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Interview: Playwright Bess Wohl and Director Rachel Chavkin Talk Small Mouth Sounds

We talked recently with Wohl and Chavkin about their collaboration on this unusual and compelling theater project.

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Interview: Playwright Bess Wohl and Director Rachel Chavkin Talk Small Mouth Sounds
Photo: Ben Arons

The silence enforced on six participants of a healing retreat proves most eloquent in Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds. A small theatrical gem, where minimal dialogue is enhanced with acutely observed and honestly portrayed human behavior, the play made an acclaimed debuted at off-Broadway’s Ars Nova last year. Directed by Rachel Chavkin, the production, staged alley-style in an intimate setting, has made a welcome return and is now playing for a limited three-month commercial run at the Pershing Square Signature Theater. I talked recently with Wohl and Chavkin about their collaboration on this unusual and compelling theater project.

Did you ever attend a spiritual retreat like your characters in the play?

Bess Wohl: I was sort of dragged by one of my closest girlfriends to a retreat in upstate New York. I think I knew that it was going to be silent before we went, but I hadn’t fully focused on that. Within a day of being there, I thought, okay, this is definitely a play, and started immediately taking notes on everybody else who was there—Googling them, trying to figure out who they were. We had also brought wine and snacks; we just weren’t fully absorbing it in the way that we were supposed to. But I was really interested in how everyone comes to these retreats with this giant need for their life to be changed or healed in some way. Also, there’s this great obstacle in that you can’t talk. It just felt that it lent itself to a lot of drama. So then I started going back, taking more and more notes. I went to a couple with my mum, which was bizarre and hilarious. There was one [occasion] where we gave up and went to a bed and breakfast halfway through.

Did anyone realize you were a kind of spy?

BW: I was definitely taking notes, but I think I feel like a spy in all of my life—all the time, actually. So it didn’t feel like I was completely undercover. I should say that I do genuinely believe in a lot of this sort of Buddhist thought, and I do try to incorporate it in different ways in my life. So there was no cynicism in my approach. I was just really interested in exploring it.

Rachel Chavkin: And you feel that in the play. I think the central question of the play is should we seek peace or not, and if so, how? When life is sincerely hard on personal and political levels, macro and micro, there’s so much humor and pathos that comes out of just pursuing that question.

Bess, you have said in the past that as a writer you’re particularly attracted to language-driven plays. What was it like writing a play where the characters have to observe silence?

BW: I think part of the impulse to write this was that I was a little bit sick of the sound of my own voice. I just was tired of writing rapid-fire, quippy dialogue with laugh lines. So it was sort of a real detox for myself to try to get away from a certain style that I felt I was falling into. And I hate writing stage directions. I find them so boring. So it was also a bizarre, masochistic attempt to make myself write a ton of stage directions. I wouldn’t say the experience of writing this was pleasurable for me, but then the great thing was that once I got in the room with Rachel and the actors they were able to do so much problem-solving, because most of this play happens between the lines.

Rachel, what was your response when you were handed this script, of which more than half is without dialogue?

RC: I don’t choose a project unless something about that world strikes a chord. This show presented a challenge unlike anything I have ever seen. But if it was just a play that essentially had this single clever idea of mostly happening in silence, I don’t think I would have responded to it. It was the fact that the play had this formal exploration, but did so in concert with a deep exploration of spirituality amid pain. That was very exciting to me. There was the honest question of will this work? In order for the production to be successful, the audience shouldn’t just feel like they have seen some people at a silent retreat, but that they leave feeling as if they have profoundly experienced that sense of silence themselves. We need to trust the silence enough, even when there are moments of slapstick and clumsy comedy that comes from being human. So, actually, the first time we really worked together we went to Martha’s Vineyard and we staged the show in a week, just to feel how that amount of silence felt. And it was beautiful.

Bess mentioned writing extensive stage directions. Did that seem at all like the playwright was encroaching on your job as the director?

