Tuesday, May 07, 2019

"I appreciate when a movie is giving me a visceral experience and I'm not really into passive entertainment." - An Interview with Josephine Decker

An artist never knows when inspiration is going to strike, or what form it will take. Josephine Decker wasn't actively looking for the star of her next film when she agreed to be one of the judges at a teen arts festival in early 2014, but there she was in the shape of a 15 year-old named Helena Howard, whose powerful rendition of a monologue from David Harrower's play Blackbird moved Decker to tears. When she had recovered from the impact of this performance, Decker sought out Howard backstage, driven by an overwhelming and unignorable impulse – she simply had to work with this girl. Four years after that serendipitous meeting, Decker premiered Madeline's Madeline, a sensational film about life and art, inspiration and exploitation, and a film that announces the arrival of an extraordinary new talent in Helena Howard. Ahead of the film's UK release on May 10th, I discussed it with Josephine Decker.

I know you've told the story about meeting Helena Howard many times so I won't ask you to repeat that, but I'm just curious about how you knew at the time that you could build a film around this teenage girl. Displaying talent in a context like that is a very different thing to giving a performance that can carry a feature film.

I think a lot of building a film around someone is mostly just wanting to build a film around someone. It's just a willingness and knowing that this person is someone you're eager to dive into and get to know personally. I never even hesitated. It was so clear to me that she could do anything as an actor and that she was just a great human being as well, and when something strikes you so hard I just try to follow it all the way. It's weird to have that strong of a feeling so when I do I try to listen to it. You know, sometimes actors do things and you don't understand why you're so gripped, and I always feel that those are the best kind of actors to work with. Sometimes you think that a person is such a great actor because they can do all these impressive things, but it's not as great as when you just face someone and you think, “I don't know why I can't stop watching you, but I just can't.” This is probably the strongest example of that, you know, building a film with a real person and building it from improvisation. The other films I was writing on my own inspired by a person, but this time we really spent ages together figuring out Madeline's Madeline, and she was part of our process with these ten amazing New York actors. It made the film much more special to have that deep participation.

I'm interested in that process of building a film through workshops and improvisations. How do you approach something like that, and what kind of guidelines and parameters do you put in place for the actors to work within?

I ended up bringing on this director, Quinn Bauriedel. He works with improvisation all the time in his theatre company Pig Iron - they write their scripts through improvisation - and I was very concerned that I wouldn't know how to do that, you know, how do you build a world and make it believable and work with actors? And how do you make it loose enough that you find exciting things but tight enough that you have somewhere to go? He was great because we could flesh out what we were going to do in the rehearsal together. Sometimes we would co-meet them and sometimes I would meet them alone, and - while I was always in the room - he led some of the early ones because I just wanted to see how he works and learn from him. I think the most effective days were the ones where we made the strongest path for ourselves. Usually we'd do a warm-up in the morning and the warm-up ideally was touching on things we're going to be developing that day, so one day we were working through anxiety and depression and we did a kind of scale of anxiety. Five people stand at the front of the room, one was just totally neutral and one was barely more anxious, and each is more anxious than the previous person so we kind of built a scale with all the levels of anxiety, and then we'd crescendo that into a really disastrous place. So we'd have that kind of warm-up or exercise in the first half of the day, and then we'd talk about the material we were interested in developing. In the afternoon, Quinn and I would give a prompt for the actors; for example, we were rehearsing in this house that had been donated to us and we said that if the bottom floor is anxiety and the top is depression, each of you is a host on a floor and you're taking us to a party on the top floor in depression. I think that was one of our best prompts because it used the space really well and it gave everyone a really clear thing to do, but what that party was and how we were getting there they had to really map out. That was one of our strongest days. There were definitely lots of loosey-goosey days when I was like, "Oh my God, what are we making?" but the successful days were when I think we had a strong plan, and a lot of the time developing that kind of a plan just takes a lot of beating around in the dark. We had a lot of improvisation with the actors and a lot of check-ins to figure out where people were at; check-ins meant that everyone just shares what's going on with them, so it was like a sacred sharing space. Yeah, it was very process-oriented and I think when you're making something and you let it be process-oriented, it's usually much stronger material that emerges.

And how long did it take for something resembling a film to take shape through this process? I imagine there's an awful lot of trial-and-error before you really start to see a clear narrative and structure emerging.

We rehearsed one weekend a month for about six months, and then I think I realised that I had so much material I needed to start honing on a trajectory; a beginning, middle and end for the larger piece, not just the improvisation. We took a break and I went away for about eight months, and then I started sharing script drafts, you know, getting the actors together and reading the script, and then we only got a couple more rehearsals in before the shoot to reground that material. I think if I'd had a writer who wasn't me in the room we probably would have done little more shaping in the room, but I was also just interested in different levels of energy and how we could use our personal experiences and transform them. It was not always very structured so I think it did need me stepping back and going away to find the film.

I guess the closest point of comparison is someone like Mike Leigh. He has obviously long established himself in a way that allows him to say "I'm going to make a film. I can't tell you what it's about, but please support me," but how does someone at start of their career convince people to go on this journey with them?

I got the space donated and a lot of the early rehearsals I was funding on my own. Most of the actors donated their time to be on the project since it wasn't a huge time commitment, it was just a weekend a month. You know, I had so relied on free labour honestly for all my films, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely wouldn't have been made if I was paying everyone. I was working with a lot of people who could work for free and I think what really changed my perspective when I was working on Madeline's Madeline was a clear directive for myself that I wanted the room to be very diverse, and I started to realise that if you want diversity in a room you have to you have to be paying people, because there are some people who can afford to donate their time and some people who can't, and that's also historical. So we started out in this more loosey-goosey "yeah, it's just going to be like this" way, and then we eventually stopped rehearsals because I realised I needed to be paying people for their time and also to be very clear about how I'm using it, so that's when I decide to go and write for a while and figure out some of the stuff that we had. I mean, as much as I could pay people I did, but it wasn't like some production company gave me $100,000 to develop the movie. I probably just spent like $10-15,000 of my own money trying to get through rehearsals and turn the script into something, and then we raised money for the film once there was a script.

You're making this film through a collaborative process and the film that has emerged from it works as a critique of that kind of collaborative process. Was that an idea you already had your head or was that something that developed as you were working in this way?

I've been interested in how the artistic process can be a bit brutal and how there's a thing that you're trying to address that may be impossible to address through your art. I think what I didn't expect, and what emerged through the rehearsals, was just that the process of making the art in itself could reveal lots of things about the larger politics of the world in a weird way. Being part of that rehearsal process, I was very fortunate to work with incredible actors who were really willing to be honest with me and share both their own experiences and also how they felt we could improve the process, and you know, it's never really conversation that we're having as artists, but how do you stay responsible to the people you build work with and how are you portraying their story? What are the ethics of improvising, even? When you're improvising you're forced to use what's inside your own head and that's to some degree personal, so when does that become exploitative? All of those things were things that we were just encountering as we did this process, so I started to think that this is something that in a way has been part of my whole artistic life since my early twenties, working on documentaries or acting in other people's movies. There are just these subtle ways in which we maybe even accidentally manipulate each other, or sometimes not so accidentally, but never really talking about it. Eventually I thought that I've learnt so much from this process it would be a shame not to be putting that learning into the film.

