Monday, August 24, 2009

Doc Director Robert Stone Reviews Our Earth Days

Exclusive Q&A by Brad Balfour

In light of the on-going ecological crises we seem to face daily, it was not only a massive task that veteran doc director Robert Stone tackled by making his latest film, Earth Days, but it was crucial for a movie like this to have come out this summer (it debuted as the closing night film for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival).

The film documents the history of environmental activism from its roots nearly four decades ago through the eyes of some of its key participants. To Stone, the modern ecological movement began with the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and is moving on to a new and hopeful phase today. To illustrate such a globe-spanning movement, Stone chose to focus on a small set of its crucial players and thinkers.Employing interviews, a strong historical reference and beautiful scenes of Earth's natural riches, Stone draws on his own personal commitment to the subject to propel his film forward.

Stone's witnesses includes former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall; biologist Paul Ehrlich; Congressman Pete McCloskey; astronaut Rusty Schweickart; writer Paul Ehrlich and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand, among others.

Q: Your film is at the center of all those films that covered the panorama of ecological issues; it looks at the roots of it all.

RS: A lot of what people are talking about are symptoms of a larger problem. What I tried to do is to step back and look at the root causes of it. All of what's going on now has a context and a back-story. If you just look at each of these little crises that these various films represent or book, it's almost like throwing paint at the wall. And what I'm trying to do is step back and put this all in context so you can understand what's going on now.

Q: It's almost like you're there at the core of it all and every other feature or story emanates out from here.

RS: Exactly. The root cause of all of it is that there's too many of us, and nobody talks about that anymore.

Q: How did you choose the specific people you focused on? There are a lot of others you could have used as well. Orville Schell is one who comes to mind but these people provide an interesting set of choices.

RS: A film dealing with a subject of this magnitude had to be grounded in personal narrative in order to work. So I wanted it to be personal stories that would carry the film forward. The fewer people you have the more personal the story's going to be. I thought nine people would be the maximum the film could carry.

There are three main characters in the film and the rest are sort of secondary. With each of them, their personal life stories mirror the journey of the film. You see them in their childhood and they undergo a personal change which mirrors the changes that happen in the society at large. Also, taken together they represent the different strands that came together to create the [environmental] movement. I wanted the film to be a personal story, not one where the subject dominated it and you just have this brief chorus going on, just interviewing experts. They're experts but it's also about their personal experiences.

Q: Were you conscious about environmental issues from an early age?

RS: My mom read [Rachel Carson's] Silent Spring to me when I was eight years old so that had a pretty profound effect on me. Then [the original] Earth Day absolutely was a big turning point. I grew up in a college town and was really exposed, even though I was a young kid, really exposed to the demonstrations against the war and the political activism. Though I wasn't really a part of it, I saw it.

When the environmental movement came along with Earth Day, it was like a children's crusade in some way--kids got involved and that was our revolution. Kids have a natural understanding about the environment and a fascination with nature in a way that grownups don't, I think. When you're a kid you're interested in animals and the world, so the environment is something that children immediately glom onto. I certainly did.

Q: You picked some of my cultural heroes; Stewart Brand has been here since The Whole Earth Catalog came out. It was like the internet on paper--"this is the coolest."

RS: It was. He ended up becoming a real pioneer of the internet, but that's been his whole thing from the beginning.

Q: Former Arizona Congressman and, later Secretary of the Interior Udall (under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) was really fascinating. What was it about him and the others that you felt A) were really important to you, that focused you on them, and B) why did you think they'd still resonate to people now--for the historical context or because you want people to see the continuum culturally?

RS: Each of them plays a different role. Authors Paul Ehrlich and Dennis Meadows wrote two of the seminal books that had an enormous resonance in the culture and the whole debate. Though Rachel Carson's dead, she's in the film. Those three books: Silent Spring, The Population Bomb and Limits to Growth are the three seminal books, so those guys are in it.

Former astronaut [Russell Louis] "Rusty" Schweickart has an incredible story that's one of the great astronaut stories that's not been told. People know about the guys who landed on the moon but his is really remarkable. I'd met Rusty about 15 years ago and heard his story. I always was amazed by it and surprised that so few people knew about it.

Rusty's another example of why I chose my characters. He's a minor character in the film, but not only does he go up in space and have this amazing revelation, he comes back and puts it into practice and becomes the Commissioner of Energy for the State of California and does all these radical innovations with energy conservation. So all the characters reemerge throughout the film in different phases.

Q: I could talk to you all day about Stewart Brand. He is one of the most fascinating personalities in the world. The Whole Earth Catalog came out and changed everybody's thinking in this time when the movie starts.

RS: Yeah, that's one of my favorite people in the world. Stewart had a profound impact on me and the visual palate of the film. Originally, when I started delving into this and finding archival footage, the first thing we did was find news footage that covered the topics in the film. It became clear early on that that wasn't going to work visually for this film because a lot of what they're talking about is almost unfilmable.

The whole message Stewart's been putting forth for 40 or 50 years now is that technology can enhance our perception of the world and by enhancing our perception, is the only way we're going to get a grip on the problem. You have to understand the problem to perceive the problem before you can start to find solutions.

He's always been pro-technology when the rest of the movement was really anti-technology. He said, "Look, rockets can get us into space and that can allow us to view the world from above and get a new perspective on our place in the universe. Airplanes can lift us up in the sky. Stop-motion photography, you can look at a smokestack and it might seem rather benign; you speed it up 100 times and you see how awful that amount of pollution going into this tiny veneer of an atmosphere we have."

So we started using those simple visual techniques to not only visually depict what was being talked about, but also since so much of the film is about this change in perception that we had going from the '50s into the '70s, [it shows] a revolutionary change of perception about our relationship to the earth. So Stewart had a really profound impact on how the film actually ends up looking.

Q: You talk about pesticides, Carson and President Kennedy. How significant was the President in an environmental issue?

RS: It was hugely significant. Because she didn't have academic credentials, she was a scientist, a woman--a single woman--so at that time the pesticide industry went after her with a real concerted campaign to discredit her, calling her a hysterical woman, that she didn't know what she was talking about. They were trying to destroy the message by destroying the messenger.

Udall had given Kennedy a copy of Silent Spring. He read it and was very moved by it so he came out and publicly supported her and set up a scientific panel, a commission, to study what she had done. He ended up supporting her and backing all of her research. That really silenced the critics and it went on to become a huge international best seller. Carson and the book had a profound impact on starting the whole environmental movement.

Q: If it had been Al Gore instead of George Bush becoming President would there be a whole different perspective right now?

RS: It goes back to Reagan really. I don't think you can just blame Reagan as a person, it was a whole movement. Reagan was elected by an overwhelming majority of the American public; America adopted a very conservative ideology that was easy. It's very easy to say the magic hand of the marketplace is going to solve all of our problems because then you don't have to do anything.

Reagan basically said we can go back to a 1950s mentality and the marketplace will take care of things, and people bought into it. As Hunter Lovins says at the end of the film, "We lost 30 years. For 30 years there was absolutely no movement forward In fact there was movement backwards, and we're just now resetting the clock and getting back to where we were."

Q: Ironically, the marketplace has been the one area where there is some movement in that people are trying to come up with new technologies to try to get ahead. Even during that 30 year period.

RS: It wasn't a fair market; it wasn't a market, that's the thing. The free hand of the market actually will solve these problems if it's a real market. If when you buy a car, you're paying the full value of that car including the damage to the environment that went into making the car and all of the pollution that's going to come out of that car, that's the value of that car. If you pay that, if it's a real market, that will solve the problem. And that's where the environmental movement is going now.

Q: The irony is that if they had allowed proper market forces to allow for technological innovation, there would have been alternative energy sources years ago. But there's a sort of corporate totalitarianism; they're not free marketers; they're corporate socialists.

RS: That's absolutely true. That's addressed in the last part of the movie when Dennis Hayes talks about the solar entrepreneurs as being crushed by these giant corporations who wanted to control the power industry.

Q: Pete McCloskey was a sort of liberal to moderate Republican but I didn't realize he became a Democrat. It must have been fascinating to talk with him and see his cultural and personal evolution.

RS: It's not that he's changed, it's that the Republican Party just shifted so far to the right and completely abandoned all the principles of environmentalism that it founded. And he's not the only one, there are other people I interviewed that didn't make it into the film; I interviewed Russell Train who was Richard Nixon's environmental advisor and the second head of the EPA. He's a staunch Republican was a big supporter of George Bush Sr. and everything, but he voted for Obama and is just appalled by how the Republican Party has abandoned environmentalism.

He's like, "We started environmentalism, this was our cause." Talk about conservation, this is conservative. And this corporatism you mentioned, corporate socialism, is exactly what bothers them; that the Republican Party has just shifted into this craziness. Republican environmentalists have just abandoned the party in droves.

Q: It amazes me sometimes, how could a Republican think that environmentalism is bad? I don't get it. Did you figure it out?

RS: It got caught up in the culture wars, and the Left has some blame here as well in that what you saw happening in the '70s with that initial burst of legislative success coming out of Earth Day, is that these minor, marginal environmental organizations became huge, they moved to Washington, they became these giant Washington lobbying organizations doing battle with corporate lobbying organizations. And the American public outsourced their activism to these Washington groups and they lost because they were overwhelmed by bigger forces.

I see the same thing happening now, and that's a warning of the film. Right now, the current battle over climate change, all it is being debated by Washington lobbying organizations, and how much money can you put into The Left versus The Right? Who has got the most amount of money and the most clout?

As long as that's where the movement is going, it's a recipe for disaster. That's what happened in the 1970s. Right now you almost have a complete reversal of how things were then. In the early '70s, it was a grassroots movement, with the mass public demanding change on a political level. And in the late '70s, as it is today, it became more about scientists, environmental activists, and a segment of the political class who were leading the whole thing. But they'd lost the support of the mass public who didn't understand the problem.

