Author Archive

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.”

The Gronvall Files: Lynn Shelton

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Built for Speed: An Interview with Lynn Shelton, Director of Your Sister’s Sister

Seattle-born filmmaker Lynn Shelton earned acclaim for her first two features—We Go Way Back (2006) won the Slamdance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, and My Effortless Brilliance (2008) received an Independent Spirit Award—but her breakout film was Humpday (2009), which netted her another Independent Spirit Award, as well as the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize. Writer, editor, producer, director, and occasionally actress—she was beguiling as a bisexual free spirit in Humpday, and has a cameo in Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed—she employs a highly collaborative approach to filmmaking, encouraging her actors to build recognizable and relatable characters through extensive improvisation. In her latest work, the IFC Films release Your Sister’s Sister, she re-teams with Humpday star Mark Duplass, who plays Jack, a man still grieving the loss of his brother a year ago. Best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), his brother’s former girlfriend, takes pity and sends him alone on a retreat to her family’s cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest. What she doesn’t know is that her lesbian half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) has already moved in, trying to get over a romantic breakup. After a night of slamming back tequila shots, things quickly get complicated for the new roomies. Shelton stopped in Chicago recently to talk about her working method, and the ways in which she’s branching out as a director.

Andrea Gronvall:  How did you come up with the title of the film?

Lynn Shelton:  It was really hard! I had lists and lists of names, so I just asked friends for help. But I like it, because ita bit of a puzzle; you have to think about it for a second. It indicates three people: there’s a person saying “your sister’s sister,” and then there are the two sisters, and either sister could be the subject.

AG:  There aren’t that many filmmakers who excel at improvisation; movie production is so expensive that doing things on the fly is not for the faint of heart. Of course there have been great directors, like John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, whose films are heavily improvised, but in a lot of movies improvised stretches often wind up looking like mistakes, like the actors are winging it because the script wasn’t ready. What attracts you to improv?

LS:  First of all, I think everybody works with improv in their own fashion, and what I don’t like to do is just to show up on set and say, “Hey, what are we going to do today?” I have a very clear goal in mind for each scene, so by the time we get to set we really know what the scene is about, and, even more importantly, we know who these people are, what their back stories are—everything that’s happened before that scene takes place. With Your Sister’s Sister I had a script, I had dialogue written out, but I asked the actors not to memorize it. Sometimes they would just slightly alter a line, or sometimes they would change a whole line. Maybe 25 per cent of the movie is from lines that I wrote, so the vast majority of it is not. But there’s a very specific trajectory that needs to be followed, and so even though the dialogue itself may be improvised, the movie is not, if that makes sense. We’re not coming up with the [entire] movie on set; we’re just coming up with the specific.

And the other thing, for me, is that I’m an editor by trade. So I try to create a really emotionally safe environment and a relationship of trust with my actors, so that they know I’m not going to let them look bad on screen. And they can go ahead and take risks and put themselves out there to find their way, with the assurance I’m going to cut stuff out, and just put the gems on screen.

And the last thing I have to say, is that—and I don’t know if you were referring to this or not—I’ve seen what you’re talking about in comedies, and I don’t want my actors to know they’re in a comedy. In fact, I didn’t know how funny Your Sister’s Sister would be. The same thing is true of Humpday, believe it or not. I knew there would be some funniness, but I didn’t know for sure how much, because we’re playing it dead straight on set. I don’t want people reaching for jokes, or feeling like they have to be entertaining. I want them to be playing to the truth of the scene and of the moment.

AG:  Given your method, do you prefer to shoot in chronological order as much as possible?

LS:  I do, and Humpday was shot totally in order, Later we re-shot a couple of things, including the very first scene, and that was actually for a camera issue. And the plan was to shoot Your Sister’s Sister in order, but we lost our original Hannah a few days before the shoot. Rachel Weisz had to bow out due to scheduling issues, and so when we got Rosemarie DeWitt, it was a total blessing and she saved our butts, but she was in production on a TV show, The United States of Tara. Her dear producers very kindly amended her schedule enough that we could do it. But we still lost two days, plus we only had her for a certain time, so we had to shoot things out of order.

And you know it was good for me, because I learned two things: (1) that you can replace actors, even when you’ve worked so hard with a particular set of people that it feels like developing the movie both with and for them; and (2) that shooting out of order doesn’t necessarily screw it all up, and sometimes works better because you discover something about what you’re aiming for.

Ideally, I would still love to be able to shoot in order; there’s something so organic about it. I just shot a new movie called Touchy Feely and it was my longest shoot–it was 20 whole days—and with multiple story lines, a lot of characters, and many locations. I felt like it was time to do that because I had made three movies in a row with three characters and one location. But we still didn’t have a lot of time, and so we had to shoot really out of order; we’d be in one location, so we’d have to shoot all of the scenes that took place there. It really made me long for shooting chronologically.

AG:  Tell me about Touchy Feely.

LS:  The core is a dysfunctional family unit, sibling-based. Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais play brother and sister who are at odds, but what bonds them together is his daughter, her niece, played by Ellen Page, who’s in a very co-dependent relationship with her father, and her aunt is kind of trying to set her free. Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, and Scoot McNairy are also in it. Structurally, it’s very different than the last few films I’ve made; it feels more dramatic to me. But I’m always that way. With every film I don’t know how much humor there’s going to be.

AG: Your Sister’s Sister and Humpday both are sort of chamber pieces. Does scale for you dictate the intimate nature of a subject, or does the subject dictate the scale of the movie?

LS: They go hand in hand. I do really love that microcosmic approach to filmmaking; my fascination is the self and how we perceive others, and how our perceptions of our selves and others are challenged when we find that our limits are different than what we had thought. I’m so drawn to how people want to connect, but can’t, for whatever reason. It’s a lot easier to focus on that in a chamber piece, when you have something that’s just really bare bones. The vast majority of your time can be spent on finding the scene, as opposed to lighting, or moving to a new location, or spending an entire day setting up the perfect crane shot, [which] is not where my passion lies when I’m on set.

AG: There’s a big difference between directing film and directing TV, as you know, because you’ve directed an episode of Mad Men. The difference in pace between TV and film production is astonishing.

