Cuba People to People: Roses, Cars & Wings/John Buchanan and Gail August

Filmmaker John Buchanan and linguistics professor Gail August traveled to Havana, Cuba, under the People-to-People program to study the country’s remarkably high literacy rate. As was their custom when traveling, they brought along August’s belly dance costumes as a way to connect with the locals. In this short film, director and dancer reveal what can happen when people of good faith and good minds come together to learn from each other and share ideologies.

 

DT: What was your purpose in making this film?

JB: Gail and I had done a number of films that could be considered home movies, so we really didn’t go down with a purpose. We went with our normal assortment of belly dance outfits and wanted to see what would happen when we got there. As we were shooting, we saw a richness in the culture and Gail’s interaction with the kids and thought there was something that could be made out of this footage, though it wasn’t until we came back home and started putting the pieces together that we saw there was a story here. Of all our travel movies, this one really stood out because of the special nature of what Cuba was all about and the program we were there for.

DT: How did you choose the People-to-People program?

JB: We’d always had an interest in visiting Cuba, and after Trump’s election in November, we said, “Maybe this is something we should do.”  Obama had set up the People-to-People program for Americans to travel to Cuba without going through a tour agency; it was much cheaper and less restrictive than tours. We were concerned that Trump would reduce the program somehow, so the night Fidel passed away we booked our tickets.

 

DT: What was the belly dancing all about?

GA: We always take along belly dance costumes whenever we travel. We’ve used it for photography because it’s really pretty, but we’ve also used it for what I call the Pied Piper stimulus. I put on the costume, we go out, and people start following us, especially the children. Children love the colors, they love the costumes, they want to know about the dance. Dance is a universal language. I speak a tiny bit of Spanish, but you don’t have to speak the language to engage in dance. It was a way for us to offer something but also bring them in with us so that we could share together. Cuba is a very musical place. They live music and they live dance. Everybody wants to hear music, everybody wants to dance. Belly dance is the dance that I know, and all the little extra pieces like the wings tend to attract attention, which children in particular find so dramatic and interesting.

 

DT: How do politics in Cuba affect people’s everyday lives?

JB: The revolution is on every street corner. You see signs of it in the museums you walk by, you see it when you’re dealing with the double currencies down there.

DT: What are double currencies?

JB: There is the official CUP currency, which is the peso-backed currency that the locals are able to use. For Americans there’s a dollar-to-dollar exchange with the US, so there are two currencies going on at the same time.

GA: It’s the third prong of the revolution. Free education, free health care, and nobody is supposed to starve. There is a food subsidy; everybody gets food coupons every month. They don’t get enough, but they do get some. By changing the currency, people are able to buy what they need. It’s not 100 percent true, they’re still struggling, but tourists pay a higher price for everything. There are hardly any grocery stores—it’s kind of scary—but when you do find one, you’ll see two lists of prices, one for Cubans and one for outsiders.

JB: There’s the classic Cuba that people consider—the cigars, the rum, the classic cars—so that was a dichotomy that was really striking. The classic cars you see throughout the film were all supposedly owned by gangsters. But the interesting thing is that those cars might be 5 or 10 percent of the cars down there. As our money was dwindling, we got into lower- and lower-grade taxis, many of which were a pot hole away from being a bucket of bolts. You really see it in the doorknobs. As you get into one of these older cars, the door will creak and you slam it closed, but there’s no doorknob on the inside. They can’t get the parts. The blockade has really hurt people’s ability to get extra parts for their cars, so there were times when the taxi driver would say, “Hold on.” He’d stop the car, get around, open up the door for us, then close it back up for us. So one of the effects of the revolution, combined with the continuing  embargo, is the fact that they just can’t get the parts for the cars. In many other ways it’s hurting the average Cuban.

GA: Also the double economy. I believe that in the last ten years there are very strict restrictions on jobs and how much you can make in those jobs. They’re totally controlled. People cannot live on them. All these tourist connections bring in extra money, but they’re outside the legal system. We were told about a woman who works as a doctor all day, then drives a taxi all night and makes more than she made as a doctor. So the Cuban revolution is still trying to control the economy, but you have this second economy pushing out. Cubans that I used to speak with, especially my students in New York, used to say, “We’re poor, but we’re all poor.” You don’t see that anymore. They’re poor, but the people who have found a way to work around the economy through the tourist industry are much less poor. That part of the revolution seems like it might be fracturing a little bit, and I don’t know what will happen next.

Fidel was an incredibly well-educated person. He knew right away to keep the story of the revolution everyplace. On every block you see a story of the revolution, and people have enormous pride. Even if they don’t like Fidel anymore, even if they don’t like the revolution, they have pride. This was a small country that got rid of the American bondage, the American mafia, they got rid of the dictator, and they made their own country. There’s enormous pride there. Every street corner has something from the revolution, and I think it was very purposely orchestrated by the leadership. People suffered in the revolution—they suffer anyhow—but I think there’s a real purpose to keeping this mythology right in the front. It’s overwhelming when you’re there and see it all the time.

 

DT: I was especially moved by your footage of artifacts from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

JB: An amazing part of our experience was going to the Hotel Nacional, which is where a lot of the Cuban Missile Crisis was centered. Back when the original frictions were starting, the Cubans created a very significant set of trenches, or pits, in the landscape of this famous hotel. Our guide, who was in the film, was eighteen at the time. She was trained to go into this underground network, where they had portholes up through the ground. These spotters would move little metal plates around; her job was to spot any nuclear missiles coming in, and then alert the rest of the network that something was incoming. Now she’s in her seventies, but she was one of the ones who was very much a staunch supporter of what was happening.

GA: She still is.

JB: The Cuban revolution is part of her heart. You see right in your face what the missile crisis could have been. What could she have done if nuclear missiles had been coming in? We certainly related it to today and all the problems that are one button away in many different countries. To put a face to the nuclear missile crisis right there in front of you was very impactful.

GA: And the paranoia of the country, although that’s a bad word, because it’s realistic paranoia. They’ve been preparing forever for an American invasion for good reason—they had one. But I’ve been reading that during the recent floods, everybody went into these tunnels and trenches from the Cuban Missile Crisis and supposedly everybody was OK. They survived.

JB: The other part that was really interesting is the perception of the US by folks down there. You see it in one of the clips in our film, in a poster where the characters of the US presidents start initially with the dictator Batista and then go through Reagan and Bush, and the position that the US took of having a stricter policy in continuation of the sanctions.

You see it in the museums, where kids view a boat called the Grandma. They have a very famous story, like George Washington crossing the Delaware. Fidel was banished from Cuba and went to Mexico, where he ended up with a band of guys who armed themselves lightly and got into a pleasure craft built for twenty people, called the Grandma. They got seventy people onto the boat. The Grandma made its way from Mexico and landed on a far part of Cuba, where they disbanded. Batista and his men knew they were coming and killed half of them, but the rest of them went into the countryside and spoke to the locals and developed the revolution. So the seat of the revolution is from grandma. How much of that story is true we don’t know, but it was certainly front and center when the Cuban story was being told.

After Fidel took charge of the country they were able to get the Grandma in a museum, which Cuban kids all visit. In addition to the Grandma there’s anti-US stuff all around about the CIA planting boll weevils to kill off the crops. Again, how much of it is fiction? We don’t know, but there were ways to show that the US at that point was trying to take over and get back into Cuba.

GA: I kept saying, “Did we do that?” There was a lot of nasty stuff. Pouring sugar on the crops, destroying this and that.

 

DT: In June 2017, Trump announced new restrictions on traveling to Cuba, though they haven’t yet been implemented. What effect do you think that will have on Cuba and the US?

JB: I think he’s trying to tip the scales more toward the tourist industry so that the tours, which are very expensive and controlled, may continue. As far as the People-to-People program, maybe it will be a little stricter, maybe it will be eliminated entirely. One day while we were walking through Havana, we just happened to meet a whole group of people from our salsa community in New York—everybody was going down there on the People-to-People program because it was much cheaper and you could intersperse into the countryside. I know people still want to go down, but if it’s limited to much more expensive, more restricted tours, they won’t go.

With the People-to-People program, there are twelve reasons you can go. We went under education, and we had prearranged to meet with people down there. Literacy was a very heavy part of our focus. We met up with people at the University of Havana, the international school of Havana. Without that kind of program in place it would have been much more difficult to go as we did.

DT: What surprised you most about Cuba?

JB: The daily struggle that Cubans who are not connected to the tourist industry have every day just to get protein.

GA: We had dinner with the father of one my students in New York, and he said he almost never ate fish. He’d never had shrimp in his life. We asked about people we’d seen fishing on the Malecon, and he said it’s illegal—if they’re caught, they can get arrested. There’s almost no public transportation. We had taxis, but it’s not an easy way to get around.

They survived before with different countries subsidizing them, but I don’t think they have anyone now. They had Russia, they had Venezuela, they had us and the Spanish before that, so they have to really build their economy. They don’t have a lot of resources, but they do have this very well-educated population. It has a potential future.

There’s also this leftover from the American mafia. At the museum at the Hotel Nacional, they take you around to these fancy bedrooms and say, “This is where Meyer Lansky stayed,” and they show you pictures. Or they’ll say, “This is the big diner where they brought all the mafia together” and sell pictures to the tourists. The guys who drive these classic car taxis say, “This car was driven by Lucky Luciano.” There’s an enormous investment in restoring these cars, but I don’t know where they get the money. The Cubans I know who have come to the States had to leave because their undercover economic activity that was getting them by started to become too obvious and they had to get out.

 

DT: What do you ultimately want to say with the film?

JB: The film has struck a chord because of its hopeful tone. I know it sounds like John Lennon “Imagine,” but there should be a way, like the People-to-People program,where people can just get to know each other better and not get swallowed up in politics. The only thing we know about them is the Communist angle, while all Cuban folks hear about is the CIA angle. Perhaps people can actually have an exchange of ideas and cultures through dance, education, or health care. Maybe the film will help people see that we’ve been in conflict for six decades and maybe it’s time to just understand each other. We’re not going to be able to change the ideologies on either side, but at least we can understand where they’re coming from. Our main message is to offer friendship in spite of prior hostilities, similar to the rose offered in Cuban visionary Jose Marti’s poem. That’s the hopeful tone of our film.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Extraordinary Ordinary People/Alan Govenar

For over thirty-five years, filmmaker, author, and radio show host Alan Govenar has been documenting the National Heritage Fellowship, an extraordinary program that honors the artists who keep folk traditions alive in the US. From Native American musicians to African basket makers, from circus performers to Korean dancers, these men and women honor their cultures through practice, performance, teaching, and community work. Extraordinary Ordinary People is a journey through their lives, their art, and their enormous contributions to the vitality of this great land. Availability: Opens September 15, New York City, Cinema Village. A First Run Features release. Thanks to Kelly Hargraves, First Run Features, for arranging this interview.

DT: Talk about the National Heritage Fellowship. What’s it for? Who started it?

