Movie City Indie Archive for January, 2010

Why Lee Daniels wants to be like Julian Schnabel

Lee Daniels is a character, a live-wire who stands out even when his hair is trimmed back from the wild outgrowth of recent years. As awards season marches on, his $45 million-grossing Precious, Based Upon The Novel By Sapphire, is clattering with hardware for co-star Mo’Nique, despite her disinclination toward the game. Precious’ world is one you’d want to imagine doesn’t exist even more than you want not to imagine it as fiction; this is a story of “America” as a second language. A cruel place where dignity is the one currency you’re always denied. The cast includes Mariah Carey as a not-glamorous social worker, but Mo’Nique’s turn playing a monster, a master of abuse, a mother who’s turned a gimlet stare to her own child with simmering hatred. As a comedienne, she adroitly captures the character’s terrible self-pity. lee_daniels_precious697674.jpg
Daniels own success is twofold, as a gay man—”a little bit Euro, a little bit homo, a little bit ghetto,” is his formulation—and as an African-American director, since nominated for a Directors Guild award, who may yet find his alternately admired and derided film among the expanded field of ten Best Picture nominations. Its greatest success is its ending, demonstrating that generational cycles of abuse can stop.
During the Chicago International Film Festival in October, I meet Daniels and Sidibe in a suite in a Loop highrise hotel overlooking the El. The pair sit close on the plush couch, each wrapping their arms around their own huge pink velour pillow. After a screening the night before, they had clutched each other’s hand during a heartfelt Q&A.
Textures clash in Precious. The movie is a jigsaw of visual devices until rhythms eventually untangle themselves. Then Daniels seems to discover how to make a movie as he goes along; I mentioned Julian Schnabel as someone who had fashioned a rude stylistic vocabulary, which elicited an unexpected confession. “I think I’m taking that as a compliment. Is it a compliment?” It sure is. Turns out they’re not just friends, but Daniels wants to grow up to be Schnabel. “Out of his mind! And no one will tell you that’s he’s better, than him. That’s why I love him. Because he has the power that I want to have. He has no problem saying, I go, ‘Julian! How’s your next piece?’ ‘Brilliant! It’s a masterpiece.’ I go, ‘Julian, no, really, how is it?’ ‘Didn’t you hear me? I said it was a masterpiece!” He says it… and it is a masterpiece! I love him and I want to be him. He directs like me, too, often…”
Sidibe interjects, “In a bathrobe?” She giggles. “Unlike me,” Daniels says, “He takes it even further. At least I put on these clothes, I put on these clothes for journalists—” Sidibe says, “You do the glasses…” [like Schnabel’s oversized horn rims] “Everything! I’m telling you something, he’s my bl— It’s a very subliminal thing. I go, I direct in my pajamas, I direct in my bathrobe, everything. But at least I have respect for journalists. I’m too afraid. I’m not that ballsy. I won’t do it. I put on clothes for you.”
On that overcast October afternoon, Daniels says there aren’t many more screenings of his “baby” where he’ll be able to introduce it and give permission to laugh. “I can’t anymore. My baby is up and going. A lot of people, not just white people, but conservative blacks, very wealthy African-Americans will watch it and go, y’know, ‘What is so funny?” Truly! And I go, What… is not so funny?’ This is really some funny shit! We laughed doing it! Mo’Nique laughed doing it. Sapphire, the writer of the book, was hysterical. She laughed! There was a moment when she was on the floor. Okay. This is when I knew that I had hired the right girl. [There’s a scene where boys on the street harass her,] she’s pushed on the floor, right?'” Sidibe snorts. “She’s pushed on the floor, I’m on the fuckin’ floor, laughing, I’m laughing my ass off. I’m laughing… My white crowd, the crew’s, ‘Oh he’s just so rude, he’s so disgusting, what kind of director is he, he’s vicious,’ and I’m fuckin’ on the floor, laughing.”

