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Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with ‘Ida Lupino, Director’ author Therese Grisham

The following interview between me and film scholar/author Therese Grisham appeared at Cine-File Chicago on Friday.
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Ida Lupino is a beloved icon from Hollywood’s golden age. Sexy and tough, she was a bona-fide “noir” goddess who starred in classic films by directors as varied Fritz Lang (While the City Sleeps), Nicholas Ray (On Dangerous Ground) and Raoul Walsh (High Sierra). Her work behind the camera has been less celebrated but Lupino was also an important and pioneering director from the late 1940s through the late 1960s. Ida Lupino, Director: Her Art and Resilience in Times of Transition, co-written by Therese Grisham and Julie Grossman, is the first book-length critical study of Lupino as a director and one that should help spark a much needed reappraisal of this trailblazing female filmmaker. Grisham will appear at Facets Multimedia on Monday, December 4 to sign copies of the book following a free screening of Lupino’s 1951 film Hard, Fast and Beautiful. I recently sat down with her to discuss the book.

MGS: There were dozens of women directors working in the U.S. film industry in the silent era. In the years immediately after World War II, there was only Ida Lupino. Why did Hollywood become more inhospitable to female filmmakers over time?

TG: It happened at the end of the ‘20s and into the ‘30s. Part of that was the centralization of the movie industry (in Hollywood). Another part of it was unionization of work, the kind of strict categorization of work. Prior to that, men and women worked in all facets of filmmaking. We’re talking behind the camera: you weren’t just an “X,” you did various things. Once the jobs became categorized, that was no longer the case. And it seems inevitable at that point that the expendable people – we’re talking because it’s a patriarchal culture – would be women. So that (the silent era) was a real golden era: Lois Weber was a big production figure, as big and powerful as Cecil B. DeMille. She made so many films, and look at what has happened over time because of the erasure of women from Hollywood. Like Alice Guy Blache before her – who also owned her own production company, Solax, and made 600 films or something – there’s this whole rediscovery thing going on where these films have to be reclaimed, they have to be found, they have to be restored. That is far more typical now of women filmmakers historically than any men I can think of.

MGS: Lupino is not considered an “auteur” in a lot of critical circles to this day. Why do you think this is still the case?

TG: Look at what Martin Scorsese wrote about her in the ‘90s. He wrote her obituary (in the New York Times), and he had written about her before. He definitely considers her an auteur. But I think she was considered by some people to be kind of a hack. In many cases, that becomes just an excuse to dismiss a director. And also because of her acting career; that overshadowed her directing career. I think a lot of people didn’t take her seriously because of her acting career. This doesn’t have anything to do with people in the industry, by the way. This has to do with critics because she was taken seriously in the industry.

MGS: What do you consider the hallmarks of her work as a director in terms of form and content?

TG: In terms of content, I think she was abidingly interested in questions of gender in a way that perhaps feminists at the time didn’t really recognize because she’s very even-handed and non-judgmental about men. Which I find to be a beautiful aspect of her films. She has a way of being able to think herself into her male characters’ positions. She doesn’t vilify them. The only character she ever vilified in her films is the rapist in Outrage. It was reported by (co-writer/producer) Malvin Wald that she wouldn’t even look at Albert Mellen (the actor playing the rapist). He didn’t get a name. He was just “the rapist.” But otherwise she’s fair, non-judgmental and understands the predicament of men. The other thing is that she really focuses on the plight of women. That distinguishes her because while the “social problem film” was being made, it didn’t really focus on women. The predicament of women in the post-war period was of paramount importance to her and it gets carried over later into a film like The Trouble with Angels (1966). In terms of form, I think she’s consummate. Both in terms of what she managed to get from her actors – it was widely reported by people who worked for her that she was really great at drawing out the type of performance she wanted from the actors – but also, this is my predilection, I love her propensity to make the social problem film into noir. Particularly, the lighting, shadows and camera angles, that’s what I find so entrancing about her. That is a real strength.

MGS: My favorite section in the book is the one on “home noir” where you talk about the “submerged feminist energy” in film noir. How does Lupino’s work relate to this concept?

TG: Oh man, I think her early films are largely home noir. I would say Hard, Fast and Beautiful, Outrage and The Bigamist are all different keys of home noir. You have this kind of retrograde or arrested home in Outrage that harks back to an earlier time when Victorian mores and Victorian patriarchy are in place. Even though that patriarchy is kind of softened externally, it’s still kind of there with this outrageous house, which on the outside looks almost like a California bungalow but on the inside is perfectly Victorian. And then, this is my speculation, (production designer) Harry Horner adds that horrible cage to the outside, you know that rose trellis that’s like a big claw over the house? Every image is of entrapment.

