Michael Moore in TrumpLand/Michael Moore

Michael Moore.

Michael Moore.

Earlier this afternoon, Michael Moore tweeted that by Friday, October 21, everyone in the country will have access to Michael Moore in TrumpLand. The film had a surprise release on Tuesday night in L.A. and New York City’s IFC Center, where general manager John Vanco donated the theater for the film’s premiere. MoveOn is giving tickets to any New Yorker who will campaign for Hillary in Pennsylvania during the next three weekends.

Michael Moore in TrumpLand is a filmed stand-up comedy routine Moore delivered to a largely Republican crowd in Clinton County, Wilmington, Ohio. (Of the 26,000 registered voters in the county, a thousand voted Democratic in the primary; of the 700 in the theater that night, 200 were Trump supporters.) Traversing between humor and pathos, Moore makes the case to Bernie voters, third-party voters, and nonvoters to vote for Hillary—even though he admits that he himself, an avid Bernie supporter, has never voted for her until now.

Michael Moore outside the theater where he delivered his stand-up routine.

Michael Moore outside the theater where he delivered the stand-up routine in Michael Moore in TrumpLand.

Moore was moved to make the film by what he perceives as a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary, even among people who are voting for her. “This whole preaching to the choir thing…sometimes the choir needs a song to sing,” he explained in the post-screening Q&A, adding that he finds that dearth of enthusiasm frightening. “This is not about who people like the most,” he continued. “If people just vote from home with a remote control or Xbox, Hillary would win by a landslide. This is about who’s going to get a lot of people out on November 8. We’re going to have one of the lowest voter turnouts because the majority of the country hates the two choices. And who wins low voter turnout? The one with the most rabid supporters. Hillary supporters are not rabid…but Trump’s are. They will get out there, and they will vote,” he warns.

At the Q&A, Director Talk got the chance to ask one question. We asked about the weapon Moore has chosen to wield this election season:  Humor. (And his vote.)

Availability: IFC Center, New York City, Laemmle Town Center 5, L.A., for one week. Check the Internet for digital availability beginning October 21. Thanks to Ryan Werner, Cinetic Media, for arranging a sneak preview at extreme short notice.




DT: In this film, you move so gracefully between humor and being your own straight man. When you’re interviewed in All Governments Lie, you say that humor is one of the best tools because there’s no way to fight against it. What is it about humor that allows you to arrive at the straight-man moments that are so powerful in this film?

MM:  I don’t know. I was raised in an Irish Catholic family, and the humor is usually pretty dark. It’s either that or drink. Or both. I’m not a comedian, but the great comedians we enjoy, if you know any of them, or if you’ve read anything about them, are very angry people. And the more angry and dark they are, the better the humor, I think. It’s the flip side of that coin. It’s also a release valve.

Michael Moore gets the crowd laughing.

Inside the theater, Moore gets the crowd laughing.

I think people need a good laugh right now, but not the kind we’ve been having. You could make Trump jokes forever—you don’t even need to make them. He makes them. He writes his own satire. It’s a daily shitshow of satire with Trump. Everybody knows all the details, from his taxes to how he treats women. What isn’t happening is this: how often do you hear of somebody getting enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton? You don’t hear it. Even though I have my political disagreements and didn’t vote for her [in previous elections], I still have a lot of respect for her as a human being. Watching the debate last week, I was hoping she would take out a club and bonk him.

It’s good for liberals to laugh at themselves. As I point out in the film, you can see why a lot of people don’t like liberals. I think trying to keep your sense of humor is important, but I don’t want to waste my time doing Trump jokes. I made a couple here, with those inauguration things and that little ad about having lady parts trouble, but I can’t really top his writing.

So the humor and my sense of optimism here… This is not a movie for saints. If you’re a saint, you’re probably not going to like it very much. And if you’re a guy, hopefully you like it. Because guys: we have to get with the program, because that train has left the station. Those three years women live longer than us? We’re going to get to live those three years now, because we won’t be running the world and the stress won’t be on our shoulders. It’s a good thing. So don’t be frightened by somebody in a pantsuit.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Christine/Antonio Campos

Director Antonio Campos. Photo by Sofia Subercaseaux.

Director Antonio Campos. Photo by Sofia Subercaseaux.

Described by her boss at Florida news station WXLT as “the smartest one here,” journalist Christine Chubbuck was nevertheless unable to fend off her encroaching mental illness. The agony of her struggle is portrayed in compassionate detail by director Antonio Campos, who eschews the sensationalism of her death in favor of the humanity of her vision. Click here for the trailer. Availability: Opens New York City, Film Forum, and nationwide October 14. Check local listings for theaters near you. Thanks to Caitlin Hughes, Brigade Marketing, for arranging this interview.


DT: Let’s talk first about the work you did with Rebecca Hall—her performance was extraordinary.

Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck in Christine.

Rebecca Hall plays Christine Chubbuck in CHRISTINE. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

AC: She was pretty amazing. We did a lot of talking, a lot of conversations, a lot of ‘What is it about?’  Talking about Christine, talking about ourselves, talking about our lives, talking about what the film meant. There was so much time from when Rebecca got involved to when we made the movie—over a year—that it wasn’t like we were rehearsing all the time; more of it was just having natural conversations. A lot of directing in my opinion is just talking things out and coming to an understanding about a person or character, and also getting to know each other and getting comfortable with each other and trusting each other, because when you trust the people you work with, you tend to do better work: You’re not closed up, you’re not scared to say something, because there’s nothing you can say or do that’s wrong. You can always just get better. And so in that way working together was just a very organic process.

Because of the fact that we got to know each other so well, because of the fact that we had this inherent trust, by the time we got on set, she’d do a take and we would just look at each other; she’d look at me and I’d look at her and sometimes I wouldn’t even say anything, and she’d say, “OK, I got it. I know what to do.” And then she would do it, and the next take would be great. Or I’d come in and give an adjustment to what she was doing and then she’d give the performance with that adjustment and I’d say, “Throw it all away and do what you want to do.” Sort of a one-for-me-one-for-you kind of thing. It was very freeing.

Technically, Rebecca doesn’t have a method, but she’s very methodical and very thoughtful. She understands every scene and tries to find references for things  that the character is saying, filling in blanks like, Where does this idea come from? and things like that—the homework that a good actor does. The next thing to do after a lot of that work was the more technical stuff of the voice and the movement. Rebecca found a couple of examples of Midwestern Ohio accents, and we had a recording of Christine [Chubbuck], so we had a sense of what she sounded like and what her body language was like, but it was literally only thirteen minutes of her sitting in this very drab talk show that she did. So we had that to go off, and Rebecca was doing a lot of her own homework and practicing, and then eventually she’d start sending me recordings of what she was doing. At that point she was getting there on her own, and I’d chime in and give her a note.

But a director’s job is different for every actor. Sometimes a director’s job is to get in there and really steer every moment, sometimes it’s to instigate and get someone going—or reign somebody in—and sometimes the director’s job is to just not say anything and to know when the actor is going in the right direction on their own. At the end of the day I did a little bit of all of that with Rebecca, but the reality is that Rebecca is just a brilliant actor, and I think more than anything she needed and deserved the role that allowed her to shine and explore all the layers that she as an actor is capable of doing. So sometimes I just let her go. She’s a genius.


DT: One of the things that really got to me was the rhythm of your sequences. Each sequence led to a perfect ending. How did you do that? On set? In editing? What was your attitude toward creating a sequence?

AC: It’s a combination of different things. The script was very thought out, and then we continued to work on the script even on the days that we were shooting. When you make an independent film, and you’re working with a really tight budget but still have big cinematic ambitions, you have to be as specific as possible. Coming from an editor’s background as well, I think a lot about how a sequence should potentially play out. There’s working on the script and thinking a lot about every scene before you get there in order to have a very clear plan of action so that you’re not necessarily looking to try and correct things in the edit; it becomes more about how you can perfect things in the edit. The other thing is that my wife edited this film—every night and every day she was editing what we shot the day before, so we were very current and could see full cuts of scenes basically a day after we shot them.

DT: Was she on set?

AC: Not on set but on location, back in the edit room. She doesn’t like to come to the set. She’s doing more of the legwork…the amount of stuff a director has to process is overwhelming, especially when you have such a tight schedule, so when you have that kind of intimacy with the people you work with, and I don’t just mean the fact that we’re married—I’m very close with my writer, very close with my DP, very close with my producers—there’s a level of honesty and there’s a level of trust. Sofia, my wife, will say, “This thing didn’t work, try and get it like this,” or “See if you can just get a closeup of that.” There’s a lot of, How do we make this perfect? What is the missing piece? And because of the fact that we had access to the news station throughout—that was 60 percent of the movie—we could always go back and pick up a shot if we felt, ‘This sequence is missing this little detail—let’s go get it.’

Anybody who says that to make a movie you lay it out, you storyboard it, you go and shoot it—yeah, you can do that, but I think the reality is you prepare yourself for the unexpected. There are going to be things that you don’t foresee, but you prepare yourself so that you can come back and get those details eventually. You can prepare yourself for the fact that there are going to be things you don’t expect and then make the room to go back and get those things. So it’s a process—it’s all a process. Young filmmakers think there’s a streamlined way to get from A to Z, but there isn’t. You really have to think and try, and then if it doesn’t work, make sure you have the room to go back and try again. And if you budget carefully and schedule carefully, you can do those things. It just takes a lot of preparation.


Production still from set of CHRISTINE, 2015. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

Production still from set of CHRISTINE, 2015. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

DT: Let’s talk about colors. There were obvious colors in the film, like the yellow background for the TV station, Christine’s yellow car, her yellow lamp, but there was a more subtle use of colors, like in the pool room scene, where you had that green on Michael C. Hall’s face—it looked to me like the exact same green in the transformation scene in Vertigo. It felt like there was a hyperconscious use of color, but also a really subconscious use of color that was employed to build suspense and a sense of impending doom.

AC: We were embracing color. To counteract how sharp high-definition video is, people often go more desaturated and less contrasty, while we were looking for saturation and color and embracing color and using color cleverly to convey a state of mind. And not only color; patterns too. How busy or not busy a frame was conveyed a kind of mental state as well.


DT: Christine’s mother’s flowered couch was fabulous.

AC: Exactly. Christine’s sitting on that couch was very specific, versus the lack of patterns in her bedroom, where there are a lot of solids and warmer tones. So the use of color was completely conscious. You do your best to create a set of rules that you stick to—for instance, we were very conscious of not using red so that when the gunshot happens, red has a huge impact.

