Summer 1993/Carla Simon

When Frida’s mom dies, the six-year-old has to leave her home in Barcelona to live with family in the Catalan countryside. This vivid tale of childhood grief, confusion, and, ultimately, joy is based on filmmaker Carla Simon’s own childhood memories.  The film is in the Catalan language and was released in Spain during the year that Catalonia declared its independence from Spain and Catalan president  Carles Puigdemont was forced to flee the country to avoid arrest. Such is the beauty of Summer 1993, however, that Spain chose it as its official entry to the Academy Awards.  Click here for trailer. Availability: New York City, May 25, at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, with national rollout to follow. Click here for screening schedule. Thanks to Susan Norget and Marija Silk, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

DT: You do a remarkable job of simultaneously capturing Frida’s character from the inside and the outside, showing the narrator’s point of view and the character’s point of view at the same time. Can you talk about that aspect of the film, especially in terms of the camera work?

Laia Arigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

Laia Arigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

CS: That was a discussion we had during the whole process, even from the script. At the beginning I had some scenes that Frida was not in, then we realized that if we wanted to see from her point of view, she had to be in all the scenes. I talked a lot about this with my DOP all through the shoot. Basically I told him that I think the film is about the girl and I really want to portray her point of view—that’s what I know best—but at the same time, what I discovered while writing the script was that the characters who surround her are very interesting and have feelings that I also wanted to portray. So each time we shot we would focus on the girl but also feel that if we wanted to go to another character, we would just go and show something about them. In the editing it was the same. We always had in mind that this is a story about Frida. All the closeups we took of her are in the film, but sometimes we had to give space to show how the other characters feel.

DT: There’s one shot in particular where you start on Frida and pan over to the statue she’s looking at. It was sort of an old-fashioned way of tracking her point of view.

CS: In terms of camera we decided to not be too intrusive and not think about very complicated choreographies with the girls. We wanted the camera adapted to them instead of them adapting to the camera, so to do that was to just almost put the camera in a corner and work from there. We realized that pans were very important, so in order to show that it was Frida’s point of view we eneded up doing a lot of this, just going from her to what she’s watching. We also had this idea of shooting with a long shot in the sense of being in the moment with this family, to just be with Frida but then show what she’s watching.

 

DT: Can you talk about working with child actors, specifically these two? Both of them were terrific.

Paula Robles as Anna and Laia Artigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

Paula Robles as Anna and Laia Artigas as Frida in Summer 1993.

CS: I love working with kids because it’s a game for them, so you enter this world and approach the filmmaking as a game. The first thing was to find the right girls. We looked for girls who would be like the characters in terms of personality, so we asked them a lot of personal questions to see how they were in life. This was interesting, because you can ask an adult to create the character, but for a kid that’s difficult. In the end, Laia [Artigas] has a lot of Frida, and Paula [Robles] has a lot of Anna. The combination between them was also important. We tried different pairs. The relationship that Paula and Laia created in a natural way was very similar to the one we’d scripted, so we were very happy with this. It was very useful.

Then we spent a lot of time together. Over two months we met often with the girls and the adults, and we improvised moments that happened before the summer of 1993 to create a shared memory between the girls and the characters so they’d lived something together. Sometimes I acted the mom. For example, the scene where Frida is imitating the mom;  I had done that before, smoking and saying, “I cannot play with you because I am too tired.” When we got to shooting the scene, I said to Laia, “Remember when I said, ‘I’m too tired’? Now you have to imitate me.” We did all that up until the moment that Frida finds out that her mom died and she’s going to live with her uncle.

Frida imitating her mom.

Frida imitating her mom.

We also spent a couple of weeks on location rehearsing specific scenes. We didn’t really talk about the script because the important thing was to create an intimacy between the actors and also to go through all the scenes for them to know what we’re going to do and for me to know how to get what I needed from them. The shoot was fast—six weeks, maximum eight hours per day. What I did was talk a lot with the girls during the takes; I would guide them, telling them what to do, then we took out my voice in postproduction. If I wanted them to say something very specific, I would just say it and they would repeat it, while there were some scenes where they have a bit more freedom and could just play it their way.

 

DT: There’s a lot of political stuff going on in your neighborhood. [N.B.: This interview was conducted in May 2018, seven months after the Catalan parliament declared independence from Spain on October 27, 2017. Spain’s senate imposed direct rule over the previously autonomous region, and Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s leader, fled Spain on charges of rebellion. Five months later, he was arrested in Germany. As of May 2018, Germany is seeking to extradite Puigdemont on lesser charges.] Did that affect distribution of your film?

CS: I think so. It’s been a crazy year because of all that was happening. We had the film in theaters, and it lasted forever—we released in June and it stayed in theaters until February, although not a lot of theaters. At some point we released the film just with subtitles, but when it was chosen to represent Spain for the Oscars, we dubbed it, so there were more theaters that played it. It’s not a political film; it’s very local, so people didn’t read it as a political film at all. It was beautiful that it was chosen specifically this year to represent Spain.

DT: It’s mind-blowing.

CS: It was like, Art is something else, it’s above all these problems, and the language to tell the story doesn’t matter if the story touches people. I was asked all the time, What’s your position? [on Catalan independence], and I thought, I don’t have to tell my position. I’m a filmmaker, and these are two different things. It’s been a crazy year. It’s still a crazy year.

 

DT: In the film there’s an underlying sense of danger and threat, but it’s balanced with the beauty of the surroundings and the beauty of the family. How did you go about building that balance? What did you focus on?

CS: Frida goes from living in the city to living in the middle of nature. This is beautiful and poetic and amazing, but it’s also a threat. She feels it like that. Sometimes it’s disgusting even, and she needs to get used to that, but it’s not so easy. This is something I remember very much—suddenly seeing all these animals and feeling a bit scared, so I wanted this to be present somehow. Frida has lots of fears; she can’t understand the situation she’s in, she doesn’t know how to manage her emotions, how to express her real feelings. And in the end, children are always surrounded by danger. Anything can happen to a child, but it usually doesn’t happen. I wanted to have this feeling that these girls are free to be the way they want but they are endangered somehow. To me this danger was interesting to have and to feel. Also, it holds the audience and keeps them engaged in the film.

 

DT: You studied film in California, London, and Barcelona. Did you find the approaches to cinema different in each city, or was it basically the same thing wherever you went?

CS:  It was different. When I decided I wanted to make films, I couldn’t afford film school, so I went to Barcelona to study for a degree in audiovisual communication. This was a very general degree: we did radio, TV, journalism, and a bit of cinema. I watched a lot of films, I learned a lot about films, but I didn’t really do anything. For me it was really life-changing when I spent the year in California. Suddenly I  realized it was possible, because you [Americans] have this energy that if you want to make films, you have to make films. That’s what I took from my experience in the United States. I came back and said, If I want to make films, I make films. That was very cool.

I felt I really needed to make more films and keep studying, so  I asked for a scholarship to go to London and study at the London Film School. For me it was a beautiful experience, because first of all it’s very multicultural. You have people from all over the world, and it really makes you ask, Who are you? What makes you special? What are your stories? I learned to give value to my family, to my place, I had a teacher who always said, You should start talking about what you know, and that’s why it was so important to me to make this film.

In London they are very critical. We used to have our shorts screened while we sat in front of everyone and a panel of experts gave us feedback. We couldn’t say anything, which was a bit difficult to take, but I really, really learned a lot.  I finished in 2014, which is when I started writing the script for Summer 1993.

 

DT: You’ve worked on TV shows, short films, and documentaries. How did those formats prepare you for this film?

Bruna Cusi as Marga and David Verdaguer as Esteve in Summer 1993, Carla Simon's autobiographical memoir.

Bruna Cusi as Marga and David Verdaguer as Esteve in Summer 1993, Carla Simon’s autobiographical memoir.

CS: In California we made a couple of short films that were very experimental, so when I  went to the TV show it was very interesting, because I focused more on the narrative, how to tell a story for the audience. I did a documentary at the London Film School about young people born with HIV. They didn’t want to show themselves, so we recorded voice interviews, then had actors miming their voices. It was strange, but it was a way to put bodies to the interviews. I learned that documentary is really, really creative and free. The approach to people was very useful for me, because in the end it’s the way I’m working now with film. I need to talk a lot to real people because I like this attachment to reality and to portray something that exists. This approach to people was very useful in terms of talking to my family for Summer 1993  and also for the project I’m writing now. I think it gave me tools in that sense.

 

DT: You created a group called Young for Film.

CS: That was in London. It was a very nice experience. I’ve been working with kids since I was a teenager. I missed that when I was in London, so a group of us from the London Film School created Young for Film to teach film to kids. The group dissolved when I came back to Spain, but now I’m teaching film to young people through a project called Cinema en Curs. It takes filmmakers  together with teachers from public primary and high schools, and we make short films and teach films, so I’m still doing that in another form.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add—anything you want to say to your audience that you can’t say through the film?

