Monday, February 23, 2009

Israeli Director Ari Folman Steps Out With Waltz With Bashir

Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour

Of all the films nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar this year, director Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir reaped substantial press and stirred the most controversy. A documentary fashioned as an animated film, it is as much an imagined memoir as it is a record of a tragedy that happened in September 1982—the massacre of 350 (some say 3,500) Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian Phalangists in West Beirut, Lebanon, while Israeli troops controlled access to the camps. Israel had invaded earlier that year to stop the Palestinians, who were using Southern Lebanon as their base of operations.

After a major international outcry, an Israeli commission was formed to establish responsibility for the killings. Though the Phalangist militia who did the killings largely avoided scrutiny, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was held indirectly responsible for permitting the Christian Lebanese paramilitary in the camps--and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was forced to resign after he was found to bear personal responsibility.

As a 19-year-old draftee, Folman was one of those Israeli soldiers near the camps' gates. In 2006, when he ran into a friend from his army days, his comrade shared stories of nightmares stirred by that experience. To his surprise, Folman realized he could not recall anything from that period; later, he had a surreal vision from that night. Encouraged by another former soldier to tell of his vision and recover his memories, Folman embarked on a journey that culminated in this film, including interviews with a journalist, a psychologist, and other veterans who were there—a remarkable, feverish collage of recollection and documentation through simple but effective flash-generated animation.

Waltz With Bashir premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, was part of 2008's New York Film Festival, and went on to win various awards, including the 2009 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Though nominated for this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar™, it didn't win—much to the surprise of many critics and film mavens. While the winner, Departures, was much appreciated, it neither reached the audiences or garnered the media attention Waltz with Bashir has had from the beginning.

Frankly, with its controversial approach and and unremitting tone, as well as its fundamental criticism, if not indictment, of Israeli society, Waltz with Bashir didn't win over the voting bloc of the Academy. Maybe that was because it was one of the darker films nominated while the others offered a heartening response to our gloomy times, or perhaps, because it held the Israelis far more accountable than ever before. And Israeli accountability has come under scrutiny with the recent incursion into the Gaza Strip. But now, as the film goes into much wider release, this seems like a good time to make available this exclusive interview with Folman.

Q: In a lot of films, Israeli soldiers are portrayed as super soldiers. This film shows a decidedly different view of the Israeli soldier.

AF: I tried to figure out why this subject was not at all referred to after the film [came] out. The only thing that I could think about was that in the second Lebanon war, the idea was shown in such an embarrassing way, and it was so out there in the media—through testimonies, newspapers, and on TV all over the place--[that it was a] big embarrassment, because, [even though] we were not even fighting an army, we couldn’t win it.

In a way, I think that people hurt so much--they got so much information about the army--that if this film is too much for you, you can always say it’s a cartoon film. It’s Mickey Mouse. If you don’t say that, you say, “I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it two years ago in the war.” Then, people didn’t mind, really.

Q: Is that why you made with the animation?

AF: I was very concerned with the fact that I wanted the audience to be attached emotionally to the characters, although they are animated. I put a lot of effort in the drawings to make them as realistic as could be. We put in a lot of details which made the animation much more complicated for us.

I just felt complete artistic freedom to do it animated, and could never imagine the film [being] different. From the very beginning, I imagined it as drawings, and imagined the characters as drawings. If you look at all the elements in films, it’s war, fear, memory loss, subconscious, drugs, isolation. For me, the perfect way to go from one dimension [was through] drawings and animation.

Q: How about the documentary process?

AF: I advertised over the internet that I was looking for stories from the Lebanon War [I was in]. We got responses from more than a hundred people and started to interview [them]. It took us something like a year [to do]. Then I wrote the screenplay pretty fast. It was the quickest screenplay that I ever wrote; it took me seven days.

We dramatized everything we could in the sound studio [and shot it there]. We cut it into a video-film and then we took the video as reference, made a storyboard out of the video-film, then we moved the storyboard to video.

We [watched] it on the big screen to see that the drama and everything was working. Then in the end we picked up the key frames. More than 3,000 frames were drawn, and then we moved them. It took us four years.

Q: Were there parts that you said to yourself, “This is better than I thought?" And were there parts where you thought, "Maybe not so much…"

AF: It’s always like that in every film. One year after my previous film [Made In Israel] was released I had a special screening in Berlin. Then, I saw the film onscreen and realized for the first time that I could cut [out] 20 minutes to make it a perfect film.

With this one, I was pretty [much] at peace with everything. There [are] some small parts of the animation that I would redo, or do it [as] classic animation—which is frame by frame. I would take out the 50 seconds of live video at the end… Or maybe, I would take 10 seconds off. Apart from that, I wouldn’t change anything.

Q: Have you screened this for Palestinians; have any of the survivors seen this?

AF: It was screened twice in Ramallah. I didn’t go there. They didn’t want me there because they said I needed insurance and no one, of course, wanted to insure me [laughs]. But it was a good screening.

Then I had this kind of weird screening, it was the opening night in Brussels. The special guest was not me; it was the Palestinian ambassador for the EU—[Leila Shahid], [who] is pretty clever and funny as well. She was in the camps four hours after the massacre. [The late controversial leftist author] Jean Genet wrote this book, Four Hours in Shatila It’s a very famous French book. She was his guide. She had a lot to say about the film. She loved it, but she said I could have [taken] more responsibility, and Israeli soldiers knew more than there is in the film. We were hoping to screen it in Beirut because our Belgium distributor’s husband is Lebanese, but we couldn’t do it. Probably in the end we will spread screeners or something like that so people can see it.

Q: When you speak to soldiers now, what is their attitude about it?

AF: I think a lot of things have progressed. If you take how many people [recently] refused to back the second Lebanon War; they were in a crazy situation and they said no…. We [Israelis normally] don’t do that. That was an [unimaginable] situation 25 years ago—you just [would] go and die.

For example with this [current] war, [there] was this guy, a 28-year-old captain, in the reserves, who said, "No, my soldiers are not going to this village because they are not prepared and don’t have the right weapons." They took him out of the battlefield. But then it was out in the press, and the army just let him go because they knew if they were going to [court-martial] him, it would be a big embarrassment for them. And for his soldiers, he’s a hero because he saved them. Twenty five years ago, you couldn’t live in Israel anymore [after that].

Q: Do you ever worry about being called up again?

AF: No. I’m too old.

Q: The Jewish people have to deal with this guilt of being "the chosen people." Do you think that was a part of this film's story?

AF: I don’t think the film deals with guilt. In France, they all thought it dealt with guilt, but I don’t think so. I think it deals with memory, with suppressed memories, but it’s not about guilt. With some places I travel to, they find it hard to believe the film, but this is the truth.

Q: Though you and the soldiers weren't responsible for the massacre directly, how would describe your feelings about having a responsibility as a bystander?

AF: It all depends on how much you know or don’t know. The film has a lot to do with the chronology of the massacre, [or] any massacre. Meaning, how long does it take you to take all the things you hear or see, or someone said to someone--and you were the third party--and put them into one frame [so that you can] say, "Okay, there is a mass murder going on." The second question is, "What do you do then?"

Since I didn’t really know what was going on, [I had to ask], "What did I do there?" That’s what the film is all about—trying to figure out things. I’m pretty sure that if you asked everyone that was with me, we didn’t have a clue about what was going on.

As it's shown in the film, when it ended we could see the women running out of the camps and we saw what was going on. It’s more of a theoretical question now. For the first time, I must admit, I was busy with [it] only after the film was released and I was asked so many questions. That is what would I have done if I was this guy on the first circle [surrounding the camp], like this tank commander that saw what was going on on all those three days. I don’t know… I don’t have an answer. I know what I want to know. I want to think about myself, how I was educated and everything.

