Director Omid Nooshin Talks ‘Last Passenger’
Last Passenger (United Kingdom) is the new runaway train movie done in a Hitchcockian style. Omid Nooshin is the first-time director, and I would hope he has a future ahead of him. He has Dougray Scott and Kara Tointon as two appealing actors stuck on a train going at full-throttle speed after a madman has taken control. The other few remaining passengers are aggravating additional foils, all disagreeing on what measures to take next.
I engaged Nooshin in an email exchange in discussion of his movie. “Last Passenger” has already met with critical and audience success in the UK, and the U.S. critical reception has been equally generous.
The runaway train genre is a reliable favorite of mine. Do you have a personal favorite thriller-on-a-train film?
Actually no, although trains crop up frequently in my favorite movies. That’s probably why I felt I could do this as a debut, that I could put my own spin on a tried and tested formula, then use some of those genre specific tropes to usurp audience expectations. Trains in movies of course go right back to the birth of cinema, with the Lumiere Brothers, Edwin S. Porter, and so on. There’s a rich tradition to uphold.
Your film is very Hitchcockian? What does Hitchcock suspense mean to you and how did you employ it into your film?
Hitchcock’s suspense formula was rooted in the relationship between stakes and identification. There’s a co-efficient bond there — the greater the audience’s identification with the protagonists, the lower the stakes needed to engage their interest. That’s the recipe we used in “Last Passenger” — making the characters as relatable as possible so the audience would feel like they were the ones on the train, and it becomes a vicarious thrill ride for them.
Dougray Scott is so good that “Last Passenger” could be the one that proves how under-utilized he has been in films. He should picked more as a romantic hero. What made you choose him and did you know right away he was perfect for the part?
Dougray’s persona simply chimed with the main character, Lewis, with various qualities I was looking for. He has leading man charisma, and a self-possessed confidence and aloofness characteristic of some doctors, but he has a certain vulnerability which prevents him from radiating the invincible aura of an action hero. You know intuitively he’s going to have to dig deep to survive.
To be utterly honest, Kara Tointon is the most beautiful actress I’ve seen in quite awhile, she’s a classy beauty – I loved looking at her. How in the world did you find her and what did she bring to the part that wasn’t necessarily in the script?
I saw Kara in a West End production of “Pygmalion,” playing Eliza Doolittle. She’s actually well known here in the UK for winning the British version of “Dancing with the Stars.” The wonderful thing about Kara is that her beauty isn’t only skin deep, and she has a charm that touches everyone around her. Charm is a hard thing to mimic, so it helps if the actor has their own natural supply. And of course she has that smile which casts its own spell, and certainly can’t be written.
How do you see the production design, cinematography and music playing a significant part to your movie?
It’s all about unifying the creative decisions around a central theme, or a metaphor, to give cohesion to the overall design. “Last Passenger” is thematically rooted in existential notions of mortality, but that’s too abstract to act as a decision-making prism. So it became a modern day dragon slayer myth. All of those choices then, such as the action-adventure quality of the score, are informed by this mythic core.
“Last Passenger” plays better as a night train movie because of the night fog and street lamps that refract through the window. It’s visually dynamic. Did you know from the beginning that your film had to be a night film versus a day film?
Absolutely, from day one, it was a night movie. It’s more practical when using rear projection, and it’s more vibrant aesthetically. Sometimes a movie needs to step back from the demands of plot and just revel in its visuals.
If you’d like, who are your three favorite directors and what is your favorite film by each director?
Kubrick, Spielberg, Hitchcock. “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Jaws,” “Rear Window.”
What do you see in your future career? What kind of films would you like to be preferably making and what can we expect from you?
You can expect me to take a personal approach to genre movies, with an emphasis on visuals, and stylistic tributes to the 60s and 70s, which is my favorite era. I love sci-fi because of the scope for invention but, as to which project is green-lit next, I’m still at the mercy of the movie gods.
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater Talk ‘Before Midnight’
The Before Midnight press conference was held recently in Los Angeles at the Four Seasons hotel. Looking back, I attended the “Before Sunset” press junket nine years ago. I loved the 2004 film, but the junket was a basic affair with the humble talent coming into roundtables. The mood by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy was confiding if apologetic, as if they were thankful for trying out a different kind of film that they were unsure would be accepted. More than the 1995 original “Before Sunrise,” the sequel “Sunset” was more strictly walking and talking, but the first viewing had a really strong suspense about who would make the first move and say the right thing to reignite their long-dormant passion. The press day went like calculated clockwork, the air was gracious but enervated.
I mention this because the “Before Midnight” press day was a far more passionate, zealous interaction between press and talent. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater sat at a long table before us in a press conference room and fielded questions by enthusiastic journalists. I don’t remember enthusiastic journalists in 2004, besides myself.
My interpretation for this evolved mood is two things: One, these Linklater films have grown on us journalists over the years with an incomparable fondness. Two, the publicity firm handling “Midnight” has been smarter and shrewder this time with getting the film broader and louder attention.
The intention of most press junkets is to dish out some buzz words and promote a film. With “Midnight,” there are specific questions that needed to be asked. Why did you make this film? And will there be another sequel in nine years? “I don’t know yet!” Linklater shoots back. “We need a five year hiatus to think about it. We never planned on making three. It’s impossible to know anything until some years go by.” Hawke and Delpy would be in their fifties if there were to be a next time.
“We’re thrilled we ever got to make this third one. In 2004, we were getting to make this very personal film that we weren’t sure anybody cared about. We were thrilled that we ever got to make ‘Sunset’ in Paris. How are we getting away with this? Then there was this build-up, we got questions over the past nine years. Now we’ve made a trilogy, but we’ve intended each film to stand on its own,” Linklater insists.
I reflect how “Before Sunrise,” a stand-alone classic, is arguably the most romantic movie ever made. The characters Jesse and Celine met on a European train journey, they flirted, then he convinced her to get off the train in Vienna so they could walk around even though he was relying on little money. “Richard let us pick our own character names when we began this journey 18 years ago which at the time was so wonderfully strange, a funny ownership over your characters,” Hawke recalls. His continues to reminisce, saying, “I like to say I learned how to speak on camera on ‘Before Sunrise.’ As a young actor you get asked to pose or effect an emotion. But Richard wanted us to gab. To be present in front of the camera. To not act. This adventure to not act on camera.”
“You rarely get asked to act like that on camera. Maybe once in a film, to have a big monologue to tell a story. Maybe once every ten films. Usually it’s dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. One word, one word, one word. But with these films we have big chunks. It can sound really boring if you’re not super-duper natural at saying it. You have to really sound like you’re telling a story to someone you care for. That’s the real challenge of the film,” states Delpy.
How do you approach a screenplay construction on a film that emphasizes lots of words in dialogue and monologue? “We have to think about their backstory every time we start to write one line on the screenplay. You can’t start writing the second screenplay or third screenplay even more without knowing everything that has happened in-between,” Delpy says. Hawke and Delpy were more than actors on the sequels. The two of them have collaborated with Linklater as co-writers on the sequels.
“We spent 8 weeks writing and rehearsing. When you do that kind of rehearsing, it helps during the re-writing process,” Delpy explains. “It also helps that we have had the luxury of time, nine years to think about our characters.”
The characters have inevitably grown up and the squabbling is a result of their adult characters, whom are now married with children. “We are now dealing with the complexity of age. The level of truthfulness in regards to our characters has changed,” she says.
Jesse and Celine now face a dilemma in “Midnight” on whether to relocate from Paris to Chicago, for sake of family and occupation. Hawke weighs in on this complexity, saying, “It’s very easy to look at a romantic relationship when there’s the obvious bad guy. One is an alcoholic, one is abusive. But what if you were to take two well-meaning people who actually love each other and want the best for each other? It’s still hard. Anybody who has been in a long-term relationship would know… your lives can still be growing on the same road, or does one need to change the road to keep growing?”
Delpy is urgent to emphasize her co-star’s point. “There is no bad guy in particular. Yet there still must be compromises. What compromise might jeopardize their relationship. It’s all about finding the right road,” she says. “Their relationship started with the choice that Jesse makes, to follow his heart. ‘Midnight’ continues with the consequences of such a choice.”
Linklater chimes in. “The first movie they are unattached. You see how easily they can get off a train and go home a day later and whatever. You had that looseness. We learn Jesse and Celine moved around a lot over the years when they were single and unattached. But now they’re together and you see how difficult that is. To maneuver through life with one other person and be on the exact same track. It’s tough.”
If there’s anything that looks tough in “Midnight” it’s the second scene, a supposed 14-minute car scene held by one shot, no editing. The scene is intended to set the mood for Jesse and Celine’s marriage, and to observe them in how they are as parents.
“It gives me a flashback of anxiety!” Delpy chuckles.
