Chronic/Michel Franco

Director Michel Franco.

Director Michel Franco.

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


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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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



Tim Roth caring for an AIDS victim.

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

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

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



Tim Roth with his daughter, played by Sarah Sutherland.

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


DT: Is there anything you want to add?

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


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Dancer/Steven Cantor and dancer Sergei Polunin


Sergei Polunin

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

Steven Cantor

Steven Cantor

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

Interview with director Steven Cantor:

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

Film poster

Film poster

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

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

SC:  Yes.


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Sergei and Steven

Sergei and Steven

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

DT: Did he want to make the film?

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


Sergei Polunin

Sergei Polunin

Interview with dancer Sergei Polunin:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT: Is this Project Polunin?

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

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

DT: Where are you based?

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

SP: No. It’s more natural.

DT: You just do it.

SP: I just do it.

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

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

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

DT: You have it.

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

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


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

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

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

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

DT: That’s also like Baryshnikov.

SP: I really look up to him.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016








The Tenth Man/Daniel Burman

The Tenth Man_Daniel Burman_internet_250

Director Daniel Burman.

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


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

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


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

The Tenth Man_Burman directing_650 resize

Burman directing the real-life recipients of Usher’s charity.

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

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

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

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


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

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

DT:  So how did you convince him?

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


DT:  How did you meet him?

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


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

Alan Sabbagh as Ariel driving in Buenos Aires' neighborhood Once in THE TENTH MAN. Photographer: Alejandra Lopez.

Alan Sabbagh as Ariel driving in Buenos Aires’ neighborhood Once in THE TENTH MAN. Photographer: Alejandra Lopez.

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


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

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



Running errands for Usher’s charity, Ariel is forced to return to his roots.

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

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


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Neither Heaven nor Earth/Clement Cogitore

Director Clement Cogitore.

Director Clement Cogitore.

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


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

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


Both the French and the Taliban brutalize the locals.

Both the French and the Taliban brutalize the locals.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

DT: Are you a fan of Gregory Crewdson?

CG: I like his work.


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

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

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


As his men disappear, Captain Bonassieu (Jeremie Renier) becomes undone.

As his men disappear, Captain Bonassieu (Jeremie Renier) begins to lose his grip on reality.

DT: Was the film a warning sign?

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

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


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

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

DT: It sounds wonderful.

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


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Les Cowboys/Thomas Bidegain

Thomas Bidegain. Photo : Antoine Doyen

Director Thomas Bidegain. Photo credit: Antoine Doyen

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

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

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


Father and son searching in Belgium. Photo credit : Antoine Doyen

Father and son searching for Kelly in Belgium. Photo credit : Antoine Doyen


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Father and daughter dancing at a country/Western festival in Le Bugey, France. Photo credit: Antoine Doyen

Father and daughter dancing at a country/Western festival in Le Bugey, France. Photo credit: Antoine Doyen

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


In search of his daughter, Alain will travel around the world. Photo credit : Antoine Doyen

In search of his daughter, Alain will travel around the world. Photo credit : Antoine Doyen

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

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

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


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

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

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


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Wondrous Boccaccio/Paolo Taviani

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Tikkun/Avishai Sivan

Director Avishai Sivan.

Director Avishai Sivan.

One fateful day, Haim-Aaron, an ultra-Orthodox Jew and a brilliant scholar, collapses from a self-imposed fast. The medics are brought in and declare him dead, but his father miraculously resuscitates him, snatching him from the jaws of death. What follows for Haim-Aaron is a physical, rather than spiritual, awakening that throws his father into a crisis that has him questioning the very act of saving his son. •Availability: Opens June 10 in New York City’s IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center. Click here for trailer and local theater listings.  Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.


DT: Can you explain the concept of tikkun?

AS: Tikkun in Hebrew means rectifying something that went wrong, but in the Jewish community it means something much deeper than that. It refers to when a person dies and his soul cannot go to the next world because he did something wrong in the life he just left and he needs to fix it. After he fixes it, he can pass to the next world; the action of fixing is tikkun.


DT: How does the ending of the film relate to tikkun?

AS: For me there’s no tikkun. When I say “for me,” I leave it open to the audience, because I think this kind of theme gives the audience a lot of space for their own interpretation of the film. As the creator of the piece, I stimulate them with whatever I can and make a point of leading them without giving them any conclusions—but for me, this film mocks the idea of tikkun.

Dead man walking.

A dead man walking.

The protagonist, Haim-Aaron, is a kind of dead man walking. He’s seen his life again, and he needs to fulfill what was absent in the first part of the film: satisfying the physical being. In choosing death, he admits that he cannot do this tikkun thing. It’s too big for him. It’s a mission you can’t really do.


DT: Many of the settings and scenarios in Tikkun are similar to those in your first film, The Wanderer. As a matter of fact you’ve described Tikkun as an “escalation” of The Wanderer. Why revisit the same theme?

AS: The Wanderer was a very low-budget production, and I couldn’t put all the things I wanted on the big screen. There was a lot of material I didn’t really explore in the first one, so I needed another feature film. You can call Tikkun chapter two. This is the simple reason.

