Author Archive

The Gronvall Report: John Carroll Lynch Talks LUCKY And Harry

Thursday, October 5th, 2017

Some of the best performers in movie history have been character actors, and the late Harry Dean Stanton, who appeared in over 200 pictures before his death in September, was near the top of the list. For much of his career he was a stalwart supporting player, doing everything from westerns to gangster sagas, horror to science fiction, and Biblical epics to teen comedies. He was 58 when he starred in his first leading role, in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, a film that perfectly exploited Stanton’s laconic demeanor and soulful intensity. He lived to the ripe age of 91, and his farewell to us is one last leading role, a fictional version of himself, in the warm and intimate comic drama, Lucky.

For his directorial debut, character actor turned filmmaker John Carroll Lynch, working from a screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, drew on his own relationship with his star to craft a tender, funny portrait of a cantankerous desert loner nearing the end of his life. Lynch is one of Hollywood’s go-to guys, having worked with some of the industry’s best directors, including Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo), John Woo (Face/Off), David Fincher (Zodiac), Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino), and Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island). The 6’3” native of Boulder, Colorado was on hand to talk about his film when Lucky had its Midwest premiere at the Chicago Critics Film Festival in the spring.

Why is Harry Dean Stanton iconic? I’m assuming his iconic status is partly why you chose to make Lucky.

Harry Dean’s truth, the sense of truth that he brings to every role, is incredible, and it really is about his willingness just to be in imaginary circumstances. That’s a very rare gift, the ability to be present in the way in which most people aren’t available. That kind of perfect moment in his work is the end of The Straight Story, where he silently brings the audience to the realization of the weight of this life-long grudge between two brothers. His understanding of the gesture that his brother has made [toward reconciliation] plays out in real time in front of you, but it’s not through camera movement, it’s not through words; it’s his willingness to absolutely live that moment.

He strikes me as brave. To live on film, you have to be open to express as much pain as joy.

I agree. And he was very brave in Lucky, because this material comes from his life. My job with him was to create Lucky’s fictional journey, one that wasn’t Harry’s [real-life] journey, but to do so through Harry’s words. So, it was a very weird relationship to the material. It doesn’t come from somebody else’s life; he is revealing himself in this movie, in a way that’s very personal.

You establish through repetitions—his morning exercises, his daily walks through town—how the character is set in his ways. And yet events occur that show he can still be open to new experiences, even if change makes him feel vulnerable.

You mean that he’s fragile. Yes, at the very beginning of the film, he thinks he’s finished. But life has a way of reminding us that we’re never finished. And I think that’s what this story is, about this man who consciously lived the life he did; he fought as a young man in World War II, so this is not the first time he’s thought about death. That’s what the movie is about, that we all have to come to terms with death, right now. And what’s great about it is that the screenplay works in some ways like Harry’s mind works, and I responded to that, because a meditation on one’s own death doesn’t have to be maudlin or self-pitying or cold. It just has to be true: that some time in our future, whether it’s today or 40 years from now, the lights are going to go out for us. That’s all we have to know to understand that this world, this moment, is precious.

My view is that whether you believe in God or have a strictly scientific view of the universe, life is both a gift and a responsibility. You owe it to make the most of what you’ve been given.

I think there is another thing in the story that is important, and that is: “I don’t live alone; I’m in a community.” Lucky can’t survive without the other people in this town, even though he ignores them. Part of what happens in the story is that he recognizes that he no longer can ignore these people; he can no longer simply love just one person, he has to love all of them.

Lucky is tough on the outside, vulnerable on the inside, and slow but steady, like the tortoise in the film. Is the tortoise a metaphor for Lucky’s life? 

It was important to me that in the screenplay eternity is represented by physical objects, and by animals in the world. That tortoise is going to outlive us. The saguaro is growing a quarter-inch each year, and it towers over Lucky. Eternity is here, right now; we don’t have to search for it, we don’t have to look for some outside world. Even though that’s perfectly fine as you say, whether you believe in God, or don’t believe in God, we still all have to look at eternity and make our peace with it. And that’s one of the tricky things about this material: this is not a scary movie; it’s clear-eyed, it’s straightforward, and it’s funny.

I love the regulars in the bar. They’re like a bunch of desert rats, showing the effects of maybe having spent too much time in the blazing sun.

I love that the writers created characters who have a little hitch in their get-along. They’re kind of held together by baling wire and chewing gum—like all of us, right? What’s great about that bar is that everyone’s accepted, no matter how crazy they are; whatever their mania or obsession is, there’s a place for it. No one is excluded; the only thing you can’t do is smoke.

You obviously greatly admire The Straight Story. Were there other movies that you watched, or asked your cast or crew to watch, that informed your choices as a director?

The Last Picture Show, a movie that I think inspired the writers. I really wanted to have vista in the movie. It was in the screenplay, but it was really important that the desert was a character, and you felt its vastness, its life, its vitality, its aridness. So, at some point during production, I asked everybody, “What if John Ford were to make a character piece?” We wanted the movie to feel like Ford’s Monument Valley sequences, in that Lucky is tiny, compared to the vastness of the world. We don’t live big lives, and what happens is that he comes to terms with that.

As an actor you have worked with a number of prominent directors. Can you name any who particularly influenced you?

As an actor, it took me a long time to figure out what I was interested in. I needed to learn how to act before I could figure out what I wanted to act in, and what I wanted to emphasize in my work. I’m a young director, in that I’ve directed one feature. But I will say this: every master director or co-directors that I’ve worked with are at a place in their careers where they know what they’re interested in, know what they’re passionate about, and they don’t care what you think—they are chasing their dream. Either you’re on for the ride, or you’re not. And I love that!

Because you know where you stand.