MGS: Like she’s a prisoner in her own home?

TG: And not only that but her mother is also a prisoner in this very unspoken way. And, in Hard, Fast and Beautiful, it’s really a modern counterpart of that where, even though that house is contemporary for that time, Millie and Florence’s encroachment into areas where they don’t belong is punished. Millie takes over the living room because she doesn’t have an office and she’s an ambitious woman. And Florence takes over the garage, which is the male domain, to practice tennis. Those elements make me laugh; the domestic space is so intrinsic and vital to her films.

MGS: One of my takeaways from this book is that she had to be shrewd in dealing with the men around her in the industry. She pretended to know less about cinematography than she did in order to get cooperation from her D.P.s but she also extended this attitude to studio execs and censors.

TG: She buttered them up and then she brought down the iron fist. She got her way. She was criticized for that, unfortunately, by some feminist critics who wanted to draw perhaps too close a parallel between her life and her work. I also think: what choice did she have? It was either do things the way she did them, which, as you say, was shrewd – buttering these people up and getting what she wanted – or not getting things done at all. What other thing would she have done? She couldn’t have hung out with ‘50s housewives, a bunch of women who were repressed and suppressed and boring and domestic. She wasn’t like that. Yet she paid a price because she was a powerful woman but she also played that domestic role with Howard Duff (her third husband and co-star in the sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve). You can see her, even in that role, the gender tension between her and Howard Duff, which is a lot of what the show is about, in a really dark I Love Lucy way. Her persona is so suppressed and yet she exceeds it but she shouldn’t. So that’s very painful because of when she was born. Things didn’t start being brought to light in any collective way until the early ‘60s with Second Wave Feminism and all that. I think a lot of feminist critics haven’t understand that and they’ve held her to account in a way that she shouldn’t be.

MGS: Which of Lupino’s films would you first recommend watching for someone unfamiliar with her work?

TG: It wouldn’t be The Hitch-Hiker. It’s a great film noir about masculinity but to me it seems like an anomaly in her work. There are no women in it even though it stems from men trying to hoodwink their wives and escape domesticity. I think I would choose Hard, Fast and Beautiful. The fact that it’s a film noir, the fact that it’s a really unusual melodrama – I mean, some people have called it a “maternal melodrama” in which the mother is vilified and I don’t agree at all. It gives perspective on those things. And there are some fantastic chiaroscuro shots – like the hotel room in Europe, (which externalizes) the chaos of Millie’s subconscious. It pretty much has it all.

Information about the free screening of Hard, Fast and Beautiful and book-signing of Ida Lupino, Director can be found on the Facets website.

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Filmmaker Interview: Jennifer Reeder

The following article appeared in today’s Time Out Chicago:

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On Thursday, September 28, the Chicago South Asian Film Festival will host the local premiere of Jennifer Reeder’s acclaimed debut feature Signature Move, a crowd-pleasing rom-com about a Pakistani Muslim lesbian lawyer who attempts to hide her love life and interest in lucha-style wrestling from her conservative, live-in mother. This special preview screening takes place at the Music Box Theatre one day before the film’s theatrical run begins and will feature a private meet-and-greet with legendary Indian actress Shabana Azmi as well as a Q&A with Azmi, Reeder and the film’s producer, writer and star, Fawzia Mirza. I recently spoke to Reeder about the film.

MGS: You’re known for writing and directing your own short films. What was it like directing a feature written by somebody else?

JR: On the one hand, it was a challenge that at first I was not sure I was up for. I feel very particular about every aspect of my shorts from pre-production through writing. I’m involved in art direction and casting and certainly I usher the entire thing, frame by frame, through post-production—[my films] feel very hand-crafted. They feel like they’re coming from a place of “auter-ship,” if I can say that about myself. So taking on material that was also very particular to Fawzia, it was a story that’s very different from my own story. When you take on a story about a Pakistani Muslim lesbian, that’s very specific. The character of the director is weighed when you say yes or no to certain projects. Saying yes to this project was obviously a really smart idea. I feel like I learned so much and in the process I also figured out a way to tell someone else’s story authentically. Being in an audience of young people of color or being in an audience that’s LGBTQ and having that audience say that it was validating and authentic means that I’ve done the right thing, and it means I can kind of exhale and say, “Okay, I can do this again.”

MGS: When I think of your shorts I think of them as narratives that are experimental in terms of their aesthetics. With Signature Move were you consciously trying to make something that was more accessible?

