Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Talkin' With Director John Walter About a Theater of War and Meryl Streep

Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour

While veteran actress Meryl Streep garners attention for her role as the authoritarian nun in "Doubt," another film--the doc "Theater of War" out now at Film Forum--offers insight into who Steep is as an actress, and it grapples with the nature of war as viewed through the life and work of the late, great German playwright Bertolt Brecht.

Summer, 2006, the Public Theater staged an incredible production of Brecht's great anti-war tragedy, "Mother Courage and Her Children" in Central Park. Directed by George Wolfe and starring Streep, the play received great notices and focused attention through the experience of live theater on our very own war still raging in Iraq to this day.

Film director John Walter (who did the quirky art doc "How To Draw A Bunny," a Special Jury Prize winner at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival) forged this thought-provoking documentary as a short meditation on Brecht and his views of war, politics and peace; it was also a look at the process of staging the play and as a take on a an actress like Streep who can convey emotions and ideas with an economy and forcefulness to her art.

In the film we also get to see the creative dynamic between Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, former artistic director Wolfe and Brecht translator/adapter the award-winning playwright Tony Kushner as they bring the production to fruition and discuss the underlying philosophy and politics of Brecht's classic anti-war screed.

Q: This film is a unique hybrid: a documentary about theater and more.

JW: Yes, it is kind of a hybrid... It's because we had so little time to do it--it was a little counterintuitive to the [normal way] a documentary is put together. I only heard of [the production] two weeks before the rehearsals were beginning. So I got to meet with Meryl and pitch her the idea of letting us film while she was doing it. That was kind of freeing; I couldn't try to talk her into it--I just had to tell her about it and she had to decide whether to do it or not. I just described my intentions.... And then she had to say yes or no.

Then I had a couple of weeks to raise money so we didn't have to write a detailed treatment--I just said, "Here's what I have: I have this movie, it has Meryl Streep, and we've got about two weeks to get it together or there is no movie [laughs]." In a lot of ways I was thinking about [French experimental film director] Chris Marker. Brecht had this mania for documentation himself. For every production, he created these model books which are used in film.

Q: You had so much rich material to work with from his documents and past performances...

JW: It was at Brecht's insistence that he created a visual score for every piece. Every gesture and position of the actors was documented. So I started thinking about Marker's film "La Jettee" and the way he told this complicated science fiction story using only still photographs. They had this great, grainy black and white, almost surrealist quality to them. I thought... "Wonder if I could do same thing with Brecht's model books. So I set [the pages] into motion using the camera. I thought, "That's one idea."

Then there was the thought of doing a straight cinema verite style of observational documentary of the rehearsal process. Then it was the idea of taking the two films and setting them into a dialogue with each other--like Marker does in "Sans Soliel" where he has these several stories and these themes, and he puts [it all] out on the table for audience--sometimes he makes a connection and sometimes he doesn't. That's what I was thinking at the beginning of the project.

Q: Did it make sense simply by shooting the play...

JW: We shot the entire play several times, but only in rehearsal. The intention of the project was only to shoot rehearsals. That's what I told Meryl; we'd start from the first table read until the last minute. We never see the end result--that's theater. The only time [you see] the cast in costume is a dress rehearsal. In fact, the film starts with George Wolfe saying that this is not performance; it's a rehearsal. As an audience member, you watch a rehearsal differently than when you watch a performance.

Also, when you're watching a performance you view it as a consumer and as a critic; you're judging it rather than being in dialogue with it. I wanted the audience to learn the play along with the actors.

Q; We also see the culture that Brecht was a part of and who Brecht was. It offers a fascinating opportunity to learn more.

JW: That's a big part of it. The whole project originated with my own fascination with the character and work of Brecht--how I learn more about it myself, and then how would I explain it to someone else. I wanted to go on a trip to Brechtland" and to bring back home movies about it that [are] not boring.

Q: And its relevance today...?

JW: I wasn't trying to show that it was relevant today, but rather to ask the question of the audience: if you as a viewer think it's relevant, then that's your own answer. I wanted to raise that question and explore and dig up enough material to answer it.

Q: You're sharing the process that Meryl Streep and the rest of the cast discovered...

JW: Everyone has a job to do, to think about this stuff and explore these questions and entertain people.

Q: What did you learn about Bertolt Brecht?

JW: One thing about documentaries is that you can appropriate them for your own studies, just like I did with Brecht's documents which he created for stage directors to use to understand his direction. Someone will find this film historically significant.

What I really learned about Brecht was that in his mania to be modern, he could absorb the oldest influences, from the Bible to medieval painting to chronicles of 15th century battles. One of the great pleasure for me was to be in Brecht's library. It was his apartment building where he had lived in the last few years of his life. He died there. It has been preserved as a museum, the Brecht Archive and Museum in Berlin.

There's his apartment, and the archive with his manuscripts and complete works on the other floor. On the bookshelf I took out his pocket Bible from the 1920s. I opened up his bible: inside the front cover he had glued a picture of Buddha; in the back he had glued a picture of a fast car.

Q: Why is he relevant; what fascinates you about him?

JW: It must be his sheer perversity--the way he approaches structuring a story... the fragmented structure and the way he approaches a character, building a character through an accumulation of contradictions, as opposed to some elaborated type where you articulate for the audience their story arc. His wide-ranging imagination mixed the highest seriousness with the lowest of humor. He was a ringmaster, a showman, manic nutcase, part philosopher part song-and-dance man.

Q: How did it get started?

JW: It was Oskar's idea to do it in the park. Tony wanted to do a translation and both had the idea of having Meryl tackle the role. My intuition going into the project was that if [George W.] Bush hadn't talked the country into invading Iraq they wouldn't been doing "Mother Courage" but "Galileo" or "Three Penny Opera." It was cause and effect.

Q: When you hear Meryl talk about the working class you do think about the Bush government...

JW: One funny, dopey criticism about Tony's translation was that he worked in lines about the Bush administration into Brecht's text. He did not add anything; it was there in older translations--it was Brecht talking about Hitler and talking about war. Tony rendered the text into American English. Brecht was using dialect and old peasanty syntax. When you render that into a language for an actor you find the equivalent. Previous translators were British. You can't give it to American actors; it doesn't work with a cockney feel. That's what Tony wanted to do with the translation.

