Most of Battlestar Galactica director Michael Nankin’s previous experience in television directing came on domestic or workplace dramas like Life Goes On and Picket Fences. So perhaps he wasn’t the most obvious choice to make the leap to the sweeping space battles of the gritty sci-fi show (airing the first of its final batch of episodes tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on Sci-Fi). But he insists the series don’t have that little in common in the end.
“You know, it was kismet,” Nankin said of working on the show. “It was all the stars lining up because Battlestar is a character drama. It was right in my wheelhouse. I had all that I needed. It’s, y’know, the least sci-fi sci-fi show ever. It was love at first sight all around.”
I sat down with Nankin a few days ago to talk for almost an hour about TV direction in general, directing Battlestar specifically, and some of the other shows on TV he admires.
First, I wanna ask a little about your background. I did see you started out as a writer and then sort of transitioned to being a director.
That’s inaccurate because IMDb doesn’t go back far enough. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve done that it doesn’t list, and there’s actually things I haven’t done that it does list, which is strange.
I was one of those kids who was making movies when he was ten. My grandfather gave me a standard eight reel camera, which is the kind that takes 16mm film and you’d run 25 feet and then flip it over and run the other way. So that’s how I started and then I just never stopped. Although it didn’t occur to me that I could make a career making films until college. I grew up in … there were no artists in my family, so I was going to grow up and be a doctor or a lawyer and make movies on the side. I drew a lot and painted a lot. They were very worried about me.
What was the point where you sort of said, “OK, I could do this for a living?”
It was interesting. I made friends with a guy in high school, at the end of high school, and I went to his house one day, and his dad was a musician. And so we go to his house, it’s this big house, so clearly someone’s making enough money. And he says, “We have to be quiet, my dad’s working.” So we walk by this room, and I peek in, and there’s his dad sitting at the piano, with a blank piece of paper, noodling on the keys and writing down a lyric, and it hit me like a two-by-four. And I thought, “My God, you can, like, do it. You can do that kind of stuff and make a living.” That moment changed everything for me.
To answer your question, I went to film school at UCLA. I wanted to be a director. That’s all I cared about. I’d always written my stuff, but I’d never had an ambition to be a writer because writing just always felt like part of the filmmaking process. OK, I’ve got a movie in my head, and I have to communicate it to people in some way, so I have to write it down. And then I make the movie. But it was never a desire to be the next Steinbeck. Although I wouldn’t mind being the next Steinbeck, but it may be too late.
So how did you get involved in television?
I had a career in features, and I directed one movie and it didn’t do well and things fell apart and no one was hiring me to direct. So I thought, “I’ve gotta sit down and write scripts. No one’s hiring me to direct their projects, so I’ve gotta create my own projects.” I started writing scripts, and I started selling them. Suddenly, I was a movie writer. So I was cooking along, writing scripts and optioning them, and doing rewrites, but I wasn’t any closer back to directing at all because none of them were hits. I was just chugging along.
That was going on for years. I was really frustrated because I was in an enviable position, but I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t on the set. And I’d just gotten married so I couldn’t really quit. And a guy named Rick Rosenthal who directed a movie I wrote called Russkies directed the pilot for a TV show called Life Goes On about 20 years ago. And he called me up and said, “Come see the pilot at the screening. Meet the other writers, and you can come and pitch stories and write some episodes.” My initial reaction was an arrogant one. “Please Rick. I’m a feature guy. How could I possibly do that? Work on a television show! I wouldn’t understand it.” And I went and saw this thing, and it was beautiful, and I read some of the scripts, and I realized this writing is better than the writing I’m doing. It’s better than 95% of the features I’m seeing. It totally turned my head around.
So I wrote one on spec, and then they made me a staff writer. So then I was in, and I was on a TV show. It was all new to me. And then, of course, the first day I showed up and every day after that, I kept pushing, “I want to direct.” I kept saying and kept saying it, and they kept patting me on the head and sending me away. But after a year, they really liked my work, Rick and the other executive producer Michael Braverman fought for me, and I got my first episodic directing job. And I was ready. I was so ready for it.
How common was it for writers to cross over into directing then? I know it’s a little more common now.
It’s hard. It’s hard.
Even in TV?
It’s a different skill set. It’s a leap of faith, on behalf of the studio mostly because they’re writing the checks, and they have to be convinced. Or forced.
So I was really ready. I just hit it out of the park, really, and I just fell in love with episodic television because I got a chance to do so much work. It was interesting. I think it was the first or second season of Life Goes On, and there was a show that was short, and it was about to air, and they just turned to me and said, “We need one more scene. Write this scene, and we’re gonna shoot it tomorrow. It airs in four days.” The theme of the episode was homelessness, so I took this character that was a cook in the restaurant that the father owned, and I gave him this speech about what it’s like to be homeless, and suddenly you discovered that in his youth, he was this homeless guy. He fell into that and brought himself out. And he gives this long speech about what it’s like to be on the street, and what happens after you’re on the street for two days, and you can’t walk into a store. Y’know, a very humanistic speech. It was very from my heart. And then actors were speaking the lines 18 hours later and 25 million people saw it five days later, and I was hooked.
Well, this is from IMDb again, so it might be wrong, but I’m seeing you worked on Life Goes On and then Picket Fences and Chicago Hope for a while. How did you move then from sort of domestic dramas to the science fiction of Battlestar?
Purely accidentally. It’s interesting because I had started out, I was interested in sci-fi early on in my career. I was mentored by Ray Bradbury, who may be the sweetest man on Earth and cured me of writers block forever. And I got together with him, and the first thing I told him was that it was his short stories that I read when I was 11 that made me think that maybe I could write. And I was lucky enough to meet up with him. I latched on to him.
So the movie scripts I’d written were comedies and thrillers. There was one horror movie that kind of got me on the map called The Gate, and then Life Goes On really pegged me as sort of a writer of character drama. Very heartfelt. Somewhat sentimental. And that’s what I was known as for years. I did Chicago Hope and Picket Fences and family and teen dramas as a director. You never really control your career, but that’s what I was known for. And then I directed a show called American Gothic.
Here’s how I got that job. I saw the pilot, and I didn’t know Shaun Cassidy at all, but I saw the pilot, and I just called him up, and I said, “I just wanted to thank you for creating a TV show that’s told visually rather than in the dialogue.” So he said, “Are you kidding? Come and have lunch with me.” So I went and had lunch with him, and pretty soon I was working on the show. A great way to move in the business is call people and compliment them, but only if you mean it.
So I was shooting this episode of American Gothic in North Carolina and the producer on the set was [BSG executive producer] David Eick. So we became pals. And we tried to develop several shows together, and it never panned out. And then I had this idea for a miniseries for Sci Fi. It was actually a movie idea I’d had, but I knew it could easily be a miniseries, and Eick and I pitched it to Sci Fi and they really liked it. So I spent months writing this—y’know, it’s a six hour miniseries, so the outline was, like, 40 pages. You had to work everything out before you write it. So all the heavy lifting’s in the outline, and none of the money’s in the outline. So I spent months writing this outline and making no money, and we finally submitted it to Sci Fi, and they said, “Nah, we don’t really wanna do it.”
And Eick had just started Battlestar, and I said, “David, I’m broke. I just spent three months and made nothing. You gotta give me an episode. I need some cash.” And now I’m the sci-fi guy.
You know, it was kismet. It was all the stars lining up because Battlestar is a character drama. It was right in my wheelhouse. I had all that I needed. It’s, y’know, the least sci-fi sci-fi show ever. It was love at first sight all around. On the second day of Battlestar, I called Eick and said, “David, get me as many of these as you can. I’m not leaving. This is the best job I’ve ever had.”
One of the things you briefly mentioned was calling up Cassidy about his show being done visually instead of through dialogue. That’s one of the things I notice is that even when I’m writing a review of a TV show, I tend to focus on the script, which is sort of the opposite of how it is in the movie world, where you focus on the director. What has been your role traditionally as a TV director insofar as servicing the scripts or working with them?
Well, it’s interesting. I mean, it’s different on every show. Working with David Kelley on Picket Fences, there’s actually a guy on set who says, “There’s a comma here. You didn’t pause long enough” on one end of the spectrum. And the other end of the spectrum is Battlestar Galactica where they hand me the script and they go away and they say, “Let us know when you’re done making your movie.” And I have lots of freedom. Lots of it.
