Monday, February 20, 2017

Berlinale 2017: Beyond the Competition

It's hard to know how to approach a festival like the Berlinale. The natural inclination is to gravitate towards the highest-profile Competition titles, but the festival is so sprawling and boasts such an extraordinary range of films, it offers ample rewards for the adventurous cinemagoer who digs into as many of the strands as possible. I skipped a number of competition films this year in order to explore the Forum, Panorama, Retrospective and Berlinale Special strands, choosing films largely at random in the hope of stumbling across a gem, and the hit rate was gratifyingly high. Here are ten non-competition discoveries I made that represent the variety and richness of the Berlinale programme, and which are worth keeping an eye out for if they ever arrive at a cinema near you.

Read the rest of my article at The Skinny

Friday, February 10, 2017

"People are responding to this film the way they are because it's clearly so personal, they respect that." - An Interview with Barry Jenkins

Ever since its debut at last year’s Telluride Film Festival, Moonlight has been riding a wave of acclaim that shows no sign of abating. Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue is the story of a young black man from a broken home in Miami, following him through his childhood, adolescence and adulthood as he grapples with his sexuality and identity. It’s a film that feels specific in its perspective and its details, but universal in its portrait of loneliness, pain and yearning, and it continues to live in the memory long after the end credits have rolled. Moonlight is a very special film that remarkably manages to live up to the hype, and I met Barry Jenkins last December on the morning after he had attended the British Independent Film Awards, where he received the award for the Best International Independent Film. 

Congratulations on yesterday. Both the LA Film Critics and the British Independent Film Awards.

Yeah, I know. It happened at the same time too, man. It was amazing.

Was it a good ceremony last night?

Oh yeah. It was a really good room, and as I said on the stage there are a few British filmmakers that I really admire, Lynne Ramsay chief among them, you know, Lynne Ramsay and Alan Clarke were the two biggest when I was in film school. It's kind of wonderful to be in a place where I assume Lynne has won a BIFA in the past.

Can you comprehend and digest the reaction that this film has received from everyone so far?

Now that I'm on so many planes, you have nothing but time to think and process. I've realised I'm in a very privileged position. I have friends who have made really amazing works that not a lot of people see, you know, my friend Antonio Campos has a film called Christine and it doesn't have the same buzz that we have, and that's unfortunate. I wish all these films could have the sort of response and visibility that Moonlight has had over the past few months. So yeah, I know it's a really privileged place to be in, and so I'm just trying to take it bit by bit and not get too damn happy.

So can you identify what has connected with people that has generated that kind of buzz?

I think because we didn't try to make the movie for everyone, people really respond to that. I think we live in a time now where, because of the business dynamics of what we do, the imperative is to make something that everyone can love. With this film I was trying to make a movie for an audience of two, myself and Tarell, because the movie is more or less about the two of us. I think when you do that, people respect it, you know, it passes the bullshit test. It's like, oh, this is really interesting and at the very least I'm gonna get something that I didn't expect, because I don't know these guys and I get to experience what they're like through this film.

One thing that intrigues me about Tarell's play is that it was never actually produced, it was just an unfinished manuscript sitting in his draw. When I heard that was the case it made sense because I was trying to picture this as a play and I couldn't really. It's so cinematic, and it relies so much on the power of silence, gestures, close-ups.

I don't think it would have ever worked on a stage, and I don't think Tarell ever wrote it intending it to be on a stage. Now I also don't think that the first version I read would have worked in the format it was on screen. I always describe it as being halfway between the stage and the screen, and I always think of the process as kind of being like a relay race; Tarell got to the first or second leg, you know, and then he passed it to me and I took it the rest of the way. But it was inherently visual, even when he first wrote it, and like you my first instinct was, this is not going to work on the stage, however, there are some very interesting visuals here. The original piece was like 47 pages, so there was a lot of space within it, and there was a lot of room for me to extend and create. I always knew that I wanted to make a film that would live on faces and physical gestures, and it was wonderful to have his language to connect those very silent beats.

The one thing I had assumed was a legacy of the stage was the three-act structure, but I understand you actually brought that to it in your adaptation.

I did. Tarell wrote this in 2003, the first version of it, so he was a very young man and I'm sure if he wrote it again today it would be quite different. He called it a circular narrative - you'd see Little wake up and go to school, you'd see Chiron wake up and go to school, you'd see Black wake up and go to the corner. Then you'd see Little at school, Chiron at school, Black at the corner. It just kept going through this one day, always resetting, and I thought, this is going to be very difficult for an audience to follow. I don't see how they're going to really connect and grab on to what the characters are experiencing, because every five minutes they have to reset. It would be better to get a whole run of each character and then reset. I had seen this Hou-Hsiao Hsien film called Three Times and I thought it really worked in that piece, so I thought that's what we'll do. It is funny, I never thought of it as a three-act structure, but you're right, it's old-school dramaturgy for sure.

That structure has a real benefit though, because it's a striking moment when Black appears in the third section. The last time we saw this character he was a scared, skinny teenager getting beaten up, and now he's this huge, imposing figure. You're trusting the audience a lot there to go with you because you don't give us much context for his development and what has happened in the intervening years.