I made something as part of a collection of short films called Collective Unconscious, and I made a project where the audio is all from formerly incarcerated men who had been interviewed through this group called the Centre for Employment Opportunities. I think also in that process I was learning about things like how do you shape someone's story that's very different from your own? How do you allow yourself to have freedom and play in the way that good art is obviously made? How do you allow the audience to know who you the filmmaker are in relation to your art? How do you not hide behind someone else? You can't just say "I'm just filming a story" because I think when you point a camera at something you affect it and you affect the way the audience views it, so I started to learn in that process that it's really important that the audience understands - especially with stories that are not that close to my own - the lens on the relationship between the filmmaker on the art itself, to have the clarity on who the filmmaker is. Not to be self-aggrandizing, it's more about having transparency about how a story is being approached.  I think that was feeding into the whole idea that if I want to be clear about who the artist is in relation to the work, in this case that kind of became the story. How is Madeline relating to Evangeline? How is Evangeline relating to Madeline? And what is the lens through which they're seeing each other?

So Evangeline represents a kind of worst-case scenario version of you.

Yeah, completely. If I never listened to anyone and didn't pick up any clues along the way, then maybe what I'm doing is a little off and that would have been me.

I get the impression that for you the writing, the shooting and the editing are very distinct periods of exploration and discovery. I wonder how do you transition from one part of process to the next and manage to have a fresh perspective on the work you've already done. For example, when you're editing, can you detach yourself and look at this material you've been so intimately involved in creating in a new way?

I love editing, and often that's where I find the movie, I think maybe to a fault. With Madeline's Madeline I was like, "Cool, the script is kind of there, we're gonna find it in editing," and then we got into editing and I was like, "Oh fuck." I gave myself a hall of mirrors to deal with, and then I was really grateful to have this editor I've worked with a few times, his name is David Barker. He really helped a lot with shaping Madeline's Madeline into something that was actually a digestible experience for anyone but me. On moving from one space to another... for me writing is really one of the hardest parts, partly because it's the most solo, and I think that's why I wanted to engage people so much in the writing process for this movie. I think better in relation than I do just on my own in my own little bubble, and I always find that for me the thing that charges writing is working with other people, so this process on Madeline's Madeline gave me enough of a running start so I could try to write. The writing was really complicated because we had made so much amazing material and so much of that isn't in the film, and it really could have gone in a million directions; at one point it was a kind of Alice in Wonderland movie where she's wondering through these different weird worlds. I think the collaborative part, so being on set - and in this case rehearsing with the actors and finding the film together in that way - those are always the most inspiring parts for me, and the torturous parts are when I'm alone trying to figure it out. The control is always nice, and sometimes it is really important that you get this time alone to be like, "What am I really trying to say? What do I want to make? How do I do that in the strongest way?" Part of that for me in this process was also, "How do I make sure I'm not wasting everyone's time?" To your question about the different parts of the process, for me the mix between them is very gooey. I think writing happens so much with the actors, and I love getting into scenes and I'm really open to rewriting on the spot when we're shooting because then it feels alive and right. We definitely did a bit of that when we were together on set, important moments when someone said "This just doesn't feel right" and we would try to go in different directions. I always think that ultimately you're making a movie which is a collection of images and sounds, so the main goal for me is always to collect a lot of images and sounds and then the movie will sort of show its face, hopefully.

In that long editing process was there a breakthrough moment or a particular problem that you solved that then allowed you to think, "OK, here is the film we're making"?

Well, we had two great editing consultants. We had Marie-Hélène Dozo - she works a lot with the Dardenne brothers - and then David who has helped me on a lot of my films, and they were so different but also so amazing. I remember at one point we had her encounter with the homeless guy on the street quite early in the film, and Marie was like [stern French accent] "This does not feel right. I don't know what is right but that is not the right place for it. I do not know what is better. That's all!" And I was like, "Oh god!" But it's great to have someone just tell you to figure it out, and Marie was right that this was just at the wrong place in the movie. I think the thing that really clicked in with David was figuring out when the movie starts to eat itself, and he did a really good job with helping me set up all the different threads so when the troupe starts to re-enact Madeline's life you can really feel it as a big betrayal in the film and a big boundary that has been crossed. When we restructured the first third of the film I think people start to get the movie, and I don't think they'd really gotten it before that because it was a pretty abstract and elliptical thing. I had eased into it a bit and he was really good at finding that sometimes you need a sharp edge around something for it to stand out and really hit, so I was grateful for that.

I think we can definitely feel those sharp edges, and I think all of your films seem to be on this kind of knife edge between contrasting tones or moods, between reality and fantasy, tenderness and violence, humour and darkness. As a viewer, we have no idea which way each scene is going to go and I was wondering how you find and sustain that kind of balance.

Oh wow. Yeah. OK wait - how do you find the edge between...you said reality and fantasy, violence and…?

I think there are lots of moments where there is comedy and the potential for violence sitting side-by-side. For instance, I'm thinking of the scene where the mother comes home and finds them watching porn in the basement, and it's very funny comic situation, but then it very quickly shifts into the shocking moment where Madeline attacks her. I feel like the whole movie is on that kind of that knife edge or tightrope.

Oh well, that's great! [Laughs] I'm really glad to hear that. Great question. Um...how do I do that?

Maybe asking how you do that isn't actually a very good question. I'm just interested in the way you navigate that space, which is a very unnerving place for an audience member to be. You don't really allow us any comfort zone.

Yeah, maybe that's one of the flaws of my work is that nobody can be comfortable when they watch it. I love that, though. I appreciate when a movie is giving me a visceral experience and I'm not really into a passive entertainment. I really don't like to go to the movies when I'm just going to watch people do things and I know what's going to happen, and then it happens and it's maybe mildly interesting. Suspense can be formed in so many different ways but suspense to me is the essence of durational storytelling, you're telling a story over time and you want people to be engaged. I think great comedy creates really interesting suspense too, I don't think it only has to be super intense, although I always end up veering towards intensity. A lot of that is just trying not to let a feeling land until it's the right feeling, so my editor I talked a lot about not having beginnings or endings on scenes, and how we could push the energy of a scene into the next scene, so there's always a kind of question at the end of a scene that has to be answered in next one. If you have this rising series of questions then ideally the answer is going to be something you didn't expect, which creates a new question that launches you into the next section of the film.

I'm trying to write in a way that is human and humans are so predictably unpredictable, I think that's great character storytelling. That's why people were obsessed with Breaking Bad, that TV show. I watched one episode and I ended up watching like seven in a row, I was up until seven in the morning watching this show, and I was like, "This show is crack. This show is the methamphetamine that it's commenting on." But I thought that what Breaking Bad did so well is that the characters were always so deeply themselves, and therefore unpredictable. I think when you really dig into characters there's a real pleasure in the choices that they're going to make and the rebellions that they're going to have, so I tried to follow that, but I'm definitely not about predictability. In terms of the knife-edge, maybe it's that I'm very hard on myself when I'm editing and I never want the film to feel settled or boring. I'm very afraid of being boring - which is maybe another problem that my producers probably have! - but to some degree it forces me to make more unusual choices and I'm constantly restructuring. I mean, we restructured Madeline's Madeline from top to bottom, I don't know if any of the scenes are in the original order. Actually, ironically the very first scene and the very last scene are as written in the script, it's kind of shocking that it turned out that way, but all the middle is completely rearranged. A lot of that is kind of just trying to find the path towards the most increasing tension, the most unexpected choices and creating different situations that demand something new. I just know that my editing process is very harrowing and I feel like dying every time I'm editing, so maybe that's what I mean by the knife edge. I'm holding a knife to my own throat while editing!

