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

Vince Giordano_Amber_125 resizeIn the mid-1950s, five-year-old Vince Giordano had a “Eureka, I’ve found it!” moment. Noticing an old carton in his grandmother’s parlor one day, he asked her to open it. Inside was an old Victrola with a collection of records from the 1920s. They set up the Victrola. Then, under her supervision, young Vince cranked up the machine and very, very carefully lay one of the precious disks on the turntable. Scratchy tunes began to pour out of the megaphone, and Vince’s eyes grew huge. “This is my music,” the future bandleader declared.

Over the next fifty years, Vince would spend every waking moment listening, collecting, recording, studying, Vince Giordano_Dave Davidson_200 resizeperforming, and conducting over 60,000 jazz tunes from the ’20s and ’30s. He created a band, The Nighthawks, who would play the Newport Jazz Festival,  New York City’s Town Hall, and Jazz At Lincoln Center. They recorded the soundtracks for The Good Shepherd, Away We Go, and Public Enemies. You’ve seen them in such films as The Aviator, Cafe Society, and Boardwalk Empire. And, if you’re lucky enough to live in New York, you can catch them every Monday and Tuesday night at Club Iguana. In Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past, codirectors Amber Edwards and Dave Davidson capture the Nighthawks as they’re guided by Vince’s devotion to authenticity of sound and performance, his mission to spread this music, his expansive generosity, and his utter joy when the band begins to play. Availability: Opens January 13, New York City, Cinema Village. Click here for the trailer and a sample of Vince’s band. Click here for theater listings. Thanks to Kelly Hargraves, First Run Features, for arranging this interview.

 

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

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

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

 

Vince Giordano_with sax_550 resizeDT: I liked the way you covered the band while they were playing. How did you shoot the music-making?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

AE: He says, “It’s my religion.”

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

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

 

Vince Giordano_with mic_750 resize

 

DT: You capture that beautifully in the film.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

AE: He literally did it in one take.

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

Seasons/Jacques Perrin (director), Stephane Durand (writer)

Director Jacques Perrin. ©Mathieu Simonet/Courtesy of Music Box Films

Director Jacques Perrin. ©Mathieu Simonet/Courtesy of Music Box Films

The writer/director team who brought us Winged Migration and Oceans now proffers a saga of animal life on land. This magical, hypnotic film goes back 20,000 years to a time before agriculture, when our hunter-gatherer forebears lived alongside animals with no thought of domesticating them. It takes us back to a time of natural order and resplendent biodiversity, when humans allowed animals to be their teachers. And it urges us to return to that time, to treasure the wild planet we inhabit, to make room for other species once again, and to care, each and every one of us, for the magnificent gift of life, which is not ours to own. •Availability: Opens in select cities November 25, with national rollout to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  What was your motivation for making this incredibly beautiful, unusual film?

JP: We always try to have aesthetics, but we didn’t make the movie for aesthetics. First is the theme of the movie. As you see, the planet can be so beautiful because of the diversity of trees, plants, and animals, but the diversity of animals is only in our minds, because in Europe we have fewer animals today. That’s why we begin the movie 11,000 years ago, because in this epoch we saw so many animals. If we consider wild animals today, it’s only in our mind, because we don’t have them anymore.

Tournage Galatée films - Les Saisons - Réalisation Jacques PERRIN et Jacques CLUZAUD. Séquence des Loups - Foret de Chantilly

Tournage Galatée films – Les Saisons –
Réalisation Jacques PERRIN et Jacques CLUZAUD. Séquence des Loups – Foret de Chantilly

It is so important to know we are all wild. We were all wild. Before, animals and humans could live together. When we live together, there’s a notion of freedom. And freedom means wild. We can recoup that. We can return to that, to have new lands with animals and many plants. That moment is beginning just now, more or less in a good way, but in a good way when we understand what agriculture does. When we see how few fish there are in the sea, when we see attacks on nature and the planet, it’s terrible, but we didn’t make a movie on terrible things. Why make bad things? When we made the movie we were cautious; we know it’s not good but we feel good, because we believe in hope. And when we made the movie, the aesthetic is more or less hope. An expression of hope.

 

DT: You recounted 20,000 years of the history of Earth’s wild animals. Meanwhile, you depicted the evolution of humans through the eyes of animals. I thought that was a very interesting choice. Can you talk about that?

SD: You’re right. We wanted to tell this story about wild Europe 20,000 years ago through the point of view of the wild animals. One of the subjects is human beings coming into Europe as hunter gatherers at the beginning, and then new people coming from the East, the Middle East, and they start to cut the trees and grow cattle, grow crops…

JP: We make so many fiction movies, but so few movies on animals. We make five thousand movies in the world, ten thousand, without seeing animals except a very charming little dog in a garden. No! In this movie we tried to create space at the dimension of the animals. Animals give us the notion of freedom. They give this impression. If we have all the animals in the zoo, in some closed area, we don’t understand. We don’t understand the way of the wind, the way of nature.

SD: What we realized in doing this movie is that we share the same territories with wild animals. We share the same history. We wanted to show what happened in antiquity, during the Middle Ages, during the Renaissance, but from the animals’ point of view, and it’s why we made this sequence about the First World War, for example.

 

DT: I found the scene where the wild horses are fighting really terrifying. For me, this scene really exemplified the magic of cinema, because you have a camera there, and crew, and equipment, but it ends up being something so raw and so powerful and so terrifying.

Ludovic Sigaud/Courtesy of Music Box Films

Ludovic Sigaud/Courtesy of Music Box Films

JP: Our camera was always on the same plane as the animals. Always. We were a meter, a meter and a half away, not fifty meters. Very occasionally we used a tele lens, but very little. We wanted to always be near the animals. If they went very fast, we went very fast. If they ran, we ran at the same moment. So the technique had to change, had to be created for that.