LS: That’s actually not true for me. I work so fast, and Mad Men was insanely fast! In fact, having just worked on Mad Men gave me the confidence that I could do Your Sister’s Sister after losing two days of shooting. I was already terrified that we weren’t going to get what we needed in 14 days, and then it was down to 12, and I was like, I am not going to be able to get the footage, I’m not going to be able to do it. But I’d just been on Mad Men, a job I’d been lobbying to get. They gave it to me and I thought, oh my God, I hope I can do this. I’d only been up in the hinterlands making little micro-budget films in my own weird way; I had no idea if my skills set was going to transfer. But directing is directing, and the crew told me, “You were one of the fastest directors we’ve ever worked with.” And then I did New Girl last year, and it was again the same thing. I’m sort of built for that kind of speed, as it turns out. I think it’s also my editing background, because I really know what I need, and when I have it, and when to move on. Because I know that somewhere in the takes—maybe not in all one perfect single take, which is what I think some directors try to look for–is the take I need. I don’t sweat the master to death, I just get a couple of those [shots] to use at the beginning and the end. As an editor—I’m editing my new movie, too—I don’t want to slog through 30 takes; I just want four good ones. That’s all I need.

The Gronvall Files: Safety Not Guaranteed’s Colin Trevorrow

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Director Colin Trevorrow Takes Some Risks with Safety Not Guaranteed

 

Safety Not Guaranteed is one of this summer’s delightful surprises, an offbeat science fiction comedy that’s not the least bit dystopian. Challenged by his editor at a Seattle magazine to come up with a compelling story idea, manipulative reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) pitches investigating an anonymous classified ad that was placed by someone who wants a companion for traveling back in time. With two interns—the cynical Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and the buttoned-up Indian Arnau (Karan Soni)—in tow as backup, Jeff tracks down the mystery man, a small-town supermarket clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Loner Kenneth is clearly paranoid about his secret project, but lets down his guard when Darius goes undercover and auditions to be his time travel partner. As the journalists chase their story, they find more than what they expected.

Vermont-based Colin Trevorrow makes his feature directorial debut, working from a screenplay by his long-time writing partner Derek Connolly, whom he first met in a comedy writing class at New York University, and interned with on Saturday Night Live. In Chicago to preview Safety Not Guaranteed for students at DePaul University, the director took time out to talk about this new Film District release.

Andrea Gronvall:  I remember as a kid watching an old syndicated after-school TV serial called Journey to the Beginning of Time, in which four boys on a boat discover that as they travel further along the water, they’re also going back to a prehistoric era. Like many children, I was keen on dinosaurs, so that show really fired my imagination. Did the fantasy of time travel grab you as a youngster?

Colin Trevorrow:  Yes. I think the first time travel story that I can remember has to be Voyagers. I don’t remember that much, but it was about a little boy and either his father or guardian of some kind, and they had a compass that would take them through time. It was sort of like Quantum Leap. Seeing a little kid go on that particular adventure fascinated me. Then when Back to the Future came out, that was the be-all, end-all cult movie experience; I fell so deeply in love with it. That movie, and another called Flight of the Navigator, had beautiful emotional beats and cores as to why the main characters were traveling back through time. In the first you’re dealing with someone who wants to make sure his parents fall in love, and in the second a kid wants to return home so he can live the childhood that he missed.

I remember seeing Time Bandits, sitting on the floor in a packed theater. I would say those movies, and the tone of those movies, grabbed me. I’ve written several time travel scripts for various studios, partially because I was interested in the stories, partially because they saw I wrote the first one and figured, “Oh, this guy likes time travel.” I’m so glad I got to make this one of my ideas, because you can’t keep doing this. This is likely going to be my [one produced] time travel story, and I’m proud of it, because I feel it really is about the emotional needs that a time travel narrative satisfies, as opposed to, you know, running around shooting dinosaurs with shotguns and stuff.

AG:  I’m glad you brought up tone, because mastery of tone is tricky, something that can elude even veteran filmmakers. But in your debut feature you’ve created this supple comic tone that ripples from caustic to tender, from wondrous to skeptical. The film has a hipster flavor, and yet at the same time it’s moving in a humanistic way, one that harks back to works from earlier decades. How did you pull it off? That’s not something you can storyboard.

CT:  No, it’s not. And I think we’ll probably start seeing a lot of this with filmmakers, or anyone my age, reacting to so many great people that came before. There’s this great tap dancer, Savion Glover—his tap dancing style is a combination of Gregory Hines and other amazing dancers, and he’s put their steps into this new thing that feels totally fresh. And I think that’s like this movie, and the tone of this movie.

You can tell that I grew up in the Eighties, that Steven SpielbergRobert ZemeckisRichard Donner school. I love Richard Donner very much, and yet I love Francois Truffaut, and Billy Wilder, and Woody Allen. And I actually love Mark Duplass’s movies and their naturalism, and wanted to bring that into Safety Not Guaranteed as well. And I felt Aubrey Plaza represents a very modern kind of disaffected young female character, who feels there’s nothing for her in the world, so that’s an element I also added. Combining all of these things into one could have been an awful mess, but I don’t think it is.

AG:  No, it’s not a mash-up.

CT:  It doesn’t feel like a mash-up at all; it feels both modern and anachronistic in its own way, like a throwback to the way films were in the Eighties–but only because we take time to let the movie breathe. I write studio films, and you’re not allowed to do that anymore, you’ve got to keep the plot going. And we took like a 15-minute break from the plot in this movie, and just let these characters hang out and fall in love and discover things. I guess that’s where maybe the hipster side comes in: “hipster quirky,” or whatever the label. I don’t even know what hipster means anymore. But I can’t apologize for wanting to spend time with these characters and learn what’s really going on with them, outside of this cool time travel story.

AG:  That turns out to be seductive, in that you’re leading the viewer to become more transfixed by what’s unfolding.

CT:  It’s not 15 minutes away from the story, but it is 15 minutes away from the plot. I had to have a certain amount of confidence that it was going to work, and yet, at the end, hopefully we deliver in a way that we earned, and also in a way that allows people to be glad that we spend much of the movie with people that we care about, and want to see win. I think the “want-to-win” factor is massive in this. If you don’t want them to succeed, this movie dies.

AG: Your casting certainly helps us root for the characters, what with the skills of Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, and your discovery of—

CTKaran Soni.

AG:  –who is so cute and so sweet. In old movies there’s this tradition involving the egghead girl with glasses, where she has to lose the glasses so the hero can realize, “Oh, there’s a woman there.” And that moment in Safety Not Guaranteed when Arnau’s glasses come off, we get to see his profile and his long eyelashes—

CT: This guy is amazing looking. It was a tough part. We knew that we were starting that character as a caricature, to a certain extent, and wanted to break that down—not necessarily break down the stereotype, but break out a character that wasn’t real, and turn him into someone very real. And that’s something that you have to beg a lot of forgiveness from the audience for, in that I think for some people that may be very off-putting:  “Oh, it’s the nerdy Indian guy again.” But when you look back on your own life and you think about how much of a momentous occasion your first kiss was, that instant that occurs in this movie might seem small, but for this character is a turning point that could change the direction of his whole life. It’s a Back to the Future moment.

AG:  Did you always see this as a widescreen movie?

