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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: Rob Morgan on the Long Ride to Leading Man Status in Bull

In a wide-ranging conversation, the actor discusses his film appearances, as well as all the life and roles in between.

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Rob Morgan
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Just by you mentioning the word sleep, I almost dozed off,” Rob Morgan joked when I asked if he got any rest given the breakneck pace of his recent screen appearances. In just the last year, he’s appeared in Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, and Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, as well as reprised his roles in Netflix’s Stranger Things and HBO’s High Maintenance. Not only that, the actor is now headlining Annie Silverstein’s Bull, originally scheduled for a theatrical run in March but now arriving on VOD in May in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

As Abe, a grizzled veteran in the Texan rodeo scene, Morgan breaks loose from his character-actor status to share center stage in Bull. His character becomes a reluctant mentor to a neighboring adolescent girl, Amber Harvard’s Kris, who has to help him out in his bullfighting vocation as penance for trashing his residence. While Kris experiences the sport as a gateway to a future that does not involve matching her mother’s fate of ending up in prison, Abe must reckon with how his own advancing age will soon relegate bullfighting to his past. His is an aching, soulful performance with the undeniable lived-in quality Morgan brings to every role.

I caught up with Morgan over the phone prior to Bull’s originally scheduled theatrical release. In our wide-ranging conversation, we discussed Morgan’s film appearances, beginning with 1996’s Contact, as well as all the life and roles—both lost and earned—in between.

All of a sudden, you’re everywhere. Beyond the obvious answers of hard work and talent, how did this all happen?

Man, by the grace of God and timing, hanging in there, believing in myself. Planning my work, working my plan, showing up prepared for each opportunity and just basically putting my best foot forward and trying to maintain my health and sanity along the way, so that when my number is called, I can actually contribute something.

When did you start acting professionally and what did those early days look like?

I got my first check in 1996 being a background extra on Contact, and I was totally green to the idea of acting. But something came over me in a moment when they told me, “Background, you can make noise now.” And when they told us that, in my mind, I envisioned how we really feel it. Jodie Foster was trying to get millions of dollars from the president to support her outer space explorations when kids in D.C. don’t even have schoolbooks or even art supplies. And I asked myself how I would feel [in that moment], and I just started yelling at Jodie, “There’s nothing in outer space, get a real job, don’t waste my tax dollars.” And from that inclination and moment, a microphone popped up over my head, which just really sent me into outer space. When I went and saw the movie and heard my voice and saw my face, it just really came over me and was like, “This is what I have to do for the rest of my life.”

And that moment is what fueled me for 24 years to get this phone call from you, reaching back to that moment and how it felt through all the rejection, the closed doors, and the “you’re not good enough”s. I just held on to that moment, and eventually stuff just started clicking.

Then I worked with Dee Rees on her film Pariah. And that was because Dee just really wanted to work with me. And that broke me out of the short film game, because I was kind of the king of short films in New York for a while. I was doing all these short films, and they would be in the film festivals, they would get accepted and people would appreciate them. And from there [Pariah], the water started coming through to the walls, everything just broke wide open. Probably after I did Daredevil with Marvel, the Netflix show, that was the first time I actually had a character that showed up more than just once in a project. I would come in and out, and [that’s where] I think the momentum really started.

It’s crazy the scale of the reach that streaming platforms get being everywhere and in so many homes.

I got to really tip my hat to the streaming platforms because I think they saw value in my kind of personality and character, who I am. And they gave me a shot, whereas network TV, I was a little too risky. My voice is a little too deep. My arms are a little too broad. You know what I mean? It’s very funny like that. So I’m very thankful to platforms like Netflix because they actually get the everyday person and they can get a job, sort of like BBC Television. When you look at BBC channels and shows, you see people up there with crooked teeth, scars on their face—not the perfect image of beauty, but they’re working and very talented, and they get opportunities. And I think that’s what Netflix did for me.

Going back to Dee Rees, I believe she fought for you to be in Mudbound over the producers’ desires for someone more well known, right?

If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t even have been in that movie. They wanted everybody but Rob Morgan until they met Rob Morgan. And then, all of a sudden, they started getting on board. I’m getting ready to work with Adam McKay now, and Adam McKay insisted that I do this role.

Is that the Jennifer Lawrence project that he’s doing for Netflix?

Yes sir, Don’t Look Up. And I’m glad you brought that up, because a lot of my work, it’s like I even skipped over casting directors in a lot of ways because it’s the directors and the producers who want to work with me. I just did a movie, Just Mercy, and it was Gil Netter, one of the producers, who was like, “Yo, we’re gonna get Rob Morgan for this role. Period.” And that’s me opposite Jamie Foxx, Oscar winner, Michael B. Jordan, one the biggest movie stars on the planet today, Brie Larson. Gil trusted me enough, and I had never even met him. But he was like, “Look, Rob Morgan is this character. Period.” So that’s really how I get a lot of my work—through the producers and the directors that really want to work with me.

Rob Morgan

A scene from Just Mercy starring Rob Morganas Herbert Richardson. © Warner Bros.

You have a remarkable eye for kind of catching directors at the beginning of their careers. Dee Rees, like you said, but also Reinaldo Marcus Green, Joe Talbot, Stella Meghie, and now Annie Silverstein. How are you spotting talent that might not have been proven in the feature filmmaking context? Or is it more that they’re spotting you?

Honestly, I think it’s them recognizing me. I approach all my work with directors with the same amount of respect and decency, and I think new directors really appreciate that. Oftentimes, when they meet you, they might have an impression of you. But I’m very open to working with new directors. I look at them just as I would look at a Steven Soderbergh or Adam McKay, those who are already established and doing their things. I also look at them with the same enthusiasm and hunger to bring their vision to life.

Your IMDb page doesn’t list a screen credit until 2003. But you’ve talked about Contact, and I saw somewhere else that you auditioned for the 2000 remake of Shaft.

Yeah, I was actually the guy that they picked for Shaft, the original remake. But Warner Bros. didn’t want to give John Singleton the money at the time for a no-name, even though he was known for bringing out no-name actors. They wanted him to go with Will Smith, but he didn’t want to go with Will Smith because he didn’t feel like Will would have been Shaft at the time. So it was me. And then when they shelved the project, I was stuck in New York on my own and just had to figure it out. I was kind of pushed to the back of the line, like I started all over again. That was a tripped-out experience, but I’m thankful for it.

Do you think the fact that your journey took a little bit longer to get to the point where you are now factors into how you approach your craft or the characters?

I believe so. I believe I have a lot more information that I can put into my characters with the longer road traveled. I definitely feel that it informs me more as far as my approach and my gratitude to be able to be a working actor in this industry. The appreciation is definitely there, if I would have got it when I was 24 years old, straight out of college, would I be able to manage it like I manage it now? That’s something I could ask myself. But at the same time, I don’t mull over any of this stuff, Marshall, because I believe everything is in God’s timing. And what was meant for me is meant for me when it’s supposed to be, and that was part of the psychology that kept me sane while I was pursuing this. Being happy for others when they win and just being grateful for when I get an opportunity.

To your point, I think you can tell the difference between people who’ve actually been out in the real world and had real experiences versus those who are just defined by their relationship to the craft.

Oh, definitely. And I found myself to be an actor. I’m in it, but I’m not of it. It doesn’t define me. It doesn’t make me. Like, I was cool before Hollywood, I think. I appreciate it. I’m thankful that I’m able to do what I do. But, at the same time, if this was all to end tomorrow, I would still be good. I would still be all right. Because I don’t do it for fame, I don’t even care about being famous actually. Actually, that’s the least attractive part to me. I just wish I could make the money, be under the radar, and be left alone—actually, that would be ideal for me. But it comes with the territory. It’s part of the game, you’ve got to navigate it. I think working smarter and not harder is always best.

Speaking of work, I saw that you worked at Bear Stearns at some point?

Yes sir, that was my survival job.

I hope more than survival at such a big institution, or at least until they went under.

You know what, though, Marshall? That’s how I had to look at that job because, yes, investment banking, there was a moment when I was thinking, “You know what, forget acting. I’m just gonna do this investment banking thing and live my life.” I really had that thought for a good amount of time until I was like, “Nah, this isn’t feeling [right] to me.” But it was one of the best survival jobs anybody could ever ask for. Because it helped me maintain my own level of dignity and respect when I walked into these rooms to audition. I was already paying my bills. I was already good. I didn’t need them. They needed me. That’s how I looked at it, and that survival job afforded me to be able to do that.

Let’s talk Just Mercy. Your character, Herbert, is so crucial for the audience to understand the unfairness of the criminal justice system and how that has really devastating consequences. How did you go about playing that character and bringing the humanity to life of someone who could easily just become an empty symbol?

