Saturday, October 31, 2009

Director Spike Jonze Delves into Where the Wild Things Are

Even if you miss the last day to see the authentic Maurice Sendak drawings and text from his classic children's book, Where the Wild Things Are at the Morgan Library, there is still a chance to view director Spike Jonze's cinematic interpretation, now in theaters.

Whether it be his few features or music videos, Jonze just doesn't do things quite as expected. After all this is the guy who created Being John Malkovich--a film about someone discovering a portal that gains access to the inside of the quirky actor's head. He also devised his award-winning film Adaptation, which is ostensibly about a screenwriter struggling to adapt a book to film but it is much more quirky than that.

Now Jonze has taken one of the finest example of children's fiction as art --with about as many words and pages as would make a 10-minute short--and transformed its premise--about a disobedient young boy's retreat into his fantasy world where the wild things are--into a full-length feature. Using the book as a platform, Jonze and co-scriptwriter Dave Eggers delved into a nine-year old boy's lonely, disaffected brain and came up with a sort of surreal look into how such fantasizing helps work through problems.

When Jonze recently came to the Apple store in Soho to preview Where the Wild Things Are, the event was worth attending considering that Jonze would approach doing a live interview as uniquely as he does making a film. In this case, rather than sit with one interviewer and be grilled as to the what and wherefores of his film, he brought cast and crew members on stage to discuss the filmmaking process before a small audience and expose everyone to the special dynamics that made this picture. The following Q&A pulled together from that event and my own questions.

Q: What motivated you to make this movie?

SJ: I always loved the book, but I also didn't know how to do it. I didn't know what I'd bring to it. But there was a point where I started to think about the wild things and wild emotions, who the characters of the wild things were. I started writing them as really complicated characters with very complex performances, and then fleshing out who Max was. That was the key to it--being really open, and I could go anywhere with that.

Q: What was it like to collaborate with its creator Maurice Sendak?

SJ: It was amazing. At first I was not really excited about it but then I was also nervous, because his book means so much to everybody and I could only make what the book was to me.

Basically at the beginning, Maurice early on said, "You can't worry about any of that. Don't worry about what I think. Don t be overly reverential to the book. You have to take this and make it your own and make something personal."

His only rule was not to pander to children, and make something honest. He really pushed us and has always been so supportive of us, and it's been an amazing friendship. He's a producer, but he's so much more than that -- he's our mentor and our friend.

Q: You said that this was six years in the making. How did it come to you, and what those six years were like?

SJ: I guess the first couple was [spent in] writing the script. I had moved to San Francisco to [write] with [noted author] Dave Eggers, and then after that it was probably about six months or something of trying to get it made or get it financed. We were at one studio and going into another one, and then it was about a year of making the costumes and going and shooting in Australia, and then about a year and a half of editing and then a year of visual effects to do all the faces. So there are a lot of different sets, and each one probably took twice as long as we thought it was going to be.

Q: How did you and Dave get together on this?

SJ: I've known Dave for awhile, and I loved his writing and I've loved him as a person. It seemed like he was my first choice.

Q: What do you do to start out a day?

SJ: Normally, we'd get to a set, clear it and then it would just be the actors and we'd rehearse it and then block it out. And then Lance [Acord, the Director of Photography] would come and be watching and we'd start to figure out where to put the camera.

This was a whole different film. It was such a complicated thing [that] it couldn't be that loose, but we somehow tried to keep it loose. We were most of the time at really distant locations, where we'd have to go in and set up a little village of tents. There'd be huge anxiety when I'd show up in the morning and see about 40 trucks and I'd be like, "Oh, this movie's too big."

And the art department was really big, too. It was basically K.K.'s [Barrett, the production designer's] idea at the beginning [that] we were going to art-direct nature--we were going to go into nature and use it as a canvas. So he would go into a forest that had been burned out, and put in ground cover and put in saplings for color.

Then in places where we wanted it to look like the forest came right into a desert, K.K. would build for us on that location so the camera would be able to move through the trees into the forest.

Q: What kind of feeling were you going for?

SJ: One of the things early on that Thomas [Tull, the executive producer] mentioned to us as he was scheduling it was that he was afraid we would run out of cover sets. A cover set is where you go when it rains, and since there's so much of the movie shot outside, we ran out of cover sets early on.

When Lance and K.K. and I talked about it, we [decided] if it rains that day, or if there's a storm or whatever, we would embrace that and use that weather as part of the texture of the film to add to the wildness of the island and the location.

Q: What were challenges in making this film and finishing it with the studio?

SJ: We brought the movie to Warner Brothers, and they were very encouraging and very excited. They sent us off to Australia, but it was during editing when they started to see what the film actually looked like and felt like. I think they were surprised by the texture of it and the emotional intensity of it.

I think the movie is what it is and we all love it and are proud of it. The studio was like, they had expected a boy and then I gave birth to a girl, and maybe she was a wild child of some sort. But they've learned to love the baby, and we share the duties and I'm not stuck with always breast feeding at home by myself, and it's nice.

Q: Casting the character of Max must have been a real process.

