Saturday, September 28, 2013

Blue Jasmine

It has become customary in recent years to greet any successful Woody Allen venture with the description "a return to form," but that seems like a strange way to talk about a filmmaker who scored his biggest commercial success and won an Oscar just two years ago. Nevertheless, Blue Jasmine can be regarded as a return to a different kind of form for Allen, the form of his darker '90s pictures such as Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry. It also marks an interesting shift of focus for the director. Allen's films are often ensemble pieces, from which one or two players might step forward to steal the limelight, and it's hard to recall any comparable film from his body of work that's dominated by a single central performance as this one is.

The problem is that such an approach works to the detriment of the other characters. Too many of Woody Allen's films in the past have attempted to coast by with thinly-sketched characterisations, but the sense of weight that Cate Blanchett brings to Jasmine in this film only throws the flimsiness of the supporting players into even starker relief. While Jasmine is given many layers of emotions and complexities, the characters that surround her are left with only a single note to play throughout the picture. There's a weird disconnect between the attempt to find a sense of Cassavetes-like immediacy in Jasmine's breakdown (at times Blanchett bears an eerie resemblance to Gena Rowlands) and the sheer phoniness of the world she inhabits.

The world, in this case, is a new one for Allen. Blue Jasmine is set in San Francisco, where the title character has arrived from New York after suffering a breakdown. Once a New York socialite, Jasmine has now been left penniless and directionless after the revelation that her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) had been indulging in some financial double-dealing, and she intends to rebuild her life with her adopted younger sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). The template here is clearly A Streetcar Named Desire, with Blanchett's arrival driving a wedge between Ginger and her blue-collar fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale). She does this by barely attempting to conceal her distaste for their working-class lives and by making every situation into more fuel for her own narcissism. She's a monstrous creation, who we first see on a plane telling her whole life story to the unfortunate soul trapped in the seat next to her. She gets to escape as soon as the plane lands, but we're not so lucky.

By the time the film had finished, I knew how that woman felt. Blue Jasmine can be quite an exhausting experience, not just because of the wholehearted effort that Blanchett is putting into every scene, but because the writing and direction is afflicted by so many of the flaws that have plagued Woody Allen's most recent films. His view of both the high social circles Jasmine moved before the fall and the more modest surroundings she finds herself in is simplistic and clichéd, and his storytelling devices hinge on the most hackneyed situations.

The most grating of these instances occurs towards the end of the film when a chance encounter on a street precipitates another drastic change in Jasmine's circumstances, and the kind of baldly expositional dialogue that sounds like nothing any human being would say. It helps, at least, that this dialogue is being delivered by Andrew Dice Clay, with the erstwhile stand-up comedian proving to be an inspired choice to play Ginger's ex-husband Augie. Having been persuaded by Hal to plunge his lottery winnings into a Ponzi-type scheme, Augie burns with an unabated sense of anger, wounded pride and regret at his missed opportunities. Clay gives this archetypal character a sense of humanity that makes him the most empathetic character in the film.

There is some fun to be had in watching Allen's talented ensemble make as much as they can out of the parts they've been given; Michael Stuhlbarg is amusing as a lovestruck doctor with wandering hands and Louis CK turns up briefly as a charming but untrustworthy lothario. But there's also an ongoing sense of frustration in how lazy and flaccid Allen's filmmaking has become. Blue Jasmine may be one of his more competent and sustained efforts in recent years, but a lot of that is down to the engine that Blanchett provides and the simple fact that years of disappointment have encouraged us to lower our expectations. The idea of Allen operating a more acerbic and serious mode might be an appealing one to admirers of his Husbands and Wives, but it only serves to prove how little the director relates to the way real people talk and interact now. It's no coincidence, I think, that Allen's most recent success partly took place in a fantasy world far removed from our own.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Philosophy of John Cassavetes

"I'm lost by life. I don't know anything about life. If I make a movie, I don't even understand why I'm making the movie. I just know that there's something there. Later on, we all get to know what it's about through the opinions of others. If you make a film, it might as well be as important as be nonsense. You can't go for ten cents and expect to come up with a million. You have to go for everything. Whether you fail or don't fail, you have to go for what will make us better when we're finished. I like to work with friends and for friends on something that might help somebody. Something with humour, sadness; simple things.

