Author Archive

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

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG:  Is there anything autobiographical about the trilogy?

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

The Gronvall Report: Gabe Polsky On RED ARMY

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gronvall Report

GABE POLSKY ON RED ARMY

By Andrea Gronvall

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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The Gronvall Report: Screenwriter Graham Moore on THE IMITATION GAME

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG:  What was your job description as executive producer?

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

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

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

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

The Gronvall Report: Talking With ROSEWATER’s Maziar Bahari

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Gronvall Report: Theodore Melfi On St. Vincent

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG:  Did you rehearse your actors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG:  What makes you nervous?

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

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

TM:  My real parents.

AG:  Seriously?

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

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

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

The Gronvall Report: Damien Chazelle on WHIPLASH

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG:  Ah! Neo-noir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG:  Do you use storyboards?

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

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

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

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The Gronvall Report: Ira Sachs On LOVE IS STRANGE

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG:  Now that’s a producer.

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

The Gronvall Report: Joyce Maynard On LABOR DAY

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Love stories are Hollywood’s most endangered species. Forget about formula romcoms, or vampire-human couplings, or the ubiquitous tales of men lusting after their hot, shapely guns. I mean real love stories, where the exhilaration of two people falling headlong for each other is also laced with the dangers such plummets can bring. Real love, however sensual and joyful, is seldom without darkness, risk, and sorrow.

Writer-producer-director Jason Reitman has already made two memorable love stories, although Juno and Up in the Air are definitely on the quirky side. With his latest film, Labor Day, he reaches a new level of maturity, adapting Joyce Maynard’s poignant, bestselling novel about reclusive, divorced Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Their rural Massachusetts existence is disrupted in the summer of 1987 when wounded, escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) takes refuge in their home. The attraction between Frank and Adele quickly deepens into something profound, as he takes care of her by listening, making repairs around the house, and showing remarkable culinary skills–like how to bake the perfect peach pie. Meanwhile, Henry feels a rush of conflicting emotions, complicated by his own emerging sexuality.

Moviegoers saw author Maynard on the big screen last year in the documentary Salinger, where she recalled her youth as one of literary giant J.D. Salinger’s secret conquests (he reportedly favored liaisons with teenaged girls). She survived that experience, which could have proved crippling, going on instead to craft her own literary career as a prolific journalist, columnist, novelist and memoirist. (Her latest novel, “After Her,” comes out in paperback in April.) Slender, sleek, and chic at 60, she fills the room with her energy and exuberance. She also has a wicked, self-deprecating sense of humor, referring to her recent trip to Chicago as part of her “Kate Winslet Was Unavailable Tour.” As much as I like the consistently pleasing Winslet, I doubt I could have had more fun talking with the actress than I did chatting up the movie with the book’s creator.

Andrea Gronvall:  Generally, if I haven’t already read the book on which a movie is based, I won’t read it until after I’ve seen the screen adaptation, so that nothing interferes with my initial perception of the film. So, I didn’t read Labor Day until after I’d seen Jason Reitman’s version. I very much liked the movie, and then I loved your book, and after reading it I found I admired the movie even more.

Joyce Maynard:  [laughs] I think the book is always better!

AG:  Books often are! But seriously, he captures the tone of your novel so well. He really has a feeling for your original material.

left-awardsJM:  He does, and he is a man who loves his mother. Jason bought the movie rights before Paramount came on board. He had read the book in galleys, and contacted me in the fall of 2009 shortly after it came out. And he asked if he could come over to my house to learn how to make pie.

AG:  Although the movie is faithful to the book in all the important ways, what’s also interesting is what’s left out. An abortion is key in the book, but there’s no mention of abortion in the film. My guess is that he made that change because if he hadn’t, the culturally divisive topic of abortion would have pretty much dominated all media discussion of the movie.

JM:  We did talk about omitting the abortion reference. Kate Winslet pushed hard to keep it in the screenplay; she wanted the film to be faithful to the novel because she loved the book so much. But Jason’s decision was the right way to go.

AG:  Also, without wading into any potential spoilers here, the film is ambiguous about which character is guilty of an act of betrayal, while the book is not.

JM:  Yes, let’s avoid spoiling. I can say that that [betrayer’s identity] aspect was deliberated thoroughly, but an ambiguous ending seemed to be the only way to pull the film off. And it’s certainly not a conventional happy ending.

AG:  You’ve seen two of your novels adapted for the big screen. How did your experiences of movie-making differ between Gus Van Sant’s To Die For [1995] and Reitman’s Labor Day?

JM:  They were totally different—although, in both instances, a wonderful director, a wonderful screenwriter, and a wonderful movie. Buck Henry, who wrote the screenplay for To Die For, is brilliant; I love his writing. And Nicole Kidman was terrific in the lead.

AG:  Yes, it remains one of her best roles.

JM:  But that said, the two directors’ styles were completely different. I was very pleased with the way the way the movie of To Die For turned out, but I think I didn’t have more than one conversation with Gus Van Sant—not that I ever expected to be hanging out on set, or wanted to be peering over anyone’s shoulder. Jason is roughly the same age of the narrator of the Labor Day movie [Tobey Maguire, who plays the adult Henry], which gives him the right perspective for the character. And Jason has a wonderful team of collaborators who’ve worked with him previously [including cinematographer Eric Steelberg, production designer Steve Saklad, art director Mark Robert Taylor, and composer Rolfe Kent]. The set decoration, the whole look of the film, reminds me a little of the love story The Way We Were. It also reminds me of the cover of a James Taylor album I still have.

AG:  You’ve been writing professionally since you were 18. Which authors do you read?

JM:  I tend to read writers who inform me as a writer—Andre Dubus II, Alice Munro, Grace Paley. And I’ve just read Ann Patchett’s “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” a book that’s been getting a lot of favorable attention.

AG:  You’ve written eight novels, and several memoirs—

JM:  Actually, that’s not completely true. Of the four nonfiction volumes, only “At Home in the World” is, strictly speaking, a memoir. I went through a really tough time during all the uproar following its publication; it was unbelievable how vitriolic people were that I chose to write that memoir.

AG:  Who are they to judge you? They weren’t there when you were with Salinger, so they don’t know what it was like.

JM:  It is one of my books of which I’m most proud, despite everything I went through later.

AG:  But getting back to my question: you’re such a prolific writer—a storyteller, a journalist, a memoirist—haven’t you ever thought of turning some of your work into a one-woman stage show?

JM:  [laughs] All the time! Actually, I do perform with The Moth [the celebrated New York storytelling group]. I’m such a ham.

AG:   Well, there’s already one actor in your family. You must be so proud of your son Wilson Bethel, who is carving out a promising career for himself.

JM:  I am so proud of him. He has developed quite a female following for his current TV series. “Hart of Dixie.”

AG:  He’s a cutie-pie.

 

JM:  He is a cutie-pie!

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The Gronvall Report: Kevin Macdonald Gets to the Heart of How I Live Now

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

No doubt about it: young adult novels are proving fertile hunting ground for movie adaptations. Most studios would kill for the grosses from Summit Entertainment’s blockbuster franchises built on Stephanie Meyer’s “The Twilight Saga” and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. But even when a big-budget adaptation like Ender’s Game has a softer-than-expected opening, judge the film on its own merits (and whatever you feel personally about novelist Orson Scott Card, just think back to the 2007 movie made from Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and you might agree that Ender’s Game is a far more successful adaptation).

Kevin McDonald

Kevin McDonald.

So it was with a sense of anticipation last month that I attended the Chicago International Film Festival’s special presentation of How I Live Now, based on Meg Rosoff’s award-winning YA novel, and directed by Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, Marley). A speculative fiction set in England during an unspecified time—it could be the future, or it could be any day now—the Magnolia Pictures release is intimate, hypnotic, and chilling, a coming-of-age tale combined with a romance and a war adventure.

Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hanna, and Wes Anderson’s upcoming The Grand Budapest Hotel) stars as Daisy, a troubled, surly American teen sent by her father to spend the summer with cousins in the English country home where her late mother used to stay. At first indifferent to the charms of rural life, Daisy holds herself apart, but as World War III nears, she bonds with her younger cousins Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird), and even more closely with the eldest, Eddie (George MacKay), with whom she falls in love. When war breaks out, at first they’re all fine–the front seems so far away. But eventually the conflict spreads to their region, and Daisy finds herself fighting not just for her life and Piper’s, but also for the boys, who’ve been lost amid the chaos.

 The first act of the film is idyllic; the second, dystopian. And yet, the film has an evocative poetry even in its toughest scenes, thanks in no small part to the cinematography of Wim Wenders’ collaborator Franz Lustig (who also made the fascinating documentary 2, or 3, Things I Know about Him, about the adult children of a former Nazi). How I Live Now is a movie whose appeal will not be limited to younger viewers, and I was delighted to get the opportunity to talk to Macdonald about his vision.

 Andrea Gronvall:  I usually shy away from personal questions, but I have to ask you:  do you have children of your own? Because your movie really gets what kids are like–fragile and tough at the same time.

Kevin Macdonald:  Yes, I have three kids, aged 6, 9, and 11—so two of them are roughly the age of Harley Bird when she made the film. I suppose the central thing for me is that the world we live in now is a world full of anxiety. We don’t know who we can trust, or where the next attack is coming from. What we lose sight of is how anxious this makes our kids. I grew up during the Cold War, when the Soviets were identifiably the enemy. Today violence can come from anywhere, and we’re often helpless to stop it.

AG:  Much of the film’s power derives from the fact that most of the evil occurs offscreen.