Every film I make is a test to play with cinematic language, even if it looks like the same piece. One of the Israeli film funds rejected Tikkun because they said it was the same as The Wanderer. You know, Marcel Proust said that every artist does only one piece in his life, but in different versions, so I kind of surrendered to this big effect. I thought, OK, I’m doing the same thing but in a different angle, and I didn’t resist that. It gave me a lot of freedom to do it again but much better.


DT: Let’s talk about casting. Aharon Traitel, who plays Haim-Aron, was formerly an  ultra-Orthodox Jew, while Khalifa Natour, who plays his father, is a Palestinian Muslim. What kind of preparation did each of them have to do?

Palestinian actor Khalifa Natour plays Haim-Aaron's ultra-Orthodox father.

Palestinian Khalifa Natour plays the ultra-Orthodox Jewish father.

AS: First let’s talk about Khalifa Natour, because he’s an amazing actor. After I told him he got the part of the father, he kind of regretted it, because he’d seen The Wanderer and he was afraid of my cinematic approach, which is very hard-core arthouse. But he also understood that in this film there’s much more material to develop and play with. I called a second round of casting but didn’t find any actor who could do what Khalifa could, so basically I begged him to take the role.

For him it was very fascinating. He looked at it like a child that’s learning how to walk, how to speak. I took him to yeshiva, I brought him to meetings with an ex-Hasid who taught him Yiddish in the right accent. Khalifa prepared a long list of questions: How do I put on the tefillin [phylacteries used by Orthodox Jews in prayer]? How do I read certain prayers? Of course he did a lot of work with me, but from his side he brought to the table very deep research on how to access this character.

For Aharon Traitel it was a different process, because he left this [Orthodox] world. At the time that I asked him to do the film, he was a very wild, secular person. He had a lot of tattoos, which we hid in the film, and he used drugs and did a lot of crazy things just to be like the other secular kids. I worked with him much longer than I worked with Khalifa—about one and a half years—because he didn’t have any background in acting. I needed to teach him in order to get energy out of him. He didn’t need to be charismatic, but in the film he kind of holds it in. We did physical exercises like running early in the morning, even stupid things like hitting the wall—crazy things to give Haim-Aaron the ability to express himself and show his being in front of the camera.

Being ex-Haredi [ultra-ultra Orthodox], it was very traumatic for Aharon to relive it again. I sent him back to yeshiva to practice again how to read the text and how to do the ritual prayers. He told them he was thinking about going back to religion, and that’s why they accepted him. He took it very hard; every night he ran away from the yeshiva to drink like hell, then went back to the yeshiva in the morning. It was hard for him, because when he shifted his consciousness and left religion, it resembled Plato’s allegory of the cave. Aharon saw the light, and he couldn’t come back to the cave and behave like he didn’t see the light.


DT: When Khalifa was learning Yiddish with Orthodox Jews, was there any kind of resistance on either side?

AS:  Khalifa was very afraid they would discover he’s an Arab. Their closed society resembles their own ghetto life, and they are all very racist. Not toward Arabs exclusively, also toward secular and Mizrahi Jews [Jews from Middle Eastern countries, as opposed to Jews from Eastern Europe]. They don’t allow Mizrahi Jews to study with their children or marry them, so Khalifa was terrified that they’d discover he’s an Arab. Mostly he listened and didn’t really speak. He was very sneaky and professional. He did it very nicely.


DT:  You have very little dialogue in all your films. Why is that?

Stealing from Keaton and Chaplin.

Stealing from Keaton and Chaplin.

AS: Maybe because I’m a primitive in a good way. Cinema began in a very primitive fashion that spoke in the way of images. Also the comic relief in my film, like when they’re smoking at the window in the hospital, is kind of slapstick stealing from Buster Keaton and Chaplin. When I write a screenplay, I have two scripts: a script full of dialogue and a script that I’m eventually going to be shooting—the same thing without the dialogue. I’m doing an exercise on how to take this dialogue and deliver the same information without any dialogue.


DT:   Can you briefly talk about Haim-Aaron’s final act in the fog?

AS: It’s a reference to Gustave Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World. It’s mocking both  the piece of art and its title. I’m a cinematographer myself, and I also shoot stills and draw and do oil painting. As an artist, I hate art history. People always say that when you create something, you should think about art history and have a dialogue with the past. If you are truly an artist, you know when you need to kill the past and look only on the present and the future. So this was kind of tickling this painting of Gustave Courbet.

People can watch the end of the film and call me a chauvinist director, but that’s OK.  Everything in life is material for me to make films. At one screening I was waiting outside the theater to go in for the Q&A, and I saw a lot of women leave when it got to this scene. I understand that, but I don’t think everything should be politically correct or have a political meaning. It can also be a purely poetic way of looking at life.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

The Idol/Hany Abu-Assad

Director Hany Abu-Assad.

Director Hany Abu-Assad with DP Ehab Assal.

