The Women’s Balcony/Emil Ben-Shimon

Loving husband and wife Zion (Igal Naor) and Ettie (Evelin Hagoel) share an evening meal together.

Loving husband and wife Zion (Igal Naor) and Ettie (Evelin Hagoel) share an evening meal together.

A Jerusalem rabbi loses his mind when the women’s balcony in his synagogue collapses, sending his wife into a coma. His congregation, lacking a spiritual leader, is delighted when a charismatic ultra-Orthodox rabbi miraculously comes to their aid. Fashioning himself as their savior, he fascinates the men with his biblical tales, even as he puts more and more restrictions on the women. Lysistrata fashion, they rebel. Gently, sweetly, this comedy addresses one of the most potent problems of our time:  religious fundamentalism.  Availability: Opens May 26, New York City, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Quad Cinema, with national rollout to follow. Click here for local listings and trailer.  Thanks to Isil Bagdadi-Sergio, CAVU Pictures, for arranging this e-mail interview. 

 

DT: The film depicts a very specific problem within a minority community in Israel, yet it’s doing very well all around the world. When you directed the film, did you intentionally focus on its more universal aspects? If so, how did you do that?

EBS: I did not think at all about how I would make the story universal. Generally, I believe that if you go deeper in a local depiction and keep it authentic, you have a better chance of having universal appeal. Sometimes I am more interested in the ways to tell a story than in the story itself. When I watch foreign films there are nuances that do not travel or get to me, but if the characters are full and human and the story is told in a fresh and interesting way, I’m happy with it.

The community (left-to-right; Nissan (Herzl Tobey), Rahamim (Haim Zanati), Ora (Sharona Elimelech), Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), Margalit (Einat Sarouf) and Zion (Igal Naor) walk through the Jerusalem streets to a bar mitzvah celebration.

The community (left-to-right; Nissan (Herzl Tobey), Rahamim (Haim Zanati), Ora (Sharona Elimelech), Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), Margalit (Einat Sarouf) and Zion (Igal Naor) walk through the Jerusalem streets to a bar mitzvah celebration.

 

DT: The film is also doing well in Israel, where there is a huge rift between the secular and ultra-Orthodox. Did you hit a nerve with this story?

EBS: Yes. The film was a huge success in Israel and sold more tickets than Titanic in its time. This is definitely a sign that it hit a nerve in Israeli society. The tension between Orthodox and secular or traditional often comes up on the surface, and it was important for me to transmit the message that no one has a monopoly on God. Many viewers asked me if I wasn’t scared to touch such a charged subject, and my answer is simple: making films is not for cowards.

 

DT: In Israeli film history, the Mizrahim [Jews from the Middle East] were often represented in boureka movies [silly comedies with stereotypical depictions]. Were you afraid of repeating that stereotype? Did you go out of your way to avoid it?

EBS: When you are doing a movie about simple Mizrahi characters, there is always a chance you will be tagged as a bourekas movie, and indeed there were a few reviewers that claimed wrongfully this is a bourekas film. That is why I was so glad to read the reviews from the US and Spain, where reviewers understood the film much better than the Israeli critics. For me the big challenge was to navigate between comedy and drama, to be comedic without turning ridiculous, and to be dramatic without being overly melodramatic, as it was done in bourekas films.

 

DT: Talk about the casting process. Many of your actors played against type; Orna Banai, whose character becomes very religious, is a famous comedian, while Aviv Alush, who plays the rabbi, is a teen heartthrob in Israel.

Rabbi David (Aviv Alush, center) joins the congregation for dinner.

Rabbi David (Aviv Alush, center) joins the congregation for dinner.

EBS: That is very true. Orna Banai is one of the greatest comedians in Israel. She appears every week in a satire show on TV and has a very clear agenda against the Orthodox. That is why I was very interested in taking her to play a part that is opposite her personal views and that is also very dramatic as opposed to her comedic persona. I think this stresses more the huge impact Rabbi David has on the community. I was amazed by the way she gave herself to the character and became her. I think the audience also loved seeing this opposite. Taking Aviv Alush to play a rabbi was also a great challenge, since he is indeed a teenage heartthrob. Also Yigal Naor who always plays hard characters (Sadam Hussein) had to get into the character of the mellow and good-hearted Zion. To cast against type can be dangerous, but when it works it pays off.

 

DT: Your composer, Ahuva Ozeri, is also very famous in Israel. Talk about her work on the film.

EBS: Ahuva Ozeri was a brilliant musician and a cultural hero to many in Israel. Together with Shaul Besser, her partner, we searched for music that will be minimalist but will lead the emotional core in the film. We worked for a very long time on the music because it was essential for me to find the punctuality and tenderness. It might also be that the work took so much time because I loved Ahuva and her personality. Very sadly Ahuva passed away as the film was released. I am positive that the film’s soundtrack will be played for many years forward and will be part of her tremendously important legacy.

 

 DT: Much of your cast had an extensive TV background, much like you.  Compared to American TV, Israeli TV is very sophisticated, but there’s still a transition from TV, even a TV film, to a film made for theatrical release.  Can you talk about transitioning from TV to film?