My ideas about approaching an episode of television is that my job is to find the humanity in the story. That’s my starting point always. I’m about to go do a CSI, the most procedural show in the world, and my job is to make it a human experience rather than just people talking about the perp. The director in features or TV is the midwife of the performance, and so that’s what I concentrate on. That’s the fun of it. But dealing with the script, y’know, the script’s a treasure map in the best incarnation of the way this works. You wouldn’t take a treasure map and frame it and say it’s a finished piece of work. It’s gonna lead you to something. It’s full of clues and suggestions for where you should go and what you should do, but it doesn’t contain the treasure. You have to find the treasure. And the treasure is the moment, the moment between two people on the screen.
You mentioned being the midwife of the performance. How is that different on a show where you and the actors have both been working on it for a while, like on Battlestar? After four seasons, what do you say to an actor who maybe feels they really know their character at that point?
It kind of has nothing to do with knowing your character. You start a movie, and they know who their character is on the first day. It’s what’s happening to that character. And everyone’s interpretation of character changes as things go on. It gets deeper and deeper and deeper hopefully. So it’s really about, OK, so we know who this character is, so we don’t have to do that. Now, what does this man or this woman do now in this moment, in this situation. And the actors come with their ideas, all of which are valuable, and I just try to open doors for them that they haven’t thought of and try to create an environment in which they can play and experiment and not be frightened of doing the wrong thing. Fear is what hangs up actors the most. If they don’t trust the director, if they’re afraid someone’s not watching them correctly, then they’ll watch themselves. And you can’t be in the moment and watch yourself at the same time, and the performance is diminished. Fear also makes them afraid to do the wrong thing, and if you create an environment where it’s OK to do the wrong thing, then they’re free to find the unexpected in the scene.
Often, I’ll do a take where we intentionally do the wrong thing. Early on, I’ll say, “OK, what’s the stupidest way to do this scene? What’s the most embarrassing, idiotic way to do it? Let’s do a take that way.” And what happens is they do it, and the world doesn’t end, and everyone laughs, and we move on.
I’m really sad none of those have ended up on the DVD.
And what happens more often than not is we get to the end of the take, and we all look at each other, and we say, “Y’know, we set out to do exactly the wrong thing, but that one part that you did, that was fucking great. Let’s use that.”
Now, there aren’t a lot of TV shows that have a distinct visual style you have to use. Usually, it’s midshots and close-ups and so on. Battlestar has always had that docudrama feel, though. How much of that is mandated?
It’s involved, because there are a number of episodes of Battlestar that have very little of that in it. And I came in to Battlestar resisting it. My background was in visual arts. I was a painter, and so composition was always a really important storytelling tool for me. Suddenly, there’s two cameras going crazy all the time. I’m losing that tool. I can tell the story by where the guy is in the frame, and I was frightened at first. How can I do this? It’s just gonna be a mess.
But it ended up liberating me. I suddenly realized that I could do what I wanted to do without being so carefully controlling over that composition. I could still get it across. Battlestar, there’s two cameras going all the time. Two camera operators. I figured out pretty quickly that there was one camera operator who was just brilliant. He could take this fifty pound camera and whip it around like it was a handycam. Just get stuff I would never think of. And so what I did was I sort of struck a compromise. And so the A camera I could kind of control and make my compositions in, even though it was still handheld and had those nervous little zooms in it. It still had that feeling. But I would say, “Now, this is a wide shot and Adama’s on the left and keep him really small.” I’d still shoot in my sort of normal mode with A camera, but I had the B camera changing it up every take. Slowly, I was sort of able to let go of A camera even and sort of just concentrate on the performances and every once in a while sort of nudge things back to where I wanted them to be. But I started to really love the surprises that I would get. My resistance at first, I just ended up loving it. It became a new tool in my arsenal and got completely spoiled by the brilliance of these camera operators. You can do that with the wrong guys, and it’s a mess. That’s what I was afraid of. But these camera operators are filmmakers, and the important thing is they’re following the story. They’re not just making cool shots. They know the story, and they’re enhancing it. Once I knew that was going on, I was able to relax.
What are the major differences between starting out early in a show’s run like you did on Battlestar and then coming in later on in a show’s run like you’re doing on CSI?
I’ll tell you, I’ve been lucky. Most of the directing I’ve done in television has been early in the first season. As a matter of fact, I try to get my agents the two times I’ve had the option to choose, I always want to go to the show that’s just starting up because no one really knows anything, and I get the option to be more of a filmmaker. I feel like especially after this great experience on Battlestar, I feel, like, “Fine, what’s your style? I’ll do your style. I don’t have to come here and change your show.” It’s fantastic.
And I also find that showrunners all hang on to their vision to different degrees. I’ll find that I go onto a show, and people will say, “Well, here’s how we do it,” and I’ll say, “Great.” And in the course of prep, I’ll get ideas of my own, and I’ll sit down with them, and I’ll say, “Well, how about this? What if we did this?” I’ve found that almost everyone’s open to new ideas. Very few people say, “No no no. We can’t do that. We always put a closeup there.” Very few people are like that. Most people are excited with new ideas. And I’ve found that as long as everyone knows what they’re doing, as long as you sit down with them and talk about your ideas, people are open. A couple of times, I’ve surprised them. I’ve said, “OK, they’re gonna say no to this so I’ll just do it.” And that’s bad. People feel you’re working behind their back.
Or what I’ll do is I’ll do things two ways. Y’know, time permitting, I’ll do it their way, and then I’ll do my crazy shot. They have a choice in the editing room. If they like it, fine. If they don’t, fine.
Now, just by virtue of how little time there is to produce an episode of TV than a feature, the writer has always been more important in the TV production process generally. What are some ways that you think TV could maybe move over more to that visual directorial language while still saying on this tight production schedule?
Basically, you have to write to your budget. I just did Sarah Connor, and it was written bigger than their budget, so all the effort went into just getting it accomplished. Y’know, if you’ve got, like, In Treatment. In Treatment is a show about two people talking in a room. What’s beautiful about that is that the budget’s small, but the requirements are small, so within that small budget, it’s actually luxurious because you don’t have to move your set, you don’t have to bring in the trains, you don’t have to do any of that stuff. So you have time to work the performance. That’s what it’s all about. If shows are realistic about what they can accomplish so that you actually have time to deal with it, then you can be cinematic in any venue, directorially.
Although the more I work, the more I question what that really means. The best description of the job I’ve ever heard was that the director is the audience’s representative on the set. I can’t remember who said that. The guy who walks in and says, “This is my vision. This is my personal vision,” you don’t want that guy. Because he’s just asserting himself. You want someone to assert for the audience. Now the audience may want these incredible shots and sweeping camera and poetry and all that stuff, given the material. I was lucky coming up because I made all my student films in the 70s, and the only way to show it was to project it. There was no tape. There was no DVD. There was none of it. You could only show it by projecting it. So very early on, I had to gather groups of people in dark rooms and screen it. And, of course, I was a movie geek. I went to thousands and thousands of movies and talked about them with my friends. And then in film school, I was at UCLA where they screened everything in a theater. All of those hours and hours and hours in a dark room gives you a sense of audience. Showing your film and watching with an audience, thinking, “Man, that seems slow. It seemed great in the cutting room. Now it seems slow. They didn’t get that joke. Why didn’t they get that joke? They’re ahead of the story. How’d they get ahead of the story?” Over thousands of hours and hours, you develop a second sense. You know how they’re gonna react. So that’s how you make all your decisions on the set.
The audience is always trying to get ahead of the story, and so that’s a tool. Sometimes, you want them to get ahead and pull the rug out from under them. Sometimes, you want to make a left turn and leave them behind so they have to catch up. That’s part of the drama. I teach directing at the Art Institute in Santa Monica, and my big thing is always trying to get these kids to go sit in theaters among the audience. And it gets hard to do in TV because you just ship it. You don’t have to screen it.
Hasn’t Battlestar had several big screen screenings? Have you made it to one of those?
How does it play?
It plays great. David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, a writing team for Battlestar who’ve written most of the episodes I’ve done, they have these frak parties because David lives out in Paradise Cove in Malibu, in this big upscale trailer park with this big rec room, and they take over the rec room the night the episode airs, and they have a big screening, and they invite all these fans and people from the show and stuff, and I’m always there. And I’m usually not watching the show. I’m usually standing near the screen watching the audience. Because I’ve seen the show. I know the show.
I’ve noticed that the show has gone to more of an epic feel. The miniseries was very epic, but the series started out kind of small. Was that a budgetary thing or was there a conscious choice to move in that direction?
I don’t think it was budgetary, although there’s always a battle. You have to start big to get the audience. And then I think it’s a combination of things. Part of it is, this is a really well-crafted 80-hour movie, and sometimes, you just have to slow down and lay the groundwork for what’s gonna happen. You have to sow the fields because you’re gonna reap them later. I think it’s part of a function of storytelling. I also think it’s part of a function of the fact that the writers didn’t know in season two really where it was going. There’s a lot of experimentation going on, trying to find what works. It takes a lot longer. I did an episode called “Faith,” which is just Roslin and this patient sitting over a bed for, like, 25 pages. It was like an episode of In Treatment.