KM:  The idea of the apocalypse has been debased because we’ve seen it so many times before in movies, often involving huge explosions. I wanted instead to focus on the relationship between Daisy and Eddie. I’m surprised how many people have found the film disturbing; their imaginations are engaged and working them up.

AG:  The screenplay is by three writers, Tony Grisoni (In This World, Red Riding Trilogy), Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland, Brideshead Revisited), and emerging playwright Penelope Skinner. One of the movie’s most affecting sequences—the children’s experience of widespread fallout after an atomic bomb devastates London—is a perfect example of how less can be more. Was it always scripted that way?

KM:  Yes, it was. The idea was to show how their pastoral, wonderful idyll is suddenly so rudely interrupted, but they don’t really know what’s going on; at first they think the ash is snow. It shows how the world appears to children. They’re not following the news; they don’t necessarily know or understand the scale of the tragedy, but they come to an acceptance of it. That sequence is also the big turning point in the movie, where you may have thought the story was going in one direction, but now, maybe not quite halfway through, it’s headed in another.

HOW I LIVE NOWAG:  As original as the film is, it’s also within an established tradition of British cinema, those wartime dramas about ordinary women who join the labor force or work farms, or about London children who are sent to the countryside for safety. I’ve always admired that about the British, how they retain their humanity and carry on in the face of disaster.

KM:  The power of love helps you survive. Daisy at the beginning can’t feel love, but when she comes to love this family, she finds enormous strength. [As for British war movies,] John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987) is a lovely film based on his memories of growing up in London during World War II. For the child at the center of the movie, the Blitz is a wonderful time, a magical time. When a bomb drops on his school, he doesn’t see it as a disaster; he’s thrilled that he doesn’t have to go to school! It shows how differently a child can perceive the world than the adults around him.

AGHow I Live Now was your first experience working in digital, yes? How would you categorize it?

KM:  It was a pleasant one. Before production, I did go back and forth trying to decide whether to go with film or digital. Really, it was mostly for financial considerations that I chose digital, but it gave me a lot of freedom. We used the ALEXA M and the ALEXA Plus, as well as the Canon EOS C300. The flexibility that comes with being able to shoot 40 minutes without changing the magazine was especially useful in working with child actors. And the little handheld Canon allowed us tremendous freedoms in shooting; a lot of the first part of the movie was shot with it.

AG:  The color is so dreamy; these cameras are very good in low light levels, especially when the weather proves uncooperative. But I just want to get in one last comment, about the original score by Jon Hopkins, which is as lyrical as many of the visuals. Thank you for your time, and I wish you well; you and your team have made an extraordinary movie.

KM:  Thank you.

How I Live Now is in theaters, on demand and on iTunes.

The Gronvall Report: Coogler & Jordan On FRUITVALE STATION

Friday, July 19th, 2013

fv-sg-000_lgAs vast a country as the United States is, and as diverse as its regions are, all too often there’s one news report that resonates from coast to coast. The locations, victims’ names, and MOs change, but over and over the story recounts yet another young black male meeting a violent, and often avoidable, end. The new film Fruitvale Station takes one such true crime story and amplifies it into an emotionally complex and highly compelling drama. Writer-director Ryan Coogler, 27, makes the particular universal in his rendering of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old San Francisco Bay Area resident who was shot and killed by a policeman on a BART elevated platform early on New Year’s Day, 2009. Michael B. Jordan, 26, stars as Oscar, an ex-con who’s trying hard to stay straight and prove himself to his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) and his partner Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and make up to his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) for lost time. So skilled are the director, cast, and crew that even though we know the outcome of the story going in, its climax is nonetheless devastating.

   The film won both the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The Weinstein Company, its distributor, is widening the movie’s release this weekend and next. Recently Coogler and Jordan flew to Chicago, where I caught up with them.      

Andrea Gronvall:  Welcome, but I’m sorry you had to arrive in this heat.

Ryan Coogler:  Oh, we caught 90-degree days in California when we shot this time last year.

Michael B. Jordan:  Yeah, we had a few obstacles. I was calling him “Firefighter Ryan” because he was putting out fires every day.

AG:  Like what?

MBJ:  You name it. Take Oscar’s wardrobe, which didn’t change that much. I had two white T-shirts, one with blood, one without. Since we weren’t shooting chronologically, continuity was a real problem.

RC:  We were running and gunning. It was great that we had phenomenally talented actors and crew. Our actors were real team players. Octavia Spencer and Michael could have easily been prickly, but they weren’t. They just rolled their sleeves up. And I put this guy through the ringer—stunts, getting beat up, getting shot, lying on a hospital slab, working with animals. And emotionally put him through a lot of hoops, as well. But he was always trying to figure out how to do it better.

AG:  I’m sure I’m not the first, and not going to be the last, to comment on how Fruitvale Station couldn’t have had a more timely release. I’ve been glued to MSNBC’s coverage of the trial of George Zimmerman for the slaying of Trayvon Martin, and keep asking myself why these senseless killings of young black men keep happening. Like Trayvon, Oscar Grant was guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. How do you see your film fitting into this national debate?

RC:  People often don’t recognize certain people as human beings. So many people look at African-Americans as criminals, degenerates, and then turn to the media to confirm these attitudes. That kind of mentality leads them to view a lot of people dying as, “These people got what they deserved.” And some African-Americans internalize that, too, and start thinking that way. As a filmmaker, all you can do with your art is to trigger thought, inspire thought. Thoughts count. All I can do is to bring people to reflect, so that they can gain insight, so that they might understand something about these young men, and who they really are.

MJB:  To piggyback on what Ryan just said, I think that what we show in the movie is about as real as it can get. I hope we stir thoughts about how we are responsible for our own actions, ask questions about manhood–how can I be a better brother, father, husband? –and how to deal with people outside our comfort zone.

AG:  Michael, there are only a couple of flashbacks in Fruitvale Station during which you can show what Oscar was like in the past, and therefore how far he has come by that fateful New Year’s Eve. Which means that you essentially have to establish the layers of his character within just the last few hours of his life. What were your techniques with, say, body language—like, how did you choose your swagger in the prison scene where Wanda visits her son?

MBJ: That was something that Ryan and I worked on together, to show Oscar acting one way to survive in prison, and then shifting out of that, because when you’re going to see your mom, you don’t want her to see that side of you. So what happens in that scene is kind of a warming process. We always wanted to show how Oscar’s mind changed when he had to deal with different people. That’s why there were a lot of long takes.

AG:  Ryan, let’s talk a little about your visual strategies. You had a very fast shoot, on a tight budget. How did you get such a warm, vibrant look for your film? I’m thinking, for instance, about the softly illuminated, intimate scene of Wanda’s birthday party on New Year’s Eve. It perfectly conveys the centrality of family.

RC:  The budget was around a million dollars. Our director of photography, Rachel Morrison, was just recognized with the Kodak Vision Award for her contributions last year to the art and the industry. She’s very tough, and operates cameras herself. She’s done a lot of non-fiction work, so she’s used to getting right into the thick of the action. It was the first time I saw a cinematographer get so close to the actors. Yet somehow Rachel would know when to give them space. We shot in Super 16mm, and therefore had to forego screening dailies because the film had to be sent to L.A. for processing. We used film because I wanted an organic, visceral feeling, and a contrast to the digital video taken of the real-life Oscar Grant on the BART.

AG:  Did you intend symbolism in the scene where Oscar tosses the bag of weed he was planning to sell into the Bay? It strikes me as though he’s washing away his sins, a spiritual concept that’s part of both Christianity and Judaism. I’m just asking if that scene is your poetic touch, because you couldn’t have known if that really happened, since only Oscar was there at the time.

RC:  Actually, that did happen; Sophina told me that Oscar told her he threw the weed into the water. But you’re right about the spiritual aspect of water, and it’s not limited to just the Christian and Jewish religions—it’s part of a number of different religions. The scene with Tatiana toward the end of the movie, where she learns the truth about Oscar from Sophina in the shower, that really happened. I can say that working in the Bay Area, water is all around us. For us, it has a sort of meditative character—the sea can change in an instant. That goes for us as people, too: our day can start out one way, and then change in an instant.

An interview with WHAT MAISIE KNEW’s Scott McGehee and David Siegel

Monday, June 10th, 2013


What Maisie Knew, the latest film from the directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture, The Deep End, Bee Season), is about an endearing 6-year-old girl caught between her warring parents. Very loosely based on the novel by Henry James, the movie has a thoroughly contemporary look and feel, from its setting in downtown Manhattan, to its detailed portrait of a trendy, narcissistic “creative” couple’s breakup. Julianne Moore plays Maisie’s mother, Susanna, a fading rock diva who’s unwilling to relinquish either the limelight or her footloose lifestyle, even as her art dealer husband Beale (Steve Coogan) moves out, taking the child’s nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) with him. Alexander Skarsgard costars as Lincoln, a bartender who catches Susanna on the rebound. These four actors are so strong, and the plot twists so satisfying, they’d be reason enough to watch, but the film’s revelation is Onata Aprile as Maisie.

In her first feature role, Aprile gives a performance of such grace, confidence, and naturalism that she calls to mind other great child actors’ movie debuts, including those of Hayley Mills in J. Lee Thompson’s Tiger Bay (1959) and Tatum O’Neal in Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973). You’d have to have a heart of obsidian not to fall for this little girl in a big, big way. Maisie is the calm at the center of the storm, a playful innocent at the mercy of capricious adults, yet she seems at times more mature than they. The film shimmers and pulsates around her. When New Yorkers McGehee and Siegel flew in recently to bang the drum, they couldn’t stop talking about her. Millennium Entertainment is orchestrating the platform release of this arthouse gem, which is likely to wind up on numerous Top Ten lists at year’s end. But don’t wait until then; find What Maisie Knew at a theatre near you, and see it now.

