Director Pawel Pawlikowski on keeping two Poles apart in his exquisite new drama Cold War

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Paweł Pawlikowski follows his Oscar-winning Ida with the stunning Cold War, an epic romance set against the backdrop of Europe after World War II. Sumptuously shot in luminous black and white, it spans decades and nations to tell a love story that is as tragic as it is moving, and as transportive as it is honest.

Winner of the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival 2018, Pawlikowski melds the personal with the political to exquisite effect. Set to a soundtrack that takes you from the rustic folk songs of rural Poland to the sultry jazz of a Paris basement bar, it’s a wistful and dreamlike journey through a divided continent - and a heartbreaking portrait of ill-fated love.

This writeup is of a Q&A Pawlikowski (himself a piano player and Polish expat) gave at the London Curzon Mayfair following an advance preview of the film in June. The film is out in select UK cinemas from 31 August and the Smoke Screen recommends you make some time for it: read the review here and savour some of those gorgeous monochrome stills below after the text.

How did the movie come about?

The story of this kind of couple I had been carrying with me for a long time. My producer tells me I had been trying to write it for ten years. But it was always a very technically difficult story to tell, as opposed to emotionally. How to tell a story of two lives separated over such a long period of time, such an unlikely tale of love that crosses borders and time? It was only after Ida that I felt it was really do-able; that I had the technical grounding, that I knew how to tell a complicated story simply and elliptically. Only then did I sit down with some friends and start writing it seriously. I started casting and location scouting when writing all 179 version of the script! The rewriting never stopped. But it has been with me for such a long time.

What about casting?

I knew Joanna Kulig (playing Zula) from ten years before and had worked with her, so I knew she could do it. With the male lead role it was difficult as I wanted him to be a proper musician and at the same time to be sort of an old-fashioned ‘pre-war leading man’ type from the older movies. It was hard to find that kind of guy. Strangely, Tomasz Kot (who plays Wictor) had never played that kind of role and never saw himself as that kind of character; a matinee idol, like I wanted. Beyond the look, we had to teach him to be a musician. He had to learn to conduct, and play piano. So it was long process to find the leading man and shape him into what became Wictor.

The music in the film is so distinctive…

I’ve aways liked music, and I play myself. In films, music as a character is very important to me. This time I knew music would be one of the ‘heroes’ of the film, it would be the glue in the narrative. Once I knew the film would be set in the world of the Polish folk ensemble, we knew where to start from. The film’s folk ensemble was inspired by an existing Polish folk ensemble, a group called Mazowsze, and I found three tunes from Mazowsze that I thought would be good central characters in the film. I took these tunes, and asked our authentic film musicians to learn them, and try to make them more authentic and basic, which they did. I also asked a great Polish jazz musician to turn them into jazz numbers; one of them therefore becomes a sort of bebop number in Paris, another becomes a song that Zula records in a recording studio later in the movie; it is actually a Polish jingle called ‘Dolina, Dolina' which appears in the beginning. Thus the music develops like the characters develop: it starts off as authentic and simple folk music, then becomes more composed and choreographed, then it becomes a propaganda tool, then, finally, we see cheesy pop songs. 

What do you think your recent films have said about contemporary Poland and how it evolved out of the Second World War?

Support for popular and folk art, which the Soviets supported as a kind of antidote to ‘decadent’ Western art - jazz and such  - they pushed it and it started to overlap with the ‘cult image’ of the Slav peasant. This whole kind of co-opting of people’s folk music to serve an ideology is not entirely alien to Polish society now. Today Mazowsze, the folk ensemble whose costumes and performers and music I borrowed and who were not doing too well financially, have now received huge subsidies from the government. They seem to be enjoying a kind of renaissance, and I’m happy for them. But there is a kind of a parallel going on now; in terms of what art gets subsidised. But you have to keep proportions; Poland is not totalitarian.

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Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Ian McKellen on Richard III and Shakespeare on film: 'You can have a wonderful “Shakespeare movie” with hardly any Shakespeare in it all...'

UK-USA 1995

Directed by Richard Loncraine

103 min Digital 15

Playing in the BFI’s Shakespeare on Film Season.

RATING: ★★★★★

Back on the big screen in a new Park Circus digital restoration, and part of the BFI Shakespeare on Film Season, Richard III is looking mighty fine at age 21. A bombastic and zippily-paced adaption of the bard’s epic study of villainy and ambition, this version, originally released in 1995, was adapted by actor Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine from the National Theatre’s stage production by Richard Eyre. It helped make McKellan the international star he is today, he himself admitting it opened up the roles of Magento in X-Men and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings  (though of course he had a long history of film and TV work before).

This take on Richard III is set in a glamorous, alternate history of 1930s England, full of silk and champagne and braided uniforms. A vicious civil war is taking place, one fought with WWII-era submachine guns and tanks, and within the first five minutes a gas mask and trench coat wearing Richard, Duke of Gloucester, has murdered the current besieged King (after driving his tank through the King’s HQ wall) with a pistol. To the sounds of gunshots, the RICHARD III title flashes up on screen as McKellan rips off the gas mask, revealing a sneer under a pencil mustache. The film never deviates from this hyper-stylised tone, and the fact it embraces it so fully makes it all the stronger.

Impressively squeezing the huge play into just two hours (McKellan and Loncraine have claimed only about a quarter of the text is on screen) through bold visuals, vivid set designs and costuming that clearly defines each character and place, and working with actors who deliver the ornate dialogue with comfortable ease, Loncraine gives us a rip-roaring tale of the classic ambitious ruler who could ‘murder while he smiles’. At the heart of the film is the oversized but compelling performance from McKellan, bedecked in regalia that blends British aristocracy with Italian and German fascist pomp, lurching about the place due to his character having a limp and withered arm. Though a disgusting, murdering villain, what makes Richard III so compelling is the way we are given access to his thoughts via to-camera addresses, a very postmodern touch from the bard which survives today in the shape of characters like House of Cards’ Frank Underwood. Through these intimate conversations about his schemes, we the audience become complicit in his deeds, as Richard moves, out of a mix of spite (he is a physically disabled child of his mother’s brood after all), ambition and his own self-hatred, to murder his way through his own family tree to get to the throne. We are both shocked at how far he will go and how brazen his scheming becomes - at one point Richard woos the wife of one of his slaughtered foes in the actual morgue where she mourns - but we also come to understand that an unstable but all-too-human mixture of feelings drive him.

Aside from McKellen, there is a great cast on hand; from Jim Broadbent as Richard’s sycophantic, but increasingly fearful and guilt-addled ally Lord Buckingham, to Nigel Hawthorne as the tragically innocent Duke of Clarence, who even when being knifed to death on Richard’s orders cannot believe his brother would do the deed. The use of London’s many atmospheric and often derelict locations, including the Battersea Power Station, makes the film work well as a time capsule of a bygone era. The costumes are a riot of colour and glamour, and when added to the striking shooting locations, make the film look far more expensive than it actually was (the film was budgeted for about $5m and actually ran out of money in the early stages). Overall, a great way to introduce the unwilling or fearful to the many ways Shakespeare’s classic tales can be told on film.

Director Richard Loncraine and actor, writer and producer Ian McKellen were at the BFI to take part in a post-screening Q&A of the new print of Richard III:

On the translation of Shakespeare from stage to screen.

IM: Well I’d played Richard III for the National Theatre, just a few blocks away from where we are now today actually, directed by Richard Eyre, which I guess makes him “Richard the first” and you [to Loncraine] “Richard the second!”! So I had a lot of the play inside me, including its long speeches: thought we actually had to cut out of lot of the characters and long speeches which link to the play’s past. The last third actually only really makes sense if you know about the history that preceded it. I was stuck with the idea that the audience comes to hear, rather than to see, and that an audience for Richard III would like a lot of talking! But here we are; this is a film. How much the cinema could replace the words was the question. I wasn't at all confident it could be done. But I presented a cut-down version, knowing the play very well and the essentials, to Richard. He looked at it with beady eye of a cinema man! 

RL: I just thought it was still a bit “pros-arch” still [prosenium arch], but I went to see Ian at his house, and instead of showing me the door, he asked me what we could do to fix it. We sat down, talked, and very quickly worked out - well it took months actually -  how to carve up the text. You [to McKellan]handled the text as I knew nothing about it, and I tried to create images that I guess would be…disrespectful in a way. I always thought it needs debagging in a respectful way. I think that’s where the toilet idea came from didn’t it?

IM: When you do that speech [Richard III’s first on-screen address to audience] on stage, it breaks, it starts as a public declaration, then gets very personal, inviting the audience in to the private insides of Richard. Cinematically, to make it a public occasion and then reduce it to the most private place that a man can be, was actually cinematic, but Shakespearean too! You have to give up as a stage actor on the idea that you can make a film of Shakespeare and it'll be just like the play. It won’t. It’s a translation as it were. You don’t have to regret it.

You can have a wonderful “Shakespeare movie” with hardly any Shakespeare in it all: Throne of Blood for example. Because those directors are sympathetic towards Shakespeare they get to the heart of the matter, which is the character, the complications and human nature, which is why Shakespeare has survived all these years.

RL: I was taught Shakespeare really badly at school, I really came out of school thinking Shakespeare wasn't really very good. I was the idiot, not Shakespeare! It took me 38 years, until I met Ian, for me to realise he was a genius. But I felt we had to make it accessible, easy to understand: because I didn’t understand it! I wondered how I could direct actors if I didn’t understand what each scene meant. I had to understand every nuance of what was going on. Sometimes it was not possible. Obviously we couldn’t write Shakespeare, but we did things like create names that would be spoken on screen, like “Prime Minister". Ian cut the text back and back, and I tried to create imagery to extend the story, for example trying to establish the political situation at the start of the play, with the tank driving through the wall.

IM: For the first ten minutes of this movie, nobody speaks, you think it’s going to be a silent movie. I rather like that. I want people to be sitting there wondering “when are these people going to speak”. Then they are ready for Shakespeare! Of course when they get it it starts “Now is the winter of our discontent”. What a great way to begin. I was terribly, terribly aware of the words, and wanting them to come through. So I was very pleased when Richard cast the actors he did. Maggie Smith! In just two speeches: doesn’t she give it the welly it needed!

On the character of Richard III

IM: Some actors have played Richard as if he’s a psychopath, he can’t stop killing people. But he actually only kills one person in this story, and then as a soldier. He issues orders: he tells other people to kill. Thats what tyrants do. This man is not unstable in the sense of a mass murderer. He is after power. He has ambition. He can do this because he doesn’t care. And Maggie Smith, bless her, texted me before this show saying; “stop saying its Richard’s mother that is the source of this”. But if you are born being told you are hateful and horrible, and your mother doesn’t like the look of you, it’s not a good start is it?

On the use of modern sets and clothing:

IM: Why do it in modern dress? Olivier after all had everyone in the accurate costumes for the time in his version.  Because: if you don’t, you might not know who in this story who is in the royal family, and who is just an aristocrat, or who is in the church or the armed forces and their rank - there was no uniform in Shakespeare's times to tell this. Richard is moving amongst them all. He gets on because he has a certain amount of charm.

You don’t have to relate it to the actuality of a history that might have been. It’s not real history. I think Shakespeare knew that. It’s a comment on history. In “modern-ish” dress, you just know who everyone is.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Director Pablo Larraine talks to Smoke Screen about his award-winning dissection of the Catholic Church: The Club

Chilean director Pablo Larraine is truly on a roll right now: having already delivered to us the acclaimed Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No, Larraín scooped the Berlinale’s Grand Jury Prize with The Club: a disturbing, sad and blackly funny morality tale about a group of misanthropic and disgraced Catholic priests who have been hidden away from prying eyes by the Church authorities in a sleepy Chilean coastal town. For years these men have been out of sight and out of mind, and thats just the way they like it.

But then their quiet lives are suddenly disrupted by the shocking violence provoked by a newly arrived lodger, which then leads to investigation by a live-in representative of a ‘new Church’ seemingly keen to clean up its all too often abusive act. The film has finally reached UK shores this week, having already played at last year’s London Film Festival, where the Smoke Screen was impressed enough to grant it five stars. It is certainly going to be one of the most talked about foreign language films to play in UK cinemas this year, and with eerie timing its release comes right on the heels of that of Oscar-winner Spotlight, another film placing the Church’s sordid association and protection of sexual abusers front and centre in its narrative. 

Larraine was gracious enough to grant The Smoke Screen a brief interview, where he discussed the strange-but-true origins of the film’s story, the right tone to aim for when tackling such deeply sensitive subject matter, and how he worked with real-life victims of abuse.

Can you tell us where the idea for the film originated from?

PL: What it really was, was a picture I saw in a newspaper, or maybe on the internet; a picture of this house somewhere in Germany. Very beautiful, with green fields, against a background of mountains. But if you read thew news piece you realised it was actually a place where a Chilean priest from a German congregation was living. This man had actually escaped from justice in my country, he had been accused of sexual abuse, and now he was living in this house. What was strange was how the house looked like something out of a Swiss chocolate commercial. Incredible to think that someone accused of that could be living there. I wondered who else might be living in that house. We did a lot of research, and that is really where the movie was born.

Were you ever able to get inside one of these actual houses?

PL: No, they'd never let you! I know where one or two of them are located in my country. But if you go to Google you can find out about a clerical service that actually did this: an official thing from the Vatican that was shut down in 2004. It was running for 50 years. But I was able to talk to some former priests and religious people who had left the Church for multiple reasons, that was how I came to understand how it works. The problem with this is you tend to associate this kind of thing with sexual issues, but it wasn't just that. Some priests were there because they were too old, had lost their faith, or were ill or had fallen in love with a man or woman. There were therefore many reasons why somebody could be taken to a place like this.

Who is running these houses int the film and who is the representative of the ‘new Church’?

PL: I thought it would be interesting to have a character represent the ‘new side’ of the Church, with the rest of them representing the ‘old Church’; the Church that has been running things for 2000 years. It represents the internal conflict of the Vatican, they both have different visions. One vision, the new one, was to shut down these places, make the priests face the law, be more humble and open. The other wants to keep the old ways; more secretive and obscure, and that is what the Vatican really is. Every time the Vatican makes a decision, they make it behind closed doors, lock it down. But what was interesting to me was how both sides of the Church are somehow struggling with the same fear. That fear is the press, the media. They fear the media more than hell. A scandal is going to affect everybody in the Church. That is the fear the nun plays on in the film. It’s a new paradigm for the Church. In the last twenty years, look at what has been happening. A continuous line of scandals: a priest here, a priest there. And this kind of abuse has been happening for years! But now we get to know. The victims are willing to speak. Being a victim back then was not the same as being a victim today; it was just shame and humiliation. Most people would not believe you.

How did you work with the cast, especially given the sensitive subject matter?

PL: Well, I never actually showed them the script - and I’d never done that before. Usually I work in a more regular way: you invite an actor round, give them the script, get into the process and talk about it.  I would only give them the scenes in the morning so they could work with that. Only during the interview scenes with the younger priest did I give them the script a day before, as the scenes were long. It was an interesting exercise, because you can only do it with people you really trust, and they have to trust you. Almost every actor in the movie I have been working with for many years, so we can do that. And they are wonderful actors.

It created the necessity of each performance that they would have to have a combination of presence and to be present. Just there when it is happening. It was interesting to me, a performance that feels like the person doesn't know where they are, but they the actors can control it. You can feel that. I think audiences who don’t know this or who don’t have much information about it will feel that these guys are in this sort of unknown place, an unknown human space. That creates a lot of mystery.

