Now in its third season, Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher-turned-crystal meth manufacturer, played by Bryan Cranston, whose detour outside the law estranges him further and further from both his family and the man he once was. Shrugging aside the boundaries of conventional television storytelling, the series currently stands unparalleled in its willingness to pursue these conflicts to their logical conclusions, however messy those may be. Creator Vince Gilligan talked with Slant about his undying love for television, violence on the U.S.-Mexico border, and the unintentional politics of his admittedly showy brand of realism.
You’ve worked in both television and feature films. Do you have a preference for either one?
I would have to say television, because once you are on a writing staff, or once you create a television show, for as long as that show exists you know that you’re writing, you know that your work will get produced. The same can’t be said for writing for features, unfortunately. Write a movie script, you can put your heart and soul into it for months, for years, and peddle it around Hollywood and ultimately it may well go nowhere. I’ve experienced more heartbreak in the movie business than in the TV business.
Is there anything about the format of serial television itself that influences the way you write, that you have a preference for? Is it easier to write a one-off film than it is to sustain a season at a time?
They’re both hard, but I suppose that the saving grace about writing a television show is that you don’t have to wrap up everything plot-wise at the end of every episode, and you can leave certain questions unanswered. You can leave certain emotional issues not quite completely tied up. In a movie, on the other hand, you have to tie up every loose end that you have set for yourself, and you have to wrap things up emotionally in a very satisfactory manner, and you have to complete the plot in that two-hour segment of time that you’re allotted. Endings are just very tough for a writer, at least speaking personally. Coming up with an ending for a movie is always tough, and probably yet another reason that I like television better, because you have a hundred hours, in a perfect world, to tell your television story and only two to tell your movie story.
So, does that also influence the kinds of stories that you’re able to tell? Does it give you a chance to tell more complicated stories that you couldn’t resolve if you were working within two hours?
This is absolutely true. You have two different kinds of stories, and very often, especially when you try to keep a foot in both worlds, as a writer you’ll come up with a story, you’ll come up with a character or a set of plot elements and you’ll very quickly ask yourself the question, “Is this a feature or is this a TV series?” And they really are two different animals, in a sense. It all comes down to: How much story is there? Does the story self-generate? Have you created for yourself an ongoing story or is it a more hermetic story?
The US-Mexico border in is pretty central to the story that you’re telling in Breaking Bad. Were there any reasons to choose Albuquerque over, say, somewhere in California or Texas?
When I originally conceived of Breaking Bad, I intended to set it in Riverside, California. And of course southern California is not too far from the Mexican border either, but when I originally conceived of the show I wasn’t thinking as much in terms of the Mexican drug cartel component. I was thinking more in terms of a homegrown meth business that Walter White was going to establish. But early on, Sony, the studio that produces our show—this was after the script was written, and they knew I was thinking of southern California—they came to me and said, “What do you think about us placing the series in New Mexico instead?” And I said, “Well, why are you thinking that?” And they said New Mexico has a tax rebate for film and television production, and it’s a pretty substantial one. It’s a tax rebate of 25% of the money that we spend within the state returned to us by New Mexico. And really, it’s a hard [carrot] to turn down. It was established to bring production from all quarters of the U.S. into New Mexico, and it is something that unfortunately California does not have and so New Mexico very quickly became the place we decided to shoot our show for strictly financial reasons. We wanted our limited production budget to go that much farther.
But having said that, now that we shoot in New Mexico and now that I know it as a place to do business, now that I’ve learned to love Albuquerque so much, I realize that it’s just a wonderful place to set the show and I feel like I got very lucky that we wound up there, although it was not originally my decision. And the meth component of it, story-wise, really could have been any state in the Union, unfortunately, because there are meth labs probably in every state in the United States, and it is kind of a nationwide problem. However, once we got the ball rolling on our series, in the last four or five years the news of drug violence in a lot of the cities and towns along the Southwest border became more front and center in the national news, so we wound up incorporating more and more into our storyline. It certainly helped at that point that our story happened to be set in Albuquerque, which is only about 220 miles from the border. So we kind of “lucked” into that element of storytelling.
You’ve been incorporating elements of northern Mexican narcoculture into the series for awhile now. The narcocorrido from last season was particularly exciting, and I was surprised to see Mexican cult figure La Santa Muerte in the premiere. So by framing your subject matter within a particular, historical set of social and economic forces, do you see the development of the series as an opportunity for cultural critique?
We don’t intend to make the show feel like a “ripped-from-the-headlines” show a la Law & Order. This really is a story of a small set of particular characters, Walter White first and foremost among them. And Breaking Bad is truly an investigation of one character’s change, his transformation from a “good guy,” from a law-abiding citizen to a criminal. And that is the wellspring that everything else in our series flows from, that idea of transformation, and furthermore how [Walt’s] transformation changes those people around him, those loved ones, those family members that he ostensibly cares for and yet whose lives he is hurting through his actions.
That said, the writers and I really do try to incorporate what’s going on in reality into the series. As we are set in Albuquerque and as Albuquerque is about 200 miles from Juarez, and currently in the news there’s so much unpleasant and unfortunate drug violence along the border, a lot of which is due to the meth trade, we do find ourselves incorporating those elements into the story. We want to portray reality as well as we can portray it, and the reality of any ongoing meth concern in Albuquerque would involve some dealing with the border trade and the competition from drugs coming from Mexico. Anyone who is trying to make a go of a drug business would have to see that as competition and would have to deal with the cartel members who were dealing in central New Mexico.
Our narcocorrido that we created for our show really was created by Pepe Garza, a music producer here in Los Angeles. We gave him the highlights of what the subject matter of the song should contain and the names and the places. But if it’s an authentic narcocorrido, we have Pepe Garza to thank, as well as the wonderful band that he found for us, Los Cuates De Sinaloa. That authenticity that we strive for is only achieved by the help of some really talented people. We don’t do it all ourselves. We hire the best folks we can find and we let them do their thing, so we’re very proud of that one.
Do we have another music video along those lines to look forward to this season?
We have another one coming up this season, but it is wildly different than that one. And that’s all I can really say about it. It’s pretty dark, but I think people will enjoy it. [laughs]
To go back to this notion of transformation a bit, it seems to me that one of the things the show does really well is to look at the systemic causes for this transformation. It’s not just any bad situation that this character is put in, and he’s not just any kind of typical guy. He’s an educated, upper-middle-class guy who’s put in a particular situation at a particular time and I feel like as a result, this transformation that he’s experiencing, or that we are vicariously experiencing through him, comes to offer a kind of—I think you used the phrase “cosmic indictment” of him at the end of the last season, and I have to ask whether it’s not also an indictment of the social and economic circumstances that led to the position in which he found himself.
One thing I like about our series, one thing we strive for is to create “water cooler moments.” That’s certainly not an expression we created, but the way we define a water cooler moment is: Is it a plot development or is it a scene in which people can gather around the water cooler at the office and discuss what the scene meant? Not simply get them talking about it, but have them discuss it and argue over what the scene meant, what it forebodes, perhaps, for the future. And all of this to say that I personally have no particular political or social axe to grind, because I think that stories that set out to do that become kind of didactic or polemic. Stories about characters are always more interesting to me, personally. There is no deeper social indictment at work here, at least not consciously. However, when I speak of water cooler moments, I like for the audience to have the ability to perhaps argue that there are [social or political prerogatives]. I like for people watching our show to have different viewpoints on what exactly the show means. And Walt’s behavior—I like folks being able to argue over his behavior. Is he completely wrong, or is there some rightness to his cause?
I don’t want to insist too much, but I think that even that dedication to portraying the sorts of circumstances that this character would realistically confront were he to make these kinds of decisions [in real life] is already a political stance. You take a show like Weeds, for instance, and it’s not about realism. It’s about crossing a line, being a transgressive. Which has its value, but it’s not about asking us as viewers to question why these are the choices that are available to us.
The interesting thing is, it very often takes other people to tell a writer what it is that he or she is writing about. It’s that old expression: Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. And while I don’t actively have a political or social agenda to soapbox about, at least in my mind, perhaps I can’t see the forest for the trees. Maybe the show is about something that is entirely other than what I think it’s about. But regardless, I’m always delighted when our show is talked about and discussed and hashed over in any way, shape, or form. And I’m delighted when different viewers have different takes on what the show is really about, and I truly think there is no wrong take. My dream for this show is that it is complex enough and rich enough in its storytelling to support many different views on what it is truly about. If we can create a complex and shaded and interesting enough world here in Breaking Bad, people can define it in many different ways. I am all for that.
You mention these water cooler moments, and I noticed in seasons one and two you preceded each episode with a flash-forward that was meant to misdirect us a bit, to get us to imagine what could possibly lead to this series of images that we’re seeing. But then for the premiere of series three, you don’t seem to be using this device any more. Is that going to indicate a shift in the content of the season?
For season two, we came up with a bookend device in our storytelling. We wanted to end season two with the very images that began it, so we had a circular sort of feel to the season. I can tell you, it took an awful lot of beating our heads against the wall in the writers’ room to come up with that bookend sort of storytelling. It took an awful lot of work, and it was painful and it was scary because we knew how we had to end the season, but we didn’t quite know how to get there story-wise, plot-wise. And there were a couple of moments of sheer panic, at least on my part. We already had all this other stuff shot that begins the season; I didn’t know how we were going to pay it off completely. So, I feel like we did it once, and I’m very proud of the way it worked out, but I’m not someone who likes to repeat himself in my work. Since we accomplished what we set out to accomplish last season, we should change up the formula yet again and start off a different way in season three. And if we get a season four, God willing, we’ll hopefully change things up yet again. Because I think that’s something that this job requires, the ability to change things up and keep the storytelling interesting.