I think you see the same thing today. So unless you get back to it being a grassroots movement, it will be like the recent climate change bill that passed by what, three votes in Congress? With Obama in power, and the Democrats in control of the House and Senate, everybody's talking about climate change, yet with everything that we know about it, it passed by only three votes? That's not good.

Q: We have the nuttiest strain of Republicans in power that we've ever had.

RS: That's true. The film addresses this moment in time where there was a big focus on the environmental movement about perceiving the larger problem. In the case in the environment, people can get their heads around the big issue, and it's not a Republican or a Democratic issue that we need to care for our planet and that we're all in the same boat here. That's a big picture thing; when you start to get into arguing about the minutiae and the details about how we get from point A to point B it becomes politically divisive. So I would hope the environmental movement could get back to focusing on the big picture and not the minutiae.

Q: Many politicians prefer to tackle other issues because they usually resolve those issues in a short time. In order to get elected you have to solve a certain issue. Do you think that's part of the problem?

RS: Yeah, they're not going to tackle long term issues unless they're forced to do so because there's no political advantage to tackling long term issues. So again, as long as it's a battle of lobbyists in Washington it's going to be a losing battle for environmentalists. And I think the lesson of that is clear by what happened in the late '70s.

Q: Do you think that movies like yours and these other ones will help on a grassroots level? Because they don't make the larger political issues, they give it a more personal connection.

RS: I hope so. I don't think anybody can say that documentaries don't make a difference anymore. An Inconvenient Truth undoubtedly made a difference. Some films do and some films don't. My film is designed to reach as wide an audience as possible and not be a polemic. It's an effort to put this whole thing into a larger context, so for anybody who wants to really understand the environmental movement now, [they have] to understand how we got here.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Youthful Actor Jonathan Groff Is Taking Woodstock And The Stage

Exclusive Q&A by Brad Balfour

For such a young actor, Jonathan Groff has had this charmed life. First, he lands one of the highest profile roles in a musical, Spring Awakening, a show that was meant to confront Broadway conventions. Right after he leaves that show--with a Tony and Drama Desk Lead Actor nomination in hand for his performance as Melchior Gabor--he goes on to play Claude in The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park 2008 revival of the '60s revolutionary classic Hair. In both roles, the sweet-faced Groff challenges authority with a smile and triumphs theatrically, if nothing else. And this is all accomplished before his 24th birthday. As a newcomer to New York City, making his way here from Ronks--a town near Lancaster, PA--Groff went from high school theater geek to Broadway contender in a very short order.

But of course, with these two achievements under his belt, getting tapped to play the part of Woodstock organizer Michael Lang in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock seemed a natural progression from "Hair." Though he has limited screen time, he so effectively slipped into that role that he physically seemed to mutate into Lang.

Now, besides his illustrious cinematic debut playing a historically resonate figure on the heels of the 40th anniversary of the actual Festival, Groff adds further heat to this summer's boil by playing Dionysus in The Public Theater's Central Park presentation of Euripides' The Bacchae.

And despite some mixed reviews for The Bacchae, the play provides him with another way to provoke through a sort of primordial counter-cultural figure. Groff has had an uncanny instinct for landing provocative parts in great shows, created by well-recognized artists such as the legendary Greek tragedist, the Oscar-winning Lee, or the award-winning playwright Craig Lucas.

Q: Seeing you in The Bacchae, it's clear there's a connection between lots of the things you've done so far. Though Dionysus is a dark figure in this context, the idea of him unleashing sexual tension fits with your other projects. You embrace that kind of role. In Spring Awakening you are part of a generation that would have been hippies if they'd been in the 1960s. So you've experienced this cultural phenomenon being expressed in all these different vehicles.

JG: That's so true. It's funny; I've never even thought about it until you were talking about that. Yeah, I feel really lucky to get to play these revolutionary guys that are working for a cause; it's a really exciting thing. As we were rehearsing for The Bacchae we were doing the press for this movie, and I was on the phone with my dad a couple of weeks ago. I literally said to my dad, "I can't believe it, but there is a lot of Michael Lang in Dionysus."

Everyone talks about Michael's smile and how certain people view it as an angelic smile and other people view it as a devil's smile covering up something. It's the same thing with Dionysus; in the mythology, when they originally performed it in Greece, the mask for Dionysus was a smile. He was doing all of these evil things with a smile on his face.

Q: Wine was the intoxicant of the time but it could have just as well been psychedelics. You've got him going to the women and saying, "It's okay to be yourselves, to leave your husbands. It's okay to frolic nude in the woods with other women." Using intoxicants, unleashing women...

JG: Totally. And the gender-bending; seeing a man dressed up as a woman, which was a clichéd thing for some people, it still is to this day. Anthony Mackie, who plays Pentheus, was telling me about how people from his life, his neighborhood, are like, "Dude, I can't see you in a dress." They won't come see the play, they're like, "It freaks me out, it makes me feel weird," and he's like, "Really?" They know me, they've seen me in a bunch of stuff and it still freaks them out." It's mind-boggling.

Q: I guess they liked you at the Public after you did Hair; that led you to doing The Bacchae?...

JG: I did a Craig Lucas play at Playwrights Horizons, Prayer for My Enemy, and then did a Craig Lucas play at the Public, The Singing Forest and was playing these characters that were incredibly moral, searching, confused and heart-breaking.
[Groff won the 2009 Obie Award for both productions--he's pictured at left with the award and former fellow Hair cast member Karen Olivo]

I was talking with Craig one day, and he was like, "What do you want to do next?" I was like, "I think I want to do a classic play because I've never done a classic. I'd love to play a character that's not so moral, not so upstanding."

Even in Hair and Spring Awakening, they were rebels but they were really good people. But [Dionysus] is very revengeful. At the end of the play I ruin the old man, Cadmus' entire life but he didn't do anything wrong.

Q: When I look at the metaphor, I don't find him all that bad--at least not in you.

JG: It's interesting because there are a lot of parallels between Jesus and Dionysus. I mean, a new religious figure coming in out of nowhere and people starting to worship him.

Q: When you look at the values of the time there was the male dominance and women were supposed to follow orders--he attacked the values of the time.

JG: Totally. The son of god, the son of Zeus; a mortal mother, a sort of immaculate conception thing that some people believed in, and some people didn't. Spreading a new way; Jesus did, "Here's my body and here's my blood." That's all in there. It's really fascinating. I literally have so much fun doing this play, I go to bed at night thinking about how I get to do it the next day so I wake up in the morning and I want it to be 8 o'clock.

Q: How do you do this in all the heat we've had?

JG: We rehearsed in that heat. We we're there all day rehearsing, which is a lot. But the park is the most incredible space in New York; it's just magic A) because it's outside, and in the middle of Central Park which is my favorite place in all of New York, and B) because everyone, most everyone, that comes has waited in line all day to see the show so it's an audience like no other because people are hungry to see this play.

People have to work, or know someone, or find a way in, so when you they get there, and are in the audience, it feels very special and of the moment.

The other night, for example, there was that huge storm that came so we finished just in time before it started raining. There were huge cracks of thunder and lightening. And they keep calling the god whose voice is thunder, I was standing at the end, and I revealed myself as the god in the end. I was standing at the top in my sparkle thing, and there were, literally, strikes of lightening coming down from the thing and we were like, "Whoa, this is so cool!"

We had those moments in Hair too; suddenly a breeze would come through and it changes the entire meaning of everything. It's like you're standing there and suddenly a wind catches you. One night in Hair we were so hot, literally, that our bodies were steaming, and just the energy of it, it's just an amazing space.

Q: You played the one character who is the link to the real Woodstock experience, Michael Lang. You're at the right age, and getting to see this experience filtered through meeting him... How was that whole experience for you?

JG: Now Woodstock is obviously such a huge part of my life and I know so much about it, but when I try to think back to what I knew before this movie, even before I did Hair and before my life was consumed with the late '60s, I remember knowing that Woodstock was a very famous concert in the late '60s and knowing that Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens, and The Who were all there.

It was a movement in some way and that's pretty much all that I knew about it. Now I know so much more about it, and have been learning a lot about it, so being a part of it and living in it for that summer was really inspiring. Michael Lang was 24 years old when he did that and it's mind-blowing. I'm 24 years old and to think that someone had the vision, that drive, and that idea at 24, and actually saw it through, is completely inspiring.

Q: And the fact that he wasn't intimidated.

JG: He's just this chill dude. I asked him, "450,000 people, a disaster area, not enough food, not enough bathrooms, people threatening not to play, rain--why were you so chill? Or even building up to that; what made you so relaxed the whole time? Is it just who you are?"

His answer to me was that he saw it. He said he was the only one; he knew exactly what it was going to look like, what it was going to feel like, what it was going to be like, and what the movement was going to be--what a beautiful thing it was going to be. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

Everyone else was sort of throwing their arms up, screaming, running around and doubting, not knowing, and he said, "I just knew that it would work and so I had complete confidence." It's just also who he is.

Q: How much are you like that or not?

JG: He and I have a lot in common; I think we share a similar quality. Like when I spent the weekend with him I learned just as much about playing him as a character as I did about a way in which you should live your life. I felt like what a cool thing, beyond finding a mannerism, or talking to him about the experience and getting information, it was just cool to spend time with this guy who knows how to live his life with such ease, passion and confidence. He has a lot of faith in people and I think he's incredibly positive. We sort of share that. And it takes a lot to ruffle his feathers; I'm sort of the same way.

Q: Sometimes, it's not good to meet the person you're playing, and there are other times when it's essential. This was an essential moment because you were the one person who plays a character that has to give authenticity to the film.

JG: That was one thing that when I sat down with Ang for the first time and he put the research in front of me, he was like, "Michael Lang, people not only know what he looked like, what he did, and they know his name, but they also know how he interacts with people, how he smiles, his look on his face, his vibe."

Michael's vibe is very specific and people that really know Woodstock really know him. He's also an important part in the movie because he represents all the business stuff like finding a location and doing the press conference and changing the hotel and making it offices and all of that stuff.