Twenty-three-year-old Mohammed Assaf had a beautiful voice, and everyone told him he should compete on Arab Idol, the Middle East’s equivalent of American Idol. But Mohammed lived in the blighted refugee camp of Gaza, and auditions were held in Cairo, 250 miles away. In 2013, Mohammad snuck out of the refugee camp, made the treacherous journey, and evaded security to get into the hotel–where competitor Ramadan Abu Nahli heard his voice and handed him his treasured ticket to compete, saying that Mohammed must sing in his place. Mohammed’s run on Arab Idol galvanized the Arab world when he said, “A revolutionary is not just the one carrying the rifle. A revolution is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer. Today I represent Palestine, and today I am fighting for a cause through the art that I am performing and the message that I am sending out. The Palestinian people can speak in a million languages full of beauty, love, and peace. The Palestinian people don’t love wars and killing and destruction.” Two-time Academy Award nominee Hany Abu-Assad tells Mohammed’s incredible story in The Idol. Click here for a trailer. Availability: Opens New York City May 27.  Thanks to Denise Sinelov, Required Viewing, for arranging this interview.


DT:  Sometimes you watch a scene and you’re struck by its beauty, and it keeps going deeper and deeper until your whole body is filled with its beauty. For me, that was the scene on the beach. I saw it as the mirror image of the scene in the taxi, where he’s singing as they look out on all of the destruction in Gaza.

Tawfeek Barhom as Mohammad Assaf.

Tawfeek Barhom as Mohammad Assaf.

HAA: As a filmmaker, you’re trying to visualize the character and his journey. You can always talk about it—you can say “I’m sad, I’m complex, I’m destructive—but how do you visualize that? You do it by images, by colors, by camera movement, by editing, by combining camera movement with edits. When Mohammad is in the taxi, he’s regaining his confidence. This is what you want to tell; this is what the scene is about. You could use dialogue and say “I’m regaining my confidence,” or you can do it with visuals: You shoot him singing close up, then his love interest enjoying his voice while she’s watching outside, which contrasts so greatly with the inside. This is what you want to tell: Inside is hopeful; outside is destruction.

This is how you do visualization. At the end of the film, on the beach, is when you realize that even though you don’t want to be the voice of voiceless people but that’s what you become, your voice becomes bigger than life. And then the images should be bigger than life. You have to create images that show life from a huge, big point of view. This is how you do the scenes. This is why I think the beach scene worked for you. It’s like his voice—his power from inside—becomes bigger than life. And the beach images combined with street images mean that nobody can break his spirit anymore. This is what I wanted to say. When the spirit becomes so strong, nobody can break them. They become beauty in itself, such that you can cry from it.


DT:  In the film, the character Mohammad Assaf resisted the role of becoming the voice of the voiceless. Is that what happened in real life?

The real Mohammad Assaf

The real Mohammad Assaf.

HAA: Yes. The film is very accurate. Mohammad collapsed, he was in the hospital—it’s all true. A lot of hope was put on him, but hope has a dual effect. You can give people hope that you can help them, or you can give people hope to believe in themselves, to help themselves. The first one is a false hope: nobody can help others in the real sense. You force change when you believe in yourself, and then you can change your situation. Mohammad realized that a lot of people wanted him to help them directly, and this is why he said, “I’m just a singer.” Then he realized he should not help them directly but try to let them believe in themselves. This is why he goes to the beach and gives the people belief in themselves, rather than their waiting for others to come and help them.


DT:  How closely did you work with the real Mohammad Assaf?

HAA: I even tried to get him to play the role, but he’s not an actor. I gave him training, but he was scared, for the same reason he was scared on Arab Idol. He felt, I’m a singer, now I’m an actor too? It was too much.

DT: Did he advise on the script?

HAA: I talked to him, his family, his friends, I went to Gaza to see where he lived. When the script was finished, the family read it and gave me notes. We incorporated them into the final script, which we showed them before shooting. They’d had objections to certain scenes that for me weren’t crucial scenes, but it’s a sensitivity I understand. Sometimes there’s a scene or a story where you think, Oh, that’s cute, but they’re ashamed of it. It’s funny how people can look at things; they’re too close to what happens, but I’m looking from afar. This is why we took out all of the scenes they weren’t happy with.


DT: Did you and Mohammad discuss his musical training?

HAA:  It’s what’s in the movie. The first thing his trainer did was give him a voice. In the beginning, Mohammad was just singing famous cover songs. Then his music teacher wrote him special songs like “Shedi Helek Ya Balad.” This is the first song that was written for him. Before that it was all songs of famous artists like Amr Diab. In the wedding, he sang an Egyptian song, “Ya Bint Al Sultan.” Ragheb Alama sang that, and then Mohammad did his own interpretation. His teacher helped him enormously to develop his own material and voice—in the film, the scene in the studio with the Skype call, was also a song he did with his music teacher.


DT:  Can you talk about the logistics of shooting in Gaza and Jenin?

HAA:  The only obstacle was checkpoints. Israel forbid almost everybody to go to Gaza. It’s very difficult to go in or out of Gaza, so getting permission took us months of begging and calling the Israeli army spokesman. At the end they gave us two days of research and two days of shooting, and they agreed to take the children outside of Gaza—without their parents. So we shot in Jenin. Jenin is more free. You can go in and out without permission, but there is a checkpoint. It starts at ten o’clock in the morning and closes at seven o’clock, so we had to sleep in Jenin. Other than that there were no obstacles. The people in Jenin were enormously helpful, the people in Gaza were amazing. We had zero obstacles except the Israeli permission to go in and out of Gaza and the checkpoint that closed in Jenin. They open it when they want. Ten o’clock. Who opens a checkpoint at ten o’clock?