I was extremely honored that they trusted me with that character because I feel like he’s the moral compass of the movie. You ask yourself, “Does someone in this situation, under these circumstances, deserve the death penalty?” It forces you to ask yourself that once you see how this character plays out. I found it to be very important to play a human being instead of a caricature. Because, right now, with the climate that we’re in, 10, 15, 20 years from now, we’ll still have a lot more Herbert Richardsons that we still must deal with. We should deal with the same delicacy and care that we wish we would have dealt with the actual Herbert Richardson. So, what I wanted to do was just put a human being on screen who we all can relate to and understand, at the end of the day, has the same wants, needs, and desires. To be protected, to see our children grow up and be smarter than us. And hopefully by putting a human being on the screen, regardless of circumstances, people can [ponder] if he’s worthy of that kind of punishment, and how much more of this unjust justice system they’re willing to tolerate.

It’s my understanding you were filming Just Mercy and Bull overlapping, right?

I was filming Just Mercy, Bull, and This Is Us all at the same time. This Is Us was in L.A., Bull was in Texas or Denver or Oklahoma—we were going all over—and then Just Mercy was in Atlanta. And I literally was on the set of all three of them in the same week.

When you’re dealing with that, are you able to just draw walls around the characters? Are they seeping into each other at all?

It’s tapping back into my original training by American Theatre of Harlem—my first teacher was a gentleman named Keith Johnson—understanding the approach to characters and defining them enough in your preparation, that you won’t cross them up like that. Because those are three totally different characters. And I just had to rely on my own instincts and training and then also rely on the directors that I was working with. Thankfully, there were directors that created safe spaces for us to just go and play and have fun.

Bull seems like one of the one of the first times we’ve really seen you take on a part of such a huge magnitude where you’re a lead, or co-lead at the very least. Are you being offered lead roles and turning them down to favor supporting roles in these really great movies? Or are those parts really just that that shamefully rare?

They’re shamefully rare! It’s mind boggling to me sometimes too. But I just focus when somebody does put the ball in my hand, and give them the best jump shot I can and be thankful for that. But I think the lead stuff is starting to brew up, you know, as much as people wanted to keep me as the heartbeat or the informant of their projects, which basically is like four or five scenes. I think more and more people are starting to take interest in me actually being the lead in their project, which is pretty cool. And just a testament of like, hard work tastes great. Staying in it, not letting it beat me down, not letting it take me out. But just being inspired every time I do get a chance to do it. Honestly, when people say, “Yeah, you get the small parts,” at the same time, I don’t see no part as small. Just put me on camera and I’ll do my job! That’s all I really try to focus on, and by doing the job I think people become attracted to that. It stands out. I make my one scene the lead of the whole project.

By the time we meet your character Abe in Bull, he has a lifetime of physical and emotional experience. How do you go about inhabiting that?

Drawing from my own personal ups and downs, my own failures and wins, long rejections and acceptances. I was able to have access to a beautiful pool of men and women who actually were cowboys and cowgirls, fought bulls, learned how to ride a horse. I sat out there, listened to them, and talked to them and ate with them. Sucking in the environment that way helps a lot. Throwing me in the environment, I’m able to pick up on the little nuances and idiosyncrasies that make up a person. I love going in places and becoming a part of that environment, instead of going in places and flexing my strength on an environment. I just go to be open to receive, and then when they say “action,” I just try to pull from all those little takeaways I get.

A line that really stood out to me in the film was whenever Eva, the woman over for the evening, tells Abe, “There’s other ways to make money,” besides the rodeo, and he replies, “Not for me.” Was that an entry point for the character?

That’s the lifestyle of a bullfighter. They’re so engulfed in that practice that a lot of them, literally, would rather die trying to save a cowboy than get up and go work at Walmart or a gas station. In their minds and where they’re from, there’s much more nobility and dignity in sacrificing yourself for somebody else time and time again. When you go down there and hang out with these people, they’ll tell you, “Damn a hospital, damn a doctor, the only thing I need is the emergency room. If it ain’t the emergency room, I’ll be alright.” They’ll tell you, “Why am I gonna go to a doctor so they can put a $500 bandage on my arm when I can go right to CVS and buy it for $8 and do it myself?” You see a mother out there with her eight-year-old boy riding a damn thousand-pound bull, she’s entrusting some bullfighters to save her child and is cool with it. It’s a whole other level of human spirit that these people carry man, and I was so blessed to be down there and get a get a glimpse of it and try to portray it in the movie.

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Interview: Don Winslow on Broken and the Jazz of His Crime Fiction

The acclaimed crime novelist discusses his new collection of novellas, his influences, and more.

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Don Winslow
Photo: Robert Gallagher

Don Winslow is a testament to life as the best school of writing, as he’s as colorful as the characters who appear in his propulsive, sensual, political, and often brutal crime novels. An ex-private investigator, a rancher, a surfer, a hiker, a jazz enthusiast, and a journalist who’s studied the intricacies of Mexican drug trade for his acclaimed Cartel trilogy, Winslow is a man of vast experience, empathy, and curiosity who dramatizes all perspectives on the criminal ecosystem, from the hippie stoner to drug czars to all the cops, reporters, immigrants, and imperiled children who’re trying merely to get by.

Honing over the years a clipped-paragraph style, Winslow fashions novels that simultaneously suggest tabloids, op-ed pieces, and Norman Mailer-style epics. But his new collection of novellas, Broken, finds him working in more moderate and relaxed keys, after writing a handful of the biggest books of his career: The Cartel and The Border, the final installments of the Cartel trilogy, and the searing The Force, about a corrupt New York City cop.

Broken thrives on misdirection, opening with one of Winslow’s most violent pieces of writing—the title novella, about a New Orleans cop who hunts the drug dealer who tortured his brother to death—before seguing into mellower character studies that recall his earlier, chiller, more comfortably genre-based origins. In “Crime 101,” a jewel thief intersects with a rumpled yet calculating police officer; in “The San Diego Zoo,” a bizarre case of animal armament leads to unlikely romance; in “Sunset,” an aging bail bondsman, the titanic Duke Kasmajian, reflects on a vanishing way of life while overseeing a final chase, leading to lovely ruminations on scotch and West Coast jazz, among other things. The last two novellas, “Paradise” and “The Last Ride,” return the book to more violent and topical terrain: the American drug war and our government’s inhumane imprisonment of fleeing families on the Mexican/U.S. border.

These stories are all animated by Winslow’s ear for dialogue and feeling for place, particularly San Diego, which becomes a recurring symbol of a vanishing way of life, a paradise that’s gradually being commodified into nonexistence. The Pacific Coast Highway, an ongoing subject of reverie in Winslow’s books, serves as a kind of circulatory system in Broken—a route toward contemplation and healing. Throughout these stories, Winslow also rhapsodizes on the little elements of Americana that can offer transcendence, from the classic ballgame-and-hot-dog date to the ritualistic grilling of fish for fish tacos. Winslow’s juxtaposition of such details with this country’s slide into political sadism suggests nothing less than the internal war to remain decent in an age of sensationalized heartlessness. (On Twitter, Winslow is a mercilessly astute critic of Donald Trump’s lies, incompetence, and trademark callousness.)

Particularly given our current social calamity, Winslow’s Americana continues to haunt me. Ball games. Grilling with buddies with beers on the deck. Intoxicating sex with someone you’ve just met by chance. These are heartbreaking things to ponder as the COVID-19 epidemic forces us into isolation. In this light, these rituals become even more fantastical, even more poignant, even more seemingly lost, than Winslow could’ve possibly intended.

How are you doing with this thing personally?

I’m fine, thank you. My wife and I live way out in the country sort of north and east of San Diego on an old ranch, and it looks pretty much the same around here as it always does. It’s kind of quiet and not many people are around and we’re hunkered down. We’ll just see how this goes, I guess. I have to tell you, it feels a little weird talking about a book during all of this. “Oh, people are dying, people are suffering, let’s talk about me.”

I’ve felt the same way about writing movie reviews lately.

Right? But life goes on, I guess. I know I’ve been reading more and watching a lot of old DVDs and things, because we don’t get very good internet service up here. So, you know, I guess we serve our purpose. [laughs]

I was reading Broken while COVID-19 was creeping into Virginia where I live, and, I hate to call art an “escape” because I think that’s often a horrible reduction, but this book was an escape.

Well, I think escape is one of the purposes of art. I think it can be engagement and escape. I’m not insulted by that at all. If people are entertained and it takes them out of this thing for a little while, God bless.

Broken is a collection of novellas that’s arriving after a few of your weightiest and most political novels. Did you consciously think of it as a palette cleanser?

Well, it’s an interesting way of putting it. I’m not sure I’d put it exactly that way, but I know what you mean. These were stories that I had had in my head for a while with the exception of the final one. And I knew that they were too substantive to be short stories but they were certainly not going to have the epic bulk that you alluded to. If I may use a different analogy, I’ve been sort of running ultramarathons for the last 20 years, you know? And so it felt it would be refreshing to run a middle-distance.

There’s a clever structural misdirection in this book. It’s called Broken and fans of your recent work may have a bleak expectation. The title story certainly fulfills that expectation, but many of the stories are warm, comparatively light character studies. At what point did you begin to consider that pervading arc?