SJ: Lance Bangs found Max [Records] for us in Portland, Oregon. We'd been looking everywhere and it was getting down to the wire, so we started [calling] friends that live in different cities. We started looking in smaller cities or smaller areas.

We were thinking of looking more at artistic cities, like Austin -- we had a friend in Austin --or a friend in Athens, Georgia, Ambers, Massachusetts, Lance in Portland. Lance started putting kids on tape there.

We thought [Max] was really beautiful, but we didn't know what his acting ability was because he'd never acted before. [Catherine Keener] was shooting Into the Wild in Oregon. So she went and met with Max on a day off.

The great thing about him and his family is they're not stage parents in any way. They were nervous about this whole thing. Max's dad came down to LA and we did the final audition, and we cast Max. When Sean got the call, I think he was sleepless for three nights wondering, "What are we doing?"

I think that in the end they did it more as a family experience. All four of them moved to Australia and said let's do this as a family experience, as opposed to some career move for a 9-year-old. I think that because they're so levelheaded, their son is really levelheaded.

Even though he's 9 years old, in the middle of 150 crew members all paying all this attention focused on him, he really looked at it like he was there to do his job, just as the lighting person was there to his job or Casey was here to do his job. He had amazing humility, and I think he's a real soulful kid, which is partially why he's so great in the film.

Q: Did Max have a passion for film and drama?

SJ: He is a very deep, thoughtful kid, and also he saw everything that was going on. He had a front row view to everything.

I think it's a testament to kids--you think, oh, they don't see that, or they don't understand this--but they see everything and understand everything.

Me and Lance were like mom and dad fighting. I think he even said that like, "Mom and dad are fighting." He was watching us all and seeing the adults stressing out trying to make this thing.

The way we worked with Max was [that] we took him really seriously. Obviously we were protective of him, but we also demanded of him what we demand of any actor: to be real, to be present, focused, and take it seriously. Max did take it seriously. Whenever the time was tight or whatever [we] needed, I said, "Max we gotta focus here," and he would go from being a kid and playing and running around to being focused and listening.

We couldn't always stage what was happening behind camera. There'd be something like a Wild Thing throwing another Wild Thing, or something that we needed the camera to be close on Max and we need his reaction to that. But we couldn't always stage these things, so we'd come up with something else.

We had a little kit [for] whenever we'd have an idea to say, "Thomas, we need some fire extinguishers," and Thomas just kept collecting this kit. It was like what you'd put on a play with in your garage. So we'd be doing these little plays behind camera with light sabers.

One day we had Natalie, who runs our office, sitting in a chair crying, and Max came into the set and then the light faded upon her. It wasn't hard for her to cry, because we were down there in Australia and it was a really hard shoot on everybody and she probably cried once a week anyway.

Q: Even though it was a long and hard shoot, did the process bring out the inner kid in you?

SJ: I don't know... did it? The inner kid was what the script came out of, but I don't know. We all moved to Australia together and everyone brought their families.

Basically, the philosophy was: if there are lots of kids around, they can go anywhere. They can go in any of the trucks--go make something in the art department truck, or go put the wolf suits on, or get fake blood from the makeup trailer, or go into one of the sets and make a movie. The idea was like summer camp--this is your set.

But also, [it was for] Max and all the kids on the set to have this group to play with and hang out with. The idea was [that] the set was open for the kids to come whenever they want. Max was there every day with some other photo doubles that played Max in the movie. So there [were] always at least four or five kids, and then on a good day there were probably 15 kids, when everyone's kids would come.

Q: When the picture wrapped, how did everyone feel on that last day of shooting; did you feel you really made something amazing or were you just excited to start editing?

SJ: The big one was in Australia where all the kids [were there], so it was pretty amazing. We let the kids direct the last shot.

Q: Were there any scenes in the film that you had to take out for running time? Was that hard for you?

SJ: Oh, that was hard, yeah. It's all hard to take out because you're so attached to it.

Eric [Zumbrunnen] and I are slow editors and we take a long time. Our first movie took nine months to lock picture, and then Adaptation took 13 months to lock picture. This one took 20 months to lock picture.

Every time we'd finish a movie, we're like, next time we're going to work a lot faster. We're going to be looser and we're going to let go of stuff more. I haven't been able to do that yet. But next time I will, Eric.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

British Actor Michael Sheen Fights For The Damned United

Q&A by Brad Balfour

Whether playing everyone's best known Brit be it former Prime Minister Tony Blair (The Queen) or talk show host David Frost (Frost/Nixon), veteran actor Michael Sheen has become known to American audiences for playing an incredibly versatile range of characters from werewolves to now, football coaches.

Though football--oops, soccer to us Americans--hasn't won the legion of fans that are found worldwide, director Tom Hooper's The Damned United tells a story that is virtually universal in the world of sports. Hell, it's universal to men everywhere. In the film, Sheen plays legendary coach Brian Clough whose powerful alliance with coach Peter Taylor (Tim Spall)--his right hand man--forges such a deep and abiding friendship that it leads them to success and a totally platonic love affair.