The film seems very non-judgmental?

PL: I’m not a journalist; it is not my job to inform people about what is going on and pass judgment somehow. What I try to do is find the humanity that they have. You have to do it through compassion. Otherwise you are looking to docudrama or news reportage. But that is already being made by other people. I don't need to judge them, or say what they did was wrong: I think the audience does that. It is more interesting if you have an active audience that is getting the message through their own perspective.

I did a lot of research and spoke to different victims. Some of them, especially those who had ben systematically abused for many years: it was like they had lost any kind of fear of talking about it. When I asked them what happened, they would tell me in a very graphic way. The same way you would describe building a house; very specific, and very graphic. I couldn’t believe it. My first reaction as a filmmaker is to film that. But then I thought it would be more interesting, specifically with their subject matter, to have the victim in the film describe what happened to him in a very graphic and specific way, so the audience will create the image in their own minds. That image would always be a more violent and disturbing image than I could ever make. There is nothing more dangerous than the human mind, so you want to work with that.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

“What you don’t see is a dramatic recreation of his Wikipedia page”: Michael Fassbender and writer Aaron Sorkin on "Steve Jobs".

 Michael Fassbender as tech iconoclast Steve Jobs. Source : Universal

Michael Fassbender as tech iconoclast Steve Jobs. Source : Universal

We all carry Apple co-founder and tech design visionary Steve Job’s legacy around with us every day, in the form of the iMacs, iPhones and iPads that sit in our pockets and briefcases, and on top of our desktops. Apart from revolutionising the way we communicate with each other, Jobs arguably embedded the Apple company and its products into the very structure of our language, his devices becoming a key part of the recognisable iconography of our modern culture. Parents regularly joke now that their infants take to iPads easier than crayons and paper.

After a series of twists and turns, failed product launches and a period where he was even booted out of Apple by the board, Jobs eventually took the throne as the company’s CEO and rode the success of the 1998 iMac home computer launch to a point where Apple bestrode the tech world and its stock became worth more than the GDP of many nations. But few people could get to that position without snagging some controversy along the way, something director Danny Boyle’s new film Steve Jobs, scripted by The Social Network and Moneyball writer Aaron Sorkin, fully engages with.

Working from Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of the man, Sorkin’s script takes an interesting, non-traditional approach to depicting the tech iconoclast. Instead of a giving us a cradle-to-the-grave story, the film’s narrative structure is built around three seminal product launches overseen by Jobs – the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Cube in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. Each becomes a focal point for the many trials and tribulations surrounding Jobs at the time.

Danny Boyle, Aaron Sorkin, stars Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, and the rest of the main cast talked about the making of the film, and their thoughts on the legacy of Steve Jobs, at a press conference in London to promote the picture closing the 2015 BFI London Film Festival. You can read the full Smoke Screen review of the film here. Steve Jobs is released in the UK on 13 November.

 Director Danny Boyle, write Aaron Sorkin, and stars Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Jeff Daniels and Kate Winslet at the Steve Jobs BFI LFF 2015 press conference. Copyright: Owen Van Spall, Smoke Screen.

Director Danny Boyle, write Aaron Sorkin, and stars Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Jeff Daniels and Kate Winslet at the Steve Jobs BFI LFF 2015 press conference. Copyright: Owen Van Spall, Smoke Screen.

On the objection of some members of the Jobs family to the film:

Michael Fassbender: To be honest, it did make me hesitate, the idea of playing somebody who really did live in the same world as we do and who recently passed away, who had close ones who would be worried how their late husband or father would be portrayed. It weighed on my conscience. But I spoke to my own father and close friends, and they said: “It is like journalism; you have a responsibility to tell stories. That is your job, so long as you approach it with the utmost respect.” Which I did. And as I’ve said previously in answer to questions, I have the utmost respect for Steve Jobs, and I had no intention of setting out to portray someone without that respect going into it. Hopefully when they [Steve Jobs’s family] see it, if they see it, they wont feel hurt by it. It certainly wasn't my intention.

Aaron Sorkin: Can I just say that, and this has been widely reported; while Laurene Powell Jobs certainly did from the get-go object to the film being made, Lisa Jobs did not; and she is the one portrayed in the movie.

On working with a ‘Sorkinese” script:

Danny Boyle: It was an amazing experience for all of us, I think, picking up that script. It was like 185 pages of dialogue, whereas your regular script would be 110 plus stage directions. There was no real hint as to how to do it, just a few notes like “interior: day” and such. But we wanted to make it a rich experience for the audience in two ways really. One was the acting, and the other was making it an immersive experience. I do love theatre, but I have to say I love cinema more; it has that weird, illogical thing where you can get lost in it. I did go to see Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch the other night, I loved it, but with a play…you’re just not quite immersed in it in the way you would be in a film.

Michael Fassbender: I just felt really lucky that it landed on my lap. It’s a one off when you get scripts like this. I remember thinking: “there goes my break”; which I had planned over that time. I just thought to myself “this is extraordinary writing, the best script that I’ve ever read”. Most scenes today comprise just ten sentences or something. Here, all of the electricity in this film is dialogue driven. So it’s rare,rare opportunity.

Kate Winslet: When I first read the first few pages my reaction was “Wow, these people talk for a long time!” Page 55: “yup, they're still talking! How the fuck are we going to get through this one?” But to be honest my immediately reaction was, aside from how incredible it was to read, and how solid each character was - and as Jeff [Daniels] has said, Aaron writes the way that these people think, and I don’t think I had come across that before to that extent - was the thought I was going to play Michael Fassbender’s friend! And hold his hand! Of course he didn't need any of those things! 

Much has been made about the length of the script and such but, you know, you are an actor. You learn your fucking lines! You just get on with it. The pressure really comes trying not to forget your lines; the whole thing unravels and turns to dog shit! That was the pressure; and it is not just the actors you are walking and talking with. You’ve got the steadicam guy; who was just unbelievable holding that camera for 20-30 minute take sometimes. You’ve got the boom operators running after you with wires and such. There is so much concentration going on that it really falls horribly on the actors if they forget something. 

On recreating an uncompromising real-life individual and his time:

Danny Boyle: I have to say, Michael is an uncompromising actor, and I think on some level I connected that to what we knew about Steve Jobs. I knew Michael would not be in search of some hatchet job or some deification, but the truth, in the way Jobs pursued perfection in his work. To watch Michael pursue perfection in his work, yes that was uncompromising. I think it lifted the level for all the actors and crew. When you get someone on set like that, who is willing to pursue something, everyone becomes like: “lets do it!” Michael even suggested we shoot the rehearsals. I’d never done that before! It’s an amazing thing; often it’s the best take. I’ll be doing that from now on.

Michael Fassbender: The script as I’ve said was exceptional, and there was lot of it! And I think Danny, coming from a theatre background, set it up so that it would be about the actors. He was just so generous and patient with me, many times! He set up an environment for us where we could do our best in the most supportive surroundings. For example; we got rehearsals. We had two weeks of rehearsals before we started the first act, we filmed the first act in two weeks, then we had two weeks to prep for the second. That is unheard of, accountants usually go apeshit. But Danny, coming from a theatre background, realised the importance of that, that we would be well-rehearsed, we would have worked out our mistakes in the rehearsal phase, and got to feel it out with one another. On the day, we could shoot fast and effectively. 

We also shot it in San Francisco. Which is not cheap! There were other options. But Danny insisted it was important we set it here, where this whole thing was born. And I think that really helped. The feeling that we were doing it in the home of not only Steve Jobs, but of the new wave which we all live in now.

Kate Winslet: To me the word uncompromising is the opposite of collaboration. For me, what I felt was a fundamental sense of collaboration, and that came from Danny. Danny insisted on rehearsals, and also put all of us in the room for read throughs from day one. For the majority of the time we were all in that space. Michael and I would be thrashing a scene around, and sometimes we would run out of ideas, but we could turn to the room and ask how it played. It neutralised the entire environment and made everybody equal. With a small company of actors like that - which we were - it pulled all of us together. No hierarchy and no fuss. That tone was set by Danny and Michael. Michael didn't have any “stuff” around him. 

The appeal and legacy of Steve Jobs:

Danny Boyle: I think the reason why we all made this film is that, well, this guy has changed our lives in an extraordinary way. Both in an obvious way; communication, but in so many other ways as well. The implications are huge and significant, even if we don't discuss them in the film. To see where it emerged from and to see who that person was, or a version of who that person was, was to me and all of us essential. 

We were very lucky, in how we were able to illustrate it, we shot the first act on 16mm; it being the earliest act, and as Jobs felt like a guy fighting all these impossible forces stopping him getting to his vision, It felt like a rough and home-made version, as if they'd done everything in a garage themselves. Then we moved to 35mm for the second act, very much a storytelling act about beautiful illusion. Then we moved to digital. The 3rd act is set in 1998, but the Alexa camera we used wasn't generally used then in cinema. Jobs had already got there of course, as Pixar had released Toy Story in 1996. I remember going to see it at Odeon Leicester Square with my kids, and thinking; “the world has changed.”  Like you had been reborn. It was great to pay him that respect, really. 

On how truthful a portrait this is:

Michael Fassbender: The only thing I knew about the man was from his job, and through the prism of the media, and what other people were saying. I just really respected what was in the script; I know we were doing a dramatisation and not a biopic. All my information was in the script. I knew nothing about man really before we started. We know him as the guy in the turtleneck, but I find it curious how he kind of started wearing a uniform at a certain point in his life. I wonder if he was aware how that would venture into mythological status later on. Was that a conscious decision, or one less decision for him to make in the morning? 

I just tried to take my own feeling from what was in the script, then I just watched whatever was available on Youtube, from interviews, to seminars and speeches. So I can’t really say. I just filled in my own blanks, but I they could be totally off. You hear so many good and bad stories about him, it seems to me there was a balance there. 

Aaron Sorkin: The question I think you are asking is, would someone who came to this movie walk away with a fair sense of who Steve Jobs was? I don't know what a fair sense of anybody is really. I agree with Michael; if you asked a thousand people who knew Jobs what their impressions of him were, I think you'd get a thousand different answers. What you don’t see in this movie is a dramatic recreation of his Wikipedia page. What you see is something that is a dramatisation of several of the personal issues that he had in his life, and they illustrate something, they give you a picture. Are they fair? I do believe they are. My conscience is clear.

Generally speaking, Steve Jobs did not, as far as I know, have confrontations with the same six people 40 minutes before every product launch! That plainly is a writers conceit. But I do think that the movie gets at some larger truths, some more important truths than what really went on during the 40 minutes before product launches, which I don’t think was the stuff of drama.

Steve Jobs is released in the UK on 13 November.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

“Russell Brand...he’s like a phoenix from the ashes,” director Ondi Timoner on making "Brand: A Second Coming"

 The mercurial Russell Brand is the subject of Dig! director Ondi Timoner's new documentary

The mercurial Russell Brand is the subject of Dig! director Ondi Timoner's new documentary

He used to be just a naughty boy, but now he might actually be the messiah. Or, maybe, he is a bit of both. Viewers can make up their own minds about comedian-turned-political revolutionary Russell Brand after catching director Ondi Timoner's (Dig! We Live in Public) documentary Brand: A Second Coming. The film is released in UK cinemas on October 23, having premiered in the country in a gala spot at this year’s London Film Festival. You can read the Smoke Screen 4-star review here.

Timoner only got invited onto the documentary project as a result of Brand being unable to find a director who could shape it into something coherent, even after years of shooting, and she at first simply planned to follow him on his comedy tour Messiah Complex. But over the course of an arduous, strange and fascinating shoot, Brand’s life took a very leftward turn. He broke up with then-wife Katy Perry, abandoned a blossoming Hollywood career, headed back to the UK in an attempt to overthrow the government, and thrashed out a manifesto called Revolution. The unkempt, mercurial comedian, famed for his libertine hijinks and cheeky public stunts, now found himself installed at the head of a political wave and a new icon for younger voters.

Timoner, a director who has twice scooped the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, took some time out from the London Film Festival press circuit to discuss how the shoot took such a sideways turn, the challenges of gaining the trust of the notoriously media-shy Brand, and how the film fits in with her fasciation for “disruptors” of the status quo.

 Ondi Timoner

Ondi Timoner

The film premiered at SXSW festival, since then have you spoken to Russell Brand, has he made peace with the film following his refusal to turn up to the film’s launch event and see it again?

He had seen the film, but he was feeling sick from it. I don’t think he’s made peace with it, no. But he agrees that it was the right move: to make the movie about him. To see the myths, to see how fame plays out through his eyes. To see him be lambasted for trying to step out of that and do something different with his life. I think the journey is inspiring to watch though, and I think he’ll be happy with that. Its tough for him though, as he’s said to me, his life was tough enough to live the first time around.

What do you think about the more recent news that Brand has shut down his Youtube channel The Trews, and wants to spend more time educating himself politically?

I can’t imagine he wont come back to social media, in particular because it is such a powerful tool for organising people and disruptive activity. We couldn’t have the revolution he proposes before the internet, so he needs to use it. 

How did you get involved in the project in the first place, was it through working on the short film Russell Brand’s The Bird?

No, I got involvedbecause of my work on Dig! and We Live in Public, Russell thought I’d be good at dealing with “difficult mavericks”. The film had already been shooting for several years, Oliver Stone originated it, but it was going under a different title called Happiness: which was built around Russell interviewing different people about the concept of happiness. You seen a tiny bit of that in the film: the scenes where he interviews Mike Tyson, David Lynch and others.

Russell never gave up creative control and took it over, he wasn't happy with the way it was going, and went through various directors. At one point even he tried to direct it. So I ended up being sent the film and being asked to save it, and I didn't see a film in there to save really. So I went to a meeting to give them notes on how to make it better, and Russell was at that meeting. He was so magnetic and intelligent, and I didn't really see any of that in the footage. So that was my first hook.

Then I got sent his books and other material; actually I didn’t even really know who Russell was. I knew he was Katy Perry’s boyfriend, but I hadn't seen any of his standup, I hadn't seen Get Him to the Greek, nothing. But I was blown away, and I couldn't believe that here was this really intelligent person, and I’d been thinking of passing on the project.

He pursued me to go to his standup show when I was still on the fence about doing it. I saw him with all his scattered papers and notes about his show Messiah Complex. I saw a person just grappling with the distracting tabloid celebrity cheap fame that he entertained, thinking it would make him happy, versus this immortality that figures from his childhood like Gandhi, like Malcolm X and Che, had attained as they had put something else before themselves. He was trying to figure out who he was going to be, and how it was going to work, even as those icons are being co-opted by pop culture. It was all so disturbing to him, but I thought it was really interesting; I could look at the role of ego and narcissism in people who want to change the world. That was the original concept then, I would watch this play out on stage, start a new movie pulling back the veil on Brand’s creative process, and go out on the road and film Messiah Complex.

I had no idea that he would then move back to London, try to overthrow the government, start The Trews, write his manifesto Revolution. He left the US, he’d just bought a house, Laurence Olivier’s house. I don’t think he’s ever been in it. He left and never went back. Who does that?

 Messiah complex: Russell Brand at work

Messiah complex: Russell Brand at work

Some of Russell Brand’s work did have a political flavour to it though, as your archive footage shows.