The artist really is a magical figure whom we would all like to be like and don't have the courage to be, because we don't have the strength to be obsessive. Film is an art, a beautiful art. It's a madness that overcomes all of us. We're in love with it. Money is really not that important to us. We can work thirty-six, forty-eight hours straight and feel elated at the end of that time. I think film is magic! With the tools we have at hand, we really try to convert people's lives! The idea of making a film is to package a lifetime of emotion and ideas into a two-hour capsule form, two hours where some images flash across the screen and in that two hours the hope is that the audience will forget everything and that celluloid will change lives. Now that's insane, that's a preposterously presumptuous assumption, and yet that's the hope."

From Cassavetes on Cassavetes, edited by Ray Carney.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

A Preview of The BFI London Film Festival 2013

Although much of the build-up to this year's BFI London Film Festival was marked by grumblings about the press accreditation fee and the move to the rather uninspiring surroundings of the Cineworld Trocadero, the official launch of the festival this week put the focus back where it should be – on the films themselves. At first glance, the programme assembled by Clare Stewart and her team is the best in years, containing almost all of the big hitters from 2013's various festivals as well as numerous small but intriguing pictures from around the world. Once again, the awkward structure of the festival – divided into sections such as Love, Laugh, Debate and Thrill – can make it difficult to navigate, so I've investigated the LFF programme and highlighted films that I think everyone should consider. With many of the bigger films already scheduled for a UK release in 2013 (some while the festival is still running!) the focus here will largely be on pictures that might not reach British cinemas for a while or – as is often the case – may never screen here again.


While past Gala screenings have often appeared to be selected for star power rather than cinematic value, this year's selection is the most interesting and diverse for some years. The festival is bookended by Tom Hanks films, opening with Captain Phillips (exciting!) and closing with Saving Mr Banks (less exciting!), although I may skip the latter as the trailer shown at the launch seemed to reveal every detail of the film in just a couple of minutes. Films like Gravity, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Nebraska and Philomena are all set for release before the year's end, and while the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis and Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave are enticing, they'll both be released in January 2014. Personally, I'm most excited about Night Moves, the new film from Kelly Reichardt, who I think is one of the best filmmakers currently working in America, and Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best!, which will hopefully regain the spirit and charm of his earliest films. Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake and Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive come highly recommended from Cannes, and I'll be checking out Mystery Road, a thriller from Australian director Ivan Sen, who made a striking debut with Toomelah in 2011. Finally, despite my recommendation that films with imminent release dates should be overlooked, I'll be making an exception for the Archive Gala screening of The Epic of Everest, which will be presented with a live orchestral score from Simon Fisher Turner. The Great White Silence was one of the clear highlights of LFF 2010, and this has the potential to be an equally memorable experience.

Official Competition

The films chosen for the Official Competition are a very eclectic bunch, covering a wide range of tones and genres, and sometimes it's hard to see why certain pictures have been included here at all – the nomination of Parkland sticks out like a sore thumb following the widespread derision that greeted its Venice debut. There are some very interesting offerings here, though. Catherine Breillat returns to reality following her dalliance in the world fairytales with Abuse of Weakness, an autobiographical film starring Isabelle Huppert as a film director recovering from a stroke. Jahmil XT Qubeka's Of Good Report has already made headlines this year, having been banned in South Africa for child pornography, despite the fact that the actress playing a student in the film's central relationship is 23 years old. The film certainly promises to be one of the festivals' toughest viewing experiences (and I'm still recovering from last year's brutal African drama Accession). I'm intrigued by Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, which will hopefully mark a return to form for him after the disappointing The Woman in the Fifth, and I'm keen to see if Xavier Dolan can build on the success of last year's wonderful Laurence Anyways with his new film Tom at the Farm, while Jonathan Glazer's long-awaited Under the Skin has already proved to be one of 2013's most divisive pictures. Two of India's best actors are united in The Lunchbox, with Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui starring in Ritesh Batra's feature debut, and David Mackenzie's Starred Up also boasts a potentially brilliant pairing with Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn sharing the screen.

