Friday, February 24, 2012

Review - Carnage

Few directors are as adept as Roman Polanski at maximising the pervasive, anxiety-filled potential of confined spaces, so locking him in a single location with four of the finest actors around must have seemed like an unbeatable idea. His new film is Carnage, an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage (the director and playwright have collaborated on the screenplay), and the film takes place almost entirely within the confines of a plush Manhattan apartment. Occasionally, two of the characters will attempt to leave and they may even make it as far as the elevator before being yoked back inside by some unfinished business. As in Sartre's No Exit, the entire cast consists of four characters, here divided into two married couples who have met to discuss a fight between their children, but before long it's the adults themselves who are behaving like kids.

Much of the appeal of Carnage lies in watching four very good actors be at their best while portraying characters who are at their worst. At first, all social niceties and proper etiquette is observed as Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly) invite Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) into their home, the latter couple's 11 year-old son having inflicted some damage with a stick in the playground. There's a little awkwardness and embarrassment in the air, but the atmosphere is one of congenial politeness as the two couples agree on a statement and sit down to settle things over a drink and some cake. As Carnage is barely 80 minutes long, however, it doesn't take long for cracks to begin appearing in this fa├žade. The personalities of the four begin to clash, comments take on a more poisonous tone, and each character finds it increasingly difficult to keep their emotions and opinions in check.

Such a progression is entirely predictable. Carnage is a comedy of manners that shows us how awful people's true selves can be when they are no longer bound by the constraints of societal refinement, and how easy it is for those constraints to be shaken off in pressured situations. It's hardly a startling revelation, but Reza's writing displays a consistently sharp edge as she sets up four distinct characters before mercilessly peeling back the layers of their personalities. Very little attempt has been made to open up the play in its translation from stage to screen, but with a master like Polanski in command of the material there is little risk of Carnage feeling too stagebound. He brilliantly utilises the limited amount of space available to him, notably through his unerring use of the four actors within his perfectly composed frames, and the manner in which he allows the film to loosen up as the characters do, with Pawel Edelman's camera lurching drunkenly through the chaotic final third.

As for those actors; well, Carnage is a thespian dream and this cast doesn't disappoint, even if the male half of the ensemble fares much better than their female counterparts. Foster and Winslet are initially highly strung and they both slip rapidly into hysteria, and while it's oddly transfixing to see them explode into such vomit-specked rage, watching Reilly and Waltz work in a more relaxed register is considerably more pleasurable. Reilly is all laid-back, working class bonhomie, and he nails some of Reza's funniest lines ("Well, you certainly perked up since you tossed your cookies," he says following the puking incident) while his encroaching rage is good for a few laughs too. Waltz plays his character with an aloof reserve and a brilliantly dry delivery, getting a laugh every time his attention is drawn to his perpetually ringing Blackberry rather than the trivial arguments the rest of the characters are engaged in.

But while Carnage is a very funny film, which commendably doesn't hold back in its more outlandish moments ("I'm glad our son kicked the shit out of your son and I wipe my ass with your human rights!"), it does feel like rather flimsy material, despite being padded with pointless exterior shots. What exactly is the movie trying to say? Does it in fact have any goal beyond offering audiences a few diverting laughs? If that's all that Reza and Polanski were aiming for, then you have to say Carnage is mission accomplished, but when you get a cast and director of this calibre together, I think it's fair to expect something more than a minor, if enjoyable, diversion.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Review - Rampart

It's easy to imagine Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) exploding into vivid life on the pages of a James Ellroy novel. The protagonist of Oren Moverman's second film Rampart – which the director developed from an Ellroy script – is a misanthropic, volatile, hard-drinking, womanising LAPD cop who swims in a sea of moral ambiguity. He has been given the nickname "Date Rape" by his colleagues, following his suspected but unproven murder of a serial rapist ("I can neither confirm nor deny," Brown says with a smirk, enjoying the lustre of this legend), and he's not averse to bending rules or beating the answers he wants to hear out of a suspect. He has gotten away with his corrupt and violent behaviour for over two decades – largely due to his quick-wittedness and ability to eloquently talk his way out of trouble – but when a camera catches him attacking a black driver who crashed into his patrol car, the walls of Dave Brown's life start to fall in on top of him.