Q: Knowing and not knowing. That’s kind of the essence of the Jewish experience.

AF: The government knew. The leadership knew. But we didn’t know. Not enough was done to prevent it by people who knew, and after it started, to stop it, or, [at least,] stop it after a short time. It took more then three days and nights. [Had it] been stopped earlier, it would have saved a lot of lives.

There is no news in the film. There was a committee in Israel, the Kahan [Commission]. They found people responsible [and] banned them from office for [their] lifetime. But I was not interested in those people. I was not interested at all in the political level, [only on the] very personal, private level.

Q: Did you see parallels in what happened in [Lebanon] and what happened in Rwanda?

AF: It was [in] allowing it, and [in] surrounding the camps. It’s mostly just allowing it—the lights, the flares [we shot off]; the flares that helped—meaning that a lot of people knew.

I see similarity between this and [what happened with] the Dutch peace army in the Srebrenica [Bosnia-Herzegovina] massacre in 1995. They were there. I don’t know what a "peace army" is, I can’t even understand the meaning of "peace army." How can peace have an army? But they were there for the sake of guarding the people, and during those three days more then 8,000 people were slaughtered. So it didn’t do anything. I screened it in Sarajevo [several] months ago and it was an incredible screening—unbelievable, the best we had since Cannes.

Q: You must provoke a lot of anger from the right in Israel.

AF: No, just [from] the left.

Q: Why?

AF: I don’t know why. I was expecting as usual a brutal attack from the right, but the film was so well received by everybody. Sometimes I think we as filmmakers underestimate the audience. They saw the film just as I meant it to be [seen]. It is a very private film, an autobiographical film.

The only criticism that I did receive from Israel was from [the] very left-wing, [who were] saying that the film didn’t take enough blame for Israel’s responsibility for what happened. I can tell you that in [the] very right-wing newspapers, and on the radio stations, they praised the film. I was surprised.

And the government sent [it] at their expense to all the festivals to represent the country—two government funds [have] supported the film—for two reasons. The first, it does seem to give a view of [Israel as] a very pluralistic country.

The other thing is, in some places in Europe and America, [they still] don't know anything about the massacre. But in Europe, [especially] in France, it was, for many people, the first time [they heard] that it was a Christian regime that did the massacre and not Israeli troops. In many ways, [the film] did good.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Q & A: Sean Penn and Gus Van Sant Pour Out Their Heart about Milk

Feature Story by Brad Balfour

A diffident, and at times, defiant, hour-long press conference took place with cast members of Milk—Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Allison Pill and Emile Hirsch plus director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black--but it didn't yield much of a sustained discussion on the film's talking points. Yet that was okay, since Milk is a movie that's not only driven by that defiance but also a lot of hope.

Recalling the life and murder of activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man in the U.S. to be elected to a significant political office (as a San Francisco supervisor), the film undulates between archival footage, audio recordings and a fictional retelling of Milk's life from his 40th birthday until his death. It was important that, even if all the answers weren't found in either this discussion or the film, that many of these crucial questions were being raised.

Since this press conference was the only time Van Sant and Penn spoke to NYC media together during their visit, it seemed worthwhile to present the gist of Penn's and Van Sant's answers--who were the PC's primary focus. It was an opening salvo of their comments on the film before it had yet garnered all the response and accolades it has since gotten after it opened. Though neither the 49-year-old Penn or the 56-year-old Van Sant are strangers to such hosannas--Penn has already won one Best Actor Oscar (Mystic River) and Van Sant was nominated for Best Director (Good Will Hunting)--the support of this film has resonated more deeply in light of ongoing controversies about homosexuals being allowed to legally marry.

So as it has gathered awards and nominations for Penn and the film's creators, from Van Sant to Black, spiraling down to 2009's Oscar night, Milk stands out--if nothing else--as the bio-pic of the year and a beacon for gay rights.

Q: At what point did you become committed to making or being part of this story?

SP: There were challenges in this that were exciting. It started with Gus Van Sant. I think all of us here—and any actor with a hunger to be in something fantastic—wants to work with Gus. And then [Gus] gave me Lance's sensational script, so it was a no-brainer. It was a wonderfully written script with one of the great directors. Of course, I could lay on top of all that, the values that this story and Harvey Milk's life have, but that would take a long time.

GVS: I've done a few films [with] gay characters, but not super-positive gay characters. I heard about this project through Rob Epstein, [the director of the electric, Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk,] who had heard that [director] Oliver Stone was no longer going to make a version of the film that was at Warner Brothers.

So I was interested in it, and got wrapped up in studying it. But I think that political stories are always really interesting to tell, so they're often avoided because they can get—I guess—boring, basically.

Harvey's personality was a way to have a character that resembled someone—like Abbie Hoffman, almost—who was running for political office and at the same time represented his gay community. So it seemed like an amazing opportunity to have all these things in one story.

Q: You really caught Harvey Milk's mannerisms and gestures, other than watching Epstein's documentary or talking to Cleve Jones (an actual participant in Milk's life and historical consultant who is played by Emile Hirsch), how did you prepare for this role?

SP: Well, the documentary and some additional archival footage were very helpful. I say that a little vaguely because with [this] sort of thing, the best way you can use it is watch it a lot, the same way you play music all day in the background and not necessarily be thinking about it. I kept it on all the time.

When you go for a period of time, little synapses start to connect and if you listen carefully, you can hear the music of that and kind of dance with it. Then, of course, with what [Dustin] Lance [Black] wrote, and it comes from all directions. But it was clear, at least in terms of—for lack of a better term—a "character choice," that the most exciting version of Harvey Milk, to me, was Harvey Milk.

If you see the documentary, the guy is a movie star in [it]—he is electric, a warm guy. You just reach and reach and reach, [but] never assume you're going to get it all the way there. You figure that with the help of the director and screenwriter and all the other things that a movie is, that you can get the spirit of [him] out there the best you can.

Q: Since you gave such a seamless performance, did Harvey stay with you while you were playing him and seep into your daily life? Has he changed you as a person?

SP: The answer is that he did stay with me. How, I'm not entirely sure—I haven't given it a lot of thought. When something comes in that you become aware that it's there, you think, "Oh, don't go away."

In terms of humanity, one likes to think that with each day and each person that comes into your life directly or indirectly, there's some growth of some kind, hopefully, in a positive direction.

Certainly with [Harvey], there would have been but I can't identify it. Certainly in a very immediate way, there's a lot of—let's say—timeliness to this story that we've all been hearing about, in reference to the recent experience that we had. But I can't be more specific than that.

Q: Did you recognize him as affecting you in your daily life as you are playing him?

SP: No. My daily life consists of getting up at 6 in the morning, making sure I've got my words together, that my kids are got off to school or [that they] are going to wake up in time if I leave for work before them, and then I'm at work all day. Then I'm exhausted going home and learning a bunch of lines for the next day. So I don't know if I had a daily life other than what's on the screen.

Q: With the Prop 8 decision that rescinded gay marriage in California in November 2008, the gay movement has become a new issue for civil rights advocates. Can this movie charge reaction and stimulate a response that it might get people to be more conscious of the issues that are well defined in the film?

GVS: Yeah, especially now with Prop 8 and the reactions to Prop 8. It's mobilized and brought together the gay community—particularly, the younger gay community. It's their time now and they have taken to the streets. I think there was an interview by a gay writer in Los Angeles, and who had been to the first rally that was a response to Prop 8 decision in Los Angeles.

