Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Every film is a nightmare, and you have moments where it's wonderful and moments where you think it's a sinking ship." - An Interview with Pawel Pawlikowski

After the commercial and critical disappointment of his 2011 mystery The Woman in the Fifth, Pawel Pawlikowski responded by going back to basics. Shooting for the first time in his native Poland, the director made Ida, an 80-minute film about a young nun's voyage of discovery, filmed in black-and-white and in a square aspect ratio. Remarkably, this tiny film has grown into an enormous success, with the haunting beauty of its images and the simplicity of its storytelling resonating with almost everyone who experiences it. Ida is a remarkable artistic achievement and one of the year's best films, and I met Pawel Pawlikowski to discuss it.

Ida is a film that is deliberately out of step with current trends in contemporary cinema, and yet it has been a huge success so far. Why do you think this film has connected with audiences in such a big way?

It's hard to understand. Partly it's because it deals with universal themes, and it's strange listening to audiences in Korea, Colombia or Spain – especially countries with tortured recent histories – they connect with this sense of tragedy in the background and of trying to make sense of their lives. But I also think a lot of people crave the silence, the simplicity, the meditation or whatever the quality is that takes you out of modern culture, just for a moment. I remember seeing a poster for this film in Paris when it came out in February, and they chose a really good poster in Paris, the wide shot of the monastery with the nun walking in the snow, and it jumped out at you. All of the colours and movement, and suddenly you had this black-and-white space in the middle of it. I think it's just a throwback to another era.

There has been a lot of talk about how this film feels stylistically like a film from the '60s, but I also felt that it belonged in that era thematically. It was a period when filmmakers were exploring issues of faith in an artistically daring way, and that's something we don't see so much of anymore. Were you conscious of wanting to re-examine that territory?

I was much more naïve with this film. I just wanted to do it for myself. At the very beginning in the mists of time I had this idea of a Jewish nun, just because in Poland this is an interesting phenomenon, and I started to ask questions about what constitutes faith. Is it habits, rituals, social contexts, national traditions? Or is it something more spiritual and transcendental? And identity as well, you know, what makes a Pole? So it was a completely intuitive film in that respect. But on the other hand, when it came down to how I was going to do it, there was a motive to escape the noise and the information overload. It was just a case of being tired of cinema. I'm not talking about commercial films necessarily, but especially middlebrow films, you know, these good "quality" films are the worst. I was tired of all the trickery and devices of cinema – all those close-ups, tracking shots, helicopter shots, beautiful lighting, emoting – and one of the key phrases on the set was, "God, this feels too much like cinema." We said that if it was overlit or if the framings didn't feel accidental enough, or whatever. So it was an escapist film in a way, trying to escape my boredom of cinema. I mean there are some films I love, of course, but fewer and fewer.

So was the 4:3, black-and-white image part of your plan from the very start?

First the black-and-white, then the 4:3. The black-and-white was in my mind when I was writing, partly because it just felt right for that period, how people remember it and how I remember it, but then it became clear that it had much to do with the meditative nature of the film. Black-and-white takes us away from reality, which is in colour, and it just simplifies the world into black, white and grey. It's more conducive to a kind of timelessness.

It allows you to create so many vivid images that really imprint themselves onto your mind. I have seen pictures of Agata Trzebuchowska in colour and she's a very beautiful woman, but it's really extraordinary how she looks in black-and-white, the way it brings out her eyes and defines her features.

Yeah, exactly. It's a kind of abstraction from reality, which the film is as well. It's not trying to imitate the reality of that time or the films of that time, it's just a shorthand for the world.

What was your approach to framing your shots? One of the notable things in the film is how you frequently have your characters low in the frame or to the side, almost emphasising the background more than them.

It came as a result of choosing the 4:3, because when I was trying out the lenses I realised that while 4:3 is really good for portraits and certain shots it does limit you with the landscape. So it was just on spec, you know, I wondered how we could recreate the landscape, and so we tried tilting the camera up or to the side to give it some context. It gave us some interesting results and so we continued doing it, and then it was too late to stop doing it. Because we were making a film that was clearly not going to be commercial – although it has turned out to be commercial, strangely enough – and we would have such a limited audience, I just wanted to do it the way I wanted to do it and take risks. I guess it has a kind of vertical quality to it anyway because of the nature of the film, but I only intellectualised this choice much later and at the time it was just to try and make it more interesting.

This is such a minimalist film with characters who display very little overt emotion. When you are making something as reserved as this, is there a risk of holding back too much, or do you just have faith that what you're trying to express will come across for the viewer?

You just go with it. I made the decision to do it like that, and of course there were murmurings from the financiers – "Why can't they emote more? Why can't the camera move? This is going to be a disaster." The rushes didn't have a very good reception! [laughs] But I always assume that this film could be my last film, and I just didn't want to think that I hadn't done it the way I wanted to do it. I had a really good team around me too, they were very excited to be doing something that was so on the brink. I had a wonderful young DP [Lukasz Zal] who had never shot a film in his life, so he wasn't afraid of his reputation at all.

His work is incredible. I was amazed when I discovered how inexperienced he was. And he only came on board at the last minute when your regular cinematographer left?