Because you know where you stand. As an actor I know what I’m chasing; I’m interested in flesh and blood, in wisdom and rawness. I hope if I have the good fortune of directing again, I’ll know a little bit more about what I’m chasing as a director.

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The Gronvall Report: Director Dorota Kobiela on “Loving Vincent”

Sunday, October 1st, 2017

Loving Vincent is one of the most extraordinary animated features you are likely ever to see. A British-Polish-U. S. coproduction, it’s a celebration of Vincent van Gogh’s luminous paintings, and also an inquiry into the mysterious circumstances of his death by gunshot in 1890 in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Long part of van Gogh’s legend, the verdict for decades was that the tortured Dutch artist, who had a history of mental illness and poverty, committed suicide. It was certainly the view that earlier films about Vincent have shared, including Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 biopic Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas.

But the writing-directing team of Polish animator Dorota Kobiela and British producer husband Hugh Welchman adopt a different take in Loving Vincent. Their film draws on the controversial theory of art historians Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who, in their book
Van Gogh: The Life,” maintain that the facts point instead to a tragic accident. Kobiela and Welchman turn the final weeks of van Gogh’s life into a whodunit, as a skeptical young man, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) sets out after the artist’s death to find Vincent’s brother Theo, in order to deliver a letter he’s entrusted with by his postman father Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd). Along the way Armand talks to several key acquaintances of the dead man–Doctor Gachet (Jerome Flynn) and his daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan); Pere Tanguy (John Sessions); and a neighborhood snoop, Louise Chevalier (Helen McCrory)—and becomes determined to uncover the truth about Vincent’s demise.

All these characters sat for van Gogh, who memorialized them in portraits that are renowned worldwide today. The genius of the makers of Loving Vincent is that they took live-action footage of the actors, shot in front of a green screen, and then used 65,000 individual high resolution photographs of oil paintings by 125 artists to fill in the frames with images largely copied from van Gogh’s works, making this the first fully painted feature film in animation history. The film received a ten-minute standing ovation in June at France’s Annecy Festival. Annecy is to animation what the Telluride and Toronto film festivals are to narrative features: a launchpad for awards season contenders. Kobiela, an alumnus of Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, as well as The Warsaw Film School, Direction Faculty, was in Los Angeles recently to talk about the art of her film.

As a trained painter, what do you love about the medium of oils?
I started painting at 15, and found oil to be perfect to extract different colors from the palette and to manipulate impasto [the thick application of pigment]. The medium allows so many different approaches to painting. I worked in that mode for ten years.

It’s unusual for an animated film to embrace the mystery genre. What inspired your particular narrative approach?
From the very beginning of the writing process, the concept was always inspired by the mystery surrounding Vincent’s death, and how we wanted to tell his story through his paintings, and to do it as much as possible in the spirit of his work. We asked ourselves, why did his death happen this way, if it was suicide [as reported]? Suicide didn’t make sense. [After long, hard struggles] everything seemed to be going well in his life, and he was hopeful. He had two successful exhibitions, and positive critical reviews–some acclaimed him as a genius. This disparity so fascinated us, it inspired our approach. There were so many contradictions reported; throughout our extensive research we read lots of witness statements that conflicted with each other.

How did you and your husband divide the work of co-directing the film?
I started making the film as a short, and then I met Hugh [on another project]. He had a general knowledge of Vincent as a mad genius. When I first told him about my project, he showed only polite interest. But then London’s Royal Academy of Arts mounted an exhibition of Vincent’s letters [combining his correspondence with his art], and it drew huge crowds. So, that engaged Hugh’s imagination, and he started reading and developed an appreciation for Vincent’s bravery and hard work. Hugh was doing the historical research while I was focusing on the paintings and how to tell the story. Then Hugh got the idea to make the short a feature instead, that we would script together.

After a film Hugh had produced in 2008, Peter and the Wolf, won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, the Polish Ministry of Culture approached him about a film on Chopin. I was hired to direct the animated short Chopin’s Drawings [which became part of a feature film, The Flying Machine (2011)]. We worked closely together on that short, filling time while waiting for production of Loving Vincent to begin.

Viewing a painting by van Gogh is almost a psychedelic experience: although we’re looking at paint fixed on canvas, the colors seem to vibrate, partly because of their alignment and juxtaposition, and partly because of his brush strokes. In your film, the images do indeed vibrate. How did you achieve that effect?
That was our aim, of course, an insane undertaking, looking back. We wanted to use his techniques, but using canvas boards. The key is that he painted extremely fast, taking half a day, or just one day, to finish a work. So did we, not just because of the sheer volume of paintings that were required to copy, but first to understand the period of the painting, and analyze the order in which he painted, and get the colors right—but not overthink it.

The whole film was shot based on the performances of actors, but a lot of the material flowed from the imaginations of our artists; that’s what you see in the backgrounds surrounding the actors. That vibration, or shimmering, is what comes of animating Vincent’s brush strokes in our copies and interpretations of his paintings.

Were different teams of artists assigned to different characters?
Yes. I assessed each artist’s specific abilities, which was very important for filming, to know who could paint what under our deadlines. But you also have to understand the human aspect involved in this kind of performance: someone could get sick of painting only Dr. Gachet, for instance. And an animator could easily take six months to complete one shot [depending on its duration], so you want to avoid burnout.

What were the differences between creating the black-and-white flashbacks and the color sequences that are set in “the present” time frame of the story?
Major differences on many levels. During Armand’s journey, we aimed to capture Vincent’s style as seen in the portraits of the witnesses, or the scenes set in his landscapes [the town of Auvers and its nearby environs]. And we wanted to be very precise in terms of backgrounds, costumes, characters’ faces, etc.; there’s a historical record for reference. We wanted it to feel as if we were inside his paintings come to life. We approached the black-and-white sequences as a more classic type of narrative filmmaking, imagining his past without having to reconstruct it in his own visual terms. In that sense, it’s freer.

