Friday, February 17, 2012

In Making Undefeated, Directors Defy Odds, Like The Film's Subjects, And Get An Oscar Nom

I was glad to have interviewed doc directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin -- whose film Undefeated cleared nearly all the award hurdles and got into that rarefied place of being a Best Documentary Feature nominee -- before viewing this year's Superbowl. Talking with them made me appreciate the New York Giants' win even more than expected because I had a fresh understanding of all the barriers to success a player overcomes to get to such big leagues.

This film documents one almost-champion season of a really bottom-the-barrel high school football team from wrong-sde-of-the-tracks, inner-city West Memphis Tennessee.

The severely underfunded, underprivileged Manassas Tigers -- they had been hired out as a practice team for more successful, affluent schools -- reverse their fortunes thanks to a relatively new coach, Bill Courtney, who, in 2004, came on board and applied what he learned as a former player and salesman to transform wild kids into a team.

The team, and three spotlighted members, go through such trials and tribulations as they break their 110 year losing streak and head to the playoffs.

Undefeated tells of young men who dare to dream dreams that might surprisingly come true. Just like these two relative newcomers who in getting this Oscar nom, also have real insight into what it takes to achieve the unexpected.

Q: It took Steve James in his classic sports doc Hoop Dreams years to those dramatic moments; who had the crystal ball that led you to capture these intense moments even though you had no idea they were going to happen?

DL: Seth [Gordon], our producer. I’m kidding. I don’t think we ever could have imagined, we just captured lightning in a bottle. That’s all any great documentary is. There has to be an element of luck and have things work out in a certain way. I don’t think we could have predicted how it turned out.

We always wanted to make a coming-of-age film, but we also wanted to make a sports film. Plus we wanted to address the education system and how it’s failing these young students. But we were able to speak a lot about these social issues by making this a stronger, intimate character piece that hopefully inspires conversation about class, education and race.

We definitely went over a worn path with a story about high school football. Even if they had lost all their games, we would have filmed it anyway. It would just be a different film.

T.J.: In Hoop Dreams, it was about catching up with the guys and spending huge moments of time with them. We embedded ourselves with them and spent every day of nine months with them. Not the same thing, but there’s an intensity in different ways. We got really lucky. But from the beginning, the approach never changed.

DL: One thing we did knew from the beginning was that we didn’t want to span the course of years. We wanted to capture a special moment in time in adolescence where there are so many possibilities. And we can either see those possibilities begin to take shape, or the realities of those possibilities set in.

We wanted to film this intimate coming of age story in a way that we would be able to get these personal moments. Because of the way technology has progressed, we can do that. We could shoot for hours and hours. But we used that to our advantage in getting the players so used to us being there that we were just the flies on the wall.

They were able to go on with their lives as they normally would and we were able to capture these really intimate moments.

TM: We expected little emotional swells here and there, but I don’t think we expected it to be this big.

Q: How did you two work together?

TM: We shot and edited everything.

Q: Together?

TM: Together. Sometimes we would go off and follow other characters, but we edit in the same room right next to each other. I’m sure the people that shared the space next to us thought we were fighting.

DL: We had really heated conversations.

TM: Other people don’t realize that’s how we work through points some times. But for us, we’re not upset with each other, we just get very heated and passionate.

I remember one time we were so frustrated and we just couldn’t get the first act together and we had a bit of a dust-up. And I walk out and I came back in and I’m like, "Man, I’m so sorry. I just wanted to make the best movie ever."

Q: How did you narrow it down to the players you covered?

DL: Money [Montrail Brown] and OC [Brown] were the first characters we found.

Q: Would you have focused more on OC?

TM: The initial interest was doing a movie about OC until Rich Middlemas, our producer, found this article about the Tigers. We still wanted to make a coming-of-age film about OC. Then we met Bill, and then Money, and it kind of mushroomed from there.

DL: The first thing we ever shot with Money -- and this was before we moved there, we were just looking around -- we went over to his house, put a mic on him, and said "Show me around your house." So he shows me this corner and says "These are my pet turtles."

I said, "Why turtles?" And what came out of his mouth is in the movie. I was in Memphis, and sent the footage back to TJ, because he was cutting presentation reels and trying to raise money. I said, "Watch this, it’s amazing."

Our friends were like, "You told him to say that." And I said, "No, I swear!"

So even from the first few moments, there was something special here. Then Chavis [Daniels] became a character because of the way he was affecting the team. There were one or two other guys we followed a bit at first, and one that was actually in the first, six-hour cut of the film. But it felt like it deviated too much to the side.

TM: He was probably the hardest to let go, though.

DL: His name is Joaquin Kahns, and he had lived in 16 or 17 foster homes in four years. He turned 18 at the beginning of the season and the foster system kicked him out, so he was homeless. I hate to think of it so clinically, because it breaks your heart. [However,] his story slowed down the film because he was not as much a part of the team as the other guys.

We spent a huge amount of time with the rest of the team, even when we knew they weren’t necessarily [going to] be in the rest of the film. It was important for us for our process and to get to know them. For guys that are 16 or 17 years old that want attention, we didn’t want our presence to have a negative effect on the team.

If they saw us focusing on OC, Chavis, and Money, that might build resentment. So we did interviews with every other player, even though we knew it wouldn’t wind up in the film, but it was about giving them all their chance to get followed around and get mic’ed.

Q: Would you say the toughest parts were what to do with the girlfriends and with the parents?

TM: Girlfriends, especially. This is a time in their lives where there’s no reason to exploit… if somebody was following the drama of my high school relationship, ultimately it’s kind of provocative for provocative’s sake.

DL: Ultimately if they weren’t affecting the story, I’d see no reason for it. But with the parents, it’s an issue of sensibilities and it’s hard to get ahold of them.

TM: Money’s grandma refused to be on. And it wasn’t because she didn’t like us.

DL: Some of the parents were maybe a little more cognizant of what was happening. And the approach we had is that we wanted to tell the kid’s story and have it be from their perspective. There were times when we would interview the parents, and we had some footage, but it doesn’t lend itself to the greater narrative. And that was the big thing with this film. From day one, we wanted it to feel like a scripted film. We wanted you to get swept away on this journey.

Q: It is surprising how many of the player’s parents were criminals or had been in jail.

TM: North Memphis was once voted -- by Forbes Magazine, I believe -- the most violent neighborhood in America.

DL: Most violent crimes per capita.

TM: I don’t know if that’s particularly unique to African-American males in this country. I don’t think it’s unique to North Memphis but that’s a huge political discussion to get into.

Q: Is that why you put in the local journalist, to add a narrative voice?

TM: We needed someone to set the stage. We wanted to capture a moment in time, so we only wanted to give you the elements you needed to make sense of what you were about to watch, because it was just about that season.

Jason ended up being very beneficial in that he gave the viewer context for what they were viewing. The funny thing about him is that he did an interview after the nomination came out on the local Memphis news.

His dad is in Paradise Lost as one of the newscasters in Memphis, so they had them both on TV talking about their experiences. He thought we were some college kids doing a project and didn’t think anything would come from this with our little cameras.

Q: What about racial tension say between the white coachs and the kids or the community?

DL: That’s something we were very conscious of.

TM: We didn’t want to make this a white knight story. That’s another thing that I think is a misconception, too: people would assume a white coach "saves" black kids. There’s a reason we don’t discuss race. At first, that was a really interesting dynamic to us. But once we got there, we realized it was a non-issue and that there was no reason to discuss it. But at the same time, it’s not like we were [ignoring it].

The same goes for class issues. We set the stage and hope that it elicits a greater discussion, but our job is to show a human interest story, a character study of sorts. We were very conscious of the prevalence of white knight stories in Hollywood, and that’s something that turns us off.

But once we saw Bill and his genuineness, we realized that that’s not what this was. We just presented the story, and it just happens that he’s white and that this is an all African-American school.

