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Live Wire: An Interview with The Comedy of Errors Star Hamish Linklater

What kind of Hamish Linklater fan you are likely depends on what kind of entertainment you take in the most.

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Live Wire: An Interview with The Comedy of Errors Star Hamish Linklater
Photo: Joan Marcus

What kind of Hamish Linklater fan you are likely depends on what kind of entertainment you take in the most. If you’re a TV buff, odds are you know him from The New Adventures of Old Christine, or maybe Gideon’s Crossing. If you mainly watch films, you’ve surely seen his standout work in a range of projects, from Miranda July’s The Future and the old cult flick Groove to Greta Gerwig’s vehicle Lola Versus and this year’s 42. Theater junkies know Linklater from his extensive work on stage, which dates all the way back to his childhood, when his mother, Kristin Linklater, a vocal technique teacher and current chair of the Acting Division at Columbia University, made him aware of the Bard almost immediately. Throughout his theater career, the 36-year-old has starred with the likes of the late Jill Clayburgh in Off Broadway productions, made his Broadway debut in 2011’s Seminar with Alan Rickman and Jerry O’Connell, and made repeated returns to the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park, appearing in 2009’s Twelfth Night and 2010’s The Merchant of Venice. This season, the actor returns to the outdoor venue in The Comedy of Errors, which reunites him with director Daniel Sullivan and his frequent co-star Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

One of the lightest and breeziest of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Comedy of Errors concerns a classic—or, rather, exceptional—case of mistaken identities, following two sets of twins, both bearing the names Antipholus and Dromio, as they begin to cross paths after being separated at birth. The two Antipholuses and two Dromios are both played by Linklater and Ferguson, respectively, giving actors and director a remarkable challenge. The result is something uncommonly joy-inducing, and after I caught the show (which began previews at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater on May 28, and officially runs from June 18 through June 30), I chatted with Linklater about his diverse acting resumé. Unmistakably earthbound and laugh-out-loud irreverent, the supremely gifted guy had great stuff to offer, like watching Pacino “build an edifice,” getting to know his real-life 42 counterpart (the last Brooklyn Dodger alive from that day), and the priceless virtues of a great prosthetic ass.

I read that you began doing Shakespeare at the age of eight, under the tutelage of your mother when she founded the Shakespeare & Company drama troupe. Do you think it was inevitable that you’d eventually be performing Shakespeare for larger crowds at bigger venues?

I was incredibly lucky that I got to work in the family business, and that the family business was an awesome one. It would have been awesome if we were butchers, too, I’m sure, but it was great. My mom started that company when I was two, so I was just hanging out there for a while, and then when I became useful, when they needed kids to fill the scenes, they started putting me in.

When did it all start to feel like something that could be your own life’s work?

I was always doing plays over the summer at [the Shakespeare & Company drama troupe] or other places, and I went to college to be an English major. I lasted about a year doing that before dropping out and moving to New York, and that was basically because my girlfriend was a senior, and she was moving there, and I was following her. But I also knew that I really just wanted to get started with acting, since that was the most fun.

You’re no stranger to Shakespeare in the Park or Daniel Sullivan, who also directed you in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice. What, for you, makes The Comedy of Errors stand out? Its tone and content are certainly similar to those of Twelfth Night.

Yeah, maybe it’s like a sort of early draft or something. It’s got that wonderful reconciliation at the end when the twins get revealed. It’s a play they did at Shakespeare & Company a lot when I was a kid—it was really a popular show. I was really surprised that they hadn’t done it at the Delacorte Theater for however long [21 years], because it’s actually a really beautifully structured piece and it’s super accessible. The language is really simple for Shakespeare. But it’s also just super fun, and the thing about Dan is that, he directs all these dramas or whatever, but he’s super funny. And with this much physical humor and stuff like that, his impeccable taste was really important. So I think both Jesse [Tyler Ferguson] and I felt really safe going into it, knowing that he would be our sort of shtick barometer, telling us what was okay and was a step too far.

The choreography of some of the slapstick elements is really involved. Was there something especially challenging about it? Because with some of the scenes, there’s so much happening on stage, your eyes just can’t stop moving.

Yeah, it’s a big sprint. I’m like, super sore. My back is super sore. And a lot of it is from running around on the concrete beneath the stage to make the quick changes and stuff like that. My hips, my back—I’m walking around like an old man. And we’ve all been through that at full speed for like a week. So, it’s a monster, but it’s super fun, and you know, you’ll break your back for a laugh, I think, if you’re worth your weight in ha-has. So as long as it gets a laugh, then we’re up for it.

