Author Archive

The Gronvall Report: Michaël Dudok de Wit On THE RED TURTLE

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

There are many animals among this year’s contenders for the Best Animated Film Academy Award, including Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets and Zootopia, but none as mysterious as the title character in the hauntingly beautiful The Red Turtle. Directed by acclaimed Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, this wordless fable shows how a man shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, far from any other land mass, copes with loneliness and his sometimes hostile environment. The arrival of a giant red sea turtle changes his life in ways he never could have foreseen.

The Red Turtle marks the feature writing-directing debut of de Wit, who has an international following for his short works, including Tom Sweep (1992), The Monk and the Fish (1994, for which he won a Cesar), Father and Daughter (2000), for which he won an Oscar) as well as The Aroma of Tea (2006).  One of his most ardent fans is Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata (My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), who was captivated by Father and Daughter and in 2006 tried to get it favorable distribution in Japan. In the same email containing Takahata’s proposal to de Wit came an offer from Studio Ghibli’s renowned producer Toshio Suzuki, expressing interest in having de Wit direct a feature for the company. Thus was a creative alliance formed; ten years later The Red Turtle won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar. It also received five Annie Awards nominations. The film opens in Los Angeles on January 20, and then will roll out to other markets.

I caught up with de Wit over the phone when he was in Los Angeles for the AFI Festival last November. Affable, cultivated, expansive yet modest, he repeatedly gave credit to his collaborators, reminding this reporter that he didn’t do any animating himself on The Red Turtle. He did, however, draw all the charcoal and paper sketches for the film’s animatic in pre-production, provided some background renderings during production, and did some touch-up work. A perfectionist, he is all about the details.

Your opening scene in The Red Turtle of the man tossed by the sea evokes some of the “ukiyo-e” (“pictures of the floating world”) by Japanese painters and print makers of the shogun era, who in their turn were influenced by Chinese scroll painters. Vincent Van Gogh and his contemporaries were very taken by “ukiyo-e,” and the line between their work and that Japanese art is clear. Now here you are today, a European making the first non-Japanese film produced by Studio Ghibli. Do you see some sort of cycle here?

A full cycle, in many ways: I admire Hokusai, Hiroshige, and other Japanese artists, but there are also references in the film to drawings by the Impressionists. I first saw Hokusai’s “Manga” [a forerunner of anime] in my twenties, and remember exploding, “My God, look at this!” I even asked Studio Ghibli if they expected my film to have the Japanese style of their films, but they said no, it was up to me as the director. Later, after they saw the completed film, they said they were pleased that it’s that rare animated movie that isn’t influenced by anime at all.

You did all your own drawing in your previous animated short works. But directing a big studio feature is quite different. What was the scariest thing about directing The Red Turtle, and what was the most satisfying? Looking back, do you see your adjustment as happening in measured steps, or did you feel at times as though you were tossed into the ocean yourself, to sink or swim?

The day I when I started writing I imagined it was going to be very difficult. I was wrong, although much of what else I had learned earlier I had to rethink in making this film: I had to learn the finer points of editing, and adjust to how different it is to work alongside other animators, when I was not doing any of the animating myself. My biggest fear was that the film would lose its character because of some “middle of the road” effect, where so many people would be working that they could lose themselves [their distinctiveness] in the overall project. So I kept the crew small, about a dozen carefully chosen animators, working in Angouleme, France [at Prima Linea Productions].

The next biggest challenge was the exhaustive work schedule: 60 to 80 hours per week, year after year after year. You can become deadened, with the danger of losing your judgment and creativity. I was ambitious; this style was very difficult to animate and it was quite contained. We didn’t have a massive budget. As a first-time director I had to explain a lot. Gradually, as the first of the test sequences came in, I felt that the film was going to be fantastic.

What was one of the most satisfying things? Well, just to go to Japan to Studio Ghibli and sit at a table with producers [Isao] Takahata and [Toshio] Suzuki and ask them questions and talk about their philosophy. I stayed for a month in Tokyo and they put me to work on part of the storyboard. Then there were the meetings we had at my apartment where we sat on the floor on cushions and tatami mats and ate rice bowls while we exchanged ideas.

Listening to you I’m struck by the awe you genuinely seem to feel about being in the company of these masters. It’s like you have no ego.

Many animators don’t have inflated egos because they work so hard. The first animation festival I attended was Annecy in 1975. I thought, “These people don’t have an ego; they work, work, work. It’s all about the art.” Of course, I’m talking about animators who made expressive short films, who had not yet experienced working on a large film. But right then and there I made up my mind that being an animator was what I wanted to do.

The narrative and tone and some of the visual motifs of your Oscar-winning short Father and Daughter have echoes in The Red Turtle. Is it possible that because you’re from the Netherlands, you have a very particular response to how land meets the sea? I mean, parts of Holland are below sea level, and then there’s that quality of the light and sky. I love how the sky looks in your films.

 In all of my films, water has a big place, and no one has ever commented on that before. I’ve often wondered myself why is there so much water. I loved swimming when I was young. And when you are in Holland where the land is flat you can’t help but notice the sky. The skies in Japan are also amazing; the clouds are so different. But the light in my films definitely owes much to the Netherlands.

I have a question about technology and how it affects creativity. I’ve noticed that the instruments I use to write affect my process of writing. Using a pen produces something different than a typewriter, and using word processing on a computer most certainly has changed how I write, and what I write. Your brain responds differently, organizes differently. Do you think there are any physiological or neurological differences in animating with pencil and brush and animating with the kind of digital Cintiq pencils used in The Red Turtle?

Yes, definitely. If you use a piece of charcoal—or pencil, or in–it affects the subject you create a lot. I have absolutely no scientific proof I can quote, offhand, but I do know that we use different parts of our brain whenever we switch tools. The traditional tools of an animator—lightbox, pencil, eraser—are simple, but produce very rich effects on thick sheets of paper. Just to be orderly, you have to put a little number in the corner of each drawing. You become logical; you become efficient. Now, switch from that after dozens of years to a screen and a small plastic pencil, and that tactile screen is packed with many little software tools. You use your rational side of the brain much more to be productive. Your posture is different, your gestures are different, and over time your synapses fire differently. It’s strange, kind of like switching musical instruments.

So, after working this hard on The Red Turtle, what‘s next? What do you typically do during your downtime to recharge?

In theory, I should have had downtime in April, but promotion for the film already had begun. I had a few days off to be a tourist in Japan, which I enjoyed. As for my next project, I really have to step back before moving forward. The downtime has yet to come.

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The Gronvall Report: Author Deborah E. Lipstadt On DENIAL, David Hare And Rachel Weisz

Monday, October 17th, 2016

What happens when an American historian writes something about a Brit where she dismisses his authority as an historian, and he then sues her for libel, and she discovers that the British legal system doesn’t operate on the American judicial presumption of “innocent, until proven guilty,” but that she and her defense team must prove that her accuser is the liar? Denial, rolling out in platform release via Bleecker Street, takes such a real-life case and turns it into a courtroom cliffhanger. Directed by Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard, HBO’s “Temple Grandin”) from a screenplay by David Hare (Damage, The Hours), the film is based on Deborah E. Lipstadt’s account, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2006). In her book she details how as a holder in 1995 of an endowed chair in Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Atlanta’s Emory University, she received a letter from Penguin, the British publisher of her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” informing her that British author David Irving was suing for being called a Holocaust denier. The movie is largely concerned with her trial in London, and every line of dialogue in the courtroom scenes is lifted verbatim from official transcripts. Essentially, she and her team had to prove that the Holocaust happened.

Oscar winner Rachel Weisz stars as Lipstadt; Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton, Snowden) costars as her Scottish barrister, alongside Andrew Scott (Spectre, BBC’s “Sherlock”) as her British solicitor, and Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner, the Harry Potter franchise) as David Irving—a dream cast if ever there was one. Lipstadt recently visited Chicago to talk about the film. I was truly struck not only by the level of her erudition, but also by how quick, lively, good-humored, and forthcoming she was at such an early hour.

During the pre-production of Denial you met a few times with David Hare, and he eventually gave you his screenplay to read. After you read it, what were your comments?

I was very careful, because he is one of the great screenwriters of our time. I didn’t say “I don’t like this” or “I don’t like that,” or “I think we should have the character move here.” I looked for inconsistencies, or I looked for mistakes, like a line about hanging chads, and then I would say, “That’s a great line, David Hare, but that happened after my trial.” That kind of thing, or where he wrote when I learned about something—like when did you learn that the British legal system put the burden [of proof] on you—and I had learned that very early on, whereas he had that happening later in the screenplay. I was sensitive to content items relating directly to me that had either been ambiguous in the book, or might have got confused in my transmission to him, but nothing in terms of dramatic construction.

A movie adaptation can’t include everything that’s in the book or any other original source material. Is there anything in your book that you wish the film had included, but didn’t?

You know, I always joke that the movie version I would have made would have been four hours long—and that’s the short version. There was stuff I didn’t even include in my book, because then my book would have been 700 pages. A couple of things: first of all, the incredible support I received from my university. They were behind me, setting up a travel fund for me, easing my teaching load. When I went off to go on trial, I was going to take a leave of absence because I was on salary, but they said, no, of course not, you just go, it’ll be as if the courtroom is your classroom from afar.

So, I wish that that had been there, and I wish there’d been a little more emphasis on David Irving’s rightwing extremism and connections. The racism I think is played out very well: the ditty he sings to his daughter, what he says about the women who work for him—the Sri Lankan, the Pakistani, a Barbadian. But what we found in his diaries! He used to go to America very often, and there was a gentleman in Louisiana who would come down to Key West to spend time with him and play tennis. This guy, whose name was David Duke, was writing a book, and Irving offered him editing suggestions.

And that Irving called on a Cal State-Long Beach professor named Kevin MacDonald to testify—the only person he brought in who didn’t have to be subpoenaed—who was trying to show that I was part of a vast Jewish conspiracy. And that guy now is connected with the alt-right, which is heavily associated with Breitbart News, a far-right extremist site that’s very racist, and very anti-Semitic.

But by and large, if the filmmakers had to choose what material to fit into an hour and fifty minutes, I think they did it very, very well. The things that impressed me so much, as the person to whom it happened, and as an historian, was their emphasis on truth, on getting it right.

David Hare has said that he deliberately chose not to try to delve into Irving’s psychology; rightly so, because how could Hare, realistically, play armchair shrink? But that does raise a very interesting point: why you? David Irving must have had many other critics, so why did he go after you?

Great question–not only were there other critics, but critics who were far harder on him than I was. And I think she says it, at one point—“she,” meaning me—

The character–

The character, when she’s having lunch with her colleague. (A), I was an American. I was far away in Atlanta. He didn’t think I was going to fight. It was harder–how do I put together a defense team, what do I do? (B), I’m a woman, and he’s a misogynist, and anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism, are often together part of a whole package. And it’s certainly the case with David Irving. (C) I’m a Jew. I’m a Jew who’s not an ambiguous Jew; it’s part of my DNA. Like part of my DNA is that I’m a woman. How do I feel as a woman? I don’t know, ‘cause that’s the only thing I’ve ever been. At times people will ask Rachel, how do you find so many good parts for women? And she replies, you’re talking about women like they’re giraffes. It’s who I am, it’s inbred in who I am. And he wanted to prove that there’s this vast right-wing conspiracy, although I wasn’t its leader—I couldn’t be the leader, because I’m a woman, and you couldn’t have a woman as the leader.

Obviously, your movie is about the Holocaust, in that it is about Holocaust denial. But one can’t really categorize it as part of the expanding genre of Holocaust movies. In my mind I keep remembering a piece that the late Elie Wiesel wrote almost 40 years ago for “The New York Times Sunday Magazine” about the NBC mini-series “Holocaust.”

Oh, he hated it!

Hated it, but he used that review as springboard for an essay that reached beyond a mere review.

I know, I just finished a book containing that review, so I’ve got that review. I’m so sorry that Elie has passed away; he was a good friend, and a big supporter.

Looking back at that essay, I marvel at how prescient he was, that he foresaw this outpouring of Holocaust-themed works in drama, literature, and pop culture like movies and TV shows, creating a danger of–

Cheapening.

Yes, trivializing the Holocaust.

And he was right in many respects. I would say that NBC’s “Holocaust” had an impact, but that’s for another conversation. It had a big impact, certainly, and in Germany it had a big impact.

But in general–

First of all, this is more a courtroom drama than it is about the Holocaust, although it’s that, too. It’s a unique blend, I think, of a courtroom drama and a movie about denial of the Holocaust, and about conspiracy theories. It’s interesting: David Hare—he may write this in his introduction to the new version of my book, which is now called “Denial”—was initially reluctant to take on the job, in part because he felt the Holocaust is such a tremendous topic. There’ve been so many poor and cheap productions on the subject, but then when he read my book, he was intrigued about a number of things: first, the courtroom drama; second, the contemporary relevance, which I’ll come back to in a minute; but third, the fact that in most films, where a woman, or some regular Joe, comes to battle, they somehow find their voice. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich, Henry Fonda’s character in 12 Angry Men—you know. David Hare said here was a story of a person who not only already had a voice, she had to deny her voice; she had to keep silent [in court and in the press]. She’s the central character, and the courtroom is the central setting, and yet she’s silent. Rachel plays much of this part with her eyes, with her facial expressions. I think she captures it magnificently.

But going back to that middle piece: when we started to plan this movie, and I say “we,’ because they brought me in a lot. I have friends who work in Hollywood, and when they heard the degree to which I was involved—David Hare shadowing me; Mick Jackson visiting me; the producers in the beginning, every few weeks and every few months calling with updates; Rachel wanting me to spend days at her house, just so she could get my accent, my temperament, my intonation, etc. But none of us–even a year ago as final plans were put in place, none of us assumed that the film would have contemporary relevance. I’m not talking about just the Presidential elections. I think it speaks to a much bigger issue about people feeling that truth and fact are negotiable, who feel that if they really believe something, it must be true. As in, “If I really believe that 9/11 was an inside job by the CIA, it must be true.” Or, “If I believe there were Muslims dancing in New Jersey on 9/11, it must be true.” Even though there was no evidence. If I said, “It’s my opinion that the earth is flat,” you would say, “This woman is crazy. That’s her opinion, but it’s a lie.”

There are lies, opinions, and there are facts. And what Holocaust deniers try to do, and now what so many people do, is take lies, where the evidence is all to the contrary, and turn them into opinion, to encroach on the facts. “The Economist” ran an article [print issue of September 10, 2016] about how we live in a post-truth era, and cited Stephen Colbert, that great American commentator, and his term “truthiness.” So what’s the takeaway? Films, I don’t think should have messages. If they have a message, they’re either very bad films, or they’re documentaries. One of the takeaways here is that in Denial there aren’t two sides to every opinion. There are only facts.

The Gronvall Report: Hannes Holm on A MAN CALLED OVE

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

Recipe for a successful screen adaptation: (1) Option the rights to an immensely popular novel, Fredrik Backman’s “A Man Called Ove,” translated in more than 35 languages, and still on the New York Times bestseller list after 39 weeks. (2) Hire as writer-director Hannes Holm, a commercially astute filmmaker with several award-winning comedies under his belt. (3) Cast in the title role one of Sweden’s most accomplished stage, screen, and TV actors, Rolf Lassgard, who starred in Colin Nutley’s Under the Sun (2000) and Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding (2007), both nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, and he played Henning Mankell’s detective “Wallander for several seasons on Swedish television. (4) Mix well and you get a box office gross of more than $20.5 million in Sweden alone, the third highest gross and largest in that country for 32 years. A Man Called Ove is Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Enter indie savant Music Box Films, the ambitious, energetic specialty film distributor kicking off the film’s U.S. platform release with openings in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In A Man Called Ove the company has a title with the potential to cross over into the American mainstream (if any subtitled film can), in part because so many of the social issues the main character faces—immigration, economic upheaval, gay rights, ageism, and entrenched bureaucracy—mirror ours this side of the Atlantic. In makeup that makes him look much older than he does in reality, Lassgard, large and burly, carries the weight of a lifetime of mistreatment, missed opportunities, and personal tragedy. Widowed six months, and let go from his job after decades of faithful service, Ove is still vigorous, and stubborn, as he channels boredom, grief, and anger into his tasks of self-appointed local enforcer. As he daily makes the rounds of his gated community, searching for rule breakers and punishing them (leave a bike where you shouldn’t, and Ove will lock it up), he redefines curmudgeon. He longs to rejoin his beloved departed spouse Sonja (Ida Engvoll), but his efforts to shuffle off this mortal coil are continually thwarted by his new neighbors, a family of mixed ethnicity, where the wife, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), is clearly the most sensible (as was Sonja). Slowly, after considerable comic friction, Parvaneh draws Ove out of his bitterness, aided by a fluffy stray cat that’s impervious to his disapproval.

Hannes Holm traveled to Chicago to take part in the Music Box Theatre’s participation in national Art House Theater Day. Were it not for his shock of thick snowy hair, you’d never be able to guess Holm’s age; he is trim and wiry, with the kind of cheekbones the camera loves (he entered the business as an actor in 1981), twinkling blue eyes, and an infectious enthusiasm for new people and new experiences. He believes it’s fundamental that a director should love his actors, and he’s jazzed about shooting his next project in India. In other words, Holm is a 180 degrees from Ove, and slyly funny. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

I have a question.

You have questions. That’s very good.

Yes, isn’t it? Otherwise I’d be totally wasting your time. In all the Swedish films that have made it to the U.S. or Canada, I haven’t seen anything like the housing development that Ove lives in. Is it suburban? Could you talk a little about the setting?

Yes, it was called the One Million Program [aka, the Million Programme]. In the Sixties and Seventies the Swedish government built so many houses and suburbs, because people really needed them. They built high-rises outside the cities and a lot of these kinds of semi-attached houses as well. But in the Eighties and Nineties when you talked about the One Million Program in Sweden, everyone thought it was a big failure, because in the suburbs when you put so many people from a lower social class [alongside the existing population], problems will occur. But nowadays, where people don’t have anywhere to live, the One Million Program has turned out to be a good thing. In the movie, Ove and Sonja probably bought their semi-attached house in the 70s, with subsidies from the state–as did my family, when we moved to a semi-attached house. And now, the second generation of immigrants is moving into these houses, and they do a thing you never do in Sweden, which is making a present of food to their neighbors.

A welcoming gift.

Exactly. That custom peaked in the 70s, but we never do it anymore. But that gift starts the relationship between Parvaneh and Ove, that grumpy old man. At first I wasn’t interested in filming that story, where the grumpy old man becomes nice, or decent. Was I the guy to do that again? Because so many people had done that story before. But then I realized many things, but one thing is that it’s important to re-tell the classical old stories, at new angles.

Well, it certainly worked in the Pixar movie Up. Perhaps the archetype of the grumpy old man explains part of the appeal of Backman’s novel, which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for over half a year. That’s saying something, because humor doesn’t always travel across national boundaries.