I do think there's valid criticism on why these films are made. I’m sure there is a volunteer coach that is African-American and at an African-American school doing similar things to Bill. We just came upon the story because of OC.

Q: More interesting than the race angle is that we have a fatherless coach becoming a father figure to fatherless players.

DL: That was one of the early things Bill said when we were filming. Bill was microphoned -- and I don’t even know if he knew he was -- and he was talking to some people at the school. He said, "Well, my own father left me when I was four years old."

Later, TJ and I were talking and we realized [by then] Bill’s a real person, he’s not just a rah-rah football coach, he has a past that means something. Suddenly, this is a bigger story than we thought. There are moments with Bill that aren’t in the film, where he’s talking to a player, and it’s like he’s special; he’s unlike any coach I have ever seen before.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Actor Michelle Williams' Uncanny Marilyn Wins Award Noms

Who knew that when actress Michelle Williams first appeared as the bad girl in Dawson’s Creek, she would have the uncanny good sense to take on roles which offered her real challenges? From a supporting part in Brokeback Mountain to the lead in Wendy and Lucy, she rose to the occasion.

So now, another year, another Williams’ award nomination. Last year, her star turn in Blue Valentine garnered this former small town Montana native various noms; now she’s up for the Best Actor Oscar for playing Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn.

Without making her Marilyn simply an "incredible simulation," Williams rendered as authentic a performance as an actor can give of such an iconic chameleon. But given Williams' ever-arching resume, she has developed the chops to validate such an achievement.

Born in 1980, Williams’ strong characterizationas Dawson's Jen led to film appearances in the comedic Dick and depressive Prozac Nation before the series even ended.

Since then she was in such quality indie films as The Station Agent, Imaginary Heroes, and The Baxter. But real success happened in 2005 when she starred in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain as a woman who realizes her husband is in love with a man.

That role landed her an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress as well as an intro to Heath Ledger who fathered daughter Matilda Rose. They split and when Heath died, she withdrew only to come roaring back, including this many-nominated role.

The following Q&A was drawn from a press conference before the the film's 2011 New York Film Festival premiere, red carpet comments and a session before its New York opening.

Q: What was the most difficult part about channeling Marilyn Monroe?

MW: Maybe letting myself just believing that I could. Previous representations of her were more  [like impersonations so] I felt maybe there was room. That was the first thing that made me think, "Okay, I can explore this."

It was a decision made in the safety of my own home, and I didn't really consider the larger implications of it. It was a very, very slow process.

It started at home with watching movies, listening to interviews, poring over books. [I would] try and mimic a walk, or figure out how exactly it was that she was holding her mouth.

The first big discovery that I stumbled on was that "Marilyn Monroe" was a character that she played, and that [despite] the image that you're most familiar with, there was a person underneath it. That [persona] was carefully honed, but it was artifice -- and it was honed to where you couldn't tell that it was artifice. It felt so real.

It was something that she'd studied, perfected and crafted. So once I discovered that that was a layer, and then finding out what that layer was and then getting underneath it -- it was a long and ungainly process.

Q: It seems almost like this is a multiple role -- you're playing someone who's playing a role who's playing a role. Did you think of it in those terms?

MW: In some way it's not, when you think of them separately. You want to think of them together because they need to adhere. But I don't know how much it helps me to think of them as three separate people because they are, of course, connected.

Q: It's a hard thing to do singing, and then to do it in someone else's voice.

MW: Well, like I said, Marilyn Monroe was a creation, and that creation took a lot of personal work. She also had teachers. Trainers were more common then, professionals who would help make these stars and help develop these talents. So I was -- as she was -- very lucky on this movie to be surrounded and supported by great people.

A wonderful man, David Crane, worked with me every day for a couple of weeks and he taught me. I have not sung since I was [about] 10 years old. So he taught me about breathing, how to deliver emotion on lines instead of just [sound].

And then in my ears, I listened to her. It comes up on my iPod all the time, all the Marilyn Monroe. And she was very influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, so I listened to a lot of her music.

Q:how difficult was it to learn the choreography and then to perform the opening musical number as Marilyn -- which you did so well?

MW: I'm not a singer or a dancer. So, like everything else in this movie for me, they took a tremendous amount of preparation and willingness to start at the very beginning. [I had to be willing] to not know what to do, to make mistakes along the way and to not be hard on myself and to realize that they're a part of the process.

In some ways because of that, when I was able to put the nerves aside, I really felt a tremendous outpouring of joy. I felt like a little girl whose dreams came true for the first time. I was able to tap into what I imagine made Marilyn Monroe so luminous in those singing and dancing numbers.

What I experienced is that when you're in that state, your critical mind has to turn off. There's no room for it because you're remembering steps and lyrics. It's like learning to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time. Maybe that's what makes those performances of hers so magical -- that she's not thinking.

Q: A lot was made about Method Acting in this movie. What are your thoughts on Method?

MW: I suppose, yeah, whatever works. I'd never done anything that had ever required so much technical know-how. This was the first attempt that I had made, really the first time, that I had actually, admittedly, started from the outside in because I knew that I was going to have a very, very long way to go.

Where I, Michelle, have wound up after 31 years physically is very different from Marilyn. So for the first time, I started externally, which was a switch to me.

Similar to Marilyn, I suppose, I'm not trained. I sort of popped into classes now and then. I read books. I read a lot of books.

I have made some kind of amalgamation, some sort of hodgepodge of my own personal experience, what I know works for me in the moment, what I've learned from other actors.
I certainly don't know what I'd call it, but at the time the people who were driving the Method were actually live in the room, [I think] how exciting would that have been to be directed in class by [Elia] Kazan, to have [Lee] Strasberg by your side.

Now we get secondhand information. It's like the soup of the soup. It's been sort of passed on.
I'm not beyond doing rain dances or throwing the [cards] or whatever. And I'm still experimenting. I'm still finding out what works for me.

That's the reason that it keeps me acting, and keeps me excited. I'm still learning, and those answers change and new information comes in all the time that transforms my idea of how I'm going to do what I'm going to do.

Q: Has Marilyn Monroe influenced you as an actress as well?

MW: She hasn't, to be honest. I had a picture of her in my bedroom when I was growing up, and so I've always had some sort of response to her, but only because of her image. I wasn't aware of her movies.

When I had that picture in my bedroom, I hadn't really seen any work that she had done -- although at that time, I was very interested in the Method. God knows why, but at 12 that's what I was reading about.

I was reading about James Dean and Montgomery Clift, [Marlon] Brando and thus Marilyn, but I didn't know her body of work. Really, I only came to it as a result of taking on this film.

Q: Of her films, which one was your favorite and why?

MW: I wish I could say Prince and the Showgirl. Some Like It Hot -- how can you not? And I also am pretty fond of The Misfits. It was still a shot at a serious part.

Q: How did you and Kenneth Branagh develop the relationship of Monroe and Olivier -- you had to establish that distance between you?

MW: The only distance that we might have kept was because we were both so absorbed in our process. We sat next to each other in the hair and makeup chair and it was like Command Central Number 1 and Command Central Number 2.

We both were kind of married to our computers, headphones in our ears, and constantly watching, listening, absorbing and then going out and doing.

So the only kind of separation [that] occurred is a part of trying to capture somebody who was. And that that requires a certain amount of technical attention.

Q: Eddie Redmayne said one of the great things with the whole production was the sense that you shot in the same studio that The Prince and the Showgirl was shot in.

MW: My dressing room was Marilyn's actual dressing room when she was making The Prince and the Showgirl.

Q: Was it hard to leave Marilyn behind at the end of filming?

MW: In some ways, something that I like so much about what I get to do is that you never have to leave people behind. There's not a part of my contract that says, "You must abandon your character when you finish shooting." So I get to keep her with me in any way that I choose.

Q: There's a difference in celebrity culture between the '50s and today. The film seems to to comment on that. What do you feel is the difference in celebrity culture now versus then?