DT:  You’ve worked with the same crew consistently. Talk about your history with them and how the working relationship has grown.

HAA: We started together on Paradise Now and grew up with Omar. Ehab Assal, the cameraman on this film, was an assistant. Eyas Salman, the editor, was an assistant. Nael Kanj, the production designer, was an assistant. Baher Agbariya, the coproducer, was an assistant. Wajdi Ode, the location manager on this film, was an electrician on Paradise Now. It’s fun to see them coming together. When I knew I was going to do The Idol, we had a meeting, and I called together my golden team. The seven of us met in Nazareth, and we called ourselves the golden seven. It’s amazing to see them coming together with the force to do a whole feature film with no money—two million dollars, it’s nothing to make such a quality movie. It was amazing to see that.


DT:  You didn’t go to someone and say “I want to make this film.” The producers came to you.

HAA: Ali Jaafar, the main producer, bought the rights from the Arabic NBC, the network that runs Arab Idol. He called me and told me he wanted me to do the movie. They wrote a script; I read it but felt it needed a huge rewrite. I did the rewrite myself, and this is how I became involved.


DT:  This film features big stars—Tawfeek Barhom, Ali Suliman, Ashraf Barhoum—but also first-time child actors. What was the dynamic of working with such varied levels of experience?

Qais Atallah as the young Mohammad Assaf.

Qais Atallah as the young Mohammad Assaf.

HAA:  I loved it, because you invent yourself every time. You learn from it. Every actor has his own way of dealing with his craft. There is no formula, and every time you have a new experience with new actors, you enrich your knowledge about how to deal with all actors. What is it to deal with actors? To give them the confidence to do their best and dare to be emotionally naked in front of the camera. If you are honest with your feelings, you feel naked in front of the camera. Every actor is different in how he can be honest.

Working with children but also with Tawfeek Barhom and Assaf Barhoum and Ali Suliman was a joy. It’s like being a race car driver, because you have to change gears all the time; I’m with the children, so now I go back to second, now I’m with the experienced actors, and I have to go to full gear. You feel the challenge all the time because all the time you’re manually shifting gears. It’s what gives you the excitement of doing movies. As you’re changing gears, you’re becoming a good driver. If you put it on automatic, there’s no fun in driving, but manually shifting gears, you realize what a good driver you’ve become.


DT: Has the film played in Israel?

HAA:  It’s going to play in a small festival, and I just heard that Israeli television wants an interview with me. I really want the Israeli public to see it. Most of them don’t want to see Palestinians as human because that makes their oppression of us easier: It’s easier to oppress someone you think of as less a person. These kinds of movies disturb them, yet I think it’s very important to them, because this movie is about hope and they need more hope than anybody else. They put themselves in a dark tunnel and they need to get out. This movie can help them in realizing who they are, and then they can help themselves. Because don’t think the world is going to help the Israelis come out of the tunnel they’ve put themselves into. They are in self-destruction, and they need hope. Believe me, you always wish for yourself a hopeful enemy rather than a dumb enemy. Besides, most Israelis come from Arabic countries. They are Arabs, actually, and they will enjoy the music more than me and you.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

George Nierenberg/No Maps on My Taps and About Tap

In No Maps on My Taps, documentary filmmaker George Nierenberg captures the brilliance and the passion of tap dancing giants Bunny Briggs, Chuck Green, and “Sandman” Sims, along with Lionel Hampton and John Bubbles. Nierenberg’s follow-up film, About Tap, is introduced by Gregory Hines, and features performances by tap dancing greats Steve Condos, Jimmy Slyde, and Chuck Green. No Maps on My Taps and About Tap not only rejuvenated the hoofers’ careers but also revitalized tap in the U.S.,  from where it spread around the world. Both films are currently available on DVD-R from Milestone Films, who will be restoring the films and adding bonus features. New DVDs will be out next year.  Availability:  On DVD-R from Milestone Films. Thanks to Tony Waag, American Tap Dance Foundation, and Lynn Schwab for making this interview possible.Click on the links to see videos of the dancers.


George Nierenberg with Chuck Green, Bunny Briggs, and Sandman Sims on the set of No Maps on My Taps. Photo courtesy American Tap Dance Foundation.


DT:  In your film About Tap, Gregory Hines spoke about personal style. You spent a lot of time with Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde, Steve Condos, Sandman Sims, Bunny Briggs. What did you learn from them about the importance of personal style in tap?

GN: I can talk about it in terms of tap dancing if you like, but I see it in terms of a bigger sense of what it means to be your own artist. I came to understand that what they do and what they’ve brought to their art is demonstrative of any person who tries to find themselves and tries to express themselves individually as to who they are. You can see their personality in their art. You can’t separate one from the other. You can’t have Chuck Green doing Bunny Briggs. You can’t have Bunny Briggs doing Chuck Green—it doesn’t jive. What Sandman talks about in the film is very philosophical in the sense that he uses himself as an example of how he came to understand that you can’t duplicate anybody and still be your own artist. You have to find it yourself in yourself, and that’s what makes somebody unique and special. There are plenty of imitators out there, but there are only a few who are real individuals. In art. In anything. In life.

