American Chaos/James Stern

Because James Stern couldn’t explain to his kids why people were voting for Donald Trump, he grabbed his camera and tripod six months before the election and took off for parts unknown to find out why. With unnerving composure and self-restraint, he interviews Trump supporters, letting them speak for themselves without interruption. Click here for trailer. Availability: Now playing in theaters nationwide. Click here for theater listings near you. •Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: In the beginning of American Chaos, you say that you felt a deep connection to Bobby Kennedy and Obama. Can you describe that connection?

JS: The connection goes way back. I come from a political family, and I had an older brother who was clearly going into politics. I think that in my youthful fantasy I felt a kinship on the brother front. Bobby was also greatly passionate, not quite as old school as Jack, and I think that was probably true in my case as well. I was very, very drawn to his authenticity.

 

DT: You undertook this mission because you didn’t understand who was supporting Trump and you wanted to be able to tell your kids why this was happening. Have you now reached a better understanding of Trump supporters, and if so, how will you explain it to your kids?

 

Left to right: James D. Stern, John Ladd Photo by Kevin Ford, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: James D. Stern, John Ladd
Photo by Kevin Ford, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

JS: I did reach a better understanding. Not in all cases—the people I talked to were all different individuals. Many people had real issues I didn’t fully appreciate. For instance, when I was down in Arizona, standing by the wall and being told stories by John Ladd about people coming onto his property at 3:00 a.m., and I’m being forced to understand his issue, which I don’t. The same thing was true when I was talking with people who have been out of work for two years in West Virginia. It’s a very visceral feeling that’s different from the one I have just reading about it or watching it on TV. I did develop empathy for people’s situations, but I don’t have sympathy for their solutions.

When you come into proximity and talk to people, you have empathy, and I think you have to be careful about the idea that people are simply wrong in their approach. I think people are rational and reasonable for the most part. Do I think they have the right solutions in voting for Donald Trump? Of course not. Would their lives have been made better by Hillary Clinton? I hope so. I think that one of the things that happened is that they did not feel in any way, shape, or form that Hillary was going to make their lives better after eight years of Barack Obama, so why not try somebody else? That’s a bitter pill to swallow for someone like me, but at the same time you have to listen to them.

 

DT: How do you explain someone like Julio, who said, “How can you vote for Hillary? Immigrants make this country great.”

JS: Julio Martinez, who was from Florida, wanted to have safer borders. Armand Grossman, who is also from Florida, said, “How could someone possibly vote for Hillary?” He had a very, very strong view about the military and was obsessed with Benghazi. Julio had  a very strong view on immigration and closing the borders even though he himself was an immigrant when he was eleven. In both cases they thought Trump was a better answer than Hillary. I think it’s wrong. Do I think it’s irrational? That’s a harder question. At some level politics is about connection, about authenticity, feeling like that person represents you. I did a film called So Goes the Nation, for which I interviewed Mark McKinnon, who at that time was the head strategist for the Republican Party. It was during the Bush/Kerry election, and Mark said something quite chilling. He said that at the end of the day, you can throw out all of the issues. The only issue that matters is what club you want to belong to. Do you want to belong to your club or the other club? If you think about it in a different way, why do I buy Nike shoes? Right now I’d walk over hot coals to buy Nike shoes because of Colin Kaepernick. That doesn’t have anything to do with whether the shoe is better for me; that’s a club I want to belong to. The sad thing was that they didn’t believe Hillary was going to make it any better than Trump, so they might as well join the club where they can watch reality TV.

 

Left to right: Armand Grossman, James D. Stern Photo by Karen Bove, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Armand Grossman, James D. Stern
Photo by Karen Bove, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

DT: I can’t remember whether it was Tami or Dave who said, “I’m not electing him to be my Sunday school teacher.”  Can you explain why you’re laughing?