“The kids are the unsung heroes of that scene. Because they’re not asleep. They’re acting! So many things could have gone wrong. The girls could have woken up early and looked at the camera,” Linklater reflects.
“The girls, the car driving on the road. The lights. It’s noisy of course. A whole combination of things. And we have to act for a full 14-15 minutes. Nothing in that scene is improvised, it’s all scripted,” Delpy says.
Of course, these films have always been about richness of character. Movies have always given us guys with the complexity of Jesse, but rarely women as complex as Celine. Responding proudly is Delpy, saying, “With Celine I wanted to make sure she is a strong woman. Looking towards the future. Not someone who dwells into the past. And she’s a very active person. She can seem at times very vindictive, not going to let someone tell her what to do. She also believes if they do move to Chicago it will destroy their relationship. It’s not just about the work, I think she’s convinced of that.”
Linklater says he has received positive response from test audiences. “I’ve talked to a lot of people now who are older and they find the movie, they get charged up and it made them feel good that they see these two people who are still trying. They are still communicating, they are making each other laugh when they can. And you see them in the ring together. Often in relationships, one or both have checked out. If you’ve got problems, I’ll deal with it as minimal as I can. You see a split with people. ‘Midnight’ is a good depiction of two people who are actively working through their problems. They care enough to do so.”
Has there been anything that is an outstanding surprise to you during your perennial work on these films? “The shock that 18-years ago Julie and I auditioned for Richard… This idea that we would have this lifelong collaboration of pouring so much of ourselves into it, that’s the surprise. The fact that we get to do this and somebody is interested, that’s the surprise.”
It could end as a trilogy. But if there’s enough talk between fans and cast, and rapport between talent, then maybe in another five years new ideas of Jesse and Celeste will gestate and in another nine we could see them in their fifties.
Scott McGehee & David Siegel Talk ‘What Maisie Knew’
It’s taken a number of years to recognize Scott McGehee and David Siegel as top-rank filmmakers. What Maisie Knew is their new emotional heart-wrencher, but it also reveals them as courageous filmmakers by keeping the entire film in the point-of-view of 6-year old Maisie (Onata Aprile). Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan are uncompromising as the rich, dueling parents who file for divorce in the early scenes. Both of them – so fascinatingly bitchy! – want to win Maisie not because of love for kindred but because of selfish ownership rights. You get wrapped up by the film because you’re on the little girl’s side. The little actress Onata Aprile, is amazingly expressive. Is “Maisie” an escape thriller? I’d like to use that hyperbole description. Yes, I think it is, because you’re dying to see Maisie escape from her obnoxious parents and abandon the perdition situation. Attractive actors Alexander Skarsgaard and Joanna Vanderham are fortunately there as Maisie’s sympathetic nannies.
McGehee (above pic, on right) and Siegel (on left) of “The Deep End” and “Bee Season,” came to Los Angeles to talk to a select room of journalists about “What Maisie Knew,” their fifth theatrical film together. Aprile was also present but shyly listened for the most part. The interview strictly concentrates on the filmmakers’ thoughts on their film.
Scott: We worked with casting director Avy Kaufman in New York. Avy saw hundreds and hundreds of girls. Narrowing it down for us, Avy showed us maybe one hundred.
David: We searched like mad cattle.
Scott: David and I on our own were visiting elementary schools where our friends were teachers. We were really concerned about finding the right girl.
David: Which wasn’t so nice. Two middle-aged guys prowling around playgrounds!
Scott: We hadn’t found the right girl until three weeks before we were to start shooting. Onata was there all along. She’s a student at PS3 in New York. She didn’t bother to come in to audition for quite some time. Once we saw her, we let out a sigh of relief.
Why did you choose to shoot this film through Maisie’s point of view? David: What drew Scott and I in was the challenge and excitement to tell a story through a child’s perspective. You don’t get those opportunities too often. There are a couple notable examples, maybe the most famous is “The 400 Blows,” the Truffaut film. As much as we did in terms of where the camera was, we played with the formal aspects of filmmaking: what she catches and senses out-of-frame, what she hears, what she doesn’t hear. It really works because of Onata’s ability to communicate in close-up a thought, or a feeling without speaking dialogue.
David: We’ve been using Kelly McGehee, Scott’s sister, for all our films. Our cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens, three films now. Our costumer, Stacey Battat, has been with us two films. The idea was to maintain the spirit of this unusual child. The quality of light. The costuming. The world Kelly would be creating with props as well as room design. That was our touchstone: Maisie, Maisie, Maisie. To capture the experience of the child.
Scott: We were very concerned we didn’t want it to be a heavy, weighted-down maudlin story about a family in crisis. The sadness of divorce. Keeping the innocence of Maisie’s point of view was a way for us to keep the atmosphere from becoming crushing. In terms of light and color, the locations – all that chosen carefully. The music score by Nick Urata is one we’re really happy with. It’s a musical home, and the score has an understanding that Maisie will grow up with a rock vocabulary, but in a more childlike way.
How did you find the Henry James source material, and why did you figure you could adapt it to modern times?
Scott: We didn’t actually read the book until after we read the screenplay. The screenplay was adapted by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, and they worked on it 18 years ago. We didn’t read it until two or three years ago. We hadn’t been familiar with the book. Our entry into Henry James, ‘Oh, this is the source material for the screenplay which we already read and liked.’ To go back and encounter the original novel written over a hundred years ago with many of the same character relationships and stakes for the girls, it was a surprise to us, how much of it was translated over really successfully.
And what attracted you to the script?
David: Going back to what we said: The idea of telling a story through a child’s perspective. Second, it was an emotionally relevant story. And that’s always something we crucially look for. Then we found the book and saw the relevancy was there. We read anecdotally that James’ inspiration for writing the book came from hearing of a case where custody was going to be shared by the parents in a divorce situation. And James had never heard of such a thing! This was in 1890 or something. He thought it was absurd! Ridiculous! Deleterious to the child’s well-being! The book is more darkly satiric in a way than the movie is. In 2013, it’s the most common thing in the world to share custody. But the relevancy of the push-and-pull on the child is still pretty heightened.
Did you ever consider writing another end scene to give us a more clear reassurance of hope?
Scott: The conversation we had was ‘Our ending is very deliberate.’ We just saw this little girl Maisie make a very strong choice –
David: For the first time.
Scott: Now we’re leaving her while she’s on her way. That felt right. We didn’t want to see her arrive somewhere, we didn’t to make it nicer than it deserved to be, or darker than it deserved to be. Just seeing her move forward and we hope the best for her.
Can you talk about the presence and non-presence of the parents in Maisie’s life?
David: We’re looking at these vignettes, these scenes… and people come and go in Maisie’s life. We like that idea that people come and go in her life, we don’t see where they are actually going or where they’ve come from, or tell us when they are going to be back, or when they’re going to leave again.
The adult casting is compelling here. Steve Coogan gets to let it rip in a dramatic role. How did you get those people in your movie?
Scott: Thank you very much for noticing how good Steve is! We adore him, and we’re gigantic fans of his. When we read the script we thought Steve Coogan is perfect for this. It was quite a bit of a conversation with the producers to bring them around to that idea, but they came around and really liked it, too. He’s such a strong actor, but also great at being a jerk. And yet, he’s great at being a little bit likeable no matter how bad he is and how awful things he says. Somehow, there’s something kind of sympathetic about him –
David: Or tangibly human.
Scott: Yes, human is a better word. And we really thought again, to keep the movie from going into a hole of sadness, there’s something funny about Coogan that would be a helpful note to add to the stew.
And yet you had producers that were reluctant to the idea?
Scott: Well, Coogan wasn’t top of their list. Their job was to finance the picture. And there were other English actors who helped them do their job easier than Steve Coogan.
David: Julianne had read the script shortly before we did, and had expressed interest. Our first job was to make sure we were all on-board with doing this together. And we were really excited about her. But she was hesitant about the singing stuff at first, un-confident. We gave her confidence by letting the music crew coach her.
How difficult is it to actually get your films made? Is it an act of swimming upstream at all? We wait –
David: Can you tread water upstream? [Laughs]
Scott: It’s a very strong current in our business.
What’s the key to getting personal, character-driven, auteurish films made out there?
Scott: It’s hard. I don’t want to complain about it. This is a movie with three notable actors in it and a very small budget, and it wasn’t easy to finance.
David: But casting is always the key to it. We came to this project with Julianne Moore already interested. She read the script. An actress who we like has already read the script and is interested.
Scott: We haven’t made many more movies than we’ve made because there are many projects we spent many years on that got close but wound up not happening.
What was the most rewarding aspect of making this particular film?
David: I hope this doesn’t sound too easy. But I think it was working with Onata. With every film there’s something that comes to the floor as the really memorable, lovely experience. We’ve made a film before with Tilda Swinton called “The Deep End” and had a lovely experience with her and got to shoot in Lake Tahoe, a rewarding physical location. But with “Maisie,” what a wonderful creative experience coming to set daily and working with Onata.