MW: The internet. It's the acceleration and proliferation of information. It has always existed and it just has more forms to take.

Q: How have you viewed her as a woman from a very different time with very different expectations of women?

MW: I wish that she could experience what I've been able to, which is to work outside of a studio system, to not be bound to playing the same role, to not be a contract player, to not basically have to be on salary and have to take what's given to you.

I wish that [she] could experience choice and independence and exert her sort of creative will, like I feel very lucky to have been able to.

Q: Why do you think the world continues to be fascinated with Marilyn?

MW: Because there's something indescribable about her, even though she's been so examined and so much has been made of her. There's still something mysterious.

For more stories by Brad Balfour go to:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

George Clooney Is Having A Very Good Year

Despite the inordinate gossip-media attention George Timothy Clooney gets for his love life, this dapper male star deserves the spotlight for his other assets -- acting talents, social concerns, creative work, self-effacing humor and general good-guy demeanor.

Earlier in 2011, The Ides of March was released, a film Clooney directed and performed that's earning his co-star, Ryan Gosling, award noms including a Golden Globe. And now that the suave 50-something has starred in award-winning director Alexander Payne's latest, The Descendants, Clooney's revelatory performance is garnering numerous nominations, some of which will surely result in wins.

Clooney plays Matt King, scion of an old Hawaiian land-owning family, who re-connects with his two daughters -- 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scotti (newcomer Amara Miller) -- after his wife Elizabeth winds up in a coma through a boating accident. While coping with this tragedy, he grapples with new and old responsibilities.

They travel from Oahu to Kauai to confront the young real estate broker, Brian Speer (played by Matthew Lillard), who was having an affair with Elizabeth before her misfortune. But there's much more to Payne's adeptly woven story than this simple plot line.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, George is the son of local newscaster Nick Clooney, who hosted a talk show on a Cincinnati station for many years. Since he was five, he often frequented the studios at Clooney senior's invitation. Declining to compete with his father, he quit broadcast journalism to pursue an acting career and made his TV debut in 1978.

As Clooney gained fame portraying Dr. Douglas "Doug" Ross on the long-running medical drama ER (from '94 to '99), TV provided him with his first accolades. During the series, he attracted a range of leads in films such as 1997's Batman & Robin and Out of Sight (1998), where he first teamed with frequent collaborator, director Steven Soderbergh.

In 2001, Clooney's celeb status expanded with his biggest commercial success, Soderberg's re-invention of Ocean's Eleven, the first of a profitable trilogy based on the 1960 movie of the same name starring Rat Pack members including Frank Sinatra, who played Danny Ocean, Clooney's character.

Clooney made his directorial debut a year later with the 2002 bio-pic thriller Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and has since directed Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Leatherheads (2008) and now The Ides of March. He won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the Middle East thriller Syriana and has received two Golden Globe Awards as well.

Also a social activist, this Renaissance man has served as a United Nations Messengers of Peace since 2008. Clooney's humanitarian work also includes seeking a resolution for the Darfur conflict, raising funds for the 2010 Haiti earthquake, 2004's tsunami and 9/11 victims and in creating documentaries such as Sand and Sorrow to raise awareness about international crises.

The following Q&A is culled from a New York Film Festival press conference preceding its 2011 NYC premiere and following its debut at last year’s Telluride Film Festival.

Q: How did you come to do this film?

GC: Well, Alexander failed to find me fascinating when I met with him for Sideways, which I've not yet let go.

Then it was about two years ago -- this time, almost [of the New York Film Festival premiere of the film] -- that we met in Toronto and [Alex] came and said, "I have a script coming I'd like you to look at." 

And I said, "I'm doing it whether I read the script or not" -- which didn't work with Batman & Robin, by the way. 

Q: And how did you work out your scenes with Judy Greer, who plays adulterer Speer's wife -- which are very intense, pivotal moments in this film?

GC: Do you remember what our first scene was ever? Not in this movie. We did a scene in Three Kings and our first scene together is us having sex up against the desk.

Q: Surely George Clooney in real life will never be cheated on by a woman, so what would you do if it ever happens to you?

GC: No idea, because I know how any answer will read.

Q: So much depends on your relationship with the daughters in this film. What was the process of your coming together as a family? Did you do any sort of bonding exercises?

GC: Yes, we did bonding exercises. I would say, "You guys stay over there and don’t talk to me."

No, it’s a process that I very much embrace in the rehearsal process. We’d go over the scenes a little bit, but mostly it’s about spending time with one another.

Because the truth of the matter is, once you get to a set, everything is so different. We could sit here and work out the hospital scene, but the blocking alone is different.

Everything changes so drastically when you finally get to do that.

The rehearsal process in general is about trusting one another, and so a big part of it was just getting to know the gang and all of us getting the ability to feel comfortable enough to give each other shit. But there’s some truth in that, and once you can get to that place, it’s easy.

The lucky thing is that they’re all such talented actors. But we got a really good script and a really good director, and that sort of protects everything else. 

Q: They really managed to put you into the ugliest pants. 

GC: Those were my pants.

Q: How did you work with the costume designer and why wear those pants?

GC: I’m not completely against khakis, it’s just the level you have to wear them at. The higher you pull them, the more excruciating it is.

This whole process was just about schlubbing up a little bit, and this seemed kind of easy to me. I grew up in Kentucky; this is standard, just different colored shirts.

Q: Speaking about colored shirts, how was it filming in Hawaii?

GC: Well, most of the time I’m working in places I’m not familiar with. Sometimes that’s Slovakia, and then sometimes it’s Hawaii -- and not to bash on Slovakia, but I really did enjoy Hawaii, as you can imagine.

I think everybody will agree, it’s a great script, great director, and you’re shooting in Hawaii; there’s no downside to this. It was fun for me. I haven’t spent much time there, and certainly not in Oahu, Honolulu, so it was fun to see.

It’s such an island, it really is an island. On the freeway the speed limit is like 45 miles an hour, and it takes you awhile to get into that rhythm. So I’m driving behind people and I’m like, "Move it!" and they’re like "Hey, hey, hey."

I was an alien because I wanted to go 50 miles an hour. But that’s just my problem. Eventually you got into their rhythm, so that was fun. I really enjoyed it there.

Q: So how different then was it to shoot in Hawaii versus being in your places of origin like Cincinnati, where you shot some of shooting Ides of March?

GC: Well, I didn’t have relatives on the set every day. When you’re shooting in your hometown, you’ve never met so many cousins. I mean really, they were like, "This is your cousin;" I’m like, "I have no idea who that is, but okay, you’re my cousin." I didn’t have a whole lot of that in Hawaii.

Q: The crux of The Descendants is notions of forgiveness, maybe redemption. What are your thoughts on forgiveness, both in the context of the film and in real life?

GC: "I forgive you. Now I don’t forgive you. I take it back." You’re absolutely right, there’s a big part of it [that's] forgiving yourself... because so much of what happened was also his responsibility.

I think a big part of that release at the end, when he’s with his wife and he looks at her and he kisses her goodbye, is understanding his part in this as well. Yes, she cheated on him, but he was not there and he was not a good father as much as he thought he was. He was busy working. And that happens.

So part of it was coming to understand that, and I think that forgiving yourself is a very big part of that. I think we all go through those experiences of understanding that the older you get, the more forgiving you are of other people’s mistakes.

When you’re young, you find that anything that stands against something you believe in is just plain wrong. I remember there would be relatives of mine who would say something and I would say, "Well, he’s a bigot," and then come to find out later that I was way too judgmental. I was making the issue much bigger than it was.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" Goes Beyond Words & Wins Awards

Wily provocateur and indie screen mogul Harvey Weinstein sees beyond the obvious and recognizes value in some rather offbeat films. Thankfully, that support has so far paid off. Four of Weinstein’s pictures won awards at this year’s Golden Globes, with a bloc going to one of 2011's most unusual films -- The Artist.

