Could Talk, a Harlem-set love story following the tribulations and passion between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). “Barry Jenkins has created a film both tender and tough, with a time, a place, and a story to lose oneself in,” Christopher Schobert said in his review. “Sublime in its depiction of an emotional connection and subtle in its layers of systematic oppression, Beale Street is a major work from a filmmaker whose gifts are clearly boundless.”

We spoke with Jenkins about the process of adapting Baldwin’s novel into a film. He admits it was impossible to unpack every bit of meaning from the novel, but where ideas couldn’t translate to images, he worked with composer Nicholas Britell to create musical vehicles for those ideas. We also discuss Beale Street and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman use of closing montages to encapsulate their stories, and how Gordon Parks’ photo Ellen Crying brought life to the children of Harlem in Jenkins’ film.

The Film Stage: In your New York Film Festival talk this year, you mentioned Jean-Luc Godard’s influence on you in film school. Will you elaborate on it? 

I think it’s not as clear a stylistic influence as someone Wong Kar-wai or Claire Denis, but I remember very early in my time as a film student watching Weekend and Breathless. I had no concept of film history or film theory at that point, so it was quite eye-opening. I assumed a film had to conform to a certain standard, a certain set of principles and watching Godard I realized that’s clearly not the case.

I was just listening to Beale Street’s soundtrack and looking at the song titles, there’s some definite biblical language in there (‘Eden,’ ‘Jezebel’) and language from Antiquity (‘Philia,’ ‘Eros’). While I was watching the movie, I thought Colman Domingo’s character Joseph is very much the Moses of his family and Regina King’s Sharon is like Joshua. Was that in the novel or was that something intentional that you put in the film?

It’s a combination of all of those elements. A lot of that is definitely in the source material. Mr. Baldwin is a really dense thinker, so there’s a lot to be unpacked in the novel, and it’s never going to be impossible to unpack all of that in the film, so some of those things are present but they’re not literally the text, so a lot of it remains to be unearthed. I think that with the titling and score, the thing I love about working with Nicholas Britell, our composer, is that he’s really diligent about not imposing music upon the film but instead reflecting the energy of what the film is presenting to the audience, what the actors and the characters are doing. So a lot of these elements of naming the score after these different things from Antiquity, as you put it, was deliberate because that was the energy we felt we were getting from the source material and the actors putting into their performances.

I’ve thought a lot about Colman Domingo’s character and performance, and his vocal performance… what he’s doing with his dialect is Laurence Olivier-level. It’s so good.

The Baldwinian language is very tricky to be honest. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s not far off, depending on how you look at it, depending on your impression of vernacular. I think Colman is somebody who is really great at speaking what’s in front of him but speaking it in a way that bends to the will of his performance, of his essence in a certain way. So you’re right, it’s interesting because Tish (KiKi Layne) is narrating the film, she is the literally the voice of God, but when Colman shows up but he’s almost like an apostle. The movie is about Tish and Fonny and you have all these characters orbiting around them and I think that Colman does such much with a very streamlined amount of lines and screen time. I think what he contributes is just as important as what Kiki Layne or Stephan James contributes.

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Like you were saying, what’s on the page is specific and so dense and difficult to unpack; how much of Baldwin’s diction shaped the screenplay and what made it onto screen?

It affected the script quite a bit. The whole goal with the piece was to reflect the evocative nature of Mr. Baldwin’s prose. Now we weren’t literally approaching the structure in the sense that we had to directly reflect the structure of the novel, and yet, I think the energy of it was something that was very important to us. Quite a few of the actors kept the novel with them on set and during post, myself, Joi and Nat, our editors, did as well. I think what Baldwin was doing in much of his writing, especially in this novel, was trying to create literature that functioned in the stream of consciousness in a certain way. Moonlight is told from Chiron’s point of view, Beale Street is told from Tish’s point of view. That then orients you on a certain level of consciousness. I think consciousness is something that is very fluid—it’s almost cliche to say—like jazz. I do think we took our marching orders in that regard from the very jazzy nature of Mr. Baldwin’s writing.