Though men don't bond the way women do with their history of kaffee klatches and knitting circles so well reflected in a show like Sex In The City; they do unite through certain shared experiences such as playing or being a fan of a sport. Passions run high for soccer, and Clough is driven to take his team, Derby County, out of the lower ranks to spitting range of the top title--especially because of an imagined snubbed by the title-holder, Leed United's manager Don Revie (Colm Meany).

In '74, when Clough is offered the helm of Leeds United, England's top football club, this previously successful manager's abrasive approach and dislike for the team's dirty playing style creates such friction that his job is doomed.

Glimpses of his earlier career help explain his hostility and how much he is missing Taylor, who loyally stayed with Brighton & Hove Albion--a team that he and Clough were supposed to managed after Clough was summarily dismissed from Leeds. Though this story is from an early part of Clough's illustrious career. it tells a tale of enormous ego and redemption, that we all can apprecaite whether we be football fans or not.

Q: Your ability to play disparate characters like Clough and Frost is uncanny; yet though both have big egos they are very different people. You've been able to play people with big egos in very different ways. You don't see you as Frost, you see Frost. What do you pick up on in the people that you play?

MS: [That's] part of all the proprietary, preparation work--which is usually like three or four months before we start filming. Most people think that's me trying to copy the person, trying to do an impersonation or get their voice right. Actually what that work mainly is about is trying to make an imaginative connection with the person.

On some level, as I immerse myself in their world and find out everything I can find out about them--watch them every day, listen to them, read about them and talk about them--slowly, slowly, slowly, I start to unconsciously make a connection with them.

The things that I'm drawn to in these characters [are] qualities that they share. There's ego, obviously; there's a certain kind of facility, a charm about them in a way; there's a public image and then a private image--there's a big gap between what they're trying to put across to the world and what they're actually feeling underneath. These are all things I can relate to myself, and they're all things that I am aware of as being part of my daily life as an actor or as a human being.

Parts of my experience will start to mirror parts of their experience, so that by the time we come to film I'm playing me in different circumstances. I just want to be transformed enough in the process so that when I get there I'm playing me with a different voice and I look different, and I grew up in a different place, and I had a different set of things happen to me in my life. That's what I'm aiming for, so that when I'm doing the film I'm not acting, I'm just playing me.

Then, of course, I get cast as these characters because Peter Morgan obviously sees that I can portray certain elements of what he's interested in. A lot of his films are about power, and about fame, and media. And there tends to be two opposing characters in them, whether it's the Queen and Blair or Frost and Nixon.

Clough is interesting in that those two figures are both in him in a way. There's Taylor on the one hand, and there's Revie on the other hand. but Clough is his own good guy. He's a hero and villain all in one; there's something very self destructive about Clough.

That's what was exciting about doing this one--the opportunity to not just be the Blair/Frost type character, [but] that I could also be the Nixon/Queen type character at the same time, that both those sides come together.

Q: How do you prepare to be someone like Clough compared to to being a vampire in New Moon--the sequel to Twilight?

MS: I enjoy doing things that involve research because it's part of what I enjoy about acting. The vampire thing, I might watch every film I can find with vampires in it, just to see what other people's takes are on it, or to get inspired.

When I played Lucian [the Lucan pack leader in Underworld] I read about the history of wolves in Europe and the history of the werewolf as a symbol, and all that other stuff. So I'm trying to find a context within which I'm going to perform.

If I'm playing a real-life person, then obviously the context is their actual life. I did a film called Music Within about a guy who had extreme cerebral palsy and he was a real person. So not only did I spend time with him, but I felt his responsibility to represent people living with cerebral palsy as accurately as I possibly can.

But if I'm playing a fictional character, there's always stuff you can do. I did a film called Dirty Filthy Love about a man who had Tourette's [syndrome] and OCD, so obviously there's research to be done there about OCD and Tourette's. I want to get as specific as I can.

So there's always stuff that you can do, and just because it's a fictional character doesn't mean that there's not just as much research, and just as much contextualizing.

Q: At one time you were in three high-profile films--as David Frost, Tony Blair, and you played Lucian the werewolf leader--It took me about an hour into Underworld to realize it was you. When did you know that you wanted to do Clough?

MS: Bizarrely, I wanted to be a football player for many years--given the film we're talking about. When I was 12, I was offered an apprenticeship at Arsenal Football Club. But, by the time I was 14, or 15, I'd let that go, and I knew by then that acting was what I wanted to do. I never really questioned it before I realized I was at drama school and then I was working. So there wasn't a day when I kind of went, "I want to be an actor."

There was a day I went to interviews for universities when I was 17, I guess, and I remember I was going to do English at university. You get a local authority grant to go to university or to drama school, and you can only get one. I remember coming back from one interview and realizing that if I go to university, I can't go to drama school. That was the first time I had to think about it.

I got home and said to my mom and dad, "I don't want to go to university, I want to go to drama school." My mum said, "Right; I'm going to have a word with your father," and there was a heated discussion downstairs.

Then she came up and said, "We support you in whatever you want to do." So that was the only time I really thought about it. Otherwise I just sort of carried on.

Q: Was there ever a moment when you said, "You know, I can act," like you were really doing work you enjoyed?