You take a risk at the end of the film. But there’s going to be some over-literal people in the audience wondering how they all ended up at this rich beachfront home that doesn’t seem to exactly belong to them. It doesn’t bother me. But what is your answer for people out there that want to know how those characters got there?
David: There’s a voice-over dialogue, I can’t remember the exact line, Joanna says something about her cousin’s house being for sale. When they are walking back from their first fun day at the beach, Maisie asks her what if they sell it where would we go? And she says, ‘Well, they’re having trouble selling it.” That was the exposition we put in, but it’s pretty light. It is easy to miss.
They’re all rich people. Alexander Saarsgaard and Joanna Vanderham, they’re a bartender and a nanny, but they could be from rich families, too. People have stories.
David: Right, people have stories.
Michael Haneke Talks ‘Amour’
Amour (Austria) is the merciless and over-powering new film by Michael Haneke, an unmistakably intellectual filmmaker who has incidentally made his most emotional film. His meticulous mise-en-scéne and long takes are still in practice, but the esteemed director is definitely aided by two extraordinary actors in their twilight, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The husband fatigued but not helpless looks on as his wife follows a stroke with further immediate debilitations. This is a somber and stark look at the impending death of a loved one. Only Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” (1973, Sweden) looked at sickness with such unbroken gaze.
Haneke was at The Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles to discuss the film at a press conference. “Amour” won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (Haneke also won this top prize in 2009 for “The White Ribbon”), and will likely continue to win Best Foreign Film awards around the industry circuit. This is his 12th major feature film, and according to not just me, his best one.
Haneke: Like so many of us… I was confronted with a situation in my family where someone I loved very deeply was ill and I had to look on helplessly at their suffering. It was a very moving experience, it was one of the worst experiences you can go through. That was the catalyst then to make the film. But to avoid any possible misunderstandings I would like to point out that my personal story has nothing to do with what is actually presented on the screen.
Didn’t you have a fear of shooting an entire film in one enclosed location?
Haneke: Not when I was on-set. But when I began to write the project, I recognized the challenges. It is much harder to write a script that involves two people in a single location than twenty people in thirty different locations. But I enjoyed meeting that challenge. In fact, it’s more enjoyable to shoot in a studio on a single location with two actors. If they are good!
What kind of rehearsal process did you conduct with the actors?
Haneke: They spent next no time together prior to shooting. The three of us met in Paris three or four times to have lunch to talk about the project. Jean-Louis came over to my apartment one afternoon to discuss the script. In fact, we talked about everything but the script. They are both experienced and highly professional actors, I assume they know how to read a script and prepare a part. I don’t rehearse ever with professional actors. When I am working with children or non-pro actors I do. But when you’re working with actors this good I simply ask them to show up to set.
What happens on shooting day without rehearsal?
Haneke: We go through blocking and movements, and start shooting. If I’m not satisfied with the results, we try something else and keep shooting until we got what I need. What’s important as a director is to make your actors feel protected, feel confident, and the feeling that if they make mistakes, you as a director can help them. If you’re able to convey that, then the actors will give you wonderful performances. Your highest responsibility is giving them a good script. You still have to write scenes that give actors the opportunity to show what they are capable of.
Was there any ad-libbing?
Haneke: No ad-libbing at all. We are publishing in Germany and France the original script so people can compare what’s on screen is exactly what I had written.
The scene where the husband slaps his wife, you follow it with cuts to a series of paintings. One of them comes to life. Do those shots have to mean anything specific, or is it open to interpretation?
Haneke: All the things you mention, the paintings but also the pigeons, are open to interpretation. In fact, that’s why they’re in the film. Meant to confront the audience, to invite the audience to think about these questions. For that reason it would be counter-productive if I were to impose a rigid single meaning on those elements.
Haneke: There were any number of scenes that were difficult because of the emotional content. But that wasn’t the only difficulty. In fact, many scenes required inordinate concentration. There were as much technical difficulties as physical difficulties. There were a number of scenes where Jean-Louis was quite unsteady on his feet. For instance, it was hard for him to do the scene with the pigeons. It was difficult for him because he has to react to the pigeon and it took two days. We laid down seeds on the ground in hope the pigeons would come in a certain direction, but you can’t direct pigeons!
Any particular hardships for Emmanuelle?
Haneke: The hardest scene for Emmanuelle was that with the electrical wheelchair. She was scared to operate it. Afraid she couldn’t control it. That was the only scene we rehearsed.
Is there a reason an Austrian as yourself chose to shoot this film in France?
Haneke: There were several reasons for shooting the film in French. France’s numbers, the quantity of actors and work with them, is no different when I work with Austrian actors. But here are the reasons: Some of the actors in France are famous around the world which isn’t the case in Germany or Austria. And there is more money available in France for more challenging films.
Other films have dealt with the theme of love, but not like this one. Do you compare your project with other “love” films before you get started?
Haneke: When I’m working on a film it never concerns me if the theme has been done before or not. I’m led to make films with themes or ideas that interest me. I experience something in my own life that confronts me with something I want to deal with. It’s the theme that interests me and motivates my desire to explore it.
What films interest you the most as a moviegoer?
Haneke: I’m interested in seeing films that confront me with new things. Films that make me question myself. Films that help me reflect on subjects that I haven’t thought about before. Films that help me progress and advance. Those are the kinds that interest me. For me, watching a movie that simply confirms my feelings is a waste of time. That not only applies to movies, but to books and every form of art…
Any films specifically touch you in recent years?
Haneke: That’s a very dangerous question because if I cite one film, then ten other filmmakers will be angry!
What gives you the most satisfaction as an artist?
Haneke: In terms of cinema, it’s certainly the gifts the actors bestow unto you, that enhance and transform your film. Unexpected gifts.
Denzel Washington and Robert Zemeckis Talk ‘Flight’
Flight is likely to land several Oscar nominations and is certainly a lock for Denzel Washington for Best Actor as alcoholic commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker. The director is Robert Zemeckis who hasn’t made an “adult” movie since 2000’s “Cast Away,” and is a strong Oscar candidate as well. When these key figures came to Los Angeles for a press conference to discuss the film, the room of journalists asked a lot of lofty questions as well as some elemental ones, too.
“I think it’s just the material,” Washington answered on how he chooses a movie, but said it was also a promise to a longtime colleague. “When I read the script, I just said WOW this is good! The last two scripts my agent, the late Ed Limato, gave me were ‘Flight’ and ‘Safe House.’ Just a promise I made to him.” How about audience expectations? “Hey, I don’t like waving the flag to try to figure it out. It’s like when people ask, ‘Well, what do you want people to get from this movie?’ I say, ‘Well, it depends upon what they bring to it.’ So I don’t try to decide what people should get from it or why. I don’t do a part for those kinds of reasons.” Audience reaction should be left to each individual, I think he is getting at.
For Zemeckis, he’s been working with stop-motion animation for several films in a row (“The Polar Express,” “Beowulf,” “A Christmas Carol”). Asked straight about why a live action now, the straight answer is dodged. “You know, my feeling is that I’ve always said that movies are kind of like love affairs,” Zemeckis said. “You know, like two people come together, and if they’re at the right place at the right time, it clicks. That’s how I’ve always felt that I’ve connected with screenplays. It’s the romantic in me.” Dodged, but ultimately we get the gist.
The director continued, “I loved the moral ambiguity of every character in every scene and every aspect of the script. And when I got to the stairwell scene on about page forty, I said, ‘Man, that is bold.’ I said, ‘Can we actually do that?’ So that’s when he had me. John had me.” Honestly, to me, the stairwell scene was protracted, plodding and self-serving. Washington meets Kelly Reilly, but a third hospital patient jabbers on relentlessly. I will have to watch “Flight” again to attempt to see why the scene was necessary.
Perhaps such divergent scenes and dialogue was attractive to the outside talent. “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage, and I guess,” Washington said. “You know, it’s very rare … I read a lot of scripts. First of all, you felt like you read it in fourteen minutes because you’re turning the page so fast you can’t wait to see what is going to happen. And this was one of those scripts, and I had to have it. I had to be a part of it. You know, and it was a process for us once I got involved, and working with different people. But it was on the page. The guts, the pain, the tears.”
In the film Whitaker saves a load of passengers after the plane’s engines blow out, resulting in a nosedive. He is drunk and stoned while operating this plane. “One of the things that Denzel and John and myself talked about was what I loved about the script was so much of the ambiguity,” Zemeckis said. “That speech Don Cheadle makes about how ten pilots couldn’t have landed the plane. Of course, the part he leaves out is that the test pilots were all sober. And that is just one of those things that we did talk about. But I mean obviously we’re not endorsing that we think pilots should fly in that state. I don’t think any of us would want to fly in a plane like that.”