The production is rare in that it sees you and Jesse Tyler Ferguson each playing both versions of Antipholus and Dromio, as opposed to casting four actors, which has historically been more common. How did you envision, or enliven, your two characters? Because they’re quite different.

Well, I mean, a lot of it is just what Shakespeare gives you: One guy is sort of this innocent, and the one set of twins are, like, the country twins, who are inexperienced and terrified of sin. And the other ones are the sort of city mice. That Antipholus beats his Dromio all the time, and is in the whorehouse, and drinking a lot. So it’s right there. And once Dan set it in this kind of gangster, thirties world, it helped all of that. And what’s also in the text is how the city one uses much shorter words, whereas the country one is much more limpid and his language is a lot dreamier. So you go to Shakespeare’s text for clues, and that’s really fun.

What’s harder: Your incredible, breathless monologue in the final act, or keeping your composure opposite Jesse Tyler Ferguson?

[laughs] Keeping my composure opposite Jesse Tyler Ferguson, or keeping one’s composure opposite Jesse Tyler Ferguson, is a Herculean effort. I’m surprised that anyone can manage it. But then they do—I mean, look at Eric Stonestreet. They give you Emmys for putting up with Jesse. [laughs] No, but I’ve known him for a while, and I love him, and it’s really, really awesome getting to do this with him And the last monologue is just a sort of survival thing, because you’re so sweaty and so hot. So it’s been like, “Just get to the end—just get to the end without fainting.”

I do want to talk a bit further about the monologue, because it’s extremely impressive. Is there a great deal of intense prep for that? Or is it just, the more nights you do it, the more it becomes like muscle memory?

Yeah, I guess it’s kind of like that. But also, he’s just…all these crazy things have happened to [Antipholus], so then you just say to yourself, “I’ve really gotta prove the point that I’m not crazy, and that all these things really did happen.” So it’s just about making your points, and then you’ll get through to the end of it.

You have this extensive theater background, but some people, myself included, discovered you in gems like The Future, which sees you turn in a fantastic performance. Having also starred in recent films like 42, are you looking to nab more movie projects, or do you prefer the stage?

I mean, growing up on stage, I love that, and that’s what I know, and film and TV is something that I’ve had to learn a lot more. I’m so glad you liked The Future. I was so proud of that movie, and I worked so hard to get it. I was so in love with [Miranda July’s] first movie, and that was the one job that I really tried to kill to get. It took about three years to get it, but I loved it. But film acting is hard. You do a play, and there are people there, and you get to go from beginning to end, and you’re making it with the audience. In a film, you’re making it with a camera and a boom operator. So it’s a much trickier thing. Theater’s more instantly gratifying, and you only get one shot at it versus however many takes. So theater’s always going to be what I love most, but telling a great story with a great storyteller in a movie is a really, really lucky thing to get to do.

In 42, your character, Ralph Branca, has some of the most poignant scenes with Chadwick Boseman’s Jackie Robinson, in terms of team bonding.

Yeah, I’m a big baseball fan. So when I heard about the movie I was like, “You know, if it’s two scenes, I’m fine. I just want to put on the uniform and go and hang out in those ballparks and learn to pitch properly. So that was a real treat—a boyhood, geek-out, baseball dream come true.

And are you based in New York? Because you’re so enmeshed in New York theater and even 42 is a very New York-centric. I figured there might be some personal resonance there.

I live in Los Angeles. When I moved to New York I was 19, and I was here for about five years, and then I moved to LA for a TV show. But I’ve been back and forth a lot. And my mom teaches up at Columbia, so whenever I’m here I have to stay with her. But she has plenty of room, so we don’t have to share a bed, which is nice. But I am a Yankees fan. I have a tattoo of Derek Jeter’s number two on my arm. And my guy, Ralph, was the only surviving member of the team in the film, so I got to go and meet him and hang out with him, and that was really so awesome. He still works out in Rye, New York, so I went to his insurance company to meet him. He just scratched his balls, and told me old stories.

Ha! Well, alright then. You know, it’s interesting: when it comes to lesser-known film actors, so many of them will say things like “I’m dying to work with Al Pacino, or Alan Rickman, or Anne Hathaway.” And here, being someone who bridges the stage-to-screen gap, you’ve done it—you’re doing it, working with these people. Is that one of the big perks of theater work?

