Connect with us

Features

“Keep the Audience Awake!”: An Interview with Malcolm McDowell

At age 63, he’s one of the few living links to a host of great British actors who are now gone: Gielgud, Olivier, James Mason, Alan Bates, Rachel Roberts.

Published

on

“Keep the Audience Awake!”: An Interview with Malcolm McDowell

My introduction to the screen work of Malcolm McDowell came on a Halloween night in the late 1970s, the year I decided I was too grown-up for the childish maneuvers of trick-or-treating, and instead went to the mall and slipped into Time After Time. Although I may not have realized it then, the soul of the picture lies in the lunch date between McDowell’s H.G. Wells, who has traveled from London to America in his time machine, and Amy Robbins, a modern-day career woman faultlessly played by Mary Steenburgen. In a revolving restaurant atop the Hyatt Regency, the spires and blue mists of San Francisco swirl behind McDowell, as he and Steenburgen glow at each other like a couple of school kids. “We knew it had to be magical for the film to work,” McDowell told me on a recent October morning, nearly a full three decades later. And magical it is: Anyone who has listened to Time After Time’s DVD commentary track knows that McDowell told Steenburgen he loved her prior to shooting the scene. The fluster that she exudes isn’t acting; it’s real. H.G. Wells tries to impress Amy by telling her he’s just published a series of articles on “free love.” When she bursts his bubble (“I haven’t heard the term ’free love’ since eighth-grade”) his prowess turns momentarily to embarrassment. Hardly a few frames flicker past, however, and the McDowell/Wells goofy grin exultantly returns—he’s smitten (as was I).

Not to resort to Kael-like exaggeration, I can’t help but consider their exchange to be one of the most teasingly playful, emotionally satisfying comic romantic scenes that we have on film. It’s also beautiful for this reason: There isn’t anything else like it in the long line of McDowell’s career.

At age 63, he’s one of the few living links to a host of great British actors who are now gone: Gielgud, Olivier, James Mason, Alan Bates, Rachel Roberts. And while McDowell’s name is seemingly inseparable from Stanley Kubrick’s, it’s with the director Lindsay Anderson that McDowell forged a deeper, more lasting connection.

Anderson came to making movies by having first been a film critic. Several of his razor-sharp appraisals are gathered in Never Apologise: The Collected Writings of Lindsay Anderson, including “Stand Up! Stand Up!” the essay in which he chided critics who ignored the moral dimensions of the films they reviewed as “indulging in a voluntary self-emasculation.” To his fellow critics who objected to certain kinds of subject matter, Anderson lobbed this grenade: “There is another kind of philistinism, timorous rather than pugnacious, which shrinks from art because art presents a challenge. This can be an even more insidious enemy, because it often disguises itself with the apparatus of culture, professing the very values it is in the act of destroying.” (We are undoubtedly in a new era of timorous philistinism. Anderson’s diagnosis fits today’s alternative press like a glove.)

In tandem with the screenwriter David Sherwin, Anderson and McDowell made three of the most savagely free-wheeling films to emerge from British cinema, the so-called Mick Travis trilogy: If…. (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982). The first two of these are not on DVD. The Palme d’Or-winning If…. was McDowell’s movie debut, and Anderson supplied him with an exquisite entrance: Cloaked in black from top to toe, McDowell’s Mick Travis scurries through the dorm rooms at Cheltenham College, only his eyes visible.

All three of the Travis films are eerily prescient in one way or another: In O Lucky Man!, two characters plunge to their deaths from a skyscraper, holding hands on the way down, an image that summons the future memory of 9/11. Britannia Hospital’s standoff between flower-bearing protestors and riot gear-clad police prefigures the WTO clash in Seattle by nearly 20 years, yet feels uncannily much the same.

In the ultraconservative early ‘80s of Thatcher and Reagan, Britannia Hospital met with immense hostility from the English-speaking press (though the film was admired in France and Eastern Europe). This portrait of an insanely dysfunctional bureaucracy, in which arbitration trumps humanity every time, climaxes with a raid on the Millar Research Center. Earlier, we’ve been told that the doors are fitted with an electronic locking device and can withstand unlimited pressure. That’s merely prelude to Anderson’s terrifying, wide-angle image of the steel double doors coming down in slow motion, the angry, rainbow coalition of rioters stampeding silently as the voice of Dr. Millar (a superb Graham Crowden, who steals the show from co-star McDowell) continues off-screen. With Britannia Hospital, the director had reached a new, more visually sophisticated level of expression, such as the sense of mad rush he establishes by showing us the rioters in profile, bouncing up and down within the frame. Anderson, who died in 1994, would never again tackle anything this ambitious cinematically.

A couple of years ago you performed a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival, “Lindsay Anderson: A Personal Remembrance.“How did that go? Would you stage it again?

It was amazing! I had no idea how it was going to turn out. I was making a movie in Saint Andrews about the golfer Bobby Jones when somebody from the Festival came on the set and said, “It’s the 10th anniversary of Lindsay Anderson’s death next year. We want to do a retrospective—would you do something for us?” And rather sort of flippantly and stupidly, I said, “You know what, I’ll do a one-man show about him. He’s such an important person in my life and people don’t know enough about him.” So, I had a year to go; I never even gave it another thought. Then six months go by, I vaguely start making a few inquiries about getting some letters. Then, of course, a month to go, and I’m panicking, as I’ve got very little together, except my recollections. Luckily, I called the man up in Stirling University that has the archives—all Lindsay’s papers went there—and I was able to get copies of a lot of the letters that he sent me. I got the galleys of the diaries and I went through them. You know they were cut substantially, and I chose some things out of there. Not too many, because what I was really interested in was Lindsay’s critical writing, which is brilliant. There’s a piece called “Stand Up! Stand Up!—”

I read that.

—which was a rallying call for critics to take film seriously as an art form. It revolutionized critical thought in Britain. And in America. Judith Crist, Pauline Kael, every critic, all knew about this and had read it.

Just to say a little bit about “Stand Up! Stand Up!” this was published fifty years ago, in a 1956 issue of Sight & Sound. I read this piece last week and felt I was reading about the present state of criticism. It’s all come full circle.

Well, now, you know…Lindsay used to get so irritated by the critics because all they would do is copy out the synopsis basically. Very lazy, sloppy writing. It made him furious! I used this in the show and another marvelous essay about the last meeting that he had with John Ford in the desert, six weeks before Ford died, and it is one of the most beautifully moving pieces that Lindsay ever wrote.