CS: It sounds like a very dramatic plot, but the film is not dramatic. It’s life, I would say. For me it’s important that people come out with a feeling of valuing their own family relationships. You see a story where there is a group of people that have to construct a family, but we all have a family, we have a dad and mom, sisters, whatever, and we take it for granted. This is a story that shows you shouldn’t take it for granted and you have to give value to that.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Foxtrot/Samuel Maoz (director) and Lior Ashkenazi (actor)

When Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dafna (Sarah Adler) are told that their son has been killed in the line of duty, they separately descend into their own personal horror rather than face the trauma together. Director Samuel Maoz employs the never-ending circularity of the foxtrot as a metaphor, melding tragicomic surrealism, highly choreographed cinematography, and a remarkable performance from Lior Ashkenazi to convey the truth that our private lives are inseparable from our communal history.  To view the trailer, click here •Availability: Opens in New York and L.A. March 2.  Thank to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview. 

Itay Exlroad as Dancer Solider Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Itay Exlroad as Dancer Solider
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

DT: Samuel, your previous film Lebanon was shot entirely inside a tank. Needless to say, it was highly claustrophobic.  In Foxtrot, much of the film is shot in the desert, yet you managed to create that same feeling of claustrophobia, even though it takes place in the middle of these vast open spaces. How did you do that?

SM: We’re looking at one point at the end of the day. Usually in films you go from place to place, with many locations. The fact that with this film you’re stuck in the same point creates that feeling, I think.

LA: It’s the same as if you were in the middle of the sea. There’s nothing in the scenery…it’s all the same. You see sand. It’s open wide but without any details.

SM: It’s like being isolated.

LA: It’s like being on the sun or the moon. This is the claustrophobia. It’s not the same as claustrophobia in a small room, but wherever you look, you see the same, so in a way, there’s nowhere to run.

SM: There’s no way out.

LA: There’s no escape.

 

DT: The film reminded me of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming:” “Things fall apart/the center does not hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” At the end of Foxtrot, I felt like we had arrived at the end of things, like there’s nowhere to go, there’s no possibility of moving forward from here.

LA: That’s the focus of what the film is talking about: that’s the foxtrot [dance]. You need someone from the outside to take you by the hand and take you out of this circle that repeats itself.

SM: For me the conclusion of the film is that fate cannot be changed, not because it’s divine but because of the nature of the Israeli traumatic man/woman who shaped the nature of the collective, now stuck in trauma.

DT: That’s what was so depressing.

SM: The truth is that the little step that can save us from the loop of the foxtrot must be done by the leadership. Only not this leadership—they do the opposite. They press on the buttons of the trauma and they do it with slogans that have nothing to do with reality except maybe the emotional memory of the ancient trauma, the old trauma whose instinctual nature is stronger than any instinctual power, is stronger than any reality and logic. They used to say to us, “We are in existential danger.” This is the mother of slogans. When I hear politicians in Israel say “We are a technological superpower, we have the strongest army and a nuclear weapon because we are in existential danger” it’s more or less like saying, I’m young and strong and healthy because I’m sick.

Our culture minister, for example, attacked the film without seeing it, before it was released. In her attack she actually confirmed the film’s message, because she pressed on people’s buttons with slogans that bring them to their feet. “Foxtrot is destroying the country,” she said, as if the film was a nuclear weapon that will erase us from the map. In her attack, she once again lifted a mirror to the radical split in Israeli society.

DT: What specifically did she object to?

SM:In the beginning she said she’s against the film because there’s a scene where the army breaks into a Palestinian home and slaughters the family. A journalist who saw the film at an academy screening told her, “We saw the film and there is no such scene.”  The next day, she said, “It’s because of the scene where they bury the car.” When she was told that the scene is about something wider, that it’s allegorical, she said, “The fact that the director ends the film with this scene says that this was his message.” Then they told her, “We saw the film and it doesn’t end with this scene.” Anyway, the struggle is not only for the film itself, it became a struggle for freedom of speech and expression.

Left to right: Gefen Barkai as Squad Commander. Shaul Amir as Soldier with Headphones. Dekel Adin as Soldier Rolling Cans and Yonatan Shiray as Jonathan Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Gefen Barkai as Squad Commander. Shaul Amir as Soldier with Headphones. Dekel Adin as Soldier Rolling Cans and Yonatan Shiray as Jonathan
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DT: Actually, that brings me to my next question. Like people, countries suffer psychological wounds from their own history. These wounds become the country’s DNA.

SM: Exactly.

DT: In the United States, our psychological wound is slavery. We’ve never gotten over it, and that’s why we can’t heal the racial divide. I’m wondering if in Israel it’s the Holocaust, and whether that’s a wound that will ever go away.

SM: Exactly.

LA: Yes. It’s the Holocaust. The leadership usually uses the Holocaust to present us as the victims. I don’t believe I’m a victim, neither does my generation. Maybe our grandparents did.

SM: The common image of the post-traumatic man is a cliche. People expect him to have nightmares, he’s alone, uncommunicative. For Michael [the protagonist of the film, played by Lior Askhenazi], like many of his generation, it’s a case of repression and denial. He would do anything to prove that he is alive and that he would benefit from it somehow: he would be the successful businessman, raise a family, arm himself with buying an expensive apartment and luxury, but in a desperate attempt to hide his weakness, his secret. From outside everything seems to be fine, but from inside his soul is bleeding, and when he has nowhere to go in his experience, he kicks the dog. In Israeli society there are many versions of Michael, because his generation—my generation, the second generation of the Holocaust survivors—couldn’t complain about anything. Our teachers, our parents were naturally not very stable, because they’d experienced perhaps the worst trauma in human history. They used to wave the numbers on their arms and shout at us from the morning to the evening that they survived the Holocaust and who are we to complain. When I got a 7 in math at school, my mother said, “For a 7 in math I survived the Holocaust?” When we came back from the war with two hands, two legs, ten fingers, without any burning marks but expressing that we felt hurt inside, it was unacceptable. They used to tell us, “Get over it, be a man, we survived the Holocaust.” So we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, so we have become an additional generation of traumatic victims. This is the endless traumatic circle that I’m talking about. I think we need another three, four, five, I don’t know how many generations…

 

DT: It should have been forty years in the desert, but we’re already past that. Lior,  this is quite a change from your role in Norman. I’ve seen you in many films, but in this one, you just…seemed like yourself in a way I’ve never seen. I don’t know if it was the particular role—

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

LA: It’s a mixture of things. I’m not acting, actually. It’s not about acting. In Israel you’re surrounded by people who’ve lost dear ones in terror attacks, in the war, so you know them. They have their daily life, everything is OK, but there’s something that’s not quite right. You can’t point to it, you can’t say, Ah, this is it. It’s not about a sad face or depression. We were trying to find out how I could bring it out without doing a sad face, so I thought it could be done physically.  I didn’t sleep the two days preceding the shoot.

SM: He was exhausted.

LA: Just to exhaust myself. Now that I tell you that, you can see it, because it’s almost like slow motion. The eyes are falling down, when I’m leaning on the furniture, I needed to lean because I was falling down from exhaustion.

SM: Lior didn’t want to tell me because he thought I wouldn’t like it.

LA: I was afraid to tell Samuel.

SM: I told him I liked it because I really believe that when you need to deal with something emotional or mental, the best way to do it is through something physical.

When I was preparing to shoot Lebanon, I thought, How can I explain to an actor what it’s like to be inside a tank and suddenly someone attacks you? I could use my best description and they would say, Yeah, yeah yeah, but they wouldn’t understand anything. So I took each one of them and put them inside a container. It’s 122 degrees, it’s dark, you can’t sit, but after you survive the first five minutes you get over it because the body recognizes emergency conditions and starts to save energy. You start to breathe slowly and you start to feel like you are floating. You’re saving energy, and it’s OK. After half an hour, I had someone beat on the outside of the container with an iron pipe. When the actor came out of the container after 90 minutes, I could see in his eyes that I didn’t need to explain anything, because he understood.

I even had an actor who couldn’t shoot a gun. How could I explain that to him?  I took him and a prop gun to a friend’s apartment in the center of Tel Aviv. I took the actor to the window, gave him the toy gun, and said, “Put him in the cross hairs and press the trigger.” It’s a toy, a prop, everybody knows it, but the feeling that someone is in your cross hairs… He couldn’t do it, and suddenly [he understood].

 

DT: The film is based in part on a real-life incident with your daughter. Can you tell us about that, because I think it puts the film in context.

SM: My daughter never woke up early enough to get to school on time, so in order for her not to be late, she would ask me to call a taxi. This habit started to cost us quite a bit of money, and it also seemed to me to be bad education, so one morning I got mad and told her, “You will get the bus like everyone else does. If you’re late, you’re late.”  There was a big argument, and I was mad, and I told her quite firmly, “You are taking the bus. Now go.” Her bus was line 5, a quite famous line in Tel Aviv. Twenty minutes after she left, I heard on the radio that a terrorist blew himself up on line 5 and that dozens of people had been killed. I tried to call her, of course, but the cellular service had collapsed because of the unexpected load—this was at the beginning of cell phones in Israel.

She returned home an hour later. She told us that when she got to the station, she saw the bus, started to run, waved at the driver, but the bus left the station and she took the next bus. That was the worst hour in my life. It was worse than the entire Lebanon war. I asked myself, What can I learn from this experience? and very quickly I understood that I couldn’t learn anything.

LA: He could just make a movie.

SM: I didn’t want to investigate or explore but to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond our control. To explore this limbo where we make decisions. We also tried to do a kind of Greek tragedy in which the hero creates his own punishment and fights against anyone who tries to save him. He’s obviously unaware of the outcome that his actions will bring about. This is the difference between a casual coincidence and a spooky coincidence that looks like a plan of fate, because chaos is certain, the punishment corresponds with the sin almost in its exact form, and there is something round and complete in such a dramatic form.