MS: Well, I come from a small town in Wales, and went to London and to drama school. When I got [there], I thought that everyone there was going to be brilliant. Then I went, "Actually, I'm probably better than most of these people," and a large part of that was because of the youth theater I'd been in at home. It was a brilliant youth theater, and it taught me not only a lot about acting, but also about work ethic; it was very disciplined.

I took that completely for granted until I got to London and drama school, and realized some people had never even acted before. They sort of auditioned for drama school and got in, but they'd never actually acted in anything. [There were] people who had been maybe in youth theaters, but never really done anything. So I realized I'd already gone through a training before I got there.

There were people there whose parents had never seen them act, which I found bizarre--your parents aren't supportive? That's when I first realized I had very supportive parents and was very fortunate.

The other thing I realized was that other people didn't really seem to care about it as much as I did. I was completely obsessed about acting, and not only about plays now, but about the tradition of acting, and the history of it, and actors who had gone before in film. I just couldn't get enough of it. I wanted to talk about it all the time, and I wanted to watch as much as I could, and try different things out, and I enjoyed it so much as well.

Other people just didn't seem to be into it that much. There were a lot of people in my drama school who left worse actors than they were when they came in because of taking it apart, I think, and people lost their instinctive joy of it. But my instinctive joy for acting has never left me. In fact, it grows all the time.

Q: I wondered if you're drawn to films that also have late night drunken phone calls.

MS: We were a bit concerned about that with The Damned United. But of course the problem in modern day filmmaking and stories, it's really hard to get around the whole "having conversations on the phone" kind of thing. I hope it's not lazy story telling.

But look at the Jane Austen films and there's always a messenger on horse bringing a message, because that's how they had to do it. Or letter-writing and you hear voice-over as someone's writing as their desk. Inevitably there's got to be a certain amount of that. But yeah, the old drunk phone call is a tricky one, isn't it?

Q: What did you learn about playing this character?

MS: I realized a big thing for Clough--Clough is the villain and the hero, and if Revie was more monstrous that would sort of detract from that.

The big question was, why does Clough go to Leeds? Why does he say yes to that job? He knows it's going to go terribly for him, it's not going to work out. But he can't say no, he has to say yes, because of the choices he's made in the past. Because he said everything he said about Leeds, because he feels like he has to beat Revie, he has to better him and best him.

Then when he's offered Revie's job, if he says no to it, that's admitting defeat, that's saying, "I can't do as good a job as Revie." So he has to say yes even though he knows it's never going to work out for him. And his own personality is such that when he gets there on that first day with the Leeds players, I wanted there to be a moment before I started speaking to them where Clough really doesn't know what he's going to say, he doesn't know what his tactic is going to be.

They're all standing there, and they know he's said terrible things about them, and he knows that they know it, and in that moment he could say, "Listen lads, I know I've said awful things, but let's put that in the past, and let's move on," and it all could have been different. But he can't because he's Brian Clough. He has to go, "Right then. You lot..." because that's the way he is, that's the way he does things. He can't stop himself.

And that perceived slight, right at the end in that last interview when he says, "You didn't shake my hand," and Revie says, "I just didn't know who you were."

Clough realizes in that moment, "Oh my god, this whole obsession has been over something that he wasn't even aware of. I thought that he was trying to pop me down and he was arrogant and he did it on purpose, and he didn't. He just didn't know who I was."

Q: What did you learn about yourself in making this film and playing this character?

MS: I learned that we create our own traps for ourselves. We make choices in our life and those choices make certain things inevitable in the future somehow. It seems like you're the victim of circumstance, but in fact you're kind of creating your own circumstances a lot of the time by choices you make. It's like we have a blind spot, and that blind spot is this sort of reality maker that's creating our reality for us.

Q: All the dynamics you have describe here is even there with a mythic character like the one you played in Underworld.

MS: One of my big heroes is [the late author] Joseph Campbell, and mythology is my great passion in life. I always find that when people ask about, "You did The Queen, why'd you go off and do this stuff about vampires?" there's a huge snobbishness, an intellectual sort of snobbery about genres.

All these things are stories, that's all they are; they're not documentaries, they're not real. Just because it's Frost/Nixon or whatever, it's not real, it's just a story, and all these characters are are components in a story. And they're all telling a journey, all it is is about going on a journey.

You go back to Greek times and the Eleusinian Mysteries, you go on a ritualistic journey that is ultimately about life, death, and rebirth. We all go through it together, and we all feel a bit more connected, and we're reminded what the important thing is about living. That's it. That's what art is, basically.

So all these stories are about taking on the journey, and there's no more validity about going on a journey being taken by Brian Clough, David Frost, Richard Nixon, or the werewolf Lucian--it's just about a story. And I see things in those mythological terms, I suppose.

Q: What makes you want to be a storyteller?

MS: A number of reasons. One, because stories are, I think, a large part of why it's good to be alive. It's how we communicate, whether we're saying once upon a time or we're just telling a story about what's happened in our day--it's how we actually connect to each other. Stories have always been the things that entertain me and make me feel happy and sad and move me and give me the experience of being able to live many lives in one lifetime. It's the best thing about being alive. So to be part of that tradition is very exciting.