I started out in comedy, which is why I’ve come to Chicago so late in life. Ove is an archetype, as you said. I think the book is a bit funnier than the film. When I met Annica Bellander, the producer, she gave me the book and asked me if I wanted to make the film. But the thing is, I had done so many comedies already, and really wanted to do something else, and the title A Man Called Ove smells like comedy, so I said thanks, but no thanks. The meeting was over, but I’m a poor man, so I kept the free book, and I read it–in one evening, in fact. The next morning, the sun was coming up, and I was crying, and I thought I saw something in it for me as a director. Before, I had been thinking, I’m 53 years old, and reasonably intelligent, and know that you don’t take on a bestseller, because eight out of ten movies based on best-selling books turn out to be failures.

Really? Do you mean in Sweden, or in Europe, or where?

In general. The book’s fans show up at the cinema to see how you are going to massacre their lovely, lovely book. But then I met Freddie Backman. He was a bit grumpy, but he was also smart. He said since he didn’t know anything about screenwriting, I should do the script. I usually write my own stories, so this was a change of pace for me, to adapt another person’s work. I wrote it in two months, quick for me. Then I mailed him the script, and I was nervous about what his response would be. The next day, I got his answer, one word: “Yes.” While I had been writing the script, I had thought about why so many movies based on popular books don’t work. I read the novel 99 times more, and then I gave it to my mother, telling her I don’t want to see it again. And then, basically, I stole the story of the book. It’s like when you read a book, and you tell someone else what it’s about: it’s no longer the author’s story, it becomes your own version of the story. So, after thinking that through, it was quite easy to write the script. Though there was a change the production company wanted: they didn’t want the cat.

They didn’t want the cat?! I love the cat!

I love the cat as well!

But how did you get the cat to do what you wanted it to do? Cats are not known for following direction.

I was shocked when I heard that the production company really didn’t believe in this film. The movie cost $350,000 to make. In Sweden it has now earned $20 million, and one of the big reasons for that, I think, is the cat. We couldn’t afford a digital cat, so we had two live cats. Magic was the more aggressive cat, and Orlando was the lazy cat. But they looked so much alike, that one day we had a near catastrophe on the set, when we gave the cat to Rolf to hold. It started hissing and growling, and we realized we had grabbed Magic by mistake. But the cats did a good job, and so did Rolf with them, because they bonded.

A_Man_Called_Ove_-_2Rolf Lassgard is a terrific actor. And he was so appealing in Under the Sun, a truly memorable love story.

I’d never worked with him before; I met him for the first time doing this film. But everyone in Sweden knows who he is. My first girlfriend was Helena Bergstrom, who would later go on to star with him in Under the Sun. So when I finally met Rolf, I told him this funny story I’d read about an interview Helena had with a very stupid reporter, who asked, “When you do love scenes, how is it? Do you feel something when you kiss an actor?” And Helena was going, oh come on, it’s my job. I have a husband, and children at home, there are a lot of people around on the set, there’s the camera; of course not. But the reporter would not give up on his question, and so finally after ten minutes she said, “Okay, one man.”

I could see that. But you know, before he did Ove, I bet when people approached him on the street they’d call, “Hey, Wallander.”

That’s being the victim of TV, it’s true. When we were thinking about casting, we were going over names of actors known for comedy, but I said, no, I think we need someone who is not known for being funny. And when I called Rolf to ask him to play the part, he said, “But, Hannes, I’m not funny.” But sometimes the best comedies are the films that are not meant to be comedies.

Essentially this is a serious film with overtones of comedy. And the comic overtones are there because, unfortunately, Ove has had much sadness in life.

Yes, it’s a kind of a black comedy.

Do Swedish comedies tend to be a little darker than American comedies? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of many American comedies that are about death and suicide.

A lot of Swedish comedies are not dark, but I think for a Swedish comedy to travel, as you say, it has to be on the dark side. When I gave the script for A Man Called Ove to my wife, Malin, to read, she said, “Too funny.” She started tearing out the funny pages. The thing about humor is that it is a tool; you can’t overuse it. So, I’m learning. Then there’s the other extreme. There’s this guy in Sweden, a director, called Ingmar Bergman. He’s dead now. I hate—no, “hate” is a strong word. But when I saw his films, I couldn’t believe how he could take all the humor out of the room, just vacuum it out. I have an idea to make a film with my DP [Goran Hallberg] about Bergman, actually. Because in the late Fifties and early Sixties Ingmar made some commercials, so I want to write a script imagining the meetings Bergman had with the advertising firms, the clients, and all the stupid stuff you go through when you make commercials, but telling it in the Ingmar Bergman way. It would be a funny contrast, the ad world and Bergman’s style.

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The Gronvall Report: Simon Helberg on Meryl Streep And Florence Foster Jenkins

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

If you’re, like me, one of the 15 million viewers who every week watch the long-running CBS series The Big Bang Theory, you don’t need any introduction to the multi-talented Simon Helberg. You already know him as Howard Wolowitz, perhaps the most insecure (and endearing) of the IQ-chart-topping science geeks on the long-running sitcom. Despite having one-upped his egghead pals by flying on a NASA mission, the hyper-competitive Howard seems to be in a permanent state of over-compensating for any number of deep-seated eccentricities (okay, neuroses). Helberg so wins you over in his portrayal, you can’t help but identify with Howard’s stratospheric angst.

So you can understand how thrilling it was to read that Helberg had been cast with third billing, no less, opposite Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Stephen Frears’s biopic Florence Foster Jenkins, the much-ballyhooed Paramount Pictures release opening this week. Although he has acted in quite a few films before this, Helberg enjoys his heftiest big-screen role yet as the hungry young classical New York pianist Cosme McMoon, so far into the closet he doesn’t even know he’s there. Hired by the titular music-mad heiress to accompany her during her delusional pursuit of a singing debut at Carnegie Hall in 1944 (delusional because her wildly off-pitch pipes could shred bark off a tree), he is a latter-day Sancho Panza to a female Don Quixote, following an impossible dream out of loyalty to, and eventually, affection for his patroness. The money, of course, does comes in handy, and did Cosme mention that he also composes?

Initially Florence comes across as a dreadful culture vulture, an overbearing wealthy lady who lunches while indefatigably waving the flag of whatever and whomever she deems as improving a less refined populace. How Streep can make her every warble more horrific than the last is a testament to the actress’s powers of invention and her command of her own singing voice. As her younger, philandering common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, Hugh Grant fleshes out his familiar screen persona of the quintessential charming, self-effacing British sophisticate with a new dimension: layers of grit, regret, and menace, as he schemes relentlessly to hide from Florence the truth about her vocal gaffes. And as the impecunious Cosme, Helberg follows his costars’ leads; as the film progresses he matures, becoming warmer and more humane. As with “The Big Bang Theory,” in Florence Foster Jenkins the stage-trained (New York’s Atlantic Theater Company) Helberg again proves a very funny and sensitive supporting actor who helps up the game of everyone around him. During his recent swing through Chicago the surprisingly open performer impressed me as a born communicator, more articulate about his process than any other actor I’ve ever met.

Fans of “The Big Bang Theory” already know that you have musical talent, but it’s gratifying to see it so prominently featured in Florence Foster Jenkins. That mode of performing—you played the piano live for the camera, while still in character—posed what kind of challenge?

It was a great challenge; it required sort of a juggling act to get there, because, first of all, the music was incredibly challenging just to learn. I play piano, and I play it well, but I don’t play classical music, and I don’t play opera music, and I never have, really. To play somebody who is a classically trained pianist, I had to be really good, or at least I had to pretend to be good. But Stephen wanted to do it live: Meryl’s singing, and I’m playing, and that was important to him, and I didn’t want to let him down. So I bluffed a little, and said I can do it, and then I really had to put my money where my mouth was. I learned all the pieces very well, as best I could, because I knew we were going to decimate them when we got together with Meryl and she sang. You have to be able to bob and weave, so you really have to know it backwards and forwards. And then came figuring out who the character was, and how he would play, and how he would sit, and how he would live in that—and so it was [about] two components, and merging them. It was tough; it’s tough just to act anyway, and especially when you’re in the presence of so many great people. There’s a pressure there, and then to add opera to it almost sent me to the hospital, but it worked out.

You’re a very physical actor, and the differences in your body language are notable, from early on when Cosme is auditioning, versus how you comport yourself later when you’re sitting at the concert piano–perfect posture, that. Did you study various pianists to see how they moved when they were on stage?

I did watch some, like Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein—and Lang Lang also; he’s on the other end of the spectrum, he’s very flashy—but when I took lessons for this movie, I really wanted to learn about the classical technique: how your hands, and your arms, and your posture [contribute]. One of the things the teacher that I studied with told me was how these young piano players at the conservatory always have these very long arms; they’re always told to imagine that they have weights at the end of their arms that sort of pull them down when they sit at the piano. You would imagine that your fingers are being weighted down through the keys, and you don’t use your wrists or your elbows. And I thought, ooh, this is interesting: those gangly people are like a puppy, or someone with a growth spurt, unaware of their bodies; they haven’t figured out how to coordinate their movements. And I thought about this guy Cosme who’s probably not fully in his body, or in his element at all, and just kind of floating through there with his arms, almost as if they were separate entities. So that helped.

It’s wonderful how you straddle the divide between comedy and poignant dramatic moments. I love Stephen Frears’ work, and this is a great script by Nicholas Martin, and it’s a measure of their respective skills that early in the film we’re not too sure about how we feel about the three main characters, who aren’t shown in their best light. But then the movie unfolds, and we see them more clearly. My favorite scene is the one you have with Meryl in Cosme’s apartment. I don’t know where you go as an actor to get in touch with that kind of vulnerability, but it’s beautiful.

Thank you. It was a scene that always existed as you see it, that’s sort of in the middle of the movie as an anomaly; I think Meryl said that at one point, “Well, this scene’s an anomaly.” Because we were going to shoot it first, but she thought we probably shouldn’t, because our characters are doing something they’ve never done, really, in the course of this movie. Eventually for one reason or another it got shifted a little bit later into the schedule. It was still early on, but it wasn’t the first day, it wasn’t our first scene. And I already was excited about that scene, and scared; it was challenging, and it felt like it kind of beat us up a little bit—even Meryl, I think, that day, found it was hard, and it was emotional. And it was amazing to be with her, thinking she must always feel, like, “Well, another brilliant day in the life of Meryl Streep,” but when we left, we both were sort of, I don’t know, bogged down by it, how it came out. But sometimes that trouble is what the scene is, and it was a vulnerable, raw moment in those characters’ lives in this movie, and then for us, I think, it just kind of spun us around. And that was a big moment, coming away from it, and seeing it [in the finished film] I think it’s beautiful, too. But I certainly left that day feeling unsure. It’s an interesting lesson in surrendering.

Because of your TV show, many people associate you with a contemporary persona, but you appear to fit very comfortably in a period piece. What kind of tools did you rely on to get into character? Did the costumes help you embody a person of that time?

Well, I’ve always felt sort of out of time, in some way. I used to think about the different eras where I might have fit in better. But I’ve always loved period pieces, and loved theater that let me, say, step into the Forties, or into Oscar Wilde’s world. I think you just listen to what the story is, and, sure, the costumes help create that, for the audience, at least. And then you step into it, and you do move differently, and you do feel different. I didn’t consciously over-think the period [aspect] of it, aside from what the state of the world was, in terms of wartime, and in terms of him being gay. But it’s so fun; it’s a beautiful-looking era, cinematically.

So now you’ve worked with the Coen Brothers and Stephen Frears, terrific filmmakers. What are the differences between working on the sets of Florence Foster Jenkins and A Serious Man?

Well, on the set of A Serious Man, we shot [my stuff] in only a day. I did go a few times for a rehearsal and a table read; it was brief, but intense. The similarity is that the Coens and Stephen don’t say a lot to the actors. The Coens write it, they edit it, and they do everything, so that story in its entirety is 100% their vision. They’re in charge of facilitating that: from the script to the screen what you see doesn’t change much. And Stephen doesn’t write his movies, and doesn’t edit his movies, and so his vision is just executed in a different way. And [in both cases] it’s seamless; you don’t even really know how they’re doing it, because there’s just not a lot of talking. It feels effortless, from both sides, although obviously there’s a lot of effort in it, and they surround themselves with people they trust and who they know are going to tell the same story. There’s very little micro-managing, at least from the point of view of the actor. The directors, if they want it again, might ask if you would like to do another take. Or they might say, “I’m happy.” I think the Coens asked me to lean forward once, instead of leaning backward. I don’t know–they just trust.

That’s nice, really.

[Laughs] It’s nice, but also there are moments where it’s kind of disconcerting, where you’re just left [thinking], they trust me that much? I don’t trust me that much.

Your father, Sandy Helberg, is also an actor with an interesting career. Did he take you along to movie sets when you were a kid?

I definitely went to a bunch of different sets, when he’d be on TV, and my mom [Harriet B. Helberg] was a casting director, and so I’d go and watch tapings of sitcoms. And my dad was in The Groundlings, and I would go to The Groundlings, and just watch these great, brilliant people. And I know that that all shaped me, for sure. It just wasn’t something that I thought about, or really even considered doing, until I was 16 or 17. I wanted to do music, really.

You also have training in karate. What kind of a belt do you have?

A very small one, now, because it’s from when I was ten. Black belt—but again, it would probably be like a bracelet for me at this point. I was very little. The biggest thing that I probably kept from that—aside from that tiny belt—is discipline. I learned about focus and discipline. I never wanted to beat anybody up–luckily, because I probably would have failed. But that wasn’t what it was about for me. It was about the passion of doing it. That was what I wanted to do; I didn’t think beyond that about anything else. There was a period when I was, like, nine, where I went to karate six days a week.

So, when you watch action movies, and see the fight scenes, given what you know do you ever wince and think, that is so not how it’s done?

[Laughs] “Yeah, I could have done better. Yeah, Steven Seagal, he knows nothing.” Oh, no, I don’t tend to lord my past in karate and martial arts over anybody else’s careers these days. I think we’re all in the right field. I have no input into anything that Jason Bourne is doing.

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The Gronvall Report: Adam McKay On THE BIG SHORT

Monday, December 21st, 2015

After months flying below the radar of industry watchers, The Big Short arrived in theaters late into awards season to shake things up. A bravura, full-throttle adaptation of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction bestseller about the Wall Street crash of 2008, the movie is directed and co-written (with Charles Randolph) by Adam McKay, who is best known for collaboration with Will Farrell on hits like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and The Other Guys. McKay’s step up here is sizable¾in ambition, although surprisingly not in terms of budget, as the reported $28- to $29 million it took to make The Big Short is only a couple million north of the budget for Anchorman.

But McKay got his money’s worth, and it’s all there on the screen, starting with a kick-ass ensemble headed by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt as brilliant investors (some very eccentric) who see (a) that America’s housing market boom has been built on shaky mortgages and bad loans, and (b) how they can profit from the disaster waiting to happen. What could have been an indecipherable parade of financial terms like credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations becomes instead a heady brew of rapid-fire dialogue, dynamic camera work, and sly cameos by celebrities playing themselves (Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, and Anthony Bourdain) as they directly address the camera to explain the obsfucation of high finance. Considering the widespread devastation caused by the 2008 market collapse (from which, it hardly needs saying, we are still recovering) this is gallows humor, but of a very fine order. Equally fine is the drama, which succeeds largely because the flawed characters at its center are nothing if not recognizably human.

An ingenious stroke was to hire Barry Ackroyd as his shooter. Ackroyd was nominated for an Oscar for The Hurt Locker and a BAFTA Award for his work on Captain Phillips; his next project with Greengrass will be the latest installment of the Jason Bourne franchise. Throughout a dozen films with social realist director Ken Loach, Ackroyd honed a verité style that adds layers of immediacy and authenticity to already true-to-life material. In The Big Short his images offer effective counterweight to McKay’s biting assessment of the absurdities of Wall Street.

It was a homecoming of sorts for McKay when he stopped in Chicago to appear at the film’s local premiere. He got his start here as a founder of the improv sketch group Upright Citizens Brigade. He’s married to Shira Piven, a film director in her own right (Welcome to Me), who’s a member of the Piven theatrical family, practically a dynasty in these parts. I caught up with the charming, owlishly bespectacled McKay while he was literally stretching his long legs across a coffee table during press day at the Ritz-Carlton.

How did you decide on Barry Ackroyd as your cinematographer? His career has shown such vitality and range, from his long association with Ken Loach to an amazing war film like The Hurt Locker. He’s phenomenal.

I couldn’t agree with you more. He’s one of the greatest in the history of cinematography, ever. I didn’t want the film to have that kind of marble-clad, austere look that a lot of movies about Wall Street have had, and knew that he would capture the energy, the life of our characters and settings.

What was your working method with him? How did you communicate?

Working with him was one of my happiest experiences in film. Barry operates the A camera, and like John Cassavetes, he favors long lenses. He likes to stand back from the action, and watch the scene unfold, like it’s an event. He doesn’t want to be anywhere near the actors. Which is good: that way, the actors don’t know where exactly they’ll be in the shot, so they’re forced to remain in the moment of the scene. And he had a very capable assistant on the B camera. Between the three of us, we developed our own language. Watching each day’s footage I learned Barry’s style, and also how to tweak it, when I wanted. I told him, if you see something happening that you like, you have to go for it; you’ve got a green light from me. But there are also moments where the movie is a little more formalistic, like where we had to frame specifically to break the fourth wall, or for other reasons.

I’m curious about how certain shots came about. For instance, one of my favorite funny moments is in a scene at the Las Vegas forum where Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is challenging the speaker. It’s a wide shot from near the back of the room. Carell is outside frame, until his character gets so outraged at the half-wit at the podium that his left arm shoots out into the frame to make an emphatic zero sign, and all his indignation and fury just radiate off of each digit. Whose decision was that? Yours, I’m betting.

You noticed that! Yes, I saw how Barry was framing the shot, and suggested that if he moved the camera a little, to throw Steve out of frame, it would be funnier.

You wrapped shooting when? You tested a lot over the summer, I read.

We finished shooting toward the end of May. And yes, I did test the film with audiences a lot, maybe five to six times, because our movie is a little bit of a conversation with viewers. We were looking for the right alchemy between a serious subject and the lighter moments where we try to explain what happened. Mostly we discovered that audiences were able to understand complex terms like CDOs, which was crucial.

It’s refreshing that there aren’t any heroes in your film. The three groups of maverick investors that you focus on are sympathetic only to the extent that if they hadn’t done what they did, they’d have been squashed by the impending economic meltdown that only they, apparently, foresaw. Well, maybe not so much Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who set too much into play. But with the others, it was more or less a case of “eat or be eaten,” because that’s what the market is, or at least how the market has been defined by our contemporary brand of capitalism.