JS: I’m laughing because I think that was an extraordinary display of hypocrisy, and I think that if the shoe was on the other foot, they would have been up in arms from a moral and religious standpoint. Trump has complete moral turpitude, and they try and find a religious excuse for it. That was one of the instances I found the most troubling and the most difficult to sit through without reacting. If Barack Obama had done the sorts of things that Donald Trump has done, let alone Hillary Clinton, do you think they would have given either Hillary or Obama a free pass? Of course not. What they wanted was somebody who was going to have the kind of non-gun-control measures they were looking for, and they were looking for someone who was going to pack the Supreme Court in the way Donald Trump is packing the Supreme Court. At the end of the day, that—no pun intended—trumps any kind of supposed religious concerns that they have. I think it’s amazing that people who have been arguing for years about family values and throwing that in people’s faces then turn around and vote for this man. Of all the things I found, the thing I have the most trouble squaring is the free pass they gave Trump.

 

DT: There were major disconnects between what people said they believed and reality, like the woman who said Obama was going to declare martial law and the guy who said climate change is a load of crap. Maybe this goes back to the matter of what club you want to belong to, but at what point should you expect reality to enter into the equation?

JS: There were a couple of instances where I just couldn’t sit quietly by. One was when Marian said that Obama was going to declare martial law. I just snorted at her and said, “That’s absurd.”  The other was when Sue in Arizona said one in eight people was guilty of voter fraud and all of them voted for the Democrats. At that point I just said, “What are you talking about?”

When I grew up, there were three networks and maybe public television. While people argued vociferously about their viewpoints, the facts were the facts. You didn’t say there was no such thing as the Vietnam War. Right now you have a propaganda arm of one of the two major parties that supports people in whatever they say. If all you do is listen to Fox news and go on Breitbart or you listen to Rush Limbaugh, you’re going to have a very, very different view of the world than if you’re someone like myself, who reads the New York Times, or yourself, or whatever. After World War Two there were Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungle for twenty-five years believing the war was still going on.

 

DT: You were in West Virginia when you said, “This is a different country. What do they care about having sensible gun laws?” Was it always a different country and we’re just seeing it now, or do you think that under the Kennedys, for instance, the country was more cohesive?

JS: I think the country was more cohesive for two reasons: (a) like I just said, the media. You didn’t have the ability to have your own set of facts. That makes the country much more divided than it ever was; (b) when my father went into WWII, he trained in Alabama and Mississippi. He intellectually cross-bred with the people he was with and they cross-bred with him. While war is a terrible thing, people from different parts of the country united into a coalition.

Those two things are gone, one thankfully, one not so much so. We now have a real problem. This is the most divided the country has been since the civil war. That is not a joke. The other thing of course is campaign finance reform—which is to say none—where you have massive amounts of money pouring into candidates, buying them ad nauseam simply because of one issue or another that’s central to whoever is paying for their politicians. A famous politician in America once said that without campaign finance reform, he feared for the very essence of democracy because politicians would be bought and sold based on the issues. That politician was not Barack Obama. It was Abraham Lincoln. This is not a new problem.

 

DT: Let’s talk about your crazy footage from the 1950s TV show Trackdown, where a snake oil salesman tries to convince a town to build a wall to save themselves from destruction.  First of all, where did you find it, and second of all, the parallels between the snake oil salesman and Trump are so remarkable that I have to ask whether there’s any evidence that Trump ever saw it?

JS: I don’t know if he saw it. We were out to dinner somewhere, and my editor’s father said, “Have you ever seen this show Trackdown?” When I said no, he told me there was a TV show in the ’50s that had an episode with a con artist named Trump. I said that was  impossible, then I googled tv-1950s-trump and it came up! We found the piece! Trump’s father was quite famous and was quite a vicious character by all counts. I wonder if the people who wrote Trackdown weren’t aware of his father. Woody Guthrie wrote a very famous song about Trump’s father called “Daddy Trump.” I think it’s almost too much of a coincidence.

 

DT: I myself don’t believe in the Trump-won-because-of-disaffected Americans theory. I think it was more like the Cuban guy in your film who said, “I look at Trump and see myself in the mirror.”  I think that’s what got Trump elected.

JS: I don’t disagree. They have such a strong desire to be him, such a strong aspirational part of the attraction.

DT: So it’s not that they think he’s like them, it’s more that they want to be like him.

JS: I felt that way. The other thing that was amazing to me was that everybody I spoke to glossed over the fact that Trump was born with a silver spoon in his face. Donald Trump was a man who was born on third base and said he hit a triple. In the film, a professor from the University of Chicago speaks about that. He says that Trump convinced them that he’s some sort of self-made man and he can do for them what he did for himself. That’s quite a trick, given what was factually true about him. The other thing that was quite amazing was that Trump was sued by 3,500 blue-collar workers whom he had not paid. Many of the people I met were either in a similar situation to the people who had sued Trump or knew people who were in a similar situation, but they didn’t seem to care about that at all.