Is the one-man show something you’d perform in the States?

I may do it. It’s exhausting, to be honest with you. But it’s very stimulating, too. I don’t learn it, because it’s an improv, but it’s an improv that changes all the time. I have a road map of Lindsay’s writing, and of David Sherwin’s, of everyone connected with that period. For instance, I tell the whole story of how I got the part in If…., then I say that’s from my point of view—now here’s what David Sherwin, the writer, put in his diary from that time. It’s an amazing juxtaposition: a Rashomon, if you like.

One of my favorite scenes in If…. is when you and Christine Noonan are on the café floor, and there’s a sublime cut from the two of you clothed to the two of you naked, in exactly the same position, while on the soundtrack the percussion from the African Missa Luba gradually builds up. Looking at (and listening to) Lindsay’s work, did it ever inspire you to want to direct films of your own?

Not enough. I think I’ve got enough on my plate being an actor, but of course it did absolutely change—or form—the way I approach a part. I’ll always go back to what I learned from him. And what I’ve learned from him is that…naturalism is sort of boring. If you can heighten the stuff, and make it more about the world rather than about the “mini.” He used to call it “the mini and the epic.” He’d shout out, ’Mini, Malcolm! Mini!”

What did he want you to do when he said that? Appear to be doing less?

No, not less. Not realistic, but real. He’d tell me that I was a Brechtian actor. I said, “Lindsay, I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about!”

Did he explain?

There are times when you know you’re acting, but the audience believes you anyway. And he said, “Very few people can do that.”

There’s a scene in Britannia Hospital I wanted to ask you about. It comes early on when the kitchen staff refuses to prepare breakfast for the patients, and they’re also refusing to allow a caterer’s truck to unload gourmet lunches that are being brought in for a visit from the Queen Mother. Throughout this, the unionized workers are braying, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” way off-key. With whom are Lindsay Anderson’s sympathies? Because he doesn’t intend us, I don’t imagine, to identify with the Tories, but the Cockneys on strike are too repellent to root for.

He hates them all, that’s the truth. He took a real swipe at the medical profession, because he blamed them for killing his mother. The national health system in England was horrendous: Two years’ waiting list for an operation and all that.

What do you think that Lindsay and David Sherwin were getting at in having a mad scientist be the one who unites all the divisive factions at the end? The rioters, the union workers, the Queen Mum and her entourage, the hospital administrators: they all come together and listen to him. A lot of what Dr. Millar is saying at that presentation makes perfect sense: “What does man choose? Alone among the creatures of the world, the human race chooses to annihilate itself…We give power to leaders…who squander our resources on instruments of destruction while millions continue to suffer…”

That’s very perceptive writing. I don’t know where Sherwin cribbed it from; he probably stole it from something. But it’s used in a satirical way that makes it poignant. The professor’s come up with Genesis, his model for a new, higher form of intelligence, and it repeats these lines from Hamlet into infinity. It’s so perfect an ending, I was screaming with delight when I saw it. We won’t see the likes of Lindsay Anderson again. He was a great teacher. David Sherwin and I miss him; we think about him every day at some point. He certainly had his share of faults. David Storey said that Lindsay was the only person he ever knew who had more enemies than friends. He used to write to critics and tell them off. Then they would get upset because the artistry of the writer is under attack. “Don’t write to them,” I’d tell him. “They’re gonna attack me the next time I come out with something, if they think I’m aligned to you!”

The film of yours that I most wanted to see, but couldn’t locate, was the made-for-television staging of Harold Pinter’s The Collection.

It’s hard to get.

So I did the next best thing—I read the play. In it, you and Laurence Olivier are playing a couple, and your relationship intersects with another couple, Alan Bates and Helen Mirren. The work seemed to me to be about two domineering personalities—the Olivier and Bates characters—lording their power over two more delicate souls, you and Mirren.

Well, it is about control and menace and the enigmatic things that go on in that atmosphere: very much Pinter at his best. Olivier was magnificent. He was back from a serious illness for the first time, and he was determined. It was difficult for him to learn lines but he did get there eventually. He has to make a long speech near the end, the “slum slug” speech in which he berates me, and he’s the only actor I’ve ever worked with who made the hair on my neck stand straight up. We all had such a great deal of reverence for him; he was more than a legend to us.

Was he intimidating to act opposite?

He was more intimidated by me, and by Alan and Helen—the young ones coming up. He wasn’t too thrilled about that. I thought if he could smell intimidation, he’d go for the jugular. But to me, he was adorable. I know he could be a very difficult man, a person of great contradictions. When he was on though, no other actor could hold a candle to Olivier. You were either a disciple of John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier, and I was Gielgud’s, because I knew John and had worked with him before. He was such a refined gentleman and a hoot! He could always put his foot in it and find his way out somehow. What I admire about Gielgud is that he changed his style of acting over the course of his career. Stage actors in England between the wars were snooty about film. They thought you don’t have real actors in the cinema and that sort of crap. And John’s early film appearances were too theatrical, and he learned from this. By the time he made Charge of the Light Brigade in the late ‘60s—a sensational performance—he’d got it. He knew how to act on film then.

Olivier has been quoted as saying, of The Collection, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in any job before.” When you consider the range of his work, that’s quite a statement. Why do you think that playing Harry Kane was so powerful for Olivier?

It’s a great role for him. Harry’s a repressed, in-the-closet homosexual who’s keeping this boy around. Bill, the character I played, is an opportunist who’ll do anything to get anywhere. The whole point of Harry is that he’s living the life of a London toff, one of those Englishmen who you’re never quite sure what they are. On our first read-through of the script, Olivier played it as if he was swinging a handbag in high heels. Pinter was fuming, and our very young, very good director, Michael Apted, didn’t know how to approach toning down “Sir.” Olivier would start with wide brush strokes, then chip away, whereas we, the moderns, worked exactly the inverse. Helen, Alan, and I started very simple and added on and on as we found the performance. I don’t know why he felt the way he did about the part; I’d never heard that quote until now.

Whom do you consider to be the brilliant performers of today?

I’m dying to see Helen in The Queen. She’s always been fantastic, and if given my choice of leading lady, I’d always want Helen Mirren first. You know she played that spunky detective on TV, which I think surprised a lot of people. Her film career took off when she was in her fifties, and she can do anything she wants.