Having gone through this transformation from being an upstanding citizen to someone who imagines himself to be outside the law, Walter White is now faced with the consequences of his decisions. So the question I have now is about redemption in general, the question of redemption as a narrative structure. I see Breaking Bad kind of like a Shakespearean tragedy in a lot of ways. This character who has free will, who has the opportunity to make better choices, continues toward his own doom. And so I wonder if redemption isn’t actually what’s at stake anymore in this story. Is there something bigger than redemption that could be at stake?
I hope so. [laughs] I should probably start by saying that this show in and of itself is kind of an experiment. To begin with, television as a medium is all about protecting the franchise. When it works well, television invites itself into your home week in and week out, in the guise of a favorite character or favorite series. And you as a viewer visit with a favorite character week in and week out and you know what to expect from that character. And television gives you what you expect, more or less, week in and week out. It’s what television does, and I think it actually does it very well. In other words, for 20 years you could visit with Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, and in season 20 he was the same good-natured, fast-drawing, honest marshal as he was way back in season one. Agents Mulder and Scully in The X-Files were basically the same characters throughout the entire series. The folks on The Andy Griffith Show, Archie Bunker on All in the Family—these were all fundamentally the same people throughout, and that’s what television does. Historically, that is. It keeps its characters in sort of a stasis that at times can seem sort of artificial because, as we all know in real life, we age and we progress and we very often change in our viewpoints, in our outlook on life. And as much as I love all these great examples in the history of television, I wanted to try to do something different. I wanted to experiment with the medium a little.
And all of that is to say is that what we are about on Breaking Bad is transformation. We are taking our main character, starting him at point A, back in our pilot, and we are taking this decent, good, law-abiding citizen and we are transforming him in little fits and starts into somebody else entirely. And part of the reality of doing that is that, in practice, where that leaves my writers and myself is that even we don’t know exactly where he’s going to wind up. And that’s the exhilaration and the terror of it for us. We don’t really know how far we can take Walt, how far we can stretch this conceit before it breaks. And we may indeed break it. We may indeed have Walt turn some corner at some point in his character that makes him so unredeemable in the audience’s eyes that people no longer want to watch him. Or we may not. As we proceed along with this experiment of taking Walt from who he was to who he will become, we really are in kind of uncharted territory. And I can’t think of any other show to look back at that would help us out in this endeavor. I’m unaware if this is ultimately going to be a story of redemption, or a cautionary tale. Hopefully it’ll be a little bit of many things.
I personally want to see you break Breaking Bad. I want a show that’s not afraid to take that risk. The scene in season two where Walt watches Jane die, for instance, is a real transgression. That is a brutal scene. Sitting through that girl’s death really does push the boundaries of what your audience will endure.
It would sound egotistical to say that we’re trying to reinvent the medium, but we are trying to push forward the typical boundaries or rules of the medium. And the old expression, a man’s reach should extend beyond his grasp. I don’t know if we’ll succeed, but that is the experiment we’re trying, to push forward those rules of television a little bit further, trying to change up the medium a bit. Not because I don’t personally love the medium; I’m doing it out of affection for the medium. I’m trying to take things a little further than I know them to be.
And we never try to be shocking on our show, believe it or not. That will probably ring false to some people, but it really is true. We believe in showmanship. We try to keep things interesting and to keep stirring the pot, and keep folks watching in all these old-fashioned and time-honored ways of showmanship, but we actually never really intend to be shocking, certainly not for the sake of shocking. We try to be honest in our storytelling and keep our characters honest and keep the plot moving in ways that have to do with the characters’ motivations. We never insert a scene into the show that shocks people just for the sake of it.
Then I have to ask about the infamous tortoise bomb scene.
[laughs] That’s showmanship.
That would seem to be the example that’s most open to the criticism that you have a certain taste for spectacularity that sometimes might exceed the bounds of realism.
I will definitely cop to the sin of going big for the sake of showmanship. But the other old expression is: Truth is stranger than fiction. And truth is oftentimes scarier than fiction. We base certain elements of our show on reality and we do often take them a step or two beyond reality. And of course, as we know, there’s unfortunately a spate of beheadings that go along with some of the drug violence along the border. And so we started with the idea of a beheading and we took it a few steps further to mounting a severed human head on a tortoise. But you know, as shocking and over the top and awful as that scene is, lo and behold, we read in the news a few months later that in real life, one rival drug gang skinned and mounted a competitor’s face on a soccer ball. As over the top as putting a human head on a desert tortoise is, stitching a man’s face to a soccer ball is beyond anything even we would have come up with.
You mentioned going big, plot-wise, and it seems to me that there’s this progression starting from episode one, this sort of outward radiation where initially the conflicts that Walt encounters are restricted to the immediate surroundings of his hometown: “Where in the desert can I go to cook meth and not get busted?” And then as he starts to incorporate himself into the existing economy for crystal meth, he has to deal with the local dealers. And then he moves up to wholesaling. And then he moves up to regional distribution. This progression reminds me of The Wire, the other great TV drug saga. With each season, The Wire kept broadening its purview, asking what city hall, what the public education system, what the media has to do with the drug trade. Is there a similar logic to how you see a potential fourth season developing?
That’s an interesting comparison. The Wire is a wonderful, wonderful show that really does in many ways feel as much like social criticism as it does wonderful storytelling about individual characters. I think about The Wire and I think about how that show is so advanced and all-encompassing in its storytelling about that one city, Baltimore. I wouldn’t know where to begin to do that. As a show-runner, I really have to keep it simpler than that. Because evoking an entire world is a very daunting prospect, especially when you set out to do that from the get-go. But I get the similarity you just mentioned, of our show broadening its scope and Walt or his partner Jesse Pinkman going from making a few corner deals here and there to expanding the business and then being local and regional and then statewide and international players in the business, as you can imagine we will continue to do as our series progresses. I think it’s just part and parcel of the idea of growth in general. Any drama should contain within it growth, and should not feel like stasis.
From the get-go I pitched to AMC that this was going to be a show where we were going to take Mr. Chips—mild-mannered schoolteacher Mr. White—and we’re going to transform him into Scarface. And I kind of meant that. I kind of like the idea of this guy turning not just bad, not just turning criminal, but through fits and starts learning to be very good at what he’s doing now. And he’s not quite good at it yet, and I don’t know how far he’ll get along these lines of growth and change, partly because I don’t know how many seasons we’ll get to do the show. But if we get long enough to do it, he may get there yet, he may become some homegrown version of Scarface before it’s all said and done.
I’ve read that you had initially conceived of Breaking Bad as running for four seasons. Are you rethinking that now?
Well, not really rethinking it so much as I don’t know where we stand right now. We’re off to a good start for season three, we have good viewership, we have good Nielsen numbers, and hopefully that trend will continue. And if it does, it’s much more likely we’ll get a season four, but as you and I speak here today, we don’t have a pickup yet. I just don’t know if we will be offered a fourth season. And conversely, if we start to do really, really well in season three I don’t know if the golden handcuffs will snap on my wrists, and I’ll be cajoled into trying to do five or six or seven seasons at this point. But it is a question I think about every day. I ask myself, “How long can Walt’s story go on? How long can we keep this going? And should we?” There’s no satisfactory answer right now, at least in my own mind.
When season three ends, it will end with a big, dramatic moment, just like season two ended. And it will end with a reason to continue watching beyond season three. Knock on wood—we will go beyond season three. But it really is like most television shows in that sense that you build toward a cliffhanger and you hope that if the worst case scenario comes to pass and that is your last season, you hope that it will be an interesting enough ending for a television series. We’ve got some crazy stuff coming this season. I think if you’ve liked us in the past, you will continue to. I think we take it some pretty dark and interesting places this season.
Speaking of dark and interesting, will we be seeing more of Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman this season? Was it your decision to cast him?
He’s much more front and center in season three, so you’re going to see a lot more Saul Goodman this season. He’s a wonderful guy. I think it was my idea to hire him, but it might have been one of my writers. The funny thing that happens in a writers’ room is that when you spend enough time together, you really do form a group mind. And that’s a good thing, because you kind of forget whose idea was whose at a certain point. They’re just community property and they all belong to the show. I can tell you that I’ve always loved Bob Odenkirk’s work, dating back to Mr. Show that he and David Cross did back in the early ‘90s. When I invited Bob Odenkirk to play Saul Goodman I was very excited, and when he said yes he would do it, I was over the moon because he is one of the funniest guys around, and a very talented actor to boot. As season three progresses, you’ll see a few other dimensions to Saul Goodman; he’s not just a goofy character, there’s going to be more to him this season.
I’ve read that Will Farrell is interested in doing your screenplay 2-Face. Is it going to redeem him of his many sins against popular culture?
[laughs] You know, 2-Face is a script I wrote in 1991. When I think of how long ago that was, it just blows my mind. And Mark Johnson, who is my executive producer on Breaking Bad and who has been my mentor in the business ever since I first met him in 1989, has been trying to get 2-Face produced now for 20 years, and yeah, the most current actor interested in it is indeed Will Farrell. I don’t know, honestly, where it stands. We had some meetings about a year and a half ago with Will Farrell and his manager. I think he’d be quite good in it, but I honestly don’t know where it stands. I’ve had my heart broken with 2-Face for 20 years now. I’ve had so many directors and so many actors sort of pass by and show a big flurry of interest and then the heat dies down and they go away, and then somebody else comes along. [laughs] It’s been a wild ride. I don’t see it [happening] in the near future, but maybe in the next few years we can get it going.
Do you have any projects that are a little closer to being realized, then?