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You are getting very.

Typing is writing, typing is writing, typing is writing. New stuff over the weekend on the front page and here, and there’s always Twitter. (Link to the right.)

Masterclass with doc-maker Michael Glawogger

Austrian documentary maker Michael Glawogger’s films include Megacities and Workingman’s Death. He articulates the elements of his filmmaking practice and his ideas about the boundaries of nonfiction and fiction in a masterclass with the Scottish Documentary Institute. [Parts 2 and 3 below.]
Here’s his website.

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Like a cigarette should

DVDs: The Hurt Locker: I like to be surprised

After a season of flurries of nods from critics’ groups, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is out on DVD and Blu-Ray (Summit, $27/$35). Will the further gusts of publicity and perhaps a few more of the “right” viewers lead to all the right Oscar nominations (and wins)? Written by magazine journalist Mark Boal, who returned from an embed with a unit with technicians who disarmed Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), The Hurt Locker is note-perfect in execution, as taut a thriller as Hollywood hasn’t made in some time. (It reads well on the page, too: click and pdf downloads.) Bigelow’s gifts as a director of cool, elegant, lyrical action filmmaking well serve the sequence of taut set-pieces that define the movie’s structure. The central character is Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner (Dahmer) with uncommon physicality and quicksilver moods.


There are scenes inside the blast suit and simply crossing the frame where the character feels fully fleshed out, I tell Bigelow and Boal during an abbreviated interview in Chicago last July. As a past collaborator of Bigelow’s, the writer-director Walter Hill liked to insist, character is revealed through action. Renner reveals character with every bit of his body. “I know! And he’s in a bomb suit, no less,” she laughs. “It was so hot,” Boal adds, “it was hard for Jeremy to be in that bomb suit all of the time. The thing weighs like 85 pounds, it’s a real bomb suit. Naturally, you’re like, well maybe we can get a stunt guy to do some of this walking stuff and save Jeremy so he doesn’t die. The sets are really long and he’s walking up and down, we thought, shit, what if he gets heatstroke? He’d had heatstroke before. It’s what 100 degrees outside? We tried, I probably grabbed every white guy in Jordan to audition for [Bigelow]: actor, non-actor, soldier, worked at the U. N., whatever.”
“They studied his gait,” she says, “they’d watch his walk. Couldn’t do it.” “We couldn’t get a double,” Boal continues. “Just put on the suit, walk down the street, that was the job.” “Every single time, it was Jeremy,” she says. “I tried it, everybody tried it!” “There’s that kind of almost jauntiness to his gait, and cadence, that was unreplicatable. It was also part of that character.”
Boal returned from his Iraqi embed with stories about the men who do this work. How does the more diffuse form of reportage become a film this well-calibrated? “I think it’s like a jazz riff. Maybe, maybe not,” Bigelow says. “I don’t know, I’ve never written any jazz, riffed any jazz,” he says. “It felt to me like a writer-editor thing that I had been lucky enough to have with some of the great magazine editors in New York. You’re both trying to achieve the same thing, but you’re coming at it from different vantage points. At least with the magazine editors, I’m the guy who’s on the ground and he’s the guy who’s sitting in the office and I’m coming in fresh from the ground with all this stuff that I think is really cool. He has a little more perspective on it because he hasn’t seen it. I feel like Kathryn was in that position, she hadn’t been to Baghdad, but she was the one who was going to translate the script into a visual medium. She was able, I think, to help me focus on certain elements in the way an editor would.”