What about films, say of the last 10 years or so? And is there anything coming out of Britain these days that you especially like? I know you’ve gone on record as not thinking too highly of Notting Hill.

For American films, I’d say Fargo. I’ve seen it 20-odd times, and I could watch it 20 more. Goodfellas, I love. Notting Hill was too sentimental, although Julia Roberts is up there, for me, with Kate Hepburn. Who directed that?

Roger Michell. Have you seen any of his subsequent work? He’s made some films that are vastly more substantial, specifically The Mother and Enduring Love.

He’s in-ter-est-ing, but if you’re talking about great directors, there’s Stephen Frears. He’s the one English director who, when he has a new film, you must see it.

So, does your affection for Fargo mean you’d like to work for the Coens?

In a heartbeat. I’m not expecting a call anytime soon, but I’d jump at the chance to film anything with them.

Do young writers ever bring their screenplays to you, saying I wrote this part with you in mind?

Yes, but it’s too much responsibility. Because I’d have to say, “Why, that’s very sweet of you, but it’s awful.” I always tell them, “Don’t write it for me—just write it!” I do like to work with young filmmakers, though, particularly Paul McGuigan, who directed Gangster No. 1.

When Arliss Howard was one of the guests last year at the Port Townsend Film Festival, he spoke a little bit about working with Stanley Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket. He mentioned that after the long shoot, with all its multiple takes, Kubrick told him, “You’re gonna miss me. You’ll have directors who’ll say, ’We got it,’ and you know they didn’t.” Does that, in any way, sound like the Kubrick you knew?

No, not really. Stanley went a little nuts, I think. He didn’t start the 1500 takes until The Shining. [pause] I could see him saying it, actually. He and I had a complex relationship; he was the antithesis of Lindsay Anderson. A Jewish boy from the Bronx, Stanley was savvy in a street way whereas Lindsay, who was an Oxonian, trained in Greek and Latin, wasn’t. They were polar opposites and yet very great artists. What I consider great about Stanley is that he was fluid enough to go with whatever was on the set. He went with the humor that I brought to A Clockwork Orange. Dr. Strangelove was also written straight—it was originally meant to be a scary tale—until Peter Sellers got a hold of it; he made it a comedy and better than what was on the page.

From what I gather, you’re pretty good at persuading directors to incorporate your input.

When they hire you, they expect you to come with your expertise. That’s what they’re buying. I’m there to realize someone else’s dreams, not to impose what I want.

I know that you and Robert Altman had known each other for a while, but I was wondering how you came to play the Gerald Arpino role in The Company. I ask because you don’t seem all that Italian-American to me.

No. Who does? That’s the great thing about America. You could say you’re from Cuba. Not all Italians are dark and olive-skinned. The northern Italians are blonds. There was an explanatory scene where we talked about where my character was from, but it was stupid and unnecessary. This is America—anything goes. I trailed Gerald Arpino around the Joffrey Ballet studios for a few weeks. He is very Italian, but Bob didn’t want me to mimic him.

I think you most come across as the director of a dance company at the dinner party after the outdoor performance. Someone comes up to your table to talk business, and you set him straight on “the protocol,” and he’s hardly turned around when you announce to the others, “People are so bloody rude!”

That was all ad-libbed. Still, I felt that Arpino would have said that. When he says those things, the people around him leap—the dancers, everybody. They revere him. Little Neve Campbell, she’s an amazing kid to have gotten that film together. The Company isn’t Robert Altman with a full orchestra; it’s a slice of life, an insight into how these people live. Who knew what dancers go through to create such beauty on stage? Well, now you know.

To go back to Kubrick for a minute, what did you think of Eyes Wide Shut? You once said that Lolita and A Clockwork Orange were the only emotional films that he made, and Eyes has always seemed to me to be sensuously emotional.

Advertisement


It isn’t my favorite Kubrick film; I’ll just put it that way. I understand why he wanted to do it. He should have done it before A Clockwork Orange. It was past its “sell by” date in 1999.

I’ve noticed that in interviews no one ever asks you about Martin Ritt or Blake Edwards, so I thought I would.

They’re giants, and I love Marty Ritt! He was a gambler, a great old-Hollywood guy. When he asked me to play Maxwell Perkins in Cross Creek, I played him as Marty Ritt. I don’t think anybody knew that at the time. I had no idea what Perkins was like, but Marty to me was a perfect example of a good, strong American. Mary [Steenburgen] loved him, too. As for Blake Edwards, he’s the most inventive comedy director I ever worked with. Very underrated. People talk about Woody Allen, but Blake is up there.

The Chaplinesque hobo routine of yours near the end of Sunset is, I think, the highlight of the movie. The role you’re playing, Alfie Alperin, is another sadistic killer, but for those few moments, you’re wearing the tramp outfit, with the fake little black mustache, and it’s such a sweet bit of acrobatic slapstick.

That came about because, like Chaplin, Alfie was a vaudevillian who came to America, and because Lindsay and I had just done a revival of Holiday at the Old Vic, in which I had to learn how to do a cartwheel. Only about 200 people saw it. Blake Edwards was open to suggestions, so I thought, why let this cartwheel go to waste? His idea was that I turn it after I threaten my wife’s life, as I’m picking up a jacket off the floor. Genius! I also loved working with James Garner, who is so unsung. When we were shooting the scene where we have lunch together, I’m throwing grapes up in the air, catching them with my mouth, and he’s just sitting there. “Doncha want a cuppa coffee?” I ask him, and he says, “No, you’re doing it all.” I’d love to work with him again. He’s in the same league with Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Gielgud, in a different way. All of them are coming from the inside, and all their thoughts have to be right. James Garner makes acting look effortless—that’s hard work.

I wished the entire film had been about the hobo character. When you finish, everyone’s applauding, and he says, “Thank you, ladies and gentleman, thank you for remembering.” I felt that the violence in the picture doesn’t ring true, but the clown’s eagerness to please an audience does.

Don’t forget, he’s a performer. He’s not gonna be a nice person necessarily. When he’s on, he’s dazzling.

Was Caligula the only time that you and Peter O’Toole worked together?