AG: When Bess Lomax Hawes became the director of the Folk and Traditional Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, she saw the need to recognize folk and traditional artists nationally. She wanted to recognize folk and traditional artists, but not simply give lifetime achievement awards. Of course the awards do celebrate careers and many years of work that different individuals have undertaken and the way in which they passed on these traditions from one generation to the next, but Bess thought it was necessary to recognize traditions as well as individuals. She didn’t want to just give one award to a fiddler. She wanted to show the diversity of fiddling as it existed in the US. So there would be many folk fiddlers and many blues musicians, many conjunto musicians, different people who made traditional crafts forms like basket making and bobbin lace making. It was difficult for her to get the endowment to start this program, and when it started in 1982, there was lots of discussion within the field of folk and traditional arts: Was this a good thing, or would it have negative effects on these traditions? Would valorizing people help or hurt? I think as it’s played out over the last thirty-five years it’s been quite an extraordinary program.

DT: Why would it hurt?

AG: Singling out an individual who’s part of a group that’s been unrecognized sometimes creates tensions within the group. Initially the award was $5,000. Over the years it went to $10,000, and now its $25,000.

 

DT: Let’s talk about the values inherent in the award, beginning with the concept of America as a melting pot.

AG: What I realized in doing this was that for me, the metaphor for America was kind of a crazy quilt of the cultures of the world. Within that quilt there were these traditions that were structured but also improvised. Some were radical, some were conservative. It was this uncanny juxtaposition of everything I thought I knew but found I didn’t understand.

 

DT: How about the value of tradition?

AG: Traditions define who we are. At the core of culture is tradition. Traditions help us clarify our sense of right and wrong, and imbue the world with meaning. In this way traditions shape the people who carry them on and the communities in which we live, work, and play. These National Heritage Fellows are exemplars, they’re ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They’re leaders, they’re teachers, they’re community workers, they’re people who are committed to not only preserving cultural traditions but also perpetuating them and embarking on new innovations to make them more vital and relevant to the world in which they live.

People have a mistaken image of folk art and folklore as being static and dead, when it’s very much alive. That’s not to say that some traditions haven’t passed on or vanished because they’re no longer relevant, but every tradition in this movie is still very vital. And it’s because people are not only carrying on what they learned, they’re adding something new. They’re always becoming new. They’re adding new verses to songs, they’re creating new stitches, they’re designing new quilt patterns, they’re innovating, creating. They’re artists.

 

DT: Some of the artists adhered to strictly traditional forms, like the Korean dancer, while others like the African basket maker introduced modern elements into the tradition, while still others began their own traditions, like Sidiki Conde and the gentleman who claimed to have started Zydeco. Introducing innovations into a tradition always begs the question of what are the tradition’s forms and what dangers does that present to the traditional forms?

AG: I think the parameters of what’s acceptable is determined by the individual and relationship to his or her family or community. The level of interaction determines that. From my point of view, people see a need and they’re creators, they’re artists in the bigger sense. A person who was a big influence on my thinking was Marcia Tucker, who founded the New Museum in New York. Some of the early shows that Marcia did in the ’80s exhibited people who might be called folk artists side by side with people who would be called contemporary artists. Marcia saw these distinctions between folk and fine art as being artificial. It’s a hierarchy, a social hierarchy, because the education process is different. Fine artists go to art schools, and folk artists learn from their grandparents. But in the end they’re both creators. They’re both driven by the artistic impulse. That’s the bigger point here.

In the movie, Bill Monroe says, “I wanted to invent my own music,” and that’s bluegrass. To think that this individual did that! He took mountain music, hillbilly music that he’d heard on records and live performance, and made it into something completely new. Earl Scruggs introduced the idea of playing the banjo in a different kind of way. Like Sheila Adams says, “This is where bluegrass banjo was born.”

I think each and every performer brings something new. Even the Korean dancer, who’s in New York City, is not only influential to the perpetuation of Korean dance but she’s also featured in programs at the Joyce Theater. She’s a contemporary dancer, and within that world she is bringing something new. Her gestural identification with the tradition brings it to a new level.

 

DT: What is the function of art in preserving identity?

AG: I think that the soul of our identity is our language and our use of language, and that’s where these traditions become the most fragile, because without the language—particularly of immigrant cultures—the traditions will wither. The languages are part of the cultural wetlands. D.L. Menard [Cajun] makes the comment in the movie, “We were a poor people and they didn’t want us to speak French in the schools because we didn’t speak correct French.” Ironically, linguists are tremendously fascinated by people like D.L. Menard or Canray Fontenot [Creole]. My wife and I brought Canray to Paris. Our friend Michel Fabre, who was a professor at the Sorbonne, had devoted himself to writing about African Americans in France. He was a biographer for Richard Wright, among others, and translated works of the Harlem renaissance into French. He wanted Canray to come to his graduate seminar because he wanted people to hear the French that he spoke. Michel would listen to Canray and say, “I don’t know how he does this, but he’s speaking medieval French. He’s singing songs from the medieval era.” So it’s language at the core of identity, I think, and tradition is a way in which language gives life to tradition.

We live in a world where immigrant cultures are constantly being pressed to assimilate. What’s amazing to me about the people in the movie, and part of what kept me documenting them for so many years, is that they understand this. They understand this delicate balance between carrying on traditions and assimilating. It’s like when Charles Carrillo says, “We’re not famous. We just do this because it matters.” That’s what it’s all about. It’s striking that very delicate balance between the pressures of assimilation with cultural preservation and at the same time trying to maintain a good life. To do well. To have a good family, to be prosperous and to flourish. To make a living. Not everyone can do that. There are people in the movie who struggle to make a living, and we can’t overly romanticize this process, because individuals like Sidiki Conde are struggling. There’s Alex Moore, who died in poverty.

 

DT: The film included an amazing array of people, ideas, and formats, yet you achieved a remarkable unity of feeling. Did you have a clear idea that you wanted to communicate? What was your organizing principle?

AG: The organizing principle revealed itself to me. I’ve been documenting the Heritage Fellows for so many years, and I had been on the committees that selected them. On our website, mastersoftraditionalarts.org, which was developed before the film but goes with it, there are over five hundred little movies, and you’ll see little bits and pieces of things that we edited. So over the years I’ve worked with a number of different editors. On this film, editor Jason Johnson-Spinos and I worked really closely together. We wrote the script together. He jokes with me that he was born the year I started Documentary Arts, but he’s very sensitive to what I’m thinking, and he’s very sensitive to how to piece all of this together. I wanted to have a narrative and at the same time to bring into it as many different people as I could without it just seeming like mishmash, so there were certain threads that I developed.

When I met Sheila Kay Adams, she became a principal for me, because she’s a storyteller in addition to being a wonderful banjo player and flat-foot dancer and ballad singer. She’s also a writer, who’s written a couple of novels that have been successful. She had a voice that for me was totally unexpected—to hear an Appalachian woman telling you this story! For me there are not enough women in media, and there are not enough women narrators and voices on the radio, even public radio. I wanted there to be someone who would catch you a little bit by surprise but who would tell it like a story. I wrote the script, but Sheila joked with me that she had to Sheila-fy it. And that was great. I wanted that. So the threads became the stories, and I wanted to have more in-depth stories balanced with more sweeping overview. I wanted the viewing of the movie to be both an emotional kind of visceral experience but at the same time an intellectual journey. A lot of my work is focused on the tension and balance between art and ideas.

 

DT: You spoke earlier about documenting these people for so many years. What is your history with this project?

AG: My work on this began in the ’70s, with my BA, which had an emphasis on folklore studies. I had grown up in the inner city of Boston in a world that was Jewish and Black. There was tension between cultures, and I was very much interested in cultural understanding as a vehicle to make a better world. I didn’t know quite how or didn’t really understand this process, and that got me interested in folklore.

I did a paper for a class on a hunchback dwarf tattoo artist in a wheelchair, who later became the subject of my first book, Stoney Knows How, and my first film, Stoney Knows How, which was shot by Les Blank and premiered in New York in 1981 at Film Forum. During that period there was the idea that there needed to be public folklore, meaning that folklorists needed to work in communities but it had to be validated within the government. A man by the name of Archie Green worked and pushed and lobbied, and in 1976 there was a passage of the Folk Life Preservation Act, which created the American Folklore Center at the Library of Congress.

In the ’30s, Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax, had done work with the Library of Congress, but there was not a formal program within that entity. That led to the creation of this Folk and Traditional Arts program at the NEA. In the ’70s I started organizing little folk festivals and documenting people. In Columbus, there was this old woodcarver, Elijah Pierce, who had a barbershop and did these amazing wood carvings. I was part of a group of people who nominated him for one of the first National Heritage Fellowships, which he received in 1982.

As the years went on, I moved to Texas to get a doctorate at the University of Texas Dallas in 1980, and that’s where Bess Lomax Hawes and the Lomax family lived. There hadn’t been much activity related to folklore studies since the ’30s, and the Lomax family had kind of moved away, but Bess was very interested in seeing more work being done. As I started doing research in Texas, I realized the immensity of what was there that wasn’t being documented, so in the ’80s I organized folk festivals and did radio shows on Texas traditional music for the regional NPR. That grew into a bigger interest in radio, and in the late ’80s I did a 52-part radio series called Masters of Traditional Music, which was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It enabled me to travel around the country documenting National Heritage Fellows. That was the beginning of my journey and it continued over the years. I’ve  probably interviewed 350 or more National Heritage Fellows.

 

DT: How do people get nominated for the fellowship?

AG: Anyone in the US can nominate anyone for a Heritage Fellowship, professional or not. The panel meets every year, and they’re very diligent at what they do. They’re constantly looking at balance; they want a balance between men and women, they want a balance in terms of cultural diversity. With that as a kind of guiding principle, they’re open to anyone who is extraordinary at what they do and is a master of a traditional artform.

[To learn more about the National Heritage Fellowship program or to make a nomination, click here.]

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

School Life/Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane

A miracle occurs every day in northwest Ireland. For forty-nine years, the staff at the Headfort boarding school, chief among them John and Amanda Leyden, nurture the young students entrusted to their care to be the best they can possibly be: the most discerning learners, the kindest friends, the most caring citizens. Documentarians Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane capture a year in the beautiful life of the Headfort boarding school. Availability: Opens September 8, IFC Center, New York City, with national rollout to follow. A Magnolia Pictures release. Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: How did you discover this amazing place and these amazing people?

Amanda Leyden and Kevin, center, in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Amanda Leyden and students in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

NNC: It started with a hunt for a school for our children. We were living in the northwest of Ireland in a very rural community. We realized we needed something more diverse education-wise for our kids, so we started looking for schools. There’s not a huge choice in Ireland, but we realized we were going to have to move, and we found Headfort’s website. It was the parents’ comments that attracted us first, talking about the happiness of the child being at the core of the education, and we thought that was a really good starting point. We went there, we met them, we really loved the school, we decided to send our children there as day pupils, so we moved out as a family.