JR: Absolutely. That was also part of the challenge: to make something that felt like the general narrative through-line was more accessible, the way that it’s shot is more accessible, even the jokes are more conventionally funny than my other films that have more of a dark or cynical sense of humor. There are also some moments that feel very much like me. There are “drifty” moments where we’re sitting with the character in, for instance, the bridal shop where she’s looking through fabrics and whatnot—it’s kind of character development, it’s being able to look at the texture of that culture, but it doesn’t propel the narrative in a conventional way. Those felt like important moments to inject into this film because they feel very much like they’re coming from my DNA as a filmmaker. But, at the same time, especially for a feature-length, it’s important that you have an audience come with you and that it’s entertaining. It premiered at SXSW. That’s not a niche audience. Those were packed audiences who laughed in all the right places, and again that’s pretty validating.

MGS: This is one of the most female-centric films I’ve ever seen and I mean that as a compliment. There has been a lot of talk about the lack of female representation in cinema and men are nowhere to be seen in this movie. Were you trying to redress the gender imbalance?

JR: Yeah, absolutely. My shorts have oftentimes featured only females. So it’s something that I’ve been aware for quite a while in terms of casting or who I want to write a story about or who I want to put in front of my camera because that’s their story but also as a form of social justice. We also made a commitment to have lots of women behind the camera. It wasn’t just me as a director. The first A.D. was a woman, there were two female producers, the art department was all women, the makeup department was all women, the camera department was women. That’s also part of the commitment — it matters in terms of the crew. Shabana Azmi, who plays Parveen and is amazing, she noted it. She said, “This set feels different with all of these women in front of and behind the camera.” She didn’t have to say that. But as we’ve been showing it around, I don’t feel like the men in the audience feel excluded from the story. If anything, when the final credits roll, they might do what you did: “Wow, that was all women, except for the bartender.”

MGS: Speaking of Shabana Azmi, much of her dialogue is in Urdu. To have so much subtitled dialogue in both Spanish and Urdu is unusual for an American film. Was it difficult for you to direct actors in a language other than your native tongue?

JR: Yeah, definitely. As a writer and also as a director, I’m particular about how people say words. I know enough Spanish to understand the things they were saying were correct but the Urdu was completely different. I speak some Urdu now based on the script and going through the production with all those lines. Obviously, Shabana speaks Urdu, Fawzia speaks Urdu, one of the producers speaks Urdu and we had a P.A. on set doing translations. So every time we did a take it would go through four levels of making sure that the translation was correct. Trusting the tone and cadence of those lines was correct was a learning curve. It was a really cool challenge. Then we ADR’d all of the soap opera in the background. That was a whole script in and of itself that was written (for the film) and it was the same thing: we were over in a sound studio with actors speaking Urdu. I was like, “That sounded good but was that correct?” We would listen to it again and have two people go through it to make sure that they were using, for instance, the right formal pronouns.

MGS: So the dialogue that was scripted for the soap opera was intended to comment on the main narrative?

JR: Absolutely. It really operates like a subplot. At one point we were going to do an actual soap opera and shoot that actual footage. In the script it seemed great but then you’re adding another 10 days onto production. But yeah, we wanted it to be this story about these star-crossed lovers whose parents didn’t agree with their relationship, a kind of Urdu Romeo and Juliet that the mom could use as a parallel — that somehow by watching this Pakistani melodrama she was also learning something about the rules of love and how she had to let her daughter love who her daughter wanted to love.

To learn more about the premiere of Signature Move, visit the Music Box’s website.


MERCURY IN RETROGRADE at Full Bloom / Talking TWIN PEAKS on the “Page 2 Screen” Podcast

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My second feature film, Mercury in Retrograde, had its World Premiere this past Saturday, September 16, at the Full Bloom Film Festival in Statesville, North Carolina, where we were awarded the prize for “Best Narrative Feature.” To commemorate the occasion, Loren Greenblatt created the beautiful hand-painted poster you see above. I should have more news soon about additional screenings this year and next. For the most up-to-date info on the film, please “like” the official MiR Facebook page and follow us on Twitter.

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I also recently discussed Twin Peaks Season 3 with film critic and screenwriter Jeff York on the International Screenwriters Association’s “Page 2 Screen” podcast. I had a lot of fun doing it and you can listen to it in its entirety here.