ANDREA GRONVALL:  This is my first time setting eyes on you, because I’ve never seen you interviewed. So, forgive me, but who is who?

Siegel, Aprile, McGehee.

SCOTT McGEHEE:  I’m the smart one.

DAVID SIEGEL:  I’m the handsome one.

AG:  Okay, thanks—good to have that settled! Let’s start with the script, because you usually do your own writing. Was the tone of the film pretty much already on the page when you first read the screenplay by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright? What, if any, significant changes did you make?

DS:  The screenwriters crafted a lovely script; we were attracted to its lightness of touch. We were most attracted to telling a story from a child’s point of view. But the original script was quite different from our movie. We admire it very much, but everything wasn’t all on the page. We were changing things as we went along, because once you start working with the camera, you find out what in the script works and what doesn’t.

SM:  And so much of that we owe to Onata Aprile, who plays Maisie. We fell in love with her on day one. Her spirit is just so lovely; every day she would show up, just happy to be there. We had as great an experience filming with her as we did shooting The Deep End in Lake Tahoe.

DS:  Onata is like Tilda Swinton and the lake rolled into one. I would wake up each morning knowing, “I get to go to work with Onata today!”

AG:  I’ve read your comments elsewhere about how from the very start Alexander Skarsgård bonded with Onata off-camera, resulting in their appealing on-screen chemistry.  What approach did your other actors take to working with her?

DS:  I think Julianne Moore’s approach to Onata was to make sure she was safe, because Julianne herself has kids, and as Maisie’s mom she had to scream a lot. So, she would sometimes say, “Here we’re going to play pretend. Let’s pretend that….” And Onata, who is very bright, picked up right away on the “pretending” aspect, and ran with it.

SM:  The casting of Steve Coogan as Maisie’s father was part of our strategy of preserving some comic moments. He was fantastic playing this really dark character, but he also brought a humorous edge to Beale.

SM:  None of our actors were into any “super Method” mode. Between takes the set was very relaxed, so it was easy to slip into acting, and then out. That seemed to come quite naturally to Onata. She has a great attention span, and is there to do what you need her to do, but when you call “Cut!,” she’s off exploring. Everything fascinated her.

DS:  Everything! From the dollies, to the lights, to the cameras. [When we were in development] at first we thought of hiring a 9-year-old actor to play Maisie. But then we began reading that after age six, kids become selfconscious. It was the right move to have a 6-year-old playing her own age.

AG:  Let’s talk a little about the look of your film. How early on did you begin consulting with your production designer, Kelly McGehee, and your cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens—for instance, on your color choices? The film’s warm color palette reminds me of those bold, saturated colors found in many children’s paintings. But it’s never harsh, even when Maisie’s parents are behaving harshly.

DS:  As you know, Kelly is Scott’s sister; we’ve been working together since we started making shorts, and so she was on board early. And this is our third time around with Giles [who also shot The Deep End and Bee Season]. Color palette is one of the first things—maybe the first thing—we always discuss when planning a movie.

The second thing we discuss is the quality of light. We knew Giles could get us the kind of luminosity we wanted. We were impressed by the effects cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki achieved in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men. Giles has a similar sensitivity, and got us that intense but spectral quality of light we were looking for.

AG:  It appeared to me that a number of the close-ups of the adult characters seemed to have been shot from below. Was this deliberate, to reflect the point of view of someone as small as Maisie?

SM:  You don’t always know in advance.  You spend a lot of time looking [through the camera], and then discussing what a close-up will mean.

DS:  To some extent, the angles of the close-ups did show Maisie’s POV, but often they were for technical reasons, like matching the characters’ eye lines in any given scene.

AG:  How much did it cost to make What Maisie Knew?  What’s on screen looks so rich, but I suspect you achieved that without a big budget.

DS:  I think you might have more money in you bag than we had to work with. Maybe I shouldn’t say, but it was $5,000,000. We enjoy working with constraints, but that’s a tight budget for shooting for 35 days, on location and with a union crew.

SM:  The challenge was to make that five million stretch across as many days as possible—which becomes a bigger challenge when you consider that our lead actor is a child who is in almost every scene, and there are child labor laws that limit the hours that kids can work. Not to mention that they sometimes get tired.

DS:  We had to go out to the beach twice to shoot the nighttime scene that’s toward the end of the picture, because on the first night Onata fell asleep, and that was that.

AG:  What cameras did you use?

SM:  An Arri film camera, shooting Super 35mm, using Cooke lenses and a 2:35:1 aspect ratio—as you noticed, we designed for the wide-screen format. You might think that was an expensive way to go, but after we had priced out various digital shooting options, the way we ultimately chose was comparable in cost. Our objective was always to conserve as much money as possible so that our actors had as much time as we could give them to deliver their best performances.

The Gronvall Report: THE EAST’s Batmanglij and Marling

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

THE EAST is that rarity among espionage thrillers: a film that offers intricate plotting without being plodding; privileges characters over action sequences; and introduces a credible, memorable female protagonist. Brit Marling, an actress with arresting presence, plays an intelligence agent newly poached from the FBI by the head of a private security firm (Patricia Clarkson) whose mandate is to clean up messes created by high-profile companies before the public catches on.

Going undercover as the vagabond Sarah—short on possessions but long on rebellious attitude—the rookie spy infiltrates The East, a radical collective whose members live off the grid and deal payback to corporate bigwigs guilty of crimes ranging from toxic pharmaceuticals to industrial pollution. Alexander Skarsgard (currently also on screen in WHAT MAISIE KNEW) plays the cell’s leader Benji, who sees potential in his new “recruit.”

THE EAST is Marling’s second feature with her co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij; the two made a splash at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival with SOUND OF MY VOICE, an unsettling drama about a cult and its mysterious head. That same festival also saw the premiere of ANOTHER EARTH, an eerie sci-fi indie starring Marling and directed by Mike Cahill—who, like Batmanglij, was her classmate at Georgetown University.

For THE EAST, Batmanglij found inspiration in Alan J. Pakula’s THE PARALLAX VIEW and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, political films from the paranoid 1970s, a decade the young filmmaker likens to the present. His subject—a band of disenchanted outsiders who turn to terrorism—couldn’t be more timely. Fox Searchlight is seizing the moment, releasing the film as welcome counter-programming to the bloated summer tent poles currently hogging screens. The distributor recently sent the director and his star on a cross-country promo tour; in person the fresh-faced, bright-eyed duo is as engaging and thought-provoking as the movie itself.

ANDREA GRONVALL:  Your first feature together, SOUND OF MY VOICE, follows two investigative documentary filmmakers who infiltrate a cult and run up against its charismatic leader, who is very persuasive and manipulative. Your new film THE EAST is about an intrepid private investigator/corporate spy who penetrates an underground radical cell and meets her match it its charismatic leader, also very manipulative. The films represent two different genres and certainly vary in tone, but what attracts you to this particular narrative dynamic?

BRIT MARLING:  I think we have always been interested in outsiders and insiders, and how, as you get into any group, your idea of “normal” changes. Espionage is deep cover; you become a specialist in a world outside your own and then penetrate it. But how long can you remain it and not become assimilated, or not be tripped up by the secrecy, lies, and layers of duplicity?

ZAL BATMANGLIJ:  Also, we were writing these films at the same time, and naturally some spillover happened. And it was at a point when we were trying to get started in an industry that, in a sense, we were looking to infiltrate.

AG:  Brit, in the three features so far that you have starred in as well as co-written ad co-produced, your characters have a distinct sense of gravity. The outcomes of their quests may be uncertain, but these women are determined, and ultimately, quite competent. In no way does physical beauty subtract from their strength. So why can’t Hollywood get the message and make more movies about women with looks plus smarts plus skills? We have Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Tilda Swinton, and an emerging talent like you in such roles, but what about all the other gifted actresses looking for challenging parts?

BM:  One of the great pleasures of acting is to try to transcend, to leave yourself for a time. When I first wanted to become an actor, I found it difficult to navigate that terrain. But even when you get further down the road [in the movie industry], you’re often still a second-class citizen. You are not driving the train. In most American films, female characters aren’t on journeys that are elliptical; what you often see are roles that were written originally for men, but which have been converted into roles for women. So, writing is a way out of that dilemma.

ZB:  What’s exciting about these questions is that they remind us we are living and working in a land filled with talented actresses, and how exciting many have proven themselves when given the opportunity to stretch—just recently, think of Robin Wright Penn in HOUSE OF CARDS. Most filmmakers and screenwriters are men, and so they often view our culture from how they fit into it. But as time goes on and this changes, other things will change. For instance, if you watch [Lena Dunham’s] GIRLS, the men are often the more interesting characters.

AG:  I was struck in THE EAST by the constant give-and-take between your lead character Sarah and the numerous supporting characters; as a writer and performer, you show a remarkable generosity toward the ensemble.

BM:  That may be because I think of the story first. In the edit room Zal has told me that I go for choices that are good for the story, even if they might mean a disservice to my performance.

AG:  Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the mood of the country, particularly as regards the war against terror—the Boston Marathon bombers; Guantánamo; drone strikes. How do you see your film as adding to the national conversation about terrorism? What do you hope viewers take away from THE EAST?

ZB:  Understandably, people are scared and frustrated.

BM:  And they’re having a hard time trying to figure out the meaning of things. One thing THE EAST shows is that you have to very careful about who you choose as your authority.

ZB:  We [as a people] give authority its power. Brit and I want audience to enjoy the film and take what they want from it, but also to face the questions in THE EAST about alienation, mobilization, and authority. And to open a dialogue about what is and isn’t crazy. Today just the very act of questioning can make you look crazy.