He went to the West Hollywood gathering, and there was a speaker, and, to his surprise, everyone walked away and walked up the street to Sunset. He had been to many rallies in West Hollywood, this had never happened before. I think there's a new energy that's inspiring.

Our film is about a new energy of a different time—a sexual liberation from the '60s that developed in people who had found their gay sexuality and banded together in the Castro, which had a lot of young energy of that time. [It's also about] the nuts and bolts of the political strategies that are hugely informative in the movie—and mostly inspiring. When it plays in theaters, it definitely plays into that gay civil rights energy of today.

Q: What are your thoughts about this?

SP: I go with what Gus said. It's only an issue because of ignorance in the first place. We don't have an excuse of being ignorant of the law. In fact any support of Proposition 8, would be minimally manslaughter.

Because no human should [judge] teenage boys who are going to hang themselves [because] they reach out for an identity that they can't have, in part because of things like "issues" like this—the whole history of any civil rights movement has had a problem [with words like "marriage"]. So as long as it's an issue, it's an obscenity. If this movie is part of an engine to can help reveal that, [then] that's going to make all of us really happy and proud.

Q: Was the use of archival footage in the film originally part of the script, or was that something that you brought in? How was it obtained, and how difficult was it to find? With the mix that's in this film--a narrative feature with documentary elements that cross back and forth--how was that intended to influence a response to the film?

GVS: For me, it was probably indicated in the script. There [were] a couple of other things. There was a question of whether we would be able to assemble marchers, and so I thought, maybe we could just use footage that was shot by the news showing a large number of marchers. I knew that Rob Epstein had some images of the candlelight march, so it was possible to ask him to let us use that in the film.

But when we started looking for these marches, we often looked under anything that said "Harvey Milk" on it. So we ended up with 12 hours of footage, and even wanted more. We went to the Harmell Library and the Gay and Lesbian Archives in San Francisco, and looked at home movies that were of the Castro, and started to play with [them] when we were editing, and really liked what was going on.

We also started to shoot the film with the idea that we would actually shoot in 16mm. That changed while we were working on it. We really were going to go for the full-on documentary look throughout, which got changed. The documentary footage inspired that.

Q: How does this combination of archival and regular footage impact on it? What's your intention? Why did you decide not to use 16 mm?

GVS: I think for me it was to bring—it was all that verisimilitude and bringing the audience right into the actual period. The documentary footage always succeeded, where it was always harder for us to succeed where you're reality watching the period, and it was always a trick to draw the audience into that period.

The 16mm idea got waylaid because of fears that we were shooting in a format that was unstable, or not as detailed as maybe our studio wanted us to be. But we made it match the way—the filmstocks we used.

Q: Since November 4th there's been an escalation of tensions and discord between the gay and "faith" communities; how did that impact on the performance of the film at the box office, for even an ostensibly sympathetic figure like Harvey Milk, we were seeing such raw hatred against gay people every day on the streets and in the press.

GVS: Well, we're seeing both. There's raw hatred and then there's also the support. Both sides are playing out in press and in the community. It's the nature of the battle, and it's encased in the film as well.

SP: It's also important, though, to remember that the tension is not between the gay and the faith communities. The tension is between the community which in fact really is gay, and a pseudo-faith community which has nothing to do with God, love, or anything of real "faith" and it's really just hypocrisy and hatred. So any faith community that deserves the title "faith community" really won't have a problem with these issues.

Q: You have a lot of wonderful film and theatre talent in this film. Allison Pill has been in eight of the best plays that's seen recently. Denis O'Hare and Stephen Spinella have won Tonys, are "out" gay actors. Was this an in-joke of sorts, to have them play the most uptight people in the film?

GVS: Not as a joke, but yeah, they were really great actors that we wanted to get in the film, and were really great for those parts as well.

Q: How did you come up with them--through an audition process or were they a choice?

GVS: There was an audition process. We did try and enlist the talents of as many gay actors as we could. There weren't that many that were of box office stature when it comes to the bigger studios. So when it came to roles like Rick Stokes and John Briggs, those guys fit in very well and were great.

Q: Was it fun for them to play those characters?

GVS: It was very much fun for both of those guys to play their roles.

Q: Spinella played Stokes, who was in fact an openly gay lawyer running against Milk in the supervisor campaign?

GVS: He was an openly gay lawyer who ran for supervisor against Harvey. The sort of opposite, [who didn't want to] overtax the campaigns by saying the word "gay" too much and offend the straight audience.

Q: Could you two comment on the parallels between Harvey Milk and president-elect Barack Obama, in terms of being galvanizing figures and the parallels between their two campaigns, the platform of hope, etc.

SP: Well, I think that's the first thing that hits any of us, I guess, is "hope"--to use the word. At that moment in time, relative to the gay community of San Francisco that he was running to represent, it was such a necessary part of what he was offering. Similarly, today, for the whole world in every issue, anything that represents hope might be our last shot at it. So, there's those obvious parallels. But I'm not going to tell you anything you're not going to write without me.

Q: Gus could you talk about working with DP Harris Savides. His work [brings in a] greeting card element.

GVS: Our Director of Photography, Harris Savides, has shot a number of things. I first heard about him doing a commercial. The people putting the commercial together were looking for a DP, which is such a crucial thing in a DP. They had shot with Harris in Europe, and they showed me the commercial and it looked pretty good. And the clincher was that they said Madonna wouldn't work with anyone else. She needed Harris. And I thought, well, she must be pretty discerning, and I kind of had the Madonna thing: "I got to use Madonna's DP."

Q: He is her ex-husband [laughter]. But her film is not nearly as good as yours.

SP: Whoa.

GVS: So that was the first thing I did, finding Harris, putting [our relationship] together. And then we did Gerry, Elephant and Last Days together. Harris is very, very experimental. So one of the things I was planning for as we were shooting a scene was the characters coming through a door and we did it through a window. Harris has a unique way of talking; Harris is saying—"This should be the whole shot, just this."

And I'm saying, "This angle only? Just leave it, all the way, and they come all the way through the door and all the way to the window? It'll take five minutes." I was paranoid, so I said, "No, we're going to shoot a lot of other angles, too." But essentially that's what we ended up doing in Gerry and Elephant and Last Days. So we've been through that together.

It's forging certain aesthetics together. But when we came to Milk, we were starting over from the beginning each time. So this time, with the whole 16mm idea, which got derailed. But he's been great. He's an amazing visual partner.

Q: Sean, you made the sexuality shown in the movie really successful; it was so nonchalant and casual that it was really effective. It seemed natural and interwoven into the story so that the audience didn't really think about it.

SP: Well, Cleve Jones said something really great. Early on, we had put together a dinner for a lot of the people that had been involved in Harvey's campaign. He said one of the myths is that we're all just the same, it's just the sex that's different. He said, "In reality, we're very different, it's just the sex that's pretty much the same."

The difference, of course, is living with bigotry and oppression and all of that shit. And that was where the focus went. The rest of it is, for some people, a guy gives them a boner, for somebody else, it's a woman. So it was an approach, the sex is the sex is the sex is the sex, but the other part was really the heart of the picture.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on how the world might have been a different place if Harvey Milk hadn't been assassinated?

SP: I think less people would've died of AIDS. I think Ronald Reagan would've been forced to address it. It was a tragic loss. He wouldn't have stood quietly. He was a leader, and he happened to be focused on the gay movement.

The impression was—there was a popular notion initially that this was a "gay disease." Certainly a huge numbers of homosexuals died related to it and all that. I think he would have advanced that argument a lot sooner. People are dead because he died too soon.