Filmmaker Interview: Alex Cox

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This Friday, September 8, cult British filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy) will be at the Music Box Theatre to present a special 30th anniversary screening of Walker, a stylistically daring and politically subversive biopic of William Walker (Ed Harris), the Nashville-born physician, lawyer, journalist and mercenary who became the self-appointed President of Nicaragua in 1856 before being driven mad by power. Although this thinly veiled critique of contemporary American imperialism was critically savaged and barely released by Universal Studios three decades ago, Walker has aged exceptionally well and may be seen as Cox’s masterpiece when viewed today. This Music Box screening represents something of a culmination of a longtime love affair between the Chicago cinephile community and Cox’s work: Repo Man had its first theatrical engagement here, and one of the few positive reviews that Walker received upon its initial release was by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader. This 35mm screening, presented in partnership with DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts, should not be missed.

MGS: Walker is often referred to as the film that ended your relationship with Hollywood but it’s since been canonized by the Criterion Collection and is continually revived for 35mm screenings such as this event at the Music Box. What has it been like to see your film re-evaluated over time?

AC: Canonized? By a DVD release? Oh, honestly. Where’s the blu-ray? Where’s the stream? Universal hate the film and have never distributed it. As a result in a vault somewhere they have some very good condition 35mm prints!

MGS: Walker seems newly relevant with Trump’s talk of military action in Venezuela. How have you been processing the Trump administration?

AC: My main concern is not to die in a nuclear war. In the current insane incarnation of American politics the Clinton Democrats seem to be pushing for war with Russia. I will support anyone who opposes war and the destruction of the planet. Call me crazy, but I will. The talk of war with Venezuela is crazy. The US military would get their asses kicked by an armed guerilla population (as usual) and such talk (as Steve Bannon said regarding North Korea) is all just for domestic wind-up benefit. The Pentagon, like the Government, exists to transfer taxpayers’ money to the corporations, but the US hasn’t won (or even concluded) a war since 1945, unless you count the Pentagon’s great victories in Grenada and Panama.

MGS: How did you work with Ed Harris to achieve the intensity of his performance and why did you opt to not have the character speak with a southern accent?

AC: Ed is his own man and did a great job. I support all his choices! William Walker was all over the place – Nashville, San Francisco, Scotland — who knows what his accent was?

MGS: What was the logic behind having Walker narrate the movie in the third person?

AC: That was the way he wrote his book about the Nicaraguan venture.

MGS: Do you have any other plans when you’re in town?

AC: To screen my new film, Tombstone Rashomon, for students at DePaul and reconnect with my friends there! I am so happy to be returning for a new event at one of the best film schools in the country.

For more information on the Walker screening and Alex Cox Q&A, visit the Music Box’s website.


Filmmaker Interview: Harley McKabe

The following piece appeared at Time Out today:
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Harley McKabe is a Chicago-based writer/director whose proof-of-concept short film The Other Guy will screen at Reggie’s Music Joint this Friday, July 21 as part of a concert featuring punk acts The C-Sides, StereoViolet, Butchered and The New Sex and Drugs, who wrote an original song for the film. McKabe is a transwoman who based this raunchy, Kevin Smith-influenced comedy on her own pre-trans life; the plot concerns Sean (David Weiner), a green-haired punk, who cajoles his wallflower roommate, Harry (Adam J. Rebora), into attending a party referred to as a “shirtless shindig.” At less than four minutes, this funny, no-budget DIY effort marks McKabe as a talent to watch.

MGS: How did you get involved in filmmaking?

HM: I actually have a background in print journalism. I worked as a staffer for a small newspaper in Alaska. But I’d always done film on the side – even if it was just writing scripts. Ever since I was a kid I was always interested in film. Whenever there were school projects and there was an opportunity, I’d go with making a film. The Other Guy script was in consideration by two producers and a director at one point and I was just going to stay on as a writer. But as I learned more about the actual (filmmaking) process, I decided that I wanted to get into directing myself.

MGS: The film is a traditional comedy in a lot of ways because it’s about two characters with contrasting personalities. Were they based on people you know?

HM: That is a very interesting question. A person I used to be rather close with suggested I write this film. It was pre-transition. The character Harry is loosely based on me. As I was beginning to decide to go through with this, I had some questions as to whether I wanted to continue that project – for obvious reasons. I do believe that there are a lot of universal concepts at play in the short. There have been plenty of times where people feel awkward at parties or are placed in uncomfortable situations by their good friends. Sean is also much more loosely based on me. But the idea was basically that there was this guy who thinks fate’s out to get him, that he’s never going to find a girlfriend because every woman he’s attracted to already has a boyfriend. It’s about him realizing the problem is really him; that he just has to get some self-confidence, stop being a wallflower and start going for the women who might actually be interested in him. It’s coming-of-age as if directed by Kevin Smith, that’s kind of what I was going for.

