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Doug Liman and Valerie Plame on Why the World Needs a ‘Fair Game’ Director’s Cut Now More Than Ever

Written by Dan Mecca, November 1, 2018 at 7:00 am 

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Eight years ago, Fair Game came and went with little fanfare, despite a pair of stellar lead performances and sharp direction from Doug Liman. Based on the book of the same name, Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame, a real-life CIA agent whose identity was exposed in 2003 after her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times contradicting the Bush White House’s claims that Iraq was building nuclear weapons. The new cut, though only a few minutes longer, feels improved, necessary and refreshing for the current moment. Watts has rarely been better, and Liman does well in keeping the focus on a marriage in turmoil as much as it’s on a political crisis. The Film Stage got the chance to speak with both Liman and Plame, reflecting on the first cut of the movie many years back, the need for a fresh take on the material, and everything in between.

Why now for a director’s cut?

Doug Liman: You know, the world’s changed both in terms of the politics of what’s happening there but also, with the advent of streaming, the idea of a movie being finished doesn’t mean what it meant before. It used to mean when you finished a movie there was a photographic process you went through and the thing was really cemented. It was done. But honestly with today’s technology there’s no reason why a movie being done really means it’s done. And that happened to coincide with the fact that I felt the film wasn’t done creatively.

Interesting.

DL: There was a better movie there and as a filmmaker you’re faced with two choices when you’re looking back and going ‘I could’ve done a better job:’ In the case of Jumper, I went and re-did it as a TV series called “Impulse.”

Right.

DL: In the case of Fair Game, I said, “I have the footage to make the better movie, I’m going to go back and re-cut it.” And I’m not sure that’s allowed. No one even knew I was doing this. I just did it on my own…

Valerie Plame: That’s how you always work!

DL: Yeah, I’m more of an ‘act first and ask permission later’ kind of person. And it just sort of coincided with Netflix, who can put it out and…

VP: …and the moment, the political moment.

DL: And then separately, while this all happened, Trump pardoned Scooter Libby. So suddenly I realized actually the story wasn’t done. The story wasn’t done eight years ago. The story actually finished this past spring. So I went back in and tweaked [the movie] one more time to reflect that and now the film really is done and I promise the audience, you know, at least this Doug Liman in 2018 feels the film is done. But, you know…

(Laughter)

VP: It will change again.

DL: And I changed as a human being in the making of the movie so I think part of why the film wasn’t done the first time is because the experience of making the movie had a profound impact on me. Because I went to Baghdad and filmed, and I don’t think I really processed being in that war zone for a few years. Long after the film was done I think I finally processed what that war meant and what it means to declare war. I know what [Operation] Shock and Awe looked like on TV with all of those bombs falling. It’s a very different thing when you’re there on the ground. And bombs were still falling when I was there. I think I needed time, emotionally, to make the best possible film that I could. So I’ve done that.

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Valerie, the film is based on your book of the same name, which is about everything that happened to you and your husband [Joe Wilson] in 2002 and 2003. How was the collaborative process then, nearly a decade ago, working with Doug and making the movie? And now, as a creative person yourself and author of a couple of novels, how is it revisiting everything especially with the Libby pardon this year as well?

VP: Well, I feel so fortunate that Doug invited me in. Joe and I spent, at different times, quite a bit of time on the set. And we were apprehensive because you never know how your life is going to be treated. I think the original movie absolutely captured the essential truth of what happened and I was proud of it. But I saw the director’s cut–Doug’s newest version–this summer and I hadn’t seen it in eight years and it had a deep impact on me. First of all, it’s a better film. And he draws out some themes that were just beginning to be teased a little bit [in the original film]. It just hangs together better, which is amazing to me knowing that it’s only six minutes longer. But it makes a huge difference.

Yes, it does.

VP: As Doug pointed out, we’ve all had some time and distance to process everything that happened and the political environment and where we are today. Seeing Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford testify in the Kavanaugh nomination hearing really resonated because it’s the theme of speaking truth to power and the consequences thereof.

And as you said, with this current political climate the time of the cut is very powerful. From a creative standpoint, rewatching the original film and then watching the director’s cut, one thing that jumped out at me that I felt got lost or not given enough credit in the general reaction eight years ago was that, despite the espionage and action elements within the story, this is a story about a marriage trying to survive.

VP: I have to say this takes me back. When it first came out in 2010, Joe and I and Doug and the others involved in this project spent a lot of time beating back the narrative put forward by the Bush Administration. You know, fighting that fight all over again. And now, that’s not what it’s about. It’s the themes that drew Doug to tell the story in the first place are allowed to come out upon release, of speaking truth to power. The importance of holding your government to account. The reckoning of the Iraq War. And, as you point out, the personal aspect.

DL: Yeah, the personal aspect is actually the reason I’m shocked that Valerie and I are sitting here side by side doing an interview!

(Laughter)

DL: No one can really know what’s happening inside someone else’s marriage but we really took a critical eye to this relationship. As much as I was interested in the international events, what I thought was so powerful about this story and [screenwriter] Jez Butterworth, who really finds amazing characters in history and tells amazing stories. You have a husband and wife who are at the center of the White House’s deception behind the War in Iraq. A husband and wife who are armed with the knowledge that the President is lying to the American people and one of theme chooses to speak out. And the havoc it wreaks on their relationship is such an amazing story in and of itself. Even if you made it up, and it happens to be true. Joe Wilson, played by Sean Penn, is such a…

VP: Intense.

DL: Intense and amazing character, who’s not necessarily the hero of my story. Even though he’s a hero to me as an American because we wouldn’t know the truth about the War in Iraq if it weren’t for Joe Wilson. Nobody else spoke up. There was one person who spoke up and said, “The President is lying. He knew there were no weapons of mass destruction. There we no nuclear weapons in Iraq. And he’s lying to the American people.” There’s one person who told us that and then everything came unraveled and now we just know there were no weapons–

VP: But we didn’t know it then.

DL: We didn’t know it then and it all started with Joe Wilson. So as an American Joe Wilson is my hero, but as a filmmaker Joe Wilson is a far more complex anti-hero than he is hero.

What’s next for both of you?

VP: I’m putting together a spy seminar called “Spies, Lies & Nukes: Inside International Espionage” with some of my summer colleagues. These are highly-decorated officers and this will be coming up in a couple of weeks and I’m really excited. This is unique as far as I know. Nothing quite like this has been put together. If it goes well I want to partner with some academic institutions and take it around and try to explain to people: ‘how did we get here?’ That’s what I’m doing.

DL: My stuff sounds pretty petty in comparison. I’ve got a couple of TV shows and movies that I’m working on.

Fair Game: Director’s Cut is now on Blu-ray/DVD/VOD and hits Netflix on Friday.

Steven Yeun on the Mysteries of ‘Burning,’ Korean Christianity, Nihilism, and ‘RoboCop’

Written by Joshua Encinias, October 29, 2018 at 9:15 am 

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Burning, director Lee Chang-dong’s long-awaited return to the cinema, is brimming with the Rashomon effect. The film will have you questioning what you see, and what you think you know. Many facts appear as objective in the film to justify a personal reading of the narrative. But to reduce Burning to its connective tissue is a disservice to the experience of shutting up, letting go, and enjoying the new work from the master filmmaker and his newest collaborator, Steven Yeun.

Yeun’s imprint is expanding beyond The Walking Dead into films like Okja, Sorry to Bother You, and now Burning. Through one lens, Yeun plays Ben, the cosmopolitan who burns down greenhouses for the thrill of it. Another take on Ben could be the sex-trafficking globalist. There’s more than a binary choice to understand Ben, like all people and all characters. However you interpret him, Ben is a nihilist with fuzzy motives. He’s creepily at home anywhere he is and is always the consummate host.

We spoke with Yeun about working with director Lee, growing up in a Korean Christian family, and existing in a place between motives and narratives to understand the world around you.

The Film Stage: At the New York Film Festival Q&A you said having a son sent you on an existential crisis and Burning helped you through it. Will you elaborate on what happened?

Steven Yeun: It was a lot of things converging at the same time in my life: leaving a show that I’d been on for a long time, becoming a father, and just being 30-something was all converging on me in this way… I think existential crisis is a little too intense. It’s closer to that feeling of angst or re-accepting who you are, what you are attempting to do on this planet. In that moment I wasn’t necessarily lost but kind of treading. I remember Burning coming along and the experience rationalized a lot of the feelings that I was having. It allowed me to explore them.

How did you come about working with director Lee?

I was in London and I mentioned that I wanted to work with him during the press conference of Okja, which I never expected to turn into anything. I got a call from director Bong in the middle of the night saying director Lee wanted to meet me and I was fortunately going to Korea anyhow the next day. I ended up meeting him in Korea to talk about this project and we started a couple of months later, last fall.

I have a theory that the movie is a story Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) wrote.

I think that’s a very applicable take on the film. You’re getting into the idea of the mysteriousness of this world. Our stories and perceptions of what we think is correct, wrong or right; the way we see the world is uniquely our own. We build our own narratives to fit whatever our mind wills itself to be. In the first viewing, you’re looking at Burning through the lens of Jong-su, and so a lot of these little keys point to a specific understanding of what you think Ben is. In the second viewing you’re able to take those down and objectively look at the facts and question what you thought it was. You are being taken through Jong-su’s point of view. Is he writing it? Who knows? Maybe.

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In your Film Comment interview you said, “The Western world is trying to find more collectivism and the East is trying to find more individualism.” Will you elaborate how that manifests in the film?

Ben is the perfect example of someone who has touched and experienced individualism while he lives in a collectivist society. There’s this freeness to him, this ability to move about where he pleases. A consistency to his being wherever he is. Whereas a lot of us, even in America, submit ourselves to code-switching based on whatever scenario you’re in. For me it’s always been about balance and East and West are the poles.

Everytime a guest is at Ben’s house they wear slippers. Is it common in South Korean households to have enough slippers on hand for guests?

Yes. [Laughs.] Or people wear their socks. No shoes in the house, that’s rule number one. Have you been in an Asian person’s house? No shoes in my house, my mom will kill you. Where the Western part of me comes in is if I need to quickly grab something I’ll run through the house in my shoes. I’m not going to knock on Western values, but, I think at the least everyone would benefit if they didn’t bring their shoes into the house.

I have to agree.

In your GQ profile you talk about growing up in a Korean Christian household. The only recent depiction of that experience in popular culture I can recall is Andrew Ahn’s movie Spa Night. Have you seen it? How true is the faith element in that movie to your experience?

I have! With Korean Christians you’re talking about two sets of collectivist ideas. Christianity can lead itself to have this monolithic idea of what a general Christian should be and how they should behave. Being Korean also has that collectivist nature of submitting yourself to what the whole wants. You have a double dose of that. And if you’re like David in Spa Night and wrestling with your sexuality, that’s sometimes a hindrance because you have a lot of guilt.

How have you been able to reconcile your experience as a kid in the church and where you’re at now as you re-engage it?