At that point, the press junket mutated into a series of embarrassing questions. One journalist remarked that Denzel seemed to have brought elements from his “Malcolm X” performance twenty years ago into his role of Whip Whitaker. Washington cracked, “Wasn’t I like 13-years old when I made that movie?”
Washington then was asked about what he dreams about in mornings right before he wakes up every day. I was surprised that he entertained the question. “I have a flying dream. I’ve had it for most of my life, and somehow I always end up near the city and I go underneath bridges like there are like these low bridges that they will either be over a train or like the [PH] Conrail trains or water, a small body of water. I work my way down, and I’d stay under them. Then I would have the other part of the dream it would be this takeoff forever, and I would like, ‘Oh, I’ve got stay below the street wires.’ And then I’m starting to go back up, but then, you know, I’ve got to get back below the wires. I don’t know what it means.”
Zemeckis is asked about not flying, but on the plane crash. “Cast Away” at the point when it came out twelve years ago featured cinema’s most fearsome, white knuckle plane crash. It’s not like he made “Flight” so he could make another terrible, but awesome crash. Right?
“It’s interesting,” Zemeckis explained, “Because there was a lot of discussion in my brain trust of partners and representatives about the wisdom of doing another movie with a plane crash in it. And at the end of the day, we all decided that no we can’t not make something because of that. It’s so rare to find a good screenplay like this to come along. It happens to have a plane crash in it… it’s the wrong way to worry.”
Maneuvering pre-crash, the bizarre sequence finds Whitaker inverting the plane briefly before touching ground. A skeptical journalist challenged Zemeckis on whether a plane could really stay in the air while inverted. “Oh, yeah, but then what they said to us, ‘But the engines wouldn’t last more than a minute or two.’” Added: “It’s public record that on the very first maiden flight of a 707, the test pilot, without telling anybody, inverted the plane.”
At the other end of the movie, Whitaker spends time in a hotel the night before he is supposed to testify to vindicate his actions. The alcoholic, drug addicted Whitaker finds a vodka bottle and places it untouched atop a fridge. We wonder if he will crack it open.
“I always wanted the scene to be suspenseful,” Zemeckis said. “I wanted it to have that like sort of an ethereal feeling. So I constructed the refrigerator so that the actual walls of the refrigerator glowed and shot all of Denzel’s performance at sixty-four frames so that I could dial different speeds of his movement to make it look almost surreal, if you will. But I was channeling one of my favorite directors, which is Mr. Hitchcock, and I was pulling a lot of shots out of his playbook for that scene.”
Was the filming especially challenging and difficult for Washington. The actor replies, “You know, tough spots for me are pictures I don’t want to be on. When the people say, ‘What’s the hardest part of a movie?’ You know, if you’re on a movie and it’s like the third day and you go, ‘How many days have we been shooting?’ ‘Like three.’ ‘How many more have we got to go?’ ‘117!’
Washington continues, “That’s a tough movie for me, a bad movie that shoots forever. But ‘Flight’ was an adventure. First of all, starting with the screenplay and the collaboration with the filmmaker, and getting the chance to fly around in flight simulators, these MD-80 flight simulators, hanging upside down in the plane, playing a drunk. You know, it was all fun – although I wouldn’t say it was easy.” I get the impression that Denzel likes the flattery and the accompanying Oscar talk. In this case, he deserves the nomination. Read review here.
Interview: Woody Allen and His Ladies Talk ‘To Rome With Love’
It is an L.A. intellectual white-boy’s dream, in grasp but so elusive. To meet Woody Allen in Los Angeles. He was barely one to ever give interviews out of Los Angeles, let alone his New York stomping ground. He would never volunteer to do them, I don’t think. But he was in Los Angeles last week to promote his latest comedy To Rome with Love. Along at the press conference were five beauties: Alessandra Mastronardi, Alison Pill, Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig. But the press was out to extract nuggets of wisdom from Woody. Ninety percent of the questions were directed at him. A fair amount of the rest of time was spent asking the ladies if they enjoyed working with him.
“We made the film and we’re in California promoting it. And everybody says what a thrill it was, and how great it was to work with this person… And you think we made ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)!” Woody defiantly pokes fun. “It always sounds this way at a promotional junket. It’s always to me less than a masterpiece I had certain I was destined to make.”
His cast of actresses consider it a big deal. Mastronardi, for instance, has already seen “To Rome with Love” three times. “Every time I see it I discover something new that’s beautiful and funny. Two of my big dreams came together. Woody Allen and Rome!” she swells. “And to speak my Italian language, too.” (The film is in both English and Italian with English subtitles.) Page adds, “His scripts, the way they are written, have such a natural fluidity to what you’re saying and what you’re doing.”
Some of the script ideas had been percolating for years. Allen has a collection of notepads and crumbled paper kept inside his treasured drawer at home. “Ideas come to me in the course of a year, and I write them down,” he says, adding, “many of them seem very unfunny and foolish to me. I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I originally did it.”
One inspired idea was sitting in the drawer for years. “I pulled out an idea like ‘a man who can only sing in the shower,’ and it occurred to me at the time that this could make a funny story.” Opera singer Parenti, who plays a mortician with a hidden voicebox gift that only comes to fruition when he’s lathering up under the shower head. His character becomes a big hit with the opera house fans.
Woody seems so cavalier about the whole process that it was a tiny shock that he interjects something he wants to share. As it turns out, he does have particular feelings about something he wants to make clear. “My original title was ‘Bop Decameron’ and nobody knew what the Decameron was, even the Italians didn’t know it. So I then changed it to ‘Nero Fiddles,’ and half the countries in the world said, ‘We don’t know what that means.’ I settled on the generic title ‘To Rome with Love.’ So everybody would get it,” he chuckles. “And the stories in this picture have a broader sense of humor, which is required. You can’t tell the story properly without it. I like broad comedy.”
“To Rome with Love” has the running theme on the Faustian bonds of fame. “The perks are better,” he says. “You get better seats at the basketball game, and you get better tables and reservations places, and if I call a doctor on Saturday morning I can get him. There’s a lot of things that you don’t get if you’re not famous. ‘Now, I’m not saying it’s fair – it’s kind of disgusting… but I can’t say I don’t enjoy it.”
“There are drawbacks in being famous,” he confesses. “They’re not life-threatening. You know, if the paparazzi are outside your restaurant or your house and actors make such a big thing and scurry into the car and drape things over their head… You can get used to that. It’s not so terrible,” he says. “The bad stuff is greatly outweighed by the dinner reservations.”
It becomes clearer in his unfiltered speaking that Woody is cavalier on the set. He encouraged his cast of actors and actresses to use the script as a guideline, but to loosen up and improvise and just deliver what feels natural.
“It was absolutely terrifying to be like, ‘Yeah I can just say something else that’s not on the page,’” says Pill. “It’s a wonderful challenge, and a totally exciting and terrifying thing to do, but I am not a gifted wordsmith most of the time.”
Cruz, her second Woody film following “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” admires Woody’s trust. She fawns him this way: “He’s very liberating at the same time it feels like a big responsibility because you don’t want to ruin anything, especially when you’re working in a different language. He gives us a lot of trust.”
Turns out Gerwig is a total Woody nerd when she reveals, “I spent most of my life imitating characters from his movies, and from the age of 11, I was trying to talk like them, so my entire identity is confused with other character’s identities. So when he says be yourself, I’m like ‘It’s so fused with these characters that you’ve written!’ So for me, it was hard to change the words because I loved them so much.”
Mastronardi uses the word “joyful” to describe her working experience. “I didn’t expect anything at the beginning. The first day I sat on the set all day and didn’t say anything. On the first day we didn’t see each other. We didn’t talk to each other…”
Woody gets very cheeky. “I kind of avoid the cast. They come up with these questions. And I don’t know the answer or don’t want to give you the answer. So I avoid speaking to the actors as much as possible.”
His appreciation for his cast is genuine, of course. “I have great faith in the actors,” Woody explains, looking left and right to his sirens. “When they improvise, it always sounds better than the stuff I write in my bedroom because I don’t know what’s going on. I’m alone and isolated in New York. And then when we get on the set, it feels different to the actors, and when they improvise, they make it sound alive.”
What compels Woody to output one film a year and, uh, not retire? “Retirement is a very subjective thing. There are guys that I know who retire, and they’re very happy. They travel all over the world, they go fishing, they play with their grandchildren, and they never miss work. And then there are other people, and I’m one that likes to work all the time. I don’t see myself retiring and fondling dogs and playing with children. I like to get up and work and go out. I have too much energy or nervous anxiety.”
How about happiness with his work? He says that he’s never done anything on par with a masterpiece like “The Bicycle Thief” (1948), or “Grand Illusion” (1938) or “Citizen Kane” (1941).