MGS: There’s a lot of good gross-out humor. I loved seeing the vomit because the texture of it seemed so authentic. I see big-budget Hollywood movies where the vomit looks less real. How did you make that?

HM: Thank you for the compliment. It’s actually not the first time I’ve thrown soup on a man. It was a mixture of vegetable soup and lentil soup with a fair amount of crackers. I put that together in a bucket the day of. It was referred to as the puke bucket. Adam later told me that he still smelled like puke two or three days later.

MGS: The band The New Sex and Drugs wrote a song for the film. How did you hook up with them?

HM: I met Adam, the front man for the band, through Craigslist. I posted an ad saying I was a screenwriter looking for someone to swap scripts with. He and I exchanged scripts and I ended up going to one of his concerts, and he and his band were kind enough to write the song “All Hipsters Must Die.” It’s pretty difficult to get music for a short film, let alone have someone offer to write an original. So I was like, ‘Yeah, fuck yeah. Absoluely!”

MGS: Last question: are “shirtless shindigs” a real thing?

HM: Pretty much the only reason I wrote the short was to have Sean say, “No shirt shindigs are the shit!” I’ve never been to a shirtless shindig. I do not know if they exist but it sounds fucking hilarious.

The Other Guy screens at Reggie’s Music Joint Friday, July 21. Doors open at 8pm for this 21+ show. More info can be found on the official Reggie’s website.


Filmmaker Interview: Terence Davies

Terence Davies, who rose to prominence with the autobiographical masterpieces Distant Voices, Still Lives (1998) and The Long Day Closes (1992) is widely regarded as the greatest living British director. His latest film, A Quiet Passion, is an astonishing biopic of poet Emily Dickinson (played, in a revelatory performance, by Sex and the City‘s Cynthia Nixon) from her graduation from seminary school as a teenager to her premature death at 55. The film is injected with so much genuine insight and feeling about what it means to be an uncompromising artist, and Davies so clearly sees Dickinson as a kindred spirit, that the whole thing feels like a veiled self-portrait. I recently sat down to talk with Davies in advance of the film’s first Chicago run. (Note: A shorter version of this interview can be found at Time Out).

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MGS: A Quiet Passion is obviously a very literary film but it’s your first film in almost 25 years that isn’t adapted from a work of literature. What was the impetus to make a film about Emily Dickinson’s life?

TD: Well, the poetry, really. I fell in love with the poetry. When I started reading her properly, I then discovered this extraordinary life. Which apparently is “uneventful” but, of course, no life is uneventful. And especially within the family, that very tight-knit, close family. I come from the same thing. Unfortunately, half mine are dead now but I know what that was like. And I also responded to her spiritual quest because I was a very devout Catholic, I really was. I spent seven years struggling with doubt until I realized it was just men in frocks, really. And the fact that she walks this very fine line between believing in a God or not, which always implies hope in the poetry. With the exception, I think, of one poem, which comes close to despair: “I reason Earth is short — And Anguish — absolute.” That’s about the only one that I’ve read that comes close to despair. So those two things really drew me to her. It was a rich inner life but she was ill in pain most of the time. She wrote 1800 letters, three volumes of letters, continuous correspondence with Judge Lord, she baked, she cooked, she played the piano and wrote 1800 poems as well! And she was in pain. These days we can have any pain killed. Imagine even the slightest thing, like a headache, not being able to get rid of it. It must have been awful. What she did was truly heroic.

MGS: Did you read her when you were young or did you discover her later in life?

TD: I discovered her when I was 18, on television, Claire Bloom was reading some of her poetry. And then I bought a little anthology. And it wasn’t until round about ’95, something like that, that I thought, “I want to start reading her again.” And then discovered this extraordinary life.

MGS: In America, we read her in high school and she’s often taught in a way that’s reductive and simplistic; teachers teach that she was a death-obsessed recluse who never left her house. One of the things I loved about the film is that you show her sense of humor and her passionate side. Were you consciously trying to demystify her?

TD: I didn’t want her to be solemn! Because there’s nothing worse than films about “great people” where they go around looking glum for 90 minutes. There’s nothing interesting in that, is there? She was an ordinary human being doing all the things that ordinary people do. She happened to be a genius. And any genius, whichever era they live in, life is difficult because they’ve always got one skin missing. They respond to the world in a way the rest of us don’t and that can be extremely painful to experience. And something like winning only second prize for the bread would not only hurt her, she’d never forget that. She just wouldn’t: “I’m not really good enough.” Her standard of morals and ethics was very high and she was merciless if you dropped below them. And she was merciless to herself as well: if she thought she dropped below them, she was equally merciless. But, you know, Lavinia (Dickinson’s sister) said, “Integrity, if taken too far, can be just as ruthless.” And it comes as a shock to her because she hadn’t seen that. Like when she was brought back from the seminary when she was 17, she was ill with homesickness, literally. And I think when she got back home she was so happy to be back in the bosom of the family and wanted that family to be like that forever. Unfortunately, families grow up and die and go away. And when she realizes that it’s actually become a prison, it’s too late.