RC [to Wohl]: I never knew that you hated writing stage directions! It’s funny, but for how many stage directions there are, they aren’t oppressive. Bess really articulated a series of actions without much point of view: “Joan looks at Judy.” That leaves a lot of room for us to figure stuff out. It has been a constant conversation between us, but also really with our performers. I think it’s pretty fair to say that, maybe more than most plays, this one lives and dies by its cast—and the actors’ willingness to be vulnerable, naked, and simple. Yet, at the same time, a dense amount of backstory and detail has gone into constructing their characters.

This is something the audience won’t know, but the script actually has detailed backstories for each of the characters. Did your own experience as an actor come in useful when you wrote the character descriptions in the text?

BW: Having been an actor informs my writing enormously because it’s just the same challenge of entering the experience of another person. I think I was writing an actor journal for each of the performers in the play. It was probably for myself to know who these people were, but also for the actors. It seems unfair to hand an actor a play and then say to them that they’re not going to talk in the play, unless you can also say to them, “I’ve also figured out everything about you and here’s a roadmap for your behavior.” What I hope is that I created a template where actors can come in and feel the freedom to play and explore. I think a lot of the fun of doing this play, hopefully, for actors is being able to find their path through it, but giving them enough to feel that they have some kind of sense of who they are.

RC: I’ve never had an experience where I’ve known less about what an audience is experiencing than with this show. There are little clues, as everyone’s behavior is very consistent with who they are. We worked very hard to make sure of that. But there are moments that are ambiguous. That’s the joy of the kind of detective work that the audience is forced to constantly do with this piece. We’ve talked about whether it would be interesting at the end of the show to give the audience the characters’ backstories, but it could almost, in a way, feel like a betrayal. Because if you’ve constructed who that person is by the end of the show, and hopefully you have, then who’re we to contradict the story that you’ve made up?

Bess, did you have specific ideas about how the production should look?

BW: I try not to over-prescribe how things are going to look visually, because I think part of the fun of being an actor or a director is being able to come as a primary artist and really have a creative experience, which is partly why I didn’t dictate every little breath in the stage directions. And physically, you know, I had perversely written something that felt impossible to stage. I put in challenges on purpose: They suddenly go swimming in a lake, and there’s all this action happening concurrently in different spaces. I left it up to the great creative minds that I was working with to translate that. So none of it looked like what I expected, but that’s part of the joy of writing the play. I think I had first imagined the play in a proscenium style, which we just literally couldn’t do at Ars Nova.

RC: Laura Jellinek, our set designer, and I talked about wanting to make a space where the audience leaves feeling like as if they’ve truly been in silence. And so Laura immediately said, “Well, I don’t want to see a shred of Ars Nova, let’s just build a box within the box,” and so much streamed from there. My first impulse was this idea of using video in a very unusual way; it was one of the big things that I wanted to get Bess’s permission for when I started working on the show. I began thinking about how you pay attention when you’re in silence, or when you’re in a heightened stage of awareness, how it feels like you’re looking at things either too closely or really far away in terms of perspective. And that’s essentially what Andrew Schneider has done with the video. It’s these long, very quiet shots mostly of nature, and we filmed it at one of the retreat centers that Bess went to. So through the combination of Andrew’s video work and Mike Inwood’s lighting, we’re very quietly telling the story of the space in this beautiful minimalist box.

As the playwright, does it feel like the production blurs where the writing ends and where the staging and the actors’ choices take over?

BW: I think the collaboration is more in high relief, but with every play I write I really feel that the actors and the director are such essential elements of the storytelling. If I didn’t want that then I would write books. Part of the joy of this process has really been seeing what Rachel has brought, what the actors have brought, and what the designers have brought—letting us all be story tellers.

Did writing the play detox you the way you wanted?