Do you find that you tend to be drawn to episodes that are more like that? I’ve noticed that Rymer shoots a lot of the big space battle episodes.
That’s because he gets to pick and choose. I’m drawn to anything I haven’t done before. Anything new. I’m still waiting to make that Western. I wanna do a movie about jazz players. All these movies I’d love that I haven’t gotten to do. And quality. Writing that has subtext. Something that means something. Whether it’s big or small. When I’m out there with the cranes and the cars, and the sun’s going down, I say, “Just give me two people in a room. I wanna put two people in a room. Let me get out of this stage and shoot something fun.” But maybe I’m just a malcontent.
Looking back on your work on the show, what are some of your favorite scenes or episodes you worked on?
Well, “Maelstrom.” My favorite are the unaired shows, actually, but “Maelstrom” was all about digging really deep into Starbuck’s character. And Katee Sackhoff and I recognized early on that we were gonna have to bring our best game for this episode. We just get each other. We’re a really good team. I understand the way she works; I understand her. She likes the way I work. There wasn’t a get to know you period. There wasn’t a period of fear. It was all about, let’s see how far we can go. It was very intimate, mostly from my side. I saw things in her. She was dragging up stuff from her real childhood. She was dragging up stuff from her darkest fears, her weakest moments. And I was there watching, helping her get to it. It was very intimate and very courageous on her part. She was so game. She was naked in front of everybody, in every sense of the word. And that was a very intense experience.
I usually shoot stills on set. I always have my own camera, and I’m shooting stills. And on that episode, I never touched my still camera. I was so in the moment, in the work. I didn’t want to do anything other than make that episode. And it turned out well. That intense experience is part of my favorite experience in itself. It’s all on the screen. Sort of the Christmas Carol scene where she’s led back into this point in her life and she observes herself. To be able to do a scene where an actress plays two different versions of her character six years apart and is able to comment on herself, it was so deep and so tricky. It was so much fun because it was a challenge beyond what we usually did. What we’d ever done.
The show that airs (tonight) is probably the best thing I’ve ever done, and is my favorite for a lot of other reasons. It’s very sad. And I love sad drama. If I could just do tragedies all the time. Y’know, cathartic tragedies that elevate you. So when we shot “Sometimes a Great Notion,” we shot during the writers strike, and all during prep, we didn’t know whether we’d be allowed to shoot it or not. So we just prepped it. And we didn’t know until the night before whether we were just gonna go home or shoot the episode. And we got the green light. And Ron Moore and the writers all went home. Couldn’t be there. And nobody knew how long the strike would be. We felt certain that if the strike went longer than six months, this would be the last episode of Battlestar ever. They wouldn’t hold these stages for six months. They’d lose everybody. That’d be it. And there was a very good chance because of all of the anger and the mood of the industry, we thought it was probably likely that this was the last time we’d ever be together and this would be the end of the show. And we couldn’t change anything because the writers were on strike. Rymer and I spent a lot of time talking about what way we could recut this footage to make a satisfying ending, and of course, there wasn’t any way. We had all of these crazy ideas, but none of them were any good.
So what happened was that everybody—and I think this was mostly through the leadership of Eddie Olmos—decided to do the best work of their lives. Because everyone thought, this is our last hurrah. This could be it. So let’s bring up our game. And this is a show where the bar’s set pretty high to begin with. Everyone said, “Let’s do the best work we’ve ever fucking done. Nobody slacks off.” I’ve never seen anything like it.
I know this is an episode you didn’t direct, but in “Revelations,” I’m wondering if you know anything about the process that led to the long tracking shot at the ending? Was that in the script? It’s not something you see on TV a lot.
It’s kind of in the script, not the fact that it’s all one shot. Rymer and I spent a lot of time talking about it. We were at that beach for three days, during which, I had to do all of my stuff for “Sometimes a Great Notion,” so I actually had to give up shooting time for his big tracking show. Once we realized that we were in such chaos leading up to it, there was talk at one time of him shooting all the stuff at the beach for both episodes and then there was talk of my shooting all the stuff at the beach for both episodes. And then we sort of looked at each other, and we both sort of said at the same time, “I wanna keep my own stuff. I’m not giving you this.” But what we had to do was spend some time thinking of what the look was going to be, because it was in both of our episodes, and we had to establish it. And what we did was sit down with the DP, Steve McNutt, and the first thing I said was, “Ingmar Bergman,” and he said, “That’s exactly what I’m thinking,” and that was the end of the discussion. And so we shot it like Death on the Beach. We tried to make it a black and white movie.
But the long tracking shot was Rymer’s idea.
Now, you have tonight’s episode coming up. Do you have more in the final batch?
Yeah, there’s another one called “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which is five or six episodes later, which was my swan song. It’s funny because it was the last episode for me, and it was the last episode for David and Bradley, the writers. Battlestar had become a family. So I was doing this scene with Adama and Laura, and David and Bradley are there, and I look up, and David has this odd look on his face, and he comes up to me and puts his arm around my shoulder, and he says, “This is our last Laura/Adama scene ever.” And he started to cry. I said, “David, I understand, but I can’t go there. I have to direct this scene. I cannot go there with you. I am right there, but you have to go away. Let me finish this scene, and then I’ll be there with you. But please.” That’s how tight we all were. We felt the love, and the end of something magical.
You’ve been on a few long-running shows as they came to their end. Is that frequently how it is or are people like, “God, I can’t wait to leave this show”?
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I killed the show. (laughter) Yeah, yeah, a few times, yeah. Life Goes On was like that. Life Goes On went four seasons, but we didn’t know at the end of the fourth season whether it was the end or not. But we had kind of a wrap-up. We were on ABC, and ABC was going to dump it, but there was talk of NBC picking it up. So we were filled with hope that we were gonna keep going, so it wasn’t quite the same as knowing it was going to be a goodbye. Everyone just sort of scattered when everyone found out we weren’t coming back, which is the way it is for most shows.
More generally, you’ve mentioned In Treatment as a show you think is directed pretty well. What are some other TV shows you think have good directing?
Mad Men, without a doubt. One of the best directed shows on TV. Best-written. Best acted. Also, that’s not an expensive show. Like I said before, that’s a seven day shoot. It’s all interiors. Small scenes. And knowing what their budget is, they write to it, so they’re able to shoot it small. One of the greatest luxuries in episodic TV is to be able to reshoot a scene. Most shows say, “Forget about it. It’s never gonna happen.” But that’s what you get to do in features to bring up the quality. You shoot. You cut it together. And you say, “These two scenes could be much better,” and you go back and bring it up. That’s ideal. So every once in a while, you get a chance to do that in episodic, and that’s the greatest luxury.
That’s why I don’t watch dailies when I shoot, because I can’t do anything about it. So either I look at what I shot, and I go, “Oh, it’s fantastic,” or I go, “Ugh. I have to reshoot that scene,” but I know I can’t. It’s frustrating.
Has the culture where everyone knows everything that’s going on because of the Internet affected that at all? Is that something that is taken into consideration? Is there concern about that?
I didn’t think so, but I thought I’d ask.
You’re right, though, it’s like everybody’s in show business now. It’s interesting because I was watching TV last night, and there was a trailer for The Reader, and the trailer went on for 15 seconds, and then there was an interview with Kate (Winslet) talking about the role, and my 18-year-old son looked at me and goes, “Why would they do the behind-the-scenes interview in a trailer?” It’s because everyone’s in show business now. Everyone knows all about the making of it. Everyone’s always been fascinated in it, but now there’s so many roads in.
How that all affects me is more, I don’t know what size screen someone’s gonna watch the work on. Am I doing this shot for a 60-inch plasma or a cellphone? And it’s an unanswerable question, so I just shoot for the 60-inch plasma. Fuck those people with their cellphones. (laughs) They shouldn’t be watching there anyway!
And that was what I was going to ask next was how the many different viewing platforms affect the director.
There’s so many, and it’s unpredictable, and there’s not enough information to make an intelligent choice. The answer is you don’t know. It’s affected, in a weird way, subconsciously, by the size of the monitor on the set. We watch it on a high-def monitor that’s a 20-inch monitor. And I’m always trying to move beyond that and not make it perfect for that. And also, I try not to watch the monitor. I try to watch the actors. I find I have a more critical eye watching them in person, than through the lens. But it’s something I’ve gone over and over and talked to other directors about. “Well, what are we shooting for?” We don’t know. Let’s just make it beautiful. But, y’know, even on my little TV, even on my credit-card sized window on my computer, if I put up Lawrence of Arabia, there’s that big wide shot, and even if this camel’s one little pixel, it still works.