Oh, absolutely. You get so much from all of them in totally different and surprising ways. I mean, when we did Merchant of Venice, it was just me and Al in the dressing room together. And just getting to ask him about stories, or just watching him put himself together night after night, and just sort of pick up the rubble from the night before and build an amazing edifice again, it’s just unbelievable to be around that. And I’m so lucky to do it onstage because, you know, in a film, you might not get that kind of interaction.

You’ve starred in CBS’s The New Adventures of Old Christine, and you have another CBS sitcom coming up, The Crazy Ones, with Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar. What can you share about that?

Well, we had a lot of fun doing the pilot. My character works in an advertising firm that’s run by Robin Williams’s character and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character. That’s pretty much what I know. It’s tricky with these TV shows, because you don’t actually know what you’re character’s going to be until enough of the—what is it?—the testing results come back in. But as far as I know I’m the art director for the firm, and we’ll be making lots of jokes, and it’ll be awesome.

And it’s a David E. Kelley show?

Yeah, and he’s terrific, and was a big draw. I had also done a movie with Robin Williams earlier this year where I played his son. And I signed for that because I was like, “When am I ever going to get to work with Robin Williams?” And now I’m working with him for the next seven years, or as long as TV deems it possible. But David Kelley, yeah, I was a huge fan of all of his shows, and the script was fantastic.

What was the film that you worked on with Robin?

It’s called The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, and it’s directed by Phil [Alden] Robinson, who did Field of Dreams. I play a ballroom dance instructor. So there’s another thing that film lets you do—you learn how to be a ballroom dance instructor. Although, basically, all I did for that was get a fake butt, which made me look more like a dancer. A big, fake butt.

You got a fake butt?

Yeah, I kinda learned how to do ballroom dancing, but it was too hard, so I got a fake butt.

Hang on a sec. Just so we’re clear on this: You weren’t quite sure how to do ballroom dancing properly, so they got you a fake butt to wear under your pants to make you better look the part?

It was not their idea. It was my idea. I was looking at the proper dancers who knew how to dance and they all had these incredibly high, high asses. So, I said, “The dancing is never going to look professional grade, but my ass might be able to look professional grade. So let’s go get a fake ass.” And then wardrobe agreed, so, yeah. It’s an amazing ass. My ass is amazing.

That might be one of my favorite interview answers ever.

Good.

So when is that film being released?

I have no idea. I think they just finished it and now they’re looking to get it onto the festival circuit. Mila Kunis is in it, and Peter Dinklage, and Melissa Leo, and James Earl Jones. It’s an awesome cast.

Excellent. Getting back to Shakespeare: You’ve done so many productions. You’ve played Hamlet. Is there a specific show you’re itching to do?

I really want to do Richard III. I think he’s really funny, and I’m already three years older than he was when he died, and I also think the play is really interesting. Because he’s a war vet who’s come back to court in a country that’s completely forgotten about all the wars it set out to do and is in this happy tribe of peace. So he decides to kill everyone. I think that sounds like a fun play.

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Interview: Ladj Ly on Sounding an Alarm Bell with Les Misérables

The filmmaker discusses the public reaction of the film, bringing it to Emmanuel Macron, and more.

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Ladj Ly
Photo: Amazon Studios

Titling any feature, much less one’s feature-length directorial debut, after one of your country’s most beloved shared texts might initially smack of hubris. And yet, Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables defies expectations of imposing grandiosity from its name alone. His tale of escalating tensions between the ethnic and religious minorities living in one of the banlieues (or suburbs) of Paris and the police force designated to keep them in check offers a portrait of his country from the most grounded, bottom-up level.

Ly has long been a filmmaker of the people. Primarily through web documentaries and more recently through docu-fictions and short films, his work elevates the voices of his native Montfermeil. Les Misérables feels at once like what Ly has been waiting to say his entire life and a righteously indignant encapsulation of what he’s been expressing about his community for decades. Inspired by the 2005 Paris riots but rooted in a visceral now, the film follows the complications that arise when an anti-crime squad attempts to make an arrest among the local gangs. With an impressive even-handedness, Ly charts the frenetic, verité action as it spirals outward. The film doesn’t seek out to expose one side so much as it looks to illustrate how each faction conditions itself to only recognize the humanity of those within their own group.

I caught up with Ly in New York shortly after Les Misérables opened for French audiences in November 2019. Our discussion covered how both the public and the government received his film, why the titular text didn’t serve as much direct inspiration, and how he pulled off the high-stakes opening sequence in the midst of France celebrating its World Cup victory.