But Ang said to me, "When you come off that helicopter in that scene, I want to see Woodstock in that moment. Like Woodstock is landing in his front yard, like this is the start of the whole thing." So he was very, very intent on that and on that day when he shot, he kept saying that to me, he's like, "I really need that vibe, I really need to get that vibe."

Q: Had you ridden horses before?

JG: My dad trains and races horses for a living, but he does harness racing so I had never been on the back of a horse; I didn't know how to ride a horse. A huge part of the joy of shooting the movie was that for two weeks I got to go horseback riding in upstate New York. That amazing horse that I ride at the end, this beautiful white chocolate horse that is RJ, the horse they use in Hidalgo. It was incredible, literally the most beautiful fields and trees and forests; it was so much fun.

Q: In Spring Awakening you're the character that leads the charge, in a sense, right?

JG: Yeah, Melchior's an atheist. It's a society in 1891 Germany where the kids are completely repressed, sex is obviously completely taboo; the very first scene of the play this young 14 girl asks her mom where babies come from and she says the stork. And my character is the only one in the whole play who was raised with liberal parents who taught me about sex.

With my best friend in the play, Moritz--who ends up committing suicide because his body is so out of control--I end up educating him and I write him a sex essay which gets me then kicked out of school. I have sex with that girl and get her pregnant; she has an abortion and dies. So Melchior's the rebel, the revolutionary; he's the open-minded guy that's going to lead. The final lyric that I sing in the show is "One day all will know," because he's going to go out and change the world.

Q: I really like the songwriter. Duncan Sheik. His pop music sounded a little bit like he is an heir to David Bowie for that post-Bowie generation. ?

JG: Duncan can't write a bad song. I'm a fan of his music as well; I listen to it all the time, I have his anthology. But it's so stunning. It's totally his own voice and it's completely unique.

Q: Then you do Hair--they came to you for that?

JG: At that point I had an agent so they submitted me for it, then I had an audition, a call-back for that, and then got it.

Q: Though it's very much an ensemble, the one or two of the characters that anybody remembers is yours, the nominal leader of the Tribe. Did you actually grow your hair for that part or was it a wig?

JG: A wig.

Q: You were never tempted to really grow it out?

JG: I totally would have if I could have, but I didn't have enough time. It was incredible though, to go from Spring Awakening where we were in these buttoned-up, 1891 costumes. Yes, we got to let loose in the songs, but the teachers were hitting us, we were on wooden chairs.

But then in Hair I got to literally release, physically. The whole show is about freedom, as if the kids in 1891 could have had rock 'n roll--that was the whole point of Spring Awakening.

Q: So when you get into Hair, the actual cast really is experiencing the idea of Hair--the idea of the moment. And, except for yourself, everybody else gets that moment of nudity on the stage. I'm sure they didn't do that before on stage back then. The fact that it's still provocative is even interesting.

JG: It is, it's fascinating. You know they say that moment of nudity in Hair, it's always optional, it's always been optional, like since '68 you could do it if you wanted to. They said that moment is about feeling free, whatever that means to you.

Q: You're the only one that isn't supposed to get naked.

JG: Yeah, because I don't burn my draft card, so I'm not free. And so I sing a song about it, and get completely upstaged by all the naked people. Literally, I've never been more upstaged than at the end of Act One of Hair, when you're singing this ballad, "Where Do I Go?," and you're crying and singing. It's this beautiful song, and people are literally in the audience craning their necks to look around you to see the naked people. It was hilarious.

But, when we started rehearsals, that show forces you to experience the vibe of the time. If you're really going to do Hair, you're really going to go there; you live it. It's pretty much all music, with some scenes here and there. Everyone's on stage the whole time. When we were doing it, we were outside in Central Park under the stars, the stage was made of grass. It was like we were really experiencing something that was other worldly.

There are lines like "look at the moon" and there was the moon in the sky in Central Park; and "Good Morning Starshine," and the stars are literally right above you. There are people dressed as hippies in the audience, people that actually experienced that time, and they're pulling out their own clothes and coming to celebrate. Then people that are my age that think that it's cool, are dressed up and sitting in the audience. And they come on stage with you in the end and dance with you.

Q: I went up on stage.

JG: Wow, that's so cool. One of the first things that I asked Michael while I was at his house--because obviously he's a pretty savvy music guy--I was like, "To you, who really knows the music of the late '60s and was really involved in the authenticity of what it really was, is Hair sugary and silly to you?" And he was like, "No man, that was the real thing. The Vietnam War was happening and they were protesting it on stage."

I was talking to some of the original cast members that came to see the show and they said that after the show was over, at the stage door, some kids would be like, "Do you think I should burn my draft card?" I mean, I can't imagine what it must have been like to be performing that show in 1969 on Broadway.

Q: So how long a gap was it between Hair and Taking Woodstock?

JG: Spring Awakening closed and five days later I auditioned for and got Taking Woodstock. And then I got Hair and Hair began. And then I was performing Hair at night, getting in a white van that drove me to upstate New York to rehearse with Ang, and then the van would drive me back the next morning and I would get up, go to rehearsal and then do Hair at night. That was back and forth for a while. And then I left Hair on a Saturday night and started shooting Taking Woodstock on Monday. So it was literally those two projects back to back.

I did it for about a month. it was a really intense time. It was completely joyful and exhausting at the same time.

Q: Well, I must admit, I wasn't sure how I was going to be affected by Hair. Did it resonate with Ang?

JG: When he cast me, he didn't know that Hair was happening. He didn't know anything about it. He just cast me. I literally put myself on tape, and hours later got a call that they had fast-tracked the tape to Ang and he was interested. So it was this happy accident; Woodstock didn't know about Hair, and Hair didn't know about Woodstock. They just happened to overlap and all the research was good for both. The characters that I played were actually pretty different, but to feel like you were in the world and you were living that time was a real gift.

Q: It was amazing to see how people were trying to re-embrace it and, I think, are still trying to re-embrace. I'm curious to see how Taking Woodstock is accepted.

JG: I can't wait. I think the thing that we have gotten away from, or at least that my generation has gotten away from that we're ready to re-embrace, is the idea of being passionate about something.

I feel like detachment and being an arm's length away and not caring or whatever is like the cool thing. Because in the '60s it was the very passionate defiance of the authority that was great, do you know what I mean? It wasn't that you were detaching like, "Fuck you, we don't care," it was like "Fuck you, we do care about something else."

There was a fire underneath everyone, and I think that that's what is coming back. For example, I was in Midtown when Obama got elected. First of all, up until the election, kids my age were going to Pennsylvania and Ohio and they were campaigning and they were asking questions and they were passionate about something.

Then, when he got elected, I was with my friend Allison Case from Hair, we were at a bar in Midtown when he got elected. It was like New Year's Eve; people were crying and running and screaming and shaking each other. That's the thing; whether it's peace and love, there's always an opposite and all of that, but it's the passion. It's the idea, which Michael had too, the idealistic view that we can hold each other's hands and make change, make something happen, and that we, whatever little thing that I do, can make a difference.

Q: Well I'm hoping is that people can have that feeling without being embarrassed by it.

JG: Exactly.

Q: Well, as good as those guys at Focus Features are at making hits that also have political and cultural credibility, Taking Woodstock is a risk. As Ang has said, "I want to do something that not everyone thinks about doing."

JG: I'm so inspired by Ang. Someone mentioned to me in an interview--that some critics at Cannes were disappointed because they thought it was going to be more about a concert and they also thought that, with Ang Lee, it would be more deeply, dramatically, intense or something.

Q: It is but it's not negative.

JG: That's the thing. When you go and see an Ang Lee movie, you should have no expectations--he reinvents himself with every film. All you know is that you're seeing a piece of art because Ang is a true artist and he listens to his instincts. He listens to his heart, is incredibly detail-oriented, does his research, is a hard worker, has an opinion about things, and puts together a work of art, whether it's comedy, a drama or whatever.

Like the inspiration for Taking Woodstock was that he was doing The Ice Storm and he always researches back five years before the movie. He was taken with the Woodstock thing and wanted to do something positive. This is a guy who reinvents himself every time he makes a movie, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to "Sense and Sensibility", to The Ice Storm, to Ride with the Devil, to Brokeback Mountain--which is about gay cowboys--now to this movie about Woodstock. He's unbelievable.

Q: So are you getting weird offers, getting good offers or what?

JG: I'm back to auditioning again; back to square one.

Q: At least you're making a living.

JG: Totally. At this point, it's about just looking for the good writing. I love acting in the theater,but I'm fascinated with acting on film. I love acting on film, but I've been fortunate enough to work on projects and with writers that are really challenging.

I've learned so much from them and grown as an artist so the rule is if it's well written you can't lose. If it's a film or a play or whatever, if the writing is good and you really feel passionate about it, you just can't lose. You'll grow from it. Whether it's a success or not is neither here nor there; you're going to grow as an artist from this experience.

Q: When this is over do you have other things in hand?

JG: No, I have nothing, I'm free. As of September 1st, I'm unemployed.

Q: At least you get unemployment right?

JG: I do actually; in theory I can.

Monday, August 17, 2009

South African Sci-Fi Director Neill Blomkamp Finds Life in District 9 Is No Picnic

Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour

Who would have thought that this quirky, controversial, though sometimes uneven movie, District 9 could knock a tentpole picture like Paramount's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra off the top of the charts after its first week. But besides being a classic science fiction tale in the best sense of the term, it has two other charmed words behind it--Peter Jackson. After complaining that there's a paucity of fresh ideas coming out of Hollywood lately, the Oscar-winning Lord of The Rings mastermind has put his imprimatur on District 9. Nonetheless, this feature is thoroughly the creation of 29-year-old South African-born writer/director Neill Blomkamp, based on his 2005 short.