An artist this accomplished shouldn’t be so critically harsh on his own work, should he? Woody’s admission: “I made my first film [“Take the Money and Run”] in 1968, and I’ve never seen it since. I just cringe when I see them. There is a big gap between what you conceive in your mind when you’re writing. And it’s funny, it’s beautiful, and romantic, and dramatic,” he sets-up.
“And then you show up on a cold morning with the actors. And you make a wrong choice on something, and you screw up here, and you see what you get the next day. And you can’t go back. The difference between idealized film in your mind and what you end up with, that you’re never happy. I’m never satisfied. I’m always thankful the audience bails me out and they like some of them.”
If Woody were to make films for another twenty years it pretty much means that he will never be happy with what he gets. But as a critic, and as a fan, I will always love at least two dozen of them. Click here for best career films of Woody Allen.
Kevin Sheppard Talks ‘Iran Job’
Lots of entertaining, funny material in this one. Trust me. The Iran Job is a new indie documentary (opening Friday, September 28th in select cities) about how one-time NBA hopeful Kevin Sheppard took an overseas job to play hoops in the Iranian Super League for the team A.S. Shiraz. Quick: Did you even know Iran had a professional basketball league? Sheppard once had work-outs with the Atlanta Hawks, but found himself playing in various countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Spain, China and Israel. Many of his friends and family balked at the potential dangers Sheppard would encounter in Iran, but when he went he found himself instantly welcomed and idolized by the people. Not the mention the crush of three Iranian ladies who befriended him in secret.
Sheppard met with me one-on-one in Los Angeles to talk with me about his experiences there and with the film, which he said he was first reluctant to do.
Kevin: I was probably six. I started playing well, right away.
Where would you play?
Kevin: We would play at the park. I remember sitting down watching the bad boys of Detroit Pistons – my team – Joe Dumars, Isaiah Thomas, the Microwave Vinnie Johnson – I used to love the Microwave, he comes off the bench give you 15-20 points in three minutes. Bill Lambeer was a crazy man who would take your head off. Then there was Dennis Rodman, the real Dennis Rodman. 1987-1988 they were on top before they were dethroned by King Mike.
What did you think of the Lakers?
Kevin: Back then my whole family was Lakers. But I like to be the underdog, really. It was always the Pistons and Lakers battle. I always loved Magic and Worthy and those guys. But like I said, I wanted to be on the outside. I chose Detroit so I could be a thorn in my family’s eyes. Because everybody was pro-Lakers. Even in the Virgin Islands now, everybody is either Lakers or Spurs. Obviously Spurs with Tim Duncan from the Virgin Islands. Roger Bell also from the Virgin Islands.
When did you first know you were good at the game?
Kevin: I would have to say when I understood how talented I was, it probably was when I got to college at Jacksonville University. I played for legendary coach Hugh Durham. He’s now retired but he coached in Georgia and Florida State, went to the Final Four with both schools. Once I got there I realized he coached Dominique Wilkins and other players that went to the NBA. And he told me I was one of the players he ever coached. It really struck me, ‘Maybe I am really good!’ I started to take it a lot more seriously. When you are young, you’re kind of bashful. Not really understanding what’s really in front of you. All you want to do is just play. But once you sit down, humble yourself, and listen. And take in that this guy has coached so many legendary players. And he says you’re one of his favorite players – I even talked to him two nights ago – and we just chit-chatted and talked about how I was in college. How I’ve grown as a player and as a person. I’ve been truly blessed.
But you never made the NBA?
Kevin: I never made the NBA. I had a couple workouts. I worked out with the Atlanta Hawks in 2007. But the opportunity for a spot was never there. Especially being a six-foot point guard. Which is like a dying art. You need the right opportunity and the timing. And it’s not so much about talent, but sometimes timing is very key. At that time, they had Salim Stoudamire, Tyronn Lue, Anthony Johnson… It was going to be pretty tough to break in to get an opportunity to go to camp with those guys.
Were you good enough in your own perspective to play for the NBA?
Kevin: Yes, I would have been good enough. Because I played those guys overseas all the time. Israel and Spain. I played with the Virgin Islands National team. Bumped heads with those guys all the time. Asked me why I was not in the NBA. I never had the opportunity or the timing.
Kevin: The level is low. How the league is set up though, it’s a two-edged sword. The league grooms their national team. All their national pride is from their national team. The top teams can fool you. Their top teams are really good, they have all their National league best players. They made the Olympics. They can’t be that bad if they made the World Championship from the Olympics.
The league is lop-sided? Kevin: Lop-sided, yes. Four teams are loaded with talent. Which makes it harder on me because my team is not loaded with talent. All the pressure is on me. The rest of the league is just meh. Not even division one. You really get your money when you play those mega teams. Those mega teams are good, they could compete with anybody in Europe. One small part of your movie I thought was bogus. That if you don’t take the Shiraz to the playoffs, you’d get fired. But I got the feeling that you didn’t care you got fired. You wanted to go to the playoffs for reason of pride?
Kevin: The way we grew up playing in America is different from them. They are satisfied by doing well. We played the big teams and lost by two points. There was rejoice and happiness. Coming from America, a loss is a loss. In fact, if we lost by one or two points it hurts the most because you had the opportunity to win. But these guys are so complacent, so happy just to do good. For us, in the U.S., doing good is winning! I didn’t go to Iran just to do good, I came here to win. You’re seen as a winner, you get more opportunities to play in not just Iran but to play in other countries.
There was no part of you that said, ‘I don’t mind if I lose, because then I’ll get to go back home early?’
Kevin: As far as going home, I knew I wasn’t really going to go home. I know I was one of the better players. Not only in Iran, but also in Europe I had many offers. One of the biggest reasons I chose to play in Iran – the money was really the same but you play less months. If you play six months and make six digits and you go to Europe to play ten months and make six digits… the battle in Europe, even though the level is higher, the wear and tear on your body is going to be so much more. At the end of the day, money and less months.
I think we’re all dying to know how much was your salary to play in Iran?
Kevin: Everybody asks that, but I’ll have to [Laughs] keep that to myself.
OK, next. I think something magical happened in this movie. The Iranian women were very attracted to you.
Kevin: There was a little attraction there, but I always let them know… I’m [attached] married. [Laughs] I had to play down a lot of stuff. One of the biggest things of the attraction – I don’t think it had to do with looks – attracted because of how I approached them. Because they don’t have that kind of communication with men over there. They’re meat to them, really.
Meat? Kevin: Meat. That’s how the guys view them as. Not like a real person.
You were challenging and stimulating those women on wavelengths they hadn’t had before.
Kevin: Exactly. These guys could not talk to them on that intimate level like I was able to express myself and actually listen to them. I could see they were starving for some type of intimacy than just a sexual conversation.
Some of it comes down to the forbidden aspects. To commingle with a man secretly was exciting to them?
Kevin: Yes, you had to. Because like you said, it was forbidden. They could have got into a lot of trouble if they were caught. Even myself could not understand it I created this scene, not even orchestrated – one of the great things about the film – a lot of it is true. Till Schauder [the director] was invited to come after I had the girls over. And they were so shy. [Imitates shy girl] ‘Are they going to film us?’ [Laughs] They loosened up after awhile –
You loosened them up.
Kevin: I knew what I was doing. Nobody knew I was going to do that, not planned. Oh my God, ‘We’re going to get killed for this.’ For me it was a practical joke. But to them, they taught me it was serious.
Kevin: Yeah, she’s gorgeous. I’m a lucky man. [Laughs]
I don’t know if you caught it or not. Maybe you’re just walking and being yourself, but there’s a moment where it looked as if – in her body language from behind – she would have loved to hold your hand. That gesture would probably be erotic to a woman in that country, would it not?
Kevin: [Big rolling chuckles] Yep. You hit it on the nail. Yeah, yeah.
You can’t say too much about it because you’re married?
Kevin: Yeah, yeah. [Rolling chuckle]
Who contacted you to be in the film? Or did you contact the director first?
Kevin: [Director] Till’s wife is Iranian, she contacted the team. The plan was to get this American player to do this documentary. They tried to do it from the year before and couldn’t find a participant. When they contacted my team, the coach told me about it. I didn’t want to be taped, like reality TV bulls***.
My Skype friends started joking with me, is what happened. ‘Riding a camel to practice?’ they joked. I keep defending myself. Then… What better way to show them how I’m really living and how these people are – because they make these assumptions – this was my chance to prove their jokes were far off. That’s the reason I did it. Not political. Not even basketball.
The common people of Iran are very nice and friendly in the film. What level of shock was that for you?
Kevin: Honestly, I was not that shocked. In 2005, I went to play in Israel. They have the similar stigma with Israel in Tel Aviv, with people blowing up busses and such. My family was scared for me to go. But Tel Aviv was gorgeous, like New York City. It changed my life how I viewed things. What people say about someone else. When it came to Iran, some of it has to be true. But I have to go see for myself. Once I got there, the people were so… opposite from the government. A lot of what is said about the government is true, they’re crazy. They will come one day, ‘You can’t watch TV,’ or ‘Internet off for a whole month.’ They do crazy stuff like that.