I felt that I told that story to a certain extent in No Maps on My Taps. It was a very engaging story. People understood the humanity of the art itself and gravitated to that, so it was a very popular film that really galvanized the tap community; it was sort of the genesis of the resurgence of tap. A lot happened afterwards: There were tap parades, and we did a tour around the world, where the film was the first part of the show. Then the tap dancers would come out, and they’d get a standing ovation just for walking on stage. We did over sixty shows around the world, called No Maps for My Taps and Company.

The dancers had never experienced anything like that. Normally they’d get on stage and have to work the crowd. But on our tour, the crowd was in the palm of their hands when they walked out on stage because the film made them bigger than life. When I met them, Bunny lived in a small apartment with a woman who was not very nice to him. Chuck Green—all of them—didn’t have any prominence. Tap dancing was dying, from their point of view. The film opened at the Telluride Film Festival. We brought Sandman Sims; he became a big celebrity, they did Broadway, they were in a feature with Gregory. Their careers took off. Not only that, a whole generation of tap dancers learned from them. It became so much more popular, in a bigger sense, around the world, but they became the masters. They became the ones who were really respected old men. They got what they deserved—they were valued in a way that they never could have anticipated.

AboutTapDVDFrontCover_grandeI made About Tap because I felt I hadn’t really paid tribute to the art of tap in No Maps for My Taps. I was very, very careful about who I selected for both films. I could have picked any tap dancer—it could have been Honi Coles, it could have been Buster Brown, Lon Chaney. I wanted Jimmy Slyde to be in No Maps for My Taps, but he was in Europe. For About Tap, I chose Steve Condos, Jimmy Slyde, and Chuck Green because I felt that collectively they could tell the story. I picked Chuck Green again because I felt he was such a galvanizing force for the dancers. He was institutionalized for many years, and when he came out, he brought them all together because they respected him so much, so I felt it was important to have him in the film. I wanted to capture Jimmy Slyde because I hadn’t in the earlier film, and I wanted to capture Steve Condos because his style was so unique, and they were all so distinctively different. I picked those three because I felt collectively they would show a spectrum of the dance that was so unique. I also felt they could articulate what they did above and beyond the dance itself, that their way of expressing what they did was bigger than the dance. They put it in a context where you could view it differently, so what they said enabled you to see inside of who they were and what they were doing.


DT:  Let’s go back to the issue of personality. You got to know them pretty well over the course of filming. This may be a tricky question to answer, but can you articulate what it was about their personalities that came out in their dance?

GN:  Bunny Briggs would do a little pose where he put his hands out with his fingernails out front. He said to me, “You know why I do that? Because I get my fingernails manicured, and I want people to know I take care of myself.” It’s a perfect thing. No other dancer would say that, but Bunny would. Sandman has his sand dance. (Click here to watch.) It’s this whole identity. He said Bill Robinson was the one who told him he needed that to be able to make a living. He’s able to make those moves, and he came up with the whole thing himself after trying a lot of things. He lived in California, where there’s a lot of sand, and it was a perfect mechanism for him. He created the board. He’s like a musician with their instrument; his board was his instrument. Pouring in the sand, putting in the microphone, that was his instrument. He had to make the whole thing.


DT:  Bill Robinson did a sand dance in Stormy Weather. (Click here to watch.)

GN:  He did a sand dance, but Sandman perfected it in the way that he created a board you could stick a mic in, which had a certain kind of surface. He used a precise amount of sand. Bill Robinson tapped up and down stairs. That was his thing, with Shirley Temple. It’s not like nobody had done a sand dance at all, but Sandman had the name Sandman, you know what I mean?  He’d come up on the stage with that board and dance in one little spot. Steve Condos would dance in one spot, too.


DT:  Let’s talk about Steve Condos. What was he like?

GN:  Intense. He was so committed to his dance. With all of these people, once a tap dancer always a tap dancer. My mother was a tap dance star when she was a child. The height of her career is when she tap danced for the inmates at Sing Sing.

DT:  How old was she?

GN:  Ten. She’s ninety-one years old now, and she can still tap dace. She wanted Tony [Tony Waag, cofounder of American Tap Dance Foundation, along with Brenda Bufalino and Honi Coles] to put together a group of elderly ladies who could tap dance on chairs. So once a tap dancer always a tap dancer. It’s part of your being.

As far as personality is concerned, Chuck Green is very interesting at the end of About Tap. He has his hat, and he walks off in a certain style in the way that only he could. He had this class. He was the only one who could do that. He had this incredibly unique face, which had such sweetness in it, but at the same time he had the capacity to be so angry like he was at Sandman in No Maps for My Taps.


DT:  How competitive did challenge dancing get?

GN:  Remember, Chuck went in and out of …functionality, let’s say. On the day of the performance [in No Maps on My Taps], we couldn’t find him. He had disappeared. I had a lot of money riding on that day. Lionel Hampton, his band, the crew, the place, and everything else. Chuck literally could not be found. He hadn’t shown up at the home the night before. Nobody knew where he was, and now it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and we still haven’t found him.