It’s the same with humans. When I speak with you, I look at you. I understand because I look at you. For animals, we don’t understand if we’re five, ten, twenty meters away. We must be very near to understand their mystery. For the movie about birds [Winged Migration] and for the animals in the sea [Oceans], we were also very, very near. Not like photography. We are not photographing. We are looking at movement. We want to be near the movement.

 

DT: The animals seemed to have great trust in you, given how close you were to them.  How did you accomplish that?

©Eric Travers/Courtesy of Music Box Films

©Eric Travers/Courtesy of Music Box Films

SD: It depends on which sequence you’re speaking about. There was shooting in the wild, with wild animals, when we would take a long time to hide and be close to the wild animals. Sometimes that was impossible, because in Europe animals have learned to be very shy and have been afraid of humans for centuries and centuries. So we use hand-raised animals, imprinted animals. We took small babies from zoos and parks with us, and we were part of the pack of wolves. We worked together. We lived together.

JP: For these kinds of animals, they are not wild, but they are free. That means we never trained the animals to do something. We didn’t teach them movement. They were absolutely free to make their own movement. It’s us; we adapted our technique to the function of the movement of the animals. We are at the orders of the animals. They are free. They give the impression of being wild, but they are only free.

 

DT: Were you using long lenses to get close to the wild animals?

JP: Ninety-five percent is near the animals.

 

DT: Jacques, what sparked your interest in making nature films?  You started out producing for Costa-Gavras.

JP: I made several political movies with Costa-Gavras. When we make this kind of movie about nature, we have something we must defend all over the world. Twenty years ago, people didn’t realize how badly we treated nature. I think it’s political. We can live better if we are in agreement with nature, with the trees, with the plants, so for that reason, it’s political. It’s not only the aesthetic—“Oh these birds are so beautiful, these fish are so beautiful, these animals are so beautiful.” They are in life more than we are. When we made Winged Migration, many of the birds flew more than 5000 kilometers one way and then back, every year. Humans can’t match that performance.

 

DT: Was that political aspect in the script? The animals were very adorable, but the encroachment of humans was what was driving the story.

SD: That’s really what we wanted to make you feel. We put the wild animals in front of the camera, while behind them we saw the human beings, some living like animals, some cutting the trees, some building big castles and making war. Some animals are afraid and disappear from Europe, while other animals are opportunists. They try to live with humans, like the owls in the castle, in the fields, even in the battlefield, as we saw in the sequence of the First World War. Animals try to find their food in between the bones and the bullets, and it’s really important for us to show this power of wildlife.

 

DT: What’s the most important thing that we humans can do now?

JP: Don’t’ worry too much about political things. Politicians always speak too late. I think the solution comes from the individual human being. A man lives near a lake and takes care of this lake. People who work in agriculture must understand why they should not use pesticides, insecticides. It’s up to each of us, you, me, to understand that we have a treasure. But it’s very fragile, this treasure, and year by year the diminution is terrible.

Sometimes we make good decisions, like what happened six months ago in Paris, with COP 21 [the Paris Accords]. That’s good. COP 22 [Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, November 2016] wasn’t so good; they didn’t say, “We’ll do that,” only “We hope we can do that” because people are afraid of so many things.

The most important is that nations must say enough, It’s our planet. Actually, it’s not our planet, it’s their planet, and if species disappear, it’s a disaster. We’ll be discussing an article in the New York Times about the disappearance of some species, but when a child hears someone say we must lose an animal, they don’t believe it. They see animals in the country, they see animals on television, and they know it’s wrong that we have less. What we can do is make movies, write books, begin some little associations, believe we can change things. But not political.

SD: At the end of the movie we are optimistic, because experience shows that in North America and in Europe lots of wild animals are coming back. Huge elks and bears and wolves, and big birds like vultures, raptors, cranes, they’re all coming back in North America and Europe. So nature is doing better now than fifty years ago. But not all nature, because animals in the countryside and farmland—small birds, butterflies, snails, frogs—are all going down and down and disappearing. There are different kinds of biodiversity. For some animals the news is very good; in Europe there have never been more bears than there are today. So that’s good, and that’s why we’re optimistic.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

 

 

Mars/Everardo Gout

mars_director-head-shot_nat-geo

Director Everardo Gout.

Mars—National Geographic’s six-part miniseries airing in 171 countries and 45 languages around the world—depicts the imminent possibility of traveling to Mars. The message is sent by splitting the action in two: a 2016 documentary featuring contemporary scientists, entrepreneurs, and astronauts explaining the present-day science of space travel, and a 2033 fictional rendering of the first crew to travel to the red planet. This hybrid docufiction creates an onscreen synergy that crackles with possibility. Availability: Premiering on the National Geographic Channel, November 14. Thanks to Susan Engel, PMKBNC, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Everardo, what was your first thought when you were asked to direct this project, and what convinced you to say yes?

Checking for neurological damage. (photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky)

Checking for neurological damage. (photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky)

EG: I was a little bit hesitant to take it on. I thought I wasn’t the right director if they wanted to do a docudrama, because I don’t understand the re-creation, vignetty language very well. I’m into longer format, developing characters, making something that’s more dramatic. Then Ron [Howard, Imagine Entertainment] explained to me that the goal was to do a hybrid where we would have a miniseries with characters you would look for and follow and develop, but it was up to me to find a secret sauce on how to incorporate documentary into it because that would advance the show so much faster. And because it’s National Geographic and it’s science-factual and we had this amazing array of collaborators on the project like Elon Musk, and Andy Weir, and Stephen Petranek, and NASA, it would be a shame not to use all of that knowledge in a format that would make the drama go forward. That really got my attention.