Then we realized this was a really special place. David and I have a history of boarding schools. I went to boarding school, David went to boarding school, I had a great experience and David had a traumatic experience, so we were really curious to see what a twenty-first-century boarding school looked like. Luckily the headmaster knew some of our previous work, so he was open to the idea, and that was it.

We discovered the Leydens, the teachers who are the main subjects of the film, a year into working on the film; we spent a year researching and getting to know all the people in the school, the other teachers, the staff, and the parents, and then we spoke to a lot of alumni. We asked them what their experience at Headfort was, and it was John and Amanda’s names that kept coming up. But at this point, John and Amanda Leyden didn’t like the idea of a film being made about the school. I didn’t understand why, and they were very hesitant, so it took about a year to get them on board.

DT: How did you finally do that?

NNC: I think over time they realized we were really serious about making a film, and they got to know us, and they got to know our kids slowly, and I think they kind of liked us. One day at the end of the summer term they invited us to their house for tea. And that was it. About a week later they came back to us and said, “OK, you’re going to do this? We’re in.”

 

DT: Who founded the school, and what was the philosophy when it was founded?

At a concert by the school band, a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

At a concert by the school band, a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

DC: It was founded by Lord and Lady Headfort. It was the ancestral home of Lord Headfort. They were Anglo-Irish, which means they would have come over and been part of the settlers who colonized Ireland. They decided there was a need for a school for children of other Anglo-Irish people, because it was a predominantly Catholic school system. So they set it up. Lady Headfort did that while they were still living there. They moved into one wing of the big house and set up a school in the other wing. Over time Lord and Lady Headfort ran out of money. That often happens with large ancestral homes. They allowed the school to continue. Finally the school raised the money to actually buy the Harry Potter building, and forty acres of woodlands. The rest Lord Headfort sold to developers, golf courses, the usual sort of thing. The school changed then, it became nondenominational, it didn’t cater just for the Protestant community.

It was a boys-only school the first ten, fifteen years, then a couple of daughters of staff were allowed in. That happened a lot in single-sex schools, the children of staff, if they were girls, were allowed to attend the school, and eventually it opened up. It became more and more progressive to the point where the current headmaster would call himself a Marxist. He taught for fifteen years at the Dalton School in Manhattan, and he would have a very progressive attitude toward education. I think that shows in our film. He believes in encouraging children to discuss and debate issues rather than feeding them facts and telling them this is the truth, this is the fact, this is what you have to learn.

 

DT: How did the Leydens fit into the history of the school?

NNC: When we were filming, they were there forty-six years. They both came as young teachers. It was their first jobs. They came independently, they met at the school, and a couple of years later they married. They’ve always lived on the grounds of the school. They raised a family there, and thankfully they’re still teaching there. They’re now into their forty-ninth year teaching.

 

DT: Can you talk a little bit about shooting? You got some remarkably intimate moments, but I’m also curious about how you knew which stories to follow.

NNC: In terms of the children we didn’t know which stories to follow. Basically we shot over three years. We ended up using the footage from the first year to raise funding for the film, because it was 2012 when Ireland was coming out of the crash, and nobody wanted to fund a film about a private school. So we had to shoot footage before people were finally convinced that this was something unique.

In the film you see the footage from the second year. We asked the headmaster from the very beginning if we could have a room in the school where we could hang about when we weren’t filming, because we knew that we had to become part of the furniture and part of the daily routine of the children’s lives so there was no big fuss when the film crew arrived to shoot.

DC: It’s important to note that the film crew was just the two of us. Neasa was doing camera and I was doing sound, and we were also the parents of two children in the school, so we were accepted very easily by the children. That was a critical thing, because children at that age, they played up a little bit for the first week and jumped in front of the camera and pulled faces and all the things that ten-, eleven-, twelve-year-olds do, and then they completely forgot about us. We were invisible to them and they just got on with their lives. We got that intimacy because they trusted us and they allowed us into their space.

The painfully shy Eliza with John Leyden and bandmate in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The painfully shy Eliza with John Leyden and bandmate in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

NNC: We had an idea of what children we were interested in, but we made a rule that we wouldn’t let the child know that we were focusing on him or her because we didn’t want them to carry that throughout the whole year. We filmed with everybody in all the classes, and we filmed things we knew we weren’t going to use that wouldn’t give us stories. It was in the editing that we could really figure out when we had a complete story arc.

We were always interested in Eliza. Eliza was just cinematically captivating from the very beginning, but had she not come out of herself at the end I don’t think we would have used that footage—we wouldn’t have suspended her in this kind of painfully shy state.

For our three main characters we got consent from all the parents, and we made sure they were OK with the storylines we were pulling out of the footage. We said to the parents of Kev, “He’s going to be featured in the film, are you OK with that?” And Kev said, “It’s not possible, Mom, they never filmed me.”

DC: As documentarians we didn’t have an idea of what the observational film would follow. We were following the surrogate family—the idea that all of these staff and teachers and matrons, the women who look out for the care of the children, the nurse, even down to the grounds staff and the kitchen staff, all had the role of surrogate parents. The original title of the film was In Loco Parentis, which means ‘in place of parents.’ We were trying to understand how surrogate family could possibly step in and be there instead of the parents. As documentarians we knew what to follow. The children fit in there, and then slowly we discovered the stories of the children.

 

DT: Let’s talk about the editing phase. You film has been compared to Frederick Wiseman’s work. Was that intentional? He assembles sequences and then he assembles the film from the assembled sequences. Is that how you worked? In the footage that you thought you were just going to throw away, did you discover anything that you ended up keeping?

NNC: We were very influenced by direct cinema  like D. A. Pennebaker, Wiseman, and Kim Longinotto, a female filmmaker in the UK. They were our three heroes. Yes, our approach is similar to Wiseman’s in the sense that because we shot for over three years we had over 450 hours of footage. We decided in the end that we would only use footage from the second year for coherence sake, because children change, and that we were going to hang the film on “a year in the life of” idea. Then we whittled that down to twenty-five hours of our favorite scenes. We always knew that John and Amanda Leyden would be main characters, and then the children who wove in and out of their lives became our primary focus. So it was a process, it took a year, and it was a process of whittling it down.

 

DT: Did you film your own kids?

CNN: Not much. We didn’t focus on them. As it happened, our daughter was in John’s class, so she features a little bit more just because she’s there.

 

DT: Your point was to ask the question, Can boarding schools function as surrogate family? What’s the answer, given your experience at Headfort?

CNN: I think very much so. From what we witnessed of John and Amanda, there’s a well-worn path to their house. On any weekend you’ll find a fifteen-year-old or a twenty-year-old staying with them or coming to visit with them or have lunch with them. John is in constant contact with the kids that have been in the school. They all keep in touch. Amanda still talks about them as “our kids.” “Oh, he’s one of ours,” she’ll say.

DC: They act like parents. They say, “Our kids are coming back. What should we feed them?” The surrogate family is very, very strong at Headfort.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

Brigsby Bear/Dave McCary (director) and Kyle Mooney (actor)

Saturday Night Live‘s Kyle Mooney plays James, the ultimate outsider. Even though James is well into his twenties, he lives his life through Brigsby Bear, a children’s TV show his parents have created especially for him.  When circumstances force Brigsby Bear to stop airing, James is lost—until he realizes a way to revive Brigsby Bear on his own terms. The story may sound far-fetched, but the film’s sweet vulnerability and authentic insights into friendship, loss, and family are very real and close at hand. Brigsby Bear is, simply, one of the most wonderful films ever. Availability: Opens NYC and LA, 7/28, with national rollout to follow. Check local theater listings near you.Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Comedy often veers into excess, where it gets stupid or nasty or unpleasant. Why is that, and how did you guys manage to avoid it?

KM: I don’t know that I could exactly say why, but there is a weird, bullyish nature to so much stuff out there. We’ve been making Internet videos for years, especially man-on-the-street videos. There are many man-on-the-street videos making fun of the person who’s being interviewed, but that never did anything for us. We like doing character-based stuff, showing how characters earnestly interact with the world around them. I would say that the funny part is more just them and how they perceive the world than how they’re treated or how they treat other people.

DM: We’ve always responded to the comedy in vulnerability over the comedy in crass sex-heavy or bodily functions, even though like anyone else we can still enjoy that stuff to a degree. But we’ve always been inspired by real people we’ve grown up with. The best description of the particular character trait we’re really influenced by is insecurity that we all either have or have had. Kyle and I discover it on YouTube in kids who are putting out their own little home shows. That insecurity shines through—these people are projecting a version of themselves, but you can kind of see through the armor, and you can sense that they’re not as confident as they come off or they’re not as badass as they appear. It’s all in mannerisms and subtleties, and I think Kyle’s talented at capturing those. It’s a really hard skill to teach, I imagine, but I think it comes very innately to Kyle, in the way that he’s absorbed influences over the years comedically, less from big-time comedians or performers and more from actual day-to-day human beings.

 

DT: Another thing you managed to achieve in this film is sweetness. Some people have called it earnestness, but for me the film is suffused with sweetness, which I think is really hard to achieve in comedy. Gene Wilder could be really sweet without being saccharine or silly. Adam Sandler tries, but I think he becomes embarrassed when he gets too sweet, so he swears or goes into some other absolutely irrelevant character thing.

DM: We always knew that the James character was very vulnerable, very passionate about his show. He has all these childlike tendencies—he’s just a very pure kid, and I think with purity comes a lack of cynicism. We just had Kyle playing this character in this situation as realistically as possible—what we imagined in our heads as the most realistic thing this kid could do and the people around him could do. It operated more out of love than out of looking for jokes or cynicism.

KM: I certainly like that people are walking away saying that and feeling that and thinking that. I definitely like the idea of a likable character and somebody you can relate to or feel for. I don’t know going into it how much I consciously thought that I wanted people to walk away from this movie saying this character is this way…I don’t know that I thought too much about it.

I want to be sweet to people around me and I hope they want to be sweet back. Sometimes the world around us makes us act in ways that unfortunately make it so that’s not always possible, but ideally we can all love one another and be cool with each other.

 

DT:  When you see a dramatic film, its success doesn’t depend solely on the lead. If the lead is bad, the film can be saved by other things—cinematography, editing, etc. Of course the lead can contribute to a film’s success, but in a comedy, if the main comic sucks, nothing’s going to save that film. Do you think audiences expect more from a comic than from a dramatic actor?

KM: Certainly, if they’re going into the movie hoping for laughs and that person doesn’t deliver any of them. For this particular movie, we were just truly trying to do the story justice. Obviously I’m in every single scene, so a lot of the film is kind of carried by my performance, but again it was something I personally didn’t think too much about. I was just—and Dave pushed this a lot—playing it as real as possible. There’s inherent comedy within the script, so we said, “We don’t need to push it, we don’t need to play it too broadly, let’s just try to do the story as much justice as possible.”

DM: We were filming scene by scene, and we rarely ever asked ourselves the question, Is this the funniest version of this scene? Instead it was always, Is this the most authentic version, or the most genuine way that a scene like this would play out if this was a real story? We were trying to do the script justice as if it were a real-life account. Even knowing obviously that the conceit is pretty out there, it was just exciting to us to tackle it as if it were real life.