Those flashback sequences revolve around the charismatic actor who plays Vincent, Robert Gulaczyk. He is wonderful—where did you find him?
We knew we were going to shoot most of our actors in a studio in London. But we also wanted to shoot as much as possible in our Polish studio, so we decided to ask for a Polish actor. The right actor was so hard to find that we almost gave up. Then one day I was looking again through our casting director’s file and I came across Robert’s photo and asked, “Who’s this? Why didn’t I see his picture before?” And the casting director said, “Oh, no, he’s not what you need—he doesn’t speak English.” And I said, “But he can learn!”

So Robert came to the set the same day we called him and he auditioned. We knew right then that he was the one. The most iconic image of Vincent in the film, where he turns to face the camera over his shoulder [in three-quarter profile], that’s from the first minute of Robert’s audition. He just understood.

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The Gronvall Report: CITY OF GHOSTS and Citizen Journalist Abdelaziz Alhamza

Friday, July 21st, 2017

What does “home” mean to you and how far would you go to protect it? That’s at the heart of City of Ghosts, the documentary by Matthew Heineman (director of the Academy Award-nominated Cartel Land), who follows a group of refugees from Raqqa, the first Syrian city during the Arab Spring to resist the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad, only to fall later to ISIS. These young men, several of them only in their twenties, struggle to reclaim their home under the banner “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS, abbreviated). Nonviolent protesters, they are citizen journalists from previous other lines of work, who’ve stepped in for professional reporters who no longer can cover the war zone because the pros have become targets of both Assad and ISIS. (A harrowing statistic: since 1992, 85 journalists have been killed in Syria.) Just as in last year’s Oscar-winning Best Documentary Short about the Syrian crisis, The White Helmets, where director Orlando von Einsiedel relied on footage shot largely by Aleppo native Khaled Khateeb, City of Ghosts is powered by images captured on cameras and cell phones by members of RBSS. By shooting and disseminating the breaking stories no one else can get out, the RBSS volunteers put themselves in as much danger as if they were employed by Reuters, AP or The New York Times.

City of Ghosts opens in Manhattan at a 2015 ceremony where RBSS received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Shown accepting the award on behalf of the group is RBSS co-founder Abdelaziz Alhamza — Aziz, for short — the designated spokesman because, as he says, “my English isn’t terrible.” He makes polite small talk later with guests at the black-tie affair, one of whom, doubtless with the best intentions, urges Aziz and the other RBSS activists to find some relaxation while in New York. But his advice feels ironic, as do the instructions of a photographer snapping a group photo. “Maybe a little smile, possibly,” she asks, before telling RBSS co-founder Hamoud al-Mousa, “You’re so serious, my friend.” As we’ll see as the film unfolds, “serious” doesn’t come close to describing the situation and dedication of this group, who work in shifts around the clock in safehouses at undisclosed locations, living on coffee and cigarettes while under constant threat of exposure and death.

Aziz was a university student in 2012 when Assad’s forces, in a crackdown on protesters in Raqqa, arrested and tortured 15 schoolboys for writing anti-regime graffiti. Immediately the citizens rose in opposition and young guys with cameras raced to record the fighting. After Bashar’s forces withdrew, a power vacuum followed and in 2014 the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria moved into Raqqa, pushing out victorious rebel groups. Aziz and Hamoud, a self-described film obsessive, continued shooting and to their horror, they witnessed a steady escalation of terror. They recorded the public executions, beheadings and crucifixions of anyone who opposed ISIS. Soon ISIS was targeting RBSS for posting its undercover footage online, where it was picked up by regional and overseas news organizations. Several members of the collective had to flee, finding asylum in Germany, as Aziz did, or in Gaziantep in Turkey, near the Turkish-Syrian border. But even in exile RBSS wasn’t safe; their journalism mentor and co-founder, a courageous filmmaker named Naji Jerf, was shot down in broad daylight on a busy Gaziantep street. And when ISIS couldn’t locate RBSS reporters, the terrorists turned to murdering members of the collective’s families back home in Raqqa. Both Hamoud’s father and older brother were killed by ISIS in retaliation and as a warning to others.

In a telephone interview, I asked Aziz that, after all the many death threats RBSS had received, why did they choose to become even more visible by allowing director Heineman to follow them around with a camera and what was it about Matthew that led them to trust him? “We met him for the first time in Washington, D.C.,” Aziz replied, “when two of my colleagues and I were told by someone with the Committee to Protect Journalists that there was this filmmaker who very much wanted to talk to us. At that time we had no interest in making a documentary, but we met with Matthew and he told us what he had in mind and what his role would be. Then RBSS spent a couple of days discussing [his proposal]. We decided to sign on to the project for the same reason we had formed RBSS: our mission is to get the word out that Raqqa is being slaughtered silently and we knew this film could get the word out even more. We trusted Matthew because he presented himself professionally and came across as a good person. And once we began filming [the documentary], he was with us all the time and we got to know him and trust him even better.”

Heineman’s behind-the-scenes footage is intimate and gripping, but he also does an excellent job of explaining a highly complex scenario, in terms that a layman can understand. He organizes his material logically and incorporates clips from across the globe—including from ISIS itself. City of Ghosts uses a number of ISIS propaganda videos to help illustrate how the terrorists recruit new members. I asked Aziz how much of the ISIS army is comprised of foreigners. “Our research shows that there are fighters in ISIS from 84 different countries,” he told me. “They come from everywhere, from all ages and join for many different reasons.” But, as RBSS’s own video coverage indicates, Raqqa is far from the “paradise” ISIS claims. Surely, many of these recruits must figure out soon after arrival that they’ve been conned, so how many defect? Aziz replied, “It takes a lot of effort and determination for many foreign recruits to make it to Syria. But as hard as that is, it’s harder to leave Raqqa once they’re there. Each person who wants to defect is pretty much on his or her own to figure out how to get out and they fear for their lives.”