First Feature Competition

Film festivals are all about making discoveries and there are few thrills greater than stumbling across an extraordinary work from a first-time director. Last year's Sutherland Award winner was Beasts of the Southern Wild, but none of the films in this year's category arrive with a similarly exalted reputation, so with little to go on this is a good place to take a chance on something different. The first two films that caught my eye here are the Nigerian drama B for Boy, which deals with the plight of a woman under severe pressure to have a male heir, and The Long Way Home, a Turkish tale of wartime survival that sounds right up my street. I'm always interested in new Greek cinema so I'll be making time for Michalis Konstantanos's exotically titled Luton, and David Shoval's Youth intrigues with its casting of brothers Eitan and David Cunio as two teenagers who formulate a get-rich-quick scheme after coming into possession of a firearm. Finally, two British filmmakers are also making their debuts with tales of teenage life – Daniel Patrick Carbone with Hide Your Smiling Faces and Rob Brown with Sixteen. I've neglected to mention half of the pictures in this selection, but in truth they all look worthy of your attention.

Documentary Competition

The documentary strand is always one of the LFF's strongest, and this year it presents a tantalising combination of work from widely respected masters of the form and intriguing projects from up-and-coming filmmakers. Last year's Grierson Award winner Alex Gibney is back with The Armstrong Lie, his long-in-gestation profile of Lance Armstrong, and any work from Gibney – one of the most consistently excellent directors around – is surely worth seeing. Another documentary great appearing at the festival is Frederick Wiseman, who has taken his unintrusive but keenly observant camera to Berkeley for the four-hour At Berkeley, which is a must-see at the festival as its length and subject matter makes it an unlikely candidate for a UK cinema release. Other directors inviting us to explore places we never usually get to see include Nicolas Philibert, whose La Maison de la Radio goes behind the scenes at Radio France, and Mark Cousins, who continues to shine a light into unexplored corners of the cinematic map with Here Be Dragons. Greg Barker's Manhunt – a documentary about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden – sounds fascinating, and the footage shown from Vitaly Mansky's Pipeline at the LFF launch piqued my curiosity.


This is where things start to get a bit more vague, with the category heading Love actually making it harder to search for films in the programme – a sin compounded by the fact that they have inexplicably folded the Treasures strand into each individual category in the published programme. There are a number of films here that stand out here, however. Of course, Asghar Farhadi's The Past is a must-see given the astounding quality of his work to date, and my interest in the work of Romanian filmmakers ensures I'll be taking a look at Child's Pose, the winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin ahead of fellow contender Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, which also appears here. There are two films here about dealing with the complicated theme of children experiencing a sense of inferiority about their natural appearance – Mariana Rondón's Bad Hair and Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry – while Tomasz Wasilewski describes his Floating Skyscrapers as "Poland's first LGBT film." Filmmakers returning to the LFF include Brillante Mendoza, whose Thy Womb is described as almost dialogue-free, and Katell Quillévéré with Suzanne, while former LFF regular Rituparno Ghosh is included posthumously in the programme with his lkast completed film Jeevan Smitri, a tribute to the great poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore. Those looking for a documentary portrait in this category have some interesting fare to choose from - Bertolucci on Bertolucci and The Sarnos – a Life in Dirty Movies catch the eye – while anyone interested in a more epic experience might be tempted by Philip Gröning's three-hour, 59-chapter domestic abuse drama The Police Officer's Wife.


The two films that immediately demand our attention in this category come from filmmakers who have broken the law in order to make them. Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof are both still subject to a 20-year filmmaking ban imposed by the Iranian government, but both have created new work here with Panahi's Closed Curtain and Rasoulof's Manuscripts Don't Burn. Sometimes the very existence of a film is a vital statement. Andrzej Wajda completes the trilogy begun with Man of Marble and Man of Iron with his new film Wałęsa. Man of Hope, and Claude Lanzmann's The Last of the Unjust centres on an interview the director filmed with Benjamin Murmelstein, unused in his monumental documentary Shoah. Bruce Goodison's Leave to Remain is a drama that has been made in collaboration with young asylum seekers in the UK, and Neus Ballús has similarly hired non-actors to play characters inspired by their own lives in his debut feature The Plague. I'm also drawn to the Polish film Papusza, a film about the Roma poet Bronisława Wajs that was five years in the making, Tatsushi Omori's latest film The Ravine of Goodbye, and the Brazilian coming-of-age tale They'll Come Back.