EBS: Starting at a young age I knew I wanted to make films for cinema, but circumstances led me to TV. For me reaching the big screen is a dream come true. In TV my creative freedom is very narrow, in cinema it’s different, you can create your vision in a more lucid way. So it was obvious to me that if this film will not succeed, I will be the first one to perform Harakiri! I think that subconsciously I wanted to cast actors who also would be transitioning for the first time from TV to film. Happily it was a successful passage for all of us.

The ladies of the congregation - Tikvah (Orna Banai) , Yaffa (Yafit Asulin) , Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), Ora (Sharona Elimelech), and Margalit (Einat Sarouf) discover the women’s balcony in their synagogue has been closed.

The ladies of the congregation – Tikvah (Orna Banai) , Yaffa (Yafit Asulin) , Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), Ora (Sharona Elimelech), and Margalit (Einat Sarouf) discover the women’s balcony in their synagogue has been closed.

DT: The role of women in religion is changing around the world. What do those changes mean in a country like Israel, and how are they reflected in your film?

EBS: A rabbi in a community has great powers and everyone is supposed to honor him. The fact that in this film we see women turning against the rabbi is not trivial at all. I think it created a discussion on where does the line between following a rabbi blindly and asking yourself questions go. One of the scenes I love most in the film is when the women gather to protest outside his yeshiva and his shock when he sees them.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

EBS: The film has a good ending, which is almost euphoric, and I decided to go with it full ahead, out of my belief that it is a well-earned ending for this story, although I was afraid the audience will feel it is too sweet. Happily this didn’t happen, and it gave me an appetite to keep on telling stories for the big screen.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan/Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger

Restless Creature_physical therapy_250 resize

Whelan in postsurgery physical therapy.

Considered by many to be the world’s greatest living ballerina, Wendy Whelan is also the epitome of dedication to one’s art, a supreme example of what it takes to be great. Having danced since she was three, Whelan faced possible career-ending surgery at the age of forty-seven–an age at which most other dancers move away from performing into teaching or choreography. But Whelan so identified with the dance itself that she refused to give up, instead staging a comeback that allowed her to retire from City Ballet on her own terms and begin to explore the new world of  modern dance. Whelan’s personal struggle, as well as her breathtaking dancing, is captured with great humanity and passion in Restless Creature. Availability: Opens May 24, New York City, Film Forum and Lincoln Center. Click here for listings near you. Click here for trailer. Thanks to Michelle DiMartino, Falco Ink, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Your film left me speechless. There have been a lot of documentaries about people who are completely dedicated to their craft or artists whose identity is synonymous with their art, but with Whelan there’s no daylight between what she does and who she is. I wanted to talk to you about how you chose to deal with that in your filmmaking.

Restless Creature_midair_650 resizeAS: The way the project came about relates to what you’re asking. Diana DiMenna, our executive producer, knows Wendy very well, and she realized this was a moment in Wendy’s life that was a pivotal transitional moment. She also knows Wendy’s personality. She approached us with the thought that this would be a very interesting time to explore an artist’s life.

We met with Wendy and she told us a little bit about what she was going through. I think she was a little hesitant at first to do the film. It was this unsure moment in her life, but she agreed to let us film some work she was doing in the studio. We really wanted to show her that we were going to be as much a fly on the wall as possible and blend in and just follow her process as she was going through her life experiences at this moment.

The first day we filmed her she was in the studio working. Then we spent some time talking to her a little bit on film. We showed her the footage and she was happy with what she saw, so we took it from there. Little by little we got to know each other more and more, and she became more and more comfortable with us.

LS: She was always very approachable. She was never a diva. I was a fan of hers and I loved watching her as a spectator. In my opinion—and in most people’s opinion—she’s the greatest ballerina of our time, but she was just so grounded. She knows she’s good, but she’s also still a kid from Lousiville. There’s something relatable about her.

She was also able to articulate to us how to get her body into a certain condition where she was able to achieve a difficult move, as well as the feeling of it. She could take us into that world, and suddenly I felt, Oh, I get it, I understand! She was able to get us into her world and allow us to feel like we were experiencing what she was experiencing.

 

DT: Who drove the film—you or Wendy?

AS:We wanted to follow her through this transition. As things would occur, she would be in touch with us and say, “This is what I’m doing today.” Little by little things started to unfold that way, but we would also be reaching out to her regularly, ask her, “What are you up to? What are you doing? We want to film that.”

LS: We had an agenda of certain things we’d make sure to get—things we might need later on. Sometimes it would come out in conversations Wendy was having with a friend, and we could say, Oh, we got it—we don’t need to try and pull it out of her unnaturally. For instance, there’s a scene in a coffee shop where she’s talking to another former principal dancer from the New York City Ballet. She’s describing Balanchine’s world: “I’m in, I’m in, no boyfriend, no babies, I want this, I’m in.” We didn’t have to say, “So, you gave up having a family.” Instead it came out in a very natural way.