Q: So what was Meryl like--you got an insight to her by seeing her in process.

JW: One uncanny aspect of making this film [was] feel[ing like I was watching a movie [and] forget I was documenting a rehearsal. You find yourself crossing the line and watching a fiction unfolding. I'm looking at Meryl Streep and then it's "Mother Courage;" watching her respond to emotional situation, I choke up when she sings the lullaby to the dead kid.

Q: That's the thing about Meryl Streep; she breathes life into a character--she is "Mother Courage" not Meryl Streep.

JW: That's her archetype--the chameleon. I did not have that much time with her--only about two hours with her just talking. But she was not the type of person I would get...shy with. I didn't feel that around Meryl; she just seemed like another person doing her job. I don't know, but she doesn't have that celebrity [attitude].

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Strange Case of Claus Von Stauffenberg and Valkyrie

Review by Brad Balfour

starring Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, Jamie Parker, and Eddie Izzard, Thomas Kretschmann, Carice van Houten, Christian Berkel   
directed by Bryan Singer, co-written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander 

Both director Bryan Singer and star Tom Cruise have described "Valkyrie" as an adventure thriller. So that's what they had in mind—which is understandable since Cruise has established himself as an actor who can drive such films—but they should have pushed the notion aside. Maybe Singer can't help but make a film full of elaborately uniformed heroes and villains; after all he effectively launched the X-Men franchise and re-imagined Superman (albeit in the none-too-successful "Superman Returns").

With reasonable diligence and relative accuracy, "Valkyrie" tells the complex story of Colonel Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler and, with his band of co-conspirators, take over the crumbling Third Reich before the Allies force an unconditional surrender on his homeland. Stauffenberg was an aristocrat, an active soldier, and an unrepentant nationalist who believed in the greater glory of the German people.  

A devout Catholic, he was appalled by the Nazis' brutality and lack of honor. With other aristocrats and conservative Catholics (played by Branagh, Nighy, Stamp, Parker, and Izzard, among others), he joined a resistance movement that plotted to kill Hitler and remove the fanatic Nazis from power while still believing in a German "victory." By July 20, 1944, the day of this final attempt against Hitler, a surrender to the Allies was still possible that would have allowed Teutonic dignity to remain intact.

As the film unfolds, the conspirators become increasingly desperate, since earlier attempts to kill Hitler failed and the war has taken a decidedly dismal turn. Stauffenberg, who had been terribly wounded by an Allied attack in North Africa (he lost an eye, a hand and most of the fingers on his other hand), is sent to a Munich hospital to recover. The resistance engages Stauffenberg to join them, and he goes from discouraged conspirator (he has little faith in the civilian plotters) to key organizer who must both kill Hitler and initiate the coup that gets the regular Army to suppress the Nazi cadres of the SS and Gestapo ("Operation Valkyrie"). Fortunately, he has risen in rank to Colonel, has been transferred to Berlin and becomes part of the general staff that gives him access to Hitler.

This tale becomes richly compelling as the audience gets to know who the players are. As we learn about the various plotters' motives, we see the attempt unfold and ultimately fail. Though Singer accelerates its thriller pace, "Valkyrie" reveals a lot about the striations and counterforces in German society that led to the Nazis' takeover and their iron-fisted control of the country. As the historical facts of the July 20th coup emerge, we see the complex dynamics behind the scenes which suggest that the German Third Reich was far from a coherent juggernaut, but a careening mess of madness and compliance. Unfortunately "Valkyrie" breezes along without enough moments of digression to illuminate the various factions involved and the failures of character that caused this plot to fail.

Though an excellent crew of international actors—such as Brits Nighy, Wilkinson, Euro-actors Kretschmann, and van Houten—round out the cast, they play their parts in disconcerting English accents. Nonetheless, the supporting characters provide a rich foundation to nurture Cruise's Stauffenberg as de-facto coup leader. 

Even though Cruise dominates throughout, Singer assembles the film from a kaleidoscopic bunch of set pieces that speed up into the failed coup and the conspirators' executions. While the diminutive Cruise gives Stauffenberg a large presence, he performs the character with greater restraint and poise than he has shown in the past. Though his very Americanness sometimes gets hard to overlook, Cruise manages a fine performance.

Having recently viewed a much younger Cruise in "Jerry Maguire" one could see the making of the superstar. With an abundant energy and passion, Cruise imprinted on his character both an edge and vulnerability, like a loving kid with attention-deficit disorder. But the Cruise of "Valkyrie" is all about control, and though his mania seethes underneath the surface, he effectively manages it as Stauffenberg makes his bid to determine Germany's destiny. 

The script tries to seed the film with the rich historical, cultural, and political realities of the time among a field of ever-intensifying action. But while Singer nearly overwhelms with the powerful imagery of Nazi culture—the elaborate military uniforms, endless Swaistka-laden flags and banners or imposing architecture—he sacrifices background for the drama, occasionally diminishing the importance of the story.

One can only begin to appreciate "Valkyrie" by getting past preconceptions of Tom Cruise in an eyepatch and Nazi regalia or the baggage of his "Oprah" appearances. And if you can get past the polyglot of accented English or the scuttlebutt about the film finding an appropriate release date, then "Valkyrie" is both suspenseful and enlightening. It goes far beyond the cliche that pits "heroic/good Nazis" against the "bad" fanatics who supported Hitler, but rather reveals the intricate and daunting dynamics the led to the rise and fall of the Third Reich.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Kate Winslet Copes With Making the Reader, The Nazi era and Oscar Buzz

Feature Interview by Brad Balfour

With both Revolutionary Road and The Reader coming into theaters around the world, this has been quite a creative year for 33-year-old British actress Kate Winslet. There's Oscar®-talk for each film, with Winslet in line for best actress, best supporting actress or both. And ironically, these two films complement each other in that they're both partially set during the same period--the post-World War Two-era of the mid-1950s.

Winslet already has five Oscar nominations to her credit, two of which made her the youngest actress ever to be nominated twice. She's also regarded as a champion of showing women's bodies as they naturally are and has always refused to conform to anyone else's template for female nudity.