And also, there’s performance. Performance is different from big screen to small screen. You can just drive yourself crazy trying to overthink it.
I have seen a few other TV episodes blown up, and TV acting sometimes does really translate and sometimes doesn’t.
What I find is that the smaller the screen gets, the more important story is. If you’re in a movie theater, the spectacle, the fact that your whole field of vision is taken up by just looking around the frame, it makes it a visual experience. But as the screen gets smaller, then there’s less and less of that, and so the story comes to the foreground. That’s why writers are so important in television, because you can film the spectacle, but a lot of people aren’t getting it.
So you mentioned that you’re going on to do CSI, and you said earlier that you’re doing a pilot for Fox and a miniseries for AMC. What are some things that you’d like to do beyond what you have on your plate?
Direct pilots and features. I miss the feature world. I miss telling stories that end. Although people can die on Battlestar. I’ve killed my share of characters on Battlestar. On that show, I was known as the Grim Reaper, because every time I showed up, a character would die. The actors would all run when I showed up. I miss the three acts and you’re out kind of storytelling. And I want to direct pilots because there’s so much more invention involved, and so much more money involved. If you direct a pilot, and the series goes, you get a check for like $5,000 for every episode, whether you do anything or not. It’s a great deal.
Has TV directing changed appreciably now that so many series are like Lost or Battlestar Galactica where every story is connected into a larger story from the days of Life Goes On or Picket Fences where there was less of that?
Well, the doors have opened more for serialization, which I’m very happy about, because then instead of resetting and going again, you get to move on. Networks still don’t like it. Cable networks do like it. What the broadcast networks fight is the fact that if people miss a certain amount, they never come to it. They feel they’ve missed too much. You can’t just drop in on a serialized show. The cable networks like the novella sort of feel. They feel like they have smaller audiences that can drop in and get hooked. I prefer the serialization in the storytelling. It’s like a long movie. Although I also love the original Star Trek, where no one ever did anything different. They always reset to the same place like nothing had ever happened.
I know the serialization has really tamped down on freelance writers coming into a series because everyone needs to know what’s going on. Has that affected the freelance directing for television?
No, because you have time to catch up. The freelance writer has the disadvantage of not being in the room, the writing room, during all the discussions of where it’s been and where it’s going and where it almost went. They don’t have all of that. So generally on shows with stand-alone episodes, they’re fine, but in serialization, they’re so far behind the curve that they’ll get an episode and they’ll write an episode, and it’ll have to be totally rewritten because it’s outdated by the time it gets there. Whereas as a director, I don’t have to do that. I just sit down and watch all the DVDs leading up to it. I don’t have to start from scratch. It’s more of an act of art and craft than writing.
What are you most proud of in your run on the series?
My work with the actors. The performances I was able to get. That’s what I’m proudest of. What I’m most grateful for was the freedom I was given because in that freedom, I was able to grow and experiment. When you’re hamstrung, when it’s like, “Do it this way,” there’s no room for experimentation, so you can’t fail. You can’t learn. On Battlestar, some of my experiments were just totally terrible, and then they make that all right. I learned a great deal as a filmmaker, immensely, on Battlestar.
Interview: Kate Burton on Coriolanus in Central Park and Her Path to Success
The actress discusses her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and more.
Kate Burton is no diva. Despite her illustrious theatrical lineage, the actress is warm and down to earth. Daughter of international movie star Richard Burton, she certainly had a fabled childhood, surrounded constantly by showbiz luminaries. Growing up, if she wasn’t spending summers with her famously tempestuous Welsh actor father and glamorous stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor, she was mixing with celebrities at Arthur, the popular 1960s New York disco hangout owned by her mother, Sybil Christopher.
However, avoiding the pitfalls of inherited celebrity, Burton, a three-time Tony and Emmy nominee, has carefully forged her own path, balancing her lauded acting career with a stable family life for more than three decades. She’s currently playing the role of Volumnia in Coriolanus in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. I recently chatted with Burton about the production, her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and her path to success.
What is Coriolanus about to you?
It’s the story of an extraordinary warrior, a soldier who’s thrust into a highly political and governance-related situation—areas where he isn’t comfortable being. He loves war, combat, and the military world. He doesn’t love what a leader has to do in order to get the people to love him. And, of course, the juxtaposition of this with the fascinating time that we are living in—it does give you pause. That’s what makes Shakespeare so unbelievably enduring and so relevant, no matter which play you do and when you do it.
And what’s Volumnia’s function within the play?
She’s definitely the most powerful influence on her son. She’s the woman behind the throne. She saves Rome. Coriolanus is such a complicated character. He doesn’t respond like a normal son would in a lot of ways. It takes quite a lot of coaxing and pleading to get him to do what she wants him to do. It’s true that Jonathan Cake, who plays Coriolanus, and I are only 10 years apart in age, so I said to him that my interpretation is that he’s about five years younger, and I’m a little older. Volumnia was a single mother—no father is mentioned in the play—and she had him when she was young. So, she’s a lioness, a tigress, about her child. I’ve heard that Denzel Washington has a great quote about mothers and sons, something about the son being the last great love of a mother’s life, and the mother being the first great love of his.
So, what’s at the core of the relationship between this mother and son in the play?
There’s a fascinating dynamic between them. Shakespeare didn’t have tons of mothers and sons in his plays. Gertrude and Hamlet come to mind—another fascinating, very complicated relationship. With fathers and daughters it’s different because, of course, Shakespeare was so devoted to one of his own daughters. In the plays written in the Jacobean period—like Coriolanus—there’s a different dynamic than in [the plays written] in the Elizabethan period. I happen to have done a lot of Shakespeare plays from this same Jacobean period: Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale. You know, the monarch on the throne in that period was James and his mother was Mary Queen of Scots—kind of a fascinating mother! Doing this role is great for me because in my real life as a mother I’ve raised two wonderful children and I totally get it. Although I’m very cherishing, nurturing, I always play these kind of growling women. These are the characters I’m comfortable playing because it takes something completely different from me. For instance, my character in Grey’s Anatomy is a very hard woman, tough on her child, exacting, incredibly ambitions. Also, quite honestly, this is a perfect role for an older actress. It’s taxing but it doesn’t wipe you out. It is just six scenes.
I understand you also have some family history with Coriolanus.
My father had been a very famous Coriolanus, before I was born. And now that I know the play, I can totally see it: complicated, driving everybody nuts, yeah! We’re so lucky to have Jonathan playing the role. Not only is he such a talented actor, he has also played the part before. And, you know, with these big Shakespeare roles, it’s great if you can get a couple under your belt, because it takes time to digest it and get it into your bones. Kevin Kline played Hamlet twice, my father played Hamlet twice. And I’m looking to do the The Tempest again.
Speaking of which, what was it like to play Prospero, the lead male character in The Tempest? How did that come about?
It happened very organically four years ago when I did Cymbeline. Daniel Sullivan said he wanted me to play the Queen, and then he said he also wanted me to play the role of Belarius. I thought it was some spear carrier—two scenes, funny hat. But it was a huge role, and he wanted me to play it as a man. That was my first time playing a male role. Then I was all set to do something else last summer when I got an email with the subject line “Prospero.” It was from my great friend [director] Joe Dowling. I just replied, “Yes!” We talked about whether I should play it as a man, but this is one of those Shakespearean roles than can translate to a female playing the part as female. And, of course, Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave have done it. When I worked on it [at the Old Globe in San Diego] I realized that this role can really work naturally as a woman—the relationships with Miranda and Ariel and Caliban. So, now playing Prospero is something I would like to have another go at. I’m actually talking to a few people about it right now. Volumnia, to be honest, is a very masculine woman—just in the way she approaches things. She’s not some sweet little mom. The first thing that Shakespeare has her say in Corolianus is how pleased she is to send her son into war. I wanted him to seek danger because it created more spine, gave him more honor. So, I’m glad I’ve played a couple of male Shakespearean roles because it really helps me with Volumnia.
Is it true that acting wasn’t your first choice of profession?
I went to the United Nations International School here in New York City, and I was planning to be a diplomat. It wasn’t until my senior year at Brown University that I took an acting class. I had a professor who just loved the arts and he saw me in the plays that I did as extracurricular activity and he said that I have this gift and that I was squashing it down. My father at that time was so incredibly well known, but it wasn’t just that. It’s that I didn’t know that I wanted to pursue this mad life. It can be fantastic, but it can also be really challenging, because, you know, you’re an itinerant worker. I’d seen everything—my father, my step-mother, my step-father were all in show business. My mother had been an actress when she married my father, when she was extremely young. But she just didn’t love performing, although she loved rehearsing and she loved being backstage. Then she became an artistic director [founder of Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor]. So, I came into acting with my eyes wide open. I’m also married to Michael Ritchie, who’s the artistic director of the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, but he’s not an actor. We have a son who’s an actor, who also loves writing, but our daughter is interested in other things.