AG:  Zal, you were born in France. When did you and your family move to the U.S.A.? Do you speak French? Have you been influenced by French culture and French films, and would you like to work abroad?

ZB:  My family moved here when I was seven years old; I’m an American citizen, and I do speak French. I love French film, and, yes, I would very much also like to work in France. I f ind it’s a place that really values and supports filmmakers. You can make kinds of movies in France that you can’t make here. That said, you can make other kinds of movies here that you can’t make in France, where they’re not set up to produce the sort of big-budget epics that Christopher Nolan and James Cameron make. I love both kinds, and above all, love having the freedom to make morally and emotionally complex films.

The Gronvall Report: Down Under On Their Way Up With THE SAPPHIRES’ Blair And Mauboy

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

There are more reasons than better weather to cheer the arrival of spring; gone are the dog days of January and February, when multiplexes were still showing either awards season titles or disposable new features studios were dumping for a quick theatrical run before video release. Finally some decent movies are on screen, and one of the most enjoyable right now is a musical drama-comedy from Australia, The Sapphires. A little movie with a big heart and a great vibe, it’s the story of three Aboriginal sisters—Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and Julie (Jessica Mauboy)—who dream of becoming country and western singers in 1968 Victoria. Luckily for them they meet Dave, a down-at-heels music promoter (Chris O’Dowd) who sells them on soul instead. Tired of fighting racism at home, the sisters enlist their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) to make their trio a quartet, and with Dave as their manager head to Vietnam for a gig singing to American troops. Based on a stage musical by Tony Briggs (who was inspired by his own family’s history), the movie has a period look that’s spot-on, and a soundtrack full of Sixties hits that have stood the test of time. The Weinstein Company recently flew director Wayne Blair and star Mauboy to the States for a series of interviews; I caught up with them at (appropriately) The House of Blues.

Andrea Gronvall:  Not having seen the original stage production, I’m wondering how—beyond, obviously, your use of locations—did you open up the play for the big screen?

Wayne Blair:  We changed half the songs because we had more to play with. We also fleshed out the characters to a greater extent; in the movie we start with the four female protagonists as youngsters, which wasn’t the case in the play. And the character of Dave [Chris O’Dowd] is Irish in the film, but he was Australian on the stage.

AG:  You were under a lot of pressure with a tight budget and a rigorous shooting schedule. One of your producers, Kylie de Fresne, said Ho Chi Minh City was “a pretty crazy place to make a film.” How did you handle the stress?

WB:  During the shoot, I didn’t have time to think, I just had to keep moving. And then in the evenings I screened dailies. But apart from the night right before shooting began, when I didn’t sleep well, I was so tired at the end of every day that I slept like a baby. We covered nine locations in six weeks. For me, the challenges in shooting in Vietnam were not about culture clashes, or even language—a lot of the Vietnamese people speak at least a little English, but when language is a barrier, you can usually make your intentions clear through gestures. For me, the difficulty mostly was the distances we had to travel: two and a half hours from the city into the country to shoot the group performing for the troops at remote sites.

AG:  There’s a sequence in The Sapphires that is key to the appeal of the movie, and gets right to the heart of what soul is all about. It’s when Dave coaches the girls, “Country and western music is about loss. Soul music is also about loss. But the difference is, in country and western music they’ve lost, they’ve given up, and they’re just at home whining about it. In soul music they’re struggling to get it back, and they haven’t given up—”

WB:  “—so every note that passes through your lips should have the tone of a woman who’s gasping and fighting and desperate to retrieve what’s been taken from her.” I wrote that, together with Tony Briggs.

AG:  I love those lines. They set the tone, and they set up our expectations—which the characters meet. Jessica, I didn’t see your appearances on “Australian Idol,” so I don’t know what material you performed. I will say that I find the trend of the kind of “power ballads” that “American Idol” and “The Voice” and “Smash” promote is getting tedious. What’s refreshing about your numbers in The Sapphires is that you respect those great songs from the Sixties; you don’t try to upstage them. You serve the songs, and so the songs serve you, and in the process you become incandescent. You really get it.

Jessica Mauboy:  Thank you! When it came time to audition for “Aussie Idol” at first I didn’t want to do it. But I was really lucky that I had supportive parents and enough confidence to go ahead. I was 16 at the time. “Idol” has a process: you have to choose from the list of songs the show gives you to perform. I only made it to runner-up, but that opened doors to a record contract; I’m currently working on my third studio album.

I feel the same as you about the music in The Sapphires. On those songs I worked with Wayne and with Bryan Jones, who’s the top soul producer in Australia. I also got the chance to meet the real-life women who inspired the play and the movie–sophisticated and really strong women, who took the time to talk with us about their lives. By the time filming started, I had a sense of who my character was, and could tell her story through the songs.

AG:  One thing I noticed in the movie is that the competitiveness and the combativeness between the three sisters spill over into their dealings with the outside world. They don’t take any guff from anyone, including men. Were these women ahead of their time, or is their brash toughness a part of Aboriginal culture?

JM:  A certain amount of intensity and aggressiveness I’d say are part of Aboriginal culture.

WB:  You know where you stand right away, rather than pussyfoot around each other.

AG:  So what’s next for you two? When are we going to see you on the screen again, Jessica?

JM:  If the opportunity comes up, I’d like to do a film again. I’ll be traveling back and forth to New York and L.A. for the next couple of years, to work with music producers Harvey Mason, Jr. and Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. I’ll be spending the whole of April in L.A.

WB:  I’ll be working on “Redfern Now,” a TV series for ITA/ABC.

AG:  Have you been getting any film offers?

WB:  I’m reviewing a number of movie projects, yes.

AG:  Anything exciting?

WB:  It’s all exciting now.

The Gronvall Report: Oscar-Nominated GATEKEEPERS Director Dror Moreh

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

What’s in a name? Let’s take Dror Moreh.

Translated from the Hebrew, the name of the 51-year-old Israeli producer-director means “freedom teacher.” After witnessing his stunning, searing new film, The Gatekeepers, you might come away thinking that his parents couldn’t have named him any better; without being ponderously didactic, his incisive nonfiction feature makes clear what’s at stake at this critical juncture for democratic Israel. It’s not a lesson that all Israelis—or their American supporters—will necessarily relish. Kudos to distributor Sony Pictures Classics for not shying away from a tough subject, and for shepherding the film to a Best Documentary nomination at the 85th Academy Awards.

The Gatekeepers are six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence agency charged with combating terrorism, espionage, and the release of state secrets. They had never been interviewed about their work before; it’s a coup for Moreh that after he persuaded Ami Ayalon (who headed the Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000) to participate, the others got on board as well. It’s not like they hang out together.

When Moreh recently visited Chicago, I mentioned that in our country there’s a Presidents Club, where the current POTUS can meet with former Chief Executives to swap ideas and advice. Before I could ask if the Shin Bet top guns had a similar fraternity, he interjected, “There’s no Shin Bet club. They don’t like each other much. Respect each other, yes, but they’re not pals. The last time they met as a group was at the [December, 2012] premiere at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The premiere went amazingly well, but it was very, very intense, and after the lights went up, everyone looked shocked.”

And shock is what U.S. audiences also are likely to experience, as there haven’t been many war documentaries this hard-hitting since Errol Morris’ The Fog of War ten years ago. (Morris’ film directly inspired Moreh, who says, “I saw it 20 times. After Errol watched The Gatekeepers at the [September, 2012] Telluride Film Festival, he came up to me, hugged me, and said he loved it.”) The big difference between the two works is that Ayalon and his five Shin Bet colleagues—Avraham Shalom (head, 1980-1986), Yaakov Peri (head, 1988-1994), Carmi Gillon (head, 1994-1996), Avi Dichter (head, 2000-2005), and Yuval Diskin (head, 2005-2011)—are far more candid and introspective than the smug and slippery Robert S. McNamara, who as U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War would answer questions he wanted reporters to ask, rather than the questions they actually posed.

Moreh explains that the heads of Shin Bet are not politicians, but former members of Israel’s executive branch, and as such can disclose whatever they want, “as long as they don’t compromise ongoing security operations. And they can’t speak specifically about what surveillance techniques are being used.” What they open up about in his film are some of their successes during the various crises that arose after the Six Day War in 1967. More often they speak of their failures, and why they failed.

Early successes, according to Dichter and Peri, depended on gathering human intelligence (HUMINT) among the Palestinians in the newly occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. The Shin Bet’s efforts in this regard improved dramatically once all its agents learned to speak Arabic with a flawless accent. And for years as long as dialogues continued between Israeli and Palestinian security forces, tensions were kept relatively low.

Once terrorism became the main priority of the Shin Bet, Shalom admits they forgot about the Palestinians as a whole. SIGNINT (signals intelligence, or the interception of communications) became more important, because with an accurate trace of, say, a cell phone call by a terrorist, the greater the chance of a clean strike against that target. But those strikes were not always accurate, and cycles of violence kept escalating.

Dror Moreh.

“At the end of the day, SIGNINT is superior. But when you have someone you trust, HUMINT is the most valuable asset program an agency can have,” Moreh avers. “There is a whole army of reasons why people cooperate with the Shin Bet. Money is the most common element in developing HUMINT, but sometimes people become informants out of idealism.”  He cites the example of Mosab Hassan Yousef, nicknamed “The Green Prince.” Son of one of the founders of Hamas, he worked for over a decade with the Shin Bet to unmask terrorists. Yousef’s motivation was to save lives, and by helping thwart suicide attacks he indeed saved hundreds.