Yes, he didn't like the direction the film was going in. Lukasz was the camera operator and had studied it and shot a documentary, so it wasn't like he didn't have a clue, but I did ring around all the other DPs that I knew first! [laughs] I called Robbie Ryan, the guy who shoots with Andrea Arnold. He asked me what the story was and I said it's about a nun, and he said, "What is it about nuns this year? I'm doing a film about nuns already," because he was working on Philomena. So basically I had no choice other than to go with the guy who was there, and he turned out to be great. Good energy, total courage and he was really excited, and that's all you need. Of course, you need talent as well, but when you go on this kind of journey you want people who will just go with you, with no ego problems and no fear. I also had a great Polish producer, who was a bit shell-shocked by my methods at first but then she said, "OK, he's writing the script with his camera," and she accepted it. She was really protective and I made a deal with her; wherever possible she will indulge me, but if she says it's impossible I will trust her and not push it, so we just developed this shorthand and moral code.

What was it like making a film in Poland for the first time after being away for so many years? Did it feel like going home, or was it like making a film in a foreign country?

Most crew members are similar, so it was like going home. And all of the figures in the film are drawn from people I've known – apart from Ida, who is a bit of a fantasy come true – and even the locations and the cars, it was a bit of a nostalgia trip. So in that respect it felt like coming home, and not just to Poland but to the '60s, which I had grown up in and identified with. And the crew was great, I mean, every film is a nightmare, and you have moments where it's wonderful and moments where you think it's a sinking ship, but because I'm older now I'm much calmer when these disasters happen. When the snow fell we couldn't shoot for weeks until the snow melted, but there are bigger problems in life.

So is the vision of '60s Poland that we see in the film largely drawn from your memory, or was there research involved in it too?

A lot of it is from my own point of view, but I also read a lot of novels that came out at the time, from writers like Hłasko and Andrzejewski, and the jazz music from that period I loved, and theatre and film. There was a kind of fearlessness about Polish culture at the time, a marginal freedom that emerged after Stalin and we grabbed it with such energy and imagination. I don't think Polish culture ever recaptured that spirit, and although I wasn't trying to imitate that culture I was trying to recapture that spirit, to make a film that was out there and wasn't looking over its shoulder.

The Poland we see in the film is a country that is trying to move forward but is still haunted by events of the recent past. Was that something you were conscious of?

No, because I thought it was just normal, and it was the only reality I knew. But looking back, yes, and I consciously chose that moment because the tectonic plates were shifting but it wasn't a dramatic turn like '56 or '68, which were clear turning points. They were much more dramatic and it would have been impossible to not deal with that drama, whereas here drama is sort of hidden. So that had a lot to do with it, but I also thought it was pretty cool and I wanted to project a cool image of Poland. It's funny, I read a review in Variety from someone who absolutely hated the film, and he said it was a really bleak Poland, but I thought I was making an advert for Poland! [laughs] We've got this great music, landscape, the sky, and people who are cunning, witty, sharp, but who have lived, you know. They're sculpted by history and have made decisions to do with their life and death. I found that plus the style to be really good territory. A lot of it came from the west, you know, these beatnik attitudes. They came from the west but it was the Polish version of it, which made it touching and cool.

All those guys wearing leather jackets had seen James Dean's movies.

Yeah, but James Dean was some bourgeois kid whereas these guys had to find the jacket on the black market, they had to avoid the army, they have to avoid the state. There was much more at stake so these attitudes were underpinned by some real existential problems and not the problems of middle-class suburbia.

You used the phrase "writing with the camera" earlier, but when you did sit down to write this film what was your process? You were working with Rebecca Lenkiewicz who isn't a screenwriter, I believe.

Yes, she's a playwright. I had actually written the story before and I wrote a different version that ended up winning an award at Cannes for the best script, strangely enough. Then I forgot all about it and went off and made another film, and when I returned to it I just stripped it all down and sat down with Rebecca to just start knocking things around. She wrote a bit, I wrote a bit, she wrote a bit more, etc. I find I can only really function when I'm not facing a blank page, it's like sitting in a psychiatrist's chair, so I like to work with someone just to get the whole thing to come out rather than being precious about the writing. The script was around 60 pages. It was partly good and partly things I could tell I'd have to change, but it was a document that we could raise the money on with a beginning and an end and some good things in the middle. But for the me the writing never stops and you are always taking the film to another level through casting, sculpting, photographing and rewriting, so I kept enriching it all the time. I was even rewriting it during the filming, and when we had a big break in filming because of the snow I rewrote the second part quite substantially. I didn't change the overall shape of what the film was doing, but I was just getting it into balance. For example, the stuff in the hotel originally was one night, but a lot of things happened in that one night and I felt it was too much so we added some scenes to spread these events over a few nights. I also felt the scenes between Lis and Anna were very clunky because I can't write love scenes, but when I had the two actors I found that less is more and a lot of what happens in those scenes wasn't written. So it wasn't exactly what you'd call a beautifully written script, but the only script that matters is the final one and how you get there is nobody's business. You know, in the west there is this kind of industrial approach to filmmaking; a producer buys a book, a dramatist is hired to write a script, a director is hired, the actors, the crew, and everyone just has their job to do. But the beauty of filmmaking is that it's a total work of art; literature, image-making, music, sound, psychology, it all intertwines in the most mysterious way and what you have at the end is the only thing that matters.

Would it have been a very different film if you had shot that Cannes prize-winning script?

I would never in my life have shot that script! [laughs] No, it was awful. Who gives these awards? It was some bureaucrats of culture, the European Media...something. I shouldn't criticise them because they did give us some cash for the production, but nobody knows how to read scripts, you know. People think that if everything is explained, if everything leads to something else, and if it's about an important subject, then it's a great script, but for me a script is simply a means to an end. When something is too explicit and you need explanatory dialogue or scenes that set things to get from A to B, then you're already losing and it's not going to be a great film. A film should emerge by a kind of divine grace, and when I feel that a script is telling me what I should feel then I'm out of it.