DT:  When was the show supposed to go on?

NoMapsDVDCover_copyGN:  Five o’clock. Finally he calls the office and they say to him, “Chuck, where are you?” He said, “I’m in a phone booth.” They said, “Look out the phone booth. Where you at?” He said, “I’m at the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk.” Anyway, they found him and brought him up, so when he got there, he was in a certain state of mind that was a bit raw. Sandman could always get under his skin easily, but Sandman also respected him so much, as he expressed so beautifully in No Maps. Sandman was trying to egg him on, it’s just that Chuck was not in a state of mind that he could really take it. You could see at the end of the performance, when Chuck is doubting himself about how well he did, and Bunny is saying, “No, you did good, Chuck.” At the end, they’re wiping off Chuck’s brow and he says, “Got no maps on my taps,” which basically means I can tap dance anywhere. There are no boundaries to my dancing. So that’s Chuck. He’s poetry.


DT:  You also directed the films Say Amen, Somebody [about gospel music] and That Rhythm, Those Blues [about the evolution of rhythm and blues]. Is there any crossover with your tap films?

GN: Yes. There’s a tie between all the films. That Rhythm, Those Blues was about the evolution of rhythm and blues to rock and roll. In No Maps on My Taps, Sandman is standing in front of the Apollo Theater, and he claims that what took tap out was rock and roll. Chuck refers to the same thing in his conversation with John Bubbles.

This is what happened: Rhythm and blues came out of the South, out of the gospel churches. That’s where the record companies would find talent—Aretha Franklin, Ruth Brown. All those people who started out all sang in church, so the record companies would go through the South, get their raw talent, and develop it. They would tour a lot through the South—the North as well—and there were black DJs who were often more famous than the talent. The whites started listening to their music and started liking it, cause they were listening to Pat Boone, but then they’d listen to black music and they could swing to it. The blacks would have these big shows where blacks would go and hear the various groups. Suddenly the whites would start sneaking up in the balcony and watching the blacks, and they’d see things they’d never seen before. Eventually they’d go to the dance floor and try to dance with the blacks, and it created a whole ruckus. The police had to come in, and they’d put up a rope; the blacks would dance on one side, and the whites would dance on the other.

Eventually what happened is the whites started copying the black music. Pat Boone would copy Fats Domino singing the same thing. At the Apollo Theater, they started having black acts and white acts together. Ultimately the white acts basically took the black music. They stole it from the blacks, starting with Elvis Presley. He took his music from black churches. “Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog” had been sung before; it wasn’t his, but it took over the theater. All of a sudden, that became the popular thing, compared to the variety shows where you had a tap dancer, a comedian, a big band. Lionel Hampton had a tap dancer, Duke Ellington had a dancer.

DT:  Like The Ed Sullivan Show.

GN: Yeah. So the tap dancers lost their work. There was no place for them to dance. They couldn’t be booked. Bunny Briggs couldn’t find work. None of them could find work. So basically it was rock and roll that took over for tap dancers. It was gospel, it was rhythm and blues, and it all ties together cause the tap dancers are connected in that evolution.


DT:  Making a film is a huge investment of time and energy. What drew you to make these films?

GN: The passion of the people. It was just infectious. And I felt I had the ability to articulate their story. I spent a lot of time with them before I started filming, so I really understood the story that I wanted to tell. I felt that if I could re-create that story for someone who didn’t know the dancers so that they had the same feelings that I had, I’d be succesful. My attempt was to engage an audience with the same emotional feelings that I had with these individuals.


DT:  Can you talk about the relationship between the dancer and the musicians?

GN:  Jimmy Slyde talks about that a lot in About Tap.  There are a lot of dancers, like Gregory Hines and Savion Glover, who like to dance without music. You notice how Sandman Sims stopped the band from playing, whereas to somebody like Chuck Green music is integral. Duke Ellington had Chuck, so that says a lot. When Chuck came out of that institution, he used to dance with knickers. You asked him why he danced with knickers, and he said so people could see his feet. He wanted people to see his feet. He had enormous feet. As for Jimmy Slyde, it’s all about dancing with the music, to the music. When Sandman Sims is doing a sand dance, he always cuts off the music. It starts when he comes out to introduce him, he cuts it off, and then it ends to get him out. With Bunny, it’s integral to his dance. Everybody has a different approach.

DT:  What about Steve Condos?

GN: Steve Condos considers himself a musical instrument. He says Louis Armstrong is his inspiration though Louis Armstrong didn’t play the drums. He is music. He hears himself, and it’s musical. So everybody was different in their relationship to music, but no matter what, music is an integral part. Whether people use music or not, it’s all musical. They’re just making music with their feet. Remember, tap didn’t come up with music. It came up on the streets in its origin. There wasn’t any musical accompaniment. When Chuck was a little kid, he would dance on the street, gluing bottle caps to his bare feet with tar in order to create the tap. There wasn’t any music that went along with it, so the notion of having actual musicians wasn’t always possible. Peg Leg Bates would dance to music. When big bands had a tap dancer, it was out of a certain respect.


DT:  You also recorded oral histories with John Bubbles and Chuck Green. Can you talk about those?