And your mother supported your choice to become an actress?
Oh, yes, she saw me in everything. She almost never said anything negative. I think if you have a child who’s an actor, you just have to be unconditionally supportive. It’s going to be their journey no matter what. The only disagreement that my dad and I had about any of it was that he wanted me to train. He never trained, by the way. I just want to point that out! He wanted me to train in England because I was offered an opportunity to go to Central School of Speech and Drama in London. I chose instead to go to the Yale School of Drama because I was American. I said to him, “I’m your daughter so let me find my own path.” I’ve met a few children of luminary types who are now graduating from school and I just say to them it’s all about you finding your own voice, you don’t want to be just considered the daughter of blah blah blah. So, as long as you find your own voice, that’s the most important thing.
How do you feel about the time it took for you to establish a name for yourself?
You know, I kind of had the right trajectory. I first worked in the theater. I did tons of plays in New York and a few out of town. I started in TV when I was a bit into my 20s and moved into more TV and film in my 30s. Then everything sort of happened with Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man, and that was in my early 40s. And then in my mid-40s, on TV, I got Grey’s Anatomy and then, five years later, Scandal. So, Hedda Gabler put me on the map in one way and Grey’s Anatomy in a completely different way. It all worked out nicely and then I moved to Los Angeles. I love L.A. and I get to do theater there as well. I’ve done two projects for my husband at the Taper and also The Tempest at the Old Globe.
So, here you are back in New York, doing theater in Central Park. What are you looking forward to this time?
I love coming back to New York, it’s my hometown. And this worked out perfectly. I like to do a play once a year and to be in New York ideally every couple of years. So, two years ago I did Present Laughter on Broadway and The Dead 1904 off-Broadway. This is my second time in the Park. I did Cymbeline there in 2015. That production was fantastic and challenging because it was multiple characters, as I was involved in all the fight scenes. And let us remember that we are outside and it’s hot and steamy. Now I’m playing a single character and I’m not in any of the fight scenes so I’m very happy! What I’m excited about is that the audience is going to discover this play that hasn’t been done in the Park since 1979. It’s so virulent and so vital. There’s a primal aspect to it. And, then, I mean, free Shakespeare in the Park. New York on a summer night! It doesn’t get any better than that.
Coriolanus runs through August 11.
Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.
Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.
Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.
At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.
And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.
A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.
More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.
The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.
Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Interview: Paul Tremblay on Growing Things and the Hope of Horror Fiction
Tremblay discusses how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.
Paul Tremblay laughs a lot. Our conversation, about demonically infested children and the end of the world, is interspersed with a low chuckle that suggests he loves doing what he does. And what he does is scare people. Tremblay is at the forefront of a supposed renaissance of horror fiction, and with good reason, as his books cut to the bone.
Tremblay burst onto the horror scene in 2015 with A Head Full of Ghosts, a deconstruction and excoriation of the exorcism subgenre. The most frightening book this critic has ever read, it won the Bram Stoker Award and, perhaps more crucially, Stephen King’s nod of approval. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World cemented his reputation as horror’s cruellest craftsman. In these tales, bad things happen to good families. Worlds collapse, lives shatter, and the ambiguity of existence is shown through a glass darkly.
Tremblay’s latest collection, Growing Things and Other Stories, continues his disquieting project. Twisted teachers give lessons in inhumanity, Polaroids reveal dark histories, and some very sinister dogwalkers commit metafictional trespass. The collection, now out from William Morrow, suggests a merciless worldview. Yet as we talk, Tremblay chuckles, pets his dog, and talks about how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.
Do you have a favorite story in Growing Things?
“It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks” is the earliest story in the collection and the first one where I thought, “I can do this.” That was the first time I made uncertainty essential to the story, central to the theme and the “why.” Though it could be hard for a reader to point at any one thing and say, “That’s why it’s a horror story,” I do feel it’s one of the more horrific things I’ve ever written. “Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport” was also a lot of fun to write. I basically retook my own childhood vacation at a place in Cape Cod that we rented once. It was a chance to turn nostalgia on its ear and make it dangerous. I do think nostalgia can be a threat in the way it blurs over the messy parts of your history.
That’s interesting, because your fiction seems obsessed with memory.
I think much of horror is about memory. Memories are so malleable, yet we rely almost entirely on them to define what we think of as our self. Especially childhood memories. So many of them are usurped by retellings—whether your own or your friends’ or family’s—each gives you different versions of things that are the core of who you are. If you can’t trust your memories, then how can you trust identity? As a horror writer, that just feels like infinitely fertile ground. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you confront the question of who you are, and who is the person you’re sharing your bed and your life with. These thoughts freak me out, but I find them fascinating. I boil down horror stories as “a reveal of a dark truth.” In a lot of my stories the reveal is that identity isn’t ironclad and memories aren’t safe.
The media is another thing that emerges as both the format and focus of much of your writing. Is that an intentional theme?
Well, it’s a reflection of the time we’re living in. It’s pretty clear that social media hasn’t only changed society, it’s also changed us as individuals. It’s scary stuff and we’d be fools not to use it in stories. And I don’t just mean to have it there as background noise. If you’re going to use the media it has to be crucial to the story. Some older writers in the horror community would say that you shouldn’t mention this stuff—that it’s not timeless and will date your writing. That seems wholly ridiculous to me, because where’s the cut-off for timelessness? If you make the media central to your stories then people will still be able to read those stories in future decades because you’re essentially world-building.
The contingent realities of memory and media come together in the concept of “fake news.” Do you think horror, or your own work, is well-equipped to address that?
Well, the information age was greeted with a lot of optimism, but my books approach it with disappointment. I’ve met people all around the world through the power of social media. But I’ve also seen the pervasiveness and insidiousness of disinformation, It’s affected family members and relationships. It influences nations and political systems. It blows my mind.
Each of my novels address this is some way. In A Head Full of Ghosts, I use reality TV and the blogger to further enhance the ambiguity. Typically, books approach ambiguity by withholding information. I thought the cooler idea was to give a storm of information. You can’t know what’s real because there’s too much data to consider. I think that reflects the world we live in.
In Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, I took a stereotypical missing-teenager case. People think that it’s easy to locate someone because of all the information we have, hence the claim that “the cellphone killed the horror story.” I purposely wanted to write that story with these kids having snapchat and Facebook but show how that stuff makes it harder to get to the truth.
The Cabin at the End of the World is definitely riffing on those anxieties. I try not to be too didactic, but I absolutely wanted Cabin to be an allegory for our political times.
Why are you so drawn to ambiguity?
I think it reflects one of the horrors of our existence: that reality is more ambiguous than we allow. A smaller reason is that I resist committing to the supernatural in the novel. I’m an agnostic atheist, so if I encountered something in my everyday life, I think I’d have a hard time realizing that it was supernatural. It would be so liminal that how would we know? I’ve found it easier to go full supernatural in my short fiction. Soon I’ll need to come down on one side or the other, because people will get tired of me doing the ambiguity thing every time.
So, what would it take to convince you that your house was haunted?
In your head you imagine it wouldn’t take much. But in reality, we have 30-year mortgages. I’d probably think I had to gut it out, even with a ghost standing in the living room.
I’m not naïve enough to ask you to clarify any of your ambiguous endings. But I am interested in whether you know the truth in those novels.
For each book it’s slightly different. I started A Head Full of Ghosts intending to write a secular exorcism novel. But then I decided to split the evidence 50/50. To be honest, I haven’t really got a clear idea of whether Marjorie is possessed or mentally ill. That’s been a fun novel to discuss with fans because they have interpretations that I never considered. Devil’s Rock has a less ambiguous ending. I feel like it’s fairly clear what those last few pages say. And with Cabin I can honestly say that I haven’t spent a single second thinking about what happens after the last line of that book. That story is all about the choice that Andrew and Eric make, and by the end they have made it. At that point, it doesn’t matter if the world is ending or not.
Speaking to you now, and following you on social media, you seem a very positive guy. Yet your fiction is unremittingly bleak…
…yet every now and again you throw the reader an escape from the horror, or at least the potential for escape. I’m thinking in particular of your story “A Haunted House Is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken,” where you use the choose-your-own-adventure format to lead the protagonist and reader through a history of trauma. It ends with a way out, which I didn’t expect. Would you say you are an optimist?