As a novel by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader offered a forceful look at the seductive effect of the Third Reich as it gained power and the effect it had on the first post-war generation. Once World War II was over, the generation that followed had to reconcile how their parents, uncles and aunts had allowed Hitler and the original Nazis to gain power and draw the nation into its insidious system. As this country begins to cope with this post-Bush era, a slew of Nazi-related films like The Reader (Valkyrie, Good and The Boy In The Striped Pajamas) are examining the slippery slope that led to total compliance with a Fascist dictatorship.

Virginal 15-year-old Michael Berg (played by German actor David Kross; the older version is played by Ralph Fiennes) is similarly seduced by Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) and then the relationship is discarded. As he grapples with its effect on him, he also grapples with building a life afterwards--a life that includes becoming a lawyer and dealing with an untested legal system established in the wake of the Nazi regime. As part of his legal studies, Berg witnesses the trial of four female work camp guards who sent countless people to their deaths. When he recognizes one as his former lover, the ever deepening gyre of emotions and ideas spins.

During screenings, this film has produced polarizing responses. When the opportunity arose to speak with Winslet in a near-exclusive interview setting, it produced equally strong emotional reactions on both sides of the table.

Q: I saw both Revolutionary Road and The Reader on the same day; you played two very different people. Was it a different process for each film to adapt or adopt these people?

KW: it's an extremely different process with any character; every character is different. I would hate to use the old regurgitated emotions of another character and layer them into a new character with a different wig on, or a different costume and a different accent.

These two projects were wildly different in terms of how I had to approach them. But both were unbelievably complicated, the most challenging experiences of my working life. I find myself saying again and again: the fact that I got to play both of these characters in my lifetime, let alone in the space of a year--it doesn't even add up; that doesn't happen to people.

To say that creatively it's been the most rewarding two years of my life would be a massive understatement. I've learned so much about myself as an actress. I've just honestly learned so much.

Approaching someone like Hanna Schmitz is so different from somebody like April Wheeler [of Revolutionary Road]. The one thing that they both do have in common is that they're based on novels, and the source material is so rich in each case that they really became my bible in both instances, which doesn't happen all the time.

My copy of The Reader is on my shelf right next to Revolutionary Road and they both don't really resemble books anymore; they both [look], sort of, like a dog has had a go at them. They're practically falling apart.

[With] Hannah I was very much playing a character, and I remember staring down the barrel of the gun and thinking, "Shit. I really have nothing I can relate to here. There's nothing of my own experience I can put into this character, at all. So let's just start right there and hope for the goddamn best."

It's such a terrifying position to be in, especially when it's such an extraordinary book; the material's so rich. It's a much loved piece of German literature, and so important to Germans and I wanted to get it right. I was the person asked to play Hanna Schmitz.

It was an enormous pressure [on me]. "Jesus Christ! Don't fuck it up, girl." The thing about playing Hannah that quite honestly was the hardest--aside from all the obvious things: the dialect and so on, and the aging, and the illiteracy and the moral illiteracy--the hardest thing was to hold on to my instincts as to who you are.

With something like this--a very, very intricate and difficult love film that is set up against a Holocaust backdrop (though I don't feel it's a Holocaust movie at all)--[is that] everyone had an opinion about Hanna Schmitz. She meant something different for everybody. People were alarmingly vocal about that, and everyone would assume you shared the same opinion, "Well obviously she was a Nazi; obviously, she was in control of her action; well, obviously--" and the list goes on.

I would sometimes think, "Oh my god, that's not what I thought. Oh shit. Am I wrong? Hang on. No, wait a second. I might not be wrong. I actually might be right, maybe they're wrong. Does it matter who's right or wrong?"

All that mattered at the end of the day was that I made her my own and hung on to that and played the honesty and the truthfulness of that, the vulnerability of her and that I understood her. That's the most important job, I think. I'm really learning more about this, actually. All the time is that as an actor it's really so key that you get inside the character and you understand them--the good bits and the bad bits.

You don't have to forgive it; you don't have to sympathize with it. You just have to just have to understand why those things [happen] to that person and why they behave the way that they do. That's what I was able to do, somehow, with April and with Hannah. And that's why I'm absolutely not good right now, because of having gone through these two extraordinary experiences. It's literally blown my mind.

Q: Why do you think Hanna had an affair with this high school boy and why did she keep calling him "kid?"

KW: You'd have to ask Bernhard Schlink why she called him "kid," quite honestly. You really would. That's what she calls him the book and I don't know why that was. That was a little nickname, an affectionate term she had for him. I don't think she was calling him "kid" and really meaning a child, or baby, or anything like that. Also, Hannah thought he was 17; he's a 15-year-old boy, but he let her believe he was 17 years old. I just don't think she really thought about the age.

She's a woman who--because of her illiteracy--has probably never had a close, intimate relationship of this nature. She's never been able to let anyone in for fear of being found out, and being exposed, and the shame of that she carried in her day-to-day life. Her illiteracy informed everything about her existence.

For her, to feel these things, be touched in that way, be overwhelmed at how much she ended up, ultimately, [made her] emotionally need this boy. I would actually say that in many ways I feel, she ended up emotionally needing him almost more than he needed her. You don't expect that to happen.

I think she genuinely loved this boy, this young man. And that's how it always felt to me: he was a young man. It didn't feel inappropriate even--it didn't feel salacious, or uncomfortable, or wrong. It somehow always seemed so real, and so pure, and so tender. That's what it was for me.

That's why I think it didn't feel uncomfortable or unnatural to do those love scenes with David [Kross], because I always understood them--we both did as characters. And it doesn't matter how nervous you get before shooting scenes like that. At the end of the day as long as you believe in the reason that they're there and present in the story, then you can embrace it, and really play those moments out and fill them with as much honesty as possible.

Q: What was that process for you--to get into her mind, you had to do a lot of research since you don't have much of a frame of reference for her to begin with?

KW: It was really hard. It was incredibly helpful, and so interesting. But it was a long process, and I felt like I had to cram quite a lot in. I really only had about two months, and there was a lot to do--with the dialect and the general preparation of Hannah: who she was, her back story, where she came from. I came at it and thought, where do I begin? Okay, I thought, I could do this thing, I could do this thing, or I could do all of these things. Okay, let's start with that. I'll just do all of these things and I'm just going to see which one helps me the most. And ultimately everything I did was beneficial.

I had to educate myself a little more about the Holocaust; and I had to educate myself a lot about the role of an SS guard, about which I actually knew very little. And I'm not embarrassed to say that, because I think that's the case for many people of my generation.