For example, the ending of the film is very ambiguous. We're never really sure what this whole experience has meant for Ida.

Yes, and that's how it should be. It's for the audience to work those things out.

You also move the camera in that final shot, which I think is the first time you do so in the film.

The shot before is a tracking shot from a truck but the last one is handheld and totally obeys her body movement. At the end she actually dictates what the camera does.

Your lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska has never acted before. Was it easy to convince her to take this role?

She was interested in meeting me because she had seen my films and she liked Last Resort and My Summer of Love, so she was just curious. When she could see that it wasn't anything like a studio film she slipped into it, although it was actually very scary because I felt she could have walked out at any moment, she really has no ambition to be an actress. But she's a lovely girl and very clever, sharp and principled as well. She's very curious about how film works and how the world works.

So this could be both the beginning and end of her film career?

Well, if some interesting director asked her for an interesting project then I don't know. I don't really know what her scale would be because her role in my film is not very versatile. The character grows but she's still made of the same material, unlike the role of Magda, which has many different facets and required a professional virtuoso actress. Agata is actually just doing her final exams this week in Warsaw where she's studying philosophy and history of art, so she's very aware of aesthetics and what they mean and she was interested in the process of filmmaking. I don't think she's an actress type, though, she doesn't enjoy being the centre of attention, and that's actually why I chose her, because she doesn't have a histrionic bone in her body and she doesn't need to perform to be alive.

Your film did remind me a little of Dreyer so perhaps she'll be like Maria Falconetti who never made another film after The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Really, she never did another one after that?

No, she went back to working in the theatre after that experience.

That's fantastic. I mean, never say never, if Sorrentino or someone like that called her then I'm sure she'd be interested, but I don't think she'll have a career. To have a career I think you need to be a theatre actress anyway.

The other Agata, Agata Kulesza, is a theatre actress. Is that where you first saw her?

I first saw her in a film but it was when I saw her in a play in a Warsaw theatre that I understood that she was brilliant, and when I met her I realised that she was also a great character. She's funny, sharp and strong. No ego, no fear. They're both very intelligent women but strong in different ways.

Finally, do you know what your next project will be? And do you intend to continue working in Poland or will you return to the UK?

Not entirely. I always have three things floating that are a bit half-baked. One is a story I wrote set in Poland again. One is about young Bach, as an angry young man when he want on this strange pilgrimage, but it's not really a historical film, it's more a meditation about life, the Devil, Bach and stuff. He was a troubled young man when he went on foot to visit his grandmaster of the organ, and it was a very interesting trip. And I've got another one set in England, on a boat on the Thames Estuary. They're all very different locations but dealing with universal themes.

It seems like the experience of making Ida has had a kind of liberating effect for you, and has reignited your passion for filmmaking. Is that a fair observation?

Yeah, I think so. It's never fun but there was a kind of calm about the whole exercise. You know, The Woman in the Fifth is a film I like a lot and is my most personal thing, but it was a very contorted experience, because it was a cultural and generic hybrid, and it looked like a commercial film but was always intended to be an avant-garde, incomprehensible experiment. It reflected where I was at the time in my head, and generally all my films, including my documentaries, act as markers for where I am. I'm not a professional filmmaker, it's just a little part of my life and it's not how I define myself. It's not really important whether I make the film in Poland, England or wherever, the films are always the result of where I am, what I've discovered and what's in my head.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The 2014 BFI London Film Festival

The London Festival is almost upon us again, and the announcement of the full programme this week means I have spent the last few days with my nose buried in the catalogue, marking films to look out for amid the 248 features that the festival contains this year. Below you'll find my own personal picks and I hope they'll be helpful to you, but before booking your tickets be sure to explore the furthest reaches of the LFF schedule because most of the real gems can be discovered far from the high-profile screenings and some may never been seen in UK cinemas again.


In some respects these films are the biggest films in the festival, with their profile and strategic positioning for awards exposure ensuring they'll grab most of the headlines, but they're not high on my list of priorities. I'll surely have plenty of opportunities to catch up with films like The Imitation Game, Mr Turner, Foxcatcher with their UK releases imminent (in the case of Men, Women & Children and Closing Night film Fury, just a few days after the festival ends). The films that did catch my eye here are the more unexpected Gala selections – the Chinese wuxia film The White Haired Witch of the Luna Kingdom (starring Fan Bingbing), the Danish Western The Salvation (starring Mads Mikkelsen, Evan Green and Eric Cantona!) and Peter Strickland's film of Björk's Biophilia Live (starring, um, Björk). The Archive Gala has reliably been one of the festival's most memorable events in recent years, and this year's restoration of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands looks like it will be a remarkable experience with a live score performed at Queen Elizabeth Hall. Finally, two festival regulars return with Cannes prize-winners, the absurdly gifted and prolific Xavier Dolan presents Mommy, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan will bring his Palme d'Or champion Winter Sleep.

