Friday, January 30, 2009

SUNDANCE 2009 SPOTLIGHT: Actors Tea Leoni and Kyle MacLachlan Have Fun Playing In Manure

Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
[Photos: Brad Balfour}

Don’t do it; don’t let publicists put actress Tea Leoni together with any of her co-stars because it prompts such an assault on serious answers. But there she was, with her co-star Kyle MacLachlan gabbing about their comic turns in the Polish Brothers' surreal, absurdist comedy, Manure which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Leoni has proven to be a new generation's Lucille Ball--beautiful and funny, having paid her dues in various sit-coms and films that have exploited both her comic talents and otherwise.

For MacLachlan, this role fits into his idiosyncratic career path having gone from matinee idol with square jaw and dimple to the mysterious, oblique and sometimes invidious character who has made his mark starring in several films by perverse director David Lynch. More recently he has starred in Desperate Housewives, a TV series with a tone not dissimilar to this film.

Though the film wasn't exactly praised for its "clean" performances nor did it get, well, sweet-smelling reviews, it caught me by the nose and I could sense a story in this film by fiercely independent filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish.

When Mr. Rose, the genius behind Rose's Manure Company, dies suddenly, the jobs of its loyal fleet of salesmen are threatened, as they say, to be flushed down the toilet. Rose's stranged daughter Rosemary (Leoni), a classy cosmetics salesgirl, takes control. Though not sure she has a nose for the family business, she is determined to make foul into profit. Whether she likes it or not, she must trust her top salesman, Patrick Fitzpatrick (Billy Bob Thornton), to regain Rose's rightful position on top of the heap when a ruthless chemical fertilizer company sends in its slick-talking, insidious sales manager (Kyle MacLachlan) and Matrix-styled black-clad team to take over their clients.

Sassy dialogue gives Manure flair, but it's the period design with sepia-toned painted backdrops that conjures up the feel of scaffolds and wind machines just off camera from films of the '30s, '40s and '50s. The Polish bros are off-beat originals, conjuring up a weird tale that stylishly matches their all-star cast with campy hijinks. Thornton masters the right tone, while Leoni's nostalgic throwback performance showcases her own brand of physical comedy. In these brothers' capable hands, "Manure" fills the screen not just with shit—despite the critical reaction at Sundance (it didn't get great reviews)—but with a uniquely shaped cinematic vision.

These twins have wrecked havoc on our expectations before with such films as Northfork, The Astronaut Farmer and Twin Falls, Idaho. With Mark as the writer and sometimes actor (he plays Thaddeus, one of the manure salesman) and Michael as the director, the Polish brothers have created an original, irreverent, and sometimes infuriating, comic adventure set in the early 1960s.

Q: Tea, Billy Bob Thorton, your co-star, says you're naturally funny. Is that’s true?

TL: No.

KM: I agree with Billy. You are naturally funny.

TL: Oh well. Check's cleared.

Q: If it were true, what is it about you—do you look at the world in a different way?

KM: This clam shell [referring to one of the recorder cases] is very funny.

TL: That is funny. Is this a hygienic thing?

Q: It's called extending the mic range.

KM: That's three inches on your carrot, right there [referring to scene showing a box with a huge carrot altered by use of chemical fertilizer].

TL: That's three inches on the carrot. There it is. Oh, Lord. There were lots of little [funny]…

Q: Well, you use lots of little gestures and weird physical stuff to make a scene work...

TL: I was behind the box [containing the carrot] during that scene. I didn't see how far that thing went. We took golf right before it became a whole cable channel thing. Really.

This is the kind of movie-making it was. If you turned away and left a scene, all hell could break loose and you'd never know about it. Until last night when you see the film for the first time, and you're on your ass laughing. I could not believe how far you boys went with that character.

KM: Well David Shackelford [who played the carrot farmer] was great. That was the carrot scene where we were talking about its girth, and we just kept going... He's brilliant. We just kept going.

TL: Yeah. You did keep going.

KM: It got worse and worse and very, very ribald.

Q: So that was really you throwing in those lines?

KM: Yeah. We were all just throwing it in.

Q: You did a bit of improvisation as well in a few scenes...

TL: If I could remember where it was and wasn't. I don't think of it specifically as improv. I always think when you talk about that in the press it's sort of understood to be, "Oh, that line was mine [laughs]."

In this [film], we had a couple of instances where we were shooting and things came up. Specifically, I remember shooting in the diner, and we began to see that there was something happening in the kitchen part that we could start playing with. And we just started playing. I think at that point, I remember Billy [Bob Thornton] had wrapped. We just had this idea that we'd get him in, and have him be the chef back there with that hat on.

KM: That's what you were doing back there...

TL: Right. I remember, literally, hopping on this turbo golf cart and peeling out. Where were we? North bumfuck California or some strange place, and I was running into Billy's trailer. His pants were on. I'll say that.

I was saying, "Get your tie back on. Come back." It was that sort of a thing where something would come up, and people would be wrapped, and nobody was fleeing the set because maybe we'd have a thought. Maybe we'd want to go on with something. So that was really fun.

KM: It was a very creative environment.

TL: It was a really creative environment. To think we probably could have guessed going in—Manure, the Polish brothers [Mark and Michael], and all that.

KM: Very fertile [laughs].

TL: This is what Kyle nails on this one.

KM: I'm just here. Pay no attention to me for about 10 minutes. I'll come in with a little 15 second thing, and then I'm back out again.

Q: When you got asked to do a movie about manure, how did they phrase it to you – "it's a movie about shit"?

KM: Listen, I've done movies that are really shit. This isn't really shit. Been there. This was nothing. This was the sweet smell of success. These guys are so good. I've known them for a while. Any opportunity any actor might have to work with them, they should take. They're just the best. The environment they create is very fertile and fun, creative, really low key. Sometime I couldn't even hear what they were saying. They were directing, but I couldn't even hear them.

TL: And then you'd say, "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you," and they would say, "It doesn't matter."

KM: Yeah. They'd say, "We're just going to go again."

Q: They said they really wanted you for Hollywoodland a long time ago.

KM: Oh, yeah. That was another story.

Q: Is that how you became friendly with them?

KM: Yeah. They said, "You should [play] George Reeves" and I said, "Oh." They showed me a picture of [him] and I said, "My God. Okay, I could be George Reeves [the actor who played Superman in the 1950s TV series]. That's very scary."

Then we started to research doing Truth, Justice, and the American Way—which is what it was originally titled. We got kind of excited, and then it fell off the tracks and became something else [Hollywoodland--an examination of Reeves' mysterious shotgun death]. But that's how we met.

Q: When the idea of Manure was proposed to you, how did you hear about it, and how did you react?

TL: The script came. It said Manure and underneath it said "Mike and Mark Polish", and I said, "Okay." That was it.

Q: Even though it is such an un-glamorous topic, you were glammed out the whole time.

TL: Well then after I said, "Yes, please. Can I do it?" We met and decided to talk about it. I'd just wanted to work with them for a long time. It got exciting because they talked about this Tippi Hedren kind of look. I don't really get to clean up in films much. I'm usually covered in, I don't know, dinosaur mess or some child's spit-up or something like that.

Q: You managed that pretty well on this one, too.

TL: I did. They didn't tell me about that. This sounds insignificant maybe, but the costumer, Bic [Owen], had us all in completely authentic costumes from our heels to the scarves or hats on our head. Nothing was really produced for the movie. There wasn't the budget for that. So they were going in and scavenging everything out of costume houses.

Q: So it was vintage?

TL: Yes, but not just the vintage coat or a copy of it. It was also the stockings that are very difficult to find that come out looking like a leg, you know? Creepy. And the shoes and all this, so it was fun to step into this every morning. It's a great hand up. It's like a prosthetic. I never thought I was Tippi Hedren. I'm not talking about being sociopathic or anything, I just mean that I had her stockings on. They probably were her stockings.

Q: Did you have fun getting them all messed up?

TL: Yes. I did. Let me tell you about those stockings, though. Here's the thing with them, and why they moved away from them; all you have to do is burp, and there's a run in those things. It's unbelievable. What these women must have gone through, it's terrible.

KM: A lot of stockings.

TL: A lot of stockings. You know after a couple of days of press you can really get side tracked on the smallest shit. Isn't that something?