Outside of the massive success of Black Panther, the two most prominent African-American films this year are BlacKkKlansman and your film, and both films end with a montage. BlacKkKlansman’s places the movie firmly within modern politics but Beale Street ends with contextualizing what happens to Tish and Fonny within the era it’s based.

That is interesting. I can’t speak to Spike’s choice with the Charlottesville footage in BlacKkKlansman. It’s incredibly effective and it takes the main storyline from the past into the present. I think our photo montage operates a bit differently. I think the reason for that is the second montage in our film was never intended to be a montage in our film. I heard Spike say the Charlottesville footage was never intended to end BlacKkKlansman, but then he saw the footage and he understood it was the way he wanted to end the film.

For me, when I was first starting to adapt the novel, I was reminded of a short film directed by a friend Patricia Riggen who won a student Academy Award for a short documentary she made called A Family Portrait, that was based on Gordon Parks’s work the Fontenelle family, this photo essay he did for LIFE magazine. And there was this image in Mr. Parks’ work called “Ellen Crying” and when I was reading the novel there was this monologue that is also in the film, this narration where Tish’s describing the children of our age, we actually named a piece of score after it. As she was describing the life of the children of Harlem are forced to lead, I just saw this image of “Ellen Crying” and it made things very clear for me.

Mr. Parks’ photo essay is a documentary, those are real people. Fonny is a fictional character but he is representative of a lot of children who lived through this time, and I wanted to show those children. A really lovely thing happens where you make a film and a film evolves and it starts to dictate what it wants to be, and we had this really amazing sequence with Brian Tyree Henry in the middle of the film, and it was very clear to me that the children of our age in the first montage become the men who are fed into the system near the end of the film. I wanted to mirror, I wanted to rhyme that image to show the journey that these children sometimes are forced to undergo. The first montage is roughly four and a half minutes from the very beginning of the film and the second montage is roughly four and a half minutes from the end credits. So it seemed like the appropriate mirror for the film, for the journey Fonny is going through.

Having shot Beale Street in Harlem, how would you compare life in Harlem in the 1970s depicted in the film to the community you experienced while filming?

It’s changed quite a bit. Due to gentrification obviously, it’s changed quite a bit. The spirit of Harlem hopefully will always be the sprout of Harlem, but this time period, in particular, was very different than the world of Harlem we found today in making the film. Now that’s a physical thing. I think the people of Harlem, that spirit, that energy will always be there but there are some bitter pills that must be swallowed. The sequence where first meet Brian Tyree Henry’s character Daniel Cardy, him and Stephan James’s character Fonny are meeting on the sidewalk in front of this amazing row of brownstones on Lenox Avenue which have always been there, and yet, a block north there’s now a Whole Foods, so some things are the same and many things are changing as well, and yet the spirit of Harlem is intact.

Were any of Baldwin’s thoughts on cinema in Notes on a Native Son or The Devil Finds Work percolating in your head while you made Beale Street?

It was a little bit. Not trying to create a piece of work that will engineer a certain response, so thinking of criticism while making a film is a slippery slope, it’s a trap in a certain way. You have to make the thing, the vision you think deserves to be made and let go of it when you release it into the world. I will say his thoughts on cinema were a part of it in an almost latent way. When you adapt someone, especially someone who is no longer with us and this person is one of my heroes, it’s hard not to have this voice in the back of your head like, “What would Baldwin do?” and I think in the example of his film criticism, he never made a film that I know of, but in his criticism I could see some answers of what would Baldwin do. And in some places it was let these scenes lay out and let these characters speak and look at one another in a way that shows a very intimate connection among the characters.

If Beale Street Could Talk is now in limited release and expanding on Christmas Day.