DT: Again, it’s that disconnect from reality.

JS: Exactly right, but it’s also choosing what to believe. And also it’s a culture war—saying it’s the liberal press blowing things up and Hillary’s done worse. One of the mantras was “Hillary’s done worse,” whether it was the religious couple saying that Bill Clinton had done worse or a guy in West Virginia saying that Hillary should be in jail for all the things she’s done and Trump’s never done anything wrong. It’s what you choose to read and believe in that was so striking.

 

Left to right: David Hatfield Photo by Kevin Ford, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: David Hatfield (of the Hatfields and McCoys)
Photo by Kevin Ford, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

DT: You open and close the film with footage of elections, going back to Teddy Roosevelt. What context does that give to American Chaos?

JS: There have been swirling passions around the elections since we have begun. I believe there will be passions again, and there will be better days ahead. What you see in all those presidents in the 1900s is that some were good, some were bad, but we’re still here. I wanted that to start the film, and I wanted that to close the film. I only go back as far as John F. Kennedy at the end of the film, because that’s personal for me. I feel that our higher angels will carry us forward again, but I was also very focused on saying that this is a bad time, and it’s going to be a bad time. If you take the irrationality of Andrew Jackson and the business scuzziness of Warren G. Harding and the viciousness of Richard Nixon and you put it all together in a cocktail, you get Donald Trump. That said, America has been around for a long time, I believe it will be around for a whole lot longer, and we’re going to get through this.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

JS: I think that we have to listen, and listen as gracefully as we can. I think there’s absolutely zero nobility in losing. I think you do anything you can to win within legal bounds. I think the Democrats have to continue to do so. There’s an old saying that Democrats want to govern and Republicans want to win, and I think that’s unfortunately true, and we need to understand why people are upset. Hillary Clinton lost the election by 77,000 votes over three states where people much like the ones in the movie thought they weren’t being listened to. I’m not saying that if Hillary had gone to those places and done a better job of presenting herself to those people she would have won, but she might have, despite Jim Comey and Russia and everything else. I hope that people see the movie with that in mind. I’ve read some reviews of the film where people have said I seem to be soft on these people. I don’t think I’m soft. I’m giving them a platform so that we can analyze and discuss in their own words, not in my own words. People don’t need to hear from me. They should want to hear from them. That’s what’s important. I’m really proud I was able to make the movie, and I’m proud that Sony is supporting the movie, and I hope that there are better times ahead for all of us, and mostly for our country.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Boundaries/Shana Feste

 Through iconic, larger-than-life characters—types rather than real people—the great comedies from the ’40s offered poignant insights into the human condition. Shana Feste’s Boundaries delivers the same kind of insights with the same kind of icons, but what makes the film remarkable is that these icons come straight out of  real life: writer/director Shana Feste’s real life. Christopher Plummer is more magnificent than ever as Shana’s dope-dealing, freewheeling, deadbeat dad; Vera Farmiga is sometimes heartbreaking and always beautiful as Shana Feste herself; and Kristen Schaal is wacky and wonderful as Shana’s sister. With Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd, and Lewis MacDougall. The difference between Boundaries and other contemporary comedies is subtle, but its effect is real and bountiful. •Availability: Opens New York and LA, June 22. Click here for trailer and theater listings. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: In comedies from the ’40s, like You Can’t Take It With You, Sullivan’s Travels, Shop Around the Corner, the characters are more like icons than people from real life, but at the same time, these films say an enormous amount about the human condition. I was wondering if those comedies served as a model for your film.

