Glory/Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov

Directors Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva.

Directors Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva.

The second of a trilogy of films based on Bulgarian news stories, Glory features a poor railroad worker who finds a motherlode of cash spilled across the train tracks. When he dutifully reports his find to the police, the glory that should have been his is replaced by mockery and spite. A black comedy that couldn’t get any darker, Glory features outstanding performances from Bulgaria’s leading actors. • Availability: April 12, New York City, Film Forum, and select theaters nationwide. Also available on DVD or streaming from Film Movement . • Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this email interview. • 

 

DT: Glory is based on a news story. In what ways did you change the original story to arrive at the final screenplay?

The moment that sets the story in motion.

The moment that sets the story in motion.

PV: A railway linesman did find a huge pile of cash spilled on the rails, he did return it to the police, and the transport ministry did award him for it with a new watch, which stopped working a few days later. Those are pretty much all of the “real” elements in the film. Everything else—the characters, the conflict, the resolution—is fictional.

 

DT: Both of your lead actors, Margita Gosheva amd Stefan Denolyubov, have extensive backgrounds in theater as well as film. As directors, how did you take advantage of their experience in the theater?

PV: Stefan and Margita are wonderful actors, very organic, intuitive and most of all self-critical. They put a lot of analysis into everything they do and never cease to explore new territory. Whether they gained these skills from theater or cinema, we don’t really know.

 

DT: Glory is the second film in a trilogy. Can you talk about the trilogy as a whole and how this fits into it?

PV: The word “trilogy” has a certain weight about it that really makes the whole idea sound much more conceptual than it is. Our basic idea was that these films are inspired by headlines in Bulgarian newspapers that have caught our attention over the years. That’s the unifying principle…plus the theme about the reversal of values and the absurdity of the reality we live in.

 

DT: This film reverses the roles that Gosheva and Denolyubov played in The Lesson [the first film in the trilogy], where he’s the bad guy and she’s the harrassed worker. Did they intentionally use that while working on this film?

Margita Gosheva as Julia Staykova in Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva’s GLORY. Courtesy of Film Movement.

Margita Gosheva as Julia Staykova in Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva’s GLORY. Courtesy of Film Movement.

PV: This idea came at a later stage of development. Initially [in Glory] it was supposed to be a male antagonist, but it all sounded quite bland, and then we had one of those “what if” moments when we imagined just how intriguing it would be if we used Stefan and Margita again, but with reversed polarities.

 

DT: I’m interested in your use of extreme close-ups throughout the film. Was that an aesthetic decision, or did it have a deeper motivation?

Stefan Denolyubov as Tzanko Petrov in Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva’s GLORY. Courtesy of Film Movement.

Stefan Denolyubov as Tzanko Petrov in Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva’s GLORY. Courtesy of Film Movement.

PV: We love the close-up because it gives a different scale even to the finest nuances in an actor’s expression. Although it’s mostly typical of the dramatic genre, the use of close-ups in a comic situation gives the scene a more special feel—the combination of drama and comedy.

 

DT: Denolyubov’s transformation at the end of the film was so radical that I sucked in my breath. How did you go about achieving the power of that moment?

PV: Makeup and camera angle.

KG: We are very grateful to our makeup artist Bistra Ketchedjieva for doing a great job for the scene. About how we got there: we discussed the transformation at length with Stefan. It was very important for us that it’s logical and not just there for the shocker effect. One of the things we did, however, was to keep it secret from Margita, so his transformation was a real surprise for her.

 

DT: What are the pitfalls and advantages of codirecting?

PV: We’ve been working together since long before Glory, so by now it’s become as natural as breathing. We started to help each other out while we were still students at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia. We found it to be so productive that we kept using the formula after graduating. We did a TV film, a documentary and then the short film Jump, which was successful enough to enable us to shoot our feature debut, The Lesson. When we work together, we’re much more confident and brave, and it’s also much more fun. It’s very important to have somebody next to you that both supports and provokes you.

 

DT: Glory is getting lots of notice internationally, but how was it received in Bulgaria?

PV: The reactions in Bulgaria are overwhelmingly positive—it seems like we managed to strike a chord. However, we still haven’t received feedback from any officials or institutions that might have potentially felt offended by the film.

KG: For better or worse though, this time we decided to distribute the film ourselves and you could say that we did that also on a low budget, just like the production itself. For a number of reasons we’re showing it only in small art-house cinemas, which means that not so many people have seen the film.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer/Joseph Cedar (director) and Richard Gere (actor)

Writer/Director Joseph Cedar Photo by Chris Saunders, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Writer/Director Joseph Cedar
Photo by Chris Saunders, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Norman fixes deals, but right now no one’s buying into his schemes, and no one needs his help. One day he meets Eshel, an Israeli politician who’s also down on his luck.  Moved by the possibility of helping out a fellow Jew, Norman does Eshel a favor: he buys Eshel an expensive pair of shoes. Three years later, Eshel becomes prime minister of Israel. Unable to forget Norman’s kindness, Eshel allows Norman to draw him into a crazy business deal, but when cries of corruption begin to sound, he’s forced to cut Norman loose. An atypical comedy with an off-type cast, Norman strikes an inventive comedic chord that will offend some and thrill others. To see the trailer, click here.  Availability: Opens 4/14 New York and L.A. Check local listings for a theater near you.  Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

DT: Norman isn’t the kind of character Richard usually plays. Richard, can you talk about acting off type, and Joseph, can you talk about directing an actor who’s playing off type?

RG: First of all, they’re all off type. There’s not a character that’s not off type, but this one’s further off than most. Part of the process with this one lay in the fact that he’s a totally unique character, and I didn’t want to play any cliches with him. Joseph didn’t want me to, either. I laughed about it, because Joseph was so nervous about this and wanted to get it right.

Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer Photo by Niko Tavernise, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer
Photo by Niko Tavernise, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

We had a lot of time; we spent eight or nine months, just talking, no pressure, Joseph bringing me slowly into his universe: the universe of the movie, the universe of this character, the universe of thousands of years of Jewish history, and emotions, and psychology. Narratives. It was perfect—I like to do things slowly that way, too. It gets deeper. Then, when you start making choices, you have a strong foundation, and it’s connected to something real, something authentic. That’s who we started to discover: the Norman in all of us, which was more important than being the Jewish Norman or the nebbish Norman, the whatever Norman.

DT: The Woody Allen Norman.

RG: The Woody Allen Norman, or even the Charlie Chaplin Norman. It was a matter of finding the emotion that we all have: that we want to belong. We want to be in.

JC: We mention Charlie Chaplin over and over again. I’ve always perceived the Little Tramp as a Jew, but it may be only the way I see it.

RG: Maybe. The Tramp’s always looking for a home.

JC: There’s something about his size, he’s everywhere the story needs him to be but never really welcome. Or it might have to do with his costume.

RG: He’s always on the road, isn’t he? Things don’t work out, and he’s got to get back on the road.

 

DT: Joseph, you’ve said at a number of Q&As and interviews that the character of Norman is based on the historical figure of the court Jew, of whom there are a number of specific examples throughout history. But I found that your Norman reflects not only one type of Jew but Jews as a race as well, with a history of assimilation, contribution, and expulsion.

That’s not a funny subject, but I found your movie hysterical. I was wondering if you dropped the character of Norman into the context of Israeli/American-Jewish politics to put a comedic spin on a subject that’s really not very funny.

Left to right: Michael Sheen as Philip Cohen, Lior Ashkenazi as Micha Eshel and Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right:
Michael Sheen as Philip Cohen, Lior Ashkenazi as Micha Eshel and Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer
Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

JC: At the end, the subject is detached from the work itself. Norman is an individual person, and working with Richard on this character was not about anything but Norman at a specific time. Every scene had its own emotional truth to it for Norman. Everything else is either something that had to do with my intentions before the movie got off the ground or, now that it’s made, talking to journalists. The work itself was finding the human need in every situation that was specific for Norman. I don’t think I understood Norman the way I did after these conversations with Richard. We came to the set knowing something about how Norman functions that I didn’t know while I was working on the script.

RG: I was asking questions on a lot of levels that a Jewish actor probably would not have asked.

DT: My guess is that you were asking acting questions that an actor of any faith would ask, which a non-actor would not.

RG: Yes, they were acting questions, but there’s a mysterious process that starts between a director, especially a writer/director, and an actor. You know that everything you do from the moment you meet to talk about the project is rehearsing. Every second. I don’t care if you’re ordering a burger, you’re walking down the street, you’re watching TV. I don’t care what it is; you’re rehearsing. You’re working on the project. We danced through that in a very leisurely way—not without intensity, but it was leisurely because of the eight or nine months we had before we started shooting.

Left to right: Richard Gere and Writer/Director Joseph Cedar Niko Tavernise, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Richard Gere and Writer/Director Joseph Cedar
Niko Tavernise, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

JC: It’s a great period, because you start seeing everything through the filter of what understanding Norman requires. So suddenly everything that I encounter has, in some way, an echo: If I bring it up with Richard in our next conversation, it will help us uncover something in Norman. For instance—and there are many examples like the one I’m about to give you—Norman name-drops all the time. Now, people around us always name-drop, but if you try to figure out when someone drops a name, it always reveals something about the situation that he’s in, something about what he’s trying to achieve, something about the personality of the person who feels that he needs to use someone else’s name in order to gain entrance into a certain situation. Just using that example, you can take every scene in the movie and see where Norman decides to say “I know this person” or when he decides to mention that he’s married. It always comes at a point where if he wouldn’t do that—and this is intuitive for Norman—he’d probably be pushed away. Finding that mechanism in Norman and then finding how to make it feel intuitive for Richard in any given scene was almost like rewriting the script. It’s understanding everything through the eyes of an actor who has to believe what’s happening.

DT:  Was this a different process from working with other actors?

JC: Every process with an actor is always different, and every actor approaches the character differently. This process had more influence on the script than I’ve had in the past. There were things that came up in our conversation that affected the script…and affected the whole journey that Norman goes through. One of the things that came from Richard was a discussion around what desire or wanting is. I always perceived Norman as someone who wants more than either he can deserve or he can handle. It’s like someone at a great restaurant ordering more than he’ll ever need, either because he wants to taste everything and he’s just eager to be making the most out of this great restaurant, or because he’s afraid someone will take it from him and he needs extra. I think Richard’s understanding of wanting is very different from Norman’s understanding. Norman is constantly wanting more than he needs, and every time he gets what he thinks he wants, he immediately wants the next thing. Part of what happens to Norman over this film is that at a certain point he stops wanting. The third act is about him not wanting anymore, and that’s something that came out of Richard and came out of his understanding of Norman’s journey.

 

DT: We all know the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Do you think that applies to Norman?

RG: I think there’s no dark intent in him at all. I keep saying there’s no Iago in him. He could never play Iago. He doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have anger. He doesn’t have resentment. He can’t afford that, and he’s found a way that that instinct has been muted in him, in a genuine way. It’s just not there. I think he genuinely wants everyone to have everything, and he found a way to do it by the end of the movie. Including himself. Everyone got what they wanted.

SPOILER ALERT

DT: But Norman essentially commits suicide in the end.

RG: He found a way to get what he wanted: He was essential. He was essential. And he delivered happiness to everybody. And he was anonymous, like in the last frame of the picture.

END SPOILER ALERT

Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer Photo by Chris Saunders, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer
Photo by Chris Saunders, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

JC: But judging things morally by only intention is always problematic. Bad things can happen with good intentions. I occasionally witness someone doing something that I think is conniving—for example, someone sneaks his way into an event that I’ve arranged and I’m upset that he’s there; that happens every once in a while. How bad can the intentions be when someone sneaks into someone else’s dinner uninvited? Even if it’s not nice, it’s not evil. Still, I’d tend to be really upset at that person: how dare you do that? But most likely if I’m in his shoes, his intentions are probably reasonable, and I shouldn’t be as upset as I am at him. The way people deal with Norman challenges the way I deal with some of the situations in my life that are close to what Norman does. Seeing someone try to take a piece of what’s mine for whatever reason is aggravating, but I don’t think it almost ever comes from a bad intention.