BW: Yes, in a way it did. This is my own silent retreat, writing this play. It’s interesting now to go back to writing plays with more language. I feel the bar for the need that a character has before they open their mouth to speak is much higher. And that’s actually a really nice thing. I’m more comfortable with not have having characters keep chit-chatting all the time. Rachel starts this play with this prolonged moment of silence for one of the characters. She always says it is the moment of teaching the audience how to watch this play. As the playwright, I’m sitting there during that moment, my heart is beating, my skin is crawling. Why isn’t something happening? It’s taught me, just sitting through that moment, to relax and trust that things can unfold organically.

RC: I think the great actress Uta Hagen once said to never be on stage with a cat, because the cat will always win. I do feel this play is basically making cats of humans, trusting that the little amount of just being, if you’re truly living, is quite compelling. And then there’s a balance, obviously, between that and just no action whatsoever. That’s where I feel your writing hand: when we should move forward, even while trusting this overall conceit of yours.

BW: The play to me is so much about pain and how we deal with pain. Is it possible to lessen the pain of being alive, and is that a worthy goal? I had this weird idea of can you do a play in silence. I didn’t know I would be writing about agony, but it just emerged. And then, of course, the flip side of that is that it’s funny too.

Yes, indeed. You have audiences laughing out loud almost as soon as the play begins. Did you plan this?

RC: It was funny in rehearsals. I have never laughed so hard in rehearsing this show. It actually makes a difference as to whether someone sighs before or after they lower their head—whether their shoes are tied or whether they’re wearing flip-flops. It’s such small elements in the recipe of each moment. So we would just run moments, hundreds of times, in these incredibly minute variations. You also get the actors wanting to kill themselves at some point because they have to eat the 30th bag of chips to figure out whether three chips or one chip is funny or not. This production has all the physical choreography that would go into a production of Noises Off—only the scale of it is minute.

BW: There’s always an event in progress, always forward motion. What Rachel and the actors have been able to bring to this play, even though a lot of it happens in silence, is a very specific aural language. She really crafted this rhythm and this music, moment to moment to moment. To me, strangely, it’s a very noisy place.

That’s probably a good note to end: What are “small mouth sounds”?

BW: I think was interested in the sounds we make when we’re not talking and the way that those are a form of communication. The retreat course is taught by this unseen guru in the play and this weird little perverse part of me was interested in the fact that he would have this microphone that would be way too close to his face and you would hear these slightly disgusting mouth sounds that he was making the whole time. In early drafts I way overdid it and had little disgusting sounds peppered throughout. We learned as we worked on it that a little goes a long way. But I was just interested in that feeling of too much intimacy with a person that you that can’t even see. And, yeah, there’s lot of sighing and grunting and ahhing and ohhing, and then, ultimately, the larger point that I was looking at was that, a lot of times, words are just small mouth sounds if they have no meaning. We just say them because they’re just sounds that our mouth is making. So, I think, ultimately, in my head that’s another way of saying words.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

The attractional dimensions of Roger Deakins’s work will have no problem finding favor with today’s Oscar voters.

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1917
Photo: Universal Pictures

Given how late 1917 entered the Oscar conversation, it’s only natural that now is the time, less than two weeks before the big night, that more than just Film Twitter is shifting from talking about how 1917 is “like a video game” to whether or not that association is a pejorative. We have our opinions, but as this is a prediction article above all else and, well, it’s almost lunch and I want to get some time in with Outer Wilds, let’s keep this simple. Roger Deakins’s mastery of light and shadow is certainly evident throughout 1917, but the acclaim for his work here is largely centered around the technical artistry of the film, for the way it summons a raw immediacy. And that artistry is part of a trend that’s been consistently awarded in this category for the last decade and can be traced to Emmanuel Lubezki’s work with Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, especially on the former’s Children of Men and the latter’s Birdman. Which is to say that the attractional dimensions of Deakins’s work will have no problem finding favor with a wide swath of Oscar voters.

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: The Irishman

Should Win: The Lighthouse

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Confessions of a Drag Legend: Charles Busch on The Confession of Lily Dare

Busch discusses his latest comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s.