The final person who pushed me into doing it was my ten-year-old daughter. When I explained the project to her, she was mesmerized by the idea and said, “Let’s go to Mars, Papa.” From my father’s side, there would always be talk of explorers in the house, people like the first white man to enter the kingdom of Bhutan, or a painter who traveled on a little raft through the whole Amazon. I was always inspired by those stories of exploration and discovery of a new world. On my mother’s side, she’s an astrologer, so she gave me great respect for the stars. She led me to acknowledge that somewhere, somehow, we are all connected. Of course the stars have an influence on us, because if we believe in gravity, and the rock where we stand is being pulled by the sun, why do we think stars woudn’t affect us as well? Mars was a perfect combination of the two universes, so I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”

 

DT:  The format of Mars is a little bit like the structure in your film Days of Grace, with interwoven stories that jump back and forth in time, except in Mars you jump between documentary in 2016 and fiction in 2033. What does that format offer you as a director?

EG: Every director brings a chain of rules and knowledge and cinematographic grammar that he applies to different projects. Those are the keys that will unlock the different doors in the narrative of that particular show. The way I approach fiction, I like to create a fictional space, then go and document inside. It’s the way that I shot Days of Grace; I would create a fictional space for my characters and I would tell them, “From here to here to here is our world. Feel free to inhabit it. I will follow you with my camera and do a documentary of you guys living in this universe.” Maybe that showed in my previous work, and that’s why the producers recognized me as someone who would bring some of that into the narrative side of this project. There are other techniques I like to use—I always interview my characters. I map out the emotional arc of every character and do fake in-character interviews with a two-camera setup: the actors tell me how they feel and where they come from, in the goal of creating memories for their characters for when we do the scenes later on. We create this fantasy and this imagination background that they keep with them, like a backpack of emotions. I was talking about that with Justin [Wilkes, producer from RadicalMedia] and said, “Why don’t we do that for this show? I’m sure that’s going to be helpful along the line.” We didn’t know how, but it proved to be one of those magical little weaving cords that makes us go organically from documentary into fiction in Mars.

DT: I love when you interview the fictional characters in Mars.

EG: For once instead of doing it and keeping it on my laptop for my own personal work, it actually made the show.

 

DT: You just said that you like to create a fictional world and then do documentary inside it, but this was in fact the opposite: you had a real world of science, then created fiction out of that.

EG: Yes. It was a back-and-forth, as you say, because the science was thorough. We knew that the science would inform the drama in the fictional world. We wanted to do docufiction, not science fiction. We knew the ship had to be like this and like that, and that the constraints on going to Mars had to be specific and the reality of the mission had to be specific. We had a lot of rules of what is factual that we had to play with, but that only makes better drama in my view, because you are already inside those boxes; then you can focus and concentrate on the human aspect of it and really go deeper into the characters, and what they feel, and think, and fear, and love, in the drama.

On the other hand, I could also do the same with the drama. In the reentry sequence, we actually timed the gimbal of the spaceship with all the computer graphics inside and all the lighting outside so that we could shoot that scene in real time, based on the science. The reentry sequence in fact would last approximately seven and something minutes, so we timed the gimbal to that. We timed the lighting to that. We timed the graphics inside the computer to that, so every time I shot that scene, I could shoot it in real time for seven and a half minutes, and it would be documenting that reentry.

 

DT: In a promotional video on the National Geographic website, you said that space travel is not doable by one government and that an international coalition is needed for this kind of endeavor. The film was an international endeavor, too—the cast, the crew, the fact that it’s going to be distributed internationally. How did that internationalism affect the atmosphere on the set, as well as the series’ content? Especially in light of the fact that U.S. law currently prohibits NASA from working with China, for instance. So there is an international aspect to space travel, but then there’s all of this political BS.

EG: Which is going to be great content for season two, by the way. For me the international aspect was one of the big hooks about making the series. When I said that I consulted with my child, that’s what I wanted—finally we have a show that brings out a little bit of the goodness of our society, that doesn’t depict dystopia, which is what sells right now and which I love and consume. I love Narcos; why not? But it’s also refreshing to see the opposite, which is not a dystopia but something that we could pull together. I think that ultimately the message for the show is, If we can imagine, we can do it. We can reshape our society and our government and our tools, because we’ve been on this rock for a very little time creating this huge society that we think is rock solid but it’s actually not, because we invented it, and as long as there’s imagination and power in the human brain, we can invent something else, something better, and that’s what we have to strive for. You turn on TV and there are attacks and corruption and pain all over the place because that sells, and I get it. But it’s also nice to look at what we can do when we come together, and that’s the hopeful message this show gives. That’s why I said, “I  need to do this for the future, for my child, for humanity.”

On the spaceship. (photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky)

On the spaceship. (photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky)

In order to do that, we needed to look at the science, and the science says that for the moment there is no one space agency that could achieve a mission to Mars. A coalition is needed, not only of governments but also entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and their capital. That made it a more universal project, so that the species is going to Mars, not country x or y going to Mars. That informed the script and how we were going to approach the series. From then on we started to build on top of that. In terms of the sets, we in our fictional world assumed that the ship was built by the Americans but the Rover was built by the Japanese and the habitat was built by the Russians. If you look closely, you’ll see that all the graphics represent all these different nationalities.

As far as casting . . . what is National Geographic? For me, coming from a pre-Google era, National Geographic was one of the biggest windows on exploring the world. They did it beautifully, with not only breathtaking landscapes and photos but studies of the people who inhabit those landscapes. Mars is great because it’s not one country looking at the world; it is all of the world looking at another planet, so we thought, “Let’s go and find people from all of those different nationalities and see what they can bring to the table.” We live in a world where more and more people travel in between countries and between continents, so we said, “Let’s embrace the accent instead of having to fake it or casting people who look Latino but are actually not. Let’s go and cast somebody who actually comes from that world, that country. Let’s go find the best from France and from Romania and from Korea and from the States and pull all of those people together and embrace the way they speak and their mannerisms because that would reflect the show and the truthfulness of not only the script and the sets but also the people who are making this mission possible.” I’m lucky to say that National Geographic was the best partner who embraced that and didn’t go against us.