I wanted to ask you about the casting of Miranda July, because I think she's a great choice and an unexpected choice, and she's someone who doesn't do a lot of films because she has her own projects that she's working on. The second time I watched the film I was particularly drawn to her character. She's really the most sympathetic and moving character in the film, and she gives the least showy performance.

She's a wonderful genius, and she just came to me in a flash. I was meditating morning and I was thinking "Who would be a good mom? Who has the name that will help us raise money with our investors? Who would have fun with this?" And then I thought - Miranda July! It was a process convincing her to do the movie because she really does focus on her own work, and I think she really does enjoy acting but I don't think she's aiming to do tonnes more. She's so good, she's very deeply present, and I think because of this performance art background she brings this real authenticity. I don't feel that she's acting ever, she just goes there, and it's a beautiful gift to to work with somebody who's that level of just being willing to be inside of the material. I just loved her work so much and I had tried to option her book, actually, The First Bad Man, and she said she wasn't really optioning it to anyone, but I got a very nice note back from her agent saying she's not interested in optioning the book but she wanted me know that she really loves my work. This was before we tried to get on the project, but now I knew that she was familiar with my work and liked it, and it's so hard to approach famous actors and get them to care about what you're doing when you're a little indie filmmaker, so that was really such a boost to my confidence.

Working with her with such a dream. She really gets how hard it is to direct because she's directed films, so she was very supportive. I was really grateful to have her participation. Her performance as the mom actually really changed the meaning of that character for me, I really thought the mom was going to be the villain of the movie more than Evangeline but then, like you said, she became the hero, she's so sympathetic. It taught me something about what I'd written, it taught me something about dynamic and that being the mother of a child who is anywhere on the spectrum of mental illness - and even just being a teenager - is so, so hard, and when you worry about your child's safety you do maybe make decisions are probably not in the child's best interests, but it is desperation. She made that so empathetic.

This film has a very different energy to your two previous features, and I wonder how much of that is shooting in New York rather than in a more rural environment. Does the location inform your filmmaking in that way?

Yeah, it definitely did. That was a big change, not being in beautiful nature. I've been spoiled after making really nice, relaxing nature movies, and then I made this one and I was like, “Oh my God!” All the cast was totally stressed, and the crew was really stressed because they had to get up so early to make it there in time. It's a long-ass way to go to drag yourself out to the middle of Queens for these rehearsals and shoots, and people were going home exhausted. On Thou Wast Mild and Lovely I was sleeping the dog shed but I didn't have to commute! [Laughs] There's something really nice about being able to turn off the rest of the world but when you're in New York everyone has the rest of the world going strong all the time, which can be really distracting. There was a freneticness there that in a way really helped the film, though.

And have to ask you about Ashley Connor, because she's obviously a key collaborator of yours and she does incredible work on this film. I love the way you find different ways to put us in Madeline's unstable headspace. How early in the process do you start talking to her about your visual ideas for the film?

She was actually in all of our rehearsals, she was there for this whole exploration process with Helena, and so she was really vital to the whole thing. What was great about having her be part of the building process was that she knew so clearly what film we were making, and so she was like, “OK, when we're going to be in her imagination I’m going to use this crazy rig that I've built, and when we’re in reality we’ll do this.” I think we used a lot of those ideas for the film. I sometimes have these big ideas as a director but when you actually start shooting you think, “Oh yeah, great idea but it doesn't actually work like it needed to” and Ashley's really flexible. One of the ways we have fun working together is when I just let her go. We have this thing called the “Ash-cam,” which is when she actually runs around the room and shoots whatever she wants, and that has become a hallmark of the way we talk to each other. The spontaneity that I try to create in the world around her allows her that freedom, as she knows that hopefully wherever she points the camera there’ll be something real and not just a dead space where there's just a light and some actors forgetting they’re supposed to be acting. I really tried to fill the whole world and then she can be free inside of it. A lot of the bigger techniques, in terms of being inside Madeline’s mind, we had that in advance because we had all that time in rehearsals, but she had just done Desiree Akhavan’s movie [The Miseducation of Cameron Post] right before mine so she and I had very little actual prep time. I think we sat down just twice, and she said “This is what I'm going to do” and I said “Great!” and we got to it with literally two days of prep shoot.

You've talked about this being a long process starting way back in 2014, and I'm just curious about how you feel when you look at the film now. Do you recognise it as the vision you had way back then, or has it completely transformed into something you didn’t imagine?

That's a great question. Honestly, I think it's totally different than what I thought I would make when I was writing. I think some people really do make the movie that's inside their mind but my movies are often so improved by becoming whatever is happening with the people that are working on the film, so I'm always really grateful once the movie has reared its head and revealed itself to be something really unexpected and new. In this instance it was nothing like what I thought I was setting out to make, and I'm kind of happy that's the case.

Madeline's Madeline is in UK cinemas and available to stream on Mubi from May 10th.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Sight & Sound May 2019 Issue

Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro was one of the best films I saw in 2018, landing in my top ten for the year. It went straight to Netflix in the US but we are fortunate in the UK to have this mesmerising fable appearing in cinemas from April 5th, and it's worth seeking out this film on the big screen, where Hélène Louvart's 16mm cinematography can be best appreciated, and where you can slip completely under the film's spell. I met Rohrwacher to discuss her third feature during last year's London Film Festival, and you can read my article on the film in the May issue of Sight & Sound, which is on sale now. In the same issue I reviewed Jim Cummings' Thunder Road, which is also worth seeing when it arrives in cinemas in May.

You can read more about the May issue of Sight & Sound here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/may-2019-issue


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

The industrial action taken by BBC staff in 1980 might have been an unexpected Sliding Doors moment in British pop culture. Their strike led to a number of episodes of Top of the Pops being cancelled that summer, including the one that Chris Sievey’s band The Freshies were scheduled to appear on.

They had just released their most accomplished single, the catchily-titled ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-out Desk’, and an appearance on primetime telly was seen as a breakthrough after years of toil. Instead, they slid back into obscurity, and a few years later Frank Sidebottom was born.

It was a gimmick that somehow stuck. Originally conceived as a Freshies super fan, the eternally upbeat Sidebottom soon became a cult figure in his own right, rapidly achieving the kind of success and recognition that Sievey had spent years dreaming of. Frank appeared on stage at Wembley, became a regular on TV, starred in a comic strip and even founded a football team, Timperley Big Shorts FC (average attendance: “28 people, 2 dogs and 1 puppet”). But as Frank’s universe continued to grow, its creator disappeared from view. Sievey spent much of the next 20 years inside Frank’s papier-mâché head.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"We haven't destroyed Vertigo, we've just taken it apart, looked at all its component pieces, and stitched together a Frankenstein's version of it." - An Interview with Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin has worked with his share of recognisable names over the course of his career, but The Green Fog is surely the starriest cast he’s ever had. Rock Hudson, Michael Douglas, Karl Malden, Vincent Price, Joan Crawford, Nicolas Cage, Glenn Close, Humphrey Bogart, Sharon Stone, Donald Sutherland, Whoopi Goldberg and Chuck Norris are just a few of the actors who appear in the director’s latest film, most of them making fleeting cameos in roles you may have seen them playing before. Commissioned to create a piece celebrating San Francisco for the 2017 edition of the city’s film festival, Maddin and his co-directors Galen and Evan Johnson have stitched together footage from the countless films and television programmes that have been shot there over the course of decades, but this is no mere collage. As the film progresses a familiar narrative shape begins to emerge, and it quickly becomes clear that The Green Fog is audaciously remaking Hitchcock's Vertigo by reconstructing its key scenes. This a typically ingenious, surprising and hilarious piece of work from one of the most distinctive artists currently working in world cinema, and it’s one that rewards repeated viewings, allowing audiences to catch the unexpected cameos, gags and allusions that initially zip by. Our originally scheduled interview had to be postponed because Maddin was away on a location scout, but we caught up by telephone a few days later.