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Photo: Carol Rosegg

When we last caught up with Charles Busch almost a decade ago, the playwright, actor, and drag artist was starring in The Divine Sister, a vehicle he created for himself to emulate a Rosalind Russell-like star of Hollywood’s “golden” era playing a mother superior. “There’s actually this marvelous fantasy element to my career, and I’ve been very lucky the way things have worked out,” says the 65-year-old as we chatted once again in his West Village apartment, which is decorated, as he once famously put it, “like an elegant 19th-century whorehouse.” Over the past 35 years, Busch has sustained a unique and idiosyncratic career, every so often creating over-the-top roles for himself and gathering a bunch of his actor friends to put on shows just for the fun of it. On this occasion, the topic of conversation is The Confession of Lily Dare, which began life in 2018 and is now being presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre by Primary Stages.

How would you describe The Confession of Lily Dare in a nutshell?

It’s a comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s. There was this brief period where things were kinda loose and creative—the so-called Pre-Code cinema—before the severe Production Code made many restrictions on morality in American film. There was a bunch of movies—all variations of the same plot—about a young girl led astray, who has an illegitimate baby who she gives up, and then, many years later, the child comes back into her life. And, because she has led this very sexual renegade life, she has to hold on to her great secret, that she never wants the child to know.

Who’s Lily Dare?

A survivor. I’ve always wanted play a role where I went from a young girl to an old crone. In a certain sense, I play four different characters, because she makes some wild transformations from innocent young girl to Marlene Dietrich-type cabaret entertainer to bordello madam to worn-out waterfront saloon singer. I morph using different character voices as she changes personae. I think in some ways it’s a metaphor for what we all go through in real life, as we change and our personalities adapt to our circumstances. I have noticed, as my contemporaries have gotten older, sometimes we become almost parodies of ourselves; we get so much more exaggerated in our idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. What I’m doing as Lily Dare is on a much more stylized level, but I think it has a basic truth to the way we do adapt as we get older.

This show was originally meant for a limited run off-off-Broadway. What changed?

I’ve had this very long relationship, going back to 1981, with Theater for the New City, which is a kind of funky downtown multiplex of a theater on the Lower East Side. Every other year we—that’s me and Carl Andress, the director I’ve worked with for 25 years—make a call to Crystal Field, who runs that theater, and say, “Can you give us a space?” It’s a fun thing to do for a couple of weeks and usually I get it out of my system. We did Lily Dare there a year and a half ago and the audience response to it was so lovely. But, really, more importantly, I wanted to do more. I loved the variety of emotion that it stirred in the audience. With comedy, I like when there’s a roller coaster of tone; it can be very outrageous and bawdy, but then there are genuine moments of tenderness or suspense. I really wanted to test this and, you know, go for big laughs but also see whether a rather jaded, cynical contemporary audience could lose themselves in the tearjerker elements of the story and be genuinely moved. So, when Primary Stages—a theater I’ve had a relationship with, going back to 1994—said it wanted me to be part of their 35th anniversary season, I suggested Lily Dare.

Mother-and-child relationships are central to Die Mommie Die! and The Third Story. Does that have something to do with your losing your mother at an early age?

I’ve always been a sucker for anything about mother love, and it’s a wonderful experience to play my obsessions night after night. I think I can speak for anyone who’s lost a parent. It’s something that marks you and influences probably every aspect of your life, whether it’s personal relationships or, if you’re a creative artist, your work. I write them into the play so I can tap into those emotions endlessly. Thank God for self-pity, because it can be very rewarding! This play, particularly, is all about the search for a mother, the search for a child.

You’ve said before that your plays come about because there’s a role you’d like to play.

Yes, I’d get an idea like “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to be Rosalind Russell in a 1960s nun comedy,” or “wouldn’t it fun to be Norma Shearer in an anti-Nazi war melodrama.” In this case, it was “Wouldn’t it be fun to be Barbara Stanwyck in her early-1930s tearjerkers?” I’ve just been very fortunate that I’m in a position that I can get these fantasies to come true.