The agency’s goal may be to save innocent lives, but the lethal force often employed to do so clearly haunts some of Moreh’s subjects. In a pre-credit sequence, Diskin explains: “You say, ‘Okay, I made a decision, and X number of people were killed. They were definitely about to launch a big attack,’ No one near them was hurt. It was as sterile as possible. Yet you still say, ‘There’s something unnatural about it.’ What is unnatural is the power you have to take three people, terrorists, and take their lives in an instant.”

Shalom, on the other hand, at first seems to have fewer regrets. In a terse exchange with the off-camera Moreh early in the film, the eldest of The Gatekeepers bristles as he defends his controversial 1984 order to kill the two handcuffed surviving hijackers of the 300 bus from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon. “I didn’t want any more terrorists in court,” he says, adding that if a newspaper photographer hadn’t been there, “no one would have known.” Following a public outcry, Shalom resigned in 1986.

Increasingly the Shin Bet’s focus expanded beyond Arab terrorist threats.  During his tenure as agency head, Gillon repeatedly warned that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was in mortal danger from Jewish religious extremists.  Right-wing fundamentalists, many of whom built illegal settlements in the West Bank, reviled Rabin for his commitment to the Middle East peace process and the Oslo Accords. The Shin Bet had extensive files on those groups, but it was someone totally off the agency’s radar, law student Yigal Amir, who assassinated the P.M. at close range in 1995. Gillon fears that there will be another political assassination around the time of Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank.

The Gatekeepers is packed with information, yet flows quickly through its trim 97 minutes. Moreh brought the film in on a budget of $1.5 million, most of which went into post-production, CGI and editing. “I have 60 to 70 hours of recorded interviews with each of these guys,” he says. “I left a lot on the cutting room floor.”

Of all six men, the one Moreh seems to identify with most is Diskin, whom the filmmaker also interviewed at length in a 2012 print article titled “Absolutely Over and Out” for Israel’s Yediot Aharonot. It’s Diskin who opens the film, and his thoughtful comments set much of the tone, but Moreh gives the last word to Ayalon, who was a decorated military commando and Major General in the Israeli Navy before he headed the Shin Bet.

“I think of my son,” Ayalon reflects, “who served for three years in the Paratroopers, participated in the conquest of Nablus at least two or three times. Did it bring us victory? I don’t think so. Did it create a better political reality? The tragedy of Israel’s public security debate is that we don’t realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle but we lose the war.”

The Gronvall Files: To Canada (And Beyond?): PIXAR Canada Creative Director Dylan Brown

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Animation has remained one of my cherished film forms since childhood, and today movies from Pixar are among my all-time favorites. Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E rank up there alongside works from Walt Disney (classic Disney as well as titles from the Michael EisnerJeffrey Katzenberg era),  Hayao Miyazaki, Lotte ReinigerOskar Fischinger, and those great cartoons from Warner Bros. So when the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival brought in Dylan Brown, long-time Pixar animator who is now the creative director for the company’s Vancouver outpost, Pixar Canada, I made a beeline to talk to him.

Following a screening of crowd-pleasers from the new Blu-Ray/DVD & Digital release, Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 2, the California-born Brown was a bouncing human wind-up toy in a Q&A lasting a full hour. Tall, trim, and still boyish-looking at 42 (he has no wrinkles, a good indicator of job satisfaction), he demonstrated how animators act out the characters they’re creating in order to get the movements right; explained that sequels are made because there are still stories to be told about beloved characters, and that the shorts exist to keep the characters “alive” between features; and that would-be animators don’t require expensive equipment to start out—some Legos, or clay, and a cell phone to take photos are all one needs to make a stop-action film. Then he devoted another 45 minutes to meeting with fans one-on-one, the best way to get to know your audience.

Founded two years ago with a mission to provide support to the parent studio by creating shorts starring the existing characters from the various Toy Story and Cars films, Pixar Canada has produced four shorts to date, including Partysaurus Rex, which made its debut this fall in front of the theatrical release of Finding Nemo: 3D. The busy Vancouver satellite has a staff of 80, and fields employment applications from all over.

Andrea Gronvall:  There were a number of aspiring animators in the house today. What does Pixar Canada look for in its hires?

Dylan Brown:  Usually when someone applies for a job, they submit a reel and a resume. What I look for first is the work. I don’t care about the resume or their background. If the work shows growth and potential, if it’s good enough, that rates an interview maybe 49% of the time. For about 51% of the candidates, I’ll look at a resume to learn where they’ve been and what it is that sparks their interest, why they have the need to entertain. When we get to the interview stage, what I want to learn is how well they take feedback—that’s very important—and also, their curiosity and artistic impulse, and not just regarding the world of film. One of my favorite interview questions to pose is, “Is there anything you wanted to be asked that I didn’t ask?”

AG:  For decades through its National Film Board Canada has fostered an appreciation of animation among filmgoers, kids and adults alike. Do you find your Canadian applicants to be particularly attuned to the medium?

DB: I actually haven’t thought about it. Without a doubt, they definitely have a Canadian sense of humor, a little more off-the-wall; it may be related to the cold! They’re really funny people. In terms of animation, we have a house style that is not rigid: the playing field is very broad, but there’s still an out-of-bounds area. There’s a lot of room at Pixar to spread your wings, but it’s channeled in a certain way.

Animators are like actors. I felt our Vancouver animation team needed to be better actors, so I found them a great acting coach. Now for two hours every Monday they study acting!

AG:  Over the past few years there’s been a glut in animated features—a number of them made to cash in on the vogue for 3D—and more than a few were not successful. Yet every new theatrical release from Pixar somehow feels like an event. How does the company keep up that momentum?

DBSteve Jobs used to say, “Do one thing, and just make it great.”  And John Lasseter says that quality is the best business plan. When you go to see a Pixar movie in a theatre, you will get, first, the trailer for one of our upcoming movies, then a short, and then the feature attraction. [To make a comparison,] the way they package objects in stores in Japan is as careful, thoughtful, and artful as the gift itself. We are a well vertically-integrated company.

I always want us to strive to be the best animation studio—the best film studio—in the world. I want to punch up production values on new films, and have our studio be a beacon in Vancouver of amazing creativity. I feel the right thing to do is the thing we haven’t done yet.

AG:  Like maybe the TV specials that have been announced?

DB:  Our first works at Pixar Canada were six-minute pieces, and some one-and-a=half-minute films, which we call shorty-shorts. But we set up the Vancouver studio to produce the 22-minute specials. Pixar in California is currently working on the first one, called Toy Story of Terror.

AG:  On the new DVD, my favorite short is the very funny Small Fry, which your Pixar Canada team did. Jane Lynch voicing Neptuna, the leader of a support group for outmoded promotional giveaway toys—who comes up with these ideas?! But another short, Air Mater, is kind of sweet, as well as dynamic. It looks somewhat like the upcoming Planes—judging from the trailer, which also appears on the DVD. Was the short supposed to be a run-up to the longer film?

DB:  We had done nine Mater’s Tall Tales at Pixar [in Emeryville] before we did Air Mater at Pixar Canada. The Walt Disney Company knew they were going to do a spin-off of Cars. So, Air Mater was designed as a way to introduce some of the characters in Planes. I think that the last line in Air Mater [where Mater’s new flying pals, the Falcon Hawks, call him back into service] is a little too much like advertising in that it’s a little too on-the-nose. But the short is self-contained.

AG: You’ve been with your highly successful company for 17 years, 15 of which you’ve spent in leadership positions. In all the literature on corporate strategy that’s been published in recent years, are there any books, from the bestseller lists or otherwise, that you feel offer valuable insights into business success?

DB:  Not really, and I’ve looked at a lot of those books.  But there are other kinds of books that do. Right now I’m reading about Ernest Shackleton and the voyage of the Endurance to Antarctica. Over the course of several years, during all that hardship and danger, he promised his men that no one would die. He didn’t care about the rules; he led his men by pairing different personalities with each other in ways no one else would have thought could work. And he succeeded: nobody died.

I’ve spoken with plenty of psychologists and coaches over time, and have been fortunate to have been led by Steve and John. Glenn McQueen, the supervising animator before me, was also an important mentor. And there’s another book I can mention:  Tribes,” by Seth Godin. It’s about the differences between leaders and managers; it’s interesting, and, for myself, accurate.

AG:  So, what question haven’t I asked you, that you wanted to be asked?

DB:  About reaching the top. People talk about getting to the top of the mountain, or the top of the corporate ladder. I’ve actually come to believe that I don’t ever want to reach the top of the mountain. Sometimes you need to rest at a plateau, either to celebrate, or take in the view. Sometimes you’re just out of juice, and you’re not going upward anymore. And sometimes you simply need to go downward before you can find another way to head toward the top.

The Gronvall Files: A ROYAL AFFAIR To Remember With Filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Once a staple of the Golden Age of Hollywood, costume dramas are an iffy bet these days. Minus the vast resources of the old studio system, with its contract players, armies of technicians, numerous sound stages and back lot sets—not to mention extensive wardrobe collections—the cost of mounting period dramas is daunting. Plus the lack of interest many American moviegoers show in any history that pre-dates their childhood years has made the genre a harder sell. For instance, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette under-performed at the box office (although you certainly could argue that middling reviews didn’t help).

I haven’t yet seen Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina or Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, so I can’t weigh in on the merits or potential of those two films. But I have seen an outstanding historical drama that I hope will beat the odds: Denmark’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, A Royal Affair. The Magnolia Pictures release is directed by Nicolaj Arcel, who wrote the screenplay with Rasmus Heisterberg, his co-scribe on the Swedish-language film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. A tale of romance and court intrigue based on actual events that occurred in late 18th-century Europe, A Royal Affair stars Mads Mikkelsen and dazzling newcomer Alicia Vikander (who, coincidentally, also appears in Anna Karenina).  