Twenty eight years before the "now" of this near-future thriller, crustacean-like humanoids inhabit a vast galaxy-spanning spaceship that appears in Earth's atmosphere. Not there to make formal first contact, the "prawns" (as they become labeled) arrive here because of some unexplained (at least to the humans) mishap that forces their ship to hover motionless above Johannesburg. After some debate, humans helicopter up to the ship and cut their way in to find thousands of aliens starving and stinking up their vessel.

Relocated to Earth, they are crowded into a small neighborhood called District 9 where, over the ensuing 20 years, it becomes a shunned slum (a clear reference to District 6, the Johannesburg slum created by the ruling Afrikaans as a ghetto for its Black population). The obvious metaphor is there, made even moreso, when the South African government of this near-future's present decides to re-locate the one million-plus "prawn" population to a decidedly smaller, more isolated camp--in tandem with a corporation, MNU, running the alien ghetto while secretly trying to tap them for their technology and biology. Though humans and aliens can somehow communicate--humans can sort of decipher their gutteral clicks and snaps (which sounds a bit like the real Xhosa language)--there's a huge misapprehension and resistance by the prawns to their forced move.

Applying a range of extrapolative techniques to explain this alien society with its heirarchy of common citizens and elite technologists, the film shows how they survive, and hope to cope with post-20th Century South Africa world. Blomkamp does a good job in delineating this complex alien culture as one of its scientists plots to get them off Earth. Thrown into the mix is the Nigerian criminal gang that exploits the perimeter of this ghetto and its denizens--much like it happens in South Africa today.

While the film challenges expectation and grapples with first contact, it humorously exposes human foibles in an oddly skewed mirror-like fashion. It also offers a cool spaceship, funky aliens and great weapons. Loaded with homages to tons of sci-fi images and ideas, the film breezily makes its mark on this genre.

Q: Why did you chose this direction for your first feature film rather than make a more obvious, socio-political film about the same issues?

NB: I grew up in Johannesburg. The genesis for the idea came out of the fact that I just love science fiction and Johannesburg, so I wanted to see science fiction mixed with Johannesburg. It didn't come about like, "I want to talk about these issues that had an effect on me when I was growing up, like segregation and aparthied and everything else."

The second you put something in Johannesburg, you start raising these issues. Before [I thought of] District 9, I felt like half of my mind wanted to make some serious film about these topics and the other half wanted to make a bloody genre film. And then I thought maybe I'll be able to do both. So there's never been a second in my mind where it might have been set somewhere else, because Joburg came first.

Q: You focused on one character throughout the film--an MNU field operative, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley). Why did you identify with him; is some part of him, you, or someone you know or were taking the piss out of?

NB: I was definitely taking a piss [British slang for making fun of someone]. Afrikaaners don't occur that often in movies, but when they do, they're usually tough militaristic guys. They are the guys that created the apartheid and stuff. So there's an image of what the Afrikaans male is. The reality in Johannesburg is that lots of those kind of guys work for massive state-owned companies, and are much more bureaucratic, pencil-pushing dudes.

I loved the idea of having a guy who is comfortable in his life and with what his company was doing, who always says "yes" to whatever the company asks for, and genuinely believes it is in the best interest of everyone to do what the company wants. It was awesome to take someone like that, who is comfortable in their position, and have them turn into the thing they are oppressing. It's mostly a satirical take on that kind of character, which is what I like about District 9.

Q: Do you find it amazing how alien South Africa is to most people?

NB: I still don't have a good handle on how alien it is. Johannesburg is weird, because half of it is like Los Angeles. It feels like just wealthy parts of LA. But half of it is severe slummy, something like Rio De Janiero or something. So it's kind of weird, because it's both happening at the same time.

Americans will easily understand the company, the way it's being promoted, and most of the white parts of South African culture. But it's the real bad place, the stricken townships, that I didn't know how they would take. They may take that as being very alien, but in the best-case scenario, they'll be interested to see science fiction occurring in that setting.

Q: How much experience did you have with the townships? Where are you living now?

NB: I left just before I turned 18. I went to Canada in 1987--Vancouver--so up until I moved at the end of grade 12, I had exposure to the townships but it was limited. Maybe once every six months to a year, I would be there for some reason. Then when I went to Canada, I started going back to Johannesburg every year. That's when I got seriously interested in it, and it was a very different type of thing.

I lived there when I was younger, and it was under apartheid; when I was coming back from Canada it wasn't. It was more the stuff you'd see on television, the way blacks were segregated, and you'd see the armored vehicles going in--this oppressive thing that's happening next door to me. It was almost society from a white kid's point of view when I lived there. From 1997 onwards it was like going in the townships, and then I became more and more interested in it.

I never viewed that interest as connected to science fiction. That was just one part of my mind that was interested in this topic, and the world of films was in another pocket of my mind and very separate.

Q: I see how alien your experiences are from even South Africa so I thought the Nigerians added resonance. And it seems you wanted to give a deeper mythology to all three cultures: the South African, the Alien, and then, adding the Nigerian to bring in a sort of African point of view.

NB: The Nigerian thing is there because I wanted to take as many cues from South Africa as I could. I wanted South Africa to be the inspiration. If I try to keep South Africa as true to South Africa as I could, then, unfortunately, a massive part of the crime that happens in Johannesburg is by the Nigerians there. It's just the way it is. I wanted to have a crime group, and thought the most honest refraction of a crime group would be Nigerians, for one.

And then secondly, the Muti, the African witch doctor, is also a huge part of Africa and many African countries. So I wanted to incorporate that as well. At the time I was writing the movie, there was all these tribal witch doctor attacks on Albinos, because Albino flesh were worth more than normal humans. That was the analogy to a different group or a different race, [with their] traditional medicine, or traditional Muti--even cannibalism, in some instances. I incorporated aliens into that.

Q: In a lot of literary science fiction, it doesn't operate according to obvious, clichéd premises about first contact. By sheer serendipity, a spaceship was damaged and ended up on Earth. I liked that about your premise.You made it feel realistic because you wanted us to accept the realness of it. It doesn't have to be a fantasy.

NB: I wanted to make the most real feeling portrayal of impossible elements that I could make. But it's still different from my actual belief as to how first contact with aliens would go down, because I wanted to make a movie, not a documentary.

Q: Why does first contact have to be in New York or Washington, especially given the circumstances of your film? It doesn't have to occur in obvious places such as Paris, or D.C. Why not come to Johannesburg? Why not stop there by accident? This was more realistic than what we intellectually envision in our head.

NB: Maybe it is more realistic then what we're used to in Hollywood. But still, in my opinion, it's opposed to reality. If some species were able to make some kind of serious interstellar travel like that, or intergalactic travel, they would be at a technological level where there'll be a merging between [them] and [their] technology. It's a lot like what humans will go through as well, provided we don't wipe ourselves out.

Whatever this race is, it would merge with their technology at some point on their planet, and it would be a biological, mechanical crossover, as scientist/writer Ray Kurzweil puts it in The Singularity Is Near--and their society would be altered after that point. There would be a new type of life.

Because they can exist in binary code, as an algorithm, or can download themselves into whatever physical presence they want or exist on computers, they can then determine how they want to travel through space. They could occupy micro-starships and travel just under the speed of light. They may have figured out beyond-speed-of-light travel and gotten around theory of relativity.

And they would come to our planet, for whatever reason, because they chose to come here. There's no way that they would be a destitute refugee group.

The concept of xenophobia and us not being able to accept them is also highly unrealistic, because we can only do that with something that mimics the human form at a similar intelligence level to us. It's difficult to apply racism and xenophobia to a supercomputer. So I think it would be a completely different thing.

Q: What were the greatest challenges you faced in making this film? Obviously the special effects resonates; that's got to be CGI. Was there any time you put people in outfits?

NB: No. It was always digital.

Q: With Peter Jackson on hand were you able to get the special effects more smoothly done?

NB: First of all, visual effects were done in Vancouver, Canada. Weta [Jackson's effects company] did the spaceships. But the aliens were all Canadian.

Q: You must have had fun sketching out what you wanted to the aliens to look like.

NB: It actually wasn't that fun. It was kind of grueling. I had a different design for about six months, and it was the one design that I just didn't feel 100%. Then one day I realized that the ride in reflected this insect hive, and we were really dealing with lots of the drone workers in the hive. So when I figured out that they should reflect this insect biology in a way that they're illustrated, then we went down the road of making them more insect-like.

Q: You got the texture right. That must have made you nervous. Did you test it, or when did you know it worked?

NB: There's two parts to how you pull that stuff off. One part of it is the way that it looks on a frame-by-frame basis, where, hopefully, the goal is that it looks like a photograph and the way it's going to tell what's real and what isn't. That's one part of it. 

The second part is, how does that creature interact with the humans? And how do the humans interact with it? That will be the thing that either will make it work or not. So I used an actor who played Christopher to play off Sharlto, and that meant I was filming those scenes a little different to how you film two normal actors. The process was that we would remove Jason Cope and replace him with Christopher, and his performance would be crossed over to the digital aliens, so both performance were organic and real.

Once I figured that process out, and we had this process where we would remove Jason but capture the essence of his performance, I then thought, "Okay, we're in a good place in terms of how these two people are going to interact with one another," and that felt good.

Then, once you go into postproduction, you work with the effects guys to get the most realistic results. I tried to set that up beforehand--like I tried to make sure that the way I photographed them a lot of the time would be in really harsh African sunlight. That would make them feel more real. Then we had the insect-like, hard-shell surfacing which would make it feel real as well.

Q: In writing the story, did you have some science fiction books or films as a reference?

NB: All of the science fiction in the film, the fantasy part of the movie, is a distilled-down, melting pot of all the stuff that I like in these genre movies [we all know]. But [for] the story itself and the arc of Wikus's character and everything, I tried to use some of Africa and Johannesburg for inspiration for a lot of that. It's almost like reality provides the inspiration, so the science fiction, is, in a way, was almost meant to be familiar. [It's] the African setting that's unfamiliar.