The other thing I do, usually after I get my idea for a play and a character that I’d like to do, is write a list of actor friends of mine that I just like to hang out with, and then I try to figure out roles for them within the context of the story. Sometimes I feel like I have my own old-time movie studio and my contract players and I have to figure out new ways of presenting them. I’m so fortunate that I’ve been working with the wonderful Jennifer Van Dyck for quite a few years now. She was a classical actress without a camp bone in her body when I got hold of her. Her range is so marvelous. I can use her in so many different ways; as an elegant lady, sometimes I write old-fashioned trouser roles for her because she has kind of a Katherine Hepburn quality. In my Cleopatra, I think she’s the only actress who’s ever played Octavian and his sister, Octavia. And in Lily Dare, she ranges from playing my bordello madam to my opera singing daughter, a doctor’s wife and a mysterious baroness.

What’s it like writing roles for yourself?

It took me to the age of 19 to figure out I could write roles for myself. It becomes harder as you get older, although, for the most part, I’ve aged into my roles. In the late ‘80s I was playing Norma Shearer in The Lady in Question, who was a great star at the peak of her beauty, let’s say in 1940, and then years later I was playing a mother superior, which would have the part that an actress would have played as she’s approaching her late 50s. It’s always important to me that when I look in the mirror, I look like the character I’m playing. Perhaps what I’m seeing in the mirror isn’t what the audience is seeing. I hope that’s not true! I may be deluding myself, but I’ve never thought that the source of the comedy of my performances was the differential between what my intention is and what the audience’s conception is. I think a big part of camp is that space. There are so many different kinds of drag performers that come from so many different points for view. For me, it was important that I physically looked as close an approximation that I possibly can to an actress from Hollywood’s golden age. In this play, I’m taking a little bit of a detour. I end up there, but I just start off with as a young convent girl of 16. With the help of my wig stylist and costume designers and lighting designer I hope I give some kind of an illusion. I’m telling you this might be the last time that I play somebody quite that young. I’m getting kinda tired being all trussed up in corsets!

Do you rely on your memories of the old movies for your parodies? Did you have to do research for Lily Dare?

I just absorbed it watching all those movies on television. I’ve been doing it since I was eight years old and I think the bulk of my research was done by the age of 12! When I do a new play like Lily Dare, I try to see some of these movies that I haven’t seen, that I know are in the same genre. But I’ve always loved Madame X, which is really the prototype for that kind of movie. It’s not for me to do the spoof of film noir; that’s really for the ordinary folk, you know. I choose obscure movies that nobody could care less about! And, in a way, that’s kind of good because I don’t really approve of something where an audience’s enjoyment is based on their knowledge of the movie. With something like Lily Dare, the assumption is that 99 percent of the audience has never seen Frisco Jenny or The Sin of Madelon Claudet or—they all have similar titles—The Secret of Madame Blanche. It doesn’t matter, you can just enjoy it as a good yarn. And thank God for Google—to be able to look for restaurants in San Francisco that were open before 1906. Because if I’m going to use an anachronism it is very deliberate.

What about the plays that didn’t feature a role for yourself, notably The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife?

I’ve written a number of them and, honestly, it’s frustrated me that my only Broadway play was that. And it’s not for lack of trying. A play of mine that we did at Primary Stages a few years ago, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, got some of the biggest laughs in my career, but critics didn’t really care for it. I don’t know, I sometimes spend useless time in rumination of “Did I make the wrong choice, did I take the wrong path there?” And where is it gonna get you? The thing about my career is that I’ve earned a nice living just by doing exactly what I wanted to do and had fun doing it. And I guess it is too late to start bitching about what might have been.

Is the movie version of Allergist’s Wife still happening?

Oh, that movie project has dragged on. I can’t say it is not going to happen, but there’s certainly no activity at the moment. I have several plays that I’d like to write in different styles—always a million notions for film parodies. There’s an Irish parody that I’ve been intermittently working on, and another autobiographical play that that I’ve done research on. What I do get excited about is being in movies. Some of the most creative experiences in my whole life have been making movies like Die Mommy Die! So, Carl and I have a new idea for a movie that we hope to do next year. It’s a zany contemporary caper movie starring Julie Halston and me, and that we hope to shoot in my apartment!