Also, I find the mechanics of storytelling endlessly fascinating--what makes a story work, and what is it about some stories that hook us and make us feel moved, and other stories don't do anything, just leave us feeling cold.

Q: You're in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. With the White Rabbit, you have one of the great mythic figures. Do you get to say "I'm late I'm late"?

MS: Pretty much, almost.

Q: So did you do any research?

MS: I can't say that there was as much research for that as there was for the other things I've done. I'm a huge fan of the original stories, a big fan of Tim Burton's films, so I didn't really feel like I needed to do too much research. I think I got what was necessary there.

In a way it's great to do it because I said to Tim not long ago, "How is the film looking?" and he said, "I have absolutely no idea," because so much of it has to be done in post-production and built up slowly. So he had no idea what the final thing would look like until it gets right to the end of the process.

So I'm excited about going to the cinema and watching it, even though I'm in it. I'm really looking forward to seeing it because it will be like I know nothing about it, almost. I remember the script, and it was a great script, but it will be fantastic to watch the whole thing.

Q: Do you try to keep a balance?

MS: I suppose, without realizing it, I try to keep a balance, I guess. It's not conscious. But I'm sure that when a script comes along, if I'd just been doing something that's been a very particular type of character and a script comes along that's very different, I'm naturally going to be more inclined towards it. But it's not a conscious thing.

The main reason why I will want to do a particular script, first of all, is if I read the script and I'm just gripped by the story and I find it entertaining, compelling, and all that. That's absolutely the first reason.

The second reason is if I think the character itself is going to stretch me and challenge me as an actor. I don't want to do something that I've done before; I can't see the point of it. So even though I've just played Blair for the third time [The Special Relationship, now filming], I did it again because it was very different. I thought I could explore that character further and hone it more and just show different sides of that character.

Q: Of course it makes sense that you would go from doing a werewolf to a vampire. This must be an incredible challenge, to really give you a chance to play around.

MS: There's also the thing of, vampires are like Nazis. British actors really loved to play a Nazi because there are all these great Nazis. In the past, [it used to be that] you give your Nazi. And in the same way you give your vampire, it's like your Hamlet or something. There are all these great vampire films, and there's a whole tradition of it. And having been a werewolf many times, I thought, I love the idea of being able to go into that whole vampire thing.

Q: You can discuss it with your Frost/Nixon co-star Frank Langella (who played Dracula).

MS: I can discuss with Frank Langella, exactly. And Bill Nighy and Gary Oldman and all these great people. For some reason, vampires attract a lot of actors who are known for doing more serious, classical roles.

For other articles and editorial work by Brad Balfour go to:

Friday, October 9, 2009

Defiant Danish Director Lars von Trier Tackles Antichrist

Story by Brad Balfour

However you assess the New York Film Festival, now in its 47th year, it certainly doesn't shy away from controversial films or directors. Topping the list this year is Lars Von Trier and his Cannes Golden Palm nominated film, Antichrist.

Due for release later this month, the film shocks with a scene of deteriorating madwoman Charlotte Gainsbourg (She) performing a clitorectomy on herself -- after bashing, then jacking off, her semi-conscious husband Willem Dafoe (He) who spews semen mixed with blood.

Viewed through the prism of the horror genre, this is a disturbing tale using some of the best horror film tropes. It makes Antichrist more than a plunge into the dark sexually charged region between guilt and insanity. Addressed through von Trier's unique vision, the film truly explores madness as his characters slide into the demonic realm of the possessed.

During his Cannes Film Festival press conference, the ever-provocative Danish director was asked to justify the movie that stirred the ire of a lot of confused journalists. Though he wasn't called on to do so this time, he did conduct an unusual press conference at the NYFF press screening -- broadcast over a huge screen via a Skype connection -- that prompted some journos to some of strange, off-kilter questions.

Now as the festival goes into its final weekend, there are still several fine and equally provocative films yet to see such as Claire Denis' White Material and Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces -- the closing night film.

After you peruse this press conference, it should motivate you to go see the films the next few days, if only to see some of the filmmakers' in-person Q&As. It will give you a taste of the kind of intriguing personalities and films to be discover at the Festival.

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Q: You said you were suffering from a serious depression when you made Antichrist. Did it affect your process in writing and shooting the film; how did it affect the end result? Was it different this time from previous films?

LvT: It was different in the way that I am normally excited. Normally I'm extremely happy about my own abilities and talent and what I'm doing. But I felt almost maybe human, so I was not excited.

What it has done for the film... I tried to bring myself out of the depression but it hasn't really worked. But I'm very happy to see all you people in New York; if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere [laughs].

Q: You're often called a provocateur as a director; are you upset if people don't walk out of your films? I didn't notice anyone walk out today.

LvT: If there are not any walk-outs then I have failed [laughs].

Q: Where did you get the idea for the film?

LvT: I don't really know where it came from. The idea was to make a horror film, which I know it was not really. I think I started with that. Normally, I know what to say, but I can't tell you [this time].