The way the market is supposed to work is that for every investment there’s a counter-investment. Mark Baum was an investor who was intent on rooting out corruption because to do so was good for the market, in that corrupt companies could not ultimately succeed, and therefore were bad for business. And so he would “short,” or bet against, investments that, after much research on his part, he identified as bad or fraudulent. Michael Burry believed in value; he had this astonishing capacity to crunch data, and he believed that numbers didn’t lie. And Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) had this theory about how people underestimate the chances of bad things happening. As for these guys not being heroes? I think the one thing you can say they did was stare into the mouth of the beast.

I was interested to learn that you’ve been a social activist from your earliest days in show business. What are you involved in now?

There are a number of causes that I support: the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Sandy Hook Promise. Gun control is a big one for me. I’m also involved in fighting climate change. I donate money, and every now and then I’ll do a fundraiser. Or “Funny or Die” will post a video. I try to pursue activism, on some level, in everything I do. Definitely, over the years I’ve learned that you can do a lot through comedy, or the occasional op-ed in “The Huffington Post.” You just keep at it.

The Gronvall Report: On SON OF SAUL

Friday, December 18th, 2015

Just as there hasn’t been a documentary about the Holocaust to surpass Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, it’s hard to imagine a future fictional narrative that would come close to matching Son of Saul, writer-director László Nemes’ debut feature about Auschwitz-Birkenau in the waning months of World War II. In terms of vision, artistry, innovation, and intensity, there’s never been anything like it. It’s the polar opposite of so many previous, similarly-themed films. Of course there will always be more Holocaust movies, although few to none, I’ll hazard a guess, with the impact of Son of Saul. There is no catharsis or relief or uplift to be found, only a credible approximation of the relentless hell that was the Nazi death factory. And yet you cannot look away.

The plot is simple; in fact, everything basic to the narrative is contained in the lead character’s name: Saul Auslander. Auslander, from the German, means outsider, foreigner; this particular Auslander is a Hungarian deported to Poland to slave as a Sonderkommando, a Jewish concentration camp prisoner conscripted to assist the Nazis in exterminating other Jews. Saul is a Biblical name derived from the three-letter Hebrew root shin.aleph.lamed (sha’al), a verb that means to inquire or petition. One day while cleaning out the dead in a gas chamber, Saul discovers a boy he believes is his son; thereafter, he obsessively asks everyone who will listen: where within the camp might he find a rabbi to say Kaddish over the corpse and give it a proper burial?

The opening shot of the film begins out of focus. Gradually the figure of Saul emerges, and it is with him that the camera will stay for almost every shot of the movie; the entire film is foregrounded in Saul’s consciousness. Much of the film consists of long takes, and there are many close-ups of Saul, played by Géza Röhrig, who last acted over two decades ago in two productions in his native Hungary, and has in the years since worked as a poet and Jewish studies teacher in the Bronx. Some journalists have compared Röhrig to Mark Ruffalo and Jean-Paul Belmondo in terms of “type,” or looks. Viewers understandably make these associations, but part of the strength of Son of Saul relies on Röhrig being a fresh cinematic face; because he is a tabula rasa, nothing interferes with the audience’s connection with his character. We don’t look at him and think, oh, Geza Röhrig, famous actor—although his performance is so masterful and visceral, after this he may well be Geza Röhrig, movie star, should he wish to pursue that path.

Nemes, a Hungarian Jew who lost family in the Holocaust, grew up in Paris and is an alumnus of New York University’s film school, where he met his cinematographer, Matyas Erdely. However, Nemes has said he received a much better education during his apprenticeship to art-house auteur Bela Tarr, for whom he served as assistant director on The Man From London (2007). I caught up with Nemes and Rohrig during their recent trip to Los Angeles to promote Son of Saul, Hungary’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The Sony Pictures Classics title, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, opens commercially this weekend in platform release.

Writing about the TV mini-series “Holocaust” for the “New York Times” in 1978, Elie Wiesel used his review to express his dismay and concern over the danger of popular media treatments of the Shoah, which he believed would only lead to trivialization. Little could he know back then how many inaccurate, inept, and/or exploitative fictional treatments of the Holocaust would follow. I see Son of Saul as sort of a corrective to those many mediocre movies. Do you think that one of the reasons your film is so hard-hitting is that it is about the Sonderkommandos, a relatively unexplored chapter in fictional representations of the Shoah?

ROHRIG: The subject matter is not entirely new; think back to The Grey Zone [the 2001 drama by Tim Blake Nelson]. But we had to forge a new cinematic language—not dialogue, but the very grammar of film, and find a new angle. Most of the earlier Holocaust movies that people are referring to [when they’re comparing those films to Son of Saul] didn’t get the subject right, didn’t treat it right, or didn’t allow the horror to be felt. What Laszlo has shown is that the old ways of representation no longer work.

NEMES: Let me just add that I think the tendency in film for too many years has been to treat the Holocaust for its dramatic value. It became the standard to use it as background to raise the dramatic stakes in many different kinds of films [war stories, mysteries, romances]. I think we need to find the real meaning of the Holocaust, not to use it as an excuse for entertainment. [With our picture] we wanted to avoid the iconography, the dramatic and visual codes that have been used to reassure the viewer, rather than interrogate the viewer. We made this film because we wanted to go back to the engine, and re-tool it.

I saw your film at a large, packed house at the Chicago International Film Festival; there were maybe only two seats available in the front row, and no one in the audience spoke during the screening, or checked cell phones. They were thoroughly immersed in the film. What, if any, have been the differences between how American and European audience have responded to the film? And in Israel? I read that you had a festival screening in Israel.

NEMES: We had a very, very small screening in Israel, more like an industrial screening.

ROHRIG: Generally, I’ve found the older moviegoers are more linked to their own pasts, and younger viewers feel it differently. The responses have tended to vary more along generational lines. Because this film is coming from Hungary in a global age, the idea of audience reception being wildly different between European nations and America doesn’t fit my experience. But we don’t know yet about Germany and Israel.

NEMES: Actually, I went to the Hamburg Film Festival, and for the first time I saw it in a big venue that was only one third full of viewers. I’m a little worried about the Germans, I have to say, because for decades the Germans have established a practice of rewriting their history in cinematic terms, with movies like Das Boot and Downfall. They’ve come to the point of making films that almost glorify the Fuhrer. I’m pretty shocked by that development. Outside of the safe path that I’ve described [of festival screenings], there might not be much room in Germany today for this kind of film.

How was Geza cast? How did you two become acquainted?

ROHRIG: Some things are ordered from higher up. We were both studying at NYU, and were invited by a friend for a Sunday meal. We then began to meet to talk and walk around the city. Lazlo at the time was making his short films. He didn’t share with me what he was planning for a feature film. A couple of years later an email shows up in my inbox saying he had me in mind for this project, and he sent me the script [co-written by Nemes and French novelist Clara Royer]. Once I read it, I knew it was a very good script. For reference I had my own library on the subject, and had been very frustrated by previous depictions of the Holocaust. Because Laszlo carefully avoided the traps, his treatment was very effective and even radical. We started to talk and to rehearse. I was flown to Budapest, and put up in the production’s rented apartment, and they began to set challenges for me. Pretty much 9 to 5 we were trying to find that place I needed to get to in the movie, and I wasn’t trying to rush the process, or being overly nervous. After a month and a half, I had no reservations about taking the role.

How long was your shooting schedule?

NEMES: We had 28 consecutive days of shooting.

ROHRIG: Except for Shabbat, because I am a religious Jew.

That brings me to my next question. Obviously you know that Judaism doesn’t have the same focus on the afterlife as does Christianity; we Jews are supposed to be concentrating more on fulfilling certain obligations here on earth, rather than contemplating heaven and hell. However, a philosophically inclined Roman Catholic I once knew had, to my mind, a most sensible definition of hell, which he characterized as the absence of God. Am I off base here, but isn’t Saul’s quest on behalf of his dead son a form of tikkun olam, an attempt to coax God back into the world, and thereby help heal it?

ROHRIG: Many religions have meaningful approaches to spirituality. We all have our own upbringing, we all have our questions and desires, In this film, the very fact that Saul doesn’t know the Kaddish prayer, and that you don’t need a rabbi to say it for you, indicates that he has not had a religious upbringing. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a spiritual man. Saul, despite not having been trained as a practicing Jew, nonetheless behaves as he should. Without knowing it, he invents the mitzvah: it’s what you do, not what you say, not what you think, that counts. He was not looking for approval, or to medicate himself. I think by encountering this child, this miracle of surviving a gas chamber for nothing, he didn’t want this miracle to go to waste. At least for this boy, he‘s going to do the right thing. There are a few things halachically [by Jewish law] that you have to do, but for Saul, there was this personal mania underlying his actions. His determination was the one thing that allowed him to be in the image of God, even in this place. And for that reason, he was the only happy person in this movie.

Laszlo, your movie is so layered, given all the planes within your shots, with Saul in the foreground, and the background frequently out of focus. When the violence isn’t off-screen, it takes place in this fuzzy background where we can hardly comprehend it. Likewise, the sound comes at us in all directions, a cacophony of voices and languages that we can’t make sense of, so how could someone trying to survive in the middle of this chaos do any better? Can you elaborate on your strategy?

NEMES: For the camera, we knew that we wanted to accompany the main character very closely, because we knew we wanted a portrait of the man. His face reflects everything that goes on, he is the filter of everything. So we knew that we couldn’t represent the camp as something understandable; we had to create in the viewer’s imagination a reconstruction of experiences in the camp, where prisoners had only limited access to everything, from information to visuals. We had to convey in cinematic terms the individual’s sensations. We also wanted to immerse the viewer in this world, because we wanted to get visceral reactions. For that we had longer takes. And sound was designed to show there’s not much more [information] there than what you can see. The sound mixing was a long process, five months. We needed human voices, layered in different languages. The more we used, we found the more we needed. The fact that the viewer cannot identify the origins of sounds makes it restrictive, but it also reflects the experience of what went on. The sense of being lost is what we wanted to convey. That is what was missing before [in most earlier movies about the Holocaust]: one individual being lost.

 

The Gronvall Report: Kent Jones Talks HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

One of the outstanding entries in this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was Hitchcock/Truffaut, a documentary for movie fans of all stripes, from the veteran filmgoer to the cinema-curious newbie. A fascinating chronicle of the 1962 interview sessions between Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut (which were greatly facilitated by translator Helen G. Scott), the film not only revisits the resulting seminal book, Truffaut’s “Hitchcock;” it also reexamines the men’s careers, and their relationship with each other. More than a tale of mutual admiration between two world-class directors, it’s a cerebral yet playful mash note to the movies (not just theirs), and given added heft by rarely seen archival footage, as well as by the amicable on-camera participation of contemporary filmmakers Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Arnaud Desplechin, David Fincher, Kiyoshi Kurasawa, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese.

Hitchcock/Truffaut knows movies inside out. Co-writer Serge Toubiana, a former editor-in-chief of the French film magazine Cahiers du cinema, has been director of the Cinémathèque Française since 2003 (a post he’s soon departing). Director and co-writer Kent Jones, a prolific author and contributor to “Film Comment,” is one of America’s most respected film critics. Through his longtime association with Martin Scorsese, Jones segued into making films himself in 2007, writing and directing the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, which Scorsese narrated and produced. Jones followed that up by co-writing and co-directing with Scorsese the Peabody Award-winning A Letter to Elia (2010).

Jones currently serves as artistic director of the World Cinema Foundation, as well as as director of the New York Film Festival. On the heels of another successful season for NYFF, he jetted to Chicago’s festival to appear at screenings of Hitchcock/Truffaut, a Cohen Media Group release that begins its platform commercial run this week. I met him at the offices of Music Box Films, one of the many new businesses that have transformed the formerly industrial Morgan Street neighborhood into a part hipster/part grunge enclave that resembles areas of New York City. Jones looked very much in his element. Tall and energetic, once seated he was attentive and soft-spoken, focused yet relaxed, and even a little soulful as we talked about Hitchcock and Truffaut, film criticism, and the future of the movie industry.

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT filmmaker Kent Jones.  Courtesy of GODLIS.

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT filmmaker Kent Jones.      Courtesy of GODLIS.

Andrea Gronvall: For many moviegoers, this book, Truffaut’s “Hitchcock,” was one of their “ah-ha” moments, when they realized they were deeply in love with film. What were your ah-ha moments?

Kent Jones: I mentioned to a very close friend whom I had known since I was 14 that I had found all my old baseball cards when I was cleaning out the house where I grew up. He said, it’s interesting, because it leads to the whole way that you get engaged with movies. What he meant was that there are the faces of the baseball players on the cards, and then there are the faces of actors. There’s a different kind of relationship now with actors, I think, than there was then. And I’m talking about the faces of older actors, and in particular Bogart, who was very, very important to me when I was a kid.

Bogart was my dad’s generation. The way that he moved, the way that he expressed himself, and the way that he spoke, was in line with my dad, with my experience of him and his generation, the people around him, the people who came out of World War II. Although Bogart was older [than them]; he was in World War I. That’s how his lip was damaged, allegedly. But Bogart, Gable, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and so on, these were the faces I connected with in books about movies when I was a kid.

And of course the idea of the universe of movies was very different then; it was connected to an older time. Bogart was the link, because he was a countercultural favorite, beloved by younger people. His films played forever on college campuses in the early ‘70s.

AG: Is that where you saw most of these films?

KJ: I saw a lot of them on TV, but then in the early ‘70s I left the country for the first time with my parents, for England, and we saw Casablanca in a packed theatre in London and that was an ah-ha moment for sure, particularly the close-up of Bogart when he sees Ingrid Bergman again for the first time. It’s an absolutely remarkable scene. I got into movies that way, but then when Richard Schickel’s documentary series “The Men Who Made the Movies” was aired, that was certainly an “ah-ha” moment in the sense that I understood that, oh, there’s such a thing as a director. And Hitchcock was one of those people, [as well as] Hawks, Minnelli, Wellman, Capra. Pointedly not John Ford, who Dick Schickel never liked.

AG: I’m not that crazy about Ford, either, but that’s neither here nor there.

KJ: I think I saw that series before I saw a film by Hitchcock. I saw Dial M for Murder in the basement of my headmaster’s house with the school crew that won whatever that semester. We saw it in 2-D, obviously, and on a 16mm print. But there was also a little place where I grew up in the Berkshires, a very interesting place. During the summer it showed movies, and I went there with some friends of mine, and with my mom, this was when I was like 12 or 13, and saw Psycho and The 39 Steps, and that was absolutely a revelatory experience. And the book, I think I got like when I was 12 or 13, like Fincher did.

Fincher’s experience of the book is very close to my own; we’re roughly the same age. The idea of poring over the book, this is something that he talks about in Hitchcock/Truffaut, that’s something that I absolutely did when I was young, especially those photo layouts. Of course, in a funny way those montages are inaccurate because Truffaut didn’t have anything to check them with, other than the notes he took in screening rooms. But it doesn’t matter. The point is that he’s giving you a sense of what cutting is, what the layout of the scene is. That was an eye-opener.

AG: For me, your film is this totally immersive experience, and expands the experience of reading the book. Recently, after a local colleague and I had just seen your film, he wanted to know what I thought of it, and I said I loved it. He said that he felt that you relied on a bunch of talking heads, which we see a lot in documentaries. And I said, but that’s absolutely pivotal to what you’re doing, because you’re mirroring Truffaut’s experience of speaking to Hitchcock, in that you’re a film critic turned filmmaker, talking to these other directors. Were you aware of this parallel while you were filming?

KJ: No, I would put it differently. Yes, the movie is made up of a lot of different elements that are very, very common in documentaries.

AG: Well, there aren’t too many other ways to do documentaries.

KJ: Yeah, that’s true, but of course, it’s what you do with them that ultimately counts. I mean, there are talking heads, and there are talking heads. If I made a movie where I had a bunch of people sitting around talking to the camera and saying, Alfred Hitchcock was great and here’s why, that would have been talking heads, in the sense that your colleague was describing.

AG: Like almost anything on American Masters.

KF: Exactly. But I didn’t want to do that. And the thing is that somehow, what you have to create is some kind of space. Like, Noah Baumbach. I asked Brian De Palma to be in this film, obviously, and he declined for a very good reason, because Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow were making this movie about him. Brian said, I have to save my thoughts about Hitchcock for Noah and Jake’s movie. And their movie De Palma is great. The thing about it is that it’s only Brian; he’s the only person [interviewed] in the movie. Along with the clips and photographs, somehow a space is created, So, that’s what I wanted to do, was to create a space between the filmmakers, a kind of a common space where people are extending the conversation. It’s sort of what you were talking about, [but] I’m looking at it from the different end of the telescope, so what you’re describing is maybe like the meta factor.

AG: Although they don’t interact with each other, the directors you interview come across as fraternal, and willing to suspend their own egos. They are totally into talking about Hitchcock. I would love to see that kind of enthusiasm catch on with the public. As your film shows, Hitchcock agreed to do the book because he was promoting a new appreciation and critical reassessment of his reputation. Hitchcock/Truffaut comes at a key time because so many younger viewers have never seen anything by Hitchcock, even though today there are so many ways to see films, largely thanks to digital. Yet, as my longtime colleague Dave Kehr says, in some ways older films are more in danger than ever. Do you think we are at, I don’t want to say a crisis, but some kind of tipping point in terms of film criticism, where, because there’s such a glut of stuff out there, and because of the triumph of studio marketing, people are in danger of overlooking the movies they shouldn’t miss?

KJ: That’s a very complicated question, and a good one. I started working in Marty’s office in ’91, when things were just constantly happening; everybody was participating. We all had a love of cinema. The Film Foundation was becoming successful; it had already achieved its first goal, which was to establish some kind of a bridge between the archives and the studios. There was a consciousness of film preservation in the ‘90s. American Movie Classics was still an actual channel that people wanted to watch in those days for movies, as opposed to Mad Men, and didn’t have commercials, and was kind of like what Turner Classic Movies is now. It had all those RKO movies, for example. And I felt like, well, the lines are long at Film Forum, Bruce [Goldstein] is doing great business, etc. I did my first program with Bruce with films of the ‘70s; it went really well.

So, I thought, yeah, mission accomplished, but of course that’s always an illusion. Because I started to understand, hey, wait a minute! You have to maintain it, it’s a practice, you have to constantly be reminding, guarding, protecting. By the same token, everyone kept talking about the digital revolution: it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. When it came, it came at such a rate of speed that people didn’t even recognize it. A couple of years ago, Amy Taubin and I were at a side-by-side DCP comparison [with the original film] of Dr. Strangelove that Grover Crisp did, and Amy said, oh my God, we have to do something about this. But, too late; I mean, this [restoration] was done.