MGS: Right, and there’s a decisive shift in the film because the first half of it is almost a comedy…

TD: Good!

MGS: It reminded me of Love & Friendship, actually, the Jane Austen adaptation that Whit Stillman made…

TD: Which I haven’t seen.

MGS: It’s wonderful, it’s very funny. Your film is like that before the pain and suffering kick in.

TD: (Laughs) Good old pain and suffering!

MGS: Cynthia Nixon is extraordinary and a revelation. I think on paper it might seem like an eccentric casting choice and then, when you see the film, she’s perfect. What was it about her that made you think she was right for the part?

TD: I’d seen her about five years before for a film that didn’t come off and I’d never forgotten her. I thought, “There’s something really, really good about this person.” Anyway, I started writing the script and then did some research. And there’s only one photograph of Emily, which is a little daguerrotype when she was 17. And one of my producers used to be a stills photographer and he superimposed Cynthia’s face on it. She looks like the older version of Emily! But when we met, when the script was finally done, not only did she know the poetry — because she had records at home of Julie Harris reading the poetry — but she could read poetry herself, which is not easy. Not a lot of people can read poetry. And I just knew she was right. She stuck with it for four-and-a-half years. It took four-and-a-half years to get the money together. She said — and it was so touching — “You won’t get money for a film that I’m starring in!” I said, “Yes, we will.” And she stayed with it when she could have done other things. If she pulled out, I have no idea who I’d have cast. I have no idea.

MGS: I’m glad you said she knows how to read poetry. The way she recites the poems in voice-over is one of my favorite parts of the film…

TD: And, if I could just interrupt, we did that as a “guide track” on one of the sound stages one afternoon. And she said, “Well, when do you want me to record them?” I said, “I don’t. You’ve done such extraordinary work.” That was the guide track. I didn’t want to spoil it.

MGS: How did you decide which poems to use?

TD: There were some that I was determined to have in. And they were “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”…

MGS: Which had to come at the end.

TD: It had to. “This is My Letter to the World,” which is the final one (heard in the film). “I’m a Nobody!” — I thought, “If she says this to a little baby, it’ll really be lovely.” There were about two more, I can’t think just off the top of my head. The others came as I was writing it. You go back to the anthology again and again. And in one of the biographies it would say, “She wrote this at such and such a time.” It’s a mixture of six of one, half a dozen of the other, really.

MGS: One of the most extraordinary scenes is the fantasy sequence where a man walks up the stairs in her home, which is heartbreaking because we know that threshold will never be crossed in reality. What was the inspiration for that scene?

TD: It was her, it was her. Most of the words in that sequence were hers. I think I added one line. “She longed for the looming man to come at midnight.” “Looming” is a very odd word to choose because it has menace in it, you know? And she did write, “Let him come before the afterlife, let him not forget me, please let him not forget me.” The problem with fantasy is that no one can ever live up to it. I think if he had come along she’d have been terrified because how can anyone live up to that level of intensity? They just can’t. And also, if you had sex and had a child, you could die in childbirth. It was common, it wasn’t extraordinary. Can you imagine? I can’t imagine having children now — with all the safeguards — but then when they had none? So there was that as well. And because this very nice young man comes who just wanted to be pleasant, and have a pleasant afternoon, she misconstrues everything he says. Because, in the middle, she’s had a great fantasy that he’ll come. And this fellow downstairs is just far too clever for his own good. She’s really unpleasant to him: “I don’t want to be a burden to you. A burden can always be laid down. You are not required to be a Sisyphus.” Sharp! Straight from the knife box!

MGS: So when you’re reading these things she wrote, did they translate into images in your mind? That scene you’re talking about is so dreamlike and painterly. Were you trying to come up with a visual corollary to her poetry?

TD: I wanted that sequence to be strange and not “actual,” which is why, of course, you don’t see his face. It’s largely dark. But I wanted to try and get over the intensity of that feeling, of longing so deeply that it actually becomes almost morbid. And this is where wonderful things happen on the set. This lovely lad did all the flowers for me — and the track, originally, was to bring the man to the bottom of the stairs, dissolve to that — and he put these flowers in front this mirror. They looked like les fleurs du mal, they looked like the flowers of death. And when I saw it I said, “We’ve got to track in on it.” I said, “It’s a fabulous, fabulous bouquet of flowers. How on earth did you think of that?” He said, “I just thought it would be good.” So things like that help. And it was also shot at 48 frames-per-second, so it’s slightly slow.