No, not really. I wish I were a J.J. Abrams-type of producer who had a lot of different things going at once, but I give my heart and soul to Breaking Bad and it is all that I do, and all that I’ve been doing now for two, three [years]. It’s the only way I know how to work. I have to be there front and center and weighing in on every decision, whether it’s wardrobe or giving an opinion on the timing in the finished episode. Anything and everything I want to have a hand in because I guess I’m kind of a control freak, and because I love this job so much. I love this world we’ve created so much that I want to be not just a part of it, but front and center in the creation of it. Breaking Bad is going to leave a big hole for me, personally. [laughs] So I’m hoping it goes for at least for a while longer.
Well, I’m glad that you’re not J.J. Abrams.
The 25 Best TV Shows of 2019
Our favorite shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation.
Our favorite television shows of 2019 resist easy categorization, and they attest to a medium in transformation. On our list, the old and new sit side by side, as do the challenging and the inspirational, the urgent and the offbeat. These 25 shows speak to the medium’s consistently stimulating sense of variety, and to the fact that as one golden age of television yields to the demands of an era of endless content, resonant voices and bold ideas can still find their audience. While these shows are diverse in subject matter and style, the best offerings of the year were characterized by clear, well-honed perspectives, often engaging the big questions of our present-day human existence.
The year’s best TV programming gave voice to a breadth of ideas and experiences, even those which might not reasonably be considered “issue-driven.” Consider the Netflix sketch show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, which couched a canny indictment of male egoism and fragile masculinity in fart jokes and absurdist cringe humor. Or Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, which launched an incisive and frank portrayal of menopause in its third season. HBO’s Succession, perhaps the only series on the list that might be classified as a reaction to Trumpism, supplanted Game of Thrones as the network’s crown dramatic jewel by offering viewers the repugnant, terrifyingly cut-throat palace intrigue that the latter series long-ago turned its back to.
The immersive Russian Doll operated as an Escher painting turned dramedy, slowly and thoughtfully eroding the affected abrasiveness of its main character. And while that series was just one of the year’s many surprising breakthroughs, 2019 also found well-established shows in peak form, from BoJack Horseman, newly alive with a deep sense of hope for its eponymous character, to Bob’s Burgers, richer and funnier in what it has to tell us about family life. Whether tackling existential issues or providing a reprieve from them, the year’s best shows comprise a multitude of voices, which flowed forth from the most prestigious platforms to the smallest, strangest niches of the medium—all of them demanding, in one way or another, to be heard. Michael Haigis
25. City on a Hill
When City on a Hill isn’t immersed in pulpy shenanigans, which find Kevin Bacon’s casually racist F.B.I. agent Jackie Rohr doing things like brandishing a fish at an angry old woman who calls him a “white devil,” it aspires to be a Bostonian spin on The Wire. The series, set in the early ‘90s and based on an original idea by creator Chuck MacLean and executive producer Ben Affleck, constantly keeps one eye on the systems that contribute to the city’s rot as it moves through a fictionalized account of the “Boston Miracle” police operation that statistically reduced violence in the city. The series excels in the level of detail it brings to its characters, and proves itself as effective at small, interlocking details as it is at purely hammy thrills. Steven Scaife
24. Years and Years
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Years and Years is the compassion with which it considers its characters. It would be easy for a series filled with so many cataclysms, both global and personal—nuclear weapon launches, deaths, infidelities—to err on the side of sadism in its depiction of that turmoil. But it takes no pleasure in the pain of its central family. Instead, Years and Years recognizes that pain is edifying as well as transient, and it accordingly gives the pain that it inflicts space to evolve: to form, to torment, and to pass, like each year that comes and goes, taking more and more away with it. Niv M. Sultan
23. On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname “the alligator widow” after her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), works himself into bleary-eyed exhaustion and, then, gator-inhabited waters. Travis fell victim to a pyramid scheme whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the family’s life savings into the organization’s coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this vision of 1992 America is a morass of hucksters and hollow promises, and the series explores that world with both a sharp eye and a peculiar sense of humor. It keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth; its myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to “get ahead,” and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism. Scaife
22. Big Mouth
Netflix’s Big Mouth is continued evidence against the dubious argument that P.C. culture has made it impossible for comedians to be edgy. As a subject for an animated sitcom, the sex lives of 13-year-olds constitutes an ethical, political, and cultural minefield—one that the graphic and logorrheic Big Mouth gives the impression of approaching blindfolded and in a headlong rush. But there’s a method to its mania: Even while firing an entire volley of cum jokes at viewers every few seconds, the new season covers topics like female masturbation, slut shaming, incel masculinity, biphobia, social media addiction, and the gay teen experience with a heartening frankness that belies its apparent irreverence. Pat Brown
Sam Levinson’s Euphoria depicts teenage hedonism in frank, explicit terms: a high school world awash in pills, sex, and nude photos thrown to the winds of social media. The series finds its character-driven groove by turning an empathetic eye toward the inner lives of its principal teens, observing their listlessness and small moments of solace as much as their outward pain. It tempers some of its heavier material with an often laidback atmosphere, a world of deep shadows drenched in multi-colored hues and dreamy hip-hop beats that belie the darkness in its corners. If the universe is falling apart around the characters’ ears, the result is that Euphoria’s characters see little reason to consider what encroaching adulthood will mean, to ruminate on what will come next when there might as well be no “next.” There’s only the all-encompassing “now.” Scaife
The 25 Best Video Games of 2019
In 2019, the best games took the industry’s standard operating procedure and punted it out the window.
Although it was released in the doldrums of March, one title on our list of the 25 Best Games of 2019 could serve as the anarchic manifesto of the entire year in gaming. The brainchild of Finnish indie developer Arvi Teikarti, a.k.a. Hempuli, Baba Is You is, ostensibly, a very simple pixel-art puzzle platformer. But it’s also one that doesn’t give players the rules to beat it, telling them that every single one of those rules aren’t just made to be broken, but must be broken in order to persevere.
The spirit of 2019 in gaming was one of disruption, one that took the industry’s standard operating procedure and punted it out the window. Logic says that only a certain level of production can make the games people love, that only by following the rules of what sells can a game find an audience, that only one company can own the ideas behind an IP, and that only by squeezing players dry through additional purchases can a game be made that people will keep coming back to. But that logic was always faulty, and this year, it failed.
This was a year where the best Castlevania game in a decade didn’t have Konami’s name on it, where Bethesda had nothing to do with the best Fallout title to come out in twice as many years, and where the best Star Wars game does the exact opposite of everything its publisher had been doing with the license for five years. And that’s just what was happening in the AAA arena. Indeed, those who ventured into the realm of indie games glimpsed developers taking wild, bold leaps of faith, subverting every genre imaginable, and doing so with great success. This was a year where the fearless side of the industry showed itself, and these 25 games are the greatest victors, the ones that dared the most, and won big. Justin Clark
25. Slay the Spire
Slay the Spire’s deck-building mechanic guarantees that every run will be an entirely new experience. You’re bound not only by the types of cards you gain in each run, but the literal luck of the draw in which you pull them in combat. As a result, even the simplest encounter is bespoke, and every decision is a finely tuned risk-reward gamble. The spire’s branching paths lead to events with their own branching decisions, the results of which determine whether you can, say, afford the merchant or if you can forgo a healing snooze in order to upgrade a card. Slay the Spire, the brainchild of Mega Crit Games, guarantees nothing other than your character’s starting set of attack and defense cards (and perhaps a modicum of fun), so each new run forces you to be maximally clever in wringing bloody synergies out of otherwise rocky randomness. But as brutal as Slay the Spire may be, these runs ultimately come down to smart luck. The game gleefully telegraphs what each foe is going to do in combat, so if you die, it’s because you haven’t prepared enough. Shuffle up and deal with it, because there’s always another—and another, and another—try. Aaron Riccio
24. Sunless Skies
Sunless Sea, from 2015, had players chart a vast and perilous ocean into which London fell. That game’s follow-up, Sunless Skies, delivers yet another intimidating journey into the unknown, only this time with the player slowly combing an airspace littered by the remains of destroyed ships. The sounds of this game vivify the “Britain of the heavens” setting, with the hissing of steam, the ever-creaking machinery, and the distant noise of cannons serving as constant reminders of a dangerous and overindustrialized world. As in Sunless Sea, greed and a thirst for exploration function as a double-edged sword, leading players to the darkest corners of the map or simply death. Developer Failbetter Games has proven itself again a skilled purveyor of Lovecraftian suspense, where our curiosities get the better of us in gradual fashion, as underlined by blunt and wry writing that’s deliciously typical of a traditional British mindset. Jed Pressgrove
23. Void Bastards
A transport spaceship bearing an assortment of freeze-dried prisoners is stranded in a nasty nebula. There, pirates roam, monsters devour ships, and all the unfortunate citizens have been bizarrely mutated into murderous, foul-mouthed horrors. Once rehydrated, prisoners are shooed out into this unforgiving corner of space to scavenge derelict ships for parts until their probable death, after which the next unfortunate soul indicted for a comedically pedantic crime continues the work. And so on. The gears of capitalism turn even in these ruins of bureaucratic failure. As setups go, it’s a cheeky, immaculate framing device for a roguelike, and the amount of forethought that Void Bastards affords you is rare for this genre of game. It imbues the experience with a greater sense of consequence since you’re not at the mercy of randomization so much as your ability to plan and execute, as well as knowing when to retreat or when to avoid a ship entirely. An ideal run of Void Bastards is about planning, going on a run, and then having your plans upended by any of the different variables at work, requiring you to quickly adapt while coming up with a new plan. Steven Scaife
22. Untitled Goose Game
There’s an old Steve Martin quote about how comedy can be art, but anyone who deliberately sets out to make art through comedy has already failed. To that same point, developers House House didn’t set out to make a game with near-universal appeal with Untitled Goose Game—famously, the premise alone was a private joke shared on a Slack channel at work—but they stumbled upon it nonetheless. Untitled Goose Game is one of those rare experiences where it’s hilarious just existing in the world of the game, and in no small part for the way it plays it 100% straight, aside from a playful context-sensitive piano underscoring the player’s chaos. Just giving players the ability to waddle around a neighborhood and honk in people’s faces could’ve been the game by itself, but instead, it’s all about finding new, innovative ways to pull of various annoyance crimes within very basic but innately understood mechanics, and the payoff is almost always worth the effort. This is a game about true banal evil. So many so-called mature artists have attempted to edgelord their way into relevancy and found only a niche audience waiting for them, while House House’s Goose has managed to become the purest agent of chaos of our time, and managed to win the hearts and minds of the world. Clark
21. The Outer Worlds
Obsidian doesn’t stray too far from their roots with The Outer Worlds, an open-world first-person RPG reminiscent of Fallout: New Vegas. The socio-political commentary isn’t subtle, as the player character awakens from cryosleep to a futuristic world on the edge of the galaxy run by megacorporations that own workers as property and will happily let colonies of people die if it benefits their bottom line. But The Outer Worlds deviates from the modern Fallout formula by including a Normandy-style ship that allows you to travel to different planets instead of just one large open area, with a crew who can be taken on missions. Helping the rebellious mercenary Ellie recover from a disastrous attempt to reunite with her disapproving upper-class parents lets the player embrace their humanity by offering her support—or take to darker instincts and just gleefully murder the elitist pricks. As for helping shy mechanic Pavarti, an asexual queer woman of a color, prepare for a date she’s nervous about, the whole enterprise is delightful in no small part for how it taps into our sense of belonging. The Outer Worlds might take players to far-away planets to fight battles that reshape societies, but it’s heart ultimately lies in its more interpersonal moments. Ryan Aston
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing
Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.