Pretty early on. The three middle stories [“Crime 101,” “The San Diego Zoo,” “Sunset”] I’ve sort of had in my head for quite a while. The titular story was a bit later. And then I thought that this collection really needed a bookend, a story that matches the feel of “Broken.” And so then that structure became apparent to me. I think a lot about jazz because I listen to a lot of jazz. And sometimes there’s that kind of opening statement, the melody that’s being written down, you know, and then you go off into this middle phase where people are improvising on that, which, sometimes, tonally, is very different from where you started, until you circle back to the opening theme. In the case of this book, we open and circle back to brokenness.

So you have the same interests as your character Duke then?

[laughs] Yeah, which comes in handy, you know? Jazz has been a big thing with me since I was a kid and I took an especial interest in West Coast Jazz, you know, though I like other stuff as well. And so that was just fun to write and kind of visit.

To continue this jazz metaphor, particularly the idea of riffs on a theme, the broken motif is certainly in the lighter stories, too, just expressed differently.

Yeah, exactly. Not to torture this metaphor, which is kind of fun, but you know there’s going to be a certain chord progression that you’re not going to completely depart from. Well, some jazz does, but the kind of jazz I really love doesn’t. And I know who I am as a writer and as a person; many of these themes are going to come out anyway. In terms of chord progression, I was always very clear about the order of the stories.

Did you write the stories in chronological order?

Not exactly. Again, I knew what the order was going to be, but I’d been working on some of these stories for a while. I’d been working on “Crime 101” for a couple of years and never quite “got it.” I had the opening line of “San Diego Zoo” in my head for literally years. But I didn’t know what it meant. It was a line that struck me funny.

When I read that, I thought, “This is a new Winslow. Where the hell is this going?”

We live out on an old ranch and brush clearance is a huge issue because of wildfires. I had a bunch of downed trees and somebody asked, “Why don’t you get a chainsaw?” And a buddy of mine, this old cowboy, was standing next to me and said, “Giving Don a chainsaw would be like giving a revolver to a chimp.” [both laugh] Which sadly is true. I’m notoriously clumsy and not very mechanical. And he was right: I probably would’ve cut my hand off, or my leg off, or something. Well, somehow that line evolved in my head into “No one knows how the chimp got the revolver.” It stuck in my head for years, and when I was committing to doing these stories and trying to figure out what was the next thing after “Crime 101,” I typed that line out and just made the rest of it up. I was playing that great game “what if?” I did not know how the chimp got the revolver until I typed the end of it.

What’s striking about “The San Diego Zoo” is that it’s genuinely, unforcedly sweet, especially coming after “Broken,” which is a bitter pill to swallow.

“Broken” is one of the toughest, harshest pieces I’ve ever done. It was fun to go to sweet, you know? And I agree with what I think you’re saying: that there’s a very fine line between sweetness and saccharine. But there’s not much chance of my crossing over into that. [laughs]

Did you consciously perceive a relationship between “Broken” and The Force?

Of course. I’d written that big cop book, and I knew there were going to be similarities here. But I also knew there were going to be important differences, and I very deliberately set “Broken” in a completely different location to help achieve that, but sure I knew the reader would say “this is kinda like The Force.”

The Force is one of my favorite books of yours. I think you have a daring, uncomfortable empathy with your antihero.

An uncomfortable empathy is a good way to put it. A little frightening. I spent a lot of time with cops in doing that book, but I have my whole life anyway, because I was a private investigator. I had a lot of cop friends, and I really did feel an empathy with Denny. I’m not trying to make moral judgments about my characters. I might have them, independent of the book, but it’s not my job to create good guys and bad guys; it’s to create as realistic people as I can, and get the reader close to them. I’ve sat down with a lot of objectively evil people: serial killers, psychopaths, drug folks—you name it. None of them define themselves as monsters. They have a point of view, we might loathe it, but they have a point of view.

“San Diego Zoo” is dedicated to Elmore Leonard and “Crime 101” to Steve McQueen, which makes sense when you read that story, though it feels very Elmore-y to me too.

Absolutely. And Michael Mann. I don’t run from my influences. I’m very happy to proclaim them, and one of the great thrills of my life was spending an hour with Mr. Leonard. We were in the same room one time very early in my career on my first book, and I was too shy to go up to him. And then later, I might’ve done a film with him, which didn’t work out, and he died, sadly, shortly thereafter. But I got to be on the phone with him for an hour.

Did he live up to your expectations?

Oh, even more. I don’t think I said five words. He got on the phone and said, “Don Winslow, you were two-years-old when I wrote 3:10 to Yuma.” Which was the most charming way of putting me in my place. And I said, “Yes, sir, but I tried to read it.” And he laughed and told stories for an hour, nonstop. It was me, my agent, his agent, and him on the phone. And I was standing in the rain. We were living down on the coast, and we didn’t get good cell reception in our apartment. In fact, if you stepped two feet closer to the beach you couldn’t get cell reception. So, I went outside, and it was one of those rarely raining Southern California days, and I stood in the rain for an hour listening to Elmore Leonard. I would’ve stayed there all day.

That’s got to be one of those moments you keep in your pocket.

Absolutely, man. Absolutely.

I’m not trying to blow smoke, but I think you’re playing on Leonard’s level these days.

Well, I wouldn’t say that, but thank you, I try. We all revere him in the genre. And he’s one of those guys you’ve never heard a bad word about. Or Michael Connolly, who’s terrific. Or Lee Child or Dennis Lehane. These guys, who’re so huge and so great, are genuinely nice people.

That’s great to hear. I’m a big crime book guy.

Yeah, apparently. [laughs] And you know I dedicated another story in Broken to Raymond Chandler, who’s the granddaddy of us all, and if I write for another hundred years I’m never gonna write as well as him.

Your Chandler story, “Sunset,” may be my favorite in this collection.

I have a fondness for that story, which I wrote from beginning to ending. I sat down, started typing and almost literally didn’t stop until it was over a few days later. I just knew the story.

To borrow an element from that story, to belabor another metaphor, it has the feel of scotch: It’s mellow, there’s depth there that doesn’t announce itself.

Well, thank you. I wanted to write a sunset story that was a little mellow and was a little mature, and talked about some older guys, you know? And talked about loss of a lot of things: loss of loved ones, loss of a hero, loss of a certain kind of life.

There’s an additional commonality to these stories that affirms the “broken” theme. In every one, there’s a decisive moment where a character essentially says, “Screw it, I’m going to act for decency, against the fabric of my surroundings.”

Yeah, frankly you’re the first person who’s picked up on that. I think the ultimate question of crime fiction has become the ultimate question for all of us in these times that we live in, and I’m not happy about that. For me the ultimate question of crime fiction has always been, for the characters: How do you to attempt to live decently in what’s basically an indecent world? Increasingly, we’re living in an indecent world.

To piggyback on that, this book offers a vision in which people must act apart from mass politics, divorcing themselves from the media maelstrom. Is that fair?

I think that’s fair. In some ways, in all these stories, there’s a return to older values. The last story, I’m sure you picked up on it, is a neo-western, quite obviously. And I thought it would be more interesting if I made that guy a Trump voter, a conservative.

Yeah. I follow you on Twitter and I know what your feelings about Trump are, which I share. But I like that you don’t editorialize the conservative at the center of “The Last Ride.”

It just struck me as a more interesting slant on it. And then this guy changes his mind, you know, and goes back to what I would think of as those older western values.

There’s an image in “The Last Ride” that I don’t think I’ve seen in a western before. That startling image paralleling the hero’s fate with that of his horse.

I went to college in Nebraska and worked on ranches. I’ve lived in Idaho, Montana, out in California. I’ve had cowboys all around me, and I’ve seen too many horses put down. It’s a terrible moment. And I thought that was just the right ending.

In some interviews, you’ve wondered if your style as a writer is too flexible. I find your voice distinctive though, with those short, machine-gun paragraphs. Do you achieve that structure in the editing phase, or do you compose that way?

Basically, I’m composing it that way, but I make it better, I hope, in the cutting phase. When I do first drafts I’m not thinking about the reader much at all. I just try to get it down, and then, with every subsequent draft, I’m thinking more and more about the reader. What is the reader hearing? What is the reader seeing? We sometimes forget that reading, though certainly an intellectual activity, is also a visual activity. I pay a lot of attention to what the words look like on the page, and if the look is achieving the effect that I want it to. So, in reference to that kind of machine-gun thing that you’re alluding to, sometimes I think words just need a lot of space around them so that they do stand out. But, other times, if you want to grab the reader and not let him or her go a while, then you want the page to look very dense, so that there’s no space for them to take a break. You want to control the ride that you take them on that way.

It’s funny to hear you describe this process. As someone who writes reviews, I often edit according to how I like the visual shape of a paragraph in a word document.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Chuck. This is going to sound really goofy, but sometimes I’ll step away from the screen to the point where I can’t make out the words, only the shapes.