CT:  That was something that was very important to me all along. And we shot widescreen with Panavision lenses from the late Seventies, early Eighties, even though we used a video camera, the Sony F3, which had come out about a week before we started. It’s a great camera, even with the flaws that ended up existing—like, there’s grain in the movie.

AG:  The grain is good. It feels like a 16mm film.

CT:  I was hoping it felt like a Super 16mm movie. That was always the goal in using widescreen, even though we weren’t shooting anamorphic—we didn’t have that luxury as we were covering 32 locations in 24 days. I think it makes the close-ups that much more effective, too, in that we’re not always up in everyone’s face, so whenever we are, you know that something’s happening and you should be listening. We made a conscious effort, from the start to finish, to change the weight of the camera. It’s very handheld for the first half of the movie, and then it gets more graceful, and then when we get to the end, we’re pretty much ball on track, very fluid.

AG:  You took Safety Not Guaranteed to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, and then to the inaugural Sundance London Film and Music Festival, How did the two experiences compare?

CT: Very, very different. The audiences in Sundance London were a little quieter, because they’re British, and yet more effusive in their praise one-on-one, and very articulate. That was nice. I took my father, and together we saw Prince Charles introduce his film [Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, a documentary inspired by the Prince of Wales’s work in combating climate change]. We were deeply moved after we heard him speak; he’s brilliant. And Robert Redford said that when he mentioned Safety Not Guaranteed to him, Prince Charles said that it sounds like an interesting title. Sundance London was a wonderful experience.

The Gronvall Files: Interview with Tanya Wexler, Director of Hysteria

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Unlike most of the starched, corseted, and repressed female characters that populate her new comedy Hysteria, filmmaker Tanya Wexler is comfortable in her own skin. The ebullient director, 41, who resides in New York with her wife and kids, is frank and funny, and radiated more health and positive energy during a return visit to her Chicago hometown than one would think possible in the middle of a multi-city promotional tour. The Sony Pictures Classics release is a period piece unlike anything you’ve seen before: Hugh Dancy stars as Dr. Mortimer Granville, an idealistic young doctor whose unusually forward thinking costs him job after job in Victorian-era London–until he lands a gig at the clinic of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who has built quite a practice curing respectable but frustrated women of the maladies that were then conveniently lumped under the catch-all term “hysteria.” His method? Manual manipulation of the client’s private parts—all in the name of science, of course, with everyone fully clothed. Before long the handsome new physician has become so popular with the ladies that he develops a bad case of carpal-tunnel syndrome. There are also the distractions—pleasant and not so—that are posed by Dr. Dalrymple’s daughters, the demure Emily (Felicity Jones), and the feisty suffragette Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But it’s Mortimer’s unconventional long-time friend and benefactor (Rupert Everett) who comes up with a handy solution:  the invention of the electric vibrator.

Andrea Gronvall:  Comedy is really tough to do well, but you seem to have a strategy. Hysteria starts as farce, when we meet down-on-his-luck Dr. Granville (Hugh Dancy) in the process of losing yet another job. Then, with the introduction of his best friend, the eccentric, aristocratic inventor Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), the movie shifts into a comedy of manners, and later forays into slapstick, showing the effects Edmund’s ingenious new invention has on Mortimer’s satisfied customers. And the laughs build throughout, right up to the tongue-in-cheek punchline at the end.

Tanya Wexler:  We drew a lot of inspiration from the great old screwball comedies of the thirties and forties. They layer in all kinds of comedic beats—the more broad, physical ones, the more witty repartee. If you think of most of the comedies Katharine Hepburn or Cary Grant made, there’s certainly banter, but [Howard Hawks’] Bringing Up Baby goes all over the map. And Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, one of my all-time favorite movies! Think of the physical comedy, and the wordplay, and then it has one of the best exit lines ever: “Nobody’s perfect.” It made me laugh–and want to make a movie that’s fun and entertaining, but with something to sink my teeth into.

AG:  But Hysteria is also warm and oddly endearing, maybe because almost all the characters, with their assorted flaws, are likable. A lot of that has to do with casting; you picked the right actors for each role. Take Maggie Gyllenhaal, for instance; she can project passion, steel, and vulnerability at the same time. Her headstrong character, Charlotte, is labeled “hysterical,” but Charlotte emerges as the most pragmatic and the clearest thinker of the lot.

TW:  She’s the truth-teller.

AG:  And Rupert Everett, Jonathan Pryce—what was your thinking in casting them”

TW:  I had an amazing casting director [Gaby Kester], but Rupert, Jonathan, Maggie, Hugh—they were all on my wish list. Jonathan was the first actor to come aboard, and when you have somebody like him attached, everyone knows what kind of movie it is, because he’s a class act, and he can do anything, really—dramas, comedies, musicals. He was our anchor: he stuck with us for years while we were trying to get this made.

AG:  I caught Hugh Dancy last November on Broadway in Venus in Fur

TW:  I saw it—it’s such a good show!

AG:  —playing a character who’s attractive and highly intelligent, but who is also a bit clueless, and winds up swept away by a woman who’s stronger than he is. That’s kind of what happens to Dancy’s character in Hysteria, minus the darkness and the kink.

TW:  I saw Hugh in a production of Journey’s End several years ago; I’d seen him do comedy and romantic comedy in films, but it was that stage production more than anything else that sold me on him as an actor.

AG:  Speaking of the stage, I was lucky to view one of the best productions in the history of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play. It’s interesting that your film and her play came about at roughly the same time. Same subject, but the tone is very different. Your approach is more antic–more upbeat, certainly–more irreverent. Do you think that audiences are going to be surprised to learn that the vibrator was originally developed as a laborsaving device for male doctors?

TW:  That’s my joke! Yeah, the vibrator’s meant for a guy! That’s why guys shouldn’t be threatened now—like, “Dude, you’re tired, but that’s okay, take a break, it’s a member of your team.” I like power tools. I purposely didn’t see In the Next Room when we found out it was being developed in parallel, like [in the case of] the two movies about Truman Capote. My wife saw it, and said it’s really good, but not to worry, because it’s different. I didn’t want to unconsciously crib anything, but I’m dying to see it now, because there needs to be diversity, and the world can handle two works about the vibrator!

The joke is can you believe they really did this:  they really thought it wasn’t sex, both the women and the men. We delude ourselves; we’re in denial all the time. Once you make that your core, you engineer the rest of the movie out of that. The truth is the funniest thing of all.

AG:  Although show business is not the Wexler family’s only claim to fame, several of your relatives are in the movie industry. Your uncle Haskell Wexler is one of America’s most esteemed cinematographers. I met your filmmaker cousin Mark Wexler when his first documentary feature opened, and I also met your half-sister Daryl Hannah years ago at the Telluride Film Festival. Your family has a home around there?