Official Competition

Peter Strickland's second film in the festival line-up is The Duke of Burgundy, for which the programme synopsis tantalisingly namedrops both Jess Franco and Bergman's Persona. There's a strong female focus in this collection of films. Céline Sciamma follows Water Lilies and Tomboy with another portrait of growing pains in Girlhood; Carol Morley's Agnès Godard-shot The Falling is set in a 1960s girls' school and provides a lead role for Game of Thrones' talented Maisie Williams; Daniel Barber (who impressively adapted Elmore Leonard's The Tonto Woman in 2008) tells the story of a woman trying to protect her land in The Keeping Room, and the 'Iranian vampire Western' A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night certainly sounds like something special. Other films I'm keen to see in this selection come from filmmakers whose work I've often loved in the past, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The President) and Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan), while Abderrahmane Sissako will present Timbuktu in the festival and take part in a screen talk.

First Feature Competition

With a selection of films from first-time directors, it's often a case of pot luck and taking a chance on something in the hope of discovering an exciting new voice. I've already heard some promising reports on Yann Demange's Odd Man Out-ish thriller '71 and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's dialogue-free The Tribe, a Ukrainian film told entirely through sign language and with no subtitles to help guide us. I'm keen to use this opportunity to check out some films from further afield, given the possibility that they may never make it to UK cinemas; films such as Zeresenay Mehari's Difret, Ester Martin Bergsmark's Something Must Break and Naji Abu Nowar's Theeb. But the British selections in this strand also look worthwhile, with Debbie Tucker Green's Second Coming and the Wolfe brothers' Catch Me Daddy piquing my interest, with the latter boasting cinematography from the always impressive Robbie Ryan.

Documentary Competition

The big news here is that one of the world's great documentarians Frederick Wiseman has made a film about one of my favourite places in London, and he will be presenting National Gallery at the festival as well as taking part in a masterclass. Both the film and event sound unmissable to me. Elsewhere in this section, I'm most intrigued by the presence of directors who I know better as fiction filmmakers. Ulrich Seidl returns to documentary with his new film In the Basement, a presumably cheery and uplifting exploration of the relationship between Austrian people and their basements; Winter's Bone director Debra Granik has made Stray Dog, a portrait of a biker she met while making that film, and In the Fog director Sergei Loznitsa's acclaimed Maidan observes a turbulent few months in Kiev. I'm also intrigued by two portraits of British artists in Hockney: A Life in Pictures and The Possibilities are Endless, which tells the story of Edwin Collins' 2005 stroke and takes its title from one of the few phrases he was able to say in the immediate aftermath of it. This year's Documentary Competition appears to be a very strong and eclectic field.


A collection of films about various forms of love, and the first one that caught my eye is a film about a filmmaker whose work I love so much. Ron Mann's Altman is a documentary about the great Robert Altman, whose 1982 film Come Back to the Five & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean gets a 35mm presentation in the festival. Mathieu Amalric directs and stars in Georges Simenon adaptation The Blue Room, while Benoît Jacquot's 3 Hearts boasts a tremendous female cast. The films in this strand about people struggling to overcome both physical and mental ailments all sound like they might be worth seeing – notably Asaf Korman's Next to Her, Daniel Ribeiro's The Way He Looks, Shonali Bose's Margarita, With a Straw and Morgan Matthews' X+Y. I'm also very happy to see an all-too-rare leading role for Juliette Lewis, in Jen McGowan's Kelly & Cal, and fans of museums will be in heaven this year, with Johannes Holzhausen's The Great Museum going behind the scenes at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and perhaps making a perfect double-bill with Wiseman's National Gallery.


Following A Hijacking in 2012 and Captain Phillips last year, the LFF's now-regular look at modern piracy takes the form of Fishing Without Nets, a film by Cutter Hodierne that looks at the topic from the perspective of a Somali father left with few choices. This section contains a number of films that offer unique perspectives on aspects of society that we don't usually have the opportunity to explore, such as the Congolese fly-on-the-wall documentary National Diploma, the Indian documentary Court and Annalet Steenkamp's I, Afrikaner. Pedro Costa brings Horse Money, his follow-up to Colossal Youth, to the festival, while Hubert Sauper's We Come as Friends is the director's first film since his stunning 2004 documentary Darwin's Nightmare. Israeli-Palestinian tensions are examined through two films, Dancing Arabs and Self Made, while Rakhshan Banietemad's Tales looks at the problems facing people in contemporary Tehran.


This section of the festival houses the more challenging and provocative films in the programme, and some of the most challenging and provocative films of recent years have come from Greece, with a couple of them starring Angeliki Papoulia, so I'll be checking out Syllas Tzoumerkas' A Blast. The Ethiopian film Beti and Amare promises a lot of ambition on a very low budget, while Near Death Experience – the new film from LFF regulars Benoît Délepine and Gustave Kervern – intrigues with its casting of Michel Houellebecq in the lead role. A couple of filmmakers have two pictures at the festival, with Josephine Decker's second feature Thou Wast Mild & Lovely appearing here alongside her debut Butter on the Latch (in the First Feature Competition), while Susanne Bier's A Second Chance certainly sounds more interesting than the starrier Serena. I can't wait to see Abel Ferrara's biopic Pasolini and I'm looking forward to Bypass, the second feature from Duane Hopkins, who made a promising debut with Better Things in 2008. The logistic challenge of squeezing a Lav Diaz film into my schedule is one I'm anticipating, as his 338-minute From What is Before screens here, while new films from Eugène Green (La Sapienza), Gregg Araki (White Bird in a Blizzard) and Christophe Honoré (Metamorphoses) are on my radar too. But the most important aspect of the Dare strand for me is the opportunity to see two particular films on the big screen. I've resisted the urge to watch Aleksei German’s posthumously completed Hard to be a God on various online platforms in the hope of seeing it here, and Jean-Luc Godard's first foray into 3D gets a great showcase with Goodbye to Language screening on the very big IMAX screen.