In making The Artist a black & white, silent movie, French director Michel Hazanavicius defied expectations. For anyone else, this would be not only a strange concept, but a retrogressive idea, simply a throwback to another era. Yet this veteran French filmmaker employed a sufficient sense of irony to take the idea beyond preciousness and imbue it with a wit and charm that makes it feel both classic and contemporary.

The director works from an eternal scenario. In 1927 Hollywood, the arrival of talking pictures creates turmoil for silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who fades into oblivion as he resists the change.

Meanwhile, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young dancer gets a big break by meeting Valentin, shifts into stardom by embracing the talkies while George sees a reversal of fortunes. As he slips into near-poverty, George and his dog Jack (Uggie) stay true to each other as everyone else moves on -- except Peppy, who, in the end, offers him a chance to redeem himself and share the spotlight with her.

And now that the film has been nominated for 10 Oscars, the film racks even more attention as a cautionary tale: adapt to new technology or get left behind.

The following Q&A with director Hazanavicius is excerpted from an exclusive roundtable held before The Artist’s American debut at the 2011 New York Film Festival.

Q: Even before the pitch, why did you think you could do this and that we would want to see it?

MH: You never know, actually. You can't be sure. I said to the producer, "First, I have to write the script, and I'll know after that if the movie's doable or not." In writing the script, I had to find all the solutions of how to direct a silent movie, and what you're going to ask of the actors and what you're going to ask of the director.

In this case, [the director is] myself, but, in a way, it's pre-directing the movie. I had this exit in a way, and if the script was not convincing, we would never do the movie.

Everybody tells you that nobody wants to see a silent movie, that nobody wants to see a black & white movie. People think that black & white, silent movies are old, and they're right. But they're old because they were been done in the 1920s, not because of the format.

The format is really good. I had the hunch that the format would allow me to do a very specific movie. You just have the hunch that there's a good movie to do. 

If you do a script with the normal paper and letters like this, when people read a script, they just read the dialogue. They never read the action, except maybe for action movies.

It was really just action here, and over three pages you have just one card. So we tried to do a nice object, and that's what we did. We did an object that respected the ratios.

It was a square paper, old paper, like a little bit yellow, typewriter letters, a little bit bigger. That makes people think that it was easy to read because they turn pages often, more often than like this. We put a lot of pictures, photos in the script. It was the producer's idea and I think it was a really good idea.

Q: The script will be a collector's item...

MH: Yes.

Q: How long did it take you to storyboard it?

MH: The script was, strangely, very fast to write -- four months, which for me is very fast, and especially because I spent a lot of time watching movies. Usually it takes me six or eight months, and it's not the dialogue that takes me four months, it's very easy to make the dialogue.

The storyboard, I don't know. I drew [them] myself, so I would say three weeks or maybe a month. But it's during the preparation, so I don't do just that. I work on the storyboard the morning and the evening and then do other things.

Q: How did you cast Dujardin and Bejo?

MH: I wrote the script with them in mind. I wanted to see them as actors in that kind of story, in that kind of element.

They have ageless faces, and are really credible in period movies. They don't have modern faces. And when you put a costume on an actor, that helps a lot. [Actors] don't move the same way [in a costume].

The other actors, the American cast, I found with casting director Heidi Levitt, who was really great; we tried to work with some expressive actors because there are a lot of great ones.

When an actor like John Goodman (who plays the studio mogul, Al Zimmer) says something, all of his body and face express what he's saying, so I had to work with that kind of actor. I've been very lucky that a lot of great actors joined us on that movie.

Q: Was Uggie the dog -- playing one of the film's best actors -- always part of it?

MH: He was in the story from the very, very beginning, in the movie before Hollywood. Hollywood came after the dog.

I didn't realize exactly how important he was at the very beginning, but now when you do the promotion of the movie, you talk and talk, and in talking, you realize things that you've done and you have another understanding of your work.

I realized that that dog is very important for two reasons. The first one is the character -- it changed the main character.

When you create a character, you don't just create one character, you are helped with the other ones, they put another light on the character.

The character of George Valentin is not very sympathetic; he's very egocentric, selfish, and he's very proud. He started the movie with a woman and he finished with another woman.
But the fact that he has a dog who loves him and follows him all over the movie, in a way, it saves him because you trust the dog. You think that the dog knows, that he has instincts, so if the dog loves him, somewhere he's a good person.

The other thing is, this dog is the only friend of George. George has a problem with sound, with the talkies, and his only friend is a character that doesn't speak either because he's a dog. So yeah, he's very important.

You think he's a good actor but he's not. He's a dog. He doesn't act, he doesn't read the script, he doesn't care about the situation, he doesn't care about his partners. He just cares about sausages. That's what he wants for real.

Q: The Artist was shot in only 35 days. What did it take to make a film in such a short time?

MH: It’s as if you tried to paint the Mona Lisa on a roller coaster -- it's crazy. You have to go very fast. The preparation of the movie is really, really important. We always speak of the shooting, sometimes the editing, sometimes the writing. But the preparation -- you [make] all your mistakes in shooting through the preparation, so the more you prepare, the [easier] the shooting is.

That's why I storyboarded everything. We worked very quickly. It was not so difficult to edit because the movie was really well prepared and I didn't do a lot of takes because I had to go fast.

For more stories by Brad Balfour go to:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Juno Temple & Jeremy Dozier Bring Alive "Dirty Girl"

Despite a substantial effort to integrate gays into mainstream America, anti-homosexual violence continues for those who don't conform to this country's far too conservative attitudes. Though it's hard to believe that it continues, bullying still spurs teen suicides in a country charged by tea party extremism.

So first-time director Abe Sylvia used his juvenile experiences as a gay kid growing up in 1980s Norman, Oklahoma, as a starting point for his debut feature, Dirty Girl to inform us about his efforts to escape such abuse. His comedic search for identity and the redemptive power of friendship provides a context to illustrate the effect of such repression and the will to escape it.

The "dirty girl" of Norman High School, Danielle (Juno Temple) sluts her way through high school but her misbehavior gets her banished to special ed. There she teams up with innocent but abused closet-case Clarke (Jeremy Dozier). Together they head out on an illicit road trip to escape the repression and discover themselves through their unexpected and funn friendship.

Coming from an English showbiz family -- mom is producer Amanda Temple and dad is director Julien Temple -- the younger Temple has been a schooled actress since elementary school. Relative newcomer Dozier has only done a few shorts but shares in Sylvia's experience growing up in conservative small town Texas.

Though Sylvia began his career in NYC as a Broadway hoofer working with such talents as directors Susan Stroman, Mel Brooks, and Tommy Tune, the grind took its toll and he turned to film, television and commercial work in 2001.

After graduating from UCLA's film school, Sylvia's four short films have screened in over 100 international festivals; he's also won several awards including the Jack Nicholson Distinguished Director Award, the James Bridges Prize in directing and was a finalist in the 2006 Chrysler Film Project. Through Paris Films and Christine Vachon's Killer Films, Dirty Girl did the festival circuit including Toronto FF 2010 and is now being released this October. The following Q&A is culled from a recent roundtable with Temple and Dozier.

Q: Much has changed in society since 1987 so what did you learn about the time period and what were your impressions?

JT: We had to do a lot of research on the music and stuff.

JD: I really hadn't listened to Melissa Manchester or anybody like that, and she's this icon for Clarke. So I did a lot of research and watched her YouTube videos. I found it fascinating how powerful she was on stage.

I also did lots of research on the time period, on the clothes and everything, which was a lot of fun. It was a time when being gay wasn't really talked about so I think that's changed a lot since then, thank God.

We'd walk onto set and everything would be decked out in '80s gear. It was so much fun walking into this different world.

JT: it was like walking into a new world in a puff of smoke.

Q: Did you ask your older cast members such as William H. Macy or Milla Jovovich to give you some tips or references for the '80s?