“I was really hungry for specificity,” Bigelow says,” And because had been there and he’s a reporter, he had that in large quantities. If you’re going to direct something you’ve got to be able to look at the big picture but then look at the smallest, smallest, smallest detail. Then, how does the micro and the macro, how do you hang it together and create a kind of grid or frame that’s going to sustain itself for 120 minutes.”
“Then there’s the old-fashioned way. I would write something, and give it to her, and she would say, this is great, or, this is… not that great. Joan Didion has a line in ‘About Henry,’ and she talks about her book editor, and she says that the main function editors have for writers is that they give the writer a sense of themselves. It’s not really about craft, it’s [the editor saying], ‘Just give it to me, whatever it is.’ That’s very important when you’re sitting alone and looking at a blank page. Kathryn gave me a sense that I could write a movie script, for one thing, which I have never done before. It’s not like I had ten scripts in the drawer, I don’t have any of those. I’d just written articles.”
While the editing of the action scenes, covered simultaneously by four camera operators, is electrifying, there are other cuts, including one that defines James at film’s end that are knockouts. “Transitions are something that are really key to storytelling,” Bigelow says. “That particular transition was something we had arrived at very early on, first draft. That transition never changed. Just trying to compress… taking language and then putting it into the visual, there’s a compression and expansion that happens simultaneously. It’s like trapping light in a glass. You have to have a certain amount of design and intention that allows for spontaneity. Once we had a draft, we boarded it, to be sure key moments worked.”
I mentioned the names of several contemporary directors, but Bigelow demurs at comparison. “I think it’s really important to keep up with all mediums. Be it film, art… Yeah. I like to be surprised. I think that’s what underscores my interests in art. I like to be surprised.”

Fantastic Mr. thank you

What dark powers is he employing? Hitler does not admire Leno

DVDs: Moon

Duncan Jones’ first feature is a muscular feat of the mind, compacting a myriad of movie influences into a feat of concentration, and for Sam Rockwell, a tour-de-force role. It’s almost impossible to talk about the film without revealing what in other films would be a twist but in the (reportedly) $5-million-budgeted Moon(Sony, $28) is its raison d’etre. Trailers, posters and interviews have all pretty much given away the game, which still, doesn’t hurt this compact gem. Alone on the far side of the moon, Sam Bell is a miner capturing Helium-3, which has moon_sam_duncan_567.jpgbecome earth’s primary source of energy. (Unobtainium, sadly, is unobtainable.) Sam’s weeks away from the end of his three-year contract with Lunar Industries. But he’s also getting headaches, hallucinations, failing to focus. [Spoilers follow]. Recovering from a disorienting accident, Sam gets a perplexing surprise in the form of a younger, angrier version of himself who believes he’s just arrived for his own three-year stint. (Kevin Spacey is wry as the voice of “Gerty,” the site’s controlling computer.)
Since the film’s first festival hsowings, Jones has talked about the 80s being the grimy industrial age of science fiction, a golden era with Blade Runner out in front. “Well, I think so,” the 38-year-old director tells me in his gentle English accent. “Films like Silent Running and Outland and Ridley Scott’s Alien, I think they, y’know, they were telling stories about people. The science fiction [element] was really the environment these people were contrasted against. It’s how people were affected by, or how they were able to protect themselves from these future environments, or alien environments in science fiction settings. It was always about people, and they were always quite smart. I think nowadays you only have to look at the science fiction films coming out this summer and it’s just a litany of going from one very expensive special effects setpiece to the next, with these archetypal lantern-jawed heroes. And, and this is a very different kind of film that goes back to that earlier, I think, more interesting period.”
“Empathy. Humanity. How do you define these things? I wanted to address these questions,” Jones wrote in a director’s statement. I’d seen “Food, Inc.” directly before our interview, which makes a chilling parallel to Sam’s fate: the worker, the animal and the consumer all are equally disposable. Moondepicts a kind of meat factory, too. “Yeah, absolutely. It’s the energy industry [in Moon] and the tongue-in-cheek thing we have is that Lunar Industries is actually a green energy company. Even companies with the best intentions, if they’re profit driven, are going to find places to cut corners and in our case, Sam is one of those corners.”
In a way, Rockwell’s playing three characters, since you call him Sam in the movie. Sam and Sam but he’s also… Sam. Jones laughs. Is there a goofy reason for well, Sam and Sam and Sam? “More than goofy, I mean, that was a conscious… It was written for Sam Rockwell. And as soon as we got our head around what we wanted to do with the film and what the story was, moooooon_6789i.jpgthe fact that the character would be a clone, I thought, well, we’ve got to call him ‘Sam,’ so that when Sam’s reading it, we immediately put him in the uncomfortable position of his own character, y’know, make him feel awkward and weird about reading his name all the time. So I thought that was a nice little thing we could do to help immediately put him in the right headspace. I think it was one of the things that made it just a little more interesting to him.” Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers has to be an important predecessor. “Yeah, yeah. That was hugely beneficial to us, the Criterion edition of that. I was looking at tech stuff, Sam was looking at how Jeremy Irons was differentiating his characters. So we both had things that we got from that Criterion DVD. And then Spike Jonze’s Adaptation as well.”
Moonfunctions as its own solid feat of storytelling, even with its wealth of its nods to earlier movies. (The titles do lovely things with the style of the opening David Fincher’s Panic Room.) An odd detail I wondered about: The moon base is named Serang, a word that searches suggested might have appeared in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, and I came up with the Sanskrit word for peacock. Jones laughs. “Well, I hate to break it to you. It’s neither of them. Serang is the Korean word for ‘love’ and I am a hopeless romantic. My girlfriend at the time of writing and during the shoot was a Korean woman. I was going through a heartbreaking long distance relationship with her. She’d have to move back to Seoul for work. So the whole storyline of long distance relationships, and how painful they can be, was all coming out of my experiences going through that. So the fact that Lunar Industries was sort of a collaborative United States-Korean company and that the base was called Serang all came out of that.” A further odd synchronicity I found is that the Indian Army’s ceremonial helicopter corps is called Serang and the helicopters they fly are called HAL, just like the computer in 2001. “Huh! That’s very interesting!” Jones laughs. “Either I’m far smarter than you realize, or the truth, which is I had no idea! That’s very cool, though.”