Yeah, it's funny. I don't often try to anticipate how the audience is reading the film, but I think that act two to act three structure is a moment when we really are in tune with how the audience is receiving the character. At that point, it's been 60 minutes, you're prepped, now you know a different actor is coming, and act two ends on such a cliffhanger, which is weird for this film. I felt like the audience would know, okay, I have to keep watching, this is very different and very jarring. This beautiful thing happened where, it wasn't scripted that you would see Naomi at the top of story three, as a flashback to that moment in the hallway in story one, but we're giving them this one little thing - we've gone from two, to three, then here's this thing from story one, and then he wakes up from the nightmare. And then at that point, we've done this thing where the audience is hopefully used to the preamble. It's almost like a literary device, you get a moment with the character before we officially state their name. You're right, it was trusting the audience, but I had the same experience in casting Trevante Rhodes, who came in to read for the other character, Kevin. I was like, this dude has too many muscles and is too damn built, there's no way he's going to work as Kevin, but out of respect I let him keep auditioning. Then this thing happened where I realised I had judged him because of how he looked, and I had decided that he couldn't channel the vulnerability and sensitivity that I thought the character needed, but he was auditioning and I was like, oh shit, there's the sensitivity and vulnerability. I thought that if the audience can have the same experience I just had at this five-minute audition, it would work, so we cast him and that was it.

His appearance does encapsulate so much about the film's exploration of masculinity.

It's masculinity run amok and the aggression of the world projecting a certain accepted image of masculinity, I think Trevante embodied that fully, just in his physical presence. And then as a performer he's so good, the subtext and all these things buried underneath, you can slowly bring those things to the surface, which is who he truly is. Yeah, it was one of the choices that was the most jarring. I even remember being on set with Trevante, his first two days of work, where he was by himself for his first two days - he's working out, walking around in his boxers, sitting on the bed - and all the women on the film are gathered around video village, watching this very ripped guy. I was like, fuck, this feels so different from working with Ashton [Sanders], you know? Did we make a mistake? But then we filmed his side of the phone call, when André Holland calls, and I was like, oh, that's where it is. We're good to go.

There's also this very moving sense that he has recreated himself in the image of Mahershala Ali's character, the only positive male figure he has experienced in his life.

Exactly, but that male figure isn't there to constantly guide him. This is why parents are parents, you know? You tell your kid to do something right, they're going to make a mistake, then you have to be there to make an adjustment. "Oh, I know you tried, now try it this way." He doesn't have that presence to go, “Don't do it that way, do it this way,” so I think he's performing again what he thinks Juan did for him. There's that great scene where the guy is counting the money, and he's trying to be this presence the way Juan was, but all he's doing is scaring the shit out of this kid, you know? Because Juan isn't there, I think he's taken the worst aspects and applied those as a performance.

So this is probably something you've been asked about a thousand times, but I have to talk to you about the casting process. I think it's astonishing the way these three very different actors create this sense of a whole person. I can't recall seeing anything quite like this before.

It's magic. [Laughs]

I guess a magician never reveals his secrets.

Well, magic and a great casting director. I always say magic, because we didn't allow them to rehearse and we didn't allow them to meet, because I didn't want them to mimic one another. We ended up in a place where they were organically feeling the same thing, because it is the same character, just becoming a different person. There's this idea that no matter what version of Chiron you're watching, and no matter what version the character is performing for the outside world, internally he's still the same person. I think the audience buys into that intellectual conceit. The one thing I did do, is that I gave all the actors the full script, so they knew what came before and what was going to come after. I think they could emotionally process all of that stuff, especially Trevante because of the two guys that came before him. And yet, I think they're all kind of doing their own thing, it just ends up in the same place. I've said this a lot, but we were casting them based on this feeling in their eyes, and that's why the poster works, because they all have the same deep vulnerability in their eyes.

And there are a number of simple but effective tricks that you can use to help tie these performances together, the way you use certain shots or angles repeatedly in each story.

That was all worked out at the shot design process. Myself and the cinematographer had a shot list. We don't storyboard but we did say that there were two or three shots that we had to get to help connect that we were following the same character from the same perspective. A lot of it is the behind-the-back shots, then we do these spinning shots above, and then the direct address to camera.

It works brilliantly, and I think that final scene is not going to possess the impact that it does if we can't actually see the child inside the adult Chiron.

You're right, it doesn't work if you can't look in his eyes and see Ashton and see Alex.

It all goes back to that scene on the beach, and I felt the film expresses that sense of how you sometimes think of something that happened as a teenager and you get this flush of shame and regret, even though it's long gone.

Bro, you're telling me. [Laughs]

That's what that beach scene feels like. Kevin can get up and walk away from this intimate moment, but Chiron seems to be locked inside it and is constantly replaying that moment in his mind.

Exactly. I think when he smashes that chair, it locks him in there, in a very big way. What I love about that scene is, it's not about Terrel, it's about Kevin. That's why the last look in that scene is not between Chiron and Terrel, it's between Chiron and Kevin.

That scene on the beach is such a pivotal and momentous moment in the narrative, and yet you're capturing a very quiet and intimate and deeply felt interaction. How do you go about constructing a sequence like that?