Although I have blown hot and cold on Jia Zhangke’s films in the past, I've been curious about A Touch of Sin since it became one of the most highly regarded films at the Cannes Film Festival. Another director who I've had issues with in the past is Bruno Dumont, but having found his last film Hors Satan to be one of his most satisfying I'll be taking a look at Camille Claudel 1915, which stars Juliette Binoche. I don't think I can resist One Day When the Rain Falls when it is described in the programme as "probably the outstanding Indonesian drama/horror movie/comedy of the year," and I've made a note of Albert Serra's Story of My Death, having heard positive word on it from recent festivals. I loved Joanna Hogg's Unrelated and Archipelago so I'm eagerly anticipating her third feature Exhibition, and I'm intrigued by A Long and Happy Life, which is described by director Boris Khlebnikov as a Russian reworking of the classic Western High Noon. But the film I'm most excited about here is Norte, The End of History by Lav Diaz. Chances to see Diaz's films in the UK have been few and far between – which is perhaps unsurprising, as they can sometimes be as long as 11 hours – but Norte's relatively skimpy running time of a shade over four hours should make it more approachable, and no festival is complete without a good epic or two.


Comedies are always a risky proposition at film festivals. Few things suffer more in translation than humour, and what might have them rolling in the aisles in Asia or the Middle East often receives a bewildered reception from UK audiences. A good comedy can be a wonderful tonic amid the often grim festival fare, however, so I'm hoping to find some pick-me-ups here. One clip that stood out in the LFF launch reel was Gone Too Far! which got a big laugh from the audience at the Odeon Leicester Square, and I'm hopeful that the rest of the film can live up to that moment. Yuya Ishii has become a firm LFF favourite in recent years with Sawako Decides and Mitsuko Delivers, and his new film Great Passage is centred on the 14-year compilation of a dictionary, while Hong Sangsoo inevitably has a new film in the programme, his latest comedy of manners Our Sunhi (one of his two films in the programme). The Dutch film Borgman is described as a comedic twist on the home invasion thriller, which certainly sounds interesting, and A Street in Palermo sounds like an Italian take on the old Galton & Simpson sketch Impasse. The film I'm most looking forward to here is Enough Said, the new picture from Nicole Holofcener. I've long thought that Holofcener is one of the best and most undervalued comic filmmakers working in American cinema, and her latest film has the added attraction of offering a lead role to the late, great James Gandolfini.


A number of the films in the LFF's Thrill section take a minimalist approach to storytelling. Rick Rosenthal's Drones is populated by just a handful of characters, remotely operating drone strikes in Afghanistan from the Nevada Desert, while Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have placed their seven-man crew on a raft in the ocean, as they recreate Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 voyage in Kon-Tiki. JC Chandor sees that effort and raises the stakes; his film All Is Lost has Robert Redford entirely alone on a yacht in the middle of the Indian ocean, fighting for survival when his craft is damaged. Some films take a minimalist approach to titles: 11.6 represents the €11.6m stolen by Tony Musulin in 2009, while 1 is a documentary about the changing shape of Formula 1 racing over the course of six decades. That's one of two F1-related films in this section, with Weekend of a Champion recalling the time Roman Polanski spent with Jackie Stewart in 1971. Amat Escalante's Heli won the best director prize at this year's Cannes, while the Korean thriller New World marks Park Hoonjung's directorial debut and Durban Poison marks Andrew Worsdale's return to the director's chair after an absence of three decades. Finally, Yorgos Tsemberopoulos's revenge thriller The Enemy Within looks like it could be yet another fascinating film from the burgeoning Greek cinema.