Q: Well speaking of shit, you had to crawl in a bit of it. What was it like to do those dirty, messy scenes?

TL: Really, truly, the dirtier, the messier, the more banana peels, the more problem staircases, pianos falling on top of you, I love it. I was happy to dive right into the shit.

Q: And Kyle looked like he stepped right out of The Matrix all dressed in black...

TL: Or The Exorcist.

KM: That's pretty good. Well I was going to say about Tea, one of the things watching the movie last night that was a great discovery, I didn't know she was so great at physical comedy. I saw a little bit of it, that she was doing certain things when we were filming. But I was blown away by how good you were.

It's not an easy thing to do, to do a prat fall and make it look like it's just happening, like "Whoops!" "Oh. Is she okay?" You planned the whole thing. Going over suitcases and stuff like that was incredible. That's really a skill.

TL: Thank you. That's very sweet.

Q: Walking through that cornfield in all that muck looked like a tough one.

TL: That's actually incredibly hard to do. I did see a playback on that because we were talking about whether or not we needed to do a different shot, longer and all this. And I'd seen it and I thought, 'I was really trying to walk', but with Tippi Hedren's shoes on, that were about a size and a half too small and that cornfield and everything else, it was really hard. I thought, 'You look so over the top.' And I was like, "God damn it! I'm trying to walk! I'm trying here!"

KM: Well it had pretty heavy furrows. Everyday we'd come to work and there'd be a new crop planted. I came in one day and was like, 'Oh, it's a cornfield today.' They only had two sound stages so it wasn't like they could build one cornfield here, and then they could build radishes over here, and then cauliflower over here. They had to change it out every day.

TL: It was fun to see what we were growing every day, wasn't it?

KM: Yeah, it was neat. It changed. It was pretty cool.

TL: It was a very prolific farm.

Q: You're good at being Mister Over-the-Top too.

KM: They had to tone me down. I started in this business 25 years ago being so subtle people were like, "God, is he doing anything at all?" And what's happened is over the years, I've gotten to the point where I actually just love to like, throw things, and just do tantrums. They brought me back down again.

TL: I was just saying that what's so particularly creepy about this character, is that it's so not Kyle. It's like, "Let's see. Let's get the nicest guy in the world and make him an absolute prick." I think that was a wise choice because you're looking at this guys and there's something. It creates this incredible creepiness because there's something off. You can't figure out why he's so creepy. And then when we did that scene where we were...

KM: That was a good scene.

TL: We were like this. I don't even think you could tell in the film. Do you remember? We ended up this close. Talking like this [she leans forward, very close]. He was scary.

KM: I remember. That was in the room when they come in and everyone has surrounded her and she's like, "Oh my God!," and they run to Billy. It was good.

TL: Oh, we had so much fun.

Q: Did you enjoy playing the prick?

KM: [Laughs] It's a lot of fun because I'm not like that in life, and it makes me very uncomfortable, but there you have a safety net. You can kind of do whatever you want because you know there's going to be a cut. Then you're like, "Hey!" and you can joke around again. But in those moments, it is fun to kind of explore that. I borrow a lot from things that I see and I watch. I watch something and go, 'That's kind of cool'. The idea of sniffing and breathing and just personal space is so interesting. People that are good villains, I watch them and I go, "Oh." I store it away. I borrow a lot.

Q: Do you feel this film has deep ecological significance conveying the issue of natural fertilizer vs. unnatural chemicals?

KM: Potentially so.

TL: But I think you could have fun with the idea right now, in particular the small company, the one that was built on a dream. The David and Goliath aspect going up against, I don't know, [something like] General Foods. That's just what I'm going call the Milagro guys.

KM: Like the chemical guys.

TL: But I don't know if we're really making an ecological statement.

KM: There are some educational elements to the film. I learned quite a bit about different types of manure and actually some chemicals. I was thinking, they could show this film in school...

TL: Well how brilliant did you think—the ship high in transit—that whole story [about the origin of the word S.H.I.T.]?

KM: Fantastic. It was great. That's what I'm saying. You learn stuff.

TL: Genius.

Q: I really liked the little cartoon bits.

TL: They were really well done.

KM: I was in junior high school in the '70s and that was when they had things like, "Hemo the Magnificent." They'd show these films in science class about blood and where it comes from, and they would always be these crazy cartoon things that they would animate. They pretty much hit in on the head.

TL: [Laughing] "Hemo the Magnificent"?!

KM: Yeah. It was the "Sol," or something, about the sun guy. And "Hemo was...

TL: The blood guy? [laughs]

KM: He was flashing around and pumping blood.

Q: There were definitely some tributes in this film to certain periods and certain characters.

KM: Yeah. I related to that immediately.

TL: It was very funny.

Q: Can you elaborate on which bad guys you've stolen things from?

TL: No. He can't. That's like asking someone else's grandmother what she puts in her spaghetti sauce.

KM: Or her cookies.

Q: I feel bad now asking that.

TL: No, no!

KM: No!

TL: Don't you ask other people's grandmothers? You hope that maybe they're a little senile, they're a little tired, they're going to tell you what's actually in there?

KM: They'll give it away.Where you grab stuff from is wherever you can find it.

TL: But I can tell you that if you put grape jelly, a big scoop of grape jelly in like meat sauce – that's the secret.

Q: Are you just saying that to ruin our dinner?

TL: No, I'm not! I swear to God.

KM: Is that like a Bolognese thing?

TL: Yes. Any kind of meat sauce, just a scoop of grape jelly.

KM: Sweet stuff is good.

Q: In light of that, I'd like to know what kind of projects would you direct yourselves?

KM: That's a lot of work, man. You've got to go to work everyday.

TL: He's got a baby coming.

KM: I like going to work, working a couple hours, and then going home.

Q: And Tea, do you ever think about directing?

TL: Yes, I do actually, to be fair. And then I don't. I think that it takes a real incredible commitment. With a six and a nine year-old, I don't want to make that commitment. Maybe later.

Q: So what do you guys do next? I know that you're in suspension at the moment with the kids.

TL: I am. I'm taking a little time. We just moved to New York and we're getting them adjusted to new schools. I might be a monkey.

KM: Interesting.

TL: It's not Planet of the Apes Number 7.

KM: I keep encouraging her to go on stage. We were talking about that.

TL: Having seen how beautifully I handled the Q & A, I was admitting to an extraordinary stage fright that is really so ridiculous.

KM: I see it as something to overcome. Immediately I'm taking that and going...

Q: You are directing her already.

TL: I know. If this guy is the director, by the way, I'd take his teeth out.

Q: What is next for you?

KM: Desperate Housewives. I go back on Desperate Housewives tomorrow.

TL: Tomorrow?! Are you kidding me?

KM: You're solid. You're like all muscle.

TL: Well thank you, darlin', I think.

Q: Do they tell you anything about what's happening on Desperate Housewives?

KM: No. They give you a script and then you know what your life is like for eight days.

TL: He's lying. You've got to sleep with him, and then he'll tell you.

KM: They kind of write you [in], so now that I'm back on I'm starting to steal things. That's their next plan. This is going to be fun. This is good. Orson needs to get a little bit twisted again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Superstar Tom Cruise Stars in Valkyrie, And Considers That Slide Down the Slippery Slope to Fascism

Feature Story by Brad Balfour
[Photos by Loud & Clear]

Though he totally missed the Oscar loop, you have to give some credit to media magnet Tom Cruise for releasing his World War II drama, Valkyrie at the end of 2008 despite the surge of Nazi-inspired holiday fare. Anytime a star of his stature dons a Nazi uniform and parades around Berlin in jackboots while enjoying facetime with a cinematic Adolf Hitler, it invites ridicule. Yet by playing the stone-faced Colonel Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg--who made the final coup attempt against The Fuhrer--Cruise provided audiences with a bete noir to his Jerry Maguire-esque stereotype.

Certainly this wasn't a follow-up to his comedic cameo in Tropic Thunder where he does an astounding parody of the ultimate Hollywood exec--the kind that Cruise, as an executive among the team running United Artists, clearly knows intimately.

For a long time, the 46 year-old actor had been Mr. Moneybags, the most bankable star who could sell a movie even if it had a thin premise. But as he has gotten older, and taken on the responsibilities of a producer, maintaining that star power and financial dominance isn't as much of a challenge to him or that easy anymore.