James Gray on ‘Ad Astra,’ Cannes Woes, Harvey Weinstein, and the Only Way Cinema Can Be Reinvented

Written by Rory O'Connor, December 7, 2018 at 11:31 am 

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James Gray has been carving his own idiosyncratic path through Hollywood and beyond for more than two decades. At 25 he was the toast of Venice, picking up the Silver Lion for his debut feature Little Odessa, a triumph that would lead him–for better and worse–to Harvey Weinstein, Miramax, and a rocky relationship with Cannes. His latest film, The Lost City of Z, was a critical hit but came up short at the box office. However, it was enough to convince Brad Pitt–whose Plan B studio produced Lost City–to star in Gray’s next project: Ad Astra, a science fiction film arriving this May that Gray has compared it to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The busy director took a break from post-production on Ad Astra to act as Jury President at the Marrakech Film Festival. We found him in the city’s Medina, seated in the gardens of a lavish hotel that was built on the grounds of a 12th-century royal estate. True to form, all guns were blazing.

I wanted to talk about Ad Astra. How exactly did Brad Pitt get involved?

I had made Lost City of Z with him, or his company, and he said, “What do you wanna do next?” and I was telling him about this movie. I didn’t know where he was at acting-wise. He said, “I wanna do it!” So he’s in it. And he’s great. I have no idea how the world is gonna receive it because you never know that sort of thing. But he’s really great in the movie. He’s brought a lot of his personal commitment to it.

It’s exciting, but it’s far from finished. I’m here, a little bit on vacation. I’m really tired because the previous movie was physically very difficult. It was both Europe and the jungle and this one I thought would be easier. Not easier like an easy movie to make but, like, physically easier and it was not. So I needed to come here. I have to go home. I have over 600 shots to review. I’m getting emails by the way, “Where are you? Where are you? Come back!”

They don’t know you’re in Marrakech?

No, I told them! That I did. They knew so they scheduled around that. It was important to me. I mean, what it is basically is you sit in the theatre for 12-15 hours a day with a little laser pointer. “Shot 603RF! There’s a little bit of magenta in the corner of this image and I would add a little reflection there…”

Hundreds of shots every day, so I’m tired. But it’s a high-class problem. It’s okay. I’m doing something I like.

When do you think it’ll be finished? Maybe Cannes?

I don’t know about that. They want it to be done by the release date, May 22nd. They want it earlier than that and I am really scared about that because originally they wanted January/late December release and I thought—and I was right—that there was no way we were gonna make that. You know usually when you see a science fiction movie there are a number of shots that don’t look very good. I did not want to be up against a release date and have stuff looking really bad. I’m hoping we can make May.

On paper Ad Astra feels like a companion piece to Lost City of Z: two films about sons under the shadow of their parents.

Well, I’ll let you comment on that when you see it. You’re not wrong but you’ll have more insight into that then I will. Because you’re not wrong on the surface. It’s almost like one is the flip-side of the other. It’s not that it wasn’t intentional. I mean I’m of course a narcissist because directors are narcissists. But I’m not that much of a narcissist that I think about it that way. I was just trying to tell as personal a story as best I could.

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Is it more sci-fi or drama?

It’s both. Why put it in a box? This is the number one problem I have—by the way it’s a fair question, I’m not saying that—with this kind of festival situation is that there’s always this temptation to classify the movie immediately and if you look at it—and I’ve tried to warn my fellow jurors of this—directors and movie critics are the worst people to judge movies! Directors are always thinking, “I could do that.” Critics are always saying, “This part of the movie is like the 1947 version and this part…” And it’s like, “Fuck! Just watch the movie and try and absorb it and not compare it to some other fucking movie and put it in a box!” So I think the answer’s both and maybe neither, I don’t know. That’s for you to see and criticize me for or not.

What does Marrakech represent to you, as the president of the jury?