In the pool room, there was a kind of disorientation, a sense of corners falling into shadow. As you said, there is a Hitchcockian use of color there, but Hitchcock just kind of throws green or red across someone’s face, while we were trying to motivate it more. We were trying to end up in the same place, but we were trying to find where that color was coming from, and for us it was the pool table and the shade over the pool lamp.

You try to get your cinematographer, your production designer, and your costume designer all on the same page so that the story that each one is telling is in line. So much of what each of these people is doing is color related; what color clothes are we going to use in these spaces, what color is the production designer going to paint the wall, but contrast that with this piece of wardrobe to make them pop, and if there’s less light, how do we use the light that we do have to convey the mood that we want? All those things are being considered for every scene in the movie. In the pool room scene in particular we wanted it to feel kind of dizzying and disorienting. That scene was being driven by George’s state of mind, which was a bit buzzy and starting to get a little drunk and wobbly;  that was the mood we were going for.


DT:  I also loved the balance between that in-depth, compassionate portrait of Christine and putting her in the context of larger social issues, like what responsibility do we have to each other, or why do some people have coping mechanisms and others don’t? I especially loved the way that final scene played out. I imagine that was in the script, but you must have achieved that through directorial choices also so that it wasn’t just a film about social responsibility, and it wasn’t just a film about Christine.

AC: Again it goes back to the script and to the editing, because in the editing you’re continuing to write the script. You’re finishing the script in the editing, really. In terms of how complicated this film was to write, it was like balancing on a tightrope. We were dealing with a true story, so some people might know it, some people might not in terms of what happened in the end, but you don’t want to start the film off with the final act or acknowledging what happens in the end for those who don’t know it. And as a writer and a filmmaker, you don’t want to say this is a movie about how this woman commits suicide or someone who commits suicide, so you have to create a character that’s interesting enough and a scenario and a world that are interesting enough that that day-to-day pulls you through and drives the story. Then we introduce little obstacles, like her looking for news stories, those kinds of things that drive the movie. And because of the fact that you don’t know what she’s going to do in the end, the movie can’t tell you what it’s doing necessarily…it can only talk about the things that are happening in front of you, so it’s not about guns and what she does at the end until it becomes about that. Until then it’s just about a woman dealing with mental illness, and that’s the driving force. We grounded in that. I think that was the start of why it does work, why the layers of all the other things work in the movie, because it is grounded in one thing, and then that one thing allows us to touch on all these other things. But we never lose sight of the fact that it’s really about a woman dealing with her mental illness. She has a specific point of view about the things that were going on at the time, but that specific point of view also goes through a filter of mental illness, so there are all these pieces that we’re building on as the movie continues on. By the time we get to the end, we’ve explored so many different layers that when she commits the final act and she dies, you have a lot of stuff to process. That’s the reason I think it’s a film you should sit on. I’ve been at Q&As where they raise the lights a little too soon and then started the Q&A, and those Q&As never go as well as the ones where they just let the credits roll and people can sit there with it for a few extra minutes before the lights come up and the moderators say, “OK, now it’s time for you to ask questions.” I think there are so many layers in Christine that you need a little bit of time to process them.


DT: That’s fascinating. Last question—how much did you work with the composer, because I really felt that the music betrayed your affection for Christine.

AC: Did you say “betray”?

DT: The music was surprising. It betrayed your affection for Christine, like discovering a love letter that you had written to her and then put away in your desk drawer because you didn’t want anyone to see it.

AC: There is a romantic quality to the music. There are two things that the music’s trying to do. It’s injecting a certain kind of busyness; there’s almost this kind of clingy-clangy tick-tocking kind of thing going on in the music that serves the function of propelling things forward and capturing the mood of the world they exist in. On a local level, news has a certain kind of energy that we were trying to capture.

But a lot of it was this: There was a warmth I felt toward Christine that I didn’t want to deny. In some ways the movie is a love letter to Christine. The music is also the way we say, ‘Listen, we care about this character, we’re not being cynical, we’re not scoffing.’ The film has a kind of observational quality that’s offset a lot of times by the music to make sure you know where we’re coming from as filmmakers. The music is acknowledging the humanity of the story and saying, ‘Listen, we’re not going to be cold about it.’


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Voyage of Time/Hanan Townshend (composer)

Composer Hanan Townshend.

Composer Hanan Townshend.

After answering an ad seeking a composer to work with a “celebrated” director, Hanan Townshend became Terrence Malick’s friend and collaborator, writing the sound tracks for Malick’s last four films: Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and, now, Voyage of Time, Malick’s exploration of the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. Townshend chats with Director Talk about working with Malick, the role of music in film, and the effect technology has on the film score. Click here for more about Hanan Townshend and links to his music. •Availability: Voyage of Time is now available in theaters around the country in IMAX and standard versions. Thanks to Dita Dimone, Sweet Heat PR, for arranging this interview.


DT: How do you see the role of music in film?

HT: I think music can take on many different roles. Obviously it’s part of the narrative, part of the storytelling process, but I think music can be like cinematography—just as cinematography creates a visual landscape for the film, music can create a soundscape for those things you can’t quite put into words.

I grew up in the New Zealand countryside, right next to the ocean. The sounds of nature and the soundscapes of where I grew up are a big part of my writing, and I like to bring that to the table when I write. Rather than the orchestra just playing notes and progressions, you’re creating a soundscape with the orchestra. Sometimes it will be very simple, like the orchestra sustaining one note for two or three minutes. For most composers, that’s a pretty long time to stay on one note, but I like that; I like time, I like an ambient orchestra in a way that lets you create textural pieces as well.


DT: What is your process of working with Terrence Malick, and has it changed as you spend more time with him? For instance, do you see a rough cut before you compose?

HT: Terry’s films are a little less conventional, obviously, so we tend to talk about music in a more abstract form. It could be something as simple as an interval—Terry loves to use the tritone and minor second, those kinds of voyage-of-timeintervals that create tension and then resolution—but I’m always working away from the picture. As we’re moving closer to a final locked cut, I may be working with picture a little bit, but I think of myself as a composer who’s providing music for the editor and Terry to experiment with during the editing process. Sometimes when I watch the final film in the theater or at the premier I don’t know exactly how my music is going to be used, but that’s exciting.


DT:  Do you read a script first?

HT: I asked Terry whether I should read the script for To the Wonder and he suggested that I shouldn’t worry about it, I think because the script for him is a loose blueprint of the film. Especially now, with Voyage of Time, I feel like there’s no real concrete script, so you could read a script but very likely after the movie’s in the editorial process for a few months it could have changed dramatically. I remember Sean Penn saying that he was taken aback when he saw Tree of Life because it was so dramatically different from the script. I have read some of the scripts for Terry’s films, but I don’t specifically read them when I’m working on a project because I feel like I’d rather immerse myself in what’s happening during the editing process and what the editors are working on.


DT:  Do they edit the music, or do you do a music edit?

HT: I’ll see it through the initial sketches, and then we’ll go back and forth. The editors might send me some edited music, and I’ll reconform that on my end. Then we’ll usually do a recording with an orchestra. The way Terry uses music is very much like a collage. He uses pieces of music that may run for a minute or two, but often he and the editors are working to create this ebb and flow between pieces of music. It really is like a collage, and quite a different approach. As a composer, you’re providing the wood and the nails for them. They’re the carpenters who create the structure, as opposed to you going in and doing your session with the orchestra and having everything scored with time code. It’s not like that at all. It’s just providing the material and then they’ll find a place to put it into the musical world of the film.


DT: How many times do you actually record with the orchestra, and at what point?

HT: It all depends on the project. With To the Wonder and Knight of Cups we probably did about three or four sessions. Terry encourages me to experiment with the orchestra, which is something you don’t really have time to do when you’re doing a session on the scoring stage because you’re always trying to record so much music. But with Terry we would do a lot of sessions that were purely experimental, where we would have the players improvise.

Now I’ve adapted that into my own process, because not writing everything down on the page allows spontaneity and moments when you can’t notate the stuff—it’s a moment in time, and you’ve captured it. It’s quite unique. There’s a piece of music which was in To the Wonder, which was used in an Apple commercial in 2014. It was just woodwind players, and I got them to experiment with just playing arpeggios in D minor. We recorded it and didn’t think anything of it, but then I pulled it back in and started playing around with it, and I realized there was something really interesting there. I wouldn’t sit down and write it, but there was an interesting kind of textural idea. It worked, so this arpeggiated and improvised woodwind piece became a pretty important part of the score of To the Wonder.


DT: Where did you study music?

HT: I went to the New Zealand School of Music. They didn’t specifically have a film scoring program, so I was doing 21st-century composition. That meant I was writing more avant-garde music, which I enjoyed. I’m still very much a bit of a sucker for tonal music—I’ll be honest—so I didn’t really see myself wanting to do that long term, but I’m very thankful I did it, because it opened my mind to a lot of possibilities of different approaches to composition, different composers  I never would have heard of.

I’ve always had an affinity to British film composers, because there are a lot who come from similar kinds of backgrounds. My experiences in the States, when I studied at the University of Texas, were wonderful but different, because it was more a film scoring program. We’d listen to John Williams and Alan Silvestri and very American composers and riff off some of their ideas. So I’m thankful I had that experience in New Zealand. Opening one’s mind is so important in terms of allowing yourself as an artist to go into waters that are a little unfamiliar.


DT: In terms of composing, what is the most important musical tool you have—rhythm, instrumentation, melodic line?

HT: If I talk about an instrument group, I love working with woodwind players because there’s something about the colors of the instrument; the color changes as the instrument moves up and down its register, and you get these completely different sounds. The strings are beautiful of course, and I love to write for strings, but I find myself always wanting to write for woodwinds. I don’t know if it’s because of the soloistic quality that you can get out of them but at the same time there’s this way the chords play together when you have a group of woodwind players. The way the chords work together is very emotional for me. That’s something I definitely pull on a lot, but these days a lot of it comes down to having really good sample libraries.

DT: What is a sample?

HT: A sample is a recording of orchestral instruments playing every note separately.

DT: So you’ll have a violin playing an A, then a B-flat.

Hanan Townshend in the studiio.

Hanan Townshend in the studio.

HT: That’s right. Every single note is recorded, and they’ll do different articulations, like a sustained note, and then they’ll do a staccato, and then pizzicato, and they’ll record pretty much everything they can on that instrument.

A lot of directors want to hear something that’s very, very close to the final recording, so you’ve got to have really, really good libraries. With a Midi keyboard you can have the orchestra pretty much at your fingertips. The libraries are very powerful because computers are so powerful now—you can really dial them in to get a very realistic sound. The most difficult thing with samples isn’t so much the notes; it’s everything between the notes, like keeping the natural feel of a legato on a solo string playing up and down and moving the fingers across the fretboard. That’s something that’s very hard to capture with a sample recording, but they sound pretty good these days.