Vikander portrays Caroline, an educated, vibrant young English aristocrat who is married off to the eccentric, spoiled, and volatile Danish king, Christian VII, strikingly played by first-time screen actor Mikkel Boe Folsgaard (who won the Best Actor prize earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival). Although the new queen quickly produces an heir to the throne, her marriage founders due to her husband’s neglect and the malice of his ambitious stepmother, who connives with the court to use the monarch as their puppet. On a tour of Europe the lonely king acquires a new personal physician who becomes his friend and confidante, a German named Struensee (Mikkelsen). The doctor is steeped in the latest scientific discoveries, as well as the anti-feudal philosophies of the Enlightenment—including revolutionary concepts like the rights of man. Christian returns to Denmark with Struensee, and gradually a high-stakes triangle forms, as king, queen, and physician implement major reforms in the beleaguered nation. But their efforts are deeply resented in the corridors of power.

 A Royal Affair was featured in the recently concluded 48th Chicago International Film Festival, and director Arcel was an honored guest. 

Andrea Gronvall:  Since Movie City News often focuses on the business of movies, I’d like to ask about the role of your executive producer, Lars von Trier. In America it’s not unusual for someone to get a producing credit for doing only one thing—say, bringing a star on board. What were his contributions to A Royal Affair?

Nikolaj ArcelLars’s name can help you get financing, whereas mine cannot. It took three years to finance the film; the money for the $6.5 million budget came from four different countries–although Denmark funds 50% of 20 Danish films each year. But more than his influence there I wanted his help on the screenplay and in the editing.

AG:  And what advice did he give you?

NA:  Originally I was trying to focus on one character, but Lars said I had to split the focus between Mads’ and Alicia’s characters. He also said I needed to make the film an epic, and not worry that people will have to wait a while for the story to get going. And in Denmark, we have a group of directors who meet to critique each other’s footage: Lars is one, and Thomas Vinterberg [The Celebration, The Hunt], Ole Christian Madsen [Flame and Citron, Prague], Susanne Bier [After the Wedding, A Better World]. Lars came to the edit eight to ten times, and guided us through.

AG:  What was the most technically-challenging scene to shoot, and how did you pull it off?

NA:  I had three different ballroom scenes, but only one night in which to shoot them in our location. We used three cameras and kept jumping about. I wanted to create as much of a comfort zone as possible for the actors, but as it got closer to sunrise, we had to avoid daylight seeping in. So we had to keep moving the set back, away from the windows!

AG:  I was impressed by how graceful a dancer Mads Mikkelsen is in those scenes.

NA:  He was trained as a ballet dancer. So was Alicia.

AG:  I read an interview that he gave some time ago to The New York Times, in which he said there was so much that he wanted to do that he couldn’t see the point of sleeping more than four hours a night. Later I read that during the filming of A Royal Affair he would wake you in the middle of the night with ideas of what to do on the set the next morning.

NAMads takes his work seriously, and he loves his job.

AG:  My editor David Poland says that Alicia Vikander is going to be The Next Big Thing.

NA:  Not only is she in Anna Karenina [coming out at the same time as A Royal Affair], but she also recently signed to appear opposite Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore in Seventh Son.

Nikolaj Arcel.

AG:  I still can’t get over the performance by Mikkel Boe Folsgaard: his king is chilling and monumentally self-absorbed, but also needy, and funny, and ultimately sympathetic. What a discovery!

NA:  Our movie was his first. He has an enormous amount of talent, a very raw talent. He was totally open, completely not intimidated, which led to my casting him.

AG:  Watching your movie about the history of Denmark made me think about the history of the United States. My country was born during the Enlightenment, the same period your film covers. Our founding fathers fought a revolution to free us from the tyranny of kings. Yet today so many Americans are obsessed with royalty, even though we have none—by design! On the other hand, in Europe, which still has quite a few royal families, most people are not all that impressed by monarchs. What’s that about?

NA:  In Denmark we still have a Queen. She is nice, we’re used to her, but she is not an object of fascination. For us, our obsession is with movie people; we are fascinated by your film culture.

AGA Royal Affair is 180 degrees apart from one of your famous earlier projects. After the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, were you afraid of being typecast?

NA:  I wasn’t afraid of being typecast; I was being typecast! [Laughs] But I’m working on a crime thriller again, the screenplay for The Keeper of Lost Causes, a novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen that made The New York Times bestseller list. It’s the first film of a trilogy.

AG:  What would be the one thing you’d most like audiences to take home from A Royal Affair?

NA:  Obviously, for Danish audiences it has a lot more resonance because it’s about Danish history. But then there’s the idea that someone who comes from nothing can become like a king, and work with good intentions. Why do we always punish these visionaries, instead of supporting them? The movie is also about freedom: do you accept your position in life? A Royal Affair is about the freedom to love, the freedom of self-expression.

AG:  And what those are worth.

 

The Gronvall Files: Director Alison Klayman On Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Friday, August 10th, 2012

There are headlines China’s leaders like to see, such as coverage of Chinese athletes racking up gold medals at the XXX Olympiad, or Beijing’s Dalian Wanda Group snapping up American movie screens with its purchase of the AMC Entertainment theater chain. Then there are the newsmakers that make China’s ruling technocrats nervous, such as legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who sought refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing before getting his government’s permission to leave to study the in U.S., and the artist Ai Weiwei, the subject of a new documentary from IFC Films, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

Acclaimed internationally for sculptures and installations that have been exhibited in western cities from Munich to London to New York, to name a few, Weiwei is also a culture hero to millions of Chinese, not only for his trenchant and yet often playful art works, but also for his populism and activism, which he has advanced through blogging and social media like Twitter. His protests against injustice, corruption, and propaganda (he publicly criticized the 2008 Beijing Olympics) occasionally landed him in hot water with authorities (he was beaten up and seriously injured in Chengdu), and in 2011 led to an 81-day-long government detention.

In 2008, Alison Klayman, then 24, an American freelancing as a journalist in Beijing, met Weiwei and began filming a 20-minute video to accompany one of his art shows. Before long, the project developed into a feature documentary, and she followed him on his travels within and beyond China for the next two years. The affinity that developed between them might be attributed to a shared sensibility, openness, and curiosity, but perhaps also to a social activism born of their individual family stories. Weiwei and his father, the modernist poet Ai Qing, survived the disgrace, exile, and punishment intellectuals suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Klayman is the first journalist in a family of lawyers with a pronounced labor rights history, and her mother, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, broke barriers by becoming the first woman to graduate from Columbia University. It is impossible to watch Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and not be impressed by the heart, attitude, confidence, resourcefulness, and bravery of its charismatic subject—characteristics shared by his enterprising young director. On a swing through Chicago Klayman spoke with me about her journey to documenting the larger-than- life figure who ranks high among the greatest living artists.     

Andrea Gronvall:  When you were first going to China, you were planning just a five-month trip with friends. Were your parents supportive when you decided to learn Mandarin and work as a journalist in Beijing?

Alison Klayman:  Going to China was certainly an adventure, especially since I had to no background in China. They came to visit me maybe four months in, and that was when I said to them, “You know, I think I’m going to stay.” But Beijing is an incredibly cosmopolitan city compared to their old images of China, and they were impressed with how I could already speak enough Mandarin to get us in cabs, and order food, and stuff like that. They’ve always been incredibly supportive, although there were times they wondered, “Are you sure you’re going to be able to find a job?” I just thought that in China, at the worst you could always teach English, which I never had to do. For journalism, it’s one of the few places where you could make a living freelancing, if there was going to be any interest.

AG:  Before you did that, you worked at a number of odd jobs. What was your oddest job in Beijing before you got accredited as a journalist working in radio?

AK:  I think the funniest job was working for a German artist named Wolfgang Stiller, making C-class dummies for a movie called John Rabe, which was about Nanjing in World War II; Steve Buscemi was in it. We built about 50 dead bodies—men, women, and children. C-class dummies means they’re not for close-ups; they’re for wider shots, and shown strewn about, crushed by tanks, whatever. We weren’t an official props company, but he was an artist who did a lot of sculpture, and so we’d make heads, hands, feet, and then add them to foam bodies. And after so much counting, making sure we had enough pairs of hands and enough pairs of feet, I was like, I’m going to have dreams about body parts!

But I think the job I turned down to do that was even funnier, which was arranging an event in Harbin, that was going to be an ice ballet of luxury cars; it was a weekend event designed to encourage rich people to buy these SUVs. But I thought, I don’t really believe in that very much, so I guess I’d rather do the dummies job.

AG:  So, once you signed on to make a film about Weiwei, you followed him around for two years; you shot over 200 hours of video; you traveled to seven countries, eleven cities. And you brought it in for, what, about $500,000?

AK:  Yeah–under a million, yeah.

AG:  And you got funding in part from Agnes Gund from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Given the travel budget alone, where else did you get funding from, and how did you arrange it?

AK:  First of all, I was living in Beijing, and because I shot most of the film, that side of it was very low-cost. So travel was really almost the only expense that we had, but he traveled a lot and I felt that footage was really important. And I had a fiscal sponsor in New York, The Hazen Polsky Foundation. They support films about art and artists; their last film before mine was Herb and Dorothy, about two regular folks who collected art in their little New York apartment. But I was pretty much off the radar before I came back to New York, and started meeting people. And then all of a sudden Weiwei was detained, and it became a very large story, and I was on The Colbert Report and doing a lot of press—more about Weiwei’s story, less about the film, because the film wasn’t even finished.