With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans don’t have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the film’s center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.
The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the film’s restrictive formal spell—a challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer Géraldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a character’s true emotional experience.
Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.
Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.
I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes it’s a company or, in Amour Fou, it’s bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. I’m trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think it’s easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.
The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if they’re expressing emotions the characters aren’t allowing themselves.
Yes. Well, they don’t allow themselves, or maybe I’d put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and we’re all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, we’re living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, “Oh, everyone has a free choice.” My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.
One of the lovely ironies of this film is that it’s difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.
Absolutely. That’s the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasn’t so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.
I’m curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.
I’m a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, “Oh, my uncle isn’t my uncle anymore.” I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because it’s a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.
I love that there’s no overt monster in Little Joe. There’s no catharsis exactly.
No, there isn’t. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.
You’re right that there’s a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.
This is what’s hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Yes, I’m glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but there’s no such perspective in this film. It’s a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps it’s for the better.
I’m curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that it’s both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.
What do you mean male and female? The design?
The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.
I think the basic idea is that it’s a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that it’s a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollen…well, I would say it’s a very male plant. [both laugh]
The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.
Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.
It’s like a revenge of the sex drive.
Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. It’s a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.
I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the film’s style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films it’s always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actors—Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the others—were able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, because—if you don’t feel suffocated, if you’re strong enough to fight against the style—it can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what they’re saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. I’m always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything that’s said is also said because it should be said, I don’t know if you know what I mean…
Yes, social coding.
I’m trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a character’s position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever they’re saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.
Interview: Céline Sciamma on Redefining the Muse with Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large.
My experience talking with directors leads me to informally sort them into three categories based on what element of their work they can speak most eloquently about: theory, emotion, and technical execution. Few have straddled all aspects of the filmmaking process quite like French writer-director Céline Sciamma, the mind and muscle behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She’s able to deftly answer questions that address the end-to-end process of how a moment germinates in her head, how an audience will interpret it, and how theory can explain why they feel the way they do.
Sciamma’s latest directorial outing relegates her minimalism primarily to the screenplay, which revolves around the interactions between a painter, Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, and the subject, Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse, that she’s been commissioned to covertly paint. The deceptively simple contours of Portrait of a Lady on Fire belie the ambition of the film, which sets out to achieve nothing less than a complete deconstruction of the artist-muse relationship. What Sciamma proposes in its place is a love story between the two women rooted in equality and artistry rather than in domination and lust.
I spoke with Sciamma after the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival in September. Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large, our present moment’s liberation to the centuries of patriarchal influence over our shared historical narrative. In short, a full spectrum of conversation that few directors can match.
You’ve placed Portrait of a Lady on Fire in conversation with discourse around the subject of muses. Does the film suggest that we need to dispense with this ideal altogether, or that we just need to update and revise our notions of what it means?
Well, it’s a contemporary conversation, and even though the movie’s set in the past, it definitely could be something that could have been set in 2019. It’s been a long [journey] for me, because it’s been five years from my previous film, and I thought about this for years. Within these five years, a lot happened. [The time] gave me confidence and new tools and ideas—also less loneliness—to be radical and without compromise. It gives you strength and structure to be radical with all the ideas. The movie is full of them.
Women artists have always existed. They’ve had more flourishing moments, like that time in the mid-18th century when there were a lot of women painters. That’s why we set [the film] in that period, of course, but mostly women were in the workshop as models or companions. That was their part in artistry, so that’s how they’re told [in cultural narratives]. The real part they took in creation isn’t told. Something is happening in art history because there are women researchers on the other side. Dora Maar was the muse of Picasso, but actually, she was a part of the Surrealist group. There’s a lot of them we know now. It was a way to tell the story again to reactivate this nature of art history. But I’m sure it’s true; it’s not this anachronistic vision.
You hired an “art sociologist” to help develop Portrait of a Lady on Fire. What did you learn from this person, and how did that affect the film?
It was a woman who [studied] that period when there were a lot of women painters. The fact that she’s a sociologist and not a historian actually was really important for me because, as we were inventing this character, sociology was really important to make her true to all of these women. Whereas if we’d picked [one historical figure], it would be about destiny. She read the script, and [determined that] there were no anachronisms. What I learned is that it gave me confidence to trust this character all the way. It was something I could hand to Noémie on set.
Is the notion of the “muse” inherently incompatible with equality?
The fact that you could be inspiring just by being there, beautiful and silent, there’s definitely domination. The fact that it’s told as something that always has to do with [being] in a relationship, even the love in creation in the muse—you have to fall in love with your actresses or models—is a fantasy that allows abuse of power. Even the possessive, sometimes I’m asked about my actresses. They’re not asked about their directors; they’re asked about the director.
When I wrote the part for Adèle, she was the model. When I talked about the film, and not much because I’m very secretive, people told me, “So, Adèle’s going to be the painter?” And I said, “No, Adèle is going to be the model!” People were like, “Why? She should be the painter.” And I was like, “Oh, so you find that the model is too narrow for her? You find that this isn’t the dynamic of power she’s entitled to. She should be the painter.” She and I laughed and thought, “Of course, [Adèle] should be the model because I’m the actress.” So, what are they saying? That it’s too small for her? That was also very nourishing, the idea today that she shouldn’t be in that position. It would be a weak position. And it isn’t.
I was surprised to learn that you didn’t write Marianne’s character from the start as someone assigned to paint Héloïse covertly. What did that discovery in the writing process unlock in the story for you?
When I got the idea, I was like, “Now the movie’s got a chance.” The movie is very full of ideas and has some theory of cinema, but that’s why it should be strongly dramatically charged. The fact that we embodied these problematic [ideas] really is important. The journey of the gaze, the fact that it’s stolen at first, then consensual, then mutual, then…we don’t even know who’s looking at who. It makes it really physical and organic. And also, it’s true that all my films are [thematically] bound with a character having a secret. Usually it lasts until the end, but this time it’s only half an hour of being secretive. The secret becomes this reservoir of what’s going to be said and what’s going to unfold, which felt different.
Unlike Tomboy, where schoolyard bullies embody the antagonistic forces of transphobia and heteronormativity, the villain in Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems to be time and the reality of Héloïse’s marriage on the horizon. Was this always your intent to write a story with a more abstract foe?
Yeah, because I really wanted not to go through the same negotiations and conflicts. I wanted it to be a new journey for the audience. Their love dialogue relies on a new ideal that’s equality. There’s no gender domination because they’re two women. That’s practical. But there’s no intellectual domination. We didn’t play with social hierarchy, either. We know their love is impossible, but we aren’t going to play with that. We aren’t going to try and project them into the future. Some people, the old culture, wants you to do that. Show the taboo, the impossibility, the struggle, the conflict with yourself. And we didn’t want to do that.
Because it’s about what you put in the frame. We’re just looking at what’s possible, that suspension of time, and we know very well the frame. We don’t have to tell you the prospects for these women, especially because it’s set in the past. They’re shitty. Lousy. We’re not going to waste time and put you in that position where you will go through this conflict to tell the same thing, that it’s impossible. The real tragedy is that it is possible, but it’s made impossible—by the world of men, mostly. That’s also why there are no men in the film. It would mean portraying a character whose sole purpose is to be the enemy, which isn’t something that interests me at all. I don’t need to take time to portray that. It’s not generous enough.
Are we to take the shot of Héloise on fire literally? That scene seems to enter such a representational, abstract realm, and then we’re jolted back into the reality of her walks with Marianne with that match cut of her extending a hand.
That [says] a lot about the film. It wants to be very embodied in a very simple but kind of brave [way], not just purely theoretical. She’s really going to be on fire! That was one of the key scenes I had in mind as the compass of the film. If you’re really setting her on fire, you’re setting the bar for the other scenes. They have to be in dialogue with this [moment]. It shouldn’t be this unique thing out of the whole language of the film.