So in light of seeing the media character, or even parody that Cruise has become, he turned to making Valkyrie, a film that's not a standard heroic starrer. Cruise turns to this devastating period and to a character who ambiguously seems valiant in his goals and means, except that he was an arch-conservative whose goals sometimes intersected with Hitler's. Maybe in regaling us with the lavish, subtle eroticism of boots and black leather, Cruise does his Nazi with a cinematic flair, but the complex implications of this character and era require serious contemplation not just flair--something Cruise and director Bryan Singer addressed in this interview drawn from a recent press conference.

Q: Valkyrie has come out at a time when other Nazi-era films have been released -- but this film has a different angle from the others and it's an important too to educate the public about the Germany of that time.

TC: It's something that Bryan and I have spoken about -- that it's important to know that not everybody felt that way and fell into the Nazi ideology. To me, that was surprising. To take this story -- and it's such a massive, comprehensive story; we could've made this a five hour, 10 hour, miniseries -- it could've been very different kind of movie. [But] Bryan was always specific: this is a suspense thriller about killing Hitler. It's not a bio-pic. That [the story is true] was a bonus, really, for the film.

BS: It's not a "Holocaust" movie. There are movies that happen to take place [about] this subject matter that are coming out around this time, but it's a coincidence. This is far from a Holocaust movie. It's a conspiracy thriller about assassinating Hitler. As Tom was just saying, the bonus is that it happens to be true, it happens to be gripping. And even things that you might think are film conventions -- some of the twists and turns -- actually really did happen.

TC: We spent eight months working [together], and Bryan spent more time before that. Bryan wanted me to come on board, and I started working with him, writers Chris [McQuarrie] and Nathan [Alexander]. Every time we started talking about the Holocaust and the different characters, and trying to put as much into that story as possible, Bryan always went back to, "This is a piece of entertainment. This is a suspense thriller about killing Hitler."

The more you know about the history of it, [you find] there are so many moments we were able to put in there. Von Stauffenberg despised the Nazis, [yet] as a parent [he had to] look at his daughter saluting him. On that day, July 20th, 1944, his son was indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth. These are the moments Bryan wanted to seed in there, but [he] never var[ied] from the picture that he wanted to make. We wanted to [make] this movie [accessible] to a broader audience.

Q: What was it about Claus von Stauffenberg that made this role so irresistible to you?

TC: When I first read the script, I thought how incredibly suspenseful it was. Right from the beginning, I thought it was a great story, this is a suspense thriller. I went, "Whoa. It's cool."

Stauffenberg went to Hitler the day after D-Day; you find out it really happened. It is definitely an important story. I'd never heard [of] it before. I grew up playing with the neighborhood kids in the yard, wanting to kill Nazis, wanting to kill Hitler. As a child, I [wondered], "Why didn't someone just shoot him?"

And, [after] sitting down with Bryan and finding out it was a true story, and I wanted to work with him, off we went. Bryan is someone I've always wanted to work with. [I was first introduced to Bryan] when I saw his film The Usual Suspects but we actually met at the premiere of the first Mission Impossible. And I said, "Man, I want to work with you."

He was totally accurate to the behavior and what was happening during that time period. I really respect Bryan's staging, his composition, and his storytelling. When I look at his movies, it's very cinematic, classic storytelling. So you don't see the hand necessarily until you see that it's missing. They build to that so you see it in the bed.

I've always felt that you want to get it right. And within the limited amount of time, and economics, you want to do the best that you can for the audience, for the subject matter, whatever it is. The most important thing is the film, because I want to entertain an audience, and when I'm making a film, that's so important.

Q: You two seem to have a partnership as much as an actor-director relationship. What's the difference in working together as producers and then working together as an actor and director?

TC: I have great respect for him as a filmmaker, as a storyteller. Out of a scale of one to 10, I think this film is a 20. It was a challenge to make.

BS: We spent a lot of time, we had Tom's interest in the project as well as position at the studios. We has the freedom to spend a lot of time working together, working with Chris and Nathan, and talking about the project.

We have a lot of fun talking. We had meetings at Tom's house 12 hours long. We camped out in the desert when we were shooting the desert sequence, and everyone's families were there. When we moved to Germany, we learned more information. We had some good experiences.

And then once we get on the set, he becomes an actor. And I become a director and for my experience, there was never any difference. I knew that no matter how many takes I asked him to do, it would never be as many as Stanley Kubrick did [laughs]. And we tried, we experimented, and it was phenomenal, because anything you'd [saying to Cruise] ask -- anything, you'd be like, "Let's do it." There was never a lack of wanting to try and never a lack of trust.

And then afterwards, [there was] the full support of an actor -- it's a rare opportunity with Tom. As a director, you always feel like nobody cares about the movie as much as you do. What you probably see here is a relationship with someone who cares about this movie as much as I do.

TC: I want to be directed. I enjoy that. I do like to be directed. I don't stand outside myself and direct myself. And I have a lot of fun doing it.

BS: He doesn't come to the monitor and look at it and say, "Oh, there's none of that," which some actors do.

TC: As an actor, getting direction from Bryan, he gave great notes on behavior and we were just tracking. I like that in a movie where as an actor I'm tracking with the director.

BS: It's been a really great journey, but one that comes from caring about the project.

TC: There's certain things that Bryan knew from a story sense how you want to build to those moments, because there [are] little pieces that build to a moment. There are moments where there's tension, you've got to take the audience along and build that tension. Every scene has to move the story along, but every scene you're revealing more about the characters. There [are] rhythms and structure to a movie that I love as an audience.

When I read a script, when I'm seeing a movie, I see it like an audience and not necessarily as a filmmaker, particularly when I get caught up in the picture.

Q: Does Tom Cruise, the actor, compete with Tom Cruise, the businessman?

TC: I've produced a lot of films. Mission Impossible was the first film that I produced and then I produced all the Mission films, and The Last Samurai. So there's always the balance of art and commerce, and the challenges of that.

And it's not just having talent in making a film, it's also important to know to surround yourself with great people. I've got very good people that I work with. I've always tried to surround myself with people that I respect, that I enjoy working with, and that's what we have. I'm very happy to have these guys on board with MGM. At the studio it's actually a very exciting time, with Mary Parent, who's come on at MGM.

But I am an actor first and foremost. That is my love.

Q: You both have had so much control over the project. Why wasn't it just put into a December release originally; at one time it was scheduled for October and then, February 2009?

BS: Originally, the schedule of completion had to do with that. It was going to come out a lot earlier, but then the Tunisia sequence took time. I ended up scouting Jordan for a location, and then Spain, but those two locations didn't work out, both aesthetically and economically.

We figured we would just see what movie we had when we got home. [We'd] cut it all together, and then go back and go to California where the location we found looks far more like Tunisia. Cougar Buttes, that's where we shot. We would have the equipment and resources, and we would sort of drop and pick up.

And then that moved our release day. It was a crowded Christmas, but we didn't know where we were at finishing the movie. Is that pretty much as you remember it?

TC: You know, we were making a film not for a release date, to be honest with you.

BS: Yeah, exactly. Thank you.

TC: February was never a firm date. We also never wanted to say, "Hey, we want to put it in awards season." That's not even why we moved to Christmas. Christmas is a great time for audiences. It's the biggest time of the year for people to go [to movies]. You want to put your film where it can [be] available to as broad an audience as possible.

Q: So what were the challenges and rewards playing this character?

TC: The rewards are that I thought it was a very exciting film. It's a story I'd never heard of before. And I wanted to work with Bryan Singer [as I said]. I loved Chris's script [and] to be able to work with these actors. That's the reward every day, going in and having that challenge... and, as I said, to entertain an audience. I thought it'd be a very compelling story and a fascinating film. That's what I like. That's what I'm looking for in a film.

When I'm making movies, it's about "us," it's not about "me." It's about the journey that we all take together. We got to shoot in locations where these people [lived and where] they died, which was very powerful to be there and to see that world.

I grew up wanting to travel the world and I wanted an adventurous life. Sometimes [there was] a little more adventure than I had ever bargained for [laughter]. But this was something I didn't want to pass on.

BS: Chris and I used to make war films in my backyard.

TC: And I saw the World of War. The way that this film was directed, [it's] not like anything that I've seen -- these films that I greatly admire: Schindler's List and Paths of Glory. But this is very different.