Schizoid divide between government and people?
Kevin: People themselves are familiar to me. They want out of that system they’re in. Millions of people participating in the Green Movement following the election and what took place. I hope the people of the United States see this to understand that the people aren’t locked in with what’s really happening to the country as a whole. As what we might take the country of Iran as evil. The people… they want change.
Do you still write to the friends you made in Iran?
Kevin: Every once in awhile I email Hilda. I ask them how they’re doing. Hilda is my number one friend, the nurse. Took care of me, very talented young lady. ‘How you doing?’ and ‘Got a boyfriend?’ Ha ha.
Kevin: Right now I have problems in my own country with many kids dropping out of high school. Bad in the Virgin Islands, especially with the economy. Crime has risen. What I do with my non-profit organization is provide a platform for kids to come off the streets and come to play. Once I get their attention, I push them in directions so they stay out of trouble.
That’s your core career currently?
Kevin: Core career, yes. And I’m the head coach for my old high school.
Read film review: click here.
Interview: Maïwenn’s Impressive ‘Polisse’ Work
Maïwenn (actress of “The Fifth Element” and “High Tension”) is the director, co-writer and co-star of the new French import Polisse, opening on May 18th in Los Angeles and New York, then to other market roll-outs in the following weeks. With her film, you get something like two dozen dramatized case studies. The pile up of incidents happen randomly and concurrently for the Child Protection Unit, and the workload crosses over each other. All the cops are working on multiple cases at once. This must be close to real life. You get a wide encompassing portrayal of the messiness of life and occupation, and how it can all merge simultaneously and haphazardly.
“Polisse” (French with English subtitles) is easily the best film so far of 2012. I believe it is among the five or six best French films of the last twenty years. If I were to compose a list of other French films of hall of fame value I would include “Red” (1994); “Monsieur Hire” (1990); “Enter the Void” (2009), “The Widow of St. Pierre” (2000); “Amelie” (2001).
To promote her Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner, Maïwenn has arrived at the Four Seasons in humble spirits. Her English is not sharp, but it is good enough, but with the aid of an interpreter we were able to get more comprehensive questions to be understood by her. This is her third film, but the first to get a U.S. theatrical release. She likes the mobile verité camera style. She likes to send her kids off to school and then work 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through the day on writing and research, production and development, and get back to her family in the evenings. For the film shoot, she worked as much as necessary for her 60-day film shoot. Her police drama isn’t a gallery of bank robberies or homicides, however. It’s about endangered children in homeless environments, abuses in high-rise tenements, or quiet defilement in bourgeoisie homes by perverted and arrogant fathers. This different look at this subject is what makes “Polisse” so original.
One on one with Maïwenn from Los Angeles:
Maïwenn: Hmm. Thank you.
I think this is the best French film since 1990’s “Monsieur Hire.” [Maïwenn Smiles] I think it’s better than work by the Dardenne Brothers, Gasper Nöe, or anything else by Patrice Leconte. That’s how special I think your film is. And when it comes to police procedurals, I don’t think I’ve seen anything as good since Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995). This felt so well-researched. What kind of process did you go through to get your material?
Maïwenn: Before I did an internship I spent a lot of time to watch movies or documentaries. I talked so much and asked all the questions I wanted to.
In previous press reports, you had interviews and conversations with policemen?
Where did you have these conversations with cops?
Maïwenn: Lunch breaks, or before their morning shifts, or at the end of the day I would take them to dinner. Or sometimes I would do a ride-along in their police vehicles.
How many months did you do this for?
Maïwenn: I cannot really answer because the police asked me to not say so. But I did it enough technically to have an idea of their routine.
When it came up with case studies, were their particular cases that occurred in France that made you want to write this film? Any specific incidents?
Maïwenn: No. When I discovered a French documentary, I decided to meet the filmmakers. It’s not because of one case, no, it was from an overview. When I worked with them, they wanted me to tell my own film by funneling it in specific cases. I did that, but moreover, I just wanted to film the emotions of policemen at work – guarded, conflicted, self-tormented. Also, get to how they react in their private life. I didn’t care about one big [case].
How did you find the child actors?
Maïwenn: I did a big casting call for actor kids and non-actor kids. I met their parents to make sure the child actors would feel comfortable with me. That a level of trust could be shared, and that they could listen.
What kind of qualifications were you looking for in the children?
Maïwenn: I wanted to feel that even if they weren’t spontaneous in front of the camera… the only thing I was looking for is to see they would cooperate with me. Feel that I could massage their sensibility for the camera. Most of the young actors in the movie, they were so shy on first day of casting. Then other kids were so gregarious, “Hey Maiwenn, I’m an actor! I’m trained to act big with my emotions!” I’d be like no, no, they look like the kind that will overact.
So that showbiz kid actor quality is something you figured wouldn’t be good?
Maïwenn: Yes, showbizzy and show-offy. Not what I wanted.
The adult actors?
Maïwenn: I was looking for actors that were natural. I had to feel that they came from the street. Not so intellectual-actor type. Not the show-offy type to come on camera and sell their lines like a big salesperson personality or a prima donna. The actors had one week each with a policeman, so that they could be ready for the shoot. They were already feeling like cops by the first time of shooting.
Was it always the intent to give yourself a part?
Maïwenn: I wanted this photographer character in the film. It is the way for the viewer to identify with the scenery, through my character. I also wanted there to be a love story. I wanted to create a contrast of the abusing child material with a fiction love story instead of strictly a chronicle movie. I wanted to prove and show cops how they fall in love. Because all day long they deal with rape and incest. So how does a policeman deal and act with his body when he falls in love? It’s a human quality to observe that is different from viewing them strictly in their occupation.
Did you ever think about casting another actress in the part?
Maïwenn: I wanted to do it. I figured at the beginning of the shooting, though, that I made a mistake. The energy I needed as a director was opposite of the energy I needed as an actress. Because my character is not the leader of the group. She’s like a little cat in the room. She’s not the one that gives an energy to the group. As a director I need to be the one to achieve and push everybody with control, you know?
Maïwenn: Yes, exactly. I figured that it was a mistake to choose an “opposite” character while you are directing a movie at the same time. So I won’t do that again, not like that.
Is there something you want the audience to take away with them after the credits roll?
Maïwenn: I want my audience to come away with their own mind and interpret things their own way.
What films did you grow up watching that inspired you?
Maïwenn: I love Ken Loach (“Sweet Sixteen”). I discovered him at an early age. I love James Gray (“Little Odessa”). And I love Michael Mann’s “Heat,” that’s one of my favorite films. I watched it so many times while I was writing the script.
Ha ha. I think the difference between your film and “Heat” is that Michael Mann, I think, took 8 years writing it and tweaking it –
Maïwenn: Eight years?!
Yes, writing and toying with it for eight years and yours only took 9 months. I would have assumed that your film took five years to write and make?
Maïwenn: He wasn’t lazy, was he?
The difference is that Mann obsessively rewrites his work to attract producers and investors, and is always working several movie projects at once.
Maïwenn: Ahh. I was doing “Polisse” only.
You’re a one-project-at-a-time person?
Maïwenn: It’s like you ask me if I have many husbands. I’m that type can only love one man at a time.
You chose a verité style for this by having the camera stand-in as a human being, eyewitnessing the action? Is that a style you’re going to continue with each new film?
Maïwenn: Yes, it’s my style I’m good with. It is my way to make movies…. so I’m not going to change the way I am.
The interview ends. We both stand up to shake each other’s hands, I also shake hands with her interpreter aid. I reassure her that I am looking very forward to any new film will make in the future. She appears very ecstatic and pleased. Not just an attractive woman but a creative brain.
David Cronenberg Talks
‘A Dangerous Method’
David Cronenberg is at the top of world class directors. You think you know him well enough through his previous work like “The Fly” (1986), “A History of Violence” (2005) or “Eastern Promises” (2007), but as I learned, you don’t. He is even far more intelligent and probing than I had charitably considered. He is as generous a speaking guest as I’ve found.
At the recent press junket for his film he tackled every question thoroughly and respectfully, no matter how far off you were from your inherent assumptions. For his latest film “A Dangerous Method,” based on Christopher Hampton’s historical play, he has chosen some unusual yet scrupulous casting: Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Keira Knightley as the patient turned psychologist Sabina, and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud. Cronenberg has never done a period drama, yet this is a case of history that bears influence and impact on modern times today.
Reporting from Los Angeles:
How would you recount your discovery of the film’s source material and meeting with playwright Christopher Hampton?