KM: But I know what you’re saying, Judy. Certainly when you go see a movie led by a comedian, it’s that comedian’s movie, and if they don’t bring it, either you just don’t like the movie or you think, ‘That person just doesn’t have what it takes.’ I believe it’s best to think on a movie-to-movie basis, because sometimes people bring it and sometimes they don’t. But I think all comedians are wonderful.

DT: Does the audience’s increased expectation for a comedic actor change the normal working relationship between an actor and a director?

DM: I don’t know if I’ve worked enough to answer your question, because this is our first movie. At Saturday Night Live, we make everything the funniest it can be, and everyone’s on the same page. With this particular movie, which is my only experience—Kyle’s been in a lot of movies as a supporting actor—I went with what my instinct was telling me about this particular script and about our relationship, which is a lifelong relationship. We already know how to work with each other, so it’s hard for me to pinpoint how this would compare to a different feature experience with a different lead actor.

 

DT: So you have the script, you have the director, you have the cast. What was the process of massaging that and getting it all to work together?

KM: I wrote the script with our friend Kevin Costello; Dave and I grew up together, and we went to middle school with Kevin. Everybody—the producers, the cast, Dave, myself—were all just on the same page. I think everybody liked the concept of the movie and appreciated that it was somewhat unique and maybe not totally formulaic or what they might normally be offered in terms of movies to act in. So the process was pretty smooth. Everybody was enthusiastic about telling this story in the best way possible, and I think they also appreciated the fact that there was a history between Dave and myself and our friend Kevin.

We shot in Utah. We’ve likened shooting the film to summer camp or something like that, because we just all hung out and had a good time. We were all in a place somewhat foreign to us, so when we were done shooting we would hang in the lobby of the hotel, have a beer, something like that, get some food—it was genuinely and generally just friendly. I think everybody truly wanted to do the best version of this movie.

 

DT: That really comes across on screen. Kyle, you wrote a great piece for the New York Times about your best friend Jason upstaging you at a talent show in the fourth grade. You wrote, “I’ve met a handful of Jason types. Performers who can take control of the audience, hold them in the palm of their hand, and make them scream. And I still get jealous. But I can also appreciate what they do—the work they put into it, the subtlety with which they move or speak, the charm, the confidence. And it inspires me. Jason made me want to perform better and work harder.” I get the idea of performing better and working harder in the context of playing an instrument or writing a novel, but what does it mean in terms of comedy?

KM: Coming up when we were in our twenties, and we were doing sketch shows or going to friends’ standup shows, we noticed that certain people got on the stage and the rapport with the audience was already there. They exuded a confidence in a way that was like they couldn’t do any wrong. They could almost say whatever they wanted to say and people would be on board. What I’m talking about in the New York Times piece is just my admiration for that and the idea of just not caring when you’re up there, when the nervousness of “how is this going to go” disappears and you’re kind of along for the ride. I think that is something a person can improve on.

DT: How do you improve on that?

KM: Getting on stage more and more and developing your unique sensibility. I can only speak for myself, but it took time for us to figure out what I’m good at, what my thing is. For me it’s playing these characters and losing myself in trying to figure out ways a character might speak or interact with the world around him or herself. It’s building and working at that.

 

DT: When you were starting out and basically didn’t know who you were as a comic, would you just try lots of different things?

KM: Certainly I did standup when we first started doing live comedy, and I was fine at it. I don’t think I was great…I just never really had the patience. Really good standups are there every single night doing multiple shows, going to open mics. That wasn’t me, and I also never felt totally comfortable as myself onstage, so I went further and further into taking on other personas and playing characters. Over time you hone that. If you watch our Internet videos, we did multiple videos, and over time you can see the character develop—nuances will develop, and we’ll get more specific, and sometimes even the comedy of the character will change, but it’s all just a process of perfecting….or trying to.

DT: Did you use other people as models? If so, who?

KM: Yes and no. As children we were into Saturday Night Live, we were into so many different comedians. A person like Fred Armisen, for instance—I’ve always admired how he can lose himself into so many different characters. We came up through the Internet; that was a relatively new thing. Before us there was The Lonely Island, who produced this movie. They set this template: you could make a bunch of Internet videos and then potentially start doing it for TV. But careerwise, there are so many different persons I admire I don’t know if there’s one specific one.

DT: Name three.

KM: An Albert Brooks, a Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Andy Kaufman.

DM: Rick Moranis, Richard Dreyfuss.

KM: Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman.

DT: Chevy Chase?

KM: Chevy Chase.

DT:  Will Ferrell?

KM:  Absolutely. I loved Will Ferrell. I don’t know if it’s Lorne Michaels or somebody else who said that your favorite SNL cast coincides with when you’re in middle school. That Will Ferrell cast was probably from seventh, eighth grade to our senior year of high school. It was fun to watch the trajectory of him being such a star on that show and then you started seeing him in movies. He was in Old School…I remember being a senior in high school when that came out, and you got to watch this career being birthed. It’s cool.

 

DT: Dave, I’m a big fan of Epic Rap Battles of History.  Can you talk about how you moved the concept along?

DM: I was somewhat of a vessel for these two dudes, Pete and Lloyd’s comedic vision. They made these very fun songs and put in so many hours and so much love into the matchups. It really became larger than life in the YouTube world. I just happened to be working at the company that was producing them, and they linked me up with those guys. Pete and Lloyd hadn’t really made videos before, and I had. It was my day job to help young aspiring artists on YouTube try to make their ideas happen. I was just this director/editor for hire there. Pete sent me a song, and I said, “We can put you guys in front of a green screen and I’ll make a logo and it can be pretty simple.” Fast forward to three years later and they’ve made fifty of them and they have a crazy subscriber base and they made a lot of money for that company. But for me, week to week, they would approach me and say, “Here’s the new song” or “Here’s the matchup and here’s what we were thinking,” and I’d say, “Let’s do it.” It was a job. They’re wonderful people, it was fun to do those, but I don’t want to take credit; creatively they were the ones coming up with all the jokes, and the whole idea was their baby. I would try to be helpful and share visual ideas, but it was pretty straightforward. They made really fun and accessible stuff, and I could help.

 

DT: I could be totally off base with this, or I could be spot on, but when I was thinking about Brigsby Bear, it suddenly hit me that it felt a lot like Mary Poppins.

DM: In what way?

DT: There’s the whole family-that-doesn’t-get-the-kid thing. Also the Mary Poppins figure is a little like Kyle’s character in the sense that there’s this magical thing going on but there’s also this darkness behind the story. She’s a witch.

KM: I can’t say that we were thinking about Mary Poppins specifically, though I am a Disneyphile. Are you referring to the film or the book?

DT: The film.

KM: In the course of the past year or two there have been many late nights when I’d be in somewhat of a stupor and throw on my Pinocchio VHS or something like that, and I’m sure I visited Disneyland ten times over the course of producing this movie, so I certainly saw a woman dressed up as Mary Poppins walking around the park over the course of this movie. The general sense of magic and imagination is something that I think one could certainly argue is there and something that was being thought about

DM: It’s very fun for us that journalists and friends and family have told us about so many different things from their past that came to mind; we’ve heard hundreds of different titles of television shows or movies that they thought inspired us, some of which were totally on point and some of which we hadn’t thought of but are completely valid and cool.

KM: It’s kind of like everybody has their own Brigsby Bear, their own TV show or movie or whatever it is they grew up with. What’s fun for me now is that I get a chance to watch and dissect the ones I’m not aware of. Weirdly you’ll throw some of these on, and you’ll say, “Whoa, that is pretty similar to what we made, like in an eerie way.”

 

DT: Talk about Good Neighbor and how it influenced what you do now.

KM: I went to college with Beck Bennett, who’s on SNL, and our friend Nick Rutherford, and we did improv and sketch comedy together. By the end of it we had built a rapport, and I think audiences liked what we did. Dave was always around contributing ideas and helping put our ideas onto video. When I finished college, we said, “Let’s pursue this,” so we went all into the world of making videos for the Internet. We tried to do live shows as well, and that’s kind of where we cut our teeth.

DM: It felt like a gym for filmmaking, because no one’s really holding you accountable for technical issues or if the lighting is bad or the sound’s not great. We learned as we went, and any time we hit a roadblock in terms of the technical side, I would just read on the Internet how to fix it or learn what type of crew member I would need to get a specific type of look.

KM: The process of making Brigsby Bear wasn’t far off from what we were doing then. Even in this movie we stole shots, and at times it was just as rugged an experience as when we were in our twenties just trying to make a video for the Internet, though this time we had some more money and more people involved.

 

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

 

 

 

The Fencer/Klaus Haro

In the 1950s, the citizens of Haapsalu never knew when to expect the knock on the door signaling that one of their family members was about to be taken away by the Soviets. Nevertheless, it is Haapsalu that fencing master Endel Nelis, on the run from the authorities in Leningrad, chooses as safe harbor. There, under an assumed name, he establishes a fencing school for the children, many of whom have been orphaned by the Soviet occupiers. Just when he begins to think he can have a normal life in this tiny Estonian town, the children beg him to take them to the national fencing competition in Leningrad, unknowingly forcing Endel to choose between his own fate and the trust they’ve found in his care. Based on the true story of Endel Nelis, whose fencing club still exists to this day. Availability: Opens July 21, NYC, August 11, L.A., with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Sasha Berman, Shotwell Media, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  In a very quiet, personal way, you captured the fear of people living in Soviet-occupied countries. What details did you focus on?

KH: We thought a lot about that. There had recently been novels concerning the occupation in this part of the world, really graphic in their description of everything that could go on—everything perverse and really harsh. We were telling the story of a man who’s a loner and finds a community, and this is what we wanted to focus on, so we decided we’re not going to show all the graphic things we could show.

This was a story about a teacher and his pupils. This man is a loner, and he’s a loner for a reason. He doesn’t enjoy it particularly—he’s a loner because he needs to protect himself. We wanted to give the film his perspective, his point of view and ways of thinking. When I read the script, one of the first visions to show the world through his eyes was to follow him behind his neck, like there’s someone behind him at all times.

We wanted the feeling of oppression to be really subtle so the people who know what it’s about will recognize this feeling.  [Our film] would not be something that turns people away, something they wouldn’t see because it’s so disgusting. The main thing of the film was not to tell what oppression does to you physically but what it does to you mentally. When it comes to the point where there’s no one to trust, no one to rely on, but you need…  It’s just each one looking after themselves and asking the question, Is there a way out of this crap, this loneliness?

 

DT: You mentioned “people who know what it’s about.”  I was struck by how much you could see this in the actors’ faces, especially the children. You could see the understanding in their eyes; they knew each other’s fear. When the children saw Endel being taken away, they didn’t say, as an American kid would, “What’s happening?” These children understood exactly what was happening.