I don’t know really. With that story I wanted to give the character a way out. Because I think most people, or many people, do survive their personal traumas, their personal ghosts. When Cabin came out, I mentioned in interviews this thing that I called “the hope of horror.” It may sound pretentious but the reason I’m drawn to horror is the same reason I’m drawn to punk. It’s the idea that terrible truth is revealed, and we may not survive it, but there’s value in the shared recognition that something is wrong. So even though the novels and stories are bleak, I find some hope in the fact that we realise something is wrong, even if we can’t fix it. That’s the fist-pump moment If anything ties together the things that I like reading and watching, it’s the chance to look at how other people get through this thing we’re all doing…this life.
Speaking of which, you’re a parent, yet your stories do the worst things to children.
That’s my parental anxiety on show. My first child was born in 2000, and when I was getting serious about writing in the first half of that decade, a friend pointed out to me that I wrote about parents and children all the time. I hadn’t realized, but from there it became purposeful. With Devil’s Rock, I realized I was treading in the same family dynamic as Head Full of Ghosts. Then I wrote Cabin about another young family, and even though they’re individual books, I think they’re a nice thematic trilogy. Each book features a different kind of family in crisis.
You recently tweeted about doing research into some grim childhood illnesses. Dare I ask what that was for?
Yeah, that’s for my next novel. It will be my take on the zombie, but it’s about infected people rather than the undead. It’s set during the first four-to-six hours of an outbreak in Boston.
Is there a title?
The working title is Survivor Song. It’s due with my publishers at the end of the summer.
That’s quite the scoop. Aside from the new book, you also have the adaptation of A Head Full of Ghosts in the works. How involved are you in that process?
[laughs] Aaah, not at all. It’s understandable really. They optioned the book in 2015 before it was even published. At that point, I was rebooting my career, as my earlier crime novels hadn’t sold much. There was no reason for them to consider my feelings. It’s the rare writer who gets invited into in the filmmaking process. In TV they may consult you more, but even then I’m not sure how much of a say you have. I don’t have any say in A Head Full of Ghosts, but they have a director, Osgood Perkins, and a script that we like. It’s all getting a lot closer to being a real thing, with a very solid shot at starting production later this year.
Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House use ambiguity to great effect. Are you happy with him helming the film?
Definitely. He’s the perfect director for this material. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do. It’ll be tough to squeeze that book into a 90-minute movie.
As it would with any of your writing. Many of the stories in Growing Things experiment with form and structure. Do you feel the need to escape traditional narration?
House of Leaves is one of my favourite novels. I’d love to one day write an experimental novel on that scale. But if you’re going to experiment with structure, then it must serve the story, and that’s easier in short fiction, which seems to beg for experimentation. No, I don’t feel the need to escape. Sometimes it’s just me trying to play with all the toys.
You’re at the center of a new school of young horror writers, people like Laird Barron, Alma Katsu, John Langan, Sarah Langan. Do you think the genre is enjoying a resurgence?
People talk about a new golden age of horror. That’s a little self-serving because I expect every horror writer throughout the ages has looked around and thought, “Hey, what we’re doing is great.” But I think it’s also undeniable that the current breadth of horror hasn’t been seen before, both in terms of gender and diversity as well as style. We aren’t all the way there yet, but it’s exciting and promising. I’m happy to be playing a little part in it.
Finally, what’s your favorite scary book, and your favourite scary movie?
With books it’s a tie. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There are so many more calling out in neglect, but let’s stick with those two. With movies it’s either John Carpenter’s The Thing or Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. I’ve probably seen Jaws close to 50 times and I still can’t watch the part where Quint is bitten in half. The first time I saw that it broke my brain and I’m too afraid to watch it again in case it takes me back in time. I had at least eight years of shark nightmares. The Thing asks: “Do you even know who you are?” It takes us back to that question about memory and identity and that idea of the dark reveal. It’s the heart of horror.
Paul Tremblay’s Growing Pains and Other Stories is now available in the U.S. from William Morrow and in the U.K. from Titan Books.
Interview: Jack Reynor on His Reverse Hero’s Journey in Midsommar
It’s been a whirlwind for Reynor to process the wide swath of reactions sparked by his character in the film.
“I wrote this when I was going through a break up,” said writer-director Ari Aster as he introduced the finished cut of Midsommar to its first New York public screening back in June, “I’m better now.” Judging from what ensues in the film, much of Aster’s healing comes at the expense of the character Christian, played by Jack Reynor. As the emotionally distant romantic partner of Florence Pugh’s Dani, Christian bears the brunt of the film’s rage once his girlfriend becomes empowered to confront her past and present traumas through the rituals and traditions of a small Swedish village they visit.
Aster’s sophomore feature certainly doesn’t lack for that uneasy tension between hilarity and horror—spawned by fraught, complicated relationship dynamics—that marked Hereditary. As Pugh’s performance strengthens in tenacity over the course of the film, only Reynor’s fully realized portrayal of Christian stands in the way of total audience alignment with Dani’s retributive awakening. Instead of letting his character become a simplistic villain to draw our ire, he plays Christian in such a way that frustrates rather than outright antagonizes.
Midsommar has all the trappings of a major breakout for the American-Irish Reynor, thanks to his nuanced rendering of contemporary masculinity. The character fuses the sensibilities he’s honed across a range of productions from studio fare like Transformers: Age of Extinction and Delivery Man to mid-budget American indies like Detroit and On the Basis of Sex, though the 27-year-old’s best preparation may have come from playing tortured young Irish men in homegrown fare like What Richard Did and Glassland.
It’s been a whirlwind for Reynor to process the wide swath of reactions sparked by Christian. He and the rest of the cast first saw Midsommar just a day before A24 began screening it before crowds, and, as he expressed, some of the fervent responses caught him off guard. I talked with Reynor over the phone a week later to discuss how he approached playing such a polarizing character and what he’s learned from the audience’s feedback. We discuss plot points from the third act in generalities, but those looking to avoid any spoilers for Midsommar might want to bookmark and return to this interview after seeing the film.
I was in a Q&A where you asked the audience if they thought Christian deserved his fate, but I couldn’t see in the frame how they voted. What was the verdict?
I think almost half the people put up their hands instantly, in a very tellingly reactionary fashion. [laughs] It was really interesting.
Is that what you were expecting?
It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I think I should have been expecting it. I think it says more about me that I wasn’t expecting it than it does about them. It’s an interesting one, because my feeling about this movie is that I’m okay whether you feel like Christian deserves it or not, it’s fine. But it needs some real thought. Ultimately, the reason I wanted to do the movie was because I felt like this character was not one-dimensional. Ari never wanted him to be that way. Both of these characters represent the human condition, the things we can all relate to, in all of our relationships, be it with a parent, a family member, a friend, or a romantic partner. At one point or another, we’ve all been guilty of being insensitive or emotionally unavailable to a person or self-involved in a toxic, dysfunctional way. Just as we have experienced emotional needs and those needs not being met. These are all parts of the human condition. So that, for me, was the really interesting thing to portray.
Ultimately, the purpose of something like Midsommar is to challenge people to acknowledge the fact that they can relate to both of these people. And, ultimately, we do find ourselves in alignment with Dani at the end of the movie. This is a movie about her liberation from a toxic relationship and the catharsis that comes with it, albeit that the catharsis is confusing, painful, complex and not entirely clear. It’s very clear that it’s ultimately where we’re supposed to find ourselves at the end of the movie.
I was interested in giving extra layers of dimensionality to Christian and challenging myself to empathize and relate to a guy who, on the surface, is just an archetypal toxic alpha male. What allowed me to get into that was to follow this guy’s journey, which is the reverse of the hero’s journey. This guy’s structures, identity, and everything about him breaks down and is stripped away from him before he can even realize it. It’s happening all around him, and he doesn’t see it before it’s too late. But he finds himself literally stripped bare in this humiliating, exposing place, which is absolutely terrifying. That allowed me to get into the character, looking at him and acknowledging there are plenty of elements of that character that are in me and every single human being on the face of the planet. It’s the human condition.
I think you also said something to the people who thought Christian deserved what he got, “Go home and take a look at yourself in the mirror.” I don’t think anyone would want to be judged by their worst day or the worst thing they did. People are complicated, and they make decisions that don’t even make sense to themselves.
I totally agree, dude. I might have been a little bit reactionary myself to the audience! [laughs] But now that I’ve had an opportunity to talk about it, this is how I feel.
Some scenes that supposedly showed Christian in a more sympathetic light were left on the cutting room floor—obviously, what makes the most sense for the film is what should win out, but is there a part of you that wishes people might see the fuller picture of the character you created?
Partly, but then it would have been a very different film. I think, ultimately, it’s the director’s decision that we’re aligned with Dani. And it’s an interesting one. If the scenes where Christian exhibits more compassion and provides her with stuff she needs in the moment had been left in, the film would be even more divisive and polarizing for an audience than it is. But as I said, it was the director’s decision to take it out.