Left to right: Christopher Plummer as Jack and Lewis MacDougall as Henry Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Christopher Plummer as Jack and Lewis MacDougall as Henry
Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

SF: The truth is those characters were all real characters. They weren’t larger than life to me. That was my father [played by Christopher Plummer]. I really wrote him. That is his dialogue. That is how he speaks, that is how he acts. My sister [played by Kristen Schaal]—if you go to her house, you will see a framed picture of a momma dog with her pup crossing a stream. Jed [played by Halldor Bjarnason] is a real-life character. I probably exaggerated myself [played by Vera Farmiga] the most, because when you write yourself you’re usually the most boring character on the screen. I’m a total recluse and I’m happy never talking to anybody; I don’t really make the best protagonist, so I take the most liberties with myself. But about what you said at the end: I hope my film says something larger about forgiveness and seeing your parent for who they really are and what that journey is, ultimately not with a happy hopeful ending but an ending of honesty, where I can say, OK, I don’t know where this is going to go. I see you now for who you are, I’ve accepted that, and who knows where we go from here.

 

DT: The sequence of faces at the end was an interesting choice.

SF: It started because we were thinking about how to open the movie. I thought I’d love to do some animal portraits and show these funky-looking animals that are all flawed—that are missing something that would make them cuter, whether it’s an ear, fur, an eye—and shoot a really beautiful portrait of them and try to capture their essence, and that’s how I’ll start the film. Once I shot those portraits, Sara Mishara, who’s our DP, and I fell in love with them, and we said, what if we shot portraits of the other characters in the movie and bookended it? Originally we were going to bookend it with all of Henry’s new friends at school, so we shot portraits of all of these misfit kids who were really beautiful. But then we started shooting portraits of our main characters. Sometimes I would take six or seven minutes with a camera on them and just wait until I got that one moment when I thought, That’s you. Sometimes I would talk and ask questions, otherwise I’d just shoot and they would do whatever they were doing and I would wait until I got that moment.

 

DT: We always prioritize everything we do—that’s just life. Does working with such great actors affect your priorities on set? In other words, do you shoot differently when you’re working with actors of that caliber?

SF: When you’re working with actors of this caliber, your direction has to be totally articulate. If you’re being sloppy, and you haven’t really thought out the scene and you just say, “OK, I guess I want it to be funny, so what would be funny, let’s do this scene as if you’re punishing her,” Christopher Plummer will punish her. He will get that exactly right. So if you haven’t totally thought about your direction, you’re not going to get what you want, because he can play anything and the slightest adjustment is a huge difference in his performance. So maybe you thought about punishing her but he’s really punishing her and it’s really intense and it’s not funny at all. So maybe I’ll say, “Let’s try and make her feel guilty.” Then he makes her feel guilty and that’s not funny enough, maybe it’s hitting too close to home. Every direction has to be completely thought out with actors like Chris and Vera.

 

Left to right: Christopher Plummer as Jack and Peter Fonda as Joey Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Christopher Plummer as Jack and Peter Fonda as Joey
Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DT: The scene with Christopher Plummer and Peter Fonda was hysterical. Was it improvised at all?

SF: When we first shot that scene it was about ten minutes. They were goofing off, they were ad libbing, they were laughing, having fun. I thought, This movie is only an hour and a half, I cannot be in this room for ten minutes, as amazing as it was to watch these two icons in this scene together. So we kept making adjustments to pick up the pace and take out some of the improvisation, leave some of it in. I would have been happy with a ten-minute scene, because just watching them work was all kind of magic to me.

DT: Sure.

SF: They had a real chemistry, they had a real bond. They were friends before we made this picture, so they had this natural ease. When Peter Fonda answered the door and embraced Christopher Plummer, I thought, My God, Peter Fonda’s either an amazing actor or they really genuinely like each other. It was a little bit of both.

 

DT: Talk a little more about working with the actors, because the acting was huge.

SF: That’s what excites me as a director, because I’m a writer. I write roles that I think actors are going to want to play and that can attract the best actors. When I get on set, sometimes it’s difficult for me to even see anything besides the actors, because that is why I do what I do. I love working with actors, so when I have Chris [Plummer] and Vera [Farmiga] and Lewis [MacDougall] and Peter [Fonda] I could spend hours directing them and not thinking about anything else—where the camera is, what they’re wearing.

I think that one of my biggest challenges as a director is to force myself to see the big picture and get out of my utopia of my actors’ world. But with this film it was fun again; it was really fun to see how much the scene could change with different direction and with different blocking. I could have spent days shooting one scene with them, because every time we did it with the slightest adjustment it would mean something completely different. I was constantly being surprised by their choices, so creating a space for actors to play like that, especially when every one of them… It was like going to camp—guess who’s coming on Thursday, Bobby Carnavale! And Monday we’re going to meet Christopher Lloyd! It was such a gift for a director who loves working with actors, because literally every three days I got someone new that totally changed the energy of the set.