As City of Ghosts makes clear, the struggle for Syria is being waged as much on the internet as it is on the ground. “The battle between ISIS and us is growing every day,” Aziz says in the movie. “That’s why today, when you search on Google for ‘Raqqa,’ you won’t only see what ISIS wants you to see. You’ll find us.’’ RBSS continues the fight, not only by smuggling out video shot by members still in Syria, but also by pushing Western media to step up. Recently Aziz penned an op-ed in The New York Times, “Bombs Will Not Defeat ISIS (but Maybe the Internet Will”) and Heineman shot an accompanying video in which Aziz asks the help of “international governments and innovative leaders of Silicon Valley” to defeat extremist ideology of ISIS. I asked Aziz if during his West Coast press tour had he met with any of them, or had any of the high-tech titans he entreated—like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube—reached out to him?

“None of them has reached out to me,” he replied.

I have to wonder what they’re waiting for. They wouldn’t, if it were their homes at stake.

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The Gronvall Report: Director Aisling Walsh On MAUDIE

Saturday, June 17th, 2017

Things are looking up for women filmmakers, with Patty Jenkins’s blockbuster Wonder Woman, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s biopic Megan Leavey, and now Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, an intimate, perfectly scaled life story of celebrated Canadian folk artist Maud Dowley Lewis (1903-1970). The movie gives Sally Hawkins as the title character, and Ethan Hawke as her husband Everett, roles that rank among the best in their already illustrious careers. Their chemistry is true joy.

Maudie begins in Depression-era Nova Scotia, when rebellious Maud, who has been patronized and resented since early youth for the juvenile arthritis that misshaped her body, takes a job as live-in housekeeper for a hardened local fisherman, Everett Lewis, a surly loner who grew up in an orphanage. They each carry a lot of emotional baggage, and have diametrically opposed temperaments, making for some uncomfortably rough going early on. But through patience, persistence, and sweet reasonableness, Maud finds ways to break through his defenses. She brings order and companionship to his existence, and the fact that the post cards and canvases she paints of rural subjects begin to fetch money doesn’t hurt, either.

A multiple BAFTA nominee for directorial work in television, including “Wallander” (2011), starring Kenneth Branagh, and “An Inspector Calls” (2015), starring David Thewlis, Walsh also won plaudits for her 2003 feature Song for a Raggy Boy, starring Aidan Quinn and Iain Glen. The Dublin-born filmmaker is a graduate of that city’s Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and of England’s National Film and Television School, considered among the top 15 international film schools. Maudie combines Walsh’s love of painting and of film to serve a romance that blooms in a most inhospitable environment.

The love story genre used to be a staple of the movie industry. Why do you think there are so relatively few now?

That’s a good question. I think what drew all of us to the project was the love story. It’s a portrait over 35 years of a marriage that was quite rare in its time, a story of a woman’s struggles and how she opened up her husband’s life.

Maud and Everett are both outsiders who together find a way not only to survive but also achieve fulfillment. At the beginning you think it’s never going to work out, that they’re never going to fall in love. By the end of the film he’s a changed man, who allowed her to find herself as an artist. They live a simple, modest life under tough circumstances, and yet they’re very happy, despite the fact that they’re not the sort of people who fit into the box that “normal” society would assign them. Instead, they thrive within their own box—a tiny 12’ by 12’ house on an isolated stretch of road. It’s only within the last five years of her life that Maud becomes anywhere near well known, thanks to a half-hour documentary by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, whose crew interviewed her and Everett and showcased the home she so vibrantly decorated with her paintings. Now, 50 years after her death, her art is being looked at again.

Maudie is a painterly film, and not just because it’s about a painter. The lighting choices you and your cinematographer Guy Godfree made are evocative and resonant. How did you draw on your own training as an art student to devise the look of this film?

I just think that it’s more how you relate to the world, how you respond to that particular landscape, and how you respond to people. I’m only five feet tall and my view of the world is often from that height. You find a reference, a photograph, a painting that gives you a feel of what you’re after, and you respond. That location where we shot looks and feels dramatically different on a cold rainy day than it does on a warm sunny day.

I studied color and composition as an art student, but here I also wanted to echo Maud Lewis’s painting and its relationship to that landscape, the view she had from that small corner in her little home of the vastness of the surrounding land and sky. Once they open that door and look out, you go from something intimate to the largeness of the world that surrounds that cottage. If you’re working that far north and the weather is cooperating, sometimes you get great natural light.

For me what was really important were Sally and Ethan’s performances within that cramped home. The house starts out as very dark and dreary. Maud gradually changes it; with her painted landscapes she brings some of the color and vitality of the outside world in, and creates something personal and romantic.

I have to tell you—and maybe this is why I’m not a casting agent—I would never have thought of pairing Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke onscreen. You worked well with Sally on the British miniseries “Fingersmith” a dozen years ago, and over the years had hoped to work with her again. But how did you see Ethan as such a good fit for her?

Sally and Ethan are very similar in a lot of ways. I think of them as being beyond actors; they’re artists who get really excited by a challenge, and transform themselves. I was blown away by the film work he’s done over the last few years, particularly Boyhood (2014). I have always loved him; there’s something in his collected work that made him right. And probably no one else would have offered him a part like this. I just thought he was brave enough; he takes chances. We met in London, and I sensed we could work together and be bold.

How did you know that?

He’s an artist, like Sally. That’s what this film required. It would have been a different film without him; I can’t imagine it any other way.

Without a doubt he’s highly talented, with sound instincts. When he started out in movies, he could have easily gone the “pretty boy” route, but he didn’t—he kept pushing for projects that were edgy or innovative, that broadened his range. Plus, he directs, and has done a lot of theatre, on Broadway and off.