Eric Rohmer, 1920-2010: "end of the tale

Rohmer_Postface1.jpgMsr. Rohmer in 1967. The cover of Tuesday’s LIberation and the daily’s opening spread on his work and life. Articles at Liberation.Rohmerenhiver.jpg

[RELEASE] Kuo, Rogers, Wildman depart AFI

LOS ANGELES (January 11, 2010)—On the heels of the successful 2009 edition of AFI FEST including the unprecedented offer of free screenings to all films for the public, Artistic Director Rose Kuo and Festival Producer David Rogers have announced their departure from AFI. Head of Press and Public Relations John Wildman has also exited. Kuo joined AFI FEST as the Artistic Director in 2007 and presided over a rebirth of the venerable film festival that featured a FestHeaderDates2.jpgdistinctive programming philosophy and personality. The result was immediate critical praise regarding the new direction. The addition of former Daily Variety film critic Robert Koehler as AFI FEST Director of Programming in 2009 inspired a new round of enthusiasm within the film festival community. Kuo also was the architect of the free screenings initiative for 2009 despite a challenging economic year for all non-profit arts organizations. Rogers successfully navigated the festival production and logistics of new venues in Hollywood and the festival’s move to Santa Monica during AFM. Under his stewardship, AFI FEST enjoyed record crowds with remarkably smooth production details despite extremely challenging economic circumstances.
Regarding her departure, Kuo said, “It has been a privilege to lead AFI FEST and work with the exceptional members of the festival team. We have succeeded in reshaping the festival and, I hope, reaffirming its place among leading festivals. Now it is time for me to go in a new direction.
“AFI FEST 2009 was the culmination of some really innovative ideas regarding what a film festival could and should be and of course, a lot of hard work. Given the hurdles presented us, it was also something that could not have been achieved without our core group. It was great to work with each of them,” said Rogers. Wildman added, “While I am very proud of the work I was able to do press-wise on behalf of AFI FEST and several AFI programs, including the AFI Life Achievement Award (working with a wonderful team at TV LAND) and the Directing Workshop for Women, I am very passionate about promoting and assisting filmmakers through film festivals. This move will open up that landscape.”