 

DT: It’s a little like film noir, where character is destiny. Let’s talk about the overhead shots and that gorgeous 360 degree pan. Samuel, what do those shots mean to you as a director, and Lior, as an actor, are you aware of the camera’s position?

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael and Yehuda Almagor as Avigdor, Michael’s brother.
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

SM: I couldn’t make those shots if Lior wasn’t aware. I need a partner. I will give an example. For the first overhead shot when he’s going to open the door, the long closeup when they trick him and leave, I chose the floor. I do not do realistic cinema. My cinema is more experiential. I try to penetrate, reflect the thoughts of my characters. First I told my DOP, “That floor will make us dizzy.” Next, cinematographers usually do their movement with the movement of the actor. So I told my DOP, “Let’s go against his movements because the audience will lose their orientation.”

But to do this, you must have an actor who’s aware of the camera, because he needs to do five or six steps very, very slowly, to take his time. I know actors who I could continue to shoot to this day and they still wouldn’t be able to do this shot. I know that Lior can squeeze his soul, he can really feel, but deep inside there is a computer program working in the background that makes him aware of the camera.

LA: It’s also a choreography. I  didn’t just speak with Samuel; I was also [communicating] with the DOP. I needed to be aware of what the camera was doing  because the timing was split second, a hairsbreadth…I’m standing up, I know the camera now has to finish the turn and then I can start walking, but not like people normally walk, I’m walking there very, very slowly because of the camera…

SM: He takes time to lean on the table…

LA: It was like a dance.

SM: I believe in low tech when you create those shots. In Lebanon, where we were on a studio set, I needed to simulate the movement of the tank. They sent the script to Cinecitta in Italy because they have a platform they used to lend to American films for helicopter scenes. They told me, “Listen, we love the script, for you it’s $250,000.” So my production designer went to a junkyard and bought a wagon for $300, because it was simply a matter of balance—two people here, two people there, and two wheels in the middle. Here, in Foxtrot, it’s the DOP that controlled the movement, along with the two grips, one with the crane and one with the dolly. It’s the combination of three people who need to synchronize between themselves and the actor. The actor must depend on them, they can’t rely on him.

DT: Lior, are you watching them while the camera is rolling?

LA: No. We are just doing it.

SM: We shot a first take, and then I showed it to Lior. He’s the kind of actor—

LA: I need to see what just happened, and then I can be much better, because I know, OK this is the shot, I understand it now, I know the timing, so let’s do it.

DT: Is that the way you work all the time?

LA: Usually.

SM: Not all directors will show the take to the actors because the actors will say, “This angle is not good…”

 

LA: The light, the angle.

SM: But I believe this is the best way to learn. If you’re an actor, you need to get used to yourself from all different angles.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Company Town/Natalie Kottke-Masocco

The Koch Brothers are poisoning the tiny town of Crossett, Arkansas. On the outskirts of this largely African-American hamlet, Penn Road lies just across the runoff ditch from the Georgia-Pacific paper and chemical plant. Eleven of the fifteen families who live on Penn Road have lost someone to cancer. Tests conducted on Crossett’s air, land, and water reveal harmful chemicals such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and formaldehyde, linked to the plant. For the past four years, the residents of Crossett have been fighting back against Koch Industries, Georgia-Pacific’s owner. Despite testimony from regional scientists and experts on federal environmental law, Crossett’s efforts to force the EPA and state agencies to enforce state regulations regarding emissions and dumping of toxic waste have been largely unsuccessful. Filmmakers Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian have recorded the town’s battle in Company Town, a documentary that is also a tool for social justice. To take action on a petition submitted by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic in support of the citizens of Crossett, click here. •Availability: Opens September 8, New York City, Cinema Village. Thanks to Kelly Hargraves, First Run Features, for arranging this interview.

DT: Can you give us an overall picture of what’s happening in Crossett, Arkansas.

NKM: Crossett, Arkansas, is a tiny rural Southern town that’s ruled by this company called Georgia-Pacific. Georgia-Pacific is a paper mill and chemical plant owned by the Koch Brothers. This company has extreme power, and it’s the true lifeblood of the town. The mission of our story is, What do you do when the only employer in town is also poisoning you? The people in this town work for the mill, their grandfathers worked for the mill, it’s generational. It’s part of the fabric of their everyday life. It’s their bread and butter. It’s their paycheck. People either work there or have a child there, and they’ve given their entire lives to the company.

Only there’s egregious pollution in this small town by Georgia-Pacific. There’s door-to-door cancer. On one street alone, eleven out of fifteen homes experienced a death from cancer. Their water is polluted, their air is polluted—they’re wracked by the pollution at Georgia-Pacific. We set out to tell the story of what that situation looks like, as well as the blatant disregard by the local government and the Environmental Protection Agency, the lack of oversight, and the total dismissiveness of the EPA. It’s a story that’s very complex.

 

DT: The Reverend David Bouie, the local pastor, is organizing the town to fight back. Had they already started to organize when you entered the picture?

NKM: When I first came in, the town was not organized. It all started in 2011, when I was working on a documentary called Koch Brothers Exposed directed by Robert Greenwald. I was looking at the Koch Brothers’ environmental catastrophes across the country, and I produced a small segment on Crossett and literally just stumbled upon this town. I called Pastor Bouie, who is our main subject in the film, and he said, “I won’t speak with you unless you come here in person.” Two days later I flew there and we knocked on doors together and I met with him, I met his neighbors, I met the community, and it blossomed from there.

I spent six years covering the story, four years investigating the cancer cases and documenting the investigation into the EPA, as well as the people taking action in this town. When I saw something of the pollution they face and spoke with neighbors and spent so much time with Pastor Bouie, I knew there was a bigger story there that really deserved to be told.

We were documenting the investigation of Georgia-Pacific and the EPA as it was unfolding over four or five years, so we were embedded with the EPA and embedded with the citizens, and we got a whistleblower to come forward, Dickie Guice, who’s incredibly brave and spoke out in the New Yorker last fall about the egregious pollution dumping behind people’s homes. It’s really quite unbelievable, to the point where government officials are on the land of a worker who has invoices showing that Georgia-Pacific dumped waste on his private land even though it’s not designated landfill by the EPA.  The federal EPA officials are on his land holding the contamination in their hands and saying, “I don’t know what to do with this.” This blatant disregard for citizens’ lives is egregious, and it highlights what we’re seeing today in the Trump administration, with Scott Pruitt heading the EPA.

 

DT: The EPA under Pruitt is taking a direction none of us want, but I was shocked by the EPA’s behavior in your film, which took place before Trump came in.

NKM: Exactly. It’s now clearly  obvious to the public that Scott Pruitt is literally tied to the Koch Brothers. The New York Times revealed only days after he was appointed that he had direct ties to the Koch Brothers to benefit his pocket and the Koch Brothers’ plants. As a former attorney general, Scott Pruitt sued the EPA fourteen times. He is a blatant anti-environmentalist, and this is the man who is now protecting public health, which is totally outrageous.

Our film highlights what was happening on a local level across the nation before Pruitt. You have these local administrators who are supposed to protect the people—in this case, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality—and you see that the citizens have to do everything in their power to bang on their door and they’re still not listening. The fact that the EPA is looking the other way is not new. As you see in the film, they’re laughing and smirking. At the meeting where the citizens are giving testimony after testimony, the EPA and the Department of Health and the Department of Water just blatantly one after the next disregard the findings of independent scientists, which include benzene in the water along with sixty other chemicals, and an outrageous amount of hydrogen sulfide in the air. Georgia-Pacific has had numerous violations this year alone of hydrogen sulfide, which causes severe headaches, nausea, stomach pain.

You see these meetings where the local and federal officials are disregarding blatant evidence presented by the community and by independent scientists, but you also see an example of the resistance movement happening today: people on a grassroots level like we’re seeing in town halls across the country right now are fighting back because the government isn’t protecting them. This has been a longtime problem, before Scott Pruitt, but it’s exacerbated now with Pruitt and the Trump administration.

 

DT: While documenting the investigation of the EPA and the local government agencies, did you find that they were in the Koch Brothers’ pockets, the same way the Times discovered the emails between the Koch Brothers and Pruitt?

NKM: Yes. It’s in the film, and this is incredibly important to note. In the film, the deputy of EPA Region 6, Sam Coleman, says to Pastor Bouie in a private phone conversation that is revealed in the film, “Mr. Bouie, you were correct. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA are in bed with Georgia-Pacific and the Koch Brothers.” He said that. They’re doing everything they can to get away from this, and they’re on the run. We have them in violation. Sam Coleman from the EPA admits that Georgia-Pacific is in violation, and he admits that they’re in bed with the local state agencies and looking the other way. It’s so blatant.

 

DT: What recourse do the citizens of Crossett have now?

NKM: This is total environmental injustice along with total economic injustice, and it’s happening all across the country. Crossett represents small towns like Hinkley, California, Love Canal, and Flint, Michigan. These communities are being bullied by big business, and they’re taking the power in their hands and speaking out. You see the citizens of Crossett organizing in the film; Pastor Bouie has created the Crossett Concerned Citizens for Environmental Justice. The town is galvanized, they are organized, and we are using this film as a tool for social action.