And more: he’s a musician, a composer, a screenwriter, and a novelist. It wasn’t easy shooting in that remote location, withstanding the elements. But you create a reality and make it your own. There’s no room to hide in that 12 x 12 space. He and Sally were fearless.

How long did it take you to develop the film?

I spent about two and a half years, but I joined the film in year 10 of its 13 years in development [after the previous director had departed]. I read the script and knew immediately that I wanted Sally for the title role. A few days later I sent her a couple of pictures of Maud Lewis; Sally wrote back and said “yes.” After that, things moved quickly.

You’ve stated elsewhere that you don’t see any difference between directing films and directing television. But surely there must be some differences between working on a small independent movie like Maudie and making a TV show for some giant media company?

I’ve done a number of one-off films for television, but that’s not like working on a long-running series, where you are looking as your overall goal the return of that series. Working in TV informs your filmmaking.

For example, [J.B. Priestley’s] “An Inspector Calls” was not a stage play familiar to me, although I knew that a screen adaptation had been filmed in the 1950s. When you are approached with a project, you think about who are the people I could make it with? What would a particular actor bring to it? What would be the challenges that I’d face? The same thing happened with Maudie. It’s all storytelling. Without my work in TV I don’t know if I would have made theatrical movies. I’ve been really lucky.

There’s been a lot in the American press over the past few years about the difficulty female directors have getting work in Hollywood. Obviously the Irish film industry has its own structure, but did you face any particular hardships as a woman in the industry on your side of the Atlantic?

Even though I’m Irish, and Maudie is an Irish-Canadian co-production, I went to film school in England and I live in London. But I think it all starts much earlier: you say as a teenager that, for instance, you want to be an astronaut. I come from a family who believed I could do whatever I wanted to; I never thought of myself as a female in a male-dominated world. People have asked me if my directing career would have been different if I had been born a man. I don’t know. Who knows what kind of films I would have made? But given my interests and my methods, I don’t know that I would have done things any other way.

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The Gronvall Report: Oren Moverman On THE DINNER

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017

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Ensemble dramas are among my favorite movies, in part because i’s thrilling to watch well-matched, gifted actors play off each other, instead of just one star dominating every other shot. Live theatre can be more satisfying than what’s at the local multiplex for a similar reason: you’re looking at tested pros taking a script and running with it, all the while igniting  potent interpersonal chemistry. Filmmakers like indie stalwart Oren Moverman still recognize this, making riveting adult-themed pictures that resonate. The writer-director’s latest work is The Dinner, his adaptation of Dutch author Herman Koch’s eponymous satirical novel, which was an international bestseller. The story unfolds from just before, through to the aftermath of, a dinner at an upscale restaurant (shot on location at impressive Alder Manor, a historic Renaissance Revival mansion in Yonkers), where two couples meet to discuss an urgent matter concerning their miscreant teenage sons. But it will take almost a full set of courses, from aperitif onward, for the parents to get down to the nitty-gritty. By the time we arrive at the digestif, it’s a wonder that they’ve kept their food down.

Richard Gere is Stan Lohman, a silky-smooth Congressman campaigning for governor while also striving to get healthcare legislation passed. Rebecca Hall costars as Katelyn, his much younger trophy second wife, who resents that condescending label, but as a pragmatist knows her place within the corridors of power. In flashbacks, Chloe Sevigny plays Barbara, his idealistic first wife and mother to his three children. Also at the table is Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), reluctantly joining the older brother he despises. A former history teacher who had to retire after a nervous breakdown, he’s joined by his loving and extraordinarily accommodating wife Claire, whose mission in life is standing by her man and calming troubled waters. As Paul, Steve Coogan is indelible, by turns bristling, brooding, and caustic, but surprisingly vulnerable, especially in scenes opposite Laura Linney as his spouse, such as when he’s in the bathtub listening to her reading the potential side effects of his medication, or in their one tender bedroom scene, where she says she’s missed his old self, the man he was before the drugs brought him back to “normal.” They are the picture of a devoted, beleaguered couple, but there are also hints that she might turn out to be more Charlotte Corday than “The Good Wife.”

The Dinner is Moverman’s fourth time as director. He also wrote the screenplays for his films, starting with The Messenger (2009), which he co-wrote with Alessandro Camon (the film garnered them an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and for Woody Harrelson a Best Supporting Actor nom); then Rampart (2011), co-written with James Ellroy, and Time Out of Mind (2014), which he scripted from a story he co-wrote with Jeffrey Caine. Moverman’s films deal with weighty social issues—war, alcoholism, police corruption, homelessness, mental illness—but not in a preachy way. In The Dinner, he uses America’s Civil War both as the background for Paul’s breakdown (who collapsed under the pressure of writing a book on the subject), and also as a metaphor for the deep, still smoldering divide between Stan and Paul, which is about to turn volcanic. If there’s a common link between these four films, it might be the lengths people will go to when their backs are against the wall.

What were the steps you took to adapt Herman Koch’s novel, first as a screenplay for Cate Blanchett’s directorial debut, and then, after she left the project due to scheduling conflicts and you took the helm, to shape it into what you wanted as the director of the film?

 The first draft of an adaptation tends to be about the book, and tends to explore what worked in the book that would work in a film. The first draft of The Dinner followed the novel’s action to a point, except that I moved it to America [not Amsterdam, the book’s setting]–because Cate wanted it to be an American story–then added Gettysburg, then an assistant, and also included a trip to Berlin. Cate wanted to focus primarily on the adults. Then when I took over, I expanded the mental health issues, added Stan’s introduction of a Congressional mental health bill, changed his assistant to a woman, and had both brothers go to Gettysburg.