I think it’s this healthy questioning of the choices we make in our lives. You’re growing up and your parents work out a safe space for you or instill some of their own values in you. There’s this sense when you look back in the rearview, you ask yourself how many of my choices are because people told me what they were supposed to be and how many of my choices are truly what I feel? I’ve been able to healthily unpack these things and rebuild them for myself. Sometimes they’ve remained consistent but have a deeper understanding of purposefulness.

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Director Lee left much of your character’s motivation up to you to internalize and keep secret. Can you talk about how you came to those motives?

I tried to build the character out from his core, basic philosophy. In doing so you build on that through his understanding of nihilism and acceptance of that idea. You read something like The Pillowman, where you think maybe he’s altruistic in his nihilism, maybe he’s helping these women. Maybe he even thinks while he’s doing something nefarious to the outside world it’s actually a benefit to these women in the end. Whatever weird place this person is in, or not, those are things I built upon. Through my journey in the process of this character, my decisions changed as we went. Sometimes the choices exist on this paper-thin line of I made the choice, but also that choice is teetering on the edge of both things.

Did you ever feel your choices didn’t make a difference when it came down to performing, since you were the only one who knew Ben’s motives?

We were trying to maintain the in-betweenness and mysteriousness of the character. Director Lee and I would choose certain moments to play toward a specific way, depending on how we wanted the perception of Ben to serve the narrative. There were moments where he would direct me to push it a little further in one direction, and in another scene in a different direction. We found a natural ebb and flow.

Why did RoboCop land on your Criterion top 10 list?

It’s a story about capitalism. What unchecked power can do when you can justify every decision to be about sales or money. It gets this perverted sense of itself where you’re building crazy things like a massive robot to keep people in check. That era of Verhoeven, Carpenter, when I watched their stuff when I was a kid I thought I was just watching robots fight each other. You missed all the adult themes and ideas it’s trying to tell you about the way our world works.

A lot of times people try to distill a movie down to its basic function or how they perceive its basic function. With Burning there’s this thriller aspect that’s tied to it which I agree with. But sometimes there’s this penchant for people to get obsessed with what the plot is attempting to say and what the plot is doing. Did Ben do these things or did he not? It becomes this battle in your mind of trying to understand something very concrete but the film is really trying to talk about the in-between things. The things you can’t see. The feelings and mysteries of the world that we don’t understand. You have to let go to those feelings and let go to that idea for the film to process fully.

Burning is now in limited release and will expand in the coming weeks. See showtimes here.

Tamara Jenkins on Capturing the Survival of a Marriage in ‘Private Life’ and Finding Kayli Carter

Written by Joshua Encinias, October 8, 2018 at 8:42 am 

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Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life opened an unusually strong Sundance, one that produced the top-grossing documentaries of the year and award-season contenders. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti play Rachel and Richard, a middle-aged, New York-bohemian couple being pushed out of the city by their own changing interests and crushing fertility crisis. Things go from bad to traumatic when their loving niece Sadie, played by Kayli Carter, promises to be a surrogate for the child.

We spoke with Jenkins about Sadie’s plan to save her aunt and uncle’s dream to be parents and its unexpected consequences. Jenkins jokes about being an “Old Testament God” kind of storyteller, who inflicts reality on her characters, coating the brutal outcomes of their expectations with humor and grace. And Jenkins talks about age winnowing one’s tolerance for a chosen, lower-class, artist’s life in New York City. 

The Film Stage: I want to talk about Kayli Carter’s character, Sadie. She’s the truth-teller in the family and she doesn’t really know when she’s telling it.

Tamara Jenkins: I think one of the things that’s sort of interesting about her function within the story, is that she appears in these people’s lives and the people, she appeared in the life of Richard and Rachel, who are kind of in the middle of some form of mid-life crisis. It’s like a mutual mid-life crisis and it happens to be informed by their fertility crisis. I think they have so many doubts about where they are in their lives. And then this person shows up and the way she sees them is so the exact opposite. She completely romanticizes,  everything’s exciting for her. She’s in New York, which is sort of pounding these people down, but she finds the idea that they’re living outside the mainstream as an artist couple in a very positive light. It’s kind of an interesting impact she has on them, she almost refreshes them. Obviously, she’s young so she injects this kind of energy into their lives.

Casting Sadie was interesting because an actor fell out of the movie very close to production and we were in a crisis where we didn’t have an actor. Our casting director went on a search for an actress and it was very hard. Obviously, there were great actors but no one was really clicking and Kayli Carter was almost the last person we saw. The story is Kayli was doing a play in London, she was acting with Mark Rylance. She had just got back to New York, like very close to that end of line for us. She went in and she read her and when I saw the audition tape I got really excited. We saw her a bunch of times because she didn’t have a body of work that I could refer to.

I was so excited but also nervous because she was a new kid. I really liked her and it was very clear she was our favorite person. And then we had to tell Netflix she was our favorite person and I think we were worried they would want somebody who was more well known or known, period. Because that’s what normally what happens. It ended up they thought she was great and she had a part in a Netflix series called Godless which was in post-production. So it hadn’t come out yet and I hadn’t seen it. The word at Netflix was she did a good job on that show in a smaller part and so we got to go with her.

There was some mirroring that was happening because Kayli Carter herself had such admiration for Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as veteran actors, and she was a new actor. There was something that was almost reflecting the dynamic happening inside the story and outside of the story. Her casting was something that really fed into the story that helped make it work.

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Why is that you think Sadie, with her openness and willingness to help her family, has such a devastating experience?

Well, I don’t know. I mean, I think that she’s hurt, there’s a lot of things going on. But that’s an interesting question. You’re saying from an author point of view, “why did you not let her have a happy ending?” I think she has a happy ending, ironically, but I do think the process, the whole chain of emotional stuff that’s going on in terms of her realizing how much it means to them to have this thing work out, her discovering that it’s not happening.

She flies in and thinks she has to be this great savior and it’s going to be this beautiful thing, but life is very complicated and it doesn’t work out that way necessarily. Her eggs weren’t developing on schedule, so it’s not so easy to swoop in and I think that’s honest. She tries to overcompensate by almost endangering herself for sure. She really puts herself in a bad situation and she really is a young kid. It’s a complicated arrangement with this older couple and what they’re doing. I don’t think it’s like oh, she’s being punished, I think it’s reality. It’s not like I’m a mean God [Laughs] playing this puppeteer.

An Old Testament God.

Yeah, exactly. “This hopeful creature will be bashed down!” In the end she’s pursuing her art and she kinda gets this great gift at the end, going to this artist colony and getting this beautiful room and being taken seriously, which is really what she wanted all along, no one was taking her seriously as an artist. I mean her mother for instance. The only people that did take her seriously were Richard and Rachel.

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It seems Richard and Rachel are working out the problems in their relationship via this vehicle of having a baby, but it really doesn’t feel like they’re working it out. And then at the end, they’re still going for it. In the way that Sadie wanted to be the savior to this couple, they’re thinking the baby is going to be the savior of their relationship.

I think it’s interesting that you’re also talking about the end of the movie. It’s like a Rorschach test because people respond to the movie in very different ways. You feel like it’s “Oh, my God, it’s just this cycle of the same thing over and over again.” But I actually don’t think it is.

I think that the end of the movie is actually a very different place. First of all, I think their lives are definitely hijacked by this experience, which is very typical of people that go through assisted reproductive technology. I think that it lures you deeper and deeper and you might draw a line in the sand and think, “okay, I’m not going to the next step” but then they do because there’s a chance, just like the doctor said, all you need is one good egg. It’s like compulsive gambling. Maybe if you try this one time it’ll work. I think that’s really honest and true.

At one point the doctor said, “We can try a donor egg,” and then they walk down the street and she says there’s no way in hell I’m going to do that. He says we might want to just think about it and she’s like what are you talking about?. We said we would never do it. He said, no, you said you would never do it. I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to make you do something you didn’t want to do. But it seems like statistically it’s kind of a good idea. He’s being realistic and saying let’s put our odds on the better odds, we should do this, let’s put our money on the debt and we should do them so that. About him saying I don’t want it. Then there’s a later scene where he says I’m glad the egg didn’t work.

And then at the end of the film when they get a phone call from a birth mother who wants to meet them, that they’re having some kind of relationship with. I always feel like the scene at the diner when Paul gets up and crosses from the other side of the booth and he lives down with Rachel, to me that’s the happy ending of the movie. It’s a muted happy ending, but it’s a happy ending, that this thing that really feels like it’s fracturing this couple and destroying their marriage didn’t do it.

Baby or not baby to me is almost irrelevant because the movie is about a marriage and it’s about the survival of a marriage. When we were shooting the movie Paul Giamatti said this isn’t even about the baby, this is Waiting for Godot. They’re journeying through the world of infertility and it pushes all of these buttons and it’s a very intense kind of trial and it puts their marriage in an extreme state.

Were you watching the movie alone, streaming it?

I was.

It’s a bad way of seeing the movie because it’s really funny and you probably didn’t feel any of that.

Oh, no, I laughed so much. More than at any movie this year, to be honest.

Oh, my God, that’s so crazy! I was thinking, oh, my God, something hit him and he was going down a dark hole of pain. I’m glad it made you laugh.

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Richard and Rachel are a pretty open, progressive couple, right? But they have this desire for a baby at all costs, which seemed very traditional.

I have a question for you: How old are you?

Thirty-one.

I think that something happens to people… it’s true, I wouldn’t be like that at thirty-one either. When you have this sense that your entire life is in front of you and you’ll have a baby one day… these are people are in a very specific socio-economic kind of reality and they’re very much like all the people in my world, who had very unconventional lives, and have freelance lives, probably not unlike yourself, journalists, writers, artists that don’t have a kind of secure, regular way of making a living. Their lives are very insecure. They don’t have health insurance, they’re living by the skin of their teeth, and the only reason they’re staying in the city is because they have a rent-stabilized apartment and their life has always been about their work.

Then suddenly they wake up and they’re having some sense, which you will probably have — I’m not saying everyone has this — almost like they’re outgrowing their original placement in New York. Like way they got there when he says, “Oh my God, I don’t want to walk the dog at night, it’s all party people. All the bars are opening and I don’t want to find myself fifty at some block association meeting trying to prevent the opening of a new bar.” Rachel says we’re not going to turn fifty in this apartment and he says “I’m forty-seven!” Like what is going to change in three years? Nothing. It’s almost like they’re being pushed out of the life they set up themselves, kind of like what you were saying, this unconventional life, they’re kind of pushing up against the edges of it and being uncomfortable, like they’re outgrowing it on a certain level.

Sometimes there’s an irrational thing that happens to people that it’s completely… it’s irrational that anybody would want to have a child, they just want to. There’s nothing rational about wanting to have a kid and normal people have sex and have a kid, they don’t have to talk about it, they just do it. But when it becomes something that has to be brought to consciousness and you have to parse out every detail of it, it becomes very different and very strange, and you’re witnessing that. Normal people just fuck! And then it’s like, oh we’re having a kid like it’s this accident. But if you’re not getting it that way it just becomes a much more tortured, weird, self-conscious process, and I think that’s a little bit of what you’re talking about.