Ah man, that scene was...that was definitely the most pressure-filled moment on set. Part of it was just that we were a very small crew, this was a very small film, and that night was our biggest production footprint. I mean, we had a light rig that was about the size of this ceiling hoisted up about thirty feet above a beach, you know, with this wind just rocking it, so it was madness. And yet, this is the most intimate moment, other than the kitchen scene, in the whole damn film. I haven't directed in a while, these kids have never done a sex scene, we're all just green, you know? I knew the main currency of this scene was going to be tenderness, you had to believe that this was a very tender and genuinely intimate moment, that Kevin was not preying on Chiron, but that he was creating a very safe space for this kid's sexual intimacy. So it was difficult and yet it wasn't difficult. I always try to make everything on set have the same level of importance, so a character placing a pot on the stove in the kitchen scene is just as big as two guys making out on the beach. I approach it the same way and I think the actors respond to that. It's one of those things where when most of the technical aspects of it were done - I keep pointing to this ceiling, because that's literally what it was. There was this huge rig right above us, there's a photo of it on Instagram - once that was all set, then it was like when you're at a wedding, when the couple goes out to dance and everybody clears off. It was like that.

It was really beautiful because myself, Jharrel [Jerome], Ashton and the DP James Laxton, it was just the four of us underneath this thing, and we just took stock of what the elements around us were. There's this moonlight, there's this sand, you know, and we started working with their hands because it felt like their hands was the thing that was going to carry the currency. In each chapter the characters meet and they do this [clasps hands], they do it in the first story, the second story and the third story, so it felt like there was something in the hands, because that stuff is not scripted. We shot the scene, and I remember thinking, it hasn't gone quite far enough. So I whispered to Ashton, I think you should apologise, and that's when he says, "I'm sorry," and Jharrel says, "What have you got to be sorry for?" Again, it felt like there was some level of that character that would process the moment shamefully, because I think this is a character who feels he is undeserving of love and undeserving of physical intimacy, so when he has this moment he apologises for it. And I wanted Kevin to be creating a safe space with, "What have you got to be sorry for?" Those two lines aren't in the script, but in building the scene and trying to make it feel comfortable and organic, that felt like the natural conclusion of the moment emotionally for the character.

You mentioned that you haven't directed a feature for a long time. Does Medicine for Melancholy feel like the work of a different filmmaker?

Nah, same filmmaker, different circumstances, different resources. I do think I'm a different person. I think I'm definitely more mature. I could make Medicine today, I could not have made Moonlight eight years ago. So I think there has been, not an evolution but I think I have evolved and matured in certain ways, less aesthetically and more emotionally.

You've been working a lot in the commercial sector in the intervening eight years.

Commercials, short films, branded content. I think it was good because Medicine was a crew of five people, this was a crew of, I don't know, average 35 to 40 people? But doing commercials I'd have a crew that's even larger than that. I think just being on set and utilising the tools makes you faster, for sure, and I'm very fast on a film set, I pride myself on that. But also, it was good to keep working. The other thing that happened was, so many of my friends were making amazing work, and we were all still friends. I was watching their work and supporting their work, and it kept me going, it gave me energy. You know, I've been spending all this time with Damien [Chazelle] on the festival circuit, and Pablo Larrain, and those guys are animals, they've made so many films in the last three years. I've only made this one in the last eight years. Shit like that inspires me, man.

You did have some other features that you were trying to get off the ground, right?

Yeah, yeah...but you know what? They weren't personal enough. I'm not saying that every movie you do has to be as personal as this one has been, but I do think, to circle back to the beginning of our conversation, that people are responding to this film the way they are because it's clearly so personal, they respect that. The things I was working on before, I probably didn't care about as much as I cared about this one, so I've got to be very good about finding things that I can genuinely care about.

Are they things you'd consider going back to or are you going to move in a different direction?

I'm considering both of them. I think applying the filmmaker I am now, the person I am now, to those projects might yield better fruit.

What's great about the success of this film is that you hear so often that certain films are challenging to market, and that any black film or any gay film is a risky proposition that immediately limits itself to a niche audience. Moonlight has confounded whatever expectations people might have had for it.

Plan B and A24 were great. They did not tell us to make a marketable film, they said go and make a film that's true to you and Tarrel, and bring it back to us and we will figure out where the market is for that movie. Apparently, so far so good, the market is just putting it in a place where people are seeking cinema. Don't worry about where they come from, they're going to the auditorium, they'll come to you.

What was Terrell's reaction when he first saw the film?

[Laughs] Oh, I'll never forget it. I showed it to him at a private screening room. The movie ended, and he got up [Barry gets out of his chair and sits on the floor], he sat on the floor, and he stared at his feet for like twenty minutes. It was him, myself and André Holland, because him and André go way back, and he said, "I don't know how many times I can watch that, because you've brought to life some things I haven't been able to think about for so long. [Returns to his chair] Thankfully great things continue to happen, but at that point I was like, alright, I'm good.

So do you know when you'll be finished with Moonlight and start thinking of the next project? You've been on a long road with this film by this stage.