An eminent colleague saw your film at the same press screening as I did, and although he said the acting was great, he told me afterwards that he found the characters impossible to like, because they do such awful things. But, I replied, the film sets that awfulness up at the very top, when we hear Paul’s voiceover narration about how much he prefers the ancient Greeks, how by the time we got to the Renaissance it was clear humanity was on the wrong track, and how our current modern era is worthless. In other words, the audience is getting a heads-up to expect something along the lines of a classic Greek tragedy as the film unfolds. The novel doesn’t begin the same way; was that passage your invention?

Paul looks at things in a very dramatic way, and responds to them dramatically. The gist of what he is saying there—that he likes the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians—comes later in the book, in a chapter at the school where he last taught, as he’s ranting against the principal. In the movie I decided to put that speech at the top, and added the comments about the Renaissance and the modern age. It’s Paul’s capsule view of what the modern age is, how we’re all hopelessly overwhelmed by technology, institutions, relationships, demands, and history. Embedded in that first voiceover are the themes of the movie, something we can realize by the end if we go back to think about it.

As a provocation to start an extended conversation [between the two couples over dinner], it has so many strands. The book latched on to the many aspects of Paul’s narrative threads very well, but I chose to break them down differently, as you can see in the three different voiceovers Paul has in the movie, at the beginning, middle, and end. In the middle voiceover, when Paul is complaining about Stan, their mother’s favorite son who always gets what he wants, Paul says that everybody falls for Stan, but his women leave him before long. Because Stan’s not who he appears to be, he’s not who he says he is. Everyone thinks he’s so ethical and humane, but by the time we get to the end of the couples’ evening together, we’ve seen different sides of Stan.

I’m glad you brought up this issue of the unreliable narrator, because that’s one of the key elements in your movie. In the book, eventually the reader learns that Paul, who’s the novel’s only narrator, is not to be trusted. In the film, sure, we get the idea very early on that Paul is a little off, that there’s something wrong here, but as the narrative progresses, and we learn more through a series of flashbacks, we begin to wonder about the other characters, and if they’re maybe playing him, manipulating him for reasons as yet unknown–like in the basketball sequence, where Paul’s son denies that he ever threw the ball through the smoke shop window. Are we meant to think he’s trying to gaslight his father, and absolve himself of blame?

At the end of the day, the movie takes this idea of the unreliable narrator and applies it to everything. Who really can you trust? Yourself? Memory is faulty. Your friends and family? Everyone has his or her own agenda, and is self-serving. History? History is written by the victors. In the case of the basketball sequence, you have two unreliable narrators, father and son—or even three, if you count the store owner. It seems to me that at the time the broken glass incident took place, in that flashback the kid is too young to have thrown the ball with the required amount of force. He couldn’t have done it. The father put the blame on his son so that he, Paul, could look heroic by coming to his son’s defense, while at the same time appearing blameless.

I’m not going to ask anything about Richard Gere, but will just comment that after seeing him in your previous film, Time Out of Mind, and in Joseph Cedar’s new film that’s also out now, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, on which you served as a producer, it strikes me that Gere has become your muse.

Yes.

But let’s talk about Steve Coogan, a remarkable actor with considerable range. I’ve seen a lot of his work, and I like Steve Coogan, although he scares me: he’s got that underlying British-Celtic-feral thing going on. He seems like a hard-charging guy—he’s made almost 50 quite diverse movies by now, so, clearly he’s driven. But I’ve never seen him do anything like this before. How did you get this amazing performance out of him? 

I think the answer is in how you stated the question. You’re kind to give me credit, but the performance is Steve’s. My job was to recognize that he had this performance in him. Steve is very smart and quick, and has great comedic instincts; he also has anger in him, because he cares deeply about a lot of issues involving injustice. He’s well-read; he’s cultured; he has a very rich core. And even though this is not a comedy, he brought all of that to bear in the role of Paul. Paul may suffer from mental illness, but what he has to say is not very far off the mark from what’s going on during the dinner conversation. It’s really quite close to fact.

Well, he broke my heart, and your movie did, too. Getting back to my earlier reference to Greek tragedies, unlike those antique plays, at the end of The Dinner there’s no catharsis. The audience doesn’t leave feeling purged, in the sense of emotionally released. Partly that’s because the ending is ambiguous, which for me is not a problem, because that’s life.

Yes, this is definitely a modern story. The ending is unclear, and that is where we are today. Many of us in our complicated world are lucky to be regarded as comfortable, but there’s a cost: just look at us. There is no catharsis.

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The Gronvall Report: Jason Connery and Company on Tommy’s Honour

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

It takes a team to make a movie, and it takes an exceptionally committed, resourceful team to make a shiny indie gem like Tommy’s Honour, the true story of Tom Morris and Tommy Morris, Jr. Father and son champion golfers in Scotland toward the end of the nineteenth century, they transformed the game, laying the groundwork for what the sport has become today. But this picture is about far more than golf: it’s also a love story; a tale of sweeping social change and class conflicts; and a moving portrait of a devoted father and the eldest son who would surpass him in talent, ambition, and fame. Based on the 2007 book by Kevin Cook, who co-wrote the screenplay with Pamela Marin, the film is directed by Jason Connery (The Philly Kid, 51, The Devil’s Tomb), himself a keen golfer who practically grew up on the links watching his father Sean Connery play. The movie stars the internationally acclaimed Peter Mullan (My Name is Joe, Braveheart, War Horse) as Old Tom; magnetic rising talent Jack Lowden (Denial, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk) as Young Tommy; and the dazzling Ophelia Lovibond (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise) as Tommy’s wife Meg.