I was so struck by the shot toward the end of the film where Marianne sketches herself in a mirror placed over Héloïse’s nether regions. It’s a masterly composition that also feels like a real thematic lynchpin. Can you describe both how the shot developed intellectually and how you executed it on set?
It’s about where you put the focus. In the mirror, she’s blurry. It’s about trust, about being playful, about going all the way with your ideas. But also, it’s fun. It’s a fun thing to do. Even the difficulty of it makes you think about cinema and how we’re going to do this. It’s a way to always be woke about your craft and having new challenges, solving old questions with new ideas. Really trying to harvest most of the situation of people looking at each other. It’s a very simple [way to] access ideas. She’s portraying herself with this mirror, this woman is naked, and her head is where her sex is. It’s really overt, so you don’t have to think about it. But, still, it’s this idea that’s given to you through a sensation. It should always be about this, I think.
I didn’t think it would be possible to top something like the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood, but here you have a three-minute scene that features Adèle Haenel reacting to music. How do you go about shooting these scenes in a way that allows the audience to understand the impact the music has on the characters?
For Girlhood, I really tried to think of [the scene] as if it were a scene in a musical. When they start to sing in a musical, [they’re] very strong moments within the characters’ relationships. They’re saying things to each other, and, if they’re dancing, their bodies are expressing themselves. It’s about the music not being the commentary, but really thinking about it like, “Okay, if there was a Fred Astaire film, when would this thing happen? What would it say?” It’s always about the intimacy between the characters and what their bodies can express.
But this is kind of different because it’s the final scene. It unveils the fact that it’s cinema. It’s a shot-reverse shot. At first, you’re looking at Héloïse and Marianne looking at Héloïse. But, at some point, it’s about you the audience looking at Adèle performing. It’s about cinema. It leaves room for you. It’s the same in the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood; it doesn’t become a clip if suddenly there’s room for the viewer. When we talk about the female gaze, of course it’s about not objectifying women, it’s also about mostly how you experience the journey of the character. You experience it with your body and mind. You’re fully aware. It’s not about you being fully inside the film; it’s about the film being inside you. I think that’s what we can offer.
You’ve talked about needing to develop a new grammar to tell the story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Now that you have developed it, do you think it will be applicable to other films? Or will you have to reinvent the wheel again?
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is my fourth film, and it felt like a departure. But it’s also a growing of a lot of decisions and myself as a 40-year-old woman. So next time, I never know what I’m going to do next. I really feel like I’ve said all I have to say right now. I feel relieved of something also. And now that we are having this discussion around the film, it puts it in the world. It’s something we share. When you craft a film, it’s really your secret for so long. Now I feel like I’m going to have to find a new secret for myself.
The 12 Worst Christmas Songs of All Time
Here are 12 of our least favorite holiday songs, one for each day it took the three wise men to reach the baby Jesus.
It’s that time of the year again. Black Friday sales. Last-minute treks to the gym to absolve your guilt over that third slice of pecan pie. And Mariah Carey playing on every radio station and in every shopping mall for the next 26 days. Unfortunately, we’ll also have to endure a litany of ill-conceived and poorly executed Christmas songs that are inexplicably resurrected every year, and will likely be until time immemorial. Here are 12 of our least favorites, one for each day that it took for the three wise men to reach the baby Jesus after he was born.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 28, 2011.
12. Jimmy Boyd, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”
This Saks Fifth Avenue potboiler from 1952 about a child catching his mother being sexually assaulted by an elderly home invader only becomes even creepier when you realize the kid’s mom isn’t cheating on his dad, but that Mommy and Daddy have a Santa fetish.
11. Sia, “Puppies Are Forever”
A track from Sia’s 2017 collection of holiday originals, Everyday Is Christmas, “Puppies Are Forever” is a reggae-vibed public service announcement about, well, how puppies are not forever: “They’re so cute and fluffy with shiny coats/But will you love ‘em when they’re old and slow?” The repetitive wannabe-earworm is, at best, an admirable message about the responsibilities of pet ownership. And it comes complete with the sound of barking dogs. (Earplugs not included.)
10. Lou Monte, “Dominick the Donkey”
Lou Monte’s 1960 holiday jingle about Saint Nicola outsourcing his Christmas present deliveries in the Italian mountainside to a dim-witted donkey feels more prescient than ever. But that doesn’t make it any less irritating.
9. Dan Fogelberg, “Same Old Lang Syne”
The concept is touching enough: Fogelberg runs into an old flame at the grocery store on Christmas Eve and they grab a drink and reminisce. But melodramatic lyrics (“She went to hug me and she spilled her purse/And we laughed until we cried”) and gratuitous details (“We took her groceries to the checkout stand/The food was totalled up and bagged”) make “Same Old Lang Syne” a cloying annual annoyance.
8. Neil Diamond, “Cherry Cherry Christmas”
In this addition to the schmaltzy, nonsensical holiday song canon, Neil Diamond wishes you “a very, merry, cherry, cherry, holly-holy, rockin’-rolly Christmas,” before idiotically exclaiming, “Cherry Christmas, everyone!” at song’s end.
7. Cyndi Lauper, “Christmas Conga”
Holiday cheer has always been all-inclusive. Hell, even the Jewish Neil Diamond has released three Christmas albums. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say a Latin house anthem with lyrics like “Bonga, bonga, bonga, do the Christmas conga!” probably wasn’t necessary. But we still love you, Cyn.
Los Cabos Film Festival 2019: Workforce, The Twentieth Century, Waves, & More
There was plenty of merit to the connections being made at Los Cabos between filmmakers and audiences.
Martin Scorsese recently sparked controversy by stating in an interview with Empire magazine that Marvel’s superhero movies, which have become indispensable moneymakers in a Hollywood system increasingly beset by pressures to build or renew popular tentpole franchises, are “not cinema.” The conventional wisdom in film marketing terms is that each new contribution to an already recognizable franchise requires such minimal effort at garnering public awareness compared to the type of cinematic ventures that Scorsese would argue, as he wrote in the New York Times in explanation of his interview comments, “enlarg[e] the sense of what was possible in the art form.” These more original offerings require ground-up campaigns for the attention of moviegoing audiences who are increasingly comfortable ignoring altogether the existence of films not actively targeting mass consumption.
The opening-night film of the eighth annual Los Cabos International Film Festival happened to be Scorsese’s highly anticipated epic crime drama The Irishman. The film is only being granted a minimal theatrical release in the U.S. before its arrival on Netflix on November 27, because, according to Scorsese, “most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.” Robert De Niro, who stars in the film, was on hand in Cabo to walk the red carpet and represent a cinematic community founded on principles of “aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation,” in Scorsese’s own words. This was the kind of audience primed to appreciate his latest effort.
The audience was primed for greatness, even as oblivious vacationers guzzled tequila just outside on the streets and sidewalks of Cabo. When I told my seatmate on the plane about the screening of Scorsese’s film later that evening, she furrowed her brow in confusion. “I’m staying at the Hard Rock,” she said in explanation. And as I later walked from my own hotel toward the theater, I passed by countless tourists wielding Tecate tallboys and squinting behind cheap sunglasses who were no doubt completely unaware of the film festival taking place inside the giant mall at the north end of the downtown harbor. Many of them even wore T-shirts and tank tops that might easily have been emblazoned with the visages of Marvel characters.
As I drifted between the incessant buzz of the party atmosphere outside and the quiet engagement with contemporary filmmaking taking place within the theater throughout the festival, I couldn’t help but notice that several of the films that screened at Los Cabos seemed similarly concerned with liminal spaces between two very different worlds. The characters in these films learn to navigate the borderlands between class differences and racial divides, fleeting flirtations with freedom dashed by constant threats of persecution. These characters know their place, but even the brutal reality of their circumstances isn’t enough to prevent them from trying to get somewhere else. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Mexican filmmaker David Zonana’s mesmerizing Workforce, a tightly shot and richly layered film documenting the rise and fall of a group of construction workers in Mexico City who dare to dream beyond their otherwise meager means.
The film begins with the sudden death of Claudio, a member of a construction team putting the finishing touches on a swanky new house in a posh district of the city who falls from a rooftop in the opening shot. Workforce then quickly pivots and takes on the perspective of Claudio’s brother, Francisco (Luis Alberti), whose search for justice following his brother’s death becomes all-consuming and destructive. Claudio’s death has been deemed by officials to be caused by irresponsible alcohol consumption while on the job, even though Claudio had been a known teetotaler, and the wife (Jessica Galvez) and unborn child he’s left behind are thus denied compensation following the accident. And after the homeowner (Rodrigo Mendoza) waves him away from inside his fancy car when Francisco makes a plea for compassion, he becomes obsessed with the other man, following him through the streets and monitoring his every move. And after the homeowner’s mysterious death, which we learn about after witnessing Francisco surreptitiously enter his apartment building the night before, Francisco begins occupying the now dormant construction site as if it were his own home.
The shift between Francisco’s life in a tiny, rain-drenched apartment to his fresh start in the sprawling home that lays unclaimed in the wake of its owner’s death—complete with furniture still unwrapped, appliances yet to be installed—will ring familiar to those who’ve seen Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s film operates in a more satirical and less tragic register than Zonana’s but still narrates the kind of violently enacted class mobility that lays bare the stark differences between the kinds of lives that are lived on either side of the poverty line.