TW:  We did. After my dad [Jerrold Wexler] passed away, my mom sold it. My mom [Susan Wexler] is here; she’s in the other room.

AG:  Ah! So, was it a given when you were growing up that you’d wind up in this business, or did you come to filmmaking via a circuitous route?

TW:  There was never any pressure. My dad and mom, like most parents, said, “We want you to do your best”–you know, to reach for things. My dad was successful in real estate here in Chicago. If I felt any pressure, it was just that of having a successful parent, and feeling what it means “to do your best” as a very high bar. It’s very hard not to internalize that, what “your best” means. Being the most successful in your community, or whatever? It’s intense, and I don’t think I ever really understood how much pressure [I created] for myself, in a way that can make you really driven. That can actually work against you, because really I think success is just getting on with it–like persistence, putting one foot in front of another.

I went for an undergraduate degree in psychology. I think my dad thought I was just as likely to go into business, or become a psychologist, as anything else. Growing up, my sisters and I were acting semi-professionally, in local Chicago stuff–something we all were passionate about, but that could have easily been almost a hobby. My mom was a huge theatre lover; she was on the board of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and we were always at the Goodman Theatre. And I was like a crazy groupie at Second City; I would go over and over again to classes. And I think that actually had as big an effect as anything. Because when you see work that moves you—some people just want that as the experience, but I always wanted to be a part of that. I remember a production of—was that the Organic [Theater Company]?a production of Hamlet

AG:  Wisdom Bridge Theatre. Aidan Quinn starred. Robert Falls directed.

TW:  —that Bob Falls directed, absolutely! [Costarring] Del Close, Byrne Piven. I was 13, 14, and, look:  I’ve got the chills, still! That production changed how I saw everything—to spray-paint “To be, or not to be” on the wall, to upend everything and still get the core of it right–that, as much as anything that my family did. It was probably my mom bringing me to the theatre that had the biggest impact. It’s also because she’s in the next room that I’m saying this.

The Gronvall Files: BETWEEN TERENCE DAVIES AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

For a world-class filmmaker, Terence Davies keeps a fairly low profile; you’re not likely, for instance, to catch him chatting up Jay Leno on late-night TV (in part because the director/screenwriter dislikes travel and hardly ever watches television). He has channeled his energies into his work, from ruminative autobiographical features like Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, about Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, to his masterly adaptation of the Edith Wharton classic The House of Mirth (starring Gillian Anderson in one of her best movie roles), followed by the acclaimed documentary Of Time and the City, about his native Liverpool. His latest film is an adaptation of the Terence Rattigan stage drama The Deep Blue Sea, set in postwar London and starring Rachel Weisz as a married aristocrat who attempts suicide after forsaking all for love with a former RAF fighter pilot. Last autumn at the Toronto International Film Festival, Chicago-based distributor Music Box Films snapped up the U.S. rights; it’s the indie powerhouse’s first English-language title, following its successful releases of the French thriller Tell No One and the Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels. The Deep Blue Sea recently previewed at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s annual European Union Film Festival, prior to theatrical release, and Davies, 66, made a rare appearance, regaling the packed house for close to an hour with his memories, insights, and movie lore. He was also generous enough to sit down with me beforehand, where we talked about the craft of adapting a stage play for the screen.

Andrea Gronvall:  The differences between Terence Rattigan’s play and your film of The Deep Blue Sea are striking. You’re faithful to the essence of the play, but you’ve given a back-story to the marriage of the Collyers–Hester (Rachel Weisz) and Sir William (Simon Russell Beale). There’s no hint of Judge Collyer’s mom at all in the play, but there she is in your film, played with icy malignancy by Barbara Jefford, and in a flash we can intuit so much more about the problems this couple faced.

Terence Davies:  I wanted to see Hester in a social position where she’s clearly considered not good enough for this woman’s son. And how a 50-year-old can still call his mother “Mummy”—that’s peculiar to the upper classes in England. We always said “Mum,” or “Marm,” or “Ma’am;” we never said “Mummy,” after we stopped being like, eight or nine. I wanted to open the play a little, so that it wasn’t all a question of people [characters] telling you things. When you can show things, as you can in proper cinema, you don’t really need much of the first act [of the play]; the first act has been collapsed into nine minutes. I said as soon as we set it from Hester’s point of view, all that goes; anything she’s not privy to, we can’t have.

AG:  There are other characters–some of whom you’ve reduced to essentially walk-ons in the movie—that in the play exist primarily to indicate different strata of society, and how oppressive England was in the postwar years. But in the play some of those characters appear annoyingly offhand in their dealings with Hester.

TD:  They’re not convincing, for one simple reason: he [Rattigan] never lived in a bed-sit in Ladbroke Grove after the war. So these people are caricatures; [in the play] Mrs. Elton is a caricature of a landlady. They weren’t like that at all, those women who had houses that they let out into flats. In the play, for instance, Mrs. Elton tells Hester, you’re behind in the rent, but it doesn’t really matter. That would never have happened. You didn’t pay your rent, you were out, because there were no tenant rights; those people relied on that income. So, that had to be changed; that had to be made truer, because I can remember when my sisters got married and moved into these awful rooms. I know what the Fifties were like because I grew up then.

AG:  In the play, the domestic setting is described as dingy; in your film, we indeed get the point that because she has chosen to be with her jobless lover Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), Hester has come down in the world. But as the movie progresses, I didn’t experience their apartment as drab; it took on a sort of dusky glow, and a certain richness, maybe because under your direction the production designer (James Merifield) and cinematographer (Florian Hoffmeister) convey a sense of lives that are fully lived. Is that effect deliberate, or was it my imagining?

TD:  No, the color palette was deliberately narrow, because at the end of the war, Britain was literally bankrupt. In homes you saw all that the people had, and they’d had it many years, and tried to keep it as well as they could. I was from a working-class background, and we had a front room which was called a parlor, and that was kept absolutely pristine. Coming home from school in September when it was dark, I’d go into the parlor, and the fire was lit, and a little plate of potato cakes had been toasted, with butter on them, and a cup of tea. But all of the fire was reflected in the surfaces—on wood, leatherette—so it made it look sumptuous to my eyes. It didn’t matter that we had nothing, and that the house was literally a slum—that [parlor] seemed so rich!

I remember being taken to see Young at Heart–I love Doris Day with all my heart—and those interiors were gorgeous. Which I know is absurd: these three girls, who never do any work, live in this fabulous place, and look fabulous all the time, and you think, how is that done? But I’d come home, and sit in the firelight, and think, oh, it’s just like Young at Heart. I’ve always been very aware of surfaces, ever since I was a child. It was just recreating that, with a limited palette.