Q: This seems to be the most cinematic movie you've made in a long time. Was that intentional? Were you trying to move away from the concept of dogme (a cinematic approach developed by von Trier to exploit the low-budget aspects of digital filmmaking) and away from artificiality of the staging you used in films like Dogville?

LvT: I feel the best when I do something that does not look too much like [something I did before]. I must say, I'm not completely happy with the film. I would have wanted more of a dogme link to the documentary past. I cannot work by way backwards.

Q: You said you wanted parts of the film to be more dogme-like in their aesthetic; if so, what parts were you referring to?

LvT: There was meant to be a bigger difference between normal action scenes and the more stylized stuff. There was to be a big difference between the fixed-camera and the handheld stuff.

Q: The sound design of Antichrist recalled a lot of David Lynch's films, and the scene where she asks him to whip her reminded me of a similar scene in Blue Velvet. Did you take any inspiration from David Lynch?

LvT: I was very very taken by Twin Peaks, I thought that was a fantastic piece of whatever it was. [laughter] His feature films; I was very happy with Mulholland Drive, but the other feature films I haven't seen. I'm a big fan so I think I have similar things. Maybe Lynch and I share a fetish.

Q: Like Twin Peaks, the film is also set in the Pacific Northwest.

LvT: It is a very naïve idea we have when we shoot in Europe that it can only look like the state of Washington. It's only because we seem to have a common interest in replicating that. When we did Dancer in the Dark it was done in a place that had a double gallery.

Q: Could you expand a bit on the biblical connections in the film -- obviously, you refer to Satan, the Antichrist, and Eden.

LvT: If the film has anything to do, it has to do with that there is no God; that is how I see it. You have a conscience toward Eden, I know, and I'm sorry for that. Normally I would have gone through this quicker, taken all that shit, but I didn't this time. I was relatively uncritical of the script, that means that all these things stayed.

I think the idea was that it came from her research [on women and possession]. But I'm sorry about the Eden stuff, it came up and I just let it be.

Then it's very easy since it's [about] a man and a woman and all that. I have not worked in a way where I was thinking [of] Eden; the reason why it's called Eden, it was a place that was supposed to be very romantic.

Q: There is the question of the guilt of the Charlotte Gainsbourg character; did she felt guilty because she was a woman of pleasure, because in that scene where she and he are having sex, it goes back and forth between her seeing her child was falling, and yet she didn't stop to do anything. She didn't do anything because the pleasure prevailed. Is that the way you saw it and her?

LvT: You say that she's not really a mother. Then you should have seen my mother [laughs]. This is nothing compared to what I've been through. I don't know. I think she's struggling with some guilt from the sexual pleasure, but I believe that from society there has always been a lot of guilt from these things.

I don't know if she saw him falling. Somehow I felt very much like her when I wrote it. She's struggling with jealousy but she has a lot of pressure.

Q: Were we supposed to have sympathy for Willem Dafoe's character? As her therapist we are supposed to trust him, but soon as he changes his wife's medication, he deserves anything bad that happens to him after this point.

LvT: One of the ways you can write it is that you take your own personality, or your beliefs about your own personality [and put them] on the people in the film--on the characters. And yes, I understand him.

We had some lines in the film where he acts more sympathetically, and then he became extremely unsympathetic, and we had to cut them out otherwise it would have been a very one-sided film. So he ends up with a lot of violence and a lot of stupidity.

Q: What about casting of Dafoe?

LvT: Dafoe is a very, very good friend. While I was trying to cast this film, he sent an email and asked if I had anything for him. I said, "Yes, thank God, you suddenly showed up." I'd worked with him before, and working with him as a director and a good friend, so that was a miracle.

Q: The film definitely was a horror film -- or at least definitely has lots of horror influences. Did you have that clearly in mind, certain antecedents that influenced you in the process?

LvT: At a certain point in my confusion I started seeing Japanese horror films and liked them very much. But maybe I liked them not so much for the horror, but thought the cultural differences, it's interesting to see images that are definitely not from the West. I like them very much.

And yes, I'm influenced of course by The Shining, also, Rosemary's Baby, absolutely. And for me, Carrie was a very good film when I saw it.

Q: What are the basic elements that turn a horror film into a classic?

LvT: I think that Psycho is a classic not because it was scary, though I thought I was quite scary. But I don't think it's the scary things that I remember, I remember style.

The good things about horror films is they give you room for a lot of things; room for strange pictures or whatever. And I didn't find The Shining very scary. As with all other films, it has to do with the personality that you feel in the film.

Q: You give the audience symbolic clues, but they are also clues as to what's going to happen. When we piece them together, we feel smart about it. Do you do this consciously, when you are in the process of creating a script and/or editing the film? In addition to the role of being creator, do you put yourself in the role of being the audience for your own work.

LvT: I believe that I am the audience, but I am, as myself, a very stupid audience. I went to university to study film and we did a lot of new things, but that is definitely not the way I work. The cinematic impact, it comes from other sources, poetry, or just some strange kind of logic that is maybe only in my head. I do not think of the connections between water drops and acorns when I write it.

Q: Are there specific coping mechanisms that society uses that you would like to see stripped away for your audiences?