GN:  I did a twelve-hour interview with Chuck and a twelve-hour interview with John Bubbles. Chuck’s interview didn’t make any sense whatsoever for twelve hours—he would just go off and not make sense. I just didn’t get him on a good day. Bubbles talked about a lot of different things.


DT:  Do you think that part of the reverence for Chuck Green was his connection to John Bubbles?  I believe that in tap there’s a lot of respect for the lineage of the teacher.

GN: Absolutely, and still to this day. I just showed my film About Tap at the American Tap Dance Foundation, and the place was packed. The legacy is extremely important in tap. It’s unusual the extent to which it’s part of it. In No Maps on My Taps, Sandman talks really beautifully about lineage. He talks about who John Bubbles was and how Chuck learned from John Bubbles. Bunny Briggs talks about how Bill Robinson wanted him as his protégé but his mother wouldn’t let him go. Had Bunny had that as part of his resume, it could have put him in a different class. That was a very big deal being the kid act that followed John Bubbles. Bubbles was extremely famous. He was the original Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess. He was a very, very famous tap dancer. He was also the first one to be a hoofer. He used his heel as much as his toe. Bill Robinson would dance more with the toe in a lot of steps. He didn’t use his heel as much. John Bubbles came along and was a real hoofer. Chuck learned a lot from John Bubbles; in the film, you can hear in the phone conversation between the two how much respect Chuck has for him. He calls him Mr. Bubbles. Chuck becomes a child.


DT: Would you make another tap film?

GN: I do wish that somebody would take the tapes I’ve recently found and do something with them, because I think they’re invaluable. I have hundreds of photographs of these dancers, and I wish there was a place for them.

DT:  Do you have dance footage?

GN: I do, but you have to remember that it was shot on film, so the sound is a separate element. To put anything together is very complicated and expensive, because it’s not like video tied together. All that stuff is housed at the Schomburg library, and all the negatives are housed at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. When I gave it to them the intention was that they were going to put that stuff together, but they never did.

DT:  Who knows…maybe someone out there will read this interview and give you money to make another film.

GN: I’d do it in a heartbeat.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Miles Ahead/Don Cheadle and Emayatzy Corinealdi

Don Cheadle didn’t originate the idea of playing Miles Davis in a film; folks had been suggesting it to him for years. When Cheadle auditioned for a part in Ali, the writers told him he’d be great at playing Miles Davis. Legendary drummer Tootie Heath was helping  Cheadle set up his drums to rehearse for his role as Sammy Davis, Jr., in The Rat Pack and asked, “Hey, you ever think about doing a Miles Davis movie?” Then, in 2006, when Miles was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a reporter asked his nephew whether a Miles Davis film would be forthcoming. The nephew declared that only one actor could play his uncle:  Don Cheadle.  

Calling it fate, Cheadle contacted the family. Negotiations ensued, and Miles Ahead emerged: Cheadle’s personal interpretation of Miles’s creative life focusing on the five years in the late ’70s when the artist wasn’t creating anything at all. The film time-warps from the real-life relationship between Davis and his wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to a fictional buddy-buddy caper in which Davis and Rolling Stones reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) try to recover some stolen session tapes from Columbia Records.

With a sound track that combines Miles’s recordings with Keyon Harrold overdubbing for Cheadle’s sound (Cheadle worked so hard on learning the trumpet that he misses it when he doesn’t have it with him), Miles Ahead ends with a jam session including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spaulding, Gary Clark Jr., Antonio Sanchez, Robert Glassford, and Keyon Harrold, all of whom did it for “the love of the game,” according to Cheadle, who was working on such a low budget that he couldn’t afford to pay them.

Cheadle’s aim was to make a movie that the iconoclastic, ever-inventive jazz legend would want to star in, rather than a standard biopic. What he ended up with is a great film. Click here for the trailer and theater listings near you. Availability: Opens April 1, New York City and L.A. Thanks to Russ Posternak, Murphy PR, and Donna Daniels, Donna Daniels Public Relations, for arranging this interview.

DT: There were many, many things I liked about the film, but the thing I liked best was the energy. It seemed to me that your filmmaking techniques mirrored Miles’s iconoclastic, restless approach to music-making, so you essentially had one artform echoing another. Am I reading something into the film, or was that your intention?

DC: That’s exactly what the intent was—to create something that felt like Miles, as opposed to doing a didactic document saying, This is when he met Charlie Parker, and then he met John Coltrane, and then he left Juilliard…. There are books that cover that area well, there are documentaries, there’s a radio play, there are articles; there are a lot of places where you can check off all of his achievements or get a CliffNotes of his life if you need to do that. I wanted to do something that felt impressionistic and expansive and creative and dynamic. Frances [Frances Taylor Davis, Miles Davis’s wife] can be doing a pirouette toward Miles in the past and fall, and Dave Braden [Ewan McGregor’s character, a fictional Rolling Stone reporter] can finish her fall in the present, or Miles loses Frances in a spin and then it wakes Dave up. I wanted to feel like you’re walking around in Miles Davis’s brain.


DT:  This question is for Emayatzy. What was the most difficult moment in the script for you?