AS: As opposed to us saying, “So why didn’t you have children?” she was going through this process of dealing with coming to the end of a career. She was meeting with different friends and talking about their experiences. In the conversation Linda is referring to, Wendy said that if you’re in Balanchine’s world, you didn’t have babies, you didn’t get married, you were all in, you were all or nothing. For us what was important was to capture her process of going through and dealing with this moment in time, and we felt, Let’s take that approach to it.

 

DT: It’s so interesting to me that everyone talks about ending her career, whereas in fact she did not end her career at all; it just took a different trajectory. One remark in the film struck me like a thunderbolt: She said that other people had the option of teaching or coaching dance, but that option was not available to her. The only option available to her was to dance. She didn’t end up not dancing, she didn’t stop doing what she needs to do.

AS: Exactly right. When someone asked us about the film, we we’d say,  It’s not about the end, it’s about  re-creating yourself and figuring out how you can still continue to create under the circumstance, as a pure artist. That’s what Wendy’s mission and goal are, and that’s what was so interesting for us. It wasn’t about the end; that’s what was exciting about it. For us the idea that she was doing Restless Creature and using that vehicle to explore a new world and a new dance form was very interesting. One of the original reasons we started the project was that question: I know I can’t dance ballet the rest of my life, but I do want to continue to create, so how am I going to do that? I’ll do it by trying this.

LS: It was actually very difficult in the edit room. We took a lot longer than necessary to edit this film; we were grappling with it because there were so many different types of endings. The one thing we were not going to do was have this being the end of her career at City Ballet. But there it was: footage of the curtain call, the final performance. We asked, Should we make a comeback film—can she do it? The finale [at City Ballet] is an end, and we were really working to make sure that wasn’t the end of our film. It was very hard to get the ending we had.

The final curtain call at New York City Ballet.

The final curtain call at New York City Ballet.

 

DT Catching dance on film is very difficult, but you were lucky to have Don Lenzer as your DP, a cinematographer who not only knows dance but knows City Ballet from previous films he’d shot, like Dancing for Mr. B: Six American Ballerinas and Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse. Can you talk about working with Lenzer and what he brought to your film?

LS: He’s brilliant, and he disappears. He disappears with this big camera on his shoulder, and he captures these moments so beautifully. He’s like a ballerina when he has it. He dances with his subject. He’s in and out and it’s magic. We’d worked with him on other projects, but we knew from the first day’s shoot that he was the perfect cinematographer for this because the way he shoots dance is just so subtle. It looks like there’s no cameraman.

AS: When Wendy saw that first bit of footage we shot of her in the rehearsal studio… One technique Don uses is to put his camera on a tripod with wheels. The dance studio is the ideal space for that because he can actually move with the dancer as he or she is doing their choreography. It’s a really beautiful technique and very smooth. And Don has the background. The world of dance is a passion for him, it’s something he just loves to death. He’s always excited to come to work every day, but particularly so with this project.

 

DT: Linda, you were a fan of Whelan’s long before you began the film. When you first started shooting, was it difficult to separate the individual from the legend?

LS: On any film that Adam and I both do we really try to be objective, in a “Here’s this person I know nothing about and I want that person to take us into their world” way. We really want to get inside their heads. We really want to feel and understand who they are. It just so happened that Wendy was a wonderful person. It could have been horrible, but it wasn’t. We really try to be objective.

We did the same thing with Ron Galella [Smash His Camera]. Going into that project I kind of thought he’s got to be horrible, he’s got to be a terrible human being, but we went in saying, We’re going to tell the story and get to know him. We ended up thinking, He’s an artist, and this is his craft as a paparazzi. It’s fun to throw away anything we may think or know about the person and then start fresh. With Wendy it wasn’t very difficult. She’s a brilliant dancer, and I would be speechless after some of her performances.

AS: What was interesting was that Linda had no idea what Wendy’s personality would be, and that was what was kind of exciting about it.

LS: I didn’t know how much work went into doing what she did. She really took us into the ballet world, and you see that for these athletes, these artists, the work they do is grueling.  Six days a week, maybe seven, in the morning they go to class, then rehearsal, then PT, then they do a performance, then they go to bed and repeat it the next morning. They’re constantly working on their bodies, and they know every detail  about their bodies.

AS: As you were saying at the beginning, there’s no separation between Wendy as an artist and what she does, because that’s her day. Every day. That’s who she is.

DT: Other dancers do the same thing, but there’s something about Wendy in particular that is just different.

LS:  Vocation. It’s her being. It’s truly who she is: an artist who expresses herself through her body. She does find other ways to express herself—as I discovered, she’s a very smart woman, she’s a photographer, she’s very articulate, she’s a philosopher. But the way she expresses her emotions and her feelings really comes through her body. It’s her essence.

AS: As she says in the film, “If I don’t dance, I’d rather die.”

 

DT: What about her surprised you the most?

AS: I was surprised at how down-to-earth she is. I always had this image of the prima ballerina as something different. Her salt-of-the-earth qualities were really interesting to me. I got the feeling that maybe this exemplifies what the modern ballet dancer is.

LS: She’s so honest. So approachable. One night she was talking at great length with this couple after a performance, and I thought they were friends of the family or friends of hers or maybe patrons. When I asked her who they were, she said, “Fans. They come to the ballet a lot.”

Passing the baton.