It’s fantastic. That’s why I’m here because I don’t get to see these movies. I just don’t. I mean I watch a movie every night. I have a great home theater, big screen, great sound, and a very comfortable couch, sometimes too comfortable. But I watch what I can get, either from FilmStruck, which is now going out of business, or other sources that I have that are not FilmStruck which I’m not supposed to talk about. [Laughs.]

But I can’t get on top of watching every movie from every country. I was asked about Arabic cinema at another roundtable. We get nothing of Arabic cinema. I’ll give you an example. I saw a fantastic movie made by a Palestinian director Elia Suleiman when I was in Cannes in 2010 called The Time That Remains. And I watched that and I was like, “That is really really fantastic.” It kind of freaked me out because I realized how little of it we get.

I use that example as an excuse to watch other movies at festivals because it’s the only chance I get. Somebody else asked me about African cinema and I said, past Ousmane Sembène I don’t know shit. Which is horrible, but it’s not my fault. I do the best I can. You know who is great about it is Marty Scorsese. I don’t know how he gets these movies but he has resources frankly beyond mine and he has a whole foundation and he gets everything. So sometimes I get stuff from him but he’s more on top of it than I am. But even he has trouble.

For example, there’s a Portuguese director, Pedro Costa. I had not seen anything by Pedro Costa until about three years ago. But he’d been working for such a long time. I only got to see his movies recently because they finally became available and I wanted to watch them under the right circumstances. I had been hearing about him for many years, that he was a major figure, so you wanna watch them under the right circumstances.

Speaking of festivals, I know you had a difficult experience with The Immigrant in Cannes. What are your feelings towards Cannes?

You know, Cannes is very difficult. I think most of the people that go to Cannes and watch movies, they’re full of shit. I think that they’re there for some bullshit agenda. They don’t allow the movie to be absorbed emotionally. I’ve been on the jury and Isabelle Huppert was fantastic. I told a joke about it in Reykjavik, Iceland to a journalist and the next thing I know it got out that I wasn’t getting along with her which was totally wrong. I mean totally wrong.

I really mean that when I said that earlier. I think filmmakers are really bad judges of movies. And I’ve told that to my jurors here: make sure we are not trying to project what we want from the movie. “It didn’t do this or that like I wanted”—it’s not about that. It’s trying to absorb what they’re trying to communicate. I let time be the judge. I can tell you–and this may be a statement of some arrogance but in a way all filmmakers are arrogant, we have to be—I think my films have held up pretty well and I wouldn’t say the same of all the winners of the awards. That should tell you something. I think the problem is, with that festival in particular–and again I’ve seen it first hand from the other side as well–they are the protectors of the status quo and in a way they don’t think they are, right? They think they are being bold.

And I’m not talking about the festival, Thierry Frémaux, I’m talking about the critical establishment. It is stuck in 1968. If it’s handheld camera… you know the tropes, you can see it from a mile away. It doesn’t mean every movie with a handheld camera is bad–I think the Dardennes are great–but there is a language that is accepted in Cannes, that is a fact. And when you see a movie that has Darius Khondji’s photography and it’s a classical story–or it was presented as such–you think it’s different from the other movies. I’ve seen all the movies in competition from that year and that movie was very different from all the other movies in competition. Even the Coens, they have a very elegant style but the movies are ironic. I’m not saying The Immigrant is good, it’s not for me to say that. But what it was was me trying to do Puccini in a field where they were all trying to do 1968. So it’s a weird thing and you watch it and go what?!

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Is there a distain for classicism? Is that the problem?

I think there’s a misreading of classicism. I think people mistake form for content. They see that it’s a story they can track and they mistake it for conservative. I don’t think that’s what makes a film modern or not. Now, that doesn’t mean that every movie that has a fractured narrative is not modern. Obviously there are some but I think you have to look at what the film is actually trying to express before you proclaim it conservative or not. And that is a much trickier thing to do and it’s just my taste. And that is a problem in these festivals because they want something that is, on the surface, taking big risks.