Q: Hopefully, when a writer or producer makes a science fiction movie, they map out its internal logic so that things don't appear inconsistent with the storyline.

NB: I figured out their back-story and their way to the world: once they've arrived here, like 28 years later, how that would work, multi-national corporations getting involved, where they're getting segregated off to. How the humans see them, how they see the humans. That's all part of the set in the world, though, before you start writing the story itself.

Q: By locating the moment of first contact in a very specific place it makes the story more resonant. Will audiences grasp the alien-ness of the story and how the alien-ness of its location enhances it?

NB: That was the goal. Set it in an unusual place, and therefore make it feel more real. So time will tell.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Oscar Winning Director Ang Lee Enjoys Two Retrospectives--One, A Career-spanning Look and For The Woodstock Film Festival

Q & A by Brad Balfour

With his feature film retrospective taking place on at the Lincoln Center Film Society's Walter Reade Theater and with the August release of Taking Woodstock, Taiwan-born director Ang Lee is being put into an ever-bright spotlight. A premiere was already held in Woodstock and Manhattan to commemorate the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival's 40th Anniversary. And now, Lee, with primary screenwriter/producer James Schamus (also CEO of Focus Features) in tow, unveils a new 138-minute long director's cut of his fascinating western, 1999's Ride with the Devil.

Detailing the underexamined conflict between the pro-Union Jayhawkers and pro-slavery Bushwhackers along the Kansas/Missouri border, the film focuses on friends Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) and Jake Roedel (The Ice Storm vet Tobey Maguire) as they wrestle with battle, romance and death. Lee and Schamus will appear on stage following the 7:30 pm screening to discuss their careers and filmmaking process.

Lee's 11-day series, Intimate Views from Afar: the Films of Ang Lee, (it ran from August 1st to the 11th) spanned from his 1992 debut Pushing Hands, to his most popular, groundbreaking masterworks such as 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and 2005's Brokeback Mountain. In the following interview--part of a small roundtable held in order to promote Taking Woodstock, the 54-year-old auteur discusses these films and his career in light of this retrospective.

Q; You've made several films that deal with the nature of family. Taking Woodstock is as much about dealing with family as a lot of your earlier films, just a different kind of family. Do you look at family because of your own family experience?

AL: Maybe [because] in real life I'm actually a family man. I don't have a lot of life experience adventures.

I'm not particularly interested in the subject of family drama. But I am interested in the change of time, something you think is secure, that's believable, that ultimately is not true, or it will change. And you feel insecure and try to find your balance and place.

I think that's the thing that kept getting back to me. It just happened that I know family better than anything else, so I started writing them. It just got under my skin, they're profound. And people can relate to it without talking too much about it or introducing too much to establish it, because it's a very common feeling.

Q; In the recent New York Times piece about your Lincoln Center retrospective, it mentioned that your grandparents had been executed.

AL: Yeah, the whole family was liquidated.

Q; Being so close to violence personally, how is it to do movies with violence?

AL: It's very difficult. That's why I needed to do a comedy next, just to let me take a breath [after making [Lust, Caution]. I [didn't] take it lightly, I seriously made the movie. But that was a very heavy three years that I lived in that world. And the place had nothing spiritual holding it together except patriotism, so I sort of put female sexuality against it in the movie to examine it. It was very nerve-wracking.

It was very scary; just psychologically very threatening, even though I got a lot of help. Miraculously, the movie got made the way I wanted to make it; the version outside China is precisely how I wanted it to be made, no compromise. But the fact that it exists is pretty miraculous. But to live through that is a lot.

That may make Brokeback Mountain like a musical to me [laughs].

Q; Growing up in Taiwan, you had this cultural distance from Woodstock, how did you come to appreciate it? Was that distance an asset?

AL: My idea of Woodstock, perhaps like many things I deal with in the movies, is a gradual evolution. When I first saw it, I was 14 in Taiwan. The images of Woodstock on television news, some huge hippie happening--guys with big hair jamming guitars, a sea of people, young Americans--[it was] really cool.

At the same time, big airplanes hovering overhead, American Air Force landing inside my hometown [to] get fixed before they take off at the air base. We [were] at the peak of the Cold War, we're the front line protecting Americans--what are these young people, are they out of their minds? But they're so cool. So it's nothing like, a [year before], the moon landing was all positive--it's nothing like that. It's a mixed feeling. But to a young person, they're pretty cool.

And when I came to the States, I just gradually knew Woodstock because you keep hearing references about it, and the influence got bigger and bigger; ideal utopia. And I saw a documentary [Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music directed by Michael Wadleigh] in 1980 when I was a film student here. I saw it at the Bleecker Street Cinema. Which I used. As you can see, I took many shots [from it but] I didn't imitate it. It just kept on growing, kept on growing.

Q; What the tools did you use to make the film seem so authentic?

AL: Of course study, working with smart people, interviews, reading--that all helps. And I have a little experience in doing period piece, which is important. I found that doing The Ice Storm helped.

Just the way people were holding each other; people holding themselves differently. The attitude was different; that, you have to get right. I think to get things like props, hair, everything, that's laying bricks, that's just hard work. There's no secret; if you want to do it, do it. But I think to get the attitude right, even down to the extras, that's a lot of work. A labor of love--you have to love it, love to do it.

Q; How did you decide to risk the movie on comic Demetri Martin, a guy who never starred in a movie before?

AL: Well, his name came from James. After I met Demetri I did a screen test, thoroughly. I took a whole afternoon just trying him out and watching his captured image. Once I believe in him, I [could] believe that's the guy who took us through this biggest party.

Q; You got a great performance out of him. We expect veteran actress Imelda Staunton to be good, but he is an unknown.

AL: At some point I just had to take a leap of faith. I believe in my gut reaction a lot. [Elliott Tiber] is clumsy, he's a fish out of water, he's [slow] in what's happening--he's like always a bit late, maybe because he's too smart or something. He just has that quality, and those who look at him are very sympathetic, good natured, and all that. I [can] believe he's the guy who took us through the party.

If you strip down to family drama, it's pretty thin. What makes that work is not in motivation and action, but the reaction to what happened two miles down the road, which is the biggest party ever. At the end of the movie they changed.

Technically, for a director, it's very hard to do. It looks easy but it's very hard, because people didn't do anything. I believe [Demetri] is the guy; nothing to do with his jokes. It started out because I didn't really speak English; I struggled to get my idea out, and also I found that's very effective. [laughter]

Q; And how did you think of Liev for Vilma? He said it was your idea. Had you seen him in something where you thought he would be perfect?

AL: No, after I cast him [I learned] he did something before [ Mixed Nuts] , so I checked.

The main thing I wanted from this character is he's not definable; you cannot put a category on him. And just the way he dressed, you could not pinpoint what kind of gay he is even. And he's using cigars... And he's comfortable with himself.

And also he follows out his own war. Think about it; children are fighting in the Vietnam War, and the children [are] leaving the parents who fought in the Second World War. And there is a forgotten war in between which played a big part, and that's the Korean War. So there's a veteran part; he's playing a catalyst for everything.

So you really needed a good actor to do it effortlessly without leaving any trace. He's just comfortable with himself, which set a good example for Elliot, and also bridged him and the father and everything. There were actually not a whole lot of choices. And James was insisting he has to have good legs.

Q; This seems to be a kind of an epic too. Is there still material that is going to be in the DVD?

AL: Tons of them; a lot of scenes got cut out. Some I'll bring back to the DVD, some I probably shouldn't. But there are a lot, it's very hard. That's why I have that big long tracking shot, to try and fit in as many as I can.

Q; You dealt with more actors in this movie than in all of your movies combined.

AL: Probably.

Q; Then you got hundreds of people cavorting naked, and people making little documentaries of people cavorting naked. How was that managing?

AL: I was pretty smart and determined about that, that's no joke. You can't just like throw the dice and expect it to happen. I have a big rehearsal room and I call that the war room, [with] the big board.

I spent months building boards; every scene, all the different elements, groups, and how they develop from scene to like three scenes down. Everything you talk about, different tribes, the type of people, how they develop, all the elements, the war theme, the this theme, that theme. It [was] all [broken] down, so everybody checked that board and saw what they had to do to get prepared. It's a lot of work.

Q; How many shooting days did you have?

AL: 45. A quick shoot, too.

Q; Speaking of nudity--and violence for that matter--what did you find out from the reaction towards Lust, Caution? Has it been allowed to be shown in China or is it still banned?

AL: Well, it's not banned, you know.

Q; It was censored. Did they cut it?

AL: I cut it. I had to deliver it like an airline version, because they don't have rating systems. It went all right, it didn't do great business. Sometime later they'll pick it up as a DVD from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

There was a backlash to The Real Deal[directed by Tom Burruss], I think, and the government has kind of stayed back and let whatever happened [happen]. At one point they did come and say "Okay, no more arguing about Lust, Caution, let's just forget about it." Or something like that.

I don't really [discuss] it anymore. I don't know if the turbulence is over yet. But it certainly had a big impact in China.

Q; How are you going to cut an airline version of Taking Woodstock?

AL: Well, this one won't be shown in China. There's nudity, there's drugs, there's gay.

Q; And what are you doing next?

AL: I don't know if I should mention it. I'm still working on the script. I'm developing a script, Life of Pi. I'm not committing to directing it, I'm just seeing how the script works. And James still sends me stuff. Everybody sends me stuff.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Q&A: Taking Cheney/Rumsfeld to Task, Actor David Rasche Steps In the Loop

Interview by Brad Balfour

When actor David Rasche came into the room, I knew this was going to be a different kind of interview session just as In The Loop is a different kind of political comedy. The 65-year-old Rasche was supposed to be joined by director Armando Ianucci and fellow thesp Zach Woods to conduct an intimate roundtable with four of us--but because Rasche was early--or on time--for us, our conversation was transformed, much like the shambolic supposedly "secret" committee meeting organized by Rasche's character, the gung-ho American warmonger Linton Barwick (a cross between Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld) got transformed and provided a sort of pivotal moment to the film. In a similarly chaotic fashion, Rasche alone spoke with a couple of us before settling down with his fellow Loop-ers and provided some pivotal moments of his own.