EC:  The thing that I was so intrigued about was Frances saying yes when he asked her to stop dancing. When that scene happens in the bathtub, it was just kind of being left speechless. You don’t really know what to say, what to do, how to respond, and that was the hardest part for me just because of the nature of what you’re being asked to do.

What was so interesting to me about her story was the career she was building for herself. This was a woman who was one of the original members of West Side Story and worked with Sammy Davis, Jr. in Mr. Wonderful and all of that, so she had this career that was burgeoning. In that time period, a lot of women [dropped their careers], but it’s also not as common for them to have the career that she was beginning to build, so that might have been the hardest part for me.

I was telling Don the other day that while I was watching the movie, it was hard for me to see the part where he hangs up with me and in the next scene he’s in bed with all these other women. It shocked me watching it. My God, that’s what you’re doing? I know it’s in the script, but seeing it just gave me a different reaction. So all of that was very difficult for me.


DT: What was Wynton Marsalis’s contribution to the film?

DC:  He’s an old friend, and he gave me my trumpet. When I started to learn to play, I called him up and said, “I want to get a trumpet. Can you just point me in the right direction?” He said, “I’m going to get your trumpet.” It was like, You can’t buy trumpets around me. I’ll get you your axe, don’t worry about it. I got my new horn, my Monette—they’re one-of-a-kind trumpets—when he called the trumpet maker and said, “Hey, Don needs a horn. I know it takes you a year to make them, but he needs one now.” So they gave me the shop horn, which was their demo horn, but everybody’s played on that horn. Arturo Sandoval’s played on that horn. I almost didn’t want to touch it. This thing is amazing; it’s better than a new horn. It has high As left it in by some guys from before.


DT: The official Miles Davis website includes the line “Miles forever forged ahead, trusting and following instinct until the end.” But you were also working on instinct. Was there ever a point where you felt like Miles’s instinct was going in one direction and your instinct was going in another? If that happened, what did you, as an artist, do about it?

DC:  To the artists he worked with, Miles’s instructional instinct was always “Follow your instinct.” That’s why John Coltrane sometimes got to solo for twenty minutes while these other band members are going, “Why you let this dude play twenty-minute solos?” “Cause he’s trying to find something, he’s hunting for something, and I’m going to give him the space to figure it out.” Herbie [Hancock] said that one of the first times he played with Miles, they went out on stage and Miles just starts playing. Herbie is nineteen, twenty years old, and he says, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to play.” And Miles says, “Piano, motherfucker.” Miles’s attitude was, I hired you cause you can play. You’re the man. Do it. I want you to follow your instinct, cause then I can follow you. I need the thing to push back against to interact with. I don’t want to be here dictating what has to happen. When Tony Williams was leading rehearsals dictating the way charts would go, he was seventeen years old. Miles let a seventeen-year-old drummer lead the band, basically. He said, “I’ll follow you. You tell me what to play. I’m going to follow you.” Who does that? Miles’s dictum was always, You follow your own instinct.

We were at a press conference at SXSW with Erin Davis, Miles’s son. They were asking him what about the way the movie was made reminded him of his dad, and he said, “I watch the movie and I don’t feel I’m looking at Miles Davis. I know that’s Don in there as Miles Davis. I lived with my father, and I  know that’s not my father, but Miles wouldn’t want Don to be him. He’d want Don to be himself being Miles.” It’s like, “Do your version of me.”

What I wanted to really find was the place where Miles and I could—in my imagination anyway—intersect; I didn’t want to do something that was just pure mimicry. We could go to Vegas and find a cat that could probably do a Miles Davis spot on, and you’d be like, that’s walking and talking Miles Davis. I wanted to try to find out what was going on underneath there and do Miles Davis and do the things that he did and sort of be him as close as I could with my creativity, as opposed to just trying to mimic the man perfectly.


DT:  You wrote the script to musical cues. Can you talk about that process?

DC: A lot of writers write with music in mind as they’re creating the story. We were very lucky to have the Miles Davis library to rely on. Steven [Baigelman] and I wrote with a lot of the specific music in the movie in mind and imagined scenes to the sound track.

That’s another thing—Miles’s music is very cinematic, and it lends itself very well to sound track. We were fortunate enough to be able to get a lot of the pieces we wanted into the film. The fight sequence in the past, where Miles is dragging Frances through the house looking for this imaginary lover, and the fight scene in the present where he’s going to find the tapes to try to get back his music, I wrote all of that in a blur to the Miles in Tokyo “So What,” which we use in the piece. I just regurgitated it out in one sitting, sent it to Steven, and said, “What do you think?” He said, “Yup. Put that in.” Sometimes it comes like that: you’re inspired by a piece of music and you see a sequence happen in your head.


DT:  Would you like to direct again?

DC:  Not at this budget level. I hope crowd-funding won’t be necessary. I’m glad we were able to do it, and it’s nice to have it in a movie where the main character is about “social music,” but I hope to just be able to have a budget next time that doesn’t require me to call Pras [Michel, associate producer] and Kevin Hart [contributor] and defer all my money and pay for it myself and all the other things we had to do to make it happen. I’ve been offered several things since this to direct, which is great, and I’ll probably take one on…after a long nap.


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