Mackenzie Davis on Finding Herself in Every Role

Once upon a time, Mackenzie Davis was in the business of stealing movies. You’d watch a dire Zac Efron rom-com like That Awkward Moment and walk away wondering just who the hell was that supporting actress who lit up the screen with her take-no-prisoners charisma. These days, she gets bigger parts, in better films: as the edgy, ruthless co-lead of Sophia Takal’s tense friendship thriller Always Shine, or the surreally capable night nanny helping out overwhelmed mom Charlize Theron in Jason Reitman’s Tully. She’s also done unforgettable work on TV: She was one of the leads of AMC’s acclaimed Halt and Catch Fire, and appeared on one of the most talked-about episodes of Black Mirror, “San Junipero,” a time-hopping (and devastating) sci-fi love story co-starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

In her latest film, Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town, which she also produced, Davis plays a wreck of a woman desperately racing across Los Angeles using whatever means available, all in an effort to stop her ex from getting married. Izzy’s not an immediately likable character, and her goal seems questionable as well. As the film proceeds, we learn a bit more about her and the circumstances that landed her in this situation. But the movie, interestingly, keeps a lot of information hidden from us — which puts the onus on this staggeringly talented actress to fill the screen with her whirlwind-like magnetism. (Spoiler alert: She does.)

We recently talked to Davis about what it was like to shoot both Izzy and Tully, how she likes to approach acting, and some of the surprising recurring threads that run throughout her work.

So, Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town. Was the movie called that when you signed on to do it?

Yeah, it was. That’s probably what made me read it in the first place — like, “Well, what the fuck is this fuckin’ movie about?” But then I thought it was better than the title suggested — even though the title is very, you know, suggestive.

The film has a real wild energy, with so many purposeful tonal shifts. I was trying to describe it the other day, and actually found it hard to do. It has some of the qualities of a stoner movie — there’s a Dude, Where’s My Car? vibe to it. But it’s more manic than that. Maybe if Run Lola Run were a stoner comedy. What was shooting it like?

The film does have that obsessive, forward direction that you can have when you’re stoned sometimes. It was pretty wild — we shot it in like eighteen or nineteen days. Part of the tonal shift is dictated by the script, and part of the tonal shift is dictated by…well, the magic of filmmaking [laughs]. And you can feel it. I mean, there’d be the scene with Alia [Shawkat], and then the scene with Dolly Wells, and you’d think, “Wow, each of these is like a wildly different movie.” Which was a cool thing to discover. I give Chris Papierniak, the director, a lot of credit for letting the reality of the process dictate how the film ended up, instead of trying to pretend it was something else. It kind of feels like a video game with different levels.

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I was struck by how physical your part is — with a lot of visual humor and pratfalls. We already acknowledged that you didn’t have a lot of time to make this movie, but don’t you have to prepare for stuff like that?

This was the first film I’ve ever produced, so I think part of my own preparation for the character was just having conversations about what the movie was about, what it was going to look like, and who should play this part and why. Even just like a props discussion during preproduction gives you so much insight into a character. So [much so] that, when I came on set, I didn’t really have to think about it at all. Physically, though, I was treating my body like a garbage dump. I smoked so many cigarettes making this movie. [Laughs] I would say that’s what had me out of breath most of the time.

There’s a lot that’s unexplained in the film — so much about Izzy’s character that’s just hinted at. I imagine it’s tough to figure out the balance between the things that we need to know about this woman and the things we don’t. For example, we never really find out what happened to her jacket, the stains. We have to use our imagination.

That sort of thing is never revealed, not because it’s a great secret, but because I think [leaving it unexplained] paints a more specific picture of a woman that could have a night like that, who’s not going to wake up the next morning and yell, “Oh my god!” when she looks at her clothes and sees that there’s blood or wine or something on this tuxedo. It’s not this thing that has uprooted her life. It’s all part of another shitty day instead of this really spectacular thing that needs to be discussed at length. So, I like the fact that it was never really explained. You’re watching this bizarre character pursue a very specific goal, and any other information feels like it would be unnecessary. It’s such a simple objective — this idea of a quest that will satisfy you in a way that you think might solve all of your problems.

It’s almost a pastiche of the classic narrative structure: Character A has to get to Goal B, and Character C is preventing that. It’s basically that, over and over again. And then she actually achieves her goal, and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, right, this is not what I wanted.”

Yeah, it is a very classic film-writing structure, but within that form we played around a bit. Like you said, it’s that motif played out over and over again. Until you reach the final boss, and then you beat the boss and you’re like, “Oh, all I get is a basket of coins, after spending hours of my life?”

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This is something that runs through your notable work of late — not just in Izzy, but also with TullyAlways Shine, and the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror. This notion of what it means to live the life that we want, and how our idea about what that means is this ever-shifting thing. That’s basically what Tully is about too, right?

Definitely. I’m glad you said that. It’s so funny to look back on these films you make with all these different directors and think, “Oh, I guess there is a trend there.” But I think Tully is about certain feelings that everybody has. It’s obviously a movie about motherhood, and this really honest portrait of an experience that’s been presented to women as this totally spiritual thing, when actually it’s quite down in the mud.

But Tully really resonates with me as a look at how it feels to be out of rhythm with life and with the people around you — this sense of wondering if you’re doing things at the right time. I went through a period during my twenties where I kept feeling like I [was] moving cities at the wrong time. I left Montreal and moved to New York, lived there for a while. None of my friends were there, so I moved to L.A., and then suddenly all my friends lived in New York. And then I lived in L.A. for two years, then moved back to New York, and then again to L.A. It was just this recurring thing of trying to gauge the same tempo as the people around me — but everybody’s on their own path. I feel like that really happens when you enter your thirties and you’re like, “Oh, OK, am I in the right place? Do I have a partner? Do I have a house? Is this the right time?” We’re all checking in with ourselves to make sure that our personal narrative matches up with the one we’ve been fed, or the one we need. So, for me personally, the movie actually worked on that level rather than the parenthood level.

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I feel like in some ways actors are more attuned to this concept than other people, because every couple of months you’re asked to make these really important decisions that could change your life. Each new role could potentially be this huge thing that sends your life in a completely different direction.

And that can be good or bad. Because sometimes the part comes back and haunts you a year and-a-half to two years later, whether you like it or not. By the way, I love Izzy, so I’m not talking about that movie right now! But there are some movies where I’m like, “Oy, I wish I hadn’t made that decision.”

You want to tell me about any of those?

No, generally I think that’s a bad idea. [Laughs]

Some actors talk about the need to keep working and take every part they can, because of this anxiety that the parts could dry up, or that their momentum might flag. Is that something that you’ve felt?

It comes about in a different way for everybody. I sometimes hear actors talk about this, and it can be harrowing to hear. I think it can also be so seductive to fall into this competition for roles, and that thrill of being like, “I’ve got it!” I try to always make sure this is what I want to be doing — to be aware with myself and constantly ask if my engine is the love of business or of the work. Do I love acting as much as I did when I was a little girl, or last year, or five years ago? Or am I just in a mode of competition? So, I feel it — but I try to keep it in check. I don’t know. You know how you can both be lazy and also live with deep self-loathing if you’re not doing enough every day? That’s where I live. [Laughs]

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Tully is a fascinating part because you have to play a certain kind of role without letting the audience in on who she really is. Does that kind of twist present any extra challenges — where there’s a secret to the character that you can’t let the audience in on yet?

I credit Jason Reitman with keeping us all aligned with the story that we were telling, and never giving in to the need to show more than we needed to. Because it was so important for us to portray the unexplored nature of these female platonic relationships. Which can be really energizing in real life. I mean, really taking care of your friend, and loving them, and hearing how they’re feeling, and being there for them. I got to do a lot of that in Tully, and it was great to live for a month in a part that required so little other than just being available for another person. That idea of just being natural with her, and taking care of her, was in some ways more important than the story itself. But the goal was to have that be effective to the story.

One thing I admire is that you have built a real persona through your work. Whether that actually jibes with who you are in real life, I wouldn’t know. But even as you’ve done a wide variety of parts, a sense of you does emerge. Some actors completely disappear into a part and the viewer has almost no idea that it’s that person. And some come through as individuals throughout their work. You seem very much the latter type.

I feel like the school of acting I come from isn’t so much driven by character work but rather finding a way to be yourself and open in front of the camera. I feel like it would be impossible for me to create a character while ignoring all my impulses, [as opposed to] doing something that is more intuitive. I can’t really come on set and deliver something that I’ve worked on at home. Instead I try to be there with everybody.

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Anything I say here will sound reductive, but your characters are often direct, casual, informal — people who might not take any shit. But then you’ll do something like the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror, where the character is so vulnerable and closed-off; Yorkie seems on some level to be a very different character than the kind you’ve played in your other work. But even there something really special, something “you,” emerges.

You know how some people can articulate your beliefs better than you? I read an interview with Ryan Gosling maybe five years ago, and I liked the way he put it. He said something like, “You always turn the knobs up or down on other parts of yourself.” So it feels like a different person, but you’re just amplifying different aspects of your character. Whenever someone’s like, “How do you find your character?” I’m like, “She is me!” That’s the only way I understand the people that I play. You sort of figure out what insecurities that you have come out in this character, and what confidence you have comes out in this other character, you know? And Yorkie from Black Mirror is in some ways more me than, say, Cameron in Halt and Catch Fire. But they’re both me, in the end.

OK, this is a dumb question, but I have to ask it. So, you’re in a movie called Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town, in which you’re playing Izzy. You were just in a movie called Tully, in which you’re playing Tully. Does it ever feel like you’ve reached a particular point in your career where you can say, “I’m in this movie, it’s called this, and I play the title character”?

I mean, I think we’re all susceptible to the same shining ego that comes with being able to say, “And that’s me!” It’s like a childhood movie-star thing. But none of that really matters at any moment past the first reading of the script. Even when you’re reading for the title character, your reaction afterwards is going to be about the story. Still, I would be lying if there isn’t a moment where it’s sort of a thrill when someone presents you with a script and says, “Read for the title role.” But with Tully, of course, the movie isn’t about Tully at all — it’s about Marlo.


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What Was It Like to Be Stanley Kubrick’s Right-Hand Man?

Among hardcore Stanley Kubrick fans, the name Leon Vitali holds a kind of magic. He was the young British actor who made such an impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon and then turned around and became Kubrick’s assistant for the rest of the director’s career — the kind of job that would be considered a demotion on most other film sets. But as you can see in Filmworker, Tony Zierra’s new documentary about Vitali, he did everything for the filmmaker: He scoured the United States looking for a young child to play Danny in The Shining and coached the boy he eventually found, Danny Lloyd, during the shoot. He scouted and rehearsed actors, and conducted extensive research for Full Metal Jacket. He served as a liaison to studios. He oversaw restorations and home-video releases. He played bit parts, including the red-cloaked ritual leader in Eyes Wide Shut. He did production inventories. And my favorite: Nearly all of the foleyed-in footsteps in Full Metal Jacket are his footsteps.

Vitali allowed his life and work to be consumed by Kubrick. A remarkable choice, when you think about it: The young actor was at the height of his career during Barry Lyndon, and yet he abandoned the spotlight to join the armies of uncelebrated “filmworkers” behind the camera. Zierra’s entertaining and informative documentary playfully uses scenes from Vitali’s many film and TV appearances to tell the story of Vitali’s career with Kubrick. But Filmworker also makes clear the enormous personal toll his work took on the actor-turned-assistant: Halfway through the movie, we’re introduced to Vitali’s now-grown children, and it’s a genuine shock to realize that he had a family the whole time he was on-call for Kubrick — and was often unable to give attention to them.

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Filmworker walks a fine line tonally, as it reflects both Vitali’s admiration and awe of Kubrick, while also calling into question the way the director allowed his many projects to devour the lives of those who worked for him as well. (There was a similar tension at work in last year’s S Is for Stanley, Alex Infascelli’s documentary about Emilio D’Alessandro, Kubrick’s longtime driver.) But in many ways, this dilemma is at the heart of Kubrick’s cinema: The director’s obsessions not only consumed those around him but also leapt off the screen and consumed his fans. And perhaps if Kubrick himself wasn’t obsessed, if his films weren’t so thoroughly overwhelming in real life, then they wouldn’t have exploded in our minds the way they did. Filmworker is both a cautionary tale and a tribute to this kind of compulsion. And Vitali, for his part, is still devoted to Kubrick’s work. Last year, I spoke to him about this documentary, and about his years working with the director.

What went through your mind when you first got approached about doing this documentary?

It started off as a request from Tony to meet and talk, because he was at the time trying to make a film about Stanley. He came and interviewed me, and we just got along very well. I don’t know what it was in particular that prompted them, but he and his wife, Elizabeth Yoffe, came and said, “Well, we’ve decided we’d like to make the film about you, and the interesting path you took to work with Stanley and be with him for such a long time.” I really wasn’t very sure about it at all. I didn’t want to start glorifying myself. But my children said, “Well, yeah, you should do it!” because they themselves probably knew so little of what I did when they were young.

And as we got into it more, we connected it back to below-the-line people — who get very little credit for what they do. They’re only really briefly acknowledged in the very fast-moving roll of text at the end of a film. I know there are some topliners in set design and cameras and what have you, but there’s thousands who aren’t. And a lot of people struggling, just like anybody else, to get work.

Was it a culture shock for you to go from being an actor in front of the camera to being someone working behind it, as part of the crew? It’s almost a different world back there.

It is. And you know, Stanley was one of those directors who’d say that I had to be ready in full costume and makeup and everything for three o’clock or two o’clock, and then I’d be sitting in a chair just off set, waiting to be called on. That happened often in the early days, day after day. And I started to look around, and I’d see all these people who I didn’t personally know, but who’d become like a kind of family — everybody was on nodding terms with each other. I’d done movies before, but I’d never seen anything like this.

Then I started looking at all the equipment that Stanley was using, and I had a fascination with how he used the brute lights. I’d never actually been on a set with a brute before. And we got along well. We’d sit and just talk about anything, anything at all. It could be about film, or it could be about soccer. He finally asked me, “Are you so interested in this side of it?” And I said, “Yes, I am, really interested.” And he just said, “Well, if you want to do something about it, let me know and we’ll see what we can do.”

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What was your first day as an actor on the set of Barry Lyndon like? Do you remember?