Private Life is now in limited release and on Netflix.

Paweł Pawlikowski on ‘Cold War,’ the Divinity of Absolute Love, and the Political Backlash to ‘Ida’ in Poland

Written by Ed Frankl, October 8, 2018 at 8:24 am 

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Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, a sweeping saga of a doomed romance that crisscrosses 1950s Europe, comes five years after the release of his Oscar-winning Ida. Two superb films in, Pawlikowski has found a niche in black-and-white historical drama set in his native Poland, where he moved after spending his career in the UK. But Cold War’s rich, jazz-soaked love story has a different beat to the relatively austere Ida, and it’s notched up rave reviews since its premiere in Cannes.

The former academic, dressed in a suit, jeans, and sunglasses hanging from the top of his T-shirt, is erudite but combative as we meet at the San Sebastián Film Festival, pushing back on what he calls simplistic interpretations of Ida and Cold War, as well as offering his thoughts on populism in Europe and Poland’s controversial Holocaust law.

The Film Stage: Cold War won Best Director at Cannes. What would you say has connected audiences and critics with it?

Pawel Pawlikowski: It’s hard to say, but I imagine it’s a powerful story in all its ambiguities and contradictions. It’s a very unusual, eccentric story, so I didn’t realize how many people would still find their way into it. A lot of people have come up to me and said “It’s exactly like my story.” But no it isn’t — it’s Cold War, it’s communism, it’s exile. But they still find something of their own fragmented love story, perhaps of the impossibility of love.

So is Cold War a metaphor that says love is ultimately doomed?

No. This is a very specific story. It’s not that doomed, you know. There’s a kind of happy ending! But the fact is that we expect something absolute to come out of love–traditions from the troubadours to 19th-century literature. It’s an interesting dramatic problem because love never is absolute; it always goes through stages–different contexts, different people. We’re always disappointed. Time corrupts things. Absolute love is the domain of the divine and in human terms the quest for something absolute always leads to comic and tragic effects.

Even today, internet dating trains us to think perfect love is achievable…

This is an era when so much of the emotional life happens in the digital sphere. A lot of people don’t look at each other–only on telephones and they meet on the internet. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t love. But it’s difficult to capture and show it in a form. Whereas in a time when there were fewer distractions and people had to face each other it’s slightly more interesting to show.

I think that these days couples don’t last very long. So it’s so difficult for that couple to survive all the twists and turns and the obstacles thrown in their way — political, technical, exile, absence from each other. They kind of enhances this thing. Love.

The thing is I’m not sure what love is in Cold War–at no point are they very happy! There are moments where it’s nice, but nothing is ever satisfying and pure. It immediately gets corrupted and veers off into something else. It’s only at the end of the story when they have no more strength to fight that they find themselves alone and nobody can understand them as well as each other and you can say that was a great love story. That was love. But it didn’t look like love.

But you do structure it in a way to glimpse at what looks like love…

It’s a little bit of an experiment to make a film that’s so elliptical. I’m going to appeal to some audiences and not others because some people want to have explanations and to fully understand what the author had in mind and why this person did exactly this. It’s a little bit tiring in especially big films like a biopic. They have fifty years explaining how you get from A to B, and they introduce artificial cause and effect just to make sense of what happens. She did this and this led to that. I always get frustrated by that. Because I know in life there’s no one motivation for anything and everything you do has many different consequences. But I’d rather not go into that and show you elements you can feel the truth of it. You fill in the missing links.

I think I would like such a film–that’s why I make it. Exactly the film I like where a lot is left unsaid but it’s suggested. Where there are gaps for me to imagine. When everything there is not there to explain but to make you experience–and the explanation you have to provide.

What was the process of bringing those strands together and of constructing a movie out of it?

I had this notion of this couple splitting up, fighting, and moving countries–I’ve had this idea for years. But I didn’t know how to do it. I wrote several treatments on my laptop in about 2006, but it was a bit close to my parent’s real story.  I could never do that because it’s too messy and I know too much about them.

So it was slowly maturing and I wrote another version and put it aside–which I did with Ida by the way. I stared at Ida ten years before [it was released] and put it aside. And then there’s a moment when you’re ready to do it. I’ve got the tools to tell the story. And that moment occurred after Ida, when I realized you could tell a complicated story quite elliptically. Because Ida is quite elliptical too but not as extreme as this one.

When I was shooting it I cut a lot of scenes from the script [like Ida] and it still made sense. You could trust the audience to make sense of it. And also I came across the folk ensemble and music became the integral part. I thought “OK, I’ve got the framework now–they meet through the folk ensemble. They fall in love with the music, the music keeps them together.” And suddenly it started falling into place.

Surprisingly, it didn’t limit the audience too much. And what really surprised me is in Poland masses of people went to see it, even though it’s black and white and it’s elliptical.

But you’ve had problems in Poland and been criticized by politicians there, how are you and other artists coping with increased populism?

The position of artists in a little bit under pressure. But it’s not terror. Nobody gets arrested or stopped from making films if you can find the money. Populism anywhere is anti-culture, reducing everything to primitive narratives which is the opposite of what art should be. Art should be showing the beauty, the complexity, the ambiguity the paradoxical ambiguous nature of the world. And find form for it. So inevitably populism–and most politicians are at some level populists–they try to co-opt art often.

Ida was an international success, won the Oscar [for Best Foreign Language Film], and it coincided with an election campaign where the right-wing party [current President Andrzej Duda’s Law and Justice Party] was trying to galvanize support. So they used Ida quite cynically as a tool. They said: “Look there’s this film, it’s very anti-Polish. You haven’t seen it ‘cos it’s black-and-white but we’ll tell you it is very boring. There’s a Polish guy who kills Jewish people.”

But the film isn’t about that. They took one element one of very complex situation and said: “Don’t bother to see the film, but believe us, it’s very anti-Polish. And why is it doing very well? Well, there’s a huge conspiracy against our country. And why is it doing well in Hollywood? Well, look at who’s in charge in Hollywood, nudge nudge.”

So suddenly it became like an election campaign tool. And they started this petition against the film which was signed by more people than saw the film in Poland. When they came to power it won the first Polish Oscar so they had to deal with it. But the prime minister said, “We don’t know why it won the Oscar, it’s a shitty film.”

State TV invested in the film so they had the right to show it a few times. And then one day they took it off the schedules. And there was an outcry from the filmmaking community, so they put it back on the schedule, but they preceded it by a 15-minute discussion by two right-wing guys. One of them said, “this Pawel should be stripped of Polish citizenship.” And, by the way, the film you’re about to see which we have to show, is anti-Polish film. And it’s a Jewish point of view. So everyone who watches this film will know how to watch it.

Now they’re probably going to win the next election, so they don’t have to be so aggressive. But this film [Cold War] has done incredible box office and it’s got [Poland’s submission for] the Oscar nomination so they’re kind of nicer to me… But I try to stay clear of any kind of politics.

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Do you condemn the government’s controversial “Polish death camp” law?

I thought the formulation “Polish death camps” was moronic. I was fighting against it myself. What the fuck? They were German death camps in Poland. So I understand certain irritations totally with the misrepresentation — not that there were any ideological reasons, I think there was just stupidity. People say that stuff because in America they have no idea about history anyway.

But Ida is a film about showing that Poland had a role in the Holocaust…

Not Poland, just this one guy. It shows all sorts of other things. The communist state prosecutor [played by Agata Kulesza, who also stars in Cold War] has a role in condemning people to death. And I didn’t say Poland I was saying this one guy killed — but also he saved someone. He took this girl, Ida, to the monastery.

I never do anything one-to-one. Life is full of mysteries and paradoxes and I want that to be known and to be shown. People in the West who interpreted my film as a film about Polish guilt they’re as stupid as people in Poland who interpreted as an anti-Polish film–it’s reductive. As a state, Poland didn’t cause the Holocaust. Ida is also about an existential side of life, morality in general; what does it mean to be Catholic, to be guilty? You know, I didn’t phrase it in journalistic terms; I didn’t phrase it as a simplistic narrative. I was as pissed off with some Western journalists who reduced it to that as I was with Polish politicians.

Your use of Polish history begs comparison to Andrzej Wajda…

With Wajda, I still feel he’s teaching me about history, whereas I’m trying not to do that. Even in Ashes and Diamonds, which I love, I know what he’s trying to tell me. But yes, I mean if you tell a Polish story set in the 50s or 60s, inevitably you talk about history. I’m trying not to foreground history, I’m trying to show how history affects people but I’m not trying to fill in any historical gaps or inform people.

That’s why in Ida with that peasant killing — it’s not like I want to draw attention that it happened. Of course it happened. It would have happened in most countries, to be honest. But I wanted to deal with other existential problems–and by the way this occurs. And the same in Cold War, dealing with the mechanics of the love story, which is very complicated Two people, very ill-suited to each other: temperamentally, socially, culturally, but all the time history affects them. It affects the relationship. So definitely I like telling stories that are steeped in history.

That’s why I stopped making films in Britain because I didn’t feel historical context. Whereas Polish history, my history, my parents history is always in the back of my head as something I have to deal with at some point. But I don’t want to make a film about history because that inevitably leads to a reductive thing — characters become illustrations of something.

That sounds like a criticism of British cinema…

No, British cinema is great. But it’s very sociological. It’s about class. It’s history in terms of furniture and costumes and royal family. The royal stuff is actually interesting. But what I mean [I want to talk about] is more immediate history, not the royals or an Upstairs Downstairs kind of thing.

I want to make films about people who were crushed by history, who had to behave decently when it was impossible to be decent. Or they had to make compromises. History that strangles you. History of exile. In exile how does a relationship survive exile? How do you find your bearings? How do you not lose your character?

Cold War screened at the San Sebastián Film Festival and will be released in on December 21.

‘A Land Imagined’ Director Yeo Siew Hua on the Philosophies of Dreams and the Reinvention of Singapore

Written by Zhuo-Ning Su, October 5, 2018 at 9:11 am 

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Chances are you haven’t heard the name Yeo Siew Hua before this summer. The young filmmaker from Singapore had had only one narrative feature to his name after all. But Yeo broke out in a major way in August, when his sophomore narrative feature A Land Imagined won the Golden Leopard at the 71st edition of the Locarno Film Festival, one of the oldest and most prestigious of its kind, from a jury chaired by none other than Jia Zhangke that also included Sean Baker. (See our review here.)

The winning streak of the film continued as it again picked up the top prize at the second annual El Gouna International Film Festival in Egypt last week.

We spoke with the writer-director of this narratively and stylistically entrancing film at the third stop of its festival tour in Hamburg (it has 17 more destinations to cover in the next two months), where we talked about filmmakers that he’s a fan of, different philosophies of dreams and the part of Singapore where you won’t find any Crazy Rich Asians.

Where did the initial idea for the film come from?