Yeah and that made me want to seek out in the trajectory of the man. He comes from a lower middle class from a really common town which he jokingly called ‘the penitentiary of anonymity”: Grays in Essex. But you can see that he is pissed, pissed at the inequality, even back then, but he doesn't have any power, except the power of his winning personality, to cause chaos in the streets, dress up like Jack the Ripper and try to stop a corporation taking over Spitalfields Market and so on. But he had to become famous before he could truly disrupt things. But now he is called a hypocrite for it. I’m not sure even he knows how to balance it out, he could give away all his money, but then he would have no resources to make shit happen.

How did you and Russell Brand work together, and develop trust?

I had to remind him that I wasn’t the paparazzi every day. It was extra challenging as I’d never made a movie about someone as famous before; they have all this armour. They have a way of managing anyone trying to get near them, with kid gloves on.

It took a lot of work to get the filming accomplished; as Russell is someone who doesn’t like to be documented, living his private life. But he knew we were doing good work, and I would keep challenging him, keep showing him that I was listening and that I cared, that I had respect for him.

At first the way that I established trust was by putting up boundaries. Like for example we were supposed to be going travelling, getting shots, and Russell hid from me for several hours. Then I got call from his management saying I could travel with him, but not ask him any questions or film him on the way. So I just didn't show up at the airport. What was the point? I’d already told Russell that the thing I needed to make this work was travel shots! He called later and apologised, he took responsibility for trying to over control things before when filming before me, and now here he was doing it again. I showed him in that moment what I would not waste my time. It wasn't about kissing ass to earn trust.

I did finally get creative control and final cut, when he moved to England and started doing all this disruptive stuff, that meant following him to do all the interviews with his family and friends. I didn't want to leave my child at home to chase Russell around, do all this work, to then have him have final say. Given that there had been four or five directors before, obviously there was a story as to why this thing wasn't getting done. Life is too short for me to put myself in that position, and I already ended up editing thousand of hours of footage outside of what I was getting paid for, I shot the movie, produced it, it’s a lot to take on only to have someone come along and tell you to change the whole thing.

Did he object to anything you wanted to include in the film?

Yes, and I did give a lot. I changed a lot of things for him, out of respect for him and his humanity and our relationship.  There were ethical reasons too, where he felt he was transgressing in the footage, or if it was really, really private. There were some scenes with Katy Perry which were cut too. I just drew the line where he started telling me where to put stuff. I told him; “you win in this film, at the end.”

There is a line Brand speaks where he shouts to a crowd: “I may be a narcissist, but I’m your narcissist”. Your film does engage with the question of where political idealism ends and narcissism begins.

I actually ask him in the film, in that scene in the car: “So you think you’re just better than everyone else?” I think he struggles with that, all the time. I think he knows he’s special. Of course he does! How could you not have the career he has had without being special? He loves chaos, he loves mucking about, disrupting. When shooting, he loved riding his bike and having us run after him, he loved the chase, all that. He's a complete kid in so many ways, but also really, really serious! He can’t stand the fact that he is part of the distraction. He hates that our society is so unequal. But he also is in the one percent. So its this conundrum that he is trapped in. And it is so interesting.

What do you think Russell’s potential is as a disruptive figure? The defeat of Labour in the UK election in May had many questioning his reach. Has he maybe not reached his potential yet? Is that why he has retreated from the public eye recently?

I think he’s thought about that, yeah. He wears his heart on his sleeve in many ways. He said in The Trews after Miliband lost: “Maybe I just don’t have any impact in politics?”  He was very self disparaging. It was eye-opening for him, how much work there was to do. 

We talked once in his tour van, and I wasn't filming at the time, and he said to me that he doesn’t think that artists have ever had any impact on history, meaning he felt he wouldn't be able to. I argued him I totally disagreed with that, and that our commentary was extremely vital to opening people’s eyes and seeing people questioning, holding up a mirror to society. He utterly disagreed. I nicknamed it “the art debate” and I really wanted to include it in the movie. It is interesting to think about the timing of that conversation, as he was about to write the Revolution book, but we had no idea he was! He didn't say anything.

That book was his manifesto, but Russell comes from a very personal place with his humour, and I think he did that again with his book. So he mixed in his personal anecdotes and humour - as he really believes in the power of humour - in with his manifesto. People and critics did not like that. I think the problem was not just he was stepping out of the doc but that he turned it into this gonzo journalism, a self-reflective and slightly narcissistic manifesto. That was the problem. It was painful for him to be criticised so much on that book. He just feels like he can’t win.

But I think that he has the power to really get kids involved in a way that they never were before. He speaks to them, engages with them, he can explain and make politics entertaining. Look at The Trews for example; its great, and for him to think it cant make a difference just because Miliband didn't win, well, that’s not right. Never underestimate Russell Brand, he’s like a phoenix from the ashes.

Brand: A Second Coming played at London Film Festival 2015 and is on general release on October 23.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Deeds not words! Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep and Sarah Gavron on Suffragette

It has been a while since this writer can remember attending a film press conference where all of the panel guests were women. But with women's movement drama Suffragette, which opened this year's London Film Festival, women were not just foregrounded in the casting, but were built into the DNA of the production from the ground up. The director, screenwriter, and most of the producers were all women. The film explores the journey of young London factory worker Maud Watts, a working class wife and mother, who grows more and more passionately committed to the burgeoning Suffragette movement in the early 1900s, in response to the terrible working conditions and oppression she encounters at all levels of her existence.

At a press conference to announce the launch of the film at the start of the festival, director Sarah Gavron, writer Abi Morgan and cast members Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep discussed how the film was designed to highlight the status of women today, the challenges of getting a film made in which the main roles were all given to women who were not designed to be either funny or romantic, and who they felt were the Suffragettes of today.

How much resistance was there in terms of getting the film off the ground?

Abi Morgan: Sarah and I have been on this project for about six years, but it has been truly Sarah’s passion project for the last decade. That should give you some idea. FIlm’s take time, but I think putting over a film fronted not just by one woman but by an ensemble of women- and they are not being funny and it’s not romantic - is hard. I think that became a huge obstacle. But we had an incredible group of producers out in the front Fay Ward, Alison Owen and “our man” Cameron McCracken, and I think of all of them as feminists. So it really took both men and women to bring this to the screen. 

Sarah Gavron: It was a tough proposition but we wanted to stick to our guns. We did have champions; those producers who are sitting in the front row. There were others too: Tessa Russell at Film4 back in the early days, the people at Focus,  Cameron McCracken at Pathe who makes political and existing films, often directed by women. We were lucky to have those people around us.

On the lack of widespread knowledge about the Suffragette’s movement today:

Sarah Gavron: When we were talking to the academics who advised us on the film, they told us there weren't  surprised, it took age to get women’s history taken seriously in the academies, it took a long time to get it onto the school curriculum . I personally wasn't taught anything about it, I remember just a few lines at the bottom of a page in a history book. And I think it’s partly a symptom of inequality.

Meryl Streep: There are so many stories that haven’t been told; that’s an important part of this film. There is no such thing as “women’s history”; there’s just “history” which women have been shut out of. There are some brave souls who have done some ‘spelunking’ to try to find out about it; like Amanda Foreman who has a series on the BBC called “The Ascent of Woman”. We can’t get it in the United States: but I think there’s interest. It is a question of rousing that interest. For me, I knew a great deal about the Suffragette movement in the United States but I didn't know about it here. And I also didn't know the condition of women here in 1913. I didn't know that the marriage age was twelve for example; shocking. I didn't know that once a woman was married she had no further claim to her name, any property she brought to the marriage, her children; she had no say in how they were raised or educated or even if they were sold off to be married. But to me that’s recent history; my grandmother was alive then and had a couple of children; and was not deemed capable of voting. It feels recent to me, and I’m passionate about it. Its means something to me.

But what I think is the great achievement of this film is that it is not about the women of a certain class like Emmeline Pankhurst; its about a working girl. I think that is part of why we can enter the film so easily and empathetically, as Carey plays this young mother who looks like us, but who’s circumstances are out of her hands completely.

On the film’s connections to the status of modern women:

Carey Mulligan: For me, what I loved about this film is the it didn't feel like a documentary of the time, it felt more like a film about today. I always felt its resonance with where we are; a film to mark the achievements of these women and what they gave us, and to highlight where we are in the world. Of course we still live in a society, in a world, that is sexist, that goes throughout our history. I think for me it was great moment to re-understand what women went through to get the vote and for me to be empowered. Of course in the UK here we are largely very privileged, but the film does relate and talk to the situation in the rest of the world for women, in terms of their vote, not just living standards and wages and the way they are treated. We always felt that bringing the film back around to today and looking at where we are now was the most important thing about the film. Give people the history, but also open their eyes. It has really done that for me.

Meryl Streep: I agree. To make a film like this, it will circulate the globe. It will encourage people who have very little hope; people who’s lives look very much like those of the women in 1913 in London. 

As for the appearance of sexism today: the lack of inclusion of women in decision making bodies in every single enterprise in the world. For example, the decisions being made about refugees; why are the bodies making decisions about them not half women? Two places you cant vote in the world: Saudi Arabia, and The Vatican. If men can’t look around the board of directors in a company and not think something is wrong that half are not women, then we aren't going to make any progress. 

How did the cast work together?

Sarah Gavron: Well none of the cast had worked together before, but when we got together to rehearse -  we had three weeks of sitting in a room with Abi to discuss it plus months of prep before that - they all immediately formed this bond and became great friends. We actually had problems stopping them laughing and getting back to work! I had nothing to do with it. An unusual sense of camaraderie, and I wonder whether it was not just because we were telling this story that everyone felt passionate about, but also because there was this unusual balance; we had lots of men and women in key positions. That was exciting; to see lots of women on screen together. 

Abi Morgan: It’s quite rare to get this length of rehearsal period, but this means you can make things more bespoke for the actors and also start to listen to them; they are the keepers of the character. One of the things that is very interesting to me is that the great quote we use in the film was no act of genius on my part, it was Carey Mulligan who found it. I think that is when great work happens, when you truly start to collaborate and the actors discover stuff and bring it into the film. It is a beautiful end to the film, that quote, and I struggled to find that. It was down to the actors who understood the themes of the film and had journeyed through it.

Who are the Emmeline Pankhurst’s of today?:

Carey Mulligan: Malala Yousef (nods of agreement from all panel guests)


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

The Pope of Trash, John Waters, on his rarely-seen sleaze epic Multiple Maniacs

 Divine has a lobster intervention

Divine has a lobster intervention

Directed by John Waters
USA 1970 82 min 18

RATING: ★★★★☆

The BFI John Waters season continues into October, see here for details.


The filmmaker hailed (and slated) as the “Pope of Trash, the Prince of Puke or Baltimore’s favourite son”, the one and only John Waters, is currently being celebrated by the BFI with a season devoted to his films. But programmed alongside his more ‘“family friendly” fare such as Cry-Baby (which star Johnny Depp credits with launching his career) and the beloved rom-com musical Hairspray (incredibly, a PG-rated Waters film) , are some of the rawer, meaner and lesser-known films that Waters cobbled together with various crowds of freaks and underdogs - his favoured types of collaborators.

It is in this category that Multiple Maniacs falls. Completed in 1970, the film is not currently in distribution on home video, putting BFI audiences who caught the battered 35mm print of the film this month in a lucky position. The film has a ramshackle feel to it, this is real low-budget,“grab anyone you can and shoot on the run”, filmmaking. It also is a showcase for many of Waters’ collaborators - called “The Dreamlanders’”- with whom he made several low budget, made-to-offend, trash films. Chief amongst these partners in crime was the one and only Divine, the American actor, singer and drag queen who takes the central role in Multiple Maniacs and acts as a form of nitrous oxide injection into the entire film. Before this film Divine and Waters had collaborated on his taste-free satirical short The Diane Linkletter Story, incredibly made just a day after the US talk show host's daughter had killed herself by jumping from a window whilst allegedly high on LSD.

Divine is a misanthropic force of nature, totally unique, a foul-mouthed, swaggering dynamo of destruction. In Multiple Maniacs Divine is one Lady Divine, the mistress of the sleaziest show on Earth - “Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions” - a travelling freakshow currently set down in Baltimore, drawing in crowds of middle America conservative types who just cant resist peeking inside at the delights, which includes the act known as ‘the puke eater” . But the big top is also a front for Divine’s group of unruly criminals who beat up and rob the ticket payers, even killing them. But Lady Divine’s crazed ambitions and trigger-finger are growing too much for her beaten-down lover Mr David, who has been cavorting with his none-too-bright lover Bonnie, and plans to murder her. 

The film emerged from Waters already-established desire to make the most offensive films he could think of, whilst also reflecting his bafflement at the 1960s hippy free-love moment. Waters has said he felt like a fish out of water at the time, fantasising about the beginning of ‘the hate generation”. He wanted to make a film that would glorify carnage and mayhem for laughs. No sitting around in a muddy field and smoking grass whilst wearing hula necklaces for him. And so Multiple Maniacs instead incorporates not only the sleazy antics of Divine and a plot featuring murder, thievery and vomit, but even incorporates aspect of the real life Sharon Tate murders (unsolved at the time of shooting). This is John Water’s 1960s; in his own words; “We wanted to scare the world.”

Multiple Maniacs starts with freakshows, murder and robbery, and by the end has run the gamut from Lady Divine masturbating using a rosary while in church (known as a ‘rosary job’), killing her boyfriend and eating his heart ( in actuality a rotten cow’s heart left out on the set all day) and being raped by a giant lobster named Lobstora. Not surprisingly, the end result of all this dementedness is to drive Lady Divine to go on a killing spree in Fell's Point before being shot down by the National Guard, Godzilla style. The acting is as crude as the camera and sound work, but when the cast are spouting endless pages of filthily hilarious dialogue Waters had written for them, it fits perfectly. John Waters himself referred to all the resulting mayhem as a ‘celluloid atrocity’ which helped him flush Catholicism out of his system once and for all, and that is precisely why it is incredibly fun and totally unmissable. If you ever come across an opportunity to see it, take it.

John Waters on Multiple Maniacs (which he refers to as his “first sickie film”):

On the production of the film.

Well the Cavalcade of Perversion was shot on the front lawn of my parents house. What were they thinking to let us do that?  Lady Divine’s apartment in the film was my actual apartment; you can still see some of the posters on the wall in Pink Flamingoes 20 years later, I still had them hanging. 

The film was made at the heigh of the hippy love generation, and it was about us being the mass murderers! In the middle of making this movie, the Sharon Tate murders happened, and they hadn't caught Manson. We claimed that we did it! What was I thinking? This was a movie made to offend hippies and scare them. We were hippies too, sort of,  but the hippies wanted to be scared, that was the thing. This was a movie made to glorify violence-the one thing you could never do then.

On setting out to offend:

The movie has the most sacrilegious thing ever in a movie; a rosary job.I don't know if you’ve ever had one. Maybe you’ll want one after this!

It wasn't hard to do the Cavalcade, it was pretty normal stuff, you know, bra sniffing and such.  It was fun to do it, though the thing I always remember is we had a hamburger vendor there selling burgers for a dollar, and that was supposed to be so expensive! In the film the Calvacade is being shown to what we called “straight people”, what “straight” meant back then was not “gay” but it meant you didn't take drugs. I look back on it and I just think, “ah, youth”.