Q: Gus, will this, as the expression goes, "Play in Peoria?" This isn't La Cage Aux Folles. Will straight audiences, straight men in particular, feel queasy seeing Milk?

GVS: I don't really see it that way. Maybe, ultimately, there's some challenge, but I think it's a very intense movie, very positive and uplifting.

Q: It's a very competitive marketplace right now.

GVS: I do think it's one of a kind within the marketplace.

SP: The one gay guy in Peoria can't wait for this movie [laughs].

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

French Director Laurent Cantet Teaches Us Something About Education Through The Class

Feature Interview by Brad Balfour

Using a faux-documentary approach to ratchet up the verisimilitude, French director Laurent Cantet makes a powerful examination of teaching and student/teacher dynamics. The Class vividly depicts life inside a Paris high school replete with the issues of race, class and individuality.

Based on teacher François Bégaudeau's autobiographical novel, the film uses real students and teachers who were taught to act, including the author who plays himself in the film. This neo-realist style essentially recreated the classroom experience with unexpected results. The Class is the finest example of Cantet's socially aware work which includes Heading South, Timeout and Human Resources.

Being the first French film in 21 years to win the prestigious Palme d'Or award at Cannes, The Class and Cantet went to the head of... well, you know, and they accrued other accolades. It became the opening night film of the prestigious New York Film Festival (Said NYFF lead programmer Richard Pena, "Laurent Cantet has pioneered a new kind of social cinema") and is now a nominee for the Foreign-language Feature Oscar.

Q: As with your previous film Heading South, you address the clash of cultures among the French. Why is this of such importance ?

LC: [It's] because we are now living in a multicultural society. A lot of people are moving from one place to try to live a better life in another one, and we have to take that into account. It’s impossible not to look at this issue, which is the same all [over the world]. So I thought it was interesting, especially because the French are sometimes ashamed of the way France is dealing with that question [of immigration.]

The French say that, “If you want to be part of the community, [you have to be] like this.” [That's] not a good way to look at things. This culture is not just of Molière, Proust, and Sartre, it’s also what we all live together, and what we all live is this street culture.

It’s built by everybody in the country--that’s what people in France refuse [to acknowledge], and I wanted to show how rich it could be to gather people from all over the world, from different social levels too, and see how they can learn to live together.

Q: It was an interesting decision to cast François, the author of the book and screenplay, in the lead role. Why did you make this choice?

LC: The question was at the beginning to know whether we were making an adaptation or not. I don’t think we made a real adaptation--it’s more of an extension of the book. François was very interested to see [whether] the situation he lived once could happen in another class, so we were not trying to have the same reactions [as were] in the book, but to see how these girls and boys would take this situation, and [what they would do with] it. It was interesting for François too to re-fashion the original material.

Q: Did he learn something new as a result of that?

LC: It was quite strange [that] what happened in front of the camera was from what we wrote. Maybe because François and I were, by chance, aware of what the children would think, and [because] we spent three hours every week with the children in that workshop we had in school, we knew them quite well, and were able to imagine what their reactions would be.

Q: Can you describe the casting process? And what criteria did you use to cast these non-professional young actors?

LC: I didn’t make any selection. In fact, we chose the neighborhood, which is one of the most mixed part of Paris--the 20th Arrondisement. I then found a school there that was interested by the experience we were proposing; we offered a workshop to all volunteers between 13 and 15 [years old]. At the beginning, we had 50 students who came.

Twenty-five of them [were gone] because they weren’t interested or wanted to play soccer, or were uneasy in front of the camera. The 25 who stayed are the ones who are in the film. After that, we had to find Souleymane [Franck Keita] in the group, and decide who would be who, but that’s all that I did. Usually when you make a film with adolescents you meet thousands of them to use one or two, but we just met 50 of them.

Q: How did the kids surprise you?

LC: The first time I met them I was absolutely sure we had found the good ones. I had no doubt about them. For instance, Esmeralda, [we] saw her once and knew, "Right, she can be the central character."

They surprised me in the way they were able to concentrate on what we were doing, and to think with us, and to stay focused on the subject of the day. Six-hour days they were able to sit in the class, and improvising the first take, but then re-playing, reacting to what they proposed in improvisation for the 2nd, 3rd, even sometimes, 10 takes--[that took real concentration]. Like all of us, they had some moments of lassitude, but six hours is quite long, you know. And the teachers of the film were also their own real teachers in the school; they were so jealous to see that we could focus their attention on anything for six hours.

Q: What else surprised the teachers?

LC: They’re used to having 25 children in front of them and knowing [that] one will be focused for five minutes, for another, it will be for two, another for seven, but never all together. I think we really gave [them a] sense to what they were doing here. We really involved them in the process of making the film, and they were really taken by that.

Q: The film is mostly shot indoors, and doesn’t become theatrical at any point. It didn’t seem to descend in theatricality where you shoot in certain angles such as shot/countershot, etc. but had lots of long takes...

LC: It was important for me to have long takes because I wanted to respect he energy of the exchange. Sometimes you can have moments where nothing is happening, and two seconds later it could start again and an incredible thing could happen. It was one of the reasons why I chose to shoot in HD video.

That’s also why I decided to have three cameras instead of one--to have all the angles in the same shot. It was also why I decided to have three cameras on the same side of the class--not to give more importance to one over the other one; to not be in the point of view of anyone, but to [have the audience] watch what is happening.

What was very funny was, when we started a take, you really couldn’t stop before the end of it because I was just fascinated by what was happening, and always surprised by what was happening even if I really knew exactly what was going to happen.

I think that’s why the film doesn’t seem too claustrophobic, because things are always arriving faster than you can think; you are always running behind it; you are always surprised by one answer, one question, by the way they say it. I couldn’t cut the camera--I was just watching the things that were happening.

Q: This must have been a very transformative experience for the kids--how did the film change them?

LC: They were 13 or 14 years old--it’s a moment where you transform yourself, so it’s difficult to know what the film brought to that process. I’m sure they learned to involve themselves in something…. Give them a sort of maturity. After that, maybe change their relationships to the teachers, just because they worked together, and they had normal relationships with them.

When I did a Q & A in France, a young guy who was in the audience took the microphone in front of, I think, 300 teachers behind him, which is already not very easy --he was 13, 14 years old--just saying that he could recognize his own situation. But what interested him the most was the image of the teachers.

He told me, “I discovered that teachers can speak together, and when they speak together they speak of us.” This image of a teacher for most children is just a function, [but] through the film, through the experience they had working with the teachers and through what the film was showing [as well], they realize that their teachers are human beings. If the film can prove that to children, it already was quite a success.

Q: It’s uncommon to hear students talk back in such a manner to the teacher. If I did that in school I’d be asked to step outside!

LC: What you have to understand is that we decided to film these special moments when the teacher is asking for dialogue with the children, and these moments really accept a sort of equal-to-equal dialogue, which is risky, of course, because you don’t know what will happen at the start of these discussions--but it is not always like that.

The film is just two hours but that’s something that really happens, [with the students and teachers on equal ground] and it surprises all the foreigners. I don’t know if it was something that happened after 1968, but we always have two representatives of students in the teacher’s conference.

They have two roles: 1) which is to tell the teachers if one of them has a problem, you can go and see your representative and tell them, “this semester I had this and this and this [happen]…” and 2) to tell the children what the teacher said.

Of course, it’s usually more efficient than what you see in the film. In the film they cross the line. The school is a small society, and in that society you can be responsible for what you are doing.