Francisco eventually moves several members of his former construction team into the abandoned house, along with their families, in an effort to lay a more legitimate claim to its ownership. The film briefly soars with the ecstasy and sudden privilege that its characters feel as they inhabit a space representative of those from which they have historically been excluded. But problems quickly mount: the small indignities of overcrowding, persistent struggles over limited resources, cringe-inducing abuses of power on the part of those currently in control. And the final high-angle shot of the house, its inhabitants now expelled and powerless against the forces of the state, is notable for how the film has until then been heavily anchored at ground level, a powerful demonstration of the universal struggles of the Mexican working class.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, a Canadian film written and directed by Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, is another story of an invisible divide whose boundaries are nonetheless palpably felt. Two women from differing indigenous backgrounds, and from opposite sides of the class spectrum, are thrown together one late afternoon on the streets of Vancouver. A very pregnant Rosie (Violet Nelson) has fled her abusive lover’s apartment and is barefooted, bruised, and in obvious need of help when the lighter-skinned Aila (Tailfeathers) happens upon her and decides to shelter her. Aila has just had an IUD inserted earlier in the day, and the availability of advanced methods of conception is just one of the many marks of privilege that the film will subtly deploy. And the encounter between the two women is fairly straightforward from the start, but the subtext of their interactions is what gives the film its thematic weight and its staying power.
The differences between the women are played out with racial signifiers as well as those of relative affluence, and Hepburn and Tailfeathers make the bold formal decision to film their story in real time, by and large foregoing traditional scene structures and editing techniques and instead lingering in the quiet, interstitial moments between narrative transitions. The choice of indulging in the long take allows for moments of silence and digression as the audience infiltrates the scene as a third party. This uncomfortable intimacy is felt most acutely in a devastating, mostly silent shot late in the film of the interior of a taxi as Aila accompanies Rosie back to the apartment complex where her abusive lover awaits after Rosie has rejected a place in a women’s shelter, both of their faces in the frame as they quietly contemplate their very different futures.
The impending crisis of motherhood—urgent on Rosie’s part, delayed indefinitely on Aila’s—remains unspoken until that final taxi ride, in which both women tell the other that they believe they will be good mothers. And the city of Vancouver itself—and with it the ghost of Canada’s colonial past, specifically its systematic erasure of First Nations culture—haunts all of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, glimpsed mostly through car windows as it passes by unremarked upon while the film’s characters grapple silently with how the present has been irrevocably troubled by the past. The film demonstrates the power of simply inhabiting a tension and absorbing its complications, rather than demanding a resolution.
Another Canadian film, and the winner of the festival’s competition award, Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century is an alternate history of the rise to power of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne). Funny and daringly experimental, the film’s overtly oddball aesthetic, redolent of Guy Maddin’s work, often feels borrowed from the silent era in terms of how particular objects take on greater significance because of their necessity to move along a narrative otherwise hindered by constraints, deliberate or not. And the plot unfolds erratically, difficult to synopsize due to its incredulity, as well as its reliance on a more than cursory knowledge of Canadian history for its most sophisticated jokes and cultural observations to be understood, as explained to me by a Canadian film critic on our way to the airport at the close of the festival. I may not have understood the film as cultural commentary, but I’ll never forget the ejaculating cactus.
Following the trend of delightfully strange films populating the festival slate is Greener Grass, written and directed by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, who also star. The film is a color-saturated romp that presents a suburbia recognizable at first but then made bizarre by an accumulation of unexplained oddities that ultimately become understood as an ingenious form of worldbuilding. All of the adults, soccer moms and dads donning bright pastel outfits, wear braces. Everyone inexplicably drives golf carts. Characters make impulsive, culturally inappropriate decisions, such as in the catalyst to the film’s action when Jill (DeBoer) literally gives her baby away to her friend Madison (Luebbe), after Madison acknowledges, while sitting in the bleachers at an outdoor soccer game, how cute the infant happens to be.
Later, Jill’s only remaining child, the nerdy and bespectacled Julian (Julian Hilliard), frequently seen struggling with the traditional expectations of boyhood, falls into a swimming pool and emerges as a golden retriever. Jill’s subsequent psychological decline is mostly tied to her inability to accept her son’s new corporeal form, as well as her insistence that her infant daughter must be returned to her, despite her reluctance to offend Madison with the request. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose. Greener Grass is a mash-up of genres—satire, mystery, dark comedy, horror—that may not ultimately cohere as deliberately as some viewers might have wished, but the feeling of witnessing something truly new and unique is as addictive as the swimming pool water that Jill’s husband, Nick (Nick Bennet), seemingly can’t stop drinking.
The American slate of films at Los Cabos includes Scorsese’s The Irishman among other likely Oscar contenders such as Noah Baumbach’s impeccably written and performed Marriage Story, Rupert Goold’s Judy, and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. But Trey Edward Shults’s slick and stylish but ultimately detached Waves is a frustrating contribution. The film tracks the rise and fall of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a black high school athlete pushed toward success by a domineering father (Sterling K. Brown) who, in a scene definitely not written for a black audience, makes plain how the color of his skin predisposes him to a life spent working harder than everybody else for a seat at the same table. But after a series of setbacks, poor choices, and personal failures culminate in a desperate act of terrible violence on Tyler’s part, the second half of Waves investigates the aftermath of his abrupt downfall through the eyes of his family, focusing mostly on his younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), and her own journey toward some kind of peace after the family tragedy.
For all its intensely scored set pieces and dramatic camerawork, Shults’s attempt to stylize an interior life through a deliberate connection between form and content—while Tyler’s section is frenetic and loud, Emily’s is almost jarringly languid and muted—isn’t enough to deliver to the audience the kind of realization about family and responsibility to one another that the filmmaker seems at times so close to achieving. The possibility of transcending its aesthetic and arriving at any kind of epiphany is ultimately drowned out by a cinematic style more distracting than illuminating.
A more revelatory film about fathers, sons, and the lasting effects of our emotional wounds is Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har’el and written by Shia LaBeouf, in what’s clearly an autobiographical account of the actor’s childhood in Hollywood with an overbearing father whose profound influence still haunts him today. LaBeouf plays James, the now-sober father of a child actor, Otis (Noah Jupe), who stars in a popular television show while bearing the brunt of the erratic behaviors and sudden violence of a lifelong addict. The film centers in flashback on a period of time in which father and son lived together in a seedy and downtrodden hotel, the close quarters intensifying the seething undercurrent of resentment, jealousy, and yet still ever-present heartbreakingly rendered familial love that perseveres in spite of everything else.
James ultimately passes down his own struggles to his son, who we see as an adult (Lucas Hedges, who also stars in Waves) in therapy reckoning with his childhood, his addiction, and his predilection toward other self-destructive behaviors. The film also explores the ways in which his traumas might have also served as reference points for his own obvious skill as an actor, artistic success inextricably linked here to emotional wounds that have clearly never properly healed. The relationship between James and Otis is marked by a tenderness undercut by rage, and Har’el’s careful staging of the power struggle between the two characters—a give and take based alternately on the currencies of masculinity and the literal exchange of money, as Otis’s earnings subsidize his father’s existence—is both compassionate and unflinching.
A film festival is always a hopeful affair, a chance to look into the future and see what awaits us as the contemporary film discourse continues to evolve. Unlike the flashy slate of American films that draws non-industry viewers to the theater, many of the entries at Los Cabos have yet to land wider distribution deals, and a festival like this one is a chance for these films to impress audiences enough to secure a position in a cinematic landscape where the “art house” or non-Marvel film will always struggle to keep up, as long as success continues to be measured by per-screen earnings and the numbers of views on popular streaming sites.
LaBeouf’s career—from his early success in the tentpole Transformers franchise to eventually writing and starring in a film as complex, poignant, and quietly ambitious as Honey Boy—is perhaps a worthwhile microcosm through which to demonstrate the shift in priorities that must take place in order for success to be redefined in terms that align with artistic merit rather than profit, personal connection rather than consensus. And there was plenty of merit to the connections being made at Los Cabos between filmmakers and audiences, a festival that continues to deliver quality international cinema to eager viewers who wander out of the theater each evening to join the throngs of partiers who might in daylight be clamoring for the next Marvel movie. Scorsese may mourn the diminishment of character-driven, risk-taking filmmaking in favor of easily digestible products that are “closer to theme parks than they are to movies,” but it’s still there if you know where to look.
The Los Cabos International Film Festival ran from November 13—17.
The 25 Greatest Beck Songs, Ranked
For all his humor, Beck is consistently thoughtful and earnest in building his checkered monuments.
Beck’s breakout hit, “Loser,” represented the sound of the nation’s youth wearing their slackerdom as a badge of honor. It’s a rather dubious fate for the workmanlike track, considering that if Gen X ever “had” a sound, it was the slow, snarling grunge roiling out of the Pacific Northwest, a genre far too self-possessed and clumsily aggressive to match the decidedly goofy appeal of Beck’s patchwork style. If anything, “Loser” was a middle finger to the self-serious headbangers, Beck’s own shrug at the angsty masses before ignoring them altogether and staking his career on offbeat lonerism.
The lonesomeness that results from possessing such an individualist streak is explored rather profoundly on albums like Sea Change and Morning Phase, but regardless of the personal costs, he’s become a folk hero, having built his legacy on championing near-forgotten strains of Americana at every turn. Constructing a list of his best tracks can thus be likened to assembling a mosaic pieced together from several generations of music. The songs themselves aren’t simply attention-starved amalgams strung together randomly though: For all his humor, Beck is consistently thoughtful and earnest in building his checkered monuments, empathetic to the point where his creations often cease to be facsimiles at all, but heartfelt creations born from the same cultural conscious that inspired them. You can’t write if you can’t relate, indeed. Kevin Liedel
Editor’s Note: Listen to our Beck playlist on Spotify.