All of this would be ripe material for one of Ellroy's vast, dense books – a man on the edge, his machismo being eroded by insecurities and paranoia. Unfortunately, when condensed into a single movie and embellished by some hopelessly misguided directorial choices, Rampart is a total disaster. Moverman and Harrelson's previous collaboration was The Messenger, an emotionally charged but restrained film that won plaudits for the debutant filmmaker and an Academy Award nomination for Harrelson. There's nothing restrained about their follow-up, however, with both the director and star turning it up to 11.

The problem with Rampart is that the filmmaking keeps drawing attention to itself. Simple dialogue scenes are shot from unusual angles, such as a meeting between Brown and a retired cop (Ned Beatty), during which the director cuts – seemingly at random – between close-ups, medium shots and even shots of the back of their heads. Instead of focusing on what was being said in the scene, I was focusing on Moverman's choices, and wondering what on earth was motivating them. Shortly after that scene we are treated to Brown's disciplinary hearing, which is filmed in an appallingly clumsy and hugely distracting 360-degree panning shot around the table that stands as one of the single worst pieces of camerawork I have ever seen in a movie. Rampart is an ugly movie, both in what it shows us and how it shows it to us, with Moverman and his cinematographer Bobby Bukowski opting for lurid, clammy lighting in the second half of the picture. An extended sequence in an underground sex club is supposed to mark Brown's irrevocable descent into the abyss, but it's overly stylised and straining way too hard to be in any way convincing.

In fact, very little about Rampart does convince. Dave Brown lives in adjacent houses with the two sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) that he had consecutive relationships with, and the daughters each of those relationships left him with, with the five of them living as some kind of awkward quasi-family. There's also a gimmicky cameo from Harrelson's The Messenger co-star Ben Foster as a crippled addict who furnishes Brown with information, but his appearance comes off as nothing more than, well, a gimmicky cameo. Brown also strikes up a relationship with a lawyer (Robin Wright Penn), who may or may not be investigating him, but she never develops into anything other than a plot device, which is something that can be said for most of the supporting players. There's also the ever-present shadow of the real-life Rampart scandals that give the movie its name, but Moverman never explores any of this and what it meant for the LAPD in the 90's, trusting that the exploits of his film's central character will be sufficient to act as a microcosm of that widespread corruption.

Unfortunately, while Dave Brown is an arresting and explosive character, he is never a particularly interesting one. Instead of getting inside his head and understanding this man, the film just repetitively presents us with his repellent behaviour, which grows incredibly boring to watch. Perhaps a lack of context is the real issue. Bad Lieutenant brought the weight of its character's Catholic guilt to bear on his behaviour, Training Day viewed its bad cop through the eyes of an idealistic rookie, and Rampart's closest antecedent The Shield (the show's working title was Rampart) had almost 60 hours to explore the nuances and complexities of its characters and their relationships; and while this film is a platform for Harrelson to show how incendiary he can be as an actor, he's just shouting into a void. Rampart is an abysmal piece of work, and its botched anticlimax of an ending offers no reward for all those who have stuck with it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review - Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a film about a troubled boy attempting to make sense of his father's death on 9/11, but a greater challenge might be to try and make sense of this film. Stephen Daldry's screen version of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel presents us with a story built upon contrivances and implausibilities, and attempts to mine moments of catharsis for a number of individual characters in the shadow of a recent national tragedy. To negotiate such a minefield of taste and emotional turbulence successfully would require filmmakers of rare subtlety and delicacy, but Daldry isn't that director and Eric Roth, who adapted the screenplay, isn't that writer. Perhaps predictably, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close doesn't work – it's messy, ridiculous and often downright annoying – but the act of filtering an event as significant as 9/11 through a story this cheaply manipulative makes it look many times worse than it probably would do otherwise.