"It's Speed but...on a piano!" Yes, Grand Piano is a film about a concert pianist (Elijah Wood) whose wife and children will be killed if he hits a wrong note, and it's just one of a number of genre films to be included in this year's commendably barmy Cult strand. Maverick directors abound, with Sion Sono's wonderfully titled Why Don't You Play in Hell? being described as "a fresh take on the Yakuza film and an affectionate tribute to the death of celluloid" and Ari Folman's The Congress – starring Robin Wright as herself – is certainly an unexpected departure from the director of the acclaimed Waltz With Bashir. Amer directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani bring The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears (another great title!) to the festival, and I like the sound of Juno Mak's supernatural debut Rigor Mortis, while Adam Wimpenny's Blackwood featured some of the most striking imagery to be screened at the LFF programme launch. One of the most interesting films in this category might be Frank Pavich's exploration of a movie that sadly doesn't exist, with Jodorowsky’s Dune telling the story of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's Dune, but pretty much everything in this incredibly eclectic selection looks like it has the capacity to surprise, shock and entertain (although I remain wary of Terry Gilliam films).


The lack of specificity in this heading (are these emotional journeys, physical journeys, or both?) again means that this strand contains a very eclectic collection of films, few of which come into the festival with any kind of reputation to go on. Steven Knight's Locke is yet another minimalist film, with the Tom Hardy-starring drama never leaving the interior of Hardy's car, but if you're looking for something a little more expansive you might want to try Gare du Nord, an ensemble drama telling multiple stories around the Parisian station. The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas is a Greek satire on the country's current financial crisis which stars Christos Stergioglou (so memorable in Dogtooth), while Lifelong is the new film from Men on the Bridge director Asli Özge and the Indian black comedy Sniffer stars the increasingly impressive Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a drunken private detective. After a very strong slate of Irish films in last year's festival, there is only one film from Ireland in the LFF this year, but Eliza Lynch: Queen of Paraguay sounds like a fascinating little-known story. The great African director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun returns to the LFF with Grigris, and Flora Lau's debut film Bends may be worth catching for the cinematography by Christopher Doyle.


The best films in the Sonic section this year all appear to be documentaries that have found intriguing and unexpected subjects to explore. For example, we have seen many films about The Beatles, but Ryan White's Good Ol' Freda looks at the band's devoted secretary Freda Kelly, and Morgan Neville's Twenty Feet From Stardom takes us into the world of backing singers. Broadway Idiot is a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges involved in turning Green Day's American Idiot into a Broadway musical and Philippe Béziat’s Becoming Traviata provides us with a similar access-all-areas pass to a 2011 production of Verdi's La Traviata. I'm also looking forward to Paul Kelly's How We Used to Live, a documentary portrait of the changing face of British life.


There isn't much here that really catches my eye, although Bernd Sahling's attempt to deal with the issue of ADHD in his new film UpsideDown should be an interesting break from the fantasy films that usually populate this strand. Side by Side and The Kids From the Port also look worthwhile, and I couldn't resist a chuckle when I read the synopsis for Antboy, in which a 12 year-old becomes a superhero after being bitten by, yes, a genetically modified ant. Those genetically modified creatures are a bloody menace.


This is a section that I very rarely explore, but if I do find time to dip a toe in the experimental waters I'll probably check out Anthology Film Archives presents: Artist Film Restorations from the USA, which looks like it will have some very interesting content. Cinema Re-acted catches my eye mostly for Antoni Pinent's G/R/E/A/S/E (even though I still haven't seen the original Grease), and as a lover of long film experiences I'm tempted by Boris Lehman's 404-minute My Conversations on Film, although the idea of spending almost seven hours in the BFI Studio inevitably makes me pause.


The Treasures archive is always, without fail, the most exciting category in the London Film Festival for me. Clyde Jevons and his team are the LFF's true unsung heroes, and they have again excelled with a selection of both restored old favourites and films that I have never heard of before but am immediately excited by. From the old favourites category there's The Lady From Shanghai, with a new 4K restoration receiving its world premiere at the LFF, Nick Ray's The Lusty Men, Cocteau's cinematic dream La Belle et la bête and Thorold Dickinson’s Gaslight – all of these films are unreservedly recommended if you haven't seen them before. But I'm most excited about the films that I didn't know existed before opening the LFF programme. Arthur Ripley’s The Chase has been described as an imaginative rewriting of the film noir rules, while two more traditional gangster pictures can be seen in the James Cagney-starring double-bill The Doorway to Hell + Picture Snatcher. I'm a big fan of Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma and Jubal, so I'm keen to see Cowboy, the other Western he directed around the same time, and Arne Skouen's Nine Lives sounds like a fascinating survival tale. The latest restoration from Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation is Uday Shankar’s dance film Kalpana, and there are two intriguing offerings from Germany - Leo Mittler's silent melodrama Harbour Drift and the Nazi-era musical remake of It Happened One Night (seriously!), Paul Martin's Glückskinder. I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of this strand – there are also restorations of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop and Luchino Visconti's Sandra (Oh, 27 year-old Claudia Cardinale. Be still my beating heart...) and I didn't even know that Joan Fontaine starred in a Hammer production called The Witches! The London Film Festival may be home to some of the most exciting films from around the world, but in the rush to see something new, don't overlook the fact that restorations of forgotten classics can feel as thrillingly new as anything made in 2013.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 9th to 20th at venues across London.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