Passing the baton.

AS: I would also say her work ethic and her determination are really, really extraordinary. You don’t get to where she is by not having that. All of the other dancers respected that in her and were enamored and in awe of that. She works that much harder, that much longer, and she demands that from her partners. She works truly hard with them but in the most respectful ways. She seeks to get the most out of. She conveys that when she’s talking to Craig [Hall] and Tiler [Peck] at the end of the movie, when she says, “You guys are now masters.”  She takes very seriously the whole idea of passing the baton, so to speak, from man to woman to woman to man. That’s very important to her.

DT: Moving from ballet to modern was something of a double-edged sword for her—in one way it was liberation into the future and in another way it was acknowledgment of a completed past. You’ve seen her do both. You’re not dance critics, but did you sense that in her dancing at all?

LS: It was more a sense that she was going to work as hard as she worked in ballet to really master another form of dance. We filmed a few rehearsals with Risa Steinberg over at Juilliard, hours on end trying to let go of the ballet moves and redirect her body. She hasn’t perfected that craft yet, but she’s continually working at getting there, going to class every day.

AS: At one Q&A she was talking about the difference for her between doing modern dance vs ballet. Taking the toe shoes off was a big deal for her. She hadn’t had toe shoes on for a very long time, and then she put them back on and she basically said, “Aaaah,” because she was so comfortable in the toe shoes.

LS: She said, “I’m home, I’m home.”

AS: The idea of taking her shoes off and dancing without them was so different for her. I don’t know if it was a double-edged sword, but it was definitely something unique for her, the idea of not having—I don’t know—maybe the security of having the toe shoes, ironically.

LS: Also the craft she was trained in since she was three. At age forty-seven…

 

DT: At what point did you decide to make her leaving the City Ballet the focus of the film?

LS: The story of the film really came through in the edit room when we could look at all the material. When we started, we really didn’t know if she was going to retire during our filming. She didn’t make that decision until March 2014. We started filming in the summer of 2013, so we were looking at what would happen when she got back onstage. Once she made that decision, we said, We’ve got to keep going, we’ve got to follow this, and we’ve got to get access, of course this is the end, or do we start with the end?

AS: There was so much going on. She’d had the surgery; she was now doing Restless Creature and had scheduled shows for that; she was trying to make a comeback and then ultimately retire. There was just so much, so we were following it to see what would happen. Ultimately she kind of answered the question for us when she said, I can’t do these other things—I need to just focus on getting back to dancing ballet, and getting back on the stage of the New York City Ballet.

LS: There was a point where we didn’t know if she was going to get back onstage, because there was also the issue of her surgery. She was so emotional, too: My body! Will it work?

DT: How did that feel to you as filmmakers? Were you invested in an outcome for her?

AS: Not at all. We were just following her. Of course we were hoping that she’d make it through—

LS: Because of her more than the film. You say, Of course she’s going to do it, but we knew that this was just a very very scary time for her.

AS: She was afraid; she didn’t want to fail. She was very afraid of that. She wanted to end it on her own terms. None of us would have been happy if it had all fallen flat, but we knew it was a risk for sure.

 

DT: Is there anything you regret?

LS: I wish we could have shown more of the dance in the film, scenes we had to cut out because they were taking us in a different direction. There were more moments with the other dancers that were beautiful. The regretting is wishing we could put more material in the film.

AS: With regard to the dancing, during her final performance she danced a total of five pieces, including the final piece that we show in the film. They were pieces from all different points in her career, and we have all that footage, but we ultimately made the decision to leave it out. We had the exclusive on that final piece, which was a one-night only, onetime performance, and we ultimately chose that as the focus for that last night. It was quite an evening, but we had to make a decision.

LS: During those weeks she wasn’t just getting ready and rehearsing for her final performance. She was also dancing in the season, so she was doing other performances. It was like candy. She couldn’t get enough of it. She knew it was coming to an end, and it was nonstop. We just kept thinking, How does she do this?

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Manifesto/Julian Rosefeldt

Cate Blanchett as the tattooed punk: Stridentism/Creationism, featuring manifestos by Manuel Maples Arce, icente Huidobro, and Naum Gabo. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20 Courtesy of FilmRise

Cate Blanchett as the tattooed punk, representing the Stridentism/Creationism movement, featuring manifestos by Manuel Maples Arce, Vicente Huidobro, Naum Gabo. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20 Courtesy of FilmRise

The film Manifesto began its life as a 13-screen installation. Each screen projected Cate Blanchett playing a different character situated in a bizarre setting somewhere in Berlin. Each character delivered a “supermanifesto” stitched together from such manifestos as Marx and Engels’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, The Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, the Fluxus Manifesto, and Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Filmmaking. In the film, Blanchett’s first character, for example, plays a homeless man wandering through the streets quoting text from the Situationist movement, including Alexander Rodchenko (The Manifesto of Suprematists and Non-Objective Painters, 1919), the Draft Manifesto of the John Reed Club of New York (1932), and Lucio Fontana, White Manifestos (1946). Manifesto is enthralling, hilarious, and an acting tour de force. Click here for trailer. Availability: Opens May 10, NYC, Film Forum, with national rollout to follow. Click here for a theater listing near you.  Thanks to Keaton Kail and Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

DT: Julian, I’m interested in how you matched the various pieces of Manifesto together: text to text, text to character, text to location.