So, then you realize the problem becomes, who’s going to guard these movies? Well, the studios aren’t going to do it, as they’ve proven. Now, Jim Gianopulos [Chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment] loves movies, he really loves movies. He came to the New York Film Festival for [the restoration of Ernst Lubitsch’s] Heaven Can Wait, threw a dinner for Marty, and he and Marty and I did a conversation. But that’s not the case with other studios. You wonder, what’s going to happen to all that stuff, as the value decreases, as the generations of younger people make less and less of a connection? The people of my generation, who have fathers who were in World War—that’s a big part of what we call cinephilia that’s gone.

I remember I gave a talk at a class that a friend of mine teaches, and I asked the kids if they’d ever seen a silent film, and one kid said, yeah, I saw one once on YouTube. And what he meant was, he saw 20 minutes on YouTube.

AG: That’s right.

KJ: That was The Big Parade. And he said, that was interesting, yeah, it was black-and-white, And I think that’s the way things are going, is that film is becoming more and more of a specialized discipline. The idea of movies as one big, popular medium is waning. You know?

AG: Yes!

KJ: And Marty would say the same thing, like, I’m a dinosaur; people don’t make movies the way that I do anymore. You know, there’s Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, there’s Fincher, there’s a couple of other people of that generation, there’s Tarantino. Then when you get to a younger generation, you’re talking about a different kind of relationship with the film image. Film as we know it, cinema as we know it, is really going to become just an art form, as opposed to a really popular thing that’s got all kinds of stuff that’s floating around in it. That’s okay; it’s just the way things are. It’s sad for people our age who grew up when we did, but that’s just the way it is. But going to the multiplex now, most of what’s showing, I don’t really care about. I don’t care about Mad Max: Fury Road, to tell you the truth; I wanted to like it more.

AG: I haven’t seen it yet.

KJ: That’s at the high end, made at least by a guy who’s a real artist of some stature. But for all those reasons, yes, things are endangered. Dave’s always made that point, and he’s correct about that. People assume everything’s available; in fact, it’s not the case. And then, when I see things that are available, but they’re all in the same format, unless they’re Scope, and when I watch, not the 1.33:1 movies, but the 1.50:1, the 1.75:1, they all come out at 1.78:1, the size of that screen. When I walk into a bar and see an old movie made before 1950 and it’s stretched, and nobody knows how to change it, I wonder what’s going to happen to the memory of the film. So it has to become like a discipline that has to be preserved, in the same way poets preserve poetry. You know, poets aren’t in it for the money.

AG: My neighbor, who’s a poet, would certainly agree.

KJ: [American poet] Robert Creeley was not somebody who was in it because he wanted to make a killing on the market, or win awards. It’s something different, so I think that’s what cinema is going to become. I think what’ll be lost is the kind of grandeur that’s available to you when you can spend a lot of money on building sets, the production design, the visuals. But, you know, it will become more artisanal, more a specialized thing. But preserving the past? That’s a tougher one. I just really don’t know, because that’s a space matter. What are they going to do?

AG: Now that you are well along the way in your transition from film critic to filmmaker, do you feel you can perhaps appreciate the filmmakers that you like even more?

KJ: I think that in general in film criticism, there’s a big gap—and there always has been—between the way the filmmakers see cinema, and the way that critics see it. But I think that the more that I learn about making movies from the filmmakers I know, and from making the kinds of movies that I do, I’m trying to bridge that gap. And so, yes, it definitely gives me a heightened appreciation of what filmmakers do.

The Gronvall Report: Jay Roach On TRUMBO

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Quiz any ardent film fan and you’ll likely find among her or his favorites one or two movies about Hollywood, anything from noir classics like Sunset Boulevard and The Bad and the Beautiful, to the mystery-satire The Player and the exuberant Singin’ in the Rain, to comedies as various as Bowfinger, Matinee, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. To add to that eclectic mix now comes the biopic-dramedy Trumbo, from indie distributor Bleecker Street. Nimbly directed by Jay Roach, it’s a highly engaging movie about a tough (and touchy) subject, the Hollywood blacklist that began in 1947, and didn’t end until the 1960s.

Smoking hot following his Tony Award for “All the Way” and his multiple Emmy-winning run on “Breaking Bad,” Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo, the phenomenally prolific author, raconteur and bon vivant who in his postwar heyday was one of the highest paid screenwriters in the nation. As comfortably as he lived, though, he firmly believed that less fortunate working stiffs were entitled to just wages and other protections that labor unions provide, and he was active in leftist politics. How during the Cold War he ran afoul of the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) witch-hunt—he refused to name names of suspected members of the American Communist Party—is only the first part of this fascinating tale. The movie then switches gears to become the story of an intrepid underdog, as Trumbo, banned from working at any major studio, figures out how to fight back, and in the bargain rescues some of his pilloried fellow screenwriters.

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Cranston beguiles as the hard-driving, big-hearted Trumbo, who nonetheless was at times irascible and egocentric. As Edward G. Robinson, Michael Stuhlbarg sheds light on the tortured emotions behind a left-leaning sympathizer’s transition into one of HUAC’s friendly witnesses. Helen Mirren plays the venomous right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper with such cool, calculating malice that you wonder why the actress has never been cast as a Bond villain. John Goodman steals scenes as Frank King, the plain-speaking, bat-wielding B-movie producer whose only hard line was his bottom line. But perhaps most persuasive is comedian Louis C.K., showing considerable dramatic skill as Trumbo’s frenemy Arlen Hird (a composite character based on the blacklisted screenwriters Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, and Samuel Ortiz, who with Trumbo and others became known as the Hollywood Ten).

Trumbo screenwriter and producer John McNamara first learned about the blacklist as a student at NYU, where one of his professors was Hollywood Ten survivor Ian McClellan Hunter (played by Alan Tudyk in the film). McNamara has delivered a script that avoids the traps of many a period piece; it bristles with a vitality that makes Trumbo an eye-opening lesson for those too young to have heard of the blacklist, and, for those who know the history, serves as a bracing reminder about our First Amendment rights. As director, there could not have been a more solid choice than Jay Roach. A master of comedy (the Austin Powers trilogy, Meet the Parents, and Meet the Fockers), he showed he’s also sharp about politics when he directed the HBO dramatic movies Recount and Game Change, winning Emmys for each. His latest project for HBO is the film version of “All the Way,” with Cranston reprising his Broadway role as Lyndon Baines Johnson. During his recent swing through Chicago, I found Roach to be open, astute and genial, not to mention funny (but hey, no surprise there).

Andrea Gronvall: With Trumbo you walk a fine line between depicting the tragedies of the blacklist, when careers were ruined.

Jay Roach: And lives.

AG: Yes, most definitely lives. But then the story shifts gears, and in the second part of the film we find ourselves rallying with Trumbo as he matches wits with adversaries and works like a madman to hang on to everything he holds dear. This is a tricky tonal trajectory to pull off. Did you plan it this way in development?

JR: From the beginning I always knew it would be about how Trumbo finds his way. He goes from being at the top, to suddenly being faced with all this persecution and loss, but he says, “I’m going take it on.” And he does.

AG: How do you run your set? You have such a diverse cast, from Cranston, who is so ebullient and versatile, to Stuhlbarg, who is an actor’s actor, to Louis C.K., who most people know only as a comedian. What was your approach with your actors? How many takes do you do?

JR: Those are good questions. Partly because I grew up directing comedy, I do embrace the chaos. We had a very good screenplay, but when you have an actor like Louis C.K., who has tremendous improvisational skills, you don’t say, “Just stick with the script.” Some of my favorite moments with him were his adlibs, where he would inject his character with such attitude, like when Arlen challenges Trumbo with the line, “Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiseled into a rock?” And then Stuhlbarg, who has such an impressive resume, does a lot of research into his character. He would come to us with notes as to what he found, along with his thoughts and observations, and we incorporated some of those into the script. But when it came time to shooting, he pretty much stuck with the lines as [finally] written. And Cranston! Every take is great with Cranston. I’d shoot even rehearsals with him, because every single take he did yielded something we knew we could use. Some of the other actors have different styles, of course. I found it useful to let them warm into their roles. I could give them more takes to come up with something, because I knew in the end they would deliver. And then there’s Helen Mirren, who is so smart, so hot, so sexy.

AG: Yes, she is, but she takes umbrage a little at being so often described as “sexy.”

JR: I understand that, certainly. [smiling] Actors are more than just their faces and bodies. Doing multiple takes with her showed how she would arrive at something, in that there were subtle differences with each take. It’s not until you get into the cutting room that you find out how subtle she is. And she’s great at wearing hats, too! First as Elizabeth I, then Elizabeth II, and now as Hedda Hopper!

AG: I assume you are a member of the Directors Guild of America, but are you a member of any other craft guild or union?

JR: Yes, I am a member of the DGA, but I’m not sure how current my membership is in the WGA [Writers Guild of America], which is how I started out.

AG: I ask, not to put you on the spot, but because I found it really interesting that when HUAC was interrogating all those Hollywood producers, directors, actors, and so on, the sessions would begin with the infamous question—

JR: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” But when they were interrogating industry members who belonged to a union, they would also ask if those witnesses belonged to a union.

AG: Yes, as if to equate Communism with membership in a union.

JR: Of course, Trumbo was openly a Communist, let’s be clear on that. But many American Communists in Hollywood at that time were not very hardcore [compared to Communists in the U.S.S.R.]. Early on, most were motivated by idealism. They lived through the Great Depression, they saw all this horrible suffering and need, and they wanted to do something about it. Their support of unions [and other causes, like civil rights] was part of their humanist outlook. To understand how deeply Trumbo believed in American laborers’ rights to belong to a union, look at the transcripts of his HUAC testimony, where he stood his ground, maintaining that it was the right of any union member not to have to reveal his membership, in part to protect him [or her] from the inevitable harassment that would follow. What’s very interesting is the fight that was going on in the background between two different writers’ organizations [reporter’s note: described at greater length in Bruce Cook’s biography “Trumbo,” upon which John McNamara based his screenplay]. There was this competition [in the 1930s] between the Screen Playwrights, a group that was endorsed by the studios [as their collective bargaining agent], and the Screen Writers Guild, in which Trumbo would become very active. Eventually, the Screen Writers Guild prevailed. So, when it came time for Dalton and others to appear before HUAC, resentful members of the Screen Playwrights [reporter’s note: who, Cook says, had earlier banded with other industry factions to form the red-baiting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals] grabbed the chance to brand numerous Screen Writers Guild members as Communist. And because the Communist Party was willing to take on the accused writers’ cause, that further fueled certain perceptions.

Like in that scene with Roy Brewer [played by Dan Bakkedahl], who did head I.A.T.S.E., one of the largest entertainment industry unions, but who also spearheaded a lot of anti-Communist agitation. He goes to threaten Frank King, telling him not to hire blacklisted writers, or else Brewer will bring the press down on him and ruin him. And King takes out his bat and says go ahead, my customers don’t read!

AG: So, were you attracted to this project because of its messages about unions, or about First Amendment rights?

JR: Dalton Trumbo was a guy who was a storyteller committed to language. He came from a kind of old school of writing, one where people who were so verbal, had such big personalities, and so many ideas, translated it all into performance. I was attracted to Trumbo as the story of a man who used the power of storytelling to take on this giant apparatus that was trying to deprive people of their basic human rights. For me, this at its heart is a David and Goliath story.

AG: With laughs!

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The Gronvall Report: Kim Novak on Being Kim Novak

Monday, September 14th, 2015

Hollywood in the 1950s was both the right and wrong place and time for being Kim Novak. It was the right spot and moment for ingénue model Marilyn Pauline Novak to be groomed, promoted, and zealously protected by Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn as his answer to 20th Century-Fox’s Marilyn Monroe. But by the time he died in 1958, the first tremors of America’s postwar youthquake rocked  Hollywood, and the high-gloss, sophisticated adult pictures that Novak made under his aegis were fading away. Although in real life she was more comfortable in California’s counterculture, her professional roots were in the studio system, and her transition in the 1960s to a changing industry landscape was not smooth.

Novak has retreated from the business a couple of times, but it does look as though at 82 she has finally given up acting. Still, she enjoys public appearances and the interviews entailed. The memories of drubbings some critics gave her continue to sting, but it’s a mystery (to me, at any rate) why she was so savaged. Go back and look at the body of her work at Columbia from 1954 to 1962: at least half-a-dozen of her pictures are standouts. Hers is a memorable presence, beginning with Pushover [1954], the first of four pictures she would do with director Richard Quine. In that tense and compact noir, she she’s a soft-on-the-outside, steely-on-the-inside femme fatale who double-crosses her gangster lover with an undercover Los Angeles detective (Fred MacMurray). Joshua Logan’s Picnic [1955], based on William Inge’s play, was her breakout film; it showcased her in a completely different role, as a sweet, genuine teen swept off her feet by a restless ladies’ man (William Holden) who passes through her small Kansas town.

Also for Columbia, she held her own opposite Frank Sinatra in Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm [1955], based on Nelson Algren’s gritty novel about drug addiction, and co-starred with Frederic March in Delbert Mann’s prestigious Middle of the Night [1959], which was in competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. And in Quine’s Strangers When We Meet [1960}, cool reserve masks the unhappiness of her neglected suburban housewife and ambivalence over her affair with a neighboring architect (Kirk Douglas).

For my money, her most enduring picture at Columbia is Quine’s Bell, Book and Candle [1958], about witches passing as Greenwich Village beatniks and bohemians. James Stewart got top billing, but it’s Novak’s film; she’s at her most sultry and subtly comic, shining amid a terrific ensemble that includes Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, Hermione Gingold and Ernie Kovacs. But she will always be best known for the first film she made with Stewart, when Cohn loaned her to Paramount to play a murdered socialite and the woman who impersonates her in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo [1958]. Although it didn’t do great box office during its original release, the film steadily gained acclaim over subsequent decades, eventually in 2012 toppling (after 50 years) Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane to lead the annual “Sight & Sound” poll as the best film ever made.

Born in Chicago of Czech descent, Novak has, over the years, made trips back to the Midwest to visit family. On her most recent return she was the featured guest of Chicago Prague Days, where she met her fans at a screening of Vertigo. She graciously sat down with me to recall her time in Hollywood.

 

Andrea Gronvall: When you were making Vertigo, did you or anybody else involved have any hint that it would be one of the greatest movies of all time?

Kim Novak: No, not a clue. When Harry Cohn loaned me out from Columbia Pictures, he said, “You know, I think it’s a lousy script, but Alfred Hitchcock’s doing it, and I think he’s a good director. So, go ahead.” I liked it, because it was exciting to play a dual role. And I loved getting away from Columbia Pictures, because working for Harry Cohn was not easy. I loved the idea of working with Jimmy Stewart, who I hadn’t worked with before. He turned out to be the best, nicest person I’ve ever worked with. He was so kind and endearing. I always think of him like wearing a pair of morning slippers that you’d had all your life, with that comfortable feeling that made you feel like you wanted to come to work every day, wanted to be with him. The thing that was hard for me to get: he lived in Hollywood all that time. How could he have been such a gentle person, and have lived in Hollywood all his life?

AG: When you first arrived in Hollywood, what was the biggest shock to your system?

KN: The whole thing was just overwhelming to me. It was so foreign. What got to me was that they immediately wanted to change you. They sat me down in the makeup chair, and said, “Okay, here’s what we want to do. Let’s give you a Joan Crawford mouth.” Dark red lips were in fashion, not pale lips. Then they looked at the charts, and picked out the eyebrows of someone else, and so on, to make me over.

AG: Like a composite figure.

KN: Yes, a composite of everything popular then. By the time I was ready for the screen test, I’d lost any resemblance to me; I couldn’t identify with anything. And so, before the cameras started rolling, I ran into the ladies’ room, and smeared off all that I could, to soften as much as I could. Once the cameras rolled, they couldn’t change it, and I think that’s what saved me, what allowed me to keep my own identity. And I insisted on keeping my last name, even though they didn’t want a Middle European name. I think that fighting for those little things helped in the long run. [laughing] Bohemians are known to be stubborn.

AG: In the movie business, you often do have to fight to survive.

KN: But I’m not the fighting type, so I did it sneaky-like.

AG: Well, when you’re an actor, on the screen or on the stage, your job is to embody a character. However, for screen actors who want to be more than character actors, another level to master is molding a film persona. They have to protect those facets unique to them, things that will help distinguish their movie careers.

KN: That’s what we’re talking about, yes: a persona.

AG: And not just actors; for instance, whatever he was like in real life, Hitchcock cultivated an on-camera persona which made his brand instantly recognizable. Somewhere I read that Hitchcock gave you credit for ideas you brought to the film. Is that true?

 

KN: No. Alfred Hitchcock was a brilliant director who knew exactly what he wanted, and did exactly as he wanted. But Otto Preminger did [give me credit], and so did Billy Wilder, and Dick Quine.

AG: Richard Quine was underrated.

KN: He was totally underrated, exactly. And different people I worked with on Middle of the Night, like Paddy Chayefsky, were also open. He was a brilliant writer, but he worked closely with the directors, as a director, even though he was the writer. And he worked with the actors; you could talk with him, and contribute. Paddy Chayefsky was great. I think of his as a director, even though Delbert Mann was the director [on that picture].

AG: You keep up with new movies, right?

KN: Yes, I vote every year. They send me all those videos [Academy screeners].

AG: Surely it hasn’t escaped your attention that there are fewer roles for women now than there used to be, especially for women of a certain age?

KN: I don’t know that there were ever that many roles for women. It’s always easier for a younger woman to get a role. And it’s always easier for a man to get a role.

AG: But more and more A-list actresses are producing their own films in order to ensure a supply of good roles. If you’d committed to that route back in the day, how might your career have looked?

KN: Here’s the thing: Harry Cohn was a difficult man, but he knew the motion picture industry, and knew a good film from a bad film, and what script was good for whom. He was the only one who knew how to run that studio. When he died, there was nobody who knew how to take authority. The studio went to hell because nobody knew how to do anything, other than pick stupid beach party movies. Once he left, I had to leave, too, because they didn’t know what to do with me.

 

AG: So let’s talk about another film that you made [post-Columbia],

Kiss Me, Stupid [1964}. The restored version has been released on DVD by Olive Films, a young company that, coincidentally, is based right here in your hometown. It’s a great restoration, and you look great in it, so it’s hard to understand the controversy surrounding its theatrical release. Could you walk me through that?

 

KN: The Legion of Decency stopped that movie from being released in so many places. I mean it’s unbelievable how they could have considered it scandalous, and I think part of that was about who played the male lead. Ray Walston wound up taking over the role after Peter Sellers suffered heart attacks. And I think if Sellers had been able to complete the movie, they wouldn’t have considered it such a dirty joke. But they felt that Walston seemed too wholesome of a man to have played the part [of a scheming, adulterous song writer]. I really don’t understand why.

 

AG: That movie was ahead of its time, in a meta sort of way, because here was Dean Martin lampooning himself, by playing a version of his nightclub act persona. And Billy Wilder was very caustic in his view of show business.

 

KN: That film really hurt Billy Wilder’s feelings. He got really burned out after that.

 

AG: After what? The battle with the Legion of Decency?