MGS: Keith Carradine is also extraordinary in the film. When I saw him, I didn’t immediately recognize him. I thought, “Who is this actor? He’s incredible.” Then, when I saw the end credits, I thought, “My God, I can’t believe I didn’t realize that was him.” How did you end up casting him?

TD: Well, we were in Los Angeles casting and, apart from one person, it’s usually the lead, like Cynthia, everybody else has got to read. It’s as simple as that. And his agent said, “Keith won’t read.” I said, “Okay, fine.” Then we started auditioning other people and then he came in. I said, “Mr. Carradine, your agent said you won’t read.” He said, “Of course I’ll read. I’m a terrible reader but I’ll read!” And he read and I said, “Will you do it?” And he said yes. He’s a lovely man. He’s got the most caressive voice. It’s a lovely voice. I was blessed with this wonderful cast!

MGS: You’ve never made a film set in the present day. Is that something you would ever consider?

TD: I don’t know. The reason is very simple: I’m a technophobe. I can’t use any of this technology. I was the same as a child. If I’m not interested in something, I can’t retain the information. I’ve got one mobile (phone), which doesn’t work when I come to America, and there are three numbers on it. If anyone else phones, I switch it off and shout at it. And, because of that, I’m afraid of the world. I don’t understand all this technological junk. I’m also repelled by it. There’s a level of narcissism that I don’t like at all. Why do you want to take photographs of yourself when you’re having a meal? I mean, what is the point of that? I don’t understand it. And what I do hate is the way the language is being systematically destroyed — because I love English. I think it’s one of the great languages, one of the most expressive, and it’s being destroyed.

MGS: Because of texting?

TD: And the words that people use. I mean, the Grand Canyon is awesome but little else is.

MGS: Well, I think one of the great things about this movie is that it’s going to inspire a lot of people to read Dickinson’s poetry.

TD: Good. That would be the greatest reward if they do that, because she deserves it.

A Quiet Passion opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, May 19. For more information, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Music Box’s website.


Filmmaker Interview: James Gray

lost

The Lost City of Z is James Gray’s remarkable film adaptation of David Grann’s best-selling novel about Percy Fawcett (played by a revelatory Charlie Hunnam), a British explorer who disappeared with his son (Tom Holland) while searching for an ancient civilization in the jungles of South America in the early 20th century. Many critics have noted this thrilling adventure film is a “departure” for Gray, although the classicism of the filmmaking and the focus on family dynamics make it all of a piece with his earlier New York-set dramas from Little Odessa through The Immigrant. I recently sat down and spoke to Gray about his terrific new film, which opens in Chicago on Friday, April 21.

MGS: Like all of your work, this film is about family. The line early on about Percy Fawcett being “unfortunate in his choice of ancestors” is so funny and ironic…

JG: (laughing) That line always gets a big laugh, which I’ve never understood but I’m glad it does.

MGS: And the relationship between Percy and his son Jack at the end is really the heart of the film. I was blown away by the last 30 minutes and how emotional it was.

JG: That’s my favorite section of the movie. But you need the first hour and 50 minutes to get there. The thing is, I’ve had some people say that to me about the last 30 minutes and would I make the whole film like that? The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. Narrative, it’s sequential linkage. You have to build to it. If you did the whole movie like that, it wouldn’t have any meaning.

MGS: Don’t get me wrong: I loved the whole thing!

JG: No, no, I’m just explaining what I had always designed in that father-son relationship, which to me was always the key to it. That’s what made me want to make the movie. In the end, it’s a tricky thing because my own view is that if you read his obsession as repetitive then that means I failed or you’re not paying attention. Either one, I’m not sure. Because the nature of his obsession changes through the film. It starts, he has no medals. But after that, it becomes a kind of thing where he has to ratify his exalted position with that other guy, Mr. James Murray (Angus Macfayden), who comes along and turns out to be a catastrophe. So rank and honor and glory don’t really mean much after a while. So what’s left? He’s got this kid who he really didn’t spend any time with. The episodic nature of the film was meant to emphasize these chunks of time that he had missed with his wife and children. And, in the end, I didn’t see it as a tragedy because he achieved some measure of transcendence. His son, I’m sure, resented the years he missed but in the end he went along with him and they had seen a part of the world that virtually no one from Western Europe or North America saw or sees today. And that’s not, by the way, Sienna Miller’s story. Sienna Miller’s story is tragic because she was left at home. She wanted to go and she was a woman and she couldn’t. So I saw the film as interesting for story purposes because it’s her tragedy and their transcendence.