Is it true you’re writing your memoirs?

Oh, I have been working on it for so many years! The idea was that it will be more memoir than celebrity autobiography, because I’m not that well known. But I think I have a very interesting story. My aunt who raised me was a fascinating figure; I think she’s very much in the tradition of aunt literature from Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly to David Copperfield’s Aunt Betsey Trotwood to Travels with my Aunt and Auntie Mame. And, of course, there are the different worlds that I’ve been a part of—the East Village of the ‘80s—and there’s this story of a young person wanting so desperately to be in the theater and realizing that there’s no was no place for him in a traditional career and having to just invent one. I think I’m rather fearless as a dramatist—I just keep going and nothing seems to stop me—but I’m much more vulnerable as a prose writer. So, it’s dragged out a lot, but finally I think I see the end is near.

Do you think that your work has influenced artists of succeeding generations just as Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatre inspired you?

I guess so. Seeing Charles Ludlum when I was at such an impressionable age, it was cataclysmic the way it changed my perspective of the possibilities of who I could be. And I meet young people who say that I have that effect on them. With this play—Carl was just saying the other night—it was great to see young gay people in our audience who just seem overwhelmed. I think it is a lovely thing—it doesn’t happen too often it seems—that we have a new generation of young gay kids being exposed to the kind of humor and see generations of gay men sitting together and sharing a laugh.

Is there a confession of Charles Busch?

Really, it took me a while to understand that everything you write is personal and that even though it would seem like just a spoof of an old movie genre it is actually very autobiographical, and I’m often the last person to realize it. I think this play is a confession of Charles Busch, maybe you have to look a little deeper.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Song

Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year.

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Rocketman
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year, as Golden Globe nominees Taylor Swift and Beyoncé failed to score nominations, though the former’s omission sparked heavy sighs of relief among Oscar completists who were dreading to have to watch Cats. Neither did they make room for Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen, whose “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” in Wild Rose was widely regarded among the year’s best movie songs. In short, this is a category that feels more characterized by what’s absent than what’s present.

Ten previous nominations have so far added up to one conspicuously absent win for the indefatigable Diane Warren, whose nomination for Chrissy Metzs inspirational dirge in the very, very Christian Breakthrough calls to mind the nomination that was removed from competition six years ago, for Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel’s contribution to the also very Christian Alone Yet Not Alone. Conversely, the Toy Story series has never been absent once from this category, actually earning Randy Newman one of his two wins here for the third installment’s “We Belong Together.” Cynthia Erivo’s all but absent chances to win in the best actress category wouldn’t be much of a factor here even if the academy felt more overt remorse about #OscarsSoWhite, and so far as power ballads go, we expect the academy’s drama-queen wing to fall into line for Frozen II’s “Let It Go II.”

However, when Elton John won the Oscar 25 years ago for The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” his lifelong songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, was absent from his side, as it was Disney’s top lyricist, Tim Rice, who shared that 1994 award with the pop star. John was canny enough to mention the fact that he and Taupin had never won a competitive award while they accepted the Golden Globe earlier this month for Rocketman’s peppy closing number “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.” In saying so, he turned the act of voting for the song into endorsing a de facto lifetime achievement award for the team.

Will Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman

Could Win: “Into the Unknown,” Frozen II

Should Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman

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Interview: Kantemir Balagov on Avoiding Artistic Stagnation with Beanpole

Balagov’s cinematic verve feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it.

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Kantemir Balagov
Photo: Kino Lorber

The cinematic verve of 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it. His sophomore feature, Beanpole, may have many audacious touches, but the controlled classicism with which he constructs a meticulous physical and emotional landscape defies his age.