How was your location scouting this week? Did it go well?

It's kind of tiring. You know, my entire movie career has been spent on cheap handmade sets shot extremely claustrophobically, highly artificial – and then The Green Fog, which is the result of the work of other location scouts – so this is the first time I've ever done a location scout. The real world can be really dispiriting and ugly and ordinary, and I have a tsunami of newfound respect for people who can make the real world look really interesting. Even though we knew that the city of Winnipeg would look pretty drab for our project, and that drabness was even important to it, to find drabness that would play interestingly on screen is… I'm just really out of my comfort zone. But I do keep trying to put myself out of my comfort zone. I should have forced myself out of such comforts decades ago, so it’s better late than never.

It feels to me that you have been pushing yourself in new directions for a couple of years now. The Green Fog is certainly something entirely new.

I've always been a big fan of re-purposed or found footage films. There's this early '60s Canadian guy named Arthur Lipsett who made some really cool movies. Joseph Cornell, of course, the granddaddy of all found-footage films; I love Rose Hobart, I've seen it a million times. I love the work of Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, who made The Phoenix Tapes, this centennial tribute to Hitchcock by re-purposing footage from the entire Hitchcock oeuvre to make little short film essays or prose poems. I'm an enormous fan of those, they're really cool. You know, Hitchcock just has a way of shooting hands, for instance, and mothers come up often, so they've organised little observational films around themes common in Hitchcock. So I've just always been an ardent supporter of these things that have never had a broad release, they've just occupied glorious but niche existences in the film world. I'm a big fan of the city symphonies too, the main ones anyway. Seeing Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera with live accompaniment at Telluride Film Festival was one of the great experiences of my life, and I like Berlin: Symphony of a City, Vigo's À propos de Nice. So when I was approached by Noah Cowan, the head of The San Francisco Film Festival, to make some sort of tribute to the San Francisco-ean cinema, I had a chance to make what I quickly assumed would be a city symphony and a re-purposed footage movie combined in one. It ended up not being so much a city symphony, not any more than any movie short in San Francisco is, but it did end up being a re-purposed film orgy.

One thing I love about the film is that it's a great reminder of how cinematic San Francisco is. I’ve never been there so my only experience of this city is through its depiction in movies. Was that your relationship to it?

Oh, for the longest time. I started my filmmaking career in the '80s, the pre-internet days, and Winnipeg, this isolated city, was genuinely isolated. I didn't travel until I started getting into film festivals, so all my impressions of cities – not just of San Francisco but of Cleveland, Kansas City, New York, Albuquerque – it was just things gleaned from watching movies and TV shows, just myths. I knew they probably weren't accurate, and I'd known for a very long time that the preeminent medium of mythmaking since the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century was film, or the moving image. You're not really properly mythologised until you're mythologised in a motion picture. So I had a sense of these cities but I always thought they were kind of poetic facts, the cities as presented to me. You know, I didn't really expect The Streets of San Francisco to feel obliged to represent the city, to go into its slums or discuss its gentrification issues that plagued the actual citizens or anything like that. By the time we started this project I'd been there and my collaborators had never set foot in the place but, just like you, we had a strong sense of what it was like. You know, movies make it possible for you to just stay at home and not go anywhere.

It is funny how many images you found that rhyme with Vertigo. There are so many shots of chase sequences, characters following and watching each other, people hanging from high ledges. I wonder if there is just something about the architecture and layout of the city that lends itself to this kind of filmmaking.

Yeah, I think so. Before we started on Vertigo, we were organising along the lines of whenever we saw a bridge, or whenever a car went up a hill, or whenever people were falling, or dangling precariously from things. We started to log the timecodes for every appearance of things like that, and sure, some of those things appear in other movies, but Hitchcock would often choose locations that he intended to exploit. If you have hills and bridges and a big phallic tower jutting out of the cityscape, you tend to want to exploit them. Hitchcock was pretty good at writing scripts that include locations that matter somehow, Mount Rushmore and... well I could just go on and on but I'm sure I don't need to teach you. Sometimes it was just a matter of all the film crews in LA being busy so they had to head north to San Francisco, but I think there's a big difference between the two cities. There's a different wealth between Hollywood and San Francisco, and all the things which go with that, there's a different atmosphere. Some decisions by producers and directors are probably made subconsciously and they don't even know why; they just say, "This is a San Francisco kind of story." I find it interesting that Point Bank starts and ends in the Bay Area, but takes place entirely in LA – or Los Angeles, sorry Thom Anderson. I bought Rebecca Solnit's book on San Francisco with the intention of really learning about the city, but the commission was taken on with such a short deadline, I think we had a month to make the movie. We just ignored the deadline and delivered the movie a couple of days before it was to screen, so we ended up having about four months in total and there wasn't time to read books or anything. Once we'd decided on Vertigo we didn't even re-watch it, we knew it pretty well.

So at what point in this process did the Vertigo inspiration strike you?

About halfway through our watching about 300 movies that were shot in San Francisco, most of them on fast-forward, we started noticing that Vertigo elements were popping up in the films. Sometimes there are homages to Vertigo but sometimes it's just coincidence; sometimes it's in films shot years or decades before Vertigo. After a while one of us just glibly said, "Hey, we should remake Vertigo but just not using any of the shots from Vertigo." Then we thought we'd allow ourselves one shot, the very first shot of Vertigo should be allowed.

Aside from recreating Vertigo through this footage, did you feel like you were exploring particular aspects of it, or offering some sort of critique on the original?

More than any other Hitchcock film, Vertigo pretty much makes it known how aware it is of how horribly destructive the male gaze can be. You're often not quite sure how aware Hitchcock is of that, especially in light of Tippi Hedren's accusations of his behaviour on set, but it's pretty clear he knows that Jimmy Stewart's character is behaving destructively. He's taking someone who only existed as a figment of Gavin Elster's machinations, and then recreating her by changing a woman against her will into that person. So by taking a person who never existed and using her as a template for someone he never knew and changing her... it's pretty cruel, and it ends up destroying her and destroying him, in that it breaks his heart. It's a pretty knowing portrayal of how savagely destructive this male gaze is, whereas with the other films you often wonder if it's just "That's the way it was in those days!" or something like that. I remember how thrilled we were when one of my collaborators found that footage that's able to pry the camera away from the male gaze for a while, and show a scene between two women having lunch, one of them a sort of stand-in for the Kim Novak character. For once you're actually getting the would-be Madeleine Elster confiding in a friend about how uncomfortable she is with this whole plot Gavin Elster's launched her into.

It would have been interesting to do that a bit more, if we had been able to find the footage, to show the flip side of a scene. Instead of showing the counterpart of a scene in Vertigo, to show the scene that Hitchcock doesn't, that he leaves out. Since gentrification is an ongoing civic concern in San Francisco, because it's got to be the most expensive city in America to live in, and poor people have been perennially moved out and relocated heartlessly, the idea that Vertigo was also kind of a gentrification of a person rhymes with that nicely. There are a few movies made on the subject; Pacific Heights is one of them, and we got some footage from that, along with a kind of Bond villain monologue about gentrification. So yeah, it's a long-winded and stuttering way of answering your question – sorry – but we were able to take a slightly different angle on it, and I think illuminate some of the things that Hitchcock's up to. It's not like we need to take the piss out of the movie. We also joke that we had the advantage over Hitchcock because we got to see Vertigo first, and tighten it up and eliminate all of its dull patches, and improve upon it. We've taken the all-time greatest movie according to Sight & Sound and knocked it down a notch, so now in 2022 when the next poll comes out, we expect to see The Green Fog on top. Hitchcock will have to make do with second place. As a matter of fact, if we have time to make our own version of Tokyo Story we'll probably occupy the top two spots, with Hitchcock and Ozu in three and four.