 

DT: I wonder if the vitality of the acting would have changed had you been more concerned about camera angles and setup.

SF: It’s my least favorite part of the job anyways, so that’s why I always work with a DP I know I can trust and rely on. I say to my DPs upfront, “I’m going to get lost in the performances sometimes. That’s where I’m going to be, so I really need you to be my eyes.” We have a lot of discussions and prep about photography and ways we want to shoot, because once I get on set, they have to tear me away from the actors.

 

DT: That’s not a bad thing. As a writer/director, how does the director in you respond when the writing gets off course, when people start improvising and taking it in a direction you don’t want it to go?

Left to right: Kristen Schaal as Jojo and Vera Farmiga as Laura Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Kristen Schaal as Jojo and Vera Farmiga as Laura
Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

SF: Sometimes it’s amazing. When Kristen Schaal starts to improv, I’m thinking, Keep going, because you make me sound like a comedy writer. She would take my material and make it a hundred times funnier. What was interesting was watching her and Christopher Plummer work together because Christopher Plummer is trained in the theater, so he sticks to the page, he sticks to the dialogue. He has every single line memorized, and he doesn’t do a lot of improvisation. Kristen Schaal is all improvisation, so having those two characters come together was very much like the real characters in real life, it was kind of hit and miss, but when they came together… There was a scene where they’re looking at that painting and Kristen Schall says—this was an improv line—“Guess how much I paid for this painting. You’ll never guess.” That wasn’t a line, that was improv, so Christopher Plummer wasn’t going to respond. She didn’t have the right line, so he just sat there. They all just sat there, and no one answered, which made her improv another line, which was “That’s right. It was free.” It was this perfect moment where these two different styles came up against each other and created something funny.

 

DT:  It’s hard to believe this was a fairly low-budget film. How did you make it look so good?

SF:   We shot in Vancouver. Everywhere you go there’s a film production shooting, so you’re thinking, Where am I going to find a location that’s not been overshot and seen in a million Canadian Hallmark movies? That’s where our production designer came in. He scoured Vancouver for locations we’d never seen before, like Stanley’s house, which was architecturally really interesting, with cool lines. Just finding these amazing locations made the budget seem much bigger.

Left to right: Vera Farmiga as Laura, Christopher Lloyd as Stanley and Lewis MacDougall as Henry Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Vera Farmiga as Laura, Christopher Lloyd as Stanley and Lewis
MacDougall as Henry
Photo by Lindsay Elliott, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

And shooting anamorphically. We shot with older lenses from the ’60s that gave it more of an appearance of film, because I wanted to shoot on film but obviously we couldn’t afford to do that. And then fighting for things that gave us a lot of production value: a lot of animals constantly, a lot of driving scenes, a lot of broken-down Rolls Royces, and a huge ensemble cast. It was a labor of love for a lot of people.

 

DT: Can you talk about the dangers of working with autobiographical material?

SF: There are some days I wish I’d gone a little deeper in this film, and I think that’s always a challenge. How deep can I go? How honest can I go? And am I really being honest? I wrote the first draft of the script and really thought it was OK. I wanted to make a movie about some anger I’m feeling toward my father, and I wrote the first draft of the script, and there was no anger. None of it. I was in such denial of my own anger that I couldn’t even put it on the page when I was trying to put it on the page. I think the danger is taking something that’s totally authentic and true to you and it ends up not being authentic because you’re scared of where the material might go. You’re scared of who’s going to watch it. I was scared of what my father would think when he watched the film, what my brothers would think, what my sister thought of the movie, how I would possibly be perceived. All of that fear is really hard. It gets in the way of writing honestly.

DT: That’s interesting, because that’s not how the film comes across.

SF: I hope not, but I can’t even watch it. I’ve never watched a film I’ve made. I always watch mistakes. It’s like watching yourself naked on the screen. I’ve had three children, so I can’t watch that, I can never watch that again. I just see all the things I should have done differently whenever I watch a movie afterwards.

 

DT: How cathartic can art ultimately be?