Q: From the military formations to the assassinations,the [orchestration] was pretty amazing and quite ominous. What was it like for you, Bryan, in the directing and you, Tom, in performing this... that it was so precise?

BS: Well, [we] stud[ied] a lot of war photography. There was a huge amount. Hitler filmed everything, so we had the benefit of a lot of both color and black & white motion picture film of that era. Also, we were in Germany so we shot with Arriflex cameras and the Zeiss lenses. And also, with color, I wanted to give a sense of vibrance so it would look like it did to people who lived back then, as opposed to trying to approximate black & white or muddy the film or desaturate it.

The pageantry and the military aspects of it we have, thanks to all that recorded film material. And then we worked with the military advisors who knew the history, and who could help us with the movements and the salutes. So we could have authenticity regarding the difference between the way a colonel would salute a major, or a field marshal, or the Fuhrer.

TC: And specifically at that time period. There is actual dialogue in the film that I discovered were from letters [and] journals that Chris and Nathan had studied.

BS: Yeah, which changed after the assassination attempt. Certain things were more mandatory. And that's what made the scene where he throws up his hand. If you were missing your hand, you wouldn't put it up and give the Heil Hitler salute. And that's why it's interesting that he does. He shows his stump.

TC: This is a film that, right in the beginning, needed that kind of dynamic orchestration, and you had to be very specific in editing these pieces together. That was all very thought out. From top to bottom of the production, we really had a lot of help and support from the Germans -- their production, the stuff that they gave us. When you talk about colors, the reds, the whole point is to try to give that audience that visceral feeling of being on the edge of their seat, even down to the wardrobe.

[In] wardrobe with Joanna Johnston, a lot of time and attention went into this -- the kind of fabrics, and also studying the fact that certain people would make their own uniforms.

And so [too] with Tom Sigel [cinematographer]: the kind of film that he used, the lighting that he used. The level of detail in the film -- even down to Hitler's signature, [which] was, to the best of our knowledge, exactly the signature that he signed at that time period. Same with Stauffenberg. This is the kind of stuff that we film geeked and history geeked out on.

BS: People were taken blindfolded to the homes of people who collected Hitler's furniture so we could see it and know the furniture at the Berghof, his summer house. There are people who collect this stuff secretly in Germany.

Q: Are they neo-Nazis?

BS: I don't know, they just like the furniture; [they're collectors].

TC: There's certain things you go, "Look, I don't care. I don't wanna know. [laughs]." But we're very happy to have the desk in his office...

BS: I had lunch with Hitler's bodyguard, [Cruise] wouldn't go.

TC: It was good for the director to have it. He needed that. I didn't need it. I'll read about it.

Q: I understand the eye patch initially gave you unexpected balance problems.

TC: Yeah, it did. I was surprised -- for a few hours and a few days, when we started working on it, especially when it was dark, I lost depth perception and balance.

From visual storytelling, I think it was a challenge for Bryan. He also understood it's a different story depending on where that camera is on my face -- different profiles, shooting with the patch and the hand. It was a challenge always going into a room, or which angle we shot.

Q: What about the creative decision of not going with German accents for everyone, but letting the actors speaking their own natural way?

BS: Well, we didn't want that to be what the movie was about. It should be exciting and the audience should be taken on a ride through the film. The actors speak wonderfully the way they do in their current dialects.

We have an international cast: American, Dutch, German, British actors. To have everyone try and approximate German accents, when in reality they're supposed to be speaking German -- which, I promise you, after the first 20 minutes, you'd be sick of it -- would ultimately sound silly. And it would distract from the drive of the plot. Though they can do it -- that's Tom speaking German at the beginning of the movie. But it would ultimately be not as fun for the audience.

Q: Did your research find anything new about Hitler and his followers?

BS: That meeting between Von Stauffenberg and Hitler actually took place -- it was his first time meeting Hitler and the Big Six. It was the day after D-Day, and the thing that Stauffenberg noticed, and went home and told his wife -- it's not in the film, but we keyed off this testimony -- is that Göring had on makeup. There was distrust [among] them, clearly the Allies were at their door, and Hitler was detached from what was going on. The only one that seemed to have a clue was [Albert] Speer, but he was just the architect along for the ride.

TC: The scene where Stauffenberg goes to Hitler after Berghof, it's challenging. I've grown up with the footage of Hitler at the rallies. I was interested in the focus on Hitler, and to see him particularly during that time period where he wasn't [yet] so obviously, utterly insane.

That sequence has this eerie, terrifying feeling -- all of the detail where Goebbels is looking at Göring, all these little looks.

BS: Hitler walked over and held Stauffenberg's hand, and acknowledged his injuries and his heroism as a way of mocking his own people. He would do that. He was always playing one against the other. It was how Hitler rose in politics-through flattery, promises, and backstabbing. He did it with Stalin and he did it with the German people, and eventually that's how the war ended.

So it was nice to put hints of that kind of detached, laconic Hitler in the Berghof scene that the people didn't get to see, in a scene that genuinely happened, and all the specifics of that leading up to [it].

The reason that we have such detail in the third act of the film is because the Gestapo did a very stunning investigation into this assassination attempt, and trials were held and filmed.

So we have the benefit of all of those facts and information to inform our story, as well as the research we've done, and actually talking to a lot of people who were with Hitler.

TC: I was surprised [at] Stauffenberg upbraiding the General [in the desert]. He did that. He had those conversations with generals exactly in that way.

Q: Which is why he ended up in Africa?

TC: Which is why he ended up in Africa. He had actually court-martialed friends of his for war crimes. His uncle was concerned for him, arranged for him to go to Africa. And he was that outspoken with generals. He was a supply officer [at the rear]. He was saying, "What's happening? How can this happen? Why is this happening? This guy's a liar. This is not the country that we want, that I've wanted."

The amount of desperation and pain for him -- because he loved his country, [because] he wanted a moral country, but one that participated in the world, not annihilating [it], not [creating] the Holocaust, not [committed to] world domination. He was a man that was able to really think for himself within all of that propaganda, and recognized very early on that insanity.

At first he's thinking, "Well, someone's got to stop him. Let's overthrow him." "Someone's got to shoot that bastard," is a quote of his. And it's ironic that those injuries actually put him in the position of high command where he got on the inside, and realized that the only way to stop this is from the inside.

And really recognizing that it wasn't just enough to kill Hitler. You had to have something that's going to put people in a position where they're going to follow you, because you have that oath. That oath is so creepy, to get people to not be able to think for themselves. As an American, to open the film [with it], that struck me.

BS: Because the army was compelled to give an oath. An army of 10 million people in Germany was compelled to give an oath to Hitler himself, personally.

Q: Did you think of Fred Zinneman's film,The Day of the Jackal, in the sense that people knew going in what the end would be?

BS: Not so much; I hadn't seen it in awhile. But movies like that were discussed.

TC: Yeah, definitely. You look at Apollo 13, Titanic -- any film that's made out of a book [where] people know how it's going to end. I had an idea when I read -- of course I heard of the briefcase under the table. When I read it, it was so surprising to me, the story, the details. And I was surprised in reading it that I was that caught up and I was whipping through the pages.

BS: You might [know] if you know history. But I don't think audiences know the full degree of how this particular story ends, and that's an important thing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Leo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet Step Down that Revolutionary Road

Feature Story by Brad Balfour

At a recent press conference in New York preceding its premiere, the essential members of the Revolutionary Road cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon and Kathy Bates) and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) answered questions before a small room of journalists. Of course, the big news--that the film re-unites actors DiCaprio and Winslet, who first made their mark in Titanic as a couple madly in love--drove the interest in this film about the disquieting side of the 1950s corporate society. It also drove the nomination of the film and some of its cast for the 2009 Golden Globes (Winslet won for Best Actress) foreshadowing the upcoming Oscar nominations.

In Titanic, these two came together against the odds of diverging social backgrounds and relationships and with the backdrop of the tragedy about to occur. Audiences were stirred by the burgeoning love affair between them.

The opposite happens in Revolutionary Road. Audiences see the destruction of a relationship never really fated to be, somewhat thrown together by expectations they have for each other but are never realized. In fact, the two don't really share much or see eye-to-eye about their goals and life in general.