It has a lot to do with my own fascination with land reclamation. Singapore is a country that has been reclaiming land since its founding some fifty years ago, and even further back during the colonial period. Once upon a time, there used to be hills and mountains in Singapore. Now it’s completely flat. We literally took out all the mountains to create land space. If you think about it, this whole island is engineered, contrived. For me it feels like I live in a country that’s constantly reinventing itself. So that was the starting point.

Singapore also buys sand from a lot of South East Asian countries. It has the money, and spends it on soil and sand in order to further extend its territory. So this practice doesn’t just change Singapore, but also these other countries.

Also, in terms of the makeup of the Singaporean population, technically speaking we’re all migrants. I’m only a second-generation Singaporean. We all came from someplace else. So you could say even our demographic is imagined.

And you decided to make the film about a very specific part of the demographic.

When I really started to research land reclamation, I realized 99.9% of the construction industry consist of work force from other countries in the region, particularly Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and Thailand. On my trips to the western part of Singapore, which is this industrial area that most Singaporeans never go, I encountered these migrant workers. Once I got to know them, befriended them, I realized there’s no turning back, this story had to be about them, the difficulties they faced and also their dreams and hopes. So I think that opened up the drama aspect of the film.

But at the same time, I did not want to just make a harsh, dark drama, because then I would just be feeding back into the simplistic rhetoric of migrant workers being oppressed. For me it should be much more than that. The point is to see them as humans, just like me and you. We’re all here to live our lives.

Presumably you shot on location?

Yes, we shot on location.  There are two main locations. One is the industrial west, where most of the Bangladeshi dormitories are. And then there’s this place called Geylang, which is not in the west but where many of the Chinese workers live. It’s also the red-light district, where a lot of activities go on at night, including these cyber cafés. The story took off for me after I’ve been to and experienced these locations.

For example, I was trying to write a character who’s having anxiety problems and cannot sleep. I knew I didn’t want the film to be another sleazy urban film about sex but about someone trying to connect. So this character ended up finding other people at this cyber café, which is the only place that’s open 24/7.

And isn’t cyber space itself also “a land imagined”?

Yeah, the virtual space is a part of all our lives now. A space that is even more malleable and illusory. At its heart this film deals with a certain social detachment. The connection this character finds at the cyber café is also a kind of disconnection because it’s an alienating experience. So conceptually this space is a liminal space. It’s neither night nor day, it’s somewhere between connection and disconnection.

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Coming back to the physical locations, you mentioned one being in the west of Singapore.

Yes, that’s where most of the constructions sites, sand quarries, and the Bangladeshi dormitories are.

From the looks of it, that’s not where the Crazy Rich Asians of Singapore live?

No, it definitely is not. It’s hidden even from the Singaporeans themselves. After I became friends with the workers living there, I went back regularly to visit them, to spend time with them in the middle of nowhere. I later decided to start a little tour and invite my artist friends to go there and join me on the weekends. People generally have no access to that part of the island and, unless you’re doing a project, have no business being there at all.

For me it’s important to show this side of Singapore, which is, on many levels, deliberately kept from the world so that the tourists only see the sleek, pretty side. Cinematically you never see that other side.

 

What was the biggest challenge in writing the screenplay?

The fact that the characters in this film are contextually so far removed from myself. I’m a filmmaker from the upper-middle class and belong to the ethnic majority of the country. I’m very privileged on many levels. But now I had to represent and give voice to people whose lives are nothing like mine. Finding out a way to do it authentically really took time.

The character of the police detective, who’s middle-class himself and probably more relatable to the general audience, eventually became a vehicle for me to find my way into the film.

Also, I’m someone who likes to experiment with cinematic forms. I didn’t want to tell this story as a straight, social-realist drama or a documentary – although my previous film was a documentary so there’s definitely a documentarian in me as well. But for this project I tried to infuse these different elements and create something new.

Speaking of documentaries, the film features news footage of a Chinese worker threatening suicide to demand payment owed by his employer. Was that actual news?

We reenacted and shot the scene for the film but the incident really happened. It was not widely reported in the mainstream media, because it goes against the conventional rhetoric of “Look, all these migrant workers who come to Singapore earn so much more here than where they came from. They ought to count themselves lucky.” But I was like “Wait up, there’s a lot more going on.” So this incident was also a big inspiration for me.

 

Is it easy to get a film made in Singapore?

Financing is difficult. Even though Singapore is an overall affluent country, it doesn’t have that much cultural funding. I did manage to get some talent development money for this film, but we still needed to do a co-production, meaning pitching it to the French and the Dutch to slowly get the financing in place. There’s probably more local funding that goes into “commercial” films – for whatever reason.

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Would you say there’s a film industry in Singapore?

It’s hard to say that about most Southeast Asian countries. The markets are at least bigger in Indonesia and Thailand. Singapore, by comparison, is a very small market. So if you do a Mandarin-language film, you’ll still be dependent on the whole Mandarin-speaking market. If it’s a Malay-language film, the larger Malay-speaking market. So there isn’t a self-sustaining commercial industry and it’s of course even harder to do non-commercial films.

What about the infrastructure? Were you able to find cast and crew locally?

Partially. A lot of my cast are from China or Bangladesh. But the two male leads are both local actors. The actor Liu Xiaoyi, who plays Wang in the film, is originally from China but moved to Singapore more than ten years ago and is doing theater work there. So he also has that experience of being a migrant. And Peter Yu, who plays the detective Lok, is a TV actor who’d stopped acting for a long time, this was kind of his comeback role.

You can also find crew in Singapore, I mean there’s work in TV, internet and other media, it’s just less in terms of film.

What about the state of arthouse cinema there? I remember when Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo won the Camera d’Or in 2013.

I belong to a film collective called “13 Little Pictures” and we make small-budget, experimental films. So smaller films are being made but they don’t travel as much. And there are also some mid-budget films, like the two that went to Cannes in 2016: The Apprentice and this other one that went under the radar a little bit but to me was an amazing Singaporean film called A Yellow Bird. Both of which were done by my producer. So some films are still getting made, but whether they can make headlines or be seen and distributed, that’s a whole different story.

Which filmmakers would you call your influences, in general and on this film?

I don’t think I had any point of reference when I was making this film. I mean I’m a follower or fan of filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and, from Singapore, someone I really look up to, Ho Tzu Nyen, whose film Here also screened in Cannes. But I don’t know if any of them had any direct influence on this film. I do think the film is steeped in the general tradition of noir.

Numerous reviews noted a touch of Lynch in A Land Imagined. I guess that wasn’t a conscious reference either?

No. I mean of course I’ve seen his films and I take this kind of comparison as a huge compliment. But it was important to me that the film didn’t become an overly artistic construct where the viewer might go “Oh, what is that all about?” Ultimately, I wanted to say something with the film. If people don’t get that, then I’ve failed. So I guess you can call the shifting of identities between the characters or the blurring of dream and reality a Lynchian effect. But the film should communicate something specific.

Specifically about the way you approached dreams versus reality, I noticed something quite different from what we are used to seeing in films of a similar nature. Can you talk about that?

Oftentimes when we talk about the blurring of dreams and reality, we approach it from a Western conception of dreams, or questions like “Is this real or not? Is my reality what it seems?” It’s based on a skepticism about what is real. About whether one can trust or believe this illusory world. You see a lot of this in Western literature or films.

I studied philosophy and subscribed to the teachings of Zhuangzi (4th century BC Chinese philosopher). And the way I understood Chinese philosophy of dreams, it’s really quite different. It’s not about “Am I dreaming?” but about the ability to dream, or more precisely, the ability to dream that which is beyond and outside yourself. The dream that feels so real is our ability to go beyond ourselves, to transcend. The philosophy of Zhuangzi is always about dreaming outside the confines of your context. And that, to me, is also the ability to transform.

This film also deals with the transformation of people. When you finally understand the “other”, you lose yourself and momentarily become them. Those scenes of the workers singing and dancing reflect my experience having fun with them. Sometimes while we were dancing, I didn’t feel like “me” and they didn’t feel like “them”. We were just bodies. We’re all the same. Whatever divide that existed between us fell away. That was the most beautiful thing to me.

So that was the philosophical element behind the film, which I tried to include even with this three-act structure. We start with this detective who, at first we don’t really understand why he even cares about finding these two missing workers. Then we see the lives of these people and by the time we come to the third act, we start to see the two come together, or fold into each other. My hope is that by that time, the audience will be in on it. They will start to root for the detective and want him to solve the case.

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What was it like to win Locarno?

Truly shocking (laughs). It was the first time a Singaporean film was even in the main competition at Locarno, so we went with no expectations. And there were heavyweights in the lineup, people that I’m a fan of. So I really was not expecting to win. When I heard about it, I was overjoyed of course.

Did you get to hang out with the jury? You know, folks like Jia Zhangke and Sean Baker.

Yeah, they all came up to me and said encouraging things like “Good job” and that they looked forward to my next project. It was a very nice recognition for the film.

Do you have your next project lined up already?

Yes, it’s already in the works. It’s something that was developed concurrently with A Land Imagined called Stranger Eyes and it will be at the Busan Asian Project Market next week. I developed it in this new lab called the “South East Asian Fiction Film Lab”. Roughly it’s about surveillance, or the subjectivity of the gaze. It’s about the ability to see others and how seeing is not just a passive activity, that oftentimes in seeing others you end up seeing yourself.

Will it also be a thriller or more of a straight drama?

I think there will always be some genre element in my films. I like to play around with boundaries, with different forms of cinema.

Before we go: what types of films did you watch growing up in Singapore? Did you watch more Hollywood or Asian films?

I consume a lot of films and I don’t discriminate. I watch Marvel films just as I watch Ozu films and I pay the same amount of attention to each of them. In Singapore we do get a lot of films coming our way. There are a lot of festivals. There used to be a very nice cinematheque in Singapore which unfortunately has closed down – I’m very angry about it – that’s where I first saw Parajanov’s films. So I don’t necessarily make that distinction between Hollywood films and Singaporean films. Ultimately we’re all part of world cinema. So what’s important to me is to see what we can offer to this larger cinematic conversation. Masters from South East Asia like Trần Anh Hùng, Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Lav Diaz have already started it, so now the question is how do we make the landscape interesting and expand the horizon for cinema from this part of the world.

A Land Imagined screened at the Hamburg International Film Festival.

Jeremy Saulnier on the Catharsis of Making ‘Hold the Dark’ and Creating Conflict Through Performance

Written by Mike Mazzanti, September 27, 2018 at 11:27 pm 

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After his first feature Murder Party did not attract the attention it deserved, Jeremy Saulnier spent time away from the director’s chair, spending seven years as a cinematographer. For his next film, Blue Ruin, he took a big and quite literal gamble: he and his wife mortgaged their home to fund the subversive, stripped-down take on the revenge thriller. Unlike the bumbling, all-too-human characters at the center of his work, Saulnier came out of the experience on top, with the film premiering at Cannes and taking home the FIPRESCI Prize. With a newfound momentum, he followed up Blue Ruin with Green Room, a savage and barebones thriller which carried over his love of very human characters who are very out of their element–along with further exploring his gag-inducing special effects, coal-black humor, and tension.