On the ‘crustacean intervention’ at the end of the film:

That came from Provincetown, there was always this beach postcard where there was this lobster flying in the sky; everyone back then ate lobster dinners. We took a lot of acid back then, so there I was imagining this lobster coming down and raping tourists. Vincent Perrenio, who went on to do the production design of all my films, this was the first thing he ever did for me. You can see his legs sticking out of his lobster outfit, he and his brother under there, having sex with Divine!

The BFI John Waters season continues into October.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Legends of the East: director Brian Helgeland discusses working with Tom Hardy to recreate the Krays in LEGEND


Where better to screen Brian Helgeland’s new take on the Kray twins - Legend - than in the cinema of the Shoreditch-based cultural centre Rich Mix? The film stars Tom Hardy in a CGI-assisted double role as both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the London gangsters who rose to power in the 1950s-60s East End and rubbed shoulders with celebrities and politicians before finally being jailed for murder. Following the special screening of the film at Rich Mix, director Brian Helgeland (writer of L.A. Confidential and director of 42 and Payback) and Chris Lambrianu discussed the making of the film and the history of the notorious crime brothers.

The Lambrianou brothers were junior associates of the Kray twins, with both Tony and Chris Lambrianou serving 15 years each for being involved in the murder of Jack "The Hat" McVitie in 1967. Chris Lambrianu, having long since renounced the Kray’s after serving his sentence, served as an advisor on Legend.

Q: Can you tell us about the prep work you did for the film? Did you shoot around here?

Brian Helgeland: Our production office who we prepped with were in Bethnal Green, so we were here every day for months. But before that I spent a lot of time in Bethnal Green and the areas around the East End, shot a lot in the area, though a lot of it isn't there any more - Vallance Road for example was torn down and rebuilt in the 1960s. But we shot in E Pellici’s cafe, for example, and Cedra Court; we didn't have to change anything there. Chris took me on a tour of all the places where they were buried, where they went to school, where they boxed.

Q: How has the area changed since then?

Chris Lambrianu: I think the more it changes the more it strays the same. If you look at the East End as was, it was Jewish craftsman, who really brought something to the area, then you had other people move in, like black people in Cable Street, or Maltese in Aldgate. Now its changed again. The East End can absorb the pressure of immigration.

Q: How did you get involved with the Krays?

CL: In the East End you were either a boxer, a footballer or a thief. I wasn't that good at football, I wasn't good as a boxer either, though I had a bit of bottle I was never going to be a champion. So I became a thief. You could learn that in the East End; starting out nicking things from the markets. And at the end of the day, you finished up in trouble like that, it was like a university. You learned, then moved on up to something else.

Q: Brian, how much did you rely on people like Chris to create the film, and did you look at other sources?

BH: Well, there are at least 50 books on the Krays, and that is probably underestimating it. A lot of them are poorly done, really. Then there is a tabloid history from over the years, and other unreliable sources. I relied on all of it, but I also met people who knew the Krays , primary sources, as they say. The truth was very elusive in a way. How I tried to approach it was almost forensically; to get rid of the extremes on both end and focus on the middle, and try to find where people agreed on things. I was actually disappointed when I started, as I felt I really couldn't grasp them and I couldn't get to the heart of Reggie in particular. But I had to be with them, they are my protagonists, though that is not to make excuses for them.

So I ended up spending a day with Chris, and I had been trying to find out something about Frances (Reggie Kray’s wife). Freddie Foreman, for example, I had already asked about Frances, and I had a photo of Barbara Windsor and Frances at a nightclub sat together. I showed her the photo and asked her about Frances, and she couldn't really remember outside of remembering her as pleasant and fun to talk to. So she to me was the ghost that haunted the Kray story, in a way. And at the end of that day with Chris, we went to the Carpenter’s Arms to have a pint, and it was closed. It was cold and twilight and Chris was waiting for his ride home, but before that I asked him “Can you remember anything about Frances?” He immediately said; “Frances is the reason we all went to prison”. And I knew that I had arrived at something, as Chris went on to point out that Reggie used to be the one to sort out any investigation, if someone in the neighbourhood was seen talking to police Reggie would go knock on the door, etc. But when Frances died, he stopped doing that, and they could feel the police get closer.

CL: He went to pieces. I saw the saddest man I’ve ever seen walking away from the Carpenters Arms. Off into the night, he seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. There’s that saying ; “A man reaching up his hands to gather the stars, sometimes ignores the flowers that grow around his feet.” I think Reggie did that, I think they squeezed the life out of her. I think it’s evident on screen; he [Brian] gives Frances a voice. Frances was a nice girl; that’s how I will always remember her.

Q: Chris, what are your memories of the Krays? Were they really legends?

CL: No, the legends in the Kray framework were, for example, my brother Tony’s wife Pat, bringing up two children on her own waiting for 15 years. That is love, that is dedication, all on her own while her husband rots in prison.

People got caught up in the Krays; they lost control, they went totally crazy. At the end of the day they brought everybody down. They could be charming, kind, generous, caring, but they could be very, very ruthless. Without a thought they would harm people. Walk into a pub and shoot a man stone cold dead. They had that killer instinct and lost all control over it, enjoyed it. We all paid a very heavy price, but the wives and loved ones, fathers and mothers, paid a greater price.They, to me, are the legends. The Krays lived in darkness, I don’t think they learned anything frankly. They could've been legends, but became something else.

BH: I think at the end of the day, the truth of them is elusive still. This is my version, my go at it. Trying to get to a more human part of it. As far as the glamour goes, there is a glamour element to gangsters, certainly to the Krays, but that is not the same thing as being good. There was a mystique to it, a glamour to it that I think is undeniable. But I wanted to show that and poke a hole in it at the same time.

Q: The film is quite funny…

BH: I’m a big believer that any moment can be funny and sad and poignant all at the same time, that's how life is to me. That's how this world seemed to me. When I hear bad news my first instinct is typically to try to joke about it. Also, in terms of the structure of the film, I wanted it to be funny to start and then strip that slowly away. When Ronnie says; “who’s laughing now?” when he shoots McVitie, it is almost like he is addressing the audience.

Q: How did you end up work with Tom Hardy? Was he your first choice, and did you always intend for him to play both twins?

BH: I wrote the script without thinking of anyone, that's what I do. In movies with twins there is a tradition of one actor playing both roles, like in The Parent Trap, or twins playing the roles. I knew I needed a Reggie first, but I had no idea if the actor playing him would want both roles. Tom was the first actor I went to; I had seen him in a film called Warrior and I thought that film featured quite a Reggie-like character. Tom had read the script, but when he sat down with me all he wanted to talk about was Ronnie, where all I wanted to talk about was Reggie. At the end of our dinner Tom said; “I’ll give you Reggie if you give me Ron”. That was the deal, and we kind of held our breath and jumped in, knowing we would have to make that go away, the fact that Tom was playing both parts.

It is a very technical performance, to the point where even his body double, who we shot over, would have to learn Ronnie’s physical movements before Tom even did them, so Tom would have to work that out in his head, how he was going to physically react to another actor, teaching another actor how to do it. The discipline was really good for the performance.

Legend is in UK cinemas now.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Looking into the Silence: Director Joshua Oppenheimer and Adi Rukun on facing the Indonesian genocide in "The Look of Silence"

Joshua Oppenheimer and Indonesian collaborator Adi Rukun discussed their new, powerful expose of the perpetrators of the Indonesia genocide - the documentary The Look of Silence - at a recent Q&A at Sheffield Doc Fest. You can read the Smoke Screen review here, and what follows is an edited version of the Q&A the collaborating duo took part in with the audience. This was the film's UK premiere. The Look of Silence is playing wide in cinemas across the UK now, having already scooped a haul of awards on the festival circuit including a Grand Jury prize at Venice.

The film serves as a companion piece to Oppenheimer's 2012 film The Act of Killing, and was filmed before its release. Within it, Joshua Oppenheimer further explores the terrible legacy of the Indonesian genocide fifty years ago, this time through the lens of one family. Adi was born in 1968, two years after his brother Ramli was slaughtered in front of many eyewitnesses. Now an optometrist, Adi lives with his elderly parents and his children. Inspired by his work with Oppenheimer on the Act of Killing film, where he assisted Oppenheimer in gathering material, Adi decided to confront some of the murderers himself. The film tracks his journey.

How did this sequel come about, following your work exploring the Indonesian genocide in The Act of Killing?

JO: I began working on the 1965 Indonesian killings, and more precisely on the present day legacy of fear, impunity, corruption and violence back in 2003 in collaboration with Adi and his family. This was more than two years before I met Anwar Kongo, the main ‘character’ in The Act of Killing.  When we started that work, Adi was particularly central to bringing together survivors from his community, so they could tell their stories. 

After three weeks, the army threatened all the survivors, but they said to Adi: “Don’t give up, try to film the perpetrators, see if they will tell you what they did”. I was afraid to approach the perpetrators myself, but when I did, I was horrified to find that they were boastful. In fact the first perpetrator you see in the film just at the very opening was the very first one I met, it was a neighbour in Adi’s village. When I approached him I found him boastful, and he introduced me to others, who were the same.

Adi wanted to see the footage, and when I showed it to him and members of the Indonesia Human Rights community, they all said: “you must continue”. So I spent two years filming every perpetrator I could find. Anwar Kongo from The Act of Killing was in fact the 41st one filmed.The first time I brought two together was the terrible afternoon of January 2004, where two men took me down to the river playing victim and perpetrator, explaining how they helped kill 10,500 people at just that one spot. Including, they ultimately revealed, Adi’s brother Ramli. 

At the time I had no idea I was filming the killer of my friend’s brother, and they were posing for photographs as if it was a happy day out. For me it was one of the worst days of my life, they were boasting, but reading as if from a shared script. I had to accept that this boasting was not a sign that these men were psychotic, because it was systemic. It was political. It was then that I started feeling as if I was in Nazi Germany, 40 years after the holocaust, but with the Nazis still in power. This was not the exception to the rule, a surreal freak occurrence. This was the rule. This impunity we are seeing is the story of our times.

I knew that day I would drop everything I was doing and make two films, and I would spend as long as it took to tell the story. One film would be about the perpetrators and the stories they tell; that of course is The Act of Killing; a flamboyant fever dream of a film,a film about escapism and guilt. 

I knew also that I would make a second film about what this does to human beings, to a family, to memory. To not be able to mourn or work through this, to be stuck in trauma because you are surrounded by the powerful men who killed your loved ones, who kept you living in fear for half century. So this film would be a backwards-looking poem composed for all those destroyed by this silence. That is The Look of Silence.

How did you work with Adi? And how has Adi’s life been affected by this experience, after bravely confronting all these perpetrators?

JO: We shot the film in 2012 after we started editing The Act of Killing but before that first film had had it’s first screenings. After that, we could no longer safely return to Indonesia. So we had a window.  I wasn’t sure exactly what we would do when we started, but I knew Adi would be my main collaborator, though not necessarily my main character. (Speaking to Adi) but you said you personally wanted to confront the perpetrators.

Adi Rukun(translated): I wanted to do this because it had been so many decades spent living in this silence and fear, not just my family, but millions of other families.  My children were being brainwashed at school, taught lies, and stigmatised. Even after 50 years. This wasn't ending.

I am not a brave man, I am easily fearful. But, somehow this has to end. Somebody had to open the way to end this silence. 

My family worked with the film team for a long time on ensuring our safety, and we moved to another location in Indonesia, far from where we had been living so we can rebuild.

JO: I think that what I learned making The Act of Killing was that nobody has the courage to demonstrate remorse. In 2009-2010 when we had finished shooting that film, I had given Adi a videocamera to use as kind of visual notebook, to look for metaphors to help with the second film. Ari would send me tapes as I was editing, and I would watch them as I could. In 2012 when I arrived back in the country I asked him what he thought we should do for the second film, and he said that after seven years of watching the footage I had been shooting: “it’s changed me. I am a different person after watching how the perpetrators speak. I now need to meet them, meet the men who killed my brother and see if they can talk openly with me about what it means morally”. 

I immediately said: “absolutely not; it’s too dangerous”. There has never been a non-fiction film made as far as I know where survivors confront perpetrators while the perpetrators retain a monopoly in power. Certainly this has never happened in Indonesia. But Adi took out the camera I had given him and showed me one tape. Trembling, he put it in the camera and pressed play. He showed me the section of film that he shot; the scene where Adi’s father is crawling through the house lost. And Adi said, crying, that this was the first day where his father couldn't remember anyone in his family. 

Adi told me that he became angry at himself, asking why he was filming this if he couldn’t help. But then he said to me that he realised in that moment why: “This was the moment where it became too late for my father, because he had forgotten the son who’s murder destroyed our family’s life, and his life. It is too late for him to heal, he cant remember or work through it. But he hadn't forgotten the fear. Dad became like a man locked in a room, who can’t even find the door, let alone the key. I don't want my children to inherit this prison of fear from my mother, father and me.”

Did you find anyone who expressed remorse from that generation

JO: Adi told me: “I think that if I meet the perpetrators, they will welcome the chance, unconsciously they've been waiting for a chance, to somehow acknowledge that what they did was wrong.”

Adi had said to me, looking at the footage of one of the perpetrators demonstrating killing that you see in The Act of Killing: “It is clear he feels very guilty here.” And it doesn’t look like guilt to us, but it looks like guilt to you [to Adi] because I think you are remarkably empathic. In that moment you [Adi] thought that you would go to them, they would apologise, see that you were not there for revenge, and they would seize the opportunity to get this off their chest. You could separate the killer from the crime, forgive the person, and live with your neighbours in peace finally, not in fear as killer and victim. 

There is an insight there I think. I think all of the perpetrators are torn to shreds by what they’ve done, and the boasting is a sign of that. It is not pride; if you think about it, boasting is never a sign of pride. They are boasting because they are insecure and are compensating for that. I felt that we were unlikely to find that the perpetrators would have the courage to apologise in that way, and I told you [to Adi] so. But I felt that we could show why we fail: it is not a fear of Adi, it is a fear of themselves. A fear of their own conscience; a fear that leads to anger and threats, that stops everything. If we can show that, we can show how torn Indonesian society is; something every Indonesian knows, but doesn’t wasn't to think about. If we can make that something that they have to think about, the through the film perhaps we can succeed in a greater way than we could have succeeded through individual confrontations.

The Look of Silence is in cinemas now. 





Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Herzog for the perplexed: the wild card German director in conversation


Now 72, with more than 60 feature and documentary films behind him, legendary wild card director Werner Herzog shows no sign of slowing down: in recent years he completed the acclaimed documentaries Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss, directed a frenzied Nicholas Cage to perfection in Bad Lieutenant, and has a new film due to premiere this year - Queen of the Desert - at Berlinale.

 As befits a man with such a fascinating filmography, Herzog has quite a few stories to tell, so much so that Paul Cronin (who edited the original book Herzog on Herzog) has turned over a decades worth of talks with the director into a substantial published collection entitled Werner Herzog - A Guide for the Perplexed. Appropriately, the tour to promote the book has involved Herzog engaging in conversation in front of an audience with Paul Holdengräber (founder and director of LIVE from The New York Public Library), although the interviewer has preferred to call it more a continuation of an ongoing dialogue with his interviewee. Thus, audiences in Westminster in January who turned up to hear the acclaimed filmmaker speak were somewhat thrown into things, with Holdengräber and Herzog seemingly picking up their respective trains of thought from where they last left off. Here are just a few things the audience learned:

 Herzog would much rather watch movie moviesthan the works of Godard:

 Before coming on stage, Herzog played for the audience a dance sequence from the Fred Astaire musical Top Hat .This might have surprised some who were expecting a clip from his own filmography, but in fact Herzog has referred back to Astaires work before, such as when he used  it to illustrate Cave of Forgotten Dreams. For Herzog, this Astaire film is a movie movie, like Kung-fu films; accessible and enjoyable, the best example of what Hollywood can do. Godard, Herzog believes, is not a filmmaker who makes these kind of movie movies. Instead Godard makes in his opinion: cerebral stuff, and much of it is counterfeit money.