Beanpole centers the female home-front experience in post-World War II Leningrad. The film’s vibrant hues belie the dour misery that bonds two friends, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), even closer together in the wake of war’s destruction. The need to bring life, especially in the form of a child, into this bleak landscape animates the two women amid an otherwise debilitatingly austere backdrop. Balagov charts Iya and Masha’s psychological power struggle gently and without ever steering into melodramatic territory, all while maintaining virtuosic control over sound and image.

When sitting across from Balagov prior to his film’s New York Film Festival premiere last October, the incongruity of film and filmmaker seemed even more pronounced. His youthfully unkempt appearance contrasted with both the intelligence of his answers and the methodical nature of his decisions behind the camera. The interview began with Balagov elaborating on how he crafted Beanpole and ended up in a reflective discussion musing about how directors can develop a signature style without succumbing to artistic stagnation.

In your debut feature, Closeness, you introduced your presence to the audience by putting your name in title cards and contextualizing your reasons for making the film. Even though there’s nothing like that in Beanpole, are you still in the film?

Yeah, absolutely. I hope I’m in the film. I try to watch the world with my character’s point of view, their eyes. I’m [as] afraid as Iya and Masha to be alone. That’s kind of my fear and their fears. I try to share my experience with them. For me, they’re real [people], not just characters.

Who do you consider to be the protagonist of this film: Iya, Masha, or both?

I think that even Sasha [Masha’s love interest, played by Igor Shirokov] and the doctor are beanpoles. In Russian, beanpole is about height. But, for me, it’s about clumsiness. The way they are trying to live after the world is a clumsy way. They feel clumsy, and they talk a little bit clumsy. They’re all beanpoles in some way.

You’re working once again with non-professional actresses. Is there a particular effect you’re looking to achieve with their less studied and self-conscious style?

They’re actresses, and they studied while shooting. For me, the most important thing is personality. I don’t need the acting course. I need the personality first of all. Trauma and personality.

Since they hadn’t been in other films before, does that make them more impressionable as performers? Can you shape their performances in a certain way?

I think the lack of film experience didn’t play a big role. In the first moment, we created a human connection rather than a professional one.

Is there any conscious reason in particular why, at least so far, you’ve gravitated toward telling women’s stories?

I try to discover my female side and understand my childhood. I was living with my mother because my parents were divorced. I feel comfortable with them.

It’s impossible to discuss your films without colors, especially blue in Closeness and green—as well as yellow, to a lesser extent—in Beanpole. What’s the process of conceiving those intellectually and then working with your production team to visualize it?

The content of the film shapes the colors. Specifically talking about Beanpole, in reality, the colors were much gloomier. We wanted to pick colors to highlight avoiding their reality—to uplift it.

Is that for the sake of the characters in the film or the audience watching it?

That was made for the emotional impact. I knew what my characters would be. I knew how much suffering there would be, and I didn’t want them to look miserable in the frame. I want them to look decent, so that’s why we tried to create some beautiful frames. Like art frames.

It’s such a stark contrast to post-war films with greys or desaturated colors.

Yeah, from the beginning, it should be like mud. But there are just some things that helped point me to using colors.

Does it come from a feeling you have? Are you a student of color theory?

No, my hobby is photography, and I’m a huge fan of Magnum photos, the agency created by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Robert Capa. In the color photos, there’s some rhythm of the colors. It’s easy to see because a photo is like a freeze frame. I took it and used it in Closeness, and I liked it.

The line “heroes weren’t only on the front lines” feels like such a summation of Beanpole’s mission—revising history to accommodate the substantial contributions of women. Is it meant to echo forward into the present at all?

Frankly speaking, I didn’t intend to make a movie that resonated with today. I started to think about it in 2015, and it’s important to remember that the events of 2015 might not be expressed in this in 2019. My goal was not to make something that reflected today’s events.

The press notes point out there’s no imagery of Stalin or communism at all in Beanpole. What was the rationale behind that—to make the story more universal?

Cinema, for me, is a tool of immortality. I think those people don’t deserve immortality, in my view.

It makes the film feel not necessarily universal, but it’s not quite so bound to specifics of the time. It’s applicable beyond the immediate context.