KH: What we see, even today, is that people know what it’s about. The folks in Estonia have a tendency not to talk too much about these things, but once you start getting to know them, you find that every family is connected to an event when a family member was taken away. The knock at your door late at night was always bad news, and you see it in their eyes.

It’s a beautiful country, and the people are so beautiful. In northern Europe it’s still light around 9:00 in the evening. It’s beautiful, it’s green, it’s like paradise, but I remember driving around one beautiful summer evening scouting for locations and seeing that flags all over the country were at half mast. I asked the young man who was driving me around, “How come?” He said, “This is in memory of the first night when thousands of Estonians were taken from their homes one beautiful summer evening.” Tens of thousands of people were taken from their homes to some far-away place in Siberia; again and again people were taken from their homes. In the middle of all this beauty you have this sorrow, this memory of these events, and you can see it in people’s faces, their expressions turning from relaxed to a tense awareness of what’s going on.

 

DT: As you mentioned before, you also captured Endel’s longing for a normal life. You didn’t see it at the beginning of the film—it just grew so subtly and so gently as he began to see the possibility of a normal life in Haapsalu. I loved the way you handled that. Can you talk abut carving that path for his emotional development?

KH: For this film I was the pupil and these Estonian actors were the teachers. I really relied on them. I was a newcomer. A foreign director in Estonia. They told me, “Look, we know what this is about,” and I trusted them. They were really taking this from their own experience and their own memory. I was humble in this circumstance.

When we were looking for financing, quite a lot of financiers were concerned that the film wasn’t threatening enough, wasn’t dangerous enough. They were reading the script, they were reading words on paper, saying, “Maybe this should be more graphic. Maybe you need to begin with something really violent to sell this thing.” The writer and I were the minority on this.

We were looking at a place where every grown-up person has some kind of recollection or understanding of what this is about; even if you haven’t lived this situation, you still have some experience of fear of some sort, whether it’s firsthand or secondhand. When you just read the words, it may be hard to imagine, but when you see it on film, it’s so clear from the acting what’s going on, even without words. When I make a movie, I really, really try to look for ways to tell the story without words, and to come across with whatever the film is about without overexplaining it. I’m always afraid of that. Whenever an actor says, “Can we leave this line out?” I’m so happy. Whenever we don’t have to explain what’s going on and we just see it, that’s when cinema is at its best—Charlie Chaplin, or the great silent directors in America. The best directing is just telling it in visuals, so that wherever people see the film—in the States or Europe or China or Africa—they will say,  “I know what this is about.” That’s what’s great about cinema.

 

DT: For me, one of the main messages of the film is that there is no division between a person’s personal life and the life of the nation—that individuals are not isolated from the actions their governments make.

KH: It’s always easy to see afterwards what we’re doing in the present. When something is going on, you just have a notion that something is not right, and afterward you think about it. When you do historical films that are focused on the past, you need to also draw from the present. Of course the people were different, the situations were different, but what are our fears? What are our fears today, and how can we draw on them?

As we were shooting this film, something very spooky happened. One night, we were shooting the scene where the grandfather is being taken away. That particular night, that dark night, was one of the first scenes with the young boy who plays his grandson, a very sensitive scene. There was a tension on the set, and I was personally very tense to see how this young boy was going to perform. You never know with children—they might perform, and they might not. I was trying to give him secure surroundings, I was trying to create a very focused atmosphere on the set, and suddenly I noticed the Estonian part of the crew were all on their iPhones. I was really irritated, saying, “Come on guys, this isn’t Facebook time, we’re shooting something really crucial here.”  They turned to me and said, “We’re not on Facebook, we’re reading the news that Russia has just entered Ukraine.” It was exactly the same: These events in Russia and the Ukraine were starting to unfold exactly as they had the night we were shooting in this scene. It was really frightening to see how this Estonian crew two generations, three generations later, were on their toes. We Finns didn’t always see it; we would look at the events in Russia and say, “Well, if this happens it will be like this, but on the other hand maybe it will go like that.” We looked at it as something to discuss, but for the Estonians it was really close. Whatever I’d say today, I’d probably be wrong, but whenever you live where suspicion and prejudice grow, we’re easily back in this sort of situation where you look around and can’t trust anyone and realize you can’t live in society.

 

DT: You chose not to reveal that the story was based on a real-life person, Endel Nelis, until the end of the film. Why?

KH: That was the intention of the writer, which I thought was an intelligent one because we have taken some liberties with the story. The film is based on this fencing club, but at the same time it’s a dramatization and it’s also a David and Goliath story about little Estonia and the big Soviet Union, so there are three levels to it. If you say at the beginning that this is a true story, then people will read everything and expect it to be just like it happened. A lot of things about the club happened exactly as we show in the film, and we know that Endel Nelis, the main character of the film, had some trouble with the authorities, but we don’t know exactly what happened. It probably happened over the course of a decade, while in the film we had to speed it up.

Also we thought that this way you could watch the film without second-guessing, without people sitting in the cinema and googling Wikipedia. We wanted them first to enjoy the drama, and then the idea that the Soviet Union, this big giant, was at war with little Estonia. This little fencing club that Endel started from such humble beginnings is still there today. That’s such a beautiful picture. I think that putting the reveal about Endel comes across much stronger at the end of the film.

 

DT: How did you choose and train the actors?

KH: That was a hard one because Estonia is such a small country. They see so few movies. They don’t have agents. They don’t have managers. To scope out an actor you want to see, you have to go to the theater. And that is what I did—I went to Estonia to see plays. In Estonia, sometimes the plays are four hours long. I didn’t understand much of what they were saying, but I remember being really impressed with some of the actors. That really struck me—for three or four hours I didn’t understand what they were saying, but they left an impression. I figured they would on the silver screen as well.

When it came to the children, we had a casting director. For a year she was looking for these children, going to schools, going to dancing clubs. The main children in the film, the big part of the fencing club, knew fencing from before, but the main children, who eventually go to the competition in Leningrad, really didn’t fence from before. They had to go into intensive training for the film, and that was true for the main character as well. Mart Avandi, the actor who played Endel Nelis, didn’t know fencing from before. He trained in fencing just for those scenes, so basically he didn’t train as a sport, he trained fencing as a dance. He needed to know the choreography for those scenes so he could be a believable teacher. Of course we had fencing coaches along with us on the shoot, and especially at the ending scenes—at the Leningrad fencing competition we had a lot of coaches and mentors with us on the set.

Mart Avandi, the main actor, is that kind of actor. When this film was over, he was in a play in the theater and learned to play the accordion. He’s that kind of guy. Whatever he does he does 110 percent. He’ll do whatever it takes to do his part. I could recommend him to any American or European director because he’s a fantastic coworker.

Then of course the grown-up actors were my teachers, my mentors when it came to sharing experiences. When it came to the little children, I didn’t have a common language with them, and that was the challenge there. We tried to have someone to be there to translate for us, but that didn’t really work. You need a firsthand sort of relationship…you need eye contact in order to direct a child, so we just went with really basic things, like “Look here, do this, take that, go.” It was really basic code language—“Go.” “Talk.” “Look.”—this sort of really primitive English. I think that was better than having a translator giving really detailed instruction. It’s not too intellectual working with children, it’s more physical, emotional, sort of direct, getting the feeling of what I want and repeating that many times to get that particular emotion.

 

DT: Did you consult with anybody from Endel’s fencing club?

KH: Not really. Endel’s daughter still trains people at the little fencing club in Haapsalu, Estonia, and we had some of her pupils, and Endel’s son is a coach in Helsinki, Finland. Both Endel’s daughter and son are fencing coaches and their children are fencers, so a little fencing dynasty came out of that family. I did not consult with them, but the writer of the script heard about the story of the fencing club from Endel’s daughter. I chose not to talk with them before shooting the film in order to keep the focus on the drama of the story.

I’ve done historical films before. There are always a number of details that you want to get into the film, but they will weaken the film. They will not strengthen the film. They weaken it because you’ll end up with a docudrama rather than a drama. In order to keep the drama, you must focus, get to where we originally felt the script needed to go. I chose not to talk with them so I wouldn’t be emotionally involved with what went on in real life and  wouldn’t be able to tell the story in the best way.

Afterwards I sat down to talk with them, and it was really rewarding. It was great to hear their perspective about the film. Of course they were really happy the film was made. They didn’t agree with everything in the film, but they’re happy it was made.

One really nice thing…you can imagine it’s 2016, the film is an official selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, the cold war has ended and the Soviets have left Estonia. It’s taken a lot of work and a lot of effort for the Estonians to build up their country. They’ve built it up in a wonderful way, but they still have really limited resources to work with. For instance, this fencing club didn’t have a fancy place to train, but due to this film, they were able to gather resources to build a brand-new fencing area for those children in Haapsalu. Of course we didn’t do the film for this, but they were able to raise awareness of their little fencing club. I haven’t visited yet, but I’m told Endel’s daughter is really beaming, she’s saying, “This is what I wanted to have twenty years ago, thirty years ago, and now finally I can give the children a state-of-the-art place to train.” It’s so beautiful when you can give something back. We owe them a lot for being able to tell this story, and we were able to give something back. I think that’s great.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Lady Macbeth/William Oldroyd

Sold to a bitter old man, Katherine suffocates in a loveless marriage. She is forbidden to leave her house and spends her days frustrated and bored, attended by the diffident Anna. When Katherine’s husband is called away on business, she defies his orders and escapes to the wild world outside, bringing its savagery—and a new lover—into her home. Based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (later made into an opera by Shostakovich, which was denounced by Stalin), William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is ghastly and beautiful, horrific and ecstatic. •Availability: Opens NYC, Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and L.A. July 14, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Keaton Kail and Marija Silk, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: There are some horrific scenes in the film, but some scenes are very, very beautiful. How did you approach blending those two elements?

WO: We were dealing with a lifeless, airless, and austere environment. Running through it were very raw and visceral emotions, so this is the contrast  we wanted to play with. We brought it out with the design, looking at these simple rooms and trying to enhance that by emphasizing the austerity and the sense in which it might be like a vacuum for Katherine. Jacqueline Abrahams, our production designer, brought in a whole series of images to reference that. She designed The Lobster, which also has a simple and beautiful aesthetic.

She called the series of images she brought in “viscera”: they were basically biting, scratching, cuts, bruises, drowned things, dead animals, wounds. I thought, ‘Wow.’ There was something so interesting about seeing the formality and the simplicity and the sparsity [of the images] contrasted with these scratches and bites and scars. So that became the basis for our work, that became a sort of palette; it came out of that. And they were things that existed in nature as well. It felt very symbolic of the story as a whole. When Katherine runs in after Sebastian has been beaten, she immediately licks his wounds, like an animal. I loved that because it feels very different from expected behavior of Victorian Englanders.

DT: Although that combination of viscera and austerity is almost how I think of that era. We don’t have that viscera today.