Based on the late Richard Yates '60s novel (of the same name) which described the unfulfilled, alienated life of the '50s (and led to the rebellion of the '60s), Winslet plays actress wanna-be April, who meets the diffident but charming Frank Wheeler at a party. They share their dreams of an individualistic life. Ultimately, though, unrequited dreams and emotional frustration beset their relationship as they start to have a family. Wheeler sets aside his vague goals and falls into the same man-in-the-grey-flannel-suit salesman's life his father had. April feels the anomie of life lacking personal accomplishment. They became further estranged, leading to damaged lives and a tragic ending.

Q: This is obviously a movie about a troubled marriage. Would you say it's because of a failure to communicate?

KW: It's a combination of different things. It's an inability to communicate, or certainly more to do with the fact that they have forgotten to communicate with each other for some time. It's only when April turns around to him and says, "We can't go on pretending that this is the life we wanted," that they are both then truly forced to question exactly that.

For April, it's very clear that this isn't the life she expected for herself, and Frank is then forced to question that too. And it's at that point that they realize maybe they aren't the people they were when they first met. They want different things from life. April, ultimately, is so determined to find happiness, to feel something again other than what she has, that she's prepared to risk anything in order to get that—which to me is a very heroic act, and not a cowardly one.

LD: And my character, on the other hand, is very un-heroic and cowardly [laughs], which is the truth. Ultimately, he's a product of his environment. He doesn't have the courage to manifest any tangible change in his life. On the one hand, April is wanting to risk everything for a new opportunity, or to pursue the dreams that she once had of what she wanted her life to be, Ultimately, my character is my father's son—I want to conform to my environment. Is it about two people that don't communicate enough? I don't think that's the truth.

It's about two people that are being forced apart, but are desperately trying to salvage their marriage and stay together. I think they are trains on different courses. Ultimately, the facade of what Paris represented, the ideals of what Paris was to them, was an opportunity that could or could not have resulted in something positive or tangible. But I think they were being forced apart by different intentions for what they wanted their lives to be.

KW: Also, I think, for April, Paris represents, possibility, hope, and change. The notion that she might be forced to live a life without possibility is ultimately the kiss of death.

Q: Having worked together before on Titanic, were there any surprises was this time around?

LD: Well, Kate and I have remained close friends for many years. Since Titanic, I think we've been both actively looking for the right project to do. This wasn't at all treading on similar territory. We knew that that is a complete set-up for disaster, having done Titanic. We knew we needed to try something completely unique, it was just about finding that project.

And this was something that Kate was shepherding for many years, and putting the pieces together, and I felt very fortunate to be chosen for it. As far as how Kate's changed or not changed, I think that she's always had that pursuit of excellence within the characters she plays. She's got an unbelievable work ethic that she's retained ever since I knew her in her early 20s. She cares about the movie being great, and the other actors involved, and everything.

That's all still there [plus], the fact that Sam was attached to this, the fact that this was a great piece of material, and such a departure from what we'd done before.

What has changed is we don't approach the filmmaking experience quite the way we did in our early 20's. We don't look at the director or the producers involved as parental figures, which I feel we did in our teenage years—we were constantly looking for that guidance. We come into movies now as kind of equal pieces to the puzzle, and bring our own ideas for what the movie should be and, for lack of a better term, we're more like "adults"—whatever that word means.

KW: Any major surprises? I think he's nicer than he was (if that's possible). He's funnier than he was (even if that's possible); and he's a better actor than he was (if that ever was possible). And quite honestly, playing Frank and April Wheeler, there was a surprise every day.

I so much loved playing some of the difficult scenes with Leo, knowing that, because of the trust we have as two people who have known each other for so long, there were no boundaries. That was a real gift to have as two actors playing these parts. I was able to do off-camera dialogue for him, and had to stop myself from crying because I was seeing someone for whom I have so much respect doing things as an actor that I've never seen him do before; [I got to watch him] morphing his face into positions that I've never seen him morph his face into before, as an actor or as a person. There were moments like that pretty much every single day.

Q: Was there one scene that stood out as the most exciting or most rewarding for the two of you?

LD: The most rewarding? What was interesting about the way Sam set this whole film in motion was [that] he really attacked it like he would a theater production. He realized it was an ensemble piece that depended so much on the actors, and listened to all of our different ideas endlessly in the rehearsal process.

Then what we got to do was sort of live this tiny microcosm of a life in a four-month period in almost real time. It was bizarre because we shot the beginning sequences at the beginning, and there was so much unsaid throughout the first two-thirds of the film, so much pent-up within these characters, that when the kettle sort of explodes at the end of the movie, all that stuff felt ultra-realistic because we were confined to this tiny suburban house for months at a time. And there was so much that our characters had wanted desperately to say to each other.

When those scenes finally happened, that was something I was really looking forward to because I just felt there's such a comfort level we have just being friends and knowing that we have the best intentions for each other, like she said. So we can be brutally honest and savage to each other onscreen, and we trust each other in that regard. So that was the stuff I was looking most forward to, and it was ultimately fun.

KW: For me, one of the most memorable scenes that we shot together was the breakfast scene at the end of the film. I remember reading it on the page and thinking, "How the hell are we gonna get through this? How on earth are we gonna do this?" And everything about that scene took me by surprise from the way that it was lit in that incredibly stark, beautiful, naked way; from the way that Sam really steered us through the very difficult emotions. Rhythmically, the scene is very delicate.

I remember feeling very strongly that Leo and I were very much in Sam's hands when we were shooting that scene, because it was so difficult for us to have a kind of sixth sense of what we needed it to be. All we knew was that we had to be very honest about every word we were saying, and we just had to trust in Sam so completely, because emotionally it was just very difficult to get through.

Q: Was your character a heroic figure?

KW: I feel that April is a heroine. I didn't feel she was a coward, neither did I feel she was suicidal, and I certainly didn't think she was bipolar. But I do believe that this was a woman that was taken to an emotional brink in her pursuit of happiness, and I think it literally sent her mad, I really do. And in giving herself an abortion, I don't think that she was intending to kill herself, but she knew that it was a very big risk, and there's something incredibly courageous and stoic about that. And it's a fine line, you know? It's very difficult to translate those two things simultaneously.

Q: And Leo, your character is such a tragic figure. Do you think he ever recovers?

LD: Where do I begin? I think what's interesting about the novel and the way Yates writes all these characters is that the sympathy shifts constantly throughout the course of the book. Where you think Frank is sort of despicable for cheating on his wife at the beginning of the film, at the end of the film you realize that he's the one trying to salvage the relationship. I just loved playing a character that just slightly fell short of his ambitions. I thought it was a compelling thing to do. He just did not have the courage at the end of the day to follow through with the life he wanted. He would be happier conforming to his existence.

Q: Do you think the '50s were as much a character in this film?

LD: At first, having read the novel and the script, I thought the '50s was a huge component. This was the era of prescription medication, and we're moving to Levittown and the suburbs. Trying to have that symbolic American family existence drove a lot of people nuts. But I thought as much as that was a product of the movie, once we did the film, a lot of that stripped away and became the backdrop to the emotional drama of these characters’ lives unraveling.

Q: What did you think about the plight of oppressed women in the days of Revolutionary Road?

KW: We should also share this question with Kathy. But one of the things that was so touching to me and moving to me about April Wheeler was that this was a woman who seemed to me, like so many women of that time, whose interior world was so much bigger than her exterior world. I'm very different to her, and I had to find a way of understanding her and loving her, which I did and which I do, but it was not always easy. She's a very complex and complicated woman who has no emotional outlets.

I'm lucky. I get to express my passions and the spirited side of myself, and the strong-willed side of myself through the jobs that I do. I was so moved by April's lack of emotional outlet, and it was just crushing to me, and it was very difficult to play. Frank and April do see themselves as being slightly more glamorous than everybody around them. In many ways, I think that that's the one thing, actually, that's kept April going, living this life that she's really unhappy living. She's somehow managed convinced herself that everything's okay because they're not like the Campbells [their friends], they're not like the Givings [their neighbors], they're just a little bit better than everybody else.

She goes to Frank, "We can't go on pretending that this was the life we wanted," and in many ways she's incredibly brave, even to be able to admit that to herself. So many women were coasting along and living this lie because they simply had no other option. As Leo said, prescription medication and sneaking beverages midday all began during that time.

Q: Leo, you've done a lot of big movies with many famous directors including Martin Scorsese four times. What did Sam Mendes bring to the table as a director?