At what point did you decide to title the film Les Misérables? Were you looking to draw parallels to Victor Hugo from the beginning, or was it only in development that you realized the film could enter into conversation with the text?

It’s a title that I’ve had in my head for a really long time. I’ve always told myself that my first film would be called Les Misérables. It’s a title I’ve had for over 12 years.

You’ve mentioned that the neighborhood in the film is the same one in which Gavroche is from in the novel. Were there any other characters or archetypes from the original Les Misérables from which you drew? I thought I saw a bit of Valjean and Javert, people on both sides of the law convinced of their own righteousness.

Not really. There are certain parallels you could find. For instance, Javert, you could compare him with BAC, the anti-drug brigade. But really, I concentrated on Gavroche. I guess I accept this Javert/anti-drug parallel, but those are the only two that come from Hugo.

Especially in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo conveyed how systems of law and order could dehumanize people and often leads them back into the very acts these institutions are designed to stop. Was that on your mind at all?

My film is first and foremost an alarm bell calling out politicians: those who are responsible for the system put in place and that they have allowed to rot. They just allow this system to stay in place, and they know full well it doesn’t work.

You don’t get on a soapbox and directly point a finger at the institutions that create the conditions influencing the characters’ behavior, but that feels like the villain of Les Misérables. How do you get that message across without being didactic?

It was important for me not to show things in too heavy a manner. We understand things if you see the film. For instance, by reading the sentence at the end of the film [a postscript taken from Hugo’s novel: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators”]. What was important for me was to describe situations in an accurate way and not cast judgment, including on the characters.

How do you not take sides without being completely morally ambivalent? For instances, it’s clearly wrong to use excessive force.

I just try to be as accurate as possible. This is a territory I really know. I grew up there and have been there for 30 years. These are people that I know. I know the high schools, everything. I’m just trying to describe the reality in an accurate way and inspire myself from what I’ve seen.

What has made you gravitate toward fiction? What does it offer you that pure documentary doesn’t?

I always wanted to make fiction, but I took my time. I’m self-taught. I didn’t go to film school, so I really did things one step at a time. Initially, I started out with documentary because I was filming my neighborhood. With time, I had a lot of material and was able to make that into films. Then I came to docu-fiction and really tried to avoid hurrying. At the same time, there was this pressure because my colleagues in the collective [Kourtrajmé, which he began with Romain Gavras and Toumani Sangaré in 1995] had become feature directors. I didn’t want to show up with something that wouldn’t be really strong. I had to take my time on a fiction film that everyone would agree [on] and would be really good.

The film opens with a striking sequence during the 2018 World Cup victory celebrations in Paris. At what point did you realize this would be a good way to start the film?

I’ve always had this film in my head, but the sequence you’re describing came along much later. Maybe it was around the beginning of that year when we realized that the World Cup might be a possibility. We told ourselves, “Well, if France gets to the semi-finals, we’ll have a crew ready.” As we have it, France won, and we were able to get those images. We took advantage of what was happening that year.

How did you pull the shoot together? How did you make sure you didn’t lose sight of the characters in the high stakes production?

I come from documentary, [so] I’m used to these things. It was more or less simple to shoot that one. It wasn’t specifically hard. Of course, it’s not easy to deal with crowds and especially a triumphant, celebratory crowd. That’s not the simplest thing, but we managed.

Is the team at all a metaphor for the France you portray in the film? The country rallies behind a group of mostly non-white Frenchmen on the world stage but then turns a blind eye to the plight of immigrant communities around the corner from them.

That’s what that means, yeah. Unfortunately, it’s only soccer today that makes us all French, that makes us all equal. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” only works during the soccer game. Afterward, everyone goes back to their own social condition. That’s it.

“I appeal to your team spirit,” the police chief says at the beginning of the film, which feels like such an ironic introduction into a world where these events fracture people so distinctly. Is Les Misérables at all a commentary on the limitations of solidarity?

Yes, it’s especially solidarity within groups—the slogan you hear in the film, that spirit of solidarity no matter what. You see that with the cops. Even when they do something wrong, they’re going to protect each other. That’s the golden rule. When we were writing the film, we met some cops and they told us that. We might get into disagreements among ourselves, but if someone breaks with this solidarity, that person is going to disappear.

In the U.S., there’s been a lot of progress in holding police accountable through having video cameras on cellphones. Here, you have a drone capturing a really crucial moment of tension, which can fly away and be separated from the body of the person. At what point did you decide to use this technology in the story?