One of the great finds in the film is that shot of Mel Ferrer from Born to be Bad, watching the two girls in the gallery. It feels like it speaks so directly to the themes of Vertigo; the voyeurism, the doubling, the male-female dynamic.

And not only that, he's so brazenly creepy in it! He's not even pretending not to be watching them while they're looking at portraits. Yeah, it's unbelievably creepy, especially out of context; I mean, even in context of the original film it's creepy enough too. You get really lucky, and what a great privilege it was to make this movie. I mean, yeah it was a job of work and we needed the money, so we accepted this commission. I think I'm lucky that way. I get commissions like this because I've never been able to stockpile enough savings to turn them down, but they enable you to vivisect a film. We haven't destroyed Vertigo, we've just taken it apart, looked at all its component pieces, and stitched together a Frankenstein's version of it. By the time you've finished that exercise you really know the movie and you know more about how movies are put together then you could ever learn from just making your own movie from scratch, in a way. It's a really interesting way of learning about cinema. It feels great to be in my early 60s and still learning like crazy.

It’s interesting to hear you say that about getting these commissions, because I’d argue that some of your very best work has come from commissioned pieces, going back to The Heart of the WorldDracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary or My Winnipeg.

I agree. I'm always honoured that somebody would trust me with money and a deadline, but I'm also competitive and I want to over-deliver. I want to give them more than they ever expected, so I usually do. I've been lucky. When I was commissioned to make my short movie The Heart of the World, and similarly a ballet version of Dracula and this, in each case they ended up over-performing. Instead of just one-offs, for a festival or TV broadcast, they ended up with theatrical releases and big festival screenings. I know some people accept commissions with a different attitude, and they kind of mail something in and save all their creative genius for their own work  which might be smarter than me in the long run  but when I accept them I have so much adrenaline, and it's the same with my collaborators, they really want to deliver. I think I have too much freedom on my own projects and these commissions really excite me.

So how does the relationship with Galen and Evan work? I understand they were more heavily involved in the creating visual style of The Forbidden Room. Did the collaboration work in a different way on this one?

On The Forbidden Room we were really strongly collaborative at the screenwriting stage too, at the researching stage and writing it. On the set, Evan and I stood like conjoined twins, and I yelled "action" and "cut" and spoke to the actors most of the time, but he was never far from me. He helped me because we had to shoot so much footage in such a short time for that film, and we shot it live and in public. It was such unorthodox shooting conditions, I just needed him to be like another hemisphere of my brain, you know? On that project Galen was the production designer, but the sets were so small he was basically another director as well. On this one, we just watched all the footage together but then I had to go back to Harvard where I was teaching, so they would just edit late at night and send me cuts in the morning. I'd give them a few notes but not much, I was basically just waving pom-poms like a cheerleader on the sidelines while they assembled the movie. My job is to collaborate with the lawyer and the composer and with the San Francisco Film Festival, so they did way more work on this one. On the project we're working on now we're writing together and we'll see how it plays out on set. I guess it's more common if there's more than one director for there to be two, and for them to be brothers, so maybe eventually they can just take over and be the Johnson brothers, the JoBros. They can put flowers on my grave.

So your ultimate goal is to have them doing all the work and then you can just be the mogul barking orders.

Yeah! I can come in and smoke a cigar and rub my eye patch, or something like that. But I do need them and I like to think they need me, but they probably need me a little less with each project.

One of my favourite recurring gags in The Green Fog is the conversations that take place with all the dialogue removed. How did you arrive at that choice?

We found this footage that would serve as placeholders, substituting for the Vertigo counterparts, but they weren't saying the right things, so it was a perfect example of where a practical need actually produced something way better than just a practical solution. We needed to cut out the dialogue where they're talking about the non-Vertigo things, but the result is when you cut out dialogue you’re left with all that in-between stuff, the stuff that's not meant to be featured; people listening but only for a second, people getting ready to say a word, and then the moment after they've said it. It’s all the detritus of dialogue, the floor-sweepings of a scene. It puts such a strange stress on an actor’s presence. These actors are far from household names, they’re just character actors, with richly titled filmographies. I know Jeff Goldblum and I was talking to him one day after he'd seen the movie, and he was naming off all these actors who I couldn't name because he's been around Hollywood for 45 years, but they're not meant to be reeled off, a lot of these people. They're not known by the general public, but to me they're part of the star system we're creating, the three of us, because those are our favourite scenes.

He’s a more recognisable actor, but the Chuck Norris sequence is a particularly wonderful use of this technique.

That one is less jagged and there are very few jump-cuts, I guess because his directors felt he was limited as an actor. He has lots of scenes where he's just thinking or driving or walking or running. It's perfect to cut together, a Wagnerian Parsifal moment, and you realise that his almost expressionless face is Bressonian in the power of its clean slate qualities. It's just changing the context of something that changes everything. It's risible, but only because we've thought of Chuck Norris mostly being an action star. Once you take away the things he's most famous for, it turns out he has this incredible presence, really mysterious. You're laughing but you're also moved by the music, and his face isn't ruining the music, they're not in competition with each other, they seem to be helping each other somehow, and it creates both delight but there's a surprising power in it too. I'm sorry, I'm just formulating a lot of these thoughts for the first time. I hope I'm not overselling my own accomplishments. Evan edited that sequence together, and I think the Wagner helps, but there's something in that blankness that reminds me of Bresson in his best movies, where the same dynamic is at work. You project onto that face and it's really beautiful and elegant in Bresson and The Green Fog is…er…something like it. A really cut-rate Bresson.

The other star you get a lot of mileage out of is Rock Hudson, and again this is quite an unusual context to see him in. I wasn’t at all familiar with his TV series McMillan & Wife.

He's one of the great melodrama actors of all time, he's got such a beautiful voice. I'm also aware he's been re-purposed already in Rock Hudson's Home Movies, and done very well. We don't have anything to say that hasn't already been said about how Rock presented himself as hetero role model and concealed a gay lifestyle, but there is just something about him being the mayor of San Francisco television, presiding over the city during its most glorious television existence. We're decidedly not using him in that Rock Hudson's Home Movies way, we're just kind of wilfully ignoring that.

You know, that masterpiece is an underground film classic and that brings me to another thing. There are so many things that San Francisco is famous for – the epicentre of queer culture in America and the world, earthquakes, fires, beatniks, AIDS, a lot  but underground cinema was a huge thing in San Francisco. It was arguably the most important city for it, maybe along with New York City. I made a decision – and we didn't have enough time, and maybe that was a factor – but it's one thing to take footage from movies made by big studios and exploit them because nobody is hurt, but I wasn't about to take footage from artists who maybe never got money for making their films, and there were some really good movies that I would have loved to use. It would have been a matter of securing permission from the actual artists or their estates so I decided not to. There's one exception: it's a shot of George Kuchar, who is my favourite underground filmmaker, period, and he worked in San Francisco most of his life. But he was a friend and so I stole from him lovingly, just because I needed to have George Kuchar in this movie.