Yes. He’s a one-off. I have a lot of memories of him. I remember when as a young man, I had a small part in a production at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the cast was invited to Hampstead to a party in someone’s mansion. In through the door walked a god. He had fake blond hair and looked like he had left his motorcycle in the desert. Peter was frighteningly sophisticated—he smoked with a long cigarette holder—and we were sort of rough and unpolished. I admire him because he always went back to the theatre. I remember the first time he staged a play called Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell and how he played the same role so well 12 or 15 years later. We have a good giggle about the work in Caligula.

About the [1987] production of Philip Barry’s Holiday that you mentioned, the play strikes me as an unusual choice for Lindsay and for you. How did your conception differ from the Cukor movie?

I hadn’t seen the film since I was a child, and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be compared to Cary Grant; nobody can be compared to him. It was a charming production, old-fashioned, but something Lindsay felt was worthy of revival. Mary played Katie Hepburn. It isn’t a sentimental play: there’s darkness to it. I was a bit too old for the role; hence Lindsay has me doing this cartwheel. That was his way of showing “whoopee.” However, the rake on stage was at such a high angle, my back went out every time, and I had to see a chiropractor three or four sessions a week.

David Sherwin adapted his memoir, Going Mad in Hollywood, about his creative battles with Lindsay, as a possible film for you some time ago, but it’s been over 20 years now since he’s had a screenplay produced. Is there any chance we’ll see Sherwin’s work on-screen again?

I don’t really know, but I hope so. He and I’ve been friends since 1968; he’s responsible for my career. Neither he nor Lindsay could have done those films without the other. We all knew what our place was in the making of O Lucky Man! and If…., and David’s place was to be kicked around and abused by Lindsay. I would receive postcards that said, ““Screenwriter drunk on floor. Have to cancel the film. Love, L.”

Oh, I’ve heard some of those; Gavin Lambert makes good use of them in his book on Lindsay. What about the DVD release of O Lucky Man!?

Warner Brothers has pushed it back to 2008. Jan Harlan’s already made a documentary about me that’s supposed to go with it.

Which is O Lucky Malcolm! I wondered if that was meant to be just a DVD extra or will it get a theatrical release first.

It showed at the Traverse City Film Festival, and it’s to go on all three of the films I did for Warner Brothers, the other one being Time After Time. Warners wants to put it on Clockwork Orange first, like that needs any help. I thought that cow had been milked dry.

Wasn’t there some pre-production work done on Going Mad in Hollywood? What happened with that?

Michael Winterbottom was set to direct, with me playing Lindsay and Paul Bettany as David Sherwin, but the script wasn’t good. And if I’m going to play Lindsay Anderson, it had better be a script that does him justice.

Earlier we mentioned some of Lindsay’s work as a film critic. In 1984, in the Chicago Tribune, he reviewed Pauline Kael’s Taking It All In, and I was wondering to what extent you agree with his assessment. He found Kael: “…boring, but not because her tone is spiritless or flat, but because there is just enough spark, perception, and paradox in her writing to provide the illusion of originality, of nourishment, but not enough to disguise the fact what she’s dishing up is intellectual junk food.”

It’s a brilliant way of describing her. The perception of her was that she was a wondrous magician who comes up with lines that will stick—what did she say about Brando? But they’re just lines. Last Tango was such a crock, basically a pretentious mess. At the end of the day, though, we were lucky to have Pauline Kael. She livened it up; the rest are bloody boring. She wasn’t right much of the time, but she was fun to read. And John Simon—thank God for John Simon! He might attack you, he might be vitriolic, but he’s very entertaining to read and spot-on. Often I find myself agreeing with him. He’s a fun guy to have dinner with, too.

Before we go, I wanted to ask you about one of your bad movies, The Passage.

I used to call that The Back-Passage.

I saw it when I was 12 years old.

Oh my God!

And I’ve never forgotten it.

Why?

I think because it was the most outré thing I had seen up to that time. The movie’s ostensibly about World War II, but the brutality is upsetting in ways that Clockwork isn’t. Anyhow, there’s a section in Lindsay’s diaries where he writes that J. Lee Thompson, who directed The Passage, took up your every suggestion.

Oh, I adored J. Lee Thompson! It was such a bad script, so boring, I decided to do the whole of the Nazi regime in one character. To do it like something out of Joe Orton. I had just done the play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, and so I gave this Ortonesque performance completely out of context with the rest of the film! I got some of the worst reviews of my entire career. And some of the best! We stayed in an old farmhouse in France, in the Pyrenees, while we were making it, and the great thing about that was six weeks of James Mason as a dining companion every night. He used to ask me things like, “Are you in the same film with the rest of us?” The producers were so grateful, though; that was the first time I was ever paid any back-end on a picture.

Whose idea was the swastika embroidered on the Nazi colonel’s jockstrap?

[with a smile that just beams] That was, of course, mine. I’ll tell you how it came about. The girl—Kay Lenz—I was supposed to be raping—this was the first scene we shot on the first day—she wouldn’t show her nipples. She’s in the shower, and I kept telling her that she wouldn’t be wearing pasties or a bikini in the shower. When you read the script, you knew that nudity would be involved, that I’m getting at her to humiliate her father. Six days of fricking around on the set waiting for her to take her clothes off. So I went to the costume designer and we planned this without telling anybody. I figured we’d do it to amuse J. Lee. When we were filming the scene, and I took my pants down, the camera operator—a hand-held—just fell back onto the bed, and J. Lee squealed, “Hitler’s driver had swastika underwear, and that’s how I want you play the part!” Christopher Lee, who was a gypsy in the film, thought it was disgusting. He went around telling everyone what poor taste it was in, but I’m very proud of it. I said fuck it and went for it! Bottom line, I’m an entertainer. I’m the one who’s got to keep the audience awake!

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Features

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.

Published

on

Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“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.

[laughs]

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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.

Published

on

Jessica Haustner
Photo: Karina Ressler/Magnolia Pictures

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.

Absolutely.

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.

Yes.

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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.

Published

on

Céline Sciamma
Photo: Claire Mathon

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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.

Published

on

Worst Christmas Songs
Photo: Atlantic Records

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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.

Published

on

Los Cabos International Film Festival 2019
Photo: Lucia Films

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.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

An image from The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. © Array

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.

The Twentieth Century

An image from The Twentieth Century. @ Oscilloscope

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The 25 Greatest Beck Songs, Ranked

For all his humor, Beck is consistently thoughtful and earnest in building his checkered monuments.