 Herzog is currently intrigued by immersive, Oculus Rift-type cinema:

 Having toyed with 3D before in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog now sees potential in new immersive viewing devices: I am fairly certain this is not just an extension of 3D cinema or video games, it is something completely different and new, it is not anything that we can edit like we could edit a film, because we see things all around us. It is an utterly new instrument and nobody knows how to play it. The more contemplative possibilities of this technology interest Herzog, he mentioned one programme he has seen featuring a Mongolian yurt and its inhabitants, which the viewer can enter using such immersive viewing headgear and look around in all directions.

 For Herzog, this is possibly going to be a truly game changing point in cinema, which he believes has been a largely static medium for most of its lifetime since the Lumiere Brothers: Very early on you could see what you could so with cinemaeverything you could see in cinema and that was possible was basically there except for 3D. A more contemplative approach to this kind of wraparound cinema he believes might be very beneficial to viewers in rehab or experiencing some kind of mental illness, or even those on death row.

 His childhood growing up in post-war Munich was tough, but he was not short of inspiration and fascination:

 Herzog was once stuck in hospital as a child during a severe German winter, where he kept himself occupied for over a week with a single piece of thread pulled from his blanket. Herzog described to the audience that as a youngster roaming the post-war landscape, playing with the detritus of WWII, the tiny things he found there turned out to be: full of fantasy for me, full of stories.

I understand what a rope is all about, it is not just an instrument, it has some secret life in it, some purpose in it. You can develop whole stories around a rope, or a piece of thread. Somehow that has always been within me.

Continuing in this vein, Herzog described his powerful first experience of seeing an orange as a youth: I remember for the first time in my life seeing an orange in the hospital as I was given one. I studied the orange, as no one had shown me this before. They told me to eat it, so I very carefully licked the skin, finally understanding that you had to peel it. Then inside were the segments; I peeled them very carefully, and inside them, I found the liquid fluid filled with tiny parts. I took them apart, and bit by tiny bit I ate it. It took me five days to eat this orange!

 He has carefully developed his use of language and speaking voice:

 Herzogs distinctive, accented voice is an inseparable part of many of his non-fiction films, and he has even made a few on-screen appearances, such as playing the villain in the 2012 Tom Cruise thriller Jack Reacher. He has given quite a lot of thought to fashioning a particular speaking voice, drawing from a variety of sources, some quite surprising (Herzog thinks the narration on factual crime shows on American TV has had a lot to offer). The Iliad is a personal favourite: The musicality and the incarnation is something that has never, ever left me. This has followed me even today, even when playing a villain. Im good at playing a villain, lets face it!

 He doesnt find his own dreams illuminating, and is suspicious of psychoanalysis:

Despite being a director so associated with films about dreams and ambitions, Herzog himself claimed he doesnt draw much inspiration from his own sleeping visions. There is something illuminating about dreams which I personally do not have, Herzog confessed to the audience, I do not dream, probably because I don't dream I make movies. I compensate.

 Continuing with the subject of dreams, Herzog was challenged to explain why he once claimed psychoanalysis was worse than the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition. Well, I would put them on a par today, he confessed. What made the Inquisition so similar to todays psychoanalysis is the way it too aimed: to force you to explain the deepest nature of your faith.

 He continued: I think it doesnt do us any good to self-scrutinise ourselves too much. We should be very, very careful; I certainly am not to circle around my own navel. It doesnt do good for us. I think the 20th Century in many ways was a mistake and one small part of that was psychoanalysis.

He hates being called a romantic:

Herzog had this to say about the oft-repeated claim that he is a German romantic: I dont like cliches or shallow inaccuracies. I can deal easier with an outright lie than this sloppy, half-witted, half-informed pseudo-reality statements. I never felt really deeply connected to the culture of romanticism. For example, look how I view Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man: the vanilla ice cream romanticism is on the side of Treadwell there. In my commentary for the film I have an ongoing argument, and I say that here I differ with Treadwell; the world is not like Walt Disney movies full of fluffy bears to whom you are singing.

 For me wild nature is rather hostile, murderous and chaotic. You do not dance with the bear, you don't love the bear. You respect the bear. I learned that from an Alutiiq native with a PHD from Harvard who ran a museum on Kodiak Island. He spoke to me about respecting the bear, and understanding the boundaries.

 That being said, the cover of his new book of conversations is not Photoshopped. Herzog was, apparently, really standing in front of that bear.

 His favourite actor of all those he has worked with is Bruno S (Bruno Schleinstein):

 Herzog has worked with some of the most highly - regarded performers in the industry, including Christian Bale and Nicole Kidman. But Herzog maintained when asked that his favourite actor remains Bruno Schleinstein (AKA Bruno S). Schleinstein, who died in 2010, was a deeply damaged individual, who was often beaten as a child, and spent much of his youth in mental institutions. A largely self-taught musician, he was spotted by Herzog in a documentary and was promptly cast as the lead actor in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), and later in Stroszek (1977), which Herzog wrote especially for him. He gives a truly mesmerising and unsettling performance in both.

 Herzog recalls how Bruno had seem to him “beyond repair given the decades of abuse he had suffered. And yet he was: the deepest and greatest of all actors with whom I have ever worked. There is something about him that moves me to my core.

 When given the choice of going anywhere he wanted in the USA to study, he chose Pittsburgh:

 In 1964, Herzog ended up in the unlikely location of Pittsburgh, USA, arriving by boat after winning a scholarship (which he claims was based on a fraudulent paper). Rejecting the fancy Ivy League institutions, he chose to study Pittsburgh so he could see first hand what he calls real people, steel factories, workers and welders. Herzog felt an affinity with blue-collar types, having worked as a welder himself on a night shift during school to earn money for his films. He gave back his scholarship after three days though, unsatisfied, and this left him homeless for three weeks until an American family took him in after they noticed him wandering around. They ended up putting him up in their attic with all its old furniture for six months.

 “It was the most wonderful acceptance in America, in mid-America you can find this, thats what I love, Herzog recalled, even if the family was completely crazy and included a 94-year old, failed rock singer grandmother who talked to a dog in an invented language. In politics the highbrow east and west coasters call them the flyover states , Herzog explained, but I do not like this term as I have had my best experiences in America there. He lives in the US to this day, in Los Angeles.

He doesnt take light reading on holiday:

Original translations of Luther, and books on Hannibal and the Punic Wars are some of the texts the director packs in his suitcase when going on trips. Currently Herzog is getting through The Peregrine by English author J.A. Baker: a writer about whom we know almost nothing. Everyone who wants make films, or be an artist, should read this. Herzog enjoys the consolation he finds in literature, and obstacles a leader like Hannibal and the Roman commanders opposing him had to face offer many analogies for the daily humiliations involved in trying to get a film made. Herzog once said that he felt: the hand of Fabius Maximus (the Roman commander who fought Hannibal) on my shoulder when struggling to drag the steamer over the mountain ridge during the production of Fitzcarraldo.

He thinks Mike Tyson is a fascinating, underrated figure:

 It was Herzog who recommended to his interviewer Paul Holdengräber that he invite the former boxer onto his New York Public Library programme, urging him to quiz Tyson on his surprisingly deep knowledge of the Frankish kings and the Roman Republic.

What is so wonderful about it is looking at where Tyson comes from. I think he was a semi-literate, his mother a prostitute, and they were living in one room - the same room where the clients would come in. He would go through the pockets of they clothes hung on the chairs. I think before he was eleven he had been arrested forty times, and on, and on. And now this man has this fervent desire for literature and history; it isn't just astonishing, it moves me deeply. That is something I do not believe we should overlook, and we should not dismiss him as just a violent man.

 

The enigmatic characters that appear across his films are connected in some way:

 From the megalomania of Fitzcarraldo to the flight-obsessed Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, both Herzog’s feature and non-fiction films showcase a medley of weird, complex, near-unclassifiable individuals. He finds it difficult to explain what draws him to them, and them to him: It is a very complex thing, as complex as families are. Families are very strange creatures. Yet there is a kinship, and you know they belong together somehow, and for the oddest reasons. For example the skier in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner who defies gravity is a close relative of Fitzcarraldo, who defies the laws of nature and of gravity, who moves a ship over the mountains.

But it is not just in these few films, though I would dissuade anyone from trying to watch my films all in one go, you would need to go on a cruise ship after to recover. It is complicated and I dont fully understood it myself, but I know right away they belong together. You dont need to explain everything and you don't need to know yourself, completely.” 

He doesnt approach his documentaries as a journalist:

 Using his American death row documentary Into the Abyss as an example, Herzog explained how he approached the inmates and staff of the prison in a particular way, at one point prising out a tearful response from the resident priest by asking him about squirrels of all things. “I like to bring something out of them, some kind of humanity, though that does not mean I sympathise with them. To one of the young men, Perry, who features in Into the Abyss, I told him within two minutes of filming: I sympathise with some of you arguments but this does not necessarily mean I have to like you. Of course, the film could have been over right then and there. But I had a way to talk to him, and it is completely divorced from journalism.

 “I think it is a massive mistake of much of what we see in documentaries: they have not divorced themselves from journalism. And I do that. I have no questionnaire, I come in with no idea of what is going to happen, ready for anything. I do it probably now much better than many years ago I have more experience in life, I can respond and figure things out quicker. I know the hearts of men.

The best you could do with actor Klaus Kinski was try to make his insanity productive:

They worked together across four feature films, but Herzog admitted that Kinskis hysteria remained beyond shaping as a performer. No, he just had it, you couldn't shape it, only give it a frame and make it productive. I didn't invent it; he was on his own.

 After listening to Holdengräber recite an epic essay Kinski once wrote discussing the number of ways he would like to see Herzog tortured to death, Herzog added that he would often help the frenzied actor, when in the peak of his rages, add even more florid prose and vile metaphors to such writings. He always said to me: Werner, I have to do these things, because the vermin out there, the readers, need this kind of stuff otherwise they wont buy the book!’” Kinskis simple screaming fits (his yell outs) Herzog learned to deal with and sometimes provoked them, as they were less serious than having the actor smashing a camera, destroy a set, or trying to break his contract and leave.

 Herzog remains fatalistic about dealing with egos: “When you make films, you have to deal with this. If you cant deal with it: dont do the job.

 

Despite all our problems, it is good to be alive today:

 Humanity might be on course to trash the planet via climate change, but Herzog is dismissive of the comforting idea that technological advances will let to escape our fate, as in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Yes, we are too many and we consume too much, it doesnt look good, but at the same time we cannot be nostalgic and say: well we can always go back to being nomads again. We just wont. This is what it is. It is a very precarious existence and situation.

 “I hear it all the time; Ah, but we will evolve and colonise the planets. No, we wont! The biggest planets are only gases. The solar system is unfriendly. We shouldn't even be on the moon! We need air to breathe, that breath comes from hundreds of millions of humans and trees and volcanoes that have exhaled too. The history of breath doesnt exist out there!

 So, like it or not, we are stuck here on terra firma and Herzog believes we should celebrate the brief time we have: “It is wonderful to be alive; to plant an apple tree or make a movie. Martin Luther was asked what he would do if the world came to and end tomorrow. And he said: today I will plant an apple tree. That was a good one. I would start a movie. It would remain unfinished of course, but so what?


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Director Frederick Wiseman on painting a picture of the National Gallery

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Over the course of a career lasting over 40 years, American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has established himself as one of the great documentarians, renowned for his focus on public (and private) institutions and the way they interact with the people they are serving. His filmmaking career began in 1967 with Titicut Follies, a film exploring the lives of the patients/inmates of Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, a Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The film, which showed the poor treatment - including force feedings and bullying - being inflicted on the patients, proved explosive upon completion and was even temporarily pulled from distribution at the request of the Massachusetts state legal system. 

Four decades and over 30 films later, Wiseman’s camera is wandering through somewhat more serene corridors in his new film National Gallery, released this month in the UK. The film is a portrait of the titular British museum; its inner-workings and day-to-day rhythms, the result of Wiseman setting up shop in the gallery with his camera team and being given free access to all levels, with no scripted encounters and with Wiseman as always having final cut. There is no voiceover, no title cards or any on screen text to aid the viewer. What emerges is a hypnotic study of the rhythms of life within the halls and rooms, and the sense of the vast number of duties and compromises an institution like the National Gallery has to juggle daily. But this is not a clinical study of pretty paintings hanging on some walls, it is as much a study of the people looking at them and working to exhibit them. This in keeping with Wiseman’s desire to focus on, in his own words; “as many different aspects of the human experience as I can."

Following a screening at the Barbican, director Frederick Wiseman sat for a Q&A to discuss this film and his career.

 National Gallery is out now across London, you can read the review here.

On exploring an art gallery:

Well, I had never been behind the scenes in a gallery before, I had a lot to learn. I knew nothing about the work of the restoration department or the scientific department, or how organised the education department was. I was particularly taken with the work of the restorers: I found that fascinating to watch and used a lot of footage of them in my movie. They can reverse in fifteen minutes a year’s work, the restoration takes place over a coat of varnish. By placing the varnish to Bon, you are not damaging anything in the original painting.

Is there a template which you use when approaching your stack of footage?

The basic model is Las Vegas: take the risk going in. The gamble is trying to find enough footage to make a film. My films don't start with any point of view, I discover the point of view and themes of the film in the editing, usually in the last stages.

On working with institutions and approaching them:

With one of two exceptions I have kept the relationship as good at the end as it was in the beginning. I always make it very clear in an introductory letter at the beginning that I maintain editorial control; thats very important. Neither Nick Penny (National Gallery director) not any other administrator at the National Gallery saw the film until it was finished, and that’s always the case. 

On surprises at the National Gallery:

The technical knowledge and artistic competence that was required in restoration really impressed me, and the humble way that Larry Keith and the restoration team approached their work: I admired and respected it. I had no idea about that kind of work.

The process of filming and editing:

I had wanted to make a movie about an art gallery many years ago, so I tried to get permission from the Met in New York, but they wanted to get paid because they were short of funds! I didn't do that! I was at a ski resort and I met someone who worked at the National Gallery, I guess it was Winter 2011. She’s seen some of my the movies and asked me if I was interested in making a movie about the Gallery. I said “sure”, and she introduced me to Nicholas Penny, who said “ok” almost right away. Then there was a screening for senior staff and curators, showing excerpts from some of my movies. It was really chance; if I hadn't been skiing at that moment, I wouldn't have made the movie. In the end I was there for 12 weeks, the editing took about 13 months. 

When I get back from a shoot I look at all the rushes. I make notes about what I see. After the first viewing, I put aside maybe 40-50% of rushes, Over 6-8 months I edit all the sequences which I think might make it into the final film, and from those candidates sequences are edited as close to final form, and only then that I begin the work on the structure. Working on the structure and individual sequences means trying to analyse what it is you are seeing and hearing. I think more than 50% of film editing is the effort to understand what it is you have, and the implications of what people are saying and doing. So it has nothing to do with film but more the application of your experience, your alleged intelligence, your feelings, and being able to identify yourself. 