The film is populated with star actors but the bulk of the story rests on the shoulders of newcomer Thomas Horn, making a striking debut as the precocious and borderline autistic 9 year-old Oskar Schell. Oskar's father (Tom Hanks – depicted as a too-perfect dad in flashbacks) died when the Twin Towers fell, leaving Oskar alone with his mother (Sandra Bullock), with whom he has a strained relationship, and his grandmother, who lives across the street and clandestinely communicates with him via walkie-talkies. Oskar has kept a number of secrets from his mother – most gravely, the answering machine that contains her husband's final six messages from "The worst day" – and when he is rooting around in his father's closet, he uncovers another. Inside a blue vase there is a key tagged with the word 'Black.' Intuiting that Black is (a) a person's name and (b) some kind of cryptic message from his father, Oskar sets out to meet the 472 Blacks listed in the local telephone directory.

This plot is ripe old nonsense that gets sillier by the minute, and Daldry's handling of the story doesn't make it any easier to digest. The film is too much, in every way. It's garishly over-directed, frenetically edited – as if to reflect the anxious mindset of its protagonist – and constantly reaching for big, tearjerking moments that it hasn't put in the spadework to earn. So many of its cloying affectations immediately grate; from the gas mask Oskar wears on the subway and the tambourine he rattles to calm his nerve, to the mute and mugging performance from Max von Sydow as a WWII veteran who communicates through notes and 'yes/no' tattoos on the palms of his hands. It turns out that 'The Renter' is Oskar's grandfather, which you may regard as a spoiler, but surely no audience member will fail to discern this from the moment he makes his entrance, so heavily telegraphed and clumsily played is every single 'twist.

A fine cast struggle to breathe some life into this appalling material (Viola Davis is always moving; Jeffrey Wright's cameo is welcome but too late) but the film reeks of schmaltz and artifice in every frame, despite the reliably classy contributions from cinematographer Chris Menges and composer Alexandre Desplat. By the time the film has wrung out the false suspense of the final unanswered phone message and implemented an absurd plot development involving Bullock's character, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has long exceeded its welcome, and it left me wondering if any director could have wrangled this problematic book into something cinematically worthwhile. It needed a director with a real feel for New York, one with a greater sense of storytelling imagination, or one less prone to straining for prestige status, but instead it got Daldry, whose dead hand renders it almost insufferable. With films that use 9/11 as the focus or backdrop to their story, people are still inclined to ask the question "too soon?" However, that's not the issue with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – it's simply too fake, too exploitative, too bad.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review - Young Adult

Young Adult is the second collaboration between screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, and it highlights both their strengths and weaknesses. Cody's ear for sharp dialogue is on display here, but so is her weak characterisation and unconvincing plotting, while Reitman's gift for getting the best out of actors unfortunately comes packaged with the glib shallowness of his filmmaking. The pros just about outweigh the cons here, though, and as someone who found Juno irritating and Up in the Air enjoyable but entirely forgettable, it's nice to see Cody and Reitman making a film that has a little acidity and awkwardness in it, even if the end result isn't entirely satisfying.

Credit is due to Cody and Reitman for staying true to the monstrousness of their protagonist and refusing to make any cheep bids for audience sympathy. Mavis Gary (played by Charlize Theron) is a fascinating, deeply screwed-up character. Once idolised by her peers in high school, Mavis's life has now reached a dead-end. She writes low-quality/high-volume teen fiction for a series that is now waning in popularity, and she spends much of her time crashed out in front of the TV, having woken up next to the previous night's drunken one-night stand. It takes a blast from the past to shake Mavis out of her listlessness; an email from her high school boyfriend Buddy and his wife announcing the birth of their first child. For whatever reason (the film rather bodges her motivations) Mavis suddenly decides that she and Buddy were always meant to be together, and she hops into her car to head back for Minnesota, the town she grew up in and left behind as soon as she could.

Mavis doesn't take a minute to consider the morality or ramifications of her actions – her delusional belief that Buddy will ditch his new family and restart the relationship they had twenty years earlier is amusing but also a little unsettling. Young Adult could just as easily play out as a dark Fatal Attraction-style thriller as a comedy, with Theron's magnificently self-absorbed performance in the lead role being as unsettling as it is cringeworthy, as she acts with blithe cruelty and dismissiveness towards anyone who contradicts her own sense of purpose. There's something strained about Mavis's entire appearance though; from the Hello Kitty t-shirt and pink accessories to the glamorous clothes and makeup she dons to ensnare Buddy. She always seems to be trying too hard to be the person she thinks she needs to be, but who is the real Mavis Gary? Even the books she writes end up bearing the name of the series creator rather than her own.