This isn’t just a film: it’s an official action campaign. Tulane Environmental Law Clinic has filed a civil rights petition against the EPA for discrimination based on the fact that Crossett is predominantly an African-American community that is disproportionately polluted by Georgia-Pacific. There is a complaint at the civil rights desk at the federal EPA in Washington, D.C., right now, and they have accepted the investigation. What a citizen can do at this moment is actually call the desk to put pressure on the EPA.

DT: Whom should people call, and what’s the number?

NKM: You can take action by calling Tanya Lawrence. She’s acting director of the EPA office of civil rights. The number is 202-564-2916.

DT: Is this ongoing, or is there a time limit on when Ms. Lawrence will accept phone calls?

NKM: It’s ongoing. I’m checking in on it weekly, but at the moment it’s ongoing. It will be voice mail as well, so I hope people don’t get deterred by that. They’re getting all of the calls and they’re getting all of the voice mails, and the more people who leave messages and the more calls they get, the more powerful the pressure will be on them to go to Crossett and investigate it. We were in the middle of the investigation as we shot the film, and we’re rolling out the film right now with the theatrical release. We’ll update the website if there are going to be any changes to the actual action, but right now the most powerful tool and the most powerful way a person can step up for Crossett is by making these phone calls and putting pressure on the EPA.

 

DT: How are you using the film as a tool for promoting social change? Where are you screening it? How do people access it? Do you have a presence on social media?

NKM: We’re having our theatrical premiere in New York, September 8, for one week at Cinema Village Theater in Greenwich Village. We also have incredibly exciting news that the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, is speaking opening night at 8:00 p.m. It will be incredible to have him there, and we are really honored.

DT: Do you have a Facebook page?

NKM: You can reach us on Facebook at Company Town Film. The people in Crossett are incredibly brave for stepping forward, and we want the people who watch this film to feel inspired to act and to help clean up Crossett, as this represents communities across the country that are polluted by big business.

DT: Is the film going to be available online? How can people who don’t live in New York see it?

NKM: We’re doing a theatrical release first in New York, then in L.A., then in D.C., and it will eventually be available online. That will be announced. People can go to our website companytownfilm.com  and subscribe. We send out a monthly or bimonthly newsletter, and we’ll have updates on where the film is showing across the country and when it will be available online. We encourage people to visit the website because our action is also up there, so people can sign up for the newsletter, how to watch the film, and also how to take action to clean up Crossett.

 

D: Is there anything you want to add?

NKM: This story is incredibly powerful, and these people are incredibly brave. We really want the film to be a tool to put pressure on the EPA for stricter regulations in Crossett. I urge people to take action and get involved and engage with us on social media so we can make a big impact to clean up the town.

 

DT: Has anyone started a national movement to connect the Love Canal, Flint, Michigan, and Crossett, Arkansas dots? Is anyone aggregating them in a lawsuit or some kind of national movement?

NKM: We highlight in the film that we look at Crossett as part of a movement and an example of towns across the country polluted by big business. As far as an aggregated movement online…that’s a great idea! In the film and on our website and in all of our materials we’re very mindful of including those other examples as cases of what’s happening across the country and connecting them back to Crossett because they’re eerily similar. Flint, Michigan, exploded back in 2015, and it was just like in Crossett—the EPA on the ground and local state officials turning the other way.

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chasing Coral/Jeff Orlowski

Breaking with Director Talk tradition, we are presenting a write-up of Chasing Coral rather than an interview with the film’s director. Jeff Orlowski’s schedule was too packed to arrange a chat, but we felt that the film is too important to pass by.  •Availability: Streaming now on Netflix, and available in select theaters. Thanks to Kate Patterson, Brigade Marketing, and Kim Parker Gordon, Netflix, for arranging a screening.

To most of us, the oceans are alien worlds, populated by strange creatures who live  in unknowable depths. Yet oceans are the source of all life on earth. They control our weather and air. They provide us with pleasure, food, raw materials to make cancer-fighting drugs. They inspire love.

For all that, we’re killing the oceans and the remarkable creatures who live there. It’s a simple but tragic process: The carbon dioxide we pour into the air traps heat; 93 percent of that heat is absorbed by the oceans. (Without them, the average land temperature would be 122 degrees.) In the process, the temperature of the oceans has risen to such an extent that they’re becoming inhospitable to marine life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the coral reefs, living superstructures that create their own habitats, much like cities aboveground. The reefs support vast quantities of fish, which many human communities depend on for survival. But in the last thirty years alone, 50 percent of the world’s coral has died, affecting a quarter of the life in the oceans.  In twenty-five years, the oceans may be too warm for coral reefs to survive at all.  According to a March 15, 2017 article in the New York Times, “Hundreds of millions of people get their protein primarily from reef fish, and the loss of that food supply could become a humanitarian crisis.”

Richard Vevers, founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency, knew he wanted to address the calamity unfolding below, but he didn’t quite know how. Before entering the field of ocean conversation, Vevers had spent ten years as a top London ad exec, and he’d brought this advertising mentality to The Ocean Agency. The advertising problem with oceans, he discovered, was that they’re largely out of sight—and therefore out of mind. So he formulated an ambitious goal: revealing the oceans to the world.

But how best to alert a largely uncaring world to a problem they couldn’t see?  As it turns out, corals respond to rising temperatures by bleaching, or turning stark white. For an ad exec seeking to communicate the dire state of ocean affairs, that was an unfortunate response, because the white looked beautiful, not stressed. Vevers realized he needed to communicate the problem in a different way. One night, after watching Chasing Ice, the Emmy-winning documentary about the effects of climate change on the world’s glaciers, Vevers realized that the answer to his ocean problem was change: in order to move people to action, he had to show them what they were losing.

And so Chasing Coral was born. Vevers brought Jeff Orlowski, director of Chasing Ice, onboard, along with an amazing crew, who would use remote-controlled underwater time-lapse photography to document the ongoing death of coral reefs. They designed and created a revolutionary photography system, in which underwater cameras manufactured with 3D printers would be placed inside transparent bubbles and situated on the ocean floor, where they would communicate wirelessly with an operator sitting in a boat. There was only one problem: the system didn’t work. Under pressure to catch the corals before they died completely, they switched to the old-fashioned method: documenting the change by hand, making twenty-five dives per day along the Great Barrier Reef.

In the process, they discovered that stressed corals did more than turn a beautiful white: In their second stress response, the corals glowed, producing the equivalent of a chemical sunscreen to ward off the heat. It was as if they were screaming, in their final phase of death, Look at me. Please notice.

Shooting manually, the crew developed emotional ties to the reefs. Besides the utter beauty of the corals themselves and the astonishing creatures who live there, the crew’s love for the coral humanizes the reefs, giving Chasing Coral a stirring resonance.

Corals, when alive, are breathtakingly beautiful. They’re enchanting, and mysterious, and life-giving. We see all of that in Chasing Coral. But they are not only objects of beauty to be admired from a distance; they’re also valued neighbors in this ecological web we share with other lifeforms. That’s in Chasing Coral, too. And that’s the part we really need to see.

Go to chasingcoral.com to learn about how you can get involved.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

 

Uncertain/Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

DT: It also rounds him out as a person.

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

EM: Thoughtful.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

DT:  But also redemption.

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

 

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

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

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

DT:  So initially you had a lot more music?

EM:  A lot more.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

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

 

Brief Review: I, Daniel Blake/ Ken Loach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labyrinth of Lies/Giulio Ricciarelli

While there is a great deal of controversy over how much the average German citizen knew about the concentration camps that lay hundreds of feet away from their farms and villages, there is little controversy over how much they were willing to admit:  Nothing. Until 1963, when Fritz Bauer, the Hessian State Attorney General, initiated the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, in which 22 lower-ranking SS officers who served at Auschwitz were tried according to German criminal law. Giulio Ricciarelli pays homage to Fritz Bauer and the young attorneys who prosecuted the case in Labyrinth of Lies, Germany’s Official Selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. •Availability: Opens nationwide September 30. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  Most people don’t know about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Can you talk about their significance and why they attracted you as a subject for a feature film?

 

GR:  I must admit I didn’t know about them until I started working on the film. Amazingly, they are not known in Germany; they’re unknown all over the world. The historical importance of this Auschwitz trial—we’re talking 1963—is that it forced German society to look at the crimes of the past. Before that, for almost eighteen years, everybody tried to sweep the Holocaust under the rug, to deny it, to not talk about it. You had a young generation growing up who’d never heard the word. Before working on the film, my perception of German history was that there was the Second World War, there was the Holocaust, and then in 1945, Germany started dealing with its past. The truth is there were almost two decades of denial and negation. These two decades were ended by the trial. And these two decades are forgotten, so I found that an incredibly important and timeless story for today.

It was also the first time a country put its own soldiers on trial. That’s a given for democracies today, but it was unheard of before the trial, so I felt that historically it was quite an important moment in German history, probably the most important moment after the Second World War. The fact that it is forgotten is unbelievable to me.

 

DT:  Your name is Italian. Would you mind clarifying your background?

 

GR:  I have an Italian father who was born in Italy, but I have a German mother, and I moved to Germany when I was four. I grew up bilingual, and I feel both. I feel Italian and I feel German.