It has been a long road. I will say, though, I was hanging with Kenneth Lonergan the other day and Manchester started at Sundance, so talk about a long road, you know? Theoretically, this keeps going the way it's going. We open here in February, we open in France in like January, and I just want people to see the film. The best thing about winning the BIFA last night was thinking, holy shit, we're a long way from Miami, I mean a long way away. And yet, people are still seeing themselves in the film. I want to go to Turkmenistan to see if people can see themselves in the film there. No matter what community you go to, there are people who feel ostracised or othered, and they rarely see narratives about ostracised or other characters, where those characters have their full humanity on display and intact, so I think it's in some ways important to take the film as far as it can go. I'm not speaking of awards and things like that, but physically to just get the movie to as many people as possible.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

"I wish I'd made a movie every three years. I'd be really happy." – An Interview with Mike Mills

Having made a film that was all about his relationship with his father, a film about his mother was perhaps the obvious next step for Mike Mills. He has followed his Oscar-winning 2010 feature Beginners with 20th Century Women, a tribute to the women who shaped his adolescence, with his mother being personified by a never-better Annette Bening. Drawn largely from specific childhood memories, 20th Century Women is a film that’s alive with feeling and attuned to the politics and cultural shift of its particular moment, with Mills also upending the conventions of storytelling and structure through his use of multiple omniscient voiceovers and found objects to propel the narrative. It’s a rich, singular and resonant film, and I met Mike Mills when he visited London in December to discuss it. 

Does it feel strange to be back in this process six years after your last film?

It's funny, it's the same hotel! It hasn't changed. The world has definitely changed but not this hotel.

You had five years between your first two films and now a six-year gap. Does it feel different each time you come back? The filmmaking world changes so quickly.

Yeah, and technology, it's so much more social media-based now. We did our premiere at the New York Film Festival, and the day before we had the press screening, and it's a big one at the New York Film Festival, it's like 200 people. We do a Q&A, walk down offstage, walk down a hallway, come out on the sidewalk and people are saying, "Oh, it went really well." Everyone's already posting their reactions. I'm such a luddite, I didn't think I had to deal with it for another three or four days. So yeah, everything has changed.

Changed in a good way or a bad way?

It's good and bad, and confusing. I just don't know it well enough. My films are so far apart I just kind of figure out the one era I'm in, and then the era changes.

This isn't the kind of film that lends itself to an instant reaction either. I saw it a couple of weeks ago and have enjoyed revisiting it in my memory and considering different aspects. There's so much going on in here I think you need to let it percolate for a while.

I did pack a lot into it. I worked on the script for two or three years, and inevitably with my films I get to this point where I think, "Fuck, I don't know if I can finish this, I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if the world's going to let me do this. This will never happen, so I might as well put everything in it because it's my last film!" It's a painful but I guess necessary place for me to get to. And I like dense, maximalist films. I do love Fellini, and Fellini movies in particular are like a big, thick ride. Amarcord and  very much influenced this film in some way, and they are sort of roving meditations and aren't supposed to be reducible, you know. To me, films are more like a novel than a movie, in some ways. It sounds pretentious...

So at what point in the past five years did you decide this would be your next film?

Beginners.

Oh wow! So you really did take your time.

I didn't take my time, I worked hard the whole time! I'm a failure, or something. I had the idea when we were doing Beginners and doing the scenes with the mom. I was working on those and I thought, man, with my real mom I have a lot, there's a ton of stuff there. Beginners was an enjoyable thing in that the really personal, concrete, unexplained things in that movie were actually quite universal, it felt like, or people all over the place responded to that a lot. So that sort of emboldened me to keep going in that way. And as a film viewer I love personal movies. I started writing when I was doing my press tour – and I did have a son, in the middle there, so that definitely slows one down – but the main thing was writing, it took me two or three years to write. And then it takes like a year and a half to just prep, shoot, edit, finish, get it out in the world.

In that writing process, was there a moment when it clicked and you felt you knew where you were going with it?

There are a couple of those moments, and then it breaks down again, and then it clicks again, and breaks down again. My mom was a more secretive creature than my dad and doesn't want to be reduced, and in some ways wouldn't want a film made about her, so I had to finally say to my mom's ghost, I'm sorry, I'm doing this. And then, who is my mom? I'm not a woman, I'm not a middle-aged woman, I'm not a mom, so finding her voice was actually hard. Then I kind of realised – oh, that's the movie, I don't know my mom. I'm totally interwoven with her, I love her, she's the one who really tried with me, but her real life – her real struggles, her real inner life – she never showed me. That's the movie. Once I figured that part out, that was huge. There was one point where I figured out that she was going to talk from the dead and tell us that she was going to die in '99, and that broke it open. She is sort of a trickster figure, my real mom, so it fit this portrait of her to have her do that. And I just liked it, filmmaking-wise.

That is a very startling moment. It breaks the whole pattern of the film up to that point.

Yeah, and It's very un-defendable. If a film teacher was here I'd have a real hard time explaining that, and that's why I love it too. I find it very effective in the movie and it's the kind of thing I love to watch.

There are some lovely moments in it that feel so real and specific. For example, I really liked Dorothea saying she loved her husband because he was left-handed, so he could put his arm around her while reading the paper.