Published

on

Beck
Photo: Citizen Kane Wayne

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.


25. “Debra”

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


22. “Forcefield”

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


21. “Rowboat”

“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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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.

Published

on

Michael Apted
Photo: BritBox

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

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.

Published

on

Marielle Heller
Photo: TriStar Pictures

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.

Tom Hanks

Photo: TriStar Pictures

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.

Really?

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Interview: Rian Johnson on Knives Out and Bringing the Whodunnit to the Present

Johnson discusses his affinity for the whodunnit, his love of Agatha Christie, Star Wars, and more.

Published

on

Rian Johnson
Photo: Lionsgate

Whether paying homage to the golden age of noir in a high school setting (Brick), exploring a world in which time travel has not only been invented, but commodified and outlawed (Looper), or crafting a more intimate narrative within a beloved franchise (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Rian Johnson’s adoration of his cinematic predecessors is undeniable. Of the multitude of career feats for which the Silver Spring native is known, redefining genres remains, arguably, his most impressive.

And this year, the filmmaker has done it again with Knives Out, a modern, politically conscious take on the whodunnit. Though infused with the staples of this class-conscious genre, from the magnanimous detective, though one of the Southern-fried variety, to the coterie of potentially guilty parties, the film is also shot through with a distinctly modern sense of meta self-awareness and sociopolitical commentary.

Johnson recently sat down with me to discuss the film, and as we exchanged niceties, he pointed out my Girls on Tops shirt, noting he has “the Jamie Lee Curtis one.” Evidently, even directors geek out on their favorite actors. During our chat, we discussed the philosophical differences between film noir and the whodunnit, Johnson’s love for Agatha Christie, some of his other genre inspirations, the brilliance of Ana de Armas among Knives Out’s seasoned cast, Steven Sondheim, Skywalker Ranch, Star Wars, and more.

Brick is a neo-noir, and Knives Out is a whodunit. To you, what are the differences between the genres?

The key difference is almost a philosophical one between fiction film noir, which is [Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler and [James M.] Cain, and the whodunnit genre of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr. And the basic difference between the two of them is moral clarity, which is very interesting. The whodunit genre is a very morally unambiguous genre. There’s a crime. There’s moral chaos. The detective comes in, who’s usually the benevolent father, and he, through reason and order, sorts everything out and figures it out at the end and solves the crime and puts the universe back to sorts.

Whereas, obviously, with Chandler or Hammett, it’s the morally murky antihero, and nothing is put back right at the end of it. And everything is just as terrible as it always was. It’s fascinating, the comforting fairy-tale aspect of the whodunnit, but it’s also why I do describe the genre as comfort food for me. It’s something I keep coming back to over the years. And, goddamn, especially recently, the notion that reason and order could restore anything—the idea that goodness can bring anything back to being okay—would be nice [laughs].

No kidding. You spent 10 years developing Knives Out, and it subverts expectations until the very end. How many drafts did it take to make sure that the math and science of the script didn’t show?

That’s a good one. I [write] very structurally. Ten years ago, what I had was this very conceptual idea. It wasn’t like, “Oh, this person did it, and they did it this way with this weapon in the conservatory with the knife.” It was the very conceptual idea of taking a whodunnit, which is typically a genre that’s built on a big buildup to a surprise. Just, “Who done it?” That’s the name of the genre. And so you figure out who done it. “Oh my God, I’d never guess that,” or, “Oh, I guessed that.” And “Who cares?” That’s why Hitchcock hated whodunnits, famously, because drama built on surprise isn’t great drama. So, taking a whodunnit and putting the engine of a Hitchcock thriller in the middle of it and almost using that Hitchcock thriller as misdirection in a way so that we tell the audience very early, “Don’t worry about who done it. Don’t worry about solving this puzzle. That’s not what’s going to be entertaining for the next two hours. Here’s a person you care about. They’re threatened. Let’s all go on this ride together seeing if they can get out of this impossible situation.”

And the idea of doing that and yet still having all the pleasures of a whodunnit, basically, was the big-picture thing 10 years ago. And then I zoom in from there, and I figure out maybe it’s set in a big house with this family, and that means it’s this type of character who has this relation to this character, and this is how the detective functions in it. And I start putting the pieces together bit by bit, basically. And then the writing is where it really hits the road. Like you said, that’s when all the work goes into making the math feel like it isn’t math. I actually just sat down to write it last January. We had wrapped the movie by Christmas. I wrote it in like six months. And I still did a bunch of drafts. I did a lot of revisions to it. But when it was ready to come out, it came out very quickly, which I recently learned Christie wrote her books very quickly also. She was a big proponent of you think it, and you think it, and you think it. But then, especially with something this dense, there’s a value to not getting lost in the weeds. There’s a value to just pooping it out all at once. And I get it. It makes sense, especially if you’re trying to retain that very simple shape while it’s there.

This film is one of, if not, the funniest film that I’ve seen this year. Was it always your intention to have comedy be as much of an aspect as everything else?

I knew I wanted it to be funny. And I love all Agatha Christie adaptations. I’m a junkie. But I feel like a lot of the recent ones tend to go very serious in their tone. They tend to go dark. And that always loses me because the adaptations I grew up loving are Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, the ones with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. And they all have this sense of self-aware fun, and they have all-star casts. It’s a big show that they’re putting on, but it never tips into parody. It’s not Clue. It’s not Murder by Death. It’s a real whodunnit with actual emotional stakes that rides that line of still being incredibly fun and being aware that it’s putting on a show.

That was the target for me, were those Ustinov-based adaptations. It was always something I wanted to really clearly communicate, both to the studio when we were starting and then the actors when we were casting. Every step of the way, it was, “We’re going to try and have a lot of fun with this. This, hopefully, is going to be very funny, but it’s absolutely essential that we all know that we’re not making a parody about whodunnits, that we’re making a whodunnit about something else.” And what’s on the screen, if that’s successful, it’s the actors. It takes really good actors to be able to walk that line and give performances that are this big and this on the verge of caricature, but then to never lose the grounding so much that they disconnect from planet Earth.

And that “something else” is a staple of the whodunnit genre: class. Many of the characters share unsavory opinions about immigration and take other offensive stances toward minorities while Marta is working for them. Much of their careless spitting out of Fox News soundbites signifies a cold detachment. And while his own family is so dysfunctional, the grandchild searches for another family to call his own, unfortunately finding one in the annals of internet white supremacy.