This allowed us to open a market that is usually not that open for other actors, who were interested in exploring this market and this exciting project with us. People like Anamaria Marinca, who won the Palme d’Or for Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days and who we could bring to Mars with us. The crew was also from all over the world. We had a production designer from the UK and a wardrobe designer from Italy and we were shooting in Morocco and Hungary, so Hungarian was part of the mix, and Arabic was part of the mix. It was just a melting pot of cultures and religions, human flesh from all over the world who just got organically woven into this beautiful mix, and I think it shows onscreen.

 

Some of the crew exploring Mars. (photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky)

Some of the crew exploring Mars. (photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky)

 

DT: In the series there seemed to be two types of people who were interested in going to Mars; people who were looking for adventure, and people whose motivation was saving humanity. That was vaguely problematic for me, and I wanted to get your take on it.

EG: It’s not a show that is trying to say we are going to Mars because of this or that. We’re trying to show everybody’s opinions, and then people should figure it out on their own. I don’t like to be a moralist. I like to raise questions, not give answers. That’s the goal of whatever show I do. Personally I don’t know if we have the right to claim a planet that is not ours. I also don’t know if Mars is our ticket to survival as a species or if we even deserve a second chance, because we’re not doing such a great job [with this one], but that’s more a philosophical reflection that everybody has to ask themselves. I know that we will go to Mars, and I do celebrate that as a species in the sense of exploration. And why not? If we can get together to do that instead of building bombs or creating more oil rigs or destroying the Amazon, which we are already doing, and if more visionary entrepreneurs would put their money into space exploration, like Elon Musk, instead of people in the arms business who do horrors in the world, I think we have a better chance to survive as a species with vision and with care. And through the process of that exploration I think we will learn new technologies and will be able to take better care of our planet. I think it would be a game changer if we finally looked at how tiny and how fragile Earth is in the universe and how hard it is to find a different home, and decided to start taking better care of this one. I think the process of exploring other worlds would give us that information and that technology.

 

DT: That was ultimately my philosophical and political problem with Mars. I love the series and find it totally captivating and innovative, but the thrust of the content seemed to be about leaving the planet as a means of saving the species rather than fixing the planet.

EG: If there were two sides of this I would stand on your side, but I don’t think that one thing excludes the other. I think that if there are people investing money and doing something that’s for the better rather than trying to be president when they don’t have the capability—which is the other side of entrepreneurs who spend their money on greed more than progression—I think the better we are as a species. I believe it’s good they spend money on that.

In terms of the show, I think that the first thing is to show the planet. The show is called Mars. It’s not, Why are we going to Mars? or Do we need to leave Earth to go to Mars? It’s more like an explorer’s adventure; that’s why we fought hard for the show to be contained to those first years of exploration on Mars, not picturing once they have CDs on Mars and are terraforming the planet. It’s more about the camera being with those seven passengers in that little tiny spaceship and breathing with them and having that adventure with them. Once you have people captivated by that and they trust those astronauts and bring them to their heart, then you can start talking about other stuff.  As you will see the progression of the first season, you will see more and more the humanity side of it and little pieces of conflict within that. There are great scenes in episode 4 where the actors start a battle of Are we right? Are we not right? Is it good? What is it we are doing? slowly building up into those philosophical questions that I believe are really important to ask ourselves and the message to give to our children. That’s why we’re doing the series. So it’s a small, slow burn, but I think it’s going toward—we’re so lucky to do a season two—an angle that would be more into those geopolitical and social philosophical challenges. Now that we have an audience and now that they love these characters, we can start speaking about other stuff. That was our first challenge.

 

DT: This is a huge enterprise about an enormous human endeavor. Was that feeling palpable on the set?

EG: I think so. Everybody got into it with their eyes open and their hearts open. It was great to have Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, training all our actors in a space boot camp, as we called it. We spent time with her to learn what space is all about and how to train for it.

Even the interviews that we talked about earlier are not completely scripted. The actors are improvising what those characters feel about the mission, and their humanity goes in between their lines. Alberto Ammann, the actor who plays Javier Delgado, engages in many causes. In his private life he’s very active in fighting climate change, and I believe that when he talks about us coming together as a species, it’s him saying it. It’s the character, obviously, but some of Alberto’s thoughts are projected into the character. Everybody did their best to do that. And it was great.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

 

All Governments Lie/Fred Peabody

Fred Peabody

Fred Peabody

Independent journalist I.F. Stone coined the advisory “All Governments Lie” as a warning to a society fixated on ratings-driven, government-fed commercial media. Things have only deteriorated in the twenty-seven years since Stone passed away; Americans looking for true investigative journalism are few and far between, and true investigative outlets are even rarer. Yet they do exist, and journalist Fred Peabody has sought them out. In All Governments Lie, Peabody visits Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh in their offices at Democracy Now!, an independent news organization offering perspectives rarely heard on corporate-sponsored media. Peabody follows Matt Taibbi, dubbed the new I.F. Stone by many, as Taibbi interviews Trump supporters at a primary rally. Peabody speaks with Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Stone biographer Myra MacPherson, and a host of cultural critics about the dangers of relying on the government to provide information critical to our ability to assess it.  On government manipulation of the media, Stone said, “You’ve really got to wear a chastity belt in Washington to preserve your journalistic virginity. Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you’re sunk.” Availability: One-week run from Nov. 4 through 10 at Cinema Village, New York City, and Laemmle Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills, CA. Thanks to Elisha Gustafson, David Magdael & Associates, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: To what extent is your film based on Myra MacPherson’s book, also called All Governments Lie, about I.F. Stone?