 

DT: I’d like to draw a comparison between this film and another Israeli film, Ephraim Kishon’s film Sallah Shabati.  In Kishon’s film, there’s a scene where a big American car drives up to the forest where Sallah is planting a tree paid for by donations from American Jews. Over the forest is a big sign that says The Goldberg Forest. The Goldbergs get out of their big car, look at their forest, and leave. Then you hear the sound of another car. Before it arrives, the  Goldberg Forest sign is replaced by a sign that says The Rosenstein Forest. The Rosensteins get out, look at their forest—the same forest—and leave.  In the space of that one scene, I suddenly understood the Israeli view of American Jews like me, little kids in Hebrew school walking up to the front of the classroom to drop their quarter in the blue-and-white charity box.

As an American Jew, I never imagined that Israelis could be making fun of me. I had that same moment in Norman with the travel posters…suddenly that whole thing opened up for me again, thirty years later—that experience of This is how I look to an Israeli.

Left to right: Dan Stevens as Bill Kavish, Harris Yulin as Jo Wilf and Steve Buscemi as Rabbi Blumenthal Photo by Yaron Scharf, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Dan Stevens as Bill Kavish, Harris Yulin as Jo Wilf and Steve Buscemi as Rabbi Blumenthal
Photo by Yaron Scharf, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

JC: There’s another side to it. The American who’s giving money to plant the tree doesn’t really care what’s being planted in Israel. He’s just happy that his check is doing something for his conscience. He’s happy about that, and Israelis can do whatever they want with that check. As long as the American thinks there’s a tree and he has that picture in his mind, he’s happy.

DT: So what’s the difference with Norman?

JC: Norman feels that he’s doing something that is good for Israel, and doing something good for Israel is huge. That’s being part of history. Whether he is or not doesn’t make a difference. That’s his sense. He’s almost messianic.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Heal the Living/Katell Quillevere

Heal the Living director Katell Quillévéré. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Heal the Living director Katell Quillévéré.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

When a young teenager is left brain-dead after a car accident, his parents agree to donate his powerful heart to a a sickly middle-aged mother. The story line deftly weaves together the lives of donor, recipient, and the doctors who bring them together, but beneath the story line lies a tender homage to the wonders of our earthly existence, pulsing with vibrant life.  Availability: Opens April 14, New York City, Quad Cinema. To see the trailer, click here. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: As you watch certain films, you slowly become aware that they’re about something else—something far beyond what’s happening on the screen. Heal the Living is such a film.  My question to you is this:  How do you accomplish something so ephemeral? Through working with the actors? Through intention? Through the editing process?

KQ: In this film, the big question for me behind the story of organ donation and the transfer of life is the question of the link between human beings; the larger idea of taking part in a family or a community, like the hospital. Hiding the link influenced me in every step of the process of the film, even in directing and choosing my actors. I chose them as a team, a collective, based on the diversity of their physical aspects, their appearance, the different movies they’d made, famous not famous, professional or not, because I wanted the casting to be an image of the diversity of society.

Emmanuelle Seigner as “Marianne” (left) and Kool Shen as “Vincent” (right) in Heal the Living directed by Katell Quillévéré. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Emmanuelle Seigner as “Marianne” (left) and Kool Shen as “Vincent” (right) in Heal the Living
directed by Katell Quillévéré.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

In my work with them, I helped them understand that the goal was not their own performance but the fact that they were participating in a story that was stronger than them, so they had to be generous and focused on more than what was crossing their own paths. And it was a good way also for them to forget themselves. In France, many of them are really famous, like Emmanuelle Seigner, Tahar Rahim, Anne Dorval, and you discover them as characters, not as actors. This was difficult, as there were no main actors and they don’t appear til later in the film, but that was the big challenge: to forget them as actors. One of my techniques was to bring them into the reality of the story. I asked all of them to work at the hospital. They were trained by real doctors, surgeons, nurses, and we really loved that. It was a great experience for them to discover their characters, in the medical way but also in the emotional way, and I think you can tell that in the movie.

 

DT: Absolutely. Can you talk about mise-en-scene, also from the same perspective.

KQ: How to build on the question of the link was trying to figure out what the movie looked like with my camera operator. We wanted to define the camera’s figure of the movie. The metaphoric figure of the movie was a circle, so we wanted to move this into life, to the center of life, not at the end of the line, like the caboose on a train. We wanted to put it inside to show how it even engenders life, so we built the aesthetic effect of the movie in echoes, from the center of the movie, which is when the heart recipient is in bed with the woman who is her lover.

Titouan Alda as “Johan” (left) and Gabin Verdet as “Simon” (right) in Heal the Living directed by Katell Quillévéré. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Titouan Alda as “Johan” (left) and Gabin Verdet as “Simon” (right) in Heal the Living
directed by Katell Quillévéré.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

From there, we worked it in echoes. For example, at the beginning of the film [when the boys are returning home after surfing but before the accident that renders Simon brain-dead], there’s a shot of   the two teenagers in the car falling asleep head to head.  You can find this image at the end of the movie, with the two young sons waiting to see if their mother, the heart recipient, has survived surgery. Another example: the movie starts with two faces, of two teenagers in bed. One is falling asleep, the other [the organ donor] is watching her, and it’s exactly the same image as the organ recipient and her girlfriend in bed, so there are a lot of examples like that, symmetrical to the center of the movie, to create this organic aspect, this feeling of human connection, finding the link, looking for a link to each other all the time.

We also found that the traveling movement of the camera was like the DNA of the film, the filmmaker always traveling, irrigating the movie like the blood in the veins of the body. When it comes time to fixate it, it’s a series of steps until the intensity arrives, and then when the decisions are made [to give the organ or to accept the donation], movement comes back into the movie.

 

DT: Can you talk about the editing process, addressing the same question?

KQ: For me the question of editing is a question of writing the movie. You always write a movie three times; the script, the shooting, and the editing, and it’s always the same question: Informing. The big question while editing this film was the balance between the major plot line and telling the story from one body to another, from death to life, and also the detours the movie had to make to bring humanity inside this story, which helped every character have his own singularity.

It also meant that everyone’s smallest gesture had an influence on the big picture, as it does in life, working with the way that we are constantly influenced by the gestures and the decisions of others and that we are linked together. That balance was really difficult to get; it was our big goal for the success of our movie, for making the movie function.

 Gabin Verdet as “Simon” (left) and Tahar Rahim as “Thomas Rémige” (right) in Heal the Living directed by Katell Quillévéré. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group


Gabin Verdet as “Simon” (left) and Tahar Rahim as “Thomas Rémige” (right) in Heal the Living
directed by Katell Quillévéré.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

DT: What gestures in particular?

KQ: I paid attention to gestures during the whole movie. The way the surfers dressed, the way they put on their wet suits, the way they took care of their surfboards, how the doctors washed up in the hospital, how they took care of a body. In a way it’s really how these gestures, which are all part of what human capabilities are, are responsible for helping lives to continue.

 

DT: I love the way that you approached objects. Some critics called it very clinical, but I found the shot of the blood pumping during the surgery to be one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen.

KQ: All through the movie we tried to film objects in their metaphoric aspect. There are a lot of tubes and wires in this film. The tubes are things that link people to each other, but there are also tunnels, like when you see the teenager biking through a tunnel. All these tunnels and tubes are all linked from one to another, like the veins inside the body.

 

DT: There are a lot of dangers in making a film like this one, which is so sweeping and has such a wide perspective. Can you talk about your greatest fears in making this film and the dangers that you had to avoid?

Anne Dorval as “Claire Méjean” in Heal the Living directed by Katell Quillévéré.

Anne Dorval as “Claire Méjean” in Heal the Living
directed by Katell Quillévéré.

KQ: You’re right—you have fears when you’re making a movie. One of our biggest fears concerned the emotions, the feelings. I really didn’t want the movie to be over the top in the sense that the viewer becomes hostage to the emotional situation that is portrayed. And the idea of how to view the subject of death without being morbid—going beyond that was something that really obsessed me.

 

DT: What difficulties did you encounter in adapting Maylis De Karangal’s novel?

KQ: The first was the whole issue of temporality and time in a film versus a book. In a book you can move forward and backward in time, you can be in the present, you can go back in the characters’ memories, and also to their future hopes. In cinema you can’t do that. You’re much more in the present moment in film, so that was really one of the challenges.

The other was the thoughts of the organ recipient. Her character is not really developed in the novel, but I felt that it was really important to develop her character to give balance and symmetry with the figure of the donor.

Gabin Verdet as “Simon” (left) and Galatéa Bellugi as “Juliette” (right) in Heal the Living directed by Katell Quillévéré. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Gabin Verdet as “Simon” (left) and Galatéa Bellugi as “Juliette” (right) in Heal the Living
directed by Katell Quillévéré.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

DT: How did you use the score?

KQ: One of the challenges with the score was to find music that would enable me to find the organic dimension of the film and to define it. It’s a choral film with many characters, and what was important was that the link between the characters be defined. One of the roles of the music was to help those links become more evident. I worked with Alexandre Desplat because he’s a melodic genius, and he was very, very good at finding the appropriate melody to bring these things out.

 

DT: When you watch the finished film, how do you feel?

KQ: Whenever I finish a film, I look at it and I’m really happy because I know that in the process of making it I’ve gone as far as I can and I’ve done as much as I can. At that moment when it’s all done I really feel a sense of happiness, but later on, when I have a chance to take a few steps back and I see how others react to it and what others’ impressions were, then doubts begin to arrive.

DT: You shouldn’t have any doubts about this one. Thank you for making this film.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Power to Change/Carl Fechner

Director Carl Fechner.© change filmverleih

Director Carl Fechner.© change filmverleih

In Power to Change, filmmaker and journalist Carl Fechner issues an open invitation to people around the world: Come join the energy rebellion.  Fechner speaks with members of Parliament, students, inventors, investors, and ordinary folks who understand the crisis of climate change and implement solutions in their own lives, from fighting for energy independence to reducing their personal carbon footprint through simple energy-saving techniques at home. Come: Join the energy rebellion. It’s an invitation we can’t afford to refuse. To learn how you can join the energy rebellion, visit the film’s website  Availability: Sunshine Cinema, New York City, April 5 and 6. Thanks to Thessa Mooij and Laura Schwab, Silversalt PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: What do you mean by “energy rebellion”?

CF: It means that people take power in their own hands. They make their own decisions to change to 100 percent renewable energy. They don’t wait for big companies with lots of money to do it—they decide to produce energy efficiently on their own. They decide to heat with solar collectors. All of these things, which everybody can do without the government, without laws: That’s what I call energy revolution, or energy rebellion.

 

DT: In the film, you present a selection of people who are participating in the energy rebellion, as well as the solutions they’re choosing, such as collective battery storage facilities, transport mobility, skysails, energy efficiency training.

A wind turbine in Germany.

A wind turbine in Germany.

CF: People know more about the problems than about the solutions. We know about all those catastrophes, but we don’t focus on the fact that there are lots of possibilities for everybody to solve the problem. We have this climate catastrophe coming up—the water level is rising, we already have more than 20 million refugees in Europe because of climate change. I don’t want to deny that, but the most important part is that people get the idea in their hearts, in their heads, that they can solve the problem, that they are responsible for their lives. Those are the prototypes of people we chose to be in the film, out of more than a thousand examples we found during our year of research. Our subjects all had ideas focusing on fighting for justice and fighting for nature. We chose people you could recognize anywhere. When we showed the film in Iran, people came up to me after the Q&A and said, “The guy in your film is like my brother” or “I am like him” or “He is like me.” It was very touching for me because we saw that this idea was starting to take hold. We showed this film in 350 cities in Germany, and you could see the people reacting.

To answer your question about solutions, you see a broad range in the film. In Berlin you see a man working as an energy efficiency expert [going to people’s apartments and analyzing how they can save money by using energy more efficiently]. He’s living on 380 euros a month, he’s very poor, but he’s fully engaged in this energy efficiency job because it gives him new courage and new ideas. For me, he was one of the most important.