Editing is about talking to yourself. I like talking to myself! And even if I’ve thought of a cut walking along a street, or the cliche of thinking of it in the shower, or having dreamt it, I have to be able to explain to myself and find words why I have made that cut, or why I started the film with one sequence and ended with another. What is the relation between the start, middle and end? I have to be able to go through the film talking to myself, explaining to myself why everything is there and what the relationship is to what came before. That internal conversation may not be communicated to someone else, but if the film works, it works because I have been able to talk myself through it, and the film has to work both on both a literal and abstract level. 

On the lessons of filmmaking since 1967s Titicut Follies:

You learn from film to film, and I don’t like to watch the earlier films as all I see are the mistakes I made. But I think I’ve learned the most about making documentary film by editing them myself. And when you don't have the shots you need in one film, you tend to remember to get those shots the next time around. What’s the expression, “every day and in every way I hope the films are getting better.” 

On making movies now in an era when everyone has a camera:

It is difficult to make that kind of judgment, but in my experience filmmaking is no different compared to when I started making films in 1966. For reasons I don't understand it is very rare that anyone objects to be photographed. And it is very rare that anyone acts for the camera. There is vanity, and indifference, which helps you get away with it. But also I think most of us don't have the capacity to act differently; If we agree to have our picture taken we act appropriately to the situation that we are in. It is just what you want! If people could suddenly act different the level of acting in the West End and in Hollywood would so much better, there’d be a much wider pool of people to choose from!

On not using captions and voiceovers in his films:

I’ve been criticised for this, and I understand the point. I try to cut the film in such a way that, while you may not know specifically who a person is, for example, that Nicholas Penny is the director of the National Gallery, you would guess he is a figure in authority from the way he talks to others and what they say. I think captions clutter the image. I didn't use them in the film I made about the Paris Opera Ballet, and I was criticised for that by people who said they didn't know who the dancers were. But my view of it was that people who knew already who the dancers were didn't need to have them identified, and for people who didn't know the dancers, well, what difference did it make? And I didn’t know where to stop, did I caption just the Etoile? What about the principal dancers? Is it fair to the corps? The image would be completely cluttered with names.

National Gallery is out now across London


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

The language of grief: Hong Khaou on his acclaimed debut film LILTING

 Cheng Pei Pei as Junn.

Cheng Pei Pei as Junn.


Produced through the low budget Film London Microwave project, director Hong Khaou's debut feature Lilting - reviewed here - is a hugely impressive piece of work that transcends budget limitations. Starring Ben Whishaw and the legendary Chinese Actress Cheng Pei Pei, the film tells the story of Richard, a young man in London struggling to deal with the loss of his lover Kai. Kai's mother Junn, ensconced in a care home, does not know her son was gay. Richard is drawn to Junn, as she is the last connection he has left to Kai, but he battles with his conflicting desires to reveal all to her, to lash out at her for being such a burden on her son, or to just walk away.

Hong Khaou discussed the film recently with a small audience at the Hackney Picturehouse.

Can you tell us about the origins of the project?

HK:  It was originally a play from about ten years ago, but it never got staged, although it had a few readings. It gathered dust for a long time. Eventually I ended up getting a short film into Sundance, and I knew there was also the Film London Microwave funding scheme available for low budget films. So I started wracking my brain trying to dig up any stories I had. I felt this would fit inside that budget.    

When did you get the shoot rolling?

HK: We shot it two years ago. It took 17 days to shoot, but almost a year to complete. We had to wait a lot for people to be free, given everyone has full time jobs. You just had to wait for them to be available.

Did you work very closely with the actors before going into the shoot? 

HK:  We shot it in seventeen days, so there wasn't a lot of time. Ben Whishaw gave us two weeks of rehearsal, where I think the bulk of the work was done.  We rehearsed certain scenes, but not everything: mostly the emotional scenes.  I also allowed for three or four hours at the end of the day for us to go drinking, mostly for my own confidence and for us to get to know each other!  

Was the script stuck to rigidly, or was there improvisation on location? What was your work process?

HK: I wasn’t too strict about dialogue, and I was happy for the actors to speak the lines as they wanted to speak them. I think they stuck to the script. In terms of shooting, there were no storyboards, I wanted to let us find things on the day. One thing in the film that was never in the script, thanks to our editor Mark, was something in one of the bedroom scenes. The dialogue audio shifted out of sync, I think it was an accident, but it was beautiful. So we played it from every perspective. It continues that idea of memories affected by grief, it became part of the narrative; that idea of: “Did I say that? If only I’d said that”. It was really poignant.

This is obviously a very personal piece. It was originally a straight story, about a daughter and a husband. Was there something you drew on from your own personal experience for the origins of this story?

HK: Yeah it is a very personal film, but it’s not autobiographical. The themes in it are very, very close to me. Turning the story as I did came from the readings i initially had: something felt hollow, something was missing. So I decided to try the idea of making the main character gay. Then there was the issue of the concealing of Richard’s sexuality; I felt that that really added another layer to it, the dynamic of Ben coming in to see Junn and the apprehension within that. This dynamic just didn’t exist in the original play. 

Can you tell us about how you created the particular effects that show character’s perceptions of time are blurring?

HK: It was all done in-camera. We couldn’t afford anything else! There is something exciting about stuff done in-camera though. I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had some moments like that.  When I was shooting it I was thinking of the language to give the film, I wanted grief to permeate the film, but I didn’t want it to be heavy-handed thing. I felt that if I “chaptered” the past, I would be taking the audience out of the film. I wanted to try to create, as much as I could, a continuous effect. It can happen with grief: the past and the present co-exist together. I spent a lot of time thinking about these things, and how I could project this in a way that felt sincere.

We developed our own language for this: for example we only panned the camera clockwise in the present day scenes, and anticlockwise in the past. Also, there is a filmmaker called John Sayles who made a film called Lone Star. A great film, impeccable pacing. He used similar ideas in that film: having characters disappear and re-appear in what seems to be the same timeline.

Lilting is out now.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

North to South: How Marc Silver explored an immigrant's journey with Gael Garcia Bernal in 'Who is Dayani Cristal?'


Who is Dayani Cristal? explores the current politically charged southern border immigration issue in the USA today, but takes an intriguing approach. Part travelogue and part forensic investigation; the film is split between a documentation of the painstaking work various agencies have to undertake in order to discover the identity of one particular immigrant who’s body was found near the US border (a sadly frequent event,as the film shows), and other scenes showing Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal retracing the dead man’s steps. Director Marc Silver, who collaborated with Bernal on the project, kindly agreed to a short interview discussing his decision to go with this approach, his attempts to ‘humanise' the debate about immigration, and what he hopes the film will achieve in the thorny debate about what to do about the incessant waves of human life that keep coming north to the US in search of a better, more safer life. 

The film itself is reviewed here.

Who is Dayani Cristal is out now across the UK. Director Marc Silver will attend a QA Vice Q&A at the Everyman cinema following a screening of the film on the 29th August.

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I'd like to know how you came across the project and ended up working with Gael Garcia Bernal. How did you two share the workload and exchange ideas?

MS: Most of my previous short films and art installations have been about human rights, and this time I wanted to focus on the wall between the USA and Mexico. We launched a website that asked people to help in our research and send in stories about divisions between rich and poor. One of these stories was about police finding unidentified skulls in the deserts of Arizona.

I remember seeing an image of a Border Patrol agent holding a skull in a vast empty landscape which I later learned was the Sonora desert. I thought that following the investigation into an unidentified skull was a fascinating and poetic way of exploring the dehumanisation of migrants.  I literally asked myself, 'What can a skull in an empty desert tell you about the world?' My question was less a 'who done it?', but rather: ‘what happened?' 

I began gaining permissions and shooting the documentary elements following the Search and Rescue units as they recovered remains from the desert. Whilst establishing the story along the border, Gael and I made four short films for Amnesty International about the human rights abuses of migrants travelling through Mexico. This gave us a very deep insight into the magnitude of the journey before migrants get anywhere near the U.S. border. The trip also acted as a recce for the journey we would have to take in retracing our dead person’s steps.

I mainly focussed on the visual aesthetic, and the North to South journey; the discovery of the body to the arrival home. In other words, I focused on the documentary elements, and the relationships with the family, government departments and NGO’s. Gael focussed on the South to North journey through Guatemala and Mexico, as well as working on the best way to tell the story.

What led to the decision to go with the particular structure of the film: part forensic investigation and part 'travelogue'?

MS: Given that our main character was an unidentified, dead person, we wanted to craft a narrative that built identity and humanity as the story unfolded. We needed a device that turned someone with no identity at the beginning into a living, breathing human being by the end; someone audiences could empathise with and feel for. We chose to do this by literally following the journey the man took, from his home in Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico, all the way to the exact spot where he died in the U.S. This ‘retracing the footsteps’ by Gael Garcia Bernal, l based on the testimony of the dead man's family and friends. This  meant that not only would the audience learn about the magnitude and dangers of the journey, but they would also get to meet real people making the same journey. Not only were we humanising one person, but we were humanising migrants in general and deconstructing the 'illegal' or, 'alien' stereotype.

I was struck by the cinematography, lighting and colour palette, particularly in your use of close ups, for example in the forensic labs sections. Can you talk about that aspect of the film and the choices you and the DoP made. It seemed very 'cinematic' to me, for want of a better word.

MS: The film was shot by me (the director) on a Canon 7D, mainly using 2 prime lenses and using only available light. That is all I could afford at the time. Looking back now, I think my minimal understanding of Spanish meant I filmed more ‘intensely’ than I might have otherwise, making sure each image was telling a story without using any verbal language.

I was keen to make the morgue scenes with the remains of those who had died have a sense of dignity about them, rather than be ‘shocking’ or ‘voyeuristic’. I wanted to film them as I had filmed the living people, the migrants, who were still on the road and had not yet reached the life threatening desert crossing.

What was the biggest challenge shooting the film, were there any things you couldn't achieve or had to change?

MS: The biggest challenge was the statistical odds against us. Of the 2000 bodies recovered from the desert over the last decade, 700 still remain unidentified. The vast majority of migrants do not carry any form of identification. It takes a huge amount of time and effort across several agencies and countries to repatriate remains to families. We wanted to tell a story that followed the whole process - from the discovery of someone in the desert, to the forensic investigation into their identity, to finding their family, to returning the body to the family, and being at the funeral. On top of this, we wanted to find a family and a community who would want to share their story and emotions with us, and in turn humanise the dialogue around immigration. 

The most challenging single moment for me was when I returned with the body to Honduras. The airline had actually left the body in a U.S. airport when we transited because the plane was full, and they insisted on carrying 'luggage before bodies'. I arrived in Honduras to meet 30 family members waiting at the airport, and the cargo handler explained to all of us that there was no coffin on the plane. When eventually the body was returned home and the community were lowering the coffin into the grave, many people were demanding that the coffin be opened so that they could ensure it was actually the right person in the coffin. There have been stories of the wrong body being returned to the wrong family. I remember turning the camera off as they attempted to unscrew the coffin lid, but fortunately it was the wrong type of screwdriver and the coffin remained sealed.

Politically American immigration is a hot button issue that the US congressional system really seems unable to grasp in a long term way. What immediate steps would you like to see happen within the US government? What do you think is possible in reality?

MS: I want audiences to ask themselves how far they would go for their own family if push came to shove? I hope that we have created a documentary film that allows the audience the chance to leave the cinema with a feeling of deep empathy - that shifts their perspective on any prejudices they may have towards so called 'illegals' and 'aliens'. I want them to look at migrants in the knowledge that their journey did not just start easily on the other side of the wall, but that they had to leave loved ones for very universal reasons, whilst hoping they will survive an incredibly dangerous journey across Mexico and into the U.S. This before they even try and get a job. I want them to feel proud of the humanitarian work Americans are doing in helping to end other people’s pain by repatriating remains to families.

In relation to where current immigration policy is at - where there is a trade off being discussed between legalisation of the undocumented and increased border security - I want people debating this to realise that increased border security will most likely lead to more deaths

Who is Dayani Cristal is out now across the UK. Director Marc Silver will attend a QA Vice Q&A at the Everyman cinema following a screening of the film on the 29th August.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

The Road Warrior: David Michod, Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson discuss apocalypse in Australia in "The Rover"


The Rover is director David Michod's follow up to his acclaimed crime drama Animal Kingdom (which I reviewed several years ago) and is set in a desolate near-future Australian outback more than a decade after the collapse of the major Western economies. Guy Pearce stars as Eric, a farmer and former soldier who relentlessly pursues a gang who have stolen his car across the nightmarish landscape of this new dystopia. His hostage in this epic pursuit is the naive, innocent Rey (Robert Pattinson), who is the brother of the leader of the gang. Director and cast were in town this month to discuss the film with the BFI's Claire Stewart, and an edited version of the conversation is below (this edit also conveniently cuts out the deafening swoons and cheers emitted by the Pattinson fan club, who made up much of the audience). Also, check the review here.

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CS: How did you develop the story?

DM: I wrote the first draft of it before I made Animal Kingdom. Originally Joel Edgerton and I were in LA, and I was bored really. So we just started throwing around ideas for what we thought would be an action movie in the desert with cars that Nash Edgerton could direct. So I went off to write a first draft, and almost immediately ended up writing a “David Michod movie” as opposed to a “Nash Edgerton movie”: my one not having any car chases in it, except for the beginning part. I sort of said: “fuck it!”, and I ended up making Animal Kingdom, and was then left with a fair bit of time wondering what to do next. Suddenly my life turned upside down and I was looking at a new landscape. I always had in the back of my mind that I really wanted to do this one though. I kept thinking how Animal Kingdom was this dense sprawling tapestry of characters, and rather than try and do something similar or bigger, I wanted to try something else. I loved the idea of [The Rover]: it provided me with the opportunity to play in a tonal world that wasn’t dissimilar to Animal Kingdom but that would operate differently on a formal level. Something lean and elemental, a dark fable. A tiny number of characters in a vast empty landscape.

 David Michod, Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce at BFI Southbank

David Michod, Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce at BFI Southbank

CS: Can I ask Guy and Robert about your involvement? Guy: you have a real history of risk-taking with visionary directors like John Hillcoat and Chris Nolan, and Robert we are seeing this develop with you in your career with projects with David Cronenberg, Werner Herzog and Anton Corbjiin. How do you forge these relationships with these directors and what attracted you to this film in particular?

GP: As an actor you realise once you start working that you might have so many ideas about what you want to do, versions of a character you want to play, and you really want to feel safe and secure, and inspired by your director and the experience on set. It sort of occurred to me after a number of films though that if you don't get that, you are at a loss, and you end up fighting to have your say and be interesting, fighting to have your voice heard. But you can get lucky, and you end up working with a Curtis Hanson, or a Chris Nolan, or a David Michod. And you start to realise that the inspiration and the excitement about everything that you find within yourself and what you have to offer, can be supported and encouraged, with great enthusiasm, by these great directors. I don’t just have to work with great directors, but I prefer them to crap ones! As an artist you really want to find somebody who’s going to say: “I’m there with you, and any crazy shit you want to try; I support you all the way. If it’s not right for the movie I’m gonna say so, but if it’s right? Then fucking great!” (laughs). We’ve gone somewhere we normally wouldn’t. So you start to seek that out. 