The problem with having such a complicated and compelling character at the centre of the film is that it risks showing up just how thin the rest of it is. Despite Patton Oswalt's heartfelt and good-natured turn as lonely geek Matt, a former classmate of Mavis crippled in a misguided hate crime, the supporting characters don't really have enough about them to avoid being blown away by Theron, and Cody seems increasingly uncertain about what to do with her prize creation. There are some fine scenes here – notably Mavis's attempt to autograph her work in a bookstore, or her final plea to win Buddy over at his wife's baby shower – but the film starts to lose its way in the final act as Mavis's interactions with all around her grow less and less convincing. Young Adult finally collapses in a badly misjudged finale, when Collette Wolfe, as Matt's sister, delivers a speech that feels both false and condescending, and the film ends quietly in a flat, half-baked fashion. Some rewrites and a stronger directorial hand would have surely been enough to craft a picture capable of supporting its marvellous central performance, but it seems Cody and Reitman still have some growing up to do.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Win Miss Bala on DVD

One of 2011's most exciting films, Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala explores the Mexican drug wars through the eyes of an aspiring beauty queen. Newcomer Stephanie Sigman is mesmerising as the terrified young woman caught up in a world she's totally unprepared for, and Naranjo's spectacular direction plunges us right into the heart of the action alongside her. You can read my review of the film here, and my interview with the director and star here.

Miss Bala is released on DVD on February 20th, but Metrodome has provided Phil on Film with 3 discs to give away. To be in with a chance of winning one, just answer the below question.

In Miss Bala, what title is Laura competing for?

Send your answer along with your postal address to I'll select a winner at random on Friday 17th.

Good luck!

Monday, February 06, 2012

Review - J. Edgar

When Clint Eastwood depicts the death of J. Edgar Hoover in his new film J.Edgar, he follows it with a scene in which the FBI head honcho's private secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) begins shredding all of his files and documents before Richard Nixon can get his hands on them. This is the key problem that a biopic of Hoover faces – the man took all of his secrets, and those of many others, to the grave, so how can one movie expect to get under the skin and inside the head of such a character? Bearing that in mind, perhaps we shouldn't anticipated any real revelations from Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (though we may justifiably ask why they bothered making the film at all), but the really dismaying thing about J. Edgar is how rudderless and empty the whole thing feels. Forget answers – this film hardly musters up the energy to ask probing questions.

Clint Eastwood has gained a reputation for shooting writers' first drafts without asking for any revisions, and in his most recent films the flaws in this policy have become self-evident. J. Edgar feels lumpy and ungainly as it jumps back-and-forth in time; the framing device of Hoover dictating his memoirs feels like a lazy method to tie it all together. Hoover is played by Leonardo Di Caprio who makes a valiant attempt to bring some fire and conviction to a somnambulant movie. An assertive presence as the young Hoover eager to make a name for himself, he grows more furtive and guarded as he gets older, and Di Caprio does a decent job of giving a textured and nuanced performance, even when he's asked to act from beneath some stifling makeup. He is rather hobbled by the film's non-committal take on Hoover though; it's weirdly uncritical of his pervasive intrusion into the lives of so many Americans, and vague on the details of his personal life.

Put simply, J. Edgar doesn't really seem to know what it's actually about. We get the creation and development of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (the Lindbergh case could be a movie in itself), Hoover's relationship with his domineering mother (Judi Dench) and, above all, his longtime love for colleague and partner Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Again, J. Edgar is oddly tentative around this subject; it suggests that their love for each other, though lasting for decades, was never consummated, and that a passionate kiss delivered more in anger and confusion was as close as they got. The rest of their relationship is built upon fleeting glances and suggestive dialogue, but Hammer brings enormous charm to Tolson and his scenes with Di Caprio are the best in the film. Their relationship gives it some warmth, some life, at least it does until Hammer is mummified under some of the worst old-age makeup I've ever seen.