I had written a short earlier in which there were several drones. Ultimately, I didn’t shoot that film, but I decided I wanted to use the drone in the feature. But I didn’t want to use it like everyone else because, nowadays, everybody is using them all the time just to make pretty pictures. I wanted the drone in my film to be a full-fledged character. It’s a kid [Al-Hassan Ly’s Buzz] who’s using the drone and, in a way, that’s my story because I’ve been filming this area for so long. The drone allows us to get some elevation, so it also allows us to know the territory. And it does allow us to have some beautiful images!

I also think of a drone as more of a tool of government surveillance, so it felt a bit ironic to see it in the hands of the people used against the police.

Yeah, cops use drones a lot. But Buzz is the eye of the neighborhood. I’m not going to get into the end of the film—people should see it for themselves—but we do see that he remains the eye of the neighborhood. To flip the drone around against the cops, that really makes sense.

You’ve said that you wrote to Emmanuel Macron asking him to screen the film. Has there been any progress there now that the film is the French submission to the Oscars?

Yes, he heard the message! He invited us to come to the president’s residence to show the film, and eventually I declined that invitation and invited him to come to my film school in Montfermeil to see the film. I didn’t get any answer to that invitation, so we sent him a DVD. Last week, I heard he saw the film and heard he was tremendously moved by it. Right now, his government is working on coming up with measures to help these kinds of neighborhoods. So that’s the latest news from Emmanuel Macron.

How has the reception been since opening? What are you hoping the French do in response to the film?

So far, it’s been great. I made this film to get people talking and start debates. We can see on social media, for instance, that people are really responding. I made the film so people could understand how people really live in these neighborhoods, and that’s working.

Is the role of the fiction film just to start the debate, not incite action?

It’s a little bit of all of that. Already, to describe these situations and really deal with these issues is a really good thing. But I think in France today, there are fewer and fewer politically committed films, so it’s really good to have this kind of film.

Translation by Nicholas Elliott

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

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Interview: Max Richter on His Ad Astra Score and its So-Called Planetary Instruments

Richter discusses how he connects his classical schooling to one of his other early passions: outer space.

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Max Richter
Photo: Wolfgang Borrs

NASA launched its Voyager program over 40 years ago, and since then, sci-fi films like James Gray’s Ad Astra have been drawing inspiration from the journey that the program’s twin robotic probes have made through our outer solar system. And for the film’s post-minimalist soundtrack, influential composer Max Richter actually pulled plasma wave data from the Voyager probes and used it to make music that would embody the story of the long and precarious journey that an existentially fraught astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), makes through space to find his famed father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones).

Though Ad Astra’s music is written with an interstellar scope in mind, Richter is modest when speaking about his diminutive “notes on the page.” “If you don’t get the notes right on the piano, they won’t sound right when they are being played by an orchestra,” he says in a straightforward way. Ad Astra is also a bit of a return to a childhood dream for the musician, as one of his first memories was being woken up in the middle of the night by his parents to watch the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing on a black-and-white TV set in their living room.

Speaking with German-born British composer while he takes a break from recording his next album, we discussed how he connects his classical schooling—he studied composition and piano at the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of Music, and with experimental Italian composer Luciano Berio in Florence—to one of his other early passions: outer space. In doing so, we also discover that the distance between two broken human psyches sometimes feels as though it’s on an interstellar scale.

How are you doing today after the recent U.S. tour?

I’m recording today, so I’m good. I’m recording a new project for next year.

Is there anything that you can share about it yet?

Well, it’s very much the vein of my other kind of storytelling projects around society and culture, like Memoryhouse and Blue Notebooks. So, it has a kind of a sociopolitical, activist dimension. It’s very much in the vein of Memoryhouse and Blue Notebooks.

Both of those albums posit the idea of the democratization of music and getting it out there, and you’ve continued that commentary on sociopolitical things. What are your thoughts on the choice to perform the eight-hour composition Sleep at the Great Wall of China? Obviously sleep, shelter, and food and water are common denominators across all cultures and governments.

Sleep is a piece which is about finding a place to rest and repose. It’s a moment to pause and reflect, and I think music can provide that. Artworks can provide that. They can provide a place to think—to think about what we’re doing. That’s one of the most important things I think that music can do. I felt that bringing Sleep to that setting was, in a way, my way of contributing to that debate to what was going on over there, what is going on over there, and to try and make a kind of a plea for kind of a humane behavior. I think that’s really one of the things that Sleep is about. So, yeah, it was very, very interesting.