 

DT:  You cowrote and directed the film. What kind of research did you do?

 

GR:  Today there’s a huge amount of material that you can access; all the testimonies are online. We worked very closely with the Fritz Bauer Institute and the University of Frankfurt. They read every draft and saw three rough cuts of the film, always commenting on it. The most important thing for us was to have an historical stamp of approval, so it was very important to work very closely with historians on this. We did extensive reading, and we worked very closely with two of the original prosecutors from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, Joachim Kugler and  Gerhard Wiese. We basically started talking to anybody who was alive and conscious in the ’50s to get a glimpse, because you never know where there’s an idea for a scene or a dialogue.

 

DT:  What kind of questions did you ask Mr. Kugler and Mr. Wiese, who actually worked on the trial?

 

GR: We had an interesting concept. Historically, we were very precise. However, the character of Johann, the prosecutor in our film, is actually a composite of the three real-life prosecutors. We took liberties with his emotional life, so of course we asked the original prosecutors how it felt to be somebody doing this kind of work, this kind of research, at that time. These are men of the ’50s, so we had to be very sensitive to hear the little glimpses of emotion they would throw out; these are not men who talk about their emotions. Gerhard Wiese, who is now 87, said, “Well, it was a job and I did my job.” When you start talking to them more and more, though, you realize it was emotionally exhausting. For almost ten years Gerhard was researching these trials on Auschwitz while there was a country around him that was basically booming; it was “the economic miracle.” Gerhard told me, “My friends would say, ‘What are you doing now?’ and I would say, ‘Still working on Auschwitz.’” His life work was basically forgotten, as was Fritz Bauer’s, but one of the unsuspected gifts of the film was that Gerhard, at age 87, got the recognition he never got. He was at the opening night of the film in Frankfurt, and there was a standing ovation for him. He told me his grandchildren said, “You know what? Our grandfather’s a hero.” That was amazing.

 

DT:  You mentioned the fact that the character of Johann is a composite of the three real-life prosecutors. What difficulties did that approach present? I imagine in some ways it was also liberating.

 

GR:  Yes. If you’re making a historic film and you tell only the facts, you will not make a good film, because film has its own laws of dramatic structure. What often happens is that people start inventing or moving things up in history to make the story dramatic. We were very clear that we did not want to do that, because the most important thing to us was actually telling the atmosphere of Germany in the ’50s, because if you want to understand the historical dimension of the trial, you have to understand the atmosphere of denial that came before that. From a filmmaker’s point of view that is quite hard to get across, because we’re talking about the best-known crime of humanity, the Holocaust. Auschwitz has become a symbol of evil, and we were taking people into a time in Germany when that was not the case.

We don’t have an outer dramatic structure. Our dramatic structure is actually the emotional journey of the main character, Johann. He starts out very black-and-white, sitting on a high moral horse, and it’s a journey to humility, basically.  In the end he becomes the right man to do this trial…he has faced his own family, he has faced his own weakness. When he realizes that his father was a Party member, he denies it. He does what everybody else does even though he’s been so obsessed about the trial.

With that concept, you can then be really free. Emotional life is not history, it’s an invention, and it’s very clear that the dramatic arc is the inner life of this character. It allows us to be very precise with the facts without playing around with history, starting to invent meetings that never took place, or moving things up, or inventing a kidnapping, or a blackmail or things that didn’t happen, because the actual trial, as historically important as it was, was not a dramatic thing.

 

DT:  In the scene where the survivors reveal for the first time what they went through at Auschwitz, you didn’t use sound.  I found that incredibly moving. Why did you decide to do it that way? Also, you spoke to real-life survivors as part of your research. Did their stories influence how you shot that scene?

 

GR:  This is a core question to the film. There is a discussion in Holocaust filmography about what you should show and what you shouldn’t show when you make a film that in any way touches the Holocaust. In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann basically proclaimed you should not show. He didn’t use any documentary footage; he just used witnesses.

I feel that there’s one aspect to this discussion that is overlooked, and that is time.  There was a television series with Meryl Streep in the ’70s called Holocaust. It was the first time such a film was seen in Germany. It had an enormous impact, so making a film that re-created [scenes from the camps] had merit at that time. Today, in 2015, you’re making a film for an audience that is filled with images—iconic images, horrible images—and has the whole story very present. I felt that as filmmakers, we had to be bold in the sense of refraining from actually re-creating a scene from the camp, like in a flashback, but also from re-creating actual testimony. An audience knows this is an actor, in a costume, who’s been directed by the director, and he’s acting as if he was there. I felt that today in 2015 you cannot do that anymore.

The closest we get to actual testimony in the film is when the character of the painter talks about his children [who were murdered in the camps], but that is not something he witnessed. He says, “And then they told me what Mengele did to twins,” so that is also not direct testimony.  Regarding these moments, the concept of the film was that we weren’t making a film about the Holocaust; we were making a film about how Germany dealt with the Holocaust. We needed the Holocaust and the horror of it in the film, but every time the movie has that, it’s a canvas for the emotions of the audience. The filmmaking aspect of it was more like leaving it up to the audience to fill in their own stories. We felt that would be much stronger than if we tried to re-create it in any way.

There’s a deeper psychological explanation. When I was eight, somebody brought pictures from Auschwitz to school. You already have a worldview by the time you’re eight, and I was devastated. I was destroyed. I could not believe it. The whole world kind of crumbled, because I couldn’t match everything I thought about the world to these pictures. Interestingly, with all the research we did, we had the very basic experience of not comprehending what actually happened there… I know what happened there, but it’s like you cannot grasp it, you cannot digest it, you cannot deal with it in a way. This was also something that I felt needed to be in the film, and we did it by refraining from using sound. In the scene with the witnesses, they weren’t even actors, they were just extras. Everybody had forty-five minutes on camera, and we improvised. There was no sound, so they could be really open. We just worked to get these moments that we could use in a montage.

There is an even simpler example. We refer to a picture made by the character of the painter right after Auschwitz. It’s called The Angel of Death. The production department came to me and said, “Giulio, what are we going to do? Who is going to paint this?” I said, “We’re not going to do anything, because anything we do will be less strong than what the audience has in their minds.” If I tell you somebody painted a picture right after Auschwitz, you will have an image and an emotion in your head, and if I then show you what I think the picture is, you will be disappointed. So again, that’s also a point where we just see his reaction to it but we don’t see the actual painting.

 

DT:  The trial represented a turning point in Germany, but to be quite honest, even today there are young Germans who know nothing about the Holocaust. I’m wondering whether the trial simply exchanged ignorance for denial?

 

GR:  I grew up in the German system, and I was taught extensively about the Holocaust. I visited a camp in school, and I would say there is a clear political decision to really teach it to children, teach it in school, do films like my film, have memorials. I would say that if today there’s still somebody who’s ignorant, then it’s an active ignorance. It’s somebody really turning their head and actively walking away from what he’s taught, because it is taught in schools. I’ve traveled a lot with this film, and I think there’s a general recognition that Germany really is trying… There is no one hundred percent, it’s always an attempt, but I think people recognize that Germany really is trying to deal with its past. But that all started in 1963, not 1945.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

Infinitely Polar Bear/Maya Forbes (director/writer) and Imogene Wolodarsky (actress)

Left to right: Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Director Maya Forbes Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Director Maya Forbes
Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In this landmark performance, Mark Ruffalo plays a manic-depressive dad who’s forced by circumstances into caring for his two wild daughters on his own.  Basing the film on her own childhood, writer/director Maya Forbes turns lemons into lemonade:  sweet, tart, and refreshing. •Availability: Opens nationwide June 16.  Check local theaters for listings.  Thanks to Gary Springer, Gary Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

 

DT:  In many ways, the film is a lighthearted look at mental illness, but it’s also a personal movie about your own childhood. How do you transform what must have been a painful experience into a sweet one?

 

Left to right: Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart
Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

MF:  I’d been trying to write the script for a long time, working to make it palatable, like a Hollywood movie. I’ve written a lot of Hollywood films, but it just wasn’t working. I thought, Maybe the parents should get divorced, because that’ll be believable—everyone knows what divorce is—but how am I going to explain the mother going off and leaving the kids with this bipolar dad? Then I realized, I’m just going to tell it like it happened. I don’t have to get into justifications; I’m just going to reflect what happened.  And that was very liberating. From that point, I also thought, I’m not going to make the dad likable, I’m just going to make him like he was, which wasn’t always likable but was in some ways lovable.  My father was so human in his vulnerabilities, in his highs, his lows, and he was also very funny. But the core of it was that he loved his children, so I just stuck to the truth of that.

My father would have said that taking care of us was his greatest achievement. It wasn’t until many years later, until I was almost making the movie and I had seen more people with bipolar illness, that I realized, from an adult perspective, that it was a huge achievement for him. He held himself together as best he could to take care of us, and he just doted on us.  So the way in to the movie was: The dad dotes on the kids and the kids are mean to the dad.  It came when I realized I had empathy for him having to take care of us, I had empathy of course for the girls being stuck in this situation they didn’t want to be in, and I had empathy for the mother, who really wanted to figure out a way to get her daughters more opportunities to break out of what she saw as a downward cycle. So I think the way in to autobiography is empathy.