SF: I think that’s why I’m a screenwriter, because anyone with a childhood trauma can rewrite their own happy endings. My first film was about grief [The Greatest]. My father lost a child before I was born. It would have been my brother Mark. He talked about it one time on one road trip with me. He told me, “You would have had a brother.” He told me how he died; I’m 42, and he never mentioned it again, never spoke about it. So my first film was about the death of a son, it was all about grief. Every single member of the family was talking about it. They had open discussions about it. It was a way for me to explore what it was like to grow up with a grieving parent. So for me writing is incredibly cathartic because I get to work out so many of the things I’m going through at the moment. With Boundaries it was working with what it was like to be a misfit growing up and what it was like to feel like you didn’t belong, and how hard it is to come to terms with your own anger as a woman, because I have such a resistance to anger in my own life. It’s really hard for me to get in touch with, and this film was a real exercise—a cathartic exercise— in how to embrace my own anger, just like I embrace all my other emotions.

 

DT: Ultimately your character was successful, the same way you’re successful. So is the anger getting lost, is the anger being sublimated? Where is the anger? That’s what struck me about the film: there was so little anger in a situation that should have been enraging.

SF: Sometimes I think maybe there should have been more. Maybe i should have… Maybe it wasn’t enough…  I wanted to make a movie where we could laugh about childhood trauma. Sometimes I feel like I should have erred more on the anger side, but ultimately the truth is, my dad did change, and as much as I never thought he would, ultimately he did change. He moved in with my family when he was sick, and he spent the last three years of his life with us, and I saw him parent my son in the way he probably should have parented me. He said to me—and I’ll never forget it—he said, “Bean, you didn’t get the father you deserved.”  Once he said that, that’s an anger melter. I just said OK. I think it’s the gaslighting, the thinking, not knowing if you deserve love or if you didn’t deserve love, or why they were gone, but when he actually took onus and said, “No it was me, you didn’t get the father you deserved,” it allowed me to completely forgive him.

 

Left to right: Lewis MacDougall as Henry and Vera Farmiga as Laura Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Lewis MacDougall as Henry and Vera Farmiga as Laura
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DT: What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

SF: The real reason I wrote it is that I was in the Lacy Street animal shelter, where I rescue animals, and I had just found a home for a pit bull, which are incredibly hard to place. I was coming back into the shelter, and I saw people turning in their family dogs, I saw abused animals, and I felt so overwhelmed. What I’m doing—and I think I’m doing a tremendous amount, because it’s taking up almost 75 percent of my life, rescuing animals two or three times a month—I’m doing this huge thing in my own life, it’s making a huge impact on me, and then I go to the shelters and I feel like it’s totally fruitless. It’s this ongoing problem. I thought, Is there a way I could incorporate this into my film and shine a bigger light on animal rescue? I really wanted this film at its heart to be about animals that really are incapable of hurting you, and to shine a light on something that’s so important in my own life, which is rescue. So what do I want people to take away from it? I would love people to be inspired to adopt a pet after watching this film. Nothing would make me happier. The highlight of my day is when I rescue a dog for someone and two years later they send me a picture of the dog having a good time. So nothing would make me happier than if I got a call and someone said, “I saw Boundaries and I went to the shelter and got this amazing ten-year-old cat.”

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

SM: It’s like being isolated.

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

SM: There’s no way out.

LA: There’s no escape.

 

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

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

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

DT: That’s what was so depressing.

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

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

DT: What specifically did she object to?

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

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

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

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

SM: Exactly.

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

SM: Exactly.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

SM: He was exhausted.

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

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

LA: I was afraid to tell Samuel.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

LA: He could just make a movie.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

SM: He takes time to lean on the table…

LA: It was like a dance.

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

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

LA: No. We are just doing it.

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

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

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

LA: Usually.

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

 

LA: The light, the angle.

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

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

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer/Joseph Cedar (director) and Richard Gere (actor)

Norman fixes deals, but right now no one’s buying into his schemes, and no one needs his help. One day he meets Eshel, an Israeli politician who’s also down on his luck.  Moved by the possibility of helping out a fellow Jew, Norman does Eshel a favor: he buys Eshel an expensive pair of shoes. Three years later, Eshel becomes prime minister of Israel. Unable to forget Norman’s kindness, Eshel allows Norman to draw him into a crazy business deal, but when cries of corruption begin to sound, he’s forced to cut Norman loose. An atypical comedy with an off-type cast, Norman strikes an inventive comedic chord that will offend some and thrill others. To see the trailer, click here.  Availability: Opens 4/14 New York and L.A. Check local listings for a theater near you.  Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

DT: Norman isn’t the kind of character Richard usually plays. Richard, can you talk about acting off type, and Joseph, can you talk about directing an actor who’s playing off type?