Samples actually allow for a lot of experimentation as well, because you can pitch-shift and you can do things with the instrument that you couldn’t do with a real player. But the samples can also be crippling, because if you write too much for the samples, you’re eliminating things the orchestra can play that samples can’t.

I’m still surprised by the number of TV shows and movies where I listen to the sound track and think, ‘That’s all sampled.’  Or Hans Zimmer’s approach is to combine samples with a real orchestra, so it becomes a sort of meld of the two together, a kind of amalgamation that’s rather cool.


DT: In the sound track to The Vessel, you use the human voice, which is fairly uncommon in a sound track. Can you comment on that?

HT: We worked with a wonderful singer named Mela Dailey, who’s based out of Austin, Texas. We wanted to give the score a little bit of an operatic feel with solo voice, and we didn’t want the solo voice to be a pop voice. We wanted it to have a more classical sound to it. When we worked with Mela, we even tried to get her to sing like a boy, because there’s this beautiful soloistic quality that sopranos have when they sing like a boy. When you hear a solo boy sing, there’s a pureness to the sound that’s so young and so unadulterated, and we tried to capture that in the sound as well. I was really happy with how it turned out. Some sound tracks use voice, but they tend to use it in a pop kind of way, whereas I was interested in trying to keep a more classical kind of sound if we could.


DT: You recently worked on Malick’s documentary, Voyage of Time. I guess this question is almost irrelevant, given you don’t read the script in advance, but is there a difference between working on fiction and documentary?

HT: With Terry or in general?

DT: Both.

voyage-of-time-2-copyHT: I’ll answer in regards to Terry first. I find that Terry’s movies are almost already documentaries. The way he works with actors, the way he works with the editorial process is almost the same way as a documentary—the film is shot, but then it’s made in postproduction. They craft the story there. In many ways it was a very easy transition for him to go from his narrative films to working on a documentary—they cross over a lot in terms of the approach. There isn’t really a concrete script for Voyage of Time, like there isn’t for any of Terry’s films. He used much of the same techniques and processes that he’s comfortable with. He’s certainly made the documentary in a way that he felt comfortable…Voyage of Time has definitely got Terry’s signature on it.

My experience working on documentaries is quite different. Generally there isn’t a script. Obviously, if someone’s written a reenactment, the reenactments are scripted, but generally speaking there isn’t a script, so there’s a lot more ebb and flow in the edit, changing a lot more, there are things that get cut out entirely, things that get put in and you say, Whoa, I didn’t even know that was there, so it all depends when I get involved. If I get involved very, very early on, then I’ll probably be writing a lot of music and sharing early on so they can edit to it. Then they’ll send it back to me and I’ll reconform it to the edit. If it’s a documentary that’s kind of locked, then I’ve already got the final thing. I lock everything to the cut, and that’s it.


DT: That’s when you’re brought in late in the process?

HT: Yeah, but it all depends. When it’s an indie film, the director usually likes to have the composer on board a little bit earlier on because it helps influence the way the film is cut, as opposed to just replacing temp music. You’re actually able to create a dialogue between the film and the music so the music’s a part of the story; you’re not just replacing temp music, so to speak. It really comes down to how much time you have.


DT: What’s your favorite part about the process and what’s your favorite sound track?

Hanan working with the string section on the score for The Vessel.

Hanan working with the string section on the score for The Vessel.

HT: My favorite part of the process is definitely the recording session because it’s when everything comes to life. All these ideas that you’ve been sketching out or playing around with—you’re with the orchestra saying, “Pretty please, I hope this all works.”  Then you hear the orchestra playing it for the first time, and it’s always a special moment. Of course they’re asking, “What should we do different next time?” And you’re thinking, “Oh, yeah, that’s right,” because you’ve just been so busy enjoying it. All this work, and now we’re here. So that’s definitely my most favorite part of the process.

I have a couple of favorite scores. As I said before, I have a connection to a lot of British film composers; I don’t  know if it’s because of my studies or if it’s because I’m from New Zealand. But I really love Clint Mansell and his score for The Fountain, the Darren Aronofsky film. I think it’s one of the most interesting in terms of the way the sound track is integrated into the story. As I was saying before about just replacing temp music…The Fountain doesn’t feel like that. It feels like there’s a connection between the music and the rest of the film, an even flow, and it’s very, very emotional and memorable for me. I didn’t like the film the first time I saw it, but I watched it again. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I had to go watch it again. After I’d watched it a few times, I thought, ‘This film has me.’ I fell in love with it.

Another score that definitely worked for me is Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood. I remember sitting in the theater and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ I hadn’t heard music used like that in a film for…I don’t know if I’d ever heard music used in that way before, at least not in that exact way. But I’m also a sucker for Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings sound track. I don’t know if that’s because I’m a New Zealander. Maybe I shouldn’t say anything about Lord of the Rings, because everyone will say, “Oh, typical,” but I just remember being in the theater and thinking, ‘This is an incredible score.’


Copyright © Director Talk 2016




Sand Storm/Elite Zexer

Director Elite Zexer

Director Elite Zexer

In a Bedouin village in the south of Israel, Jalila’s husband is marrying a second, much younger, wife, and Jalila feels obligated to host the wedding. During the festivities, she discovers that her daughter has formed an illicit relationship with a boy from another village; humiliated on two fronts, Jalila forbids her daughter from seeing her boyfriend again. In this brilliant study of two women facing off in a culture that respects neither, director Elite Zexer delicately explores the bonds of family, self-identity, and tradition while remaining faithful to Bedouin reality. Winner of six Ophir Awards, the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and first prize in the Locarno International Film Festival Work-In-Progress Competition, Sand Storm is Israel’s official entry to the 2017 Academy Awards. •Availability: Opens September 28, New York City, Film Forum, with national rollout to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.


DT: When you wrote the script, you made yourself stick to two principles: be as authentic to the Bedouin experience as possible, and be as universal as possible. How did you meet the challenge of remaining both local and universal, and how did you reproduce an authentic Bedouin experience?

Jalila lifts the veil of her husband's second, much younger, wife.

Jalila lifts the veil of her husband’s second, much younger, wife.

EZ:  On the authentic side, it took me ten years to make the movie. I first experienced the moment that made me think ‘I have to do this’ ten years ago. It took me about four more years spending time with [Bedouin] friends, meeting about fifty more girls and women with strong stories and realizing what film I wanted to make. After I acquired all the information and stories and everything that I knew I wanted to put in this film, I decided to test myself to see if it’s really OK for me to make a film about a culture that’s so far away from mine.

To see that it was OK for me and OK for the Bedouins, I did a short film called Tasnim, who is a character from the feature film. It was a twelve-minute movie about a young girl whose father marries a second wife. He’s coming to the village for the first time, and the young girl is really looking forward to seeing him, so she’s running after him the whole movie, but in the end she realizes that now things are different. It’s a coming-of-age story of a ten-year-old girl, and for me it was magic on set. I loved it. The whole crew felt like we were doing something good. When we finished the film, we pressed some DVDs, and the Bedouins started passing it around their villages and watching it without me. They were talking about it all the time, and whenever I would come back, they would say, “When are you coming back again? When are you going to do another film?” So I thought, ‘OK, I can go ahead and start making a feature.’

It took me another four and a half years to write it. I would go to a village for a few days and hear stories and comments about the way they see their culture that were really important for me to put in. I didn’t want to be an outsider putting my perspective on things; I wanted to get their inner perspective and show this from their point of view. So it was always, ‘Oh here’s something else,’ so I would go back and write a draft, then return to the village, spend a few more days there, again hear something that made me think, ‘Oh, I got it all wrong.’ Then I’d go back home, erase the last draft, write another draft. After four and a half years, I finally thought, ‘OK, now I feel like this is truthful enough.’ I gave it to some of the Bedouins to read, and I got their approval that it’s OK. That’s the answer to your question about being authentic to the Bedouin experience.

As for your question about being universal, I think my filmmaking is all about characters. It’s not about saying, This is the Bedouins, this is how they live, it’s far away. It’s about characters. It’s about the daughter, it’s about the mother, it’s about the father, it’s about the sisters, it’s about the boyfriend, it’s about the relationships. There are so many themes in the film. Even though the laws of this culture are different or more patriarchal or more extreme, all over the world relationships are still the same for everyone. Even the case of the second wife—the father leaving his family to take another wife is something we’re all very familiar with. Here it’s very extreme because he takes his second wife and stays in the same yard, but the core of the relationship is the same. I was trying really hard not to do an ethnographic film about Bedouin life. I wanted the ethnographic background to just be background and the main thing about the film would be the characters, the themes, the relationships, the feelings.

Wherever I go in the world, the first comment I always hear is, “It’s just like in our culture. I see myself in this movie. I see my mom in this movie.” I heard that in South Korea, I heard that in Taiwan, in Germany, in Spain. Everywhere I go I hear the same thing and it makes me feel proud that I achieved this, because it was very important to me.


DT:  In fact, that was my next question. The mother-daughter relationship was one of the most authentic I’ve ever seen onscreen, both in the way it was written and the way it was acted. It was almost tangible, something you could feel yourself experiencing. What was the process of getting that onscreen?

EZ: I do a lot of rehearsals with the actors. Every scene in this movie was rehearsed for at least a few hours. If it didn’t work, we did another rehearsal until we all felt like we had it right. The way I do rehearsal is not like a director; it’s a democracy. We start by speaking about the scene and what everybody is feeling and where they think their feelings are at the same moment and where they think they start and where they end. In the beginning it’s just a big discussion about feelings. Then we start working on it and get every word to be specifically where it should be, always talking about what’s going on internally. The actors always know why they say every sentence. It’s always about where this scene is located and the range of emotions it goes through in the film.

When we had everything really tight and we knew exactly what we were doing, we came on set and reopened everything again. Before I shot every scene we’d rehearse for thirty, forty-five minutes on set, and each time it completely changed what we’d planned. The scene was completely different because we’d been through such a process that now it was even deeper. I made my crew crazy because we’d known exactly what the shots were and then I changed everything, but I think it really made this film special, because we were improvising all the time. But while we were improvising we still remembered exactly what we’d planned, and we could impose it on the new information.


Jalal Marsawa, left, as Anuar with Lamis Ammar as Layla in Elite Zexer's SAND STORM. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Jalal Marsawa, left, as Anuar with Lamis Ammar as Layla in Elite Zexer’s SAND STORM. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

DT: “This will never happen to my daughter” is a subtext running throughout the entire film. How close is that sentiment to contemporary Bedouin reality?