Your film also made me think of Bruce Conner’s work and he is another key San Francisco underground artist.

Yeah, he is so important to me, but I didn't know him personally and I wouldn't dare exploit an artist who worked with god knows what relationship to money or the studio system or anything like that. My conscience is pretty clear, and I'm in the clear thanks to the advice of my fair usage lawyer. In a way, I felt like those people could be declared out of bounds because I too am an underground filmmaker, and to steal from a colleague wouldn't be right. It's like only we underground filmmakers exist, and all those studio things are just part of the environment in which we operate. It's the air we breathe, and so we're allowed to breathe it.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Samuel Maoz on Foxtrot

Samuel Maoz will never forget his darkest hour. As a teenager, his daughter had developed an unfortunate habit of oversleeping and being late for school, and she would often ask him to call for a taxi instead of taking the bus. “Of course, this started to cost a bit of money and it seemed to me like a bad education, so one morning I got mad and told her to take the bus like everyone else,” Maoz recalls. “Maybe she'd be late but she needed to learn the hard way to wake up on time. The bus was Line 5, and half an hour after she left I heard on the radio that a terrorist blew himself up on Line 5 and dozens of people were killed.”

An hour after this news broke, Maoz’s daughter returned home unharmed – she had seen the fateful bus pulling away as she ran to the station – but the agonising period that he spent waiting for news still haunts him to this day. Unable to contact her because the phone network had collapsed under the strain, Maoz could only sit helplessly at home, fearing the worst. “That day I experienced the worst hour of my life, it was worse than the entire Lebanon war,” he admits. “Afterwards I asked myself, what can I learn from this experience? I realised I can learn nothing but I wanted to explore the gap between the things we can control and those that are beyond our control.”

Read the rest of my article at The Skinny

Thursday, February 21, 2019

I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

How do you make art that illuminates past atrocities? How do you do so in a country that seems determined to forget such dark periods of their history? How does an artist work under censorship? These are some of the questions tackled by Radu Jude in I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, the title being inspired by a quote from Conducător Ion Antonescu that kickstarted a 1941 massacre of Jews in Odessa, and the Romanian government’s subsequent complicity in the Nazi Holocaust. The superb Ioana Iacob plays Mariana, a theatre director hired to stage a large-scale public event celebrating Romanian military history. The authorities are expecting something patriotic and valedictory, but Mariana has very different ideas.

Read the rest of my review at The Skinny

Monday, February 18, 2019

In Praise of Elaine May

Elaine May’s reputation has travelled further than her films. She has been hailed as a key influence by a whole generation of American comedians – including Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin and Woody Allen – but her work has been allowed to fall out of circulation and she's been largely neglected by Hollywood for over 30 years. The reason for that absence from filmmaking lies in another reputation that casts a long shadow. May’s long-delayed and over-budget comedy Ishtar (1987) was widely derided as a disaster before it even hit cinema screens and it quickly became the go-to title for hacks discussing the worst movies ever made. Its failure marked an abrupt and unjust end to a thrillingly unconventional directorial career.

Watching Ishtar now, it’s hard to understand how this goofy and frequently inspired buddy comedy could have once inspired such opprobrium, but as May noted in 2012, “If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.” The film seemed a cursed project from the start, but behind-the-scenes drama was par for the course by the time May came to Ishtar. Two of her first three pictures led to long and acrimonious battles with Paramount, with the studio excising more than an hour from her debut A New Leaf (1971) before its release and then dumping a hastily assembled version of Mikey & Nicky (1976) in a handful of cinemas following a two-year editing period. A brilliant improviser who had revolutionised sketch comedy with Mike Nichols in the 1960s, May brought that same improvisatory spirit to her filmmaking; the freewheeling, exploratory approach that made her such a headache for producers is what gives her films their unique rhythm and energy.

Read the rest of my article at The Skinny

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Cold Pursuit

Cold Pursuit attempts offer a fresh twist on the standard formula of the Liam Neeson action thriller – a semi-regular fixture in the year’s opening quarter since Taken made him a surprise box office draw in 2008 – but the most surprising twist occurred a few hours before I saw the film. When Neeson inexplicably decided a random junket interview was the ideal place to bring up an incident from his past, in which he contemplated an act of racist violence after his friend had been raped by a black man, he set off a storm that dominated the news cycle for the rest of the week and completely overshadowed the film he was supposed to be promoting.

Perhaps that was inevitable. There isn’t a great deal to say about these films aside from assessing their varying degrees of accomplishment. On the plus side you’ve got the inventive, nimble work of Jaume Collet-Serra – the director of Non-Stop, Run All Night and The Commuter – or the haunting existential drama of The Grey, but on the other hand we have the Taken series, which has grown less exciting and more incoherent with every installment. A decade in, perhaps Neeson decided it was time to poke a little fun at these movies, or at himself. Cold Pursuit is a black comedy in which the body count is a series of punchlines. A remake of the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, the film is about a snow plow driver in a remote, sleepy town who kills his way through a criminal enterprise after his son has been found dead from an apparent overdose. That film starred Stellan Skarsgård as Nils Dickman; in the remake, Neeson’s character is named Coxman.

Both films were directed by Hans Petter Moland, and while I haven’t seen the original, a look at the trailer suggests a near-shot-for-shot remake. I wonder if the darkly comic tone was more precise and effective in the Norwegian film, because Cold Pursuit doesn’t really work at all. In refashioning the revenge thriller as a shaggy dog story, the film falls between two stools; it never develops the momentum or tension that the central narrative of Coxman’s hunt for vengeance requires, but by the same token it’s never eccentric or absurd or funny enough for the more comic elements to land. The film keeps detouring away from Coxman to spend time with local drug kingpin “Viking” (Tom Bateman, amusingly smug and petty) – who is attempting to juggle the running of a drug cartel with the raising of his son – and his henchmen, one of whom discusses his tactic of seducing hotel maids by laying naked in bed with a $20 bill resting on his genitals. This is the kind of downtime chatter between criminals that is often described as Tarantino-esque, but here it’s more reminiscent of the seedy, small-time crooks you might meet in a George V. Higgins novel.

All of these characters are destined to be arbitrarily offed, anyway, along with a few from a secondary storyline, in which Viking’s bewilderment at his disappearing henchmen prompts him to spark a gang war with a group of Native Americans. Every time a character is killed, his name and his nickname appears in sombre white-on-black text with a small cross above it (or whatever emblem best represents the departed's faith); a deadpan touch that grows into a faintly monotonous tic, with few of the deaths having any kind of impact, whether they’re played seriously or for laughs. None of these people matter, we’re just marking time until the final confrontation between Coxman and Viking, and such inconsequential secondary characters are dotted all over this picture. Laura Dern disappears early after a handful of scenes and barely any dialogue (although her minimalist “Dear John” letter is a nice touch), and Emmy Rossum shares some amusing repartee with John Doman as a pair of local cops – She’s the eager up-and-comer, he’s the lazy cynic  but their investigations go nowhere and all they do is pull focus from Neeson. These films have generally been at their best when adopting a slick, straightforward approach, but Cold Pursuit seems to be fruitlessly pulling in three or four directions at once.