 

DT:  I’d like you both to talk about working with Mark Ruffalo. His performance was incredible, and also he’s known for loving to work with kids.

 

MF:  Mark was attached early on, right after The Kids Are All Right. He wasn’t scared of my being a first-time director. The script spoke to him, and he felt that I had a handle and a very strong point of view on the material. I felt this was a wonderful way to approach trying to make a movie: it’s my first movie, this guy’s a brilliant actor, he’s going to be doing things he hasn’t done before, playing a character from this kind of world. I couldn’t imagine a greater person for making this movie, which was so important to me. He obviously understood the painful elements from a very real place, and I knew he’d play them authentically. He was funny, which he doesn’t always get to do. I could also tell he’s a good dad, and I knew he could relate to that aspect of the script.  He loves his children, and that came through.

I got financing and I lost financing multiple times. Mark was attached the whole time, so over the three years it took before we actually started shooting, I sent him videos of my father. We talked a lot about how the character held himself, how he moved, the way he expressed himself, so there was all this stuff percolating with Mark, which I think was really helpful. Then, when we got to shooting, I told him, I want you to let go of all of that. Mark was born into this role; it feels very natural. It doesn’t feel like he’s putting on airs. And that’s who my father was, so I said to Mark, Get rid of any kind of affect and just be yourself with these little touches. Unless you’re doing a very broad comedy, that’s the way to go, because you want the actor to feel very natural.

But as much as I was the leader of this thing, he was a teacher to me too, and that was a very comfortable place for him.  He’s very respectful of the director, but I was very open to his input because he knows so much about the craft.

 

Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart Photo by Claire Folger, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart
Photo by Claire Folger, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

IW:  If you spend any time with Mark, you already know he’s a great father, and a really great person. He’s so willing to pass on his talent and help you when you’re struggling.  He was never, ever condescending.  He was always warm, and working with Mark and Zoe was like taking an acting class. I didn’t have any experience acting, so going into this with them made it so much easier. For instance, I was having a lot of trouble in the scene where he’s really angry and he’s trying to leave the house after we’re being brats and singing and dancing and not listening to him. He said, “Get in my way. Just stand right in front of me and don’t let me leave.”  It’s so simple, and it just clicked, and I understood how to do it.

 

MF:  I want to add that working with Mark was amazing for me because he was very open to the fact that I was a first-time director. There was something very fun about the fact that I didn’t know the rules. Part of me said, I’m going to make up my own rules.  I feel like some of the best filmmakers say, What rules?  There are no rules.  Just do it your way.

 

DT:  That’s what makes them the best.

 

MF:  Not knowing anything was exhilarating.  I was very open about asking anybody about anything I didn’t understand.  I didn’t pretend to understand things I didn’t.  I felt very confident in that I had a vision.  I knew how I wanted it to look, and I knew how I wanted it to feel.  Maybe I didn’t know how I would technically make it look the way I wanted it to look—

 

DT:  In terms of camera angles, lenses…

 

MF:  My DP, Bobby Bukowski, who’s done a million films, is also a good teacher.  I think he likes working with first-time directors for the same reason as Mark—there’s this freedom to it.  You don’t know how things are supposed to be. When Bobby and I were shot-listing, I would always started with How is this scene supposed to feel?  And then we got into what the camera was going to do. It was always from a very emotional place, and that’s how I thought of the movie, because I wanted the movie to have an emotional, visceral feeling, like a vivid memory.  I wondered, Can we achieve that?  But I was undaunted by the fact that I didn’t know the terminology because Bobby was going to teach me. I knew I could tell him what I wanted it to feel like like and what I wanted to see and the kind of movement that I wanted, and he’d figure out how to do it.

 

DT:  You talked about working with Mark, but how long did you rehearse together as a cast, and what kind of preparation did you do?

 

Left to right: Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart
Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

MF:  I did a lot of preparation with Zoe.  She met my mother, and we went through all sorts of old clothes and pictures.  She wanted as much as she could get.  She read letters that my parents had written to each other.  Both Mark and Zoe wanted access to as much actual real-life photos and images and interactions as they could get.  Mark saw videos of my dad, Zoe spent some time with my mother. In the film she does a whole thing with her voice as well; she changes the way she speaks in the movie to sound more like my mother. Both Mark and Zoe were attached to the film for a few years, so we got to do a lot of this work in little bits and pieces along the way. That was nice,  because I think it went into the recesses of their mind and grew, and developed.

 

IW:  I feel like we’ve been preparing for me to play this role since I was young, because my mother would always tell me and my sisters stories at night about my grandfather and about her childhood. Then a lot of the preparation we did was mainly on set.  We’d go through a scene once, I’d talk about what was happening, and the context, and at night I’d rehearse my lines at home with my father.

 

MF: My husband was very helpful in terms of getting her prepared, then we had two days rehearsal in preproduction, with everyone there. We delved into a couple of difficult scenes, then we said, Let’s stop; we don’t want to beat this scene up.

It was great in terms of establishing a family dynamic with the four of them. Mark and Zoe were wonderful with the kids. It was fun and playful and it felt like a family, so that was when I felt, This is going to work, because they really have a very natural feeling together.

 

DT: On this film you were director, writer, daughter.  Were there times when the director in you said, “OK, I have to do such and such,” but the writer in you said, “Hey I didn’t write that!” or the daughter in you said, “But it wasn’t like that”?

 

MF:  We wanted to have an improvisational feel, but it was very written, and everyone pretty much stuck to the script, except for some funny lines here and there. Occasionally I would bear down pretty hard on a line or two that someone wasn’t getting, and say “It has to be delivered like this.”

 

DT:  What surprised you about directing?

 

MF:  What surprised me was that I liked it so much.  When I was little, it was what I wanted to do—be a writer and a director, and then I got scared as I got older. My mother always said, By the time little girls are thirteen or fourteen, the world has beaten their dreams. When girls are eight, nine, they’re so free, and they think they can do anything, then bit by bit they go along and they’re told, You can’t, you can’t, you can’t.  She was upset by that, so she was saying, Look out for that with your girls.

That’s what happened to me. I’m a pretty confident person, but I went off to schools where boys were the leaders and I got scared to take risks. I was scared to direct. I’ve been a writer all these years, which is kind of antisocial, so what surprised me is how much I enjoyed the collaborative experience. I loved being in charge, because I thought I was good at it. I tried to get people inspired and bring out their best. It was a great project because everyone was there for the love of the project, and that’s a terrific place to start—Mark, Zoe, and all the way down.

I loved the decision making.  I loved deciding what pictures were going to be on the wall and getting into the world of costuming and what you can say about the characters through the costumes.  I loved it all.  I loved working with the actors.  So that was the biggest surprise for me, after all those years of protecting myself as a writer in my little writer bubble and thinking it would be a horrible headache to have to deal with so many people.  And it is a headache, and there’s tons of frustration, but it was completely exhilarating because I worked with so many talented people.

 

DT:  Is this going to change the way you write?

 

MF:  It already has. Now I think, Would I want to shoot this?  Is this a dead scene?  Even if I’m writing a script for a studio, I just want lots of juice out of each scene.  I want to get to the meat of what it’s about.  I don’t want all the extra stuff. I want energy.  You don’t want the stuff that’s not getting you anywhere; you just want the stuff that’s keeping you moving forward.  That’s the big thing.  As a writer you dwell on building stuff up, but as a director you want to get to the story.

 

DT:  What are the differences between writing for TV and writing for film?

 

MF:  Writing for TV you can let things play out for much longer now, especially with these limited series. In some ways writing a film is harder in that you’re trying to condense and tell a story. I like shorter movies, so I’m always looking to try to tell it more concisely. It’s really hard to get down to the essentials in movies, and I feel like in TV you can linger more and just exist in a world of character dynamics that aren’t necessarily leading you forward with your story.

 

DT:  Why is it hard to get to the essentials in film?

 

MF:  To launch a story, and let you know who the character is, and do all the things you need to do to keep the story going without having it get bloated and long—it’s hard to get things to be concise and elegant.

 

DT:  One of the things I found very interesting was the fact that your mother was black and couldn’t get a job in Boston. Could you talk about that historical reality?

 

MF:  When my mother went to New York to get an MBA, her plan was to come back and get a job in Boston, but what she found when she came back was that Boston was really much more provincial than New York.  Much more closed. This was 1980. They were looking for Harvard MBAs right out of business school, and she was a thirty-eight-year-old black woman.  In that world, there weren’t even a lot of women in the financial world, and she had her kids on top of everything else, so she couldn’t get a job.  She felt New York was more cosmopolitan, more open, more free, and she ended up getting a job at EF Hutton.

She told me a funny story. She was working at another financial firm, and one of the partners quit the firm, leaving behind all his accounts. When the supervisor handed them out, he did it in the men’s room! It was like the golf course all over again…it’s just the casual way these things perpetuate.

 

DT:  Typical. What was the hardest part about making this film?

 

MF:  What made this film complicated was the tone, which is really something you have to find and create in the editing. We didn’t want to go too funny, or too heavy, so that was a very interesting, important part of the process. I don’t want to make light of mental illness, because I think it’s a serious thing, but I also loved my father, and he had lots to offer me, so I wanted to make a movie that was happy and sad and struck the right balance…sort of a celebration of misery.

 

DT:  How much did you participate in the editing process?