With Hold the Dark, Saulnier widens his canvas in exciting ways, tackling his first adaptation and embracing a unique narrative propulsion seldom found in genre cinema. Melding elements from a number of genres, Saulnier creates his most dense work yet in a film all about dichotomies–in codes of life, men and nature, knowing and unknowing. These differences lead to conflict, and perhaps, truth. The awkward and savage nature of the characters always found in his films are now contrasted with an ominous mysticism and otherworldliness, effectively evolving his thematic concerns and, by extension, his lexis.

Ahead of the film’s release on Netflix this Friday, we sat down with Saulnier to discuss working with words that were not his own, expanding his scope, and creating conflict through performance. We also discuss new technical challenges, the differing codes of man, and trying to make sense of the world.

The Film Stage: So, your first three features (Murder Party, Blue Ruin, and Green Room) are all very stripped down; the characters and the plotting come out in the midst of a maelstrom of moments, but with Hold the Dark there is a sense of delving into things more. You’ve always let scenes breathe when they need to, especially in Blue Ruin before this, but here the whole film is able to breathe while still maintaining a real sense of forward momentum. How did you determine the pacing?

Jeremy Saulnier: Yeah, it’s something we certainly had to find in the edit. There’s a wealth of material there from the novel and we shot a bunch of extra dialogue and exposition, and parts of the mythology of the iconic masks that are featured in the film. But you know, when you’re doing a literary adaptation–as I learned–sometimes you really have to focus on that experience; the sight and sound of it all, and pull back on exposition and not always defer to the literary depths that you’re going for as far as having it all on camera. When you pull back, and let it breathe and function in a more enigmatic way narratively, you then regain the weight of the novel without spelling everything out.

The pacing is certainly unconventional, and that is what I embraced. For Green Room especially, that was an exercise in tension-building. That was my goal: I want to do a nightmare scenario as I see it unfold, and just keep ratcheting up the tension. People responded to that quite well. But for Hold the Dark, I was able to break out of the box I put myself in. Because, when I write, it’s not always just because it’s a narrative I’m attracted to. It’s also because it’s at a certain scale that if I really had to, when all the Powers-That-Be say no to me, they’re not making my movie, I could get my credit card out and make it myself.

And so there’s a very particular engineering to my stories, from Murder Party to Blue Ruin to Green Room. But for Hold the Dark, I didn’t have to go through the seven or eight drafts to get this in shape, or go pitch it around town as an original story. The writers—William Giraldi who did the novel and Macon Blair who adapted the screenplay—did the heavy-lifting, and it was way beyond any scope or scale that I would write for myself, out of mistrust of the industry. So, it was a playground for me! It had a lot more atmosphere and weight to it, and there was a reverence for the material and the story being told. But also, the cinematic landscape was expansive compared to my other films and I was able to really challenge myself, to flex new muscles, and to explore practical and narrative challenges that I hadn’t before: aerials, animals, war scenes, deserts, and really protracted dialogue scenes that had their own weight. So, it was all good for me.

I think it’s smart to make sure you understand the medium you’re working in and not try to emulate the novel at every turn, but just sort of be conscious that overall you’re getting the impact of it. As you said, this is your first script where you haven’t written it, and it sounds like it was kind of freeing to work with material that wasn’t initially from your own mind.

Oh, certainly. Giving up a little bit of control here and there, not only with second or third unit doing some additional photography, but me not being the sort of all-knowing author of a work. You know, any actor or crew member or collaborator that would come to set having read the novel, would have an interpretation of the material that was as valid as mine. But I welcome that, in that collectively we had to figure it out together and make sure we were all telling the same story, and doing the source material justice.

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I know that you said on Green Room, some of the more difficult technical elements were handling a lot of actors in the space.

Yeah.

Here, as you said, the scale is much bigger. So what were some of the newer elements in Hold the Dark that challenged you?

Yeah, I’d never been up in the air scouting in a helicopter, in high winds and snowstorms trying to design the aerial sequence. I’d never shot a war sequence with armored personnel carriers and helicopters. I’d never worked with so many animals on set. A lot of the pitfalls they warn you against, we dove right into. And that was cool, but I’m also very technically-oriented as far as practical effects, make-up, action, camera movement. So, shooting the centerpiece action sequence was actually more of a fulfillment of a childhood dream in that I could tackle something big and menacing, and narratively of course, really devastating and impressive. But behind the camera, the act of making it was what I’d be waiting for my whole life. Which is: enough time, enough money, and the resources to dial in an action sequence as I envisioned it without any compromise. So, some of the most challenging stuff was actually easiest because we were so scared during prep, that we did extensive previsualization and rehearsals with the stunt team and the armorers to make sure it was safe to execute the scenes. Other than that, it was relatively easy.

But, when you’re trying to fine-tune Alexander Skarsgård, we sat there for just a few extra minutes before our first take of Alex on camera as Vernon Slone, just trying to fine-tune the pitch at which he should perform because it was almost a wordless performance. How do you direct that? How do you find that on camera without a lot of rehearsal? So that was a challenge too, directing the physicality of some of the actors, not just the intonation of their words.

Speaking of both of those action scenes—the war scenes and then the later, central setpiece—I think it’s really interesting and effective where you put the camera. Because in the war sequence, there’s a perception of emotional distance and detachment for the character that’s in it. That’s contrasted later with the central action piece, which is much more hectic and doesn’t sensationalize any of the bloodshed, and I think it’s really clever the way that progression takes place visually in the story.

Yeah, for the Iraq war footage, the whole directive there was to have this kind of removed, Kubrickian following vibe. You’re definitely with Slone, in close proximity, but he is very clearly governed not by the laws of the land or the U.S. government or the armed forces. He’s sort of carving his own path, somewhat literally; it’s surreal, and we let the trappings of war and all the background bullet hits and fires and fighter jets really recede into the background. You know, later in the film, everything gets a little more up close and a little more personal.

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Diving into some of the more thematic elements, I think Hold the Dark continues an interest from Green Room about codes and different ways of life, and how for certain people there’s no disputing these codes and how they’re just sort of the blood that’s running in people’s veins.

Yeah.

These codes are always causing conflict, at home and at war, and with each other. What intrigues you about the moral codes and the rituals of certain lifestyles?

Hold the Dark is certainly about the power of observation and non-intervention. And about not understanding, just knowing. And that was what I was going through. I don’t want to sound like an old man but, in this day and age, it’s hard to figure out what humans are doing and why they’re doing it. It’s very frustrating because we want to know, we want to identify, and to put things in boxes and analyze it. But, Hold the Dark let me, as a filmmaker, find the cathartic release in not trying to figure it out, in the power of observation and letting go, and actually bowing to the forces of nature and the wild, and embracing the fact that humans are animals. That the intellect by which we’re governed is a construct and it can be confusing, and an obstruction to true understanding; in that, you know, just breathe fresh air and just watch and when something dangerous happens, run away. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

It’s pretty simple, intuitive nature. And the code is an aboriginal thing. With Vernon Slone, like you said, it’s in his veins, he’s governed by that. We don’t know exactly what’s going on in his head, and the characters in the film even make that mention: they’re never gonna truly understand Vernon Slone, but you can observe behavior and again, know it but not really understand it.

Hold the Dark continues your fascination with the awkward humanity element. Like your previous films, it creates tension and humor, but it also keeps the human beings at the heart of the story; someone falling down a hill or struggling to count the rounds in their gun. Do you always look for ways to humanize the narrative and keep it feeling grounded, despite the more heightened genre elements?

Absolutely. I think the reason why my films have an impact on people as far as the level of violence and tension [is concerned] is because my focus really is narrative conflict through performance. I really, not only as a filmmaker but as an audience member, I just want to see people that I can relate to. But not in the traditional pet the dog, save the cat kind of way. Just people that are vulnerable and flailing through these situations. Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is actually more of an experiment than I’m used to dealing with. He’s not completely out of his depth in the Alaskan outback, but he’s a retired naturalist. He’s not a typical action hero. So, while he has an expertise, I find I always gotta have someone that’s in over their head to really connect with them.

Hold the Dark hits Netflix on Friday.

David Lowery on His Favorite Robert Redford Roles and the Optimism of ‘The Old Man & the Gun’

Written by Josh Lewis, September 27, 2018 at 7:30 am 

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David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun is a tender swan song for Robert Redford, a nostalgic look back at the outlaw characters played by him in the 60s and 70s through the lens of the real-life Forrest Tucker, a career bank robber that hit hundreds of banks and broke out of dozens of prisons in his lifetime. We sat down with the generous, unassuming Lowery to discuss the joy and melancholy of writing the film and working with Redford, as well as his own personal favorite Redford films, and tricky emotional attachment to Tucker and his story.

The Film Stage: There’s an unspoken melancholy that hangs over The Old Man & the Gun, not dissimilar from your previous feature A Ghost Story, in that there’s a collective acknowledgement of the passage of time—especially inherent here in seeing an aged Robert Redford walk through a convincingly rendered aesthetic we associate with his younger self. I don’t mean to get started off too heavy but is the passage of time something weighing heavily on you?

David Lowery: Always. I mean I think it has my entire life but especially as I get older it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. And also, as an editor you know, I spend a lot of time working as an editor and I love editing, and you just spend so many hours looking at a timeline and just thinking about how time marches by in increments from shot-to-shot.

Right, with the specific timecode and everything.

Yeah, you start to think about the plasticity of it. It just starts to not only weigh on you, but you think about the possibilities of it and so it’s both an existential crisis of mine but also a cinematic fascination, and those two things will meld together and continue to meld together probably everything movie I make.

That first question maybe made Old Man sound a little sadder than it actually is. Ultimately a lot of films that try to pastiche a previous decade can sometimes get lost in the “importance” of period, but I was glad to see this was a lot more breezy, a lot more laid-back than I had anticipated. Was that something you considered a lot in the writing or did it just naturally come out through the character of Tucker as applied by Redford?

It was both. I would say the latter influenced the former because there’s Forrest Tucker in the article who is a self-mythologized outlaw who sees himself in that dapper, breezy fashion. Then you apply Robert Redford to that character and you instantly see the twinkle in the eye and you also see the vestiges of all the classic Redford outlaws in cinema history that certainly are the forebearers for this role. On top of that you have Bob telling me that he just wanted to have fun with this movie. He wanted to make a movie that was fun, that was optimistic and light-hearted, and my natural tendency is to move towards melancholy. To move towards the heavier side of a narrative. So, it was a really fun and terrifying challenge to veer away from that and engage in a more light-hearted approach. To let things be breezy, to let things be delightful. That ended up being my rule on set every day. I just told everyone from the cast on down that I just wanted to be delighted every single day and that if everyone could make me laugh behind the monitor we’d probably have a movie that worked the way it needed to work.

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Obviously, Redford is a huge part of the feeling you get from that. You previously worked with him on Pete’s Dragon, which was a film just chock full of warm performances but his especially lingers. When did you first meet and first decide you want to collaborate? And what drew you to each other to want to do it again?