 

KN: Oh, yes, because he had felt wonderful about the film. He was so excited, he already had the script ready for the sequel. He couldn’t believe they were so rejecting of that movie. It really cut him to the quick. But by that time I was burned out, too.

 

I already had left the industry by then, really. I came back to do the film because it was with Billy Wilder. I hadn’t yet read the script. But then I read the script and said, “Oh my God, I am so doomed,” because already critics thought I was a bad actress, and stupid. I said even if I play it right, as a dumb blonde, it’s still a no-win situation for me. And that’s exactly what it was: a no-win situation. No shock for me, but it was for Billy Wilder. For me, it was an “I told you so.”

 

AG: But shortly after that you were back with another film, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders [U.K., 1965, directed by Terence Young]. Do you remember that movie with more fondness? Because it’s so much fun to watch.

 

KN: Well, [laughing] I had fun on it. I met Richard Johnson. What can I say? I was a Big Sur hippie at the time, and couldn’t keep living in London, so we stayed married for less than a year. But we remained good friends. You know, he passed away very recently. We spent half an hour on the phone together just a few days before he passed. We stayed close all the way to the end.

 

AG: Looking back now at your career, what was it like be Kim Novak?

 

KN: What was it like? Lonely. Lonely, because I felt isolated from everybody else, because I wasn’t like anyone else in Hollywood. So nobody else really hung out with me, because I was different. I was independent. I felt like a misfit, but at the same time I felt that I had to stand up for what I believed in.

 

AG: That may have been a sad experience, but it was part of what made you a singular actress.

 

KN: A singular actress, but I was not considered a good actress, because I didn’t play by the rules. But to me, being a good actress is being honest.

 

AG: But maybe that’s why a number of your films still stand up: because you were honest, because there was a naturalism there that feels contemporary when we watch these movies today. Take Vertigo: San Francisco doesn’t look like that anymore, and the clothes and cars are of the period, but in his day there wasn’t a more naturalistic actor than Jimmy Stewart.

 

KN: That’s it! That’s right! Jimmy Stewart was the same way. I always say, “I’m not an actor, I’m a reactor.” And Jimmy Stewart was the same. That’s why we were such a good pair, because we reacted off of each other. Kirk Douglas [while making Strangers When We Meet] used to say, “Kimela, let me help you, because your rhythm isn’t always good. I’ll set your pace for you. Look into my eyes and follow my rhythm.” [She mimics Douglas’s darting eyes.] And I didn’t want to look at him while he was standing off-camera, because I didn’t want him giving me rhythm lessons. I’d rather look at the wall offstage than at someone who was being theatrical.

 

THE GRONVALL REPORT: Aviva Kempner Talks ROSENWALD

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Rosenwald

 

 

Before screening Rosenwald, the new documentary by Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg), I had never heard of Julius Rosenwald. Sure, I was familiar with the retail giant he helped build—Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck & Company—mostly because it offered household appliances and auto tires at the best price, in the days before big-box discounters. But as for the front-office titan who died in 1932, how many today know that he was equally (if not more) important as an early trailblazer in the American civil rights movement? More folks below the Mason-Dixon line than above, I’m guessing.

Rosenwald’s life story is the embodiment of the American dream. The son of a German-Jewish immigrant peddler, Julius was born in 1862 in Springfield, Illinois, and grew up across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s residence. In New York he learned the clothing trade, then moved to Chicago to open his own business. Not long afterwards he joined Sears, rising rapidly as he grew its core mail-order business. By 1925 he had ushered the firm into the retail department store marketplace. Along the way he and the company, which he helped take public, became very wealthy.

But Rosenwald had a vision not only for business, but for the wider world as well. Inspired by his progressive Reform rabbi, the influential Emil G. Hirsch, Julius developed a passion for social justice, especially on behalf of blacks persecuted in the Jim Crow South and marginalized in the segregated Northern cities to which they fled. His first major philanthropic efforts raised money to build YMCAs and YWCAs across the country for job-seeking African-American migrants. After meeting Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald undertook a long campaign to build over 5,300 schools in the South for black children shut out of white schools. The Julius Rosenwald Fund also gave rise to a fellowship fund that financially supported many struggling black artists, including Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jacob Lawrence.

I caught up with Washington, D.C.-based director Kempner during her recent trip to Los Angeles, where Rosenwald was previewed both at the Museum of Tolerance and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in advance of its Los Angeles opening this weekend.

Andrea Gronvall: What is your working method? Do you do purely research first, or do you add to your researches as time goes on? How do you target your interview subjects, and how much travel does it take to recruit all these talking heads? There are over 60 in your film.

Aviva Kempner: I’m very lucky; in all my films there were several books already written, so that helps a lot. Here there were books by [Julius’ grandson and biographer] Peter Ascoli, Stephanie Deutsch, and Julian Bond, consultants who agreed to be in the film. [Washington Post columnist and Rosenwald school alumnus] Eugene Robinson is a friend from D.C. Through another friend I got to Maya Angelou, and on a hunch I contacted the office of Representative John Lewis. If I had all the production money up front, I would have done this continuously. But I’d get funding, then I’d film, then I’d run out of funding and would have to stop. Then I’d get more funding and resume. I’m also lucky that a lot of people who had stories vital to the film live in Washington. Research takes months and months.

When you work 12 years on a film, you want to do everything you can. I couldn’t envision that this film would come out during the summer of all these violent racist attacks across the country.

AG: How you’ve structured the film is interesting, stylistically. The first part, which is primarily about Julius’s early years and rise in business, feels like a time capsule. Since of course there could be no motion picture footage of him when he was younger, you rely on archival print sources, artwork, and some judiciously chosen clips from twentieth century movies and TV shows to paint a picture of his life from around the turn of that century. I recognized The Music Man, The Frisco Kid, Young Mr. Lincoln, and TV’s “Rawhide,” but what other clips did you use?

AK: The feature footage is what costs a lot, but HBO and CBS were wonderful, and didn’t charge me much for clips like “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” With “Rawhide,” Clint Eastwood has been particularly supportive. One young person who saw the documentary looked at the scene where Gene Wilder’s character gets married in The Frisco Kid and congratulated me on getting my hands on such rare footage. So I guess the fictional feature clips did their job of standing in for actuality footage that never existed! I also found some footage from the National Archives and the Library of Congress; you don’t have to pay rights for footage that’s in the public domain, just [the cost of] transfers.

I’m also pleased with the original animation in the film. My editor, Marian Sears Hunter, has great ideas, and I enjoyed brainstorming with her and our animator, Carol Hilliard. For me, the real point in those early sequences is where we learn how Rabbi Hirsch stressed the importance of healing the world [the Jewish concept of tikkun olam]. We all can’t have the riches of Julius Rosenwald, but we can all do our part to make the world a better place.

AG: So, that first part of the film is akin to Rosenwald’s planting the seeds for what would be an achievement arguably even greater than the soaring fortunes of Sears: Julius’s charitable foundation. Once we get to the story of all those who benefited from the educational, career, and housing opportunities his foundation provided, it’s as though the film blooms, there is such a profusion of colorful life stories.

AK: Thank you. I see the movie in three parts: (1) his early years, business, and what made the man; (2) his partnership with Booker T. Washington and the schools; and (3) the Rosenwald Fund Fellowship Program. What the fellowship fund was really about was how it’s important to support artists of all kinds and stripes [Woody Guthrie was also a fund recipient]. Right now at the Museum of Modern Art there’s an exhibition of works by Jacob Lawrence. His is a great legacy, as is Marion Anderson’s. Yet I have young people here working on the film who didn’t even know who Marion Anderson was.

AG: The mission of your foundation, the Ciesla Foundation, is to produce films about Jewish figures whose fame has perhaps been eclipsed by time.

AK: In Polish “ciesla” means “roof carpenter,” so in a sense it’s symbolic of how I’m trying to build a structure of a film, a story, and to educate people on the topic. I’ve made movies about “under known” Jewish heroes, those who fought against fascism, anti-Semitism, sexism, McCarthyism, and racism.

AG: Your films have played well with Jewish audiences; how will you be getting the word about Rosenwald out to black viewers?

AK: It’s all our common history. I had the honor of presenting the film at a recent NAACP convention, where Julian Bond and Rabbi David Saperstein spoke. I have interns working outreach to churches, colleges, and community institutions. In every city we’re trying to get a coalition of speakers that are representative of the film to speak to audiences. I think of it like a political campaign.

[The great American statesman and civil rights leader Julian Bond passed away on August 15. A former student activist who would later serve in Georgia’s House of Representatives and the Georgia Senate, he was also the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and chairman emeritus of the NAACP. It was Bond who was Kempner’s inspiration for her film, after she heard him speak at Martha’s Vineyard 12 years ago about the impact Julius Rosenwald had on Bond’s own family. May his memory be a blessing.]

 

 

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The Gronvall Report: Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville on BEST OF ENEMIES

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

5

In this country we have Poet Laureates, but not Pundit Laureates. (At least not yet.) Even if we did, the honor would have originated and ended with William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal, two of the most outspoken of American intellectuals, who rose to prominence in the mid-twentieth century, and were almost unique then in their mastery of both the print and television media. The new documentary Best of Enemies (Magnolia Pictures) charts their explosive intersection when they were contracted by ABC News to provide commentary on the live TV broadcasts of the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami and Democratic Convention in Chicago. Their appearances were a calculated gamble by the network, then dead third in the ratings. (As “New York Magazine” writer Frank Rich, one of the film’s many witty talking heads, quips, “Somebody famously said the way to end the Vietnam War was to put it on ABC, and it’d be cancelled in 13 weeks.”)

Buckley was a vigorously conservative Republican, Gore a visionary liberal Democrat; both had run, unsuccessfully, for public office earlier in their careers. With the live televised debates they ascended a huge national platform from which to air their opposing views, and their rapid-fire, barbed remarks were both hilarious and chilling in their personal malice. They proved ratings gold for ABC; as the film makes clear, none of the Big Three networks ever went back to mere gavel-to-gavel coverage again.

Best of Enemies marks the fifth collaboration between filmmakers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (the latter won an Oscar for Twenty Feet from Stardom). This latest project began when Gordon viewed a bootlegged DVD of the 1968 debate footage and passed it on to Neville. Their film not only sheds light on our political past and the history of television, but also makes challenging connections between the debates and how they contributed to the fragmented, often polarizing news landscape we’re in today. I talked with the directors via phone during the end of their recent publicity tour in New York.

Andrea Gronvall: One of the most impressive things about Buckley and Vidal was their conviction: there appeared to be no switching the message to pander to viewers, no walking it back. Agree? Disagree?

Robert Gordon: Agree, yes! There’s two and a half hours of raw debate footage and I’ve come to know it intimately. When I first watched that DVD I was amazed at how contemporary they were, how prescient they were. It was in a way like the Big Bang of the culture wars.

Morgan Neville: 100 % agree. What’s so interesting is that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to have people like this on TV, what it’s like to hear people who sound like this. They were completely unpredictable, and that unpredictability is compulsively watchable. They’re not debating the issues of the Republican and Democratic conventions so much as they’re debating the condition of the republic. They were each convinced that if the other side won, it would be the downfall of the nation. There was no play-acting. Whereas today you get the feeling most of the TV pundits can go out for a drink together after the show.

AG: Yes, today it does seem like a little club, where ratings trump all. But is there anyone on the horizon who might cut a swath in the new-ideas mold of Buckley and Vidal?

RG: I would be anxious to hear your suggestions because I have none. We’re in an anti-intellectual age. With the death of Christopher Hitchens, it’s hard to come up with someone. Maybe Andrew Sullivan.

MN: I think there isn’t. And I think they [Buckley, Vidal, and ABC] knew it at the time. This was a moment of the decorum breaking down.

AG: Don’t you think that being in Chicago, amidst all the chaos and demonstrations in the streets and Grant Park, added a whole set of stressors to their TV appearances?

MN: It’s not a coincidence that their blowup in the studio came the night of the events in Grant Park. They had witnessed the violence, watched the news tapes. They were the patrician white stand-ins for the two sides warring in Grant Park. And I honestly think that some of their new ideas were actually the old ideas, and the thing that really interested them is history. They were both students of American history, and what they saw happening in our country they viewed as an assault on the republic. They were also both well versed in ancient Roman and Greek history. I think that Buckley was bowing to the god of Rome, and Vidal was bowing to the god of Greece.

RG:  Neither would kowtow to his own political party. Bill would reshape his party; that was his goal. Vidal was running around the Democratic Convention trying to form a fourth party.

MN: Vidal and Buckley were concerned about sticking to talking points. They weren’t worried about the rolodex; they didn’t see the debates as essential to their careers, because each had other careers. The $70,000 each was paid, although it was certainly nice, wasn’t as attractive as the huge national audience they could reach.

AG: Buckley and Vidal reveled in their own sophistication and verbal virtuosity. They did not try to mask their intelligence in order to come across as just regular guys. Today they would have a tough time selling that stance on TV, but looking back, I think they were actually respecting the intelligence of their viewers, not condescending to them.

MN: You’re completely correct: they didn’t condescend. Nowadays the audience test is, do I want to go out to have a beer with the guy? Now even smart guys pretend to be dumb.

RG: There’s a difference between George W. Bush the man and his public persona. Bush went to Harvard and Yale, but played that down in public. Obama does something like that, too, when he gets into his folksy mode. I don’t want to have a drink with my elected officials, I want to be somewhat in awe of them, because they’re people who make decisions, and I want smart people to be the ones making decisions. Being put off by intelligence is nuts. I don’t know how Americans got that way.

MN: [As the film shows] TV is driven by ratings. And the synonym for higher ratings is the lowest common denominator. But a lot has to do with what we expect. Back in the 60s the networks regarded news as a service. Today they see it as a profit center. Part of what is so refreshing about the Vidal and Buckley debates is they’re truly [ideological] opposites, and speaking to an audience whose minds they were trying to change. Today we’re at a kind of “through the looking glass” moment. The people who are in news are trying to be entertainers, and the people who are in entertainment are trying to be newsmen. You know, the saying about Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart is that O’Reilly is insincere, but pretending to be sincere, while Stewart is sincere, while pretending to be insincere.

AG: The point to which the “action” in Best of Enemies builds is, of course, the jaw-dropping “crypto-Nazi”/”queer” exchange, when Vidal nearly goads Buckley into violence. After that, we witness the decades-long fallout. Why do you think Buckley could never get over that particular moment of heat and human fallibility?

RG: Well, I would have to answer that it’s about the tension between him and Vidal. It’s the self-recognition that each saw in each other and the fear that they would be mistaken for each other. [Journalist and Buckley biographer] Sam Tanenhaus hit on something in the film, about what they had in common: they both came from notable families and went to boarding schools, they each published their groundbreaking books around the same time. They had these parallel lives, but they diverged along the lines of God and sex. Bill spent 33 years on “Firing Line” taking on all comers across the political spectrum, and this was the only time that he blew up. For years he tried to explain himself, but every time he tried to make it better, he only cemented it harder.

MN: You just said: it was a moment of fallibility. And one of the things he never wanted to show was fallibility. This was one moment he lost his cool, and it happened in a very public way. And I don’t think he could forgive himself for that.

AG: You spent five years making the movie, right?

RG: The first four years were a labor of love. Then, once we got funded, everything came together in the final year. Then we could settle into it and work on it full-time, and we could do a deep archival sweep. We had to pay for a lot of old footage, and that’s why we had to wait for funding.

MN: This was not an easy film to make. We thought this would be the perfect film for the 2012 election. Little did we know how hard it was going to be to get financing.

AG: Understandably, you don’t want to name names, and single out anyone who wouldn’t give you money, but could you provide a “for instance” about the obstacles you faced?

MN: The “for instance” is everybody. I pitched this all over to everyone. We were selling a documentary about two old dead men talking in a room many years ago. You watch the finished movie, it’s thrilling, but we had to work hard to explain it to potential funders. We covered all our expenses out of our own pockets for a while, but that’s why we do this work. Robert and I started out as journalists; I still think of myself as a journalist. We looked at the news media and thought, let’s discuss how we argue. Let’s discuss the way our discourse could unfold before we begin talking the issues.

RG: It’s the double-edged sword of news and the media. We all share the same news. We didn’t think about it then [back in the 60s] that what we heard was determined by a group of white-haired guys who chose what Walter Cronkite would cover. Now you have social media impacting Tahrir Square, and on-the-ground footage shot on cell phones. Everyone’s entitled to opinion of his own, but there’s no fact-checking of news [when it’s reported by nonprofessionals]. And that’s very dangerous.

AG: What kind of stuff didn’t make the final version of the film?

MN: Some of the people we interviewed didn’t make the final cut: [linguist and activist] Noam Chomsky; [journalist] Bob Scheer; Bill’s brother, Senator James Buckley; and Vidal. We shot an interview with Vidal shortly before he died, but decided against using it.

AG: I read that you decided against including that because Buckley had died before you began filming, and you didn’t want to seem like you were giving Gore the last word. But was it also kindness on your part, because Vidal was so infirm?

MN: If he had added something new, I think we would have put it in the film. But he already had said almost everything he had to say on Buckley before. Yes, he was not well, but he was still very sharp. I think he disagreed not with our film’s thematic concept, but with our premise that he and Buckley were in any way comparable, that they were the reverse image of each other.

AG: Oh, but that archival still of them being made up in the ABC green room is such a yin-yang image.

MN: They were their own distinct personalities, and yet the debates helped define them for the rest of their lives.

AG: One last thing: what question have you not been asked about Best of Enemies, but wish that you had?

MN: “When did you realize it was a comedy?”

The Gronvall Report: Zazu Urushadze on the Oscar-nominated TANGERINES

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

If you screened all the nominees for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, you couldn’t help but notice that three of the five titles—Ida, the winner from Poland, Timbuktu from Mauritania, and Tangerines, a co-production from Estonia and Georgia—center on war and its devastations.  Given how many regional armed conflicts currently plague our planet, many of them direct consequences of earlier prolonged violence, war remains one of the most relevant themes in movies today. Surprisingly, few predicted that American Sniper would be a breakout hit. Americans and other nations may be suffering war fatigue in the real world, but for a while, at least, they’ll still be flocking to theaters looking to make sense of it all, if sense can be made.

The setup of Tangerines, by Georgian filmmaker Zaza Urushadze, is deceptively simple: in 1992, following the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., war is escalating between Georgian nationals and Abkhazian separatists, the latter backed by Russia. In a corner of Georgia that a century ago was settled by Estonian immigrants, a small group of Georgian soldiers run up against some Chechen mercenaries working for the Russians. Only two barely survive the ensuing bloodbath: Niko, a Georgian Christian (Mikheil Meskhi), and Akhmed, a Chechen Muslim (Georgi Nakhashidze). A couple of ethnically Estonian farmers who are neutral rescue them, and the elder farmer, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak, magnificent), decides to house both warriors secretly and nurse them back to health. His humanitarian gesture turns into a situation both perilous and surreal, as the two soldiers work at recovering just so they can finish the botched job of bumping off each other. But that turns out to be the least of their troubles.