You know, once I saw Derek Jarman’s movie Blue I knew there is nothing else you can do formally in cinema. There really isn’t. Once Jackson Pollack dripped his paint on the canvas that was it. There is the form of cinema and he kind of broke the mould. And I could try to do that over and over but to me it would be tired. Do you know what I mean by stuck in 1968? It’s like trying to make a political statement with the movies in a form that seems really tired to me.

Can we really advance cinema?

Can we reinvent cinema? Can a person reinvent cinema? Yes, but I don’t think you can do it trying to reinvent it. I think if you’re trying to reinvent the medium it’s usually a problem because there is a sincerity that needs to be there. And if you’re trying to reinvent the medium it means you’re already putting yourself in front of the material. Do you know what I mean?

In other words, there is something weirdly personal about 2001. I mean maybe he was thinking, “I’m going to reinvent the medium.” He probably was, but I don’t think… you know, what’s the best thing in that movie? The best thing in that movie for me is the HAL 9000 computer being killed and that’s a very narrative idea: the all-knowing computer that’s killed. That’s the Cyclops from Odysseus, right? And you feel sorry for it as it’s being killed much like you feel sorry for the Cyclops in The Odyssey when he blinds it.

So that tells me that in Western civilization the Greeks kind of figured it out and if you have arrogance and you think you can reinvent the wheel, then you probably can’t. So you can only do something as honestly as you can. I mean, I think The Conformist is getting at a new cinematic language… and maybe they were trying to do that.

Do you think it’s difficult in Hollywood to make these kinds of formally classical movies?

It’s almost impossible! I’ve talked about this many times. I have a lot of friends who are directors but I feel completely alone. I don’t have a group of friends who are trying to do the same thing as I am—that doesn’t mean I’m right, but it is really hard because I don’t feel that sense of camaraderie. I mean, I have maybe one or two other friends who have similar tastes. P.T. Anderson is a friend of mine and he’s trying to do things like this but even he’s doing something… I don’t know.

But do you feel film, as an art form, still has the same value as it used to?

No. If I say to you the line: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

See you laugh, you know what movie that is! That was made in 1972. Can you quote me a line from Avatar? See, you can’t. Because the place of cinema in the culture is different and the reason it’s different, at least why I think it’s different, is that the studios used to make a commitment. There were 7 studios–there was also Republic, RKO—but let’s say 7. Each one of them made one or two movies that they didn’t think were gonna make a lot of money but maybe were awards movies or whatever but that meant at the end of the year you had maybe 10, 12, 14 movies that maybe weren’t successful. Maybe weren’t good even but they were at least attempts. And then you had the New Hollywood which was a whole other story.

So for the first 60 years of sound era in Hollywood you had an investment in maintaining a broad-based interest in the medium. Then after Star Wars, something happened where the interest–well I guess it’s capitalism—in making only things that made huge amounts of money started to come into play and they don’t make those one or two movies each and they probably think that’s so smart because they don’t have to waste money on them and now the medium is dying.

So, why is that? Why is it no longer part of the language? I’m talking about the United States. I can’t speak for other places because I live in the United States. I can tell you that in the United States it does not have the same position of prominence and importance that it used to have and I think the reason is that the work isn’t coming from American filmmakers like it used to. Now, internationally it is but that’s a whole other story because the delivery system for international cinema is quite different and also the American system is so goddamn dominant.

What do you think of Martin Scorsese making a film for Netflix? Martin himself said that he’s very unhappy about companies talking about content instead of films because in a way he is making content for Netflix.

I don’t blame him at all, I mean a filmmaker is a hostage to the system. I mean they gave him the money to do it and he’s making an experiment and god bless him. I would never blame him. I would do it in a second if they gave me the money to do some personal movie.

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You’ve mentioned 2001, Star Wars and Avatar, which are three very different films. I wanted to ask what your relationship is with science fiction?

