Uncertain/Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol

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

 

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

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

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

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

Henry.

Henry.

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

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

 

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

Wayne.

Wayne.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

DT: It also rounds him out as a person.

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

EM: Thoughtful.

 

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

Zack.

Zack.

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

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

 

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

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

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

DT:  But also redemption.

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

 

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

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

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

DT:  So initially you had a lot more music?

EM:  A lot more.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

Tanna/Bentley Dean

Bentley Dean filming the lovers at the volcano.

Bentley Dean filming the lovers at the volcano.

Martin Butler capturing sound.

Martin Butler capturing sound.

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

 

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

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

DT: How did the collaboration play out?

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

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

DT: What was taboo to film?

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

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

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

 

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

Lovers Dain and Wawa, the filmic counterparts of the real-life couple that changed the tribe's history forever. Mungau Dain as Dain, Marie Wawa as Wawa.

Lovers Dain and Wawa, the filmic counterparts of the real-life couple that changed the tribe’s history forever. Mungau Dain as Dain, Marie Wawa as Wawa.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Dain obeying his grandfather's orders in spite of the personal pain it will cause him.

Dain obeying his grandfather’s orders in spite of the personal pain it will cause him.

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

DT: That completely blew me away.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

The Nakamal dance, which shook the chandeliers in Venice.

The Nakamal dance, which shook the chandeliers in Venice.

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

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

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

BD: That’s exactly right.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Land of Mine/Martin Zandvliet

Writer/Director Martin Zandvliet Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Writer/Director Martin Zandvliet
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Young German soliders Photo by Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Young German soldiers
Photo by Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

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

DT: Which films from the ’60s?

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

DT: American films.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Left to right: Oskar Belton as Werner Lessner and Emil Belton as Ernst Lessner Photo by Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Oskar Belton as Werner Lessner and Emil Belton as Ernst Lessner
Photo by Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT

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

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

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

END SPOILER ALERT

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

DT: According to class lines?

MZ: Yeah, we made a small society there.

 

Left to right: Joel Basman as Helmut Morbach and Louis Hofmann as Sebastian Schumann Photo by Henrik Petit, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Joel Basman as Helmut Morbach and Louis Hofmann as Sebastian Schumann
Photo by Henrik Petit, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

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

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

 

DT: The boys didn’t know German history?

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

 

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

The Age of Consequences/Jared Scott

Director Jared Scott.

Director Jared Scott.

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

 

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

A climate refugee in limbo.

A climate refugee in limbo.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Limits of Growth

Limits of Growth

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

The Department of Defense.

The Department of Defense.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

DT: Why did you make the film?

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

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

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.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

AE: He says, “It’s my religion.”

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

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

 

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

 

 

A Decent Woman/Lukas Rinner

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

DT: It’s very musical in that sense.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

Keep Quiet/Sam Blair

Ambitious, scheming, virulently anti-Semitic, Csanad Szegedi rocketed to power as the vice president of the ultra-nationalistic, far-right Hungarian Jobbik Party. He resurrected the Arrow Cross, a WWII pro-Nazi Hungarian group, and was elected to the EU Parliament, the youngest delegate ever. That made some of his colleagues jealous; jealous enough to level the most despicable smear they could conjure: that Szegedi himself was a Jew and had no place in the Hungarian far right. In the course of trying to disprove the claim, Szegedi discovered the impossible: Not only was his mother Jewish but his grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor who had hidden her true identity from her grandchildren. His life and self-image in tatters, Szegedi sought to create a new identity as an Orthodox Jew, turning to Rabbi Baruch Oberlander for guidance. Szegedi’s “conversion,” as well as Oberlander’s place in it, angered many.  Keep Quiet examines the social forces that led to Szegedi’s anti-Semitism in the first place; his grandmother’s motivations for keeping quiet; and Oberlander’s quandary over leading a neo-Nazi to the Torah. Availability: Opens February 17, New York City Lincoln Plaza Cinema; March 3, L.A. Laemmle Town Center/Music Hall, with national rollout to follow. Check local theater listings near you. Click here for trailer. Thanks to Linda Altman, Susan Senk PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: I’m not asking this question facetiously: Why does this story matter?

SB: Straight in there, Judy. Let me try and warm up a little.

DT: The next question is related: Does it matter if Csanad’s conversion sticks and he remains a “good Jew”?

SB: I think the question is, Matter to whom? His story matters to a lot of people; that’s what we’ve found when showing the film. While we were editing, we talked a lot about how it would leave questions hanging. It can provoke all sorts of responses, and I love that. The film touches on things that are very personal and more political or obviously to do with faith, but I think it’s also open enough, and he is a confusing enough character, to allow for multiple readings. One of the questions that always comes up is, What’s he doing now? because there is this mixture of suspicion and interest and fascination with him. So I’m interested to see what he does next. Alex, the producer, always jokes that if Csanad decides to go back to fascism, it will make a great sequel. At some point this is a very sensitive story. As a character Csanad can be beguiling, confusing, insensitive. As a filmmaker, you just have to let the character be who he is, with all his flaws, all his contradictions, and then say, let’s look at him and let’s talk about him.

 

DT: For me, the moral center of the film is the rabbi. I found him absolutely fascinating.