JR: It’s very important to keep in mind that the original work is a 13-screen film installation.  At the beginning, I started working mainly on the installation but knowing that there would also be a film, because in order to finance the installation I had to bring on board people who were more interested in the linear version.  So I was thinking about the film from the beginning. There are thirteen characters and  twelve scenes—in one scene Cate plays two characters. In the installation, each scene was displayed on a different screen. The challenge in editing the linear version was how to create a film out of that, because there’s no narrative. There aren’t even twelve short stories, so it’s more like we created a visual narrative.

Coming back to your question, I started working in parallel on the manifesto collages—re-editing manifestos into “major” manifestos—and, on the other side, collecting ideas for scenes in which a woman (and one “man”) delivers monologues. Cate and I were playing together on a long list of ideas. At first there were more than fifty, and we ended up doing twelve out of that.

Sometimes it was easy to translate a certain manifesto collage into a contemporary scene. Sometimes I wanted the spirit of the manifesto very much contained in the scenery. Take, for instance, Futurism, where we set the Futurists’ fascination for speed and technology in a stock exchange, which had the same ethos. Sometimes the combination was playful, even antipodic; for instance Pop Art, where we took a Claes Oldenburg text and combined it with a conservative family at lunch, which is everything but Pop Art.

Manifesto©JulianRosefeldt_2015_09a_family lunch_600 resize

Cate Blanchett with family: Pop Art. Manifesto by Claes Oldenburg. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20 Courtesy of FilmRise

 

DT: The family at the table was in fact Cate’s family.

JR: That was her family, in a world where only the little pink salt and pepper shakers could be called poppy. And Cate calls the dog Poppy. But that scene depicts the world against which Pop Art had to run. So there were two strategies: directly playing with the content of the manifesto by analogy or juxtaposition, but also sometimes just playing with it, like with the Fluxus collage, where we integrated Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintenance Art Manifesto and Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto—performance manifestos, because we just felt that the scene needed some liberation.

DT: Liberation from a one-to-one translation, even if it was antithetical?

JR: Yes. That’s also the recipe for some other aspects of the work, for instance the way we use the architecture. I believe it’s interesting if you separate images from content, because then you as a viewer are much more engaged and much more asked to participate and complete what you see. The image has no didactic mission. We urgently need the audience to complete what we created. So you are seeing something, and your senses are supersharp from the beginning, because you see places that you haven’t seen before, the action doesn’t necessarily have to happen where it does, in these weird places, and the text material, which is highly intellectual and very poetic at the same time, also sharpens your senses. Things happen there that are absurd in a way.

All of these—including  the fact that a woman impersonates or reenacts all these testosterone-driven male texts, which is another strategy—aim to peel out the nucleus of the original beauty of the texts. Because these texts have been interpreted so many times by art historians, they became monuments of art history. But I was very interested in the actual poetry of the words of these writers, whom we know more for their visual work of course than for their writings. It’s interesting if you keep in mind that these texts were written at a very early stage of the artists’ lives, when the work for which we know these artists now, the visual work, sometimes wasn’t even created yet.

 

DT: What work did you and Cate do  before shooting?

Manifesto_10a_fluxus_600 resize

Cate Blanchett as choreographer: Fluxus/Merz/Performance art. Manifestos by Yvonne Rainer, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, John Cage, among others. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20 Courtesy of FilmRise

JR: Cate very generously gave us two weeks in Berlin, so we had eleven shooting days with her plus two rehearsal days. In order to do everything in such a short time, my team and I had to work half a year on all the preparations, but at the same time Cate and I talked a lot about the attitudes and accents of each and every character. These are not really characters, they are more vessels for ideas. They are archetypes, some of them very exaggerated, like the choreographer or the tattooed punk, which are rather like exercises in acting. Others are very believable, like the teacher or the single mother who turns out to be a factory worker.

Out of hundreds of manifestos, I distilled thirteen text collages. The question became, How would you speak these texts? And there’s not only Cate onscreen, there’s also a lot of inner monologue, which we recorded later. Cate likes to say that there was no time for intellectual reflection during the shooting of the film, so she just went for it and felt the attitude of whatever we had  scripted. Then, with a few comments like “getting angry,” she really used her fantastic knowledge and experience to make this very beautifully detailed evolution of each and every character.

DT: How long did she have the texts beforehand?

JR: We met in New York probably half a year before we started shooting and went through all the text material together.  We also played a ping-pong of ideas to select those twelve scenes out of many other ideas.

DT: Ideas about characters or ideas about texts?

JR: Characters.

 

DT: In the scene where Cate plays two characters—the news anchor and the reporter on the street—I  got a very clear sense that you weren’t only illuminating the text but you were also deconstructing it.

JR: Deconstructing through the way we constructed the visual scene or in the text itself?

DT: No, in the way she delivered it.