LD: He knows how to work with actors, that's simply it. He's kind of masterful at that. And he realized very early on that we'd all have questions about our characters, and the true intent of our characters, and he let us unleash a lot of that.

We got to express all our doubts and disbeliefs about what our characters’ intentions were, and what we felt. He listened to a lot of that and asked us these very penetrating questions. Sometimes it's jarring, when you're in the middle of doing a scene and he says, "What do you think your character's really doing this for?"

You have to stop and say, "Actually, I didn't think of that. I have to admit you're right. I should have an answer for that, but I don't. Let me think of that answer." That ability to question his actors in a very gentle way. It gives you all that subtext that you need. I could go on and on about it, but I think you get the picture.

Q: Kate, with this and The Reader, you are competing against yourself in various awards races--especially since the Oscar noms are upcoming. How do you feel about that?

KW: I'll answer the last part of your question first. I feel very proud of both of these films, and proud to be a part of them. Quite honestly, I don't know how categorizing of actors even happens. I really truly don't. It certainly has nothing to do with me. It's incredible to be talked about in that way, and I can only hope that I can live up the expectation. I hope the work speaks for itself. It's my job to make myself available to support both these films equally.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Actor Demian Bichir Makes Castro Appear In Steven Soderbergh's Epic story of Che

Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour

With the thaw between the United States and Cuba in the news recently--the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of its revolution this year--Fidel Castro appearances have nonetheless been scarce to say the least. it was noted that brother Raul has exerted his presence and influence on the country now, not Castro himself.

About the only way to see the animated Fidel is to view old news footage or see Che: Parts One & Two, director Steven Soderbergh's massive bio pic about El Jefe's favorite revolutionary, cohort, and fellow traveler, the late Che--played by Benicio del Toro. That two-part film (now viewable as two separate films) detailed Che's rise among Castro's inner circle and his role in fomenting the 1959 Cuban revolution to his demise in the Bolivian jungle when he tried to export the revolution there several years later.

If anyone garnered an insight into both Castro and Soderbergh, it was Mexican actor Demian Bichir, who has been seen by American audiences playing Esteban Reyes on the tv series Weeds. Though he didn't get anywhere near the screen time that del Toro got, he successfully got into the dictator's head and gave life to the young Castro.

I took a look back to an interview conducted with Bichir about Che: Parts One & Two, this epic five-hour telling of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara's rise and fall. The film premiered as part of the 2008 New York Film Festival and then had a limited release as the two-parter that now can be seen as two separate movies.

Q: You played a character who is obviously a living figure but also a mythic one as well. What did you come in thinking about him and how did that change once you actually played him?

DB: I came in thinking what a beautiful chance for any actor. What a blessing to play a character larger than life. And what a great responsibility and pressure it is, too.

Q: What do you think about the idea of Castro seeing you play him?

DB: I would love him to watch the films. Actually, I would love to have feedback about whatever I did as him. I would love that. I don't even know if that's going to be possible or not, but I would love to meet the guy.

Q: What were your impressions of Castro? He was a guy from a bourgeois family and then suddenly he's leading an agrarian revolution.

DB: You [are burdened] with those kind of ideas, or idealistic ideas about your task in life. He knew that since he was a kid going to school and all that, In our counties--in any other country in the world--it's so easy to see differences between classes and to see how bad that is in the world.

So it's not really difficult to realize that we need change almost everywhere. But very few people put that in their hearts as a task, and though he's not the head of Cuba now, actively speaking, he's still writing. He writes almost every day, and publishes his columns about many issues. So, he's restless [though] he's almost at the end of his life, and hasn't stopped worrying about making a difference. That's pretty amazing.

Growing up in Mexico, we were always close to the event [of the Cuban Revolution], and I already knew many many things about the revolution. Being a theater person and growing up in a theatrical family, you tend to know more about many things, and so I actually knew a lot about what he did and wanted to do.

Then, I had the chance to research the whole thing for five months before we started shooting, and that was perfect for me, because then I had the chance to jump into certain books, materials, pictures, videos, and recordings of this and that.

Q: Even though the movie is focused on Del Toro and Che, you're the one who's really his superior, his senior.

DB: That's right!

Q: How did you two figure out how to play that you're the boss, with the emphasis on Benicio/Che in the cinematic world?

DB: The hardest part was just forgetting about whoever Steven Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro were. Those names didn't mean anything for me [at that point]. I couldn't really think about Benicio as this huge actor--as the [monster] he is. I couldn't really be taken in by that, so I was commanding and would have to let him know and feel who was the boss.

It was easy, because these guys are so generous and they're there to put this project together--not to glorify whatever they are or whoever they are--so that was pretty simple in many ways.

Q: What quirks did you learn about Fidel that you incorporated? Even if you don't see it in the camera, did you add something you read about or saw--a gesture, a way of holding the cigar, something?

DB: Oh yeah, many many things. Most of the time, he holds his cigars in the left hand, and it's not because he's lefty, it's because he always writes, so he needs the right hand free, to make some notes, or write this or that. So whenever you see the guy smoking, it's always in his left hand. That's one stupid thing that I always wanted to bring to the character, and the fact that he was also always a secure person, sure, fearless, and stubborn, and bigger than life. I mean, Cubans are big anyway, but this guy is theatrically big.

Q: Were there things you learned about Fidel and his history that you wish had been applied in Mexico, because Mexico has a strange history. Theoretically it has had a leftist government in the past; Mexico had its own revolution.

DB: Yeah, exactly. We had a revolution, right?

Q: And it got corrupted like we've seen happen in Cuba. There have been failings in Cuba--the anti-gay attitude is terrible. But Mexico's been a disaster. What advice would you give to Mexicans that you learned about Cuba?

DB: Well, that's the only parameter that I have when I think about Cuba and the way they are and the way they were able or not to live their revolution throughout the last 46 or 50 years, and I always compare that and Mexico.

We had a revolution 100 years ago, and a revolution is done to make things equal for everyone, right? So where is that in Mexico? You don't see that anywhere, right? It seems like we need another revolution. That's the problem there.

So that's part of it. It's like, the [Cubans] have been blocked from the world for 46 years, so can someone explain me why they get the medals in Olympic games, not Mexico? Why do they have the best musicians, the best artists, the best doctors, and why no kid dies when he is born? Everyone reads and writes. Not in Mexico, in Cuba. See what I mean?

That's pretty scary when you think about comparing [them], and we are not being blocked. Not for 40 years, or 10 or for two. We are supposed to be the democratic government, with our elections every six years, and all that. So what the fuck's wrong?

Q: Having played Castro, did you ever think about participating in a revolution yourself, or about getting political? After doing this film, does it make you run screaming away from any politician you'll ever meet?

DB: I'm not as smart, or as brave, as these people were--not at all. One wants to think that--and this is really a stupid thought--that through your art or whatever you do as an actor you can actually affect someone else's lives and thoughts or whatever.

I've been offered before to be a member of the Congress for the left party in Mexico, and I said, "You got to be kidding me. I'm complaining about that all the time. Don't offer me that!" And it's a lot of money, too that you can get for that, and I said, "No, I'm an actor. You guys do whatever you do--if anything."

Q: There must have been times when you and Benicio had some philosophical engagement about this role and this character.

DB: That's funny, because Benicio was insanely busy all the time so we didn't really have the chance to put our ideas together other than on the set. We were always having fun and cracking up and telling jokes and, you know, not really--because he was always, as soon as he was over shooting, he would have to go with producer Laura Bickford and Steven and have meetings here and there, so it was kind of crazy for him.

Q: Would you like to reprise this role and play Castro as a more central figure in a film?

DB: I would love to do that. There were so many things [he's done] in his 80 years of life. I'm not going to play him when he was 14, but I'd love to explore a little deeper and wider, with another story maybe, but it would have to be done by the same people, because once you're lucky to jump into a character like Fidel, that's fine, that's great, but who's going to do it with you, who's going to direct, who's going to play Che, for example? So whoever's going to tell his story, it has to be as big as Fidel, and if that happens I'll be more than happy to jump in.

Q: Did Fidel make a mistake in sending Che to Bolivia at that time?

DB: He didn't send Che to Bolivia...

Q: Well, according to the notes, it was Fidel's decision that Che went to Bolivia.