Now distributed in the States, the British-produced film debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and, in New York City, at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Based on--or rather, taking its cue from Ianucci's smart and snarky look at the inner workings of British politics The Thick of It (kind of like The Office for politicos)--In The Loop follows Cabinet minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) through a series slip-ups that gets him involved in the ever-twisting gyre of intrigue that's leads to getting a war started in the Middle East. Sounds familiar...

The film starred some of the series' regulars such as Peter Capaldi (reprising his foul-mouthed communication chief Malcolm Tucker) and American additions such as former Soprano James Gandolfini as a war-reticent General Miller. Within this context, bumbling assistants and loose-tongued associates screw up and screw each other to a dry, droll, parodic effect. The film certainly doesn't view previous British and American administrations as the pinnacle of political achievement.

In light of this summer's health care debate with the right stirring the pot, the film serves as a reminder that the politics of diversion, derision and destruction as expressed by the opposition party goes on. So when a film like In The Loop offers this refreshing and engaging alternative take on the inner workings of the political universe, it becomes a must-see to add perspective.

Though Ianucci (also the primary writer and producer) with Woods (who plays Chad, a very funny American adjunct) finally arrived, what was supposed to be more of a roundtable, turned into a unusual back-and-forth of banter.

Q: Was that just the roll of the dice that you ended up playing the bad guy, Linton Barwick?

DR:Well you know, they made it a little bit harder in this movie [from the television show]. But that's for Armando [to explain].

Q: How did you see it?

DR:I had a few rejoinders that were excised.

Q: You did it so well. You have this way of doing it so that you don’t come off as just mean.

DR:That sinister thing is there [though].

Q: Is that you or in the script? I can’t believe all the things that Armando threw in there.

DR:It’s terrific eh? Funny as hell. The timing was great; it's global politics. As a matter of fact, I had a friend, Mike Reiss, who was one of the producers of The Simpsons, who said that he thought there are arguably more funny lines in this movie than in any movie he can remember.

Q: But is it too complicated for Americans to get?

DR:I’ve been in tons of audiences like in Seattle [at the film festival]; there were 3,000 people, all Americans, and they just were howling with laughter.

Q: I saw it with critics and they didn’t laugh as much as I imagine an audience would. I was angry at them in a way but I thought it was astounding.

DR:Really? I’m surprised because I have not seen that audience. The only audiences I’ve seen, big or small, have [been with the public].

Q: You don’t even realize some of the lines are really funny until it hits you later; it's so deadpan, and you’re so perfectly deadpan.

DR:It’s really funny, I have to tell you, I’ve been involved in two international projects in the last little bit and it’s absolutely remarkable what we bring to it. Like I did this Brazilian film and people are all saying “Oh, we don’t like you because you did so and so and so and so,” and I said, “What are you talking about?” And the same thing with this; with the British press, the Americans were almost completely ignored and all they could see is the Brits, and now here you’re asking me [about my character]; we see the Americans. It’s funny, what we bring.

Q: Who were you a blend of?

DR:I was going for was a combination of John Bolton and Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice. All those imperious, belittling, condescending, right? Remember all those press conferences? It was like, "Do you really have to act like that? Do you really have to be so belittling and condescending?"

Q: You added the imperiousness brilliantly.

DR:I mean all of them, like David Addington [Cheney's legal counsel and chief of staff]--do you remember him?--they were all so unpleasant.

Q: Evil, evil people.

DR:No, but as unpleasant as a person [can be]. In the hearings, talking over you, not listening, belittling your point of view, remember Condoleezza Rice? “Uh Senator.” Relax, Condi. Anyway.

Q: I was at a Times Square New Year’s Eve with a press pass and John Bolton came to there. No one else had a problem talking to me, Regis, Chris Rock… But Bolton had a phalanx of security; you couldn’t even get 20 feet near him, and it was like, “What the fuck?” And he did not crack a smile the whole time.

DR:They’re so self-important. Same thing with Cheney; he’s doing something that no American politician in the history of the union has ever done, that is breaking the silence [after a new administration has taken over] and starts screaming about you know… And the reason is, “Oh well what’s happening is so important, and I’m so important, I just have to.” Well you know, Dick, I don’t know if you’re that important.

Q: It’s interesting seeing us filtered through a British cultural lens so that you see Americans in a whole different light.

DR:Oh yes you do. It’s a British film, from a British point of view. Don’t tell Armando I said that. But I think clearly it swung that way… I don’t think he knows it, maybe he does or not.

Q: The most disappointing thing for you about it was that you didn’t get to be in every scene with everybody else, because there are so many good people there.

DR:They had to cut a lot. I used to be but... You’ll have to ask Armando, and I don’t mean to misquote him, but I think he said that he got to the end of editing and knew stuff had to go so he cut his four favorite scenes and then all of a sudden the movie worked. I’m afraid I was in a couple of those scenes. His first cut was four hours.

Q: Did this film feel like it had almost theatrical quality?

DR:I never thought of that.

Q: Without all the locations, it would have been interesting to see it with everything else taken away, and on a stage. Because there’s such smart, snappy dialogue, it reminds me of a lot of those British playwrights, you know [like Alan Ayckbourn] or somebody like that--it does kind of have this beautifully fluid language…

DR:Well the story goes, as Armando will tell you, there was a special guy. No not Tony [Roche, one of the screenwriters]. I’m pretty sure is the guy was Ian Martin who provided, oh, additional dialogue. He specialized in swearing; you know all the crazy [British] swearing? I’m serious, they call this guy up; that was his specialty. When he would say “I’m going to rake your bone and I’m going to stab you in the heart” and all that stuff. “I will hound you to an assisted suicide,” I mean I don’t know which ones. “What are you in a Jane Austen novel?” and all that, a lot of that stuff--specifically that was what he was good at.

Q: Do you see a difference between British and American humor? Is there something that doesn’t translate well?

DR:Except for people like [play/film writer-director-producer] David Mamet, who I think is the exception that covers both bases--Armando is funny as hell but a lot of his humor is really verbal--it’s in the words, really it’s not that it’s a joke but it’s the combination of words. They’re a little more verbal than us, don’t you think? We’re more situations, sight gags, stuff like that. Well the nice thing about this too is there really aren’t any jokes. There are no like, jokes.

It’s behavior and situation. Although I don’t want to misquote Armando, but I think he said that when he went through the film while was editing and any line, no matter how good it was, if it sounded written, he cut it, because he wanted it to sound like you really were overhearing [them talking].

Q: You can’t lay it on the director, it’s all your fault. There are so many places where you are silent, so it’s all in your look, gesture, the walk forward, or walk over here, or look at this.

DR:Tell him about how wonderful that is.

Q: You got it down with just enough of the restraint--as everybody did in this film.

DR:I’ve been watching those [Bush administration] guys on television for eight years. I mean, just it's appalling, appalling, appalling behavior. And it’s obvious that now that we’ve had six months where we’ve learned you don’t have to do that. We have Joe Biden, we have Barack Obama, and I don’t see it. We have all the cabinet officers, you know, like Leon Panetta [current CIA Director], they’re not insulting.

Q: The Republicans seem like whiny children now...

DR:Absolutely. I think it was the fact that we ended up with the opposite of what they claimed. It seems to me that what we’re learning is that rather than strong men, they were very weak, and when 9/11 happened they all went [weird noise] and they started doing all this kind of extreme stuff because, unlike Roosevelt and those guys who said… "Hi."

They were really weak little boys and they did all kinds of bad things. It didn’t help anything, right? We’re finding out about all this eavesdropping, the effect of this was like, not much.

Q: To what degree do you think we’re living in a democracy?

DR:It’s pretty hard to say that we are anymore. It’s not that, it’s when we find out the influence of the banks and corporate America; we see now that when the banks can throw $25 billion in propaganda you can’t fight it. I was reading there’s a new organization that’s trying to counteract it, but it’s really hard. When they have everybody on TV, the only news stations, it’s like how can you fight it?

It's the same thing with the government; how can government regulators, when Goldman Sachs and all these people hire hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of the finest MBAs from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to find out how to get around the laws, we don’t have the money to hire people who are smarter than them to keep them from screwing us.

Q: Did you need to read a lot of stuff?

DR:I told you already; I’ve been watching these bastards for eight years on television, shaking my head, thinking, “Oh my god. Despicable.”

Q: Whenever you see politicians they always seem so dry and boring.

DR:Well they all aren’t. Rumsfeld wasn’t; he was a performer, the ultimate performer, who really enjoyed getting up there in front of people. Which was part of his problem that he got carried away and was under the mistaken impression that everything that came out of his mouth was a gold nugget and in fact, I think that was not the case.

Q: I’ve heard of the analogy of politics to wrestling. When you watch wrestling on TV there’s so much tension and conflict but outside of that…

DR:That’s why President Obama, when he frames the argument of abortion as to let us respect each other’s opinions and then go from there, then the whole thing starts from a new spot. It doesn’t start from I hate you and you hate me.

Q: You grew up in Chicago right?

DR:Well I never really grew up; I "enlarged" in Chicago.

Q: Where are you from originally?

DR:It was a joke; you didn’t get it. I said I never really grew up but I enlarged. I was in Belleville, Illinois which is down-state but I spent a lot of time in Chicago.

Q: You’ve got roots on the Obama side, but there’s also classic Chicago politics.

DR:Not only that but Rumsfeld is from Chicago. Oh yeah. I know this personality type. My father was a little like that. Seriously. There’s this kind of stubborn, like that last line where he says “Well there were some pretty scary moments at some point right?” and I said “No there weren’t.” remember that? That could be my father, “No. No. No.”

Q: How would you describe or define patriotism at its core?