Once you see documentary footage of the camp, you read anything on the Holocaust, you can never un-see those things, you can never un-hear, un-read them. I'm still absolutely haunted and traumatized by so much of what I saw during the preparation process. At a certain point I just had to stop, because I thought, "I have what I need now; I get it. I really get it."

Then what became most beneficial to me was the book. I practically memorized it.

Understanding the mind of an illiterate person--that was crucial to me. Have I said this already in this interview or am I having déjà vu? Have I talked about the literacy part in it yet? So I spent a lot of time with a group in New York City, the Literacy Partners, and they teach men and women to read and write, and that was really the most helpful stuff I could possibly have done because I had to understand the level of shame. I had to understand how you live with that lie, how it affects every single area of your life.

I literally sat in on classes with people that were learning how to spell cat, bat, sat and mat. And some of the younger people in that group were 22, 23, and some of the older people were 72 and 73 years-old. And they had spent a life being so ashamed that they can't turn around to anybody and say, can you help me?

There was one woman in particular who spent a lot of time with me--she's in her early 60s and she had learned to read and write two years ago; she's just so proud of herself, I can't tell you. And she was happy to talk about it, happy to talk about how she survived.

So I would say to her, "Hold on a second. How did you get jobs? What kinds of jobs did you do?"

"Well Sugar, let me tell you. I was a telephone operator and when you can't read or write...I have the gift of the gab--you become a good talker. You talk with people a lot. You try to escape from it."

But I would say, "Yes. But how did you get the job in the first place? How did you fill in forms?"

"Oh honey, did you ever hear of Ace bandage?"


"Well, I would go to the store and I would buy myself an Ace bandage and I would go to my girlfriend and say, 'Oh my hand; I can't hold a pen. Could you fill in that form for me?' And I would tell her what to put, 'Yeah, you put that.' That is what I did, for years and years of my life."

"But how many jobs are we talking about?"

"We're talking a lot of jobs and a lot of Ace bandages," is what she said. She had a son, so I would say, "How would you help him with his homework?"

[She said,] "No. I did not help him with his homework. I employed somebody to do that, because his life and his education was so important to me, but I knew I couldn't do it. I couldn't let him know that I couldn't read and write."

I said, "What about bedtime stories?"

"No ma'am. I would sing to him made-up songs that I would make up."

I was blown away. And then, [I asked,] "Okay, restaurants; what would you do in a restaurant?"

"I would sit with my menu and my beautiful suit that I had made for myself, which I had perfectly pressed that day myself, and I would look at that menu and say, 'I'll take the chicken.'"

And I would say, "How did you know they had chicken." "Oh honey, everybody has chicken." But I would say, okay, "Salads, whatever...?"

"I would say to the gentleman, 'What vegetables come with that today? Oh, that sounds good. Let me take some of those."

So my understanding of how good you get at hiding that, the lies that you live through, and the level of control you have to exert on your day-to-day life just to simply understand what happens next is a level of protection. That was the most valuable, eye-opening stuff.

You cannot imagine how fascinating that whole process was for me. It literally blew my mind. Walking down the street, I just think, pretend that you can't read that sign. Could you imagine that, all of those things?
Also being told that illiterate people can count, so that when we were putting the process together of how Hannah was actually able to teach herself to read and write, we realized the counting element was quite important. The-lady-with-the-little-dog--one-two-three-four [syncopated]. You see her doing it on her fingers. It helped a lot with how [director] Stephen [Daldry] put this together.

Q: Even when you're doing these interviews, you seem to be learning something about yourself; about what you did to get there. It sounds like this was a pivotal experience for you.

KW: It was huge. I full-on broke down and thought, "I'm going to have to leave the room." Don't get me started on the trial. I am still coming to terms with the whole experience of having played Hanna, I really genuinely am.

We wrapped on July 12th, and I sort of walked away like some car crash victim who somehow hadn't been hurt on the outside, but I felt like I couldn't speak [about it]. It was truly overwhelming. I really went somewhere. I was in some kind of a trance. And I'm still coming to terms with all of it. I'm so blown away by the movie.

There are moments in the film when I actually make a noise. The moment when he goes to the camp, and the camera's on the inside of that barn, and I go [makes guttural sound]. I just can't watch--and we're not seeing any bloodshed. It's just the emptiness and the power of the imagery and the memory and the fact that that was a real camp.

Q: Is Hanna naïve when she's telling the truth, telling it the way it is? When the Judge and prosecutor ask her questions, she's the only one saying, "What did you expect me to do? This was my job." Does Hannah realize she's taking the brunt of it while the other three female concentration camp guards are lying through their teeth?

KW: No, no... It's both. She's naïve; she's vulnerable; she doesn't have the intellectual capacity to articulate what's happened. She doesn't know about lying on that level. Someone's asking the question--she's giving them the answer. So when she says to [the judge], "Well, what would you have done?" she really wants to know.

She just thought she was doing her job. In those moments she sitting there, she's realizing, for the first time, "Oh, so I had a choice then? Ok, so doing my job meant I was committing a crime, is that what it is?" She didn't know. That is because she was illiterate.

And when those other women realized very quickly that they can pin this thing on her, you just feel her spiraling out of control. Because all she can do is speak faster, say what she said already and say more of it, again and again. You just see her losing control in this catastrophic way. Of course [there's] that moment when, "I need to see a sample of your handwriting," she will take that life sentence [rather than] admit she's illiterate. God, it's devastating.

Q: Everything is left up to the audience; no judgment is made in this film. It asks more questions than it even tries to answer. How important is that in the telling of the story to you?

KW: I think it's crucial. I think it's absolutely crucial. We didn't want to give answers. We wanted to ask questions and have an audience walk away questioning everything, and possibly questioning their own morals if at any second they felt sympathy for Hanna Schmitz.

I knew it wasn't my job to make an audience sympathize with her, humanize her or warm her up. I had to make her a person; I had to make her real; and I had to be 100% committed to conveying the honesty of every single emotion in order to give the audience the opportunity to understand her if they wanted to, feel any level of sympathy if they wanted to.