Yeah, my mom would say that.

Was much of the writing process about going back and digging up these old memories?

There was a lot of digging up. For me it's like a collage, this movie, so there was a lot of digging up of found objects. These little memories, these moments, like that moment you just described, that's something my mom used to say all the time. My mom used to say, "In my next life, I'm going to marry Bogart." Not only is that line in the movie, but Bogart and what Bogart means in all his representation of masculinity, and also the humour of Bogart, and all that. Bogart helped me a lot in figuring out my mom's voice. My mom watched all his movies and grew up in the Depression and World War II, and you think of any Dorothea line and imagine Bogart saying it. "Wondering if you're happy is a great shortcut to just getting depressed," that so sounds like Bogart. That sort of Hawksian Bogart voice really helped me. To me, that's like another found object, and then Koyaanisqatsi is a found object, the books in the movie, all the music that's historically right-on, they're all found objects that I weaved together. Abbie is basically my sister, who did have cervical cancer because my mom took DES, and was a photographer in New York who had to come home, and she did have two birds named Maximilian and Carlotta. So I really do like taking real, little observed things, and when you stick them into a film, they have a funny grippiness to them, and they communicate in a strange way that I find very effective for making a commercial movie, actually, and just connecting with an audience. It adds this weird meaning to it that I can't even describe, but I love that and I love when other people do that. Have you ever seen Szabó's Lovefilm? István Szabó?

No, I haven't.

His first films, one is called Father and one is called Lovefilm. They're totally memory-based, you can tell it's his life. I know nothing about being from Budapest in the '40s and '50s, it's a totally different life than mine, the struggles of the different regimes, but I'm captivated. So I trusted in that process.

Those detailed observations help immerse us in the period too, and it feels like the evocation of 1979, and what was going on politically and culturally, was very important to you here.

For me, we all are subjects of history, so my film is essentially a bunch of portraits and meditations on what it means to be yourself, find yourself, and be in relationships. I like creating portraits with these objects, but any portrait for me has to be completely steeped in a historical context, and certain thoughts and feelings and ideas and narratives about yourself are possible and impossible at different times, or allowed and not allowed. I'm really interested in that, how the personal is political, and I love having a fictional character, which I've asked you to believe in, through the magic verisimilitude of film, and then that character goes into all these stills from that time, those are real stills of the punk scene. It's reinforcing the reality of the character and totally disrupting the whole agreement of film in a kind of French new wave way to me, you know?

It seems you're marking a kind of turning point by setting the film in 1979. You're looking forward to the 1980s with a sense of foreboding.

I do feel like '79 is like the end of the '60s, the counterculture, the hippies. It's the beginning of the end of the middle-class, of the working-class, of postwar American industrial-based liberalism, and it's the beginning of the aspirational economics of Reagan. '79 was also the Islamic revolution. It's weird how relevant it is to now. It's the beginning of now. Personal computing, Apple was about to go public, In Vitro fertilisation just happened in '77 when a British baby was born. There were so many things that are a big part of our structure now. I love that contradiction - it's very now and it's also impossibly gone.

I guess it shares with 2016 that sense that everything is in a state of flux and there's a real sense of uncertainty about how it's all going to play out.

There really was a very felt crisis of confidence, you know the Jimmy Carter speech, and Koyaanisqatsi means life out of balance, and it was filmed in 1979. If you think of Under Pressure, the Bowie/Queen song, it came out in 1980 and was written in '79, and it's about "watching some good friends screaming let me out." There's a sense that life has gone crazy and we are drowning in mass media and we've lost ourselves, and little do they know there's this thing called the internet coming, and there's something very bittersweet about that.

That sense of an end to innocence is also represented in the kids. They're on the cusp of becoming adults and learning about sex and the complications that come with it, but they're still children in many ways. Elle Fanning's character has all this received wisdom that she gets from her mother's therapy sessions and she spouts it with adult confidence, but she's not quite there.

I think in that way she is very much like a kid in adult's closing. Sexually, she is very much like an adult, and I liked treating her like an adult and having her deal with adult problems, like the pregnancy test, while she is still quite young. I feel like that was part of the portrait of that time, from the sexual revolution of the '60s and sexual mainstreaming, so many girls I knew then were very active and very confused. I love when she says, "half the times I regret it," and he asks why she does it and she says, "half the times I don't regret it." I had these girls who came to my bedroom at night after screwing around with boys older than me, and loaded on all sorts of things, and they'd tell me lots of stuff like that. I'd learn the...it would be wrong to call it a darker side, but a more complicated side of their partying, and it was fun to try and capture that.

And it's interesting the way your three female characters view Jamie and attempt to help correct his flaws and mould him. There's a sense that you're viewing your younger self through the eyes of these women.

That character needs to be there in order for me to write these portraits of women, but the plot of the mom recruiting these women in order to help raise him or teach him how to be a man, that's very much my life. My dad was around but my dad wasn't really around, I never talked to my dad about anything. He was a very sweet, nice man but we just never connected like that. So I had my very strong mom and my sisters who were ten and seven years older, and they would share a lot with me, their boyfriend problems and their very adult problems, and they just told me everything and tried to teach me how to not be a dick, like their boyfriends were. In one way that's the genesis of the movie, or I was writing from that place; what does it mean to be a boy/man raised by women who are teaching you how to be a boy/man while not being one themselves?