Quite how a prestige studio production like this can contain such half-assed makeup work is beyond me, but it epitomises the slack feel of the whole movie. Does Clint know the difference anymore between emphasising shadows and darkening scenes to the point where you can't see the actor's face? Why was an actress of Naomi Watts' quality fobbed off with role that asks her to stand in the background shuffling papers? Who oversaw the casting for Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy? Why oh why did nobody demand a rewrite? I feel I gained a greater sense of J. Edgar Hoover's character from his depiction in James Ellroy's American Tabloid or Oliver Stone's Nixon than I did from this bloated and shallow movie, which barely seems interested in getting to the heart of its elusive subject.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Blu-ray Review - Rolling Thunder

The Film

A seldom-seen classic from the late 1970's, John Flynn's Rolling Thunder was almost the directorial debut of Paul Schrader, before he left the project over script differences. It's easy to see his mark on the film's story, however, as it bears more than a passing resemblance to Taxi Driver, with its protagonist – a troubled Vietnam veteran – tooling up and preparing to bring vengeance against those who have crossed him. The difference here is that revenge for Major Charles Rane (William Devane) is deeply personal. He returns to his home town and his family after seven years in a POW camp along with fellow soldier Johnny (Tommy Lee Jones), but in his absence things have changed. His wife confesses that she has been seeing police officer Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll) and his son, who was an infant when he left, barely recognises his father.

Things get worse for Rane when he is given a box of silver dollars at a homecoming ceremony to mark his return – a box that attracts the attention of some local crooks who turn up at his home demanding that he hand over the cash. However, they find that Rane is not a man who submits easily, and the film shows us how his experiences in the Vietnamese prison camp have shaped him into a more hardened character, able to control his emotions and withstand the most unendurable pain. In an extraordinary scene, Rane responds to Cliff's questions about what it was like to undergo regular torture with a demonstration; encouraging Cliff to bind his arms tightly with rope and pull them behind his back, Rane forces him to pull harder and harder, the veins popping in his skull and sweat pouring off his face, until the shocked Cliff pulls away. Rane uses that same resolve to stay strong when the crooks after his money mangle his hand in the garbage disposal and shoot his wife and child in front of him.

Devane surely gives the performance of his career in this film. Upright and deliberate in his actions, he's every inch the all-American soldier, but he also shows us how war has left scars on his soul in a stunning display of wound-up intensity. When he is given a hook to replace his missing right hand, there's every risk that Rane could turn into a comic book avenger, but Devane underplays effectively and keeps the character rooted in reality. As he methodically cuts down his shotgun and sharpens the point of his hook before hitting the road in search of the men who killed his family, you know he means business. Rolling Thunder is very much Devane's film, but other actors lend crucial support. Linda Haynes brings an endearing sweetness to her role as the waitress who ditches her job to join Rane on his quest – little realising what he has in store for her – while Tommy lee Jones excels in only his second feature. Jones has little to do for much of the movie but he has a sense of slow-burning menace that's compelling to observe, and his small smile when Rane asks him to pick up his guns again is telling.

Rolling Thunder is a lean and direct piece of work and John Flynn keeps it moving with little flair but plenty of straightforward craftsmanship. The dark and seedy cinematography from Jordan Cronenweth fits the mood perfectly, and during the fight scenes or shootouts, the action is cleanly staged and edited. In particular, the climactic gunfight in a Mexican whorehouse is brilliantly mounted, with shades of Peckinpah in the way Flynn lets it play out. This set-piece gives Rolling Thunder a spectacular, cathartic ending, as two men damaged by war burst back into life by doing what they do best. "What the fuck are you doing?" one of the prostitutes asks Johnny as he loads his gun;"I'm gonna kill a bunch of people" he replies with a quiet satisfaction.

The Extras

Heywood Gould's commentary on the film he was hired to re-write is engaging and chatty, but more focused on anecdotes than facts. Linda Hayne's gives a short interview, while Eli Roth (along with Quentin Tarantino, a big fan) commentates over the film's trailer.