 

DT: One of the solutions I found the most interesting was in Bordesholm, where they’re making their town completely energy independent, which seems to be the essence of what you’re talking about—people taking energy independence into their own hands, which is actually happening in Germany.

CF: It is happening. We’ve already changed our energy production, so that 33 percent of the electricity is coming out of renewable energy. This is only working because of the engagement of private people and small companies. The big international companies we have here in Germany, RWE or ENVW, have only 7 percent investment in renewables. Seven. So more than 2.5 billion euros in the past eight or ten years is coming out of normal people, with a little bit from the investment sector. That means a lot of people are changing their behavior, for example, not eating so much meat or flying less. It’s a movement in general society. In my company, for example, we don’t fly in the country anymore. Tomorrow I’m giving a keynote speech in Berlin. I’ll drive my electric car to the station in Stuttgart, where I’ll take the train, which gets me to Berlin in six hours. Before I always flew.

 

DT: In the United States, Germany, and the Ukraine, fossil fuel industries have been the major source of funding for totalitarian regimes, but energy independence would completely change international geopolitics. Can you talk about the effect of energy independence on global relations, as it was presented in the film?

CF: That’s why we selected Ukraine. Most people don’t know very much about the background of that war.  In the east of Ukraine they have very big coal mines; nearly 90 percent of the energy used in Ukraine, which is a rather big country, comes out of that region. The war is about that, among other things. Their movement for energy independence is growing bigger and bigger; the minister of the environment says they could be energy independent [from Russia].

At the moment they are codependent not only on Russia but on other countries too. There are lots of American companies, for example, that are already involved in fracking there. That’s what it means to be dependent. For example, Germany at the moment is dependent on Turkey, that’s why we are so soft on Erdogan. Dependence is always a problem, especially if you are dependent on power for electricity and heating. Years ago people were dying in Ukraine because of lack of gas when Russia stopped gas imports into the country. Energy autonomy would have a very big role in the war, and that’s why we say in the film that it’s a very important subject for peacemaking.

 

DT: One of the people you profile in your film is Mr. Roughani, a wealthy businessman who’s considering joining the energy rebellion by remodeling his company.

Roughani, a wealthy businessman who's turning his company green.

Roughani, a wealthy businessman who’s turning his company green.

CF: In 2015, we had more than a million refugees in Germany. Chancellor Merkel said, “OK, we got it, no problem,” and she’s right. For all the trouble that causes, we’re very happy about people like Mr. Roughani, who’s a refugee from Iran, and Anya, from the Ukraine, who have come to us and are now part of the solution. Mr. Roughani is a rich young man who’s decided to take his business more and more down a renewable energy path. He’s changing not only his company but his personal behavior as well.

 

DT: In order to get people on board the energy rebellion, they have to understand the problem of climate change, but many people say it’s simply too big to grasp. As I was watching your film, I was struck by an analogy that might be useful: we’re like a person who has a heart attack, who’s told that he must change his diet if he wants to survive.  It seems like a useful image because everyone can understand it. And the fact of the matter is that  unless we change our energy diet, we’re not going to survive as a species.

CF: The image of a heart attack is right, and there are many good reasons to change. Unfortunately there are many very powerful people, rich people, who are fighting against that. They’re fighting against their personal health, if you stay with your image.

This struggle  is not over at all—it’s getting even more difficult. In my previous film, The Fourth Revolution: Energy (2010), we interviewed Hermann Scheer [Member of the German Parliament, President of the European Association for Renewable Energy EUROSOLAR, Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy WCRE]. Ten years ago, he said, “We have 5 percent renewable energy, we want to take it up to 10 percent.” Today we’re starting at 33 percent. The big companies, as well as the part of the government that is dependent on these big companies, are really losing money. That’s why this fight is harder, that’s why we speak now about resistance: we really have to fight for all that. Perhaps it is a final fight.

Nuclear plant.

Nuclear plant.

We would like to leave atomic power in Germany, but in France they have more than 80 percent of their energy produced by atomic power. We have a long way to go, but we don’t have the time for that. In Germany and other industrial countries we have to go down to 0 carbonization, 0 production, by 2040. If not, the planet will heat by two degrees. That means we have only 23 years. That’s very close. That’s why we say it requires a big change in people’s minds, in their self-definitions. That’s why we speak about a revolution—an energy rebellion.

 

DT: You’re truly talking about a worldwide revolution of values, of lifestyles, of a way of relating to each other.

CF: Yes. That is what we’re thinking about, and that means that we have to change our focus. These are personal decisions.  I wanted to stop making films after making The Fourth Revolution, but there was a lot of interest in this film. People say that the energy revolution is working.

We need to make personal decisions in our hearts. That’s why we made this film. We didn’t just share optimistic people with good solutions—we issued an invitation to everybody to be part of this movement, because I think it’s better to invite people than to shock them.

 

DT: The United States has a president who wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, which is headed by Scott Pruitt, who doesn’t even believe that climate change is man-made. How big a threat is that to the global situation, and also to the energy revolution?

CF: In the beginning, many people were really frustrated about the election in America, especially when we saw that he’s not only talking about what he calls change but doing it.  But now we see here that people are beginning to realize they have to fight for their ideas. If they don’t, they’ll get a situation like America. So there’s increased resistance, and perhaps that’s a good message that we have from this man. Never again, an election like that. However, in Switzerland, for example, people had a referendum about stopping atomic power at once or in ten years, and they voted for ten years, so we don’t have to look as far away as America to see people deciding something strange. But never give up, never give up the movement, especially when you’re tired.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Uncertain/Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol

When documentary filmmakers Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol set out for Uncertain, Texas, population 94, they thought they were going to make a comic short film.  It took only a day to obliterate their misconception.  Over the next year and a half, they got to know–and film–three of the town’s citizens:  Wayne, a Native American  fixated on catching a boar he’s nicknamed “Mr. Ed”; Henry, an aging fisherman intent on marrying a thirty-something gold digger; and Zack, an alcoholic diabetic desperate to escape Uncertain and its promise of perpetual poverty.  Against this human landscape, the lake on which they all depend for food is being choked by salvinia, an invasive weed, which can only be stopped by introducing weevils into the ecosystem. In lesser hands, Uncertain would seem like chaos.  Under the direction of Sandilands and McNicol, Uncertain is a masterpiece of compassionate perception.  Winner of the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Click here for trailer.  Availability:  March 9, 2017 at the MoMA and IFP Made in NY Media Center in New York, plus limited theatrical release across the US and London; click here for theater listings near you; March 17th on iTunes (pre-order March 2) and VOD.  Thanks to Russ Posternak, Murphy PR, and Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview, and Kellyn Holmes, Prodigy PR, for arranging the reprint.

 

DT:  I was incredibly moved by your film. That being said, how did you find this place?  As the sheriff said in the film, “You either have to know where you’re going or be lost to find it.”

AS:  We were in Lafayette, Louisiana, making a short film called The Roper.  On the map we saw this town called Uncertain about four hours away, and we thought, How does a town get a name like that?  So we carved out a couple of days to go and see what it was all about, with that idea in mind:  to make a short film about how a town gets a name.

EM:  We drove into town and saw the sign that said Uncertain, Population 94, and the Church of Uncertain, and we thought, OK, this is going to be a comedy. When we said we wanted to go fishing, they told us, You’ve got to go out with Henry, he’s the best fisherman on the lake.  It was a misty morning, and he kind of appeared out of the mist, almost like Charon, the boatman.

AS:  The opening you see in the film was our first day there.

Henry.

Henry.

EM: It felt like we had jumped back to a different time and place, and we were captivated by it. We didn’t really understand a lot of what Henry was saying at first, cause it took a while to learn to speak Henry, as we say. [He has a very heavy accent and is subtitled in the film.] The next day, we went out filming with Wayne, the hog hunter. We asked why he shoots with powder guns, and he said, I can tell you the truth, or I can tell you what I tell everyone else. We asked him to tell us the truth, and he very quickly opened up in this incredibly graceful and candid way and told us about his past and being a convicted felon. That night, just two days into filming, we realized there was something incredible here and this was not just a short film; this was something bigger. We returned soon after that and continued filming on and off for a year and a half.  For about eight months, we weren’t sure what the story was.  We were in limbo, like all the characters in this film, not knowing how we were tying them together.  In some form or another they were all looking for some kind of recovery or forgiveness, but we weren’t sure how they were all going to fit together. Then this weed appeared, and it was like a mirror to their stories, so we realized that was how we were going to tie this together.

AS:  But for a long time all we knew was that we had these great men and this great place and it was worth following on that alone.

 

DT:  Why were they so open to sharing their stories with you?

Wayne.

Wayne.

AS:  We have no idea.  It was a complete act of courage on their part to agree to open up to us. In Wayne’s case, I think he was ready to unburden himself.  He’d been through a lot of work privately on letting go and forgiving himself. Our initial interest was in his hog hunting. That was the reason we were getting together that first day, but he ended up telling us about this tragedy, and we asked if he would be OK with us learning more about it.  He was uncomfortable. A few days later, he asked us why we were interested, and I said, Because we can’t reconcile the man you are today with the man who did these things. That’s why he knew he could trust us: because we could see the good man he is today, he could trust us with the past.

EM:  Everyone was incredibly open.  I’m obviously English, so I’m even more of an outsider.

AS:  They kept saying to him, “You’re not from around here, boy, are you?”

EM: But the fourth, the fifth, the sixth time we returned, some of the people who were unsure of us realized we were investing in them and the town, and I think at that point they realized they could trust us.

AS:  The other thing that attracted us immediately was that the town really seemed to care about each other. They’re a very tight unit in a lot of ways, and that’s something you don’t get in most communities.  They also live much closer to the land and rely on it. We were enchanted by that, and that’s another reason we felt like we were going back in time.  These are ideals we had as Americans fifty years ago that we’ve lost quite a lot of today, and to see it still very much alive and well in Uncertain was another reason that we immediately bonded.

 

DT:  I was really struck by the difference between their relationship to the land and my own.  When Wayne was talking about killing all these hogs, my reaction, as a city person, was, Oh my God, you can’t kill all these innocent animals.  But Wayne had a global view of things; if you kill Mr. Ed, that will allow other animals to come in.  They might have no problem ripping the skin off a dead animal, but they have a love for nature the rest of us don’t.

EM:  With Wayne, the hog hunter, that was part of the complexity in his character. He was very spiritual about taking an animal’s life, and every part of that animal will be used and eaten—you make dog treats, tan the hide, make necklaces from the teeth—so for him taking a life was not just about eating and it wasn’t just sport. It was the whole spiritual process, and that for us was really intriguing. At first it’s hard watching an animal being killed and gutted, but when you hear how he thinks about it, the whole cycle of life becomes complete.

DT: It also rounds him out as a person.

AS:  Absolutely. That was one of the things about all of them. We talked quite a lot about this when we were editing the film; we wanted people to follow the same path of getting to know the town and getting to know these people that we took—you come in very much as an outsider, you think you know who you’re looking at, you think you’ve got them pegged, and in fact they’re very surprising, deep people.

EM: Thoughtful.

 

DT:  As an audience member, I found myself going through various stages:  at first, this place was so foreign that I had to pretend it was another country.  Then I struggled to overcome my stereotypes about these people, and finally I was stunned by the fullness of their dignity. I think that evolution was the result of your slow reveal.  Can you talk about how you built the characters through editing?

Zack.

Zack.

AS:  One of the first things we agreed on in the early, nervous days of editing was that we wanted to approach it as you would a tale. Tales don’t have fact, detail, so when we were talking about the lake’s ecology, we didn’t want too much scientific detail. We wanted people to be somewhat disoriented about where they are and who’s who.  You only hear each character’s name one time, buried in the context of a scene, so we knew right away that we wanted that to be the overarching frame. In terms of the slow reveal, it was a lot about our own process of getting to know each one of them. We also knew we wanted each of their storylines to feather into one moment where they all turn together at the same point in time. So even though Henry’s story is a historical one, and Wayne’s is past and present, and Zack’s is very much present, we wanted them to all pull together in that one central moment.