FP: I subscribed to I.F.  Stone’s Weekly many years ago, when I was 19 years old and a would-be investigative journalist. It was recommended by a friend who told me this was the only place I’d find the truth about the US government’s policies in Vietnam, and that this Stone guy was a good writer and also a really good investigative journalist. I found the Weekly completely different from the news I was getting in Toronto from the Canadian mainstream media, or even from the New York Times, which I used to read, or from CBS News, which I also used to watch. It inspired me. About three and a half years ago I started thinking about I.F.  Stone and googled him. I’d gotten out of touch with his work since 1969, 1970, but I discovered a website called ifstone.org, which is run by I.F. Stone’s son, Jeremy.

DT: Who’s in your film.

FP: Yes, talking about his father’s advice to him regarding the importance of a free and functioning investigative independent press. I started to exchange emails with Jeremy Stone and found out he was interested in making a documentary. He also said that I should talk with Myra MacPherson, who had published an excellent biography of Jeremy’s father called All Governments Lie—which is a quote of I.F. Stone’s, probably his most famous one. I read the book, which is a great source about I.F. Stone’s life and the times he lived in, and we decided that we wanted to work with Myra. We optioned her book, but the film is an entirely different animal. It’s not a biography of I.F. Stone, as Myra’s book is. I wouldn’t say the film is based on her book, but Myra was interviewed in the film and was an important consultant, and her book was a rich source of research not only about I.F. Stone but about what he stood for and his values.

 

all-governments-lie_posterDT: You’re a journalist yourself. After interviewing Amy Goodman, Matt Taibbi, and all the others, what do you think is the primary motivation for doing this kind of journalism—a search for the truth, or a desire to fix things?

FP: I think both, but most importantly the latter. The desire to make a difference, caring about humanity and about society . . . a lot of it just has to do with thinking and caring. As Chris Hedges says near the end of our film, “I.F. Stone cared.” That’s probably the most eloquent statement you could make about I.F. Stone. If you had to boil it down to one word after his name, “I.F. Stone cared” is a great sentence.

 

DT: According to the film, Democracy Now reports of US helicopter attacks in Iraq in 2007 were ignored until WikiLeaks released classified military video in 2010. What is the function of an organization like WikiLeaks, as opposed to an investigative outlet like Democracy Now?

FP: It’s apples and oranges, but I think WikiLeaks is kind of the granddaddy of a new way of exposing government lies. They’re the first that I’m aware of that provided a relatively safe venue for whistleblowers to bring classified documents in some cases, and secrets in others, but secrets that are brought to light for the reason of exposing injustice or wrongdoing or corruption or whatever the motivations might be. So WikiLeaks has just provided a platform. I don’t really consider them journalists, because by their own admission they don’t touch a thing. They don’t even attempt to vet the documents before they release them, which has brought them under criticism by people—including Edward Snowden, who did not choose to go the route of “Let’s just dump it all out there and if it exposes some people and puts their lives at risk, so be it.” As far as I know, that seems to be the policy of Assange and WikiLeaks. I favor the Snowden approach, which is you have to be a human being about this and you can’t just say, “These documents expose this person who’s working on an undercover basis and blows their cover, but so what?” So what if they get killed is what you’re really saying. I don’t think that’s an acceptable human position, so I don’t agree with WikiLeaks or Assange in that case.

There are many different ways that whistleblowers can present the information they want to blow the whistle on, because now, thanks to WikiLeaks getting the ball rolling, there are safe and secure ways of communicating with certain investigative journalists who have different encryption methods. For instance, almost all of the journalists at the Intercept have a PGP code, a free software encryption thing. There’s something else called TOR, which other people use. Now all journalists realize the importance of doing that so people can approach them with encrypted communication. All of that has come on the heels of WikiLeaks and Snowden, who basically had to teach Glenn Greenwald how to communicate through this encrypted method. I think WikiLeaks will probably still continue to be a place where whistleblowers can go, but there are many other places they can go as well.

 

DT: Do you think WikiLeaks is being manipulated in this election?

FP: Your guess is as good as mine. I would like to think that they’re not. It depends what you mean by manipulated. I would like to think that if someone presented them with interesting hacked emails, no matter what political persuasion those hacked emails would embarrass, WikiLeaks would be even-handed about publishing or releasing them in a responsible way. So I don’t know if they’re being manipulated or they’re just getting what they’re getting from whoever. They probably don’t really know. I believe the way their system works, they don’t know who exactly they’re getting it from, but I’m not sure about that either. I think they’re a conduit, and I think what they get is what they put out.

 

DT: I was very taken by a segment in your film in which Nermeen Shaikh, a producer from Democracy Now, interviews refugees in the Calais refugee camp. All of these refugees came from countries that had been bombed by the US; Nermeen was asking them about their views of what was going on and what they thought should be done. It seemed to me like a very direct route to the heart of a very complex problem.

FP: It wasn’t just Nermeen; she was there with Amy Goodman, the founding executive producer and host of Democracy Now. It was a fifteen-minute segment, which you’re certainly not going to see on CNN or PBS, unfortunately. It showed the importance of going to places the mainstream news media are not going to and hearing voices of dissent, at least within the US context. They are voices that are critical of the United States government’s policies, and unfortunately those voices and that analysis is not often presented at places like CNN or CBS News at all.

 

DT:  I.F. Stone was not accredited to attend White House briefings. In your film, Noam Chomsky said that the greatest contribution to I.F. Stone’s career was being excluded from events like that. To what extent does being an outsider help in this work, but to what extent does being an outsider hinder this kind of work?