New Wave fades: Eric Rohmer was 89

Rohmer on the dance floor.

A 1977 interview.

Trailer for Rohmer’s feature debut, The Sign Of The Lion (1959).

1996’s Summer’s Tale.

His 1968 documentary on the Brothers Lumiere (11 minutes), with discussion by Renoir and Langlois.

White noise

Big F. D.: journos lost in the chromozone

Decades of lore are embedded into the perception of what it means to be a director in the studio system. Money and masculinity are inescapably at the center of it all. Kathryn Bigelow’s awards-season recognition for her superb work as director of The Hurt Locker is bringing out issues of power: presented in journalistic telegraphese, the question, “What does it mean to be a female director?” aims to be provocative but has little to say about filmmaking itself and more about the writer or the writer’s editors. “F.D.,” if about a woman, means “female director,” while for men, being an “F.D.” is what they’ve been lauded for in the masculine hurt-bigelow_tracked.jpgethos of eons of studio production: being a “f—in’ dick.”
One of the first interviews I did starting out was with the director of a small, clever Sundance-style film. She said when she was asked what it was like to be a female filmmaker, she’d usually answer, “I dunno, I haven’t been a Martian filmmaker. What’s it like being you?” She had a nice smile to go with that. There’s another woman who directed a movie that had a cameo with someone well established in another art form. He was in the city for only a day or two for the scenes. A crabby sort. On the first afternoon, he didn’t care for a suggestion; she stepped away. Gave him his space. Came back and said for him to try it, please. He called her a “f—in’ c—. She raised an eyebrow, said, “You would know.” He glowered, then did the take. Or so the story goes. Bruised, they both won something still. And so the games persist. Power games.
There are traits you can identify in a director’s style and themes. But are they quintessentially matters of gender or simply of temperament? I defy a man or another woman to make films that are so filled with breath as those of Claire Denis, whether her French Foreign Legion demi-musical, Beau Travail or her daring memory fugue, L’intrus, or even 35 Shots Of Rum, her glowing, intimate story of family connections. She sees the world. She gets it down. Her world. A woman. Art. Bigelow’s own Near Dark evokes the dance of doomed romance in Nick Ray’s movies: it wouldn’t be so hard to forge an entertaining argument that Ray was more “feminine” as a filmmaker than Bigelow.
It’s remarkable about how the mere invocation of “female” identity stands in for other things a writer could be hinting at: that Bigelow is strikingly tall and beautiful; or that she had been mentored by or married to powerful men in her chosen field. Hardly anyone’s going to tap-dance in those minefields. But being female? And making more vital, urgent films than Nora Ephron or Ann Fletcher? Oooh. Guess who’s said it best? The ever-incisive Manohla Dargis called it already. “The take on Kathryn Bigelow is that she is a great female director of muscular action movies, the kind with big guns, scenes, themes and camera movements as well as an occasional fist in the face, a knee to the groin. Sometimes, more simply, she’s called a great female director. But here’s a radical thought: She is, simply, a great filmmaker. Because while it is marginally interesting that she calls ‘action’ and ‘cut’ while in the possession of two X chromosomes, gender is the least remarkable thing about her kinetic filmmaking, which gets in your head even as it sends shock waves through your body.” In that same long essay/interview from June, Dargis brings up Bigelow’s physicality in relation to her own, critical self. “It’s hard to imagine Ms. Bigelow letting anyone push her around. She’s unfailingly gracious—and tends to speak in the second person, preferring ‘you’ over ‘I’—but there’s a ferocious undercurrent there too, as might be expected. She works to put you at ease, but even her looks inspire shock and awe. Because she was early for our interview and already tucked into a booth, I didn’t realize how tall she was until we both stood up, and I watched, from a rather lower vantage, her unfurl her slender six-foot frame. It was like watching a time lapse of a growing tree. Like a lot of tall women she describes herself as shy, but she has learned to take up space.” (The piece is also the most accessible of summaries of Bigelow’s origins in the painting, conceptual art and semiotics studies world of 1970s New York.)
The crushing economic structure of filmmaking is one thing, taking in the little green men (and women) with the greenbacks and blue men with the Euro notes who control production. The wooing and wowing of audiences is another. But you’d hope that a writer who’s seen what’s up on the screen would be able to take a view of the art, of how movies are forged, that gets beyond binary aggravation. That should be the moment to be utopian, not to suffer fools, simply to embrace the humanity of filmmaking, of faces and fears and faultlines. Unless you’re in line to make residuals from a project in the awards fray, it’s good to savor an epigraphsto B. Ruby Rich’s “Chick Flicks; Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement,” from Chris Marker: “Who remembers all that? History throws its empty bottles out the window.”rennersmokelocker.jpg