EM: At the beginning of the film, there’s no dialogue for five or six minutes. You have these preconceived ideas about this hunter in a tree or that fisherman. You think you have ideas of who this person is. That’s probably what we had in the beginning, and we wanted you to go on the journey that we did. Try and change the perceptions of who these men are.

 

DT:  The approach really worked.  Let’s talk about the final shot.  For me it did two things:  It pulled all the threads of the story together into one tale about the mighty human struggle to correct the wrongs we inflict on the universe, including ourselves. It also transformed the film into an existential work about the human condition as revealed through these three characters.  Am I reading too much into it?  After all, it was just a shot of weevils eating a weed.

AS:  That was a very purposeful choice. You’re not reading too much into it at all. I’m glad you saw it, I’m glad that all came out for you.  We also felt like that was the one moment, hopefully the only moment, where our signature as filmmakers appears.

EM: It’s a very editorial choice. We spent a lot of time debating whether we should end on the lake. Some people see the weevils as evil creatures, and other people have watched and said they’re just kind of disgusting. For us this is a sign of hope, that nature can rebalance nature, that whatever man does to create the imbalance, nature will eventually find a way, with or without man, of rebalancing things. It leaves the film in this state of uncertainty, and that for us was where we wanted to leave the film.

DT:  But also redemption.

EM:  Yes, redemption is out there. These men who are looking for forgiveness can forgive themselves, and perhaps the town can solve these ecological problems.

 

DT: Talk about your use of music.  I especially loved the music with the raccoon party.

EM:  We didn’t want to go down the path of choosing typically East Texan music, because we saw this film as a tale, as a universal story.  It takes place in a very specific part of the world, but the stories are very universal, so musically we felt like we didn’t want to choose music from that area. We didn’t want to lead the audience.  We wanted the picture and the story to lead the audience and the music to supplement, so we were trying to be as restrained as we could with the music.  Our composer, Daniel Hart, lives in Dallas, but he’s an extraordinary musician, playing the violin and banjo himself.

AS:  We learned a great lesson from the director Ross McElwee.  The Sundance Edit and Story lab invited us with the film, and on one of our first days sitting down and working with Ross, he said, What would happen if you took away all the music you have now and then just carefully, slowly, put it back?  Not only did that inform our decisions about how to open the film without music but it also made us much, much more discerning about where to put it back in.

DT:  So initially you had a lot more music?

EM:  A lot more.

AS:  When you’re nervous about how much of a film you’ve got, you think you can put music in to glue it together. But he said, No, you’ve got the film, take away, take away, take away.

 

DT:  When you worked up the characters in editing, did you develop each one the same way, or did you vary between them?

AS:  We used Wayne and the hog hunting as the first spine of the film because his hunt for Mr. Ed was the most consistently linear story. Then came this story arc with the lake, with the salvinia and the weevils. Again, we wanted to anchor all of them in the same turning point in the film, where they each have that heavy inflection point, so it was really about building up and around to that moment and then back out from there.

 

DT:  What do you hope to achieve with your studio, Lucid Inc.?

AS:  For us as documentary filmmakers, we’re most attracted to people, to human beings, to characters. In the world of documentary today, there is so much focus on issue-based films, or films with an agenda. We are not those types of filmmakers.  We want to continue to pursue the types of stories that Uncertain is. It may make us outlyers in the world of documentary, but we’re OK with that.

 

DT:  I’m sure it won’t. If this is what you can do, I can’t imagine what your career trajectory is going to be like.  Which brings us to the next question:  What’s your next project?

EM:  We can’t talk in real detail because we haven’t locked in yet, but it’s going to involve being in one place again. We’re always drawn to the landscape and the people. Both have to be equally powerful.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

Land of Mine/Martin Zandvliet

Convinced the Allies were going to launch their European invasion through Denmark, the Germans laid more than two million landmines under the Danish coast during WWII. When Germany surrendered in 1945, German POWs were put to work clearing the mines from the coast. Director Martin Zandvliet uses this little-known bit of history to explore the emotional horrors that war forces upon us–and which we subsequently force on each other–as Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen commands German boys as young as fifteen years old to march onto the beach to near certain death. Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. •Availability: Opens February 10 in New York and L.A., with national rollout to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Click here for trailer. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Tell me a little bit about the real-life boys who had to clear the mines.

MZ: In my view, they were innocent boys who were brainwashed into joining a war that was started by adults. That’s why it’s so difficult for Carl [the Danish sergeant in charge of forcing the boys to clear the mines] to get his anger away: because they’re boys.

 

DT: There are many different ways of telling any story, but the story as you told it had a very delicate feeling, much of it coming from the cinematography. Tell me why you wanted to go for that rather than some other way of telling the story.

MZ: I’m very much inspired by movies from the ’60s and ’70s. I’m probably stuck there. I’m in love with characters and natural light. My wife, who’s my cinematographer, feels the same way: we wanted to portray the beauty in the darkness. It was mankind ruining nature and not the other way around. The beaches should look beautiful and underneath was the danger. I used to work as an editor, and I always  like to keep the cut as long as possible, to make the feeling last longer. I think this movie needed that touch of beauty; otherwise it would have been unbearable to watch. That’s why we chose that approach.

DT: Which films from the ’60s?

MZ: Everything from Cassavetes, Lenny, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Marathon Man—all the classical ones.

DT: American films.

MZ: It’s always been American films, funny enough. I loved when in the ’60s you had the closeup and the characters came out of the screen. In the ’50s it was always half tonals and you didn’t really relate to the characters, but then psychotherapy overtook New York, and character was interesting and demons were interesting and all the things you had inside yourself were allowed to come out. You could see that in film because suddenly the lenses moved closer to the face. That’s the place where I still am. I think that’s what’s interesting. That’s what got lost through the ’80s and the ’90s, and it’s still lost in a lot of action movies. I need characters to tell the story; in film, it’s one of the most important things.

 

DT: Characters are certainly critical to this film. You created a very interesting combination of historical fact and very, very raw emotion. That’s always tricky. Can you talk about maintaining that very fine balance between fact and fiction?

MZ: It is very difficult. When the film came out in Denmark, it got the best reviews, people ran to see it. But the historians also came out. They said, “Oh, you’re tricking a little bit with history here.” For instance, the death march [boys were forced to walk over the beach to set off unexploded mines] was actually something they were forced to do from the beginning, but I used it as an element of Carl’s anger, which I think I’m allowed to do.

DT: If you had invented it, it would have been one thing…

MZ: Exactly. That was in the fine balance of tricks I used: how to disarm a mine, how many mines, etc. I think it’s important that as a director I don’t just seek to tell the true; I also have the responsibility of entertaining. People pay ten or fifteen dollars to go watch a movie and they shouldn’t walk out thinking they’ve watched the History Channel. They should walk out thinking they’ve watched a film. They actually were entertained. They should laugh or tear up or have some kind of emotion and learn something at the same time.

There are a lot of things about this movie that was a fine balance, such as not portraying the Germans as innocent victims. I gave them horrible backstories even though they may look innocent. I was very much afraid that this was just going to be a movie about the good Germans. It wasn’t really about that; it was about the fact that they were too young. This was the dilemma Carl was caught up in: what to do with his hate. Is it OK to hate that much? Is it natural, or should we get rid of it somehow? What is the right response to something like this? What happens in the aftermath of war?

 

DT: But the horrible backstories didn’t come out in the film, and the boys do come off as innocent victims. In fact, at one point, one Dane says of them, “These boys didn’t know anything.” But in terms of actual history, these boys definitely knew what the Nazis were doing.

MZ: I totally agree. And in that matter they’re not innocent. But I think that if you’re seven or eight years old when the war starts—six years old, some of them—you’re an easy target. You’re brainwashed. It’s like being the son of a man from Aryan Nation. I don’t think it’s fair to blame them; I think we should have treated them better. We definitely should have let them disarm the mines and clean the beach because they were Germans, but we should have helped them better. Fed them, taught them how to disarm the mines. Whether they knew or not is not what the film is about. It’s about the eye-for-an-eye mentality not working. It never helped anybody. It’s about the payback time.

Look at where the world is now. Full of fear. It’s terrible. You think we can just bomb and do people harm and it’s going to be a better world? No, it’s not. We need to see each other as individuals and treat each other better. I’m not saying we should all hug each other and then it will be hunky-dory, but I definitely feel that when people get together, we find out that maybe we’re not that different after all and we all have the same needs. That’s also the point of the movie. Something went terribly wrong in Europe, and we have to make sure that it never happens again. It’s seventy years since the war, and I’m getting a little scared when I see what’s going on here. We’re building walls and Europe is building borders and we won’t let Syrian refugees in because they’re apparently all terrorists. Jesus Christ. It reminds me of what happened once, and that’s terrible. So for me it’s a movie about not letting fear and hate control us.

SPOILER ALERT

MZ: That’s why I let the boys go in the end, because I need to believe that we as humans have something beautiful in us. That’s why I chose a fictionalized ending, because in real life they were all stuck there until the bitter end.

DT: It was a very emotionally satisfying ending. Not because it was a “Happy Ending” but because had Carl been a German living in Germany, that would have been the moral question he would have faced: Do you do the right thing even if it puts your life in peril? So his moral quandary transcended the border into the very country he detested; it should have been the boys’ moral quandary. I found that fascinating.

MZ: There was a version of the script where they all just died, but it was too tough. I couldn’t bear it. Then we might as well give up as humans. I need to believe that there’s something good in all of us.

END SPOILER ALERT

 

DT: Whenever I hear about a period film, I think, Oh God, not another one, because they frequently have a very cumbersome feel. You avoided that. How?

MZ: I was very aware of that because I feel the same way about period pieces. I did not want to end up there. From the beginning, my wife—Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, who was my DP—and I talked about not making a dusty old war movie. We said, “Let’s try to give it a contemporary feel, let’s try to do what we did with our other movies, let’s try to bring the characters out there.” We almost saw the beach as a theater stage. We also said, “Let’s be prescient. Let’s feel like we’re alert all the time and not at a distance.” You never know whether you’ve succeeded or not, but I hope we did somewhat.

 

DT: That idea about being prescient is really interesting. Can you talk about working with the actors, especially the young kids. Was it difficult to get them to relate to that historical period?

MZ: First of all, they came with their trust. They believed in me, in whatever I said, so that’s always a good start. When I would say, “Such and such happened in Germany,” they believed in me despite the fact that I’m Danish and they’re German.

They’re all untrained, so most of the time I sat on the side and said, “You should talk about this, you should talk about that.”  A lot of it was improvised, something that either they or I made up right there. I felt it was my job to find the boys, and I spent a lot of time finding them with my casting agent, Simone Bar. When we cast it, none of the boys knew what part they were going to play—Sebastian came in for Helmut—but a kind of natural hierarchy developed. I took the boys into a room and they kind of found their own part, so to speak. Of course I chose boys who I thought were natural talents. When we have six and a half weeks for shooting, I don’t have time to teach people how to act. So these boys were just very good. I could guide them, they could lean up against me, they could trust me, they could break down, they could cry, they could feel that emotionally it was the toughest thing they have ever been through, but I would always be there to comfort them. That’s what I do, and they felt that. They could trust me. We’re best of friends now.

DT: What did you get out of not casting them for specific roles?

MZ: I didn’t want to just find a person who was going to play Helmut because he looks like a troublemaker, or he looks a little evil, or they look innocent. I wanted them to be that character. Sebastian is very much like he is. He’s very clever, very intellectual, from a different layer of society. I also tried to make a small picture of society. Some of the boys were working class, and they actually didn’t like each other.

DT: According to class lines?

MZ: Yeah, we made a small society there.

 

DT: You mentioned before that you were a documentary editor. How did that experience affect your directing?

MZ: I’m not saying I do realism, but I do something I call naturalism, which is what I see as American film from the ’60s. You act in a certain way that is more progressive, more present. It’s not realism; it’s definitely a form of performance, but we eat it. We believe it to be real, but it has nothing to do with the new realism that some directors use now. Being involved in so many documentaries helped me in finding the realness of the characters—people always act well in documentaries because they’re not acting. I seek that performance, basically.

 

DT: The boys didn’t know German history?