It’s almost as if such abstractions allow you to see your over-writing.

I think that’s absolutely the truth, and it does sound crazy.

With jazz, crime novels, and other arts, there’s an East Coast/West Coast distinction. With your traveling, with your New York- and California-set novels, it seems that you can lay claim to both coasts. Do you have a preference?

I don’t think so. I come from blue-collar New England, not tweed New England. [laughs] My dad was first-career military. I’m from a fishing town. My old man used to take me to the fishing factory, where they rendered all that shit. From 500 yards you could smell it. And he’d say, “If you don’t buckle down and steady you’re going to spend the rest of your life shoveling fish guts.” I came from a Bruce Springsteen kind of town that’s now become a touristy town. All that has always been a big part of my life, and I go back there every year, and I probably do more surfing there now than I do here.

But when I came to the West Coast, which was in the late ‘80s, as an investigator, I just fell in love. There’s no other way of putting it. And I can remember like it was yesterday the first time I drove on the Pacific Coast Highway. I went, “My God,” and I’m still in love with it. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve driven that road down here, and I never get bored with it, it always excites me.

I go back to New England and I eat fish and chips and chowder and out here I’ll have my beloved fish taco. The two oceans are also very different, very different kinds of personalities, if I can put it that way, and I love them both. I feel like I have the best of both worlds. You need to come out here when this blows over.

Broken is now available from Harper Collins.

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Interview: Eliza Hittman on the Poetic Odyssey of Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Never Rarely Sometimes Always breaks new ground for Hittman as a filmmaker.

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Eliza Hittman
Photo: Angal Field/Focus Features

The level of vivid detail with which writer-director Eliza Hittman renders the procedural elements of procuring an abortion in Never Rarely Sometimes Always might stand out as the film’s most obvious point of discussion. A teenager’s journey to assert her bodily autonomy spans from a “crisis pregnancy center” in rural Pennsylvania meant to trick women out of terminating a pregnancy to the halls of a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan, illuminating structural biases and barriers along the way. But a focus primarily on what happens in Never Rarely Sometimes Always overlooks aspects of Hittman’s filmmaking that prevent the film from seeming like a sermon, or agenda-driven.

Don’t call Never Rarely Sometimes Always a neorealistic film, Hittman told me during a recent conversation, in spite of what the title of the special prize she received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival might suggest. As in her prior two features, It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, Hittman both effectively dramatizes and stylizes the interior struggles of teenage characters forced to define their sense of self and sexuality in an unforgiving society.

But even as Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) takes on a relentless series of bureaucratic challenges, struggling to receive the medical care she seeks without parental permission, she can at least rely on the steadying presence of her cousin and confidant, Skylar (Talia Ryder). Their empathetic relationship operates on such a deep level of understanding that Skylar requires no protestation or persuasion to accompany Autumn on the journey. In the film, Hittman proves as adept at translating these ethereal and non-verbal moments of sororal support into grace notes as she does chunks of dialogue full of legal and medical jargon.

I interviewed Hittman the week of the film’s opening in New York. Our conversation covered how Never Rarely Sometimes Always expands and explores some of her previously evinced fascinations while also breaking new ground for her as a filmmaker.

Your films all have such distinct opening scenes, usually revolving around some measure of kind of performance for an audience or for the camera. How are you developing these first touch points that the audience has with the characters?

They’re all very different, I think. With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, I really wanted to playfully disorient the audience about the period of the movie.

That was successful. I was like, wait, what’s going on here?

And as a kid, I used to do all these really cheesy ‘50s talent shows. And it’s this moment in time that we romanticize, and the music is all saccharine about the myth of romantic love. Things that I’m interested in challenging. I thought it would be an interesting way to bring in the audience into the themes and the worlds. Set it in high school, because none of it really takes place in a high school. Introduce the character instantly as somebody who is in opposition to the feelings of the moment.

Aren’t the lyrics of the song Autumn sings “he makes me” or something like that?

“He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” It’s an Exciters song from the ‘60s.

Your films put on display this dichotomy between how teenagers conduct themselves in public versus how they do so in private. You’ve discussed watching them and developing your observations from an anthropological lens. How have you sharpened your instincts to tell whenever they’re performing and when they’re being authentic?

I think my goal, primarily, is to bring audiences into these private and painful moments. I’m giving this perspective about what they’re thinking and feeling lonely and isolated. I don’t know if Autumn is performing so well in public. We can feel her discomfort in the world and the weight of what she’s going through. It’s more than Harris’s character [Frankie, the closeted male protagonist of Beach Rats] performing masculinity. I don’t think that Sydney’s character is performing femininity as much in the world. She’s hiding herself. She’s wearing these clothes that hide her body. In a way, she’s pushing against showing her body and herself.

Your films capture the solitude of being young. It’s so crucial to that period of your life, but it’s very tough to render on screen. How are you taking this space for your characters to deal with their feelings from the concept or the script to the screen?

I think that there’s a lot of threads that the film juggles. You know, one is the sort of painful moment alone, you know, where she’s trying to terminate her own pregnancy. But it’s also about the friendship and the procedural aspect of what she’s going through.

Sidney Flanagan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sidney Flanagan in a scene from Never Rarely Sometimes Always. @ Angal Field/Focus Features

And how do you go about bringing all that to life?

Originally, when I wrote the treatment for the film in 2013, it was actually just trauma. And I felt like that didn’t work. So, I knew that the narrative wouldn’t be successful if it was just her alone. It’s about her alone in the most vulnerable places in the story, like the procedure, navigating these adult situations and clinics by herself. Her cousin never has perspective on these things. So, I was just interested in [the fact that] even though she has somebody on that journey with her, she’s still very much alone with the burden of the pregnancy.

The way that you shoot a lot of those scenes with those really tight close-ups puts us right there with her.

They’re all subjective. The visual strategy is all subjective. And it’s about proximity and aligning the audience with what she’s thinking and feeling. It’s not just optically. So, the camera lingers close to her and then is wider on other people because it represents her distance and her keeping people from a distance. That’s all shaped on the page that way to conceptualize in the shot list that way.

Like the scene from which Never Rarely Sometimes Always derives its title, you also shot a scene from It Felt Like Love where the protagonist talks with her doctor about emergency contraception in a single unbroken close-up. As a man, I don’t pretend to understand what that moment feels like, so would you mind elaborating on why you’ve chosen to portray this moment in such a way?

The other one is definitely part of a building block to know what happens. The one in It Felt Like Love is different because she’s never had sex. So, she’s going through the discomfort of this kind of sexual history questionnaire. But she’s very innocent, and that’s the tension of the scene. But yeah, there’s a long take in it, so it has a similar shooting strategy. I think that scene was, in a way, the basis for the scene in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. I think it’s important that men watching it are never in those rooms. And they’re never asked those questions. And I think when men watch the scene, they always talk about it as being really invasive, and women watch it and talk about it as being really empathetic. Men are always, like [switches into a macho voice], “the scene is so invasive.”

Invasive in a good way, or invasive in a bad way?

In a really uncomfortable way. Whereas women are more accustomed to that sort of medical, clinical interrogation.

You mentioned starting Never Rarely Sometimes Always with the head fake that it might be a high school movie. The film also somewhat belongs to another genre, the New York movie. We see stories all the time about young people who come to the city to get what they want, and it’s usually some kind of magical or transformative experience for them. And in some ways, this kind of is that, because she comes here and gets what she wants, but it doesn’t feel particularly inspiring.

No, it’s not a sentimental or romantic look at New York. Her experience here is almost liminal, and she’s in liminal spaces. Wherever she’s in Port Authority, on the train, on the subway, she never has a moment to get comfortable or really take anything in.

Were you aware of and engaging with those tropes?

I was aware of them. I think New York is a really hard place to visit. And I don’t think people from out of town necessarily love it. I don’t think there’s anything intuitive about the way that it’s organized. And I don’t think it appeals to everybody.

The scene where Autumn emerges from Port Authority and kind of comes to the edges of Time Square was so striking because that’s a space that’s usually shot in such a fun way. But this is the actual experience going to Times Square. It’s terrifying.

Yeah, with that scene in particular, I wanted to show how disorienting it can be.

Your films put faces to a lot of things that we often engage with primarily on a conceptual level: toxic masculinity, homophobia, and the pro-birth extremism as shown by the crisis pregnancy centers. How do you go about personifying these things without turning them into caricature?

I mean, I think some men are a bit grumpy about the representation of men in the movie. But I think, for me, I was really trying to explore the tension that exists as a young woman, between you and an environment full of men. You learn to navigate their advances and how you can deflect…and ultimately become desensitized to it. I tried to find the balance between all of those male characters in their moments and glimpses; that part of the story is maybe a little bit conceptual. With the women in the crisis center in Pennsylvania, I went and met those women and took that test. Because I was concerned there about Christian caricatures. I’m just trying to do the best job that I can do and not make them things that I’ve seen before.