EZ: My mom started taking still photographs of Bedouins ten years ago. In a matter of days she switched from being the fly on the wall to being completely the opposite, because there were so many people that she liked and loved, and so many people kept telling her, “You have to shoot this family too, you have to come to this house too, you have to come to this village too.” They were so loving, and kept telling her that God brought them together, that she got so much into these relationships that she started spending all her time in the villages. If I, and my father, and my sister ever wanted to see her, we had to go with her. And it was like that for years.

That’s how I came to the subject—for years we would go with my mom to meet Bedouins. It became a family bonding thing; we became good friends with a lot of families. We would go to visit them, they would come to visit us, and basically for me it was hanging with friends for years. Then some of the young girls realized my mom’s a very good photographer, and they asked her to come and take pictures of their weddings. This was just a personal favor—she couldn’t do anything with the photos because they’re very traditional and she couldn’t publish them later—but as a personal favor she started going to weddings, sometimes twice a week, taking pictures and making albums for their personal keep. These weddings last two days, and I went with her a lot. I started seeing many different weddings, meeting different women, hearing different stories.

At one wedding we met a young woman who had gone to university, where she met a boyfriend who was not from her village. Her family found out, and they told her, “You can’t go out anymore. You’re going to stay home and marry the man we choose for you.” This young woman loved her family very much, and she went through a whole debate about what to do. In the end she decided there’s no way she could hurt her family and she would marry the man they chose. At her wedding—in a scenario that was very much like a scene from my movie—she was waiting in her new bedroom, which she’d just stepped into for the first time to meet the new husband. The way that it’s done, women celebrate separately, and the men celebrate separately. There is no ceremony. The woman is brought to her new house, the man has a parade of men bringing him to the new house, and when he walks into the bedroom and there’s a second when they see each other for the first time, they’re married. So my mom and I were with this young woman in the bedroom, and we hear the parade of men coming and there are shouts and the skies are filled with fireworks, and she looks at me and my mother and says, “For my daughter, things are going to be different.”  That’s how I got the theme…and that’s the moment I decided I had to make this film.

DT: How did you react when she said that?

EZ: We were trying to be happy for her. We were supportive of her. It tore my stomach, but I tried not to show it.


DT: This was your first time shooting a feature. What did you learn, and what would you do differently?

EZ: You should be asking me this question in five years. Right now I’m very emotional about the film. In every step of the way, it felt that this is meant to happen, and something is keeping it safe. Even if it didn’t happen the way I planned it, it turned out better, so I don’t think I would have done anything different with this movie. The only thing that I’m hoping is that the next movie will take a shorter time, because the one month that I was directing on set was the best month of my life. I had so much fulfillment and fun and love and faith and craziness, but it was filled with so many good things in one month that when it ended I said there’s no way it’s going to take me another ten years to get to this moment.


DT:  You were absolutely born to do this.  You shot in Bedouin villages. How did that go?

Men and women celebrate the marriage separately. The "men" in this tent are women in men's garb.

Men and women celebrate the marriage separately. The “men” in this tent are women in men’s garb.

EZ: It was amazing, because we only went to villages where I had friends or friends of friends, so we were very welcome everywhere we went. Everyone knew we were coming from a good place and that we could be trusted. I insisted on shooting on location; I didn’t want to hear anything else because (a) it was important to me to be as authentic as possible and (b) I wanted to be surrounded by Bedouins of all types so that if I made a mistake, someone would tell me on set. I didn’t want to find out later. So it was really, really good, because first of all it’s reality on screen—it’s not creating reality on screen. Second of all, we were always surrounded by people who were helping us and telling us if we needed any assistance with the culture or anything like that. And the Bedouin culture is very hospitable and very welcoming, so my crew felt very, very welcome.


DT: I assume the Bedouins have seen the film.

EZ: Before I locked it I showed it to a lot of Bedouins who were working on set with me, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t have any mistakes. That was actually my best screening to date. It was a lot of fun for me to watch them see it. They were very emotional—they were laughing, they were talking throughout the whole screening about the characters. At the end they said they were really proud to be part of it and that it was a really good representation of their life. Since then, the film is screening in three different theaters in the south, right next to the villages. We never thought the Bedouins would come to watch it, but they’re filling the theaters, and you can see their responses all over Facebook. Most of them are saying really, really good things, like “It’s like watching reality onscreen. I wish there was a second part. I didn’t want it to end.” Some of them are making really long comments, analyzing the film and understanding everything I tried to do. For me that means more than any award. It’s just so emotional to see the Bedouins’ reaction to this film, especially when it’s people I don’t know.

DT: Was there a difference between the way the men responded to the film and the way the women responded to the film?

EZ: Not that I can tell. I didn’t do a screening for women and a screening for women, so I can’t really compare, but from what I’m seeing so far, people are responding very well from every corner.


DT: Why is the film called Sand Storm?

EZ: I do have a reason, and I’ll tell you the reason in a second, but it was supposed to be a temporary name, a working title. We got into the Locarno film festival for a rough-cut competition, and we won. The film started getting so much noise and so much attention with the title Sand Storm that we couldn’t replace it anymore. I never wanted to stick with it, but I didn’t have a choice after the festival.

In terms of my reason for choosing it, you get sand storms in the desert most seasons of the year. They’re so thick that even if you put your hand out, you can’t see your fingers. You can’t see anything ahead of you but sand. It’s all a mess. Then, when the storm goes away, everything is clear and back to normal again, but on the floor there’s still a surface of dust that sticks and now you’re walking on the stuff. It’s like a symbol for the film.


DT: There was a big furor at the Ophir Awards [the Israeli Academy Awards] that had absolutely nothing to do with your film.

EZ: Thank you, yes.

DT: As an Israeli, can you talk about that moment?

EZ: I can only answer it personally, not as an Israeli. I’ve been touring the world with this film for a year, and I’ve been on my own most of the time. I’ve won a lot of awards, and the first thing I say onstage, even in Sundance, is “I wish my crew was here with me to celebrate.” At the Ophir Awards, the crew couldn’t come up because of the mess, and it was just me accepting the award again. It was supposed to be the best moment for this movie. There were thirty people from the production there because we were nominated for twelve awards, and it was supposed to be such a celebration but again I felt alone, and I just felt sad.

It was not supposed to be a sad moment. I left the awards ceremony feeling very mixed, because on the one hand we had an amazing night—we won six awards—but on the other hand it was a very sad moment for me. I ended up crying at the end. But then it was over and I had to walk home on the streets of Tel Aviv in my dress and my heels, holding the statue. People in the street started asking me, “What’s that statue, what’s going on?” and I yelled, “I just won an award for directing a movie!” The whole street started clapping me all the way back to my house.

For thirty minutes I was walking this way in my high heels, getting claps all the way back. Then I walked into my apartment, which is really small. There’s nowhere to put these heavy awards because no shelf can carry them, so I have the awards on my kitchen counter. The first thing you see when you walk into the apartment is the kitchen, and I saw the award from Sundance and I put the Academy Award [Ophir] next to the Sundance award, and I had this moment with myself, just thinking, ‘What an amazing year and how incredible this all is.’ Ever since then, this is the moment I’m keeping with me.


DT: Is there anything you want to add?

EZ: One of the reasons I made this movie is that I feel like this community is very, very isolated and none of the other people get to look inside it. Even though it’s very close to Israelis—I show this in the film too, how the Bedouin village is right next to a main road—people don’t stop and they don’t look and they don’t see what’s going on inside the village.

Another reason I made this movie is that it was so easy for me to go into this world. I was so welcomed there. It’s so easy to connect to the world, yet they’re so isolated. One of the main reactions I get from Israelis is “Thank you for making this movie because we now see what’s going on in there. We never knew, we never could tell. We never understood how they’re living, and now this is something we can see.” I think for Israel it’s eye opening, and of course for the world it’s going to be eye opening. I think this culture should be addressed and it should be shown and talked about. Yes, this movie is about characters and relationships and it’s very touching, but at the same time it’s speaking about a culture that’s important to be seen.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Chronic/Michel Franco

Director Michel Franco.

Director Michel Franco.

Through actor Tim Roth, Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco presents a finely nuanced character study of a man who lives his life poised on the edge of death. Danger is not his issue; it’s mortality itself as he cares for one terminally ill patient after another, becoming deeply embroiled in their emotional lives. Chronic is beautiful, unsettling, eerily still and turbulent all at the same time, and as its many layers unfold, its meaning reverberates more and more powerfully. Availability: Opens September 23, New York City, with national rollout to follow. Click here for trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Laura Schwab and Carlos Guttierez, Cinema Tropical, for arranging this interview.


DT: Like your previous films, Chronic explores the psychological states of characters who are living in extreme conditions. Why does that state attract you as a filmmaker?

MF: In terms of the subject matter of Chronic, no matter where you are from or how old you are, the only certainty we have in life is that we’re all headed there. And it’s fascinating, it’s interesting, it’s part of life. It wouldn’t make sense to me to just ignore it. The film came about because my grandmother was ill, in bed for several months. It wasn’t the first death of someone close to me, but it was the first long agony that I saw. Her caregiver turned out to be a very interesting figure.



Actors Michael Cristofer as the stroke victim and Tim Roth as his caregiver.

DT: But there’s dealing with death, and then there’s dealing with death—Tim Roth’s character was in such an extreme situation. Why make it so extreme?

MF: When I watch a movie, I like to see something that’s outstanding for many reasons. That doesn’t mean that everything always has to be radical, but I knew that having Tim Roth as the main actor was a great opportunity to make a strong character study, because only by him playing it could I achieve the different notes and visually avoid clichés, and make something beautiful and painful at the same time. I didn’t want to just make it terrible, and if he was a less talented actor, it would have been hard to find all these different notes.


DT: Tim was the president of the Un Certain Regard jury that awarded you first prize for After Lucia. Is that where you met, and how did it come about that you worked with him?  Finally, what was working with him actually like?

MF: He turned out to be an extremely giving person. Through him I learned that even though I wrote the script, there was another way to see it. He was involved not writing but reading every draft. He would also work with actual patients and caregivers and call me almost every day. He was obsessed with telling me the experiences of his day, what he found out. Many of those ideas even went into the script. It was a very interesting process.

We became very close friends, because he really liked After Lucia a lot. Again I’ll use the word obsessed, because he became obsessed with After Lucia. Then, when you look at the film he directed—The War Zone—you can instantly see why we are very compatible.


DT: This is your first English-language film. Why make a film in English, and did the difference in language make a difference in the filmmaking process?

MF: The only reason I made the film in English was to work with Tim. I love him that much as an actor. Chronic was going to be shot in Mexico entirely in Spanish, but when Tim asked me what my next movie was going to be and I told him about this, he said turn it into English and I’ll do it. I jumped on the opportunity, but also because I feel quite comfortable in the States.