I saw that when you were approached to work on Ad Astra, you saw a rough cut. What were you originally struck by as a composer even in that early stage of the edit?

There are really two films in Ad Astra. There’s the father-son psychodrama and then there’s the voyage in space. I like the way that these two films are superimposed on top of one another. I then started thinking about the two kinds of musical language. The first being that kind of personal instrumental language, which speaks to the dynamic between Roy and Clifford, and the second being the kind of big-picture music.

I had kind of traditional instrumentation for them and their story and then I thought, “What about the big-picture music, what about the physics, and, you know, all of that science?” So I thought about the Voyager I and II probes, which have actually made the journey that’s depicted in the film. I contacted Iowa University’s Department of physics & Astronomy, which got data that the Voyager probes recorded on their journey.

They actually measured the plasma wave data all the way out and sent it back. We got a hold of the data and transformed it into musical sounds. That allowed me to use almost like a location-recording approach to the electronic music so that when Brad’s character goes past a planet, you’re actually hearing data collected there, transformed into music. As well as being illustrative and embodying the journey, you’ve actually got real objects from that place. That was the sort of jumping-off point for the electronic music parts.

Is the data that you manipulated throughout the soundtrack or does it only pop up on select tracks?

Oh yeah! We’ve actually built computer-modeled instruments out of that data. So, there’s that kind of raw and cooked versions of that data [on the soundtrack].

I enjoyed the classical parts of the score meeting those electronic ones. It got me thinking about your background in Renaissance music. I immediately think of angelic things when I hear the harp on the soundtrack. First Man employed it in a different way. I was curious about that instrument choice.

I mean, there are a lot of sounds which kind of evoke traditional religious music or choral writing. There are these kinds of glassy, high-frequency tones and they sort of transcend them in some way. They evoke those colors. The reverberation I’ve used in the score throughout is a digital model of the Notre Dame in France. It’s a kind of a virtual cathedral [laughs] that all the music is being played through. I think that kind of affects us. It makes us think about big stuff and the sort of big questions. The film is about big questions. So, we’re trying to sort of populate the sonic universe of it with these sorts of emblems, which remind us of those things.

I watched an Estonian TV show in which you likened the Brexit situation to someone willfully stepping off a fast-moving train, and though the story for Ad Astra is highly personal, there are some moments, almost like Easter eggs, that are commentaries on what life might be like in that situation. Did you find any contemporary, socioeconomic elements coming out in the writing against those images?

Well, yeah. I mean, I think James Gray is a realist. You know, he’s a very, very smart writer, and he’s very sanguine about the present and the future. Certainly, the way the moon is depicted in Ad Astra is the big thing, as it’s got subways and stuff all over it and there’s a war going on. It’s like we’ve just exported all the problems of Earth and put them on the moon. That’s basically what he’s saying [laughs]. You know, it’s actually very sad. I think Brad’s character actually says this [about the moon]. He says something like, “You know, if my dad was here, he would certainly be so depressed.” So, James is very sanguine about the potential for humanity, but he does show humanity’s habit of falling back on these sorts of conflicts.

I read that you’re closer with your mother and I was curious if there was anything that you found with your personal journey with your father that came up as you were working through the soundtrack?

Yes, in a way. I mean, I think all father-son relationships have an element of confrontation [laughs] that Roy and Clifford have. It seems to be something about the male psyche isn’t it, somehow? There’s always something of that and hopefully [laughs] not as much as they have. Yeah, I think it speaks to people because of that. Roy is somebody who can’t connect to other people. That’s his kind of challenge and that’s his journey and connecting sometimes is hard. It’s also like the most important thing we do actually. Yeah, there’s a paradox in that. I think the film does speak to people in a personal way. And, certainly, to me.

You’ve done versions of classical pieces throughout your career, most notably on the album Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, but I really liked the rendition of Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion. What did you want to convey with that on the soundtrack at that point in the film’s narrative?

Bach’s music is kind of like the most perfect music in my brain. It’s like divine music, you know? “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion translates as “have mercy.” You know, obviously it’s in a religious context in that film. What I was thinking is, “Well, this is really what Roy is asking for from his father.” He’s saying, “Have mercy,” and the father is saying, “No, not in this way.” It just seemed to sum up their dynamic and, obviously, it’s fantastic music. It was a nice opportunity to kind of revisit that and then I think there’s something about Bach’s music which just sort of connects to some of those sorts of very archetypal, cosmic images. It’s because of the incredible perfection of the geometry of Bach’s music.