And the most exciting thing for me, personally, is if the audience feels morally impure, if they feel any degree of sympathy towards her, that's what is interesting. That means that it is getting some kind of new perspective; it is raising questions for people. I think your observation is absolutely right, and it's absolutely what we hoped people would feel about the film.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Spanish Cinema Now Opens This Weekend and Runs From Dec. 5-24

The Film Society of Lincoln Center takes New Yorkers to the Iberian Peninsula this December as 20 new features, a look back on the career of actor Javier Cámara,and a rare look at Spain’s early experimental cinema are presented.

Spanish Cinema Now returns for its 17th year at the Walter Reade Theater, Dec. 5-24, 2008. The acclaimed annual showcase of the best new filmmaking from Spain will present festival prizewinners “Before the Fall,” “Chef’s Special,” “Pretexts,” Spain’s best foreign language film Oscar-nominee “Blind Sunflowers,” and 16 other new features, many in their North American, U.S., or New York premieres, along with a special program of short films.

The showcase begins on Friday, Dec. 5, with two feature film debuts enjoying considerable acclaim around the world. The Opening Night selection, the North American premiere of Nacho Velilla’s charming comedy of manners “Chef’s Special,” will screen at 7:00 p.m.

The New York premiere of F. Javier Gutiérrez’s “Before the Fall” will follow at 9:30 p.m.“Chef’s Special,” a critical and popular hit in Spain about a successful, openly gay chef whose life is upended by the arrival of his children from a prior marriage, is one of seven films featured in the series’ Spotlight on Javier Cámara.

Screening throughout Spanish Cinema Now, these selections present the actor’s dynamic range over the past six years as he approaches international stardom. The retrospective includes films in which he made his name—as the male nurse devoted to the care of a beautiful coma victim in Pedro Almódovar’s 2002 Oscar-winner “Talk to Her” and as a salesman turned low-budget Swedish porn director in the hit 2003 comedy “Torremolinos 73”—as well as his prizewinning turn in this year’s Oscar-contender “Blind Sunflowers,” as a Republican schoolteacher in hiding during the Spanish Civil War. Cámara will introduce several of these screenings.

Gutiérrez’s “Before the Fall,” a provocative depiction of a world waiting for its destruction labeled “one of the most original genre films in years” by the AFI Festival’s Lane Kneedler, won four awards including the Golden Biznaga for best film at this year’s Málaga Spanish Film Festival.”

A sidebar offers a rare glimpse at the experimental films that emerged in Spain during cinema’s early rise, while several recent classics including Pedro Almódovar’s “Talk To Her” fill out the series’s spotlight look at celebrated actor Javier Cámara, who will attend several screenings.

Contemporary Spanish directors have led the way in exploring new approaches to traditional film genres,” says Richard Peña, program director at the Film Society, “and this year’s selections for Spanish Cinema Now powerfully illustrate this tendency.

Other prominent genre titles in the series include Nacho Vigalondo’s inventive example of low-budget intrigue “Timecrimes,” Gonzalo López-Gallego’s dramatic suspense thriller set in a remote mountain landscape “King of the Hill,” and the Spanish box office smash horror film “[REC],” following a camera crew into an apartment inhabited by zombies, that was re-made in the U.S. as “Quarantine.” The original screens on successive weekends in the series in its North American premiere.

Santiago Zannou’s “One-Armed Trick,” a lively tour through Spain’s growing hip-hop scene starring one of its most prominent performers—Juan Manuel Montillo, aka El Langui, lead singer of La Excepcion—is one of several series films taking on Spain’s social and cultural perspectives. “My Prison Yard” analyzes one woman’s return to prison against the support of the theater workshop she discovers inside the walls.

Acclaimed actress Silvia Munt won the best director award at this year’s Málaga Spanish Film Festival for her directorial debut, “Pretexts,” chronicling the intersection of a theater director’s tumultuous relationship with her husband and her most ambitious production. Two films, Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón’s “Everyone’s Invited” and Gorka Merchán’s “My Father’s House,” vividly investigate the ongoing conflict in the Basque region.

A second series sidebar, Experimental Cinema in Spain, offers a rare glimpse at one of Spanish filmmaking’s lesser-known historical trends through two programs selected by Jose Maria Prado, director of Filmoteca Española. Nemesio M. Sobrevila’s “The Sixth Sense,” a groundbreaking 1929 silent comedy mixing depression, psychoanalysis, and a marvelous critique of image culture, will screen with live piano accompaniment by Carolyn Schwarz on Saturday, Dec. 13, at 1:30 p.m.

The program Avant-Garde Shorts presents a series of remarkable if rarely screened shorts from the first half of the century by Spanish luminaries such as playwright Enrique Jardiel Poncela and director Jose Val del Omar, called “one of the great unknown filmmakers in world cinema” by film writer Amos Vogel.

Spanish Cinema Now is presented in collaboration with the Instituto de la Cinematografia y de las Artes Audiovisuales (ICAA) of the Spanish Ministry of Culture and the Instituto Cervantes of New York. Promotional support from the New York Latin Media and Entertainment Commission.

Single screening tickets for Spanish Cinema Now 2008 are $11; $7 for Film Society members, students and children (6-12, accompanied by an adult); and $8 for seniors (62+). They are available at both the Walter Reade Theater box office and online at available at the Walter Reade Theater box office and online at A series pass admitting one person to a total of five titles in the series can be purchased at the Walter Reade Theater box office (cash only) for $40; $30 for Film Society members. For information, call (212) 875-5601.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Actor Frank Langella Makes Frost/Nixon and Offers Insights into The Mind of a Failed President

Feature Interview by Brad Balfour

Few performances can rival Frank Langella's portrait of the late President Richard Nixon in the Ron Howard film, Frost/Nixon. Originally a stage play—based on the actual interviews conducted by British TV talk show host David Frost in 1977—the cinematic version fleshes out the more raw theatrical version with the visual context of the period and a stronger sense of the social tone of those times. Though The 69-year-old actor looks nothing like Nixon except in the broadest sense, he brilliantly morphs into the late chief exec down his unique tics and grunts.

When the real interviews took place, former President Richard Nixon had recently traumatized the country with his criminal behavior in a quest for re-election that led to his subsequent resignation in the face of possible impeachment. Though it seems like a long time ago for those who didn't live through that historical moment, Nixon's utter disregard for the very rules and laws this country upholds set in motion the slippery slope that shaped the Bush regime's equally callous disregard for our rights and values.