AG:  While you were doing that, did you ever feel the lines between journalism and activism were getting blurred? Or to put it another way:  because of the close working relationship you had developed with Weiwei, was it ever hard to keep your objectivity?

AK:  I think that was sort of a game changer when that happened. I was incredibly uncomfortable talking about his situation, coming on as Alison Klayman, who has this background. I feel that one of the most important things about doing the film the way I did was being off the radar. Even though I was an accredited journalist, I was not accredited with the BBC or New York Times; I wasn’t high profile. I felt that this was really important, to not be important. But I also felt that it was important to speak out against something that was incredibly and very clearly unjust. I didn’t know that it was going to be an 81-day detention.

AG:  At what time during post-production did you realize you would have to hold off completing the film until the aftermath of Weiwei’s detention?

AK:  In the first probably week or two, the problem was we were sort of full steam ahead:  Weiwei was supposed to come to New York at the beginning of May for the installation of his Zodiac Heads at Grand Army Plaza and we wanted to show that. So as you can imagine, we sort of put the breaks on everything. After he was detained it was really hard to work on the film; then finally my editor and I started watching the footage again, and I was just crying over the happy scenes, wondering what is Weiwei eating now, what is he sleeping on. At some point—because we didn’t know if the detention was going to be years and years—we realized that we had to go forward, because quite frankly this film could do good for raising awareness, and also, when you are so powerless it feels like the only thing you can do is to share his story.

AG:  There are a lot of tense moments in your film, like the sequence in the Chengdu police station, where the cops want your footage. How did you pull off that tape switch, without them being suspicious? And were there other close calls?

AK:  In Beijing, there was never any of that kind of conflict. All of the close calls were in Chengdu; it was a couple of different trips, and it was because we were in seats of authority. In that one I was able to film about 30 minutes, 40 minutes, and then the special cops who speak English came, and said, we want to see your I.D. I said that I left it in the car—which was true–and they told me to go get it. So I brought the camera with me, and I switched the tape. And there were other instances where they wanted to confiscate a tape, and I managed to switch it right before they came to take it. You learned to switch tapes frequently.

I think the film adds punctuation to a period in Weiwei’s life:  the preceding few years of a rapid rise in his career; his activism; his clashes with the government. I also think it provides a valuable lesson in showing a little bit about modern China:  this is how it is.

The Gronvall Files: Red Lights

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

CILLIAN MURPHY AND RODRIGO CORTES ON THEIR PSYCHIC THRILLER RED LIGHTS

Although he doesn’t think of these as primarily genre films, Cillian Murphy has starred in a few:  the dark sci-fi vision Sunshine and the modern horror classic 28 Days Later (both for director Danny Boyle); Wes Craven’s terror-in-the-skies thriller Red Eye; and possibly the best comic book hero screen adaptations to date, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and the epic finale The Dark Knight Rises. Now the Irish actor tackles the paranormal in the craftily plotted Red Lights, Millennium Entertainment’s new thriller by Spanish writer/director Rodrigo Cortes, who two years ago made a big splash with his English-language debut, Buried. Murphy plays Tom Buckley, a scientific investigator who assists the eminent Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) in her life’s work of exposing self-proclaimed psychics as the con artists they really are.

 Key to the scientists’ method is their focus on “red lights,” those telltale signs in the purported psychic’s surroundings that indicate something’s not kosher. But after a string of successes, the pair come up against Matheson’s old nemesis, the wealthy blind mentalist and media darling Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), who has re-emerged from a long retirement for one last public tour. What follows is a showdown between the forces of good and evil, where mysterious, frightening, and potentially dangerous events occur. Are these manifestations of Silver’s extrasensory abilities, or are they stunts engineered by the best that money can hire?

 As the battle wages, the film develops a distinctly paranoid atmosphere, redolent of such 1970s conspiracy thrillers as Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and The Parallax View, two Cortes cites as influences. On a recent stopover in Chicago he and Murphy shared their thoughts on what makes Red Lights glow.

 Andrea Gronvall:  Red Lights is a movie of and for these times, because so much of the story is about lies, and the debunking of lies. Channel surf the television news programs, read the newspapers: over and over again—not just in America, but around the globe—the “man on the street” being interviewed is so angry because we’ve been lied to so often by politicians, by bankers and industrialists, by sports heroes, and so on. Even Oprah Winfrey got incensed after she showcased the author of what turned out to be a fictionalized memoir. So, Cillian, Tom is very interesting, because he combines the zeal of a scientific investigator with the outrage of the fed-up average citizen. Did you have any particular people or sources in mind as you fleshed out this character?

Cillian Murphy:  Well, first of all, I’m really glad that you had that interpretation of the movie because it’s dead right. And I think that the De Niro character is obviously a sort of magician/psychic/faith healer/televangelist, but there’s also the aspect of the politician, isn’t it, that we’ve been talking about?

Rodrigo Cortes: Yeah.

CM:  But, no, the character didn’t really need fleshing out from what was on the page because it was so strong; it was all there on the page when I read it. You bring to it whatever you can in terms of, I don’t know, your take on life and your energy as a human being. What jumped out at me about Tom were the themes of self-acceptance and obsession, because those I think are sort of the twin engines for him, and everybody can identify with that. When you take away the setting of this sort of paranormal world, or this sort of genre, and just talk about the characters—that, to me, is what I’m always interested in:  character. I’ve been in a few science fiction or genre movies, but I never thought I was, I always just thought about the characters.

 

AG:  Well, the characters are indeed what pull us into the movie’s world of paranormal activity and investigation; the actors do all the work of creating the chills that, in other films, CGI would provide.

Sigourney Weaver has a few scenes that are very striking, where her character has to come clean about her own beliefs, or lack of religious beliefs, and why she has kept her comatose son on life support for so many years. That struggle with religion lends the story more gravitas than that found in most movies about the paranormal. If this is not too personal a question, Rodrigo, are you religious? Because there’s definitely a religious subtext to your film.

 

RC:  I wouldn’t describe myself as religious because I find religions to be useful in living a very emotional way. Which doesn’t mean that I’m a rationalist. I’m not interested in believing as a concept, but in understanding. Let me try to explain it this way: if you ask me, for instance, do you believe in the supernatural, I would tell you no, because I don’t feel that nature can be transcended, and I don’t feel nature can transcend itself. Even the unexplainable has to live in those margins, the margins of nature. If you ask me about the paranormal, if you describe paranormal as a group of phenomena is search of an explanation, I would tell you, well, there are things out there that cannot be explained—yet. Hopefully, one day we will have the tools to explain them.

 

But it’s not about being against, or for, religion. If you believe in God, that’s a belief. If you’re an atheist, that’s another belief, because you cannot prove that God doesn’t exist. And people are used to dealing with beliefs, and I’m not that interested in believing. For instance, even if you have a very solid presence of God, you should try to understand him, not to believe in him. That’s what I mean. It is a way of thinking, and a way of trying to digest reality, a way of trying to question everything, seeing everything as if it were completely new, so you have your own personal approach to things.

 

AGRed Lights is a cross between a supernatural thriller and a crime mystery about a suspected con man. When you’re writing such a complex story, what kind of safeguards do you rely on so that all the details stay in synch, and you’re not left with gaping plot holes or loose ends?

 

RC:  I never use treatments, because I know where I’m going, but still I want to find an organic way to get there. Listening to my characters and listening to the way they would react logically, sometimes you find a better way to get there than the one you planned. But once you finish your final draft, in a way you understand for the very first time what you really want to do with the film. And in the rewrites, you can do all these technical things, because now you have all the elements, you have the ending, you know exactly what you are going to do, so you can plan certain things, or see certain things, or close loose ends, or whatever. So, the second part is more technical, but it comes out of a process that involves a lot of reflection, but also a lot of organic life.

 

AG:  I know when your film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival that there was some controversy over the ending. Without venturing anywhere near spoilers, I just want to say I don’t agree with the naysayers. There are clues throughout Red Lights that lead the viewer to the logic of the narrative’s conclusion. It’s all there if you’re paying attention.

 

RC:  I like to say that movie making is a kind of magic; it works by misdirection. You keep the audience looking at your left hand, so they don’t see what the right hand is up to.

 

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The Gronvall Files: Actress Elizabeth Banks on People Like Us

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Looking at the roster of titles this year that star Elizabeth Banks, one of Hollywood’s hardest working actresses, it’s a mystery where she ever finds time to sleep. As Effie Trinket, she made an indelible entrance in the spring blockbuster The Hunger Games, setting the movie’s tone of dystopia, then pulled off the neat hat trick of making her initially odious character almost sympathetic by the end. Banks also portrayed a smart, tough cop in the thriller Man on a Ledge, and a pregnant author in the comedy What to Expect While You’re Expecting. Now she’s on screen as the female lead in the drama People Like Us, a DreamWorks Pictures release. It’s one of the meatiest roles of her career. She plays Frankie, a single mother and recovering alcoholic in L.A., whose numerous defenses are challenged when she’s befriended by a stranger named Sam (Chris Pine), who’s in town for the funeral of his father, a famous record producer. What Frankie doesn’t know is what Sam has only just learned: she is Sam’s half-sister, part of a secret family dad had on the side for years, before leaving abruptly and without explaining to Frankie. The aftermath of his undisclosed bigamy has left Frankie emotionally scarred.

Banks, a Massachusetts native and Democrat, stopped in Chicago recently for an event on behalf of the campaign to re-elect President Barack Obama. “They reached out because I blogged about some things that they care about,” she explains. Ever the pro, she managed to carve out some time beforehand to talk about her new film, which is directed by Alex Kurtzman, from a screenplay he wrote with long-time partner Roberto Orci (Star TrekTransformers Prime) and their friend Jody Lambert.