DB: Well actually, Fidel even thought it was premature for him to start with this dream about liberating the rest of Latin America. It was not the right time yet. It was something I read in this book called One Hundred Hours with Fidel by Ignacio Ramonet where Fidel tells everything. From before he was born up until the last 10 years.

He says that he told Che that it was not time to go, that he was not going to be able to help him as much as he could. And Che thought they couldn't waste any more time, and that was part of some confusion about their relationship, which is absurd, because they cared for each other, respected each other, and were friends and comrades.

Q: Did you speak with people who had actually participated in the revolution?

DB: We had many interviews with key people, The closest I got was... I met Aleida Guevara, Che's widow, and Che's son, Camilo.

Q: Did you make an effort to meet Raul Castro?

DB: I didn't even try because that's just impossible. Only Sean Penn can do that.

Q: Have you been to Cuba before?

DB: Yes, and it's really has a strong spirit in many ways. As I told you before, you walk along the Malecón, and you see these perfect bodies of men and women. You say, "Wait a minute, you need to eat to get those bodies, you need to exercise to get those bodies. It's not that easy."

So who's starving here? Who's having a bad time? It's all about music, and about smiling; it's about having a great time. So, hopefully things are going to change for the best.

Q: To ask the obvious, what did you want audiences to take away from this film--if people are not already into it, what would you hope it could change or influence?

DB: This is not a political statement. We're trying to tell the story of this extraordinary man that said no to everything he had twice in his life to give it to somebody else, and you don't find that very often. And maybe, hopefully, people would see that image that's so famous around the world and learn about the story behind it. After seeing this film, or films, hopefully they're going to be able to know the story behind the face

Q: How has affected your personally, as an actor and as an individual?

DB: For me it's been maybe the biggest challenge I've been through as an actor, because not only the character, but also the people involved made it stronger and more difficult. So for me, it was like a huge leap, a huge step into my acting. I don't know if it's going to be reflected in my career or not, but I am a better actor now.

Q: How did you relate to Castro's passion?

DB: I guess I relate to El Jefe in many many ways. You need a revolution when things are not equal to everyone, and in Mexico we had a revolution a hundred years ago, and it seems like we need another one. Nothing has really changed, and if the vote was respected everywhere, then you'll have that type of revolution--I'm talking about Mexico, and some other countries.

So, hopefully now that we have won--I have to say "we won" because I wanted [the election of Obama] here--but it seems that in some places like in Mexico, the vote's not really respected. But there's no other way, right? But I think the last armed revolution we have seen was the one these guys did in Cuba.

In Mexico we need a cultural revolution more than anything else. So people can really learn to read, and in that way, get educated and defended themselves better.

Q: Having met those people who knew Che and Fidel, did that affect the performance?

DB: I wanted to meet Fidel, and that's obviously impossible, and it was impossible then, too. A character like this, so well known by everyone, there's so many things about him, and books, and pictures, and video, and footage, and all that, so I had the chance to get access to all that. So that was my material, the things I worked with, and lucky enough I had five months to prepare. I had Fidel for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for five months, and that was basically it.

I don't remember encountering any other character that made me feel so guilty and lazy, because no matter how hard I have worked, they always worked double and triple. throughout Fidel's life, up until now--he's writing and he reads a lot. He always said that it was a waste of time even shaving. That's one reason, he has said, why he keeps his beard.

He said that they wouldn't cut their beards because if anyone wanted to infiltrate his guerillas, they would have to have spent at least six months growing a long beard to be part of it.

Castro also said, "It's a waste of time because if you add the 15 minutes that you spend shaving your beard everyday, you could use that [time] by reading, or doing sports." So, I really feel lazy and useless, compared to these guys.

Q: Is that why you kept the beard?

DB: Yeah, I'm grooming it.

Viggo Mortensen and Jason Isaacs Address Good and Wax Philosophical about the Nazis

Feature Interview By Brad Balfour

During a snappy roundtable with a few journalists, actors Viggo Mortensen and Jason Isaacs double-teamed to express their thoughts about their disturbing new film, Good, based on the acclaimed British play by CP Taylor. Set during the Nazi era—like several other movies this season—this feature describes a relatively banal man's acceptance into pre-war Nazi society of the 1930s. As he rises in status, we see how the seductive power of fascism can compromise someone slowly until they are in so deep it's too late to repudiate it.

German literature professor John Halder has written a novel advocating compassionate euthanasia. When the book is unexpectedly read by Hitler and his key advisers, Halder is enlisted to make an argument for managed euthanasia which is ultimately used as a rationale for the Final Solution. The meek professor suddenly has a new career as an honorary S.S. officer.

With Halder’s change in fortune, his seemingly inconsequential life is imbued with an allure and power he hadn't experienced before, leading him to leave his wife for a beautiful, status-hungry grad student (Jodie Whittaker) and ultimately betray his Jewish friend, the charismatic Jewish psychiatrist Maurice (Jason Isaacs), who ends up in a concentration camp.

There's no better actor than Mortensen to express this transformation from an apolitical professor living within his world of words, to someone who enjoys the prestige and power of the Nazis initially, only to be appalled at the consequences of his tacit support of their methods. Ever since he made his mark with A Walk On The Moon, Mortensen has wrestled with some complicated characters in two David Cronenberg films (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises), and Appaloosa, and played the heroic and enduring Aragorn in the The Lord of The Rings trilogy.

As a foil to Mortensen's character, Veteran British actor Isaacs (he's in the Harry Potter series) provided his character Maurice with the trajectory of a man once on top of his world declining precipitously as he is destroyed by the pernicious system around him. And both bonded through Vicente Amorim's sympathetic direction (who popped in at the end of the interview and is pictured here with Viggo and Jason).

Q: This movie has two distinct character arcs that intersect. The challenge, to get those things in sync—as if they're happening simultaneously—is tough; can you explain the dynamic of getting those rhythms right?

VM: It's true. We do cross and take on different roles as Halder builds up this new persona for himself. He was always the one who was like “Let's go have a beer,” then all of a sudden the roles change. They don't exactly swap, but they're different.

JI: The power dynamic shifts enormously. For me that was one of the great and interesting things about this story—that it wasn't about governments or armies or Nazi generals. It was about two ordinary guys who are best friends, and a friendship that I recognize: someone who's much larger than life, someone with a great big hunger—a womanizer, a drinker, just kind of an eater of life—who has this friend with a rather dull marriage who basks in his shadow.

Then these outside circumstances so change their lives that in many ways the power dynamic is reversed. Playing Maurice as he gradually deflates was, I thought, very interesting and a very human journey, to see someone stripped of all their dignity like that.

Q: Conversely, Viggo, you play this character whose ego is built up, and then given responsibilities that he doesn't want to shoulder as a result. But then you do shoulder them and you feel regret. There's this back-and-forth process that you have to get right.

VM: Well, some people have said to me, "This is a very passive role compared to others you've played recently." My answer is: it's active in a different way. He's passive to a point, but then he starts building up this persona and buying into it. He's in a lot of denial. Then he's actively accepting and even pursuing this new new sexual life, being part of some sort of subsection of the elite of the country he lives, and he's liking a lot of it.

Whether he's being completely honest with himself a lot of the time or not, he's accepting it and saying, "Yes, I like it, I’m doing it. And in fact, I think I won't go see Maurice tonight for a beer because I don't want to deal with him looking at me and having to think about it."

JI: You think he believes that argument that you made to me, that if more good decent people like us joined the [Nazi] party we can dissolve the lunatic fringe?

VM: I think he's told himself that. He believes it, but he's forcing himself to believe that. If we were to stop and think everything we're doing wrong, then these personalities we construct—and we all do it to varying degrees—are dependent on who we meet, what the circumstances are, and what the climate is. We present ourselves in slightly different ways [according to the circumstances].

My character has really gone to great lengths to create this [persona] who no longer stutters, who looks people in the eye, who is a person of importance now. He knows he doesn't belong there, what the fuck is he doing there? Excuse my language...

He knows if he were to go and have a drink with Maurice now—like the scene when they sit on the bench and are talking—it [would be] difficult.

JI: It's like when I was saw Bono and [Bob] Geldof talking about working with [George] Bush in Africa. They said, “You know, he is in power and he does have the money and I can make him do good.”

VM: I can see the argument. I think that's the strength of the movie. You can look at this person and see he's intelligent and thoughtful. When [the Nazi professor says to Halder] "We don't teach Proust," he’s sarcastic about it.