MZ: Not this particular story [about the mines]. Nobody did. Even the producer didn’t when I came to him. Of course the boys know about Hitler and what happened, but it’s such a big topic. These boys are totally freed of shame and guilt, and I’m happy I experienced that. I have a brother and sister who are German. They’re  a slightly older generation, and they’re still a little bit ashamed. When they say, “I’m German,” I can hear it in their voice. But these boys, they’re Instagram culture. They’re freed of all things, but it did take seventy years. I was actually enjoying being with them because they weren’t stigmatized.

 

DT: Your DP, who was your wife, studied photography at ICP [the International Center of Photography], and your composer wrote ballets. What do you think that brought to the film?

MZ: A lot. Really a lot. I’m so lucky that my cinematographer is my wife and she only works with me and we have a great working relationship, and my composer is my best friend. They bring a different kind of life to it. They don’t see it as work. It’s their hobby, and they would die for what they do. It’s like a living organism. They see it as art. Music is art, photography is art, theater is art, literature is art, and when you try to combine these artforms, you have a movie, and it’s rare that you succeed in having all these artforms being able to talk together: You say this…now you say that. I’m very happy that this is what we tried to do.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

The Age of Consequences/Jared Scott

In The Age of Consequences, generals, admirals, Pentagon officials, climate scientists, and military veterans analyze the impact of climate change on global stability and national security. Director Jared Scott illuminates the connections between drought, the conflict in Syria, and the rise of ISIS; extreme weather and the Arab Spring; desertification and the refugee crisis in Europe.  The message is clear: unless we make drastic changes in our attitudes toward climate change, its sociopolitical consequences–failed states, terrorism, refugees–will threaten our security as much as rising sea levels, intense storms, and heat waves will. To view the trailer, click hereAvailability: Opens January 27, New York City, Cinema Village, with international rollout to follow. Click here for screenings. Thanks to Weiman Seid, FAT DOT, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: The thesis of your film is climate change presents a challenge to national security. Let’s talk about the mechanisms that make that work—humanitarian crises, failed states, radicalization—as they were presented in the film.

JS: The important thing to note is that climate change is always one factor in a confluence of many sociopolitical factors. It can help spark, perpetuate, aid and assist in conflict, unrest, migration, security issues, humanitarian crises; all these issues are intertwined. In the film we try to make the point that when climate change impacts occur—resource scarcity, drought, desertification, competition of resources, sea level rise—they interact with other factors. That’s what the military establishment calls a threat multiplier or an accelerant of instability or conflict. It’s not that climate change causes these directly, it’s that there’s systemic risk. Climate change exacerbates everything else.

 

DT: In the film climate change is presented as a stimulus that agitates underlying conditions of instability into conflict.

JS: Exactly. There are a number of different ways to say the same thing. As you quote Sharon Burke [Senior Adviser, New America, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy] in the film, it’s always about how climate change interacts with other preexisting problems.

 

DT: You include a number of case studies in the film. Let’s talk about the sequence on Syria and how climate change impacted the political situation there.

JS: You look at the Arab Spring, you look at the Fertile Crescent area, you look at Syria specifically; in a lot of these instances there have been studies that try to do an autopsy on how climate change has effected a certain kind of environmental impact. We know this is a difficult thing to do. There’s a baseball steroid analogy: baseball players have always hit home runs. After they started taking steroids, they still hit home runs, but now they’re hitting them farther and more frequently. It’s hard to say, “That home run is because of steroids and that one isn’t,” but we know the whole game has changed. You can use the same idea with climate change. With every storm surge, it’s not that this storm is there because of climate change—it’s more likely that we’re going to have more storms and they’re going to be more intensified.

When we referenced Syria in the film, we referenced a quantitative study that looked at the drought over a period of years. What Colin P. Kelley and Richard Seager and a number of others set forth in that study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, was that in this particular instance, climate change made the drought in Syria two to three times more likely. In the film, we point to that study to confirm the idea that climate change was at play in the Syrian civil war. To what degree? I don’t know; this report was their attempt to quantify it. You see that and say, climate change played a role in the drought, the drought played a role in migration and destabilizing parts of the country, and then you have to see how all that stuff snowballs and interacts.

You have the Assad regime, which isn’t subsidizing farmers’ losses. You have well drilling that’s inadequate and bureaucratic. You have people that are then on the move. You have prices going up. You have unemployment. You have lots of poor governance. You have a lot of unrest.  All of this stuff comes together and combines and creates this issue. You also have to realize we had a lot of people on the move from the conflict in Iraq going all the way back to 2001. I had a Syrian sit down with me and map out the demographics of Syria. It’s incredibly complex—different types of people from different types of places who have settled here, who have settled there, who belong to this, who belong to that. Clearly that extends into Iraq. The borders around some of these countries in the Fertile Crescent aren’t always clear-cut; there are all sorts of other societal tensions that you have to consider. Once you uncover all of that, you see that how everything interacts is quite complex. But the basic concept is pretty simple: climate change can take something like a drought and make it worse; that environmental factor can then play a role in other sociopolitical factors. The whole thing ultimately comes to a head, like the conflict in the Syrian civil war.

DT: One of the factors you cited was that climate change can lead to variability in rainfall. Controlling water then becomes critical, and ISIS used this as an instrument of war.

JS: The idea of controlling water and food in conflict goes way back. People have always used resources to subjugate and control other populations, and harm other people. What we’re trying to show in the film is that you have to consider the use of water scarcity not just as a weapon of war but as an issue that can lead to all sorts of unrest, competition, conflict. You have to realize that every case is different, but it’s always going to play a factor in a number of different ways.

 

DT: Let’s talk about another issue brought up in the film: globally interconnected systems—in this case, food. Can you talk about what happened when fire destroyed the wheat crops in Russia and destabilized the Middle East in 2010?

JS: As I mentioned, there are a number of factors at play here, but what we tried to do in the film was lay out a few key factors in how they connect. We make those connections in what we call the nexus, which is a graphic treatment that shows this constellation of factors. In the particular case that you’re referring to, heat waves led to drought, which led to the destruction of the wheat crop in several countries, including Ukraine and China and Russia. Wheat is a commodity traded on the global market, but when the Russian crops failed, they banned the export of wheat. A number of dynamics then took place on the international stage. China started to panic-buy, while in North Africa and the Middle East, where a lot of countries import their wheat, you saw a price hike. In Tunisia and Jordan people were holding baguettes in the street, chanting, “Bread and freedom,” and the same chant was heard in Egypt.

In certain regions of Egypt, the price of wheat shot up 300 percent. When the majority of the population is dependent on these imports for food and that price hikes significantly, where you either have food and you’re paying a lot more for it or you don’t have food and can’t pay for it, people are going to get unhappy, and they’re probably going to do something about it. That can then aid and abet smoldering embers that already exist from other injustices, other problems, other societal tensions and factors. This can be a spark, as we saw in the film.  In Tahrir Square in Cairo there were many other political points they were upset about,  but in the rural areas in Egypt, where people were more affected by the price hikes, you saw a sense of solidarity around the movement.

If you look at the Arab Spring, there’s a conflagration of different people coming together to create this wildfire that swept the nation, and this was clearly one of those factors. There was another study, which we don’t reference in the movie, that says that climate change is estimated to have made the extreme heat wave in Russia in the summer of 2010 approximately three times more likely to occur than it would have otherwise.

The important thing to note is that you want to be careful. I try to be very clear that there are a number of caveats. I can’t just come out and say climate change is the biggest national security risk to the country: I can’t say that without an asterisk. That’s the advantage of a long-format documentary. We live in a very sound-byte-driven news world. A lot of people do skim news reading, just flipping through Facebook—we saw the problem with how fake news propagates there—so with a documentary the point is not to be as sound-bytey; not as pithy. Of course you still have to boil the essence down, but you also want to have a long-form discussion.  I think we paint a pretty clear picture in the film that is backed up by really respectable voices and facts. Nevertheless, we do want the audience to have a visceral experience that climate change is not just an esoteric issue that they can’t touch or see but is something that it is happening right now and is playing a role in conflict and will continue to play a role in conflict even moreso moving forward.

 

DT: At a symposium following one of the screenings, one of the audience members wondered if perhaps the film is a bit fear-mongering. What do you think?

JS:  I don’t think it is. With a climate change film—or any social issue film—people come with a lot of preconceived notions and ideas, even answers. Based on that availability heuristic, people are going to have different responses to the film. People who know all this stuff will just say, “I’ve heard all this before.” Our goal was to look at what’s called in organizing terms a spectrum of allies. The idea of the spectrum of allies is to try to target an audience—in this case, our passive allies or our neutral allies—and try to get them one step over on the pie chart to being more active allies.

I think that some of those people just don’t recognize that there’s a problem. I understand that. I empathize. I feel the same way. Sometimes it feels like a clear and present danger, and other times it feels like this faraway, esoteric slow burn. It’s not like a stampede of wild elephants, it’s not a gun to the head, so what we tried to lay out is that if people don’t recognize that there is a problem, then they’re going to be less inclined to find a solution. I see zero fear-mongering in what it is we lay out, but we do want to paint the picture that there’s a problem. It’s just like the scientists: It’s not that the scientists are alarmists; it’s that the science is alarming. It’s not that we’re trying to scare people; it’s that this information is scary. So yes, it’s grim, but we tried our best not to make it sensationalized. You don’t hear that reality TV drumming. We didn’t try to make it seem apocalyptic. We really tried to keep it cinematic and thoughtful and highbrow so people wouldn’t consider it over the top. I think we did a really good job of finding that balance, and I’m really proud of my whole team, who scrutinized every section and every shot and every fact to strike that balance. So in short, I say absolutely not, but everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.

 

DT: Climate change greatly affects the most vulnerable people on the planet. In your view, is it possible to separate climate change from climate justice or social justice issues?

JS: Just as I’ve been unable to talk about how climate change impacts conflict without mentioning other sociopolitical factors, I think it’s really hard to talk about climate change without discussing justice issues and equality issues. It’s all of these issues. For so long we’ve thought of climate change as just an environmental issue, but we’ve seen that change. Clearly it’s an issue of national security, it’s an economic issue, it’s a health issue, it’s a social justice issue, it’s an environmental justice issue. It’s a political issue. It’s an all-of-us issue. It’s an everything issue. It’s really hard to divorce the issue from all these overlapping issues. In many ways climate change is the lynchpin that weaves in and out of all this stuff. What we do know is that if we get climate change right, we get a lot of other things right as well.

 

DT:  In 2015, the National Security Council included climate change as one of the top eight strategic risks to this country, along with a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil and WMDs. Can you address this issue?

JS: We’ve seen the issue of climate change as a national security risk appear not only in documents signed by the Secretary of Defense in the DOD’s quadrennial defense review, the bedrock strategic document  for the department, but we’ve also seen it in the intelligence community, in the security community, and we saw it in the national security strategy that was released in 2015, where it’s listed as one of the top eight risks. You see this in reports from the Department of Homeland Security, it’s in CIA assessments, a number of other intelligence assessments. There’s been a lot of research and work on the part of the powers that be to understand the threat of climate change. It’s also important to note that the military is looking at this as a risk assessment. Although we have these institutions—the DOD, the DOS, the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community—the job of these government groups is to understand the problem and how it all fits together. That doesn’t mean it’s their job to fix it.

You have to recognize that this is still a civil society issue because you have a civilian-run government; the commander in chief in power asks these departments to look at certain things. A new administration could come in and say, you know what? Stop looking at this. It doesn’t mean they’re going to scrub this from the records, but there could be different directives that come into play, because we do have a civilian-controlled military and certain directives could change that. As of right now, under the [Obama] administration, we see the issue of climate change as being a strategic risk in a number of different papers and reports in a number of different agencies.

 

DT: Most Americans don’t realize that the largest U.S. naval base in the world, at Norfolk, Virginia, will be inundated by 2040 due to sea level rise. Most Americans also don’t realize that the navy has a task force on climate change or that the navy plans to generate all their electricity through natural resources and biofuel. Trump is putting a lot of generals in his cabinet. Given the military’s interest in climate change, do you think they’ll have any effect on the new administration?