Q: In addition to putting a new multicultural face on French national identity, was one of your aims to promote a new learning environment for students? The film seemed to promote a Socratic method of teaching by challenging students.

LC: I’m not promoting anything. In fact, what interested me in the character the book was proposing was exactly that--the way this teacher is always asking questions to make the children understand what they are doing, as opposed to lecturing [them]. I think lecturing can be effective sometimes, but after two weeks, I think most of the children forget what they learned if [they have] is no sense of what they learned.

Q: Do you think this film could change French education or change French society in a profound way?

LC: At the release of the film a lot of people spoke about it, and a lot of debates took place around it, so that’s the best thing I could expect from the film.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An Opinionated Take On The 14th Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Commentary by Jack Angstreich
[photo to left: “The Girl on the Train”}

Next month, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presents its annual "Rendezvous with French Cinema." French cinema produces enough interesting films yearly to justify an annual series, something that seems less likely to be true of, say, Spanish or even Italian cinema, both of which are also showcased in a yearly series at the Walter Reade.

The annual series devoted to French cinema stirred considerable interest several years ago when it was presented in collaboration with the flagship French journal, Cahiers du Cinèma. This relationship, having ended, changed the programming which took on a more aggressively commercial cast--an outcome which would be unobjectionable if the commercial French cinema of today were aesthetically comparable, say, to the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s, which, unfortunately, has not been the case.

In previous years, there have been sometimes no more than three films by directors of international stature in a slate of at least a dozen films. Yet, needless to say, this series is probably the most consistently popular of the year at the Walter Reade. Past Rendez-Vous with French Cinema premieres have included Olivier Dahan’s Oscar-winning “La Vie en Rose,” Guillaume Canet’s “Tell No One,” Laurent Cantet’s “Heading South,” Christophe Honoré’s “Love Songs,” Cédric Klapisch’s “Paris,” Claude Lelouch’s “Roman de Gare,” Claude Miller’s “A Secret,” and Danielle Thompson’s “Avenue Montaigne.”

This year, however, that appeal should be well-deserved. To my amazement, the series boasts, by my count, new films by seven significant directors, including one world-class master, Claude Chabrol (who is having a North American premiere for "Bellamy" on March 12th).

Also within the series are new works by the following filmmakers:

Claire Denis, who, in recent years, has moved from strength to strength has a U.S. premiere (on March 13th) for "Five Shots of Rum" ("35 Rhums").

Agnès Varda, "the godmother of the New Wave", whose new film "The Beaches of Agnès" ("Les Plages d’Agnès" which is having its NY debut (on March 7th), is an autobiographical essay.

Costa-Gavras, whose work in more than one recent film has earned him a renewed interest by his shift to less ambitious material (or is it a less ambitious approach?) since his more political heyday in the '70s and '80s, will have a North American premiere (on March 9th) for "Eden Is West" ("Eden à l’ouest").

André Téchiné, who, at the very least, has consistently maintained a high level of craftsmanship within his prolific output, will see the world premiere of his social drama (on March 10th) “The Girl on the Train” ("La Fille du RER").

Jean-François Richet, who would be notable for his cinematically brilliant remake of "Assault on Precinct 13" alone, will have the U.S. premiere (on March 10th and 11th) of his ambitious two-part film, "Mesrine" Part 1 ("Mesrine, L’instinct de mort") and Part 2 ("Mesrine, L’ennemi public n° 1").

Benoît Jacquot, who has not ceased to produce challenging works in his, by now, long career is having a North American premiere for "Villa Amalia" (on March 13th).

Also of potential interest may be two films: "Versailles," a NY debut by first-time director Pierre Schoeller, the screenwriter of the excellent, "A Dreamlife of Angels" (March 6th); and "The Apprentice" (L’apprenti"), which received the Louis Delluc prize, is having a North American premiere (March 11th)—a film on the boundary of fiction and documentary by Samuel Collardey.

Considering that other New York venues with inferior projection capacities have presented extraordinary retrospectives of such major artists as Mikio Naruse, Manoël de Oliveira, Raoul Walsh, Luis Buñuel, Roberto Rossellini, and others, cinephiles have reason to disparage the current programming philosophy of the Film Society which appears to be more interested in pursuing fashionable trends than continuing to be the custodians of the great legacy of film art—something it has been throughout its history.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The 14th Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Returns To Open The Newly Renovated Alice Tully Hall with U.S. Premiere of “Paris 36”

The Film Society of Lincoln Center will help re-open Lincoln Center’s newly renovated Alice Tully Hall with the U.S. premiere of Christophe Barratier’s “Paris 36,” the Opening Night selection of The Film Society and Unifrance’s celebrated annual film series, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, on Thursday, March 5, at 8:00 p.m. Director Barratier, producer (and sometimes actor) Jacques Perrin, and breakout star Nora Arnezeder will attend the screening.

Says Mara Manus, the new executive director of The Film Society, “We are thrilled to be a part of the celebrations for the re-opening of Alice Tully Hall. The breathtaking new Grand Foyer and theatrical space will be an incomparable home for our community of film lovers for years to come.”
“Paris 36” (“Faubourg 36,” France/Germany/Czech Republic, 2008; 120m) screened at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival. A vibrant period musical comedy from the writer/director of “The Chorus,” it stars veteran French comedian Gérard Jugnot as the manager of a threadbare ’30s music hall that is scheduled to close. Inspired by the electoral victories of socialist Léon Blum and The Popular Front, he leads a movement against a local gangster to take over the hall and transform it into a cooperative in which everyone, from the actors to the stagehands, has a stake. Their success hinges on a promising new act, the velvet-voiced chanteuse Douce (Nora Arnezeder). Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in the U.S. beginning April 3.

The 14th edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema will continue through March 15th. Each year, the showcase--one of The Film Society’s most popular annual series--offers New Yorkers a decent overview of both popular and significant French films release throughout the previous year. These works from one of cinema’s most prolific and accomplished film cultures highlight both established cinematic masters and inspiring new talents.

[photo: from C osta-Gavras' "Eden Is West"]
Other filmmakers and guests who will attend screenings during the series include directors Claire Denis, Samuel Collardey, Patrick Mario Bernard, Pierre Trividic, Danièle Thompson, Costa-Gavras, Anne Fontaine, Jean-François Richet, Ilan Duran Cohen, Agnès Varda, Sylvie Verheyde, Martin Provost, Pierre Schoeller, Benoît Jacquot, and prizewinning actress Félicité Wouassi (“With a Little Help from Myself”).
“Rendez-Vous’s goal has been to provide as broad a panorama as possible of contemporary French cinema,” says Richard Peña, program director at The Film Society. “This year, the aesthetic and stylistic spread of the program is more impressive than ever.”

Frequent Rendez-Vous director Agnès Varda will present “The Beaches of Agnès,” a fascinating personal take on the beaches and cities that have influenced her creative life. Other long-time cinematic favorites complement newer voices, as Costa-Gavras tackles the economic hardships faced by illegal immigrants to Europe in his newest social critique, “Eden Is West,” and Samuel Collardey makes a lively directorial debut with “The Apprentice,” about the growth and family life of a young student in rural France.

Following similar social themes through more traditional methods, Pierre Schoeller’s lauded debut “Versailles” stars the late Guillaume Depardieu as a vagrant seeking redemption while caring for a five-year-old boy in the woods outside of France’s most opulent palace.