It wasn’t about an American dream; it’s not like I’m trying to build a Hollywood career. I would work in any country where I would find an actor I would want to work with, as long as I felt as comfortable as I do in the States.


DT: Both Chronic and Daniel and Ana are based on real events. How does your writing process differ when you’re taking real events as the crux of your story?

MF: In Chronic, the real events with my grandmother were just the inspiration for the screenplay. Everything else is completely fictionalized. The character that would represent the illness my grandmother went through is played by Michael Cristofer, the brain stroke victim. That was my grandmother, but she wasn’t into the sexual episodes that this character goes through. That’s entirely fiction.



Tim Roth caring for an AIDS victim.

DT: Will you ever direct a script you haven’t written?

MF:  I’ve written all my scripts. Now I’m writing my fifth, and something very curious happens to me. Even when I’m shooting my own movie or planning it, sometimes I don’t fully understand what I wrote, or I understand that it has more layers than I thought, or an actor, especially if it’s someone like Tim, will enlighten me about something that I’m missing.

That happens when I write the script, so I don’t know about getting someone else’s text and fully making it mine. I guess adapting a book would make sense, because if I adapt it myself, I lend some story to that process, but why bother when I have enough ideas of my own? And I like writing, even if it’s a pain in the neck because you’re alone for two years. That’s true creation. All my favorite filmmakers, like Pasolini, Fassbinder, Bunuel, Bergman, would write their own movies.



Tim Roth with his daughter, played by Sarah Sutherland.

DT: One of the storytelling techniques you use in Chronic is the slow reveal, where you disclose elements of the character and elements of the plot little by little. You manipulate that technique very, very well. Can you talk about that process?

MF: When I watch a movie I hate it when within the first ten or fifteen minutes—sometimes even five minutes—I know what’s going to happen throughout the film. I hate those bullshit “how-to-write-a-screenplay” books, mainly because they tell you that you’re supposed to make the audience feel at ease knowing what the hero’s journey is going to be…I even hate those terms. I think films like that are very mediocre.

Come on, make a difference. Films have been made for a hundred years. If you see a film by Lars von Trier or Peter Handke, you don’t know what’s going to happen; if you walk out in the middle, you have no idea what the rest is going to be. I think that’s the commitment you have to have with the audience. I make it out of respect.


DT: You even apply it to the final shot in Chronic.

MF: Absolutely. The final shot might surprise many members of the audience, but then when you stop and think about it, I think it absolutely makes sense. There’s no other possible end to the movie. Or at least when you shake off the surprise of the events, you end up understanding why he did what he did, because the whole movie is building up to that moment.


DT: Talk about your next film, A los ojos.

MF: Los ojos already screened at a few festivals. It’s the first time I collaborated on something with my sister. The actual shooting began in 2011 and lasted almost three years. We shot without a script, without any professional actors; only the main actors were proper actors.

The main actress turned into a real social worker in the process of shooting. The movie is about her trying to help children who live in the streets, homeless kids in Mexico City, but then she goes through a morally hard decision to make: She has a kid that’s sick, and a bad idea comes to her mind. The film is about poverty in Mexico, and it’s about whether you can really help people or we’re just more selfish in the end. Those are the big subject matters of that film.


DT: Is there anything you want to add?

MF: Let’s hope Chronic works out. The only thing I hate about people’s reaction to it is when they keep insisting on how hard it is. You know, come on. We’ve all seen people dying. It’s part of everybody’s life, so it’s better just to try to understand it. That’s my final comment.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Dancer/Steven Cantor and dancer Sergei Polunin


Sergei Polunin

At the age of 19, Sergei Polunin became the youngest dancer promoted to principal at London’s Royal Ballet. For two years he played virtually every leading male role in the repertoire. Suddenly he walked away without a word, decimating his brilliant career. When dance lover and fashion photographer David LaChapelle approached Sergei about making the video “Take Me to Church,” Polunin agreed, believing it would be his swan song. But the video went viral, inspiring millions of dancers around the world…and Polunin as well.

Steven Cantor

Steven Cantor

In Dancer, director Steven Cantor proffers an intimate, empathetic portrait of a young man whose prodigious talent encouraged his family to sacrifice too much; whose extraordinary work ethic erased any possibility of being a child; whose artistic vision may well yet refashion the world of dance.  Availability: Now showing in CA and NYC, IFC Center and Lincoln Center, opening nationwide September 23 (click here for a theater near you) and On Demand.  Thanks to Mary Ann Hult and Katherine Matthews, Obscured Pictures, for arranging this interview. 

Interview with director Steven Cantor:

DT: The final dance sequence was the perfect way to close the film. Did you start out knowing this was how you were going to end, or did it come to you as you worked on the film?

Film poster

Film poster

SC: We knew we wanted to have some really amazing set pieces in the film. This was a natural way to end and have an end credit sequence. That last dance represented a rebirth for Sergei. Before “Take Me to Church,” he was in a dark place; he was retiring, and then he had this rebirth because the reaction to “Take Me to Church” was so amazing. Sergei had been working on that final piece with Russell Maliphant, and they had just performed it at Sadler’s Wells, so it was a natural way to finish.

DT: It moved me simply because the thought of Sergei not dancing again was devastating.

SC:  Yes.


DT: The home footage of Sergei and his family is really seminal to Dancer, but I read you didn’t get it until very late in the game. How did getting it change the film?

SC: The film evolved very naturally over the course of four years. We didn’t start off with any agenda. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew that we had a kid who was labeled by the media as the “bad boy of ballet,” and we knew that his private, personal self was a very different, gentle, soft-spoken, reserved, nurturing nice guy. We knew there was a conflict and he was going to have to resolve that somehow, so we knew we’d follow something interesting, but we had no idea what form it was going to take.

We had no idea about the backstory, we had no idea that his mother, growing up in poverty in southern Ukraine with very few possessions, had a video camera and was a pretty good shooter, or that his friends at the Royal Ballet kept shooting with their cameras and their phones, or that Sergei himself was a pretty good shooter and captured some amazing personal moments.

That stuff wasn’t all collected in one big box. We had a serious research effort. Sometimes the footage sort of trickled in; Jade [Sergei’s best friend] would call in and say, “I’ve got some more footage I’m sending to you,” and my producing partner Julia Loomis would look at it and say, “Oh my God, Sergei is running naked through the street and lying down in the snow.” The editing process took nine months. We were constantly juggling things around figuring out what the story would be.


DT: But the film is incredibly organic, even tight, almost like a well-written screenplay. How did you do that?

SC: For any film you try and distill it down to What is the core story, the core psychological background of everything? As Sergei’s story and backstory unfolded to us, it was very clear what his psychological motivations were and what pickups were along his developmental path. Then we followed his present-day storyline, which was rocky, and we didn’t quite know where it was going to go. Then “Take Me to Church” crystallized everything because it was supposed to be his retirement, and the response to the video was so incredible that it allowed us to have him at his low point and then also to have a kind of rebirth catharsis at the end.


DT: How well did you get to know Sergei and his family, and what was the process of getting to know each other?

Sergei and Steven

Sergei and Steven

SC: I’m a little reserved actually, which is probably a strange quality for a documentary filmmaker to have, and Sergei’s very reserved, so it was a slow process of my building trust in him and wanting to devote the time that it takes to really make a proper documentary. For him, to open up was therapeutic on some level—to have to dig into questions in his past. In the film he says he doesn’t like to have memories and doesn’t want to deal with the past, so to open up those wounds again was difficult for him. It took some time during conversations on camera, sometimes they’d be recorded, the way you’re recording this one, sometimes he and I would just go out for a burger and get to know each other. He was overseas, I was in New York, so it was a slow process of building trust.

DT: Did he want to make the film?

SC: When we met him he was 23, and he thought, A documentary about my life, that sounds cool. He didn’t know what it was going to be. None of us knew. We thought maybe it was going to be a dance piece.  I think it sounded like a good idea to him at the beginning, but four years into it he thought, My God, is this ever going to end?


DT: You’ve made documentaries about many famous people, like Willie Nelson or Sally Mann, but never about a dancer. Did the dance element throw you at all?

SC: Actually the dance element inspired me, because my fiancée used to be a dancer, and my daughter, who was nine when we started the film, is a very serious, dedicated ballerina who’s devoted her whole childhood to ballet, similar to what Sergei did. She’s 13 now, and she’s at the School of American Ballet. When she was young I thought, I’ll make some animated thing to impress her and her friends. That never happened, so now this is a chance to be a cool dad—she walks out of her ballet school at Lincoln Center, and there’s our poster. Sergei was actually the first guy to ever lift her besides me. The home screen of my phone is Sergei lifting my daughter. Anyway, I have a lot of practice filming dance because she’s nonstop pirouetting around the living room, and I’ve been filming her for years.


DT: Do you think the line between documentary and feature film is getting thinner?

SC: A lot of documentary filmmakers are working in reality television right now, and the reality television world is so organized and scripted. The executives want to know before you shoot exactly where you’re going to be shooting, and they want the scripts to be laid out. I think there’s probably a little of that mentality of trying to discuss and think about what you’re going to be shooting, talking to your subjects about what the scenes are going to be a little more than what it used to be, especially in the cinema verite world. It used to be you are just a fly on the wall, don’t get involved. Certainly that wasn’t our experience with this film. I got to know Sergei very well, and at times I was a director, at times I was a friend, at times a coach, really talking about everything.


DT: I believe that this is a film that will make a difference. Do you?

SC: I hope that this film is about more than just a dancer. It’s about a lot of things, about family, and struggle…and sacrifice. Sergei’s parents and extended family made an enormous sacrifice of their relationships to one another, their relationships to him. Sending your kid at age thirteen to be raised by the Royal Ballet while you go back to Kiev is unbelievable. And on Sergei’s part, the sacrifice to basically give up his childhood in order to become a great dancer. It’s incredible. Think about all the things you’re doing as a kid, all the things you’re exploring, and he just cuts it all off, ballet starting at age five. In the end, I think it raises the question, Is it worth it? Is Sergei happier at 26—still extraordinarily young—but is he happier at 26 being at the top of the ballet world, or would he have been happier working in the shipping industry in Ukraine and having his parents stay together, having a tight family unit?  If you ask his mother, there’s no question she would do it all over again. For Sergei, I think it’s a little thornier. I hope the film connects on that level.


Sergei Polunin

Sergei Polunin

Interview with dancer Sergei Polunin:

DT: There are many wrong reasons to dance. What are the right reasons for you?