After all that, we'll need a chuckle, although finding laughs in this section can often be a challenge with the humour of one particular region not necessarily translating successfully to another. The best place to start is perhaps Australia, as the clip shown from Josh Lawson's sex comedy The Little Death was a highlight of the festival press launch, and Angus Sampson's The Mule has a promising gross-out premise and a starring role for Hugo Weaving. From America we've got two comedies that have certainly provoked plenty of discussion and positive word of mouth prior to their arrival on these shores, in the shape of Justin Simien's Dear White People and Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up, Philip, while the UK is represented by Simon Baker's Night Bus and John Boorman's Queen and Country, a belated (27 years!) sequel to Hope and Glory. Sophie Fillières' If You Don't, I Will catches the eye with its pairing of Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, and there are new films from Bent Hamer, Hong Sang-soo and Bruno Dumont – wait a minute...Bruno Dumont? Yes, the director of L'humanité, Twentynine Palms, Hors Satan and other memorably laugh-free films reveals his lighter side in Li’l Quinquin, a made-for-TV comedy series that screens here as a single 200-minute knockabout romp. Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd write.


A pretty exciting and wide-ranging set of films here, from Diao Yinan's Berlin prize-winner Black Coal, Thin Ice to Toa Fraser's Maori adventure The Dead Lands and Kornél Mundruczó's acclaimed canine horror White God. As a fan of Daniel Monzón's prison drama Cell 211 I've earmarked El Niño (starring the crazy eyebrows of Luis Tosar) as one to watch, and as a fan of Korean cinema I certainly like the sound of Kim Seong-Hun's A Hard Day. A few months after the World Cup, Eryk Rocha's Sunday Ball takes a look at football in the poorer regions of Brazil, and Zee Ntuli's Hard to Get offers an action-packed exploration of the Johannesburg underworld. There's also a sequel to the surprise 2010 hit Monsters, but I lost interested in Monsters: Dark Continent when it turned out that director Tom Green wasn't the Freddy Got Fingered guy. What a missed opportunity.


One of the clips shown during the LFF press launch that really made an impact was a genuinely spine-tingling snippet from It Follows, and that alone was enough to pique my interest in David Robert Mitchell's horror film. Sion Sono's Why Don't You Go Play in Hell? ended my 2013 LFF in a high note and he returns with his Yakuza hip-hop musical Tokyo Tribe, and Mark Hartley – director of the very enjoyable Not Quite Hollywood – explores the history of Cannon Films in his well-timed documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. The programme write-up for Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's Spring references both HP Lovecraft and Before Sunrise, which is certainly an intriguing combination, while tales of teenage loneliness are given a fantastical spin in Jonas Alexander Arnby's When Animals Dream and Jonas Govaerts' Cub. Finally, I'm glad we'll have the chance to see Ning Hao's Chinese Spaghetti Western homage No Man's Land, which was filmed in 2009 but has been battling with censors until now.


I'm generally no fan of portmanteau films but a couple of pictures here sound interesting. African Metropolis is an opportunity to discover filmmakers from a continent whose cinema I'm disappointingly uneducated in, and Robert Connolly has amassed an impressive roster of talent to take part in The Turning, 18 adaptations of short stories by Australian writer Tim Winton. Speaking of Australia, I'm a big fan of Rolf de Heer's work so I'll definitely be checking out his latest collaboration with David Gulpili Charlie's Country. Viggo Mortensen's wanderlust has seen him make some interesting and unconventional choices recently, and he appears twice in this strand, starring in Lisandro Alonso’s Juaja and David Oelhoffen's Far From Men, while Mark Cousins' travels always result in something interesting, so I'm certainly hoping to catch his new film 6 Desires: DH Lawrence and Sardinia. The Wonders is Alice Rohrwacher's follow-up to her fine debut Corpo Celeste, I like the sound of Suhra Arraf's black comedy Villa Touma, and Andrew Lancaster's The Lost Aviator certainly has an interesting story to tell.


The main focus in this strand for me is Eden, the new film from Mia Hansen-Løve who I rate as one of the most exciting and talented young filmmakers working today. The best of the rest here are mostly documentaries, such as Michael Obert's Song From the Forest, Alan Hicks' Keep On Keepin' On and One9's Nas: Time is Illmatic. There's also a BUG special, which is always a lot of fun.


While these films are aimed at a younger audience, the Japanese animation Giovanni's Island is one I'll want to catch as previous Japanese attempts to depict the war through animation have been stunning (although I suspect this won't be as viscerally shocking as Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen). Robot Overlords is a sci-fi adventure from the director of Grabbers, and the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson's birth will be marked with a screening of Moomins on the Riviera.


The films in this strand don't usually appeal to me but a few in this year's selection sound intriguing. The Film That Buys the Cinema – a movie made to raise funds for the Cube Cinema in Bristol – has an impressive list of contributors, and Meditations From Our Lady of the Angels offers an opportunity to see a wide range of films on 35mm and 16mm, including I Don't Know by Penelope Spheeris. There are also tributes to two recently departed filmmakers, Harun Farocki and Maria Klonaris.