JT: Kind of. But we're a different generation to them in the movie, too. My parents were a big part of the '80s rock and roll music scene, so I know quite a lot about that part of the '80s.

So this was like a whole new part of the '80s in that we're listening to this great power ballad, music you can't help but move your body to.

JD: What was great about working with Abe [Sylvia, the director] is that he grew up in that time period and had so many references for us. Movies like The Breakfast Club and different movies for us to watch.

JT: We watched some good movies.

JD: The music plays a huge part of the movie, and he knew what songs he was going to play over which scene before we started.

JT: We were given the soundtrack before.

JD: That helped us inform the scenes and get the tone [right].

Q: You have your come-on line, which is "Are those Bugle Boy jeans?" I hadn't heard that in so long.

JD: I thought that was such a weird line. I shot the entire movie not knowing where that came from. Just last week, Abe posted the commercial on Facebook and I was like, "It all makes sense now."

Q: Any other references from the '80s that you didn't know about?

JT: There was a line that was cut out where Clarke says to Danielle, "Let's sing 'Don't Cry Out Loud,'" and I'm like, "I'm more of a White Snake girl."

That was the kind of vibe that Danielle is more into, like hair metal. The thing I loved about Danielle was that she was kind of '70s in this '80s world.

She got all her mum's hand-me-downs, so she's in these little rompers and fur coats and '70s platform heels. She looks like even more of a misfit. She doesn't get so '80s until the end, with the polo neck and the camel toe shorts.

It was interesting because also it's so Abe's world -- it's based on his childhood story. He written the bible for you in that situation because he knows it better than anybody else.[He‛s] a man you trust so dearly that he opens your eyes to this whole new world and you just become lost in it. So [we spent] a lot of time talking with Abe.

I grew up having a really vivid imagination. So when you have a director that has this incredible vision that he's just giving to you, it's like walking through the Narnia closet or something, like walking through a whole new doorway.

Even before we got on set, we did dance and singing rehearsals. We grew up going out dancing, and it's like you just wriggle a bit, you don't really have proper dance routines. So you get there and are learning how to do all these crazy moves that you haven't seen since an '80s music video.

That was so fun, taking you to a whole new part of your brain that you haven't really ever accessed before.

Q: Did you keep any of the clothes?

JT: I wanted the Laura romper that Abe actually had bought years ago for the movie and brought it in -- it was a perfect fit. It's pale beige. It was kind of Cinderella-esqe. It's the one in the campfire scene. Unfortunately it was sent to a Universal storage lot.

But it was meant to be mine. One day I'll get it back. It's very hard to find a good velour romper that suits you and fits the right areas correctly, I guarantee you.

Q: How would you describe this film's tone?

JD: This movie is like a roller coaster. There are really emotional scenes and then there are comedy scenes, so there's something for everybody. There's singing, dancing, and it deals with a lot of issues that are pertinent today.

JT: It's timeless, I think.

JD: It's a movie set in the '80s but it is so important to today, especially in today's climate. With all the gay teen suicides and all of that, learning to love yourself and coming into your own and figuring out who you are -- It's a great message movie.

JT: Yeah. It's "don't judge a book by its cover” -- that's the best thing you can tell people, because it's the worst thing you can possibly do. You miss out on so much when you just judge someone by their cover.

Q: Is it hard for you to believe that after all this time since '87, there are still these teen suicides because people are hassling others for being gay?

JD: It's crazy.

JT: It's ridiculous, to be quite honest with you. We still haven't been able to find out a way to be okay with letting people be what they want to be. I think it's part of the reason why you get angry.

But whatever happens, I think in high school there's going to be something that someone's going to get bullied about -- like the size of someone's nostrils, or whether they have a weird toenail on their big toe.

People find the weirdest stuff to destroy children's lives about. That's why I think this is such a great message, because it's really like, "look beyond that."

When you first meet Clarke and Danielle in the movie, you wouldn't picture them being best friends at all. It's this weird chemistry that just explodes. Because actually, for the first time, they meet someone [who] wants to listen to them. They meet someone who wants to be around them, someone who thinks they're so great for who they are, and to help entice that out of them.

That’s something that people should so look for in high school. If you don't get on with everybody, you don't get on with everybody -- you're not going to. But when you find the people that really get you and just love you for who you are, then everything kind of figures itself out and falls into place. I think that's such a good message to be sending.

JD: Bullying ultimately comes out of ignorance.

JT: And jealousy.

JD: I think we've made a lot of progress, but there's still a lot of progress to go.

Q: It‛s amazing how people in high school or in junior high will type each other and then suddenly a year or two later they become best friends because they have more in common.

JD: It's the message of this story too. It's so about becoming who you want to be versus what you're labeled as in high school, and that's exactly what these characters are doing over the course of the film.

JT: Life’s so much bigger than that.

For an extended version of this story and others by Brad Balfour go to:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Oka!, A Filmmaker Explores an Unseen, Unheard African Community

Boy, did director Lavina Currier take on a challenge. Not only did she elect to direct the film Oka! in Africa, but she made it about a people, the Bayaka, and in a country, The Central African Republic, that’s thoroughly unfamiliar with modern filmmaking.

Based on an unpublished book by an obscure author/musicologist with few veteran actors (Kris Marshall and Isaach de Bankolé) and a cast that includes the indigenous tribe playing most of the characters, the film defied conventional market strategies.

And that’s just the basic outline of this project’s unique nature.

After American musicologist Louis Sarno decided to live among a Bayaka Pygmy clan in the Central African Republic in the mid ‘80s, he wrote a book chronicling his experiences, Song From The Forest, and recorded their music. Those recordings became Bayaka: The Extraordinary Music of the BaBenzl Pygmies (Ellipsis Arts), a two-CD/book package of never-before documented material.

Though raised in New Jersey, Sarno has called the CAR his home for the past 25 years with intermittent visits the States. Oka! -- which means “listen!” in their native language -- is a dramedy that retells his tale of when he first arrived in the jungle -- based on an unpublished memoir.

Since Currier’s previous films have already taken her all over the world, she had an idea what she was getting into making Oka!. She visited Tibet in working on The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet's Struggle for Freedom and the Sahara for Passion in the Desert. And her philanthropic work includes environmental causes -- Oka! was filmed carbon-neutral in the Dzanga-Sangha Nature Reserve of Central Africa, a site growing in popularity with eco-tourists. In fact, for her work on behalf of Tibetan refugees, the Dalai Lama presented her with his Truth Award.

Nonetheless, as revealed in this exclusive interview, her experience didn’t entirely prepare for the singular act of shooting among the Bayaka and the dominant Bantu-speaking people who offered unique challenges to the filmmakers as well. And now that film is being released, audiences can share in the experience.

Q: Why did you make a film in an African country where there are virtually no film resources, as opposed to one say like Nigeria or South Africa?

LC: I've always loved Africa. I found this region while casting a film about Ota Benga. Do you know the story of Ota Benga?

Q: No…

LC: He was the pygmy who was brought to the World's Fair in 1905 -- a very sad story. I wrote a screenplay with a wonderful novelist [about him]. I was so proud of this screenplay; everyone who read it cried and said, "This has to be made." It was during that period of racial ignorance and horror.

[There were] many reasons I didn't make the film -- 9/11, and funding for example. There was another film made by Regis Wargnier, who did Indochine, called Man to Men, about a pygmy couple who was brought to Scotland. It took place 40 years earlier. It was kind of the missing link.

And I watched it. I had to chase it [down] in this little cinema in Paris, and found it so depressing.

I was talking to the Bayaka about the story, and they said, "That's a terrible story." I said, “Yeah, it is, but we learn from our mistakes and don't repeat history and all the things in our culture." And they said, "We would forget a story like that. There are so many nice stories."

Q: At what point did you know you had a story to tell?