RG: First of all, they’re all off type. There’s not a character that’s not off type, but this one’s further off than most. Part of the process with this one lay in the fact that he’s a totally unique character, and I didn’t want to play any cliches with him. Joseph didn’t want me to, either. I laughed about it, because Joseph was so nervous about this and wanted to get it right.

We had a lot of time; we spent eight or nine months, just talking, no pressure, Joseph bringing me slowly into his universe: the universe of the movie, the universe of this character, the universe of thousands of years of Jewish history, and emotions, and psychology. Narratives. It was perfect—I like to do things slowly that way, too. It gets deeper. Then, when you start making choices, you have a strong foundation, and it’s connected to something real, something authentic. That’s who we started to discover: the Norman in all of us, which was more important than being the Jewish Norman or the nebbish Norman, the whatever Norman.

DT: The Woody Allen Norman.

RG: The Woody Allen Norman, or even the Charlie Chaplin Norman. It was a matter of finding the emotion that we all have: that we want to belong. We want to be in.

JC: We mention Charlie Chaplin over and over again. I’ve always perceived the Little Tramp as a Jew, but it may be only the way I see it.

RG: Maybe. The Tramp’s always looking for a home.

JC: There’s something about his size, he’s everywhere the story needs him to be but never really welcome. Or it might have to do with his costume.

RG: He’s always on the road, isn’t he? Things don’t work out, and he’s got to get back on the road.

 

DT: Joseph, you’ve said at a number of Q&As and interviews that the character of Norman is based on the historical figure of the court Jew, of whom there are a number of specific examples throughout history. But I found that your Norman reflects not only one type of Jew but Jews as a race as well, with a history of assimilation, contribution, and expulsion.

That’s not a funny subject, but I found your movie hysterical. I was wondering if you dropped the character of Norman into the context of Israeli/American-Jewish politics to put a comedic spin on a subject that’s really not very funny.

JC: At the end, the subject is detached from the work itself. Norman is an individual person, and working with Richard on this character was not about anything but Norman at a specific time. Every scene had its own emotional truth to it for Norman. Everything else is either something that had to do with my intentions before the movie got off the ground or, now that it’s made, talking to journalists. The work itself was finding the human need in every situation that was specific for Norman. I don’t think I understood Norman the way I did after these conversations with Richard. We came to the set knowing something about how Norman functions that I didn’t know while I was working on the script.

RG: I was asking questions on a lot of levels that a Jewish actor probably would not have asked.

DT: My guess is that you were asking acting questions that an actor of any faith would ask, which a non-actor would not.

RG: Yes, they were acting questions, but there’s a mysterious process that starts between a director, especially a writer/director, and an actor. You know that everything you do from the moment you meet to talk about the project is rehearsing. Every second. I don’t care if you’re ordering a burger, you’re walking down the street, you’re watching TV. I don’t care what it is; you’re rehearsing. You’re working on the project. We danced through that in a very leisurely way—not without intensity, but it was leisurely because of the eight or nine months we had before we started shooting.

JC: It’s a great period, because you start seeing everything through the filter of what understanding Norman requires. So suddenly everything that I encounter has, in some way, an echo: If I bring it up with Richard in our next conversation, it will help us uncover something in Norman. For instance—and there are many examples like the one I’m about to give you—Norman name-drops all the time. Now, people around us always name-drop, but if you try to figure out when someone drops a name, it always reveals something about the situation that he’s in, something about what he’s trying to achieve, something about the personality of the person who feels that he needs to use someone else’s name in order to gain entrance into a certain situation. Just using that example, you can take every scene in the movie and see where Norman decides to say “I know this person” or when he decides to mention that he’s married. It always comes at a point where if he wouldn’t do that—and this is intuitive for Norman—he’d probably be pushed away. Finding that mechanism in Norman and then finding how to make it feel intuitive for Richard in any given scene was almost like rewriting the script. It’s understanding everything through the eyes of an actor who has to believe what’s happening.