Rolling Thunder is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

Buy Rolling Thunder here

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

"They all have their path, and as tragic as some of it is it can also be inspiring" - An interview with Alma Har'el

With her terrific debut feature Bombay Beach, Alma Har'el shines a light on a rarely explored corner of American society and playfully rips up the accepted rules of documentary filmmaking. Her film tells three stories of life in the desolate, mostly abandoned Salton Sea region of California, but far from being a wallow in the misery of poverty, Bombay Beach feels thrillingly alive. Har'el blends everyday reality with imaginative dance sequences to create a film like no other, and when she came to London this week, I met her to talk about a film and a group of people that are very close to her heart.

Bombay Beach is a unique piece of work. How much of the film's form did you have in your head when you first started the project, and how much did it develop during production?

Well, I never studied at film school so I'm not a very cerebral director who sits and thinks, "What does this shot mean?" and "What am I trying to tell?" A lot of times I will do things and it will be like a dream, and you can only analyse it after you've dreamed it. I've been doing that a lot with this film, you know, I've been talking about it for six months and through that I've been understanding so much about what it means to people and what kind of thoughts it brings. It's not that I didn't think about it but I just wasn't so cerebral about the ideas. I did have the idea about a year before to make a documentary with dance sequences because I just adore dance and it has the ability to transcend so many non-verbal nuances. I thought it would be great to take the qualities movement can have and use it to explore things in the lives of people who aren't dancers. So that was something I wanted to do but I didn't know where I was going to do it and I wasn't really being active about finding a place for it. When I got to Bombay Beach I was filming a music video for Beirut, and I was down to this no-budget situation where it was basically me and a camera and no crew, and I had to frantically look for a location as a favour. I was told to check out the Salton Sea and the first place we stopped the car in was the Bombay Beach marina, and I found it so haunting. It immediately makes you feel your own mortality and there's something about it that's beyond reality.

It has this surreal post-apocalyptic atmosphere. It makes you think of movies like Mad Max.

Yes, definitely, and the colours of those faded 50's signs and the boats on the sand. I actually didn't see many people there the first time I went there, but I came back the next day and that was when I met Benny and Mike on the beach. I asked them if they wanted to be in the music video based on a whim. It wasn't planned, I wasn't looking for a kid or anything, but I had a costume in the car that was a mock-up of the Midnight Cowboy costume that Zach Condon was wearing, and I wanted him to be a younger version of the guy that Zach plays in the video. We shot for half an hour at the beach and afterwards I introduced myself and he asked if I wanted to meet his parents, so we spoke and they told me about themselves and how they got there.

If you go on Twitter, by the way, and search for Bombay Beach you'll see people posting photos almost every day, it has nothing to do with the film. Photographers and passers-by just go there to take photos of the sunset because the decay and the way it reflects the light makes for good photos. I thought that so many people come here to shoot every day, but at the same time who lives here? These people must have such stories to tell. Like you say, it's so post-apocalyptic, it looks like they gave up on society or society gave up on them, or like they're the first society after everything was gone, you can let your imagination run. When I saw the music video finished – it was for Concubine by Beirut and the Parrishes were in it – I thought that was the tone and the kind of thing I'd like to film. I tried to get the money for it but I couldn't and I ended up moving there, so I didn't have any characters really apart from the Parrishes when I started.

You mentioned that it was just you and a camera, and I did notice when the credits rolled that there was hardly any crew listed.

There was no crew. My choreographer came out a few times and she was a great partner to me – her name is Paula Present and she worked with me on Elephant Gun, which was a music video I made with Beirut – so she came out to help me with the dances. Apart from that there was no crew, but that was what made it so intimate and gave me so much freedom. Nobody asked me "What does this mean? Why do you want to do that?" You know, all those things people like to ask. [laughs]

How did you capture such natural behaviour? I always wonder when you point a camera at someone how conscious they are of it and how much they are truly being themselves.

That's up to the filmmaker in the editing room, I think, to recognise something that captures some essence of this person or captures some essence of what this person would like to be, and that's part of who he is because everybody has their own story they tell themselves. Those stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are a big part of who we are, and part of the process is knowing that story. I think a lot of filmmakers say "I know who this person is and I'm going to show the real side of them" – but people don't know who they are themselves, so how would I know who they are? I don't know who I am. I was trying to capture something more fluid about who we are, who we present ourselves to be, who we would like to be, who I think they are, things they said to me that echoed as fantasies – all these things together, and to not differentiate or pretend that one is more important than the other.