I'm not sure I would have been able to process all those feminist texts as a 13 year-old.

Yeah, yeah, that was very much my life. Feminism was my textbook on life, and it is kind of odd and funny. That was one of those things that made me think there's a movie in here.

How does it feel to share these personal and intimate details of your life? Are there intimidating aspects of it or is there something cathartic in it? Do you feel the need to fictionalise certain elements to get some distance from it?

Well, I go to therapy, I have lots of talks with my wife, I'm a very open book about stuff and I find it very empowering to talk about it all, so it's not a big deal for me on some levels. In some ways, making it as personal as you can...like the wood rabbit carving is my mom's wood rabbit, she carved that rabbit, and when my mom died she did try to tell me all about her stocks. Those are very real, very personal things, and I just feel they're very powerful little nuggets to have in something. The whole process is making it public and making it for other people, and using my close proximity and using my love and confusion with these people to give energy and specificity to my writing, all for the cause of telling a good story to you. It's personal and it's totally not personal. It's a weird mongrel that's hard to describe. Annette's wearing my mom's jewellery in the movie and it clangs every once in a while, and when I hear it clang on something it's like, whoosh, that's my mom. She's standing in front of my parents' painting, which I grew up with, she's laying down on my mom's bedspread. I use those things because they're really great – that's a beautiful bedspread, it's a beautiful painting – and it's free, but also because I believe in the magic of these objects. They help create a world. So it is a strange mongrel and even I don't completely get what I did, but I didn't want to make a memoir I wanted to make a movie.

Do you have actors in mind as you write?

No, because I have the people in my head, and I'm not powerful enough and I work too slowly to get the actor I'd have in my head.

I ask because the characters all seem very well moulded to each actor's specific persona.

That's just casting. It's really important to me that it's not just a good actor. There are only certain people who I really believe listening to the raincoats, or maybe only one, and it's Greta [Gerwig]. She's into that culture, she's a writer/director, she's a great dancer, she really fits that. And the way that Elle Fanning is very pretty and I think sometimes written off as a sex object or something, but she's got a lot of fucking depth and darkness in there that she knows how to access very easily, and that kind of matched the women I was writing about. And then there's so many ways that Annette fits Dorothea, not only as an actor but as a soul, you know? As a mom, as a natural-looking woman who's the right age, as a Gemini – you know, they're both Geminis and to me that's actually quite important. It was a very good sign.

It's a perfect role for her. I can't think of many actresses who could pull off the complexities and the different tones of this character so effortlessly.

I think Annette's really good at respecting contradiction and complexity and paradox, she likes that, and she has the emotional intelligence to inhabit it and deal with it. A lot of other people were trying to make Dorothea make more sense, and Annette just knows how to ride that wave. She's funny like that too, kind of cutting, you don't mess with Annette in the same way you don't mess with Dorothea. So it was more well-suited than you can ever understand. I don't get to audition anybody so you have dinner instead, and you just have to sit there and close your eyes and seek inside your sternum – is this the right person? It's a totally intuitive radar process, and I felt really lucky. Billy [Crudup] too, Billy is fucking William incarnate. He's so hard-working and appreciative and hungry and loving what he does.

So did the experience of telling your dad's story with Beginners help guide your approach to this one?

Yeah. I'm kind of shy actually, or I used to be, and while I love movies that do this I never knew I had that in me. Then my dad came out, at 75, like holy fuck, and then all this stuff happened and then he died! He was the second parent to die. Grief can be really empowering. You feel so much and you're on fire, and you just think, who cares? So I wrote Beginners in that place. Beginners taught me that I like this and maybe I can do it, and maybe it works enough. I'm obviously not the most commercial writer-director person, but I felt lucky to have connected with as many people as I did and I felt like I could keep going on brand here. Beginners definitely made me feel that it was possible, and this process of taking observed things and cinematising them, is something that I liked a lot. It was energising.

I know you had a very long and difficult process trying to get Thumbsucker made, and then when it came out it didn't do much business. Was there a part of you that wondered if you wanted to go through the experience again after having such a rough time with your debut?

Yeah, it was a very brutal road, the whole way. I wanted to do it again, it's just really hard to make another movie when you've done Thumbsucker. Then my next movie is Beginners, which is just weird, the script didn't look right to people, and then this little thing called 2008 happened, with the financial crisis right when I was trying to get money for that. So it was really hard. This time my problem was just writing the script, and luckily Megan Ellison exists so the financing was really easy, it was just like a friendship. You know, I wish I'd made a movie every three years. I'd be really happy. I love shooting, I love directing, I love it so much and it's a real hardship that there are so many years in between. On another level, if I get to make 4-6 movies in my life, it's a huge privilege.

And they're movies that mean something.

Yeah, if I was making the kind of movies I make every three years, that would be perfect. But making them every five years, that's not so bad, and I don't quite see what the rush is. It is funny that it gets brought up so much, and sometimes it's...I don't think you're doing this, but often it's like I've failed or something. It's interesting.