FP: The problem is that if you’re an outsider, the secretary of state is not going to invite you to lunch. That’s sort of using hyperbole, but you’re not going to get chummy with the White House press secretary. You’re not going to get invited to Joe Biden’s parties. They call them supersoaker parties for journalists, where they have these battles with high-powered water pistols and Joe Biden invites members of the media, like Chuck Todd from NBC and God knows who else. If you’re an outsider like I.F. Stone or Jeremy Cahill, (1) you’re not going to get invited to the supersoaker party, and (2) you wouldn’t go to the supersoaker party at Joe Biden’s place even if you were invited because you don’t want to get chummy with government sources.

Certain parts of the mainstream corporate media, including the New York Times, want to be invited to lunch at the White House with key government leaders because they believe that’s going to get them inside information. What it’s really getting them is inside spin, instead of what I.F. Stone did, which was to go to the documents, find things that prove the lie from the government’s own documents, from Senate hearing transcripts and obscure subcommittees. The information is out there, as many people say in the film. The information is there, and sometimes it’s hiding in plain sight.

DT: Buried on page 17.

FP: Right.

 

DT: In the film, Matt Taibbi was at a Trump rally in New Hampshire before Trump won the Republican nomination. Taibbi was talking to one of Trump’s supporters, who admired the way Trump manipulates the media. It’s a very funny segment, but in a strange way, it made me think of the Nixon/Kennedy debates.

FP: Kennedy was pretty, and the camera loved him. He just happened to be a person whose demeanor worked on television, in part because he was low key, he was relaxed, some would say he was also damn good looking. People who heard the debate on radio thought that Nixon won the debate, because none of those factors mattered on radio. All that mattered was the intelligence of the things people were saying or the content or the extent to which they were actually answering the questions. On matters of policy and content and even just verbally, Nixon allegedly won the debate if you listened on radio, but he wasn’t as good looking as Jack Kennedy.

John Carlos Frey has done many great investigate stories, primarily about injustice against undocumented immigrants, in many cases at the hands of US government agencies. He’s funded primarily by The Nation Institute, which is a nonprofit arm of The Nation magazine. Frey does stories that are not being covered in the mainstream media, all on spec. He can usually get his stuff on channels like Univision, but he wants to get these stories out to the wider American public, so he tries to get them on a major network, whether it’s CBS or NBC. Or even PBS, he pitches there as well. He says, “The first thing they ask me is, ‘Who’s pretty?’ ‘Do they speak English?’” These networks have a very superficial approach, which is purely ratings based. That’s unfortunately the way mass media works. This idea of “Who’s pretty?”—in Kennedy’s case, he just looked damn good on TV.

 

DT: In the film, Ralph Nader points out that big media are businesses that respond to investors, the stock market, and advertisers. Was there a time when that wasn’t true?

FP: I don’t put myself out there as the world’s leading expert on this, especially about American media, since I grew up in Canada, but I think newspapers have always basically existed on advertising. By and large, what commercial television networks are all about is advertising. The exceptions would be institutions like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which tended to have a different kind of journalism. I think a better journalism.

I had the good fortune to basically grow up at the CBC. I certainly learned my craft at the CBC in Toronto, where the values were different. When I moved down to the States and began working for American networks and programs like 20/20 and Dateline, it was almost a rude awakening. They were very different from The Fifth Estate, which is the major investigative magazine at the CBC, in that they were more ratings driven. Were they always like that? In terms of television networks and major newspapers, I think the answer would be yeah. Advertising has always been what they existed on. Circulation numbers in newspapers were important, but advertising dollars were driven by those circulation numbers.

DT: Why were CBC and BBC different? If you followed the money, where did it come from?

FP: The CBC used to say they were taxpayer funded. They’re not government controlled; they’re largely funded by tax dollars, as I believe is the case with the BBC. That’s the situation in most developed Western countries: There is a taxpayer-funded network, a public network, so to speak, that usually provides an alternative viewpoint from the mainstream commercial media in those countries.

PBS kind of started as that, but if you look at who’s funding them now, it’s gigantic corporations. They call them underwriters, but you might as well say they’re sponsors. In one notable case, a documentary that was critical of the Koch brothers was quashed by PBS. At the end of a film called Citizen Koch, there’s a clip of Steven Colbert saying on The Colbert  Report that the Koch brothers documentary was supposed to be seen on PBS but it got killed because they didn’t want to upset major funders like the Koch brothers. Then he says, “I guess that means that if you donate twenty-five dollars to PBS, you get the tote bag, and if you donate 5 million dollars, you get PBS’s nutsack.” A lot of people, even people who would identify as progressives, some of them of a certain age, will say, “Oh you’re right, the mainstream media are terrible. I never watch CBS or even CNN. That’s why I watch PBS and I read the New York Times.” Well, guess what?

 

DT: Amy Goodman says that news stories about drugs shouldn’t be sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, and that news stories about oil spills shouldn’t be sponsored by Exxon. But should stories about the election be presented by networks, most of which have some political affiliation?

FP: To me there are no shoulds. There just is what is, and we have to accept or take a hard look at what is and decide if we like it, or if we think it’s bullshit or not. I think it’s bullshit. I’ve read from credible sources that the parent company of CNN, whoever they are, are a major donor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. I think people need to be more aware of that fact. People should know that. There should be a disclaimer at the beginning of every CNN newscast—not that they have newscasts anymore. If you tune in to CNN lately, it’s just Anderson Cooper or some other CNN host sitting at a desk between two people who support Trump and two people who support Clinton and they’re all yelling at each other. It’s like watching professional wrestling. Sink wrestling.  At least let’s get things back to the level of Olympic wrestling.

 

DT:  This wasn’t in the film, but Amy Goodman was recently arrested for trespassing after she exposed the use of pepper spray and attack dogs against protesters at the North Dakota pipeline. Can you talk about the dangers that independent adversarial journalists like Amy Goodman face?