JS: It would all be supposition at this point. Clearly the Trump administration has vowed to dismantle the EPA and cancel the Paris Accords and roll back a lot of the executive orders put in place by the Obama administration. There might be some cognitive dissonance in there, but unfortunately what we’ve heard is that the trend is going to be against combating the issue of climate change. I mean, we just had Rex Tillerson, an oil executive, approved as Secretary of State, so it doesn’t look good. I don’t know what kind of influence there will be in the DOD.  It’s a giant agency, and there are a lot of different views within it. It is a command culture, so when the top brass decides this is what they’re going to focus on, people follow orders. We’ll see if climate change is on that agenda, but based on some other early indicators, it doesn’t look likely.

 

DT: In your film, someone said, “We are now in the age of consequences,” which is obviously where the film got its title. What does that mean?

JS: That’s actually on the floor of the Senate, in 2007, and she’s quoting a report called “The Age of Consequences,” which was released by The Center for Strategic and International Studies. The film is actually an homage to that report, which  came out early on in the conversation.

There are three kinds of buckets. One is mitigation, one is adaptation, and one is consequence management—these are the three things we’ve got to deal with when it comes to climate change. Mitigation is the best choice. Adaptation is necessary to build a resilient society, and of course we know that there are going to be consequences. We can just sit back and brace for the worst, which I don’t think is a very thoughtful approach to dealing with climate change. Clearly, as we say in the film, neither does the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, and the security community writ large—not just in the U.S. but globally as well. We know that we can’t stop climate change, but we can still prevent unmitigated cataclysmic disaster. We have a choice. Do we want to just run eyes wide open into an accelerated age of consequences, or do we want to try to shift that to the age of resilience? It’s truly something that keeps me up at night, because as Michael Breen [former captain, U.S. Army; president and CEO of the Truman Project; cofounder, Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project] says in the film, I believe it’s the most difficult collective action we’ll ever face, and time is not on our side.

 

DT: Why did you make the film?

JS: I’ve made other climate change films, and it’s been really important to my filmmaking life to be able to try to educate and inspire and move people to action around this issue. When we set out to make this film, we were trying to find a way to engage new constituencies around the issue, our lofty goal being to create a new kitchen table conversation about climate change as an issue of national security, something that might pique the interest of people who don’t consider themselves self-identified environmentalists, or people who still think it’s an esoteric issue. Clearly there are some people who are active antagonists. What the spectrum of allies says, going back to that organizing term, is leave those people alone. Fair enough. You’re not going to always get everybody. But I think that for the rest of the people out there, other segments of society who aren’t part of the “climate choir,” you might have other entry points to understanding the seriousness of this issue. Our goal was to try to make something that would spark a dialogue, conversation—and hopefully action—with a whole new group of people.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

Amber Edwards and Dave Davidson/Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past

In the mid-1950s, five-year-old Vince Giordano had a “Eureka, I’ve found it!” moment. Noticing an old carton in his grandmother’s parlor one day, he asked her to open it. Inside was an old Victrola with a collection of records from the 1920s. They set up the Victrola. Then, under her supervision, young Vince cranked up the machine and very, very carefully lay one of the precious disks on the turntable. Scratchy tunes began to pour out of the megaphone, and Vince’s eyes grew huge. “This is my music,” the future bandleader declared.

Over the next fifty years, Vince would spend every waking moment listening, collecting, recording, studying, performing, and conducting over 60,000 jazz tunes from the ’20s and ’30s. He created a band, The Nighthawks, who would play the Newport Jazz Festival,  New York City’s Town Hall, and Jazz At Lincoln Center. They recorded the soundtracks for The Good Shepherd, Away We Go, and Public Enemies. You’ve seen them in such films as The Aviator, Cafe Society, and Boardwalk Empire. And, if you’re lucky enough to live in New York, you can catch them every Monday and Tuesday night at Club Iguana. In Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past, codirectors Amber Edwards and Dave Davidson capture the Nighthawks as they’re guided by Vince’s devotion to authenticity of sound and performance, his mission to spread this music, his expansive generosity, and his utter joy when the band begins to play. Availability: Opens January 13, New York City, Cinema Village. Click here for the trailer and a sample of Vince’s band. Click here for theater listings. Thanks to Kelly Hargraves, First Run Features, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: I was grateful that your film did not share a point of view I find very narrow. People like to stress the fact that the music the Nighthawks play was written about ninety years ago. They insist on calling it “vintage” or some other alienating term, while they would never refer to Beethoven or Mozart in those terms. Isn’t a musical experience simply a musical experience?

AE: Vince would agree a thousand percent, and he often says that nobody complains that Mozart is old fashioned.

DD: Isn’t it ironic that jazz is sometimes referred to as America’s classical music? Yet the older forms within jazz are not given the reverence that the classical music canon gets.

 

DT: I liked the way you covered the band while they were playing. How did you shoot the music-making?

DD: When people make performance-based films in this day and age, they tend to roll out fifty cameras, and there’s one flying around in the air and another one on a dolly in front, but because Vince so embodies the personality of this music, we basically shot with three cameras most of the time. I had good guys working with me, and that freed me up to really stay with Vince and keep it intimate, because his expressions, as well as his virtuosity, tell the story. The joy just oozes out of him when he’s in this rapturous mode; we wanted to honestly present the music but with Vince as that vehicle. As you can see, there’s a lot of really close-up coverage of Vince while he’s singing and playing.

AE: We had to learn a new style of capturing this, because so much of the action is someone popping up for a solo, playing and sitting down, then someone somewhere else pops up. There’s this constant kind of choreography. The guys are just sitting in the same spaces, but there’s so much action. When we had a second or third or even fourth cameraperson there, their instinct was to go where the action was, and we had to really train everyone to just stay where they were. We’d tell them, “You’re on the reeds. Just stay there and don’t worry, because something will happen.”

DD: You can probably tell we shot in a variety of venues. Sometimes we could really spread out and have a lot of elbow room, but Iguana in particular is pretty cramped, as you know. There’s a little booth up to the left of the bandstand, and I would be perched up there, wearing black and trying to be invisible, trying to get a picture of anything besides other camerapeople, who you don’t want in the frame.

DT: It was probably complicated by the fact that you didn’t know when the solos were popping up, since Vince plays different pieces for every show.

AE: That’s exactly it. It became this geographic way of telling the camerapeople, “Just be where you are and things will happen.” Vince knows what he’s going to play…sometimes…but we really just had to be ready to roll with anything. We probably filmed two to three hundred songs, because we shot entire performances.

 

DT: You’ve worked on a lot of music-related films. Was this one different from other ones you’ve done?

AE: It’s quite different from Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook because that was like a road trip and this is really just one character’s story; it was always through Vince that all this was happening. We weren’t trying to be informational in the way that a PBS program has this obligation to be educational. I mean, this is educational, but it’s a narrative and a character hung on a clothesline of this fantastic music.

DD: In a standard documentary, whether it’s performance or art in general, they tend to roll in a lot of “experts.” You’ve got somebody with the library books behind them so there’s more gravitas and they’re able to quote chapter and verse from the book that they wrote about the topic and somehow that ennobles the topic. We went the other way—we felt that the experts were in the band. We wanted to keep it in the family. There’s nobody more expert in this music than these guys anyway,  but it allowed us to keep everything very close to home and very intimate as the guys in the band talked about Vince, talked about playing with each other.

 

DT: When you think of Vince and the Nighthawks, what’s the first thing that springs to mind?

AE: Joy. I never get tired of watching the band play and hearing the music, because when you look around the room, you see smiles on everyone’s faces, like they’ve just escaped from whatever it is that’s weighing them down and they’re filled with this intoxicating ebullience.

DD: I would say the power to move, and I mean that in a couple of different ways. First of all, we’re emotionally moved by the music, but that kind of music also makes people physically move. It’s great dance music. This music does come from another era, but it’s drawing a larger and larger audience through Vince because some of the woes and headaches and tragedies of the generations of the ’20s and ’30s are being revisited by this generation. We need this kind of music now to turn to, to be able to elevate our spirits and get us going again.

AE: One of the other things I love so much about Vince and how he’s kept this music alive is that it’s so multigenerational.

 

DT:  I feel there’s something very profound and very deep going on in what Vince is doing. When you see the film and when you see Vince perform live, you understand that he’s not just making music; he’s creating a sense of community. His generosity and his sharing open up a sort of avenue of collective expression.

DD: It’s true, and so much of that is personalized. Think of how close to the precipice this music has been. On Vince’s worst day, when he doesn’t want to get out of bed, and schlepp the instruments from place to place, and run after a rare piece of sheet music, he does it because he’s the person who has to carry that load. He’s so emotionally bound up in the music and so dedicated to spreading the word that it’s really a calling.

AE: He says, “It’s my religion.”

DT: I feel he’s spreading more than the music. He’s enabling us to have a collective experience.

AE: This is social music. It’s not meant to be listened to with earbuds in your own little bubble. This is music where you talk to people, you drink, you dance, you enjoy it together. There’s so much interaction with Vince and the audience when he calls out requests, when he makes little jokes. It’s that live-ness that you’re talking about when you say “community.” It’s like a big embrace when you’re in Vince’s space.

 

DT: You capture that beautifully in the film.

DD: Vince’s generosity of spirit makes it happen. I think the film is an honest reflection of what’s going on at the core of the music, but because he’s so dedicated to wanting it to live on, he just opens his arms and has people coming up and sitting in on a song. There’s an A line of dancers who are kind of camp followers—they just want to be at his gigs—and you literally think they’re part of the show. You think they’ve worked the numbers out, but they’re just that good, and the symbiotic relationship between their body movement and the music also creates this sense of community. They’re all part of the show.

 

DT: Vince has played in a number of films, including Carol, Cotton Club, Finding Forrester. In your film, you included a fabulous sequence of Vince and David Johansen making a recording for Boardwalk Empire, but I was struck by the fact that you didn’t include clips of those other films in yours. Was that an aesthetic or a financial decision, or did it just never come up?

DD: It was the one that was free! It was a recording session for Boardwalk Empire, so we thought that the sequence from that show would stand for all of them.

AE: It was also something where you could connect the process to the product.

DT: David Johansen was having so much trouble with the music, and you really felt for him.

DD: It was an all-day session. We did a different recording session with Stephen DeRosa, who played Eddie Cantor. He did an absolutely stunning rendition of a song, and it went flawlessly.

AE: He literally did it in one take.

DD: But it wasn’t good cinema!  With David Johansen, it was drama. Is he going to get it right this time? Next time? You really see how the sausage is made. It just turned out to be a better scene, so it was easy to let go of the session with Stephen DeRosa even though great music was being made.

 

DT: Making a movie like this is a tremendous investment of time and energy with little promise of big financial rewards. Why invest the time and energy to tell this particular story?

DD: Just as Vince is compelled to keep this music alive, we tend to gravitate toward subjects that fall into the category of cultural retrieval—things that might be lost, things that might be forgotten. As happy an ending as our film has, when we started, Vince was struggling to keep this music alive, and we wanted to be part of the process. We were lucky that during the curve of production, Vince’s popularity kicked in and picked up, but we love the idea of being able to grab a unique story that not only wouldn’t be told but might disappear if it wasn’t documented. Those are the kinds of stories that we’re really compelled to do.

AE: We’ve both known Vince for a very long time. For years we’ve been saying, “We’ve got to do something on Vince.” Of all the subjects I’ve worked on, he is the most unfiltered. It must be very strange to have a documentary made about yourself, but he would just be himself, and I think that comes across..he is what you see. It’s unvarnished. He had a meltdown without worrying about the fact that he was being recorded. He was just completely real.

 

DT: You codirected the film. How did that work? What were the advantages? What were the disadvantages?

DD: When you’re directing and producing a film, you have to be in many different places at the same time. That’s tough on a person after a while, so be able to tag team was a big relief. If I was shooting something, Amber put her producer hat on and set up the next scene. She’s the editor; once things were in the can, she’d begin crafting those scenes. I’d come in regularly, and we’d talk about it. It’s a good symbiotic relationship where you’ve got another set of eyes and ears, you’ve got another opinion right there, there’s somebody who knows as much about the topic as you do. Having that ongoing dialogue, everybody wins.