It began with The Old Man & the Gun because he saw Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at Sundance–I think he was aware of it because we went through the writing labs there–and after that film premiered a few weeks later I got a call from his producing partner at the time wondering if I would be interested in talking to him about this New Yorker article he wanted to  adapt and star in. And when you get a phone call from Robert Redford saying do you want to work on a movie together…

You gotta take it.

You’re just like “sure,” of course. So, I read the article, read it with him in mind, and just thought, well this certainly would be a classic Redford movie if ever there was one. A true spiritual follow-up to some of his greatest hits as it were. I went in and met with him and talked about my approach to the film, what I would try to do with it, and he liked that approach and liked me and asked me if I would write the script. Now, earlier that same day I had been over at the Disney lot pitching Pete’s Dragon. [Laughs.]

One hell of a day.

It was a real heck of a day, and that was five years ago, so that one February morning sort of set me on a path that is now almost complete. So, I started writing both scripts at the same time but Pete’s Dragon reached the finish line first and as a result made it the starting line of production first but there was this character in it that was the older, wiser, dragon-savvy character that… I can’t remember if it was my idea or my producer Jim Whitaker’s idea, but everyone knew I was working with Redford on this other project and we were just thinking, “Okay, who do we get for this part?” You just get a list of actors who are from 50-70 and he wasn’t on that list.

It suddenly occurred to us that if we had Robert Redford in this movie not only would he be great in the part, but he would change what the movie is, change the perception of it and elevate it. It already had an environmental aspect to it and adding his credibility in that area was really exciting to us. So anyway, I went to New York and had a script meeting about Old Man and at the end of that meeting I mentioned that Pete’s Dragon was getting ready to go and that we’re gonna go to New Zealand and it was going to be fun and that maybe he should think about joining us. [Laughs.]

It took a little while but eventually he said yes and the thing I remember the most about working with him there–aside from just getting to know him and what it was like directing a legend–was watching him have fun. If you watch the movies he’s acted in over the past, you know, let’s say ten years, he hasn’t had that much fun. He’s doing very serious, heavy roles and when he was hanging out with these kids telling stories or when he drove a truck through a wall—like we put him in the cab of an 18-wheeler and literally had him drive through a wall–the camera’s on his face and the shot’s in the movie, you just see this glee in his eye. That really was instructive to me when I went back to The Old Man & the Gun after we finished Pete’s Dragon. So, I just rewrote the entire script from scratch having worked with him. I was now able to write it specifically for him and specifically for that look of glee that I saw that day when he drove that truck through the wall.

That’s awesome. You certainly feel that coming through the movie, that experience you had with him. Obviously when you’re making this film you’re going through older Robert Redford movies for inspiration. Was there a more underrated Redford performance that stood out to you? Something you saw and knew you wanted to bring out of him as well?

Do you think Downhill Racer is underrated?

Sure. I think that a lot of people would overlook it over something like All the President’s Men or Butch Cassidy.

Well, that one’s maybe my favorite. That and Jeremiah Johnson.

Oh, Jeremiah Johnson is excellent.

Downhill Racer was a big point of reference for me with Old Man because it’s a really mean movie. [Laughs.] He’s a terrible person in that movie. You still like him but he’s like a misogynistic asshole through and through, but the shape of it is so strange, so single-minded, so simple and so rough around the edges. I know he loved that movie. He basically distributed that movie himself and I wanted to kind of capture that anarchic spirit that he had in that film. So that’s one of them and then The Chase, the Arthur Penn movie that we sample in Old Man is an amazing film with Redford, Marlon Brando, and Jane Fonda, and almost no one has seen it. It’s terrific and something Casey [Affleck] actually recommended to me when we made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s also written by Horton Foote who is amazing, so if I could shine a light on an underseen Redford performance it’d be that one.

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Speaking of Casey, a smaller angle you take with the film was the day-to-day, blue-collar lives of regular people in Tucker’s orbit. I’m thinking in particular some of the people that he hurts in a rippling sense while robbing banks. You spoke about that melancholy and that definitely comes to the fore in those scenes but it’s also more than that for Affleck’s Detective Hunt who is ultimately kind of inspired by Tucker—a sort of domestic passion that rings true. Could you speak to fleshing out the lives that are in the peripherals of Tucker?

That’s definitely part of the original article. He never quite acknowledged how bad he hurt people, but he did admit finally that he could’ve been a better person, a better father. He abandoned his family, his children and the character that Elisabeth Moss plays isn’t based specifically on his real daughter, but I think the sentiment there–if you read the article–is that his children have very mixed feelings about him because on the one hand, yes, he did what he loved and that’s admirable. Anyone can say, objectively speaking, someone dedicating themselves to something they truly love is admirable but when it hurts so many people it gets a lot more complex. It’s harder to appreciate the qualities that that person might have. So, I didn’t want to overwhelm the film with the more scabrous side of Forrest Tucker but I wanted to acknowledge it. I wanted to make sure that the people that he hurt had a voice, and when he walks out of a bank with a twinkle in his eye leaving a teller in tears that we end on the teller. We let her have that final moment, linger on her just a little bit longer just to acknowledge that…

There’s a cost to it.

He is doing something destructive, yeah. Something I do not approve of even if I approve of the spirit in which he does it. At the same time… in spite of my disapproval… It’s very inspiring to me. [Laughs.] And for the John Hunt character I really had trouble figuring out what he should do in the movie. He’s a real character, the real John Hunt is in the movie, in fact. He never caught Forrest Tucker, he loved him and admired him, but he never caught him, so I had to find a way to make that narratively compelling. I could’ve fudged the facts and had him actually catch Tucker or play more of a part in his arrest but I kind of loved the unexpected turn that he just never succeeds. He’s a detective who does not succeed at his job and I was like, “How do I make that a success in its own right?” And then I just looked at myself and thought I really like Forrest Tucker, I kinda don’t want him to get caught, so maybe I can get John Hunt to that same place. John Hunt is basically me writing the film. In writing the film I fell in love with this character, fell in love with his legend, fell in love with his passion for what he does and did not want to see him get caught for it. And as erroneous as that may be–as incorrect on a cultural/sociological level as that might be–I truly wanted him to get away with it. And so, the angle I took with John Hunt was to let him arrive at that same place that I was at, where he felt the right thing was to let Forrest Tucker walk out that door.

There’s almost a lingering feeling of: I wish he could continue to do it so that I could continue to chase him.

Exactly. That’s something that the real John Hunt told me. He said there was always a melancholy when the chase was over. The really good bank robbers made the really good cops even better at what they did. They had to step up to the challenge. It was like a symbiotic relationship and one he told was full of mutual respect and that’s impressive to me. I feel like that’s something that doesn’t exist now. I don’t know but it feels like a very old-fashioned and honest sentiment for a cops-and-robbers drama, that mutual respect, and I wanted that to exist here.

The Old Man & the Gun opens on Friday, September 28.

John C. Reilly on the Bond Between Man and Horse, ‘The Sisters Brothers,’ and the Enduring Legacy of ‘Walk Hard’

Written by Vikram Murthi, September 26, 2018 at 7:05 am 

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In Jacques Audiard’s new film The Sisters Brothers, John C. Reilly plays Eli Sisters, a sensitive hitman and a foil to his more aggressive brother Charlie, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The two brothers are on the trail of a chemist (Riz Ahmed) with a secret formula for prospecting gold, as well as a turncoat detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) who was initially hired to secure the chemist but betrayed his duties for financial gain. Their shaggy-dog journey leads them down many roads, but throughout the film, Reilly stands out with his perceptive, gentle performance as a violent cowboy looking to finally give up the gun.

I sat down with Reilly to discuss the film and what it was like working as a producer for the first time. However, the conversation eventually detours into the special bond between man and horse, as well as the enduring legacy of his satirical music biopic Walk Hard.

The Film Stage: You bought the film rights to The Sisters Brothers in 2011. What initially drew you to Patrick DeWitt’s book and what made you believe it could be a good film?

John C. Reilly: Well, anyone who reads the book tells me, “Oh my God. This is such a page turner!” It’s a very compelling story. So there’s that, but at the time I was working on a movie called Terry, an independent film that my wife Alison Dickey produced, who also produced this movie. That movie was based on a manuscript of Patrick’s that was supposed to be a book, but was turned right into a screenplay. So when we finished that movie, we asked Patrick, “What else are you working on?” He had the manuscript for Sisters Brothers, it hadn’t been published yet, and he let us read it, and we bought the rights before it was a book.

What drew me to it…I mean, obviously, I already thought Pat was a brilliant writer, but it was such an original story. For a western, it did so many things that westerns don’t normally do. All this emotional life in the story, all this stuff about brothers. I have some brothers myself. This character just really jumped off the page for me when I first read it. That said, we went to Jacques [Audiard] and said, “We want you to direct this, we want you to make it your film, we want you to tell a personal story,” because that’s more important to us than just having some flashy director. We want someone who’s going to take this very moving book and make a personal story. All of our favorite films are stories like that, whether it’s Paul Thomas Anderson, or Martin Scorsese, or Terrence Malick, or Jacques: they all end up telling these stories. There’s the subject matter, and the source material, but then there’s this other thing going on where the filmmaker is saying, “This means something to me.”

It’s definitely an Audiard film.

Yet, it was a DeWitt novel, and now it’s an Audiard film, both are true. It just landed in my lap. Alison asked Patrick for it, she read it, just whipped through it, and then she gave it to me, and I was like, “Oh my God. Yeah. I guess this is when you do that thing called, ‘buying the rights for something.’” I had never done it before, I haven’t done it since, but it was just this perfect moment. It took quite a few years to make it happen, but it’s a miracle that it did.

This is your first film as a producer. What was it like splitting the duties between being a producer and an actor?

I had been involved in writing things, and part of a creative team on things before, but I had never produced something, been responsible for securing the financing and getting other people involved. I really liked it. At the point that we got the rights to this, Patrick had become a friend, and I respect him so much, and I think he’s such a brilliant writer. I was like, number one, I want to do right by this guy who’s my friend, and number two, I want to honor this beautiful piece of writing that he has. So it was more than just, [old-timey producer voice] “We gotta make a successful picture here!” It was like this mission, this labor of love.

To answer your question most directly, my wife was the producer. Alison Dickey is really the producer of this movie. Of course, she and I worked as a partnership, especially early on, before Jacques was involved, developing the profile of the film. But once I started acting, then Alison really took over. Also Jacques’ production company—there’s this guy Pascal Caucheteux, his long-time producer partner—once Jacques’ company took over, and we gave him this piece of material, then his apparatus took over, especially since it was a European production. We shot it in Spain and Romania and France, so…

But that said, all along the way I kept having people come up to me, the other actors would come up to me, and say, “Hey man, you’re a producer on this. There’s no toilet paper in my trailer. What the hell?” So, I definitely stayed involved, and then I was also getting reports from Alison about, like, this is what the dailies look like, these are our concerns, we have this and that, could you write an email so and so. We all had our strengths. The relationship I had with Joaquin [Phoenix] in the movie was so intense and all-encompassing. At different points in the filming, Joaquin and I were living together. I was so immersed in that, I wasn’t thinking like a producer most of the time, but it felt good. It’s a lot of responsibility, and if things go wrong, I would imagine it feels really terrible to be the producer of something, but in this case, it was a big success and we pulled it off. It’s really satisfying to know I and some other people did that. First Pat had these thoughts, and he turned it into a book, and we took that and turned it into this thing. That’s gravestone stuff right there. I’m very happy to have pulled that off.