So it was both a challenge and a risk that David Frost—a legendary interviewer in England, but one with a more dicey rep in the States—was willing to take when he approached Nixon's people with his mega-interview request. Figuring that Frost would lob softball questions and be something of a push-over, Tricky Dick agreed to do this one televised interview (especially because he was getting half a mil for it as well). The interviews took place, were unmitigated successes and were revelatory--almost as if they were the prosecutions that never legally took place.

Frost/Nixon—the play written by Peter Morgan (who also wrote this film version and the movie, The Queen)—was also a huge success for Langella and won him various awards and nominations including a Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. The former New Jerseyan has won other Tonys—two for Best Featured Actor in a Play (Edward Albee's "Seascape" and Ivan Turgenev's "Fortune's Fool")—and was nominated for two other Best Actor Tonys (first in '78 for the Edward Gorey-designed Broadway revival of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and in 2004 for Stephen Belber's "Match"). Best known for his success in "Dracula," he starred in John Badham's subsequent film version opposite the late Sir Laurence Olivier. He has done his share of other films, but his stage work has made him a force to reckon with.

In light of the waning days of lame-duck President George W. Bush, this cinematic re-staging of the play offers insights into the current contentious and troubled presidency. By seeing it mirrored in Nixon's equally disgraced fall and his subsequent belief that history will take a kinder view of him, it reveals something about what's in the mind of the current President and how he feels about his own failures.

Q: Was it different playing Richard Nixon in the movie versus playing him in the theater?

FL: Yes, absolutely. A lot of those things are clichés like "you have to hit the back row on the stage," and grander gestures—all of that’s true. Then comes the sort of relief of the camera because it’s right here, and you know you can just raise your eyebrow and make an incredible point that you can’t do in the play. So the chief difference is that you can go more internal in a film, and it’s wonderful. It’s quite exhilarating and releasing.

Q: Did you wear more makeup for the movie version of “Frost/Nixon” than for the one in the theater?

FL: Yes, but very little. It’s so subtle and so small, but it took two and a half hours to make it look like there’s nothing on my face at all.

Q: Did it take awhile to immerse yourself in being Nixon after you first got the material?

FL: Oh, it took much longer than just the rehearsal period. It took all during the eight weeks in the first theater, and the 12 weeks in the second theater, and then it was Broadway, and then there was the movie, and I was always peeling that onion; always trying to find deeper, more profound elements of him.

Q: How did director Ron Howard affect your process of doing the movie?

FL: Ron was about as good as anyone I’ve ever worked with. He’s an actor’s director, someone who truly and completely wants the actor to shine. He wants the film to be about human beings and wants it to be about the soul of people. So one of the greatest gifts he gave us as actors was: take your time, don’t feel any obligation to arc a scene, and play it in the rhythm you played it onstage, or in the time you played it onstage.

[His attitude was]: "Just be the person, and I’ll cut it. I’ll come in for the moments we agree are the most valuable moments." So in that respect, I believe he was the perfect director for this piece.

Q: In an age when fewer and fewer stage actors get to reprise their roles in the eventual film version, why was it so important that you and Michael Sheen (Frost) were retained?

FL: I can’t speak for Michael, but I was very grateful that I was retained. It’s happened to me twice: with “Dracula,” and with this part. And I don’t know if "important" is the right word. I wouldn’t say it’s "important," because world hunger’s important, this is just "the movies" and show business. But It’s very heartening to have been asked to do it, because if you’ve lived with a character for that long, you’ll arguably know him better than any actor they might choose.

And the shorthand on the set with Ron, Michael, and I was incredible, because Michael and I have been together for 18 months and we never discussed, “Oh you do that, I’ll do that.” We were able to pick up each other’s rhythms after having been in three rehearsal periods, and with three different casts over a period of 18 months.

Q: Was it hard going back from being Nixon and returning to being you again?

FL: No. I always laugh when I read an actor say, “Oh, I did 'Hamlet' and I couldn’t lose the character for two years,” and I say, “Well then, you did it wrong.” You should be able to lose the character in a relatively short amount of time. It is, after all, a skill, and work.

By the time I went out to dinner with friends and stuff, [the character] was gone. I would say in the movie he hung on longer because I was with him all day, 16 hours…

Q: There’s a sense of emotion and humor from Nixon in the film that isn’t normally associated with his public persona. Where did that come from?

FL: I think that I became so protective of him. I became so compassionate towards him, so that every day I played him I was always thinking. And I stopped thinking "he" and started thinking "me." It stopped being Richard Nixon—it became my creation. He lived with me for such a long time, and I was with him for almost two years, that it was my reacting to whatever was happening.

[Nixon] got so deep inside me that no matter what Ron threw at me, like the dog, or a couple of scenes that were totally new, I just felt, “Oh, this is how he’d behave about money, or a pretty ankle, or a little funny-looking dog.” It became second nature to me.

Q: Given Nixon’s insecurities, does it amaze you how successful he became in reaching the highest office in the land?

FL: No, it doesn’t amaze me. My philosophy about that is, “If you have will power and strength, you can overcome. And it’s actually the people who have the most to overcome, who usually go the furthest.” And some people pay the price for that, as Nixon did, because they knock themselves down, because they can’t handle what they’ve achieved.

You’ll discover when you talk to really successful people that the vast majority of them were the runts of the litter. They were the middle kid, or the funniest-looking one, or the one that everyone thought would never amount to nothing.

I was one of those kids. I was a four-eyed little kid, and was very shy and backward; and I had to fight to come up from that. Whenever I wanted to go out with a girl, she wanted to go out with the football captain—she didn’t want a skinny little guy who wanted to be an actor. I was like, “What?” So I had a lot to overcome, and the characters I play most of the time are people who are fighting large-scale, epic problems.

Q: That scene when Nixon makes the midnight telephone call to Frost is so shocking. Then Frost speaks with Nixon and says, “It was a pleasure talking to you last night,” and Nixon has no recollection of it. Was that a fabrication or fact?

FL: David [Frost] says no. The phone call didn’t happen, that’s clear. The greatest thing about that phone call is [screenwriter] Peter Morgan’s imaginative notion of what it would be like if these two epic monsters found a way to have a private time together, which they never did have—that intimate a time together—and what it would be like, what would Nixon say.