Annals or the anals, yeah, one of the two [laughs].

Exactly. Would you say that this film is just as much about upper-class American decay as it is about a murder mystery?

For me, what’s always fun about using genre is how one thing can engage the other. And it’s every movie. I can’t start making a movie until I know what it’s really about for me, and that thing it’s about is never the genre itself. It’s always got to be something else, obviously, that I care about or I’m angry about or thinking about. And it’s not trying to insert a message into a genre or trying to hide a message under a genre. For me, the “message” can’t be a message at all. It’s got to be something that every single scene in the movie engages with in some way. It’s got to be tied into the very shape and mechanics of the genre itself. And class is something that, like you mentioned, this genre is particularly good at.

Gosford Park is a brilliant example of using it to talk about class. What’s interesting to me is it’s usually done in the context of Britain, and just because of Christie. And we have this thing in America where we like to pretend that class doesn’t exist. We like to pretend we’re a classless society, so the idea of applying the genre to America in 2019 seemed like fertile soil. But if I’m doing my job right, it’s a fun whodunnit. And everything that’s fun and whodunnit-y about it is also serving the thing that this has on its mind.

Not to throw anyone under the bus—

Throw them.

With such an incredible cast of actors, who were you most excited about working with?

I’m not dodging it when I say every single one of them. I know I kind of am. But I’ll say this. For me, the person I’m most excited for audiences to see and discover in it is Ana [de Armas]. She’s great. Of a cast full of huge, amazing actors and movie stars, [she] is maybe the least known, and she plays the central part in the movie. And it’s a really tricky part because she has to bring so much to it for it to actually work. And for her to confidently step into the middle of a cast like this and carry the movie to the extent that she does, she’s absolutely extraordinary.

Yeah. She was amazing in it.

Isn’t she great? And she’s been working forever. She did Spanish TV. She was in Blade Runner 2049 and a couple other American films, but I have a feeling you’re going to see a lot more of her over the next couple of years. My casting director, Mary Vernieu, brought her to my attention. I’d seen her in Blade Runner 2049, but I wasn’t really familiar with her work. She’s really something special. And she’s playing Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, which is crazy because she was camera testing for that while we were shooting. She would show me these video tests of her done up as Marilyn in the middle of shooting this with her as Marta. Like, de-glamorized Marta. And then she shows me, and I’m like, “Wow! Who are you?”

Rian Johnson

Photo: Claire Folger

I’m looking forward to that one. The Assassination of Jesse James was—

A fucking masterpiece. Incredible. He’s an amazing director. So, so good.

It was interesting that you had the cast spend time in the film’s gothic mansion for three weeks ahead of shooting in order to allow for “family bonding.” Do you have a fun story to share from the set?

There was one day where Frank Oz did a cameo, so he was on set. And it was really fun because everyone would just hang out in this little basement rec room down in the basement of this house. It felt like summer camp for movie stars. It was crazy. But the day Frank was on set, it was amazing seeing all these movie stars just gathered at his feet. Everybody was just in awe of him, and rightly so, trying to get stories about him doing Miss Piggy and Yoda. But Frank is a fantastic director: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, The Little Shop of Horrors, which is one the all-time great movie musicals. He’s an extraordinary, multi-talented guy. So that was an amazing day, just seeing all these actors bow down to the mighty Frank.

Are you planning any Agatha Christie-esque Knives Out sequels?

I would be thrilled, man. Yeah. We’ll see how this one does. You never know with an original thing. But god, I hope it does well because it would be so much fun to get together with Daniel [Craig] every few years and make a new one. You can tell how much fun he’s having doing this [laughs]. And it’s such a malleable genre. You can do so many different things with it, so that would be really, really fun.

Speaking of fun, the Sondheim song that Craig sings in the car was such a great scene [laughs]. You both must have had a blast shooting that.

Yes! Oh my god! “Losing My Mind.” That scene was so good.

Does Craig play F on the piano throughout the film? Because “Losing My Mind” is in the key of E.

Oh! Is that the song that’s going in his head while he’s doing it? I forget what note it is. Next time I’m watching, I’m going to look, and I’m sure we can see which one he’s hitting. Shit, where were you on set? I can claim it. I will retroactively claim it. I could have actually had it be a slightly different note he’s chiming, playing the tune of “Losing My Mind.” Shit! I have to go back and redo it [laughs].

Shall we do some last-minute reshoots?

Yeah. Let’s get back in, man. We’re going up to Skywalker this afternoon. We can do a remix. We’ll get [Daniel] up there.

Speaking of Skywalker, you’re still planning on writing and directing a Star Wars trilogy, correct?

I’m still talking to Lucasfilm about it. They haven’t announced anything. They’re still figuring out what they’re doing.

You confronted Rey’s parental lineage in The Last Jedi, seemingly putting an end to the many fan theories, while subverting expectations for a portion of toxic fans. Has any further information on Rey’s family been shared with you since The Rise of Skywalker began production, and are you concerned what J.J. Abrams might do with Rey’s lineage?

I’m not concerned at all. I’m 0% concerned. I’m thrilled. I cannot wait to see Episode IX. I’ll preface this by saying I’m going to be going in clean. I’ve tried to stay out of the process as much as possible. I can just be a Star Wars fan and sit down and watch. And I want to be thrilled. I want to be surprised. I cannot wait to see what happens next. I’ve never really understood the attitude that some people come at the movies with of, “I have my very specific list of things I want to see, and if those don’t happen, I’m going to be upset.” That I don’t get. And just in terms of movies, in general, I don’t know why you would sit down to watch a movie and feel like that and want that. So, to me, it’s all storytelling, man, and so push the story forward, have it make emotional sense, and take me someplace I’ve never been. And I know J.J.’s going to do that. I can’t wait.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

Interview: Todd Haynes on Dark Waters and Being in the Crosshairs of Everything

Haynes discusses how the film quietly continues some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.

Published

on

Todd Haynes
Photo: Focus Features

For more than 40 years, Todd Haynes has made fiercely challenging, experimental, and idiosyncratic films that have left an indelible mark on both independent and mainstream cinema. But there’s no single Todd Haynes style. Sometimes his films are complexly structured and narratively polygamous, as with his trifurcated, genre-subverting feature-length debut from 1990, Poison, and I’m Not There, his 2007 anti-biopic about Bob Dylan in which six different actors play the iconic musician. At other times, Haynes works within the conventions of genres that allow him to question social and cultural values: Far from Heaven, his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and Carol use the period melodrama template to examine racism, women’s independence, and queer desire, respectively, and all to stunning emotional effect.