WO: It was there…we know it was there because we read the books now, but at the time it was not spoken about. The sacred and profane of Victorian England: how many churches were built in Victorian England? More churches were built in Victoria’s reign than all of the churches that had been built up to that point put together, then you think how many whorehouses and opium dens there were in Victorian England underneath that. There was a huge number of prostitutes.

 

DT: Both you and your screenwriter had major careers in theater before entering the world of film. What surprised you? What didn’t you anticipate?

WO: The first surprise was that in preparation for the film, all the financiers kept asking me how I was going to get into the point of view of the character. How do you get into POV? I thought that was such a strange idea, because in theater you don’t need to worry about getting into POV. When I put on a play, there are the words, the actors know the words, they perform it, and the audience can choose where to look. But when somebody said to me, “How are you going to get into Katherine’s mind? How are we going to see this story from Katherine’s point of view?”  I thought, ‘God, I have no idea.’ And suddenly I realized that as a director of film, I had to choose where people looked, against the idea that an audience essentially self-edits in the theater.

So when they said, “How are you going to get us into Katherine’s point of view?” I said, “Well that’s a good question.” I had to teach myself. Realizing as a director you’re responsible for choosing where the audience looks, as opposed to theater, where they look for themselves, was a big, big thing to learn. Control: I suppose what you realize is that people will believe whatever you tell them to believe. Actually the medium of film is quite manipulative.

One other thing I suppose I learned  is that you really try to capture thought in cinema…the spoken word is not as important. It’s not a priority, in the same way that in theater it’s the engine; the spoken word is the thing that drives the scene. Also in theater scenes complete, then you move on to another scene, whereas in cinema you don’t need to complete a scene. You just need to basically make sure that a thought will carry across into the next moment, next beat, next scene. These are all things I learned through the process of making and also editing the film.

 

DT: How did you learn what you needed to know?

WO: Very naively I thought POV meant you’re seeing it literally from her point of view, through her eyes,  which means that the camera becomes the eyes of the person. Well no, of course it doesn’t. It was that basic. I had so much to learn making this film.

DT: Did you watch films with that in mind?

WO: Yes, but this is the danger: it ruins your cinemagoing experience forever, because as you’re watching a film you’re constantly pulling it apart and analyzing and dissecting. As I would watch a film, I began to think, ‘Why do I love this film, and how is it so clear that it’s her point of view? Oh, I see, they’ve done that. OK. So when she sits there, we hear her breathing really heavily. It brings us closer to the character.’ Something like that.

DT: Which films did you watch?

WO: We watched Night Moves, [DP] Ari Wegner and I. We liked that film for the way it builds tension. Last Days has a sort of simplicity. We really wanted simplicity. I really liked The Piano Teacher and White Ribbon. For me one of the greatest period dramas of all times is La Reine Margot. I think it’s just fantastic. Talk about viscera, there you’ve got it all. Again, that was about understanding how Patrice Chereau brought us so close to Isabelle Adjani.

 

DT: You had to work with a very low budget while doing a period piece. How did that work?

WO: We were interested to know why the common perception is that you need a big budget to do a period piece, because ultimately our film is four or five or six people in one location, and they wear one or two costumes each.

DT: But what a dress that blue dress was.

WO: If you’re going to have one dress, you’ve got to make it the very best. We knew it was going to be a tight shoot—twenty-four days—and we knew we couldn’t move away from the location. We had one or two days offsite, but it didn’t seem to impede the story.

DT: It may have helped it?

WO: I think it really focused our creativity, it really focused us to make decisions. If something didn’t serve the story, then it wasn’t relevant. It wasn’t necessary. We used the low budget to our advantage in the sense that if we just couldn’t afford something, we’d ask, “Do we really need it? Probably not.”

But there were other things, like the horse being shot. That was something I really didn’t want to compromise on, so I told the producers, “I know it’s not very affordable, but I want to see this horse being killed in one shot.  I don’t want to have to cut to the gun, cut back to the dead horse, because we’ll know it’s a cheat. It will have far more impact.” But trying to find a horse that will fall over on command is expensive, so again, we probably could have afforded more background action in one of the scenes and not have the horse, but then did we need it? So it was always a balance.

DT: You couldn’t shoot the horse with a dart gun?

WO: That was probably more dangerous because then it would be somebody’s real horse. I know there are films where they do tranquilize the animals—The Lobster, for example, where they tranquilized the donkey, then pulled it over with a rope.

DT: How did you find a horse that fell over on command?

WO: We just Googled it and found a company called AB Film Horses. The horse we got is actually the biggest celebrity in our film, because it was also shot on the beaches of Dunkirk for Atonement. We have a famous horse in our film!

 

DT: You deviated from filmmaking tradition in several important ways. One, you had a female DP. Two, you had the editor on set. And three, you had the writer on set.

WO: Ari was the best person I met, so it was a no-brainer to work with her as cinematographer. It was a great advantage to have Nick [Emerson], our editor, on set, because we shot in sequence. By the end of the third week, he had very roughly assembled the first three-quarters of the film. We watched it, which could have been a disaster that sent us into our last week depressed. But ultimately we watched it and thought, ‘OK, it’s not nearly perfect, but there is at least something here that’s working. What’s missing?’ And we just wrote down a list of all the things that were missing, which we then put into a list of pickups for the last week. It also meant that because Nick was there every lunchtime we could watch rushes, every evening we could watch rushes, and I could even go to him and say, “Could you come on set for a minute?” which apparently is really forbidden, having the editor coming on set. I would say, “I’m thinking of shooting this in one shot, what do you think?” And he would be very fair in his appraisal and say, “Maybe you just need to get me the reverse.” It was very useful to have that, and we were constantly checking in. As for Alice [Birch, the screenwriter], she wasn’t there the whole time, but she did come and do some rewrites for us on set. She didn’t know she was coming to do rewrites; she thought she was coming for a set visit, but we sat her down and gave her a pen.

DT: What did you have to rewrite?

SPOILER ALERT

WO: The end. There was a scene where Sebastian’s confession is forced from him rather than coming naturally from his guilt, and we felt like it was probably much better if he felt compelled to confess, so that needed a bit of tweaking at the end.

END OF SPOILER ALERT

 

DT: I don’t know if it’s the same from a British perspective, but at least from an American perspective, you introduced a racial tension that is not in the original story. I don’t believe it’s in Shostakovich’s opera, either.  Was that intentional?

WO: We weren’t casting those actors in order to create racial tension. If there was tension, it’s tension that exists in the story between these characters. In terms of the way we cast the film, we met everybody of all backgrounds and cast the best actors for the role. I did read one review which suggested that Katherine acts the way she does because Anna is black, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. That is not our intention, and I don’t even think it’s what comes across in the film either.

DT: From an American point of view you can certainly read it that way, because racial tension is much more important than class tension in America. You Brits would read it as class tension. We Americans would read it as racial tension. What’s your next project?

WO: I’m working with Walter Mosley, on The Man in My Basement. It’s an adaptation of a book he wrote about fifteen years ago. He’s done the screenplay and we’re shooting in Sag Harbor at some point this year.

 

DT: So you’re hooked on film. How come?

WO: I had such a good experience making this. I think film is the total medium for an artist in terms of preparation, building, establishing, creating, and then the final control you have in the end.

It’s terrifying…you have so much more control than in any other medium. Maybe not painting, but painting is lonely because you’re not collaborating. I really like the collaboration element of filmmaking…and the control. In a way painting is easier. You do it, it’s on your own, and you just stick it on the wall. You don’t have to wait for people’s response. They will either buy it or they won’t, whereas the part of film that is frustrating is that you have to make something that people think they have already bought or will buy. And that, I think, is difficult for art.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

13 Minutes/Oliver Hirschbiegel

In November 1939, a small-town carpenter from the south of Germany nearly changed the course of world history. Revolted by what Hitler and his thugs were planning for Germany, Georg Elser, acting alone, embarked on a plan to assassinate the entire top Nazi leadership by blowing up the beer hall where they would be holding their annual meeting. He built a near-perfect bomb, installed it without being detected, and escaped almost to the Swiss border, where he discovered that his plan had failed only because Hitler and his gang had unexpectedly left 13 minutes before the bomb was set to go off. Oliver Hirschbiegel directs this riveting biopic about the life and death of this unsung hero. Availability: Opens June 30, New York City, Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Quad Cinema; L.A., Royal Theater, with national rollout to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: As a young man growing up in West Germany, what did you know of Elser’s story, and how did it differ from what you ultimately came to know and feel about him?

OH: I happened to do quite a bit of my own research about the history of my people, especially in regard to the Third Reich, so I stumbled over George Elser when I was about thirteen or fourteen. At that time he was regarded as a weirdo, somebody who had a weird vision: he was considered a bit of a psychopath. Then I saw the bomb, and the bomb was fascinating. It was a nearly perfectly planned-out construction of a really effective instrument, so I wasn’t really able to put 1 and 1 together and end up with a weirdo.

Then I forgot about this guy. Only when I was doing research for Downfall did I stumble over his name again and thought, Wow, that’s an interesting story—one should really look into that. As a matter of fact, while I was editing Downfall I was approached by the writers of 13 Minutes, who asked if I would be interested in doing a film about Elser. At the time, it was tough to deal with the Third Reich; I didn’t want to go back there. But it took another couple of years until they had the final draft, and because I know them and respect them, I finally agreed to just read it.  I still didn’t feel like I wanted to go there, but then I was surprised, because I liked their approach, I liked the idea of really going back into my own history, into the early days of this horrific system, and that’s how I got into Elser.

 

DT: According to Fred Breinersdorfer, one of the cowriters, 13 Minutes is a subversion of the heimat film. First, can you talk about the tradition of the heimat film, and then how your film subverts it.

OH: The heimat film was generated during the Third Reich and continued throughout the ’50s into the ’60s. It romanticizes German traditions, the beauty of living in the countryside, living in the mountains, which does have a lot of beauty, a lot of poetry. It’s the root of much of what our culture is based on—the music, the thinkers, the philosophers—but of course it was a very cliched image. I was always fascinated with it as a genre.

One of the values of being from the countryside was Gemutlichkeit (friendliness, good cheer). One of the crimes of the Nazi system was using that as an ideal; now the typical German country life will forever be tainted with the brown color of the Nazi ideology. So even more so, I set out to portray life in those days in the countryside, in the provinces. I tried to do it in a loving way and not in a cliched way, because what you see in the beginning [of the film] is actually what the Nazis destroyed.

DT: Did heimat films start out being propaganda films or nostalgia films?

OH: Both actually—they used it for propaganda reasons and of course they used it in nostalgic, romantic comedies, things set in the mountains or the countryside of Bavaria.

 

DT: I was fascinated to learn that Elser’s living relatives were ashamed of being related to him.

OH: Part of the family refused to be in touch with us. Right after Georg’s failed assassination, the people of [Georg’s hometown] Konigsbronn—the family to start with—had to suffer greatly. The men all got drafted into the army and were forced into the worst war theaters, ending up in Russia fighting at Stalingrad. Georg was regarded as a traitor. It’s a German thing, you know, the concept of obedience. As it is in Japanese society, obedience is—or was—one of the cornerstones of German society. As an officer, as a soldier, you had to obey orders, and there was no way to turn against your superiors. So even people like Stauffenberg and his guys [who attempted to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944] were regarded as traitors. Same with Elser.