Connery, Lowden, and Lovibond were joined by American producers Keith Bank and Jim Kreutzer for the U.S. launch of Tommy’s Honour over Easter weekend, still savoring the film’s win as Best Feature Film at the Scottish BAFTA Awards. “That was a wonderful moment,” recalls Connery. “It was a sort of culmination of—well, then it was five years’, now it’s six years’ work. I completely lost the ability to speak for about three or four seconds, which felt like three or four minutes, and I think the audience were thinking, what’s happened to him, did he have a mini-heart attack or something, because I literally went blank.”

The narrative of the movie is sturdy and propulsive; its tone and scale, intimate. Old Tom Morris was the groundskeeper at fabled St. Andrews golf course, and in addition to being a great player in his own right designed many of Scotland’s finest courses. During his prime, most of the other top players were also manual laborers, non-pros hired by the aristocracy; the gentry would bet on them at matches and pocket the winnings, giving only a small percentage to the struggling men. Young Tommy was his father’s co-worker and protégé, but unlike his dad, questioned the status quo. As Tommy’s skills grew and he became the star attraction on the circuit, drawing ever larger crowds and therefore heftier bets, he challenged the rich landowners—in the film led by the imperious Alexander Boothby (Sam Neill of Dead Calm and Jurassic Park)—and defied his father by setting his own terms financially and going on tour. When Tommy fell in love and married a woman considered beneath his station, other frictions within his family arose.

I tell Connery one of the things I most like about the movie is that his direction is not fussy. “I hate it when the camera has a mind of its own, when the camera has a perspective that is different from the storytelling,” he explains, adding, “The idea was that the camera doesn’t make moves that aren’t justified by what’s happening in front of it. I’m a big fan of John Ford, and if you actually watch a John Ford film, and try to imagine where he put the camera, after about three minutes you’re so in the story you forget to think about where the camera is.” The views captured by cinematographer Gary Shaw (Moon, Believe) are nonetheless impressive; Tommy’s Honour was shot on location in Scotland, inviting the audience in with an unobtrusive attention to details that feel authentic and natural.

A movie screenplay is the underlying framework for images and sound; I wonder about the connection here between script and images, how Connery arrived at his visual strategy. He replies, “I love the idea of the visual elements telling the story as opposed to people verbalizing, because in a way, words–certainly in films sometimes–can be mundane, in the sense that they only tell you one part of the story. Now, when you’re working with actors who have many levels of ability, hopefully you’re getting more than that. And when the actors flesh [the screenplay] out with their emotions, very often I find that we don’t need to say that line, because actually I can see it in their faces, and I would prefer that.”

When he has a certain sequence or scene in mind, does it spring from one dominant image that then colors everything around it? “I often look at the art of the time,” he says, “and maybe not even of the time–the artists, and what people were doing. The end of our film is near the start of the Industrial Age; there was a Civil War in America, and much change going on. I watched a lot of period films before making the film, and I also watched quite a few golf movies.” He says he storyboards, and also works from a “lookbook,” a term new to me. He clarifies, “It’s an electronic version of the idea of the film and what I’m trying to do. It’s like 22 pages of pictures, and character profiles, and how I’m going to shoot it, and how it might look, and I use it as reference to show not only investors, but also people who might be interested.” [He later emailed me the lookbook, and indeed every major aspect of Tommy’s Honour is evoked there in some form–Victorian-era photographs; biographical sketches and historical anecdotes; weathered handwritten documents, like the rules of golf (there were only 13 then); and notes on how Connery planned to use the camera—all arrayed across a green plaid tartan background.]

If the lookbook’s vintage photos of the real-life Tommy Jr. and Margaret Drinnen, the disgraced former maid whom he wed, capture the youth, promise, and beauty of the couple, actors Lowden and Lovibond breathe vitality into the characters. You get echoes of their on-screen chemistry in their off-screen banter, at once playful and mutually supportive, and as though they share some shorthand, or a kind of secret language. To call them entertaining and lively is an understatement: they’re not just the brightest lights in any room, they are the room. I ask Scottish-born Lowden what initially attracted him to the project. “First and foremost,” he replies, “the story. I just thought it would be beautiful, the arc of it. It was quite a tragic arc, of him achieving so much, and then he’s dead at 24. I just found it amazing. There’s something about these people. He seemed to have sort of a death wish. You know, Senna, the racing driver Senna was always accused of that, that he had a death wish.” Lovibond concurs, “I think these people kind of burn out, don’t they? They fly too close to the sun, and they’re gone.”

A favorite scene of them together in the movie is when Tommy and Meg first meet in the restaurant where she works, where he is being pitched by a British aristocrat to decamp to England for bigger bucks. But all the while Tommy barely listens, as his nose keeps following Meg’s progress around the tearoom. “I’m with you,” Lowden says. “Even just as a film fan watching that scene, it looks like two people in love. It looks like we know something that nobody else does. And he does love golf, but he’s bored by all this talk about golf.” Lovibond interjects, “It’s like when he says to his father, ‘Your god is golf—‘”

Her co-star completes her thread, “’—but it’s not mine.’ He’s not just looking at some girl. And [to Ophelia] you come over to him, and I say, ‘You know, you’re serving tea to the champion golfer of Scotland,’ and you slam him. And he likes it.”

I ask how they respectively found their characters’ physical and psychological cores. Lovibond answers, “The corset certainly helps you get into character right away, but I consciously wanted to make her more relaxed, and not focus on posture all the time, but more on sitting into my hips, because she was quite rejected [by the close-minded society of the time] over the way one ought to behave, the way one ought to be. I wanted to reflect that insouciance, I suppose, in her body language.” She then turns to Jack, remembering, “We were just talking about that, about your walk, the way Tommy walks.”