 

MF:  Completely.  I didn’t physically participate, but I was in the editing room the whole time.

 

DT: So you were essentially directing the editing.

 

MF:  My husband was there too.  It was a really delicate thing to achieve the right tone.

 

DT:  How different did the final film end up from the script?

 

MF:  The manic episode at the beginning of the movie was longer, and it was very dramatic, and it was too much. That was the biggest piece that came out, because it just felt like we needed to know he was having a breakdown and ended up in the hospital, but we didn’t need this breakdown to go on and on. It’s very hard to start off with your main character in an unlikable place. You don’t have to instantly love somebody, but you don’t have to feel like something horrible is going to happen, either.

 

DT: What’s your next project?

 

MF:  My husband and I just finished a script for Jack Black. It’s a comedy, but tonally it’s sort of Coen brothers. It’s a real-life story, about a guy who came from Poland. He became a polka singer sensation in Pennsylvania and ended up running a Ponzi scheme and defrauding all his elderly fans. Sort of by accident; he didn’t want to.  He dug himself into a hole. It’s like a Bernie Madoff story if Bernie Madoff was a lovable, warm guy, which Bernie Madoff obviously was not.

 

DT:  How did you find the story?

 

MF: There was a documentary about it called The Man Who Would Be Polka King, and someone sent it to us. This character was just a guy who wants the American dream so badly.  He comes from Poland to live the dream, and he just goes down a really bad path. But there’s also a great element of fun singing and dancing, and there’s this very funny subculture of the polka world in Pennsylvania.

 

DT:  “I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me.”

 

MF: I love that song!  It just seems like that’s the role Jack Black was born to play.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

Jimmy’s Hall/Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Jim Norton (actors), directed by Ken Loach

Actors Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, and Jim Norton pop off the screen in Ken Loach’s fictionalized account of the life of social activist Jimmy Gralton, the only Irishman to be deported from his own country as an “illegal alien,” without trial, in August 1933. Gralton’s crime: running a social hall where Irish men, women, and children studied Irish literature, painting, dance, and Gaelic, to the growing horror of Church and State. A highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival 2015. Availability: Opens nationwide July 3.  Check local listings for a theater near you.  A Sony Pictures Classics release.  Thanks to Julie Chappell, Falco Ink and the Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Ken Loach is known for not giving his actors the script in advance but rather giving out each scene the day before it’s shot. How did that work for you as actors?

 

BW:  It’s very conducive to good, strong, natural performances. I’m all for it.

 

SK:  You don’t get to overthink it, and you don’t worry about it. You don’t come in with this load of knowing where it’s going. You can only play what you know, so there’s a lightness about it.

 

JN: I once said to Ken, It would be nice to know more about where this character is going, but he said, In life you don’t know where you’re going.

 

DT:  But in life you know who you are.

 

BW:  No, you don’t. That’s an illusion.

 

JN:  You know who you think you are.

 

SK: Before we started filming, we spent a couple of weeks researching and going around Ireland. Barry and I got to see our characters’ houses, and we all did a lot of research into the politics of the time, so we knew where the country was at, and then we had to make decisions about where our character’s heads were at. So you come having made a few choices, then, when you get your scene for the following day, you make choices as you go along.

 

JN:  Often the way you play a scene decides what the next page of the script will be. Ken and Paul are watching and seeing what the actor’s offering up and in what direction you’re intuitively taking the character on his journey. Then they’ll say, Let’s go this way. It’s a very interesting way to work.

 

SK:  He casts very carefully as well. It’s a really thorough casting process, where he takes on people who he thinks have a natural affiliation with the characters they’re playing, or a leaning toward the character they’re playing. For Jimmy’s Hall, he cast people who were real community players. Nobody was a diva.

 

JN:  No time for that.

 

SK:  He casts people who are quite like-minded, I think.

 

DT:  Jim, let’s go back to something you said. I interviewed Paul Laverty [screenwriter, Jimmy’s Hall] for The Angel’s Share, and he said that the script is actually quite tight and there’s not a lot of improvisation—that it’s about 90 percent scripted.

 

JN:  That’s partly true. It is scripted, but from my own experience, when I get to the end of a scene, Ken is standing behind the camera. Your third eye is watching him, and he’s going, “And…. and….” [indicating you’re to continue]. Often what you then add at the end of the scene is what he uses. I did a film with him years ago, called Hidden Agenda, and I played the head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast. This man was going to a funeral, because some of his people had been murdered. He was wearing his whistle and the kind of special uniform he wore for these occasions, and I said to Ken, “Can you get me an expert and tell me how to do this properly so it looks like I know what I’m doing?”  Ken said, “Yeah, he’s coming tomorrow.” This went on for four or five days. I finally said, “I’ve got to get this guy—I don’t know how to button this, and where does the whistle go, and what hat do I wear, and how do I hold the baton?”  Ken simply said, “Let’s shoot it.” So they shot it. I was really upset because I didn’t know how to do it properly, but afterwards Ken said to me, “The man is going to a funeral. He’s lost five of his men. He wouldn’t remember what his name was.”  So that’s the kind of genius that he brings: using the actor’s terror to let him present something really truthful.

 

KN:  Or seeing where the wee flaws are and making them work, because that’s interesting. We watched him cut the film together.

 

JN:  He had that old-fashioned cutting machine…a Steenbeck.

 

SK:  They ran out of sound tape. Nobody makes it anymore, so Pixar sent them reels and reels. I went in about three or four times, and one day they were cutting the scene where Jimmy was in the hall, then comes out and sees everybody standing outside. Ken had about four takes and that was it. I thought that each take got more polished and looked better and better. Ken said to me, “Which do you prefer?”  I said probably the third or fourth, and he said, “The first.” He said the later takes were too polished; it was too like actors by the time you got to the fourth take. He said, “In the first one, Barry [Ward] can’t quite get the door open. He has to push a little bit.”  And I had thought it was so raw, where everybody’s making little mistakes and backing into each other.

 

JN:  Mistakes are good. He loved Barry’s hesitation.

 

DT:  It’s much more like his earlier films, like My Name Is Joe or Looking for Eric. Ken [Loach, director] and Paul [Laverty, screenwriter] and Rebecca O’Brien [producer] have worked together for a very long time. How was it working for a well-established team?  You guys were sort of walking into a preestablished method.

 

BW:  I thought it was confidence-inducing, and his method of depriving us of the script was less terrifying owing to the fact that this team has made such brilliant movies using these methods. I felt totally confident and in safe hands from day one, going on the movies that they’d made. I mean, there’s no bad performances in any of their movies.

 

SK:  But they’re also the friendliest, most open sort of family. It’s not like there’s this little clique in the corner of people who know each other really well and you’re outside it. It doesn’t feel like that at all. They’re really open. They have great fun. Paul and Ken take the piss out of each other all the time. It’s really fun to watch.

 

JN:  A huge generosity of spirit, and you’re included. I’ve just done a movie where after each take there were three producers on the floor as well as the director, and they would cover their mouths with their hands and whisper, and you think, They don’t like me. That would never happen with Ken and Rebecca and Paul because they’re just open. They’re wonderful. There’s no sense of being excluded from their coven of brilliance.

 

SK:  And they’re really crazy about each other.

 

DT:  How did Ken’s direction differ from other directors you’ve worked for?

 

SK:  Hugely.

 

JN:  He gives the actors so much freedom. Even though the script is tight, he encourages you to stretch it and play with it. In the end, he’s the sole arbiter; he will decide what he wants, but he gives you great freedom to, as he says, “offer things up.” Of course we all trust him and we all love him, so it’s a lovely experience.

 

SK:  He also shoots everything in sequence, which is such a gift. I asked him at one point if it was really hard to do because you need to shoot everything in one venue at one time, and he said it’s not hard at all—there are just a few little things you have to work out, but it’s really not that difficult, and if people tried it more often, they’d find that they could do it. For example, there’s a scene in the hall where Jimmy’s being asked to speak on behalf of one of the local families, and my character can’t really speak because she doesn’t want him to do it and she’s too emotional. The night before that, we’d shot the dance scene in the hall, so we were doing the scene where the day before we had spent eight hours dancing with each other. It’s so much easier as an actor to do that. You don’t have to “play” a scene… I just did a TV show where we shot the fourth episode while the second and third were being written, so we didn’t even know our own history. With Ken, it’s completely different. Ken teaches you your past.

 

SK: …but you never know your future.

 

BW:  The script for Jimmy’s Hall is structured quite conventionally. It’s dramatic realism, it’s social realism, but when I’m watching Ken’s movies I’m just never, ever aware for a minute that I’m watching a movie. They’re seamless and very realistic and very powerful for that, and I was curious how he would accomplish that, because each scene as Laverty writes it is conventionally structured and written. They have beats and climaxes and dips, and it became apparent quite early on that Ken doesn’t go in for emphasizing these beats or these dramatic moments. For instance, in the script there’s a scene when Jimmy first goes back into the old hall and it’s all dusty. He’s blowing the dust off, and in the script there’s this big moment of decision making. He flips open all the windows and it’s a grand statement and the light pours in, and Jimmy comes out and says, “We’re going to reopen the hall!” I did it as it was on the page, then Ken said, “No, just go over there and maybe have a look out that window.” It just became much more real.