 

DT: Elser was from the working class, while Stauffenberg was an aristocrat. Did class difference make a difference in the way they were ultimately regarded?

OH: Yes. Yes. Most definitely. To start with, Stauffenberg and his men and women attempted to take out Hitler at a time when it was obvious that somebody had to do something. Everybody knew about the camps at the time, everybody knew the war would not be won, there was just going to be more and more destruction, and Hitler had to be stopped. Even then, it took twenty-five years or so until they were properly recognized as resistance fighters and found their place in German history. Stauffenberg and his crew, and the Scholls [Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, members of the White Rose resistance group] all came from an elite background. They of course had a much better lobby than a little carpenter without a proper education coming from the provinces in the south of Germany. It took a long, long, long time until Elser was at least recognized with a tiny little museum, but it was actually our film that gave him full recognition and sort of put him where he really belongs in German history.

 

DT: What are the biggest challenges in directing a biopic?

OH: Giving the audience something new, staying authentic to the character that is portrayed, finding the right dose of what are the facts that you’re giving, what is the information that you’re giving, what are the gaps that you’re leaving for the audience to fill in. Then, of course, it’s a question of how much do we know about this person, how much as a director do you have to invent or reinvent in order to portray this character even if you can’t tell for sure if it had been like that. If there’s nobody to ask, you have to start guessing, you have to do police work and try to put all the information that you have together and then come up with your interpretation. Those aspects of course are in any biopic, because there’s hardly any character, any biography that’s totally covered, but the key target must be to stay true to the character. Don’t bend it. You cannot bend a character in the portrayal just for the sake of making it work in matters of suspense or drama.

 

DT: How much leeway did you give your cast in interpreting the characters and guiding the film in the directions they wanted it to take?

OH: I told them, especially in the beginning, that I wanted to portray German country life in an authentic way, not romanticizing it. When it came to the characters, I gave them as much information as I had, with a few guidelines. With Christian Friedel, who plays Elser, I told him basic cornerstones of Elser’s character: Imagine this man—he believes in freedom, he doesn’t understand what’s going on, he’s sort of like a hippie in the ’60s. He wants everybody to be free, he wants to travel, he’s curious, he wants to understand the world, he wants to meet other people, he doesn’t understand the concept of borders. He’s a musician as well. And as it is with musicians, he was attractive to the ladies—ladies like a man who can play guitar and sing songs. And Georg was a man who liked to dress better than the others, he was a man of style within the limits of his money, he was a charmer, a bit of a bad boy…so you hand out these little clues, and at the same time I told Christian just to think “pop star”—Georg was a little bit of a pop star. You give these tiny little things to the actors, and they create wonders. How they do it, I don’t know, but I think it worked out.

 

DT: The performances were fantastic. Let’s talk about authenticity for a bit: How did you seek to achieve it?

OH: Formally, in depicting the country life—the early days of Georg’s biography—I used a lot of handheld camera and rich colors. I used Super 8 footage to re-create the dreams and the visions. I wanted to get across this aspect of joy that was destroyed by the whole Nazi system, which believed in suppression, control, violence. If you look at the film, all the scenes that are set up within the gestapo, when the system is controlling everything, are static. They’re all shot from the tripod, hardly ever any movement, hardly ever any pans. There’s a certain aspect of claustrophobia there as well, I believe.

 

DT: You’ve said that you followed Ozu and Kurosawa in directing the interrogation scenes. What did you mean by that?

OH: Ozu especially. If you look at Tokyo Story and other films, Ozu sets up the camera and you just watch, and the people moving about or not moving about define the suspense of a scene or a moment. I used that element to create something else here. Back in the day, traveling shots were by far not as common as they are now: people are used to zoom-ins, travel-ins, side shots and high-angle shots that are moving. So if you use Ozu’s kind of storytelling today, it radiates a new quality. People don’t really notice what they’re watching—only in the subconscious they realize there’s something different in the way it’s told.

 

D: With the rise of right-wing movements across Europe and the United States, the film is especially relevant today. When you were shooting, did you direct with an eye to modern social developments, or was that completely irrelevant to you at that point?

OH: That’s dangerous. That line is for the audience to draw. I don’t set out to put my finger on that. Especially if you’re doing an historical film, you have to try to stick to what happened then and depict that, leaving it to the audience to possibly put 1 and 1 together. Plus at the time I was shooting 13 Minutes, that right-wing populist movement basically did not exist in Germany; it’s something that’s developed in the past two and a half years and really became strong last year, so that was not really on the agenda.

It’s kind of shocking to see what’s happening in Turkey right now, to see what’s happening in your country [the USA] as well. To hear what Trump and his people are saying is pretty alarming, but if there is a working democratic system in the world, it’s your country.  People forget that. For me, the United States is the exemplary democratic society—the way it’s set up in the Constitution, the way the president acts, the way the Congress acts, the way the judicial system acts, freedom of speech, freedom of press. There is no way that something like what happened in Germany would ever happen in the US, I’m absolutely certain of that. As a matter of fact, your country being a true democracy is unfortunately the reason that somebody like Trump was able to get elected. So I’m afraid you will have to ride that car for a while, but my hope is that people are smart enough to realize that is not the way to go. I think it’s a wake-up call. I hope it is. It’s much worse in Turkey. What’s going on there right now is a disaster. They’re really aiming for fascism, it’s just a tiny little step until they kill the whole concept of a parliament. But that will never happen in the United States. No way.

DT: How did 13 Minutes do in Germany?

OH: Good. Of course as a filmmaker you want it to be a big hit, but these films never become big hits. Downfall was an exception. But 13 Minutes caused so many articles and so much talk that everybody knows who Elser is now. That’s the greatest effect you can create with a film.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

The Women’s Balcony/Emil Ben-Shimon

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Dawson City: Frozen Time/Bill Morrison

In Dawson City, a depopulated town left over from the Klondike Gold Rush, a bulldozer operator was razing the defunct swimming pool of the abandoned rec hall when he discovered a vast cache of film reels: 533 in all. The films were all from the silent era, and the discovery, in 1978, was hailed as one of the greatest finds in cinematic history. In Dawson City, Bill Morrison uses the excavated footage to tell the story of the discovery, as well as the history of the Klondike Gold Rush, the advent of American capitalism, labor movements, women’s right to vote—and the downfall of the Chicago White Sox. Mesmerizing, mind-bending, Dawson City brings us to the heart of cinema and everything American. Availability: Opens June 9, NYC, IFC Center, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview. 

 

DT: Did you have an Aha! moment while you were looking through the material, or did you know in advance how you were going to put it together?

BM: This is what I knew in advance: it was a great story, it was a fairly linear story, and there was so much material that I was going to be able to piece some of it together just using the material that was there. I knew there was also a lot of supporting material out there, and as I started to look I found that there was quite a bit more than I anticipated—local stuff, home movies. I had no way of knowing there would be so much there.

Cliff Thomson, the bank manager, laid out the causality of how the films ended up in the swimming pool, and I thought there was some way I would be able to put that together. What I didn’t realize was that I would be able to expand it to include the entire century. I thought, OK, I have every decade represented here, and I can fill in the gaps from 1895 to 1929, then from 1929 to 1978, so at one point I realized I was working on a film that was much bigger than just the discovery of these films.

 

DT: There are so many layers to this movie. When you watch a film, it feels like a very fleeting thing, and you don’t think of it as a physical object that ends up somewhere. You included juxtapositions that made viewing the film a really rich experience: the juxtaposition of fleeting/enduring, the ephemeral/the physical, and also destruction—the destruction of the environment, the native population—vs. corporate “construction.” Talk about how you dealt with juxtaposition, because for me that was a very salient characteristic of the film.

BM: Destruction runs through the whole film. You’ve identified a lot of the themes, but of course a big underlying point is that these films were physical, like we are, and that they in some ways mimic our own travel through the century as physical beings. Then there’s this other component to them, and that’s that they are ethereal; they’re fleeting both in their physicality and also when they’re projected, and of course they’re only projected a few times.

Marking my way through it, there were these themes that just kept coming up. They would link and pair with each other, so there were times when I would make pockets of them, and there were times when just by adopting a fairly chronological structure they would just intercept again with the timeline. When the fires came up, that took care of itself, but as I started to go through the massive trove of the footage, I had to find ways to organize it.

Of course the first thing I looked for was the Chicago White Sox. But after that, I started looking in the database for ways to tell my story, so I looked for Gold, I looked for Swimming Pool, I looked for Film, because the database was fairly descriptive. Then I started making sequences of all the things that rhymed with each other: a series of sequences for all the newsreels that were world events—labor, suffragettes, races. Then there were ones for the narrative films—entrances, exits, wilderness, nature, interactions with decay. This sort of thing became my own database, my own stock library of this footage. So those were ways that I could then dive back into that pool when I needed to tell something: answer the telephone; writes a letter. They became their own dynamic sequences. It was sort of like making building blocks of things that would tell the [story], first from atoms, then into words, then into sentences.

DT: Did you have an organizing principle before you started creating the sequences, or did the organizing principle come from the sequences themselves?

BM: There was a timeline, sort of decade by decade and then within that year by year. It certainly is a more detailed and exacting timeline up until ’29, then it starts to leap by decades up to the discovery [of the collection in 1978], but the first half or two-thirds of the film I’m really structuring it year by year.

There’s an organizing principle that has been throughout all my work, and that’s the awareness that these are physical things that people needed to carry and store and that have the same qualities that any physical being has; they can decay, they’re heavy, they can be a nuisance, they can be flammable, in fact, they can be a danger. So what do we do with stuff?—that was one of the organizing principles. What do we do with the stuff that we accrue?

Unlike any of my other work, this has a real narrative arc to it, and it’s certainly the only strictly chronological piece I’ve built. But at the core of it it’s about an archaeological dig, so my idea was to start at the very surface, and that was the 2014 Major League baseball footage that begins the film. Then you dip down a little deeper to 1979 and then even deeper into the very beginning of nitrocellulose and the 1850s and back up to the Lumieres and the 1890s. From there you sort of scale this mountain, if you will; like the 45 degree Chilkoot Pass, you’re going up to a point. Then there are many fluctuations with the town. It rises and falls many times, but it’s basically on a downward arc. Then there’s a moment where time sort of stops and it’s elasticized, and that’s the failed double play during the 1919 World Series, where it’s sort of a page out of Chris Marker’s La Jetee, if you will, where you’re looking at every frame for a couple of seconds and time is stretched and these frames are paintings. That comes right in the middle of the film, then it cascades on into the future and climbs out at 1978 and you’re back with your narrator again.

 

DT: Talk about the Dawson City Collection and how you came to be associated with it.

BM: I came to be associated purely out of interest. The story of the Dawson City Film Fund was something people used to talk about…at least in my circles, the archival circle.