SP: Through my journey, I realized that for me, to dance is to inspire. To inspire kids, to move dance forward, and to do something with your gift to bring brightness into the world.

DT: Those are all reasons for other people. Is there something in it for you?

SP: That’s a hard question. I mean…I am a dancer. It’s been part of my life since I was three, so that’s who I am. I don’t see a reason to do it; it’s who I am. You’re walking in the street, I’m dancing. It’s like what’s the reason to be a human? It’s the same thing.


DT: You’ve said you admire Natalia Osipova’s ability to make a choreography her own. What does it mean to make a choreography your own?

SP: For example, you’ve been given a set of steps. When the choreographers are alive, the dancers are allowed to improvise and create. As soon as the choreographer dies, the opportunities narrow and the ballet company just gives you a video. For example, if I’m doing Anthony Dowell, they’ll say, “You have to do it like him.” Anthony Dowell doesn’t support that, but the people presenting it don’t want it to get too loose. For a dancer, that becomes very restrictive: “You can’t look right, you have to look left.” It became really boring.

DT: Was that one of the problems you had at the Royal Ballet?

SP: They gave me everything they could possibly give me. They were even giving me more than I needed. What I wasn’t happy with was the system of ballet in general, the infrastructure. When I watched TV, I asked myself, Why are there no dancers on TV? Why are they not on talk shows, why are they not doing advertisements? They’re not less talented than football players or actors or musicians.

At the age of 19, I went to film directors and said, I want to do a movie. They said great, but of course they couldn’t help me; I needed an agent, a manager. It was hard, because I was a foreigner in London without family, without connections. All I knew was how to destroy and hopefully re-create what I wanted. It was a long journey, but through talking to artists like David LaChapelle, who hugely inspired me because he loved dance more than anything, I thought, Maybe I’m missing something. At that point, I really disliked dance, because I hated the system.  Nobody was helping anybody. It was dead to me. When I worked with David, I realized he loves dance, and since he’s such an amazing artist, that made me think, Maybe there is something there in dance; maybe I have to come back and change the system.

I thought of building a better system, like the movie industry. I talked to David, and he asked, “Do you have an agent?” When I told him no, he said, “How do you guys get work if you don’t have an agent?” Then I talked to Ralph Fiennes and found out he has huge support; he has managers and agents and a company. Dancers don’t have that, and I realized that’s the key. That’s what we need to create, because that creates the industry.

Sergei in David LaChapelle's video "Take Me to Church"

Sergei in David LaChapelle’s video “Take Me to Church”

“Take Me to Church” gave me a new light. I thought it was my last dance, but when I saw kids dancing to it, they inspired me, so I realized we can do something with the system. Before the video came out, film producer Gabrielle Tana and I were knocking on doors, but nobody would listen to us. Then the video comes out, and people start to say, “Hi kids, what are you doing, what’s next?” So we started to build a team. We got an amazing guy who used to be a banker, and he said, “Let me help you build this company.”

DT: Is this Project Polunin?

SP: Yes. It’s going to have a charitable part, and we want to have a foundation that can support dance. We want to create movies and videos, we want to do shows, and we want to have lawyers and managers who will support dancers. I’m hoping every dancer will join so we have a community of dancers who can be heard. We want to connect with the fashion industry, film industry, music industry, so dancers will have a choice.

Let’s say a dancer says, My goal is to do a talk show. The company will start working on that. The idea is building a community of people, because in the ballet world everybody was for themselves. We have to unite. You see the football industry, or any other industry…but who cares about dancers?

DT: Where are you based?

SP: It started in London, but I think it will go international, because it’s important to get everybody talking. We’re talking to people in New York, L.A., Japan, all over Europe. We’re not going to be against the system; we’re going to be integrated. It’s going to be so good for the next generation of dancers. For four years I was on the road searching for support and wasting my dance time. Sometimes I would say to myself, Why am I traveling, why am I not dancing? It took a lot of strength to keep going into nowhere. Til suddenly “Take Me to Church” comes out and people start to listen. It’s amazing what a little video can do.


DT:  Let’s get back to Dancer. There was incredible footage of you improvising when you were a boy. How much do you improvise now, how much do you take from other dance systems? In “Take Me to Church,” some of your movements almost felt like tai chi or karate.

SP: I worked on the piece with my best friend, Jade Hale-Christofi. He understood me really well emotionally, so he connected the piece on an emotional level. It’s much easier to see from outside, and I really trusted how Jade sees what I’ve been through. But the dance moves were just my favorite moves ever since I learned them years ago.

There were some Baryshnikov moves—I spent many, many years stopping his videos and examining them. That’s important; it integrates in your body. Baryshnikov is a big inspiration, and I have him in me through analyzing his moves, where he’s looking; you’re building yourself into somebody’s dancing ability. In “Take Me to Church” many of the moves were originally Baryshnikov’s. He was a big inspiration.

DT:  Did Jade put them in, or did you?

SP: I did. I think that a smart choreographer lets a dancer be comfortable with whatever they’re doing. A choreographer has to connect the pieces; he has to be a good director. It’s not about creating the moves; it’s about connecting the piece. Of course, I’m a dancer, I know what I like to dance. I know what my moves are, and Jade was really smart the way he connected them.


DT: Your height is spectacular, but it’s your upper body that I find so breathtaking. Are you conscious of your line when your dance: are you conscious of your form?

SP: No. It’s more natural.

DT: You just do it.

SP: I just do it.

DT: Was it always that way, or did you have to work on your line?

SP: Everybody says, “Oh, it’s natural,” but that’s crazy. I went to dance school at age three, then I did gymnastics for years, where I learned space awareness. Then I went to ballet school. From the age of nine, after school I would go to a theater coach, and every day we would work on posture, on feeling, for hours and hours.  It was seven years of work, every day.

When I went to ballet school I worked triple, because I didn’t do academics; I did double dance classes and then I stayed after school every day and watched videos. That’s what nobody understands—these school years. The reason why I am relaxed and can enjoy it now is the hours I put in in school. It would be eight hours a day from the time I was four. So that ability doesn’t just come from being gifted, or because I was born like that. No, it was a huge amount of work, a huge amount of hours. Now I can learn a ballet in a day. People get angry that I don’t do classes, because my body doesn’t need it.

DT: You have it.

SP: I have it, yes, because whoever didn’t work hard in school, whoever wasted time then has to catch up now. I was fortunate not to have that problem. A friend of mine says, “Who works the hardest is the best.” That’s true. Who puts the most hours in, gets it.

You have to tell that to kids. That’s what’s important—kids have to understand that if they work now, it’s going to be easier later so that you You’re just going to play, you can search for other things, not just concentrate. When I got to the Royal Ballet, I never practiced my technique again. I was concentrating on developing my roles, so I had time to concentrate on acting ability rather than thinking, Am I going to do a pirouette here, or am I going to fall? I didn’t have to think about it any more, so I could develop my acting skill on stage.


Sergei Polunin as Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan's "Mayerling."

Sergei Polunin as Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s “Mayerling.”

DT: So now that you’ve developed your technique and your acting skills, what are you working on now?

SP: I actually started working on my voice. On speaking, working with core. I’ve integrated it into my ballet class, so in one hour I accomplish barre, as well as a-e-i-a. That’s new to me.  Dance is very quiet, and very internal…dancers never speak out, so I just thought I would use the same approach as I used for my dance class, but using different muscles, developing my voice rather than my body language. It’s constant growing into some direction rather than stopping, which is very interesting and very exciting.

DT: That’s also like Baryshnikov.

SP: I really look up to him.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016








The Tenth Man/Daniel Burman

In this mesmerizingly soulful romantic comedy, director Daniel Burman, like his protagonist Ariel, returns to his roots in the Once District of Buenos Aires. Ariel had come from New York to introduce his girlfriend to his father, Usher, but nothing has gone as planned. Instead, Usher puts Ariel to work in his charity, the Usher Foundation, which feeds and clothes impoverished Jews. Somewhere along the way, Ariel finds exactly what he never knew he was looking for. As wondrous as it is, The Tenth Man is made even more beautiful by the fact that Usher and his foundation are real, and the actors playing the impoverished Jews are the men and women Usher feeds and clothes every day.  Availability: Opens August 5, New York, L.A., Encino, with national rollout to follow. Click here for local listings and trailer. Thanks to Emma Griffiths, Emma Griffiths PR, and the Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview.


DT: Tell me about the relationship between the film and the real-life Usher and his foundation.

DB:  The relationship is very close. Usher actually exists, the foundation actually exists, the women who work there exist. The people who benefit from the foundation exist, and they’re in the film—they’re the ones asking for the food and the drugs.


DT:  What difficulties did you have fictionalizing a real-life charity?

DB:  Fictionalizing a real-life situation is not a very complicated thing to do, but the complicated thing is the moral dilemma of fictionalizing a reality based on need—the fact that the people I portray are real people who were there the day before trying to get food because they don’t have it. Then I’m using that to construct a fiction, which is always going to be more banal than the reality it’s based upon.

We tried to do it in the best way. The people got paid for their work in the film, and the foundation actually grew as a result of the film, but it nonetheless continues to be a dilemma. But every fiction has a banal aspect to it, especially in relation to reality. No matter what the quality or the character of the fiction, reality will destroy the fiction. In fact we use fiction to escape reality, so there’s always an element of banality in relation to it.

DT: At the same time, there’s a very documentary feel to the film.

DB:  This particular project required this kind of approach—using documentary but also creating a fiction that would alter reality in the most minimum way. It was less an aesthetic matter than an actual moral problem. The imprint of the whole apparatus of the film had to be as small and as light as possible precisely because we were mining this material that was so sensitive because it was people in need. So the shift to documentary had more to do with a moral reason than a formal reason.


DT:  It seems as if Usher made a huge impression on you.

DB:  When people approach me and say, “You have to make a movie about this particular person,” I always reject it. I hate the idea that people have a type of personality that justifies making a film. But when I met Usher—who in fact detested the idea and rejected the idea of a film being made about him—I thought, ‘This time I have to make a film about this person.’ In this case, I thought it was totally justified so the world will know about Usher even though he himself didn’t want anything to do with a film being made about him. In fact it’s even more interesting than that. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the idea of a film about him; it was completely irrelevant to his reality. He couldn’t care less, and I thought that was very attractive. We keep thinking that film is such an important thing, when in fact it’s really nothing in comparison.

DT:  So how did you convince him?

DB: I don’t know.  He convinced himself, but it wasn’t even that. He never gave it enough importance. It just happened. In a gray area in which he exists and which is not a no or a yes,  things just happen. And the film in this way just happened. He never said yes and he never said no.


DT:  How did you meet him?