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This is your first true-blue western. Were you a fan of the genre growing up? Did you like cowboys?

I’m not made of stone! I don’t know anyone that doesn’t really love a western, even if you don’t like the trappings of westerns, the core elements of story in westerns are so pure and so compelling to watch.

People always ask actors, “What part do you want to play? What project would you like to be involved in?” The truth is so much of an actor’s life is just jobbing into things that other people are setting up, that I don’t bother disappointing myself by saying, “I must play a priest by 2019!” If you were to ask me before this all started, “Would you like to do a western?” Yeah, of course. I love horses. I love to ride. That would be really cool. Every little boy has a fantasy of being a soldier, of being a cowboy, of being a fireman, and all these things. I’m no different in that way.

I definitely wanted to do a western, but that said, there are a lot of clichéd westerns out there. There’s a lot of stories…the research they use is past westerns, and I feel like the research that Patrick used and Jacques used was this time period. What was actually going on, who was there, what were their concerns, what was life like for people that had never heard of a toothbrush before, or people who had to reload their guns by hand. All these physical details of life at that time.

The tooth brushing was fascinating. I did some research on the actual powder after the movie. It’s been around since the Roman Empire, but it became a codified product around the 19th century.

It’s hard to believe! But health-wise, there was just so much about that time… You get an infection? Cut it off. Teeth smell bad? Pull them out. It was sort of barbaric in that way.

All these trappings—brushing your teeth, treating a woman with care and respect, being open to a woman who might be a man or might be a woman. There are challenges to this old, brutal way of thinking, and they point to a new future. We can do this differently. I think those are some of the ideas that Jacques was playing with.

You mention that you’ve ridden horses before. What was your first experience riding?

I had been riding horses since I was a little kid, but just recreationally. You go for an hour, and basically those horses…

They go in a circle?

No, they go where they want! They know the trail. You get halfway through and suddenly the horse starts going faster and faster because it knows they’re almost back.

I have had a pretty strong connection with horses and animals over the years. But what you come to realize when you ride a horse, it’s not horse riding. It’s riding that horse. I realized, oh my God, I’m going to have a relationship not only with Joaquin, and Jacques, and Jake [Gyllenhaal], and Riz [Ahmed], but also this animal. I’m going to see this animal every day.

I don’t think I’ve told anyone this, but this was a very emotional journey making this movie, and it was at the end of a long road of working on others things that led to this period. I had imagined, “Wow, when this ends, I’m just going to be so emotional.” You start thinking before it ends, “Wow, how am I going to say goodbye to Joaquin? That’s going to be so hard. I love him so much.” Then the last day came, and the only time I cried was when I was saying goodbye to the horse. There are all these pictures of me hugging him and talking to him. On our last day of shooting, that horse is being retired. He was one of the oldest horses working on the movie because they needed a horse that looked beaten down. Pollito was his name, Little Chicken, and that last day of shooting was his last day of work. He was just going to be in the pasture after that somewhere in Spain. So, I dunno…

That’s really touching.

It was a very, very moving moment. I’ll show you a picture. [He pulls out his phone and starts looking for the appropriate picture.]

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I’d love to see that. While you pull that up, you worked with Thomas Bidegain on The Cowboys, and he’s collaborated with Audiard pretty much since the beginning. I was wondering how their styles differed, or were their approaches in simpatico?

That’s interesting. I think, in terms of story and insights into character, they’re very close, but Tom is much more affable. [Laughs.]

[Shows me the picture of him and Pollito on his phone.] This is me saying goodbye to Pollito on the last day. It was on the beach. You can’t really see me, but…

That’s a beautiful horse.

It was the sweetest horse, too. I’d go visit him on the weekends and bring him apples and stuff, because I realized my safety depends on this animal and its feelings towards me. What you realize riding horses is that you can’t treat it like a machine. You have to be in connection with it. They are very sweet animals. In a way, they have this childlike quality, even though they’re stronger than you and kill you like [snaps] that. They can step on you and that’s that. I dunno, I just ended up with this really deep connection and understanding of horses. It sounds corny…

Nah, man. I think it helps the movie.

If you think about it, in terms of man’s relationship with animals, if we hadn’t made the agreement that we made with horses, we would have nothing at all. We’d still be in fucking skins and knocking each other with bones. It’s almost like a gift from God or something, this mystical thing that happened, that this enormous, powerful animal said, “I’ll let you ride my back. I’ll pull this thing for you.” Once you tap into that, you realize, “Wow, we owe a lot to horses.”

It’s not just, “I’ll let you ride my back,” it’s also, “I’ll control the transportation of an entire nation.”

Yeah!

Your character in The Sisters Brothers has all these rituals—I was thinking about the tooth brushing, and the scarf—that sort of ground him in contrast with the violent nature of his job. I’m curious if you have any rituals in your own life that ground you in a reality beyond the trappings of the film industry.

Interesting.

You might not have an answer for that.

Well, I’m not a very habitual person. I’m a Gemini. I do get superstitious on specific projects. I’ll do the same thing in the morning every day. I’ll listen to the same song every day in the car on the way to set. That helps me stay focused and brings me into a familiar place, but I think I do it for reasons other than why Eli was doing it. I think the story of Eli and Charlie is really the story of two children pressed into this traumatic life without a real choice in the matter. If you look at immigrant kids on the run, or runaway kids, or kids going through foster homes, you’ll see similar things, where a kid will be like, “If I fold my shirt like this, nothing bad will happen to me today.” It’s the little things you hold onto for stability. I really loved doing those things in the movie. I loved all the rituals of them going to sleep—hold the thing, fold the thing, hand on the gun. I could relate to it very much, but I don’t have things that I do like that continually.

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I’m an enormous fan of Walk Hard. I’m curious if it bothers you that biopics are still doing all the things that that film ruthlessly parodied.

[Laughs.] I just did one. I have a lot of nerve. In a way, I thought, well, this cuts down my film roles because I can never do a biopic now that we’ve taken the piss out of biopics so much in this movie.

I just feel like that should’ve been the end of a certain kind of movie, and it’s still…

Well, yeah! You know, film is somewhat disposable. It’s a cultural thing. Certain stories mean certain things to us and then we need new stories. But for some reason…

[Laughs.]

In the same way, when you watch a detective story, even if it’s bad, you’re like, I gotta know what happens. I need to know who the killer was by the end. I hate this movie, but I need to know. So, I think there’s just certain things about human beings…

The reason why there are all these tropes that occur in biopics is because that’s what happens when you take a life and smash it into two hours. Everything becomes a cliché. Jake Kasdan had this great line, “Look, in biopics, literally every time you open a door, it’s a new era.”

I’m really, really proud of that movie. We worked really hard on it. We did six months of music recording and songwriting even before we started shooting. We really poured our hearts into it, so many people did, a whole group of songwriters that I’m still friends with as a result of that movie. But at the end of the day, I was like, “Well, you can have a cult movie or you can have a box office success, but you can’t have both.” I’m not sure which one I would pick, but a cult movie is pretty fucking cool. Every musician I talk to, and I’ve met some big, famous musicians, the first words out of their mouth, “Oh my God. Walk Hard! We watch it obsessively on the bus!” I saw Don Henley at a Lakers game, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Walk Hard, man. Dewey Cox. I lived that!” You realize, to a lot of these guys, it’s like a documentary. It’s not a satire.

It’s a Spinal Tap thing.

They say, “Fifty didgeridoos in a recording studio? That’s nothing! We went so much crazier than that!”

The Sisters Brothers is now in limited release and expands Friday.

Peter Bogdanovich on How Art Reflects Society, ‘The Sopranos,’ and His Darkly Prophetic ‘Targets’

Written by Eli F., September 25, 2018 at 7:00 am 

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Peter Bogdanovich loves Hollywood. For well over half of his life, the 79-year-old actor/director/film historian has been an insatiable participant in the American film industry on all sides of the camera. An icon of the 1970s New Hollywood movement, Bogdanovich’s unbridled enthusiasm for the achievements of Tinseltown’s 1920s to 1960s “Golden Era” informs a truly chameleonic and deeply influential filmmaking aesthetic. As an artist, his projects have consistently defied pigeonholing. His directorial work spans a host of genres – from screwball comedy in 1973’s Paper Moon to tragic drama in 1971’s The Last Picture Show to unnerving postmodern thriller in 1968’s Targets, among many others – all informed by a layered reverence for the past. As an actor, his sardonic, witty screen persona and sonorous New York drawl are forces to be reckoned with, appearing in films by Orson Welles and Quentin Tarantino and landing a memorable recurring role on HBO’s epoch-making TV drama The Sopranos.

This year Bogdanovich turns his directorial attention (and melodious narration) to The Great Buster, a brand new documentary on the legendary screen comic Buster Keaton, intended to introduce Keaton’s artistic accomplishments to a new generation of filmgoers. In honor of the new film’s release and Bogdanovich’s long and rich career, the Quad Cinema in New York City will be holding a special Bogdanovich retrospective series starting this week, featuring his greatest hits from over five decades of filmmaking, with the director present in person. We took this opportunity to speak with Mr. Bogdanovich, asking him some choice questions about his favorite projects, the virtues and vices of the past, his darkly prophetic Targets, and his role as a psychiatrist’s psychiatrist in David Chase’s TV mob masterpiece, including an unused scene from the controversial final episode.

What is your favorite project that you’ve worked on as an actor or director?

Oh, boy. As an actor, I would say Orson Welles’ film, The Other Side of the Wind. It’s opening this year.

It’s on Netflix.

Yes – which I acted in in the 70s, and it’s now coming out when I’m in my 70s. I saw the film for the first time recently, after I worked on it for the last couple years. When I saw it, there was a guy in his 30s acting. I thought I was pretty good, but… [laughs] What happened to that actor?

[Laughs] Who’s to say?

I also very much enjoyed The Sopranos experience. That was great.

I was actually going to get to that later! But first: What are some of your favorite films or TV projects of recent years? Are there any younger filmmakers or creative talents you have an eye on?

Well, I’ve liked Wes Anderson’s pictures, and I’ve liked Noah Baumbach’s pictures. They’re both very good directors. I like Quentin [Tarantino]’s pictures. Noah and Wes call me “Pop.” I call them my sons. They’re both interesting filmmakers, and Quentin as well.

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Peter Bogdanovich and John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind

Nostalgia for the Golden Age of Hollywood has been a major motif in your films from very early on. In the last few years, it seems as though cultural trends have leaned towards an attitude of being much more intensely self-critical of Hollywood, past and present, and American history in general. Audiences and critics seem to be much more skeptical of romanticizing the past, particularly that “golden age” of the early-to-mid 20th century. Is this something that you’ve observed or encountered? Do you have any particular thoughts or feelings towards younger people who are ambivalent or cynical towards America’s past and cultural legacy?