I don’t need to tell you we’re in a scary time with the Supreme Court even just last week, hearing this Louisiana case that could potentially imperil Roe v. Wade. What is the impact that you hope to have with this movie right now?

I think that the film is effective in putting a face to somebody who might otherwise be faceless and just a statistic and giving a voice to voiceless in a way. And I hope that the film helps people see the deep impact that these barriers have on lives. It’s a real impact. I think with documentary, and even in the research of this film, it’s harder to find because of confidentiality. You know, it’s hard to find people who really speak up about these issues.

With the freedoms of fictional filmmaking, too, and not having to be quite so married to the actuality or the reality, you can probe more deeply.

I didn’t want to be didactic. I really wanted to explore it from the point of view of a character study, and a poetic odyssey, a movie about friendship, and it’s not just about the issue. I hope that the story for people is layered and dimensional, not overly political or message-driven.

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Interview: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles on Bacurau’s Politics

In our wide-ranging conversation, we covered the hazy distinctions between past, present, and future in both Brazil and the United States.

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Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Photo: Victor Jucá

It takes a rich cinematic text to inspire not one but two separate repertory programs in New York, and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau fits the bill. When I caught up with the Brazilian filmmaking team, they were in town for an extended stay to help kick off Film at Lincoln Center’s “Mapping Bacurau,” a series of their genre influences ranging from horror to action to westerns. (This series, unfortunately, will no longer proceed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.) While they had a direct hand in choosing the films in that lineup, they had no involvement in the second program, BAM’s “Rise Up!: Portraits of Resistance,” which placed Bacurau in conversation with such protest films as Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, and Mati Diop’s Atlantics.

It’s the latter thematic thread that I spent most of my time discussing with Mendonça Filho and Dornelles, his longtime friend and collaborator. While an appreciation of their cinematic antecedents and inspirations for Bacurau enhances the viewing experience, it isn’t as vital as a knowledge of Brazilian history and politics. Mendonça Filho’s third film, his first sharing a directing credit with Dornelles, feels like both a continuation and escalation of his previous features, Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius. Both films located simmering tensions in Brazilian society surrounding corruption and inequality that explode in the near future of Bacurau. Residents of the titular village, facing an invasion by mercenaries willing to quite literally wipe them off the map, must take up arms in solidarity to protect their lives and land.

Don’t mistake the film for a statement on Jair Bolsonaro, however, as it was conceived years ago and shot months prior to his election. As Mendonça Filho and Dornelles pointed out, Bacurau speaks to the present only by coincidence. Yet in their recognition of history’s cyclical nature, their dystopian romp about society’s unaddressed faults can remain relevant through just about any president or administration. In our wide-ranging conversation, we covered the hazy distinctions between past, present, and future in both Brazil and the United States.

Your three features feel like they’re circling similar questions about land, heritage, and resistance, and community against a backdrop of capitalist crisis and inequality. In Bacurau, there’s this all-out warfare against imperialist intruders. Is that a reflection of the country and the world around you, or something completely separate?

Kleber Mendonça Filho: It’s interesting how we never really discussed any of that while making the films. But once we begin to talk about them, we learn a lot from critics and observers. It’s then that we realize that each one of the films has a very specific tone and speed, and it seems to match the times in which they were made. So, Brazil was actually very stable in the later years of the last decade when I wrote and shot Neighboring Sounds, but, of course, stable doesn’t mean that everything is fine. It means that there’s some disturbance, some diffused tension in society like all societies have. And I think that’s what the idea of “neighboring sounds” is. It’s kind of ethereal, and you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly is wrong and what [has the potential to] happen. Then there’s Aquarius, which was done in 2015. By 2013, things were beginning to go very wrong in Brazil, and I think the film rose out of that. We have been talking for years about Bacurau, and, of course, with everything that happened in 2016 in Brazil, when millions of Brazilians saw a soft coup d’etat—

Juliano Dornelles: I don’t see it as soft.

KMF: It’s soft because you expect tanks. That’s when Brazil began to deviate from what we see as democracy. And then, incredibly, we got to Bacurau, and it’s almost like we’re entering what should be dystopian fiction, literature or film, but it’s actually reality. I have to say, Mr. Trump’s election in the U.S. was part of what we were feeling, a change in the rotation of the political temperature. And then, we just wrote the film, feeling very connected [to the moment]. Then people, even in Cannes, tried to insinuate that the film was, or even interpreted the film as, a vision of Bolsonaro’s Brazil. This, of course, doesn’t make any sense because we shot the film seven months before he was elected. When we were shooting the film, I don’t know if you [to Darnelles] ever thought…he wasn’t even a candidate.

JD: It wasn’t even a possibility in the same year that he got elected. The beginning of the year, it was just a joke. It all happened pretty fast.

KMF: But it’s fascinating how you can be truthful to tone and atmosphere, which doesn’t really go through fact. I think truth is stronger in the atmosphere of things in society, than if you start discussing actual fact. I think we were truthful to what was happening.

Each of the films, by chance of what happened in between the time that they were shot or conceived and when they were released, looks prophetic in a way. You’re picking up on the tremors that lead to these earthquakes that we see and observe.

JD: Yeah. It’s interesting because we’re about to show 20 Years Later, Cabra Marcado [the directing duo had programmed this film in Film at Lincoln Center’s “Mapping Bacurau” series]. It’s a documentary about, how can you say?

KMF: A community leader and a peasant…

JD: …a community leader in the moment of the dictatorship, the ‘60s and ‘70s. He got assassinated in ‘64, the same year of the beginning of the coup. The other coup.

KMF: A hard coup, with attacks and guns.

JD: In this film, it’s crazy because it started like your definition [of how the film picked up on political undercurrents]. And then began to be an idea.

Bacurau

A scene from Bacurau © Kino Lorber

KMF: Maybe we’re moving on to the second [a hard coup in Brazil].

JD: Probably, I don’t know. So, in this film, they show some images of newspapers. The film is filled with fake news, calling people communists. They aren’t communists, but they’re called that. So it’s crazy because it’s the same thing. It’s crazy because this film is prophetic, and now Bacurau can be called prophetic. But it’s interesting because it’s just a look into the past. You can find the same situations all of our history.

KMF: I can almost see some place in the world using guillotines to punish people, kill people through the power of the state. And then, of course, we go back to almost 300 years to the French Revolution. I don’t think that’s too far off. It’s very scary to think about that.

Nowadays, I think you could get away with that but for the optics. If you could somehow do it in a more palatable way—

KMF: There’s a very frightening moment that I don’t know why we didn’t subtitle. Maybe because we thought it would become a political event inside the film, and it was designed just to be on the corner of the screen, which is a very white screen. When Terry [one of the mercenaries] is inside one of the houses in Bacurau, there’s a television which is on. And it says that public executions are restarting at 2 p.m. And it’s like a live feed. So, there are executions. There are executions all over the world. They’re in Brazil, in America, in Mexico.

JD: Black and poor people are being executed. Right now [points to watch]. Another one. Another one.

KMF: We don’t quite have a public execution on television at 2 p.m. That’s one thing we don’t have, but we have all kinds of different executions. It’s a fascinating idea when just the use of words takes things one notch up, and it becomes tougher.

The setting of Bacurau is “a few years from now.” Was it always this indefinite looming specter of the future as supposed to a fixed date? If you enumerate it, you start thinking, “Okay, how long did it take to get to this point, and that point?”

KMF: I love those questions the viewers find themselves with when they see the film. We always talk that it’s the best and cheapest special effect in film. Just five words.

JD: A few years from now.

KMF: It puts you in a heightened state of alert. So, you begin to scan the screen and look for evidence of the future. There’s very little evidence of anything related to the future because the future is actually now.

Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius open with montages of black-and-white vintage photographs of the past. It’s not how Bacurau opens, but we see the same types of photos inside the museum and inside the houses. It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that the climactic battle takes place inside the museum, the past and the future overlapping.

KMF: My mother was a historian so maybe that’s one explanation. I love documents, photographs, archives. Aquarius is actually about that, but it doesn’t tell you that. You can tell by watching the film that this is gone. This [film] is completely obsessed with objects, archives. Neighboring Sounds doesn’t really feel that way. But it’s very much about the weight of history and how people carry history on their back. And of course, in Bacurau, people keep inviting other people to come visit the museum.

JD: One thing that I like to think also is that we come from the big city, not from that particular region. We’re from the northeast region, which is a huge region. So, the culture is very different there. We were always concerned about not making a film of people that we don’t really know. So, I think this contact, this wish to use archive images and history, it kind of gives us more safety to walk into this terrain. And, yeah, it brought a beautiful confirmation when we started to look for this particular location, that village, we discovered that many other little villages like that had their own museums. But these museums, we didn’t know about them, and we just wrote them. It was great.

KMF: But I think we were familiar with the kind of cultural profile that these communities have. We loved them very much. And they’re so full of culture and understanding of history. It doesn’t mean that everybody is into all of that. We have the special people in each community.