I suppose a lot of us don't think about how difficult it is to actually get a film made, or maybe we judge all indie writer-directors by the standards of Woody Allen.

I mean, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, each year. Holy shit. How did he do that?

Oh, that whole run from the late '70s through the '80s is incredible. The Purple Rose of Cairo too.

The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig before that. It's amazing. I would love that, but it just doesn't happen. This sounds kind of pretentious, but I think of my movies as more like novels, they hopefully have a depth or a meditative, novelistic quality. Well then they fucking should take five years! [Laughs] I went to art school and the art school tempo is way slower, but yeah, it's interesting that in the more typical American film industry context, it's kind of a mistake or a failure. It's not that I totally disagree, it's just why is that so bad?

You went to art school and then moved into graphic design. Was filmmaking always the goal?

I went to Cooper Union in New York City. I was on my way to being a fine artist, and then we all got disgusted with the art world as being so rarefied, closed, preaching to the converted and actually very monied. We were trying to find some way to get into the public sphere and be creative in a world other than the art world, and a bunch of us got into design as a way to work in that way, but it was sort of a provisional solution. I did start watching movies in college, and the movies that influenced this movie – , Amarcord, Hiroshima Mon Amour – that's when I saw them, and that time when I was 18-20 years old was actually very big in making this movie. But it seemed very far away and impossible, and it wasn't until I was 27 and I saw the Charles and Ray Eames films, documentaries like Frederick Wiseman, and then I saw The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris. I had done a lot of cultural studies work in graduate school, semiotics and all that, and that film was like an overlap of all these different things I was interested in. Then seeing Jim Jarmusch films, where the acting isn't so immersive, like Stranger in Paradise. I thought, maybe I can do that.

Just before we finish, I wanted to ask if Miranda [July, Mills' wife] is working on a new film?

She's writing something right now.

It's been around five or six years for her too.

But she's really so busy. She's even more of a polymath than I am. She wrote a novel, she's doing a project here for Artangel that will come out soon. She's the busiest person I know.

Monday, February 06, 2017

My Week in Cinema: January 28th to February 3rd

New Films Seen This Week
Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)
Hacksaw Ridge opens with a prayer over images of warfare, which might suggest a kinship with Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, but Mel Gibson’s vision has always been driven by punishment and sacrifice rather than the divine beauty of God’s grace. His extraordinary new film presents the Battle of Okinawa as hell on earth and he places the viewer right in the middle of it, surrounded by death and stumbling over bodies that have been blown to pieces, but the man whose perspective we are sharing in the midst of this carnage is not responsible for any of it. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) enlisted for the military in 1942 but as a Seventh-day Adventist and a pacifist he refused to take up arms against another man, telling his superiors that he wanted to be a medic to save lives rather than take them; "With the world so set on tearing itself apart, doesn't seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together," he says. As in Silence, the impressive Garfield is playing a man who goes to Japan and finds his faith tested, but whereas Scorsese’s film was about wrestling with doubts, Gibson is telling a story of unshakeable faith here. Even when his fellow soldiers turn against him for his perceived cowardice, Doss remains steadfast in his beliefs, taking their insults and beatings and turning the other cheek. The first half of Hacksaw Ridge emphasises Doss’s goodness, via his corny-but-sweet courtship of a nurse (Teresa Palmer) and the conviction that carries him through basic training, while the second half pummels us with the brutality of war. Doss is credited with hauling 75 injured men from the battlefield singlehanded; an act of astounding, superhuman heroism that is brilliantly orchestrated by Gibson. The battle for Hacksaw Ridge is structured in three movements, each with its own specific goals and individual dramas, and while it feels necessarily intense and chaotic, Gibson orchestrates it with a clarity and purpose that ensures we are always involved in the action and conscious of where the danger lies. Hacksaw Ridge is an engrossing and deeply moving film, and a sensational feat of filmmaking that is full of indelible images – a terrified eye peering from beneath the mud as an enemy walks past; two soldiers screaming into each other’s faces before a grenade blows them both to oblivion; the close-ups of Garfield’s exhausted face after hauling another wounded man to safety, as he pleads, "Lord, please help me get one more."

T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)
A sequel to Trainspotting has been talked about and rumoured for so long that eventually it felt like something that just had to happen, rather than something that anyone has a burning desire to see happen. Now the film is finally here, under the cumbersome title T2 Trainspotting, and it unsurprisingly feels like a film that has no real reason to exist. The scraggly plot (loosely drawn from Irvine Welsh’s Porno) is torn between constructing a contrived caper that can pull the four key characters together, and giving each of them an opportunity to wallow in the past, with the film emerging as a consideration of its own legacy more than a distinct new story. In truth, the young men who blazed a trail in 1996 have become bores in middle-age, stuck in the same situations and constantly gazing inward, and while the film makes a half-hearted attempt to critique this nostalgia, it doesn’t quite come off. “Where I come from the past is something to forget but here it's all you talk about,” they are told by Bulgarian prostitute Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), who looks understandably disinterested in their company. Danny Boyle tries to inject some energy into the film with a pumping soundtrack, canted angles, colour-saturated images and – God help us – Snapchat filters, but the film’s narrative is too stop-start and scattered to generate any momentum. A blackmail plot shown at the start of the movie is abruptly recalled and then just as abruptly dropped, just to bring Kelly Macdonald back for a pointless cameo, and by the time Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) inexplicably decided to take heroin halfway through the picture – while a now-clean Spud (Ewen Bremner) watches – I realised I had no idea who these characters are anymore. Even the psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is prone to ridiculous changes of heart, with his daddy issues and subsequent softening towards his own son coming out of nowhere late in the film. Perhaps it was always going to be like this. Trainspotting was a film of its moment, and this sequel was never going to surprise, inspire or energise audiences in the same way, but it’s disappointing to see the filmmakers more concerned with rekindling memories than trying to forge new ones. As Tony Soprano sagely put it, “Remember when” is the lowest form of conversation.