AE: Dave is the director of photography, so he’s making the pictures, while I’m chopping them up. There’s a very nice thing about having that separation. For example, Dave doesn’t know and doesn’t care how long it took me to cut a particular scene. The only question is whether it’s working. I can’t say, “We have to use it because I spent six weeks cutting it.” If it’s not good enough, too bad. It’s out. I guess you could use the phrase creative conflict. It’s very stimulating to always have to fight for your work, and to argue over This, not that, or That, not this. It makes you sharper when you have to really explain why something should be a certain way. We don’t have too many serious arguments, because in the end one of us will say, “Yes, that’s right, that’s the way to go.”

DD: And the material recontextualizes itself. As it goes into editing, throwaway scenes you didn’t think were important a while back suddenly, because of the needs of the story, become amplified. It’s like, Wow, we’re really glad we caught that. That’s the beauty of documentary. It’s the cinema of discovery and revelation. Most people think that’s something the audience goes through—they discover, and things are revealed to them. No. It’s the journey that the filmmakers go on. We’re finding things all the time;  things that get a new sense of importance, things we discover as we work the material. And that makes it fun. That’s why we like to do documentaries as opposed to fiction films.

AE: Sometimes Dave would say, “We need some kind of transition here. Do we have that somewhere?” We could go back and look for it, because we transcribe and log everything, including all the off-camera audio, which sometimes really comes to the rescue. If the camera is elsewhere, or not in place yet, but Vince has his wireless mic on, that’s all wonderful stuff to be harvested.

 

DT: Your recent work has been for PBS, but you did this film completely on your own. How did that feel?

DD: Ironically most of the stuff we did for PBS was on our own too. We weren’t signed on to a particular series that had funding. We would negotiate with PBS, but we funded the films ourselves. The big difference with this film is that we didn’t have the time constraints that PBS would require. A PBS hour is 56:42, something like that. So even though we thought we had better, longer films, we had to shoehorn them into that format. And here, where people are going to sit in the theater and not walk out till the credits roll, you have much more flexibility to go into more nuance, to make the film a little bit better. This one is ninety minutes. It’s the first time we ventured over an hour. We were in strange territory.

AE: In this case we weren’t sitting there with a suit picking through things. I remember at one point we had to blur a shot of a Windex bottle because PBS’s product placement watchdog said, “Hey, you can’t use that.” When we met Seymour Wishman at First Run Features, it was the most thrilling thing in the world to hear him say, “I love your film.” Not I love your film let’s talk about how to change it. It was “I love your film.” Period.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

A Decent Woman/Lukas Rinner

With deadpan humor and Jacques Tati-like architectural comedy, Lukas Rinner explores the personal awakening of a housemaid working in a gated community situated next to a nudist colony. A Decent Woman is the closing night film in “Neighboring Scenes,” a showcase of Latin American cinema copresented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Cinema Tropical, January 26-31.  Availability: New York City, Walter Reade Theater, January 31.  Thanks to Hannah Thomas, Film Society of Lincoln Center, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: One of the things that really struck me is the way you built the film through contrasts—tight compositions vs. very long shots; the nudist colony vs. the gated community; the arid artificiality of the gated community vs. the gorgeous, natural lushness of the nudist colony. Can you talk about how you intentionally used contrasts to amplify the content of the script.

LR: I’m very interested in the contrast of architectural spaces. When I’m writing the script I’ve already found architectural spaces that will underline the conflict in the story. With this film, I found this nudist sex club, which had a very wild and extravagant nature, next to a gated community, which for me is very representational of contemporary society. I thought this energy of contemporary spaces would be a very powerful, ambitious contrast to underlie the main conflict of the film. So the starting point was actually the architectural spaces of the film.

DT: So you actually found this nudist colony next to that crazy housing development and that became the basis of the script?

LR: Yes! It’s a real story. There is a real conflict between the two spaces, so the departure point of the whole film was almost documentary. The nudist colony used to be a factory before the 2001 crisis. The company went bankrupt, and one day the owner found a nudist sunbathing in his abandoned factory area. He started to charge them money and eventually decided, “I’ll just make a nudist colony because that’s what’s working now.”

DT: I assume it didn’t end up the same way as it did in the film.

LR: It’s thriving. Five, six hundred people go there each weekend, so it’s becoming a really big phenomenon. In Argentina, which is  a society that’s very taboo about nudity especially, there’s no nudist culture like you can find in Europe, so it was very secretive and very hidden.

 

DT:  You used symbols a lot: the teddy bears when Belen and her boyfriend are coming back from the amusement park, or the broken cup and saucer when Belen is at her housekeeping job.  Can you talk about your use of symbols to further the story?

LR: I started by not communicating too much through dialogue. In a lot of German and Austrian cinema, the main drama is driven by explicit dialogue. In this film, I tried to build in these visual puzzles that eventually come back to start communicating what’s going on in the film without having to communicate it through dialogue. We tried to interweave images throughout the film that eventually splash or come back as motives that comment on what’s going on in the characters without having to communicate it through dialogue.

DT: It’s very musical in that sense.

LR: Yes, for sure. We outline the film with notes before we write the screenplay, and we have very simple dialogue that’s not too revealing of the psychology of the characters. I think this is more intriguing and physically communicates what’s going on inside our characters. When Belen throws away the object, it’s one of the turning points in the film; we see that she’s starting to rebel in the household, but it’s a very thoughtful sort of communication. It’s very visual too.

 

DT: Let’s talk about Iride Mockert’s performance. It’s really extraordinary. She’s very self-contained while being an incredibly physical actress. Can you assess her performance from a director’s point of view, but also talk about what it was like working with her.

LR: When we did the auditions, we got a lot of actresses, but she was the one who had the best physical performance. She immediately understood—from the opening scene of the interview at the employment agency to the later scene in the house in the gated community you could already see in her posture that there was this difficult transformation. There’s a progression that we needed in the film for the character, and we believe that her ability to achieve it came from a very physical theater background. She did a well-known play here that was her alone on the stage for two hours and was extremely physical. We knew she came from that background and in that sense it was very straightforward to work with her. We tried to map out a physical transformation of the character much more than a psychological transformation. We worked a lot with postures in each scene, with the opening up of her character throughout her postures in the film.

DT: Also her face changed completely. During the orgy scene she’s absolutely stunning, whereas when she’s riding to the amusement park with her boyfriend, her face is really homely and bloated. The transformation is unbelievable.

LR: It’s something that was also a surprise for me. There was almost an aesthetic transformation in her. Sometimes she would be very pale when she was inside in the gated community, but then we had some scenes in the nudist colony where she took on this absolute beauty and presence that was really strong. In the image of her as the Venus, the first time she’s naked in the film, I think she gets this beautiful presence that happens almost magically.

 

DT: That was actually my next question. You had these amazing reveals. The Venus of course was one of them, and the first time you show the nudist colony is brilliant. Can you talk about using reveals as a cinematic technique?

LR: We tried to insert that little by little and also play with this discovery that she goes through, this sort of magical discovery of this place, almost like Alice in Wonderland, where she goes through this rabbit hole and suddenly discovers this world with these different activities. It was also hard to observe this fine line where you can still be comedy but not make fun of the characters, to be too explicit about the nudity and maintain some sort of beauty in the sex club. I think we managed. Sometimes the pictures became almost like paintings, in the nudist colony especially.

DT: There was definitely a Titian quality to the compositions.  That was intentional, I assume?

LR: My DOP and I started to investigate nudity in cinema history to understand where this film would go, how to represent bodies. We found it was a dead end, because there’s not that much done with explicit nudity in cinema. So we had to go back to classical paintings to see how to frame naked bodies in nature. When we started putting the camera in certain places in the nudist club, we were overwhelmed by understanding that we suddenly had these classical paintings that formed almost naturally there.

DT: Some of your compositions reminded me of the compositions in the Taviani brothers’ last movie, Wondrous Boccaccio. They also resemble classical paintings, it’s just that in yours the characters don’t have their clothes on. Let’s talk about your use of sound, which was very interesting. Not only do you use ambient sound to enhance the feeling, but you also make sound a subject in the script as a symbol of letting things in and keeping things out, like the horrible lady in the gated community who wants to redo her windows to keep the birdsong out.

LR: In that scene especially we tried to anticipate through sound this invasion from the other side rather than start immediately with the image of the nudist club, to anticipate that there’s this strange presence next door. The whole project, from the first idea to the finished film, took six months, so there was something very improvised, almost like a fermentation in the whole making of the film. I tried to get, at least musicwise, some of that feeling into the film, especially some of the sequences where she’s walking in the Province of Buenos Aires or some of the passages between the two spaces. We inserted an element of tribal drums that would also set this revolutionary mood, so we worked with Korean musicians who incorporated Korean drumming into the score. As it was a Korean coproduction, we wanted to have a Korean element somehow.

 

DT: It might have been improvised, but the script itself is very tight, with a fair amount of foreshadowing.  How do you use that kind of foreshadowing without making the film trite or predictable?

LR: What we really tried to maintain was a surprising effect throughout the film—to anticipate a little bit but there is always something more to come, to always bring the film to places you wouldn’t understand that the viewer immediately works with you to show. Especially with the ending of the movie we tried to completely spread outside the classical progression  of the film, and it makes a sort of revolutionary coda, where we create this almost cathartic element for the viewer that you can’t necessarily predict. I think for most people this was the most surprising element. We tried to build layers of things that would potentiate each other with the progression of the film.

 

DT: Whenever Belen appears with her boyfriend, they’re always in tight, constricted spaces.

LR: We tried to develop this sort of classical love story that somehow goes noplace. There are these  strange encounters of love with this romantic security guard who expects something from love that he can’t even sustain. We tried to find these awkward, funny moments in non-spaces, because what happens is that those contemporary spaces are beautiful to look at but there’s almost no space for real human interaction. Basically there are all these places where they can meet, like the security golf cart or the security booth, and I think it says a lot about how those spaces work as architectural spaces but also no real space for human interaction.

 

DT: One of the most powerful scenes for me is the dancing scene in the nudist colony where you have a 360 degree pan and end up on the singer. First of all, she’s not what you expect to find at the end of the shot. Second of all, you’ve seen this woman throughout the film without knowing that she had this talent, this power. Her delivery is so potently about self; was that just a happy coincidence, or did you work to achieve that?

LR: I developed this together with my DOP. This film talked a lot about how bodies are represented in our commercial, globalized world and how you see naked bodies and classify beauty. We tried to make this a commercial shot with beautiful lighting but undermine it with these not perfect bodies but still find the sheer beauty and poetry in that movement and in her song. Basically we tried to undermine this commercial element in the whole scene.

 

DT: When the end first started, I thought to myself, “Oh no, he’s going to pull a Chantal Akerman Jeanne Dielman sort of ending,” which I detest. But as your film went on, the action took on new proportions and new meaning. And that final shot was absolutely hysterical—it makes me laugh just thinking about it. Were you nervous that people were going to react badly to the ending, were you ambivalent, or did you just go into it whole hog saying, “Wow, this is great”?

LR: Of course we were a little bit worried about it. We absolutely thought it was going to be very polemical and quite controversial, but one of the most beautiful moments for us came when we presented the film for the first time and people started laughing a lot during the ending, which is what we tried to achieve. We tried to fashion a moral dilemma by creating this catharsis where you can laugh about something very terrible, where death and murder become almost this humorous element. I was very interested in this moral dilemma. We really didn’t know how it would play out, so for me it was a relief that there are people out there who share this very dark humor. I was really happy about it. As for the final shot, that monument really exists in the gated community, and the first thought that came into my head when we saw it was, “We really have to blow that up.”

 

DT: Are you a Jacques Tati fan, because there were definitely Jacques Tati overtones, at least for me.

LR: It’s true! I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right. I really like the humor in his films. I see a definite connection, but it hadn’t occurred to me until now.

 

DT: Is there anything you want your audiences to take away that maybe they’re not?