Midnite Vultures exists largely as satire, but it also serves as an opportunity for the usually cryptic Beck to let his freak flag fly. On the epic, cheesy “Debra,” he hoists it way, way up, further establishing the absurdity of the album’s seedy narcissism by attempting to pick up sisters. The greatest moment here, however, is the supreme elasticity of Beck’s voice, sprinting from husky whispers to erotic falsettos with the kind of joie de vivre worthy of Prince. Liedel
24. “Soul Suckin’ Jerk”
Beck’s sense of humor has always been prevalent in his music, but what’s less well-established is how his absurd, juvenile setups often dissolve into black-hearted non sequiturs. “Soul Suckin’ Jerk” is one such reversal, a slacker tale that traces Beck’s working stiff from the food court into the edges of civilization just as its verse descends from quiet basslines into raucous drum stomps. “For 14 days I’ve been sleeping in a barn,” Beck’s suburban drone-cum-backwoods anarchist observes, right before a guttural, bottom-heavy font of distortion hammers home the desperation in his wisecracks. Liedel
23. “Hollywood Freaks”
Beck lays claim to legitimate skills on the mic, and they’ve never been stronger or more precise than on “Hollywood Freaks.” Of course, this being Beck, the rhymes come with a twist, delivered in a lisping, nasal drone that’s part Truman Capote and part Sylvester the Cat. All the better for it, considering the slick, springy track boasts the weirdest combination of allusions Beck’s ever concocted: Ripple, No Doz, Norman Schwarzkopf, tricked-out Hyundais, and the song’s ubiquitous, drunken tagline, “He’s my nun!” Liedel
Given Beck’s recent lavish productions, it’s easy to forget that in the early- to mid-‘90s he was a lo-fi master. This is nowhere more evident than on 1994’s One Foot in the Grave, a barebones album steeped in folk and blues. Its centerpiece is “Forcefield,” a song built on three simple yet haunting acoustic guitar notes and intertwining vocals by Beck and Sam Jayne of the sadly unheralded post-hardcore band Lync. The lyrics are largely enigmatic, but the chorus poignantly summarizes the necessity of a metaphorical forcefield: “Don’t let it get too near you/Don’t let it get too close/Don’t let it turn you into/The things you hate the most.” Michael Joshua Rowin
“Rowboat,” from 1994’s Stereopathetic Soulmanure, is a gently strummed, classically constructed ballad of rejection and loneliness that features Beck’s early penchant for lyrics that alternate between deadpan melancholy (“Rowboat, row me to the shore/She don’t wanna be my friend no more”) and humorous non sequitur (“Dog food on the floor/And I’ve been like this before”). Late Nashville legend Leo Blanc’s stunning steel pedal work provides just the right amount of additional sorrow, and, as if to give it the country stamp of approval, Johnny Cash covered the song in 1996. Rowin
Interview: Michael Apted on 63 Up and the Changing Face of a Nation
Apted discusses his relationship to his subjects, and his own transformation over the years.
The Up series began in 1964 as a Granada Television International documentary special, entitled Seven Up!, touted as “glimpse of Britain’s future.” Fourteen British seven-year-olds—nine boys and five girls—from different backgrounds and classes were interviewed about their lives. Paul Almond’s film set out to prove a motto usually attributed to a founder of the Jesuit order: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”
In 1970, director Michael Apted, a researcher on Seven Up!, took over the helming of the series with Seven Plus 7. “The series was an attempt to do a long view of English society,” the filmmaker told me in a recent conversation. “The class system needed a kick up the backside.” Every seven years, Apted dropped in on the lives of his subjects, with the goal of revealing the changing face of a nation through the words, and faces, of a generation of Brits.
The series is a fascinating sociological experimental, about how matters of class, education, and opportunity in Britain have transformed over the decades. After Seven Plus 7 came seven more films, including the latest, 63 Up. Inevitably, this entry in the series is fixated on issues of aging and retirement, given that the subjects are all mostly at the tail end of their careers.
During our conversation, Apted discussed his initial involvement in the Up series, his relationship to his subjects, and his own transformation over the years.
Do the subjects see the previous installments before filming the new episodes? Do you find a theme from past interviews to follow up on in the next installment?
I decide what I want to ask and talk about. If they want to talk about something that changed [in their lives], then they can. If something new or important happened privately…I use bits of history, but I don’t tell them what I want to ask. I see if their opinions or the atmosphere changes. I don’t want to talk about their past or do an update. I start from scratch.
Do you recall the criteria for finding the subjects, and the number of subjects? They’re all likeable, which is so gratifying.
It was accidental. We wanted to look at England in 1963, ‘64. It was loosely done. We were looking at a big picture. I had no idea it would go on as long as it did. We didn’t plan the second [entry] until five years after the first. When we decided to do it again and again, it was [about] what aspect of change in their lives or the country’s life was important.
What about issues of diversity? There’s class diversity, but the series features more men than women, one minority, and no one who’s gay.
We missed the point about the increased [engagement] of women in jobs and politics. Women became central in society. Female leadership—Thatcher, a female prime minister—happened quicker than we thought. Thatcher was unique in a way. We didn’t get enough women [in the series] when we started, so I brought wives in. Women were adjacent to the people we were interviewing, so we were able to put different female voices in the film. We were keen to have the wives and husbands [as co-subjects] and use them as if they had been there since the start.
There’s a question raised about the value of the series, generally from the subjects who find it “emotionally draining” to do the interviews. What observations do you have about the value and impact of the series?
I can’t speak highly enough about the impact of the series. No one had done it, and it was an original idea. It couldn’t be done like this again. We had inspiration and luck to keep going. People copied it. We tracked major events and progress in society. I’m glad we did it when we did it. We couldn’t have chosen a better period.
There are thoughts on aging, marriage, children, opportunity, education, and, now, Brexit. How have the subjects’ opinions dovetailed or differed from yours?
I’m not interested in using the film [as a mirror] for my own views. It’s what they think. I don’t compare how I lived my life to them. I’m quite different from them. I went through different things in life. I spent much of my time in America.
Jackie takes you to task in one of the programs about your questions toward women, suggesting you’re treating the women differently. Peter dropped out for a spell, and Suzy passes on participating because of all the baggage associated with making the program. What are your feelings about the subjects who don’t cooperate?
I’m thrilled that they opened their hearts and souls as much as they did. There were areas not to be discussed. I did not want to alienate them. If things got controversial, fair enough. I pursued the things they pursued in what they said. I didn’t say, “Why not be a doctor?”
Symon lacks ambition in his younger years. Neil struggled with homelessness in his youth. Tony makes a perhaps bad business decision. Some of the subjects—Lynn and Bruce, in particular—make efforts to give back to society. What can you say about the opportunities the subjects had being in the series? Did you ever help them?
I would help them in small ways, but I didn’t change their lives. They had opportunities that came from being on the program. But they couldn’t take advantage of [their participation], like getting a job because they were in the project.
You will primarily be known for this series, but you’ve also made classic films like Coal Miner’s Daughter, a Bond picture, even a Jennifer Lopez vehicle. What observations do you have about your career and how this program shaped your life and work?
I think it helped me a lot. The films I like best are hybrids. Coal Miner’s Daughter was a sociological film and an intimate story. I can get real performances out of people from doing documentaries. I cast well, and hope people trust me having seen these films. There has been no backlash. That was my ambition. The series kept me oriented to do what I wanted to do. Granada kept it ongoing. I convinced [executives] that if I wanted to do Gorillas in the Mist with real gorillas, then I could make that because I was a realistic documentary storyteller.
The theme of the series is “Show me the child when he is seven, and I will show you the man.” Do you think there’s a truth to that, given that you have at least one counterexample in 63 Up? What were you like at seven?
I was shy and didn’t say much at that age. I thought things, though. I went to a good secondary school in London. You would be surprised if you saw me at seven. I had lucky breaks and good luck. I was 21, 22 [when the series started in 1963]. It was a good thing that the program was embraced. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time—the year after I left Cambridge. I made a good decision even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
Will there be a 70 Up? Would this series continue without you?
I don’t know if everyone will be alive, but if they are, yes. You never know. I’d like to go on for as long as I am above ground. I’d like it to continue.
Interview: Marielle Heller on Mr. Rogers and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Our conversation led us into discussion about how far Mr. Rogers’s philosophy can extend into today’s world.
Fred Rogers had no shortage of simple yet beautiful sayings pertaining to countless people and professions, including, it appears, journalists. In a nugget from the recent New York Times profile of Tom Hanks, archival documents revealed that Mr. Rogers had laid out the principles that he hoped his Esquire profiler, Tom Junod, would adhere to when writing about him. Among them were “journalists are human beings not stenographers, human beings not automatons” and “be aware of celebrating the wonders of creation.” Junod’s piece did, ultimately, become a tribute to the life-altering power of Mr. Rogers’s empathic power and serves as the inspiration for the new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
“Wasn’t that so beautiful?” remarked the film’s director, Marielle Heller, when I broached the subject of Rogers’s journalistic pillars with her. I admitted that I could not feign the impartiality of an automaton in our conversation given how deeply the film moved me. After delivering two films where tenderness broke through the facades of more hardened characters, 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl and 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller’s third feature fully embraces sincerity and rejects cynicism without ever feeling cloying or corny.
Unlike Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys), the film’s fictionalized avatar of Junod, I couldn’t pretend to be unmoved or skeptical of a creation that made me feel such profound emotion. Heller’s chronicle of how Mr. Rogers (embodied here by Tom Hanks) changed one person picks up and continues the television icon’s work by allowing his message of love and forgiveness to reach, and thus transform, more lives.
I spoke with Heller over the phone ahead of her sending A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out into the world, a process she claimed would be the hardest part of the film’s journey to screen. Our conversation began with how Mr. Rogers’s legacy loomed large over the shoot and led us into discussion about how far his philosophy can extend into today’s world.
I’ve read that you attached quotes from Mr. Rogers on the daily call sheet. Was there a sense that this set and production needed to be infused with his personality and grace?