If Neeson really wanted to find a different angle on the revenge thriller, maybe he should have played up his character’s everyman status more. Coxman is a diligent, humble working man, just a regular good citizen, rather than the ex-cop or ex-CIA operative that Neeson has inhabited in previous films of this type. There’s no evidence that he should be a man with a “very particular set of skills,” and Cold Pursuit might have benefited from playing up the comical aspect of an ordinary man coming to terms with being a killer, but Coxman takes to murder like a duck to water, dispatching people with a brutal efficiency and not flinching at the bloodshed or the moral weight of his actions. On paper, Nels Coxman might have looked like an intriguing twist on the archetypal Liam Neeson protagonist, but the actor just seems like he’s going through the motions. Perhaps the 66 year-old Neeson is growing weary after a decade of action movies, and one wonders how much appetite there is for more Neeson-led tales of vengeance following his recent comments. Only time will tell, but according the Internet Movie Database his upcoming slate includes films called The Revenger and Retribution.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk is only the second screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s work, following an obscure French take on the same novel in 1998, and the spirit of Baldwin infuses the whole movie. It feels like Barry Jenkins sat down with the late author to craft this screenplay, which has emerged as a brilliant fusion of their distinct artistic visions. It’s impossible to imagine a film better capturing the romantic, yearning, angry, incisive tones of Baldwin’s voice, and Jenkins’ attempt to find a cinematic equivalent to his prose has pushed the director and his cinematographer James Laxton to give us a visually rhapsodic experience.

Read the rest of my review at The Skinny

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Mule

One might reasonably expect a drug mule to get from A to B as quickly as possible, avoiding getting sidetracked and drawing attention to himself, but Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is no ordinary drug mule. When he spots a family whose car has broken down on the side of the road, Earl pulls over to help – much to the chagrin of his cartel handler (Ignacio Serricchio) – and he can’t resist interrupting his journey to enjoy “the best pulled pork in the Midwest.” He’s no ordinary mule, and The Mule is no ordinary drug-running movie. Marketed as a nail-biting thriller, the film unfolds at a leisurely pace, upending our expectations with eccentric touches and surprising detours. It’s an odd and generally delightful experience, but as the weight of drugs in Earl’s pickup grows with each successive trip, so too does the film’s emotional weight and thematic resonance.

The strangest thing about The Mule is the fact that it is based on a true story, being inspired by Sam Dolnick’s 2014 profile of 90 year-old Leo Sharp in the New York Times. The role fits Eastwood like an old suit, but instead of coasting along comfortably on his charisma and long-established iconography, Eastwood gives one of his most tender, open and vulnerable performances. Earl Stone is a horticulturalist who spent years developing his business and reputation and neglecting his own family; the film opens in 2005, with 78 year-old Stone enjoying the adulation of his peers at a flower convention instead of attending his daughter’s wedding. The fact that Earl’s daughter is played by Eastwood’s own daughter Alison (her first role in four years) suggests a certain amount of reflection and self-critique in this portrait of a man seeking to make amends for past mistakes.

That has often been the Eastwood way, after all. As I Watched The Mule I thought of Robert Redford’s recent role in David Lowery’s wonderful The Old Man and the Gun. That film burnished and enshrined Redford’s screen image, being powered by his distinctive star quality and relishing the twinkle in his eye, but Eastwood has always been interested in interrogating his screen persona. The Mule was written by Nick Schenk, who scripted Eastwood’s 2008 feature Gran Torino – the last of his films that he also starred in – and these two pictures ten years apart form an intriguing double-bill. Both Walt Kowalski and Earl Stone are old men coming to terms with their place in a changing world, but if Gran Torino was a veteran gunslinger’s last stand, The Mule is more concerned with an old man contemplating the limited time he has left.

In fact, what’s surprising about The Mule is how little gunplay there is in it. For all of the menacing cartel foot soldiers standing around with machine guns in hand, the only firearm we see being fired on screen is the ostentatious golden rifle that a drug kingpin (brilliantly played by Andy Garcia) shoots skeet with – even a shot that takes out a major character is obscured from view  but the threat of violence is always present. Eastwood lets his camera linger on a couple of corpses, and he has rarely looked so frail as when he is roughed up by a couple of cartel enforcers, enraged by his penchant for going off the radar. It’s also a film in which Eastwood considers his own privilege, including two pointed scenes in which non-white motorists are stopped by police while Clint glides by with his trunk full of coke, or one in which his two cartel handlers feel the uncomfortable, suspicious glares of white Americans as they sit down to eat. “They see two beaners in a bowlful of crackers,” Earl tells them.

These scenes are played with a light, jovial touch, with the point being made all the more effectively as a result. The whole movie is like that. The Mule disarms the viewer with its offbeat, ribald comedy – scenes of Clint happily eating a choc ice while crooning at the wheel of his car, or partying with women young enough to be his granddaughters – and its casual filmmaking style, before shifting gears in a way that caught me off-guard. The scenes that Eastwood shares with Dianne Wiest, as his long-suffering wife, possess a gentle intimacy and a shared sense of lost time that is incredibly moving, while a quietly emphatic conversation between Eastwood and Bradley Cooper feels like a passing of the torch. Clint Eastwood’s recent films have been concerned with ordinary people pushed into acts of extraordinary heroism, but this tale of an elderly horticulturist just attempting to make the most of his remaining years and to rebuild broken relationships is one of his most thoughtful, profound and satisfying achievements. This great icon has given us his most ordinary hero. He’s earned the right to stop and smell the flowers.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Bergman: A year in a Life

In 2013, Jane Magnusson invited an impressive collection of international filmmakers to Ingmar Bergman’s home on Fårö to comment on his VHS collection and consider his legacy. The result was Trespassing Bergman, an engaging but haphazard documentary, memorable primarily for Lars von Trier musing on his idol’s masturbation habits.

Bergman: A Year in a Life is a more robust and illuminating piece of work. The year Magnusson has chosen to build her film around is 1957, which makes sense when you look at what he achieved in the span of 12 months. Two of his most beloved masterpieces (The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries), a film for television, a radio play and four ambitious stage productions, all while juggling an increasingly complicated personal life.

It’s an output that might have impressed Fassbinder, who famously blitzed his way through projects with a cocktail of drugs, but Bergman’s furious work rate was apparently sustained by nothing more stimulating than yoghurt and biscuits. “He didn’t have the top one, in case someone touched it. Instead he’d fiddle one out from underneath,” Lena Endre says, recalling the packet of biscuits that was permanently within reach on set.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies

Sunday, January 20, 2019

One Cut of the Dead

Halfway through Shin'ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead, I have to admit I wasn’t entirely feeling it. The film opens in an abandoned warehouse, where a low-budget film crew is shooting a zombie feature. A young woman (Yuzuki Akiyama) cowers in the corner as her former lover (Nagaya Kazuaki), now zombified, lurches towards her. She screams, but not realistically enough for the film’s director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), who yells cut and then angrily berates her for the lack of genuine fear in her performance. It’s the 42nd take, and everyone is exhausted. The director storms out, giving the actors the chance to sit and have an awkward conversation with the film’s makeup artist Nao (Syuhama Harumi), who reveals that this building was the site of some genetic human experimentation once upon a time. You know where this is going.

The chief selling point for One Cut of the Dead is that the first half of the movie unfolds in a single unbroken take. It’s a filmmaking gambit than can be exciting and propulsive, but one that can just as easily come off as laboured, awkward and forced. One Cut of the Dead falls into both camps. It’s hard not to be charmed by the sense of ambition and the scrappy energy on display here, as Ueda’s cameraman races up and down stairs, chasing the film’s central characters who are in turn fleeing the lumbering undead. But then a spray of blood hits the camera prompting a hand to enter the frame and wipe it off, and Higurashi turned to the cameraman and ordered him to keep shooting, making me wonder whether this cameraman was supposed to be an additional character in the drama. Whose perspective are we seeing this film from?