Cronenberg: I worked very closely with him, but I didn’t see the play. It was playing in London. It never came to North America. But Christopher and I had known each other before. He’s been a director, he’s been on both sides of the camera and so we got along very well. We had the original script to work with, we had a couple of books, and we had all the letters. Then, we worked on a new screenplay, which is basically a combination of all of those things. I think ultimately my main contribution was to decide what should be in the movie and what shouldn’t. The number of people flowing in and out of Freud’s life at the time, there were hundreds of them, his distillation of all of that, down to basically five characters was fantastic.
What if anything was cut out that was close to being in there?
Cronenberg: In his original screenplay, he had Sabina’s mother and father as characters, because they did bring her to the institute, and they did talk to Freud and Jung. You get a bit of that, “my mother told me you said that.” But, I felt we didn’t have screen time to really develop them and I really didn’t want to have them be vestigial characters who then disappeared. It was just normal writer/director kind of stuff. Christopher was on the set quite a lot. He’s very happy with the movie.
Viggo Mortensen almost seems too handsome to play Freud but somehow he pulls it off with honorably? How did you come to the decision of casting him?
Cronenberg: I thought we really needed a not obvious casting for this Freud because this was not your grandfather’s Freud. Which is to say this isn’t the grandfatherly, sick, sternal Freud they think they know. This was a fifty year old, very dynamic, charismatic, leader of a sort of very intense group of people who were doing some revolutionary things… things that were considered very revolutionary and dangerous at the time, very subversive and volatile. This was also a guy who was described in literature of the time as masculine, handsome, charismatic, charming, witty, funny – all things we don’t think of as Freud.
So Viggo, I know his capabilities of course having worked with him and I felt confident he could do it. He didn’t feel confident that he could do it, but that’s very charming of him. And so I basically talked him into it. But when I discussed with him all the things I just talked to you about – what kind of Freud it was… of course he’s got very good taste and he’s very literate and he knew he could tell the writing of Christopher [Hampton] was terrific so eventually he came round and that’s where we were. He’s got a beard of course. We gave him a nose, a false nose. It’s very subtle. You can hardly notice it but that’s not his nose. We gave him brown eyes to make him just to make him a little more Freud like.
How would you say you’ve approached sexual dysfunction this time in contrast to your other past works that have dealt heavily with sexual voracity or aberrance?
Cronenberg: I have no thoughts about sexuality. Seriously, I don’t think about my other movies when I’m making a movie. It’s as though I’ve never made one. Other than I have the craft of having made them. I don’t really try to connect each project with other projects in the way that a critic does. I sometimes have to remind critics that my process and theirs is not the same. These connections. These analyses. They don’t give me anything creatively to help me make this movie – whatever it is that I’m working on.
Certainly sex is a subject. I’m hardly the first. I wish I could take credit but sex and death, the Greeks were doing it 3,000 years ago. These are enduring, continuing concerns of a dramatist. After all George Bernard Shaw said, “Conflict is the essence of drama,” and so we are looking for conflict. Whether it be psychological, it doesn’t have to be physical violence but you don’t have the drama without the conflict.
But as an artist, doesn’t a new project with such strong sexual themes at least remind you of your past films?
Cronenberg: I had friends who pointed out to me something that I had completely forgotten, that the first film I ever made was seven minute short called “Transfer,” and it was about a psychiatrist and a patient. And the patient is complaining that the only relationship that he has ever had that meant anything was his relationship with his psychiatrist, and so he is kind of stalking him and following him around. So, this is kind of coming full circle in that way.
When it comes to “A Dangerous Method,” do you find there are yet other issues about civilization that are besides from sexuality that are worth discussing?
Cronenberg: There are many, many things going on in this movie besides sexuality although they certainly talk about sex a lot, no question about it. But that was an issue for Freud and Jung – his basing a lot of his theory on sexuality. And that was very revolutionary for the time because it was what we would call a very Victorian era in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in middle Europe before the first World War. It was very stable, very controlled. They really felt everyone knew his place and that they achieved an incredible level of European sophistication and civilization. And they felt man had evolved very nicely from animal to super-sophisticated human. Here was Freud saying, ‘That’s all very well and good but underneath the surface – and not very far underneath the surface – are these forces which we have in us still. We have to acknowledge them. One of them is sex, but it’s not always sex. It’s tribal hostility, tribal violence.’ His words were not welcome. People didn’t want to think about that. They didn’t want to hear those things.
And of course, World War I proved he was completely correct. It is hard for us to realize now how shocking the first World War was to idealists at the time who thought that man had really achieved an incredible plateau of civilization. They couldn’t believe that in the center of Europe would be all this tribal barbarity, massacres, genocide, hideous atrocities. We’re a little more cynical about it now because there have been so many wars since then. But at the time it was a real crushing blow to idealists who really thought that there was a chance evolution meant getting better because Charles Darwin didn’t think of evolution as getting better. It meant being different to adapt to your environment. But he wasn’t thinking of it, didn’t conceive of it as something that we were evolving to something better. That we were becoming angelic as opposed to human or anything like that. So all of those things were very fascinating to me. It wasn’t really just sex, obviously.
Mr. Cronenberg, stylistically you include a mirror in all your sex scenes, so Carl and Sabine observe themselves self-voyeuristically while in the act of sex. Can you discuss why you chose this technique?
Cronenberg: They felt they invented a new thing – this psychoanalysis. And the relationship between an analyst and his patient was a brand new relationship that had never existed between humans before. They were experimenting with it. They didn’t really know what the boundaries were. For example when Otto Gross [Vincent Cassell] says, “Well maybe it’s a good thing for us to have sex with our patients. Maybe therapeutically it’s ok?” At that point the ethical boundaries had not been established and the realities of that relationship was were not known. So they were very obsessive about observing themselves. When Freud talked about, wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, the dreams he was talking about were his own because he didn’t have subjects who were divulging to him yet, their own dreams. So he used his own dreams as his subject. Likewise with Sabina, she would – I felt – having plugged in totally to this obsessive psychoanalytic state of mind, would be observing herself. Even while she was having sex, she’d be observing herself – how she felt, what her reaction was, what Jung’s reaction was. Jung is not really enjoying those moments. He’s doing it for her. And he would be observing it to from a sort of clinical distance. So that was really the reason for that choreography. We have no proof that those things actually, specifically happened that way. But I felt, given all the things we know about them that it was reasonable.
Keira Knightley’s character of Sabina goes through a very noticeable change throughout the course of the picture that requires a shift in her facial composure and modification in nervous behavior. Would it be safe to say that you directed her to take chances in her performance?
Cronenberg: She is wonderful. I always thought she was an underrated actress, and that proved to be the case. She is incredibly well prepared, and we discussed, of course, particularly the hysteria. She comes to the clinic suffering from hysteria. She, as we know that she had already been kicked out of a couple of asylums, because she was uncontrollable. She was dysfunctional. She really couldn’t function, and we had to show that. And so it is a question of level: how far do you go with that?
In fact, we were being rather subdued compared with what those patients really went through, and we have records of that. And then in addition, I said to Keira, ‘You are a woman who is being asked to describe things which are unspeakable to you.’ Because a woman—a young woman, she is eighteen—she comes from a wealthy family. To say that I masturbate, because I am sexually aroused by my father is beating me…. This is unspeakable. This is something that was not accepted, and here she is trying to speak it, because she is being asked for the first time. This is Freud’s talking cure. She is being asked for the first time to say these things, these unspeakable things.
It seems that the history of the first examples of the “talking cure” was intriguing to you as a filmmaker?
Cronenberg: You know, in the Burgholzli clinic, was very advanced for its time and it really was like the Garden of Eden for crazy people. They had gardens, they did have orchards. They had forest trails that the patients could walk through, and gazebos for them to look over Lake Zürich and so on. They played music. But the one thing that they did not have was people listening to them. You’re crazy, why would we listen to what you say? Here is Freud saying ‘No, listen to them, because they will tell you what is wrong with them, and they will tell you how to cure them.’ So, here is Sabina for the first time being asked to talk about these fantasies and her sexual reality. And part of her desperately wants to speak it, and wants to confess it. And then part of her feels it is intolerable and vile and repulsive, and she should not say these things, and is trying to pull it back.
So, I said to Keira, ‘I think it really, as is with other cases with these patients, it should all be around your mouth and jaw. You are trying to deform the words so that they are not understandable, and so on. So that was the basis, and Keira – You know you can talk to her about those abstract things, and then she can find a way to embody it. That is her brilliance as an actress. You can see all the way through, that’s always there, even as she becomes a substantial, professional person, much more in control of her life… married, pregnant. There is still that volatility, that fragility underneath the surface.
While Sabina remains a supporting character, the story often makes Jung the protagonist. Would it have been possible to get this movie made had Sabina been the ultimate focus?