DR:The last refuge of scoundrels. Who said that?Jefferson or... I can’t remember. Benjamin Franklin? [Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”]

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Exclusive Q&A: Comic Tracy Morgan Empowers His Inner Guinea Pig To Join G-Force

Interview by Brad Balfour

From class clown to stand-up comedian and, finally, as a film and television star, Tracy Morgan has made his life and on-going bad boy adventures part of his stage persona. Weekly, he replicates this persona as his character--the whiney, clueless television star Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock. Whether doing his fictional sketch comedy series, TGS with Tracy Jordan or his animated analog, the secret agent Blaster--one of the G-Force guinea pigs--Morgan lends both a street credible smirk, a wink and nod to what he does so well. And now that 30 Rock has garnered 22 Emmy Award nominations this year (with the Award ceremony little more than a month away), Morgan is riding high.

A native New Yorker, Morgan rose from the projects to the stage, working his way up to the national comedy circuit while guesting on television and in films. After appearing onDef Comedy Jam, he became well known appearing on Martin as the Hustleman. Morgan then did an hour-long standup Comedy Central special and contributed a voice to Comedy Central's Crank Yankers. He also hosted the channel's showcase, Comic Groove, and was added to Entertainment Weekly's "It List" in 2002.

Once he joined NBC's Saturday Night Live, Morgan popularized two memorable characters--Safari Planet host Brian Fellow and space adventurer Astronaut Jones--as well as homeless romantic Woodrow and Dominican Lou. His impressions included Mike Tyson, The View's Star Jones, Della Reese, Busta Rhymes, Maya Angelou, and Samuel L. Jackson. He has also appeared as himself, both on "Weekend Update" and in backstage sketches where he grilled guest hosts with inappropriate questions.

Morgan segued from his seventh year on SNL to primetime as star of his short-lived series, The Tracy Morgan Show. Morgan also appeared in such films as Head of State (directed by and starring SNL alum Chris Rock) A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Half Baked, 30 Years to Life, How High, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

As Blaster, Morgan gets to wag his cute little tail while flirting with a Penelope Cruz-voiced fellow agent. In G-Force, live action is mixed with finely rendered 3-D computer animation to tell the story of a team of biologically enhanced guinea pigs trained by maverick scientist Ben [Zach Galifianakis] to become secret agents for the US government. Unfortunately, besides being super-agents fighting a global criminal threat, they are fugitives, having had their program shut down by a human spy agency suspicious--and maybe jealous--of what these costly house pets can do. Still, Ben sends the squad to thwart power-mad billionaire Saber [Bill Nighy], who plans to transform the household appliances his company produces into a gigantic supercomputer [like a Decepticon] in order to take over the world. Not unlike some of Jerry Bruckheimer's other productions, it's sometimes hard to tell the flesh-and-blood characters from the computer-generated ones.

Morgan makes his first foray into an action film--albeit as a furry creature--while still keeping his street creds. In this exclusive interview, the 41-year-old Morgan reviews his role in this perfect-for-summer film and his life in general.

Q: They wanted you to be yourself.

TM: Hoyt [Yeatman Jr., the director] said, "Just be yourself and have fun with it," but we did what was on a page and then he would say, "Just have fun and be yourself." I didn't have to make a choice. I didn't have to do any dialect. I didn't have to do a London accent. They didn't want a Japanese dialect. They said, "Just do Tracy. People love your accent." He wanted me to bring in my voice.

Q: You have your urban experience, certain musical tastes and likes as well. Is that what you drew on? You added a little sexy.....

TM: Actually [Hoyt] wanted Blaster to be the ladies man, and, you know, I've had my experiences with women. I'm 40 years old, from New York City, and I'm hot. I'm Tracy Morgan, you know! I was married for 21 years. I have a son that's 23, so I should know a little something. He wanted me to bring that to the table.

So I asked him, "Was that okay for me to add my little two cents and all that stuff?" and he said, "That's what we want." So, that's what I brought. Tracy Morgan is not Blaster or Tracy Jordan; Blaster is in Tracy Morgan. A lot of people ask me, Wait a minute, let me tell you something. Tracy Morgan is not... Tracy Jordan's Tracy Morgan.

Q: With Tracy Jordan, your 30 Rock character, you draw on yourself to give that character life. He's like you, but not you?

TM: A lot of that stuff that you see on 30 Rock, is right from the headlines when it comes to me. I've experienced all of that stuff. I'm a standup comedian. You know, were crazy, crazy like the guys who wash the windows on The Empire State Building. You've got to be crazy to get up there and wash those windows.

So that's what we do. Most people are afraid to do public speaking. That's what we do for a living. Most people would die rather than get up and speak in front of somebody, or a bunch of people. They'd rather die than give the eulogy.

Q: Or be on the Empire State Building window-washing...

TM: [They'd rather be] washing than speaking in front of crowds. So, I love it.

Q: You have one of the best casts in the world. Do you get to spend time with each other beyond the show?

TM: When we're working, we don't hang out. Fortunately, we're all working. Everybody on the show. The show has done wonders for everybody. That's part of their careers. We're working in some capacity or another, so that's the down thing about success. You don't get to see your friends and family as much, because you're working,but when we around each other, we have a bunch of fun. Tina, Alec, Le Juday [Judah Friedlander], OJ, we're always singing and making each other laugh and then it ends up on the page and in the script.

Q: Is there any difference in working with former Saturday Night Live star Tina Fey as the series creator and head?

TM: Tina, she's down like four flat tires. That's Tina. She's the chief. Were goin' to battle with her, and she sets that example. She's our Tom Brady. If you read Bill Belicheck's book, he said Tom Brady was taking a nap, and that's when he knew they were going to win The Super Bowl. That's cool, baby!

Q: Alec Baldwin... what is he like?

TM: He's played all these straight roles, these dramatic parts, and sometimes people get a perception from that. But the fun part is about breaking the perception, and Alec is hilarious. I call him "AB." and I call Tina Fey, "Fey Fey." That's my "Fey Fey." She ain't goin' nowhere, that Tina Fey. I've watched her from the red carpet and everything.

B: It must be fun being in a groundbreaking show.

TM: We have ties with All In The Family. I look at Nick At Nite, and TV Land, and I look forward to the 30 Rock marathons on New Years' Eve just like the Honeymooners marathons.

Q: When you do 30 Rock as opposed to an animated film, how much of it is driven by the interplay?

TM: OK, we're both comedians. The only difference is, [that Tracy Jordan] has three hundred million dollars. He's an international movie star, I'm not, but we're both entertaining. Tracy Morgan is a very entertaining person but not because he's black. I don't want to be stereotyped. We're brothers, but he's just an entertainer in show business.

Q: You must get a kick out of doing a show like that where you're taking the piss out out of the hand that feeds you--meaning the network. That must be fun.

TM: You know, it isn't politically correct and we love it. I think "PC" is just killing comedy. That's why Bruno is having such a hard time with lawsuits. People nowadays do not have a sense of humor, and that's why I loved doing G-Force because for me, it brought out the kid in me.

We're adults a lot longer than we're children, if you think about it. We're kids a much shorter time than we are adults. When we become adults... People think being an adult is being serious. It's not having a sense of humor, or being entertained, and that's what this does. It's for the family...for everybody to enjoy.

Q: When did it dawn on you that you could get paid to be a kid?

TM: To get paid and be funny? Oh man, that was about 17 years ago. I said, "Wait a minute," because I was always the class clown and everything, and then when I got older and had a family--three kids and a wife--one day I was walking down the street and went into a comedy club [got on stage] and they gave me 10 dollars.

I started with 10 dollars and now I'm doing a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. So, I try to protect my sense of humor with everything I got in this world, 'cause I feel that's the only gift that God gave me to survive in this insane place. Growing up in the ghetto is really dangerous, and I think I survived because I made the gangstas laugh. They liked me because I was the funny guy in the block, so they said, "Don't hurt him! He's our entertainer." I just turned it into a business as I got older.

Q: Do you think comics understand pain more than most people?

TM: I think so. We understand rejection. Just to be in show business, period. People that make it in that next level, they're the ones that... You have to be able to deal with rejection. Most people never make it in show business 'cause they can't deal with rejection. If you can't deal with it on a regular level with women. Why do you think men become alcoholics and stuff? It eases the pain.

Q: A comic is really finding a way tell the story of [his/her] own life...

TM: In a comedic way while injecting your sense of humor.

Q: But it's pure you. You're really naked on that stage.

TM: I tell people all the time, if you want to understand me, you have to go watch my stand-up,and you have to listen. You can't just take the sex part and say,"Well, all he did was curse." No, [it's] the story of my life.

My mother was born and had five kids. My father came back from Vietnam, so that tore my family apart because he came back a junkie, and chose heroin over us. Then her first son was born with Cerebral Palsy. Then I was born. Then she had a daughter. So, I was born in-between cerebral palsy and the only girl.

I didn't really get that [snaps fingers]... She probably think I didn't need it, but I was a kid. I needed it. So, that was painful, and then my mother and my father broke up. That hurt me even more. I was supposed to ball up in a corner and die and disappear, but then I'm a survivor. I thought, "To survive. To just survive."

Then I got older and I said, "Fuck surviving. I want to live."

Q: That's the thing.

TM: Now that I'm living, they want to stop me. I yelled at this guy from BET because he said, "What do you think, some black people said that you were coonin' when you gave that speech at The Golden Globes?"

These are the same fucking people that said when I was a little kid, "You can grow up and be anything you want," and now that I've grown up and become successful, they say, "You're coonin," so, fuck them.... Don't listen to nobody.

Q: You're able to channel that, not necessarily by being angry, but through things like G-Force. It has these right, hip elements, so adults as well as kids walk out smiling. I love that.

TM: It's all family. At the end of the day, it's all family. That's all you got. Family. Pardon me for saying, but like Michael Jackson, all he needed was one friend who considered himself family. That's all Michael Jackson needed, was one person to say, "Let's go to the Yankees game." Two Yankees games would have cleared all that shit up.