SB: He is. His quandary is the moral center of the film. We always felt that the heart of the film is with the grandmother, maybe in the female characters in the film, and then the head—this kind of wrestling with the moral and ethical quandary—was with the rabbi. In filmmaking terms, he was a wonderful character. I enjoy him being on screen. He has a wonderful presence, he has a sense of humor, he’s human in this. He doesn’t just resort to saying he’s the religious authority; he wrestles with it himself, and I think it’s refreshing to have a religious authority figure also saying, “I was trying my best.” I think that’s a wonderful thing that comes across. He doesn’t totally know, he’s not completely sure, but he feels in his heart and everything that he’s learned from his religious education and his experience, that this is the right thing to do. But the fact that he’s wrestling with it makes it all the more interesting for us as viewers and makes him all the more human.

 

DT: How did you feel about Csanad, and how did your feelings about him influence your filmmaking?

SB: I picked up directing the film when the first director couldn’t continue, so I came to it with a chunk of the story having already been told. I didn’t have a particularly personal relationship with Csanad. I spent time with him, I shot with him, but a lot of my experience with him actually came from watching the interviews that had already been done.

The word I always overuse is ambivalence. I retained a complete ambivalence about him. I think that’s actually important. He’s not one thing. He can be a very charming guy, big smiles. I met him when a big chunk of this story had happened, so he’d already been some way along this path of changing himself. I was fascinated in trying to understand him and his motivations, but I didn’t come to an absolute conclusion about this man. I found it more interesting to look at all the things that made him who he is; what really interested me is how does this guy come to be? The idea of a far-right politician finding out that he’s Jewish, it’s almost like a setup for a gag. He can seem absurd, but what you find out when you look into it is there are a lot of people in Hungary who don’t understand who they are. The turbulence, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century in Hungary, means that there is a sort of identity crisis in Hungary, and he’s one example of something that is quite prevalent. My interest in him was trying to get past this personality or getting past the cult of the individual and trying to understand who he was in a wider sense.

 

DT: Documentaries are made in the editing. Could this film have gone another way? If so, what way?

SB: Documentaries absolutely are made in the edit, and every time you make a film you wrestle with the various elements that you’re trying to put in it. This one was particularly challenging because it’s such a complex story. You’re dealing with a complex individual with a complex history, and you’re talking about huge things like religion and politics and you’ve got to find a line through this in ninety minutes.

Absolutely it could have gone any number of ways. We found our way through it by trying to balance the mixture of the personal and the political. It was very, very tricky; showing someone’s internal transformation is very difficult. How do you show someone becoming Jewish? And then how do you balance that by explaining that he’s a product of a very complex history in Hungary? What happens in a documentary is that every line, every second ends up counting, trying to mean something, and we did our best trying to navigate through that.

 

DT: Can you talk a little bit more about audience reaction.

SM: It’s been absolutely fascinating. The first ever public screening was in New York, at the Tribeca Film Festival. At the end of the Q&A, I thought, What have we made here? Csanad was there, and there were almost hysterical responses to him. Very emotional, very angry, but in the same audience you had people who were much more understanding. A woman come up to me on the verge of tears—she said that she was married to a Hungarian man and struggled all her life with her in-laws, whom she couldn’t understand. She couldn’t quite connect with them culturally, and emotionally she felt a distance, and she told me that the film had understood her in-laws. I’ve had people of Hungarian origin come up to us afterward and say, “This is my story. I don’t know who I am. I think my grandmother was Jewish.”

Those were screenings in the States. The most extraordinary Q&A was in Tel Aviv, where it was bordering pandemonium at times. A man had to be ejected from the theater after five minutes because he was so angry about something. Normally at a Q&A you’re fishing for questions, hoping for something interesting; in Tel Aviv we didn’t ask one question because the audience was arguing with each other. There were these impassioned comments in our direction, questions…I’ve not experienced a Q&A like that, where it’s like you’ve lit a torch paper and this comes out. When you’ve made a film, it’s a wonderful thing to experience this sort of response, from whatever direction it comes from.

 

DT: Maybe that’s the answer to the first question, why does the film matter?

SB: If Csanad were just the punch line to a joke, then I don’t think he would matter. But I think he matters because of something quite extraordinary this year. The film premiered last April: what’s happened in the world since then? I recently watched the film in London for the first time in six months. It recounts the rise of Jobbik, which is the far-right party, and how it latches onto people’s feelings of disillusionment with the political system there, how it uses ideas of nationalism and how it provokes by crossing over into areas of taboo that tap into populist sentiments in the country. I watched it and thought, This film has actually become more relevant in the last six months. I think it tells a story about how that kind of movement can come about in a country. You can then use Csanad to dig in, and you see that his absolute certainty about who he is and these ideas that he attaches himself to in order to give himself this feeling of strength and further enhance this certainty about who he is in the world are a problem.

 

DT: What do you want the film to achieve?

SB: We made  the film thinking about it as a piece of cinema, so for it to find an audience and play in theaters is great.  I just really want this engagement to continue to I can continue to be fascinated by the response.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

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

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.

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.

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?

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—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?

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.”

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.

 

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

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.

 

DT: 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.

 

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