Just as has been the case historically over millennia, in Tangerines language, ethnicity, land, and religion are significant factors that trigger and fuel combat. Writer-director Urushadze recently was kind to take time away from his elected job as head of the Georgian Filmmakers’ Union (which brings together important movie artists to network, help each other, and modernize and promote cinema in their country), in order to participate in the following interview by email.

Andrea Gronvall:  Your film Tangerines is more lyrical—in the sense of more poeticized, less dour—than Ida or Timbuktu, although it still builds to a powerful impact at the end. It shares with Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion an emphasis on honor and humanity, while in its focus on two enemy soldiers trapped in an almost absurdist situation, Tangerines also recalls Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land. Did you intend to frame your story as a parable?

Zaza Urushadze:  I wanted to direct a film based on basic human values—such as tolerance, forgiveness, and so on—as the lack of these values is one of the reasons of the ongoing wars. I didn’t intend to frame it as a parable, but I guess it turned out this way.

AG:  How did you strike a balance between pathos and dark humor?

ZU:  It was very difficult to find the right balance of tragedy and humor. Too much humor would have broken the drama and too little would have changed the message of humanity I was trying to convey. I thought a lot about the film’s tone and tried to use the humor effectively at key intervals, inserting it sparsely throughout the film.

AG:  The visuals in Tangerines are captivating, and at times almost painterly. The sun-dappled views of the tangerine orchard remind me of Van Gogh, and the way the light models the characters and table settings in the interiors brings to mind Cezanne. What were your visual influences in making this film?

ZU:  Even though I love art very much, I didn’t really have an influence, at least consciously. When I write scripts, I can already see the shots, like I’m already watching the film. It happens on its own.

AG:  The fluidity of the camera work also is impressive. How did you and Rein Kotov, your director of photography, arrive at a shooting strategy? Do you storyboard any sequences before you film? How pressured were you by your shooting schedule? What was the hardest shot, or scene, or sequence to realize?

ZU:  I shoot without a storyboard because it’s already in my head. I sit down with the cinematographer the day before the shoot and tell him about the angles and camera movement. We had a really busy schedule; we shot it in 32 days. The most difficult part was the gunfight scene, because if we couldn’t shoot this scene in one take, we would have had to repair the holes on the walls, the cars….

AG:  [SPOILER ALERT] That gunfight, the climax of the movie, is triggered by a short but pivotal conversation between Akhmed and an arrogant commanding officer, in a scene that is about ethnicity but hinges on language. Why does Akhmed hesitate to reply in Chechen when the officer commands him to?

ZU:   To answer your question I’ll need to delve into the interactions between the military officers and the subordinates who served under them before the Soviet Union broke up. Specifically [regarding language], the phrase “fuck your mother” is common in the colloquial speech of the Russian military. They use it as punctuation, without any intended insult implied—for instance, “Pass the salt. Fuck your mother.” However, for Caucasian peoples the term is highly insulting and often led to fights between officers and subordinates.

The scene in Tangerines that you are referring to takes place shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Many in the Russian military, after the loss of the Caucasus, could not adapt to the new reality and behaved in a demeaning manner toward citizens of former Soviet states. Akhmed was in the process of re-evaluating his ideas about the war, Georgians, and his preconceptions about both. The Russian officer was unable to trust a Chechen regardless of whether he was a mercenary fighting on the side of Russia or not, due to his bigotry towards former members of the Soviet Union and his feeling that Russians were superior to them.

Akhmed showed defiance and a refusal to be intimidated [and] out of context used the phrase “fuck your mother” to the officer—which, in front of his men, challenged his authority and would have tarnished his reputation had he done nothing.

AG:  Lembit Ulfsak as Ivo has great presence and authority on screen. Despite his age, Ivo is vigorous and very alert. One seldom sees characters like this in American movies. Were you trying to make a case for the wisdom of age over the rashness of youth?

ZU:  Ivo is a wise character, with a lot of experience in life and a mission to share with the youth: that life is short and very valuable.

The Gronvall Report: Simon Curtis On WOMAN IN GOLD

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

When he segued into film after notable work for the stage and in television, director Simon Curtis may not have set out to revive that staple of the Golden Age of movies, the “woman’s picture,” but so far he’s two for two.

Following up on his 2011 debut, My Week with Marilyn–the Michelle Williams-Eddie Redmayne-starrer that garnered Williams a Best Actress  nomination for her evocation of Marilyn Monroe–Curtis has partnered a second time with BBC Films and The Weinstein Company to bring another indomitable real-life femme to the screen. Woman in Gold is the dramatized account of the legal battles waged from 2000 to 2006 by Holocaust refugee Maria Altmann against the Austrian government to reclaim five Gustav Klimt paintings that the Nazis looted from her Jewish Viennese family after the Anschluss. Helen Mirren, nearly as regal and twice as feisty as she was in The Queen, plays the octogenarian Altmann; Ryan Reynolds costars as her idealistic Los Angeles attorney, E. Randol “Randy” Schoenberg. Casting is one of the movie’s strong suits: supporting actors include “Orphan Black” sensation Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria; Daniel Bruhl as crusading Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin; Curtis’s wife Elizabeth McGovern (beloved by legions of “Downtown Abbey” fans) as Judge Florence Cooper; and the estimable Jonathan Pryce as Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

As I mentioned to Curtis when he came through Chicago recently, Woman in Gold is an unusual hybrid: a courtroom procedural, a Holocaust drama, and a love story–or two love stories, if in addition to the marriage of young Maria Bloch-Bauer to opera singer Fritz Altmann (Max Irons) you count the strong bond of mutual support, respect, affection, and gratitude that gradually develops between Randy and the elderly Maria. However did Curtis keep all those balls in the air at one time?

“It was like playing 3-D Sudoko,” he said. “We had to factor in the different genres; the flashbacks to the early 1900s [when Klimt painted his first portrait of Maria’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the titular woman in gold] and to the 1930s; the various court proceedings [in the main temporal frame of the film]; plus, we were shooting in three countries: Austria, the UK, and the USA.” With that kind of pressure, did he surround himself with previous collaborators? “Actually,” he replied, “there were only a couple of holdovers from earlier works:  my first assistant director, Phil Booth, from the TV series ‘Cranford,’ and executive producer Christine Langan, head of BBC Films.” And how long did it take to edit all this material? “We finished the initial cut for our first New York test screening in eight weeks,” he said. At which point I began to wonder if this precise, professional, very reserved Englishman had a secret inner life as a raging adrenaline junkie.

So I had to ask him what kind of set he runs. “On the set, I am much calmer than I am actually feeling,” he admitted. “As a TV producer, I’ve seen some directors become destabilizing forces, a situation I aim to avoid.” I mentioned that I had read an interview he gave a few years ago in which he said that the job of a stage director is to serve the text; what’s the job of a film director? “To help everyone raise their own game,” he replied.

In Woman in Gold everyone’s game is raised, including Ryan Reynolds’s. Playing an underdog and borderline nebbish (a modified version of the real Randy Schoenberg), the actor once again demonstrates his considerable range, proving he’s more than the sum of his geniality and boy-next-door good looks. Reynolds’s critical reception over the years has often been puzzling; even his purported admirers, like John Patterson in a recent article in “The Guardian,” seem to damn him with faint praise. I just don’t get that, because the actor more than holds his own on screen with the always-compelling Mirren. “Absolutely,” agreed Curtis. “They got on tremendously. Ryan is a highly intelligent and intuitive actor. The scene late in the film where Randy breaks down at the Holocaust memorial is such a powerful moment. That scene, by the way, was based on a story the real Randy Shoenberg told us.”

The restraint with which the film treats what happened to Maria and the Bloch-Bauers in the 1930s is key to the movie’s appeal. In 1978 Elie Wiesel wrote in the New York Times that pop culture was in danger of trivializing the Holocaust; since then here have been so many representations of the Shoah in the media that outstanding movies like Claude Lanzmann’s ten-hours-and-fifteen-minute-long  epic, Shoah, wrongly get lumped in with kitsch like 2013’s The Book Thief. Given the acclaim My Week with Marilyn earned, Curtis could have chosen from any number of topics for his sophomore film; why Maria Altmann’s life? The end credits provide a clue, citing that Woman in Gold was inspired by the 2007 documentary Stealing Klimt, which was presented by Curtis’s friend Alan Yentob for the BBC’s “Imagine” series. But why retell this story now? What does Woman in Gold have to say to today’s moviegoers?

“A lot has to do with the importance of not forgetting,” Curtis acknowledged. [Indeed, in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s screenplay Maria has a line lamenting how short people’s memories are.] Curtis went on, “This century has begun in a very troubling way. We are now facing again the spectre of anti-Semitism resurging in Europe. We had to put in the film some kind of debate that underlined the human elements of this story.” In other words, it’s not just the ripped-from-the-headlines account of how Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” eventually was sold by Maria to Ronald S. Lauder for the (then record-breaking) sum of $135 million. “Yes,” Curtis affirmed, “it’s important to remember that this was a portrait of Maria’s aunt Adele, commissioned by Maria’s uncle.” The painting, along with others by Klimt, were treasured objects in the Bloch-Bauer home not just because of their exquisite artistry, but because they reflected the lives and passions of that remarkable, cultivated family. Maria’s long fight in the courts was not about the money, but about recovering her past, trying to hang on to the threads of all those she lost before and during the war, in order to keep their memory alive.

Knowing that Curtis is himself Jewish, I wondered if the wartime backdrop of Woman in Gold had any personal relevance for him. “I had a very secure upbringing,” he said. “My family’s arrival in the UK from Poland was at the beginning of the twentieth century, predating the Holocaust. But Maria’s story definitely resonates with my DNA.” His current project, as an executive producer, has distinctly English–and Asian–flavors: the Channel 4 co-production, with PBS’s “Masterpiece,” of “Indian Summers,” a TV mini-series about the end of the British Raj and the dawn of India’s struggle for independence. With a cast top-lined by Julie Walters, it sounds like another vehicle for a worthy actress who can carry a picture.

Reporter’s note: As an art lover who at a much younger age trained as a painter, I was enchanted early on by the works of Viennese Secessionist giant Gustav Klimt. Later, in 2006, after the five Klimt paintings Altmann and other relatives had rightfully inherited were restored to her by an Austrian arbitration court, I was lucky enough to view the artist’s two portraits of her aunt Adele, and his landscapes “Apple Tree I,” “Beech Woods (Birch Woods),” and “Houses in Unterach on Lake Atter,” in a revelatory exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For those who didn’t have that opportunity, consider a visit to the Neue Galerie in Manhattan, where the painter’s first portrait of Adele anchors an intimate new show, “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold,” on view through September 7. Afterwards, hop a bus or taxi south to the Museum of Modern Art, where “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II” is currently on display, on loan to MoMA from a private collector.

The Gronvall Report: Shlomi Elkabetz on GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Divorce court in the movies has never been as suspenseful as the proceedings at the center of Israeli drama Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Winner of the Ophir (Israel’s parallel to the Oscar) for Best Film, and a Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, it follows its titular heroine over the course of five years as she attempts to convince her spouse of some two decades to grant her a gett, the formal release from their glacial marriage that, under strict religious Jewish law, only he can grant. If he doesn’t consent, Viviane will forever be regarded as an agunah, or chained woman, one who in observant (especially ultra-Orthodox) Jewish societies, is regarded as an outcast.

For her earthy, yet regal portrayal of Viviane, the magnetic Ronit Elkabetz (The Band’s Visit, Late Marriage) has earned comparisons to such screen icons as Maria Falconetti and Anna Magnani. Viviane is far more progressive than her introverted, intractable husband Elisha, played by the versatile French-Armenian actor Simon Abkarian (Zero Dark Thirty, Casino Royale, Yes). Of North African descent, the traditionally religious Elisha in late middle age still has not adjusted to life in Israel’s largely secular culture (for instance, he prefers not to speak Hebrew because he regards it as the language of prayer). The couple’s differences are insurmountable, but Elisha simply will not let go.

Making Viviane’s case even harder is that the three rabbinic judges hearing her petition have a mandate to preserve Jewish families. In Israel, the rabbinic courts have final say in almost all matters concerning Jewish marriage and divorce. This is a situation that dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Ottoman Empire ruled the region, and invested rabbis with authority in local Jewish communal affairs. Today, most Israelis, whether observant or not, still must navigate this system. (Although a relatively recent law permits civil court weddings and divorces, both partners must have officially registered as being non-religious, and so far relatively few Israelis have chosen this route.)

When it opened in Israel last fall, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem sparked a national conversation. Just this past week, the film was screened at the annual rabbinic judges convention, so they could see what the buzz is about. The movie is the third co-writing, co-directing cinematic venture between Ronit and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz; the siblings made two earlier movies about Viviane, To Take a Wife (2004) and The Seven Days (aka Shiva, 2008). Wiry, highly verbal, and quite the smoker (although polite about it), Shlomi was in town last fall for the Chicago International Film Festival. The very model of an Israeli hipster, he found some time in his packed schedule to talk about his craft.

Andrea Gronvall: When you named your film, did you tend to evoke any parallels to Franz Kafka’s novel, “The Trial?” I ask because as I watched Gett I often felt as though trapped in a bewildering, absurdist universe. The movie is alternately disturbing, maddening, and darkly funny.

Shlomi Elkabetz:  Our first attempt to write the screenplay we were terrified.  What could happen in this one room during a running time of two hours—in narrative time, over the course of five years—that would generate enough emotional energy to sustain the audience’s interest? Then something very exciting happened: we found we could write 200 pages because so many things could happen on screen. The name of the script originally was “The Trial,” but it was suggested that we should change it to something more independent of associations with Kafka. One day Ronit said we should call it “Gett.” And I replied, it’s Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, because (1) while Viviane is being judged by everyone at these sessions, (2) at the same time she is judging everyone else in the courtroom. But the general atmosphere of our story is completely Kafka-esque because of this [ancient] law. We knew that we were conducting a circus, in the sense that the situation on screen is ridiculous, but you’re still taking part. When we first started to show the film we were surprised at how audiences responded. There was laughter, but also stillness, because of all the tension. Last night [at the festival showing], people shouted back at the screen, “When are you going to grant her a divorce?” And I remember at the first screening in Cannes, the audience reacted like Israelis, like they understood the world we were evoking. As filmmakers when we set out to do something we can’t always anticipate the reactions of viewers. We are not computer programmers; there is no set way, no prescription for how to make a movie. Watching Gett with audiences has been a unique and happy experience.

AG:  Years ago I had an acting teacher, the great improvisational director Del Close, who banished the word “no” from our work because it would stop whatever scene we were trying to create dead in its tracks.  But you and Ronit have done something remarkable by investing the word lo—“no”—with so much potent mystery. We can’t figure out why Elisha won’t give Viviane a divorce, so each time he says no, another character witness is called to testify, and the story moves forward. And thus we get another view not just of the couple, but of Israeli society as well. How did you arrive at this structure?

SE:  Sometimes when I teach acting I do this exercise where we get a couple of people to stand up, and one says “yes,” and the other says “no.” The entire exercise grows from that. So, I could imagine five years of yes and no, where the whole story becomes yes and no. Why is Viviane saying yes? For her right to be free? To fall in love again? To experience life from a new perspective? And what does Elisha say no to? “No” to all of these, and also, “No, I can’t be someone else. I don’t know how to live my life when I am not the one in charge.”

AG:  This is the last film in a trilogy. I have not seen the first two, but can say unequivocally that this film stands on its own as a riveting drama. I am curious, though: have the characters changed over the course of the trilogy?

SE:  The characters changed over time because Ronit and I changed over the years. If you see the other films, you will see different aspects of these characters, but you don’t need to see the films in chronological order. In To Take a Wife, Viviane has to get to that point where she can believe that she can be free.  In The Seven Days, we see her dealing with the large family she was born into [Viviane is the only woman among nine siblings].  Thematically, the trilogy is about how women cope in a patriarchal society.

AG:  Is there anything autobiographical about the trilogy?

SE:  These films are fiction, but they are meant, in a way, as an appreciation of our mother—although she never sought a divorce, and, as far as we know, never discussed that possibility with anyone. My origins are Moroccan, and Arab Jews are the people I know the best. The French in the film is part of our culture; the main characters speak Arabic and French because we’re French. Among other things, these films are about the impact of immigration—on the immigrants, and on other Israelis. When Ronit and I began the trilogy, it was the first time Israelis from the Maghreb could see themselves on the screen. Before, they always looked exotic, or were portrayed as stereotypes. I certainly couldn’t recognize myself in any of the Israeli movies I saw when I was younger. It was as though Arab Jews had to erase their past. Before my mother saw Gett, the last time she had been to a movie theatre was 40 years ago.

The Gronvall Report: Gabe Polsky On RED ARMY

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

1Now that Super Bowl XLIX is history, can we talk about a sport that’s really gripping, like hockey? Sure, football is about strategy and physical prowess, and your heart might indeed pound if you’re actually in the stadium close enough to the action, but television, with its mandate to sell commercials, has stretched the average duration of games to back-numbing length. Whereas hockey is not only about strategy and athleticism, it is fast, fast, fast. The competing players zooming across the ice combine precision skating with a ferocious concentration on the puck–which, at only three inches in diameter, can move up to 100 miles per hour, making all that blather about Deflategate even more laughable.

But as the thrillingly kinetic new documentary Red Army shows, there’s another, deeper dimension to the sport that sets it apart from American football: not all that long ago, hockey was emblematic of the Cold War struggle between the USA and the USSR. The movie tells the little known behind-the-scenes story of the Soviet Union’s state-sponsored world-champion hockey team, a nearly unbeatable marvel of speed, agility, and unity. There’s a charismatic “leading man,” fabled defenseman Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, recipient of dozens of awards and honors. There’s a legendary mentor and sage, coach Anatoly Tarasov, who revolutionized the game by introducing elements of ballet and chess into the training regimen and playbook. And there’s even a villain one can love to hate, the KGB bureaucrat Viktor Tikhonov, who, as Tarasov’s replacement, imposed ever more draconian regulations on his supremely dedicated team, for whom winning was synonymous with serving their country.

Director-writer-producer Gabe Polsky may have been destined to bring this narrative to the big screen. The American-born son of Soviet émigrés is fluent in Russian, got his first pair of skates when he was just out of kindergarten, and played hockey zealously throughout his school years, culminating at Yale University. At which point, he says, “I realized I wasn’t going to be a pro, and had to find a new passion. I had a college roommate who was shooting edgy videos, and I thought I could come up with a few subjects myself.” The filmmaker, who was in his native city during the 50th Chicago International Film Festival to support the Sony Picture Classics release, agreed with my assessment that you don’t have to be a sports maven to be captivated by Red Army. “Many people who have come out of these screenings,” he observed, “are people like you. My goal was to make a film that is not only for hockey fans, but is also about complex things like culture, history, and politics. But I also wanted to reach way beyond the academic [aspects of the documentary form]. It was an exciting challenge.”