AG:  I watched, thinking, okay, maybe I’m just bourgie, but I could live in that.

TD:  [Laughs] Well, even Rachel Weisz said, “This is a very sexy apartment.” I said, “I grew up then; believe me, it’s not sexy.”

AG:  We can sense the ghosts of England’s wartime past within the parts of the movie that are set in Hester’s apartment, but naturally we can sense them even more deeply in the flashbacks. The subway scene in The Deep Blue Sea is so eloquent, when Hester, on the train platform in the film’s present, peers into the blackness of the tunnel. And then dirt and debris suddenly seep onto the tracks from overhead; the camera pulls back, the background goes dark, the foreground lights up, and we see Londoners taking refuge in the Aldwych tube station during the Blitz, as Nazi bombs rain on the city. A man sings, and the tracking shot continues along the platform, where all sorts of people are holding themselves together. Why did you decide to do that then, at that point in the film, when Hester is again contemplating suicide?

TD:  Because what I do find extraordinary about life is that a very simple thing can alter a decision. After the phone call [to Freddie], Hester decides, he doesn’t love me, I’m going to kill myself. And while she’s waiting for the train to come, she remembers what it was like during the war, when London was bombed 72 nights in a row during the Blitz. And it’s that memory, and of someone singing—because they did sing down in the tube; people danced as well, would you believe?–that stops her from doing something dreadful.

Also, the influence is Brief Encounter, when she [the heroine, Celia Johnson] runs to the edge of the platform and says, “I couldn’t do it, Fred. I wish I could have said it was for you and the children, but I couldn’t. I didn’t have the courage, Fred.” What is extraordinary about human beings is that we have memory. Those people who suffer traumas where they can’t remember the past, it must be devastating, because we are the accumulation of our pasts. And if you can’t remember that, how can you possibly know what you are now? None of us really know who we are, but the past for me is not a foreign country. It’s alive, and with all the clues; if only we were intelligent or sensitive enough to unravel them, we might find happiness.

AG:  Hester is obviously a tragic heroine, yet she is also incredibly self-aware. But unlike protagonists nowadays who undergo psychotherapy in order to understand themselves and thereby change for the better, she understands herself, but doesn’t try to fix herself.

TD:  Yes, but in those days you wouldn’t have—especially in Britain, no one would have thought to go to a psychoanalyst, even if you could afford it. Hester’s very much like my mother; she’s a stoic. Not in the old Greek sense, but in the sense of, these are the cards I’ve been dealt with, let’s get on with it. I came from that era where you got on with things, where you didn’t give up. I was beaten up every day for four years at secondary school. I didn’t tell a soul; my mother found out by accident. You just didn’t tell anybody. Not like now, where not only do people want to go on [reality] television and cry, they get a franchise out of it! I mean, that would have been unthinkable in the Fifties. [Laughs]

And also [the very idea of] telling us everything—cinema doesn’t work like that. At the beginning of The Deep Blue Sea there’s a woman and two men. And what we ask is, what’s the relationship between them? And then the film says what the relationship is. It’s like dead simple! But simple things are always more powerful.

AG:  You’ve also improved on the play in terms of the character of Freddie. In the play he comes across as callow and self-absorbed and—

TD:  And stupid.

AG:  In the play, we learn one of the keys to Freddie’s troubles is an accident he had in Canada, In your film, we don’t really know why he’s fallen on such hard times. But that allows Tom Hiddleston more mystery to plumb; there’s more darkness to his character, who comes across as more unstable than in the play. In the play Freddie’s mostly a boor.

TD:  During the Battle of Britain, the average age of these young men was 22, and they were fighting eight soldiers a day. And when they saw a German aircraft, do you know how much response time they had? Eight seconds, or they were dead. And so part of the story is that Freddie’s horrified that he’s been through that, and Hester is going to throw her life away over the fact that he hasn’t remembered her birthday; he hasn’t done it deliberately, he’s just thoughtless. But when you’re in the thrall of love, to that depth, every single thing is important. Why are they late? They said they would come at four o’clock; they’ve come at six—why? You become obsessed with that, and that’s what’s destructive, the destructive side of love.

AG:  At the close of the film, when the camera pulls away from Hester looking out the window, moves up and out and along the street, and we see the devastation of bombed buildings at its end, did you mean to suggest in that shot that Hester will find a way to repair herself, just like London found a way to rebuild itself?

TD:  Not really, no. My intention was to say at the beginning of the film, we see this house: during this story, we’re going to concentrate on Hester, a tenant. And then at the end we come away and say, we’ve seen her story, but there are stories that we’ll never know. It’s for aesthetic symmetry; I love that. We see Hester’s story, and then we go back, and they get on with their lives.

The Gronvall Files: JENNIFER WESTFELDT ON FRIENDS WITH KIDS

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

What’s a gifted actress to do when Hollywood continues to bypass projects featuring strong roles for women, in favor of cookie-cutter productions kowtowing to that coveted 18-35 male demographic? In the case of Jennifer Westfeldt, you fight back, writing and producing indie vehicles to star in. The darling of critics and art-house fans for her 2001 film Kissing Jessica Stein and her 2006 follow-up, Ira & Abby, Westfeldt now becomes a quadruple-hyphenate with her directorial debut, the new Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions release, Friends With Kids. The bicoastal filmmaker, who splits her time between New York and L.A. with significant other Jon Hamm, has delivered a beguiling romantic comedy about two long-time single best friends, Jason (Adam Scott of the NBC-TV hit Parks and Recreation) and Julie (Westfeldt), who quite happily don’t feel any physical attraction for each other. But their biological clocks are ticking and, seeing how having children has stressed the marriages of their close friends Ben (Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), and Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), Jason and Julie hit upon an idea. They’ll have sex to produce a child, but remain unwed until they each find the “right” person, meanwhile bringing up baby without any acrimony. Ah, but what’s that saying about “the best laid plans?” Westfeldt stopped over in Chicago recently to bask in the unseasonably warm temperatures and reflect on the hurdles to getting her boundary-pushing romcom made.

Andrea Gronvall: It cost less than $10 million to make Friends With Kids, but it doesn’t look or feel like a low-budget movie. How long did you have to shoot it?

Jennifer Westfeldt: We shot it in 24 and a half days, which is crazy, in the dead of winter, and then we had a couple of pick-up days in the summer. When you’re trying to get an indie film off the ground, there’s usually that one magic moment where the actors’ schedules align, and unfortunately, that happened to be in the worst winter in 40 years—not my plan!

AG:  How did Mike Nichols become involved as executive producer of the picture?