Well, most of them are ignorant. America’s history in filmmaking is extraordinary. It all sort of fell apart in the early 60s. But prior to that, it was a pretty extraordinary period. It’s not nostalgia I have; it’s respect for the fine work done by a lot of people. Young filmmakers, if they paid more attention to it, would be better filmmakers. And it’s not just the movies, but all the arts are in decline. Decadence, actually. You don’t have people writing novels like they did in the 18th or 19th century. You don’t have people painting pictures like they did in the 19th century. So it’s not just movies that have fallen into decadence–it’s all the arts. But that’s a reflection of the society that produces them. This is not the America of the 40s, or 30s, or 50s. I don’t know where we are, but it’s not good.

Looking back at one of your very first films, Targets: now that’s a movie that is really provocative and shocking to watch, particularly in today’s climate – moreso, I would imagine, then when it debuted in 1968. The two parallel storylines – one slightly comedic, about an aging actor from that Hollywood Golden Age played by Boris Karloff, and the other deadly serious, about a psychotic spree killer played by Tim O’Kelly – feel very discordant. And of course, the concept of a deeply disturbed young man shooting up a movie theater is no longer fiction; it’s something that’s happened in recent memory. You’ve never made another film as dark and disturbing as that one. How do you look back on that movie now?

Well, let me put it this way: I wish the film was more dated. We haven’t progressed in terms of gun control; we haven’t progressed at all. That boy could pick up as many guns as he wants. In Congress, the NRA has everybody in their pockets. It’s disgusting. We’re the only “civilized” country in the world that allows people to go out and get guns willy-nilly. People talk about the Second Amendment; back then, guns were single-shot. It took five or six minutes to reload one shot! They didn’t mean machine guns; that was not the intention of the Founding Fathers of this country.

The killer in the movie doesn’t even use assault weapons. He just uses pistols and hunting rifles. He almost seems tame compared to the real-life successors to that fiction.

There had been a couple of things at that point that inspired it. The University of Texas tower shooting [in 1966] was where we got the idea. We had Boris Karloff, because Boris owed [producer] Roger Corman two days’ work. He wanted a picture for Boris.

And did it in fact take two days to shoot his part?

No, it took five days.

[Laughs] Pretty close!

[Corman] paid for the extra few days.

What do you see as being the connection between Karloff’s storyline and the storyline of the shooter character?

Well, in connection with the death of fiction: Victorian horror isn’t horror anymore. What is modern horror is, a guy going and shooting a bunch of strangers. We’ve had a lot of that recently… I wish I hadn’t been so prescient. Well, I don’t know that I was prescient; I picked that story because it was the diametric opposite of the kind of Victorian idea that Boris incarnates. We had to make this picture with Boris, and we felt that his style of Victorian horror had been outdated by things like [University of] Texas.

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Peter Bogdanovich in The Sopranos

I have to ask about The Sopranos. That series transformed American television. How did you come to be involved with it? Why and how did you get the role of Dr. Elliott Kupferberg?

Well, it started when I did a guest shot on a show called Northern Exposure, for which the showrunner was David Chase, the guy who conceived The Sopranos. He saw [my] dailies, and he said to me, “Have you acted before?” And I said, “I started as an actor – at 16 I was acting professionally! Why?” And so I had a couple days in Seattle playing myself for an episode, basically, and I met him there. And then seven years later he calls me and says, “We’re doing a second season of a show called The Sopranos. We’ve got a therapist character [Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Jennifer Melfi] who’s having so much trouble with Tony Soprano that she needs a therapist, and we were wondering if you could do that.” I told him I’d love to. So he said, “Come on down and meet the writers,” and so I went on down and met the writers, auditioned, and got the part. They wrote me into sixteen episodes, and I loved it! I also directed one of the episodes – one that I wasn’t in. It was great fun – David wrote it [with Matthew Weiner], and I loved doing it.

So the part was written specifically for you?

Yeah.

It’s hard to imagine it being played by anybody else.

Well, thank you. The writers were very good. We weren’t allowed to change any dialogue. It’s funny, because for the last episode we shot a scene which had no dialogue written. I was instructed to give [Lorraine Bracco] some Kleenex, and so on. David [who directed the series finale] was sitting there and he yells, “Ask her a question!” And I’ve done sixteen shows not being allowed to even change a word. “Ask her a question” is quite an injunction. So I asked her a question, and David says, “Ask her a better question!” So I said, “Fuck you, David! You tell me what to say! You’re the writer, I’m not going to do this!”

[Laughs] This was for the dinner party scene?

No, a different scene. For the dinner party scene – [Elliott]’s a bit of a shit at the dinner party, but he’s also right! Because he does say that a sociopath is actually aided and abetted by therapy.

So you think he basically had good intentions?

Yes, I do think so. Yeah.

The show seems to leave open the question of whether Tony is a true, textbook sociopath, and it doesn’t ever really resolve that. One of the things I love about it is that the show makes it very difficult to get an easy, two-dimensional read on any of the characters.

Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s very complicated that way. It was a great show.

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Our exclusive poster premiere of The Great Buster.

The Great Buster opens on October 5 at NYC’s Quad Cinema alongside restorations of Buster Keaton’s work and following a Peter Bogdanovich retrospective.

Regina Hall on the Humanity of ‘Support the Girls’ and the Integrity of the Working Class

Written by Joshua Encinias, September 15, 2018 at 10:19 am 

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Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls follows a day in the life of Lisa (Regina Hall), manager of Double Whammies, a Hooters-like sports bar. Lisa acts as manager/mother superior to her all-female wait staff. The story understands the none of the women are exactly upwardly mobile, and the chance of a better life comes with the risky gamble of negotiating their sexuality and dignity for a paycheck.

Bujalski and Hall teamed to bring the working-class restaurant Double Whammies to the screen. Hall overcame her own judgment of “breasturants” to find the supportive communities among employees behind the scenes. She told Build, “They’re mothers. They’re just trying to work. And when you get to know them … [they] have dreams, and aspirations,” she said. “And unless we can provide other opportunities that help people survive, then I say thank you to anyone who serves us anywhere.”

In our interview with Hall, the actress talks about going from the sets of Girls Trip to Support the Girls (before the former was a box office hit), the spirituality of breasturant management, and the dignity of working class people.

How did you get involved with the movie?

Regina Hall: I read the script and met with Andrew and thankfully he was like, “Let’s make it together.” About seven months later we started shooting. We met while I was shooting Girls Trip. He came to New Orleans. He said he wandered into a Twin Peaks restaurant once and he didn’t know why. He looked at it and what was going on. He was quite curious and from there he started to go to different locations. He felt like there was a story there and kind of discovered what it was.

Did he write the part to be played a black actress?

I did hear him say in an interview that he wanted it to be played by a black actress. I don’t know if that came after he wrote it or what that thought process was. When you read the script it was not written that way. Sometimes a script has character descriptions but his didn’t have African-American in there. It just said Lisa–it didn’t have a racial description. He didn’t write the script using any racial stereotypes. Her race comes up once or twice but it really wasn’t part of the story.

What was it like to go from Girls Trip to Support the Girls? What’s the big differences between a Hollywood and indie set?

The biggest difference is budget. The amount of days on set is different which affects the amount of takes which effects the number of set up in a day, which also effects craft services. [Laughs.] How the crew moves is different and I think you kind of know that as an actor. It’s also the way Andrew shoots, it has an indie feel to it. They’re both great, they’re different. You know, I think the two kind of sets have goals that are so different. I really have such an appreciation for both. It was great to be able to go from Girls Trip to my next job being Support the Girls.

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Did you get a feel for the filmmaking world in Austin?

Yeah! We premiered at South by Southwest—that was also really fun. I had never been to Austin before. I must say I really did love it. I had so much fun there, it’s a very warm and inviting place.

Your character Lisa is almost like the mother superior of Double Whammies.

I love the idea of using a nun with Double Whammies! [Laughs.] That’s great, the mother superior.

I bring it up because in your Seth Meyers interview you talked almost becoming a nun. What do you think of Lisa keeping the girl’s lives in line so they don’t get taken advantage of?

I mean, she definitely demands integrity from her customers for her girls. I think she sees the necessity, especially in that environment. Having clear lines and boundaries and not allowing those boundaries to be crossed and feeling like that’s her responsibility. The place functions well with her understanding the girl’s emotions and allowing them to know they’re valued and creating a familial setting.

I don’t know much about Catholic theology, but I know there’s an emphasis on people’s value and one’s inherent worth as a human being. When I saw your interview I felt like maybe your spirituality drew you to this role.

I definitely agree. Lisa has such an inherent goodness, inherent care for humanity. I just thought it was beautiful. I thought there was nothing twisted or sordid in her. I read it and was waiting for that to happen. So many times you see that but it never happened in Andrew’s script. That wasn’t part of Lisa, that wasn’t a part of her character. It was great. it was actually surprising.

Were the waitresses you meet feel judged and shamed for working in a place like Double Whammies?

In doing research I found that I had some shame about it. I don’t think that you realize it, but I’m sure I had some. When I visited these restaurants, I was very surprised at how easy-going it was. I got why people go there regularly. It felt a lot different from what I thought, “Oh my goodness that would be hard to do!” But I didn’t feel like that at all. Once I was in Austin I went to Twin Peaks every day. I didn’t even notice their breasts. That what was so great, to meet them as people. That’s what I like about the backdrop of the movie.

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How do you think we can support people who are in service jobs but also have a desire to do something different?

What I found is that many of them have that desire anyway. How do we have a world that expands opportunities in places where people don’t see them? I found that a lot of the girls who work there, they really do. I never felt in speaking to the waitresses they felt this was their final destination. They would say it was great money to get a portfolio or take an acting class or go to modeling school. I think as people have more information and access, people can transition. I worked as a waitress before and I enjoyed it. I made good money and then I got to take my classes and have my days free to go to auditions, but then I could work at night when I was cocktail waitressing. I think when people see bigger than the place they’re in, their ability to dream is bigger and their ability to achieve grows.

One thing you’ve talked about in a few interviews is the inherent goodness of just getting up and doing the work even if it’s not fun or not where you want to be. Will you talk about your philosophy of work?

I think there’s a lot of integrity in people that we forget. People get up everyday and make an honest living and they serve us and they earn their money. That can’t be neglected. I don’t think it can be judged because even at a place like Hooters people have to feel valued and valuable. It’s apart of being alive, of humans, having worth and self-worth. When I worked those jobs I really felt that, felt that from the people who went there, the regulars. What we brought to people who came along. They might be lonely and came for the company and the food. Families came to have a great time. I think there’s something beautiful—that’s what most of us are doing day to day. There may be jobs that look more glamorous on the outside but the truth is that’s what we’re all doing day to day.

Support the Girls is now in limited release and on VOD.