The film two took years to make, start to finish. I asked him if he faced any hassles while on location in Russia. He replied, “I had a contact who knew one of the players. No one knew what I was doing there, exactly; because I had a tiny crew and speak Russian, we weren’t [perceived as] threatening. Slava didn’t know I wanted him to be the lead ‘character’ in the story, but I kept on bugging him.”

It’s certainly clear from the film that Polsky can be tenacious. Some of the funniest moments are when he and his subject seem to be on the edge of their own international conflict, with Polsky off-camera lobbing questions that at times seem surprisingly disingenuous, and which Slava swats back as if shooing some buzzing pest—that is, when he can even be bothered to get off his cell phone to respond. I commented on Polsky’s vivid audio presence, and asked him if he had been deliberately aiming to get a rise out of Fetisov.

“In a way, in the movie at least, I represent sort of the everyday person, leading with questions that will hopefully get to facts the audience wants to know. And part of it is just my personality, which can be confrontational enough. Part of it is also that you need to feel a guy out, to psych him into revealing something that’s meaningful, and that you can build on from there. Slava initially wanted to allow me only 15 minutes, and wound up that first time giving an interview that lasted five hours. But everything I did was by choice,” he insisted, quickly adding with a smile and the hint of a wink, “and if at times it seems, as you point out, like I’m bordering on naïve–well, sometimes you just have to sacrifice yourself for the film.”

That cheek and initiative and sly sense of fun pervades Red Army, from the way Polsky handles archival footage (there’s a black-and-white sequence featuring a Soviet children’s choir chirping a patriotic song, while an animated hammer-and-sickle bounces above the subtitles), to the colorful end credits, which are studded with detailed new takes on old propaganda posters. But there’s plenty to inspire serious discussion as well, beginning with the Soviet hockey team’s incarnation as an intended symbol of Communism’s superiority over capitalism. As the film at times painfully shows, these resilient players basically turned their entire lives over to Mother Russia. By design they were not “professionals.” Pros are barred from the Olympics, so the state built a consistently winning team from its compulsorily enlisted military forces in order to harvest that Olympic gold year after year. Far from what professional athletes earned in the West, the Russian amateurs lived off their soldiers’ pay, laboring ceaselessly and seldom seeing their families.

As forthcoming as Slava is, a few of his old comrades provide equally riveting testimony. The movie examines the tight bond between Fetisov and the four others who comprised that part of the team that the media dubbed “the Russian Five”—Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov. These men moved as one, demonstrating the virtues of cooperation and vigilant support over any individual grab for glory. Some of them, increasingly chafing under coach Tikhonov’s oppressive edicts, would, like Fetisov, later defect to the US to turn pro and play in the NHL. But those life choices brought their own set of problems.

Polsky’s respect for the character of these men, their idealism, their sacrifices, and their remarkable achievements is manifest throughout Red Army. And although he doesn’t belabor it, he also sees a connection between how the Soviets turned sports into propaganda, and what goes on in Russia today. “Propaganda posters were a big part of that era,” he says. “They were created to emphasize the popularity of hockey, and to inspire the populace in dramatic ways. That’s part of what Vladimir Putin is doing now. Look at how much emphasis he places on sports–as spectacle in Sochi, and as personal lifestyle [in how he portrays himself in the media].” Recognizing that relations between the US and Russia sadly once again are very strained, Polsky is thankful to all the Russians who helped him create Red Army, particularly Fetisov: “I am grateful he is supportive of the film, doing press on its behalf. We both feel it has the potential to influence people.”

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The Gronvall Report

GABE POLSKY ON RED ARMY

By Andrea Gronvall

 

 

Now that Super Bowl XLIX is history, can we talk about a sport that’s really gripping, like hockey? Sure, football is about strategy and physical prowess, and your heart might indeed pound if you’re actually in the stadium close enough to the action, but television, with its mandate to sell commercials, has stretched the average duration of games to back-numbing length. Whereas hockey is not only about strategy and athleticism, it is fast, fast, fast. The competing players zooming across the ice combine precision skating with a ferocious concentration on the puck–which, at only three inches in diameter, can move up to 100 miles per hour, making all that blather about Deflategate even more laughable.

 

But as the thrillingly kinetic new documentary Red Army shows, there’s another, deeper dimension to the sport that sets it apart from American football: not all that long ago, hockey was emblematic of the Cold War struggle between the USA and the USSR. The movie tells the little known behind-the-scenes story of the Soviet Union’s state-sponsored world-champion hockey team, a nearly unbeatable marvel of speed, agility, and unity. There’s a charismatic “leading man,” fabled defenseman Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, recipient of dozens of awards and honors. There’s a legendary mentor and sage, coach Anatoly Tarasov, who revolutionized the game by introducing elements of ballet and chess into the training regimen and playbook. And there’s even a villain one can love to hate, the KGB bureaucrat Viktor Tikhonov, who, as Tarasov’s replacement, imposed ever more draconian regulations on his supremely dedicated team, for whom winning was synonymous with serving their country.

Director-writer-producer Gabe Polsky may have been destined to bring this narrative to the big screen. The American-born son of Soviet émigrés is fluent in Russian, got his first pair of skates when he was just out of kindergarten, and played hockey zealously throughout his school years, culminating at Yale University. At which point, he says, “I realized I wasn’t going to be a pro, and had to find a new passion. I had a college roommate who was shooting edgy videos, and I thought I could come up with a few subjects myself.” The filmmaker, who was in his native city during the 50th Chicago International Film Festival to support the Sony Picture Classics release, agreed with my assessment that you don’t have to be a sports maven to be captivated by Red Army. “Many people who have come out of these screenings,” he observed, “are people like you. My goal was to make a film that is not only for hockey fans, but is also about complex things like culture, history, and politics. But I also wanted to reach way beyond the academic [aspects of the documentary form]. It was an exciting challenge.”

 

The film two took years to make, start to finish. I asked him if he faced any hassles while on location in Russia. He replied, “I had a contact who knew one of the players. No one knew what I was doing there, exactly; because I had a tiny crew and speak Russian, we weren’t [perceived as] threatening. Slava didn’t know I wanted him to be the lead ‘character’ in the story, but I kept on bugging him.”

 

It’s certainly clear from the film that Polsky can be tenacious. Some of the funniest moments are when he and his subject seem to be on the edge of their own international conflict, with Polsky off-camera lobbing questions that at times seem surprisingly disingenuous, and which Slava swats back as if shooing some buzzing pest—that is, when he can even be bothered to get off his cell phone to respond. I commented on Polsky’s vivid audio presence, and asked him if he had been deliberately aiming to get a rise out of Fetisov.

 

“In a way, in the movie at least, I represent sort of the everyday person, leading with questions that will hopefully get to facts the audience wants to know. And part of it is just my personality, which can be confrontational enough. Part of it is also that you need to feel a guy out, to psych him into revealing something that’s meaningful, and that you can build on from there. Slava initially wanted to allow me only 15 minutes, and wound up that first time giving an interview that lasted five hours. But everything I did was by choice,” he insisted, quickly adding with a smile and the hint of a wink, “and if at times it seems, as you point out, like I’m bordering on naïve–well, sometimes you just have to sacrifice yourself for the film.”

 

That cheek and initiative and sly sense of fun pervades Red Army, from the way Polsky handles archival footage (there’s a black-and-white sequence featuring a Soviet children’s choir chirping a patriotic song, while an animated hammer-and-sickle bounces above the subtitles), to the colorful end credits, which are studded with detailed new takes on old propaganda posters. But there’s plenty to inspire serious discussion as well, beginning with the Soviet hockey team’s incarnation as an intended symbol of Communism’s superiority over capitalism. As the film at times painfully shows, these resilient players basically turned their entire lives over to Mother Russia. By design they were not “professionals.” Pros are barred from the Olympics, so the state built a consistently winning team from its compulsorily enlisted military forces in order to harvest that Olympic gold year after year. Far from what professional athletes earned in the West, the Russian amateurs lived off their soldiers’ pay, laboring ceaselessly and seldom seeing their families.

 

As forthcoming as Slava is, a few of his old comrades provide equally riveting testimony. The movie examines the tight bond between Fetisov and the four others who comprised that part of the team that the media dubbed “the Russian Five”—Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov. These men moved as one, demonstrating the virtues of cooperation and vigilant support over any individual grab for glory. Some of them, increasingly chafing under coach Tikhonov’s oppressive edicts, would, like Fetisov, later defect to the US to turn pro and play in the NHL. But those life choices brought their own set of problems.

 

Polsky’s respect for the character of these men, their idealism, their sacrifices, and their remarkable achievements is manifest throughout Red Army. And although he doesn’t belabor it, he also sees a connection between how the Soviets turned sports into propaganda, and what goes on in Russia today. “Propaganda posters were a big part of that era,” he says. “They were created to emphasize the popularity of hockey, and to inspire the populace in dramatic ways. That’s part of what Vladimir Putin is doing now. Look at how much emphasis he places on sports–as spectacle in Sochi, and as personal lifestyle [in how he portrays himself in the media].” Recognizing that relations between the US and Russia sadly once again are very strained, Polsky is thankful to all the Russians who helped him create Red Army, particularly Fetisov: “I am grateful he is supportive of the film, doing press on its behalf. We both feel it has the potential to influence people.”

 

 

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The Gronvall Report: Screenwriter Graham Moore on THE IMITATION GAME

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

Graham Moore is no slouch. He was only 29 when his debut novel, “The Sherlockian,” hit The New York Times bestseller list in 2010. Now his first feature film, The Imitation Game, is pegged for awards group plaudits in this year’s very crowded Oscar race. Adapting Andrew Hodges’s nonfiction book “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” screenwriter Moore (also the film’s executive producer) has crafted a biopic that may have a few purely fictional elements, but nonetheless sheds light on a real-life war hero whose professional achievements were long clouded–in the popular imagination, at least–by personal scandal in his final years.

In one of his most effective performances in an already stellar career, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, a genius who headed a World War II British team charged with cracking coded messages sent by Enigma, the Nazis’ infamously unbreakable encryption machine. In succeeding with his mission, Turing became one of the founders of modern computer science; the machine he developed could break the German military codes—which changed daily at a precise time—as they were being transmitted. His team, headquartered in a compound called Bletchley Park, has been credited with shortening the war’s duration by at least two years.

There have been other film and TV productions about the Bletchley Park cryptanalysts, but The Imitation Game covers new ground by framing the war exploits within another narrative, one about how Turing’s life was ruined years later, after he was prosecuted and convicted for being gay. It’s no small feat to give an inspiring story and a sad one equal footing, but Moore’s script propels the action with bracing, pointed wit, giving a supporting cast that includes Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, and “Downton Abbey’s” Allen Leech many moments to shine. Actually, “shine” is exactly what Moore himself does. The screenwriter returned to his hometown this fall during the Chicago International Film Festival to publicize the Weinstein Company release, and I was impressed with how articulate, self-composed, funny, and outgoing he wasas well as by the fact he showed up for an online interviewer in immaculately pressed attire, and a tie, no less.

Andrea Gronvall:  Whoa, I thought this was dress-casual! You look so spiffy.

Graham Moore:  This is my casual dress mode. I used to live in New York, where my flat was so small there was barely any space between my bed and my desk. But every morning I would get out of bed and put on a coat and tie before sitting down to write, telling myself writing was my job and I was getting dressed for work—which was like telling myself, dress for the job you want. Now I live in Los Angeles, where you can’t always tell by his clothes whether someone is homeless, or a millionaire!

AG:  In The Imitation Game you move back and forth between Turing’s wartime work at top-secret Bletchley Park, where he struggles to unravel the Enigma, and postwar Manchester, where Detective Robert Nock [Rory Kinnear] seeks to uncover Turing’s hidden past. Then we have the academic outsider parallels between Turing and the lone woman mathematician he hires, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). You clearly are jazzed by mysteries, but you also like writing dual tracks of narrative, don’t you?

GM:  Yeah, in my first novel, “The Sherlockian,” I used dual, interlocking stories, too. But there has to be a reason for it. The reason for it in The Imitation Game is that I had to fit into two hours a narrative that crosses three decades: the 1950s, the 1940s, and the 1920s. He first falls in love [in the 1920s] with a Sherborne School classmate, Christopher, who introduces him to cryptography, and Alan then becomes fascinated by codes, ciphers, and puzzles. Decades later Turing used a newspaper crossword puzzle to recruit new members to his team of Enigma code-breakers. So I decided to tell the story in such a way that the audience winds up trying to solve a puzzle at the same time as Alan [and Detective Nock].

AG:  Your dialogue is smart and graceful, conveying a lot with economy. But I also like non-verbal moments you scripted, like the close-up of Nock late in the film, when in one shot we see so many emotions fleet across his face as he realizes what grave damage he’s done with his investigation.

GM:  [laughing] Well, I may have written the scene, but you have to credit Rory Kinnear for his skilled performance!

AG:  The Royal Navy and MI6 both threaten Turing and other team members with execution for treason, but in the end it is the nation—the British government—who is Alan’s betrayer. This is both ironic and deeply tragic. Was it your intention to suggest that Turing died for love? I ask because the screenplay personalizes Alan’s proto-computer by naming it Christopher.

GM:  I invented that the machine was called Christopher. There are about half a dozen other books about Turing that I consulted in addition to Hodges’ biography, including a more recent biography, “The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer,” by David Leavitt. And every major biographer agrees that Christopher Morcom was the first love of Turing’s life, and cites his affectionate letters to Christopher’s family [with whom Turing remained close after Christopher’s death]. Every major biographer agrees that Christopher inspired Alan to pursue his study of artificial intelligence: could people be brought back from the dead by using A.I. is one of the questions Turing hoped to answer.

AG:  What was your job description as executive producer?

GM:  The executive producer credit was a way of formalizing my involvement. I was on the set every day, and sat in on the edit. Earlier, I was involved in casting, came up with some names, and weighed in on casting choices. Everyone we asked to be in the film said yes.

AG:  Since childhood, you have been very keen on computers, and have steeped yourself in Turing lore. What new research did you do to bring his story to life on film?

GM:  We conducted as many firsthand interviews as possible with the surviving veterans of Bletchley Park. Benedict Cumberbatch met with members of Turing’s family, as well as a former secretary of Alan. We toured Bletchley Park, which is actually a museum now, to soak up its history and atmosphere. We shot scenes at Sherborne School just 20 feet from a memorial to Christopher. Whenever possible we shot on the real locations that figure in the movie. The Enigma machine you see is a genuine artifact. And the crossword puzzle shown is the same one the real Alan Turing had placed in the newspapers. One day on the set Allen Leech  [who plays John Cairncross] said wouldn’t it be fun if we all did the puzzle. But it turned out that not one of us could complete it!

Personally, it was great seeing my obsession with Turing spreading to others. The feeling on the set was so inclusive—everyone was encouraged to do their own research and bring in things that could amplify the story. Our director Morten Tyldum really got into digging stuff up. We were a team, and in some ways we felt like the wartime team at Bletchley Park. And we all believed that Alan’s story needed to be told.

The Gronvall Report: Talking With ROSEWATER’s Maziar Bahari

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Mine was his last interview at the end of a long day, one of many days in a grueling multi-city tour, but you couldn’t tell by looking at him whether Maziar Bahari was running on empty. The Iranian-born Canadian journalist and filmmaker, 47, was immaculately groomed, hospitable, calm, and focused, the intensity of his gaze never flagging. He was in Chicago with “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart to herald the opening of their new movie Rosewater, based on Bahari’s memoir, “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival.” The book, a true page-turner, details the 118 days of torture and interrogation that the journalist endured in 2009 in Tehran’s Evin prison after he supplied footage to the BBC of public protests against the rigged presidential elections that kept incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.

The Open Road release marks the screenwriting and directing debut of co-producer Stewart, who undertook the project partly to make amends for inadvertently contributing to Bahari’s distress. For it was a comic interview by “Daily Show” correspondent Jason Jones (playing himself in the film) that helped convince Bahari’s jailers that the journo was secretly a spy for the U.S. and Mossad. Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel, The Motorcycle Diaries) plays Bahari, whose interrogator, a Revolutionary Guard police officer code-named Rosewater (Denmark’s Kim Bodnia, of Pusher and Terribly Happy), is terrifying when he’s not ridiculous, so wildly off the mark are his ideas about the West. To his credit, Stewart walks that fine line between seriousness and satire, illuminating a nightmarish tale by concentrating on its humanity—much as the book does.

Andrea Gronvall: You survived torture and brutal interrogation during a lengthy imprisonment, and later revisited those months first by writing your memoir, and then by serving as production advisor on Rosewater. Now you’re traveling to promote the film, putting up with journalists like me who are conducting another form of interrogation. Does this ever seem a little surreal to you?

Maziar Bahari: It is a bit surreal, but not as surreal as my experiences in prison. It’s a new platform for me, and I’m grateful for the opportunity it gives me to talk about things that are more important. For instance, I was up most of the night because I’ve been keeping touch hourly with contacts in London, which has a six-hour time zone difference from here, and in Tehran, a nine-hour difference. Have you heard about the acid attacks on Iranian women?

AG: Yes. I read a very disturbing story in “The New York Times.” [Reporter’s note: in October several women in Isfahan were doused with acid by motorcyclists, an act that was construed as the men’s censure of the women for not dressing conservatively enough to meet religious fundamentalist standards.]

MB: In response to the attacks there have been demonstrations by protesters in Iran. A photographer, Arya Jafari, has been detained for covering the demonstrations. Instead of arresting the perpetrators, authorities have gone after this journalist. All day I’ve been trying to find help for him in London and Iran; I feel a sense of responsibility to talk about it. Journalism has become one of the world’s most dangerous professions. There were always risks involved in covering disasters and wars [such as getting caught in the crossfire]. But it was during the Balkan crisis in the 1990s that combatants started specifically targeting journalists. Now it’s becoming more common for warring factions to target correspondents in the field, not only to suppress the flow of information, but also to set an example by killing the messenger. We are going through a really turbulent time in journalism. There are the chaos and challenges within the industry itself. Then there are the waves of citizen journalists [operating online and digitally]. Meanwhile, because news now can travel instantly, leaving no time for deniability, governments become more and more afraid of media coverage.

AG: Like in the film, where Rosewater and his boss are laughably paranoid about “media espionage.”

MB: Yes, “media espionage”—that’s bullshit!

AG: Are you satisfied with Jon Stewart’s adaptation of your book?

MB: The film is a good adaptation of the book because Jon and I collaborated on the script early on, and I was on the set during filming.

AG: Was there anything in the book that was deleted in the adaptation that you would have liked to see in the final film?

MB: I could think of things I’d like to see included in a mini-series based on the book, but not in this film. Jon is a genius. I always admired his performance on “The Daily Show,” but when I saw him at work with other people I was really impressed by his trust. When he finds the potential in someone, he trusts that person. That goes for everyone—the crew, the actors.