JW:  We had the great fortune to do a workshop of the screenplay the summer before we shot it, through a company called New York Stage and Film, which is sort of my creative home, this wonderful summer program held on the Vassar campus. Most of the New York playwrights work out all their material before it comes to New York; John Patrick Shanley has developed every single thing he’s ever done there. In the four-day-long weekend that we worked on it, we started with a cold table read with some screenwriting mentors. Mike was one of those, along with Tina Fey and various other people. And then we had a round-table discussion about the screenplay, and Mike was really taken with the script–so much so that he loaned his name to the project and became sort of a godfather.

AG:  As good as your first two films are, with Friends With Kids you’re kicking it up a notch, into more racy territory. Some writers have made comparisons to last year’s Bridesmaids, if only because your movie reunites four of that film’s cast members, and is also a comedy told from a woman’s point of view–with occasional raunchy language, Judd Apatow-style. But in your film, the explicit, blunt dialogue is not gratuitous. Particularly in the last scene, where it underscores the movie’s theme: which is that in order for a relationship to survive, desire has to be there.

JW:  Timing is everything, and my character, Julie, and Jason (Adam Scott), the two best friends in this film, have a very different trajectory. At the outset they’re on equal footing: they almost have a brother-sister relationship, where they can be honest to the point of crass with each other. In the final scene the language had to be that visceral to come back from the earlier scene of my [character’s] devastating birthday, [where she challenges] the way she and Jason have always thought about each other. A traditional ending with some declaration of love just wouldn’t work with this story. The film is trying to look at–from all the different characters’ perspectives–the evolving nature of love, of family, of passion, of attraction, and how these things shift and change as we get older and our priorities shift and change.

AG:  We certainly see that in the ebb and flow of Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd’s marriage, and the high point and later the nadir of Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm’s marriage. You’ve written some strong roles for your costars, not just for yourself. Let’s talk a little bit about that dinner scene in the Vermont lodge; it distinguishes your movie from the usual Hollywood romantic comedy. The fact that here there’s actual pain, and—

JW:  Consequences, yeah! I didn’t know that I’d get away with it—it’s 10% of the movie, that scene. I knew I was breaking a lot of traditional story-telling rules to suddenly have this 10-minute, real-time scene–which almost never happens in a movie. That really is the domain of theatre. But here these selfish singles have this idea about how to beat the system, and have it all. And, you know, you can’t have it all. There always are consequences. Anything worth having in life, there are going to be messy parts, high highs, and low lows—particularly if the rules change a little on one side, for one person.

And Jon’s character—as dark as he is in that scene, where he’s obviously in a lot of pain—is also the voice of the audience. He’s really the truth-teller, even though he doesn’t say it nicely. He’s saying what everyone’s been wondering, which is, did you think this through? How is this going to affect this child? That sentiment had to come out, in a way that involved a sort of emotional climax for all eight characters. I wanted to show how this choice Julie and Jason make ripples through their group of friends, how the dynamic starts shifting when everyone feels judged, and I felt like it all had to come to a head in that spot.

AG:  The two actors in smaller roles, Megan Fox and Edward Burns, give good support. What led you to cast them?

JW:  Megan I met through the casting process; her agent was very keen on this script and this part for her. I met with her and another producer, Jake Kasdan, and was so taken with how smart, and how funny, and how irreverent she was. Her character represents the free spirit, that person who can get on a plane to Europe—tomorrow, without even thinking about it—and stay there for two years. She knows she doesn’t want to have kids, and is fine with that choice.

Eddie Burns’s character, by contrast, is the one character in the film who is not struggling in any way with his identity as a parent. He is 100% okay with the compromises, the sacrifices involved with having kids, and he identifies as a father and as a parent, first and foremost.

AG: He’s mature.

JW: He’s a grownup, yes. Eddie is a tremendously appealing presence, obviously; he’s also a great dad himself. When I met him and [his wife] Christy [Turlington] and their family, I thought that’s exactly what I need in this role: someone who is that great at parenting, and that easy and charming with it.

AG: When you write for yourself, do you have notions of a persona in mind, or are you consciously trying to create a different character each time out?

JW:  Because I’m really an actor first, I think about each role I write as though I were the actor playing it; so, whether it’s a man or a woman, or old or young, I think about what would make sense, what would feel truthful to me in the part. I don’t how else to write. But I do want to say one last thing: it’s a really exciting time for women right now with the success that Kristen and Annie [Mumolo] have had with Bridesmaids, and Tina Fey with 30 Rock–but also Miranda July, Julie Delpy, Lena Dunham, and Rashida Jones. We just saw at Sundance there were five movies where women were writing for themselves. I hope to support other women doing that, and to continue to be in the company of all those gals; it’s really exciting to be a part of that wave.

The Gronvall Files: PAUL WEITZ ON BEING FLYNN

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Although the new Focus Features release Being Flynn is based on a true story—Nick Flynn’s acclaimed memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—director/screenwriter Paul Weitz says he sees it as “a fable about whether we’re fated to become our parents.” The story centers on a booze- and drug-addicted aspiring young writer, Nick Flynn (Paul Dano), whose path to sobriety is challenged when his long-absent father Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro), an alcoholic with profound delusions of grandeur about his own status as a writer, takes up residency in the homeless shelter where Nick works. Haunting both men is the memory of Jonathan’s wife and Nick’s mother, Jodi (Julianne Moore). The real-life Nick’s real-life wife Lili Taylor and Olivia Thirlby (Juno) costar. Paul Weitz (who with his brother Chris Weitz codirected American Pie and About A Boy, before going solo to helm indies like In Good Company and mainstream Hollywood fare such as Little Fockers, where he first worked with De Niro), touched down in Chicago recently to talk about his film, his stars, and his star-crossed characters.

Andrea Gronvall:  To experience the full emotional impact of the end of Being Flynn, the audience first has to go through all the dark stuff early on. You had to have been thinking, how do we do structure this adaptation without losing viewers?

Paul Weitz:  Something that I sometimes worry is a flaw in myself is that I can’t really extricate some sense of humor from a sense of tragedy. Anton Chekhov would write at the front of his plays “a comedy in four acts,” and then [Constantin] Stanislavski would direct them as flat-out tragedies, and Chekhov would be furious that he’s not getting laughs. In this case I know Nick Flynn feels that there’s humor in his book, even though to some degree the events are dire. I persuaded him to put his life on hold to be on the set all the time, and one great benefit of it was–aside from having somebody to tell me if something was fake or not—that he has such a distance and irony about his own experience that it was very liberating.

Nick’s a poet, and his memoir is structured in poetic fashion, weaving back and forth in time, and in styles. I took each story line—Robert De Niro’s, Paul Dano’s, and Julianne Moore’s—and chose to show the point at which they were in the most danger, then intercut between them, and had the transitions be all sound and visual. And so there’s sort of a fugue state in the movie.