I really enjoyed the orchestra’s energy and thrum on “Encounter” and “Forced Entry.” They show more of the menacing side that you have as a composer and it’s definitely reflected in the film. It seems like there’s some kind of electronic-like processing on the instruments for those tracks.

Yeah, there is. I basically just put guitar pedals on the orchestra for just sort of gritty energy in various places. There’s quite a bit of that kind of stuff, and aside from the so-called planetary instruments made from the Voyager data, there’s also the synthesizer that I use most is a Moog System 55. Apart from being like an archetypal synth and my absolute favorite, it also comes from, you know, 1969, which is the Apollo 11 landing year. It all just sort of made sense. All of that quite gritty, analog-sounding electronics stuff is from the Moog 55 and it’s there because of its association with, you know, that moment in history. It has kind of a cosmic vibe.

What did you see as the main thread that went throughout the score as you were working on it?

Well, I guess it’s mostly about the sort of image of music, which can evoke something beyond ourselves. So that’s why it sort of connects a little bit to traditional religious music or historical religious music. It’s got this kind of slow-moving ritual quality and, you know, very extreme registers, kind of low-density, low-information density, so that the listener sort of completes the piece. [That is the impact] of those kinds of things on the soundtrack; I almost feel like they’re drones, but they’re not, they’re just very slow-moving music. There’s just something about very slow-moving material which makes it feel big. I don’t know why that is. I guess we’re used to seeing, you know, large, slow-moving objects in real life, and there’s something about that that we imprint on the music somehow. All of those sorts of ideas. Honestly, for any film, you’re really just looking for material which feels like it belongs to that world. When you find it, that’s it. I mean, of course, it’s a very technical and cerebral process on one hand, and on the other hand it’s completely intuitive.

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Interview: Nadav Lapid on Synonyms and Our Conflict with Existence

Lapid discusses how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.

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Nadav Lapid
Photo: Kino Lorber

Nadav Lapid is one of the most exciting Israeli filmmakers to emerge in recent years. His first two features, Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher, are hypnotic studies of the nature of power and resistance. His latest, Synonyms, tackles similar issues, but Lapid’s approach to his material here is almost as obfuscating as it is illuminating.

Tom Mercier, in a phenomenal screen debut, plays Yoav, a twentysomething Israeli who exiles himself to Paris, refusing to speak Hebrew or return to his homeland. Yoav is intense and enigmatic, whether sharing stories of his military experiences or practicing a form of wordplay while walking, head down, through the streets of the French capital. Whether he wants to or not, everyone is drawn into his orbit, from the young couple (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte) who finding him naked and helpless in the bathtub of an apartment adjacent to theirs, to the various men who work security at the Israeli embassy.

At this year’s New York Film Festival, Lapid sat down with me to discuss Synonyms and how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.

While there’s a narrative to Synonyms, it feels deliberately very episodic, creating emotions and moments of high drama but also ambiguity. What was your approach or purpose to tell this story in this way?

I arrived at the conclusion that I might be a strange person, because people find unusual and irregular things in the way I construct my movies. Policeman was divided into two parts, which was normal to me, but people found that strange. I try to be as close as I can to what I see as existence. And existence, as I see it, is composed as a series of events, and these events are composed of one single melody. Synonyms doesn’t have a classic narrative line, though its narrative is simple: Yoav gets to a place that he thinks will be his salvation and he’s disappointed. But even if the narrative structure isn’t classical, the film is one movement, or melody, even though it has a thousand variations.

I admire how deliberate the film is in its depiction of and ideas about storytelling. Yoav narrates photos, and he gives—and takes—stories from Emile, Quentin Dolmaire’s character. How do you find meaning in art, or inject meaning into it?

When we create art, there’s this desperate attempt to create stories that, on one hand, are full of beautiful storytelling moments. They may be the only way we have to communicate ourselves, our essence, and our past. On the other hand, there’s something very artificial in the way art and life tell stories. It’s as if we treat the world as if it has suddenly stopped and nothing is happening except for the stories we tell. The other person is only the ears. As we know in real life, everything is mixed, so we can tell a story with only words. Our body will deconstruct it, or reconstruct it, or give it another meaning. There’s something artificial in this desire to detach this moment of storytelling from the person.