FP: Amy and Nermeen came to the Toronto Film Festival for our premiere of All Governments Lie. After a panel discussion with Matt Taibbi and Jeff Cohen, who runs the Independent Media Center at Ithaca College, we were all going to meet for a drink at a nearby establishment. I asked, “Where’s Amy?” and someone said, “She had to rush home because she thought she might have problems getting back at the border.” They had just issued an arrest warrant for her for having the audacity to film attack dogs—not security dogs—with blood dripping from one of the dog’s nose because it had been allowed . . . not allowed, encouraged . . . to bite Native American protesters who were basically making a peaceful protest against a pipeline that was going to go through their ancient burial ground. That video of the dog with blood dripping from its mouth and nose, which was obscenely disgusting to see, became an image that every single major network ran on their news because they recognize when something is sensational and it becomes a grabby news story, yet it would not even exist without Amy; the fact of Amy’s being there led to that video being presented to a much wider audience, through everybody from CNN to CBS News. She is the one who recognized that as a story that should be covered. Nobody in the mainstream did, and they wouldn’t have covered it if it hadn’t been for the sensational images of blood dripping from the dog’s mouth. So again it’s ratings driven. But they didn’t send any news crews there. Maybe they have since, but God knows what President Trump might do. Let’s hope that never happens. Perhaps arrest warrants will be issued for all journalists in the country.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

FP: I hope our film encourages people on both sides of the journalistic equation—the people providing the journalism, the journalists themselves, and the public, the consumers of journalism. I hope it inspires a new attitude to the kind of journalism that is most worthwhile and the kind of journalism we need more of and the kind of journalism we need less of, i.e., the corporate mainstream media mentality and more of the independent investigative adversarial approach that is so well exemplified by the legendary I.F. Stone. I hope this film changes perceptions, raises interest in the I.F. Stone brand of journalism and the people who are practicing it today. Even more importantly, I hope it plants seeds among young people to want to become the next I.F. Stone or the next Amy Goodman.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Brief Review: I, Daniel Blake/ Ken Loach

We’ve all seen them—the desperate young woman who talks back when the unemployment insurance agent turns nasty, or the intransigent old man who refuses to fill out a fourth irrelevant health insurance form. We chide them, thinking, ‘You’re not going to get anywhere by behaving this way. Just do what you’re asked and get your benefits.’ But sometimes, doing what you’re asked is simply too high a price to pay.

In I, Daniel Blake, Daniel has just had a heart attack, so he can’t work. After a 40-year career of steady, full-time employment, he knows nothing about the social services system that has suddenly become his sole provider. All he knows is that trying to get his benefits is making him feel like crap, and he doesn’t like it.

Neither does Katie, a single mother with two small kids who’s got dreams of going back to school so she can leave the crummy flat she’s been assigned and buy her own food instead of relying on handouts. When Dan sees Katie being harrassed in the social services office he comes to her aid. A beautiful friendship develops between Dan, Katie, and her kids—the family none of them ever had. But this is no Cinderella story, and this bright light remains the only one in a tale that goes from painful to impossible.

With I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach returns to his pre-Wind that Shakes the Barley days—to a time when he made My Name Is Joe and Kes, films that convey the angst, the irony, and the despair of England’s lower classes in a rough, handheld manner. I, Daniel Blake has the higher production values of Loach’s later films, but it’s his darkest film yet, filled with a despair that is fundamental, all-encompassing, and brutally real.

Many of the people who work with Loach speak of his ability to bring out good, strong, natural performances by giving his actors an unprecedented amount of freedom. Jim Norton, who starred in Jimmy’s Hall, said, “Often the way you play a scene decides what the next page of the script will be. Ken [Loach] and Paul [Laverty, Loach’s longtime screenwriter and screenwriter for I, Daniel Blake] are watching and seeing what the actor’s offering up and in what direction you’re intuitively taking the character on his journey. Then they’ll say, ‘Let’s go this way.’ It’s a very interesting way to work.”

And work it does in I, Daniel Blake. One never knows where the director’s input ends and the actor’s skill takes over, but in I, Daniel Blake, Dave Johns (Daniel) and Hayley Squires (Katie) play normal folks on the edge with such compassion that it’s almost too heartbreaking to endure. They capture the humiliation of their situations with such agonizing familiarity that it’s impossible to remain apart from them. And this is the point: However much we are not like them, they are us, and we are them. Denying so would be artificial. And artificial is one thing Ken Loach never allows us to be.

I, Daniel Blake opens December 23 in New York City, at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, and LA, Laemmle Royal, with a national rollout to follow.

Mid-career retrospective/Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche

This November and December, New York City’s French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) will present a mid-career retrospective of the work of Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche. The series, entitled “Poetic & Political: The Cinema of Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche,” will give audiences the happy opportunity to explore the uniquely beautiful, surprising, and innovative filmmaking of one of France’s greatest contemporary directors.  Educator Fatiha Makhloufi joins Director Talk to speak with Zaimeche about his process, his inspirations, and his filmography. Availability: New York City, French Institute Alliance Francaise. Click here for a trailer and schedule. Thanks to Natascha Bodemann, FIAF, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Your films are all so different from each other. How did you get from Wesh Wesh to Story of Judas, and how do you choose your subjects?

RAZ: The themes are linked to the reality of my childhood, of what I am made of.  Although they seem different, they are all connected.

DT:  Your childhood in France or Algeria?

RAZ: I arrived in France when I was two. The secular public school system in my neighborhood formed my way of thinking. Smugglers’ Songs and Story of Judas have helped me understand who I am.

 

DT: You star in your films. It feels as if you’re directing them from inside—by being literally a part of a scene at the time it is happening.