MGS: When I think of filmmakers going into the jungle to make epic adventure films, I think about stories of shooting a million feet of film and then finding the movie in the editing room. Were there a lot of scenes left on the cutting-room floor or did you have to be shrewder about only shooting what you needed?

JG: Yeah, we didn’t do that. The age of being able to do that is over. There’s such a level of control that the machine has put on you now, with completion bonds and the way the movies have to be financed, that the ability to be backstopped by Columbia or United Artists, in the case of Lean and Coppola, is over. You have to stick to a plan in a very detailed way. Let me say that in some ways shooting a million feet of film, going a little bonkers and all that, lends itself to a very fantastical, almost sensate experience. It changes the way the movie feels. And you become a different person – Francis Coppola was in the jungle for a year, which I can’t even understand – and you become a different person over that year. And knowing that you don’t have that as part of your weaponry, it has to take on a different feel. Now may I say I think that if I had approached the movie the way that Francis did Apocalypse or Herzog did Aguirre, the means of production being different, I think I would’ve made a really bad and fairly racist movie. Which is not to say they did. They didn’t. Herzog’s Aguirre, for example, is about a man who goes to the jungle – a conquistador – and through greed and megalomania, goes insane. In the case here, I felt that if Fawcett became a madman in the jungle, that would’ve really sucked because the movie wasn’t about that. It was about his confronting, engaging the indigenous peoples of South America. So if he goes mad confronting and engaging the indigenous peoples, that’s a racist concept. I’ve been asked, “Did you think of making him go crazier?” I feel like that’s a covertly racist idea because it means that the viewer cannot accept any sense of “normal” from the indigenous – and that’s pretty dangerous, and a very common error, I think. My own feeling is that the style of production, which you asked about, that this kind of lengthy process where you shoot a million feet of film, lends itself to another kind of filmmaking. And in some ways I think it helped me that I had to stay in a measure of control.

MGS: I’m so glad you shot this on film. In contrast to digital, the texture of 35mm is so thick and moist, which seems especially appropriate for the jungle setting.

JG: What you’re talking about, whether you know it or not, there’s a term for it called temporal resolution. When you say “thicker,” I think it’s very interesting that you use that word because with the digital image you’ve got essentially a grid. The image is made of pixels. It’s a fixed grid. Frame 1, 2, 3, 4: the pixels are in the same position. With film, it’s made of grain. The position of each grain changes from frame to frame. So what you are essentially looking at is a new image every time a frame comes on the screen. Your brain obviously doesn’t process each image individually. It can’t. That’s called persistence of vision. But it adds up and, unconsciously, it makes a difference. So the analog aspect of film, when you say “thicker,” what you’re actually talking about is this idea of temporal resolution where each frame is a different image.

MGS: I wanted to ask about Charlie Hunnam. I know he replaced Benedict Cumberbatch, which is hard for me to wrap my brain around because their energies and their personas seem so different. Did that casting change cause you to make any adjustments in terms of how you decided to portray the character?

JG: It always has to because you can’t make a movie thinking that you have Jimmy Stewart when you want Marlon Brando. And you can’t make the same movie with Charlie Chaplin that you do with Robert Mitchum. It’s a different language. I didn’t know who Charlie Hunnam was, really. I mean, I knew who he was but I didn’t know his work except for Sons of Anarchy. When his name first came up, I said, “I would never cast him.” Because I thought he was some California biker guy with tattoos. And then the producers at Plan B said, “No, no, no, he’s from Newcastle.” So he came over for dinner and I quite liked him. And what I saw in him was a shocking parallel with Fawcett, which is that he was the same age, had the same – not inferiority complex, but a real sense of striving, that he had not done the quality work that he wanted to do, and he had not been able to communicate that to himself and others. And I saw that as directly related to Fawcett. Benedict would’ve focused on more – I don’t want to say “odd,” but the iconoclastic qualities of Fawcett. Charlie almost feels like a swashbuckling actor from the ‘30s, so you use that. You use the weapons you’ve got. You’ve got this handsome, swashbuckling figure, then you use that. If you have this interesting, odd, great movie face with this (does Benedict Cumberbatch impression) “deep baritone,” then you use that. I suspect that Fawcett, with Cumberbatch in it, would’ve been an odder, darker movie. I don’t know if better or worse, just different.


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