Catherine Deneuve and Émilie Dequenne provide the emotional heart of André Téchiné’s harrowing drama about class and racial identity in France, “The Girl on the Train,” receiving its world premiere in the series. And Vincent Cassel leads a dynamic cast that includes Cécile De France, Olivier Gourmet, Mathieu Amalric, and Ludivine Sagnier in Jean-François Richet’s whirlwind, two-part crime story “Mesrine,” already a winner of multiple honors at this year’s Lumière Awards and Globes de Cristal.

[photo: from Chabrol's "Bellamy"]

Richet’s film also offers the first of two appearances in the series by France’s most illustrious actor, Gérard Depardieu, who stars as the title police commissioner in legendary filmmaker Claude Chabrol’s latest thriller “Bellamy.”

“Avenue Montaigne” director Danièle Thompson also guides some of France’s finest actors through an appealing mix of social commentary and black comedy in “Change of Plans”—Karin Viard, Patrick Bruel, Patrick Chesnais, Marina Hands, Dany Boon, Emmanuelle Seigner, Pierre Arditi, and Marina Foïs.

Anchoring a slate full of strong women’s roles, Foïs also appears in Ilan Duran Cohen’s Rendez-Vous debut “The Joy of Singing,” a delicious spy thriller/comedy that takes a secret service couple into the world of amateur opera. Isabelle Huppert re-teams with Benoît Jacquot for the romantic tale “Villa Amalia,” based on Pascal Quignard’s Goncourt Prize-winning novel, and Yolande Moreau returns to Rendez-Vous as outsider artist Séraphine de Senlis in first-time director Martin Provost’s ambitious biopic “Séraphine.”

Moreau, Provost, and several “Séraphine” artists are currently nominated for top honors—including best picture—at this year’s César Awards, France’s equivalent to the Academy Awards. The film is one of several Rendez-Vous features and filmmakers to receive their country’s highest cinematic praise. Other notably honored titles in the series include: “Mesrine” (best picture, best actor Vincent Cassel, and best director Jean-François Richet), “Versailles” (best first film and best actor Guillaume Depardieu), “Paris 36” (best cinematography), “The Girl from Monaco” (best supporting actor Roschdy Zem and best female newcomer Louise Bourgoin), “With a Little Help from Myself” (best supporting actor Claude Rich and best male newcomer Ralph Amoussou), and “The Beaches of Agnès” (best documentary feature).

Claude Chabrol, whose “Bellamy” will receive its North American premiere during Rendez-Vous, was honored with the prestigious Berlinale Camera during this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.

Finally, new this year to Rendez-Vous, a program of prizewinning short films by emerging filmmakers will provide “an exclusive introduction to the next generation of French cinema,” says Peña. The seven titles in Tout Court: New French Shorts will screen together, Friday, March 13, at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday, March 15, at 3:15 p.m.
Regular tickets for Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2009 screenings at The Film Society of Lincoln Center are $12.50; $8.50 for Film Society members, students, and children (6-12, accompanied by an adult); and $9.50 for seniors (62+).

Tickets for screenings at the IFC Center are $12.50; $9.50 for IFC Center members; and $8.50 for children and seniors. They are available online at and, and at the box offices at The Film Society’s Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center.

Tickets for the Opening Night screening of “Paris 36” at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall are $20; $15 for Film Society members.

Tickets go on sale on February 19th at noon. For info on how to buy tix, visit or call (212) 875-5601 for Film Society screenings, or visit for IFC Center shows.

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2009 Schedule at a Glance (all times p.m.)

(see Film Society and IFC websites for more detailed Program descriptions)

At Alice Tully Hall
(Lincoln Center)

Thursday, March 5 
8:00 Paris 36

At The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater
(165 West 65th St., near Amsterdam Ave.)
(note: Due to construction taking place around Lincoln Center, access to the Theater is near Amsterdam Avenue. Once there, take the escalator, elevator or stairs to the upper level.)

Friday, March 6 
1:00   The Girl from Monaco
3:30   Versailles
6:20   Change of Plans
8:45   Séraphine
Saturday, March 7 
1:30   The Beaches of Agnès
4:10   With a Little Help from Myself
6:35   The Girl from Monaco
9:00   Eden Is West
Sunday, March 8 
12:30 Séraphine
3:30   The Joy of Singing
6:00   Versailles
8:45   Change of Plans
Monday, March 9 
1:00   With a Little Help from Myself
3:30   Change of Plans
6:15   With a Little Help from Myself
8:45   The Beaches of Agnès
Tuesday, March 10 
1:00   The Joy of Singing
3:30   The Girl on the Train
6:15   Mesrine Part 1
9:10   The Girl on the Train
Wednesday, March 11 
1:30   Eden Is West
3:45   The Apprentice
6:00   Mesrine Part 2
9:00   The Other One
Thursday, March 12 
1:00   Stella
3:45   Bellamy
6:15   Stella
8:45   The Apprentice
Friday, March 13 
1:30   35 Shots of Rum
4:00   Tout Court: New French Shorts
6:15   35 Shots of Rum
8:45   Villa Amalia
Saturday, March 14 
1:30   Mesrine Part 1
3:50   Mesrine Part 2
6:45   Villa Amalia
9:10   Bellamy
Sunday, March 15 
1:00   Bellamy
3:15   Tout Court: New French Shorts
5:30   The Other One
8:00   35 Shots of Rum

at The IFC Center
(323 Sixth Ave., at West Third Street)

Friday, March 6 
7:00   With a Little Help from Myself
9:30   Bellamy
Saturday, March 7 
1:30   Versailles
4:00   Séraphine
7:00   Change of Plans
9:30   TBA
Sunday, March 8 
1:30   The Girl from Monaco
4:00   Eden Is West
6:45   The Girl on the Train
9:00   TBA
Monday, March 9 
7:00   The Apprentice
9:00   TBA
Tuesday, March 10 
7:00   The Other One
9:00   TBA
Wednesday, March 11 
7:00   The Joy of Singing
9:30   Stella
Thursday, March 12 
7:00   35 Shots of Rum
9:30   Villa Amalia

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Q & A With Mickey Rourke--A Requiem Through The Wrestler

Feature Interview by Brad Balfour

After seeing him in action--at the New York Film Festival press conference for The Wrestler (it was the Closing Night Film) and during a recent roundtable--you gotta hand it to roughhouse actor Mickey Rourke. When he makes a comeback, he makes a helluva comeback. For 13 years, the now 56-year-old actor--once the superstar who had made 91/2 Weeks, Angel Heart, and Bar Fly--had abused body and mind, and, in turn, abused nearly everyone in the industry.

Rourke had become so washed up, he once felt a return to boxing (he started out boxing before turning to acting) was a better course of action rather than acting so he did that in the mid-'90s. Though he managed it admirably, he was too old to successfully compete and got battered along the way. Though he had some decent supporting roles recent (such as in Sin City) few thought Rourke could shoulder a feature as its star.

So when director Darren Aronofsky [The Fountain, Requiem For A Dream] asked Rourke to play the part of battered, aging wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a darling of pro-wrestling's ascension during the '80s, he promised to keep his nose clean--yet all the studios wanted anyone else but Rourke. Nonetheless, Aronofsky believed that only Rourke could portray "The Ram" as he goes through his ramshackle routine, tries to recover ties with a long-lost daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), survive a medical emergency, and connect with a stripper he's fallen for (Marisa Tomei).

Rourke had been sufficiently ground down through his decline of the last dozen or so years to respect the situation and not squander this opportunity. Somehow, he pulled it together for Aronofsky--famous for making a film, Requiem For A Dream, that detailed its characters' total decay through drugs--so that the director wouldn't make the film without him. This mutual understanding led to such a sympatico that Rourke, and Tomei for that matter, have been rewarded with Oscar nominations and various award wins along the way.