Q: You're probably right.

TM: Two Knicks games would have cleared all the..."Order a hot dog, Mike." He never had anybody there to do that.

Q: He tried to stay a kid because he never had a chance to be one.

TM: I think he's The Curious Curse of Benjamin Button. He's the real fucking The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. He grew young.

Q: You're the first person I think who's pointed that out.

TM: It's because [as] I told you, we are adults longer than children. Children understand. Children have fun. When you go to a nursery or kindergarten, you don't see racism there. that shit is a learned behavior.

They're just playing together. If they fight, it's over a toy. They ain't fightin' because of color. They don't care about that stuff. We become adults, and we learn that shit from the generation before us. So, you have to be careful.

You have to be careful on how you raise children. The young people that are going to see this... They don't care about corporate America. They're just going to see G-Force, man, and that's what I love about it, because it's so pure, and me and you, we are the kids in us.

Q: This picture is about a team. It's not about one color, not one race.

TM: You know, me and BET were talking about this. I think every kid in school should play a sport, a team sport. It teaches you camaraderie. Why do you think women are so fiercely competitive?

You have to learn camaraderie. Have you every been a part that was something bigger than you? G-Force is bigger than me or Nicolas Cage--it took all of us. I don't care who is a bigger star. It took all of us to do that movie. It took hundreds of people. One unit. Whenever I'm on a set, I always look around and I love the way the fucking machine runs. From the person holding up this, to the reporter. It's all a machine,and you gotta love the way it runs.

Q: People who work in film, it's like you're in alternative universe, you're in your own world.

TM: It's a community. I'm not a part of the black community. I've never been a part of the white community. I'm a part of show business community. Whether Liz Taylor knows me or not, I'm your neighbor. I can say Michael Jackson knew who I was. I never met him, but guarantee I probably made him laugh,and that right there, I made his kids laugh. I made every reporter in that room laugh. I made you laugh. I made every reporter do this, because it's laughter.

Q: Do you think it's partially about growing up in New York?

TM: Do you want to have a beautiful woman? Make her laugh, man.

Q: You know what your next direction will be: a self-help book to get the pretty women.

TM: That's part of it, but you've got to make 'em laugh. Women love a man with a great sense of humor rather than they love a hump. Rather than they love a big dick. They love a sense of humor. They're so emotional. They go through so much heavy shit every day, that if you can just make her laugh for a second, they'll love you forever. That was Blaster's flaw.

Q: Do you think that Blaster finally gets Juarez, the girl GP agent [voiced by Penelope Cruz]?

TM: Well, you'll find out in the sequel. That's what everybody wants to know.

Q: They are guinea pigs, so they could have had a threesome. Just speculating.

TM: No, they're not deviant like that. They might have had a threesome, but whose baby is it?

Q: That would be tough to figure out. Did you ever decide she was playing you to get Darwin [voiced by Rockwell], or was she playing him to get to you, or was she playing you both to get you to fight over her...

TM: She was playing me to get him, I believe, 'cause she's with me all the time and I'm always giving her my attention. Now, you know, in real life, if you give a woman attention she ignores you, but if you don't give women attention, they go crazy. They go, "What's wrong with me?" You better believe there's something wrong with you, because there ain't nothing wrong with me!

Q: There's that point where you've got to flip it so that after you've been putting her off, you've go after get her....

TM: You can't flip it, because they won't let you. Once the balance of power's been situated, then that's it. Women get creeped out once they know that you love them more than they love you, so you have to play hard-to-get too, but to get 'em... This is how you get 'em. I'm giving you my secrets now. I'm showing you how to use the force. Okay?

All you've got to do is look at her in a way that doesn't creep her out, but make her feel like she's the only one in the fuckin' room.

Q: It's the toughest thing to do--get the balance right where you let her know that that's true, but you don't want to let her know you're that desperate for her.

TM: You don't care. Roll your eyes at her. Make her feel like she's not worthy of you.

Q: So, do you think Blaster had it down or not?

TM: No, Blaster wants her too much, and I try to get through to her, but he won't listen to me.

Q: What would you have told Blaster?

TM: You've got to make her laugh. I don't know. I don't know what makes her laugh. Blaster just needs to be himself and stop begging. When you beg, you make people hate you. If I ever see a woman I like, I'll just walk up to her and say, "If God made anything better than you, he's keeping it for his MF self."

Q: That's what you should have told Blaster?

TM: That's too heavy. I wanted to keep it light, but just remember that line, and I guarantee she'll smile and once you get to a woman, see the way to a woman's heart is through her funny-bone. You make her smile, she'll love you forever.

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach. If you know how to cook, you've got him. See, I tell any woman, God gave you what you needed to get a man, but I'm gonna see if you can keep him. You've got to know how to cook if you want him to come home. If you make that lasagna with six different cheeses, then I'm comin' home.

Q: Did you get a chance to meet Penelope Cruz?

TM: I've never met her.

Q: What would you say to her if you did?

TM: The first thing I would say is,"How are you doing, Ms. Cruz? Hubba-Hubba." Nic Cage is cool, but Penelope. Come on, nothing makes a man feel better than a wo-man. He was the first act, but the real act is yet to come. Nic Cage is cool, but to me, he ain't got nothing on Penelope.

Q: When you do an animated film, you usually don't have that option. You only get together with everybody after the fact so it must have been fun to finally sit down with Nic Cage who plays the mole Speckles...

TM: [It was] the first time I ever met him and the first time I ever met Zach. It was the second time I met Jerry Bruckheimer. So, just to be there at the table with those guys was an honor, and then to have you guys laugh was an honor [as well].

Q: Having met Bruckheimer, did you have any sort of suggestions, besides saying, "I'm available?"

TM: Jerry does the picking and the choosing.

Q: Maybe you could get yourself a cameo on one of his TV shows.

TM: No, I've got 30 Rock. 30 Rock is good enough.

Q: It seems like you've done nearly everything, TV, movies, stand-up, voice overs.

TM: Everything except for directing and I haven't done Broadway which I want to do one day.

Q: What about singing?

TM: My father was a singer. I sing all the time. I sing every day. When I'm on the set, I sing.

Q: But you've never gone in that direction.

TM: No, no. That's my son. My youngest son is into music. I was more into sports and comedy.

Q: You've never pursued sports though.

TM: No but I was really good. I went to high school up here in the Bronx, De Witt Clinton. I was All-City halfback, and I was a All-City track runner.

Q: Would you like to create and direct an animated film?

TM: No, I think that stuff is too hard. I'll leave that for the animation department. Well, I plan on directing a short, maybe next summer.

Q: Would it be humorous or serious?

TM: It would be humorous. I want to show the world my humor. I've doing a lot of everybody else's humor my whole career. I've just been funny in it, but you ain't seen what I'm thinking.

If you want to understand me, then you have to see my stand-up,and what might stand out is the sex because you've got to understand, I've been doing this since I was little. You know where I come from in my neighborhood, everybody is promiscuous.

I come from where Mike Tyson came from. I come from right across the street from Jay-Z. I didn't have a pond in my backyard. I saw violence. I saw all that stuff in the "hood" growin' up, and a good thing I had a sense of humor, because that's what got me out of it.

Q: Do people stereotype you or have expectations of you because of that experience?

TM: Sure, sure. I got into it with BET on the phone. The first people that will really turn on you is black people. Sometimes your own kind.

Q: Isn't that funny?

TM: Yeah, that's the way it is. Jesus couldn't go back to Nazareth. They probably would have killed the man.

Q: I feel a bond, or complementary relationship with your experience and mine, because as a Jew, everybody seems to hate us.

TM: And our minds are open. They say that every Jewish person is supposed to love one black person in his life. I'm glad Lorne Michaels chose me.

Q: How difficult was it working in the framework of Saturday Night Live?

TM: First, it's "live" entertainment. It's on late night--working at 30 Rock is prime time and a single camera--[with Saturday Night Live] you have a audience right there, so you establish a relationship with them within the first 30 seconds. They let you know if they don't like you. It's like stand-up. It's live entertainment. There's nothing on TV like it... Saturday Night Live is the only thing that's "live" on television.

Q: Isn't that amazing to think about that?

TM: Come on man, it's like being shot out of a cannon.... every week.

Q: What was your weirdest "live," impromptu, improvised experience you've had in terms of doing standup, or other things?

TM: Saturday Night Live maybe, making something up and it working...saying something as Brian Fellows or as Woodrow and it absolutely working and you have millions of people that see it as opposed to doing a show. In stand-up you only have about 5000 people seeing it. You do something in Saturday Night Live, you have millions of people seeing it.

Q: It would be interesting to see you work with Zach.

TM: You know who was so funny? Eddie Murphy when he did Dreamgirls. That was profound. That was really a profound performance. My career person said, "You and Zach should do a movie together." I think we would have a ball.

Q: If you did action films, would you like to move on to do some serious action films?

TM: I'm doing an action film now--A Couple of Dicks with Bruce Willis [which is supposedly re-titled, A Couple of Cops--directed by Kevin Smith]. Me and Bruce are two Brooklyn detectives. We're filming that now in New York City. In the movie, I get shot and I kill a couple of people. Everything is Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. Or Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis.

Q: Since you're the co-star, you don't die in it. It used to be that in such films, it was the black character that always got killed in the movie.

TM: Well, fortunately, I've never died in a movie.

Q: That's cool.

TM: I've never died in a movie or on a TV show. Never.

Q: You missed your chance to be melodramatic.

TM: Well, I cried in First Sunday when Loretta DeVine made me cry. So, I broke the fourth wall, but thank God, I've never died. Nobody said, "Well, you did in this scene."

Q: Mentioning the fourth wall, how far or crazy would you take it in making your own movie?

TM: I couldn't tell you. As far as creativity and art [go], I would love to do something where I have to get in touch with the pain and all that dark stuff. That's refreshing.