Oddly enough, when I first read the play, I went to Peter and said, “I’m a little concerned about this phone call. It feels a little editorializing to me and feels like you making a statement, so I’m not sure how organic I can make this.” And then after a week of performing it, I said, “I’ll break both your legs if you ever cut it!”

It’s just too good a piece of theater. It’s just too marvelous a scene for an actor to play, and I came to love the phone call very much.

Q: If Nixon were alive today, what would you say to him?

FL: I’ve never been asked that question… I would try to embrace him. I would try to somehow get across to him that, “Living with you for so long, sir, I feel great compassion for your pain,” more than anything else. The thing that Richard Nixon needed more than anything else was a kind of deep and profound acceptance that he never got, probably, from his father. Lots and lots of men suffer from this.

Lots and lots of men spend their lives looking for surrogate fathers who never gave them a sense of themselves as men, particularly in the puberty period when you’re just coming into your manhood. That’s really when you need your dad there. And I don’t think Nixon ever did.

Q: Did you have that with your father? Or were you missing something like Nixon was?

FL: Yeah; most men do. It’s the rare man who says, “Boy, I had a great dad. He was there for me all the time, we played ball all the time, he taught me about girls, about sex.” Most men will tell you, “I didn’t know what I was doing, I never had anybody help me. I had to swim my way through and figure it all out.” It’s a shame. There really should be a school for parenting.

Q: The movie does make you sympathetic to Nixon, this monster. It really makes you feel sorry for the bastard.

FL: Well, in one sentence you’ve called him a monster and a bastard. You see how totally and completely prejudiced you are?

Q: Well, you said “these two epic monsters.”

FL: Well, I meant monster in the larger sense. But that’s ingrained in you to think that way, and you don’t have any right to judge him that way. You’re not walking in his shoes. If you think Nixon is a monster and a bastard, what do you think of the presidents we’ve had since? That’s the thing: it’s very easy to use these words about this man, and very facile, because we live in a time where it’s sound-byte time.

Let’s see… Richard Nixon? Monster, bastard. Anna Nicole Smith? Dumb, blonde. We just do it. We just narrow everybody down to a tiny little spectrum, and you really can’t and you really shouldn’t. I do it too, though, because it’s really fast, and it’s really quick.

It would’ve been totally uninteresting of me to play him as a drunk, or as a crook. Those were two facets of a very, very complicated man, and we mustn’t forget that he was a brilliant statesman.

[Nixon] was an extraordinarily intelligent man. I spent hours and hours of reading his books. His hopes and dreams for this country in foreign policy were extraordinary, and what he did in China and other places was wonderful. It would be a shame to let all that [go to waste]—history has done it, and he brought it on himself. Nixon was not destroyed by anything or anyone but himself.

Q: It was surprising how much laughter occured in viewing the film; it had a lot to do with the great dynamic and rapport between you and Michael. How was that established?

FL: We met in July of 2006 during the first day of rehearsal at the Old Vic. He walked into the room with all that curly hair and a beard, and he must’ve thought what I thought: “Gee, this guy doesn’t look like anything like that.”

He doesn’t, and I don’t. We had, just as it does with every actor, probably about a week or two to suss each other out and get comfortable with each other’s styles and rhythms.

We work absolutely differently—completely differently—but at some point our styles blended, and our sense of each other as actors became very sharp and keen. For an actor I’ve spent more time with than almost any other colleague, we’ve had fewer discussions about who was going to do what. We just did it.

Q: Did you ever speak with Nixon's family, or any people associated with his administration?

FL: I met the Cox family, who came to see the play. Tricia [Nixon’s daughter] didn’t come, but her husband, Edward Cox, and children came. People who worked for Nixon came to see the play and [some] came backstage.

I talked to Frank Gannon [who worked in the Nixon White House and worked on his memoirs] and had 10 hours of phone calls all during the time before I left for London. I talked to Barbara Walters, and to Mike Wallace—anybody who interviewed him, I went to see as well. And someone would come backstage and say, “I was on his staff during…” this and that.

Frequently, people came in in tears, and it was very rewarding that they would remember their boss in that sense. And they would all come in with a little anecdote: “He’d like to take everyone to Trader Vic’s once a year.” And somebody on the staff said, “Oh God, Nixon would say we’re going to Trader Vic’s and we all knew we’d be sitting around, holding drinks with umbrellas in them, and listening to the boss tell the same stories he told a year ago!” [Laughs.]

Q: Did you ever speak to Godd Morning America's Diane Sawyer [who had been on Nixon's staff]?

FL: No. I know Diane socially, but I’ve never met her related to Nixon. Apparently, she didn’t talk to anybody about it. Nobody got a word out of her.

Q: Is the film more relevant now given the failings of the Bush administration?

FL: I don’t think this film is a political movie. I think it’s a movie about survival. It’s a movie about two men who are trying to resurrect their careers, trying to outfox each other, and each of whom is having a particular emotional crisis, and that’s universal. That’s in all of us. So I don’t think Universal is unaware that this is a political figure in a very political time, but I think the movie stands as a movie about two men trying to win.

Q: How do you feel about an Oscar campaign for this film, and in particular, for your role?

FL: Well, I’m doing what I think I should do, which is part of my job, which is to help promote the film so people can go and see it. I don’t think any of this has anything to do with somebody checking your name off.

I’ve been voting at the Oscars for over 30 years and I’ve never voted for someone because someone said something interesting at a press conference, or told a funny joke on Jay Leno: “Gee, I was caught naked on the balcony of the hotel!”—you know, all those dumb things that actors say. [Laughs]

Q: Do you feel it should only be what’s on the screen?

FL: That’s what I vote for. In the end, I watch all the performances and say, “That’s the one that got me.” I’m fully aware, maybe not everybody does that, but it can’t be in your mind when you’re doing this. I’m working every night so I haven’t been able to see much, but I will see everything.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Anne Hathaway Celebrates Rachel Getting Married And Her Oscar Nom

Feature Story by Brad Balfour
[Photos: Thomas Lau/Loud & Clear Media]

There's loads of irony that 26-year-old actress Anne Hathaway was featured in two very different films about weddings this season. Bride Wars was a noxious bit of inconsequential fluff (directed by once credible Gary Winick) loaded with cringe-inducing cliches about the madness of the upperclass getting married. It was throwaway commercialism. On the other hand, Hathaway's shambling performance in Rachel Getting Married got ample praise as an edgy piece of indie-styled work. Until he made this film, vet director Jonathan Demme, an Oscar-winning auteur (The Silence of the Lambs), had abandoned fiction features in recent years for making politically-charged docs.