LvT: I don't think I have an agenda like that. I do films very much for my own sake, and I don't have any idea to reflect on society.

Q: You had some interesting researchers listed in the credits, including a researcher on misogyny. In the writing or making of this film did you learn something about misogyny in yourself, in your work and how to depicted in the film?

LvT: Well it has mostly to do with the things that the female character in the film was working with. Some of the quotations. She did a very good job; I didn't do very much. I don't know if I learned anything about if I hated women more. I like to be with women. I don't think the film really has so much to do with, it could have been the other way around. I of course believe that women are as bad as men.

Q: Was Friedrich Nietzsche's The Antichrist an influence?

LvT: I don't know enough about Nietzsche. I had this Antichrist book lying on my table for 40 years and I hadn't opened it yet, but the title I liked. I don't want to say anything about Nietzsche.

Q: When did you decide to dedicate the film to the late Russian director Andrei Tarkofsky and why?

LvT: I must say, [that guy] has been very important to me. I discovered him while I was in film school. I have stolen so much from him over the years that in order not to be arrested I dedicated it to him [laughs]. I should have done it a long time ago, and it's sincerely meant; I'm a very big fan.

Q: Will there ever be part three of your USA Trilogy?

LvT: About the American Trilogy [part one is Dogville; part two is Manderlay]; that's the problem about trilogies, there has to be three of them [laughs]. I do not have the exact idea; when it comes I will make the film, if it is possible.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Q&A: Actress Jennifer Garner is Treated To The Invention of Lying

Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour

British comic Ricky Gervais has one kicky concept behind his directorial debut, The Invention of Lying. On an alternate earth, humanity lacks the capacity for lying so truth-telling is just telling. People may speak the truth, but have no sense of humor and no idea of fiction. As a result, they do reveal it all--including how inflated their views of themselves can be.

As Mark Bellison (Gervais) struggles to survive at a mediocre television company, the pug-nosed, pudgy writer endures a rivalry with the better looking, more successful and far more arrogant Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe). Mark suffers through miserable dates his mother encourages him to go on. When he meets tall, gorgeous Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) on one of those dates, he falls for her and she tells him that despite the fact they get along, and that he's a nice guy, she can't continue to see him--let alone marry him--because she's way too out of his league; she'll never have his children. Since he's just not up to her in looks or physique, their relationship has to remain platonic.

Whether you think the creator of the English, original version of The Office--and star of Ghost Town--is or isn't in her league, he's so frustrated by her refusal and other factors that when his mother is on her death bed he has a brainstorm and tells her one big lie--the first--that death is not the end of things. She will go to a nice place where everything is wonderful. Unfortunately, his comment is overheard by the nurses and doctors and his words are spread everywhere--that he knows things no one else in the world knows.

Soon Bellison becomes an international phenomenon, making proclamations on the afterlife and just about everything else. He lies up a storm to help friends; lies to get money from the bank; cheats at the casino; and eventually, to win the affection of Anna. People start camping out on his lawn to learn more, so he develops a strangely familiar story about the "Man in the Sky," who does all these mystical things, and is kind and wonderful. When he pastes a set of rules on two pizza boxes and reads out his Commandments, we get the message.

Though The Invention of Lying falls flat in places by the time it ends, this fascinating idea show how Gervais is leading the charge to create comedy that requires more than an endurance for bodily function jokes and absurd R-rated sight gags.

The 38 year old Garner--wife of Ben Affleck, former star of the spy series Alias, and who was much drubbed when she played anti-heroine Elektra--did a great job as the ingenuous Anna. The almost 5' 9" actress further enlightened me about Gervais, the film and the art of lying in the following exclusive one-on-one interview.

Q: Did it feel to you as if this movie was an episode of The Twilight Zone?

JG: I think that's what they were going for. So, yeah, it did feel like that, except that it was the funniest episode of The Twilight Zone that was ever invented.

Q: When you got this script, did you think of it as a science fiction idea or more of a parody?

JG: I liked the questions that it brought up. I liked the conversations that I felt would start. I thought that it was funny. Really, when I first read it, I just laughed out loud, and that's the most important thing. I loved the way my character was introduced. I loved the challenge of looking at a scene and thinking, 'I have to play this with no subtext, no irony, no sarcasm and just be as straightforward as I could possibly be.' I think that's a really interesting acting challenge.

It wasn't until I read it again and then thought about it a little more that I thought that. As soon as you read it or see it, you can't help but think about the world and think about all these advertisements that I see, one way or another, are lies. We're sold lies all the time and it's so much a part of our society. But we edit out [a lot] of what we can say. I like that the film is provocative in that way.

Q: Do you think this film has a British point of view or a British tone to it?

JG: I feel like it has Ricky's sensibility, but no, I feel it's pretty universal. Matt Robinson co-wrote and co-directed the script and the movie with Ricky. I think that they didn't really seem to have, "Oh, that's too British" or "You're trying to pull it to the American." There were a couple of references or words that of course you have to switch, but no, it does not seem British to me.

Q: It's got a great cast.

JG: There are some of the greatest comic talent alive and a lot of them are in this film, from Tina Fey to Louis C.K. to Christopher Guest...