You said you didn't have any characters beyond the Parrishes when you went there. How long did it take you to find Red and Ceejay?

For the first two months or month and a half, I was filming a lot of people but was already filming Ceejay and the Parrishes. The Parrishes were for sure my main subject and my main collaborators and friends, and I asked them to think of other people I could film. Ceejay lived on the same street as them and I started filming him and a few of his friends, but at that point I didn't know if he would be the centre or his friends. He had two friends who were two adopted brothers, each of them adopted from another family, and I really liked filming them but they moved away from Bombay Beach after a month and a half, because their mother had cancer and they had to go and live with her somewhere else. At first it was more of a group of children and Ceejay was just one of them, but slowly he became a very prominent character.

I didn't meet Red until I had been filming for a couple of months. I was filming another character called Marty, who is a hitchhiker – that's what he calls himself, Marty the Hitchhiker – and he has been a hitchhiker for three or four years. He told me about Red, he said, "I hitchhiked with this guy named Red and we went on a really long trip for two weeks. He has a lot of great stories about America, he used to work on the oilfields," and the minute I met Red I knew had to be in it. I didn't what I was going to do with him, at first I thought he would just be a narrator, and the first thing I did with him was to just take him to the beach and ask him about things. They were very abstract things that I was interested in generally – what is love, what is friendship, what is responsibility, what is childhood? – as open as possible with no guidance. He had this earnest American wisdom with a twist, this depression-era language, he was so fascinating, and I had so much fun just listening to him. I recorded hours of him talking about things and started to use them as narration here and there, but slowly he also became a character because things started to happen to him and he allowed me into his life. At first he was very strict with me, he would say, "I'm very busy, I have a full schedule. You can see me Tuesday at 6pm for half an hour" [laughs] but I think he trusted me more and more over time. All of this stuff still informs my relationship with them, I'm still in touch with them all. They all had a lot of progress in their lives after their film, but I don't want to take credit for it, because certain things had nothing to do with the film, like Ceejay got a full scholarship at University of Minnesota and left Bombay Beach.

I thought his story was the most interesting in some ways, because we look at Bombay Beach and see such a poverty-stricken place, but it was his salvation. If he had stayed in LA he may have suffered the same fate as his cousin.

If there is an American Dream turned upside on its head, then it's him. He came from Los Angeles, the "City of Dreams" as Hollywood suggests it can be, to the poorest ghost town in California, and through being there he managed to get a college scholarship and a step towards the life that he wants. I thought that was so wacky.

It's a great tale of a person finding his own path through life.

And I feel that they are all doing that. They all have their path, and as tragic as some of it is it can also be inspiring. Benny is off all the medication now and in therapy, not all the time but once in a while in LA. Red is still there, he built solar panels so now he has electricity. I try to see them all as much as I can, I visited Ceejay in Minnesota but mostly we talk on Twitter and texting, Benny I see a lot when he comes to LA, but I think it's funny, out of all the characters I think the person that feels he needs me more is Red. He's the person I least thought would think like that.

It's so good to hear that Benny is off the medication but you look at him and wonder how many other kids there are like him in America. He's symptomatic of a whole generation.

There are so many, so many. They say it's two out of three. It's the most horrific industry, making money on the back of helpless parents and children. I mean I'm not against medication, I'm on medication, but it's so light-handed and comes with no therapy. The solution that it offers is so elusive and some of the parents are so uneducated about what they're actually doing to their children and what results to expect. They start to wait for the medication to change their child into something it's not. It was really hard to film and hard to watch.

How did you work with Benny, Ceejay and Red on the dance sequences? I was wondering how easy it was to persuade someone like Red to get involved in that.

Red was really into it, actually.

Really? Was he a dancer in his younger days?