Oh yeah. I do. It was actually a scene that was never used, because the film grew and changed directions. Stanley was somebody who used to let things happen. He’d push it, push it, push it, and if it seemed like it would lead somewhere — it didn’t matter if it was anything close to what had been written in the script — he just followed that path. So the very first day on set, I was going to be filming a scene with Marisa Berenson [who played Lady Lyndon], where Bullingdon is in a snooty, sarcastic kind of way reading a passage from Hamlet — one which alludes to the situation that she is in with Barry Lyndon. It’s a scene where Hamlet is chastising Gertrude for having married her brother-in-law. And at the end of our scene, [Lady Lyndon] gets really upset and runs crying from the room. And [Barry Lyndon] comes in the room, for the purpose of caning me, punishing me.

I don’t know how to describe it other than I felt so relaxed and at home, because I knew that Stanley wouldn’t go, “Oh, that’s close enough,” or, “We’re not gonna get much more out of it.” He just wasn’t like that. He’d say, “Yeah, that’s good,” and, “Do that a little more.” And he’d be encouraging in a very positive way, pushing and pushing in that way. I felt very comfortable with it. And if he said, “We’ll do it again,” I thought, “Great, wonderful, yeah, let’s do it again.” I know there are all sorts of stories about him, but sometimes I think he was misunderstood. Malcolm [McDowell] said that Stanley didn’t direct him in his scenes, and I know what he means in a way. But what Stanley did was let Malcolm be Malcolm, which is why he cast Malcolm in the first place. Some actors think if the director’s not saying, “You move over there, and you go over there, and you move over there,” that they’re not being directed.

It’s amazing how this image of Kubrick as a dictatorial perfectionist has persisted, because from everything I’ve heard from people who worked with him, it sounds like he was quite the opposite — open to changes, open to letting things take their course.

It is strange. And he actually said to me once that it was probably a little bit his fault, because he wasn’t very communicative with the press outside of the release of his films. He just wanted to bury his head in what we were working on. And because he didn’t have to talk to the daily press, it didn’t really matter what it was they were saying about him. So we just got on with stuff. I remember in England, the press seemed pretty obsessed with him, so they took an aerial photograph of the Stanley Kubrick estate, and they published it big in the paper and said, “This is Stanley Kubrick’s house.” And it was the wrong house! [Laughs.]

That’s Vitali behind that mask in “Eyes Wide Shut”

Your performance in Barry Lyndon epitomizes the Kubrick style of acting for me. I was intrigued to learn how important a role you played in subsequent films when it came to working with the actors — auditioning them, running through their lines, even helping them come up with lines. I wonder if in some senses a little bit of you rubbed off on those performances, because there really is a kind of compelling, intense theatricality to them. It starts with Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, but it really comes after Barry Lyndon, with The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut. They all have big performances that fill the room, like Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining, and Lee Ermey’s in Full Metal Jacket.

You know, to be absolutely honest, I think part of his feeling was that he cut out all that need for [explanatory] dialogue. Barry Lyndon ironically is just about the only one of his films where you actually see the background to the character, and you follow him from a very young man all the way through. When you look at the other films, you get a little bit of explanation about the character, but it isn’t much. You really join them halfway into this journey. So I think injecting that kind of theatricality into a performance fixes that character in the mind of the viewer. “Oh right, he’s really timid, and his mother is directing every move that he does,” you know.

When I was dialogue coaching, I did the old, “Do it again, do it again, do it again,” so people didn’t have to remember their lines — they seriously knew them. Then we sort of found the attitude inside that milieu. “This is how you would deliver it,” you know. In Barry Lyndon, there’s always this sort of terribly hypocritical courtesy among the elites and the upper classes, and there’s also that thirst of people who want to be a part of it, who would do anything to be part of it.

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Some critics knocked Kubrick for making impersonal movies, and I think that’s completely, completely wrong.

Yeah, I know. It is. You know, I’ve never seen his very first film, Fear and Desire. I never saw it because he hated it. He hated it. And I found a copy of it in the projection booth in our offices, and I said, “You know you’ve got a copy of Fear and Desire up there, a print,” and he said, “No.” And I said, “Yeah, you got a print there.” He said, “Leon, promise me you’ll never look at this.” [Laughs.] So I’ve never seen that one. But the very first film I remember seeing of his was Lolita, because it caused such a stir in England. It was really kind of lambasted for being disgusting and degrading. And a couple of us used to get in through the back door of the theater, while the previous audience was coming out, and we’d sneak in that way. And what I saw there was people. Shelley Winters — I could not get her performance out of my head. When she discovers [Humbert Humbert’s] diaries, it’s raw. I’ve seen that film hundreds of times, and I feel the same even now. That’s real pain. That’s real pain that you see, when she’s standing by the window and, you know, holding the diary out of the window. And I started finding that with every one of Stanley’s films.

After you started working for Stanley, were there ever roles that came up where you thought, “I wish I had the freedom to go off and play this part for this filmmaker”?

Yes. I felt it a couple of times. And not only films, because I was still living in London and Stockholm, and they’re very theater-centric societies. So when I saw a great stage play, I felt bad. And when Jack was walking up the stairs threatening Shelley [Duvall in The Shining], you know, “Give me the bat, give me the bat,” I thought, “Wow, I’d love to do that.” [Laughs.] I missed theater more than anything else, I suppose. But Stanley built his films the way theater’s built: You focus very deeply on one area, until you feel you’ve got it right, before you move on. No wonder it took him so long to finish these films!

Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (or Rhapsody: A Dream Novel), was something he was trying to lick for many years. How privy were you to the previous iterations of that idea?

It came as a surprise, I have to be honest, because we were well into what would have been A.I. Really, everything was geared toward that. I was looking at actors every day on tape and god knows what else. And then suddenly Stanley went quite dark, quite silent — even to me in the office. And then I remember Tom Cruise came to see Stanley for lunch, and I kind of understood that it didn’t look like A.I. was gonna make it. And the reason for that was simply because he did not believe he could get the visual effects he needed. So it really came as a complete surprise to most of us when we heard that Eyes Wide Shut was gonna be the next movie.

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Were you surprised when you found out that he had thought about having Steven Spielberg direct A.I.?

Before we finished Eyes Wide Shut, he said to me, “Well, you know, you better get used to a lot of indoor work now,” because A.I. would have been like 2001 where there’s just that one cut of the bone in the open air. That was it; I don’t think there were ever any other exterior shots at all in 2001 apart from the stills [used as backdrops] at the very beginning.

Stanley could be very generous. I’m sure he would’ve said to Steven, “It’d probably be better you made the film rather than I.” But he would say things like that. [After Eyes Wide Shut wrapped] he never made any indication to us at all that we were not looking for actors for A.I. Because we were. He wanted to do another science fiction.

What would The Aryan Papers — the Holocaust film based on Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies that Kubrick considered making in 1993 — have been like?

It’s hard to say. Kubrickian, definitely, but then what’s that? It had all the elements of suspense and danger. And it was quite brutal. It would’ve looked authentic, I can tell you that. We actually had military equipment booked, and countless books earmarked. I was looking at actors all the time. That’s where I first saw Ralph Fiennes. And I think his first breakthrough in movies was when he did Schindler’s List. That was the other thing, you know. Schindler’s List was so successful. I think it sort of made Stanley feel, “Well, you know, maybe we’re in the wrong cycle. We’ll wait for another cycle.” He really wanted to make Wartime Lies. But I’d say it was also a huge relief on his part because it is a very depressing subject to deal with. I understand his decision.

I think with filmmakers, generally they’re very delicate. They’re so sensitive that anything can knock [a project] off balance. When you think about it, we were hard at work on what would’ve been two major productions in a row that were canceled because Stanley stopped, before we found Eyes Wide Shut. It’s hard sometimes for a filmmaker to actually find the next film. It’s probably the most difficult job he has.

Directed by Tony Zierra
Kino-Lorber Films
Opens May 11, Metrograph


“Where Is Kyra?” Director Andrew Dosunmu on Filming New York and Working With Michelle Pfeiffer

Nobody shoots New York like Andrew Dosunmu. Though born in Lagos, Nigeria, the photographer-turned-filmmaker has become, over the course of his last three features, one of the city’s most idiosyncratic and essential chroniclers — peering into corners rarely seen, through a visual style that brings both mystery and beauty to his subjects. In Restless City (2011), a Senegalese immigrant with dreams of becoming a musician fell in love with a sex worker and infuriated his smuggler-pimp boss — but the film was shot with a dreamy grandeur that elevated the broad-strokes story to the level of myth. In the domestic drama Mother of George (2013), the eye-poppingly colorful clothes and decor of Brooklyn’s Yoruba community conveyed a sense of both community and, gradually, otherworldly entrapment. Dosunmu’s latest, Where Is Kyra?, doesn’t necessarily have the surface vibrancy of Mother of George, but it’s just as visually sophisticated — a stylized, nightmarish portrait of poverty and aging in New York, with a career-best performance from Michelle Pfeiffer. (Read my review here.) I recently spoke to Dosunmu about his work, his approach to image and sound, and where he finds his inspirations.

You worked as a photographer for many years before becoming a filmmaker, and all your movies are visually striking; they depict New York in ways I’ve never seen before. When you’re planning the look of a film, is it an intuitive thing for you, or do you sit down and try to figure out how you will do things differently?

To be honest with you, it’s very intuitive. Yes, I am a photographer, and I have my camera with me all the time. I live in the city, and I’m always photographing the city. And New York is such a fascinating city. It’s a city that attracts and welcomes so many characters, but it can also be very cold and unwelcoming sometimes. The city is very vibrant and energetic, but it can quickly spit you out if you’re weak and not vibrant. And I really wanted to see different parts of New York being documented rather than what we’re used to. In movies, it’s always the obvious locations. But in Mother of George, it was a part of Brooklyn we don’t see, and in Where Is Kyra?, it’s different parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

When did you first move to New York?

Year-wise, I never get this right. It was 25 or 27 years ago. My siblings are Americans, and they were here. As a teenager, I moved between the states and Nigeria. When I moved to New York, it was really about photography. You know, you look at a magazine — like Details, or Interview — as a teenager, and you’re like, “New York is the place where everything happens. I want to go there!” [Laughs] “Everything cool is in New York. The rappers are in New York. Let me go to New York. I want to make music videos and take images, and that’s where they’re at.” Really that simple.

Where Is Kyra? feels like one of the more honest films I’ve seen about growing older in New York.

For me, the idea hinges on the diminishing of human value. That is visible in American society. Sadly, women of a certain age become dispensable, when they no longer fit into this category of being desirable or whatever it is, you know. The elderly become invisible to us in a city like New York. If you are somewhere else, you know, life intermingles, but in New York, the elderly become invisible — we don’t interact with them. We don’t want to stand behind them in a queue in the bank. We kind of walk around them on the subway. And this invisibility is something that I really wanted to touch on.

I’m startled by the use of darkness in this film. At moments it feels like the screen is about to go pitch-black — as if Kyra is about to be wiped off the face of the earth.

Shadows and dark corners kind of heighten despair, and we wanted that mood. But Brad [Young, the cinematographer] and I also wanted to create [a sense of] the walls closing in, and any sunshine in her life fleeing. The fact that she tries to stay in all the time, because she knows what she’s going to see when she gets outside. She’s unemployable. Everywhere she goes, or every job she applies for, she doesn’t seem to get it. I really wanted to use the camera and all the elements of filmmaking to heighten all this desperation.

You also use sound in interesting ways, in all your films. You often build a contrast between what we’re hearing and what we’re seeing.

I like this idea of frequencies. If you’re walking or driving through New York, it almost feels like you’re changing radio stations. One minute it’s the siren of an ambulance; the next minute it’s music coming out of a store, or the subway running, or children coming from school, or someone screaming at someone else. It’s just a melange of sounds that I find interesting. Your ear is so in tune because it’s a city on the move. Whether you’re hearing a car crash or other loud sounds, you hear it before you visually connect to it, and I really wanted to do that with my films as well.

At the same time, what happens when you are so caught up in your own world — like in Kyra, where she’s not even in connection with the city? The sound of the city is the only thing that she reacts to, not the people, because she’s so in her own world. The traffic or the humming of the car — that’s what wakes her up. Like when you’re so delirious and walking down the street and you get to the crossing and suddenly a taxi loudly awakens you to reality. With Kyra, that’s what I tried to do. When she becomes that character [Kyra dresses up as her own deceased mother, in an attempt to keep getting her pension checks], all you hear is the sound of her walking stick — because that’s what she’s so focused on, trying to not be seen.

I thought it was a real stroke of genius to cast Michelle Pfeiffer. What does she bring to a part like this?

I’ve always found Michelle to be both a great beauty and a dynamic, versatile actor. But at the same time I thought she was often cast as “a beauty,” and I wanted to do something that really brings what she’s capable of doing as an actress. I wanted the audience to be able to connect to this person.

Michelle is such a household name that we go into the theater trying to see Michelle Pfeiffer, but all of a sudden Michelle Pfeiffer becomes this person, becomes Kyra, and it resonates with the audience. Because it’s somebody we’ve seen so many times in so many films, and the audience just gets caught up in it, looking for Michelle Pfeiffer, and in that process they begin to go on the journey with that character.

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Did you have to convince her to do it?

Not much, actually. I was very lucky because she saw Mother of George and she really liked it, and she really wanted to be on board. It was easy to convince her to do it. But obviously, it’s such a low budget, and she’s never done an independent film of this small scale. And it’s a union film, shot in New York in eighteen days. We can’t go past certain hours. There’s none of those overtime, long into-the-night shoots, you know. And I think that itself created the kind of film we were able to make, because we knew we didn’t have her for that long, we knew we didn’t have that many days, so we had to be very creative. How do we get everything across in such a small amount of time?

She fits into your aesthetic in a way, too. There are moments when you actually give us something that feels like portraiture, where the actor or the character will just look straight at the camera. You’ll hold on their stillness, but it doesn’t feel posed or artificial or anything like that; it feels like a moment that’s just been extended. You did that in Restless City, and Mother of George, but when you did it in Where Is Kyra?, suddenly I thought, “Oh my god, it’s Michelle Pfeiffer!” Like this familiar figure had suddenly entered your world.

Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to make a film with well-known actors that had to come into my world. Because some directors get bigger actors and all of a sudden the films all end up being kind of the same. This sense of portraiture — I’m very, very influenced by photography obviously. When you look at a Walker Evans painting, or a Dorothea Lange, or August Sanders, you know all about the persons that they are photographing. You look at the WPA photographers during the Depression era, and there’s a picture of this woman with her kids, and you look into this woman’s eyes, and there’s so much that gets revealed. Just like great paintings — you see a great portrait and you want to know that person. So, often my films start with portraits. Whether it is Adenike in Mother of George, or Djibril in Restless City…often I see a picture and I’m like, “Well, what’s the story of that person before that picture and after that picture?” It’s the genesis of what I do. You begin to look into the eyes of these characters and imagine what their life is, the kind of shirts or dress they’re wearing, the way their hands are posed.… It tells so much, how that person wants to be seen.

Your films have a strong sense of offscreen space as well. Sometimes you’ll fragment the image — you’ll focus on a pair of hands or shoot somebody off to the side, so we can’t see them. When working with small budgets and not much time, a lot of people might just shoot everything straight on and hope for the best in the editing room. But I imagine it takes some conviction to say, “OK, we’re gonna shoot this scene but we won’t see the actor’s face,” or “We won’t see what you’re doing — just your foot, or your hand.”  

I really want to make films about the world of the character. What can I tell about a person by going into their bedroom, or going into their living room, and seeing what they have there? The picture on the wall, the books on the table, the sofa, the slippers on the side — that says so much about people. And I try to incorporate that, so when I frame, it’s really about that. I look at each frame as a painting. If one walks into the edit room and there’s a freeze frame on the screen, I want you to get a sense of the world I’m talking about. And you can’t necessarily get that from just shooting the actors.

That must also pose some challenges when you’re dealing with narrative and dialogue. A film like Restless City could be very melodramatic if you wanted it to be. Mother of George also. But your treatment of narrative is understated.

I know the kind of film I want to make. Think about Hal Ashby films from the Seventies or any of those filmmakers. The question becomes, “Why do you make films?” For me, the film actually begins when you step out of the theater. It becomes something that you might not necessarily grasp at that moment, but after you come out of the theater, or days after, thinking about the film. Like in great photography, or great paintings — you go to a museum, you see a great painting, you’re arrested by it, you end up thinking about it, and you want to see it again. The next time you see it you discover something else. You see that there’s a cat under the table or next to the sofa that you never noticed before, or something like that. That intrigues me very much.

Danai Gurira in “Mother of George”

Was filmmaking always something you aspired to, or did you come to it gradually?

I came to it gradually. I grew up in West Africa, in Nigeria, where art is always around. You live it, from ceremonies of the deities to everyday living. Your names are based on the world of art. And your life is immersed in visual art. It’s a part of your daily living — you know, the altars in your grandparents’ living room [laughs]. But I didn’t know anybody that was a filmmaker, personally. I liked images and wanted to create this world. It was always about, “What can I do?” That’s why I became a photographer. Photography was almost like a scrapbook for filmmaking for me. I knew I couldn’t make films because film was a collective effort and it takes a team to make films, but I knew if I had my camera I could depict or capture those things I would love to make a film about one day. So, photography became my journal, really — my script, in a way.

You’ve worked with cinematographer Bradford Young on several films, and he’s become a rather recognizable name at this point. But you’re also clearly someone with a strong visual sensibility. What’s your working relationship like with him?

Brad and I have worked more than a decade now together, so we’re kind of in sync. I think he brings the best out of me. It’s great to work with someone where we can reference things and we can talk about it and we can challenge ourselves about it.

We met probably about a decade ago. I was shooting for little magazines, and Brad knew my work. We had mutual friends, people that we were very influenced by, people like Arthur Jafa or Malik Sayeed. I sort of PA’d for Arthur Jafa, and Brad knew him too. You know how things work; it just happens. “Let’s do something together.” He knew my pictures, so he knew what sort of sensibility I had. And he was a student of Haile Gerima at Howard, and I was a big fan of Haile Gerima.… It’s like jazz, I guess. Everybody blows and, you’re kind of like, “I dig what you’re doing. OK, we could do something with that.” [Laughs].

Now, I say that it’s like we’re in a band together, and I’m the bass player, he’s the drummer. We definitely push each other a lot in the sense of trying to do better. “OK, we have done that before, so let’s try something else.” How can we, as filmmakers, be better, get better, challenge ourselves? It can be scary to do what you don’t know. But challenging yourself is where you discover, and that discovery process is what’s so beautiful about being an artist. That’s how we work together.

Cinematographer Bradford Young and Dosunmu on the set of “Where Is Kyra?”

You’ve mentioned photographers and filmmakers you admire. Who are some of your other influences?

I’m very influenced by literature. But also filmmakers, from Djibril Diop Mambéty, the Senegalese filmmaker, to [Luchino] Visconti. The experimentation of Mambéty to the lushness of Visconti.

The opening of Mother of George felt like something out of Visconti. If Visconti had landed among the Yoruba community in Brooklyn, that’s kind of how he would have shot it, right?

Exactly [laughs]. And Death in Venice when you think about Kyra, you know? But also, experimental photographers like William Klein. I just love what this guy did. Those documentaries like The Little Richard Story or Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther. But definitely photography would be that thing, you know — that single frame that influences everything before and after, I find fascinating. I see a Malick Sidibé picture of kids hanging on the river Niger in their shorts and I think, “Wow, what’s that like before? What would that afternoon be like?” That’s where the curiosity begins for me.


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‘Movies Are Strange, Man’: Joaquin Phoenix Talks About Not Knowing What’s Next

I don’t know. Those are the three words that Joaquin Phoenix probably says the most during our interview. He may be one of the greatest actors of his generation — possibly, the greatest — but even he seems not quite capable of articulating just how it is he does what he does. That somehow feels right. We’re talking about Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, for which Phoenix won the Best Actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a marvelous performance, but he speaks very little dialogue, and for much of the film we see him only in brief glimpses. During our chat, as the actor fumbles over his words — abandoning analogies halfway through, professing ignorance of his own talents, wondering if anything he’s done works onscreen — he reveals something of his art. Because so much of what Joaquin Phoenix does is about not knowing, both for us as viewers and for him as an actor. In his best performances, he gives off a sense of total absorption and aliveness. Everything seems possible and nothing feels predictable. No other working actor today seems more intuitive, more uncategorizable.

Don’t tell him that, however: Phoenix doesn’t watch his own movies. When I tell him how much I admired him in this film, he deadpans, “Maybe you have terrible taste.” Then when I respond that I’m a fan of his performances in general, he responds, “It looks like you do.” He says it cheerfully, but it’s also hard not to suspect that there’s some doubt in the back of his mind that he uses to rid himself of anything resembling self-consciousness or preciousness. That’s a perfect state of mind for You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay’s devastating and gripping alt-vigilante drama, in which Phoenix plays a hammer-wielding veteran who is paid to save kidnapped children and who brings all his rage and regret and self-loathing and desire for oblivion to the job. The actor is so convincing in the role that at first I was somewhat scared to talk to him. But the result was a fascinatingly open-ended discussion about acting, Ramsay’s brilliant film, as well as his turn as Jesus in the upcoming Mary Magdalene.

I’ve always found there to be something distinct about Lynne Ramsay’s characters — they’re very submerged and self-negating. You’ve worked with a lot of different directors. Was there anything about her approach that felt different to you?

Every director is different. I’ve never once felt like there’s one standard. But what is unique about Lynne…I don’t know how she worked on other films, or how she worked with other actors, but on this movie, something that we were really cognizant of was trying to fight the clichés of the genre. We didn’t really have a set way of doing things. I imagine there’s like a wildly different performance in there, in other takes, you know. Because each take was different. That was kind of a goal — to do things that might seem out of character or uncomfortable, and play with things, and improvise. We looked for a way of approaching each scene that just wasn’t traditional, wasn’t what you’d expect. If anything in the script felt like it was something that we had seen before, we’d try to change it.

Even though you’re the lead and the whole movie’s pretty much from your character’s perspective, we rarely see your face. Sometimes, we don’t even see you. There’s so much of the film where we’re watching a room that your character has just left. I’m sure some of that happens in editing, but was that always the idea behind the performance?

Yeah, a lot of that was in the script. Certainly Lynne set the tone for that from the very opening scene, creating this kind of mystery around this character — where you’re not really knowing exactly where you stand with him and who he is and what he represents. That was pretty evident in the screenplay, but I’m sure there’s stuff that she does in editing to magnify that or to lessen it.

But for you, as the guy who has to give that performance, what kinds of challenges does that present? When you know that your face is not actually going to be on screen much, or that you’re not going to have as much recourse to dialogue? Do you have to work on the character’s physicality, say, or his posture, or how you walk?

I think it’s a mistake sometimes, as an actor, to think about a movie from the filmmaker’s perspective. It’s hard not to be self-conscious, and it’s one of the struggles that you have as an actor. So, I don’t ask what size lens is there and how much of my body are you seeing. I just have to inhabit the space the way I feel is right. And how the filmmaker captures that or uses it is up to them. It was important to never feel certain of how I was going to behave. The crew was amazing — particularly the camera and sound department, you know, who have to basically follow you around and capture what it is you’re doing — but there really was this feeling that the moment you locked something in, it just started to die. So it felt like things would always have to change and you’d act differently. It was really important for the film and the energy of the character to work that way.

It’s also a pretty violent movie, but so much of what we see is the aftermath of the violence. There’s one fight near the end where we see the whole thing, but that’s about it. For the other scenes of violence, did you guys actually shoot a lot of that stuff and then cut around it in the finished film?

I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m not sure what’s in there, but it was intended that you didn’t see a lot of it. But there are probably other things that we shot and didn’t use. Lynne is a really amazing filmmaker because the more her back is against the wall, the stronger she gets, the better the ideas that come to her. She’s like this brilliant eleventh-hour kind of person. And it’s really astonishing because the story shifted throughout production. There were a couple times where I thought, “Fuck, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner and we’re totally fucked.” And she just came up with something at the last minute, you know, and it was really, really impressive. Like, the brothel sequence was originally conceived as something different, and then she got to location.… But that’s what happens; you imagine something in your head and then you have to react to the location. That’s part of what filmmaking is, right? It’s the imagination, and then it’s the reality of what you’re working with. She was great at just reacting to the environment and coming up with something that felt unique.

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The Psycho references, when you’re playfully doing the “eee eee eee” sound and air-stabbing your mom — were those always there, or were those improvised?

Does it happen upstairs in the bathroom?

It happens twice early on in the finished film — once when she’s actually watching Psycho on TV, where you do it playfully. And then up in the bathroom, when she’s yelling at you from the other side of the door, and then you do it again — and it’s slightly more sinister the second time.

We shot all of that stuff with the mom over, like, two or three days in the same house. We played around with different versions of me coming home — what that could be like. And it was three takes in or something when Judith [Roberts, who plays the mother] said that she was watching Psycho; it wasn’t written in the script. She just said that, and so I did the Psycho voice. But I didn’t know if that was the take that was going to be used, so then upstairs when we shot that other scene, it just came up again. And I didn’t know if we would use that version or not. You know, there’s probably like four or five different versions of those scenes, each different.

Those two little moments early on in the film really let us know that we’re watching something quite different from the average revenge drama. They’re funny, of course, but they’re also revealing about the mother-son relationship.

Yeah. Initially in the story there was an almost idyllic dynamic to their relationship, where I was this loving son.… But it seemed like as we got into it, the reality is that when you’re taking care of somebody like that, who has a lot of needs and is struggling, inevitably you’re going to feel frustration. We wanted to find ways to show that.

When you’ve got a character like this who is so wounded, with such a complicated and tragic backstory, to what extent do you have to connect to those kinds of feelings to feel like you’re doing justice to the part?

I don’t know. It’s a good question, it’s a fair question. Movies are strange, man. Sometimes, you hear the writer talk about it, and you read about some of this stuff. For example, we spoke to someone who actually does [hostage] extractions. He goes in with a team. Some of the stories that he told were impossible not to be affected by. But to be honest, sometimes you’re fuckin’ eatin’ Fritos, and you shoot a scene. [Laughs] And you want to take credit for stuff as an actor, but the truth is that it’s really the filmmaking, ultimately. Probably some of the greatest moments in movies the actor was just thinking what was for lunch. So, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. There are times where you feel affected by things, and it’s emotional. But there’s other times when you go, “This scene is shit, and this is not fuckin’ working.” Then somebody tells you a year later, “I really love that scene. It felt powerful.” And you’re like, “Oh, really?” It’s probably different on every movie. And I think you learn something from every movie — even if the lesson is “Well, let’s not do that again.”

There were parts of this film that were really challenging. Part of it is that we put in a lot of time, a lot of work in pre-production, and that’s about going all day long, into the night, going through and talking. Also, Jim Wilson, who’s the producer, was a really big part of that process. There were a lot of changes to the script, and when you spend your time thinking about one subject matter, it starts seeping into you. Inevitably you’re affected by it. But there are times where maybe it’s just that you’re emotionally available, and so you can go in and shoot a scene and be brought right into it. But, you know, there were times in the fuckin’ brothel where the hammer would bend, and I’d be carrying it in my hand and everybody would be laughing. And I’d go, “Oh, what the fuck’s going on?” You know what I mean? I hope it ends up being a tense sequence, but over the one or two days that we shot it, there were moments that were really tense, and there were moments where we were going, “This is a stupid line. How the fuck are we gonna say this? What is this?”

So, how do you get through that? You’ve talked about trying to avoid being self-conscious. How do you pull that off? Because you seem to do it pretty well.

[Long pause]

And I realize that probably makes you self-conscious too, me just saying that…

I don’t know. There’s not one approach. It depends on the scene. The important thing with this movie was — and I acknowledge I probably do this a lot — to feel comfortable enough to make a lot of mistakes. To be able to say there’s not one right way for him to behave. Again, it seemed like the key was not knowing what his reaction was going to be. I’m sure that sometimes we used just a really straight version of a given scene, but we filmed so many different versions. You just dive head on into that feeling. But sometimes, when you’re making a movie, yeah, your nerves wear off and you grow accustomed to it, or you get tired, or whatever. Maybe it’s a million things over the course of the six weeks. So you just go, “OK, well, this is fuckin’ shit,” and you go outside and you sit and you talk about it, and you try to connect again to what is meaningful about this moment — to try and uncover something that you can latch onto. I guess. I don’t fuckin’ know, man.

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In You Were Never Really Here, there’s a random shot, almost part of a montage, where you’re reading a book and you tear out a page as you’re reading it. Do you remember the motivation behind tearing that page, or even what book it was? It’s such a mysterious little moment.

I don’t remember the book. It was just sitting there. That was another day in which we were shooting stuff in the house, and we had all these different things that we talked about as possibilities. I don’t remember why that came up. Honestly, it was probably nothing. There probably wasn’t like a great idea behind it. Don’t know that it symbolizes anything. I think it was just in that moment, it happened.… We shot a bunch of stuff. We shot a thing with the knife [Phoenix’s character plays with a knife, balancing it in front of his face] and we decided to use that, and use this book. But I honestly don’t remember what occurred to me in that moment. Maybe it’s something that I read about somewhere, or something I did once. I don’t remember. I have no idea why I did that.

It’s a great little moment. It’s probably better that you don’t remember why you did it.

It is. I mean, those are the things that I’m most interested in and want to be open to. I’ve become less interested in mapping things out, as an actor, and making decisions. Or maybe I’m just not good at doing that. Maybe, like, once I’ve made the decision, in that moment, it becomes boring. It just feels dead to me if you say, “This is what we’re doing.” And so, it’s just trying to be open to inspiration and what happens in the moment — feeling comfortable enough to make those decisions.

I don’t know if it’s in there, but do I sing a song in the movie, to the mirror? At the Russian bathhouse. It was just another thing that we’d talked about. A song that my grandfather used to sing to me. We were just trying things in that moment, and I think we were always trying to figure out where the song might go. I don’t know whether it came from Jim or Lynne or both, but they said, “Maybe try it here.” Sometimes, you have something and you don’t know precisely where it goes or if it will work, but you just try to create the space to try those things.

It’s revealing hearing you talk about this. My job is to write about movies, and often I have to discuss why the filmmakers made certain decisions. But hearing you talk, it’s clear that so many of those decisions are intuitive. You don’t necessarily sit down and reason them out.

Yeah, I’ve had both experiences, and certainly, my preference is the more intuitive — because I do think that if you’ve done your work and you feel familiar with the character in the world, that’s…I don’t know, any analogy sounds stupid. It’s like you have all your ingredients, right, and so you know your basics, of what you’re going to put together. But in the moment, you try a few different.… Oh, man, I don’t want to say herbs or fuckin’ spices! That’s so terrible; I don’t want to use that analogy! But you understand what I’m saying. And that is a joy. When I was younger, I thought the whole key to good acting was figuring it out, and locking something in and nailing it. And I just find that repulsive now. It was really something that we went after on this — just trying to be available and open to what the scene might tell you. I like that way of working.

I haven’t seen Mary Magdalene yet; I don’t even know when it will come out in the U.S. But how exactly does one prepare to play Jesus?

Well, there is a lot of information to consume, and a lot of it seems to contradict each other. So you just start reading all sorts of shit, and you go, “OK, well, I like this, and I like that.…” For me, it was important trying to find true contemporary figures that I thought possessed qualities that I was interested in. We always think about the spirit and mythical side of Jesus, but I was trying to find the humanity. That’s what makes the crucifixion such a sacrifice, because if he was just spirit-body then it’s like, “Great, I’m goin’ back.” Oftentimes, for me, research is great. Like, it’s great to take in a lot of information; it will give you ideas, and you’ll try to focus on, you know, what your character fuckin’ ate daily or whatever bullshit it is, right? But oftentimes it’s not until I start experiencing something, at least for me, that I start feeling close to it. I don’t know what the process is, but sometimes I just have to start having the experience. There was this healing scene we did, and it wasn’t until Garth [Davis, the director] and I started talking about it when we were on set, and I was in wardrobe, and I was touching the sand, did I start thinking about it differently — sort of feeling it instead of having this idea that in some ways was…I don’t know, I don’t want to say polluted, but in some ways polluted by the research that I did. I had a particular idea, and then when I got there it started changing. And I’m sure there’s still pieces of that work that are in there, but then it becomes something else — and to me, that’s the ideal place to get to.




“Claire’s Camera” Star Isabelle Huppert on the Unpredictable Magic of Hong Sang-soo

The unexpectedly perfect pairing of actress Isabelle Huppert and director Hong Sang-soo makes for cinematic gold once again in their latest collaboration, Claire’s Camera, whose run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center continues to be held over. Huppert (whom Melissa Anderson profiled for the Voice in 2016) has always been game for treading unfamiliar territory in her bold acting endeavors, and she here eases into the role of the charming foreigner, even as she sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the mostly-Korean cast (as she did in Hong’s 2012 In Another Country). She’s the outsider yet again, though she’s technically on home territory in the France-set Claire’s Camera. Hong, meanwhile, is the South Korean heir to the influence of chatty French directors like Éric Rohmer, and is also beloved by the crowd at the Cannes Film Festival, which is where the breezy yet profound new film takes place. Like much of Hong’s recent work, Claire’s Camera traces an older director’s affair with a younger woman (played by Hong’s muse, Kim Min-hee). Huppert’s Claire walks around Cannes with a Polaroid camera, taking photos of strangers, an act her character views as life-changing. Huppert spoke to the Voice about appearing in another of Hong’s quick-turnaround masterpieces, the meaningful misnomer of the title, and, possibly, acting in Korean next.

I last saw you in Mrs. Hyde, so it was fun to see you playing a teacher again in Claire’s Camera — and wearing a similar outfit, even.

Yeah, absolutely.

You don’t set things on fire in this one, though!

No, no, that’s for sure.

I would love to hear what the whole shooting process was like during the Cannes Film Festival.

Hong usually works in very few days. This is really something that he’s used to. So we shot the movie in six or seven days. We were slightly off the main street where all the people are gathered. So, it’s very exciting, because we can hear the festival, mainly because we talk about the festival, and, you know, I [have that line], “Oh, this is my first time to the festival.”

A lot of people laugh at that.

Right. You would think it would be, like, my 25th time at Cannes. And so, everybody laughs in France, too. We see a film company presenting a movie, and we understand that all the Korean people involved in the story were there for the festival, but in fact, we never see the festival. Also I find it so magical that at some point you can even mistake the Cannes beach for a Korean beach. It’s very gray, not really what you expect from the Mediterranean Sea. And it’s very small, like a Korean seashore. I did another Hong film previously, In Another Country, which we shot in Korea, and the beach where I walk during that film is very much alike, similar to the beach in Cannes. My home country is really a magician because it brings a little bit of Korea in Cannes — not only spiritually, but also geographically and aesthetically!

Even if you’re shooting in your own country, you’re still sort of a foreigner in the movie, like you were in In Another Country. What does that context bring out in your character?

Absolutely. Well, I think she’s more like a mix between a deus ex machina figure and a fairy. She organized meetings and got people back together. It’s really a metaphor for me about moviemaking. But at the same time, it’s about the power of images. I mean, this is something that runs around the theme, but that is clearly stated at some point when she says, in order to change people, you have to watch them really, really carefully, and this is, in a way, what you expect from moviemaking. You know, just to watch people, and try to make them better, or understand them by paying attention to them. In the film, I work with cameras. And of course it’s not a movie camera, it’s a photo camera. But in French, there’s a misunderstanding, and I think it’s intentional. In English, “camera” can be a photo camera or a movie camera. But in French, “caméra” is only for a movie camera. And I’m sure that Hong is smart enough to have understood that there was a slight confusion between the words, because, in fact, I’m not using a movie camera, but just a photo camera. But since I’m sure he knows that, we present Claire in the position of the filmmaker in the film, so it doesn’t really matter that there was a little misunderstanding about the word.

Wow, I didn’t realize that! That’s such a great way to think about your character, because Hong loves to play around with time, rewinding time and such, and you are the character who does that. Do you have a similar philosophy about photography as your character — about how it changes a person?

I don’t think it’s really changed people, no I don’t. But yes, because at some point if I take your picture, you are not the same person anymore. I mean, it’s a very mysterious line. You make them feel better, because that’s about human connections and relationships, you know? So, if I watch, yes, see, I’m not the same person anymore. Just because I paid a little attention to you.

How was it working on this movie in such a short amount of time, given Hong’s notorious script changes?

There is no script with Hong. There is no script at all. He just likes to feel…. And so, you don’t basically really know what the movie is about. He would only give you a little bit of information. For instance, he told me that I would be a teacher. Then, day by day, he would give you the scene, and he writes the scene each evening, and the next day you would receive the scene. Then it’s a lot of work because nothing is improvised. It’s very much written and it’s really his dialogue, so each morning you’d learn the lines.

What’s the story behind the song Kim Min-hee sings to your character? It’s so funny.

Oh, that’s so funny, that’s so sweet, yes, I know…. [singing] One, one, one. Two, two, two. Three, three, three. Four, four, four. So funny. But I have no idea. It might be something they just made up. I think that this movie is so charming, and so funny, and so light, and so deep, and so moving. Like that scene where I tell her I’m a recent widow; my companion just passed away. That’s really very moving.

A lot of people tend to read autobiographical things into Hong’s movies.

I think that in all his movies, there is a lot of autobiographical material. But all of them are kind of twisted. And even if it’s autobiographical material, it’s not sometimes completely obvious, and it’s not a literal self, about himself. But to some degree, yes, it is sometimes quite autobiographical. It’s Michelangelo Antonioni who said, “all movies are autobiographical.” I like this quote. It might be very true.

“This movie is so charming, and so funny, and so light,” Isabelle Huppert says of Hong Sang-soo’s Cannes-set film.

The man who plays the director also looks so much like Hong.

Oh, my God, he looks exactly like him, I know.

People often compare Hong to Éric Rohmer. Do you find that fair?

Yes, especially on that movie, because that movie’s a clear reference to Claire’s Knee. So yes, in the sense that it’s very verbal. On the other hand, I think he’s also different from Rohmer. Hong is poetic in a different way. I mean, it’s certainly a compliment to him, because I can tell why people refer to his moviemaking as a Rohmerian way of doing it.

I thought the title could be a Rohmer reference and also an homage to Claire Denis.

Yes, sure, possibly, because I know that Claire is a very good friend.

You’ve worked with many amazing directors. What sets apart Hong from the others you’ve collaborated with?

He’s very special. No one in the world makes little masterpieces like him in such a short time. It’s unique. The way he makes films, I can’t think of anybody else that they can be compared to. I think even in his own country, he is also very different. South Korea has all sorts of brilliant filmmakers such as Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, but Hong is so different from anyone else. Completely singular.

Have you picked up any Korean from him?

No. No. Annyeonghaseyo, I think that’s the only word I know. That’s hello, bonjour. I should learn. In the first film, it was the subject of the film that I was a total stranger, a foreigner, being literally submerged in the Korean world. It was the heart of the film that I wasn’t supposed to understand what they were saying.

I was going to say, in your next Hong film, you could just speak only in Korean.

Yup, absolutely. Maybe I should suggest it.

Do you have a personal favorite Hong movie, besides the ones that you’ve appeared in?

I love Woman Is the Future of a Man. And Right Now, Wrong Then.

Do you have any plans to work with Hong again?

Not in the near future, but with this film he called me a month before and said, “Do you want to come and shoot a movie in five days?” And I said, “Yeah, OK, I’ll do it.” It was my last day doing a play in Paris, and the next morning I flew to Cannes and started shooting while presenting Paul Verhoeven’s Elle at the festival. He’s very unpredictable; he could call me anytime. If he calls me and I can do it, I certainly will.


Al Pacino on His Career, Working With Scorsese, and That Time He Discovered Jessica Chastain

It’s kind of bewildering to think that there hasn’t been a major New York retrospective of Al Pacino’s films until now. But maybe now is also, in its own way, the perfect time. Starting today, the Quad Cinema presents “Pacino’s Way,” a 34-film salute (running through March 30) to the legendary, New York–born actor’s extraordinary career. The breadth of the work on display is staggering — obviously, it includes triumphs like The Godfather and Serpico and Heat (and Carlito’s Way, and The Insider, and Donnie Brasco, and The Panic in Needle Park, and…) — but it also includes some of his lesser-known work, like the little-seen Local Stigmatic, a passion project from the late Eighties, as well as much-reviled titles like Revolution and Bobby Deerfield. (He’s got a lot to say about those, by the way. Read on.)

Central to this retrospective are two films directed by Pacino that haven’t before had a proper release. Wilde Salomé is a freewheeling, collage-like documentary he made about his obsession with, and efforts to stage, Oscar Wilde’s notorious drama of sexual self-destruction, Salomé. And then there’s Pacino’s film of the play itself, Salomé. Both works star Jessica Chastain, who was an unknown at the time. I spoke to Pacino recently about some of these movies, his beginnings in experimental theater — and also about whether he sometimes takes things too far.

Where did the obsession with Oscar Wilde and with Salomé come from?

I was in London and saw the Steven Berkoff production of Salomé. I’d never heard anything like it. As florid as the language was, it was the real thing: real poetry, coming from a place of deep passion. I didn’t even know it was Oscar Wilde who wrote this. “I would like to meet the writer,” I thought! [Laughs] It was so unlike Oscar. I mean, his plays are classic and great, but this really spoke to me in a different way.

Then, I played it in costume, in a production that was done at the Circle in the Square. Robert Ackerman directed it, and I enjoyed the experience. But it stayed with me, for some reason. I started trying to interpret it in different ways. I saw Man and Superman done at a podium, and it was a wonderful experience hearing that play; I thought maybe a Salomé reading like that could go over — because perhaps a costume and big sets can get in the way of the play a little bit. I wanted to present it in a somewhat abstract, avant-garde fashion, and allow the imagination to do the rest. I was in L.A. visiting my youngest children, and I was going to stay there. I thought, “What will I do while I’m here?” I started thinking on doing a documentary.

Is that when you met Jessica Chastain?

I did a little reading of it, in L.A., and I was casting the part of Salomé. She was unknown at the time, and came in to read for us…and she took me over. I remember looking over at the producer Robert Fox at the time, as she was reading. I said, “Are you seeing this? Or am I dreaming?” I knew at that moment: “All right, I’m gonna film this thing.”

I remember hearing over the years about her performance in Salomé and how she basically booked a lot of her early parts out of that.

Yes. That’s true. Director friends of mine, people I’ve known, heard about it and wanted to see it, so I sent them footage of what we were doing. It was so clear that she was a real actress and that she had this charisma and this classical feeling — and yet she could also do anything, pretty much. And they hired her! Right on the spot. It was great. While we were filming, I said to her, “I only hope that this film can live up or come close to what you’re doing as Salomé.” That became my goal.

At what point then did you decide it would be two films — the documentary Wilde Salomé and then the film version of the play, Salomé?

Making the documentary, you’re sort of writing as you go, trying to find the direction. Films don’t work much as collages; they need some sort of dramatic storyline, as fake as it may be. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew there was a point for this somehow, so I made a film of the actual reading we were doing on stage; my producers thought it would be a good side thing, if we put out the DVD. But then I realized there’s something going on here; this can be a part of the experience. I thought the actual Wilde Salomé didn’t have enough; it didn’t complete itself. I really also wanted a full-out experience of Salomé and what we did. So, now, there’s Wilde Salomé, and then you can also see the film of the play Salomé.

Pacino and Jessica Chastain in “Wilde Salomé”

This is very much in line with the other films you’ve directed. Not just Looking for Richard, your film about doing Shakespeare’s Richard III, but also Chinese Coffee, which I love, and which is about two writers who get tangled up in each other’s fictions. All of these films are about the creative process. You investigate it not just in terms of subject matter, but also through the very forms of the films themselves. Where does the fascination with process come from?

It probably comes from early on in my life. I would have these talks with Judith Malina, who played my mother in Dog Day Afternoon, and who was the founder, along with Julian Beck, of The Living Theatre, which was my inspiration. And that was all part of the phenomenon that was going on in the Village in the Sixties. A lot of people don’t know I came out of the Village scene, and my association with The Living Theatre. I read that little bit of that Bob Dylan book [Chronicles], which is wonderful, and I read where he was, what he was doing. We had to have passed each other in the streets. It was a great place to be because it was a renaissance, and we all sort of were part of it. And you could be poor there; I don’t know about being poor in Manhattan anymore.

Judith was the most amazing of people. We would talk about the collective work, which was coming out of the Brecht ensembles. We tried it when we were at the Public Theater doing a version of the Bertolt Brecht play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which parallels the rise of Hitler and the rise of some Chicago gangster in the vegetable business. It’s kind of farcical — a satire with horror in it. Joe Papp allowed us the room, and for months we, collectively, thirty of us, worked on the play. We had a director…we had actually two directors there. And John Cazale was a part of it, and Richard Lynch, all these people. You’d start off with a scene and you’d have thirty people looking at it, and you’d get input with thirty different ideas. You’d talk about things for hours and days, and then you’d get up and do a little of it, and you’d go back and talk about it more. What you finally wind up doing together is forming a world. It’s called the world of the play, and once you have some handle on that, it gets easier to act in those things — you do less acting and more living. I was enamored with this. That process of working is not feasible in the commercial world. But Judith Malina was a real champion of that sort of idea. I was in my thirties when it happened; I don’t know how I’d feel about it now.

Besides the one that you’ve directed, have there been other films along the way where you feel like you’ve been able to have that kind of collective, collaborative process?

I don’t think so, just off the top of my head, because it’s another world. But every once in a while, you know, you’re talking to a few of your co-actors, and it’s so interesting the way they respond to things. Actors, mainly. Because it gives them something to do other than learn the words. It’s a little more difficult in this day and age because as soon as you hit that set, they’re in it; they don’t even rehearse. It’s every man for himself. You’ve got to go in there and figure it out on your own. But Bob De Niro also once told me, “Don’t rehearse unless you rehearse with people who know how to rehearse.” He makes a good point!

I talked to Michael Mann last year about Heat and he said something interesting contrasting the way you and De Niro approached your parts. He said De Niro would be the guy who asked a lot of analytical questions about his part and about his motivations, but that you just absorbed the scene weeks in advance and had it bouncing around in your head as a way of building out the character. Does that sound right?

Yes, at times, because I work relative to what is around me. The role, the amount of time, what I’m doing, who I’m doing it with. I really like to approach roles, if I can, alone. It’s almost like writing about the character. Consuming it. I used to say “channeling it.” But I require more rehearsal than I usually get, and so I have to figure out how to cope with that. The thing I remember with Heat is saying, “Well, what are these mood changes the character has?” I thought, “All right, he chips cocaine, this guy.” And it turns out he did! Every once in a while I’d ask Mike, “Could you shoot something?” Because the audience doesn’t know he’s chipping cocaine like a nut, and they’re thinking, “What’s the matter with him?” And so we even shot something. But it’s not in the film. So, sometimes I look a little irrational. But that’s the source I used. I thought it added a kind of interesting texture to a cop.

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In a lot of your earlier parts there is a kind of understated quality — the characters are very watchful, always absorbing things. In later years, you’re unafraid to go big, to at times be almost theatrical. Was that a conscious decision, or an evolution?

I think sometimes I went there because I see myself kind of like a tenor. And a tenor needs to hit those high notes once in a while. Even if they’re wrong. So sometimes they’re way off. There’s a couple of roles that, you know, the needle screeched on the record. But if I ever see a movie that I feel, “Oh, gee, I went too far,” I just fast-forward it a bit and move on. [Laughs] If I had to do it again…I don’t know, I might still do it that way. I think what happens is once you do it one or two times, it becomes a signature.

In Scarface, for instance. Brian [De Palma] said right at the start, “This is an opera, and this is what we’re gonna go for. This is not down-and-dirty realism.” And we called it Brechtian. That’s what we went for. Oliver Stone allowed for that in his conception and writing of the script. I saw that character as bigger than life; I didn’t see him as three-dimensional. It’s like, you know, Icarus and the sun; I saw him fly with that thing. That was the dynamic of Tony Montana that we went for.

When I saw Paul Muni do the original Scarface, I only wanted to do one thing and that’s imitate him. And of course my performance is not at all like what he did, but I think I was more inspired by that performance than any I have seen. I called Marty Bregman after I saw it, and said, “Marty, I think we should try to redo Scarface. Howard Hawks of all people!” And of course he got Lumet, who came up with that great idea of having him come in on the boat lift — a Cuban refugee. That broke the ice. Oliver went in there and wrote that script. Then somehow Lumet and Marty Bregman didn’t agree on the way to go with the film, so Brian did it. And he did a great job.

When [the Quad] offered me this [retrospective], I thought, if we’re going to do this, I would rather it be a lot of roles that are different — including roles that I sort of failed in. That’s sort of what it’s about: You’re seeing an actor’s struggle, and getting there and not getting there. An actor isn’t even aware that that’s happening. Because you take each thing on, hopefully, like it’s the very first thing you ever did.

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There are a number of films in this retro that weren’t well-received when they came out. I’ve always quite liked Revolution, which was a huge dud.

It was absolutely destroyed. There are people who have throughout the years known what Hugh Hudson did in that film — some of the work he did in that as a filmmaker is just simply extraordinary. We stopped filming six weeks too early, and we should have gone back. At the same time, I said, “Hugh, I think there’s a step to be made here.” And for twenty years we kept trying to communicate and get together. We wrote a narration, which is in the film now. We spent money to do that. They cut a little more out, too, I guess. It all seems to help the film; it lifted it.

There’s another thing about certain films that didn’t work. I don’t like to look at them again, but when I watch them in retrospect, sometimes I’ll see something interesting. I was never a big fan of Scarecrow, for some reason. I don’t know why, at that particular time. And probably I don’t know still if I’m a fan of it or not. I haven’t seen it all. But Quentin [Tarantino] has this theater where he shows different movies from different eras, all in 35mm. To me, that’s the test: 35mm. He says, “Al, take a look at this. Come, take a look at Scarecrow.” I said, “Well, you know…” I was reluctant to see it. But he said, wisely, “See the first five minutes, Al. Just look at the first five minutes.” Well, I went and I saw the first five minutes, and it was…a revelation. Because you have Vilmos Zsigmond, you have Jerry Schatzberg, together. Two great photographers, working on a location. And that opening on 35 is shocking! Jerry Schatzberg gets these two guys in that five-minute span to connect when they absolutely are opposite ends of the world.

We have something here in this country that everything should work. Well, I don’t believe in that. I really think there are aspects in film sometimes that in and of themselves work, and are worth going to see. I had an old European guy once tell me that. “You know, Americans have this thing with film that it’s gotta work, and what does that mean? It always works for you — a film that works for you doesn’t work for me, works for someone else, though.” But when you see a moment that is captivating…well, it’s worth it, isn’t it? You don’t look at someone’s fifty paintings. You look at the painting! One painting! That’s enough.

Another film in this series that I’m excited to see on a big screen is Bobby Deerfield, which is a gorgeous movie, but which was also considered a disappointment.

Yeah, well, I wasn’t a big fan of that. I saw it a hundred years ago, didn’t want to see it again, naturally. And then one day a couple of years ago, I was sitting in my house and it came on, and I watched it. And it is imperfect, of course — but ultimately, it got me. Because so much of the film is the time. You perceive things because of what’s around you; that’s part of our game. What I responded to in Bobby Deerfield is that in it, you saw something revealed in this character, low-key — something I was going through in my life at that time. It wasn’t a performance that was coming at you, but it was something personal, and it showed. I saw it on a TV set, in the intimacy of my home, so perhaps that had something to do with it, and so many years had passed, and the memories of it — it was revealing. Maybe on the big screen it won’t work. But I figured, you know, show the ones that didn’t work, too. You can see the effort, and the contrast. But then there’s the roles that do come along once in a while where you say, “Oh, gee, I want to do this. I want to paint this. I want to express myself through this role.” That’s the luxury. That’s when you’re lucky.

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What are some parts over the years that felt like that?

They come once in a while. I had it with The Indian Wants the Bronx, one of the first things I did Off-Broadway, and a really fortunate debut for me. A big step in my life, and certainly in what they call a “career.” Because I didn’t even know what a career was when I was in the Village in the old days. I just didn’t even think about it. I thought, “Where’s the paint, where’s the canvas?” That was what was in the air, in the streets, in the cafes that we performed in. You do sixteen shows a week, so you’re getting practice. Hopefully by the end of the sixteen, you know a little bit more than you did with the first show. That’s been my mantra: Just keep doing it. But I certainly remember feeling a certain expression when I did Pavlo Hummel, which I did in ’77, ’78. I felt it there. My roles in film, I certainly felt it in Scarface — that I was speaking to something. I was thinking just the other day, there’s a performance and then there’s a portrayal, and there’s a difference. When you finally get a certain thing, it becomes a portrayal. The others sometimes fall into the category of performance. But mostly what you’re always trying to do is get to the personal — because that’s what art is. It’s got something to do with how you feel about what you’re doing.

So many of your films have been genre movies: a cop thriller, a gangster movie, whatever. Take a movie like Sea of Love, which has a fairly conventional, predictable mystery structure, but you and Ellen Barkin completely transform it. By the end, we’ve been through this intense emotional experience. That’s something few actors can do on a regular basis.

I guess when you look at the roles objectively, you can see how different they are from each other. So, probably the guy in Sea of Love is different than the guy in Heat, or the guy in Insomnia. And then when you look at the gangsters, from Michael Corleone to Tony Montana, they may be in the same genre but they’re different. I know that I’ve consciously tried to separate the two. I try to find the difference in characters. Like Lefty in Donnie Brasco is different than Carlito in Carlito’s Way.

But there’s a four-year break between Revolution and when Sea of Love came out. I stopped doing movies for four years. I just didn’t want to do this anymore. I did three things in a row that didn’t come off. One was, of all things, Scarface, which did good business, but had a real backlash — it was run through the mill. Then there was Author! Author! And then there was Revolution. Those three were not only not received well, they were really criticized in a way that made me think, “Well, what am I doing? I don’t want to keep doing this.” I did the films, yes. You do them sometimes because you try things. And my great friend and producer, Marty Bregman, who produced some of the biggest films I did, said to me a while back, “What’re you doing, Al? What’re you doing?!” I said, “What do you mean what am I doing? I want to explore certain things.”

He says, “You don’t explore with this! Go Off-Off-Broadway, explore! Don’t do it on the street!”

I said, “Well—”

“No! It’s not…no! Don’t do it there!”

He was right, because there is such a thing as a career, and I’d never looked at it that way. That’s why they have tryouts out of town, you know? You don’t do everything there on the main stage. Because you’re not there for the avant-garde films you make; you’re there because you made successful films that were commercial. That’s why you’re there. You start understanding that.

What made you come back?

During my hiatus, guess what, I went broke. My accountant. It’s happened to me twice. So, there it was. No money! And I was living with my great love, Diane Keaton, and she would look at me and say, “Well, what are you doing?” Because any money I had I spent on The Local Stigmatic [a play by Heathcote Williams that Pacino spent some years turning into a film]. I had a real belief in that. I made a film of it, which I think you’ll see in the retrospective — a very interesting, crazy little thing. But I went to it, and worked on that, I had fun, and I didn’t want to be on the main stage anymore. Diane turned around one day and said, “What, you think you’re going to go back to living in a room? Like the old days?” She said, “You’ve had money for too long now. You gotta get back to work.” She used to read a lot, and had a lot of different things going on all the time. She was very active. She found Sea of Love for me. She said, “This script is good, and it’s good for you.” I read it, and I brought it to Bregman, naturally. Marty got it done. And it was a kind of resurgence for me because I came out and did that, and I did a few more films. You know, the old comeback.

Pacino and Ellen Barkin in “Sea of Love”

There are those movies, what would you call them? More. A movie that will reach a larger audience. I would imagine The Irishman will have a larger audience. You’re playing with someone like Martin Scorsese, one of the great film artists of our time. At the same time he’s doing something that has come to be known as popular. Did you read that book, I Heard You Paint Houses? It’s wild. Wow. It’s a very interesting script. And there’s Marty at the helm of this tapestry he’s making. You never know what something’s going to be, but I think he’s really going to make something interesting there, no doubt about it.

Everybody’s excited obviously because it’s the first time you’re working with Scorsese. But you’re also reunited with De Niro, and then he’s reunited with Joe Pesci — all these expectations now.

Absolutely, yes, yes. But Scorsese’s got the script that he’s written with Steve Zaillian. The composition is there. Certain films have a shot. [Scorsese] is a great, great man. He’s a great person to work with, and to work for. There’s a trust you get with some of these directors. Barry Levinson’s one of them, too. They just make you feel like you’re taken care of. Warren Beatty too, same thing. No matter what, their equilibrium, their judgment is something you trust. And it gives you a certain freedom.

Have there been directors along the way who pushed you, or challenged you, in ways that you didn’t quite anticipate?

There have been some in the theatre. But I remember…well, this one’s a sad story. I was doing a play, and the director came up to me in front of the stage, he pulled me down to the foot of the stage and said, “Listen, Al, here’s the thing. This guy goes here and this guy does this, and when he does this, he does this. And he’s been doing that, and does this. You see?” I said, “Yeah. You know a lot about this character. I think you should play him yourself!” And that was it — we were finished after that! No more talking, no more friends. It was over. But that was me early on. Not me now, I have to say; I’ve been through so much that I wouldn’t do something like this again. Not that I’m against it. To this day, I don’t care for people who tell me what the character is. I can’t believe it’ll help me.

The best direction I ever got in my life in the theatre was by my mentor and dear friend Charlie Laughton. I was young, and doing Richard III. Charlie had helped me throughout my life; I met him when I was seventeen. He was older, he was a teacher of acting and a poet, and he was with me in Boston when I was doing Richard, with the great David Wheeler, the Theater Company in Boston. I had done The Godfather, and my life had changed. Everything had changed. I was drinking and doing everything you do when you’re going through this sort of drama, you know.

So, anyway, there I was in Boston doing Richard III. It was the opening, and I was working in this experimental way of doing it. Then we got to The Loeb, in Boston — I hope I got that right. And when I came out for the second act, two thirds of the audience was gone! [Laughs] And I thought, “What the fuck did I do?” My experiment had gone awry. And the set, which was all wrong for the play. And they were leaving. But as it went on, I continued on with it, and by the end of the two- or three-week run, it sort of got a little better — I mean, they weren’t all leaving. I was getting ready to leave, and Charlie said, “No, don’t go yet, Al. There’s something going on there.” David Wheeler said, “Let’s go,” and we went to the Church of the Covenant, and did it in a church. And I came out of the pulpit for the opening: “Now is the winter of our discontent…” and that was it. I was there. So, it happened. I tried it again…I even made a film of it. At that time, my life was so big, it could absorb Richard, you know. It stimulated my imagination.

But I remember doing a scene where I said all kinds of things, and I came out and I talked to the audience to tell them what I was going to do next. And I did it, and Charlie called me afterward, and said, “Al, remember one thing. When you come out to talk to the audience, everything you’ve done already, they’ve seen!” How about that? Talk about that changing you. I mean it was extraordinary. That’s the kind of direction one can tolerate.

‘Pacino’s Way’
Quad Cinema
March 14–30

Wilde Salomé and Salomé
Open March 30th, Quad Cinema

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‘Style Is a Difficult Word for Me’: Joe Wright on His Winston Churchill Drama “Darkest Hour”

Good news: Joe Wright is back. The director of Darkest Hour, which stars the evidently Oscar-bound Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in his early days as prime minister, exploded onto the film scene around a decade ago with two beautiful, hugely successful works: In 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement, Wright took what could have easily become prestigious, sober, tradition-of-quality literary adaptations, and infused them with a fevered sense of style and movement, and even dashes of surrealism.

His bold use of film form hinted at his eclectic inspirations: his parents’ puppet theater in the London borough of Islington; his work on stage shows with electronica bands; his music videos; and his own cinephilia. Later movies, like 2011’s Hanna and 2012’s Anna Karenina, expanded Wright’s style even further, though they didn’t get quite the same level of acclaim. Then he went the blockbuster route with 2015’s Peter Pan tale Pan, which…well, flopped. Mightily.

But with Darkest Hour, Wright has returned to the kind of filmmaking that put him on the map: taking serious, potentially somber material and reinventing it for the screen through intricate, inventive cinematic technique. (At times, it feels like we’re watching a musical, even though nobody sings in the film.) I spoke to him recently about his conception of Churchill, the perceived conflict between form and content, and how he finds the right actors to convey his curious visions.


I was not a big fan of Pan, and after the failure of that film, when I heard you were doing a Winston Churchill movie, I thought, “Oh no, Joe Wright’s wings have been clipped, and it’s just going to be a straightforward, play-it-safe biopic.” But then I saw Darkest Hour, and those opening moments with the camera swooping down on Parliament, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Well, Pan was a very interesting experiment for me. It was an experiment that didn’t go so well, but we possibly learn more from the things that don’t go well than we do from the things that do. And I realized after making that film that what really interests me — what I love, the reason I got into cinema in the first place, really — was cinematic drama. And hopefully that’s what I’m good at too. So, it’s lovely to be back making that kind of work.

When we think of Churchill, certainly in the U.S., he is a god. But you present a Churchill who nobody likes. He’s a mess, wracked by self-doubt. And it’s not like suddenly he isn’t and he changes. It’s that within all that self-doubt and all that turmoil and all that constant criticism and conspiring, he —

And you wonder why I wanted to make this film after Pan! [Laughs]

I’m glad you said it and not me!

Yeah, I mean that’s what happened. What I love about the story is that it’s about the importance of doubt in the search for wisdom, and the importance of wisdom in leadership. And so, when I first read the script, I knew that he wasn’t the popular choice. In Britain as opposed to America, we’re much more used to conversations about his failures and the policies that he got wrong, which are numerous prior to the war; he’d had a very long career before he became prime minister. But when I read the script, I discovered this wonderful humor. It made me laugh and it made me cry, and then it made me consider doubt as something really positive — which is kind of what I needed at the time.

You’ve talked in the past about your influences — your parents’ marionette theater and things like that — but I’m always curious about where you draw the line. At what point does style become too much, too burdensome? I love the fact that Anna Karenina was just awash in cinematic technique and elaborate, surreal set pieces. Here, it’s still quite present, but more subdued. How do you make that decision of how far to go? Is it just intuitive?

It’s partly intuitive. What happens is there’s an intuition, and then one goes back and examines the intuition, and almost tries to post-rationalize it. And if you can’t support it, then it’s possibly not the right idea, and if you can, then it is. “Style” is a difficult word for me because it denotes something surface, and I think I prefer the word “form,” and playing with the nature of cinematic form, and finding the correct form for the specific material. And so, at the time it felt to me that the kind of very Brechtian form, if you like — or Meyerholdian form — of Anna Karenina was the correct one for that specific story. With this, I wanted something that was more realistic. And I use “realistic” as opposed to “naturalistic” pointedly. There was a point where we had the shots tracking through the walls, we’re kind of cutting outside of the room or outside of the elevator with the telephone call to Roosevelt with the elevator going up, and I had to consider those very carefully and to make sure that there was substance behind those stylistic or formal choices. And I felt that they would convey the claustrophobia of the story, and so therefore they were justified.

Gary Oldman and Joe Wright on set.

Do you find that sometimes people distrust cinematic form when it’s too forward, or pronounced? I feel like it maybe changes and goes through periods. There was a long period I feel like when it seemed everything had to be gritty and handheld and down to the ground…

But it’s still an affectation, you know? I mean, that’s the thing about it. Naturalistic acting is as affected as any other form of acting, any other style of acting. And so my job is to find the nub of the drama and then express that in as cinematic a way as possible. I’m not interested in necessarily replicating the appearance of reality. I’m interested in expressing the essence of reality. And that means that it’s not necessarily, you know, vérité in style, but hopefully reaches an emotional truth. God, I sound fucking pretentious, don’t I? But that’s the way I feel about it, you know.

The scene on the subway — as I was watching it, I thought to myself, “This is a musical number.” The way that the movement and the action of the people around him develop. At first it’s kind of a cacophony, and then suddenly they’re regimented, and then they’re in unison, and then suddenly you cut to the little kid, and I really felt like I was watching a musical number. Even though they’re not technically singing, their interactions with Churchill are kind of structured like a song.  

Ha! Yeah. I guess there’s certainly some wish fulfillment in that scene. That scene didn’t actually happen, although it represents something that happened. And it also is representative of Churchill going to the people as he often did and seeking their counsel and so on, rather than just the counsel of the aristocrats. And so it felt like there was something slightly, as you say, musical about it. In terms of a wish fulfillment scene, that felt like the correct form.

You’re quite a cinephile as well. Before you make a film, do you go back to other films, other influences? Do you draw from other things like that?

After Pan I went back and I rewatched all the films that made me fall in love with filmmaking in the first place. And so I had a kind of fresh relationship with my love of those movies. I certainly thought about Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped with this film because of the claustrophobia and the shooting in pretty much one space. And Bresson is always an inspiration. I keep his Notes on the Cinematographer next to my bed when I’m shooting, and I read, like, one daily reflection each morning. I also thought of Downfall as well, which is a film I really, really admire. What worries me about being too referential to other movies is that there’s a kind of cannibalism that happens and they stop being true. What I’m always trying to achieve is a kind of human truth, really. So what I try to do more is be inspired by the details and the specifics of the place, the time, and the history, and the characters, and try and find an emotional response to time, place, and people. And then figure out the most cinematic way I can represent those things.

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In that context, what do you look for in an actor?

Casting is the most important decision a director can make, and I guess, having been brought up in a puppet theater, where the characters are designed on the drawing board, there’s an element of my casting process where I imagine the characters if they were a puppet and what kind of character would they be. What would they look like? What’s their essence? And that final question, though, becomes the most important one, and this does lead into Gary Oldman. You have a choice. You can either cast the person who looks best, or you can cast the person who has the right essence to convey that character. And all the research I did, watching film and reading, about Churchill, I felt like I began to see a man who had this incredible, almost manic energy, both physical and mental. And that intensity of energy was what I was interested in finding in the actor. Gary Oldman has that intensity, you know, as we’ve seen in all his great characters. They’re always very intense people. I cast Gary based on that latter concern — the essence of his intensity.

He strikes me as someone who does a lot of research.

Immense amount of research. One of the lessons I’ve learned from the great actors I’ve worked with — and even those I haven’t worked with, like Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep — is that the geniuses work really hard. And Gary spent four months working really, really hard in preparation. Every single day he’d be out back of the studio practicing being Churchill. I mean literally. And I find that extremely gratifying because a lot of actors, younger actors or actors who aren’t as good, think that inspiration is some kind of divine thing that happens — an almost romantic notion coming from the romantic poets. This idea that the inspiration is a divine gift that is bestowed upon you at the given moment and you will arrive and you will be brilliant. And it’s not true. It’s a myth. There needs to be that foundation in hard craft, and then you get on set, and then inspiration at last.

Ben Mendelsohn also strikes me as having quite a challenge here. The way he portrays King George at first as this meek, almost sniveling little character, and eventually he turns out to be the one who helps Churchill buck himself up — without ever losing his persona. That was a very interesting trajectory.

Yeah, he has a great arc, George. The problem with casting that character was that he’d been played with so much success by Colin Firth, and so any English actor would probably have been a kind of watered-down version of that, so I had to make quite a bold choice. And Ben’s always a bold choice, you know. He’s a bold man. But to have someone who wasn’t English, an Australian, play that role was really, really useful. Ben Mendelsohn is fucking nuts in the best way possible. He has this crazy energy that bursts out of him, and is irrepressible. And he arrives on set singing and shouting — good-humored shouting, and laughing, wild. Singing his breakfast menu, you know. Or very rude, very, very rude ditties. And very generous. And then you call “action,” and somehow all of that energy becomes concentrated into a kind of laser beam of focus, and it’s magnetic. And then you call “cut,” and the energy goes everywhere. Working with Ben was an amazing revelation. Also what was great is that Ben and Gary respected each other immensely, and really enjoyed each other, and so they were able to have some fun. And I think actors having fun is fun for an audience too.





‘The Social Contracts Have Changed’: Ruben Östlund Talks About His Palme d’Or Winner “The Square”

Even before his film The Square won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Swedish director Ruben Östlund was one of the world’s most intriguing filmmakers, celebrated for his playful looks at the contradictions of human behavior — how our ideals conflict with our actual real-life actions. (His 2014 film, Force Majeure, about the fallout from a husband’s selfish actions during an avalanche at a ski resort, was a critical hit here in the U.S.) But The Square, about the goings-on around a contemporary art exhibit (called “The Square”) designed to create a shared safe space of equality and decency, is on another level entirely — an ambitious, expansive work that looks at our ideals and our hypocrisies from a humanistic point of view. I recently had the chance to talk to Östlund about the origins of his film, his unique approach to directing, and whether he thinks the values of “The Square” can truly be applied to real life.

As I understand it, “The Square” itself was a real artwork that you created?

It was something that started as an idea in 2008 because I was making a film called Play about a group of young boys robbing other young boys, inspired by events that took place in Gothenburg [Sweden]. I read through the court files, and you could tell that it was very, very seldom that any adult was interacting with the robbers. And it was very seldom also that any of the kids were asking for help. The robberies took place in a mall, where there were a lot of adults around. So, the bystander effect was really, really strong.

I talked to my father about this, and then he told me a story that is also told in The Square — the one that Christian [the film’s protagonist, played by Claes Bang] is telling his daughters. My father was brought up in the Fifties in Stockholm, and when he was six years old his parents put a tag around his neck with the address to their apartment, and then they sent him out into the center of Stockholm to play all alone. Back in the Fifties you looked at another adult as someone that would help your children, and today, we see that other adult almost as someone who is a threat to your children. So, the social contracts have changed. It was in this context that a friend of mine and I came up with the idea that we should create a symbolic place where we remind ourselves of the possibility of taking responsibility, and also of showing trust to other people. A symbolic place that should change the social contract, basically.

The film seems to interrogate the idea behind “The Square” as well. The ideals of the art project are noble, but they’re also quite vague.

When we were presenting that idea, we were meeting that kind of reaction. People thought it was utopian and weird, and that it wouldn’t be possible. But, personally, I think it’s comparable with a pedestrian crossing. We have a couple of lines in the street where we have an understanding that drivers should be careful when there are pedestrians. It’s kind of a beautiful invention. I was looking at “The Square” in the same way. Of course you can create a new social contract. And even if we don’t live up to these ideals, it doesn’t matter. Just the fact that we have a symbol that is trying to remind us about these ideals will create the change. “The Square” exhibit is in two cities in Sweden and two cities in Norway now. And in one city, Värnamo [Sweden], it really has become a bit of a movement.

The pedestrian crossing idea is interesting. But a pedestrian crossing…you know, you cross it. There’s a beginning and an end. You go from one point to another, and then you leave the pedestrian crossing. What would happen if someone just stood in the pedestrian crossing and waited?

[Laughs] Well, then there would be a problem with the traffic, of course. “The Square” has been used in a completely different way, though. For example, in Värnamo, there’s a group of functional handicapped people that have been protesting because they lost their benefits, so they went there and had a demonstration. The local newspaper came and took a picture and reported about it. And then when the terror event happened — the guy with the truck in Stockholm — they had a manifestation against violence. The same thing happened after a high school murder — they gathered there, people were lighting candles. This summer, something kind of beautiful happened. Someone put a flower in “The Square” with a little note saying, “Thank you to you who helped our son.” These are values that have existed for as long as we have had a civilization. There is nothing new about these values. Maybe this is a new way of trying to get attention to these values.

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I do find it interesting that Scandinavian countries seem to be so much more willing to try these kinds of progressive ideas. In the Seventies, for example, there was the commune movement. Why is that?

One thing was definitely the social democratic movement, and at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was this movement that the working class should be educated, in order to make it possible for them to claim their rights. It’s called the folkhem in Swedish, building up the idea that people should be educated even though they’re working in jobs that maybe don’t need intellectual knowledge. This really changed the possibilities for the working class, and started something that became a very flat hierarchy in Sweden. The idea behind the flat hierarchy is good — that equality is something that we strive for together. I can compare that with the U.S., where if someone has made it, it’s like, “Wow, good luck, man. Fantastic. You made it by your own hands.” In Sweden, we look critically towards that: “Were you born into circumstances that made it easier for you to reach this position?” We are striving for a flat hierarchy. There are good things about that, but there are of course also bad things about it.

Also, we have a lot of trust in the state in Sweden. For an example, when we see a beggar on the street, we think, “Why doesn’t the state take care of this?” But I think also that we are becoming more and more individualistic. Our attitude is getting closer to people in the U.S. Suddenly, when we talk about beggars, we don’t talk about it on a society level anymore. That’s really bad. We don’t say, “Let’s raise the tax 0.01 percent and let the richest help pay for this.” Now it’s only, “If I give or if I don’t give as an individual…” You put the blame and the guilt on the individual instead of trying to deal with it together.

Do you think some of this might have to do with the changing racial or ethnic dynamic of a society, too? Scandinavian societies in the past were a lot more homogeneous. I think that as the people around us start to look less and less like us, we tend subconsciously to start to find them suspicious. I found it interesting in the film that the boy that confronts Christian is an immigrant. Christian thinks of himself as a very fair-minded person, and a very humanistic person, but the film interrogates his conception of himself.

Two things. First of all, the boy — we don’t know if he’s an immigrant or not. That’s a preconception about him. But likely he can be an immigrant, yeah. But the second thing is that when it comes to Christian, it was super-important to me that he was mirroring the audience. My goal with the film was that it should be presented in Cannes in competition, and I will have this tuxedo-dressed audience sitting there and watching, in the monkey exhibition scene, a tuxedo-dressed audience. They should be confronted with themselves.

I don’t look at Christian as more hypocritical than anyone else. I look at him as myself, because so often we put ourselves on the good side. Always, always, always. I want to create a sociological experiment where we can identify ourselves when we fail. Sociology has a forgiving and humanistic view on us humans, even when we fail. I wish that I could express that in my films, because even if I want to be harsh towards the audience and confront them, I want them to understand that the situation in itself is creating bad behavior. I think that all of us have the ability of reacting in the way that Christian does — even if we don’t want to.

Claes Bang in “The Square.”

That’s the genius of the film: We’re able to identify with him, and he remains a likable guy throughout. And by questioning his actions, we question our own — without ever losing that sense of identification. How exactly did you pull that off?

One thing that I do during shooting is…OK, I have the script, I have the idea about the scene, but when we are starting to try out the scene, it’s a huge step to take something that is a written paper product and make it work as a visual product. So, I tell everybody in the scene that they have to stay true to themselves as human beings. I ask them, “Is it possible for you to do what you are doing now?” And one of the actor’s tasks is to detect that and say, “No, it’s actually not possible for me to react the way it says in the script.” Aha, then we have to change the setup, so it becomes possible for that actor to do that. They should always identify with the situation as human beings, not as characters.

For example, Christian is the chief curator of the museum. It’s super-important that Claes, who plays Christian, knows exactly what strings are attached to him in that job. You have the donators. You have the state mission of running a museum. You have to represent art, et cetera, et cetera. You have to understand the forces working on you. Then you can identify with being in that position as a human being.

Sometimes I write things that I want the actors to do, but it doesn’t work on set, and then I have to rethink. I have to find another way to go where I want to go, because if I don’t manage to direct the scene in the way that is believable for me, then I have to change what I have written.

Can you give me an example of a time when you feel you failed?

When Elisabeth Moss is coming up to Claes in the museum and surprising him. I wanted Elisabeth Moss to grab Claes in his waist and scream, “What do you want from me?!” And I didn’t manage to do that in a believable way. It is there, but it’s not as obvious. I wanted it to be, “What do you want from me?” And he’s like, “What do I want? I don’t want anything. What do you want?” That was something that I had to cut out. Maybe it’s a small detail, but yeah, it happens constantly. Every day when I’m shooting, there’s something that feels just wrong, constructed. And I have to stay true to what I think is believable.

Elisabeth Moss in “The Square.”

From what you describe, your work seems very collaborative, almost improvisatory — and yet your style is very precise.

If I’m shooting one scene a day, at the beginning of the day I’m trying out the scene together with actors, and they are free to do different things. We have certain, how do you say, gates that they have to go through — where the scene starts and where it ends. And at the beginning, it takes a long time for them to go from the beginning to the end because they are finding it in an organic way. Then they also have the freedom to try out things, and take risks — things they wouldn’t be able to do if we only had five takes.

I do in general around forty takes. So I can say, “No, take away that,” “Keep that, that was beautiful, that was brilliant.” And then we start to sculpt the scene, and we do that until the end of the day. And then I say, “Now we have five takes left. Is everybody ready?” And then for those five takes, we repeat exactly that pattern, that structure that’s the skeleton that we have built during the day. These last five takes are very similar to each other. So my goal is only to use improvisation in order for the actors to find out how to deal with the scene, but within very specific limits. Then, at the end of the day, I really, really don’t want them to improvise at all. Then they are following that exact structure through the last five takes. And very often it’s one of these last five takes that I use — usually the second to last take.

How do you know that you have an actor who will be able to work in this method you have, which is not a standard approach to filmmaking?

When I’m trying out the scene with actors, I very often act with them. So when I was trying Claes, I had him do one of the scenes with Elisabeth Moss, but I played Elisabeth Moss’s character. So I could push him into a corner with the lines that were written: “You have been inside me,” and “How should we solve this?” Then, when I tried out Elisabeth, I did the opposite — I played Claes’s character, and she played Anne [her own character]. For me it’s a way of getting to know the scene, but also getting to know the acting intelligence of the actor. With Elisabeth, she really pushed me — so even though I had done that scene, say, fifty times with different actors, suddenly I didn’t know how to answer her. She was so skillful in pushing me into a corner.

Nobody wants to help Dominic West fend off Terry Notary.

Let’s talk a little bit about the scene at the gala with Terry Notary. I’m curious about how you shot it. But also: At what point did you come up with that scene? Was that an organic part of the screenwriting process? It’s such a remarkable moment, but it’s like its own little thing inside the movie — nobody mentions it afterward.

My first inspiration for the scene was an American punk rock artist, GG Allin. I watched two YouTube clips called “GG Allin in Boston Part 1” and “Part 2.” I have never seen anyone so anarchistic. It was like they’d let a wild animal onstage or close to the audience, and the audience was also relating to him as a wild animal — you couldn’t really predict what he would do. They were scared of him at the same time they were there to watch him. These were probably some of the most intense moments I have seen with moving images.

But then, I thought that this should be some kind of performance artist. I googled “actor imitating monkeys,” and I found this clip where Terry Notary was doing a demo with his arm extensions for Planet of the Apes. So I decided to make it someone imitating a monkey. And then I also wrote this voiceover — this announcement that comes out in the speaker before he enters the room. “Soon you will be confronted by a wild animal. As you all know, the hunting instinct is triggered by weakness.” That text is really highlighting what the bystander effect is. So, for me, the scene is very thematic, it’s connected to the film. It was a way to highlight the reason that we get paralyzed when we see something that we are scared of. We are thinking, “Don’t take me, don’t take me, take someone else. I don’t want to be the prey.” So, once again, I didn’t want to put guilt in this moment when we don’t take responsibility. I wanted to look at it from a behavioristic point of view, and try to create understanding.

One of the wonderful things about that scene is that it can be interpreted in so many different ways. When I watched the film a third time, recently, I realized it also resembles what happens with something like social media — which obviously is a theme in the film. The announcer says something like, “Try not to get noticed.” Somebody steps out of line or says one thing wrong, and they’re just completely consumed. And even if you want to defend the person, you step back and think, “I shouldn’t say anything, because then I’ll get attacked.” The bystander effect is very much at work on all levels of existence.

I actually wrote down a quote the other day when I was trying to describe this behavior I think is in the scene, and also that I see on social media: “The most uncivilized thing about our time is the collective rage against individuals that have been uncivilized.” I don’t know if it makes sense for you, but the most uncivilized thing today for me is that complete anger that comes like a rage, like a riot, towards individuals who have been uncivilized. And for me, the film is very much about this in some way. I understand the audience in that room because Terry Notary is so scary — or his character is so scary. But I wanted him to walk into a room and be like an uncivilized animal. And in the end this tuxedo-dressed audience have themselves become uncivilized. So, they are having a revenge on him in the same way that he has been behaving.




The Director and Stars of “BPM” Open Up About Sex, Activism, and the Power of Words

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, BPM (Beats Per Minute), French director Robin Campillo’s stylized, moving drama of AIDS activism and love, sometimes feels like several films at once. It follows the activities of ACT UP Paris in the early 1990s, and for much of its early scenes, we’re thrown into the raging debates of the organization’s contentious but highly organized weekly meetings. Gradually, the movie focuses on the growing, passionate relationship between newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one of the group’s more vocal and boisterous members. With uncommon intelligence and tenderness, Campillo shows us how these two men navigate their relationship through the realities of the plague and the internal politics of ACT UP. (Nathan is HIV-negative, Sean is positive.)

I recently had a chance to speak to director Campillo and his two stars about BPM‘s diverse mix of styles, the legacy of ACT UP, and the film’s beautiful, touching sex scenes.

The film has an interesting structure. The early parts focus mostly on the internal debates in ACT UP, and then we move toward the romance between Nathan and Sean, until the final sections are taken up mostly by Sean’s illness. But all along, you also cut to scenes of the characters dancing in a club, and you continue to show us  actions and protests that ACT UP engages in.

Robin Campillo: When I first thought of this film, I wanted to talk about the power of words. There’s a short film by Godard called Puissance de la Parole [from 1988] that I thought a lot about. People are talking, and by doing so they’re creating things — imagining action, and posters, and creating new ways to perceive this epidemic. Such things can change reality. Today’s political discourse is so inefficient. On Facebook, people can be very radical and post radical texts about politics — but it has no effect on reality. I wanted to talk about this period in time, and this group, where it was possible. After 10 years of this epidemic, we were trapped in our silence, trapped in our closet as gay men. It was a moment where speech had become powerful for us; we had to say things that couldn’t have been said in France for many years. In France, you couldn’t talk about minorities, you couldn’t talk about communities. They were considered horrible words because we were such a good république and everyone was “equal” and all these fucking things. We wanted to change that.

I treated the film like this: You have an empty theater [where the discussions happen], which is like a brain, and that’s one dimension of the film. And the other dimension is the actions and protests, created by the words. Then you have another dimension, which is the clubbing. In France, we talk about a “river novel” or “river film.” I was thinking of this broad flow of movement, with a lot of characters, a lot of detail. And you have this character that you follow into the group, Nathan, but he’s like a blank, and he goes from a relationship with Sean to Thibault and comes back to Sean. He stops drifting because Sean is getting sick, and they are all together in the hospital, which is like a sinking boat, and then the apartment. So I thought of the movement of the film as a kind of river, and that’s why it was interesting to see the red River Seine at the end. That’s the moment where the river is going to the ocean — and the ocean for me is the last part when they are in the apartment.

How you shoot each of these dimensions changes over the course of the film as well. The early scenes of activism are chaotic – all very close, handheld. And then you portray the activism with more distance, more melancholy, until we’re finally watching from these overhead shots. Even the clubbing scenes feel different: Early on, it really does feel like they’re dancing and expressing their joy, but by the end, they don’t even look like they’re dancing — they’re more like flailing in the dark, whereas early on it felt celebratory.

RC: Most of the time, after I’ve seen about a quarter of a film, I understand all the aesthetic ideas and I get bored. I think cinema is about going from one form to another. Because as people, we go through different states, different atmospheres – even in one single day. I love this fluidity in cinema. I wanted the club scenes to become weirder and weirder. I love clubs the way I love cinemas: The way we all join in the dark and look at light phenomena. The difference is, when you are in the cinema you are looking at a screen, and when you are in a club, you look at other people, and they’re transformed. We have this house music, which we loved at the time — it was like party music but there was also a kind of melancholy and anxiety in this. And at the end of the film, the music feels like gospel. The last club scene, the people are not looking at each other. As we say, to go to the cinema is to be alone together. And the club scene at the end, for me, is something about cinema. We are like light filaments, like stars — we will at some point fade away, absolutely.

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Arnaud and Nahuel, the relationship between your characters Nathan and Sean runs a wide range of emotions and dynamics. At the beginning, you’re total strangers, but then gradually you become very close. How do you develop that kind of intimacy?

Arnaud Valois: We’d done some rehearsal before, especially the sex scenes, but I think the work really started when we were auditioning for the film. And then conditioning yourself, like thinking, “This is your boyfriend.” And maybe by touching each other as well, to get used to one another. We spent a lot of time together when we weren’t shooting.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart: Yeah, it’s about spending time, mainly. It was often impossible to meet before. Arnaud, he has a very different life, and I’ve got a very different life. The guys back then, they were thrown together because they were sick. But they had very little in common except AIDS, HIV. Then there’s a chemistry that you can’t really force; that’s always a big surprise, because it’s something that is not produced by you or by the other, but by the combination of the two bodies. But I always felt that I could open up with Arnaud/Nathan.

The other work we did together was just to talk a lot with Robin, read some books, watch some documentaries. I think that we were all in the same mood: We tried to just lie back in that time — not as a period thing, but that intensity, that moment, that emergency. And I think that we all identified with the fight, even though we weren’t really around at that time.

How familiar were you with ACT UP Paris?

NPB: Zero. People would ask, “Hey, Nahuel, do you know ACT UP?” And I was like, “I’m sorry, what’s ACT UP?” “You don’t know ACT UP?” “No.” But also, I’m from Argentina. There was no ACT UP in Argentina.

AV: I was 8 or 9 in ’92 or ’93, so I didn’t know much about ACT UP. I knew the name and the action they did putting on the pink condom on the obelisk, but that’s it. I didn’t know the DNA of the group, or the identity, or words, or actions.

Robin Campillo

Robin, you were a member of ACT UP. But the film doesn’t shy away from showing it as a controversial group, even among people who agreed with its ultimate goals. I love the opening scene, where this poor guy we don’t know is giving a speech, and he gets smeared in fake blood and handcuffed to a post. You’re not afraid to put us immediately into a situation where we might actually disapprove of ACT UP’s actions.

RC: This action happened, but not on this kind of guy. It happened to a doctor who was involved in the transfusion scandal in France, so it was maybe more justified. But I wanted to show something that was a little unfair and controversial — because we were dodgy sometimes. I’m not sure I was the best militant; I went there because I needed to be in this group. Sometimes, we’d be doing an action, and during the action, I’d be thinking, “Oh, this is going too far.”

At the same time, I was angry at the people we were protesting, too. I was angry because it was as if they had forced me to be a militant, by not listening to what we were saying. I was angry because of what was going on during the ’80s and the fact that we were dying out, and that our problems didn’t seem to exist for the rest of society. So many of these people were so indifferent to what we were living through. I didn’t want to be a militant. But the fact that we had all this electricity inside the group and this kind of tension, it’s why ACT UP was great. This was before the Internet, so if you wanted to confront government, if you wanted to confront the laboratories, you had to confront each other first, because there’s nothing better than collective intelligence.

In the film, there’s something almost utopian about ACT UP’s weekly meetings. They’re very democratic. Everybody gets to speak. It’s very tolerant, and people follow the rules. This seems to go against the myth that when people are in truly desperate circumstances, they will become more violent, more irrational. Many of these people are dying — the most desperate circumstance you can imagine – and yet they’re committed to the rules and to the openness of this organization.

RC: This was very American; we were inspired by ACT UP New York. We were arguing a lot because we thought, especially in France, that the politicians were not very pragmatic about this disease and about this epidemic. We were condemned, like a curse, but there was no communication. We didn’t exist. I was so afraid of the disease that I wouldn’t even open a newspaper if the word “AIDS” was on it, you know? So, I was fed up with this attitude. When I came to ACT UP, it’s because we were confronting the epidemic and we were putting out words about a lot of small topics which were very crucial in the struggle. Speech was liberated, and it was incredible to share all these things and be honest together. Didier Lestrade, who cofounded the group, felt from the beginning that we had to be very objective. Remember, most of the news we got — the new details and data – were horrible for the people who were sick. Usually, there’s a doctor between you and the data. But we were confronting things and people directly. Didier thought that we should stop being afraid — that we should think about this epidemic and produce things about it, and not just play the victim and act like children in front of the doctors and the politicians. We had to behave and take care of ourselves.

Nahuel, you go through a pretty significant transformation, as your character gets sicker and sicker. Sean is so buoyant and full of vitality early on – he even performs as a cheerleader during one Pride march. The next time we see him at a Pride march, he looks like a ghost.

NPB: I lost weight. Like fifteen pounds. The rest was performance and makeup. It was quite hard to lose the weight, because it was while we were shooting every day and working, and I was cutting carbs, etc., everything that I didn’t have to eat. So the process that I went through was accompanying the path of the character. Painful, but helpful, too — you’re more vulnerable, and the people around you see that you’re going through something.

AV: It was strange for me to see Nahuel at the beginning so full of life, as you said, and then going down and down and down. It was like mixing reality and fiction. It was Sean, but it was like [sigh], “Poor Nahuel.”

NPB: I wanted the shooting to end. One day we had a little accident — I got some lights on my face — and things got to a point where I was like, “Okay, please, I really want the film to end.” Because at one point you can’t do more than what you’re doing.

RC: It’s all about acting, really. I didn’t want to show too much stigmata. I wanted it to be a little realistic, but we didn’t go too far. Because first of all you have films about that, like this film I love called Silverlake Life: The View from Here, a documentary. I just wanted to show the simple fact that Sean is tired of life. And that’s all on Nahuel. The way he’s looking around him when he’s in the hospital, when he stares at the TV, and he looks like a bird with the mouth open, and he doesn’t seem to see what’s around him. That’s more important than the actual physical transformation: Someone fading away from his own life.

Biscayart and Valois

Arnaud, you also have to do a lot of emoting, and crying, especially in the last 20 to 30 minutes of the film.

AV: It is difficult because you can’t always relate it to something real that you experienced. So, you have to find another way.

RC: [to Arnaud] Your character was always reserved, protecting himself, while the other character is burdening himself with the disease and with the political struggle. You have this moment which is very hard [when Nathan realizes that Sean is dead].

AV: Yes. The hands.

RC: I said, “I want you to make me feel that the body is cold.” It’s freezing — the corpse of his boyfriend. Right after, you have to play something which is also very difficult. Nathan says, “Il est mort,” “He’s dead,” twice. He says it the first time for himself, like a rehearsal…

AV: And then he says it to the mother. That was the most difficult thing I had to do in the movie. “Il est mort,” two times. For me, and then for the mother — like playing, like an act.

Let’s talk about the sex scene. I love the fact that it comes so soon after the scene where they’re giving out the condoms at the school. So, we get a contrast between this very public-facing, “Always use condoms” declaration, and then suddenly they’re in bed and there’s almost this negotiation of when to use condoms. I found that so human and touching. There’s a whole narrative to the scene itself, which directors often say is the key to a good sex scene.

NPB: Yeah, we rehearsed it a lot. We tried to find a natural choreography that we could feel was fluid and organic…

AV: Because we had two cameras…

NPB: So we always had to find the right angles. Because if you just start playing around, you start seeing things that you shouldn’t see, or you start blocking your partner.

AV: And then you have to build in the words as well.

NPB: Yes. To me the hardest thing was not being with Arnaud, bare-chested or naked or whatever. It was the words and the way you say those words. Because it’s the first moment in which those characters open up, and they start imagining something together. It’s a very crucial spark that should be born at that very moment. You have to be very relaxed. If you’re anxious, your breath starts going weird and people will see it and hear it. We were all very nervous, of course, because there are cameras and other people, and nobody fucks when other people are around. [Laughs] It’s the most intimate moment you can share with somebody.

RC: I didn’t want the scene to be a performance. I wanted it to be clumsy sex. It’s not the Kama Sutra. I feel so guilty sometimes when I see people having [elaborate] sex on screen, and I think, “I must be so dull!”

I love to show the whole process. I hate in films when people are already naked in bed. I love the fact that people take off their clothes. And the fact that they are taking condoms, they are putting gel, all those things. That’s the kind of thing people don’t show, because they think it wastes time. I also think of the sex scene like a séance, where the ghosts of the other lovers are summoned. So at some point it’s almost like a threesome. There’s something very important to say about that. I lost my first boyfriend. And when I think of him, I miss him – not only because I would like to talk to him, but I miss his body, and I miss the moments when we were so intimate. I remember the first time we had sex, it was before the epidemic, and our bodies were unconscious of all that. I’m very nostalgic for that. Really, it was so great. And now it’s over forever. I will never go back to that moment.


The Sublime Beauty of the Moment: Kelly Reichardt on “Certain Women”

Kelly Reichardt might be the most important independent American filmmaker working right now. Over six features, she has built a body of work that stands in sharp contrast to the prefab stories and festival-friendly satisfactions of much of what passes for independent cinema today. Reichardt’s movies are immersive, even gripping, and they often reflect (albeit sometimes obliquely) the social and political issues of their day: Her 2008 masterpiece, Wendy and Lucy, about a young, broke drifter on the margins of society attempting to make her way to a new life in Alaska, opened right in the heart of the financial crisis; her 2010 western, Meek’s Cutoff, about a group of settlers adrift in the desert, was read by some as an allegory of the Iraq War. 2013’s Night Moves took on the subject of ecoterrorism, but in the most understated yet humane way.

Reichardt’s films (which were just recently featured in a MoMA retrospective) are difficult to describe. To give any real sense of them, you have to explain how they sound, and how they move, and the little moments, glances, and gestures between characters that sometimes say more than any plot synopsis ever could. Last year’s Certain Women, which played the Sundance and New York Film Festivals and is now being released on home video by the Criterion Collection, is no different. Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, it tells the loosely connected tales of three Montana women — a lawyer, a wife, and a rancher — at what might be key turning points in their lives. But sometimes the significance of a moment isn’t revealed until after the fact; so often, we’re just watching these women be. Through her graceful but straightforward direction, Reichardt manages to convey the everyday nature of the events depicted, while also hinting at the mystery beneath them. On the occasion of the Criterion release of Certain Women, I spoke to her about how exactly she captures what she does.

In the past, you’ve taken individual short stories and turned them into features. With Certain Women, you took three short stories by Maile Meloy and created a semi-episodic film. What made you decide to do that?

Like everything, it’s just a process. I tried a few things that didn’t really work out, and then I came upon Maile’s stories and really liked them. But they were another thing I was sort of fooling around with; I knew that this might not work. Is there a reason that putting these together would somehow make it more than just expanding one story? Each collection seems like its own world. I started working off her two collections, and I tried different combinations of stories. This went on for like a year. Finally somehow there was a point when it started making sense to me and seemed like something worth pursuing. Part of it was settling on that middle story with Michelle Williams and James LeGros, which was not the most obvious story in her collection. But really for me, it made the whole thing work. And then I started finding some themes to be able to work from, and also changing the Rancher in the third story into a woman. It’s a long process, where you are in the weeds for a long time but then eventually things start to make sense.

You also do some interesting things, structurally. I feel like the conventional thing — to the extent that anything in this movie would ever be conventional — would have been to lead up to the Laura Dern episode, with the hostage standoff. But I love the fact that that episode comes at the beginning.

It did sort of have to start with that. But action-wise, it’s true. I would say that the emotional climax happens in the third story, and that makes the three stories come together.

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The film is filled with wonderful little details, like Kristen Stewart dabbing her face at the diner with the napkin still rolled up with the fork and knife. Do you search for moments like that, or are they the result of happy accidents?

You leave room for spontaneous things to happen. That particular thing was Kristen. That was purely her. The actors obviously bring a lot to each scene. One thing about shooting on location is the weather: The scene in the parking lot with Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone, the wind was so incredible that day — Kristen could hardly keep her skirt from flying up. And things like that end up playing a big part in choices that the actors make, and the mood of something. How loud people end up speaking because of the weather. Or dealing with animals that are not trained and are going to be doing their own thing, so you’re just responding to them. Or you’re driving, actually driving a car, and you have to be thinking about traffic. All these things keep actors in the moment, but also keep anything from being too especially planned out. That night at the diner, particularly, there was a big storm outside that you can sort of see through the window, and that ends up adding something to the feeling of the night. But that was Kristen doing that. She figured her character was in too much of a hurry to unwrap her spoon and fork [laughs].

Speaking of location, all your films have a tremendous sense of atmosphere and place. I’m curious how you go about achieving that. You shot some of your previous films in and around Portland, Oregon, where you’ve spent a lot of time, but do you feel like you need to really get to know a location before you shoot there? You work with very small budgets, so I don’t think it’s a case where you’re hanging out on set for months before you get to shoot.

Well, we were there months before we shot. It’s not like I can always have a crew or actors there, but I can personally be there beforehand. Generally speaking, I do spend a lot of time in the locations, and finding the locations. That’s the biggest, longest thing. You need to know a place before you’re making a film there. But it’s true that you’re not there with everything you need for that long; the actual shooting and time with actors is always pretty fast. But the crew people are anxious to begin and will just start working on these sorts of things way early because they want to. That’s nice.

On this film, some of the smaller locations were changing and falling out as we shot, which made things really difficult. But the big location, the ranch…once I found the ranch, that became the center of the universe and we built everything onto that. And I was able to spend time there. I didn’t know anything about ranching when I started, which is part of the fun thing, isn’t it? So, I started working with the rancher first, and eventually brought [cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt with me. Eventually, the horses were getting used to us, and then the assistant director started coming and doing the routine with us, and then the art department starts working there. We were just, like, moving our way into people’s lives and working at the ranch.

Kristen Stewart in “Certain Women”

Lily Gladstone’s character as the Rancher in that final episode feels like such a breath of fresh air in this world, where everyone is so constricted. In her own low-key way, she’s very bold, straightforward, and romantic and honest. But then she meets with heartbreak as a result of it. Do you think at the end that she’s disappeared into the brown-gray background of this world like everyone else, or…

Well, I can’t impose an ending on it. That’s for each viewer to suss out on their own. But she does realize the steady beauty of a chore, I’ll say that.

You often cast nonprofessionals in your films alongside more seasoned actors like Laura Dern or Jared Harris. Do you have a particular style of directing actors, or do you modify it based on who you’re working with?

It depends on who you’re working with. I try to just find my way around. This is a certain scale of film: It’s on locations, it’s often in the winter, and the weather’s kind of harsh. So, they’re coming into our world to a degree. Within that, I try to figure out how people want to work, and I try to facilitate whatever it is they require. There’s no magic pill for anything. Everything’s a process, and it always feels like a new start and new terrain with each film, and you’re just always sort of finding your way. Not that experience doesn’t help; certainly it does. Working with Michelle [Williams] is obviously easy because we see each other, we know each other. But then with other actors, you’re trying to suss out what it is they require, and you hope that they require something similar. And there’s usually not a lot of lead-up, so you’re just starting to get to know people when they start acting for you. Sometimes it starts with costume design, where people start getting fitted for their clothes. And maybe you start to know people when you’re sending them research or whatever. But mostly, you’re kind of thrown into the fire together. And you’re figuring it all out while you’re working.

Certain Women feels like a spiritual sequel to your western Meek’s Cutoff, in which you have a group of women wandering these vast stretches of land that once belonged to another people. Now here we are in the modern day, and an entire civilization has been built on top of that land. But we see the little remnants of what was here before, with the Indian ritual at the mall, the story about native sandstone, even Lily Gladstone’s character, who is Native American. The two films resonated in that way for me.

Well, that’s because they’re both about the West. I mean, it’s hard to write about the West and not be thinking about Native Americans on some level. I think that’s just the nature of any sort of western — however you want to define the western.

Sound seems like a critical part of your movies, but also an underrated part.

They all sort of start with sound. The soundscapes begin with scouting and really listening to what’s happening in the spaces. With Wendy and Lucy, that film came from a John Raymond short story called “Train Choir,” which had train sounds built into it, so that was sort of in my head as I started. The concept of that film was to just use the trains as score: In the spaces where you’d use music, you would use the sounds of this kind of commerce. And then in Meek’s Cutoff it was really about how to build quiet, which is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Building quiet is actually a lot harder than building a wall of sound. And it’s certainly harder to mix. We were in a place that was so quiet, and we had to get tracks of snakes and flies and just anything we could build sound with. We also had to get across the monotony and the repetitive nature of every day. And then animals brought a world of sound, and wind always brings a lot of sound.

Certain Women, we filmed in Livingston, Montana — it’s called “The Windiest Place in America.” It’s a crazy windy place, and everywhere you go — every alleyway or truck stop — the wind is making a hugely different sound. It was really hard to get clean. Wind is already hard to record, but at the truck stop, the wind going underneath the trucks has this really singsongy sound, and that was the starting idea of how to build a kind of distant ambience. And then there was the question of how to get across distance through sound for the Rancher character. Also, there’s a huge depot there, so there were going to be sounds of trains on the soundtrack whether I wanted them or not, so I needed to start planning for that ahead of the time. But then there are also these highway sounds. A lot of times, while you’re scouting, you start making notes of what you’re hearing, and then from that you start to build what the soundscape is going to be.

It wasn’t until I read Ella Taylor’s lovely essay in this Criterion booklet that I realized that in the very final scenes of the film, when we revisit each of these women, they’re all feeding someone or something.

Oh. Is that true? [Pause] Oh yeah, that is true.  Good eye, Ella! I hadn’t really thought of that. I just got the box today. And I’ve only seen the cover, and I haven’t opened the package yet.