So David called me saying he had this script. I’d already worked with him on Animal Kingdom and become a fan of his unique sense of timing and character development and story realisation. All those little things too many people skim over - and it still amazes me how many filmmakers are just so uninteresting! So you find filmmakers like Hillcoat and David, and it starts to feel like the only way you want to work. I saw an interview recently with Nicole Kidman where she basically stated that she just seeks out the great directors to work with, because she knows they're going to get the best out of her. I know that because I did LA Confidential people often come up to me and say: “congratulations, great performance”. But I tell them: “that had NOTHING to do with me, Curtis Hanson got that performance out of me.”  That is when it gets exciting, when a director gets something out of you that you didn't even know existed. It sure beats wanting to just yawn: “Ok, I’ll give you look number two, then look number seven…”

CS: Robert, is it a similar impulse that attracts you to working on project like this?

RP: I’d met David after seeing the teaser trailer for Animal Kingdom, the one with the Air Supply song. From that alone I wanted to work with the guy. Such a great trailer. You could just tell he had a specific sense of timeline and other things. So this script came, and it was ridiculous…

DM: In what way? Bad spelling?(laughs).

RP: It made you want to move out of your comfort zone. It was a very unusual script. So Guy and I started doing it. But from Animal Kingdom and his shorts; I just knew. It’s trust; the whole thing is about trust. There are about 20 directors in the world that every actor should work with, the rest you can forget about.

DM: Oh, I get it, so you’re working your way towards the top! (laughter).

CS: I love the tension between this exterior world and the interior world of the two main characters. The landscape is such a character in this film, but when you are working on such evocative locations that the degree to which design is in there is maybe less visible. But this is a highly designed film, so can you talk about how you approach that combination of elements.

DM: Everything is secondary to the people playing the characters and the places they are playing them in. Casting and characters are the first thing for me, not to disparage the other contributions from the crew. Once you know who and where everything else fits itself around those things. When it came to the work I did with (DoP) Natasha Braier, it was all about servicing those landscapes; which are both intimidatingly impressive and hauntingly beautiful at the same time. We didn’t want to push the look of the film too hard. We wanted it to look impressive and beautiful, but we didn't want it to have a “look”. Jo Ford for example, the production designer, she was just about augmenting the world, like a lot of those towns. In Marree, the town where we spent the last three weeks of the shoot, I was watching the footage thinking: “I wonder if people think we did a whole lot of effects work on the busted building and stuff?” But that’s what the town just looks like!

CS: Robert, I do think it is really a terrific performance, playing a person folding in on himself in an incredibly interior performance. How do you work with that? How, when you are playing to a camera but working on something so internal, do you wrestle with that?

RP: Oh, really? I thought this was probably me at my maximum, over-expressive level myself! (laughter). I thought I was really being effusive (laughter)! Seriously, Guy has such a constant focus and energy, and very singular, you don't really have to think. You’re constantly being, and this is going to sound weird, but you are totally being “penetrated” (laughter). You end up super-reactive. I’m not sure how much to it is a conscious decision, with Rey this is someone who, his whole life, he has been told not to speak. So even when Eric is saying, “speak, you idiot,” its still the first time he has been required to speak. I don’t even know what I’m saying…

DM: You are just saying you didn’t want to be “penetrated”! Makes a lot of sense…

RP: I’m sick of it! I’m going interior!

GP: No more! (More laughter).

CS: How did you develop these characters together? A lot of rehearsals and work together?

GP: On some level the script said it all. Obviously I had a lot of questions for David, given the nature of the character I play; he is at this point in this life where everything has been stripped away and he has become a shell of his former self. We had a lot of conversations, as I was clearly useless at finding out who this guy was. So David and I had that going on, and we rehearsed, the three of us, for a week in a hotel in Adelaide before we headed off up the highway. The interesting thing about that relationship between our characters in the film is that it develops as the film goes on: neither of us knows each other at the beginning. So neither of us had to do that bonding thing so it would seem we had a relationship that was second nature on screen. We are actors, we can do that anyway! Rob and I obviously developed a relationship naturally as the film went on but I don’t think we necessarily developed anything together specifically prior. But we were certainly both asking David questions. It was just as interesting for me to hear Rob ask David questions and get answers about his character as it was for me to ask and get answers back. Rob was saying earlier today that it was just as interesting for him to hear myself and David talking about the nature of my character. I think any time you make a film you want to know the big picture as well even if you're not in the first twenty or so scenes, you just really want to understand the world you’re entering. And you do that pretty quickly So it was a bit of a luxury to have that period in the hotel together (laughter) “penetrating” each other like you wouldn't believe! No room service, no nothing!

DM: The nice thing about this basically being a two-hander (audience laughter again, Michod holds his head in his hands, grinning while Pearce apologises on his behalf), was that all that time we got to rehearse was kind of like a theatre rehearsal. I wish all movies could be rehearsed like theatre - where all the cast are there all the time to talk about all the characters. It doesn’t matter if there is a day where your character doesn’t get spoken about: everyone needs to know everything about everything. You never get to do that in the movies: you simply get some second unit AD saying: “You’ve got this actor here and this other actor here”, you do a bit of location recce and so on. I don’t know how another directors work, but I get the impression that while other actors are in having costume fittings and makeup, they declare that they are off to “really important meetings”.  For me, as important as rehearsals is my following the actors around during that stuff. I love talking about the characters, through the lens of the haircut for example. (To Guy Pearce) I remember we had a lot of conversations about your silly haircut, and those jeans and shorts! Weeks and weeks!

GP: All that detail is so important really, and as a visionary you've got to be there for all of that. It’s funny when you walk on some sets and the directors just say: “Hey I don't care, wear what you like.”  That just makes you think: “You don’t care at all.” Dave was there for all of it.

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The Rover is out now across the UK.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

From Mad Men to Bad Men: John Slattery talks directing his stellar cast in God's Pocket


 John Slattery at the BFI for the preview of  God's Pocket

John Slattery at the BFI for the preview of God's Pocket

Mad Men star John Slattery’s feature film directorial debut, God’s Pocket, is released across the UK 8 August. Last week the director was in town at the BFI for a short discussion about putting his new blackly comic crime drama together. The film is set in the gritty, blue-collar Philadelphia neighbourhood of God's Pocket, where small time crook Mickey Scarpato is forced by his wife Jeanie to investigate the mysterious death of his violent stepson, Leon, who was killed in a construction “accident.” Mickey has to struggle not only to somehow piece together the cash for the funeral whilst investigating what happened, but also has to help his friend Bird avoid getting hit by the local mob too, all whilst a local columnist comes sniffing around for the truth…and for his wife Jeanie.

 John Slattery and star Christina Hendricks at the BFI

John Slattery and star Christina Hendricks at the BFI

  • The film’s plot is adapted from the original novel from Pete Dexter (Who Wrote The Paperboy, which has also been adapted into a film by director Lee Daniels). Slattery read the book some twelve years ago or so, but had to wait until the rights were available after trying several times. Whilst waiting for the rights to fall into his hands, Slattery wrote several drafts, and honed his directing skills directing several episodes of the hit AMC cable TV show Mad Men, in which he stars as Roger Sterling. Finally getting the rights after directing a few episodes of the show, God’s Pocket felt like the next logical step as opposed to it begin a calculated plan to be a film director.
  • The cast is top notch: including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, John Turturro, Christina Hendricks, and Britain’s own Eddie Marsan. Hendricks was cast when Slattery realised she’d be ideal for the role of Jeanie whilst actually directing her during an episode of Mad Men, and he gave her the script. Once Hendricks and Hoffman were on board, Slattery was able to get the rest of the film to fall into place quite easily.
  • Slattery wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman for the role of Bird originally, but it was Hoffman who suggested he take the role of Mickey instead, something Slattery immediately realised made more sense. Slattery himself never really considered acting in the film himself, the only part he felt he would've been right for was that of columnist Richard Shellburn, which ended up being taken by Richard Jenkins.
  • Smilin’ Jack Moran is played by British actor Eddie Marsan, who Slattery had seen in various Mike Leigh films. He was the first actor Slattery wanted to play the wolfish funeral home director. It took some doing, as Marsan didn't want to leave his family in the UK for extended periods.
  • The distinctive faded, murky look of the film, which is set in the early 1980s (matching the book’s setting), was partly guided by Slattery and his DoP’s Lance Acord’s decision to remove the colour blue as much as possible from the mix as it simply didn't work very well, thus leaving the colour palette tipping towards green and ochre. They did try to shoot on colour reversal stock, but couldn't get the 35mm film, thus leaving the film shot on digital with post production.
  • Slattery doesn’t immediately plan to direct again, though he would like to, as he doesn’t have a story he likes to hand. Right now he is enjoying some time off having spent so long on Mad Men (the final part of the final season has been hot, but has yet to air). 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Due South: David Gordon Green discusses why it had to be Nicholas Cage for the lead in his new indie drama 'Joe'


The following are extracts from a discussion with David Gordon Green about Joe at the Hackney Picturehouse, London, on 8 July 2014.

Joe is out from 25 July 2014 across the UK and on VOD, and is reviewed here.


PH: From what I understand, when you made your previous film Prince Avalanche, it was quite a therapeutic experience with a lot of freedom. Was Joe a kind of continuation of that?

DGG: Prince Avalanche was like the minimal movie: “Let me go grab my 15 friends and collaborators I work with regularly and make a movie for as close to nothing but still shoot it efficiently and effectively, make it in about 15 days, really strip down the process with no one talking to us. We really liked it, so we started wondering: “what if we had just a little bit more money to add some other elements to the narrative, but still had the same kind of protective shell.” We did it again recently; we recently finished a new movie with Al Pacino (Manglehorn). In my head this is a weird three-movie chapter of my career with films made very cheaply and very quickly, very economically. Nobody asking my why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s been a refreshing series of movies, but it also kind of makes me want to go back and shoot a bigger movie! I have a whimsical headspace, I can wake up with any kind of harebrained scheme about what to get into next.

I’m glad to say that the process of making Joe, having a very agreeable and fearless actor on board like Nicholas Cage, and an ensemble of a lot of unlikely secondary characters, was a real pleasure. It was great making that movie, even though it dealt with some pretty difficult subject matter. 

 David Gordon Green at the Hackney Picturehouse

David Gordon Green at the Hackney Picturehouse

PH: There’s quite an interesting and quite tragic story behind the actor who played the role of “G-Dawg” (AKA Wade, played by Gary Poulter).

DGG: The actor’s name was Gary Poulter. The “G-Dawg” thing came about as we already had an actor and screenwriter working on the film both called Gary. He wanted me to call him Ozzy, but I ended up getting him the “G-Dawg” jacket made instead.  He was a gentleman that my casting director found at a bus stop in downtown Austin where we shot the film. A lot of the time when casting I talk to people who are in the kind of real-life situation that I am interested in. So in this case I was looking for a drifter family, and there’s quite a significant homeless population in Austin: soup kitchens and other forms of support for this community. So I had sent my casting director out looking for people willing to talk to me, so I could get into the headspace of the where and why, to try to bring some authenticity to the movie. So at this bus stop, while my director was interviewing this other family he found, G-Dawg started asking him what he was doing, wanting to know about the movie and being in it. My casting director got him on tape for a few minutes answering a few questions, played it back to me later to see if I thought he was interesting, and I told him to bring him in. 

I had him read for the part of the guy who cuts up the deer. I also said to him there was a two day part playing the guy who runs the convenience store, and asked him to read for that. Then we just started talking after the end of the auditions for the day, I was getting his life story, talking to him about what he was into, the difficulties he had had and was trying now to work his way out of. And I found myself saying: “hey this is crazy, but do you want to come back next week and read for the third lead in this movie?” He just came in and blew us away. At the time I was trying to get Tim Blake Nelson to do it!

PH: I read that he and Nicholas Cage got along quite well as their were both massive fans of heavy metal.

DGG: Yeah, they could both quote this Vincent Price monologue “Welcome to my Nightmare” from Alice Cooper. They’d do it all the time: recite the long monologue. So when they met and realised this, it was love at first sight. And they’d lip sync to each other’s dramatic voices. We actually shot a scene with him speaking the monologue, played against a slow tracking shot that moves towards him and the actor who plays his wife sitting on the floor of their house, the camera slowing moving towards his face as he combs his wife’s hair. Couldn’t figure out where to put it in the movie. He’s also a good skateboarder too, which is interesting, so I have a lot of footage of him skateboarding. But this isn’t really the kind of movie where you can put a gag reel on the DVD. 

PH: He died shortly after the film was completed, didn’t he?

DGG: Yeah, a couple of months after we wrapped, before he could see the movie. I’m really sad about that in one way, but when we wrapped he was kind of reluctant to see the final thing. He said something along the lines of: “if we’ve done our jobs well I don’t really want to see the result.”

PH: This movie is based on a book I understand?

DGG: Well, my first job out of school was as a production assistant on a story about Larry Brown: who was the author of Joe. One of my film professors, Gary Hawkins, was making this documentary about him as part of a series: “The Rough South”. So I got to know Larry and got to reading his books. This was a very biographical book for him, about his youth. I kept up with him for a while. He died a few years ago, and Gary Hawkins, came to me saying that he had written an adaptation of the book for the screen and that: we should make a film out of it.

I would say it is a very respectful adaption of what Larry’s book was. For me also, having just come off three comedy films in a row and a TV series (East Bound and Down), I was really looking to do something different, so when I read this great character piece, this great Southern regional piece, that I also could film in my own backyard, it just really appealed to me. Plus I’d just had kids and wanted to stick closer to home. So this script just spoke to me on just about every personal and professional level. I just had to find the right guy to be in it.

PH: Was it always going to be Cage?

DGG: Whenever I read a book I’m always thinking about a movie version of it. When I was reading the book for the first time I was actually picturing Robert Mitchum. Of course he was too old at the time, and then died. So I found myself wondering, who had the qualities: the physicality of an action hero, the dramatic capability and range of an Oscar-winning actor, and the wit and humanity that I felt needed to be injected into what is a pretty grim tale. I couldn't think of anybody else who leads in those arenas as successfully as Nicholas Cage. Cage is an unpredictable force, and this was not like any movie he had done before. And this is his first beard I think.

So I wrote him a letter, at a time when he hadn't worked in a year. If someone like that doesn’t work for a year you know something is up. So I called his agent and was told he was taking time off. “Time off” means soul-searching. So I wrote the letter asking him if he would talk to me about maybe reading this script. By whatever backdoor method, he ended up reading the script and the book and called me, without ever responding to the letter. I still have the voicemail that he left. Then he flew over literally the next day, out to Austin to join us in the van during the Prince Avalanche shoot.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Director Richard Linklater discusses his twelve year project 'Boyhood'


  Boyhood , with Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette and Lorelai Linklater

Boyhood, with Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette and Lorelai Linklater


I had the privilege in June to be in the audience for the BFI South Bank Q&A event with director Richard Linklater, who was in town to discuss his new film Boyhood, released in the UK July 10. The film itself earned a rare Smoke Screen rating of five stars, as you can see for yourself here. If that still doesn’t convince you that this is one of THE highlights of the year in cinema, feel free to head over to the Rottentomatoes page for this film, where the aggregate score currently sits at 100%.