JD: And this kind of thing about people from the sertão [the “outback” region in which the film is set] is starting to change more and more because, of course, everything that happened in the bigger cities is starting to happen there. The growing of the evangelical Pentecostal churches, for example. And everybody is very connected to the internet. So, they have access to the same stuff that we do so. They’re starting to change.

KMF: Have you seen Central Station by Walter Salles?

I have not.

KMF: It was shot in ‘97. The sertão that Walter shot doesn’t exist anymore. That was 20 years ago. But the sertão he shot still resembles very much the sertão from the ‘80s, ‘70s, and ‘60s, which means that, economically speaking, it’s a region that was pretty much left to its own devices. Just by having a complete lack of access to goods from the industry, it protected itself. Not because it wanted to, but just because it had to, in terms of not really changing much architecture and clothing and colors and things like that. But then, in the last 20 years, two things happened: the internet and Lula’s presidency, which brought quite a lot of change to the sertão. So, the sertão we shot in Bacurau is actually, I think, a modified version of the classic images of the sertão. It’s not the only film project [to depict the region]. There are a number of other interesting films: Love for Sale by Karim Aïnouz, and I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You is a wonderful documentary.

JD: They have already observed those kinds of changes.

KMF: And then when we do the futuristic thing, we basically use the system we have now with some touches [of the future], which come from costumes, art direction, and production design.

That’s a very interesting way to kind of approach the past because a lot of filmmakers, whenever they look backwards, employ a nostalgic glance. And you’re recognizing that it’s not just that. The past is a prologue. We’re living with the past all the time in the present, and when we try to go forward, we can’t seem to escape our history. We’re locked into repeating the cycle.

JD: We actually say this a lot in the Q&As!

KMF: You’re saying that we look towards the future by thinking about the past. Yeah, that’s what I said about the guillotines. We made a film about the future, which is basically about all the mistakes and keep being repeated in Brazilian society and, well, maybe other societies also. It’s a classic situation. For instance, we have a classic problem with water in the northeastern region, and it’s been going on for over 100 years. And, of course, we have the technology, and Brazil is a rich country. Brazil can fix that, but apparently, a number of people aren’t interested in fixing that. I don’t know why.

Bacurau

A scene from Bacurau © Kino Lorber

JD: Uh, we can guess why! [laughs]

We’re sitting here eye-rolling about how the past is going to keep repeating itself, and I’m curious, do you feel any hope that maybe we can break the cycle? Is it going to take all-out violent rebellion to arrive there, or even move the needle at all?

JD: My way of thinking is that we have this kind of cycle that always tries to go backwards, and we have other cycles where we try to make some advances. We start to do it, and we build something. I’m trying to believe that what we build in people’s spirits and minds, maybe it’s hard to destroy. Because talking about the Brazilian government, they can instantaneously destroy a lot of stuff. But it’s kind of hard now to convince a lot of poor people that were used to being helped with money, actual money from the government, to improve their lives. It’s very difficult now to take this [back] again. So, he [Bolsonaro] tried, and he couldn’t do this, he needed to restart. Everybody will understand that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, life was much better. So, I think this is some something that it’s not easy to just destroy. And, on the matter of the education also, I think we didn’t advance everything that we could. But we were seeing many people from lower classes, black people are just getting their college degrees now.

KMF: Because of the investment that was done 15 years ago.

JD: This can be something that will make some difference in the future.

KMF: The investments done 15 years ago are beginning to bear fruit. Now we’re beginning to get doctors, engineers, and judges coming from the lower classes and from people coming from the racial divide. Now, we have a government that actually believes that the poor part of the population really has to basically only do manual labor. Not necessarily go to university because universities are for those who “deserve” to. You actually hear people from the government saying that. We are now stuck in a moment of history, which will inevitably lead to good things, but there’s a lot of terrible events, which are still taking place.

JD: We are in the middle of the bad cycle, but I believe that it will change.

KMF: Juliano made an interesting point about how people remember. The problem is, I’m not sure they remember. We all go and have an amazing time at a friend’s house some Saturday evening, and we all remember that evening with great affection. It was a wonderful gathering of people. And then, over the following months, we begin to read about that gathering as the worst, most horrible, nastiest experience that human beings have ever experienced. And then, slowly, we begin to change our own memory of what happened that day. And now, we believe what was written about that evening, and we never say, “But wait, guys, we were there. It was. It was amazing. It was just wonderful people. We had great conversations. It was fantastic.” But, no, people are actually believing the official story. And the way this has been rewritten is quite scary. Because they use technology and the internet for bombardment of this other version. And now, in Brazil, it’s crazy because people just do not remember what was happening in the last decade. They’re now using the official version, which came in the shape of press, the internet, and what we now understand as fake news.

JD: I want to believe that there are two ways. One, all that suffering from before the Lula years…[there] was huge suffering, hunger, and poverty. The highest rates of poverty that are still the same now. If this kind of thing returns, maybe they will remember, that’s my point. Because now we’re on the verge of currency devaluation. So, people will start to not be able to buy anything more. And when it starts to hurt their pockets, they will [remember].

KMF: The Financial Times ran a great piece on us in London on Saturday. However, in one paragraph, he writes about when [the cast and crew of] Aquarius did the protests on the red carpets against the ousting of Dilma Rousseff, who at the time was facing corruption charges, which means we support a corrupt president. The word that was missing in the piece was who was facing trumped-up corruption charges. That’s the way it should have been written. And I wish I could have a cup of coffee with that journalist and say, “Listen, do you know what you’re doing? Are you aware of what you’re doing?” Because it’s not accurate information.

It’s buying into the alternate history that you’re talking about and erasing what actually happened.

KMF: Exactly. It’s very subtle, but I keep thinking about, I don’t know, some student in Berlin reading this over breakfast, or some guy reading this in South Africa, and then you spread this version of things, which I find quite incredibly naïve.

It’s an interesting choice that, at the end of the film, the villagers choose to bury Udo Kier’s mercenary character alive rather than just finishing him off. That feels like it’s setting the stage for this to happen again, as we all know what happens to bodies that get buried in genre films.

KMF: We actually wrote a war-style execution engine, like with hands tied in the Second World War. Pacote [a villager] would come and just shoot him in the head, and he would fall into the hole. But I just told Juliano, I don’t want to shoot this.

JD: It’s boring.

If you’d done that, too, I think you might have opened up the film to “both sides” criticism around violence.

KMF: We have this image of fascism coming back. It’s a little plant, which it is, over the last 10 years.

JD: It starts little, and then it’s a big tree.

KMF: I remember 20 years ago, when I was a child, the whole idea of fascism was just impossible. It never worked. It’s horrible. It killed millions of people. And now, it’s like, time has passed. It’s like [people think], oh, maybe fascism is interesting.

JD: It’s started to flourish again.

KMF: So, Udo is like a seed. A plant.

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Interview: Josh O’Connor on Hope Gap and Inhabiting the Physicality of His Characters

O’Connor discusses the challenge of rendering a performance with a smaller delta between actor and character

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Josh O’Connor
Photo: Screen Media Films

In an ideal world, Josh O’Connor would have already experienced a meteoric rise akin to that of Timothée Chalamet. Both starred in queer films by European directors that premiered to great acclaim at Sundance 2017, and each delivered a stunning physical and emotional turn as a young man learning to connect his feelings to his sexuality.

While O’Connor’s forceful breakthrough in God’s Own Country didn’t translate to an immediate nor massive breakout, he has nonetheless amassed a substantial body of work in the three years since. In just the past six months alone, he tackled playing a young Prince Charles on Netflix’s The Crown and donned a clerical collar for a playful turn as Mr. Elton in the latest big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.

You won’t see him on the poster for Hope Gap, but he’s every bit as central to this divorce story as the two partners in the dissolving marriage played by Annette Bening and Bill Nighy. O’Connor stars as Jamie, their son and the vessel through which they often wage proxy warfare against each other. His adjustment to becoming an adult child of divorce accompanies the process of him becoming an adult in a larger sense. The separation allows Jamie to see his parents as flawed individuals in their own right and understand how their discontented union hampered his own attempts to connect in relationships. O’Connor’s shadings in the performance prove more subtle than his typically more flashy work, but it’s no less compelling to watch him chart a fully developed emotional arc through his character.

I caught up with O’Connor prior to the release of Hope Gap. We discussed the challenge of rendering a performance with a smaller delta between actor and character. Unsurprisingly, he devoted just as much thought and preparation in his process of embodying Jamie as he did someone as well-known as Prince Charles or extreme as Johnny from God’s Own Country.

Hope Gap is one of your more ostensibly “grounded” or “normal” roles. What challenges does it pose to bring a character to life who you might not need to do quite as much transformation to play?