LC: When we were there for Ota Benga and decided not to do Ota Benga, I went back and said to Louis [who helped with our research], “What about doing a slice of life in the village? Do you have any manuscript that you haven't used, you haven't published that we could use for that?"

And he said [he had a manuscript at his Mother’s.] We had to find this [floppy] disk. Nobody could read it, so I took it to a decrypted or whatever you call it.

Q: Backwards technology...

LC: After reading it, I laughed and said, "This is wonderful," because he gets out of the way, his character is very self-deprecating, and you really feel the life of the village and the forest.

So that's how we came to it. I wanted to do something, as a white woman telling a story about African people can…

Q: That's a whole other issue -- what a white woman has to deal with in those areas.

LC: They have so many problems with the Bantus that they like white people. They didn't go through colonialism; it's not a post-colonial culture.

Q: Even though the French were there?

LC: The Bayaka didn't. Central Africa was affected by slavery, but not by colonialism -- not in the sense that there were big plantations. It wasn't an easy place.

But when we were back there -- aside from showing the film and doing some politicking -- we also did more music recording. The composer Chris Perry, an amazing African, was married and lived in Zimbabwe for seven years -- he had been was [Zimbabwe's dictator Robert] Mugabe's boy.

His wife's father was attorney general, I think, for Mugabe, and then fell out of favor and was killed by Mugabe.

So Chris, who has an amazing facility for understanding African music, did the recording the first time. He went back with us in the forest in August, because we're doing an album for the film.

He did what he calls radio cues, but more modern kind of dance music out of the Bayaka rhythms. He had these women from the forest laying down multi-tracks. They'd never had earphones on… These women would come from the forest. They say they dreamed their songs and would say, "I dreamt this song some time ago in the forest."

One of them said, “When I woke up my husband was dreaming the same song and we were singing together."

One woman from the Congo -- she had leprosy, no toes, no fingers -- and she’s sitting there, trying to get into it, and she's hearing her voice for the first time through the headphones. The first couple of times, everyone's laughing and laughing because they're not kind and polite in that way. Then suddenly, she starts singing.

Chris said they just took to it. They would be standing in line for Chris in the morning, they got into it so much. So we've got a good album, I think.

Q: Did you videotape this?

LC: Yes we did. We did a little sort of "Return of," because we didn't do a “Making of.” It was too stressful.

We barely got through our days and the producer was constantly doing the 16-hour trek up to jungle to make sure our set wasn't going to be closed down by goons.

Q: Too bad you didn’t videotape as you shot the film.

LC: I know. I wish so, too. That was the intention of the producer, but he was so stretched he couldn't do it.

Q: You're going to have to go back -- you have that additional footage.

LC: We do, actually, which is great. It was really interesting.

Q: Did this film follow your budget or did you have cost overruns, because of all the issues paying off people?

LC: We never paid anyone off, which is why we kept getting stopped.

Q: Were you worried that if you paid one, then you'd have 50,000 hands out?

LC: Right. We made a deal with the Minister of Culture in the beginning and paid a location fee, which is normal.

The Minister of Finance came and said, “And mine?" And we said, "Well, we were told that film went through the Minister of Culture." He said "I don't know who told you that."

Q: How'd you get around that?

LC: In that case it was pretty hairy, because he was a pretty tough cookie. He's not there anymore. And he said to the producer "By the way, our bank account was messed up, so I want you to write the check to Mr. XYZ."

He had been sending his goons down, the producer was intimidated, so he wrote a check. [The producer] got a copy of it, and as he left the office he put a stop payment at the bank. The Minister of Finance himself called the teller and overrode the stop payment.

Q: So you did end up paying him?

LC: That was the only one. And other than that, we didn't.

Q: When did you know you had an ending?

LC: The ending should have been a real elephant hunt, because the molimo, this mythical instrument, is associated with the elephant hunt. You kill an elephant and the molimo is happy and it comes out.

And the elephants, after three days of chasing them around and getting them to do this and that, lost patience with us. And my crew said on the third day "We're not going back. We don't care what you pay us; we're not going back because we're going to be killed." And it was getting dangerous.

Q: Killed by the elephants?

LC: Yeah, by the elephants. And we'd been going on the good will of the elephants who had been accustomed to this researcher, this lovely woman, Andrea, who herself has been there 20 years.

Q: Elephants are incredibly intelligent.

LC: Very intelligent. And they'll stop you. They'll warn you with a couple of charges and then they'll charge.

I am fearless with animals. I never feared snakes or elephants or anything.

Q: Did you have any big cats?

LC: I never saw them. There are leopards, but I never saw them.

Q: There are jungle leopards.

LC: That was my last film, Passion in the Desert, which was about a Napoleonic soldier and a leopard.

Q: How did you contend with distribution for that one, or this one for that matter?

LC: Well, it's not a good period for this level of budget. We don't have a big name, although [British actor] Kris Marshall is coming into his own.

Q: Why did you cast him?

LC: I had been talking to a couple of bigger names who wanted essentially the budget of the picture, and I really had some doubts about whether a star would make it through.

Kris is a very physical actor, especially for an Englishman, who are [usually] very text-based, on the whole. I knew that he had that kind of British "it's a job, I'm going to do it” attitude. I mean, that man was so sick that he was lying on a bench in the forest.

Q: He's not only sick in the movie but was also in real life?

LC: He was very sick. I would say, "Kris, you can take a day off. You don't have to be here." "No. It's my job. Call me."

I had an instinct that this guy was crazy enough. He's been run over by a bus, broken every bone in his body, and had so many accidents, that I just had a feeling he would stay the course.

Q: How did you happen to pick African actor Isaach de Bankolé for the villain?

LC: He's a wonderful actor. Louis Sarno went to school with [director] Jim Jarmusch. Jim introduced me to Isaach, and Isaach was so charming when I met him in New York.

But then during the shoot -- he's a method actor -- he became this mayor [Mayor Bassoun], and everybody was terrified of him including me.

Q: And he's the nicest guy in reality.

LC: Nicest guy. But on the shoot, he was terrified until not only his last scene, but four days later. He insisted on staying on.

I said, "You can go early, Isaach, since you seem to be so unhappy," and he said, "What do you mean? I'm not leaving. I’m going to stay until my contract." And then he sort of decompressed and he became again the nicest guy.

But he became the Mayor to such an extent that he would go around in town and people would say, “Monsieur Bassoun, can you help us with this and that?" And he had everyone terrified.

The tailor said "Please, could you send somebody other than Isaach to check on his clothes?"

The real Mayor was absolutely furious and jealous. He used to come in his motorcycle, this horrible illiterate bully, and scream at me about something, and I think it was because Isaach was being considered as the mayor.

Q: I've listened to some of the pygmies' music and it was probably recorded by Louis.

LC: It's either his or [anthropologist] Colin Turnbull‛s. We put everything from traditional Bayaka music to cues from the film to these kind of radio cues, these modern dance things.

Q: Had you taken an interest in African music in general?

LC: I've always loved African music. But the Bayaka's music is considered the most ancient -- they were brought to sing for the Pharaohs. It took me awhile to understand the Bayaka music.

That's why Louis Sarno‛s Song From the Forest was so crucial. Louis was sent to Africa by Colin Turnbull whol wrote The Forest People and also wrote the book about the Ethiopian people, the Ik -- the mountain people.

And he got into incredible hot water because he dared to say the pygmies are good and the Ik are bad, and the anthropological community said, "You can't say that. You can't make those judgments.” He said, "I know. I've looked in their eyes and lived with them."

But I think that Louis has an amazing appreciation for this music. It's really complicated music.

Q: It doesn't fit normal musical structures.

LC: Not at all. They think in 28 phrases. Their cycles are huge, and most people just get lost in them -- they go, "What's happening?" It's chaotic.

They sing in the way nature sings with itself. Birds and animals wait for the empty space and jump in, and they'll do this -- though not necessarily on a regular basis.