Oh my gosh, totally. I think we all felt like we were so privileged getting to work on his own story, and we were filming it in his hometown of Pittsburgh on the stage where he originally filmed the program. We were walking among the ghost of Fred Rogers the whole time, and we were trying to invoke him whenever we could.
The way Tom Hanks portrays Mr. Rogers is less of an impression and more of an inhabitation, particularly when it comes to portraying his patience and stillness. Those moments must be like walking a tightrope, so how did you find the right balance, be it in directing Tom’s performance on set or finding the rhythm in the editing room?
Truthfully, we tried to get the rhythm right on set. Part of that was because Jody [Lee Lipes, the cinematographer] and I had devised a way of filming this that wasn’t really meant to be edited super quick with lots of cutting. It was meant to sit in shots for longer and let things play in two-shots or single shots that moved. We got to rehearse, which is something I always hope to do with movies, and part of the rehearsal is about trying to find the rhythms in the script and have the actors find their pacing. I tend to approach things like theater in that way where you sit around, do table work, work through the bigger emotional beats of a scene, ask questions, comment on it and really play with it. By the time we’re shooting it, we know what we need to be hitting in a bigger emotional way and can be focusing on other things as well.
But every day, I was constantly pushing Tom to go slower and stiller than he could possibly imagine because Fred really was incredibly still and listened so intently. And Tom would say, “Really? I thought I was so still and so slow! Really, still slower? Okay!” I would say, “I want you to sit and listen and wait as long as you possibly can before you respond to this question. Sit, take him in and wait so much longer than you expect to.” We were really trying to build that pace into the actual filming. Luckily, Tom loves to be directed. He’s an actor who loves the relationship with the director. He never minded that I was nitpicking him.
How did you approach the big moment of silence in the film? Was it actually a minute long like Mr. Rogers says?
It’s a little more than a minute! [laughs] Just over a full minute. I actually held myself back from timing it when we were editing it, just because I was trying to feel it. Tom and I were just talking about that scene in a Q&A. He was saying that while we filmed it, he thought, “Are you really going to do this? Are you serious right now?” And I was like, “Yeah, that was the scene I was clearest about when I signed onto the movie.” It’s the moment that the audience becomes an active participant in the film, and that’s what Mr. Rogers does with his program. He asks the kids who’re watching the show to be active participants. He asks them, “Can you see the color green here? What do you see when you look at this picture?” And then he waits for them to respond. That’s the moment where we’re waiting for our audience to respond.
The film unfolds, to use your words, like “a big episode of Mr. Rogers for adults.” Was all of that baked in at the script level, or were there elements you added in when you boarded the project?
It was part of the script when I came on board. That was the bigger, larger conceit of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and then figuring out how to actually make that integrate and work cinematically was our job. How do you make an episode of Mr. Rogers that can feel both bigger than an episode of Mr. Rogers, because it’s a film after all, but how do you take these elements that are very small and handmade and make them integrate with a real-life world that can feel grounded in reality and emotionally resonant? How do you take this world of Mr. Rogers and Lloyd’s world of New York and find a way to travel between them that both points out the dissonance between the two of them and the ways in which they’re connected—and become more and more alike as we go through the movie. Or get more and more confused with each other, is maybe a better way to say it. That was part of the joy of it, figuring out how this bigger conceit, which is great on paper, can actually work.
How do you thread that thin needle of returning an adult audience to a state of childlike innocence without infantilizing them?
I think it’s a fine line, and we just tried to make it with every choice and tried to be as truthful as we could. Trying to portray taking you back in time to watch episodes of the original program, we tried to recreate them in such an authentic way that they didn’t feel like we were making fun of them in any way. Trying to find truth within it. Lloyd is a very helpful conduit for bringing us into that story because his cynicism steps in for all of our cynicism. Having somebody there going, “Come on, who is this guy? He can’t be real!” is sort of helpful for those of us who come into a story with a certain amount of neurotic cynicism. And I thought that was something so smart about the script, we have this guy who can speak for the part of us that’s outgrown Mr. Rogers. And as his cynicism gets chipped away, so does ours. I was also very aware that Mr. Rogers couldn’t be the protagonist of a movie because he’s just too evolved. But he makes a really good antagonist.
You wrote the script for your first film, but then have used other people’s for your next two. How do you make these screenplays your own when bringing them to the screen when the words don’t originate from your own mind?
Even when I’m directing a movie I haven’t written, because I’m a writer, I always work on the script. For Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I worked on the script for a long time. For this film, I worked together with Noah [Harpster] and Micah [Fitzerman-Blue], who are just incredible writers, to bring in the parts of it that felt personally connected for me. It’s about finding a script that you can find your way into from an emotional point of view and know inside and out. Then it’s many, many months of going through every single scene and feeling if there’s any line, word, or phrase that isn’t quite feeling like how I would have written it, and then us working through it! We went through the script pretty meticulously, and the script evolved and changed when I came on board. It was a beautiful script to begin with, and it made me cry many times when I read it the first time, which is why I signed on.
The script kicked around for many years but really began to take off in 2015 or so. Do you think that’s because the film serves as such a tonic for our troubled times?
I think it was a year or two after that, but I can’t quite remember. Whatever you believe, I think projects happen when they’re meant to happen. It’s really hard sometimes when you’re working on a project that takes ten years to come to be and believe that because you start to think it will never happen. But, ultimately, I have a similar philosophy about casting: You’ll lose an actor, and whoever is meant to play that part, it will work out. I feel that way with when projects came to be. I think this project, yeah, it could have been made ten years ago. But it was meant to be now. This is when we need it, for whatever reason.
What challenged you the most about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and where did you see yourself growing as a director?
I don’t know what challenged me the most about it. The truth of the matter is that it’s been a pretty joyful experience making this movie. It’s been a gift, and I just feel really lucky that I got to make it. I feel like it gave me so much, and as you said, the reverberations of Fred’s lessons have been with me now for years. I’ve gotten to live with his voice in my head, and it changes my life. It’s been a total gift, and I feel unworthy. And the challenge is now, truthfully, putting this out into the world and deal with people [laughs]. Living up to their expectations, it’s not how they would make a movie about Fred Rogers, but up until now, it’s been a privilege and something I feel incredibly proud of. Now I just have to let it go, like a child out into the world.
I’m a sucker for a good Mr. Rogers quote, but I did come across a provocative perspective from The Atlantic suggesting a “fetishization” of some of his aphorisms. It got me wondering if there’s a point where relying on advice designed for children prevents us from fulfilling more adult responsibilities. I think we’re both true believers here, but as someone who’s been much more steeped in his philosophy and teachings, I’m curious if you have a perspective on the potential limitations of Mr. Rogers’s advice.
I don’t think there are limitations to his advice. I think he knew that you had to give children bite-sized versions of the truth. You had to give them the amount of the truth they could handle. But I think he had that wisdom for adults, and there was a period of time when he did a series for adults. The thing about him is that he didn’t shy away from the harder stuff. He did an episode on assassination after RFK was shot. He did a whole episode on divorce when people weren’t really talking about it on television. The darkest things, fear of death…
Fear of going down the drain!
Or going down the drain, which is apparently a very real fear! My kid was afraid of that.
Yes, it’s a very common fear! But I know what you mean. I think it’s taken out of context if someone is letting people off the hook with one of his quotes. The truth is, Fred was doing the tough work of being a person part of our global community. He was connecting with humanity in a deep way. He was present with people and helping people truly. It wasn’t just phrases.
I do truly feel like the film has encouraged me to be more empathetic, understanding, and present—and the effects have lasted far longer than I anticipated. Yet I do still struggle with the idea that I’m barely making a dent in the world’s problems given the magnitude of what we’re facing.
I think we all do, and I think Fred struggled with that too. There’s something that was touched on in the documentary [2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?], where he was asked to come back and do a special after 9/11, and he thought, “Could it possibly be enough? How could I possibly do enough to help in this moment? Why would anyone need to hear from me right now?” I don’t think that feeling like you can’t do enough is a bad thing to be connected with.
I was talking about this in our Q&A today where I was in prep for this movie and went to hear a talk at Brooklyn Buddhist Zen Center. I think I was thinking of Fred as a Buddha-like figure. I had something in my head that the Buddha must be at peace at all times, that somehow if you reach that level of enlightenment or come to a point that far along in your emotional journey, you would feel happiness all the time. This woman who was giving this talk said, “No, you’d feel all the pain of the world. You’d actually feel it more. You’d feel everyone’s suffering. And the goal is not to not feel the suffering. The goal is to feel it even more deeply.” And it made me think about Fred because I think that’s what he did. I don’t think he was walking around with a smile on his face all the time. I think he was feeling the pain of the world.
It’s my understanding that you weren’t filming in Pittsburgh at the time of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Squirrel Hill, where Mr. Rogers lived, but did come back and do some pick-ups in town as they were still grieving and processing.
We had just left. We had left three days earlier to do our last days of filming in New York. We were in Pittsburgh for five months and left three days before the shooting happened. Actually, we wrapped principal photography in New York at four in the morning at Port Authority and then the shooting happened in the morning. It was so right on the heels, and then we returned to Pittsburgh two weeks later to do our miniatures shoot, which was always planned.
Did that weigh on the film at all?
Oh my gosh, are you kidding? It was so present for all of us. We felt so embraced and loved by the Pittsburgh community. Being in Pittsburgh making a movie about Mr. Rogers, we were like the most famous people in town. Everyone knew who we were and where were filming and come by to say hi to us and making sure we did Fred proud. My kid was going to school at a JCC in Squirrel Hill while we were there. That was our community. Bill Isler [former president and CEO of the Fred Rogers Company] lives there. It felt so, so close to home. When we returned to do our miniatures shoot, Tom Hanks came back too, and we all went to the city’s unity celebration. We spent a lot of time mourning together.