DT:  Was this a different process from working with other actors?

JC: Every process with an actor is always different, and every actor approaches the character differently. This process had more influence on the script than I’ve had in the past. There were things that came up in our conversation that affected the script…and affected the whole journey that Norman goes through. One of the things that came from Richard was a discussion around what desire or wanting is. I always perceived Norman as someone who wants more than either he can deserve or he can handle. It’s like someone at a great restaurant ordering more than he’ll ever need, either because he wants to taste everything and he’s just eager to be making the most out of this great restaurant, or because he’s afraid someone will take it from him and he needs extra. I think Richard’s understanding of wanting is very different from Norman’s understanding. Norman is constantly wanting more than he needs, and every time he gets what he thinks he wants, he immediately wants the next thing. Part of what happens to Norman over this film is that at a certain point he stops wanting. The third act is about him not wanting anymore, and that’s something that came out of Richard and came out of his understanding of Norman’s journey.

 

DT: We all know the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Do you think that applies to Norman?

RG: I think there’s no dark intent in him at all. I keep saying there’s no Iago in him. He could never play Iago. He doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have anger. He doesn’t have resentment. He can’t afford that, and he’s found a way that that instinct has been muted in him, in a genuine way. It’s just not there. I think he genuinely wants everyone to have everything, and he found a way to do it by the end of the movie. Including himself. Everyone got what they wanted.

SPOILER ALERT

DT: But Norman essentially commits suicide in the end.

RG: He found a way to get what he wanted: He was essential. He was essential. And he delivered happiness to everybody. And he was anonymous, like in the last frame of the picture.

END SPOILER ALERT

JC: But judging things morally by only intention is always problematic. Bad things can happen with good intentions. I occasionally witness someone doing something that I think is conniving—for example, someone sneaks his way into an event that I’ve arranged and I’m upset that he’s there; that happens every once in a while. How bad can the intentions be when someone sneaks into someone else’s dinner uninvited? Even if it’s not nice, it’s not evil. Still, I’d tend to be really upset at that person: how dare you do that? But most likely if I’m in his shoes, his intentions are probably reasonable, and I shouldn’t be as upset as I am at him. The way people deal with Norman challenges the way I deal with some of the situations in my life that are close to what Norman does. Seeing someone try to take a piece of what’s mine for whatever reason is aggravating, but I don’t think it almost ever comes from a bad intention.

 

DT: I’d like to draw a comparison between this film and another Israeli film, Ephraim Kishon’s film Sallah Shabati.  In Kishon’s film, there’s a scene where a big American car drives up to the forest where Sallah is planting a tree paid for by donations from American Jews. Over the forest is a big sign that says The Goldberg Forest. The Goldbergs get out of their big car, look at their forest, and leave. Then you hear the sound of another car. Before it arrives, the  Goldberg Forest sign is replaced by a sign that says The Rosenstein Forest. The Rosensteins get out, look at their forest—the same forest—and leave.  In the space of that one scene, I suddenly understood the Israeli view of American Jews like me, little kids in Hebrew school walking up to the front of the classroom to drop their quarter in the blue-and-white charity box.

As an American Jew, I never imagined that Israelis could be making fun of me. I had that same moment in Norman with the travel posters…suddenly that whole thing opened up for me again, thirty years later—that experience of This is how I look to an Israeli.

JC: There’s another side to it. The American who’s giving money to plant the tree doesn’t really care what’s being planted in Israel. He’s just happy that his check is doing something for his conscience. He’s happy about that, and Israelis can do whatever they want with that check. As long as the American thinks there’s a tree and he has that picture in his mind, he’s happy.

DT: So what’s the difference with Norman?

JC: Norman feels that he’s doing something that is good for Israel, and doing something good for Israel is huge. That’s being part of history. Whether he is or not doesn’t make a difference. That’s his sense. He’s almost messianic.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Land of Mine/Martin Zandvliet

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

DT: Which films from the ’60s?

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

DT: American films.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT

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

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

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

END SPOILER ALERT

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

DT: According to class lines?

MZ: Yeah, we made a small society there.

 

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

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

 

DT: The boys didn’t know German history?

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

 

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

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

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017