DT: That’s an elite group.

BM: It became more elite. In the late ’80s and early ’90s this was a story. I didn’t realize that people had stopped talking about it, or at least stopped talking about it correctly or even remembered it. Now I realize that I was one of the youngest people who remembered it; nobody younger than me had even heard of it. The group that was older stopped talking about it, and I don’t know what to attribute that to. Sam Kula [founder and director of the film, sound, and television archives in the National Archives of Canada] wrote a few pages in a compendium of essays called This Film Is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film, but there was never any real scholarly book or even essay about it. There was certainly no film about it, and not too much was made of the films that were discovered.

My theory is that the story of the discovery almost eclipsed what the contents were. It was enough to say they found a bunch of films underneath an ice skating rink or in a swimming pool. I even heard someone in the Library of Congress tell CNN, “They found these films under a bowling alley.” I was like, Stop interview! Things get misconstrued and the details get dulled and it really somehow skipped a generation, so it was always a story I thought I could tell. It’s the type of story I like to tell in that you can use the content of the story as the form. I come from painting, so the idea that the two things are equally visible has always been attractive to me. A lot of my films deal with that, making not just the film stuff visible but the viewership visible: you realize that you’re watching a film.

One day I was in Ottawa showing some of my films in a local theater, the ByTowne, when the programmer said, “My day job is Digital Migration at the Library and Archives Canada.” I said, “So you have Dawson City.” He said, “Yeah, we also have a new 4K scanner.” I asked, “Can we move Dawson City to the front of your queue?” He said, “There is no queue, so yes.”

I realized I had an ally inside who had the wherewithal and the time to do these scans at a really outstanding level. I really couldn’t have made this film before that without making an enormous number of  internegatives, which would have gone way beyond my means. The timing was perfect, and the programmer’s name is Paul Gordon, who is credited as an associate producer on this film. I would just say to Paul, “I need these titles,” and he could make the scan and give me a screener—eventually the high-res—so I was working with an online version all through the edit, which afforded me an enormous amount of flexibility.

 

DT: It’s a tautology to say that archival film makes a statement about the past. But here you make a very potent bridge to the present. Was that intentional? If so, how did you achieve that?

BM: I think any time I make a film it’s a bridge to the present. I’m in the present; these are films that are coming from my perspective. Then pairing them very obviously with contemporary music is a reminder that you’re seeing it of this moment. I eschew any effort to use silent movie music or anything that would historically contextualize it in that way. I’m not interested in that. My idea with Dawson City is that here is a microcosm, a town built at the cusp of the 20th century in a vacuum, so it came part and parcel with all the problems of the 20th century compacted into it: it became a sort of test tube town. Tracing its rise and fall was in some ways a parable for our modern times.

 

BM: It was deep into the research that I realized that Frederick Trump had a brothel that serviced stampeders on their way to Dawson.

DT: Frederick was Donald Trump’s grandfather.

BM: His grandfather, an immigrant from Germany.

DT: Last name Drumpf.

BM: He had already called himself Trump at that point, but he was born Drumpf. He went back to Germany with all the money he earned in Canada, then he immigrated again, so maybe there’s something to keeping these immigrants out. I still didn’t want to use this guy’s name in my film; I thought he was a flash in the pan, if you will. I moved to New York in ’85, so as a New Yorker, I grew up with him. He’s been in the headlines every year since I’ve been here. I never took him seriously, and even when I learned that factoid about his grandfather, Donald was one of twenty-two Republican candidates, or whatever it came out to be, and I just said I’m not going to pollute my film with his name. Later I thought, Well he’s the Republican candidate…that’s good for this year anyway. I’m not ever considering he would win the election. Finally, well, I said, I guess he’s part of history now. So to answer your question, there were ways that the present time caught up with the film in ways I couldn’t have foreseen. I didn’t know how significant Frederick Drumpf being a brothel owner would be.

I think you also see in the idea of Manifest Destiny the disposability of the indigenous population and that land, as well as the privateering: the local source miners, the hundreds of thousands of guys who were elbow to elbow getting their own but forming a community, or a town anyway, and then that entire economic system being replaced overnight when the machines come in and they corporatize with no union, creating a company town. What happens to a town like that? You have an enormously stratified class system immediately, and the bottom drops out. By the time the ’20s rolled around, there were maybe a thousand people left, tumbleweed blowing through the town, and the main distraction was still the movies. That was the thing that kept people going.

 

DT: One of the shots you used depicted laborers hauling wheelbarrows up a wooden track. What that really struck home was the sense that these prospectors were suddenly turned into a labor pool, which is an entirely different animal: they came to be their own men and ended up as hired workers.

BM: The people who sold out left. I was just there a few months ago for the Dawson City International Short Film Festival—I was the opening night film. It’s still like you’re back in a storybook land. I went into the casino and this guy with a huge gray beard and a felt hat was drinking whiskey at the bar. I said, “You look like a prospector,” and he said, “I am.” These guys still work in very much the same way. There was another young hot-shot prospector who struck it big in zinc and silver twice before, and he was hired to come in to find the motherlode. He made seven core samples last year and he had three years to find the big lode of gold that all these little flakes are just the dandruff of.

DT: Still?

BM: Still. It’s still under there. He wants to hit it, and he said, “I’m going to be in the Mining Hall of Fame” as his eyeballs turned into big dollar signs. That’s still going on up there.

 

DT: Talk about working with your composer, Alex Somers.

BM: It was great. We hardly met. I met him backstage at a Sigur Ros concert in Ottawa, in March 2014. At the time I thought he and Jonsi were going to collaborate on this together. They made three tracks on a long weekend for me, about twenty-two minutes’ worth of music, and that really informed my rough cut. I worked with those three tracks and their 2009 release, Riceboy Sleeps.

DT: Had they seen any of the footage?

BM: Yeah, they came over to the house a few months later, and I showed it to them…they just loved the idea that there was all this film in a swimming pool. They recorded in the swimming pool. They were big Decasia fans—that’s how I came to be in touch with them. So I told them the story, and they created this bed of music using Riceboy Sleeps. That informed the timing and the edit of my rough cut.

Eventually Alex took over the project, and April of last year I was able to finally send him a rough cut. From that he started sending me back drafts of what he was thinking and brought his brother John Somers in to do the sound design. The sound design and the composition fit really well together, so I was really happy with what I was hearing. However, I felt like this is actually a tragic story, so I said we needed more cello, more strings. Basically what I was saying amounted to, This piece you’ve written here is really good, let’s expand that, let’s work with that as a theme. Alex was really responsive, and he understood what I said. I went through each cue and gave notes on it, sort of like a long Excel spreadsheet. The second draft was really much closer to what I wanted, and we worked back and forth until we got something that  held together and held the piece together. He really gave it a great narrative arc.

 

DT: This is your longest film by far. Did you plan on this length, or was it due to the wealth of the material, and how did that affect the editing?

BM: It wasn’t intentional—it was due to the wealth of the material for sure, and I could have kept going. I had to lop off ten minutes about what happened after the collection got to Ottawa, because that’s a fascinating story too, and there are all kinds of events that rhyme with what you’ve already seen. The Orpheum, which burned down and was rebuilt four or five times, finally gets taken out by the 1979 flood, so the town’s recovering from the flood when the films are finally shown there. The Suitland Maryland National Archives fire also happens that spring and takes out an enormous amount of our nitrate heritage in one fire. Then these films are brought to that same compound, not the same vault, in Suitland as part of the Library of Congress’s property. So the story continues. There was just a great poetic ending when the military planes fly away with this material that started its life as a military material, and that had to be the end.

I read that people feel it’s still too long, but for me it kept building. It’s about minutiae and it’s about detail, and I felt very strongly that when you come out of it you should feel like you’ve lived through the 20th century in a certain way: there should be this moment of, Oh my God, so much happened, all these rolls contain so much, so when you see them as physical objects, each one of these containing a history, it should hit you like a wave. You’ve been overwhelmed by the minutiae and the detail of it.

DT: It’s totally overwhelming.

B: That was intended. I didn’t want it to be an easily digestible film. I didn’t want it to be a History Channel film. I wanted it to be a film that you emerge from the theater and say, Wow, where have I been?

 

DT: When you work deeply with anything, when you really go into it, you begin to see things that you wouldn’t see if you didn’t take that deep journey. You’ve spent your life working with archival footage and early films. What have you learned from your deep journey that someone who just sees a little snippet wouldn’t see, or someone who sees an occasional Charlie Chaplin movie wouldn’t see?

 

BM: I’m always looking for footage that’s self-reflexive in some way, that somehow draws attention to the fact that it’s film, whether it’s the content of the picture or what’s happening on the frame. I’m not sure somebody else would be attracted to the same thing. But I’m not sure my films are really for people who are silent film fans per se. A Charlie Chaplin fan isn’t necessarily going to think my film is that interesting, while an early film fan would say, What’s all this—where’s Lionel Barrymore?

This collection has suffered from that, I think. Sam Kula said they came out looking for Theda Bara and Cleopatra, the idea that the great lost feature might be down there that could be restored. Of course whatever might have been there in its entirety was no longer there, it was all reel 1 and reel 2 or reel 5—it was all piecemeal. So again it was like the stampeder who came too late—the rich claims had been made.

I’m looking at film not from a cinephile’s perspective. I’m still looking at it from my perspective, a plastic art, something’s that’s lived through the world, and the picture has to reflect that. I don’t know if my experience in the archive is going to be informative for somebody else. I just followed my whims, and I’ve been lucky to have good friends on the inside of the archive, who save stuff for me, who don’t throw stuff away,  show me where stuff might be buried.

 

DT: One of the things that struck me about Dawson City was the early film footage that you chose: you didn’t have a lot of stereotypically dramatic poses. In fact, the compositions you chose were very classical images. Timeless, and very beautiful.

B: I think they’re beautiful too. That’s why I chose them. First of all I was much more interested in the newsreel footage than in the narrative footage. The narrative footage served a purpose, usually to advance the story in some way, but there wasn’t a lot of fawning over the movie stars who are recognizable in the collection, and there’s half a dozen really famous people there.

I find there’s sort of a cheap shot you can make—how quaint silent film was, or that it didn’t reach the level of sophistication we have. Of course there were a ton of narrative tropes that kept being repeated, like the listening at the door as a way of advancing a narrative, a secret in a silent movie, where it gives you this expositional moment. But there were ways of bringing attention to that without saying, This is silly.

 

DT: When you made this film, did you consciously balance your role as storyteller, as archivist, as historian, as defender of lost causes, or did that happen naturally?

B: One thing I did: This is a much wordier film than I’ve ever made before. I’ve never had speaking parts in it, and there’s just an enormous amount of text. There was this idea that by telling a very detailed story, the more detailed I could make it the more universal it would become. The first thing, though, was always going to be the hypnotic edit. The edit was going to follow my editing style, and it was going to have the same sort of elasticity. Then I was going to find a way to tell the story within that, the blank spaces in the frame.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017