Rep Cinema Discovery of the Week
Journey Into Light (Stuart Heisler, 1951) BFI Southbank, 35mm
I’d never even heard of Journey Into Light before it appeared in the BFI’s programme as part of the 'Martin Scorsese Curates' season, but it’s easy to see why Scorsese is a fan. This is a crisis of faith story made in a classical fashion; in fact, as pointed out in the programme notes, it stands as one of the rare Hollywood forays into religious filmmaking. Sterling Hayden is the Reverend John Burrows, a passionate clergyman admired for his powerful rhetoric and considered a rising star in the church. Things aren’t as rosy at home, however, with the very public alcoholism of Burrows’ wife causing consternation among the congregation, and when she kills herself he falls into a spiral of despair, renouncing God and ending up on Skid Row. From there, the only way is up, and Burrows’ eventual redemption comes via the love of a blind woman (Viveca Lindfors) who helps him see the light. It’s a straightforward tale that doesn’t deviate far from our expectations, but Stuart Heisler’s direction is tight and sometimes potent (Peggy Webber’s suicide scene is very powerful), and the film’s portrait of Skid Row is vividly realised through Elwood Bredell’s atmospheric cinematography. It’s the quality of performance that Heisler gets from his actors that really distinguishes the film, though. Hayden’s strong lead turn is complemented by the ever-excellent Thomas Mitchell, as a conniving bum who sees in this talented orator the makings of a great conman, while Ludwig Donath and Viveca Lindfors are both excellent as the father and daughter who take Burrows in and treat him with a kindness and respect that penetrates the wall he has constructed around himself. Even the actors portraying the bums and drunks Burrows meets along the way – such as H.B. Warner, John Berkes or Billie Bird  bring a great sense of character to their roles. Journey Into Light is a film about what it means to truly understand the word of God and to act on it as opposed to simply standing above the masses and preaching the gospel from behind a pulpit, and while it’s not necessarily a great film, it is a compelling and often impressive curio.

Rep Cinema Rediscovery of the Week
Raising Cain (Brian De palma, 1992) The Prince Charles Cinema, 35mm
When I watched M. Night Shyamalan’s Split last week I suggested that it failed because he was simply the wrong director for that material. Split needed to be made by somebody who could embrace the craziness of the premise, who could develop and sustain a thrilling momentum, and who could explore the film’s enclosed environment with real cinematic verve and imagination – somebody like Brian De Palma, for example. Raising Cain is the film that I wanted Split to be; a wild and unpredictable ride that is completely nonsensical but you don’t care because it has been orchestrated with such intoxicating style. Emerging from the wreckage of The Bonfire of the Vanities, it was perhaps wise for De Palma to get back to doing what he does best, and in this case that meant basically ‘doing De Palma’. As much an homage to his own work as it is to Hitchcock, Raising Cain is almost self-parody, recycling ideas and images from his earlier films (particularly Dressed to Kill) and pushing his trademark elaborate set-pieces to absurd lengths. Right from the start, with the way he teases out the possibility of Dr. Carter/Cain (John Lithgow) being discovered in a car with an unconscious woman by two joggers, De Palma delights in playing with our expectations and finding novel ways to introduce tension through his staging and editing. Even a dry scene of expository dialogue is transformed into a convoluted tracking shot, with De Palma following the characters into elevators and down stairs (the camera tilting in line with the staircase) with Dr. Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) almost wandering out of the frame as she delivers her diagnosis. The coup de grâce is the beautifully constructed climactic sequence, with action unfolding on multiple levels in slow motion, and being orchestrated with such flair and elegance that the ridiculous nature of much of it (“Careful with that sundial!”) never even registers. This directorial panache is the main reason Raising Cain’s shlocky, barely coherent narrative holds together, but the other key factor is Lithgow, whose brilliantly unhinged, campy performance(s) is one for the ages. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

20th Century Women in The Skinny

One of the most enjoyable conversations I've had recently was with Mike Mills, who visited London in December to promote his new film 20th Century Women. This deeply personal portrait of his mother and the other women who helped shape his worldview as a teenager is Mills' most ambitious film to date, and also his best. 20th Century Women is a rich and moving film, boasting a career-best performance from Annette Bening, and it's a real pleasure to spend time in Mills' world. You can read both my interview with the director and my review of the film in the February Scottish edition of The Skinny, which is available now.