Andrea Gronvall:  People Like Us has a few surface similarities to another film that’s out now, Your Sister’s Sister, about two half-sisters whose philandering father wreaked domestic havoc through his multiple marriages. But the movie that your film resembles most is the 2003 documentary My Architect, about the eminent architect Louis I. Kahn, who died in 1974. It’s a memoir by his son, Nathaniel Kahn, who only found out much later that his dad had–

Elizabeth Banks:  A secret family?

AG:  Two  secret families! And as I watched People Like Us, I was reminded how there are more and more movies about broken families, the damage done, and the impulse to create new bonds where old ones have collapsed. The tag line on your movie’s poster is “Find Your Family.” And the way you play a character with these abandonment issues, you hit all the documented steps of anger, distrust, risky behavior, and—

EB:  Self-medicating.

AG:  Yet at the same time Frankie has formidable survival skills.

EB:  Yes, she does. She is a survivor; I mean, that’s what I really hooked into: that despite everything, she is a put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, pragmatic person. That’s humanity, in my opinion. We’re not that kind to each other, and a lot of people have walls up. It’s very hard to ask for help; it’s very hard to face your demons. Frankie is a type-A personality, who sometimes feels the weight of the world, like Jesus, but keeps soldiering on, and I think a lot of people can relate to that.

Ultimately for me this story is about mourning. At the beginning of the movie they lose their father, and they spend the entire movie mourning that loss. It’s not so much the loss of him as the lost opportunities to have closure, to see him again. I think that Frankie always imagined she would run into him, and scream at him until she was blue in the face, and just feel, “Alright, relief! I get to tell this fucker what he did to me.” And she won’t have that chance. But at the end of the day we also want to believe that our daddy loved us.

I feel very grateful that in my life I have great parents. I love my parents. But they weren’t perfect, and there was definitely some damage—there’s damage in every family. Because kids want their parents to be perfect, and we blame them for everything, whether they deserve it or not.

AG:  It’s surprising how entertaining People Like Us is overall. Sure, it has its humorous moments, balance for the more gut-wrenching scenes. But its undercurrents are quite dark throughout, and the viewer gets really pulled in. A big part of that is of course due to your chemistry with Chris Pine, but there’s also the look of the film.

EB:  Yeah, it looks like a beautiful, “old school” Hollywood adult movie. [To prepare] we talked a lot about Kramer vs. Kramer, the vibe of old Robert Benton movies in general, and old James L. Brooks movies. There’s a real sophistication about it.

AG:  Tell me a little bit about Alex Kurtzman’s working method with his actors. This is his debut directorial effort. How extensive were rehearsals? Does he like multiple takes?

EB:  Yes, this is his first time directing, but he has spent a lot of time on movie sets. He is an old pro in this business. It’s always a concern when you work with a writer-director–and I’ve worked with a lot of them–that the writer in them is going to be very precious about the words. And I was very grateful that Alex was not. I have great respect for great writing; this was a beautiful script, beautiful characters, a very personal story, well told. So it wasn’t that I didn’t want the words, but you always also want to feel free everyday, and that you can trust in everybody, and that he can trust me—enough that even if I say something he didn’t write, it’s still Frankie. And he had a really great vision, and actresses want to believe in where a movie is going. Because when we’re done on set, like we give it up, it’s out of our hands. So trust is the most important thing; I had ultimate trust in him.

AG: You and your husband Max Handelman have established your own company, Brownstone Productions. How many years has it been a going concern?

EB:  About five, I think. Our first movie was Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, and that The Walt Disney Company made; we were sort of the junior producers on that one. And our first feature that is truly our baby has come out terrific; it’s called Pitch Perfect, and it’s a comedy set in the world of competitive collegiate a cappella singing, with a great young cast led by Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick. We’re very excited, and we’re working hard to get that movie ready for the world to see on October 5. It’s very funny, about a group of misfits who want to win a championship, and just sing and dance their way to glory.

AG:  Can you sing?

EB:  Yes, I can.

AG:  Have you done musicals?

EB:  I have done musicals in my theater past, yes.

AG:  You say “your theater past,” but what about theater in your future?

EB:  I would want to do a movie musical because you record everything in a studio, and it’s very safe. An actual musical theater production? I think it’s probably out there for me somewhere, but maybe not in my near future. It’s such a huge commitment, frankly. You know: sleep all the time, drink tea with lemon, rest your voice. It’s a real lifestyle commitment, and I have a young son now, so I cannot be doing eight shows a week anytime soon.

The Gronvall Files: Lorene Scafaria on Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

Romance and the Apocalypse: Writer-Director Lorene Scafaria on Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

In writer and first-time director Lorene Scafaria’s new Focus Features release Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a giant asteroid is on a collision track with Earth, and all global high-tech efforts to divert the oncoming disaster have failed. With everyone facing only weeks left to live, an insurance salesman named Dodge (Steve Carell) is deserted by his wife (Nancy Carell) and most of his co-workers—although not his maid, who diligently reminds him to buy more window cleaner. As society rapidly unravels, he meets his resourceful, nonconformist neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), and they agree to a road trip together, sort of one last pilgrimage before dying: she’ll help Dodge reconnect with a long-lost love, if he’ll help Penny get back to her family.

A hybrid of science fiction, romantic comedy, and road movie, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is notably high-concept. It’s also as upbeat a reflection on the apocalypse that you’ll likely ever see. And as a date night movie (which it is, in its own odd way) it’s fresh and seductive, like the 2008 charmer Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, whose screenplay Scafaria also penned.

Throughout the movie Dodge and Penny try to remain focused, despite the numerous distractions supporting characters present. A bickering married couple (Robb Corddry and Connie Britton) throws a hedonistic dinner party where the guests range from the debauched (Patton Oswalt) to the sweet but dim (Melanie Lynskey). Rioters plague the streets, so a noisy chain restaurant called Friendsy’s seems like a haven, although its party-hearty, buff staff is unusually welcoming. I asked Scafaria during her own recent promotional road trip why she chose to layer this bittersweet love story within vignettes of people going haywire.

“I thought a lot about what anybody would do, if we’re all facing our mortality at the exact same time—which obviously is a different circumstance than just one man dying,” she replied. “I thought about who would be the best characters for that scenario–like an Everyman who’s been sleepwalking through life, sort of half-dead. And who’d be the best person to pull him out, and take him along on the ride of a lifetime. I’ve been trying to write these kinds of characters for a long time, and using the backdrop of the end of the world was a chance also to explore all these other people they meet along the way.”

   Scafaria, a trim, long-haired brunette with China doll bangs, a sharp sense of humor, and an intent gaze, started laughing:  “And I thought, if this were happening to me, I would go over to my friend’s house for a dinner party that would get weird really fast. We’d have a great time, and everybody would be cracking up. Some people would be doing heroin, and other people would want to be wasted the whole time—just sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, why not? Nothing wrong with it, in a way.”

Then she turned serious again:  “But I know what I would be like. I would go for love, I would go for a relationship, and I’d look for friends. Death is inevitable, and it is the great equalizer, so the idea that [when that moment comes] you could just be looking into the eyes of the person you love, that is a happy ending to me. In college I used to study poetry, and a lot of elegies. So I was always thinking of this movie as an elegy, something that starts in such a dark place, takes us on a journey, and then, hopefully, ends in a sort of uplifting moment,” She laughed, conceding, “Even though, obviously, it’s still dark.”

One of the funniest–and loveliest–scenes in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is when Dodge and Penny stop at that diner called Friendsy’s. The scene has a tender undercurrent because it’s where we first see that the two are falling in love. But I thought Scafaria called the restaurant “Friendsy’s” because it sounds like “frenzies,” which exactly describes what’s on offer, since the servers have impulsively added group sex to the menu. So I asked Scafaria how she came up with the name, and she shot back, laughing,  “I don’t know! When Friday’s said no, and then shockingly, Appleby’s, and all the rest who were not interested? ‘Our restaurant: where you come to feast and dine before you die.’ Really? When do I get to go?”

Our talk turned to casting. Keira Knightley has been in so many weighty movies of late that it’s refreshing to see her in this film as such an exuberant, playful character. I wondered if Scafaria set out to upend audience expectations by casting Knightley in a role that’s zanier than Steve Carell’s.

The director admitted that was the case. “I was excited by movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Jim Carrey–who’d never been seen like that before, who becomes almost invisible in that movie, he’s so good–takes a back seat to Kate Winslet, who’d been known for playing different [more serious] parts, yet suddenly has the loopy role. I remember wanting to take a page from that, and have a comedic actor who could play a more guarded character. I used to love watching Steve Carell go from zero to 60 in the course of an episode of The Office, but I also love him as a much more still character–because that to me is when he shines the most, in things like Dan in Real Life and Little Miss Sunshine. The idea behind pairing him with Keira was to convey that she is this sort of old soul, and he’s sort of a young man, and so the notion that she would light a fire under him fit. I also think that when you’re that great an actress, you already have good comic timing built in.”

   Scafaria is now two for two with romances that resonate. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is a favorite of mine; it exquisitely captures what it’s like to fall in love for the first time. As its title suggests, it’s about a couple with time and time ahead of them {assuming their love stays true). With Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, we watch two older people who, after several false starts, finally find true love, but they’ll have much less time together.

“Just so you know,” Scafaria interjected, “that was a completely conscious decision after writing Nick & Norah’s. I loved that story; I loved that it could go on forever. But what I wanted to write next was something that had an end to it; like, what if you took “forever” off the table, how that would affect the dynamic. I was desperate to write something with a loud ticking clock, and I couldn’t think of a louder one than this.”