Well, I don’t consider Star Wars science fiction. I consider it fantasy. Star Wars is sort of like Flash Gordon or Buck Rodgers; you know one of those B-movie serials that people watched on Saturday mornings. You know, that’s basically what he did. Combining it with the story ideas of Campbell and Kurosawa, it’s a weird mélange.

I know this sounds like bullshit but I try to think as little as possible about the genre if I’m doing a genre film. I try to think as little as possible about science fiction because I don’t want to get stuck in the tropes of the genre. So I didn’t watch 2001 before this, I didn’t watch Blade Runner. I love those movies, but I don’t wanna get stuck in what they’re doing because then I’m gonna repeat it and it’s not gonna be as good.

And on a personal level?

No, I understand your question. I guess what I’m answering you on a personal level would be: I don’t think about the genre. I think: is the movie being honest with me? I really don’t think about genre. It’s funny because Michel Franco, who I love and is on the jury with me, he said, “What’s the hardest genre? I think it’s biography.” So I said, “Huh? I never thought of that. It’s really hard.” I said, “Well you know, Raging Bull’s great.” And he said, “Yes but Jake LaMotta is not a great figure.” He said, “What is like a great figure-great movie?” So I said, “I dunno, Lawrence of Arabia?” “Yeah, but it’s not really like telling his story.” And I said, “Well, come on!”

So I realized I don’t think about genre, but maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe I’m wrong!

The audience does.

They do. And critics do. So maybe I should, but I don’t. 

Do you think about last shots? Lost City and The Immigrant both built to grand, evocative images.

Well, it depends on the context. In those cases I thought of the shots. I mean you have to, they’re very complicated, both of them.

[Pauses momentarily.]

I don’t think that’s a good thing. You don’t want the image to stand out like that. That’s calling attention to itself. It’s what the audience is left with. You know maybe it’s a reaction because I had the ending of one of my films fucked with early on.

The Yards?             

Yes, The Yards. And the critics in Cannes that year were correct. But I couldn’t do anything about that because the ending was changed. And maybe it’s an unconscious knowledge that I have to fucking get the ending as memorable as I possibly can! By the way [Harvey Weinstein] wanted to change the ending of The Immigrant. And he fought me like crazy and I can talk about Harvey. It’s so great! It’s like this huge weight is lifted cause now everybody knows what I was talking about for twenty years!

In that case Harvey said, “I’m not gonna release your movie. It’s terrible. It sucks.”

You do him really well!

Oh, thank you… I think? And I said, “Why?” and he said, “The ending should be like narration, where she’s like walking over a mountain with her sister and you hear voiceover saying, “My sister and I made it, we’re in California, we’re doing great.” And I said, “Harvey, that’s the ending to The Sound of Music!” And he said, “Well, your fucking shot is stupid.”

Thierry Frémaux on Diversifying Cannes and Why John Woo Never Made it to Competition

Written by Rory O'Connor, December 7, 2018 at 10:55 am 

thierry-fremaux

Arguably the most scrutinized festival director of his time, Thierry Frémaux began working for the Cannes film festival in 2001 before taking on the role of festival director in 2014 when Gilles Jacob stood down. During that period he has had to attempt to rewire Cannes in the wake of radical changes in how we watch and talk about movies. He also faces continuous criticism for the ongoing lack of gender equality in the movies that are programmed.

We met Frémaux at the Marrakech film festival recently and found him in an affable mood, happy to discuss how his job has changed in those tumultuous years and also about his directorship of the Lumière institute and their annual festival of restored films in Lyon.

How did the idea behind the Lumière festival come about?

Well, Lyon is the native town of cinematograph Lumière. We celebrated the centennial in 1995 at the Lumière institute, where I started as a volunteer. Betrand Tavernier said, “We have to do something here.” I was young, I was a student. I said, “May I help you?” and he said, “Yeah, we are alone so come.”