Support for ramshackle and understated indies rich in stirring performances such as Frozen River and The Visitor, has become de rigueur for the voting constituency of the Academy. So a digitally-shot, steady-cammed work like Rachel Getting Married--with its slice-of-life story of a crash-and-burn, logorrheic young woman out on a weekend pass from rehab trying to cope with her normal sister's blessed event--garnered Hathaway an Oscar nom.

Since addiction--a driving force of Rachel's Getting Married--is a favored subject of playwrights, actors, and rock stars, it seems like an overplayed turf. But thanks to Demme's unique approach and Hathaway's genuinely awkward, almost geeky and sincere improvisations, she informs her annoying character Kym Buchman with a touching vulnerability.

When Kym returns home for Rachel's (Rosemarie Dewitt) wedding, she brings her long history of personal crises, family conflict and tragedy to bear--and Hathaway does it so convincingly. While the wedding couple's abundant friends and relations gather for the joyful weekend of feasting, music and love, the conflicts seething under the surface emerge thanks to Kym-as-catalyst. While everyone else keeps it buckled in, Kym's biting one-liners and flair for bombshell drama pop open the Pandora's box of long-simmering tensions in the family. Director Demme, first-time writer Jenny Lumet, and a stellar acting ensemble leaven the drama of these difficult people with a wry affection.

And what a funny little character Hathaway can be in person. When Hathaway spoke before this interviewer and a few other journos, rapidly and nervously around the time of the film's original release, she revealed with a self-effacing manner, a few things that attracted her to Kym.

Q: Are you anything like your character Kym?

AH: That's so funny because another reporter asked me that. I mean, I'm not going to lie. She was herself, first and foremost. But I definitely could draw some similarities between her and people that I know. And yes, I did tell them so!

Q: Were they happy to hear that?

AH: I think so! I mean, the people that I'm friends with would get along with someone like Kym. And I would get along with someone like Kym, too. So for my group of friends, it's a compliment. But for some other people, it might not be!

Q: Did you audition for this role?

AH: I didn't! Jonathan [Demme] saw The Princess Diaries, and he didn't see me as a goofy young girl. He saw a budding actress. I was so amazed, because nobody ever saw me like that. Well, maybe my parents! (No, they're gonna get mad at me for that.) But Jon sent me the script with a note attached saying, which role do you want to play?

Q: So why did you choose Kym?

AH: Just that thing. I mean, not to sound like a B.S. actor, but I knew, I just knew [I was perfect for her]. And when I read Brokeback Mountain, it was the same thing--you know, a note attached, and I just knew [the part] was going to be Lureen.

And with Kym, I just got her--her whole emotional makeup--that really appealed to me. Once I understand something, I understand it for life, and when I know something to be true, I can't change my opinion about it. I can't go back and feign ignorance. And Kym just made sense to me from the first.

Q: So why do you think Kym was an addict?

AH: Well, I believe addiction is a disease, and that it's genetic. But I can't tell you why, until they figure out why people have this disease. But I can tell you how it got exacerbated. I think she grew up in this permissive household, where she probably saw people drinking and smoking. And she probably, you know, occasionally smelled weed. But she's this sort of extreme person, so she would always want to go faster and faster. Growing up in suburbia she probably started drinking at 12 or 13. And I'm sure somebody brought over some weed, so they tried doing that, and kinda liked it. Probably by the time she was 14, somebody had gotten some cocaine, and so she tried that. And she really liked that! And then she wanted to do more, and more, and more.

Q: Do you think that her mother was the cause?

AH: Uh... What are you hoping I'm going to say? Well, her mother probably had her wild moments too. But I always see her as not the most open of people. I think she had to distance herself from being a mother, there was stuff that was too painful. So she's trying to be a mother, but she's also trying to protect herself.

But I don't want to blame Kym's parents. I think that it's a complicated issue, and blame doesn't do much. However, I do think Kim's soul is very evolved, and very mature, especially at this point in her life, in how deep she goes, and how well she loves. And that's astonishing, and I thought, so beautiful--you know, that you have this girl who is struggling so hard, but never gets any credit.

Q: You have this honesty about you, where you just say whatever is on your mind. Where does that come from?

AH: Oh, that comes from my father... Yeah.

Q: How did you and Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Rachel, get such intense and really smart chemistry going between you?

AH: How do I say this without sounding like an asshole. You can never play a part smarter than the part is. And you can never play a part as having a more interesting emotional makeup than the part has. Because otherwise you're just chewing up the scenery, and putting yourself before the character and the story.

The language that's used in this script, and the fact that Kym was not formally educated and that she is so comfortable with it, really informed her as a character. And her insane level of intelligence--you know, how fast her mind is able to work. So yes, that did have an impact, in terms of just blowing the cap off the top of my imagination, and where I could take her.

Q: How far did you want to push that, making her as big and broad as you could?

AH: I'm sure somewhere on the cutting room floor, there are [a lot of] takes that have that. But I just gave the most truthful, dynamic performance that I could think of. I just concerned myself with telling the truth. And I always clear everything with Jon before doing anything, because I have this fear of wasting film! If you you fuck up a line on film, it costs like five hundred dollars! And I just hate that pressure on me. I won't bore you with all those stories, but yeah, Jon was fine with it.

Q: How about one story.

AH: Well, Jonathan is the master, like the big guy on set, and I don't want to be that actress who causes enormous problems. I don't want to do that. You know the scene where I tell the musicians to be quiet? I was trying to be really diplomatic when I couldn't hear anything while we were doing a scene. So I believe I said, "Are they going to do that all fucking weekend?"

I didn't tell anybody that I was gonna do that, so they all kind of sat up. And I saw Bill Irwin's face collapse in relief! He told me later, "I was having the same problem!" So that became a really organic part of the scene. You don't see it coming, and it gets a huge laugh in the movie. So I was really happy.

Q: Well, it ended up in the trailer too.

AH: Did it? Oh that is so funny!