There’s also the rather slapdash quality of the filmmaking to get used to. One Cut of the Dead is obviously a low-budget venture, but the amateurish nature of its technique kept getting in the way of the fun that I felt I should be having with the movie. At one point, the camera is dropped to the floor and it just lays there on its side for what feels like a minute until it is picked up and the action can resume; later, the shot is held on Akiyama as she screams for a ridiculous amount of time, obviously while some bloody prosthetics are being prepared behind the camera. It’s funny, for a while, but it’s also a little vexing. As much as I admired the energy, creativity and audacity of the whole enterprise, I kept wondering why it had to be presented this way. When the credits finally rolled around forty minutes into the movie, I felt a little relieved, but also curious. Okay Ueda, I thought, what else have you got?

I can’t remember the last time a film confounded my expectations and won me over so comprehensively in its second half. After its credits sequence, One Cut of the Dead restarts one month prior to the events we’ve just witnessed. A struggling filmmaker who describes himself as “Fast, cheap but average,” Higurashi is hired to shoot a live TV stunt for a new Japanese horror channel, with their attention-grabbing idea being a zombie movie shot in a single take. Ueda’s filmmaking is more conventional now, but it's also more entertaining and more involving. He introduces us to the various characters who will play a part in this production and sets up some running gags – one character’s alcoholism, another’s chronic diarrhoea – and subplots that will pay off later. The performances are all on point and the comic timing is sharp, with Ueda developing and shifting our perception of these characters, before taking us back to that warehouse, where Higurashi is about to call “Action!” on his ambitious and possibly insane long shot.

The climax of One Cut of the Dead runs through that opening forty minutes again, this time deconstructing it from behind the scenes, and it reveals that all of the awkwardness and clumsiness that aggravated me in the first half was a feature, not a bug. One Cut of the Dead presents itself as a shambolic amateur production, but Ueda is in complete control of his film. It’s as brilliantly constructed a comedy as I can recall seeing, and it’s also hysterically funny, generating an exhilarating, ever-escalating momentum as this rag-tag cast and crew desperately try to keep their film on track under the most chaotic circumstances. As Higurashi and his team clambered on each others' shoulders to pull off the film's ending, I found myself getting a little choked up; the sight of these endearing characters pulling together to achieve their near-impossible goal gives the film a triumphant and hugely satisfying climax. It seems the contrived clumsiness of the film's first half isn't One Cut of the Dead's only bait-and-switch. The film is being sold as a wild zombie comedy, but it ultimately reveals itself to be one of the great films about filmmaking; a savvy, sweet and profound celebration of the the ingenuity and teamwork required to bring a low-budget feature to life against the odds.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Welcome to Marwen

There was always something creepy and off-putting about the characters who populated Robert Zemeckis’s run of CGI movies in the first decade of the 21st century. The motion capture techniques he adopted in The Polar Express presented us with awkward, dead-eyed figures more chilling than endearing, and although improvements were made in the subsequent Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, a core elements of these movies always felt unnervingly off. While Zemeckis has subsequently returned from the uncanny valley to live-action filmmaking, he’s always had one foot firmly planted in the digital world, and Welcome to Marwen feels like a film that no other director could – or would – have made.

Fortunately, the plastic quality of the CGI characters in Welcome to Marwen is intentional. Inspired by the life and works of Mark Hogancamp, whom some viewers will have already met in Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary Marwencol, Zemeckis’s film brings to life the models he captured in still photographs, creating spectacular WWII battles for these toy soldiers to engage in. The film’s Hogancamp (Steve Carell) has his own tiny avatar in Hogie, a tough American soldier who we meet in the opening scene as his plane crashes into enemy territory. He disembarks from his flaming jet, swaps his burned boots for a pair of women’s heels, and walks straight into some Nazis, before being saved by gang of gun-toting Barbie dolls. There’s a strange and unnerving dissonance in effect as we watch these toys shoot at each other; we don’t see any blood, but the Nazis scream in pain as their bodies are riddled with bullets, and when their corpses hit the floor they do so with an amusingly hollow clatter.

There is a point to all of this. The original town of Marwencol was an art project that Mark Hogancamp began as he recovered from a brutal beating that he suffered at the hands of a gang of men, prompted by his admission in a bar that he liked to wear women’s shoes. The attack left him with no memory, a loss of cognitive functions, and a deep trauma that he filtered through the highly detailed scenarios and tableaux he created with his dolls. The fighting women of Welcome to Marwen are all based on real people in Mark’s life who in some way helped him after the attack: his friend from the model shop (Merritt Wever), his Russian nurse (Gwendoline Christie, struggling with a dreadful accent), his rehabilitation partner (Janelle Monáe), etc. There’s also Nicol (Leslie Mann), whose likeness is added to Marwen when she moves in across the street.

Mark’s sense of longing for the sweet and understanding Nicol gives the film one of its central narrative threads, but Mark’s relationship with women in general is complicated and confounding. He has a collection of 287 pairs of women’s shoes, claiming they connect him to “the essence of dames,” and he’s constantly making full-throated declarations like “Women are the saviours of the world!” and “I love dames!” But he clearly fetishises these women rather than understanding or connecting with them. This is, after all, a man who claims his favourite actress is a porn star (played by  Leslie Zemeckis, the director's wife) best known for the Bodacious Backdoor Babes series. The women he can control in his model village are preferable to the women in the real world who come with layers of complexity and messy emotions. Mark withdraws when Wever's Roberta raises the possibility of them going on a date, but he's happy to have her toy version's blouse torn as she flees the Nazis, her plastic boobs bouncing as she goes.

All of which might go some way to suggesting how weird Welcome to Marwen is. The film is presented as an uplifting tale of triumph over adversity, of the power of community to lift up a broken man, of the value of art as a means of processing trauma, but it's full of jarring, awkward pieces that don't always fit together elegantly, if at all. Zemeckis introduces a tonal whiplash as he cuts between Mark's real world and his imagined one, with the dolls and their battles often crashing unbidden into his real-life situation. (One even disrupts a porn film he’s trying to watch. Nazis really do ruin everything.) Credit is due to the actors who work hard to find moments of truth even as they are being asked to do a lot of seriously goofy shit, with the sensitively played scenes between Carell and Mann giving the film a crucial emotional ballast. In particular, I’m thinking of the moment when the damaged Mark mistakes Nicol’s kindness for reciprocity, a scene that unexpectedly took my breath away, with Zemeckis capturing the moment in a static shot that doesn’t gives us the chance to look away from the characters’ awkwardness and pain.

Regardless of its uneven tone, the misjudged stabs at humour (the “More ammo”/”More gumbo” gag doesn’t make a lick of sense) and the often clunky writing, Welcome to Marwen is a beautifully made film. Zemeckis is a director who has always known how to frame his images for emotional impact, who prefers to move his camera rather than to cut, and who understands how to tell a story visually. The manner in which he pulls us in and out of Mark’s fantasy world, blurring the barriers between the two, is frequently ingenious and surprising. As in his undervalued 2016 Allied, this old-school filmmaking craftsmanship feels like a breath of fresh air, and it’s hard to understand the outraged, mocking and dismissive nature of the film’s critical reaction. If you want to see Mark Hogancamp’s story, I’d advise you to watch Marwencol, because Welcome to Marwen  for better and for worse  is every inch a Robert Zemeckis movie. It’s an eccentric, flawed, risky and sincere picture that is attempting to get at complicated emotions in unusual and imaginative ways, and in the current climate of American studio filmmaking, that's not nothing.