RAZ: It’s exactly that. That’s my way of operating, but it also gives me energy and organically centers me to continue exploring new ideas from the center of my work. It’s organic.

DT: Your scenes are very spontaneous, and it feels like there’s a lot of improvisation. What’s the mechanism for that? A lot of filmmakers star in their own films, but they don’t necessarily produce the same spontaneity.

RAZ: I have a very meticulous and precise scheme of how to set the movie, but I let it unfold, flow. I let the moment guide me.  It’s my way of catching the artistic moment. I’m not looking for something that’s been invented; I discover myself and reality by exploring the new.

DT: Do you repeat takes?

RAZ: We do repeat, but when we do there is always a newness to it so that it’s not exactly the same. It’s something mysterious, magical. We’re not talking about theater directing or classical cinema directing. We don’t look to reproduce the screenplay while shooting. We seek to create situations. The theme is the same, but the context changes.

DT: The camera angles, for instance?

RAZ: The camera angles and the way people are positioned.

 

DT: Can you talk about working with Irina Lubtchansky, your DP on Story of Judas? The cinematography was magnificent.

RAZ: I started to work with Irina on Adhen. Our relationship is really friendly and warm. The way I approach filmmaking is contextual; globally first, and then getting closer to the scene, like in animal documentaries. I get closer to the emotion. First it’s the context, then get closer to the content of the scene. I use long focal length lenses to be as discreet as possible so we don’t impose the equipment on the scene.

 DT: So you change your lenses in order to keep the camera away from the actors?

RAZ:  That’s right. It’s almost hidden. The equipment is meant to be away from the process. The intent is to allow people to have a sense of ease and familiarity so eventually they’ll liberate themselves from the equipment. Then they’re closer to the scene and can start relationships that are warm and tight with the community they are filming.

 

DT: Let’s talk about the scene in Story of Judas where Pontius Pilate condemns Jesus to death. I happened to be reading Master and Margarita at the same time that I saw the film, and the scene in the film was almost identical, word for word, to the scene in the book. I was wondering whether that was intentional or not.

RAZ: It was exactly that: we were inspired by Bulgakov, word for word. Also Roger Caillois, a great French writer of the ’60s and ’70s. We also were inspired by a screenplay that Dreyer wrote called The Story of Jesus Christ. He never shot it, but we seized the chance to do the story of Judas. He developed a lot of material that we mined for this movie, but it’s really different from our Story of Judas. So I was inspired by Dreyer, Bulgakov, Roger Caillois. I didn’t do anything. I was also inspired by  Erri De Lucas, an Italian author, and Borges’s short story Three Versions of Judas. I also dug deeply into the New Testament.  It took three years of research to compare the material.

Each of my films is based on anthropological research that I do with a colleague. For Wesh Wesh we researched urban topology, Bled was research on contemporary Algeria.

 

DT: What about Smugglers’ Songs?

RAZ: We researched the French Revolution based on the Epoch of Louis Quinze, while America was emerging.  We used a lot of contemporary historical research, especially that of Arlette Farge, who is a specialist in the articulation of language and the vocabulary of this epoch.  What interested us was the costumes, the cultural practices of the epoch of the Ancien Regime, real life, the colloquial way of dealing with the world at that time. We did all this research, then we wrote the screenplay. Then, after this precise work, we could just let go. We learn deeply about the epoch before we move into the filmmaking. That’s my process: A lot of research. That rigor, seriousness of work, and meticulous attention to detail help me be creative and experimental.

DT: That meticulousness of detail—how much of that do you share with Irina?

RAZ:  I’m the one running things. I work with her collegially, but she’s not leading. We work synergetically, with me leading the process.  I am tyrannical.  Of course. It’s my film.  For me, filmmaking is an art, and for it to be complete, I have to be completely immersed in it.

DT:  I think you misunderstood my question. You’re doing all this precise research. In order to translate that kind of detail onto the screen, I imagine you would have to discuss it with your DP.

RAZ: It’s from the heart. There is no other choice. It’s the only way to have access to a real authentic dimension. We immerse ourselves in the context of that historical time. For ten weeks we were in that process, immersed authentically in the process of living that moment. Sometimes we didn’t even know what would emerge. We risked difficult times, but that’s what kept us going.

DT: That’s also what made the film so great.

 

FM: I was interested in the way you talk about fiction. It’s very important that one can play with fiction. The quality of a good movie comes from being able to have that freedom.

RAZ: Cinema possesses the power of evocation and suggestion. It’s an art that seeks this power of reinvention. Myths are the foundation of our civilization. I’m interested in challenging and looking at myths, discussing them, so that new ideas will emerge from them.

FM: I was interested in knowing whether you were inspired by Algerian experimental films of the ’70s. I grew up with the generation of great Algerian filmmakers like Lakhdar-Hamina, who explored a great many things.

RA: Absolutely I was inspired by French Algerian, but I love cinema, and they weren’t the only thing that inspired me. When I was a child in France, I learned a lot of filmmaking from TV. There were a lot of TV programs that explored filmmaking in in quite a deep way, like  Les dossiers de l’ecran and Cinema de Minuit. That’s where my love of cinema developed.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Michael Moore in TrumpLand/Michael Moore

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Christine/Antonio Campos

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

DT: Was she on set?

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

AC: Did you say “betray”?

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

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Voyage of Time/Hanan Townshend (composer)

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

DT:  Do you read a script first?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

DT: Where did you study music?

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

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

 

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

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

DT: What is a sample?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

HT: With Terry or in general?

DT: Both.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

 

 

 

Sand Storm/Elite Zexer

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

DT: How did you react when she said that?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

DT: I assume the Bedouins have seen the film.

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

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

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

 

DT: Why is the film called Sand Storm?

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

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

 

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

EZ: Thank you, yes.

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

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

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

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

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016