LR: We made the film to generate conversations about society and what’s going on. I think it’s a film that’s not polemically political but you know there’s a lower level of real political issues, which I think are important to talk about. If the film can motivate audiences to talk about inequality in society and about living spaces and how we relate to each other, I think that’s an important thing to do.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

Tanna/Bentley Dean

Codirectors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler went to the tiny South Sea island of Tanna with the express purpose of collaborating on a film with the indigenous villagers…in spite of the fact that the villagers had never seen a film, don’t use electricity, and live as their ancestors did thousands of years ago, in dirt-floor huts made of materials gathered from the bush. The result is Tanna, a magnificent and compelling film that re-creates a recent real-life incident that changed the legal and cultural system of the Tannaese forever. Tanna is an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film. Click here for trailer. •Availability: on Blu-ray and DVD March 7, 2017 through Momentum Pictures/Sony Home Entertainment. Thanks to Steven Zeller, GS Entertainment Marketing Group, and Wally Schmidt, Bounce Creative Group, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: You went to the village knowing you wanted to make a film.

BD: Absolutely right—we just didn’t know what the film would be. The idea was to collaborate on a film with the community; to work together to come up with a story for them to act out, but we had no preconceived ideas what that might be.

DT: How did the collaboration play out?

BD: The setup was hugely important, because we were told that the people we’d be working with had never actually seen a feature film before, let alone acted in one. We went through the auspices of the Vanuatu Cultural Center, which is a magnificent organization that vets projects like this to make sure introductions are done properly, that you do the right thing about local culture. They suggested that we try this village first, and they recommended that we show a film. We showed Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes, which is a seminal film in Australia that was also a collaboration with an indigenous community, from northern Australia. We chose that film in particular because the process behind it was similar to the way we wanted to work. The villagers watched it, and you could tell that they loved it: at the end of the screening, they said, “Can we start tomorrow?” And that was the beginning of it all.

We outlined how it might actually work. We would need to live there for six months—my wife, who was the location producer, a broad term for absolutely everything—and our two small children. Martin [Butler, codirector] would fly in and fly out for big scenes. We set rules for how long it would take, what things were taboo to film, and that sort of thing. It worked marvelously. For any problems that came up, the villagers were really can-do folks, so solutions were always there. It was an amazing experience. There was nothing too difficult to achieve.

DT: What was taboo to film?

BD: The processing of kava. You can film the harvesting of it, but you’re not allowed to film its preparation or consumption.

DT: Because it has spiritual qualities, or because it’s a tribal secret?

BD: It’s very, very powerful stuff. It’s essentially the way you communicate with deeper spiritual issues and even in some cases with real spirits.

 

DT: Every culture has its own way of telling stories. What was their storytelling tradition, and how did it affect the final film?

BD: Obviously there’s no real history of cinema, and not really theater in the way we imagine it, but it’s a very strong oral culture. You gain status—a lot of status—by how well you speak in public, and I believe that fed big-time into their level of confidence and ability to perform in a really convincing way. Of course that’s one thing, but acting in a film is a different kind of thing. It wasn’t always easy to get the performances that we needed, especially between the lovers, because culturally it’s frowned upon to show any signs of physical affection. Getting the lovers to actually do that, let alone do it convincingly, was really tricky, until the chiefs told the young lovers, “You must do this.” That freed them up completely, because the chief’s word is everything. And then they became extremely convincing at it. I don’t think that in the end Dain really minded having his nipples squeezed on a deserted beach by a ravishing young woman. In fact I thought that at one point there might be an onset affair, which I constantly warned them not to embark on.

 

DT: Did you show them rushes as you were shooting?

BD: Yes—we wanted to have everyone involved in the entire process, not just the writing and acting. After we had been shooting for a couple of weeks, we brought in Tania Nehme, our editor. They built her an edit suite out of branches from the bush; it was a dirt-floor hut like all the huts you see in the film, and we racked a solar panel on top of that. She cut for about six weeks, so they saw the film coming together; they started to see what we were doing, to see these really remarkable feats, when you think about it. We’re used to the language of filmmaking, but what we’re actually doing is crazily jumping in space and time, so you have a big wide shot during the day and all of a sudden, the very next moment, you’ve got a close-up of someone at night. They got to see the language of filmmaking, and they got it right away. It was an intuitive discovery.

DT: I asked about the rushes for a very particular reason. In the film, I didn’t notice any mirrors in the village, so I don’t know if they normally get a chance to see themselves. If not, I was wondering if seeing themselves in the rushes changed their attitude toward themselves, toward the film, toward acting.

BD There are tiny mirrors scattered about, so people will use them. In ceremony times they’re actually putting on a lot of makeup, so they know what they look like. Mirrors aren’t foreign to them at all. I should say that even though what you see is the villagers’ life, they know about the outside world, they’re connected to it. They’re only half an hour away from the main town of the island. It’s just that they’ve made this remarkable decision to live the way of their ancestors. They know about mirrors, some of them even have mobile phones, but looking at the rushes didn’t make them self-conscious at all. It was actually really excellent, because they could be quite self-critical in a way, saying, “I could do better than that.” They really got this idea of the realism we were after. Sometimes the performances could be a bit hammy, and we’d have to say, “Make it real, make it real.” By showing the actual rushes, we got that point across, so it was actually a fabulous process. It improved the film.

 

DT: What really blew me away was the culture’s ability to change long-standing tradition. That’s probably what accounts for its continued existence. The fact that they’ve chosen to live this way is probably a contributing factor as well. Can you talk about their attitude toward their own culture and their own customs?

BD: It’s hard to describe just how central custom is. It’s everything, and they know it, and they’re extremely protective of it. I think that most outsiders view indigenous cultures especially as being somehow locked in time, extremely conservative and unchanging, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are remarkable elements that they have kept going because they work; because they’re good for them. These people are looking for ways in which their society can be strong and continue. They’re so adaptable in fact—this is a true story, remember—that they were willing to be flexible on one of the basic foundations of their culture. Arranged marriages are responsible for keeping the peace, ensuring you have enough food in times of famine: really, really important things. But they were willing to change it.

DT: That completely blew me away.

BD: Same with me. When I first heard that story, I had exactly the same reaction you did. It is truly remarkable, and it’s worth emulating, I think. It’s something that we can learn: Do things for the good of the future. It means fundamental change to your society.

 

DT: It’s mind-blowing, really. In a number of other interviews, you said they wanted their story told. Why do they want their story told?

BD: I think it’s along the reasons we were just talking about. They believe they have something special to offer the rest of the world. They’re a very outward-looking people. They’re not gazing inward at all. They’re not insular, and they’re extremely proud. They know that they live a healthy life. They know that their legal systems work. And they see things not going so well in the outside world as well. So it’s “Hey guys, this is the way we see the world.” They often talk about the transformative power of peace and love, not in a sort of airy fairy meaningless way: In a profoundly deep way, they’re concerned with the rest of humanity. I think one of the other motivations was they simply want to say “We are here. We exist.”

 

DT: Talk a little bit about casting. How did you choose who would play which role?

BD: It was largely out of our hands, I have to say. When we were discussing the beginning stages of the story and it was clear we needed a chief, they’d immediately say, “Well that’s Chief Charlie,” because he actually is the chief. A lot of the casting was along those lines. The shaman actually does play the shaman, etc. It got a bit weird when it was known that we needed an enemy tribe and they said, “We should cast the people across the river from us who we’re in conflict with.” I said, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” They assured me, “It will be great, just like in the story we come together, so it will be the same in real life. The making of the film will be the means for our coming together.” So without my knowledge they sent out an emissary and that emissary was told in no uncertain terms to essentially fuck off. Worse than that, they called the emissary a bastard, which is the worst thing you can say to a Tannaese man. A fight actually did erupt, and it took a lot of skilled negotiation, particularly on the part of our cultural director, J. J. Nako, who was our translator and guru and was largely responsible for the film. We ended up casting another group of people as the enemy tribe, but when we finally premiered the film, they all came to watch it, and they absolutely loved it and owned it as much as our tribe. They have come together, so in a way their impulse was right; it actually has brought them together.

It was a bit different for Dain and Wawa. Everyone agreed he was the most handsome guy in the village, so he just got the part. Casting Wawa was more difficult because of kinship issues. You can’t have a relationship with people who are close to you—that’s extremely taboo—and we kept wondering why they [Dain and the village woman originally cast as Wawa] couldn’t even look each other in the face. When they explained this to us, just by luck we found Wawa in a neighboring village. She’s one of a kind. There’s no one else we met on the island who even comes close to her sassiness, her ability, really.

 

DT: Was there any controversy about bringing the cast to Venice for the Venice Film Festival?

BD: Quite rightly your first idea is, What? You’re taking people out of their very different lives and thrusting them into this radically different world? How’s that going to mess with their heads? But having lived with them for seven months, we knew that wasn’t going to be a problem, and it wasn’t. We had to organize their visas and passports and even their birth certificates because they didn’t have any, but they’re so confident and so comfortable about being themselves that they just took it all in their stride.

They’re always looking to get their costume gear on. For the premier at the Venice Film Festival, we said, “OK, it’s time to go, we’ve got to go to the premier.” No sooner did the words come out of our mouths than they raced up to their apartment, which was above us. I noticed the chandeliers shaking, and this big thumping going on upstairs. So I raced upstairs to see what was going on, and they had put on all their costume gear, the big grass skirts and the penis sheaths, and they’re dancing, pounding, like the dances in the film, pounding the floor and making everything shake. Picture a scene crossing St. Marks with them all in their costume gear. It was like hanging out with the Merry Pranksters. There were just great smiles wherever they went. And they knew that and they loved it. They’re just out-there people. I guess they feel very confident. Little Seline was with us and she would be on the boat in a grass skirt singing exactly the same songs, not in a self-conscious way, but singing the same songs she would sing back home, but this time just gazing over the canals.

 

 

DT: I was wondering to what extent vanity is a cultural construction. Does Dain act like the gorgeous dude when he’s in the village?

BD: I think there’s a little bit of that, yeah. I think he knows he’s handsome. Everyone certainly talks about his being handsome, so it is definitely there. Sometimes he’d almost be quite cockish in a way. One time he was just standing around looking gorgeous, and with a flourish he pulled out a big feather, a rooster feather, and stuck it on the end of his number, so it looked like an erect penis that was sticking even further out. I think that’s quite self-conscious. He knew what he was doing.

 

DT: As global warming is going to create more and more powerful cyclones, I’m wondering if they’re going to be in more and more danger and if they have any concept of that.

BD: They’re very much aware of the debate and the ramifications of climate change. As I say, they’re really in touch with the rest of the world and they know about it, and they also know that this will be one of the ramifications of it. They regularly suffer cyclones anyway, almost on an annual basis. Some are bigger than others, but the one they suffered in 2015, Cyclone Pam, was a category 4 cyclone, which wiped out all of their houses, bar one, which was their traditionally built cyclone-proof hut that their ancestors had always built for such circumstances—the timbers of a large tree go right down deep into the ground, and the hut is quite low-lying and really strapped down, and that’s where the whole community goes under these sorts of circumstances.

We visited the village just two weeks after the cyclone because that was the due date when we were actually meant to premier the film. We thought maybe it would be best to put that off while they were rebuilding, and they absolutely insisted that we come. By the time we got back to the village, they’d actually rebuilt about a third of the houses and they were getting the gardens all ready to go again. A year after, everything—the gardens included—was as good as new. There were some really tough times there in terms of finding food, but in a way they have been dealing with this problem for millennia. The issue I guess is that it’s going to become a bit more extreme, and they are concerned. They are concerned because you can’t have too many cyclones; it disrupts growing the crops too much. So they’re worried.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

BD: It’s been a pleasure, from the very beginning until now. They’re going to be on the red carpet in their costume gear, and just that whole trajectory of their never having seen a film before to being at the Oscars in apparently one of the five best foreign-language films of the year says not just a lot about them and their extraordinary abilities but also the rest of the world—that we can receive something special from a people that is clearly not of our culture, certainly not of our language, yet we’re able to have this universal feeling. It just all feels very special to us, and we’re really happy to be here.

DT: What it says to me is simple: people are people.

BD: That’s exactly right.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017