AG:  No way that everything in Nick’s book could fit into the movie, but why did you decide not to include Nick’s brother in the film? And why did you decide not to show the enabling aspects of Jodi’s character? I’m thinking of this passage in Nick’s memoir:  “I drink to get drunk…. By the time I’m seventeen, my mother and I drink together sometimes, and sometimes she shows me the quote she keeps in her wallet–‘Never trust anyone who doesn’t drink.’”

PW:  His brother, Nick told me, was somewhat uncomfortable even being included in the book, and didn’t really want to be part of what was depicted on the screen. That [decision] also made Nick’s character and situation in the movie more extreme, in that the only person who could possibly untangle this web that’s allowing him to get through his life is his father, who he has such a problematic relationship with.

In terms of the quote that you mention, I wrote versions of the script that had that in it, but I had a relatively compact amount of time to express something about the character Julianne Moore was playing. The most you see of Julianne is in flashbacks to when Nick was 10 or 11 years old. There’s only one scene where you actually see Paul Dano with her; it’s always Liam Broggy who’s playing Nick as a young boy. I thought that it would give the wrong impression to take that dialogue and transplant it to where she’s talking to an 11-year-old kid; it would make her too culpable. Because the real contradiction is that she was somebody who brought light into Nick’s life, and then succumbed to her own depressions.

AG:  Let’s talk about technique. After seven years of preparation and 30 screenplay drafts you shot the picture in only 36 days. Maybe it was because of the rhythms you fell into during a fast-paced shoot, but your movie has no flab. I love how we meet the characters at the homeless shelter, where each looks into the camera and we get a quick synopsis of who they are, who they were, and who they’re going to be.

PW:  You’re introduced to the people who work in the shelter in an entertaining fashion. I was trying to recreate the feeling that Nick has in going in there: that far from being a grim place to work, it’s actually exciting. It’s loaded, and dangerous, and in a certain way fun, and his heart races as he gets in there.

AG:  And it gives him material.

PW:  It does give him material, and during the course of this scene he’s getting the material for writing his memoir, essentially. One has a tendency to think of the people working there as being largely saintly. Some people are religious; there’s a character who says, “I want to live my life the way Christ does–and I hate my rich parents.”

AG:  That got a big laugh at the screening I attended.

PW:  That’s good! And then you have people who might have lived there, and who’ve gotten themselves out of it and ended up working there. The character played by Wes Studi, the wonderful Native American actor, was based on a guy who was running the van program that would go out on the streets at night–a Native American guy who moved to Boston, and at the age of 15 or 16 was an alcoholic who was living in the shelter.

AG:  I also loved that quick montage showing the succession of Jodi’s boyfriends. How did you come up with that?

PW:  That was an early idea I had; I like doing things without CG. Basically, the scene’s a game of catch that the preteen Nick is playing with a bunch of different boyfriends that his mother had; that was how I was going to express the idea that she dated a lot of guys. I did it all in single takes, with actors who’d claimed they could play baseball. About half of them were lying. I would pan left with the camera to the little kid and he would pitch, and these guys would be lined up, hidden on the right side of the camera, and then run on and catch the ball and throw it back. And whenever one would drop the ball, the whole crew would groan. It was a really fun, sort of 1920s-style way of shooting.

AG:  Tell me about the powerful scene where Jonathan has his meltdown in the shelter’s changing room.

PW:  That’s when he’s staring into the mirror, yeah? It was one of those parts of the screenplay where it just says, “Jonathan rants.” Of course you can’t hand that to an actor, so I worked with Nick Flynn on the kind of repetitive things that Jonathan Flynn would say in real life. Here he is succumbing to his demons and his delusions; in particular, he is somehow being brought face-to-face with the love of his life, Nick’s mother. And so we handed De Niro a four-page stack of essentially non sequiturs–impossible, really, to memorize. I said to him before shooting, do you want me to tell you what small portion of it I believe will end up in the movie? He said, “No, just let me shoot it as written, and then use what you want. But I’ve really been working on this.” And then I shot it from both sides, because normally you’re quite keen not to. The first couple or three films I directed I was terrified of this idea of the line, which is–

AG:  It’s crossing the axis.

PW:  Yeah, you scramble the viewer’s head if you jump back and forth. In this case I was consciously crossing the line in shooting it from two directions. He’s staring at himself in this funhouse mirror–which is something that existed in the actual [Boston] shelter, Pine Street, that the movie is based on.

AG:  The Flynns are fascinating, but you have quite an interesting family yourself.

PW:  It’s eccentric, sort of minor Hollywood royalty. My mom [Susan Kohner] was an actress, whose I guess best known performance was in the film Imitation of Life, a really marvelous melodrama. And then my grandmother [Lupita Tovar] was a Mexican film star who came to Hollywood during the silent film era, and ended up doing the Spanish-language version of Dracula (1931), which was shot by Latino actors on the same stage sets as the American versions. The Americans would do their version, and then the Latin actors would come in the middle of the night to shoot theirs. My grandfather [Paul Kohner] was working at Universal and produced, and the story I was told was that it was kind of a scheme of his to keep my grandmother in the country, because she was going back to Mexico for lack of work here.

AG:  I don’t want to belabor that numerous writers have commented on your tendency to pick films about father-son relationships, but have you ever thought of doing a documentary about your dad, John Weitz?

PW:  It’s really interesting, because he was formed in the crucible of World War II: being a German Jew, a refugee, and then joining the American army and the OSS. He was an extremely macho fellow who was a fairly successful racecar driver, and a fashion designer, which is not usually regarded as a particularly macho profession. But it is similar to Being Flynn in that when you’re a fashion designer, you can’t help but be in the terrain of appearances: how you’re presenting yourself, and how important that is. In Being Flynn, Robert De Niro to all intents and purposes is really hitting the skids, but through the belief and image that he has of himself as a great writer, he’s able to survive and persevere and, weirdly in some ways, come out on top. I have, in retrospect, wondered what kept me attached to this story over the seven years that I was writing drafts of it. And I think that the relationship between what we seem to be, what we’re trying to project, and what we are, is like an animal chasing its tail, [that] I feel in my life and in this film.

AF:  It’s a weird balancing act, because Jonathan is definitely headed toward self-obliteration, and yet he also has a peculiar form of narcissism.

PW:  No question, and the truly bizarre thing is that there’s an in-built level of irony, in that the real Jonathan Flynn never saw his masterpiece–that he was writing over the course of decades on napkins and envelope–published. But now he’s played by Robert De Niro in a movie; so, on some level, Jonathan’s delusions of greatness have been shown to be accurate.