Manifesto_2015_11b_news anchor_600 resize

Cate Blanchett as the news anchor: Conceptual art/Minimalism. Manifestos by Sol LeWitt, Sturtevant, and Adrian Piper. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20 Courtesy of FilmRise

JR: Isn’t it amazing that when you read these texts—they’re quoted word for word—they seem so very serious, and when you speak them as she speaks them, they’re hilarious. Many people laugh, and I think that in this particular scene, current politics overrun us. When we world-premiered the film at Sundance, people were laughing so much, and all of a sudden I understood that they were referencing the fake news debate connected to Trump. A similar thing happened when I talked about the project in Istanbul just a week before the referendum. People at the Q&A talked about populism—in France the same thing happened—so all of a sudden this project, which had a political interest but was also a love declaration to all the writings, became a super-actuated call for action. But you were asking about deconstruction in this piece.

DT: There’s an acting exercise that’s supposed to help you separate what you’re feeling from the words you’re saying, which Cate brought to mind when she played the news anchor.

JR: At the beginning of the scene, one of the people on the news crew says very quietly: “Time to go, let’s put our truth faces on before the show starts.” It’s all about the attitude. What you consider to be true is all about the attitude in the news. Cate would say something with her truth face on, and they sell us everything with that attitude.

 

DT: Exactly. The words are completely irrelevant. As you said before, this began as a 13-screen installation. You shot it knowing it was going to be a feature film, but what choices did you make when editing the linear version? Or did you not have to make any, since that was your intention all along?

JR: At first we thought it would be very easy. When we premiered the installation, we knew the material by heart, of course, as we had worked on postproduction over a year. Our first attempt was to just put the scenes in a certain order with titles in between explaining which artist movement they referred to, but that was very boring, very didactic.

Cate Blanhett as a stock broker.

Cate Blanchett as stock broker: Futurism. Manifestos by Guillaume Appollinaire, Dziga Vertov, among others. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20 Courtesy of FilmRise

As I mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, there is no narrative in this film, so I understood that my editor and I had to create a visual narrative to drag people in. I think it works quite well. You don’t reflect, you don’t miss having a story, it’s just happening as you go from location to location, and it’s also fun watching Cate’s transformation. But you’re also struck by the texts, which in the filmic version become more like one very long text instead of opposite opinions, because it’s always her voice, and you hear only one voice, whereas in the installation you have a cacophony of voices all at the same time, where you’re moving in the space and deciding how long you want to stay in front of each screen.

 

Cate Blanchett as the single mom.

Cate Blanchett as single mom: Architecture. Manifestos by Bruno Taut, Robert Venturi, among others. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20 Courtesy of FilmRise

What I like about it now is that it’s not only this love declaration to manifesto writing, it’s not only a call for action, but it’s also, if you want, a piece as it really shows us. I like to say you can be loud but you have to have something to say. Populists are just loud. There’s absolutely nothing in what they say. It’s just hollow. But there’s also a third aspect, probably more visible in the film, which is a kind of research on filmmaking. This film is not a normal film, yet it is entertaining. If you go on my website, you can see more of my multi-channel installations. I’m always very interested in the mechanics of filmmaking, and to what degree you can actually create realities and deconstruct them again. That fascinates me a lot, but we don’t reflect it much anymore.  You are forced to see a short film, a long film, or a documentary, and that’s it. Those three boxes. Sometimes when I see a Bollywood movie, I realize, Oh, there’s also a way of seeing cinema like that, and every film should be three and a half hours long.

There are many, many more possibilities for making a movie, but we’ve unfortunately left these experimental times. Think of early Godard works, where in every film he tried something out. Sadly, because of the industry and the pessure, that’s gone. We just have always the same first, second, third act. The same romantic comedy again. The same action film again. The same thriller again. Always what you see tells you what’s going to happen. Always the music tells you how you should feel. There are very few exceptions to that approach, and if you have an exception, it often ends up being an experimental film that never makes it into the theaters. So here of course Cate’s fame helps a lot because it creates a hype around seeing her in thirteen different characters, which I’m grateful for, because it drags people into this film that would otherwise never go if it would just be an “artistic” film.

 

DT: You teach Digital and Time-Based Media in Munich. How do you see the relationship between music and the moving image?

JR: I like to use music not as something that illustrates what’s happening onscreen. Of course sometimes music happens in my films because it’s contained in the image—you see singers or musicians and necessarily you hear their music—but I like to avoid using music (with some strong exceptions, I must say) just forcing you into a certain feeling. I also like to use music that doesn’t belong to what you see. I did a project on Westerns called American Night. It’s a five-channel installation that’s an homage to the Western genre, but it’s combined with current foreign policy: I believe attacking Iraq had a lot to do with the “out here a man settles his own problems his own way” attitude, the myth of the frontier, taking the right in your own hands, I’m my own sheriff. It’s still very present. Also the whole weapons cult, this is still very present, even in pop culture; rap music also derives from the Western.  I used Mozart for the big scene at the end, and it works really well.