Cronenberg: Well, Christopher [Hampton]… his stage play started as a screenplay. It was commissioned by Julia Roberts about 17 years ago, and she was going to play the lead, and it was called “Sabina.” And, of course, for that project Sabina was the main character. Then, that movie did not happen, and he asked for permission to turn it into a play. He began to tell the whole story of everything surrounding Sabina and the context of her life, and it meant that Jung had to become more of a prominent figure in the drama. It is a sort of a ménage à trois, you know. It is true that Jung is really the leading character, certainly in terms of screen time he is. So, that was Christopher’s choice. And when I came to read the play that was really the structure. So, it wasn’t sort of me reshaping it. It was sort of in that mode at that point. Really, it is just a matter of dramatic balance, and structuring a drama. It wasn’t a political thing; you know it wasn’t meant to diminish Sabina’s importance. Obviously, she is still really important to the movie.
What do you think is Freud’s value on psychology in today’s society?
Cronenberg: It is a little bit like Einstein’s theories not being able you be proved until we could send spaceships out into outer space, to test his theories about time and space. It turns out that Freud – also with new technology – that some of his theories have been absolutely confirmed. Modern psychologists like to call it non-consciousness rather than unconscious, so that sort of is a different concept, but it is really sort of basically the same thing.
So, I think we are not done with Freud, or with Jung. As I say, it seems that it has splintered off into many different kinds of therapy. That great invention of Freud’s – the relationship between an analyst and a patient – seems to still have resonance for people. It is sort of a secular version of the confessional; you have someone not judging you – although I guess a priest is more judgmental really – but the idea that, well, as you see with Sabina, a man she doesn’t know is asking her to say these extremely intimate things, and he is not judging her. He is not saying you are wrong… this is bad, you are evil. He is just listening and allowing her to hear herself. So, that still seems to be a valuable thing. We have friends who do that for us sometimes now, but it’s because we all know this kind of analytical procedure, because it has been so much in the zeitgeist for all those years.
The studies of Jung and Freud have somewhat given way to taboo subjects covered on TV programs with Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil in the modern world. Do you think this is a step towards social progress?
Cronenberg: In a way, for better or worse because I hate those shows! I find them totally unbearable and vulgar and ridiculous and hideous – aside from that, in a way these three people – Freud, Jung and Sabina invited that aspect of the 20th century and invented modernity in terms of the relationships that people have.
When you read the letters between Freud and Jung, they feel totally modern. Why do they feel modern? Here were two professional men, highly respective in highly conservative professions writing to each other about bodily fluids and erotic dreams and things that men of that time would never speak those words, especially to other men. When Sabina, their intellectual equal, she spoke about woman’s erotic nature at the same time, the same level, it was also unheard of before. Now, any blogger, whatever, can put it all out there. It was really invented by those people, and how unprecedented it was.
Hollywood has given us a few versions of Freud. Any thoughts in particular about John Huston’s “Freud” (1962)?
Cronenberg: I saw when it came out, believe it or not. That was a long time ago [laughs]. I do remember reading that Huston was the absolute wrong guy to direct that movie because I think he didn’t believe in analysis. He didn’t believe in sex as the driving force of all that was the young Freud played by Montgomery Clift. So I think was very much a classic Hollywood blunder, let’s put it that way. They understood that [sex] was something intense and hot, but they didn’t really get it. Despite that Jean Paul Sartre worked on the script, who really understood Freud, but he wasn’t a screenwriter. Even that element was probably not helpful. At least it was a sort of serious attempt with Freud. There was a BBC miniseries with which was really quite good.
Antonio Banderas Talks ‘The Skin I Live In’
Antonio Banderas is wide awake in promotion of his new film The Skin I Live In, a Spanish import in English subtitles that is directed by the widely respected Pedro Almodóvar of “Volver” and “Talk to Her” fame. I’ve met Banderas before, and as gracious a man he is, I’ve never seen him this passionate. I think he is especially proud of his work as an off the deep end plastic surgeon who creates new skin tissue, to be used primarily for burn victims but in his character’s case has found another purpose. Banderas has all the right to be ecstatic for this occasion, because at least I feel, it is at the top of his very best work. Charming, deceitful, manipulative, controlling, obsessed and fixated – his mentally unsound doctor he portrays is deeply embedded in all those traits as he secretly lodges his first patient of a new unregulated experiment in a locked room, only to become aroused by her.
Reporting from Los Angeles.
How did Pedro Almodóvar first approach you with this role of maniacal surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard?
Antonio: Pedro talked to me at the time that he bought the rights for the novel “Tarantula” while at the Cannes Film Festival 10 years ago. But then for all this time he got involved in other projects and nothing happened with it. I knew he was working all this time trying to adapt it in some personal way. I was very surprised knowing the fundamentals of the movie and the story but it surprised me that basically he was not going to shoot in a linear way. You start seeing the story of my character and then when the flashbacks start developing very late in the movie, you take the whole entire audience and reposition them in terms of morality. And that game and those U-turns go practically to the end. It surprised me like it’s now surprising to audiences throughout the world.
Would you say that you and Almodóvar agreed or disagreed in the development of your character?
Antonio: I will say that it was difficult. Thank God because working with Almodóvar is not an easy task. He’s unbelievably precise in the things that he wants from you. He doesn’t like you to come with a bag filled with experiences that you have been accumulating during the years as an actor. He loved to take all those amount of back experiences and just throw them out of the window. He tells you, ‘I want a new you and we are just going to attack the work and the character from a different perspective.’ So from the time he started describing the character and his psychopathology and how we were going to research him, he came to the main points that made me reflect very much about what we were going to do.
Does that mean to not portray Dr. Ledgard as such a conventional villain? To undertake your performance with what method?
Antonio: The psychopathology – the mental state of the character. He says these people and this character is somebody who could eventually melt perfectly into the society he’s living in.He is a character we’ve seen sometimes in the news. When they just arrest a serial killer… When journalists interview neighbors about him, they’d say he was a charming guy. Well dressed, very well-mannered, educated, polite, went to church on Sundays. But then he’s got a horrendous history behind him. And from that moment on we started working in that direction.
That almost sounds like saying that Dr. Ledgard doesn’t see himself as evil, right? And also like he hides it well?
Antonio: What I did was say to myself was, ‘You shouldn’t establish a morality judgment over him.’ I didn’t want to play the character like I was carrying a backpack of everything that he is. So what I did was just establish compartments in the days that we had to shoot. And I got the premise in my mind that I had to play him almost like he was a family doctor. Trying to make natural what wasn’t natural. What he’s doing is horrendous – but from the character’s point of view, he is actually doing something extraordinary for the work of science and for the future.
It’s true isn’t that it’s hard to not see Dr. Ledgard as at least some kind of a genius?
I didn’t want to play this as a bad guy. I had to naturalize because that’s what Pedro asked me to do… [Banderas becomes hushed and more refined] Very natural. Family doctor. I am doing good things.
Do you see it that he comes across as a character who deserves some compassion?
Antonio: There’s a scene at the end where people have said to me they think he is falling in love with this woman. I always thought he wasn’t falling in love with the woman but he was falling in love with himself – with the creation he has done. And when Pedro photographed me from the back, when I’m looking at her, it’s almost like he’s photographing himself looking at movies and jumping on the other side of the movie and becoming an actor in his own creation. It’s the type of game Pedro was playing at this particular time in his life.
Can you understand to any depth the father’s need for revenge?
Antonio: I have a daughter. If somebody damaged her in the heat of the moment, I’d have a reaction that’s very violent. What I would never do is methodically, for six years, perform this kind of revenge. That’s a different deal. That doesn’t have to do with revenge but something a little bit bigger and darker.I always thought the revenge situation has to do with an excuse. My character gets into a universe that’s very sick. He cuts links with the doctor he used to work with. He just dedicates his whole life to this one purpose.
How would you describe your co-star Elena Anaya’s characterization of Vera, or at least the initial impressions of who she is?
Antonio: Vera is a more passive character. As an actress, Elena was an unbelievable partner. She’s an adorable human being. We laugh a lot too. Don’t think that we went into to a kind of cocoon of suffering. We laugh on the set because Pedro is a very witty, sharp, funny genius guy and he has us doing lots of funny, crazy things.
This is a challenging film that might not win your broadest fanbase. Does that bother you?
Antonio: I cannot ask a guy who works on the road to watch “8½” (1963) because that may not be what he needs. He needs to sit in the theater with a bucket of popcorn with his girlfriend and just laugh. But there are audiences who want to go there to be proposed something different. And Almodóvar, that’s what he is! He never plays mainstream because he’s not made for that. His movies are going to make people have radical opinions of him. He’s an investigator – a guy who experiments with narrative, who takes references from many different directors, from many different styles. But at the end he became his own genre. And at this particular time as an actor, I really needed to get my hands dirty and start doing what we used to do together in the 1980’s.The satisfaction after the difficulties of the work, it’s enormous. He made me play a note I didn’t even know I had. He made me reflect very much about my profession, about my acting, about being more mature. All these things came together with “The Skin I Live In.”