I grew up there and even when Gilles Jacob called me for Cannes I said, “No, I want to stay there because I have a lot to do.” And one day like ten years ago I said, “We need a big event to have people back in the birthplace of Lumière.” After one century of film festivals everywhere we had to get a new idea, so the idea was to make a classic film festival because I think that to be safe, to be in good health with contemporary cinema you have to have a look to the past, you have to know the past. With my old friend Martin Scorsese, we have the same mood about that. Marty got the award there three years ago.

I think Lumière invented the cinema three times: he invented the technique, he invented the art of cinema and he invented the theaters, and the idea of being together. And right now that idea is still very cherished and in a way totally forgotten in some generations and some cultures because of the Internet. I still believe in theaters. I also believe in the Internet. So that new world is very complicated and I think very exciting.

So much has changed in that regard since you started working in Cannes. Do you find your job has become more difficult?

The job in Cannes is much more difficult now than 30 years ago. When I arrived, it was in 2001, and Gilles Jacob thought me, for three years, that job. At this time it was easy. It was easy to make choices. For example, in the ‘90s a director was reinventing film noir in Hong Kong…

Wong Kar-wai?

No, John Woo! Wong Kar-wai was easy, he was an auteur. John Woo was a genre director. He was a film noir director inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville. And he totally reinvented it. But it was not of use for John Woo to be in competition. But remember Bullet in the Head and all these films, they are masterpieces. Now if you miss somebody like John Woo [bangs table] it’s a big fault. So you have to have your eyes everywhere. And now, each time a young filmmaker does a 10-minute good film you have three satellites on him and spies on him and in that way the job is much more difficult.

And when I arrived in Cannes, when I was on the other side and as a movie buff I thought that genre film was too out of Cannes. That’s why when we took Pan’s Labyrinth from Guillermo Del Toro it was a big shock for people because that kind of film was not really invited in Cannes or wherever. The same with animation, the same with documentary. And now it’s even more complicated because it’s so easy to make a film with that [holds up iPhone]. Now you have to say: here is what cinema is and not. And now it’s also much more complicated because of the existence of the platforms. And now even a TV show or a series, it is the language of cinema. Is it cinema or not? It’s a very interesting question.

Do you see yourself making more films?

I wanted to be a director when I was a young movie buff. But my life drove me somewhere else. I can’t have that job while watching 1,800 films a year and people say: what do you think of mine? I’m lucky enough to have 60 movies every year and among them 20 in competition which, in a way, I feel I own them. I’m with them.

How many people actually make that selection?

We have eight people, plus Christian, my assistant, so we are ten. Sometimes, of course I show some films to some other people but we have eight people in the selection committee, four men and four women and we signed the 50/50 for 2020. So it’s important, not only to have more and more female directors but to have equality inside the selection committee because the culture, the feelings is not the same with a man or with a woman.

You mentioned the 20 films you take in being yours in some way. For the ones that go on to be successful elsewhere, do you feel you’ve lost them in some way?

You never know because when I turn down a movie, even a movie I like, it’s never because “I like/I don’t like.” Because with my job the only question is: is it good for a film or not to be in Cannes? Because sometime you can have a wonderful film which is not at all right for the kind of audience and the press that we have in Cannes. So of course sometimes I turn down some films and my friend Alberto Barbera [rubs hands greedily] is very happy to have it and sometimes the film does very well in Venice, but it doesn’t mean that it would have done as well in Cannes. Nobody knows.

If you take for example now, and especially with this year’s selection, which we were very criticized for at first. They said, “Where are the usual suspects?” When we have the usual suspects they say, “Too much usual suspects!” And this year it was, “Where is Xavier Dolan? Where is Mike Leigh? Where is…” you know? And what we did was to make half the competition with new names. And it’s also our duty to put new names on the map. So we have been criticized but after the festival, after it was over, the press said it was great. And at the end of the year, mainly the films of Cannes are the best films of the year. So we don’t make so many mistakes. We make some mistakes, but don’t ask me what were the mistakes!