If I can say one thing, I really do not want music to announce a feeling. If the scene doesn’t create it, you’ve failed with the scene, so you better do it again in a different way. You can add up music, of course, or use strange or entertaining music.  In Manifesto the music was very important. I worked with two composers: Nils Frahm and Ben Lukas Boysen. It was important to stitch together all these different elements, different sceneries and sets. There are two musical motifs in the film. One is more electrifying, speaking about the sparkling ideas, and the other is a piano motif, which is more of a dreamy thing that helps stitch together what doesn’t belong together.

 

DT: A number of directors have architectural backgrounds like you—Eugene Green (Italy) or Amos Gitai (Israel). How does your background in architecture translate into your filmmaking?

Manifesto_2015_06a_scientist_600 resize

Cate Blanchett as scientist: Suprematism/Constructivism. Manifestos by Olga Rozanova, Alexander Rodchenko, among others. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20 Courtesy of FilmRise

JR: I’ve always had a very strong interest in architecture, not only as a motif in my films and as a very strong influence on how I build the sets together with the set designers but also in the actual showing of my work, which happens more in the art context in the form of multiscreen installations, where I work a lot with the space and so on. But in this film, architecture has a very important function, because the architecture doesn’t necessarily illustrate what you see in the movie. We shot everything in Berlin and surroundings, and even Berliners have a hard time understanding where is what location. There are just a few things that everybody would recognize, but I tried to avoid using Berlin as a symbol. So it’s more architectural surprises, where you as a viewer again are very alert because you don’t know what that weird building is: That’s a strange thing, you think, What is the function of this building? So your senses are sharpened.

As an example of what architecture normally does in a film, you see a narrow, dark street with no end, and you know a crime will happen soon. If I use a narrow, dark street, I will probably do something completely different with it. There’s a lot of painter attitude to the composition of my films. I always say shooting on film has much more to do with painting, where you build an image layer by layer, than shooting a documentary on video, which is equally interesting but is something else. The composition of each and every image in my films matters to me. I guess it does to every filmmaker, but I think a lot about compositional ideas. In Manifesto, clearly the architecture is an important protagonist for Cate.

 

Cate Blanchett as the funeral orator: Dadism. Manifestos by Trista Tzara, Paul Eluard, and others. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20 Courtesy of FilmRise

Cate Blanchett as the funeral orator: Dadism. Manifestos by Trista Tzara, Paul Eluard, and others. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20
Courtesy of FilmRise

DT: In your opinion, which was the most successful segment in Manifesto, and why?

JR: I think various segments are successful for different reasons. The conceptual art scene [with the news anchor] is very funny, and it’s a vignette of a conceptual piece of art in itself. Then you have the funeral speech, where Cate is so breathtakingly good in the way she dramaturgically shapes the speech. I personally like the school scene a lot for many reasons. The children are amazing, it’s hilarious, and there’s also a recipe for my attitude toward those original texts. When Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Filmmaking say “Steal from everywhere. Nothing is original,” that’s what I did. I stole from everywhere. And it also has a lot of hope at the end, with the pigeons and the last text that says, “Tomorrow we begin together the construction of a city.”

Cate Blanchett as the teacher: Epilogue. Manifestos by Stan Brakhage, Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog, Lebbeus Woods. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20 Courtesy of FilmRise

Cate Blanchett as the teacher: Epilogue. Manifestos by Stan Brakhage, Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog, Lebbeus Woods. Photo Credit: ©Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst 2016_2015_20
Courtesy of FilmRise

DT: The final tracking shot is achingly beautiful.

JR: I get goose bumps when I see it. I created it, but nevertheless I still get goose bumps. I think after hearing all this beautiful poetry and visionary ideas, you see these children and you hear this last line, and you understand that OK, whatever we create now, they have to cope with it. It’s very clearly in this shot, and I love to understand that final phrase from Lebbeus Woods—“Tomorrow we begin together the construction of a city”—as a city of ideas.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

A Woman’s Life/Stephane Brize

Stephane Brize based this tender but brutal portrait of a 19th-century minor aristocrat on Guy de Maupassant’s novel Une Vie. In both novel and film, Jeanne discovers that the man she’s chosen to marry is both cruel and unfaithful, but she refuses to pander to cynicism, even while her life descends into misery. Beautiful and unsettling, the film lets moviegoers experience Jeanne’s claustrophobia but never asks them to abandon their own point of view.  • Availability: Opens May 5, New York, Lincoln Plaza and Quad cinemas, with national rollout to follow. • Thanks to Keaton Kail and Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, and Karen Tran, Big Time PR & Marketing, for arranging this interview.• 

 

A Woman's Life 7_the family_550 resize

Yolande Moreau, Judith Chemla, and Jean-Pierre Darroussin in A Woman’s Life. Photo by Michael Crotto.

 

DT: You have a very subtle way of dealing with the horrible things people do to each other. This film exemplified that, and your previous film, Measure of a Man, exemplified that. How do you achieve such a restrained but powerful message?

SB: To be very honest, I have zero imagination, but I  am a very good observer. With that, I try to watch the lie. A lie is more interesting than the idea of the lie.

 

DT: Let’s talk about the way you structure time in the film. You start out with a number of sequences from Jeanne’s late adolescence. You then cut to Jeanne twenty-five years later and the audience realizes the beginning of the film is actually a flashback. Then you return to the original time frame. It’s a very effective way of dealing with time.