AG: Can you give me a timeline of your involvement in this film?

MB: I came out of prison at the end of October 2009. I appeared on “The Daily Show” at the end of November 2009. Jon and I first met for breakfast in January 2010. Then we met at least once a month for a couple of years. Between January 2010 and 2012 we approached many writers and producers about working on the film, but they were not interested, for a number of reasons: either they didn’t think the money was big enough, or had doubts about the project, or had other commitments, or were going off to work on the next Bond film. Finally, Jon said, “Fuck it; let’s do it ourselves.” While we were in pre-production Jon was still working a full schedule on his cable series: we would meet for breakfast at 7 AM to get as much work done as possible before he had to appear on the show set by 9 or 9:30 AM.

AG: And then of course he took a hiatus from the show during the summer of 2013 to direct the film, and you were there.

MB: I’d like to add that we were very fortunate to be working with and supported by some terrific collaborators, including Jon’s co-producers Scott Rudin and Gigi Pritzker; the director of photography, Bobby Bukowski; and the production designer, Gerald Sullivan, to name a few.

AG: Let’s talk a bit about the films you yourself have made during your journalism career. After seeing Rosewater lots of viewers are likely to want to track down some of them, but there are no links to those documentaries on your web site, maziarbahari.com. How can we find them?

MB: Well, as you know, I’ve been pretty busy for a while now, so my web site needs to be updated. Also, I don’t own the copyrights to a number of them; those are controlled by various broadcast and cable companies, like BBC, Channel 4, HBO, Discovery.

AG: But you have a new documentary coming out next year, To Light a Candle.

MB: Yes. It’s an hour-long film about the persecution of the Baha’i faith in Iran. I’ve also been developing a number of web sites under the new “.me” domain. Journalismisnotacrime.me tracks Iran’s treatment of the press. Educationisnotacrime.me is another I’m working on, among other “notacrime” web sites. The Iranian government is criminalizing so many forms of behavior and cultural expression; did you hear about the students who were arrested for making a Tehran version of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” music video? As long as Iran’s government continues to harm its people, we’ll keep covering these stories.

 

The Gronvall Report: Theodore Melfi On St. Vincent

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

df-16485(1)_popFrom the opening scene of the new movie St. Vincent, where he’s telling a joke in a bar, to the closing credits where he’s desultorily watering a barren backyard from the comfort of his recliner, Bill Murray creates yet another memorably flippant curmudgeon. He plays Vin – short for Vincent, which at two syllables requires too much extra effort – an unrepentant Brooklyn gambler, boozer and smoker, who, aside from the occasional canoodle with pregnant hooker Daka (Naomi Watts), spends most of his time at home alone with his cat. That changes when divorced mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves next door with her young son Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), then hires Vin to look after the boy when she’s stuck working her hospital’s night shift. By day, in the classroom run by genial Father Garaghty (Chris O’Dowd), Oliver studies the lives of the saints; in his afternoons with Vin, the kid gets an altogether different education.

Writer-director Ted Melfi drew on his own family life for inspiration. After his brother died, leaving a young daughter orphaned, Melfi and his wife adopted the girl. One year while in school she had a homework assignment to pair a Catholic saint with a contemporary, ordinary person, and for the latter she chose Melfi. Those elements of loss, hope and love recur throughout St. Vincent, a beguiling comedy with some agreeably flinty edges.  The Weinstein Company release was recently a centerpiece of the 50th Chicago International Film Festival, and Melfi came to town for the screening.

Andrea Gronvall:  How long did it take to get St. Vincent from development to the screen?

Ted Melfi:  Three years. I wrote the screenplay very quickly, in five weeks. We shot the film in 37 days in Williamsburg, Brooklyn last summer.

AG:  All told, that’s not much time, really. Have you always been so decisive?

TM:  To a fault. My wife calls it my “happy delusion.” If I want to make something happen, about 60 to 65% of the time it happens. Look, if you reach even the 50% mark, you’re good.

AG:  Did you rehearse your actors?

TM:  Bill doesn’t like to rehearse; he likes to keep it fresh for the camera. With Melissa we didn’t have time, because she joined us one day after completing Tammy. Naomi spent four weeks working on her Russian accent prior to production, so she didn’t want to rehearse. Chris was working in Ireland on his TV series “Moone Boy,” so on Friday nights he would take the red-eye to New York, shoot with us all day on Saturday and Sunday, and then turn around and fly back.

AG:  That’s a work ethic for you. Actors in the U.K. and Ireland are like that. For them, it’s all about the work, whether it’s a bit part or a big movie. They love the work, more than they love the money.

TM:  That’s right. Over here it’s so fucked up. The amount of money that’s thrown around in Hollywood becomes an evil force. I made nothing on St. Vincent – which is to say I made scale. After you subtract the fees for agents, managers and lawyers over three years, there’s not much left. But I’d do it again. Your life should be about more than money.

AG:  Let’s talk a little about your discovery, Jaeden Lieberher. You got a terrific performance out of him.

TM:  I did rehearse Jaeden a lot; we’d go over each of his script pages 20 times until we got it right. Over my years of making commercials I’ve worked with a lot of kids. This is Jaeden’s first movie – he’d only made a couple of commercials before – but he’s like a 50-year-old pro in a child’s body.

AG:  And then there’s Bill, in one of his best roles. Nobody plays “world-weary” better than Bill Murray. How important is likeability for your characters? Because some of them walk a line. Your movie is sweet and funny, but it’s also quite tart.

TM:  Most people walk that line – move them 10% in one direction over the line, and they’re admirable, but move them 10% in the opposite direction, and they’re dangerous. Sometimes I’m an asshole, and sometimes I’m a nice guy. I like stories about real people. There aren’t any superheroes in real life, and very few Walter Whites [from “Breaking Bad”] – that is, at least before they go on to become so evil we can’t stand them. There are more Vins in the world than anyone else. That vast middle, the middle class, that’s who I’m making movies for.

AG:  Before I met you, I had planned on asking if you ever got intimidated directing a cast of such acclaimed actors, but I can see now that you’re probably not intimidated by very much.

TM:  Intimidated, no. But I can get nervous.

AG:  What makes you nervous?

TM:  The thinking of things. The doing of it doesn’t. Someone once told me that if you’re never nervous, you might as well quit this business, because it’s a tremendous venture you’re undertaking — and if you’re never nervous, you’re not being true to yourself. You’re masking your emotions, which means you’re dead, in a way.

AG:  Speaking of ventures, I read that for your next one you and Jon Favreau are developing a TV pilot called “The Mancinis”. But I’m a little confused about the wording in the press kit. Did it mean that the characters you’re creating are a father in the Mafia, and a mother who’s a nun, or did it say that those were actually your real parents?

TM:  My real parents.

AG:  Seriously?

TM:  Seriously. My dad was involved with some things in New York, where he was supervising a Mafia-run construction company called Stay-Put Concrete. You can’t make this stuff up. And my mom was a nun in Tarrytown, but she had a breakdown, so she quit and left to look for a job in the city. She applied for a secretarial job at my father’s company, but he told her he couldn’t hire a woman he was attracted to. So they went out to dinner instead, and four months later they married.

AG:  So, you’re still drawing on your own biography for your next work?

TM:  I have years of personal history that I can mine for the rest of my life.

The Gronvall Report: Damien Chazelle on WHIPLASH

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Artistry plus adrenaline proves the winning formula for Whiplash, the pulsating new musical drama and second feature from French-American writer-director Damien Chazelle. The Sony Pictures Classics release won both the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) and the Audience Award (Dramatic) when it premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, setting off a chain reaction of kudos that is reverberating months later, well into awards season. Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) stars as New York music student Andrew Neiman, an aspiring drummer who idolizes jazz great Buddy Rich. Neiman can’t believe his luck when his school’s legendary conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons of Juno and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy) begins grooming him for a spot in the conservatory’s renowned jazz ensemble. But talk about being careful what you wish for: almost immediately the brutal, megalomaniacal Fletcher appears hell-bent on showing Neiman that being the best means suffering the worst. What results from their ensuing and escalating struggle is a dark, twisting, heart-thumping thriller about what the inhumanly high costs of success. When he recently stopped in Chicago to talk up his film, it was reassuring to find that Chazelle in person was Fletcher’s polar opposite: relaxed, genial, and not at all scary.

Andrea Gronvall:  Your debut feature film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2010), was also about jazz, and also ended with a solo, but the tone, mood, and look were very different. That film harked back to the French New Wave, and, in a way, to the musicals of Jacques Demy, and also to cinéma vérité.

Damien Chazelle:  Yes, those were my influences. I’m surprised you saw that movie; so few people did.

AG:  A lot of critics admired it, including me. But I can’t remember the last time I saw a second feature that was so much more ambitious and technically assured than the director’s first. Whiplash dazzles on every level, from the screenplay to the lighting, to the camera moves, to the cutting—not to mention the riveting performances of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. And on top of everything, it’s film noir. Did you tell this story because you wanted to do a noir, or did noir simply suit the contours of the story you wanted to tell?

DC:  The latter. My decisions were largely pragmatic. When I began trying to get script ideas off the ground, I needed to write something that could be done on a small budget, and which I could direct, that would be a personal film, but would also appeal to a wider audience. So as my starting point I looked back to my own high school experiences as a drummer.

AG:  And how did you wind up making a movie about music that feels like a classic thriller?

DC:  Actually, it’s not so much like the classic movies from the Forties and Fifties as it is like the noir films of the Seventies.

AG:  Ah! Neo-noir.

DC:  Like in the films of [cinematographer] Gordon Willis, I wanted lots of green, brown, and gray shades, dark streets, top-lit shots. As soon as you decide on the overall mood, certain things fall into place, like having characters move in and out of the shadows. I’d say that the two biggest visual influences were The Godfather and Taxi Driver.

AG:  Certainly the ways in which a lot of the shots of Fletcher are lit make him look so sinister, almost Mephistophelean, like someone out of a Jacobean drama.

DC:  Jacobean–that’s a term I haven’t heard for a while. I enjoy the fury and the venom of Jacobean plays, and the almost larger-than-life villains.

AG:  How did you decide on J.K. Simmons for the role of Neiman’s mentor-nemesis?

DC:  Actually, it was [executive producer] Jason Reitman who got J.K.—who’s been in several of Jason’s films —on board for this. After my screenplay wound up in Jason’s hands and he signed on to produce, the first thing Jason asked me was, “What do you think of J.K.?”

AG:  Well, you couldn’t have cast a better actor for Fletcher, just like you couldn’t have cast anyone better to play Neiman than Miles Teller. From his very first film role, in Rabbit Hole (2010), it was clear he was exceptionally talented.

DC:  I agree. When I first saw him in Rabbit Hole I thought, I have to work with this guy.

AG:  Do you use storyboards?

DC:  These days, yes. When I was in school [at Harvard University], I shot 16mm documentaries, which influenced my first attempts at fictional films. Whiplash is more personal, with its emphasis on imagery – which I’m returning to now, going back to my earlier years growing up, when Alfred Hitchcock was almost like a god to me. When I was in school, putting that much stress on the craft of images was seen as selling out. But even if you look at the visuals in the work of John Cassavetes, they’re more controlled than you might remember.

AG:  We can’t leave without talking about the music in your movie. I like jazz well enough, but I’m nowhere near steeped in it. However, one of my film critic colleagues is also a very serious jazz aficionado, and his objection—not mine—to Whiplash is that he feels the movie misrepresents jazz: that in reality jazz is all about improvisation, not about the written charts that preoccupy your characters.

DC:  There has been an ongoing debate between different camps of jazz lovers [as to what defines jazz]. The sort of jazz performed in my film is not unlike the jazz I played when I was younger, jazz that was very much influenced by the big band era. There are elements in big band jazz that are borrowed from classical music: a large orchestra with a conductor, playing pre-designed, rehearsed, dense, complex arrangements. Big band jazz is more structured than the jazz played by small combos. When you are a student first learning the form, you have so much to keep track of–things like shifting time signatures, for instance–that improvisation is a luxury you can’t afford just yet.

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The Gronvall Report: Ira Sachs On LOVE IS STRANGE

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Irony is a weapon that’s most effective when wielded lightly, rather than with sledgehammer force. In the engrossing, richly textured indie drama Love is Strange, a Sony Pictures Classics release directed, co-written, and co-produced by Ira Sachs, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), New Yorkers who’ve been lovers for 39 years, tie the knot under their state’s recent Marriage Equality Act. But shortly after their nuptials George loses his teaching job at a Manhattan parochial school because of that institution’s opposition to gay unions. Instead of binding them closer, their wedding now drives Ben and George apart, as their sudden financial hardship forces them to sell their co-op and find separate, temporary lodgings with others.

That’s the setup for what in lesser hands could sink quickly into melodrama. Sachs, however, takes the higher ground, using Ben and George’s tribulations not to manufacture big, flashy scenes, but to observe how the men find grace under pressure. The quiet naturalism Sachs achieves here is part of the style he’s been cultivating since his debut feature, The Delta (1996), a teenage coming-out story that was notable for its low-key performances, grainy 16mm imagery, and slice-of-life documentary feel. It was shot in Sachs’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, as was his next film, Forty Shades of Blue (2005), an ambling drama about a philandering record producer (Rip Torn) and his much younger Russian émigré girlfriend (Dina Korzun). Sachs’ third feature, Married Life (2007), marked a departure in tone and pace; a tightly scripted, noir-ish thriller about passion, infidelity, and postwar middle-class malaise, it was an ensemble showcase for Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan, and Rachel McAdams. The director then returned to a more freely flowing, contemporary narrative with Keep the Lights On (2012), a frank, brooding tale of an ultimately destructive love affair between gay thirtysomethings.

The relationship between Ben and George in Love is Strange is anything but destructive; it’s clear that their deep commitment to each other is part of why they are so valued by the friends and family who rally to support them. Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez play Ted and Roberto, neighboring gay cops with a penchant for loud parties and Dungeons & Dragons. Darren Burrows is Ben’s filmmaker nephew Elliot, who’s married to Kate (Marisa Tomei), a writer who works from home, the better to look after their moody teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). In this view of New York, people try to do the right thing; it’s the high cost of living that’s brutal. On a recent swing through Chicago to promote his movie, which opens August 22 in New York and Los Angeles, and then expands elsewhere beginning August 29, Sachs shared his thoughts on the nature of love and the challenges facing independent filmmakers.

Andrea Gronvall:  Why the title Love is Strange, when your characters are anything but?

Ira Sachs:  The arc of a love is unique; each has its own shape. There’s the almost life-long love of the two central characters, but as this is a multi-generational story, we also see the bond between Kate and Elliot, and the beginnings, for their boy, of first love. In each of these accounts, love is “strange” because the details of the individual experiences are not true for everyone else. It’s also complicated because people change, and the definition of love expands with them. The film is about the experience of love, captured in the moment, like in real time.

AG:  Your movie reminds me of the neorealist classic The Bicycle Thieves, in the sense that early on in Vittorio De Sica’s film the loss of the hero’s bicycle is the catalyst for what turns out to be a character study, rather than a plot-driven work.

IS:  Thank you. Neorealism was certainly an influence. Love is Strange is like a neorealist film in that it attempts to make the ordinary extraordinary.

AG:  Also–and I hope you like this filmmaker and won’t mind the comparison—it reminds me of the movies of Olivier Assayas, particularly Summer Hours [where far-flung adult siblings reunite to dispose of the home of their deceased mother]. Your movie has a similar off-the-cuff, life-as-it-happens feel.

ISSummer Hours was a very influential film for me, and for my co-writer Mauricio Zacharias [who first collaborated with Sachs on Keep the Lights On], because it tells a family’s story, and explores the qualities of love and loss—plus, it’s also about real estate! I had a somewhat similar story happen in my own life, concerning the 1905 Memphis home that once belonged to my grandfather. When it got to the point where the granddaughter who inherited it couldn’t afford to maintain it any longer, to keep it in the family she asked me if I wanted to buy it. But that just wasn’t possible.

Mauricio and I started working on Love is Strange in 2012. I had gone through some big changes: I went from living alone to living with my husband [artist Boris Torres, who painted a canvas that is a key element in the movie], two kids, and the kids’ mother. So, like the movie’s characters, I knew something about being cramped.

AG:  Some of your film’s lighter moments arise from living at such close quarters, as when George is bewildered by Ted’s enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons.

IS:  I don’t do traditional rehearsals because they inhibit the kind of realism I want. But we did rehearse that scene; Cheyenne Jackson learned to play the game just for the film. I didn’t know much about it before, but I’ve come to have a great respect for Dungeons & Dragons. All kinds of interesting people have played it—writers like Nathan Englander and David Sedaris, for instance. It requires an investment in narrative, unlike video games, where everyone else does it for you. Cheyenne was great at it; I’m not that quick of a storyteller. Do you play?

AG:  Do I look like someone who plays Dungeons & Dragons? I’m old enough to be your momma!

IS:  [Laughing] Oh, don’t be too sure about that!

AG:  Well, getting back to narrative, it seems to me that many of the gay-themed movies I’ve seen are about both coming out, and coming of age. You know, where the young protagonist is at a crossroads: he’s newly aware, or coming to terms with, his homosexuality, which not only leads him to understanding himself, but also to see that the world is a very different place from what he’s been taught. It’s refreshing that your gay protagonists are at the opposite end of the age spectrum.

IS:  Although some of my movies are about coming out, they all are, in a way, about coming of age, in that they’re films about enlightenment, about self-discovery. I could make Love is Strange because I’m not the same person I was ten years ago.

AG:  You stated in a recent interview with Variety New York film editor Ramin Satoodeh, “The independent film business is dead.”  It’s true that many of the great indie companies from the 1980s were bought by the Hollywood majors, repurposed as the studios’ boutique divisions, and then shuttered. But could you expand a little more on your comment?

IS:  The profit margins just aren’t big enough. There are so many challenges, including marketing. When a movie like mine opens at Sundance, it gets labeled “GAY” in capital letters, but it’s not so easily defined.

There are also the tight budgets and short production windows. I’ll tell you a story about the final shot in the film [where Joey and a pretty girl skateboard on a street toward the setting sun]. I had cast a 14-year-old based on an audition video she sent, where she claimed to know how to skateboard. But on the day we shot that scene, it turned out she couldn’t skate. So here we are on a street that was closed down for us for that one day, and we’re running out of light, and just not getting what we needed, when out of the corner of his eye one of my producers, Jay Van Hoy, sees this pony tail go sailing by. He races to grab a transport van that Alfred Molina had just left, and follows the girl for three blocks before he catches up with her and asks, “Do you want to be in a movie?” And that’s how we got the shot.

AG:  Now that’s a producer.

IS:  He sure is.  I see us as going back to the John Cassavetes model. You make films because you have to. No one can let you. You just go ahead and do it.