Q: What do you think about making this comeback?

MR: It's funny, because everybody talks about that. But when you've been out of work for certain amount of time--for a decade or so--you're kind of wary of it all. I'm at a point where I behaved so terribly when I had a chance. I wasn't accountable. I wasn't responsible. I wasn't professional.

It wasn't that I was misunderstood. I behaved terribly because I had a fuse burning inside of me that I couldn't put out. And I didn't have the knowledge of how to do that, until I went and got information to understand why I behave the way I do with authority figures. And only until you do that can you make a change. I thought it'd take a year, a year and a half. I didn't realize it was going to take 10 years... Before, I didn't care about repercussions. There were no rules...

I wrote [Bruce] Springsteen a letter. He knows my deal. I wrote how I was fortunate enough to have access to some advice and to change. [Springsteen provided the film with its signature title song.] Randy doesn't have the capabilities or the access or the information or the know how or the brains to change. So he's just going to live in misery in that trailer, and serve coleslaw and potato salad and pick up dishes.

Q: How close was the scene in which "The Ram" was reduced to working in a deli to your own life? Are there parallels between your life and "The Ram's?"

MR: It was right there. I remember back in LA... I think I ran out of motorcycles, and I called up a friend to see if I could get a construction job. And I thought, "If I could work in the Valley somewhere, nobody will recognize me." I call up my friend in the construction business and I said, "Listen, I need a construction job." And he said, "Mickey, I'm really busy. I don't have time for your shit right now." And I was sitting there and I remember thinking, "Jesus Christ. I can't even get a fucking construction job." So it was that close.

Q: How did you learn how to wrestle?

MR: I owe everything I do to the guys that Darren surrounded me with. He picked Afa, who brought in these other pro wrestlers, these young guys. And we worked together, because it's all teamwork. We had choreographed the wrestling matches pretty basically [with moves] that any half-assed athlete could do. And then what started to happen after about like two and a half months was, one of the guys was very gymnastically inclined. He, like, got bored and started doing these fucking moves.

And I thought, "Wow. Man, I want to do that." So I'd go in on Sundays with him alone and do it and not tell Darren. And so what I said was, "I want to nail three or four fucking moves that nobody could do." And I got so hurt. I had three MRI's in two months. I've never flipped over in my life--like done a back flip and a scissors into the ring. And I couldn't do it. Weeks would go by and I couldn't do it. And then finally... If you work hard enough at anything in your life, you're going to fucking do it.

Q: What wrestlers did you become close with while making the movie?

MR: Mainly, Afa, Dwayne Johnson's uncle. He was one of the Wild Samoans back in the '80s. And I talked to The Rock the other day. I told him, "We're sending you [the movie] and we want to hear what you have to say, too." And I didn't know it was his uncle. All the Samoans say they're related to each other. I thought when Afa's going on about his 'nephew,' "Yeah, every Samoan is related to Dwayne Johnson." And they are related. And when he spoke very fondly of him, it was like, "Wow."

Q: What did you do to get into shape to play "The Ram?"

MR: It was a process over six months of putting on the weight. I had to put on muscle and not fat and I had never done that before. I've had to lose weight--20 pounds over 12 weeks--and I thought that was murder. So, I thought, 'Oh great, I get to eat.' You can't just eat anything or you're going to put fat on. But you're going to put fat on anyway, because you're eating six or seven meals a day.

You have to make sure you're doing the weight lifting and the cardio, so it's like never ending in the gymnasium for me. I have to admit, since I've done the movie, I haven't walked into a gym. I've just done weights at home. I just can't go to a gym yet, because it was hell...

Q: How many months did you train?

It was six months. It was three times a day, under this Israeli ex-army commando guy, who was a martial arts champion. They met him in Miami and I thought, 'Wow. This guy won't take any shit.' And I wanted someone who was very disciplined, because I didn't want to control this. I wanted somebody who wasn't going to kiss my ass. I didn't want a trainer where I could go, "Well, I don't feel like working out today."

This guy took it personally if I didn't show up. Actually, I was staying at a hotel. I had a late night and I wasn't answering my phone. He actually came up to the room, knocked on the door. I tried to roll up in a little ball and get the covers over me and hope that he'd go away. The prick went down and got the key...

He was like, "You were out till five in the morning. I heard. I got the report." He would know where I was and [that] I was out until five am. So after me doing that a couple of times, he pulled me aside and he says, "You see the pictures that we looked at that we want to look like."

And I say, "Yes." He said, "When this movie goes, do you want to look like that or do you want to look like this the first time you see yourself up there?' And I go, 'I want to look like that." And so he really put the wood to me... Even when I was out late, I managed to get my tired ass to the gym and just do endless hours, putting on weight. And every time my hands were empty, he'd stick a shake in my hand about this big, and say "Drink."

Q: Were you trying to go for a certain wrestler's look?

MR: Yeah, like Lex Luger. And then when we Googled him, we were surprised to see how he ended up.

Q: Did you see similarities between Luger and "The Ram"--did Luger end up a lot like "The Ram; and how common was your character's story to that of the real life of a wrestler?

MR: Well, from what we Googled, yeah. We stopped at a certain point. You know, we've showed this movie around a bit and we had a screening out in LA about three weeks ago. And during the question and answer period, Darren says, "I hear that Roddy Piper is in the audience."

Darren tells me who Piper is and how he's a great wrestler and icon from the '80s. And then he says, "Are you here in the audience?"

Then we hear, "Yeah, I'm here." It was the first time I heard [Darren] stutter. He says, "Www-well what did you think of the movie? Did you like it? Did you hate it? Do you have anything to say?"

Then there was a silence again. Then we hear, "Yeah, I've got a lot to say." And we're both looking at each other like, "Oh fuck. This is the real deal. This isn't somebody from our camp."

And he went on to pay us the highest compliments that we could wish for. And actually he got a little emotional about it. And it was hard holding this guy and hearing him and talking back to him. [We] got an understanding where he's been--the journey that he's been on,and all the others that were like him. Because when your time has come and gone and that's the only thing you know, you can't go and be a goddamn bus boy somewhere. You just can't do it. And the options aren't a lot. And it's not very pretty.

Q: What do you think about your newfound success?

MR: It's painfully nice. You know, I was on the bench for 13 years. And, you know, after like 10 years go by, you really kind of start thinking that all you have is hope. And time goes by, you start thinking, ''Is it really fucking over with like everybody says it is.'

And when you're in a town like LA, you're reminded every fucking day. You'll be buying a pack of cigarettes at 2 in the morning on line with five or six people, and some jerk will say, "Hey, didn't you use to be in...?"

And it's like, "Fuck. Just give me my cigarettes so I can get the fuck out of here." And you hear, "Why don't you work anymore?" And you have to hear it 24/7.

Or someone will come up and mention 9 ½ Weeks or fucking Angel Heart. And it's like, "Yeah. That was a fucking long time ago." It's like a fighter talking about an old fight in a gym. You see it all the time.

Q: Did you get any fulfillment during your lean years from your cult following and fan sites?

MR: No, because that's what you did [pounding hand on table]. It's the same as Randy. He did it 20 years ago, fucking 15 years ago. You can't pay your rent on that. You can't get laid on that. You can't go have a drink on that. You're yesterday's fucking news. You get treated differently...

After 10 fucking years, you go, "The party's over." There were small things along the way. Sean Penn went out of his way to get me a day on The Pledge. [Sylvester] Stallone saw me eating at a restaurant one night when I could hardly pay for my fucking spaghetti, and he put me in Get Carter. [Director] Tony Scott put me in Domino. [Director] Robert Rodriguez gave me a bit in {"Once Upon a Time in Mexico].