Yeah, I think so. We didn’t want to hitch it to a certain period. We wanted to create a universal story.

What’s the effect of all your meticulous historical research on the set? It strikes me that it has as much to do with having an impact on the performers as it does the audience.

I think those meticulous things we included in the film affected the body language, for example. It helped the actors achieve a specific tone, voice, and gesture. The way people moved back then is very different from the body language we have today.

How so?

People were exhausted by the war. They moved slowly. When I was researching, I watched some footage from those times. In some way, we have some common things [with that time period]. But they talk differently. The intonation in the voice seems very fragile—one touch and it’s going to break.

You’ve frequently referred back to the advice of your mentor Alexander Sokurov. Now that you’ve made two films of your own, are there any areas where you’ve gone your own way or found your own wisdom?

As an auteur, I want to be independent. But as a human being, I feel a connection with him. I really appreciate it.

In recent interviews, you’ve said that you feel like you’re still searching for your style. What does the end result of that search look like for you? A single, identifiable aesthetic or a more intangible voice?

It’s hard to describe. It’s you who will decide.

Don’t put that pressure on me!

I was so curious, I asked Sokurov when I was studying what’s the difference between stagnation and an author’s signature. He said to me that you should find it on your own, I don’t have the answer for you.

I get the sense that artists tend to look for stories that inspire you, and you all don’t think of necessarily envision a linear career path in the same way that journalists do. Scorsese, for example, makes so many different kinds of films, but you can always tell that he made them.

That’s why I was curious about the difference between style and stagnation. I really admire many contemporary directors, but so many of their works are stagnant. I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid that my third film will be a sign of stagnation.

So variation is what you hope for?

Yeah, I would like to make an animated movie. I’m really curious about games. I would like to direct a game. I’d like to make a film from a game, like The Last of Us. I’m open to it.

Translation by Sasha Korbut

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

The Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category.

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1917
Photo: Universal Pictures

We’re sorry. Last week, Eric and I agreed that he could blow my lead here by saying that we were going to bet on Ford v. Ferrari to take both sound awards. Part of our logic was that the sound awards split more times than not, and opting for the same film in both categories would guarantee that we’d at least get one of those categories correct. But seemingly every day of this accelerated awards season hasn’t only increasingly solidified 1917’s frontrunner status for best picture, but also pointed to the possibility of it lapping up almost as many Oscars as Slumdog Millionaire, so we’re doing some course correcting.

Last night, the Cinema Audio Society, which has accurately predicted the winner in this category 14 out of 26 times, awarded its prize for achievement in sound mixing to Ford v. Ferrari. And that 1917 wasn’t even nominated for that award makes Ford v. Ferrari a relatively safe bet here. (Only one other film, Whiplash, has won the Oscar here after failing to be nominated for sound mixing at the Cinema Audio Society since the guild’s inception in 1994.)

But we’re going to take it as a sign of things to come that Ford v. Ferrari and 1917 split the top sound awards at the recent MPSE Golden Reel Awards, suggesting that the latter’s lack of a CAS nomination may have been a fluke, possibly a result of it entering the awards race so late in the season. Also, the Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category, especially those with more than a realistic chance of snagging the top prize, so we’re giving the edge here to Sam Mendes’s war horse, which will be lapping James Mangold’s racing drama at the box office in a matter of days.

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Should Win: Ad Astra

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.

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Joaquin Phoenix
Photo: Warner Bros.

We’ve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say we’re already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (we’ve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.

Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And it’s a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting Renée Zellweger at the beginning of this year’s marathon: “There’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals.”

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, who’s going to win the Oscar, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, he’s up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.

Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. He’d have the award even if he wasn’t playing Joker’s real-life version of Donald Trump.

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story

Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short

Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.

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Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Photo: Grain Media

Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.

There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.

John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.

Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.

Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.

Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.

Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Could Win: In the Absence

Should Win: In the Absence

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.

Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.

Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.

So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.

Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.

But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.

At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.

Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.

Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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