I’m used to playing more transformative roles. Certainly, so far in my career, more often than not, I’m playing characters that are nothing like myself. In some way, that was kind of the attraction about Hope Gap. I think one of the hardest things is playing something closer to yourself. There’s nothing done really to my hair, and I’m wearing fairly normal clothes—albeit not how I dress day to day—all the aesthetic stuff is pretty much me. What intrigues me is playing a role where you have to look into the details to find some nuance, I suppose.

Do you create a scrapbook like you normally do to explore a character like Jamie?

You know what, I did because I think a big aspect of this film for me was a sense of home. Another thing that interested me about this script when I first read it was that I grew up in the countryside, and there’s a place that’s an equivalent of Hope Gap on the south coast of England where I will go if I’m ever stressed or finding things difficult. It’s my place of peace and quiet. I spent a lot of time in the area of Hope Gap trying to create, using my usual scrapbook thing, a sense of memory and nostalgia because I think it’s so important to this character—the way he gets on the train from London and feels a sense of doom and gloom, really.

What about filling in some of his history? We get some, but not all of it, though we can clearly sense that going back to his hometown is a journey freighted with emotional baggage.

I think so much of the things that are interesting about the character have to do with this idea of baggage and an underlying sense of tension. That meant, by the time we arrive at that early part of the film when Jamie’s father says, “I’m leaving your mother,” it wasn’t a surprise. It feels like there’s been tension in that household for a long time. I feel the big journey for me was that I wanted to start the film feeling like going home for him was deeply sad and tense, but by the end of the film, this parting of two people has unlocked some positivity for Jamie. That was my takeaway.

I’m always so impressed by how you adjust your body for roles, be it slowly relieving the tension and violence of Johnny in God’s Own Country, the humorous stiffness of Mr. Elton in Emma, or speaking through your teeth as Prince Charles on The Crown. How do you approach this physicality when you don’t have the luxury of a movement coach?

A lot of that I do on my own anyway. The revelation from The Crown that I discovered was that there’s such a thing as a movement coach. It’s going to be hard to turn back now because Polly Bennett, who I worked with on The Crown, is exquisite and brilliant. All the detail on God’s Own Country was me and Francis Lee, the film’s director.

The biggest thing to do with anything dealing with physicality is making sure it comes from a place that isn’t just an aesthetic decision. For instance, Prince Charles is a person who’s lived most of his life as an isolated, lonely child. I was looking at footage of Prince Charles and [saw] how he has his arms constantly in his pockets, locked in. I didn’t want to just copy that, which might be fine, because when you see someone just mimicking something, it looks like you’re mimicking something rather than inhabiting. Rather than do that, I wanted to find the reason for why he might be closed off.

With Hope Gap, what I found so challenging was that, in some ways, you have free range. But I didn’t want to make anything too drastic or make Jamie into a caricature. What I wanted was this sense that he removed himself from that tension, and he had a different life in London. This was bringing him back to the child he formerly was. I didn’t have as much help with the costume in terms of how he might be. My process has remained the same throughout, movement director or not. It’s trying to find real life reasons for how people move around spaces and how they inhabit the world. Again, it’s all from notes I’ve written in my sketchbook somewhere.

I even noticed in Hope Gap that it seems like Jamie’s a little more slouched over or checked out, and his face tends to scrunch up a bit when he comes home.

It’s interesting—we shot a bit more of me in London from the original screenplay. When we were shooting it, we spent a lot more time playing him out in that world. There was a clearer line between how he exists in the space in London with his friends and how he existed with his family. Those are things that can be lost in an edit.

You’ve said before that Love Actually would be one of your three “desert island” movies, so it has to be surreal being in not just one but two movies with Bill Nighy this year. When you’re working with someone you admire in a way that they loom larger than life in your memory, how do you keep that all in check?

I might have found it a little harder a few years ago. It’s one of the bizarre and wonderful perks of this job to work with some of my heroes, and, in many ways, Bill has become a hero for me as a person. I’ve always loved him as an actor and continue to love him as an actor. He’s one of the most purely kind people I’ve ever met. I can’t say enough that the making of Hope Gap was one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made. Essentially, because I met Bill, and he became one of my closest friends. This was a time where I was coming off of God’s Own Country and the madness of that, I was about to go play Princes Charles, and I was just a bit lost in the world and terrified. Here came this script, and I thought, “Great, it’s a nice summer trip with Annette Bening and Bill Nighy!” And I had no idea how much Bill would change my life. He’s the most open, accessible, hard-working person. He takes you seriously, but not so seriously that you feel disengaged. He’s totally terrific.

I always find it interesting talking to actors in their late 20s because finding roles in this transitional stage—it’s tough to determine when you’re a student, when you’re a young adult and when you’re a man, especially as the boundaries between life stages change. Are you consciously thinking about these things at all as you choose roles, or is it purely a story you react to?

I don’t know, actually! I think at the moment, I’m sort of midway through a transitional period where I’m now trying to be as picky as I can and choose roles that feel exciting and new and something I’ve not done before. That’s where I’m at. The principles of what interest me as an actor remain the same: A character, more often than not transformational, has an arc and an interesting story. But then, overall, it’s finding filmmakers and collaborators that are developing the film industry or our craft, whatever it is. In terms of whether I’m a young man or an older man, I guess I don’t think about it too much. I just make sure the character is something I can play. I do feel, though, that I’m getting away from being the student now. I think Jamie from Hope Gap is my last hurrah in that world. [laughs]

You said in a 2017 interview that you don’t have huge interest in doing television. But since then, you’ve done The Crown for Netflix and Les Misérables for the BBC, which, granted, have the scope of something you might see at the cinema. Given that the boundaries between the two mediums are much more porous now, are you thinking about television differently?

Yeah, certainly safe to say that I think about it differently. I think my meaning was more that I grew up with film. Film and theater was what I knew. I grew up in quite a remote countryside town, and my experience of anything [cultural] was that I would go to Royal Shakespeare Company and see plays. The big treats in my life were getting to movie theater and seeing movies. Television was less of a thing for me. What has happened in the last 10 years, television has had such a resurgence, as you must be aware. I feel with The Crown in particular, I was [curious] about the idea that you could take a character and go into so much detail with such a dramatic arc that spans many years. Purely as a kind of experiment, I suppose, to see what that does to you and how challenging that is, I’ve loved it. I’ve loved every minute. But I’m a cinephile and immensely passionate about cinema. That doesn’t mean that I’m not passionate about television! But as an audience member, I’m biased to film and theater. That’s where my interests have always landed.

I’m the same way. I love all the detail you can get from television, but there’s something so special about watching artists create something so full within the confines of a smaller narrative on stage or in film.

I totally agree! Ultimately, that’s the key. I find sitting down in the theater and seeing a play or a movie, confined in an hour and a half, that to me is magic. The restraints of that are magic.

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

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Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.

Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.

If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.

The femme fatale.

Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.

The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.

Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.

This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?

Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.

Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.

The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.

I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?

Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.

And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.

Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.

Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.

I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]

I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.

The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.

Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?

Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]

The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.

The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.

Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?

I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.

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Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love

It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.

Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.

The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.

Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?

Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.

Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?

Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—

Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.

Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?

Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.

Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?

Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.

I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.

Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?

Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”

When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?

Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.

Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.

There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?

Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.

Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?

Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.

We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?

Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.

Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.

You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?

Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.

Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.

In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?

Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.

Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.

Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”

Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.

Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!

Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?

Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.

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Interview: Angela Schanelec on I Was at Home, But…, the Berlin School, & More

The filmmaker discusses her elliptical approach to filmmaking and how she compels our active spectatorship.

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Angela Schanelec
Photo: Joaquim Gem

One year ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Silver Bear for best director went to Angela Schanelec for I Was at Home, But…. The film stars Maren Eggert as Astrid, a Berlin woman recently bereaved of her husband and coping with the subsequent weeklong disappearance and reemergence of her son, Philip (Jakob Lassalle). Astrid’s life in the wake of these dual traumas unfolds episodically, as her emotional duress manifests itself as displaced obstinacy and heightened passion in social interactions.

Astrid’s emotional struggle is also intercut with dispersed scenes of Philip’s class neutrally reciting lines from Hamlet, of a romantic crisis in the life of one of his instructors (the omnipresent Franz Rogowski), and of a donkey and a dog living together in an abandoned schoolhouse. With this film, Schanelec crafts a portrait of grief that can be at once alienating and deeply moving, its fragmentary nature both reflecting the way Astrid and Philip’s worlds have been shattered and compelling our active spectatorship.

That latter aspect is typical of Schanelec’s body of work, as well as the film movement it has been grouped with. The so-called Berlin School—originally consisting of Schanelec and Thomas Arslan and Christian Petzold, her fellow graduates from the Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie Berlin—wasn’t the filmmakers’ intentional creation, but rather a label often applied to the slow-paced, formalist, and critically engaged art films they made. French critics and the German film magazine Revolver were the first to propagate the coming of a nouvelle vague allemande in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and, as Schanelec emphasizes in our interview, particularly in the early days of the “School,” the grouping helped the trio’s small collection of completed works find places in film festivals.