Here is where I make a heartfelt request to the organisers of the BFI London Film Festival – please give the Treasures strand its own section in the printed programme rather than dispersing its films among the various other strands. The archive programming in the festival is always fantastic and this strand – usually the strongest in the festival – deserves to stand alone. Highlights from this year include Powell & Pressburger's spectacular and sorely underrated other ballet movie The Tales of Hoffman, which has apparently been restored with unseen footage, and John Ford's My Darling Clementine, which again reminds me that a full retrospective of Ford's work is long overdue. Another picture restored to its former glory is Germany Pale Mother, a German film that has had 30 minutes reinserted and sounds absolutely fascinating, while the latest restoration from Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation is The Colour of Pomegranates, a film I have wanted to see for some time. I was disappointed that The Goddess wasn't included in the BFI's Chinese season earlier this year so I'm delighted to see it showing up here – with a live musical score at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, no less! – and the other treat from that era is the Colleen Moore-starring Why Be Good? complete with Vitaphone soundtrack! I also want to make time for the Turkish film The Bride and King Hu's Dragon Inn, but one of the pleasures of this strand is the opportunity to take time out during a festival and wallow in the pleasure of re-connecting with a classic film you know and love. This year, a 4k restoration of Howard Hawks' glorious Only Angels Have Wings sounds like it will provide the perfect mid-festival tonic.

The 2014 BFI London Film Festival runs from October 8th to 19th. Check back here for my reviews throughout the festival. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"The leap of faith I took was that if we designed the head right people would make an emotional connection to the character, and I think they have." - An Interview with Lenny Abrahamson

Although the large head worn by Michael Fassbender in Frank will look familiar to many viewers in the UK, Lenny Abrahamson's new film is far from the portrait of Frank Sidebottom that those viewers might expect it to be. Chris Sievey's comic creation was a perpetually upbeat northern pop star who emerged as one of the most bizarre success stories of the 80s and 90s, but the Frank we meet in this film is a resolutely uncommercial American musician viewed as a visionary by the rest of his bandmates. Instead of taking us back in time, screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan have brought Frank bang up to date, using him as the inspiration for a very 21st-century tale of fame, artistry and confused ambition. With his fourth feature, Irish filmmaker Abrahamson is moving into new and unusual territory, and I spoke to him about it ahead of the film's cinema release earlier this year.

Before discussing Frank I wanted to quickly ask you about Adam & Paul. You recently attended an event in Dublin to celebrate its 10th anniversary. How did it feel to look back at that film a decade down the road?

The way things are, it came as a shock to me that it was 10 years. It feels much more recent to me. But I have very warm feelings towards that film and I have very good memories of making it. I suppose there are two strands to what I felt. One is that the film still feels relevant as things haven't changed all that much. I attended this very interesting discussion about 'where are Adam and Paul now?' with lots of people who work in that area, working with ex-drug users and current drug users, and the film still feels relevant to people in that world. And then with my own feelings on the film, it was just that experience of making a film where you had no expectations. It's your first film and nobody is looking over your shoulder, nobody is expecting all that much, and we had a very pure experience working with Mark and Tom. I also think a lot about Tom Murphy who died a number of years ago. He was such a great actor, and every time I think about that film I think about what a loss he is.

There is actually a connection between Frank and Adam & Paul because I noticed that you’re working with the same cinematographer on both films.

Yeah, James Mather. I think Frank and Adam & Paul do share a stylistic link, and therefore it felt appropriate that James was the DP on both. The central section particularly where they go off to record the album has a lot of freewheeling slapstick playfulness about it, and that echoed some parts of Adam & Paul.

And I felt that both films share a similar tone, with the absurdist comedy giving way to something deeper and more soulful.

That's true. Even though Frank is more overtly a comedy than Adam & Paul, it has its darker side or more poignant side, and that shape where you can play along with this really pleasurable surface and then find yourself looking down into something much deeper seems to be a feature of both films. In a way, it's been something I recognise in all of my films, it's there in Garage as well. You open with what looks like a very easily categorisable person, you think you know who he is and you don't expect him to reveal anything too deep, and then the film takes you to an unexpected place. It also happens in What Richard Did, you think this character is comfortably containable emotionally, and then you realise there's something deeper to be experienced there.

So when Frank was first pitched to you, was that tonal shift the thing that hooked you into it?

Actually, that tonal shift came later, it developed through the process of working with Jon and Peter. What hooked me initially was that freewheeling maverick playfulness at the centre of the film, that section was what really hooked me when I read it. The structure around it and the story was quite different, and then we started working together on it. As we developed the idea we realised that we could get at something with real emotional power through the telling of this story.

When I first heard about this project I assumed – as I guess most people did – that it would be a film about Frank Sidebottom, but it has turned out to be something quite different. Was it like that at any stage, or was it always developed as a work of fiction?

Before I got involved it had already moved away from a biopic of Frank Sidebottom or a biopic of Chris Sievey and Frank Sidebottom. Jon and Peter had already decided that they didn't want to go that way. So the Frank that I encountered when I first got involved was already American, and was more Johnston and Beefheart than he was Sievey and Sidebottom.

Taking it in this direction allows you to ask some fundamental questions about the nature of art, and the film draws a line between people who see success as exposure and people who see it as the act of creating something.

That's right, and while the film is very comedic it gave us a very vivid world that allowed us to talk about these things. The idea of picking a quintessential outsider seemed like the best way to explore those ideas. We're looking at a person and we just know that they're never going to function in the mainstream, but there is something so clear and beautiful in what they're doing, and that allows you to explore the tensions between creativity and success, and to ask what actually constitutes success.