It's been a slow journey back... You do whatever you can to survive. I sold all my motorcycles. I used to have nine motorcycles.

Q: So are you getting offers now?

MR: Look, they're not running to my door. I did a lot of damage out there.

Q: But after all this--closing film of the NYFF, critical acclaim, award noms and wins?

MR: we'll see.

Q: And what about the remake of 13--a weird film about a Russian Roulette gambling club directed by Géla Babluani (who made the original 13 Tzameti)?

MR: That was fun. I was just [working on] that. I finished up on that recently.

Q: Where's the book?

MR: which book?

Q: The one that you're going to write?

MR: I can't write it, sweetheart.

Q: But you've written scripts. You can write.

MR: but you'll have to hear them through movie monologues because I can't write that stuff. I don't use anything that looks like a computer. They call my phone "The dinosaur." I've got a movie script that I wrote that I'm going to do in the fall called Wild Horses.

Q: And what about your family--did they offer support?

MR: My dogs are more important than my family. My grandmother is gone and [so is my] brother. So that's it.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Philippe Petit Achieves Lofty Oscar Nom As He Steps Out With Man On Wire

Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour

Just as Man on Wire is such an unusual documentary, so was this exclusive interview with its subject, Philippe Petit. Here was the man who had done something that was a huge feat in and of itself—walking on a wire strung across the World Trade Center in 1974. The then-24-year-old Petit's daring, but illegal, 1350-foot-high tightrope routine was what some consider, "the artistic crime of the century." It also got him arrested.

There he was: a guy who managed such a feat but he hadn't made a feature film in his life, wanting to crank out his own document of his adventure. Well, it took quite awhile—nearly 34 years later—and much time to find the right director to be his collaborator and creative extension of his own vision, to make his internal vision into one that could be shared with the whole world.

And what a way to get there. Through circuitous, complicated twists and turns, he finally found British director James Marsh, who had made two strange and unconventional films; a rather successful documentary, Wisconsin Death Trip, and a less satisfying fiction feature, The King.

Thankfully, Marsh returned to making docs with Man on Wire and provided a fascinating look into how its subject trained to do a near-impossible task (think about the winds whipping around those towers that high in the sky), viewed his own achievement, and then made efforts to document his feat. It also illustrated how Marsh had to transform his material into a whole unique mix of archival footage, documentation made at the time, and a faux feature.

It takes incredible fortitude and determination to be a director, but no director has taken on the challenge of making a film quite to the degree that Petit did—by creating the event that was its focus, and actualizing it as well—an event that few people would risk doing, let alone succeed at doing. But succeed he did, and so did this film, a 2008 Sundance Film Festival Audience and Grand Jury award winner (and official selection at 2008's Tribeca Film Festival), now a candidate for the 2009 Oscar for Feature Documentary. So when the film was released in late summer 2008, Petit (who is artist-in-residence at NYC's St. John's Church) had discussed how he felt about it after all these years and, now that it was out, where it was leading him.

Q: Given your unique relationship with the World Trade Center—beyond the general feelings about the devastation and loss of life—it must make you incredibly sad for its loss on 9/11.

PP: On the subject of the towers disappearing, of course it was an immense— sadness is not the word—it was something alive that was pulled out of me.

Q: What kind of feelings have emerged by refocusing on that time?

PP: [I have] the same feelings that I had when I was preparing this work, when I was performing it, and afterwards, being welcome by New York and the world. The feeling of profound joy, elation, of being happy to inspire people. So nothing had changed, and nothing can change that. The memory of this adventure is an intimate, romantic, poetic, joyful feeling that will continue... for the rest of my life.

Q: When it was done, were you thinking, "Now that this is done I can move on to other things in my life?"--did you wonder what to do next?

PP: Well, if I were a different person, of course after doing something so ultimate and immense, I would've ask myself, "What can I do next?" But that's not me. I was interested in doing beautiful things and after having done that [one] beautiful thing, there are millions of other beautiful things to do for the rest of my life—and for the rest of the world. I never had the problem of “topping” my World Trade Center performance.

Q: Was it strange that after you two were introduced, you’re making a movie after such a long gap?

PP: No, it’s not strange. It’s an evident step, and it's logical. I managed to resist offers of doing probably the wrong movie or the wrong play for many years. I could have easily become a millionaire. But, as you can imagine, the twin towers coming down that day, and saying yes to other offers, and somehow, again I decided to do something meaningful and wait for the moment when the thing will make sense. It made sense for me to say yes to this documentary even 34 years after the walk.

Q: What was it about James that convinced you to work with him?

PP: It is a complex chemistry when you put two artists together and you discuss a project. There are no two directors for this film, there is one director. All of those were artistic challenges. But there was this letter [in which] James introduced himself to me and explained his motives for doing the film. And there was a phone call [where] James talked to me at length and I was struck by his honesty and his sensitivity.

There was a lunch where probably none of us ate anything because we talked, we talk, we talk and then there was a handshake at the end and the beginning of a complex adventure of collaborating and creativity and letting go, of fighting. All of that is the good radiance that any artistic collaboration should have. If everything goes too well, I don’t think it is going to be that interesting.

Q: So this film that came out of this, was it what you expected?

PP: Not at all. As I said, I wanted to make a film about that adventure even before the adventure started and that’s why, as a producer, I caused some film to be shot in my property in the center of France. And then I realized, "No, I have to abort making a film of that adventure because I cannot be [part] of a movie crew crawling at night in the twin towers [at do the act itself.]"

But then after that we constructed everything as a history and were amassing it for years after the walk, all the archives and memorabilia, because I thought that if I am making a film then I am making a film, [but] how naïve and stupid of me.

So I came to America and tried to make my own film, but of course, I didn’t get very far. I said no to many film offers. But then when I said yes to this documentary you can imagine by that time I had in hand tons of film.

It was very sensitive, very delicate to collaborate with a filmmaker and not be frustrated, not to feel betrayed, not to disagree with certain images being chosen or certain editing [moves] being performed. But all of that is a normal state of feeling for me because I was "inhabited" by the film of this adventure.

Q: What do you feel you've added to the film and what did you feel that was missed along the way that you learned to add?

PP: I didn’t need to learn because I already knew what would be the ingredients if I were making the film before I started collaborating with James.

Q: In making the film now, what did you learn from James that hadn’t occurred to you? And what did you learn about what you want to do going forward?

PP: Well, a now documentary has been made about my adventure between the towers, therefore there will never be another documentary. There will be a feature film, actually. I am collaborating with the director and it's a whole new adventure. But what I learned, well, I didn’t need to learn—it was in my head. If I did my own film, then I didn’t need to learn from another filmmaker. I really was very precise about what I wanted to do.

So, it’s a difficult question, I don’t really know what I learned. I should have not been so giving up of certain things, but we had bloody battles and some I won, some I lost. They were artistic battles though, so it is not the good, the bad, and the ugly.

There is an artist having a vision and another artist having a vision, and they are collaborating. So, I learned that this was the story of my life. I could have always said I don’t want to make a film, I only want to make my film, but I had the intellectual rights to say "Okay, lets do it." I don’t know what I learned, but I will ponder your question.

Q: Is there any other media that you haven’t touch that now you want to do?

PP: Yes, yes. Opera, theater [and other things]. I am going to continue to do books but I have done that, so not much. But I would like to transcend the art forms and associate myself with other artists even though that is very difficult for me.