"I wanted to make a film that was less about the story than the texture, the tone, the feeling, the sense of montage, the rhythm." - An Interview with David Lowery

In David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, an escaped convict, played by Casey Affleck travels across Texas to be reunited with his wife (Rooney Mara) and young daughter, but in his absence another man (Ben Foster) has attempted to fill the void. It's a very straightforward and classical narrative and there's something satisfying old-fashioned about David Lowery's approach to telling this tale. This slow-burning romantic tragedy is heavily indebted to the cinema of the 1970s, with the gorgeous cinematography, imaginative score and elliptical editing ensuring that it looks, sounds and feels like nothing else in cinemas right now. Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a strikingly confident piece of filmmaking, and the kind of film that lingers in the memory long after the closing credits have rolled. I met David Lowery when he was in London recently to discuss it.

Looking at your IMDb page, you've got credits in almost every possible department of filmmaking.

I know. It's sad but true. [laughs]

Even though you're looked at as a young director starting out on his career, you've already amassed a lot of experience in a relatively short space of time.

It feels like it wasn't a short space of time, but that's because I started working on movies as soon as I graduated from high school, doing whatever I could. I didn't go to film school so my method of learning was to work on as many films as possible and wear as many different hats as possible. IMDb started around the same time, so all of a sudden I started getting all these credits. I look at them now and there's a million of them I'd like to take off, but they're all there for posterity.

It's reminiscent of the old-school, Roger Corman way of working, to serve your apprenticeship and learn your trade on as many low-budget films as possible before stepping up.

Exactly, it's completely like an apprenticeship. The difference is that technology is now so much easier to use, so instead of just focusing on learning how to use the camera you can bounce from one thing to another, and on one film you can end up doing lots of different things.

After you made your feature debut with St. Nick, what were the key lessons you took from the experience that you could apply to Ain't Them Bodies Saints?

The main lesson was just to listen to my gut instinct. If something felt wrong it was probably wrong, and that was a film that was made entirely on that basis. The script was 30 pages long and it was really a chance to explore a complete story and a cinematic story without using a script as a guideline, just to start each day and see what felt right. I had to keep the entire movie as a whole in my head at all times, to see what each scene might do to the one being shot immediately afterwards, and to not have a script to fall back on. It worked out, the movie was a success, and even though Ain't Them Bodies Saints was scripted I wanted to approach it in the same way. Because it's bigger it's harder, you know, you don't have as much freedom when you have a bigger budget, so we didn't get to do it as much on this film, but it proved again that listening to my instinct is always best. The times where I didn't listen to it are the times when I look at the film now and see mistakes, and the times when I did listen to it are where I feel the film succeeds the most.

I haven't seen St. Nick in its entirety but I've seen clips of it online, and it seems to be a film that's very heavy on visual storytelling and very light on dialogue. Is that an approach you're particularly drawn to?

Absolutely. I love dialogue and I love listening to people talk at great length, but I also love silence. I love the space between sentences, when people might have just had a conversation and then they have that quiet moment when they don't have anything to say, those are the moments that I love. St. Nick probably has 5 or 10 lines of dialogue in the entire running time; we shot more dialogue, but in the editing process it all just fell away, and the silent scenes were the ones that spoke loudest. With Ain't Them Bodies Saints there is more of a story, more of a plot and more dialogue, but I still wanted to honour that, the silence I had grown to love so much. I wanted the space between what people were saying to be something that we were paying attention to.