But never before has Haynes more directly and unostentatiously confronted centers of power than with his latest project, the legal thriller Dark Waters. The film germinated with actor Mark Ruffalo’s interest in Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who made partner in 1998 at the storied Cincinnati law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, commonly known as Taft. Taking on the case of Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp in the film), a West Virginian farmer whose land is contaminated from toxic run-off dumped near his premises by DuPont Company, Bilott (Ruffalo) quickly encounters the gargantuan machine of corporate disinformation, negligence, cover-up, and strong-arm tactics that allow the company to shuck responsibility for causing devastating environmental destruction and an unprecedented human health crisis.

In directing Dark Waters, Haynes employs subtle, unobtrusive camerawork to complement a linear and character-centered narrative, showing with controlled objectivity Bilott’s discovery that speaking the truth and taking on corporate power comes with a major price in modern America. I spoke with Haynes last week about how the film marks a departure from his past work while quietly continuing some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.

How did you get involved with Dark Waters?

The first draft of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script came to me from Mark [Ruffalo] in 2017. This is all incredibly fast for the world of developing movies because Nathaniel Rich’s piece [about Bilott] had appeared [in the New York Times Magazine] just the year before. Already it had been optioned by Mark at Participant [Dark Waters’s production company], and he had decided to join forces with Matthew Michael. Then, for some reason—and I genuinely say this with modesty—Mark thought of me for it, because I’m not exactly the person one would think of for this movie right off the bat, however much he likes my other films. And I’m such an admirer of Mark on the screen, as well as his activism—and I’ve always wanted to work with him. What he didn’t know is how much of a secret fan of this genre I am. The story is gripping and enraging and shocking to me, but it also has this human component because it’s told through the narrative of Rob Bilott, an unlikely person to take on DuPont. The circumstances presented themselves to him and forced him to rethink what he does and what kind of practices he was protecting as a defense attorney.

At first, I had a busy schedule and didn’t think I was going to able to do it. But then some room cleared up about a year later and I thought I could do the film. But the first writer was busy at that time, so I thought, “Okay, let’s bring someone else in and start working on the script some more, get in deeper.”

Did you know the screenwriters, Mario Correa and Carnahan?

No, but I got to know Mario from samples of his work. I really like what I read and brought him in. There was a real urgency to get this moving on the part of Participant and Mark. And I saw why, but I wanted to see where things would go; I can’t start shooting a movie that’s not ready to be shot. So I searched for a writer and found Mario. We all got freed up by the end of May 2018 and went to Cincinnati for the first time with Mark then. And I met the entire world of the film in Cincinnati, the whole cast of characters, through the Taft law firm. Then we went off to Parkersburg [in West Virginia] and met those people—visited Wilbur’s farm and met Jim Tennant and his brother. All this is to say that Mario and I had to start fresh in talking about the script and experiencing the research together and talking with people [who were involved in the real events] together. And so we embarked on a very different version of the script together.

How did you collaborate with Mario? Did you base your work together on the scenes and moments from the article you wanted to include in the script? And how did you figure out how to make complicated legal issues and jargon and processes dramatically compelling?

Those were precisely the challenges and questions we had. The focus initially was to find the darker and more conflicted parts of the story than what we’d been introduced to in the New York Times Magazine piece and the first draft of the script. There’s a tremendous amount of pain and terror involved in challenging systems of power. And the more you learn about a story like this—and this is true in films like this that I dig, like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, Silkwood, The Insider—the bigger the story gets, the more haunted you are by the repercussions. You’re kind of like, “Holy shit, look what I’m on to.” You feel this in All the President’s Men, when [the reporters] can’t believe how the story’s growing, and the more the story grows the more your life seems to shrink. You become more alienated, your safety is more fraught, there’s less ease to your movements. It affects all the people involved: your family, your friends, your community. People begin to turn against you; they alienate you and besmirch your reputation. All that stuff, that’s all true to these experiences. And it’s all incredibly dramatic and it’s how you relate emotionally to these stories.

Truth-telling in movies is a slippery prospect because movies have a hard time telling the truth. And it’s important to question deliberate truth being told to you from any source, particularly one that’s based on entertainment and moneymaking. I’ve been really interested and uncomfortable making movies my whole life. But that’s why I wanted to make them, because they intersect with culture and commerce and identity and desire. So, you’re really in the crosshairs of a lot of contradictory forces. And that’s an exciting place to be when you’re not just interested in replicating a sense of well-being or escapism or affirmation of the system. And I guess that’s where this kind of genre is so great, because even if we’re following a lot of its conventions in ways that I don’t always follow for the conventions of the other films I’ve made, I believe this genre is fundamentally unsettling. There’s a stigma attached to the truth-teller that you also don’t necessarily expect. You think that, well, righteous truth is on your side, what do you have to fear? Well, everything.

I was just thinking of your past films, especially Safe and the suffocating environment of that film. How did you collaborate with Edward Lachman in achieving a similar atmosphere in Dark Waters? All of the themes and ideas you just described, how did you want to express them through the film’s cinematography?

I felt that a kind of restrained, observant camera and a kind of emotional coolness—both literally and figuratively—to the subject matter was apropos, especially in regard to Rob Bilott. There’s a kind of festering subjectivity in a movie like The Insider that I love, that works really well for that film and is pure Michael Mann. It’s laid on very thick, that aggressive subjectivity and myopic camera with a focal length that keeps shifting so you can’t really tell what’s going on—it links the 60 Minutes journalist and Jeff Wigand. In this movie, I was more drawn to cooler frames and a more restrained camera and proximity, like Gordon Willis’s cinematography in those ‘70s films. Because this felt more like Rob, it felt more cautious and pulled back. And it also allowed more movement from his world to the people he has to connect with, so you can move from one place to the next in the movie with more dexterity and not be competing with an intense subjective experience. Rob’s subjectivity is something that he learns in the course of stumbling onto this story. He learns how to see and then how to speak about what he sees in ways that he had never known before. So, I didn’t want to anticipate that point of view. I wanted that point of view to be something we watch ourselves. That’s something that for today’s culture and audience, I know that that was somewhat risky.