A Woman's Life 3_older Jeanne_550 resize

Judith Chemla in A Woman’s Life. Photo by Michael Crotto.

SB:  In the book, the forty years are perfectly chronological. But the tools of Maupassant are not mine, so to re-create a vertical time I had to use another tool. When Jeanne is twenty and suddenly she’s fifty and suddenly she’s twenty, you create with a very cinematographic tool a vertical nontime. It is very interesting to see that in a nontime—she was twenty and suddenly fifty—you can put all the time you want. It’s a cinematographic tool that re-creates the sensation you feel in the book. It is the most complicated, incredible discovery, which I made in this film: how to speak about time. It’s very, very interesting to perceive that we can fix time with nontime.

 

DTT: In the film, as in the book, Jeanne is given the choice to marry, making this an existential rather than a sociopolitical film. How did the fact that you were making a film about Jeane’s choices rather than her social situation influence the choices you made?

SB: I chose that book because it is not about women’s condition in the 19th century. It’s much more universal and timeless. The book speaks about the relationship of a woman with life. Even if it is in the 19th century, it speaks about me, who is a man, about you, about everybody. Everybody was a Jeanne, and everybody becomes an adult. The film speaks about that.

It speaks about the difficulty of becoming an adult. Jeanne refused; she can’t become an adult. It is my link with her. When I was twenty, I can remember I had this difficulty. But in the film, it is not a difficulty: It is impossible for Jeanne to change her point of view. This can create a very, very strong story.

Jeanne’s family is not representative of the model rural family of the 19th century. In the book, the father likes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, so he’s a modern man. When Jeanne is being courted, her parents ask her, “Do you want to marry this man? You can say yes, you can say no.”  But we can see that in the two very important moments of the story—first, when she has to decide to choose a husband, and then when she decides whether or not to leave him—the person who decides instead of Jeanne is her mother. So this young woman, Jeanne, is in quite the same situation as a young woman now whose parents have a strong responsibility in their daughter’s decisions. So it speaks about everybody, even now.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Judith Chemla and Yolande Moreau in A Woman’s Life. Photo by Michael Crotto.

More than that, because for me it’s not enough to make a film, I was very interested in one thing. This story, like my previous film, The Measure of a Man, speaks abut the difficulty of illusion. I think that we live at a very, very crucial moment of our world story: We live at the end of illusion. With Trump in the White House, it is the end of our illusion.

 

DT: Agreed. In terms of the film, period pieces can be very stodgy and heavy. But the handheld camera in your film puts the audience in the very moment the action is happening.

SB: It was very difficult to fight against the images I had from older period pieces, always with very beautiful dresses, very clean dresses, very beautiful traveling in Cinemascope. All these images were poison for me. I wanted my film to be like a documentary of the 19th century. I wanted to film Jeanne like a documentary. The question of a documentary was a point I always made on set.  Where can I put my camera to re-create life?

My answers came from The Measure of a Man. Without The Measure of a Man, I could not have made A Woman’s Life. It was an incredible experience that doing The Measure of a Man, which is a contemporary film dealing with modern social problems, gave me many answers for directing A Woman’s Life. You can see the link between the two films. Another strong link is the fact that the main character is at the very middle of the story, always on the screen. In Maupassant’s book, Jeanne is not always in the story, but in my film, she is. We are always with her, like in Measure of a Man. All the time you are with them, they become the path of the plot.

 

A Woman's Life 2_grabbing neck_550 resize

Judith Chemla and Swann Arlaud in A Woman’s Life. Photo by Michael Crotto.

DT: I adored Measure of a Man. Let’s talk about the way you direct actors, because both performances—Judith Chemla’s in this film and Vincent Lindon’s in Measure of a Man—were just so outstanding.

SB: Directing actors means choosing actors. If you choose the right actors, you don’t have to direct them. I don’t tell them many things, but I told them, “I’m making a documentary about you. The fiction is the script.” In other words, Everybody will believe you are the character, so now I want to film what you are.

These are the rules on my set. If they accept, OK. If they want to play, it won’t be OK. I want them to be. Just that. I don’t want them to act. I want them to be themselves.

 

DT: You write, and you’ve also acted in a few films. Do these skills intersect with your directing at all?

SB: I went to drama school when I was twenty for three years, but I could see at that time that I simply wasn’t an actor. I played very small characters in my first two short films, so my career was so short that it’s impossible to say I was an actor. Psychoanalysis was much more important for me for erecting characters. I would not be here without Sigmund Freud. I would be dead.

 

DT: Can you talk about working with Antoine Heberle, your director of photography, especially in relation to conversations about using the 1.33 format?

SB: The DP didn’t choose the format. It was my choice at the very beginning. Before we started, I tried to shoot in Cinemascope. I thought 1.33 was the best format, but I thought I’d try something else. Immediately when I saw the scenes in 1.33 I knew it was the right decision, because it speaks about the claustrophobic feeling of the piece. The 1.33 format translates this for Jeanne. I didn’t have to speak about it; the format spoke about it to the audience. All the choices I make speak about the psychology of the character.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

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)

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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