Now, 25 years into her filmmaking career, Schanelec has an oeuvre that stands on its own—as evidenced by the career retrospectives that have begun to crop up around the world. Last fall, the Vienna International Film Festival organized a comprehensive one. And from February 7 to 13, Film at the Lincoln Center in New York will be showing her films under the program “Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec,” which in addition to her shorts and features also includes a program of three films by other filmmakers selected by Schanelec.

Has this retrospective given you reason to revisit earlier work that you haven’t in a while, or to revisit your work as a whole? If so, what kinds of insights have stood out to you as you have considered your career up to this point?

I have to say that it’s quite exhausting to be confronted with the work of my whole life. There were other retrospectives, earlier retrospectives, and for me it’s quite hard. I mean, I’m very happy that there’s this interest in my work, there’ no question. But it’s also quite hard for me.

What’s so difficult about it?

Because, I mean, it’s not such a big body of work. I started in the ‘90s, and the first long film was in 1995, so it’s 25 years. But between my films is two or three years, so I spend a lot of time with them. And when they are finished, they are finished. And then I have the deep wish to continue with something new. And I think I know my films.

Do you see, then, each film as something new you’re exploring? Or do you leave a film with an idea you want to continue working on in the next film?

It’s not a new start. It’s not a new beginning at all. It’s rather a need that emerges from the work on a film, and I follow up on this need in the next film. And this is also not an intellectual or conceptual decision, and often it’s very primitive. So, when, for example, I’ve worked a lot with language, there’s a certain fatigue, or there emerges the need to work with images again. If you look at the way my films alternate, there’s always, I don’t know—in Plätze in Städten [Schanelec’s first feature] there’s hardly any talking, in Passing Summer lots of talking, then in Marseille, again, hardly any. So, certain needs develop, and they come from exhaustion.

In fact, I noticed that The Dreamed Path has no subtitles on Amazon Prime, and perhaps it doesn’t need them because as you said it’s one of your films that’s so visual.

This is only one point how one film comes from another. Ah, there are lots, but it happens, as I said, not rationally, but instead it emerges from certain needs.

To what degree do you feel an affinity with something called the Berlin School? And if you did, do you feel like it’s so-last-decade, do you feel it’s over now?

To start at the beginning, it was only Thomas Arsland, Christian Petzold, and I. And Thomas and I had become friends already at the Filmhochschule. And via this concept, “Berlin School,” it was much easier to make the films visible, because we hadn’t made so many films. But then under the concept “Berlin School,” one could show the whole set. Then the films were also shown abroad very often, and naturally that was good, and we were happy with that. But the concept didn’t result from collaborative work, but only from a look at the finished films. And we—Thomas and I—never, though we were friends, we never worked together even at the Filmhochschule. There was no cooperation, and correspondingly, the films developed completely differently over the course of these 15 years—or I don’t really know how long this concept has existed. If you look at the films only of the three of us, you’ll see they’re very different from one another. And mine are somewhere different entirely. In my eyes, anyway.

I agree.

And therefore the concept is not relevant for me. What’s also positive, though, is this next generation came up—Christoph Hochhäuser, Nicolas Wackerbarth—and the two of them are from Revolver, and are very practiced at communicating. And that was also positive, because for Thomas and I that was unaccustomed. We had much more worked each for ourselves.

Turning to I Was at Home, But …, there’s a lot of Hamlet in the film. You translated a volume of Shakespeare plays a couple of years ago, so it’s clear why Hamlet appears in it to a certain extent, but I’m wondering what has drawn you to Shakespeare recently, and whether your work translating him served as a kind of germ for the film.

What I can say is that I translated, between the year 2000 and five years ago, six or seven Shakespeare pieces, and Hamlet was quite long ago, but it was the one that impressed me to a very extreme point. It’s a very intense work to translate dialogues, because in a way I try to find out how I can say something. It’s not a text, it’s words which are spoken. And so there’s a confrontation, an intense confrontation that belongs to me, that remains present to me. When I began to write the script, I didn’t write it with Hamlet in mind. But when I considered, how will one see the students, and I thought, I want to see the students without the teacher. What could they do? They could perform. What could they perform? Hamlet. It came back to me. My confrontation as someone who’s staging something with actors—the confrontation with staging—is to be found in the Hamlet scene. That is, what does the spoken word mean in front of a camera, and in comparison to the stage, and all these questions, I could think through them. That’s actually it. In a moment in which language is so expressive, like in Shakespeare, that has consequences for the performance, for the expression of the play, because the children simply say the sentences, but they don’t really play it. But it’s important to understand that just saying it doesn’t mean emptiness, it just means to let the body work, I mean to let the body express itself without will, without position.

One thing that I was picking up on in how you use Shakespeare is that when you’re going through the kind of grief that Astrid and Philip are going through—especially if you’ve lost a parent—that’s an almost universal experience, and you feel like it’s something that has been played through so many times. You feel that grief intensely, but you also feel that you aren’t unique—it’s in Hamlet, everybody goes through this.

You’re completely right. I don’t feel unique at all [laughs]. It’s interesting that you say it. I never talk about it. It’s just sometimes I try to describe that. But what I’m interested in isn’t what is special about the individual person. I speak much more about what unites us, about [what is] basically human, than about the individual. So, yeah, to that extent, you’re right. That’s somehow interesting, somehow very important, because it’s important to me that the characters you see can be anyone.

You’ve spoken of the importance of space in your films—of the emplacement of the characters, so to speak. I Was at Home, But… clearly takes place in Berlin. But to what extent do you see it as a “Berlin film”? Could this story take place somewhere else?

Yeah, for sure it could take place somewhere else. But Germany isn’t so big [laughs]. Of course, this film was shot in Berlin because I live there. But there’s also a reason why I live in Berlin. There aren’t so many alternatives if you want to live in a big city. What’s special about Berlin is that many people live there who aren’t from the city, and that shapes it. And the streets are very broad in Berlin. One notices this in particular when one wants to shoot a “big city” shot showing a lot of people—that’s very hard to find in Berlin. One has to go to Friedrichstraße, or these days Alexanderplatz. But even there, it’s simply so wide. And because, before as now, the city is so varied, the tourists aren’t totally concentrated. There aren’t so many alternatives when one wants to aim at explaining the big city, and a city where there are foreigners. The young man, for example, in the long dialogue scene in the middle, he’s applying to be a professor. That’s already complicated. So obviously it’s a city in which foreigners work at colleges and apply for professorships. There aren’t many alternatives to this.

I think that audiences, when watching your films, realize how much work the standards of conventional narrative do for us. Yours have a kind of different infrastructure. They call on us to fill in more of the gaps, especially when it comes to relationships between the characters, which are established largely through implication. How conscious of structure are you when you’re writing or conceptualizing your films?

I think I’m very aware of classic storytelling. I’m very aware of it as everyone, as someone who sees films, also as someone who worked a long time in the theater. I’m very aware of it, but I use it in a different way, because my interest is on the moment. For me, every moment is essential as it für sich [“for itself”], as one says in German. So, every moment I see für sich. I don’t tell any moment in order that this moment makes me able to tell another moment. So, this is a very different way to narrate. And, yes, maybe this describes it already, that also this classical narration is a narration of storytelling and not how life moves on.

I Was at Home, But… conveys a clear sense of structure. It has these bookends, the scenes with the donkey and the dog. There’s a sense of self-parody there: We see the donkey looking out the window, ignoring the dog, and then, soon thereafter, we see Philip’s school director doing the same thing with him. I know you’re probably sick of being asked “what’s with the animals,” but is self-parody part of what’s going on here?

No, I mean, I didn’t reflect on that, what you’ve said. I had this character of this boy, and he came from nature, and I had this wish to show nature, but I didn’t want to show him, so I noticed that I wanted to show animals instead, because they live in nature, more natural than a child can. They aren’t missed, you understand what I mean? We were looking on location, scouting for a stable for the animals, and a stable normally doesn’t have windows, so we saw many stables where we shot it in Croatia. And then we saw an abandoned schoolhouse, abandoned for 20 years, had a window and a small stage. I saw it and I thought immediately I want to shoot the animals here, not in a stable but in this abandoned house. So, I had the opportunity to let the donkey look out of the window, and I felt that this is good. But I didn’t think, “Ah, okay, then it will be a great parody of the school director, who also will look out of the window.” He looks out of the window because he’s waiting for the mother because he’s in a situation where he cannot talk to that child. So, it’s easier to look out of the window. Also, the donkey cannot talk to the dog [laughs]. So, for me it doesn’t make sense to reflect on that. I just follow and trust my relation to what I want to see and tell.

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

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

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Photo: Carol Rosegg

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

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

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

Who’s Lily Dare?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s it like writing roles for yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it true you’re writing your memoirs?

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

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

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

Is there a confession of Charles Busch?

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

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Interview: Kantemir Balagov on Avoiding Artistic Stagnation with Beanpole

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

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Kantemir Balagov
Photo: Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How so?

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t put that pressure on me!

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

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

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

So variation is what you hope for?

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

Translation by Sasha Korbut

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