You've chosen to set the film today rather than in the 80s and 90s, and one of the running gags in the film is Jon's obsession with social media. Do you see people like Jon as a particular product of this era?

We're all taught now that we have to be our own promoters and our own publicists, so people don't just make things they get out there and market it through social media. That's sold as an empowerment so that you take back your career from 'The Man', but on the other hand it takes your energy from the primary simple nature of making something and it turns you into your own marketing department. I don't necessarily think that's healthy, and in Jon's case he's somebody who confuses success with the numbers of hits and retweets and followers, so there's a kind of quantitative metric these days of what counts as success. Initially that was meant to be empowering and freeing because you could own that a little bit, you know, it wasn't just about being signed to a record deal, you could get out via social media and do it yourself. But at the same time, those numbers impose their own kind of tyranny.

As an extension of this, your main character's Twitter and Tumblr accounts are both live in the real world. How involved are you in the marketing aspect of your films? Obviously with a film like this it might require a more unusual approach to selling it.

Film4 have a really strong digital department, so with Anna Higgs and Hugh Garry we talked for a long time about how we could do it. The irony is that we're using those very tools to get the word out about Frank, but I think we're doing it with a certain kind of rich, ironic inflection as well. Given that Jon's tweets are the narration of the film, it was a lot of fun to create his account and actually it has been running for months. There's a really rich backstory there.

That's what surprised me when I looked it up after watching the movie. There has been a lot of work put into that.

And now it's actually going to get even richer, because Jon is kind of going to go on the journey of the film and you'll be able to see that reflected in his tweeting and blogging. In a nice way he'll be able to point you in the direction of some of the musical influences that went into our creation of the band, and his YouTube choices will become more relevant. So there's a nice bubble of interconnected content and material that adds to the experience of watching the film.

I was hugely impressed with what Michael Fassbender does with the character of Frank, but what are the challenges involved in shooting an actor whose face you can't see?

Well, there are loads of challenges. I watched a film not that long ago with a character who wore one of those Venetian masks, very flat and close to the face with no features, and I felt that was a very inert thing to put at the centre of the frame. But what's interesting about the Frank head that we had is because it's kind of cartoon-like in its expression you end up with this puppet-like figure in the middle of your scene. Rather than closing down the expressive possibilities it really adds to them and takes you into the territory you get with really great animation.

The head is slightly different to Frank Sidebottom’s head. Did you spend a lot of time working on that look?

The leap of faith I took was that if we designed the head right – and it is very similar to Frank Sidebottom's, but different in crucial respects – people would make an emotional connection to the character, and I think they have. People are very good at finding meaning in things, and in fact they impose meaning on things if they can't find it. You know the early experiments people did that showed how montage works? They would should a close-up of a person and cut to something warm and fuzzy like kids playing, you'd feel that the person was registering pleasure and all the things that go with an image like that. Then you'd cut the same close-up with something disturbing and feel that the person is registering distress. So we're very good at reading into images what the logic of the edit tells us to. Part of the challenge is how you construct the scene around Frank to help the audience really see something in that face, to help them believe that they're feeling an emotional response to it. With Michael you've got someone who is so physically articulate and so good at adding the smallest tilt of the head, or doing something with the rest of his body or his voice, to create an incredibly rich character. It allows us to play with things that are hidden too, so when you don't want them to know what Frank is thinking, you have that possibility and it works really well, either comedically or dramatically. The expressive possibilities come about in a different way but they're all still there.

You make a joke of it in the film, with Frank telling Jon what expression he has on his face.

Yeah, that was really funny to do, and that's some of the stuff that people really seem to go for when they watch the film.

And there’s a good line where a character wonders what’s going on inside his head, and we wonder which head he’s referring to.

Yeah, "I'd love to know what goes on inside that head." The funny thing as well is that when we were shooting, it was amazing how quickly we forgot that he was wearing the head. To answer your question in a slightly different way, I thought I would have to do an awful lot more work as a director to make scenes work with the actor's face hidden. What I discovered was, if you just trust the scene and you work with the actors to find subtle ways to use inflections of their body and voice, he's just there. The character just appears. You don't feel you're missing anything, he's no less expressive than any of the other characters in the film.

It reminds me of a film I loved recently called It's Such a Beautiful Day. The design of that lead character is as basic as it gets, but he’s invested with so much emotion.

That's a really good example. You can look at the most basic stick-man drawing, and it goes back to what I was saying earlier about how people are really god at finding meaning. With the most simple line drawings or even the most basic puppet – a glove puppet, for example – you can create massive emotional effects. Sometimes those effects can be strong in a different way to what you can get with a straight live-action drama. There's something about that simplification that brings out a core emotional meaning, and I think that's what you get with Frank.

This is the kind of project that could work brilliantly or fall flat on its face. Was there any particular point in the making of it where you could feel that it was coming together and you'd made it work?

There were lots of moments when I was very worried leading up to making the film. I decided to make the film and then I immediately thought, "God, this could be awful." I used to think, what if we're sitting in the edit a month after shooting the film and we look at each other and say, "Well, the head doesn't work." I mean, that really could have happened. One of the first scenes we shot with the head was the ashes-spreading scene in the desert, and when I first saw it loosely cut together by Nathan, our editor, I felt the tension draining away because there was something really lovely and delicate. It was strange in the right way – not just quirky in some kind of easy indie way – but delicate and expressive and human. I think the other thing was developing the music with Stephen Lennox. We had a week's rehearsal with the band before we shot and they really gelled, and I just felt that this music was impossible to categorise but it was clearly really good. Again, it's not a gimmick, there's something very unconventional but clearly authentic about it, and that was another point where I felt the film might work.