The film itself was shot from 2002 to 2013, covering 12 years in the life of young Texan boy Mason and his family, using the same cast throughout. Thus over three hours you see all the actors age in line with their characters. There are no prosthetics, no CGI ageing/de-ageing effects, and no on screen text cues to tell you when a time jump has occurred and what the onscreen year is.

 Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater

The story is life itself: Mason and his older sister Samantha learn to face the realities of growing up, while their divorced parents cope with the ongoing challenges of parenting in an ever-evolving landscape. The cast features Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, with newcomers Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater playing the children. This film really carries the electric feel of a true experiment, even if it bears some similarity to other film and TV projects such as Michael Apted’s Up series.

Below are some nuggets from my own notes of the event relating specifically to Linklater's new film (with a good deal of conversation also focusing on his Before trilogy, which are an obvious and interesting set of films to compare to Boyhood), his ideas of cinema and time, and how he selects and works with actors in particular. The BFI also have an edited video of the event on their site, where you can watch Linklater go into greater detail about his earlier career, and his work in film promotion and preservation.

Linklater was also kind enough to indulge me with this:

 RIchard Linklater signed my BFI Programme for the event. For real.

RIchard Linklater signed my BFI Programme for the event. For real.

The following links are worth checking out:

Official Boyhood Site.

BFI Video of the Q&A (edited)

BFI’s Sight and Sound short video essay on Richard Linklater's interest in cinema and time 

Note: this interview contains spoilers. The interviewer was the BFI’s own Exhibitions Director and Head of Festivals, Clare Stewart.

 Richard Linklater at the BFI

Richard Linklater at the BFI

CS: I want to zoom in on Boyhood briefly. You commenced it in the time in between Tape and Waking Life and School of Rock. How did you embark on this whist continuing your film trajectory?

RL: We shot in the summer of 02, and then I went from that onto School of Rock, we just jumped in. I had the idea around 2000-2001, I was thinking about it while at the Venice Film Festival with Tape and Waking Life, when I was pitching the idea. I found that actors got it, I tend to divide the world between actors and everybody else. Actors were like “yeah!”. Ethan and Patricia were saying to me: “think of the storytelling possibilities”. So they were in when I described it. But then I talked to the money people, producers and such and it was like I was speaking a different language. They were like “we get our money…when?”. It was kind of hilarious, the different worlds. But I got lucky eventually: IFC came on board and gave us a little money every year. So we jumped into it in summer 2002.

I think the biggest gap was between years one and two, because I was doing School of Rock and it was difficult with Ethan and Patricia’s schedules. It’s such an impractical idea for those reasons. Towards the end there was a certain momentum but in the early years I guess the end felt so far way, it felt so abstract.

CS: Im going to ask you to elaborate on your fascination with time which runs through so many of your films.  A project of this kind, and also the Before Trilogy: there are few parallels in the history of cinema. It is a huge undertaking with few examples of how to go about it in terms of creative and practical terms. What was your starting point in that sense?

RL: If you think about it, time is kind of the building block of cinema. If you want to think about it like a painting, time is like the paint. It is unique to film: the recording of actual time, but also the ability to manipulate it. I was always excited about that. I was always thinking about storytelling: “why can’t you do this and that, and would that work?” So that is where the idea for Boyhood came from. I just think there are a lot of possibilities in narrative, in storytelling. And in those boundaries time is the thing that loosens it all up.   

I was kind of betting the whole movie on there being this cumulative effect in the way we perceive cinema, and it would have this power, so that you would invest and care about these characters through the sheer accumulation of time in the way we do in the time of our own lives. I think that is unique to film, the way you identify with what you are watching. I was betting on that. It works that way, hopefully.

Then you can get away with the little things that generally have no place in cinema. You can’t stop an action film to stare at a dead bird: it doesn’t advance the story or fit into the formula of efficient storytelling. But it works here, because you care, hopefully. That is what I was aiming for from the beginning: concentrating on the minutiae, like the film was a memory.

CS: Can I ask you about how the scripting process works, how you work with actors, and about the degree to which the spontaneity we see in your films comes from improvisation or you being definitive about what you want them say.

RL: Well I worked with actors on this film as I always have: It is very collaborative, but we never improvise on camera. Never. It is aways rehearsed, there is very much a workshop/rehearsal process. Here (talking about his 1991 film Slacker) I would cast a lot of non-actors, but it was all structured: I knew the beginning, middle and end and what happened in each scene. Kind of like Boyhood.

Within that structure it was very loose though. The cast contributions are what made it special, unique. Thats what a collaboration is, you get to a place you couldn't get to alone. I cared what worked for the film. I trained as an actor and that’s how I wanted to work: as an actor. Not just say my lines and hit my mark, I always treat actors as artistic collaborators, whatever the age. Ellar in Boyhood became that. When he was seven it was a little different but by the time he was eleven and twelve I was giving him assignments. At one point I asked him: ‘write some dialogue imagining you had just met a girl.’ I kind of pushed them into the writer mode a little bit, knowing it was going to be rewritten and workshopped, I felt we’d arrive at what works for the film no matter how we got there. I wanted to include them.

CS: Was Ellar a professional actor, and likewise were your actors in Slacker professionals?

RL: I met young actors, the kind who had agents and resumes, who had really thrown their hats in the ring. Ellar had only been in one indie film, and some commercials. He was six. But it told me that he had family support, which was really important, as I really needed his parents to not say at year eight: ‘he never wanted to do this.’ I wanted it to be professional. Ellar never wavered. But I did want to get people who had acted, who knew they wanted to do that. In Slacker on the other hand, and to a degree Waking Life, I was giving cards out or I had friends recommend people, and I wasn't necessarily looking for the best actor as opposed to the most interesting unique person. I thought I could get a performance that would work for the film. Everyone can act, who hasn't been in a school play? But who can be themselves on camera and bring whatever you think is unique about them? Ive always had, in certain parts, good luck with people who don't have full training. Ive found that, in certain moves and in certain parts, that its not always necessary to have ‘great actors.’

CS: In your films what resonates is the way you often hone in on particular characters who really demonstrate a sense of place. Austin obviously here in Boyhood, and I'm thinking of Bernie, where all of the incidental townspeople in that film are very rich individual characters.

RL: Yeah those were all local people. No actors, though some do local theatre, but most are not actors.  I was just looking for authentic people who can be themselves on camera, but doing material they haven’t necessarily written. Not everyone can do that. I cast a wide net, meet a lot of interesting people, but then I give them a test like I will hand them some lines and then get them to act out on camera. Some people just cant process that, they can’t bring who they are to it on camera. 

CS: Before Sunrise - did you really have the other two films in mind when you embarked on that film?

RL: No. Doing Before Sunset, the second one in the trilogy, is possibly the scariest thing I have ever done in my film career. Twenty years ago we were in Vienna shooting the first one! We felt compelled: Jessie and Celine had remerged in our lives and we felt they were saying something about that point in our lives, about being 32  as opposed to 23. But it was scary to revisit them, to maybe mess it up and mess up the first film. But Boyhood we had actually started a year before Before Sunset, so committing to doing this life project I think emboldened Ethan and I to do another life project! But we didn't know there would be a third one either.

CS: There are nine years between the films…

RL: Yeah, it just worked out that way. It seems to be about five to six years in when we start wondering ‘is there something new to say about a part of life?’

CS: One of the things that is so wonderful about the films is that we are invited in, it is extremely intimate, but at the same time, everything that they go through seems to be incredibly familiar.  How did you strike that balance creatively?

RL: Well I think Jessie and Celine, and the family in Boyhood: they are not extraordinary people. There is something normal about them, so I think there should be a lots of familiarity. We are more similar than we are different in what we do in our lives. It is a challenge to make that watchable and cinematic. It takes a lot of work. The scripts of these films are very delicate and laborious: to make it seem improvised. It is really highly structured.

CS: It strikes me that you are a filmmaker who is extremely interested in playing with technology and the opportunities it affords you: Tape and Waking Life. I read somewhere that you shot all of Boyhood, conversely, on 35mm. Weren't you fearful that that technology might become redundant while you were making it?

RL: Not at all. There is nothing more stable than a 35mm negative. Had I started on the best HD camera back in 2002, I’s have been on my fifth by now. It was never even much of a decision. But I didn't like the way digital looked back then, it looks better now, I’ve shot 2 of my last 3 films on a Lexa. We caught a little bit of the death spiral of 35mm towards the end. But it was still good to hear ‘check the gate’. It is dying. But technology is great. In 2002 and 2003 we were getting booms and mikes in the shot and things and I would just joke ‘we can fix that with the technology of the future.’  It was funny, but I wasn't really kidding; it came to pass. It became incredibly inexpensive. For example, even just a month ago, I was showing the film and I hadn't ‘finished-finished’ it, and there was some poster in the background from the National Football League which it turns out we didn't have the rights for. So we were like ‘screw you, we can fix that.’ Back in 1993 that would’ve meant thousands of dollars on rotoscoping to take it out. I like technology in that way!

CS: We’ve touched on your acting collaborators, but I'm interested in those you build behind the scenes, often uniting a broad and diverse range of people. I’m thinking of key people like John Sloss, and Athina Rachel Tsangari, the Greek director/producer who was actually in Slacker, and who then produced a film called Dogtooth and then made her own debut Attenberg

RL: Yeah she worked with me on Before Midnight on Greece, and I made her act in it too!

CS: You’ve also carried with you Lee Daniel, your cinematographer, and your editing team.

RL: Probably the most constant in my life has been Sandra Adair. That’s a key position. You kind of have to share a certain cinematic brain, or at least we do now. It makes it easier. It was very different on Boyhood though. Normally with a film an editor will weight in after a film is shot. But with Boyhood we were shooting every year, then edit 15 minutes or so of footage, and then we’d have a year to think about it.  But as the film went on, we would always edit that year’s material and attach it to this ever-expanding film, and then edit the whole piece again. I would have a year to think about it, I would sit alone with it, maybe at 2am in the morning. But I got feedback from Sandra really early on; I can sit and talk with her in a way I really can’t with anyone else in my world. It was like therapy, talking with her, and she would give me feedback. In a way it was like discussing a finished film, except in this case this was a theoretical future film! It was a wonderfully different approach, but we had the luxury of time. We spent about two years total editing. For a low budget film that is not what you usually get, plus we spent two years in pre-production too.

Everything about Boyhood was kind of crazy, none of it really makes sense. 


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Event Review: Q&A with director Charlie Ahearn about his new film Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer

Recently previewed at BFI Southbank, Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer is the new documentary from the director of the trailblazing hip-hop film Wild Style, Charlie Ahearn.

The film looks at the late-twentieth century work of New York-based photographer Shabazz, who's camera has captured the fashions, music tastes and politics of New York's urban cultures, including the rap/hip-hop community, from the 1970s onwards.

See the review of the film here.

Q&A With director Charlie Ahearn at BFI Southbank, 12 June 2014

BFI: Why did you decide to make this film about Jamel?

CA: Well, around 2002 Jamel released a book called Back in the Dayz, it is very well known around the world now. A classic of hip-hop photography as it were. When I saw the cover of the book, I was struck by the imagery of these two hard rocks who were clearly only about 15, standing in B-boy square poses on 42nd street. I know that street well, I moved there before making Wild Style the movie in the summer of 1980. That is the same exact time that Jamel had returned from his military service in Germany, and moved back to Brooklyn. So this photo immediately resonated with me. Anyone who has been to 42nd street knows that it is chaos itself, but the way he has posed the two subjects in that photo shows a lot of patience and control, he hasn't just snapped something. 

In a sense he made a monumental portrait in this most chaotic of situations, which was really known as a crazy area, though of course now we have a Disney-fied version of New York City. That was a place for hookers, porn, kung-fu movies, and there was a lot of street trade. So, a pretty iffy place for two teenage boys. But it was also a magnet for young kids from all the boroughs, which was why I moved there to make Wild Style. So I felt very connected to the imagery. I saw him out in book signings, and we hit it off immediately. 

Jamel is a hard person to get to know - he doesn’t even have portraits in the back of his books. He tends not to expose much of himself as an individual, he was more about serving the community with these images. So as a subject he was fascinating but also challenging for a filmmaker, it was challenging to get under the surface with him.

I see this film as about coding: there is a language of code, a visual code, hip hop culture has a lot of coding to it, like if you are involved in graffiti and you know the codes, you can read a lot just by checking out the way that someone colours something our outlines something. You can tell where the artist is from, what group he adheres to, his beliefs. What this film does is it takes hip hop coding to a whole other level. I see it as being about hip hop culture, but Jamel would argue that it is not hip hop itself, it is about people on the street with possibly others sets of cultural adherences.

But there are codes that run through the film. For example, one code that is mentioned is that if you are somebody who once worked in a prison: you do not talk about it, or someone else’s experience. I’ve known people in hip hop a long time, back some thirty years, and those who originated the genre in my experience never wanted to talk about their time in prison, if they'd been there. 

BFI: Hip hop was as much social movement as a musical movement. Looking at the photographs in the film, it struck me there are so many happy, smiling faces. But when you hear the interviewees going down memory lane, most of them talk about the deaths and prison sentences.  It is interesting to me that although Shabazzz worked at a correctional facility, his photography doesn’t seem to be in keeping with a grim social realist vein, it seems to show a community at ease with itself.

 Jamel Shabazz's breakthrough monograph 

Jamel Shabazz's breakthrough monograph 

CA: In the film what you see are people wanting to represent themselves as people who are in control of their lives. A lot of street photographers have used the street to show someone, say, who was shooting up drugs or something, or something ‘wrong’ with street life. There is a section of his work though that looks at homeless people, on the subway and such.

BFI: I wanted to ask about the fashion. In the film Claude Grazinsky, from Trace Magazine, says something along the lines of how he was over in Paris but longing for ‘that New York experience’. That was resonant for me, as being a kid growing up before the age of the internet with its instant access to knowledge at the touch of a button, I and my friends were also longing to know more about this culture that was exploding over in New York City.

CA: A very specific kind of New York experience; you identified yourself as a member of some kind of hip hop culture, and there were visual codes you looked at. 

BFI: Back then it was more difficult to find out about this stuff though. One of the first things that was, for me, a signifier, was Wild Style. When you were making Wild Style, were you aware that you were trying to capture something that would go on to be so powerful? How does this fit with your work with Jamel?

CA: When I was producing Wild Style, the two places that I originally got funding from were Channel 4 in London, and CDF in Germany. There wasn’t a lot of money, but this all said to me and people around me: ‘yes this is really happening, we are doing this, this is not just going to get made but it is a worldwide thing going out to people around the world’. The film was actually first shown in Japan. One of the Japanese artists who worked with James Lavelle, who is curating this year’s Meltdown Festival, was DJ Krush. He pretty much learned about hip hop from watching our tour when it came to Tokyo in October 1983. I had a feeling that what we were doing was being done on a shoestring, but our film did have to represent to a world audience in some fashion. When Jamel was taking his pictures, he was more thinking about if his pictures were going to be representative of so-and-so person, and if they would earn their respect on the street. I think that is a very different kind of frame that we are looking at. 

Wild Style went out around the world, whilst Jamel was known for 15 years as just a prison guard; it is I think an amazing testimony to an artist’s progress and faith in what he is doing. Jamel was not consciously thinking: ‘this is hip hop’ when working, he was thinking: ‘this is the guy on the corner who I might have to relate to in the future.’ 

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RATING: ★★★★☆

LINKS

Wild Style Official Site

Official Charlie Ahearn Site

Jamel Shabaaz Official Site


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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.