The Gronvall Files: Asghar Farhadi, writer/director of A Separation

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

The Gronvall Files
Family Ties: An Interview with double-Oscar nominee Asghar Farhadi

A Separation, the gripping fifth feature by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, has been on a roll since last year’s film festival circuit, when it won Berlin’s top prize, the Golden Bear. Earlier this month it picked up a Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe, and now it has been nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film.

A few years ago I reviewed one of the director’s previous films, Fireworks Wednesday, but as much as I admired that movie, it didn’t prepare me for the wallop A Separation packs. The movie begins in a Tehran divorce court, where Simin (the luminous Leila Hatami), yearning to pursue a new life abroad with her young daughter (Sarina Farhadi, a heart-tugging performer), seeks release from her dour husband Nader (the superb Peyman Moadi), who will not abandon his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. Simin moves in with her parents, and Nader, in order to function in his job as a banker, is forced to hire an outsider to look after dad. The new, unskilled caretaker Hodjat ( Shahab Hosseini) harbors many fears, the biggest being what would happen if her hot-tempered, unemployed husband finds out that she took this job.

Before long, the desperate caretaker makes a horrific miscalculation when she leaves her charge tied to a bedpost; the furious Nader then compounds the tragedy. Immediately two families are embroiled in a struggle that cuts to the heart of social strife, while the viewer tries to discover which character is telling the truth, and which is lying. Recently the director, a film school graduate who also labored in theatre, radio, and television, stopped briefly in Chicago, where we conversed with the aid of his quick-witted Italian-Iranian translator.

Andrea GronvallA Separation is a domestic drama, at least at first. Then it evolves into tragedy. As in many tragedies, the main characters are essentially good, well-intentioned people. But as in ancient Greek tragedies, here they each have a flaw that leads to downfall. In your work in the theatre, was tragedy one of your preferred modes?

Asghar Farhadi:  When I was working in theatre I was reading a lot of tragedies. But this kind of tragedy—if you want to compare it to the classic tragedies of the past—has one historic difference. In a classic tragedy, there is a war between good and evil, but in modern tragedies, the war is between good and good. In classic tragedies, you hope the bad guy dies, so you feel better. But in this modern tragedy, you don’t know which character you want to win, which one you want to lose, and you’re probably not going to feel good about either.

There’s also another difference between the classic tragedy and the modern tragedy. The weakness–the Achilles heel–of the classic tragic hero comes from within himself. For example, Hamlet doubts too much. King Lear is not very with it. Macbeth is too hungry for power. But for the characters of the modern tragedy, their weaknesses don’t come from within themselves; they come from the environment, the pressure that the environment puts on them.

AG:  You work very fast: it was ten months between when you started writing this screenplay, until the end of—or was it the start of–post-production?

AF:  Towards the middle of post-production. This time it was fast. But you started counting from the very moment I put my pen on the paper; this was brewing within me for a long time before. Not specifically this story, but just a combination of images, and feelings, and thoughts.

AG: So you start with the images. Then, when you sit down to write, do you have in mind the beats–you know, those points in the characters’ arcs that are going to get you from A to Z?  Or does it all begin with one particular character, and then branches out to incorporate other characters?

AF: When I have an image in mind, this image makes me keep returning to my past. I go into my memories, and I start selecting here and there, putting them together. Simultaneously with this process of assembling memories, the characters are being born. And at the same time, the story also starts developing. It’s very difficult for me to describe my process. I’m not really aware of what’s going on, really, as I’m thinking. Many things happen in an unconscious way.

AG:  You’re in the flow of it.

AF:  Yes, like a river.

AG:  Memories: that brings me to my next point. Alzheimer’s disease is key to narrative developments in A Separation, but I didn’t know that going in to screen your film. Generally, I try to read as little as possible about a film before I see it, in order that my perceptions of the movie aren’t filtered through someone else’s take.

AF:  This is the best way to watch a film.

AG:  So, as I was watching your film, I was profoundly struck by its accuracy and emotional honesty, by how well you captured what it’s like to have a parent who has Alzheimer’s, what the pressures are on a professional with a demanding job who’s also trying to do the right thing by his father, and what are often the differences in class between the professional and the caretaker he hires to look after the parent. After I saw the film, I read that your grandfather had Alzheimer’s. If it’s not too personal, could you please tell me how your parents coped? How did you cope? How old were you when you witnessed your grandfather in decline?

AF:  I have to go back a little [in time] for my description. When I was little, I didn’t love anybody like I loved my grandfather. He was my hero. He was very loved and revered, by everybody. He was always telling me a lot of stories. And I believe that the reason why I became a writer and a filmmaker is thanks to all those stories.

Then I had to move from the city where he was living to attend university in another city; for years I lived in this new city, and of course I saw him much less. I think that I was around 30 when I realized that he had become ill. When I would go visit him, of course he had the same frame, and yet he didn’t remember anything anymore, and he turned from that big hero he was to me into a much smaller person.

From the person who had had this incredible memory, who could tell me stories of all kinds and always surprise me with the endings, I now had a man in front of me who couldn’t even remember my name. This is a very painful disease. Before, I always thought that when people miss or lose their future, that’s very painful. But I also realize now that when people lose their past, that’s even more painful.

My grandfather had a few relatives who never allowed him to be taken to a home; they decided that they would take care of him. Every day one of his children was there. And then one day it happened that none of the kids could take care of him, so they hired a nurse, and this nurse tied him to the bed. A few days after this occurred he actually died. I had not thought about this for a while, but this came back to me.

AG: Your daughter Sarina Farhadi is lovely, and a very affecting actress. Is this her first film?

AF:  No, you saw her in Fireworks Wednesday [playing] the child, the daughter.

AG:  How old was she then?

AF:  Then, she was four.

AG:  She’s grown up!

AF:  This is the fourth film she’s in, but it’s also the biggest role she’s ever played.

AG:  Does she stand in for you, in a way, in A Separation? Does she portray aspects of your childhood?

AF:  No, my childhood was very different from the characterization in this film. When I was a child I was very noisy; I was not calm. [Laughing.]

AG:  Well, I can understand the attraction to the theatre, then. Fireworks Wednesday is also about deception and class conflicts. What keeps attracting you to these themes?

AF:  This fight between two different classes is not just at the level of economics. This is the conflict between a middle class that has more knowledge and is more directed towards modernity, and a lower class that is tied to the past and to traditions. It’s almost a conflict between new and old. In Fireworks Wednesday, that’s not the main theme, but here in A Separation, it is.

AG:  Well, you’re in very good hands with Sony Pictures Classics. When did your paths first cross?

AF:  It was in Berlin. Yes, and they actually love film. I think that Michael Barker loves the movie even more than I do.

AG:  Do you have any feelings at all about the possibility of winning an Oscar?

AF:   I try not to think about it.