How do you tackle playing beats in Midsommar like the one when Christian turns on a dime and decides he also wants to research the Hårga in direct mimicry of Josh, his friend and colleague. The underlying reasons of jealousy and entitlement read clearly to us, but Christian himself seems a bit aloof and isn’t cognizant of why he’s doing what he is. How do you approach those moments?
I looked through the script, and there’s so much of being a dick and being aloof. But I wanted to play this guy, further to your point, on his worst day. It’s the worst of this guy. Although that’s pretty much all we see of the character, my baseline for Christian is that he’s a well-meaning guy. He would probably think he’s a good dude who tries to do the right thing. When you pitch the character there for yourself and allow the character to do questionable things, I think it gives context to everything. So that’s what I tried to do, making it a case where an audience is watching a good dude do really, really dickish things. All they’re seeing is these awful things he’s doing, but it’s all coming out of a guy who’s largely well-meaning. Some of the stuff he does is really unforgivable, particularly the element of stealing Josh’s idea for the thesis and being so brazen about it. It’s unbelievable. If there’s one thing in particular I find unforgivable about him, it’s that. I think to base the character as someone who means well but is acting out their worst aspects of their character in this moment is how I got into it.
You’ve spoken about wanting to get in on the ground floor with directors and being a part of their success, not just latching yourself on when they’re already established. How do you know or gauge who’s going the distance and who’s a one-hit wonder?
You never really know completely. You’re taking a swing, and there’s so much luck involved. It’s a question of educating yourself as much as possible in the culture of cinema and making an educated guess from there. Ari in particular is someone who I thought his short films were visionary when I watched them, because I never got to see Hereditary before I signed on to do this movie. The script was really interesting, but what he wrote goes far beyond the words on the page. The conversations I had with him prior to signing on to be a part of the film were definitely incredibly encouraging for me. We have a common admiration for a number of quite obscure filmmakers, but some of the best filmmakers who ever lived, nonetheless. To me, that was a sign that this was something I wanted to be a part of and this was a director who valued the artistic merit of the project above all else. As long as you’re in the company of someone like that and as cultured as he is in the conversation of filmmaking, you’re probably in good hands. I’m going to endeavor to continue down that route interrogating directors I work with.
Is that education aspect of it a part of what your new Instagram movie review account, Jack Reynor’s Cinemania, is about? Watching movies with an eye to your own development as an artist?
One-hundred percent, man. That’s something I started not only because I wanted to start conversations with others about the cinema I love, but because it also helps me to advise and absorb what I’m seeing when I’m watching it. It educates me further in the grammar of cinema, and it’s a very useful tool for me as much as it’s an outlet. I absolutely love it.
All 23 Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies Ranked, from Worst to Best
On the eve of Spider-Man: Far from Home’s release, we ranked the 23 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
23. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
22. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
21. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
20. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Avengers: Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness. Keith Uhlich
19. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith
18. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams
17. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
16. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
Interview: Calexico and Iron & Wine Talk Years to Burn and Collaboration
Joey Burns and Sam Beam spoke with reverence about each other, revealing their multifaceted relationship.
From “Father Mountain,” which urges you to savor love in the face of life’s inevitabilities, to “In Your Own Time,” with its shadowy images flirting with the nightmarish, there’s a melancholy percolating beneath Years to Burn, the second collaborative album from Iron and Wine and Calexico. In a recent conversation with Iron and Wine, a.k.a. Sam Beam, and Calexico’s Joey Burns, the musicians spoke with reverence about each other, both personally and professionally, revealing their multifaceted relationship.
As elusive as the exact source of Years to Burn’s mellowness might be, the work on the project was, to hear Beam and Burns tell it, focused and grounded. The album grew, as Beam says, “out of a determination and a willingness to work together. After we made [2005’s In the Reins], that time we spent together promoting it, and just sort of playing together for so long, formed really strong bonds—familial bonds—and we just really enjoy each other’s company.”
The questions they faced were, according to Burns, “Well, where do you go next? Do you do begin where you last left off or do you just go somewhere totally different?” As it happened, they wouldn’t have too much of an opportunity to ruminate about that: Their time in the studio was limited to five days, and they limited the number of musicians they used, sticking with tried-and-true band members like John Convertino, Paul Niehaus, and Paul Valenzuela. Burns describes a fairly stoic regimen: “You show up at 10 o’clock, do some work, break for lunch, work up until dinner, finish up or just listen back, and then do it all over again. There’s really not much time for hanging out or doing anything else.”
These limitations ended up working to the album’s benefit. “Having a limited amount of time kind of forces you as an artist to make decisions,” Beam says. “You can get really hung up on what the right choices are, and that’s kind of an endless question. With this approach, I’m able to separate myself in a way where I say, well, this is the best choice that we’ve made on this day from this point in the snapshot of our best ideas at the moment. And to me that’s a freeing thing. You make decisions, and those decisions stick, and you live with them, and then you can move on to the next thing.”
Remarkably, Beam and Burns and the other musicians surrounding them found room to improvise and experiment within their constraints. The most evident sign of this, “Bittersweet,” is an entrancing mix of three songs. Burns says it started with his primary partner in Calexico, John Convertino, who suggested they do one song that was totally free of lyrics, chords, and rhythm. “I came up with a title for that, ‘Outside El Paso,’ sort of connecting us geographically,” Burns remembers. “And, of course, there we were in Nashville. And so Sam had a song called ‘Tennessee Train.’ And I thought, hey, what if we took just one chord and we just made a ‘70s groove? And we wound up putting some really great trumpet solos on that. We added some backing vocals. And since it was sort of linked with the song ‘Tennessee Train,’ we started bridging those together. And then I suggested that we take one of the verses and translate it into Spanish for Jacob [Valenzuela] to sing. And then that became sort of a medley. Everything fell together really naturally and quickly.”
Burns describes other moments of productive experimenting too: “We had John Convertino climb into this big old empty tall echo-chamber. It’s at the studio. And we had him record the drum intro [for ‘What Heaven’s Left’]. And he had to carry his floor tom inside there. It’s a very small opening. It’s like a tiny window. And basically what you do is you put a microphone at one end of this room, and then at the other end you put a speaker. And that’s how you get the natural reverb sound.”
Though Beam had clear ideas about how he wanted the album to proceed, he also welcomed and appreciated these gestures of spontaneity. “It’s what can potentially make music really exciting, recording music and also playing music,” he says. “It’s sort of losing the safety net and stretching out. And so I wanted to make sure that we incorporated that into what we were making this time. Last time, I don’t feel like we really did that, because I didn’t really understand that about them at the time.”
Time has made the two bands more effective collaborators. The way Burns sees it, time has changed them, but that’s inevitable: “We’re just different people. Different experiences have accumulated. And so there’s a different end result. And not only that, but if we were to record the same songs and do another album like this, a week or a month later, it probably would come out a lot differently. That’s the beauty of this—it just depends on the mood and the vibe and the place where you’re at, and where everyone is at internally or emotionally.”
Beam, similarly, takes time in stride but is also curious about the changes it could bring. “It was odd, you know, that almost 15 years had passed in between, kind of crazy to think of,” he says. “The first time we did it, we hadn’t worked together before, so I was just sort of bringing in songs without knowing what it would sound like or what the collaboration would end up being like. And this time, it was 15 years later, so I was looking over my memories, and memories can be not quite so trustworthy sometimes. But I was also working off those strengths, and then also trying some new things.”
And so what of the songs themselves? Many musical collaborations sound like they were were designed by committee. With Years to Burn, like collaborations ranging from that of Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong and reaching all the way back to Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, something just works. While you might hear traces of each individual performer in the mix, the sound created is unique.
Beam says collaboration drove everything here, starting with the track sequence: “There were thematic elements going on in the songs chosen for the album. I think we were all really intent on there being a lot of shared singing responsibilities. And so, in putting the sequence together I really wanted to feel like we kept sort of passing the baton around. When you’re putting those things together, you’re looking for a sort of sonic feel, flow, variety. You’re looking for different kinds of musical movements, and then also passing the baton around like a hot potato of singing responsibilities.”
And yet Beam’s process for writing the songs on the album (he wrote all but one of them) was fairly private and intuitive. “Writing songs is not a math problem,” he says. “There’s not a right or wrong answer. So you kind of do what you feel like at the moment. It’s a matter of what you’re trying to achieve with a song, any individual one. If you want to express an idea outside of your experience and live into that, songs and art are a great place to do that, to explore an ideal or fantasy. I don’t really do that. I just talk about my experience, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. But I guess that’s just where my mind is when I sit down to write. I get contemplative.” The album, indeed, is all about thoughts, and the emotions behind them, more than it’s about tangible things; these songs float just outside of what we might easily summarize. And yet the feelings and impressions being described in the songs are quite real, and recognizable, becoming more poignant with each listen.