Q: It's not like there's a harmonic layer.

LC: Right. You opportunistically jump into a silence, and the Bayaka have incorporated this into their music.

The first time I ever heard them, I was in a canoe and we were with a Bantu guy. I said, "What are those birds?" and he said "Those aren't birds. Those are the little people."

Then we saw these women walking single file, very quickly, and were singing to each other at quite a distance. Maybe for a quarter of a mile that they were actively singing. It was the most extraordinary thing, because there were these bell-like, beautiful yodeling sounds that I had never imagined.

Q: Have you learned any of the language?

LC: I did learn some rudimentary [phrases], which is not a difficult language to learn -- just to direct people, because most of our actors didn't speak French.

Q: So you went to university but when did you get involved with film?

LC: I studied a tiny bit of film at Harvard. But basically, I studied poetry with Robert Fitzgerald, and I think my major was Religion. I was in the Religion Department.

Q: At what point did you decide to go with filmmaking?

LC: I came to film through theater. I went to Paris from university and started an American theater in Paris with some friends from Harvard, which was a lot of fun. We didn’t do anything too great. French people came to learn English, basically, but we had a great time.

Q: Did you meet Africans while you were there?

LC: No, I didn't. But you know, it was a different complexion back them. On the last trip to Africa, I stopped in Leone, and Leone is a Pan-African city.

Q: One of the reasons I was fascinated by this movie, and movies about this, is that in some way it's like dealing with another world.

LC: It is another world.

Q: Like you've landed on another planet.

LC: And you feel that, and everyone feels it -- even the crew from Los Angeles -- they were in utter culture shock when they arrived there. Oh my god, and with the big Panavision camera, [it was] like moving a fire hydrant around.

Q: Did people do it because they just wanted the chance to go to Africa?

LC: People did it because Conrad Hall -- the DP that we chose, son of the famous Conrad Hall -- insisted on bringing his group. And we said, “Not a good idea, Conrad," but he said, "These guys are going to take care of the camera." And he was right, but they were in shock. They were duly warned.

Q: It's not even like going to Nigeria which has a fully realized film scene.

LC: No. This is not Abercrombie & Fitch. This is forest camping; don't think luxury. But then, after a period of time, they said, "There's something here with these people."

Everyone feels this magic. Seen from the outside, Africa is just a disaster of statistics, right? But when you go there, especially with people like the Bayaka, you feel so hopeful. You feel like you're connected to something that's ancient.

We all have this history of having come from the hunter-gatherer tradition at some level, and you feel this kind of connection. And even these guys [from] L.A. -- who would have preferred to be doing a Mercedes commercial -- they felt it too.

Q: When would they get another chance to shoot in Africa?

LC: I'm not sure they were sure they were going to get back [laughs].

Q: Were they terrified?

LC: Terrified. And we had a lot of interference from the government.

Q: Did you really?

LC: We did. A lot. These guys would come down with machine guns and stop the film.

Q: Really? It's the former French Congo, right?

LC: It was called Ubangi. It was always that little central landlocked country where the two rivers, the Ubangi and the Congo, came down. So the neighbors are Rwanda, Chad, Congo and Cameroon.

We just took the film back in August because I had promised to bring it back to show it to the Bayaka. And the first screening was in the forest.

Q: The very, very first?

LC: Yeah. The first in Africa.

Q: You screened it at the Telluride Film Festival by then. You couldn't get more contrasting.

LC: I know. It had cables, and the producer Jamie Bruce, was practically manning the sound system in the forest. It kept tipping.

All the Bayaka were there, it was only Bayaka for the first screening in the forest.

Q: But where was Sarno?

LC: He was there. It was behind his house in the forest. Of course they said it was the best film they'd ever seen; they'd never seen a film before.

Q: At least they knew to compliment you.

LC: Yes. Then we moved up the country and the last screening was with the president of CAR, [François] Bozizé, in the presidential palace. And I had brought the actors, because it's very important for them.

It was a really tremendous experience. When we screened in the capital, we did questions and answers afterwards.

And the comment we got universally was, "We're so happy to see a film where the white guy is kind of hopeless, and our little people" – they call them the little people – "our little people have to save them, they can't do anything. We're tired of having these films where all our problems are solved by some white guy coming in."

Q: Next the Chinese will make their movies and they will be saving them.

LC: Our Chinese character has been not appreciated [who also is villainous]. Not by the UN. We were supposed to have a screening there.

The French, the Lebanese, they've all been in there. So it's just a new wave. I felt the Chinese character, he could have been American, Lebanese or French, but he was Chinese. The reaction has been very strong.

Q: The scene with the bush meat that he's eating: is it implied that that was elephant meat?

LC: It was elephant. The bush meat is crucial, because for the Bayaka to survive they have to have small game to go after.

When I first went in 1999, they said they had to travel about 20-30 minutes to get food. I mean, they could hunt within 20 minutes of the village. Now they have to go a half day, sometimes a full day. Sometimes they come back empty-handed.

So the less they can depend on the forest, the more they have to depend on the Bantu, and they get paid three cigarettes and a few stalks for a day's work.

Q: Are there still diamonds there?

LC: There are a lot of diamonds.

Q: So there are potential resources.

LC: But the diamonds are so prone to corruption.

Q: You'd think that tourism would be the way.

LC: And that's the hope.

Q: Eco-tourism is the thing that can save Africa.

LC: Right.

Q: They said you were a philanthropist.

LC: The philanthropy associated with this film -- people say, "Are you giving back to the Bayaka from the film?"

Well, if the Bayaka had to wait for this film to give back [to them], the forest could be gone at that point.

Q: It might bring them some publicity.

LC: I've been active there since I first went to cast it, and I saw there was such a tremendous need for health and education for these people, as well as to protect the forest.

Q: We keep forgetting that if we strip away the rainforest, we strip away basically our ability to regenerate the ozone layer.

LC: So it's for us. But also, if we're going to have cultural diversity, these [people] are [among] the last hunter-gatherers on Earth.

You have the Bayaka, and in the equatorial forest you have other pygmy groups. You have a group in Borneo, and that's it.

Q: What about in South America? Isn't there one group that's still surviving?

LC: I guess you could still say there are some groups that are still hunter-gatherers, but the South American rainforest is being cut all around them as well.

The really crucial thing for the Bayaka is the forest, because it's really hard to imagine this particular people transitioning successfully into village or urban life.

They shouldn't have to. They should be able to have education; they should be able to have basic health care.

But what's interesting is that you're dealing with a culture which is anarchistic, non-hierarchical, non-representational -- like some of our American Indians -- and you're asking them to speak for themselves.

We're going in and we're saying, "But you guys have to be educated so you can stand up in front of the UN and express yourselves."

Well, it's not a culture that develops that at all. It's a culture that's absolutely communal, decisions are made by consensus. Just by hearing their music, you hear this. The way they opportunistically sing in this amazing kind of participatory, polyphonic way, it expresses everything about them.

Q: Where do you live now?

LC: I now live in Virginia, and I grew up in New York. I'd been living in Hawaii. I made the film from Hawaii, which was not a smart thing, but I did.

Q: And this is your fourth movie?

LC: This is my second feature.

Q: How did you find your distributor, DADA?

LC: I think our counsel knew the distributor, and we really liked what they were doing on Last Mountain -- a very powerful film about dysfunction of our government here, talking about corruption and bribery. We liked very much the way they were handling it and the style that they have of distribution.

Q: Now that you have a distributor, you're not doing the festivals anymore?

LC: No, we're not.

Q: Did you go to some other festivals?

LC: We did not go international with the film. It's a co-production with Central Africa, and they've submitted it as a contender for the Foreign Film Oscar.

Q: Would that be for this year?

LC: Yeah. First film ever that they've had, so they're very excited about that.

Q: Have you toured this film in Africa at all?

LC: Just this last trip in August. We just went to Central African Republic from the tip, where the Bayaka are, up to the capital.