Why?

Well, because it’s asking an audience to be patient, and it’s asking an audience to find what’s important in the frame and not hit them over the head with it. That’s why those films from the ‘70s feel like they’re regarding the audience with a great deal of intellectual respect, to kind of figure out what the attitude is here. Whether it’s the case of the paranoia films of Alan Pakula or the first two Godfather movies, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a strong point of view because of the way they’re shot and lit. But there’s space to interpret what’s going on. That’s the choice that I made for this film. And Ed and I just liked the corporate spaces where much of the action takes place, these hollow spaces. I loved what the real Taft offices looked like.

It was shot in the real Taft offices?

Yeah, and where we built sets, the conference room and Rob’s office, we built them 10 floors up in the same building looking out over the exact skyline and with the exact same parameter of the architecture of this 1980s building. We used all the design elements from Taft: those striped frosted glass walls, the floating walls over the windows and under the ceiling, the 45-degree corridors that he sculpts through, the fact that there was no uniform size or shape to the windows across the entire parameter of the floors, and that they looked out onto these beautiful landscapes of skylines of downtown Cincinnati with flanks of interrupted space in architecture in the foreground and little surprising peaks all the way through the Ohio River if you just cocked your head a couple of inches one way or another. So, the whole sense of [Bilott’s] discovery of obfuscation was mirrored in the architecture and design of this space. You also have these surprising pockets of incredibly dark shadows and then sudden appearances of light from the windows. That was so visually informative and specific and I found it so beautiful. Some of my favorite shots of the film are these big, wide window shots with the snow falling, and a wide shot of Tom Terp [a senior partner at Taft] and Rob Bilott talking to each other from a distance. The weather contributed heavily to the look and feel of the movie; it was a bitter cold winter that we shot through. We tried to apply the same visual language to shooting at Wilbur’s farm and in Parkersburg, so you could feel these worlds were linked, that they weren’t separate.

Were you going for an Antonionian thing like in Safe, where the environment is both an influence on and reflection of the characters’ experience?

Yeah, a manifestation of their experience. And a place where you can get lost in the corridors and then places where you’re isolated in big, open spaces. It’s a place that felt both big and small intermittently, and that would sometimes alternate according to what’s going on emotionally or in the content.

That’s similar to how I felt in the scenes that take place in Parkersburg, where it’s this small, rural town and yet, from the way you capture it, it feels like it represents the entire world and its destruction from pollution. What decisions did you make in the cinematography of the film when you shot there?

Ed and I tend to favor this sort of dirty palette in almost any of my movies if you look back at them. But it shifts in tonality based on what the story is and what the time period of the story is and what the temperament of the movie is. For Dark Waters, we favored way more of a cool spectrum in the color timing, which gave the warmer interiors always this cool shadow. That meant that beige walls, you couldn’t tell if they were a warm or a cool color. Hannah Beachler designed the film, and we were all sort of in sync with picking design elements for the interiors that could move between warm and cool temperatures easily, depending on whether it’s light from outside coming in or Tungsten light from inside. You just never feel a relief of tensions and of a little bite of rigidity that invades these spaces. We certainly didn’t want to make Wilbur’s farm a place of rural pleasure or—

—rustic beauty—

Yeah, and it gives you the sense that even truth is corruptible. So, Wilbur, who’s attached more to a notion of truth, he’s living in this contaminated space. Truth almost becomes a kind of toxin because it undermines the status quo and business as usual.

How did you work with some of the real-life players in the story, especially in gauging the accuracy of the film in relation to the real events?

We relied on them as much as we could. They were really eager partners in contributing to the film, and they all had to agree to that. Nobody on the DuPont side, of course, agreed to have their real names in the movie. Everyone else did and were advisors on the movie. And it was really lovely to have them come and join us on set and be pictured within scenes.

In I’m Not There, you had Heath Ledger’s version of Bob Dylan proclaim, “There’s no politics,” but only “sign language.” Throughout your career, you’ve often examined the signs and symbols through which people communicate individual, political, and cultural meaning. Was that also your concern in Dark Waters, even though the politics and social significance of the story are very much up front and center in the film and not imparted through metaphor?

I haven’t thought about that line and applying it to this movie, but I did feel with this story that the massiveness of this contamination, the fact that [C-8, a toxic chemical manufactured by DuPont] is in 98% of creatures on the planet…what can you say that about except for things as invasive and all-present as, I don’t know, capitalism or patriarchy—things that never asked for our permission for them to invade us. And so, in a way it makes us linked by these pernicious systems. We participate in them, we enable them, but what do you do? Do you pretend they don’t exist? Do you wish they could all disappear with one legal action? No. You get as knowledgeable as you can, you try to identify what they are, and you push back in certain ways. You develop a critical relationship to life and to social power, and how the individual is always the product or target of it.

The material through which systems work.

The material or outgrowth of it. I like that this movie reveals this, but there’s also no solution except how we interpret, how we stand up to small issues, bigger issues, how we engage with our system politically and culturally, and in how we live imperfectly between knowledge, ignorance, and despair. It’s a complicated and imperfect series of choices that we have to make. But what do you do instead? Do you put your head back in the sand? Do you go back and cook on Teflon [for which C-8 was manufactured]? Do you pretend that patriarchal systems don’t still function and distinguish between men and women and white people and black people? No, we need to be aware, and that’s what this film helps us do.

What are your upcoming projects?

My real passion project is a piece on Freud. That’s going to take a while to figure out because it needs to be a multi-part, episodic experience. That’s where my heart and soul are anchored, but I’ve just been busy elsewhere, as you can imagine. And there’s a Velvet Underground project; I just said yes when they came to me from the Universal Music Group that controls their music and half of all the other music that’s been recorded. I’m so into it, I’m so excited. We did 20 interviews. My decision was to only interview people who were there, band members, anybody of the surviving people who were around at the time, who really saw it up close, directly. So that meant getting Jonas Mekas on film right before he passed away, and getting John Cale, of course, and Maureen Tucker. We’ve just put together this insane archive of material, historical stuff, clips of the band, and pieces of Warhol films of the band that people have never seen before. It’s a real well, and I want to summon that time again. I want to immerse in it as much as possible. That’s our goal.

They deserve a major movie. They’re one of the greatest and most important bands ever, period.

Yeah. It’s going to be crazy good.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending