“Black People Are Not in Control of Images of Ourselves”: An Interview With RaMell Ross

RaMell Ross’s magnificent documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening was the very first movie I saw at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Quite fitting, as it’s the kind of work that alters one’s perception of the world, and of cinema; it was hard not to think about this picture before and after every subsequent film I saw at the fest.

Hale County follows some years in the lives of two African-American teenagers — Quincy Bryant and Daniel Collins — living in small-town Alabama, in the heart of the Black Belt region of the U.S. But it does so in a way that foregrounds the beauty and transcendence in their lives, avoiding easy narratives of black poverty and despair. Here’s what I wrote in my review at the time: “By fragmenting our point-of-view, [Ross] draws our attention to what we can’t know. All too often, these longitudinal documentaries — movies that chart people’s lives over multiple years — have a kind of totalizing ambition. They pretend to novelistic thoroughness. But can a mere film contain and explain an entire human life? … Ross understands that it can’t, and he’s found a way to express that through form. He immerses us in this world, but then lets the mystery be.”

Hale County This Morning, This Evening will, I suspect, prove to be one of the standout titles of this entire year when all is said and done. I sat down with the director, who is also an acclaimed photographer, recently to talk about the uniquely immersive nature of his filmmaking process, and of the haunting, lyrical, bracing work that resulted.

You spent years making this film, and you lived in this community during that time. How did you wind up moving there?

I was freelancing photography and film in D.C. I left the city because rent was really oppressive. I went down to Alabama and taught a photography course for two weeks, and then I just fell in love with the place. So I spontaneously moved there — to teach, and to be in the community, and then simultaneously photograph.

I don’t believe necessarily in fate, but it almost seemed like it was a necessary step to advance my understanding of photography, and advance my understanding of myself in some way. When you’re there, there’s a certain amount of introspection that happens no matter what. It’s like if you go to the Arctic or go to the ocean, it forces you to think. And when it’s a place in the South, it’s more of a historical type of pondering. So, yeah, I was extremely happy immediately. It’s a dream to move to a small town and be present after having a really fast-paced city life.

Greensboro, Alabama, which is the county seat of Hale County, is the catfish capital of the country. When you drive across the landscape, you see cows grazing, but you see more catfish ponds. It’s just the local economy. There are maybe four catfish plants within a twenty-mile radius, and the majority of the people just work there, and it’s like almost a family thing. A lot of folks work there that didn’t graduate from high school. If you don’t have something you’re specifically interested in, like nursing or engineering, or construction or welding, then you go and you work at the plant. I think when I was in Greensboro, thirty out of the seventy students graduated from the senior class of the high school.

I think sixty to eighty percent of the people are on some sort of government support in Hale County. There’s not many resources, there’s a lot of poverty. And there’s only a certain amount of things you can do just based on the way in which you exist in the space. What are you going to aspire to be? An accountant? No. You’re going to aspire to be an athlete, or a musician, these pop culture things that come through on Instagram and Facebook…or you’re going to end up working at a factory.

When did you start to think about doing a film?

I’ve always wanted to make a film. But I’ve never felt like I could, or the ones that I did were music videos and, you know, just kind of fun projects. But I think it was in 2012. I was like, “I need to film these guys. I need to film this community. I need to start making moving images.”  The first images I made were of Quincy hanging out with his friends. I knew both Quincy and Daniel for three years before I started, and I asked, “Yo, Quincy, can I start filming? I have no idea what’s going to happen. I just want to be here with the camera.” And he said, “Obviously.” And then the same thing for Daniel.

At what point did you start to develop the idea of this film, with this particular aesthetic approach?

I made a cut of the film probably about six or seven months in, and it was very much a traditional documentary. Just really average shots and average voiceover. And in the same way that my photography developed, I was confronted with the failure of the film so far. Immediately: “This is really under-inspiring, and just fits into what everyone knows.” And I started to select single images that I thought in themselves said something magnificent about the place. And then it slowly developed from there as I gathered images. “Whoa, this image actually is really nice beside this one.” And then I thought, “Wait, what if I could just do the whole thing that way?” Which early on is a ridiculous thought, because of the amount of time it takes just to get one of those images. So, basically, I would try to film with them all day. I would want one shot or image a day. If I had one thing that I was happy with from eight hours of shooting, I was so happy.

That is the photographer’s process, right? You shoot and you shoot, and then you find that one image and you’re good?

Yeah. [Laughs] It’s also strange too because the large-format camera is a very specific way of looking at the world. It’s upside down and backwards, it’s really slow, it really requires finessing. So, there’s a relationship between the way in which I look through that camera and the way in which I look through the DSLR [digital video camera]. You’re not just like, “Oh, I got this.” You have to find the frame, and then you wait, and then when something happens in that frame, that’s what you use. It’s not just the frame itself, you know? And how the large-format camera relates to the film has to do with the patience of sitting in a frame — of making something and looking at it for a really long time, and then letting the activity happen within that. In most cases, you can’t just move into that frame; you’re already sitting on it and then it happens there.

When I first started, I didn’t know what I was looking for, and things would happen, and they would really move me, and they would stick with me, and then I’d think, “Oh, this is what I want.” So, then you sit longer, you’re more patient, you’re moving less. In my case, I would not put a frame in the film that I didn’t consider to be perfect in whatever way. And I’m willing to lose content to make a perfect frame, because that’s part of the form.

You follow some years in the lives of these kids. Did you always intend the project to stretch that long?

After I made that early cut, I knew that form was failing for me, and I made a cut of all of my favorite images; I related them based on color, and sunup and sundown, and it was pretty moving. I considered it like a trailer in some sense. And then through the process of looking at films and talking with people, I realized that a film could be something like this. “Whoa, what if I made a trailer of their lives? What does that look like in the long form?” Then I thought, “I’m just going to shoot forever! [Richard] Linklater did ten years. The Qatsi trilogy shot over thirty years or whatever. I’m a patient guy!” [Laughs]

I have cuts of the film that could exist as an installation. I mean, I filmed everything. I have way more people that you wouldn’t recognize in interesting situations as well, and it could be an even broader collage. But we very specifically wanted it to be categorized as a documentary — to use the currency of truth. Because if I was going to make this a fiction film, people would just go into it unconsciously, not thinking that this is the way that you look at people, or this is the way that life is. The degree in which it relates to actual perception would be different.

Hale County is rare in that it really makes the viewer think about how we frame these lives — and how we keep seeing these epic documentaries about black struggle and suffering. Which are not bad films necessarily.

They’re not bad films at all! And they’re great documents. When I look back [on some of those films], I’m like, “Thank you, we have this person’s life as a microcosm.”

But you do interrogate that kind of filmmaking, simply through your approach.

I think it stems from the construct of blackness, which is inaccurate, and frustrating, and the cause of a lot of historical and current trauma. I see some films functioning in the same way, but it’s also a human thing in that we do want to know. It’s an extension of the idea of prayer. We want to be fed information and believe, we want to have faith. We want to have heroes.

Was that idea of standing in contrast to this dominant mode of documentary filmmaking on your mind as you were working on this film, or did it come later?

Pretty much the entire time. And it happened after that first edit I made, because it was a huge failure, and I thought, “The only way to get out of this is to make something in which a person has to complete.” And when you’re forced to contend with something as historically burdened as the black community or the black image, the amount of completion truly determines your relationship to the community, and your relationship to media, and your relationship to narrative.

The film is also a process of me coming to understanding the way in which I deal with imagery and the way in which I deal with myself and my own people. I immediately realized that it was a Rorschach test. My early large-format photography kind of dealt with the plurality of truth — how different people would see images in different ways. If a guy was lying one way, one person might say, “Oh my god, he’s in so much pain.” Another guy would be like, “Oh, he’s just in the middle of a dance move. What do you mean he’s in pain?” It’s because you’ve only seen images of black people in pain.

Were there any points when you thought to yourself, “I shouldn’t be doing this”? Not just in terms of artistic doubt, but also because you are following these people’s lives and sometimes pretty bad things do happen to them.

I truly believed in my intent. The film ends up having multiple purposes, but the original intent was to make my Rushmore for these guys, and to make my Rushmore for the South. And I knew that it was going to take me being there for moments of extreme conflict and moments of strife, but there were a couple times where I felt it was a little painful because they were hard situations in their life. I filmed them. I had no intention of using those moments, but you never know if in that moment or in the middle of that moment or just after that moment, there’ll be something revelatory, and you want to be there for it. At no point did they tell me not to shoot. But in 2016, Daniel had got in an argument with his mother, and we were filming in the car, and he was like, “I don’t want to film anymore. This is not the story I wanted to tell.” Which was quite beautiful because Daniel has seen documentaries, and he wanted to be part of a project that elevated his life, not just repeated the tropes of black struggle. So, in that moment he felt like perhaps that would be used. And of course I was not going to use that. The next day he called me: “You ready? You ready to shoot?”

There’s a kind of symphonic structure to the film. Tell me about your thinking behind that.

The film is one of movements. It has five distinct musical sections. The way that music functions — you’re in it for the moment, only that moment. And it’s almost always transcendent, and then you leave, and what you remember is that feeling — not necessarily the words. I thought, “What would it be like to experience black imagery that way?” We have a really interesting relationship to music — jazz, blues, whatever. The “musicalness” of the film, the idea of a film of movements, was a way to get out of this traditional way of looking at story — which is just the arc in which the person is only the story, and that in turn becomes a totality. If you place them in a musical feeling, then the person is aligned with the universe in a way, and aligned with the stuff that moves us most.

For all the sublimity and idiosyncrasy of your approach, there’s also something very matter of fact about Hale County This Morning, This Evening. There’s no sense that you’re doing something ironic or counterintuitive here, or turning the tables on the traditional viewer. It’s all very organic. In the end, it’s just people living their lives, and there’s beauty in it. Completely outside of socioeconomic context, this is a life. And this is how we experience it. And yet, just by doing that, the film manages to be confrontational in a way.

Yeah. Because, you know, black people are not in control of images of ourselves. We’ve never been in control of images of ourselves. We’re like this close to like catching the tail of our representation; we’re not even there yet. And so, to do that is actually radical — because what you’re looking at is actually, like, just an up-close image of a black person. That’s all it is.


Miranda July, Josephine Decker, and Helena Howard on The Wild and Wonderful “Madeline’s Madeline”

Madeline’s Madeline, directed by Josephine Decker and starring the electrifying newcomer Helena Howard, was one of the true revelations of the Sundance Film Festival: a dramatic film that had been developed through collaboration, and that embodied the tensions of its creation onscreen both narratively and formally. Of course, you don’t need to know anything about how the picture was conceived, developed, or shot to be able to appreciate its beauty. Nevertheless, the story behind Madeline’s Madeline makes for a fascinating look at how a powerful movie can be realized in unorthodox, bracing new ways. While at Sundance, it was my good fortune to speak to director Decker, star Howard, and co-star Miranda July about the making of their film.

How do you even start a project like this?

Josephine Decker: Last night [during the world premiere] was when I felt like I saw it for the first time. I’ve seen it a bazillion times, but last night, I realized it really has a circular navigation. I mean, in this gendered world it’s complicated to call something “feminine storytelling,” but I do think it has a real feminine style of storytelling. And it’s because of the road to making it, and it’s nice that the product respects that. But, really, it all started when I fell in love with Helena Howard’s incredible talent, and I met her at an acting festival that she performed at… Helena, do you want to tell the story?

Helena Howard: It was a teen arts festival in New Jersey where you basically come to showcase something that you’ve been working on or that you’re passionate about. I came with a monologue from “Blackbird” by David Harrower, and for some reason Josephine was adjudicating… A room full of teenagers in New Jersey, I don’t why she was here, you know? [laughs] And I go up, do this monologue, and she’s just crying, doesn’t speak for a little bit. Then she goes, “That’s one of the best things I’ve seen in my life.” And I don’t really know how to process that, so I start crying. She’s like, “Yeah, I don’t have anything else to say.” So, we’re both crying. And then I’m getting ready to go, and she’s like, “Wait!” She goes out into the hallway to get something to write on to give me her email. I don’t know who this woman is. She doesn’t know anything about me except that I’m an actor. We stay in touch, after people telling me that she’s weird and stuff. Because we looked her up and her website doesn’t do her justice.

JD: Yeah, pretty immediately, I think I said, “I want to build a film around you.” I wanted to devise work with actors, so I brought in a bunch of actors from New York who I respected, and we started devising that Fall. We spent about eight months, I guess. On weekends we’d meet and rehearse, and then I had a ton of material; we had been recording all the improvisations we’d done. I spent about a year writing the script, and I was a little lost. My boyfriend’s a filmmaker, and he took me for a walk, and asked, “What are you trying to say? What is the center of your movie?” He’d been through the [Sundance] writing labs here, and I’ve never really had any training in filmmaking or film writing. He made up what questions to ask and how to draw out of me what the center thing was, and it actually made a big difference in trying to get at the heart at the story, and get at the meat of the mother-daughter relationship, and what happens with the mentor and this director. But it was a very elliptical journey.

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And at what point did Miranda come on?

Miranda July: Very late. There was already the sense that this whole troupe, including Helena, had worked together for years and years. Luckily as a mom you never know what’s going on anyway, so [laughs] it was fine. [To Josephine] And hearing you talk now is interesting because there are certain things I didn’t even fully know. But Josephine just reached out to me, and I very greedily wanted to do it simply to get to sit on her set and watch her direct. It’s something you don’t get to do as a director, and I was gearing up to make a movie, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime learning possibility. The acting part I was a lot more nervous about, and I actually quit a week before. I wrote a very serious, real one-in-the-morning email.

What did you say in it?

MJ: I said, “I just really know that I can’t do this.” I mostly was trying to be like, “Don’t try and talk me out of this. Like, I’ve really thought through it.” And so, when we talked on the phone the next morning, she didn’t try and talk me out of it. We talked about other things — maybe I could be a producer on the movie. I had a moment where I said, “Gosh, I feel, you know, almost wistful. This is so nice talking to you.” And I think that the second I said, “wistful,” something flipped in her. She is a director in her bones, and she just started making a speech about fear — a very zen speech that was just… I wish I had that speech for the rest of my life.

Josephine, do you remember what you said?

JD: I don’t know how we talked about this, but I said something like, “You know, you could walk out your door and die very easily. You can die in a million ways. You can fail.” This is not going to be as eloquent as whatever I said that day, but something like, “If you’re going to learn to skateboard, you’re going to fall off a skateboard a zillion times.” And “Stepping out the door is already a risk.” You were talking about failure: “I don’t want to fail. I don’t want it to be a public failure. I don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, there’s Miranda July who can’t act.’” And I said “Well, first of all, I’m an editor. It doesn’t behoove me to have you in the film acting poorly [laughs]. There are scenes that are not going to work, and I’m not going to put those in the film. And if we never do anything that we’re afraid of, what are we ever going to do?” Something like that.

MJ: Once I was acting, I didn’t fear being bad again. It wasn’t really relevant to the task. But I do remember her talking about fear, and the tears just running down my face, and she was still talking, and I was thinking, “Fuck, I’m going to have to do this.” I already knew, “You can stop talking now. I’m yours.” But part of it was realizing that as long as I was under her spell, I was safe, and I would not ever not be under her spell in the course of this movie. So, I didn’t have to worry about one-a.m. freakouts anymore.

Helena and Miranda, you’re playing mother and daughter, and even though this isn’t a conventional story, I imagine there is a certain amount of grounding and comfort that you need to establish just to be able to act against one another. 

MJ: As it turns out, not. We didn’t. [laughs] We met and the next day we started shooting. We did Skype, I think. Did we Skype?

HH: Once. But Miranda did say something interesting. We were ordering food one day, and I didn’t get anything, and she got a sandwich. She asked, “Oh, are you sure you don’t want anything?” And then when she got her food, I asked for half of the sandwich, and she was actually really hungry. And it was like something that Madeline would do. I can’t believe that I did that. I don’t think I even ate the sandwich.

MJ: She was really very polite. And of course, in the moment I was happy that she was eating. [Laughs]

Maybe the fact that you didn’t know each other before actually helps, because there is a certain amount of alienation between your characters.

MJ: A lot of this has to do with how Josephine works. You drop into that world in a deep way, and it’s comfortable and you’re swimming in it, and so all that practice and rehearsal is almost irrelevant to this state you’re in.

JD: We we did have a rehearsal. We did what I call this “open canvas”, which is basically a weird dance rehearsal where you improvise physical movements together. We did a bunch of warm-ups, stuff that’s similar to what’s in the film, physical theater warm-ups. Then we did these open canvases to music, and I remember that you two and Molly [Parker, who plays Madeline’s theater director Evangeline] were improvising — this was maybe a day or two before we started shooting — and they improvised an open canvas where [Helena was] on the ground and the two women ended up moving around you in a circle, and I thought, “That’s the whole movie!” They just improvised all of the relationships of the movie. I wonder what enabled that dropping in. But sometimes, I’d think, “Maybe I should have rehearsed the actual scenes of the movie. Shit, we have no time to shoot.” Instead we rehearsed like weird art theater shit.

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Helena, did you ever feel like quitting?

HH: Deep down, no. But I would oftentimes say, “You guys don’t need me, I shouldn’t be part of this.” I mean, when you’re told by the people in your life that you’re not good enough, that you’re not worth it — because of jealousy or things like that — it stays with you. And then when you’re in something that’s so great, you can’t believe it, and so you revert back to the past. And maybe it was because I was so deep inside of Madeline or whatever, or maybe it was myself. But yeah, I’m not necessarily quitting, but just saying that, you know, I shouldn’t be part of … yeah. I can’t. Words! [Laughs]

As a director, you’ve got this beast, this film that’s constantly changing. Tensions — creative tensions, personal tensions — are built into not just the narrative but the very form of the thing. Do you need to create that kind of tension in order to embody them on screen? 

JD: I never mean to create tension, although I think I do it very accidentally. I think why we enjoy tension in movies is because we feel that human relationships involve tension — moments of tension and release. Moments of connection and disconnection. And when you get a lot of people together to do something collaboratively, it’s very natural that tensions arise. So, it wasn’t necessarily my intention, but I think I wanted to make something that could feed off the work of many people, and that had the input of all those people in it. And I wanted that input to be present in the film itself.

MJ: This reminds me of something you said the other day. There’s a scene in the movie where actors are saying, “So, you are going to tell her story — think about the optics of that.” You said the other night that you actually relish being called out on those things, and that did happen during the process, and that was really interesting to you. You had meetings in the middle of shooting where people opened up about how they were being represented, or whether they felt like a certain line really represented them. I don’t think you court tension in the way a lot of directors create drama to bring out emotion or whatever. You’re doing it because these issues are really tricky and messy, and you’re not afraid of that mess.

JD: The feeling of deserving to be there, or knowing enough to be on that set, and what Helena was speaking about, it comes up. I sometimes felt it myself: “Do I deserve to be here? Do I deserve to make this movie?” We had had so many roundtables in our process — like a sit-down and talk-back. I was like, “I really think everyone might feel that way, and I think it’d be nice if we shared.” So, we  stopped filming for an hour, and we just all shared. Helena said, “I’m feeling this way.” And I said, “I’m feeling this way.” And then Molly [Parker] said, “I’m feeling this way. I’m playing a theater director and I’ve mostly been a film actor.” And then the prop master started bawling! She’s like, “I’m so glad I’m here. I’m a woman of color and there are so few women of color playing a lead of a film.” And by the end of the hour everyone was in tears — this was like the sixth day of filming. We had literally called the whole cast and crew to the stage to have this conversation, because that was the kind of thing we’d done in our creation process. I remember even Danny April, our lighting guy, was saying how he felt so seen, because we would do these morning circle meditations, and he’s like, “Nobody cares… I do my job and nobody wants to see me.” That day changed our whole shoot. It was the best thing we ever did.

Were there any points at which you thought to yourself, “Forget it. There’s no movie.”?

JD: Oh my god, every day. Every day for the last two, three years. There were some things that triggered that. Something major would happen with financing, or I’d get some bad news about a location, or even in the editing… we had an editor, and we ran out of money for that editor so early in the process, and then I was alone with this thing that was a crazy mess. When you write and direct something, you need another voice in the room to help you edit. Finally I was like, “We have to raise more money because I will die if I don’t get an editor to help me finish this movie.”

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One of the things that I’m so enraptured by in the film is that while it’s narratively and emotionally all over the place, there’s also a fluidity… I always know where I am in the movie. I feel like I’m in assured hands even though what’s happening on screen is pretty out there. How do you establish that?

JD: So much trial and error. I made this movie so many different ways. And actually we got really close to locking picture in August on a version — it was tight, and it had none of the dreamy stuff that’s in the first twenty minutes, and it made a little more sense. You could follow it a little more easily. And we watched that version, and I remember looking at Liz, the producer who was also helping me edit at that time, and I said, “I just don’t like this movie. I don’t want this to be the movie.” And she said, “It’s lost something.” We’d done a lot of paring down. It had become a really dark film, and I thought, ‘This is about darkness, but it’s also about ecstacy. It’s about the creative power of imagination. It’s about how that can really be brutal, it can also be gorgeous…” And so, I started to pull back in all these wild, crazy, gorgeous immersive elements that had kind of gotten cut out by the notion that this needs to make sense. Now those are all back in the film. I don’t know if the movie would be itself without those.

Helena, are you also seeing the film at these various points during the edit? Because it’s been such a collaborative process for you.

HH: I saw two early cuts, but seeing it now has been a very visceral experience. I feel so proud of the entire cast and crew, and especially Josephine. After, people were asking me, “How do you feel? What is it like?” I couldn’t answer because I was still trying to process. I was still trying to understand what I had just seen, because it was so amazing.

JD: Actually, on the first cut, you had some notes. You said, “There were some scenes that are not in here that I think should be in here.” And they did come back. “What about this pig lady in the basement? Remember that?” And then she ended up back in the movie. And the painting in the park was out for a minute and then ended up back in the movie. Sometimes you would bring up a scene and I’d think, “Oh, I even forgot that scene existed,” because it’d been out of the movie for so long.

MJ: I think Molly also does some heavy lifting,  in a really modest way, of making it feel like a story. She has a pretty clear arc — more so than anyone else. And to have someone that grounded and struggling in very familiar ways — as an artist, or a woman in power, or even anyone in power, struggling with not having a handle on the thing and yet having to lead.

JD: We were joking yesterday that we tend to focus on talking about the messiness of the process. “Of course we’re a bunch of women who made a film.” It’s has all these women in all these roles, and I thought, “Of course we’re going to go into these interviews and we’re going to be like, ‘So, you know, the process was complicated, and this was complicated, and that was complicated.’” And if I was a man, I’d be like, “I made a great film, and you know, I didn’t need to ask anybody else what they thought, because I just knew, beginning to end, what I was making.” I feel really strongly also that I want to say in this interview where we’ve talked so much about how difficult the process was, that I think…[takes a deep breath] It is so hard to say this. I think we made something very beautiful.

You did. Is it OK if I mention the fact that you’re all crying right now?

MJ: And that we’re all using the same tissue!

Miranda, how did the film you saw differ from the film you expected? Did it?

MJ: Well, I had seen Josephine’s other two movies so I knew what I was getting into. And me and my husband had talked about them a lot. He gave some feedback earlier when I was unwilling to watch it, just because I wanted some time before I saw it. I called him last night after I saw the film, and I said, “Yeah, it’s better than the other two.” And he loves those movies. So, I felt like I got exactly what I came in for, and more than I hoped. I had thought, “If I can be in one of those ones like the earlier ones she did, great.” But it really, to me, feels like way beyond that. And to be part of that leap… it is so useful, and I need to remember how hard it was, how unsure it felt. [To Josephine] I mean, the night before last, when we were in your condo [before the film’s premiere], we were talking about what are good things to say in press, and you’re like, “Well, you know, I’m just gonna say I did what I could, and it’s not a perfect movie, and failure is important and in some ways the movie’s about failure and I failed.” And I was like, “Don’t — maybe don’t say the one part about that it’s a failure!” But I was right there with her because I hadn’t seen it yet. So I was thinking, “Alright, maybe it didn’t work out.” And that is how I often feel about my own things. It’s such a hard process, it has everything to do with doubt and being willing to swim in that, and to not tie everything up just so that you can be done or so that you can create something you’ve already seen before. “Well, this kind of reminds me of that and that was good, so maybe this is good.” And that you would still be swimming in the process right up to the night before… Yeah, I’m so glad I came just to get that refresher course.

Is great work even possible without that kind of doubt?

JD: Oh yeah, that’s a good question. The movies I like are pretty weird [laughs]. Under the Skin is such a great film. Persona is one of my favorite films. Babe actually is my favorite movie. I loved Ida, the Polish film. And a lot of what I read about the processes of those films… Well, Babe was probably a more conventional process [laughs]. But I know, for instance, that with Ida they had a script that they presented to investors, then they went back and made the script that they actually wanted to make. It was like forty pages, and they improvised on set. I was just saying this to a friend earlier, because I woke up this morning and I was like, “Wow, it’s really big what just happened, you know? And I feel exposed.” And I was thinking about exposure… I love the outdoors so much. I love camping, I love being outside. I was saying, “Oh, exposure is gorgeous. You can stand on a mountain, you see the mountain… But also, you could freeze to death.” The beautiful thing about making art is the enormous possibility of failure. And I can only speak for myself, but I think the feeling that it’s never good enough or that it’s never right is probably a lot of what makes me work really, really hard, for a long time.


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“Madeline’s Madeline”: The Best Film I Saw at Sundance

“In all chaos there is a cosmos. In all disorder a secret order.” Experimental theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker) says this to her troubled teenage star Madeline (Helena Howard) early on in Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, and it’s a sentiment the movie both takes to heart and persistently questions. Decker’s film, the best thing I saw at Sundance this year, is built around tension and chaos: Its unruly scenes emerge out of disorder, out of chants and shrieks and fractured images, and always threaten to fade back into abstraction. The focus slips; the camera drifts. Whispers and wails intrude. A simple dialogue exchange might suddenly splinter into tight-angled close-ups of a face; a shot might disintegrate into a shimmering field of red. But one senses a method in this madness. The narrative might be shattered, but the film’s slipstream of emotion is powerful and inescapable.

As Madeline, the nineteen-year-old Howard — an explosively gifted performer — seizes your attention. She plays a precocious teen with what may or may not be mental issues (there are mentions of a psych ward stint, and glimpses of pill bottles and medical bracelets, but as with so much in this film, we’re never sure how much of what we’re seeing is real). Madeline’s talent is being both nurtured and exploited by Evangeline. Improvisational role-play exercises in rehearsal come too close for comfort to Madeline’s volatile relationship with her caring, fragile mother, Regina (Miranda July). The girl immerses herself in the part, then takes her work home: Acting exercises in one context become troubling behavior in another. Is she building a character, or is the character building her? At times Madeline pretends to be a cat, a pig, a sea turtle. She attacks her mother with an iron. (Was it a dream? A memory? A desire? A fear?) Mom observes her daughter with anticipation and fright; July cracks the most mysterious of smiles, perched between terror and bewilderment. A flash of pride can, in an instant, become a moment of deep humiliation.

Evangeline’s theater work is built around dance and poetic movement, and Decker and her cinematographer, Ashley Connor, shoot the bodies in motion with an eye toward sensuality and distortion. They do the same for reality, too. The camera constantly wanders among faces and gestures, as if overwhelmed by all the possibilities of where to go. For a viewer, it’s a curiously lovely feeling — that sense of being suspended between clarity and entropy.

Decker built the picture around Howard after seeing her at a teen performance contest in New Jersey. Much of what’s onscreen was developed out of improvisations with the young actress and others. But whereas directors like Mike Leigh use this form of collaboration to create self-contained works of immersive realism, Decker deconstructs the very nature of a closed work of art. Who is Evangeline to tell Madeline’s story, and who is Decker to make a movie around Howard? Slowly, Madeline realizes her power in Evangeline’s world. The latter brings her into her life — does she want to displace the girl’s mother? — and hesitant, haunted Madeline begins to seize control. And onscreen, Howard comes to dominate the frame more and more. Who’s telling this story? you might wonder, and therein lies the radical, breathtaking beauty of this film. Madeline’s Madeline is at once intoxicated by the world and deeply terrified of it.



Jason Mantzoukas on “The Long Dumb Road,” Finally Playing a Lead, and the Wonders of Improv

Is Jason Mantzoukas the funniest man on the planet? He’s been consistently stealing scenes in any number of movies and shows for some time now — as the sleazebag brother-in-law Rafi on The League, the thoroughly unreliable detective Adrian Pimento on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or the emotionally unhinged neighbor Frank in last year’s unfairly-reviled Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler comedy The House. (The latter might have been the most inspired comic performance of 2017.)

Now, Mantzoukas finally gets to play a lead, in Hannah Fidell’s The Long Dumb Road, which closes out the Sundance Film Festival this weekend. As Richard, a hilariously embittered drifter who hitches a ride with an earnest, art-school-bound student (Tony Revolori), the actor gets to indulge in wide-eyed rants, deliver sage life advice, and pine pathetically for lost loves. Their relationship — charming, unpredictable, and constantly on the verge of imploding — is a joy to watch.

I spoke to Mantzoukas at the festival about his big role, his style of comedy, his openness to new experiences, and why the critics who hated The House are so, so wrong.

Bilge Ebiri: The character of Richard in The Long Dumb Road seems so perfect for you. Is that how it was written, or did you get to work with the filmmakers on it?

Jason Mantzoukas: We worked with it. In the script he was a bit more serious — more of a philosophical kind of drifter. I feel like when I came in — and especially when Tony [Revolori] and I got together, because we didn’t know each other prior to this, and we wound up having a very easy comedic chemistry — that changed the tone of the piece. It was our natural rhythm, which was great.

Road movies are often shot in sequence. Did you do that here as well?

No, no, we didn’t shoot in sequence. The reality is that, even though it takes place from Austin to Los Angeles or Vegas, we shot the whole movie in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico. So we didn’t have to travel. And it was really fun, especially when it came to finding those comedic beats or funny moments. Because we’re in a car — we’re either driving or on a flatbed truck on a process trailer — and that just allows you to be in the scene a little bit more. You’re not focusing on like, “Oh, and on that line I gotta walk over there, I gotta turn around…” You really can just be on the road, which I found to be a blast.

With the exception that sometimes it was very difficult to get out to go to the bathroom, it was otherwise really satisfying to have that blocked-off location where we are just allowing for the conversation and the getting-to-know-you and the digressions that we would find. Stuff could happen organically.

Does that also make it easier to build the character? Because this is relatively new for you to have a leading role where you have to have a whole arc and everything. Usually you’re doing supporting parts, or single scenes.

Oh, for sure. Yeah, 100%. By far this is the biggest role I’ve ever had in anything. And the thing about what you were saying about shooting it out of order and stuff is that this is one of the first times I’ve really had to be cognizant of my character’s emotional arc. Because there were times where we’d be like, “Oh, wait a minute. Right now in this scene, how long have we known each other?” We have to remember that if we’ve only known each other for like three hours, we should be more guarded and suspicious than, say, “Is this day three?”

Just from an acting perspective, I really had to try and track the emotional arc of this guy who starts off being very confrontational and very dismissive, and then starts to genuinely open up and become much more vulnerable, to a point where he becomes almost too vulnerable, and then course-corrects in a way that is like not cool. That was an interesting component of this that I’ve never really had to deal with.

Is there a lot of improvisation in a situation like that?

Definitely in a lot of the car scenes. Hannah [Fidell] and Carson [Mell] wrote a great script, and it already had this great relationship between the two guys. But I feel like once we got in the car, we would do the script, and it would be great, but then they would allow us to do a couple more takes and just poke around and see what happens.

Some of it’s in [the finished film], but even stuff that isn’t in there was very helpful in helping us figure out the characters. I feel like a lot of the improv stuff can often just help you find the dynamic between us, the banter, the cadences — even if it never gets into the movie, which more often than not it doesn’t.

Was there anything you did that you were sorry to see didn’t make it into the film?

I’m trying to think. Well, I’ll reverse it, and I’ll say one of the things that I’m thrilled made it into the film was the whole runner about The Fast and the Furious movies. That’s straight up my alley. I’m sure there’s a bunch of nonsense that I think is funny that didn’t make it in, but I love everything that’s in there.

I have to say I thought your performance in The House last year was one of the greatest things I saw in 2017. That film didn’t screen for critics, it got terrible reviews…

Oh, yeah. It’s holding steady at I think 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was an unmitigated bummer. I think it is the least well-performing Will Ferrell movie in history!

I saw it on a plane and laughed my ass off.

Yeah. Everybody did. So many people have sent me pictures from airplanes from the back looking forward at all the screens and like 60% of the screens are The House.

That was a pretty prominent part for you. Was it tough to get that kind of reception?

Yeah. Oh yeah. Oh, heartbreaking. Heartbreaking. Not just because it was for me a huge opportunity — to be the third lead in the big studio movie, especially with people who are idols of mine. I started at [Upright Citizens Brigade] — at the theatre that Amy Poehler founded in the late ’90s. I’ve known her for 20 years. And Will I’ve known for years, and I revere them both, so I was just, like, thrilled to be in it. A lot of great people put a lot of great work in it, and it is devastating.

But if people are seeing it on planes, great. If that’s how people are finding it, that’s how people will find it. It’s going to be one of those movies; it’ll be exactly your experience: “Oh yeah, this is funny.” Chance the Rapper tweeted about it, and that really made me happy because he said what I felt, which was, “Hey, why did this get so trashed? This is a totally funny movie.” And that’s what I couldn’t get either. Do I think it’s a masterpiece? No. Do I think it is a 17% on Rotten Tomatoes? Absolutely not. That seems crazy to me.

Your character in The House is so beautifully drawn because he is at once so out-there but also so identifiable. I feel like that’s something comedy can do that no other genre can do as well — to get you to identify with somebody, and at the same time make you step outside yourself and laugh.

Yeah! If you can connect with people on a level that feels relatable — showing them something that they can see some of themselves in — and then surprise them with something that is atypical to that, the surprise is very rewarding because it’s a catharsis. “Oh, that’s me, that’s me. Oh, that is not me, but I would love to be able to do that.”

And that movie — even though it’s this high-concept movie about starting a casino, blah blah blah, what launches them is not some nonsense about wanting to get rich on a casino. What launches them is that my character’s heartbroken that his wife has left him, and the others don’t have the money to send their daughter to school. Very relatable problems, you know? Now, their fix is a terrible idea, but those are individual depictions of universal struggle.

We hold onto whatever those things are, those things that poke at your soft spots and really get to you. The Long Dumb Road, too, I feel has that. Richard is a character who cannot let go of things. I mean, they go to Casey Wilson’s house. What is holding him back from moving forward is this fear and this nostalgia — he’s in a prison of his own making because he will not let himself move forward for fear of being hurt again, for fear of whatever. What’s nice is watching his walls come down in reaction to this kid.

You came up in the world of improv. For the longest time, especially after the initial Judd Apatow hits, it seemed like improv was the thing. Every comedy seemed to be a lot of improv. Now I feel like there’s a bit of a withdrawal from that.

Yeah. It was a new thing for a while. Comedy changes a lot. Drama is drama is drama is drama. The same things that are in a drama in the ’60s are often the same as the ’70s, same as the ’80s, same as the ’90s, same as now. With minor adjustments for performance level, maybe. But if you look at comedies from each of those eras, wildly different. Wildly different. Like, the idea that we all agreed that The Mask or Ace Ventura was what we all decided was comedy, and then ten years later we all decided The 40-Year-Old Virgin was comedy — that’s shocking. That is a complete shift. And I think we are now, I suspect, approaching another shift.

When the improv stuff took over, I benefited from that. And frankly I very much enjoy it on a taste, [a] stylistic level. But I think that it will change. It’s probably already changing into something else. I’m not sure what. I’m not sure who will be the person, or people, that we all see as leading this. Like Abbi and Ilana from Broad City — are they at the forefront of a new kind of tone, or a new kind of comedy? I don’t know. I love them and I love that show. I’m curious. And I’m excited for what happens next. Because comedy always evolves. Taste always changes in what people think is funny.

Does doing the How Did This Get Made? podcast, in which you and your colleagues Paul Scheer and June Diane Raphael deconstruct and discuss terrible movies, give you a new perspective on film production and reception?

It more makes me think about story and narrative and how you construct movies than it does in terms of production. Because a lot of times the limitations of production are financial. And not in the filmmaker’s control, really. But I find it actually incredibly useful. It is a kind of film school to simply have now watched hundreds of unsuccessful-to-bad movies. And to juxtapose them with each other, and to have these active conversations together with very smart, very funny people. Because we’re not there to tear anything apart or really be mean-spirited. We try and come at it from the point of view of celebrating bad movies, which is for us very fun.

You have to love a film to a certain extent to spend that much time watching it and talking about it and devoting an entire episode of your show to it.

Oh yeah. And there’s somebody who’s keeping a running tally of how much of our lives we’ve spent watching and talking about bad movies, and it is now over a month. It’s like probably closer to three months now — that’s how much of our actual life has been spent watching and talking about bad movies. So, I think it’s pretty wonderful.

I love June and Paul, I love the guests, I love the fans. We have such an active, involved fan base, and they are just as excited about these movies as we are. I love that it provokes discussion amongst people. I love the fact that we affect the Netflix algorithm when we announce a movie. I love that it’s a big thing, and that it’s lasted this long.

I imagine you must get feedback from filmmakers at this point. What’s been the most interesting?

I don’t have any good ones that are that way. Paul and June have a couple of really good ones that I won’t share because they’re their stories to tell, but they are good ones. They are really exciting ones. Of just people you would be surprised are listening, you know? People in the industry. It makes me happy.

I’ll have a meeting with an executive — a film executive or someone about a project or something — and anecdotally they’ll be like, “Oh, and I love the podcast.” I love that I came in thinking we were talking about this, but your knowledge of me includes this other whole thing. They seem separate: My acting career, my podcasting, my writing, they all seem separate. But not really.

I was interested to discover that you spent some time abroad after college, studying music in the Middle East. Do you feel experiences like that inform the comedy that you do?

It doesn’t necessarily inform the comedy I do, but it informs the person that I am. It made me a little more fearless — I mean, the idea of leaving home at 21, and living on my own for two years in countries that I was not familiar with.

Where did you go?

Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Turkey. And then I traveled through Jordan and Syria, but just briefly. That experience was monumental in who I am as a person, and while I suspect that I probably would have always tried to do something like what I’m doing, when I came back I was like, “I’m moving to New York, and I’m doing comedy. It’s done. That’s what I’m doing.” And that’s what I did. I moved straight to New York, and UCB had just started up. I got very lucky timing-wise, and so I just started taking their classes.

The challenge of doing that project abroad and succeeding at it made me fearless, made me feel as though all this was doable. It didn’t seem like something impossible. It made me, like, “Oh yeah, no, I’m doing that.” It still took me a long time to succeed, but it made me very, very confident and comfortable in what I wanted to do.

And also open to new experiences, I imagine. When I mentioned to friends that I was interviewing you, everybody had something else they felt I had to ask you about. “Ask him about The Good Place.” “Ask him about The League.” “Ask him about The House.” “Ask him about Comedy Bang Bang.” Everybody had their own thing they cherished.

I love that. I feel like I’ve gotten very lucky. I came up in a scene, the ethos of which is support. UCB improv, the whole thing, all of it is all about support, all about ensemble, all about group mind, all about “We all do this together.” It’s not stand-up. It’s not me versus the audience. It’s not mercenary at all. And so, at a certain point, everybody started to work, and when everybody started to work, everybody started to use each other.

And I got very lucky that I got to do lots of cool shows because they’re my friends’ shows, and because people like [The Good Place creator] Mike Schur like what I do, and always manage to find a spot for me in what they’re doing. The idea that I get to be on The Good Place is exciting to me because I love that show; I loved that show before they ever asked me to be on it. It’s like the best new network TV show in years. Kind of the same thing with Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I feel very lucky that I’m someone people think of when they want to do something that’s weird and crazy but also kind of grounded.

In comedy, it seems actors like to cultivate a type. I imagine the process is different for each performer, but is that a situation where you make a conscious decision: “Okay, I’m gonna be this type of guy.” Or does it happen organically?

I think in my instance it happened organically. I would say that a lot of the characters I play that fall into that category — Rafi from The League, Dennis Feinstein on Parks, Pimento on Brooklyn — are all versions of characters that I’ve been playing onstage in improv scenes for decades at this point. That’s I think partially why I’m so good at them — I’ve been doing them for years onstage. But then I also feel lucky when they say, “Come be on Transparent as a pretty normal person.” I’m always happy when that happens, when I get an opportunity to do something different. Because I now get offered a lot of, “Come be the perverted uncle on this show, come be the weird guy at this thing,” you know. And some of them are great. But more often than not, it’s a version of a Rafi or a whatever. And so it’s a delicate thing. I like a lot of those characters, I’m very fond of a lot of them, but I also don’t want to just be stuck in that thing. You know, a lot of people think, “Oh, he only does that,” because they haven’t seen some of the other stuff I’ve done.

When you write, do you write for yourself as well?

I do sometimes, and I don’t sometimes. I just finished a script for Paramount that’s an adaptation of a comic book called Battling Boy that I would not be in at all.

But when you do write for yourself, do you tend to write a type that you’re familiar playing, or something different?

Oh, no. No, no. The things that I’ve written for myself are more related to the person I actually am — well, not really me, but more related to the person I am than that bigger character, that archetype that I tend to play in other people’s stuff.

So, I was listening to the How Did This Get Made? about the Friday the 13th sequel Jason X. And you noted that while you were watching the film, you wrote down the words, “What is Jason?” And you joked about how it became an existential question for you. But have you actually ever asked yourself that question?

[laughs] “What is Jason?” About myself? Great question. And one of the funny things that’s also related is that my character on The Good Place is frequently having to talk about the character named Jason, so there’s a lot of fun in me as Derek saying my own name, Jason. That was very strange. No, it’s a great question. What is Jason? You can end with that. [laughs]


Sundance: Bo Burnham’s Understated “Eighth Grade” Avoids Coming-of-Age Cliches

I’m glad that I wasn’t familiar with the work of comedian and YouTube star Bo Burnham before seeing his directorial debut Eighth Grade, because otherwise I’m not sure how I would have initially received this engagingly modest film — which at times feels like the polar opposite of Burnham’s rapid-fire, maximalist, sometimes-politically-incorrect style of aggro comedy. Part of Eighth Grade‘s charm comes from a refusal to go for easy confrontations or humiliations; it keeps threatening to become a cringe-fest, but pulls back, as Burnham opts instead for something more human and realistic. There’s a lived-in wisdom in the film.

Entering her final week of eighth grade, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) wants to be something of a YouTube star herself — she makes little videos in which she offers up basic life advice, even though very few people watch her productions. In the real world, however, Kayla doesn’t really get to put most of her theories into practice. She lives with her caring but often-flustered single father (Josh Hamilton), but has practically no friends, even though she longs to be in with the cool crowd. There’s a boy she likes at school, and a popular girl who invites Kayla — reluctantly, at her mom’s urging — to her pool party. Later, Kayla connects with a friendly high school freshman whom she’s been assigned to “shadow” as a form of advance orientation. Burnham doesn’t give any of these characters a prominent place in Kayla’s dramatic arc, however. I kept expecting one of them to demonstrate pettiness, or betrayal, or some other form of cruelty toward Kayla — or, conversely, for Kayla to turn around and humiliate herself in their presence.

But Eighth Grade rejects predictable plot points and instead lives on the electric edge of awkwardness and uncertainty and doubt that represents the middle school experience; you never quite know what’s going to happen to Kayla, and that feels right.  The film earns its humor through familiarity, not shock. I found myself recognizing Kayla’s all-too-real anxiety and discomfort, but I could also identify with her father’s well-meaning helplessness.  Among the standout scenes is a supremely hesitant monologue Hamilton delivers late in the film to Fisher, in which we can sense his character fumbling and fumbling to find the right words to say and then, shockingly, finding them, surprising both himself and his offspring. It’s a low-key triumph of acting, writing, and directing. This guy Burnham might have started out as a somewhat annoying YouTube star, but he is now first and foremost a filmmaker.


Sundance: “Mandy” Is One of the Strangest, Saddest Films You’ll See

Panos Cosmatos’s unforgettable Mandy is a midnight movie that should never be seen at midnight. It requires active viewership, even as it envelops you in its extreme moods. I can’t imagine how I might have responded to it at a late hour, even though it is playing in the Midnight section here at Sundance; I saw it in the middle of the day, and as I walked out into the bright street afterwards, the world felt like it had changed. (I realize that a lot of people had a similar experience with Cosmatos’s previous effort, Beyond the Black Rainbow, a film I found mostly inert and tedious.) More than a story, Mandy offers large blocks of mood and emotion in which to luxuriate — until you can’t. Cosmatos’s visual style borrows from psychedelia, Frank Frazetta illustrations, J.M.W. Turner paintings, and the way oil and blood swirl in puddles of mud.

The plot is a loose one, and to describe it wouldn’t mean much. (Though, full disclosure: the film’s co-writer, Aaron Stewart-Ahn, is a friend of mine.) Let’s just say that Nicolas Cage is a lumberjack deeply in love with his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), and that she’s coveted by the leader of a stoned-out cult, who has an army of demon bikers at his beck and call. Cage’s character is at peace in the movie’s first half and full-tilt bloodthirst crazy in the second — and I took very little pleasure from his nuttiness even as the actor goes admirably all-in. I don’t think we’re meant to, because Mandy is heartbreaking: There’s one lengthy close-up right around the middle when we see the light literally go out from Cage’s eyes.

So, Mandy is a revenge movie for people who don’t like revenge movies. All too often, films like Death Wish and its ilk indulge our fear and our hatred — our deep, visceral, nihilistic need to destroy things. We’re just waiting for the violence to start. But with its deliberately paced, mesmerizing and sensuous first half, Mandy grounds itself in the idea of desire and peace, and their subsequent loss and perversion. And it also suggests that the only thing keeping the world from turning into an unholy carnage fest is the power of love. The film’s two sides — the soft, textured reverie of its first half, and the surreal, angular savagery of its second — exist in perpetual balance; one would die without the other.


Sundance: Rupert Everett on “The Happy Prince,” and How Oscar Wilde Is His Christ Figure

One of the most pleasant surprises of this year’s Sundance has been the chance to see Rupert Everett onscreen again in a major role. Of course, in order to get the part, he had to write and direct the film as well. In The Happy Prince, Everett uses the last days of Oscar Wilde as a way to explore the tragic, iconic gay playwright-poet-novelist’s life  intercutting between glimpses of his glory days as well as his several falls from grace. The result is a lush, dense dream narrative, anchored by a lead performance from Everett that is alternately vain, tender, boisterous, and melancholy. I had the chance to sit down with him at the festival and discuss how he came to write and direct this movie  about a decade in the making  and the importance of Oscar Wilde in his own life.

How do you think Oscar Wilde would have fared in a place like Sundance?

It’s hard to say, really. There is, on the way [to Park City] from the airport, a place called Ironville, and Wilde went to a town called Leadville. He’d been lampooned in an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan as a kind of fob, and instead of reacting badly, he went and promoted the opera around America. It was a brilliant PR move  to confront your negative press full-on. He became a huge star in America in about 1875, I think it was. And he traveled around America in a train with a special carriage with green leathered seats, and he ended up in a town called Leadville, where he was taken down a mine in a bucket where the miners had organized a dinner party, and he spoke to them on the need for beauty.

Is this the most personal part you’ve ever played?

Oscar Wilde is definitely my patron saint, if not my Christ figure. The notion of Christ is such a fascinating one which we never really look into  the idea of being half-god and half-man, which the Christ consciousness is, and which we all are, and which Oscar Wilde is a perfect example of, because he’s kind of a buffoon in some ways, an idiot and a genius. He’s headstrong and vain and he’s incredibly compassionate. He’s a lot of polar opposites, and he makes terrible mistakes and fails abysmally. So, he is a kind of saint figure to me, if I think of all the mistakes that I’ve made. And also having to live so much as a kind of publicly seen gay figure. Not that I’m in any sense a similar type of genius as he is, but definitely he is my saint.

In some senses, his story feels like one of the beginnings of the LGBTQ movement.

The relevance of the film is that the LGBTQ movement really did start with him. “Homosexuality” simply wasn’t a word, really, before Wilde, and certainly wasn’t a thing that was discussed openly. And he realized that. He said at one point before he died, “The road to freedom will be long and smeared with the blood of martyrs.” So, for the LGBTQ community, I think this is like seeing a nativity play. And I think very valuable for us all now, because we live in a culture where we’re constantly battling for everything to get better, which is right and correct, but at the same time sometimes it blinds us to how far we’ve actually come already. And this is 110 years or so; it’s a minuscule millisecond in human history, and we should sit and think of Wilde and where we are and feel absolutely thrilled and full-hearted going forward 

While you were just talking, Mike Pence was on the TV behind you.

Right, yes! [Laughs]

So, there’s still some road left to go.

Of course there is, but at the same time, how do we attack that road? I think, bearing Oscar in mind, one attacks it with a pride and a full-heartedness rather than an anger and a fury. We’ve done incredibly well already, and things have moved so much for us in the first world. You know, last week I was in Jamaica, where I’m involved with a safe house for gay people in Montego Bay. I was listening to the stories of gays and transgender people in Jamaica  where once your family discovers that you’re gay, they try and get a hit man to kill you, and the whole village turns their back on you and throws stones at you like a dog until you have to leave home and just go on the street. There are gays in Russia who don’t know what AIDS is still. They’re completely out on their own. I think this film is a great kind of battle cry, in a way, but in a full-hearted and positive sense.

You’ve been working on this film for some time.

Well, I originally wrote the screenplay in 2007, 2008. And since then it’s been on quite a journey. It started off terribly well, then kind of went downhill. When I first wrote it, my initial producer, Robert Fox, sent it to Scott Rudin, who’s a fantastic producer, and he loved the script. And the day I heard that I just thought, “God, show business is the easiest thing. It’s all just happens like that.” And I was walking on air. And then straight away afterwards [Rudin] came back saying that he liked the script but he wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman to play Oscar Wilde.

Had you always intended to play the part?

I’d only written it so that I could play the part. I didn’t really want to direct it, to be honest. I just wanted to keep going as an actor and find a fantastic vehicle for myself that I thought would fit in to how people perceive me. So, when he told me he wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the role, I was a little bit knocked sideways. Actually, in one sense, I think I made a mistake because I should have let them do it; I would have been able to establish myself as a writer at a very good level, because Scott Rudin is a marvelous producer. Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been magnificent, actually.

I think you’re magnificent in this part. I’m also taken with your writing and direction of the film. Especially with the dream-narrative structure, which seems like a bold choice for a first-time writer-director.

My initial idea was to have Oscar Wilde on his deathbed, because obviously that hotel room to me is a kind of iconic room. For me, it’s one of the great nineteenth-century romances, you know, Oscar Wilde’s cheap hotel room smelling of drains, this great literary genius who once held the whole Café Royal in thrall is dying next to an overflowing latrine in a cheap hotel. And I’d originally thought about this deathbed room being a kind of expanding and shrinking room as he died. My dad had just died, and I’d been around my dad quite a lot dying, and it’s a riveting experience to see close-up a brain slowly turning off and crashing and bits falling off. Distance starts changing, you start seeing things that happened years ago. So, I wanted to try and make this idea about a room that shrank and expanded as he died  as the brain sorts out for the last time its memories. That was my initial thrust, and then it went on from there. I always loved the films of Sergio Leone  those amazing flashbacks in Once Upon a Time in America.

Funny that you mention Leone. The film felt quite Italian to me. I was also reminded structurally of The Conformist, and several other Italian films from the 1960s and 1970s.

As a kid, my best friend was the goddaughter of Franco Zeffirelli. So, my first real experience of cinema and making films was going on this mad, exotic queen’s film sets where churches would be hung with bits of glitter. I mean, you know, that old Italian school, with its [directors of photography] like Pasqualino De Santis, and costume designers Piero Tosi and Danilo Donati. The design of those films of Seventies and Eighties Italian cinema. And I think people aren’t really interested in that kind of design aesthetic anymore, I suppose. For me, it comes from the same thing that I suppose Visconti thought about: It’s really making the rooms and the places exact. And I think they are fairly exact, my environments for Oscar Wilde.

You wrote the script even before you appeared in The Judas Kiss, in which you played Wilde onstage?

I appeared in The Judas Kiss because the film just kept stalling. After this Scott Rudin debacle, he said, “OK, I will make the film with you, but give me a list of six directors.” And I did, fabulous ones.

Who was on the list?

Well, the one I really wanted was Alan Parker, because I adore his Irish films, and I love Mississippi Burning. And I love that aesthetic, too, the English aesthetic of those advertisers who turned to moviemaking. Again, part of my upbringing. I was brought up on seeing those films. Anyway, it took me about two years to get a “no” from all of them. We were then into year three, and I thought, “Fuck.” The thing about a screenplay is it simply doesn’t exist if it isn’t made. There’s no point in trying to publish a screenplay or something like that, so I thought, “I’m just not letting it go.” I decided to direct it myself — to a resounding lack of enthusiasm globally. [Laughs] Added to which, whatever stardom I had at that point was really on the wane, you know, flickering into obscurity. I went round everywhere, and everyone said no. People kept saying, “Why you as Wilde? I don’t understand how you’re going to do it.” And I’d remembered David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss. And we had a great success with it. Everything I thought I could do as an actor, I somehow managed. So, that was a real turning point.

You’ve talked about these contrasts in Oscar’s life. There’s also his yearning for domesticity, intercut with his sexual abandon in France.

Wilde definitely became a sexual animal in France. And Wilde and sex is a difficult thing to [approach]. If you believe what everyone says, he never had sex with a guy until Robbie Ross in 1885 or ’86. So all through university, Trinity College, Dublin, Oxford, no gay sex. And I think it’s possible; he was so hell-bent on becoming English. And yet, it’s so difficult for us to imagine because we live in a post-liberation world where being gay is a thing. Back then, it wasn’t a thing even. But definitely, by the time he got to Paris, he was a celebrity on the skids, a sex animal. I think he was fascinated by the vagrant world that became available to him.

You also depict what seems to be a very earnest desire on his part to be a Catholic.

Well, he had this flirtation with Catholicism all the way through. He was always going to Brompton Oratory, which is one of our big, grand churches in London. He loved the idea of Catholicism. And Robbie Ross was a Catholic. And Wilde must have also had a Christ complex of his own because his social suicide was quite possibly very measured and thought-out. He probably saw that the only way for his work to really survive would be if he did go to prison, because he had the opportunity obviously when he was in the Cadogan Hotel to run. But if he ran, he would be committed to obscurity. Because actually there were a lot of playwrights who wrote very good melodramatic potboilers in the theater, and it’s quite possible he’d have been lost if he hadn’t also become this Christ figure. Because he died and rose again, in a way, like Christ.

Oscar Wilde is one of the most quotable figures of all time. When you write that character and you have to put words in his mouth, I imagine that’s not easy. But you’ve got some good lines in there — like, “shrouded in the symphony of adjacent copulation.”

Oh, I wrote that, yeah. [Laughs] That was a good one, actually.

It must have been a challenge. “Oh, I’m going to write new Oscar Wilde–isms.”

Well, that’s the joy and glory of writing when it goes well. Because I remember writing that line and having this idea of them being in a knocking shop with this kind of Sensurround sex going on. The words just kind of came out, and when stuff like that comes out, it’s amazing. But that’s another area where I was very lucky because I had so much Wilde experience as an actor. Even if I didn’t know how to come up with something as glittering, I knew the cadence and the length of the sentences and how they felt to speak. And I think being the actor writing the lines was very lucky for me, because I always had an ear to imagining myself saying them.

Are you an easy actor to direct?

Well, it’s a very weird position because everyone’s around you, and you’re the director and you’re the actor, so you’re the center of energy. I was so keen to make the days because we had a really tough schedule, and any scene we lost on any day meant the scene was really basically lost. We didn’t have any room for doing an extra day or anything, so sometimes I would just be hurrying through the scenes to get them finished — I’d get up from chairs too fast, or move across rooms in a way that just wasn’t like Oscar would. There’s a scene where I climbed a hill to the church, and I was like Usain Bolt trying to get up it because I was so keen to get on to the next setup. So, sometimes my acting is inaccurate. Luckily everyone else’s was incredibly accurate all the way through. My philosophy always as an actor has been that directors who try and micromanage you are not necessarily the best directors. I think the best ones are ones who watch what you’re doing and try and capture it, and that’s how I thought with my actors. They were all so instinctively right.

Who’s the best director you’ve worked with?

Well, I loved working with P.J. Hogan [on My Best Friend’s Wedding and Unconditional Love]. But he was a micromanager as well. And he would make me do twenty takes of something, which was completely, in my opinion, unnecessary. And then he always chose the wrong one, for me. If you go to a screening with another actor, you always end up having the same conversation: “Can you believe the stuff they used? I mean, what about that stuff we did there?” And I must say, looking at the performances, I felt, as an actor-director, I understood what every actor was trying to do, even sometimes when it wasn’t quite achieved. Because you can see in other actors’ faces what beats they’re trying to make, what little kind of lulls and musical changes. Because we move so fast now, and there’s not time to do that old-fashioned thing of twenty-five takes; there’s time to do two. And so, I did like working with P.J. Hogan. I loved working with Roger Michell. I loved working with Paul Schrader. I loved working with a guy called Marek Kanievska who made Another Country, my first film. And then I did a film called Dellamorte Dellamore, an Italian film. [Director Michele Soavi] is a fantastically original thinker. He transformed that cartoon so brilliantly onto the screen. And the character was based on me to start with! That cartoon, which is called Dylan Dog, was a big Italian strip cartoon, and the guy who did it based it on me. So, it was a great thing for me to do. But [Soavi] was brilliant as the director, because that was not an expensive film, but the way all his special effects were kind of artisanal was stunning.

Who’s the worst director you’ve worked with?

Well, the director I got on worst with was the second director I ever worked with, Mike Newell. We fought and fought and fought. The film was great actually, Dance With a Stranger, but it was a defining film for me in that afterwards I really didn’t get any work because my relationship with him had gone so bad and so wrong.

 It is a great film, and Miranda Richardson is quite amazing in it.

She’s amazing, as is the look of that film. There’s hardly any films of that period that look so absolutely wonderful. No, he did an amazing job of it, I must say.

Do you want to direct more?

I would like to. In this day and age, I think one has to constantly reset one’s clock at zero, and I won’t be going into next week thinking I now have the right to be a director. Because I’m nearly approaching sixty. If it took me another ten years to make a film, I’d be seventysomething. [Laughs] But I think I’ve got something to say and lots of ideas that I would like to do. On the one hand, because the world is moving so fast, in five or six years I won’t understand how to use anything. Because if we’re at the very beginning still of this huge technological movement, I already can’t even do catch-up on my TV very well. And emotionally, morally, everything’s changing. The whole structure of humanity seems like it will be changing in the next five to ten years.

But that’s also why I think being an older person directing will be good. It’s a good thing to bring shades of the past, in terms of emotional makeup and moralistic makeup. And I think one of the things in the modern world where it’s not working for me is that history is now fifteen minutes ago. For example, as young aspiring actors, we knew the whole of the history of cinema from seeing it on television. We knew films of the Twenties in the Seventies and Eighties. We were intimately familiar with the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s — of course we were in love with the Fifties. That’s all gone. Now, one trip around the goldfish bowl. Things are moving so fast.

The Oscar Wilde story is also, in some senses, the beginnings of celebrity culture.

Absolutely. He was the second celebrity. Byron first, and then Wilde. Famous for being famous, as much as anything else.

And this notion that the people who applaud you will, in the very next moment, absolutely drive you into the ground.

Well, certainly in our world, you know, everything turns on a dime. One moment everyone’s listening to your ideas, gaping with excitement, and the next they’re looking over your shoulder to get away. So, yeah, I think that’s the nature of our world. And it also moves so fast now. That’s the other thing, you know. In a couple of days, you could be finished.


Sundance: Jennifer Fox’s Deeply Disturbing “The Tale” Explores the Maze-Like Nature of Memory

One of the more seismic premieres at Sundance this year — for both artistic and cultural-moment reasons — has been Jennifer Fox’s intensely disturbing The Tale. It’s a deeply complex work, based on the director’s own experience with sexual molestation. By casting Laura Dern as a filmmaker named Jennifer Fox, the director builds a frame around a story that is itself all about how we frame things. The events of the film are set in motion by the Fox character’s elderly mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) discovering a story Jennifer wrote years ago in English class about the relationship she once had with an older man (Jason Ritter) and a woman (Elizabeth Debicki) at the horse farm where she spent her summers.

The girl’s story, titled “The Tale,” discusses the affair in glowing terms (“I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful,” it starts), but Mom is convinced her daughter was raped and is horrified to be discovering this only today. Jennifer, now 48, resists that definition, and argues that her mother just doesn’t understand. But Jennifer herself has for decades clearly stored the memory somewhere unreachable, and she soon becomes obsessed with delving into her past and tracking down the people involved.

As Jennifer Fox the character goes on this journey, so too does Jennifer Fox the filmmaker, and the movie itself, in form and content, comes to embody the elusive nature of memory — inexact, always changing, and in constant dialogue with the present. Fox initially portrays her flashbacks in colorful, bright, manicured compositions, like something out of a diorama. Then she interrogates that past — literally. Her onscreen character interviews these people both in their former selves and in their present incarnations. Older Jennifer interviews her younger self; the younger self interviews her back. The flashbacks keep changing: Memories are cut short, then replayed differently, with new figures from the past suddenly appearing, dredged up from the dark abyss created by time and trauma. Those carefully composed shots eventually become intense, fragmented close-ups.

It takes a remarkably assured artist to make all this work, and Fox is savvy about how she eases us into her complicated narrative. Early on, she tips her hand by suddenly changing the girl playing her younger self right before our eyes, as a result of new information she receives in the present — a bold stroke that prepares us for the increasingly maze-like nature of the film.

Such flourishes also help paper over some awkward scenes, particularly early on. Fox definitely seems more at ease toying with structure and filming performed interviews than she does handling more conventional dialogue exchanges. (The director has previously worked mostly in documentaries, including the fascinating, six-hour 2006 film Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman.) Meanwhile, Dern effectively conveys her character’s obsessive curiosity, and even though she’s exploring something that happened to herself, her Jennifer remains analytical, as if this might be just another documentary subject for her. This might be brutal stuff, but The Tale, for much of its running time, avoids easy emotional beats; it’s a surprisingly cerebral movie.

And then, right at the end, it goes for the kill — in an explosion of emotion and rage that the film has been building up to throughout. But it’s a brief burst, and more than anything it serves to remind us of the impossibility of catharsis with stories like this. And The Tale’s melancholy, open-ended final moments dare to suggest that, in gaining more self-knowledge, Fox has also discovered infinitely more pain.


Sundance: Debra Granik’s Triumphant Return With “Leave No Trace”

The last time Debra Granik had a film at Sundance, it was the masterful Ozark coming-of-age thriller Winter’s Bone, which won Oscar nominations and introduced the world to a certain young actress named Jennifer Lawrence. Granik has returned to the festival this year with Leave No Trace, another movie focusing on the experiences of a young woman living on the margins of society — this time, rather than a seventeen-year-old trying to hold her impoverished family together, it’s a thirteen-year-old trying to survive in the woods with her father. It might not have the genre elements that helped make Winter’s Bone something of a breakout, but Leave No Trace rivets and terrifies in its own way.

When we first meet Tom (the staggeringly good Kiwi actress Thomasin McKenzie), she and her father, Will (the intense and excellent Ben Foster), are gathering and cutting wood for a fire and shooing away packs of dogs outside their tent. Right from these early scenes, we can feel the delicate power of Granik’s visual storytelling: As we see the propane tanks and apple boxes and shelves and tarps that father and daughter have gathered, we don’t need to be told that these two are not just out camping; they live in the woods. And just like that, we’re enveloped in the perplexing drama of surviving on the edge.

Tom and Will have been hiding out in a large public park in Portland, Oregon, making occasional trips into town to buy groceries and visit the hospital. A veteran, Will has issues with post-traumatic stress; for income, he sells the pain meds he receives at the hospital to dealers at a tent city. Tom and her father, we discover, are homeless not because they’re poor but because Will has demons he can’t shake. He wants nothing to do with society — he consistently refers to the outside world, with its houses and its conveniences and responsibilities, as “them.” We never quite find out what exactly it is he’s running from, but we don’t need to: We understand that his contempt and fear are inchoate, irrational, and unshakeable.

As a director, Granik conveys information with both understatement and clarity, but what really comes through in the film’s early scenes — and what helps keeps it from playing as a wallow in misery — is the tense tenderness between father and daughter. Tom and Will may live in stark independence, but they are totally codependent. Foster grounds Will’s terse, survivalist brusqueness in concern for his child; McKenzie beautifully portrays Tom’s desire to please her dad, as well as her happiness at simply being with him. At one point, after the authorities bring the two back into society and separate them, we’re genuinely scared by what might happen to them. Granik shoots the spaces of “civilization” with low-key menace: When Will is forced to sit at a computer and answer hundreds of true-false questions for a personality test, she places him off-center in the composition, with obstructions in the frame. We feel his entrapment and discomfort.

Leave No Trace was adapted from Peter Rock’s 2009 novel, My Abandonment, but it doesn’t have many conventional story beats. Rather, it follows father and daughter as they continue to drift between different places — a trailer here, an abandoned shed there. But slowly we sense the two diverging in their needs: Tom is growing up and starting to realize she wants to settle down, to have a place she can call home and dreams she can call a future. But Will is unreachable. And so, this is ultimately a tale of letting go — of a parent learning to say goodbye to a child, and vice versa. I was reminded often of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic parenting thriller The Road; I was also sometimes reminded of Manchester by the Sea, with its narrative of a man unable to shake his demons. I suspect I’ll be haunted by this picture for quite some time. Granik films with subtlety and quiet grace, but Leave No Trace explodes in the mind.


Sundance: Two Startling Documentaries Question the Limits of Our Vision

It’s not every day that you witness a new cinematic language being born, but watching RaMell Ross’s evocatively titled documentary Hale County, This Morning, This Evening qualifies. The director, a photographer and teacher who was coaching basketball in the middle of the Black Belt region of the American South, knew the subjects of his documentary for several years before deciding to create a film around them. The finished work, a half decade in the making, is informed by his deep familiarity with its characters, which might be one reason why he has the confidence to abandon traditional narrative structures and strike out on his own lyrical path.

Throughout Hale County, Ross fixes his camera on quotidian moments, fragments of scenes. A woman tapping a flyswatter against her knee. A girl casually braiding her hair. A toddler running back and forth across a small living room. A droplet of sweat falling off a ball player. The shadow of a football throw. This kind of cutaway might provide some lively background atmosphere in a typical film, but for Ross this is the foreground, even as he starts to focus on his more “traditional” subjects: Quincy and Daniel, African-American teens living in a quiet Alabama town. Quincy works at the catfish plant, supporting a young family. Daniel has dreams of leaving and making a life for himself; he sees school as a way out, and basketball as a way through school. When we see him working on his outside shot — with Ross keeping the camera so tight that we mostly just see the boy’s shoulders — we’re not just watching a young athlete practicing, we’re watching someone in the midst of an existential task.

By sticking to his impressionistic perspective, by fracturing his narrative, Ross achieves something genuinely poetic — a film whose very lightness is the key to its depth. Hale County traverses years, encompasses tragedy and beauty, all in just 78 minutes. His is an empathetic camera, focusing on the kinds of details that pull us into this world, with a photographer’s eye for taking everyday moments and finding transcendence in them.

But there’s something more significant going on here. Occasionally, the text of cryptic little phrases and questions flash briefly across the screen. The one that really grabbed me asks, “How do you not frame someone?” That might sound gnomic, but it lies at the heart of Ross’s achievement. By fragmenting our point-of-view, he draws our attention to what we can’t know. All too often, these longitudinal documentaries — movies that chart people’s lives over multiple years — have a kind of totalizing ambition. They pretend to novelistic thoroughness. But can a mere film contain and explain an entire human life? (And let’s not forget, those impressively long, years-in-the-making documentaries often are made by white filmmakers about black subjects.) Ross understands that it can’t, and he’s found a way to express that through form. He immerses us in this world, but then lets the mystery be.

“Minding the Gap”

Ross represents a director halfway between outsider and secret-sharer – a teacher who came from elsewhere and laid down roots in this community. By contrast, Bing Liu, the director of Minding the Gap, is one of the subjects of his own documentary. Similarly longitudinal in its ambitions, Liu’s film follows the lives of three close friends, all skaters in the depressed Rust Belt town of Rockford, Illinois, who’ve known each other since they were little kids. We see their early years in rough glimpses – attempting skate tricks, goofing around, breaking their boards in both playfulness and rage. They’re a surprisingly diverse trio: Zack is the floppy-haired, charming pothead anarchist; Keire is African American, with a bubbly, boyish personality; Bing is a quiet, Chinese-American introvert. None have good relationships with their families; indeed, they say early on that they formed their own family together – “to look out for each other, because no one else was looking out for us.”

Like Hale County, Minding the Gap focuses on expressive moments and emotional movements rather than narrative arcs. The film is filled with lengthy, sensuous skateboarding scenes, which feel meditative, therapeutic; we sense that these kids skated not because it was fun, but because it helped them to survive.

But as the years pass, the film begins to question some of the trio’s own notions of self-knowledge. Each of their families has suffered from some form of domestic abuse – from casual beatings to far more sinister acts. And none of the boys has ever really reckoned with this dark reality in their lives. They have escaped through skating and friendship – but that kind of avoidance merely kicks the can down the road. Zack winds up with his own family early on in life, and we learn that he might be reenacting some of the same things that happened to him. As they become men, and as their lives diverge, the trio begin to ask how well they really know each other, and themselves.

This sense of questioning becomes part of the aesthetic of the film. As both subject and filmmaker, Bing is often behind the camera, but he’s also a participant in much of the movie: The people onscreen know him and trust him, and there’s a genuine intimacy to their interactions. But eventually, he trains the camera on his own life, as he decides to delve into his family’s past and the abuse he suffered. A visit back home and an interview with his mother make for incredibly powerful scenes, but they also reveal the limitations of our knowledge and vision. Minding the Gap, like Hale County This Morning, This Evening, is the work of a filmmaker willing to acknowledge that sometimes, seeing better, seeing differently, is more important than understanding.