Q: And Jonah Hill.

JG: You could go on and on and on. I signed on before all of those people. So I had the benefit of being on the film and hearing more and more about how great the cast was every day and how it was growing and growing. I felt like, "Wow, I signed onto this tiny independent movie, and now it's turned into this whole thing." It's just a lucky coincidence for me.

Q: And when they saw your name on it, did they jump onto it because you were signed already?

JG: [laughs] Yeah. I don't flatter myself to think that I was the draw there. I think that Ricky Gervais definitely has quite a following and is very, very respected.

Q: When Ricky asked you to be in the film, did you ask why he wasn't putting you into the British episodes of The Office?

JG: I do ask Ricky all the time why I haven't been invited to be on Extras or The Office or anything else. I bug him about it all the time and I'm still waiting. They're both done. They're speedy over there.

Q: You've done a lot of rom-com. What do you think of Gervais and his universe of humor? It's not the obvious humor, it's more realistic. Is there a trend towards this sort of comedy?

JG: I think there are a couple of different trends in humor. One is the Judd Apatow kind of humor of embarrassment [that's] humor of gross-out. Then there's the humor of embarrassment with reality, using real relationships and situations.

That's what Ricky does. I think part of what he does so well is that his humor is never mean spirited. It's very honest. He's very interested in what's honest, and he finds the truth to be the funniest. I loved working with him because he's so clear about what would make something funny, and he's always right. He's so funny and so incredibly good at what he does.

Q: Do you think Bellison deserved to get what he got in the ending?

JG: I think he had earned it by then, certainly, because he's the kinder one. The interesting thing about Anna in the film is that she's the first woman to make a choice romantically.

In a world where women are driven by evolution and by the quest for the best genetics for their offspring, she's the first woman in this world who knows that something is different here. She's the first woman to say, 'No. I love this man. That's a good enough reason to be with him and have kids with him.'

Q: Both you and Ben [Affleck] have been leaning towards humor after you both started out in more serious roles. Do you find that you started to trade quips at home, reading each other the funny lines from your projects?

JG: Yeah, we'll tell each other the funny scenes or whatever. But as far as trading quips, I don't know if we actually are living the life of His Girl Friday or something like that. It's probably much more boring and banal than that.

Q: Right, but I just assume that he beats you out with the laughs. He's a smart and funny guy.

JG: Are you saying that you think he's funnier than I am? Are you challenging me, saying that you think that my husband would come up with the funnier quips than I would? Because I will tell you that is certainly not the case.

Q: Oops! Are you picking projects now that mix it up for you; are you trying to show different aspects of yourself? Where do you think you're going in your career?

JG: The whole point of being an actor is that you don't do the same thing every day. So I'm just interested always in finding something that feels like, "Oh, wait. I've never done this before. This is different. This will be a real challenge." Luckily, all different kinds of things have come my way and so I've been able to pick and choose.

Q: If you had your ideal choice, what would be the thing that you'd like to do next, the most contrasting thing to follow this up?

JG: I just want to do something that's good. Nothing has to come next. I would love to do a musical, but if that happens five years from now, I'm fine with that. I don't feel like, "I have to accomplish this right now." It's much more that I just love whatever it is that I do. I don't just say yes to everything.

What I'd love to see happen next is a film that my production company has been working on for a long time called Butter. It's this little movie that takes place in the world of butter carving at the Iowa State Fair. So if that could happen next I would be thrilled.

Q: Do you ever think that Ben should direct one of your projects or even cast you in one of his, or do you guys try to stay as far from that as possible because of the scheduling issues?

JG: Of course, I wish that he could direct everything. There's no one better. Scheduling is definitely a big factor for us. If we were both on the same set at the same time all day--our kids are too young for that, so it's something that doesn't come up right now. But who knows, maybe we'll revisit it in a few years.

Q: Do you find now with kids that your outlook on what you want to do in film has changed, either wanting to do family-friendly projects or going in the opposite direction?

JG: I don't really feel like I'm driven away from doing family stuff or towards it. I look at the scripts that come my way. I look at the script that we're developing in my production company. It's much more about finding something that I like to do than it is about some overall thing like, 'I better stay away from family movies' or 'I'd really like to do a family movie.' I mean, if a family movie came along and it was great, then I wouldn't care if I had no family or a family of ten kids, I'd still want to do it.

Q: But you're not inviting superhero costume films?

JG: Sure. If one came along, and it was great, I would suit right up.

Q: Which hero would you have in mind? Do you have a favorite?

JG: I don't know who she would be. It would have to surprise me. I don't have a particular favorite.

Q: Wonder Woman?

JG: Sure.

Q: Are you good at lying?

JG: I'm a horrible liar. I can exaggerate. I can definitely make a good story better, but as far as just telling a lie, not very good.

Q: So you would've been good for a world where no one lied?

JG: No, because I do think there's real value in a white lie to save someone's feelings.

Q: Are there some people that you'd like to tell the truth to, since it's perhaps a world in which you can't lie?

JG: Yeah, there are one or two that I'd like to get ahold of.

Q: What would you tell them?

JG: Wouldn't you love to know [laughs]?