The music has to walk a very fine line between being totally uncommercial but also showing some sign of creativity and talent.

Exactly. Given that the dynamic of the film is Jon wanting to impose himself on the band to make them successful, you sort of have to be with Jon at various points in the film, you have to want them to succeed even if you ultimately learn that would be a disaster. It's no good if you immediately think, "Oh for God's, there's no way this band is ever going to be successful." There are parts in the film where the joke works because the music is completely barking, but for the most part you can, like Jon, imagine that it could work. Quite early on we decided that while the music was eccentric, experimental and unconventional, it needed to be good, and the reason that the band was never going to be commercial had as much to do with the members of the band. You just know that they could never handle that kind of exposure, or in Clara's case just didn't want it. If we had gone for a straight comedy where they make some kind of crazy noise music, then you don't really have anything other than a one-note gag.

I wanted to ask you about your next project, but just before calling you I saw an announcment online that Brie Larson will be starring in your adaptation of Room.

Yeah, it's amazing how news gets out. I was out and had my phone switched off, and then I turned it on and saw people talking on Twitter about it. But yeah, we have cast Brie Larson and we're really excited about it.

So you still have to cast the child?

Yeah, now that we've cast the mother the race is on to cast the child, and we've put aside a few months to do that so we're aiming to shoot the film in the autumn. Now the search for the boy begins and obviously we have other roles to cast as well, but we're heading for an autumn shoot.

Each of the films you've made so far has been something quite different from the last. Is that important to you? To push against whatever it is you've made before?

It seems to be. I make my choices in a very instinctive way, but I'm always drawn to something that I don't quite know how to do, and something I'm interested in exploring. You can't know it completely at the beginning or there's nowhere to go. With Room, apart from the technical challenge of working in a tiny space for a large chunk of the film and working with a child, it's another film that's tonally hard to get right. The book is told from the boy's point of view, so you have that really lovely voice to get between you and the harsh truth of events, and when you take that voice away it puts great pressure on the filmmaking. I find that a very scary and exciting challenge. But above all I find it very moving, and I think the ultimate thing for me is that the films I'm drawn to make are the ones that are very humane and possess a kind of unsentimental tenderness. That's what I found in Room when I read it and that's what really tied me into it.

Frank will be released on blu-ray in September

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Matthew Barney Experience

Norman Mailer may have won the Pulitzer Prize and unanimous critical acclaim for The Executioner’s Song, but as he collected his plaudits the author believed that his true masterpiece was yet to come. “I was working with the vanity that this was the nearest I was ever going to come to the possibility of writing a great book,” Mailer told George Plimpton a few years later when discussing the decade-long gestation of his sprawling 1983 novel Ancient Evenings. But when that book was finally published, not everybody shared his view. “It is, speaking bluntly, a disaster,” The New York Times stated, while New York Magazine described it as “nasty, brutish and endless” and The Nation dismissed it as a “long and tedious wallow in the faeces of Ancient Egypt.” Nevertheless, the book sat in the bestseller list for 17 weeks and it still has many ardent defenders today.

Whether you think the book is a misunderstood masterpiece, an unreadable slog or something in between is a matter of personal opinion, but the one thing everyone could surely agree on was that Ancient Evenings was unfilmable. Opening my copy of the book (which I long ago filed away in the “unreadable” section) at random, my eyes landed on the following passage, which is indicative of the novel’s content:

“Then Thoth put His hand on the hips of Set, that is, so far as He dared, for Set was shaking with rage, but Thoth proceeded to make the same speech to the semen of Horus. Would it appear? A voice flew right out of Set’s buttocks. It was a full, sweet-smelling wind, and it said, ‘I am the transformation of the seed of Horus.’ This wind smelled sweet as lettuce. The Gods roared. For They knew Horus had buggered Set.”

Stanley Kubrick famously argued that “if it can be written or thought, it can be filmed,” and in this case the only man bold enough – or foolhardy enough – to accept the challenge was Matthew Barney. Appointed to the task by none other than Mailer himself, who regarded the artist as an authentic genius, Barney has very liberally adapted Ancient Evenings into an epic, six-hour extravaganza called River of Fundament. This magnum opus recently received its UK premiere in London, having prompted applause, disgust, awe, walkouts and general bafflement at its previous screenings. I felt it would be unwise to immediately jump in at the deep end with River of Fundament before familiarising myself with the artist’s work, and so, before his latest film screened, I spent the day with Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Andrew Sarris on Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin

"The difference between Keaton and Chaplin is the difference between poise and poetry, between the aristocrat and the tramp, between adaptability and dislocation, between the function of things and the meaning of things, between eccentricity and mysticism, between man as machine and man as angel, between the Girl as a convention and the Girl as an ideal, between the centripetal and the centrifugal tendencies of slapstick. Keaton is now generally acknowledged as the superior director and inventor of visual forms. There are those who would go further and claim Keaton as pure cinema as opposed to Chaplin's theatrical cinema. Keaton's cerebral tradition of comedy was continued by René Clair and Jacques Tati, but Keaton the actor, like Chaplin the actor, has proved to be inimitable. Ultimately, Keaton and Chaplin complement each other down the line to that memorably ghostly moment in Limelight when they share the same tawdry dressing room as they prepare to face their lost audience."