The Best Films of 2019 So Far
Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.
In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.
And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.
But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.
That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown
3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac
Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)
The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac
The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)
Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg
Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)
A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti
Black Mother (Khalik Allah)
Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray
E3 2019: The Best and Worst Surprises
The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition.
The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition. As the current console generation winds down and new hardware is still in development, the subject of how games will be played going forward has come into question, as the technology to stream games via the cloud supplants the need for consoles or PCs.
In a 15-minute presentation prior to E3’s launch, Google unveiled their cloud gaming service Stadia, a subscription-based service—for use on desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices—that allows high-end gaming without the need for expensive hardware. Supposedly offering computing power significantly stronger than that of the PlayStation Pro and Xbox One X combined, Stadia relies on Google’s own data centers, with the only real bottleneck being consumer internet speeds and bandwidth caps as the gameplay is streamed to the end user. Hands-on experience with Stadia has shown it to be incredibly impressive—provided one’s internet connection is stable and fast enough to handle the required download speed.
Even before the expo officially kicked off at the Los Angeles Convention Center, notions of “traditional” video gaming were being challenged. There was no greater sign of the shake up than the absence of one of the three major console makers: Sony. The company eschewed not only their usual press conference, but any showing at all. While many have suggested that Sony, who had informally announced their upcoming PlayStation 5 console earlier in 2019, wanted to benefit from Microsoft announcing what the target specs would be for the Project Scarlett, the simple truth is that Sony doesn’t have much to currently show to the public.
Only two of Sony’s upcoming first-party exclusive titles particularly stand out: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us 2, a known quantity which has already seen multiple previews, and Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, whose trailer premiered shortly before the expo kicked off. In the end, releasing the trailer ahead of E3 was a smart move on the company’s part, as the ongoing enigma that is Kojima’s next title dominated discussion for days instead of getting lost in the sea of announcements after E3 was officially under way, and a solid release date is something that Sony can boast about in a year where their exclusives are scant.
EA also elected not to host their customary press conference, instead opting for a streamed video presentation similar to the Nintendo Direct broadcast. The company’s decision not to discuss anything about this year’s disappointing Anthem is damning, not only for the remaining fans of the game hoping to see the game properly supported moving forward, but for EA itself, whose frustrating trend of misusing developers they acquire has left BioWare on thin ice. As one live service game in an ocean, and created by a company with little experience making such games, Anthem was always destined to face an uphill battle; at this point, some four months after its release, turning the game around would require faith in the product and an evolving cycle of new content, both of which EA could have presented to the world here. And there’s precedent for this, demonstrated by the success of Destiny after its first tumultuous year. Alas, not even a mention across the entire show.
The main event of EA’s Play presentation was their upcoming Star Wars title Jedi: Fallen Order. Though the somnolent 14-minute video that capped the presentation seems to promise a cross between Uncharted and The Force Unleashed, hands-on time with the game reveals that its closest analogue is Dark Souls, given that it takes place across large open areas with bonfire equivalents the protagonist can meditate at, which inexplicably revives all enemies. The combat feels like that of Dark Souls, with the fast-paced lightsaber duels of something like Jedi Academy replaced by slower, more precise one-on-one battles where you must manoeuver around enemies to fight them individually, and in a manner that recalls other From Software games. Whether Jedi: Fallen Order will be as difficult as the Soulsborne titles remains to be seen, though one would assume EA would want the title to be accessible as possible, especially considering their recent and lousy track record with the franchise.
The first official E3 press conference was presented by Microsoft, which had a stellar showing of new games and announcements. New titles demonstrated include Outer Worlds, a Fallout-esque sci-fi action adventure game, a new Battletoads game featuring bright and colourful cartoonish graphics, the latest iteration of Microsoft Flight Simulator, the next chapter in the Gears of War series simply titled Gears 5, and survival horror outing Blair Witch. Microsoft’s next console, Project Scarlett, was broadly discussed as a technical powerhouse without mentioning any specifics, including price, as if to ensure Sony has no edge on the competition when their PS5 announcement finally comes. More interestingly, Microsoft presented their version of the cloud streaming gaming, the Microsoft xCloud service, which Phil Spencer was able to elaborate on during Giant Bomb’s Nite Two live show.
Spencer notes that while cloud streaming services are convenient, allowing gamers to play games anywhere, they’re to the detriment of consumers in terms of actually letting them own the games they buy. The Stadia pricing model includes not only subscription fees, but also additional prices on top for some games, which is troubling as purchasers will only “own” any game they buy as long as the service is active, or if they have an active internet connection. If Google, or any streaming service, pulls the plug, purchased products simply go away.
Which is why Microsoft is working toward a hybrid of cloud streaming services with traditional ownership models, where gamers will own their console and their games, but can also stream them to other devices to play games on the go using the cloud. Google’s Stadia offers something more akin to Netflix, and looks to suffer from some of the same issues as Netflix when it comes to content disappearing as licenses expire. Whether Microsoft’s model works also remains to be seen, but their excellent and inexpensive Game Pass service, which saw extension to the PC during E3, has demonstrated both the excellent value and the focus on services benefitting the end user that Spencer advocated for.
Bethesda was in full-apology mode for their first press conference since the disastrous launch of Fallout 76, bookending their presentation with saccharine, insipid videos about how they understand and like gamers, how they’re gamers themselves, and other such rigmarole. Bringing out Todd Howard to discuss said elephant in the room would have been a misstep had it not been for the announcement of the game’s Nuclear Winter DLC—a fresh take (currently available in beta) on the battle-royale genre—as well as a Fallout 76 freeplay period where anyone can play the game with the new content. Nuclear Winter is a surprising amount of fun, a squad-based battle royale allowing players to choose where they spawn on the map and then take advantage of classic Fallout devices while fighting to become the only survivor. For example, becoming invisible with a Stealth Boy offers a fleeting chance to get the drop on enemies or flee an area teeming with overpowered opponents, or jumping into a set of Power Armor gives more health but impedes player speed and is loud enough to give away player location. At time of writing, Bethesda have made Nuclear Winter an indefinite add-on for Fallout 76, which gives the populace at large a reason to try Fallout 76.
Standing high above Bethesda’s other announcements and demos, Doom Eternal looks to be a spectacular follow-up to the successful 2016 reboot, escalating on the core gameplay with new abilities including a combat grappling hook and a flamethrower, and an expanded narrative involving angels as well as the demons of Hell. Elsewhere, Square Enix’s press conference largely focused on the Final Fantasy VII Remake and concluded with a baffling look at Marvel Avengers, a game that probably should have been revealed back when Avengers: Endgame was still a part of the popular conversation but probably wasn’t given its ugly and bizarre character models. More notable, though buried within the conference, was the announcement of Dying Light 2, which looks to be an ambitious and sprawling follow-up to the original game. It boasts expanded parkour gameplay in a new environment that changes with player choice, promising to give fans a unique experience with each playthrough.
Nintendo Direct closed out the conferences, announcing two new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC characters: the much-loved dynamic duo of Banjo and Kazooie and the not-so-loved hero from Dragon Quest. The Link’s Awakening remaster, which boasts frustratingly cutesy graphics that go against the original game’s theme and tone, was also exhibited; it’s as if the developers thought that the cartoonish look of the original 8-Bit Game Boy title was an intentional stylistic choice, rather than how Zelda games looked at that time, and that it was something that needed to be made cuter. It feels like a significant misstep, and one that’s bound to cheapen the surprisingly mature and thoughtful narrative. Nonetheless, it’s pleasing that this underplayed classic will find a new audience, and Nintendo’s diorama displays of areas from the game on the show floor were exceptional and gorgeous.
Finally, a new Animal Crossing was revealed, with a fresh island setting, new crafting gameplay, and the inclusion of fruit stacking. After sideline missteps like Pocket Camp, Amiibo Festival, and Happy Home Designer, a new Switch entry seems to be exactly the shot in the arm that this beloved series needs to get back on track.
Although E3 2019 demonstrated that there are major changes coming for the gaming industry, some things remain the same, even if it’s just Devolver Digital taking the piss out of, well, the big-budget press conference. Indeed, latest conference was as fresh, joyous, and deranged as its predecessors. The future of video gaming might be uncertain, but there’s still plenty to look forward to and celebrate, and this is something the folks at Devolver Digital are committed to proving year after year, and with a humor that could stand to rub off on the industry at large.
E3 ran from June 11—13.
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