DB: I met him through 18-j, a documentary I was making about a group of Jewish men that traveled to Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine to look for the tombs of tzadikkim [righteous men].


DT:  In an interview with the Times of Israel, you said you were tired of making films and needed to return to your childhood to find the tools to carry on. What tools did you find?

DB: They’re not tools that have a name but are elements from childhood that one has forgotten and needs to reconnect with, like a certain childhood enthusiasm that one loses throughout life as one grows, a certain curiosity for living and a lack of awareness of the losses that you incur throughout life. You become so aware of that when you’re older, but when you’re still a child you’re unaware of the fact that you lose people and things. It was this actual condition and this state of being that you only have in your childhood that I wanted to have access to, because as we grow older we actually lose all this. This lack of an awareness of how life is finite and full of loss is something you only have in your childhood. When men turn fifty they tend to look for that lack of awareness and that state in younger women, but you have to go much further back and earlier in life than that to actually find that forgetfulness, that state of not being aware of loss and time passing. I’d rather go back to my childhood than to a younger woman to find that state.


DT: Is that what happened in the film? Did Ariel find that state of grace at the end?

DB:  Yes, exactly. There is something of this. But he also found a younger woman…well, not that much younger.


DT:  Aside from all the craziness and zaniness in the film, there’s also a beautiful feeling of the protection that religion can give: spiritual protection, and being protected within the community. And one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen: Eva revealing to Ariel that she had sex in the mikvah [ritual bath] but thought she wouldn’t get pregnant because the mikvah was going to protect her. Humor aside, did you find that protectiveness within the real Usher Foundation?

DB:  You’re right—religion is one way to feel protected against life, and I deeply respect that way. It’s like a paradox, because without life nothing exists, but life hurts us also. It’s so hard to live. Religion is like this—a shield to feel the pain of life less.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Neither Heaven nor Earth/Clement Cogitore

A platoon of French soldiers is stationed in a far-off valley in Afghanistan. The monotony of their routine is soon broken when one of the soldiers, and then another, disappears. The French captain blames the Taliban, until the Taliban leader reveals that his men, too, are disappearing. Both turn on the local villagers, demanding explanations that become more and more otherworldly. In Neither Heaven nor Earth, Director Clement Cogitore and cowriter Thomas Bidegain have fashioned an unnatural tale that is completely credible. •Availability: Opens August 5, New York City, Film Society of Lincoln Center, with a national rollout to follow. Click here for a trailer and local listings near you. Thanks to Susan Norget and Keaton Kail, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.


DT: Sura 18, the Sura of the Cave, is mentioned throughout the film. What role does this text from the Koran play?

CG:  It’s a sacred text in community life that seems to give answers. It doesn’t really, but it’s connected to what is happening in real life, including the magical element. So when the soldiers hear this text, they feel a strong connection with what they are experiencing, and they’re hoping there is a clue or a solution in the text. But not only with the Sura of the Cave but also with the text of the Book of Job. When the black priest comes to the soldiers’ camp, he reads a text from the Bible, and this text is also connected to the situation of the soldiers. They feel that there is a link to the experience but there is no solution. That’s the role of the text.


DT:  The French and the Taliban both brutalize the local villagers. Is this a political statement?

CG: For any filmmaker or scriptwriter writing about violence or war, you know that these cases are happening, and you know that each time the locals are suspected of being in touch with the enemy, there is some violence. You know that when the Taliban, or whoever is arriving, wants something, they brutalize the locals. Not every time, not everywhere, but these things are happening every day in countries who are at war, so that came naturally in the script. You know that soldiers and the Taliban are brutal with the locals, so as a scriptwriter you include it in the script.

DT: So it was more a statement about reality than a political statement.

CG: Yes. It’s the reality of war. In every war situation, the locals are the first victims.


DT: How did you choose Thomas Bidegain as your cowriter?

CG: I was hoping to work with him, like anybody here in France. When I started the script, it was 2011, and he was just finishing The Prophet with Jacques Audiard. At first I thought he was too expensive and not available and he would never accept working with me. I’m too young, this is my first feature film, and that’s it.

My producer and I started to look for somebody else, but we didn’t find anyone who connected enough or was involved enough. There was no evidence of a strong connection with me or with the project, so my producer said, “You want to work with Thomas.” Of course everybody wants to work with Thomas, but we said, Let’s try. We managed to have a meeting together, and in this first meeting I immediately saw that he completely understood the project and he was the scriptwriter to help me contact the story through the final draft. Fortunately he was interested by the project, by the idea I had, and he accepted. I’m so grateful to him.

We decided to work together for my next feature film. Thomas is really important for me. For me he’s the most interesting scriptwriter in France, so I feel very lucky that he managed to have time to work with me.


DT: The scene where the captain sees the Sufis praying is incredibly powerful. Can you talk about the meaning of the scene and how the meaning affected the way you directed it?

CG: The meaning of that scene is the same as the scene where the soldiers are dancing with the music. Remember the soldier with the tattoo of an eye on his back? This fighter understands that his weapon is not useful anymore for his fight and that he has to find another way to fight and face this phenomenon. In a way it’s a spiritual fight. For the soldier it’s impulsive, an improvised, lawless ceremony. For the Sufi it’s a ritual and collective and old spiritual tradition. These two scenes are connected because they have the same meaning.

The way I directed the Sufi scene was actually quite simple. The sound is from a real ceremony, but the people you see are actors. They just studied the way of Sufi praying, the energy, the movement of the body, but the element you feel in the sound is from a real Sufi ceremony.


DT:  You’re a still photographer as well as a filmmaker. How porous are the borders between film and photography for you?

CG: The border between film and photography is quite clear for me. What’s not really clear is the border between fiction, documentary, and video art. What I love in photography is that in just one picture you have everything. A lot of my photographic work is like mise en scene. When you shoot one picture, it’s like a painting; you have one single picture. When I’m shooting a shot in cinema or video, I always have to think, ‘What’s the shot just before and what’s the shot just after?’ Each time you’re creating a picture, you have to relate it to another picture immediately. There is no picture working alone. With a photograph, you can make just one single picture and this picture has its own meaning and there’s no need to have another one connected to that.

DT: Are you a fan of Gregory Crewdson?

CG: I like his work.


DT: You worked with the local population when you shot Neither Heaven nor Earth. How did they relate to the story?

CG: I shot in Morocco, not Afghanistan. It’s a population from the  Islamic tradition, but the language is not the same, it’s a completely different situation, and for them a film located in Afghanistan is as far as it is for us. Of course they had the script and they worked with the story, but they had no particular or specific connection to it.

The actors who were playing the Taliban were Iranian or Afghani actors, so there the situation was closer to them, but the Moroccan locals who played the villagers were not even Arabic, they were Berbers. They don’t even speak Arabic, so it’s really far for them. The Afghani situation is a completely different world.


DT: Was the film a warning sign?

CG: That was not my aim, but I really don’t know. As an artist or storyteller, you’re thinking you have to tell a story. You don’t know why or how the world is turning one way or the other.

My film is not about fanaticism or extreme violence or terrorism, so I don’t feel there’s any connection to what’s happening in France today. I made a film about a kind of war that maybe won’t exist anymore—this kind of war where a Western army is sent to a remote country and fights with the locals or the Taliban or whatever but it’s really far and sometimes you have news on the TV. This is not the situation France or the USA or Germany are facing now. Attacks are in the home country, and most of the time from people living in the country—from French or American people—so if you mean this kind of warning, I’m not sure. Of course it’s a consequence, because there was a lot of colonialism in the relationship with these countries, but the situation in France now doesn’t have anything connected or related to what I’m talking about in the film. [Editor’s note: the question was meant to refer to the colonialism Cogitore mentions, not to the recent terrorist attacks in France.]


DT: You mentioned that you are going to be working with Thomas Bidegain again. Is it going to be another film with the same themes, or do you want to completely get away from this in your next film?

CG: It will be completely different. The film will be set in Paris and the main character is a medium, a guy whose business it is to interact with dead people. But he’s a liar and just knows what to say to people who are suffering. One day he will have a real vision, and this vision is going to create a lot of trouble for him.

DT: It sounds wonderful.

CG: I don’t want this to be a comedy, but it won’t be as dramatic as it could be.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Les Cowboys/Thomas Bidegain

In an homage to John Ford’s The Searchers, director Thomas Bidegain tells the story of a young Frenchwoman who leaves home to convert to Islam. Convinced she’s been brainwashed, her father embarks on a mission to bring her home that will lead him around the world, his unwilling son in tow. Availability: Opens June 24 New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Click here for trailer and theater listings. Thanks to Emma Myers and Nathaniel Baruch, Brigade Marketing, and the New York Film Festival for arranging this interview.

DT:  It seems that some people love the film, like I did, while others don’t respond to it at all.

TB: They’re seeing it as all white or all black. I think the film is very straightforward. There’s no irony in it at all. It’s just first degree all along, so if you watch it and don’t get inside—if you look at it from afar—it will seem improbable. If you enter the film, you’ll believe. You will believe because this film has a classical thing to it, this suspension of disbelief, like you have to believe that Humphrey Bogart was a marine officer. So when people get in and are there for a good ride, they’re very moved at the end. The film has that quality of being very straightforward.  It doesn’t try to be clever.


DT: Don’t you think that’s true of genre films in general, and especially contemporary Westerns? There’s something very distancing about a Western in this day and age. You have to come to it with a determined viewpoint, saying, I am going to suspend my disbelief in order to get into this film.

TB:  You have to get in with a certain amount of naivete, a freshness. Extend a generosity to it. Say, OK, I’m in for a ride. If you try to judge, it will seem very long.  But I’m very proud of the film. It’s exactly the film I wanted to make.


DT: You’ve written many wonderful screenplays, but this is your first time directing.

TB: When you direct, it’s a machine to reveal yourself. It’s very different from screenwriting, where you can always hide. When you’re directing, you make all the decisions, and each decision will reveal something of you. And to you. It’s a weird process.

DT:  Will directing a film change the way you write?

TB: I’ll write shorter scripts. Also, through editing, I learned a lot about what things to get rid of.


DT:  Let’s talk about the European fascination with cowboy culture. As an American, it’s very hard for me to understand. What do cowboys represent in Europe, especially in relation to 9/11?

TB: A lot of communities celebrate country/Western culture; there are a lot of festivals, all year long, every weekend. Sometimes it’s just about the music, sometimes it’s more about the dance. People love to square dance. Sometimes it’s the horses, but it’s always with that cowboy theme. About twenty percent of the people are really decked out, but the rest are just wearing a hat or boots, like the father in the film.