 

JN:  He’s a great believer in the old adage “Less is more.” He doesn’t give you any direction if he’s happy with what you’re doing, so I once said to him, “Just give me a direction—if you wanted to give me a note, what would it be?”  And he said, so gently, “I’d do a lot less.”

 

BW:  Other directors are always emphasizing moments—“Hit these beats!”—and I find that the more low-brow a project, the more oomph and dramatic they try to make it. It goes against every grain in my body.

 

DT:  Barry, you do a lot of theater.  I imagine that theater acting is much bigger than film acting. Was it hard dialing down for you?

 

BW:  No, the opposite. It’s hard for me to drum it up for theater.

 

SK: Irish theater is not as big as Broadway, or even London West End, where things are very skilled looking and technical, like when actors get to the point of doing their big cry. Irish theater is actually a bit more subtle than that.

 

JN:  Plus the theaters are smaller, which helps. More intimate.

 

SK:  You don’t have thousands of people every night to play to.

 

JN:  But there is a difference. Richard Burton once said film acting is the maximum possible effect with the minimum apparent effort, which sums it up.

 

DT: As I understand acting, you have to become someone else in an honest way, which strikes me as an oxymoron.

 

JN:  Acting is the great emotional leap you have to make in order to become somebody else. That’s really what it is.

 

BW:  It’s almost like a leap of faith.

 

JN:  So we spend our lives leaping. At least some of us do; there are actors who play off their own personalities, stars who would never do anything but play themselves, but then there are actors who love taking on the persona of another person. Sometimes they’re more powerful doing that than they are in their own lives. Alec Guinness you wouldn’t notice in the street.

 

BW:  Or Peter Sellers.

 

SK: It’s about finding your own empathy with somebody else’s story and trying to really, really understand and empathize—no matter who the character is—with what they’re going through; to try and tell other people from inside their skin what they’re going through. It teaches you empathy. If you see somebody behaving badly, you look at them and ask, where are they coming from?  Why are they behaving like that? You try to question it and study human behavior and understand why people are doing and saying the things they’re doing—especially for a character like Jim’s [Father Sheridan, an archconservative priest], who he wouldn’t agree with at all.

 

JN:  He’s someone I’m diametrically opposed to in every possible way, but you have to try to find a way to believe in him.

 

SK:  Find where he’s coming from.

 

JN:  I justified it by saying he was doing the best he could from what he knew. Sadly, what he knew wasn’t very much.

 

BW: It’s amazing what you find yourself being able to justify—even with the most heinous crimes, you kind of say, I understand why somebody might do that.

 

SK: But for Father Sheridan, I imagine he absolutely believes he’s doing the right thing.

 

JN:  There’s a wonderful book by the psychologist Scott Peck called People of the Lie, which I read when I had to play a very bad person. It was fascinating, because he said people who are truly evil don’t believe they’re evil.

 

BW:  No, of course not.

 

JN: His conclusion was that if someone like that comes into your life, get out of the way, because you’re not going to change them. It’s terrifying.

 

SK: To play a character that’s greedy and cowardly, you find those little flaws within yourself. Then you blow it up a little to play somebody whose go-to place is to be really greedy or really cowardly.

 

JM:  But in the end it’s just pretend. We’re just pretending.

 

DT:  How did you prepare for the roles?  Do research, watch Ken’s previous films, read Donal O’Kelly’s play about Jimmy Gralton?

 

BW:  I’m a big fan of reading around subjects. Some actors use music to get into the mood of scenes; I read. I read a lot of fiction set in Manhattan in the ’20s to get an idea of where Jimmy Gralton was coming from at the beginning of the movie. We all read some Irish history books and books about the politics of the time. Not knowing a great deal about Jimmy Gralton, because not a great deal of biography exists, I found a lot of similarities between him and James Connolly, so I read loads of James Connolly’s writings and biographies.

 

SK: Ken recommended books, and my grandparents and parents grew up on farms in the west of Ireland, so I could ask them questions. When we were in Sligo a couple of weeks before we started filming, I met my on-screen husband and kids, and we got to do some improvisations with each other about when he asks me to marry him. We also did some family improvs, where we took the kids out to lunch. Ken and the children’s father sat at another table in the café, while the four of us—the “family”—sat at another and I picked cheese out of the kids’ sandwiches, just getting the vibe of this family. And Barry and I learned to dance for a few months together, so we got to build a relationship with each other as well. The preparation on every level is quite good. Everything you want is available to you.

 

JN:  They provide a huge amount of information. I would get sheafs of sermons given by priests at that time, which were the most terrifying things I’d ever read—far more terrifying than what Father Sheridan does in the film. A lot of that information was fed daily into my computer, so by the time you arrive you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you want. Ken is very meticulous in the information that he gives his actors, but he still leaves that space for something, hopefully magically, to happen.

 

DT:  While you’re acting, do you consider the historical context? For instance, when the two of you were dancing alone in the hall, were you just dancing and being in love, or were you dancing and thinking, OK, it’s 1932 and…

 

BW:  It’s information you have. When you do the research, the information is there. You don’t necessarily use it in a scene, but it’s good to have it there. For instance, you’re sitting here now and asking questions. You’re not thinking of where you learned to interview people or what you studied in college, but it’s all there, so it’s all feeding and informing how you go about doing anything.

 

SK: During the first couple of days of filming, Ken would have a word in someone’s ear and they’d start improvising. The very first day, when we were building the hall and Michael Murphy was up the ladder and starts cursing at the journalist, I started laughing. I thought it was really funny, then I sort of quickly realized, I don’t think Oonagh would laugh—she cares too much about the hall. I sort of realized pretty quickly that I had to be on top of it…but it was never hard to do either, because Ken never puts you in a scenario where you’re battling against yourself, thinking, I’m doing this but I’m supposed to be in 1930s Ireland. There was a scene at the end of the film where I come to see Jimmy in the barn. I had to go to the top of a rocky hill and cycle the whole way down even though they never used it in the film. Ken wants you to start from your starting point. You don’t just say Action and then start talking. Everything he does helps you as an actor to not have to act too much. To just go from your gut and your instinct.

 

JN:  So when you arrive at the door you’ve made the journey. You know where you’ve been and why you’re there. The man is a genius. He creates wonderful situations.

 

DT:  Rather than use a set, they actually built a hall on a crossroads in Ireland. Ken said that the actual size of the hall imposed a discipline that you can sense as an audience. Did the actual size and the fact that it was in Ireland make a difference to you as actors?

 

BW:  Just as you were saying, it’s all there. It’s all salutory. You have to pretend less, use less imagination and just be present. It all amounts to people simply being on camera rather than people trying to act and force things. I think it’s all conducive to very natural performances.

 

SK: You’re not sitting in a corner of a massive studio with loads of lights…it was the natural light coming in the windows. We loved that hall. We had some great nights dancing there.

 

BW:  And as a film crew, his methods are so unobtrusive. Ken usually uses long lenses, and he’s on a tripod, out of the way. There’s no boom ops in sight, there’s no lighting guys in sight. You’re doing the scene with a gang of people dancing for real, with real musicians.

 

DT:  Where was the crew?  They had to be there.

 

BW:  In the corners, so quiet you can’t see them. If there’s an outdoor shot, they’re miles away.

 

SK:  With those big dance numbers, you actually had to look around. There are all these people and we’re all dancing, and you’re kind of looking and you see someone on a ladder in the corner with the camera. They’re so far back.

 

JN:  I’ve never heard anybody on a Ken Loach film say, Where is this shot?  Am I in it? You wouldn’t dream of asking. You trust him totally. He’d be very surprised if you said, Are you here on me? You don’t talk about those technical things.

 

SK:  He would say, Why would you want to know that?

 

DT: You’re all so charismatic on screen. In fact, that was one of the things I loved most about the film—how you just popped from the screen. How does that work?

 

BW:  Maybe because they were very forceful characters, quite simply. Each of the characters we’re playing is very principled and forthright.

 

SK:  It’s easier to be charismatic when you’re someone else.

 

BW:  I’m not that strongly opinionated, whereas Jimmy Gralton had an agenda, and he had a way of life and a generosity of spirit that I simply don’t have.

 

SK:  We all loved the story so much as well.

 

JN:  I think what you’re describing is absolutely the genius of Ken: To catch. We just do it, and he, being a master of film, catches the moments. When he’s in the cutting room, he selects those moments, and that’s the magic. We’re not consciously aware of trying to pop or trying to affect anybody or trying to play the truth. He takes what we do and makes it into this beautiful tapestry.

 

SK:  And Ken, as Jim was saying before, is so quietly spoken when he comes over…. Barry and I were playing a scene together, and Ken came over and very quietly sort of whispered, “You know, this is a very dangerous relationship,” and then snuck off. So we sort of brought everything right down as well and ended up playing something really, really intimate. Ken then shows it this size [stretches her arms wide], so that’s probably where some of that energy comes from as well.

 

JN: And also he listens so intently to you. He rarely gives instruction, but when he does, you want to listen. We did a scene where my character [Father Sheridan] is having a drink with his young assistant. We did a few rehearsals, and Ken said, “How much do you think he’s had?”  I wanted to play it drunk, because I wanted to show this priest in all his terribleness, so I said, “Maybe he’s had four or five glasses of whiskey,” and Ken merely said, “I think that’s maybe two too many.” In other words, don’t go with the easy choice.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015