I guess the fact that you have a very simple core narrative gives you a solid foundation and allows you to experiment in that fashion.

That's exactly right. I didn't want to tell a story that was going to reinvent the wheel. I wanted to tell a very simple, time-honoured story that is predictable, because I don't think being predictable is a bad thing. I think if it's the right kind of film then having a very simple and direct narrative is a boon to the filmmaker, because you're actually able to focus on other things. I wanted to make a film that was less about the story than the texture, the tone, the feeling, the sense of montage, the rhythm – all those things took precedence to me over the story. By choosing a story that is so traditional I felt we had a good leg to stand on and we were able to dive into all of that ephemera in a more effective way.

It's the kind of story where the characters have an inescapable fate.

Yeah, there's an inevitability to it, and that's great. You know how the movie's going to end. You might not know exactly what's going to happen, but you're pretty sure it can only end one way, and that frees you up from expecting plot twists and such. As a viewer I always appreciate that.

Given your background in editing, do you find you're editing the film in your head as you shoot, or do you figure out how to put it all together later?

It was definitely a case that I was editing it while I was writing it, and then when we were on set I was editing it in my head while we were shooting, absolutely. On the schedule that we were on, I kept having to cut shots out and change things, so knowing how it might fit together was incredibly helpful in finishing the movie on time. But once we got to the editing room it still went in a different direction. We took a roundabout way of cutting it where I threw the script away and started working intuitively, so the film went through this process of becoming something completely different before gradually returning to where we started. The finished film is very similar to the script, but we tried out all sorts of things on the way there.

As an editor yourself, what was it like working with Craig McKay and Jane Rizzo on this film and communicating your ideas to them?

I worked with Jane first, because she had cut a few of my friends' films – Compliance and Great World of Sound – and she had also worked with Robert Altman, and I just wanted to hear some stories about that! [laughs] Craig McKay came on later when I just wanted new eyes on the movie. There's no denying that it was difficult because editing is one of those things that I know how to do, and it's just easier for me to actually grab the controls and do something myself than it is to tell someone what to do. So what ended up happening was that I just left the editing room because it was very difficult for me to be in there while editing was being done. I would go off and work on my own and we would work on different parts of the movie, and then I'd come back and we'd compare ideas and see whose ideas felt the best. It definitely was a challenge for me to let go and have someone else working on it, but as an editor myself I've always loved the idea that I could contribute something to a director's vision and I wanted to experience that as a director, so it was important for me to work with people for the first time.

It's quite rare to see directors who also edit for other directors, but I imagine it would be something that a lot of filmmakers could benefit from, to see how other directors work. Have you found it an instructive experience?

I think it takes a certain mindset to be an editor and luckily I have that, and I've worked with plenty of directors who have no interest in touching that software at all. But yeah, I've learned so much from working with other directors and have expanded my own ideas about how to make movies. Seeing other people make mistakes is certainly helpful, although by the time I got to the set I forgot all of that because it's such a fast-paced environment. [laughs] But hopefully you digest all of those things and subconsciously think about the bad takes you've seen, think about why they're bad, and hopefully they're buried in your head somewhere to help you when you need to make a gut instinct choice. It has definitely been enormously instrumental in how I approach being a director.

One of the key dramatic choices you make it to not show key events, with things like the robbery or the prison break happening off screen. Was this always your intention?

That was always the intention, none of those things are in the script. In fact, the first draft of the script didn't even have that shootout.

And then you thought, we've got to have some action...

We need to have something, we need an inciting incident. It can't be all ellipses. [laughs] You know, I did try writing a prison escape scene in the very first draft of the script, and it really just felt like we'd seen it before. Any attempt of mine to do an exciting prison escape scene is only going to pale in the shadow of the great ones we've seen.

It's very hard to think of an original way to break out of prison now.

Exactly, and if it was original it would stand out and detract from everything else I was doing, so I thought I'd just move on, get past it, and assume that he has made it out somehow.

Another interesting choice was the three killers whose motivation is unclear, which suggest the weight of a backstory without it ever being discussed.