I think it’s something reassuring for them, plus it’s very white. You go there and it’s very nice and everybody’s very nice, but at one point you look around and say, This is not [ethnically] mixed at all. So it’s nice, but within a limit. When you come to a festival like that from Paris, you say, Something’s strange here.

I wanted to create certain images because I wanted to talk about the community. The fact that the daughter leaves will affect the life of her father, her family, but also the entire community will be changed. And even the life of a girl in Pakistan will be changed because of that. It’s like a ripple effect. This community is us. The movie opens with a country/Western festival. The second time you see the festival, we’ve included a woman in a veil, and you have an image of our society. It’s just that: this community is our community. You always have to think about the images that the story will produce, and this is definitely one that I had in mind from the very beginning.


DT:  You dealt with sensitive material in an intelligent way. How did you avoid stereotypes?

TB: I always believe in being true to the character, really telling the story from their point of view. We never show anything the main character doesn’t see; it’s always their point of view. There are no crane shots, it’s always at their height.

Sometimes they don’t understand, sometimes they get thrown. Small people get thrown into the tumult of the world—that’s really what the film is about. So yes, it’s sensitive material. Sometimes the father will say something racist, but it’s the father, not the film. If you’re above the characters, you have to judge, but if you’re at their level, then you just have to go through it. Life forces us to go through things and sometimes we don’t know what to do, like the second country/Western festival, where people are trying to rip Shahzana’s veil off.  The sheriff is helpless; he just doesn’t know what to do.


DT:  The next question deals with The Searchers. What were the dangers of remaking such an iconic film?

TB:  It’s not a remake.  I took the theme. If I was to make a remake, I would never have chosen The Searchers. I was inspired by the theme and wanted to make an homage to all the films that gave me so much. I’ve learned so much from John Ford, John Huston, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz. I’ve loved so much from those classics that it was very important for me to pay that homage and to give back.

When I had the idea for this story, I knew it was my song, and I knew it was for me to sing—not to write it for somebody else. I have a very specific American cinephilia that’s about those times,  so it’s more an homage than a remake.


DT:  In The Searchers, John Wayne is forced to confront his racism. Does the father do that in this film?

TB: The film starts with people who think they’re cowboys and believe Arabs are the Indians. That’s why I wanted to confront this culture.

At one point in the ’90s, when the movie starts, people were talking about a world civilization and what would happen when two cultures collide. What better portrait, what better metaphor can you find for a war of civilizations than cowboys and Indians? I believe that the father cannot reconcile with the other because he thinks they are a civilization and they are apart; he believes he is a cowboy, and he believes the other guys, the Muslims, are the Indians. His son, Kid, will not see Muslims as a civilization. He will see them as human beings, so there’s the possibility of reconciliation at that moment. That’s where racism is: seeing the other as a different civilization. They’re not. They’re just human beings. As long as you see things as world civilizations, as cowboys and Indians, no reconciliation is possible.


DT:  What was the political climate like when you were writing the film?

TB:  I first read about jihad a long time ago, when nobody was talking about jihad. While we were writing the film, we were reading more and more testimony in the papers depicting scenes that we had already written. At one point we were afraid that the subject matter would devour the film because it was too overwhelming. While we were shooting on the border between India and  Pakistan, everybody said, Be careful. One week later in Paris, it was the Charlie Hebdo shooting. We go to Pakistan, and it’s the homeland that’s under attack.

Everyone in the cast and crew was very shaken by that. We spent our night listening to the radio while we were shooting, but I talked with almost everybody, and we felt the only thing we could do was this kind of film: represent the world, portray what it is when that kind of tragedy happens to you. Don’t try to explain it, just show. I think that in itself is a political act. Just to represent.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Wondrous Boccaccio/Paolo Taviani

Filmmaking icons Paolo and Vittorio Taviani pull from Boccaccio’s Decameron to create a vibrant extravaganza of life and death in plague-ridden Florence. To escape the Black Death, ten young women and men make their way to a country estate, where they distract themselves by telling stories, each more fantastic and entertaining than the last. Wondrous Boccaccio is as sumptuous as film gets, with a richness that enhances the humanity beneath. Availability:  On DVD from Film Movement and Amazon. Thanks to Virginia Cademartori, Sally Fischer PR, and the Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview.


DT:  How did you conceive of such a beautiful film?  Were you listening to Puccini? Thinking about the plague? Or reading Boccaccio?

PT:  Actually the film was born out of our response to suffering. When we were children, we experienced World War II. When it was over, we thought it would be the last war like this, as Hitler and Mussolini were gone from the scene.  Instead, there have been other wars since then, and there are other horrors happening in the world today with ISIS, massacres in Africa. We feel as if we’re surrounded by a plague of sorts.  In Italy there is a plague of unemployment for young people.

The word plague made us think of Boccaccio, because the great plague—the Black Death of the fourteenth century—is the starting point of Boccacio’s Decameron.  We’d had this film in mind for many, many years. We kept postponing it for one reason or another, but this just struck us like a bullet to the head: we’re going through a plague today, so this is the time to do Boccaccio.  None of the other films that have been based on Decameron, including Passolini’s, represent the plague itself as the starting point, while that’s the driver of the Decameron: the horror of the plague. These young people, predominantly young women—and this is very much a feminine film—decide they’re going to say no to the plague and no to death because they want to live. They want to survive through art, through telling stories to each other.

When we were working on this film, we took the Decameron of Boccaccio as inspiration. Some of the stories are taken directly from Boccaccio, others are inspired by stories that we know instead from other plagues, in particular the Spanish flu of 1918–1920, when a distant aunt of ours, as well as many others we know, died of the flu. So there’s some of Boccaccio, but there’s a lot of us; while the Decameron is the starting point for the film, we take these stories in our own direction.

It’s a story of young people who are fighting to survive, through art.  Many critics have talked about how different it is from Caesar Must Die, but Vittorio and I felt as if we were working on the same film, because they both take as their starting point a very painful reality.  In the case of Caesar Must Die, it’s the reality of a life sentence in prison without parole, the hardships of prison life regardless of whether someone is innocent or not, but for this one moment, through the aid of art, through Shakespeare, through the pleasure of acting and putting on a play, they know what it’s like to feel free and to feel alive, after which they have to go back to this painful existence. In the Decameron, the starting point is the horror of the plague, and their reaction to that is to seek relief through art, to survive. After telling these stories they have to go back to Florence, but through this experience of being together and telling stories they have found new force and new energy and friendship, which, like art, will help them battle the suffering they’re going to find.


DT:  You’ve said that Rossellini’s Paisan was the moment you recognized your language.  How did Paisan influence your cinema in general and Wondrous Boccaccio in particular?

PT:  It’s thanks to the vision of Paisan that Vittorio and I realized the power of cinema as a way to tell our own stories and to realize how much force it had.  We said, “If cinema has that kind of force of truth telling, then we want to make cinema.”  So Paisan influenced us, but so did Rome Open City, Germany Year Zero, other films of Rossellini, the films of Visconti, the films of De Sica as well—all of our predecessors have influenced us in that way.  Picasso, just to cite a great artist of our time, said, “I don’t invent anything in my art.  I copy my predecessors and try to make them better.”  When young directors come to us asking, ‘What should I do?  How can I become a director?’ what I always tell them is, ‘Take five films that you love, love, love, and sit down and watch them as many times as you can until they have entered into your head.  And then sit down and try to rewrite them all.’

You have to be a kind of thief who’s trying to break into a bank to rob its secrets.  You have to stake out the bank, you have to pick out the right disguise, you have to get a map to the safe, open the safe, and take everything out of it, and then spend it as much as you can, however you want. This is what you have to do in cinema, as far as Vittorio and I are concerned. There’s no such thing as originality. You can only invent what has been invented and copied.  Copy, copy, copy, and then you will be free.


DT:  While not all the stories were taken from the Decameron, the ones that were, as well as the frame, remain very close to the text. Can you talk about adapting classic litereature for the screen?

PT:  The stories are both faithful and unfaithful at the same time. A literary work gives us a subject, and there are going to be affinities between a literary work and the film that’s going to be made from it. There might be a kind of spiritual affinity in that as well, but what we have to realize is that the literary work operates according to its own narrative rules, while cinema, which is an audiovisual medium, operates according to different rules.  We changed some of the details in some of the Boccaccio stories—for example, using instances of more modern plagues. Our general attitude was, Thank you, Boccaccio, for what you have given us, but now we’re going to take our own road. Sometimes what Boccaccio did comes back to us; the story that’s closest to Boccaccio is the story of the nun with the underwear on her head, which is a great comic invention of Boccaccio. In other cases we changed the ending of some of the love stories.  What we set out to do was not to illustrate a literary work that we’re adapting. What we did was put everything together in the same pot and remove some of those things that are Boccaccio and some of those things that are Taviani, so it’s a mix of certain elements of Boccaccio but also certain elements of Paolo and Vittorio.


DT:  In an interveiw with La Repubblica, you said that today’s plague is disillusionment. I was very struck by the fact that when these young people set up their community in the film, they instituted a set of rules, like no lovemaking so the women who didn’t have lovers wouldn’t be jealous. For me, there was a strong connection between setting rules and creating hope as a counter to disillusionment. Am I reading into the film, or do you believe that was Boccaccio’s intention?

PT:  These young people make a choice to survive and to discover through art a means of surviving, but they’re living in a community, and a community needs rules in order to survive.  The rule regarding lovemaking comes from Boccaccio; it’s not our invention. It’s certainly a result of the uneven balance of boys and girls and some people being left out, so to take this vow of chastity is a necessary thing. It’s right and just to have rules like this in terms of coming out of this alive.

In terms of sex in the film, however, we’re much more subtle in our approach. It comes out here and there, it emerges but it’s almost subterranean. Take, for example, the episode of the bread, where he says, “I wish you were underneath this instead.” This is running throughout the whole film. Where it’s most explicit, perhaps, is the scene with the nun who’s had sex in the cell, but then in this sudden shift, she comes out and says, “God gave us two gifts; he gave us the gift of the spirit but also of the flesh and go out and also enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.” Or the scene where the Roman says, “You taught me how to love, but I know what sex is and I want to enjoy that.” Our approach to sexuality in terms of that rule against lovemaking was not to overplay sex or make it overly explicit but to feel it in a subterranean fashion.


DT:  The film conveyed a deep relationship with nature as something both destructive and redemptive, for instance dying of the plague contrasting with the beautiful scene of the ladies in the lake.  Please talk about the role nature plays in your films.

PT:  In this film we instructed our cinematographer to emphasize the beauty of the Tuscan landscape, because the beauty of that landscape is a response to death. It gives you the force to say, I want to live. We deliberately had a very exaggerated approach to the beauty of the landscape in this film as a response to death.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016