The 6’1” actor, who feels he looks like “a baby giraffe in tweed” alongside his partners up on screen, reveals he was inspired by Liam Neeson in Michael Collins. “He’s also quite a tall bloke. I love the film; there’s something about whenever he walks out of a scene—everybody’s always walking in that film, but he walks with such purpose. I watched it before I did this film, where there’s a lot of Tommy hitting a shot, and then walking away, that whole thing of Tommy moving forward all of the time, kind of a restless bloke. So I tried to do that with my character.”

The hero’s gait is definitely jaunty, with a bit of swagger. Tommy Jr. tilts full speed ahead for most of the movie, slanting toward the future; he may not know what that future is, but it’s not going to be what insufferable toffs like Boothby dismiss as “nothing.” In today’s golf, you’re looking at highly paid, elite athletes—although considering what the broadcasters make, more power to the players if they can get it, right?—but the sport in Tommy’s Honour is about the common people. Lowden’s response to what I thought was a casual observation is so forceful he startles me: “But that’s where it came from! It came from the people, it came from the guys that worked on the land; it really did! And, look, if anyone can take a kicking, it’s the upper classes, okay? And you know, I hate ‘class,’ I hate the idea of class, I hate that’s in our society. I hate that people get referred to as middle-class, working-class.”

I try to make the point that you can’t ignore that it exists, and Lovibond leaps to his defense: “But the use of the terms perpetuates that.” He continues, gathering steam, “If we would stop using the terms it would kind of disappear. Even the people who say they’re working-class, and take pride in it, it’s like—“ She jumps in, “Why don’t they go out and buy a T-shirt that says it?”

He agrees. “I would rather that people distinguish themselves through their nationality rather than their class, because there are so many different nationalities in the world, it’s fantastic. But classes—are there like four classes, or three perceived classes?—and [referring to Boothby and his ilk] you’re shoving yourself in there? Shut up! That’s what I like—that they can get a kicking in the film. And they can take it.” Clearly, this young man with so much fire in his belly was the right choice for the role. And the two of them together made me rethink some things I thought I knew.

Well before the actors signed on, and years before Connery’s assured turn at the helm, Tommy’s Honour began as a passion project for Chicago-based film producer Jim Kreutzer (Just Write), who first learned about the Morris family while playing the links at St. Andrews during a vacation with a then ailing close friend. Kreutzer soon bought the rights to Kevin Cook’s award-winning book, and after much searching eventually tapped Connery (who had been producing and directing films since he founded his own production entity, Unconditional Entertainment) to direct, certain they were on the same page. But after putting some of the initial financing pieces together, Kreutzer hit a wall. “I was stuck. I couldn’t get it done,” he recalls. “We were fortunate about three and a half years ago to meet Keith Bank through a mutual friend. And as we were casting things on the water, sometimes you’ll get a nibble, but pretty much Keith just swallowed this for a lot of reasons: his interest in golf, his interest in philanthropy, his interest in promoting the game himself.”

Bank, who also lives in the Chicago area, adds, “You know, my day job is the venture capitalism industry. I did a film [Heaven is a Playground] 28 years ago and swore I would never do it again. It’s a tough business. It’s not like I hate the business. I like it; it’s just not my goal to do full-time. But this project just really struck a chord with me when Jim came in and told his motivations and reasons for doing it. I read the material, and met Jason, and I just said, if I’m ever going to do it again, this speaks to me.” Kreutzer and Bank dubbed their company Gutta Percha Productions, named after the stuff old golf balls once were made of—which is also, coincidentally, the substance used to fill root canals (Kreutzer started out as an endodontist).

I ask Kreutzer if he thinks it’s harder to do this work because he lives in the Midwest, rather than on the West Coast. “I don’t think so at all,” he replies, “in fact, just the opposite. I think fundraising is easier outside of Los Angeles, because people in L.A. are so cynical about filmmaking because they’ve been there for all those years. I was offered a job to go live in California and make movies ten, twenty years ago, and I turned it down, because I liked living here. Here you’re able to step back, not get swept up, and not get so inundated with projects. And if you start believing your own press, then you’ve made a mistake.”

“The challenges in making a film are multiple; certainly, coming in on time and on budget,” Bank adds. “My attitude, right or wrong, is you can hire talented, good people that are experienced, who know how to do that. We were fortunate that we had good source material and a good script to start with. You have to get a little bit lucky along the way to make sure the weather cooperates, to make sure you don’t have accidents on the set, and so on, but the raising the money part is challenging for any film. It’s, I think, extra challenging for independent film, and it’s extra, extra challenging for sports and golf-oriented film, and it’s extra, extra, extra challenging for people who are kind of in the industry, but kind of not in the industry. There’re just so many hurdles that it’s a lot easier for people to say no than to say yes, so you have to give them a compelling reason to say yes. And then once you do all that, and you make the film—and I think we made a very, very good film—you have to find someone else who believes in it. And you hear the same diatribe from all the distributors: it’s an independent film; it’s a period piece; it’s a sports movie. Everyone likes to put a label on it–and, as you know, one out of ten movies that get made never land in a movie theatre.

“So you have to have a distributor that sees the vision, shares the vision, and gets people to show up. With this film, the upside is that you have 24 million golfers in the US—that’s the low-hanging fruit—you know where to go find them, there are channels where you can get to those people. The downside is those who put it into the bucket and say it’s a sports film, or it’s a golf film, and how do you get to the non-golfers and the rest of the movie-going audience?”

With some trepidation I admit to Connery that I have never played golf and don’t understand the game, yet Tommy’s Honour resonates with me and I got very caught up in his film—which is honest, but could sound like faint praise. But he responds, “It’s such a joy to hear you say that you don’t know anything about golf, you’re not interested in golf, and yet you were fascinated. This film was at least a gateway for you to say, so, that’s how it started, oh, that’s what happened, oh, now look at it. To me that’s accessibility, because golf is a very polarizing game. You either love it or you hate it. A lot of people hate it. I’m hoping that we can bridge that gap.”

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.