In cinema, there are stories, but they have a peculiar relationship with the actual moment. Maybe this is also true of the storytelling of my film. It’s a classical narrative: Yoav arrives in the big city, tries to find success, and in the end is rejected. Maybe this is the peculiar, unique, singular thing, and it’s the film interfering with this simple narrative line? It spoils this naïve attempt to just tell the story. There’s something naïve and interesting that movies that are applauding their own stories. It touches only a thin layer of life.

There’s a specific emphasis on language, words, contrasts, and meanings in Synonyms. How did you land on the specific words you incorporated into the film.

I think that I tried to keep a certain balance between accidental and instinctive choices. I had this picture of Jackson Pollock hitting a painting in an accidental, or automatic, way, like the surrealists. I was also interested in the texture of words. Words have bodies and organs. I was walking, and talking to myself, and I can’t imagine how people looked at me! But I tried to feel and let my tongue lead me. And at the same time—and this is the nice thing about words—you can’t only reduce them to syllables. They have meanings, and the meanings have choices.

Are you into wordplay? Do you do crossword puzzles or other word games?

No. I read, and when I read books, I’m fascinated by words. I can’t bear the idea that people say that art cinema should be without words, and that words aren’t cinematic. There are films of acts and films of words. I think it comes from the fact that people treat words on a content level, and their only role is to mean or represent something. If you detach words from the story, or don’t want to say something by using words, then life changes.

Do you, as Emile suggests in the film, drink before writing to ward off the fear?

I drink when I write my shooting plan. I encourage myself to be courageous—to not to fall to convention.

I loved the dancing in the film. The women outside the bar, the nightclub scene with Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” and even a scene of Yoav dancing alone in his apartment, though he almost looks like he’s fighting. A scene of Michel and Yaron fighting is like a form of dancing, too, no?

I like when people dance by themselves for the audience in films. They come to the camera and say, “Here I am, look at me!” On another level, Synonyms goes further; it dances by itself with complicated mise-en-scène and trashy music. You cannot classify me! I am this and I am that. I’m fancy mise-en-scène and “Pump Up the Jam.”

Your film is, of course, erotic, not just because of Yoav’s often naked body, but his relationship with Emile is homoerotic, and his passion for Louise Chevillotte’s Caroline is palpable. She’s so sexy just sitting on the couch looking at Yoav or playing her oboe. How did you approach this element of desire?

When I think about desire, I’m guided by the idea that we all have a body. I’m trying to create movies where the existence of sex and the possibility of sex is in each and every second—rather than creating a film where there are sex scenes. There are sex scenes in my films, but they’re not the hottest scenes in my movies. There’s a permanent existence of the body, and that has a sexual potential. I sound like a new French philosopher! I’m not like this at all!

Speaking of bodies, how did you work with Thomas Mercier on the role of Yoav? Was there guidance you gave him to elicit this remarkable, full-bodied performance?

Tom was like a miracle. The work was intense but easy once he was cast. I bought him a French dictionary and I wanted him to study five new words each day and five new synonyms for each word. That was the work. He understood it so well. He prepared for a year because he was the thing itself. He was a judo champion and then became a dancer. He had a tenderness and fragility, and was very sexual, but he also had a violence and fury. You feel it. He could explode at any second. He was limitless.

All of your films address issues of desolation and madness. Why are these such key themes in your work?

I think my films are about people that take themselves very seriously—not in an ego way, or a stupid way, but in a way where they feel as if they understand or grasp something and follow these things until they find hell in paradise. They follow it until they recognize the deeper truth. But when you follow a principle to the end, it puts you in conflict with existence. And in odd moments, you lose your sense of humor and why life has humor.

You also explore issues of identity and nationality. There are ideas here about birth and corruption, the individual versus the masses, citizenship and rights. It seems like you deliberately set out to make viewers puzzle over lots of things.

I think Synonyms is broadly a political film. For Yoav, his national identity and Israel is like a dragon that he should kill and destroy and fight against—this mythological enemy. And, as you know, these mythological enemies are always yourself. Like Rosemary’s baby—the devil is inside you. But the film is attracted and seduced and fascinated by all the elements of nationalism. I read somewhere that Synonyms is anti-nationalist, but I wouldn’t define the film so easily. The moment in the metro where Yaron is humming the Israeli national theme—it creates a polemic in Israel, but [Yaron] has his problems. At the same time, it’s a powerfully charismatic, embracing moment. He’s humming the hymn of a nation that was annihilated. Whatever it means, I’m on the opposite political pole. I think the film has a right to flirt with nationalism while condemning it. You can’t hate a country if you’re not attracted to it.

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