Trailering Aaron Katz's Cold Weather

The latest from Aaron Katz, and a SXSW 2010 debut, Cold Weatherstars Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn in what seems like another rich evocation of place and pace from the director of Quiet City and Dance Party USA. Original Score by Keegan DeWitt; Cinematography by Andrew Reed.

Lost in the Air: Jason Reitman animates the press corps

Lost In The Air: The Jason Reitman Press Tour Simulator from Jason Reitman.

Jason Reitman has said that an inspiration came to him during the production of Up in the Air: to make the story more topical, he’d include vignettes of those fired by George Clooney’s itinerant Grim Reaper of employment, and he would use (mostly) actual firees. Reportedly, those people were hired and paid on the understanding that a documentary was being made, rather than a potentially Oscar-contending George Clooney-starring movie from Montecito, DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures. That choice raised hackles on some reviewers: did this constitute exploitation, the way some of the subjects of Sacha Baron Cohen’s films have alleged? Reitman released another element to his multimedia campaign, accompanying volleys of tweets, pie charts and production featurettes. Here’s a short depicting his recent press tour, edited together from iPhone images. When I interviewed Reitman, he expressed interest in the handwritten notes in my notebook. “Oh!” he said, Can I take a photograph of that? Click goes the iPhone sound effect. And as I got the photo below, Got your shot? Can I take a picture of you? No prob, Jason. So? I’ve got a cameo along with a lot of other people and objects in the video, including pizza, Starbucks and Roger Ebert. I haven’t got a strong feeling about Reitman’s use of real, fired people in Up in the Air, but I’m amused by the chipper feigned interest that I witnessed during our interview as he was promoting the film. Is that how he directs all “non-professionals”? “Oh!” And then his booming laugh.
Jason Reitman

Movie City Indie

Quote Unquotesee all »

“Why put it in a box? This is the number one problem I have—by the way it’s a fair question, I’m not saying that—with this kind of festival situation is that there’s always this temptation to classify the movie immediately and if you look at it—and I’ve tried to warn my fellow jurors of this—directors and movie critics are the worst people to judge movies! Directors are always thinking, “I could do that.” Critics are always saying, “This part of the movie is like the 1947 version and this part…” And it’s like, “Fuck! Just watch the movie and try and absorb it and not compare it to some other fucking movie and put it in a box!” So I think the answer’s both and maybe neither, I don’t know. That’s for you to see and criticize me for or not.”
~ James Gray

“I have long defined filmmaking and directing in particular as just a sort of long-term act of letting go,” she said. “It’s honestly just gratifying that people are sort of reapproaching or reassessing the film. I like to just remind everyone that the movie is still the same — it’s the same movie, it’s the movie we always made, and it was the movie we always wanted to make. And maybe it just came several years too early.”
~ Karyn Kusama