Q: You've got to get it all throughout Africa.

LC: And they're very interested in that. The Minister of Culture now is a wonderful man, who's one of [the late dictator Jean-Bédel] Bokassa's sons. He's been doing some really interesting things, including reconciliations about his dad. Very enlightened fellow.

And he's taken up this film. He wants to take this film all over, because for them it shows their country in a positive light. Otherwise, with Central Africa, you hear about Bokassa and you hear about the Lords‛ Revolution Army on the northern side.

So they're excited to have something that is good news and to showcase their country. They're really motivated to take it around, so I think we will. But so far, we have only been to Central Africa.

Q: And how about yourself, traveling in Africa?

LC: I love Africa.

Q: How many other areas?

LC: I've been around. When I was a child, I was in East Africa -- Kenya and Tanzania. I've been to Central Africa quite a few times.

Q: We need movies like this. And doing it as a fiction film, that will get people more attracted than a documentary.

LC: I know. There have been so many documentaries, especially about the Bayaka.

Q: But to actually see people behaving in an acting scenario is much more interesting.

LC: And the fact that they're good actors is pretty extraordinary. That was a great surprise to me.

Q: Where do you go from here?

LC: I need to make a film locally because I have a son, I have a young 10 year old. I did take him to Africa, but being a mom and a film director is not a great combo. So I'm going to try to find something locally. I have a few scripts that I'm working on -- a trilogy that I began that I want to complete.

Q: Are you going to draw from cultures that are disenfranchised and have their problems?

LC: I would like to. There's so much happening right now that one wants to do something useful.

I would like to tell an American story for sure. There's so much happening in this country now.

Q: And these will be fiction films?

LC: Fiction, yeah. I don't feel I have a good journalistic bent.

Q: Well, the best thing for a journalistic bent is like a six year old, "Why?"

LC: Yeah. Curiosity.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Step Into This Incredible Doc -- Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

Having grown up enjoying Roger Corman’s filmic retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s horror tales -- many with the legendary actors Boris Karloff and Vincent Price -- his garish productions were lodged in my brain forever. This was the guy who inspired so many trendy directors -- such as Quentin Tarantino -- to go into film-making.

So when I saw Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, director Alex Stapleton’s relatively short doc on the great master of indie, genre, and cult cinema, at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, a flood of memories returned.

Thankfully this film has gathered steam, hit the festival circuit, and has landed in this year’s New York Film Festival on its closing day -- October 16th -- with a special screening at 1:30 pm. Since Roger Corman has been in town for the NY Comic Con, hopefully he will join the director after the screening.

The following short Q&A is culled from comments made after her Sundance showing.

Q: What inspired you to make this film about this legendary Hollywood rebel?

AS: I'm a secret nerd on the inside. I grew up watching most of all these movies, and growing up in Texas, I was obsessed with Pam Grier as a nerdy, black, young woman.

So I grew up totally in love with [Corman]. Probably when I was 19, I learned he did a film called The Intruder, which is a big part of this film.

And that's when I got the idea that it was so amazing that one man could be responsible for so many types of cinema and could do a movie like that before Martin Luther King was even a household name. I just wanted to celebrate his legacy, so that's basically it.

Q: What was the movie you saw 10 years ago that changed your life?

AS: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It was a midnight screening, and it was awesome and the energy of the crowd was awesome. I can't believe that this film got a midnight slot. And you guys were great; you laughed.

Q: A lot of great people weren't in the film. Will you include them when the DVD comes out? Why didn't they make the cut? How long would it have been if they had?

AS: Six hours.

Q: Is there anyone you regret not including?

AS: I have no regrets. I'm really happy with this film. The great thing is that when we put out a DVD, we have our work ahead of us when we get back to LA.

This will be the biggest, badass, most bitching DVD you will ever have in your entire life. There are probably going to be five DVD extra discs -- like Jack Nicholson going on and on about more stories. It will be like a galaxy.

Q: When Jaws and Star Wars were released, that was a rebirth of Hollywood cinema. In this light, those big fun movies are now the big money makers.

AS: Everyone in this movie is a graduate of Roger Corman -- except for Eli Roth, who started with James Cameron. James Cameron also started with Roger, [but] he's not a part of the story.

[Francis Ford] Coppola was as well. He made the first blockbuster with The Godfather, and then obviously we all know what James Cameron is up to today. There's a great irony that these guys came from the biggest penny pincher in the industry.

I hear all the stories of these young filmmakers who are out there making features for a hundred thousand dollars or less and working really hard and tirelessly to just go out there. They have that DIY attitude of just getting your hands dirty, using what you have access to, and making film.

There's a renaissance happening of that culture again. Hopefully, [with] a film like this, you can look and see that these guys were doing this in the 1950s.

And everything's cyclical, so hopefully you'll be making the next best thing and you'll change the system.

Q: With the popularity of superhero movies, it was surprising that you didn’t include something about Corman’s version of Fantastic Four. Was that ever part of an initial cut?

AS: It's a 90 minute movie. We leave the chronology in the early '80s. Fantastic Four was made in '92 or '94, and Roger did it for like $2 to try to keep the rights.

That was kind of the beginning, the brink of the resurrection of comic book movies in mainstream cinema. There's not enough room, not enough time.

Q: When did you make a movie for Roger?

AS: I was the second unit director on Dinoshark, I recorded sound, was an actress in the movie, and those were all things that I had to do. That was the deal that Roger made with me in order for me to go to Mexico and make that movie. I feel like I'm now a graduate of the Roger Corman School.

Q: Halfway through the movie he says he thinks it's morally wrong to make $35 million a movie, and that that kind of money would better be used to [build a city].

AS: When Roger was here at Sundance, this question came up and I agreed with his answer. Talking about a movie like Avatar, [by] one of his protégés, he doesn't mind it when there's money used towards films at that level, when it's innovative and you're using every dollar. The money is on the screen, right?

But there are all these movies that are made that have these huge budgets and it's just two people talking to each other for an hour and a half. I think that's where he draws the line; he's like, it's a waste. That quote was said in 1981, and it's coming off of the Spielberg-Lucas bonanza, so you've got to put it in context.

Q: What was his relationship with agencies and managers? Were they willing to work with him or were some agencies just not willing to work with him at all?

AS: I think they appreciated him over the course of history because great talent came out of him. I don't know if it was "fun" to work with him, because there wasn't a lot of money. I don't even think agents and managers were really in the picture for most of these films. These are kids that didn't have agents and managers when they were working for Roger.

Q: How much money will Roger make off of licensing these clips to you?

AS: Roger really likes me, so he gave me the rights. Well, this is a fair use documentary, first of all. Second of all, with the clips that he owns, he agreed to let me use all of his films for free. So I'm very honored and blessed that we got that opportunity.

Q: Earlier in the film somebody said nobody really knew what Roger did after the shooting was over, what kept him occupied and what he liked to do. Is he still a mystery once the shooting is over, and on a personal level, what gets him excited?

AS: What gets Roger excited is being able to get a deal, like Paradise Village. He gets really animated. He's an engineer; that's what he studied. He has that kind of a brain, so figuring out really hard problems gets him really, really excited.

He still is very mysterious even to me. I've been working on this for five years and I still don't understand the boiling inferno completely. But I like that; I think it's a little interesting.

Sometimes the point of a movie like this is not to really explain it, because who knows? It's all in Roger's head. I was more fascinated with the extreme difference between his conservative nature, [and being] a Stanford grad.

Q: Does Corman have any regrets about not being more [vocal] about social issues?

AS: I don't think that Roger cares. Roger is a walking legend. He's a mascot for independent cinema, and that what's more important for him is to stay in business and be his own boss, which is like the great American tradition.

I mean, that was me -- I aspired to. So I think that comes with a price, and the film shows you that he went down that way to maintain his independence, and I think he got what he wanted.

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