For the record, [my character is] saying "I don't like it." But he goes along with it. He wants to keep his job, so he goes along with it: "Yeah, fine." I think people identify and understand the idea of if you're in the system, you can make changes to it. But if you're out of it, it's easy to sit on the sidelines.

Each person knows themselves. How far have I gone? Have I arrived at the point where I know I'm really doing the wrong thing? You really know that yourself, if you force yourself or are forced to examine it. To some degree, that's what this story is about.

JI: For me, it wasn't about whether he was doing the wrong thing. It was, “How would you do the right thing?” In the last eight years, we've been saying we don't agree with torture. But have we done anything about it? Are you ultimately powerless, [so] you get on with your life and the people who love you, and your work? I personally found it very hard to point the finger [at anyone in this movie].

VM: The fact that there are no easy answers doesn't mean you don't do something, even if it's going to fail.

JI: That's the message you get at the end of the story. There was a line: it's the easiest thing to do, to say there is no line. You're powerless and there's nothing you can do, other than vote once every four years. But there must be some action you can take, no matter how hard and complicated it is to find.

Q: We know from the outside the real apocalyptic legacy of the Nazis, but they're on the inside, so they don't know it.

VM: Well, that's the strength of this movie. It doesn't work from hindsight, like almost all movies on the subject, good and bad, and books about the period. There's this scene when the character Anne says [the swastika] makes people happy, so it can't be bad.

You see these kids running along with swastikas made out of flowers. In fact, there was this kid during the break on the first day of shooting, this little Hungarian kid about five years old, playing with the little swastika flag. [He was] sticking it in the sand castle, really having fun with it. There's a still they took of that; it's really quite disturbing, but he's having a fun time. What people forget is that in the 1930s that was simply the flag of Germany. It didn't have all these Holocaust connections [it has today].

When the Olympic [athletes] competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, they competed under that flag. It was simply the flag of the party, and the swastika was a symbol that had come from other places – India, the Navajo. It was a universal symbol meaning different things in different places. If you raise your hand in a certain way in Austria, you'll go to jail, but that's now. This movie [tells it] as if you're there.

JI: I didn't think it was about the apocalyptic circumstances that came about. In 1933 this was an amazing country. [It was] coming into full bloom, kids had clubs to go to. But a small part of the community were having their civil rights eroded, but not in such a way that it took away from all the other wonderful things going on—unless you were Jewish. In which case, it wasn't so great. But you weren't hard up [initially]. The Jews were benefiting from many other things happening magnificently in the country [at the time]. Because I've done interviews where I've been asked, “Is the message of the film that, if we don't watch out, all this could happen again?”

It’s not about where we got to in 1943. 1933 was bad enough if you were Maurice. 1937 wasn't such a great year for him. Frankly there are people around the planet today who, as a consequence of me buying these clothes made in China, don't have a very good day at work. There are homeless people I've stepped over to get into the hotel today. It’s about this ethical minefield we experience every day. It's not about whether it would or wouldn't come to a genocidal apocalypse again. It's about how do you live your life in the very challenging times.

Q: It's easy enough to condemn the distant past. But the Iraq war movies have all been box office failures because that's what is all around you. It's a different thing.

JI: I think when Arthur Miller wanted to talk about McCarthyism—this cancer that was eating American society—he wrote a play about the Salem witch trials called The Crucible. I think, in these very challenging and terrifying times we live in, which are full of fear and rationalization, there are a million decisions that I make every day that I'm not sure about. I have small children. I have no idea how they will or won't judge me for the things I do.

VM: Sometimes, a good way that I looked at this story metaphorically, was the notion that when you have a pot of water, if it's boiling water and you throw a frog in, it will jump out. But if you bring it up slowly, the frog will just get warmer and warmer [until it's too late] and then he cooks.

JI: Wow, that's really cruel, have you done that?

VM: No. But that's a metaphor for the German people. Why didn't they do something? Why didn't you leave if you were Jewish? They didn't realize what was going on, how warm it was getting. It wasn't boiling at once, it took a while.

Q: Did you know each other before shooting?

VM: No. I knew Jason's work, and I flew out to Providence where Jason was filming [Brotherhood] to meet him, as I knew we wouldn't have time before filming started.

JI: It was a generous gesture of Viggo to do that. I don't want to get too soppy, but it made me feel incredibly warm towards him. When I arrived in Hungary, having had to shed a character on the plane, Viggo had already been around Europe on his own research trip and gathered some artifacts he thought might be useful for the character of Maurice.

Viggo made it very, very easy for me to like him. He made it very easy to be his friend on screen and off screen. We have a relationship and these things count. You're relaxed in each other's company; you tell each other when you're being an idiot. That usually takes months and months on a film set, and we had about 20 minutes [to do so].

VM: Also, there's a simple idea of, “Do you like to rehearse and talk about stuff?” Of course, we both do [so that was] great.

Q: This film seems to welcome a degree of improvisation.

JI: We improvised a bit. You look someone in the eye and try and figure out how a human would behave in 1935.

Q: Did you need to do research, and what kind did you do? Obviously you've read these books, but were there films you watched as well, like the Nazi propaganda films that Goebbels commissioned?

VM: This is different in that it doesn't have a big moment at the end. You're not let off the hook as an audience, with a catharsis. You can't say, “Oh, what a horrible villainous person who deserved to die,” or “How great, he went down in a hail of bullets but he did save four-and-a-half people. This film is different. It's not over when it's over, which is the mark of a good story. [In István Szabó's film] Mephisto, which was also shot in Budapest, is a character who bears some resemblance, but he's ambitious from the get-go and he's monstrous.

The thing about Halder is that he's quite normal. The strength of the film is this normalcy. It's quite mundane—even in the camp—it's just another day in the camp. The sun happens to be shining; there's a couple of dead guys, there's a guy who looks like he's going to die pretty soon, and there's someone's going to get some crappy soup; some are lined up and are going to get gassed. It sounds terrible, but it's actually just another day.

One of the things I did, apart from going to Germany and listening to music and all that, was that I drove around in Poland where camps had been. Some places were hard to find. It was a hot day, I was by myself. I finally sat down, and I’m thinking about all these sign posts I've seen. I gradually realized I am here and the sun is shining and the birds are singing and it was a beautiful spring day—and you know they saw those days, too. Whether they were dying or ill, or guards, or maintenance men cleaning the officer’s porch, or preparing the soup, there were nice days.

There weren't always what we see in these movies—grim, black and white, dramatic events every second. You walk down the camp and it's disturbingly quiet and normal. It's become acceptable. For the Jews in the camp, yesterday, today, tomorrow, this is what I'm dealing with now—it's not dramatic in a sense. And that's what's disturbing.

Even when we were shooting that scene at the end, the strangest thing was the quiet. We hear this music playing as I approach with the camera following me, and it [gets] louder and louder, but there wasn't much else. So people say, “It doesn't seem like concentration camp.” No, it doesn't seem like a concentration camp in movies. But it’s a place, and there are people there, and it's just another day. Unfortunately.

I’m not saying I wasn't disturbed by it. It was even more disturbing. I brought things and covered them in dirt and placed them around... But it was more disturbing than fires and rain and screaming.

JI: The first day I had off, I went to the Museum of Terror, which was a state police museum. In the very first room there was a panel that deal with the fact that half a million Jews were killed in the first month there. I did an open-top bus tour, and the guide was saying that 90% of the population are Catholic and about 2% other, mainly Jewish. I asked, what was that percentage before the war? And she said, “I don't know, I think maybe the same.” Everywhere I went, I wondered who lived there. I wondered who was dragged out screaming.

Q: Viggo, your next film is based on Cormac McCarthy's The Road and it deals with some equally difficult situations in the near future.

VM: And there's lots of great Germans in it! It's no surprise that that book is [McCarthy's] best-selling book, because it’s very direct, and very universal. Everybody is the child of someone. Many people have children, everybody has some idea of the parent-child relationship. Any parent who's halfway interested in their child has that concern: “Well, if I'm not here for a week, or a day, or forever, will my kid be all right? Who's going to watch, who's going to feed them?" Children will also worry. That's taken to an extreme… Any parent's worry is taken to an extreme—like, if I'm gone, this kid has nothing and probably will be killed and eaten [laughs]!