He was, he used to do line-dancing. He had this girlfriend for six years who he said was the biggest love of his life. She died of cancer but they used to go line-dancing together, that's how they met. I would say the only person that wasn't into the dancing was Mike, Benny's dad. There are no dances in the film with him, although there is a dance we did with the whole family that's on the special features on the DVD. I didn't feel comfortable putting it in because it was the first dance I shot and it didn't really grow out of the characters, it was just something I did, whereas all the other dances came out of knowing them or were scenes that I then went back and choreographed a dance for. I did use some of the movements from that dance in the opening sequence; I don't know if you remember, but there were the blue gloves and when he crushes a can of beer, but at the time I didn't know I was going to use Bob Dylan and Beirut and I did it to a song called Blue Room, sung by Chet Baker. It was so beautiful but when I watched it back it just didn't stand as something that felt driven by the characters and it was very much a music video.

I guess I expected more resistance because you're really asking a lot from them, to express things they've never expressed before and in a way they've never expressed it before.

It was huge, but the biggest thing for me was that they totally understood what I was doing. You think, these people have no artistic background sitting in this ghost town, and obviously they have TVs and Playstations and stuff, but you have no idea what their perception is of performance or art or anything. When we were choreographing the dances there wasn't a moment when they didn't understand the story I was trying to tell, and it really surprised me, I have to say. I don't mean that to be condescending to them, but I couldn't imagine they would be so collaborative, and that actually drove me to take out the sequences that felt more imposed, although there are a few sequences that are done for me as much as for them. I know a lot of people criticise the film for that, taking these people and using them as props, but I think there are so many films that are much more pure documentary and my intention was to never make a documentary, per se. I was interested in exploring certain things for myself, things like relationships and chaos and dysfunctionality and families – the things that I grew up with.

There's this one scene with Benny and the children and as a kid I was so tormented by other kids. In particular, there was this one girl at school who told everybody not to talk to me and I had to deal with that for a few years. When I showed my film at Tribeca there was someone from my school in Israel who saw it in New York and she said she really thought about what we went through when she saw the film, because she also went through some stuff like that with that specific girl. She contacted me on Facebook and we exchanged emotional emails for a while over it, but I did that sequence to explore that feeling of being shut out by other children and not knowing where they're coming from. I mean, those two girls who tell Benny he has no class - come on, they live in a caravan that's actually a lot worse than his house, you know? It was very emotional to do that stuff.

That's the kind of thing that speaks to a lot of audience members, because kids can be really cruel.

Oh my God, they're just....there's this comedian in the US called Louis CK and he always says, "Kids are assholes to each other" and it's so true. [laughs]

Before I go I want to ask you about your next project, which is called I Wuv You.

[Laughs] That name started as a joke and now I'm like, "What is that?" I was writing the proposition for a grant and a friend of mine texted me and wrote, "I wuv you." I had never heard it before and I know it's kind of a cutesy way that kids say "I love you," but it seemed so perfect because in a way the film is about how you were as a kid and how you saw love.

From the description I read it seems you're going to explore that boundary between reality and performance again.

I didn't even do it yet and it's so weird to talk about something you haven't done yet, so hopefully it will happen, but the idea is to externalise the inner dialogue we have with ourselves when we try to make crucial decisions about our love lives. I think so many of us are caught in our heads between what our formative years informed us about love, the fantasy of what we want love to be or what we want ourselves to be in a relationship, and then there's this grownup self we haven't met yet who we're worried about turning out a certain way. We're trying to negotiate between these two people that we're not, you know? So in the film I want to have your young self or old self come into your life and have discussions, either with each other or with you, about your relationship and that will be weaved together with real documentary moments. We'll see how that goes... [laughs]

It sounds like you're still working this one out.

Totally! It's so abstract. I have no idea what's going to happen, it's all just talking, but I'm really into it and I feel it's something I do all the time. I feel that's the best way for me to do things, to just approach things I'm interested in, and I do love the idea of performance in general. I saw the British film The Arbor two weeks ago and it was so good.

There are a lot of exciting films like that coming out now that don't feel restricted by the documentary form.

I know, fuck form. [laughs] it's just so boring! I feel bad for festival programmers sometimes because they have to put it into categories, but they're the only people I can think of who would care. I mean, you're just setting out to do a film. Why would you want to define it?

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