I always like the idea of characters talking to each other in a way that suggests they've known each other their whole lives. When you do know someone you're not going to talk about where you came from and how you first met, and all those things. So when those guys walk into the shop, Keith Carradine gives them a look, and you get the sense that he knows what they're up to and what they're there for, and there are little hints in the dialogue of where they came from and who hired them. But more than that, those characters are symbols, and when you see three guys who look like that you know they're up to know good and that's kind of all you need to know.

I think having an actor like Keith Carradine helps in that regard, because he brings a real presence and sense of history when you consider his own film career.

There's no denying that, in addition to being a magnificent actor in his own right, when you can utilise a performer's history it can do wonders for the movie. He is bringing all of the wonderful baggage that he has accumulated over his career with him, and in some movies that might hurt the movie, but in this case, with a character like this, it does a lot of the work for you.

On the subject of the cast, the performance that really stood out for me was Ben Foster. It's a much more subdued performance and a different kind of energy than I've come to expect from him. How did that casting choice come about?

He read the script and really liked it and wanted to meet, so we sat down and talked. At that point I was already pretty set on Casey playing Bob, he had said he'd wanted to do it and I was happy that he was the right guy, but when I met with Ben he was such a gentleman. He always plays these very wired, intense and often evil characters – and he does have an intensity to him, there's no denying that – but he's also very old-fashioned in his courteousness and how gentlemanly he was, and I immediately thought that would be a wonderful thing to see on screen. I'd never seen him do that, and I love the idea of taking a character who on the page was just a nice guy and lending him that intensity to enrich the character. Luckily he said yes, and he transformed himself so thoroughly for the film that when I saw him after we'd wrapped, and he'd shaved that moustache off and stopped talking with his accent, I was shocked! He went to Midland, Texas and lived with some sheriffs for a few weeks, and he understood that world so thoroughly and brought so much to it, and I think that character is the one true, sincere character. He's not putting on a front, he's not putting on a show, he's just direct, and he is also my voice coming through, the closest embodiment of me as a person.

This is the first time you've directed actors of this calibre and experience. How did you find that process?

Each actor was different in what they wanted, so I had to very quickly pick up on how to work with each one. There wasn't a sense of hierarchy, there wasn't a sense of them saying, "Well, this is how I've done it in the past" or "this is how I like to work with other directors." It was more a case of everybody being in this process of making the movie together and wanting what was best for it, so I never had to deal with the ego or expectation or any of the things you might expect from quote-unquote "movie stars." But they did each have their own preferred method of working; for example, Ben liked to get together and really talk about the character and know every detail in advance, versus someone like Casey who shows up knowing his lines and his character, but who liked to do different things from take to take, to shake it up. Rooney comes knowing exactly what to do but it you want to change something you can just throw it at her and she'll respond. So they all have different methods of working and my learning curve was just figuring out how to work with all three simultaneously.

I've only got time for one more question and I'd like to ask you something about Upstream Colour, which is opening in the UK this week. How did you get involved in that project and what was the experience like?

Shane [Carruth] is from Dallas, which is where I live as well, and we had a mutual friend who is a producer on that movie. I met Shane as a friend and he shared the script with me, and I introduced him to Amy Seimetz because I had worked quite a bit with her in the past, and at a certain point I think the shoot became so intense he just couldn't edit it himself. He was always planning to edit at night.

He's very much a one-man band.

Oh yeah, if he could play every part in the movie I think he would. It was just taking so long to get the movie made and it was such an intense shoot he needed someone else to start putting it together. I was nervous about doing that at first because I knew he had such a clear idea of what he wanted and it was so demanding, I was afraid that I would instantly disappoint him. I didn't want to jeapordise our friendship, so I just told him, "The moment I start making you unhappy, tell me and I'll stop. I'm happy to walk away, I don't want this to get in the way of us knowing each other." So I said I'd do it – the footage was so good I couldn't resist working on it – even though I was about to start shooting Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and luckily he liked what I was doing and didn't tell me to stop. In a very organic and natural way I picked up on the wavelength he was working on, and the movie came together very, very quickly, as complex as it appears. It was a very organic process and it was also one of the most satisfying creative collaborations I've ever had, and as an editor it was definitely the most fun I've ever had.